In Cracked Up to Be, the seed of what we now understand as a Courtney Summers protagonist can already be found, i.e., a girl who firmly believes in the idea that “there’s no such thing as a decent human being [because] it’s just an illusion”. Besides, once a person comes to terms with such an idea there’s no going back. What’s the origin of this vision of yours?
When I wrote Cracked Up to Be, I wanted to challenge people to empathize with a female character who was unlikable because, culturally, we’re deeply conditioned to deny young women the empathy and support they need—especially if they don’t conform to ideas of how we think girls should be and how they should act. We want them to be perfect and likable, to conceal their anger and messiest emotions, even if it’s at their own expense. Parker has never been likable, even before the story starts, but she believes she can balance this character flaw by being “perfect.” The story follows the consequences and aftermath of this compulsion finally breaking her.
How has the story of Cracked Up to Be been received with the new 2020 edition? Have you noticed any significant changes in the response that the story had in 2008, when it was originally published?
Readers have been eager to see my backlist reissued and felt this was long overdue, so they embraced the new edition! They really felt the new cover, with an illustration by Agata Wierzbicka, more accurately reflected its story of a girl unraveling under the pressures to be perfect—and I agree. I think the way we talk about female-led narratives has a long way to go, but overall I feel that readers talk about what Parker’s going through with a lot more nuance and care, and that’s very much owed to the ones who championed her story when it was first published, in 2008.
This is Not a Test is dedicated to your father, David Summers. Although it is a novel with a post-apocalyptic setting, it still is a Courtney Summers novel. In fact, you tackle the subgenre via two themes: everyone leaves and the whole world is in mourning. Moreover, This is Not a Test is one of your novels in which depression is more present. Could you delve into the intention behind this work?
Post-apocalyptic fiction is very interesting to me because it’s often filtered through the perspective of characters who rise to the occasion, characters who are willing to fight for their future and, what’s more, live to be a part of it. I wanted to explore what the apocalypse would look like through the eyes of someone who had no stake in their own survival, someone who had been defeated by the world long before the world itself was defeated. The way we talk about depression is often imperfect, though better than it was—it’s important we destigmatize conversations about mental health. I really wanted readers to understand how insidious depression is, how overwhelming and complicated. That it’s not just a matter of being sad and “snapping out of it.”
In All the Rage, Romy says that she has hated having her photograph taken since the age of eleven because she didn’t understand who she was looking at. Precisely, this coincides with the moment in which her body starts to not only change, but most importantly to start feeling like it does not belong to her anymore. In your opinion, what does this say about the female body and the way in which girls must navigate the world?
That scene is commenting on rape culture. This is a world that objectifies and sexualizes female bodies from a very young age and without their consent. Romy is mourning a loss of autonomy, of being forced into a patriarchal system that makes men believe they are entitled to her body. It is an indictment of the way girls are forced to navigate the world to be safe, and a call for all of us to make the world safer for girls and women to navigate.
All the Rage is one of your novels in which you explore the difficulty of building new emotional and sexual bounds after having experienced a traumatic event of a sexual nature. In the acknowledgments, you mention that All the Rage was a “longer road” than most of your previous “dark fictional roads”. Could it be due to the fact that it is necessary to be extremely careful with the portrayal of such delicate and complex processes?
I approach all my work with care and due diligence. All the Rage went through about six drafts, if I remember correctly, before Romy’s story was exactly as it needed to be. I was very conscious of the fact it was entering a conversation about rape culture that had started long before me and I wanted to make sure my book was making a meaningful contribution to that conversation.
Sadie deals not only with the theme of revenge, but most importantly with the topic of grief, as the rest of your novels. What does Courtney Summers think that we have to do in order to process grief? What would Romy, Sadie and Lo answer to this question?
North America is very grief-avoidant. I think to successfully process grief, individually and collectively, we have to acknowledge it, we have to have conversations about it, we have to make ourselves available to people who are grieving and allow them the time they need to process their loss rather than try to hurry them past it. I think Romy, Sadie, and Lo lacked the support they needed to do that, and if they knew how to articulate what they needed, they certainly would have asked for it.
When Sadie was published in 2018, it became a huge success. Why do you think this happened and what does it feel like having this kind of success after spending more than ten years writing books?
There are a variety factors. Sadie benefited from more publishing support than my previous titles and being one of the first books—though not the first—on the market that employed the podcast element helped set it apart. It dovetailed into the narrative explosion of true crime podcasts. The timing was excellent—but so was the book. I think people really responded to both Sadie’s selfless determination and her inherent tragedy. I wouldn’t trade its success for anything. Though, I think that people whose introduction to my work was Sadie might have a different set expectations for my books than those who have been there from the start.
In a way, up to this date, both Sadie and The Project are your two most “adult” YA novels. As for The Project, did this come to you naturally after having written Sadie?
It did come naturally; I just think this is the way my craft and narrative voice have progressed. I think I would more define those books as crossover than uniquely adult, though. They belong in the YA category overall.
At one point in The Project, the reader is told that not looking inward is exactly what makes us vulnerable. Why are we all (or the vast majority) likely to be recruited by a cult?
I think the desire to belong, to find community and acceptance among others, is deeply ingrained in all of us and once you are willing to admit that about yourself, you’re also acknowledging that you have a vulnerability that can be easily exploited in the wrong hands. That’s why I think it’s likely that, given the right circumstances and timing, we could all find ourselves recruited by a cult. I’m not too proud to admit I have vulnerabilities, and I don’t think people who have fallen into cults lack strength of character or intellect—I think they’re just very human.
You have already mentioned that in I’m the Girl we will find a Courtney Summer’s protagonist who “hasn’t stop believing in the world” and who is only sixteen years old. Can you give us more details to spark our readers’ curiosity?
I’m the Girl is loosely based on the Jeffrey Epstein case. When sixteen-year-old Georgia Avis discovers the dead body of thirteen-year-old Ashley James, she teams up with Ashley’s older sister to find and bring the killer to justice. But their investigation throws Georgia into a world of unimaginable privilege and wealth, without conscience or consequence, and as Ashley’s killer closes in, Georgia will discover when money, power, and beauty rule, it might not be a matter of who is guilty—but who is guiltiest
One thing that we admire from your work is that you always allow the girls who do not comply with what is expected from them to exist. As silly as it may sound, this is something that has not always been possible in YA. Then, bearing in mind that three of your novels have already been translated into Spanish (Sadie, All the Rage and The Project, consequently), our last question is: which of your published novels would you like to see translated into Spanish next and why?
I’d love to see I’m the Girl translated into Spanish. I think it has a lot to say about the machinations and manipulations of a patriarchal power structure determined to maintain its hold at the expense of everything and everyone. It’s told through the deeply intimate and unfiltered perspective of a sixteen-year-old lesbian and breaks new ground in the questions it’s not afraid to ask about a culture that doesn’t care whether or not young women live or die. It’s also a spiritual successor to Sadie, and takes place in the same universe with a reference that ties both books together. I’d love to see it reach even more readers!
Thanks a lot, Courtney, for taking the time to answer our questions.
Thank you! These were so much fun to think about and answer.