Kirsten Krauth’s novel just_a_girl has been attracting attention for its tightly written prose and provocative themes. I found the book so striking, I asked Kirsten about aspects of it on Facebook, and an interview, of sorts, evolved. My questions and Kirsten’s answers are collated here. (Thank you, Kirsten!)
It seems many people who have commented so far on just_a_girl have focused on Layla (and sex), but Layla’s only one of three point-of-view characters in the novel. I understand you thought up the character of Tadashi well before the movie Lars and the Real Girl was released. That amazes me, because it was a very novel idea. Can you tell me about what inspired you to create Tadashi and what you were hoping to achieve with that strand in the book?
It started when I saw a documentary at the Sydney Film Festival about men and their relationships with love dolls. I found it unexpectedly moving. And what struck me was not that these dolls were a sexual fetish (that seemed only a small part of it), but that the dolls were standing in for a real relationship. These men were projecting their own desires and fantasies onto the dolls.
When I started looking into the love doll community online, and talking to a few men, I realised that these characters were often intensely romantic. They bought clothes for their dolls, they took them on picnics, they imagined scenarios. All of these ideas found their way into the book. I was also intrigued to see how popular the dolls were in Japan, and as I started to look into Shinto and animism, I could see possibilities for Tadashi in terms of imbuing a doll with spirit and charm.
When I had finished writing Tadashi, I heard about the Lars film and thought, damn it! I really thought I had come up with a unique fictional character. So I still haven’t seen the film because I didn’t want to be accused of being a copycat!
I liked the idea of the Tadashi character offering a quiet space in the novel (after the noise of Layla and Margot) and someone who could give an outsider’s perspective on the cultural and physical landscape that Layla also inhabits.
I’m interested in understanding better Layla’s reaction to Tadashi’s doll. It seemed a surreal moment in the novel, and I wasn’t sure what precipitated it: whether it was because she was dazed after the assault or whether you were trying to make a point that I missed. Could you let me know your thinking on this element?
I think your point is true, that she has had quite a severe head injury, and she is confused. She also sees the doll as an image of herself, something she instinctively wants to protect (a major turning point for her). I’m a big fan of the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami (Layla reads his book Wind Up Bird Chronicle in the novel) and this part of the book is quite inspired by him. In his fiction, strange characters appear and disappear, and the reader feels like they are part of a surreal dream/nightmare, waking up in strange locations. I wanted the reader, like Layla, to feel a bit thrown off-guard here. As a reader, I like mystery, and I like it when the writer unsettles me …
The third point of view character is Layla’s mother, Margot. What struck me about this segment was Margot’s memories of the feelings she’d had after she’d given birth to Layla, and what was possibly postnatal depression. These sections seemed particularly vivid, and I couldn’t help recalling that you did a blog series on Writing Mothers last year. To what extent did becoming a mum inform your writing of Margot’s character, or was she fully formed before? Also, was any of the trajectory of Layla’s teenage misadventures due to your own long-term projection of fears associated with bringing children into this digitally-exposed world?
It’s a great question. I wrote Margot’s character before I became a mother. But after I had children, I realised that while the overall character shape was working, the detail was missing. As I had just been through pregnancy and childbirth, and those initial months of no sleep, I felt compelled to go back through and flesh out her character’s memories of giving birth, trying to breastfeed, and being a mother early on, just after she had Layla. While my experiences were obviously very different, I was interested in exploring the idea of a single mother with depression and how she could cope with a divorce and a child on her own. It’s religion that gets her back on her feet (initially at least). Margot is also a perfectionist and sees the world in quite a black and white way. This threatens her judgement and the way she perceives Layla from an early age.
I have two very young children. I’ve got a few years to gear up before they become teenagers. No, I don’t think I was initially fearful of the world my kids will inherit. When I was writing I was more thinking about the differences between now and growing up in the 80s. What would I have been like with access to a laptop in my bedroom at age 14? And as I told people what I was writing about, I was inundated with stories of teens and their digital exploits. So I knew I was onto something. But ask me again in ten years.
Is Nabokov’s Lolita, like Murakami’s Wind Up Bird Chronicle, one of your favourites? To what extent is just_a_girl an inter-text with Lolita, your writing back to Nabokov?
I read Lolita when I was an early teenager. I actually was really blown away at the time. The voice was so immediate, so distinct, so creepy and yet so compelling. I don’t remember being very interested in the character Lolita when I first read it. But as I got older, I was more interested in her. What was her perspective? My inclusion of Long Island Lolita (in reference to Lolita) was more about the way the media portrays young women, and how access to so much information (when doing research) can be confronting and confusing for someone like Layla, without teacher or parent guidance. That’s why I traced Layla’s journey through the mire of resources she encounters on her school project when she’s researching on the internet (pretty much the same I came upon). She starts off looking at a young girl who’s gone to prison for shooting someone (after having an affair with an older married man) and ends up seeing her on a porn video. When I was 14 my research for essays consisted of finding about three books in the library (the same as everyone else found) and photocopying a few articles from journals with the librarian’s help!
When I was writing Layla, I was imagining a precocious 14 year old who could talk back. Of course she tries to seduce older men but she is also fully aware that she is playing a part, that she can use her sexuality to get what she wants (even though this can go awry and she’s not experienced enough to know the consequences). Layla is quite naive in many ways too. She hasn’t read Lolita. She makes that clear in the book. She just associates the name Lolita with ‘bad girls’ and so she becomes intrigued, not by the book, but by the tale of Long Island Lolita (based on the true story of Amy Fisher).
Last question. Did you research the causes of girls’ sexual precociousness/sexual behaviour with adults for just_a_girl? This is such a confronting aspect of the book and, I imagine, triggering for survivors of Childhood Sexual Assault generally, so it’s worth knowing whether there’s an evidence base for your observations.
My writing is pretty intuitive and I didn’t do any research into childhood sexual assault. I read about studies that linked girls’ sexual behaviour (and early sexual development) with fathers leaving the family when the girls were young. These studies seemed inconclusive but I thought it was an interesting idea to develop. I think the undercurrent of the novel is that Layla is not really looking for sexual contact from the men she encounters, but rather, she is looking for care and attention. She may talk about sex a lot, and it tends to be bravado, but she doesn’t actually have much experience, and it’s not really what she is looking for. She wants intimacy, and has a chance with Marco…
Like Layla, I hit puberty very early, so had an understanding of some of the issues she was confronting there (I was always being approached by men on the train when I was in Year 9!). There was a man who would wait for me at the railway crossing every day so he could make disturbing sexual remarks as I had to squeeze past him. I was terrified of walking to the station. I tried to talk to the man selling train tickets about it but I remember feeling that adults didn’t really take me seriously when I spoke of these things. When I spoke to my parents, they suggested I walk the other, much longer, way around. But this wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted someone to confront him and stop the behaviour! And I was scared that he would find out and meet me somewhere quiet…I soon stopped talking about it. I wanted to explore this notion of ‘not talking about it’ too with Layla. A number of times, when she is not in control of the situation, she becomes frozen when she needs to act…
just_a_girl has been reviewed for the AWW challenge by Shelleyrae at Book’d Out, Annabel Smith in Goodreads, and Michelle McLaren for Newtown Review of Books. I’ve also posted a personal response to the novel on my blog, Devoted Eclectic. My thanks again to Kirsten, Elizabeth Lhuede
Kirsten Krauth is a writer and editor who lives in Castlemaine with her family. Her first book, just_a_girl, was published by UWA publishing in 2013. She edits the NSW Writers’ Centre magazine, Newswrite, and blogs at Wild Colonial Girl where she runs a monthly club, Friday Night Fictions, for debut authors. Her writing has featured in The Australian, Sydney Morning Herald, Good Weekend, RealTime and Island, and she is a regular contributor on regional arts to ABC Arts Online.
just_a_girl is now available as an ebook on Amazon.com.au where Kirsten is about to host a competition. Go to http://www.amazon.com.au/just_a_girl-Kirsten-Krauth-ebook/dp/B00GUNU1L4 or her blog for more details.
Elizabeth Lhuede is the founder of the AWW challenge.