Author Lindsay Hunter’s coarse writing is habit-forming. It takes about one page, half if you’re easy and two if you’re obstinate, to get hooked on Ugly Girls. The novel illustrates the troubled friendship of two girls, Perry and Baby Girl, who consider themselves invincible: at night, they steal cars and race them in empty parking lots, and during the day, they ditch school, shoplift, and talk tough. For all their hard exterior, though, the girls don’t realize how vulnerable they are to harm. They chat on Facebook with a boy they’ve never met — a pedophile, it turns out, who wants to meet in person. Hunter tells the story through the eyes of Perry, Baby Girl, Perry’s alcoholic mom, Perry’s step dad, a prison guard, and Jamey, the man who’s following the girls. The characters are compelled by twisted desires for power, beauty, and validation. Always looking for the next risk, the girls land themselves in real danger, and the resolution moves quickly toward the horrifying conclusion. Hunter’s debut is such an addictive read, you’ll need a bit of time after closing the book to recover from withdrawal.
I spoke with Hunter about the writing of a novel, about how to evoke empathy for wretched characters, and about ugliness in fiction and life.
CLAIRE LUCHETTE: I want to start by asking you about the ending. Without giving it away for readers, can you tell me if it felt like the only ending possible for the story?
LINDSAY HUNTER: I didn’t have an outline, and every day while writing I would make notes to myself about where I thought the story would go — like little seeds that I wanted to blossom later on. Inevitably, I would sit down the next day or a couple days later and a new revelation would hit me, and I’d think, “Oh, that’s what I was working toward.”
I procrastinated writing the ending and when I finally sat down and wrote it, it just sort of hit me what was going to happen, what everything had been leading to. I never wrote another ending; this was always the ending. Actually, that’s not true — now that I think about it, I did consider having Perry and Baby Girl go back to the quarry. I never wrote that; I considered it. Once I finally thought that through, I realized there was no real reason for that to happen, and it would create more problems than it would solve.
For me, the story was about these girls and about their friendship. In some ways, the heart of it was Baby Girl, and I knew I needed to bring everyone together in one place and then allow that ending to happen.
The final bit of the story is told in these quick bursts of narration that switch between points of view. They remind me of little works of flash fiction, which was really your first genre. How’d you move from writing super short pieces to working on a novel?
I always wanted to write a novel, and in grad school that’s what I was working on. I was writing a really terrible novel and making my mistakes and learning from them. When I got out of grad school, I started writing flash, for various reasons, and that’s what I loved for a while. I would keep getting these ideas for novels, though, and I’d start a new one and then abandon it. And then I landed on this story, which I wanted to tell.
All along I kept thinking, “You don’t have to write a novel. If you want to write flash fiction, short stories, you don’t have to give in to the pressure.” I think there’s pressure — it’s gotten better, but there’s still pressure for short story writers to move on to writing a novel. Like, let’s quit playing around; let’s move on to the real stuff. So for me, there was a mix of resisting that pressure — don’t tell me what to do — and also really wanting to write a novel, and see if I had it in me, if I could do this thing that I had been trying to do for years. I wrote a little bit of it, and based on that, I sold it to FSG. And then I had to write it, which was great: that fear and pressure was exactly what I needed. But I wanted to make sure it was something I didn’t get bored writing. I wanted things to matter; I wanted things to move. I wanted to maintain the immediacy of language and imagery that I love so much in flash fiction, that I really, really prize. I kept thinking about a talk Lynda Barry gave at my alma mater, the Art Institute of Chicago. She was talking about writing Cruddy, her novel, and how difficult it was. She was hemming and hawing and never really getting down to it. She kept asking herself, “How would I do it?” And then it dawned on her: she was writing it, and the way she would write it would be to paint it first. So after she painted it, she wrote the words. That’s how she wrote Cruddy.
So I finally thought: How would I do this? and How could I have fun doing this? I gave myself a daily goal of 2,000 or 2,500 words, and I wouldn’t get up until I was done. Initially the book was written from the first-person point of view of Perry. And then as I was writing, I needed to get inside these other characters’ heads, and I needed to pull out to third-person. It became about writing little mini vignettes that were all telling an overarching story. That’s how I felt I could do it; I felt like I had the chops to pull it off, and I felt like that’s how it made sense to me to do it.
Do you think Baby Girl and Perry’s friendship is nourishing? I think their relationship seems very thin, and there are moments of loyalty and tenderness, but I wonder what they give each other.
I think they dare each other in certain ways. They were both looking for ways to excite themselves and scare themselves. They found a kindred spirit in each other, and they had each other’s backs. In a way, Baby Girl is jealous of Perry’s appearance, and Perry is jealous of Baby Girl’s appearance. Perry likes that Baby Girl is hard to look at, and difficult, and Baby Girl is jealous of Perry’s attractiveness, and how easy it seems to make things for her. I think they want similar things and want similar challenges, and they both have difficult home lives and find ways to ignore that together. They find escapes in each other. That is, until they begin to outgrow each other and start growing up. Then they need different things. A lot of the violence and desperation is rooted in that. On the opening page, Perry’s over Baby Girl already, thinks she’s a “fake ass thug.” She tries to temper her emotions, and think nice things, but they’re kind of over each other.
What’s the best thing a reader could tell you about this book?
I’ve heard the spectrum of things. I’ve heard great things, and then other people ask why [Baby Girl] is so hateful and nasty and grotesque, and why I write the grotesque and dark things —
Which is never asked of a man, by the way.
Well, yes, that’s absolutely true. I think people are very uncomfortable with a woman writing something like this: something nasty and cold. It feels almost freakshowish, and some people then brush it off as not being the work of a serious writer.
My mom recently said, “You can’t know what your writing does to people or how it makes them feel. You’re used to it; you can’t know, but some people might have a really hard time with it.” But on the other hand I have heard from readers who say they had heard about the book’s darkness but that they were struck by the empathy I have for these characters, and the empathy I want the reader to have. And that’s what I would hope people would see. Maybe that’s too much to ask; maybe that’s too difficult; maybe I didn’t do a good enough job; but that’s what I would hope people see, is that I’m actually trying to show you that these people are human.
So often it’s easy to look at someone who has problems, who is dark, who has shaved half her head, who doesn’t know how to put on makeup, who is telling you to suck her dick, and assume that that person is ugly and totally horrible. But I’m really trying to create empathy, and show you their humanity, and get you to feel empathy for all the characters that I write.
You achieve that in the scenes of these characters’ home lives. When we see Jamey [the stalker] at home with his troubling mom, or Baby Girl with her disabled brother — those scenes demand compassion from the reader.
Oh, thanks. My husband was reading it recently. First he said it should be a scratch and sniff book, because there are so many smells in the book. (Laughs) But then he said how surprised he was to feel bad for Jamey. That’s clearly controversial, because Jamey is a pedophile, and I’m not trying to celebrate pedophiles, but I’m glad he’s not just a one-note bad guy character.
All of these characters have varying shades of wretchedness. Tell me about your interest in ugliness and what about these qualities you wanted to bring light to.
I didn’t title this until the bitter, bitter end. I have a problem with titles, generally. What I realized was that teenage girls think about that stuff a lot: how they look to people, how they think they look, how they want to look, how their friends look, how their friends are thinking about their looks. There’s a lot of shame and power and emotion tied up in that.
For Perry and Baby Girl, on the surface, Perry’s the pretty one and Baby Girl’s the ugly one, but they trade ugliness back and forth. Perry’s ugly on the inside sometimes, and Baby Girl can be too. Sometimes Baby Girl looks at Perry and thinks she looks ugly and old. I think the idea of ugliness and identity is a big theme. Myra [Perry’s mother] thinks about it a lot and likes to think she’s made peace with her looks, but she really hasn’t. She thinks about Perry’s looks, and cares about how Jim [her husband] sees her. The book became about appearance and all the different ways you can lose control of that, how you see yourself, how other people see you, how you think people see you. I noticed I was using the word “ugly” a lot in the novel.
On the surface it’s an aggressive title. It’s almost provoking the reader to think about the phrase “ugly girls.” If you search on Twitter for “ugly girls,” it is just — it is just horrendous. I think people should think about the phrase and think about what it could mean to a girl, to any teenager. Why it’s so important.
Who are your favorite ugly fictional characters?
Definitely Clyde in Cruddy. The way Lynda draws her on the cover, she’s got an aggressive plain face. But she’s so amazing. Her thoughts and her actions and the ways she’s written are so gorgeous and brilliant and intense and emotional.
That’s another thing I was thinking about as I was writing. Some writers like to live vicariously through their characters. If I had wanted to do that and sort of correct my past, I would have made Perry the most beautiful girl — a girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful, and she’s also really strong! I think a lot of fictional characters I’ve read are attractive and neat and tidy, and I’m just sick of that. That’s not my experience in life, and the people I want to read about aren’t these corrected versions of the self.