Friday, February 5, 2010

On adolescent angst and a girl with mermaid hair

HALLIE: Okay, just for the record, I do not think my mother ever had plastic surgery because back then, even if you were a woman Hollywood screenwriter hitting middle age, it was rarely done and certainly not talked about. But she was obsessed with her nose, and I can still see her sitting at the dinner table and pushing up the tip of it in a nearly unconscious gesture. As her daughter I was obsessed with with my nose, too (I'd inherited a combination of hers and my father's which was even worse), and jealous of youngest sister Amy who had miraculously inherited our grandfather's nose and looked, as my mother oh so often pointed out, "like a little Dutch doll."

My sister Delia
Ephron’s brand new novel for teens and preteens, “The Girl with the Mermaid Hair,” perfectly captures that excruciating self-consciousness of being an adolescent girl. Sukie Jamieson is young, beautiful, lonely, and so completely self-obsessed that she constantly taking selfies (cell phone photos of herself) and examining herself in every reflective surface. I so remember being that age and SO self-conscious. Sukie has an additional twist: her mother is about to get a facelift.

I love the moment in the book when
Sukie’s mother gives her a full-length mirror that once belonged to her grandmother “This mirror will be your best friend and worst enemy.”

That really says it all. A mirror is where you go for comfort and reassurance that you’re all right. As a teenager that means that you LOOK all right. You give it so much power, when in fact what’s inside has more power.

HALLIE: To make things worse, Sukie’s mother gets a face lift. How hard is that for a teenager already feeling inadequate and obsessed with her own looks?

DELIA: My niece Maia did research on girls and mirrors for me, interviewing teenage girls whose mothers had face work. What came up over and over was girls were so aware of how mothers were saying “Oh God, I look fat.” Or “Don’t make that expression you’ll get a wrinkle.” The mother starts to age and feel bad about herself and she’s not thinking about her teenage daughter who’s struggling to love her own body.

Don’t you think there’s a lot of narcissism in parents in general around around beauty. I was really interested in is this phenomenon of all these mothers at a certain age hating their looks and saying so, without even thinking of course that their daughter are painfully self conscious. The mom’s an adolescent and so’s the daughter.

HALLIE: Sukie is so beautiful and bright, she seems like she has everything. But she’s really so unhappy.

DELIA: I think when we’re young, we tend to think if you’re beautiful then your life is easy. I wanted Sukie to have this thing outwardly that everyone envies. Inside she’s miserable, she doesn’t now how to connect, she’s lonely, her parents are a disaster, and she relies on her looks because she can’t rely on anything else. She uses her phone to photograph herself but it never rings.

HALLIE: How do you manage to write what could be truly unsympathetic characters so sympathetically?

DELIA: When I write a character, my first question as a writer is: Why would you care about her? I knew that she couldn’t be the way she is if she had good mothering. So the question was: Who was her mother. The minute I knew her mother felt as inadequate as she did (she says her grandmother never gave her a compliment), so insecure and unhappy with her own life, I understood how Suki felt abandoned. And her father uses Sukie to team up against her mother. Once you understood her parents and the situation she’s in, you can forgive her for how she strikes out of her friends because comes out of so much self hate. It’s all about vulnerability.

HALLIE: I felt that. But this is a really funny book, too. I was laughing out loud when Sukie decides she “has ramp” because her nose is that particular shape that she sees in a magazine.

DELIA: When I dealt with pain as a kid, I always turned it into a funny story. And as a writer, I always want to scream Hey! This book is funny, even though it’s really serious.

THANKS, Delia - as a parting gift to us here’s the Jungle Red quiz...

Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot?
DELIA: Miss Marple

Sex or violence?

Pizza or chocolate?
DELIA: Pizza but really both

Daniel Craig or Pierce
DELIA: Daniel Craig but really neither.

Katharine Hepburn or Audrey Hepburn?
DELIA: Audrey Hepburn.

Your favorite non-mystery book?
DELIA: Reading Lolita in Teheran

Favorite book as a kid?
DELIA: Anne of Green Gables

Making dinner or making reservations?
DELIA: Making Dinner

And now, the Jungle Red Big Lie. Tell us four things about you that no one knows. Only three can be true. We'll guess which one is false!
DELIA: : This was hard. So I couldn't quite do it the Jungle Red Big Lie way. Please forgive me. Three of these things are false and one is true, and Hallie knows for sure.
1. When I was twelve I was a ball girl for a tennis match between Gonzalez and
2. I slept with a stuffed animal right through college
3. I'm a huge fan of Garth Brooks
I won the high school literary magazine poetry contest

HALLIE: Isn’t that the definition of a fiction writer? We’re better at making things up!)

Delia will be checking in today so please, share your thoughts...


  1. Sounds like a very interesting book. I was wondering how you get into the brain of an adolescent girl well enough to write from her POV!

    Another hard thing about adolescent girls and their mothers is that the girls are coming into their freshest physical beauty just as the moms are beginning to fade. Even for the most stable and loving women, it's not an easy time!

    I'm voting for Garth Brooks:)

  2. Hey Delia! Welcome!

    My mother used to say--"Stop frowning! We'll have to put you in Frownies!" I can hear it. Do they still have Frownies?

    ANd oh, Roberta, that's an interesting thought about he potential--competition.

  3. Hi Delia,
    I kept a journal from about eleven years old to my mid twenties, so I have proof positive how absolutely distorted an adolescent girls brain is. But it was really helpful in raising my own daughter --

    What a great concept for a book. And what an important message to get across to both mothers and daughters!

  4. Roberta,
    I think most healthy mothers take pride in their daughter's beauty -- maybe too much pride sometimes- but its a comfort in their own era of declining beauty.

    Like I had my time, now you are having yours. The circle thing.

  5. I remember obsessing endlessly about things as "ridiculous" as whether one nostril was larger than the other. Being a teenager is really the moment when you go from being in the world to thinking that the world is watching you.
    Hallie, I had forgotten how our mom was always pushing up her nose. I do that. Must be something she passed on. Oh God.

  6. Delia--a fellow Anne of Green Gables devotee here. I always get excited when I run into a kindred spirit.

    BTW, what is your stance on Christopher Walken?

    I'm a big YA reader and look forward to reading your novel.

  7. This obsessing about looks is absolutely universal, isn't it? Except for someone like me who had to attend a strict girl's school where our uniform was so restrictive that we could never look good.

    But I notice my 10 year old granddaughter already making statements about her appearance, even though her mother is an athlete and not into looks

  8. It sounds like a wonderful book, Delia. I have a little friend who is just 4, and even she's already aware of looks. "I like your earrings, Auntie Max" she'll say to me, and left to her own devices she'll change her clothes 5 times a day (preferably including the pink slippers with the sparkles). Her mom is also a sensible althlete.


  9. My stance on Christopher Walken?
    I think he's talented and interesting and weird.

  10. Hi Ramona,
    I like YA books, too, and this is a bit scary, also really like teen movies. Even though they almost always end at a prom.

  11. Jan--Never underestimate the power of the Prom.

  12. The subject of Delia's book and the posts really resonate with me: I was bulimic as a young adult (because I was so insecure about my looks/weight) and now I'm the mother of 10 and 12 year old girls. I work SO HARD to never say anything negative about my body or appearance or--heaven forbid!--about theirs. (They're incredibly beautiful so that last part is easy!) We never talk about dieting--only about "eating healthy"--and I make a point of admiring (out loud) women with strong, fit bodies who may or may not be Glamour magazine gorgeous.

    I hope I'm not "fading," Roberta, but changing, becoming beautiful in a way that has more to do with really listening to people instead of worrying about whether my gray hairs are aging or if the color of my blouse flatters my complexion. I'd love to evolve to the point where I didn't care about those sorts of things, but I'm not there yet! :-)

  13. Oh, Laura - I was the same way with my two daughters. Bent over backwards NEVER to criticize their appearance or weight. (Like you) it helps that I really DO think they're perfect. (I once found lumps in the bathroom sink and I was heartsick, thinking my daughter had been making herself throw up - turned out she'd given herself an egg shampoo.)

  14. Hallie--
    Absolutely hysterical. I remember trying all sorts of weird stuff on my hair: lemon juice, mayonnaise, olive oil (I think), vinegar . . . I must have smelled like a bowl of salad. No egg, that I recall.