Escaping the Idea of Girl Power
Dana Schwartz on writing a YA novel that takes young women and their ambitions seriously, and the Twitter parody that started it all
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Why isn’t there a genre dedicated to the coming-of-age stories of creatives, a bildungsroman for artists? There are certainly enough books to compile a canon — Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Women by Chloe Caldwell, stories that explore the difficulty of finding your voice as an artist while becoming an adult capable of living an independent life. Joining the ranks is Dana Schwartz’s novel And We’re Off, about Nora, a young artist navigating a tense relationship with her mother while traveling Europe before a summer at an art colony in Scotland.
The book captures what it means to be an artist who also feels the growing pains that every young person experiences: finding your painting style alongside getting your feelings thrashed by terrible dudes, navigating the treacherous social waters of enclosed communities while trying to find artistic mentors and collaborators. Nora hilariously narrates both the sights of Europe and her ever present anxieties, while providing an astute snapshot of the intersections of art and internet culture. With her debut novel, Schwartz asks and answers the question: how do you convince the world, your family, and of course, yourself, that you are an artist?
Schwartz and I met in Lower Manhattan and discussed ambition, the struggles between parents and artistic children, and finding your voice.
Rebecca Schuh: I love that the book’s epigraph is the Sylvia Plath quote, “I was supposed to be having the time of my life,” it brought to mind how there’s this whole cultural idea of things that you “should” be enjoying — travel, school, relationships. How do you think that damages in the moment lived experience?
Dana Schwartz: With social media, we get fixated not just on having a good experience but being able to portray that experience. How could we have fun if the lighting wasn’t good enough for an Instagram? When you go on a big trip and it’s so exciting, you have these expectations for yourself, which are compounded by social media and making sure everyone knows what a great time you’re having. I think that there’s a challenge with actually having fun when you have set expectations for yourself that it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.
RS: It’s interesting how that intermingles with the narrator’s artistic identity. She’s trying to have this experience, but she’s also trying to find herself as an artist. Can you speak to how you went through the process of finding your voice as a writer?
DS: For Nora a lot of the issue is she doesn’t think she’s a “real” artist because she mainly draws cartoons on Tumblr, she dismisses her own art and her own talent. For me there was this challenge — having written a YA book, my instinct was to diminish it — people would say “Wow, you wrote a book!” and I would reply “Well, it’s just YA.” I think that goes into this this cultural idea that young women’s stories are less serious. Everyone was surprised that Teen Vogue was writing amazing political stories. That’s also a reason that I use The Bell Jar as an epigraph, because that story became the exception — it was a story of a young woman that took on larger cultural significance. Nora’s journey is very much reflective of my own journey, this idea that you can be a young woman and do work that matters, and it doesn’t have to fit the conception of what serious art is. A young woman’s experience is allowed to have value.
“You can be a young woman and do work that matters, and it doesn’t have to fit the conception of what serious art is. A young woman’s experience is allowed to have value.”
RS: Relationships between teen girls and their mothers are historically fraught, and you really push it to the limit by putting Nora and her mother, Alice, together on this trip in close quarters. Why do you think that relationship continues to fascinate us?
DS: Specifically I was interested in the way that relationship hits a crux when someone is leaving for college. My mom and I had a difficult relationship right at that time, and because you’re at this weird no man’s land where the teenager feels like they’re more independent and becoming an adult, and pushing away as they want to leave, while the mom is having to reconcile losing their baby, and so that creates this tricky dynamic that I hadn’t seen written about elsewhere. Parents have expectations of what sort of job and career you’re going to go for, and the teenager is super anxious because they don’t know themselves what they want to do.
RS: You write a lot about the fear/disappointment that parents have with children who want to be artists. Can you speak to how that played out in your experience?
DS: I’ve been really lucky that my parents have been incredibly supportive of me, always. I was pre-med for most of college, so we definitely had a conversation my junior or senior year where I had to say, “I don’t wanna be a doctor anymore! Sike!” and they took it really well. Alice, Nora’s mother, knows an artistic path is fraught with disappointment, struggle, rejection, and challenge, and I think a parent wants to shelter their child from that. Alice is now experiencing being a single mother, and having to support herself, and sees the challenge in that — she wants her daughter to always be able to be independent. Hopefully she didn’t come across as some horrible harpie. It’s a leap of faith for both the child to willingly walk the gauntlet and choose their own path, and for a parent who loves them, to see their child go through suffering.
RS: You made it very clear that the narrator was well versed in painting and the arts, did you have any specific influences artistically growing up — how much of Nora’s influences were yours, and what of your life was different?
DS: I loved drawing and painting as a hobby when I was really young, but I am definitely not an artist. But I was lucky enough that when I graduated college and did my own European trip, I was traveling with a high school friend who was an art history major. I learned so much over my trip and I just shoehorned that into the book. I love fun facts, I love history. I was just glad that I could use this book to be an annoying know it all.
RS: Like a vessel for facts. That was one of the best things about traveling in Europe, there’s so many facts that you can just absorb. I feel like in New York it’s a similar thing, people love it, everyone wants to talk about The Power Broker.
DS: There’s so many pockets of history, and everything is more amazing with context.
RS: Absolutely. Nora’s grandfather is this famous painter, and I thought it was interesting how you were so able to clearly illustrate how she’s in his shadow, and how that affects her ambition, how did you put that to the page?
DS: Most people have some sort of privilege, and I think that acknowledging that privilege is really important, and not letting it diminish your worth as a human being is also important. No one in my life is a writer or has really taken an artistic path, but I’m empathetic, because I’ve been lucky and had a lot of advantages. In the book there’s the challenge, because Nora’s grandfather has the classic success, which is having your art be hung in a museum. No matter what sort of artist you want to be, you have to evaluate what you want your success to look like.
“No matter what sort of artist you want to be, you have to evaluate what you want your success to look like.”
RS: Was he based on any painter? Or did you come up with him?
DS: I came up with him, I think because I wanted him to be specific and successful but not the biggest deal,
RS: Right, not like “He’s Edward Hopper.”
DS: Exactly, and it was important that his success came later in life, to show that even if you are incredibly successful, it takes a long time to get there.
RS: I really loved how you captured young men and the sometimes trash things they do — how do you think that women accurately portraying their social experiences with men can help gender relations?
DS: I was tired of reading YA books where the main character fell in love with this perfect devoted man. The girl says, “I’m plain, I’m not special!” but this amazing adorable artistic athletic boy falls in love with her head over heels, and I didn’t have that experience growing up, so I was frustrated. And so, I hope that Callum, the love interest, that he comes across as kind of how teenage boys are, which is that they’re charming and flirtatious but by no means perfect. They’re just human beings and you can’t project your expectations onto someone, you can’t expect them to be your ideal vision.
RS: Yeah that’s a really good point, because vaulting them up to that prince level doesn’t help them and it doesn’t help you. I love how you place these little cultural nuggets throughout the book, my favorite was the tattooed man reading Joan Didion at the airport, it just made me laugh it was so on point. What place do you think current culture has in literature that will theoretically outlast the current moment?
DS: I thought about that a lot, since this novel definitely takes place in the present day, and I wondered, as I was writing it, if that diminished the work as a piece of art that’s going to last beyond it’s time. I just thought, I want to write a book that’s as true to my voice as I can, and that feels honest for a modern day heroine, and it felt weird to try to write a modern day seventeen year old who wasn’t making modern day cultural references, it felt disingenuous. It didn’t make sense to have a teenage artist who drew cartoons and not have them on Tumblr. That’s what she would do! And I thought, well I could make up a new thing, but that felt artificial to me.
RS: There’s a passage I wanted to discuss:
“We can come back!” my mom says, and I nod. But the truth is there are some places where you don’t quite belong yet. There’s no place here, in this bookstore that’s only open in the evenings, for Nora Parker-Holmes, the high school student from Evanston. I could walk inside, sure, but I’d be a tourist in every sense of the word. I’m not the me I need to be to belong in La Belle Hortense, and the realization fills me with a hollowness that I can’t quite describe.
It reminded me of this Meghan Daum essay, “Not What it Used to Be,” but she’s talking about that experience, the “not being there yet,” from the older perspective, looking back with nostalgia, and it was really interesting to compare those.
DS: What I was trying to capture in that moment is the way that people hold themselves back from life because you don’t feel like you deserve something yet. Like not wanting to buy nice clothes until you lose weight. The irony is, Nora does belong in that bookstore, she just has insecurities — she feels like she’s not fashionable enough, she’s not thin enough to enjoy it fully, but he fact of the matter is you would enjoy it fully if you choose to inhabit the experience. And so I hope a reader reads that critically, and thinks that they’ve felt that, and that you shouldn’t feel that way. You deserve all the happiness you want and waiting until you’re thin enough or pretty enough or old enough is just an excuse to hold yourself in stasis.
RS: That’s a really good perspective. The narrator, she has so much ambition, and there’s this bigger cultural conversation right now about women and ambition. What’s your piece on that? How can women navigate having a lot of ambition in a world that’s kind of like, nah, you shouldn’t have that.
DS: I fortunately never felt that you shouldn’t have ambition — I’m incredibly ambitious, I always have been. I think what women need to escape is this infantilization of girl power, which you see with the fearless girl on Wall Street. I think the message behind it is important, but it felt condescending. And that’s what I think girls need to escape, the idea of “girl power,” — let’s exist as women. Women need to escape this feeling that their ambition should be in a separate category from male ambition.
“Women need to escape this feeling that their ambition should be in a separate category from male ambition.”
RS: Sure, I feel especially since it’s such an old idea — when I hear girl power, I still think about the Spice Girls. And that was twenty years ago! The book is very funny, and you’re very funny on Twitter — where do you draw that conversational humor from? Is that how you talk with your friends? Is that how your brain works?
DS: I hope so! I think that with many funny people it comes form a place of deep insecurity — growing up I was never the hot girl, or the popular girl, and so if you want attention or validation you sort of have to be something else, so being funny online was the first way that I got attention from the world at all. I was on Twitter sort of just shouting into the void, and I got a little positive feedback, and then it’s something you practice.
RS: There was another passage I wanted to mention, where Callum is talking to Nora about people doing what they want to do. “You get to choose what you want to be. You don’t need skills you were born with or permission.”
It’s something really interesting to talk about with people who are following their dreams, following what you want to do. What was the fundamental thing that made you realize, “I’m going to do what I want to do.”
DS: I think it started with Guy in Your MFA the parody Twitter account — that I made it, and then I got a response from the outside world, and I got this feeling like oh, I did a thing, and people liked it, and then it got acknowledged in the world. And that sort of cause and effect motivated me to keep testing it. Like what if I tried to get an agent, what if I tried to write a book. And so I kept pushing it. I think you need that initial step — it’s really hard. I think that part of growing up and being successful is thinking, what’s stopping me, and what can I do to overcome it.
RS: And it goes back to the idea of not being there yet, what if you take away that veil and say “what if I just do it anyway.”
DS: Yeah, what if I just say I’m there? And something changes when you’re a writer, the day you say you’re a writer and just declare it to the world. I haven’t read The Secret, but that’s my version of The Secret right there — declare what you are and be it. There’s no one size fits all, everyone has something really incredibly personal holding them back from being the best they can be.
RS: The last line that stuck out to me is from the end, the letter from Nora’s grandfather, where he says “the world deserves to see how you see the world,” because that’s really what being an artist is about, putting your perspective of the world on whatever it be, the canvas, the page, the guitar.
DS: Everyone’s experience is valid, and people should put it out there. I think that the internet is really great in that it lets people do that.
RS: Right, a canvas for everyone.
DS: I think as I was writing, I was saying, a story about a normal suburban girl is valid. It’s interesting. She doesn’t save the world, she’s not dying of a rare disease, she’s not the first person to walk on Mars, she’s just a normal girl in high school, going to college, trying to figure out what she wants to do. And I want to say to the girls out there who are like that, your story is valid. You are enough, you’re interesting, no one sees the world the way you do.