The Complexity Of Female Friendships: An Interview With Caroline Zancan, Author Of Local Girls

by Michelle King

In these hot and humid last days of summer it seems as if all anyone can think about is change. Summer was fun at first, but as we move into September, we’re all craving something — anything — new. It’s that feeling of listlessness that permeates Caroline Zancan’s debut novel, Local Girls. The novel centers around Maggie, Nina, and Lindsey, longtime best friends living in a dead-end town on the outskirts of Orlando, Florida. They’re in their last year of being teenagers and find themselves hanging onto the familiar, even when the familiar is made up of unfulfilling jobs, boring boyfriends, and a seedy dive bar where, night after night, they engage in a different version of the same stale conversation.

It’s at that seedy dive bar, The Shamrock, where the girls have a night that snaps them out of their routine. Passing through Orlando for a Mickey Mouse Club reunion special, mega movie star Sam Decker comes to The Shamrock looking for a quiet night where no one notices him. Instead, he finds three celebrity obsessed best friends. What ensues is the kind of all-night, meandering conversation that covers nothing and everything. By the end of the night, the friendship of Maggie, Nina, and Lindsey has been permanently changed.

We learn early on that Sam never makes it to the Mickey Mouse Club reunion — he overdoses within just a few hours of leaving The Shamrock. The premise of a movie star’s last night on earth is certainly an interesting one, but it’s the dissolving relationship between Maggie, Nina, and Lindsey that anchors Local Girls. Zancan has created a realistic portrayal of how growing up changes childhood friendships, mutating the once-sturdy bond into something untenable.

I grew up in Florida, drinking underage in bars just like The Shamrock with girls just like Maggie, Nina, and Lindsey. Since I couldn’t interview Zancan in an actual Florida bar, I went for the next best thing: the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club, a Sunshine State themed bar in Gowanus (think flamingo wallpaper). Over drinks, we discussed sororal friendships, getting an MFA while working as an editor, and my notoriously crazy home state.

Michelle King: I want to start by talking about Florida. You’re from Ohio, but you set the novel in Florida. Why Florida?

Caroline Zancan: I am obsessed with Florida. It feels like a place that people weren’t actually meant to live. Even in the developed areas, the wildlife really is everywhere. It seems like we took this place — this wild, wild place — and we tried to turn it into, of all things, a vacation destination. That’s a very funny juxtaposition.

I wrote the book as a love letter to Florida and an ode to the state.

On a more personal level, I grew up going to Florida at least 2 or 3 times a year, and lived there the summer after my sophomore year of college. I noticed a strange thing happening. Every time you’d go, there would be new condo developments, new ice cream parlors, new shopping centers, and then, in 2008, that just stopped. The property values plummeted, and it just kind of became a ghost town in a really depressing way. I always thought it would be a great place for a novel. A setting that rich, paired with the economic stuff that happened in 2008. It just seemed like a great fit. I wrote the book as a love letter to Florida and an ode to the state.

MK: One thing [the narrator] Maggie says about the state is that it’s a 4-year-old’s dream, not a 19-year-old’s dream. I definitely felt that growing up in Florida. It’s a great place to be a kid and it’s a great place to be 85, but it’s not a great place to be a teenager.

CZ: I think it’s hard to be a teenager anywhere, but I think it’s particularly rubbed in your face that there’s nothing for you when it’s all tourists, old people, or children. The whole state seems to be welcoming those communities — and rightfully so because their livelihood depends on it — but it’s like, what do I do?

MK: Exactly. And I hung out in a bar much like the Shamrock and had friendships like the one in the book. I was like Maggie. Reading the book, I was so interested in Maggie and why she wants to leave Florida. I would love to hear about what your process of writing her was like.

CZ: My relationship with Ohio is way less tortured than Maggie’s is to Florida. I go back. I’m close to my family. But I was always sort of the odd duck in Ohio. I was this quiet kid who was off reading books while my siblings were playing sports. I always felt loved, but the rest of the world always beckoned me. I always say that my heart is in Ohio, but my soul is in Brooklyn. The world is a big place. There’s so much out there, and not everyone is born in the place that’s meant for them.

When I started the book, I knew that Maggie was going to be restless and that she was going to get out of Florida, but I was curious as to what exactly Maggie wanted other than to get out. In the traditional telling of these girls who want to get out of their small town it’s because they want to sing or act or dance or write, but I think you can want to explore and experience the world, even if there’s not a specific calling. You can just have a general curiosity of the world. So, for awhile I was searching for what was the thing that made Maggie want to leave, and I finally just decided that she just didn’t want to be in Florida anymore. Making her curiosity not tied to any one thing was a big decision for me.

MK: How did the process for this novel start?

CZ: I originally was going to write Local Girls about the movie star. I wanted to follow a movie star on the last night before he died of a drug overdose. I feel like people have these ideas of what a celebrity is like, and I don’t know many celebrities personally, but after 10 years of working in book publishing, I have come into contact with many of them and it’s just always been interesting to me the extent to which they really are just people. I wanted Sam Decker to just be a dude in a bar, and the people around him to be kind of surprised that he’s just a dude in a bar. I thought, who would be so surprised at that and who would care, and the answer was 19-year-old girls would care. The more I wrote, the more interested I was in the girls. I needed to know more about them.

You can have books that have the world “girls” in the title and you can ask that people take those books seriously.

When I sold the book it was actually under the title The Night Sam Decker Died. My book sold at auction, so I had some options of who I wanted it to go to and Riverhead told me right up front, “We would want to give it a title and market it in a way that shows the extent to this book being about women.” I thought that was so great, because it is a novel about women. At first, when we put the world “girls” into the title I was like, Shoot. Is this going to be marketed as something that’s silly? And then I chastised my own self. Why does a book that’s about women and girls need to be less serious? You can write a serious book about female friendship. It’s something that deserves serious consideration. I realized I had been falling into the trap of “the word girls is in the title, now it’s chick-lit.” But no. You can have books that have the world “girls” in the title and you can ask that people take those books seriously.

I will say that the most autobiographical part of the book for me is Sam Decker’s speech on moderation, where he says he doesn’t believe in it. He wants to drink for two days and then sleep for two days. I wrote this book in kind of a fury.

MK: This book does look at female friendship and girlhood in a serious and complex way. One thing that stood out to me was the way in which these girls obsessed with one another, especially when they were a bit younger. That rang so true to me about female friendships.

CZ: I really do feel like there’s no love like your best friend growing up. There’s this intensity to it. If I have a problem in my life now, I talk to my mom, or I talk to my husband, or I talk to my work friends, or my college friends, or my graduate school friends. But when you’re young, all your energy, all your secrets, everything you think, it goes to that one person. I don’t think there’s any other time in your life, no matter how close you are to someone, where all your emotional energy is going into just one source. Even now, I am so fascinated by teenage girls. They’re so elusive.

MK: Oh, I’m the same way. I listen to their conversations on the train, with my headphones on and pretend I’m listening to music. It’s almost creepy, but I can’t help myself. What do you think it is that makes you so obsessed with teen girls?

CZ: So many of my good friends are men, so I don’t want to put men down, but I do think that women are more emotionally interesting. I feel like there are more emotional complexities. I think men are equally intelligent and thoughtful, and I’m also weary of any blanket statements, but I also think there are emotional intricacies to a lot of females that I still haven’t figured out. When you’re a young person, there are layers upon layers upon layers of meaning. There’s a lot of drama. So much is happening at once — hormonally, physically, intellectually. So many big moments happen at one time.

MK: Early on in the novel, Maggie makes a comment about how maybe they seemed liked normal girls, but they weren’t. At least for me, that was a big part of being a teenager. I constantly felt as if no one on the planet had ever felt how me and my friends felt, which, of course, now I realize everyone felt that way.

CZ: Right. I think part of why you felt that way is because we don’t express feelings in the way teenagers feel them. So, you find yourself thinking, If everyone felt this way, we’d all be talking about it and we’d all be crying in public all the time. That age is really when you start to develop a private life.

MK: When you’re a teenager, you don’t haven’t yet acquired the social skills you need to have productive, healthy conversations. Instead of talking to a friend, you get in a public fight at a bar, which is what winds up happening in the novel.

CZ: I have so many healthy female friendships in my life right now, and even now, they require maintenance. They do. The closer you are, the more maintenance they require. No one can ignite something in me the way that one of my close female friends can.

That scene you’re talking about, the exit scene, I felt like it needed to be really big, because part of their friendship is that no matter how mad they are at each other, they are a united front to the world. It’s only when their front to the world starts to crumble and they’re fighting in front of people that it’s like, Oh, now we’re really in trouble.

MK: Something that’s so interesting to me about friendships — and I think the book does a great job of capturing it — is that friendship don’t usually have proper breakups in the way that romantic relationships do. Friendship dissolve over time and then suddenly you’re like, Oh, wow. It’s been three years since I’ve spoken to that person who I used to tell all my secrets to.

CZ: Right. The world doesn’t recognize a friend break-up as a tragedy in the same way that it does a romantic break-up. You outgrow people in life. I think a lot of romantic relationships end because you outgrow each other. That happens with friendships, too. But because, with friends, you can have more than one, there isn’t that same built-in opportunity to say, Okay, we’ve given each other everything we’re going to. Thank you. I will never forget you. You have changed my DNA, but I want a different life now.

MK: Can you articulate what it is that is making these three girls grow apart?

But as you grow up, you learn that you can love someone from afar.

CZ: They’re stuck in teenagehood and the only way they’re going to get out of it is to leave each other. Adulthood doesn’t mean the same thing for all of them and they need to leave each other to get on to adulthood, but as long as they are hanging out with each other, they’re giving each other permission to not move on to the next stage of their life. They allow each other to not do anything. Some friends motivate you and push you further and some hold you back, and I think they were holding each other back, no matter what their intentions are, no matter how much they loved each other. There was no maliciousness. Part of why they’ve let it go on as long as they have is because they love each other. But as you grow up, you learn that you can love someone from afar. You can say, I love you but I need to do something that doesn’t include you and it doesn’t mean I love you any less.

MK: Let’s shift gears a bit and discuss the path you took to get to this novel. You’re an editor at Henry Holt, so you’ve taken the NYC path, so to speak, but you also took the MFA path. What made you decide to do a low-res program, while you were working a full-time job in publishing?

CZ: I moved to New York when I was 22, but I had wanted to be a writer since I was a kid. There was never a time in my life where I didn’t want to be a writer, but I also knew it wasn’t a very realistic way to make a living. When I was working as an assistant, I was on the phone with Alice Munro and Julia Glass and that was so intoxicating to me. At that point, it fed the same part of my soul as writing, because I was so immersed in storytelling. But I totally stopped writing for the first 5 years I was in New York, which I hadn’t anticipated.

After awhile, I knew how to do the job, so I started writing again. It’s also not a coincidence that that’s when I met my now-husband. He was like, Oh, you work in book publishing, but like every other editor, you want to write. Why aren’t you writing? He’s wonderful. He’s never had any ambition that he hasn’t pursued. I think, unfortunately, women tend to be more shy about getting what they want. But him saying that really opened my eyes. I started taking Sackett Street Writer Workshops, and I got excited about writing again. I saw that, while I love publishing and working on other people’s stories, there was a different part of my brain that I did need to be exercising. It felt silly to leave New York publishing to become a writer. That just didn’t seem to make any sense. I didn’t want to graduate and have to find a new job. Also, I had been working in publishing at that point for 5 years, and Knopf in general is such a great place to work.

My opinion of the MFA actually changed after having gotten one. I went into the process thinking I was doing it for the deadlines. It was structure and accountability, but I do think it actually made me a better writer. I was more skeptical of the MFA before I went into it. Before I got my MFA, I wanted to write these long, floral sentences and through my first term I learned through this very tough professor that what you want to do is convey whatever you’re trying to convey is as few of words as powerful. It’s more powerful to tell us something that’s true than to focus on making it beautiful.

I don’t think you need an MFA if you want to write a book. I think you can get that accountability from friends or your own self-discipline and I think you can learn to write really well by reading books, all the time, every day, and taking books apart like a science project.

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