Abeel effortlessly transports readers from life with the beat poets of Paris in the 1950's to the New York scene of the 1960s as her three heroines break the bonds of convention, that said marriage and motherhood where a woman's proper choice, in pursuit of their artistic dreams. Buoyed by their friendship, they find strength in their shared struggle despite the cost they must pay for their determination. Gripping, witty, and funny. Readers will find themselves smiling and nodding in understanding with every page turn.
“Erica Abeel IS a ‘Wild Girl’— she lived the life, these are her friends, and this is an insider’s peek into that world.” —Kevin Kwan, author of Crazy Rich Asians”
Can you offer us a couple of insights into what makes a “Wild Girl” wild?
In the context of my novel, “wild girls” is a phrase used by the heroine Brett’s professor to express his fears for her and her two free spirited classmates. The friends want to live as sexual beings in a culture that zaps women who express that aspect of themselves. They’re putting themselves in harm’s way, the professor warns; “these young men don’t value what’s freely offered.” He compares them to acrobats who leap through a ring of fire, expecting to be caught on the other end. The question hangs – and repeats itself throughout the novel: who will catch these “wild girls” on the other end?
In the 50s you married the first person you slept with. My “wild girls” scoff at that. So what makes a “wild girl” wild in my novel is the pursuit of sexual adventures during a fiercely puritanical era -- a leap through the ring of fire – and the ambition to make a life in the arts at a time when marriage and family is the be-all and end-all for women.
How does your career as a writer influence other areas of your life and vice versa?
As John Irving said in “The World According to Garp,” when you’re in the midst of writing a novel, “Everything applies.” While I was hammering out “Wild Girls,” I’d often pick up the newspaper and spot some detail in a story that’s related to a character or theme in the novel.
No one is safe from us writers! Everything is material, a writer once said – was it Nora Ephron? We schlurp up character traits, mannerisms, smells, voice timbre, details of dress – the whole spectrum of the seen and unseen world -- and stick them in our novels. Writers are ghouls, Julia, the Boston blueblood of the trio of friends, says in the first section. A dear departed friend of mine was inseparable from her ratty fur hat. That hat now belongs to my character Julia in “Wild Girls.”
I also often discover events -- such as the recent show in Paris on the Beats and Allen Ginsberg -- that reference the novel’s world. The other day I zoomed in on a theme common to both Sarah Jessica Parker’s new HBO show “Divorce” and “Wild Girls.” Both feature heroines who set forth with grand artistic dreams, but then are sidetracked by financial realities (like a husband’s failing career) into more mundane pursuits. It’s an old story, I know, but it’s all in the telling, right?
To the second part of your question I’d reply that as a writer, I often feel I’m more an observer than participant. When I’m not writing – like now, when I’m getting the word out about “Wild Girls” – I feel guilty and a little unfocused.
The writer’s life can be hazardous. People you know are sometimes convinced you’ve stuck them – or their story -- in your book, even when that’s not the case. Characters are often composites of different folks, real or imagined. So, a cautionary note: you have to be willing to offend people, even lose friends. With any luck, the bad feelings will blow over.
What do you do when you are not writing?
Writing is so demanding, it’s essential to kick back at the end of the work day. So, I head out to the gym or take a great Pilates class. Summers I play tennis and do long-distance swimming in the bays around East Hampton. And there’s always, happily, a glass or two of Rose. My very favorite non-writing activities involve hanging with my two young grandsons, who are endlessly amusing. I’m in charge of the boys’ cultural activities. I’ve been taking the older one to the theater since he was in diapers. He’s already a writer.
What led you to write the book?
Anger was a big motivating source -- anger at the damage inflicted on young women by guys who are taught there are the nice girls you marry, and the others you “use” for sex. Two of my heroines become severely damaged by sexual encounters that derail them for years. In all kinds of ways the 50s was a punishing time for women. But I also wanted to celebrate the daring and guts of kickass characters who refuse to be limited by the restrictions they’re born into. “Wild Girls” showcases the resilience, wiliness, and life force of women.
What would you like readers to take from it?
I hope they’ll identify with my characters’ ability to reinvent themselves and “follow their bliss,” in Joseph Campbell’s famous phrase. Though these women battle the rigid rules of the 50s, I’m hoping readers will recognize their own struggles today – now that there are almost too many choices -- to forge a path of their own making. And I’d like readers to laugh at the past absurdities that I mock (such as the self-disgust women were encouraged to feel about their own bodies).
What are your current/future projects?
I’m starting a new novel, a comic, satirical take on feminism in the early 70s, set among a group of writer/activists presided over by a Betty Friedan-like character. I also continue to review films and interview directors.
Your biography mentions you love to write about warrior women who lived against the grain before the upheavals of the 60s. That’s a very specific topic. Why does it have such a strong appeal for you?
Partly the topic appeals to me for its dramatic value. My characters fight for the right to live as they choose when everything around them offers only a single choice. Built into my subject is conflict and drama. The topic also allows me to foreground female feistiness and strength. My characters experience the world as resistance, much as in 19th century novels, where a hero must make his way in a society primed to advance only the rich and well-born. In “Wild Girls,” it’s heroines – not heroes – who make their way in a world mobilized to bind and limit them.
What challenges did you face in creating this manuscript?
Understanding, through many drafts, what to take out. Initially, I had a 4th woman whose story I was keen on telling – and it may yet surface in a different book – but which diluted the dramatic force of my other 3 heroines’s narratives. So the 4th character hit the cutting room floor. After the initial draft, I constantly wrestled with the challenge of how to streamline a complex, multi-pronged story that spans decades so it wouldn’t become a baggy monster.
What book(s)/author(s) have influenced your writing and how?
I’ve always loved the 19th century French novelists, such as Stendhal and “The Red and the Black” and Balzac. I like the paradigm of a young hero – in my case, a heroine – setting out to conquer the world – or “pursue happiness,” in Stendhals phrase. “Brideshead Revisited” by Evelyn Waugh has long been an obsession; my 2008 novel “Conscience Point” riffs on its love triangle. I admire sections of “Atonement” by Ian McEwan, and will read anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Salter.
What are the most important elements that you want to bring to your writing?
I want to bring humor and wit to the story, so that even in grotesque or punishing situations the reader will laugh. Or at least smile. I also aspire to make the reader cry, which of course is hoping for a lot. I try to fashion characters the reader can empathize with, even when they’re shooting themselves in the foot.
Talk about revising and/or suggestions about revising for upcoming writers.
You have to learn to be your own editor. If something you’ve written doesn’t grab you, it likely won’t grab the reader either. Be prepared to chisel and cut – “kill your darlings” if necessary. Keep focused on forward momentum, and if a scene doesn’t promote that, consider getting rid of it.
What's one additional piece of advice about writing or publishing you'd like to pass on to readers and writers?
Keep a question hanging fire throughout the novel that the reader wants answered or resolved and that will keep her reading. Learn to become inured to rejection and naysayers – or use negative reactions to improve your work. Never give up.
Anything else you'd like readers to know about you and/or your book?
I hope they’ll be inspired by it and have a good laugh over the funnier scenes. And enjoy their time with my characters, who have been great company for me over five years.