Welcome to my new guest post segment, Stories That Built Me. Each of these posts will be done by a guest (authors, booksellers, bloggers, and more?) who will talk about how different stories shaped them.
The inaugural post is from one of my favorites, Rebecca Barrow. Her debut You Don’t Know Me But I Know You was woefully underrated, but I know y’all will fix it by preordering her next book, This is What it Feels Like.
Once a month or so, someone on twitter says something like this: “Reminder! If you’re writing YA now, your target audience was born in 2000! They don’t understand your Clueless reference!” (Feel free to switch out Clueless for Mean Girls, or Bring It On, or Friends, etc etc etc.) And I understand, I get the point. The readers we’re writing for weren’t born at the same time as us (usually), they might not have the same references, and you don’t want to alienate your readers.
I recognize the logic, I understand the point, but—I still keep doing it. I make my Heathers references and make my characters love music that was popular before my target audience was alive (before I was alive, sometimes) and you know why? Because it’s fun! And there isn’t some magical thing that makes pop culture that existed before you were born invisible to you—in fact, the internet pretty much does the exact opposite of that.
But really, if I had to break down exactly why I keep doing this—it’s because of Ava Gardner.
“Who is Ava Gardner?” you ask? Only one of the greatest bombshell femme fatale actresses who ever graced the MGM lot. Probably best known for her roles in The Barefoot Contessa, Show Boat, and The Killers (and also for allowing Frank Sinatra to marry her and then kicking him to the curb), Ava Gardner has, for the last eleven or twelve years, been one of my truest loves. I read about her, I watch her movies, I pray for the podcast You Must Remember This to do an entire Ava season; I want to go to the museum in North Carolina and the place she made her home in London; I, of course because I’m me, want an Ava-related tattoo on me someday.
“Okay, we get it, you like this actress, what does this have to do with anything?”
Well, where did I learn about her? That’s right! In a book! In a YA book, no less—actually, two books specifically: GINGERBREAD and SHRIMP by Rachel Cohn.
GINGERBREAD is I guess an older book now (being that it came out in 2002 oh god time just keeps on passing) and it’s about a punky, mouthy, slightly spoiled girl named Cyd Charisse. (Are you sensing a theme?) CC’s dad loves Frank Sinatra, and every year on his birthday they have Frank Day; in SHRIMP, the follow up to GINGERBREAD, CC dresses up as Ava and even has an imaginary conversation with her.
So I read GINGERBREAD when it came out and SHRIMP later on and those little mentions, that imaginary conversation—that was enough. I don’t know when exactly I decided to look Ava Gardner up but at some point I did, and learning about her opened up this whole world of Hollywood history to me and sparked this interest that now has me reading ridiculously dense Hedy Lamarr biographies and watching documentaries about the Hays Code and actively trying to learn. It’s become the thing I love for no reason other than I find it fascinating; for a person who has put huge amounts of themselves into writing and creating, this is where I go when I need something that has nothing to do with anything else in my life. Knowing about the Hollywood Canteen and Hedda Hopper’s gossip column and that Josephine Baker was a certifiable badass has no impact on anything in my life—except my own happiness. No one is testing me on this, and no one’s paying me to be good at knowing any of it, and if I make mistakes and quote the wrong fact or mess up a film title…it doesn’t matter. This is just for me and nobody else.
I look at my shelves and see the biographies, the book of Gil Elvgren work, and I think—this is somehow all down to one punky, mouthy, slightly spoiled girl and the author who created her. So when people make their little quippy reminders, I remind myself: I wouldn’t have this love if it weren’t for an author who didn’t care about that. And I hope that some teen reader somewhere walks away from one of my books wanting to know more about one of the references I dropped, and that it means as much to them one day as Ava Gardner means to me.
Rebecca Barrow writes stories about girls and all the wonders they can be. A lipstick obsessive with the ability to quote the entirety of Mean Girls, she lives in England, where it rains a considerable amount more than in the fictional worlds of her characters. She collects tattoos, cats, and more books than she could ever possibly read.
Who cares that the prize for the Sun City Originals contest is fifteen grand? Not Dia, that’s for sure. Because Dia knows that without a band, she hasn’t got a shot at winning. Because ever since Hanna’s drinking took over her life, Dia and Jules haven’t been in it. And because ever since Hanna left—well, there hasn’t been a band.
It used to be the three of them, Dia, Jules, and Hanna, messing around and making music and planning for the future. But that was then, and this is now—and now means a baby, a failed relationship, a stint in rehab, all kinds of off beats that have interrupted the rhythm of their friendship.
But like the lyrics of a song you used to play on repeat, there’s no forgetting a best friend. And for Dia, Jules, and Hanna, this impossible challenge—to ignore the past, in order to jump start the future—will only become possible if they finally make peace with the girls they once were, and the girls they are finally letting themselves be.
Rebecca Barrow’s tender story of friendship, music, and ferocious love asks—what will you fight for, if not yourself?