“Girls don’t go out into the world and take whatever they want. Girls have to compromise.
Or maybe they don’t. I guess I didn’t in the end.” (Girls in Boys’ Cars)
I can only write superlatives about Felicity Castagna’s second YA novel Girls in Boys’ Cars. It is a brilliant character study of two friends, Rosa and Asheeka, and a gripping story that is expertly structured and written as well as being accessible. It also deals with situations that young people must be aware of and learn how to navigate.
It is published by Pan Macmillan Australia.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Felicity.
What is your background in writing?
I’ve always written in heaps of different forms – I’m still exploring, learning, playing with ways of telling stories. I started out as a performance poet in my teens and early twenties then I moved onto writing short stories and then into writing novels for adults and young adults. Increasingly I’ve written a lot of long-form personal essays about books, writing, home, art and lots of other things. I also do a lot of collaborative work with artists from other artforms so I’ve worked with dancers and visual artists and actors to create large scale work for The Sydney Festival, The National Theatre of Parramatta and The Adelaide Festival among other places.
Why is writing across age-groups and genres important to you?
I’m not really concerned about writing across age-groups or writing in different genres but I know what stories I want to tell and sometimes those stories naturally lend themselves to young adults and sometimes they are more appropriate for an older audience and sometimes those stories work better as some wild massive piece of art that involves dozens of dancers and musicians in wide open spaces like this piece here. If I was more sensible I’d stick to one thing, it would make the work I do more easily marketable but I can’t help myself I like to play and like to work with other people.
How do you combine writing fiction with your day job?
Luckily for me my day job is teaching writing. I’m a Lecturer in Creative Writing at The Writing and Society Research Centre, Western Sydney University so even if my writing is done in small snatches of time between teaching and kids I still get to think about writing and books and craft a lot and that filters into what I create.
How does your title, Girls in Boys’ Cars, epitomise your story and your concerns here?
As my main character Rosa says, ‘cars are made of boy parts.’ On a literal level there is such a long tradition of male road stories – think Jack Kerouac’s On The Road but there are so few stories about women and girls. Boys on the road are looking for adventure, women always seem to be running away and driving themselves over cliffs like Thelma and Louise. I wanted to write something where girls get to be the agents of their own kind of road story even if it’s complicated and everyone else is always getting in the way: They are owning a very male space.
What genre is the novel?
I’m not sure really. It’s part crime novel part coming-of-age story. At times it’s a social-realist novel but there are bit where it jumps off into magical realism. You could also apply labels like feminist and metafiction to it and I’m sure I could many more.
Could you introduce your protagonist, Rosa, by describing one or two ways that she has changed during her school years?
Rosa is kind of an awkward, book-nerd who struggles with her body transforming from pudgy mess to something that boys want to look at. She’s full of contradictions and that doesn’t really change over the course of the book it’s just something that gets amplified. She’s angry and rebellious and funny and always has been that as well as a dork and she spends a lot of the book pleading not to be put in a box.
You’ve done a superb job crafting the friendship between Rosa and Asheeka. What are you particularly happy about how you have written this?
I wanted to explore a really complicated friendship as most friendships are. They love and care for each other deeply but also can’t stand each other at the same time. They have different levels of privilege, different relationships with their families, boys and their own status as girls but they also come from the same place. I wanted to show how different we can be even within our own geographical communities and I also wanted to show that struggle-and failure- to completely understand someone else even when the intention is genuine. I also really wanted to write young women who are funny. They have their fair share of dark days but they are also really witty and see a lot of the black humour of things.
What catalyst is the springboard into the fast-paced plot?
It’s the road story in itself. Rosa and Asheeka are always moving both literally and metaphorically, every place offers new challenges, new plot twists but every place also offers internal challenges. It’s really internal conflict that I’m interested in – the conflict the girls have with themselves and each other — that’s what fuels all those external conflicts anyway.
The structure of your novel enhances the story. Could you briefly explain your structure here?
Rosa is in a juvenile correction centre narrating the story of how she came to be here by describing the events that unfolded when she stole a car with Asheeka. It flips back and forth between the past and the present which is important to me because I think it emphasises the way that we can’t escape our pasts.
Your chapter headings are a highlight. Please tell us about one of them.
I have a chapter heading fetish. I just love the way that they can set the tone for the chapter, or provide a funny interlude or tell us how to read the words that are to come. For example, one of my chapter headings is ‘Again we learn that we cannot really drive’. It foreshadows that something is going to happen and indicates to the reader that it should be treated with a bit of humour.
There are many quotable parts in the novel. Could you share one?
‘Girls’ anger is a different type of thing from boys’. You have to cram that anger into your body every day. It’s large and it’s loud and it stretches and swells and cracks until it leaks out of your pores. People are always surprised. Girls can have so much anger.’
Why is humour important in the novel?
It was really important to me that Rosa and Asheeka have a wicked sense of humour. There just aren’t enough books where women and girls get to be funny. Part of them owning their personal demons is about being able to laugh, it’s a strategy for them to take back their own voice and their own lives.
Rosa loves books and you include references to literary works in the novel. Please explain the relevance of one of these.
Rosa lives her life through books but she also has a way of dismissing the relevance of everything she reads to the kind of story she is living. Holden Caufield in Catcher in The Rye is just ‘a guy who complains too much.’
What do you hope girls/young women and, in fact, all readers, take from this story?
I want the audience to ride on that same roller coaster between teenagerdom and adulthood that the two main protagonists Asheeka and Rosa are on. It’s a wild ride. Rosa is narrating her time on the road from a jail cell and Asheeka is missing. They both have a lot to work through – they’ve got complicated families and community obligations. They’re sick of the suburbs and spending their weekends hanging in the parking lot of McDonald’s and the boys who act like they own the place. They’re not sure what they need or how to get it and how to find it with each other. We’ve all been there at some point.
It’s phenomenal how your debut YA novel The Incredible Here and Now won the Prime Minister’s Award YA Literature Award, won the IBBY Australia Honour Award and was shortlisted for the CBCA Older Reader category in 2014. And now you’ve excelled again with Girls in Boys’ Cars. I know it’s a difficult question but what do you think is resonating with both critics and young readers in your writing?
I think it’s probably the idea that they can be read on many different levels. There is a lot of complex literary technique in both – they experiment with language and metaphor and play with structure but you don’t need to get all that to enjoy them because they are also just stories about characters we go on a journey with and who we can relate to.
What are you writing now or next?
The play version of Girls in Boys’ Cars will premier next year and the film rights have been optioned so I’ve got a hand in both of those projects which are super exciting. I’m also co-writing a young adult novel with two other writers. It’s about a party where everything goes wrong and three very different girls have to work out how to make things right together. I’m also working on a novel for adults called How to Be a Good Person, which is about a bunch of adults grappling with, well, how to be a good person.
What have you read recently that you would like to recommend?
The End of The World is Bigger Than Love by Davina Bell blew my mind. I read somewhere that it took her ten years to write and I can totally understand why it would.
(I love that book too!)
Thank you for your responses, Felicity. No doubt Girls in Boys’ Cars will also be featuring in awards lists.