Sweet Sixteener Sarah Alexander recently spoke to Fearless Fifteener Mandy Mikulencak about her debut contemporary YA novel, BURN GIRL (September 1, 2015 from Albert Whitman and Company).
Mandy Mikulencak has been a writer her entire working life. First, as a journalist then as an editor and PR specialist for two national nonprofits and a United Nations agency. Today she lives in the mountains of Southwest Colorado with her husband, Andy. She writes YA and adult fiction.
A meth lab explosion leaves Arlie permanently scarred — both physically and emotionally. Yet, she develops the street smarts and survival skills to keep her addict mother out of the reach of the law and hidden from her stepfather, Lloyd, the man responsible for the explosion that killed three people.
Shortly after Arlie’s 16th birthday, her mother overdoses, forcing an end to their nomadic lives. Social services steps in and rules suddenly exist where none had before. Soon, she’s living in a 31-foot Airstream trailer with an eccentric uncle and attending high school for the first time.
While her facial scar makes it hard to fit in, Arlie begins to think a normal life might be possible – that is, until her stepfather tracks her down and insists she return drug money her mother had stolen. A final confrontation tests Arlie’s idea of right and wrong, and how far she’s willing to go to protect her new life.
Sarah: Congratulations on your stunning debut BURN GIRL! I was on the edge of my seat throughout – can you talk about your writing process and how you managed to create so much tension and suspense?
Mandy: I wanted to create a story where the tension was multi-layered and complex. Arlie – the book’s protagonist – has a physical disfigurement. That alone creates tension in her life. Then, there’s the physical danger (living on the streets, having a mom who’s a drug addict, hiding from a violent stepfather) which creates its own tension. When Arlie is thrust into a “normal” home and school life, a more subtle tension and suspense are created because she is so wholly unprepared for the upheaval and the expectations of others. I think the suspense comes from not knowing how Arlie will react.
Sarah: BURN GIRL is set in Durango where you live. What were the benefits and challenges of writing about a place you’re so familiar with? How did your experiences of Durango feed into your novel?
Mandy: The other novels I’ve written take place in different cities and states, which required a lot more research to capture the essence of a place. The benefit of setting BURN GIRL in Durango was that I could picture the protagonist’s daily life: where she slept and ate, how she lived off the grid. The challenge was giving myself permission to fictionalize parts of the town to make the story work. We’ll have to see how many locals point out where I deviate from reality. Above all else, I didn’t want the story to take place in a large city where Arlie could completely disappear. A small town makes it impossible for her to hide from those who begin to care about her.
Sarah: Are you part of a critique group? If so, how has this helped your writing?
Mandy: I started a local critique group about six years ago. Since then, it’s disbanded and only one member and I still critique each other’s work. It’s been INVALUABLE to have someone who knows me as a writer and is comfortable enough to tell me when I’m taking shortcuts and not putting 100 percent into a scene. The most important thing for critique groups to do is build trust so that tough critiques aren’t taken personally.
Sarah: What has your debut journey been like? Has there been any part of the publication process that’s surprised you? Any tips for new authors?
Mandy: First, it’s been a LONG journey. More than six years have passed since I started writing fiction seriously. It took writing three books before I wrote the one that landed me an agent. That meant loads of rejections, which can really undermine one’s self-confidence and motivation. My advice to authors who want to be published traditionally is to be kind to yourself when those rejections start pouring in. I used to have a “pity jar” of little slips of paper with different ways to comfort myself: have an ice cream cone, get a pedicure, buy a truffle at the chocolate store, text a friend, etc. When a rejection came in, I pulled a slip from the jar to make myself feel better. One last piece of advice: don’t view other writers as competitors, even in competitions. You have an opportunity to find friends, supporters, even crit partners.
Lightning Round Questions
What were you reading when you were sixteen? Hotel New Hampshire (John Irving); Lord of the Flies (William Golding)
If you could have written any book, which one would it have been? And why? A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving). Irving is my favorite writer. He infuses the bizarre and grotesque in his humor and manages to make me feel as if I know each character personally. I wish I had one-tenth of his talent.
What advice would you give to your sixteen-year-old self? Don’t let your career or weight dictate your self-worth. Just being YOU is good enough.
Ocean, mountains, jungle or desert? Mountains.
Any writing rituals? Nope. I write when I feel like it. And I don’t write every day. And I still manage to write a book a year.
Sweet or savoury? Sweet
Sarah Alexander lives in London and works as an editor. Her debut, THE ART OF NOT BREATHING (Usborne/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Spring 2016), is about a Scottish teenager who confronts the tempestuous sea—and her family’s tragic past—as she uncovers the mystery surrounding her twin brother’s drowning five years earlier.
Find Sarah on Twitter.