Book Review

An Interview With Marcella Pixley

By Elisa Spinner
Published: March 2008

Denebola: What inspired you to write this book?
Marcella Pixley: I was a strange kid. When I was in middle school (Brown Jr. High), I was proud of being different. I used to wear buttons with slogans. One of them said, “Dare to be Different, and  another said, “I am a Carbon-Based Unit. I loved science fiction and fantasy, and was an avid player of Dungeons and Dragons.

When I walked down the corridors and saw all of the other girls in their designer jeans and perfect-feathered hair (it was the eighties), I felt like a different creature. I didn’t pay any attention to my clothes or my hair. I was sort of greasy and my clothes all came from the local second hand shop. Plaid shirts. Jackets with rainbows and unicorns. I wrote in a journal’€a yellow, spiral bound notebook, which I took with me everywhere and scribbled in madly whenever I was uncomfortable.

This was where my very first stories took root.

In elementary school, I was just considered quirky and I had plenty of friends. But as my peers became more interested in dating and gossiping, I started to see myself (and be seen) as an outcast. Freak was my way of coming to terms with what I went through in middle school. It was a kind of therapy.

DN: How you differentiate yourself from other teen authors?
MP: I don’t see myself as a teen author. I see myself as a poet who sometimes writes fiction.  Freak is different from other teen books because I want it to read like a poem, with strong images and carefully crafted lines. I worked very hard on the lyricism of the piece, reading the sentences out loud before I moved on from them and listening hard to the cadences and the sounds on the words.

Maybe another thing that makes me different from other teen authors is that I am a school teacher. I am surrounded by my reading audience every day. I watch them closely and I see them struggle with the same things that plague Miriam in this novel. In some ways, Freak  has become a bridge for me’€a way for me to connect more deeply with the kids I teach.

DN: Did any students of yours inspire any of your characters?
MP: I’m not sure I would say that any one student has inspired a particular character. What I would say is that my students have taught me that they are ALL struggling with social pressures no matter who they are. The popular kids are not so different than the freaks. The outcasts are not so different than the kids who are socially gifted. What unites them all is that they all are doing their best to deal with the very difficult stages of early adolescence that pulls the rug out from under them at every step.
I think that what my students have given me is a way to empathize with all of my characters no matter where they stand in the social ladder.

DN: Does your novel in any way resemble your own middle school experience?
MP: Well – I’ve already answered some of that. I think the thing that is most similar between Miriam and myself is the feeling of being isolated and different. I was wildly insecure. I was constantly measuring myself against the seemingly “perfect girls around me and feeling as though I came up short.
I also had a kind of snooty disdain for people that I saw as “selling out. I had no respect for the girls who just seemed to be following the crowd. I remember that clearly. What I didn’t know then (but I do know now an adult and as a teacher) is that all middle school students feel freakish sometime in their lives. If I had known that when I was in middle school I would not have felt so alone.

DN: How did you introduce relevant issues such as parental negligence, sexuality, and substance abuse without sounding cynical or preachy?
MP: I am not cynical or preachy by nature. I know that kids have complex lives. They struggle with their parents. They struggle with decisions about their sexuality. They struggle with decisions about drugs and alcohol. All of these things are part of what it means to be a teen.
I raise these issues in Freak as a way to show the complicated pressures that kids are dealing with these days. My goal in Freak is not to preach about how a teen should or should not behave. Instead, I wanted to hold up a mirror and to help my readers find empathy in the image they see. Even though Miriam is judgmental, the book itself is not.

DN: How does your writing style relate to teenagers?
MP: I’m not sure’€the book is doing well (sales wise) and is about to go into a second printing after only six months, so there must be something I’m doing that works. Maybe it is Miriam’s voice. When you read her words, you really feel as though you are being drawn into her wonderful, unusual mind. She is funny. She has a sort of stream-of-consciousness style of thinking and talking. I think kids like that.

DN: Why did you choose to write about middle school girls instead of high school girls?
MP: I think middle school is the most complex and confusing time in a teenager’s life. These kids are on the cusp of growing up. They are between childhood and adulthood. Their bodies are changing. Their minds are changing. They are rebelling against the adults in their lives’€separating themselves and individuating. They are trying to figure out who they are. They are trying to figure out how to be around their peers. I wanted to tap into some of that confusion and give girls in the midst of this chaos a character that they could understand.

DN: How is it that the humor in this book does not clash with the more serious thematic elements?
MP: I think it’s important to find the humor in hardship. That’s the only way to keep going. The humor in Freak also helps with the pacing of the narrative. Miriam’s life is so intense and, at times, the tension is so thick that a reader would not be able to keep going if there wasn’t a break. One of my copyeditors told me that reading through Freak in its early stages was like being punched repeatedly in the gut’€every time you think you are going to recover from one pain, a new pain starts. The humor helps the reader to withstand the pain.

DN: What message do you hope to send to young adolescents through this novel?
MP: I want them to know that they are not alone.

DN: Do you plan on writing any more books in this genre?
MP: Yes’€in fact, I am part way through a second novel, which deals with very different issues and is written for older teens.

DN: Why didn’t you go into more detail about the emotional detachment of Deborah and Miriam’s parents?
MP: The parents have always been a knotty problem in the book. I have worked on them and revised their words. I have spent entire revisions just shaping them’€putting in dialogue and taking dialogue out.
I know that there is something not quite satisfying about their role in the book. People always ask me why I don’t go into more detail and answer some of the big questions that surround their characters and their relationship to Miriam and Deborah.
I wanted to keep the parents a bit vague and shadowy’€to show the significance of their absence in Miriam’s life. The reader asks, where are they’€why don’t they do something? Those are the right questions to be asking. The parents should have been there for Miriam, but they are not’€she is alone in her struggle.

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