“It felt far riskier to sit down and finally get the book done than it did to train for triathlons or bike rides.”
By John Newlin
Patricia A. Smith’s widely acclaimed debut novel, The Year of Needy Girls (Akashic Books 2017), uses abduction, abuse, and murder; same-sex relationships, homophobia, and community paranoia to construct a book that immediately grips the reader.
A veteran teacher of fifth graders, high school, and college students, Ms. Smith has experienced first-hand how a single incident can create an atmosphere of homophobic hysteria. Her novel shows how devastating the fallout can be for innocent LGBT members of those communities. Ms. Smith has taught eleventh grade English and Creative Writing at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School in Petersburg, Virginia since 2006. She is working on a second novel.
JN: As a teacher who happens to be lesbian, have you experienced any of the same attitudes your protagonist, Deidre Murphy, does in your novel?
PAS: Well – I haven’t experienced exactly anything that Deirdre has, but yes, in my early days of teaching, I definitely experienced homophobia in the school where I taught (it’s pretty well chronicled in One Teacher in Ten: Gay and Lesbian Educators Tell Their Stories -- Alyson Publications). In the early days, I was made to feel that coming out to the students would be a liability for both me and the school. Luckily, around that time, I met Kevin Jennings who founded GLSEN. I was able to get involved in that group from the beginning and doing so saved my teaching life. (I also chronicle that in the new One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium: LGBT Educators Speak Out About What Has Gotten Better…and What Hasn’t—Beacon Press). I have faced some similar attitudes from parents, too, but mostly, I feel pretty lucky.
JN: Your novel has many threads to it. One of them is the relationship between SJ and Mickey, the neighbor who sets up the kidnapping of Leo Rivera. What was your goal in doing that?
PAS: I was interested in playing with the idea of these characters both being misguided—SJ, for example, having a difficult time believing that Mickey could be guilty of such a horrific crime and at the same time, not quite believing in Deirdre’s innocence. Both Deirdre and SJ see the world in misguided ways, too—they each have blinders on and seem incapable of seeing what is truly right in front of them.
Plot-wise, I wanted a way for Mickey’s path to cross with Deirdre’s and SJ’s, and after interviewing a police detective and finding out that many criminals are narcissistic, I thought of having him learn to read so he could find out what was being said about him. Once SJ becomes his reading teacher, she finds it terribly difficult to imagine that the same guy who is learning to read can possibly be the same person who has lured Leo Rivera to his death. There was a point in writing the book that I had SJ’s and Mickey’s relationship go even farther than it does, but I felt SJ was becoming much too unlikeable and so I cut it back.
JN: What was the process you used in creating the character of Anna’s mother, Frances Worthington?
PAS: Hmmm…well, she is a very familiar “character” to me after having taught in two private schools. One thing that is very familiar to me is Deirdre’s feeling out of place in a private school. I very much felt like that when I taught at The Pike School in Andover. I didn’t know anything about that “private school life” though I attended Wesleyan University (where I also often felt out of place). And though I truly think that most of my discomfort stemmed from my own insecurities, there were definitely people—often mothers—who exacerbated this feeling in me. That’s how I think of Frances Worthington.
JN: This novel, you have said, was several years in the writing. Would you take us through some of the major benchmarks of that process? Was there a turning point when you knew you’d finish it?
PAS: That’s a great question. I’m not sure I can pinpoint the benchmarks. But – because I teach full-time, I did a lot of writing in the summers, and for many years, I made sure that I had a writing “retreat” of some sort to attend, often of my own making. I spent a couple of weeks in New Mexico with writing friends a few years ago and that summer, I figured out the structure of the novel—a huge accomplishment that allowed me to move forward. Another summer, I spent a couple of weeks in the mountains in Floyd, VA, and wrote most of the second section, “October.” At some point after that, I realized that if I really wanted to have a book out, it was up to ME to finish. (Crazy right? Like, why did it take me so long to figure this out?)
Years ago, I wanted to participate in a triathlon. I had done lots of cycling, but I’m not an athlete by any stretch of the imagination. But I trained and I completed a few triathlons and then several century (100 mile) bike rides and long-distance, multi-day rides. I started to ask myself: why I could train for those events and complete them, but I couldn’t manage to have the discipline to finish my book? Certainly all that training also required discipline. What was different about the book? And I think that because I’m not an athlete, I gave myself permission to fail. I knew I wasn’t ever going to win a triathlon. And simply completing the long-distance cycling was good enough for me; my time didn’t matter. But because I did see myself as a writer, I think I was too scared for a long time to finish the book—because what then? What if people hated it? It felt far riskier to sit down and finally get the book done than it did to train for triathlons or bike rides.
JN: You use a shifting limited omniscient point of view to tell this story. Did you ever consider employing a different point of view, or even focusing entirely on one character, Deirdre, for instance?
PAS: I think I always wanted the book to be told mainly from both Deirdre’s and SJ’s points of view. My hope was to show the reader their blind spots they both have. I like reading multi-POV books!
JN: One major challenge for a writer is how much introspective material to use in writing a novel or story. How did you create the balance you did in writing Needy Girls?
PAS: Hmmm…again good question, but I’m not sure I can answer that specifically! I wrote many, many, many drafts and read them all out loud. I tried to be conscious of pacing, to make sure the introspection doesn’t weigh or slow down the story, so I hope I achieved that here. I also follow the advice to write the book you love to read—and I definitely love reading about characters’ inner thoughts. For my Fiction I class, I use Janet Burroway’s The Art of Fiction and I read and re-read the section on balancing scene and summary and tried to apply that to scene and action vs. introspection.
JN: I hope it’s all right to say so, but though your subject is vastly different, I was reminded of the writing of Jodi Picoult, many of whose novels are also set in New England, and whose work frequently focuses on families. Have you read her work? If so, did it have any influence on your own writing?
PAS: I have read some Jodi Picoult – and there was one novel in particular, Salem Falls, about a teacher and his students that I read while I was writing The Year of Needy Girls. I’m not sure if it influenced my writing directly but I’m sure I kept the experience of reading it tucked away in my head while I wrote. I do admire her ability to keep the story moving.
JN: It’s clear from the outset that Mickey Gilberto is one of the perpetrators. What prompted you to reveal that on the first pages of the novel?
PAS: I never conceived of the novel as a “whodunit.” My plan was always that the book would be about the result of Leo’s disappearance. Because this is Deirdre’s story, ultimately, I didn’t see the need to withhold Mickey Gilberto’s identity or his innocence or guilt.
JN: As a teacher of writing myself, I’ve always struggled with how to assign and evaluate student writing in ways that encourage students to be as productive as possible without overwhelming me as their teacher. How do you deal with that challenge?
PAS: How do I deal with the dilemma of what to assign students? Well—I’m not sure I deal with it well! I teach both Fiction I and Fiction II—and my Fiction II students write 100 pages (that’s their goal) in one school year, so roughly 25 pages a quarter. I teach six writing classes—my American lit classes are also dual enrollment composition classes—so at end-of-quarter times, I’m crazed, reading portfolios and papers.
Well, OK, here’s one thing I do: in my Fiction II class, they have 750 words due to me every Tues (class meets Tues/Thurs and every other Fri). I don’t necessarily read those. Students must email them to me by class time on Tuesday. If they do it, they get 100. If they don’t, they get a zero. Keeps it simple. The idea is to keep them writing. The 750 words can be part of their “novel” or not – it doesn’t matter. I just want them to write.
JN: One of your reviewers said she hoped you’d write a sequel. Can you tell us anything about the new novel you’re working on?
PS: I’m working on a book about two women—one a Senegalese woman named Fatou N’diaye and the other an American woman named Erin O’Rourke. The book opens with Fatou walking back from getting water at the well near her village in the Casamance region of Senegal, when she steps on a land mine and loses a leg. As a result, she is flown to Mass. General Hospital, in Boston, for her rehab and her prosthetic leg.
Erin O’Rourke grew up in Newton, MA, the only daughter of a career military man. She has three older brothers. Erin goes to MIT and becomes an engineer. She works for Accudyne Technologies in Cambridge, MA—a military contractor and maker of the timing device used in the landmines. Her path will cross with Fatou’s. That’s as much as I can say right now!
JN: Thank you so much. I know a great many of us are looking forward to your next book.
John Newlin, an MFA graduate of Converse College, is the Review Editor of South 85, an online journal. His story, “First Date,” recently won an award in Short Story America. His essays and reviews have appeared in Independent School Magazine, South 85, and Night Owl.
Find the book on Amazon and via Chop Suey, an independent bookstore based in Richmond that offers signed copies.