Art and Agency in YA: Emily Gale

Tuesday, July 23, 2019
Emma Cayley

The artistic protagonist is a familiar figure in young adult fiction – the performance poet overcoming trauma onstage, the fan-fic writer finding their own story offline, the photographer shooting shadows in laneways … Art in YA, as in life, is bound up in character identity and agency.

In Australia, in the last decade alone, many standout YA novels have entwined art and agency, such as ‘Graffiti Moon’ by Cath Crowley, Melissa Keil’s ‘The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl’, Jared Thomas’s ‘Songs that Sound like Blood’, Pip Harry’s ‘Because of You’, and Claire Atkins’ ‘Nona and Me’.

Art in these stories is a tool for expression and finding self, for therapy and recovery, for protest and righting wrongs. But it’s more than that too – there is the self-reflective element, the writer exploring their own development and experiences as artists. It’s not a new trope, either: Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’ and Miles Franklin’s ‘My Brilliant Career’, were exploring teen-writers’ angst long before Rainbow Rowell’s ‘Fangirl’ came along.

In Emily Gale’s ‘I Am Out With Lanterns’, art is a particularly nuanced force – not just for good, but also for bad, and everything in between. I spoke to Emily about exploring the complexity of art and the artist for a YA audience, but also the potency of the image, of representation, and the far-reaching consequences of using this power irresponsibly. This interview contains spoilers.

EC: Often in YA, creativity is romanticised and presented as a positive force. In ‘I Am Out With Lanterns’, however, your depiction is more complex – ‘the power of art to change lives’ is not always a good thing. While creativity allows Wren, Milo, Adie and Juliet to find and express identity, to connect, to process, to overcome, it is also linked to cruelty, abuse, neglect, bullying. What prompted you to write about art in this nuanced way for a YA audience?

EG: This has been brewing for a lifetime and comes from a few sources. My family were art dealers a couple of generations ago and had a gallery in London that promoted modernist art in particular. Naturally, they had close relationships with many artists and in some cases became the subject of a portrait (my great-great-aunt sat for the American artist Whistler as a teenager). Growing up, I was privy to lots of conversations about art and artists, most of which I don’t suppose I fully understood but nevertheless began to think early on about art, the art world (money, prestige, competition), the temperaments of artists, and what it might be like to be an artists’ model, or a muse.

'I am Out with Lanterns' began with Milo and Wren, who both appear in 'The Other Side of Summer' as secondary characters. Their friendship is strengthened by their mutual love of drawing, so the art theme naturally formed the early foundations of the novel. In deepening Wren’s character, I drew on a novel that made a big impression on me during my teens – 'The Picture Of Dorian Gray' by Oscar Wilde. Drawing on the corrupted portrait in Wilde’s story of soul-selling, I began to consider how to incorporate a painting of a teenage girl into the story, intending to look at the power of a single image to hook, deceive or corrupt a number of different characters.

It seemed natural to connect classical portraiture (and self-portraiture) with the apparently ‘modern’ phenomenon of ‘the selfie’ and I thought that would hold appeal to a teenage reader, so often scrutinised for their use of social media (particularly teenage girls) by adults who seem less inclined to analyse their own behaviour. Having read one too many articles about the vanity of teenage girls, I was keen to point the lens at both the history of art as it pertains to women, and on the modern side the ways that parents use Instagram to present ‘portraits’ of their children. It so happened that at the time there were several news stories about teenage boys running Instagram accounts that exploited images of young girls – some taken without permission, and all garnering derogatory comments. All of this fed into my intention to present ‘art’ in the widest use of that term as a highly complex system of expression, open to corruption.

However, it was also really important for me to come full circle to the idea of creativity as a way to – as you put it – connect, process, overcome. So I wanted to leave the teenage reader with the idea of self-portraits – particularly when the artist is female – as a source of empowerment, hence the way that Wren essentially heals herself in the resolution of her story.

EC: In an interview with ‘Words and Nerds’ podcast, you outlined the theme of ‘Lanterns’ as ‘perspective’. This is a particularly powerful concept in a book where images, words and creativity entwine with social commentary. Could you explain the layers of perspective at work in this novel?

EG: Before I’d written a single word of the novel, I came up with the working title ‘Something Only I Can See’. I was thinking about what happens to any art-form when it’s finished and handed over. It ceases to belong to the artist, in a way, and instead is at the mercy of hundreds (or thousands if you’re lucky) of individuals each with their own unique perspective.

This theme deepened organically over the intense 12-month first-draft period. By perspective I mean point-of-view or frame of reference, which became the particular challenge of writing the novel as well as the broad theme because the more I explored perspective as a concept, the more new characters seemed to demand their own point-of-view – and the more technically difficult but creatively fulfilling the project became for me.

It’s impossible to talk about it as a theme without first discussing my creative process. I began with only Milo and Wren, adding Juliet soon after to deliberately complicate what had been a beautiful friendship in 'The Other Side of Summer', followed by Adie, the ‘muse’ of the novel, whose narrative quickly took hold of the story even though she remains quite oblivious to the effect her presence has for most of the story. In some kind of creative crisis midway through writing the first draft I challenged myself to write from the perspective of Ben, the novel’s ‘bully’. At a time when I despaired of ever making the story work, adding Ben’s point-of-view was really powerful. Usually I am championing a character through first-person perspective – flawed they may be but ultimately, I’m on their side and want the best for them in the narrative. But with Ben I had to think about it in a different way. How could I tell his story without excusing his behaviour? What kind of ending would I give Ben and how would it differ from the resolution I’d offer other characters? I thought a lot about how much time I could expect a reader to spend with Ben, versus say Wren or Milo who are much more likeable.

I knew I’d have to fight to keep Ben’s perspective in the novel when it came to publication because YA novels don’t generally involve the lens of the villain, but he’s a not-that-unusual privileged sixteen-year-old boy with both incredible good fortune and terrible influences on him, and I thought it would be more honest and nuanced to write his perspective – as well as more arresting for the reader who shared my opinion on this. I was aware that this would not be for every reader, but that was something I had grappled with as soon as I realised I was writing a story with multiple perspectives, which is a format that really divides readers and comes in for a lot of criticism because it’s easy to disappoint, most notably by failing to differentiate the voices.

It became the ‘politics’ of the book to include Ben’s perspective, just as it was political to have a short chapter by Sophie, Milo’s sister, who is only in Year 6 unlike the other characters who are Year 10 students. As Sophie is one of the young girls objectified on the app created by some boys in Year 10, I wanted readers to know her in a way that you can most acutely achieve with a first-person passage. So although she most exists as a secondary character, she gets this brief ‘turn’ at being the perspective we’re tuning ourselves into as readers.

When it came to structuring the novel, perspective is at work here too – not just in the number of different points-of-view but also when they appear and when they finish. To me, the story was always going to be dominated by Milo and Wren. The structure created by the other characters represents the way people come and go in our lives, hence why Hari’s perspective doesn’t appear until three-quarters of the way into the story, when her friendship with Wren starts to deepen.

On a playful level, perspective is at work when it comes to the romance too. Everyone has a crush on someone who either isn’t interested in them or has absolutely no idea that they are the object of anyone’s affection. For example, from Milo’s perspective, he’s the lovesick boy who can’t stop thinking about his best friend, Wren, but from Juliet’s perspective, Milo is the boy she’s had a crush on since primary school – no one would be more surprised about this than Milo. Adie’s the object of so much attention – Ben and Wren desire her, Juliet is profoundly affected by her arrival – but from Adie’s perspective she’s a lonely nobody, oblivious to her effect.

I think this is an idea that has haunted me since my teenage years – that the way I saw myself was at odds with the way I was perceived. And it translates into a discussion about images and words so well – the way we see or criticise the things we create, versus our perspective on what other people create, how upsetting it can be when you feel like you’re the only person who doesn’t ‘get’ or enjoy a piece of work, and what it’s like when it feels like no one gets what you’re trying to create.

EC: The book is socially conscious, addressing issues such as toxic masculinity, bullying and the appropriation of image in the Insta-age. How can a writer for YA broach issues such as these and make it non-didactic, accessible, engaging to the audience? What was your approach?

EG: When it comes to engaging the audience, although I’ve previously spoken about the problem with multiple perspective novels, this form of storytelling tends to provoke lively discussion, and this discussion tends to be around which character you were most drawn to and why. It’s the same with any narrative that is shared pretty evenly by a group – ‘The Breakfast Club’, for example. You have your favourites – maybe someone you identify with, or someone you admire, but in talking about those you find yourself referencing all the other characters through the lens of that preference, and what they each gave to the story. So my hope was that this way of telling the story would be both dynamic and challenging.

Including adults in the narrative instead of clearing them out of the way was a big decision, but the main intention there was to break down this idea that these issues are just ‘teen issues’. I think a YA writer can be uniquely placed to provide a useful bridge in this respect because we are adults who spend an unusual amount of time drawing on our teenage experience, which we remain very close to. Ultimately we’re here to champion the teenager, which we do so by trying to see the world as they see it. We find this stage of life so interesting, so full of possibility, that this is where we choose to focus our creative energies. I wanted the teenage characters to own the narrative, but also for teen readers to see themselves as part of a big picture, rather than shunted off into some imaginary ‘teenager land’.

I choose to trust my reader to recognise the subtle differences between a person trying to do their best – by others and for themselves – but occasionally failing, and a person who is purely self-interested or deeply corrupted in some way. Almost everyone in the novel screws up, making forgivable mistakes that hurt themselves or someone else, but it’s in spotting the small acts of courage or kindness, and the less obvious, more insidious way that toxic masculinity breeds, that the reader has the most to gain. In this way, I hope to avoid didacticism.  

EC: At the end of the novel, most of the protagonists work together and use creativity to reclaim self and express agency. How do you see the dynamic between art and character agency?

EG: There are different modes of creativity at work towards the end. For one, there’s being creative in thought and deed to put your strengths to good use, which Milo achieves when he uses his imagination and technical skills to widely spread the feminist message that his peers have come up with following the misappropriation of many images of young women. And then there’s using art per se to reclaim your sense of self, as Wren does when she starts a self-portrait, inspired by her mother who shared her own self-portrait with Wren as an act of solidarity as well as an assertion of her identity as an artist and as a woman. I think in both cases the act of doing is an expression of power and selfhood.

Milo’s creativity is public only up to a point – the message spreads wide but he as the messenger remains mostly anonymous, because the important thing about what he does is the message itself, not who put it there. Milo doesn’t want or seek credit for this, because that’s not where his agency derives from – his agency all comes from the doing of it. And I think that’s true for Wren and her self-portrait as well, in a different way. It’s in choosing to do it at all that she regains a sense of self, and therefore power – in choosing to look at herself and make her own image, for no other purpose. I think Wren might get Carrie Fisher’s saying on a badge: Take your broken heart, make it into art.

EC: In YA, parents are often portrayed in flat ‘powerholder’ roles. In ‘Lanterns’ however, parents aren’t gate-keepers or set-dressing, they are part of the integrity and texture of the story, especially the artist characters – could you tell me about your approach to writing ‘the adult’?

EG: I believe I’ve done this with all of my YA novels, but in the case of 'Lanterns' it may stand out simply because I’ve got so many ‘main’ characters in the first place – and they all have at least one parent who is integral to their personal story (and in some cases involved in other characters’ stories too).

It reflects some of the thinking I’ve done around being a parent and a writer, and I was able to use this a great deal while writing Wren’s mother, Cece, who is an artist – perhaps in some ways Cece is my self-portrait, and it was an interesting exercise to place myself in Wren’s position to create it.

Perspective came into good use again when I was writing the character Julie, who is Milo’s mum. In Julie I was able to represent some of the hypocrisies in our discussion about teenagers’ use of social media, because Julie is an adult who daily ‘uses’ her young daughter as the Muse for her Instagram account. We see this first through the eyes of Wren, who dislikes Julie quite intensely. But then we also see Julie from Milo’s point-of-view, and she’s a more thoughtful, conscientious parent in the portrait he gives the reader.

But for some parents I reserved very little sympathy or redemption. In Adie’s father, Frank, there was an opportunity to represent the very worst of the artist ego – a controlling man who paints his teenage daughter over and over, but never really sees her. And through Ben’s father, Dave, I tried to show the intergenerational nature of toxic masculinity.

Perhaps I can summarise it by saying that when it came to 'Lanterns' my approach was to write the adults as complex human beings who also happen to be parents.

EC: There’s a meta element/self-reflective, too – writers are artists and it’s tempting to see an artist character as a stand-in for the writer themselves. What influence does your own experience as a writer have on your portrayal of an artist?

EG: I’ve always considered creative writing to be both a refuge and a curse for me. Of course, I’m not alone in finding both joy and torment in my creative practice but whereas in my twenties it was only my own feelings I had to take into account, since having children I’ve thought deeply about how my creative practice could cause them harm – for example, do I neglect them when the urge to write is so strong that I cannot think about anything else? Have I misused my experiences with them in my writing? Basically, do they suffer at all for my art?

I was able to draw on every kind of thought and experience I’ve had as a writer, and to attribute them to each artist character as I saw fit. Although my portrait of Frank (Adie’s father) was largely the result of lots of reading about male artists who were also parents (for example, Lucien Freud) or male writers for that matter, the relationship Frank has with his art and his child undoubtedly represents my worst fears: do I not see my own child when what I’m trying to create become overwhelming? Do I put my work before my family? And then, conversely, what happens if I don’t sometimes put my work before my family – will the work ever be created? And what does that mean for my sense of self? In my portrait of Cece (Wren’s mother), I was able to examine the kind of (warped) ownership one can feel about the things our children create – Wren describes her mother as always trying to sneak a look at Wren’s sketchbook, and Cece actually frames a drawing of Wren’s without permission, insisting that it’s an act of support and love, rather than an invasion of privacy. In this way I was using my own experience as a writer-parent of creative children, and that need to remind myself often that what they create belongs to them. Cece’s self-portrait in the novel was inspired by an Australian visual artist, Lily Mae Martin, whose self-portraits and drawings of nude female bodies I admire enormously. But perhaps Cece’s act of sharing her self-portrait with her daughter Wren was also my way of saying: this is me, this is who I am.

About Emily Gale

Emily Gale has been involved in the children’s book industry for over twenty years. In the UK she worked as an editor for Penguin and Egmont, and later as a freelance manuscript consultant and pre-school book writer. In Australia she has worked with literary agent Sheila Drummond, she has reviewed for 'Bookseller and Publisher', been a judge for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (YA Category) and spent several happy years at Readings as a children’s buyer, during which time she was instrumental in establishing the Readings Children’s Book Prize. Emily’s writing includes four novels for teenagers – 'Girl, Aloud', 'Steal My Sunshine', 'The Other Side of Summer' and 'I Am Out With Lanterns'.

About Emma Cayley

Emma Cayley is a Melbourne-based writer and editor, currenlty working on a thesis about the artist character in young adult fiction.