Girl Power: Jennifer McMahon Finds Inspiration in Quirky Female Characters
Jennifer McMahon’s latest novel, Burntown, is a riveting thriller in which an unresolved murder haunts a family for generations, forcing one daughter into a life of hiding. As we’ve come to expect from the author of such spellbinding tales as The Winter People and The Night Sister, McMahon expertly blends elements of the mysterious and the paranormal with a coming-of-age drama that will enthrall book clubs.
Here at the Reading Group Center, we couldn’t help but fall in love with Burntown’s incredible cast of misfit characters. From Necco, our young heroine, to Pru, a cafeteria lady with elaborate fantasies of being a circus star, the town of Burntown is filled with outsiders, all of whom must work together to save Necco from the threat against her family. We asked the author to tell us a bit more about the characters in literature who inspired this motley crew, and we were delighted with her response. Keep reading to find out for yourself!
As both a writer and a reader, I’ve always been drawn to quirky, outsider girl characters—girls and women who don’t quite fit in comfortably to the world around them, who ultimately find strength in their differences.
Some of my favorites:
Merricat Blackwood, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
One of my very favorite characters from one of my very favorite books of all time! Merricat is eighteen, living a secluded life in her decrepit, once-great family home with her older sister and ailing uncle—the rest of her family having come to some kind of bad end years before. I love the way Merricat looks at the world, the way she gets caught up in imagining what life on the moon would be like, and the way she insists on performing little magical acts, like burying objects in the yard, to keep her family safe. She is an intensely complicated character, a character I fell completely in love with, despite the wickedness she gradually reveals.
Pippi Longstocking, Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
A girl who has a pet monkey, a horse on her porch, and who lives on her own with little regard for social conventions—what’s not to love? She is freakishly strong, cooks and cares for herself and her animals, is funny and friendly but stubborn and imperfect. I think every kid, myself included, has a fantasy at some point of living like this, independent, unburdened by boring, rules-obsessed parents—Pippi is this fantasy come to life!
Harriet M. Welsch, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
I wanted to be Harriet when I was a kid. I snuck around the neighborhood with my notebook and spy tools modeled on Harriet’s—a flashlight, camping knife, and extra pens—along with my own touch, a metal Sucrets box full of tiny screwdrivers and metal files that I was sure would come in handy if I ever had to pick a lock! Harriet’s love of writing, her fierce need to capture everything around her in complete honesty on paper, her charming cluelessness about how the world really works—all spoke to the young me in a huge way.
Scout Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
This was the book that made me want to be a writer; when I finished the last page and closed the book, I thought that one day I wanted to be able to tell a story that might affect someone the way that Scout’s story affected me. I love the child’s eye view we get from Scout, and that it is told from her as a grown woman, looking back. She’s another outsider girl that I really connect with—a tomboy who gets in fist fights, wears overalls, and refuses to conform to requests to be more like a young lady, and yet has a maturity and wisdom beyond her years. Her relationships with her father, brother, and, of course, Boo Radley are each beautiful and heartbreaking in their own way.
Paddy Meehan, The Field of Blood, The Dead Hour, and The Last Breath by Denise Mina
Paddy is overweight, wears a secondhand leather coat, a thumb ring, and has amazing investigative instincts. She is brilliant, self-loathing, darkly funny, and just wonderful. We first meet her at eighteen when she’s a copygirl for a newspaper in Glasgow in 1981, and over three novels, she grows and changes, toughens up, as she gets to the bottom of a lot of crimes, always true to her feisty outsider self.
Rynn Jacobs, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane by Laird Koenig
So, I saw the movie based on this book (which starred a young Jodie Foster) when I was a kid and it had a profound impact on me. Not long ago, I finally read the book, and it made me fall in love with Rynn all over again. A precocious thirteen-year-old living all alone in a house in a small town; a girl who murders people when they threaten the safe world she’s built for herself there. Kind of real-life Pippi Longstocking, but a whole lot darker and more disturbing.
Carrie White, Carrie by Stephen King
If you were ever an outsider in any way, ever teased by the popular girls in school, you understand what there is to love about Carrie, as pitiful as she is at the beginning of the novel. Reading her story is gut-wrenching, but then, she does this amazing thing, this thing all us outsider girls have secretly longed to do at one point or another: She gets them back. In a big way. Because she’s freaking telekinetic! Watching her realize her powers, and watching them unleashed at last is incredibly cathartic.