Speaking Truth to Power in The Book of Essie: An Exclusive Q&A with Meghan MacLean Weir
Meghan MacLean Weir’s debut novel The Book of Essie takes us behind the scenes of the reality television phenomenon Six for Hix and into the life of its youngest star—who just found out she’s pregnant. What happens now is seemingly in the hands of Essie’s mother and the show’s producers, but Essie has other ideas.
Weir’s characters grapple with many of the issues making headlines today, but in her hands, what could easily become a dark and depressing tale, is instead hopeful and empowering. We were lucky enough to ask Weir some questions about her writing process and the themes of her novel and are grateful for her thoughtful, in-depth answers.
Reading Group Center: How would you describe The Book of Essie in twenty-five words or fewer?
Meghan MacLean Weir: Reality show darling and daughter of prominent religious leader smashes the patriarchy by speaking truth to power and makes lifelong friends along the way.
RGC: This book seems perfectly timed for the #MeToo movement and our country’s current focus on politics. You started writing this novel right before the 2016 election. How did that affect your writing and the story you were telling?
MMW: This book deals with a period in Essie’s life during which she is taking control, orchestrating an escape from everything that has come before. When I began writing, I made a conscious decision to begin the story at this point, rather than telling the darker, more murky tale, of her years of abuse. This wasn’t because I necessarily wanted to avoid this gritty and painful period of Essie’s life, but because I wanted to focus on the very different, but possibly equally painful, process of deciding just how much of her story to tell and make public, as well as the backlash that was bound to follow. Monica Lewinsky has spoken very eloquently about the impact that sort of backlash can have on a person’s life and it has been incredibly empowering to see her step back into the public arena on her own terms as she works to combat cyberbullying.
The 2016 election coverage also highlighted many other instances in which women’s voices were silenced, or else given thirty seconds in primetime and then dismissed outright in a sort of he said, she said that repeated itself ad nauseum. It was heartbreaking and it seemed to me that not only has there been a tendency to believe the man rather than the woman in situations such as these, but to mistake being powerful with being good, to equate celebrity with trustworthiness. In writing The Book of Essie, I wanted to take that power inherent in celebrity and turn it on its head, to create a scenario in which Essie learns to co-opt this authority from the men in her life and use it for good instead of evil.
RGC: Your characters often have differing opinions from the people they care about most. Is this something you have personal experience with?
MMW: This is such an interesting question, especially in this age of social media, where you can casually reconnect with people you’ve known since kindergarten and feel a sort of artificial closeness due to your shared experiences, yet not really know them intimately at all. At the same time, you might find you have more in common than you ever would have guessed with someone who, on the surface seems to be diametrically opposed to everything you believe, which is my favorite aspect of how Essie and Roarke’s relationship evolves.
I’ve definitely been close to people who have different beliefs, different values from my own. In some of these relationships, it’s possible to carve out a common territory of mutual respect where we can continue to nurture the connection. In others, it’s healthier to protect yourself by pulling away. The trick is to know when to embrace your differences and when to give yourself permission to accept that something just isn’t working or worth trying to prolong.
RGC: What advice do you have for people who want to stay close with their families but don’t want to sweep these issues under the rug?
MMW: I recently had a conversation with my parents about what they want to happen if either of them becomes too ill to live independently. One of my parents seemed incredibly uncomfortable even considering this scenario, while the other was of the opinion that you have to talk about these things long before the difficult decisions ever need to be made in order to screw up the courage to make them, a standpoint I agree with. When relationships are honest and open, when there are no taboo subjects, then the hump you have to get over to discuss something that makes you uncomfortable, the activation energy of that conversation, is less than it would be if you never talked about serious subjects at all.
This is why I read books and watch television programs with my own children, who are seven and nine at this point, that many other parents might shy away from. We have talked frankly about sex, menstruation, chlamydia, rape, and many other subjects that make my own parents cringe. I want my children to have the words to describe anything that might happen to them or that they might witness and be troubled by, so even if I can’t entirely protect them from all the strange and embarrassing moments that await them, I’ve at least given them the right tools and vocabulary to help them not feel so alone.
RGC: The book is told from several different perspectives. How did it feel to write in the voices of different characters? Were any of them more difficult than the others?
MMW: I knew early in the process of drafting the story that Essie would not be able to tell it alone. As precocious as she is, she’s also been isolated to a degree that meant it was impossible for her to know everything I wanted to include. Once I decided which characters would narrate the story, I set about writing the chapters in clusters of three, so each voice would have about equal input, though Essie gets a bonus chapter at the end. I particularly enjoyed transitioning from one chapter to the next mid-conversation, because this meant being able to illustrate how two people can have a conversation and walk away with completely different understandings of what they’ve just discussed.
After I’d sent the manuscript to my agent, Kirby Kim, he sent me some notes on changes he thought I should consider before we sent the book to publishers. I remember opening the email and seeing the numbered list and thinking, no problem, six things is totally manageable. But one of the notes was “make Roarke sound more like a boy,” which meant the changes he was asking for were more involved than I’d hoped at first glance. What I did at that point was read several books with adolescent male narrators, my favorite of which was Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan, and I went back to the manuscript and substituted in a lot of contractions and, in general, made Roarke’s narration much less formal.
Overall, I’d say that this process of revision, and really trying to distinguish each of these narrators from the other, was a wonderful learning experience, as well as a reminder that there’s no rule that says a writer has to get it right the first time.
RGC: This is a book of secrets. How did you keep track of who knew what when while you were writing?
MMW: I didn’t always. I definitely had a few missteps where I’d go back and reread a section and realize right away that I had gotten things jumbled in my head. But that happened less than it might have, even though I never plotted the book out with Post-it notes or webs of yarn pinned to a wall the way detectives might. It just evolved organically. I think the most honest answer to this question is that Essie’s secret—the circumstances that led to her pregnancy, as well as the pregnancy itself felt like they were my secret, too. I don’t mean to suggest that that the horrible things that happened to Essie ever happened to me, only that we all know what having such a secret feels like—the weight of it, the shape. Habitual liars most often get caught out in the end because they can’t keep track of what they’ve said to whom, and then everything unravels. But the same thing doesn’t happen with the truth, not when it’s so important, not when sharing that truth is the thing that defines who, in this world, are the people who really know you. For that reason, I found keeping track of who knew what, was almost instinctive.
RGC: What’s one thing that readers should take away from The Book of Essie?
MMW: There’s a moment in the book when Margot, Liberty Bell’s friend and camerawoman, essentially asks, “Why do people have to be so predictable?” When she says this, she’s talking about people who do terrible things, and history is certainly full of people like that. But history is just as crowded with people like Essie, like Libby and Roarke, people who do the right thing, people who stand up for their friends even at great personal cost. When terrible things happen, those people are out there, you just have to find them and let them find you. And while speaking the truth can be hard, it can also be a way to open yourself up to those relationships that will eventually heal you, be the family you choose, as opposed to the family you are born into.
RGC: Which authors or specific works have influenced your writing?
MMW: Time and again, I’ve come back to books and poems by Margaret Atwood that have helped to center me at different points in my life. In fact, the lines of her poetry that appear toward the end of the novel are from a piece of hers—Variation on the Word Sleep—I printed out on purple paper and taped next to my bed in my freshman dorm. I hung it there as a sort of talisman, and I still have that faded piece of paper in a box somewhere, just as I have the books of hers I’ve accumulated and read and reread over the years. Atwood aside, though, I do try to read widely. I’ve had periods when I’ve very much immersed myself in science fiction or else worked my way through a Top Hundred list, to make sure I was picking up titles I might not ever come across on my own. Even when a book doesn’t necessarily resonate with me, I try to imagine the reader for whom that book, in particular, might mean quite a lot to. I try to put myself in their place and understand what they are looking for in a story, in part because I hope this will make me a better writer, but also because I know it will make me a better, more compassionate version of myself.
RGC: Imagine you’re part of a book club discussing The Book of Essie. What is a topic or question you would like to pose to the group and why?
MMW: I love to challenge groups to discuss who, in the story, they find most at fault. Obviously, there are a few characters you probably wouldn’t want to invite to a dinner party, but the question of blame is one I find fascinating, because it isn’t limited only to verifiable criminal acts. There is an entire community that has witnessed Essie’s—and Lissa’s—childhood playing out the way it did. There are people behind the scenes who actively profited from Six for Hicks over the years. Just who is responsible for this exploitation, for the failure to intervene? And, by extension, are we, ourselves, guilty of the same when we click on tabloid articles about celebrities or post hateful comments on a Facebook thread? You don’t need to be in the same room with someone to cause them harm, just as you don’t have to ever meet someone face-to-face before you choose to help them.