Set in present day Los Angeles amid struggling actresses, spoiled starlets, and one of the most gripping murders in American history, Alison Umminger’s debut novel American Girls reminds readers to take a step back and truly think about others amid the heyday of our busy lives.
In American Girls, Anna is a girl slouching toward adulthood, and she’s had it with her life at home. So Anna “borrows” her stepmom’s credit card an runs away to Los Angeles. But L.A. isn’t quite the escape Anna had imagined..
American Girls releases June 7 from Flatiron Books.
Since H. H. Holmes, serial killers in America have been met with fear, apprehension, and a desire to know more. What do you think about America’s fascination with the macabre?
My first thought is that serial killers very graphically literalize our fear of death — that it’s arbitrary and scary and beyond our control somehow. I think we also have a nasty cultural habit of turning killers into media stars, while the names of the victims are effaced.
Why did you feel that the Mason girls needed to be in this book? What drew you to them and connected with your characters?
Well, the book wasn’t initially going to be about the Manson girls at all — I had originally intended to write about other famous LA murders, the Black Dahlia, Rebecca Schaeffer, but the material wasn’t quite working. So I was drafting the first scene with Roger, Delia, and Anna, where Roger tells Anna that she’s like one of the Manson girls. And that was it — the book finally clicked, and that was the direction my research went. I resisted the Manson murders at first because I felt like it was such covered territory, but I guess that’s the author’s job — to make it new. And the more I read about the Manson girls, the more surprised I was by their ordinariness.
In your author’s note, you described the Manson girls as “lost girls who made bad choices.” How do we prevent lost girls? How do we bring them home?
Honestly, I would say first and foremost by parents being kind to their kids. Accepting them for who they are, and loving them unconditionally. And teaching them to do the same to each other. I have a Dalai Lama quote in my office, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible,” because I think those are words to live by. I think a lot of unkindness begins at home, and spreads out. I think people need “homes,” literal or metaphorical, in things that bring hope. Art, any kind of art, amateur or professional, is a great refuge. Practicing something you love for the intrinsic love of it. That’s a “home” many a lonely person has found comforting. Giving girls more cultural models for that kind of serious play.
In the author’s note you also touched on emotional violence. How do we best heal violence, particularly the emotional violence teen girls face?
By showing love. Creating a more generous culture. Finding a great shrink! I don’t know how teens do it these days – in my days, you might pass a mean note about someone. Now one wrong word and you get eviscerated on social media. I think trying to remember that no matter what you think you know about a person, you probably don’t know the whole story (beware, Gatsby paraphrase!). Resist sending the mean-but-hilarious tweet into the world. Give someone the benefit of the doubt, however hard that might seem. I think it’s way harder to heal a hurt than to prevent one, so start on the prevention end.
Why is it important for books with complicated characters and hard-to-swallow topics to exist in the YA narrative?
Because life is complicated and full of hard-to-swallow topics. I think we do teenagers a disservice by not equipping them with tools to create a dialogue with the world they really live in. And just because life is complicated, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t better and worse decisions to be made along the way.
Can you expand more on your allusions to The Great Gatsby and the American dream? Specifically, about what you said on page 284, “Maybe Los Angeles was like Gatsby’s dream of Daisy, but for all of America. Instead of sitting on a pier and gazing at a green light across the water, now people just sat in their living rooms and watched the wide-screen, 3-D version of some life that was out there for the taking, if only they could get off the couch.”
I love The Great Gatsby, because he bought the dream of his time, and it left him cold. I think being a media sensation is sort of the dream of our time, and it’s so meaningless. What does it mean if a million people follow you on some social platform?