Let’s talk about queer contemporary YA. Jane B. Mason was kind enough to stop by today to talk about her novel Without Annette!
In Without Annette, Josie has been looking forward to attending Brookwood Academy with her girlfriend, Annette, for ages. But Brookwood’s elitism begins to tear the girls apart from the moment they arrive.
Without Annette is available now.
Tell us a little about Josie and Anette! What should we know about these two incredible girls?
Josie is a tackle-it-head-on kind of person who isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions… except when it comes to Annette. Annette is her blind spot and Josie is so convinced of her love for Annette and Annette’s need to be saved that she can’t see anything else.
Annette is utterly unclear about herself — she’s a chameleon. Her mother’s manipulation and cruelty has have kept her from recognizing who she is, as has, somewhat tragically, her relationship with Josie.
Without Annette tackles a lot of issues: boarding school culture, identity, and how to define yourself. How much of it did you pull from your own life experience, if any? Did you have to do a lot of research?
I left Minnesota for boarding school at fifteen, and definitely felt as though I’d landed on an alien planet. I also participated in some illicit activities and, like Josie, could see that the entitlement and indulgence in drugs and alcohol were pretty screwed up. What was different was that I didn’t go to school with my best friend and first love — I went alone. In some ways I think this made adjusting simpler, in other ways more difficult.
Clearly I needed to understand what boarding school life is like now and how being queer or straight might impact a person’s experience in such an elite environment. While the pain of an unraveling relationship is universal, having to defend one’s relationship on any level presents inherent challenges that I wanted to explore.
My research involved several websites and many books, including my buried but tattered copy of The Preppy Handbook. I talked to queer friends, acquaintances, and family members about their experiences, about acceptance and diversity, about boarding school. A trip back to my alma mater provided a lot of insight as I was able to talk to students and teachers, go to class, and spend a few days on campus to get a sense of what the environment is like now.
What should readers know about Brookwood Academy as we leap into the novel?
Readers should know that Brookwood is a long-standing institution primarily populated by like-minded people with money and privilege. Everything about the place is competitive. Looks matter. Though there are many exceptional students and teachers, there is also a good smattering of people who believe that they are better than others simply because of the situation they were born into.
Without Annette tackles a crumbling queer relationship. Josie and Annette are dating, but Annette insists on keeping their relationship a secret and begins to push her away, even as Josie grows closer to a boy named Penn. Did you try to actively circumnavigate stereotypes or address them head on? Given today’s discussions of inclusivity and diversity and #ownvoices books, how did you balance the hordes of voices with keeping true to your story?
I tried to write people who felt true to my story — neither actively circumnavigating nor avoiding stereotypes. Honestly, the word stereotype didn’t even come into my head. I fully believe that stereotypical characters (and people) can have nuance, and characters (and people) who seem utterly original can have traits that are stereotypical. And while I’d like to say that people shouldn’t feel the need to fit into stereotypes or categorize themselves, self-categorization can in fact help people create community and find safety and comfort—no small thing in this crazy world.
What else do you want people to know about Without Annette?
That like everything, writing this book was a journey. When I started I was focused on the overt elitism of boarding school and how screwed up my own experience was. But the more I researched, remembered, and wrote, the more I realized that it is more complicated than that. Boarding school is made up of actual people, each with their own story and experience. Nothing is cut and dried.
What YA books would you recommend to readers who are fans of Without Annette?