Saturday Read: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray + Interview!

I was totally honored to interview Libba Bray this week about her new book, Beauty Queens. Check out the hilarious interview and review at the bottom!
Alex: So what was the inspiration behind Beauty Queens?
Libba: Well it was kind of funny because it was different than anything I’ve written before in that . David Levithan who is an amazing author and also an editor at Scholastic is a really good friend of mine and year’s ago he called me up and said, “I have this crazy idea for a book, but I think you should write it. Let’s talk about it over lunch.” Well, pretty much the minute you mention food, I’m so there. Because I’m really that easy. So, I was like, you’re going to buy me a burrito? I’m yours! So we went and had lunch and he said, “Okay, here’s the pitch: a plane-load of teen beauty queens crash on an island. What can you do with that?” And I thought, oh my god, I would kill to write that book! But I was under contract to write two more books and had other things to do, so I put it aside for a few years. In the meantime, I became aware of a lot of misagonistic things in our culture. One day I was at the 7-11, where all my great ideas come, waiting for the icey machine and I saw the tabloid stories. I saw that every single cover had something like “Is so-and-so dating so-and-so?” or “Angelina’s beauty secrets and perfect body two weeks after baby!” There wasn’t one with “Beyonce is at the top of the Forbes list and makes awesome new record”. It was all that reductive stuff. And I thought, why is this going on now? What is happening at this moment in time that is so limiting for women? So I wanted to explore that. And  I wanted to explore what it is to grow up female in this society.
A: So you’re tackling women growing up in this superficial kind of world?
L: Even more than that. It’s also about the ways in which we passively accept limitations that are put on women. Because sometimes it’s so superficial. Women are judged on how they look; it’s their currency. But it’s also all the subtle messages that are directed at us, say from the beauty industry. I always say you need to follow the economics of it. There are corporations that make billions of dollars off of women and they have a vested interest in you staying insecure. And listen, I love me some lipstick. You will pry my MAC Viva Glam Lipstick  from my cold, dead hands. If you ever really deconstruct those messages like “Is your skin looking tired?”or “Cellulite got you down?”, you see it just feeds on itself. And they start to get to worry about things you never even thought to worry about! Do I have cellulite on my knees?! I don’t know – now I’m paranoid! They make money off of that because they can sell you a product. You can buy them anyways, but it’s just about being aware of that. And there’s the deeper stuff to be aware of. Having our rights taken away – that’s something to really be aware of. It’s really important to be aware of what’s going on in politics and disagree and fight back. It’s everything from the superficial and insidious to the really important stuff. You may want to be aware of all these things and then make your decisions.
A: If you were stranded on a desert island like the heroines in Beauty Queens, what 3 things would you bring?
L: Clearly, some snacks and some water because I really like my snacks and I don’t want to die of dehydration. My joke is that I live in New York City and I’m so used to calling someone to bring me burrito, so I would spend the first two days on the island punching imaginary numbers into a tree phone asking, “Hi, what’s your delivery zone?” Toilet paper – just saying. And then a boat-building manual so I could get myself off that island as fast as possible. I’m not sure I’d survive, I’d probably be giant snake food.
A: Wow the boat-building manual is a good idea. No one ever says that!
L: I can barely put together an Ikea chair so it might no be a very sea-worthy craft, but I could try!
A: Which of the Miss Teen Dreamers is your favourite and why?
L: I loved writing all of them, but the character that surprised me the most was probably Miss Texas, Taylor Renee Krystal Hawkins. In a way I fell victim to my own trap. People have pre-conceived notions about these girls and I wanted to start with sterotypes and then subvert them. So I let you think what you wanted and then midway through, whoa, you’re wrong! There’s more to this girl. But she was the one who surprised me the most, especially when I figured out her backstory. She has a lot of interesting vulnerabilities about her and also, she kicks some serious butt. That was really fun to write.
A: Did you find yourself laughing out loud writing Beauty Queens? Seriously, lines like “ his most trusted advisor is a taxidermied former pet named General Good Times”! Where does that come from!?
L: I’m really that weird. Someone who read my last book, Going Bovine, was like where did you come up with that? And that was my answer – I’m really that weird. Sometimes I don’t think I’m that weird and people let me know that, no, no you ARE that weird. That’s how my brain works. Like what is he has a stuff lemur named General Good Times and he has Silent Killah written on his pyjamas! And then everybody kind of moves away from me and won’t let me have anymore sugar.
A: Well I loved Going Bovine!
L: Thank you! See, you wouldn’t take the sugar away from me, would you, Alex?! Growing up on an awful lot of Monty Python and Mad Magazine and Mel Brooks had a part.
A: What would your talent be if you were to compete in a pageant?
L: Oh my gosh! I feel like I should have a ridiculous talent! Oh man, that is such a good question and you would think I would have thought about that! I know – I can sing an ABBA medley! It might not be a good talent, but I would go down trying.
A: Would you have a nice disco outfit on?
L: Oh for sure! I can see the white fringe already, Fernando. SOS Dancing Queen! And some serious platforms too. And lots of dramatic posing.
A: I think you would blow the judges away!
L: Or they might try to medicate me before the Top 10.
A: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
L: There was a very serious moment actually. I had no idea that I was going to be a writer, even thought I was writing through my childhood and adolescence. I just never thought about it. And then, when I was 18, I had a really serious car accident. I demolished my face, I had to have to kind of re-built over a period of years. And I lost my left eye. This was the summer before I went to college, so a particularly sucky time to have this happen. My first year of college was the worst year of my life. I had some surgery done, but I felt broken on the inside as well as the outside. It was a really awful, rough year. As a graduation gift from high school, someone had given me this little, yellow journal. And I began to write down everything. It was sort of my lifeline. Everything that I felt I couldn’t say out loud, all those thoughts of feelings were written down. And it saved me. I say it with all sincerity that I know writing can save your life because it saved mine. That was it! At first, it was a way to stay alive and then eventually it became pretty empowering. I enjoyed the writing for it’s own sake and looked forward to writing in that journal. Then I started thinking that I kind of liked it. That was the beginning. I transferred to the University of Texas, down in Austin and a friend of mine asked me to write a monologue for a show that he was doing. I did and he said it was really good and asked if I had ever thought about writing a whole play. So that was what sparked it and made it happen.
A: You won the Printz Award for one of my favourite books, Going Bovine. How did that feel? Was that your “I made it” moment?
L: I don’t think there’s ever an “I made it” moment because there’s always another book. And every time you sit down to write that book it’s like “Wait! I don’t know how to write a book! You can’t make me do this!” And it was such an amazing feeling. I was so blown away and so surprised. Part of it is that I always wrote these really weird things and to have the weirdest thing I ever wrote and have someone say, “We really like this book and we get it” was such an amazing moment. I really am so grateful to the Printz committee. And then you know what? The next day I had to get up and start working on the next book.
A: What’s your favorite book? Like all-time, forever and ever.
L: Oh! That’s so hard! You’re cruel! Maybe Charlotte’s Web. If it was just an adult book I would pick The Hotel Newhampshire by John Irving. But you know, there’s something about that book that you read as a child. I read it on my own when I was like 8 maybe and I felt like I entered that world so completely that I felt like I was Fern and I was Wilbur and I was Charlotte. And I sobbed at the end! It took me somewhere. It did all those things that great books do. It was transformative.
A: We are College Candy, do you have any advice for college-age women?
L: I was such a mess at that age so you can’t possibly be more of a mess than I was! Getting back to what this book is about, it’s important to figure out who you are and that’s a lifelong process that’s hard work. But it’s ultimately rewarding! It’s good to just be aware of the messages we’re pummeled with all the time and see if you can kind of step outside of that. I always say that the hardest question for girls and women to ask themselves, because we’re not trained to ask this, is, “What do I want?”. We’re trained to think about what we want after we’ve satisfied everyone else’s expectations or think about what we can have. It’s absolutely fine and good to ask yourself what you want and go for it. It’s so easy to talk yourself out of going for it, but you know what man? Go for it! Why not? That’s one of those things in the “Do-over” column. If I could go back and just say to myself, “That guy – he’s an asshole” or “This person’s wrong” and to just stay the course. Go for what you want, ask for what you want. And if somebody says no, keep going until you find someone who says yes! Or make whatever adjustments you need to make. It’s so easy for us to back off. Don’t be obnoxious; don’t come in and say, “Give me what I want or I will fire-bomb your house!” but just keep going.
A: What are you working on now? Can you give us any hints?
L: I can! I’m working on the first book of a 4-book series called The Diviners. It’s a supernatural historical set in 1920’s New York. So full of flappers and jazz and things that go bump in the night. I say it’s sort of like F. Scott Fitzgerald meets The X-Files. There’s my pitch! And of course, when I sat down to write it I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. I was like, “Are you sure I’ve written 5 books?! Really?!” I tell you, these words, they’re not cooperating. Somehow it will make a book-shaped object at some point.
Libba Bray is a literary goddess. Seriously, I cannot believe the breath of this women’s YA work! She jumped on the scene with the supernatural fiction that is A Great and Terrible Beauty (and it’s 2 sequels), then blew me away with Going Bovine (see the review here) and is now back with a hilarious romp, Beauty Queens.
Beauty Queens is a satire. As in, super duper sarcastic. The story begins when a plane of teen beauty pageant contestants (aka the Miss Teen Dreamers) crash land on a desert island. The book follows their hilarious adventures as they try to survive, all while maintaining perfect pageant poise. However, there is a second story-line at work involving a secret government arms mission!
While the story of Beauty Queens is certainly a unique and interesting one, it’s really the humor that gets you and makes this book worth the read. I read this book on the deck of my boyfriend’s cottage and was absolutely embarrassing. Snorting away, my stomach hurt from laughing so hard! Libba’s sense of humor is demented (in a VERY good way) and I couldn’t believe the material that she came up with. And the book has a strong message of feminism while being beyond funny. It tackles some tough themes and really shows you that beauty is more than skin deep, highlighting how difficult it is to live as a female in our society. While this book is marketed as a comedy, it’s an important social commentary as well!
Beauty Queens is a great summer read. Not only will it provide pure entertainment, it sends a good message and will make you think critically about all the media that’s constantly pushed in your direction. I highly recommend it!

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