Author Robyn Harding on the dark corners of high school life, bad hair days and pain-free writing.
By: Margaret MacKinnon-Cash
Vancouver writer Robyn Harding’s new book The Party hit bookshelves (and eReaders) this summer. The novel tells the tale of a 16th birthday party that spirals out of control. I had the privilege of promoting several of Robyn’s previous books (The Journal of Mortifying Moments, The Secret Diaries of a Soccer Mom, and Mom, Will This Chicken Give Me Man Boobs?) and, as a mother of a soon-to-be teenage girl, I was eager to catch up with Robyn and learn more about this latest novel.
MMC: What inspired you to write The Party?
RH: My own teenaged children. My husband and I had to discuss substance use with our kids and set boundaries. But I learned that many parents still follow the adage: “They’re going to drink anyway, I’d rather they do it at home.” I started to think about the risks of this parenting choice. What if something terrible happened to a child who was drinking in your home? Or what if your child was hurt while drinking at a friend’s house? How would this affect everyone involved: the parents, the kids, the entire community?
MMC: The book deals with issues of peer pressure and bullying – some of the darker corners of high school life. Do we see any of your high school experience reflected in the book?
RH: Thankfully, I never experienced anything as cruel or devastating as what takes place in The Party, but I relate to Hannah Sanders. As a teenager, I did well at school and followed my parents’ rules, but I flirted on the periphery of trouble. I was never quite brave enough to be a full blown bad girl (I was too scared of my mom), but I wanted to be one! Hannah is not unlike I was, she just took it too far. With devastating results . . . .
MMC: I’ve been to the Bay-area several times, and love it. What compelled you to set the book in San Francisco?
RH: When I wrote my first novel, back in 2003, I set it in Vancouver where I live. I submitted the manuscript to every literary agent in Canada, but they all passed. I submitted to agents in New York, and I got one! My agent suggested I relocate the story to an American city because (sadly) it is much easier to sell a book to a U.S. publisher if it is set in America. Now, I often set my books in U.S. cities. I pick one that feels like Vancouver – the weather, the lifestyle, the politics. I’ve spent some time in San Francisco, and have friends who live there. I also think it is a beautiful and aspirational locale.
MMC: Have your children read the book? If so, what was their reaction?
RH: My kids are tough customers! I gave them The Fault in Our Stars for Christmas one year. I’d heard so many good things, but they hated it! They found it overly sentimental (so did I, when I finally read it). So, I was a bit nervous to give The Party to my kids. My daughter took the book on a school trip to Japan. After a few days, she texted me: “It’s good, Mom.” Phew! My son just read it, too. He really liked it, but he said the characters made him feel angry.
MMC: What was the hardest scene to write?
RH: The scene where Ronni Monroe reaches the end of her rope and attempts suicide was tough. I didn’t want to write it, but I knew it was what the story needed. As a mom, it was even harder writing it from Lisa Monroe’s perspective.
MMC: Where there alternate endings you considered?
Yes! I had wrapped up the story in a neat little bow. Everyone learned a lesson, everyone went on with their lives. But my editor wanted an ending with more edge and a darker twist. So, I rewrote it. It’s a disturbing way to end a book, but I think it works.
MMC: If you could tell your high school self anything, what would it be?
RH: Don’t get that perm!
MMC: Do you create an outline before tackling a book or do just start writing?
RH: I create a rough outline but I allow myself the freedom to stray from it. In the end, the writing always takes over, and the manuscript goes where it needs to go.
MMC: What was the best piece of advice you have been given?
RH: I was lunching with a writer friend, (Eileen Cook), and I was feeling frustrated with the publishing industry. She said, “As writers, the only thing we can control is our writing.” I realized that I needed to evolve as a writer. If I wanted the publishing industry to respond differently, I needed to create different material. I might not have written The Party if not for Eileen’s advice.
MMC: Does writing exhaust you or energize you?
It exhausts me. I love it, but after a few hours of writing, I am drained.
MMC: Where is your favourite place to write?
RH: When I am writing a lot, I suffer from shoulder pain, neck pain, back pain . . . so I move around. In my tiny office, I have a regular desk and a cardboard stand-up desk. I use both for a few hours but often end up with my laptop on the couch in the living room. My favourite place to write is wherever I can do it pain-free.
MMC: What’s next?
RH: I’m working on a novel inspired by Karla Homolka, the serial killer who has served her time and is now a married mother of three, living in a new community. I’m exploring themes of retribution, redemption, and forgiveness. And I’m confronting some hard questions: Can people really change? Do they deserve a second chance? And can you ever outrun your past?
Margaret MacKinnon-Cash is principal of MMC Public Relations, a marketing and communications agency working with authors, publishers, lifestyle clients and socially conscious enterprises. Margaret has managed over 500 publicity campaigns for some of the world’s foremost thinkers, novelists, business and government leaders, media personalities, entertainers, and celebrity chefs.