Over the past year I have had the pleasure of getting to know Karen Krossing. A compassionate writer, she is committed to understanding and helping other writers — including me. I have read a few of her books this year, including Bog, which won the 2015 SCBWI Crystal Kite Award in the Canada division, and is a 2014 OLA Best Bets selection. Karen isn’t afraid to use story as a way to delve into difficult subjects and her latest novel, Punch Like a Girl, certainly demonstrates this.
(Warning this might trigger some readers.)
There has been a lot in the media lately around consent, particularly in Ontario where Premier Kathleen Wynne has stressed the importance of including it in the school curriculum. This book is important and timely. When Tori is sexually assaulted by her boyfriend at a party, she doesn’t tell anyone about it. Instead, Tori reclaims her power by becoming “tough”–shaving her head and resorting to hitting those she perceives as threats. When she hits someone who insults her friend at the mall, her parents make her do community service. Tori volunteers for a women’s shelter where she meets Casey and learns the importance of coming forward.
Karen Krossing wrote poetry and rants as a teen and dreamed of becoming a published writer. Today, she’s the author of seven successful novels for kids and teens, and she conducts writing workshops to empower emerging writers. Her latest novel is Punch Like a Girl (Orca, 2015). You can check out Karen’s website or find her on Twitter or Facebook. To watch her book trailers, go here.
Mel: Tori’s response to what happened to her appears to be an act of taking control. Why are we so uncomfortable with the idea of a girl being violent, or alternatively, taking action in a physical way?
Karen: Our society is fighting against the traditional stereotypes of the aggressive male and passive female. It’s ridiculous to think that aggression must be linked to gender. Tori’s environment has encouraged her to speak her mind, defend herself, and assert her rights. She’s exploring how to do that using a range of aggressive and assertive behaviours. Yes, Tori wants control of herself and her world, and she’s working out the best way to do that.
Mel: How did you choose the words and definitions that begin every chapter? Were there some that didn’t make the cut? What were they?
Karen: Tori is a girl of action, so I selected a verb for each chapter that resonated with the key action she takes in the chapter. The definitions are written from Tori’s point of view, so they provide clues about her current state of mind.
Words that didn’t make the cut are: writhe (to twist in pain), fail (to gloriously lack success), and torment (to cause distress to mind and body).
I found that I wrote a chapter title first, and then the chapter itself. This helped me to focus the arc of the chapter and Tori’s role in it.
Mel: Perhaps this is something you can speak to. You explore many forms of fighting in this novel. From “play fighting” between Tori and her friends, the “normal” patterns of behaviour between Tori’s father and her brother, and violence against women. Yet, not all of these things are resolved.
Karen: Tori comes from a society that has normalized fighting. Her father used to be a bouncer, and he still thinks violence has a place in resolving disputes. She grew up wrestling with her brother. She play-acts punching her guy friend. She teaches kids in the women’s shelter how to punch back, ignoring the shelter’s no-violence policy. So it’s no surprise that she would punch a stranger who insults her friend.
But Tori is shocked when she’s punished for punching the stranger. She doesn’t clearly see the line between acceptable and unacceptable violence. When is “play fighting” at risk of crossing the line? How does normalized violence affect us? These are some questions that the novel explores.
Mel: Was there a point in the process of writing this novel where you worried about being too didactic? How did you avoid that trap?
Karen: Yes, I was worried about being too didactic during the early drafts. To combat that, I started the novel after Tori experiences an assault that she refuses to acknowledge. This way, the reader gets to know Tori as a person, rather than as a victim, and gradually understands Tori’s inner turmoil. I also created an action-oriented character to stay grounded in the physical and avoid moralistic ramblings.
Mel: You do a lot of volunteer work with teen writers. Is there anything that consistently comes up in their work that you have to discuss with them? Alternatively, what do you learn from working with them?
Karen: I love working with teen writers. I find that they need help with overcoming writer’s block as well as how to convey character. Many need to learn to “show, not tell” because they don’t yet have a full writer’s toolbox. I help by teaching technique and inspiring them to write regularly.
In return, I get to hear or read their writing. How can I write for a teen audience without interacting with them? I love learning what they’re writing and thinking about. The teen years are complex, volatile, and exciting. I’m lucky to get these glimpses of it.