Thursday, September 22, 2005

Author Interview: Dorian Cirrone on Dancing In Red Shoes Will Kill You

Dancing In Red Shoes Will Kill You by Dorian Cirrone (HarperCollins, 2005). Kayla is one of the strongest dancers at her performing arts school, but there's just one problem. Or, well, two. Kayla's busty--in a double D/needs-to-wear-three-bras kind of way--and the world of ballet has a very specific body type preference. Will she get surgery? Push back against societal expectations? Find relief in the company of the cute new guy or find out that he's really somehow sinister? Ages 12-up. See more of my thoughts on Dancing In Red Shoes Will Kill You.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

The original inspiration came all the way back in the seventies when I studied and taught dance with a friend who had trained at American Ballet Theater. Following puberty, she was told by her teachers that she would never be a ballerina because of her large breasts. She went to Las Vegas and danced for a while, but eventually had breast reduction surgery and became a ballerina. I always thought it was an interesting anecdote, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it into something more.

Years later (actually decades), I read an article in our local newspaper about a teen who was told she couldn’t display her art project at school because it showed a man’s penis – even though female nudes were approved for display. I had been studying a lot of feminist theory in graduate school, and it occurred to me that these two stories could be woven together to say something about the cultural construction of gender and how we literally and figuratively view male and female bodies. I wanted to raise questions, rather than answer them, which is why there’s sort of a tug of war of opinion between the two sisters in the book. I left the ending somewhat open regarding Kayla’s decision so readers could debate the issue.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

In between my original inspiration and then finally figuring out a way to tell the story, I worked as a journalist, went to graduate school, taught college writing, had two children, and wrote copious amounts of practice work.

In the early nineties, I met my mentor, Joyce Sweeney. That was a major event for me in that I not only began to take fiction writing more seriously, but I was also able to hone my craft in her weekly writing workshop.

I wrote the first chapter of the novel about seven years before it was actually published. I put it aside for several years, not quite knowing where I was going with it. When I came across the line, “Dancing in red shoes will kill you” while researching an ill-fated doctoral dissertation, everything fell together. I wrote the first five chapters over a period of about nine months, and then I learned about an agent looking for new clients. I sent him some other manuscripts and the first five chapters of the novel. He liked some of the other stuff, but he loved the novel and took me on as a client. I wrote the rest in about four months and he sold it in six weeks. It was published by HarperCollins a little over two years later.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

My first challenge was to thematically weave together the three plot lines (Kayla’s decision, Paterson’s censorship issue, and the mystery of who was leaving the red shoes around school).

The fairy tale motif provided me a solution to that problem. My second and biggest challenge involved making sure that the novel could be read on many levels. I knew I wanted to write it in a humorous way, but I also wanted a depth that readers who were familiar with various critical and feminist theories could also appreciate.

The fairy tales had to work within the plot as well as the subtext, which demonstrates the many ways dominant discourses influence us without our knowing. For example, the fairy tale The Red Shoes is meant to be a cautionary tale against pride and ego. But as Atwood notes in the poem mentioned in the novel, it is really a subversive story designed to curtail the freedom of girls and women.

In addition, Kayla’s plotline had to work on both the literal and metaphorical level. I wanted to say something about the way we seem to be unaware as a society at the way we’re constantly manipulated to change the way we look, be it fashion, make-up, or plastic surgery, how women, in particular, relinquish power so easily to the whims of Madison Avenue, the media, etc. It’s not an indictment, but rather a call to awareness. Kayla possibly might have the surgery one day, but it should be her own decision.

In addition, I wanted to touch on Peter Berger’s notion that women through the ages have been depicted differently in art because the "ideal" spectator was always assumed to be male and the image of the woman was designed to flatter him. Creating a balance between telling a funny story, and also layering it with serious undertones was my greatest challenge.

Cynsational Notes

Dancing In Red Shoes Will Kill You is a BBYA nominee, a Quick Picks nominee, and a Teens Top Ten nominee. Dorian's next book will be Lindy Blues and the Missing Silver Dollar (Marshall Cavendish, spring 2006).

Other recent YA interview highlights: Holly Black; Joseph Bruchac; Lori M. Carlson; Cecil Castellucci; Alex Flinn; Nancy Garden; D.L. Garfinkle; K.L. Going; Rosemary Graham; Louise Hawes; Jennifer Richard Jacobson; Ron Koertge; David Lubar; R. A. Nelson; Julie Anne Peters; Mary E. Pearson; Lara M. Zeises.

Cynsational Link

Narrative and Violence by Jennifer Armstrong (author)(The Horn Book, March/April 2003). "The value of literature in dangerous times."

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