Sarah Grace McCandless admits that early drafts of her novel The Girl I Wanted to Be were written with teeny-bopper school supplies. “I stock up on folders, pens, notebooks— totally inappropriate for someone my age,” says the 31-year-old author. “Justin Timberlake folders, Hello Kitty stationery. I’m a 12-year-old.”
But McCandless refrains from mixing her medium with her message. The Girl I Wanted to Be documents the coming-of-age of 14-year-old Presley Moran but eschews typical teen rites of passage such as periods, prom, and losing one’s virginity. McCandless focuses on fallen idols, family tragedies, and other more wrenching points of maturation.
The story centers on Presley’s gradual discovery of a love affair between her mother’s young sister, Betsi, and her father’s nephew, Barry, which eventually wreaks havoc on the entire family. Because the reader realizes what is going on almost immediately, the focus becomes watching Presley learn of the secret shared by the two people she admires most and her struggle to process it.
“People ask me a lot: ‘Is it a [young-adult] book?’ People assume that because it has a young-adult narrator, it needs to be classified in that way,” McCandless says. “But there are classics with young narrators—Catcher in the Rye, Lovely Bones.”
The Girl I Wanted to Be is the second book from the author, a former marketing director for Dark Horse Comics who currently lives above a comic-book store in Georgetown. McCandless became a full-time writer when the junket for her first book, Grosse Point Girl, conflicted with Comi-Con commitments and she was forced to make a choice. She wrote the first section of The Girl I Wanted to Be at a writing workshop in New Mexico in 1997 and finished it up this past summer.
McCandless says the novel is only loosely autobiographical, but she chooses to place her main character in the same early-’90s suburban Michigan of her own teendom. Returning to the landscape of her youth, even to tell a story that isn’t exactly her own, allows McCandless to channel an earnest, authentic teenage voice. Presley swoons over a boy who draws on her neck with a pencil during class, melts down over yearbook pictures, and upon learning that she and her crush share a gym period, remarks “I’m doomed. For real. Doomed.”
“That age group is the most honest,” McCandless says. “They don’t have that censor chip built in—it’s refreshing.” Between books, McCandless went back to Michigan to participate in a writers’ series at a community center. She swapped stories with teenagers and came away with the conclusion that only the clothes and music had changed.
“I went to middle school in the late ’80s,” she says. “Nobody was looking like Britney Spears—more like Debbie Gibson in a dorky hat. But from the feedback I got, they still connected with what I’m writing.”
For her next book project, McCandless hopes to tackle the world of dating and marriage, which will require her to abandon her beloved teenage wasteland. But she thinks there are definite parallels between her teenage characters and aimless 20-somethings. “I’ve been passing around the idea of the novel in my head, and I’m thinking of moving to a 20s perspective,” McCandless says. “It’s almost like a second adolescence.”—Sarah Godfrey
Sarah Grace McCandless reads from The Girl I Wanted to Be at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 7, at Olsson’s Books & Records, 418 7th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 638-7610.