Emily Jenkins ’85: “Subversive and clever” novels with “fierce femme" heroines
by Carey Gelernter
If you’re a former teenager, it’s a pretty safe bet you’ll find E. Lockhart’s “Ruby Oliver” books both a hoot and reminder of how happy you are to have made it safely past adolescence.
Set in a Seattle high school that sounds a lot like Lakeside, the first of the “Ruby” quartet, “The Boyfriend List,” has a genesis particularly amusing for those who knew the author when.
As Emily Jenkins ’85 (Lockhart being a pen name) describes it: “I was sorting through a box of old high school yearbooks (I had a perm) and school papers (I wrote the humor column) and the senior class poll (I administered it – and was voted worst driver), and I thought, ‘Where’s that little notebook where I wrote down every boy I ever kissed?’ And boom – I had a book idea.”
That’s just one of the tidbits that Lockhart offers her avid fans on a website packed with links to interviews, videos, resource guides for students and teachers, book related merchandise, and a bio page that includes “21 things you don’t know about me” from “I like wax museums” (No. 12) to “I used to cry after my fiction writing class in college because the criticism was so harsh” (15).
Jenkins has moved certainly past No. 15, given her numerous well-received books. Along with the quartet, the most “Subversive and clever” novels with “fierce femme” heroines notable are “The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks” (2008) and “We Were Liars” (2014). “Frankie” was a Printz Honor Book and a finalist for the National Book Award (“Subversive and clever, this young adult novel is a stunning story of gender, entitlement, and the making of an anti-heroine”). Her portrayal of Frankie clinched Jenkins’ reputation for writing strong female protagonists (or as a young blogging fan put it, “fierce femmes who aren’t afraid to assert their authority over men”).
“Liars” was on The New York Times best-seller list for 30 weeks, won the Goodreads Choice Award, and was Amazon's No. 1 YA novel of 2014.
Her next, “Genuine Fraud,” a psychological thriller about “a young woman whose diabolical smarts are her ticket into a charmed life,” is due out this fall from Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House.
Here are a few additional Lakeside specific thoughts.
I thought, ‘Where’s that little notebook where I wrote down every boy I ever kissed?’ And boom – I had a book idea. - Emily Jenkins '85
Q: What of your Lakeside experience is reflected in the books?
A: I only went to Lakeside for two years – junior and senior. I escaped from a school where I was pretty unhappy, so Lakeside seemed like a haven to me. In the “Ruby Oliver” books, I used the architecture, the January Days program, the dance on the boat, and some of the slang. I wanted to replicate the feeling I had at Lakeside and some of the joy I had in the friends I made there. But everything that happens in the books, I invented. The characters are all imaginary. Even Ruby. I never lived on a houseboat, I never had panic attacks, I never worked at the Woodland Park Zoo, I never swam or played lacrosse, and Lord knows I was never such a boy-magnet.
Q: Were you, like Ruby, a scholarship student? You often touch on differences in social class in a number of your books.
A: I was a scholarship student at both my private high schools and at Vassar as well. That’s why so many of my characters have one foot in a world of privilege — and the other foot out. I was acutely aware of the difference between my economic status and my friends’.
Q: I love this quote of yours: “High school (like grad school, actually) is a festering microcosm of anxious, slightly out-of-control people — a wonderful setting for both comedy and social commentary.” How do you stay in tune with the emotions and obsessions of that age and world?
A: I just remember how it felt. I guess I write for the kid or teenager I used to be.