Thursday, September 29, 2022

Q&A with Carol Dines




Carol Dines is the author of the new young adult novel The Take-Over Friend. Her other books include The Queen's Soprano. She lives in Minneapolis.


Q: What inspired you to write The Take-Over Friend, and how did you create your characters Frances and Sonja?


A: I have always valued friendship, and when one of my closest friends and I went through a break-up, I was devastated. We had become friends during a very hard time in both our lives and we had helped each other through those difficult times. But we both emerged from that period in very different circumstances, and she expected me to be there for her all the time, and I couldn’t.


Around the same time, my teenage daughter was also going through a break-up with her best friend after she felt her friend had betrayed her.


What I realized in that moment was how common this experience is, of losing a friendship, and how no one seems to talk about it. We assume most romantic relationships among teens will end as they continue to grow and change, but we don’t have the same understanding with friendship. And yet, friendship break-ups can be just as traumatic.


Over the years it has become clear to me we don’t really talk about how and why friendships fall apart, and I began to think this would be great material for a novel.


Both Frances and Sonja were inspired by my own life.


I wrote Frances’s character as if I were writing from my younger self. She wants to be more assertive and creative, but she often lacks confidence. She also has bonded deeply with her father and has taken on a caretaking role, (which I, too, did as a teenager for my bipolar sister) and that role has given Frances an identity in her family and a sense of self-worth. She’s her dad’s ally.


But eventually that caretaking role becomes her role with Sonja too, taking care of Sonja’s feelings instead of focusing on her own needs. This felt very real to me, as it took me years to feel comfortable establishing healthy boundaries to protect my own energy and focus, instead of taking care of others’ needs.


Sonja’s character was based on a very close and very controlling friend from my past; she has plenty of confidence, but her confidence belies the underlying pain she feels from her parents’ bitter divorce and their lack of support.


She wants to control the friendship because the rest of her life is out of control, so she tries to create “premises for friendship.” That too felt very real to me from my past friendships.

Q: Can you say more about the dynamic between the two girls?


A: In creating Frances and Sonja, I created opposites who form a symbiotic relationship—each sees in the other qualities she wants to develop in herself.


What Frances is missing is confidence and courage to go after what she wants. What Sonja is missing is a family that enjoys being together. Gradually, through each other, their friendship allows each of them to grow in new ways.


But when Sonja’s attachment to Frances’s family crosses all Frances’s boundaries—boundaries she doesn’t know she has—Frances has to distance herself in order to regain a sense of her own life, and this throws the friendship into a period of turmoil.


Through these two characters, I wanted to show how friendships can sometimes become too close. And when one friend tries to establish or differentiate her life from the other’s, it feels like a betrayal, as it did to Sonja when Frances didn’t want her to move in with her family.


Q: The writer Gary Eldon Peter called the book “a compelling story about the complex nature of adolescent friendship with a deep and thoughtful dive into the impact of mental illness on one family.” What do you think of this description?


A: I was so happy he wrote that description because I think it’s true—Frances’s father has bipolar disorder and during the novel he’s in a manic phase and then he descends into a depression.


His illness has no boundaries and spills over into the lives of those who love him. Both older siblings are angry at their father for refusing to take his medications. Frances’s mother wants Frances to liberate herself from feeling she needs to take care of her father and remain his ally.


The father is very likable and tender, and so it isn’t easy for Frances to see the patterns that have evolved within her own family. But the lack of boundaries around her father’s illness also creates a sense of closeness to him—and that dynamic of unhealthy boundaries is carried into Frances’s friendship with Sonja.


Likewise, Sonja’s parents’ have created a very unstable life for her, which is why she tries so hard to control her friendship with Fran. Sonja’s mother is deeply depressed and self-medicates with alcohol.


The families behind both main characters are a driving force for the intense closeness the girls form in in their friendship, but also the unhealthy lack of clear boundaries that eventually causes them to come into conflict.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: This novel went through many revisions. It was started long ago, and I sold an early version to a large publisher that was then sold to an even larger publisher, and they released the contract for the book the day it was supposed to go to print.


Heartbroken, I put the book aside until the pandemic, when I took it out and fell back in love with my characters. I then updated it and tightened the plot lines. I think it’s a better book now than it was then, so I’m happy I put it aside.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a novel about a family that is torn apart politically. The question the novel raises is whether the family should keep trying to be a family, or should they just live their separate lives and let go of each other?


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I feel incredibly lucky to be able to write every day because it keeps me thinking about the world we live in—its challenges, contradictions, and joys. Writing is a wonderful way to feel tethered to the deeper currents in the world.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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