Fearless Fiction: Mindy McGinnis on Rape Culture, Universal Emotions and Strong Female Protagonists

A prolific Edgar Award–winner, Mindy McGinnis’ stories cross subgenres of young adult fiction, from fantasy to dystopian to contemporary. Here, WD talks with her about the unique aspects of her work, including the way she addresses rape culture and incorporates strong female protagonists.
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A prolific Edgar Award–winner, Mindy McGinnis’ stories cross subgenres of young adult fiction, from fantasy to dystopian to contemporary. Her novel confronting rape culture, The Female of the Species, was named to an impressive roster of “Best Of” lists in both 2016 and 2017, including those from School Library Journal, Bustle, Mashable and Seventeen. Her short story “Do Not Go Gently,” about a teenage mother struggling to finish high school while working nights as a nurse’s assistant, won the 2017 Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature. A fixture at book festivals across the Midwest, she runs the Writer Writer Pants on Fire blog and podcast for aspiring authors.

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Your novel The Female of the Species has been celebrated for the way it addresses rape culture from the perspectives of female and male characters alike. I know most writers are driven by plot questions or characters more than themes, but I also know you have a lot of experience working with teens as an educator and librarian. How much did the message you hoped the story might send drive its creation, and did that message change at all from the story’s inception to its publication?

When it comes to message in books for teens, an author has to be careful. Teens know when they’re being condescended to, and they don’t like it any more than an adult does. For me it was less of a message and more of a story about rape culture and sexual assault—one that many, many teenage girls can relate to. So often we relive our own situations and stories over and over in our minds, trying to think of what we could have done differently, or—sadly—in an attempt to determine how much of the blame is our own. Rage takes hold—against attackers, and against ourselves. So much of The Female of the Species is about anger—at our world, and the people in it. Anger is a universal emotion, and even though the novel focuses on female anger specifically, the emotion itself is one that all readers can relate to.

What has been the most meaningful reader response to The Female of the Species?

There have been so many. I think the most impactful email I received came from a woman in her 40s, who said that if she’d had a novel like Species when she was in her teens, she would have not been silent about her assault.

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You’ve always written strong female protagonists—something agent wish lists noticeably call for with increasing frequency. Have you observed a shift in how those characters are received in the years since you began publishing?

The “strong female character” has now become something of a trope herself. What I like to do is explore the different ways in which a woman can be strong, so that we’re not viewing strength as a one-note trait. [Being] physically strong is only one aspect. Having the strength of your convictions, of self-worth in general, are necessary as well in order to present a well-rounded individual.

I like to tell people about a woman in my family tree I discovered who had 15 children. She buried 13 of them—giving birth to one and subsequently losing the infant as well as two older children in the same week—and lived into her 80s. She was a German housewife in the 1500s, undoubtedly tied to home and hearth, perhaps could not even read or write. Yet no one could say she wasn’t a strong female. Women have always been strong. We’re just talking about it now.

I’ve seen panel discussions debating a double standard in young people’s literature in which books with a girl on the cover are often seen as “for girls” whereas books featuring a strong male lead are more often marketed as “for everyone.” How much truth do you think there is to that, and have you noticed any shifts that make you hopeful this will improve?

I absolutely stand by the idea that there are no boy books and no girl books. What does exist is marketing, and the cover reflects who marketing thinks is the target audience for a particular book. My own team has done a great job of making my covers gender-neutral. Even though they have female main characters, a boy can carry any of my books around without having to feel self-conscious. That’s important to me, as many of my readers are male.

In your years working as a library aide, what are some books you’ve taken joy in recommending to teenage girls especially?

It always depends on the girl, and their interests. I can say the one thing I would love to see more of is sports books for girls. I only have a handful of titles that I can go to for female athletes as main characters, whereas for male athletic stories there are lots of choices.

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