Behind The Story: Gail Giles on DEAD GIRLS DON’T WRITE LETTERS

DEAD GIRLS DON’T WRITE LETTERS by Gail Giles (Roaring Brook, 2003). Sunny doesn’t seem heartbroken at the news of her too-perfect sister Jazz’s death, though Jazz seems to have been the glue that held their disfunctional family together. But then when someone calling herself “Jazz” returns to the family, someone who isn’t Jazz at all, Sunny begins digging, looking for answers, only to find herself questioning…everything. Ages 12-up. This interview was conducted via email in 2003. Visit Gail Giles.

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

Dead Girls by Gail GilesThe initial inspiration for DEAD GIRLS DON’T WRITE LETTERS was the title.

Sort of, kind of. I read or heard the phrase “letter from a dead girl.” Now, a phrase like that would certainly interest sane people, but let a writer hear it and she goes into overdrive. I started wondering about how someone would feel if they got a letter from a dead girl; what if the relationship between the two had been bad? Then my head was off into why had the relationship been bad. The novel started to form.

Sunny and Jazz became so real for me that they needed space in my guest room. Funny that my husband didn’t notice them. Not-Jazz and Sunny were mirror images rather than Jazz and not-Jazz. How odd was that? This novel wrote itself while I was living in Chicago.

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

This one got lots of attention so it didn’t go to many houses, but it was rejected by those it went to because it had an awful, very commercial first ending. Then it went to Roaring Brook. I told Deborah Brodie what my original conception for an ending was a very open ending that I didn’t think anyone would go for. She said write it and I’ll see. I wrote it, she liked it, and that’s the ending you see.

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

In addition to an inspiration for a novel, I like at assign myself a goal or a challenge. With SHATTERING GLASS it was to write a novel that uses the narrator as more of the observer. He’s not the main character, but we see the main character through him. We don’t see the events through an unbiased telling of the story. I liked the idea of the reader sorting through all that. For DEAD GIRLS DON’T WRITE LETTERS I wanted a puzzle within a puzzle. I did not want to trick the reader but I did want to deflect the reader enough that when the end was reached, the reader would think, “I KNEW something was wrong here but I didn’t think,— let me go back and read this again.” Then upon rereading would find all the facts. I was afraid that rather than make the story too obtuse, I had given it away in the first few pages.

Here’s the idea. I meant for the ending not to make much difference. If you want Not-Jazz to be a real person and to have been there, you can find the evidence and support your case. If you want Not-Jazz to have been a figment of Sunny’s imagination, evidence that she has finally had a breakdown, you can find that, too. That’s closer to my take on it. But as I said, it makes little difference.

The idea is that Sunny is a girl and not-Jazz, real or imagined, is girl who has not been nurtured by parental love. If not-Jazz is imagined, she is Sunny’s unloved self made into someone her parents can love. Now she can get the love she has always wanted. If Not-Jazz is real, she’s a girl that has never been loved and goes seeking for families who have lost a child and tries to push her way in and be loved.

In either case, it’s never going to work. It is doomed to failure. If the not Jazz is real, she will be found out as a fraud and she will be made to leave. If not-Jazz is a figment of Sunny’s mind, let’s look at those challenges.

First, as I said, I thought I had given it away in the first three pages. At least enough to make the reader get what I call “spider feet” that crawly feeling that says something isn’t right here. Consider the title DEAD GIRLS DON’T WRITE LETTERS. They DON’T write letters. And Sunny gets a letter from her dead sister, and she doesn’t open it. Does a normal person not open a letter from her dead sister? Fine, they didn’t get along. But, how does one NOT open a letter from your dead sister? Now, she’s holding a letter from her dead sister and she mentions that she will forge a note to her principal. In just three pages we’ve got: (1) dead girls DON’T write letters, (2) a girl who’s not interested in the contents of a letter from a dead girl; (3) and that (living) girl is an admitted forger.

I thought I was laying it on pretty thick.

Later, we see Sunny as an unreliable narrator. I won’t go through the entire book, but the reader should have found it strange that EVERYONE loved Jazz and she was only harsh to Sunny, that Sunny had not one single friend, that child welfare would leave Sunny in such a living situation, that the parents would let this stranger into their home to stay for even a short time. The Leonardo mirror writing was brought back up and lots of other details that would let the reader know that Sunny is having lots of problems.

I like a book that ends with questions. What’s next for Sunny? Will a stalker come for her? Will Sunny have a breakdown of personality that is total?