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December 1, 2015

Badass Ladies You Should Know: Samantha Mabry

Kate Hart

As  a relative newbie to the YA community, I began blogging about the only things I knew much about: mainly myself, what I was reading, and what I was listening to. The latter often included one of my all-time favorite bands, The Black Crowes, and before long, I became friends with a fellow writer and fan named Samantha Mabry. It turned our we're also from the same general region (she's a Texas girl, all my family's from Oklahoma), we like a lot of the same stuff, and oh yeah -- we ended up sharing an agent for half a decade. Her debut novel, A Fierce and Subtle Poison, is a re-imagining of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s "Rappaccini’s Daughter," set in modern-day San Juan, Puerto Rico. It involves hurricanes, a dead nun, a boy who believes in curses, and a girl who is full of poison, and I can't wait for everyone to read it come April 2016.

Don't forget to enter the amazing giveaway at the end!


Kate: Describe your career(s) and/or current projects. What path(s) and passions led you there?

Samantha: My debut novel for young adults, A Fierce and Subtle Poison, comes out in April of 2016, and I'm tinkering on another novel set in the West Texas high desert that's still very much a work-in-progress. I've also been teaching college-level English (developmental writing, composition, and Latino Literature) since 2007.

There's this brief line in T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," that goes, "And, in short, I was afraid." As much as I'd like to deny it, that line basically describes me. I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be a teacher, but it took me well into my twenties to work up the nerve to start writing. It was (and still is) intimidating. I'd spent so much time reading, analyzing, and writing about works I found so wonderful and complex that the thought of putting in my own contribution was (and still is) daunting. I'm also cautious to a fault. I like to read, read, read books and watch, watch, watch films until I feel saturated. Only then do I feel even half-capable of adding my stories into the mix. This doesn't make me sound particularly badass, but it is what it is.

I have disparate obsessions with ghosts, magic realism, westerns, and stories about fallen women. The first novel I ever wrote (not published) was a ghost story inspired by Most Haunted, this British ghost-hunting show that I watched obsessively, also The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and Bram Stoker's Dracula. Then I decided I wanted to be Isabel Allende, so I wrote A Fierce and Subtle Poison. Now I think I'm Terrence Malick with this West Texas story I'm working on. For my next trick, I'll combine ghosts, magic realism, westerns, and fallen women into a single mega-masterpiece!

I'm also generally fascinated by the process of mestizaje (racial mixing) and in thinking about what threads of history get preserved versus diluted when races mix. The stories that do/can exist in this matrix interest me. I recently heard the poet Natasha Trethewey speak about the sistema de casta, or the hierarchical caste system that the Spanish set up when they first came to the Americas. The idea of blood being pure and impure and who, over history, gets to decide the "purity" of a person is something I think about a lot, probably because I have a lot going on in my own bloodlines. Both of the main characters in A Fierce and Subtle Poison are of mixed ancestry, and they grapple with their identities and histories in different, untidy ways.

Sam in Old San Juan, 2011
Kate: Do you have any creative outlets? How do they influence/affect your main work (if at all)?

Samantha: I'm not sure if this counts as "creative," but I very much enjoy solving small problems. I like going camping, where I have you figure out how to stay warm at night and how to build your fire and keep it lit. I like riding my bike downtown. I'm re-learning chess. I do a lot of yoga, which I also see as an exercise in problem-solving. When you practice yoga, you have to ask various questions of your body and see how it responds.

How do these activities affect my writing? I'm not sure. There are some parts of the writing process that feel very creative, like when I have a run of particularly good sentences, but most of it seems so controlled to me. A leads to B leads to C and whatnot. Being able to watch and observe a campfire, navigate the traffic when I'm on my bike, or write a scene, they are all sort of variations of the same process to me.

I see people all over who are Creative Geniuses, like they can draw and write and play music and have all these wonderful, spontaneous ideas, and they're like Martians or something. I'm in awe of them because they have ways of being that are so different than mine.

Kate: What's your biggest challenge?

Samantha: I'm critical by nature, so I want to identify a problem and fix it. As a writer and teacher, I'm obviously interested in developing and maintaining some sense of control, but I often have to remind myself just to hold space for people (students specifically, but also people in my life more generally) to be themselves and find their way. Not everyone needs or wants my opinion all the time.

More concretely: when it comes to writing, my biggest challenge is plotting. Didn't Agatha Christie say something about how much she hated how, when drafting, her characters always got in the way of her plot? I actually have no idea if she said that. Regardless, my problem is the opposite. My plot is the nuisance; it's always the unfixable problem. It always gets in the way of me wanting to write a pages-long description of birds or water or ennui or whatever.

Portrait of the Artist
as a Young Badass,
circa 1986
Kate: Tell us about a time that you bounced back from failure.

Samantha: When I was in graduate school, I failed a comprehensive exam, which is basically one of a series of written exams all my cohorts and I had to take at the end of each term. It was my literary theory comp, which I didn't study for and thought I could fake my way through with my passing knowledge of Marx. My failing meant I had to go back to Texas with my tail between my legs and wait there until the end of the next term when I could fly back to Boston and re-take the exam. It was pretty humiliating. Much of graduate school was humiliating because I went in all full of bluster and then was consistently reminded of how little I knew.

Anyway, during my lull of shame, I bought a copy of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism -this thing is a beast, like 2500 paper-thin pages long -and I immersed myself in it. Over the course of several months, I filled spirals upon spirals with notes, annotations, and quotes. I went back to Boston and wrote some brilliant (if I do say so myself) thing referencing the post-colonist theories of Frantz Fanon and passed with Honors, fuckers! *Now that I read over this little anecdote, I can see how it lines right up with my general nature: Samantha attempting to be "breezy" and failing, Samantha then trying to fix a problem, Samantha obsessing, Samantha immersing herself in a subject to the nth degree, so it goes.

Kate: What's the best compliment you've ever gotten?

Samantha: Like I mentioned, I teach college, which means I have a listing on a website called Rate My Professor. I've not seen it first hand, but my students tell me that most of my reviews are something along the lines of, "She's a pretty hard grader, and she's not the nicest person in the world, but she'll absolutely make you a better writer." I think this is so brilliant. It's very rewarding to come to a point in my life where I care more about being effective and getting shit done rather than being perceived as "nice." Some people have the ability to both be nice and get shit done. I am not one of those people.

Sam traveling in the late 90s
Kate: Did you have any defining moments that galvanized your understanding of and/or commitment to feminism? How does it inform/inspire your work? 

Samantha: I was a teen in the 1990s and learned about feminism through my musician-heroes who were feminists. They showed me a different way of being a girl. I saw women supporting other women. They played on the same bills, and referenced each other in interviews. They played instruments and shouted and looked cool and beautiful and strange. They were smart and had political opinions. They carried around coat hangers as political props. They cussed a lot. Girls went to shows together and got sweaty and slam-danced. I thought that feminists were brash and loud, and I loved that. So when the girls I knew weren't loud and rebellious, I assumed they were part of the problem.

This is obviously wrong. I've learned over time that there are many ways in which a person can manifest his/her feminism, and I myself, as a product of age, have become quieter and more thoughtful. I could interpret that as my edge having dulled, but I'd, of course, prefer to think of it as me becoming sharper and more honed. I am glad, though, that people are re-discovering that era of women in rock, and maybe that speaks not to nostalgia, but to a need for music that's loud and rough and kind of ugly-sounding. Babes are touring again, as is L7.

I guess with that in mind, I do wish there were more girls in YA literature that could be characterized as brash or even prickly. There are plenty who could be seen as stubborn, but I'm interested in seeing more who are genuinely unpleasant. They don't have to be cruel, necessarily, or cold-hearted. But they can be angry just because, and fighting a hard fight just to get through everyday life.

Kate: What are the best ways to support other women?

Samantha: We can hold other women accountable for the things they've committed to, but otherwise leave them alone to find their way. I interact with a very diverse student body. I have a couple of skill sets: I can write fairly well, and I can teach English. The women I encounter have vast amounts of knowledge that I will never have. I remind myself that we are equals and all trying to learn about life and find our own ways. We have to hold space for one another.

I also think women could do better at letting other women be wrong. People are messy. I know that I have to say or do the wrong thing several times over before I can get it right (and sometimes I never do). There is little that's more dismantling to a woman than having another woman calling her out as ignorant. We're all ignorant about something or other, so what's the use in pointing that out? I hope we can figure out a way to dialogue better than that. I hope we can find our function in other women's lives as something in between enabler/coddler and demolitionist.

Kate: What is your advice to aspiring badasses?

Samantha: You can still love the people in your life without listening to everything they say. Feel empowered to give your opinion, but be reasonable enough to recognize that no one is obligated to listen to it or abide by it. You are owed both nothing and everything. Read Wuthering Heights, a cautionary tale of what happens when a woman is kept isolated and suppressed and does as she's expected, also The Street by Ann Petrie, for the same and other reasons. Know that the word "ladylike" is basically empty and means nothing. Play the guitar.

A bonafide mixed cassette tape of awesome 90s women rockers 
(rated R for language)


Samantha Mabry was born four days before the death of John Lennon. She grew up in Texas, playing bass guitar along to records in her bedroom after school, writing fan letters to rock stars, doodling song lyrics into notebooks, and reading big, big books. Currently, she teaches English at a community college in Dallas. Her debut novel, A Fierce and Subtle Poison, will be released by Algonquin Young Readers in April 2016. She hopes one day to live in the desert.

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