The Secret Life of a Funny Girl

Susan Chalker Browne is a writer living in St. John's, Newfoundland. The Secret Life of a Funny Girl is her tenth book for children and her first young adult novel. Her other works include Goodness Gracious, Gulliver Mulligan; The Land of a Thousand Whales; and Freddy's Day at the Races. Susan has won writing awards from the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts and Letters Awards, the Cuffer Prize, and the Writers' Federation of Nova Scotia Atlantic Writing Competition. Recently she opened up to AE about her latest literary effort.

On the Book

I was inspired to write The Secret Life of a Funny Girl because I wanted to write about the time in which I went to school, which is a type of schooling that doesn’t exist anymore.  I wondered if young girls today might be interested in reading about that.  There is a particular dynamic that exists in a class of 42 girls, and the social mores of the early 1970s were quite different than those of today.  

So that was the setting, and I needed to add a conflict.  I thought about a theme of alcoholism, but that’s been done.  Then I thought about mental illness.  In the early 1970s, the hospital for mental and nervous diseases in St. John’s was commonly known as ‘the Mental’.  There was tremendous fear and stigma surrounding mental illness and I was interested in exploring it.

So the setting is 1971 St. John’s, but the characters and events are fictional.  Like many authors, I have pulled fragments of experience from real life, but these have been kneaded and massaged by creative imagination, ballooning into events that never happened and people who never existed.  For example, the main character Maureen O’Neill has been given my character trait of impulsive behaviour, but she also has a confidence in herself that I didn’t possess at thirteen years of age.  She has experiences that I never had and her family is very different than mine was.  She is 10% actual experience and 90% imagination.

At the outset of the novel, Maureen’s grandmother dies suddenly, which sets into motion a series of events that deeply impact Maureen’s life.  She is forced to take on extra tasks at home, forced to keep a terrible secret, and ends up taking out her frustrations on a susceptible teacher at school. Eventually, her secret leaks out and there is bullying.  In the end, Maureen assumes responsibility for her mistakes and learns to accept vulnerability in other people.

I have been working on The Secret Life of a Funny Girl on and off for a period of six years.  This is my first young adult novel and it took me a while to get it right.  The most challenging part was developing the voice of Maureen.  Initially, this book was written in the third person.  And while Maureen’s dialogue sounded like a thirteen year-old girl, the narrative sections sounded like an adult speaking.  I solved this problem by writing a new draft in the first person, so that all the narrative sections were written from the point of view of Maureen and began to sound like her.  I tried to remember how it felt to be thirteen again.  And once I hit my stride, it began to flow easily.

The most rewarding part of the experience was finishing the final draft.  I worked with a marvellous editor, Nora Flynn, and her main criticism of the novel was that Maureen and her family sounded too perfect, that ordinary girls would not identify with her.  So the final draft involved a line by line edit, inserting imperfections and character flaws, which was actually a bit of fun.  In the end, we have a main character that worries about her looks, who makes mistakes and learns from them, with a family full of conflicting personalities and funny situations.

I felt a tremendous sense of achievement when this final draft was completed and submitted to Flanker Press.  I had always wondered if I could ever write a novel, and now I knew I could.  I just love the look of the published book – the cover is so eye-catching.  Half of the model’s face is hidden, just as in the story itself where half of Maureen’s life is hidden from public view.

The response from friends and family has been overwhelming and gratifying.  While I knew there were funny parts in the novel that would make people laugh and I knew there were sad bits, I didn’t count on the number of people who have said they cried at certain sections of the book.  It’s amazing to me that my words could carry this strength.  People have also told me that the book is very well-written, that the plot is totally engaging, and that they had to keep reading to find out what happened next.

And people have also told me that this book would make a perfect movie.  That the characters are well-developed and true to life and that the plot would make a great screenplay.  Certainly Flanker Press is open to any discussion on movie options.

I would be interested in writing another young adult novel.  But I also know that a novel involves a tremendous amount of work and a huge quantity of emotional energy.  If readers want to hear more about the world of Maureen O’Neill, I’d be happy to go there again.  All they need to do is let me know!

On Herself & Writing

I always had an inner impulse to put words down on paper.  As a young girl, I read copiously and kept journals.  I was inspired by Lucy Maud Montgomery and read everything she ever wrote.  She was a writer, her characters were writers, and I wanted to be like that too.

A good novel needs a really strong central character who is engaging, who is real and human, who encounters challenge and is changed in some way as a result of that challenge.  The writing needs to be fresh and vivid and unencumbered.  The plot needs to have tension and pull.  And readers need to identify with the people and the events portrayed.

Canadian literature today is exploding with wonderfully talented writers and incredible books.  There are so many fabulous choices it’s almost impossible to keep up with them all.  

My advice for aspiring writers is simply to write.  Keep a journal, write stories, write poems, write a book.  Start writing and keep writing and you will improve.  Read the good writers and see how they do it, observe the current styles of writing.  Attend writing courses and workshops.  Listen to and incorporate criticism of your work.  Pursue the writing craft and you will find satisfaction and fulfillment.