Aurelie Sheehan is the author of a collection of short stories, Jack Kerouac Is Pregnant, and two novels, The Anxiety of Everyday Objects and History Lesson for Girls.
About History Lesson for Girls, from the publisher:
In her follow-up to the critically acclaimed novel The Anxiety of Everyday Objects, Aurelie Sheehan presents a moving coming-of-age story set in the disturbingly reckless and often hilariously tacky 1970s. In 1975, Alison Glass, age thirteen, moves to Connecticut with her bohemian parents and her horse, Jazz. Shy, observant, and in a back brace for scoliosis, Alison finds strength in an unlikely friendship with Kate Hamilton, the charismatic but troubled daughter of an egomaniacal New Age guru and his substance-loving wife. Seeking refuge from the chaos in their lives, the girls escape into the world of their horses. Rich in humor and heartbreak, History Lesson for Girls is an elegy to a friendship that meant everything.From Aurelie Sheehan's interview with Jessica Lee Jernigan:
To what extent, if any, is History Lesson for Girls autobiographical?Read the entire interview.
Aurelie Sheehan: The novel is inspired by some of my own experiences, but the story and the characters are fictional. Some similarities are that I had (have) scoliosis, I rode horses as a kid, and I grew up in Connecticut in the seventies. Most importantly for the novel, I would say, is that I had a friend who was very important to me. When I think back on it now, her importance to my life and survival as a teenager is hard to overemphasize.
At the same time, in order to write the novel, I had to distance the characters in the book from my own personal history, not just because I didn’t want to write memoir, but really so that the characters and story could lift off the page and become real. It wasn’t until they’d become truly imagined characters — going off and doing their own things without my permission and that sort of thing — that I could really write this story.
Why didn’t you want to write a memoir? Why turn your own experiences into fiction? Your choice is paradoxical, given how important the idea of personal history is in your novel, from the title to the closing line.
AS: Yes, the idea of personal history is very important to me, and some nonfiction is done in a way that I find really inspiring — I love some of the kinds of surprising “narratives” that can be found in, say, boiling a cup of tea or sharpening a knife, narratives that don’t rely on traditional story arcs to find meaning. And indeed, I have written a series of personal essays myself, so I am familiar with the process of plumbing one’s own life directly. (“The Seven Sisters” was in the Pushcart Prize XXIII anthology, one called “Romance” was in the Alaska Quarterly Review, and I’m in the process of writing an entire book called One Hundred Histories, which are basically short narrative “histories” of objects or concepts.)
I came back to fiction for this novel for various reasons. One, I wanted to write intimately about lives that didn’t necessarily go well at every juncture, and I didn’t want to cannibalize the lives of people I know and in some cases love. Two, I wanted to use form in various ways that had to be fiction. For instance, the “Lost Heroine” narratives are, to me, a second way of telling the story of these two girls and their shared psyche. Ideally, or for me anyway, this narrative exists in a kind of parallel reality alongside the lives of Alison and Kate. Three, I wanted to use an accelerated narrative arc, playing out the consequences of certain kinds of societal injustices and sadnesses in a dramatic fashion.
You’re right when you say that the novel concerns itself with history, and yet to play with these notions with freedom (ironically, yes, to be free of actual history), I wanted to lift the story out of my own life and place it just to the side. This way, I’ve been able to underscore, with the eye of some distance, how a young person can reconcile various intrusions of faux and fateful history (the bicentennial, the pressure of her parents’ own histories), with a history that seems to be largely ignored, the story unfolding under her sneakers at this very moment in time. I wanted to reveal a secret history, an ignored history, the history of girls.
And I do use a kind of faux-memoir technique, which is the adult narrator retelling this story. My goal was to allow the importance of the story to occur to her with greater reality as she tells it to the reader, as she tells it for Kate.
Lest I go on and wind this answer into the entire history of my life, I will quit now. But this question — the question of fiction and nonfiction, and the line between the two — is fascinating to me, aesthetically and otherwise.
The Page 99 Test: History Lesson for Girls.