Interview: January 2012
In THE JERK MAGNET, the first installment in Melody Carlson’s Life at Kingston High series, high school student Chelsea Martin goes through a complex transformation when her stepmom gives her a makeover. Though at first Chelsea loves her new look, she soon realizes it’s attracting all the wrong guys --- and repelling potential friends. In this interview, conducted by Teenreads.com’s Michele Howe, Carlson discusses her reasons for writing about society’s obsession with outer beauty. She also offers insight into Chelsea’s character, shares her own opinions about beauty and self-esteem, and gives glimpses into her upcoming books.
Teenreads.com: With a title like THE JERK MAGNET, your book is sure to be a strong pull for teen girls to check out. By choosing such a catchy title, right off the bat are you subtly asking girls to begin examining who they are based on what type of guys they attract?
Melody Carlson: Yes. I’m trying to get them to think twice about the images that media sources keep thrusting at them as “the ideal girl.” I want young women to consider all the ramifications and consequences of falling for this kind of hype. Including the possibility that by projecting something like a “hot, blonde babe” image, you might end up attracting an undesirable type of guy (aka jerk). What girl truly wants to become a jerk magnet? And yet, if you examine mainstream media messages, isn’t this exactly what they’re telling girls?
TRC: One of the biggest pressures girls face is to conform to the media’s definition of beauty. Please tell us how you’ve used the stress of suddenly becoming a beauty to balance out this skewed view of the importance of external looks.
MC: By creating a wholesome character who has felt like an ugly duckling, I’ve set Chelsea up to fall right into the beauty trap. Fortunately, Chelsea has some good sense and intelligence, but because she has been hurt, is an adolescent, and is actually craving some good attention, she quickly gets sucked into Kate’s makeover plans. Of course, Chelsea is completely unprepared for the male attention she’s about to start receiving. And while it’s flattering initially, it soon turns problematic and she has to learn how to balance her sensibility with her new appearance.
TRC: There’s an interesting transfer of trust that goes on between Chelsea and her soon-to-be stepmom, Kate, as soon as Kate takes the lead to transform Chelsea. At any point, do you believe Chelsea starts to challenge her own reasons for placing such trust in another woman simply because she’s pretty?
MC: In Kate’s defense, she honestly believes a makeover will improve Chelsea’s life as well as help bond them together. And Chelsea disregards her initial intuition that a myopic focus on appearances might not be smart. But being that she’s a teen and basically insecure, it’s realistic that she would fall victim to this kind of superficial thinking. Also, Kate is the woman Chelsea’s dad has fallen in love with --- it’s only natural that Chelsea would want to trust her. And fortunately, it does prove a good lesson for Chelsea...once she starts to figure things out.
TRC: Watching Chelsea deal with the unwanted attention of some “jerks” makes me wonder why Kate didn’t address these potential challenges with Chelsea before transforming her. Is there a reason why there wasn’t more of a discussion between Chelsea and Kate before sending her off to fend for herself?
MC: That’s probably the “storyteller” setting it up so that Chelsea, and consequently the reader, have to figure this out for themselves. I believe the best way to get a point across is to allow the character to really experience as much as possible without adult interventions. So, by getting Chelsea and her dad moved away, I put time and distance between her and Kate. Also, as is true with many adults, Kate has conveniently “forgotten” some of the pitfalls and challenges of being a teenager. Besides that, Kate is distracted with her job and wedding planning and upcoming move.
TRC: Rejection is a common theme that everyone experiences at some point in their lives. What does the way someone handles rejection say about them?
MC: That’s an interesting question. I think it would be more telling to discover how a person handles rejection over a period of time. A younger teen might handle it one way --- for instance, they might suffer in silence and self-loathing...or they might lash out and blame someone else. But you’d hope as they grow and mature they would handle it differently --- that they would learn from the pain, become stronger and grow more compassionate toward others as a result of being hurt.
TRC: There was a lot of internal dialogue going on in Chelsea’s mind that most girls will relate to. I believe you made the point (without saying it) that when girls begin “talking back” to themselves instead of giving in to what everyone tells them they should be (or look like), that’s when real change happens. Was that your intent?
MC: Yes. I want the inner girl to be able to affirm herself --- even if no one else is doing that. So much of what girls tell themselves can be negative and self-defeating. They compare themselves to skinny airbrushed images and convince themselves they’ll never measure up. But if they can change their values on the interior by respecting and accepting themselves, it should translate to how they treat and respect themselves on the exterior.
TRC: The smallest events in life often usher in the most significant changes. Do you believe Chelsea in any way “saw it coming” when she decided to put more emphasis on her outward appearance?
MC: I think she intuitively “knew” there were serious risks in what she was taking on. But being she was a teen (and issues I list above) I believe she didn’t care --- she chose to ignore her intuition and give in to Kate’s influence, which was a form of “peer pressure.” However, I do think it also took her by surprise when guys started to come on to her. And, being human, a part of her enjoyed it. And, being a teen and caught up in the moment, she didn’t necessarily see the danger.
TRC: Once the new and improved Chelsea was unleashed, can you explain what exact challenges you wanted her to experience so that she would emerge a more whole person in her own right?
MC: It seems cruel to put my characters through so much, but it’s also a good way to make a point. I wanted Chelsea to experience the whole gamut of guy attention --- from the totally shallow and selfish jerk to the “nice Christian” guy who judges her harshly for dressing like a Hollywood hooker. But I also wanted her to experience her own reactions to her changed appearance, to ask herself if this is who she really wants to be. She discovers it’s a lot of work to maintain this look --- is it worth it? Eventually, she decides it’s not and she becomes much freer to be her own person. Not that it’s wrong to care about her appearance, but without the compulsion to obsess over it.
TRC: Making new friends is always difficult, but how did Chelsea’s naivety complicate this already tricky territory of being the new girl in school?
MC: Poor Chelsea really does want some good girl friends, but she quickly learns that her looks and focus on appearance is off-putting to most girls. Some will distance themselves out of inferiority and others will pick on her out of jealousy. And most of the girls simply don’t trust her. Chelsea learns the hard way that as much as her looks attract guy jerks, they also send most nice girls running the opposite direction. It’s a lose-lose situation.
TRC: Was it “playing fair” for Chelsea and Janelle to take on opposite personas and trick the youth group into thinking they were different people?
MC: No, I wouldn’t call it playing fair, but that’s the fun of fiction --- you get to break the rules and play with all the what ifs.... Trading places like that allowed them to walk a mile in each other’s moccasins, which lets the reader get a sneak peek too. And it ultimately taught the entire youth group a powerful lesson. Or at least it got their attention. Besides that, it was just fun.
TRC: All in all, Chelsea handled herself with amazing grace given her history and lack of experience (and the absence of a mom figure in her home). I’m wondering how many girls would even guess the tightrope she walked (inside herself and out and among her peers), because we take for granted that “beautiful” people somehow have life easier, don’t we?
MC: I tried to set Chelsea up to be something of a “role model” for readers, which was why it’s important for them to be in her head and watch her make this transition and grow. Interestingly, Chelsea plays an important role in the books that follow in this series, which was something I hadn’t intended to do up front. It just happened. And, yes, I do think most people make false assumptions about “beautiful” people. And they might even take it to the next step by assuming that even if beautiful people don’t have life easier, they’re still beautiful, so why should they care? I actually think that beauty can be a curse sometimes. In fact, I wrote an adult novel called LIMELIGHT about an aging woman who “used to be a beauty” and the devastating impact her appearance had on her entire shallow and dysfunctional life.
TRC: What are you working on now, and when can we expect to see it?
MC: I’m working on a YA novel in my Secrets series (NavPress) which is much more heavy and serious. But there will be two more lighthearted novels in the Life at Kingston High series, titled BEST FRIEND and PROM QUEEN, and as mentioned, Chelsea will make an appearance in those.