Two Young Best Friends Come Of Age In 'Zanesville' In her new novel, In Zanesville, writer Jo Anne Beard tells the story of two 9th grade girls, struggling to deal with life in a small town and pressure from the 'popular kids.'

Two Young Best Friends Come Of Age In 'Zanesville'

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"In Zanesville" is a new book by Jo Ann Beard. It's about being in the ninth grade in Zanesville, Illinois. About a girl whose dad drinks, whose mother is hanging on by a thread, about the lives of two best friends in this middle-sized mid-American place, a place where crazy neighbors are treasured because they're not like everybody else.

Jo Ann Beard joins us from our New York studios. Welcome.

Ms. JO ANN BEARD (Author): Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you say early on in the book, you have a section on what your heroine says about Zanesville. She says it's the farm implement capital of the world but that she and her best friend Felicia don't care about that. Could you just read that for us?

Ms. BEARD: Sure.

(Reading) We live in a factory town, Zanesville, Illinois, the farm implement capital of the world. This means nothing to Felicia and me. We care only about our own neighborhood; everything between our two houses, a handful of potholed streets and alleys lined with two-story homes and one-car garages. We have a couple of busy intersections with four-way stop signs, a red brick barbershop, a corner tavern, a taxidermist, a family who paved their backyard and painted it green, and a house where the garage has been turned into a tap-dance studio. Otherwise, it's all the same, every block, through our neighborhood and the neighborhoods beyond.

WERTHEIMER: Jo Ann Beard, the girl who says that in your book, the narrator of your book, I don't know her name. What's her name?

Ms. BEARD: I don't know her name either.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BEARD: She didn't tell me.

WERTHEIMER: So why did you decide not to give her a name?

Ms. BEARD: I felt so close inside her head that it didn't really occur to me to name her all the way through, because I felt in some way that I was her. And so when the moment came that somebody asked me why she didn't have a name, I just trusted my instinct and I withheld it.

WERTHEIMER: So you decided to write about this girl in the middle of her teenage years. Why did you do that? Why this time of life, the early teenage years? I mean I think for most people this is pretty much a painful memory, with the possible exception, of course, of cheerleaders - for them the pain comes later in most American literature.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BEARD: You sound like you hope so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BEARD: You know, why did I decide to do it? I'm not sure. Somebody asked me if I would be interested in writing for a younger age group. And I automatically said no. But then the idea sort of took hold inside me and I started remembering specific incidents from my own childhood and young adulthood and getting interested in how I could twist them and expand them and portray them on a page, and I got really excited about writing in a way that I hadn't for a long time and so I just immersed myself in it and it was really, really fun.

WERTHEIMER: She says at one point that she misses her childhood which she describes as one long trance state broken only by bouts of sickening family discord.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BEARD: Right. Right. Well, she may not remember much of what happened before she was 12, but I have a pretty good memory about everything that happened to me when I was really young and I'm not sure why that is, except that like the narrator in this book, I was an observer. I was a person who felt slightly sidelined. I enjoyed being slightly sidelined, I think, because it gave me the opportunity to just observe the world.

WERTHEIMER: I'm speaking with author Jo Ann Beard about her new book "In Zanesville."

You did two things that I think are really remarkable. You nailed what it's like to be in school at this age and your book is very funny without ridiculing the kids.

Ms. BEARD: Well, thank you for noticing that. I don't know how funny it is. For me as the writer, I didn't find it to be that amusing. But it's true that when I go back and I look at certain sections of it now, they do make me laugh. The girls actually make me laugh because they're such a strange combination of earnestness and foolishness that I now find them very endearing now that I don't have to spend every day for five years with them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Well, now our heroine and her friend Felicia, who she calls Flea, they cope with some truly horrific babysitting scenes, with boys, with beer, with what to wear, with one particular wonderful scene where they ditch marching band in the middle of a parade, which I thought was really quite wonderful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BEARD: Right.

WERTHEIMER: But then where they finally come a cropper, the thing that they run into that they just can't handle is what happens to every teenage girl, the cool kids.

Ms. BEARD: They get discovered by the cheerleaders quite by accident. They would definitely not be on the radar of any of the popular kids except that a new girl, Patti Michaels, gets transferred from another school and she becomes a cheerleader and doesn't realize that the two girls are not popular. So she has a birthday party and she spontaneously invites them, which throws them into quite a tailspin because even though Patti doesn't understand that they don't belong at that party, they understand that, and so they're frantically nervous about going to the party and frantically nervous while at the party.

WERTHEIMER: And that, it seems to me, I mean it's the cool kids that cause the most pain for the other kids in high school, the followers. It's extraordinary, it seems to me, how big a problem that can be in young lives.

Ms. BEARD: Well, you know, it's interesting in this book because I felt exactly that way when I introduced them to Patti Michaels and the other cheerleaders. But then I had to live with them for a while and I had to force myself to see them all three dimensionally, of course, which is what a writer has to do. And what I discovered about them is that each one of those, quote, "popular kids," has their own particular issues and I actually became quite fond of them in all of their obnoxiousness. And I say that while admitting that the two main characters in the book also have their version of obnoxiousness as well.

WERTHEIMER: My sense is that you think that what's-her-name will leave Zanesville, but that somehow Zanesville, which seems to - I guess Zanesville sort of stands for regular and ordinary.

Ms. BEARD: Right. Right.

WERTHEIMER: Zanesville will launch her in some pretty good way.

Ms. BEARD: Yes. I think that what's-her-name will leave Zanesville. But I suspect that Zanesville will never leave what's-her-name.

(Soundbite of song "Dreams")

Ms. STEVIE NICKS (Singer, Fleetwood Mac): (Singing) Players only love you when they're playing...

WERTHEIMER: Jo Ann Beard's new book is called "In Zanesville."

Thank you very much for talking to us about the book.

Ms. BEARD: Thank you, Linda. It was great to be here.

(Soundbite of song "Dreams")

Ms. NICKS: (Singing) When the rain washes you clean, you'll know...

WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Scott Simon is back next week.

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