Several months ago I read This Gorgeous Game and I contacted Donna Freitas to see if she would conduct a blog interview. She graciously accepted. As I told her, this novel was a treat to read. It was an engaging, well-written story that covers a challenging topic. It’s accessible for young readers, meaning youth and young adult readers, but the issues inside the covers are ones that anyone can relate to. Here’s the cover flap copy:
Seventeen-year-old Olivia Peters has long dreamed of becoming a writer. So she’s absolutely over the moon when her literary idol, the celebrated novelist and much-adored local priest Mark D. Brendan, selects her from hundreds of other applicants as the winner of the Emerging Writers High School Fiction Prize. Now she gets to spend her summer evenings in a college fiction seminar at the nearby university, where dreamy college boys abound and Father Mark acts as her personal mentor.
But when Father Mark’s enthusiasm for Olivia’s writing develops into something more, Olivia quickly finds her emotions shifting from wonder to confusion and despair. And as her wide-eyed innocence deteriorates, Olivia can’t help but ask–exactly what game is Father Mark placing, and how on earth can she get out of it?
This remarkable second novel by the author of The Possibilities of Sainthood, about overcoming the isolation that stems from victimization, is powerful, luminous, and impossible to put down.
If you’re interested in learning more about Ms. Freitas or her work, visit her website. Here’s my interview with Professor Freitas.
You say in your acknowledgments that writing this story was a long, tedious journey. What can you share about that journey? Well, this was a dark story, its subject matter tough, and there are many friends and loved ones along the way who have been there for me and supported me with respect to my own experiences related to where the story came from. But, perhaps somewhat ironically, writing This Gorgeous Game was such a liberating experience. To tell Olivia’s story, and to bring her through this darkness to the other side, knowing that she would be okay and that there were so many people in her life that would be there before, during, and afterward, was pretty amazing in and of itself. My editor, Frances Foster, and everyone at FSG and Macmillan that supported This Gorgeous Game from start to finish and still now were pretty amazing, too. It’s funny (and wonderful, too) how something so dark can end up directing you toward joy eventually.
Olivia’s voice is clear and the story captures her experiences, her hopes, and some of her frustrations. Can you talk about what helped you hear her voice and see her experience? One of the most important aspects of This Gorgeous Game for me is Olivia’s voice. It came to me clear as a bell one day on my way home and I decided it was my job to follow it until she had nothing left to say. I think her voice is that of a girl who is stressed and scared and insecure about what she is experiencing and I hope readers can truly be in her head while they read. I suppose that is a terrible thing to wish on readers in some respects, but I want Olivia to come to life for people through her voice!
Among Olivia’s early lines is a passage about gratitude. She wills herself gratitude and the story centers–maybe not quite centers–on her tension between thankfulness and fear, gratitude and confusion. How did you walk that line and strengthen those tensions throughout the work? Well, thank you for the compliment about the tension. I’m not sure I consciously tried to walk any lines, to be honest. My biggest job was to stay true to Olivia’s voice. The main thing I was aware of, though, was the fact that the reader was going to know that something was wrong and what was wrong, too, far before Olivia would ever do or say anything about what was happening to her. That meant that my job was to show the confusion that made Olivia stay silent for so long, even as she begins to fear what is really happening to her. I needed to convey the enormity of what it meant to accuse a priest of abuse, especially when he never did anything “technically” wrong—he just showed her an enormous amount of attention. This was a complicated thing to convey.
I read somewhere that you were interested or concerned about readers’ reception of your use of Thomas Merton. What led you to use his writings and what would you like readers to know about him? I am actually not a Merton fan, but I knew that he fell in love with a much, much younger woman shortly before he died and that they had an affair. In my mind, Father Mark (the priest in This Gorgeous Game), fancies himself as a Merton type—he is a famous writer, a priest, and in many other ways is a very private person—and he begins to see Olivia as his “M.”. I actually didn’t add the Merton parallel until after I’d finished the first draft, though.
Power is abused. People are mistreated by individuals and by systems made up of people. This story illuminates how that happens in one person’s life. How do you see Olivia now that her story is written, being read, and being discussed? How would you describe her? Power certainly is abused all the time, and it is particularly awful (in my opinion) when someone abuses the power they have in relation to a person or a community’s faith in general, and faith in them particularly. I would describe Olivia as a totally innocent victim, a teen girl who was deeply involved in her family’s Church and faith tradition, as well as a gifted young person with lots of hopes and dreams. Father Mark preys on both these aspects of Olivia’s character, and when we are kids, we are so vulnerable in these areas of our life. I hope that people will talk about the events of the story as they happen; why it takes so long for Olivia to tell on Father Mark; what they wish would happen to Father Mark after the story is over; and also, how we can educate teens to not only be aware of sexual abuse, but the kind of abuse that is rather more elusive, that comes from the kind of manipulative, relentless attention Father Mark shows Olivia.
How do you balance your work as a teacher and your work writing? Related to that, what kinds of connections do you see in the roles of writer and teacher? Does one role equip you for the other? I am not great at balancing! I wish I was better, but don’t we all need to be better? I would say that my nonfiction work (most recently, Sex and the Soul from Oxford University Press) is more directly in line with my teaching and concerns in the classroom. Almost all of my nonfiction research and writing comes from conversations I’ve had with my students or topics they seem interested in or wish they had more discussions about. My fiction in general is more personal, I think, even though I think (hope!) that it is useful in the classroom, too.
Has This Gorgeous Game come up in your classes or conversations with students? If so, what has that meant to you? Not yet—this is my first semester since the book came out, though. I don’t think my students even know I write novels to be honest!
I don’t know you well. In fact, I’m only a new fan because of This Gorgeous Game. But I’ll make an assumption to ask you this last question. My assumption is that everyone has faith in something(s), even if faith is understood differently by different people. Can you talk about what this story did for your faith? You handled a bold story in a skillful way that makes me want to know how this good work worked on you if that makes sense. Thanks for this question. Writing This Gorgeous Game was the closest I’ve ever come to an experience of grace, I think. I’ve never felt more empowered before, than when I was working on this book. Through this novel, I was able to take experiences in my own past that I’d buried somewhere deep and dark, and transform them into a story that is difficult, I know, but one about which I am proud. It has helped me to have faith in the possibility of healing even from life’s most painful moments.
What’s next for you and how can my readers keep in touch? My third novel is coming out in September of 2011. It’s called The Survival Kit, and it’s about a girl named Rose whose mother has just died. On the day of the funeral, when her brother and father are arguing over Mom’s wishes, Rose escapes into her mother’s closet, looking at all the things her mother left behind. Hanging with Rose’s favorite dress of her mother, she finds something special that her Mom made for Rose: a survival kit. Inside the bag are items and tasks to help Rose get through this first year, and everything Rose finds inside is what ends up shaping the next twelve months. The story is uplifting and hopeful, I think! And the biggest storyline other than the items inside the kit is a romance, which I really enjoyed writing. The survival kit is based on something my mother used to make when she was alive.
People can contact me through my website, where they will find all my info!
To enter into the competition to win a free copy of This Gorgeous Game:
Post a comment offering one way we can educate teens about the dangers of sexual abuse or one way we can protect teens from such dangers. Respond by midnight, Thursday, the 18th.