High school is a strange beast, and upon leaving it, you’re certainly not the same person you were when you started. For Hermione Winters, senior year was supposed to be routine: leading her cheerleading team at summer camp was going to be a great segue into her final year at school. But much like her Shakespearean namesake, what was supposed to be a happy time of new beginnings shifts into a very real nightmare.
Exit, Pursued by a Bear is a story that’s hard to read at times, as Hermione deals with a sexual assault that sees her questioning herself, her team, and her future. I chatted with E.K. Johnston about how Exit went from an idea to a powerful contemporary YA novel, her development as a writer, and Hamilton (cause I’m not throwing away my shot).
Take us through the writing process for Exit, Pursued by a Bear: how did the concept develop? Were there particular aspects of it that came more naturally to the narrative, or were more challenging?
E.K. Johnston: Oh, boy. So back in 2010 or so, I joked with a friend that the only way I could ever write a straight up high school book (i.e. with no magic or dragons or what have you), would be if it was a Shakespeare re-write, and that I would do The Winter’s Tale, because no one does The Winter’s Tale, except it would just be Acts 1, 2, and 5, and instead of the royal houses of Bohemia and Sicily, there would be rival cheerleading squads. Fast forward to spring of 2012. I had just sold The Story of Owen, and was mostly waiting around to see what happened next (which is how you spend 90% of your time in publishing, btw). A lot of my friends were on deadlines, and I wanted to write another book. I was working at a bookstore at the time, and one day while I was unpacking a box, I found a copy of The Winter’s Tale. I bought it.
Meanwhile, a Canadian member of parliament was trying to recriminalize abortion, which infuriated me a great deal. Somehow that fury and The Winter’s Tale collided, and Exit, Pursued By A Bear was the result. Possibly because I was full of emotion, but more likely because I didn’t know that much about writing books yet, I didn’t run into too many challenges while writing the draft. Thankfully, I also have a really great editor. I wrote BEARS!!! with the hope that he would work on it someday, so instead of turning my “inner editor” off while I was writing, I listened to him. And then all the pieces fell into place, I added the word “shoulder” to the book about 14,000 times, and we had a novel!
Hermione goes through a horrifying experience, but she’s got a great support system around her. Was that a conscious decision as you plotted out the story, or was it something that developed on its own?
EKJ: Hermione’s support system is the main reason this book exists. I wanted to write a novel where a girl has an abortion and isn’t punished at all by the narrative for it. It was absolutely deliberate at every turn. In a lot of ways, BEARS!!! will be the most fantastical book I ever write.
Who is your favourite character in Exit? Who was the easiest to write? Were there characters that turned out to be completely different from how you’d initially imagined them?
EKJ: Everyone pretty much stuck to the script, which was lovely. Hermione and Polly are my favourite characters and the easiest to write, but Dr. Hutt was the most fun. I don’t often head-cast characters, but he is for sure based on the actor with whom he shares a name (William Hutt). He’s professional and curmudgeonly and kind, and I love him.
How has your writing style changed over the years? Did Exit pose any unique challenges that influenced your style?
EKJ: So the weird thing about BEARS!!! is that it’s actually my second book. I wrote it in 2012, after I’d sold Owen and before Prairie Fire [The Story of Owen #2] was even a real idea (though I was already cooking Spindle and [A Thousand] Nights, it turned out). As such, I didn’t really feel particularly challenged by it, because I wrote it with zero pressure. I imagine now I’d eat my own liver before I got through the draft! BEARS!!! was also the first book I wrote outside of NaNoWriMo, and it was very nice to find out that I could write whole books quickly, without the organization and support of NaNo behind me.
What do you hope readers will take away from Exit?
EKJ: Oh, this is going to be so cheesy! I hope they take away the idea that life goes on, if you want it to, even though sometimes you have to leave people behind to do it. A lot of Hermione’s story is taking agency in her own narrative, and that’s not always easy to do, but high school’s a good place to start trying.
And now for some fun questions: You seem to be a fellow Hamilton fan, so if the cast of Exit had to perform the musical, who would they be cast as and why?
EKJ: This is excellent. Unfortunately, the whole cast of BEARS!!! is white except for Dion, so they can’t really DO Hamilton. Dion might sing Wait For It at a talent show, though.
What kind of adventures might Star Wars’ Rey and Hermione get up to if they ever met?
EKJ: Hmmmmm. I don’t know for sure, but it would probably involve new hairstyles and shooting things.
What would you tell your 16-year old self, if you could talk to her now?
EKJ: 16-year-old!Kate was unstoppable. I mean, she was probably as annoying as hell, but she was finally, finally busy all the time (music, track and field, drama, volleyball, and a bit of disposable income). She had friends for the first time in years. She was mostly at home in her own skin. I’m not sure if I’d tell her anything. I mean, she made dumb and impractical choices, but they got me here, and I don’t want to change that. Wait, I lied. She should definitely fight her mother harder about her OAC Finite exam. Her marks were good enough to get her an exemption, but her mum made her take the stupid thing anyway. Because of the way the marks were weighted, her grade plummeted.
Thanks for your time, E.K.!
E.K. Johnston had several jobs and one vocation before she became a published writer. If she’s learned anything, it’s that things turn out weird sometimes, and there’s not a lot you can do about it. Well, that and how to muscle through awkward fanfic because it’s about a pairing she likes.
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