“All My Favorite Media Is About Teen Girls”: ‘Vivian Apple’ Author Katie Coyle on Tumblr Feminism and YA Lit

Vivian Apple at the End of the World is the smart person’s post-apocalyptic YA novel. Its titular heroine remains a delightfully staunch non-believer and non-practitioner even as America, including her parents, gets swept up in a Doomsday church. But when Vivian wakes up the day of the predicted rapture and finds her parents and a select group of believing citizens gone, she has to decide whether to accept her fate or take a road-trip with her friends to find out the truth. You can guess some of what follows, but not all of it, because the novel — which won a Canadian publishing contest before being published here this month — is truly original.

Coyle, who is a welcome presence on feminist Tumblr when she’s not writing novels, chatted with Flavorwire about diversity and feminism in YA lit, her complex feelings about religion, and more.

Flavorwire: What made you want to take your formidable talent and write a book for and about teen girls?

Katie Coyle: All my favorite media is about teen girls — Buffy, Veronica Mars, Hermione Granger, etc. Those are the stories I’ve always related to most as a viewer/reader, and so naturally once I really started writing I found myself kind of echoing the themes I found in these things. I think there’s a big gap between the sort of cultural/societal understanding of what a teen girl is (hysterical, dramatic, bitchy, backstabbing lunatic) vs. the reality of most teen girls’ lives, which are as complex and interesting as anyone else’s. For me, it’s fun to write inside that gap and play with these accepted notions of what teen girlhood is.

I’ve always been fascinated by the contrast between those negative portrayals and the fact that teen girls’ taste, in large part, drives the culture.

Yes! It’s like everyone’s in denial about just how rich teen girls can make them. But look at Stephenie Meyer! One Direction! Those are people rolling around in golden coins paid to them directly by teen girls

After the “Rapture,” Vivian has to let go of her desire to please the people around her, specifically the adults, which is such an ingrained part of girlhood. With her self-actualization arc, were you consciously trying to send a feminist message, or was it just sort of ingrained in your writerly DNA?

I knew when I started writing that I wanted it to be a feminist book — most importantly, I wanted Vivian to be a girl character who actually did stuff, rather than let stuff happen to her. But her path to self-actualization, as you put it, was kind of just a reflection of my own. I wasn’t thinking about people-pleasing as being an element of girlhood, but of course it is — sugar and spice and everything nice, and all that. I was thinking about the sorts of things that I had to give up as I got older in order to come into my own, and those were largely these tendencies towards sweetness and compliance that I had felt pretty comfortable in for a while.

You touch on faith, dogma, and all sorts of intense spiritual and religious issues. Has religion always been a subject you were interested in?

I was very much not interested in religion when I was a kid actually practicing religion, except for one lone year, the seventh grade, when I had a really cute teacher. I became very religious that year! But in high school I started questioning the things I’d been taught, and realizing that I just didn’t buy most of them, and that was around the time that I became more interested in religion as a cultural force. I don’t want the message of the book to be “religious people are crazy,” because I very much don’t believe that they are. But I do hope the book helps teens ask questions like the ones I came to ask about the power religion still has in our supposedly secular culture.

The apocalyptic megachurch in your book is also a big corporation, and I appreciate that you expanded your thoughtful critique to include capitalism!

Oh, I’m so happy to hear that! I am not anti-religion but I’m definitely anti-capitalism. I hate capitalism so much!

vivianVivian Apple’s friends are a diverse bunch. What was your approach to writing race and sexuality into your world?

It was a very conscious decision from Day One not to write a totally white, straight world, and I think as a white, straight writer, it will always be a conscious decision. For this particular book, it felt like the obvious call, because the characters are really at war with an ideology that treats minorities (women, people of color like Vivian’s best friend Harp, gay men like Harp’s brother Raj, etc.) like something less than human. I wanted the ideology to hit Vivian and her friends personally, and that wouldn’t work as well if they were all white and straight. I do look at the book now and see ways I could have done better, and I hope to do better in the future. But for the most part, it’s pretty easy to catch yourself when you’re writing an all-white cast of characters. It’s pretty easy to stop doing that.

How has being part of the intense online feminist communities on social media affected your craft and process as a fiction writer?

I think the main thing I’ve gleaned from these communities is just a sense that a lot of people care about the same issues of representation that I do, and that if I write characters the way I want to write them (girls being funny and complex and badass), there will be an audience for it. Before I was as active on Tumblr, I don’t think I realized just how many people crave those kinds of stories — I was in college and then an MFA program, and I thought that the sort of writing that got you noticed was dour stories about adult men committing adultery.

But that’s really changed across the board, I think. My husband and I were just catching up on Agent Carter, the new Marvel show, and we talked about how that show feels like it’s kind of pandering — in a great way! — to Tumblr feminists. I think that very slowly people are starting to realize that there’s an entire subset of extremely vocal people clamoring for stories about vibrant, interesting women.

Any teasers about what we can expect in the sequel?

Ah! Well, the first book ends with Vivian learning a lot about herself, her family, and the world she lives in, and in the second book she has to kind of maneuver her way through this new understanding of things. Also there are action sequences and puns and kissing.