Creating Larissa, or Learning to Think Like a Teenage Girl

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My teen spy novel, The Boy Who Knew Too Much, is out. It has been for a while, since June 1. It has, thankfully, been garnering a lot of praise. Of all the praise, the most gratifying to me has been the enthusiasm for Larissa. That would be Larissa DeJonge, the French girl my hero, Brian Parker, encounters while running from spies and criminals in Europe. I am especially gratified that the strongest response to Larissa has come from women. “I don’t just want to hang out with Larissa,” a friend told me, “I want to be Larissa.” Wow.

As the book was taking shape in my head and on index cards, I grew nervous as I realized who the story’s equivalent of the “Bond girl” would be. I knew I could write Brian. He is 95 percent the 15-year-old version of me. I understood him right down the last follicle on his head. But how could I write a 16-year-old girl from Toulouse, France? I’ve never been there, and most of the French I learned in two years of high school and freshman year of college has been forgotten.

Sure, I can always turn to the writer’s tool of research. That’s how I found my information on Toulouse. But while I knew that the library would help me learn about the geography, architecture and history of Toulouse, no book, no website and no National Geographic article was going to tell me what it was like to be a 16-year-old girl in Toulouse.

French Lessons

I had to do something drastic. I logged onto MySpace (which should tell you how long ago I started working on the book) and did a search for 16-year-old girls from Toulouse. The list was a long one, which I found fortunate for a reason I’ll mention in a second. Then I composed a carefully worded message explaining that I was an author working on a novel and that one of the characters would be a teenage girl from Toulouse. Would the recipient mind sharing some details about her life in Toulouse to help me understand the character and her city?

In short, I did my best to not come across as a professional writer and not a creepy transatlantic stalker. Even so, I wouldn’t blame a young girl who opened up a message from a middle-aged man on the other side of the world and assume he was a creepy transatlantic stalker. That’s why I was glad MySpace gave me a long list of names, because I figured I would have to contact at least 20 girls before I got a response.

I was wrong. I got lucky on the first attempt. I heard back from Mathilde almost immediately, and Mathilde proved to be a gold mine. (For her privacy’s sake, I will use only Mathilde’s first name in this post, but you can find her full name on the acknowledgements page of The Boy Who Knew Too Much.) Mathilde said she was happy to help me, and that she appreciated the chance to practice communicating in English.

Through more MySpace messages and emails, I asked Mathilde what she and her friends did for entertainment in Toulouse. I asked what her favorite movies, music and TV shows were. I also asked about school. Mathilde responded with a detailed description of the French secondary education system, when exams were taken and what was necessary to move on to college. None of this information made it way into the book, but it was vital to help me understand where Larissa was in her education and to appreciate the knowledge she would have vs. the knowledge Brian, a 15-year-old boy from suburban Milwaukee, would have. Luckily for the credibility of my book – not to mention its readability – it was not at all a stretch that Larissa would speak English far, far better than Brian would speak French.

Mathilde told me a couple of things that did wind up in the book. She and her friends wore Converse All-Stars and they wouldn’t be caught dead wearing any other footwear. I knew right then that Larissa would have a trusty pair of Chuck Taylors. Wardrobe is an important part of building a character.

Larissa Is a Punk Rocker

The other thing was bigger. It became my key to understanding Larissa. I learned almost right away that Mathilde was a huge Pink Floyd fan. Just as I was once obsessed with the James Bond books written 30 years before I graduated high school, Mathilde was nearly as obsessed with a punk band that hit the scene 30 years before her time. That was it. That was something that I could related to in Mathilde, and it became something I could relate to in Larissa.

Because I didn’t want Larissa to be a carbon copy of Mathilde, I changed her punk obsession from Pink Floyd to the Ramones. I figured too that giving her an affinity for the most American of bands would give her just enough reason to not slam the door in the face of the American boy who turns up on her doorstep one evening.

Your teenage years are when you discover your own identity, and music is an important part of that discovery. This is when you start listening to different outlets for music – mostly radio stations in my day, probably iTunes playlists for today’s youth – than your parents listen to. You discover songs and groups that you love and your parents can’t stand, and you start using your own, newly available disposable income to buy that music and the band posters that go up on your bedroom wall. I always figured your favorite band in high school is your favorite band for life.

Once I determined that Larissa was passionate about the Ramones, everything else about the character fell into place. Her wardrobe was easy: Chuck Taylor All-Stars (basic black), blue jeans, a leather jacket studded with dime-sized buttons with the logos of old punk and ska bands, and lots of punk rock T-shirts. Her first appearance is one of my favorite sentences in the book:

The door opened, and there, wearing blue jeans and a Ramones T-shirt, was the most beautiful girl Brian had ever seen.

My favorite band in high school, incidentally, was Blondie. I give the group a shout-out by folding a Debbie Harry T-shirt into Larissa’s wardrobe.

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All of a sudden, research for the book became fun. Getting into Larissa’s head meant listening to lots of Ramones music and watching Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, which, obviously, became Larissa’s favorite movie:

“I guess,” Brian shrugged. “I’ve been a fan for a long time.” Embarrassment rushed in, compelling him to parry. “Haven’t you ever felt a connection with a fictional character?”

“Yes,” Larissa said without hesitation. “Riff Randell.”

“Who’s he?”

“Riff Randell is a she, not a he. The heroine of Rock ’n’ Roll High School. Don’t you know your
own culture? It is one of America’s great contributions to cinema! Riff Randell worships the Ramones and persuades them to perform at her school. Then they blow it up.”

Larissa’s eyes glistened with fervor in the lantern’s glow. Brian said, “Look who’s getting passionate about a movie character now.”

She nodded. “I have always envied Riff. I dream about getting the Ramones to play at my school, even though it is impossible now with Joey gone, and Dee Dee. But it is a wonderful
thing to fantasize—the Ramones at your school.”

Cover Girl

Besides Mathilde, another teenage girl (well, she was one at the time) helped me shape Larissa. Unlike Larissa, this girl had no idea of her input. She is the actress Camilla Belle.

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I was at the Palatine Public Library, where I did most of my research and writing, one day when I walked past the magazine rack in the young adult section and was stopped cold by the girl on the cover of Teen Vogue. Her face was perfect. The girl next door, yet exotic. Beautiful, but not unobtainable. I had never heard of Camilla Belle, but the cover promised “A Star Is Born.” She was a star to me. This, I told myself, was the face of Larissa DeJonge.

The next day I went to Barnes & Noble and bought a copy of the magazine. I cut out the pages of Camilla Belle’s layout and taped them over the monitor of the computer in my home office. The photos were all innocent, which was critical to me. I was writing a PG-13 book, and I wanted Larissa’s sexiness to be unforced, and that’s what I saw in these pictures. Belle on 1950s vintage bicycle. Belle on a swing. No come hither looks. No cleavage. She wore flouncy, full-length summer dresses in every photo. And she looked gorgeous. Belle was probably 18 or 19 when the photos were taken, but she looked 16. I knew that my 15-year-old self would have been bonkers for the girl in these photos, just as Brian is bonkers when he first lays eyes on Larissa:

Her long, chestnut brown hair swept behind her neck and over her left shoulder, hanging low enough to partially hide the names Tommy and Johnny on her Ramones T-shirt, the ubiquitous one that spoofed the U.S. presidential seal. The girl’s lips were dark pink and soft, her cheekbones high and radiant. Carefree bangs curled above her full eyebrows. Her eyes, a deep luxuriant brown that matched her hair, conveyed intelligence and wisdom.

Her hand still on the door, the girl asked, “Est-ce que je peux vous aider?”

She was his age. Brian tried to keep his eyes off the curve of her neck, which—despite all
his recent trauma—now consumed his consciousness. Loud and fast punk rock, not the Ramones but similar, echoed from upstairs, probably from her bedroom. Brian’s mind struggled to form a sentence in French. Haltingly, he said, “Est-ce que ce la maison d’Eduoard DeJonge?”

I used Belle’s photographs for reference as I wrote those words. Larissa is the only character in the book to have a physical model. I did page through Tiger Beat and other magazines aimed at preadolescent girls searching for a Brian, but all I found was a legion of skinny, flyweight blond clones with puffy haircuts, not a budding action hero in the bunch. Brian’s appearance, which gets only a sketchy description, would be based on my nephews.

I decided not to watch any of Belle’s films. I did not want to hear her voice and I did not want to see how she moved. I wanted those static, artfully composed images to remain my inspiration for Larissa. I also wanted Belle to remain Larissa in my mind, not another character. This turned out to be a wise decision. From her name, I assumed Camilla Belle was French, and I imagined those photos were taken in a sunny arbor in France, perhaps within a stone’s throw of the Canal du Midi, which is a location in the book.

Only recently did I discover Camilla Belle was born and raised in Los Angeles and never made a film in France. I found this out after The Boy Who Knew Too Much was published. If I had learned this while I was writing the book, it would have been a crushing disappointment, like learning Santa Claus doesn’t exist. So thank you, Camilla, for having your misleading last name that’s the French word for beautiful and for posing in a lovely magazine photo spread that personified the teenage girl from Toulouse just taking shape in my head. Thank you, too, for not letting me know that you were really American, which would have ruined the whole thing.

As for Larissa’s attitude and actions, I relied on the memories of the type of girl I fantasized about when I was 15: smart, funny, graceful, capable in a car chase (I was a James Bond fan, don’t forget) and beautiful. The demands of the plot dictated one departure from my fantasy girl – she had to be French, not British – and it would not have worked at all to make the character my true fantasy girl, a teenage Sheena Easton (it is not a coincidence, however, that Larissa’s favorite song is the Ramones’ “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker.”)

Following Fleming

Earlier I said Larissa would be my book’s equivalent to a Bond girl, and I suspect that raised some alarms. It shouldn’t. Despite his legendary sexism, Ian Fleming created an array of leading ladies who were beautiful (of course), intelligent, strong-willed, capable and – dare I say it? – liberated. One of Fleming’s strengths was his ability to invent sharply defined, memorable characters. I love Adam Hall’s Quiller novels nearly as much as I love the Bonds, but if you asked me to name the woman in, say, The Tango Briefing, I couldn’t tell you. Not only could I name every one of Bond’s leading ladies in the Fleming books, I could describe how most of them looked and recite a few lines of their dialogue. I set out to emulate Fleming’s brand of strong characterization without Fleming’s fixation on breasts, because that would have been creepy.

Bringing Larissa DeJonge to life may have been the greatest challenge posed by The Boy Who Knew Too Much. She was born of matching Ian Fleming’s example with the memory of what I considered attractive in the opposite sex when I was Brian Parker’s age, by matching the looks of a girl I thought was French with the advice of a girl who actually was. I fell in love with Larissa as I wrote the book, and as a result, romance became a stronger theme than I expected. I cried when I wrote Larissa’s final scene and the first few times I reread it.

So by the end the character that once intimidated me, this 16-year-old girl from another country, became a flesh and blood person I believed in. But would others believe in her? Yes, thank God, that’s the feedback I’ve been hearing. More than one person has suggested Larissa deserves her own spinoff novel! Now that’s an intimidating prospect. I won’t rule it out, though. I am proud of Larissa. I wasn’t expecting to see her on the novel’s cover (I had no say in its design) but I was happy to see her there, holding Brian’s hand as they run toward their next deadly obstacle. She belongs on the cover. Without her, The Boy Who Knew Too Much would be all mayhem and action with no heart. And no Ramones music on the imaginary soundtrack.