Girl, you'll be a bloodthirsty gladiator soon

Lise Haines talks about her young adult novel, and why the fictional violence isn't so removed from today's culture

By Steve Almond
October 8, 2009 11:06AM (UTC)
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"Girl in the Arena" is like nothing you’ve ever read. Lise Haines’ new novel is about the rise of a modern gladiator culture in America, in which fights to the death have become a hugely profitable televised sport. The book is both a good old-fashioned page-turner -- it tracks the exploits of Lyn, a teenage girl who steps into the ring to avenge the death of her stepfather -- and a blistering indictment of our addiction to violence. And here’s the kicker: The book is being marketed as a young adult title. Really.

Haines’ previous novels -- "In My Sister’s Country" (2002) and "Small Acts of Sex and Electricity" -- were decidedly adult affairs. Both dealt with feminine desire and its discontents. Neither featured extended scenes of bloodshed. As a longtime fan, I was curious to ask Haines why she’d decided to write a book that is almost sure to be tagged as the female teen answer to "Fight Club."


When did it dawn on you that you were going to write about neo-gladiator culture?

One day I wrote: "You never want to leave the arena when your father is dying." The voice was that of a young woman watching her father falling to his death. For months I told myself this book was crazy -- the whole idea of crafting something around a violent culture. And then I just stopped worrying about the source and immersed myself in her world.

Are you at all surprised "GITA" is being marketed as Y.A.?


We have a fairly fluid market now. Adults are drifting over to Y.A. shelves for some pretty wild stories by major literary authors, and teens are exploring the best, and probably the worst, of adult fiction. If there’s a young protagonist, it’s not uncommon to see it sold as Y.A. or crossover. But I just wrote the novel I had to write. I let others sort out how to sell and market it.

I was struck by Lyn’s initial acceptance of the extreme violence in her world.

But think about America circa 2009. We have tens of thousands of young women going off to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Girls are playing violent video games, they’re cutting themselves, dating violence has surged, and some of them are OK with what happened to Rihanna, according to surveys. Of course, there have always been far too many girls who live in a state of violence. But the net seems to be widening.


Do you worry that young girls reading "Girl in the Arena" will get the wrong message, sort of like, "Cool! Girl power! We can use broadswords, too!"

What I’m trying to get at is the way we sit back and separate ourselves from terrible events. It’s a survival technique you almost have to possess, given our current world. But there’s also a point at which it no longer works. That moment when Lyn can no longer detach from the violent culture she was raised in is pivotal to the final choice she makes. I think readers will get that.


Did you dream up all the details of “glad culture,” or are you a closet ultimate fighting junkie?

I’m afraid everything came from my overactive imagination. I was in the final revision when my editor sent me an article on ultimate fighting. It was kind of spooky. I hadn’t even heard of this sport, or that the Army was promoting it. I wasn’t trying to be prophetic. I just wanted to mirror something in our culture, something I was trying to articulate -- certainly my feelings about the political landscape, Iraq, 9/11. There were factual references to ancient Roman gladiators, of course -- a lot of people don’t realize they had female gladiators as well as male -- and I had fun tweaking Rome.

Who do you like in a fight to the death: Ancient Rome or modern America?


In terms of overall decadence, maybe it’s a draw? I was in Rome a couple of years ago, and I stood up on Palatine Hill, where the wealthy citizens lived. All that tile work, the gardens, the arenas. Of course, we have "MTV Cribs" and "My Super Sweet Sixteen" and dog fights and school shootings. Slaves all over Rome then, slaves all over the world today.

You mention your teenage daughter in the acknowledgments. Is she the inspiration for Lyn?

She’s my inspiration period, but she isn’t Lyn. My daughter did, however, consult on the book regularly. She helped me understand things about the teen world as she knows it, tossed around ideas, even helped me find the end to the book. She showed me something about virtual reality, introduced me to manga and anime, and helped me reconsider the female warrior. I have some of her avatars up on my Web site now. 


What does she think of the book?

She’s very proud, and ready for the movie.

Steve Almond

Steve Almond's new book is "Against Football." Follow him on Twitter @stevealmondjoy.

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