By Gianna Macchia
Today we’re pleased to welcome Ciara Smyth to the WNDB blog to discuss Not My Problem.
What novels really resonated with you in high school? If you were going to thematically pair Not My Problem with a “classic” canonical high school text, which one would it be and why?
Well, I think our high school texts probably differ so I’m not sure if I can answer that. Most of the novels I studied in high school were a bit depressing. It seemed like a sense of humor was not a literary device that was particularly important! That might have just been my own English teacher’s choices though. When I was around fourteen or fifteen though I read The Bell Jar and it remains my favorite book of all time. Yes, it’s dark but there’s a wry sense of humor and a deep longing for connection. I have a line from the book tattooed on my arm.
This is your second YA novel. Was the writing process for Not My Problem different from your debut novel The Falling in Love Montage? In general, are you a plotter or a pantser? How do you develop such relatable characters?
It was different in the sense that I had a lot more uninterrupted time when I was writing the first draft of Montage. I wrote the first draft of Not My Problem after work before I conked out. That was exhausting. I definitely lean towards the pantser side. I start with a premise e.g., girl sets up a business doing favors for the kids in her class. Then I think about what kind of person would do that, what would keep them doing it even when it gets hard, and what do they need to figure out on their journey, i.e., what is the emotional ending for the character? The rest I fill in as I go along. Although with Not My Problem I did have to do a bit more planning as all the character’s favors kind of have to interlink and that dictated what kind of characters they needed to be. I think writing relatable characters is just about digging into the truth of what they’re feeling. You don’t need to have been in the same situation, but you might have felt the same emotion and I think that resonates with people.
The book is set in Ireland and is chalked full of slang and pop culture references. As a teacher in America, I found this particularly interesting as it provided a perspective outside of what I’ve encountered while working in schools. That being said, what do you think are the major structural, cultural, and language differences between Irish and American schools? On the flip side, what is one universal teenage experience you think exists regardless of where you’re from?
I’ve never actually been to America so my frame of reference is TV and I will assume that it is not like it is on TV because I would like American’s to extend the same assumption to Ireland. Especially if you’ve been watching Wild Mountain Thyme. However, from what I can tell I think American school structures and curriculums can vary wildly whereas Ireland is a very small place, it’s easier for everyone to be doing the same thing really. We also have a strong ‘legacy’ of Catholic schools and Catholicism in schools that comes from having a very homogenous population for a very long time.
In terms of language, while writing both these novels, I’ve sometimes been surprised at the phrases that don’t make sense to American or even UK readers. For example, the sentence construction ‘I’m only after doing my hair’, utterly baffled my editor. It means ‘I just did my hair.’ But in Gaeilge you say ‘Tá mé tar éis rud éigin a dhéanamh …” to say I have done something, but it literally translates as I am after doing something. I found all that really interesting and bored my editor to tears by explaining it. And now you too perhaps. If not though I’d recommend reading Motherfoclóir by Daragh Ó’Séaghdha.
I think feeling isolated, struggling to connect, fear of being vulnerable, those are things that are real problems for young people, at least in Western culture, I really wouldn’t like to speak for everywhere because I think that there are places where the entire concept of adolescence is nonexistent or looks totally different. However, I do think that all emotion is universal, we might just experience it in different contexts.
Underneath all of Aideen’s brash responses and sarcasm, there is a sweet person who finds validation in helping other people. What does her character say about our intrinsic nature to belong and be loved?
I believe we are herd creatures. The need to belong is built into us. Today though, certainly in western culture, there is an emphasis on self-sufficiency, independence, and individualism and I think it creates real emotional disconnect for people. So many people are feeling lonely and struggling to find meaning in their lives. I think we’re losing our sense of community and I fear that this is, in part, responsible for some of the real emotional distress people are grappling with. We saw how further isolating ourselves during COVID-19 took a real toll on people’s mental health. Of course, it was necessary but the impact of it should teach us something.
Much of the book centers on family and friendship—the good, the bad, and the ugly. What is the biggest lesson Aideen learning over the course of the book in regards to relationships?
We get hurt in relationships and we heal in relationships. We repeat patterns and we always want to belong. Aideen acts the way she does because it’s how she learned to survive. Keeping a distance from others, not letting them see her vulnerability, it kept her safe for a while, it worked for a while but helping other people around her meant that she was able to see those people in their full humanity, vulnerable and flawed, scared, and needing help at times. That showed her that she could be those things too. Throughout the book, I think she needs to learn the balance between shutting herself off from others and setting herself on fire to keep them warm.
Aideen has a long walk to school every morning. I’d imagine she listens to music. What is the title of the playlist she is listening to and what songs/ artists are on it?
Aideen has several thematic playlists that she listens to throughout the novel and she’s open about her love of Taylor Swift so I think she’d probably be into whoever is current, gentle, and maybe a bit dramatic like Olivia Rodrigo, Conan Grey, and Clairo.
Representation and visibility can be powerful for students who are struggling with their identity. What is one thing you hope high school students take away from this novel?
I get lovely messages from young lesbians who are relieved and heartened to see that word on the page and that means so much to me, it was something I did not expect when I started writing. But I’d like to think that anyone reading the book will see that sexuality or identity is only one thing that people struggle with because we are fully complex human beings. I like to write stories about LGBTQ+ kids after the coming out. Because we go on to have more stories than just that one.
What is one question I did not ask, but you’d love to answer?
Well, I have noticed a fair amount of people describing Aideen’s mum as an alcoholic which is expected but I myself stay away from that language. I think that there is a very prominent medical disease-based model around harmful substance use but as a social worker, I see harmful alcohol use as a coping mechanism. I think this way of thinking about comes from a trauma-informed perspective, but I also believe it’s more empowering for people who are struggling. YA books are naturally about teens, but I’ve hinted along the way that Aideen’s mum has a really powerful fear of abandonment and rejection, just like Aideen. They just cope with it in different ways. Unfortunately, the way her mum manages these feelings is also putting Aideen at risk.
Also, no one ever asks me how I cope with being so talented and also so beautiful. The answer is staying humble.
What’s next? The young adult world needs more Ciara Smyth!
I’m in a bit of a brainstorming phase. I have a lot of ideas but I’ve yet to settle on what I want to do next. The funny thing with publishing is that it starts to feel less like you’re telling a story and more like you’re making a public statement and that can put pressure on you to say the right thing. But rest assured I shall get to work very soon.
Ciara Smyth studied drama, teaching, and then social work at university. She thought she didn’t know what she wanted to be when she grew up. She became a writer so she wouldn’t have to grow up. She enjoys jigging (verb: to complete a jigsaw puzzle), playing the violin badly, and having serious conversations with her pets. Ciara has lived in Belfast for over ten years and still doesn’t really know her way around. Visit her online at www.ciarasmyth.com.
Gianna Macchia is a Milwaukee-based educator and high school literacy coach. She believes reading cultivates empathy, and the more educators can encourage students to read, write, think, and discuss outside of their own perspective, the more they can contribute to building a more accepting, socially aware world. She thinks we should never doubt the power of representation and visibility, especially for adolescent youth. When Gianna isn’t engrossed in YA books, she and her wife enjoy traveling, live music, hiking, cooking, and snuggling their pets Gatsby, Atticus, and Huckleberry, the literary brothers from different mothers.