I’ve always loved YA fiction. It is smart, it is complex, and it is heartbreaking. Uses for Boys is all three.
This page-turner took me less than two days to read, and in that time, I found myself hoping the protagonist, Anna, wouldn’t keep making the same mistakes over and over. But like a real human being, she does. With no father to speak of and a once-loving mom who now makes herself scarce, Anna is forced to navigate much of her childhood and teen years on her own. She seeks comfort in all the wrong places, mistaking sex for love and being punished for it as a result. Uses for Boys is a raw and real book that deals with abandonment and abuse, and it highlights the story of the kind of person society tends to shame by victim-blaming.
I did a Q&A with author Erica Lorraine Scheidt about some of the most important themes and moments from the book.
And her responses were so thoughtful that I’m really excited to share them with you now. Check out our Q&A below.
WTH: Anna’s a tragic character who can’t seem to help but make the same mistakes over and over. Why was her story so important for you to tell?
ELS: I was writing into the question of how we make our way in the world. I started thinking about a teenage girl for whom sex was a salve to loneliness. And I was curious—why is it so easy for a girl to get sexual attention, but so difficult to get other kinds of attention? I thought, and I still think, that Anna’s story is important, because we are all lonely, we all have to learn how to be in the world. Anna just had to learn out loud, with little support or direction.
Some of the sex scenes are pretty detailed for a YA novel. How did you tread the line between being realistic and not romanticizing it too much?
I started out interested in what it meant that Anna learned about sex in the moment, from her partners, and not from frank, respectful conversations with caring adults. I was specifically interested in all the mistakes she made—and even when intimacy was surprising or tender or fun for Anna, it never occurred to me that it was romanticized. I think because because her experiences were also awkward or hurtful or confusing at times.
I did know, even when writing the earliest drafts, that the book was more explicit than many YA novels. But I feel strongly that we have to have safe ways to talk about sex and sexual situations—and fiction is one of those safe ways. We need to have more than fade to black and everything works out—because how do young men and women learn to navigate consent and pleasure without having some models for what works and what doesn’t work?
One thing I found interesting and refreshing about your book is how it depicts the abortion. While it is a fragile and challenging situation, the abortion is not nearly as dramatic or traumatic as it’s so often made out to be. It was a big moment in Anna’s life, but it wasn’t a defining moment. Did you take this approach on purpose, and if so, why?
I saw the abortion as one of the few times in Anna’s young life that adults were looking out for her physical and emotional wellbeing. And I loved the idea that Anna noticed these strong, caring women in the clinic and wondered what they had, why they were different than the other women in her life. I worked in an abortion clinic when I was 18, and I was so impressed by the women who worked there—kind, strong, generous, knowledgable women who were committed to serving others. It made a profound impression on me.
Anna’s mom’s absence throughout the book is such a presence, ironically. The whole time I was reading, I wanted to know how she justified spending so much time away from her daughter. What don’t readers know about her that you do?
I’m fascinated by villains. And the idea that the villain of your story can always justify his or her actions. Anna’s mom thought she was providing for her daughter by seeking financial security. I also suspect that Anna’s mom didn’t know how to make a different kind of home for Anna. I have a lot of hope for Anna, but I also have hope that her mom will change and grow.
Your website says you’re working on a new novel. Is there anything you can share about that?
Yes, only to say that it’s been difficult. And I won’t know until it’s finished, but the project seems to be taking a new turn and I’m very excited about it.