SQUAD GOALS: On Power, Queerness, and High School with YA Author Mariah MacCarthy


Mariah MacCarthy is a powerhouse non-binary writer with their debut novel, Squad, listed as one of Barnes and Noble's most anticipated LGBTQ+ YA novels of 2019.

Squad follows a cheerleader named Jenna Watson at Marsen High School. It opens, "I just woke up one morning and forgot how to do everything." Jenna loses her hive mind, her family, her squad. And she only regains her personal power when she finds friendship where she least expects it. Upon finishing this book, I realized it was the first cheerleader narrative I have read that shows their lives beyond the glamour, as the featured cheerleaders create meaningful ties with Live Action Role Players (LARPers) and queer culture.

It was a great joy to lay on a wood floor with Mariah to discuss their vision, how they found power in their own word, and the importance of falling apart.

Lithium Magazine: One of the greatest strengths of Squad is that it brings together seemingly oppositional groups of cheerleaders and LARPers. What do those groups have in common? What made you decide to bring them together?
Mariah MacCarthy: Both are a form of performance; both are groups that others might look down on. I definitely had stereotypes and assumptions about cheerleaders in high school. They probably looked at my purple lipstick and, like, wearing a stuffed snake to school as a feather boa (that was a real thing I did) and had assumptions about me too.
My freshman year, I auditioned for the drill team and got in. The only reason I didn’t do it was because it was the same period as drama class. There’s a very real scenario where I could have been a cheerleader, but I went the artsy weirdo path instead. I think
I had internalized misogyny and femmephobia in high school, where I was just super skeptical of “normcore” girls. But we were all being traumatized, because high school was traumatizing. They found their way of coping with it [in] a more socially-sanctioned
way, but in a way where people like me would question their intelligence, while I found my path by being obsessed with a lot of weird stuff like Anne Rice novels and Vampire: The Masquerade LARP and Marilyn Manson.
Lithium: What is the power in bringing these groups together?
Mariah: We’re not actually aliens to each other. We have so much to learn from each other, offer each other. We’re always trying to express ourselves and feel [like we belong], all while dealing with not having autonomy because we’re not adults yet. Jenna, the protagonist of Squad, discovers that there’s an aspect of her creativity that gets expressed through cheerleading, and there’s another aspect of her creativity that gets expressed with LARPing. She can actually get along with people from both groups.
Lithium: What clique were you in?
Mariah: I didn’t really have a clique. I had meaningful individual connections, but those didn’t coalesce into a group. My people were the AP kids, the band and drama kids, and the goth kids who were really good at math. Jenna is interesting to me because she goes from being in a very socially-approved group to having outsider status. I have always had outsider status. For someone who is finding this new, it must be very disorienting and devastating.
Lithium: Do you see yourself in Jenna at all?
Mariah: Oh yes. We both are obsessive and feel things very, very strongly. There’s a whole part where she tries really hard to stop texting someone, and yet she keeps sending text after text after text. That has definitely been me before. Also, putting tremendous
stock in how other people are experiencing us—that’s a human thing, but it’s [also] something I’ve had to work really hard to let go of. It’s still a process.
Lithium: Without any spoilers, what gives Jenna the ability to find her own power?
Mariah: Breakdown. Sometimes there is no breakthrough without breakdown. She has to get down in the mud and figure out what’s important to her. How she can find belonging and take risks in her interactions and lead from her vulnerability. In order to even have a chance to do that, something has to fall apart.
Lithium: The book also features a relationship between Jenna and a trans guy?
Mariah: Yes! I love James a lot. He is super clear and communicative: “Can we go on a date?” “Can we call it a date?” “Can I kiss you?” That gives Jenna a context—this is what relationships can be like when we use our words. Which is such a contrast to the silent
way that her friendship with her best friend implodes, which is all about passive aggression and having to read between the lines and no one saying what they mean.
It makes such a difference, communicating so you know what the expectations are and what the other person wants. I don’t think Jenna and James realize what they’re doing is also a model for sexual communication, but they demonstrate that it can be super hot to
ask. It doesn’t have to kill the mood; it can be part of it. There are so few models of affirmative consent out there that people can’t see a way for it to work, so it was important to me to be like, “See? It can be done! This is how!”
Sometimes Jenna responds to feeling out of control by doing things to people without
their consent. I think that’s a very real thing, to be like, “I’m powerless, let me take it back in an extremely violent way.” She tries to take back power, but doesn’t know a healthy way to do that. James is one of the only people who shows her how.
Lithium: Were you ever afraid of your own words? Your own writing?
Mariah: Yeah. Words can hurt people, and can be experienced in a totally different way than how they’re intended. I’m very fortunate that my creativity was encouraged almost without question in childhood and high school. My dad’s a writer, and he always encouraged me to write. That’s an unbelievable gift, because that’s so not true for so many people. So many people have those deep scars around creativity.
Lithium: When did you realize the power of your own words?
Mariah: The earliest I can remember was when a short story I wrote about some aliens in the third grade got third place in some contest. It was such a high. Writing was a way I could be special and get positive feedback.
I also really just wanted to escape. I would sometimes be heartbroken that I couldn’t spend more time in my dreams at night. Reading, writing, and dreaming were all ways to escape. It gave me freedom that I didn’t feel in my regular life.
Lithium: What advice would you give other high schoolers to find power in their own words?
Mariah: Keep a journal and write in it constantly. High schoolers now have a relationship with words that I didn’t because Facebook didn’t even come out until I was in college. Social media can make it so your words are always being written for other people to take in. It’s so important to have a place to go where your words are just for you, where you can be unfiltered. Rage, lash out, and work through things in a private place where it’s not hurting anyone.

You can keep up with Mariah on Instagram. To pre-order Squad, go here.


Interview by Lexie Bean.

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