How Far We Go and How Fast: Sixteen-year-old Jolene, named after the girl in the Dolly Parton song, is from a long line of lowlifes, but at least they’re musical lowlifes. Her mother is a tanning-salon manager who believes she can channel her karaoke habit into a professional singing career. Jolene’s dad, a failed bass player, has gone back to the family demolition business and lives by the company motto: “We do not build things; we only tear them down.” But Jolene and her big brother, Matt, are true musicians, writing songs together that make everything Jo hates about their lives matter less.
When Matt up and leaves in the middle of the night, Jo loses her only friend, her support system and the one person who made her feel cool. As it becomes clear that Matt is never coming back, Jo must use music to navigate her loss.
What planning or research did you do for your book?
For research I hung around musicians and listened to their talk. My friend Anna works in the repair department of a guitar shop and let me watch her set up guitars one day. I went into another friend’s recording studio and got a hang of how to talk about sound. I’ve also inadvertently been doing research for ages by standing in the crowd at a hundred rock n’ roll shows. Sometimes I would the people in the crowd as much as I watch the band. The book can be kind of sad, but it’s balanced out by the relief Jo finds in music. I also may or may not have followed a few friends up the side of a building or two, in my youth.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve wanted to be a writer from the time I first learned how to read myself (kinda late, around 7). I remember being super jealous of my mom and brother who were big readers and capable of blocking out the entire world outside of their books. I remember sitting down with a copy of Peter Pan and pretending I could read it, just to spite them. I was an intense child. But as soon as I could read, I understood what compelled them. For me, words and what you can do with them, that’s the magic in the world. How could you not want to be a magician when you grow up?
What’s the best surprise you had in the process of writing this book?
As I said, I love when I surprise myself, and the best surprises are when it’s the thing you are writing that surprises you. That’s when you know the work is going well. I had a few moments like this when I was writing How Far. One was early in the first draft when it became clear to me that the songs I had been writing separate from the book were also about Jolene and her world. And vice versa. Scenes from the songs bled into the book, and scenes from the book became songs.
Who would you want to play your protagonist in a movie?
So hard! Maybe Elsie Fisher? Or Rowan Blanchard. Whoever played Jolene would need to have a mixture of strength, awkwardness, and sensitivity that I think they could both pull off. And surliness. She’s a pretty surly one.
Is there a genre or form you’ve never written in but would like to try writing?
Well, speaking of movies I would love to write a screenplay someday. Or television too. More stories about all kinds of young women, please! Not just thin, beautiful, white ones.
What types of conversations do you hope will come out of your book?
When I was growing up I wanted to sing in a band, but I believed it was something I couldn’t do unless/until I weighed a certain number. And I did attain that number, but I wasn’t belting it out on stage when I did; I had to leave school and seek treatment in hospital for my eating disorder. I hate that girls like the one I was think that they will be judged first on their looks, and not on their creative expression or how much they can shred. I hope my book can help show all kinds of young people not to limit themselves based on crap societal expectations. Also, while I can’t pretend to be any kind of authority on how to conduct these kinds of discussions, I do think that the issue of sexual consent is raised in my book. Jolene’s relationship with Graham is complicated and confusing, even to me. Is he taking advantage of her? Or is he simply a well-intentioned guy who doesn’t know how young or how drunk she is, and who tries to do right by her once he does know? I don’t know. But I do know that the sex scenes I see in books and other forms of media don’t often go to the confusing place that I think a lot of young women’s first sexual experiences reside in.
How Far We Go and How Fast is available now.
Nora Decter grew up in the North End of Winnipeg, Manitoba. She has an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature from Stony Brook University and a BA in English and Creative Writing from York University. She lives most of the year in Toronto, Ontario. She has a rock ‘n’ roll past. For more information, visit noradecter.com.