Four years, a pandemic, and another novel for teens (The Project, 2021) separate Courtney Summers’s 2018 breakout bestseller, Sadie, and her new thriller I’m the Girl, which offers an unflinching, often uncomfortable look at grooming, sexual abuse, and consent through the eyes of 16-year-old Georgia Avis. PW spoke with Summers about connecting this new book to Sadie, developing Georgia’s character and her story, and writing as a refusal of injustice.
I’m the Girl isn’t a true sequel or companion to Sadie, but it’s being pitched as a “spiritual successor.” How would you describe the relationship between the two books?
I’m the Girl has a direct reference to Sadie in it that ties the two stories together, but more broadly, it continues the conversation about rape culture that Sadie started. I think Sadie would have died for a girl like Georgia and, depending how you read the novel, she did. I think [Sadie’s little sister] Maddie could have easily grown into a girl like Georgia, and I don’t think Sadie’s love, devotion, and fierce protectiveness would have changed under those circumstances.
I knew I wanted to write a book loosely based on the Jeffrey Epstein case, and, as I worked on it, I realized how much I’m the Girl would be in conversation with Sadie—and even the books I’d written before. In a lot of ways this book brings things full circle for me.
In a 2018 interview with PW, you said your need to tell Sadie’s story was stronger than the difficulty of writing books about power and violence against young women. Why did telling this new story feel so necessary for you?
I think we’ve reached a moment where it’s become more socially acceptable than ever to hate women. We are more willing to put victims of sexual abuse and violence on trial for the actions of their abusers [than to hold abusers accountable]. We are constantly looking for ways to discredit victims and survivors by posing questions of their likeability, as if that has any place in the conversation. These reactions towards victims and survivors of abuse and violence in the public sphere have intensified and are becoming increasingly grotesque. Among them are the stories like the Epstein case and Britney Spears’s recent fight for professional and bodily autonomy, both of which informed Georgia’s experiences in I’m the Girl.
Because I’m an author who is led by what makes me angry, stories like these often become the seed of a new novel. When you constantly feel you’re existing in a space that hates women, the only thing that combats the feelings of helplessness is flat-out refusal. My books are a refusal of a world women are constantly told we have to accept. Well, I don’t, and I can’t, and I won’t, and I never will.
I’m the Girl is deeply enmeshed in how one 16-year-old moves through the world and how she feels about her body. The way she narrates her experiences and responds to her abuse is going to be really unsettling for readers. It’s meant to be, and it should be. Georgia has been groomed to believe her abuse is empowerment and the book does not shy from this portrayal. Crucially, it doesn’t qualify those moments for the comfort of readers.
This is a meticulously researched and vetted book and I refuse to use this book as the platform to moralize, generalize, or simplify Georgia’s experiences for the reader. I didn’t want other characters to shame her or explain what she went through to make her a more likeable or palatable victim. The scenes that were toughest to write and are the most unsettling to read were approached with a tremendous amount of care and thought. What people expect of a novel like I’m the Girl is for someone to pause at some point in the book to say, “We know this is wrong, even if she doesn’t.” No narrative like this should be at a character’s expense or the expense of victims and survivors who have had similar experiences. It's so important to me to never write from a place where I believe I’m better than the girls whose stories I tell. When authors write from that place, readers know.
While I’m the Girl feels like a Courtney Summers book, Georgia stands out among your previous heroines, who often are fighting for agency and power. In contrast, Georgia often seems unaware of the danger she finds herself in. Can you speak about your inspiration for and development of her character?
I have to go back to Sadie to answer this question. There were five books and five girls before Sadie and all had a similar edge to them; she was a culmination of their anger and their quest for agency. It all crystalized into this girl who was seeking revenge on a world that had hurt her. After Sadie, I wanted to subvert the expected Courtney Summers protagonist just a little bit. So I wrote The Project and Lo, who starts out very much like Sadie, aiming to take down a cult, but then—spoiler alert!—she gets taken in by it. Some readers were very betrayed by Lo because they thought she would be their Sadie, but Lo was her own thing. Georgia completes the subversion. She’s the girl who believes in the world and doesn’t want to believe that she would be a victim of the worst it has to offer. She might understand everything that’s happening to her, but she pushes back on other people’s belief that she’s stupid. She really wants to believe in herself more than the people around her do and she’s doing anything she can to prove she isn’t what they all believe—which unfortunately leads her into horrible situations.
All my protagonists are in conversation with one another and, depending on where a reader comes into my bibliography, they might not always like what comes next. It’s interesting to see how readers respond to the conversation depending upon their entry point.
What do you hope for this story and its readers?
I can’t control a reader’s response, but what I feel I have done with I’m the Girl is offer readers a space where they have nothing to lose by supporting, believing, and empathizing with one girl’s story. I’m very curious about how readers will react] and why.
I’m the Girl by Courtney Summers. Wednesday Books, $18.99 Sept. 13 ISBN 978-1-250-80836-3