New York Gal is immensely honored the fabulous Sheena Boekweg allowed us to be part of her deal announcement for A Sisterhood of Secret Ambitions.
Boekweg is the author of Glitch Kingdom, a young adult novel following a band of teens who find themselves trapped in a video game and need to escape. Now she’s back with her second novel, a thrilling feminist alternate history twist on the American presidency.
That pitch is to die for! New York Gal spoke with Boekweg about the novel, set for release in June 2021. The scrivener shared tidbits about the research for A Sisterhood of Secret Ambitions, her own personal inspiration, and how we can stay optimistic as the fight for equality and justice goes on.
The deal announcement can only say so much. Tell us a little bit more about A Sisterhood of Secret Ambitions.
A Sisterhood of Secret Ambitions is a story about a group of young women who have all been trained since childhood to become the wife of a powerful man and who will become the hidden influence that will shape all of his actions. These four girls are given the opportunity to charm a priority one, an eighteen year-old boy named Andrew Shaw, who the society has decided will one day become the President of the United States. This secret society has selected all the leaders of our country since Abigail Adams famously said “Remember the ladies, John.” In this story she follows that statement with a threat… “or we will remember you.”
This book is told through Elsie Fawcett, a plus-sized seventeen year-old girl with anxiety and ambitions, who decides that the person she wants the society to support for a future president is her. This story is about the changing dichotomy of the way Americans view a woman in power. It’s about hoping for a woman president, and also celebrating the way women lead in different ways then how men lead. It’s unquestionably feminine and unapologetically feminist, and at its heart it’s all about a girl wanting her life to matter as much as the life of her brother or her future husband.
This story weaponizes the invisible work of women. There’s a line in the story I love; “It isn’t hard to keep secrets when no one finds your words worth reading.” The society passes secret messages through recipes and adverts for kitchen powders. It’s like the embodiment of that joke from Twitter.
“Unquestionably feminine and unapologetically feminist.”
They go to the place where they know men will stop reading, and that’s where they work together to help women, either to get away from abusive husbands, or to get work or food, or acceptance.
And also it’s a really fun way to write about a fat girl using her beauty and her charms to gain power.
What are you most excited for readers to find in A Sisterhood of Secret Ambitions?
I can’t wait for readers to meet these girls. Elsie, Bea, Mira, Greta, and their Spinster protector Iris are the heart of this story. These girls are wild and real, and slightly unaffected by the history happening around them. There’s so much pressure on these teenage girls to make a choice that will plan the rest of their lives. These girls are the only ones standing in Elsie’s way to a powerful position, but they are also the only ones who understand her life. There’s a little bit of drama between them, but ultimately they each support each other, and are the ones helping each other try to charm Andrew.
Like imagine the Bachelor, but the people choosing the dates, or lighting the candles, aren’t the producers, it’s the other contestants. I love that this story is full of women supporting women.
There’s plenty of kissing in this book, but the true love story is about the friendship between these girls.
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Where did the idea come from and how long have you been working on this story?
I started working on this story in early 2016 before the last election. I was walking down the halls of my children’s elementary school and there on the walls were kid drawn faces of every US president, in row after row of men, and I thought of all the little girls who had to draw them, or walk beneath them and look up. It was borne of a desire to have more say in who we let lead over us, and a firm dissatisfaction with the Republican nominee.
I’d joined pantsuit nation, I’d voted proudly, I was full of hope and optimism, and then 53% of white women voted for a crass, sexual assaulting, racist, inexperienced bully.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I’d believed that women wouldn’t let this happen. I’d hoped that we were better. I was taught that women were better. But I was taught a lie.
“Finding hope in the erased portions of women’s history.”
About that time I was reading the autobiography Abigail Adams Witness to a Revolution by Natalie S. Bober, and while I read, I got so angry for Abigail. She was such a progressive philosopher, she was called Mrs. President, and yet, so much of her life was silenced by the men around her. And then I read that she knew Sally Hemmings and was still friends with Thomas Jefferson.
We don’t mention often the crimes of our foremothers, right? It’s the men who were responsible for the horrors of slavery, the men who stole the lands, and the women were innocent and invisible. And that’s simply not true. Abigail was 100% complicit. White women like myself need to do better. We need to listen and help, and lift voices, and stand as shields against the horrors of this world. We are complicit in our silence.
And we’re also silenced in great measure. Historically women are erased and forgotten. And it’s like our crimes are washed away, but so are our thoughts and our influence. There’s privilege in a white woman’s silence, but there’s a heartbreak too.
That’s the headspace I was in as I worked on it, and with my editor’s help, I’ve tried to focus on finding hope in the erased portions of women’s history. I wrote this story as a way to show what power we would have if women actually stood together. If we were the women I used to believe we were. This society is a reflection of where we are now, and how much further we still need to go.
How much research did you do for A Sisterhood of Secret Ambitions and what was the most interesting thing you found?
Writing a historical is intimidating. I chose to set the story in 1927, because I wanted to push it far away from the current political garbage fire, but then rapidly discovered that there really isn’t a time when the world isn’t in turmoil. There are so many modern parallels to the Roaring Twenties. I love aftereffects of the suffragettes and the 19th amendment which gave some women the right to vote (not all!) and this period where, women, especially, had more freedom and choices. I loved researching the clothes, the shoes, and the hairstyles; the books, music, and movies of the time; the architecture, and cars. Elsie was also sick as a child from the flu pandemic of 1918, and I loved using the past to explore what recovery will look like.
But probably my favorite thing I researched has to be what periods were like for people in the 1920s. There’s a scene in the book where these girls assemble May Kits which many people used because Kotex was six cents a napkin. Six cents! That doesn’t seem like so much for our time, but back then, most women had to make choices between cleanliness and survival. What an injustice.
Editor’s note: This is still an injustice in many parts of the world. As a starting point, view Period. End of Sentence. on Netflix.
How did you come up with the different stereotypes for women that feature in A Sisterhood of Secret Ambitions such as the Gossip and the Spinster? Were there any you left out that you wanted to include (the Witch, the Tease, etc)? How did you attempt to subvert these ideas of girl and womanhood?
There are so many names that women are called, and ultimately all these names are used to dismiss or ignore us. I loved the idea of taking back words used against us, and infusing those words with the power and influence that has always been there.
The Gossips are the spies of the society. They are the ones who watch and pass secret messages through recipes. They’re often invisible, and they are the ones who make many of the decisions. They are the ones with vision. They are the ones whose judgments should be listened to.
The Spinsters are the warriors of the group. They live outside of a marriage between a man and a wife. It’s a diverse and inclusive society including Trans women, people of marginalized gender identities, as well as LGTBQIA. I wanted to show that often straight women let queer women fight for our rights, while we sit in safety.
The society uses other titles like Wife, Mother, Comfort, Helper, Teacher. These are the ones Elsie knows about. In the earlier draft I’d used a few more (like Mistress and Witch) which I didn’t use in this book because it’s a single POV, and there are things Elsie wasn’t taught. I reserve the right to use these titles in any possible sequels. Ha!
How did working on this novel differ from your debut, Glitch Kingdom?
The first draft of this story came out in verse—much to my surprise! I wrote the whole first draft in less than three weeks. Then Glitch Kingdom sold, so I put it away. I was afraid of it, I think. It was so different from Glitch Kingdom!
Glitch Kingdom is a popcorn novel about a group of teenagers stuck inside a fantasy videogame. It’s fat positive and ridiculously fun, and I think it’s a totally feminist act to tell a story that is usually centered on white men and focus instead of the people who are pushed into the margins. It’s the inclusive story of my nerdy heart.
[A Sisterhood of Secret Ambitions] was scary and raw and too close to the painful things I’ve hidden inside. My agent had to convince me to send it to my editor, and I’m so glad she did. Converting this story into prose was a challenge, […] but this story has just flowed from me without a major struggle. Often as I worked on it, it felt like a memory I was reciting, not a world I was creating.
This story is enormously personal too. While I was working on it, my grandparents both died, 21 days from each other. At my grandfather’s funeral, we talked about his work and his life, and at my grandmother’s funeral, we talked about my grandfather. There was something enormously painful that I don’t know my grandma better. My grandmother wrote poems, hundreds of poems, and I’ve only read a few. The rest are just gone.
Elsie is a poet, because my grandmother was a poet. This story takes place in 1927, because that’s the year my grandma was born. In a way, this whole story was a way to leave my grandmother a monument on the page.
What are some of your favorite historical novels/movies/shows and/or favorite alternate history pieces?
I’m obsessed with Mrs. America, Derry Girls, and the new Little Women movie. A Sisterhood of Secret Ambitions is kind of the Venn diagram center between those three properties. Book wise, I adored The Silence of Bones by June Hur, Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough, and Dread Nation by Justina Ireland.
What’s your advice for staying optimistic and passionate amidst so much heartache in the news daily? How do we fight for change both small and large in our communities and the country?
Hope is hard right now. But it’s there. It’s there in little girls who look up and see us trying. It’s in the teenagers around me who are more compassionate and involved than I knew it was possible to be as a teen. I believe the youth will win. And I think there’s so much we can do to fight for change. To fight for them and with them. Change comes from an arm around a shoulder accepting someone for who they are, or cookies dropped off at a neighbor. [It] comes from volunteering, phone banking, and voting. Change comes from love and stories told gently. [It] comes from marching and protesting.
Sometimes change will only come when we stand together and demand it. Women often set the line in what we will accept from the men around us, and we need to make sure we are holding that line, or moving that line, to protect the most marginalized and vulnerable. There’s hope in us standing together. And those little girls who look up deserve change. They deserve the best we can do.
About the Book
A teen girl is tasked with making the future President fall in love with her by a secret society of powerful women in Sheena Boekweg’s compelling new YA novel, A Sisterhood of Secret Ambitions.
Behind every powerful man is a trained woman, and behind every trained woman is the Society. It started with tea parties and matchmaking, but is now a countrywide secret. Gossips pass messages in recipes, Spinsters train to fight, and women work together to grant safety to abused women and children. The Society is more than oaths—it is sisterhood and purpose.
In 1926, seventeen-year-old Elsie is dropped off in a new city with four other teenage girls. All of them have trained together since childhood to become the Wife of a powerful man. But when they learn that their next target is earmarked to become President, their mission becomes more than just an assignment; this is a chance at the most powerful position in the Society. All they have to do is make one man fall in love with them first.
See more: A SISTERHOOD OF SECRET AMBITIONS
Imprint: Feiwel & Friends
On Sale: 06/01/2021
Details: 352 Pages, Ages 13-18
Preorder A Sisterhood of Secret Ambitions
About the Author
Sheena Boekweg grew up reading books with tree branches peeking over her shoulder. Her novel Glitch Kingdom will press start February 18, 2020 from Macmillan/Feiwel and Friends. She studied theatre at Weber State University, married a handsome nerd who taught her about video games, and then had three kids who stole her heart and her controllers. She lives in Utah with her family and the world’s most spoiled puppy. Visit her online at boekwegbooks.com, or follow her on Twitter and Instagram @SheenaBoekweg.