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  • Pretty Little Dirty
  • Written by Amanda Boyden
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Written by Amanda BoydenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Amanda Boyden


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On Sale: March 14, 2006
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-307-27591-2
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Lisa sees the life of her gorgeous best friend Celeste as just about perfect: she has a gigantic house, two older sisters to coach her through the hazards of high school, and loving, lively parents. As Lisa's own home has long been a place devoid of joyful noise—her mother has shut herself off in her bedroom for years—Lisa joins the Diamond household, slipping into their routine of sit-down suppers and soaking in the delicious normalcy of Diamond family life. But what begins as the story of two young women living a charmed adolescence, one of mastering dance moves and the protocols of male-female interaction, soon swirls into an intoxicating novel of art, music, and self-destructive impulses as Lisa and Celeste dare each other ever onward.



I met Celeste in one of those lucky years of childhood you get before anybody significant dies-before Grandma goes, before your dad's secretary doesn't beat breast cancer, before the pharmacist gets into the car wreck. Celeste fit those years perfectly: me with my illusions of everyone living on into some hazy infinity of old age, Celeste with her surreal beauty, her otherworldly trust, her yellow eyes more gold than green, her skin, her lips, her-god!-her grace. You wouldn't believe how beautiful a sixth-grader could be until you saw her.

Having long known how babies were made-woman and man share love and bodies-I sometimes daydreamed about Celeste's parents procreating in a nonspecific way, making my friend before she existed. I had a lot of trouble imagining mine making me, my mother perpetually medicated by the time I was two, my father entirely asexual as all fathers are in eleven-year-old daughters' minds. But Celeste's parents had done the miraculous; they had made her, and I couldn't figure out the genetics of it all.

Celeste's mother, Mrs. Diamond, her face forever defiant (of what I had no idea), stood small and tight and brown as a nut. Mr. Diamond, a booming god of a man, not handsome but there in a sure, ever-present kind of way, danced instead of walked and encouraged you to eat beans and read the newspaper no matter how old you were. You couldn't ignore Celeste's father any more than you could ignore the fact that some wondrous girl actually lived up to the improbable name of Celeste Rose Diamond. No joke.

The Diamonds and my family both moved to Kansas City, Missouri, just days before the start of the new school year, hers from New York, mine from Chicago, both with the intent of placing their incredibly gifted children into the best private school the city had to offer. Celeste and I took our placement exams at the same time. We were coincidentally both young for our class, and there seemed to be some question as to whether or not we could live up to our parents' lauding. Fill in circles with pencil lead. I'd done it my entire young, non-death-filled life. Celeste, apparently, had not.

In a spare schoolroom expressly reserved for such test taking, I lifted my head from my booklet and answer sheet for the first time when the door latch clicked shut and the asthmatic proctor departed with a distinct fart. Celeste laughed out loud. I blushed.

"Hi," she said.

I glanced nervously at the closed door. I wanted to shush her. "Hi," I barely mouthed at the table. I hadn't really seen her yet.

"She doesn't care," Celeste said, throwing a hand up.

I drew the corner of my lower lip into my mouth and started to chew nervously. Studying my booklet in earnest, I shrugged and raised my eyebrows. I held my finger on my question.

"What's number twelve?" she asked.

Judas, I thought. Doughnuts. One short of unlucky. I was in test mode.

"Number twelve," she repeated.

I looked up then, and that's when I saw her, when I first truly saw Celeste, the sixth-grade goddess-to-be just sitting on the other side of the table, staring. I stared back. Years later, when I'd eaten one gram too many of hallucinogenic mushrooms and wasn't sure that what I saw made any sense, I'd blink and stare at a breathing wall in the same way. That way. Blink, blink.

"Hell-o," the beauty said.

"Um," I spurted. "Twelve is D. All of the above."

And so it began, with a perfect dozen of sorts. I had never cheated in my life, but from that first moment on I never denied Celeste an academic answer. Nor she me. I don't believe she thought that we were cheating. Somehow over the years I think she decided we were sharing. Just sharing information, maybe in the way she shared her beauty: "Take it; it's yours."

Celeste's own opinion of her physical appearance is exactly what saved her and what doomed her. Her beauty had no more to do with her inherently than a stray dog might. "Yeah," Celeste seemed to say, "Beauty likes me, but really, more, she just follows me around. She hangs out and we play fetch. Beauty drinks out of the park fountain." If her beauty left, certainly Celeste would have noticed, but her mourning would have been minimal. She had no sense of propriety about it. Astonishing, too, when you actually looked at her.

For all the years I knew Celeste her appearance changed as many times, but no matter the dye job, the ugly clothes, the awful choice of eye makeup, she remained undeniably gorgeous. I hated her for it, and I wanted to be her. If I had no other option-and ultimately I didn't-I would simply possess her. She would let me, finally, put a collar on her and call her mine.

I should begin at the beginning.

"D for twelve? Thanks." The girl smiled at me and went back to her circle filling. I glanced at her answer sheet, full of gaps like missing teeth, seemingly marked at random. She was far ahead of me but obviously not doing it the right way. I wanted to tell her that: "You're not doing it the right way." I didn't, though, of course, and thought about skipping ahead suddenly, an idea that had never occurred to me until that very moment. Ever. How had I not figured that out in eleven years of life? Look at how far ahead she was. Hurry up.

Not a minute later, the proctor still absent, this beautiful girl said, "I'm Celeste. What's forty-three?"

I looked at my answer sheet. I'd just colored in a B for thirty-nine.

"What's your name?" she asked.

"I don't know," I whispered, embarrassed.

The girl, Sellest-what kind of a name was that?-laughed again. "You don't know your name or the answer?"

I smiled back this time. She seemed very grown-up. I told her, "I'm only up to forty."

"What's your name?"


"Lisa What?"

"Lisa Smith."

"That's so nice and normal. What's your middle name?" I watched as she casually closed her test booklet like an adult closing a magazine in a hair salon. "Lisa What Smith?"


"Wow. Lisa Michelle Smith. How normal."

She seemed to mean it as a real compliment, but my name sounded from that moment onward as bland as cornflakes with no sugar. "Yeah," I said, my voice in my own ears tinny and false. The way her face presented itself, then, right there on the front of her head, was hard to explain. She looked like a live painting. She made you stop what you were doing and pay attention.

"I can't tell you how many times I've had to spell mine or correct teachers and stuff." Her voice dropped off at the end of her sentence, and I could have sworn her cheeks colored. I wanted her to spell her name for me because I was sure that I didn't understand it any better than any of those teachers did.

Instead I asked, "What's your middle name?" and that's when the proctor returned, the door swinging open into our fledgling conversation. I looked down, my finger still on question forty. I didn't look up. I heard Celeste open her test booklet and turn pages like that woman in the salon, flipping leisurely.

The proctor cleared her throat and sternly said, "Girls."

"Hi," Celeste answered.

I continued on with my test taking but could not help glancing at the girl across the table from me more often than I should have. Certainly the proctor suspected bad behavior. But I couldn't catch Celeste's eye again.

We found out later that we'd both ended up in the ninety-ninth percentile. They were easy tests back at the start of the sixth grade.

I learned how to spell Celeste's name and how to inform other curious students as to its source, how Celeste's parents met of all places at the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the most romantic place imaginable. How Celeste was French for "heavenly," for "of the stars." In 1976, few kids our age had unusual first names in Kansas City. In Cowtown. The Dweezils and Moon Units were out there on the West Coast. Still, Celeste's name had a touch of the exotic and more than some glitter about it, and the hometown kids, both the mean ones and the not-so-mean, took a liking to Celeste right from the start. As her sidekick, I fit in well enough under the easy, wide protection of my friend's quick popularity. I wasn't ugly. On the contrary, I was cute and bright, quiet but witty, a fast runner and good dodgeball player. Celeste and I were lean and strong alike. We were both still flat-chested. Without even looking, though, you knew we would always be different.

Celeste had two older sisters in high school already. Being newcomers, too, Diana and Rachel commanded more than their fair share of male attention. Within a month of moving to Kansas City, both of the older Diamond daughters had landed steady boyfriends and would remain regularly attached to some guy or another for the rest of their stays before heading off to equally good colleges.

As it happened, Diana and Rachel helped prepare Celeste and me for our first truly tactile encounters with the opposite sex, and they are forever linked in my mind to Celeste's and my sixth-grade wilderness camp experience. Besides telling us how not to gross out when kissing for real, these wise older girls provided us with ammunition of the non-garden variety to use with our female classmates when need be. They prepped us well, gave us lots of good stuff. Gave me lots of important information.

My mom had become a ghost of a mother by the time my family moved to Kansas City. I didn't even really need her permission to go to camp-only Dad's-but she signed her name in her neat script anyway, right beneath his. Experts today might know better what happened to my mother after she gave birth to me and my younger brother just ten months later. But back then, in the waning years of the seventies' sexual and feminist revolution, nobody really knew what her deal was. I truly believe that delivering the two of us destroyed something in my mother. Postpartum depression in the next-to-last degree, just this side of suicide. My mother had no bravery in her, or she would have killed herself at some point in my early life, and then I would have trouble remembering her at all. As it is, she simply haunts my past, a filmy figure behind my father, behind Celeste, even behind those two older sisters, who helped my best friend and me through the gauntlet of growing up female. And so armed with crazy, nearly unbelievable information about male and female bodies, about reproductive systems and mating rituals, Celeste and I departed for camp.

John McFarland flirted his ass off, you could say. No, really. For some reason mooning out bus windows would soon be de rigueur in 1976 in Missouri, and John McFarland proved himself a trendsetter. Celeste and I sat next to each other in a seat near the middle of the bus. My twelfth birthday was going to fall during the week at wilderness camp, and I remember we talked about losing our digit repetition-we would have to wait till we turned twenty-two before our digits repeated again. Celeste said she would find a way to have a cake for me. I wanted to believe her, as she truly seemed to believe herself.

Mainly I just looked forward to going for days without washing my hair. And I couldn't wait to rappel. We hunkered down and propped our knees up on the black vinyl back of the seat in front of us. I picked at my chipping nail polish. A round of "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" had started earlier.

"What flavor?" Celeste asked loudly over the song, only in its twenties.

"I don't care," I said.

"Yes, you do. What's your favorite?"

I liked almost all cake. I'd had little of it, as my mom never baked, and Dad didn't eat sweets. He said they rotted the brain. "I don't know. Carrot ca-"

Suddenly a loud whoop went up in the bus a few seats behind us, and we craned our necks around. John McFarland stood on his seat dancing, lifting his shirt. Next to John, Peter Alpert clapped and whistled. My first reaction was to look to the front of the bus, where the driver was already frowning, his reflection a pinched face in the large flip-down rearview mirror. The gym teacher, Mr. Rahdart, sat behind the driver and swiveled into the aisle, standing. Celeste started yelling beside me, and I turned just in time to see John McFarland pull down his pants and underwear and stick his bare butt out the open window.

Cruising in the fast lane of a four-lane highway headed straight into the heart of the Ozarks, the bus overtook two sedans, both of which honked at the sight of John's white-cheeked greeting. Probably as a reaction to better hide the little jerk of a kid, the bus driver moved into the slow lane. John McFarland bounced and made kissy-mouth faces, winking directly at Celeste. All of us screamed and laughed. How daring! What a weird thing to do! John was the first in our class to drop trou out the window of a moving vehicle, and none of us could even believe what he was doing as he did it. How could he think-why would he think-to do something like that? Continuing to stare in his mirror, the driver drifted right. I watched as a large brown object loomed on the side of the road ahead, a half-crumpled thing that listed into the road like a drunk. I should have called out, but I didn't. And then, just like that, a sign for the Pomme de Terre campgrounds sliced a chunk off John McFarland's ass the size of a twice-baked potato half.

Mr. Rahdart reached John McFarland a split second late, yanking the boy out of the window right after the big warbling clunk of the metal sign. Peter Alpert was the first to react in a way that didn't mean hilarious, in a way that wasn't funny at all. "Jesus Christ, son!" the gym teacher yelled as Peter Alpert scrambled backward off the seat and onto the bus floor. When Mr. Rahdart held up his bloody hands, all the rest of us quit laughing and closed in, sixth-grade hyenas to injured prey.

John McFarland, his face now a slack-jawed mask, slumped as if to sit, but Mr. Rahdart held him up under his armpits. "No! No, no, son, no!"

The bus slowed, gravel pinging on the undercarriage.

"Oh, my god," Peter Alpert said, eyes wide as a doe's. I couldn't stop staring at John McFarland's penis and his testicles, soft-surfaced as fresh apricots, left hanging above his lowered underpants. As I stared, Mr. Rahdart seemed to notice, too, and awkwardly pulled on the waistband of John's underwear. John tugged too, helping the gym teacher, and then cried out like a girl as the backside of his pants scraped his bloodied butt.
Amanda Boyden|Author Q&A

About Amanda Boyden

Amanda Boyden - Pretty Little Dirty

Photo © L. J. Goldstein

Born in Northern Minnesota, Amanda Boyden grew up, the eldest of three daughters, in Chicago and St. Louis. Currently she teaches in the English department of the University of New Orleans. Previous positions include elderly companion, artist’s model, gutter cleaner, dishwasher, science lab assistant, cancan dancer, tutor, stuntwoman, and bit part actress. Until recently, Amanda worked as a contortionist and professional trapeze artist. She proudly lists hanging high over the heads of Galactic and 311 in her life accomplishments.

She is married to Canadian author Joseph Boyden. Her first novel, Pretty Little Dirty was published in 2006.

Author Q&A

Q: Pretty Little Dirty is a surprisingly profound portrayal of the transition childhood friendships make into adulthood. Some never make it, some change and grow stronger like Lisa and Celeste’s, but most of the literature about them feels more surface-level than yours. Was that part of the motivation to write PLD, to explore that?

A: I grew up with wonderful childhood friends in Chicago and St. Louis and was particularly close with both of my younger sisters. Still, I never had a Celeste, never had a singular best friend for more than a couple of years. For a portion of high school I even considered myself best friends with gorgeous twins who dropped every guy’s jaw within miles, but we lost touch when we left for university.

I suppose the friendship Celeste and Lisa share is in many ways what young women desire, something steadfast, unconditional, protective. Exactly what I could have used to get me through that gauntlet of growing up female. I read the novel Lonesome Dove years ago and keep a tattered copy of it on my bookshelf. Maybe Lisa and Celeste are my Gus and Call, loyal to the end.

Q: You have a fascinating background — from modeling to contortionism to gutter cleaning — was it all a path to writing? Are there specific experiences or people from those other vocations that made their way into Pretty Little Dirty?

A: I’m a big believer in at least one cliché: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That is, if you’re able to see a particular event or experience for just that, for an opportunity to learn and grow, you can come out better for it. A lot of what I’ve done for work, for money, hasn’t been glamorous, some of it downright bizarre, and much of it physically or psychically taxing, but I wouldn’t take any of it back. And I do collect images and experiences compulsively. I’m sure admitting to that makes my friends and family wince; I should say, though, that I’m a believer in “real fiction.” I work very hard not to write thinly disguised nonfiction, especially where my characters are concerned. There’s one small exception in Pretty Little Dirty, but I’m not telling who that is! Even that characterization is many degrees of separation away from the actual person still walking this earth.

Besides, the relaying of my true life experiences comes across like bad fiction. Most strangers laugh at me when they learn I’m a former trapeze artist and contortionist who’s chauffeured famous people, suffered two primary malfunctions the two times I’ve ever parachuted, and recently bungeed from the world’s highest jump in South Africa. Never mind swimming with penguins and watching baboons attack in the wild. My real-life stories sound absurd.

Nonetheless, an insider’s view into protected or private circles can be valuable for writing. I’ll likely try my hand one more time at the world of circus, something I know a lot about. I had a novel at auction the week of 9/11 about a down-and-out circus troupe touring the deep South. Needless to say, it went the way of the towers. Even I didn’t want to read something so seemingly light-hearted at the time. I learned plenty: patience, fortitude, perseverance, and a true understanding about the loss of others. I’m very lucky.

Q: Which writers would you say you either admire in general or have taken cues from?

A: Lately I’ve read some amazing fiction. The Canadian author Charlotte Gill’s Ladykiller and Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love come to mind. As far as influences go, I’ve always loved Lorrie Moore’s work. I’ve never stopped admiring John Updike, Cormac McCarthy, Junot Díaz, Katherine Dunn, Michael Winter, ZZ Packer, Michael Ondaatje, Donna Tartt, Louise Erdrich, Bobbie Ann Mason. I think I could go on for pages. Contemporary North American fiction is alive and well, in my opinion. Recently I had the opportunity to meet a talented memoirist, Koren Zailckas, and of course nobody can keep a straight face reading David Sedaris.

Q: Is there a story behind the title itself?

A: A short one: I owe the Red Hot Chili Peppers. My title’s a letter off from their “Pretty Little Ditty.” I didn’t have a title for probably a year as I wrote, and kept searching L. A. hardcore bands’ lyrics until I happened upon the Peppers’. I wanted the novel to carry a touch more weight than a “ditty” and believed that it might be a good idea to include the word “dirty” as a disclaimer. That’s a joke. Sex in novels is good, don’t you think? Maybe dirty as in “not nice” is better.

Q: Given the story’s hometown/personal location for you, how did you pick where in Kansas City to set it? So much of it is real — the Nelson-Atkins, the names of places — is there a “sculpture house” or anything like it? Why Kansas City?

A: The Kansas City Art Institute is a, ah, unique place for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Walt Disney actually did attend. I finished my undergrad degree there. Talented students and faculty, actually. They’re part of what made it such a unique place for me. Also, I didn’t want to set the novel in St. Louis where I spent the years of my life that some of the novel covers of Celeste’s and Lisa’s. I didn’t want any of my family or old friends worrying, trying to find where I’d dissed them.

I know of no “sculpture house” in Kansas City, but there used to be a sort of creepy house near the lakefront in Milwaukee with a weedy yard full of sculptures. The fictional sculpture house is, in my mind’s eye, similar to this amazing house near KCAI that my very clever sister Meg managed to finagle for four of us college kids. Minus the sculptures. It was a huge three stories, made of stone, and had a tennis court in the backyard. Completely renovated. Guests were fascinated by the fact that we had to punch in an alarm code when we came home from a night of carousing. A roommate and I used to sunbathe topless near the net of the tennis court till we figured out that half of the neighborhood could see us from upper windows on the back side of the block.

Q: You have returned to your home of New Orleans after fleeing from the floods with your husband. It’s a city that is rich with beautiful settings and quirkier personalities and, frankly, now it has a whole new story to tell. Would you ever consider writing either nonfiction about your own experience or setting another novel there? One imagines Celeste would be right at home in New Orleans!

A: Celeste would have taken to New Orleans, no question. Actually, the novel I’m at work on now takes place here, the year before Katrina.

Q: Let’s talk about Pretty Little Dirty and the punk rock/rock concerts. Is this the kind of music you listen to? How did you decide to break up the chapters with such vivid vignettes and why?

A: The hardcore punk world is something I know about, but the novel is in no way autobiographical. I made the mistake of hooking up with a guy from Southern California when I was young and saw plenty. I still have a soft spot for some of the old school stuff, though, especially the band X, but no, I don’t regularly listen to hardcore anymore.

The vignettes, those intercalary sections that utilize the second person “you,” were tough to write, but I wanted the reader to have an understanding, at the beginning, of where the story might end up. More importantly, I really didn’t want to prolong that portion of the novel in a chronological way. I needed the vignettes to do most of the talking for me so that when the reader arrived at that point in the narrative, I’d not need to explain or elaborate much at all. The dividers would have—sadly?—done it for me all along. Too, I chose the second person so that the reader would wonder who the “you” actually was. It’s a novel, ultimately, about a loving friendship and its turning points, a questioning of where things irreversibly changed, who led and who followed; I wanted the readers to decide for themselves.

Q: How would you describe the largely supporting male characters in Pretty Little Dirty? Are they colored by our narrator’s own early experiences with immature boys and absentee fathers?

A: I’ve asked a few people as to whether or not they believed Hank to be one-dimensional. Happily, nobody’s thought him to be reprehensible yet. He’s complicated, and makes plenty of errors in judgment, but he isn’t a monster in my mind. Same goes for Ess, the dummy. At the end of the day, I couldn’t have either Lisa or Celeste love a man (emotionally) any more than they loved each other.

Q: When you first start reading, you see the beautiful friend and the plain friend and think, “Ah, I know how this is going to work.” However, it’s not long into the narrative before that traditional girl dynamic is made more complicated. Was that something you were conscious of as you wrote?

A: I kept handy a few books for reference the year and a half that it took me to write Pretty Little Dirty: a book of Greek mythology, The Great Gatsby, and a couple others. Along with a Sally Mann photograph of her beautiful prepubescent daughter that hung on the wall above my computer, the myth of Cupid and Psyche is actually the inspiration for the novel. The original is told from the handmaiden’s perspective, Psyche’s servant’s vantage point, but I wanted to examine a similar relationship that morphed into something very different. What happens when the power balance changes, when roles reverse?

Q: If Celeste were our narrator instead of Lisa, would she tell the same story? For example, what would she make of her own family, her first sexual adventures?

A: It’d still be a story about a friendship, about love. Celeste is often more generous than Lisa, so she’d actually tell it differently, but I think it’d follow a similar tack.

Q: You teach at the University of New Orleans. If you had to give your students one piece of advice about writing, what would it be and why?

A: No author ever made it by just talking about writing. You have to write. All the time. With discipline.

If I’m allowed a second, I’d say that many young writers become masters of the craft these days, but too few remember heart. Fiction without heart is next to worthless. Give your readers something to care about.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Another novel, tentatively titled L’Enfant Terrible, a sort of New Orleans Peyton Place complicated by locale, racism, and disloyalty. I’m enjoying the days when I manage more than a few pages, and the hours speed by.



"A glorious, modern, satirical and funny reimagining of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. . . . Boyden is poetic with her prose, without being purple, and her short sentences read like stab wounds, puncturing opportunities for pretense." —San Francisco Chronicle

"Pretty Little Dirty takes a classic coming-of-age tale and turns it inside out, then gives it a few kicks in the head for good measure. Funny, sexy, inventively told, and scary as hell—a gutsy debut."
–Dani Shapiro, author of Family History

“Boyden cracks open the vulnerable world of the adolescent girl today. Racy, dangerous and very captivating, Pretty Little Dirty paints a hypnotic portrait of two girls spinning perilously out of control.”
–Colleen Curran, author of Whores on the Hill

"Amanda Boyden’s white-hot prose surprises and scorches the reader with her disarming candor about sexual hunger, friendship compromised by envy, and ambition lacking focus."
–Fredrick Barton, author of A House Divided, winner of The William Faulkner Prize

  • Pretty Little Dirty by Amanda Boyden
  • March 14, 2006
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $14.95
  • 9781400096824

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