The Many Heroines of Mindy McGinnis

By Melissa Warner Published March 3, 2022

The Last Laugh is author Mindy McGinnis’ latest published book.  A sequel to 2021’s The Initial Insult, it is her 11th published solo work. Her books are gritty, and not for the very young or faint of storyline.  In college, she read a novel for class “that I just thought was terrible…[I thought to myself] I can write better than that and then I said to myself, ok, then do it.”  That turned into an early version of Female of the Species, but it was not YA. When she began writing books, she was writing adult fiction, and commented “It’s not a humble brag, I was not a good writer.  I had to become a good writer…I learned to write by reading.”  Having spent seven years as a high school librarian, she realized, she was spending 40 hours per week with a target audience and knew the market thoroughly.  She then wrote a book about water shortage in a dystopian setting which she’d wanted to do for some time, she changed her intended audience to teens, and shortly (for the publishing world) thereafter, Not a Drop to Drink was a successful, published book, and the sequel A Handful of Dust, followed the next year.  

In writing YA, Ms. McGinnis doesn’t “pull any punches.  [Teens] can read my books and feel like they’re not being talked down to.  I’m not going to skip over anything.” She recalled that when she was a teenager, YA literature tended to be happy, clean books (“I really want a puppy but I can’t have a puppy because my mom is allergic and I found this puppy and I’m going to keep it in the basement and hope no one notices.”), but are not very interesting to most 16 to 17 year olds.  As a teen, she wound up reading dark stories such as Cujo, and she enjoyed reading “dark things.” As an adult, she realized that she wanted to write books “for that teenager that wanted the hard, scary stuff…all of the things I was seeing in the real world that adults wanted to pretend didn’t exist.”  

At least one (Heroine) and reportedly a second (Female of the Species) of Ms. McGinnis’ books have been challenged, and she stands by her work at least in part because they address real things that happen to real teens, and she strives to present difficult material in a respectful and safe setting.  Notably she commented, “I don’t think there’s anything in [A Madness so Discreet] that you couldn’t find on any prime time tv show or video game that isn’t marked M for mature.” She also has commented that “there’s a teen out there that needs to read about a girl standing up for herself and there are more than you think that need to read [for example] that being abused by your father is not okay. I’m writing for those kids…”  She does acknowledge that many of her books might not be appropriate for those under the age of 15. A Madness So Discreet is the story of an 1890 teen whose family has committed her to the insane asylum for a “problem” that is not of her doing. 

“If you read my books in order, you can actually see what’s going on in my mind.” She explained that “there’s foreshadowing for what’s going to happen next because you’re literally following my thoughts.”  For example, Female of the Species was written just after A Madness so Discreet.  “In some ways, when I wrote [the main character killing someone], I was testing the waters to see how people were going to react to vigilante justice.” Indeed, reading the books in publication order shows this author’s development in her writing style and themes, especially teen girls and society. In Female of the Species, Ms. McGinnis tackles vigilante justice head on.  She aimed “to make people uncomfortable,” but also balance justice. The book was sparked by a documentary about an individual that most in a community believed was guilty but never brought to justice due to lack of evidence.  This Darkness Mine came next, and addresses the dichotomy of a person being “good or bad, period, there’s no gray.” What happens when a “good girl” does “bad things?”  The main character in this book was particularly complicated, and Ms. McGinnis commented that “what’s hard is to make a complicated character likable.” It is difficult to know what to feel about many of her characters – are they good? are they bad? what does that even mean?

Ms. McGinnis next wrote a fantasy duology (Given to the Sea and Given to the Earth), and “it was definitely the most difficult one to put onto paper.”  In writing this book, she discovered that world building is “really hard.” She prefers contemporary settings for her books, and Heroine is a prime example. In Heroine, the main character is a star athlete who is injured, and starts taking opioid medications.  The book is a masterful building of a train wreck the reader knows is coming, and is helpless to stop. It also a much more realistic (vs presumed stereotypical) picture of an addict and the surrounding people in the addict’s life.  Ms. McGinnis took great care in not writing a “how to” book for drug addiction, and pointed out that many things in the book regarding the actual drugs and drug use “couldn’t have happened that way;” she intentionally mixed in “drug terms/culture and usages from the 1980s onward.” For example, one character telling another to grind the Oxy to kill the time release to get a bigger high “may have been possible in 1998” but not now; many years ago the drug manufacturer changed the drug so that could not be done.  She understands such a concern about her book, but also points out that several of the challenges appear to be from those who have not read it.  Another specific challenge is that the book “glamorizes” drug use.  However, Ms. McGinnis writes “very honestly about drugs – they make you feel good in the moment… They do not solve your problems.” Upon reading the book, one can see that the book’s title, Heroine, is a clever play on words. 

Be Not Far From Me was originally supposed to be released prior to Heroine, but after she pitched Heroine, it was decided to publish Heroine first.  Sparked by being the author herself being lost in the woods, Be Not Far From Me is a story of survival and even self discovery. Her most recent duology (The Initial Insult and The Last Laugh) is very dark, and very much in the same vein as and inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s stories.  Her main human character is once again complicated, and struggles to handle situations common to being in high school. Another main character is a feline, and Ms. McGinnis has finally written a book about a cat, but definitely not as a family member had hoped for. 

Ms. McGinnis has co-authored several other books with close author friends, and even co-authored a book with James Patterson.  City of the Dead, published in 2021, was an exciting opportunity and a revisit to one of his prior series. Having previously written a dystopian duology, the setting for the series was quite familiar for Ms. McGinnis. “It wasn’t hard to make that leap again…and I really enjoyed it.” 

Although a common misconception about being a writer, according to Ms. McGinnis, is that “we all have money,” she also noted that “I love writing, I love reading.  I feel so blessed, seriously, every day, that I get to do this for a living.  It’s incredible.”  She does have an at least part time job, substitute teaching in the community in which she grew up and still lives. Quite oddly, she has a birthmark on her left knee in the shape of her home state, Ohio. As a teen, she wishes she had known that “it gets better, everything gets better. The things that upset you at 16 won’t upset you at 40.” Ms. McGinnis has known since she was little that she wanted to be a writer, and in high school she was “bookish but also an athlete.” 

When asked how she has come up with the idea for so many books, she said “I never have trouble coming up with ideas… I don’t know where they’re going to come from or how they happen.  Sometimes they really do just land on you and it doesn’t have to be necessarily tied to even what you’re doing at the moment.  I will just have epiphanies.  Generally those are the best ones, the ones that just seem to fall from the sky – those are my favorites.”  She draws little inspiration from people in real life. Laughing, she explained: “There’s always a high body count in my books and if people think you based a character on them and you killed them, that hurts their feelings.” Ms. McGinnis stated she had no plans to write romance, and pointed out that while there is some romance in her books, “look how that turns out.”  Again laughing, after discussing the darkness of her books, she said “people have said to me [after reading one of her books], Mindy you seem so normal.” 

Covid had no significant impact on Ms. McGinnis’ writing, although she had to cancel approximately 60 events, and missed meeting people in real life.  Interestingly though, it affected her “life long go to,” reading.  She struggled to find something to keep her attention. Reading dark things was difficult due to the pandemic, and reading happy things felt “trite or silly.  Reading couldn’t be what I needed it to be.”

Unfortunately for eager readers and fans, Ms. McGinnis’ next solo book will not be published until 2023 (hopefully March).  It is titled The Long Stretch of Bad Days, and in it the main characters uncover the dark history of a small town while trying to earn their last history credit for graduation.  What will happen next??