Saturday, December 10, 2011


It’s official: the 90s are back in vogue. You know that Figment has recently published Dream School, the sequel to Blake Nelson’s 90s classic Girl, about Andrea Marr: grunge rock princess turned elite liberal arts student. As Andrea faces college–preps, professors, parties, and all–she’ll struggle to find her own path to cool. You can read an excerpt of Dream School for a limited time on Figment here, and you can read more about Blake’s inspiration and style below.

How did you come up with Andrea, the main character in Girl and now Dream School? How much did you know about her before you started writing, and how much did you discover along the way?

Originally, Andrea was just there to tell the story of Cybil, who shaved her head as an artistic/rebellious statement. But then as I continued the story, Andrea started to talk about her own life, and especially her relationship with a senior boyfriend when she was just a sophomore. This relationship, which I just threw in there to give her something to talk about, became the main focus of Andrea’s story at the beginning. Eventually, it took over. Soon the the whole book was about Andrea’s transition to indie coolness, which was actually more interesting than Cybil’s, because Andrea was a more ordinary person. She had farther to go.

You’re a guy writing from a girl’s perspective. What are the challenges in that? Did you ever hear, “You’re doing it wrong!” from female readers?

It has been pretty effortless for me. I really like doing it. I find that girl characters can be a little more honest than boy characters, since boys only really think about a few different things: Call of Duty . . . food . . . girls’ body parts. I feel freer when I am writing from a girl’s perspective.

Any advice for other writers looking to take the gender-bending leap?

If you feel lost or you don’t understand your character, start over using a different person. I feel like everyone has an alternative gendered person that they can talk through. You just have to find that character. Also, try writing from the perspective of someone you would like, or fall in love with. In fact: let yourself fall in love with your character. That’s probably the best way.

Girl was made into a movie. Do you picture your characters differently after seeing them on the silver screen?

Yes, that’s why I didn’t see Girl (the movie) until after I wrote the sequel. But I think it’s up to the movie. Like in Paranoid Park (another of my books that was made into a film), that actor did such a good job that I always see him in my mind when I think of the book. The Girl movie didn’t stick in my mind quite so much. And I only saw that movie once. So it hasn’t affected me that much.

Describe Dream School in four words.

Cool kids at college . . .

Andrea has a lot of fun in college—did you draw on your own college experiences in writing it?

Yeah, I was like her, but I was in bands instead of being a film maker. But my favorite part of being in college was when my band traveled to all the other colleges to play gigs, and that’s what Andrea and her friends do. Andrea’s adventures in college are very close to mine.

We can’t help but notice that Dream School ends on a bit of a cliffhanger–any chance of another Andrea adventure?

My Figment editor, Dana Goodyear, brought that up, and we talked about what would happen to Andrea if she got her book published and went to New York and was part of the literary scene there. That would be really fun to write about. And make fun of!!

What does your ideal writing set-up look like?

Couches are my favorite. I like to put my feet up and balance my laptop on my lap. And then balance my coffee cup on the cushion beside me or on the arm of the couch, which drives people insane because they’re sure I will spill it, though I never do. I like having a lot of things balancing all around me while I write. I also listen to music. Often, a certain record or band becomes the sound track of a book, though I never really plan it. And interestingly, after a long period of never writing in public, I have found recently that I like to write in coffee shops and libraries and places like that.

For those Figment users who were barely conscious in the 90s, what are the 5 most important things to know about the decade?

1-It was a feminist period. Meaning that girls took themselves seriously as a group and a gender. They held themselves aloof from boys. Girls who were preoccupied with boys and getting a boyfriend were considered superficial and sort of lame.

2-People wrote letters. I wrote tons of letters, and got tons of letters. It was almost like a side career. They were long and super fun to write. You would spend a whole night writing someone a letter . . . especially if you were away somewhere, like in a foreign country.

3-The world was pretty dangerous. You didn’t tool around with a stroller in Brooklyn in 1991, unless you wanted someone to steal your baby.

4-You could still be gloomy. A lot of the art and music of the 90s was very dour and “miserabilist.” Nowadays everyone’s more cheerful. At least on the surface.

5-I was young and unknown in the 90s and was just starting my career and that’s generally the funnest part of your life!



The touchstones seem to be everywhere these days: the plaid-wearing, goateed bicycle messengers of “Portlandia”; the grunge heiress Frances Bean Cobain’s recent Hedi Slimane photo shoot; the chortling return of “Beavis and Butthead” to MTV. Yes, the ‘90s are totally back — so much so that some culture observers are probably busy deciding at this very moment that they’re already over again. And there’s no doubt that “Dream School” (Figment), Blake Nelson’s sequel to his beloved 1994 teenage bildungsroman, “Girl,” owes its publication, at least partly, to our current fascination with that halcyon age of mix tapes and Doc Martens. Nelson himself said, “I finished writing the book in 2000, but nobody would publish it, so it sat in my drawer for 10 years.”
Blake Nelson, author of “Dream School.”

Quite apart from the fickleness of retro-focused trends, and regardless of Nelson’s own nostalgia for the ‘90s (“I miss Feminism! The whole culture is so 1950s right now, so conservative and conformist”), “Dream School” is first and foremost an enduring account of what it looks, feels and sounds like to be young. While “Girl” told the story of the Portland, Ore., teenager Andrea Marr and her adventures in the Pacific Northwest’s indie rock music scene, its sequel follows her east to Wellington, a snooty liberal arts college modeled on Wesleyan, which Nelson also attended. Parts of “Girl” were published in Sassy, and the passages gave readers a first-person voice so realistic they might have had to remind themselves that not only were the excerpts fiction, but also fiction actually written by an adult man. Were the oft-missed magazine around today, it might have serialized the new novel as well, which is told in an equally convincing voice.

Despite the gender switch, “Andrea’s experience in college is very nearly identical to mine,” Nelson explained. Before he went to Wesleyan, he had “never dealt with entitled people before, and I didn’t fit in.” From its first chapter, in which Andrea arrives at Wellington and internally compares her ordinary luggage to her fellow students’ “nice” bags (“it wasn’t the most embarrassing thing ever, but it was pretty noticeable”), “Dream School” establishes its protagonist’s outsider perspective. She sees her classmates as “very eastern,” who seem “used to airports and being picked up and going to new places.”

Though Nelson’s uneasiness in college may have been spurred by his peers’ socioeconomic privilege, the book isn’t overtly political. Much like the author himself, “Andrea’s not ideological. She’s an observer.” Yet what “Dream School” may lack in pointed critique, it makes up for in Nelson’s spot-on, often tongue-in-cheek renderings of the minutiae that fill Andrea’s college experience: the pretentious girl in the creative writing workshop who keeps using the term “metafiction”; the eyeliner- and leather-coat-wearing, sexually confident dorm lothario; the forever cooler, laconic friend who makes an experimental film about ecstasy.

If “Girl” was a book read mostly by teenagers but still considered, Nelson said, “a very adult book, in the sense that people hid it from their parents, marked its dirty parts and frequently shoplifted it,” then “Dream School” straddles the same fine line between young adult and just plain adult. For one thing, it thankfully lacks the often heavy-handed moral arcs that so much teen fiction insists on. (Andrea experiments with cocaine but doesn’t need to go to rehab; she practices non-monogamous sex but doesn’t get an S.T.D.) What’s more, as the book ends, Andrea is in her early 20s and, much like Nelson at her age, is feeling the pull of Manhattan. Could there be another sequel in the works? “I’ll definitely think about it, if ‘Dream School’ does well,” Nelson said.

“Dream School” by Blake Nelson, $10. Go to


Interview with Isadora Schappell-Spillman @ TEENAGE FILM

Why did you choose to revisit Andrea and write a sequel?

Weirdly enough, despite ending GIRL with a total sequel-suggesting ending, I never really thought about writing a sequel. And then many years later, I was sitting around and I just started writing it, mostly for fun, and to see what it would sound like. And then the first chapter turned out really good. So I kept going.

How do you write so convincingly in the voice of teenage girl?

I don't think of them as a teenaged girl. I just think of them as a person, who is in this one particular situation, dealing with the things they deal with. I think, in the privacy of our own heads, we don't have an age, or even a gender. We just are. So you start with that, and work your way outward.

Dream School deals with Andrea's realization of herself as an artist/writer, have you always felt like you were an artist or was there a specific time or place that encouraged you to become a writer?

I started to know when I was about fourteen. At first I was a musician and I did that for a long time. But something about that never felt quite right. And I was worried that I would age out too soon as a musician. I had to do an art form that you can do all your life. So when I was twenty-two, I quit music and switched to being a writer. Which was scary at first, because by then I was a good musician, but I could barely write at all. But I knew I had an artistic calling or whatever, a vocation, and in the end it wouldn't matter what medium I was in. It might even be better to do something that would take me a long time to get good at.

What was your college experience like?

Pretty much exactly like Andrea's in Dream School. I met a lot of cool people. But i was a little out of my element being at an elite college. I wasn't prepared for the "entitlement". But it was something I had to learn about, if I was going to live in New York City and live a life in the arts. So I got through it.

How do you feel like today's teenagers are different from when you were Andrea's age?

I think this current generation of parents is much more invested in their children than the parents of the nineties. The reason 90s Do-It-Yourself culture existed, was because you had to do things yourself because nobody was going to help you. Today's kids get lots of help. I don't know what that means down the road, but I think todays kids are generally healthier mentally then Andrea's gang. And better adjusted, and more positive and trusting and willing to give of themselves. They still have all the usual kids problems. But just in the most general terms, they seem happier and less introverted and sulky then the generations before.

What are some of your favorite books/movies/tv shows about Teenagers?

I love the book King Dork. I love the movie Splendor in the Grass. I don't really watch TV too much. I appear to be the only person in the world who didn't particularly like My So Called Life.

Why does so much of your work focus on the experiences of teenagers? I.E. what can you express through the voices of teenagers that you could not otherwise express?

I like teenagers. That's the main thing. I never get bored with them. They're so funny, and so wise, and their brains are like new cars. Don't let adults tell you otherwise: you are never smarter than when you're eighteen.

Another thing too.....the buddhists talk about keeping a "beginners mind", like trying to stay young mentally, keeping the world fresh, not getting stuck in habits or prejudices in the way you view the world. I think putting myself in the heads of teenagers, helps me do that, it is a form of doing that. Teenagers have the ultimate "beginners mind" and going there, refreshes my own perspective, it makes everything new again, which gives my writing a sense of exploration and discovery, and also just makes for a nice life for me.



I Heart Daily: What inspired you to write a sequel to Girl?
Blake Nelson: On impulse, I stuck a cliff-hanger, sequel-hinting ending on the end of Girl. I don’t remember why. I guess to force myself someday to write a sequel? I hadn’t really thought about what she would be doing… I just knew she would not be a typical college student, she would definitely have some sort of indie-alternative-artsy experience….

IHD: What was it like for you to follow Andrea to college?
BN: It was fun. And a little bit sad. And really interesting. It was like I was going back to college myself, remembering all the little details of that first day, first week, first month. I had never been anywhere when I left to go to college. It was a huge moment for me.

IHD: You say F. Scott Fitzgerald has had a big influence on your writing. How so?
BN: He did everything I want to do. He was romantic, but also coldly realistic. Also, his characters were so clearly the cool-kids of his time. The “fast” girls, the crazed overly romantic boys, the ambition, the class striving. My favorite of his books might be his obscure second novel The Beautiful and the Damned… the title kind of sums it up.

IHD: Are you surprised that the Young Adult genre has gotten so popular?
BN: Yeah, I am. And it’s also interesting to watch it struggle under the weight of that popularity. It seems to lurch around from one trend to another. First Vampires. Now Dystopia. I would like it a little better, if it wasn’t such a gold rush. But so many amazing books have appeared during the YA boom, you can’t complain. And there’s a lack of pretension that I really appreciate.