Saturday, January 28, 2012

Like everyone else “in the know” in high school, I looked to Blake Nelson’s Girl like it was my bible. All the confusing feelings and twisted emotions I was having as a nonconformist teenager were documented perfectly in this book. My friends and I passed around our one collective copy, each signing it like it was a sacred artifact.

There’s something about Blake Nelson enthusiasts, but Girl and now Dream School fans in particular—you can spot them from a mile away. Like there's an underground code, a secret handshake, a fight club without the fighting. I ran into my old friend Tyler the other day on the subway and I held up my book for him to see, wondering if it meant anything to him. He seemed like a would-be fan. He held up his own copy of Dream School and we laughed. I wasn’t surprised.

I recently got the chance to interview Blake Nelson over email and his responses were yet another reminder of how much I love his work, his decisions, and his characters. Warning: If you haven’t read the book yet, this interview may contain a few spoiler alerts. And, uh, what are you waiting for?

Jesse: Andrea left Wellington on a pretty abrupt and dramatic note. Did you have a similar experience at Wesleyan?

Blake: Yeah, I left Wesleyan kind of hastily. My situation was more based around the band I was in. We were always getting into trouble. It reached a point where we needed to not be there. So we left.

Jesse: In general, how similar was your Wesleyan experience to Andrea’s at Wellington? Did you have a Vanessa, a Carol, an Andrew, a Paul?

Blake: It’s somewhat similar, not those actual people though. The thing about her not finding her own people at first—that did happen. When I first arrived at Wesleyan I thought it was going to be all these East Coast hipsters. But most people had, like, Bob Marley posters in their rooms. It was, like, this prep school time warp. It took until my sophomore year to find ONE person who was into the same stuff I was. He was wearing a Bad Brains button. What a relief that was . . .

Jesse: When you first started writing the book, did you know Andrea was going to wind up leaving college early, or more importantly, that she was going to leave feeling “unchanged” to a certain degree? Like, changed, but not changed in the end-all-be-all way she had anticipated?

Blake: No, I just started the book and let it flow and take me to wherever it was going to go. I didn’t even know she was going to be a writer! As for being unchanged, I think she was changed a lot actually. I’m not sure, if she’d gone to Oregon State, that she could have ever taken herself seriously as a writer. That was the secret benefit of Wellington. Because people at places like that take themselves so seriously. They think they could be writers. It makes it easier for someone like Andrea to do so well.

Jesse: Andrea is pretty comfortable with herself, confident in her decisions, and able to “go with the flow.” She doesn’t seem to sweat the small stuff or obsess over everything the way some girls her age might. Where did the idea for Andrea’s character, her sophisticated and wise attitude in particular, come from?

Blake: You think of her as wise? Ha ha. Well, that’s a compliment I guess! I think of her as . . . well, she’s from a small city, Portland, so she has that small town common sense thing. I don’t know if she’s sophisticated. She does feel grounded to me. But also na├»ve. She’s obviously some composite of me and other people I’ve known and the kind of people I enjoy meeting. But I don’t really make decisions about her personality. She just is.

Jesse: Another thought about Andrea’s character . . . I always thought (in Girl first, and now in Dream School) it was really interesting how she straddles both the punk and mainstream worlds so seamlessly. It seems like a very conscious decision on your part; why did you make it? Were you like that at all growing up?

Blake: Yeah I was like that. I’ve got the classic writer personality of being able to blend in and sort of exist in different worlds. I think for Andrea it’s more part of the process of becoming herself. She starts off being this totally normal person, on the surface, at least. And then slowly she makes the transition to something less mainstream. I love remembering people I knew in high school who made dramatic shifts. Guys who would show up at shows and be, like, the most normal nerdy types. And then they’d come back the next week and be totally punk or whatever. They would totally change in one week.

Jesse: This is kind of a predictable question, but . . . Why did you wait so long before writing the sequel to Girl? And had you always known there would be a sequel?

Blake: I wrote the sequel around 1998-2000. Then I couldn’t get my original Girl publisher to publish it, (it was a little late in their eyes). Over the next couple years, I brought it up with different publishers, but could never get the right fit. Then in 2008 I met Lauren Cerand who was this really smart media person and a Girl fan and she helped me find Figment, which is an online writing community for teens mostly but older people too. Figment was just starting and they were looking for something fun and interesting to help launch their site. They had the idea of serializing it, like we did originally in Sassy. When Figment saw the numbers of people who were reading it on their site, they decided to publish it. It was really a good fit, especially in that Figment is all about helping young writers find their voice and Dream School is essentially about Andrea finding her writer’s voice.

Jesse: Another popular question, I would imagine, but I still don’t know the answer . . . How do you, as an adult male, get inside the head of a teenage girl sooo well?

Blake: I don’t know. One thing: I don’t think it’s so much about gender. I think gender is overrated. I think boys and girls think most of the same thoughts . . . In my case, maybe I’m confident enough in my belief that gender is not that profound, that I can let Andrea be, and not try to make her overly “female.” I let her be a person first, then I sprinkle a little girl-ness on top.

Jesse: Todd Sparrow, ABlakeOne.jpgndrea’s hot rock star boyfriend in Girl, was obviously a hugely integral part to the book. Did you think about putting him in Dream School, or was it always clear there was no place for Todd Sparrow there?

Blake: Going off to college, she is pretty removed from Todd Sparrow’s world. So it seems natural that they wouldn’t bump into each other. Maybe he’ll show up in a future book. Todd Sparrow was always an enigmatic figure for me. I had trouble getting him clear in my mind as I wrote Girl. I solved the problem by remembering Courtney Love—a fellow Portland scene person. She could be so charming and funny even though she seemed like a borderline street person. So when I struggled with Todd, like, “Why would Andrea like him so much?” I would think of Courtney at her best, being brilliant and magnetic and having this quality of sweeping you away into [her] world, which was so much more interesting than the ordinary world.

Jesse: How did the movie adaptation of Girl come about, and what did you think of it?

Blake: A production company called Muse Productions—they had done Buffalo 66, which I had loved so I was hopeful. Some interesting people were involved at different times. Sarah Jacobson—who has since passed away but was this amazing figure in the indie film world at the time—was going to direct at one point. But they kept changing people. When they finally finished it, it wasn’t quite what I had hoped for. It was nobody’s fault; that just happens with movies sometimes. But it was shown endlessly on cable, and got the book a ton of publicity, so I was happy.

Jesse: Have you thought at all about further continuing Andrea’s story line still? Even if you never write about Andrea Marr again, do you feel like you have a sense of what happens to her after the book ends?

Blake: Yeah, I’ve thought about doing another book. I don’t know where she’ll end up or what will happen to her. I’m not sure that matters to me that much. I feel like her youth, like with most people, is probably the most interesting part of her. After that, she’ll get older. She’ll be like an old person. She’ll still be who she is but in a more sedate manner.

Jesse: Cheers to that.