An Interview with Authorlink (2006)
1. What was your path to publication? Was GIRL your first book?
I started my career doing "spoken word" poetry in little clubs in New York. My first break was getting some of those poems in The Quarterly which was the cool literary journal of the Eighties. That was not easy. I had been rejected over and over by The Quarterly so one day, I took one of the rejection notes and went to the Knopf offices of it's famous editor Gordon Lish. I talked my way through security, confronted Lish in the hall and demanded to know why he kept rejecting me. I have no idea where I got the courage to do this. As I was thrown out, I yelled: "My name is Blake Nelson!" Lish yelled back: "Don't worry, I'll remember you!" The next batch I sent, he accepted a couple. I was in many issues of The Quarterly after that. Lish was a very influential editor for me. He cut my stuff down to it's barest minimum, as he had done to Raymond Carver. I was already a "minimalist" but he made me more so. I really loved and respected him. He wasn't one of those genteel publishing types. He was a serious and intense person and so was I. I needed to find someone like that to break through.
2. I read that GIRL was rejected 40 times! How did you hang in there after the 10th, 12th, 20th rejection? Did you ever feel like giving up? How did you work through that?
GIRL started off as a kind of an extended monologue spoken word thing. I didn't know what it was. It was like one big long jabbering sentence. I wrote it in Portland at my parent's house listening to Depeche Mode's Black Celebration. I read it at this little open mike cafe, one chapter every week. People seemed very interested in the story and the characters, they would ask me what was going to happen next. That's when I knew I had something. When I finished it, I started off sending it to agents. Then editors. Nobody wanted it. So then I moved back to New York thinking maybe that would help. Finally a magazine editor recommended me to a top literary agent. Since I was now "recommended" this agent took it more seriously than the other agents, and he sent it around. Nobody wanted it again!!! I remember at one point thinking I might have to re-write it. At another point I think I gave up and figured it would never come out. But you do whatever you have to. Like getting thrown out of Lish's office. You have to find a little crack somewhere and then you have to squeeze through it.
3. How did you get GIRL into Sassy? Was that your idea? Then the publishers came knocking? Even those who’d rejected the ms first time ‘round? Was there an auction?
At this time, there was one magazine in America that was just dead on cool in every way and that was Sassy Magazine. Part of the problem with GIRL was it was so current and so West Coast, none of the editors in New York understood it. But the people at Sassy would. They understood everything. So I sent a small part of it to Christina Kelly, and naturally, she "got it" and bought it immediately. When that part came out, about thirty letters came in from readers. 30 letters isn't that much, but every single one of them asked where they could buy the book. I immediately took these letters to the last remaining editor who was interested, the infamous Judith Regan. She was on the fence but when she saw the letters, she went for it. So then I had my first book deal. Wow was I excited. But then Judith Regan quit and left Simon and Schuster and then I was stuck in the weird limbo of no editor. I compounded the problem by fleeing to Prague because I had heard Hemingway moved to Paris when his first book was coming out. So GIRL sort of arrived in the world like an orphan. There were no parties, no editors pushing it, no publicity. It just appeared. I didn't even see it until two months after publication when I arrived back in NY and went to Tower Books and found it. I wasn't even sure what it was going to look like.
4. How did the movie deal come about? Were you freaked? How much involvement did you have in the film? Were you pleased with it? Did it open doors for you? I’m guessing your next books weren’t rejected 40 times…
The movie people paid a person to read all the reviews in Publisher's Weekly and if anything interesting showed up to cut it out and send it to them. So that's what happened. The GIRL review wasn't even that spectacular but it was interesting. I didn't do anything for the movie really, I was focusing on my next book. I was always very surprised when the movie stuff kept moving forward. People would call and say: we're doing the music. I'd be like, really? I was shocked when I got the call that they had started shooting. I thought the movie was okay, not great, but interesting in some ways. I only watched it once, years after it came out. I was sort of afraid to watch it for some reason. I don't know why.
5. You’re a year or two beyond your teens, I’d assume – why do you write about/for teens?
I just really like that stage of life. And I love that there's a whole genre of it. That's why I moved over to become a YA writer. If you're an adult writer they let you write one coming of age story in your career. If you're a YA writer, you can make a whole career out of writing coming of age stories.
6. How do you nail those teen voices in your books? Do you hang out with teens? Eavesdrop?
I never hang out with teens if I can help it, they make me feel old. But I do eavesdrop. I also read a lot of stuff by them, online journals etc. I don't know why I can do teen voices so well. I'm not a particularly talented mimic. I guess a lot of it is the way I talk naturally. People look at me funny when I address them as dude.
7. I just finished reading PARANOID PARK. Couldn’t put it down. Can you tell me about writing it? How did you come up with the plot?
I was thinking of Gus Van Sant when I wrote it. I love the doom and gloom of Portland, and I love the street kid scene there. I love the way the west is still a kind of frontier in that way. All of which are Van Santian aesthetic principles in my mind. Then I set up the skateboarder kid and his dilemma, much of which I stole directly from Crime and Punishment. I did a lot of reading of skateboard stories to get the skateboarding stuff right. I even got a skateboard and fell on my ass a couple times. Skating wasn't a big thing when I was a kid, but if it had been I would have been all over it. An isolated sport where you practice all day to learn one tiny trick. That's me. That's kind of what writing is like.
8. The entire book is written as a letter – did you conceive it that way, or did the format evolve as you began writing?
I think about two thirds of the way through I realized the main character was in love with Macy, and that this whole thing could be a confession to her. I love how she is his only confidante. That's how kids really are it seems to me. They only really trust each other. Right now, parents try so hard to be their kids best friends. But they can't be. The only people you ever really reveal yourself to totally is your peers.
9. The ending is a total surprise, and a bit unsettling… I can imagine the main character eventually doing the “right” thing and confessing, or more likely doing the “wrong” thing and remaining silent. Why did you leave it so open-ended?
That was the coolest part as a writer. I didn't know what he was gonna do!! All I can say about the end is that I let the character make the decision and he did. I did not decide.
10. It occurs to me that we never know the main character’s name in PARANOID PARK, do we? Yet we feel as if we really know him. Was that a conscious decision to keep him anonymous?
Yes, early on I saw that I might be able to write the whole book without revealing his name. I love when little challenges present themselves. Like in GIRL there is no dialogue. When cool little gimmicky things like that seem possible you know you've got a good book.
11. How do you build your characters – are these people you’ve met, people you remember from your school days, people you dream up?
They just come. They just walk in the door. I have no idea where they come from. I know I tend to like them all. Even the bad guys.
12. What’s your writing process? What inspires a story? And then what happens – dash to the computer? Let the idea stew for awhile? How much input do editors have in your writing?
I just go to work every day. I wake up, make coffee and turn on my computer. I work about six hours every day. I throw away TONS of material. That's the main thing with me. I try a lot of different stuff to find one thing that I really like.
13. You’re pretty prolific, yes? How many different projects do you have going at any moment? Do you write with the intent to publish?
I sometimes have two things going. Not more. I don't do any magazine writing anymore, or poetry, and I've never written a screenplay. I may someday, but for now I just think it is such a privilege to get to write a book you know is going to be published. I think every other kind of writing is inferior. To work on something that is all yours, that will have your name on it, that is a complete reflection of you at that time. It's a gift, and also a lot of responsibility, and you really want to give it everything you have.
14. Do you have any tips for aspiring authors? I loved your “beginner’s luck” advice on your website...
Beginners luck definitely happens so I would tell aspiring writers to take themselves seriously and swing for the fences on that first book. Later in your career you will be a better writer, but there's a certain youthful recklessness that can really work to your advantage the first time out. You're so dumb you don't know that you can't write something amazing. And then next thing you know: you have.