For a certain type of girl wending her way through adolescence in the mid 1990s, the bible was a paperback novel with a hot pink spine. It was Blake Nelson’s debut and it was called, aptly, Girl. The cover bore a blurry black-and-white portrait of a girl in motion: in peasant blouse and pendant, she was flipping her dark hair over her shoulder in something between a head-bang and a shrug.
She looked like the kind of girl who might tune in to the college radio station as she hunched over her homework, who might don striped knee socks one day and retreat to denim the next. The kind of girl who found herself in a perpetual limbo of activity and identity: too much a good girl to jump with abandon into a mosh pit, too restless to sit through the indignity of one more homecoming pep rally. She looked, in other words, like the kind of girl who might find herself in the young adult aisle of her local Borders with Nelson’s book in hand.
There’s nothing particularly spectacular about the life and times of Nelson’s messiah, a Portland, Ore., teenager named Andrea Marr. Girl bristles with energy and reads like a diary, the straightforward observations of a typical complicated girl navigating high school and the local music scene. Andrea comforts a friend who has impulsively shaved her head, feels self-conscious in thrift store dresses, loses her virginity at summer camp, falls in love with a local indie celebrity, lingers over frozen yogurt at the mall, encounters skinheads at the club downtown. Her story is a well-mixed cocktail of adolescent experience, decidedly mundane with a healthy dash of the formative.
That there’s nothing spectacular is precisely the point: in that way, Girl echoes that other bastion of disaffected ’90s girldom, My So-Called Life, another telling of the gospel of female adolescence, the universal girl-story retold in our own words. Andrea Marr, like Angela Chase, was impossibly, universally compelling because she was us. She was as determined and fickle, as angsty and endearing, as brilliant and insipid as we felt.
Nelson, now in his 40s, and yes, a man, has a certain knack for mapping the mind of the teenage girl. He’s published 11 novels for young adults over nearly two decades, including Paranoid Park, which was adapted for the screen by Gus Van Sant, but two recent girl-centric projects mark a return to his roots. Last fall saw the online release of a long-lost sequel to Girl. And Recovery Road, about a high school senior who meets the love of her young life in rehab, will be published by Scholastic in March.
Writing like a girl, Nelson tells me on the phone from his home in Venice Beach—where he’s now at work on a book about a kid who starts an electropop band—is hardwired in him from his early success with Girl. At the time, he says, a girl character appealed because she could get away with saying and thinking uncouth things without sounding like “some scuzzy drummer.” He ended up with a high school girl “by accident,” after spending some time reading his girlfriend’s old Sassy magazines. “I thought, not only is this interesting, it’s interesting now,” he says. “We were in the second wave of feminism—that was the place everybody was curious about. Boys weren’t really the heroes in the ’90s. Girls were heroes. They were being brave and changing the culture. And the culture wanted to hear about girls.”
Sassy would become Nelson’s biggest platform—it published chapters of Girl in serial form before the novel was published in 1994 (on my fifteenth birthday, in a coincidence I can’t help but find noteworthy). But Sassy would fold not long after, and the times would begin to change. The cover story of the New York magazine that’s sitting on my desk as Nelson and I speak is about the ways today’s teens navigate their sexuality in a pornified, digitized world. From the vantage point of a childless adulthood, adolescence seems like a far shallower, seedier place than I remember it.
Nelson sees it differently. He recently wrote on his blog about rereading Girl for the first time in years. “I was shocked by the sex and drugs and carnage and brutality of Andrea’s high school,” he wrote. “There’s race riots, rape, murder, suicide, people stopping being friends with people without communicating about it or providing closure…. The whole world has ‘cleaned up’ in a way. And when I think about it, and am honest, I think I’d rather be a kid now, in the Glee era, the time of the High School Musical.” Given that my reference point to these pop culture touchstones are Terry Richardson’s “Glee Gone Wild” GQ shoot and Vanessa Hudgens’s naked cellphone pictures, respectively, I’m having a hard time reconciling this with my own vision of today’s sexually savvy, technologically sophisticated, generally jaded youth. I ask Nelson if he thinks things were really grittier in the ’90s than they are today. He says he has no doubt about it.
Of course teenagers like doing all sorts of horrible things; they always have and they always will. If you went back to the Greek days I’m sure some girl gave somebody a blow job in eighth grade and paid the price with her reputation. But I think we’re in the ’50s right now. I don’t think drugs are as glamorous. We hover over our kids and manage them and try to be their best friend, and in that environment they can’t run wild in the streets. It’s a really conservative time. To teenagers now, to be “new” is to not be like their punk rock parents.
Given that adolescence has changed, one way or the other, I ask Nelson how his writing has changed in response. Are the stories teens want to hear different today? Not really, he says. If the voice is compelling enough and the emotions are there, a novel speaks for itself. “I do feel a slow separation from teenagers,” he says. To remedy it, he collects anecdotes from friends who have kids and spends time at high school basketball games and other places where teens interact without adult mediation. He tries to absorb the rhythms of teen-speak and translate that to the page, without relying on slang or fashion and technology or cultural references that are too specific and dated. “You have to be careful,” he says. “In the end books are about style and aesthetics, and if [as a reader] you don’t feel like a person can create a world that’s correct then you’ll bail.”
Even though he makes his living writing for teenagers, Nelson is something of an iconoclast in the YA lit world. He doesn’t have the easiest time in the genre, he says, in part because it traditionally demands plot-driven works and he excels at creating characters. “My agents and editors are always like, ‘Geez Blake! If you could only do something that’s a little more YA,’ ” he says. In fact, the original Publisher’s Weekly review of Girl placed it in “an interesting genre purgatory that simultaneously critiques the strictures of current YA fiction while it exposes the unattractive jadedness of much adult fiction.”
It was luck, Nelson says, that his latest novel, Recovery Road, has a classic plot structure. We meet protagonist Maddie in her final weeks at rehab, where she’s recovering from an assortment of addictions, beginning to acknowledge an “anger problem,” and falling in love for the first time. The real adventures begin once she’s out, while she struggles to get back on top of school, to build a new social world that’s not based on drugs, and to maintain a long-distance relationship. There’s sex, death, relapse, and, yes, redemption. If that’s a tale for a less brutal time, it’s only in the way that life lessons are learned, and learned the hard way. “My editor, David Levithan, pushes you to be as adult as you want, to not hold anything back,” Nelson says. “I feel like the adult [literature] world is sort of contracting and the YA world is expanding.”
One way that world has expanded recently is with the launch of Figment.com, a social network for YA readers, which published a sequel to Girl called Dream School one chapter at a time over a six week period beginning last November. It was a deliberate nod to Girl’s history as a serial, Nelson says, and also a deliberate ride on a cultural wave of ’90s nostalgia, borne after a “smart publicist friend” told Nelson, “The time is coming for Dream School… I feel it… Now.”
That time had been a long time coming. It was 2002 when Nelson wrote Dream School, which follows Andrea to the liberal artsy Wellington College (a not even barely veiled Wesleyan, which Nelson attended). But Girl’s editor, Judith Regan, had by then left its publisher, Simon & Schuster, and Nelson couldn’t find another editor who got the novel’s interior sensibility. “It wasn’t even a near miss,” he says. “People were like ‘This is a joke!’ But, I had this weird feeling. I thought at some point there will be a time when this will work. So I didn’t sweat it, I just put it away in a drawer.” In a way, it has now found not only its time, but its ideal place. Cofounded by New Yorker writer Dana Goodyear, who got the idea from reporting on cell-phone novels popular among young women in Japan, Figment carries the tagline “Write yourself in.”
Of course, that’s a formalization of what YA lit has always done: connect kids to other readers, to authors, to stories that are both about themselves and bigger than themselves. Bonds were forged around books before the advent of the web—the fan mail Nelson got and the conversations I had and still have about his books and others are proof enough of that. Sharing the experience only adds dimension to the very interior act of reading: I consumed Girl like a tonic, at least once a year, well into my twenties. At some point, it became less about solace from the indignities of adolescence and more about reclaiming something that was being erased by the indignities of work and rent. It was as if I had learned to see the world through Andrea’s eyes—at least, the world I wanted to live in—and I needed to periodically remind myself of what that world looked like, so as not to lose myself. It was a way I wrote myself in.
When you attempt to revisit the past there’s always the fear that you’ll discover something you missed the first time, something that ruins everything. There will be a way that it doesn’t work, a terrible void where the magic once was. So I was giddy and apprehensive in equal measure about the prospect of reading Dream School. For Nelson, writing the book seven years after he wrote Girl brought a similar anxiety. “I didn’t know if it would work,” he says. “I just tried it.” But Andrea’s voice came right back. In fact, he says, it felt almost too easy—it felt like something was wrong. He feared he wouldn’t be able to get her past a certain stage.
About halfway through the book, Andrea gets in trouble at school, and then she starts to try to be a writer. She started to grow up a little bit. Then I was really excited. I felt like this is working. Now she’s being a person. I don’t have to think about it, I can sort of let her go. As she did in Girl, she wrote her own story. She did what she was gonna do, and I just had to follow along.
It turns out that Dream School, too, is perfectly textured, weaving together moments of total inanity and those of quiet brilliance in a way that feels authentic to adolescence. Again, Andrea struggles to find a niche in an alien environment, and, as she wavers unsteadily into her inevitable grove, embarks on the usual series of college experiences; she hooks up, tries coke, idolizes indie girls, becomes an inadvertent art film star, and works at Banana Republic. She writes short stories in donut shops, grows disillusioned with the English department, and gives herself the same red hacked hairdo that I sported in college.
By the end—and this is the magic trick Nelson performs again and again in his work—she’s both right back where she started and in totally uncharted terrain, not at all where she expected to find herself. She knows the real work is just that—finding herself—and it’s just beginning. But we don’t worry for a second that she will succeed.