Girl Author Blake Nelson on YA Fiction and Lana Del Rey
by Melissa Locker
Blake Nelson has a knack for writing from a teenage girl’s perspective, which has made his young adult fiction some of the most fun and realistic on the market. His first novel, Girl, was published as a serial in Sassy before becoming a book and, eventually, a movie. His much-longed-for follow-up novel, Dream School, came out in December — fittingly enough, also as a serial, although it’s now in book form, too. Blake stopped by Turntable.fm to spin tunes and chat about Kathleen Hanna, teenage girls, and why the Plain White Ts are the best band in America.
Melissa Locker started playing “Hold The Line Feat. Mr. Lex & Santigold” by Major Lazer
Melissa Locker: Hi Blake!
Blake Nelson: Santigold, oh my god, you’ve done your homework (she went to the college in the book).
ML: Homework is for winners! So, welcome to Turntable. Thanks so much for agreeing to do this.
Blake Nelson started playing “Destroy Everything You Touch” by Ladytron
ML: I thought you would be a natural fit for one of these interviews, because music is so important in your books.
BN: I was a musician for many years when I was very young. I learned everything I know about the entertainment business in the back of horrible clubs in Worcester, Mass.
ML: That sounds … unhygienic. You also lived in Portland in the ’90s. That was quite a music education.
BN: It’s so funny to come from that and end up writing “children’s books.” I love saying that at cocktail parties though. “And what do you do Mr. Nelson?” “I write children’s books.”
ML: Young Adult fiction has changed and grown so much in the last few years. It must be amazing to witness.
Melissa Locker started playing “Young Adult Friction” by The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart
BN: Oh, I like this song. I like the name of this band. I love that band that’s called I LOVE YOU BUT I HAVE CHOSEN DARKNESS. I think they’re from Canada.
ML: I do like band names that are almost sentences, like: And They Will Know Us By The Trail of the Dead. It’s like, add more words, guys! Make the marquee guys work for it.
BN: Ha ha.
ML: But back to young adult fiction, when you see books like The Hunger Games get mass market, crossover appeal, do you ever want to jump up and down and remind people that you’ve been doing it better and longer than a lot of people?
Blake Nelson started playing “King Of The Beach” by Wavves
BN: Uh, I’m not sure I’ve done anything better than Hunger Games, it sounds pretty good. But I like to do literary stuff more, and more realistic so … I am not going to have a big audience like that. I can still be good though. Have you ever read King Dork by Frank Portman? It is a GREAT book about being a musician and starting a band and all that.
ML: I haven’t! But your book Rock Star Superstar touches on the same subject area.
BN: Yeah that’s a good one. This is my song fave from my LA time, since it’s so LA.
ML: Why is this song so LA?
BN: The Wavves song? Because it’s about the beach?
ML: Right. It’s very beachy. How did you start writing YA?
Melissa Locker started playing “Teenage FBI” by Guided By Voices
BN: I had this one character in my mind, and I saw that he could be YA. And people had said to me, “You should write YA, your style is really simplistic and you appear to be mildly autistic.” So I said, “Okay, I’m gonna try this.” And I did, and this woman Regina Hayes bought it at Viking and she was this super cool, awesome woman and I just liked her so much that when she said, “You should write another one,” I said, “Okay.”
ML: “Mildly autistic” is a HUGE compliment, right? And was Girl your first novel?
Blake Nelson started playing “Stay Monkey” by Julie Ruin
BN: GIRL was my first novel, yeah, but I had written a bunch of stuff by then … so I wasn’t a total amateur.
ML: Love this song.
BN: This record is my favorite by KH.
ML: Tell the nice people reading who KH is.
BN: Kathleen Hanna.
ML: Of Bikini Kill. OG Riot Grrl.
BN: This record is like a novel. It’s so obviously done in isolation. It feels so solitary.
ML: Yeah, I can’t wait to hear more of this project and see what she does next. Speaking of Riot Grrls, when did you live in Portland, Oregon?
Melissa Locker started playing “More Than This” by Roxy Music
BN: I grew up there. Then I lived there in the late eighties. Then a couple years in the early nineties. And then one year in the mid nineties, then another year in the mid nineties and then from 2007 to 2009.
ML: So you were around in the Riot Grrl years and long enough to really get a sense of the Portland music scene and the place. Your novels always have a really strong sense of place, but since I’m from Portland I’m never sure if I’m just projecting.
BN: Yeah, but that wasn’t really on my radar. The riot grrl phenomenon. I knew who Bikini Kill was, and that was very different than what we think now. There was a lot of bad energy around that scene. It was kind of super confrontational and wild.
BN: Yeah, when Bikini Kill first came out, it was a little ugly. I didn’t go to any of their shows. My friend roadied for them and he told me to stay away.
Blake Nelson started playing “1, 2, 3, 4” by Plain White T’s
BN: I don’t know. I wasn’t there! I mean, I knew all those people eventually. But it was just like they’d stop the gig until all the dudes left. And the worst dudes were there because that was the thing, they were challenging the scene and calling bullshit on all of it, and so all these creepy dudes would show up and there’d be fights. It wasn’t this touchy feely thing that people seem to think it was now.
ML: Yeah the YouTube videos of some of the shows definitely validate some of that. They could be very yell-y and confrontational.
BN: That’s why the Julie Ruin record is so fascinating. That’s what Kathleen did next. And it really shows her withdrawing from that and becoming more … I hate to say it … personal and artsy … she’s so amazing.
ML: And she’s married to Ad Rock, which is just awesome.
Melissa Locker started playing “Waltz #2 (XO)” by Elliott Smith
BN: That’s a really interesting marriage to think about. I can’t figure it out myself. But I’m sure it’s great.
ML: Ad Rock showed up at a Portlandia live show the other day and everyone in the audience was yelling, “Where’s Kathleen?” which I thought was great. What was it in the Portland scene that inspired you to write GIRL?
BN: Actually, it was its normalness and its lack of anything really differentiating it from any other scene. And also it was where I went to high school. So it made sense. In those days, it hadn’t become such a “thing” yet. It was still its backwater self.
ML: Just lots of young girls hoping the lead singer notices them?
BN: That’s sort of a universal story.
ML: Sad, but true. What made you want to write about it?
Blake Nelson started playing “I Figured You Out” by Mary Lou Lord
BN: I think of Andrea as not a person trying to get Todd’s attention, but as a person that’s just into that world. And she meets him, and she slowly falls in love with him….
ML: Oh I love Mary Lou Lord!
BN: I love this song. Mary Lou Lord is so real…
ML: She was on Kickstarter trying to raise funds for her next album. I gave her $5.
BN: Really great I meant to type.
ML: Sassy Mag serialized GIRL when it came out.
BN: Yes, thank god, or it wouldn’t have been published.
ML: And then you repeated that serialization with the follow up novel, Dream School. Was that a nice bookend to the process?
BN: Yes, if it worked once, do it again!
ML: And then Figment published it. So it worked out both times.
BN: Yeah, it’s been super fun having DREAM SCHOOL come out and connecting with all the GIRL fans and just like…
Melissa Locker started playing “Back In Your Head” by Tegan & Sara
BN: Tegan and Sara!
ML: They are up and comers! Again!
BN: I love how everyone hates LANA DEL REY. Everyone hated the SMITHS too. And now they are part of the canon.
ML: Jessica Hopper said today that everything people are saying about Lana Del Rey could be considered musical slut shaming. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I also get it.
Blake Nelson started playing “Born to Die” by Lana del Rey
ML: But I don’t think she was ready for SNL, and I think she did a lousy job.
BN: Interesting. I sort of scoffed at Amy Winehouse at first, but now I love her so much.
ML: RIP Amy Winehouse.
BN: I love Pitchfork and that whole scene of geeks judging people who actually try to do things.
ML: Those who can’t, write bitchy reviews. That said, I write a lot of reviews. Hire me, Pitchfork!
ML: What took you so long to write Dream School?
BN: I was busy. I was working on other projects. Ha ha!
ML: With all the ’90s nostalgia floating around today, have people come calling about GIRL or other work?
BN: Yeah, sure, we’ve done a ton of stuff. It’s been really fun.
Melissa Locker started playing “Dystopia (The Earth Is On Fire)” by Y.A.C.H.T.
ML: Any chance GIRL is going to be re-made into a movie? Reboots are the new black.
BN: That’s a really good idea. It’s not really up to me though.
ML: Speaking of movies, what was it like working with Gus Van Sant to make Paranoid Park?
BN: I like really short songs and really short books. I think we have to get away from these 600 page books.
ML: I will admit my attention span is about 300 pages, preferably 250. Oops I just said that publicly, now The New Yorker will never hire me.
BN: That was another thing about YA books I really like. SHORT.
ML: That’s what I like about YA, too. Plus I feel like the nature of YA requires authors to strip plots and dialogue down. I really respond to the simplicity.
BN: Me too.
Blake Nelson started playing “You Can’t Be Friends With Everyone” by Make Out
ML: Have you ever considered writing for adults? Or, rather, for adults who don’t read YA.
BN: GIRL was originally an adult book. I wrote it basically for Kim Gordon [of Sonic Youth] for some reason. And for my friends who had been through the ’80s punk scene of when I was in high school. The tone of it was originally “look how stupid we all were.” And how adorably confused. But then about halfway through, I realized that the kids of that time (the Sassy ’90s) were going to be the real audience. They were gonna eat it up. And I actually felt this deep thrilling FEAR in my chest, like what if I became the J.D. Salinger of my time? Or more likely the Jackie Collins/J.D. Salinger of my time? And that’s what sort of happened.
Melissa Locker started playing “Schizophrenia” by Sonic Youth
ML: Kim Gordon? Wow! Also, Jackie Collins/J.D. Salinger?
BN: I didn’t know her or anything. I just had her in my mind for some reason … I thought: oh, this will be my pop novel.
ML: Do you read a lot of Jackie Collings?
BN: Just Hollywood Wives…
ML: Well, yeah, of course. I was just wondering if reading a lot of Jackie Collins was the secret to cross-gender writing success
Blake Nelson started playing “1, 2, 3, 4” by Plain White T’s
BN: Oh, I don’t know. Is she? I never understand why people think it’s so unusual that I write from a girl’s perspective. Lots of people do it. PLAIN WHITE T’S, the heart and soul of America.
ML: But you have this knack of tapping into not just girls’ minds, but teen girls’ minds, which I don’t even think their moms can do.
BN: Yeah, well what’s more interesting than a teenaged girl? Not much. Teenaged girls are like … they’re the most important humans on the planet. Our fate hangs in their hands!
ML: My only problem with the Plain White T’s is that this guy would blast “Hey There Delilah” in his car outside my window over and over and over again.
BN: Yeah overkill is bad.
ML: For like a month. It was nuts! And teen girls like Tavi from Rookie really are taking over the world. It’s so impressive to watch. I wish I hadn’t spent so much time puppy-dogging after rock stars when I was in high school like your heroine in GIRL.
Melissa Locker started playing “Battery Kinzie” by Fleet Foxes
BN: Who was you favorite?
ML: Rock star?
ML: Oh jeez. I’m supposed to be interviewing you! But I was in Portland in the late ‘90s.
ML: There were so many options.
BN: Courtney Courtney Taylor [from the Dandy Warhols].
ML: NO! But he did sell me my first pair of Doc Martens and invite me to his show, but not the Dandys, the Beauty Stab, his hair metal band.
BN: What were you doing in Portland?
ML: I grew up there. Born and raised.
BN: No shit. Where did you go to high school?
BN: Wow. I went to West Sylvan.
Melissa Locker started playing “Where Is My Mind?” by The Pixies
ML: Oh yeah? All my friends went there. But I was a magnet student.
BN: Lincoln High school; Mark Rothko, Elliott Smith, Matt Groening … pretty impressive.
ML: The Portland Art Museum is having a Rothko retrospective.
BN: I’m going to be there Feb. 27 to March 5.
ML: You can see the show then.
BN: I will check it out … I always think Mark Rothko’s paintings are about first love. The blindingness of first love.
ML: I have not heard that theory before.
ML: Yes, that for sure. Overwhelming emotion.
BN: That’s a California word: epic. Also I say gnarly now. And rad. All because I live in LA now. California is its own world. It’s like living in another country. And they’re sort of fascists a little, but it’s okay because everything is neat and clean and the dudes come and trim the palm trees every Tuesday.
ML: Hahaha. Does it affect your writing?
BN: Yeah. Totally. It affects everything. I just wrote a book that is unlike anything I’ve ever done.
ML: Can you talk about it?
BN: Can’t say. But California … it makes you happy.
Blake Nelson started playing “Our Deal” by Best Coast
BN: I think of my childhood as a Portlander in that constant gloom. And then all my years as a struggling artist in the cold grit of NY. And now I’m like, wow, I go to the beach and I go on hikes and everyone is sort of nice and not super-serious….
ML: Going from Portland to New York seems like a big improvement, what with the no rain thing, but California and sunshine? And the beach? That sounds like perfection. Do you listen to Best Coast and Wavves all the time now?
BN: They are the “first couple” of Indie California so I pay homage.
Blake Nelson started playing “Hey There Delilah” by Plain White T’s