I first read Blake Nelson’s bildungsroman Girl twenty years ago, and it became an instant classic for me and my friends. At the time, we hadn’t read anything that even remotely resembled our lives, let alone something that came so close to describing our specific teenage experience.
Girl, with its main character Andrea Marr, who my girlfriends and I tried to emulate, and the dreamy punk rock world Andrea inhabits, is a book I go back to every couple of years. I always love it just as much as I did the first time I read it (if not more), but depending on where I am in my life, I might find a new part to relate to, or an appreciation for a character who hadn’t made much of an impression before. And Girl continues to stay close in other ways. When my friend sold her YA manuscript, I ran out to get her a copy because, to me, Girl is essentially the guidebook on how to write a successful YA novel.
After interviewing Blake Nelson years later about his book Dream School—the sequel to Girl—we forged a friendship over lunch at Veselka one afternoon when he was in town visiting from Portland (where many of his books are set). Since then, I’ve been conducting impromptu interviews with him whenever he releases something new, so speaking to him on the record about his upcoming book, Boy, was a no-brainer. Turns out I love Antoinette and Gavin, Boy’s main characters, just as much as I love Andrea Marr.
On a sunny afternoon in May, just a few weeks after Blake moved back to New York, we sat in the backyard of a Brooklyn bookstore, and talked about what it means to be honest in writing, listening to his characters rather than deciding their fates for them, and possibly, maybe, being just the right amount of famous.
The Rumpus: So you titled this book Boy, which felt like an obvious nod to Girl, and though it resembled Girl in a lot of ways—it takes place in Portland, the main characters of each book have their feet in more than one social world, the books both take us through sophomore through senior year—it also didn’t feel like Girl. How conscious were you of this? Had you made a deliberate decision to make them very much their own stories, or did you feel at all like you needed to fill the shoes of Girl—or was that pressure not really there?
Blake Nelson: Yeah, that pressure wasn’t there. There are a couple ways you start a book, and the one way I start a book is, if I have a title I like, I try to write a book about it. And so I had this idea, Antoinette Trainwreck. I liked how those two words went together. And this was before the movie Trainwreck, and so I thought, Wow, nobody’s using trainwreck yet, I could title a book, Antoinette Trainwreck… So I wrote a whole book about that, with this boy talking about Antoinette Trainwreck, and then we sold it to Simon & Schuster, who I had not been back with since Girl.
So we give it to the [editor] and she likes it, and my agent says, “Well, how are you going to promote it?” And she looks at the book and she says, “I’m going to change the title to Boy, and we’re going to re-release Girl.”
Nelson: And so my agent and I were like, “Okay!”
Rumpus: That’s amazing! That’s so funny. The whole time I just assumed… So, did you have Girl in your head at all?
Nelson: No, not at all. But it’s so funny because they always say every writer only has one story that they’re trying to tell. So it kind of was the same story.
Rumpus: How well do you need to get to know your characters in order to understand how to write them? Did you feel like you had to get to know Gavin really well first before you started writing him?
Nelson: No, I never do that. I never figure out who they are and then introduce them. I always introduce them and then start to figure out who they are.
Rumpus: Yeah, that makes sense.
Nelson: Like, for me, usually… the first time somebody talks, I don’t know what they’re going to say, I just start writing it—and then they say who they are by what they say. I don’t think, Well, this is an introspective person. I just, whatever they say, then that’s who they are.
Rumpus: Like they’re revealing themselves to you?
Nelson: Yeah. And it’s sort of a math equation because in any group of people, like, let’s say there are four girls who are friends. Inevitably, one of them is going to be sort of the bossy, leader one, one of them will be the shy one; you know, they’ll sort themselves out. I don’t really have to do it myself. I don’t have to think about it ahead of time. I can just introduce them, and they’ll start interacting and then they’ll reveal who they are.
Rumpus: That’s so great. But once you have Antoinette in your head, do you know that she’ll have a friend? Do you think about things like that?
Nelson: Yeah, they always have a friend, the Antoinettes of the world. [Laughs]
Rumpus: Right, totally. [Laughs] I mean, you kind of have to!
Nelson: It was interesting about the book Boy because Antoinette actually gave me trouble at times.
Nelson: She was a little too mature. I mean, that was her character, but I often just didn’t know what to do with her. I was like, Well, what would she be doing in high school? And what she would be doing is avoiding high school. So she’s off camera a lot, and it was kind of difficult narratively. But it worked, and I felt her and Gavin; I felt that. Usually with a book like this, if that hadn’t worked, if she and Gavin didn’t have some immediate chemistry, I would literally just throw the book away and try some other thing because in a book like that, that’s the whole game. If those two come together, you’ve got it, and if they don’t, then you have to dump it.
Rumpus: So, you’d start over entirely? You wouldn’t just try to adjust the characters?
Nelson: Sometimes you can do that… Or if they don’t come right together, then maybe you go back like two scenes and try it again. But if it’s continually a problem, then you just have to let it go.
Rumpus: Wow. How many times do you do that?
Nelson: A lot!
Rumpus: Yeah? Do you have just these half things?
Nelson: Yes! I have tons of them.
Rumpus: Do you feel like you’ll ever go back to any of them?
Nelson: No, no.
Rumpus: Because you just can’t?
Nelson: Well, because it’s just more fun to start over. And also because you’re always becoming a slightly different person, so all these new situations have new perils in them.
Rumpus: Totally. Like, you wouldn’t relate to it in the same way?
Nelson: Right. It’s as if you met someone on vacation five years ago and you kind of became friends with them, but then you just let them go—you don’t try to stay friends with them.
Rumpus: Sure, right.
Nelson: But I have these files on my computer that’ll say, “Starts 2000-whatever…” And there’ll be twenty things that I started [in which] I wrote ten pages or thirty pages or twenty pages, and then at the key moment, if it doesn’t work, then you just try something different.
Rumpus: You just leave it in that folder. [Laughs]
Nelson: Yeah, just leave it in that folder! [Laughs] And I do sometimes just write like a one-sentence idea for a book and put it in there, so that I’ll stumble on it.
Rumpus: Yes! I love that.
Nelson: But that doesn’t usually work [either]. Usually the things that turn into books are ones where I really just start completely fresh—something occurs to me and I start writing and then it just goes. But that’s one out of ten probably.
Rumpus: Right, right. That’s so interesting; I love that. So, this is a total spoiler alert question—but I was pretty obsessed with Antoinette and Gavin—and I was sort of heartbroken when they didn’t get together, but I knew it was right. Like, I knew that it was the right thing, but part of me still wanted the happy ending. Did you always know that was going to happen?
Nelson: No, no, I did not know… I sort of felt like Antoinette could be gay maybe?
Rumpus: Yeah, for sure.
Nelson: Or maybe she would sort of tolerate a guy…
Rumpus: Yeah, that seems exactly right. The scene was so heartbreaking—but if I’m honest with myself, that’s what would have happened. And that’s the thing, you want to be honest—I feel like books aren’t honest. I was happy to have the truth. But it’s hard because you’re like, Oh, this would happen in my life, and it would happen that way, and I could like live through it and it would be fine, but to read it, you just want the better ending! [Laughs]
Nelson: [Laughs] Right, right, oh I know, that’s a tough one, that’s so tough! And with the teenagers, oh my god, they complain—if the boy and the girl aren’t happily ever after, they whine and they’re like, “I don’t like you anymore, I hate you! You’re a bad writer!” [Laughs]
Rumpus: That’s amazing! So you know that’s coming, but you have to do what you have to do?
Nelson: Well, what can you do? I mean, my agent yells at me, and the editors yell, and everybody yells at me and yells at me, and I’m like, I’m not going to do it… For me, that’s the No. 1 thing, it has to have that.
Nelson: And if it doesn’t have that, what’s the point of it? Supposedly the YA world is serving the kids, and I think a lot of adults feel like YA books are really helpful because they promote the right political point of view and you’re like, “No! [Laughs] They’d be really helpful if they were really honest!”… And the thing with Antoinette is, I didn’t know that they weren’t going to hook up.
Rumpus: You didn’t, yeah.
Nelson: It was only as time went on that I saw what kind of person Antoinette was and then I really knew. And I liked her, I thought she was really interesting, I thought she was really talented, she was going to do big things… Even though she’s so unsatisfying as a high school student. And nobody’s satisfied with her. The teachers aren’t satisfied, she’s getting in trouble—she doesn’t even get in trouble enough, they can’t even just brand her as trouble. She just gets in trouble a little, and then she does something else, but that’s how a person like that would be at that stage of their life.
Rumpus: Yeah, that’s interesting. Okay, this is kind of a favorite question. Is there a character in this book, or in any of your books, that you feel like you relate to most? I didn’t really feel like Gavin was your person… I almost felt like Andrea was more your person?
Nelson: Andrea is my person, yeah, Andrea. And maybe even someone like Antoinette a little bit. Because I feel like it’s hard to have a sympathetic male character who has real ambition… I find that audiences are way more willing to accept the girl version of that than the boy version of that, and so in a lot of situations, I put myself in the girl, the part of myself that’s ambitious… But it’s hard to do male characters like that.
Rumpus: Ooh, totally. This is a funny one. I saw on Instagram that you posted a picture of the passport store that you had in your head while you were writing the book. But the whole time I was reading, I had a passport store in my head. So then when I saw your picture, I was like, That’s not the passport store!
Nelson: [Laughs] Oh, yes.
Rumpus: Which is all a longwinded way of saying, you’ve had your books turned into TV shows and movies, and to me, part of the fun of having my passport store and your passport store is that they both exist and it doesn’t matter—so, when your books are adapted for the screen, does that take away the fun of that part of it, or does it not matter because it’s its own thing at that point?
Nelson: Yeah, it doesn’t matter. The first time it happens, you get sort of uptight about it and you feel weird about it, [but] then it becomes fun to see what the difference is, like, Oh, [they] added this, and, Look at who they thought that was.
Rumpus: Right, totally. When you get fan mail, do you get the sense that people feel like they know you because they know your writing and your characters well?
Nelson: Yeah, god, I think I have the best fans! Just yesterday or the day before, I got an email from a woman who said, “I’m so sorry, I totally missed that you had these books on Kindle,” the third one, [of] the Andrea books, and, “I don’t have Kindle, but if you could just send it to me, I’ll send you a check or PayPal or whatever,” and just the way she talked about it—and of course I’m just going to send it to her, she doesn’t have to give me money for it—but just the absolute familiarity and lack of any kind of weirdness—I don’t get people that are weird. Just like you said, they seem to know me, we already seem to know each other.
I think I’m really lucky, and I think it’s the product of having a long career where you never have a hit. So the people never have to deal with the fact that you’re a star, they can always deal with you, like, Oh you just write these books, and they’re not super big, and, you know, I wouldn’t feel intimidated if I met you.
Nelson: I mean, some people probably would just because they think writers are weird people, [which] happens a little in Portland actually. You meet people in Portland who have never met a writer, and so when they find out you’re a writer, they start to act weird because they don’t know how you’re supposed to act when you meet a writer.
Rumpus: Oh, this is amazing!
Nelson: And they don’t know if you’re a celebrity, and then they hear you’ve had a movie, [and] then you just watch their face like try to figure [it] out… They don’t know what to do—it’s one of the reasons why I’d much rather live in New York. Because in New York, my level of accomplishment is just perfect. Nobody’s intimidated, but people [might be like], “Oh wow, you’ve written some books.” It’s just perfect. I feel so comfortable walking around New York and if people ask me what I do, I can say I’m a writer and they don’t care because everybody’s a writer!
Nelson: And you can date and just be normal and nobody cares—and people know that you’re not crazy. In Portland, if you meet someone and you tell them you’re a writer, they think you’re crazy. Like, “Oh, you live in your basement and you think you’re a writer. So, you write like fantasy books, I bet.”
But in general, the people who get in touch with me are just always the best, or they’re just exactly who I would hope they would be.
Feature photograph provided courtesy of the author.