Blake Nelson talks serials, Sassy, and what’s up next

By now you probably know how much we love Blake Nelson, author of Dream School. Last week, he chatted with Ypulse about a whole bunch of wonderfulness that we just couldn’t not share with you all. Why did he serialize Dream School? What does Blake say about Tavi’s Sassy 2.0? Read on, friends, read on.

Ypulse: So Dream School is the sequel to Girl, which was originally serialized in Sassy back in the 90s. What made you decide to return to both the story and the format?

Blake Nelson: I love the serialization thing. When I was writing Girl I would read it chapter at a time at this open mic cafe in Portland. I’m not sure people bought it at first: a 28 year old guy doing this girl voice. But I kept doing it and people got into the story. They’d come back next week to see what happens. And then Sassy did the excerpts, which got the book published finally.

As for the story, I couldn’t resist really. I didn’t know if it would work, waiting so long to go back to Andrea, but I fell back into it instantly. It was like hanging out with an old friend! And being a little older myself, I was able to let Andrea grow up a little bit. She’s a little calmer at 18, then she was at 15. But not too much.

YP: You mention that Andrea is 18 in the new book. Is the novel set in this decade or the last? What adjustments did you have to make?

BN: Well Girl ended at a very specific place, she’s off to college, literally getting on the plane, with the hint that she is going to have some serious mis-adventures.

So I felt pretty obligated to tell that story. This would have forced the story to take place in the late nineties, which I pretty much tried to do. But then as I did a re-write specific to Figment, I found myself contemporizing a bit, for Figment readers (assuming them to be actual teens and not necessarily knowing about Girl.)

I took out the most obvious time references and tried to make it an interesting story about a girl going to college. I left the final version vaguely in the aughts…. I didn’t know if this would work, at first. My brain really likes to be time specific. And I think that’s one of my strengths in general, capturing the tone of a certain time. But in this case, it seemed to totally work. Mostly because college is so timeless in a way. It’s such a universal experience.

YP: What were some of the major differences in transferring the serialization process to the screen? Does it affect your writing process to release a novel in installments rather than all at once?

BN: I’m usually way ahead of the audience, in terms of where I am in the writing process. Even in the cafe I’d already finished the first draft of the book. So it isn’t a huge difference. It’s just fun. And it gives you an idea of how readers experience your work, in real time.

And of course the internet is great for this. The Sassy excerpts were a month apart so you couldn’t really create suspense like you can at Figment. This is kind of a perfect situation.

YP: What made the Figment community a good fit?

BN: Figment is both a reading and a writing site, which is great for Andrea who is both a “character in a story”, but also a realistic example of a teen writing about her life. Sometimes Andrea is brilliant. Sometimes she’s shallow and boring.

I think her example will help teens get over their own inhibitions. Andrea isn’t afraid of sounding stupid. She just goes for it, warts and all, and that’s part of why she’s interesting.

YP: What type of value does this model of pre-releasing a book to readers have to you as an author?

BN: It’s always fun to put something out there. To see what people think. That is the biggest part of why I wanted to do it. Also this particular situation: mimicking the Sassy thing I thought was cool. And the timing turned out to be really good, with Tavi reviving Sassy and all that. My publicist friend Lauren Cerand kept telling me a 90s wave was coming and that Girl would get a big natural push from it’s now 30-something fans. And she was right.

In a more business sense, doing Dream School like this helps us figure out where we are with it. It gives me an idea how much interest there is, is it something I want to publish in a real way. Since I write all the time, and always have a couple different projects competing for future “spots” as my “next new book”, some things don’t make it out ever. That’s why this has been so great. If Dream School is not ultimately destined to be published at a major house, at least we got it to the Girlfans who have been asking for it all this time.

YP: Do you have any theories on what brought about the recent early 90s revival we’ve seen in fashion and increasingly in media (the Tavi and Jane Pratt project, “Portlandia” on IFC)? What aspects of that era would you personally like to see make a comeback?

BN: I think it’s the natural interest in the past. It seems that people always like to look back about 20 years. “That 70s Show,” things like that. And I am totally with Tavi in deeply missing a Sassy type magazine, or any kind of forum, that is empowering like that—and smart, and honest about things. There’s some great blogs around nowadays, but they are dispersed. With Sassy, it was all in one place.

I sorta feel like we are in a period of cultural dumbness right now, that is especially bad for girls. Feminist ideas seem to have gone. Boys are getting all the glory doing science-y things. Girls seem to have been suddenly rammed down this weird time warp hole back to the fifties where their main objective is to look pretty. “Lip gloss is my passion,” is a running joke I have with a friend.

I feel bad for girls right now. But things will change. And the climate of the times never holds back those people who are gonna do something no matter what. (Like Tavi).

YP: Are there plans for Dream School to come out in print?

BN: We’re talking to people. As with GirlDream School is a bit of a genre buster, in that it doesn’t have a traditional YA story arc. Or any zombies or anything like that. But there’s always an audience for these other things. (Sara Zarr’s books pop into my head). Books about smart girls dealing with real life. We still need those. Lip Gloss isn’t everybody’s passion.

YP: Anything else Ypulse readers should know?

BN: I have a great new book coming out in March called Recovery Road(Scholastic), which is what I was just talking about. It’s about this smart but complicated girl who digs a hole for herself with too much partying, and then has to dig her way out. It’s intense.

For more coverage of YA books and publishing, check out the Ypulse Books & Print Channel sponsored by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, publishers of The Mockingbirds.

This interview originally appeared on Ypulse on November 23, 2010.

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