Blake Nelson is the award winning author of Paranoid Park and the bestselling classic Girl. His newest novel, Recovery Road, can be sampled on Figment now. He has written short humor pieces for Details magazine, and has studied at Wesleyan University and NYU.
One question I always get from readers is: “As a guy, how do you write so easily from a teenaged girl’s perspective?”
For starters, I have never done any research on how girls talk. I don’t follow them around in a lab coat with a recorder, studying them. I have definitely always listened to girls, as any boy does, especially when you are a teenager and are first trying to have relationships with them. Of course you listen to girls: your fate is in their hands!
I also like girls, which I think has a lot to do with it. I find them interesting. I have always enjoyed the way they see the world. I like how they are different from boys. I always love overhearing a conversation between girls that is outside my experience. Like two wealthy private school girls discussing their social difficulties on the subway in New York City. Or, once, at a tiny roadside restaurant in Montana, I overheard two local girls discussing their plans to become dancers on MTV. These little glimpses into the hopes and dreams of young people I always find extremely touching and poignant.
I also think girls are funny. I don’t know why they are funnier than older people, but to me they are. Often, they have not learned to edit themselves completely yet. They often say exactly what they think, even when that is not a good idea. Such moments make for good drama, and also provide insight into how all people really are.
The first story I wrote in a girl’s voice was about a twenty-year old “downtown” girl who liked a musician boy. I didn’t know if I could do it and I remember feeling really nervous writing those first couple of sentences. It felt REALLY WEIRD TO BE A GIRL.
Slowly though, I got inside her head. It helped that I knew a lot of girls like that. It was easy to picture her talking away about this boy, who was kind of a loser but also charming in a roguish way. That’s one thing I learned with girl characters early on: they have to have something interesting to talk about. And not just interesting to the reader, interesting to them.
Most of my earliest stories were about music scene people, so the next thing to try was a more ordinary girl. So, I wrote a short story about a girl in her twenties that worked at Nordstrom’s and just went home after work and hung out with her boyfriend. They made soup, watched a movie, fell asleep. Neither the boy or the girl were very interesting. They were just average people doing what people do. Even with this story, though, I thoroughly enjoyed writing. I liked being in this girl’s head, too. Was she happy? Should she find a more interesting boyfriend? What was the point of life anyway?
One of my models for great teenaged girl characters was F. Scott Fitzgerald. To this day, his girls are my favorite, and I am amazed no one ever accuses me of stealing them! But that’s the good thing about time. My Fitzgerald-type girls seem different because the times are so different. (But of course, they’re not really different at all.)
My breakthrough girl character was Andrea Marr, the narrator of my first novel (aptly titled) Girl. This book was so fun to write! I took all the stuff I had learned from those early stories and just went crazy. I started with Andrea at 15, when she was kind of dopey and pretty clueless about things. Then I followed her, letting her grow gradually, letting her figure stuff out as time went on, but keeping her basic personality. She was also around the music world, but I also tried to talk about her normal high school life, too.
I also did another trick with her—one I learned from Fitzgerald and many other great writers—which was to not make Andrea the hero. In Girl, Andrea’s friend Cybil is the hero (supposedly). She is the one who forms a band and becomes a star and suffers the weight of that. Andrea is more the observer. She is the commentator. But in the end, she is the one you become really close to.
Recovery Road was a story I had in my mind for a long time. I wanted to do a love story in rehab because 1) someone had told me a story where that happened and 2) you’re not allowed to have love affairs in rehab!
The trick with Recovery Road, though, was finding the voice of this troubled, at-risk teen. Madeline was going to be her name, and I had a basic idea of what she looked like: kinda cute, kinda scruffy; long brown hair; small, but intense and not a person you would want to mess with if she was drunk and mad at you.
I tried this story, and tried to summon Madeline at different times over the course of a couple of years. I kept getting bogged down in trying to make her story sound really extreme. I’d start with her waking up in the hospital, or in the wreckage of a car crash. Slowly, I realized that the best way to let her take shape was just to let her talk in a non-extreme situation; just let her be. So, I started the story with her already in rehab, where she was bored and had nothing to do except talk.
And of course, once she started to talk, all I had to do was type. And the next think I knew, that magical writing thing happened and I was typing as fast as I could, trying to record what she was saying.
And that’s really what has always worked best for me. Just let the character start talking, and see what they say.