Blake Nelson on College, Girls, and Writing Cool Books

It’s official: the 90s are back in vogue. You know that Figment has recently published Dream School, the sequel to Blake Nelson’s 90s classic Girl, about Andrea Marr: grunge rock princess turned elite liberal arts student. As Andrea faces college–preps, professors, parties, and all–she’ll struggle to find her own path to cool. You can read an excerpt of Dream School for a limited time on Figment here, and you can read more about Blake’s inspiration and style below.

How did you come up with Andrea, the main character in Girl and now Dream School? How much did you know about her before you started writing, and how much did you discover along the way?

Originally, Andrea was just there to tell the story of Cybil, who shaved her head as an artistic/rebellious statement. But then as I continued the story, Andrea started to talk about her own life, and especially her relationship with a senior boyfriend when she was just a sophomore. This relationship, which I just threw in there to give her something to talk about, became the main focus of Andrea’s story at the beginning. Eventually, it took over. Soon the the whole book was about Andrea’s transition to indie coolness, which was actually more interesting than Cybil’s, because Andrea was a more ordinary person. She had farther to go.

You’re a guy writing from a girl’s perspective. What are the challenges in that? Did you ever hear, “You’re doing it wrong!” from female readers?

It has been pretty effortless for me. I really like doing it. I find that girl characters can be a little more honest than boy characters, since boys only really think about a few different things:  Call of Duty . . . food . . . girls’ body parts. I feel freer when I am writing from a girl’s perspective.

Any advice for other writers looking to take the gender-bending leap?

If you feel lost or you don’t understand your character, start over using a different person. I feel like everyone has an alternative gendered person that they can talk through. You just have to find that character. Also, try writing from the perspective of someone you would like, or fall in love with. In fact:  let yourself fall in love with your character. That’s probably the best way.

Girl was made into a movie. Do you picture your characters differently after seeing them on the silver screen?

Yes, that’s why I didn’t see Girl (the movie) until after I wrote the sequel. But I think it’s up to the movie. Like in Paranoid Park (another of my books that was made into a film), that actor did such a good job that I always see him in my mind when I think of the book. The Girl movie didn’t stick in my mind quite so much. And I only saw that movie once. So it hasn’t affected me that much.

Describe Dream School in four words.

Cool kids at college . . .

Andrea has a lot of fun in college—did you draw on your own college experiences in writing it?

Yeah, I was like her, but I was in bands instead of being a film maker. But my favorite part of being in college was when my band traveled to all the other colleges to play gigs, and that’s what Andrea and her friends do. Andrea’s adventures in college are very close to mine.

We can’t help but notice that Dream School ends on a bit of a cliffhanger–any chance of another Andrea adventure?

My Figment editor, Dana Goodyear, brought that up, and we talked about what would happen to Andrea if she got her book published and went to New York and was part of the literary scene there. That would be really fun to write about. And make fun of!!

What does your ideal writing set-up look like?

Couches are my favorite. I like to put my feet up and balance my laptop on my lap. And then balance my coffee cup on the cushion beside me or on the arm of the couch, which drives people insane because they’re sure I will spill it, though I never do. I like having a lot of things balancing all around me while I write. I also listen to music. Often, a certain record or band becomes the sound track of a book, though I never really plan it. And interestingly, after a long period of never writing in public, I have found recently that I like to write in coffee shops and libraries and places like that.

For those Figment users who were barely conscious in the 90s, what are the 5 most important things to know about the decade?

  1. It was a feminist period. Meaning that girls took themselves seriously as a group and a gender. They held themselves aloof from boys. Girls who were preoccupied with boys and getting a boyfriend were considered superficial and sort of lame.
  2. People wrote letters. I wrote tons of letters, and got tons of letters. It was almost like a side career. They were long and super fun to write. You would spend a whole night writing someone a letter . . . especially if you were away somewhere, like in a foreign country.
  3. The world was pretty dangerous. You didn’t tool around with a stroller in Brooklyn in 1991, unless you wanted someone to steal your baby.
  4. You could still be gloomy.  A lot of the art and music of the 90s was very dour and “miserabilist.” Nowadays everyone’s more cheerful. At least on the surface.
  5. I was young and unknown in the 90s and was just starting my career and that’s generally the funnest part of your life!

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