If you grew up reading Sassy magazine, you know who Blake Nelson is—his debut novel, Girl, about a teenager exploring the Seattle rock scene (sound '90s?) was excerpted in three successive issues, and later made into a movie. But you may not know that Nelson has written many more books, exploring issues of sexuality, morality, and interpersonal relationships with a sensitivity and astuteness that shows more respect for his YA audience than many adult fiction writers show for theirs. I had a chance for an email chat with him and took it.
The LA Times wrote that you specialize in "smart but confused teen boy heroes." Would you say that you were a smart but confused teen boy?
Yes, I hadn't thought about that, but that is definitely me. They could put that on my tombstone.
How does that inform your writing--are you writing about the boy you wish you had been, the outcomes you would like to have had?
My boy characters are definitely not who I wish I was. They are more people like me, put in certain situations that I find interesting. Sometimes they are people who have problems I have and I am trying to figure out how to solve them by writing the book. New Rules is about a guy who keeps breaking up and getting back together with the same person. That was what was happening to me at that time. Paranoid was about a boy with a dark secret. I was trying to decide if I should marry my girlfriend at the time (she didn't know).
As a male writer, how do you approach writing a character like Andrea, the protagonist of Girl?
Girl started as a goof, I was making fun of suburban teenagers, but completely to my surprised, Andrea emerged as this great character.
This is a great argument for writers "goofing around" at their computer, which is what I was doing at the time.
Andrea came to me fully formed. I felt like she was this interesting girl sitting at a chair next to my desk, telling me this long funny story about her life and all I had to do was type.
I think the reason I did a girl back in 1994 was because girls were in people's minds then. It was the era of Sassy. The era of second wave feminism or whatever. Riot Grrl. Girls were just more interesting at that time. Guys were out of fashion.
Stories I wrote about guys at that time were usually rejected as misogynist or insensitive, or whatever. So with Andrea I could safely make fun of things and say whatever I wanted about our society and nobody could criticize me.
Do you have any sense of the gender breakdown of your readership?
I assume it's mostly women because that's who reads generally. I think I have a lot of librarians as fans. All the cool people I used to hang out with in my musician days became librarians. So they are probably my core group.
My impression is that is skews female--you have a following from your work being published in Sassy. What do you think is the appeal of your work for the female reader?
The classic breakdown is: men like ADVENTURE and women like ROMANCE. My books are sort of more in the romance arena, in that they're about relationships. They certainly aren't the kind of dream romances though, like Twilight, or the standard Harlequins. They tend to be realistic. Maybe they just like the idea that someone takes relationships seriously enough to try to write about them accurately and honestly.
Of course, gender issues come to the fore in your book Gender Blender, where the main characters, Emma and Tom, switch bodies and learn what life is like on the other side. Emma gets an erection, and Tom has to put on a bra. What was the idea behind setting up this scenario, and what was reader reception like?
The idea of Gender Blender is that kids are severely grossed out by the actualities of the opposite sex. Also that they find them incomprehensible. Which I think is true when you're ten.
Personally though, I am always amazed that adults find the opposite sex so mystifying. After Girl came out people would say: "How do you know what goes on in girl's heads?"
I'd be like, "How could I not?" They're all around me! Ten overheard cell phone conversations should be enough for any intelligent person to understand everything there is to know about the opposite sex.
I also think the basic tone of men's and women's voices say a lot. Men sound like problem solvers. Women sound like sympathizers. Men grunt. Women coo.
You wrote on your blog, in a musing on J.D. Salinger, that you think even great literature hits a "generational wall" where its no longer relevant because "Sooner or later a new group pops up that is going in the exact opposite direction. And that's the end." (A very Salingeresque phrasing, BTW!) Can you say more about this? If it's true, then how can we explain works that do remain compelling, generation, after generation? How you do approach your own work, with the idea that it has a limited shelf life?
The interesting thing about Holden Caulfield is he seems so untouchable. So Huck Finn like. He could never go out of style. Who could ever not like Holden? But here they are. The first generation that looks at him and says: "What's he so grumpy about?"
That's because he is in fact so post-World War 2. There's a strange bitterness inside him that we didn't even notice because we are of that milieu also. He is so 50's, so existential, so Beat.
I love that about him. I love Salinger. And I don't think it's true that he will be forgotten. It's just that the current kids are SO DIFFERENT. They have no World Wars hanging over them. They don't have the violence of the sixties hanging over them. EVERYTHING IS GREAT for them. It really is. They are totally protected, totally secure. Our whole society, with all its resources, is there to serve them.
If a kid today is "sad," they take him to the doctor! To that group, Holden suddenly seems weird.
If you got to spend one day as a woman, like Tom, what would you do?
I think I would just want to walk around and see what it was like to be a visual object in the world. That would be so interesting. And I think I would dress different ways, to play with that. Brainy girl. Popular girl. Skater girl. Clothes are so important to girls. They are the prism through which you are viewed.
I think if I had to be a girl for more than a day I would dress like a really cool lesbian. Because after about a day, I think I would have had enough boy attention. But even then there'd probably be clueless dudes hitting on you. Being a girl would be hard!
If you want more Blake, check out his website at www.blakenelsonbooks.com. He will be appearing at "Upstairs at the Square" in New York City with the completely rad teen girl band Care Bears on Fire on March 11th at 7 pm.