I ended up signing the contract and disappointing 16-year-old Stephanie, who may have even written that one-star review of my first book on Amazon calling me a “poseur” and a “sell-out.” But the truth is that MTV was a great publisher. They never tried to tone down any of the content of my books, and they never made me feel like I was compromising my values. The books were published in 2008 and 2009, and I still get emails from girls who actually did stumble upon them at Barnes & Noble, attracted by the pretty covers that MTV shelled out to have designed. One girl from Nebraska told me that she’d found my second novel, which deals with heroin addiction and self-injury, after her best friend died of an overdose, and it gave her the strength to go to rehab. A girl from Pennsylvania sought help for self-injury after reading about my character’s experience, which she said mirrored her own. These were more than the supportive fan letters that I’d gotten from my old zine—they were the fulfillment of a goal that I’d held dear for so many years, to use my writing to let girls like 16-year-old Stephanie know that they weren’t alone. Those letters canceled out the accusations—on the internet and in my own head—of selling out my punk-rock roots by joining forces with MTV.
Years before my books were published, while I was still in college, my friend Amber took me to an all-ages venue in Pomona, California, where I was taking some classes, to see a punk band whose singer she knew from middle school. They had the raw sound I’d loved since my Fireside Bowl days, and their lyrics were bitingly political and exciting. Kids were jumping on stage with the band and shouting into the singer’s mic just like they would sometimes do at Fireside.
The next night Amber called to invite me to a party in Beverly Hills at the home of a Warner Brothers Records exec. There would be Dom Perignon, she said, and I should come drink it. The party was already over by the time I got there, around midnight. There was no more Dom Perignon. A few stragglers were milling around holding empty beer bottles; I immediately noted that among them, standing together in their black clothes and tattoos, was the band from last night, laughing loudly over something one of them had said. It turned out the party was for them; the host was courting them for his label. No way, I thought. The band had already turned down several major-label offers at that point, so this exec was obviously wasting his time, and the band was enjoying his free booze and having the last laugh.
Imagine my shock when they signed with Warner Brothers a couple of weeks later. But curiously, I didn’t cry “sellout” or denounce them for betraying their ideals like I saw so many of their fans doing on punk message boards. I was not angry or disappointed; I wasn’t going to delete their music from my iPod the way I sold off my old CDs when their creators proved themselves to be “sellouts.” I’m not sure what brought about this change in my attitude. It may have been that I’d seen the pride on Amber’s face when she talked about how her old friend Tom, the band’s singer, had been devoted to making music his whole life, and now he was getting a chance to be heard, and wouldn’t be forced to choose between making a living and doing what he loved. I was starting to understand that when we make our art public, we don’t get to restrict who gets to experience it to a group we deem righteous enough to really “get it”—instead we get to discover that all kinds of people might have an emotional connection to something that we never could have predicted, and that that is one of the greatest rewards of doing creative work.
So I didn’t resent that band—oh, by the way, it was Against Me!—when I went to see them at a much larger venue and the crowd included people who looked like my high school bullies. Maybe they loved the line in the band’s most popular song about wanting to dance and drink all night, whereas I connected with the feeling of spinning out of control and doing “what we do to get by.” But who am I to say? Maybe they heard the same thing I did. Maybe they understood something deeper and more complicated. Or maybe not, but does that matter? At the very least, the band is giving them something to think about.
Five years later, Against Me! parted ways with Warner Brothers, and in an interview with Spin, the singer, who had transitioned from a man named Tom to a woman called Laura Jane Grace, said that they’d taken the opportunity to see what came of it and “hopefully, I’m walking away from it with an education.” I felt the same way after my experience with MTV Books. When I sent them a proposal for a third book, they declined to publish it. I’d lying to say that this wasn’t devastating, but as neither of my books had been huge sellers, it wasn’t a big surprise. And in the end, I saw my books in print, and those books seem to have made a difference in a few lives. I couldn’t possibly put a price tag on any of that, and I can’t see it as “selling out.”
The author photo that appeared on the back of both of my novels was taken in front of the Fireside Bowl. I don’t look like the punk rock girl who attended shows there—my hair is a plain brown instead of bleached blond and streaked with crazy colors because I still had the office job that I’d hoped my book contract would help me escape. That photo shoot marked the successful completion of a transition I’d been working on since I started writing poems in junior high: from fan to working artist (and still a fan). As a working artist, I worry less about “selling out” and more about weighing my opportunities.
In recent years I’ve repurchased most of the music I got rid of in my Fireside Bowl days. I also went to see Green Day in a huge sports arena for my 30th birthday. I did think about what 16 year-old Stephanie might say—that I was old and going soft—but I had fun, and I could tell the band did too. ♦