For years I thought Blake Nelson was a girl. I read his 1994 classic Girl over and over in high school. It’s about a girl named Andrea Marr in grunge-era Portland. She is discovering sex and music and style and herself. The writing is genius–Andrea’s inner monologue is frank, fast, and unlike anything I’d ever read before. She is so intensely observant about the perils of girlhood, it never occurred to me that Andrea could have been written by a boy. When I learned my mistake, it was such an awesome revelation: You don’t have to be a “girl” to write a “girl”! You don’t have to be a “boy” to write a “boy”! Mind: blown.
I still give copies of Girl to my crushes–it’s a book that I always want to share with special people. Blake has chatted with Rookie before, and I’m psyched to talk to him again, this time about a new book called Boy.
First, the obvious question. Who is the “boy” in Boy?
His name is Gavin, and he’s one of those effortlessly popular guys. He’s tall, good looking, and good at sports. His dad’s a lawyer. He’s pretty set up. Then this artsy, rebellious girl, Antoinette, shows up at his school. By chance, Gavin meets her before anyone else and there’s instant chemistry. But of course none of his friends like her. And people make fun of her. But something begins to happen between them.
How do Girl and Boy complement each other, and how are they different?
They both go through several years of a character’s high school career. So the changes they go through happen slowly. They are similar journeys, too. Gavin’s real talents are in the arts—photography. He just doesn’t know it yet. And Andrea was the same in Girl.
One thing I love about both books is the realism of the worlds. I love telling about real teenagers: Grownups are so clueless about what teenagers are up to. Everyone thought Girl was this crazy sex book when it first came out. Oh my god! A girl in high school has sex! It was absurd. Fortunately, teenagers themselves saw it for what it was: an accurate description of their lives.
Boy is the same way. Gavin’s popular friends are not stereotypes. They’re real people, which made writing about them a lot of fun. Often, such people are presented as shallow and fake. But that isn’t the reality at all.
As a writer, what themes do you find yourself coming back to over and over? What kind of stuff do you feel like you could talk about forever?
I love to write about self-discovery. And figuring out who you are. And also, the idea of being true to yourself. Whatever you are, just committing yourself to it, and seeing it through. You’re so lucky if you have a passion or something you really care about. Not everyone has that. And often those people who don’t will try to stop you, or tell you can’t do your thing. Which is sad, in a way, for those people. But if you’re really committed to something, nobody’s going to stop you.
Girl is being reissued with a brand-new cover. A lot has changed since 1994, but Andrea Marr remains utterly cool and 100 percent relatable. I think cyborgs 300 years in the future will still find Andrea relatable. What is it about Andrea? What is her magic?
Just her honesty. She is really telling you, right from the heart, what is happening to her, and her reactions are so genuine. The other thing is that she has a lot of courage. Not so much as to not be realistic, but just enough that you really want to see what happens to her.
I gravitated toward people like that when I was in high school. I found my way into the music scene, where I met girls who were totally going for it, totally accomplishing things and having wild adventures, even though some of them were from the boring suburbs like me. Andrea, in Girl, is one of those special people, who in one way is pretty ordinary, but because she’s so hungry for life and experience, is also totally fascinating. ♦