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. ♦
When I was in my twenties I would write short stories for a year, then write a novel, then write poems for nine months and rotate them around like that. So i went to Europe when I was twenty eight and hand wrote poems only, in cafes and parks and train stations. And then I'd send them to my mom and and she would type them up and send them to Gordon Lish, the only editor who had published my work at that time. What a nice thing for my mom to do, and what a huge boost to my confidence to know that a serious editor was going to look at them. Not many of them actually got published, but a few did and that was enough.
Due to its subject matter, which deals very plainly with drug/alcohol abuse and the struggles one faces throughout the initial stages of recovery, Recovery Road is already set apart from other television shows aimed at teens. It’s certainly not the first teen show to deal with alcohol and drug abuse – “Very Special Episodes” have covered this ground since the ’90s. Nor is it the first to see its leading lady through this fight – The O.C’s Marissa Cooper was social chair by day, and passed out by night.
However, while other shows have confronted addiction in a fairly one-dimensional manner, treating an overdose as a speed-bump or portraying all addicts as strung-out skeletons with bad teeth, Recovery Road aims to paint a complex picture of what it’s like to struggle with this disease, and to provide a more realistic idea of what an addict can look like.
Maddie isn’t shooting heroin or suffering from massive withdrawal, but she has licked cocaine off of a bathroom floor before, and that’s the kind of behavior that crosses the line between fun and full-on dangerous. On Recovery Road, addicts come in all shapes and sizes, and so do their paths to sobriety, helping to demonstrate to young viewers that addiction is deeply complicated, rather than reserved merely for those who are “Bad” or weak.
That being said, the show definitely has a tendency toward preachy and overdramatic qualities. One of the pilot’s weakest moments comes toward the end of the episode, when a patient who has just completed his time at Springtime relapses and returns to wreak havoc on the house. Vases are broken, the lighting is dimmed, and the music stings, as Maddie is given a look at what her life could be like if she doesn’t get clean. It’s a big moment with an After-School Special quality that looks down to its teen audience and undermines the more subtle portrayals of addiction and relapse featured on the show.
If the first few episodes are any indication, Recovery Road is a solid drama grounded firmly in the teen genre, borrowing just enough from its predecessors to achieve a comfortable familiarity. Its identity pertaining to said genre seems to be Recovery Road’s downfall at points – the episodes can feel sentimental and neutered, despite attempts to portray addiction in a multifaceted manner. However, with its quick dialogue and fully realized main character, Recovery Road just might flourish into a series that transcends its early trappings.
The addicts, in their teens and 20s, opened up to the filmmaker, Steven Okazaki, and we saw up-close how their acute self-awareness about the dangers of using — the legal and physical hazards, the all-encompassing bleakness — kept losing out to their more acute bodily cravings. Surrounded by healing salt air and finely weathered shingles, ensconced in tight rural and suburban communities, they nonetheless continued to poke needles into their bruised arms, hands, and necks.
Some of the addicts in “Heroin: Cape Cod, USA” overdosed and died during the course of the filming. There is nothing artificially hopeful or romanticized in the film, only the heartbreaking sight of a desperate parents’ group at their wit’s end and beyond. Okazaki offers nothing to soften the blows, no easy formula to cure the disease. It’s a hard portrait of a hard reality.
So when I sat down to watch “Recovery Road,” a new scripted series about young people and addiction — not only to opioids, but to other drugs and alcohol — I had a lot of trouble making judgments.
“Recovery Road,” which premieres Monday night at 9, is on Freeform, which until recently was called ABC Family. Based on Blake Nelson’s 2011 young adult novel, the drama is about a high school party girl named Maddie (Jessica Sula) who is pushed into recovery after she’s caught with vodka in her locker. During the day, she attends regular classes, but at night and on weekends she lives in a nearby sober facility for young men and women.
The milieus in the Freeform series and the HBO movie are similar — they’re set in a suburban, middle-class, and largely white population (although Maddie is mixed race), not in the urban and primarily black worlds that TV writers lean on so heavily when telling drug stories. But “Recovery Road” is far from relentlessly hopeless. At first, Maddie hates the sober house, is irritated by its inhabitants, and resents having limited phone access and a curfew, of course. Relapse is in the air. But then she starts crushing on a cute guy who lives there, Sebastian De Souza’s broody Wes, even though she knows it’s a bad idea to focus on anything but sobriety for the first year. She begins to feel at home.
The sober house is a warm and cozy place, even a little bit like “Friends” at certain moments, despite the struggles going on within it. Craig (David Witts) is the father figure, a twentysomething therapist at the facility who’s remarkably stable and wears smart-guy glasses, and Cynthia (Alexis Carra) is the mother figure who goes to the house when she’s not counseling at the high school. Vern (Daniel Franzese from “Looking”) is the lovable bear, Trish (Kyla Pratt) is the kooky and hyper former meth addict, and Rebecca (Lindsay Pearce) is Maddie’s frenemy.
If it sounds like I’m slagging “Recovery Road,” I’m not. I’m just wondering if there’s a place for a show that soft-sells the rigors of addiction and sobriety, that makes the idea of recovery look almost desirable. Freeform is a network whose target audience is young — what the network has called “Becomers,” viewers between 14 and 34. Is it valuable for these younger people to see the recovery process as something that isn’t a circle of hell? Will the gentle and kindhearted ensemble vibe of “Recovery Road” make it easier for a young addict in the viewing audience to contemplate getting sober?
Or will it make the idea of addiction seem less dire — as if getting hooked is no biggie because recovery is as easy as a very special episode of “New Girl”?
And how much responsibility do TV producers of scripted series have when it comes to hewing close to the darker sides of the truth? As a soap opera, a genre that generally traffics in clichés and hyperactive plotting, “Recovery Road” isn’t too bad, if you don’t mind a few teen-drama banalities. I’ve seen worse. Also, the show is earnest and well intentioned, as it shows us a young woman grappling with denial and working to get her life on track. It’s not a cynical venture. But it does make happily-ever-after into a distinct possibility.