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Interview: Talking about teenagers and comics with author Ariel Schrag

The Berkeley-born writer Ariel Schrag was first published while she was still a student Berkeley High School in the late 90s. Schrag gained success after writing a series of four autobiographical coming-of-age graphic novels - one about each year of high school. In the mid-aughts she wrote for television - including the Showtime series The L Word. She recently finished her first novel Adam and is currently living in Brooklyn. 

JEREMY DALMAS: So you came out with your first novel Adam last year, can you just describe a summary of the book?

ARIEL SCHRAG: It's basically about a straight teenage boy living in Piedmont, kind of very sheltered life, who is kind of a loser, gets kicks out his friend group at school and goes and spends the summer with his older lesbian sister Casey who has just finished her freshman year  at Columbia and kind of joins and kinds of joins her gang of queer friends as lack of anything else to do, kind of tags along with her to all these parties and winds up then being mistaken for a trans man, because there are a lot of trans men in casey's queer scene, and ends up allowing this girl he has a crush on to believe he is trans.

JD: A lot of people, at least that I talk to, their first question is why did you choose Adam as the main character  for the story.

AS: Yea, a lot of people ask me that and I actually find it such a weird question because that is the story. Like the story is this cis teenage boy passes as a trans man. But at the same time it's a questions that makes sense because the book is really me commenting on and writing about this subculture that I was a part of and if I were to be aligned with a character, I am sort of superficially sort of aligned with Casey. I went to columbia I was part of this scene, I was a 19 year old lesbian living in this world. But her story, her story was not interesting to me. I was sort of interested in the dynamics of this culture and thought it would be really intriguing to approach it through the eyes of this teenage boy in this bizarre predicament of deception.

JD:I think that Adam does a lot things that are immoral? At least that's what I thought -

AS: I think you can say that. Definitely wrong.

JD: But at the same time, he's just a kid, and I think that he's portrayed quite sympathetically in the book - you hear it from his perspective. How would you feel about Adam if you met him?

AS: Well it's funny. I did a reading once and this kid came up to me afterwards and he was like 'I have to tell you something.’ And I was like this is kind of creepy. 'I did that. I pretended to be trans.’ I was shocked. Apparently he kept his deception to the internet, he didn't go out in real life. But I was definitely like - you are a creep. I mean it's a creepy thing. I definitely was more interested in telling the story where you were able to empathize with Adam, I mean that's the challenge. You know you can write any story and be like 'Ew! A creepy guy did a creepy thing!” The thing that made it interesting is what is the scenario that would get somebody to do this and what would it mean to empathize with that.

JD: I mean that's what makes book so interesting. So you started writing comic memoirs when you were 15?

AS: I started Awkward about my freshman year at Berkeley High When I was 15. 

JD: You went to Berkeley high school and you ended up writing a graphic novel about each year of high school. I wanted to ask why write a comic memoir while you were still so young?

AS: If I think back to the first inspiration I had been experimenting with comics - and autobiographical comics - for a while. I was really obsessed with the strip For Better Or For Worse and I had this kind of strip called Live It Like Me that was about a girl in 8th grade like me. Then my freshman year I discovered zines and alternative comics - particularly this comic called Deep Girl by cartoonist Ariel Bordeaux that she self published. And I just felt really inspired to write about everything that happened to me in my 9th grade year of high school which had been Berkeley High - did drugs for the first time, got drunk for the first time, like did sexual things for the first time. All these first were so exciting that I just really wanted to share with people what had happened. When Awkward seemed to be received well and people wanted to buy it - I'm just going to keep doing this.

JD: I have to say, we went to high school together. I'm 2 years younger than you and when I was in high school, I thought you were really really cool. I bought your comic from your sister - who's my age - and I have to say it was pretty influential on me in terms of the fact that I did music in high school and put out four albums in high school - sort of DIY music stuff - and I think seeing you work on such ambitious project made me want to do that.

AS: That's so cool! That's really really awesome. I love that.

JD: So thank you for that and I guess what was your influence, starting so big of a project?

AS: Definitely that comic I discovered Deep Girl had a big effect on me. Something about finding this self-published zine on the consignment rack at Comic Relief was like ‘Oh! I can do that.’

JD: A lot of those four graphic novels were quite graphic and very intimate and I'm curious - at 35 how it feels to have your adolescence on the page for everyone to see? Maybe even people you meet for the first time have already read about it?

AS: I mean it does really kind of shock me. I don’t regret it and I certainly remember being in the mindset of writing it, but I certainly am like ‘Whoa!’. I think when you get older, there's a certain self-consciousness - that my feelings aren't that originally or they aren't that important. Other people have it worse. And a teenage is not really concerning themselves with that: ‘This is happening to me right now and it's the most intense thing that everyone ever felt in their lives and I need to tell everybody about it.’ My advice if you wanted to write something similar, is that you just have to do it when you're a teenager!

JD: Well I missed the boat on that one. Thanks for talking with me.

AS: Thanks so much for having me.