Angst, Agency, and Activism: A Conversation with YA Author Jessica Blank

I made a pact with myself recently to start reading more books aimed at grown ups. Novels like Jessica Blank’s Legacy keep making me break that vow. Legacy is the story of Alison, a high school senior who is spiraling after a family tragedy. She eventually regains her equilibrium and discovers her own agency through involvement with a group of radical environmental activists. On a personal level, as a 40-something Oregonian, part of what’s enchanting about this book is its setting: the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s. If you’re curious about what it was like, Legacy will take you there: driving through dense, awe-inspiring rainforests and depressing grey suburbs in shitty cars, listening to static-y underground radio, smoking weed with boys who quote anarchist philosophers over cheap diner coffee. Ultimately though, what I like about the book is that reminds us that “Gen X” were called slackers only because, for many of us, our activism and our ambition didn’t follow the template laid out by “Baby Boomers.” A book about the messy, hard work of grassroots organizing, and about how it can take you out of yourself, and how young people can lead the way feels relevant readers of every age right now.

Here is my interview with novelist, playwright, filmmaker, actor, and coach Jessica Blank. (It’s edited for length and clarity.)

 

I remember living in Olympia and seeing the flatbed trucks on the highway with the felled trees on them. And — particularly after being out camping or hiking in the forest — they looked like corpses to me.

 

Sara: I was looking at a lot of the reviews and it seems like the first thing a lot of us notice is the ’90s setting. Could you talk a bit about why you set it in the ’90s and why that seems to really appealing to readers right now?

Jessica: When I had the idea for the book, I definitely had no expectation that there would be any larger cultural interest in the ’90s. I got the idea for the book a long time ago, while I was writing my second book, Karma For Beginners. I had lived in Olympia, Washington, briefly in the late ’90s. And in that period of my life, even when I wasn’t living in the Pacific Northwest, I was traveling out there as often as possible. I went to the old growth redwoods near the California and Oregon border at least five or six times. The ancient forests out there are one of the most incredible places on earth. And I’ve always had a really strong connection to nature and forests in particular. Some people are ocean people, some people are desert people; I’m absolutely a trees and mountains person.

Sara: Me too!

Jessica: I remember living in Olympia and seeing the flatbed trucks on the highway with the felled trees on them. And — particularly after being out camping or hiking in the forest — they looked like corpses to me. It’s very striking. You can look on one side of a mountain and there’s a primeval forest, and on the other side there’s a clear cut and everything is just gone. That had a really strong impact on me as a young person.

I’ve always been a very politically oriented person. I was raised by politically oriented people; the idea of being aware of systemic injustices, and that I have a responsibility to help heal or correct them, has been part of who I am since I was a kid. So, as I was growing up, I got involved in activist communities. I was never directly involved in Earth First, but I had a lot of friends that were, and I was sort of at the edges of that community. Most of my college years I spent in Minneapolis, and while I was living there there was a pretty extraordinary urban occupation that happened called the Minnehaha Free State.

[At this point we digress and realize that it’s a very small world indeed. I lived in Minneapolis too. We were both involved in the theater world and knew some of the same people.]

Jessica: So you know Minneapolis…to give you some context I worked at the New Riverside Cafe [note: a collectively run vegetarian cafe that was an activist hub from 1970 to the late 1990s] …That was a really formative experience, being part of that collective and experiencing decentralized leadership structures. The Riv was one place where I intersected with people who had been involved with Earth First, and being at the outskirts of the late ’90s anarchist community in Minneapolis was another influence on the book.

And one of my dear friends who I originally met at the Riv was deeply involved with the Minnehaha Free State; we were roommates while [it] was going on. So…through him I was exposed to what it takes to create an occupation. [The Free State] was unique; it was not just Earth First, it was not just kids in the forest. It was Earth First, plus senior citizen ordinary Minnesotans whom the city was trying to evict through eminent domain, and American Indian Movement activists. They formed a coalition, and that occupation lasted almost a year, through a Minnesota winter. The determination of the people involved, and what it took to make that free state run and hold up under repeated assault, was also a huge influence on me.

So I got the idea for this book long before the ’90s were retro trendy and there were ’90s clothes at Urban Outfitters. And my editor at first suggested I set the book in the present day — suggesting it might be more relatable to young readers.  She’s a wonderful editor, and I said let me give it a try. But that actually took me on a detour, because one of my backgrounds is in documentary theater, and when I’m writing about something that really happened I’m a total research hound. Historical accuracy is incredibly important to me.

So moving this story up to the present day, and maintaining historical accuracy, required changing a lot — because after 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security under John Ashcroft designated direct action environmental groups as domestic terrorists. And the Patriot Act was used to prosecute a lot of folks who were doing environmental direct action, even though they were nonviolent. It really tore apart the movement in a lot of ways. And it radicalized some people into doing more property destruction. And some people turned snitch and implicated other people. It created a huge amount of drama — and terror actually — within the movement. So there is a draft of this novel that’s present day that incorporates all that.

Sara: Wow.

Jessica: But the further I got in, the more I found the story pulled into a level of political complexity that was more complicated than the original story I wanted to tell. Which was really the story of a girl, and her coming of age, and her realization of her own agency and her ability to make an impact on her world. So, somewhere along the line, I had a conversation with my editor and said, how would you feel about putting this back in the ’90s? And by then the ’90s were, like, “cool.” And setting it back in that time period reopened up the story and allowed the book to come out in its fully imagined form.

I think it’s helpful to look at how we become activists through the lens of a time when everything was not on the internet, when people had to hash things out with each other in a really direct, face to face way.  

I’m not pooh-poohing online activism; I think it’s really important. But I also think that there is something depersonalizing about social media and the internet. If all of our activism is online, we lose out on what we learn from having to actually work together collectively, face to face, to make change.

I’m interested in reminding young readers of the possibility of organizing and working together face to face, where you’re actually forming real-world relationships with the people that you’re working with. Where you’re transforming them, and being transformed by them, and making change together.

Sara: Yeah that’s one of the great things about the book, everybody in the free state is there for a different reason. It’s not like they all have this perfect uniform motivation or agenda or like “We all want to save the tree!”

Jessica: Right!

Sara: They all have a nuanced variety of reasons for how they end up there and they have to figure out a way to stay on track while still dealing with all of their own stuff, which I think is really useful for anyone.

Jessica: I think that’s how it works in the real world, right?  Even if we can get together around one particular issue, everybody is going to be coming to that issue from a different vantage point. We’re all coming from different backgrounds, and we’re each brought to a single point in time and space by a totally unique story. I think part of making social change and creating a more just society involves being able to speak across those differences. And being able to acknowledge how complicated all of us are.  When we step outside of the hierarchical structures and systems that our society hands us, when we try to do something different, we’re kind of creating that from scratch. And we have to deal with each other in a very direct way, and that brings up all of our stuff. Just like falling love and getting into an intimate relationship brings up all our stuff. We have to evolve and grow and we have to figure out how to do it together.

Sara: Right. Another thing I really love about this is that there are a lot of young adult books that are about young people organizing for change, but they tend to be fantasy books. There aren’t very many examples set in the real world about young people who are organizers.

Jessica: Whenever I start working on a new project I like to read everything I can get my hands on that’s in a similar universe; I sort of fill my brain up with a bunch of other books that are dealing with overlapping territory. And when I went to do that for this book, I was actually astounded to find what you just articulated — that the vast majority of young adult novels that deal with activism or changemaking are set in alternate worlds or dystopian futures, rather than in the present moment. And I think it’s incredibly fertile territory. Especially now. I think in the wake of Parkland…we’re in a moment where young people are seeing: oh, we’ve got to do this for ourselves. And we can do it for ourselves. The grownups are certainly screwing things up, most of them.

So, if we want a future that looks the way we want it to look, and is reflective of our beliefs, we have to take matters into our own hands and make that ourselves.

Sara: Something else that I noticed, on a slightly different track is that the book is very much about Alison — even though it’s about all of these big issues. And it has a romantic relationship that’s very important to the story, but it’s not a romance. It’s more about learning how to be in a relationship and figure out what you need from it.

Jessica: I think that’s a great way of putting it. The book is a coming of age story; it’s a story about Alison discovering her own agency. It’s about her realizing that she has agency in the first place. At the beginning of the book, she’s a person to whom life has happened. Like a lot of teenagers that are trapped in painful or traumatic or dysfunctional circumstances, she can’t see a way out for herself, because she’s not an adult yet and she’s got to live with what she’s given. What we do when we’re in those kinds of circumstances? We look for whatever escape hatches we can find. Whatever rays of light, that help reinforce our sense of self, that we can grasp on to.

But for a lot of kids, especially kids who aren’t super privileged, there aren’t that many things like that. They’ve got to kind of take what they can get. At the beginning of the book Alison’s relationship with Jeff is the escape hatch that’s available to her. It’s not that she shouldn’t be with him. They have a real connection, and he provides her with a way out that she wouldn’t have otherwise, and space within which she can have some little bit of self determination. But once she gets out into the forest and has access to a larger world, she discovers that she doesn’t need him in the same way. She starts asking herself what she actually wants, and looking at what choices she might make for herself if she wasn’t dependent on him to be the guy with the car, who’s older, who gets her out of her life.

I write in a very character-based way. I started as an actor, I’m still an actor, I’m a playwright, I’m a filmmaker; everything that I create is grounded in character. So to a certain extent, I’m always letting the characters and what their challenges and growth points are dictate the structure of the story. So in a certain way, Alison and Jeff showed me what was supposed to happen between them.

And at the same time, once I discovered that, I realized that in a lot of young adult fiction — which is mostly read by teenage girls — love stories are often a vehicle for self discovery. At least in a heteronormative context, in a lot of these books, it’s through meeting “the guy” and falling in love with him that the girl discovers herself. I thought it was really interesting to explore: what if the guy was already there? And he’s not a monster, and he’s not abusive, and he’s not mistreating her.

But what if her journey of self discovery is about realizing that actually she doesn’t need him?

Sara: That’s great. You must have known a Jeff. Because he’s so…like, I knew Jeff.

Jessica: (Laughs) I knew so many Jeffs.

Sara: I was just like ugh…I know that guy so well. I know exactly why she finds him attractive. There were a lot of characters that were very familiar, actually.

Jessica: Yeah, well, you lived in Oregon and Minneapolis in the ’90s, so I think that makes a lot of sense!

Sara: So you said you’re an actor, playwright, and filmmaker, as well as a novelist. When you have a story, how do you decide what form it should take?

Jessica: I love that question because I’m a total structure nerd. I’m so curious about the similarities and differences among all the mediums I work in. I’m also a coach, and I work with writers and creators, teaching character-based story structure. So I’m very conscious of the principles of narrative that are the same among all storytelling mediums. There are tools that you can learn to navigate, whether you’re a novelist or you’re writing narrative nonfiction or you’re screenwriter or a playwright…that apply across all those mediums. And then there are subtler structural differences between the forms.

My plays and movies, I write with my husband; we’ve been writing partners for 17 years. And usually, when I get an idea, or we get an idea, it’s clear what medium it wants to live in. If it’s about wanting to explore the characters’ interiority, then that usually wants to be a book. Because there’s no other medium where you get to live inside a character’s head in the way you can in a novel. If it’s a more externally oriented story, it might be a movie. A screenplay is action oriented. It’s about what’s visible, because film is a visual medium. Plays are halfway in between, but everything still has to be fairly externalizable and grounded in action and event.

Our first film just premiered at the Woodstock Film Festival; it’s based on my first novel (Almost Home). The novel is about a group of gutter punk kids in L.A., and it’s not really structured like a film. There’s very little dialogue; it’s a novel in stories; each chapter is told from a different kid’s point of view. It’s very much about the ecosystem of the kids, and the narrative is shared between them. Whereas most screenplays have one central character, two at the most, who you track through a linear external journey. So when Erik and I adapted Almost Home together, we made very radical changes. We restructured the whole thing.

And then other ideas want to take different forms. Our play, How to Be a Rock Critic, which is adapted from the writing of the rock critic Lester Bangs, is a solo show that Eric performs and I direct. As we dug into Lester’s writing, we realized that story really wanted to live in that form — a one man play that’s all monologue. Now we’re adapting that project for film, as an unconventional indie biopic like American Splendor. It tells the same story, but it’s a restructured adaptation. So the spaces between mediums — I like to play with them. And a lot of our work we’ve adapted from one form into another — from a play into a movie, or a novel into a movie. If the story that I’m working with is rich enough, I’m interested in seeing how to make it work in different forms.

To find out more about Jessica’s work, or to contact her about coaching or speaking, go to www.jessicacblank.com or Instagram @jessicacblank

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Sara Tatyana Bernstein
Sara is the co-founder of Dismantle Magazine. You can also find her writing on Catapult, The Outline, Racked, BuzzFeed Reader, and more. Most of her work is about everyday fashion and consumer culture, with forays into pop culture, higher ed, and labor.