If you could embed yourself in a bookstore, let’s hear your handsell: I think Karen Karbo — New York Times notable book author and Portlander—offered a better “hand sell” than I ever could when she wrote this blurb for the book: “The astute, intrepid Lauren Kessler dives into the deep end of teenage culture in this witty, entertaining, and ultimately wise tale of surviving her fiesty daughter’s middle school years. Her book belongs on the nightstand of every parent, and everyone who thinks she may one day become a parent.”
You’ve immersed yourself in six very different worlds for your six literary nonfiction books. What was it like writing about your daughter’s world, and how did it compare to your previous projects? There’s a HUGE difference between immersing yourself in an era, in particular time and place, in documents and books and film, as I did for Clever Girl, The Happy Bottom Riding Club and Stubborn Twig, and immersing yourself in a real-life, on-going story, as I did for Dancing with Rose and now for My Teenage Werewolf.
With this new book (and my previous one on the life lived by those with Alzheimer’s), it was really deep-water, total immersion. I lived these stories. I couldn’t close a book or fly home from an archive and come back to my “real” life. The book was my real life. I don’t mean in the sense of writing memoir, which neither My Teenage Werewolf or Dancing with Rose is. These are researched, reported books. I am an immersion journalist, a cultural anthropologist without portfolio. I mean that the world of the book was the world I lived in, 24/7. It’s an extraordinarily challenging — sometimes harrowing — experience. Very powerful, very focused and intense.
If I were back in a bookstore, I would probably sell this as an immersion journalism-memoir hybrid. You’re reporting, but it’s your personal story (and Lizzie’s) and your filter. Why isn’t this memoir, or at least a sub-type of memoir? 99.9 percent of memoir is not reported (or reported out from), it’s remembered. That’s why I don’t think of this, or Dancing with Rose, as memoir. Also, I purposely chose these experiences, set up the conditions for the experiences to happen (in most cases) and then reported on what happened. That doesn’t feel memoirish to me either. But really, if people come to it — or if booksellers sell it — as memoir, I am fine with that. I consider myself an immersion reporter, an amateur cultural anthropologist who uses the small narrative (the personal story) to open to and illuminate larger themes and issues.
What was the most difficult place you embedded? Probably 7th and 8th grade classrooms. Imbedding myself wasn’t difficult in the way you would think, though. The teachers were welcoming, and the kids— including my daughter —very quickly lost interest in me, which was great. What was difficult, very challenging, was seeing all there was to see. There was so much going on: whatever the lesson of the moment was, of course . . .but all the little dramas that were played out, the looks, the conversations, the body language. I was immersed in a “foreign” culture, and I had to be alert to everything. It was exhausting. After 4 periods, I often left to go get a double espresso before plunging into the afternoon. My daughter thought this was very funny — that I couldn’t make it through a whole day without leaving.
As a mother, I found the book incredibly helpful. It’s not just observation but an investigation into the teen-age brain—with lots of research (presented very palatably). What were some of the things you learned along the way that were most helpful to you as a parent? First and foremost, that the reason teens are so often impulsive, moody and judgment-impaired is that they are at the mercy of their “under construction” brains. I learned a lot about the teen brain (it’s a mess up there), and this helped me understand my daughter’s (and her peers’) behavior and not take at least some of it personally.
I also learned that empowering Lizzie —she was, after all, the expert in her own life and my resident 21st century teen girl culture expert — had a powerful and extraordinarily positive effect on our relationship. That was a huge lesson, and one I think every parent might want to consider.
What does Lizzie think of the book? She is somewhere between proud (I’m a main character in a book!) and embarrassed (What if my friends read it?)
If there was a soundtrack for your book, will you name a few songs from it? I’d name two, the first being Green Day’s “Good Riddance” (Time of Your Life). The first verse IS the essence of the book: