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Exclusive: Andrea Seigel’s Dark (and Funny!) Take on Teen Lit

Andrea Seigel’s debut novel, Like the Red Panda, charted the course of a high school senior in Orange County who decides to kill herself once she graduates. Told with a spare, honest voice, Seigel dodged teen angst cliché and cut to the center of things. While promoting her sophomore project, To Feel Stuff, she performed a choreographed dance at every whistle stop to help reduce the boredom of the typical reading. Seigel’s currently putting the finishing touches on a YA book about a teenage psychopath whose family suspects she’s been murdering pets (“but it’s funny,” she assures us). Since last summer, she’s been living in the servants’ quarters of a dead author’s mansion in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains. She met Flavorpill’s Jane McCarthy at a nearby Coco’s to eat pie and discuss adult education, David Foster Wallace, and her latest foray into Hollywood.

Flavorpill: You took your first fiction workshop at Brown when you were a senior. What were you studying before that point?

Andrea Seigel: I thought I was going to be a filmmaker. Then I discovered I hate working with other people. They put a camera in my hands and they were like, “Go make something” and for the first project, I was just making stop-motion animation because you can do that by yourself. My professor was like, “No, you need to get a crew, and you need to get actors” and it was really unrewarding for me. It’s probably still the thing I like best about writing ⎯ it’s yours from beginning to end. I’d rather fail on something that is completely me than have that feeling that something fell through the cracks, because it didn’t get translated in some part of the process.

FP: You sold Like The Red Panda when you were 22. How long did it take you to write?

AS: Four or five months. It was really fast, but keep in mind I was working at the Disney Channel at the time, and I had like zero responsibility so it was easy to make that my job. The funny thing is my boss quit right after I sold my book, because he always wanted to be an author, and he felt like his life was passing him by.

FP: Both your novels are told through journals/letters. The characters have written down what we’re reading. What’s attractive to you about that approach?

AS: I guess I never sort of believe things that don’t feel like they’re mediated. It’s like when you’re watching a documentary and they try to disavow that they have the cameras, and suggest they just happened upon this amazing thing. I like self-aware characters so I tend to put them in some sort of situation where they know they’re telling a story, that they’re constructing something. Otherwise why would this person be so articulate?

FP: At the end of Like the Red Panda, the main character (who is a teenage girl) commits suicide, and in To Feel Stuff, your heroine goes through a never-ending series of illnesses. I was reading an interview with Kay Ryan, the new Poet Laureate, and she was saying how Robert Frost set the standard for the “management of darkness”. What are some techniques you use to deal in dark subject matter?

AS: It’s a balance of humor with misery. I don’t know how to get more clinical about it than that. I mean, it probably has something to do with the way I was raised in that whenever my family enters into a bad situation, no one sits in the corner just like losing their shit, and it’s not because we’re such stoic amazing people but it may even be that we’re a little bit embarrassed of emotions so everything becomes quippy and wisecracky. Which in my writing becomes the same. There’s a certain discomfort with characters being sentimental. I think sentimentalism is probably horrifying for me, and I try to avoid it at all costs.

FP: I heard David Foster Wallace interviewed on KCRW’s Bookworm a while back, and he was talking about how for his students at Pomona, sentimentality was like the plague, the thing to run from.

AS: That’s interesting cause I just read that (I don’t know if it was an interview or just his friends talking about him) at the end of his life, David Foster Wallace had become extremely distraught that he had avoided sentimentality in his work, as far as he felt he’d taken sort of a clinical, theoretical route and just once wanted to write something that made someone feel something immediately. And I sort of, I think, rest between that. I hope that my stuff makes people feel for the characters. I don’t want it to be at too far a remove, but I definitely don’t want people just like hugging each other all over the place. I don’t want people crying every ten pages. It turns me off in my personal life…my characters have to be a little bit prickly.

FP: Have you gotten flack a la Marilyn Manson post-Columbine for having a teen commit suicide in your book?

AS: The publisher was concerned about that. We had conference calls before the book came out, and they wanted to know what my stance was. I admittedly have a very flexible stance on suicide so they got really nervous about that, and I didn’t get interviewed very much when the book originally came out. But I didn’t get any sort of flack from teachers or parents or anything. I do get e-mails from suicidal teens.

FP: Do you respond?

AS: Yeah, I respond to everybody who writes me. But I think you can always sort of tell when it’s someone who wants to be understood versus someone who’s really in trouble. And I haven’t had any cases of people who I felt were ready to do something. It’s been more like, they’re alienated and in high school.

FP: I read that you were trying to do a pilot for Like The Red Panda. Did that work out?

AS: No. That crashed and burned.

JM: We don’t have to talk about it if it’s a sore spot.

AS: No, no. It’s a funny spot. Originally, because I love TV so much, I had turned down film offers for Like The Red Panda because I really wanted a TV show. So then Nickelodeon, which is really bizarre, was interested. They sort of had me on board and my main thing was, you have to let me kill her off at the end of this series or else there’s kind of no point for letting this thing exist. And they were like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Cool, cool, cool.” So I wrote them the pilot, turned it in, and it was like, “What is this? Where’s the dating? Why doesn’t she have friends?” It became absurd to the point where I decided, I’ll just bow out now. Let’s just not continue.

FP: But you are doing some stuff in Hollywood now.

AS: I’m trying to sell a pilot. I’m horrible at pitching things to people. When I go into meetings, they’re like, “What are you talking about?” But the idea for the pilot is if you were to go around a soap opera town and instead of following the most powerful, rich families, you followed the people that they ignore, the people you see in the background of the soap opera, what would their lives be like? Like when they’re excluded from everything important and big in town.

FP: Is it very different for you, writing a script for TV as opposed to writing a novel?

AS: Totally. I keep hearing all these screenplay gurus say things like, “Screenplay is the hardest craft in the world,” but I have a way harder time writing a book. It’s hard to structure a screenplay, but once you have that structure in place, then it’s all dialogue, the characters just talk to each other, which is a completely different thing than rendering interiority in an authentic way. With a screenplay, the actors will do half of it for you.

FP: You watch a lot of TV, and you write while you’re watching. Does it become background like having the radio on? Or do you write during commercials?

AS: It becomes background, but I’ve also just done it for so long that I can pay attention to two strands at one time. I’ve gotten really into ABC Daytime…the TV goes on for the fourth hour of the Today Show with Hoda and Kathy Lee, and then it stays on until the end of Martha Stewart at three o’clock. It comes back on again around seven or eight and stays on until like two.

JM: So really, through osmosis, you probably just have a sense of how to write a show. Have you always been TV obsessive?

AS: Always. And it was always in my family. We’d watch Wheel of Fortune during dinner and work out the puzzles together and after dinner, we’d watch shows and discuss what was bad or good about what was going on. We never watched TV silently.

FP: Switching gears, you got your MFA from Bennington doing the low residency program. What was the impetus for going to grad school?

AS: I really got the MFA for business reasons. I found out I couldn’t teach at a university or college until I had my MFA so that’s really why I went to get it, but I just love school. I’d be in school probably forever if I could. I love being on a campus. I love the East Coast.

FP: And post-MFA you taught at UCLA extension among other places. How do you feel about adult education?

AS: I have such split feelings about adult education. What it came down to was the set of students. I had such an amazing run of students that I love, love, love. And then my last semester that I taught at UCLA, I ran up against a student who wouldn’t deal with things in an adult way. It squashed the joy for me, and I left the program because I was really so repulsed by the way the whole thing was handled. But the students I loved over at UCLA had wanted their whole lives to write a book but had been telling themselves it’s just not realistic. And so when they showed up in class they had this idea that had been percolating, and they got really, really passionate about it.

JM: You’re doing more one-on-one consulting now. How does that differ from the workshop?

AS: Well, I prefer it. I still think I’m going to try to teach a little bit at colleges here and there because I like being on a campus so much. But I really love when the people who I can get excited about come to me because they want to be there. And then it seems to be a productive relationship. Like right now, everyone I’m working with, I enjoy working on their stuff and it’s sort of like we chose each other.

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