In a genre historically populated by unsoiled Boxcar Children
and virgin Babysitter's Clubs,
author Blake Nelson's young adult stories tackle sex, death, broken families, teenage isolation, punk rock, grunge and drugs, in narratives almost always set in the Rose City. Nelson's newest book, Paranoid Park
(Viking Juvenile, 176 pages, $16), traces the confused trajectory of an unnamed high school skater in Portland, who quickly becomes ensnared in a murder investigation and moral crisis that makes afternoon detention look like a walk through the Chinese Gardens.
The settings are all familiar and local—the Burnside Skate Park, the Hawthorne Bridge, Pioneer Square. And last summer, Paranoid Park generated a new wave of buzz on Portland's streets – after homeboy auteur Gus Van Sant announced that he would adapt the novel into his newest movie, filmed on location in the city, with open casting calls seeking local talent to fill the teenage cast.
We caught up with Nelson this week, after he flew in from New York Monday, to visit family, get his seasonal Portland fix, and host a reading at Powell's this Thursday at 7 pm for Paranoid Park.
Willamette Week: Were you a skater when you were younger?
Blake Nelson: I was, but it was such a different world. It didn't mean anything then. There really wasn't a category of skater kid. It was more, if you had a skateboard, you just did it.
Seems like skateboarding is a pretty damn good vehicle for telling a story about teenage isolation and angst.
It's perfect. It's interesting too—in the ‘80's through the ‘90's, there was kind of an anti-masculine vibe in youth culture, but skateboarding brought back a male bravado. It became cool to be a tough kid who falls down stairs over and over and over.
Ever have a set of rollerblades too?
You mean fruitbooters? That's what the skateboarders call them. The rollerbladers – they're considered very uncool. Skaters think of them as the wussies of that same world. One thing I learned from writing Paranoid Park
—and it's a worldwide phenomenon—is that skaters think rollerbladers are pretty lame.
When you're writing, do you think about the Portland you grew up in, or what Portland's like today?
That's why I come back here a lot. It's weird. I have this mental thing. I live in New York, but whenever I think about being a teenager, I close my eyes and think about Portland. I never let my idea of adolescence leave Portland. Because being an adolescent in Portland is about as universal an experience as you could have. And—people who grow up in New York are so weird.
There's references throughout the book to the Church, and to religion, and to God…how much was that on your mind as you were writing?
My wife loves the part in the book where [the protagonist] says, “there's all these hotlines and counseling centers for teenagers, but when you actually have a real problem, none of that stuff is of any use. That's all sort of bullshit, really.” When you find yourself in a situation where none of the superficial things that are supposed to help you in a society actually help, when you drop down to a deeper level of looking for something to cling to—I think that's when a kid like the one in the book might think of God. If you're in a really, really horrible situation—I think your average American person, brought up in our culture, would sort of say, “Dear God! Please, help me, help me!” Somehow that's one of the most natural responses for this particular kid.
For that average American kid you talk about, who might read the book, what do you think they'll take away from the story?
I guess I feel like if you really accurately portray someone who goes through something hard—teenagers like that, because being a teenager is so hard. They really appreciate it if you can get it right. And if you don't get it right, it just sounds patronizing and dumb. If you can really show a teenager struggling with these big moral things, in a book like this, you're basically saying to a teenager, “I know how horrible it can get. I know how weird and fucked up the world must look to you. But this guy is gonna survive. I'm not even gonna sugar-coat it, it's not going to end happily ever-after, but he is going to survive, and so are you…hopefully.”
You write about kids growing up. In Portland. So when you come back to visit, and see Portland as a city growing up a little bit, becoming a little more professional, a little more trimmed around the edges, is something about its youth getting lost?
That's one of my favorite questions about cities. Every city has its own weird personality. And every city aspires to grow bigger and different than what it was. But do cities ever outgrow their original personalities? I don't think cities really change. I don't know why they do that. Even when they grow, they still sort of stay the same.
What do you think draws young people to this city?
It might be the ease of the city. There's that great quote, when Lewis and Clark said that the Native Americans who lived around the Willamette Valley were the most peaceful because it was so easy to get food, and it was warm. The plains Indians were these tough hunters, or whatever. But the Indians who lived around the areas of Oregon, they could just reach into the river and pull out a salmon anytime they wanted. Their whole culture was affected by the ease of the life. And maybe that's the same thing for the street kids. The people here are nice, the weather never gets terrible, and it's a fairly prosperous place. The street kid scene in Portland is so different and so much more interesting than anywhere else. There's a creepiness to Portland's streets—they seem a little idyllic.
What's the first thing that went through your mind when you found out Gus Van Sant was going to make Paranoid Park into a film?
On the one hand, of all the people in the world who would find my stuff interesting, he seemed like the most likely person. So in one sense, it seemed very natural and normal. But on the other hand, it was so amazing and so exciting and so unexpected. It was like gold from heaven. It was kind of like the greatest thing that could ever happen.
Have a favorite story from being around during the filming in Portland?
I remember one of the kid actors say, “Gus [Van Sant] only says a couple of things a day, so you want to make sure you're there when he says them.” I thought that was pretty funny, because Gus is
pretty quiet, it's true. The kids also started to adopt his persona a little bit. They walked around kind of quiet on the set.
What are you reading right now?
I'm a big fan of this guy Michel Houellebecq. He's French. Really interesting guy. I've turned a couple of my friends onto him. He kind of rips off Camus, but it's 10 times darker. And it's really sexy and crazy.
Best story from your younger days, when you were in a punk band?...
Well, one time, we were going to play a benefit for the Yale radio station. We didn't know what the gig would be like, because we weren't getting paid, we didn't know if anyone was gonna come – so we dropped some acid. We walked out on stage, there's like 2,000 people there, I had lost my shoes somehow, and we're all tripping out. We plug in our guitars, we get ready to go, we can't believe how packed it is, and within a minute, all the electricity in the entire building went out. So then I was standing there on stage, on acid, shoeless, in a pitch-black room full of Yale students…anyways…it was very surreal.
Is this snow weirding you out a little bit?
It is, because I can't get my car started. I don't know how I'm going to get around town while I'm here.
Blake Nelson reads from Paranoid Park on Thursday, Jan. 18 at Powell's City of Books. 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4631. 7 pm. Free.