The Teen Truthtellers
Nic Sheff and Blake Nelson are both sober. They’ve both also written successful books about addiction and recovery aimed at teens. What happens when they sit down to talk about it?
Back in 2003, when I was 21, an editor from Simon & Schuster contacted me about the possibility of writing a book about my experiences with addiction. I knew it was the most incredible opportunity I was ever going to get. And so I jumped at it, sending chapter after chapter until, finally, they offered me a small book deal. It was everything I’d ever dreamed of. The only catch was when that same editor told me they were going to be releasing the book as a Young Adult title.
I knew what a big deal Young Adult (YA) books can be but to tell you the truth, the idea of having to write one was actually a little embarrassing for me. I mean, I was the kind of kid who always wanted to be treated like a grown up. Calling me too young, or not mature enough, was the worst possible insult. I wouldn’t have ever read a book specifically designated as YA—just as I wouldn’t have ever picked out a video from the “family” section of a video store.
So I was about to release a book that a younger version of myself would never have read.
"Being in the head of teenagers all day has done something to my brain. I don't seem to know how old I am. I talk like I'm 14 one minute and 40 the next."
But then someone suggested I check out books by a guy named Blake Nelson, who wrote YA books that were supposed to be better even than most “adult” fiction out there. Of course, I was skeptical. But I picked up Nelson’s book, Girl, and read it in two days. From there, I went on to read Paranoid Park (which was made into a movie by Gus Van Sant) and the rest of Nelson’s novels.
I noticed right away that his books captured young adult life in a way that was authentic and complex and subtle. And because of that, he actually made me proud to be writing a YA book.
He also happened to have written a book, as it turned out, that dealt specifically with addiction and recovery. Recovery Road is the story of a high school girl who falls in love in rehab, something that I could obviously totally relate to—considering I got kicked out of rehab for romance related reasons. Here's my conversation with one of my favorite authors—who just happens to be sober and have written a kick-ass, very real, compelling book about young people trying to get sober.
How much did your own history of addiction and recovery inform Recovery Road?
A lot. I actually enjoyed how fucked up I was when I first got sober. I was such a mess. And yet, I felt totally exhilarated. Like I'd been through a war, and by some miracle was still alive. After that, who cares what happens? The world was mine. I could do anything. I tried to give [my main character] Maddie that same energy. In other ways, though, I tried to make Recovery Road work as a story for anybody. I really enjoy hearing what non-recovery people think of it. Or hearing reactions like, “Why is she so angry?" Or "She sure has a healthy sense of humor, for someone who just destroyed her life."
Were you worried about breaking your anonymity by writing the book?
Well, I’ve never officially broken my anonymity, so that’s not been a problem. What’s funny is that I’m often asked if I counsel “at risk” youth, or work with teen addicts or something. Almost nobody thinks I might actually be someone like that. At one point, I thought I should say something to my editor—you know, that some of the book was based on personal experience. We sat down for lunch and I screwed up my courage and I told him and he was like, “I think I’ll have the chicken.” It wasn’t that he didn’t care—it’s just not that unusual to be in recovery. Especially for writers. Still, there was this one time where I was at a book convention and I noticed this one woman kept smiling at me in this odd way and suddenly I realized: she was one of us. She was a friend of Bill’s! And she knew. And I knew. And she knew I knew. That was fun.
Recovery Road is also a love story, about two addicts who, having met in rehab, are trying to maintain their relationship back in the “real world.” Do you have any experience dating other addicts? Do you have an opinion about whether it is a good or bad thing for addicts to date other addicts?
I don’t know. The origin of the story came from a friend. She was getting sober in a small town, near her college and the local AA group all went to the movies on a certain night. One night she showed up at the movie theater and the only person there was a new kid, a cute boy. They fell in love. In my book, the same thing happens but they’re in rehab. I didn’t go to rehab myself. Which is so sad because I love institutional food. [Laughs] But, like a lot of people in early recovery, the two main characters grab for each other like life preservers.
What are your feelings on the whole YA thing? Why do you think you were drawn to writing YA novels?
I think there is a rhythm to how teenagers speak and think. When I read a YA book, I usually notice right away if it has that rhythm or not. I can't describe it exactly. It's lazy and energetic at the same time. If your story is about zombies, it doesn't matter if you have it. But if you're doing characters and you want to really feel like there's an actual teenager in the room, you need that rhythm.
What do you think young adults are looking for in the books they read, shows they watch, and music they listen to? What is it about your stories that you think inspire such faith and devotion?
I think there's a level of honesty that's different than most books, and especially more than in movies or TV shows. I think in my best stuff you really get inside the character's head: they become like a friend, someone you trust, and that you know is not going to bullshit you, like the rest of the media does.
What message do you hope teens will take away from Recovery Road?
Well, I'm not a big message guy; I hope RR doesn't have any obvious message. It's not like everything works out for her. She loses so much. And yet she keeps going. The thing that made the book work for me is that she is a genuinely interesting person. I don't know why she is. I tried to write this story many times over the years, and I never managed to make the main character really work. But finally, this last time, this character Maddie appeared. She was like a real person, telling me her story. And it never got boring. I never got sick of it. I could listen to her as long as she felt like talking.