Bringing Classic Tales to a Modern Reader: Literature as Comics This is the eleventh installment of an ongoing series written for the blog by Richard Graham. Richard is an associate professor and media services librarian at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he studies the educational use of comics and serves as the film and art history liaison. His posts examine the connections of UNL, Nebraska, and the larger literary world with the comics medium.
The summer before I entered ninth grade, my parents purchased a local landmark just south of the Poconos called Hilltop Drive-In—-not a movie theatre, but the kind of place where customers line up to order hot dogs and sundaes at sliding windows. I spent the months leading up to my fourteenth birthday learning how to stack loops of soft serve ice cream atop cones, jot orders, count change. Long lines snaked out to the parking lot at night; my peers and I darted from the cash registers to the sundae station, arms and t-shirts sticky with the fine mist of milkshake spray, the air stuffy from the lack of A/C and the bubbling fryers that churned up pierogies and French fries. I had my first job, one that would show me all the merits and drawbacks of punching a time clock and sweating for the pay which was handed out every two weeks.
But during that same summer and the next few to follow, I took on another job--equally as important, although I wouldn’t have realized it at the time. Behind the kitchen and storage rooms stood a small office with space enough for only two desks: my father’s and a smaller typing desk adjacent, beside the door. The year was 1993; I had been given a much-vied for word processor called the “StarWriter,” I think, which boasted a strip of screen and discs which would enable its user to miraculously save documents. To someone who had been relying for years on her mother’s electric typewriter with its finicky erasure ribbon, the StarWriter was a huge leap forward. I decided right away to write a novel.
The drive-in had a two-bedroom apartment above, where my family was living. Before my parents took over the eatery, we had spent the last few years living with my grandmother in her creaky farmhouse down the road; their prior businesses and our house had been lost to bankruptcy. Hilltop Drive-In was my parents’ ticket to getting back on their feet; at my grandmother’s, I had suffered little privacy in which to write. I was determined to make the most out of living above the restaurant, and the restaurant below.
When I wasn’t ringing up orders for cheese steaks and decorating banana splits, I headed down the back stairs of the apartment and through the kitchen. Notebook tucked underneath my arm and fountain Coke in hand, I ducked into the office. Sometimes my father would be manning his desk, flipping through the Rolodex of food purveyors or a stack of applications in high schoolers’ scrawl. The StarWriter’s blue-green screen lit up. I set to work on my masterpiece, what I was sure would make me famous, my novel launched to the bestseller list.
And what was this great novel about? A wealthy heiress and her dedicated servants no less, who resided in a Manderly-type mansion on a private island somewhere off the coast of California. The plot, if you could call it that, involved the heiress’s adoption of a beautiful golden-haired child who she spoiled but of course remained as idyllic and sweet as Shirley Temple. I don’t recall much else, other than the narrative contained many extensive passages copied from fancy dress catalogues of outfits which I envisioned my characters wearing. So much for originality.
But for the first time I was writing more than individual stories—-I had chapters! I had a cast of characters! I could print out what I had written from the printer in the back of the word processor, and once I had a complete draft, I eagerly sent it off to my supportive and literary-minded aunt, an avid reader and book editor at Rodale Press.
I don’t remember how long my aunt took in making her comments and returning the manuscript, but I clearly remember the nature of her response. “Um, lots of detailed clothing descriptions—do we really need those?” and “Hmm, none of this seems to be very…real. Pretty monotonous.” Crushed, I continued to leaf through the pages. All that work; how could I have gotten things so wrong? Wasn’t this what I had wanted to write about, what so many books and movies focused on—rich people who lived lavish lifestyles? Something must have whispered otherwise, or perhaps it was when I phoned my aunt for more clarification and she let me down gently. “Why don’t you try writing about something you know well?” she asked. “From your own experiences?”
I hadn’t before considered this. Nearly all my previous stories had been tales of girls and horses, or pioneer heroines, or ballet dancers. I had been none of those things, not really. But those were childhood stories, and maybe my aunt was pointing me to something different. Write about my life—-how? Why would anyone want to write about the daily lives of teenagers at an ice cream shop in Brodheadsville, Pennsylvania, in the mid-1990s? Then again, Anne Frank had written about her life in an attic where nothing glamorous had happened, and her work had gained quite an audience. Maybe that’s what my aunt was talking about.
So I began to think about my life and the world around me, to observe what my peers spoke about in the presence of my parents, and later, in the absence of adults: about beer parties, rap music, teachers they thought were cool, or despised. In my jean shorts’ pocket I carried one of the narrow notepads we used to take orders, and scratched down quotes instead. You could say I was spying, but with the intentions of creating literature. I took note of what bothered me (how boys often badmouthed girls, how girls bore the disrespect from them in return), what I was curious about (promiscuous sex abounded, although we were all terrified of getting AIDS, far more than pregnancy or other STDs). I gathered my notes in a folder and began to craft a narrative, with a first-person female protagonist, the characters thinly-veiled renderings of my co-workers, classmates, and parents. I took my time describing the concrete, sensory details of the historic drive-in, the back-and-forth teenage banter, against the storyline of the narrator’s yearning for a 17-year-old, sandy-haired bad-boy cook who was, of course, based on my own crush. The manuscript was thinner than my previous novel attempt, a dozen or so chapters, but I felt better about the work I’d done. Although I still wasn’t sure anyone would want to read it.
After I sent the new novel to my aunt, the comments she returned weeks later couldn’t have been more different. The margins were filled with phrases praising the lively detail and round individuals on the page. She said something akin to, “This is quite a success. If you’re intending on becoming a novelist, you’re going to have a remarkable career ahead of you.”
During a recent visit to my parents’ house, I dug out the teenage novel manuscript to see if my memories about the writing and my aunt’s comments were true. The draft is strong for having been written by a fifteen-year-old, much in the vein of S.E. Hinton; the thought even crossed my mind as I was skimming that with some effort, I could revise the manuscript and turn it into a YA novel or screenplay. But for now, more alluring projects call to be written. Perhaps inventing a young adult novel about my teenage years will appeal one day.
What I was most proud and grateful for as I re-read, however, is the tenacity and will displayed in those pages. No one forced me to sit in front of that slow, small-screened StarWriter in my hours free from Little Leaguers screaming their ice cream orders, and late-nights sweeping floors. I could have allowed my aunt’s honest feedback about the first novel attempt to crush me to the point of paralysis, but I didn’t. Instead of heading upstairs to watch MTV after my shifts, I scrubbed my fingers, sticky and stained from maraschino cherry juice, peeled off my t-shirt streaked with Hershey’s syrup and reeking of grease, changed, and began my second shift at the keyboard. I labored for another year, in a whole new direction. Labored despite a heavy load of Honors classes, driving lessons, late nights of serving burgers and wiping picnic tables, the ups and downs of adolescent distractions—or in other words, life.
Even now I marvel at how I did it. But then when you are a writer, your job is to stick to the chair until you figure out the task before you.
Months before I held the manuscript of the most honest work I had ever done, I had been in the thick of tackling my aunt’s orders on the summer night O.J. Simpson was streaming down the California highway in the Ford Bronco, cops in pursuit. My father had the small TV in the stuffy office tuned to CNN. I was at my typing desk; it was one of my rare nights off from manning the registers out front and dipping Hershey’s cones. Every time the kitchen orders died down, the apron-clad teenage boys clamored into the office for an update on O.J. I watched for a few minutes before I turned back around, pecking the keyboard. One of the boys, hovering in the doorway, asked me what I was doing. I had clocked out at four, it was summer vacation. So what was I working on?
“I’m writing a book,” I said. “It’s what I do.”
Vanessa Blakeslee’s fiction, essays, and reviews have been published in The Paris Review Daily, The Southern Review, The Globe and Mail, Green Mountains Review, and The Good Men Project Magazine, among many others. Her short story “Shadow Boxes” won the inaugural Bosque Fiction Prize. She has been awarded grants and fellowships from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Ragdale Foundation, and was a finalist for the 2012 Marguerite and Lamar Smith Fellowship at the Carson MacCullers Center.