Everyone has a summer camp story, right? Whether it's that time your ragtag kickball squad shut out the career tributes or when you made your mom that hideous birdhouse that she still loves (or that "one time at band camp ...").
For Maggie Thrash, author of the hilarious and heartwarming YA graphic novel memoir "Honor Girl," the summer camp story she couldn't forget was the time she fell in love for the first time -- and realized she liked girls.
In her unique coming-of-age perspective, Thrash recounts the season she discovered her own sexuality in fun, illustrative format and explores the tender emotional toll first love takes on us all. MTV News spoke with Maggie Thrash about why she needed to get the story out there, how this book helped her finally come out to her family, and how the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way" is the empowerment anthem.
What made you decide to do this particular story in this particular medium?
I knew I needed to tell this story to fully become an adult because it's been holding me back for a while – keeping it inside. I finally just felt prepared to do it. My parents didn't know about this – I wasn't really "out" or anything.
So, it was just time to kind of move on from this and talk about it. And I wanted to do a normal -- quote-unquote "normal" -- memoir with words only. I don't have any art experience – I don't have an art background or anything – but I just found it to be so awkward writing about myself. I was terrible at it. I don’t know. Just having to try and read about myself, explaining my rationale and explaining the way I think, it didn’t work at all, and I found it really freeing to just draw a picture of myself with a word balloon. It's just like there I am, that’s what I say. That's what I said. It made opening up a lot easier for me to do it with pictures.
Did you take some art classes, or what did you do to prepare?
No. I just Googled faces and trees and stared at pictures of them and practiced until it was halfway decent. I didn’t take classes. It's sort of important to me to let kids know you don't have to have art school cred to do this. Just do it. Anyone can do it. Not to devalue the medium, but don't be intimidated by it. Just try it.
One of the things that you reveal – adding a little levity to the story – was that you had that obsession with Kevin Richardson. What was it about that particular Backstreet Boy that got you?
Well, it's just Kevin's – he has this intensity. If you Google pictures of Kevin Richardson, he's hardly ever smiling. And he was the quiet one and the mysterious one, and that made me – you can project a lot onto that. He's just brooding in the background. And, I don't know, it just always felt like there was this mystery. Specifically the song "I Want It That Way" - the lyrics are comprehensible if you examine them, and it just felt like Kevin Richardson was looking at us like "there's a secret meaning for you. Find it." And of course now we realize the Backstreet Boys didn't even write that song, and it probably means nothing, but at the time, it was just like "What does it mean? What is 'the way'?"
This impression that you did, was that something that you had practiced or just came up with on the spot?
I hadn't practiced it. I guess I just felt really connected to the song and Kevin Richardson, and to his masculinity. It's really easy for me to flip into that.
Do you follow Backstreet Boys now, or did you kind of ditch the love with that impression?
No, I have their new album, In a World Like This. It’s extremely rad, though nothing will ever approach the immaculate perfection of “I Want It That Way." The new album definitely has this kind of right-wing family man thing that’s a little alienating to me– one of my favorite songs is kind of a glorification of the military. It’s a really good song, though — “Soldier.” Awesome song.
I looked them up the other day, and Kevin does not appear to have aged.
No. He looks super natural. You know, he was the last one to re-join. There's a significance to that because I feel like he's always been kind of overlooked, even then in the original band. But then there was this great fanfare, but then he finally re-joined the reunion, and it was just confirmation that Kevin really was the unsung part of this group.
So, how long did the manuscript take you?
It took me two years. I'd say about the first six months of the first year was writing a draft that I promptly threw in the trash because -- having just said everyone should go write novels, try it, don't be intimidated -- it is kind of a learning curve. So, I had to throw out my entire first draft. But then my second draft was the one you're looking at -- it is very slow and arduous.
You said that you hadn't come out before this came out, so how did your parents receive everything?
It was a slow process. My mom sort of found out what the book was about -- she knew I was writing a book about my camp because she'd say "What is there to write about? What is the plot?" I'd say, "Oh, you know. Rivalry and then friction." Just sort of evading her question. Then she Googled me and found, I have a blurb by Ira Glass that says, "Though I am neither a teenage girl nor a lesbian, I found this story super-real and relatable." And she e-mailed me and was like, "Why? What? Why is she using the word 'lesbian'?" But it's been pretty -- it's been fine. She's been a good sport. Everyone's been a good sport. Especially since she's in [the book]. So, she's been a very good sport.
Now, you told your brother when all of these events were happening, and he just kept that between you?
Yeah, he just kept that between us. What fascinated me is when I came back to school after this summer, I told all of my friends that I like girls now, that I wanted to date girls, and what was fascinating to me was how easy it was to stay in the closet because people were kind of just "OK" and then never discuss it again. So, it never got to my parents -- I sort of wanted that cathartic experience of being like "Hello, everyone! Here I am! Out!" but it was just very passive-aggressive, quiet reception. I tried to come out, but then it was so awkward that I just stopped talking about it and it never went anywhere. That was the weirdest thing about that time was how easy it was not to make a splash.
It seemed like maybe you had a cathartic experience with the haircut, perhaps? It seemed like you got more response from that.
Oh, yeah. I definitely got more response from the visual stimuli of "I can perceive that you are different now."
As far as first crushes go, yours seemed to go pretty well. Yours was at least reciprocal. So, do you think that maybe helped you a little bit? Just that you found someone who happened to like you back, the first time?
Yeah, I think so. It was amazing to me how difficult it was for me to believe that she could like me back. That was hugely challenging. I think - I guess that's just a self-esteem issue probably a lot of teenagers go through when they're like, "how can you like me?" It's one of the biggest challenges -- accepting that someone really likes you. But I guess for anyone who reads my experience of the book, I would want them to learn that it's up to you whether to hold back or to go all-in when you love someone. I felt that a lot in this book -- this tight-hold in my whole young life. And I don't necessarily regret it. I think it made me grow up a lot slower, and everyone grows up at their own pace. Some kids are ready for love before others. I was not ready. And that's OK.
Did you keep these letters, the ones that you re-printed? Did you have those letters saved and refer to them, or do you just remember everything that well?
I have a whole book of letters, and I have pictures from a disposable camera. I have the bracelet that she gave me. I have this little hoard of precious objects from that period.
Do you think that you're going to write another one? Is there another point in your life that you could see being book material?
Yeah, I'd like to, but I need a break from myself for a while. I think I'm going to do some fiction for a while, but I definitely would like to do another book on the aftermath and going back to school and get more into my family dynamic. I really enjoy writing about that. But I think I'm going to go with fiction for a while to get out of my own head.
What do you hope people will learn from your story?
I was talking earlier about holding back a lot, and I think that at a certain point, you know who you are and you know who you like. And I feel like there's this pressure from straight people or any people, they think they deserve to know exactly what your sexual orientation is. They want to organize yourself into one of the established categories because that makes everyone feel safe. And I think a lot of kids might stay in the closet realm because they're waiting to hear a word that they feel matches them so they can come out and say, "Hear Ye, I am BLANK." I know I was waiting for that word -- what is the word to describe who I am. And I think if you come out, and even if there's not a word that you fit -- I want to name drop Tyler Ford, this amazing de-gendered activist who everyone should follow and read about. That's just a really great example of somebody who didn't fit into a category and who refused to be in a category.
I also wanted to touch on the issue of diversity in YA fiction.
I'm really excited for the day when you can no longer presume that the protagonist is straight, or that they're white, or that they have all their arms and legs. There's this unwritten rule that the protagonist has to be a tabula rasa for you to be able to relate to them, and that a tabula rasa equals straight, equals white, and just that -- it needs to, and everyone wants to, be able to relate to other kinds of protagonists and other kinds of stories.
"Honor Girl" hits shelves on Sept. 8.