Writing Teens, in All Their Complex Glory

Debut novelist Lindsey Lee Johnson on Bay Area world-building, privilege and undermining The Breakfast Club teen archetypes.

Lindsey Lee Johnson’s debut novel, The Most Dangerous Place On Earth (Random House), interlaces the lives of affluent high school students in Marin County, California, where she grew up. When popular girl Calista leaks the love note Tristan penned to her in middle school to their classmates — the archetypal pretty boy, striver, scam artist, dancer, and dime — she sets off a chain of events with tragic consequences. Calista and the others carry the blame for the middle school tragedy to high school, and not even new, bright-eyed teacher Molly can break the spell Tristan has cast over these Valley High students to save them from themselves.

I met Johnson ten years ago in Sandra Tsing Loh’s playwriting class in the Master of Professional Writing program at the University of Southern California. The years that Johnson and I attended produced several successful writers, many of whom would’ve named Johnson the “most likely to succeed” at graduation. Back then, we were in a writing group together, and Johnson was already producing stories about teen angst. In person she is soft-spoken and reserved, but on the page she’s commanding, intense, even fierce. After MPW, she worked as a writing tutor in her hometown and currently lives in Los Angeles.

While sipping elixirs called Illuminated (hers) and Immortal (mine) at Café Gratitude in Venice, I had the opportunity to ask Johnson about growing up in Marin County, tutoring teenagers, scoring Jonathan Franzen’s agent, and The Most Dangerous Place On Earth.

Andrea Arnold: Since we met, you have been writing about teenagers. Most of us like to forget those years. What was it about that time that compels you to return to it in your writing?

Lindsey Lee Johnson: I actually enjoyed my teenage years! I know that’s strange. But I liked high school. I had a good group of friends and was very involved in activities. I had a much harder time in my twenties. As an adult, all my day jobs have been in teaching or tutoring. I’ve spent a lot of time with teenagers, and I just think they’re fascinating.

AA: What was it about growing up in Marin County that made it an ideal setting for a high school novel about bullying? Were any of these storylines taken from something that happened in your high school or how did you come to the story?

LLJ: First, Mill Valley was an ideal setting for my novel because I know it better than anywhere in the world. When you’re writing a novel, one of the goals is to build a world that feels authentic, so knowing all the details of the place, like the fact that there’s a redwood tree in the 7-Eleven parking lot, helped.

More generally, Marin County is an interesting place because it’s a very wealthy, privileged, mostly white community that exists in a kind of bubble. San Francisco is about fifteen minutes away, but kids who live there don’t spend a lot of time in San Francisco, unless they’re going thrift store shopping on Haight Street, like I did, or because their parents are taking them to the ballet or something. Marin teenagers are in a very cosmopolitan region but isolated in a little town. Also, it’s an interesting place because, despite its wealth and relative lack of diversity, it thinks of itself as being very progressive, which it is. When I was growing up there, I was very privileged, everyone I knew was very privileged to one degree or another, but we were constantly being reminded that we were privileged and that we should be aware of the fact that there were people out there that were less privileged. For example, instead of freshman history class we took a class called Contemporary Social Issues, where we learned about racism, sexism, LGBTQ rights, economic inequality, everything. The community has these hippie roots, it is very progressive and socially aware, and yet everyone drives a BMW and shops at Nordstrom. It’s an interesting conundrum of a place.

The book came from my desire to write about teenagers as I knew them to be, not as I saw them being portrayed in media and pop culture. I remember growing up watching all those teen movies — Can’t Buy Me Love, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, Saved by the Bell and Beverly Hills 90210 on TV, and then came Gossip Girl. These are all aspirational fantasy shows, but they do color the way we look at teenage life, I think. The actors on those shows are twenty-five year old supermodels! I think they make us forget that teenagers are actually kids. In recent years, I started noticing a lot of news stories coming out about teenagers — bullying, partying, and posting videos on YouTube, et cetera. I just thought there was a one-sided view of teenagers out there. Like there were “good kids” and “bad kids.” I just don’t agree that you can look at teenagers in this one-dimensional kind of way.

The point is, I was captain of the cheerleading squad, but I was also a huge nerd. I was an editor of the school newspaper and dated another newspaper editor. This idea that there is such a thing as a high school cheerleader as we see her portrayed in the media, that there is one archetype that defines such a girl, really bothers me. The notion that you can see a group of high school cheerleaders walk by and think you know anything about who they really are comes from our distorted memories of our own high school years or from media representations. It’s not real! Teenagers are multi-dimensional, they are complex. They are people.

It’s not real! Teenagers are multi-dimensional, they are complex. They are people.

AA: New teacher Molly Nicoll has a lot of compassion for her students. You wrote: “…as a teenager she’d felt alien and alone with her Bob Dylan T-shirts and her Doc Martens rip-offs and the claustrophobic rage that she could not explain to anyone.” Who is Molly?

LLJ: Molly is a very idealistic, sheltered, twenty-three-year-old, brand new teacher. She’s from Fresno and has recently graduated with her credential. She just wants to get out and escape her life. She goes to Mill Valley, and she is very impressed by it. She thinks she’s going to save these kids with books, which is every English major’s dream. Like maybe I’ll hand a copy of Jane Eyre to the impressionable thirteen-year-old girl, and then she’ll become a confident, successful woman! [Laughs] Which is a fantasy that I’ve had and I think a lot of teachers have had. Molly finds out that teaching is not going to be what she thought it would be. Eventually, she is lured into this world she doesn’t understand, and gets herself into a bit of trouble.

AA: Nick is a liar and a cheater, but you love him because he’s clever and brilliant and gets away with it. I loved the way you incorporated San Francisco’s subcultures into his narrative — it’s full of surprises. What makes SF teens like Nick different?

LLJ: Thank you! I think Nick could exist in many different places. Sometimes you look at a kid who seems average, but when you interact with him a little, you see a nugget of brilliance that’s in there that can’t really be taught. A lot of times, a teenage boy will do a lot of work to not let you see that it’s there because he’s trying to be cool, protect himself, keep up his façade. All of my early readers have liked Nick the most. He’s kind of a jerk, but he’s also very curious and clever, and he sees through bullshit. I think that’s his appeal.

AA: Poor Damon. He ruins his whole life. I thought you did the best job with him. I saw him so clearly — his weight, his style, his anger and where it came from. I didn’t expect someone like him at Valley High. From where did his character germinate?

LLJ: He’s not based on anyone that I know, but I encountered a lot of kids his age who are very angry. They don’t know exactly why they are so angry. And their whole world is telling them to be quiet, sit in your chair, and stop tapping that pencil, don’t swear and pull your pants up! The world, especially a very polished world like Mill Valley, kind of just wants those kids to go away. I see Damon as the boy who has developed a harder and harder set of armor because he just doesn’t feel accepted. He’s vulnerable. I mean, I see him as a very tender character. He’s also incompetent at being a juvenile delinquent. Going back to this idea of good kids and bad kids — Nick and Ryan basically do the same crimes as Damon, but they don’t get caught. Damon isn’t clever. He has no guile. He doesn’t know how to cover things up. I’ve seen that kind of thing a lot. I think it’s hard as adults to see that kids are more complicated than you think. You might see a kid like Damon and assume he’s all bad, while you might see a kid like Abigail and assume she has everything together.

AA: You mentioned Abigail. What’s her story?

LLJ: Abigail is the girl you look at and think, Okay, Hillary Clinton, Junior! You are going to rule the world someday! She doesn’t belong in high school. High school, to her, is just a checklist. A thing to get done. She reminds me of you a little bit! [Laughs] Because you just take care of things. Abigail would’ve come in this restaurant and said, “Give me that table.” She handles her life. But the reason she does is that she has to. Her parents are basically absent. She’s never been treated like a child. She doesn’t think of herself as a child. She doesn’t act like a child. But when she gets into an illicit relationship, it becomes apparent, I hope, that she is a child.

AA: The novel begins and ends with Calista. Her character arc, from popular girl to hippie recluse, carries us through the narrative. What would you say to a young Calista if you could offer words of advice about growing up and getting through her teenage years?

LLJ: That’s a good question. I think the hardest thing about interacting with teenagers, as an adult, is that you can give them whatever advice you want to give them, but they are going to do what they are going to do. Calista has to figure things out for herself. No adult can swoop in and make her get over what she’s done. She has to work through it.

I guess I would tell her: You’re smart, and you have a passion for literature and poetry — hold on to that. Also, get out of that car! [Laughs]

AA: Who is your favorite character and why? Who was the most challenging/easiest to write?

LLJ: My favorite is David Chu. David is the sweetest character in the book. He is all heart. He’s average in every way. His looks are average. He has average intelligence. Average athletic skill. He’s just really nice, and all he wants is a simple, happy life. He wants to have a little house and a good job. He doesn’t really care what it is. He’d like to have a girlfriend to go to the movies with. And that’s enough for him, but it’s not enough for his parents who see him as their great hope. To them, he is supposed to be a successful, straight-A student and headed for Berkeley to become a doctor. It’s not who he is, but he’s desperate to please them. Dave was also the easiest to write. He came to me fully formed, and his chapter had hardly any edits. I felt like him so often when I was a teenager. I just wanted to be happy, but Mill Valley is a place where you’re supposed to be exceptional.

The hardest character to write was Emma. Technically, her chapter was hard to write because she’s just lying in bed for most of it. I won’t say why. Also, Emma is nothing like me. She’s a party girl. She’s spontaneous. She’s impulsive. She’s not very reflective. It was hard for me to get in her headspace.

AA: When we were at Tin House Writer’s Workshop together in 2012, I believe you said that you were writing a linked collection. What led to the structure of the novel?

LLJ: I’m a novelist through and through. I always thought of it as a novel. But it’s a novel in linked stories that has become more of a novel as I’ve worked on it. The stories became more knotted together as I edited and worked on them. The Molly teacher story came in after I finished all of the teenager stories, and her story is woven through the whole book, which I think helps tie them together better.

The book came from a list of teenage archetypes like in The Breakfast Club. I wanted to lay out the stereotypes and then undermine them. I wanted to use each chapter to reveal the complicated, three-dimensional human being underneath each teenage archetype. I wanted to knit the stories together to show a community of teenagers, and how small actions can have far-reaching consequences. While writing, I thought of the kids’ stories as a game of dominos — one story knocked the next story into action and on and on throughout the book.

AA: The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is your debut novel. What was the publishing process like for you?

LLJ: What is it like when you work your whole life for something from the age of seven, and then it happens to you? Oh, do you want the nitty gritty? [Laughs] I always had writing groups. I wrote the book and workshopped it with my group. Finally I felt it was in a place where I could send it out. I wanted to query agents, so I did that game everyone talks about where you look on your bookshelf and open your favorite books to see who represents them. Of course, my favorite writers are Jennifer Egan, Jeffrey Eugenides, Joan Didion, and Virginia Woolf! [Laughs] So I had to look beyond my favorites. I found some newer books that I really enjoyed and looked at who represented them. I ended up with a list of maybe twenty agents. Susan Golomb, who is an incredible agent, picked me out of the slush pile. She represented a book called The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, and that was a big influence on me when I was writing my book. I didn’t know that she was Jonathan Franzen’s agent at the time. Susan understood the book immediately. She did a great job selling it. There were five houses interested in buying the book. As soon as I talked to Random House, I knew they were right for it. They were all about the writing. They told me they were going to do a lot of editing. I wanted that. They signed the book, and we worked on it for about two years. We did four or five full drafts. A lot of that was adding new material and just refining what was there. They gave me very in-depth, very helpful edits to get my book to the best possible place.

AA: Do you have any specific advice for emerging writers?

LLJ: In terms of going into the marketplace, know what your book is at your core. Hold onto that. You have to be certain — not that yours is the greatest book in the world, but of what it is you are trying to do. I knew that I wanted to write a literary novel about teenagers for adult readers. That was a weird concept for the marketplace to grasp. There were other agents that said that I should sell it as YA and that I should change it like this and that. The publishing world will tell you a lot about what your book should or shouldn’t be or what it is or isn’t. A lot of opinions are going to start coming at you really fast. You have to be sure.

The publishing world will tell you a lot about what your book should or shouldn’t be or what it is or isn’t. A lot of opinions are going to start coming at you really fast. You have to be sure.

AA: You have an MFA-like degree. We call it “an MFA equivalent.” I know because I was in a class with you. What was your experience at MPW? Were there any teachers there you emulated? Who were your writing mentors?

LLJ: My most important writing mentor is actually not from MPW. I took a class with him at UCLA Extension before I went to grad school. His name is Seth Greenland. I think he’d read four other books that I’d written before this one. He read drafts. We’d meet for lunch and he’d tell me, “God, you’re really talented, but this isn’t a story!” [Laughs] “You need to write a story!” It was years of this. Like a decade of this. Seth just kind of hung in there and was there for me when I needed support. He believed that I could do it. I don’t know why.

From USC, well, Janet Fitch is like a force of nature. She just embodies being a writer. She’s a true artist. Her whole life is about it. And she was so serious about it. I was frustrated when I was a kid in English classes because teachers were too sweet and talked about writing as creativity time for expressing feelings, implying that creative writing couldn’t be graded or judged. Janet judged it! She made people cry! She wrote on one of my stories: “Time to knuckle down, Lindsey!” I thought that was the best thing that anybody had ever said to me. Her message was, “This is work and this is serious.” Also, she taught me what a scene was, which I never understood before her class. When she taught me that, I understood structure for the first time in my life, even after having written four other books.

AA: We were lucky enough not to grow up with cellphones and social media. I taught high school. I advised parents to limit their kids’ Facebook time. What do you say to teachers or parents of teenagers struggling with teens and today’s cyber environment?

LLJ: I have to preface this. I recognize that I’m not a parent, so I don’t know how it feels to be in that position. But I have been very involved in teenagers’ lives and have had their parents ask me what they should do about their kid [Laughs]. I have two thoughts about it. One thing is if you concentrate on raising your kid with a set of core values about who they are and how they should comport themselves in the world, then I’m not as worried about them. However, all kids need to be told very explicitly how fast social media spreads and that it’s public. Today’s teenagers don’t see Instagram as public. It’s just part of their world. My other thought is — Parents, you own the cellphone! You own the TV! You own the computer! You can take them away!

AA: What are you working on next?

LLJ: It is another story also about growing up and coming of age in the era of social media. It’s also about image-making, the culture of celebrity, and the dangers that come with that.