Ariel Schrag has been making waves since she was a teenager in Berkeley, California, when she started writing graphic memoirs about her life and selling copies to peers at her high school. Since moving east to attend Columbia University, she's worked as both an artist and as a television writer for HBO and Showtime. This month, Schrag released her debut novel, Adam, a funny, gratifying coming-of-age story with a twist. Instead of following the obvious subject—Casey, a beautiful, smart, Columbia student exploring her sexuality—Schrag focuses on Adam, Casey's awkward, high schooler brother who stays with her for the summer and finds himself in a Brooklyn wonderland of sex, status, and evolving gender identity. Marie Claire spoke to Ariel about Adam, New York City, and how to make dream projects a reality.
Marie Claire: When did you start working on the novel?
Ariel Schrag: I wrote the first line of the book in May of 2007. After I wrote the first line, I was so exhausted that I had to turn my computer off and go take a bath. Just the idea of writing a novel is so daunting, but it was something I really wanted to do.
MC: In the past, you've written both graphic memoirs and for television shows on HBO and Showtime. What attracted you to writing a novel?
AS: It was a combination of things. Several of my friends were writing novels. I noticed that every time they talked about it or every time I read one of their blog entries about working on their novel I got really envious. It seemed really romantic to have this novel that you go home and work on.
Also, I had written my comics but I was still in the process of inking my book Likewise. I had finished writing the text in 1999, when I was 19, but still had like 300 pages left to draw. I hadn't had a big writing project for a while so wanted to do something new, but the idea of doing another comic was overwhelming.
Plus, when I came up with the concept, I just felt like it should be a novel—that a novel was the best medium for that idea.
MC: What was the concept for Adam?
AS: An average teenage boy finds himself in an unknown world—his sister's queer subculture in New York City—and winds up passing as a transgender man to woo the lesbian girl of his dreams [laughs].
MC: Which may have been a wildly subversive plotline a few years ago, but now the timing of the book coming out is so—
AS: It's interesting. Like how just recently, there was "The Transgender Tipping Point" with Laverne Cox on the cover of Time.
It's funny how much has changed from when I first began talking about the book. Back then, people weren't as familiar with those identities, a lot of gender and sexuality stuff wasn't on the mainstream radar at all. When you have to keep pausing to explain—like, "he's straight, but says he is a trans man, which means…"—the punch line gets lost.
MC: Versus now, there are more cultural reference points. You can publish a very funny, accessible book that deals with those themes.
AS: Some people hear "LGBT characters" and think it's not for them, but Adam is actually the most conventional straight boy finds love story you can possibly find.
MC:From The Fault in Our Stars to The Hunger Games, young adult novels are more popular than ever with adults. But there aren't as many novels aimed at adults where the protagonist is a teen, let alone a teen boy. Why follow Adam's story instead of Casey's?
AS: I could have written a story about my early 20s in queer New York from Casey's perspective, but that just wasn't interesting to me. I've already written autobiographical books and I was really interested genuinely exploring fiction, not thinly veiled autobiographical fiction.
I specifically wanted Adam to be as mainstream and conventional as possible. I wanted him to be white, upper middle class, straight, able-bodied, just everything you would consider the most privileged position possible. Because I wanted to take the most privileged person and make him desire to be marginalized. I thought that was an interesting reversal of something we always see: The marginalized person trying to gain access to privileged spaces. I liked the idea of flipping that dynamic.
MC: Yours isn't the first coming-of-age story set in a hot New York City summer. Why do you think New York remains so appealing as a site for reinvention?
AS: There's nothing like New York. That was what I wrote my Columbia admissions let-me-into-your-college letter about: I said that I love being on the streets surrounded by people who were moving somewhere and wanting things. You get the feeling that if something exciting is happening, it's going to happen here. You're never really worried about missing out.
MC: You've been publishing your work since you were a teenager. What would your advice be to another young person looking to realize their dream project, whether it's a novel or a business or anything in between?
AS: Well, I have really straightforward advice. And that advice is to write down how many hours you work on your project every day. I did it with Adam. I had a chart broken down by date, I had to write down how many hours I had written each day. Ideally, it would be for at least two hours. When I had to write zero, I was filled with shame and self-loathing. But when I wrote down four, I loved myself. And so just seeing that visually, it really propelled me to keep working.
I also think it's really important to surround yourself by people that inspire you. One of the novelists I talked about being "envious" of was [It's Kind of a Funny Story author] Ned Vizzini, who died last year. I had met him briefly when we were both teenagers and then we wound up having the same literary agent in our 20s.
Our mutual agent gave me his book, Be More Chill, and I loved it. So I wrote him an email and was like, "Oh, we should hang out," and we started getting lunch and talking about writing. We had a connection that was so important and inspiring to me. I would read his blogs or talk to him about writing his novels. Even when he was struggling and would say, "Oh, this is miserable, I have to throw this out," I'd be like, "I want to do that!"
Those relationships make you say, "This person is doing something exciting so I want to do something exciting, too."