A teenager’s mind is a scary place, but Blake Nelson has made it his home for over 20 years. Having penned such coming-of-age books as Girl, Paranoid Park and The Prince of Venice Beach, he’s traveled down the familiar path of self-conflict and raw discovery many times. This month, his critically-acclaimed novel Recovery Road premieres as a new television series on Freeform (formerly ABC Family) and tackles the heavy topics of addiction and recovery through the eyes of Maddie, a rebellious junior in high school who is forced to deal with her addiction in a sober living home. We asked Nelson about the project, where he drew his inspiration and what impact he thinks he’ll make.
Did you have any personal experience or interactions with addiction before writing Recovery Road? How did you go about your research for the story?
I was a musician when I was younger and there was a lot of drugs and alcohol in that world. As a writer I continued to gravitate toward the more “intense” creative types, which often meant people who had substance abuse issues. So I’ve been around that stuff. I didn’t do much research for this particular book, though I did know a woman who had been sent to rehab when she was quite young, 19, and she once took me to her rehab and we walked around and she told me about it.
There are plenty of stories that detail the experience of addiction but not as many that tell the story of recovery. Why did you choose to skip all the drama and focus instead on the aftermath in your novel?
To me, the recovery is the interesting part. Everyone knows what a drunk person is like. Or a person who smokes pot all day. They’re boring. And depressing. Also there is the tendency to try to impress people with “how bad it was.” When I first started writing this book, I tried showing more of Maddie’s life when she was really drunk and out of control but those scenes felt forced and show-offy.
But yeah, to me, the best part of a recovery story is seeing what a person does, after they’ve crashed and burned. How they rebuild their life. Like how do you become a good person, after you’ve been a scumbag your whole life? Well, one thing is: you have to rely on other people to help you. So the first thing you have to do is reestablish some sort of trust or faith in your fellow humans. Which is hard for addicts, who tend to be highly suspicious and cynical about the world.
Your books often revolve around the greater theme of finding (or at least trying to find) one’s identity in the painful experience of adolescence. How is Maddie’s self-discovery in Recovery Road similar or different from past protagonists in your previous works?
Well, she’s facing the worst part of herself, right from the very beginning, mainly because it’s taken over her life. Most people are discovering both the good and bad about themselves as they go through their teen years. There’s more balance and it’s more gradual.
It’s funny, sometimes when I’m talking about the book in interviews, I’ll get blank looks when I talk about a teen having “substance abuse issues”. But if I say, “Remember that crazy girl in high school? The one who would get so drunk, you’d find her passed out in the bushes?” Then everyone knows exactly what I’m talking about. So really, it’s not even that rare. A lot of people go through that, and you hope they find recovery. Not just because they’re less embarrassing in public, but because that’s not a very good life. It becomes very bleak, very fast.
The recovery community is a very colorful yet tight-knit group to be a part of. How did you go about creating the full cast of characters in the book? Did you have specific roles in mind you wanted to fill in order to represent the broad range of real people and real addiction stories?
I have a lot of friends who have been down this road. I love crazy, strange, creative people. So for me it was a joy to create these characters. I really loved them all. Trish, the trashy girl, was great. She was just so real and so hurt and so brave in a way. And so funny. That was one thing I could do with the people in rehab—they were all so funny and genuine. I loved Vern too. In the TV show they make him younger, but in the book he’s this old grumbly gay man. Going to rehab is just part of his routine. He’s like your irreverent uncle—he tells it like it is.
You’ve once referred to yourself as a “weird anthropologist.” While working on Recovery Road, what was something new or surprising that you discovered about humanity, particularly in relation to addiction?
Maybe that the recovery people are as diverse as any other group. Maddie is quite selfish compared to the rest of the characters. Once her head clears a little bit, she starts thinking about herself—how is she going to get ahead? She wants to go to a good college, etc. So she’s one type. And someone like Trish, who has no real goals at all, is another type. So people are still different in these basic ways.
I’ve watched the first three episodes of the Recovery Road television series and found it both educational and inspirational, without ever getting preachy. How do you think this show can change the public discourse on recovery and addiction? Who do you think it seeks to reach?
I don’t know how that will play out, or who exactly it will reach. I never really think about that when I’m writing something. And also I never try to have any obvious messages in my books. My job is to show characters dealing with stuff as realistically and honestly as I can. I try to let the story unfold the way these stories unfold in real life.
Finally, what would you like to impart on our readers who may be struggling with teen addiction or just starting off on their recovery journey?
I would always tell individual people not to waste their lives or put themselves through suffering they can avoid. When friends have issues like this, I will always try to help them. But in a bigger way, people are going to do what they’re going to do and I try to accept that and not get too worried about imposing my ideas, or my opinions, on others. For all I know, the world is perfect the way it is. Which would mean some people are going to go through pain.
Recovery Road premieres on Monday, January 25 at 9pm/8c on Freeform.
You can purchase a copy of the book at Amazon.