The book is one of the best things I’ve ever read. Girls in books, like girls in life, are sometimes kept very busy not letting themselves be too much of anything: wild or angry or unhappy or confident or sexy or whatever else. Minnie Goetz, the girl in Gloeckner’s book, is more like Huckleberry Finn, or like Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. She’s careening through her life the way heroes in great books do. On page two—and I’m only saying this because otherwise you won’t understand what we’re talking about in the interview — we find out that Minnie, at 15 years old, is having an affair with her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe. It’s San Francisco in the 1970s. A lot happens. Minnie doesn’t let anyone off the hook. She writes about some parts of her life and draws others. Phoebe Gloeckner used her own teenage diary as a starting point for the book.
I talked to Phoebe over Skype about the movie, her book and what she liked about living in communist Czechoslavakia in her early 20s.
Nancy: You look exactly like yourself. Your drawings look like you!
Phoebe: Total coincidence. To tell you the truth, I’ve been talking to a lot of journalists, most of whom have not read the book.
I’m the reverse, I’ve read the book but have not seen the movie.
It’s easier if you’ve read the book because you can see what I’m comparing things to. Like any movie that’s adapted from a book, a book is longer. A book is going to be somehow deeper maybe, and in my case, I really like the movie a lot but it’s a lot easier to take. The movie is less upsetting. It doesn’t include a lot of the things that are more disturbing.
When I read it I thought, Oh, this in an incredible way to deal with something as complicated and disturbing and exciting as a girl figuring out who she is. And part of that is who she’s having sex with and how that’s driving things and landing her places. With movies, it would be too much for people to see that in an actual person, in a moving picture versus these drawings and the words. What did Mariel Heller say to convince you to make a movie out of your book?
By the time she’d contacted me, I’d talked to other producers, but she came to me full of enthusiasm, very ebullient. She contacted everyone she thought I might know in order to get ahold of me and that could be kind of irritating, right? But what she said is, “I want to make a play.” So I’m like, “Holy fuck.” I laughed. For the life of me I could not imagine that book being a play. So I said, “Go ahead. Knock yourself out.” I felt like there was no threat to the material with a play because if it sucked, it would be shown for one day and if it didn’t then it would be great. A movie is different because it leaves a trace.
So she made the play. I’ve known her now 10 years, so she grew on me slowly and we became friends. She came to my house with her husband, they stayed here, and by the time she asked to make the movie there weren’t a lot of reasons to say no. I still didn’t have total confidence — she’d never directed a film — and I knew that the movie would have a different feeling than one I would have done myself. I would’ve made it pornographic, very dark, emotionally wrenching. Like, “AUGHHH!” She’s more tempered.
The first director who approached me, he had directed a lot of films and I liked some of them and I had confidence that he could make a film. I didn’t have that same confidence in Mariel because she had never done it before—but he wanted the ending to be Minnie marrying Monroe.
Are you fucking kidding me? Oh my god. What a reading of that book.
Yeah, and until he told me that, I didn’t really understand exactly where he was coming from.
How did you react when he said that?
I don’t know what I said, but that’s ridiculous.
So, the first time you saw the movie, what was that like?
I’ll just backtrack. The first time I saw a run-through of the play, everyone in the audience was watching me for my reaction. I was just trying not to look at anybody. I have a lot of hair so I can kind of look down, but I was very emotional about the play. I was crying—trying not to, but it was very strange to see these characters in the flesh and relating to the character of Minnie. I felt like I was there again. The movie didn’t have quite the same emotionally jarring effect on me. It was really different. I felt really self conscious because it wasn’t an intimate situation where I could sit there and watch the film by myself. It was all these people I didn’t know. And my book is pretty obscure. It was more of a spectacle that night at Sundance. So I begged Sony to please let me see the film again. It took them awhile, but they finally sent me a link so I watched it two or three times.
At home alone?
Yeah, or with my kids or the neighbor or the newspaper boy—anybody who would watch!
All I’ve seen is the trailer and she does her diary, but she records it. I wondered if you had a reaction to that because writing as writing is such an important thing in the book.
Yeah, and there was animation instead of comics and both of those things are devices that obviously work in film. I did miss the fact that Minnie was more of a writer because everyone can hear you when it’s recorded. People can hear what you’re saying, or they might.
So much of the book is about hiding what she’s doing; hiding what she’s writing. The book starts with “Don’t read this!” Can we talk about the book? Did you read it after it was finished, all the way through?
You’ve never read it all the way through since.
I’m kind of thinking of doing that? To me, the book is really sad. I mean, I think it’s funny, it makes me laugh, but I purposely made myself laugh while I was writing it because that’s part of life too and it helped me get through. Writers amuse themselves when they can even though they’re, like, making themselves cry constantly. So it makes me feel sad, the story.
It’s pretty devastating.
Yeah, that’s a good word.
I think one of the things that I loved about it and the reason I have given it to other people is that I feel sometimes people don’t always understand the devastation of their own lives.
But we’re encouraged to compartmentalize, you know? Do well in school, do your job, but for a kid who is basically unmoored, school is meaningless to her. She doesn’t go. Family is meaningless in a sense because it doesn’t really exist.
I find the sort of explicit sexual competition between Minnie and her mother just so horrifying. It’s really difficult to read. When Minnie is trying on the bathing suit and her mother comes in and is like, “Well, at least I know I looked good in that at 15 years old.” It’s awful.
It’s awful! In the movie, that scene is kind of translated into a mother-daughter talk over the kitchen table or something and the mother says, “Oh Minnie, you should just dress to flatter your figure a little bit better, you know? You need a boyfriend,” or something like that. And she goes, “I know I looked great when I was 16.” She doesn’t say “better.” She kind of says the same thing but there’s no cruelty in it. In that way the film is easier to take in so many aspects.
You’ve talked about how The Diary of a Teenage Girl was hard to write. How did you manage the hardness of it? Did you have to sort of say, “Between this hour and this hour, I’m in the world of this book. That is a very difficult world. During these other hours, I’m in the rest of my life?”
Okay, to be totally frank, I had just moved. I had been thinking about making a book with my diaries somehow for years, but I was afraid to in many ways. When I finally decided to just fucking do it, from the outside, my life looked very pleasant. I had two kids, one was about two and the other one was eight or nine. My husband, I had moved to Long Island with him for his job and I was suddenly totally isolated, lived in some subdivision, which is a hellhole for me. There were no sidewalks, you couldn’t go anywhere, you had to drive to the mall.
At some point I just said to myself, What the fuck am I doing? I really needed to work during the day. I felt trapped and I felt like the only way out of this is for me to do better. For me to finish this book. And it was hard because my kids are daughters, I didn’t want them to be in the room when was drawing. I didn’t want them to read what I was writing. I was living this kind of schizophrenic life and trying to find a way through that and through everything by creating stuff.
I read that you really loved Garth Williams’ drawings. He did Charlotte’s Web and Little House on The Prairie and the illustrations are such an important memory of reading those books. I know the drawings are so different from Garth Williams — like a Charlotte’s Web with explicit sexuality — but the fact that those were ones that you liked, it just connected the book with childhood in a different way for me. What other books did you read as a kid and that influence writing or drawing?
One was Slovenly Peter. It’s a German book of morality tales. It’s filled with shit like “Little Suck-a-thumb” and his mother tells him someone is gonna come and cut his fingers off, and he does! I practically memorized that book when I was a child. It kind of scared me but I loved the drawings and the stories. There was one of a girl named Phoebe.
Uh oh. What happened to her?
Well, she’s called Proud Phoebe. She’s very vain and she’s always sticking her chin up in the air and her neck gets really, really, really long until it curves down and she has to carry it in a wheelbarrow.
I just loved detailed drawings. My grandmother was a doctor and she had her office on the bottom floor of her house. In her waiting room there were all these medical books and I would sit there and read about different surgeries.
Were there drawings?
Oh yes. Later on, for a living, I was a medical illustrator because that shit grabbed me.
Does knowing how to render in detail a liver or digestive system, did that effect how you draw people from the outside? Did that inform things somehow in ways you didn’t expect?
We never see our own liver, if we’re lucky, right? I remember when I was a kid I was fascinated by this huge painting, I think it was Rubens, Prometheus Bound. He’s tied to a rock and the eagle was tearing at his liver. So there you get to see his liver, and he does too, but other than that there aren’t too many opportunities. But still I wanted to know that somehow. It’s hard to know what’s inside bodies without seeing them. And that education, I was at autopsies and surgeries. So the experience was very direct and it was good for me.
I remember reading that you lived in Czechoslovakia for a while as a young woman.
Yeah, I did, when it was still communist.
Can you talk more about that? What was it, in 6th grade you got a subscription to Soviet Life because you wanted to help people understand, like, communists are just like us?
I believed that! It was kind of a magazine for Americans. Did you ever see it? It was filled with big pictures and it looked like Life magazine but this was Soviet Life, so it had all the movie stars.
Did that prepare you for Czechoslovakia?
Not really. I’m embarrassed to say, but back then we didn’t learn a whole lot about Eastern Bloc countries. Maybe Russia, but not Hungary and Poland and Czechoslovakia. And then I met this guy and he became my boyfriend, but I remember when I first met him I liked him so much and I had this friend I was telling him about him and I said, “He’s from ‘PRAYg’.” See, then no one ever talked about Prague. I’d never heard anyone talk about it, so its embarrassing now, but that was the level.
They were kind of like black boxes. Americans didn’t go there.
When I went there my boyfriend couldn’t go back because he had ben sentenced to prison for defecting.
So you went back without him?
I went and studied in Prague and it was a wonderful time for me because I got a whole lot of attention. I was kind of like drunk with it? Everyone wanted to talk to me, and it didn’t matter that I was 22, they just wanted like meet me. The meetings were usually clandestine. People were nervous that if they talked to me they would get in trouble. So I had all these experiences where we met in strange places and I met all sorts of people.
What were the questions people would ask you?
One of the biggest requests I got, because I would go home and come back whenever our vacation was, I had to get copies of Martina Navratilova’s autobiography.
To bring back to people?
Right, and she had defected. Those books were passed through hundreds of people. I got one back somehow and it was just dog-eared and falling apart and had only been out there a month. Everyone had read it. So those things certainly, that was not good, but on the other hand, everyone had a job and people who didn’t do their job well had a job. Everyone was guaranteed a certain level of living. The other thing is artists were heavily subsidized. If you were a good artist, you got a studio, your life was paid for. Culture was really important in eastern Europe, not only in the way we think like propaganda, but the animation industry in Czechoslovakia was in full bloom. Stop motion animation and all sorts of things.
Trnka, he was a great stop motion puppet animator, and he typically did fairy tales and things like that, but he got in some trouble for doing a little film called The Hand. It was about being oppressed but instead of using puppets, the main character was this hand that was very threatening. He still got busted for that.
One time this woman came to me and said she was teaching English to automobile workers who had to read manuals for American parts. She invited me to talk with them. It was a group of four or five middle-aged men. We met at the factory which was right across the street from the huge newspaper, so she basically snuck me in there after hours. She insisted that all the lights be turned out. We were talking in the dark and people would light their lighters and all the men were drunk—they brought all this vodka. And all they wanted to do was not learn English but ask me questions primarily about Micahel Jackson.
What did they want to know?
“Tell us about him! Have you seen him perform?” We were singing songs together, but I [also] got into big arguments with them. They were so drunk so anything I said would make them either laugh and smile or it got them really pissed off .
What would you say that got them pissed off?
I would point out the level of poverty in some areas [in the States] or that women don’t have maternity leave. You always have maternity leave in an Eastern Bloc country.
They were like, “We have secret police who are spying on us all the time and can be thrown into prison arbitrarily!”
It was very Big Brother. I mean, whether or not the police were spying on them was immaterial, they thought they were. You just need to do it once and it’s good for a hundred times.
I remember reading that you had to go to the police station and get your passport stamped every day.
I think it was every two days? It seemed to change. And the police station was on the outskirts of town.
Was it scary at all? Or was it just like, this is just the bullshit way they waste your time and intimidate you but it’s not actually scary after a while.
I’m not easily scared. I was kind of laughing inside, but their manner was threatening and they were not nice.
Have [your daughters] read The Diary of a Teenage Girl?
Yeah. I wanted to avoid having them read it until they were a little older than they were. They kind of sneaked it, they read it a little bit at a time.
After they read it, did they come talk to you like, “Wow, mom.” Did they interact with you about it?
Not about the specifics but they’ve said they’re really proud I wrote it. They see me in that book. I mean, no matter what I say about autobiography or anything else, they say, “That’s you mom. Forget it, it’s you.”
Nancy Updike is a producer at This American Life.
Image via Phoebe Gloeckner.