When you think back to the beloved characters that informed your own personal development, who do you envision? In a landscape of generic characters, Clarissa Darling from Clarissa Explains It All really appealed to me. At my age, the teen was more accessible than the more mature fictional characters I admired in journalism, like Lois Lane and April O’Neil.
Clarissa made me feel like my goals were possible despite the many naysayers I’d encounter in my life. Realistic and engaging, she was the first contemporary character that truly engaged me.
Years later, I’ve realized many goals in the world of digital publishing and I owe that in part to inspiring characters like Clarissa. Judging by fans’ reactions to the news about Clarissa creator Mitchell Kriegman’s upcoming Things I Can’t Explain, a novel about Clarissa in her late twenties, many other fans feel the same way.
Mitchell answered questions from The Geek Initiative readers and myself about Clarissa and on crafting beloved female characters.
Tara M. Clapper: For me, the most memorable episode of “Clarissa” is all about how she decided to get a job – but ended up taking on more work than she could handle. It wasn’t until I thought about this as an adult that I realized such stress and overbooking is often encouraged and rewarded – even in teens, and especially for women. Was it a conscious decision to tackle such heavy and culturally ingrained issues, or were you just going for something relatable on the surface?
Mitchell Kriegman: I can’t promise we were writing with such high-minded goals in mind. But we were always going for relatable issues. In fact we had a kind of cultural “curriculum” that I came up with that required that every show had to deal with a “kid issue” we never made a big deal of it but it was a requirement that I set early on to keep the show relevant. All the bigger issues you bring up were just starting to hit people at that time so I’m sure it informed our writing. Neena Beber wrote that episode and she’s a great writer and a playwright as well so I’m sure she brought a lot of her own thoughts and feelings to that episode. Alan Goodman was the head writer in those days.
TMC: In Clarissa’s college years and beyond, did you ever envision her having to make tough choices between her career and a relationship?
MK: Absolutely. That’s happens to everyone at some point. But I think that more often people choose career and relationship rather than one or the other and over time something gets lost. I could easily see that issue coming up.
TMC: What was the initial fan feedback like versus the feedback you get now? I feel like I focused on what she was wearing and what subjects she was interested in, but later in life I realized how formative it was for me to watch a girl around my age display independence and pursue her own interests.
MK: It’s been one of the great experiences in my life – how people have come back to talk about the show fifteen and twenty years later. The millennial audience is very smart and media savvy beyond other generations. At the time it was also amazing because we had broken through to a big national audience out of nowhere. Nickelodeon in those days didn’t even have Skittles adverts. And we were doing a sitcom on a tenth of the budget that they did at the networks. And the show broke all these rules, girls, talking to camera, shorter scenes, graphics, the clothes, etc. and boys were sending in the first fan letters. Now is the most satisfying time because I can see that it really had an effect on people and that they remember it vividly in ways that are fun but also meaningful from a cultural and even political way. I don’t claim any big milestones but I think we contributed to a more open understanding of gender roles.
TMC: “Things I Can’t Explain,” your upcoming novel, picks up with a twenty-something Clarissa. It’s a little terrifying – but altogether relatable – to think that there are some things that Clarissa can’t explain. What are her biggest challenges in the book?
MK: The big thing is that when she was young she could explain it all and when she’s in her twenties it’s not easy to “understand it all” let alone “explain” it. The big things Clarissa faces are lack of meaningful employment, relationships (esp. a ex-boyfriend cum stalker), lost love, student loans, and her own phobias, superstitions and ocd. I’ll leave it to your imagination, which is most formidable. There’s also a chance to see what has happened to everyone. Ferg and Sam included.
TMC: You tend to really hit the mark when it comes to women realizing their identity – but you’re a guy. Why the fascination with the topic, and how did you get to understand the development of the female identity in particular?
MK: It’s a mystery to me as well! But I’m listening to the audible version of my new novel Being Audrey Hepburn which is told from the POV of a nineteen year old girl and it sounds much better in her voice – Suzy Jackson – than mine.
I’m amazed because I’m hearing a woman read what I wrote on audible. And I think “wow, that really is so intimate and…feminine, how did I get to that place?” I’m not sure how it all happened this way. In the beginning I just knew that I couldn’t do a sitcom with a boy who was as smart and open and articulate as Clarissa without that boy being defined as either a wuss/gay or being pushed to be more macho. A girl could be more gender open.
In those days the way I put it was that a girl could wear boys clothes and it was cool but if a boy wore girls clothes people would make fun of him. I argued at the time that at heart kids are kids and can identify with each other regardless of gender. Kind of a kids are people too philosophy. And I had many many women around me working and advising me – which I do to this day – and I did many projects over the years with girl lead characters – screenplays that didn’t get made, other sitcoms – so I kept researching and writing these girls who were cool, interesting and hopefully authentic.
Honestly I think the girl characters I’m writing are getting more normal as well as older. So I’ve thought about Clarissa and girls like Clarissa for a long time and how they’ve changed. I do my research that’s for sure. I have a beautiful 17-year-old daughter and I like women so that helps I guess. But I have to say I still want to do a Sam-Clarissa relationship from the Sam perspective. Wouldn’t you like to know what Sam was thinking all that time?
Quick questions from readers of The Geek Initiative:
What are the origins of the last name ‘Darling?’
MK: It’s Wendy’s last name in Peter Pan.
Of all possible pets, why was Elvis a caiman?
MK: To do something different and I think Miami Vice’s Crockett had a pet alligator. A big one. Also I had a wonderful girlfriend in college who had a big wading pool in her bedroom that had tadpoles, newts, and all sorts of odd stuff and I thought that was pretty interesting.
What other women (real or fictional) inspired your creation of Clarissa?
MK: I have a long list – lots of them – mostly real – there was a girl in high school that I thought as amazingly cool beyond anything I had ever known and I never had a chance to have more than three words with her. Then there’s Claire Connors – she’s an editor at SHAPE magazine – she had bright red hair way back when she was working with my ex wife at Seventeen Magazine – she was totally Clarissa. And then lots of the women that worked on the show had Clarissa like qualities – including the costume designer – Lisa Lederer. Rachael Sweet was an inspiration – I had worked with her on a show at Comedy Central – the Sweet Life – she was a great performer and is brilliant writer. She wrote the song to Clarissa. I always gravitate toward those kinds of original women.
TMC: When will your next book be released and where can we buy your books?
MK: The best place to buy is at your local independent bookstores, of course. Eat local. Read local and support your bookstore. Online the first novel Being Audrey Hepburn is available now at Amazon and Barnes and Noble – here’s the link: being Audrey Hepburn: a novel and the website for my book is: www.beingaudreyhepburn.com.
The Clarissa book Things I Can’t Explain comes out in November and it would be awesome if people clicked on the “want to read button” please! Please!
Also if you register we’re having regular contests to do Google+ hangouts with me where I will happily answer any question I can from Clarissa or from anything I’ve done. Even writing advice! Register at: www.mitchellkriegman.com.
Also there’s my blog entitled my .02 cents where I write about anything and everything.
How did Clarissa inspire you and what do you want to know about what she’s up to later in life? Leave a comment and let us know!