"Honor Girl" Graphic Novelist Maggie Thrash on Identity and Girls' Spaces

SLJ caught up with debut author Maggie Thrash, whose graphic memoir Honor Girl focuses on an experience she had at summer camp when she was 15. Thrash shared how she went from comics newbie to full-fledged author, described the challenges of writing a memoir, and emphasized the importance of all-girl’s spaces.
Photo by Nico Carver

Photo by Nico Carver

As a teenager, Maggie Thrash spent her summers at the preppy Camp Bellflower for Girls in Kentucky. With her graphic novel memoir Honor Girl (Candlewick, Sept. 2015), Thrash recounts the summer of 2000, a pivotal time in her life, when she fell in love with Erin, a counselor; grappled with identity and self-discovery; and began to see the seemingly idyllic Camp Bellflower with new eyes. SLJ caught up with the debut author and Thrash shared how she went from comics newbie to full-fledged author, describing the challenges of writing a memoir, and emphasizing the importance of all-girl’s spaces. Why did you choose to write about this particular moment? I think it seems like a line in the sand, like a moment. Everyone probably has [that moment] when they’re a teenager and they experience really intense feelings for the first time. It’s that moment when you’re not a child anymore, [that’s] characterized by intense, intense feelings. This was my moment. It’s interesting that you chose to write about a summer experience—it’s a time when you have freedom to explore your identity. It’s this really weird, magical, nebulous time that I think is really important for development. I always wonder [about] kids who go to year-round schools. I bet it’s really great in a lot of ways, but they don’t have that summer, that transformative three-month idleness that I think is really important. [That time] when there are no expectations, that’s when things will happen. You really get to the heart of identity and how being a teen is about trying on different identities. For example, in Honor Girl, you describe how you became passionate about sharpshooting that summer and you wanted to show up your competitor but how you also felt bad about doing that. There’s that thing when you’re young, that possessiveness about skills or books. As a child, you’re just who your parents say you are. And I remember that [feeling] of someone stealing my thing and how visceral that was and the jealousy [that occurred]. People think of teenagers as being jealous of each other for gossiping and stealing each other’s boyfriends, but I just remember the pain of this girl wearing the same bracelet as me and feeling so insecure about it, [because] that was mine, even though it was just a piece of plastic. honorGIrlYour memoir takes place in 2000, and you touch upon what a strange period of time that was in terms of gay rights and acceptance. It was a really weird time, because most people were still homophobic but they were closeted in their homophobia. So everyone was closeted, and everyone was passive aggressively polite toward one another. It was a really strange transitional period. And, at the same time, there were a lot of messages—Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a lesbian character—that it’s okay, that you’re not a freak. But then in the real world, you got very different messages and you very quickly learned that it was just easier to just be quiet. When you wrote, did you draw upon personal journals or talk to people you knew from Camp Bellflower? I have some journals. It was mostly from memories. I’m not in touch with anyone from the camp. I ran into the character of Bethany in Thailand, just walking on the street, but I haven’t maintained contact with anyone. I was insecure about that at some times. How does Erin remember this? Does she even remember me? How is she going to feel when this comes out? So it was mostly memories, and I had a ton of photographs. I feel really good now that it’s coming out in the world, but I also feel nervous, because people are going to recognize themselves. I’ll bet it’s really strange to have no control over how someone is depicting you. I have a lot of control in how this is coming out, and the people being depicted don’t. Was revisiting such an emotionally charged period tough? It wasn’t that tough. I think it was mostly cathartic. I’m an adult now, finally, but it feels like I’ve been 15 since I was 15. I just felt, “I’m an adult now. It’s time to get over this.” I had sort of pushed this whole experience into the recesses of my memory, and I hadn’t sat down and submerged myself in these memories for so long. What books have influenced you? The “Scott Pilgrim” (Oni Pr.) books [by Bryan Lee O'Malley]. They were just so unpretentious. Anyone can grab them and get into them. That was big, because comics and graphic novels can be so intimidating. But “Scott Pilgrim” was so accessible. I loved it. When it comes to writing, are there benefits to the graphic novel format? Oh, definitely. I don’t have any art or comic experience. I had this lofty idea of writing my memoirs, and I got about 10 pages in, and it was just awful. The writing was so awkward. I gave it to my roommate, and he said, “This is awful, but I think it could make an interesting comic. You should try it.” I had never done anything like that before, but once I started, I said, “This feels really right, like the right way to introduce myself to people.” Now I love doing it. You don’t have to explain yourself [in a comic]. You just show it. I think it’s a fantastic way to tell personal stories. You have an autobiographical webcomic. Is that a format you find easier? [My] webcomic is simple and really fun. When I got this agent saying, “Okay, write a graphic novel about that camp section,” I sat down and felt so in over my head. You have to map out every page! It was really overwhelming, and the learning curve was pretty rough. I spent the first year just writing a draft that I had to throw away because it didn’t work. It’s intimidating, but I guess what I learned is that anyone can do this—and anyone should. You’re also a staff writer for the online magazine Rookie. Does working on a publication that’s targeted to teenagers and young women help inform your writing? It helped me, because I had to get out of [a certain] mind-set. Half the time I’d be writing it and thinking, “What is Erin going to say?” I had to say [to myself], “Nope. I cannot be writing this for her.” And then I would think of the Rookie readers. I’d think, “I’m writing it for the Rookie girls,” and that would help clear my head out. I’m very muse oriented. I always have someone that I’m writing for. I had a couple muses for this one, but one of them was just the thousands of unknown Rookie girls out there. What’s up next for you? It’s a mystery novel. It’s going to be fiction, all words, non–graphic novel. Non-nonfiction. So it’s going to be really different. Why do you think this book was so significant for you? I hadn’t realized before writing this the importance of girls having their own space growing up. So much of the world revolves around boys, and I know that camps like this all over the country are closing, but I hope [they] survive, because [they are] really important.

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