Who could have guessed when Clarissa Explains It All premiered on Nickelodeon back in 1991 that, 24 years later, viewers would still be talking about it, wondering about the fates of its characters and waxing rhapsodic about the titular character’s off-the-wall fashion choices? Even for the show’s creator, Mitchell Kriegman, that was probably wishful thinking. And yet here we are, with Nickelodeon re-airing classic episodes of Clarissa as part of its Splat block of programming and Kriegman on the cusp of releasing Things I Can’t Explain, a new novel he wrote that finds Clarissa Darling all grown up, jobless, and trying to make a living in New York City.
But how did we get from cool teen Clarissa to trendsetting twentysomething Clarissa, who not only has an impressive closet, but also has sex? Below, The A.V. Club talks to Kriegman about the genesis of Things I Can’t Explain, the whereabouts of Sam Anders, and how beholden he feels to fans’ nostalgic visions.
The A.V. Club: First off, how did the book deal come about?
Mitchell Kriegman: First of all, I never gave up on her. I’ve been writing Clarissa in one form or another—or Clarissa-like or Clarissa-related—so the DNA of Clarissa has been in a lot of the characters I write; it’s not always a lead character, it was sometimes a side character. So for me creatively, I never understood why she stopped. That might sound petulant or something, but I just felt like we could grow up with her. The ratings never failed with the audience and it was really just the limitations of how Nick saw us that made it stop.
I guess the biggest reason that I wrote the book is that I really wanted to do something that the reading audience would respect and see as having some creative integrity rather than being a product of a network and a strategy and an ad campaign and part of some revival of nostalgia or something. The audience of this show is a smart audience and is really media savvy. They read books, they watch TV, and they’re all so fluent in the kinds of things they look at, and I wanted to bring her back in-depth, with integrity, and see how far she could go and what she could do. I figured a novel was the best way.
AVC: You have said that since the book got announced before you’d finished it, you used a lot of fan feedback in the story.
MK: That was an awesome thing. What happened was I had it all outlined and I had written a big chunk of it, and that’s how I had sold the book. And then after it got announced by my publisher, there was all this cool and totally unexpected response online and in different articles about what people thought should be in the book. And I listen to all that stuff; I always have. I’m a writer that works toward an audience and so I listened to all that stuff and I was like, “Oh, shit! They really care about this, and I had overlooked that, and I didn’t know how powerful that was.”
Honestly, there are things that people remember about the show that I honestly don’t even remember. Like I was flabbergasted when I realized I didn’t remember her middle name like everyone else did. And there were just times when I was like, “Oh, God, yeah. That’s what happened.”
So, I got rejuvenated and jazzed by it, but for a while, it made me feel like I was writing a fan fiction or something like that because it was like, “Wow, I’m just like everybody else writing this.” But as I got deeper, I really appreciated that feedback and it allowed me to really shape the story I told and hope it had more resonance and avoid overlooking something.
AVC: How old is Clarissa in the book?
MK: She’s 26, so there’s a mathematical conundrum about how old she would be in this day and age.
AVC: She’d be almost 40.
MK: No, she wouldn’t be 40. Don’t age her before her time; this isn’t Clarissa in crisis. She would be early 30s, no matter how you look at it. And I am completely copping to an alternative universe where she’s only 26.
AVC: There are some years missing for sure. Why did you choose her 20s?
MK: For a lot of really good reasons. I think it’s the next-most interesting part of her life, and I think it’s where the widest range of readers are interested and want to see what happened. I can’t imagine writing her at thirtysomething and not having her deal with her 20s. That’s just out there for me. So I reimagined her 20s now. That was the goal. And I ignored math, because math only goes so far. Math doesn’t buy you that much.
AVC: If we saw her in her early 30s, we would wonder how she got there.
MK: Well, by the way, I know what that is. I know what she’s like in her 30s. I have a really strong idea of what happens. I have an idea of what happens with her daughter and all of that stuff. It’s not remotely uncharted; it’s not locked in, but I definitely have ideas of what happens to her as she gets older.
AVC: And you didn’t want to write about her mid-20s as if it were 2007, because that makes the story seem dated, but in a really off way.
MK: It would be both a flashback and have to be a period piece in some way. It’s really weird.
You get whiplash going from 14 to 24, but I think I could catch up with her eventually. I feel like I could get her to gradually leap a couple of years and be back to her actual age.
AVC: Do you have other books in your mind? Are you trying to make this a series?
MK: You’ve read the book, so you know it leaves some open questions at the end. I always write everything so that I could write another one. I never like to stop going on any of the projects I’ve done. I never stopped any of them. I’d like to see her grow up.
Look, I see her as an outlier in high school or as a kid, and it’s really interesting to see an outlier, because she wasn’t trying to be a star in her world, but she was a star in her life, essentially. And what happens to an outlier when they get into their 20s and all the shit hits the fan? There’s this transition that I hope the readers and viewers can make, where she goes from the girl who nothing ever goes wrong for to having to deal with a lot of shit, which is bound to happen in your 20s. And then to see how an outlier has those desires to make their mark. Because outliers don’t always want to be an outlier and be happy in their little bedroom; they want to go out there and prove to the world that they have the vision for what they want to do and go do something. I think that’s why I think it’s great to see her continue, because you don’t always get to see outliers get it wrong very often.
AVC: You really do throw her into a lot of shit straight away in the book. She lost her job, her parents are getting divorced, and Ferguson’s in some trouble. I don’t think those are too big of spoilers.
MK: And that’s what you want to see. If I had written a book where she was still all totally on top of everything, nothing goes wrong and everything is under control after being that kind of a girl as a teen, people would go, “I hate this girl. She’s so perfect. How can she get away with that?” And especially in a novel, that’s part of the transition in the tone.
It was really a challenge to take the kind of sitcom glib goofiness of the show and apply it to a book that you sit down and read that has some kind of literary context. It’s not Jane Austen or something, but it does have some weight. And now she’s in her mid-20s, so all of that stuff is happening at the same time, and I think she’s still true to who she is; I think there are a lot of problems with her being so in control and on top of it at 12 or 14 if you’re kind of OCD about controlling everything around you. What happens when the world is spinning out of control, as it usually does?
AVC: You also put Clarissa in some interesting romantic or even sexual situations in the book.
MK: It’s funny because the book was read by a bunch of people before I was done with it and guys were more upset about that than anything else. Guys had this perfect sort of Clarissa idea in their minds, right? You get softened up a little bit in the beginning because she starts talking in a normal way, but we don’t live in a world of pristine Pollyanna life. We live more in a Lena Dunham world, honestly. I’m not saying it’s full-tilt or anything, but we do live in a world where people have sexuality. I have a daughter, and the transition from 12 to 18 is pretty dramatic. There are curves. They’re dramatic, and I mean that in every form of the word.
That’s the other thing I mean about seeing a girl go from her know-it-all teens to her struggling 20s—that she’s a sexual being, that she exists and really sitting down to try and find out how that person—as opposed to an icon or a stereotype—becomes somebody. So I’m hoping that it’s provocative to some people, but I don’t think it’s that far out. I don’t think she does anything undignified.
AVC: No, she doesn’t do anything undignified, but it is hard for readers to see our old pal going through some emotional turmoil. She’s not someone we really know, but we feel like we’ve known her for years.
MK: Yeah! What would you want? In other words, what do you want as a reader or a viewer? Do you want nostalgia and would I then be criticized for doing nothing? There have been revivals where they don’t do anything and everyone is encased in amber and continues as they are. I’m kind not that kind of guy, and what do you expect from someone who created Clarissa to begin with? Do you expect him to keep doing the same thing? Clarissa was a breakthrough anyway. I would have aged her up faster in that show and I would have continued to age her up if I had the chance to continue the show, but I’m not the guy.
It’s really funny. One time, I was being considered—I’ll put it politely—to run Disney Animation. And a guy who is no longer there in an executive position said, “Why do you think you could run Disney Animation?” and I said, “I don’t think the question is why do I, the question should be why are you crazy enough to ask me to do it?” I said, “I don’t do the same old thing. I’m not going to do garbage again. I’m going to blow things up. That’s what I do well; that’s what Clarissa did, that’s what Ren & Stimpy did.” So I think audiences might have been lulled into some complacency with the character but I think, in the end, it was more exciting to open the character up and challenge her and throw a lot of stuff at her and see where she goes.
AVC: How much pressure do you feel to appease fans? Some might say, “I always thought she’d end up with Sam,” but you were always just writing it to where they were friends.
MK: This was a hard book to write. It was a hard book from a plot, character, and tone perspective, which wraps up just about every category there is to writing a book. I was trying to thread the needle everywhere. For the specific things you mentioned, I was trying to thread the needle of fan expectations and upsetting fan expectations.
I definitely went out of my way to address everything that everybody said, which sounded completely crazy in the time frame that I could do that. But I had enough control, and my publisher is so good to me. I had this great editor working with me so I was able to pivot in a lot of great ways while I was writing the book to assimilate to the world around me, which is unusual. My goal was to address everything, and not address it in the same way.
Back in the kid days, I always felt like kids want a roller coaster that they like, but they don’t necessarily want to build the roller coaster. They’d rather someone build it with them on it, and I always felt like the reader has what he wants or she wants, but you also want something new.
I want Clarissa to be somebody, and not just a doll from the ’90s. I don’t want her to just be some doll you dress up and say, “Here’s my Clarissa style!” You know, I don’t know how this relates, but we did, at Housing Works in New York, a “Clarissa” fest where people were supposed to dress as Clarissa, and I was really disappointed because what they did was they kind of just wore the same old clothes they always wear because everyone has sort of assimilated that style in one form or another. It’s no longer a provocative style, but why do I say this? Because I feel like she has been assimilated, and we need to see where she goes next.
AVC: Another interesting aspect of the book—to me, at least—is that Clarissa always wanted to be a serious newspaper journalist, and what does that mean in 2015? Can she still be that, or is she relegated to blog journalism like so many of her peers?
MK: My audience is about 20 or 30 years younger than me, but I know that people prepared for certain kinds of lives and certain kinds of professions, and then everything changed. And that’s a really big thing to happen. Between student loans crippling people and handcuffing their choices and this transition and disruption that they’re a part of, but also victims of, what’s it like to prepare to be a journalist at a newspaper, love it, and succeed, and then three days later find that there’s no job and nobody gives a crap about writing in a newspaper because it’s not the same thing at all? So I thought that was a real interesting challenge.
AVC: Have you always owned the character of Clarissa? How did you get to write this book, technically?
MK: How did I get the freedom to write it? First of all, Viacom has been very generous, and they always have been with me and my characters and my creativity and my wrestling with myself. They had no involvement at all, but the didn’t have a problem with it. They were totally supportive of it, and they’re totally supportive of it now and are promoting it. I think they see as a win-win in terms of, like, we all know there’s a huge millennial following that loves ’90s television over there and, honestly, this is one of the first new things that related to that era to come along. So I think there’s an enormous amount of goodwill and though I don’t take no for an answer, I definitely got a lot of support.
AVC: What’s next? Do you have to see how this book does?
MK: That’s an interesting question. I definitely want to see what happens.
I actually did spend some time thinking about guys and how they would respond to the book. I found that they were more concerned about her and her not being the perfect little girl from next door. I spent a lot of time writing this book thinking about what Sam would think, which I had never thought about much because he was so laid back. But I spent a lot of time thinking about, “What was he thinking all that time about her?” Because you know a lot about what Clarissa was thinking and how she regards Sam, but not that much about what he thinks of her. And so I think there’s a lot of room to explore characters and I think the characters remain a really interesting group. I loved what happened with the parents and with Ferguson, who was a hard nut to crack, too.
I’d love to keep going, just as I would have loved to keep going after the TV show. But you have to see what people think and all the normal kind of realities of publishing a book and producing things. I’d love to see what 26-year-old Clarissa looks like, but then again, I have ideas of what Clarissa at Melissa [Joan Hart]’s age would be doing, too. She and I talk, and who knows, we may come up with something really cool in that regard. So I have a sort of free-range, organic, no antibiotic imagination and I like to think about my characters throughout their lives, and if I get a chance to do them, I’ll do them.