When Indiewire sat down with television creator and author Mitchell Kriegman last year, he spoke on a variety of subjects, but the Nickelodeon show he created in 1991, “Clarissa Explains It All,” was a major topic of conversation. This year, it’s even more on his mind thanks to the release of “Things I Can’t Explain,” a novel that takes his beloved teen heroine Clarissa Darling and answers the question of what’s happening in her 20s. Now a young adult in New York, Clarissa is an aspiring journalist with a complicated family situation and (gasp!) a sex life.
It’s a strange idea: the creator of a long-canceled show updating his story for a new generation via an entirely new medium. Even stranger is the fact Clarissa’s friends and family come alive in new stories, that “Things I Can’t Explain” doesn’t technically count as a period piece (despite the math) and that the book exists in continuity with the unsuccessful attempt to bring the character to CBS.
Below, Kriegman explains… Well, maybe he doesn’t explain it all, but he does say why he doesn’t mind any comparisons between the book and fan fiction, whether original series star Melissa Joan Hart has read the book and why the character of Sam (Clarissa’s childhood best friend) became so much more important.
When you went in to write the book, what was the biggest part of constructing this new world of Clarissa?
It wasn’t easy because there were a lot of aspects to weave together. There’s the obvious thing of the aging up of everybody. That wasn’t too hard. Then there was the tone, because the tone of the sitcom is very breezy and broad and comedic. It’s absurd half of the time. It starts out with a level of absurdity. A book can’t have that kind of absurd tone, at least I can’t write a book that has that absurd tone
I wanted to write a real novel. I wasn’t writing some novelization of “Clarissa” or some groupie spin-off thing or some marketing ploy. I wrote a novel specifically because I believed it had the most integrity out of everything I could do with “Clarissa,” to continue it. The tone was a big issue, how to keep the tone, but convert it to a novel.
There’s this amazing thing that happened, where the publisher of the book had announced it before I finished writing it. When he did, there was so much outpouring of people saying what they thought should happen in the book. I had not finished writing the book at that point, so I read everybody’s “I think this is what should happen at this point.” When I read everything that everybody was saying about what they thought should happen, I realized that there were things that I didn’t take as seriously as the audience did. They weren’t things that bothered me, they were interesting. I’m very much about the audience, so I actually revised my outline. It was like crowdsourcing my novel, like saying, “I’m doing a novel. What do you think should be in it?” It just made it more interesting and it actually became deeper because of it.
One thing was that I was very much focused on Clarissa’s new relationships, so I had a very oblique plan to deal with Sam. I didn’t realize how important Sam was to everybody, but I do know now that he is very important.
He’s crucial to the book.
He is and it’s actually fascinating to me because I was coming to the show at a time when it just made sense to me, for her to have a platonic male friend. Did you have the sense that people were considering him a romantic interest for Clarissa?
There is no doubt that people thought that, and I realized a lot that people were projecting their desires onto Sam and Clarissa and I understood that. If that’s true, it made it way more interesting to have more go on. I just immediately knew what their relationship was after the show, and it’s not over of course.
The book definitely ends in a place where more could happen. I’ll be honest, I was reading the book and I got to that first major scene with Clarissa and Sam and I was like, “I was not expecting to read a sex scene between two characters that I grew up watching at the age of 12!” That was unexpected.
I’m happy about that. I had to go there! I showed this book to an enormous amount of people. for what you normally show a book to. I showed it to people who had never seen the show before, I showed it to women in their twenties, women in their thirties, women in their forties. I showed it to the boyfriends of most of the women who wanted to read it. I got notes from most of them, including the boyfriends, and they were more possessive of her than the women and even more shocked that she talked about sex. Hell, there’s Lena Dunham out there. I feel like Clarissa lives in a Lena Dunham world, but she’s not Lena Dunham.
When a friend of mine asked if the book was in continuity with the CBS pilot, I looked into it and discovered it was! Which is a crazy thing!
It is really crazy! Especially because I got totally screwed on that pilot. I got totally screwed. They took it away from me, basically, and I never expected it to see the light of day. My deal for sure never envisioned that pilot airing on Nickelodeon.
So you had to make it an official part of the story because it officially aired on television.
And it shouldn’t have! It was never supposed to, from everything I understood about my deal. Let me give you just a tiny backstory about the pilot. On that pilot, I had written three or four drafts, I had built a huge set, the whole newsroom. I had cast the whole show. But one night when there was a blizzard in New York, we were shooting in New York, the network executives called and told me they had decided to make a change. I said, “What are you changing?” They said, “We’re hiring another writer, we’re getting rid of all the talking to the camera, all the fantasies, all the graphics.” I’m like, “What do you mean? What are you doing that for? This is a franchise.” They said, “Maybe basic cable can take all that postmodern crap, but network audiences don’t tolerate that.”
Then they did what they always do when they screw something up, they always say, “It didn’t really work.” After they completely gut something, they say, “It didn’t really work.” It’s quite normal in Hollywood. It’s as if you’re supposed to plunge your baby in hot oil and see if it survives. If it doesn’t survive, they say, “I don’t really think he was capable of thriving, you know?” I had to endure decades of, “There was a network pilot that didn’t work I watched it and it sucked.” Well of course it sucked! I thought it sucked! They took it away. Because everyone added it to the zeitgeist, I felt that I couldn’t utterly ignore it. I created it for a good reason, even though it didn’t get realized the way I wanted it to.
You still have certain elements in it. She still talks to the camera a tiny bit.
It was much funnier and much more absurd. The opening monologue was her being so excited about being in New York, while meanwhile, everyone is abusing her in one way or another. She’s like, “I love this place. People are so nice,” and they’re all just terrible. They reduced it to some kind of intro. But I did keep [the book] in continuity, there is a Clarissa universe that I built on.
Here’s the thing I find most fascinating about the book: Reading it felt, honestly, like fan fiction, which I don’t mean in a pejorative way. I really want you to understand.
Oh no, I don’t denigrate fan fiction! I read the fan fiction for “Clarissa.” Leaving aside the pornographic fanfiction [laughs], I’ve read fan fiction where Clarissa was a superhero. It was the first time I’d ever thought, “Wow, that character could turn out like ‘Hunger Games’ turned out to be.” I could see that.
I think Clarissa would do quite well in the Hunger Games.
I think she would! Or she would think it’s all such bullshit. Suzanne [Collins, the author behind “The Hunger Games”] wrote on the show actually. She wrote some bully episodes that are really pretty cool. She wrote the best bully episodes. I read the fan fiction, and to me it was no different than reading what everybody thought should happen in the book.
That’s essentially what fanfiction is, saying, “I love these characters and I’m trying to create my own stories with them.”
When I did the pilot, Nickelodeon was at the forefront at testing pilots. They knew how to do this better than the networks or anybody else. It was a woman named Karen Flischel and they tested for engagement. I remember them bringing me into a meeting — nowadays they exclude writers from testing results, but in those days, it was so new they brought me in. They said, “You’re going to hear some weird stuff about your show, alright?” One of the things that people said was they had a lot of ideas about how Clarissa should kill Ferguson.
Which was something you weren’t even supposed to touch on in the original series.
The pilot is actually about her trying to kill Ferguson, but nobody could ever do it again. It was in the first episode. Anyway, people were responding, “I want to kill Ferguson this way, or that way,” and then they were really critical of the parents in the pilot, not the series. They said, “Oh, these parents are too easy, they’re too whatever.”
What I learned was, when people start manipulating your ideas and your characters, it means they’re very involved with them. They’re changing what you’ve done in their mind and that’s not a sign of criticism or rejection. It’s actually a sign of engagement.
I feel a kinship to people writing fan fiction because it’s been 25 years. I forgot her middle name, for instance. I looked back and said, “Marie? Really? Oh yeah, that’s right.” I write for an audience, so the more my audience is involved in what I write, even if they do their own version of what I do, that’s really fine with me. I don’t have a problem with it.
What about getting into the head of the character changes for you from doing it as a teleplay versus a book?
Well, I’d written the novel “Being Audrey Hepburn” first, so I had a sense of rhythm and storytelling and description when I made it into a book. Getting back into Clarissa was very hard at first, because I realized that the voice had been absorbed into many other characters. Not to say it was ripped off, but what I did, a lot of people did, with that sort of snarky, warm voice that she has, that self-consciousness. For a moment, when I was writing it, I thought, “I can’t write it anymore” because that voice has been co-opted so much. Her voice is no longer distinctive. It took me a while to really remember what was distinctive about her voice.
At the time I did “Clarissa” [the show], nobody had a voice like that, or at least very few people did. Now, there’s a lot of that. “Friends” had a voice like that, there’s a bunch of things that had a voice like that. That took a while. It was easier when I got into the voice because she’s older. I don’t have to censor or mitigate or make it appropriate. She can talk about anything you or I can talk about. That made it easier. People have said that they picture Melissa’s voice in this and I did too, and I felt I was talking from the old Melissa.
Then there was this moment in the book where she was talking about her body, and it was specifically about how her body had changed from when she was a little kid to now. I’ve had the experience of being a single dad, and my daughter is 18 now — she was 14 months at the time of the show. I’ve seen her go from that kind of tomboy little girl to a girl with curves who wears makeup and puts stuff in her hair. I thought, “I’ve seen that! That’s the transition that Clarissa is going through, but she’s gone through it already.” I need to write about how she’s changed that way, it has to be about that physicality. When I wrote that paragraph, that’s when I was totally in her new voice and I knew who she was.
Ferguson, I wasn’t worried about. None of the other characters besides Sam was I worried about. Ferguson is, in my lingo, “a hard character,” because he is a flat-out comic character. My goal is always to take whatever extreme a character may be and show another side of them, I never lead someone just one way. Even bad guys, I try to make sure there’s something likable about them.
Has Melissa read the book?
I know she’s read part of it. We had a conversation about some of it, and Melissa had some thoughts about it and I actually adjusted a few things. I’m very fluid about this. I have my thing and obviously it’s very strong, it’s very directed, I want this to happen and it happens, but the details about how some of these things happen are not so rigid. She had some things that she felt weren’t continuous with what was before. I thought, “Oh sure, if there’s something that I don’t see there.” That’s why I like the fan response to the announcement of the book and then incorporated so much stuff.
At the same time, I do want to be provocative. I created a very provocative kids’ show in “Clarissa.” It wasn’t a “Saved by the Bell” show. I didn’t do the normal, goofy, everything-is-fine, fall-in-love crap they do. I did a show that was told differently and there was a girl at the center. You don’t expect the guy who does that with the character that did that to deliver a book that’s all nostalgia. I can tell you for a fact that even though people will say they want nostalgia, in the end, they get pretty negative about it at some point. It’s like eating Cheetos or something like that, you have a bunch and you still don’t feel satisfied. [laughs] I wanted to get audience connection but I also wanted to reset all the characters. If you really look at them, they’ve all been reset. They’re all ready for new adventures with new opportunities and new adventures.
Is it kind of a period piece at this point?
It’s not a period piece. First of all, I don’t give a shit about math. It’s all imagination. That’s like saying bears don’t talk and sloths don’t dance, that didn’t stop me before so why should it stop me now? The second thing is, I would say it’s a reimagining of Clarissa. That’s a band-aid of sorts. If you did her in her thirties, that’s a big jump, it would be crazy. Melissa was about 17 and the character was about 16 or 17, so you want to see her in her twenties next. You don’t want to skip her twenties. I felt like that’s the next time you want to check in with this girl and see her. But she lives in a contemporary world, she lives in a Lena Dunham world. She’s not Lena Dunham — there’s a little Lena Dunham homage in there somewhere because I know Lena loved Clarissa — but you can’t do it as a period piece.
Here’s the last thing: Look what this generation has been through. They’ve been through a recession. They’ve had these ridiculous, overwhelming student loans making them make choices they don’t want to make and shouldn’t make. Finally, some people, like Clarissa in the last episode of the series and the first episode of the pilot that didn’t do very well, some people prepared for the news business. They learned skills, and this is true for many fields, not just journalism, but they prepared for journalism, they got their dream job, they worked hard and had the skills, and then the industry went away. That’s a really interesting dilemma. Here they are with these skills that are outmoded at such an early age with an industry that they have succeeded at. I thought this was perfect for Clarissa because you would never imagine her failing. If she had set out to be at a newspaper, she would succeed at being in a newspaper. She would have gotten her dream job, but if the job went away, she starts over again.
Is there anything about the book that you’re excited about exploring going forward?
Oh, lots of things. I’m interested in anything. I’m interested in what happens to Ferguson, I feel like he’s in a world of intrigue. I don’t want to give anything away, so there are some stories that are kind of wrapped up in the book. There’s a central story that’s not wrapped up in the book. The funny thing about the book is it ends the way it starts in a very funny way. It starts and then it stops and then it starts again, which I think is cool. I know what happens to Clarissa by the time she gets 40 almost. There’s a bunch of stops here. I really want to see her grow and encounter all sorts of stuff. There’s still stuff to be done.
“Things I Can’t Explain” is available now wherever you might buy books.
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