Chelsea Cain Exclusive Interview
Chelsea Cain is the author of Confessions of a Teen Sleuth – an entertaining parody of Nancy Drew, which exposes everything you always wanted to know about the heroine from River Heights.
Published in April 2005, and recently reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, the book salutes America’s most famous girl detective and sheds light on Nancy’s secret romances, the reckless driving, a minor drinking problem, how she dyes her hair and even lets her age.
A life-long fan of Nancy Drew, Chelsea is also the author of The Hippie Handbook, Wild Child: Girlhoods in the Counterculture and Dharma Girl: A Road Trip Across American Generations.
What are your childhood memories of reading Nancy Drew books?
I was a compulsive reader of Nancy Drew and always carried one. I was one of those kids who read books under my desk at school. I have a very specific memory of looking up at the blackboard during a 4th grade math class and seeing a long division problem that the teacher had written on the board and having no earthly idea what it meant. I had read all year during that class, and now it was catching up with me. I looked at that long division problem. I looked down at my book. I looked back up at the long division problem. I knew I had to choose right then between Nancy and ever being good at math. And I went right back to reading. It took me another year to learn the concept of a remainder.
What place has Nancy Drew got in North American society ?
I am amazed at how much affection women feel for Nancy. When I was researching the book I used to go down to Powell’s to look through teen sleuth books (all sorts of other teen sleuths make appearances in Confessions of a Teen Sleuth). I’d take a stack of Tom Swift Jr. or The Hardy Boys or Trixie Belden or Encyclopedia Brown to the bookstore café and go through them. Every time I had a stack of Nancy Drew books - and I mean every time - at least one woman would come up to me in the café and want to talk about her memories of Nancy. This never happened with any of the other books - only Nancy. The independence and fortitude of the character really resonates with girls. Plus Nancy Drew readers tend to read Nancy Drew books for years, so it feels like Nancy was around for a big part of our childhoods.
What was Nancy’s most endearing quality?
Nancy had absolute self-confidence. She knew in her heart that she could get out of any jam. To an adolescent girl (a creature that embodies the antithesis of self-confidence), this was utterly awe-inspiring. It was such a relief to leave all the anxiety of elementary school and stress of home life and enter River Heights.
Are you a fan of the modern incarnation of Nancy Drew – eg she uses a cell phone, computer etc?
I haven’t read any of the modern Nancy Drew books. When I was writing Confessions of a Teen Sleuth I really wanted to be true to the style of the original one-to-56 stories, so I purposefully avoided reading the newer ones. I don’t have any trouble with the concept of a techno-Nancy. She needs to use all the tools at her disposal to track down smugglers, jewel thieves and kidnappers.
Would you liked to have been one of the “Carolyn Keene” ghost writers for Nancy Drew?
I think I became a writer because of a subconscious desire to do just that. And I would still do it. Simon & Schuster? (Nancy’s publishers) Are you reading this? Hello?
Confessions of a Teen Sleuth parodies Nancy – which aspect of her life did you enjoy “exposing” the most?
Her love life - Nancy is so chaste in the books, and it was fun to imagine her coping with the romantic entanglements of a real woman. For instance, in Confessions, Nancy marries Ned but carries a lifelong flame for Frank Hardy. She is torn between stability and home and her gift for sleuthing. She loves Ned, because he is there for her. But the love of her life is Frank because he represents derring-do and adventure. He is also very, very hot.
Nancy Drew has been around for 75 years – will she still be read in 2080?
The character has a timeless appeal. Let’s put is this way – if people are still reading books in 2080, then little girls will still be reading Nancy Drew during math class.
Confessions guides Nancy through the decades – how does she cope with getting old?
It’s funny. It was really hard for me to let Nancy Drew age in the book. I utterly resisted it. Nancy is either 16 or 18. She is not 30! She certainly isn’t 50! But when I finally let it happen, the book really started to come together. There is something terribly bittersweet about seeing our teenage hero face Father Time. And it’s hard for her. She has trouble with her marriage and with motherhood. She tries to give up sleuthing, but finds she misses the thrill. She has to work harder and harder at remaining “slim and attractive” and her titian hair color now comes from a bottle. But Nancy never loses her keen eye for clues or her love for a good mystery.
Will your book inspire some people to re-read the Nancy Drew stories from their youth?
I hope it inspires people to buy Nancy Drew books for the little girls in their lives.
What other famous literary characters are ripe for parody?
It’s tough to find literature as rich for parody as Nancy Drew. The thing that makes a Nancy parody work so well is that the style of the writing is so instantly recognizable. A lot more people would be able to pick up on the style of “Carolyn Keene” than would be able to recognize the work of Henry James. Plus Nancy was such a character sketch (we never actually learned much about her) that she sort of cried out for some complicated emotions and real world obstacles. It might be fun to write a humor novel (maybe faux detective noir) starring a bunch of children’s books characters like Curious George and Paddington Bear and the Velveteen Rabbit. But there, you see, I’m going to get a bunch of cease-and-desist letters now, and I haven’t even started writing.