March 2008

Liz Miller


An Interview with David Nadelberg

David Nadelberg started the Mortified project after discovering a hilariously awful love letter he wrote in high school, and figuring he couldn't be the only one with embarrassing adolescent writings to share with the world. Beginning in 2002 as a live stage show, Mortified has since expanded to nine cities (including Malmo, Sweden), a series of books, and a just-launched web series.

The second Mortified anthology, Love is a Battlefield is now in bookstores. We talked with Dave about the project, and how it translates from stage to page.

How does someone become a part of Mortified?

We do these things, what I call shoebox sessions, where people come in and they bring some strange artifacts of their past. We ask them to earmark the things that they think are going to be compelling, but we also encourage them to bring anything else that they have written as a kid as backup. More often than not we end up in that backup territory, because we start hearing things about their past and we start asking questions -- were you popular, where were you from, how many siblings did you have, are your parents divorced. We look for themes and patterns -- which is kind of similar to what a shrink does, in a strange way. And we then try to present the material in a manner that will maybe hopefully arc.

But we can never add language to the source material, we can never rewrite. It's not really an editing process. It's really just a process of deciding, whether it be for the page or the stage, what elements of this person's past, when combined, will reveal a truly fascinating story. The best part is that we get to play detective. We get to help people bring their stories to life.

What is the distinction between a Mortified piece for the page or for the stage?

The audience has more patience for reading books -- they can go back and read between the lines of someone's life, so we can go a little longer. But we're also held to higher standards, because the audience can pay more attention to it. So the introduction and other content will be tighter, and the asides we place really have to be purposeful and calculated in terms of what is being said. We want to approach every single piece as a story -- we're very narrative-driven.

So we look at our introductions using the same rules that anyone would learn in Screenwriting 101 -- establish your protagonist, who must have a character want. And by the end [of the story], the character will have achieved or not achieved that want. Every single piece -- or, at least, our best pieces -- will accomplish that.

And now there are stakes and we're like "oh my god." By the end of the piece, there's going to be a result, and hopefully we're going to be on pins and needles waiting for that result, but the only way you can get like that is by knowing information about that person's life. That's our way of making somebody care.

Does the author come in with his or her own introduction prepared?

All the workshopping and context that we do is collaborative with the author, largely because they need someone who's outside of their life to understand what is interesting -- they need someone with distance. So we provide that, along with the ability to know what is compelling to strangers.

What's the typical sort of the material you get?

A journal from a girl who was raised on the East coast, who was boy-crazy when she was fourteen. We get a lot of those. Which isn't to say that those are bad or trite or whatever, just when we get those, we have to make sure that they're going to pop. That's why our interview process, while very strange, is the most important part of what we do.

What tends to be the context-to-artifact ratio?

The artifact is always the star of the piece -- it should occupy 85% of what is heard on stage or on the page -- but 15% of a given Mortified presentation will be the autobiographical context, and that 15% is the most important part. Without it, we become what to me is less captivating, which is just a retro show-and-tell. That's cute and fun, but that format can become fleeting.

So why focus specifically on love for this book?

You mean, why do a theme book?


Publicity and marketing is the simple answer. Apparently anthologies that are just flat-out sequels don't sell as well. And if someone's already covered you once, and a second anthology coming out, there's really nothing different about it aside from the fact that "It's got more! Of the same!"

The book was originally called Mortified 2: Love is a Battlefield, which I was really adamantly against. So I was thrilled when I got the phone call [from publishers Simon & Schuster] that there was a Borders or Barnes & Noble survey that said titles with numeric sequels are not selling as well, so we were going to remove [the 2]. I was really thrilled about that, because I find numeric sequels to be distracting and pointless. It tells me that there's no idea within the book, that there's nothing going on but more of the same.

So, needing to come up with a theme for the book, was love the obvious answer?

Yeah, we knew that it would come out around Valentine's Day, so we figured that it would make sense. But we also knew that we get so much material focused around the subject of romance that I could tackle one subject, but I could tackle it from a lot of different angles and it wouldn't seem redundant. It's not an anthology where every single piece is "I like a girl, but she doesn't like me." You know, unrequited love stories. We have some PG-rated crush pieces, but we also have strange tales about girls who joined biker gangs in order to find romance, geeks who undergo tremendous makeovers in order to get laid. Cheerleaders who wind up dating their school football coaches. Uncomfortable stuff like that.

Why do you think romance is such a fascination for teenagers?

Well, from when we're kids, even light years before we're going to have sex, we just know it exists, that it's out there. There's something about romance and sex in particular that just fascinates us from the earliest of ages -- you know, age 4 or 5. But then at some point we have that dream and we wake up in the morning and we're like yep, this is what I'm going to spend the next few years of my life pursuing. And it just consumes us!

I think as kids it occupies our brain even more so than when we're adults. Just because it's so... It's just this mysterious black hole of knowledge that seems like it's hovering just a few feet away and we're constantly trying to peer into it... And then at some point we get sucked in and we're completely obliterated.

Do you have any favorites among the entries in the books?

I try not to use the word favorites, because I don't want to insult anyone, but I'm always attracted to the pieces that have more of an emotional depth. There's a really interesting piece by a guy named Justin Jorgensen about looking for love in all the wrong places. You know, basically he's a gay kid in Fargo, North Dakota, and there are no other gay kids around there. So he winds up trying to pursue romance wherever he can get it, and find gay culture wherever he can get it, and of course all that he can find as a teenager is the more perverse side of romance. There's a great bit where, in his journal, he transcribed a conversation he had with a phone sex operator. It's this very uncomfortable conversation because the guy is much older than him, and [Justin] clearly does not know what to do.

There's another piece we call "Head Games" and it's a pretty dirty piece, although there are no bad words in it -- it's unbleepable. It's by a girl who was this smart know-it-all, the girl in school who everyone turned to for advice, no matter what: homework, boys, parents. And her best friend was about to give her very first blowjob... we can say that on Bookslut, I'm guessing?

Oh, yeah.

And so this friend turns to Kate, and what Kate does is give her step-by-step instructions on how to give a blowjob. What I like about it and what I like about Mortified in general is we're able to go to these darker and dirtier places, but there's always this strange undercurrent of sweetness to go along with it. This is really just a story about a best friend trying to help another friend out -- it just happens to be about a pretty salacious topic.

Do you feel like the more sexual stuff is a bigger hit with audiences?

No, I think the more sexually deprived stuff is bigger. A piece that I know people have been sparking to -- it's song lyrics, which I wasn't sure was going to play on the page, but people have been enjoying it -- this guy, he never had sex as a teenager, and so he created a heavy metal band. The whole reason he did so was so that girls would think he was the next Mötley Crüe and want to sleep with him. Unfortunately, his songs are not very good, and he was too lazy to form the band or practice the guitar or anything, so none of those dreams came true. But he did write down all the lyrics to his songs -- they're pretty filthy, but reveal a kid who's not doing much of anything sexually.

We end the book with a piece by Nellie Stevens that we've titled "Playing House," which I really like ending with. It's about that moment in your life when you decide you're a grownup now, which is really just the kid version of what they think adults are like. What this girl does is move in with a boy at age 19. All the dressing is there -- she lives in a house with a boy, she's outside her parents' domain -- but she's still a kid. And at the end of the piece, she breaks up with the guy, because she wants to remain a kid just a little bit longer, and enjoy that. It's very sweet.

Do you have plans for more themed books?

Yeah, there's an infinite amount of themes we can pull from -- whether it's family, or politics, religion... Certainly being gay. But will there be a third book? Who knows. The gods at Simon & Schuster control that one. I guess this book has to do well first.

How would you say the typical '70s entry differs from the typical '90s entry? Are there generational differences?

We've done pieces from as early as the 1950s. We've had 70-year-old women on stage. What I find interesting is that nothing is different. Instead of saying "July 19th, went to the store today, ran into Karen, Karen is being such a bitch," it's "Karen is a ninny." That's the only real difference. No matter who we are -- whatever generation, gender, sexual orientation, popularity, whatever -- we really were, and are, all the same.

In the past three or four years, it's safe to say that MySpace and blogging have transformed the adolescent experience. How do you think that sort of public journaling is going to affect Mortified in the future?

The notion of your life as public spectacle is very different today -- as is the notion of journaling as public spectacle. But we often get journals where girls and sometimes guys compare their lives to Anne Frank. They conveniently overlook that whole Holocaust thing and just focus on the "hey, girl with diary got published and got famous." Some people write to their journal as though thousands or millions of people are reading it. It's bizarre that they have those delusions of grandeur from an early age.

At its heart, do you feel like Mortified is a voyeuristic experience? An exhibitionist experience? Or both?

Yes, yes and yes, but those are terms that often have really negative connotations. I'm hearing Big Brother reality TV when I think of words like voyeurism and exhibitionism. And to limit it to voyeurism is missing the bigger picture. That's why we try and use these artifacts to reveal stories that are already waiting to be told. That helps elevate it beyond narcissism or voyeurism. That's the fun challenge of what we do.

Could you tell the story of how you found the cover photo?

This girl posted her photo to our website years ago, and I fell in love with it. And I mean that. I find that photo -- the face, the background, the dress, the glasses -- one of the most hypnotic and hilarious and strangely beautiful things I've ever seen. It's just bizarre to me.

So when we were looking for covers for the new book, I remembered this photo and I e-mailed the girl who posted it. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and my mom was in the hospital in Ann Arbor for a while. I didn't really know many people back home, so when I went to the hospital last June, Kim Lombardini met me there.

We sat in the hospital lobby, since I didn't have a car, and we talked for about two hours. Just about her life, and how hard it was being the girl in that photo. She was a girl of mixed ethnicities, and black kids didn't like her and white kids didn't like her -- she just didn't fit in. But she's now the mother of a teenager who seems very well adjusted and capable and she's a fantastic person. It was a weird way to meet somebody -- but it was one of my favorite conversations.

So, anyway. That's the story of Kim Lombardini in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was a weird day.