.In Blume: Indie-Pop Duo Tegan and Sara Delve Into Graphic Novel Land

I grew up on Judy Blume. From Superfudge to Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, I was hooked. Blume spoke to the 7-year-old me much differently than other books. With the recent film adaptation of Blume’s adolescent masterpiece Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret—also a definitive documentary—the adored author has been on my mind more than ever.

But I’m not the only one who’s fallen in love all over again with Blume. Tegan Quin, half of the Grammy-nominated pop outfit Tegan and Sara—the duo’s “Everything Is AWESOME!!!” (featuring the Lonely Island) is still buzzing in ears worldwide, nearly a decade after the twin sisters’ Oscar nomination for Best Original Song in The Lego Movie—recently bought tons of Blume’s books to reread.

“I read Are You There God? first,” Quin says over Zoom.

The 42-year-old Canadian pop star has an excuse for going down a Judy Blume rabbit hole: It was research. Tegan and Sara just released their second graphic novel Junior High, a fictionalized autobiographical prequel to their bestselling memoir—and New York Times-bestselling debut—High School. The way Blume’s books speak to children with the regard they merit was influential to the Quins.

“We think that kids that age deserve to be talked to with more maturity,” Tegan tells me. “I think we culturally dumb things down, and Judy Blume spoke to young people in a respectful way. I appreciate how she treats kids.”

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Tegan notes that Junior High was written with all middle school-age kids in mind. If you’ve experienced junior high, it’s a relatable book.

“There are queer topics in the book, but it’s not a queer book,” she explains. “It’s the same with our music. It has topics, stories and meaningful things that anyone of any age could enjoy.”

One of Junior High’s standout moments is based on Tegan’s and Sara’s recollection of sixth-grade sex ed and how strange it was that the boys and girls were divided.  

“I just think finding humor in it, finding compassion, revisiting it and sharing and knowing that young readers might relate to it feels good,” Tegan says. “I hope we’re contributing to creating some language for those awkward things.”

What have you been up to?

TEGAN QUIN: We taped the audio version of [Junior High] and have been doing press and stuff with [illustrator] Tilly Walden, taking photos, getting ready for the book tour and preparing the slideshow and what selections we’ll read. It’s been busy because we’re going on [a music] tour right after that.

The book tour lasts until June 6, and then we go to Montreal for a week of production rehearsals and the Crybaby tour launches. It’s exciting that we’re playing lots of old stuff while still figuring out the new stuff. I think we technically have 10 [albums] of original music now.

It feels like a lot, I know. We were chatting about this yesterday because somebody was talking about Junior High, and they were like, “A lot of people do retrospective look-backs, like writing memoirs, later in life when they’re not producing new stuff anymore, and you’re doing both at the same time.”

I was like, “I don’t know what to tell you other than we’re unwell.” There’s this compulsion to tell stories. It started with albums and touring. Our passion is to stand on stage and play music and tell stories about our life and banter with the audience and each other. That’s just grown into a passion for telling stories. With High School, we could talk about our high school experience and coming out and starting our band—these were the really important years of our life. And that opened up this whole other part of our brain, where we were like, “What other stories can we tell?”

When the opportunity to do Junior High came up, it felt so organic. That’s such a crucial time in people’s lives. You’re turning into a teenager, and I think getting to sit down and muss about it was fun for Sara and me. And then to modernize it and ask, “What would we be like, if we were 13 [now]? Would we be into music? Would we be on TikTok doing makeup tutorials? What would we be like? Would we be weird? Would we be alternative?” There were so many fun questions we had to ask. It’s been amazing. And then, to get to collaborate with Tilly Walden. It’s just weird. I was looking at the book this morning, and it’s like this “pinch me” phase of our career. Everything we do just seems so cool and fun. I feel very lucky.

Is your approach to collaborating with Sara on songwriting different from writing a book?

It’s really different, actually. Because the majority of the music we make, we make separately. Then we come together in the studio to record it and collaborate to make edits and produce each other. Then we end up singing on each other’s songs. But the bulk of music work we do separately. Most of our records are even split into Sara songs/Tegan songs. We share them and demo them quite extensively. So, when I write a new song, it’s not just acoustic. I’ll try out melody lines, pianos, keyboards, drums, bass, and Sara will make suggestions. As we’ve gotten older, I think we’re more collaborative. But the bulk of the song is created independently. The book Junior High is the complete opposite. I didn’t know this until we started, but graphic novels are written like scripts because you’re giving the illustrator stage direction. You’re designing what it’s going to look like. You’re describing your characters, where they are in the house, the rooms and their friends. You’re setting all of the scenes and settings.

We didn’t divvy [Junior High] up the way we did with High School, our memoir, which was made the way we make music. We wrote a timeline, divided every grade and said, “Okay, here are the kinds of stories I want to tell.” And we wrote completely separately. We would share our chapters for comments. But the book is an alternating voice, similar to how our albums are crafted.

It was one voice with Junior High, and we had to write it together. Sara started the script, wrote about two or three chapters, then sent it to me. Our process became the two weeks that she had the script she would write, then send it to me. I would know nothing about what she was writing. I would get it, go through everything she’d written, rewrite stuff, change things, add stuff, laugh, write comments and then, I’d spend another week writing three or four more chapters and send those back. It could be really funny. We would re-edit the whole thing each time to create one voice. And I loved it; it was nice. It immediately inspired us to want to do more books like this because it was collaborative, but it also made it easier because we were writing it together. It’s half as much work. We’re fictionalizing a lot. But I got to write what I think Sara’s like, and Sara got to read what I see her like, and then adapt accordingly and write me.

With High School, there were some moments of conflict because I’d read a chapter in the memoir and be like, “That’s not what I said; that’s not what I did.” But that’s Sara’s memory. I couldn’t argue with it. Whereas with Junior High, we could go in and change things. We could edit each other, and seeing the other side, stepping into Sara’s shoes, I could speak like her.

How do you work through creative differences?

It is a delicate balance often assisted by every couple of years of re-up with our therapist. Ultimately, it’s about communication styles. And we’re different in the way we communicate. Also, personality-wise, we’re pretty different. I’m a lot more extroverted and outgoing and have energy for fans and talking through things, and I love to be in the mix on everything. Sara is much more reserved and methodical and tends to have a different sense of things. There are weeks when we don’t need to talk. And there are weeks when we have to make hundreds of decisions together. And we just sometimes don’t agree, and I think over the years, we’ve learned to pick our battles and be more generous or thoughtful to each other. But it’s a work in progress.

We have another twins project we’ve been working on, and I’ve been interviewing twins over the last couple of years. The way we feel is pretty common. There’s this desperation that we have to individualize ourselves. And yet everything about our life has been paired and bound together by our choice. But like most normal people, whether they graduate college and do this or after high school, they individuate, separate from their family, go off and find themselves and figure out who they are, experiment and do their whole thing. Then they create their own family unit, their own friend group that’s separate from their family. But we never did that because we never went to college and got other careers. We always stayed together. There’s a sibling tension between us that’s very juvenile that’s rooted in adolescence. It’s not our fault—we still share everything.

During the busiest years in our band, we’re on tour 250 days a year, sharing a bus, hotels, merchandising and making decisions together. It’s kind of like being a kid still. We’re negotiating what time we’re getting up tomorrow. Which flight do we want to take? Everything is a compromise, and that’s exhausting. When you put it into terms for other people, it’s like any other relationship; it can break down. You can get tired of compromising and negotiating with another person. It’s a marriage, really. But we’ve learned how to deal with it, but it’s not always easy. Everybody wants you to get along and be best friends, but this is the person you spend all your time with. You don’t get to go home to your partner. You don’t get to sleep in your bed. It’s like being on “Amazing Race” with your sibling; you have to make thousands of decisions monthly. People are like, “That sounds terrible.” I’m like, “That’s our life!”

Tegan and Sara’s ‘Junior High’ Book Release happens Friday, June 2, at 7pm, at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $20 (book included.) bookshopsantacruz.com

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Adam Joseph
Before Delaware native Adam Joseph was brought on as managing editor for Good Times Santa Cruz in 2021, he spent several years with the Monterey County Weekly as a music writer and calendar editor. In addition to music, he has covered film, people, food, places and everything in between. Adam’s work has appeared in Relix Magazine, 65 Degrees, the Salinas Californian and Gayot. From January to May 2023, Adam served as Good Times’ interim editor.
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