Maggie Thrash spent every summer at Camp Bellflower, one of the oldest camps in the South, set deep in the mountains of Kentucky. Her graphic memoir, Honor Girl, takes readers to the summer of 2000, when 15-year-old Thrash fell in love with a female camp counselor named Erin. She attempts to escape—or maybe sort through new feelings—at the rifle range, but then it seems Erin may feel something, too.
Through spare illustrations and often hilarious dialogue, Thrash captures the confusing and heart-wrenching moments that come with first love, with leaving a part of childhood behind, with discovering a part of yourself that didn't seem to exist before.
Why did you want to tell this story? And why in comics?
I needed to get this story out of my system. I hadn’t talked about it much, not even to people who know me really well. It was kind of lodged in my heart gumming up the works. And for me, comics are the easiest way to talk about personal stuff. You can present yourself really plainly and efficiently. Comics are awesome that way.
A 100-year-old camp, with uniforms and longstanding, antiquated Southern traditions, is an almost-too-perfect backdrop for a summer of discovery and leaving childhood behind, particularly for a young gay teen. What does the camp setting provide that is different from school life?
At camp you’re allowed to be in the moment. During the school year, the future is a specter that hovers over your ever decision. Will getting a B+ instead of an A affect my GPA? What if I want to be a photographer? What if I want to be the President? Which classes will put me on a graphic design track? You can plan what you do, but you can’t plan the person you become. And it’s hard to figure out who that person is in the pressure-cooker of high school. I think it’s so important for kids to have time to chill out. Camp is very chill. You’re outside, you’re kind of bored, no one’s asking much of you—there’s a measure of freedom and idleness that allows you to actually be yourself.
If this story were fiction, readers wouldn’t get the opportunity to look back on this pivotal summer through your eyes—knowing what you know now, remembering the summer through the haze that comes with the passing of time. What do you think this story gains through that last section, when you reunite with Erin, when you’re able to reflect on what you experienced that summer?
I thought it was important for the reader to be yanked out of the idyllic bubble of camp the same way that I was. In a way, the friendships you make at camp are doomed. They can’t really survive outside of that environment, at least in my experience. It’s like pulling two flowers from the ground and sticking them next to each other in a vase. They’re going to die.
Did you learn anything new about that summer by putting it down on paper?
I learned how important that summer was to me. The more I examined my memories, the more I realized how deeply they had shaped me. It was kind of scary! I don't want to freak out the teens, but seriously, your lives are taking shape right now. You’re becoming the person you will be, right now.
There’s a theme running throughout Honor Girl about being someone else, or even inhabiting a “web of lies” to hide who you really are. But it seems that when you “become” Kevin Richardson of the Backstreet Boys, it opens your teenage self up to this opportunity in a way. It certainly is the moment when Erin notices you. Is there some merit to playing as someone else, when you’re still figuring out who you are?
Oh, absolutely. When you're 15, everyone thinks they get you, including yourself. You think you know who you are, and what your limits are. But really you have no idea. At that age, your brain is still under construction. So don't make any assumptions about what you’re capable of; do whatever it takes to get out of your head and test yourself.
What’s so cool about Kevin Richardson anyway? Is it the power of the goatee? The trench coat? (What’s he doing these days? Think he’ll read the book?)
Kevin was the serious one, and also the most beautiful one. They kept him in the background a lot, which made him easy to project stuff onto. I spent hours interpreting the mysteries of “I Want It That Way”: “Believe when I say, I want it that way . . . I never wanna hear you say, I want it that way.” No one knew what the hell that song meant! People assumed it was nonsense. But I would look at Kevin—the intensity of his eyebrows, the fact that he hardly ever smiled—and felt certain the song had a secret meaning that Kevin wanted us to discover for ourselves. We didn’t realize at the time that none of those boy bands actually wrote their own songs.
Kevin’s back with BSB now after a long hiatus! I have their new album, In a World Like This. And I think they actually did write all the songs this time. It has kind of a Reagan administration vibe (family values and stuff), but it’s still really good.
And yeah, I’d love for Kevin to read the book. I want him to know how important he was to me. I think he was a little overlooked back in the day, but he was really the unsung heart of the band. He’ll always be my favorite. Boy band love never dies.
Have you put yer shootin’ skills to use?
Nope! In fact, by the time I went back to camp the summer after the one I depict in the book, my skill had more or less disappeared. I’d lost my confidence and my drive, and I never really got it back. The magic was gone. Maybe it’ll return one day. I'll let you know!
Who has been the biggest influence on your work?
In terms of craft, the Scott Pilgrim books by Bryan Lee O’Malley. I studied that series like it was an instruction manual for how to make a graphic novel. And Twilight had a huge impact on me when I read it a few years ago. It doesn’t get nearly enough cred in my opinion. Stephenie Meyer is brilliant at capturing intense longing and the way feelings can contradict each other. Also theres a poet and essayist named Jenny Zhang who fascinates me. She has a truly wild heart, and she writes with an honesty and brutality that’s kind of terrifying.
You’ve described memoir-writing as “lofty” business. What does that mean to you, and do you plan to continue your lofty work? (More memoirs?)
The memoir genre tends to be dominated by ex-presidents and war heroes and drug-addicted movie stars, so it can feel a little “lofty” to be like, “Move over, Bill Clinton, my teenage gay drama is of national importance!” But at the same time, have you read Bill Clinton’s memoir? It’s very boring and reveals little about his inner self. It’s not very relatable. I have to remind myself that it’s not about whether my story is “important”; it’s about whether it’s important to me, and whether anyone can relate to it.
And yeah, I’d like to do a follow-up to Honor Girl eventually. I'm focusing on fiction right now; I need a break from myself. Perspective and distance are crucial for memoir-writing. I need to get out of my head for a while.
Author photo credit Nico Carver.