ROOKIE of the Year, Again: An Interview with Tavi Gevinson
By Dan Casey on December 5, 2013
When most of us were in high school, we were worrying about getting to the cafeteria before anyone else to get the cookies that weren’t quite cooked in the middle, figuring out what the hell Dostoevsky was trying to symbolize when Sonya gave that cross to Raskolnikov, and whether Brenda Flenderman liked us or liked us liked us. Geez, Brenda Flenderman is a terrible fake name for a crush, right? But I digress. To make something of yourself in the professional world while dealing with the rigors and rigmarole of high school takes incredible focus, which is exactly what Rookie Magazine editor-in-chief Tavi Gevinson has in spades.
The waifish wunderkind made a name for herself in the fashion world at the tender age of twelve with her blog Style Rookie. By fifteen, Gevinson shifted her focus to pop culture, music, and issues that mattered to teenage girls like herself, culminating in the website Rookie Magazine, a catch-all destination for articles, essays, and interviews pertaining to the teenage girl experience. Compared to the other sites and outlets purporting to service a teenaged female audience, Rookie was a revelation, thanks to its earnestness, honesty, and all around authenticity. And people have taken notice: the site has attracted high profile contributors like Lena Dunham and our own Emily Gordon, thanks to its eclectic, but intensely relatable editorial voice.
Now, two years later, Gevinson is seventeen years old, a high school senior, focusing on applying to colleges, and fresh off her recent feature film debut in Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said. To celebrate Rookie‘s second birthday, Gevinson and co. have published Rookie Yearbook Two, a follow-up to Rookie Yearbook One, collecting the best and brightest pieces appearing on the site in the past year as well as some brand new material exclusively for the print edition.
At 350 pages, the anthology is filled with stickers, collages, editorials, illustrations, interviews and much more, featuring brand new content from the likes of Judy Blume, Mindy Kaling, and Grimes, and a compelling read no matter what age or gender you might be. To take you further inside the world of Rookie, I caught up with Gevinson over the phone just before Thanksgiving, and we talked about everything from the eternal awfulness of college application essays to being relentlessly stared at by James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Nerdist: How are you doing today? How are things going?
Tavi Gevinson: Things are fine. We have Thanksgiving break coming up, so school is nice right now.
N: Oh, yeah, exactly. Teachers are putting in movies instead of actually teaching the curriculum.
TG: Yes, exactly.
N: Unlike other people in your class, I’d imagine they don’t have a major publication that just came out. So congratulations on the launch of Rookie Yearbook Two.
TG: Thank you.
N: Rookie has really evolved into this sprawling destination of a website. So what prompted you originally to found the site, and what’s it been like to see it change and grow over time?
TG: When I started Rookie, the idea kind of became a back-of-my-mind, that-would-be-cool kind of thing when I was finishing middle school. And then when I was starting high school in freshman year, it started to become a thing that could actually happen. And so freshman year—end of middle school, freshman year, I was becoming a teenager and feeling like there wasn’t—I didn’t see anything that I really related to in terms of (that) I wanted something for teenage girls that would respect my intelligence, but wasn’t necessarily super-serious personal essays all the time.
N: Right, right.
TG: Or just something pretentious and awful, like The New Yorker Junior or something. So I set up my blog that I wanted to start it and asked people to send in their writing, photography, illustrations, and I got about 3,000 e-mails. And then a woman who read my blog who I had talked to before who worked at the Times Sunday Magazine e-mailed me and said she would help me go through all the submissions, and then she kind of became — by the end of that, it was clear that we were both on the same page of what this should be. And then the summer before sophomore year, we got a designer figured out, got an ad agency, had to figure out a lot of very boring logistics.
And since then, it’s been exciting. At first, I was like, I don’t see anything I relate to. And then I think it’s since become something that a lot of people who are into things can relate to. I think a good starting place for making anything is that you see the gap and you try to fill it. You just make something that you would enjoy. And now that our staff has grown, I still enjoy everything we put out, but we have twice as many contributors now. I think there is more variety, and that makes me really happy.
Because I think that at first—one way in terms of talking about how it has developed and changed, one thing is that end of 8th grade, when it first became an inkling of an idea, my thought was — I was obsessed with this John Waters interview where he’s like, “There’s no subculture now. There used to be hippies and beatniks, now there’s nothing. Go make it!” I was like, “Yeah!”
And then when Rookie started, I felt like that still doesn’t feel inclusive. Like that’s not actually what I want to put out into the world, to create just another standard of coolness, or something. Even if it’s “alternative” or whatever. Because I don’t know what you think, but I love romantic comedies, and I think it felt more subversive to me to create a site that could reconcile all of that instead of something that is like a cool little clubhouse. And so that’s definitely one way in which I think it has changed.
N: Yeah, I definitely agree with you there. Any subculture is built on excluding themselves from the general population. I think the bigger challenge is to create something that is inclusive, that makes people feel welcome.
N: And that’s something that I’ve really admired about Rookie. As an outlet, it has this sort of overwhelming positivity inherent to every article. Even when it’s bleak subject matter, you can glean something positive, you can take away something good from that.
N: Is that something that was important to you in guiding the editorial voice?
TG: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I think, I wanted it to be smart and I’m kind of a sarcastic person, but I didn’t want it to be snarky. I felt like there’s enough of that online. Yeah… I mean, I think one thing I was going to say with what you were saying before, also the thing with countercultures, that it comes out of mainstream culture being bad, or just exclusive, so I felt like we should change that instead, and then maybe there is no need to create a counterculture.
But going back to the question you just asked, about being positive. I just think — I feel like, you know, it makes me very, very happy when we have an event, or we get an e-mail or a letter, where a reader says “This piece changed my life,” or “This writer convinced me I should get help,” or “I feel less alone” — stuff where in small ways you’ve shaped or changed a handful of people’s lives, and that’s amazing, but you can’t exactly aim for that. Because there’s no way to know what gets through to people, so I just try to put out something that is positive, and that will leave a reader — it doesn’t have to change their life, it can just make them laugh, or it can encourage them to try some things they were scared of, or it inspires them, or makes them a little happier, or makes them feel like a thing they were insecure about, they don’t have to be insecure about. So, yeah — we really try to be generally positive, and not too cheesy, hopefully.
N: No, I think you’re finding that nice area where it’s still cool, but — coming off as positive all the time may not seem cool to some folks, but I think you guys toe that line very well. And I agree with you — I feel like you can’t go into it aiming to change someone’s life, or else you’re just putting out Chicken Soup for the Soul books, and it’s going to come off as a bit inauthentic.
N: I feel like it’s about being yourself and putting yourself out there — that’s what people will ultimately cling onto, and they’ll find maybe an aspect of themselves within that.
TG: Right. And I also think—oh man, sorry, I keep losing my train of thought! You said before the Chicken Soup for the Soul thing—that really distracted me, because that brought me back. But you said… oh my God, what’s wrong with me?
N: It’s all right — it’s a Monday in wintertime. You’ve got turkey on the brain. I know I do.
TG: Oh-oh-oh — you had said — I liked it — you had said…
N: Was it about finding a balance between being cool and staying positive?
TG: Yeah! I feel — I really hate it when people think that it is cool to act like you don’t care about things, or you’re disaffected. And I mean, everyone at my school probably thinks that I am that way, just because I just always look angry all the time on accident, but actually I’m a really enthusiastic person, and I think that Rookie is — yes, we can be kind of sarcastic, but I think ultimately, yeah, there is a lot of enthusiasm there. Because I think it’s boring to pretend that you don’t like things. Because I don’t know, life is all — not to get all “blech” — life for being a teenager can be kind of bleak, and so when I’m excited about something, I want to get really excited about it, and a lot of Rookie is about that.
N: Yeah, that’s fair, I think. You’re taking the positive side of the deal, though, to put it in perfectly awful internet terms.
TG: Yeah, right.
N: You mentioned a bit from some of those readers, but how has the response been from the community as a whole since Rookie’s launched?
TG: Ultimately it’s for our readers — it’s for teenagers and young women, and I don’t care what a writer at The New Yorker or whatever thinks. However, it’s really cool that something for teenaged girls can also be considered really impressive in a kind of dignified publishing community. Like the weekend events with The New Yorker festival. I don’t know, there just isn’t a lot aimed at teenagers that also has that level of respect or that kind of crossover where people are like, “Oh, this is actually good!” So even though we don’t need the grown men of the world to like Rookie, it is cool that it still has that appeal. Because there isn’t a lot — like, you see it even in pop music, where people write off Taylor Swift or whatever, especially when she was younger, people were like, “Teen girl music.” In the past few years, all of these rock critics have come around to, “Oh, she actually knows what she’s doing.”
And so I think that even though part of me is like, “This isn’t for you old stuffy rock critics,” I also think that it’s cool that that works that way.
N: Yeah, I think, to stick with the Taylor Swift comparison, you’ve got to be able to give it up for a good hook. A pop song is catchy for a reason. As a 25 year old guy, a Rookie article might not necessarily pertain to my experience, but I can still appreciate the content.
TG: Yeah, for sure. And that’s so much of what art and writing and music and enjoying all of that is about. It’s just like my favorite — so many of my favorite pieces that have been on Rookie or just like anything I’ve read in general, even if it’s not my experience and I don’t really relate directly or whatever, if they do an amazing job, then you still really care about it, or can even relate to it in another way.
N: I’m about to ask you a real Sophie’s Choice of a question: Do you have a favorite piece that you’ve either written or curated for Rookie thus far?
TG: Oh, man! I don’t know. I’m really proud of the book, but I think in terms of…
N: Or maybe just an interview where you’re like, “I can’t believe I’m talking to ‘X’ person.”
TG: You know, I interviewed Emma Watson for Rookie, and that was great, because we got her on an off day, when she wasn’t in the middle of a press tour or anything, so I could go to her apartment and we could sit and talk for a couple of hours, and that was really great, because it was cool. A lot of our interview subjects will let us do stuff when they’re not doing press tours, and they will give us a lot of time, because they often — like Emma, she was a fan of Rookie, and she supported Rookie, and so she was very generous in her time with me, and that was an amazing interview, I think, just because she made herself very vulnerable. I don’t know — I feel like most people in her situation, “I was part of this kid’s franchise, and now I have to prove I’m an adult,” but her way with it is very honest and smart, and my conversation with her was… I don’t know, she’s amazing.
She talked about fame, and success, and being in the really unique situation she is, and that’s the kind of thing where when you put that out there, people can really go after you, and already, the day after the interview went up, there was some nasty thing on a gossip site that was, like, “Ooo, Emma Watson! Blah, blah, fame.” So I was glad that she put herself out there.
And I guess where I’m going with the growing up thing is very often people in her position, especially a young pop star, like when you’re part of some kind of kid franchise, and then you grow up, and you think the thing that you have to do is show that you’re — “I’m a grown woman now!” — in a lot of very silly ways, superficial ways. And so I just think — I also think it helps that when I went into the interview, I had never seen any of the Harry Potter movies. And so I think everything you read about her is somehow about Harry Potter still, and I’m happy that isn’t what that interview was.
N: That’s a difficult legacy to shake, because it’s such a massive franchise, and so many people grew up with these characters. But I do agree with you — I feel like you get some of the best interviews, when you’re just talking to someone and they’re not there to explicitly promote something. You’re not in a press junket environment, because when you have them for like 4 minutes, 5 minutes, they have their pre-canned responses that they have to talk about whatever project they’re promoting. And that’s fine, they’re doing their job, we’re doing our job. But I agree with you — you can get some really cool stuff when you’re just having a conversation with people.
N: So as an editor, what’s one of the best tricks or tips that you’ve learned during the process of guiding Rookie from the start to where it is now? Maybe something that you picked up on the way, or something that makes your work load easier—things like that.
TG: Um… huh. One thing that I think I learned is that there’s kind of two parts to work. There’s the actual work that I do, deciding on — assigning pieces to our staffers, designing the book and everything — art directing the book. And then there’s the work that I have to do to make sure I like my other work, because it is kind of a high stress job, and I think also in any job where you deal with outside responses and having an audience, you just have to remind yourself of what you love about what you do. I think that’s been big for me. I think in the beginning when I had a lot to do, it was like, just keep going, keep working. Then I realized I have to give myself time to watch a movie and get inspired and remind myself why this stuff is important to me. And now I know to make time for that work too, and that has been a big thing for me to learn.
N: Yeah, you always have to fight the urge to check one more work e-mail or file that story and all that. Making time for yourself is definitely something important. AND — check out this segue — that’s something that’s important to do when you head off to college, which is something that you are facing imminently. Seamless.
N: So I’m curious — after all of your work for Rookie, are these college application personal statements a walk in the park, or do you still find them as infuriating and daunting as I did?
TG: They’re awful!
N: They’re the worst.
TG: Because they’re not like real, personal essay writing. It’s a sales pitch. Yeah, I don’t like it.
N: Have you settled on a school? Are you still scoping it out? Where are you in the process, exactly?
TG: I have the schools I’m applying to, I’m in the middle of writing essays, and putting together a portfolio and resume and letters of recommendations — all that stuff. Everything is due January 1st.
N: All that fun stuff! You’ll have as fun of a winter’s break as I did back in 2005.
TG: Right! Ugh.
TG: It’s fine. It’s like a semester of awful college stuff, and then you send off the applications, and then there’s hopefully a big payoff.
N: Mm-hmm. Exactly. Are you going to keep up with Rookie when you head off to school? Are you going to pass it off to somebody else’s very capable hands?
TG: Yeah. I hope to be in New York so that I can continue, for school — I’m also taking a gap year. So I’m going to use a lot of my gap year time to focus on just Rookie, and then once I’m in New York it’ll be easy. Most of our staff is there — all of our editors and most of our contributors. Once I’m there, I think I may even be able to be more involved with Rookie, because I’ll actually be there in person. So we’ll see. But either way, it’s like I don’t feel a lot of pressure. I feel personal pride because it’s my brainchild, but I feel like it’s at a point now where I could leave it in our editors’ hands and they totally get it. It has a life of its own, and that makes me very happy.
N: Yeah, that’s nice—exactly. It’s nice that other people are on the same wavelength, and they’re sort of picking up that baton and running with it.
N: Do you imagine that the editorial voice might shift or change at all as you go into college?
TG: No, because it’s not about my life and I think — we still have like 80 other contributors, and it’s established now as being for teenagers. That’s also just more interesting to me. I don’t know if I will still write and think about teenaged stuff, because this has been such a big part of my life, and I might just have to move on from it, even if I continue to run Rookie as an editor. Even if I do continue to write about teenaged stuff, I think — a lot of our staffers are teenagers still, but a lot of them are adults too, and I think that can give you a good perspective on your teen years as well. So we’ll see.
N: Yeah. Let your “Choose Your Own Adventure” book play out as it will. So I know that you recently made your big feature film debut in Enough Said, alongside some seriously impressive folks like Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late, great James Gandolfini.
N: Is acting something that you want to pursue? Do you know what you want to study in college, or are you going to sort of feel it out first?
TG: I want to pursue a lot of different things, and acting is one of them. But that’s a different question than college for me, because I kind of have the luxury of being able to go to school and just focus on education and enriching my brain, because I already have a career. It will probably include some acting stuff, film or screen writing, stuff like that, but I mostly want to take many kinds of writing classes.
N: Going back to Enough Said for a moment — what was that experience like for you? What was it like going toe-to-toe with these real heavyweights?
TG: It was great. It was a couple of weeks that went by crazy fast. It was like the day I finally got over my impostor syndrome was my last day on set. It was really — I couldn’t have — I was so lucky for that to be my first experience like this. [Director] Nicole [Holofcener], was so relaxed. The whole thing was just… like, filming in a house, filming at a store, very… just trying to make it natural, organic and conversational. Everyone was very nice.
I don’t know — Nicole is really easy going… she just kind of talked to us. She wanted — she’d be, like, “Does this sound like something a teenager would say? Would this be right for your character? Feel free to change it or add.” So it was really relaxed. I had a great time.
N: That’s awesome. Do you have a favorite moment or experience on set?
TG: Oh… hmm. Well, yes. Have you seen it?
N: I have not seen it yet, unfortunately, but it’s high on my to-do list.
TG: I understand. Yeah, I — there’s one moment where I walk in — Jim spends the night at Julia’s, and then I walk in in the morning and see them in bed, and I’m shocked and surprised and embarrassed, and it’s just like a small, funny thing that happens. And so we were filming it, and they were only shooting me at this point, but Julia and Jim stayed on set for dialogue. So you couldn’t see them through the camera, and when I turned the corner and saw them, Julia was sitting on Jim’s lap, and they were just staring at me and smiling, and trying to make me really uncomfortable and make me act surprised. I just tried to stick it out, and I think we made it through the scene, and then I just started laughing.
TG: That was great and bizarre, and I appreciated that a lot.
N: Yeah, that’s the kind of thing you want to see every time you round a corner.
TG: Of course!
N: I just have one more question for you, and it’s a bit of an oddball, so just bear with me.
N: What would be inside your ideal burrito?
TG: Oh, man. To be really honest with you…
N: You may.
TG: I am the most picky eater. I still have the taste buds of a five year old. All I put on a quesadilla is cheese. I don’t know if I’ve ever tried a burrito.
N: It’s just like a quesadilla with a little more stuff in there. More portable.
TG: I like chicken and… I don’t know. I’m such a child! This is embarrassing.
N: It’s all right. You’re heading off to college, where you can expand your palate. I used to be a very picky eater as well. I did not have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich until I was in my 20s.
TG: Oh my god!
TG: What did you eat, then? That’s, like, all I eat.
N: Just peanut butter. Peanut butter sandwich, no need to bring jelly into this.
TG: Oh, right. No, I can see that. I don’t have anything on my hot dogs.
N: Yeah, I was like that for a long time, but now I see the joy of condiments — mustards and ketchups and what have you. You’re on the precipice of a great gastronomic adventure.
TG: Yeah, I think it’s just that when you’re a picky eater when you’re little, you create all of these antagonistic — it’s like, stuff like mustard and mayonnaise have really antagonistic personalities to me. I just — I’ll get over it. I’ll go to college and have to eat dining hall food.
N: [chuckles] It depends on where you go. I may or may not envy you that. But I know what you mean. You build up these things in your head, where you’re like, “I don’t like that at all, and I’ll never like that!” But here I am — now I eat tomatoes, so… you were right, mom.
N: Yeah, I know. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. I had a really good time chatting with you.
TG: Thank you so much!