Professor’s Story on the Big Screen

Professor’s Story on the Big Screen

Phoebe Gloeckner is bracing for the close-up that she had started to doubt she and her literary doppelganger, Minnie Goetze, would ever get. Thirteen years ago, Gloeckner’s groundbreaking novel-with-graphic-sequences hybrid, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” was published to some acclaim but disappointing sales. Now, a film version starring Kristen Wiig and Alexander Saarsgard opens in wide release in August.

“How do I feel?” asked the U-M art and design associate professor by phone from Anthony, New Mexico, where she spent the early summer researching a new project about immigration at the Mexican border. “I don’t know. The director’s interpretation of the story was so different from mine that I found myself wanting to object, but I finally realized that the movie will never get made unless she can make it her own.”

The core of the film, however, is the same as the novel, the story of a 15-year-old girl’s affair with her mother’s boyfriend, set in mid-1970s San Francisco. It has already earned great reviews from Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, won a cinematography prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and has Gloeckner preparing to walk the red carpet on Aug. 5 for the New York premiere.

The book’s seemingly innocuous title belies a shocking, subversive, and intensely blunt autobiographical account of the adolescence of its main character—one that Gloeckner says is “all true, but yet I never call it the truth because a teenager’s vision is very narrow, really.” Minnie has the rebellious distrust of authority and wanderlust of Holden Caulfield in “Catcher in the Rye,” the inappropriate experience of the main character in “Lolita,” and the wide-eyed awakening of physical and emotional transition of so many Judy Blume protagonists.

Gloeckner, who in 2009 became the first cartoonist to get tenure at a major university, is intrigued to see whether the film generates new interest in her unusual book, which was reissued by North Atlantic Books on July 21. She struggled to get bookstores to carry it in 2002 because they were uncertain how to categorize it—it’s primarily prose but lapses into graphic-novel story-telling for pages at a time. Movie ratings boards have had similar struggles; in the U.S. it is rated R, and in Britain it is restricted only to viewers over 18.

The author has made peace with a more “polished,” toned-down film version with a happy ending and has largely moved on to her new work. As a 2015-16 U-M Institute for the Humanities fellow, she’s focused this coming year on another prose-graphic hybrid novel, this time the story of a particular border-straddling laborer from Juarez, Mexico. She’s constructing scale models of locales in the story so she can produce two versions of the novel, one in print and another in electronic form.

“When I think about the film and the book, I’m kind of outside of myself,” she said. “If, indeed, the movie sparks interest in the book and people read it, I guess we’ll see how people respond to it. But I’ve moved on to my next thing.”

—Steve Friess     

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