Sarah Mai Heads Back To Freshman Year For Her New Graphic Novel Memoir

Sarah Mai Freshman Year Interview

Sarah Mai has worked as the illustrator of multiple graphic novels, but for the first time she’s taking on both writing and illustrating for the recently released Freshman Year. Not only that, the book is a memoir of her own Freshman Year in college.

“I have been joking that doing this was exorcising my 18 year old self out of me like a demon—it just needed to get out of me one way or another,” Mai told Comic Book Club in an interview over email. “That is a dramatic way to say I think it was an effort to try to process that year and show some empathy to my younger self, who I can no longer totally relate to. I felt for all the folks that had rough transitions into this new part of life and thought it was important for that experience to be reflected in some way.”

In the book, Mai struggles with career choices, romance, family issues, and a whole lot more. And boldly, she forgoes a traditional three-act structure to try and capture the messiness of a year in a life. To find out more about how the book came together, and whether there will be a Sophomore Year, read on.

Comic Book Club: High school is always the place with big emotions and big events, so it’s an interesting twist to focus on college instead… Obviously, it’s your real-life experience, but what made Freshman year the right time to focus on?

Sarah Mai: High school as a setting is a perfect place to explore big themes without getting too bogged down by the logistics of adult life, so I totally get why it’s always the place. After graduation, everyone’s lives begin to look drastically different– it’s not as universal. Stories tend to lean more towards “adult” media at that point, so it’s a weird line to walk on (especially in terms of marketing). Maybe that’s what attracted me to it!

I feel like a lot of people carry the same huge emotions into college that they had in high school. Things are compounded and magnified by the fact that you’re away from home, figuring out so many things for the first time, and completely surrounded by your peers, who are also figuring those things out.

The first year out of high school (no matter what that looks like) felt like less explored territory as far as media about teenagers goes, which was one of the main reasons I wanted to write. At the time I felt like I had access to a pretty small range of stories that are set in college. Usually it’s about an Ivy League or some kind of fraternity/sorority situation, so there was an open space for a story about a year at a state school.

And a step beyond that, you’ve illustrated before but this is the first book you’ve written and illustrated – why was this the right story to tell? What was important about this one, in particular?

I have been joking that doing this was exorcising my 18 year old self out of me like a demon—it just needed to get out of me one way or another. That is a dramatic way to say I think it was an effort to try to process that year and show some empathy to my younger self, who I can no longer totally relate to. I felt for all the folks that had rough transitions into this new part of life and thought it was important for that experience to be reflected in some way. I was lucky that my editor felt the same way, so it must have filled some void for at least the two of us.

You talk about this a bit in the back matter, but you very purposefully don’t try to force a concrete narrative structure on the year… Was there a time when you did, and then scrapped this approach? Or was it always more about capturing the feeling of the year?

That year had been hard to explain, so I wanted to capture the feeling of that confusion more than I wanted to wrangle it into a concrete structure. There may have been a few very early drafts that had more of a narrative, but those felt wrong. I had to make a handful of concessions to those feelings to make the story readable, but I don’t think I ever had a version of this book in my head that was very structured.

Freshman Year cover

It might be weird to call them characters since they’re real people, but you condense some “characters” and change others… Given the relative freedom of more “slice of life” than three-act structure, why was that important?

The “calling real people characters” problem was a funny hurdle in editing… still working that one out! Aside from that, it was important for me to make changes and composites because I didn’t feel comfortable telling my friends’ and family’s stories for them. I tried to keep the “big picture” in the forefront and let the rest go. There were a lot of important people to me that year, and a lot more events and themes, which complicated things like timelines and readability. There could probably be three more volumes with all the stuff that didn’t make it in!

Not to pry too much, but there are some things you get specific about, and others you leave to the readers to interpret, like what happened with your family before Freshman year. What led to this choice? And where is the balance in terms of feeding events to the reader, versus leaving them vague?

I expected this to come up! These choices were definitely multipurpose.  Again, a lot of these stories didn’t really feel like mine to tell, especially because the time between now and then is relatively short. It also serves as a way for the reader to project their own baggage into the story. Your own family stuff is usually pretty potent and I wanted people to see themselves in it. We all carry hard things with us to the next phases of our lives and have to figure out how we are going to move forward with it—that’s what was most important to communicate.

I’m not sure if there is a balance of what to feed readers and what to leave vague. I’d say it’s a matter of perspective and personal comfort. If I had written this book in five or ten years I may have included more or less specifics. Hindsight changes memories, and I wanted to capture how things felt in the moment.

You definitely drop scenes set in a few classes throughout the book, but spend the most time with, I believe, your philosophy professor (or perhaps I misinterpreted his role). Regardless, why was this class so impactful for you? What was it about defining terms that stuck with you, he asked the writer of a book?

I signed up for the class with no concept of what it actually was—it was called Mod Lit Crit, and I naively thought it was a course where we would be reading books like Animal Farm and Fahrenheit 451. Instead, I had my entire concept of the world changed. We mostly learned deconstruction theory, which I cannot get into explaining here (but recommend a quick Google). When it comes to defining terms, it ironically made me less concerned with trying to define things so much, which broadened my perspective on how to exist in the world and gave some basis for feelings I had been trying to understand.

Throughout the book, you’re dealing with very real feelings of loss and loneliness… Was it difficult to go back to that place?

Let’s just say this was a period of my life where I was a top 0.1% listener to Sufjan Stevens on Spotify.

Have you had any reactions from the folks involved? Have they read it yet?

Everyone has just gotten their copies in the last few weeks, but about half have responded and said some very sweet things to me. Jury’s out on the rest!

Very important question: what was so good about the food at the athletes’ dining room? Or was it just amazing by comparison?

I’m not actually sure that the food was amazing. What was so good was that they had folks making the food to order, which is such a different experience than spooning some room-temperature mashed potatoes on your plate. Today, I would happily eat room temp potatoes over telling somebody what I want and then standing there watching them make it for me. Also, their ice cream was always working, and the building had cavernous ceilings and was painted bright white and grey, which meant it was better in 2016.

Also important: how do you feel about the SpongeBob Squarepants movie? Still good?

Rented it in order to confidently answer this question: it’s still good.

If this book hits, do you have a Sophomore Year in you? Or was Freshman year so impactful because it was the time you were figuring everything out?

Sophomore Year would not make a very good book, but I’d be down for a Seventh or Eighth Grade! If you haven’t gotten enough of college, you should read The Idiot and Either/Or by Elif Batuman, she nails it.

Freshman Year is in bookstores everywhere now from Christy Ottaviano Books.

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