Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. Photo by A. Currell
Even if you haven’t read Please Kill Me, you’ve probably seen its black-and-red ransom-note logo on even the most shallow of bookshelves, crammed between between unread copies of Infinite Jest and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s become so much a part of the punk zeitgeist that your aunt might have bought it for you when you turned 16.
Like the punk rockers it covers, it's a part of most kids’ educations, along with the Velvet Underground, David Lynch, and trying weed for the first time. The book is a collection of conversations with pop’s great nihilists: Iggy Pop, the Ramones, and Malcolm McLaren are interviewed in the oral history format pioneered by Studs Terkel back in the 1970s. It was edited by the duo of Gillian McCain and VICE columnist Legs McNeil. They haven’t collaborated since, but last week they dropped Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose, their first book in 18 years.
Gillian with a first-edition copy
Dear Nobody is a collection of Mary's real-life journal entries. The book works as a posthumous memoir of a troubled teenager who died in 1999 of cystic fibrosis at the age of 17. It documents the staid ennui of small-town life, punctuated by violent stints of drug abuse, rape, and alcoholism. The book also features Mary's sometimes chilling artwork, which conveys the tumultuous inner life of a teenage alcoholic. It came out last week through Source Books (you can grab a copy right here). I edit Legs' Please Kill Me column for VICE, so it was relatively easy to wrangle him and Gillian into the office to discuss their approach to oral history, Mary Rose, and why young parents should recommend this death diary to their tweens.
VICE: Hey guys. To begin, can you tell me a bit about your standards for oral history?
Legs McNeil: We decided on this very early on—no “I remembers.” We try hard not to draw our own conclusions from interviews or journal entries. In the editing process, we often cut two conflicting memories together, and that’s fine. A book like Please Kill Me, where the drinking and drugging and sex starts up so fun, but then becomes more and more deadly, we just kept moving forward. Neither of us ever said “hey, pull back, maybe this isn’t a good idea.” We just keep going. As a reader, and in everyone’s subconscious, you have to decided at a certain point.
Gillian McCain: Often, our research is based on misremembering. We tried hard not to put our personal bias in there. We only had one bias, and that was that punk rock started in New York, not in the UK. That was our only agenda when we started.
How did you originally come together and decide to work together?
Well, we dated for a year.
Legs: A year? It felt like two weeks!
Gillian: Oh, thanks a lot! Well, we became good friends after that. We’d start working on stuff, like screenplays for fun. Legs would egg me on and taunt me, saying I’d end up going back to Canada and writing greeting cards unless I pushed myself harder.
Was your creative process the same for Dear Nobody?
It’s exactly the same. He works on structure and I handle the poetic touches and editing.
Legs: It’s more than that. Like you, Ben, you’re my editor for my VICE column, and when my copy comes in, it’s so sloppy because I’m used to her. She maintains the voice. Every time I change anything, like a tense or a word, Gillian goes back and inspects it. I can’t do what she does, and she can’t do what I do.
Artwork by Mary Rose
So what compelled you to collaborate on a new project after 18 years?
Gillian: Well, I got over my PTSD from Please Kill Me. [laughs] It’s a girl’s expository writings, diary type of things. She wrote rambling stuff about her life—essays, fiction, and poetry, just like any teenager. And the writing is funny and witty and intense and well-written. It’s really lucky that we found her.
How did you find her writing?
Legs: I live right across the street from a post office, and I became friends with the post master a few years ago. He’s in a heavy metal cover band, and I’d see him on the weekends. I once asked him what he was reading, and he told me the best thing he ever read were the journals of his best friend’s older sister, who dies of cystic fibrosis in 1999. This piqued my interest, because I’d read Go Ask Alice when I was 11 or something, and I knew the whole thing was a total hoax. This really pissed me off, and I’ve been looking for the real Go Ask Alice ever since. So when I finally got Mary's diary, it wasn’t really a diary—these were journals and notebooks.
What form did the source material come in?
Gillian: 600 pages of notebooks, and some letters. And really bad fiction.
A page from Mary Rose's diary
Can you walk me through her life?
The first line of the journal is “Today I got arrested. I hate saying that, but it happens.” From there it follows her as she moves to a new towns, gets involved, makes friends. Everyone is sort of creepy, and she starts taking drugs. She ODs and goes to rehab, ends up writing about her alcoholism, rape, various crushes. It’s really compelling stuff. And she never really talks about her cystic fibrosis. At times she’s really bratty, and you have to remember she’s a teenager. On one page she’ll be dead on, and you’ll think she’s brilliant, and the next she’s just an idiot. It’s those contradictions that show was a teenager really is.
It’s interesting that this is being marketed as a young adult book, because I don’t know any parents who would recommend their kids read a book about a drug-addled, unrepentant teen. Why would you recommend this book for kids?
Legs: Because it’s not bullshit. There’s no moral tale here. It leaves all of these issues open for discussion. If you’re in the kind of family that actually talks about your problems, this book will facilitate those conversations.
What did you guys learn from reading Mary's diaries?
I live a pretty rarified life, and I think Gillian does too. People forget that girls like Mary are much more common than we realize. This is the real world, outside of New York or LA. These are the teenagers we’re surrounded by. For me, it’s nice to remember that people have really fucked up lives.
Gillian: That’s nice to be reminded?
Legs: Yes. I’m very lucky, and Mary's journals gave me a reason to be grateful.