Tegan and Sara Criticize-and Come to Terms With-Their Past Selves
To write their new memoir, High School, Sara Quin watched old VHS tapes, and Tegan revisited journals where she documented her first love. "We started as dirtbags taking drugs, and we ended with a record deal," says Tegan. "It's a redemption story."
The inspiration for a memoir more or less popped into Sara Quin's head fully formed. "Sara was like, we should write about high school," Tegan Quin, her twin sister, told me in early September, about a month before their book, High School, out tomorrow from MCD, was slated for release. "We started as dirtbags taking drugs, and we ended with a record deal. It's a redemption story." Moreover, they felt, it was a story that was underrepresented. "We don't often hear young women's stories," Tegan said. "We don't often hear from women in the music business. We don't often hear queer voices tell stories. I think the more we wrote the more we were like, Christ, this story really needs to get told. Iconic musicians Tegan and Sara weren't always icons, or rockstars, or musicians, or successful, or happy, or out."
So, iconic musicians Tegan and Sara began to put together the story of their high school experience in suburban Calgary as told in chunks: grades 10, 11, and 12. They mined old photos and VHS tapes of songs they wrote and recorded as teenagers. They asked high school friends, many of whom they're still close with, for interviews and input. (One friend contributed more than 50 notes they'd passed back and forth.) Sara took up residence at a local library in L.A. "I went five days a week for seven or eight months," she told me. "I was joking with my girlfriend that I'm going to get the security-camera footage to prove that we didn't use a ghostwriter. It's just me every day walking through the library and sitting down."
For two musicians who carry out their creative process largely in solitude, book writing came naturally. (It wasn't, they told me, much different from songwriting. Tegan frequently read portions of the text out loud. Sara kept a file folder for each grade full of distinct stories, just like she keeps a folder full of songs in progress.) The result is a first-person memoir that alternates between both sisters' perspectives, hurling the reader back into the past with stories so excruciating and immediate that they could only have occurred in high school. It's anchored by friendships, which bleed into agonized romances as both sisters wrestle with their queerness. It's punctuated by acid trips, sneaking out to raves, horrendous fights with parents and each other. It's a book that, like their music, makes a reader feel almost too much-which is also just enough. Here, Tegan and Sara discuss queer narratives, dropping acid, and revisiting their teenage selves.On their writing process
Sara Quin: I would go [to the library] every day around 9. And I would write there until 6 or 7 at night. I was very disciplined about it. In general I have no story that involves me saying, I sat down and I wrote "Born in the USA." It took seven minutes, and it was my biggest hit. I have a story that usually involves painstaking editing and revision, and self-loathing, and self-doubt. [With the book] it wasn't like I had to become a gymnast and I was like, how does one become a gymnast? I'm a writer-I already write. I just had to apply it to something that wasn't musical. The library was the new thing for me. At home I was like, maybe I'll do the dishwasher. What's the cat doing? With music you can put headphones on and block everything out. But I needed to go to the library and be around other people behaving and performing the thing I wanted to perform-to be like, I'm a writer also, hello.
Tegan Quin: There are so many rules to writing. But there are so many rules to music. And I don't know the rules to either. And I don't care.On revisiting their high school selves
Sara: One of the most effective things for me was watching VHS tapes of ourselves in high school. You know when you smell something you haven't smelled in a long time and you're immediately flooded with memory and point of view? Seeing myself as a teenager felt transformative. It reminded me to dial back the adult perspective I was adding to the book-to allow myself to be that smart-mouth, insecure, less media-trained version of myself. At first I really didn't like myself. That was a bit of a lightning-bolt moment for me; I wanted people to attach to us, but I didn't always want to be likable. Because I wasn't. I was difficult and selfish. As a teenager, this moment, this girl, this thing, was the most important thing. And then a month later, it was dead to me.
It took me a minute to remember that version of myself. I went through stages of disgust, and hatred, and self-loathing, and grief, and feeling empathy. And then at some point I was like, I really miss young me. And I was happy that I could hang out with them for a year. Not to be cheesy, but young me is still here. And they've been duct-taped across the mouth for a long time. Now I can actually feel younger me: compulsive, or fearful, or overconfident. All those traits, those little idiosyncrasies, I think that's young me coming out. I kind of like it.
Tegan: My best friend, Alex, kept two journals that we shared in grades 11 and 12. That was really helpful, especially for the timeline. I pulled a lot of our dialogue from there. I first revisited those journals in 2006, when I was 26 and going through a bad breakup. I was really sad, really lonely. We were writing The Con. I flew through Calgary, where we grew up, and she gave me one of the journals. Seeing it blew my fucking mind. I was like, Holy crap. I'm not different at all.
The journal between me and Alex as we fell in love and got together was profound to read at 26 because at that point, I had only ever fallen in love twice. Once was documented in that book. For me what's important and passionate and exciting about the journal is the love-falling in love and taking a risk. It gave me so much hope. I was like, Oh, my God, I'm going to fall in love again. I'm going to fall in love more than once. It's such a great feeling.
That's how I felt when I started writing our story again. I called her and asked permission to tell our story. And she was like, Sure; I think that's important. I'm so glad I wrote it all out. It's embarrassing and ridiculous, my handwriting is terrible, and my spelling is awful. But just pulsing through it is the idea that the whole world is amazing.
Sara: [The process] was extremely, extremely uncomfortable. At times I suffered a tremendous amount of grief about the version of myself in high school that was so traumatized, so isolated, really struggling with a secret. Not just struggling with it; I carried it through my childhood into my adolescence. And it was becoming a bigger and bigger boulder to push. I forgot how impacted by those experiences and those feelings I had been. And I realized that I was still suffering [from] those scars.
Tegan: Going back, one thing that struck me was how lonely I was. I think [recognizing that answered] questions like, Why were we taking so many drugs and getting wasted? Why was I listening to Nirvana so loud all the time? Why did I remove all the normal light bulbs and replace them with black lights? I think part of the answer is that I was just disconnected and alone. That was the other self that I found.On their past drug use
Sara: I'm interested in drilling down and looking at why we were doing drugs. I wasn't doing it because all the cool kids were doing drugs, or because I want to piss off my parents and teachers. I was self-medicating. I was afraid, and traumatized, and scared, and bored, and unrealized, and unseen, and unsupervised. And I coped by changing my state of mind. I don't want to trivialize or glamorize drug use; I want to talk about the bigger narrative around especially queer people who do drugs and drink and have addiction issues and substance abuse problems at a higher rate than their heterosexual peers. Why did I do that? Why did I feel compelled to get fucked up at 14? What was going on with me? That was interesting for me to look at.
Tegan: Sara is right-there's a fine line between glamorizing drug use and demonizing it. But part of me is like, drugs got us talking and feeling and thinking outside the box. They made me and Sara different, and therefore more and more comfortable with the idea of being different. I think drugs were necessary for part of our brains to go, It's okay. You're weird. Everyone else is boring.On the importance of queer stories
Sara: As an adult who is making art and who is "other" in a bunch of ways, I do feel it's important for me to highlight my differences. I was basically an awkward, nerdy teenage boy who liked girls. Except, whoops, I'm a girl. And I think it's an important narrative.
I say every queer should flood the market with their story. Let's hear it. How did you come out? What was your first sexual experience? What were your favorite bands? No straight person is like, who needs to hear more about straight people? So why can't gay people just be like, My story seems pretty goddamn interesting. Let's put it out there.This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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