The Diary of a
Teenage Girl

A largely autobiographical graphic novel written by Phoebe Gloeckner, The Diary of a Teenage Girl follows 15-year-old Minnie Goetze’s exploration of drugs and sexuality in San Francisco during the 1970s, as told through her own diary entries. The 2015 film of the same name is based on the graphic novel, and written and directed by Marielle Heller. The film stars Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgård and Bel Powley and premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

A cartoonist and novelist, Phoebe Gloeckner’s works include graphic novels Diary of a Teenage Girl and A Child’s Life and Other Stories, among others. Noted for their explicit content, Gloeckner’s works do not shy away from depictions of sex, drug use and childhood trauma. Her style features a unique combination of prose, illustration and short comics. Gloeckner teaches at the University of Michigan and lives in Ann Arbor with her family.

Marielle Heller
A writer, director and actress, Marielle Heller played the role of Minnie in her theater adaptation of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and later wrote and directed the 2015 film adaptation. Heller has been honored with both the Lynn Auerbach Screenwriting Fellowship and the Maryland Film Festival Fellowship.

A British actress known for her roles in M.I. High, and Side by Side, Bel Powley plays Minnie, the protagonist in the 2015 film adaptation of The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 graphic novel, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, began in her own confused adolescence. As a fifteen-year-old who hated school, loved to draw and needed an escape, Gloeckner threw herself into the seedy, drug-fueled chaos of 1970s San Francisco. These experiences are distilled into Minnie Goetze, a teenage alter-ego rendered in explicit black & white comics which narrate a year of her life. Minnie’s diary is dark, disturbing and incisive as she experiments with drugs and sexuality—often using her body to win drugs and affection from the morally ambiguous characters who alternately care for and exploit her.

As Gloeckner wrote in a 2003 Issue feature, “So, yes, I was a teenage girl once, and I ran away from time to time, and cried and laughed, and loved and despised myself and everyone else concurrently.” It’s this story—one for anyone who’s ever grappled with sexuality and self worth in an often cruel wider world—that stuck in Marielle Heller’s mind. A playwright and actor, Heller identified so strongly with The Diary of a Teenage Girl that she adapted it to theater and played the role of Minnie herself. Now, years later, she has adapted it again into a screenplay and cast British actor Bel Powley in the role of Minnie. The film, which centers on the story of Minnie’s affair with her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), won the Cinematography Award and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance.

So here we interview a cast of Minnies—Gloeckner, Heller and Powley—three incarnations of a character who lived first by the pen, then the stage and the screen, accompanied by an excerpt from Gloeckner’s book, The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

›› Jump to interview with Bel Powley & Marielle Heller
Holly Grigg-Spall: What was it like to see Marielle play Minnie/you in the play?

Phoebe Gloeckner: It was amazing. But the strongest experience I had was at the read-through of the play before it was produced because initially Marielle asked to do a play of the book, and it seemed like such a ridiculous idea to me. Several people had already contacted me about making the film, and I hadn’t wanted to do that. I just told her to knock herself out on it. She invited me to the read-through. I was really actually frightened; I was afraid to see it. But when I did, it was really moving, and at some point I started crying. It was such a strange experience.

HGS: Do you describe the book as an autobiography or as a novel?

PG: It’s highly autobiographical if you want to compare the book to my life at that time. But I shy away from calling it autobiography because that term seems to negate the whole process. All writers write about their experience in one way or another. The process of making a novel is artifice. You’re taking one thing and changing it into something else entirely. Minnie is a character. I made myself this character. I don’t like to think of her as me, but she is me. She could be any girl, any person really. It’s not a document; it’s a novel. An autobiography is history and tells some kind of truth, but it’s always just one perspective. It’s complicated.

“It makes me feel a little weird to think
that people will be seeing the movie
with the perspective of it being
about empowering female sexuality.”
— Phoebe Gloeckner

HGS: How did Marielle explain why she particularly connected to this character of Minnie?

PG: She found it honest and she related to it. My goal as a writer is to be perfectly honest. In the end, though, once any creative work is out in the world, the author is not that important—what’s important is the relationship between the consumer and the creative work. They make connections between it and their own lives, unless they don’t. A lot of people will be able to relate to any truly honest piece of work because it’s not about a specific person; it’s about being human. People often write to me saying they never experienced anything Minnie experiences, but they say, “I am Minnie!” That’s what I had hoped and intended.

HGS: What are your thoughts about Marielle’s theater performance of Minnie compared to Bel’s performance of Minnie?

PG: When Marielle played the part, she was in her late 20s. Bel is in her early 20s and closer to being a teenager. Marielle almost played Minnie in a funnier way and a more innocent way. I think Minnie could be taken out of that book and put at any place in time. People have remarked that it’s so typical of 1970s San Francisco, but the truth is this can happen at any time. There are millions of girls like Minnie; we just don’t happen to hear their voices. Narratives about teen girls are often written by men.

HGS: Did you work with Bel directly?

A Swedish actor known for playing vampire Eric Northman in the series True Blood as well as his role in the HBO miniseries Generation Kill. Skarsgård has appeared in Zoolander, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and plays Monroe in the film adaptation The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

PG: I met Bel on set plenty of times. Maybe it’s my own interpretation, but I felt she was somewhat intimidated by me. It must be strange to play a character, then see the real person who is that character in front of you. Marielle didn’t have me on set for Bel’s scenes because Bel would become self-conscious.

HGS: Did you talk with Alexander Skarsgård about Monroe?

PG: Yes, he was asking about the character’s motivations; he was interested in what happened to this guy and what he’s doing now. He played it wonderfully, but the character was not part of him, and he couldn’t relate to it entirely. So he really wanted to know, like, what the hell?