Tonight at IFC Center, Alena Smith (writer for The Newsroom) will present the Peter Bogdanovich Depression-set classic, Paper Moon. She’ll also read from her new comic novel, Tween Hobo: Off the Rails, based on the Twitter character @tweenhobo. This melds the humor of anti-capitalist hobo romanticism (seen in movies like the hobo musical, Hallelejah, I’m a Bum! and many Joan Blondell movies) with the current capitalist marketing creation of the “tween.” I’ll be doing a Q&A after the film with Alena, and in anticipation of that, she answered a few questions about her new book.
The L: So first of all, where did the concept of tween come from? It’s a fairly recent invention, right?
Smith: Do you mean the concept of a tween in general or the concept of tween hobo?
The L: Tween. I hear Disney invented it!
Smith: [laughs] I don’t know exactly where it came from, but I’m pretty sure the term did not exist when I (we) were tweens. It feels very millennial to me somehow. The focus in the 90s was much more on TEENS. Now nobody talks about teens. Teens are old news.
The L: Ah, so “old hobos” grew up fast? (That comes up in your book a lot. Tell me, what those are.)
Smith: Tween Hobo’s friends on the road are a bunch of guys (and a couple gals) who she calls “the old hobos.” They are mostly in their late 20s/early 30s, which means they remember a time before the internet and social media, which for tween hobo might as well be the Great Depression, it seems so long ago.
The L: Is that why did you put this idea of the Depression era “hobo” with concept for the “tween?”
Smith: Well, I think the dissonance between “Tween” and “Hobo” operates on many levels, not least of which is the fact that a “Tween” is entirely a marketing contrivance, a way of selling stuff to kids with expendable income and indulgent parents, whereas a Hobo is a person who lives outside of the capitalist system, and who relies on nobody but himself. A Hobo is a kind of spiritual being, whereas a Tween is a materialistic being.
The L: And so from that comic dissonance, it’s evolved into a genuine character. (She gives perfect, inane award show live tweets!) How did the character evolve?
Smith: At first the character was really no more than a series of one-liners, pretty straightforward mashups of “hobo stuff” and “tween stuff.” But over time as I gained followers on Twitter the conversation naturally grew more complex. Tween Hobo grew as her audience grew—it was really a kind of performance piece, live, interactive, and improvisational. Then I took a big leap forward with the character when I started developing an idea for a Tween Hobo television show with B.J. Novak from The Office (who I’d met on Twitter). We came up with a fleshed-out backstory and set of real, grounded emotional needs and goals for the character. This served me well when I ultimately adapted the Twitter account into a novel. I relied on the character work that I’d done with B.J. and also delved much more deeply into “hobo literature,” like Kerouac and Steinbeck and books like Boxcar Bertha.
The L: So you turned the book even further into a real comic novel. Part adventure, part YA parody, part lifestyle guide… Or how would you describe it?
Smith: I describe it as On the Road written by a contemporary 12-year-old with an iPhone.
But I like your description, too.
The L: iPhone literature!
Smith: The book is a diary of Tween Hobo’s first year out on the road. It’s a record of her immediate experience, and also includes photographs, drawings, lists, how-tos, and tons and tons of jokes. But there’s a real serious story in there as well.
The L: And now that we’re moving past the worst of the recession (hopefully) and also long past Justin Bieber’s innocence, she’s become a bit of a time capsule for the last few years. Do you see her evolving to One Direction and Kim K games, or does she stay in 2011 forever?
Smith: That’s a great question. There’s new interest in adapting Tween Hobo into an animated TV show, and I imagine in order for that show to work she’ll have to evolve with the times. I just learned about something called “finger lights” that apparently the kids are into. Have to do some googling.
But the book will certainly continue to serve as a time capsule, and as evidence of how quickly culture moves and evaporates.
The L: Do Tweens rule the internet? I feel like they’re better at it then any of us. (Are we all living in the tweens’ world?)
Smith: I have no idea if Tweens rule the internet. Maybe Tweens are returning to playing with sticks and hoops outside. I’ve heard the internet is over.
The L: And did you have Paper Moon in mind, either for the character or the book? Or did you notice that connection later?
Smith: I have only seen Paper Moon once and it made a huge impression on me. (However I have seen Bad News Bears about five million times.) Tatum O’Neal is just the consummate badass kid. It’s so cool that she’s a girl and she gives no fucks. That’s the ultimate spirit of Tween Hobo.