A Q&A With Rookie Mag’s Tavi Gevinson

Tavi GevinsonPhoto by Larry Busacca/Getty Images

You know that episode of Bob’s Burgers where Louise says it’s creepy that her dad’s role model, pitcher Torpedo Jones, is the same age as he is? Tavi Gevinson is my Torpedo Jones. (Actually, since I’m 24 and she’s 19, I guess I’m even creepier than Bob.)

Gevinson founded Rookie, an online magazine for teen girls that covers everything from fashion to art to music to feminism, when she was just 15 years old. She’s an actress, a singer and an incredibly thoughtful writer, and I’m fairly certain my confidence and sense of self would have been much stronger if her publication had existed when I was navigating my uncomfortable, gawky, emo-kid years. I admire the hell out of her.

Harvard Book Store and Girls Rock Campaign Boston are bringing Gevinson to the Brattle Theatre next week to talk about Rookie Yearbook Four, the final annual collection of the coolest content from the Rookie site. Scout caught up with her before the event to talk growing up, staying focused on the fun stuff and setting houses on fire in the name of friendship.

Scout Cambridge (SC): It feels weird to begin this interview with a question about endings, but I am curious about the fact that this is the final installment in the Rookie Yearbook series. Why did you decide to wrap up this collection after four editions? Did knowing that this was the last yearbook make it harder to put together?

Tavi Gevinson (TG): I decided early on that there would be one for each year of high school in keeping with the yearbook spirit, though of course now whenever anything great goes up on the site (which is all the time), I agonize over whether we’ll be able to make it live on in print without a fifth Yearbook. It was harder to put it together for that reason, and it was tempting to go back through the first three years and choose anything that might have been overlooked when we chose the pieces for the first three yearbooks and to fit all that in, too. It’s mildly torturous making these kinds of decisions about the range of work that’s been on Rookie, because readers have their favorites, and I have the ones I felt particularly connected to, and all of that. It’s amazing how clear it becomes, though, in the larger scope of making a book and going for a sense of equilibrium in the subject matter and types of pieces, and then it’s easier to be more critical, knowing all these technical factors are at work.

SC: I’m not sure how true this is, but from the outside, it looks like you really dedicate most of your time to Rookie—like this is your life. I think something that many writers and editors (myself included) struggle with is staying enthusiastic about the work when it can be so time-consuming and stressful. How do you balance your passion for Rookie with the day-to-day drudgery and stress that comes with running a magazine?

TG: It helps that we have such passionate contributors and readers. It’d be pretty hard to detach from that and let stress win out. But I try to pay attention to how I’m feeling, and if I notice that for a few days I’ve been pretty exhausted, I have to make a change somewhere and be realistic about capping work off where it feels right for me. Listening to those needs is important, not just for my own health, but also to the work. Editing people who’ve basically handed their hearts over and listening to very thoughtful, caring readers—it would be so unpleasant to try and half-ass any of that stuff. You can’t properly pay attention to other people if your own needs are not met.

I also used to really resent the drudgery and the tedious parts of running a business, because it’s less fun and less creative and fits less with the kind of work I like to do. Then I started reminding myself that the drudgery doesn’t detract from the fun stuff, it enables you to do even MORE of the fun stuff. Even if it’s not the same as the creative, emotional work that goes into Rookie, it goes toward the same mission. All these little tasks and engagements add up to Rookie having more possibilities.

SC: Rookie is for teenage girls, and you’re almost 20—do you think that as you age the tone or voice of the site will change? Does this mean that you’ll pursue other projects?

TG: We have hundreds of contributors and thousands of readers, so it would feel wrong to shift something with a life of its own around my own life. I have creative outlets for processing experiences I go through that skew more “adult,” but I also think that the emotions of what I go through in New York aren’t that different from stuff that happened in high school! No one passes through a doorway and suddenly feels grown up and like they have it all figured out. I hope to never have everything figured out because then there’d be nothing to have to work through creatively. It’s so nice to live in the space of not knowing.

SC: I will say, I’m a 24-year-old myself and I read the site, and I know a lot of other olds who really like Rookie and admire you. Can you talk a little about what it’s like to be an inspiration for people who are older than you are? Is that weird for you?

TG: I have an unconventional life, but it’s not unconventional for me. In many of my relationships, professional and personal, lots of factors like age become artificial. I have friends who are way older and friends who are 13 and some went to Ivy League colleges and some dropped out of high school and some have office jobs and some do one weird project every three years. So a person is just a person and all the on-paper stuff does not apply. I feel the same way about readership as I do with these friendships. When the person, or the article, is in front of you, do you feel connected to it? That’s all that matters. I am deeply pleased that anyone with a beating heart is taken with Rookie, even if they are not the target audience.

SC: The October theme at Rookie is Glory, and I was particularly struck by this prompt: “What is the story you tell people over and over? Experiences that did not feel great or like the best day of your life but more emblematic of the many facets of human experience?” I’m curious how you would answer that.  

TG: Very good question. I can’t believe I wrote that without thinking about my own.

Okay. My group of friends in high school were all in the year just above me. So when they were seniors we all had this really emotional get-together to exchange gifts, give little speeches, just pay tribute to our shared love. One of our friends wrote a song about our group and performed it. Then we were all so controlled by our sentimentality that one of them had brought one of those giant paper lanterns that you send flying out into the sky, and it didn’t occur to us that you’re supposed to do them in large open fields, so we just ran out into the backyard squealing and lit it and sent it up. It hugged a pillar of a porch on the second-story of this house that was all, like, peeling paint. Then it drifted into the porch, and we realized what was going on. I was already taking a video of it. You hear all of our “awwws” turn to screams and then my friend’s dad comes out and we all had to leave because we had almost set their house on fire. In the name of friendship. And of not thinking things through.

SC: You wrote in the introduction to Yearbook Four that you couldn’t possibly choose your favorite pieces from this collection. But if you had to, like, had to because your life depended on it or because an annoying journalist decided to ask you about it, which one (or two, or five) stand out to you?

TG: Ahhh. Ok. Julianne Escobedo Shepherd’s interview with Danyel Smith holds the meaning of life. Dear Zayn, a handful of fans’ goodbye letters to Zayn from One Direction pulled together by Brodie Lancaster, says more about what he represents than any thinkpiece. We Followed the Sun by Chrissie White and Eleanor and Rachel Hardwick is a series of beautiful photos towards the end of the book that we had to carve out like 20 pages for in order to honor them properly. This isn’t including the print-only parts. Donna Tartt interviewed by Florence Welch, especially when she talks about clothes. Solange talking about trying to write the way she did when she was 15. The cut-out diorama. And little jewelry box. And stickers. Ok. I have to stop.

Sunday, October 25
Harvard Book Store and Girls Rock Campaign Boston Present Tavi Gevinson
11:30 a.m., $5
Brattle Theatre
40 Brattle St.