Pull out your old Streetcar Named Desire notes, my friends.
Despite the hype, I actually heard about this book because I knew author Nicole Kronzer personally. I didn’t remember what the book was about until I received it in the mail. During my senior year of high school in 2017, I was in both Kronzer’s creative writing and English class. It wasn’t until after I read all of Unscripted that I realized how much my class made an impact in her book.
While I do remember her coming into class some mornings super excited to update us on the progress of her book and revision sessions with fellow author Nina LaCour and final drafts, I had no clue she was in the middle of creating such a masterpiece.
If you’re a big fan of books like We Were Liars or Paper Towns, I would HIGHLY recommend Unscripted. I don’t say this just because I’m a previous student of Nicole; I genuinely loved the book. Most books, even the ones I thoroughly enjoy, take me a while to read. With this one, however, I found myself eager to know what happens next, which is the BEST feeling to have when reading a book.
Unscripted takes place in Colorado, but the main characters are from Minnesota which gives the book a sense of home for any Minnesota-reader. A talented young girl, Zelda, goes to an improv camp with her brother, and despite it being her first year, she gets onto her dream varsity team. However, she is the only girl on the team. She finds herself not having fun and feeling marginalized by jokes told by the boys. On top of all this, the varsity team’s coach is making advancements on Zelda but will criticize every improv choice she makes in practice.
To say the least, while reading this book, I got so angry at some characters. This refers mainly to Ben, the coach that made advancements on Zelda.
There are different things to analyze in Unscripted, so I am just going to start with sections and look at questions I had reading alongside the author herself.
Natalie Tyler (NT): What inspired you to write this book?
Nicole Kronzer (NK): The experience of being the only woman on an improv team was one that was very real to me. Sometimes we get a couple of women, but we were always outnumbered. There was a “bro-culture” in a lot of the places that I worked. This is not an autobiography by any means, but the things that were said to Zelda in the book have been said to me and fellow women improvisers.
Nicole explained how guys in improv act as figures, like Abraham Lincoln, who don’t have any similar body type or correlation.
“But when they get to me, so many times they say Anna Nicole Smith.”
Smith was known for being in Playboy magazines. “Just because I was a girl and both our names were Nicole. It shows wher boys’ minds are at,” Kronzer said.
After five years enduring sexism, Kronzer no longer does improv.
“It wasn’t fun. And I think there are a lot of things that are better focused on women and non-binary folks, and that’s so awesome. But I had a wonderful college experience that made me love improv, it was Heaven,” she said.
The character of Ben in Unscripted first comes off as a charming young improv coach that looks like Thor in the Avengers. As a reader, you root for Ben at first; Kronzer does this intentionally, drawing you in until you slowly see his characteristics change into the antagonist mid-way through the novel. Most abusive scenes in Unscripted come from Ben. He will emotionally abuse Zelda by criticizing her improv in front of the varsity team and tell her how amazing she is when they’re alone. If boys call her “a little girl” (p. 73) or “kitty wants to fight” (p. 73), Ben said Zelda was over-exaggerating. Not responding to those comments was “owning her sexuality.” (p. 194)
Some guys have no idea these situations happen. Kronzer told me she was personally asked in-person by men, “Do guys really say things like Ben says?”
There was not a single woman who asked her if those things were really what guys said. It’s only men who ask, “is this believable or exaggerated?”
NK: To me, this shows that men protect other men. We can just extract this out. White people protect other white people from the things they say to people of color. When a person in a subordinate group speaks out and says “this is my experience,” it is the dominant group’s responsibility to listen and to believe them because they do not know. No one is good, to be quite frank. We are all a mix of good and bad choices, and good or bad beliefs.
Standing in Ben’s shoes was very difficult. He really does believe he’s doing the right thing. He believes he deserves Zelda. That he is better than she is. He believes these things, and he really does think, “you just need to get tougher, or own your sexuality.”
Unscripted had examples of sexual assault and emotional abuse. The protagonist Zelda went through a cycle she didn’t think could happen to her because she didn’t find herself attractive, just comical. I asked Nicole about this and the scene where Ben sexually assaulted Zelda by pinning her against a tree. Zelda pushed him off after unrequested advances, but he didn’t move for a while.
NK: Right before I started writing Unscripted, I had many students in class come to me; it was a slew of girls coming to me, telling me about their terrible boyfriends. They would say, “Well, we fight a lot, but you know, he apologizes the next day and says it will never happen again.” And I’m like that's emotional abuse. Or “He doesn’t really like me to hang out with my friends anymore, but it’s so good when it’s just the two of us together.” And I was like, you are in an abusive relationship! They just couldn’t see it! “No, no, no, that’s just something that happens to other people.” So, the book Unscripted is sort of the marriage of these two things: when the patriarchy with sexism gets in the way of pursuing your dreams and also this feeling that abuse is something that happens to other people; it cannot happen to you. I wanted to give Zelda the experience of not recognizing what was happening.
When you re-read, you can see the red flags in Ben’s character immediately. There is that cycle of abuse of apologizing back and forth. Finding his trajectory was different. I related it to Streetcar Named Desire, one of the books in our English class, and the characters Stella and Blanche go through this cycle of abuse. Sometimes I had to rewrite some scenes. Then Jesse wasn’t always supposed to be the love-interest, it was supposed to be Ricky, the quiet rock boy. There were three boy scouts: Ricky, Murph and Jesse. Ricky was the quiet one that never talks. But then I was like, how can I— he never talks [laughs]. But that was really, really early.
I wanted us to see how different the two relationships were: Zelda and Jesse vs. Zelda and Ben. When Jesse was angry at Zelda’s note of everything she went through, Zelda was smiling. Jesse asked why you are smiling, and Zelda said you believe me. He said everyone should believe you. He is the “superhero perfect” in the book.
NT: How did you get the idea of turning the first bad kiss between Zelda and Ben into a possible improv scene and reading it with the varsity team in front of Zelda for the contest?
NK: I—I don’t know how I did that. I—I think the idea of abusers trying to stay one step ahead. I think he sees himself as self-protecting. He knows based on her reaction it wasn’t a welcoming kiss. Then when he said his dad died… I don’t know if that’s true. He might be lying. I don’t know if his dad died, or if he just wants sympathy. My editor thought he was lying, but when I asked my agent, she said, “oh I thought he was telling the truth. It works either way.” I’m not coming down to say whether his dad died or not. Abuse is a cycle, so I think maybe these sorts of things happened to him. I kept thinking of the character Stanley from the Streetcar Named Desire because Ben gaslights just like him.
A lot of us women have been in that situation. At that point in the book [Tree-scene] people have told me they needed to put the book down. I hope my book helps with people to show they’re not alone, nor feeling like they are dramatic.
I need to tell you a story about my kid! I think she turned nine, and I went on Facebook and said “hey former students, where should my kid get her ears pierced? And everyone said St. Sabrina’s in Minneapolis. We get there, and the first thing—the person at the counter does not gender my child until I said she. They didn’t assume, you know. I was very impressed, and then it was two appointments because first, they talk through what's going to happen, and then you come back for your actual appointment. So, here’s my nine-year-old, right? She gets up in this room, I’m there too, and the guy that’s going to pierce her ears. He introduces himself, and says, if at any point you decide you don’t want to do this anymore, you get to say I don’t want to do this anymore because it’s your body and you always get to be in charge of your body. And I was like crying! Like “oh my god, the ear piercer is teaching my nine-year-old about consent! She is getting this incredible lesson on consent.” Shout out to Wes at St. Sabrina’s!
Nicole Kronzer (NK): It was really important to me. I teach at a super diverse school, so it was important to me that I wasn’t just representing kids who looked like me. But I also wanted to acknowledge that I do not have the experience and the boots on the ground of being a person of color. I cannot write this story from the point of view of a person of color. While Zelda’s path is very difficult, she is still white. There are two black characters on varsity and Zelda overhears a racist comment from them. She’s like “oh my gosh, I’ve been so focused on myself; I haven’t heard the other things going on.” I wanted to be able to acknowledge the complication for white women: sexism is real, but we still have the privilege of being white. There is power that comes from that.
Jesse has dark skin, and he could be mixed. He was adopted by a lesbian couple in St. Louis Park. This sounds crazy, but characters sometimes close doors to you, and Jesse hasn’t told me about his birth parents. He is very happy with his sister, Micky, and his moms.
In addition, Kronzer also represents gay and lesbian couples, which I LOVED. Even though these relationships aren’t the main focus, they are still in the book and represented in this world. Emily and Sirena’s relationship parallels Will’s and Jonas’s: healthy. Will wasn’t sure if he wanted to be “out” at the camp even though the two were official in the hometown. I asked Kronzer to go over this point to clarify its significance.
NK: When you’re LQBT+, you don’t come out just once, right? You come out with every single person you meet. When Zelda forgets the first day at the camp, Will says, “hold on, we’re not out here yet.” I wanted to recognize that. Emily and Sirena went through many revisions in their story. In the first version Emily is in love with Sirena, but Sirena doesn’t realize that’s what’s going on. She was like “oh, but I’m not gay.” I just wanted to have some gay joy.
Emily and Sirena’s relationship represents a feeling from Elephant and Piggie, where just because you have anxiety doesn’t mean you’re unlovable. I mean, Sirena loves Emily, including her struggle with anxiety and panic attacks. Emily saves the day with it, actually, by convincing Ben to leave to get her menstrual products.
After a while of the abusive cycle, Zelda felt confident enough to tell the camp counselors what was happening. Of course, the counselors are white men that don’t believe Zelda and even defend Ben, telling Zelda to slap him if he couldn’t control himself. Ben was ahead and told the counselors she possessed a “crush” on him. Once, Zelda actually slaps him, Zelda is kicked out of the camp because it went against the no violence policy code the camp had. When the counselors finally acknowledged Zelda’s abuse, they cared more about the camp’s reputation instead of her safety. The two counselors begged Zelda not to press charges.
NK: It’s all of logic. It’s fiction, but all believable because those types of things have happened. It was very believable to me that Ben would try to get ahead of the story. “You know, this might happen, it's not a big deal though.” And keep in mind, when I wrote this story, the movement #MeToo was not a thing yet. I had to dial back that scene with Paul and Zelda because it used to be more blatant. Then with the #MeToo movement, I was with my editor, and “you know, even for Paul this is tone-deaf.” But things have happened since then, people are more aware. There is progress, but I would like more progress please [Laughs].
“There is a lot of shame that comes with abuse, and shame grows, but shame wants you to be quiet. The minute you verbalize these things that make you feel shameful, it dissipates.” – NK
In Unscripted, readers also sense good long-lasting friendships between characters that bring a sense of positivity.
NK: All you need is one person. That’s what the Gildas represent: a group of friends to notice the gaslighting. The Pacific Whale Coast sounds become a call-back joke throughout the book too. Originally, it was just a mix-tape, but my editor said we had to know what was on the tape. “Is there something funny it can be?” And I suggested whale sounds, and she said “sure.” [laughs] It became this small layer way later in the revisions.
There was also a scene I had where Zelda was reading the part of Streetcar Named Desire and this was when she figured out what was happening to her. My editor said this part feels like an English teacher wrote it, and I was like, guilty. So, she made me change it. It helped Zelda realize she was in an abusive relationship. Now it’s the scene where she goes to the bonfire, the fifth or sixth version of that same scene.
NK: I hope my book does something. This book isn’t just for girls. I’ve had 11-year-old boys read it and go, “This is so good!” I like to think Zelda is a smarter and wittier version of me. When I describe this book to others, I say it’s funny and scary.
NT: Do you see yourself writing a sequel? Movie?
Nicole Kronzer (NK): I don’t know. I’m not opposed, but I don’t know what that story is. Maybe Nina Knightley buys the camp? I don’t know, like does Zelda go…? Just the Gildas? But then you have to give them a problem, and I’m just so happy with them now. I haven’t even thought about a main character for a movie. What a fun idea!
NT: What is your next book?
NK: My next book is called The Roof Over Our Heads in the spring of 2022, with my same publisher, Abrams, the people who published Diary of a Wimpy Kid. So, this book is another contemporary YA from the POV of a boy whose family lives in a historical mansion based on the James J. Hill House. They live in only one of the wings and let others pretend they’re living in the Victorian Era. A theatre owns the house but wants to sell it. Hence— the protagonist tries to raise money to save the house.
NT: Thank you for letting me interview you! I appreciate your time!
Nicole Kronzer (NK): Yes, we’ll stay in touch!