Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill is a signature sound of the ’90s. The popular album arrived in 1995, and then in late 2019, a musical adaptation of the album hit Broadway. The album and the play have garnered multiple Grammy and Tony awards. And now, the story has a new form with Jagged Little Pill: The Novel. The book from Eric Smith, Alanis Morissette, and Diablo Cody brings the events of the musical to the page in an emotional story. And Nerdist has an exclusive excerpt from the upcoming book.
Jagged Little Pill: The Novel follows the intertwining lives of five teens whose worlds are changed forever after the events at a party. We spend time with Frankie, Jo, Phoenix, Bella, and Nick. Each of the teenagers is trying to find their way through high school through myriad struggles. The story is full of angst, emotion, and trauma, yes, but also healing and connection.
Smith told Nerdist about some of the challenges in adapting the musical for the page. He said, “There were some significant challenges. In the musical, you could easily argue that Mary Anne (MJ), the mother of two of the teenagers in the book (Frankie and Nick), is the show’s main character. So much of the story revolves around her and the decisions she makes, and how a lot of those choices ripple through her family life and the greater community outside her home. But for the YA novel, the book had to focus on the teenagers. After all, most YA is about the journey of the teen characters, and follows that coming-of-age arc. So in working the show into a YA novel, I had to take one of the show’s central characters and put her more in the background, while zooming in on the teenagers.”
He noted you still get MJ’s story, but it’s more through the eyes of her kids. Smith also had to find a way to expand the stories of the other characters who don’t have larger roles in the show, “That part, that part was a lot of fun,” Smith said. “Phoenix’s story in the musical doesn’t feature a lot of his backstory, we don’t really get to know his family, his big reasons for moving, how he’s really feeling and who is missing. And with Bella, we don’t get to meet her family or see her supportive friends in the musical. Remember, a Broadway musical is what, two and a half hours long? It’s hard to get that much backstory into something when you have so many characters.”
As he wrote, Smith listened to Morissette’s collected works again and again. He noted some songs from her other albums appear in the musical, so he found ways to put those back into the book. He listened to Broadway shows such as Heathers, Waitress, Once, and Spring Awakening as well. But, Smith said, “When it’s not Broadway musicals though, I tend to gravitate towards emotional punk and emo bands. They always make me feel like a teenager again, and I love being able to summon up those feelings when working on a YA novel. Definitely a lot of A Day to Remember (there’s a nod to them in the book), The Wonder Years, Mayday Parade, Neck Deep, and State Champs. I was also listening to The Maine and Something Corporate a lot. Something about piano driven punk and emo always gets me.”
Of the teens in the story, Smith found himself connecting most to Frankie. He said, “I was really drawn to Frankie’s character. A major theme in Jagged Little Pill is transracial adoption, and Frankie’s frustration surrounding identity and her family’s severe lack of being able to talk about that stuff, really resonated with my own life experience. It’s one of the many reasons I wanted to do this book. When you’re raised in an environment as a person of color where racism is never discussed and is awkwardly skirted around, it can be so wildly challenging. It can be really hard to find your voice when the people closest to you aren’t helping you with the words, you know? And getting to really dig into that with Frankie was important to me.”
In the following excerpt, Frankie and Phoenix have a soul-baring conversation. Things, perhaps, start to get complicated.
Chapter Six – Frankie
I hug my leather jacket close to me as Poston Park, a small patch of woods with a field and a playground near Andrew’s house, slowly comes into view. The modest mansions and sprawling driveways, the matching streetlamps and uniform trees, part ways for the last remaining holdout of nature in the suburban sprawl. The tips of the old pine trees peak into the sky like arrows, rising above us as we stroll up a hill.
“Oh, wow,” Phoenix says once we reach the top, the final crest revealing the woods. He’s been texting while we’ve walked on and off, the light from his phone illuminating his face. A large, elaborately painted sign with letters that look like they belong on a coffee shop blackboard or a fancy illustrated journal, reading Poston Park, sits at the entrance, a dirt path leading into the dark canopy. A catalog of don’t-do-this, don’t-do-that is posted alongside it. No drinking, no open flames, no ATVs . . . a list of exciting suggestions that no one likely even thinks of until they see the sign telling them not to do any of it.
I take my phone out, thinking of maybe lighting up the path with the flashlight, but it’s not too dark. The moon is bright enough, and the streetlamps that border the woods cast a light glow through the trees. Phoenix is staring at the sign and peering up at the canopy.
“Have you not seen the park yet?” I ask.
“No. Not really.” His eyes are wide in the dark. “I think we drove by here once or twice, but I didn’t realize it was, like, a proper wilderness.”
“Well, you’re not gonna find any deer in there.” I snort out a laugh. “Raccoons and chipmunks, mostly.”
“Still.” He gazes up toward the sky. “Pretty cool. Beautiful, even.” He looks back down at me, smiling, and I can feel the heat rising to my cheeks.
“Yeah, well.” I clear my throat and nod toward the path. “Come on, there’s a playground and a big field at the end of this.”
He hurries over and we walk into the woods. He stumbles a little on the dirt path, looking back down at his phone.
“Careful,” I say, scratching my foot against the ground. “It’s not exactly paved.”
“Yeah, I noticed that.” He laughs and then shivers a little. “Wow, it’s, like, wildly cold out here. You okay?”
“I’ll be fine.” For all the crap Mom gave me about dressing warmer and not as “provocative” or whatever, I’m doing pretty all right out here. The combination of my sweater and jacket has me feeling toasty, but Phoenix’s corduroy jacket doesn’t seem to be doing him many favors. “Are you?”
“Oh, I’ll tough it out.” He grins, glancing at me. The shadowed canopy stretches for a beat, just like the quiet between the two of us, but much like the atmosphere around us, it feels natural. Nice. Generally, in my home, silence means something is wrong. At least when my parents are shouting at each other, it’s like they are attempting to fix things. But when they walk around the house shrouded in quiet, a blend of sharp head turns and loud exhales, there’s a near-violent quality to the hush.
I remember last year when Nick got a B- in some class that didn’t matter—it might have even been gym—and Mom opted to give him the silent treatment for nearly a week. It drove him nuts, and I swear, I could hear him grinding his teeth through the wall between our rooms. She rambled about how his status at the top of his class was at risk, how could he get such a bad grade in such a simple class. She still brings it up sometimes, with him “only” being in the running to be salutatorian and not valedictorian.
Oh, Nick. I genuinely hope he has some fun tonight.
But this quiet . . . this kind of quiet is different. With a boy who smells like sandalwood and sends a blush screaming to my cheeks . . . this I like.
Though I don’t know how Jo would feel about this.
We’re not anything official; we haven’t even really talked about it. We’re just . . . best friends who make out and fool around and sleep together when our parents aren’t home sometimes? But even just thinking that, I know I’m lying to myself, and I should probably not be enjoying this moment in the pines with Phoenix as much as I am.
His fingertips brush against my hand, and he shirks away.
“Oh, sorry,” he says, a little breathless, like he’d thrown everything into that attempt and lost his nerve, like a runner taking off at the start of a race and deciding he wants to take a walk instead.
“It’s okay.” I let out a little laugh, a plume of cold air visible in front of me. That Connecticut winter is sneaking up on us, a drastic change from this morning. I debate reaching out and grabbing his hand myself, but then I think better of it. There’s Jo, still in the back of my mind.
And I only just met him.
But still . . . sometimes that’s all you need. A day. A moment. To feel and know something is there. And I just so desperately want to feel something, I don’t know, new. In the wake of everything with Mom, Dad, Nick . . . just something else that isn’t this constant soul suck. The end of the dirt path opens up to a large field, tucked away and hidden by the tall pine trees, and the air smells of the sharp, cold pine needles. The frozen grass crunches as we make our way across it. A couple of winter fireflies dart about in the chill, their lights soft and faded, and it makes me sad, thinking of how they’re still out here, doomed and looking for love.
Like the rest of us.
“Wow,” Phoenix murmurs, turning to look at the playground at the other end of the field. He stops walking and gazes at me, a mischievous smirk on his face.
“What?” I ask, searching his smile for an answer.
And he takes off running across the field.
I run after him, the crisp air slicing my cheeks like paper cuts, the dew-frozen grass sliding under my feet, threatening to send me reeling. I start to get a bit closer, and he turns for just a second, still flashing that smirk, and picks up a bit of speed, reaching the playground before me. He spins around, his arms out, looking so wildly satisfied with himself. I stop running and stroll the rest of the way there, and he cocks his head to the side, his expression impatient.
“Nice of you to join me.” He grins.
“You move fast.”
“I hope that’s okay.” His grin gets a little bigger, and I laugh, swatting at him. This boy. This boy is trouble, and I feel like he knows it. Which makes all this even worse. He carries all that charming danger like it’s part of his corduroy jacket, slung over his shoulders and just effortlessly there. And he absolutely sees it.
What must that feel like, walking through this world, feeling seen and knowing it?
I know Mom and Dad and Nick see me. I’m there. I’m not invisible. But even so, it doesn’t feel like they properly see me. Instead it’s more like . . . there are waves of heat in front of me on a summer day, making me blurry. I’m there, I’m present, but they aren’t catching any of the details. I’m different from them. I stand out in our family, and I wish instead of trying to fit me into the puzzle of their little suburban life, they’d recognize I need to stand out. Be my own person. That no matter how much Mom tries, I’m not going to be the blue-eyed, blond-haired white girl she wanted.
He walks over to a swing set and plops down on one of the swings, the chains rattling above him. The whole playground consists of equipment that, despite the opulence of the neighborhood, feels dated and dingy. I suppose that’s the plight of a playground in a town where everyone can fit their own in their yards. The paint on the swing set is faded and chipped away, silver metal glimmering through flakes of blue, and the playground itself has seen better days: slides with bits of graffiti, plastic explorable tubes that look like they’ve been wailed on by too many Wiffle ball bats, discarded cans and cheap beer bottles tucked away in the mulch surrounding it all.
Though I suppose all the signs of wear and tear are signs of being loved.
There are memories here, etched in the plastic, dug into the dirt, by hands big and small.
And I wonder what it is I’ll leave behind, when it’s finally my turn to say goodbye to places like this.
“So . . .” Phoenix says, as I sit next to him on the other swing. He pushes off the ground, his feet kicking the wood chips beneath him, the chains squeaking loudly. “Tell me your life story.”
I laugh, and his smile whooshes by me as he swings.
“I’m serious,” he says, digging his feet into the mulch as he comes back down, stopping. What’s your deal? Someone who writes the way you do . . . you’ve got to have lived a life that makes you want to tell a story. So. What is it?”
“I’m . . . not sure I’ve lived a story worth telling yet.” I laugh, twisting in the swing a little, the chains grinding together. “I’m trying, though. My life isn’t a finished novel.”
“Then read me the rough draft.”
Damn, Phoenix. I don’t even know what to say to that, so I just exhale, thinking.
“I mean, okay, to start, what’s the deal with your brother?” he asks, and with the way his eyes quickly look me over as he says it, I can feel the question coming. “Do you guys have . . . different . . .” He winces. “Okay, maybe I have no idea how to talk about that without sounding wildly rude or invasive.”
“I know what you’re trying to ask.” I sigh. “It’s fine. I’m adopted.”
“Oh!” he exclaims, taken aback. “I was kinda leaning toward separated parents or a blended family . . .” He glances up toward the field. “My dad left my mom not too long ago, when my sister started getting really sick, and my mind just kind of wanders there. To separating and divorce and all that fun stuff.”
“Sick?” I ask.
“Yeah. That’s why we’re here.” He looks at me, his expression a bit harder. “Turns out the hospital here in Greenport has the best facility for her, way better than back at home. I mean, there are good hospitals there, I’m not hating on my town, but . . . I don’t know. You know how you see commercials for, like, hospitals and institutions saying they have the best treatment in the country for this and that?”
“Sure.” I shrug.
“Well, this place is like that. They have those ads on television and at train stations and on billboards, like that’s what you want to think about while traveling.” He wrings his hands together and cracks his knuckles. “Anyway. It’s kind of a long-term treatment deal, so here we are.”
It’s hard not to notice that he hasn’t said just what it is his sister has, and I wonder if it’s one of those words you don’t say out loud. Like it gives it power or something, speaking whatever it is. When Mom’s oldest sister passed years ago, when Nick and I were in junior high, it was from cancer. And you just didn’t say the word around the house.
But that’s also my mom. The silent treatment whenever she’s upset about something or at someone. As though not talking is going to make it wither away. When in reality, her silent treatment when she’s upset at me or Nick only makes us wither. I think sometimes being quiet about something only makes it stronger. Builds resentment.
“So, is that your story?” I ask.
“Some of it, though it’s mostly my sister’s story,” he says. “Though when someone else’s story is that major a part of your life, it kinda becomes your story. Like you’re the side character.”
“Oof.” I puff out my cheeks and exhale.
“It’s just . . .” I sigh. “I get that. I mean, no one in my family is sick like that. It’s not”—I groan—“I don’t know, dire. I’m not sure how to talk about it without being insensitive.”
“No, it’s okay,” he presses. “Go on.”
“But you asked about my brother, right? He’s this . . . beacon of all that is good in my mom’s eyes, and I think my dad’s too, to some extent, though he doesn’t quite stress over it the way my mom does. Everything he does is perfect, and if it isn’t, they push him to be. So, the spotlight is always just zeroed in on him, and I’m off on the side, singing in the chorus.”
“How does he feel about that?” Phoenix asks.
I blink for a minute, looking down at the grass on the dark field. “I’m not sure.” I clear my throat. “It’s one of those things we don’t quite talk about.”
“Is there a lot your family just doesn’t talk about?”
For a second, I almost hold back my laugh, but it’s just him and this open field and the trees, so I let loose. I shake my head and grin at him.
“Plenty.” I chuckle. “We never talk about me being the adopted one. No one in my family does, even though when I walk in a room for a holiday get-together and a cousin has a new boyfriend or someone’s brought a pal from work, their eyes zip right to me. Like, who is this random Black kid? I’m convinced my mom or dad takes these people into a bathroom or a hallway and whispers my story to them, to try to stop the awkward looks from across the room, but who knows. It’s just this . . . elephant in the room, you know? My mom couldn’t get pregnant again, not after Nick, so I was brought into the picture.”
“Do you think your insecurity about your family life has to do with why you’re insecure about your writing?” he asks.
I stare at him. “Who are you?” I ask, laughing a little.
“My mom is a child psychologist,” he says. “It’s why we can afford to be here, for Ruby’s treatments, even if just barely. Definitely just barely.”
“I guess that explains why you’re good at asking questions like that.” I try not to scowl and look down into my hands. “But yeah, maybe. My parents aren’t super into the writing stuff. Well, Mom isn’t. Dad doesn’t say much.”
“That seems like a bit of a theme.”
“He tries.” I sigh. “My mom’s a bit overbearing. Takes the focus. That spotlight I was just talking about. Plus, he’s always at work. There’s only so much he can do, I think. And work is the one place where he can get away from her.”
“Well, don’t let them get in the way of your dreams.”
He gets up off the swing and walks around the swing set, cupping his hand around a metal bar and spinning around it. He smiles and walks over to me and gives me a little push on the swing. I close my eyes for a second, feeling the breeze in my hair, as I whoosh up and down, back and forth, mirroring the way my heart is feeling during this deep conversation.
“I get all of it, though,” he says, and with each little push, my shoulders are waiting for his hands to come back and press against them. “I love my family. My mom tries her best, my sister is a fighter. My dad is an asshole who left us when things got a little too hard and is currently on the West Coast dating someone half his age. It’s pretty unfair for him to chase joy and happiness at the expense of, you know, us. But what can you do?”
“Do you ever wish you had another family?” I ask.
I swing back, and this time, his hands catch me, slowing me down until I’m swaying softly in front of him. He swings around the steel bar of the frame near us and leans against it, looking right at me.
“I don’t know about different,” he says. “I wonder if I were different if my dad might call more, you know? If there was something I could have done to get him to stay around, support my mom, support Ruby’s fight.”
“Yeah, I hear you.” I nod. “I sometimes feel like if I were different my mom might really love me.”
His eyes flit up to mine, urgent. “She loves you,” he insists.
“Yeah, I don’t know, you haven’t met her.” I look away. “She loves Nick. Falls to pieces over every little thing he does. I read an essay online once about how squeaky wheels get the oil, in families and most relationships. Friendships, whatever. But in my family’s case, the good wheel gets all the oil, and the squeaky one is left to fall off and roll down the road.”
Phoenix sputters out a laugh. “That’s how a car crash happens,” he says.
“Yeah, well.” I sniffle. “I already feel like a wreck.”
“That’s not what I see,” he says, taking a step away from the pole, standing in front of me. He bites his lower lip, and I swallow, my throat going dry. Goodness.
“What . . . do you see?” I ask.
He squints at me a little and smiles sheepishly in a way that leaves a dimple cratering his cheek.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” He cocks his head to the side. “You have to have a boyfriend. Someone you take to parks like this and have deep conversations with and make embarrassing but sweet Spotify playlists for.”
Jo flashes through my mind, and my breath goes short.
“I . . . I don’t,” I say, not entirely lying. I don’t have a boyfriend. I have . . . a best friend who’s maybe something, but I’m not sure. If she was something, she’d be a girlfriend. So . . .
These are some . . . mental gymnastics, that’s for sure.
He runs his hands through his hair and smirks at me again. “All right. Good to know.”
“And what about you?” I ask, hopping off the swing.
“What’s your deal? I saw you texting while we strolled over here. Girlfriend back home?”
“Oh, no, definitely not.” He laughs. “Just checking in with my mom and Ruby. I, uh, usually visit most nights and took today off to . . . well, here we are. Prepped dinner for my mom too, which is also a semi-daily thing. Thankfully she has a weakness for fast food, because I can’t cook every single day.”
He grins, like everything he just said isn’t wildly devastating. Almost every night with his sister at the hospital, makes dinner for his mom after work . . . when does he have time to do, like, stuff for himself? He must see my expression sour because he shrugs.
“It is what it is,” he says. “It’s all a bit uninvited, I know. But my sister, she didn’t ask to get sick, and my mom didn’t ask for all this to fall on her shoulders. Least I can do is lighten the load.”
“Sure, but you didn’t ask for that either, right?”
“Yeah, well, sometimes good things happen when you don’t ask for them.” He does that grin again and digs his foot into the wood chips of the playground. “All of that happened, and it led me here. To a park, under the moonlight, with someone interesting who doesn’t have a boyfriend.”
This could get messy.
Jagged Little Pill: The Novel arrives on April 26, 2022. You can place your pre-order now.