Jennifer Mathieu ’98 made her first zine over the winter break of her final year at Northwestern. She called it, simply, Jennifer.
“I made it for several years after graduation as a way of keeping in touch with my Northwestern friends. I love zines. I love feminism. So I wanted to do a ‘riot grrrl’ YA [young adult] novel,” Mathieu says, referring to the punk-oriented feminist movement. “But I didn’t want to write a ’90s novel because that’s historical fiction now. Then I flashed on this idea of a girl rediscovering her mother’s riot grrrl stuff.”
Moxie is Mathieu’s fourth YA novel. It tells the story of Vivian, a shy teenage girl in a small town in Texas who’s struggling with pervasive sexism in her high school. Vivian finds inspiration in a box of her mom’s ’90s-era memorabilia and creates her own zine, which she names Moxie. (Mathieu actually created several issues of Vivian’s zine herself, which are printed as parts of the novel.) The Moxie zines help Vivian discover her voice and find the courage to foment change in her school. (She also falls for the new kid in town — an artsy punk-rock boy named Seth — and has her first kiss. It’s a YA book after all!)
In late 2016 Mathieu was preparing the mostly finished book for publication while working as an English teacher at Bellaire High School in Houston. Then Hollywood almost literally came calling.
“I was actually in the teachers lounge, and my agent called and said, ‘There’s some interest [in Moxie] from Amy Poehler and Paper Kite Productions,’” Mathieu says. “And I literally took a pen and a piece of paper and wrote down ‘Amy Poehler’ like I was going to forget. I was just stunned.”
The film adaptation of Moxie features an ensemble cast of young up-and-coming actors such as Hadley Robinson, Lauren Tsai, Alycia Pascual-Peña and Patrick Schwarzenegger, not to mention a scene-stealing supporting turn from former Northwestern basketball walk-on Charlie Hall ’19 as Bradley, a high-energy but hapless cheerleader. Poehler both directed the film and played Vivian’s mother, Lisa.
While young love and the thrill of listening to Bikini Kill songs alone in your room do feature prominently in both the book and the film, the heart of the story for Mathieu is the relationship between Vivian and her mom.
“Moxie is a conversation not just between a mother and daughter but between my younger self and my older self now,” she explains. “When I was 19 and going to Take Back the Night marches at Northwestern, it was all brand new to me. Then you get older and think, life is complicated. So I was trying to explore all that in the book, and [Poehler] captured it so beautifully in the film.”
At Northwestern, Mathieu trained as a journalist at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. “I’m the daughter of immigrants — my dad is Chilean and my mother is Cuban — and they said, ‘OK, we’re going to send you to this big fancy school because you want to be a writer,’” Mathieu recalls. “But they got it into their minds that as a journalist I could write and I would actually get paid.”
After graduation Mathieu moved to Texas to work as a reporter for the Houston Press. “I did enjoy it,” she says, “and Northwestern trained me very well, but I just didn’t have the taste for blood that I think you need sometimes to be a reporter for a long time.”
Mathieu left reporting to become an English teacher in 2005, and she found herself interested in, and even enjoying, the YA books her students were reading. She decided to try her hand at writing fiction that her students might want to read. And her Medill training actually helped with that pivot.
“My journalism training really helped me as a writer of fiction because, for some of my books, I do research,” Mathieu says. “I couldn’t be shy about cold-calling experts to talk about trauma bonding or cults. Organizing notes, writing to a deadline, taking feedback, not getting precious about my writing — Northwestern taught me all of that. Medill taught me all of that.”
Her next book, Bad Girls Never Say Die, will be released in October. “It’s sort of my feminist homage to The Outsiders, which was my one of my favorite books when I was a kid,” says Mathieu. “I think fans of Moxie will enjoy it. It’s got some of that same feminist spirit, but it’s got a lot of action.”
Especially for the ways the campus fostered a budding feminist, Northwestern holds a special place in Mathieu’s heart. “It’s a bit of a cliche, but I went to college and I suddenly had a name for what I was, and it was a good thing. I was a feminist,” she says. “People wanted to have conversations, and it wasn’t weird that I would want to spend a Friday night talking about books or politics or going to a lecture or an event at the Women’s Center. It was all so intellectually stimulating, and it just opened up my mind. I’m truly, forever grateful.
When the film adaptation of Moxie was released, Mathieu and her Northwestern friends from Elder Hall had a virtual watch party together followed by an emotional and memory-filled Zoom.
“[Those] friends have not let me down,” Mathieu says. “[In college] I was surrounded by a bunch of young people who really cared deeply about the future we were heading into. And when I look at the things that they have done since graduation — starting a nonprofit about climate change, going into public health, teaching, becoming social workers and making interesting art — they’ve all gone on to do amazing things based on the experiences that we had at Northwestern.”