Becky Albertalli is a debut American YA author of the forthcoming Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda. Simon Vs is out on April 7th from Balzer and Bray/ Harperteen. Before becoming a full time writer, Becky worked as a clinical psychologist and co-led a support group for gender nonconforming children.
Simon Vs follows closet gay teen, Simon Spier. When an email falls into the wrong hands, his secret is at risk of being thrust into the limelight. Simon is being blackmailed. If he doesn’t help class goofball Martin score with Simon’s beautiful friend Abby, Simon’s sexual identity will be everyone’s business. Worse, it’ll compromise the privacy of Blue; the pen name of the unidentified wallflower boy he’s been emailing. Simon VS is a heart-warming, funny and compelling love story. You can pre-order it on Amazon http://www.amazon.co.uk/Simon-vs-Homo-Sapiens-Agenda/dp/0062348671
Zomzara: Hi Becky! First off, thanks for coming to talk to us!
Becky Albertalli: So excited to be here. Thanks for having me!
Z: Simon is a lovable, loyal, funny boy who allows himself to be blackmailed in order to protect the boy he loves. The book celebrates diversity, not just sexual diversity but also cultural. Why do you think diversity in YA and adult fiction is important?
BA: Thank you so much for your kind words about Simon! I think diversity in fiction is incredibly important. The We Need Diverse Books team says it better than I can (love this FAQ from their website: http://weneeddiversebooks.org/faq/). Basically, I believe that all readers need to see themselves reflected in books – and they need books to help them access the experiences of others. In Simon’s story, he becomes increasingly frustrated with the idea that straight, white experiences are considered the default. This idea is really important to me. When approaching diversity in writing, we have to remember that including diverse characters is a decision – but it’s also a decision to include characters white, straight, cisgender, non-disabled, etc. We have to approach this decision thoughtfully and intentionally every single time.
Z: Simon’s narrative voice is amazingly authentic. I’m British, an adult woman, basically straight, despite all these differences I could totally relate to Simon. How did you manage to capture his voice so convincingly? Did you find it hard, considering you are not a gay teenage boy?
BA: I’m so happy to hear that his voice worked for you! I don’t even know if I can explain where Simon’s voice came from. I think he kind of revealed himself while I was writing. For me, that part of the process came together really naturally. I think the most difficult part for me was the uncertainty about whether I had created a character that would resonate with readers, including gay teen boys.
Z: Are you a plotter or a pantser? (ie – do you plan everything in advance or does your writing come out more organically?)
BA: think I fall somewhere in between! I tend to loosely outline, but I definitely go where the characters take me.
Z: Please describe your route to being published
BA: My route to being published was unbelievably (probably annoyingly) quick. I think I’m still processing it! SIMON was the first novel I attempted to write, and it took me about four months to draft. I revised for a month and worked with my amazing critique partner, Kimberly Ito (we met on Absolute Write about a year and a half ago, and we’re still in touch daily).
After revising again, I actually brought it to the Atlanta Writers’ Conference, where I had scheduled critique and pitch sessions with two different agents. I also ended up connecting with my agent, Brooks Sherman, at the conference mixer, and he invited me to query him. I spent another week or so revising based on my critique feedback, and then started querying. Brooks requested the full manuscript two days later, and offered representation two days after that. I spoke to a few more agents that week, but ended up signing with Brooks, and I’ve never regretted it for a second. He sent SIMON as an exclusive to Donna Bray at HarperCollins a few days after I signed with him, and she offered us a pre-empt at the end of that week. It was a complete publishing fairy tale. Super weird, but wonderful.
Z: A couple of us at Storylingers have recently “come out” as YA writers – before this we thought we were serious literary adult writers. Was there a process of coming out as a YA author for you, or did you and all your friends and family always know you were YA orientated and it was no big deal?
BA: Interesting question! I think I’ve always been drawn to YA, and as a psychologist, I worked primarily with kids and teenagers – so I doubt the YA aspect surprised anyone. But there actually was a kind of coming out process for me as a writer! Almost no one in my life knew I was even interested in writing until I had gotten my book deal. I was just really private about the whole process. I think I was pretty doubtful at the time that my writing was going to go anywhere, so I kept it under wraps. I wish I had been more open about it before, and I especially wish I had become involved in the writing community sooner. It’s been amazing getting to know so many wonderful people who love reading and writing as much as I do.
Z: The secondary character of my WIP YA is struggling with his sexuality, and finds it hard to identify with any one orientation. This really bothers him. He’s had to recalibrate his understanding of his sexuality a couple of times before, and now is tentative about identifying himself as one particular type. But he desperately wants to feel like he fits in somewhere. I guess my point here is: teenagers are just at the start of their sexual awakening and there can be a lot of pressure to identify yourself as belonging to a particular group. Do you have any advice for people like my character who can’t honestly say if they’re straight, gay, bi, demi, pan or asexual yet but feel that pressure to fit in somewhere? I guess I’m asking you this as a psychologist more than an author, but it’s so amazingly awesome that you’re both and I can ask this difficult question!
BA: This is a hard one for me, because as a psychologist, I usually try to avoid giving concrete advice. These issues are just so individualized. If your character showed up in my office, my role would be to create a space where he felt comfortable exploring his personal understanding of sexuality, along with the ambivalence he feels about identifying with any particular group. In general, what I’d probably want him to know is that it’s okay not to know. It’s okay to change his mind. He can identify with one label today, choose something else tomorrow, and avoid labels entirely the next day. He gets to decide what these labels mean to him; they’re his to claim if they help him feel more integrated, and they’re his to reject if they don’t work for him.
Z: Throughout Simon Vs, Simon and Blue are exchanging emails. The text swaps between prose and email form. Did you find it a challenge to swap forms? Or did that come quite naturally?
BA: That part actually came really naturally! I love playing around with different forms. I actually think the emails helped me structure the book. With the exception of drunk Simon, they were my favorite part to write.
Z: Who/ what are your biggest influences?
BA: I’m going to answer this one in list form! In no particular order:
- My own memories of being a teenager.
- My work as a psychologist in a school (in a general sense – I’m careful not to borrow experiences from any particular client)
- My work with gender nonconforming kids.
- The work of a few favorite authors. I would say my most direct influences are Jaclyn Moriarty’s Ashbury/Brookfield series and Steven Chbosky’s THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER.
Z: What was the hardest thing about writing Simon Vs? How did you overcome this difficulty?
For me, the hardest thing was dealing with self-doubt. There was never a time when I felt confident about my book. To be entirely honest, I’m still terrified to put it out there. It’s so easy to feel vulnerable as a writer. With SIMON in particular, I was very worried about writing outside my identity – there’s a real risk of getting things wrong and hurting people. I don’t think I’ve entirely overcome these anxieties, and I’m not sure if it’s even possible to overcome them. However, it’s helpful for me to remember why I wanted to write it in the first place. If this book reaches even one person who needs it, in my mind, it’s worth the risk.
Z: Have you ever been given a brilliant practical tip that transformed your writing? If so, please share!
BA: I was really late to get this memo, but it was helpful for me to learn to pare down my adverbs and dialogue tags. Like, a lot. 🙂 For practical advice, I really love Mary Kole’s website (http://kidlit.com) and her book (WRITING IRRESISTABLE KIDLIT). Both were instrumental in helping me turn SIMON into an actual book.
Z: Simon Vs is packed full of cultural references, music, Tumblr blog culture etc, which gives the book a real richness. Can you talk a bit about this?
BA: I’m so glad this aspect of the book worked for you. I think people tend to either love or hate pop culture references in YA. I usually love them – I think they have the ability to make a fictional world feel more real. For SIMON, it was a no-brainer. I always knew he was a character who would have very strong opinions about music and would be very connected online (and, of course, online communication plays a big role in the plot).
Z: Also- I did what I bet loads of readers will do, and I typed creeksecrets.tumblr.com into my browser. There’s nothing there. I was sad. Have you ever thought about setting up a fictional blog? I’m thinking about doing it for my own novel.
BA: It actually never occurred to me to do that! I am terrible about maintaining blogs, but I’d LOVE it if a reader set one up. I will say, I’ve been waiting to receive emails at Simon’s, Blue’s, and Marty’s email addresses (all of which I own!). Hasn’t happened yet, though I am not too cool to admit I’ve made them email back and forth a few times. 🙂
Z: On the front/ copyright page of Dave Eggers’ book a Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius his copyright information goes:
So, what is your place on the sexual orientation scale, with 1 being perfectly straight and 10 being perfectly gay?
(not sure what mine is! Probably 3.5, but I don’t consider it fixed at that)
BA: The amazing thing about this question is that I realize I’ve never given this issue much thought! I just tend to identify as straight. What a huge reminder of my own privilege – just like Blue says, it seems like the only people who have to consider their identity are the ones who don’t fit the straight/white/cis/etc mold. If I really think about this, I would say I’m probably a 3? I have a pretty big crush on Poussey from Orange is the New Black…
Z: What are you working on at the moment? How does writing the second book compare to the first?
BA: Right now, I’m working on edits for my second contracted book with Balzer+Bray/Harper. It’s actually a loose companion book to SIMON, focusing on the group of friends Abby left behind in Washington, DC (Abby plays a significant role in the book, and Simon and a few others get shoutouts). The process has been really different. I know a lot of authors find their second book much harder to write – this has DEFINITELY been the case for me. I’m rewriting it for a second time, and am only now realizing how light my edits were for Simon. It definitely adds pressure knowing beforehand that this book will be published and read – and writing under a deadline brings a whole new set of challenges. Also, I had my second baby in October, so finding time to actually sit down and write has been incredibly hard. On the other hand, I have a rock solid support system this time around, and the input I’ve received from my editor, agent, and critique partners has made a huge difference. It will be interesting to see what the end result looks like!
Z: I could ask you a billion more questions, but I don’t want to pull you away from writing whatever amazing thing you’re working on right now, so I’ll leave you in peace. Thanks so much for talking to Storyslingers!
BA: Thank you so incredibly much for these amazing questions. It was such a pleasure to hang out with you and the Storyslingers today!
Storyslingers is also on twitter (kinda, in a half-arsed way) so follows us on @storyslingers for glorious yearly tweets.
Zomzara, signing off with a classic photo by Turner Prize winning artist, Wolfgang Tillmans. Tillmans has just won this year’s Hasselblad Award.