Interview with Becky Albertalli

Posted by Goodreads on April 10, 2017
Two years ago Becky Albertalli introduced readers to "sixteen-year-old and not-so-openly gay Simon Spier" in her debut, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. The book connected with readers, landing on bestseller lists around the country and eventually earning nominations for the National Book Award, the Lincoln Award, and our very own Goodreads Choice Award for Best Young Adult Fiction.

The Upside of Unrequited, her highly anticipated second book, comes out this month. Set in the same universe as Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (sort of like the Marvel Cinematic Universe but with fewer superpowers and more teenagers), this is the story of Molly and Cassie, twin sisters navigating the complexities of friendship, rejection, and young love. As Cassie falls for a cute new girl, Molly finds herself torn between an adorable hipster and a chubby Tolkien superfan.

Albertalli answers your questions about why she'd tell her younger self to "cool her jets," which of her characters most resembles a real-life person, and how she wants all her readers to feel beautiful, worthy, and not alone.

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Bree: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is my all-time-favorite book—it has a special spot on my bookshelf! I can't wait for The Upside of Unrequited! Have you ever wanted to give up on a book? What made you keep going?

Becky Albertalli: Thank you so much, Bree! So, to be totally honest, I've had moments of wanting to give up on all my books. The Upside of Unrequited in particular almost killed me—I rewrote it seven times over the course of two years, and I started to feel like I'd never be happy with it. It was hard to keep going, even though it was a contracted book! Honestly, the thing that saved me was the support I received from my agent, editor, friends, and family. I think it's so important to find that circle of people with whom you can vent, cry, and ultimately—hopefully—celebrate.

Jess: I have a great admiration for your writing. Do you feel that YA books are ahead of other genres when it comes to representation and diversity? And if so, why do you think that is?

BA: Jess, thank you, and that's a great question! It's hard for me to know this for sure because I'm not very well read in other genres and age categories these days. I do think the YA community is at the forefront of these conversations, and I feel really lucky to be a part of that. That said, we have such a long way to go. YA publishing is still largely dominated by white, straight, thin, Christian, cis [cis-genered], allo [allosexual], abled [having a full range of physical or mental abilities] characters and stories. Authors and publishing professionals from marginalized groups are still often shut out in both blatant and subtle ways. But I love that these conversations are happening more and more every day.

Lynne: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

BA: Oh my gosh. First of all, I'll tell her to cool her jets with the adverbs and dialogue tags. But also, I think I'd want her to know that she can really make a career out of this. I didn't seriously consider trying to write for publication until I was 30. It seemed so impossible and impractical. I don't know that I'd advise my younger self to go all in without a professional and financial safety net, but I wish I'd taken my writing more seriously from a younger age.

Lance: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda changed my life by making me aware of the "default" image we tend to have of people before meeting them. What inspired you to put such a life-changing idea into such a happy, awesome book?

BA: Thank you so much, Lance! This is such a wonderful question, and I'll warn people now that this particular answer will contain SPOILERS.

When I started writing Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, I didn't directly set out to explore the idea of defaults, particularly with respect to race. Like Simon, I'm white, which means I've had the privilege of not having to think about race on a daily basis. So, in some ways, I grappled with the idea of defaults alongside Simon. I always knew Blue would be Bram—and I also knew that Simon would be surprised by that. So, of course, I had to explore why Blue's identity surprised him. Why would Simon assume Blue was Cal and not Bram? Partially this was because Simon knew Blue was Jewish, and many people assume Jewish people are automatically white. But I also think Simon really had to own the fact that his mental images of Blue defaulted to white for no good reason other than cultural norms of whiteness. This happens a lot among white people, and it's uncomfortable to sit with—but I think it's important for those of us with privilege to acknowledge that pattern so we can challenge it directly.

Kelsie: If you could have one character from Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda hang out with one character from The Upside of Unrequited, who would you choose and what would they do?

BA: I'm cheating a little because these two books are actually in the same universe—and characters from Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda do hang out with characters from The Upside of Unrequited! Molly, the main character from The Upside of Unrequited, is a first cousin of Abby from Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. So I'd choose Molly and Abby to hang out together as bridesmaids in Molly's moms' wedding.

Mikayla: Thank you for writing such inclusive and loving stories! Do you have any recommendations of other books that focus on LGBTQ+ issues?

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BA: I love this question, and I have so many recs! Here are a few favorites:

Nicholina: I absolutely love Simon's family. They were a big reason why I ordered a copy of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda for my daughter, who is a college student, while I was only halfway through the book. Are Simon's family members inspired by your own family?

BA: That is so wonderful to hear! I'd say the Spiers are loosely inspired by my family. I grew up in the Atlanta suburbs in a family kind of like Simon's—though my parents have been divorced since I was seven. I'm the oldest of three siblings, and all three of us are really close. I'd say Alice and Simon are a combination of my sister and me, and Nora is a combination of my sister and brother. Certain details about Simon's siblings were taken directly from my own siblings—for example, like Nora, my sister once dressed in a trash can costume. Simon's first girlfriend, Rachel, is named after a girl who had a crush on my brother during elementary and middle school (and we were the obnoxious family who insisted on scoping Rachel out in my brother's yearbook).

The character who most resembles a real-life person is definitely Simon's dad, who is very much like my actual dad. My dad is funny and sometimes clueless, loves to joke around, and fancies himself a hipster. When the book was first published, he scoured my early reviews in hopes of finding readers praising Simon's dad. Needless to say, he is very pleased that the dad will be played by Josh Duhamel in the film adaptation and considers this to be a spot-on casting choice.

Deepika: If you had to describe The Upside of Unrequited in one word, which word would you choose?

BA: That's a tough one! If I had to pick just one word, I think I'd have to say Molly—because The Upside of Unrequited is such a character-driven book!

Jason: Hi, Becky! You're a great motivation to me, and I want to thank you again for writing a book that saved my life. As a strong voice in LGBT YA fiction, what do you hope teens and young adults take away from your books? And are there other important topics you'd like to tackle in the near future?

BA: Thank you so much, Jason! This is a complicated question because I feel really strongly that my books belong to my readers. Every reader will interpret my stories differently, and I love that. But in a very general sense, I love the idea of my readers knowing that they're worthy, that they're beautiful, and that they're not alone.

It's funny—I don't think of my books as addressing important topics. I think of them as rom-coms!

Breaklikeafish: What was the first story you ever wrote?

BA: That's a great question, and I honestly have no idea—I've been writing stories my whole life! I know I used to write lots of stories about these creatures called "bonkers," who were based on those pom-poms with googly eyes and sticky feet (these were a thing in the '80s). I also wrote lots of stories—and poetry—about my pets. And in second grade I won a writing award for a story about—no joke—a dog and her nipples.

Check out more YA author interviews here!
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