Sweet Sixteener Jeff Zentner recently spoke with Fearless Fifteener Becky Albertalli about her debut YA contemporary novel, SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA (April 7, 2015 by Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins).
Becky Albertalli is a clinical psychologist who has had the privilege of conducting therapy with dozens of smart, weird, irresistible teenagers. She also served for seven years as co-leader of a support group for gender nonconforming children in Washington, DC. These days, she lives in Atlanta with her husband and two sons, and writes very nerdy contemporary young adult fiction.
Sixteen-year-old and not-so-openly gay Simon Spier prefers to save his drama for the school musical. But when an email falls into the wrong hands, his secret is at risk of being thrust into the spotlight. Now Simon is actually being blackmailed: if he doesn’t play wingman for class clown Martin, his sexual identity will become everyone’s business. Worse, the privacy of Blue, the pen name of the boy he’s been emailing, will be compromised.
With some messy dynamics emerging in his once tight-knit group of friends, and his email correspondence with Blue growing more flirtatious every day, Simon’s junior year has suddenly gotten all kinds of complicated. Now, change-averse Simon has to find a way to step out of his comfort zone before he’s pushed out—without alienating his friends, compromising himself, or fumbling a shot at happiness with the most confusing, adorable guy he’s never met.
Jeff: SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA is a nearly perfect young adult novel. Combining humor and heft and filled with hilarious, witty, pitch-perfect dialogue, it’s not afraid to tackle weighty topics with grace and humanity. It even has a cool cover.
How did you conceive of Simon? How did this character come to you, and what was it like to have him romping around in your head?
Becky: Okay, so, remember when you were in elementary school, and you kind of understood how babies were made, but something didn’t quite add up? That’s sort of how I feel about Simon. There’s something very mysterious about how he came to me. I know there’s a lot of me in him, but he’s certainly not exactly like me. And I’m sure it’s not random that I chose to write a book about a gay teenage boy, after working with LGBTQIA+ kids and teens for almost a decade. But honestly? I don’t know. All of that stuff just came together somehow for me. Maybe the stork delivered him? I will say, he has been an absolute pleasure to share a brain with.
Jeff: I thought your choice to have Simon have a close-knit, loving family and friend group was a brave one, because it made you have to look elsewhere for sources of tension, which you did masterfully. Talk about this choice.
This is such a lovely way to put it. I wish I could say this was a deliberate artistic choice, but I’m sure the biggest factor here was the fact that I come from a close-knit, loving family, and have always had wonderfully supportive friends. It was just a really natural environment to place Simon in for this story. I honestly loved having the opportunity to explore some of the more subtle tensions that can exist among families and groups of friends. I very much disagree with Tolstoy: all happy families are not alike. I consider Simon’s family to be a happy one, but they have their own specific challenges. The Spiers can be careless with each other, and they definitely have trouble negotiating boundaries. But, most importantly, they love each other, and they’re willing to learn from each other. And Simon’s friends are the same way.
Jeff: The dialogue seemed very organic and rang true to me. What’s your secret for writing realistic teen dialogue?
Becky: I’m so glad it worked for you! I actually think the most helpful thing for me, in this case, was my training as a psychologist. In particular, when I was working as a trainee, I was often expected to type up transcripts of therapy sessions from memory (to the best of my ability) to share with my clinical supervisor. I quickly learned that the way people speak is as meaningful as the content of their speech. It became important to notice pauses and hesitations, or the way we avoid certain issues by talking around them, or how emotions impact our choice of words.
Other than that, I eavesdrop a lot. I’m a very nosy person (much like Simon).
Jeff: Tell us about your writing journey, from first spark to agent to publication.
Becky: It was such a charmed experience with SIMON. In the back of my mind, I had always wanted to write a novel, but I never really thought I’d do it. In the summer of 2013, I found myself in a situation where I had left my full-time job to stay home with my infant son, but we were planning to move across the country, so I couldn’t look for a new one. So, I decided to give the writing dream one shot. I wrote SIMON during my son’s naptimes over the course of about four months. Almost no one knew I was writing, and I had no internet presence or connection to the writing community. I connected with an amazing critique partner on Absolute Write, and we exchanged manuscripts. I spent about a month revising SIMON with her amazing revision notes, and made plans to attend the Atlanta Writers’ Conference in November of 2013.
Here’s where things started moving quickly. I knew I would be receiving an agent manuscript critique at the AWC, so I planned to start querying after implementing that feedback. I also had a pitch session with a different agent, and I met a bunch of other agents at a conference mixer – among them, Brooks Sherman. Brooks tells this story better than I do (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j6T3BevF7lM), but basically, I delivered a verbal pitch that was so record-breakingly awkward that I literally had to start over.
That being said, when I queried Brooks a week later, he remembered me and requested my full manuscript two days later. He offered representation three days after that. This was right before Thanksgiving, so I spent the holiday talking to a few agents and making my decision. I accepted Brooks’ offer of representation in early December of 2013. He sold the book in a two-book pre-empt to Donna Bray at Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins four days later.
Since then, there’s been a lot of waiting, punctuated by exciting moments (Edit letter! Cover reveal! ARCs!). I’ve immersed myself in the YA community, and I’m so grateful every day for the authors, readers, bloggers, and publishing professionals who have made me feel so welcome. I’ve also been working on that second contracted book – and I think this is where I’m finally paying my dues. I love that second book, but it’s definitely been kind of jerk to me. At the time this interview goes live, I’ll have just turned in my second full rewrite. Hopefully.
Lightning Round Questions:
What do you listen to when you write?
Actually, nothing! I get distracted easily, so I can’t write to music.
What is your biggest struggle when writing?
I honestly think the biggest struggle for me is accepting that some people are just not going to connect with my book. I think I have a not-so-healthy need to be LOVED BY EVERYONE, which is, of course, impossible. The rational part of me understands that every single author gets negative reviews, but I can’t help but want to be the world’s first exception to that rule. And I’m totally not the exception. So, I think the biggest thing I’m still working on is letting go of my work and allowing it to mean different things to different people.
What are your five desert island books and why?
1. I know you wouldn’t ask me to choose among the HARRY POTTER series, so let’s say they count as one. And I choose them because they feel like home.
2. I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN by Jandy Nelson, because I consider it to be a perfect book. Every single line of that book is worth reading and rereading and unpacking. It is so rich and beautiful and heartfelt, and everything a book should be.
2-5. Jasmine Warga’s MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES, David Arnold’s MOSQUITOLAND, and Adam Silvera’s MORE HAPPY THAN NOT – partially because they are such incredible, beautiful books, and partially so I can be surrounded by friends.
If a portal opened in space/time long enough for you to tweet one message to your sixteen-year-old self, what would it be? (I will be checking the 140 characters, FYI).
“Just wanted to officially confirm that your first kiss WILL happen, and also your beanie babies are worth nothing.”
What are the non-literary works that have most informed your writing?
You know, I actually think I was very inspired by the TV show The Office – which I didn’t realize until my husband and I recently rewatched it. I think that show helped shape my sense of humor in ways I don’t entirely understand. I also worship Jim and Pam to a degree that can only be expressed by wordless flailing – and there’s definitely something about their dynamic that inspired Simon and Blue.
What advice do you have for aspiring or unpublished writers?
I think I’m just parroting wiser people here, but it’s so important to read widely. Write a lot. Give yourself permission to write really crappy drafts that no one will see. Eavesdrop on strangers. When you feel something powerful, sit with it for a moment and try to understand it. Support other members of the writing community, and be kind and brave and open to learning.
About the Interviewer:
Jeff Zentner is a singer-songwriter and guitarist who has recorded with Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, and Debbie Harry. In addition to writing and recording his own music, Zentner works with young musicians at Tennessee Teen Rock Camp, which inspired him to write a novel for young adults. He lives in Nashville with his wife and son. In his YA contemporary debut, THE SERPENT KING (Crown Books for Young Readers/Random House, Spring 2016), three outcasts try to make it through their final year of high school in rural Tennessee with their spirits and senses of self intact.