Friday, May 15, 2015

Simon Week: Becky Albertalli Talks to Us About Georgia, Theater, Simon and, of course, Blue!

We are so happy to be able to bring you an interview with Becky Albertalli, the author of Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda . We've devoted a week of posts to her and we hope you're going to be checking out her fabulous book. Welcome to the blog Ms. Albertalli!

Can you tell us a little bit about your book?

Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda is a nerdy, gay email love story set in the suburbs of Georgia. It’s about a sixteen-year-old named Simon, his anonymous email pen pal, and a boy at school who threatens to out Simon before he’s ready. Autocorrect fails, Oreo eating, and making out ensue.

Simon and Blue know that they go to the same school, but they don’t know each other’s identities beyond that. There is some freedom to have intimacy because they are anonymous. Do you think that’s part of the appeal of their penpal-ship?

I absolutely think that’s a huge part of it. The anonymity helps them feel safe as they get to know each other. They actually share more with each other than they do with their “real life” friends. It’s something they’re both aware of, and it makes it that much more complicated for them to imagine meeting in person. I think, in general, it can be so much easier to share parts of ourselves with those who don’t know us quite as well. Simon worries a lot about integrating new aspects of himself with the more familiar pieces of his identity – and he finds it’s easier to try on those new parts of himself with Blue.

There is also the theme of “coming out.” But, it’s not only coming out as gay. It’s also, coming out as being someone other than the person the people who have known you forever think you are, whether that’s as a drummer, or as someone who can have a serious relationship.  Was this something you particularly wanted to highlight?

It was! Sort of. :-D Believe it or not, this theme emerged while I was writing the book, but in retrospect, I think it’s the heart of Simon’s story. There was this tension as I was writing, because it was really important to me not to trivialize the actual LGBTQIA+ coming out experience. Simon does come out in this story, and it’s a much bigger deal than he expects it to be. That being said, straight and cisgender people experience little moments of “coming out” that echo the LGBTQIA+ experience – and I’d love for that to be a point of access for these readers.

I love all the scenes with Simon’s theater club. There are perfect moments where a scene is finally clicking or an improvised moment that gets a big laugh. These ring true enough that we want to know, were you in the drama club as a teen? If so, any favorite roles?

I was a total theater kid! I had the lead role once, during my senior year of high school. I played the main character in an incredible play by Lynda Barry, called The Good Times are Killing Me, and I consider it one of the best experiences of my life. I was also in all the musicals - like Simon, I was always in the chorus. I’ll name a few of my parts – can you guess the musicals? River City Townsperson. Lady in Waiting. Hairy Ishmaelite.

There’s a strong sense of place to this book as well. One of our reviewers who’s also from the Atlanta area told us it really felt like her hometown. Why did you choose to set Simon’s story there?

Oh, that’s so nice to hear! Simon’s story is actually set in a very thinly veiled version of my hometown (Sandy Springs, Georgia). I love writing about places I know well - it gives me a kind of anchor as I’m writing. Also, environment and context are so important when trying to understand the lives of LGBTQIA+ teenagers, and I needed to tell this story in an environment I knew well. I do think that setting the book in Sandy Springs/Shady Creek ended up being really important for this story. Atlanta is such an interesting city - the intown areas are this liberal pocket, but the suburbs tend to be very politically conservative. The dynamics of that ended up being an important backdrop for Simon’s story.

There are a many  awesome side characters in this story. Simon’s parents and his sisters, his best friends and of course, Blue. Who was the most fun to write?

I had such a blast writing all of these characters. One highlight for me was Alice – her dialogue often reads exactly like conversations I had with my family upon returning home from my first semester at Wesleyan. I also weirdly loved writing Taylor Metternich. I don’t even know how her character wormed her way into the book, but once she was in there, I was just fascinated by her. I’ve never quite decided how I feel about her!

Simon has a great ending (which, of course we can’t talk about, or spoil in anyway), but I wondered, did you plan out in your mind what happens to the rest of the characters after the end of the novel?

Thank you so much! I’m so glad the ending worked for you. I actually have all kinds of headcanon for these characters, including one long, elaborate, decades-spanning love story for Simon and Blue. I may have spent a lot of time thinking about this. J

There is a lot of awesome music in this book (Elliot Smith, Rilo Kiley, Otis Redding). Do you, or Simon, have any rules for making the perfect mixtape.

Hmmm… I think the biggest thing I’ve learned about mixtapes over the years is that it’s important to let go of the idea of one mixtape being everything. I think it’s better to have several focused mixtapes that serve different purposes and cater to different moods. For example, Simon has his “Great Depression” playlist for when he’s in the mood to wallow. I think the best mixtapes are the ones that capture a certain feeling. This is all actually true about books, too – at least for me!

Are there any other YA books that you think fans of your books should check out?
 image from here

I love this question! Anyone who enjoyed Simon should be very excited for Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not, which comes out from Soho Teen in the beginning of June. I would describe it as near-future speculative fiction, and it’s utter genius. It’s about a Puerto Rican boy growing up in the Bronx, who’s considering getting a memory-altering procedure so he can forget he’s gay. It’s just such a beautiful, complicated exploration of identity and relationships, and the ending will blow your mind.

I’ve also never gone wrong recommending How to Repair a Mechanical Heart by J.C. Lillis. This is a nerdy, swoony, laugh-out-loud funny book that exploded onto the indie scene a few years ago, and it is one of my obsessions.

What has been your favorite part about being a YA author so far?

Hands down, the best part is the community. I feel so embraced by other authors, writers, readers, librarians, bloggers, booksellers, publishing professionals – everyone! It’s been such a gift to be able to connect with others who love reading, love teenagers, and care so deeply about the issues I care about. Connecting with my readers has been especially amazing – it is so unbelievably special to hear that Simon’s story has been resonating with both teens and adults.

Where is your favorite place to write?

I love to write in my room on the bed! Pajamas are a crucial part of the process.

Do you have any advice for our teens who want to become writers?

I think the teen years are a great time to begin thinking about writing! One thing I’m grateful for is that I kept very honest journals when I was in high school. They’re like portals that take me straight back to my teen years. I definitely recommend getting in the habit of writing about and processing your daily experiences. It’s also so important to read a lot. Fall in love with books, and try to identify what makes those particular books so special. When a book doesn’t work for you, try to explore that, too. I also always recommend eavesdropping! It’s so helpful to listen, not only to what people are saying, but to the rhythms of their conversations. 

Thank you Soooo much for stopping by Becky! If you want to keep up with her, check out her website here.

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