Authors Jason June and Becky Albertalli sat down to chat with Teen Press Corps journalist, Ivy. Catch up with the author friends as they discuss Jason June’s YA debut, Jay’s Gay Agenda, developing characters similar to yourself, advice for young writers, and more!
Ivy: If you could read one book and one book only for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Becky Albertalli: All I can rule out is the book I’m working on right now, because I do feel like that’s all I’ve read, over and over, for my entire life.
Jason June: I’m gonna say Dhonielle Clayton’s The Belles because the world-building is amazing, the whole take on consumerism and what we will do for material goods, and what we will do to ourselves to be accepted is such a mind-blown emoji moment for me that every time I read that book I’m just like, ‘Oh my god, this is good!’
BA: Have we ever talked about this?
JJ: We haven’t, Becky!
BA: Oh my gosh, I got obsessed with The Belles to the point where Adam Silvera would make fun of me, cause I’m a contemporary reader and then suddenly, completely immersed. So I’m gonna say The Belles too because then we can talk about it for the rest of my life
JJ: So then we’ll be stuck in this one book forever, but it’ll be okay because we have company.
I: That is such a great choice, and it’s actually funny: the first ARC I ever read with the Teen Press Corps was The Belles! I remember I sat down and I read it all in one night.
JJ: That is such a universe aligning moment because I had no idea that was a big favorite of yours Becky, and that was the very first ARC you got– there was something in the air!
I: So, for both of you, how did you get interested in writing, especially novel writing?
JJ: For me, it had always been a lifelong dream of mine to write books. But then, for whatever reason, when I graduated high school I had this big naysayer in my head that was like, ‘Everyone wants to write books, you can’t do that!’ So, I got into journalism instead, I got my degree in journalism, and then I moved to Los Angeles. I was doing entertainment reporting and I just hated it, because it was always about finding the dirt in people’s lives. Then I tried to do hard news and it was the same thing, like trying to find the dirt in real life, and that just felt very icky to me. So I was like, ‘Well, I’ve been writing all these years and I still want to write, so I’m just going to try novel writing.’ And it feels so much greater to be able to spread love and magic and queer joy, and as I started to do that I was like, ‘This is the calling, this is what I’m supposed to do!’
BA: I feel like my story has a lot of parallels to yours, Jason June. I did always want to be a writer, even from when I was pretty young. I have these very earnest journal entries where I was so emphatic about it, that I was definitely gonna be a writer. By the time I was seriously looking into career paths, it didn’t seem like I was going to be the person who could defy these odds, it seemed like such an impossible one in a bazillion kind of thing. It is a very hard industry to break, however it is absolutely a real job! It’s the kind of thing that requires a lot of work but there are new people breaking in every day. Anyway, I became a psychologist, got my degree in that. I didn’t hate it, parts of it I loved, I loved my clients. I left for maternity leave and wrote a book then.
I: This one’s specifically for Jason June, what have been some challenges and surprises with publishing your first book?
JJ: It isn’t really a challenge as in it’s a fact of life that everybody’s feelings about your book are valid. Some people are just not going to connect with Jay’s story, some people are going to be so turned off by the mistakes Jay makes that they don’t like him and don’t want to root for him. But then on the flip side of that, there are other people that totally relate to making all these mistakes. I think when you’re a teen that’s really when you figure out how your choices and your actions can hurt another person, even though you have no intention of hurting them. And so, Jay’s story is kind of a story of learning to come back from that and understanding that you hurt somebody and you’re not going to do it again. I think for some readers that is super ‘I’ve done this before, I relate to this, I super want to root for this person,” but both ends of the spectrum are accurate. There are times when I want to be like ‘No, Jay makes up for himself!’ And it’s like, it doesn’t do anybody any good to try to defend him. We all come at a story from our own life experiences and that’s been the thing I needed to accept. The biggest surprise has just been how wonderful the whole LGBTQ+ YA author community is! Not a surprise as in I didn’t think they wouldn’t be, but just that they’d take the time to say hi and support me. I randomly met Becky at the North Texas Teen Book Festival the week before everything shut down and she was just so wonderful. You were so wonderful to me Becky, and you’ve always offered your heart and that has been such a welcoming, amazing, magical thing.
BA: Oh my gosh! First of all, I adored you from the moment I met you. Second of all, I’m realizing just now you were one of the last people I’d seen in person before the pandemic!
I: So for Becky, how have things changed from publishing Simon to publishing Kate, like in the writing process and publishing process.
BA: That’s such an interesting question because I’ve got like five different answers in my head that are sort of different aspects of it… One is that the writing process (Jason June I don’t know if you can relate to this), the difference between this and writing my debut novel is that I wasn’t sure it would get picked up, I never expected people to read it. There’s a kind of freedom there I have not ever been able to get back. However there is more, you know, when I was writing Simon I didn’t think I could finish a book. There is a kind of power in knowing I have the ability to finish this, even when it seems impossible, and it always seems impossible. I’ve had to rewrite certain books a few times, but so far I have not had to do the thing I’m always imagining I’ll have to do, which is call my editor sobbing and tell her I need to cancel my contract. I think I’ve had a little bit of a rough go of it… You know, I think there have been a lot of really wonderful and important changes and a lot of progress being made in certain aspects of publishing. And it’s frustratingly slow at times… There are these movements that have done more good than I think we have even wrapped our heads around, how significant that progress has been. Which isn’t to say more isn’t needed. However, there have been some growing pains, and I think we as a community have not necessarily figured out how to hold some of the contradictory values. I mean the book community and also queer community. To be perfectly honest, I’m not feeling the best I’ve ever felt about the book community, but I’m hopeful.
“There are these movements that have done more good than I think we have even wrapped our heads around, how significant that progress has been. Which isn’t to say more isn’t needed. However, there have been some growing pains, and I think we as a community have not necessarily figured out how to hold some of the contradictory values.”
JJ: I think you’re totally accurate in your assessment of all of that. We need to work through those growing pains… knowing how we can let the whole movement go forwards, specifically for the queer experience. We need to have the open arms approach, that people’s queerness is not something that should be policed.
BA: I completely agree! And it sounds so simple, and maybe it is if we keep that framework in mind.
I: Do you have any advice for young, teen writers?
JJ: I have a multitude of things that I think have been super helpful for me. The first thing is finding a critique group of other writers who want the same things that you do, that really want to publish a book and are ready to give positive constructive feedback, instead of friends who are like, ‘I love you so I love this!’ It’s great to have friends like that, but you also need friends who are like ‘I love you, but I think here’s where your message isn’t coming across, or here’s what I know you’re trying to get across and here’s how you can make that happen.’ My other piece of advice, not in a defeatist way, but get used to hearing the word ‘No.’ You’re gonna hear ‘No’ in the way of an agent saying ‘No, this isn’t right for me’ and once you find an agent it’ll be ‘No, I don’t want to publish this at my imprint’ and once you get published it’ll be ‘No, I don’t like this because it’s not my style of book.’ And that’s always okay! Just because you hear a multitude of nos doesn’t mean you won’t hear so many yeses. What’s the funny Lady Gaga cliché where she’s like, ‘In a room full of 99 nos, it just takes one yes,’ that’s so true!
BA: That’s wonderful advice! The only things I would throw into the mix are, and maybe this is more for everybody, but I always recommend writing fanfiction. It was a game-changer for so many… I feel like teens do know nowadays, like I had no idea so many published authors came from fanfic but teens are so smart about that stuff… But yeah, fanfiction is writing, it is legitimate writing. I think it is such a great place to practice your skills. I think for me in particular, having ultimately landed in this space where I’m writing very voice-y, character-driven books, my training for that was fanfiction, where I was aiming for an existing character’s voice. And then I was able to transfer that skill set. I think it’s not for everybody, but for a lot of authors I’ve heard that story so many times.
I: In both of your author notes for your books, you talk about how your main characters are similar to yourselves. I was wondering how, more specifically, your main characters are similar and different to yourselves and your teen experience.
JJ: For Jay, the seed of the story came from my teen experience where I was the only out queer kid at a rural eastern Washington high school and I kept a diary of all the things I wanted to do when I came out. I was on the sidelines, like Jay, wanting to go on a first date, wanting to hold a guy’s hand for the first time, wanting to kiss a guy and feel stubble against my face… I took that diary and actually threw it away because I was worried it would be found and I would be outed before I was ready. I so vividly remember ripping the pages out and tossing them in an airport trash, where I was like, ‘Nobody’s gonna dig through here and know who wrote that.’ I remember writing that diary and wanting to make [Jay’s Gay Agenda] all about queer joy, and I’m getting to live those dreams out and proud. I made Jay a little more Type A, Virgo, list-maker than I am (and I’m pretty Type A), and then from there, other than Seattle also being the city where I had my queer awakening, Jay’s story is very different from mine. But we both kind of had that hopeful, dreamer, list-making quality together.
“I remember…wanting to make [Jay’s Gay Agenda] all about queer joy, and I’m getting to live those dreams out and proud.”
BA: I think every one of my main characters ends up getting a lot of me, sometimes even more than I realize until later. Having re-read little bits of my teen diary, it is really like reading Kate in Waiting. Like wow, there was no point in my turning anything older than 17… I think part of it is the way her mind works and the way her voice sounds, but definitely the theatre kid stuff too. That was pulled directly from my teen memories, that was my entire world in high school. There’s a lot of friendship stuff in there as well, some of it kind of teen friendship stuff, because I was absolutely a kid who got no action… which meant my friendships were the love story. That’s always been something that’s very important to me, I’ve had in different areas of my life a lot of really close friendships with different dynamics…This book is dedicated to Adam Silvera and there’s definitely a lot of Adam and me in Kate and Anderson.
I: What do you want young people, teenagers reading your books, what do you want them to learn?
JJ: For Jay it was kinda like what I’d mentioned before, tying into Jay’s mistakes that he makes all the time. I want readers to know it’s totally okay to make mistakes, especially when you’re coming into yourself as an adult, it’s bound to happen… And you’re learning that not every personality type gets along, or you can get along great but you just translate things differently (to use a couple’s therapy term), it’s like a love language, where you could be saying the exact same thing but depending on how you interpret it there’s a different meaning behind those words… it’s so convoluted and confusing! So I want readers to know while you’re developing that world around you, you may end up hurting people, but the important thing is acknowledging that there’s hurt there that happened from something you did and showing that person you hurt that you’re not going to do it again and you understand where the root of their hurt comes from… It’s totally okay when you screw up, it’s how you make up for those mistakes that really matters.
BA: It’s hard for me… I tend to not really know what I want people to get out of it because every reader is gonna get something different out of it… One of the things that was important to me upon re-reading is that Kate has these certain ideas about intimacy– and I don’t mean physical intimacy in particular just like closeness– and one of her beliefs that plays a really significant role in her relationships is that she believes that if you are close, you tell each other everything. It really bothers her when she can’t tell her best friend something, it really bothers her if he’s keeping something from her. I think it was really important for me to explore that and to have it be okay to love somebody and not know everything about them, even to not know big things about them, and for friendships to change over time and that doesn’t mean they’ve been downgraded.