After spending years writing groundbreaking queer stories for teens, Adam Silvera (They Both Die at the End) and Becky Albertalli (Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, recently adapted into the film Love, Simon) have combined their talents for a new collaborative novel.
The pair have co-written What If It’s Us, a queer love story about two very different boys who find fate is either drawing them together or pulling them apart. The book is told from dual perspectives, each written by one of the authors. Albertalli writes for Arthur, a Broadway-loving kid who’s only in New York for the summer; Silvera writes for Ben, who is reeling from a breakup and runs into Arthur for the first time at the post office while carrying his ex’s things.
Silvera and Albertalli would exchange drafts as the chapters progressed, in effect fueling each other’s conception of the story as they got deeper into it. “We had to let our guard down because we had to give very rough drafts — we couldn’t keep polishing it for each other,” Silvera explains. “So I would get Becky’s roughest draft, which I would still think was brilliant, and I would give Becky my rough drafts, which I thought were like the worst words ever written.” The result, the two agree, is a happy marriage of their two styles. As for whether the ending will be more in the vein of Albertalli’s rom-com sweetness or Silvera’s complex heartbreak, there are no spoilers to be found here.
Silvera and Albertalli have exclusively revealed the cover (art by Jeff Östberg) for What If It’s Us with EW. In addition, the two chatted with EW about their process writing this book, the inspiration for the story they’re telling, and why this particular cover felt like “another coming-out” for Silvera. Read on below, and pre-order the book ahead of its Oct. 9 release here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did this collaboration come to be?
BECKY ALBERTALLI: We actually met for the first time through our literary agent. It was one of those things where our debut books happened to sell in the same week, and they were kind of in the same space. Our agent put us in touch with each other, and very quickly we were emailing stuff that in retrospect was very personal, I think — pretty quickly.
ADAM SILVERA: For sure. It started off with us also just swapping manuscripts with each other to read. I read Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, and Becky read More Happy Than Not. Our obsession with each other grew so deeply because we loved each other’s books so much. We were just learning about each other. It felt very pen-pal-y — she was in Georgia, I was in New York — and we were probably emailing for months. We were texting kind of casually, but mainly it was emails, and then there was an email in February 2014 — it was in December 2013 when Becky and I first started talking, and then two months later, Becky was telling me about a Craigslist ad about a missed connection —
BECKY: That I made. [Laughs] I was that nerd who actually put a missed connection ad into the universe.
ADAM: Ultimately, it was just Becky telling me about this, and I’m like, “How cool would it be to do something with missed connections in the YA space?” I was just sort of jokingly like, “Oh, we should do this one day.” We just started floating ideas around, coming up with their names and little details about them, and they just became so real for us. We’ve been essentially talking about these boys since February 2014.
BECKY: And we still had not met in person, too. These boys, when they come together — a lot of the details that we hammered out over email back then made it into the final version of the book. Like, a lot of those details. And Adam and I had not met yet in person.
What was your process working together like?
ADAM: Becky writes from the perspective of Arthur, and I write from the perspective of Ben. The book opens with Arthur, so Becky wrote the first chapter, and then I wrote the response chapter. We had pretty much outlined the entire book, but it all changed significantly, as outlines tend to do. So Becky would write a chapter and I’d write one. The most fun part about this was, you know, writing is so isolating, and we’re such huge fans of each other, so we were always so excited to get the new chapter. We had to let our guard down because we had to give very rough drafts — we couldn’t keep polishing it for each other. So I would get Becky’s roughest draft, which I would still think was brilliant, and I would give Becky my rough drafts, which I thought were like the worst words ever written. But we would text each other on what lines were making us laugh and what lines made us swoon. It really helped us get a sense of what was working in a book; you get to sense immediately, like, “Oh, this line delivers,” and “Oh, there’s something about this that I didn’t quite expect.” This was a great opportunity to sort of write for one of your best friends and favorite authors.
BECKY: It was very different too. For both of us, this will be our fourth book, and I think one of the things that for both of us is really different is that Adam and I are both very, very private during the drafting process. Some writers will collaborate as they’re going, and that’s just not how either of us have ever worked in the past. It was terrifying at first to show those early versions of the story, but it got to the point where it became a very normal part of the process for us. Even really magical and exciting. But it just requires a lot of trust. I don’t know how many people I could trust enough to do that with.
ADAM: That’s very true. We’re both working on our fifth books right now, and if I need an ego boost when I’m having a really rough day, I can send a chapter to Becky now. Becky’s the only person I trust with my roughest work now. [Laughs] She’ll know what to say that will make me feel excited about my own book again, the same way that I felt excited about writing my chapters when I’d previously felt that they were, again, the worst thing that had ever been written. I was almost embarrassed to share them with Becky: I can’t tell you how many times we were both struggling with a chapter, and it was like, “Whatever, here, it’s done,” and we’d respectively respond, “This is probably my favorite chapter you’ve written so far.” That happened frequently. You agonize over getting it right for someone whose work you admire. If you’re essentially writing to please one of your favorite authors, you can’t do wrong. That’s what led to a lot of great work.
In the way you were giving feedback to each other, was there anything that surprised you in the way the book changed direction?
ADAM: Our editors were the ones who influenced us in different directions. We went through four different endings for this book — it changed four times, and it’s significantly different from where Becky and I first envisioned for this book. Another cool thing here is that our respective editors are also collaborating on this project: It’s not just us working with Becky’s editor or us working with my editor. They’re also tag-teaming this.
BECKY: And they’re friends too.
ADAM: Yeah. It’s really beautiful. There are way more fingerprints on this book than traditionally. Their insights on this story — we’re so happy with where we ended up. It was so rare that they would give us a note that we didn’t immediately cling to. We would be like, “Oh my God, yes, this has to happen.” We were just so excited to jump back into the book and make sure we could get everything in sync with the ending that we now so strongly desired.
BECKY: It was interesting too because Adam and I both have these readerships that we’ve built up over the last couple years. These readers know us. This is an oversimplification, but in a very general sense, people will expect a happy rom-com ending from me and people will expect, not a sad ending, but a complicated ending from Adam.
ADAM: They expect heartbreak from me. [Laughs] I’m the heartbreaker, and Becky makes you feel smarter and swoonier and happier. … But readers do have this expectation. So it is fun watching them right now — some of them are like in panic mode, like, “What kind of ending are we going to get here?” That’s one of the mysteries to the book.
BECKY: A lot of people are looking at as, “Are we going to have a Becky ending or an Adam ending?” I think when people read it, this is very much an “Adam and Becky” book. It’s one thing, and I wouldn’t say it skews one way or the other.
ADAM: It’s a great balance.
You’ve both become popular by telling groundbreaking queer stories. How much do you tap into that social significance as you write them? The cover of this one makes clear what kind of love story it is.
ADAM: When I was a queer teenager, I didn’t have the confidence or bravery to read about other queer people. I was deeply closeted. I would have never walked into a bookstore and grabbed a book that’s so instantly recognizable as being a queer book. I think we have to move with the times here. And that’s one of the beautiful things about the cover, which was illustrated by the artist Jeff Östberg: that we have two boys on this cover. It’s been done before, but I was kind of nervous about doing this. All my novels are about queer boys, and this is the first time that I have a cover that has two instantly recognizably gay boys on it.
BECKY: They’re blatantly checking each other out. No question.
ADAM: Yeah! It’s clearly a rom-com, and for me it feels like another coming-out. It feels like I’m no longer hiding the kind of stories that I’m writing. I get to proudly say, “Yeah, I’m a queer author writing about queer boys, and I’m hoping that other queer boys will see this and that they will be able to take this home and get themselves recognized.” I’m really proud of the love story that Becky and I have created.
BECKY: I don’t think I can answer this any [better] — Adam just said everything so beautifully.