Becky Albertalli on how Upside of Unrequited adds to the Simon-verse, and writing a new kind of normal
Becky Albertalli first took readers inside the modern teenage mind with her debut novel, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. And now with her second one, she’s poised to do it again.
The Upside of Unrequited follows the story of Molly Peskin-Suso, a crush-prone teenage girl anxious for her first kiss who must navigate her twin sister Cassie’s first time falling in love and the distance it’s creating in their sisterly relationship. But soon Molly’s got a different kind of problem on her hand as Cassie and her new girlfriend Mina attempt to set her up with Mina’s friend Will, while Molly thinks she might actually be developing a crush on her new co-worker Reid.
But Albertalli’s latest characters aren’t the only treat awaiting fans of her work. The new book also features cameos from those in her last book. With the author slowly building up a narrative universe and tackling a different kind of teenage anxiety in her new book, EW caught up with Albertalli to discuss that, the slowly-forming Simon-verse, and what details she can spill about the upcoming Simon movie.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What inspired you to tell Molly’s story?
BECKY ALBERTALLI: What ultimately came together was a very, very personal story. The emotional arc that Molly goes through is very much one of the defining teen experiences for me. Not the part where she gets to make out at the end, because I got no action in high school. But it’s just that feeling that it was never going to happen for me. That I had some kind of glitch that I could see everybody around me making this work and not being able to fall in and out of these kinds of relationships. I wanted it really badly. But I just felt like it was impossible for me. From a plot perspective what I finally found for my touchstone was that I consider Upside to be a loose telling of Jane Austen’s Emma, or Clueless. Molly is actually Harriet or Tai, and Cassie took the Emma or Cher role. It gets further and closer to Emma from different points in the book, but there are certain scenes that I use in direct homage to that.
Molly is a very anxious character. What are some of the things you need to consider when delving into something like that in fiction?
I don’t use a diagnostic label in the book, but Molly has generalized anxiety disorder. That’s something that I have. One thing I ended up doing was putting her on Zoloft, like me. I am a psychologist. That’s my training. I don’t practice anymore, but as a psychologist you can’t prescribe medication to your clients. So the only time I’ve ever gotten to prescribe medicine has been to my fictional character, and it worked very well for her. I don’t think her anxiety interferes with her life to a dramatic degree, which is the goal of medication.
The book itself is very progressive in terms of representation of different identities. How do you approach including that in a way that’s organic?
I really enjoyed delving into each of these characters. It was definitely really important to me to really pay close attention to even the background characters who are from communities I don’t belong to. I used a lot of sensitivity readers, to get the extra layers of nuance. Some of them were from my own identity groups, and some were at various intersections of other identities, and some just because. Every single reader brought the material to life a little more for whichever character they were reading for. It was more than just factual. There’s little things like characters trying to push back against some of the stereotypes my sensitivity readers have been dealing with for years and years. They helped me position my characters to write against that. So it’s been exciting.
What advice would you give or your readers about dealing with their crushes or first loves?
Not all of my readers are going to be Mollys. Having a lot of crushes and wanting a boyfriend or girlfriend, that’s common but it’s certainly not universal. The message I want to give my readers is: You are not alone, and you’re not the only one, whatever your experience is in this sphere. It’s so easy as a teen to feel like everybody is having this normal experience, except you. You’re on the outside. Like from hearing conversations from the asexual and aromantic communities, about when everybody is talking about their crushes.
For me and Molly, it’s very much feeling like I wanted this and everybody else was experiencing it and I was the only one not. Nobody talks about how they’re not hooking up with somebody. I remember being a freshman in college and having a deep, confessional conversation and one of straight guy friends was a virgin and he was talking about that, and he was like, “Of course I’ve kissed people.” And I’m sitting there like, “I’ve never been kissed.” I thought there was something wrong with me, but now I know, because I was more open about it, there’s so many people who have not been kissed by college or in their 20s, or ever. There are so many kinds of normal.
Abby is the common denominator between both your books. Are you slowly writing a universe where all your books are inter-related?
They are connected. I don’t know that I’m going to be writing in this universe again after my third book, but they do exist in what my editor and agent calls the “Simon-verse.” But Abby is the first-cousin of Molly, who’s the main character in Upside so I had a lot of fun letting some of the Simon characters have cameos in it and sticking in little Easter Eggs for people who are familiar with it. There’s one towards the end that, I think you’d probably miss it unless you’ve read Simon a couple of times, or if you’re a really observant reader.
Where does Upside of Unrequited fall in relation to Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda?
Simon is set in the fall of 2014, and at the very beginning of 2015. Upside is set the summer of 2015, and my third book, which will be the sequel to Simon with Leah’s point of view, will be the spring of 2016.
What’s it like being on the set of the Simon movie? Are there any details that stand out to you?
There’s so many. The art department is really incredible. They’ve deliberately planted so many Easter eggs on the set and they’ve included so many details. Even ones from my third book. There are little things, like the alarm clock Simon had in his room when he was in middle school. I think that they put that alarm clock in the room for 10-year-old Simon. And there was actually a copy of Simon in the library where they’re filming. I also got them to put a copy of Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not in Simon’s room. That’s going to be on Simon’s shelf and hopefully, it will probably be visible.
Upside of Unrequited is currently available for purchase. Order it here.