Grilling YA author Amy Spalding on the summer's hottest queer teen romance — and the best burger in America
In Amy Spalding’s The Summer of Jordi Perez (and the Best Burger in Los Angeles), 17-year-old Abby Ives is trying to land her dream job, her dream girl, and her dream burger while ditching the idea of being a sidekick in her own story. It’s a frothy and romantic comedy, and with the mainstream studio closet door finally kicked wide open by Love, Simon, maybe now it’s the girls’ turn.
EW sat down with Spalding to get the dish on the queer teen romance of the summer, as well as taste-test the signature burgers from the three top national chains. What could be juicier?
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We come bearing a Burger King Whopper, a Wendy’s Single, and a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder!
AMY SPALDING: [Spalding unwraps the Whopper] This is good! I’m hungry. Things really could go any way. [takes a bite] The charbroil – that’s like their differentiating feature, right? This one doesn’t have cheese, but I like it anyway. The burger patty actually has flavor. I used to think it was a gimmick. They could paint the charbroil on and just inject a flavor into it, but it still works on me.
Throughout your book, Abby is on the hunt for the best burger in Los Angeles with her friend Jax. Why burgers? Are they the quintessential comfort food for you?
Yes, they’re one of my top comfort foods. I feel like a lot of comfort foods are snacks, but there’s something about a burger that I can justify as, no, that’s my entrée. Also, a trick for when you’re broke and you go to a nice restaurant and all your friends are getting steaks that you can’t afford? There’s almost always a burger on the menu that’s like 20 dollars or less, so you can be skating in with that burger and still looking like you’re part of the team.
I’m also a big believer that Los Angeles has amazing burgers — a lot of burger culture was started here — so I thought if I was doing an LA summer book, I really wanted to include them. Tacos were almost too cliché, and are almost endless to some degree, whereas burgers are a little more clearly defined.
You’ve written five books, but this is your first queer romance – why now?
I wanted there to be more queer representation, not just in books — period. A lot of the young adult fiction with queer characters was just really depressing. I think a lot of those books were aimed at straight kids to be like, “you should really think twice about bullying someone,” or for them to see how hard it is to come out, see how hard it is if your religion disagrees with you, and I just kept thinking if I was growing up now, I’d be, like, wait, are things better or not? There are so many swoony, heightened love stories for straight kids, so I wanted to write a queer romance. I wanted it to be swoony.
I wanted the love interest to have great hair — that’s always my top priority in writing someone dreamy – and I wanted to take away that dark element because while, of course, it’s a reality, there should still be escapist fantasies, too. I really wanted something positive, and either something with someone’s great reality reflected or a fantasy for people so that they could say, “Well, maybe it’s hard for me now, but look at the great romance I could have.”
Before we continue, should we try the Wendy’s Single?
Well, I like the size better. It’s a delicate lady-like burger for me. You can actually enjoy the whole thing. [Takes an indelicate, yet still lady-like bite]. I like the patty of the Whopper best so far, but I like everything else about this Wendy’s burger. The cheese is like Velveeta, the tomato’s way better, and I love this bun. I love everything about this, except for the burger itself. What a weird situation, Wendy’s.
Aside from the queer romance, this book also differs because the protagonist isn’t a wisp of a girl waiting for someone to see her beauty, but, rather, she’s a self-proclaimed “fat girl.” Why did you decide to also make Abby’s weight be a part of her identity?
[lowers her voice] Girl, you just don’t know how beautiful you are, that’s why you’re beautiful. [laughs] I wanted to write a book about a girl who cares about fashion, and I wanted to write a queer romance, and I wanted to write about a fat girl, and then I was like, oh, I think this is all one book. I loved writing the queer romance from the fat girl’s POV because it was sort of fun to explore how girls feel about their bodies when it’s also talking about girls touching other girls’ bodies.
There’s a point where Abby say that for “maybe the first time ever” she feels like she’s in her own story, and yet the book is named after her crush. Was that a conscious decision?
A lot of my books are named after important characters, but also, even though Abby is finally in the center of her own story, so much of life you define by relationships, and I know to her, as she’s looking back she’s like, “This is the summer I fell for Jordi.” It was the filter that Abby experienced the summer through. Also, it was very important to me to have the love interest name in the title because it was a girl. For a while there were the queer romances that would have a title like Secrets, and the cover would be just girls’ hands barely touching. Like, it’s clearly a “You can tell your parents it’s about friendship…or sisters” book, and I was like, no, this book is gay — take it!
The love scenes so perfectly captured both the titillation of being with a crush as well as being with a girl, specifically. Did you find writing intimate moments between two girls to be any different from writing love scenes between a girl and a guy?
I actually found it easier because it was easier for me to get in Jordi’s head, as well as Abby’s because I’ve been a teenage girl; whereas teenage boys are still somewhat of a mystery to me. I don’t remember teen boys being super helpful in what they said when I was in high school.
OK, final burger: the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder.
When I see a McDonald’s burger, there’s a comforting feeling that washes over me. I literally opened [the box] and sort of went aahhhh. I grew up in the Midwest, and chains were good to us because to me that felt like I was connected to something bigger. [takes a bite] It still has a McDonald’s essence to it – that’s comforting, but it looks better than it tastes so my mouth is like what?
There were moments in the book that rang especially true of awkward high school memories. Why do you think you’re able to so convincingly write YA?
I think that what we go through in life is not that different from high school. There’s still a lot of awkward social interactions, it just might be with a group of colleagues, instead of people at school. And, maybe there’s someone you’re always trying to impress and it’s hard to impress them but it’s not a teacher, it’s your boss.
I still show up at a parties and am, like, oh, this is a party where people stand against a wall. Should I stand against a wall? Should I go mingle? Are we allowed to take those hors d’oeuvres? And I’m going through all that in my head, and people tell me, oh, I saw you at that party and you looked like you knew what you were doing, and I’m like I didn’t even know where I was allowed to stand! Everyone has these things.
With Love, Simon being such a success, one has to imagine this could translate just as well to screen. Who would you cast as Abby? Jordi?
If Jordi was older I would cast Stephanie Beatriz from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, so that is what I would tell the casting people: Find the 17-year-old version of her. For Abby? She’s not an actor, but do you know that singer Mary Lambert? The first time I saw a photo of her I was like, oh my god, that looks like Abby grown up but not with pink hair.
You often find that queer stories are injected with straight characters in order to make the story more palatable for mainstream audiences. The chemistry between Abby and Jax was pretty great, which begs the question of whether or not you intended that to be Jax’s purpose?
I’ve had a few people say, “I’m so used to when cute boys are brought in as a romantic prospect , but you just brought in a cute boy and let him function as a friend,” and my thought was, don’t worry; just because you’re in this kind of story, doesn’t mean you don’t get all sorts of characters. There’s something about writing a guy who I didn’t need to worry about having some romantic arc. I just got to have a lot of fun, and make him say inappropriate things.
Yeah, I really didn’t want to like Jax, but by the end I was like, oh crap.
That’s how I felt writing him, even. It was almost like, OK, we’ll see how you end up, sir. Then writing him was so fun. He won me over. In a lot of stories, Abby would’ve been the sidekick to her friend Malia, and Jax would’ve been the sidekick to his friend Trevor, and they would’ve been this beautiful golden couple at the center of a romance. Instead, I told the story of a friendship between the two sidekicks.
Speaking of, which of these two burgers would be relegated to the lesser roles, and which burger comes out on top?
I think it might be Burger King, and I think it’s Burger King and then McDonald’s because you know what? At the end of the day, even if everything else is great, if the burger itself is boring, what is it? It’s just a bread with condiments. This isn’t The Best Bread with Condiments in Los Angeles.
Very true. So the King is #1, making you somewhat of a Burger Queen. Last question, your Majesty: How much of you is in Abby?
Abby’s definitely bolder than I was in high school. I feel like when she was able to make things move forward with Jordi, I don’t know that I would have. And we have different queer identities. Abby doesn’t like any boys at all. That’s not me, but I absolutely like cute girls, too. Our fashion is very similar. The reason I have dresses I like is because I’m financially irresponsible about dresses.
People will ask me what my trick is, and I’m like, don’t put enough in savings and buy everything you like on ModCloth. That’s my secret; don’t follow it. But I think a fun thing about writing young people is you can take your own experiences as an adult and give them a little more wisdom that you wish you had had. I wish when I was a teen and struggling with body image that someone would’ve been like you know what? If you feel good and have cute clothes, that’s enough.