Becky Albertalli and Katie Cotugno talk YA fandoms and uncomfortable political conversations
Becky Albertalli and Katie Cotugno are bestselling authors, both with highly-anticipated YA novels on shelves this June. Both have tackled topics from the ins and outs of tricky teen relationships to voter registration. But what's more: They're friends. Here, the writers of this summer's Love, Creekwood and You Say It First, respectively, have a quarantined chat about their labors of love.
BECKY ALBERTALLI: Katie! I finished You Say It First, and I can't even tell you how much I loved it. You just kind of cracked open this conversation that I think is missing from the discourse — the uncomfortable reminder that, for some of us, progressive activism is wrapped up in these layers of privilege (knowing the right language to use, positions to take, etc.). I related so much to Meg, and I know so many people like Colby. I can't get over how you dug all the way into these two perspectives without ever sacrificing the narrative's moral center. Also, I shipped Meg and Colby so hard, it's ridiculous.
KATIE COTUGNO: BECKY! HELLO. Thank you so much, first of all! This book feels really personal to me, and it’s always a little scary to send something you worked so hard on out into the world, so it means more than you know to feel like you got exactly what I was trying to accomplish.
ALSO, I just finished Love, Creekwood, and it was such an utter delight! It gave me such flashbacks to reading Simon for the first time and wanting to set up camp in this warm and generous world. I like to imagine that while the rest of the world was experimenting with fermentation and Dalgona coffee, you wrote this entire novella in a burst of quarantinspiration, shouted “IT IS TIME!” and presented it to your editor with a flourish, but I am guessing that’s not what it was like. Can you talk a little bit about coming around to the idea of returning to the Simonverse?
ALBERTALLI: It's funny — I haven't had a chance much to talk about my process with this novella, but you're actually not too far off! It all happened extraordinarily quickly. I've been saying for years that I wasn't planning to revisit the Simonverse, and I really did mean it. But when the Love, Victor series was officially announced, I wanted to find a way to celebrate it with a book tie-in, and I knew I wouldn't be able to do Victor's story justice. But with the Victor story taking place when my original characters were college sophomores, I was intrigued by the idea of exploring that in-between year.
HarperCollins was on board, and I knew from the beginning that I'd be donating all my proceeds. But these conversations happened in February of this year. I ended up writing the novella in about two weeks while I was on book tour for Yes No Maybe So, and revising it during the early days of quarantine. And the team at HarperCollins was able to turn it around in time for a June publication date, to roughly match the Love, Victor release (for people who aren't familiar with typical publishing timelines, this is ABSURDLY fast).
Speaking of publishing timelines: when I read You Say It First, I was so struck by how current it feels! I know there's no way you wrote it this year, but it's so remarkably timely. In particular, the ways you unpack Meg's privilege — and Colby's privilege — feel more important than ever. I'm a white Democrat from an affluent suburb, and I related so deeply to Meg: her familiarity with progressive issues, her privileged earnestness, and the urgency she feels about political engagement. But when we meet Colby, he's much more cynical about the political system, in ways I found both understandable and exasperating. By the end of the book, we see so much growth from both characters, and so much of that progress happens through their (often uncomfortable) conversations. How intentional was that? What kind of responsibilities do we white progressives have when it comes to initiating uncomfortable conversations with other white people? Was this on your mind when you wrote it?
COTUGNO: Oh my gosh, absolutely. I really feel like having those tricky conversations with other white people is some of the most important work we can be doing — and it is uncomfortable! In all honesty at 35 years old, I'm still learning to just get over myself and do it, and part of why Meg is able to go at it so confidently with Colby is that, at least at the beginning, she does think he's a little bit beneath her. Having said that, it was VERY important to me that Colby and Meg were messier and more complicated than stock "red state/blue state" characters, with opinions that were informed by their actual lives and experiences. I relate really deeply to Meg, too, which meant that it was extra important not to let Colby become a straw man for whatever political opinion I was finding annoying that day, and to interrogate Meg's biases extra thoroughly. Meg means well, but she messes up CONSTANTLY. Which: same.
While we're on the subject of character work: what was it like to revisit this gang all these years (and books) later? Were they waiting right where you left them or did it take time to settle back into this world and these voices? I also remember you saying a long time ago that one of the reasons you didn't think you'd write a sequel was that logically to have a story you'd need to break up Simon and Blue and you didn't want to do that. Can you talk about the process of creating new conflict for characters who are so deeply beloved?
ALBERTALLI: First of all, everything you just said about Meg and Colby resonates with me SO deeply. I feel like I should change my Instagram bio to "means well, but she messes up CONSTANTLY." It's such ongoing work.
To answer your very lovely question: It was honestly pure joy being back with the Creekwood kids, and their voices were easy for me to slip back into. I think the more challenging aspect was giving the narrative a sort of frame, so it wasn't just my main characters emailing each other disjointed updates from their respective colleges. But during the beginning of the process, I had a game-changing email exchange with Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, the writers/showrunners of Love, Victor. Because the series includes updates on some of my characters’ lives as college sophomores, I decided to use Love, Creekwood as an opportunity to bridge the gap between my existing narrative and theirs. And getting my characters to the starting point for LV ended up being the heart of the story for Love, Creekwood.
You're RIGHT — the need for real, deep conflict made me very squeamish about writing a sequel! I still am, truthfully, and I don't know that I could have written another full novel about Simon and Blue without breaking them up. But I felt like the novella format let both of my main couples relax a bit and enjoy just being in love. I've been very open about the fact that this isn't a breakup book — I don't think there's even a moment in Love, Creekwood where you have to worry about that happening.
Which of course makes me want to ask you all my shippy Meg/Colby questions! One thing I loved so much about Meg and Colby is how hard they both fought for their relationship, and even their friendship. These aren't manufactured, comedy-of-errors-style conflicts (don't get me wrong, I love those, too!). But for Meg and Colby, the tension is baked into the nuances of their personalities and their very specific pair dynamic — not to mention the additional complexity of how they met in the first place (I don't want to steal your thunder, so I'll let you share the specifics, but suffice it to say that these two were not childhood friends or lab partners). To me, the push-pull between Meg and Colby was the beating heart of this story, and I'm so curious to know how you developed their relationship. Were there certain moments between you knew you wanted to include? Did your characters take the wheel at any point?
COTUGNO: You KNOW I love a messy, complicated romance, Becky Albertalli — and I actually think this one might be the messiest and most complicated I've ever written. Meg and Colby "meet" when she calls his family's landline from her job at a voter registration call center. They banter, they bicker, he says the worst thing he can think of, she turns around and calls him back. They fall in love — or something like it — over the course of these long, meandering, intimate phone conversations, but every time they try to ground that relationship in their actual lives, it's kind of a disaster. I was really interested in exploring a relationship that only really makes sense in a liminal space — which is actually the reason one of the most important in-person scenes in the book takes place in a Hilton Garden Inn in rural Ohio. Doesn't get more liminal than that.
Love, Creekwood isn't your only 2020 project — Yes No Maybe So, which you co-wrote with Aisha Saeed, came out earlier this year. Creatively speaking, how does the co-writing process compare to the work you do solo?
ALBERTALLI: Katie Cotugno, you are the QUEEN of messy complicated romances! And I love the idea of exploring this sort of liminal space relationship. Something that struck me again and again when I was reading was how many times Meg and Colby had to choose to interact. When I write love stories, I spend a lot of time choreographing scenes and creating situations that push my characters together. But I feel like you gave Meg and Colby one assist from the universe (the initial phone call), and everything after that required them to intentionally seek each other out. I was so moved by that!! It was also a very tense reading experience at times because there was no safety net. They didn't have friends in common, they were never going to randomly run into each other on the street, etc. And we see them both grappling with how easy it would be (at least logistically) to step out of each other's lives. I just feel like I haven't gotten to read this sort of dynamic very often, and I was really fascinated by it.
And yes! Wow, the last few months have felt like years, but Yes No Maybe So did just come out in February. And that book was such a joyful, cathartic experience from start to finish. I've been so lucky with both of my collaborations — YNMS with Aisha and What If It’s Us with Adam Silvera. Aisha and Adam are two of my best friends on earth, and I trust both of them completely — and I think that's why it worked. There's so much vulnerability that comes with sharing your writing, and with co-writing, the sharing happens a lot earlier in the process. It's terrifying at first! But there's something so amazing about creative collaboration — the way each story expanded through our conversations, and the particular way you get to know a character when you don't have to hold them alone. I just loved both experiences so much. I actually had a very, very hard time transitioning back to solo projects.
COTUGNO: Speaking of solo projects... I kind of have separation anxiety from you right now? Thanks so much for catching up with me, Becky, and congrats again on Love, Creekwood! This was so much fun.
ALBERTALLI: I feel the same!! And congratulations on launching You Say It First, yet another Cotugno masterpiece. I’m so excited to watch people fall in love with it, just like I did.