Becky Albertalli Interviews Dahlia Adler on Unlikable Male Characters, Race in Hollywood, and Not Fading to Black

Dahlia and BeckyToday in “posts structured to screw with your head a little bit,” I may be the “author” of this one, but since I’m also the author of a book releasing this week—a contemporary Hollywood YA called Under the Lights—I asked a different author to take the reins of this interview. And who better to ask than my fabulous friend Becky Albertalli, author of possibly the most happymaking YA of all time, Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda? Not only do I have massive appreciation and respect for Becky as an author and proponent of joyful LGBTQ YA, but she also wrote perhaps the greatest post that has ever been posted about my book’s predecessor, Behind the Scenes. So kick up your heels, throw on some rainbows, buy yourself a copy of Simon ASAP, and come hang out!

I cannot even explain how much I love this book. It’s the perfect mix of sequel and standalone, and it feels like seeing a totally new side of your oldest friend. Under the Lights is ridiculously fun, addictive, hilarious, romantic, and—seriously—groundbreaking. I’m so honored to have the chance to pick Dahlia Adler’s beautiful brain.

Under the Lights is narrated by two characters in alternating chapters, and I can’t remember the last time I’ve encountered a pair of voices that were so distinct. Can you speak about your process developing Josh and Vanessa’s voices? Did you find one perspective more challenging to write?

It is really embarrassing to admit this, but Josh’s voice came much more easily. I watched Entourage from start to finish, and if ever I had a “What Would Josh Do?” moment, I just flashed back to the show. The one thing those guys do have going for them is their loyalty to each other, and that’s a big Josh value, so even his good points reflect some of the show’s influence. For me, Vanessa was actually more challenging to write, partly because when I started writing Under the Lights I knew almost nothing about her—including that she was a lesbian—and partly because she’s not inspired by anyone, real or fictional. She was much more of an “Okay—how would a character I’ve crafted to be X, Y, and Z respond to this?” experience.

Josh Chester is an utter douchebag–he’s the classic spoiled, sexist Hollywood party boy. WHY DO I LOVE HIM? I’m seriously so curious to hear what people’s reactions have been to Josh so far! How did you manage to make an “unlikable” character so totally likable?

Aw, I love that you love him! But the truth is, a lot of people haven’t (at least for the first half of the book), and I’m kind of…relieved about that? We see so much talk of unlikable characters with girls, but almost never with boys, so to see that Josh isn’t getting away with everything with readers is kind of heartening. Which isn’t to say it’s not cool to like him! I think especially people who read Behind the Scenes first know Josh has solid qualities of loyalty and telling it like it is to people who need to hear it, specifically with the aim of helping his friends through their drama. And I think people like that he doesn’t pretend to be anything he’s not. In Hollywood especially, that’s a rare thing. Ultimately he seems to win most people over by the end, and I think it’s because it’s obvious his grossness is only skin-deep. Mostly.

This book is, of course, set in Hollywood, and you never shied away from discussing uncomfortable truths about racism in the entertainment industry. In particular, Liam (a white actor) had seemingly endless opportunities for career advancement, while Vanessa (a Korean American actress) understood her options were limited. Can you speak about the way Liam’s and Vanessa’s experience reflect the reality in Hollywood right now?

As a straight white male actor, Liam’s career is basically limitless. And I’m not suggesting he doesn’t work hard, because he does, but think of how many guys like him can headline movies right now. It’s a tremendous number when you compare it to men of color or queer men or even white women. Now try it with women of color; are you still above single digits? Now try it with a queer woman of color. Now try it with a queer Asian woman. Or take away the queer part; try it with an Asian woman, period. You can mix and match whatever you want, but there’s no question Liam and Vanessa’s experiences in Hollywood are worlds apart. Nothing could reflect that more glaringly than that a part for a real-life Asian woman went to Emma Stone instead. Vanessa constantly feels one wrong move away from crashing and burning, and how could she not, when it was pretty much a miracle she got her part in the first place?

What actually was cool was that in the time between finishing the book and publication, both Selfie (which has John Cho as the male lead) and Fresh Off the Boat (which has an entirely Asian lead cast) premiered on TV, so there has in fact been a closer eye specifically on Asian representation in the media than there was when I was drafting. I mean, that closer eye will still tell you that Asian representation in the media is still sorely lacking (especially for women), largely stereotypical, desexualizing, and uses actors from different countries interchangeably (e.g. Japanese American Keiko Agena playing Korean American Lane Kim on Gilmore Girls), but hopefully it’s a very early step in what will remain an ongoing conversation. I hope Under the Lights helps make younger readers more conscious of the representation they’re seeing (or not) on their screens.

Over the course of the book, 18-year-old Vanessa falls in love for the first time and begins to realize she is gay. Her love interest, Brianna, came out as bisexual in high school. I love that the book includes multiple perspectives on coming out, without implying there’s a right way to do it. Can you speak a little bit about what those experiences were like for Vanessa and Brianna?

Vanessa’s life has definitely been  less traditional than Brianna’s, and one thing that stunted her a bit in terms of getting to know herself is the fact that she’s in this world of make-believe where she’s constantly manipulating her own emotions. So for her, it would’ve been much more natural to chalk up attractions or chemistry (or lack thereof) to various Hollywood elements. But Brianna caught her at a very real-world, real-emotions moment—her best friend leaving her behind—and that was so key. It was exactly the right catalyst for her to explore her feelings and relationships.

On the flip side, Brianna’s realization of her own sexuality came more gradually, but unlike Van, who needs to calculate and consider every move due to both her career and her parents, Bri is very much the type to push things out in the open and keep them there. So with them you see how their respective natures are a factor, and how their surroundings are a factor, and it’s because you’re exactly right—there’s no right way to do it. Sometimes the world doesn’t make it a safe place for you to do it in your teens. Sometimes you’re not sure where you stand and you’d like to keep it to yourself until you figure it out. There are a million reasons your timeline or style might not match someone else’s, and that is so completely okay.

I know many early gay and bisexual readers have commented on how authentic Vanessa’s experience reads. As a straight author, what was your process for developing that aspect of her character?

This is sort of a two-part answer. Regarding the process, like a lot of research, just interacting with the world with a listening ear will tell you so much. I’d venture to say most of my friends in the writing community identify as either gay, bi, or queer, so even just getting to know people, I picked up a lot. I worked off everything from remembering how I first learned how these friends identified, to Twitter chats, to paying attention during frequent discussions of issues such as bi-erasure, to just hearing them talk about past relationships and growing up queer… In truth, this is just what my life looks like, what the conversations I engage in are about. It also meant I had a lot of wonderful gay, bi, and queer friends to read either the entire book or just a few scenes to help make sure I was spot-on. (That sex scene went through a lot of readers.)

And then there’s part two: the “straight author” part. That part kind of depends on who’s doing the term-defining. I don’t have any sexual experience with women, and as I’m happily and monogamously married to a man, I don’t plan to. But sexual attraction to women? Yeah, I definitely experience that, as my Twitter feed will tell you loud and clear. So, that makes some people consider me straight, and some people consider me bi, and frankly, I’m fine with either one. But when it comes to knowing that freakout of “Oh, weird, that feeling is new and not what I saw happening and what does that mean?”…yeah, I’m covered; no bonus research necessary.

Rhetorical question: how ridiculously hot is that sex scene? Non-rhetorical question: will you speak about your decision NOT to fade to black for Vanessa and Brianna’s sex scene?

love when people love the sex scene in this book, and I can basically talk about it until the end of time. That decision was made so, so firmly from draft one. Like, I actively geared up to fight for it, and then I got back my edit notes and they were all, “Loved this, didn’t change a word, and if you want to add any more f/f content, consider it pre-approved. Also, feel free to add more kissing throughout the book.” (I did.) I’ve read so much LGBT YA and so startlingly little of it contains sexual content, and so little of that contains sex that isn’t fade to black. And obviously not every kid is having sex in high school and we need books all over the spectrum, but this end of the spectrum had almost nothing. And I think that’s a huge problem. The beauty of sex scenes in YA is a chance for authors to portray what healthy and consensual and real experiences look like, because a lot of kids aren’t getting that from anywhere else, especially with regard to non-hetero sex. I really wanted to show those things, and also that hey, the emotions—and yes, the hotness—are the same regardless of the body parts and genders of the participants. And, frankly, I just thought it was time queer girls had their own book to hide under the mattress.

One of my absolute favorite aspects of this book is the way it subverts the enemies-to-lovers trope with Josh and Vanessa’s friendship. How would you describe their relationship? What would you like to see more of in platonic male/female YA friendships?

What’s fun about Josh and Vanessa is that even though their relationship isn’t a romance, that very familiar romance trope still applies, as does it being a “slow burn.” They definitely take time to warm up to each other and realize the positive impact they’re having on each other’s lives, and I think that makes the friendship they end up with so much stronger and deeper for it. It’s a funny contrast to the actual romance in the book, between Vanessa and Brianna, which is basically instant attraction and a much more rapidly developing trust and love, for various reasons. I loved writing Josh and Van’s friendship, and I’d love to see more platonic male/female YA friendships that kinda follow romance tropes; I think they’re really fun. Also, more friends of different genders talking about “the unknown,” please! A huge part of why I’m really comfortable writing from the male POV is because my guy friends in high school and college were really open about everything from their feelings to their…solo activities, and I very rarely see those kinds of friendships in YA. Just guys and girls texting or talking on the phone in a platonic manner is so rare that it struck me hard when I saw it in The Night We Said Yes, by Lauren Gibaldi, and it’s a big reason I have so much love for that book.

Since you’re known as the rec-ing ball, are there any books you would recommend for readers (like me) who are hungover from your book and desperate for more like it?

Why yes, yes there are! One thing that really excites me about Under the Lights is that I don’t think there’s anything just like it, especially because of the non-romantic dual-POV, but depending on what you like about the book, there are some excellent next-read options. The most obvious one is Everything Leads to You, by Nina LaCour—if you want more YA set in Hollywood and featuring girls who like girls, this lovely one should definitely be at the top of your list—but I also recommend Siera Maley, who’s my new go-to author for the ultra-rare light and happy lesbian YA. I know some people have responded strongly to Bri’s bisexual representation in the book, if you want to see more of that (and/or another queer-identifying girl of color as narrator), I highly recommend Hannah Moskowitz’s Not Otherwise Specified. For a great book with on-page sexual content between girls in YA and excellent bisexual representation, Far From You, by Tess Sharpe is a must; for the same but with a happy ending, I’ll have to send you to New Adult for Leah Raeder’s upcoming Cam Girl, which deeply explores both intersectionality and sexual/gender identity. Obviously, if you’re looking for more light contemporary LGBT YA regardless of gender of protagonist, there’s none I’d recommend more highly than Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda…but I suspect you’ve probably read it a few times already! If it’s a book about a male/female friendship you want more of, try Althea & Oliver, by Cristina Maracho; if you want more…Josh-ish-ness, try Sway, by Kat Spears; and if you want more contemporary narrated by a Korean American girl, there’s Maureen Goo’s Since You Asked and Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. So, there’s a start!

Among many other things, I know you’re a Sweet Valley High fangirl. Based on personalities alone, which Sweet Valley characters correspond with each member of the Daylight Falls gang? (I realize this is probably the most challenging and important question anyone has ever asked you.)

Oh, my God, I can’t believe I have never considered this before, and yes it is probably the most challenging and important question I have ever been asked! I mean, Josh is an obvious Bruce Patman; that’s just not a question. Liam’s more of an AJ Morgan—an attention-grabbing hot-but-quieter guy who doesn’t love to be praised. Vanessa’s a creative and kind extrovert, which I suppose makes her…Olivia Davidson? And alas, Ally’s probably Elizabeth Wakefield, which breaks my heart a little bit. Bri’s a sexy chick with an edge, which you didn’t really get in the Sweet Valley High series, but if you dip into the way underrated Sweet Valley Senior Year series, Jade Wu’s given a much bigger role there, and she’s who comes to mind!

I am really happy to know that you have more books in the works. Will you speak briefly about what’s coming down the pipeline for you?

Yes! It’s wild that I actually already have another YA coming out so soon, but I’m really excited for Just Visiting to release in less than five months. It’s a dual-POV contemporary YA about best friends whose relationship is tested by secrets and realizations that come out while they’re embarking on college visits together, and I hope people who loved Ally and Van’s imperfect friendship in the duology will see a lot to love in Reagan and Victoria, too. I’m also currently working on the two follow-ups to my New Adult novel, Last Will and Testament, and writing another dual-POV contemporary, this one with historical inspiration and—yes—another girl/girl romance. Can you ever really have enough?

Under the Lights is available for preorder, and Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is out now.

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