As I was reading You Know Me Well—a new young adult novel co-authored by Nina LaCour and David Levithan, released on Tuesday—I racked my brain trying to think of the YA books I read as a teenager. And that's when I realized: My favorite YA books as a teen weren't even books at all.
They were movies like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Velvet Goldmine, manga like Fake and Ranma 1/2. In these media, I found so many different expressions of queerness that were missing from my everyday life in the suburbs of Worcester, Mass. If I had stumbled upon more YA books like You Know Me Well—whose narrative alternates between the perspectives of queer teens Mark and Kate, who meet, by chance, at a San Francisco Pride celebration—I wonder if I would've been a more avid reader of the burgeoning literary genre back in the mid-aughts.
I recently got in touch with You Know Me Well co-author Nina LaCour. LaCour, who lives in the East Bay with her wife and 3-year-old daughter, is also the author of Everything Leads to You (2015), The Disenchantments (2013), and Hold Still (2009), along with an as-yet-unannounced fifth novel to be published by Dutton in early 2017. Over the phone, we spoke about her latest release, the collaborative process of writing alongside David Levithan (Boy Meets Boy; Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist; Will Grayson, Will Grayson), queer representation in YA fiction, and more.
Fusion: So, how did this collaboration between you and David Levithan come about?
Well, I had been a longtime reader of David's books. The first time I met him, he was on tour with John Green for [their co-authored novel] Will Grayson, Will Grayson, and I had just published my first book [Hold Still] with the same editor. I was pretty starstruck by both of them. I continued to see David at other conferences, and then he asked me in a kind of abstract way if I would want to write a book with him. I was super excited. He had wanted to write a book about a gay boy and a lesbian girl for a while, and he was looking for the right writing partner.
You and David trade off chapters in You Know Me Well. You write the chapters from Kate's perspective, and David handles Mark's. Was the process pretty back and forth, or did you have any input on the other's sections?
Together, we came up with a very loose concept: We would have a boy and a girl who meet during Pride in San Francisco, and they would experience something together that would begin a friendship. Then, David wrote the first chapter and sent it to me. I picked it up from there, and the entire book was like that, chapter by chapter. We didn't do any outlining or brainstorming together, so we kept each other on our toes. I had never done a collaboration like this before. When I write books, I have to think carefully about all the characters and the plotting and really stew in every detail, but with [You Know Me Well] I was powerless to all the twists and turns David would send back. I had to totally let the book go once I sent over my chapters.
Your character, Kate, is about to graduate from high school. She plans on studying painting at UCLA in the fall, but she's really questioning if that's the right track for her. This theme of meeting expectations vs. being impulsive before your teenage years are up seems to pop up a lot in your novels. Is that something you dealt with a lot when you were in high school?
No, it isn't. I didn't really question—I kind of just went along this very traditional academic route. I graduated from high school at 17, finished college in four years, immediately went to grad school, and finished in two years. It's only in the past few years that I've started to question [that path]. What if I had explored a little bit more? What if I had given myself other options? What would that have been like? I got to be a high school teacher for a few years, which gave me an outside perspective on how terrifying it can be for 17-, 18-year-olds to leave home and be expected to make that decision. College right after high school isn't really the right choice for some people. Sometimes there isn't room for teenagers to know they have options—that one path isn't the only path.
Would you say that Kate gives readers a model for someone who's weighing other options?
Not so much a "model." But I guess knowing that there are options out there is a good thing, and more representation of that is a good and helpful thing.
Speaking of representation, the world of You Know Me Well is so unapologetically queer. From the protagonists to the side characters to the crowds in the background, there's so much representation as far as gender and sexuality are concerned. Have you ever been discouraged from crafting a world like that?
You know? I haven't. I've actually been incredibly supported by my publishers. It's exciting and refreshing to see queer issues so celebrated in young adult literature right now. My third book, Everything Leads to You, was my first novel with a queer narrator. I didn't know if it would sell at all, but it was the book I wanted to write—and it turned out to be pretty widely read and pretty well loved by readers who are queer and straight and anywhere else along the spectrum. David and I joked about how, without discussing it, we wrote a world with barely any straight characters in it. Maybe just the parents?
Beyond representation, the queer characters you wrote are so free of a lot of the standard tropes. No one gets beat up or killed. There's no suicide. There's no intense self-hatred or internalized homophobia. Not to say that the characters aren't informed by their identities, but their identities don't inform all of their problems. Like, homophobia definitely exists in the world you wrote, but it's not like an after-school special written by straight people. Was that aversion to the standard tropes of queer storytelling intentional on your and David's part?
It was more organic. I think David really set the tone in that first chapter. There's a lot of angst and heartbreak, but it's also really celebratory and fun. That's how the book started, and we ended up carrying it through to the end. It is important for me to have positive and optimistic depictions of queer relationships and show that the agony and angst and heartbreak that come with them are the same agony and angst and heartbreak that can come with any relationship. I've talked to teenagers, and they want to read stories about everyday queer relationships. We didn't set out to do that, but I'm happy with that being the result.
I don't remember the whole YA genre being so clearly defined when we were growing up, but do you remember seeing a lot of queer or lesbian representation in young adult books when you were a teen?
I can't really say that I did, but I did gravitate towards writers who wrote about young women. One of my favorite queer books was Valencia by Michelle Tea. It was definitely not a YA novel, but it was about young people in San Francisco, in the Mission. It exposed me to different meanings of queerness and opened my eyes to a lot of things that other books I was reading had not. Francesca Lia Block, who did Weetzie Bat, was a pioneer in depicting queer characters, but I didn't read them till later.
Oh, my god. One of my fully grown friends spent an entire 45-minute traffic jam describing the plot of the Weetzie Bat books to me.
[Laughs] It has a very dedicated cult following.
So many YA novels have been adapted into movies in recent years [like John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, Gayle Forman's If I Stay, David Levithan and Rachel Cohn's Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist]. If you were going to cast You Know Me Well, who would you pick?
I'm so out of touch! It's ridiculous. I had a child three years ago, and I've completely lost all pop culture knowledge. Especially with young actors and actresses—they grow up! In my mind, Jena Malone is still this perfect teen, even though she's only a couple years younger than me.
Is there a film adaptation of You Know Me Well in the works?
David and I haven't talked about it because we've been so focused on the book. But I think it would be really fun, and I think bringing these stories into mainstream media would be a really great thing for all kids out there.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Bad at filling out bios seeks same.