This special episode features an event Jeff hosted for Barbara’s Bookstore in Chicago featuring author David Levithan. David talks about his most recent book, the short story collection 19 Love Songs, and his tradition of writing a short story for his friends every Valentine’s Day. Among the other topics in this wide ranging conversation, David also shares what inspires his stories, what it was like to have Two Boys Kissing adapted as a choral piece, as well as the work he does to bring stories from new authors to the world. We wrap up with news of what’s coming next and some book recommendations.
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Here are the things we talk about in this episode. Please note, these links include affiliate links for which we may make a small commission at no extra cost to you should you make a purchase.
- The Mystery of Brackenwell Hall by Gillian St. Kevern on Amazon
- Widdershins RPG on Kickstarter (running through October 31, 2020)
- Widdershins: The RPG, Percival and Persephone’s Birthday Bash (October 30, 2020 at 7pm ET) on Bluestockings Bookstore
- David Levithan Interview
- David Levithan: website | Twitter
- 19 Love Songs by David Levithan (Amazon | Barbara’s Bookstore | Libro.fm)
- Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan (Amazon | Barbara’s Bookstore | Libro.fm)
- The Realm of Possibility by David Levithan (Amazon | Barbara’s Bookstore | Libro.fm)
- How They Met and Other Stories by David Levithan (Amazon | Barbara’s Bookstore)
- “Out of the Woods” by Taylor Swift on YouTube
- The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (Amazon | Barbara’s Bookstore | Libro.fm)
- Francesca Lia Block on Amazon
- Every Day on David Levithan (Amazon | Barbara’s Bookstore | Libro.fm)
- NaNoWriMo website
- “Stronger” by Kelly Clarkson on YouTube
- “This is the Day” by The The on YouTube
- Proud anthology by various authors on Amazon
- Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan (Amazon | Barbara’s Bookstore | Libro.fm)
- Two Boys Kissing performed by the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus on YouTube
- Freedom to Read Foundation website
- Rachel Cohn on Amazon
- Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by David Levithan & Rachel Cohn (Amazon | Barbara’s Bookstore | Libro.fm)
- Magisterium series by Holly Black & Cassandra Clare (Amazon | Barbara’s Bookstore | Libro.fm)
- You Know Me Well by Nina LaCour & David Levithan (Amazon | Barbara’s Bookstore | Libro.fm)
- We Are Okay by Nina LaCour (Amazon | Barbara’s Bookstore | Libro.fm)
- The Disenchantments by Nina LaCour (Amazon | Barbara’s Bookstore | Libro.fm)
- Mind the Gap, Dash & Lily by David Levithan & Rachel Cohn (Amazon | Barbara’s Bookstore | Libro.fm) (pre-order until November 3 2020)
- Dash & Lily on Netflix
- Invisibility by Andrea Cremer & David Levithan (Amazon | Libro.fm)
- Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green & David Levithan (Amazon | Barbara’s Bookstore | Libro.fm)
- The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. by David Levithan (Amazon | Barbara’s Bookstore | Libro.fm) (pre-order until February 2, 2021)
- Where We Go From Here by Lucas Rocha (Amazon | Barbara’s Bookstore | Libro.fm)
- Here the Whole Time by Vitor Martins (Amazon | Barbara’s Bookstore) (pre-order until November 10, 2020)
- Big Gay Fiction Podcast on Patreon.com
- Big Gay Fiction Podcast patrons on BGFP website
- Libro.fm website (use this link to receive your Big Gay Fiction Podcast special offer)
- Frolic Podcast Network website
Interview Transcript – David Levithan
This transcript was made possible by our community on Patreon. You can get information on how to join them at patreon.com/biggayfictionpodcast.
Jeff: So let me introduce David Levithan for you. When he’s not writing during spare hours on weekends, David is the editorial director at Scholastic and the founding editor of the PUSH imprint, which is devoted to finding new voices and new authors in teen literature. His acclaimed novels “Boy Meets Boy,” and “The Realm of Possibility,” started his stories he wrote for his friends for Valentine’s Day. And that’s something he’s been doing for 22 years and counting. Both of those happen to turn themselves into teen novels. He’s often asked if the book is a work of fantasy or a work of reality. And the answer is right down the middle. He says, “It’s about where we’re going and where we should be.” Hello, David, thanks so much for being here.
David: Thanks for having me here.
Jeff: I love that last little bit in your intro about, “It’s about where we’re going and where we should be.” I think that captures so much of your writing so well. I think I heard you say once that in fact, you like to write the world as you want it to be so often, and I think that’s so great in the world that we’re in right now.
David: Yeah, absolutely. And I’ve learned because I mean, “Boy Meets Boy,” came out 17 years ago now that sometimes when you write the world as you want it to be, then give it enough time. And slowly the arc of history curves that way, and it’s more realistic than you thought at the time.
Jeff: Yeah, which is fantastic. We got to keep riding forward that way.
Jeff: So today, we’re here to talk about “19 Love Songs,” which is exactly what this book is. It’s so wonderful. Describe it for us, in your own words.
David: It is a collection of different pieces of fiction, and nonfiction, some you can’t tell whether they’re fiction or not. But it’s basically 19 rifts on love and 19 stories about love that basically accumulated over many years, and I decided to basically… I love making mixes and mixtapes and mix CDs. So I basically made a mix of these stories and put them together in a way hopefully, that they work as a whole as well as individually.
Jeff: It’s such a lost art, the mixtape, it’s not the same making a playlist as it was creating those things. And I love that you do it with stories. How did you select these particular stories for the collection? Because it’s a bit of a mix of things that have been published in various places, but also things that are for the first time coming into print.
David: I mean, really, it was going through the laptop and going through the file and seeing like, “What do I have here?” I’m sure we’ll talk about I do write a Valentine story every year, so it had been about a dozen years since my last collection. So that was roughly 10 of the 19 stories probably came from that. And then if there were holes, just seeing which holes I wanted to fill and writing a story. Interestingly, originally, the book was called “21 Love Songs.” And as I gave it to my editor, whose name is Nancy Hinkle, who has edited pretty much all of my books, I thought, “You know what, two of these don’t quite fit, but I’m gonna see what she says.” And sure enough, I got my editorial letter from her. And she was like, “I love it. But I have to tell you, two of the stories don’t quite fit.” I was like, “All right.” She’s like, “Are you gonna write two more?” And I was like, “No, we’re gonna change the title. And it’s gonna be ’19 Love Songs,’ instead of 21.” And so it is.
Jeff: How did you get this going of writing the Valentine’s Day story? How did that begin?
David: The origin story is that it started in physics class in high school. It’s not a spoiler to say that I did not enjoy a physics class in high school, I took it because my friends were in it. Science was not nearly as fascinating to me then as it is now. And so I was bored. And I had my physics book. And so I decided what I would do is I would find all of the puns for romance in the physics book. So opposites attracting, oh, they have chemistry. And I wrote a short story called “A Romantic Inclination,” which is in my first collection, “How They Met.” And I finished it in January and was like, “What should I do with this?” And Valentine’s Day was coming up. And I was not a big fan of Valentine’s Day, I thought it was overly commercial, it put a lot of pressure on. And if you were single, then what did you do? So I was like, “I’ll just…I’m gonna Xerox it and give it to my friends for Valentine’s Day. It’ll just be my valentine for them.” And I did. Shamelessly, I gave one to my physics teacher, which was daring because I felt that it sort of outed me as having not paid attention in his class. He thought it just was creative and wanted to submit it to “Physics Teacher Magazine”, and I was horrified. I was like, “No, this is not going to be the first place I am published.” So he did not. But that should have been that and then the next year, my senior year of high school, January came around and my friends were like, “So what are you writing this year?” And I tried to get out of it and said that, “This was not meant to be a thing.” But no, it was the thing. They were like, “No, it’s a thing.” So I wrote another story. And so once you’ve done it twice, it’s 30…how many years later? Thirty-two years later, 33 years later, I’m still doing it. So it just is the one deadline I have every year.
Jeff: And eventually they make it into a collection.
David: Exactly, exactly. That was not… I think it’s safe to say that 16-year-old David was not thinking, “Oh, in 2020, my older self is going to be talking about the second collection of stories he’s done.” I don’t think that was on his radar. He was just bored in physics class.
Jeff: I love that you had friends at 16 who were supportive enough of your writing, to say, “Hey, where’s the next story?” I don’t know that I would have shared writing at 16 with anybody outside my English teacher, maybe.
David: That’s right, the book is dedicated in part to my parents. And then in part to two friends from high school, Mayling and Linda, who were two of the people who are most encouraging and who most might one might even say demanding of me to continue to write, and they would read whatever it was. And so the dedication says they were there at the start. And I really do think that they were that if they had not encouraged me so much in high school, I don’t know that I would have gone on the path that I went on.
Jeff: That’s awesome. And I think your physics teacher maybe underestimated a little bit. Because you obviously were paying attention enough to find the puns.
David: Right, right. You just don’t want me building a bridge based on that.
Jeff: That’s probably very true. Yeah. So many of the stories in “19 Love Songs” managed to play with all my emotions at once, because there’s so many things going on. One of the stories that I really just love that went from, I’m laughing, I’m cringing at what’s happening. There’s this wonderful kind of…I wouldn’t call it happily ever after because there’s couples together at the start, but it revolves around Taylor Swift. And the story is called “The Woods.” And it really digs into the idea of your inner relationship. And there’s those moments where you reveal something that maybe not everybody knows that might make other people cringe. And in this case, it’s Taylor Swift. Where did this story come from?
David: I mean, the honest truth is that…so I’ve said, I have one deadline every year, it’s February 14th. So usually what happens is around January 30th, I go, “Oh, my God, I need to write a story in two weeks. What is it going to be about?” Maybe it’s a week earlier, but usually, it’s that deceptive turn of the year. I’m like, “Oh, I have plenty of time.” And then it’s January, I’m like, “Oh, I have no time.” And that year, it was definitely the year after “1989” came out, or her album “1989” which was very much like the album of the year for me and on repeat, so and it must have been on, I was like, “What if you were dating somebody who wrote Taylor Swift fanfiction? And you were not a Taylor Swift fan?” I mean, it’s sort of a riff on the old, “What if you fall in love with the person who loves dogs, and you hate dogs?” And so how would that play out? And basically, I wrote the story to see how it would play out. And it’s funny because I’m not… Genuinely I’m writing from the point of view of the person who doesn’t understand Taylor Swift at all. Whereas I am not a devoted fan, but I liked especially that album. So it was that interesting give and take of sort of plumbing both sides of my own feelings about Taylor Swift in these two characters.
Jeff: And I listen to her music. I’m not a devoted…know everything about her either. But I feel like you may have had to do some research in here, because you really dig into some Taylor Swift stuff, what those songs meant, and did you have to kind of go over into all that in the couple of weeks you had to write it?
David: I mean, the scary truth is no, no, I mean, and it’s like, how do I know that like, she and Selena Gomez are friends, and Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber go…are on and off again, like, of course before his marriage, again, it was just in the ether. I had internalized more of it than I thought. And so like the little bits and pieces of her that are in there, again, I just picked up along the way. But for me, it really…I’m not crazy about Taylor Swift, but I love Taylor Swift’s music. And so, for me, it’s the purest sections of that story are really when you…it is about the music and about the effect that music has, and the title comes from the song “Out Of The Woods,” which the first time I heard it just blew me away and still is probably my favorite of her songs. So I wanted to sort of convey some of that in the story that I was writing.
Jeff: Music comes back over and over again. We’ll talk about a couple more stories and “19 Love Songs,” that are tied to music. “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” I mean, it goes on and on your music. Was music kind of a love before writing or have the two always been kind of tied together?
David: Oh, they’re definitely tied together. I mean, I definitely…I’ve always listened to music all the time. I would just with friends watched “Xanadu,” on Saturday night to just relive my 1980 Olivia Newton-John glory, but like that was I mean, I was the 8-year-old who was like listening to my Xanadu cassette obsessed, but I was also obsessively reading “The Western Game.” So I don’t know how the two meld but those are my two major influences. And with “Boy Meets Boy,” I was very consciously sort of inspired by the writer Francesca Lia Block, I was like, “Oh, a novel can be a pop song. And how do I make a novel like a pop song?” Like that was my goal with “Boy Meets boy.” And sometimes that is my goal with the stories that I write or novels that I write. Other times, I really have to rein it in. I mean, one of the harder things about writing the “Every Day” books is that the main character changes bodies every day, is not a pop culture person at all, right? Like is living on a different plane. And so it was very funny that I was like, “Okay, I must control that is not a defining characteristic of this character, I must not put myself in that capacity.” Whereas other characters, it’s much more a part of their lives, and that I can relate to more.
Jeff: As I mentioned, you hit so many emotional moments in these stories, even when they’re super short. Is it a challenge to hit so many of those moments in something that is that small?
David: Yeah. Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think writing a really good short story is just as hard as writing a really good novel, I think you have such a limited Canvas, and to make people feel something within 15 or 20 pages, or even 10 pages. That’s quite a challenge. And I’m always admiring, I think it is, especially in YA, it’s a form that really we don’t read enough of and promote enough. There are very few practitioners of short stories, I think. I mean, partially, it’s a generational thing. I think, my generation, we thought we had to write short stories before we graduated to novels. Now sort of the NaNoWriMo ethos is that you basically go straight into Novel Writing. And I missed the short story phase, because I think there’s a lot to be said, both for your talents as a novelist, as well as a short story writer, by learning how to do things short.
But for me, honestly, while I’m writing, I’m just in the story. And so what usually ends up moving the readers is just something that I discover as I’m writing it, and it moves me, just those unexpected moments where the characters I’ve thrown together, do something oftentimes that I was not expecting. And that’s the magic of writing to me is discovering that along the way, and then hoping it conveys itself to the reader when they pick the book up.
Jeff: One of the sequel stories inside “19 Love Songs,” alongside one’s for “Boy Meets boy.” And we’ve got one from “Every Day.” Which is like one of my all-time favorite books, the way that you brought “A” to everybody just really grabbed me when it came out. For those who don’t know what that is, and you’ve alluded to “A” little bit, give folks a little bit of an overview of what that is. And then how you decided on the method to tell a story, because it’s really unlike a lot of YA fiction and just fiction we see out there in general, the way the story is told.
David: Yeah, I mean, “Every Day,” again, started with a premise. It was basically, what would your life be like if you woke up every day in a different body in a different life, and it has always been that way? And I did not know the answer to that question. But I basically wrote the novel, in part to see what the answer was. And so many things that come from that, you have no gender, you have no race, you have no parents, you have no set friends, nature and nurture just get thrown out the window. Again, going into it, I didn’t even think of the implications until I was in it. And then suddenly, the implications were very much there. And I decided that I would write the books that basically every day, A does wake up in a new body, and I don’t plan things out. So basically, wherever I thought of first for A to be or whomever I thought A, would be when I started a new chapter, that’s who A would be.
So “Every Day” the first book starts when A is 16-years-old. And so we see A basically through their 16th year. For the story in “19 Love Songs,” one year for the Valentine story, I thought it would be really interesting to go back and to be like, What if you were younger? What if you were a third grader, and you were still waking up every day in a different body and let’s see a day in A’s life younger and that’s where that story came from. I’m fascinated by that. I think A is an interesting lens to look at different parts of life. Maybe someday I will write a prequel or write something with “A” being younger, just because I think that would be a very different book than the ones that I’ve written. But that story was me sort of testing that out.
Jeff: Yeah, this one was really interesting, because A have this mantra where they try not to mess up the life they’re in for the day. And they’re doing everything in this story they can to make this day good for the mom, who’s taking care of them that day. And I just…it’s so heartwarming, and it’s just another look at love really.
David: Yeah, no, I think I mean, one of the things I love about stories about love is that they don’t have to be about a romantic couple, like you have love for your mom, you have love for your friends, you have love for your siblings. And I wanted the stories in this book to really reflect that. And that one in particular, again, it was Valentine’s Day and I was like, “You know what, I really…I haven’t written about a mom and a relationship with a mom.” And I think A especially would be such an observer to what that phenomenon is like. And so I really love trying to distill what that relationship was like through A’s eyes.
Jeff: I’m wanna take a little divergent course here and ask one of the questions that has come up, because you may not have an answer for it, given what we said, but Tiff is curious what A’s favorite song would be.
David: Again, having just said that, I don’t know…I don’t think of A in those terms…
Jeff: But just to put you on the spot for a second.
David: Oh, yeah, I think what’s interesting, I will sidestep it by saying that in the book, A bonds with the girl Rhiannon, who A ends up falling in love with. And there’s a lot made of the one song that they sort of listened to on the first day, and it comes up a few times in the book. In my mind, I actually always thought it was Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger,” which is just a very upbeat sing along in the car with the windows down song. But for some reason, I was like, “I’m not gonna say that. It’s actually more interesting if you don’t know what song it is.” But then for the movie, I believe the director chose it, chose a song called “This Is The Day,” by The The, which in a strange like small world coincidence was my best friend in high school, that was the first song he ever put on a mixtape for me, it’s literally track one, side one of the first mix he made for me, which the director had no idea. And it was the perfect song. I mean, it never would have occurred to me to use that song at that moment. But then the minute I learned that they were doing it, I was like, “Oh, my God, that is perfect.” So honestly, at this point, now, if I were answering the question, it would be that The The “This Is The Day,” that was such like, spectacular choice. If you’d asked me when the book came out, it would probably have been Kelly Clarkson.
Jeff: A can have two songs.
David: Yeah, exactly.
Jeff: Totally fine. And continuing on our music theme, possibly the longest title in the book, I didn’t quite measure this for sure. “As the Philadelphia Queer Youth Choir Sings Katy Perry’s ‘Firework,'” which is also not super easy to say. Again, another very different storytelling style here, as you jump back and forth in the thoughts of the choir literally singing the song, you captured so many different types of teams here, it was really interesting. And I’m curious, like how you pick the types of people you were going to feature in that piece.
David: I mean, that piece started, to give credit where credit is due, I was asked to be a part of a book called “Proud,” that a UK publisher published there, it’s won a lot of awards over there, which was basically a number of…I mean, well over a dozen queer creators writing stories just about being queer today. And whenever you accept an assignment like that, I mean, at least whenever I accept an assignment like that, I of course, immediately become paranoid that I’m gonna write the same exact story as somebody else. And so I asked myself, “Okay, what can I do with my story that I’m pretty sure that nobody else will do?”
And so it happened that I was asked to write the story around the same time that there was a choral adaptation of my novel “Two Boys Kissing,” which is extraordinary, which was composed by an amazing composer named Joshua Shank. Everybody, I encourage you to look it up. It is on YouTube. And it was commissioned by the Twin Cities, Gay Men’s Choir, but then numerous other gay men’s choruses did it, including the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus did it with the Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus. And so I had just seen their performance of it. And of course, I went as many times as I could see it, and I was just struck by the dynamic on the stage. I mean, here are a number of gay men thrown together, they’re rehearsing all the time. Some of them have dated and so you’re like, “What must be going through their heads?” And so I decided I would write a song. I’m trying to encapsulate all of the thoughts going through their heads during the span of one song.
Katy Perry’s “Firework,” just seemed like what is like the most gay men’s choir song there is to sing. I mean, I would argue for “Firework,” I feel that it’s probably the canon of most and if it’s not, it should be. So that was why I chose it. And so I literally would be there playing “Firework” over and over again, trying to make sure my timing was as accurate as could be with sort of different movements of the song. And as far as picking the different voices it really was trying to reflect…I mean, you see these gay men’s choirs or choruses and it is a cross section. I mean, it is such diversity across every possible identity, and an intersection of identities. So I wanted to try to reflect that as much as I could.
Jeff: It’s really interesting what you have running through their head, it’s everything from “What’s this guy over here doing? And what are these people in the audience doing,” to, “Oh, my God, what am I doing sitting here on the stage?” How did you get in the headspace for it? I mean, there’s so many characters. And when you think about a basic story, there’s usually the two primary characters, maybe some side characters, you’ve got a lot of characters in play here.
David: I will admit that I cheated. I mean, this is where, unfortunately, the printed page is not as good as my document online, or on my laptop, because I gave every character a different color. And so that was as I was writing, again, it was very easy to switch from one to the other, keep every storyline straight, because I was like, “Oh, it’s Purple.” Purple is seeing his father in the audience and is recalling what their experiences are, “Oh, my God Red keeps looking at Orange and he doesn’t know if Orange likes him or not. I mean, so in many ways that was my cheat was that I sort of gave them the personalities and matched them with the colors. And then later we arranged it on the page. So in a black and white book, you would be able to tell the different voices apart.
Jeff: That’s cool. You mentioned the coral adaptation. I just briefly wanna touch on that. So often, when we think about adaptations, it’s like, well, would it be a movie? Might it be a TV show? Might it be a play? To become a choral work is not the usual. What was that whole thing like that it got adapted in that way.
David: I mean, it was extraordinary. And the book is written, is narrated by first person plural group of men generation, basically, who passed away from AIDS looking down at the current generation. I will admit, never…I didn’t even think of it as a chorus when I was writing the book, it was my editor who was like, “Oh, it’s narrated by the Greek chorus.” I was like, “Oh, it is.” But even then, I read the audiobook. And the reason was, I felt that the authorial voice was the closest you couldn’t have a group of men reciting this together, that would make for a very awkward audiobook. It didn’t occur to me that a chorus might someday do it. But somebody at the Twin Cities Chorus read the book, and was like, “This would be an extraordinary piece for our chorus.” And they got in touch with me, with my poor agent, not used to dealing with contracts involving choral work. So it was a learning curve for a lot of us, but did. And then they hired Josh, the composer, and he just ran with it. And I chose not to hear anything while it was being made, I wanted to show up there and just see it for the first time there knowing that I would be sobbing the whole time, which I was. Yeah, it’s beyond my wildest dreams. I mean, I love, love, love the movie and TV adaptations of my work. But I think if I were to sort of take the one that’s the most special to me, it would definitely be the coral adaptation just because it just transcends the source material in a way that I never would have expected.
Jeff: Everybody go look that up.
David: Yeah, no, seriously.
Jeff: Right, afterwards.
Jeff: The final story in this collection, to me, I think is the most powerful and as I was preparing to talk to you and kind of re-read this, it took on even more I think important at the time that we live in right now. It’s called “Give Them Words,” and you actually wrote it back in 2014, for The Freedom To Read Foundation. And it’s really a love letter to librarians, teachers, booksellers, writers, and the work that they do day after day, and I’m gonna take the leap to read just a bit of it here to give people a little bit of a tone for what’s in this. “You are here for the girl who sees college as her only way out, the gay boy who wants to get married, the lonely girl whose father hits her and her brother who knows it’s happening but doesn’t know what to do.” It’s not all that heavy and deep now, because later on, you come in and say, “If they do not know who they are, you give them words to provide the options.” There’s such a mix of emotion and the types of people that books impact. What’s really your message for the folks in these professions today? We’re also socially distanced right now and connecting the book to the right person gets more challenging. How can we overcome that a little bit?
David: I mean, I think librarians and booksellers are the most resourceful people I know. And so they will find a way to get the word out about books. But I mean, the reason I wrote the piece was…I mean, it was twofold. It was because I work, as you said, in my day job as a publisher, I get to see sort of the industry from a different vantage point. And I appreciate that, when they’re lucky, authors are really the only ones who get the profound thanks, and when somebody reads a book that changes their life, they are much more likely to DM or email or write to the author and say, “Your book changed my life.” They very rarely, although sometimes they do, will go back to the bookstore where they bought it and say, “You changed my life,” or to the librarian who bought it for their library and say, “You changed my life.” And so I feel that because that the author is the collector of the compliments and collector and firsthand witness of the changes that books can do, one of my jobs is to make sure to pay it back to the people who put the books on the shelves to begin with. And so I’m always looking for opportunities, whether it’s speeches, or something like this to point out that my books would just be sitting there, waiting to be discovered without people actively taking them from the shelf and putting them in people’s hands.
For this in particular it was the 40th anniversary of The Freedom To Read Foundation, which I encourage all of you to support because they are among the greatest defenders of books when they are challenged or when censorship is attempted. And it happened that the 40th anniversary was celebrated in a place where they’d just gone through some brutal challenges. And so the families who basically defended the books and librarians who defended the books in the community actually came to the event. And so specifically it was me wanting to show them that what they did really matter not just for their community, but really for thousands if not millions of kids and adults that they would never meet. And so that the “Give Them Words,” is my attempt to encapsulate all of that in one piece. So it is an outlier. It’s as much a speech as it is a poem as it is a story. But again, when I was making the mixtape that is this book, that absolutely felt like the great place to end it with gratitude, because I think that is always a great place to end.
Jeff: We’ve only talked about a fraction of the stories that are in “19 Love Songs.” And if Barbara’s bookstore gave me time, I’d talk about all of them. But I’m curious of the ones that we haven’t talked about, is there one that you would call out to our audience that you really kind of want them to know about?
David: Oh, my goodness, I shouldn’t….
Jeff: And I know this is a little bit like, you know, pick your favorite child and everything.
David: I know like chose one. I mean, I love…I tell the story of how my parents met, which I love that story. I will say there’s one in there called “Storytime,” which I’m gonna freely admit that it is one that, again, I’m sure it was January, and I was like, “I better write a story for Valentine’s Day.” I wrote it very quickly. I probably proofread it twice. I sent it out to my friends. And then I completely forgot about it. Like, truly, that was the story that when I went back to my computer, and was like, “Okay, now it’s time to put this book together.” I saw a file called “Storytime.” And I was like, “What, what is that? I must have written it, it’s on my computer.” And I opened it up and as I started to read it, I was like, “Oh, I think I do remember this.” But I genuinely did not remember where it went or what it was about until I was reading it. So I have the strange sensation of reading something I’d written almost as if I were a reader. And it really moved me in a strange way because it’s about basically when you’re in a relationship and by circumstances out of your control, one of the boyfriends’ lives just really starts to go bad, bad things happen. But it’s not that they did bad things, it is the bad things are happening to them. And how do you navigate that?
And so I’m very glad it’s in the book. And this book came out in January, I will say that, right now I’ve gotten a lot of response to that particular story, because I think it does connect to what we’re going through now and trying to navigate tough times that are beyond your control. And it means something differently to me now than it did when I was putting the book together. So that one, I will say, again, that’s sort of the sleeper surprise of this new collection. Again, there are lots of stories in there that I’ve loved. And I’ve been, really…I’ve enjoyed sharing in there, as you said, they’re re-visitations to various characters from previous books, “Boy Meets Boy,” “Every Day,” “Two Boys Kissing,” but that one is its own creation. And I’m just glad that it ended up in there.
Jeff: It’s interesting that you mentioned how it looks at a relationship that goes through this rocky period. One of the things that, you know, we often consider when you think about the romance trope, and everything that wraps around love, it’s always about the meet cute to the happily ever after. And, you know, that’s that. There are stories in here that follow that trajectory. But there’s so many too, like, “Storytime,” like, “12 months,” and a few others where it’s like, these are people in a relationship, and you’re watching them navigate good times, bad times, you navigate life. And it’s just these interesting little tidbits that you’ve given us along the way, and make these powerful stories. And it’s nice to see love looked at in that more like what happens after happily ever after is where some of these characters really are.
David: This is not putting it down in any way. But the reason my first collection was called “How They Met And Other Stories,” was, at one point while I was putting it together, I realized that almost all of the books were about meeting, and about falling in love, and about that first part of a relationship. It was not by design. Again, that book had 10 years’ worth of stories. But for whatever reason, that was the part that I was writing about the most. And I think once I realized that, I was like, “Okay, it’s my first collection, it’s good to start at the start.” But then after that I truly have made a very deliberate attempt to not go back to the how they met and not go back to the meet cute. Again, there are some stories in here that are deliberately that way, again, the one where I talk about how my parents met is an echo. Because in how they met, there’s the story of how my grandparents met. But for most of them, and with my novels as well. I do wanna actually focus now in the thick of it, and how you navigate that much more than the “Bliss Of Meeting.” Because again, “Bliss Of Meeting” is fun. Right, this is romance month, I don’t wanna take away from that at all. But I do think there are plenty of other aspects of love to explore. And I’m lucky enough that as I get older, I get to explore them in writing.
Jeff: Because there is keeping the romance going.
Jeff: You have what sounds like a wonderful job to me, where part of it is really crafting the books and the authors of the future. A, it’s as awesome as it sounds. And what are some of the practicalities that are in that?
David: I love I mean, I started at scholastic when I was 19, I had been there ever since which is many years. And I love being able to play with other people’s words as well as my own and to empower other authors to write things that I never could dream of writing, I would never be good at writing. It is so vital to have people writing authentic stories and putting them out in the world. And again, I think most authors, if not all authors believe this. But luckily, because of my double life, I do have the day job where I can commission and empower and promote authors who are doing that. And the PUSH imprint, which again is nearing its 20th anniversary, which is crazy, again, started about just finding we wanted a whole new generation of YA authors and finding all first time authors and getting their voices out there. And it’s amazing to me that it still continues. I mean, lately, most of the authors who are on there are queer voices, which I think is fantastic. I think in 2003 when I started the body of Queer YA Literature, not very wide, it was extremely white, it was extremely male. And so it has been amazing over the past, especially over the past decade to see us becoming more and more inclusive and intersectional and again, being able to present to the world, all of these different authors, rather than having the hubris of thinking that I could write any of these stories myself, because I could not.
Jeff: How, does the job and what you see there impact David, the writer, do you just manage to essentially leave that at the office when you’re done with the day and go to do your own creative work? Can you really separate them?
David: I mean, strangely, I can. I mean, I always say that I was an editor for 10 years before I really became a novelist. And I think that was a good decade to build the wall between the two parts of my brain, I mean, and it goes also to my writing, just the way that I write. I mean, that I…again, I’m not a planner, I am not very conscious of the mechanics of the story when I’m in the story, like basically, when I’m writing, I’m in there, I am with the sound of the words, I am with the characters. I’m not thinking about anything else. So I’m not conscious of my day job. I’m not conscious of other books, I’m not deliberately strategizing to put anything in the book, literally, the story takes over. And that’s what ends up on the page.
So I think luckily, because I am that kind of writer. It certainly makes it easier to put the walls up. But then I do think, I mean, the part that I am conscious of is I get to see firsthand how important these books are, and what effect they can have. And certainly, that inspires me to no end. I’m just as inspired by other authors’ success as I am my own because it just every authors’ success shows what YA, books can do and how they can affect lives and society and identity. And so I get to be a really close spectator in my day job to how other people’s books affect people. And that pride, and that certainly affects what I do as a writer.
Jeff: Looking at some of our questions from the audience. Dolorianne would like to know, “Since most of your stories are complex, YA stories. What is it that you find so compelling about characters in that age group?”
David: I love I mean, I think it is the origin story of adulthood. I think that I love a finite amount of time, just sort of try to see how people form who they are. And I think it is a complex time, I think that there’s a lot of questioning, I think there’s a lot of stuff that can happen really fast. I mean, I look back at high school and like, I can’t comprehend that all the things that happened and all the feelings I felt were all in one year. Like, it seems like it was so much longer than it really was, and especially in retrospect. And so I love just informing that. And again, I think, for me, the grand themes of my writing are about how we become who we become, and how we connect to other people, and then how we learn empathy. And I think, looking at the teen years specifically for that. And again, I think it’s a very important lens to look at those years. And I think you can use those stories to help other people figure out those questions in their real life too which I don’t feel adult literature does as much I think it does it sometimes. But I think YA, does it much more.
Jeff: Cheryl has a question about co-writing, and how that works for you. Because it could seem like a challenge at times for those who have given a shot at the collaboration thing.
David: I mean, I love it. Obviously, I collaborate with so many people now. But no, it is…I love it. Because, again, because I’m a spontaneous writer, it is playing off of somebody else’s spontaneity, we never plan out the books ahead of time. We always alternate chapters, whoever I’m writing with, and you end up with a story that you never…either of us, I’ll use Rachel Cohn, who I’ve written mostly with, as an example, you look at our books, Rachel, and I would never have gotten these books individually, you have to have the combination of us. And you have to have us playing off of each other to get “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” or to get Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares.” And so I love that I love that spirit of it. I think, in part because I am an editor, I’m not precious about the story. I know how to play well with others. And so for me, it’s just exciting to be able to share something.
And so everybody I collaborate with or every time that I collaborate with somebody like Rachel, who I’ve collaborated with multiple times, I discover more things about my writing, and then I put out a story that I’d never would have put out otherwise. So I love it. But I will say again, just to make clear my process. The alternating chapters part is key, because that means that each of us has a piece of the book that is ours. And we still have control over our own chapters. Even though we have no control over the whole story. I do know people, and I always use Holly Black and Cassandra Clare worked on a series that I edited called “Magisterium,” they actually could sit next to each other on the laptop, and compose and finish each other’s sentences and work together. I don’t think I could do that with not just any of the people I’ve collaborated with, but anybody. I think I still need the solitary, I’m writing this piece on my own. And then the sharing part comes with the emailing it to whoever I’m writing with, and then seeing what comes back to me.
Jeff: You mentioned that the people you’ve collaborated with are also writers such as yourself, who are the pantsers of the group who don’t plot. Do you think you could actually co-write with somebody who plotted?
David: Well, the funny part is I actually inadvertently did. One of the funny things about, again, the way that I do collaborations is we don’t really talk about them, we just do them. I don’t want us to plot it. I just wanna run with it. But then what ends up happening is you go on book tour with the person you wrote a book with, you’re asked questions about your process, and you suddenly discover things about the other person. So in this case, I wrote a book which I love called “You Know Me Well,” with Nina LaCour, it’s incredible. If you’ve not read her books, you must start with “We Are Okay,” or “The Disenchantments,” either one of those. So we wrote this book, again, we did it going back and forth. It is basically her character is a lesbian girl who the love of her life is about to show up who she’s never really met in person before. And my main character is a gay boy, who has basically been in love with this guy forever, and doesn’t know how to break free of that. And so basically, the book is about them helping each other and basically unlocking just the whole pride community around themselves.
When we were on tour, the question about “Oh, your process,” and I was like, “Oh, yeah, we just shoot it back and forth.” And Nina said, “This was actually the first book I’ve ever written sequentially.” And I was like, “What do you mean?” And she’s like, “Yeah, no, I’ll write the middle. I’ll read a chapter towards the end. I write it at the beginning, I have an outline that I sort of stick to. And it’s just whatever scene I want to write. When it’s speaking to me, that’s how I write.” And I was like, “Oh, my God, like, so I forced you to write literally,” and she’s like, “You did.”
So it’s very funny. But I never in a million years from with the enthusiasm with which she was sending chapters back to me in a linear fashion, it never occurred to me that this was not how she usually did. But her writer brain is wired in a very different way from mine. But we only found that out after.
Jeff: Would you have been able to roll with it if suddenly, like chapter 27 showed up after chapter 4?
David: I mean, again, part of me is like, “David, you’ve been writing a lot, you whatever, have whatever 25, 26 books out, it’s about time you really tried something very structured. Like, just try it. Like, you’re up for any other challenge.” So who knows, maybe one day I will agree to collaborate with somebody who is a really solid outliner who says, “Okay, we are going to hash out everything ahead of time. And then we’re gonna fill it in whatever we feel like filling in.” I think I’d be up to that challenge if I was pushed in that direction.
Jeff: So Tiff has another really good question. You came back to 3 different books within “19 Love Songs.” Are there other characters you’d like to revisit again, at some point?
David: I mean, the easy answer is not particularly. And I’m always surprised. Usually when a book is over, like, for me, it is over. Rachel and I are very different this way. Rachel thinks about where the characters are 10 years later, I genuinely don’t. But in those cases, I was like, “Oh, let’s try going back to them or try a side story.” I mean, right now, the next book I have coming out is the third “Dash & Lily,” book which Rachel and I wrote, it’s called “Mind The Gap, Dash & Lily,” it comes out, unfortunately, on Election Day. On the plus side, you’re not gonna forget that it’s coming out on Election Day. On the minus side, you’ll probably have other things to do on Election Day, then go out and buy the book. But it is the third book.
And again, we would never go back to Nick & Nora, we would never go back to Naiah & Elli. But for some reason, Dash & Lily was the pairing that we were like, “You know what, we could keep coming back to this over and over again.” And very fittingly, it was the one that somebody thought would make a good TV series. So the TV series is debuting probably in November, on Netflix. And the idea is basically each season will match one of the books. So we are two books ahead of the TV series. Hopefully we’ll write a book four and there’ll be a season two.
But that, for me, that is the only cast of characters I’ve ever thought of continuously, even “Every Day.” I did not think that I was necessarily going to write two more books, but then the ideas came and I ran with them. So will see I would never close the door on anything. But right now it’s not… no, that’s not true. I almost made myself a liar. I would love to write another invisibility book with Andrew Kramer. That is actually, that is the one that is open ended that we would love to go back to. So I don’t think there’s any solo book I wanna go back to. But if I could go back to any other thing that I’ve written, that’s where I would go to.
Jeff: Dolorianne has another question as well. What is your favorite, “I am an author moment,” like an experience or an opportunity that has happened to you because you’re an author?
David: Oh, my God. I mean, genuinely, my answer would usually be, I mean, that first night, seeing the choral performance of “Two Boys Kissing,” was a highlight. I mean, maybe not the highlight. But that was something, again, because they’re the things you dream about. And then the things that are so far above what you could ever imagine. So that one. I do think…I mean, the Will Grayson, Will Grayson tour, when I was with John Green, and we were touring around, and just seeing his devoted following that would come and how much the books meant to them. That was, I mean, that was an extraordinary moment too where again, it was on a bigger scale. Probably the highlight for me for that actually came later was at the National Book Festival, where John and I were actually separate presenting our books. But it was a tent of like, 600 people, my family was there, my niece was probably 2 or 3 at the time, and I got to wave to her, and she waved back in the crowd, I waved to her. And that was like, that was pretty amazing. I think on the grand scale. That’s it. And then on the smaller scale, obviously, it is, anytime somebody writes to me and says how my books had meant to them. Again, whether it is helping them grappling with their identity, helping them realize there is a reason for living, helping them figure out how to talk to somebody they love like that, that always gets me. So I think it exists on both planes. But I’ve been very, very, very charmed as an author in that regard.
Jeff: If we jump into next year, February, just in time for Valentine’s Day, you’ve got “The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S.” coming out, what can you tease us with about that book?
David: It will be a tease, it is my first middle grade, and it is me basically, writing the book that my fifth grade self would have loved. It is about a boy whose brother goes missing, and then comes back with a reason for being missing that nobody really believes. And so it’s about how it affects the brothers, how it affects the family, how it affects the community. And that is all I will say about it, and it is going to be an extremely hard book to talk about it. But I’m really excited about it.
Jeff: Sounds like it’d be filled with spoilers if you talked about it too much.
David: Yes, it is. But yeah, it was really fun to write for younger for a challenge.
Jeff: What led you into middle grade at this point?
David: I mean, honestly, it was the story. It was I…usually it is I mean, as with “Every Day,” it’s a premise comes to me. And if I can’t stop thinking about it, then I have to write the book to play it out and see where it goes. And this one, I came up with the premise of the missing brother and sort of where the brother would say he was. And then I literally wrote the book to figure out how that would go. And the reason there are twists and turns and hopefully surprising things within it is because I genuinely, I didn’t know what the ending was gonna be until I was there. And that was just a lot of fun to write. So hey, yeah, and I just let myself do that.
Jeff: Very cool. I mean, it is the advantage to being the pantser, right? Is that you don’t know where it’s going. So it will surprise you surprise the reader. Everybody gets a surprise.
David: Yeah. And hopefully it’s a good surprise.
Jeff: I always love to hear from authors what their book recommendations are. What have you been reading this summer that the audience should be checking out?
David: Oh, my goodness, there’s so many books. I’ve been home. I’ve been reading a lot. I love the book, “Where We Go From Here,” by Lucas Rocha. It is a book that is on PUSH that I did not edit. But it is about three boys in Brazil, dealing with sort of love, lust and HIV. One of them does not know is basically we start seeing him getting an HIV test and sort of follow him on his journey, and then follow two other boys on their journey, which again, I don’t wanna spoil by telling too much about. YA, I love but one of the things we’re very short on it’s books in translation, and certainly queer books in translation is almost unheard of. And it’s just…it’s remarkable because it came to life to me as if it was happening next door to me, and it’s just really beautifully done.
And I’ll say there’s another book if I can tease to another book while I’m on the Brazilian translation YA, there’s another book that’s coming out called “Here the whole time,” which is a Taylor Swift reference by Victoria Martens. And it comes out in November. And it is basically about a boy who has body image issues and just basically just very doubts himself. He knows he’s gay, but doesn’t feel like he’ll ever attract anybody. And then he has a crush on a boy in his building, who must move into his bedroom for 15 days, by some circumstance. So it’s basically like, what is it like to share a room with your crush. And since this is romance month, it is so tender and like, every little detail is so wonderfully done. And there are some moments of, let’s call it romantic confusion. I don’t wanna ruin them here. But like, had me laughing out loud because they were so, so true to life, like the equivalent of again, like being on the subway, and thinking the person is like approaching you to like, pick you up or like or, say a compliment. And they’re like, “Hey, I see you have a watch. What time is it?” And you’re like, “Ah, oh, that romantic fantasy that was in my head for the past 30 seconds is now dashed.” Like this book is that in extremists and it’s really well done. So those are the two that I will recommend.
Jeff: Yeah, I’m grabbing both of those you just recommended. David, thank you so much. I have had the best time chatting with you.
David: Yeah, it’s has been great. Thank you so much.