2016 Morris Award Winner: An Interview with Becky Albertalli

Becky Albertalli is the winner of the 2016 William C. Morris YA Debut Award, which was presented at the ALA Midwinter Youth Media Awards. A full announcement of all of the titles and authors honored at the 2016 YMA’s can be found here.

Simon vs. the Hsimonomo Sapiens Agenda follows the developing relationship between high school junior Simon and an anonymous boy he meets on his school’s Tumblr site “Creek Secrets.” Simon is not ready to come out to the rest of the school, but after forgetting to log out of his email, a classmate discovers his correspondence and begins blackmailing Simon in exchange for Simon’s attempts to persuade his best friend to go out with him. The heart of the story lies in Simon’s close friendships and the sweet, slowly developing relationship between Simon and the boy he knows only as “Blue.” Albertalli’s debut novel already has many devoted fans and, after her Morris Award win, is sure to gain more.

Congratulation on being selected as the 2016 Morris Award winner! Can you give us an idea of what was going through your head when you won?

Thank you so much! I’m ridiculously honored, and I can’t explain how much this means to me. I don’t know if it’s even sunk in yet that my book won this award! I found out via a phone call from the committee, and I didn’t see it coming AT ALL. Even after I was named a finalist for the Morris, I still didn’t think winning was in the realm of possibility. I’ve always viewed my book as a romantic comedy. I have a lot of feelings about how rarely romantic comedies are recognized as having literary merit, and I actually feel strongly that rom coms deserve award consideration. That said, I didn’t think MY rom com would be considered for a national award. I’m stunned and humbled and so, so grateful. To be honest, I was floored to be named a finalist alongside Anna-Marie McLemore, Kelly Loy Gilbert, Stephanie Oakes, and Leah Thomas. Their books blew my mind. I can’t even describe what it feels like to be honored next to them.

Social media plays a huge role in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Simon and “Blue” meet through Tumblr and fall in love through emails. What was your reasoning behind having their relationship develop this way, and how do you think the story would be different if they had met “IRL”?

I love this question. Technology is a huge part of Simon’s story, and I truly believe this reflects the way many modern teens form the connections that matter most to them. There’s something almost magical about the way the internet shapes relationships. It allows us to get to know people, as Simon says, “from the inside out.” I think that possibility is meaningful for all of us – but for LGBTQIAP+ kids, it can be lifesaving. For Simon and Blue, who live in a conservative southern suburb, the internet is one of the only ways to connect with other gay teens. It allows them to find each other safely and anonymously, and it provides a space to discuss sexual identity before they’re actually out to friends and family. I can’t imagine this particular story even happening if they had first gotten to know each other “IRL.” Simon and Blue actually do know each other IRL in this story – but it’s hard to imagine them finding that intimacy and comfort with each other based on that relationship (I don’t THINK that’s a spoiler).

For what it’s worth, though, I think internet friendships and relationships do count as real life. Often, they’re even realer than what we think of as “real life.”

Speaking of techology, you are very active on Twitter, Instagram and especially Tumblr (where your fan base has created an actual Creek Secrets Tumblr), and are constantly engaging with your ever growing fandom: reblogging fanart, reading and sharing their fanfiction, etc. Most authors choose not to read fanfiction of their own work. Can you talk a little about why and how you engage with your fans and their fan works?

Oh my goodness – you’re giving me way too much credit, especially for Tumblr. I’m so bad at Tumblr – I don’t think I’ve even reblogged anything in weeks.

But I am very active on Twitter, and I try to be active on Instagram. I also do my best to reply to every email I receive. I really love hearing from readers. I can’t tell you how special it is to speak with people who connect in some way to Simon’s story. I LOVE the creeksecrets Tumblr page. It was started by one of my readers – an artist named Dee – and she’s somehow been able to create this little, vibrant community around the book. And it’s so in the spirit of Simon. It makes me incredibly happy.

It’s funny – I totally get why other authors choose not to look at fanart or read fanfiction of their work, but I’m the opposite. I read it and share it, and I’ve actually made fanart of some of the fanfiction. I’m really in love with the idea of this story as a conversation. I love to see how these characters live and interact in the minds of my readers. These interpretations are as real and as important to me as my own headcanon.

(It’s worth mentioning that this issue is a lot less complicated for me than it would be for some authors, because I don’t intend to write a follow-up focusing on Simon and Blue’s relationship. So, I don’t have to worry about accidentally copying someone else’s ideas about my characters.)

The premise of your book relies on Simon’s reluctance to come out to his family and friends. As a librarian who worked in a small rural Southern community I am grateful that books like yours exist so that teens who are struggling with coming out can see themselves reflected on the page. What advice would you give teens in similar situations to Simon?

This is actually a hard question for me, because I’m not in the best position to give meaningful advice here. Truthfully, I’ve never had to come out. And I think this is one of those issues where it’s important to connect with others who have lived through this experience, or are currently going through it. I love this resource via the Trevor Project: https://www.trevorspace.org (it’s a social networking site for LGBTQIAP+ youth).

A bit of advice I do feel comfortable giving is this: coming out is deeply personal, and no teen – or kid, or adult – should ever feel pressured to come out before they’re ready. Becky Albertalli

What advice would you give to aspiring teen writers?

I’m always hesitant to give craft advice, since I’m such a new writer myself, but I’ll recommend a few things that have been helpful for me:

-Read widely, especially within the genre you’re writing in, but be sure to stretch beyond that genre, too. Take note of your intellectual and emotional reactions to the stories you read. What works for you as a reader? What patterns do you notice across multiple books?

-Write. I’m not a writer who believes you have to write every day or track your word count, but I do believe it helps to simply practice getting stories on paper. It can be original fiction, fanfiction, personal essays – anything. There’s something so important about simply practicing this skill.

-I think it helps to give yourself the freedom to draft as if no one will ever read it (though I’m terrible at following my own advice here). You can change anything during the revision process. Try not to hold back.

-Connect with critique partners and other writers. This is so important for improving your craft, but these people will also become your community. I can’t imagine how I would have survived the past two years without the support and friendship of other writers.

It was announced this past October that Fox 2000 has acquired the rights to a film adaptation of Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda. What are your hopes and fears for the adaptation? Are there any parts of the story or traits of the characters that you feel need to be absolutely consistent with your text?

I’m actually mostly hopeful, and barely fearful at all! Like all optioned books, it’s definitely up in the air whether this project will become an actual film. But if it happens, I’m truly not worried about what the adaptation will look like. My film agents, Pouya Shahbazian and Chris McEwan, took such care when assembling the team to adapt SIMON – and they’ll both continue to be involved with the project as producers. I’ve had the opportunity to connect with my other producers (Isaac Klausner and the team from Temple Hill Entertainment) and my screenwriters (Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger), and I’m truly confident the story is in wonderful hands. It helps that my teams at Temple Hill and Fox have already collaborated on some of my favorite adaptations: The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns.

As for keeping the adaptation consistent with the text, the only aspect I’d want to be very literal about is the racial and physical diversity of the characters. I want my black characters to be played by black actors and actresses, and I’d prefer to avoid casting a thin actress as Leah. But having talked with my team, I am confident that these details are important to them, too.

What were your favorite books as a teenager and what are some of your current favorite books? Are there any authors or novels that had a notable influence on your writing?

As a teen, my favorite books were absolutely the Harry Potter series and The Perks of Being a Wallflower – and I think they’ve both had a huge influence on me. I’ve also been a huge fan of both Sarah Dessen and Tamora Pierce for years, and I am completely obsessed with Jaclyn Moriarty’s work. I would say The Year of Secret Assignments has had a bigger influence on my writing than any other book.

But I’m discovering new favorites every day. I’m completely in love with so many of the books by my fellow 2015 debut authors – including Adam Silvera’s More Happy than Not, Jasmine Warga’s My Heart and Other Black Holes, David Arnold’s Mosquitoland, Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything, Aisha Saeed’s Written in the Stars, Lance Rubin’s Denton Little’s Deathdate, ALL the other Morris finalists, and so many others. SO many. Other favorites: Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’, J.C. Lillis’ How to Repair a Mechanical Heart, Sara Farizan’s Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel, Dahlia Adler’s Just Visiting, Jeff Zentner’s upcoming The Serpent King, Nic Stone’s upcoming Dear Martin, David Arnold’s upcoming Kids of Appetite, Tim Federle’s upcoming The Great American Whatever, literally everything by Rainbow Rowell, Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun, Andrew Smith’s Winger, and zillions of others – including a few really special ones that haven’t been announced yet. ☺ Listing these is actually stressful, because I can think of so many favorites I haven’t mentioned!

You recently revealed to fans that you are working on a companion novel to Simon vs.The Homo Sapiens Agenda. Can you give us more information about that?

Yes! I’m currently in the middle of epic revisions on my second book, which is expected to release in early 2017. It’s set in the same universe as SIMON, though it focuses on different characters – namely, the friends and family Abby left behind in Washington, DC. Thus, Abby will be making many appearances (and you can expect cameos from a few other familiar faces, as well)! The main character is a chubby, straight, Jewish girl named Molly.

One last very serious question: what is your Oreo preference? Traditional? Golden? Birthday cake? Some strange seasonal variety?

Double stuf and classic. No contest. ☺

-Interview conducted by Emily Childress-Campbell, currently reading Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older