YA authors Adam Silvera and Becky Albertalli on finding love via social media and winning breakups

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“What If It’s Us” authors Adam Silvera and Becky Albertalli discuss the intricacies of writing a book “over email, in cars, on the phone, and in hotel rooms all over the universe.”

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) —  Every time I see the title of Adam Silvera and Becky Albertalli’s book “What If It’s Us,” it’s hard not to sing “Only Us,” the “Dear Evan Hansen” song from where the book’s title is lifted from. After finishing “What If It’s Us,” the title (and the chapter divisions “What If,” “It’s Us,” “And Only Us”) makes perfect sense, as if the book was structured to move in sync with the song.

There may be ordinariness to the title but “What If It’s Us” is hardly an ordinary romantic story. Yes, there is a meet cute between two boys, yes there is a best friend that acts as the conscientious voice, and yes there are (disastrous) dates, but Albertalli and Silvera have made wonderful and complex characters out of Arthur and Ben that it’s not easy to pick which team you’re on. It’s a bit of “The Last Five Years” mixed with “Once: The Musical” and all the classic love stories of The Great White Way, from “My Fair Lady” to “Singing in the Rain.”

Arthur, a Jewish high school senior from Georgia, is spending his summer working for his mom at a New York law firm. He meets Ben, a handsome New Yorker reeling from a break up, at the post office, about to mail a box of his ex-boyfriend’s things. They have a brief chat, and Arthur is set on thinking that this is his New York moment — being a Broadway gay himself. But before he can ask Ben for his number — or even his name — he vanishes into the crowd.

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In the time of social media, looking up a guy on the internet is the equivalent of a detective story: gathering all the possible clues and leads until you find him on Facebook or Instagram. And the first 100 pages of “What If It’s Us” is this delightful romp of how Arthur and Ben are just trying to find each other. It plays out like any rom-com, hitting the right beats to elicit the most kilig out of the readers (I’ve thrown the book across the room many times because it’s just that nakakakilig), but “What If It’s Us” is engaging in the way it depicts love at its most charming and brutal, that being messy is just a fact of life and not a symptom of some dark thing ahead. A few dates ahead, Arthur and Ben realize that they might not just be the person they think each other to be but they keep trying and trying and trying.

The writing of “What If It’s Us” started way back in 2014, when both Albertalli and Silvera had sold their third books. The two are fans of each other’s works, and for them, writing a book together was just bound to happen. They’ve been playing with the idea for “What If It’s Us” for three years, developing the characters Arthur and Ben until they finally wrote it late 2017 — through “over email, in cars, on the phone, and in hotel rooms all over the universe.” Hardcore fans of Albertalli and Silvera can tell who wrote which chapter: Albertalli did Arthur’s and Silvera did Ben’s (who is also a white-passing Puerto Rican like himself, more on that later).

“Becky would write an Arthur chapter and I would write a Ben chapter and we would go back and forth and even though we were writing our respective chapters, it remained very collaborative,” says Silvera during a sit-down interview while her and Albertalli were in town promoting the book. “There was never like, [for example,] I was struggling with Ben where I was like [a moment where I thought] ‘I had to figure this out for myself.’ Becky was always a text or one phone call away, and [me] vice versa.”

Albertalli adds: “I think we came to realize too that ultimately, we had to know each other’s characters as well as we know our own because we have to write so much of their dialogue … I definitely think of it as our book. I do think of Ben as mine too. He’s my little guy.”

The effects of social media in a relationship — or a budding relationship — is something that is very apparent in “What If It’s Us,” from how two people meet to how Instagram profiles or Facebook statuses are shaped by our past relationships and how it can play a part in developing how our partners can see us, especially early in the ‘honeymoon stage.’

Author Photo - Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera.jpg The writing of “What If It’s Us” started way back in 2014, when both Albertalli and Silvera had sold their third books. They’ve been playing with the idea for three years, developing the characters Arthur and Ben until they finally wrote it late 2017. Photo courtesy of NATIONAL BOOK STORE

Silvera says: “It’s like we know things before information is presented to us because we’re scrolling through their Instagram or their Twitter or we find a video of them on YouTube and hear their voice for the first time before they even speak to us. It’s all these super-wow things that could happen but I also think that sometimes it has devastating effects too like when you’re scrolling through someone’s photos and you’re like ‘Oh, they like this thing so I’m no longer interested in giving them a shot’ or whatever. We’re making a lot of snap judgement.”

But there are authentic feelings that social media can elicit, as Albertalli explains: “These are very real emotional moments in many developing relationships, certainly in Arthur and Ben where [they’re] like, ‘He just followed me and now you have access to his profile!’ Or just the buzz in your pocket, “There’s a text!” [Laughs]. The feelings that you have for those mini-milestones on social media are valid, and then the jealousy that Arthur felt looking at Ben’s Instagram because of all the Hudson [the ex-boyfriend] stuff, who can say how much of somebody’s Instagram feed is real and how much of it is construction or some kind of literally filtered version of reality? But the feelings that you get from looking at somebody’s Instagram? That’s real. And that’s worth writing about.”

In our discussion, Albertalli and Silvera talk more about the idea of “winning” breakups, what changed in Arthur and Ben during the three years of writing, and the importance of creating a diverse and realistic depiction of modern love. The following are edited excerpts from the interview.

Why did you guys think it was a good idea to write a book together?

Adam Silvera: Why did we think it was a good idea?

Becky Albertalli: [Laughs]

Adam Silvera: Honestly, we haven’t even … we just sold our first books in December 2013 and then we read each other’s books and we became obsessed with the books and each other. In February 2014, Becky was telling me a story over email and I responded ‘How cool would it be if we did this as a YA book?’ It was a really bold move to say that but I personally have always wanted to collaborate with someone. Did I know that it was going to be with someone I’ve never met and have only been talking to for two months? No. I probably wouldn’t have thrown down money on that. But it felt so right. And Becky’s immediate response was ‘This sounds cool. And what if this happened or this happened …’ So the ball [was already] rolling as soon as the idea was even introduced.

Becky Albertalli: In retrospect, it was very much in the spirit of the book even before the book existed because … forever now we have a book that has both our names on it; it’s like we have a child together and we decided that very early on. But Arthur and Ben, for them, things feel real very early on for them too and maybe it’s hard to know how much of this is conscious but maybe that felt possible to us because it was possible within our friendship, within our working relationship.

“We know things before information is presented to us because we’re scrolling through their Instagram or their Twitter or we find a video of them on YouTube and hear their voice for the first time before they even speak to us. It’s all these super-wow things that could happen.” — Adam Silvera

I’m curious about what happened with the personalities of Arthur and Ben during the three years that you were creating their characters. Like what got left behind and what was there from the beginning?

Adam Silvera: It’s funny because when we look at those emails now we’ll be like “Well, that never happened!” [Laughs]. And some things that did, like one of the things that was there early on, was the idea of the do-over dates.

Ben had a younger brother who I can’t remember if I deliberately decided to not write him or just completely forgot but there was a little brother. And it’s funny because I always write a little brother who always tends to get cut during revisions. [Laughs]

Becky Albertalli: There was a period of time when, I don’t know how serious I thought about this, but we definitely did a little bit of playing around with the Arthur and Ethan relationship. Like his best friend Ethan is somebody that he had a crush on or is it possible that Ethan’s gay?

I was getting that vibe a little bit.

Adam Silvera: Yeah, fair.

Becky Albertalli: It does! But in the epilogue, Ethan’s a freshman in college and in the meat of the story, he’s a junior in high school so he has a long life ahead of him to figure that out. There are a lot of character implications to that, like what that would mean for Arthur, and Arthur and Ben’s relationship … and then there’s also trying to be mindful of how do we feel about the idea of a gay boy being in love with his straight best friend. Is that a trope that we want to write against? Is that something that we have the space in this book to unpack? I’m certainly not saying that those types of stories shouldn’t make sense but since that wasn’t the heart of this story, I didn’t know if we had the space to do it.

Adam Silvera: Yeah, and I don’t think there was nothing new that we were trying to say about it. It’s one of those things that if you are going to explore a trope that’s been done a few times [then] what are you trying to add to the conversation? I don’t think that even if we had something new that we want to say about it, there was no space in the story to do so. And it’s fine. I love what happens to Jessie and Ethan in this book.

There was also a period that — and we wrote this — Arthur wasn’t just visiting New York, they were living there.

Becky Albertalli: Oh yeah that’s the biggest change!

Adam Silvera: It changes the ending. It changes so much about the book, especially in the last act. So that was something we wrote through.

Becky Albertalli: I can’t believe we didn’t say that first! [Laughs]

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I wonder how your being straight and being queer affects the writing dynamics for a story like this, with two queer characters.

Adam Silvera: For me, I never pay attention to that. I’ve seen plenty of writers writing outside their experiences and also that’s just our job. I think about this a lot where I sometimes feel unqualified to be writing what it’s like to be a queer teenager in 2018; it’s so different from when I was a teenager 10 years ago. A lot of it really is our broad imaginations that allow us to inhabit these characters. Because it’s also not just being this one queer character. We’re writing an entire cast of characters who we have to know just as well as our narrators and those characters don’t necessarily share our backgrounds.

So yeah that’s a little trickier for me to answer. I just know that when we are writing we are not trying to write characters that represent an entire community. These are characters who have their respective backgrounds so as a result they are their own stories. But Arthur and Ben aren’t intended to be like the Kings of the Gay World. [Laughs]

I ask that because people ask for authenticity in the media that they consume and I think the book tries to veer away from the typical depiction of romance. What do you think now, in this age, qualifies as a ‘realistic’ depiction of a love story?

Adam Silvera: I just want to bring back to the authenticity thing. I think that’s also kind of tricky because we put a lot of who we are into these characters. So whether or not they share our orientation, it shouldn’t reduce how authentic they are. I think about that a lot not just because of the queer characters I’m writing but the straight characters; those characters feel authentic to me too, and the same for those who share identities that I don’t but I know that I feel like I’m crafting characters that are human.

For the depiction of realistic love stories, I love reading love stories of all varieties. Some of my favorite love stories feature a boy and a girl. But I think we have reached a moment, finally, that’s long overdue in our industry, where voices that have not been granted the spotlight before are making their way into the shelves. These characters are just bursting with humanity and they feel so current and they were so relevant back then when we weren’t given the opportunity to shine. I just love seeing different shades of these stories, of the happy variety, of the messy variety, they all carry so much weight.

Becky Albertalli: Yeah, I think… there isn’t one kind of love story that reads as authentic with every other [story]. Something can be as a big grand gesture as like the end of “Love, Simon” on the ferris wheel, which is not from the book, that is a creation of the movie, that is Hollywood rom-com ending … and it felt incredibly real and authentic and I’ve had people come up to me in the signing line telling me how much that moment kind of mirrored something in their lives. Even what we think of as a ‘fantasy hollywood ending’ is not a fantasy, depending on who you are, well God bless you, you have a great life! [Laughs].

For me what it comes down to is that the love story should feel like, first and foremost, a meeting of two very really people, kind of all that humanity that Adam was talking about, and not so much of like protagonist and love interest hitting certain beats and stuff, that craft is all happening underneath but what I look for as a reader, and certainly what I strive for as an author, is it’s just that for it to feel like two real people to fall in love and whether that is argumentative and messy or like everything copacetic and everything’s kind of like really chill. [Laughs]

Coming from that, what do you feel is your responsibility as an author who shapes the reader’s perception of what love can be, especially these days?

Becky Albertalli: First and foremost, I think our responsibility is to be faithful to our characters and honestly tell their story. I do think about certain points that are in our minds, especially that we’re writing for teens, [like] consent. And we are going into this thinking about diversity and particularly when you’re writing a love story about members of multiple, intersecting marginalized communities … and how that plays out.

Adam Silvera: I agree. Let’s just make sure that it feels true to who the characters are and engineering and ending just because you’re trying to please a certain … to be kind of crowd pleasing … it’s just … it’s so hard to write with readers in mind because readers all want different things so that’s why you just have to see the actual love story and hope that you are telling a story that will connect with the right people, people who need to see this story the most. Hopefully it will find them and if it’s not a story that someone necessarily needs, you’re hoping that there’s something within the text that they can relate anyway.

“The feelings that you have for those mini-milestones on social media are valid. Who can say how much of somebody’s Instagram feed is real and how much of it is construction or some kind of literally filtered version of reality? But the feelings that you get from looking at somebody’s Instagram? That’s real. And that’s worth writing about.” — Becky Albertalli

I also love that there’s a clear depiction of class disparity, that Ben has to worry about money when he’s going on a date with Arthur.

Adam Silvera: Yeah just like Ben, I’m a white passing Puerto Rican and I sort of came to grips with my privilege after our tragic 2016 election in the States. I was having a conversation with a friend and she’s a woman of color, and I was asking her how she and her family are doing and she was saying not well and freaking out a lot because of our awful president’s administration. And [then she said,] “How are you doing? You must feel pretty safe because you kind of look straight and white passing?” And I haven’t really thought about that.

I was 26 at that time and I took it to heart. I used to always think that everyone knew I was Puerto Rican and I think it’s because growing up, everyone in my block did know so when I’m out in the real world, I was kind of having to explain to people that I’m Puerto Rican and I didn’t quite understand what that was — it’s so obvious now. So I wanted to be able to talk about that because there’s a misconception that all Puerto Ricans look like this but I didn’t want to write about that frustration without also acknowledging the privilege that comes with it so they very much go hand in hand. I really love what we did with that.

Becky Albertalli: I never chime in on this question because I wrote Arthur, who is more financially privileged, but in light of recent world events, I feel compelled to chime in. Jewish people are often stereotyped as rich, in control, puppet masters sort of figures. Arthur’s Jewish, I’m Jewish. One of the things I am really proud of about this book is not only do we tap into some of the class dynamics that Adam talked about with Ben but we’re also tiptoe-ing the line of writing a Jewish character who is kind of [going] against those stereotypes.

I myself am only beginning to understand that those stereotypes lead to violence against Jewish people. So one of the things I love about that issue and Arthur’s Jewishness is how we weighed into that and makes it about two boys. Money isn’t a problem for Arthur right now, it’s something he doesn’t have to think about. But we never have them or anybody in the book on check thinking like money is a reason … that Arthur has some wild undisclosed amount of power or nothing’s wrong in Arthur’s life because of money. I wouldn’t necessarily … I don’t know how conscious we were discussing that but …

Adam Silvera: Yeah we didn’t have any conversations about it.

There’s also the idea of winning breakups in the first few chapters of the book. How does that factor in when you tell stories like this?

Adam Silvera: Yeah that’s like as someone who has gone through many breakups in the past few years [Laughs], there’s always this sense that you want to come away from the breakup like the winner. Like “I’ve got this” or “I’m living my best life” or “I’m better off without you” sort of the idea “Thank you, Next.”

Becky Albertalli: [Laughs] You really did that, you brought that into the [conversation], the crown achievement of our tour!

Adam Silvera: Yeah! But it’s like … you always want to appear that you’re better even when you’re not because breakups are messy but relationships are messy too and it gets weighed in between things like “Do I stay in this mess with you or do I venture off into my own mess?” Especially in the book, a breakup leads into a breakup of the friend group as well. So that’s another consequence. Sides start getting taken and it starts to become like Hudson’s “Oh I got Harriet” and Ben is like “Well, I have Dylan” and if you start dating someone else before the other person that’s seen as a win. At the end of the day, in my cases at least, it’s always been sort of a combination of being petty but also putting up a face to help you conceal a sadness that you’re actually feeling.

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I want to ask you something about Dylan...

Adam Silvera: It’s not a complete interview without a question about Dylan.

Can you tell us about how Dylan became this this hyper, boisterous best friend for Ben?

Adam Silvera: Dylan is actually based on one of our real life best friends David Arnold. He wrote “Mosquitoland” and “The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik.” David is one of those people, like the first time I met him [I thought] “Oh I love this guy so much, he’ll be one of my groomsmen when I get married.” He’s straight who lives in Kentucky. I feel so comfortable around him, as a queer man, in a way that I don’t always feel with some of the straight friends in my life. But David we have this flirty bromance, which his wife has gotten on board with, too.

Becky Albertalli: Samantha is based on his wife. [Laughs].

Adam Silvera: Yeah she even picked the name Samantha.

Becky Albertalli: And David picked Dylan for himself.

Adam Silvera: I probably have a lot of straight friends in my life that I had crushes on, I won’t put it out there, but that’s not the case with David. One of my favorite lines in the book that describes my relationship with David talks about [how] Dylan has no problem with Ben liking guys and Ben has no problem with Dylan liking girls. That’s just their dynamic and Dylan is just so cool.

But with all the hyperness there’s also the downside of Dylan where when Dylan falls for someone he falls hard and kind of like pushes his friends to the side and goes all in and I’ve had friends who’ve done that, I have been that person. So I just wanted to write about that as well.

Becky Albertalli: One interesting footnote about Dylan is that not only did we write David into “What If It’s Us” but David wrote Adam into “The Strange Fascinations of Noel Hypnotik.” A character named Allen who is the best friend of the character, Allan is based on Adam.

The best thing is, if you read the two books side by side, each one of them, Adam and David, wrote themselves as kind of the normal voice of reason character. And [they] wrote each other as the extreme versions of each other. So that like boisterousness and hyperness, I guess [we] that see that in each other. [Laughs]. They [also] put their friend character through the exact same situation, the big thing that happens to Dylan, I won’t spoil it, that big moment around two thirds [of “What If It’s Us”], David did the same thing to Adam’s character in his book and it is so wild. [Laughs].

Adam Silvera: And I had no idea! I was reading “Noel Hypnotik” for the first time and I’m like “Get out of here!”

DSCF2894.jpg The authors with their Filipino fans. Photo courtesy of NATIONAL BOOK STORE

Last question. Since I love how “What If It’s Us” hits all the perfect rom-com beats, what are your top three favorite romcom movies?

Adam Silvera: My favorite right now is “Love, Simon,” “Crazy Rich Asians,” and, what was that Netflix intern movie?

Becky Albertalli: “Set it Up”?

Adam Silvera: “Set It Up”!
Becky Albertalli
: ”Set It Up” is so good! I’m not gonna be able to stick with three here. Off the top of my head, obviously, “Love Simon,” “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Set it Up.” Also I loved “To All The Boys I Loved Before.”

Backtracking a little bit, “Never Been Kissed,” “10 Things I Hate About You,” “Notting Hill,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” all those movies. I can go on forever. I love romcoms. [Laughs].

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“What If It’s Us” is available at National Book Store