It might be the astrology-loving millennial in me talking, but sometimes the universe does conspire to bring about events that wouldn’t have happened otherwise: booking a Grab on time during the rush hour, finding a seat at a crowded restaurant, a chance meeting with a (cute!) stranger at the most random place possible.
It’s the latter scenario that Young Adult authors Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera chose to anchor their joint novel What If It’s Us on.
A story about the chance meeting between two boys and their respective efforts to meet once again after they lose track of each other in the middle of a flash mob, the novel was the result of countless emails and texts and friendly online conversations between the two authors — conversations carried out even before they met in person.
“It was early on in our friendship and we were emailing and talking about past dating experiences”, Becky — Atlanta native and the author behind popular YA titles Simon VS The Homo Sapiens Agenda, The Upside of Unrequited, and Leah On The Offbeat — says during our conversation at the Writer’s Bar in Raffles Makati, adding that she told Adam a story about how she once made eye contact with a guy once in a coffee shop years ago but didn’t work out the courage to say hello.
“I later on went and looked for him online hoping that the universe would like, give a second chance,” Becky says, laughing.
Bronx native Adam, the author of well-received YA titles More Happy Than Not, They Both Die At The End, and History Is All You Left Me, found in that incident the perfect writing prompt.
“I was just so excited about that possibility of like, what would happen if they found each other sort of deal,” Adam says during the conversation, adding that he then pitched an idea to Becky about turning the scenario into an actual story. “ I said ‘hey, what if we did a YA book where two teens go through a similar obstacle in finding each other and what happens when they do’” Adam says.
What followed was a labor of love for the two of them, according to Adam.
“A lot had to go into it because we don’t live in the same city. This book was stitched over the course of three years over like, text messages and emails and phone conversations,” Adam says, adding that the whole process — which he describes as “really diligent note-taking” — behind the title was always fuelled by “a conversation about what was going to happen with this story”.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
A quick skim on GoodReads reveals an outpouring of love and admiration for What If It’s Us, with one comment even describing the book as “a gay Sleepless in Seattle set in New York.” Having read the novel, it’s an apt description, and while its premise, to use current Internet parlance, might come across as #basic for some — the book does check off many of the items you’d find in a classic rom-com — the beautifully crafted storyline and well fleshed-out characters make sure that it’s far from it. But more than the emoji-filled reactions, rom-com referencing and keyboard-smashing fan comments however, it’s the simple messages that stand out: “the story just spoke to me” says one; another reader chimes in: “I felt like the characters were very relatable.”
How does it feel then, I ask the pair, knowing that their writing resonates with and speaks to a lot of young people?
“That for me has always been one of the most surprising things because I always start from a place where I write for myself first and then just cast it out there in the hope that it’s going to click with other readers” Adam says, noting that the whole experience has been nothing short of surreal: “During our signings people would come up to us and say ‘it’s so surreal that you’re here!’ and I’m like, it is surreal that we’re here! It’s so hard for us to wrap our heads around it.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Becky, who counts iconic YA writers Stephen Chbosky and Jaclyn Moriarty as influences: “I never thought I’d get published so I can’t even come close to explaining how much it means to me, getting to write stories that speak to a lot of young readers.”
If there’s one thing a cursory glance at any book store’s shelves will tell you, it’s that contemporary Young Adult literature is experiencing a resurgence of sorts — that we are living in the golden age of YA. And the numbers aren’t lying.
Now among the most widely-read of genres in literature — the number of YA titles surged from 4,668 in 2002 to 10,276 in 2012 – it’s an understatement to say that YA literature has come a long way from its past. Even more so when one takes into account the surge in the number of titles that explore plots and star protagonists so far removed from its conservative and predominantly White origins.
It’s a very welcome and important development, Adam says, adding that “writers who are sort of like not including multiple identities in their novels aren’t really doing a lot of truth telling.”
Becky — whose critically-acclaimed debut novel about a young gay man Simon VS The Homo Sapiens Agenda was recently turned into a blockbuster just this year — agrees, adding that this development was a result of the founding of the We Need Diverse Books movement back in 2014.
“A really important moment was when Ellen Oh and a group of authors formed We Need Diverse Books which is still at the forefront of the conversation now, even four and a half years later” Becky says, adding that the group “changed the entire landscape, they changed the entire conversation and you know, it’s not like things were instantly better in publishing, but it’s remarkable how much they’ve done and how much of a difference that one organization has made.”
“The word diversity has always felt so odd to me because I grew up in a very culturally diverse neighborhood. That has always been my reality so I was very culture-shocked when I learned in my 20s that people grow up in all-White places”, Adam furthers, noting that “many of our readers aren’t Straight, White kids and it’s important to try to represent the world as it is.”
Already literary superstars in their own right — a fact underscored by the massive turnout in the pair’s string of book signings in Cebu and Manila courtesy of local bookstore chain National Bookstore — the two have some pretty solid advice for aspiring writers: write fan fiction.
“We both used to write fan fiction and I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without it,” Adam says. It’s a point Becky agrees with, noting that not only did the practice help carve out a path for her to be a writer; it also helped her find her voice.
“Writing of any sort is intimidating because you have to craft everything from the ground up you know, and you have to world build; if you’re writing fantasy you have to create magical systems and stuff and whatever; but with fan fiction, you get to just jump into that space and everything is already done for you and you just have to play around with it,” Adam, explains, likening the experience to “playing in someone else’s sandbox.”
But what happens when all that playing hits a rough (literary) patch?
“I just try to keep myself invested in the stories that I’m working on,” Becky says, adding that she always tries to reconnect whenever she’s in that part of the process wherein she starts to feel like her writing is “garbage.”
“I always try to come back to the heart of the story, like I’d ask myself stuff like ‘what is it about this story that initially got me excited?’ ‘what made me really connect to the idea when I was first formulating it?’ I just keep coming back to that,” she says as our conversation draws to a close.
It might just be the astrology-loving millennial in me talking, but sometimes the universe does conspire to bring about events that wouldn’t have happened otherwise: getting signed to the same literary agent, the cultivation of online friendships into real-life ones, making the jump from fanfiction writer to full-time novelist.
I mean, just look at Adam and Becky.
What If It’s Us and all their other books are available in all NBS Branches and online on www.nationalbookstore.com.