The A Plus Interview

Becky Albertalli On Writing 'Simon Vs. The Homo Sapien Agenda,' And How She Feels Seeing Her Work Changing Lives

"It’s magical and humbling."

Becky Albertalli On Writing 'Simon Vs. The Homo Sapien Agenda,' And How She Feels Seeing Her Work Changing Lives

The A Plus Interview reimagines the celebrity interview by inviting artists to answer a short series of brief, poignant questions that strive to be more meaningful than those asked by others. Visit on the last Thursday of each month for the latest installment.

By now you've probably have heard audiences raving about Love, Simon and what it means to them, particularly to members of the LGBTQ community. Behind the movie, though, is its source material: a 2015 book titled Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli.

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Love, Simon — directed by Greg Berlanti — follows Simon Spier (played by Nick Robinson), your typical teen who is hiding a big secret from everyone: he's gay. When the revelation of this secret, and an email relationship with a closeted classmate, is threatened, Simon — along with family and friends — is forced to come to terms with how he identifies.

Ahead of the the movie's March 16 premiere, A Plus spoke with Albertalli — who struck gold with this debut novel — to discuss what went into writing Simon, how Simon's relatability and diversity are so meaningful, why stories like Simon are so important given our country's current atmosphere, what it was like seeing Simon turned into a film, how Simon is helping teens come out, Leah on the Offbeat (the upcoming sequel to Simon, out April 24), and more.

Courtesy HarperCollins

I think the best part of your writing — with "Simon" and your other books — is how you’re giving us relatable YA characters. Why is that so important to you?

When I think back to what I consider to be my biggest influencers, the books that made me want to write, I'm thinking The Perks of Being a Wallflower and also an Australian YA author named Jaclyn Moriarty who's written YA classics — they're like cult favorites. Those are the stories that I connected with as a reader and the aspect of them I most connected with was just the characters feeling real, like real people I could know. I could find these moments in those stories where I didn't realize anyone else had those thoughts that I had and they made me feel a lot less alone. I think that has always been at the heart of my process — or like that's my goal, that's what I try to write towards. To create characters who feel like real people, and not just like descriptions and characteristics on a page.

Courtesy HarperCollins

I think books like "Simon" let young readers know that their everyday stories are worth being told, and don't have to be a big franchise or blockbuster. Is this a new trend?

I think YA in general tends to kind of go in cycles. There's never a time, in my opinion, when one particular genre within YA is completely played out — but you can see trends. It was vampires, like Twilight, for a while, then it was dystopian, like The Hunger Games and Divergent, for a while. I think contemporary, realistic YA has always been part of the category, it's always been there and there's always been important work being done, but in terms of it making a big splash and becoming well known and culturally relevant, I think contemporary YA is having a moment right now. 

Some of these other books that are being turned into films in the coming months [listing ones like Angie Thomas' The Hate U Give, Jenny Han's To All the Boys I've Loved Before, and Nicola Yoon's The Sun is Also a Star], you're experiencing stories told from the perspectives of characters who haven't traditionally had a voice in very popular YA or any type of media. It's a more inclusive group of characters and authors that we're hearing from, and that's very exciting.

I can’t help but think this moment we’re having is related to what we’re going through as a country. Do you think it has created a need and a clamoring for these relatable and diverse characters, and their equally relatable and diverse stories?

I know that's so true for me as a reader. I don't even belong to some of the groups that are hit the hardest but as a Jew, for example, I feel like I'm under siege all the time. Nobody who would be reading this thinks that I have any fondness for our so-called president right now, so say whatever you want. Trump's administration and the GOP have been absolutely brutal to pretty much every single marginalized group that you can think of. One of the only ways I think marginalized communities can find a way to fight back right now is through art and these cultural pieces — also social media, too. A lot of marginalized people are not given a voice in this political system right now, and it's more important than ever to be supporting books [such as the ones previously mentioned].

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

My favorite part of the book is how Simon asks why being straight and being White is the norm in society. Was challenging this worldview something important to you?

I would say yes, but also the idea kind of developed as I wrote the book. One of the things that was on my mind just reflecting on the book was the idea that Simon is the one [who] gets in there during emails to Blue and asks "why is straight the default?" It's actually Bram who says "Yeah, and White is also the default." Simon doesn't consider that because he's never had to. It's not until the end of the book that it hits him that this question is bigger than just his experiences. I think that's something that I kind of really had to grapple with as I was writing because I was telling the story from the place of relative privilege, and when you have that privilege, you don't have to think about some of these issues because you are the cultural default. I think that's something we need to, each of us as readers with our various places of privilege, unpack that, reflect on that, try to understand how that privilege shapes our worldview, be able to challenge that within ourselves, and push back against that cultural default wherever we can. 

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

I feel like the "Simon" universe is super diverse. Did that come effortless to you or did you make a conscious decision to go that route?

One of the things that was important to me back in 2013, when I was writing the book, is that I wanted to be very clear that if my characters belonged to marginalized groups, I wanted that on the page. I knew that with White being the default then if it's not on the page then people are usually going to read your characters as White, particularly with respect to race. I knew that was — and is — a very real thing. When you think about The Hunger Games, even though Rue on the page is Black and is clearly described as a Black character, when Amandla Stenberg was cast as Rue people flipped out because they pictured Rue as White. They overrode what was in the text because that White default was so ingrained. That's kind of an extreme, though, those are the people with significant racial issues to work through. So, yeah, that was important to me.

Greg in particular — it's not just Love, Simon, but you can see it in everything he does — is one of the people who is standing up and doing this where a lot of times whitewashing is such an issue in so many films and continues to be a problem. Greg's out there doing the opposite. Greg just makes those choices, and I think they're really important choices. That's something that I'm so incredibly proud of with this movie and I can't take credit for it at all because it's all Greg, all the production team, and these actors, but I think it's just an incredible choice and something I'm trying to learn from moving forward in my work.

Now that we’re touching on the movie, what kind of ways were you involved in the process of taking it from the page to the screen?

I'm not a producer or anything like that, so, technically, they could have, I'm sure, taken the rights to material and done their own thing with it. I know that's been kind of the expectation in the past for movie adaptations of books, where you sell the rights to your baby and you have nothing to do with it anymore. This team ended up just being really collaborative and looped me in at every step, but I don't have any power. In terms of the creative choices that were made along the way, they did think it was very important to keep this adaptation true to the source material. They had me kind of giving input on the script by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger — which was so absolutely perfect and I didn't have a lot of notes for them. They let me come hang out onset and sometimes people would ask me to help the actors with their characters, but my role was a cheerleader because these actors did not need my input and I didn't need my input there. I didn't want to change anything with the way these actors tackled the characters because I was so blown away by every single one of them.

How does it feel seeing just how much people have embraced “Simon” and how it has affected their lives for the better, particularly in terms of coming out?

It's magical and humbling, and I feel incredibly honored every time somebody reaches out to me. Whether it's a teen or an adult telling me this book helped them come out, that's something that I read and just sit there and stare at it for a few minutes. It gets me every time. Those messages never get old and I'll never get used to it. It's been a wild ride. 

The other day I saw sort of the informal premiere in Atlanta where some members of the cast were there to introduce it and there was a Q&A after. They had a special promotion thing with my high school, the real Creekwood High School, which was adorable and they ran the whole thing like a pep rally. A lot of the people … were very invested in the book and, at the emotional and romantic climax of the movie, the Ferris wheel scene, people were yelling and screaming. I've never seen anything like it — and I used to see Harry Potter on opening weekend, but not even that compares to the energy that was in the room for this screening. It's really cool just how the book was translated to film seems to be touching the audience in just the right way, it's landing just how I think these teens are needing it to land. That's all Greg and everybody who worked in the movie — I wish I could take credit for it. It's been amazing, it's absolutely electrifying.

Courtesy HarperCollins

What made you want to stay in the universe you created with “Simon” for "Leah on the Offbeat," the upcoming sequel?

When I wrote Simon, I never thought it would be published. It was as big of a surprise to me that it was published and that it was popular enough that I pitched a sequel. I always kind of felt that if there was one character in Simon whose story hasn't quite come full-circle it was Leah's. I always kind of thought that if I was going to be writing a sequel it was going to be from Leah's point of view. I was delighted I got to write that book. I didn't think I was going to have the opportunity to tell Leah's story. And also the story, as I thought that I would tell it, changed a lot because so much of Leah on the Offbeat is influenced by readers' reaction to Simon and the things they picked up on in Simon that became a part of the conversation around it. I leaned into that with that book, it was a blast to write, and I'm so excited. I hope it feels right to my readers because Leah on the Offbeat is dedicated to my readers, it's such a book for them. I enjoyed writing it quite a bit.

I’ve always said I want to write a book but it just feels like this impossible thing. What advice would you give to people who dream of writing a book — or even just as simple as making a living with writing — in relation to achieving that dream?

I hope you do! What I would say is give yourself permission to take that goal seriously. You don't even have to tell anybody. I didn't tell anyone, I was super shady about it and didn't tell anyone I was writing Simon. Let yourself invest the time and energy into it when you can because it can be hard to carve out the time. I see a lot of writers say if you want it you'll find the time. That depends on the moment in your life — sometimes you don't really have the time but you will at some point. Give yourself that gift of taking what feels like a very unrealistic goal to a lot of us who have been told to follow a really practical career and indulge in that daydream. Whatever your starting point is, let yourself map out that path and invest the time to figure out what that process would look like.

Love, Simon is currently playing in theaters nationwide. Keep up with author Becky Albertalli on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and this epic, Oreo-themed personal website.

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