Author Becky Albertalli Talks 'Love, Simon,' Diversity, and Her Favorite Teen Movie Influences

Author Becky Albertalli Talks 'Love, Simon,' Diversity, and Her Favorite Teen Movie Influences
Becky Albertalli is the author of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, the latest novel to be adapted into the film Love, Simon. Shakefire met up with Albertalli to talk about seeing her novel adapted for the big screen, how diversity and representation matter, and what some of her favorite teen movies were growing up. 
Shakefire (SF): I actually went to another screening last night. Because I actually went to a screening about a month ago, I think, and you were there.
Becky Albertalli (BA): Yeah, I made a point to go to as many as possible— I would offer to introduce these screenings even though—
SF: Oh, that would be great!
BA: Public speaking is not my thing at all, but I would do it so they would let me watch it again.
SF: Well, the one that I went to last night, it was really full. Saw a lot of people there. And I think it was a lot more girls in the audience this time. But by end of the movie when you get to the Ferris wheel, they were screaming.
BA: Oh! Yeah!
SF: They were screaming. I was like, ‘were you guys there?’ But it was actually like they were actually there. They were so into it. So, I hope you’re not nervous.
BA: I’m nervous in the sense that this is more of a tension— more of a spotlight than I’ve ever had. And I want to be able to support this movie as best I can, and I’m trying to learn how to do that because I’m so grateful for this team that took such good care of my book that I— yeah, I want to be able to communicate to my readers that they did it. This is not like your typical “it’s OK just read the book, you can skip the movie adaptation.”
SF: I hadn’t read the book, but I’ve seen lots of book-to-adaptation films and read lots of books that became films, and there’s always something where you’re like, “oh, they missed this element that’s important.” Or you watch the movie and you haven’t read the book and you’re like, “I feel like I’m missing something.”
BA: Right.
SF: But I didn’t feel this way at all with this film.
BA: That’s how I feel, too. I think the movie really stands on its own, which is pretty— it’s an amazing balancing act, too, because it’s also a very faithful adaptation. And my readers who see it, even the most hardcore readers who are primed to be supercritical—
SF: Purists.
BA: Yeah, even they— once they see the movie, they get it. They’re like it is so true to the heart of the book. Yeah, I think that it’s almost miraculous how well Greg and everyone pulled that off.
SF: Well, that’s fantastic, especially for first adaptation. How many cities have you been in for this?
BA: For the film, I was in Miami and then LA. For the press tour, I’m kind of a step removed from it in a lot of ways. I’m the biggest fangirl and cheerleader for this film, but it really is Greg Berlanti and Nick Robinson’s baby. I know that Greg and Nick and Alex Shipp, who plays Abby, went to a bunch of different cities like Dallas and Seattle, and I think Katherine Langford joined them in New York.
SF: Oh, nice!
BA: And Keiynan Lonsdale’s been doing a little bit of touring as well. Yeah, so it’s different members of the cast and different people have been representing the movie here and there.
SF: I noticed when it comes to Leah and Abby, when Abby shows up in her Wonder Woman costume, Leah has this look on her face--
BA: She’s like shook right?
SF: I was like, what is going on there? I was doing some Googling before I came, and I was looking at the books you have coming out, and I saw the one for Leah and where she’s talking about possibly coming out as bisexual and everything. And I was like, “oh, that kind of makes sense.”
BA: No comment? Harper and Fox don’t want me to talk about it, but I’ll just say there were things that Katherine and Alex knew about Leah on the offbeat as they were filming. And—
SF: They were able to add that to the character.
BA: You know.
SF: They communicated. I picked it up.
BA: I think a lot of people have noticed that moment. It makes you really excited for the book to come out.
SF: It's true.
BA: I think the actresses did a really great job with that. That’s all.
SF: Everyone did a really great job.
BA: I’m blown away. It’s this entire ensemble cast, and there are no weak links.
SF: None!
BA: Every time I watch it, I am blown away by somebody. I was— the most recent time I saw it, I was really impressed with Jorge Lendeborg’s Nick and his little micro-expressions.
SF: He’s very good with the close up acting!
BA: He’s one of those actors with those with every little movement of his eyes and his face says so much. It’s just like Natasha Rothwell—
SF: She was amazing. Everybody loved her.
BA: She’s incredible. Yeah and Tony Hale and Clark Moore who plays Ethan.
SF: Oh, god. He was fantastic, too.
BA: Oh my god, yeah. It’s so funny because he’s an original character, actually Tony Hale’s character, too.
SF: Oh, really?
BA: Yeah, they’re not in my books. I think of them as like my stepchildren and stuff.
SF: Adopted.
BA: I’m like I almost can’t imagine the Simon universe without them. They’re such a part of it.
SF: I think Ethan was a really great add because it gives you another sense of what could be and how it is already for someone who’s out and gay at this high school and what they’re having to go through. So you can see why Simon may hold his reservations and what he may or may not connect to. That’s a really great addition.
BA: I thought that was so important. And that scene between them in Mr. Worth’s office where they’re just like— Simon’s like, just seemed easy for you to me. And he’s like, “are you kidding me?”  And also I just love the fact that they’re like—it’s such a little thing—but they’re not into each other. They’re friends. They can have that connection in the sense that some shared experiences, and they— I would imagine moving forward in this movie universe, they’d be able to really support each other as friends.
SF: I’d hope so. That whole little scene, especially when Mr. Worth comes out, he’s trying to explain their [Ethan's & Simon's] relationship to each other.
BA: Yeah, [laughing] “keeping it cas[ual]. It’s cool.”
SF: No, but it’s great because a lot times you do have— when people share a minority status, people think, “oh, you must be together or you must get along or you must be able to be together.” No. There’s more than this shared just section of our lives. So I loved that. And then I was also looking at your next book that’s coming out next month?
BA: Umm hmm.
SF: Amazing. Keep going. You’re doing so much work.
SF: And I just see in the breakdown Molly, her character— she’s fat. I was like that’s the first time I’ve ever seen that in print without explanation or without it being negative, just kind of a fact, right. Like being blonde or brunette.
BA: Well, she’s— that book’s actually out already. That book came out in April of 2017, The Upside of Unrequited.
SF: See I’m still not used to 2018.
BA: Yeah, I know right. So Molly is a fat, Jewish, anxious little hot mess just like me. And actually in the books, Leah is fat as well.
SF: I saw the [Leah on the Offbeat] cover!
BA: Yeah. So I really loved having the chance to write about fat girls and giving them love stories and the kind of stories I wanted in high school. I didn’t think that I would give a love story, but I just didn’t see fat girls getting—
SF: Love stories.
BA: Love stories. Yeah. 
SF: You’re the best friend.
BA: Right. Kind of get to watch a love story happen.
SF: I see in the books and the movies, you have a commitment to diversity of all different kinds. And I just wondered how important is that to you as an author and how important do you think that would be to a reader.
BA: It’s really important to me as an author, and I think one of the reasons for that is how incredibly important it is to readers, especially young readers. And I think authors who write for— I think all authors should really have a responsibility to tell inclusive stories. It doesn’t mean that you have to write outside your lane and tell every story, and I think there are many cases where you shouldn’t write outside your lane. But I think your cast of characters, if you’re telling— I can’t think of a story where the cast of characters has a reason to not be diverse.
SF: Right.
BA: And in particular with like when Simon came out and with once I got a sense with who my audience is for Simon, that just made it more and more important for me to keep my stories inclusive and also to widen even my picture of what that looks. Like Simon has diversity— I think in retrospect, I could have done better. I think the movie does better than the book, but there are no trans characters for example.
There are no gender fluid characters. No nonbinary characters. And there are no asexual characters. So I think there are a lot of kids who are very hungry for representation. And it’s something I take very seriously, and it’s not something that I want to throw into my books. Like I’m only going to include a character even in the background if I feel like I can do that character justice and it can be a thoughtful, positive representation because there is the potential to do harm if you get it wrong. But that is a priority for me. These kids want to see themselves, and they deserve to see themselves.
SF: I agree. So you’re with we need diverse books. So that was a movement that came out in—
BA: 2014. Yeah, Ellen Oh— the author Ellen Oh who is the president, she’s the one who started that movement. It has been a game changer I think in publishing, and there’s so much work to be done still. Like we’re not there yet, and a lot of times, we maybe see more diversity among characters but sometimes—
SF: Not in publishing.
BA: Yeah, not in publishing, not with authors, agents, and the people working behind the scenes. So there’s a lot of work to be done and also intersectional diversity. A lot that needs to happen there, but the progress over the last couple of years has been notable. And I think Ellen and the We Need Diverse Books team, there are some people who have really, really been pushing the envelope in that space where YA is having some of those conversations that really need to be happening.
SF: I agree. Looking at my movie notes here. [LAUGHS] Yeah, “girls are screaming” because they were so into it. It was great.  I haven’t seen that kind of reaction I don’t think since the two movies—I see a lot of movies—the two movies that have gotten that kind of reaction from the crowd I’ve seen recently would be Black Panther.
BA: Black Panther! Yeah.
SF: And then before that Girls Trip.
BA: Oh, I didn’t get to see Girls Trip. But, yeah, I did get to see Black Panther, and it was like— also I saw Black Panther at what I call Jew-o’clock, which is Sunday morning.
SF: That’s when I like to go because nobody—
BA: Yeah! My whole life that’s like a nice perk of being Jewish is getting to see those Sunday morning movies. I thought it would be empty. Whole theater was full 9:00 on a Sunday in suburban— in Roswell.
SF: I think there was a Love, Simon screening the week before with some students from a high school?
BA: Yeah, was it the one with Nick Robinson and Alex Shipp and Greg?
SF: I think so.
BA: Yeah, so they kind of did this in collaboration with Riverwood. It’s now called Riverwood, I think, International Charter School, but it was Riverwood High School—
SF: Is that where they filmed?
BA: Well, it’s not where they filmed. It’s where I went to high school.
SF: Oh, nice!
BA: It’s what the school in the book and the movie are based on.
SF: How cool is that!
BA: Yeah, so it’s really wild. I will say I was not that popular at Riverwood when I went there, but I felt very popular that night.
SF: I did notice a lot of 80s and 90s kind of vibes in the film. What were some of your favorite teen movies growing up?
BA: I— oh my god, this is maybe my favorite question ever. So I grew up on the ones that were really right in my cultural moment as a teen where like 10 Things I Hate About You and that whole era. Never Been Kissed. But I was also really into the John Hughes movies, too, because those have just been—
SF: They came on TV all the time.
BA: Yeah, they were staples. So it was sort of— yeah, I think I grew up on a mix of like the John Hughes movies and the 10 Things I Hate About You era. And then kind of moving into when I was a little older like Mean Girls and stuff. I must have watched that a million times. And so I feel like Simon is kind of in that tradition, and it’s definitely comped a lot on the John Hughes and I really see that. 
But also I see— and I think that you can trace back to my influences as an author and what feels romantic to me, a lot of that comes from movies. The Never Been Kissed ending— the ending of that movie, I see it. It’s got traces of that ending in Simon. And Never Been Kissed is my favorite movie ending of all time—
SF: Really?
BA: Until Love, Simon.
SF: Of course.
BA: Knocked off its throne there. Yeah and the other one, too, which is maybe a little more obscure. It’s almost like— I don’t know. I feel like this is one detail that I can give that will tell everybody exactly how old I am is the end of Casper.
SF: Oh, yeah!
BA: Yeah, when the ghost comes and turns into Devon Sawa, and I was like 12 or 13 at the time.
SF: Had a huge crush on Devon Sawa at the time. Don’t worry.
BA: Me, too! Oh, yeah. That moment and I think that reveal and she’s like, “oh, it’s you.” “It’s me.” You know, “can I keep you?” I see that moment in the reveal at the end of Simon. And I think I didn’t consciously draw upon those, but in retrospect, it’s very clear that connection to me when I see the way I ended the book, and that’s carried over, of course, into the film.
SF: Why do you think it took so long for Love,Simon? Because there are other movies about teenagers coming out and being themselves Pariah is one that I love a lot, and, of course, there was also Moonlight that came out last year.
BA: I love that movie. It’s so good.
SF: So good. But they’re not light films. You’re not going to be screaming with joy too much in these films. So what do you think took so long for a romcom like this to be made?
BA: I think there are gay romcoms, but what’s really different about this one is it’s the studio backing, the studio putting the full force of their resources and energy behind it. That’s what’s so different. And I feel like Hollywood just may be a little bit the last frontier as far as— well, actually not the last frontier. There are a lot more things that need to happen. But TV has been a little faster at being more inclusive. I see a lot more diversity in publishing, in YA in particular. There’s so much work to do, but, man, are we further ahead than Hollywood.
SF: This is true.
BA: And I think a lot of it is just studios haven’t been willing to take a chance, and I understand it’s a huge financial investment beyond anything that I could imagine. It’s a lot of people having to say yes to this story. So to give Fox credit, they never wavered. They decided to take this on, and they were taking a risk because there’s nothing even— at this point, preparing for opening weekend, they didn’t even really have any comps for it. 
They can try, but there’s nothing they can really do to predict what the box office numbers are going to be because it’s pretty different from anything else that’s ever come out in a wide release before, which is exciting. It’s something I’m very— I’ll always be grateful to Fox for that. It’s special.
SF: I mean they made a really great film.
BA: Yeah, they really did.
Love, Simon is now playing in theaters nationwide.
Maria Jackson
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