What If The Universe Made Authors Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera Collaborate Just To Make Us Happy
These two rockstar YA authors share how they came together to write ‘What if It’s Us’ and what it’s like to have their dream cast bring it to life in audio.By Heather ScottNov 16, 2018 10:41 AM
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I can't remember exactly when I heard that Adam Silveraand Becky Albertalli, two of my favorite Young Adult authors, were going to write a book together, but I do know that I was thrilled every time they dropped a hint on Twitter or Instagram. But just what would the book be? Would I end up sobbing on the subway like I did while reading Adam's More Happy Than Not? Would I fall so in love with the fictional characters that moments in my real life would remind me of them, just as it did with Becky's Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda?
When What If It's Us landed in my Audible library, with narration by Dear Evan Hansen's Noah Galvin and One Day at a Time's Froy Gutierrez, I started listening right away. Everything else could wait while I got to know the main characters, Arthur and Ben. Arthur is an optimist, a believer in the good of the universe, who's in NYC for a summer internship. Ben is a native New Yorker begrudgingly attending summer school, who thinks the universe should back off, thankyouverymuch. When they meet in the most rom-com, meet-cute of ways, it ends up being a missed connection. And then the universe intervenes. But what if it's a cruel joke? What if it's wonderful? What if it changes everything for good? I had some feelings at the end of it all, and luckily Adam and Becky were up for a spoiler-free chat.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
And you may know Adam from his book, They Both Die at the End. I had the opportunity to listen to What If It's Us recently and I've been talking about it nonstop since then. Honestly, it is a perfect rom-com in a book, and that's how I keep talking about it, and I know that that's how I'll return to it and reread it again and again just like you do all your favorite romance movies.
So Becky and Adam, welcome. We're so thrilled that you're here to chat with us today.
Adam Silvera: Thank you so much for having us.
Becky Albertalli: Thank you so much.
HS: So it sounds like you were friends before you started working on this book, and I heard a rumor that this may have been sparked by Becky sharing a missed connection in an email that was left in your archives? Can you talk a little bit about that?
BA: Yeah. I'll try to give the safe-for-work version of the story, but actually when we first started talking about this book, we had not known each other for very long. We had never met in person and we had been in touch over email for about two months because we have the same literary agent Brooks Sherman. We sold our debut novels within the same week. I mean, I think it was less than two months--this was early 2014--and we had quickly reached the oversharing phase of our friendship.
HS: That's the best stage, though. Come on!
BA: It was. Things happened really early for both Adam and me. And we were talking about past dating trenches stories and Adam had real dating stories. I had stories about like crushes and timing like from my early twenties. And I shared a story about a missed connection that I put up on Craigslist once in my early twenties and for anybody who doesn't know what Craigslist missed connections are, those are when you see somebody in public and have some kind of moment with them but you don't get their contact info and so you're kind of hoping for a do-over and a second chance from the universe. So you can put up this post and it's like a lost cat ad, kind of, but you're just basically kind of trying to describe little details that might identify them or kind of talk about the moment where you saw each other or things to identify yourself. And hope that they are checking to look for you and that you find each other again.
So I was the kind of person who would do that and I did that, and I did not find my guy and that's really where the story ended. I did find some other people.
AS: Yeah, Becky was telling me all that and I jumped on that in the email response. I was like, "How cool would it be if we did a YA book that was like a missed connection sort of related?" And then from there we just sort of fell down this huge incredible thought spiral of, "Okay who are they? Who are the boys? Where do they live? What separates them? How do they find each other again and what do their lives look like?" And we just kept building these boys from there on out. At this point, Becky was on board. I was on board. We had not met each other in real life yet.
HS: That is amazing that you hadn't met. I didn't realize that you hadn't met earlier on in your respective careers.
AS: Well, we hadn't even spoken on the phone. We hadn't had a phone conversation. We'd been texting and emailing. We didn't hear each other on the phone until the morning that we were about to meet for the first time when Becky was in New York with her family. That was the first time we actually even spoken on the phone.
HS: So in some ways it's like your own working relationship and friendship was a missed connection. You'd never seen each other. You're just going off of what gets written back and forth, in many ways.
HS: With this book, once you made the decision to go forward, how did you end up collaborating? Did you map everything out together or did you just sort of sit back and let Ben and Arthur tell their individual stories?
"We both have heard from so many teenagers that have come out because of these books, and that is an incredibly powerful." Adam Silvera
AS: Becky and I had our respective contracts to respect before we were able to sit down and write What if it's Us. So in early 2017 when Becky completed Leah on the Offbeat, and I completed They Both Die At The End, we were both finally free at the same time to write this book together and it was so exciting. We'd had years and years of material now, coming off our personal conversations like, "Oh my god. This is so funny. We should put this in the book." Based on things we were saying to each other because we just think the other person's the most hilarious person out there and just like, "Oh my god, how cool would if this be if this happened to Arthur? If this happened to Ben? And all the surrounding characters as well." We just had all these ideas and then we sat down, we had an outline that, of course, we didn't respect as the story grew while we were writing it. We had agreed on the direction where the characters were going. They just, sort of, sometimes went off course a little bit but we were always talking about that together.
AS: This was never us surprising each other. Chapter by chapter, we had an agreed vision for the story.
HS: Oh fantastic, fantastic. So, it sounds like they really were for you, living, breathing, real guys who were going through all of this.
AS: They so are.
BA: And we are so extra about them too. We have all kinds of Pinterest boards about them and just photo sets that we've made. You know like photo edits and stuff. It was the kind of thing that people in a fandom will make for a book or a movie or something. We made those for our own book before it was [a book].
AS: Yeah, we are this book's biggest fandom.
HS: I guess, well, you should love your characters, right? Especially when they're guys who are so, so tremendous. Becky, you just mentioned the fan base and it seems like you both really do have, really the most enthusiastic independent fan bases. And then sort of a combined one at this point. When did it hit you that your work was really having an impact on young people? Was there a specific moment?
BA: I think it's hard to really have something like that sink in. I don't know if that's because I am such a fan girl myself. And for both Adam and me, our backgrounds, how we came into writing was through fan fiction. So it's very surreal to be on the other side and I think I do realize that there are a lot of readers, in particular young readers and teens, who follow me and get excited about my books, and take what I say seriously and I'm very grateful for that. I also take the responsibility of that very seriously and I know Adam does too. I think one moment where it really hit [me] was both the first time I ever saw that there was fan fiction for Simon in particular and then I hadn't looked at [the fansite] Archive of Our Own for a while but I just peeked over at the Archive of our Own's Simon page sometime after Love, Simon came out and there were hundreds of fan fictions about it.
BA: And I'm pretty sure a lot of people writing in that fandom maybe don't even know it's a book, you know? But still, as a fan fiction writer myself, somebody who wrote fan fiction for a very long time, that is a really big honor. That, fan art, we've seen there's already some for What If It's Us.
AS: The fan art stuff is incredible especially as someone who was writing my own Harry Potter fan fiction. I was constantly going through Google images to see everybody's Harry Potter fan art that I was, of course, not talented enough to do myself. But, for me, They Both Die at The End was the first time that I was seeing tons and tons of fan art and yeah that was really incredible. But I also think that we both have heard from so many teenagers that have come out because of these books, and that is an incredibly powerful ... and not just teenagers. There have been some adults in their twenties as well, who, if not coming out, they also look at these books like, emotional at the fact that they didn't have them themselves when they were teenagers and I feel similarly.
I told Becky the first time I read Simon, this was the book that like. It showed me a gay teen who loves Harry Potter and that seems so superficial but that was me. I was the gay teen who loved Harry Potter and who didn't hate myself for being gay but wasn't quite prepared to come out just yet and especially to deal with what that meant. And that was Simon, you know? And that was so huge for me, so I look at that book and I'm like, "Yeah, who knows what that would have done for me at 16?" I didn't see a gay character in a book until I was 19 and I that was Cassandra Clare's City of Bones and that was a gay demon hunter and a bisexual warlock, which was incredible and their relationship became my favorite part about the book but to now know we are producing that same effect for teenagers of today, that is probably my favorite thing.
HS: That's absolutely incredible, and that was actually something I wondered about while I was listening to What if it's Us So one of the things that I thought about while I was listening was that even though there are moments of homophobia in the book and even though there are some tough points, the core of the story really isn't a trauma book. It's not about abuse. It's not about coming out. It's not about bullying. So I just wondered how much responsibility you felt for telling stories that don't include that trauma for gay and lesbian teens? having something that's rom com. Having something that's softer.
AS: Yeah, and I think all these stories are important, you know? I mean, my existing solo catalog of books, they all deal with really difficult things but I don't think that has to be the one story. You look at our respective stories and there are different tones to them, but I think what we did here with What If It's Us is that we made sure the relationship felt real. I think that was key. And we didn't want to paint this picture that being queer is always this sort of utopia or whatever. I am constantly second-guessing whether or not I should be holding someone's hand in an area, you know? Even in New York sometimes, you know? Even on the train. There have been many times I'm walking down the block holding someone's hand and on the train we break, because I just don't know who's one this train. So these are all the fears that we still carry with us and it felt appropriate to include that in there without it having to dominate the overall arch of the story. Like this is just a detail of what is means to be gay, and still even in 2018.
BA: Just to reiterate what Adam said about the importance of there being a lot of different kinds of stories, because there definitely are readers who are really looking for rom coms, but I think sometimes we as a reading community oversimplify that. And anybody who starts to oversimplify that, I would challenge them to do what I do, which is to sign books next to Adam Silvera for two hours. And you will see readers crying and showing off their tattoos because sometimes for some readers, what they read is a story that may be very sad at points, may not be something you would call a rom com, but all these different kinds of stories are going to resonate with different readers. And I think that's something that was on our minds with What if it's Us I think it's on our minds with all of our collective work and yeah, I think for me, I feel really honored to have my books be a part of this conversation. And I think my only hope is we have more and more different stories to draw from and the readers will have that.
HS: That's wonderful. I'll speak for the community of readers and audiobook listeners and let you know that I think we're so very lucky that we do have authors like you who are telling these stories, who are giving us the range of experiences for kids who are dealing with this, for adults who are dealing with this personally and for friend and allies just to sort of open our eyes a little bit as to what the range of experiences is. To be more careful in our actions, in our words, in how we're supporting each other. So personally I appreciate that all of this is out there very, very much.
AS: Thank you so much.
HS: Oh, absolutely. So I find it fascinating that both of you wrote fan fiction. I did not know that and I was struck throughout the book by how many contemporary pop culture references that there are. That we have Dear Evan Hansen. That we have Hamilton. That we're talking about Harry Potter fan fiction. How important was it to ground it in the now? To make this very 2018 and contemporary and of the moment. Was that conscious or did that just come out in the writing?
AS: It's funny because I often tell people that I couldn't have written this book without having read Becky's books. And one of the things I've always admired about Becky's books is... There's a decision that writers make. It's like, "Are you choosing to insert details that are contemporary right now with the awareness that it might make it feel dated in two years, four years?", or whatever? Or are you going to be like me in More Happy Than Not, where I kept things very vague. Like I wouldn't call anything Skype or FaceTime. I would say, "Yeah we're video chatting", and keep it general. And it's like, to each their own. Whatever you feel is more comfortable for you, go for it. But I loved being able to absorb some of the details that feel a little more contemporary and it's just, this is a book that's also time stamped. It's a 2018 book. This book takes place in 2018 and it's just, we leaned into that and we talk about the administration. We talk about what movies are happening around this time. We have a little secret sly shout out to Love, Simon even in the second chapter of the book.
It's just about directly referencing Love, Simon and its title, so yeah, I personally love being able to include these details. Especially since they were so important for the development of the romantic relationship as well, they were able to use these shows and their stories to sort of grow their bond with each other.
"[Actors Noah Galvin and Froy Gutierrez] are incredible and they just match the voices that we have had in our heads for so many years now." Adam Silvera
HS: Absolutely. I think it's interesting too because it does ground it in the now but I don't know that it's going to feel dated. I think 10 years down the road it's going to be the same way that we look at a book set in the 80's or set in the 70's as sort of, of the moment and reading a period piece almost. I kind of love that. Related to all the pop culture is the voice casting for this audio book. It's tremendous. Noah Galvin from [the Tony-award winning musical] Dear Evan Hansen doing Arthur and Froy Gutierrez who's been on One Day at a Time doing Ben. What did you think about the narration? Did you have involvement in casting the audiobook?
AS: We straight up were like, "Hey how cool would it be if Noah Galvin and Froy Gutierrez did the audiobook?" And Harper-Collins, our editors, were like, "Yeah, sure. We'll talk with the audio team and see what they think."
BA: From then it was like, we didn't hear anything for a long time. We were already thinking about audio book casting or like when that was going to happen and then one day they emailed us. They were like, "Okay, so Noah and Froy are on board and they're confirmed." And we were screaming on the phone.
BA: Like, no chill.
AS: It just felt like, we literally were thinking, "Oh, it would be cool if we got one." You know? But a "Lets shoot for the stars," kind of deal and it was like, "really?" I remember standing there in my bedroom, staring at that email on my phone like, "what?" There was no fanfare. It was just like, "Yeah, Noah and Froy are confirmed. They start recording in August." And we were like, "What? I feel like this email should have had several excited gifs attached to it."
HS: A singing telegram to deliver it.
AS: Yeah, and then Becky and I, we had to opportunity to listen to about half of the audiobook together while we were touring and it's just... these guys are incredible. Through the entire tour we were like, "Tell everyone, we have the best audiobook that has ever audio booked." And we have no shame saying that. They are incredible and they just match the voices that we have had in our heads for so many years now.
BA: We were embarrassing. We were giggling on planes. People looked at us. Listening to it, it didn't feel like I was listening to an audiobook, or even a story. And certainly not a story I had any hand in writing. It just felt like, "This is Arthur and Ben speaking to us."
HS: I can tell you as a first-time listener that's how it felt too. I really just felt like I was sitting down with Arthur, having a cup of coffee and he was telling me about what was going on in his life. And I kept thinking of them as these guys that I might run into on this street. I'm in New York so, I might have had a missed connection with them. You never know.
HS: And it's certainly how it felt every time I was out and about. It's pretty amazing. No spoilers, so we won't talk in detail about the ending of the book. I will say that the ending hit me pretty hard personally because it was very, very real and very, very familiar to me. What do you want your readers to have at the end of this? Is there any particular impact you want it to have on them?
"Every single time we came up with an ending we were completely on the same page." Becky Albertalli
AS: I mean, for me it's been that whatever your own experiences are, that's going to shape the tone of the ending for you, you know? And I loved telling the story and so when What If It's Us first went out to foreign publishers, we first heard back from our Danish publisher. And there were two editors on that team and they both sent us emails about how much they loved the book. And our one editor Kyle was like, "Oh, I loved it so much, it made my heart so happy and I love these boys." And then our other editor Christian was like, "I love these boys so much and I cried so much. I feel hungover this morning. I was so hit by that ending." It was like, "Did everyone read the same book? Did we accidentally send out two different versions?" And so my greatest joy so far has really just been hearing on Twitter, and in person, and on Instagram, what everyone's personal reactions' been for because it has just been much broader than I have experienced with my solo books.
BA: Me too, for sure, and as we were putting this ending together, we actually went through four different endings for this book and I think the expectation that a lot of people have, just based on our previous books, is that Adam and I throughout the process were going head-to-head. And I wanted a kissing-at-prom kind of ending and Adam wanted a death kind of ending, and you know, it wasn't like that at all. Every single time we came up with an ending we were completely on the same page and it was one of the really cool things about working with our editorial team, who were our two solo editors: Donna Bray, who is my solo editor, and Andrew Eliopulos, who is Adam's solo editor. They were collaborating as well.
And so it's just this kind of collaborative energy and they would challenge us to try different things with the ending. And it kind of moved a little bit in that editorial process. It's just such a cool experience and I felt like it challenged us to look at things a little bit differently than we might have in our solo work. I think our biggest goal though from the beginning, as you kind of work through this, was always to be faithful to these characters and their story with an ending that felt Arthur and Ben.
HS: I love it, I love it. And I feel like it sounds like this book is really living up to the adage that no two readers read the same book. That even though it's the same obviously -- the same print, the same audio, the same everything -- that your own life experiences influence what you hear and how you react to it in very, very different ways. I think it's so exciting. It's so exciting. I love it.
AS: It really is.
HS: And I'm glad that you're hearing that too. I mean, that's got to be really rewarding to be able to have those conversations, to be able to hear how people are responding really in the moment. I mean, it hasn't been out long so, you're getting it right away. Well, mostly right away. You've been working on this for years.
AS: It feels like a fandom that we have finally opened the doors to other people. That it's not just our own little clubhouse anymore. We're like, "Alright, fine. You guys can come in and meet Arthur and Ben too." But for the longest it's really just been us talking about this book with pure certainty that it was going to get done. Like we would write this book. And a lot of people say they are going to do stuff and we had so many obstacles that could have easily prevented Arthur and Ben from ever coming to life, and not even just for readers but for ourselves you know? There was a chance that we could have never met them, which is heartbreaking to think about, and it's like we got it done, you know? So that feels really incredible and it feels especially special to finally be able to share these boys with everybody else.
HS: I'm so excited that you're sharing all the inside jokes and that we get to be part of your little, mini two-person fandom too. I'm glad to be on board this train with you. I have, what I think is, a very, very important final question because I personally am a believer in the universe having impact on your life and I have had moments in my life that I look back on and I go, "Oh, well the universe was trying to teach me x, y and z, and that's why it took three months for me to get over that." Or, "The universe is making this a great day and I'm so thrilled." Arthur and Ben have very, very many conversations and thoughts about the universe and the impact on their lives and how it changes things. But what about each of you? Do you believe that the universe has a say in your life?
AS: One hundred percent. And I think for me, my relationship with the universe has always sort of been, yes, I am pissed off at it when things aren't going my way. And then I ultimately, much like you, I learn from that hardship and I understand what the universe was actually protecting me from, you know? And/or setting me up for. So, yes. I think I've had enough of those experiences now that sometimes when things aren't necessarily going in the way that I would think would provide me sort of, immediate happiness, I do think it's building me to be a stronger person and setting me up for greatness.
But I think as a teenager, sometimes you don't feel quite as lived just yet to fully have that perspective and to be able to appreciate not having immediate gratification. So that's where I think I was most like Ben, you know? But I've always believed in some higher power. I'm not religious but I'm like, "There's more. There's more that's actually contributing here and this game of chess that's being played." And it gives me comfort.
So whether it's nonsense or not, I do think that, especially with our relationship with this book, it has the universe stamped absolutely all over it.
BA: Yeah, I think it's interesting because I think the big question of the universe, I don't know it's one that we answer in the book or even one we set out to answer. It's certainly a question that we talk about and explore. I don't know. I'm really fascinated by the way that we can be a part of a moment as humans and we can put a frame around it and we can interpret it within whatever frame we apply to it. For example, with Arthur and Ben, in the very first chapter they get split up by a wedding proposal flash mob and Arthur is like, "Oh my gosh, it's a wedding proposal, that is a sign from the universe." And Ben is like, "we got split up by this flash mob. That is a sign from the universe." And so I love that and I do think I believe in some force like the universe but I think sometimes, however I interpret the moment the universe has delivered, I'm open to finding out later that I either had a limited interpretation or just that other interpretations for those moments exist.
I think that's one of the beautiful things about being alive and not knowing what happens next.
HS: I love it, I love it. Becky and Adam, thank you so much for talking to us and Audible listeners today. I loved meeting Arthur and Ben in What if it's Us, and I know that our readers and listeners will enjoy it too. I loved everything about the book and I'm really truly hoping that we have some more collaborations from you in the future.
BA: Well, thank you so much for having us.
AS: Thank you, same, yeah. We'll see what the universe has in store.
HS: Perfect, I'm on the side of the universe providing more and more and more and more and more. Alright, thank you so much guys this was fantastic.