Q&A: YA Writers Julie Buxbaum And Adam Silvera Will Make You Cry
Julie Buxbaum is the author of Tell Me Three Things and the forthcoming What to Say Next, which hits shelves in July. In Tell Me Three Things, Jessie receives an anonymous email just when she needs it most: Her father is remarrying and uprooting her from home. Jessie’s mom died three years ago, and her continued struggle with that loss is palpable throughout the book. In What to Say Next, popular Kit connects with socially isolated David after losing her father in a freak accident. In both works, Buxbaum’s portrayal of grief and familial love pulls at reader’s heartstrings.
Adam Silvera likes to make his readers cry, too. His debut, More Happy Than Not, is set in a near-future Bronx, where a popular memory-altering procedure is administered to wipe people’s most painful memories. There are a few things Aaron considers wiping from memory — including his father’s suicide and his queerness. In History Is All You Left Me, Griffin is destroyed by the accidental death of his boyfriend (and best friend), Theo. It’s a meditation on love, loss, and friendship.
Both authors write nuanced and diverse portrayals of difficult subjects, combining tragedy with hope. MTV News spoke with Buxbaum and Silvera about where they find inspiration, balancing darkness with light, and the responsibility that YA authors have to their readers.
First, why YA? Did you always know that you wanted to write for teens and young readers?
Julie Buxbaum: I've always read YA, and I've always enjoyed it, [but] I didn't actually set out to write YA. I had written two adult novels, and for much of my adult life I felt like I was pretending to be an adult. There was no part of me that actually felt mature or grown up at all. A few years ago I moved from London to New York and then back to L.A. I had my second child, I was married, I bought a house, I was on the freaking PTA, and I looked around at my life and I was like, Oh my god, the jig is up. I could not be more grown up. Once that hit me, I started feeling really nostalgic and sad for those teen years, where all of my life's questions weren’t yet answered. So I wanted to go back and safely explore that feeling of not knowing my life's answers without any real danger of blowing up my own life. That's where YA came in, because it’s a safe way to go back to being 16.
Adam Silvera: I definitely came into YA intentionally. I was a bookseller, a children's bookseller particularly, and it was just the genre I was always obsessed with, you know? I was reading the City of Bones books, like, right when the third one came out. Originally it wasn't going to be this major series, it was just gonna be a trilogy, and I caught up just in time for the third book. But yeah, I grew up on Harry Potter too and, I mean, I definitely wanted to be able to write for that age. Also, I didn't come out until I was 19, so it was really great to now be able to write about queer characters who are out sooner than I was, you know? In some ways — I'm realizing now for the very first time — in some ways it's helped me relive my childhood in a way that I personally didn't feel comfortable doing in my own youth.
In terms of writing YA and telling these diverse stories, where does the inspiration come from, and who or what influences your stories?
Buxbaum: I consume a ton of TV and a ton of books — all over the spectrum. I do read a lot of YA, but I also read a lot of adult literary fiction. And I watch way more TV than I care to admit. When I am consuming any of that stuff, I'm always looking at story structure and character. If I'm being grabbed, I try to figure out why. So in some ways, I've sort of destroyed the act of consuming art for myself because it's all become a little bit of work. I don't let myself just go and enjoy anymore. So I guess to answer your question, what influences me the most is sort of making sure I digest a wide variety of media in all different kinds of genres.
Silvera: I was writing Harry Potter fan fiction and Charmed fan fiction and Supernatural fan fiction as a kid. I mean, those were the stories that I was obsessed with. I was a huge Hunger Games fan, of course. I love Lauren Oliver, particularly the Delirium trilogy. I love that series so much. Also, I have tons of influences today. There are writers [whose] debuts came out in the same year [as mine], in 2015. I'm a major fan of Becky Albertalli and David Arnold and Nicola Yoon and Sabaa Tahir, to name a few. They all inspire me regularly. I love that we live in an age where you can be friends with your heroes, you know? Social media does some not great things pretty often, but it does also help you find your people.
You both have this beautiful ability to write about heavy topics without falling into the pits of despair. There is tragedy in your stories, but there is also hope. How did you navigate this balance?
Buxbaum: I think my favorite part about writing is sort of skirting that line and finding that balance. Because that's how life is, right? Like, even my friends used to make fun of me, that I was at my funniest at my lowest, and I think some of the funniest things in life are some of the darker things. It's really hard not to find the humor in life's darkest moments. I mean, that's when we need it the most. And so I really enjoy exploring those sides of things — not just the humor in the darkest moments, but the way we find lightness in the darkness. We're sort of riding these waves of dark to light and highs to lows, and I think any book that sort of dwells on one without the other is missing something. They're missing the truth of our existence; it's never all one or the other.
Silvera: Yeah, so it's funny. In the case of More Happy Than Not, I pulled a lot from my own life. I like to think that Aaron is a little more charming than I was as a kid. He was very endearing and readers quickly latched on to him, because even with everything going on, he's still cracking jokes with friends. In the case of History Is All You Left Me, the narrator is truly grieving, and there is nothing fun in his life right now. He doesn't even feel comfortable watching TV without feeling guilty that he's doing this normal thing while the love of his life and his best friend just died. So I was sort of remembering what readers loved about More Happy and how I could sort of bring that into History, and that's when I decided to make it a nonlinear book. I didn't want to sacrifice the authenticity of Griffin's grief, but I also didn't want this to be 300 pages of sadness. So, I was like, if I can show the history section, it will allow for lighter moments, and also give you the bonus benefit of experiencing Theo in scene. So that's sort of how I found the balance for that book in particular. It was a little more of a technical answer, but that's what ultimately worked out.
In Tell Me Three Things, characters develop a relationship through an anonymous email. Julie, how did you develop the anonymity aspect while writing in a digital era when nothing is anonymous?
Buxbaum: It came from a few places. First of all, for me personally, I am so much better able to articulate myself on paper than out loud. I've always been like that, I've always communicated on paper. So I like the idea of a relationship developing out of words, where you have the comfort of expressing yourself. The anonymity comes from the fact that I once got an anonymous email and it really had a profound impact on my life. It was such a wonderful and magical and weird experience that happened to me that I couldn't not use it one day in fiction.
Another aspect of the teen experience that is well-represented in both of your works is the integral role that parents play. Was this a conscious decision, including present parental figures in a genre that so often ignores them?
Buxbaum: Yeah, no, it was totally conscious. I think it's super, super important. One's relationship with their parents is hugely formative, and hopefully a huge part of your life, whether good or bad. One of the things I really think about a lot when I'm writing characters and their parents is that I'm not sure how clearly teenagers are able to see their parents. I think it's a problem we have actually throughout our lives, this inability to see our parents as something other than our parents, but as human beings, separate from us. Parents are people and they're dealing with their own shit just like we all are, and it's important to tell those stories. As much as teens are experiencing the formation of identity and trying to carve themselves out and separate from their parents, I think parents are still a huge part of what they can and cannot do, and there's a negotiation to that process that has to happen. It's important to show that negotiation.
Silvera: Totally. History Is All You Left Me is the first book I wrote where pretty much every primary character has a complete set of parents. Just in terms of the family dynamics and everything, I wanted the parents to be there. I wanted to see Theo's parents and how they reacted after the loss of their child. I wanted to see how Griffin's parents react to the loss of someone who was sort of like their son as well, not just because he was Griffin's boyfriend, but because they watched him grow up as well. They were very close with his family. I remember when I was building his parents for the first time, I was sort of like, what were they like as teenagers? What jobs are they currently working today? I'll ask myself just sort of basic Q&A questions, basic character profile questions about them. There just needs to be enough to help me give them a voice and a sense of their worldviews. I knew they weren't going to be 100 percent integrated into the story, but they were going to be present throughout to show that Griffin or any of the other characters weren't necessarily navigating this on their own.
With the state of America and our current political moment, has your approach to writing for teenagers adjusted to the responsibility of being a YA writer in Trump’s America?
Buxbaum: My next book gets a little bit more political than I've ever gotten, and I think part of it is in reaction to the current administration. But as a writer, in terms of delivering to the YA audience, I don't know if I've changed my messaging directly. Because I've thought about all this stuff before. Like, What to Say Next was written long before Trump, right? And it includes an incredibly diverse group of characters and marginalized people, which I find exceptionally important. Representation is so important. When we're living in times where we're being told [that] no matter who you are, you're not enough, I think it's really important that we counter that message in YA.
Silvera: I definitely see the repercussions of Trump's administration sort of sneaking into everything I'm doing. Like, I found myself writing a rally scene, a protest scene that I had not anticipated writing, but I was just so inspired by the Women's March and all of the other initiatives that we've seen since Trump was elected. And, you know, it's also making myself more available to teens personally as an author. Not necessarily through my books, but just human to human. The day after the election, I opened up my inbox specifically for people who were confused as to what was going to happen next. I was mailing books to teens in red states. It's really hard to keep working right now, because you want to be out doing this and doing that. But then I remember, how many teens have we met at these festivals? How many teens are not 100 percent caught up in these political storms right now, who still need entertainment, still need a recess from everything that they have going on in their lives? We have to produce that for them.
Adam, you are the community manager of Glasstown Entertainment [formerly Paper Lantern Lit]. You’re also an advocate for the representation of marginalized communities in YA. As a writer who also works within the industry, what do you think is the biggest issue surrounding diversity in publishing at this particular moment?
Silvera: What we need more is not just books about marginalized characters, but books about marginalized characters written by marginalized authors. That's something that this industry still needs to catch up on. Also, we shouldn't expect every book about a marginalized character to be about their marginalization. If the writer is doing their job correctly, that stuff will all be there in the way that we view their experience. It doesn't necessarily have to be the central story line. Something I'd personally want to see more of is just diversity in genre fiction. I'd love to see more queer characters in space or in fantasy and, like, historical fiction, whatever. And that's just me looking at the queer aspect. We need so many more identities represented across the board in both contemporary and genre [fiction]. It’s not just that we need to see that those books get published, but also to see that they've received major publisher support.
Finally, tell me three things.
1. I am traveling this week, I am going to be on a plane pretty much every day this week, and I am having major anticipatory anxiety about it.
2. I'm doing this interview in my pajamas.
3. Tell Me Three Things is the product of the saddest thing that ever happened to me and the happiest.
1. I have 12 tattoos.
2. I'm going to London for the first time ever in June, where I'll be doing events and I'll also get to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
3. I'm moving to Queens next week, which means I will have lived in four of the five boroughs of New York City.