April 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

“Playing Puzzle Master”: Adam Silvera on Complex Narratives, Diversity, and More

Photo by Margot Wood

Photo by Margot Wood

Adam Silvera is intimately familiar with the complicated emotions associated with the end of a relationship: his 2015 novel, More Happy Than Not, melded sci-fi and realistic fiction for a compelling, poignant debut. His latest, History Is All You Left Me (Soho Teen, Jan. 2017; Gr 10 Up), explores similar themes, with a narrative that switches between past and present: after the death of his best friend and ex-boyfriend, Theo, Griffin looks back on the relationship as he reaches out to Jackson, whom Theo was dating before he died. Silvera spoke with SLJ about his influences, the need for diversity in YA literature, and the challenges of penning a novel that so successfully incorporates utter joy and emotional devastation.

The idea of looking back on a relationship and seeing how it went wrong is a common theme in literature and in film. Did you draw inspiration from other books and movies as you shaped the narrative?

I didn’t intentionally draw from any other books and movies, but I wouldn’t doubt the possibility that I subconsciously drew from my favorite movies (500) Days of Summer and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Both films capture that “Where did we go wrong?” element. The structure itself came from my best friend reading early chapters of the “Today” narrative and telling me how much he loved it but how he also found Griffin’s grief super depressing.

And I remember so much feedback from More Happy Than Not where reviewers said it was dark but the narrator, Aaron, was so funny that he was essentially a light in the darkness. It didn’t feel genuine for Griffin to laugh and crack jokes while grieving the love of his life. He’s not a light in the darkness; he’s gone pitch-black. So I created the “History” section as a way to give readers some recess from Griffin’s darkness, to see him when he was happiest. But it was also an obvious portal to dig deeper into Griffin’s history with Theo. So happy with the way it came out.

askGriffin’s obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) plays a role in the book. Can you talk about the process of creating a fully developed character with mental illness?

Griffin’s OCD was the easiest thing I’ve ever written because Griffin has my exact compulsions. We both walk on everyone’s left; we’re ruled by even numbers with exceptions to one, seven, 11, and any number ending in seven; and we even have the same tics brought on by anxiety. My compulsions even affect my writing process to the point where I was hoping to make sure every paragraph had an even amount of sentences, and every sentence an even amount of words, and an even amount of apostrophes in those words. If you’re exhausted reading that, welcome to my mind. And incorporating those compulsions into Griffin was so easy because even though I can be ruled by my compulsions, I know I am more than them. OCD isn’t the heart of the story; grief is. Griffin’s compulsions just happen to be with him the same way his shadow is.

I’d love to hear more about how you wrote the scenes when Griffin’s father tries to talk to his son about dating and same-sex relationships (“I know you don’t need some birds-and-bees talk. Birds and birds? Maybe it’s bees and bees?”).  Typically in YA literature, these conversations have been predominately heteronormative.

Because those father-son, mother-daughter, parent-child talks are predominately heteronormative is exactly why I wanted to write this scene. I was 21 when I came out to my mother, so I wrote what I hope my talk would have looked like if I had come out as a teen. Zero antagonizing, zero shame, total acceptance in who I am, total understanding I will run off and have sex and should be safe about it. 

Your novels have represented diverse voices. How do you think YA literature has expanded its inclusion of diverse voices in general? Where could we improve?

We’re definitely nowhere near where we should be, but we’re moving in the right direction. I’ve been very fortunate to have Soho Teen give both of my books lead title treatment, and I would love to see other publishers pushing great stories narrated by marginalized voices, too. We saw this in 2016 with Nicola Yoon’s fantastic The Sun Is Also a Star. We’ve seen the buildup for Angie Thomas’s much-needed The Hate U Give. But we need more. If you love The Hate U Give, go back and read Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s All American Boys. Look out for Nic Stone’s Dear Martin in October.

If publishers can push multiple dystopian novels and readers can read every vampire novel out there, I hope everyone will welcome the varying perspectives of similar realistic topics authors are bravely tackling.

I also desperately want to see more marginalized voices in genre fiction. Gay wizards, please!

In many YA novels, grown-up characters often feel thin compared with the characterizations of the teens, but your adult characters are well-developed, with their own perspectives and opinions (and awkward moments!). Was this a conscious choice? And have you noticed that we’re seeing more of this in YA?

I worked really hard on making the adults feel real and not ancillary. In my first book every teen came from a single-parent household, and in History, there are more parents, which obviously means more characters to write. Every parent is reacting to Theo’s death, too. Griffin’s parents have known Theo since fifth grade and loved how much their son loved him. They’re wrecked for Griffin. Theo’s parents are obviously devastated but have to keep moving for their daughter. Jackson’s mother is in the same place as Griffin’s parents, but she doesn’t have quite as deep a relationship with Theo.

Your book jumps back and forth between past and present. How did you approach the structure of the novel as you wrote? Did you write one time line and then another, or did you move between narratives?

I’ve been calling the way I approached this book the Jandy Nelson method. When she wrote I’ll Give You The Sun, she wrote one character’s narrative in its entirety, locked it away, and wrote the other character’s narrative. I wasn’t intending to write a nonlinear novel from the start; it was always just going to be a story about Griffin grieving the love of his life and what comes next. So I finished that arc and then went back and wrote the History section, where we see Griffin and Theo falling in love, their breakup, Theo moving on, and beyond. Then I played puzzle master and pieced everything together.

Can you talk about the challenges of conveying joy and grief—often within pages of each other, as you do often in the book?

That was one of the hardest parts about the book. I was happy to provide that recess from the grief for the reader—and myself—but if we didn’t feel the weight of the grief more, all the sympathy for Griffin falls apart. But also, if we don’t see Griffin at his best, it’s hard to like him at his worst. I think the narratives coming together the way they did saved the story.

Can you discuss what you’re planning next?

I have another book releasing this year! They Both Die at the End is set in a world where Death-Cast calls you on the day you’re going to die, and it centers on two boys who meet through The Last Friend app and must live a lifetime in a single day. Like More Happy Than Not, it’s a speculative novel and it comes out on September 5. I’m also hard at work on two novels. One is fantasy, and the other is contemporary. More books, yay!



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Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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  1. Karah Russell says:

    “More books, yay” indeed! I loved History is All You Left Me even more than More Happy Than Not, which I didn’t think was possible. Can’t wait for the next one!