Sarah Petrie, founder of Forever Young Adult, moderated a Saturday morning BookCon panel, BFFs Forever, which gathered YA authors Gayle Forman, Sarah Dessen, and Jenny Han to talk about friendships past and present, and the art of writing about them.
Petrie kicked things off by asking the panelists to talk about their childhood best friends. Jenny Han remembered her first best friend, named Jess; together they were “J and J,” inseparable best friendsm Jess “broke up” with Jenny one day, telling her she “didn’t want to be best friends anymore, because we’re too similar.”
Sarah Dessen remembered her first best friend, a boy called Joe. Dessen still lives in the small town she grew up in, and on a recent trip to a dentist, she saw in her file that when she was seven, she had written Joe in as her “favorite person.” When he was 12 and Dessen was 11, Joe moved to Missouri. They wrote each other letters, and recently she sent him all the letters she had saved from when they were young.
Gayle’s first best friend was a neighbor called Michelle, a “friend of convenience,” Forman had called her, as the two both wanted a best friend but didn’t really like each other much. “It was like a friend booty call for years,” she said. Forman also noted that many of her subsequent friendships ended in “break-ups,” and that she had definitely been dumped by more platonic girlfriends than boys.
“It hurts worse,” Dessen added. “First friend breakups are devastating,” said Han. “You hear about romantic breakups, but not with friends. You’re often not the person you were when you met. It’s like a marriage, I think, and it’s hard to maintain that.” Forman concurred, talking about the difficulty to have enduring friendships over time, and citing the times she had been “dumped” by friends. Forman shared a particularly painful experience in which her friend, and also roommate, moved into a single room apartment with her boyfriend while Forman was on a weekend vacation, and put all of Forman’s stuff into storage.
Dessen felt that particularly in YA books, “friendships are undiscovered territory in writing. Relationships are one thing, but friendship is so much bigger. Stories about friendship are prevalent, but not given their proper due. Boys can be gone but friends are there for years sometimes.” Dessen added that while she was writing her new book, Saint Anything, an old friendship was starting to fade, and as she wrote the novel, she created the character Layla as an ideal friend she wanted at the time.
Forman addressed the gender disparity in friendships, particularly in adolescence. Friendship breakups affect women and men, she said, “but particularly girls because of the intimate nature of our friendships.” Petrie observed that many “guys don’t have those friendship breakups,” to which Han added that girls “become so obsessed with your friends you want to live in their skin.” Forman concurred, saying: “You don’t see guys holding hands in the halls. And I think it’s a detriment that it’s not socially acceptable.” Dessen said, “My husband won’t spend hours analyzing what his friends said.”
Forman noted that her adult friendships were more nourishing (“in the insecurity stew that is high school, the craziness is gone when your friendships age up”). Now that she’s married, she doesn’t fall in love with new boys, but in a way falls in love with new people as she builds platonic friendships. Forman also likened these more mature friendships to the camaraderie she feels with the YA community that she has made friends with. It’s a “marginalized genre,” she said, which elicits a “feeling of real support” from fellow authors. Dessen chimed in: “As my father used to say, a rising tide lifts all boats, and more books and authors [in the genre] is good for everyone.” Han interjected that Dessen was “one of the most generous people in the biz. She blurbed my first book, and she’s so supportive of up and comers,” especially on Twitter.
“John Green is also generous,” Dessen added, sharing an anecdote about being at ALA in New Orleans not long after he won the Printz for Looking for Alaska. They went out gambling, and when Dessen lost $20, Green started shouting, “Sarah Dessen is a compulsive gambler!” At another conference when she bumped into an attendee, Green shouted: “Sarah Dessen hits librarians!”
The authors also talked about writing friendships. Dessen said that sometimes friends, and secondary characters in general, helped her get across things that she couldn’t with her main characters, who are often stand-ins for the reader and more relatable. The secondary characters act as foils that help bring certain themes to the fore. Han added that she often processed old, painful friendships, and in writing about them and being able to “close the book” on them, she found it healing. “At my high school graduation, everyone was saying ‘this is so sad,’” Dessen said, but she felt, “I hate everyone here.” The audience erupted in laughter. “The great irony is that [while] I make a living thinking about high school, I’m still working through issues and trying to rewrite that time with a snappier comeback and a happier ending.”