Becky Albertalli went to her first writing conference in November 2013 in Atlanta, her hometown, because she knew that Brooks Sherman of the Bent Agency was going to be there. The agency is closed to unsolicited queries, so if Albertalli was going to get Sherman to read her manuscript, she’d have to pitch him directly. She was a nervous wreck about it but she screwed up her courage, sidled over to him at the mixer, and... completely muffed it. “I actually had to ask him if I could start over,” Albertalli recalls.
But Sherman, nothing if not polite, did agree to read Albertalli’s query about her first novel, written in the voice of a gay teenage boy coming to terms with his sexuality. Albertalli sent Sherman the query on a Saturday. On the following Monday, he requested the full manuscript. By Thursday, he offered to represent her. A week later, editor Donna Bray made an offer for a two-book deal, including the first novel, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, Apr.).
This is not how publishing works. Except when it does.
A 50,000-copy first printing followed, as did three starred reviews, and rights sold in the U.K., Brazil, Germany, France, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Taiwan, and Turkey. There’s “excited interest from various film entities,” says Pouya Shahbazian of New Leaf Literary & Media, who is handling film inquiries. And, now Albertalli is a PW Flying Start.
“I didn’t know what to expect but I definitely didn’t expect all that’s happened,” Albertalli says. She wrote the book just after she’d had a baby, Owen (now nearly three). But before she could return to work, she and her husband decided to move from D.C. to Atlanta, where Albertalli grew up in suburban Sandy Springs. With her career as a psychologist on hold, she had a small window of opportunity to try her hand at writing fiction, a path she had considered but not pursued.
Because Albertalli’s work as a clinician involved working with LBGTQ teens and leading a support group for gender nonconforming children, she felt comfortable writing in the voice of her main character, Simon Spier, who realizes he is gay but doesn’t feel any urgency to come out until he strikes up a flirtatious email-only romance with a classmate he meets (virtually) on a school gossip site. Simon is smart, self-deprecating, and basically adorable. His only flaw may be an addiction to Oreos. Albertalli does not consider this a flaw. “Probably half my advance has gone toward the purchase of Oreos,” she admits. (In fairness, she was pregnant with baby #2 during this time.) “I deserve some sort of kickback from Nabisco.”
Simon love started early and has not abated. The novel was an IndieNext and a Junior Library Guild pick. Bloggers embraced it, and invited Albertalli to write guest posts. A school in Atlanta invited her to be an author in residence, a gig that humbled her. “They read their poems aloud for me,” Albertalli says. “I’m not a poet at all—there’s no way I can critique them. I wanted them to teach me about writing. I guess I feel it’s funny to be looked to for advice on writing when I am still taking in so much from other people.”
Readers have already posted Simon fan fiction online. Teen fans from Alabama drove to Atlanta to meet Albertalli. “I said, ‘C’mon. I’ll load you up with swag and Oreos,’ ” she recounts. “But I looked upon authors as heroes for such a long time, all this attention kind of makes me feel like an impostor.”
And then there’s this: even if you hit it out of the park your first time up, you’re going to have to bat again. “Simon was such a charmed experience,” Albertalli says. “Book two I’ve already written four times.” She looked at the manuscript again recently, kept the characters, and “repurposed” them in a completely new plot. “It’s good because now I’m really excited about the story again.”
To see all six of this season’s Flying Starts authors and illustrators, click here.