Adam Silvera’s second novel, History Is All You Left Me, involves two highly emotional subjects: first love and young death. The former bookseller spoke with PW about the just-published book, which opens with the main character, Griffin, very reluctantly getting ready to attend a funeral.
I know your first book, More Happy Than Not, had a lot of autobiographical elements but I’m really hoping you’ll tell me your new book isn’t based on something that actually happened to you. Please?
It’s not completely my story but it’s very close to it. In fact, I was just talking to Peter Glassman (owner of Books of Wonder) and he told me he can’t read the book because he lost a love when he was young and he’s tried to read (History Is All You Left Me) three times and he just can’t do it. It’s too close to something that happened to him. I didn’t personally lose someone to a drowning or death but I had a breakup that felt like a high-end version of abandonment. And the initial spark for this novel came from my ex-boyfriend who called me after he and his new boyfriend had gotten back from the beach where he had almost drowned. The lifeguard had to save him. Afterward we joked that the lifeguard was super hot but I was still in love with my ex at the time and there were so many things I wanted to say to him that I always assumed I would say when we got back together so this thought of him almost dying stuck with me. A year later, when I was finally over him as a love interest I had enough distance to write about those feelings.
I imagine a lot of readers weeping over this novel and remember once hearing Julius Lester advise writers to fight to keep anything in a story that made them laugh, or made them cry. Do you cry when you write?
I have cried while writing but I don’t remember crying for this book except maybe near the end. I think for the most part I’m able to keep from crying because I don’t write something when I’m going through it, I write after the fact to process what happened. But I am looking to get a response out of readers. If a reader can’t remember your character’s name a week after he finishes your book, I think I’ve failed as a writer. I want readers to feel, even if it’s rage. Even if they hate it, that’s okay. I want a reaction.
Your first novel covered some very serious territory, too, but it did have the word happy in the title. Does the weight of these subjects sometimes get you down or is writing about it a way of a way of releasing it into the wild, so to speak?
I wouldn’t say my mood changes. I think it’s better to write about the stuff I’m dealing with – Griffin’s OCD 100 percent mirrors my own – than to walk around with stuff and not examine it. Whenever I’m writing, it’s always from some place of therapy: me getting over a breakup, me facing a challenge, but I leave it on the page. I write it down, play with my puppy, and then go right back to writing a really depressing scene.
Well, just to continue this line of questioning, I can’t help but note that your next book is titled They Both Die at the End. Is there any chance it is a feel-good story?
Definitely not but it is a musical. Well, not a musical, but one of the characters has a couple of scenes where he sings aloud. I’m building this reputation as YA heartbreaker, I know. Some people like ‘happily ever after,’ but I don’t think that’s me. I’m always writing from some difficult place and seeing how the character survives … or doesn’t. When I really want to be comforted myself what I look for is a story about how somebody could survive something really difficult. There are happy stories out there but I think some of them may raise false expectations for teens. And I have been getting a lot of feedback and tweets from readers who are tell me, ‘I’m so excited for you to break my heart again.’ I’m not 100 percent sure I can have an entire career writing difficult stories but right now I’m just putting it out there to start a conversation.
History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera. SoHo Teen, $18.99 Jan. ISBN 978-1-61695-692-9.