Adele Griffin’s work as an assistant editor in children’s books two decades ago inspired her to write her own middle grade and young adult novels, two of which have been named National Book Award finalists. Her newest novel, Be True to Me, is set on Fire Island in the fictional community of Sunken Haven; it follows teenage girls Jean and Fritz as they compete for the affections of a handsome newcomer named Gil. Griffin spoke with PW about the significance of the book’s 1976 setting, the powerful nature of privilege, and our enduring fascination with stories of first sexual experiences.
Having written nearly 30 books, has your approach or writing process changed? How does it vary depending on your audience or the format of the book?
There’s always an inspiration anchor for me. I love setting and writing about prickly relationships. In Be True to Me, Fritz’s family is one style of an American dream and Jean’s family is another. Splitting the first-person narrative (which I’ve done before) and setting the voices against one another allowed me to project each girl’s influences and prejudices. Discussions of unlikeable characters always seem to happen with my books. I want to make my characters vital and complex enough to strike that chord with readers. That’s a theme that continues to fascinate me.
I have a four- and nine-year-old, so I can test middle grade on them! I read a lot of middle grade and picture books out loud, so I find myself hearing and thinking about pace, dialogue, and the sound of words.
You’ve written everything from beginning chapter books to retellings to a documentary-style biography. Where do you begin when starting a new project? Do you feel that you gravitate towards a certain type of story or character?
When I think about 1976, I remember, as a character, my babysitter Maggie. She would come over with James Taylor albums under her arm and this denim poncho bag full of secrets, like her mentholated cigarettes and Bonne Bell lipstick. She would talk about her crush on Mick Jagger, boys, and parties. She taught us to play gin rummy. I thought she was so fabulous. I can’t identify her as any of the characters in Be True to Me, but she was a romantic jumping-off point.
When I saw how my six-year-old was reacting to her babysitter when [my family] was on Fire Island one summer, I was drawn back to that time. My nostalgia sparked. I imagined the teens of Sunken Haven and a haunting, memorable summer that would cast a shadow over their adult lives. Moments cast a spell. From there, it becomes a big game of connect the dots.
How did you develop the setting of Sunken Haven? Did you have a connection to Fire Island already?
Many Fire Island communities in 1976 were homogenous vacation retreats, which I wanted to set against the exuberant spirit of gay culture in the Pines [another Fire Island town] at that time. I wanted to make it a memoir of two eras and that very uneasy relationship the two [very different types of communities] had with each other. It felt very metaphorical to think about freedom and the bicentennial and what freedom meant to each community.
I first visited Fire Island as an adult. Being a mom, observing all these young kids, I realized that the more things change the more they stay the same. I wanted to write a story about that awful or awkward or bizarre or lovely teen milestone experience of losing your virginity and what it signifies. What it gives and what it takes away. What we tell ourselves about it. We are as interested in those answers today as we were 40 years ago.
Why set the novel in 1976 specifically?
I had read a book called Tom Bianchi: Fire Island Pines: Polaroids 1975-1983, which was about the gay experience in the 1970s. It had beautiful pictures of men who would leave New York City for Fire Island, where they could be free to be out in a time when you couldn’t be out. It was so different from the very socially conventional communities on Fire Island. I thought it would be interesting to set one community against the other, then create all kinds of suspicion and unease. I was writing [Be True to Me] during Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco and was thinking about the hard road to that point, how we are standing on the shoulders of those who came before. The idea of there being a gate separating the two different communities, juxtaposing convention against the bohemian and artistically free, made Fire Island such a strange place. A strange place to be young. A strange place to be gay.
The novel is told in the alternating perspectives of straight-laced, wealthy Jean and free-spirited, army brat Fritz. Why did you choose to focus on these two perspectives?
It goes back to the idea of internal contradiction. I had a real sense of Gil [a southerner who comes to Sunken Haven to earn the respect of his previously estranged family]; he was my most autobiographical character because I felt like such an imposter growing up. I was the financial aid kid trying to be at the Great Gatsby party. He’s the obvious next voice and I felt a really deep understanding of him, but it felt more logical to do just the girls because I had a gendered understanding of them. It was always Jean and Fritz and then Gil, the silent other piece of the puzzle.
Both Jean and Fritz are vying for the attention of Gil, the newcomer. What is it about the teen love triangle that continues to draw in readers?
This is my first antagonistic relationship between two girls, but it was really important to me to balance the scale by incorporating a friendship [between Fritz and Julia, her longtime best friend]. That was the real challenge. I’m a sucker for a good teen love triangle, but I felt some hesitation in doing only that female rivalry story. So, even as I wrote the lore and competition between Jean and Fritz I was always layering in the Julia and Fritz friendship, balancing the scales. Be True to Me is as much a story of deep female friendship as a love triangle.
Can you speak about the ways in which privilege—and the lack of privilege—inform the choices of the characters in Be True to Me?
I recently reread The Great Gatsby. It’s an unusual book about privilege. It’s gorgeous in some ways, but I found I had misremembered so much of it. I had remembered it as a very free book, full of people acting without fear of consequence. I really wanted to catch that feeling in Be True to Me. Yet, when I reread The Great Gatsby as a grown woman, I also saw the deep gender inequalities and infuriating and devastating social standards within. That line from Daisy, that she hopes her daughter grows up to be a “beautiful fool,” is so awful, but you know where she’s coming from historically.
Jean and Fritz have limited options that come into play when fighting over Gil. Definitions of what you could and could not do were very narrow. It’s breathtakingly sad that we are still fighting these fights today.
Did you always envision the events of Be True to Me to span only the length of a summer?
Yes, and yet my third act was so hard. In a summer so much can happen. You can really change and redefine and completely redirect. I wanted the story to be a bracketed, finite piece of time. I like to imagine Jean looking back on this summer. I always wrote with the idea of this story being Jean’s memory. In fact, Jean is in my next book, 12 years later.
Is your next book a companion to Be True to Me?
No, it’s a totally different story. It’s set in the 1980s. Jean is an art teacher, ancillary in some ways, but she’s back.
Sexuality and first sexual experiences are both important elements of this story. Why is including scenes like these for teen readers important to you?
People talk about the loss of their virginity. It never becomes something that we don’t all sit around and talk about. I remember every moment of my own experience and what my friends told me about theirs. It becomes storytelling. You tell your story over and over again through your life.
In Be True to Me, I thought it would be interesting to have both Fritz and Jean experience their first sexual experience, because it means different things for different people.
Can you talk a bit about your role on the advisory board of 826NYC?
I was on the board of directors for four years and am now on the advisory board. I am always interested in what 826NYC is doing because I love their programs and outreach. 826NYC is a great way to connect with the Brooklyn community, to connect with like-minded people who want to help and young people doing really cool things.
I’m also on the board of directors at the MacDowell Colony, which is the oldest arts colony in America. We develop fellowships in dance, music, writing, long-form journalism, and so much more. It’s all encompassing. Amazing things happen at MacDowell.
You recently created OMG Bookfest with a group of middle grade authors. What motivated you to launch this project?
We were all at my house on New Year’s Day talking about festivals, fairs, and author visits— really boring our spouses. Sarah Mlynowski said she wanted to start a festival and already had a name. Sarah’s a really magic person, she made it all seem so fun and possible. We all wanted to be part of it. It was organic and spontaneous.
We wanted this to be really fun for readers. We love writing books for the middle grade audience and connecting with kids. With OMG Bookfest we can create memories kids can hold on to.
What projects are you working on next?
I’m currently editing my YA book that’s set in 1988. I’m also working on a middle grade novel about a girl who moves to the country from the city and has to use her city smarts to adapt.
I also want to push ahead with more OMGs! I loved the time we spent in Columbus and am excited to visit another community for a day of storytelling and celebration of middle grade.
Be True to Me by Adele Griffin. Algonquin Young Readers, $18.95 June 13 ISBN 978-1-61620-675-8