Becky Albertalli is the YA author of William C. Morris Award winner and National Book Award longlisted title Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (Balzer + Bray, 2015), which was adapted into the film Love, Simon; The Upside of Unrequited (Balzer + Bray, 2017); and What If It’s Us, cowritten with Adam Silvera (Balzer + Bray, 2018). Aisha Saeed is the author of Amal Unbound (Penguin/Paulsen), a PW Best Book of 2018; and Written in the Stars (Paulsen), among others. She is also a founding member of We Need Diverse Books. Albertalli and Saeed have now teamed up to write a collaborative YA novel, Yes No Maybe So, about two teens of varying backgrounds who come together—and fall in love—through political canvassing. We asked the authors to interview each other about their new book.
Aisha Saeed: I’m so excited to be in conversation with you for this piece. It feels like we are always in conversation anyway, either in person, on the phone, or via text.
Becky Albertalli: We are! And we’ve been obsessively discussing this book for years now, so this is kind of my dream interview.
Saeed: I was cleaning out a drawer the other day, and found our notes from our Cafe Intermezzo coffee date when we began brainstorming the seeds of the idea for this book. That discovery brought back so many memories for me—both what a tough time it was, as we were reeling from the 2016 election, and how this book has been an anchor for me ever since we began writing it.
Albertalli: I loved that coffee date! But yes, it was such a surreal period. So many of us kept saying it felt like someone had died.
Saeed: It was so painful.
Albertalli: I remember going to a toy store the day after the election to get a present for a birthday party, and an employee asked if they could help me. I burst into tears on the spot. I felt, in that moment, that I could not be helped, and that the U.S. could not be helped. I truly felt hopeless. And it took some time for that feeling to transform into any sort of purposeful action.
Saeed: I remember texting you one day, saying, “I can’t take the relentless bad news. I’m going offline. Text me if there’s any good news—I could use that.” A few moments later you texted me! Jon Ossoff announced he was running for an open House seat in our district [in Georgia]—there would be a special election. That was the jolt I needed—a way to take my anger and despair and do something with it to effect change. I’d never knocked on doors to canvass for a politician before—the thought made my introvert self queasy—but now I wanted to. I wanted to take action.
Albertalli: Exactly. And I felt the same.
Saeed: So we canvassed. We went together, and sometimes brought along our children as well. What had seemed so scary and intimidating turned out, to our surprise, to be fun and rewarding. And from there, a story idea was born.
Albertalli: We sometimes call it our Jon Ossoff fanfiction.
Saeed: Of course, Ossoff lost in a runoff in June 2017, which was heartbreaking. How did that impact you as you wrote this story?
Albertalli: Oh my goodness. Yes. Ossoff losing was the worst I’d felt since the presidential election, hands down, but what made it even harder were the hot takes from people in my online community, who weren’t super familiar with the GA-6 congressional district. I was born and raised here. I can’t emphasize enough what a huge deal it was that Ossoff came so close to winning. It was devastating, absolutely, but there was a thread of hope. I think the process of nurturing that hope was the emotional heart of this story. And, of course, I always love to mention the beautiful real-life epilogue of that congressional seat flipping blue with Lucy McBath’s victory in 2018.
Saeed: Yes!!! We couldn’t have predicted it when we wrote the story, but we got our own happy ending too. For now. Lucy’s seat is up for election again in 2020. (No matter where you live, this upcoming election, please vote!)
Albertalli: Yes, please vote!
Saeed: So, should we talk about our writing process?
Albertalli: It’s been dreamy! I love co-writing. I’ve been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to collaborate with two of my absolute best friends, and it’s been incredible. We went into this really trusting each other’s judgment and loving each other’s writing, which makes all the difference. What was it like for you doing it for the first time?
Saeed: I loved co-writing so much. It’s indescribable to have a writing partner who you trust and admire, to work together with on a book and bounce ideas off of anytime. I am forever spoiled by the amazing experience I had writing with you. And bonus for us: we both live in suburban Atlanta, where the story is set, so we got to do a tour of all the spots featured in our book, which was the highlight of the year for me!
Albertalli: That was the best day. I think my favorite thing was the way the universe decided to troll us, like it always does, by bringing details of Yes No Maybe So to life.
Saeed: It really does! This March I had a signing line where I met four people in a row named Maya, Jamie, Sophie, and Boomer, all of whom are central characters in our book!
Albertalli: And when I took you to my childhood synagogue, which appears in the book, there were leftover programs from a bar mitzvah. The program bizarrely contained the last names of several of our characters (all the Jewish ones, basically).
Saeed: Lol, yes. It was as though we’d just missed Sophie’s bat mitzvah.
Saeed: Do you want to talk a little bit about Jamie and why he’s the absolute best?
Albertalli: Haha, that is the most flattering phrasing of that question.
Saeed: I mean, this is a biased interview.
Albertalli: Jamie is such a sweet little hot mess, and I’m pretty fond of him. He’s kind of a Neville Longbottom—not naturally bold, but ultimately braver than he realizes. How would you describe Maya? I’m kind of a huge fan of hers, too.
Saeed: Lots of things are changing in Maya’s life the summer we meet her, and Maya doesn’t do well with change, but she’s doing the best she can. She has her cat Willow, a pile of books on her TBR pile, and will do just about anything for the people she loves. She reconnects with Jamie at the perfect time. They are each exactly who the other needs, even if they don’t know it.
Albertalli: I think Jamie knows it.
Saeed: Lol. Right. Good point!
Albertalli: One of my favorite things about this project is how it is truly a love story. We were really intentional about not holding back on that aspect, but also not glossing over the political realities of this moment.
Saeed: Yes! Classics like When Harry Met Sally and the Walk to Remember trilogy with Ethan Hawke were big touchstones with me as I wrote. Wait, not Walk to Remember... Before Sunrise. D’oh.
Albertalli: Don’t worry, I mix up Mandy Moore and Ethan Hawke all the time.
Saeed: Common mistake.
But going back to what you said about the political aspects: when I do school visits, I often hear from teens who are frustrated. It’s a tough age, where you understand the issues and they affect you—but you can’t vote. We hope this book is a message that teens are empowered and can directly impact change.
Albertalli: Were you nervous writing a book for teens that was so unabashedly political? It seems to be a bit of a micro trend for 2020, understandably, but people sometimes are surprised our characters both specifically identify themselves as Democrats.
Saeed: I wasn’t nervous about writing a book that was unapologetically political, because that was why we wrote the story—teens are experiencing issues like Islamophobia and anti-Semitism and feeling disenfranchised. We wanted to write a book that gave teens hope during these difficult times. That said, there is always a bit of worry, putting ourselves out there politically, especially with you, Becky, as a Jewish woman, and me as a Muslim woman. There’s always the concern about how those who won’t like our message may react. But fear cannot be a reason to not tell this story—it’s a reminder that this story was especially crucial.
Albertalli: I agree with this so much. We’ve talked about this a lot, that choosing not to be political is a privilege. It’s not a thing either of us can avoid, as members of minority religions. Of course, not all marginalized experiences are comparable. As a white Ashkenazi Jew (with a non-Jewish last name), I have a ton of privilege in my daily life. I know it was important to us to try to unpack that nuance in Yes No Maybe So. Maya and Jamie are not marginalized to the same degree, though both of their experiences matter.
Saeed: Exactly! Writing is how I make sense of the world personally, and writing this book and delving into these topics taught me so much.
Albertalli: Me too. And I learned so much from you!
Saeed: Hard same. It was a blessing to write this book for so many reasons—and I miss living inside it sometimes!
Albertalli: I miss it all the time! Okay, here’s a question. If you could pick one thing non-Muslim readers could take away from Maya’s experience, what would it be?
Saeed: Oh, good question! I hope non-Muslim readers enjoy the sneak peeks into Maya’s life as she celebrates Ramadan and the holiday of Eid. I hope they can also see that bigotry is painful and affects real people—Maya may be fictional but her experiences are all too real.
Albertalli: Oh, I love that, and I think it’s so important.
Saeed: What about you? What would you want non-Jewish readers to take away from the book?
Albertalli: Probably just the fact that modern anti-Semitism is real, and that Jewish joy is equally real. Even progressive people sometimes erase both of those experiences without meaning to.
Saeed: And what about for Jewish readers?
Albertalli: I think I’d want y’all to know that your Judaism is valid, no matter how observant you are or aren’t. What about you, for Muslim readers?
Saeed: I want them to know they are not alone. I want to remind them they matter and can take action to create the world they want to see.
Albertalli: I also hope people will see that Jewish and Muslim communities are often deeply connected. We’re too often pitted against each other.
Saeed: Yes! This bothers me so much. We have so much more in common than not.
Albertalli: So I want to end by calling Maya and Jamie out.
Saeed: Uh oh!
Albertalli: Because they are, in my opinion, a little too open-minded about Goldfish flavors. The truth is, much like Oreos, the classics are superior.
Saeed: Look. I was with you on this until I tried Mickey Mouse Goldfish. Those are really out of this world good. Though I do draw the line at Oreo Goldfish. Even if you can do something, sometimes you have a moral obligation not to.
And trust us, we have eaten a lot of Goldfish while writing this book. For research, of course.
Albertalli: So, in conclusion: you can change the world.
But when it comes to Goldfish, maybe you shouldn’t.
Saeed: Mic drop.
Yes No Maybe So by Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $19.99 Feb. 4 ISBN 978-0-06-293704-9