In part inspired by her work as a book publicist, author Marisa Kanter’s debut YA novel, What I Like About You, stars a teen who dreams of working in children’s publishing. Rachel Lynn Solomon is the author of You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone and Our Year of Maybe. Her new novel for teens, Today Tonight Tomorrow, follows two high school classmates as their rivalry develops into romance over the course of a single day. We asked friends Kanter and Solomon to interview each other about their relationship as fellow YA authors—which started via the Pitch Wars mentorship program—their new novels, and their passion for writing Jewish teen rom-coms.

Rachel Lynn Solomon: Hi, Marisa! First of all, I think our main characters would be geeking out a little bit about this interview.

Marisa Kanter: I have this theory that Halle and Rowan would be best friends. People who are passionate about books seem to just find each other. As do people who write books about people who love books, apparently [laughs].

Solomon: Shocking! But I completely agree. Rowan, the protagonist of Today Tonight Tomorrow, wants to write romance novels. This is something she’s started to keep hidden because of the way people judge her—including Neil, the nemesis who becomes a love interest over the course of the book. They’ve been bitter rivals for all of high school, and this is just one of the many things they clash over.

Kanter: I remember the first time you told me about this book and the premise alone made me so giddy. It still does! I’m such a sucker for enemies-to-lovers. Add in the academic rival layer? I swoon!

Solomon: It’s my favorite trope. Of course, she’ll learn his opinions have changed—I wanted to show that capacity to grow and learn—and the two of them struggle, together and separately, to find the confidence to embrace what they love without shame. It’s something I would have needed as a teen, when I was so obsessed with presenting a version of myself others would deem “acceptable” that I didn’t even know what my real interests were.

And in What I Like About You, Halle deals with something similar regarding YA novels.

Kanter: I love that so much about Rowan, and I love how we both have created these characters who are not only passionate about books, but unapologetic about it. My protagonist, Halle, loves YA books and aspires to be a children’s book publicist. She runs a popular YA book blog that pairs cupcakes with YA books and uses blogging as an entry point into the world of publishing. Halle’s YA love is definitely inspired by my relationship with YA, as well as my own experience as a teen book blogger who’d discuss everything from the latest Sarah Dessen book to Twilight obsessively with anyone who would listen. The best listeners were always my blogging friends, and What I Like About You is as much of a love letter to online friendship as it is to YA. They’re inextricably linked, in both Halle’s story and my own. I think our friendship is kind of the perfect example of that!

Solomon: Yes, our friendship started online too—with Pitch Wars.

Kanter: Thank you, Pitch Wars.

Solomon: For those unfamiliar, Pitch Wars is a mentorship program that pairs unagented writers and experienced authors with the goal of getting query-ready within a few months.

Kanter: I applied in 2017 with the manuscript that became What I Like About You. It was the second time I’d applied, but the first time I applied to work with you. I believe it was the first year you were accepting lighter rom-coms, and between that and your call for stories featuring Jewish characters, I was so excited that my manuscript fit your wish list. I’d been following you on Twitter since I applied in 2016, and just had a gut feeling that we would click. Did this gut feeling come from shamelessly scrolling through your Twitter feed? Who’s to say!

Solomon: It was destiny. I’d also kind of stalked the Twitter hashtag before submissions opened, and I just had this feeling you would submit to me because you were writing Jewish characters, something I’d been vocal about with my debut (You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone) approaching. And then you did, and I fell for your voice on page one! Your writing was so fresh and effortlessly funny, and your characters were full of longing and anxiety and optimism in these ways I found intensely relatable. The most staggering thing, though, was that your book contained a Jewish experience that most closely mirrored my own.

Kanter: Excuse me, I need a minute to compose myself. Thank you!

Solomon: It’s true. I love that book with my whole heart.

Kanter: I remember the mentee list was revealed while I was on vacation with my family at Niagara Falls. I was actually at the falls when my phone started blowing up with notifications. It was a special moment, finding out that news with my family. I was so excited to talk to you, but I’m pretty sure you told me to go be on vacation!

Solomon: That time to relax was so important because the Pitch Wars revision timeline can be intense.

Kanter: It was a lot! I’d worked with critique partners before, but this was the first time I received a full, detailed edit letter. You understood the heart of my book so clearly and a lot of the things we revised for are elements of What I Like About You that I can’t believe didn’t exist from conception. Like the cupcakes! I’ll always be so grateful that you were a part of this book’s journey and that now, almost three years later, it’s weird if we go more than a day without texting each other! I knew that it’d be an amazing experience being your mentee, but I don’t think I anticipated that you’d become one of my closest friends.

Solomon: Ahhh, now it’s my turn to compose myself! I had a feeling I’d be emotional for most of this interview. Publishing is so unpredictable—who would have thought this would lead to both of us publishing rom-coms with Jewish main characters, with the same publisher, two months apart? It’s wild in the best way.

Kanter: I’m positive it will never get old. The timing is extra wild too because Today Tonight Tomorrow is a bit of a departure for you, as it is your third book but your first rom-com. What inspired it, and what drew you to romantic comedies?

Solomon: The first spark came from one of my favorite movies, Before Sunrise, which is about two strangers who meet in Vienna and spend the day exploring the city and falling in love. It’s a really beautiful character study that relies almost entirely on dialogue and the chemistry between the leads. I was drawn to the idea of mapping a relationship between two people that radically changes over the course of a single day. Oddly enough, my next piece of inspiration came from another Richard Linklater movie, Dazed and Confused. I watched it for the first time in early 2017, and as you can probably imagine, like a lot of movies from the ’90s, it has its problematic elements. But I loved the way it captures the last-day-of-senior-year nostalgia, and my initial idea was to write a modern—and considerably less misogynistic—Dazed & Confused.

It sort of became a romantic comedy naturally as my drafts evolved. What about you—did you set out to write a rom-com? What are your thoughts on this rom-com renaissance we seem to be experiencing in YA? (Which I am loving.)

Kanter: My favorite genre to read has always been rom-coms, but I didn’t set out to write one until What I Like About You. I’ve always written contemporary YA, but prior—very, extremely shelved—manuscripts typically had rom-com moments embedded in heavier, more emotionally intense plots. As a teenager, I believed I needed to infuse all the angst and metaphors into my stories in order to be taken seriously as a writer. Romance was the subplot, but it was always my favorite part to write—to the point where it would start to dominate the main plot. I’m talking entire chapters of banter.

Solomon: I would read that.

Kanter: You would regret that! Anyway, I started drafting What I Like About You at the beginning of 2017. At the time, my only intention was to write something that made me happy. I infused it with my favorite tropes—mistaken/hidden identity, friends-to-lovers, and slow burn. I wrote a fun school dance scene, a semi-romantic sunrise, and characters who loved books as much as I did. In retrospect, it was definitely a response to—and a coping mechanism for—how 2016 ended. Sometimes, I question why I write rom-coms when the world is on fire. But I think that we need rom-coms more than ever. In romance, we always get our happily ever after. They’re more than predictable and comfortable—they’re hopeful. We need hopeful, happy stories when the world feels especially dark, and I think that’s in part why we’re seeing this rom-com renaissance right now, both in YA and adult.

Solomon: I couldn’t agree more, and it’s not a coincidence that I became a regular romance reader around that same time. I was so desperate for that hopefulness. Romance wrapped me up in the warmest, safest hug. I’m a little embarrassed to admit I used to be like Neil in that I hardcore judged the kinds of books I now read almost exclusively. So I rushed to devour everything I missed out on when I thought a book’s merit was determined solely by how many years ago it was published.

Kanter: That’s so interesting because I immediately connected with Rowan and how fiercely she loves romance novels. It’s hard to believe that you weren’t always a romance reader!

Solomon: As a kid, I adored Meg Cabot books, both YA and adult, and while the majority of those are romance, I would never have admitted she was my favorite author because I worried what others would think of me. And now I’m like... gah, young Rachel, read what you love without fear! It’s devastating to think about how these books, which are designed to make people happy, to bring joy, are on the receiving end of so much hate. Rowan may have a speech about it in the book.

Kanter: It’s a great speech.

Solomon: Thank you! In addition to all the book love, Today Tonight Tomorrow and What I Like About You also both have Jewish protagonists. I didn’t write a Jewish main character until my debut, which was the fifth book I wrote, and I know you had a similar journey.

Kanter: I did! What I Like About You is the fourth book I’ve written, but my first time writing Jewish characters. It honestly just never occurred to me to engage with Judaism in the fiction I wrote, because I’d never seen a Jewish character centered in a contemporary book. The only Jewish teens I saw on the page during my formative years were either in a concentration camp or a caricature side character.

Solomon: Yes, exactly. It was either characters marked by tragedy in historical novels or, in contemporary, given a throwaway mention like “Hannah loves bagels” or “Hannah can never hang out on Friday nights.” You see enough of those, and you start thinking you don’t have any other stories to tell.

Kanter: Absolutely. I think this is something almost every Jewish author I know has felt. But we’re here! We exist outside of our collective tragedy, and we are finally starting to see that reflected in YA. I’m so thankful for the Jewish contemporary YA books that have come out in the past few years and to authors like you who paved the way for my Jewish rom-com to exist.

Solomon: Marisa, my heart! I know I wasn’t the first, but that representation has become so important for me not just to see but to advocate for. Before my debut came out, I made this vow to myself that I’d only be writing Jewish main characters for the foreseeable future. And so far, that’s been true.

Kanter: I feel the same way. We have so few mirrors, as Jewish readers. Every time I read a contemporary book with Jewish characters it still feels like a revelation. I don’t think it’ll ever feel like enough representation, and I for one am not planning to stop writing Jewish rom-coms any time soon. If What I Like About You can be summed up as a rom-com that’s a love letter to YA, my sophomore book, out next spring with S&S, is a rom-com that’s my love letter to musical theater. What’s next for you, Rachel?

Solomon: It’s kind of serendipitous that the next book I have coming out after Today Tonight Tomorrow, my love letter to romance novels, is a romance novel! The Ex Talk, which is an adult rom-com set in the world of public radio, will be published by Berkley in early 2021, and then next summer, I have another YA rom-com with Simon Pulse about a teen wedding harpist.

Kanter: I am so excited for your adult debut and all the rom-coms to come! And it’s been such a blast chatting with you.

Solomon: I can’t wait for What I Like About You to hit shelves—and cheers to more romantic Jewish books with ambitious, unapologetic heroines!

What I Like About You by Marisa Kanter. S&S, $18.99 Apr. 7 ISBN 978-1-5344-4577-2

Today Tonight Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon. Simon Pulse, $18.99 June 16 ISBN 978-1-5344-4024-1