Mason Deaver’s YA novels feature trans characters navigating coming out, family drama, and grief. In their third novel, The Feeling of Falling in Love, an entitled trans teenager named Neil has to return home to his critical family for his brother’s wedding. Having just told his friend-with-benefits that he doesn’t love him, Neil twists his boarding school roommate’s arm into pretending to be his boyfriend. We spoke with Deaver about writing a disagreeable character, lingering post-transition dysphoria, and what it’s like to be writing queer YA in the current climate of increasing book challenges.

This is your first novel to follow romance conventions—your earlier books were a thriller and a coming-of-age story with serious exploration of trauma. What led you to pivot to a fake-dating rom-com and how did your writing process change?

I’ve always preferred writing romance, and that’s why I Wish You All the Best has heavy romance elements in it. And a lot of my short stories tend to be romantic. The Ghosts We Keep is like this blip on the radar where I didn’t want to tell a romance. But Neil and Wyatt have been with me since I was querying in 2017, kind of gestating in my mind. So my heart has actually been in romance for a while now.

Early on, Neil is rather thoughtless and often a jerk. How do you approach writing a main character who is less than sympathetic?

A lot of people ask me what my favorite protagonist that I’ve written is, and my answer is Neil because he’s such a jerk. He’s a prickly little privileged rich boy and that’s not a perspective that I had gotten the chance to write. He’s a character who says what’s on his mind and expects people to do whatever he wants at the drop of a hat. It was really fun because I don’t think that I’m like that at all. The piece of advice I give to a lot of YA writers in workshops is we can’t be a parent to the character. We can’t help them make all the right decisions and we can’t sit them down and explain. We have to let them make their own mistakes, say the wrong things, and offend the wrong people.

You upend some regional stereotypes in the book, with Neil’s California family being more intolerant than Wyatt’s North Carolina family. How does the setting affect your characters?

This was not that purposeful of a choice. I grew up in North Carolina and have a lot of love for the South. It’s a rich and culturally diverse area. It always really bothers me when people blindly paint the South as some ignorant and intolerant place. There are a lot of places in the South that are intolerant of queer, BIPOC, and disabled people, but there are just as many places in the rest of the country that are the same way. I always say the South tends to be a little bit more upfront about its prejudices. For me, it was important to show that Wyatt came from a loving and supporting family, and that was the juxtaposition I wanted to showcase. Wyatt and Neil have what the other wants. Wyatt’s family could really use Neil’s money whereas Neil just wants a family that likes him for who he is. It just so happens that I was also able to portray North Carolina in a positive light.

How does Neil’s relationship with his mother on the page differ from what he wants that relationship to look like?

Neil just wants his family to like him and that seems like such a simple thing, but it’s so common with queer people growing up. Our families can say they love us all day every day, but that doesn’t mean they like you. The mom’s character was tricky for me because in the first draft, she was a straight-up villain and had no redeeming factors. In a meeting with my editor, I said I don’t like how I did that and I want to make her more understandable. Her method of trying to show her love was to breeze past all these important conversations that Neil wants to have to ease him through his transition, when sometimes you just want to sit down and have a conversation.

Neil has moments of both gender and weight dysphoria in the book. How do you approach these aspects of representation?

I saw Neil as a way to explore more about my relationship to my own body. Neil, at the end of the day, is happy with who he is and how he presents. He feels reaffirmed in the surgeries that he’s had and he’s dealt with comments from his family members about his weight and he doesn’t really care. I’m in a similar place but there are just these little moments that happen, not every day and I don’t even want to say regularly, where I’m not happy with who I am. That really is how dysphoria with both body and gender hits me. It’s these little moments that prick and prod at you. It affects you even post-transition and that’s a very regular, normal thing for trans people. Surgery and hormone blockers and T shots don’t make these feelings go away. Transitioning is more of a process than I think people realize it is.

On your website, you share playlists that shaped your novels. In what ways does music influence your writing?

I listen to music all the time when I’m writing and I don't know if that’s bad for me. It has a huge impact on what I write, especially specific artists that I love. Carly Rae Jepson and Taylor Swift are two artists that encapsulate that feeling of falling in love—pun unintended. They always describe very well what it’s like to have romance even when it falls apart. I can get cheesy for a moment: no artist makes me feel about love the way that those two do. How glittery that new love is. Other songs make me think about the characters and sometimes I think of a specific song that the characters are listening to.

What has your experience been as an author of queer YA fiction in the current environment of increasing book challenges?

I am incredibly lucky and privileged that I don’t believe that any of my books have been challenged, which seems like a weird thing to celebrate. I’m a former librarian and I see articles about parents checking out queer books just to keep them off the shelves and white supremacists showing up at drag story times. And it’s scary. It’s such a hard feeling to describe because storytelling is our longest lasting tradition as humans and having people who want to take that away is really scary. It almost makes me wish that I was still a librarian so that I could do something. But it’s fighting where I can, trying to support queer kids; and I suppose the biggest thing I can do is to just keep writing. I’m very lucky to have found working relationships with people who want my stories and want me to keep telling them.

What’s next for you?

I don’t want to give too much away but book four is on the way and I’m still writing it. I am exploring different genres, though, and some fantastical elements. And that’s all I’ll say right now.

The Feeling of Falling in Love by Mason Deaver. Push, $18.99 Aug. 16 ISBN 978-1-338-77766-6