Musician, actor, and filmmaker Hayley Kiyoko has graced both stages and screens for a decade, and now turns her focus to the page with her YA debut Girls Like Girls. The title, an ode to her 2015 coming out song, follows 17-year-old Coley who after the sudden death of her mother is forced to move to Oregon to live with her estranged father. A sudden run-in with a pack of the town’s cool kids introduces her to charming yet elusive dancer Sonya, and so begins a tumultuous summer relationship that could end with both girls’ broken hearts. Kiyoko took time during her Panorama tour to speak with PW about grappling with the inconsistencies of grief, the human desire to be seen, and how the close connections between her real-life and her debut became a therapeutic writing experience.

Was the song the starting point of the story for you? Why that song to begin your literary career with?

“Girls Like Girl” [the song] kind of took a life of its own. I released it, I immediately followed it with a music video, and that music video connected me to this community that I was craving for growing up. People really felt connected to the characters. When I wrote the song, I wasn’t planning to write a book about it. But when I did the video and saw how amazing it was to see how hope brought people together, I wanted to expand that story. I had initially wanted to make it into a feature film and direct it, but it’s easier said than done. Years went by and I’m just like, I don’t know if this is ever going to happen. How else do I get to share this story? Then the other option was to make it into a novel.

What piqued your interest in writing for a younger audience?

I wanted to find the right platform to be able to release this book and have it be read by all. I felt with Wednesday Books, that was the right decision [for me] because it is a YA book but the way we’re pushing it, my goal and hope is someone who’s 50 years old gets to pick up Girls Like Girls and gets to maybe heal a certain part of themselves, or a moment in their youth where they fell in love and got their heart broken. This book is for everyone. But I wanted to focus on igniting hope for the younger generation, especially because this world is so crazy right now. To be able to have a tangible item, to be able to have and to hold it in their room, depending on whether they have a safe roof over their heads or a community around them. This book can hopefully be that support they need to get to the next step in their journey.

You speak about the book being a healing experience for readers. Did it feel that way for you in writing it?

Absolutely. It was very therapeutic. It was one of the most creatively fulfilling experiences I’ve ever had. It was interesting to create from, having made a music video. I had created these fictional characters as a vehicle to tell a story of myself when I fell in love with one of my best friends. Even though I’m not specifically [main character] Coley, what Coley goes through in so many scenes, I lived through verbatim. The self-discovery and navigating her identity, all of it came from me. And Sonya as well was someone from real life.

There’s a moment where Coley reveals the circumstance of her mother’s death and her vulnerability isn’t met with expected platitudes but instead validations of gratefulness. How did you create that moment?

That was definitely a tricky scene to put together and find the right words for. I’ve navigated grief on different levels. My mom lost her mom at a very young age growing up. I was trying to navigate it in a way where Coley felt seen and heard. I wanted Sonya to respond in a way that wasn’t just about Coley sharing the fact that she had lost her mom, but it was the weight of how that has affected Coley. Sonya says, “I’m just really glad you’re here.” I wanted to give that gift to Coley through Sonya in that moment. It felt fresh and real.

Grief is a big theme throughout the book, especially for Coley. How did you land on writing about the contradictory processes and emotions that grief can bring up?

Grief is really complicated. For anyone who’s experienced grief, it’s not black and white. It ebbs and flows and there are many layers and waves of emotions. For Coley, no one chooses her, or that’s how it feels. She’s trying to process that while also trying to understand how to show up for herself, to love herself. Growing up as a queer woman of color myself, I never felt worthy of love. Society never taught me that that was even a possibility. Reconnecting with her father, and also trying to navigate the relationship with Sonya, she’s really struggling with whether she is worthy of love and whether she’s worthy of someone staying for her and what that looks like.

Coley struggles with not feeling chosen or prioritized by the people in her life. Where did you pull from to write that experience?

From my personal experience, I never felt chosen. I always felt like [I knew] what that looked like. I remember dating a lot of women and they wouldn’t be able to show up for me in the way that I needed them to, or my journey with my sexuality would be in one place, and their journey would be in another. And I would be very disappointed by them because they would let me down. Something that I’ve learned in life and growing up is that you can fall in love with someone and you both can be in two different places in your journey and self-discovery. And you also can still be able to show up for one another if it’s meant to be. It was really important for me to express that theme through the novel with Sonya because even though Sonya does let Coley down and she does some things that kind of tick you off, she’s still in the end able to show up for her. For Coley and her dad, [it’s about] trust as well. Can you rebuild trust? Or can you regain trust?

Coley and Sonya have different reactions to facing the realities of their relationship. How did you balance holding space for both of their feelings around their identity?

Coley is similar to me, where I’m very “Are you in it or not?” I knew who I was for a long time and so I had this kind of all or nothing energy. And with Sonya, not everyone’s like that. There are a lot of challenges to allowing yourself to even be yourself and to love yourself. It takes a longer time, and it’s messy, and it’s not perfect. She is eventually able to communicate her feelings and even though it’s not the way Coley wanted, or in the timeline that she wanted, it does happen. That’s a very real experience for so many people, and I think it was also very therapeutic for me to navigate because for a long time, [with] my real-life Sonya, I never understood her. I was like, “I can’t believe you broke my heart.” [Through this process] I was able to heal that part of my younger self while writing Sonya’s experience, because it’s complicated, and there are so many aspects of life that can affect how you’re able to open up and communicate. We’re all meeting one another and trying to see if we can have a relationship and move forward from that.

I think everyone can relate to wanting to be seen and heard.

What are the different ways Coley and Sonya are hiding aspects of themselves from each other, and from their family and friends? What is behind their desire to be seen by one another?

As humans we never show all facets of ourselves. Only certain people get to experience certain aspects of ourselves, and I think that’s a very real thing, especially in our youth and adolescence. LiveJournal was a great vehicle for Sonya specifically, for us to be able to see more of who she really is, and who she projects to be. I think that Coley is able to see both of those sides, and that’s why it’s challenging for her to navigate their relationship.

And also, this comes from me desperately needing to feel seen, and comes from my truth of navigating my whole life—the need to prove my worth, and to feel seen as a person. Growing up, even though loving women is not my entire personality, it was a huge part of my life. And for someone to be able to know that about me and to really see me for who I was? At that time [who I was] felt like a flaw. I think everyone can relate to wanting to be seen and heard, and some people think that they’re being seen but they still feel misunderstood.

As an artist, you’re constantly putting vulnerable aspects of yourself out for the public to see. How does it feel having a book that’s so close to your heart being put into the public?

It’s different from being on stage. When you’re on stage, you get this immediate connection and gratification from everyone’s energy, and I’m assuming this will be a very different experience. But it’s very exciting. There are a lot of moments and scenes that recall experiences that I experienced personally and that I’ve never shared with people before. I’m sharing a big piece of my experience growing up and who I am. I feel like I’m challenging myself to be more honest and truthful through this novel. My number one goal is to give support to people who need it or need to heal from past experiences or relationships. I’m excited for people to finally read this thing. It’s been a very long journey.

Girls Like Girls by Hayley Kiyoko. Wednesday Books, $20 May ISBN 978-1-250-81763-1