Becky Albertalli was in a holding pattern. She had left her job as a clinical psychologist after the birth of her first child, Owen. Just when it was time to think about returning to work, she and her husband, Brian, decided to move from Washingon, D.C. back to Atlanta, to be closer to Becky’s family in suburban Sandy Springs. The career hiatus gave her a small window of opportunity to fulfill a dream.
“I had always wanted to write, but at the fork in the road it was the path I didn’t choose,” Albertalli recalled. “So I decided to give it one shot and, after that, I’d get licensed in Georgia and, you know, get a real job.”
A story didn’t come to her immediately but a character did: Simon Spier, a high school junior who realizes he is gay but hasn’t told anybody yet when he (virtually) meets a classmate, who calls himself “Blue,” on a school gossip site, and the two begin a secret, email-only relationship. Albertalli, whose work involved teenage patients and leading a support group for gender nonconforming children, had completed a draft when she met agent Brooks Sherman, now with the Bent Agency, at a writing conference in November 2013.
“I was introduced to him at the mixer and I pitched him my book about a gay boy who falls in love with another gay boy, and he didn’t quite roll his eyes but he said something like, ‘Yeah, well, OK,’ ” Albertalli said. “I was so nervous, I’m sure I made no sense.”
But Albertalli followed up, and Sherman took her on as a client. He sold the manuscript in four days.
“I got very, very lucky,” said Donna Bray, who acquired Simon in a two-book deal. “Brooks gave me a limited exclusive on a novel he pitched as ‘a journey toward self-acceptance wrapped in a geek romance: an updated ‘You’ve Got Mail’ starring gay teenage boys with good grammar.’ These days it’s pretty tough to get any kind of exclusive, so I jumped on it and read it right away. By the end I am not ashamed to say I was as in love with the book as Simon was in love with Blue.”
Bray is not alone; Simon love has been pouring in. Albertalli’s debut is a JLG and IndieNext selection. Rights have already been sold in the U.K., Germany, Brazil, France, Israel, and Italy. Months before its April 7 release, the novel had earned mentions in the Huffington Post, Teen Vogue, and on MTV. Tim Federle, author of Better Nate Than Ever, blurbed it by saying, “Are we absolutely certain that Becky Albertalli didn’t just steal the diary of a hilariously observant teenage boy?”
“It’s so exciting to hear that, because you put it out there, a book about a gay boy written by a straight woman, and you hope it hits people the right way,” Albertalli said. “I’m not coming at this issue totally randomly but I am an outsider, so when I hear it’s resonating with people who know better than I do, that’s good.”
Albertalli is working on a second book for Bray, in between shuttling Owen, now two and a half, to preschool, and caring for Henry, born five months ago. (“Now that I’m working on the second book, I realize how light my edits were for Simon,” she admits.) She’s also trying to get used to her new title: novelist. “It feels almost unreal to think that this is the same book that existed only on my laptop, just a year or two ago.”
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Becky Albertalli, HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $17.99, 978-0-06-234867-8
Read PW’s starred review here.