Known for his award-winning books about Darius, an introspective half-Iranian teen who loves tea and science fiction and is living with depression, Adib Khorram has a new YA novel coming out this month. Kiss & Tell features Hunter, a member of a popular boy band confronting being an out gay teen living under the media spotlight. Khorram spoke with PW about writing as an out gay author, the unspoken social codes that govern masculinity, his dream of an “Iranian Jonas Brothers” band, and the difficulties of writing during Covid.

What got you interested in writing about a boy band? Are you a fan?

I am a fan. I came of age during the NSYNC and Backstreet Boys wars of the late ’90s and early aughts. And I spent a lot of my adulthood in the event productions industry, doing concerts and theater, so I’ve been around music in a lot of ways. I’m also a musician, a terrible one. The intellectual reasons were that when you’re writing for young adults, boy bands are part of the zeitgeist; they’re so anarchic and fun, and they also have a complicated relationship to queerness. But also, the idea for the book just came to me out of the blue, and it seemed fun. Sometimes you just have to follow the muse.

The book is dedicated to “everyone who’s ever been afraid to sing along to boy bands—but secretly wanted to.” What’s that fear about?

Most boy bands cater to the female gaze, particularly the young female gaze, but boy bands are also five boys hanging out all the time, goofing off on stage, so there’s always going to be subtextual stuff there. When you’re young and gay and trying to pretend to be straight, rejecting anything that girls like is a toxic, but unfortunately common, strategy. It’s an outcropping of toxic masculinity and the patriarchy to kind of demonize and diminish anything that even hints at the feminine.

Did this affect you personally?

Very much so. I was a pretty closeted teen in high school, so I didn’t realize what a huge crush I had on Nick Carter, but it was definitely a crush. I knew that it would be social suicide to admit to liking the Backstreet Boys or to sing along when anyone could hear me. It was one of those unspoken social rules.

In Kiss & Tell, the protagonist Hunter’s ex makes their texts public, and Hunter gets shamed about his sexual choices—shaming that comes in part from the gay community. Is that toxic masculinity again?

I think it very much is. Stereotypes abound, not in the entire gay community, but certain segments of it. There’s the bleed-through of toxic masculinity. It’s a weird thing; the call is coming from both within and without the house. Often the same people who desperately desire queer liberation will turn around and attack fellow queer people for the way they choose to exist.

Relatedly, one thread in the book is about privilege and representation, with white, cis Hunter asking himself if he should be the public face of the gay community. What made you want to incorporate these questions?

These are questions I ask myself as an out gay author. In the before times, I talked to young people at schools and libraries, and I was aware of who I was and what I might mean to these young queer people. And as a consumer of media, I’ve seen lots of queer celebrities alternately lionized or condemned for the way they move through the world. I think with any public figure, there’s a strange dehumanization that happens where we expect and demand perfection from them and then are personally offended when they inevitably fail. I was thinking a lot about what it means to be a queer public figure, and especially as an artist, as Hunter is.

When you create things, in a way, you become the product; how do you draw the line between what you share and what you keep to yourself? When you’re rich and famous and privileged, what is your responsibility to the world and what’s your responsibility to yourself? I don’t think there are any easy answers, and everyone has to find the right balance for themselves.

You incorporate a lot of social media in the book, which makes sense, since Hunter’s a celebrity. Were you also interested in critiquing social media?

I think it was my goal to implicate the reader in the media landscape they’re taking part of. To spend most of the book inside Hunter’s head and see how he struggles and then have to step outside and see how he’s being attacked as if he’s not a person with feelings. We all do that to some extent: we live in a capitalist landscape and we forget that celebrities are human, too, no matter how rich or successful they seem to be.

One way Hunter’s humanity comes into play is that he’s much more aware of how media hurts him than he is of how it affects his non-white bandmates. What made you want to include that?

In a lot of ways, this was my critique of a certain strain of white queerness, of some cis-gender white men who forget that they’re not the most oppressed people on the planet. Hunter tends to be shortsighted about some things—like many people, the oppressions he’s personally felt and experienced puts blinders on him. It’s really easy to feel alone and forget that you’re part of a greater struggle.

Are you hoping that seeing Hunter realize this will help readers do so as well?

I hope they’ll see that even when he stumbles, he tries to do better, and that he has good friends who love him and try to extend him grace. And also that he extends grace to the people who hurt him. It was important to me to show him not holding onto anger at his ex.

Hunter’s new boyfriend’s band PAR-K is described as pop with a lot of Iranian influences. Is there such a band?

To my knowledge, there is no such band. I think the closest is a band called Young the Giant. It’s a great, multicultural band that does amazing songs about the diaspora experience, or at least that’s how I read their songs. As far as an Iranian Jonas Brothers, which is basically what PAR-K is, I wish there were one.

Darius, the protagonist in your two previous books, is very involved with his family. Hunter, in contrast, is on tour, in a peer group/fame bubble. Were the bonds similar or different to write?

It was really different for me to explore that kind of broad friendship. It was a challenge to treat this book almost as an ensemble book, but in some ways, it was also easier. When I was younger, I was more like Hunter than Darius. I had a big friend group. I was a theater kid, I thrived in a found family. And given how keen I am to examine and dismantle toxic masculinity, it was very fulfilling to write about five boys on a tour bus, goofing off and yet being there for each other and being honest and vulnerable.

The guys in the band really support each other, and there’s no homophobia. Is this something you think is real or are you hoping it could be real?

It’s a little of both. Maybe it’s my outsider perspective, but when I talk to young people, when I see the way they move through the halls at school, they seem nicer to each other than my peers and I were. I think today’s teenagers are more empathetic. I think there’s progress, as shown by the proliferation of gender and sexuality alliances, of antiracist work in schools. At the same time, people can be cruel, and it’s not unilaterally better everywhere. Part of being a writer for young people is balancing the world as it is with the world as I wish it to be. I think Hunter and his friends are a little of both, because I think friend groups like that exist, and at the same time, I want more of them to exist.

You wrote this entire book during Covid. What was that like?

I wrote the first chapter in February, and in March things started going south. Honestly, it was the worst. Every draft was hard. My whole routine was turned upside down when I couldn’t go to coffee shops and write or meet up with friends and write. Writing is a solitary thing, but I used to be able to be solitary with other people. And being completely solitary while the world was so terrible was really hard.

My editor’s note on my draft was “Somehow the book came out heavy, which is strange because boy bands are supposed to be fun.” And I thought, “Oh my god, you’re right. Boy bands are supposed to be fun.” Putting joy back in the book was one of the biggest challenges. The last round of edits coincided with a nasty winter storm in Kansas City and I had to stay inside for two weeks while I was editing. But I think it did come out joyful, and I’m proud of that.

What’s next for you?

I am working on several things in multiple categories. My very first short story is coming out this August in an anthology called Eternally Yours, edited by Patrice Caldwell. It’s a paranormal romance anthology. I never expected I’d write a story that fit there, but when I had an idea about gay merfolk, I thought yes, this is for me.

Kiss & Tell by Adib Khorram. Dial, $18.99 Mar. 22 ISBN 978-0-593-32526-1