November 17, 2015

Robin Talley: Young love in a nonbinary world

Interview by
What We Left Behind is the second novel from Robin Talley, after her emotionally wrenching Lies We Tell Ourselves. We spoke with Talley about LGBTQIA+ literature, the college setting and much more.
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Power couple Toni and Gretchen have been together for nearly two years when they leave for separate colleges. Toni, who identifies as genderqueer, finds a place at Harvard with a group of transgender upperclassmen who offer a new sense of belonging and an expanded language for discussing gender and nonbinary identities. Meanwhile at NYU, Gretchen struggles to understand their evolving long-distance relationship.

What inspired you to write this book?
What We Left Behind actually started out as a completely different story. Originally, it was set during Toni and Gretchen’s high school days, and it focused on a different couple, with Toni and Gretchen as secondary characters. As I was writing it, though, I realized Toni’s story was the one I really wanted to tell—and that meant telling Gretchen’s story, too. As soon as I put them at the center of their own manuscript, I realized What We Left Behind was the book I’d wanted to write all along.

The characters here are searching for a lot of answers—about self-identity, labels, their relationships and so much more. But there aren’t solid answers to pretty much any of the questions being asked here. Was that your intent when you first began writing this book, to present a story that thoughtfully pursues questions that can only be answered on an individual level?
I didn’t set out with that specific intention in mind—it just sort of evolved that way as I got to know the characters and their journeys. When it comes to identity and relationships, though, I definitely think these are questions that everyone has to answer for themselves. I think YA books can be a great place to address that, since a lot of teenagers (and I know I was like this) have a tendency to assume that life is all about finding the right answers to a pre-defined set of questions. I wish that were true—it would make everything a lot simpler!

It’s wonderful to see LGBTQIA+ YA books begin to move away from the typical bully stories (though of course we still have and need those) and present teens growing up surrounded by a bit more acceptance. But perhaps what’s most exciting about this work is its voice for trans and genderqueer teens. What do you consider to be the biggest gaps in LGBTQIA+ fiction, and in what ways do you think the genre needs to evolve?
There are so many amazing books now starring LGBTQIA+ teens, ranging from contemporary romance stories to dystopian epics to way-out-there sci-fi tales. We could definitely still use more representation across the board, though. The number of YA books starring LGBTQIA+ characters still represents a much smaller percentage out of all YA books overall than actual teen demographics would reflect. And there’s a great need for more representation of intersectional identities—characters who are members of more than one marginalized community (for example, disabled gay kids, Latinx trans teens, etc.). We’re also starting to see more and more LGBTQIA+ characters represented in middle grade books, which is fantastic.

Unlike many YA novels, What We Left Behind is set in college. What keeps this book from being considered “new adult,” and why do you think the college setting works so well for this story?
It’s fine with me if readers classify What We Left Behind as new adult, but I don’t usually describe it that way myself. I know a lot of new adult readers are also romance readers, and I wouldn’t want folks to go into What We Left Behind expecting a traditional romance novel—I’d worry they’d be disappointed. (I know how annoyed I get when I’m looking forward to watching what I think will be a funny movie and wind up sitting through a bunch of deadly serious action scenes.)

As for the college setting, What We Left Behind is very much a story about being in a new environment and having the opportunity to reinvent yourself. It’s also about the challenges placed on a relationship when a couple is separated by distance for the first time. And it’s also about the late teen years, when you’re past the initial throes of adolescence and are ready to start really examining yourself and making decisions that will affect your long-term future. So college was definitely the perfect place to put this story.

What would your 18-year-old self have taken away from this book? What do you hope today’s teen readers will take away?
When I was 18, I was so sheltered that I was totally unfamiliar with the concept of gender identity, so I would’ve been blown away by the discussions the characters have throughout What We Left Behind about gender and sexuality. But many of today’s teen readers are much savvier than I was, thanks to the growth of social justice movements as well as the internet and social media. The message I hope readers of all ages take from the book is about the importance of developing independence—of getting to know yourself as an individual and learning what you want, what you need and how that relates to the people around you.

What was your favorite part about writing this book? What was the hardest?
My favorite part was getting to spend time with these characters. Toni and Gretchen are my two favorite characters I’ve ever written. I feel like I know them so well that sometimes I forget I made them up!

The hardest part was getting the language right. The characters in What We Left Behind place a lot of value on language, and rightly so, especially when it comes to things like pronouns and identity labels. I wanted to make sure I weighed decisions about language just as heavily as they did.

What’s one thing most people would be surprised to know about you?
People are always surprised to learn that writing isn’t my only job! I also work full-time at a women’s rights nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., doing online marketing. Between that and writing, my free time is, shall we say, limited.

What are you working on next?
My next book, As I Descended, is a totally new genre for me. It’s a lesbian retelling of Macbeth set at a haunted Virginia boarding school. It has ghosts, mean girls and a lot of really poor teen decision-making.

Get the Book

What We Left Behind

What We Left Behind

By Robin Talley
Harlequin Teen
ISBN 9780373211753

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