Why Roswell author Becky Albertalli loves ‘Simon’

Now that she’s written a best-selling novel about the travails of a gay adolescent boy, Roswell author Becky Albertalli must deal with the inevitable fallout, namely, the fact that she’s not a gay adolescent boy.

Her 2015 young adult hit, “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda,” was just made into a movie set in Atlanta, “Love, Simon,” featuring heartthrob Nick Robinson.

Both book and movie tread a tricky line between rom-com confection and significant social commentary, and are praised for handling the topic with a light touch.

RELATED: Gay teen movie ‘Love, Simon’ loves Atlanta, especially Waffle House

But the questions that concern Albertalli the most come from those who think she’s telling a story that shouldn’t belong to her.

“Some people think that I shouldn’t have touched it; some people are glad that I did,” said Albertalli, 35, during a recent interview at Alon’s restaurant in Dunwoody. “It has generally landed well with the community that I wrote about, but that doesn’t mean landing universally well.”

The issue comes down to “ownership” of stories, she added in a follow-up text. “If I were to approach this now, I’m not sure I’d take on a story that’s so closely tied to the coming-out process.”

(Albertalli will talk about Simon and other characters Saturday at Decatur’s Little Shop of Stories, when she introduces her latest book, “Leah on the Offbeat.”)

While Albertalli takes questions about ownership seriously, when she started writing the story of Simon Spier, she didn’t worry how anyone would react because she didn’t think anyone would see it. “I didn’t think it would be published,” she said. “It’s the kind of freedom that I haven’t had since — that I miss desperately.”

As a student at Riverwood High School in Sandy Springs (thinly disguised as “Creekwood” in the book), she wanted to be either an author or an actress, but she put those ambitions on the back burner. “I didn’t think it was a realistic career option for me.”

Graduating with a doctorate in clinical psychology from George Washington University, the Atlanta native became a psychologist at a D.C. school for students with language-based learning disabilities.

But after her first child was born, Albertalli took some time to pore through the journals that she’d kept for years, and wrote about characters who intrigued her. Shortly after she moved back to Atlanta in 2013, she had a book deal.

Her inspirations were John Hughes movies like “The Breakfast Club” and rom-coms from her own adolescence, such as “Never Been Kissed.”

Writing about Simon, a nerd who struggles to find love, wasn’t such a reach, she added. “All my books are me … I was always going to be the person crushing on somebody who was interested in somebody else.”

There are some differences between being a teen in 1998 and being a teen now, she concedes, including the pervasive influence of social media. (Simon hasn’t come out to his friends or family, and the story turns on his secret being revealed in a fictional Tumblr account called creeksecrets.)

But Albertalli finds many similarities, and in fact makes Simon a fan of the music she used to listen to, including Elliott Smith and Tegan and Sara. She heard from some critics of Simon’s musical taste that his playlist is stereotyped, but that she picked the wrong stereotype. (Tegan and Sara are loved by gay women.)

“I wasn’t trying to stereotype him,” she said, “I just like Tegan and Sara … I may be a very immature teen-like 35-year-old, but it’s not very different than my life in my own head,” she said. “They are all these different versions of me from over the years. … Like, I’m trying to construct this voice that’s uniquely of that character, but as a part of that, I’m always drawing on something that’s very personal.”

For the subversive act of creating a likable, gay teenage protagonist, and for suggesting that his (mostly unrealized) love life is appropriate for a young adult novel, Albertalli said she’s received surprisingly little criticism from conservatives.

“One of the things that’s kind of sad or kind of infuriating is if I were a gay author writing about my own experiences — judging from my friends who have done this — I think I would have gotten a lot more pushback,” she said. “My friend Angie Thomas (author of ‘The Hate U Give,’ a YA book that concerns the Black Lives Matter movement) gets more feedback from trolls than if she were a white author.”

The young writer was welcome on the set of “Love, Simon,” which was filmed in Atlanta during the spring of 2017, and she was on hand for about three out of the six weeks of production. Yes, she had a deadline. She was supposed to be working on “Leah on the Offbeat,” about Simon’s best female pal. But she was having too much fun. “I don’t think it was my most productive writing period,” she joked.


Becky Albertalli will appear at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 28, in conversation with Emily X.R. Pan, author of “The Astonishing Color of After,” moderated by Aisha Saeed, author of “Written in the Stars” and the upcoming “Amal Unbound,” in a free book signing at Little Shop of Stories. Visitors must purchase one of the books from Little Shop of Stories to get in the signing line. 133A E. Court Square, Decatur. 404-373-6300, littleshopofstories.com.

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