Performer and Author Justin Sayre on Writing His YA Novels
Author: Thomas March
August 10, 2017
“I think in some ways the message of the books is to have enormous empathy because you don’t know what someone else is going through.”
I recently spoke with queer writer and performer Justin Sayre about his latest novel, Pretty, a follow-up to last year’s well-received debut, Husky, a coming-of-age story about a middle school boy named Ducks as he navigates the challenges of changing friendships, awakening sexuality, and sometimes-painful self-scrutiny. Now Ducks’ best friend Sophie has her turn as the narrator of Pretty. Sophie is a girl who seems to have everything going for her—looks, smarts, social desirability, and a great home life with a cool mom. But, just as in Husky, the adjective that others ascribe most to her character can’t come close to capturing the complexity and nuance of her identity and inner life.
Unlike some fiction directed at younger readers, Justin’s novels convey the many dramas of adolescent life in a way that honors the emotional realities of his characters, without condescension or judgment. In the following highlights from our discussion, Justin and I talk about the challenges of writing for younger audiences and how important it is for adolescents to receive empathy in order to develop it—for others as well as for themselves.
I want to talk about Pretty but also a little about Husky. Both of these novels deal with how kids struggle to find their identities in the context of how other people see them. You’ve framed that in terms of these adjectives that get attached to people—“husky” or “pretty” in these cases—and how limiting they are, whether positive or negative. Was there a particular reason why you wanted to follow Husky with Pretty, Ducks’ story with Sophie’s
Well, there were going to be two books from Ducks’ perspective. The second book was going to be his coming out and what that process was going to be like for him. And then Penguin approached me and [asked me to] think about lengthening the series and writing from one of the [other] kids’ perspectives…. [T]here were a few reasons why I wanted to write the second book about Sophie. One is that she’s so objectified in a way in the first book because she’s golden—she’s this person who is seen to have so much power. She gets what she wants. The second reason is that I got lot of flack from Husky because I had not mentioned [enough] that Sophie is black. And my defense…was that I didn’t understand why I would. I was writing the book from her best friend’s perspective, who has known her since childhood, and I didn’t see why he would continually mention her race. I have friends of color, and I feel like it would be racist if I would continually mention their race, “my black friend.”
I think in Husky there’s maybe one reference to it, maybe two. It pissed me off that people were mad because, why do you have to justify who she is? And I think that for some readers, that was like “Oh, she’s the pretty girl, and she’s black.” Well, why can’t the pretty girl be black? Why is that even up for debate?
It seems to me too that you’re thinking about readers who don’t live in environments, where difference is recognized and acknowledged, and there’s an appreciative sense of difference rather than a defensive or a concerned sense.
Yeah, because they all grow up together, they live in the same neighborhood, but they all have very different experiences. I think even within very similar places or homogenous places there are a thousand different stories that are going on at the same time. I’m personally not interested in all the same people, with the same kind of outlooks. That why I moved to a place where people were very different.
With Ducks it’s the burgeoning sense of his difference in terms of his sexuality. With Sophie that experience is different. And there’s a particularly powerful moment in which you capture that—when Sophie notices that she and her boyfriend, Ryan, [who is white] are being glared at by a racist woman walking her dog. All of a sudden, that moment is ruined for Sophie in a way that is intrusive and a violation. All she’s doing is simply being, and then her mental space is taken over by a reaction to that. And it’s isolating, too—she can’t share that with Ryan yet because she’s still figuring that out herself, how comfortable she can be sharing what’s happening within her own experience.
Those kinds of microagressions, as they’re called, you’re right in a sense that they don’t ever go away. And then you have to figure out how you’re going to deal with them. I know from my experiences of it happening to me. I know from experiences of it happening to friends. It can happen out of nowhere. You have to in some ways hope that there’s an ignorance or they didn’t mean it like that, but many times they did, and you just have to figure out how you’re going to deal with that in the world. And I wanted to put something like that in the book because race is a part of the book, and Sophie’s race becomes part of the book because she’s growing up in the world as a young black woman. And even thought she lives in a kind of predominantly white neighborhood with predominantly white friends, she’s having a different experience based on that fact, that she exists in the world as a young black woman. And even though Ducks doesn’t feel like he has to mention her race, for her it’s a very different experience.
And it comes through so clearly in that moment in the park with Ryan because they’re both experiencing that same moment in time and an intimacy that they’re trying to have, but he has no access to the other part of that experience that she’s having.
That yearning for real connection that adolescents have when they don’t yet know how to really ask for it or how to share the things that are terrifying to them—that’s a very essential part of the loneliness of being young. In spite of her popularity, Sophie struggles with that throughout the novel, at least until she begins to open up to her aunt, Amara. We learn right away that a lot of what, in Husky, may have seemed like Sophie’s social aloofness or pulling away from the group was really about the hyper vigilance she had to bring to her home life and being the caretaker for her alcoholic mother.
Yes. I think in some ways the message of the books is to have enormous empathy because you don’t know what someone else is going through. You don’t know what someone else’s journey is….
Taking on the challenge of writing these from the first person perspective and adopting the voices of these characters is something that helps to cultivate that empathy within the reader, too. What differentiates Sophie’s voice from Ducks’ voice is really the way she’s concerned about other people. It’s an impressive but also a sad emotional maturity that comes from having had to deal with her mothers’ alcoholism and take on a lot of responsibilities.
The big difference as well is that Sophie is a girl, and I think that girls are a little more [aware]. There was some criticism in the first book that not a lot happened, plot wise. The reason that not a lot happened was that not a lot could happen. Ducks is somebody who’s been very much in his head and very much obsessed with his feelings. Sophie’s kind of responding to the immediate things that come up because that’s the kind of life she lives. More is able to happen because she’s always more in a responsive mode. So it just opened the book up in a very different way.
I think adults often make the mistake of trivializing what might seem out of proportion in the life of an adolescent but nevertheless makes perfect sense within the context of their world. There is an inner drama that’s happening underneath the social swirl. The writing of these characters seems to honor that instead of diminishing it as silly teenage stuff.
You know, I trained as an actor for a long time, and that’s what my profession actually was for a long time. And you have to like a character if you want to play them. Even if they do horrible things, you have to like them and understand why. So, to write these characters, a lot of it is turning down your impulse control and saying, well if this happened what would I do? How would I respond? The second part is really trying to understand why, without judgment, and the why that goes beyond it. So that even if you say something you don’t like, or [there are] moments where a character goes down a road that you just hate that they do that to themselves or how they treat other people, you with your sense of truthfulness understand why that character does it. And rather than skip over the flaw, you accentuate it so that we understand their humanity. Because that’s how we all live. We all make mistakes constantly. And the more we delve in to why, I think, the more human people become.
In her relationship with her aunt Amara, who is an accomplished scholar and writer, a whole world opens up to Sophie. She learns more about her African-American heritage, and she also feels seen and appreciated for who she is. And that seems to give her a self-confidence that allows her not just to open up to other people but to become more forgiving and understanding— of her friend Allegra, for example. You seem very interested in how the capacity for empathy and compassion opens up once you feel seen by and acknowledged by other people. A big part of both novels seems to be that if you love someone without judgment, they develop that capacity, and it continues to unfold
Absolutely. Certainly that is part of how I exist in the world and how I want to exist in the world. But I think for kids at this age certainly, there are instances where they don’t know how to extend love, or they’re finding it for the first time outside of the family unit. It becomes a question all the time, and for many of them, the answer really lies in that at these times, they need more of it, they need more love, more compassion, because they’re at a real crossroads. When your own voice starts developing in your head, and your own sense of the world starts taking shape, that’s a lonely experience. It’s a painful experience because you’re not just a kid anymore. You are now becoming this strange amalgam of things we call adult. And from that there will always be a disconnect. You’ll never be just one of the kids ever again. And I think a lot of kids need more compassion, more love because of that. I think a lot of people in that period of time go through changes that really have an impact on who they become as adults. And the more they get loved and the more they are gently guided into this transition, the better off they are. So luckily for both these characters, they have that. And that won’t be true in the third book.
The adults in the book really do seem to care about the inner lives of these kids, not in an intrusive way, but in recognizing that these kids have minds, things to say, that need to be acknowledged and respected. I’m thinking especially of the scene in the bookstore where Amara says to Sophie that she can tell she has a great mind because she can see it in her wit. When you convey to a kid that you have respect for their mind, that opens up an entire range of new experiences of who they are. It becomes safe to take risks and ask questions. You’re saying you trust them.
Yes. That’s the strength of Amara. She doesn’t have children of her own, so she obviously treats Sophie as an adult in some ways. She wants to have conversations with her. She wants to engage with her. And Sophie being seen in those lights —the central conflict in some ways is how Sophie is seen and perceived because she has to really develop how she sees herself. So for Ryan she’s seen as this object, this budding sexual object. To Allegra she’s seen as a girl who has everything. But nobody really sees who she is and what she’s been going through. And when Amara kind of steps in and says “I see who you are,” that’s life changing. That’s life changing.
And in some ways that’s also permission to continue being who you are.
Absolutely. To go deeper into your own self.
That’s eventually what makes her realize she can tell Ducks about her mother. When Sophie has to make a decision about [going to a big Halloween party], and the decision is based on whether someone has shown respect for her decisions about her own body and self-presentation—that’s a much different kind of story from just “Am I going to drink at a party?” And you can present a world in which maybe kids get really worked up about parties, but without making the novel driven by just those events themselves.
It’s just a Halloween party. But when you are so hypersensitive in the world as children at this age are, where everything is making an impact on you over and over because you’re just so overly aware of the world, as you begin to grow up in it, I think these little things matter. And they have enormous effect on people. And again [it’s about] how Sophie is seen—“you’re going to go as this, you’re going to go to this party not only as my girlfriend but as my consort.” And she doesn’t want to be part of that! I do consider myself a feminist. But I also thought wouldn’t it be great to see a female character who wasn’t caught up in all that “oh, I have to please someone so they can fall in love with me” kind of mentality. She’s enjoying the fact that she has a boyfriend, and then she’s not. And I think for a lot of young women that can be true. They don’t have to be obsessed with that. And she has a lot of other things going on, so why would she be?
We see in Allegra’s response to the fact that Sophie has a boyfriend, all of these other anxieties and tensions—and really terror. Allegra, especially in Husky, is seen more as an antagonist of sorts. Early in Pretty, the friendship with Allegra seems almost like a relief because it might not be pleasant in a lot of ways but it’s simple. But then as she becomes more confident about who she is and what she wants, that’s a friendship by the end of the novel that either will have to grow or fall by the wayside because that’s not a way that Sophie wants to relate to other people. It’s also in the other choice that she faces at the end of the novel. It’s less about the choice than it is about the fact that she as a young woman is prepared to make that choice for herself, recognizing that she might have to change her mind, too. But these adults trust her to make this decision for herself.
It is a big deal that she has that kind of maturity, that she knows what she has to do—in a very different way than Ducks. It is the charm of writing a novel from a different perspective of a character you’ve already created, because you do get to see their different stages. You know Ducks, in a lot of Pretty, is annoying. I mean he’s just a pain in the ass. Oh, he’s feeling—stop it with the feeling! What happens is that he does have a moment to really step up. He does have a moment to grow up and be there for her. And luckily he takes it. But it was a challenge to consider how that would be perceived if you were living with somebody like that. And to get into who Allegra was, who was so kind of one-sided in Husky, to really kind of know what her life is, and to understand some of the pressures that are coming on her. She has an older sister who’s beautiful and successful, and she’s this young girl who’s trying to be these things, and it’s not coming together in a way that she perceives that she needs them. It’s a very different experience.
The end of this novel, whatever feeling you might have had about how annoying Allegra is, you realize that you’ve had to have a transformation in how you think about her, just as Sophie has, because her life has obviously been difficult, too. Even if it just gives readers a moment of pause, they experience how empathy can develop in just a moment of thinking about a person’s context and not being reactive. There’s an active emotional life happening that doesn’t seem far fetched to be coming from a 13-year-old mind.
I’ve been asked a few times how I write for a child. I don’t have any children. I’m not around children very much. But if you watch children, and if you pay attention to them, it really is just turning down your impulse control. We’ve been taught to kind of quiet our reactions, and we’ve been taught to be respectable. And children don’t know that, or they’re just learning it. So their emotional life is sometimes much richer, because the minute they have it they’re reacting to it.
I teach kids this age, and what always strikes me, especially in 7th and 8th grade kids, is how willing they are to be curious about things, take risks intellectually, because nobody’s told them yet that they can’t. They are sometimes more ready to tackle the bigger questions than adults who have built up, as you said, much more control over what they’ll actually reveal and commit to.
It seems the greatest mistake that a lot of people make—and you’ve talked about it a lot as we’ve been talking—is the mistake of pandering to them. I think it’s the mistake of giving them a world view that’s completely their [adults] own that’s not new experiences and not challenging to them, because these times in people’s lives are exactly when they need to be challenged the most and when they need to be exposed to the most—because you are developing a mindset that will continue to grow, but some things will be cemented. And if you learn passion early on, it’s hard to unlearn it later. I’m all for showing them everything.
Pandering is always the easy way out for adults. The harder thing to do is not to judge. If you’re going to decide not to pander and actually encounter a young mind as it is, then you really don’t get to judge. That’s the impulse that you have to control as an adult working with or writing for kids. You may see that they are doing something wrong or don’t understand something yet. But you don’t get to judge them for that—or they will never feel free to explore or actually trust their curiosity.
I think there’s a perception that they’re not capable. There are a lot of kids living in environments where they handle a lot. And to say that they are incapable is unfair. It diminishes them.
What it often means is that an adult hasn’t figured out to deal with the fact that kids can deal with things. Adults have a lot invested in children lacking these capacities—because then they can pretend that they’re more manageable. That brings me to one of the last things I wanted to ask, which is about the teacher, Mr. Genetti. Because I teach adolescents, I appreciate your portraying him as an adult who shows respect for these kids and seems interested in helping them figure out who they are. Did you have a teacher or teachers like that, or is that how you would imagine yourself as a teacher?
I was very lucky. I had a lot of excellent teachers, people who really took me under their wing and were very, very kind to me. So that feeling of having a teacher who is so approachable was very much in the writing because I had amazing teachers in middle school and high school, even grade school, who made lasting impacts on how I learn and how I perceive the world. In some ways the struggle of Sophie, besides how she’s seen, is who she lets in. And this lingering question of who she’s going to tell about what her experience is and who has insight into her and who doesn’t is so pervasive. So for a character like Mr. Genetti, who is affable and likable and a young teacher, his trying to involve himself, engage himself, with these kids in an interesting way, is part of how they’re going to interact with him but also how they’re going to take that lesson into themselves, of how having a sense of family or having a sense of lineage can enrich their experience.
You did mention the third book. Can you talk about that at all yet?
The third book is from Ellen’s perspective. And it will be called Mean. I’ve just really started outlining it. I’ve liked Ellen for a while, and once we discussed doing more of these from different perspectives, Ellen was a pretty obvious choice for me because I enjoy her so much. One of the big questions in Ellen’s book is about gender. I think that Ellen is in some ways a classic tomboy and having experiences of that archetype. But I think she’s also struggling to understand what kind of woman she wants to be in the world and learn from the examples of her mother, who is very successful, but also looking at Sophie and Allegra, she stands at a rather unique point, where she is looking out at the world and saying “OK, I’m going to be perceived in the world as this entity—what does that mean to me? And if I am to become a woman, what kind of woman do I want to be?” So the third book is really–Ellen kind of struggling with that question of what kid of woman she wants to be in the world, and so far, at least for me, it’s a very interesting thing to use her voice to kind of give insight into that.
I’ve really loved exploring and talking to female friends and talking to women I’m close to about how different their experience is in this world. And as a writer and as someone who is interested in other people’s experiences, from an artistic point of view but also from just a personal point of view, I find that fascinating. And I find that there’s not always enough literature that takes on a female gaze—and not that it is my job that I would write the female gaze! I leave that to women writers as well. But to explore that and really take into account how different is for a girl to come about in the world than it is for a boy is something not only challenging but exciting for me. So I’m very interested in this third book, and I’m outlining it now. I start in earnest in September once I finish a few other projects that I’m working on right now. I hope people will stick around for it and continue to read them.