WOOHOO WE’RE BACK. Well, sort of. And what better way to get all things blogging going again than by promoting a book that still makes me randomly break out in goofy grins two weeks after having read it? *casually ties Judith and Ellice to a chair and shoves Under the Lights in their faces* I had the honour/pleasure/bragging rights of interviewing Dahlia Adler about her queer girls fluff paradise of an upcoming book that will finally be available to readers everywhere next Tuesday, so get on that (pre-)order/library reservation. In true me-fashion, the interview is on the long side of things (oo-er) (which is partly on me and my rather liberal definition of the concept of questions) but it’s entirely worth it. How else are you going to find out which of her characters she’d kill, fuck, or marry?
Title: Under the Lights Josh Chester loves being a Hollywood bad boy, coasting on his good looks, his parties, his parents' wealth, and the occasional modeling gig. But his laid-back lifestyle is about to change. To help out his best friend, Liam, he joins his hit teen TV show, Daylight Falls...opposite Vanessa Park, the one actor immune to his charms. (Not that he's trying to charm her, of course.) Meanwhile, his drama-queen mother blackmails him into a new family reality TV show, with Josh in the starring role. Now that he's in the spotlight—on everyone's terms but his own—Josh has to decide whether a life as a superstar is the one he really wants. Vanessa Park has always been certain about her path as an actor, despite her parents' disapproval. But with all her relationships currently in upheaval, she's painfully uncertain about everything else. When she meets her new career handler, Brianna, Van is relieved to have found someone she can rely on, now that her BFF, Ally, is at college across the country. But as feelings unexpectedly evolve beyond friendship, Van's life reaches a whole new level of confusing. And she'll have to choose between the one thing she's always loved...and the person she never imagined she could.
Release Date: June 30, 2015
Josh Chester loves being a Hollywood bad boy, coasting on his good looks, his parties, his parents' wealth, and the occasional modeling gig. But his laid-back lifestyle is about to change. To help out his best friend, Liam, he joins his hit teen TV show, Daylight Falls...opposite Vanessa Park, the one actor immune to his charms. (Not that he's trying to charm her, of course.) Meanwhile, his drama-queen mother blackmails him into a new family reality TV show, with Josh in the starring role. Now that he's in the spotlight—on everyone's terms but his own—Josh has to decide whether a life as a superstar is the one he really wants.
Vanessa Park has always been certain about her path as an actor, despite her parents' disapproval. But with all her relationships currently in upheaval, she's painfully uncertain about everything else. When she meets her new career handler, Brianna, Van is relieved to have found someone she can rely on, now that her BFF, Ally, is at college across the country. But as feelings unexpectedly evolve beyond friendship, Van's life reaches a whole new level of confusing. And she'll have to choose between the one thing she's always loved...and the person she never imagined she could.
How much research went into this novel, both in terms of setting and Van discovering and coming to terms with her sexual identity, as well as in relation to how important it is to her to help represent Korean-Americans in popular culture? (I hardcore love Van and I thought those two aspects of her identity were particularly well-written.)
Dahlia: I think a lot of it is actually stuff I didn’t think of as research, per se, because it’s emotional and instinctive and I think that if you’re just watching and listening at all times regarding diverse representation in any medium, you’ll absorb so much. Vanessa’s character as she originally appeared in Behind the Scenes was partly borne of the fact that when I initially conceived her and knew she would be Korean-American, I tried mentally fancasting her, and came up with a complete blank. So that realization fueled a lot in both books in the duology.
But there was definitely plenty of active research, too. Some of my favorite sources were interviews with Jamie Chung, in which she’s pretty open about the experiences of being Asian-American in Hollywood; the web series “That’s What She Said,” which is about queer Asian girls in LA and has every single element produced by an Asian/American cast and crew; and Ellen Page’s coming out speech, which released at the perfect time during this book and particularly influenced me because of Leah Raeder’s post about it, which was really eye-opening in terms of the effect of representation among young queer actors. I definitely read other relevant contemporary YAs to experience both Hollywood and Korean-American life from authors who know those things far better than I do, most notably Jen Calonita’s “Secrets of My Hollywood Life” series, Jenny Han’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, and Maureen Goo’s Since You Asked. The other setting stuff was more basic boring research – the kind that utilizes a lot of Google Earth and IMDB, as well as stuff I’d already researched for Behind the Scenes – though a site that tells you how long the drive from city to city would be in the LA area was a glorious discovery.
And then of course there are amazing beta readers. I’m especially lucky to have a friend who beta’d who’s both Korean-American and a Hollywood intern, which you can imagine was an incredibly helpful combination!
Josh is a train wreck, but I became fond of him and he cracked me up a lot. It’s probably his bluntness. How fun was it to write him?
Dahlia: Immensely fun, I’m not gonna lie. There is literally nothing I felt like he couldn’t get away with. I know a lot of readers really don’t like him, especially if they weren’t eased into his personality via Behind the Scenes, but I hope people also see him as a greater representation: as a straight white guy, he can do whatever the hell he wants and there’s always another shot for him; Van can be completely perfect, and has to fear for her career because of the combination of her gender, race, and sexuality. Regardless, Under the Lights only exists because Josh basically took over the ending of Behind the Scenes and was every early reader’s favorite character, so I figured if that was his personality, I was gonna take it and run with it! I describe his half of the book as “The YA version of Entourage,” which, you know, gross.
In Under the Lights, it’s shown a few times that guys date Van because being linked to her is good for their reputation and will boost their career. This is sort of the opposite of the myth that successful women, and those in entertainment in particular, have slept their way to the top. Was that intentional?
Dahlia: Man, I wish I’d looked at it that way, and I love that you did! To me, the arrangements always start with symbiotic intentions – both with Liam and Zander, the point was to boost both her career and theirs. But there’s a scene where she talks about how she emerged from the “breakup” with Liam vs. how he did, and I think that’s so much the crux of Hollywood right there: they can be using each other successfully as long as it’s working, but the end will always be additional promotion for the guy, while it’s negative publicity for the girl. Jennifer Aniston will forever be proof to me of how desperately people will work to tear down a famous woman as pathetic post-breakup, no matter how independently successful, talented, wealthy, and beautiful she is – there’s no escape.
Last year, before the release of Behind the Scenes, you wrote a guest post for Finding Bliss in Books in which you discussed three of your favourite romance tropes. So, Van and Bri: mutual ability respecters, best friends first, alpha girls, a little bit of each like Ally and Liam, or something entirely different? (Link to the post in question and shout-out to my previous blogging home.)
Dahlia: Aah, I love this question. (All these questions, really!) I think Van and Bri are more primarily friends first than Ally and Liam were, in part because it takes Van a while to understand that she’s seeing Bri in a romantic and sexual light. They’re definitely mutual ability respecters, too, or maybe “mutual identity respecters” would be more appropriate for them: Bri is really strongly drawn to Van’s passion and work ethic, while Van’s really strongly drawn to Bri’s sense of self – basically, exactly what they’re each lacking. Plus they have so much faith in each other’s ability to succeed, without thinking that hinges on knowing every detail of their respective futures.
But I also think they have something entirely different in how much optimism they give each other: a sense of what the world can be with the right person at your side. And I think that separates them from a lot of couples because they were actually both doing okay in the present, but were independently scared of the future, so to them, having that together…that’s everything.
Unsurprisingly, I loved the sex scene in Under the Lights. There’s so many things I want to touch upon. (Heh.) First of all, the fact that it’s not fade to black, which is not only pretty amazing for (and, in my opinion, sorely needed in) YA lit, but also for queer romance in general, and especially for queer romance in YA. I also love how intricate the entire scene is. Van has doubts and is at times overwhelmed, her brain won’t stop talking, she and Bri need to stop a few times, but they also have fun with it, and are so attuned to each other and the other’s reactions. All the while it shows the importance of consent and the fact that consent is not something that is only given once and then valid forever, and that you can change your mind either way mid-act. I’m not entirely sure where this question is going, so consider this free space to talk all about that shebang. (I’m totally stealing that joke. With your permission, of course.)
Dahlia: Thank you!! This is hands-down (heh) the scene I spent the most time on in Under the Lights, because there were so many things I wanted it to be and convey and I picked over it with a million fine-toothed combs and fine-ass betas. Like, every time I changed something slightly major, I’d ask another queer author friend to check it out. It’s kind of absurd how many friends have read this sex scene by now. (I love you all; thank you!) What I wanted was a scene that felt very much like a First Time, because so many YAs explore them (for good reason, since they are a Very Big Deal to lots of teens, and certainly to Vanessa), and yet, as you said, so, so few do it for queer characters. The heteronormativity of YA can send the hurtful and/or confusing message that sex doesn’t “count” unless it involves a penis and a vagina, and for teens who want to feel like they’re sharing the particular meaningful connection of sex but not with those parts, nope, sorry, it’s all “foreplay” – just lead-up to a main event you’ll never experience with this partner. And that implied Less Than designation is so incredibly problematic and damaging. So, I love when people love this scene and recognize it for exactly what it is: a sex scene like any other, that in this case takes place between two girls.
And the heavy focus on consent is extremely intentional, because I think that’s something that gets hugely lost in queer YA as well. It’s one thing when you have a guy and a girl and there’s generally an obvious physical power dynamic differential, but when you have partners of the same gender pairing up, those lines can seem so much blurrier – is it really an issue if one of you can’t physically dominate the other, or if you’re not dealing with the social constructs that invite, say, a guy running back to the locker room and telling his jock buddies about it all afterward? As with sex, we’re clear on “lack of consent to penis-in-vagina = rape,” but when that’s not how you have sex, is “lack of consent to fingers-in-vagina” a lesser violation? Those lines shouldn’t be blurry for queer teens any more than they should for hetero teens. Everyone has the right to ownership over his/her/their own body, and partners who respect that. Consent is of utmost importance no matter the pairing.
My favorite thing in this “question,” though, is that all the stuff you picked out would’ve existed whether the scene was m/f or f/f, because all those things – comfort, awkwardness, consent, humor, fun, newness, questioning, trial-and-error – all of them are universal aspects of sex and relationships. It’s almost like love is love and people are people and hotness is hotness. Imagine that, world!(And you can totally steal shebang, but alas, you’re stealing it from Leah Raeder; I wasn’t even clever enough to get the joke when she made it, which I am still living down.)
One of the things I love most about your novel is that both Van and Josh still have so much to figure out, and that it doesn’t all magically fall into place by the end of the book. It reminded me a bit of Katie Cotugno’s books. How important is it for you to show that you don’t need to have it all together at 18, 19, 20, etc.?
Dahlia: *pauses for a moment to bask in the comparison to Katie Cotugno’s books, which I think are beyond stellar*
To me it’s very important to get that across, and it’s a big theme of my next YA, Just Visiting, as well. I don’t think it’s normal how early we’re expected to know what we want to do with the rest of our lives and how settled we’re expected to be, especially when pursuing your dreams is so frequently out of your control. I was raised by two parents who professionally reinvented themselves repeatedly, and both ended up ultimately starting their own successful businesses, so I’ve always been of the mind that where there’s a will to start over, there’s a way.
I happen to be in the same industry I first interned in at 18 and married to the guy I started dating at 19, so I believe it can work the other way too, but I don’t believe in One True Path for Everyone. At all. And one thing I loved about writing Under the Lights is the way it’s really on the cusp of YA/NA – Josh is 19 and Van’s 18, and they’re both living at home (or at least in homes owned by their parents) but have the potential for financial independence, but so much to figure out about who they are and who they wanna be, but also already have these firm public identities… As someone who loves writing in both categories, it was really cool to write a book where they strongly intersect for these very adult children.
I also love that friendship is such a big part of both Josh and Van’s stories. In Josh’s case, I thought it was refreshing that he wasn’t redeemed through his (romantic) love for a girl, but that his growing friendship with Van helped him develop as a person. And with Ally off in New York, she and Van need to get used to a new dynamic that relies a lot on texting, phone conversations, etc. Was it hard to write this long distance friendship between two people who used to spend almost every day together and are practically family?
Dahlia: It wasn’t hard to write Van and Ally’s friendship that way because truth be told, it’s what most of my friendships are like, even with my friends who live near me. I don’t see my best friends nearly as much as I wish I did, partly because two of them live a plane ride away and partly because writing books on top of having a dayjob takes up a ton of my time. But I was afraid it might come off like they were going through this huge drift, and I definitely didn’t want that; long-distance friendships are hard and definitely require a transition, but it doesn’t mean you’re any less close, and I hope that comes through too.
As a sign-off, fuck/marry/kill: Bri, Van, Josh.
Dahlia: Fuck: Bri. Marry: Van. Kill: Josh. I have a suspicion I’m not alone here…
Ellis: Nope. Sorry, Josh.
So one of you will be lucky enough to win an annotated ARC of Under the Lights. This giveaway is international and I’m really tempted to enter myself, to be honest.
under the lights blog tour
This blog tour was organised by The Fantastic Flying Book Club. You can find the rest of the stops on this tour here.