Last year, Robin Talley debuted on the YA scene with her emotionally compelling, historical fiction novel Lies We Tell Ourselves. This year, she’s bound to make another splash with her upcoming novel, What We Left Behind.
Talley’s second novel is about Toni and Gretchen, two LGBTQIA+ teens who dated throughout high school and find themselves thrust into two different worlds in college. Toni, who identifies as genderqueer, finds a place at Harvard with a group of transgender upperclassmen and immediately finds a sense of belonging. Meanwhile at NYU, Gretchen struggles to figure out who she is outside of her relationship with Toni.
“It’s one of those crazy things that I’ve learned happens in publishing sometimes ― the first book written may very well not be the first book published. But the writing processes for the two books were very different,” said Talley. “With Lies We Tell Ourselves, I started with the story, and the characters grew very much out of the time and place where it was set. With What We Left Behind, the characters came to me first, and the story grew from there.”
Talley is thrilled for readers to meet Toni and Gretchen. These are characters that she loves with all her heart. These are characters that she did a lot of research for in hopes to bring an authentic, genuine experience to her readers.
“Since Toni identifies as genderqueer at the start of the story, and I identify as cisgender, I did a lot of research on gender identity, particularly nonbinary identities. I also researched the experiences of cisgender people who were in relationships with people on the trans* spectrum to help me write from Gretchen’s perspective.”
While Talley did research to bring these characters to the page, she does acknowledge that there isn’t one universal or right experience.
“I worry about that with characters who are like me too, because even though I identify as a gay woman, that doesn’t mean the gay characters I write will feel authentic to or resonate with every gay reader,” said Talley.
“As a writer, I have to do the best I can to research and create authentic characters, and I also have to be receptive to what readers tell me about their reactions to the characters I’ve written. I need to accept any criticism and work to do a better job in my next books.”
The conversation surrounding diversity in YA lit is far from over but with authors like Talley, more and more readers are gaining access to novels with characters they can identify with.
“It’s been wonderful to see the explosion of discussion over the past year and a half about diverse characters in YA and kidlit overall. It feels like we’re starting to see real change within the publishing industry. There was a significant increase last year, according to Malinda Lo’s statistics, in the number of YA books published with LGBTQIA+ main characters in particular, and since my books fall into that category, that’s been wonderful to see,” said Talley.
“I hope this means more books featuring diverse characters make their way into teen readers’ hands ― because I know when I was a teen I definitely never read any books that had LGBTQIA+ characters, and if I had it would’ve made a world of difference to me in terms of understanding my own identity.”