It’s hard to enter the digital YA community without finding Dahlia Adler’s fingerprints somewhere. A Tweet – a guest post – a link to the dozens of resources on her own Daily Dahlia blog – somebody squealing about how they love her newest release Under the Lights.
Under the Lights, which released from Spencer Hill Press last week, follows “two teen actors who are living two different experiences. One is a straight white guy [named Josh], one is a Korean girl who’s realizing she’s not straight at all. They’re both Hollywood actors living two different experiences, and they end up co-starring on her TV show. He’s falling for her as she’s falling for her publicist’s female intern.”
It shouldn’t shock anybody that Under the Lights features a queer romance. (It would be incorrect to refer to the relationship as a lesbian romance – the love interest is bisexual.) The cover features the two girls kissing, and Adler is an active advocate for queer YA fiction.
So it might surprise people that Vanessa, the Korean American actress, wasn’t originally meant to be gay at all.
“Under the Lights underwent a couple different reincarnations. Originally Vanessa wasn’t in it, either, but when she became a point-of-view. Josh was supposed to have a romance, and Vanessa was supposed to have a romance, but it just wasn’t working,” said Adler.
In the first draft, Josh kept gravitating towards Vanessa. Vanessa and the love interest Adler was trying to write her with had “zero chemistry.” The only chemistry Vanessa had a character with wasn’t Josh, but with a random waitress she flirts with.
“I frustratingly said to my friend, ‘I just want to make her a lesbian,’ and then I stopped and went, ‘Oh my god. That’s what she is. I’m not making her anything.’ I had to do rewrites, obviously,” said Adler. “But there was a good reason – she’s super gay! I went back and that was turned into the publicist [Brianna] masquerading as a waitress, and that’s how they met, and that’s how the story became an LGBT story.”
The story isn’t so straightforward, of course. It’s not Vanessa meets Brianna, they fall in love, happy ending. The stage was set for Vanessa’s story in Behind the Scenes, the first in Adler’s duology, where Vanessa’s best friend became frustrated and began to hate Hollywood on her behalf, thanks to the lack of Asian representation.
“There’s been a tremendous number of times where [Vanessa is] screwed over because they just want a blonde white girl,” said Adler. “For Vanessa, her career feels exceptionally tenuous, so she can rock the boat so much less than a white girl could, or a white guy could. This is sort of the dual point-of-view thing, because it contrasts her with this straight white guy, who screws up constantly, but always has more opportunities for him.”
Her parents fear for that she might not land another acting gig, and Vanessa knows everything she does hangs in the balance, but acting is her passion.
“Being Korean already feels so limiting to her in Hollywood – is being Korean and gay just going to kill it? And for her, it really becomes that may be the case. So if the girl she is falling for is one kind of happiness, and acting is one kind of happiness, which happiness is she going to choose? Which one is more fulfilling? But I think they tremendously intersect. It’s a lot about how gender and race and sexuality play into media success. It tremendously affects the rest of her life. It’s not just a fun hobby for her – this is what she wants for her life!”
Some people wondered, given the focus on Vanessa, why Josh has a point-of-view character at all. The straight white costar, who readers first met in Under the Lights, definitely takes a backburner to Vanessa in regards to how people talk about the story. But it was originally Josh’s book. Vanessa just grabbed it and ran with it, creating a parallel in lives that worked well for Adler.
“I wish more people were also looking at the contrast between the Josh experience [and the Vanessa experience]. People have gone, ‘Oh, he screws up so much, and nobody cares!’ Yeah, that’s the point. She’s perfectly behaved, great with her job, leading a show, and she has to worry so much because of who she is. And stuff just falls in his lap.”
But Adler loves Josh and Vanessa’s friendship; boy and girl friendships are something she wishes she’d see more of in YA. And “I love Vanessa and Brianna’s romance so much,” added Adler.
But the first girl-on-girl romance Adler had planned on penning wasn’t Brianna and Vanessa, but a relationship in her current work-in-progress, a novel inspired by and titled The War of the Roses. The contemporary retelling of the war follows cousins feuding for control of the school.
“One of them is an out lesbian, but she’s with a demisexual girl who thought she was asexual until she realized had feelings for somebody, and doesn’t really know how to process that, and doesn’t really want to. So that relationship is kept secret.“
And while she pens that, her new standalone Just Visiting releases this November, about two best friends going on a tour of college visits. They learn about the secrets they’re keeping from each other, and changes the entire future they’d planned. Despite the cute cover – two girls holding hands, running into the distance – it’s Adler’s only book without queer characters.
“I feel so sad that it isn’t [about lesbians],” said Adler. “That’s just how it came out. With that cover, and it being attached to my name, it’s so misleading! But I have to say, if Reagan and Victoria had any sexual chemistry, they would be lesbians, or experimental friends. They kind of hear from everybody else, though, and there’s a lot of them responding to people assuming they’re lesbians. It’s a reversal of what I normally do, and not in a bad way – they’re not ashamed or anything, the answer’s just no. It’s funny that people go there and that’s what they want to see, but female friendships! There are some sexual component best friend stories – Underneath Everything by Marcy Beller Paul, thumbs up – but I just wanted to write a real girl friendship story.”
Of course, outside of her writing, Adler’s stance as an advocate might be what she’s best known for. Her Daily Dahlia blog keeps a running list of queer YA books. She writes them, and recommends favorites actively and avidly on her own website, as well as over at the Barnes & Noble Teen blog. She speaks up for more accurate and diverse representation for sexualities across the board.
But her advocacy only began eight years ago. Adler had graduated high school and college and was talking to her queer friends, many of who were also writers, many of who were queer. Listening to their experiences changed her entire mentality, pushing and reshaping her into an active advocate.
“More and more of my friends were queer, so the more I was hearing about queer teen experiences, it got into me, the importance of seeing yourself and self-reflection. I was thinking a lot about people who came out to me in high school and I didn’t know what to say because I had no experience with it, or came out after high school and thought, ‘Oh, that’s kind of sad,’ but of course they had to wait until after! What did we know? A friend told me he was bi, and I said, ‘Are you sure?’ That was my response. I meant to say, ‘okay!’ It kills me now, 15 years later, and I wish I had talked it out – but had I, I don’t know if I would have known what to say. It’s so important for kids to have a reference point, and for their straight friends to have a reference point. It’s not all about straight kids. It’s important for queer kids to be able to say, “Hey, I’m trans, like the character in etc.’”
“It’s not like this is a hardship for me,” added Adler with a laugh. “I really love it, and I really love reading it. I definitely plan to keep doing it.”
And she has plenty of advice for those interested in writing queer YA fiction, especially if they’re not queer themselves.
“Listen so much. Especially because, it’s an interesting thing. Queer people will talk about how queer people will gravitate towards each other and find each other – probably less in high school, because people are out less. But that happens. You want to find people who really know you.”
It’s not, Adler pointed out, like people aren’t sharing their queer experiences online for aspiring writers to read about. She referenced a guest post on the blog The Gay YA about coming out in high school.
“This whole time [the post was circulating], there were so many people talking on Twitter, and you could see so many people commiserating about their high school experiences. If you’re listening, you’ll here people talking and saying, ‘I just want to write characters that happen to be gay.’ And that’s not life. That’s effects a billion different things. And if you listen, you’ll hear what they are. You don’t necessarily think about the pain of crushing on your straight friend, but you’ll hear people talk about that a lot when they reminisce about the experience of being queer in high school. Listen is number one. Don’t just try to write what you think queer is – listen to what people are saying about their queer experiences,” said Adler.
“Read queer books by queer people. You will learn a lot from that. And listen to what they’re saying are the most realistic depictions. You should not be reading queer YA without reading The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” said Adler. “And pay attention to what issues are surrounding each letter. If you’re writing a bisexual character, be conscious of the issues of bierasure and biphobia, and them needing to – and for readers of it! – use the word bisexual. Even if you’re not going to have the character ID that way, I think it’s important for them to contemplate the concept.”
“Don’t use LGBT as an umbrella for everybody’s queer experiences. No one, within the same letter, has the same exact experience as everybody else, but be conscious of those experiences and how they differ. The trans experience is different than the gay experience and the lesbian experience is different than the bi experience,” said Adler, adding, “I want to see more trans and nonbinary books written by trans and nonbinary authors.”Author Dahlia Adler.
“Don’t write your queer characters to the detriment of other ones! Don’t write your gay characters in a book with bi erasure. Why am I seeing that constantly? Support each other within the community.”
“Don’t other. People love who they love. That’s great! Don’t think of it as a different kind of romance. Think of how it affects an individual person. When you’re writing a romance, a romance is a romance!”