Only Mostly Devastated is young adult queer contemporary with an endearing protagonist, gay and bisexual characters, and an authentic focus on the casual micro aggressive homophobia that rolls around everyday. A perfect mix of romance and comedy; of family and friendship, and a writing that is easy to connect through. This pride month, it’s a pleasure to feature this book and the author, Sophie Gonzales, for a quick interview. Not just because I personally absolutely loved reading this book but also because it has been a title praised by Jodi Picoult, Cale Dietrich, K. Ancrum, and Hannah Capin.
SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA meets CLUELESS in this boy-meets-boy spin on Grease
Summer love…gone so fast.
Will Tavares is the dream summer fling―he’s fun, affectionate, kind―but just when Ollie thinks he’s found his Happily Ever After, summer vacation ends and Will stops texting Ollie back. Now Ollie is one prince short of his fairy tale ending, and to complicate the fairy tale further, a family emergency sees Ollie uprooted and enrolled at a new school across the country. Which he minds a little less when he realizes it’s the same school Will goes to…except Ollie finds that the sweet, comfortably queer guy he knew from summer isn’t the same one attending Collinswood High. This Will is a class clown, closeted―and, to be honest, a bit of a jerk.
Ollie has no intention of pining after a guy who clearly isn’t ready for a relationship, especially since this new, bro-y jock version of Will seems to go from hot to cold every other week. But then Will starts “coincidentally” popping up in every area of Ollie’s life, from music class to the lunch table, and Ollie finds his resolve weakening.
The last time he gave Will his heart, Will handed it back to him trampled and battered. Ollie would have to be an idiot to trust him with it again.
Q/A with Sophie Gonzales on queer retellings and LGBTQIA+ representation in romantic comedies.
Starting with the introductions, would you like to help our readers know more about your debut novel, yourself, and the weather where you are?
Only Mostly Devastated is my debut YA rom-com, and it was released in March 2020 with Wednesday Books (USA) and Hodder Children’s Books (UK / Commonwealth). It’s been pitched as a queer take on Grease, and follows Ollie, who meets his dream guy, Will, on summer vacation. When Ollie’s family moves across the country due to a family emergency, Ollie finds himself at the same school as Will, but instead of the sweet guy he got to know over the summer, Will is closeted, a jock, and a bit of a jerk.
As for me, I’m 27 years old, based in Melbourne, Australia, where the weather’s currently dropping so much I have to pour water on my car in the morning to melt the ice on it! I love musical theatre (watching and performing), fanfiction and have recently been getting back to art, which was my very first love. I’m worryingly obsessed with my pet cat and his little bow-tie.
Only Mostly Devastated is your debut YA novel that has been praised by renowned names in teen literature, like Jenn Benett, Hannah Capin, and Angelo Surmelis. What do you think is the most magnetic aspect of this queer story—the diversity, the humour, the swoon-worthy romance, or the wonderful friendships? (Spoiler: Correct answer includes all four.]
WELL thank you for the flattery! I think for me, I view my signature “thing” as the humour in my books, just because I have a very specific type of humour and it’s not one I see very often (if a book can make me laugh, it’s on my favourite’s list of all time). If Only Mostly Devastated made you laugh, then you’ll (probably) find the same in everything I write! In saying all that, duh, of course the diversity, the romance and the wonderful friendships are there, and Fanna’s clearly right and has impeccable taste, and everyone should listen to her opinion on everything, especially my book.
Widely pronounced as the queer retelling of Grease—the musical rom-com—how did you manage to successfully embed the terrific fun and passionate love from the classic to this gay contemporary romance?
The jumping-off point that Grease offers is such a fun thing to play with. You have these two people with established chemistry who had to say goodbye, and now the goodbye has essentially been taken back by surprise, but circumstances stop it from being a perfectly joyful reunion.
Then, I really focused on which parts of Grease to pay homage to (like some lines that allude to similar song-lines, chord progressions, the general ideas like a spiky person who isn’t perfect but still wants to belong, a romance-crazy person, and someone who tries out an artistic passion and runs into unforeseen issues), and updated them for the modern era, alongside an original plot line.
For me, the heart of Grease was always the main romance despite it being an ensemble cast, so I really tried to explore why Will — the love interest — might be one way around his friends, and one way around the main character, and what kind of events and conversations might cause him to both re-evaluate his priorities and decide who the most honest version of himself is.
Ollie, the protagonist, in Only Mostly Devastated says a line: “it’s not always black and white for [queer kids].” Clearly, the spectrum of sexuality has no boundaries or boxes. How important do you think such dialogues in queer fiction are to ignite conversations among young adults around sexual orientations?
For me, queer YA serves two big roles. One, is to give representation to queer kids, so they can see themselves reflected and accepted and living full lives on the page (and maybe even learn some things about themselves that they didn’t know about before). The other is: showing cis-straight teens these stories, centring people and experiences that might be unfamiliar to them, and showing them someone else as the main character to be rooted for. To me, books are an amazing vessel through which readers can place themselves in the shoes of a stranger.
If some teens can read books like Only Mostly Devastated and come away from them with a greater understanding of the experiences queer people face—both positive and not-so-positive—and this develops their empathy and acceptance? I think that’s a really fantastic thing.
So to answer your question, putting in lines like this serve to both validate my queer readers, and increase the understanding and empathy of my other readers. The more these things are talked about in fiction and media, the more normalised these stories become. And they should be. I want to see queer stories getting to a place where they’re viewed as mainstream, rather than niche, or only for a certain audience.
We also see a bisexual side character, Lara, who holds a huge crush on the football starboy and she does encounter harmful assumptions like being tagged as a lesbian for kissing a girl. The love interest in this rom-com, Will, is also a bisexual boy who isn’t ready to come out at the moment. How different was the process of crafting these two characters of the same sexual orientation?
Because I was dealing with two very different characters—and two very flawed characters, at that—there were various things I had to consider when crafting Lara and Will. Because Will’s romantic arc follows a same-sex relationship, he doesn’t really deal with bi-phobia on the page, and his arc is more focused on how his friends and family view same-sex attraction.
There is one scene in particular in which Will does something especially regrettable involving a girl, while dating Ollie, and for me it was important that I made it clear this choice (while I’m not defending it: truly, it was poor form on Will’s part) came from a fear of being outed and a desperate attempt to shut down rumours and go back to a feeling of safety, rather than feeding into the stereotype that bisexuals cannot be monogamous because they will constantly develop feelings for different genders and insist on acting on these feelings (which is ridiculous: many straight people have the ability to develop feelings for more than one person in their lifetime, and this doesn’t mean they’ll feel the urge to cheat on their partner every time they find someone else attractive, but I digress).
As for Lara, she experiences feelings for two different genders throughout the course of the story, and faces both homophobia and bi-phobia. Through Lara, another damaging bi stereotype is addressed: the idea that some women merely pretend to be bisexual for the entertainment of men. This was a complex topic for me, because for many people I know, their earliest experiences with someone of the same sex happened under the guise of a dare, or a game, or otherwise “not being serious”: again, so the people involved could seek the safety of passing as straight (which is a complex topic in itself, as there are privileges that come with being able to pass as straight in some contexts, along with some harmful views from society that this makes a person “less queer”).
I had to be aware of the reality of this, and how it intersects with the aforementioned damaging stereotype, and carefully tease apart the threads to say, yes, sometimes this is how it happens. No, that doesn’t mean you’re invalid. And, importantly, while there is stereotyping and fetishization of queer people, this is not the fault of the queer person, and it is not the job of queer people to police their own behaviour so that cis-straight people can treat them with the respect they deserve.
The book does highlight various microaggressions towards a gay teen boy—or any queer, for that matter—and instances of bisexual erasure. But these behaviours are called out and often spoken up against by the characters. How did you create a queer cast who can be an inspiration for queer readers to not succumb to the bullying?
Honestly: wish fulfilment. While I can’t claim that I created a book in which everyone learns their lesson and is appropriately apologetic (for example, I gave one character some fatphobic lines that are almost word-for-word things that have been said to me in my own life, by my own friends, and she never effectively apologises), I didn’t let anything I viewed as hurtful go by without at least being highlighted and called for what it is.
To do this, I gave my characters some of the wisdom, strength and courage I wish I had at that age. The wisdom to know when something’s not okay, and the courage to call it out, on your own behalf or on behalf of someone else, and to demand better. There was a lot of power and catharsis, for me, in writing these scenes, to show that this stuff, these horrible throwaway statements, are damaging and hurtful.
To me, it was less important to show the instigators recanting and apologizing, because in real life you won’t always get that closure, and you can’t control what other people do. But you can control what you do, and what you allow, and to stand up for yourself and spell out why a behaviour was unacceptable, and the effect it had on you, and make others understand that —that’s a skill I want every reader to develop.
I want them to know that their feelings are valid, and if they speak up in their own defence, they are in the right. Even if they never receive an apology, that does not take away from this. You were still heard, and you didn’t allow them to silence you, or minimise the gravity.
Time for a fun question! Only Mostly Devastated is solely told from Ollie’s perspective and there’s no doubt that the summer boy he can’t seem to get out of his head, Will, has a lot to say. If there was a particular scene from the book that you could write from Will’s perspective, what would it be?
That’s a timely question, because I’m starting to plan which scenes I will be writing from Will’s perspective to send along to everyone who pre-orders my next book! When I wrote OMD, I, personally, didn’t take any character’s side. I agreed with both Will and Ollie, but allowed them to both mess up and word things badly and make bad decisions as well. The result has been that I’ve seen two pretty clear camps form: the people who took Ollie’s side, and the people who took Will’s.
I think that, because we’re in Ollie’s head throughout the book, it’s easier for a lot of readers to take his side, and assume his assumptions about what Will was thinking and feeling are correct. I’d love to take a deep dive into Will’s head during scenes like the prom, or between summer and school, or some other spoiler-y scenes towards the latter part of the book. I’ve always had a good idea of Will’s side of the story, and I’d love to give him a chance to explain himself, and maybe reveal a couple of things that Ollie got wrong.
This was such a fun chat but before letting you go, everyone needs to know a little bit about your next book scheduled to release in 2021, Perfect on Paper which is a queer high-school romance too. What is it about and how excited should we all be to meet Darcy? Also, readers, the cover was recently revealed!
Perfect on Paper follows Darcy Phillips, who runs a relationship-advice service through an abandoned locker at school. When she’s caught accessing the locker one afternoon by a senior named Alexander Brougham, she finds herself agreeing to be his personal relationship coach to help him get his ex-girlfriend back. She can’t risk Brougham spilling her identity, because she once used the locker to her advantage when it came to her crush on her best friend, Brooke, and if that gets out, she’s not sure Brooke will ever forgive her.
You should all be *very* excited to meet Darcy, because she’s warm-hearted, messy, jumps to conclusions, makes terrible calls, but ultimately just wants everyone to be ok and happy, and she’ll do anything for the people she cares about. She’s a little bit obsessed with relationship advice, and has a real knack for doling it out, but is pretty terrible at applying her knowledge to herself. She’s a slightly more serious narrator than Ollie from Only Mostly Devastated, but her verbal sparring skills put him to shame. Like Ollie, she’s very close with her family, and her older sister is arguably her closest relationship in the world.
There’s two things I love most about Perfect on Paper: the first is that it’s a very queer story, with a bisexual lead who’s initially in love with her lesbian best friend, who’s in love with another girl, and they all belong to the school’s “Queer and Questioning Club”, which was founded by Darcy’s trans older sister when she was at school. Perfect on Paper’s main romance plot is not sapphic (although there is obviously sapphic romance within it!). Rather, Darcy finds herself facing some internalised biphobia she wasn’t aware of, as she starts developing feelings for a guy, and suddenly feels scared that her queerness, which is so integral to her identity, might be lesser, or at least called into question, if she ends up with a guy.
Part of my reasons for exploring this in greater detail was in response to something I was told at the start of OMD – I had personal feedback from someone in the queer community that they felt that I did Lara a disservice by having her end up with a guy after having this coming out arc, and, to me, that was a very hurtful thing to be told, because the implications behind that are “she came out only to end the story not queer anymore”. And the fact that I hesitated, and doubted myself, after being told this, made me angry, and also made me realise that we have a long way to go in regards to bisexual people being seen as queer no matter who they date. I guess I wrote a 300 page subtweet. Oops.
The other is that, the idea for the book came from a period in my life when I really started looking into relationship theories, specifically attachment theory. As a psychologist, I was introduced to the idea of attachment styles (or, in other words, how you process relationships with significant people in your life) early in my studies, but it wasn’t until my 20s that I became aware of how attachment styles affected me, personally. Finding out that I had an anxious attachment style explained a lot of questions I’d had from my teen years: why I felt such intense panic if I perceived someone important to me was distancing themselves, why I sometimes reacted to that panic by trying to get closer and other times reacted by purposefully sabotaging the relationship, and why these behaviours would suddenly calm down in certain relationships. Understanding this about myself allowed me to communicate my needs effectively, and to recognise destructive patterns before I acted on them: all great stuff! But in my reading,
I realised that there’s a toxic dynamic — namely, between an anxiously attached person and a person with an avoidant attachment style — that plays out in real life quite often, and is not well understood. Specifically, I noticed that we tend to place the blame for these relationships on the anxiously-attached partner: when one partner wants closeness and the other wants distance, western society tends to say “stop being clingy, stop being demanding, give your partner space, you shouldn’t have overwhelmed them”, while ignoring the very real distress that a person feels if their significant other pulls away.
Perfect on Paper takes a few opportunities to examine this dynamic (although the main couple is not an anxious-avoidant pairing), without taking sides, or laying blame. It allowed me to create an anxiously-attached character who was listened to, and met in the middle, and allowed to be viewed as a catch, even if they need more reassurance and security than most. I can’t express to you how cathartic it was for me to write. If someone reads this and recognises these patterns of behaviour in themselves, and it allows them to get the assistance they need to seek healthier relationships, I’ll be beyond thrilled.
Sophie Gonzales was born and raised in Whyalla, South Australia, where the Outback Meets the Sea. She now lives in Melbourne, where there’s no outback in sight, but slightly better shopping opportunities. Sophie loves punk music, frilly pink skirts, and juxtapositions.
Sophie has been writing since the age of five, when her mother decided to help her type out one of the stories she had come up with in the bathtub. They ran into artistic differences when five-year-old Sophie insisted that everybody die in the end, while her mother wanted the characters to simply go out for a milkshake.
Since then, Sophie has been completing her novels without a transcriptionist.
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Everything stated in this post is independent of any compensation and the writer’s responses are solely their own opinions, comments, and thoughts; links are added by the blogger but no changes were made to the text.