By Olivia Mules
Today we’re pleased to welcome Sara Saedi to the WNDB blog to discuss YA novel I Miss You, I Hate This, out October 11, 2022!
The lives of high school seniors Parisa Naficy and Gabriela Gonzales couldn’t be more different. Parisa, an earnest and privileged Iranian American, struggles to live up to her own impossible standards. Gabriela, a cynical Mexican American, has all the confidence Parisa lacks but none of the financial stability. She can’t help but envy Parisa’s posh lifestyle whenever she hears her two moms argue about money. Despite their differences, as soon as they met on the first day of freshman year, they had an “us versus the world” mentality. Whatever the future had in store for them—the pressure to get good grades, the litany of family dramas, and the heartbreak of unrequited love—they faced it together. Until a global pandemic forces everyone into lockdown. Suddenly senior year doesn’t look anything like they hoped it would. And as the whole world is tested during this time of crisis, their friendship will be, too.
With equal parts humor and heart, Parisa’s and Gabriela’s stories unfold in a mix of prose, text messages, and emails as they discover new dreams, face insecurities, and confront their greatest fears.
Tell me a little about your new book, I Miss You, I Hate This. What can readers expect? What do you hope readers take away from the book?
First and foremost, the book is a love story between two best friends. Most of the YA books I’ve read center on romantic love and I wanted to tell an epic friendship story. I know from my time in high school, my most meaningful (and tumultuous) relationships were with my girlfriends and I wanted to write a book that honored those dynamics. The story is also set during a fictional pandemic, because I really wanted to explore what lockdown was like for teenagers. Once it became clear in 2020 that proms and graduation ceremonies were going to be cancelled, I felt so much empathy for high school seniors. My last year of high school was full of so many milestones and so many formative memories, and not enough of us were talking about the grief that goes along with having life experiences abruptly taken away. I hope teenagers who read the book find it cathartic and relatable. And that adults who read it will be able to empathize with what the younger generation went through during the pandemic. Most of all, I hope readers walk away from it feeling like this wasn’t just a book about a pandemic, but a story about two young women trying to find their way in the world.
Who was your favorite character to create and write lines for? What is your favorite line that they say or action that they do?
I loved writing for Parisa and Gabriela equally. With Gabriela, there was a level of wish fulfillment, because she’s so confident and self-assured and truly doesn’t care what other people think—and that’s not me at all. Through Parisa, I got to explore my own experiences with anxiety disorder and that was really therapeutic. I don’t necessarily have a favorite line or action, but my favorite scene with Gabriela is one she shares with her friend Wes (who later becomes her love interest). It’s the moment he opens up to her about his mom’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent death. He confesses his love to Gabs, and she’s too afraid to reciprocate. And with Parisa, I loved writing her college essay because I thought it was an honest window into what it’s like to grapple with anxiety.
Where did the inspiration initially come from for this book?
I started writing the book two weeks into the pandemic. My day job as a TV writer was put on hold and I was in lockdown with my husband and our two boys, who were both toddlers at the time. I was desperate to find a creative outlet and the idea for two best friends navigating isolation during a pandemic felt like a project that could help me sort through my own feelings about what we were experiencing.
When you write, what is your favorite part of the writing process? Why?
I love rewriting. I love the challenge of taking what’s on the page and making it better. It feels like a little competition between my present-self and my past-self. Or maybe less of a competition and more of an assist. I find that rewriting is when I get into more of a flow state, because I’m not as [frozen] by the blank page.
Did you encounter any challenges or unexpected surprises when writing the book?
Initially, I only wanted the book to be text messages and emails with no first-person prose. To be completely honest, I think a format where the characters were corresponding with each other felt a lot easier to write. I didn’t have to worry as much about making the writing sound “good” as much as I had to worry about making it sound authentic. I wrote the book on proposal and once my agent and I started talking to editors, it was clear that they wanted less texts and emails and more prose. What I ended up loving about including prose and text messages was that we got to see the versions of themselves that Parisa and Gabriela presented to each other. What they would edit and gloss over and downplay. Even though they were best friends, it was really interesting for me to explore the parts of themselves that they kept hidden from each other. Now I can’t imagine the book any other way.
The book contains different multimedia (text messages and emails). Why did you include these as distinct things/use the format that you chose rather than just incorporating them into the text?
I included the text and emails as a way to keep Gabriela and Parisa connected to each other through the pandemic. I’m in my early 40s and I was constantly texting with friends during the height of lockdown, so I’m sure teens were utilizing technology even more than they normally would. It also worked in my favor as a storytelling device, because some of the tensest moments between Gabriela and Parisa were the result of failed technology—like an email that gets sent to Parisa that was never meant to be sent.
Did you have to do any research for this book? If so, what was the most interesting thing you found out about?
I’m Iranian-American, so it was very important to me that when writing Gabriela and her family (who are Mexican-American) their story rang as true as possible. It probably helped that Gabriela was a young woman who felt disconnected from her roots, because of the trauma her mothers experienced. She was trying to figure out what it meant to be Mexican-American and was very much in a discovery phase. I know it’s tricky and complicated territory to write characters with backgrounds that are different than your own, but I also think that’s why many of the writers I’ve met are highly empathetic people. Part of the exercise is putting yourself in your protagonist’s shoes and not just writing characters whose life experience mirrors your own. (Even though Parisa is Iranian, there were a lot of things that she and I didn’t have in common either.) A lot of the research I did was on Mexico City, because I loved the idea of Gabriela dreaming of moving there. We typically see young heroines have a fascination with places like New York or Paris, and I loved the idea that her desires may be atypical of what we’re used to. My dear friend Tanya Araiza Ramirez, who’s Mexican-American, also read a draft of the book and gave me invaluable feedback on what I got wrong and what I was getting right.
Late in the stages of writing the book, I read The Class of Covid-19 by the students at Cliffside Park High School. Their stories were so beautiful and heartbreaking, but also really encouraging, because I felt like I was accurately capturing the angst teens were experiencing.
Lastly, I loved The Daily episodes entitled Odessa, which took you through how a high school in Texas was dealing with re-opening. In fact, those episodes inspired me to put Parisa in the school marching band. I hadn’t really thought about the loss of identity that comes when after-school activities are taken away, and I think that detail really helped deepen her character.
We know that representation in books/media matters. What advice would you give to other authors who want to write about characters with diverse lives and identities?
I think the first question you should ask yourself is “am I the person to write this story?” I don’t subscribe to the idea that writers should only create characters whose lives are identical to the ones they’ve lived, but I do think that in order to be successful at your job, you need to have a connection and some source of identification with your characters. I wouldn’t attempt to say, write a book about the Black Lives Matter movement, because I don’t have the appropriate lens or life experience to tell that story. And ultimately, that would show in the final product. If you have an incredible idea, but you know you’re not the writer for it—be generous and share the idea with someone you think would knock it out of the park.
Second, if you are writing diverse characters, whose life experience you don’t share—then find a place where you do connect with that character. For example, Gabriela and I come from different ethnic backgrounds, but my socioeconomic background growing up was closer to hers than Parisa’s.
It’s also really important to have the humility to admit your blind spots and to ask questions. I worry sometimes that we’re all so anxious that we’ll say the wrong thing, that we’re now refraining from asking questions—out of fear of showing our ignorance. Then we’re stuck in a vicious cycle where none of us are learning anything.
If you do ask a friend to read a draft of your book to give you insights on a diverse character, then I really believe in compensating them for their time. You’re not asking for a favor, you’re asking for a service and you should pay for that service—whether or not your publisher is able to provide the budget.
If you could have your dream panel promoting I Miss You, I Hate This, what would it be about? What other authors and voices would you like to have on it alongside you?
My dream panel would be a conversation with teenagers about mental health struggles before, during, and after the pandemic. I didn’t realize I suffered from anxiety disorder until I heard the term in a sociology class in college. I always worried as a teen that my anxiety was actually some psychic ability that was forecasting impending doom. I’d love to moderate the panel and just be an active listener. I got to participate in a book club with high school students during the pandemic who’d read my memoir Americanized, and I ended up using the opportunity as an informal focus group about the pandemic. I find that when I get to speak at high schools, I’d really prefer not to talk about myself and learn about the young people I’m meeting and writing about.
Do you have any recommendations for published or forthcoming books or voices we should be reading?
I have met some wonderful writers since I started writing young adult novels, but I have to take this opportunity to highlight the work of Abdi Nazemian. His YA books, The Authentics, Like a Love Story, and The Chandler Legacies are all so wonderful and beautiful and honest. Not to mention, he’s the most generous writer I’ve had the privilege of getting to know. He’s a cheerleader for so many people’s work—Iranian-American writers and beyond. I always joke that Abdi knows everyone, but that’s really a testament to what a great person he is. But even if he was a total jerk, I’d still recommend his beautiful books.
What question do you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
Since I’m also a TV writer, I love fantasizing about which actors I’d cast in the screen adaptation. I’m a closet casting director! So, if I Miss You, I Hate This were being made into a movie, I’d cast Jenna Ortega to play Gabriela and Ariana Molkara for Parisa. Finn Wolfhard would make a great Wes. And Darren Barnet as Gideon, but he has to grow a beard. And an unknown to play Andrew, because I love the idea of giving a young Japanese actor his big break. We don’t have enough household names when it comes to teen actors who are of East Asian descent and that must mean we’re not writing enough characters who share their background.
Can you share anything about any projects you are currently working on?
I’m currently working on adapting my memoir, Americanized, into a feature length screenplay. I had a couple of opportunities to adapt it as a television series that didn’t pan out, so now I’m approaching it as the coming of age movie I wish existed when I was a teenager. I love Lady Bird and Juno, but those girls would have had it a lot harder if they also had to deal with unibrows and upper lip hair.