By Aleah Gornbein
Today we’re pleased to welcome Adib Khorram to the WNDB blog to discuss YA novel Kiss & Tell, out today, March 22, 2022!
Hunter never expected to be a boy band star, but, well, here he is. He and his band Kiss & Tell are on their first major tour of North America, playing arenas all over the United States and Canada (and getting covered by the gossipy press all over North America as well). Hunter is the only gay member of the band, and he just had a very painful breakup with his first boyfriend—leaked sexts, public heartbreak, and all—and now everyone expects him to play the perfect queer role model for teens.
But Hunter isn’t really sure what being the perfect queer kid even means. Does it mean dressing up in whatever The Label tells him to wear for photo shoots and pretending never to have sex? (Unfortunately, yes.) Does it mean finding community among the queer kids at the meet-and-greets after K&T’s shows? (Fortunately, yes.) Does it include a new relationship with Kaivan, the drummer for the band opening for K&T on tour? (He hopes so.) But when The Label finds out about Hunter and Kaivan, it spells trouble—for their relationship, for the perfect gay boy Hunter plays for the cameras, and, most importantly, for Hunter himself.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Congratulations on your third YA novel! Kiss & Tell is so different from the Darius the Great books. What was the inspiration behind this story and what was the experience writing Kiss & Tell like?
Well, the inspiration kind of came from a lot of places. I first had the idea for writing about a gay member of a boy band back in 2014, long before I even thought of writing Darius, actually. At the time, I was grappling with being out in my professional life and what that meant so it was kind of like a coming out narrative about Hunter deciding to be an out boy band member. But there was also a murder subplot. It was supposed to be a mystery and it never fully came together so I set it aside. I wrote Darius and then I came back to it because after writing the sequel, I was in a very different place by then. I was thinking: What happens when our identities are commodified? What does it mean to be a queer creator of content for young people and just a creator of queer media in general, with the expectations that are placed? I found myself thinking about boy bands again and so it became a very different story about being out and having to perform your queerness for public consumption. At the same time, the kind of myopia that comes with white cisgender queer people where they forget that maybe they’re not the most oppressed kind of human on the planet. It was all those things swirling together that brought me back to Hunter’s story.
As far as the process, it was terrible because I started the new draft of it in the beginning of February 2020, and then a few weeks later, the whole world turned upside down. I was really depressed for several months since I couldn’t get out and it was really cold and I had to try and create. The world was falling apart around me, and I was really lucky in so many ways. As far as I know, I never caught COVID. If I did, I was asymptomatic. I got vaccinated. I had the resources to hole up in my apartment and not go anywhere. My family weathered it okay, but it was still just terrible. And it was also alarming to be witnessing what may be the decline of democracy in this country. Granted, it was never great and it’s fluctuated at times and it’s been going downhill for a while, but election season 2020 was terrible. The January 6 riots were terrible. So this is always going to be my pandemic book. It’s just always going to be that way because in addition to writing it, I then had to revise it many times to make it not crappy. That was really hard as well, because all of my former writing routines had more or less gone away. I couldn’t go to coffee shops anymore. I couldn’t go to writing retreats anymore. I had very few writer friends that were inside my germ circle, and we would see each other about once a month just to keep sane. It was completely different for both Darius books. I love to print out the book and revise on paper and then type up my changes. It felt really good to me. And when I tried doing that with Kiss & Tell, I just stared at the paper and my brain didn’t function and I had to change the way I revised. And yet, after all of it, I’m so proud of how this book turned out.
Of course, authors of marginalized backgrounds don’t have to only write within their perspective, but the POV character is white while the love interest (and secondary character) is Iranian. Why did you choose to assign the protagonist a different background than your own and why was it important for Hunter to be white and queer and for Kaivan to be Iranian and queer? Did you also think about how Aiden (Hunter’s first boyfriend and brother of another band member) was also white?
Being Iranian and being a queer Iranian, it’s important for me to center queer Iranians in some way, which is how when I knew Hunter wasn’t going to be Iranian, that meant his love interest needed to be, just because I want to see people like me on the page. I want Iranian readers to know they are worthy of being a love interest.
I knew Hunter had to be white because I think that’s the only way that he could get away with doing the things he does because attractive young white boys, whether they’re gay or not, get away with things that no one else can get away with. At the same time, his queerness at least moves him a little further along the path of empathy to be the kind of person that really listens when called out. It was really important to show that despite the fact that he’s a huge mess and he’s really short-sighted at times, he listens when people talk to him and he tries to do better. That felt like a good example to set and a good story to tell, especially for young queer folks. They don’t have to be perfect, but they do have to listen and try to do better. I feel like interrogating whiteness works differently with a white narrator than it does with a BIPOC narrator. The questions you can ask and the solutions you propose are always going to be different.
It always made sense to me that Hunter and Ashton were the two white boys in the band and constantly got the most attention, even if they’re not the most talented. And since Aiden was Ashton’s brother, Aiden also needed to be white if they were twins. Go on TikTok and you will know exactly how much society loves two young white twinks. At the same time, it becomes very clear their relationship was far from perfect and fell apart really explosively because both of them are still young and still make mistakes. They were not very good at communicating, trusting, or listening.
Without giving too much away, what were some of your favorite scenes and/or lines of dialogue to write in Kiss & Tell?
My very favorite line that I wrote literally got introduced in the last draft of the book before we turned it over for a copy edits. The band is Canadian, their manager Janet is Canadian, and one day, when she gets news that she doesn’t like, she just writes an email that says, “What the maple-flavoured fuck?” It’s spelled flavour with an ou because she’s Canadian and I laughed so hard when I thought of this line. I still laugh every time I read it and it just it makes me laugh so much that I started trying to incorporate it into my day-to-day life.
I think one of my favorite scenes is a really short scene that just shows the band when they’re doing a concert and having fun. They’re doing a cover of one of my favorite songs because I thought if I have the powers of a God, I will make them sing my favorite songs. And it just made me happy to have this little moment showing that being in a band is actually kind of fun and cool, especially given how heavy the writing and editorial process felt as I was going through it. One of the things that my editor and I talked a lot about is how to make sure that the joy of boy bands still came through in the novel when I was dealing with all these heavy topics and going through a heavy time. There’s a number of references to This is Spinal Tap, which I thought was very funny, especially when it becomes known that Hunter has not seen it. His bandmate Ethan is like, “What is wrong with you? You’re in a band. Why have you not seen This Is Spinal Tap?” That really made me happy. I had lots of fun making fake BuzzFeed quizzes even though I think only one quiz survived to the final draft. I really enjoyed doing some of the interstitials between the chapters and some of the really problematic think pieces. It was really fun to just pretend to be an asshole on the internet for a while.
Kaivan took Hunter out to an Iranian restaurant for one of their dates, but we didn’t get to see that experience on the page. Can you paint that scene for us, and what is Hunter’s fave Iranian food?
It does happen off-page. They go to any one of any number of Iranian eateries in Los Angeles. I imagine it was one of the kind of hole in the wall ones that’s clearly just a mom and pop making dinner. I imagine they probably would have gotten some kabob because if you’re going to introduce someone to Iranian food, especially a white person, you should give them a bunch of grilled meat and some carbs. What could be better? So that’s what I imagine: they had some kabob and Hunter’s whole life changed once he had this delicious food and then sang a little song about it that he made up on the spot. I haven’t really thought about what his eventual favorite Iranian dish would be so I know it’d be so easy to just give him my favorites, which would be something that’s kind of savory and sour. I don’t remember the Farsi name for it, but my aunt makes this chicken and plum stew and I bet he would like that.
Euphoria is a feeling that is mentioned a lot when Hunter is performing on stage, but also when he’s at the gay club towards the end of the book. How is performing for a crowd similar to being part of a crowd in one’s own community and why did you use the same word to describe two different experiences that Hunter has?
I was a theater kid in high school, and though I mostly did stuff backstage, I did act a few times and there was always this feeling that came over me when I was on stage that was just exhilarating. It was like being struck by lightning. I also play guitar very badly, but I do have a lot of fun, especially if no one’s watching and I get a similar feeling when I’m making music. The euphoria Hunter feels as he performs has less to do with the audience being there than it does with him getting to express himself. In the same way, getting to dance at a gay club with a bunch of other queer people around with no pressure or judgment from the straight world around you is a similar feeling of expression. That’s why I wanted to link those two things.
Kiss & Tell feels like a real band and one of the ways that is achieved is through the media and interviews that are between each chapter. Reading those from the outside while being in Hunter’s head for the rest of the book demonstrates how harsh and impersonal the media can be. Was this part of the narrative always part of your writing process or did it come later?
I think they had always been part of it even in the very early 2014 version with a murder in it. As I wrote this draft and as I edited it, I added more interstitials. I realized that as much as it was Hunter’s story, it was also the reader’s story. It was important to me to implicate all of us in the ways that we consume media to hopefully spur a little reflection and compassion.
Sexuality and intimacy are all huge themes in Kiss & Tell. Why was it important for this book to be sex-positive as it relates to boy bands?
I really felt like I had an axe to grind about the way that the media and consumers treat stories about gay boys in particular. It’s really easy for us as consumers, and I include myself in this at times (though I try not to), to take ownership over characters and their sexualities. I mean, I have devoured probably close to half a million words of The Untamed fanfiction over the pandemic. But at the same time, people invent or take ownership over the sexuality of these characters; sometimes for their own gratification rather than for honoring an entire human being, and it doesn’t matter that much with fictional characters. However, when you see it applied to real humans I think that becomes much more damaging, and especially when people do it to teens. Aside from the creepiness of sexualizing minors, and debating whether they are having sex or not, adults should not be writing titillating versions of them having sex. I wanted to dive into the way that people will claim ownership over parts of complete strangers lives just because they share a parasocial relationship.
I also felt a weirdness around the way I would see people react to “low heat” MLM romances. Two boys kissing or having off-the-page sex gets a very different response in general than two boys actually having sex with each other, and sales numbers bear this out. The way people respond to media, and the ways that media conglomerates push that media, felt a little gross to me. I just felt like there was a disconnect between acknowledging MLM romances as a hypothetical versus two male presenting people actually being in love and having a sexual relationship. I wanted to examine that and I also wanted to examine bottom shaming, where being the receptive partner has seemed like a weaker or less “manly” role.
Hunter says he’s “pretty sure Ferris wheels are gay culture” on a date and I just have to know: is that a reference to Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda?
It is, in fact, a very loving nod and a wink to the lovely Becky Albertalli, who has faced a lot of the same terrible things that Hunter did as far as having her identity questioned and consumed on a very public stage.
What is the main thing you want readers to take away from Kiss & Tell?
On the one hand, I always hope that anyone who comes to a book takes away whatever they need for it from it in the moment. In particular, I hope people, especially young people, will take away a sense of their own power to shape their lives and their narratives, to work with their friends and their communities to make the world better, to give people grace and forgiveness when there’s space to do so. Even if there is not room for forgiveness, to at least let go of anger and just say, “Okay, bye, see you later!” I also hope they just have some fun.
If you could see any boy band (past or present) live in concert, who would it be? And if we weren’t in a pandemic, would you have tried to go to a concert for research?
There are so many good ones to choose from! I mean, One Direction’s concerts always looked so fun. I watched a lot of videos of them for research. Backstreet Boys was my boy band growing up, but I think one of them ended up being an anti-vaxxer or Trump supporter so I might not want to support them anymore. So that’s complicated. Nick Carter with the middle part was definitely an awakening for sixteen-year-old me. Or BTS—their concerts look amazing. I’m a little intimidated by that fandom right now because they’re very intense and I love them for it, but it’s very overwhelming to me as someone who’s more recently gotten into it. Those are the two that I think would be most fun. If I could get a time machine and go see one of the Beatles’ original concerts, that would be really cool. Especially if I got some original merch.
In my day job, I’ve worked lots and lots of concerts, and there are enough fan videos and produced videos of various concerts that I felt like I had a decent enough sense that I could extrapolate from my own experience. For example, the feeling of being in a stadium and feeling sound pressing all around you. All that being said, if there had been no pandemic, I probably would have just gone to concerts because even if you go for fun, you can write it off on your taxes as research!
Which books do you think Kiss & Tell is in conversation with? And do you have any recommendations for recently published or forthcoming YA books?
It’s weird, but when I think of what it’s in conversation with, the first things that come to mind are movies and TV, like This is Spinal Tap or Julie and the Phantoms. But as far as books, I think about Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You The Sun and the beautiful way it wove creativity and self-expression and identity and healing together. And Julian Winters’s How to Be Remy Cameron, for the ways Remy asks all these big questions about who he is versus who the world thinks he is.
And I think it’s in conversation with Darius, because Hunter and Darius are very different and they live very different lives and have very different experiences as queer boys in terms of what they go through and how they move through the world. Is it weird to be in conversation with yourself?
And for 2022 releases, I’m very excited for Julian Winters’ Right Where I Left You, R. Eric Thomas’ Kings of B’More, Tessa Gratton’s Moon Dark Smile and Aidan Thomas’ The Sun Keeper’s Trial.
Adib Khorram is the author of Darius the Great Is Not Okay, which earned the William C. Morris Debut Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Young Adult Literature, and a Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor, as well as a multitude of other honors and accolades. His followup, Darius the Great Deserves Better, received three starred reviews, was an Indie Bestseller, and received a Stonewall Honor. His debut picture book, Seven Special Somethings: A Nowruz Story was released in 2021. When he isn’t writing, you can find him learning to do a Lutz jump, practicing his handstands, or steeping a cup of oolong. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where people don’t usually talk about themselves in the third person. You can find him on Twitter (@adibkhorram), Instagram (@adibkhorram), or on the web at adibkhorram.com.
Aleah Gornbein currently works in publicity at Holiday House, the first American publisher founded with the intent of only publishing children’s books. She liked school so much she went back to get a Master’s in Publishing a year after graduating college. As someone who has yet to read a story with all of her identities represented, her goal is to help put diverse books into the hands of kids. You can find her shouting about books on TikTok and Twitter (@bookworm613) or at Books of Wonder events sitting in the back row (when we’re not in a pandemic).