By Aaron H. Aceves
Today we’re pleased to welcome Leah Johnson to the WNDB blog to discuss her young adult novel You Should See Me in a Crown, out June 2, 2020!
Liz Lighty has always believed she’s too black, too poor, too awkward to shine in her small, rich, prom-obsessed midwestern town. But it’s okay — Liz has a plan that will get her out of Campbell, Indiana, forever: attend the uber-elite Pennington College, play in their world-famous orchestra, and become a doctor.
But when the financial aid she was counting on unexpectedly falls through, Liz’s plans come crashing down . . . until she’s reminded of her school’s scholarship for prom king and queen. There’s nothing Liz wants to do less than endure a gauntlet of social media trolls, catty competitors, and humiliating public events, but despite her devastating fear of the spotlight she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get to Pennington.
The only thing that makes it halfway bearable is the new girl in school, Mack. She’s smart, funny, and just as much of an outsider as Liz. But Mack is also in the running for queen. Will falling for the competition keep Liz from her dreams . . . or make them come true?
Hey, Leah, I’m glad you made the time to talk instead of nap; I know you just finished revisions for your second book.
You know what, honestly, it is quite the sacrifice, but one I am willing to make.
Aw, that’s so sweet. So, first question: how are you doing? I’m guessing sleepy.
I just handed in the edits for my second book this morning, and by this morning, I mean I finished them at 4:30 am. But I scheduled the email for 8:00, so it didn’t look like I stayed up all night to get it done. But I’ve been working like that every night for the past two weeks, so yeah, I’ve been tired lately. But I feel so relieved right now, I can’t even complain about the tiredness.
I’m sure it’ll be as good as You Should See Me in a Crown, but if I’m crossing my fingers, even better.
Let’s hope. I think You Should See Me in a Crown is a great book.
Oh no, I didn’t mean it like that! I meant YSSMIAC is so good, and if your second book were ever better, then that would be so amazing.
Right, right, right, I hear you. I hear you. What I was gonna say is that even though I think YSSMIAC is great, I hope that it’s the worst book I ever write. I really hope that every book from here on out is somehow better or more inventive or imaginative than the first book I ever did. I wrote his book when I was fresh out of grad school, so really with that first draft of YSSMIAC, I was just fumbling through it, hoping I could figure out what it meant to write a novel because somehow I spent $50,000 on a degree and still didn’t understand what structure or character development were. I was just winging it, so it was a book that was so heavily trial and error. I hope with future books I have a better grasp of what’s happening.
So after reading You Should See Me In a Crown, I’m curious about your actual prom experience. What was it like?
So this is one of my favorite questions to answer, actually, because I did not personally have as much at stake as Liz did. My prom came on the same day as my tennis sectional championships, concert choir state finals, and my brother’s graduation, and so we had too many things happening that day. It was the absolute worst organization we could have had. I played my last tennis match of my high school career with rollers in my hair and a fresh set of acrylics because I had to run straight from there to prom prep. So my prom was very frantic.
I went with a group of my closest friends and my…I don’t wanna call him my boyfriend because even then I was like, I don’t believe in labels. But I went with the guy I had been seeing for almost all of high school. That gave me a lot of anxiety. I was like, Oh my God, I have to perform as someone’s girlfriend tonight, as a man’s girlfriend tonight. So that was a little stressful for me, even though at the time I didn’t know why. All in all, it was the quintessential high school experience: everybody dressed up, they came over, we ate pizza before, we danced, we took goofy pictures, we left. It was very textbook, like you’ll look back on it and be like, You know what, that’s prom. That’s exactly what a prom was supposed to be: messy, awkward, but a lot of fun.
So I played clarinet in middle school and high school, so I felt represented by Liz in that respect. You mentioned tennis and choir previously, so I’m wondering what your passion was in high school.
I had my feet in a lot of different ponds in high school. I was a varsity tennis player for all four years; I was the editor in chief of my school’s newspaper; I was in show choir and concert choir…I know I’m forgetting something…choir…tennis…newspaper…theater! That was it. That was my high school experience.
As you can imagine, any cultural cachet you get in high school from being a varsity athlete didn’t even exist at my school because it’s like, You play tennis, sweetheart. That’s not, like, skyrocketing you to the top of the food chain. It didn’t help that I wore sequins and did jazz hands in my spare time. So when Liz talks about the camaraderie she finds by being part of the band, for me that came from my being in show choir. And the same way she doesn’t feel community with other parts of her high school, I could identify with that as well.
You mentioned that you didn’t have as much at stake at your prom as Liz does at hers, and that made me think about how I, as someone who also writes YA, sometimes struggle with whether I want to write a book that errs on the side of being totally realistic to my experience or whether I want to present the world how I hope it can be or how I hope it is now. How did you strike that balance in your book?
You know what, that’s such a fantastic question and one that I have been thinking about much more deeply now than I was when I began writing YSSMIAC. When I started the book, I knew what it is I wanted to accomplish and what Scholastic wanted me to accomplish, and we wanted a Black girl love story with a happy ending. But in order to write a book like that, it would have been dishonest for me to write that story without also talking about classism, racism, and homophobia. This book is a love letter to my hometown because I love Indianapolis, but because I love this place, I had a responsibility to critique it. And I owed that to the readers. Any Black girls who are growing up here, who pick this book up and expect to be reflected, are gonna know that if I wrote a book that was devoid of those difficult subjects, that I was being dishonest with them, and I couldn’t do that in good conscience.
With this book, I tried to make it as true as possible while infusing it at every turn with joy and wonder. Like I said, I just finished revisions for book two, and the energy of the second book is different to me in that the subject matter is a little heavier because of what we’re seeing happen in our world at this particular moment. Last week, a 21-year-old Black man in Indianapolis [Dreasjon “Sean” Reed] was shot and killed by police on Facebook Live. And that happened at the same time as when the video surfaced [Ahmaud Arbery getting shot]. So I was thinking critically about what it means to write about Black joy and liberation on the page while moving through a world that reminds us at every turn that we’re not meant to have that joy or liberation. I don’t know what the perfect balance is for a book yet, but I’m constantly trying to get closer to what is honest about those two things.
I think that was balanced pretty well in YSSMIAC.
I noticed you used the classic YA line “I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding…”
[Laughs.] Yeah, oh my God.
I know you were paying homage, so I’m wondering what your early YA influences were and who your inspirations are now.
Recently one of the reviews I got on the book said something like, “It’s got the self-effacing humor of a 1990s teen movie but with a 2020 sensibility,” or something, and I was like that’s exactly what it is I’m trying to do. There’s a very specific type of energy that I got when watching A Cinderella Story or Clueless or any of the John Hughes movies I loved when I was an angsty teenager.
So I think all of those things are tied up in this book. And we’re very much trying to—I say “we” because I feel like I didn’t do this book by myself. Anytime I talk about the writing of it, I’m also talking about my editor, who I think is a genius and very much got the vision very early. I feel like we’re trying to accomplish all those things and write into those tropes and try to do things every time that subvert them. Like, I’m gonna give you the prom story but I’m gonna make it queer. I’m gonna give you “competitors to lovers,” but I’m going to make this a story about how Liz’s life hangs in the balance with whether or not she is successful.
So a lot of my inspiration for stories are movies, but in terms of who I’m reading right now, I love Huntley Fitzpatrick, who is underrated in my opinion. She has three books, and I don’t know if she’s coming out with another one, but I love those books. They’re such sweet romances. They’re like regular white kid summer romances, but I really wanted to capture that. Who else? Let’s see who else do I read? Obviously the juggernauts of the genre: Angie Thomas, Elizabeth Acevedo, Nic Stone. Especially Nic Stone because when I started writing there weren’t a lot of Black women who had been in the game very long who I could point to who had successfully been out and queer and written that into their books. Odd One Out just came out a little over a year ago, but that was so important to me as I was working on this book.
I loved Odd One Out. Also, you’re really good at segueing for me, like I feel like you’re looking at my questions and touching on them before I get there. Can you talk about using classic tropes as a queer person of color?
I’m glad I’m foreshadowing your questions because that means we’re in the same head space. You know, before I even announced my deal I was working on this podcast where I interviewed queer writers and writers of color to talk about craft, which has since gone on hiatus because I didn’t realize how much trouble a podcast would be. Maybe one day we’ll bring it back. But the first interview I did was with Kristina Forest, the author of I Wanna Be Where You Are, and I was telling her, “I just signed my book a couple weeks ago, and I’m feeling really anxious about it because it seems like maybe this book is going to take up space that has already been occupied by another story.” And Kristina gave me the best advice that I could have gotten in that moment, and she said, “Leah, everything you write is the first time it’s been written. We haven’t been able to do this long enough for the tropes that everybody says are overdone to be overdone for us.” We haven’t had a lot of Black girl-happy-go-lucky rom coms; we haven’t had enough Black girl princesses and Black girl legends and Black girl fantasy.
We’re at the beginning of what this is going to become. So we have a real opportunity to diversify the canon. There’s still so much space for us to toy with tropes. I think we have such an incredible, unique opportunity to do for this genre what has never been done before. I’m tired of reading about straight white girls. We get it. We got it. We’ve seen it. I think the burden is not on us to reinvent the wheel; the burden should be on white writers. How many times have we seen the same story? I don’t have that struggle because we ain’t seen what I’m about to do.
I feel like I know what it is to be a straight white girl more than I know what it is to be a queer Latino dude, which is what I am.
When I came out, I was just stumbling through the dark. I’m working on an essay about this right now for Autostraddle, which I should have turned in weeks ago, but I didn’t come out until I was 24. And I didn’t have any point of reference for what it meant to be out and Black and Midwestern, even. So I went back to queer YA novels to teach me the language to talk about my queerness because I hadn’t read any of that growing up. What I knew was how to be a rich white girl in Westchester, NY, but that was not helpful to me when I was trying to figure out how to be the opposite of those things in Indianapolis.
You didn’t touch on my next question, which I’m happy about because maybe I’m not that predictable after all. During this pandemic, how have you honored your more negative emotions, and come out the other end being able to channel creativity and light?
Huh. Okay, okay, all right, I did this interview recently for Publisher’s Weekly, and I sent it to my publicist, and they sent it back to me like, Hey, Leah… Your book is actually really happy, so we just want to make sure at some point in this interview, you say that this is a happy book, so people know that they won’t walk away feeling your existential dread.
That’s so funny.
I don’t know if this even answers your question, but this is where I’m gonna go with it. My second book takes place over three days at a music festival, and Dave Grohl (from Foo Fighters and Nirvana) recently wrote this essay for The Atlantic that I thought was truly, truly beautiful. It’s about the need for live music as a space for communal joy.
The place where I feel that most acutely is at festivals. I go to multiple festivals every summer just because it’s one of my favorite things to do, and this year obviously I’m not gonna go because no one’s leaving the house, but I was writing these things where I was talking about the sky, just like laying on your back and looking at the sky, as the band you most love plays around you, and experiencing that love with people who understand it. I guess I’m thinking about that. I’m thinking about how the sky doesn’t feel the same when I’m looking at it through a window and what that does to the body and what that means for the spirit and how that is depleting right now at the moment. So I’m trying to find ways to experience that joy elsewhere and get as close to it as we can.
Beautiful. Are you ready for a Lightning Round?
We can skip the first question because it’s just, “Favorite teen movies?” and you already talked about—
Let me say this really quick, The Duff is one of my favorite teen movies of all time. It’s so funny. Also, The Half of It. Loved every moment of it. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.
Would you ever eat a vegan tres leches?
[Laughs.] Oh my God. I was like, huh, that’s really specific! Leah, it’s in your book. I have to go out on a limb and say absolutely not.
Oh, thank God. Is Robbie’s middle name James because of James Baldwin?
Yes. One of the characters in my second book has the middle name James, and it’s like, We get it, Leah, you really love James Baldwin.
Rank in order of attractiveness: septum piercing, nostril piercing, eyebrow piercing.
For what I personally would have on my face?
I would look so trifling with an eyebrow piercing. That’s on me. But I have my nose and my septum. Septum is my pinnacle of cool. So eyebrow, then nostril, then septum.
Let’s say—fingers crossed—YSSMIAC gets adapted. Who needs to executive produce the soundtrack?
Oh my gosh. Okay. Okay. Oh no. I’m stressed. I think I’d go with Dev Hynes/Blood Orange. But also throw Jack Antonoff in there and Hayley Kiyoko. Give the girls something fun. For quarantine!
[Laughs.] Those are all the questions I have. Thank you so much for taking the time. Go get some rest.
Thank you so much! I will.
Leah Johnson is a writer, editor and eternal Midwesterner, currently moonlighting as a New Yorker. She is a graduate of the fiction writing MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College and currently teaches in their undergraduate writing program. Leah is a 2021 Lambda Literary Emerging Writers Fellow whose work has been published in BuzzFeed, Autostraddle, Catapult, and Electric Literature among others. Her debut YA novel, You Should See Me in a Crown was an Indies Introduce and Junior Library Guild selection. Her sophomore novel, Rise to the Sun is forthcoming from Scholastic in 2021. Visit her at byleahjohnson.com.