By Alaina Leary
Today we’re pleased to welcome Ray Stoeve to the WNDB blog to discuss their young adult novel Between Perfect and Real, out April 13, 2021!
A moving YA debut about a trans boy finding his voice—and himself
Dean Foster knows he’s a trans guy. He’s watched enough YouTube videos and done enough questioning to be sure. But everyone at his high school thinks he’s a lesbian—including his girlfriend Zoe, and his theater director, who just cast him as a “nontraditional” Romeo. He wonders if maybe it would be easier to wait until college to come out. But as he plays Romeo every day in rehearsals, Dean realizes he wants everyone to see him as he really is now––not just on the stage, but everywhere in his life. Dean knows what he needs to do. Can playing a role help Dean be his true self?
Between Perfect and Real is Dean Foster’s story of coming out as trans—to himself and to the people closest to him, and then to the world. Why is a story like this important today, especially to trans teens?
Coming out stories are important because teens are still coming out! Unfortunately, it’s still hard for many teens to come to terms with being trans and share that with other people, and access the support and care they need. I think stories that explore that experience, across a variety of circumstances, can help teens feel seen in what’s often a highly internal journey, especially if they’re in a situation more isolating and unaccepting than Dean’s situation.
I read a review recently that encapsulates for me the importance of coming out stories: This reader loved Between Perfect and Real because sometimes happy queer stories without any struggle left them feeling sad because their life wasn’t like that. There’s a place for every kind of queer story and teens need their struggles reflected and validated along with their joys and triumphs.
In addition to coming out and figuring out transitioning, Dean struggles with what’s next for him in general. Many of his struggles are around whether he’ll get into NYU and move to NYC with his girlfriend Zoe after graduation. Do you think these are universal struggles for teens? Are the stakes raised at all for LGBTQ+ teens?
I think the question of what’s next after high school is a big one for a lot of teens, whether college is in the mix or not! For queer and trans teens, I think the stakes are higher because leaving high school can offer an escape from an unsupportive environment. And even if your parents or friends are supportive, sometimes you just want a new place to redefine yourself and meet people like you, whether because you’re one of the only queer kids in your social circle or just because sometimes it’s easier to come into your own in a place where no one has preconceived ideas and expectations about who you are.
At the same time, leaving a familiar place, even if it’s wanted, can be nerve-wracking, and we often cling to the bits of familiarity we can bring with us, like the person we’re dating, or friends who are going to the same college. That was definitely on my mind when I was choosing a college in my senior year, and the same was true for a lot of my friends, especially for people who were dating someone.
One thing I absolutely loved about this book was how many strong LGBTQ+ supporting characters there were! Dean’s world is already populated by other queer people and he joins a support group so he can meet more trans people, and finds confidants and friends in people like Jade and Nina. Why was it important to you for your protagonist to have other LGBTQ+ people in his life, including adults, who he can turn to?
I grew up with very few books about queer teens, and usually, the main character was the only queer character. With this book, I wanted to write against that convention and show the range of queerness and transness, and also write a book that is accurate to teens’ lives now. When I was working in education, I saw how common it was for friend groups of all queer and trans teens to exist where I live in Seattle (which is where the book is set), and that’s true of other places too. I also wanted to write what I know and experience in my own life; that there are so many ways to be queer and/or trans. I especially want teens who might not have a lot of access to queer community to see and feel that in my books; that there is possibility for them. That they belong. That they are enough. That they are part of a vast community with a history, with generations, that there is an adulthood that exists for them.
In addition to writing, you also track all the books coming out by trans and nonbinary authors with your YA/MG Trans and Nonbinary Voices Masterlist. What prompted you to start this masterlist and how do you feel about how it has grown? Do you hope that one day it won’t be necessary?
I started the Masterlist because a friend of mine asked me if I had any recommendations for YA about trans kids written by a trans author, and I could only think of one! I thought for sure there must be more, and as I searched, the idea organically came together. I scoured through YA Pride and LGBTQReads’ pre-existing databases, and imagined a similar database, but just for trans YA by trans people. Representation is really important to me, and I wanted to make something that would be useful from that standpoint, something that would generate hard numbers about how lacking representation is in this area, and maybe in some small way be helpful in pushing the publishing industry to value and acquire trans stories.
I feel really happy with the impact it has made; I love hearing from librarians and booksellers who have used it to build their collections or buy books for their store, researchers who have found it useful for their dissertations, and readers who have been ecstatic to learn there are books that resonate with their experiences. It’s been wonderful to see the exponential growth in the acquisition of trans-authored YA since I created the Masterlist, and I absolutely hope it will one day be rendered unnecessary, the sooner the better.
If you could be on your dream panel for this book, what would the panel be about? What other authors would you envision on it with you?
I would love to be on an all-trans and nonbinary panel that isn’t about gender! Instead, I’d love for us to get to talk about coming-of-age stories as we write them, whether they’re related to gender or not. Coming-of-age narratives are extremely my jam, and I want to talk about worldbuilding, characterization, plotting, dialogue, all the craft aspects of writing a good coming-of-age novel. I’d also love to talk about story structure: Hero’s Journey, three-act, different cultural conventions, and so forth.
Authors I’d love to be on this panel with include Aiden Thomas, Kacen Callender, Mason Deaver, Mark Oshiro, and Cory McCarthy. (I could go on and on but then none of us would get to talk because there would be too many authors on the panel!)
There’s also a panel idea I have about writing romantic relationships in YA, and one about friendships…I should probably just start proposing these to some festivals!
Are you a plotter or a pantser, and did that change at all for this novel? Did you surprise yourself in any way?
This novel turned me into a plotter! I completely pantsed the first draft, and then I learned a LOT as I was revising it into what it is now. One of the things I learned is that a structure gives me the freedom to deviate from the plan if that makes sense. Kind of like how people say you have to learn the rules of a craft first in order to break them. It’s easier to see what isn’t working in a book if I’ve plotted it ahead of time, because I’ll get to a certain point, realize it isn’t working, and because I’ve plotted it, I’m better able to identify what needs to change to get me where I want to go. Pantsing only gets me so far before I hit a wall. Plotting gives sustainable energy to the spark of inspiration that gets me writing.
Did you do any research for Between Perfect and Real, and what was your favorite thing you learned?
Okay, this is going to be a super-niche story that really no one but me will care about, but—early in the writing of this book, I thought I was setting it in a different time period, and so I went to the Seattle Public Schools archives to research how queer and trans students had been treated over time by the district.
I learned that Larry Bell, who was principal of my elementary school for a short time when I was a kid, was on a committee working to support LGBTQ students at that time! My only memory of him was when he promised to dye his hair rainbow if we as a school met a certain goal. I don’t remember what that goal was, but I have an image in my mind of him on the playground with rainbow hair and a bunch of kids crowded around him, so we must have done it. It made me incredibly happy to learn that at a time in my life when I was just realizing that I wasn’t straight, and felt really alone, there was an adult in my life who was working to make sure students like me were seen and valued in school.
Without any spoilers, I’ll say that I liked that the book didn’t end in a neatly wrapped bow. It reminded me a lot of the open-ended ending of Who I Was With Her by Nita Tyndall, a 2020 release that I adored. Why did you want to leave loose ends for Dean and the reader?
Oh, I really want to read Who I Was With Her! Reading is so hard to keep up with for me personally, especially in the pandemic, but it’s on my list. Anyway, I left loose ends in Between Perfect and Real because I personally love books that leave loose ends! It was a pretty self-serving choice in some ways. Also, I want the reader to have space to imagine what comes next, to see the story extend beyond the limits of the page. That’s what life is like. Rarely does anything wrap up in a neat bow; the events and choices of our lives have an impact far beyond the moment they occur.
To be quite honest, I also really want people to write BPAR fanfiction! I know what I think happens for Dean after Between Perfect and Real, but I think a book becomes art when it leaves the maker’s hands and interacts with its audience. Fanfiction is one way that plays out, and I have a real soft spot for it because writing and reading it got me through a tough time in my late teens.
Do you have any advice for authors, especially debut authors?
Put your energy into the things that bring you joy, or at least, only cause you a manageable amount of stress. Based on what I read and heard from other authors, I decided early on that I was only going to do events and other promotional opportunities, including social media, if I had time, energy, and excitement about them. I haven’t always been successful at keeping to this, but when I notice I’m overstretched, I try to recalibrate. And my team has been wonderfully supportive of me.
What other books do you think Between Perfect and Real is in conversation with? And do you have any recommendations for published or forthcoming books?
The books that come to mind immediately are Keeping You A Secret by Julie Anne Peters and Forever by Judy Blume. They were formative reads for me and influenced the writing of this book. Keeping You A Secret was the first queer book I ever read as a teen, and it very much shaped my idea of a classic coming-out narrative in YA literature. Dean’s coming-out story is in direct conversation with that book. Forever was a big influence in terms of plot; I very much gravitate to character-driven stories as a writer and a reader, and Forever is much more about relationships and the character’s internal process than external action. The same is true of Between Perfect and Real, and Forever was actually one of my comps when I pitched during #DVpit.
In terms of recommendations, I will never miss an opportunity to shout out Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before by Karelia Stetz-Waters! This book is one of my all-time favorites and another huge influence on me as a writer. I read Redwood and Ponytail by K.A. Holt and The Weight of the Stars by Kayla Ancrum early in quarantine, and they were such a beautiful, refreshing break from the pandemic in completely different ways. They got me reading again when reading was really hard. Also, Who Put This Song On? by Morgan Parker is a modern classic. I aspire to that book’s level of mastery of writing the teenage experience: the dialogue, the characterization, everything is on point.
What’s one question you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
I haven’t done enough interviews to know yet, but I always love it when people ask me about worldbuilding. It’s rare, in my experience, for people to think about contemporary YA when it comes to worldbuilding; people tend to assume that it’s simple because it’s set in the real world. Yes, it’s easier in many ways, but it takes a certain skill to make a contemporary setting really come alive.
For example, the popular representations of Seattle rarely feel to me like the Seattle I know and love. So it was important to me to find and weave together all the details of this place that make it what it is, from the quality of light during different kinds of weather to the parks system to the way the city is laid out. For the high school, I wanted people to hear the squeak of the floors and the clank of locker doors, feel like they knew exactly what the school looked like even though I never describe it in its entirety, and think of their own school. I also wanted a sense of depth in relationships and history; that Dean and his friends didn’t just pop up out of nowhere in a generic high school but that they could be real people living real lives. I could go on and on! Worldbuilding in contemporary YA is a passion of mine.
Ray Stoeve is a writer. They received a 2016-2017 Made at Hugo House Fellowship for their young adult fiction, and created the YA/MG Trans and Nonbinary Voices Masterlist, a database that tracks all books in those age categories written by trans authors about trans characters. They contributed to Take The Mic: Fictional Stories of Everyday Resistance (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic Books). Their first young adult novel, Between Perfect and Real, will be published by Amulet Books on April 13, 2021, with a second standalone novel to follow. When they’re not writing, they can be found gardening, making art in other mediums, or hiking their beloved Pacific Northwest.
Alaina (Lavoie) is the communications manager of We Need Diverse Books. She also teaches in the graduate department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College and is a book reviewer for Booklist. She received a 2017 Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for her work in the publishing industry. Her writing has been published in New York Times, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, Allure, Healthline, Glamour, The Oprah Magazine, and more. She currently lives in Boston with her wife and their two literary cats. Follow her @AlainasKeys on Instagram and Twitter.