By Alaina Leary
Today we’re pleased to welcome Steven Salvatore to the WNDB blog to discuss their young adult novel Can’t Take That Away, out March 9, 2021!
An empowering and emotional debut about a genderqueer teen who finds the courage to stand up and speak out for equality when they are discriminated against by their high school administration.
Carey Parker dreams of being a diva, and bringing the house down with song. They can hit every note of all the top pop and Broadway hits. But despite their talent, emotional scars from an incident with a homophobic classmate and their grandmother’s spiraling dementia make it harder and harder for Carey to find their voice.
Then Carey meets Cris, a singer/guitarist who makes Carey feel seen for the first time in their life. With the rush of a promising new romantic relationship, Carey finds the confidence to audition for the role of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, in the school musical, setting off a chain reaction of prejudice by Carey’s tormentor and others in the school. It’s up to Carey, Cris, and their friends to defend their rights–and they refuse to be silenced.
Told in alternating chapters with identifying pronouns, debut author Steven Salvatore’s Can’t Take That Away conducts a powerful, uplifting anthem, a swoony romance, and an affirmation of self-identity that will ignite the activist in all of us.
What drew you to tell Carey Parker’s story? Did they come to you as a fully formed character in your mind?
At the time I started writing Can’t Take That Away, I was processing my own complicated relationship with gender and realizing that I’m genderqueer. It was a very internal journey that nobody but my therapist was privy to, and one day as I was teaching creative writing, I decided to participate in the free-write prompt I gave my students.
Carey—unnamed at the time—appeared on the page in their therapist’s office, holding a pair of wrecked ruby red slippers. They were a diva without a stage and wrecked shoes. I didn’t know the full story yet, but I knew that, in so many ways, Carey was the person that I wanted to be. I wish that I could have been the person I am today when I was in high school, but the early 2000s was a different time, and it took me 32 years to sift through my identity. So instead, I channeled all of my thoughts and feelings and experiences into Carey, and then, unlike myself, made them extra fabulous. I knew they were a singer because as I wrote them, I heard music. Namely Mariah. It all gelled together in my head pretty quickly, and I wrote the first draft in 46 days.
Carey’s love of Mariah Carey jumps off the page, so I have to ask if you’re also a Mariah fan and what your favorite Mariah fact is?
I’d like to consider myself Mariah’s biggest lamb. I’ve been obsessed with her and her music since 1994 when I was eight years old. My bedroom walls were covered in her album posters (one in particular of her #1s album art was eight feet tall), and I even made a scrapbook celebrating her when I was in high school where I sketched her album art and clipped any and all magazine articles I could find about her. I remember listening to the Music Box and Daydream albums in my CD Walkman on the bus to and from school, and most days, it was the only thing that got me through the day because I always felt isolated and lonely. It was her personal story, the struggles and hardships she overcame, and her continued perseverance that inspires me so much. She exemplifies strength. I’ve always related to her on a deep level. Plus, the over-the-top diva persona is the epitome of gay camp.
My favorite Mariah fact is probably the most obvious to me, but possibly the one thing most people who aren’t fans don’t realize: She writes every single one of her own songs—besides the covers, obviously—including all of her Billboard Hot 100 number one hits, and she always has a hand in production. Everyone considers her to be an eccentric diva with an untouchable voice, and because of that she doesn’t get the credit she’s due as a songwriter, and that to me is an absolute travesty! She’s a musical, lyrical, and creative genius.
Without giving too many away, what were some of your favorite scenes to write in Can’t Take That Away?
My favorite scenes to write were the ones Carey shares with Cris, their love interest in the book. I particularly love the scene where they are both on stage singing “As Long As Your Mine” during Wicked rehearsals because there is so much passion and anger and heat and tension. I also love the scenes at Carnegie Hall, Radio City, and Exile Café. Any scene where music is incorporated, really, which often happens when Carey and Cris share page time.
Carey is genderqueer and uses multiple sets of pronouns in the book, indicating which pronouns they’re using that day through a wristband. Why did you choose a wristband as a way to signal that?
It was something that somebody suggested to me for myself. Before I came out as genderqueer, I just quietly wore a purple-green-and-white macrame bracelet to indicate—even if just for myself—that I wanted to be referred to using they/them pronouns. It was a small, tiny act, but it made me feel so much more confident in my own skin. When I started to delve into Carey’s story, I knew I did not want to spend time having Carey explaining their pronouns in every single scene. Not only is that traumatic for Carey (and for me), but it’s also exhausting for the reader. So the bracelets are very casually mentioned throughout as just another detail of Carey’s person, and the pronouns were implemented at the beginning of each chapter so that Carey would not have to worry about being misgendered, or having to explain themselves.
Carey’s relationship with their grandmother was one of my favorites in the book. How did you develop that and why did you decide to have them share a love of singing?
Carey’s grandmother was based on my own grandmother, who was my best friend when she was alive. For a long time, I was her only grandchild, so we developed a close bond for most of my young childhood. She was diagnosed with dementia while I was living at home in my mid-20s, and for years I helped my mom and aunts take care of her. I watched as the dementia progressed into full-blown Alzheimers and throughout it all, there was one thing that she always responded to—music.
The entire backstory in the book of Carey’s grandmother being a nightclub singer who was discovered by a record label executive who died before he could sign her is my actual grandmother’s backstory. The way my own grandmother always reacted to Mariah Carey’s “My All” and would sing to, for, and with me also made it into the book. My grandmother passed away in 2016, and I gave the eulogy at her funeral, most of which was used in the book. When she passed, my aunt gave me a letter that she wrote to me before her dementia had gotten too bad, and it said that she knew I would be a published author one day. So, in many ways, this was a love letter of sorts to her.
I adore that this story has on-the-page therapy and shows how helpful therapy can be for Carey. Why did you want to show that, and did you have to do any research to understand how a therapist might react to what Carey is dealing with?
Two words: Normalize therapy. I grew up in a family who often said really harmful, ableist, misguided statements like, “You don’t need therapy, you’re not crazy.” And the older I got, and the more conversations I had with other people about therapy, the more I realized that way too many people held harmful ideas about the purpose and importance of therapy, but I also knew that many people my age were secretly in therapy. There seemed to be this stigma, and it persists today in many ways, though less so than before. I really wanted to normalize therapy, to make it realistic and approachable. We need to have better representation when it comes to caring for and destigmatizing mental health.
Making the decision to pursue therapy was the healthiest and strongest decision I’ve ever made, especially as a queer person. That’s why it was important for Carey to not just say they’re going to therapy, but to actually show real therapy sessions, as good and frustrating as they are, since so much of therapy relies on the person receiving therapy to do the work of untangling and processing. Much of the conversations between Dr. Potter, Carey’s therapist, and Carey are based on what I learned from years of therapy, and one of the mantras Dr. Potter gives to Carey is one that my therapist gave to me. I’m also married to a psychotherapist, so I’ve consulted him on my on-the-page therapy scenes, and he’s challenged me and made sure that the therapist’s dialogue was as authentic as it could be, given narrative constraints and pacing.
Do you have any advice for people who want to make a difference in their community the way Carey and their friends do, especially young people?
Anyone can make a difference in their community. You don’t need to be a Phoebe Wright (the real MVP of Can’t Take That Away) or a Carey Parker and lead a protest, though if you have it in you, we always need revolutionaries. The best way to start is by doing the work and educating yourself. Take a stand when, say, someone in your family or friend group says something racist, queerphobic, xenophobic, etc. Immerse yourself in research and media about systemic discrimination and the white heteronormative patriarchal power structures that oppress marginalized communities. Take the initiative to learn about the ways in which white supremacy and heteronormativity (particularly the intersection of both) perpetuate toxic behaviors in our everyday lives. Actively work to unlearn the destructive mentalities that keep marginalized communities oppressed. Once you understand the insidious ways these power structures operate, you can start to educate others and find like-minded people to help make community-wide change. But it starts small, at home and with your friends.
At the end of Can’t Take That Away, there’s an extra credit English essay written by Phoebe Wright wherein she breaks down how she, Carey, and their friends planned the protest; it sort of functions as a de facto How-To guide for teens who want to take action.
If you could come up with your dream panel to promote this book, what would it be about? What other authors might you want to have on it with you?
Okay, we’re going to absolutely reach for whatever is beyond the stars here since you said “dream panel.” I would call it “#LetCareySing” and it would be about community activism and music and what inspires us to make art and change. It would feature Mariah Carey at the center of the table (next to me of course) in front of a silent wind machine surrounded by stacks of her memoir The Meaning Of Mariah Carey.
The dream panel would also include Jason June, Ryan La Sala, Mark Oshiro, Angie Thomas, Mason Deaver, and Julie Murphy. Basically, because they’re all such beautiful and powerful inspirations, and the fabulousness would be too much. I would probably faint from the sheer star power of all of these amazing writers, so I might not even make it to the panel.
What other books do you think Can’t Take That Away is in conversation with? Do you have any recommendations for published or forthcoming books, particularly YA?
I would definitely say that Can’t Take That Away is in conversation with Mason Deaver’s I Wish You All the Best, Ray Stoeve’s Between Perfect and Real, Mark Oshiro’s Anger Is A Gift, Jeff Garvin’s Symptoms of Being Human, and Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’. I also think fans of Leah Johnson’s You Should See Me in a Crown and Phil Stamper’s The Gravity of Us would really like Can’t Take That Away. Would it be too extra of me if I also said Mariah Carey’s memoir? Personally, I think it’s the perfect diva companion and the youth of today need to understand the power of the Queen.
As far as book recommendations, I have to give it up for all of the debut authors coming out in 2021: This year will blow minds with talent. So much incredible talent and I’m honestly humbled to be among such legends. J.Elle’s Wings of Ebony, Jason June’s Jay’s Gay Agenda, Nicolas DiDomizio’s Burn It All Down, Crystal Maldonado’s Fat Chance, Charlie Vega, Ray Stoeve’s Between Perfect and Real, Emery Lee’s Meet Cute Diary, Daniel Aleman’s Indivisible, Jessica Lewis’s Bad Witch Burning. Honestly, how much time and space do we have because I can go on and on…
What’s one question you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
“If readers could take away one thing from Can’t Take That Away, what would it be?”
That there is beauty and joy and hope on the other side of pain. I hope Can’t Take That Away finds its way into the hands of queer readers who need it most, especially young genderqueer or nonbinary folks who never saw themselves reflected in media. Yes, the book has some darker themes and hard, realistic struggles that might be difficult for some readers, and it was written to mirror the trajectory of therapy; that means readers, alongside Carey, are mining and processing the darkness and doing the work to find self-empowerment. So while there is trauma and pain in the book, there’s also so much triumph. I hope readers give Carey a chance and see the joy, take it for themselves, and hold it tight to their chests.
Steven Salvatore is a gay, genderqueer author, educator, Mariah Carey lamb, and Star Wars fanatic who spends most days daydreaming and making up stories. They have an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. They were formerly a full-time Assistant Professor of Composition and Director of the Writing Center at The College of New Rochelle. After the college permanently closed in 2019, they took a step back from teaching full-time to focus on their writing, though they do still teach at a few colleges while running a writing workshop at The LOFT, an LGBT resource center in White Plains, New York. Steven currently lives in Peekskill, New York, with their amazingly patient husband, whose name is also Steve. You can find Steven at stevensalvatore.com and @