By Grete Miller
Today we’re pleased to welcome Tobly McSmith to the WNDB blog to discuss his YA novel Act Cool, out now.
A trans teen walks the fine line between doing whatever it takes for his acting dream and staying true to himself in this moving, thought-provoking YA novel from the acclaimed author of Stay Gold.
Aspiring actor August Greene just landed a coveted spot at the prestigious School of Performing Arts in New York. There’s only one problem: His conservative parents won’t accept that he’s transgender. And to stay with his aunt in the city, August must promise them he won’t transition.
August is convinced he can play the part his parents want while acting cool and confident in the company of his talented new friends.
But who is August when the lights go down? And where will he turn when the roles start hitting a little too close to home?
First of all, congratulations on your newest book, Act Cool! Could you tell the readers of We Need Diverse Books what they can expect from this publication?
You can expect to root for August Greene – he’s a transgender boy going after his dreams. We meet August after he’s run away from his unaccepting family in Pennsylvania and gets accepted into a prestigious performing arts school in New York. This is a story about going after your dreams, trans resilience, and found family.
Where did the inspiration initially come from for this book? What inspired you to set your novel at the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York City?
When August Greene was developing in my head, I knew he would be in New York, and I immediately thought about the school in Fame. I wanted to look at what fame meant to teens now. The school is now called Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art, but when Fame came out in 1980 it was called the “School of Performing Arts”. I went with that because my storyline didn’t fit the schedule of LaGuardia.
Before the pandemic, I attended some events at LaGuardia’s huge theater. I would sneak out and walk the hallways. I interviewed a drama teacher, her class, students and ex-students. I went to public school in Texas, so my experience was different. I thought about what going to high school with a thousand-seat theater right by Lincoln Center, Juilliard, and the Metropolitan Opera House would feel like. The pressure to be the best must be palpable.
Can you talk about the process of coming up with the title for your book?
Yes, let’s talk titles! I worked in publishing for sixteen years before “retiring” to write full time. I’ve always been obsessive about titles and covers. I look at trends, keywords, and even count syllables. Stay Gold was my mantra while coming out as transgender so that title was automatic. I knew I wanted to keep the two-word thing. August puts on acts for his audience—he’s the cool guy, the class clown, the flirty guy. I did the same thing. I was always acting cool. And it was two syllables, like Stay Gold.
Act Cool is your sophomore novel. How did it feel to set out to write this after your success with Stay Gold?
Someone told me to write my second book before the first one comes out. I don’t remember who or why, but I listened. I wrote Act Cool during the pandemic when theater was shut down, which is bittersweet. I was alone in my apartment in New York City dealing with OCD. I would write late into the night, and it was a needed escape. Not to be dramatic but writing Act Cool is what got me out of bed every day.
At the beginning of Act Cool, you mention that this is a book is about big dreams, the work that goes into them, and the people who help you along the way. Who are some of the people who inspired you and supported you in your journey as you pursued your dreams?
My family. Especially Mom and Stepdad. I feel grateful for their support and love. Both Stay Gold and Act Cool feature parents who are not as accepting. I promised my mom that book three would have awesome parents. My heart goes out to those with unaccepting parents, and I want them to feel seen and less alone.
The most important person in my life is my best friend. Bob and I have been writing partners for over fifteen years. We’ve written nine musical parodies that have played Off-Broadway in NYC and traveled around the world.
Dreams involve a lot of work. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson once said, “the road to success and greatness is paved with consistent hard work.” And as usual, The Rock is right. Nothing is easy, but nothing is impossible.
Can you tell us about a few of your career highlights or moments that have greatly affected your career?
For theater, there’s so many special moments. Theater is hard work. But every time there’s an audience watching one of our shows—and this has probably happened a couple thousand times—that makes it all worth it. For writing, it was Stay Gold. I always wanted to write a book, but I went to business school. What did I know about being an author? Luckily, I’m a stubborn Leo, and wrote it anyways. Pony’s story was in me, and I figured out how to get it out on the page. But I am most proud of The Stay Gold Fund. We provide financial assistance for gender affirming health care. I started the fund when I was writing Stay Gold and we’ve raised over $51,000! Stay Gold Fund will be accepting applications for the grants in October! We are going to change some lives.
Act Cool really places a lens on representation and invites readers to participate in an important conversation happening in and outside of the LGBTQIA+ community around identity, visibility, and how queer voices and lived experiences are portrayed to the general public. Can you share more about why we need to keep this conversation going? How can we can grow and improve artistic spaces to be more inclusive and affirming so that queer artists are supported in living their truth and pursuing roles that align with their truth and creative vision?
I ran into so many interesting questions writing Act Cool. What does it mean to be a transgender actor? What characters can transgender actors play? Could a trans man play Rizzo? Should a cis person play a trans person? Why don’t more trans actors play cis characters? This conversation is happening on and off Broadway right now. I wanted to tell a story of an actor figuring it out as the world does too. I don’t have the answers on how to make theater better for trans and non-binary people, but I do have one suggestion: hire more trans and non-binary people to play cisgender characters.
What do you think is the significance of telling a story that is driven by LGBTQIA+ characters, especially trans characters?
My goal for the cisgender readers is to get them know us better. Walk a mile in our shoes. See how it feels for us to enter a bathroom, or get misgendered, or fall in love. For me, understanding comes from empathy and compassion.
My goal for the LGBTQIA+ readers is to feel seen (especially during the hard parts) and less alone. I couldn’t find anyone like me in books or TV, and I felt alone. I’m so happy with the progress we have made.
Who are some of your favorite queer performers or authors that you don’t think get enough attention?
Thomas Page McBee (Man Alive and Amateur) – Thomas is my hero. Everyone read Amateur!
Jackson Bird (Sorted, and YouTube/podcast) – Such a funny and smart guy. He should host Jeopardy.
Lexie Bean (The Ship We Built) – Lexie will have a great writing career.
If you could create your dream theater production, what would it be about? What other actors would invite to join your cast?
My dream is to do Stay Gold the Musical on Broadway. We would have the first transgender male lead on Broadway and inevitably win all the Tonys (or at least a couple). The dream casting would be to hire every trans person who showed up to the audition and pay them a livable wage.
What other books do you see Act Cool as being in conversation with? Do you have any recommendations for published or forthcoming books?
If Act Cool was having a dinner party, it would invite Between Perfect and Real by Ray Stoeve and Can’t Take that Away by Steven Salvatore. The TV show Pose would be invited. Black Flamingo by Dean Atta. Every book by Leah Johnson. What a night that would be!
What is it that draws you to stories about the performing arts? And in particular, theater? As a queer theater geek, I personally really love stories having to do with the arts world and acting, and I feel it’s a magical and fun experience to give readers a view into the real life show backstage.
My second novel was always going to be about theater. I’ve been creating musicals for fifteen years. Write about what you know, right? I wasn’t into theater as a kid; Texas was all about sports. But I love theater now. As frustrating and stressful as it can me, it’s magical.
When August was in Pennsylvania, his parents didn’t accept that he was transgender. His friend asks him to join theater club, and he thinks, “Acting? This will be a piece of cake, I’ve been acting like a girl all my life.” And like me, August falls in love with theater and the family it provides.
There’s something so special about people coming together and making a show happen. Everything I love about theater is in Act Cool. Stories I’ve heard, things I have experienced, it’s all in there. And if you aren’t big into theater, you’ll still love August Greene and his dream.
What’s the best part about writing?
Best part of writing is hearing from readers. It makes my day every time. Second best part is the actual writing. I write late at night. I pace around. Look out the window. I often get distracted. I love sitting here on my laptop, surrounded by cats, writing transgender stories.
What the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Bridget Everett, one of the funniest people in world, says “Dreams don’t have deadlines.” I feel that so much. Stay Gold was published when I was forty. Everyone’s timeline is different. You’re on your journey. Don’t get discouraged because it doesn’t look like someone else’s.
Tobly McSmith is the co-creator/writer of seven somewhat successful musical parodies including Friends! The Musical! (New York, North American Tour, Vegas Residence). Tobly is also the author of Stay Gold, his debut novel. This is his second. Tobly was born in Texas. He now lives in Brooklyn with his two cats, Bam-Bam and Bananas McSmith. Tobly is proud to be transgender.
Grete Miller (she/her/they/them) is an award-winning queer filmmaker and passionate LGBTQIA+ history advocate and activist. Working in product management, DE&I, and storytelling, she views the past and its lessons as roadmaps that can influence positive change for people, policy and products. Miller has worked to craft impactful media, harness storytelling to make the invisible, visible, and create inclusive and accessibility opportunities through creative tech. She has been a contributing writer on DEI in medial and visual storytelling for Curve Magazine and Shutterstock, a global stock media licensing company located in New York City, NY. Her writing has also been published in the lesbian literary journal, Sinister Widsom. In 2020 she co-founded the grass roots group, The Friends of Lyon-Martin House, a history project dedicated to the landmarking and long term preservation of the home of iconic lesbian activists, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin. In 2021 Miller became the chair of the American Library Association’s Rainbow Roundtable’s Archive and Oral History Ad Hoc Committee and founded the Stonewall Book Award Author collection.