Sunday, November 12, 2023

Q&A with David Valdes




David Valdes is the author of the new young adult novel Finding My Elf. His other books include the YA novel Spin Me Right Round. Also a playwright, he lives in the Boston area.


Q: What inspired you to write Finding My Elf, and how did you create your characters Cam and Marco?


A: Actually, Harper Collins came to me with the idea of holiday rom com for gay teens. A team there had the idea of a grumpy college freshman on the brink of dropping out who finds love as a mall elf during Christmas break.


They'd read my first young adult novel, Spin Me Right Round, and we'd talked about other projects, but this offer came out of the blue. They knew I wanted to uplift queer voices and Latine leads in my work, but had no idea that I am a serious sucker for all things Christmas.


When I asked if I could make the cast as inclusive as I wanted, they said to go for it, and I was off to the races.


Cam is a little like me and lot unlike me all at once. He's Cuban-American and gay, but that's where the similarities stop: he really doesn't have a corny side or a love for Christmas (outside of cookies, which play a big part in the book). He's deeply competitive and easily annoyed by super cheerful people.


For Marco, I chose the part of my personality that would drive Cam crazy: Marco is a natural-born enthusiast, made for joy, and he rolls with the punches, despite the financial struggles he and his mom face. Marco is Filipino, as a nod to several of my gay Filipino friends, who rarely get to see guys like themselves as romantic leads in American stories.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book said, in part, “Via a breezy yet thoughtful approach, and with the boys’ gently blossoming romance inciting warmth and cheer, Valdes conceives a holly-jolly rom-com filled with enough humor, heart, and holiday spirit to deliver an upbeat stocking stuffer.” What do you think of that description?


A: I think it's perfectly on the money.


My last book, Brighter than the Moon, navigated a lot of questions about the fluidity of identity and what it means to fall in love as a queer person, against a backdrop of loss and misunderstanding; Spin Me Right Round was a time travel romp but also a race against a clock to stop a hate crime.


This book is a complete departure: no homophobia, no tragedy, just an old school rom com with new rules--the leads aren't a couple you've seen on the Hallmark channel yet.


It was truly a blast to write and I hope that's how it feels to read. You can devour it in an afternoon by the fire after you take it out of your stocking.


Q: Did you know how the story would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: Harper Collins told me from the get-go that they wanted a happy ending for the boys. They left open what that happy ending might look like, so for me it became a question of whether Cam would go back to his college or stay in town and go to college with Marco. I wrote both versions before deciding.


Also, the plot involves them competing for a cash prize in the mall's Top Elf competition--it was tricky to decide who should win and how that would affect the other. (I wasn't sure myself about the outcome until just before I wrote it!)


Beyond that, I did make things a little overcomplicated, adding two outside love interests for Cam; my editor Stephanie Guerdan wisely noted that one was plenty. That meant killing off one of those two characters in revisions, which in turn allowed me to enrich the one that remained.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: Hopefully, the title is a clue. A play on the idea of finding oneself, the story is as much about Cam growing as a person as about him falling in love. He's both full of himself and full of self-doubt (which, you know, is true of a lot of egotistical people), and his college experience humbles him in ways that allow Marco to help him see life through a new lens.


If readers can see possibility and optimism in their own lives, even after a setback, I'd love that. Secondarily: the book should totally make you want to bake cookies.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I've just mapped out a new young adult novel with a supernatural romance at the heart and I'm working on my first mystery. I'm also a playwright, so I have one show in development and another production in the spring. 


I also know I need to finally write a creative writing textbook -- I've been teaching my own method (which I call the Narrative Trio) for years (currently at Brown, Tufts, and Boston Conservatory). It makes fiction, playwriting, and creative nonfiction accessible for anyone. So, I'm mapping that out now. 


I always have multiple projects in the air because I feel unwell if I'm not writing -- and I mean that literally -- and because not every project gets published or produced. If I'm always writing, there is always a future for my work. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I'll tell you what I'm seeing in my classes and in the YA world: young creators are writing more and more about LGBTQ characters, people of color, and neurodivergent characters, but not just as "issue" stories that focus on identity trauma and hardship.


They're using every genre and mode they can, while populating the worlds they write far more inclusively than we've seen in the past. It makes me hopeful! 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with David Valdes.

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