Robin Talley opens up about her optimistic queer teen romance, OUR OWN PRIVATE UNIVERSE!
Author Robin Talley didn’t write Our Own Private Universe (out 1/31) in response to last year’s election, but the book about teens discovering their sexuality, seeing the world through a new lens, and developing stances on important issues feels incredibly relevant in 2017.
The novel follows Aki, a bisexual teen from a religious upbringing who starts her first female relationship on a mission trip to Mexico. While Aki and Christa fall in love, their environment helps teach them some unexpected lessons. Aki and her youth group’s new look at the world helps them form opinions on the big issues, even the ones that don’t affect them. The result is a touching queer girl romance that doesn’t shy away from divisive topics surrounding sex, acceptance, and equal rights.
We had the opportunity to ask Robin Talley a few exclusive questions about Our Own Private Universe. Take a look at her answers below!
What inspired you to write Our Own Private Universe and how did you develop the story?
Unlike a lot of my books, this one has a very easy-to-pinpoint inspiration, and it’s another book ― Judy Blume’s classic, Forever. I first read Forever in middle school, when all my friends were passing it back and forth in secret and whispering about it during music class. It’s a frank depiction of a girl’s first time falling in love and her first sexual experiences with her new boyfriend. I always wished, though, I could read another book just like it, but about queer girls. Then it occurred to me ― well, I could always try to write one myself. So that’s how Our Own Private Universe got its start.
Aki first explores her sexuality on a mission trip to Mexico. Why was the change of scenery so important to her journey?
When you’ve stepped outside of your usual life ― whether that’s because you’re in a different place or with a different group of people or simply because you’re not following your typical routine ― it can be easy to imagine that the “rules” you normally follow no longer apply. Something like a summer trip can feel like a good opportunity to try new things, to take risks you’d normally shy away from. In Aki’s case, this trip represents a great excuse to test out various things she’s been thinking about back home, but that she’s been too nervous to act on until now.
What inspired you to tell Aki’s story through the lens of a religious upbringing?
I had a religious upbringing myself, and I feel like it’s something you don’t see all that often in YA books, at least compared to how frequently it’s the reality for a lot of teens. And for queer teenagers, growing up in a religious family often plays a major role in understanding your own sexuality, even if, like Aki, your religious group isn’t particularly anti-gay. So that seemed like a natural fit for this story, and it’s been part of my vision of Aki’s character from the very beginning.
What was your favorite part of writing Aki and Christa’s relationship?
I really enjoyed writing the scenes where the two of them are happy together. Not that the whole book is a 100% happy story, of course ― the characters face plenty of trials and tribulations ― but it’s still such a delight to get to write about queer girls who are genuinely making each other happy. There’s definitely a place for tragedy in YA, straight and queer alike, but we’ve already seen so many queer tragedies for so many years in all media (not to mention real life) that it was incredibly refreshing to write about a relationship between two girls who really just want to make it work, one way or another.
Did you feel that the publishing industry is making progress regarding the inclusion of LGBTQIA+ narratives in literature?
Definitely ― though, of course, there’s still a long way to go. There are more kidlit books being published than ever before with LGBTQIA+ characters, and we’re starting to see better equivalency too. (For example, it used to be that there were far more YA books about gay male characters than female characters, but that seems to be evening out a little more now.) All of which is amazing. When I was a teen desperately looking for representation of characters like me, I never could’ve dreamed that someday, there would be this many books featuring non-straight, non-cisgender teen characters.
However, we still need better promotion for these books, many of which wind up slipping under the radar, buried by the “big” books that get most of the publishing industry’s marketing dollars (most of which are still about straight, cisgender main characters). We need to get these books into the hands of the teen readers who need them ― which means putting them in schools and libraries and making sure teachers, librarians and booksellers know about them and can direct readers to them.
And in the books themselves, we still need more intersectionality across the board ― more LGBTQIA+ characters who are people of color, who are disabled, who are immigrants, who are from low-income families, etc. We also need more trans and nonbinary characters, and representation is still too low for bi, pan, ace, and intersex characters. And we need to publish more books by authors from all of these backgrounds, too.
Our Own Private Universe doesn’t shy away from politics in any form. What made you decide to discuss a wide range of current topics rather than keeping a smaller focus? How did you decide which topics would be featured in the book’s big debate?
First, I should probably note that I wrote Our Own Private Universe well before Election Day 2016, and I had no idea at that point what the future held. Aki and her friends are much more optimistic about the world overall than they probably would’ve been if I were writing the story today. Which is really, really depressing. But, well, here we are.
As for the debate the characters hold at the end of the book, and the range of issues they discuss ― Aki is a newbie to politics. It’s never interested her until this summer, when suddenly she’s seeing up close the impact of issues she’s only ever thought about in the abstract. So for her, learning about the whole range of issues is very eye-opening. To determine the topics included in the debate itself, I tried to think of what teenagers would potentially be interested in voluntarily researching and arguing about while on their summer vacation. (Which wasn’t easy.)
Let’s talk about the art of writing itself. Where do you prefer to get your writing done? Did you use music as a source of inspiration? Are you a planner or a “pants-er”?
I’m very much a planner. I make incredibly detailed outlines before I start writing, and I always have an Excel doc open with my outline, list of characters, etc. at the same time that I have a Word doc open to write. (A lot of writers use Scrivener instead, but it’s just not for me.) I don’t write to music, but I do like the white noise-ish effect of writing in coffee shops and similar public places. I do a lot of my writing in my local library, and when the library is closed I go to the Panera across the street. Which sometimes gets awkward, when I’m Googling something like “What does a drowned body look like?” for research when I’m sitting next to strangers who can see my screen. (And I should specify that particular search is for a future book. There are no drownings in Our Own Private Universe! Just lots of kissing, mostly.)
Our Own Private Universe hits bookshelves on January 31, 2017. You can pre-order now via Amazon!
About the Author: Robin Talley, author of Lies We Tell Ourselves (September 2014), What We Left Behind (October 2015), As I Descended (September 2016), and Our Own Private Universe (January 2017), grew up in Roanoke, Virginia. A Lambda Literary Fellow, Robin now lives in Washington, D.C., with her wife, plus an antisocial cat and a goofy hound dog. When Robin’s not writing, she’s often planning communication strategies at organizations fighting for equal rights and social justice.
Follow Robin on social media: Website | Goodreads | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram | Tumblr