When I was writing this book, I knew it had to have a love story in it, because I knew that its main character, Reshma, was obsessed with being the best, and part of being the best in high school is being able to elicit romantic interest from the opposite sex. But I, like my protagonist, don’t have that much romantic experience. And, furthermore, I’m not exactly interested in love-as-love. I’m interested in love-as-status-symbol and love-as-an-entangling-relationship and love as a whole bunch of other things, but the actuality of it–love as a connection between two individuals–is not and was not something that I was hugely interested in writing about.
As such, it’s no surprise that each level of comments on this book (so far, two rounds from my agent and two from my editors at Disney) has included a number of notes on the love interests in this book. And, over time, the love interests have gotten way better! Especially the initial love interest, Aakash, who’s kind of a nerdy Indian kid that Reshma starts dating just because she can. In my initial drafts, he was a little blah. But over time he’s gotten to be much more interesting. He understands her. And, in many ways, he’s similar to her. But he also has a core of integrity. I don’t know, especially in this latest draft, I’m really fascinated by him as a character. Part of me almost wonders if, in the end, he might not be a better match for her.
And I think that’s a relationship which never would’ve come alive if this hadn’t been a YA novel. Because YA is a genre that treats love seriously–just as seriously as teens themselves treat it. It’s kind of a paradox, that our most passionate and intense feelings–our deepest loneliness and most intense longing–come at a time in our life that comes, after the space of years, to feel a little bit trivial. Obviously your teen years aren’t meaningless, but it’s just…you have so little agency when you’re a teen, and it’s hard to feel like anything you do during that time can really matter to you as an adult. I think that my tendency, oftentimes, is to think of the teenage years as a time that can scar you, but not help you, and that the purpose of high school is to emerge with as little damage as possible.
But that’s not what the YA genre is about. Which is, I think, really valuable. If there’s a problem in this world, it doesn’t come from people taking themselves too seriously. In fact, it’s strange how you lose your teenage seriousness as you grow older. When you’re a teen, love is real and alive. And you feel yourself to be so capable of doing so many things. But as you get older, a feeling of impotence sets in. And that impotence manifests itself, in adult writing, as cynicism.
And, to bring it full circle, I think the main benefit of the editing process has been to cleanse a little of the cynicism from my book. Not all of it. Not even most of it. But enough of it that I think it’s more possible, now, to fall in love with these characters.