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Gayle Forman: On Challenging Your Gut

Award-winning author and journalist Gayle Forman discusses the start-and-stop process of writing her new middle grade novel, Frankie & Bug.

Gayle Forman is an award-winning author and journalist whose articles have appeared in numerous publications, including Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, and Elle in the US. Gayle Forman’s novel, If I Stay, was released as a blockbuster movie starring Chloë Grace Moretz in 2014. Her most recent YA novel is We Are Inevitable. Gayle lives in Brooklyn, New York with her family.

Gayle Forman: On Challenging Your Gut

Gayle Forman

In this post, Gayle discusses the start-and-stop process of writing her new middle grade novel, Frankie & Bug, the importance of trusting and challenging your gut instincts, and more!

Name: Gayle Forman
Literary agent: Suzie Townsend
Book title: Frankie & Bug
Publisher: Aladdin
Expected release date: October 12, 2021
Genre/category: Middle Grade fiction
Previous titles: If I Stay; Where She Went; the Just One series; I Was Here; Leave Me; I Have Lost My Way; We Are Inevitable
Elevator pitch for the book: Two tweens become reluctant friends as they set out to investigate a criminal in 1980s Venice Beach, CA. But as they discover truths closer to home, Frankie and Bug wind up learning about justice, fairness, love, and what it means to be an ally.

Gayle Forman: On Challenging Your Gut

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What prompted you to write this book?

In 2013, during a 24-hour flight home from overseas, I reread To Kill A Mockingbird (my daughter’s class was reading it too) and I started thinking about the ways the world had changed, and the ways it remains stubbornly the same—and I suddenly got an idea about a story centered on two young people set in the 1980s. Writing the story in the near past (to me, anyhow) really allowed me to explore the speed with which some injustices have been righted—a hopeful message—while others seem stuck in place, or on a repeat cycle—which I hope can be more of a call to action for young people.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?

I began the book in January of 2013 and turned in the final revision in the fall of 2020. For me, this was a particularly drawn-out process, partly because even though at the time, I had two children who were middle graders, and we read a lot of middle grade literature, it took me a while to find the voice. The first attempts felt labored, precious, an adult’s idea of how kids should sound. But at some point, I stopped trying so hard: I remembered what it was like to be a flawed kid who screwed up, felt lousy about it, lacked the emotional vocabulary to understand it, but nevertheless tried to do the right thing. Then, it was like a flipped switch and Bug’s voice came pouring out of me.

The other reason for the delay was that even though the book is Bug’s coming-of-age story—it’s titled Frankie & Bug as opposed to Bug & Frankie because, as my best friend Libba Bray’s late father would say, it’s more euphonious—Frankie is revealed to be trans. In 1987, being gay was still taboo… and being gender nonconforming? There was no mainstream word to describe this. The friendship between Bug and Frankie had always been the heart of the book but after I finished a draft, trans rights issues started to come to the fore: Caitlyn Jenner came out on the cover of Vanity Fair (2015), shows like Transparent (2014) and Pose (2018) were being made, books like George by trans author Alex Gino were being published (2015).

I didn’t want to trespass into an important conversation that trans people were initiating. So I shelved the book. But then the world changed again: Transphobic bills began passing in state legislatures, desperate immigrants were being demonized for seeking refuge in the US, and the book’s message about allyship and intersectionality—that it’s up to all of us to push for a more just world for all of us—felt more relevant than ever. And not long after that, I got an email from Kristin Gilson….

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

The great surprise, and joy, of this book was the reunion with my editor, Kristin Gilson. Kristin was my paperback editor at Penguin and she and I became friends through the years. She knew about Frankie & Bug way back when, because I’d asked if her trans son might be one of my authenticity readers.

When Kristin landed at Aladdin, and emailed she was looking specifically for middle-grade fiction with nonbinary characters, I just knew this book had found its time and its home. I invited her to lunch. She asked me about my middle-grade novel and I said: “You’re going to publish it.”

And that’s how it went. We didn’t submit anywhere else. I knew it had to be with her.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

This is the first book I’ve set in my hometown of Los Angeles, and it was incredible how Venice came alive as a character, how much I loved being back there. I recently went back to Venice and was surprised by how so much still felt like Bug and Frankie’s world.

The biggest surprise—more of a revelation—came from one of my early authenticity readers, a trans man who really broke the book open for me, changing how I saw the entire story when he pointed out all the ways Bug kept trying to help Frankie, and messing up because she was seeing his needs through her own eyes (she’s 10!). This, along with other deep thinking I had been doing about allyship (particularly as a white, cis woman) solidified that this had always been a book about the imperfect, sometimes awkward process of learning to decenter yourself and show up for someone else in the ways they need you to.

Bug and Frankie model this. Do they stumble and screw up? Of course—they’re 10 and 11! But they talk about it, clear the air, ask one another how to do better, and wind up creating a beautiful and important friendship.

Gayle Forman: On Challenging Your Gut

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

For all its heavy-sounding themes, I hope readers will have a blast reading this book. I definitely had so much fun being in Bug and Frankie’s world. I hope readers of all kinds will see how quickly the world can change, but that it rarely changes without collective movements pushing things forward. And I want anyone who fears that there is not a place in the world for them, for whatever reason, to know that their people are out there.

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Listen to your gut, and interrogate your gut.

I kept putting Frankie & Bug away, but the novel kept calling to me. I knew at some point, there would be a time for it, but I listened to my gut for when that time was. Obviously, there is no guarantee I got it right, but I did honor my instinct and I think that counts for something.

At the same time, I thought hard about my instinct, as I have done for years when thinking about who I represent in my work. I have two children, one white, one Black, and I think it’s crucial that both of my kids—and by extension all children— see themselves and each other in fiction. I’m so grateful for We Need Diverse Books, which has, in under a decade, made this so much more of a reality.

Still, I’ve grappled with my place as a white cis writer, dancing around writing outside my own race and sexuality by populating my stories with BIPOC and queer secondary characters. As my daughters grew older, I understood I could not honor them and work to de-center the white, heteronormative experience if I didn’t push past my fear of getting something wrong. (For what it’s worth, I worry about getting things wrong with any of my characters, be they cellists, nurses or actors, but the stakes are different when writing about a marginalized character.)

With gentle nudges from queer readers and author friends of color, and with lots of research to make sure my blind spots were not perpetuating stereotypes, I finally began writing the characters as they appeared to me. 

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