Interview – Dahlia Adler on Under The Lights

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Title: Under The Lights

Author: Dahlia Adler

Publisher: Spencer Hill Contemporary

Age range/Genre: YA contemporary

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Josh Chester loves being a Hollywood bad boy, coasting on his good looks, his parties, his parents’ wealth, and the occasional modeling gig. But his laid-back lifestyle is about to change. To help out his best friend, Liam, he joins his hit teen TV show, Daylight Falls … opposite Vanessa Park, the one actor immune to his charms. (Not that he’s trying to charm her, of course.) Meanwhile, his drama-queen mother blackmails him into a new family reality TV show, with Josh in the starring role. Now that he’s in the spotlight—on everyone’s terms but his own—Josh has to decide whether a life as a superstar is the one he really wants.

Vanessa Park has always been certain about her path as an actor, despite her parents’ disapproval. But with all her relationships currently in upheaval, she’s painfully uncertain about everything else. When she meets her new career handler, Brianna, Van is relieved to have found someone she can rely on, now that her BFF, Ally, is at college across the country. But as feelings unexpectedly evolve beyond friendship, Van’s life reaches a whole new level of confusing. And she’ll have to choose between the one thing she’s always loved … and the person she never imagined she could.

Really thrilled with today’s interview! Dahlia Adler, one of my absolute favourite authors, releases the fabulous Cool For The Summer tomorrow. I’ve been a huge fan of Dahlia’s for many years. Under The Lights, published back in 2015, was the book which made me fall in love with her writing. I’m delighted to be interviewing her about Under The Lights, and how the landscape of queer YA has changed since its release.

1. Under The Lights came out nearly six years ago, in June 2015. If you were releasing the book for the first time today, what – if anything – would you do differently, either in terms of writing and/or publicity?

Truthfully, I probably wouldn’t have written the book today, because it’s so far out of my lane. That wasn’t a concept I really grasped when I wrote it nearly a decade ago, though it wasn’t a book I set out to write, either; Vanessa happened to be the secondary character in Behind the Scenes my editor and publisher both wanted to see get a bigger story. So what was going to be just Josh’s book became Josh and Vanessa’s, which really just became Vanessa’s. And publicity is just such a different ball game. I had no idea how to promote a fluffy queer contemporary back then because there were so few, especially starring girls, and there weren’t many sites devoted to such a thing. Were Bookstagram and Booktube even things? I have no idea. But now there are so many amazing sites and bloggers and bookstagrammers and booktubers devoted to queer YA lit, it’d be opened up to wildly different options.

2. Over the last six years, there has been a marked increase in the amount of LGBTQ YA books – with one of the best ways to keep track, of course, being your own LGBTQReads site! Which book, or books, published since Under The Lights do you think would be the best readalike for it?

The self-discovery themes definitely have some mirroring in my upcoming Cool for the Summer, but the LA setting and himbo bestie probably find their match best in The Summer of Jordi Perez, while the Hollywood aspect is most closely mirrored by Going Off Script by Jen Wilde. The first book to come out after it, though, that I would’ve pushed into hands as “If you liked Under the Lights, read this,” was How to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake.

3. In a fabulous interview with Becky Albertalli on Barnes and Noble when UTL was published – readers, check it out here! – you talked about the massive difference in the amount of roles available in Hollywood for your two leads, Josh, a white guy, and Vanessa, a queer Asian woman. This difference is one of the main driving forces for Vanessa’s character, informing her choices to a large degree. Do you think there’s been a positive move forward over the last few years when it comes to Asian representation on screens?

It’s impossible not to say “positive” because Van’s storyline was inspired by the fact that I couldn’t think of anyone to fancast for her – I had to use “Jamie Chung when she was first on Real World” – and now there are a few actresses out there in this space (like Lana Condor, thanks largely to Jenny Han and To All the Boys.) But positive is extremely relative, and just because, say, two is a higher number than zero doesn’t mean “OK, we’re good now.” There are still a zillion more roles for a Josh out there than there are for a Vanessa, but I really hope that as long as Asian authors keep absolutely crushing it in YA, we’ll get to see them bring more and more of their characters to the screen. Who wouldn’t kill to see a Lyla Lee or Malinda Lo or Lori Lee or Axie Oh or Gloria Chao or Cindy Pon or Stacey Lee or Mary HK Choi or Stephan Lee character come to life??

4. I know you’ve mentioned – including in that interview above – that one of your favourite scenes to talk about in UTL is the sex scene between Vanessa and Brianna, when you chose NOT to fade to black. At the time, it was one of the very few queer sex scenes I’d read in a YA novel in which the author made this choice. Do you think that there’s been a shift to these kind of scenes becoming more common since 2015, or is it still something we could do with seeing more of?

There has absolutely been a shift. At the time, I think it was the only YA in print with a non-fade to black sex scene between two girls who actually got a happy ending. Now we even have a queer version of Judy Blume’s Forever in Robin Talley’s Our Own Private Universe that discusses dental dams. I think it’s something we need to keep seeing on an ongoing basis, and we do! But I don’t think sex needs to be in every book, just like it’s not part of life for every teen or even adult. I just want teens who are curious, who need the language, who enjoy the representation, and who just straight-up want to read about people having sex the way so many of us did as teens to be able to do that in a way that’s meaningful to them and their lives.

5. While I know LGBTQ rep is massively important to you, you’re also pretty much the most knowledgeable person around when it comes to YA books in general. Do you think that YA as an age category overall is in a better, or worse, place than it was back in 2015? And why?

Absolutely better, which also yields the problem that it leads a lot of people to think “OK, we’ve improved! We’re done now!” and they’re not looking at the gaps that still remain. But in 2015, Luna was still The trans YA book. We didn’t have collections that showed a diversity of representation within specific marginalizations, like we do now with Black Enough and All Out and It’s a Whole Spiel. We had so little queer lit by authors of color because it was still “too much” to have an author be queer and Latinx or queer and Black, and then authors like Adam Silvera blew that wide open. And fantasy was so heavily dominated by white girls in gowns, I don’t think the industry could’ve envisioned the massive success of books like Children of Blood and Bone and The Wrath and the Dawn. I don’t think we had a Black trans lead from a major published until…2019? We’re still constantly having firsts. But at least we’re having them, and we really, really were not in 2015.

6. I have a really bad feeling I know the answer to this one, but asking just in case! Are we likely to ever see another novel, or short story, in the Daylight Falls series?

I did start to write a little short story for fun, once! It was about the whole group going on a trip to Italy together. I forgot why. It got like two scenes long before I abandoned it but it was nice to spend a little more time with those characters, at least!

7. Looking back at Under The Lights, what are you proudest of about the book?

Two things: the sex scene, which is honestly still my personal favorite queer sex scene in YA, and the friendship between Josh and Vanessa, especially the way that even though he technically have equal screen time, he really serves her story.

8. It’s been an incredible 6 years, looking back at the amazing books you’ve released during that time, and the growth of LGBTQReads! What will the next 6 bring? I know we have two more anthologies to look forward to, along with Cool For The Summer, all of which I’m incredibly excited about – can you give us any hints about what else you have planned?

Right now I’m working on my next f/f YA romance, which is between an aspiring cheer captain and the school’s first female football player, and I hope we’ll be seeing that in 2022! And I’m not sure when I’ll publish it, but I’ve also been working on an adult Chanukah rom-com novella with a Modern Orthodox main character that I really love, so I’m looking forward to getting that out there too, whenever I can find a moment to breathe!

They sound amazing! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me, Dahlia. And happy release week for the incredible Cool For The Summer!

Photo Credit: Maggie Hall

Dahlia Adler is an Editor of mathematics by day, a Buzzfeed blogger and LGBTQReads overlord by night, and a Young Adult author at every spare moment in between. Her novels include the Daylight Falls duology, Just Visiting, the Radleigh University trilogy, and the upcoming Cool for the Summer (Wednesday Books, 2021); she is the editor of the anthologies His Hideous Heart (a Junior Library Guild selection) and That Way Madness Lies (Flatiron Books, 2021); and her short stories can be found in the anthologies The Radical Element, All Out, and It’s a Whole Spiel. Dahlia lives in New York with her family and an obscene number of books, and can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @MissDahlELama.

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