Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Before we were able to call upon director Greg Berlanti’s LOVE, SIMON to give us the heartswells, it was author Becky Albertalli who put pen to paper creating such an indelible character with such an important story. Her book Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda opened readers’ hearts to a compelling coming-of-age, story of Simon Spiers’ trials and tribulations over coming out to his family and friends. The novel became a smashing success – one that won book awards (like the William C. Morris Debut Award and longlisted for the National Book Award) and also had Hollywood knocking on her door.
I recently spoke with the thoughtful author over the phone during her recent press tour, where we chatted about everything from riding the wave of critical acclaim twice, to what made her write a character so unlike herself, to rebutting Time’s recent “think piece” on if gay teens still need entertainment like this.
So many authors I know write stories that aren’t necessarily about themselves. Tell me about writing Simon and what made you want to tell his story. Was there a defining moment that made you want to take this leap?
There wasn’t, but I wish there was because that would make a nice “birth of a story” narrative. Ultimately the books very much start with their characters. It’s interesting you mentioned that a lot of authors write people who are not like them. I get that question a lot: ‘What was it like writing a character who’s so different from you?’ My answer to that is I wouldn’t know. There are some very observable, obvious differences between us but he’s fundamentally a version of me – his voice and his internal monologue. The whole environment is based on my hometown, my high school, my childhood and my family. It’s certainly not exactly the same and it’s not the characters – they tend to be a mix of different people. There are moments in that book that made it into the movie that are directly lifted from my own life, from my own high school journals.
When people ask, I think one of the things they are getting at is what it takes to write from the perspective of a gay teenage boy when I’ve never been a gay teenage boy certainly. It’s kind of complicated. My answer to that has kind of evolved over time. In 2013, when I wrote the book, I had been working as a clinical psychologist – very early career. I specialized working with teenagers and worked a lot with teens and kids from the LGBTQ community, in particular. However, every time I say that, I want to underline and put in bold print that Simon is not based on any of my clients. That would be a horrible thing for a psychologist. He’s very much me, but, I’d say those experiences gave me a general understanding to what that community of teenagers was grappling with at that time.
That said, the conversation around books and media has evolved in the last couple of years in ways that are really interesting and important. Certainly when I wrote this book, I didn’t ever think I’d be published. My 2013 self, writing this book has no idea what’s coming. I don’t know that I would’ve taken on this story now just kind of following the conversation around who has the right to tell what story.
It’s sticky. I’m happy this story is told.
Thank you. I try to be open to all kinds of feedback on that. I’ve heard from a lot of teenagers over the years who are glad it exists. It’s also incredibly important for stories like this to also be lifted up coming from the communities they’re about. The train has already left the station with Simon, so my hopes for this movie are, first of all, the film is Greg Berlanti’s baby. Everything about Simon that’s not me is him. And told through his personal experiences, which gives the movie a really special extra layer of authenticity. The second thing too is, god forbid, this is the gay teen romcom. I want there to be more and more movies like this. I do hope a lot of them can bring in perspectives I wasn’t able to with Simon.
What’s been the most memorable response? You’re now riding two waves of receptions for this book, which, I’d imagine, is kind of surreal.
It is! Very surreal. I’m still adjusting. It’s hard to pinpoint one, or something I could go into too much detail about because a lot of the most meaningful responses that have been shared with me aren’t mine to tell because they are coming out stories. A lot of people have shared with me they’ve come out because of Simon, or maybe it hasn’t been safe to come out, but they’ve felt less alone because of Simon. Every reader’s responses mean a lot to me for different reasons, but those really take my breath away.
Take me back to the day when you got the call from the powers that be, who wanted to turn your book into a movie. What went through your head?
It kind of was. I was on a play date – at Barnes and Noble and my friend who’s an author, we have five little boys between us. I have a five-year-old and three-year-old. These kids were running around like crazy and I get a call that – things had already been moving by this point – Fox wants to option this. So my friend kept all the kids from running into the street. I was really, really excited, but also really realistic. There are a lot of hurdles that come with this process. I knew that most projects die in development. I didn’t think they were going to make this movie. They had cast the whole movie and I still didn’t believe they were going to make it until I walked into the production office. I think there’s a little part of me still waiting for Friday when it officially comes out where, yeah, they made the movie. It’s so weird.
How active were you involved in the adaptation process? And did you want to be because this is, figuratively, another child.
I did want to be, but at the same time I wanted to put my trust in a team that knows more about moviemaking than I do. I’m a mom from the suburbs. They were like, ‘Do you want to write the script?’ I’m like, ‘No.’ I’m not a producer on it, but they were very welcoming to my input on pretty much everything. I knew from the beginning this was a team I could trust with my material. They didn’t prove me wrong.
With any adaptation you gain things and you lose things. Was there anything that was difficult to let go? Or are these two separate entities?
I’m very at peace and excited about the changes. It’s a different interpretation and that’s really cool. My friend describes the book and the film adaptation as “fraternal twins,” which that resonates with me a lot. The book continues to exist so if there are book purists, they still have that. But there’s also this beautiful film with some changes that I think were necessary changes to make the story work with this different format. I love it with all my heart. I’m so beyond with LOVE, SIMON. The heart of the movie hasn’t changed. I still consider it a very faithful adaptation.
I don’t know if you saw Time.com’s article, questioning if today’s teens “actually need it.” I’m wondering what your feelings are on this?
I understand the point the author is making and part of that point is very valid. There are more stories to tell than Simon’s, whose carries a lot of privilege. I think he comes from a place of knowledge than people are giving him credit for. But yeah, I think he’s kind of underestimating the impact this movie has already had on teens. My thought, when I read that, was like, ‘Oh God. I wish you could see my inbox. I wish you could’ve sat next to me in screenings with the LGBTQ community.’ I think he’s oversimplifying a teen’s gay experience because there’s such a range of experiences. The movie seems to be resonating against a broad set of range.
You’re returning now to tell Leah’s story in greater detail with Leah On The Offbeat. What was it about her that made her not let go of you?
I felt with Leah, if I ever ended up writing a sequel to Simon, that I’d want to do it from Leah’s point of view. I think I mostly felt like her story was mostly unfinished. I just, personally love writing love stories. Leah’s single at the end of Simon and that’s an opportunity.
Header photo: Nick Robinson in LOVE, SIMON. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.