The Messy, Complicated In-Between, a guest post by Katie Cotugno
Twelve or thirteen years ago I heard a piece on NPR about an engaged couple who were members of a conservative religious group and weren’t allowed to have any physical contact at all until the day they were married. I’ll be honest: I was expecting a pretty bleak courtship story, bracing myself for some kind of patriarchal purity culture BS, but when I heard the host interview the husband-to-be, I have to admit the whole thing actually sounded the tiniest bit romantic. Here were two people who’d gotten to know each other intimately—who’d had deep conversations and shared secrets and legitimately fallen in love—without ever so much as holding hands.
“Right now,” the man said, “the basic complication is that we can’t touch each other.”
Oh, I thought, my ears perking up. I reached for a pen and scrawled the quote in my notebook, where I’d return to it again and again over the years as I tried to figure out what to do with it. That is a very good complication.
The two main characters in my new book, You Say It First, live eight hours apart—Meg in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Colby in rural Ohio—but they may as well have grown up in completely different dimensions. Meg’s headed for the Ivy League; Colby barely graduated high school. Meg’s laptop is covered with campaign stickers, while Colby is less than convinced by cheery idealism. They “meet” when she dials his parents’ landline from her job at a voter registration call center: they bicker, they banter, he bests her, she calls him back. They fall in love—or something like it—over the course of long, meandering, sometimes tough conversations that challenge them both to rethink certain inalienable truths about themselves and what they believe. Their relationship thrives in that strange, liminal space, an invisible phone line tethering them together.
Grounding those feelings in the reality of their day-to-day lives—their families, their friends, their communities—proves to be a little bit trickier.
“I don’t know,” I said, when I first started toying with the idea of a project that touched, however lightly, on politics. “I’m not interested in writing a book about, like, two white people debating abortion. And I definitely don’t want to write about how we might believe different things, but deep down in our purest hearts we’re all really the same and all opinions are created equal.”
Because here’s the thing: I don’t think all opinions are created equal. I don’t even think all opinions are valid. And I certainly don’t believe in meeting in the middle for the sake of keeping an uneasy peace.
But I do think that part of being a human is navigating messy, complicated relationships with people whose experiences are different than yours are. And part of growing up is realizing you don’t know everything you thought you knew.
That was the problem with Meg, Colby laments at one point in the novel. He could never manage to feel just one thing about her at a time.
I think that’s a very good complication, too.
I’ve been thinking about Meg and Colby a lot lately, both as I try to figure out how to launch a book during a pandemic and as I’ve watched that first basic complication—we can’t touch each other—become literal in a way that never occurred to me as I was writing. The last few months have laid bare all the fissures in our society we try so hard to ignore, drawing a big fat circle around the ways in which the random luck of people’s circumstances dictates their privilege, their prospects, the sturdiness of their safety nets, their chances of survival.
I knew I was writing a book for an election year. I didn’t realize I was writing a book for a quarantine, too.
Here is what I know to be true: we’re not all the same deep down in our purest hearts, and we’re not all weathering this storm from the same boat. But as we say goodbye to our old world and wait for the new one to reveal itself, I wonder if there’s a way for us to reach out and connect with each other in this strange place in between.
Meet Katie Cotugno
Katie Cotugno is the New York Times bestselling author of Top Ten, 99 Days, 9 Days and 9 Nights, and How to Love. She is also the coauthor, with Candace Bushnell, of Rules for Being a Girl. Katie studied writing, literature, and publishing at Emerson College and received her MFA in fiction at Lesley University. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee whose work has appeared in Iowa Review, Mississippi Review, and Argestes, among others. She lives in Boston with her husband, Tom. You can visit Katie online at www.katiecotugno.com.
Find Katie’s book at Frugal Bookstore and wherever books are sold.
About You Say It First
An addictive, irresistible YA novel about two teens from different worlds who fall for each other after a voter registration call turns into a long-distance romance—from Katie Cotugno, the New York Times bestselling author of 99 Days. Perfect for fans of Mary H.K. Choi, Robin Benway, and Nicola Yoon.
One conversation can change everything.
Meg has her entire life set up perfectly: she and her best friend, Emily, plan to head to Cornell together in the fall, and she works at a voter registration call center in her Philadelphia suburb. But everything changes when one of those calls connects her to a stranger from small-town Ohio.
Colby is stuck in a rut, reeling from a family tragedy and working a dead-end job. The last thing he has time for is some privileged rich girl preaching the sanctity of the political process. So he says the worst thing he can think of and hangs up.
But things don’t end there.…
That night on the phone winds up being the first in a series of candid, sometimes heated, always surprising conversations that lead to a long-distance friendship and then—slowly—to something more. Across state lines and phone lines, Meg and Colby form a once-in-a-lifetime connection. But in the end, are they just too different to make it work?
You Say It First is a propulsive, layered novel about how sometimes the person who has the least in common with us can be the one who changes us most.
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/16/2020
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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