Happy Sunday! For today’s #BeyondTheBio, Jatziry chats with poet Billy Merrell, whose new book Vanilla is a breathtaking exploration of evolving love. Hunter and Vanilla came out together and have been dating since middle school, but high school seems to be pulling them in separate directions. This beautiful book deserves to be on your bookshelf, which is why we’re giving away a copy! Stick around until the end of the interview to find out how you can win! Plus, you'll get to read an original poem from Jatziry herself! Let’s get to the interview.
Jatziry: Hey Billy! I loved absolutely everything about Vanilla, from the writing style to the different characters! Can you tell our readers what it’s about?
Billy: Thank you! Vanilla is about self-discovery. Two gay boys who have been dating since middle school face their first big test as a couple. Hunter feels ready to have sex and Vanilla doesn’t share the feeling. What begins as a minor conflict grows between them. Emotions are stoked by a sexually active gay group whose ringleader, Clown, also has feelings for Hunter. But nothing is entirely as it seems. Told in poems, through alternating perspectives, Vanilla lets us see each of these boys at heart-level as they begin to understand each other, and themselves. It’s tender.
Jatziry: One of the funniest aspects of this novel was the popular gay clique known as “The Gang.” They brought so much excitement into the story and I loved the parties they planned! How did you come up with the idea of this group, or did you ever come across a group like them before?
Billy: I’m glad you think so! The Gang rose out of my vision of Clown/Angel, and their relationship with Abercrombie. The poem that introduces them was among the first poems I wrote when drafting the book, and I definitely leaned on them heavily for comic effect—especially when the relationships were at their most strained.
Jatziry: Your novel features several characters struggling with their sexuality. Which character best represents your own experience?
Billy: I definitely set out to write myself into Vanilla. The way he sees himself is very much how I saw myself in high school: timid around sexuality because I didn’t entirely understand myself. All I knew was I didn’t often relate to how my peers talked about sex. But the more I discovered Vanilla by writing him, the less he was me. He is his own character. And yet writing him, learning about asexuality, I began to understand my own place on the ace spectrum, closer to demisexual. It was Vanilla who helped me see myself more clearly, to have a word for it.
Jatziry: Your novel incorporates both gender fluidity and asexuality, both of which aren’t very commonly addressed in other YA books. Why was it important to you to highlight some of these less-discussed sexualities?
Billy: Unless we’re honest and specific about diversity and how blended experience truly is, we’re all going to fall through the cracks. No one is entirely one thing, and nothing else. It makes perfect sense to me that we’re all somewhere between extremes, a balance that makes us uniquely us. All of life exists in a spectrum: tall to short, dark to light, broad to slim, gradients of eye color—why not gender? And why not sexuality itself, from a strong force chemically in a person to not so much, thanks? Asexual people exist, and are therefore interesting to talk about. I hope all of the books I write show identity itself as fluid, hybrid, and self-actualizing.
Jatziry: Do you have any advice for teens in the LGBTQIA+ community who are struggling?
Billy: Be happy with who you are, and search out the people who understand you. There is nothing wrong with you. Know that.
Jatziry: Vanilla is a powerful book for teens facing problems in their relationship while also trying to find their identity. Can you give our readers some LGBTQIA+ book recommendations that you love?
Billy: Surely! The poetry of Mark Doty, Carl Phillips, Marilyn Hacker, Eileen Myles. For teens, Every Day and Two Boys Kissing are favorites by David Levithan. For adults, I loved Garth Greenwall’s What Belongs to You, and Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters.
Jatziry: One of my favorite things about Vanilla is how it’s written entirely in poetry form. I’m a big poetry writer myself, so I’ve got to ask... What’s the best part about writing poetry?
Billy: I love the emotional density of poetry. It’s perfect for conveying the intensity of complicated feelings, and all of those ah-ha moments of transcendence or self- discovery—what the poetry world calls epiphanies. It’s what I most often read, and so it’s my more natural mode. I’m glad you love writing poetry, too. Go team!
Jatziry: I read on your website that you’ve designed covers for some poetry books. Vanilla has one of most beautiful covers I’ve ever seen! What are some other YA book covers you really admire?
Billy: Thank you! I love it, too. It was designed by Nina Goffi, whose work I love. She also designed The Porcupine of Truth by Bill Konigsberg, among other favorites. Recent favorite YA covers? Release by Patrick Ness and Sparrow by Sarah Moon.
Jatziry: I absolutely love your poetry, and I can’t wait to read more of it! Do you have any new poetry collections in the works?
Billy: I’ve been writing up a storm, yes. I hope I’m able to share more of it with you very soon!
That’s it for today’s interview, but don’t leave just yet! Jatziry's a budding teenage poet, and we wanted to use this opportunity to share one of her original works. It's a response to those adults who dismiss teenage voices because of their age and seems especially relevant right now in light of the #NeverAgain movement.
i speak and you stare me down
furious that i used my own voice to be heard
you tell me opinions are only for adults
that i am not old enough to understand
that maybe one day
i will get a chance to speak my words
that day is today
i will climb up every skyscraper in sight
hike up the tallest mountains
and once i finally reach the top
i will look you straight in the eye
and make you understand that i can speak volumes
when you tried keeping me on mute
If you want to read more of Jatziry's poetry, be sure to check out her poetry blog. But before you leave, be sure to enter to win a copy of Vanilla and nine other new releases as part of our first annual #BookMadness! All you have to do is correctly choose the book that will be left at the end of our month-long #BookMadness tournament. Winner must live on the United States and must guess the winner during this first round. Click the picture below to enter! And don’t forget to come back again next week, when Julie Anne will be interviewing Joelle Charboneau about her pulse-pounding new book, Time Bomb.