The following conversation is part of our Beyond The Bio series, featuring conversations with authors we love. If you're a teen who'd like to interview an author, please click here to find out how we can connect you with your favorite YA authors. Today's guests include StoryTimeTeen creator James Tilton and award-winning author Adib Khorram. Adib's newest book, Darius The Great Deserves Better, came out last month.
James: Hey Adib! You know I’m a big fan of Darius, so I was so excited to read your latest novel, Darius The Great Deserves Better, when it hit shelves earlier this year. Can you tell our readers a little bit about what they can expect?
Adib: Sure thing! This story picks up in Darius’s junior year of high school. He’s on the soccer team, dating his first boyfriend (Landon), interning at his favorite tea shop, and thinks he’s got life pretty much figured out. But as he navigates all these new things in his life, he’s finding that some things fit better than others, and that some things he wanted aren’t actually making him happy.
James: The title really warms my heart. As a high school teacher, I find that I’m frequently reminding my students that they deserve better than they’ve been given. And Darius does too. But sometimes, Darius struggles to accept that. Why do you think that is?
Adib: I think our society has told young people that they don’t matter, that their hopes and dreams are irrelevant. We’ve failed to enact gun control laws, we’ve failed to address the climate crisis, we’ve failed to address income inequality. There is an alarming segment of our society that says not only do young people not deserve better, they don’t in fact deserve a future.
James: One of my favorite things about your book is the way that so many of your male characters embody a positive version of masculinity. The world of high school sports can model some pretty toxic behaviors, but Darius and his soccer team gave me hope for a better future. Can you talk a little bit about what being a man means to you?
Adib: I wish I knew! I think even the notion of “being a man” is fraught, and I’m eager for us to move beyond definitions. All that said...for me, right now, being a man means exhibiting a certain presentation of gender that society has decided to prioritize, leveraging that privilege to ensure a more equitable world for everyone.
James: Darius struggles a lot with insecurity. He’s constantly asking the reader if something’s normal. When you were in high school, what’s something that had you asking yourself, “That’s normal. Right?”
Adib: I never drank or did drugs or really even partied when I was in high school. Lots of my friends seemed to. Television and films always seemed to show that kind of stuff, and I always wondered if there was something wrong with me that (a) I didn’t really want to and (b) no one was inviting me anyway. I definitely wondered if I was normal.
James: One of your soccer players was actually named after me, which is kind of intimidating considering I have absolutely zero soccer ability. But I noticed a line in the afterword that made me think I wasn’t the only one: “Hanging out with an author can be hazardous; you never know when you’re going to end up in a book.” Can you tell us about someone else IRL who made it into this book?
Adib: Haha, sure! Pretty much everyone at Rose City Tea (except for Landon) is named after people I know in real life, though I think they’re pretty different from their namesakes. But I like to borrow personality ticks from people, too; Darius’s mom and dad have different dishwashing philosophies which are definitely influenced by dishwashing debates in my own family.
James: Let’s talk about some of my other favorite characters. I love Laleh, and I would die to protect her from those bullies at school. And when she said that she loves The Phantom Tollbooth? Yeah, she’s officially, like, the coolest kid ever. Is it safe to say that you’re a fan of The Phantom Tollbooth too?
Adib: I am indeed. It was one of the first books that I loved. When I was young I had a lot of ennui, and it was nice reading about a character who felt the same way.
James: I loved getting to meet Darius’ grandmas too. I especially loved Oma. She’s this trans bad-ass who has a long history of protesting for queer rights but doesn’t always know how to relate to her grandson. When Darius said that he wanted to know every protest they’d ever been to, I couldn’t agree more. But that door never seemed to open in this book. Any chance we can expect to see more Darius/Oma in the future?
Adib: No idea! Right now there’s no third book planned, but then again the second one wasn’t planned either. But I think that’s how life is, in a lot of ways: sometimes you can crack a door open but sometimes it shuts itself again. Sometimes we have to accept people the way they are, even if they aren’t who we would want them to be.
James: Last time we talked, you discussed the difference between the idea of “living with depression” and “struggling with depression.” You also gave some advice to teens who have depression. But, this time, I want to mix that question up. Darius’ father has depression too. What advice would you give to teens, like Darius, whose parents have depression?
Adib: First off I want to emphasize that I’m not a mental health professional, and if there are any serious concerns, seeking professional help is crucial. But as far as general life tips: a lot of times, people experiencing depressive episodes don’t have the executive function to ask for help or to define what help they need. Doing small things—checking in to say hi, helping with meals, cleaning up—can go a long way. Always ask for permission (sometimes people just don’t want anyone else around), but saying “Mind if I come over and make you dinner?” is often more productive than saying “Call me if you need me.”
James: Alright, Adib. Let’s end this interview by going full nerd. I know you’re a fellow board game geek. I just finished the legacy version of Pandemic (ironic, I know) and am looking for my next board game obsession. Any recommendations?
Adib: Lately I have been obsessed with Root, an asymmetrical strategy game set in a forest where different animal factions are vying for control through various means (military domination, economic power, religious power, etc). It’s so fun!