Polina had an amazing chance to interview Robin Talley recently about her new book What We Left Behind!
From the critically acclaimed author of Lies We Tell Ourselves comes an emotional, empowering story of what happens when love isn’t enough to conquer all.
Toni and Gretchen are the couple everyone envied in high school. They’ve been together forever. They never fight. They’re deeply, hopelessly in love. When they separate for their first year at college—Toni to Harvard and Gretchen to NYU—they’re sure they’ll be fine. Where other long-distance relationships have fallen apart, their relationship will surely thrive.
The reality of being apart, however, is a lot different than they expected. As Toni, who identifies as genderqueer, falls in with a group of transgender upperclassmen and immediately finds a sense of belonging that has always been missing, Gretchen struggles to remember who she is outside their relationship.
While Toni worries that Gretchen, who is not trans, just won’t understand what is going on, Gretchen begins to wonder where she fits in Toni’s life. As distance and Toni’s shifting gender identity begins to wear on their relationship, the couple must decide—have they grown apart for good, or is love enough to keep them together?
Polina: How was the experience of writing this book different from your experience writing Lies We Tell Ourselves?
Robin: The two writing experiences were actually almost completely different. Both involved a lot of research, but since LWTO is historical fiction I wound up doing a lot of old-school research for it, with weekend after weekend spent at the library. WWLB is contemporary, though, so the research was largely done online and via conversations with friends. For both books I also read memoirs and watched interviews, etc. ― but the experiences there were really different too, since I was immersing myself in a completely different era for LWTO.
Polina: I really connected to the way What We Left Behind portrayed the experience of students starting college. In what ways was your college experience similar to and different from Gretchen’s and Toni’s?
Robin: Certain things about college ― especially if you’re moving away from home and living in a dorm ― are kind of universal, I think. Being suddenly immersed in an entirely new social scene; forming super-fast, super-intense friendships; having frequent late-night discussions about your deepest hopes and dreams ― all of those are things that happen in this book and things that I remember from my own college days. In terms of the specifics, though, my college experience was pretty different from both Toni and Gretchen’s. For one thing, I went to college in Washington, D.C., and my school wasn’t as intense academically as Harvard or NYU.
Polina: What was it like writing in Toni’s perspective, with Toni’s exploration of gender identity? What steps did you take to make sure you handled Toni’s identity respectfully?
Robin: Since I’m cisgender and Toni is on the trans* spectrum, I did a lot of research and talked to a lot of people to learn as much as I could about the wide variety of experiences when it comes to gender identity. Writing from Toni’s perspective was fascinating, and it made me think about gender, as well as pronouns and other identity labels, much more deeply than I ever had before. Toni’s my all-time favorite character I’ve written, so it was also just a lot of fun.
Polina: Do you have any songs you associate with your story and characters?
Robin: Gretchen is obsessed with the musical Wicked, and sometimes I smile when I think about the song “For Good” in the context of this book.
Polina: I’m really looking forward to your next book, As I Descended. Could you share a little more about it?
Robin: Happily! As I Descended is a totally new genre for me. It’s a lesbian retelling of Macbeth set at a haunted Virginia boarding school. It has evil ghosts, an extremely messed-up teen clique power structure, and lots of really poor decision-making.
Polina: What are some upcoming YA books you’re really excited for?
Robin: There are so many! Some 2016 books I’m especially looking forward to are Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood ― it’s her first contemporary novel, set in a small town on the Chesapeake Bay ― and This is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp, a dark, diverse contemporary novel about a school shooting.
Thank you so much Robin for taking time to answer some questions! If you’re curious and want to know more about What We Left Behind be sure you check out Polina’s full review here!