Five questions with author Adib Khorram, who explores queerness through the lens of a boy band in his latest YA novel

Adib Khorram at Beaverdale Books

Sunday, Oct. 16, 2 p.m., Free with registration

Photos courtesy of Adib Khorram.

If you thought you left young adult novels in your past, Adib Khorram is going to make you rethink your choices. The Kansas City native is the bestselling author of the YA series Darius the Great and a 2021 picture book, Seven Special Somethings: A Nowruz Story. His 2022 release, Kiss and Tell, is a YA novel about Hunter, the 17-year-old queer lead singer of boy band Kiss and Tell. Although Hunter has always been comfortable in his skin, chaos ensues when his ex leaks personal details about Hunter to news outlets just as the band begins their national tour. What follows is a reckoning on ego, stereotypes, and our duty to the narratives outsiders create around us.

Little Village sat down with Khorram ahead of his appearance at Beaverdale Books, co-sponsored by the Iowa Chapter of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), on Sunday, Oct. 16 to talk about Kiss and Tell, his love for YA fiction, and his upcoming releases slated for 2024.

What draws you to writing YA novels?

Adults are very boring, and teenagers are very interesting. It’s a time of life when you’re experiencing so many firsts, when you’re really confronted with the irony of the world in so many ways; where you have a lot of freedom, but not total freedom, and where you’re treated like a child, but then expected to act like an adult. And I think all those things make for a really interesting time of life. And also really fertile ground for telling stories, especially the kind of stories that I’m interested in telling.

Throughout the book, you are juxtaposing the perceived naivety of boy bands with the sexual tension of being a 17-year-old who is also maybe coming to full fruition with their sexuality. So what made you decide to put these themes on top of a book about boy bands?

I was really interested in exploring, I think, the way that we as a society sort of consume media about young people, and then end up consuming the young people themselves — their identities, sometimes their traumas, their whole selves — and how really awful it can feel to have your whole personhood reduced to one or two points in a press release. And I think that’s the kind of thing that a lot of us who are marginalized, whether we’re people of color, or queer, disabled, fat, you name it — we all experience that at some time or another, or sometimes constantly, of having our whole personhood reduced to a single talking point. And how utterly dehumanizing that is.

And at the same time, you know, Hunter and his bandmates go through that, but also get a pretty substantial monetary reward for it, as well as [the] ego reward of being, you know, hot, young, rich and popular. And so I was really interested in examining what the cost of that is, especially as an author. I’m certainly not a famous person, but I am a public figure. I do sometimes go and talk to students at schools and whatnot, or talk to adults at events. And I have occasionally felt in a very small measure the grossness that Hunter experiences in a really large measure.

I feel like YA has come a long way from the books that I was reading when I was young. And you are doing a lot of critical thinking in this book in a way that I hadn’t necessarily experienced in YA before. There are a lot of complex themes here like identity, social media, etc. What YA novels did you read and how did they influence Kiss and Tell?

I would say, growing up, I didn’t read a whole lot of YA. My high school was like, “Here, read John Knowles and then read a bunch of Shakespeare, or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” YA definitely existed, but it was not respected in the way it is now. And certainly, in the last 10 years, even in the last, really, eight years since the founding of We Need Diverse Books, it’s come a long way from what it used to be. I certainly am far from the first person to be diving into these kinds of issues. We can look at the work of Walter Dean Myers, or Laurie Halse Anderson or Jacqueline Woodson, who’ve been writing these kinds of books for a long time.

I think for me, when I think of my mentor texts, I think Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, which really felt like a landmark in queer literature for a lot of us in the ability to tell the kind of stories we wanted to tell. That was a big one. I think of the work of Jason Reynolds, who approaches teenagers with such humility and compassion for what it feels like to be a teenager. I think of, Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun. It’s one of those books that I constantly turn back to because I think it’s so perfectly — well, A., it’s just beautiful. And if I could ever write prose like that, I would die a happy man. But more than that, I think it really examines how rich the world is when you’re young, when things are new, and your feelings are all way too big for your body. And where, you know, things like love and friendship seem like they’re always going to be forever. Before adulthood kind of files those edges off. So yeah, those are definitely some of the ones that I was thinking about.

Hunter is our main character, but he’s far from the most interesting character in the book. We’ve got Callum, we’ve got Masha. So what was it like creating this world of complex queer icons? And will we see them again?

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I think I had a lot of fun, not just kind of creating the queer media landscape around Hunter, but also delving into sort of the queer media criticism around him. Like when I was writing some of those fake think-pieces of like, “What’s the worst possible take on this?” I was like, “Oh, this is why people like writing villains.” Because I just got to write people being awful. And I was like, “Oh, this is kind of fun.” Because it’s all fiction.

But in particular with the people Hunter looks up to like Masha, to people that Hunter doesn’t like that much like Callum, it was really fun to kind of distill certain archetypes of queer media and queer culture, and put them in fictional form and kind of hold them up as a mirror to Hunter to see what his own values are and what he thinks is important about the queer community and queer liberation. And he is very myopic. He’s young and often foolish. But he truly does come from a place of wanting to make the world better. And I think what I like most about Hunter is how he screws up quite a bit. But he always apologizes and always tries to do better. And very sincerely so. And I think that’s something I admire about him and something I hope, you know, to do in my own life anytime I mess up.

And as far as if we’ll see Masha or Callum again, I have no plans right now to revisit them but I did have a lot of fun writing them and I never say never. So who knows?

Do you have anything new in the works? What’s next for you?

Yeah, I have another children’s book/picture book called Bijan Always Wins. It comes out in 2024. And it’s about a little boy named Bijan who makes everything in his life into a competition and ends up alienating all of his friends while doing so. It’s very adorable, and I’m very excited for it. I saw the first sketches for it recently, and they just are amazing. And then just two days ago, I announced that I’m writing a trio of adult romances coming also, those are coming in 2024, about gay Iranian-American millennials finding love and dealing with turning 40.

Catch Khorram at Beaverdale Books on Sunday, Oct. 16 at 2 p.m., cosponsored by the Iowa Chapter of NIAC and Beaverdale Books. The event is free but registration is encouraged. You can sign up here.