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Q&A with Edward Underhill - This Day Changes Everything



By Leah Golder


We are excited to welcome Edward Underhill to The Reading Corner to talk about his new release, This Day Changes Everything, released on the 13th February 2024.


Abby Akerman believes in the Universe. After all, her Midwest high school marching band is about to perform in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City—if that’s not proof that magical things can happen, what is? New York also happens to be the setting of her favourite romance novel, making it the perfect place for Abby to finally tell her best friend Kat that she’s in love with her (and, um, gay). She’s carefully annotated a copy of the book as a gift for Kat, and she’s counting on the Universe to provide an Epic Scene worthy of her own rom-com.


Leo Brewer, on the other hand, just wants to get through this trip without falling apart. He doesn’t believe the Universe is magical at all, mostly because he’s about to be outed to his very Southern extended family on national TV as the trans boy he really is. He’s not excited for the parade, and he’s even less excited for an entire day of sightseeing with his band.


But the Universe has other ideas. When fate throws Abby and Leo together on the wrong subway train, they soon find themselves lost in the middle of Manhattan. Even worse, Leo accidentally causes Abby to lose her Epic Gift for Kat. So to salvage the day, they come up with a new mission: find a souvenir from every location mentioned in the book for Abby to give Kat instead. But as Leo and Abby traverse the city, from the streets of Chinatown to the halls of Grand Central Station and the top of the Empire State Building, their initial expectations for the trip—and of each other—begin to shift. Maybe, if they let it, this could be the day that changes everything, for both of them.



Hi Edward, welcome to The Reading Corner! Thank you for giving up your time to speak with me about your latest release This Day Changes Everything. I was instantly invested in the story of Abby and Leo and immediately found myself rooting for their undeniable chemistry and can’t wait for our members to experience the whirlwind of their stories.

 

I loved the dichotomy of feeling lost and physically being lost within the novel. A dichotomy which becomes blurred and intertwines as we follow the adventure of Abby and Leo across New York City but also observe their inner turmoil as they explore themselves and their place within the world. Was the blurring of the physical experience of being lost and the mental feeling of not belonging a conscious choice or was it nurtured during the writing process?


You know, I love how many people have noticed this in the book, because it wasn’t intentional on my part at all! I did intentionally want to explore this idea of liminal space—in this case, a day that’s kind of removed from Abby and Leo’s normal lives, but because of that, allows them room to exist and grow in ways they haven’t before. But the extra element of also literally getting lost, while also being kind of lost internally…that just happened! I think that’s one of the things I love about writing. Sometimes something works its way in that you never think about intentionally, but it means something to readers. That’s kind of magical to me.

 

Despite the presence of feeling physically lost in the vast concrete haven that is New York City, you expertly and effortlessly craft a very tangible picture of New York. I have had the pleasure of visiting New York myself and was delighted to relive my memories of the city through Leo and Abby’s adventures to the most famous landmarks. Being from smaller communities where they never felt free to express and explore themselves, Abby and Leo become liberated by the diversity of the city. Was it obvious to you to set this novel in New York City? Did anything about your own experiences of the city influence the setting of this novel?


I actually had the setting for this book right from the get-go. I pitched my editor on this idea of two teens from two different marching bands who meet in NYC while they’re there to march in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. That set-up pretty much necessitated setting the book in New York! But I also spent several years living there, and I’m from one of those smaller communities originally, just like Abby and Leo, and I still remember how exciting it felt to be in New York. So I knew that, like in my first book, Always the Almost, I wanted to write about queer and trans teens who didn’t grow up in big, progressive coastal U.S. cities. I wanted the teens who live in those smaller places to know that I see them, and their experiences are worth putting in stories too. But this time, I decided I wanted to take those teens out of those small communities and plop them in the big city. New York has a long history of being romantic, and cropping up in rom-coms. So really, I wanted it as a setting because I wanted to give trans and queer teens the kind of big, epic rom-com the straights have been getting forever!


I will say that, as embarrassing as it is, given that I lived in the city at the time, I have totally done the thing Abby and Leo do, of getting on the A train going the wrong direction, not realising it goes express, and ending up approximately five million stops from your intended destination! So that experience was definitely in my mind when I was thinking about how Abby and Leo could get lost. I also wanted to weave a lot of what I love about New York City into the book: the Union Square holiday market, the historical holiday subway train, the ice skating at Bryant Park…all of that is real!

 

Whilst New York City is one catalysing factor in liberating Abby and Leo and helping them accept and become comfortable with their place in the world, the turning point I felt was when they stumbled upon the queer youth book club QYBC Triple A or Quibble (personally I’d go for Quibble). A queer youth book club seems to be the place where we, as the readers, start to witness Abby and Leo accepting and becoming more comfortable with their true selves. Coming from places where they feel forced to live in secrecy, experiencing a wonderful group of queer identities is overwhelmingly beautiful and yet it is amongst these strangers we see Abby and Leo begin to relax. Did you intentionally craft these first moments of peace within the whole turmoil of acceptance and self-discovery at the point where Abby and Leo are amongst other queer kids?


Haha, I also love the QYBC Triple A so much (and agree it should have been Quibble). Yes, I did think of that scene as a very important turning point for both Abby and Leo. The idea for the queer book club came about when I was brainstorming with my agent and realised that a sort of unique problem to this book is that because Abby and Leo are lost together, I basically have only two characters for most of the story. Of course, that’s important, because these are also two characters who are slowly falling in love with each other, so they need that time to be together. But just from a storytelling perspective, I was worried it would get dull and repetitive, and I felt like I needed outside characters to push Abby and Leo out of their comfort zones—to make them realise that they aren’t alone, which is essentially what both of them are worried about. They aren’t exactly living in secrecy in their hometowns—Abby just isn’t sure of her identity yet, and Leo is out but feels unaccepted—but they do both feel lonely, like there’s no one else like them out there. That’s how the idea of the queer book club came about. It was a way to have what’s essentially a very light, funny scene, but also give Abby and Leo a moment to find genuine community. Seeing other queer teens living their lives is what gives Abby and Leo the courage to realise they can do the same. And I think it helps them realise they’re allowed to fall in love with each other too.

 

Whilst struggling to label herself, Abby meets Ida who defines herself as “a girl” who “likes people”. Confronted with a lack of a box seems to overwhelm Abby whilst simultaneously freeing her from the restraints of social conformity. Your exploration of people who both use labels to define their sexual and gender identity but also those who refuse to be boxed in is inspiring. Was this encompassing exploration of identity essential to your plans for this novel?


Absolutely. I’m very fascinated with nuance, with multiple things being true simultaneously. Labels are incredibly important for queer and trans people, but I also genuinely think sometimes they’re limiting. There can be so much pressure to use an identity label to define yourself. I’m someone whose identity labels for myself have shifted over time, as I’ve come to understand more about myself. And I’ve sometimes been confronted by situations where I felt there was an expectation to choose a box, to say I’m this, because it’s a way for others to immediately understand something about your identity. And I get how valuable that is—there is real power in claiming a label. A label can help you find community. It’s a way to understand yourself. But at the same time, sometimes the truth for me was I don’t know. Sometimes we fall in love with a person, and the understanding of what that means for our identity, or our chosen labels, happens later. Sometimes we fall into a gender presentation that works for us, and figuring out how to identify it to others isn’t immediately obvious. I think I wanted to say, in this book, that there’s room for both. There’s room for everything. It’s fine to know what label fits you, and to use it as a way to identify and understand yourself. And it’s also fine to have no idea, or no desire to choose a label, and keep exploring and falling in love anyway. There’s no single, “right” way to be queer, and no single, “right” path to follow.

 

Within publishing today, we are seeing more and more narratives that explore queer identities. In a genre dominated by heterosexual romances, bringing experiences of the LGBTQ+ society, which were once neglected, into the mainstream space is essential. Can you speak about your experience of writing a queer romance?


I think the thing that really draws me to writing queer romance is that (at least in my experience) the first thing the bigots will try to do is convince you you’re not worthy of love. I didn’t really consciously decide I wanted to write queer romance—I kind of fell into it—but I think it happened because I wanted to push back against that. My form of resistance was to write stories that were saying, “actually, we deserve all the love.” I also think that choosing to let yourself fall in love with someone is one of the biggest, bravest risks you can take—it’s kind of an act of faith, because it’s believing in the future. So I wanted to write stories that were not just saying “we deserve to be loved,” but also saying, you have the power to forge your own future, to fall in love if you want to, and to craft your own moments of joy—and that is power that nobody can take away from you.

 

Despite the progress society has made in accepting all queer identities and people’s ways of expressing and defining themselves, there is still development needed until society is a safe and accepting place for all. I was heart-broken reading about Leo’s experience with his parents and their unwillingness to support him openly within their extended family. Choosing to stay quiet to keep the peace within their family over supporting their son, Leo’s parents embody a universal reaction to not wanting to ‘upset’ the status quo. Can you speak more about the inclusion of Leo’s tense relationship with his parents and extended family within your novel.


I’ve seen a lot of stories about queer identity that feel very black and white: either someone accepts you and everything is wonderful, or they reject you and everything is terrible. Those stories are important, because sometimes that’s what happens. But so often, I think reality is much more complicated. Parents can get one aspect of identity and not understand another. They can be allies in one way and miss another crucial step. It’s tough, because mistakes happen—we’re all human—but those mistakes can also have real consequences. In writing Leo’s story, I wanted to show the way that all these little hurts can pile up until they take a real toll. I think I included it because to me, it’s what reality is for so many queer and trans teens. I didn’t want to write a story that was just about trans and queer pain. But I also didn’t want to write a fairy tale, where we pretend these problems don’t exist. (Both have their place, I just didn’t want to write them!) I wanted to write a book that felt grounded in reality, and I think especially with where we are as a society—where there is real progress being made in understanding and accepting more queer identities—these kinds of more nuanced problems are coming up more frequently for queer folks, in dealing with our families and folks who consider themselves to be our allies.

 

Following on from the previous question, Casey, Leo’s older sister, embraced his identity so casually and lovingly. However, despite accepting her brother and moving on, she somewhat crudely dismisses Leo’s fears about their extended family finally finding out about his true self in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade as it is aired live on TV. By including this dynamic, were you commenting on anything specific within society and the conversations surrounding publicly outing yourself or being outed?


I think, again, that the answer is I’m just interested in nuance! Casey basically thinks she’s got Leo’s back—she’s telling him he should just be able to be out and tell his extended family who he is and not care what they think. She’s not entirely wrong, but she’s not entirely right either. She’s placing a lot on Leo in saying he needs to handle that himself! I guess I wasn’t thinking about it as a conversation about publicly outing yourself so much as the extra wrinkles that go along with outing yourself to family. Leo doesn’t really care about whether some random stranger watches the television broadcast and understands that he’s trans—he cares about what his extended family will think. Casey, although more supportive of Leo than his parents, is still not quite listening to him…and really, that’s what Leo’s family needs to do: listen to what he needs.

 

I loved the fact that throughout the novel we experienced both Abby and Leo’s viewpoints, which at some points were so frustratingly in sync whilst they both remained completely clueless about the others true feelings and emotions. How was your experience crafting both narratives? Did you always plan to feature both characters narratives in first person?


They are both such fools sometimes! But yes, I did always intend the book to be dual-POV. It was challenging at first, because I always have a period, when I start drafting a novel, where I have to sort of muddle around finding the character’s voice…and in this book, I had to find two voices. But it was actually incredibly fun and rewarding, precisely because it gave me all these opportunities for each of them to see or not see important pieces of the other person. That’s life! We’re all wrapped up in our own emotions, and trying to figure out how other people are feeling is hard sometimes. Love is complicated!

 

Throughout the novel, Abby is clearly motivated by a concept of romance heavily influenced by her favourite novel. Did any piece of literature, film or art influence your writing of this novel?


I mean, I included the Empire State Building absolutely, one hundred percent because of Sleepless in Seattle. But otherwise, I don’t think any specific piece of media influenced this book. It was really more this general notion of a big epic rom-com. I’ve always loved rom-coms that are slightly magical, or slightly weird and offbeat, and always about something more than just the central relationship. One of my favourites, for example, is While You Were Sleeping, because a) it’s so odd! and b) it’s really about a woman who wants to belong with a family. Yes, the central romantic relationship is important, but it’s also a story about loneliness. Those are the romances that stick with me, and what’s influenced my approach to writing rom-coms. I love that intersection of writing a love story, writing queer identities, but also writing something that all of us feel, no matter who we are—that desire to belong.

 

Finally, where can our readers get their own copy of your inspiring and exciting novel This Day Changes Everything?


Wherever books are sold! It’s available through Barnes & Noble and Amazon, but also through Bookshop.org (which supports indie bookstores!) and also from many independent bookstores themselves. I suggest checking with your local indie first, because if they don’t have the book on their shelves, they can probably order it for you.



Edward Underhill is an author and a composer who grew up in Wisconsin. He began playing the cello at age five, started writing stories not long after that, and began seriously composing in his teens. He studied music composition in college at the Oberlin Conservatory (while writing ghost stories for a campus magazine) and received a masters in film music composition from NYU.


He now lives in California with his partner and a talkative black cat, where he writes music (frequently for cartoons) and novels (frequently for teens). His debut young adult novel, Always the Almost, earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and was named a Kids’ Indie Next pick and YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults pick.


His next novel, This Day Changes Everything, released on February 13, 2024, and has earned starred reviews from Booklist and the Bulletin for the Centre of Children’s Books.


As a queer trans man, he is passionate about representation both on the screen and on the page.

 


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