We're delighted to welcome YA author, Steven Parlato, to the Pink Heart Society as he talks about adding a dash of love to his novels...
I’m honored to introduce my work to readers of The Pink Heart Society. As the author of two darkly gritty young adult novels, I would not typically consider myself a writer of romance. Instead, I create contemporary realistic fiction exploring social issues head-on. I’m most concerned with portraying characters and situations authentically, honoring those who have experienced the struggles my characters endure.
Readers may not immediately turn to my work when looking for a story about hearts and flowers, and I doubt I’ll ever be shelved in Romance. But the idea romance equates to stories candy-coated in bliss is pretty narrow, and frankly, insulting. From where I sit (right now, at the kitchen table in my Connecticut home) romance is so much bigger than that. After all, love is intrinsically tied to longing and loss. As we pine for an unattainable beloved, we often romanticize that person. When the target of our desire is out of reach (and sometimes even when they’re up close) flaws become invisible, or are transformed, at worst, into charming quirks. When the relationship ends—through breakup, physical absence, or worst-case-scenario, through death—we lose a part of ourselves, but we still feel it deeply, like the phantom ache of a severed limb.
Adolescents, especially, spend so much of their lives longing, it’s essential to capture that state in my fiction. This isn’t to say, however, that I write directly about romance. For example, my first novel, The Namesake (Merit Press, 2013), centers on Evan Galloway, a bright fifteen-year-old reeling in the aftermath of his father’s suicide. The book takes on the dark topics of clergy abuse and the facades some families paste together with abundant secrets and lies.
Amid the turmoil involved in excavating his father’s past, Evan experiences the complication of his relationship with his best friend, Alexis, for whom he pretty clearly longs. But given the particulars of The Namesake, I had to tread lightly, dipping gently into romance without taking a full plunge. The larger topic of sexual abuse and its impact (Lex is also a survivor) made intimacy a challenge for these characters. There are no traditional love scenes between the teens in The Namesake, but many moments glint with youthful longing and affection. Lex feels the attraction, too, but it terrifies her. And her go-to defense mechanism is sarcastic humor.
In one sequence, Evan attends a weekend retreat for young Catholics. While there, he receives palancas, letters of support from loved ones back home, including Lex. In hers, she confesses her feelings, writing:
I suppose I’ve always known you felt that way about me, but hey, what’s not to love? I’d be lying if I denied having feelings for you, because in a lot of ways, I do feel the same. And, Ev, while the average guy has roughly 8.4 serious girlfriends in his lifetime, you can have only ONE REAL, BEST FRIEND. I’ll ALWAYS be yours.
But, Evan, I can’t ever “BE WITH YOU” that way. Even the thought of it makes me a little queasy––no offense.
To me, Lex’s quirky declaration of affection is deeply romantic. And Evan’s response:
I’m not sure what to feel. I’ve just received a “Dear John” palanca. But wait, there are at least three separate points where she admits having feelings for me. Of course, she also says the thought of being with me makes her queasy. Not exactly encouraging.
Thing is, though, that doesn’t really have anything to do with me. It’s because of her past. So . . . she’s seeing a therapist . . . maybe things will change. Never say never; I’ve got a shot.
sparks with the inextinguishable flame of romance so vivid for a teenager, or anyone, really who longs for another.
Romance may not be my central focus, but it definitely provides a hopeful, if bittersweet, layer to The Namesake. Affection and longing occasionally surface just when Evan’s discoveries threaten to break him. This balance, weaving light into dark was crucial. After all, the book is ultimately about healing, and I know of no better salve for pain than love.
Romance functions a bit differently in my upcoming novel, The Precious Dreadful, due out from Simon Pulse, one day shy of that ultimate romantic holiday, February 13, 2018. For starters, I’ve lightened up—just a bit, anyway—plot-wise. As a result, romance is a more suitable central player in this novel.
The book, narrated by Teddi Alder, the daughter of a train-wreck single mom, also tackles weighty issues: substance abuse, racial injustice, issues of self-esteem—and the disappearance of a childhood friend. But along with being smart, sarcastic, and slightly giraffe-obsessed, Teddi is definitely a romantic, and the book features the dual conundrums of longing and choice.
The disastrous romantic past of Brenda, Teddi’s alcoholic mom, provides a cautionary counterpoint to Teddi’s forays into teen love. Her mother forbids her to date, afraid Teddi will make the same mistakes she did. This creates natural conflict between mother and daughter, and things only get more heated as Teddi defies her.
Teddi’s initial interest in Aidan, her handsome barista crush, is mostly hormone-driven; she even refers to her feelings as “good old-fashioned teengal lust.” She gives Aidan the pet name, “Mister Delicious,” and describes him as “generously muscled, intense, but with a swoony, white grin, and precise stubble dispersal.” But as the plot, and their relationship, develops, she begins to see past his perfect shell to the flawed person within.
Romance takes an unexpected turn when Teddi meets a quirky new guy at a teen writing workshop. As their sarcastic banter grows into authentic connection, Teddi finds herself juggling two boys with romantic potential: her dream guy, Aidan; and Ed, whom she describes as “this sweet, sort of odd dude I’ve gotten way too comfortable flirting with.”
Literary romance, as in real-life, always meets challenges, and these romantic complications drive The Precious Dreadful’s plot. Coming to terms with Aidan’s anger issues, and the fact that Ed has secrets—and a girlfriend—of his own, causes Teddi’s romantic mindset to deepen considerably.
While The Namesake utilized romance as a sort of leavening agent, in The Precious Dreadful, it’s a main ingredient, a marker of true maturation for my characters. Still in each work, romance feels organic, weaving its way into the larger narrative, bringing with it both great joy and the ache of things lost. For me, a sensitive sort who believes our truest purpose in life is to love, no story would feel complete without at least a hint of romance.
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Steven's latest book, The Precious Dreadful, is available for preorder now. For more information about him and his writing, check out his website and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.