These YouTube Stars Wrote a YA Novel Entirely in Email and Text
Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin tackle queer identity and mental health in their debut novel ‘I Hate Everyone But You.’
Image courtesy of YouTube, user Justbetweenusshow and Wednesday Books/St. Martin's Press.
Do young people not read anymore? Are they butchering the English language on Twitter and through text messages? Is it even possible to do both? It was probably inevitable that someone would tap into the new status quo and reach readers in the 'new' language they speak (and read and write) every day.
Odd-couple YouTubers Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin have written a YA novel that does just that, breaking down the thrill and terror of leaving home for university, written entirely through email and text message correspondence. And it's a hilarious and clever read.
Fans of Just Between Us will definitely recognize some of the novel's themes. Two major through lines are one character's struggles with OCD and finding a good therapist outside LA, and the other's exploration of her own sexuality—questions that Dunn and Raskin routinely explore as themselves and as their fictional stand-ins on the channel.
The novel is more than that though. It's a well-rounded story about two people coming into their own in a sometimes-hostile environment.
It's the first year after high school, and Ava leaves home to study screenwriting at the University of Southern California, while Gen heads off to Boston to study journalism at the uber-liberal Emerson College. Freshman year includes sororities, school newspaper drama, student films, lost virginity, a first time doing coke, and sexual partners of varying quality.
This is the farthest Gen and Ava have ever been apart, but they find ways to stay close—it's 2017, so instant communication is as easy as reaching into your pocket, hence the book's format.
This could feel gimmicky and a little too of-the-moment but ends up being one of the book's great strengths. There's something natural and personal about how we interact online, but these are also fundamentally performative modes of address.
The authors and characters clearly get this dichotomy and play around with it. Some of the emails are written entirely as screenplays or news articles, the protagonists opting to share their lives while showing off their developing storytelling skills. The format thrusts us right into the bond between Gen and Ava, but also reminds us that they're both completely unreliable narrators.
I Hate Everyone But You is definitely going to appeal to Dunn and Raskin's existing fanbase, but it's likely to draw in other young readers too—and anyone brave enough to re-live the shit-show that was the first year of undergrad.
The book comes out September 5, and Dunn and Raskin will be promoting it with a live show across the US. VICE caught up with the two on the phone.
VICE: As people with a video following, what made you steer into literature?
Allison Raskin: Gaby and I both come from writing backgrounds. I went to school for screenwriting, Gaby went to school for journalism—you can tell from the book—and I think we more fell into YouTube than planned it. We've always been really interested in long-form writing. We're avid readers and writers, and the book is the most true form of that in a lot of ways.
Gaby Dunn: I think we both wanted to write books since we were little kids. If we were going to get this chance, we were like, "We should write a novel," and that's more interesting to us than a dating book, or some kind of Urban Outfitters book—although we would love to have our book in Urban Outfitters.
Allison: Yeah, throwing shade?
Gaby: Please pick us up, Urban Outfitters. Jesus!
Did you always want it to be a YA novel?
Gaby: That's our audience. We wanted to reach our audience. And I think it's also an important time to reach kids, if you have a good message, if you want to talk about mental health, if you want to talk about LGBT issues, these are the people who are open to it, and this is the audience that needs to know that shit is OK, essentially. That's the worst time in your life, so if we could contribute something where they're like "Oh, my stuff is OK," then we've got to.
Allison: I also think it's really upsetting to hear people say that no one reads anymore, that kids don't read anymore, because I just don't find that to be true at all. I think people are veracious readers, and that so many of our fans are avid readers and want this kind of content.
Obviously the book isn't a PSA, but there's a lot of educational content, helping people through things. How important was it to do things like demystify mental health?
Allison: I think we wanted to deal with the same themes that we deal with on the channel, and I think one of the most effective things that we do is normalize behaviour that other people might not think should be normal, or might not have viewed as normal. And so that's sort of how we tackle the mental health aspect. I'm a big advocate for just being open about that kind of thing, because I think when you just talk about it openly, so much of the stigma goes away.
But I'd say for both things, in terms of mental health and LGBTQ issues, a large part of the book for us was making sure that the characters didn't have all the right answers. That it wasn't preaching, instead it was fumbling. Because I think that's a way to really learn. To see someone mess up versus already coming from a place of being so woke that they can't get anything wrong, because that's not really relatable.
What was it like stepping back a decade and speaking from the voice of people entering college?
Gaby: You get to be your worst self. You look back on what a piece of shit you were. But a lot of the stuff is ripped from the headlines, and stuff that truly happened. Emerson is a very LGBT-friendly place, so obviously that world is filled out with a lot of queer characters, because that's just realistic for Emerson. Everyone is so social justice-oriented and so trying to out-woke each other. Everyone's self-righteous, I would say. I got to look back on times when I was so sure of so many things that I could have toned it down a bit, take it from an 11 to an eight. So it's fun to show that kind of thing. And also I used to party so much, and now I don't, so I got to go back to all the stupid party shit that I did.
Allison: Are you so glad you just got to brag about partying on the record?
Gaby: I used to party so hard, and now, last night I had one glass of champagne and I might throw up. I'm pathetic now.
Allison: Placing it in college was really important to me to show that college does not have to be the best time of your life, and it can in fact be very miserable. Because definitely the whole time felt like, "oh no, I'm doing this wrong?" But that's OK, because there's so much life after that. All of my great friends—my best friends—I've met post-college. And I think there's this expectation that it's supposed to be the most fun time of your life, and that's just not true for everybody, and that's okay.
Considering the format of the novel, what are your thoughts on the role of social media in young people's lives, particularly in terms of things like queer identities and mental health?
Gaby: It's always funny when people are like, "God, so many YouTubers are queer, so many YouTubers have mental illness, so many YouTubers are marginalized people," and it's like, yeah! We're all starved for representation and starved for connection, and so we go on the internet and find some. The first gay people I ever knew were friends of mine from LiveJournal. If you're looking for yourself, it's so great that you can reach out and find other people like you, and find fans of things you're fans of. I don't know what I would have done when I was trying to figure my sexuality out. If I didn't have the internet, I would have maybe killed myself, I have no idea.
Allison: I think social media is like anything. There's a good way to use it, a healthy way to use it, and there's ways where it can overtake your life. And so obviously YouTube is great, because you can be content creators, but I also think that there's an aspect of Ava's character where she's too dependent on Gen because Gen is so accessible. Even though she's across the country. And because you're glued to your phone, your best friend is still right there. But there is this suggestion that she needs to participate more in the life that she's actually living. So I think it's a mix. I think that there's a healthy relationship you can have with it, and there's a way where you can also potentially shut down a little bit from other experiences. But that's everything—all good things can be overdosed.
Obviously the characters are in large part based on the two of you. How much of yourselves did you put into this?
Allison: I think we put our full selves. I remember using some anecdote from my own life and being like, "This is so funny. Should I waste this here?" And I was like, "Yes, you should. It's your book."
Gaby: It's interesting because I really lampoon my parents. I really make them much worse than they were, but I wanted to show the difference between Ava's family and Gen's family, so we make my parents the worse version of themselves, and then I'm like, well, maybe people will think that's real. We used a lot of based-on-real-stuff and then blew it up. My dad really is an alcoholic, and we used some real stuff. Because it's fiction.
Allison: Specifics are what make good comedy. But because we didn't pretend it was a memoir, it doesn't really matter how much is true. I think there's something fun to people not really knowing.
One of the things that I really love in the novel is Gen's ongoing, no-labels coming out, and Ava's response to it. We're not taught, socially, about coming out as bi, or reacting to friends who come out as anything but gay. What was it like writing that from both of your perspectives?
Gaby: I always wanted a lead or co-lead bisexual character. And I like that she does use 'bi' or 'queer' because I think a lot of shows or books will do a thing where the character's like, "Oh my God, I've been gay the whole time." And it's like, but were you? It's interesting because I knew that this would be a thing, because I get this in real life—it's like, "Well of course the bi character is the slutty one. What a stereotypical portrayal." But I don't love this idea that we have to be perfect, model minorities. I am bi, and I hook up a lot. That's just the truth. And I don't have to be like, "I'm not like those other bisexuals." I wanted to write a character that comes out and is happy about being queer. I didn't want someone to be like, "I'm so scared, I'm so sad about this," because it's not really the world we live in right now. I liked the idea of a character throwing confetti for her own coming out.
Allison: And for Ava's character, I think that she handles it badly in some ways, but it was coming more from a place of feeling disconnected than homophobia. There's no homophobia there, there's just, "How could she have not known about this part of her best friend?" And now Gen is entering this world that Ava just won't be a part of, and how do they move forward from that, and how do they make that not something that divides them?
Gaby: And that's real. I go to a lesbian camping thing, and I was there on my birthday a couple years ago, and so Allison and I didn't spend my birthday together, and that was sad, because she wasn't allowed to come. Stuff like that.
What do you hope that readers walk away with?
Allison: Just a copy of our book.
Allison: I hope that they realize that friendship takes work. I think that's the approach to the book. In a way, it's a rom-com, but it's a rom-com about friendship. I feel like there's this narrative that only romantic love is an uphill battle, but that's not true. All important relationships require a lot of work and fighting and figuring things out and loyalty and commitment. I don't think there are that many projects out there that really, specifically look at that. I've lost a lot of friends over the years, I'm sure I'll continue to lose some of them, but I feel like, as an adult, I've learned that you need to put the work in. So maybe people younger than us realizing that earlier than we did.
Gaby: Yeah, my therapist calls Allison my primary partner, and I have partners. It's not like I don't date. I was going to say the same thing, that romantic love doesn't trump friendship love.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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