*This interview includes mild spoilers on I Hate Everyone But You
The very idea that I’d get to spend the morning of my first day of my senior year of undergrad getting to talk to two writers I admire deeply sounds too perfect to be true. For that day to also be the same day that their book hit shelves and their book tour kicked off might make the whole thing sound a little less believable. And if I told you that at one point the interview was interrupted by a hyper puppy (mines, not theirs) and again by a delivery of boutiques and a teddy bear (for one of them, not me), you’d probably wonder what mad lib book or situational sitcom I got this plot from.
But, I can very much assure you that all of this managed to happen when I talked to Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin to discuss their new Young Adult novel, I Hate Everyone But You. An epistolary novel/letter story, the book takes place during Ava and Gen’s first semester at college and away from each other. Ava finds herself struggling with what’s supposed to be “the best time of her life” actually being the worst. Meanwhile, Gen finds herself realizing that having uncontrolled independence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Embodying the worst parts of themselves (as Gaby and Allison put it) the two took personal experiences from their time at college to craft the concept. Ava, modeled after Allison, studies in the BFA screenwriting program at USC. Gen, similar to Gaby, attends college on the east coast at Emerson with her eye set on breaking the next Watergate as a journalism major. Through these two characters figuring out their lives (and where they fit into the others), Ava and Gen also figure out who they are as writers.
“I was like consumed by The Babysitters Club. I loved The Babysitters Club and I was very into Nancy Drew,” Gaby starts when I ask what Young Adult books the two related to the most growing up. “I read a lot of Nancy Drew because I liked that she got into trouble and was serious and was just this independent heroine that solved mysteries.” Her love for Nancy Drew growing up stemmed a lot from Nancy’s ability to be “independent and spunky.”
Allison’s choice, on the other hand, is from a bad experience, “The books that had the biggest impact [on me] that turned out to be negative was that book Prep [by Curtis Sittenfeld]. It’s about boarding school and clearly, that book was about a bad experience at boarding school but I was like, ‘boarding school sounds awesome!’ Then, I went to boarding school and had a bad experience.”
Both of them have previously mentioned how writing a novel was a dream since childhood. Usually writing their scripts for their Youtube channel Just Between Us Show separately, they sat side by side to write this book. (Allison jokes later in our conversation that since she typed the whole thing, her hands still hurt.) Writing the book, they went through one draft, with only the ending being rewritten. “The end, they said was too abrupt so we added some stuff,” Allison says.
Gaby chimes in explaining the difference between the original ending and the one in the book, “This might be a spoiler, but [Ava and Gen] are fighting and one of them is trying to reach out more than the other. We added that the one that is not responding doesn’t reply until the very end, but they wanted us to give the one who is replying some hope or some idea of where the other girl is at.” To resolve the issue, they added a section to give an explanation for why the character wasn’t responding.
“I say the biggest change was the title,” Allison replies. Originally, the book was going to be titled Please Confirm Receipt of this Text with the two changing it to I Hate Everyone But You to make the title a little more universal and shorter.
With the book divided into sections based on different emails, text messages, scripts, and articles, Allison shares that the story was developed off of the two wanting to write an epistolary novel of e-mails and text messages. The other forms of writing came later.
“Well, it’s fun because Allison actually went to school for screenwriting and I went to school for journalism so we brought that to it. So, we knew that these characters would write that way. That was each of their specialties,” Gaby says.
Allison adds, “But, I don’t think that was planned. That was literally while we were writing the book we were like, ‘Oh, hey let’s try this!”
Having Ava and Gen exercise their writing specialties in the way that they communicate with each other, adds a funny but also relatable element for anyone who is a writer. “I thought it was very funny to use the way that they’re both writers but in different ways. I liked being able to show their versions of how to write things essentially,” Gaby explained.
“But I would call it more of a happy accident,” Allison adds. “I’d call the whole book just one big happy accident,” she laughs.
I think a lot of coming out narratives are very tearful and this was someone who the best thing to ever happen to her is coming out. So, I wanted to show that.
Writing in these different formats also allowed for the two to play around with the credibility of the characters in interpreting the situations they’re in. “It’s nice to write something the way people actually talk and it’s nice to see in their heads because it allowed both of them to be unreliable narrators,” Gaby laughs. “Like, Ava thinks everything that’s happening is so bad and awful and Gen paints everything as great. And I think that the only way we could really show that is that in their own minds, that’s what it looks like.”
A section that the two of them cite as being one of their favorites to write is “The Mortification of Ava Helmer 1999-Present” where Ava recounts all of her humiliating moments in a comedic email to Gen. Another section that stands out as a favorite is Gen’s positive and exciting coming-out email to Ava. “I think a lot of coming out narratives are very tearful and this was someone who the best thing to ever happen to her is coming out. So, I wanted to show that,” Gaby says about writing that moment.
Focusing on the difficult parts to write, Allison starts by pointing out one of the challenges of writing in a letter format, “Probably the hardest section was the part of the book where the girls are actually together. To actually make it so you can understand what’s going on in the story but also keep it true to the format so there are only the text messages you actually send when you’re visiting someone. That was the hardest to finagle.”
The two also point out another difficulty: establishing when it’s their voices as real people and when it’s the voices of the characters. Although the characters are based on and similar to the two of them (Gaby and Allison both joke that Gen gets her hubris, arrogance, and impulsiveness from Gaby) they aren’t actually characters. “The hardest part to write was probably any argument about sexuality or any time Ava has to call Gen on her shit and then Gen’s reaction be negative. Because when you’re young, you don’t want to hear the right thing from anyone,” Gaby starts.
“Yeah, that was also a struggle in that, there’s a difference between the character’s point of view and the writer’s point of view,” Allison replies. “[Trying to make] sure that the characters are flawed and have these kinds of messed up perceptions, the reader would still need to know that we don’t have those and that we’re not writing from a place of ignorance.We’re writing to show that there is growth for characters and that if we had started off with these characters knowing everything and being so ‘woke’ and so ‘perfect’ then there’d be no conflict and there’d be no story.”
Making the conscious choice to develop flawed characters, especially flawed girls as the protagonists can sometimes run tricky. I mention how sometimes in young adult novels it feels like the expectation for girl protagonists in order to be likable is for them to be reactive to wrong things happening as opposed to being active in the wrong things that are happening. “We weren’t aware of all the rules that young adult novels have when we went into writing it. Since we’ve written the book, we’ve been talking more about it and talking to more authors and getting feedback about what’s normal,” Allison responds.
“But, we kind of just sat down and wrote the story we wanted to write and in everything that we do our characters are heavily flawed because that’s what makes them interesting and relatable. So, we kind of didn’t even know until later that we actually aren’t supposed to do that.” While there has been some dismay from people who found the characters to be “unlikable,” Allison explained that the goal of the book isn’t to make you like Ava and Gen, “It’s very easy to write a super likable character, but I think you don’t learn as much from them.”
When I ask what advice the two of them would give to Ava and Gen, there’s a pause before Allison lets out an “Oh wow,” and laughs. “That really hit me, I was like ‘Oh, God.’” She thinks for a moment before continuing, “I think that who you are right now is not always who you’re going to be. I think growing up I always felt very trapped in my flaws and my weaknesses and parts of my life. You’re able to change too and you’re able to change for the better.”
“My advice to Gen would be that you’re not right about almost anything,” Gaby laughs. “I think I was very sure about a lot of things and then I got real humbled real fast. Also, that not everything is black and white. I mean, for all of Allison’s talk about how she was, ‘Well, I thought things were black-and-white,’ I thought things were very black-and-white too.”
As a part of growing up, Gaby assures that you develop leniency when need be. She learned that she won’t always be correct and everyone that disagrees with her won’t always be wrong. “On certain levels that’s true,” she says referring to standing her ground on her beliefs, “I mean, you’d don’t agree with Nazi’s. But, there’s a little bit of chilling out that happens when you get older.”
“Oh yeah, like everything seems so high stakes and then you realize that ‘Oh, literally none of this matters,’” Allison laughs. The two explain that at a young age every bad thing that happened felt like the world was ending and now, they’ve developed a thick enough skin to know when it’s time to dwell on something and when it’s time to move on.
I think that who you are right now is not always who you’re going to be. I think growing up I always felt very trapped in my flaws and my weaknesses and parts of my life. You’re able to change too and you’re able to change for the better.
“I think the one thing to our advantage is that we never have just one project. I think a lot of people are only working on one thing at a time so when that dies it’s like a bigger blow. Like, I know that right now I’m on a book tour, but I’m already excited about the two projects I’m planning to work on the moment I get back,” Allison answers when I ask how long it took of them working in the industry to deal with all of the no’s.
“One thing we really have in common is that we’re both always thinkin’,” Gaby adds.
“Who do you know that’s not thinking?!” Allison quickly asks with a laugh.
“I meant like thinking ahead! We’re always thinkin’. We’re always cooking something up,” Gaby explains despite us all laughing at that point. (I chime in that, that sounds like a sitcom quote and Allison jokes that the cold open would begin with Gaby just saying, ‘Always thinkin’!’)
Getting back to the book, we talk a little about any kinds of hesitations to include a part of their lives in the book. “We had some stuff about my family that I was nervous to put in the book,” Gaby says. “I mean, they’re chill with sharing. Like, my dad is open with being an alcoholic and they really are okay with sharing that part of my life. But, obviously, we exaggerated a lot. It’s based on true stuff but we exaggerated it for effect of showing how different Gen and Ava’s families are.”
The fear that her family wouldn’t be okay with the liberties she took stemmed more from worrying that they wouldn’t understand where real life ended and the exaggeration began. Luckily, her family didn’t mind. Still, Gaby included a thank you in the acknowledgments to her family, especially her parents for allowing her to put any aspect of them on the line based on what readers could interpret.
“I think the fact that it’s a novel gave us a lot of liberty because we could just deny anything,” Allison answers after I ask if having an established platform already could make a story feel too personal to include. “Hopefully no one will ever sit down with us, page by page, and be like ‘What’s true and what’s not?’ So I think that’s almost part of the fun of the book is wondering what’s real and what’s not. Does it matter?”
It seems quicker (and easier) to simply assume that Gaby and Allison were attempting to just tell their life stories with this book, but you miss a piece of the book if you do so. Allison makes a note that the book is called fiction for a reason; because they’re focused on making realistic characters in a realistic story, not a memoir. “It’s all a blend of real and not real and it’s also taking a big experience and somehow breaking it down into a couple of set pieces that we dive into that aren’t accurate but sort of represent the journey,” she concludes.
I Hate Everyone But You proves to be a well-rounded and honest portrayal of going to college, of having (and losing) friendships and relationships, of coming into your own and of losing yourself to an extent. The book discusses mental health, sexuality, gender identity, and figuring out what is right or wrong in a way that is humorous, careful, and full of heart.
I wanted [Gen] to use the word bisexual and to show bisexuality as a real thing and a real calling card and a casual thing.
Gen is canonically bisexual in a way that is often ignored in media: she’s loud about it, she embraces it, and first and foremost, she’s happy about it. “I do not like when a book is like, ‘Well, it was implied,’ or later the author goes, ‘Oh, yeah that character was gay’,” Gaby begins, adding a disclaimer that she’s not directly shading JK Rowling. “I think a big part of what I like about our channel is that I’m explicitly queer, explicitly bisexual. A lot of media will have a character be like, ‘I’m fluid, I don’t have a label’ or be like ‘I was straight, now I’m gay’ and almost no shows in media use the term bisexual and it’s weird. It’s almost like they think that’s not a word. I wanted the character to use the word bisexual and to show bisexuality as a real thing and a real calling card and a casual thing.”
“And then, in terms of Alex, I liked the idea of having a trans love interest and having a character whose whole identity isn’t about being trans and who’s not sad or defined by their coming out,” Gaby says about Alex who works at the school newspaper along with Gen. The two at first push each other’s buttons with Gen disliking him while Ava predicts their feelings for each other from the start, “…It was nice to have a character who was just desired and has their own ambitions and their own flaws and their own arrogance that kind of matches Gen.” Wanting to avoid writing a sad or “typical” narrative for Alex, the two hired three consultants to read the book and make sure that Alex’s representation was accurate and beneficial to the trans community.
In their interview with Andrew Li on his Yo, Is this Racist? Podcast, the two talked a little about how one of their goals is for the book to be adapted to screen. To avoid a completely white cast, if you read the book, you notice that very few characters are described with racial identifiers unless the character is written to explicitly be a person of color.
The same goes for the original cover idea where they didn’t want the cover to feature a white hand holding the phone to allow readers of any race to picture themselves as the characters. “The goal is obviously to adapt it, that would be amazing. But I feel like the leads should be unknowns,” Allison pitches when I ask who they would want to cast. She quickly adds with a laugh, “Also, Selena Gomez.”
The two are both at an agreement that Ava and Gen should be played by unknowns. However, Gaby admits that she pictured Alex being played by Ian Alexander who is helping pave the way for actors who are transgender as he plays Buck Vu on The OA. Another casting choice Gaby pitches is Constance Wu as Charlotte: Gen’s TA who Gen develops an infatuation with despite everyone else advising her why it’s inappropriate.
There’s this thing of like, ‘Well, I only want to write when I have a perfect idea’ and it’s like no. You can write when you have to just start writing.
Talking a little more about writing, I asked the two about any writing myths they had to unlearn. Gaby explains that with the help of Allison, she learned that you don’t become a writer from inspiration, you become a writer from writing, “Allison kept us on a strict schedule. Whether we wanted to write or not, we had to write. Her big thing is that you can’t just write when inspiration strikes, you have to write when it’s your job to write.”
“Yeah! And it works like anything else. You just do it,” Allison adds.
“There’s this thing of like, ‘Well, I only want to write when I have a perfect idea’ and it’s like no. You can write when you have to just start writing,” Gaby finishes.
Aside from I Hate Everyone But You and the sketches on their JBU channel, the two have written countless other works (both together and individually) including pilots, movies, articles, and podcasts. “Every idea, we’re flexible with it,” Gaby says when I ask her how they figure out where they want to place an idea that they have. “Like, I have my podcast and then I’m going to turn that podcast into a book. A lot of the stuff we do we leave it open to turn it into other stuff. Like, JBU, we could turn that into a tv show. The book can be a movie. We kind of always think about stuff as multiple ways.”
“But, I think there is a big difference between something that’s meant to be a movie and that’s meant to be a series,” Allison explains. “I think it’s what story are you telling? Does it need to resolve itself in one form? Is it an ongoing story? Is it more about characters? I don’t know it’s all just…I want a tv show,” she quips in a shrug and the three of us laugh.
As our phone call begins to wind down, we comment a little bit about how the trickiest part about writing is that writing is terrible.
“I think anybody who says that writing is super fun is probably really bad at it,” Allison remarks.
Gaby jokes, “A lot of times, I have really good ideas but then I’m falling asleep so then I forget them.” Laughing at Allison’s reaction, she responds, “I said that only to annoy you.”
“I’m a brilliant writer, I’m just so tired!” Allison playfully mocks.
It’s this wonderful and entertaining back and forth that makes their stuff work so well. The two are able to be funny, smart, and clever without missing a beat. It’s truly a gift to witness the odd couple that knows each other this well.
I’ve learned that jokes aren’t perfect, they can offend people and to just write as my best self to keep every type of person in mind when I’m writing.
“I love that Allison actually has follow-through and gets things done. She thinks about things in a way that is very smart and thinks about things in a way that is realistic and smart and able to be a thing,” Gaby starts when I ask them what their favorite thing about the others writing approach is.
“A lot of times, you’ll meet someone and they’ll be like, ‘Here’s my floating idea and I don’t know maybe it’s an art exhibit or something.’ Like, they don’t know what they’re trying to do and Allison really knows what she’s trying to do and knows the way to do it. She actually has structure and things in mind and follow-through and will sit down and do it,” Gaby explains adding that since working with her, she’s learned how to incorporate that structure and development to her work.
“I think that Gaby makes me write to the height of my intelligence and makes it as inclusive of as many people as possible,” Allison comments. “I’ve learned that jokes aren’t perfect, they can offend people and to just write as my best self to keep every type of person in mind when I’m writing.”
It’s obvious that the two are aware of what their work has the potential to do. That’s one of the main reasons the two chose to do a Young Adult novel: to reach out to their audience and to create content that includes subject matter that young adults identify with but rarely see normalized (or included without a stigma involved) in work aimed towards them.
Now on their book tour, Gaby and Allison are doing a live show and book signing with all of the personal proceeds made from the sales going to United Way Houston to help with Hurricane Harvey relief. Regardless whether or not the two were looking to become role models or inspirations when they realized they wanted to be writers and comedians, the two have shown time and time again that they’re worthy of the status.
You can buy tickets to the Gaby and Allison Hate Everyone But You Live Show here. Their Chicago, IL stop is 7 pm tonight, September 8th at Lincoln Hall.
(photo cred: Robin Roemer)