*This interview includes mild spoilers on Please Send Help
Two years ago seems so far away looking back. But, it’s been two years since comedy duo Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin released their now New York Times best-selling book I Hate Everyone But You and two years since I first interviewed them for Teenplicity. When I hop on the phone with them this time around to discuss their brand new book Please Send Help, I think it’s fair to say we’re all in different places than before. (Like physically, but also because no one is exactly the same as they were after two years.)
Our first interview covered the protagonists of I Hate Everyone But You, Ava (a screenwriting major at USC that’s battling with feeling lonely and wanting to fit in and how that impacts her mental health, being head over heels for a guy, and the usual casual sexism just about every woman that has ever studied writing has experienced where some of your guy peers are just soo sure they understand anything you could write about more than you do) and Gen (a bisexual journalism major at Emerson who is ready to dive in deep to investigative journalism and living life without supervision which gets her into making some questionable decisions and in a classic will they/won’t they with a guy who works on the newspaper with her named Alex). It through it, the two discussed how these characters adjust to this new era of their lives starting college and what that means for having the other person in it.
We also talked about how much Allison and Gaby influenced Ava and Gen, writing flawed young women in YA as protagonists, and how as writers we can all pretty much agree that writing actually isn’t fun. This time around, the three of us talk a little about the difference between Ava and Gen in the first book versus this time around, the similarities again between the two characters and the two writers, young adulthood vs. new adulthood, and continuing to create new things as they become more known. Naturally, aliens, JFK, and Skittles are all discussed as well. (For the record, Gaby likes the sour ones but in terms of the original flavor, she likes the yellow. Allison likes the red ones. And because I’m sure you’re curious, yes my Skittles question is actually relevant to the book. The other two, you have to keep reading this interview to understand how we get there.)
Set four years after the first book, Ava and Gen have graduated from college in Please Send Help and now get to experience the real world without the confines of school. Similar to the first book, Please Send Help is an epistolary novel told through Gen and Ava’s texts and emails as they continue learning to navigate life together from separate locations. Also similar to the first book, the young women aren’t nailing the whole post-grad life thing, but at least they’re trying. (I mean, aren’t we all?)
“Ava’s in a better place than she was at the beginning of the first book,” Allison starts about where the two are mentally and emotionally now versus when we first met them. She describes their approach to this book as a reverse of I Hate Everyone But You where Ava gets to be more in her element while Gen flounders.
“Yeah, so Ava’s in New York and she’s having pretty much a dream job–a really good time,” Gaby agrees. “Whereas Gen’s in Florida and she’s isolated from the Queer community and she feels very left out. Where she fit in at Emerson, she doesn’t fit in at all where she is now.” Gaby notes that the two characters have grown a lot in those four years one example being Ava’s ability to move on from her relationship in the first book. “It just shows that like you could go through a breakup that you think is so devastating and then you don’t even care about that person,” she explains regarding Ava.
Ava works on the fictional late-night show ‘Mind the Gap’ for her hero Halona McBride as an unpaid intern and although she’s essentially working in the location of her dream job, her actual experience is doing the unfulfilling tasks for the people above her working the job. Gen, on the other hand, is writing for ‘The Fernandina Beach Centennial,’ a “failing newspaper” in Southern Florida with an editor-in-chief that is fundamentally the exact opposite of Gen.
While Ava and Gen’s experiences aren’t exactly the same as Allison and Gaby’s post-grad lives, there are some similarities. For Gaby, she went to New York immediately with the same ambition as Gen, “I was in a big rush to get my journalism career going similar to Gen. [That feeling of] desperation to get bylines and desperation to make a name for yourself–I very much had that and this sorta relentless ambition that I think Gen is dealing with which can kinda lead to tough and poor decisions.”
“I think for me, I had internships. I was an assistant and especially when you’re an assistant at a Hollywood management company, you’re so close to doing what you want to do and you see other people do exactly what you want to do but you’re the one getting the coffee,” Allison shares her experience. “So that is something that we showed in Ava’s internship: that frustration of being where she wants to be but not doing what she wants to do.”
[That feeling of] desperation to get bylines and desperation to make a name for yourself–I very much had that and this sorta relentless ambition that I think Gen is dealing with which can kinda lead to tough and poor decisions.
The two share how getting to write about Ava and Gen at this point in their lives by jumping ahead four years was always a goal although they weren’t always sure they’d get the opportunity until their editor gave them the green light. With a laugh, Allison acknowledges that the two of them could write a hundred of these books to which Gaby adds, “Yeah, I was like, ‘I wanna keep writing them until there was, like, a nursing home.’”
I tell the two that I was going to suggest the third book completely flash forward to them in a nursing home.
“The drama! The history!” Gaby exclaims at the idea.
In terms of returning to the epistolary novel writing format and what they realized about their book writing process the second time around, the way they wrote the novel was essentially the same: sitting across from each other with their own Google Docs, a strategy Gaby says they had to figure out.
Allison adds that aside from the familiarity of the writing process this time around, they also had a better idea for how the text and email format would look on the page.
“Yeah, we were unsure how it was gonna look on the page for the first one. We were like writing it and being like, ‘I hope these texts and emails translate, we don’t know,’” Gaby expands. Without having to worry about what the story would look like and how it would translate made it easier for the two to get a better understanding of the flow.
Allison points out that a difference between I Hate Everyone But You and Please Send Help is the inclusion of dates this time around. Since the story is set in Fall 2019, I ask the two about writing stories in the near future without being fully aware of what could change before the book releases that may affect the realism of the book. With a laugh, Gaby recalls a moment from the first book which includes a joke where a character dresses like the guy in the White House for Halloween. At the time, the hope was that he was going to lose so the joke would play.
“I don’t remember that at all,” Allison chimes in.
“I think about it constantly because the boyfriend dresses up as him on Halloween and it was gonna be like, ‘Haha, that’ll be whatever, that won’t be a thing,’” Gaby responds to which Allison replies, “That’s so funny.”
On a side note, I remark about the slightly simpler times then when almost every comedian had some kind of joke about how he wouldn’t win and then sadness came, or as Allison quips, “And then there were no more jokes.”
“Yeah, and then here we are now,” I respond.
Ironically (on an Alanis Morisette level of ironic), a cynical, slightly joking, and almost strained, “Yeah, and then here we are now,” is pretty symbolic of experiencing young adulthood and new adulthood. When I ask about what it was like returning to young adulthood vs. new adulthood for these characters, Allison notes the difference in structure.
“You don’t have classes, you’re not joining sororities, there weren’t like those main markers you could go to that everyone recognizes from college, so we really had to build out the world a lot more and set our own timelines for them because when you’re an adult every day is sorta the same,” she laughs.
Within the confines of college versus post-grad careers, Gaby also acknowledges the difference in geographical place. The first book is set in Allison and Gaby’s alma maters of the University of Southern California and Emerson University respectively. Meanwhile, the professional settings that Ava and Gen had to spend the majority of their time at required some more imagination. “We had to, like Allison said, build out the world more instead of just relying on our own memories of a place,” Gaby puts it.
Whenever you have an audience and whenever you’re able to write about something you care about or that you think is important, I think it’s something you should do.
The two gave a lot of thought to setting and what that did for the character’s lives, how it influenced their decisions, and how Gaby and Allison knew where they would go with the characters. Gaby’s upbringing in Florida, for instance, inspired Gen living in Florida post-grad. “I like the idea that Gen kinda goes in with this idea of what southern people are like and she gets a little bit of that, but she also gets surprised by two of the people in the book. Like she’s taken off guard by how actually nice they are and how it all works out,” she explains. “I think I wanted to do this thing of you know, the south is what it is but it’s not all bad especially because I’m from there.”
Shedding light on the preconceived notions of living in the south, especially as a young, bisexual, and opinionated woman is an important point and perspective in the book. Another important point in the book features the inclusion of a character contracting herpes and we get to see how Ava, Gen, and the other characters in the person’s life handle the situation. “It just felt like something that a lot of people deal with but is rarely discussed in books, especially about younger people. So, we thought we could give it some voice,” Allison, who came up with the idea, shares.
“I don’t know exactly how the idea came to me. I made a short film about a girl finding out she has chlamydia while at home for winter break with her parents. And I had a lot of fun with that project and it just feels like something we hadn’t really tackled yet even though it’s like so normal and common.” In a world that glorifies sex, yet heavily stigmatizes STI’s, especially within young people (more specifically with young women), it can make discussing STI’s or even just wanting to be educated on the matter and having a conversation about status feel strangely uncomfortable and shameful. It’s discussed by the characters but it was also important to Allison that the readers get an understanding of how the character feels now that she has herpes, “In terms of how she dealt with it, I just sorta put myself in that situation and–especially at that age–how it would feel. Like, how’d it feel like the end of the world and it’d be something you have to carry with great shame only to realize that oh, it’s really not that big of a deal and I don’t need to hide this part of myself from everyone and I can actually help people by being more open about it.”
“That’s something that’s very parallel in a lot of ways about sharing about my mental illness and the more you talk about it, the more you realize not only are you destigmatizing it, but also like so many people are thankful that you’re sharing your story,” Allison concludes with how they tracked that plotline.
I tell them how when I teach sex ed workshops, destigmatizing STI’s is sometimes the hardest part to get participants on board with because they’ve grown up on media that’s taught them to look at people with STI’s negatively while also deeming the idea of getting tested and discussing STI’s in the first place as taboo. “It’s such a reality for so many people,” Allison replies. “Whenever you have an audience and whenever you’re able to write about something you care about or that you think is important, I think it’s something you should do.”
“Yeah, and like you said there aren’t any. I had a friend talk about how there aren’t any YA books with protagonists that have STI’s so when Allison brought it up, I was like, ‘Oh, fuck yeah!’” Gaby exclaims. Sex/culture critic and herpes activist Ella Dawson was a consultant on the book as well with the three of them being fully aware that this was rare-to-nonexistent in the YA world especially since the character is given the opportunity to have herpes and have that not serve her whole purpose in the book.
When we first talked for I Hate Everyone But You, Gaby discussed the importance of having Gen loudly and constantly say the word ‘bisexual’ and feel empowered, excited, and comfortable being bisexual which seems small to those who aren’t aware of how hesitant some writers weirdly are with using the word. One of the best things about having Gen be a canon bisexual in the way that she is, is the fact that she’s very imperfect and very human as opposed to written like this “idealized being” that could never do wrong (even though Gen would probably argue that she is indeed an idealized being). “I know as a bisexual, I felt a lot of shame because you’re supposed to be like, ‘I’m bi but I’m not slutty,’ ‘I’m bi but I don’t care about group sex,’ ‘I’m bi but I’m monogamous,’ or whatever and I just got really tired of the respectability politics of it. And also, that I am a bad example: I’m a bisexual and I’m all the stereotypes and I exist. I don’t know what to tell you. Like, I’m sorry that is doesn’t match with what to present to straight people, but here we are,” she starts when I ask her about the importance of letting Gen get to be the quintessential Disaster Bi. (In case anyone is wondering, I do establish that I classify Ava as a Disaster Straight.)
“I think both the characters are imperfect but I wanted to make a bi girl who was what I would have been like at that age and what I would have wanted to read about and who, you know, isn’t perfect,” she continues. “I dunno, I think I did a lot of partying and drinking and making of these kinda poor decisions that are like a journey to getting where you are. Like, I’m 31, so maybe when Gen’s 31 she’ll get my, like, esteemed nirvana that I have reached–”
“Oh God,” Allison sighs.
“But until then, it’s a mess,” Gaby keeps going. “And I just wanted young bi girls to know that it’s okay that you’re a mess.”
“Yeah, I think we felt that Ava could be a mess and no one would, like, say that was bad. But there is like this stigma when you’re writing LGBTQ characters that they have to like, I dunno be role models in a way. And for Gaby, I think it was more important that it was an authentic character than like a role model because that’s not true to life,” Allison points out.
I just wanted young, bi girls to know that it’s okay that you’re a mess.
At the end of I Hate Everyone But You, there’s a point where Ava and Gen aren’t on the best of terms. In the midst of their fighting the two distance themselves from one another with one attempting to reach out more than the other until finally, the two are able to make amends. Their relationship in both books toes the line between being codependent and having an obvious love and support for one another so much that they know in order for the other to succeed in their respective careers, sometimes they have to be apart. Their ability and willingness to keep this connection while away from each other is technology and social media at its best and honestly, friendship at its realest.
So, when I ask Allison and Gaby where they think Ava and Gen would be had they not been able to survive the fallout and keep their friendship, Allison remarks with a laugh, “devastated” and then adds, “devastated and a mess,” before clarifying. “I don’t want it to ever feel like if you lose a friendship, you’ll completely lose your life. I don’t think that’s true. But, I do think that they definitely provide a safety net for each other that I think if it wasn’t there maybe the breakdown would be worse and the falls would be longer and the recovery time would be longer. They just can handle each other’s lives in a big way.”
“Gen would be dead,” Gaby says flat out. (I think it’s maybe significant to note that at first, I laugh because I thought she said, “Gen would be Gen” as in completely unphased.)
Allison laughs at Gaby’s response and goes, “I didn’t want to say it.”
“That’s how I feel. I’m always like, ‘Allison, if I hadn’t met you, would I be dead?’ And she’s like ‘I dunno, that seems extreme.’ And I’m like, ‘That seems right to me,’” Gaby shares.
At first, I’m about to jump in but then I disclaim that any response I make would be based on knowing them from their work, that although it’s personal, it’s not the same as me knowing them personally. Gaby asks if, to me, it seems like she’d be alive to which I think for a moment and then respond, “You know how almost every pop star has that one moment where they have like that rise and fall? Where everyone is like, ‘What’s going on with them?’ Maybe like that. But, I’d still believe in you to succeed.”
Having been aware of their careers since Buzzfeed and connecting to their comedy channel Just Between Us on Youtube shortly after, it’s always cool (and honestly, as a writer, hopeful) to acknowledge that Allison and Gaby have done so many projects some of which they’ve been able to release publicly out into the world, some they’re probably still working on, and some are out there somewhere in limbo. Some that are out there in the world include Gaby’s Bad With Money book and podcast and her upcoming Bury the Lede graphic novel, Allison’s scripted Gossip podcast, their joint Just Between Us podcast that started this year, various videos written, directed, and featuring them for both their Youtube channel and other channels, as well as penning articles for different websites. They’ve also penned and sold pilots and movie scripts.
There’s always a fear that you’re out of ideas. But then you go out and you live and you have another experience and you’re like, ‘Oh, I can write about that.’
With their platform ever-growing, I ask them if there’s any intimidation with each new project since more people are ideally watching what they have to give with each one. More specifically, I ask if they, as writers, think someone could be truly satisfied with the things they create to which Allison responds, yes. “I think you can be satisfied with the things you create. I’m satisfied with the things that we’ve done,” she starts. “There’s always a fear that you’re out of ideas. But then you go out and you live and you have another experience and you’re like, ‘Oh, I can write about that.’ So I think there’s almost a pressure to just keep living and keep experiencing so that there are other things to write about.”
“Yeah, I have to get better at appreciating where we’re at and what we’ve done. Because you know, you’re too close to it so you’re hypercritical,” Gaby reflects. “Then people are like, ‘We loved it!’ And you’re like, ‘I remember all the drafts that suck.’ So, I just have to get better at that kind of thing.”
With our conversation beginning to wind down, I ask them a few fan questions from Twitter, the first one being about who they would replace the other one with to be their new comedy partner if they could.
“Oh my God, someone asked this on Twitter and I was like, ‘You’re a monster!’” Gaby exclaims. After some quick discussion (including if the candidates could be anyone famous or strictly their friends) Gaby knows immediately that Allison’s pick would be Nathan Fielder.
“Oh yeah, it’s Nathan Fielder!” Allison quickly agrees. “I would replace you with Nathan Fielder.” She jokes that if I haven’t watched every episode of his Comedy Central show Nathan for You then to stop the interview and go do that.
Showing that they know each other all too well, Allison is able to correctly pick Gaby’s replacement for her in Brian Alverez. “He does that show The Gay and Wonderous Life of Caleb Gallo. It’s a web series and it’s so fucking funny. I love that guy, I think he’s very, very talented and very, very funny,” Gaby recommends the series.
The next question comes in the form of a hypothetical sent by @GingerSnap273 in the spirit of America’s Favorite Game Show played on their podcast. This hypothetical asks “Is This Rude or Are They an Alien?” With the scenario being, “A man standing in line in front of you at the grocery store starts rearranging your items as you put them on the conveyor belt. After he pays for his handle of vodka, he waves at you and says, ‘You’re welcome, have a good one!’”
“I think that person had OCD,” Allison quickly responds with a laugh. “I think that person is doing the best that they can.”
“So then, I’m going to go alien,” Gaby counters before asking the tipping question. “Is it a guy? Is it a man?” I tell her yes and then she says with zero hesitant, “Okay, then rude,” and she laughs.
“That’s what I was thinking,” I respond.
“The default for man is just rude,” Allison agrees.
“It’s because they always wanna tell you how to do shit!” Gaby groans. “Yeah, just like a condescending man to say, ‘You’re welcome’ for doing a thing you didn’t ask for.” Allison chimes in that the brand new hypothetical game should be “Is This Person an Alien or a Condescending Man?”
And then, it seems fitting in no logically explainable way that the final fan question (and technically, the final question of the interview) is about who killed JFK although, I relate it to Allison’s Gossip podcast being about a group of three women gossiping about the on-goings of their suburban town and because of both Gaby and Gen’s studying journalism with the intention of cracking the next Watergate.
Allison says point-blank, “The CIA killed him and also killed his brother.”
“Such confidence!” Gaby shouts and we laugh.
“Someone’s been watching documentaries…” I sing. to which Allison clarifies, “Someone’s been listening to too many podcasts.”
Since Allison goes with the CIA, Gaby goes with aliens which prompts me to ask if it’s the alien/actually just a rude condescending man in the last hypothetical. “Yeah! Same guy!” She confirms.
“See! World building! There we go,” Allison adds.
In case anyone is wondering as I did about if the alien/’actually just a rude, condescending man’ did the hypothetical before or after killing JFK, Gaby expands on the conspiracy that the alien/’rude, condescending man’ is also a time traveler.
“I’m not as good at these as you are!” Gaby says to Allison when she goes, “Okay…”
“We all have our strengths,” Allison replies also noting to me that Gaby just didn’t want to have the same answer as her.
To which Gaby responds, “That’s why we’re friends!” Which honestly, not only wonderfully sums up their public dynamic, but also of Ava and Gen’s dynamic and why both duos work the way that they do.
Today, the two kick off their week-long book signing tour before starting their live podcast tour next week. A few guests have already been confirmed to be in attendance for the live shows which Allison and Gaby assure will be a lot of fun and give listeners a chance to see the parts of the podcast that get edited out which in itself is probably going to be a fun time.
Please Send Help hits shelves TOMORROW. You can buy Please Send Help online here.
(photo cred: Robyn Van Swank)