Toni and Gretchen are the couple everyone envied in high school. They've been together forever, and never fight. They're deeply, hopelessly in love. When they separate for their first year at university, they know they'll be fine. Sure, other long-distance relationships might have fallen apart, but theirs is bound to stay rock--solid…right?
The reality of separation quickly hits. Toni, who identifies as genderqueer, meets a group of transgender students and immediately finds the sense of belonging that has always been missing. Gretchen, meanwhile, struggles to remember who she is outside their relationship and begins to wonder where, as a lesbian, she fits into Toni's new world.
As distance and the effects of Toni's shifting gender identity begin to wear down their relationship, the couple must decide ̶ have they grown apart for good, or is love enough to keep them together? What We Left Behind, is a touching love story with a difference: a tale of young lovers divided, a search for identity and a determination to find our place in the world.
Robin Talley excels at writing about difference, subtly subverting traditional storytelling forms to describe the experiences of those so often excluded from these narratives. Her acclaimed debut, Lies We Tell Ourselves, was heralded by America's NPR as 'an absolutely thrilling, head‐over-heels love story that owes a great deal to traditional romance novel modes of storytelling (while blowing a big raspberry at their whiteness and heteronormativity)".
Robin spends her nights and weekends writing young adult fiction about queer characters, and hanging out with her family. She also reads a lot of young adult books and spends an inordinate amount of time getting worked up about things that shouldn't happen in the world, and yet somehow keep happening. She lives in Washington, DC.
What We Left Behind
Author: Robin Talley
Question: What inspired the story of What We Left Behind?
Robin Talley: What We Left Behind actually started out as the sequel to another book, where Toni and Gretchen were just secondary characters. I wound up trashing that first book to focus on this one, which put the two of them front and center, because Toni and Gretchen were ― and still are ― my favorite characters I've ever written.
Question: How does it feel to be compared to John Green?
Robin Talley: Wow, did someone compare me to John Green? That's cool! I really like his writing. An Abundance of Katherines is my favorite book of his. I used to have a serious crush on Lindsay.
Question: What was the best thing about creating the character of Toni?
Robin Talley: I love the tension between Toni's intensely intellectual, analytical way of looking at the world and simultaneous tendency toward making impulsive, irrational decisions that often fly in the face of logic. It's a dynamic that I think of as being very teen. The world is full of incredibly smart, wise-beyond-their-years teenagers who nevertheless make terrible decisions all the time, and I think Toni is very emblematic of that.
Question: There are several issues raised in this book. Was this deliberate or did the story evolve this way?
Robin Talley: What We Left Behind is a character-focused story, and for me it's always been first and foremost about Toni and Gretchen and their relationship. Like a lot of university students, Toni and Gretchen and their friends think a lot about the world around them and where they fit into it, which leads to a lot of discussions about everything ranging from politics to social dynamics to communities and labels. I still find those conversations just as interesting as I did in my own student years, so it was a lot of fun to write about the way these characters are looking at the world.
Question: What advice do you have for aspiring writers or artists?
Robin Talley: The most important part of being a writer or artist is doing the work. Dreams of creating are great, planning is great, but the only way to get good at your craft is to spend as much time doing it as you possibly can. For years I dreamed of being a writer, but I was afraid to actually try my hand at it because I didn't think my writing would be good enough. Spoiler: It wasn't. Because I hadn't practiced. But once I started seriously putting in the time crafting stories, my writing started to get better. That's how I learned that every word counts toward your practice goals, even the bad ones!
Interview by Brooke Hunter