Cool for the Summer: An Interview with Dahlia Adler

Let me open with this: what inspired your latest book, Cool for the Summer?

It’s funny because I know a lot of people think that it was inspired by Grease, but it was not. It was actually inspired by reading a YA book more than five years ago that also had a summer love interest and a school-year love interest. And I thought, “I feel like I would love this more if the love interests were not both boys,” and that’s how it started. Of course, I also love the song “Cool for the Summer” by Demi Lovato, so I thought about what a book version of that song would look like. Those two ideas meshed together, and for the summer destination idea, I had just taken a trip to the Outer Banks about a year after I read that YA book. So all those things came together and made Cool for the Summer happen.

Can you tell me a little bit about where your love of storytelling came from and how you decided to dedicate your life to creating these narratives?

It’s actually only a part of my life because I also have a day job and two kids. But this came from all the way back. I am the youngest by a lot, and I was a very early reader. That means at ages four and five I was picking up my siblings’ Sweet Valley High books that were around the house and deeply not understanding what I was reading. I was just so into the cool lives that they were having—those Wakefield twins—and I knew it didn’t look like the kind of life I was going to have. I was thinking, “what a great way to live both.” I could kind of do one life through fiction and one through what I was actually experiencing. I started to tell stories that were absolute rip-offs of a combination of Sweet Valley High and The Baby-Sitters Club. Eventually, around high school, I started telling my own stories that were actually my own stories. I started writing YA before I was even a YA, and the love of that never went away.

One of the things I found most striking about the book is just how funny it is. Every description is just making me giggle and makes me feel so close to the narrator. Are you just naturally that funny?

Oh yes, I am hilarious. I’m so glad whenever my humor translates because it often does not. I appreciate that you like it. Other people might find the main character unbearable, and that always happens. Some people like you and some people don’t. Some people think you’re funny and some people don’t. My characters often have my sense of humor in there somewhere. Lara, who’s the main character, and I are not so similar actually, and she’s so much more extroverted and I’m so much more introverted. I tend to just write with my voice everywhere.

Lara seems very outgoing and would rather go to parties instead of stay at home with a book. What was it like to switch your instincts and get into that extroverted perspective?

It’s hard! It’s kind of like thinking about the opposite of what I would do. My instinct for Lara is to be like, “nah, I’m just going to sit on the couch.” I wish I was more out there, and I wish I was less lazy. So I kind of thought of Lara that way. It was really important to me that she be a more outgoing, extroverted, and frankly cool character than I am. A lot of YA, including most of the YA that I write, has very internal main characters. They’re kind of loners and more introverted and especially sarcastic. That’s very common for a YA character. But this was the personality I really wanted for her: being a girl in this position, figuring out her sexuality. I wanted somebody who was in the spotlight, and I wanted somebody who wasn’t a wallflower to be figuring this out with all of the risks that go along with that. Because coming out for Lara was not really unsafe, but she had to assess all the different ways it would affect her life. I really did have to reach far beyond who I am and my comfort zone. I feel like that was worth it.

If it was a little bit more difficult for you to tap into Lara’s mind, who do you think you identified most with in the book?

I definitely in part identify with Lara. I would say I kind of tore myself in half between her and Jasmine. I’m like Jasmine in that I desperately want to get to the point already and spend a lot of time on the couch. I always want to be home on the couch. The parts of her that love books and have a more indie rock taste in music, all that stuff in Jasmine is more me. She is more affiliated with Judaism than Lara is, and that’s also more me. Jasmine is Syrian, which I’m not, so my background ethnically is more similar to Lara. But the whole scene where Jasmine has a Shabbat dinner with her mother—I do that with my family every Friday night. Those parts are all me. And some of my emotional qualities are definitely in Lara, like wearing her heart on her sleeve and wanting to people please. And the fact that she’s an aspiring romance author. Her journey on that was my journey with another book of mine. That was very much pulled directly from me. Then, Kiki is like who I wish I was. Kiki is one of Lara’s best friends. She’s the most fun, she has all of the hobbies and style I wish I had.

Talk to me a little bit about the process of this book. How long did it take you to write?

The process was actually really smooth for something I didn’t outline. I had been struggling through what was actually going to be my next book for years, and I just could not nail it. Part of that was because it required so much research. What’s so nice about Cool for the Summer is that I didn’t need to do more research. It was set somewhere I’d been and somewhere I’d lived. I was giving Lara and Jasmine backgrounds I knew about. I actually wrote the first 15,000 words on my commute on the train. Before the pandemic, I was commuting three hours a day. Then I would come home to a kid, and there was so little time for the writing and none for the research. When I realized that this was the book I could write on the train, I prioritized it. Thankfully, writing this book was absolutely the smoothest process for me. Every time I thought, oh no, I’m having a writer’s block, within the week I would figure out where I was going. It honestly felt like a miraculous process, which is how I knew it was absolutely the right book at the right time for me. I was very lucky with this one.

You talked a little bit about the difference between letting the prose pour out and using an outline. How do you decide which strategy you’re going to take?

I feel like I don’t get to decide anything. Things work or they don’t work. Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth—if a book is meant to be written by you at that time, there is a scene somewhere in there that will pour out of you. I know some people like to save those scenes, and they want to wait until they get there. So when I’m desperate, I write the scene that’s pouring out now, because I’ll learn things about the characters, and I’ll learn things about their voices. There are things that will come out naturally in those scenes that are not going to come out in your pulling-teeth scenes. That said, if you write all the scenes you’re too excited about up front, you are never going to want to finish the book. So there is definitely a strong balance needed in doing that, but that’s usually my strategy. I find the part of the book that I’m so excited to write, and when I really need to, I will let myself skip to it. I’ll try to use that scene to advance the parts that have been harder for me.

My real desperation move, which I did enact with my next book, is the phone-a-friend option. This is just talking it out and letting them ask the questions that you don’t have the foresight to ask yourself about your own work. Ideally, every book just pours out, but when it doesn’t, there are some different methods you can use. Sometimes, when nothing else works, it’s just a sign that it’s not the book for you right then, and then maybe you can dig into one of your other ideas and see if something else is going to come out much faster.

You mentioned you did a lot of writing on the train. How in the world are you managing a day job, a family, and writing books?

There were years where I didn’t publish anything but short stories, and those were big stretches of time. I have a wonderful husband, and I had one kid at the time, so he took my now four-year-old son for a few hours on a Sunday or my in-laws did. I made the best use of those few hours. That’s the thing when you only have four hours a week to write. You are going to use them. But the year I last published a novel was in 2016. So in 2017, I was writing words that were going to be in my 2022 book. Maybe 2019 was when I wrote Cool for the Summer. Then, I had these YA anthologies that I published: His Hideous Heart and That Way Madness Lies. Those are both reimaginings of the works of Poe and Shakespeare, so that required a lot of my editorial time. I edit on a rolling basis, so you just figure out where the slots are in your schedule. You have to be so protective of your writing time, even when it makes you look like a jerk.

We’ll see what happens after 2022. Next, I have to write another book from scratch. We’ll see how long that takes now that it’s two children and no commute. No commute sounds like it should be a time saver, but it just means I have child care for a longer window. That window for writing isn’t there, so the truth is, I don’t know how it’s going to go for the future. I’m still happy to be home, but I appreciate that commuting gave me writing time.

What was your motivation for creating these two anthologies? Was it difficult fitting them into your busy schedule? 

The idea for Poe and His Hideous Heart came about when I had posed a question on Twitter just for fun: “If you could match up any author to reimagine any story, what would it be?” And this teacher replied and said a Poe anthology, and then she named a few authors. I loved that idea, and I mentioned some other authors. Those authors replied like, “I would do that!” and then, a couple of other authors were like, “I would do that, too!” Then I realized that this was going to happen. I had the time, because frankly, I wasn’t really working on a novel then. I was going on about five years with no agent, and I was doing short story contributions to other anthologies for which I didn’t need an agent. I thought this project was a great way to move forward, but also, I was just so excited by the idea of this anthology.

I can’t write them for my life, but I love thrillers and horror and dark fantasy. I really wanted to see that book happen. I had a strong network, I blogged for Buzzfeed, and I blogged for Barnes & Noble for six years. I’ve also run a site called LGBTQ Reads for the last five years. So, I felt like I could make the best version of this book happen. And then, once it happened, I was doing Cool for the Summer. I think the offer for Cool for the Summer came on my pub day for His Hideous Heart.

I really wanted to do this again—this thing where classic works are made more accessible and more interesting. And they can show different kinds of people with different backgrounds in classic literature and how there’s a place for everyone. The second author I thought of after Poe was Shakespeare. A second anthology was so much work because I handle contract negotiations, tax forms, and payments. Editing aside, there are a zillion other things that are a nightmare. I don’t know how many more anthologies I have in me because they are just so much. I do hope to keep writing novels, so we’ll see how things go.

Last question: what do you think is the one thing you really wanted to say with Cool for the Summer? Do you think you succeeded in this?

I would say my biggest thing with Cool for the Summer was that there is no right way to journey into your identity and your self-realization, and I feel like it got there. I think people very by and large have felt my intentions with bi representation and with the journey that Lara takes. There are a lot of things in there that are not favorites for people, and it’s a little messy. Despite how much people hate love triangles and YA, I feel like things have really been taken in the way intended, which I do not take for granted. So, I think overall, it’s been taken well and resonated with people in a way that feels really wonderful to see. I’ve heard a lot of people reach out to me and say “I wish I could give this book to teen me” or “this is the book I wish I had as a teen.” That feels wonderful to me, and I also hope teens are reading it and feeling glad they have this book. In a way, I wrote it as somebody who also wished they had it as a teen. I had a mom reach out to me to say she wanted to know if my book was age-appropriate for her daughter because it’s the first YA romance she has ever requested her mom get for her. That was actually months ago, and I’m not sure if she realized the book wasn’t out yet at the time. So I’m curious if she ended up getting it, and if the daughter ended up reading it and liking it. I would kill to hear from her.

Dahlia Adler, Interviewed by Dani Hedlund

Dahlia Adler is an Editor of mathematics by day, LGBTQReads overlord and Buzzfeed book blogger by night, and an author of Young Adult and Romance at every spare moment in between. Her novels include the Radleigh University trilogy, Indie Next pick Cool for the Summer, and Home Field Advantage (Wednesday Books, 2022); she is the editor of the anthologies His Hideous Heart (a Junior Library Guild selection), That Way Madness Lies, and At the Stroke of Midnight (Flatiron Books, 2022); and her short stories can be found in those collections as well as in The Radical Element, All Out, and It's a Whole Spiel. Dahlia lives in New York with her family and an obscene number of books, and can be found on Twitter and Instagram.

After the publication of her first novel at the age of eighteen, Dani Hedlund founded the international literary nonprofit Brink Literacy Project (formerly Tethered by Letters). Over the course of the last decade, Brink has grown into one of the largest independently-funded literary nonprofits in the nation, with bases across the US, UK, and Southeast Asia. She is also the founder and Editor-in-Chief of F(r)iction, an art and literary collection specializing in boundary-defying work. Since its inception in 2015, F(r)iction has risen to critical acclaim, becoming one of the fastest growing literary journals in the world. In her ever-elusive free time, Dani lectures about the ins and outs of the publishing industry, writes very weird fiction, and runs a strange little board game company called Bad Hipster Games.