Katie Heaney’s YA Debut Is The Queer Teen Romance Novel We Needed

Photo: Courtesy of Chris Ritter.
Katie Heaney, a senior writer at The Cut and author of several books including Would You Rather? about coming out in her late 20s, is pivoting to YA, with a charming, romantic, earnest novel called Girl Crushed. In it, we follow the magnetic Quinn, a crush-worthy, soccer-playing, masculine-of-centre teen protagonist, as she navigates a breakup with her first girlfriend and a rebound relationship with a popular girl who Quin had long mistook for straight. And, because it’s about high school, we also have college applications, sports teams, gossip, friend groups, parties, parents… Basically, all the stuff that goes into every classic teen plot ever, just extremely queer.
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In fact, there are no major cis-male characters, by design. Reading it made me feel a combination of thrilled that queer teenage girls get to grow up with books like this, and sad for myself and every other person who didn’t. Heaney herself didn’t have the experiences that her characters do, but as she told me in our conversation below, had she seen someone who looked like Quinn (or like the inspiration for Quinn, her wife), in high school, it would have changed everything.
Refinery29: So tell me about how the book came to be. I was reading that you were inspired by your wife's high school experiences.
Katie Heaney: “Yeah. The process of coming up with a new idea is really difficult for me, and I definitely don't relate when I read about other writers talking about being struck with a plot idea in the shower. It's always really agonising for me. But I knew that I wanted to do something about a high school girl who was already out, and part of it was just wanting something different than the coming-out narrative. I wanted someone who had already figured that out, and partly that was because I was so not in that place in high school, and I just kind of wanted to imagine what it would've been like if I had known.
Then from there, it was inspired by Lydia, my wife, who came out when she was 14 and had her first girlfriend sophomore year of high school. Which is just so unimaginable to me, because my high school had zero out queer people the entire time I was there. And in college there were like two out gay guys. And my high school was like 2,000 people. It wasn't even small, but I could not have imagined an out lesbian couple in school. Especially when people our age were in high school. Then from there, I came up with the story. I originally was thinking something like gay Pretty In Pink. And it still has elements of that. It's not totally that storyline, but the popularity being a theme, class differences being a theme. Those were all things that I was interested in.”
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What was it like for you getting into the character's head? Because her experiences are, as you said, so different from yours.
“I don't know that it's necessarily my wife's actual personality. It's still my sensibility, but I definitely am inspired by her story when she talks about that time. She's kind of a grandiose storyteller. So she exaggerates, and makes it sound like she was so cool, and it just, it's sort of a fan fiction version of reality. So I wanted someone who is not invincible. She has insecurities, but also someone who is just really secure in her skin in these ways that I wasn't. And kind of just, yeah, trying to imagine what that would be like. And in some ways it's easier, because she is so different from how I was in high school, to sort of just have her in my head and know what she would do in certain situations.”
Maybe this was just my read on it, but I pictured her as really cute and really crush-worthy in a way that we don't really have archetypes for right now. Especially not for teenagers. Was it a conscious decision to make her a character that easily attracted other girls?
“Yeah. That's the other thing. I think if I had seen someone who looked like Lydia when I was in high school, it would have changed a lot of things. There just was no one, and that's why I wanted her to be masculine-of-centre. Because that's the type of woman that I'm attracted to, and it's gender nonconforming, and different from what I was around when I was a teenager. And I wanted someone who made girls feel things that they weren't always sure about, and someone who was cool, and doesn't suffer socially as a result of how she looks or her orientation.”
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It's so interesting the way you wrote her, in that you never really come out and say that she's masculine-of-centre, but it's totally implied.
“Yeah. I mean, the biggest place where that comes into play is just with the cover. It's a cartoon, so it's not going to be so realistic. But I was like, "I want her to have short, short hair." And I mention her hair a few times, but that's still one of the main clues. It's still one of the ways that masculine of centre girls, especially when you're young, I feel like cutting off your hair is like an early first ritual. And yeah, it's what I've seen in pictures of Lydia when she was a kid, and just something that I again was not around at all, and that would have been really, really interesting to me, I think, had I seen someone like that when I was 15 or 16.”
Reading it, I just kept thinking that teenagers are so lucky. Not just that they get to have books like this, but that they get to live in a world where books like this are possible and celebrated. It's just so hard to imagine.
“I know. Yeah.”
Something about queer literature in general that I always find so interesting is when people insist that something is a love story that exists independent of the gender of the characters. But I was wondering if you feel like that's true with this book, or do you think the story really hinges on the queerness of the characters?
“Oh, yeah. I think it's super all about queerness. I mean, there's no major cis male characters at all, and that's not by accident. The main character is gay, her best friend/ex is gay. She has some straight friends, but she has queer friends, and she has her queer community in the coffee shop, and that's who she wants to surround herself with. I think especially, they're still within the first year or two of coming out, so to them it's still extra exciting that this is their identity, and I think that's the time when you're usually extra determined to surround yourself with other queer people. So I think, yeah, that's a huge part of it. I wanted it to be a different corner of the high school than what's usually written about.”
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