A Candid Q&A Between Becky Albertalli and Cindy Otis About ‘True or False,’ Teen Activism, and More! [EXCLUSIVE]

30 Min Read
Courtesy of and Macmillan Publishers

In a world where the internet (especially social media) has become the primary source of news for many, it can be difficult to sift through news and general information and find hope when everything seems to get progressively bleaker with each day. But fret not (at least for a few more minutes)! Becky Albertalli and Cindy Otis recently sat down with Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group to have a frank discussion about the ever-changing landscape of information and misinformation, how the 2016 election inspired their books, online activism (especially in wake of the COVID pandemic), the future of their writing, and much more. While their conversation revolves around heavy topics, they bring some of that hope back.

Becky Albertalli is the bestselling author of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. At the end of June, she released a new novella in the Simonverse, Love, Creekwood. She also released a book with Aisha Saeed earlier this year titled Yes No Maybe So, a novel that follows two teens as they canvass for a local politician. The book is a timely and captivating read about using your voice however you can. Read our full review of the book here.

Cindy Otis is a former CIA analyst who has just released her book True or False, a non-fiction YA book meant to help young adults further understand the impact of false information, as well as guide readers through the history of misinformation and share her own personal experiences. Purchase True or False here.

Nerds and Beyond is grateful and excited to exclusively release their insightful conversation. Read on below for their discussion!

Becky Albertalli. Courtesy of Decisive Moment Events

Becky Albertalli: Cindy, it’s such an honor to be speaking with you about True or False. I’m still so thrilled I had the chance to read it early. What a brilliant, timely, utterly necessary book. I’m so curious to know how you came to write it. I think I have an idea of what inspired it, but I’d love to hear if there were any specific experiences or observations that made this project feel especially urgent.

Cindy Otis: As a huge fan of yours, trust me, this is a massive honor for me! I remember telling you the idea for True or False a few years ago when it was just that – an idea – and so being able to send you the real actual book was so amazing. So, backing up, I spent 10 years at the CIA as an analyst and a bunch of other roles. When I left in mid-2017, it was a couple of months after the Intelligence Community released a declassified assessment showing that Russia interfered in the US presidential election in 2016. For most Americans, this was basically their first encounter with the reality that governments both overtly and covertly use information like a weapon to influence events in other countries, and rightfully so, there was a lot of panic. I was used to it in the world of intelligence, but that’s sort of a weird bubble kind of place where things like that are normal.

I (sort of reluctantly) joined social media and started writing about some of these issues publicly after I left government, because I thought I could maybe provide some helpful context for people who were just trying to make sense of what they were learning. And I started getting a lot of questions from folks who were scared and just wanted to know how they could sort out the fact from the fiction in their social media feeds, and I realized that my skills as an analyst could be helpful there. There wasn’t a single experience that inspired it, really, more just observing the daily sort of collective panic from people just looking for tools.

You recently published one of my favorite YA novels – Yes No Maybe So — with co-author Aisha Saeed about two teens working on their local Congressional campaign and the outcome of the election is pretty high stakes. To say it’s timely for our current political realities as well is probably an understatement. How long had you been thinking about this story before you and Aisha wrote it, and what made you realize that this was the right time to put it out into the world?

Cindy Otis. Courtesy of Decisive Moment Events

Becky: I’m a huge fan of yours, too – and thank you so much! It’s interesting how similar our paths were for these two books in certain ways. I think the inspiration came to Aisha and me pretty similarly (minus the 10 years in the CIA). But we were sitting in that same collective panic space after the 2016 election, desperate for a way to meaningfully resist Trump and everything he represents. In 2017, there was a special election to fill our congressional seat in suburban Atlanta, Georgia (it had recently been vacated by Republican congressman Tom Price, who was promoted to Trump’s cabinet briefly before resigning in disgrace). Our district had been represented by Republicans for 40 years.

It’s so interesting that you mentioned your reluctant transition to participating more consistently in online activist work via social media. Aisha and I did sort of the reverse of that. We were comfortable speaking online, but we were both pretty new at engaging with the political process offline. We made ourselves step out of our comfort zones to canvass for that special election in our district, and it ended up being a really rich and rewarding experience. Our candidate ultimately lost that election, but our district finally flipped blue in the 2018 midterm elections. And that tiny thread of hope through action became the beating heart of Yes No Maybe So.

One of the things that immediately struck me about True or False was how completely riveting it is! I think sometimes readers like me, who tend to read primarily fiction, fall into the trap of assuming non-fiction books are going to be somewhat of a slog, no matter how important or informative they are. But you managed to weave a massive amount of complex information into such a compelling narrative, it honestly floored me. I’m a nerd, don’t get me wrong, but I’m a nerd with ADHD — and I couldn’t put it down. But at the same time, even as an adult reader, I never felt like the book was holding back or talking down to me. So of course, I’m dying to know how you found that balance between complexity and readability. How intentional were you about voice? How did you decide which details to include?

Cindy: Ahhh, thank you so much for saying that because the truth is, True or False was really tough to write for a couple of reasons. I mean, the dangers of false information, and the people and groups who weaponize it, is a tough topic to begin with. As I was writing it, I could clearly see all these pitfalls I knew I could easily wander into – it could be boring or feel like one long lecture and turn readers off, or it could end up making people feel like everything is just hopeless and there is no truth, and that was exactly the opposite of what I wanted. So with True or False, I worked really hard to find a balance between being informative, absolutely, but also being engaging, accessible, interesting, actionable, and hopeful.

I think a lot of it came down to choosing what I hope are meaningful and accessible historical vignettes – stories about people and times readers would have at least heard about, like Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution – and drawing out the very real common threads and themes to what readers see online today. So stories about how fake news has been used throughout history to undermine women in positions of power, how people have used completely false racist stories against different marginalized groups and people to justify and commit violence, how governments have used fake news and propaganda to start, fight, and win wars – all things we see happening today. I’m also a huge fiction reader and writer myself, and I think that really helped me craft True or False. (In fact, when I worked at the CIA, my rule to be able to help me decompress from the stress of the job was that I could only read fiction at home because I needed time to escape the actual world.)

The first draft was honestly a mess – it read like a textbook written by a robot. And that’s because I was just so determined to get the facts down and right before working on things like voice and narrative. (The worst thing in my mind was potentially getting something massively wrong in a book about false information, so I do believe writing the first draft the way I did was an absolute necessity.) When I started working on the second draft, I had one sort of image in my mind that I thought about the whole time, and that was me, Cindy, your friendly neighborhood former CIA analyst, having a conversation with you, the individual reader. Maybe in front of a fireplace or at your favorite coffee place (does that sound creepy?).

Even though I’m a huge YA reader, I often get asked why I wrote True or False for Young Adults. Sometimes I think it’s because adults are like, “Hey! I’m the one that needs the help here!” and sometimes I think it’s because some people believe young adult readers won’t care about the issue. Beyond writing Yes No Maybe So centered around a political campaign, as you’ve said, you are very politically active. I also know from having been lucky enough to go to some of your speaking events that you make a point to use those opportunities to encourage teens to get politically engaged as well. It’s something I admire so much about you, using your voice for good. I’m so curious to know if you end up hearing from readers who have been inspired by your encouragement and activism to take action themselves!

Courtesy of Macmillan Publishers

Becky: “Cindy, your friendly neighborhood former CIA analyst.” Do you even realize what an absolute badass you are? I can’t emphasize enough how much you nailed that tone. The reading experience felt really intimate – it felt like a rich, transformative conversation with your favorite teacher or mentor. And it makes me feel so incredibly lucky that I’ve actually had the chance to sit down and grab coffee with you (and by coffee, I mean chocolate chip cookie shot glasses full of milk).

I love your question about Yes No Maybe So as an opportunity to encourage teen activism! That was something so important to Aisha and me when we were writing it. Since it launched, we’ve gotten quite a few emails and messages from teens who felt inspired to explore activism after reading, and it floors us every time. One of the most incredible moments actually happened during our book launch in Atlanta. The launch was co-hosted by Little Shop of Stories and Georgia Center for the Book, and they worked with the Georgia Muslim Voter Project to have voter registrations available for attendees. Toward the end of the signing line, three teens let us know that they were able to pre-register to vote (they were under 18 at the time of the launch, but would be able to vote in time for the actual upcoming election). We were crying over that moment for our entire book tour.

But, of course, Yes No Maybe So hasn’t been quite as literal of a blueprint for teen activism as we’d hoped it would be. There was no COVID when we wrote the book. Maya and Jamie knock on doors to canvass, and their activism is largely in-person. But we launched the book in February of 2020 — six weeks later, we were all in quarantine. It’s surreal to even remember how recently the world shifted. But it’s been amazing seeing how political campaigns and activists have adapted to our current reality. Out here in the Atlanta suburbs, groups (often organized by teens) continue to hold masked, socially distanced protests for Black Lives Matter. I’ll be participating in a Zoom fundraiser soon to support Congresswoman Lucy McBath (she’s the Democrat who flipped our district in 2018!). I’ve also seen so many teens organizing to support Jon Ossoff, the candidate who inspired Yes No Maybe So, who is now running for the US Senate. These initiatives look so different than Aisha and I imagined they would, but the energy is still there, and so much of it’s coming from teens and young people.

It’s so interesting how publishing timelines basically guarantee that a book will release into a different cultural moment than the time it was written or acquired. I keep thinking about how True or False is releasing months before the pivotal upcoming November 2020 election — in the midst of a pandemic that’s moved political conversations online to an even greater degree than before. What has it been like for you to observe these very current events through the lens of your book? Is there anything you wrote about in True or False that feels more or less relevant now than you expected?

Courtesy of Harper Collins

Cindy: I can imagine how it must feel each time you get one of those emails or messages from teens encouraged by your words. One of the first things I did when I left the federal government in 2017 was join a political campaign for my home district Congressional race in NY. It’s not something you’re allowed to do when you work for the government, so after I spent a decade analyzing political and security events in foreign countries to better protect our own, I was really excited to be part of the domestic political process. I volunteered at first and then ended up becoming the Communications Director for the heavily contested primary (which we won!). I swear, I’ve never worked so hard in my life. Interestingly, 99.99% of the time, I worked straight from my living room. My hometown district in western New York is massive, so it takes a long time to travel across. Plus, I have a physical disability and there are just days when I need to stay close to home. So, this is a long way of saying that I think my campaign experience then looks a lot like the kinds of things campaigns are having to do now during the pandemic. It definitely creates challenges, I’m sure, but I think it’s also a huge opportunity for campaigns to be more inclusive of people who would like to volunteer, but under the old system of in-person-everything, may not have been able to.

But speaking of the pandemic and getting to your question – yeah, I completely understand about it being just a weird time to put out a book, and I’ve had kind of a similar experience. I wrote True or False from 2018-2019, with revisions throughout, and in the quickly moving field of disinformation, that means the book was always going to be outdated by the time I set down the proverbial pen. But when I did, I had no idea that the largest case in history of misinformation and disinformation known already as the “infodemic” would be happening just a few months later via a global pandemic. I’ve kind of been bouncing in my seat watching it all, though, because I do really hope and believe that my book can help here.

Because of publishing timelines, there’s no chapter in True or False about the pandemic (maybe in the second edition?), but the fact is, the people intentionally using the crisis to push out false information are using the same strategies and tactics that have always been used, like playing to the fact that most of us have absolutely no clue how viruses work because we’re not doctors or scientists. Another common theme I raise throughout True or False is how pushing content that sparks strong emotions like fear and anger is the most effective way to spread false information. That’s as true back when people were writing with quills as it is now when people are writing in 240 characters online. It’s been a huge part of false information spreading during the pandemic. Ahead of the US election this year, especially while we’re also experiencing nationwide protests against police violence, most of the major false narratives that have gained a foothold online do exactly the same thing, too. The false stories that are circulating the most right now are all about the “bad guys” from the other political side coming to get you, your family, your job, and your country. And again, people and governments have used the same exact tactics throughout history, as I talk about in True or False. (Pro tip: If you have to make up things to scare the heck out of prospective voters just to win them over, you’re doing something wrong.)

Speaking of how current events is changing things, one of the things I love most about literally every single book you’ve written is how you tell these incredibly authentic stories about the contemporary challenges of the modern-day teens–coming out, bullying, divorced parents, self-acceptance, local politics–with characters who are so real to me I swear we’re all friends in real life (I’m pretty sure Simon and Molly Peskin-Suso would be my BFFs). Like 2016 inspiring Yes No Maybe So, do you think what we’re all going through collectively will affect your next projects? Are we about to get a pandemic romcom next–two teens striking up a friendship through their windows in adjacent apartment buildings while in quarantine, maybe? Because I’d be super here for it.

Courtesy of Harper Collins

Becky: I completely agree that your book is going to be such a game changer when it comes to helping people navigate the flood of pandemic information we consume online. I can already see the ways True or False has improved my ability to critically assess my own news intake. Social media makes it so easy to be sucked into false or misleading narratives — I try to be so intentional about checking my own biases, and it’s still so hard! But your book has provided such a helpful framework for me as I navigate this. I really can’t wait for this book to enter the broader conversation.

And thank you so much for your thoughts about my characters! I can confirm that Simon and Molly would absolutely be your BFFs. It’s so interesting imagining my characters grappling with COVID and quarantine, and your question about incorporating our current reality into future books is a really important one. I know this has been on the minds of many YA contemporary authors, particularly those of us who do tend to engage closely with real-world events, politics, and pop culture. My next book, Kate in Waiting, was written prior to COVID, so there’s no pandemic content there. The book I’m working on right now doesn’t engage with the pandemic either. It’s not that I’ve firmly decided never to write about teens living through COVID — I think it just feels too soon for me to process this moment enough to effectively write about it. I know some people have found my Love, Creekwood novella to be a good quarantine book, since it’s told entirely in emails (though, to be clear, the characters do not mention COVID, and they do interact physically off the page). And…I should mention that you make a little cameo in Love, Creekwood! It’s subtle — I don’t know if anyone will pick up on it — but I quietly wrote you in as a professor at Columbia. Surprise!

One thing that’s so fascinating about this conversation is the way we’re getting to explore all of these nuances as they apply to both fiction and non-fiction writing. I know you have a foot in both worlds, and I’m so curious to get your take on the different roles each type of writing can play when it comes to activism and political engagement. It’s funny — fiction is sort of like long-form fake news, particularly when you factor in the persuasiveness of emotional engagement. But, of course, fiction has a very different function and purpose than, for example, a misleading Facebook PSA by a well-intentioned friend relative. Is it ever hard for people to differentiate between fiction or satire versus misinformation?

Cindy: Um, what?? You wrote me into the Simonverse?! I literally have Love, Creekwood sitting next to my computer–reading it was the treat I was going to give myself for meeting a deadline I have, and I’m IN IT?! Oh my gosh, thank you! Give me a second to dance around my office…

Okay, now that I’ve composed myself…Satire sits in such an interesting space. When you and I write fiction, it’s labeled as such and it’s usually not being written to manipulate readers–that’s the massive difference between fiction and fake news. Readers know when they read fiction that, at most, a story might be inspired by real events, but it ultimately isn’t true. But when it comes to satire, a lot of people do fall for it. It might be because a post, website, or article isn’t properly labeled as satire, or it might be because people saw the headline or the start of the post and shared it without ever reading to the part where it’s labeled satire. It’s also often because good satire, or at least what I consider good satire, is usually about contemporary issues–it uses humor, exaggerations, and/or irony to talk about current events and people–so posts/articles sound like they almost could be true, so it can be hard to spot. Misinformation is when we share or put out false content that we don’t know is false.

I think there’s a place for satire, fiction, and non-fiction to all have a role in encouraging political activism and to warn about the danger of things like fake news. Satire can help us think more critically about political issues by showing us just how absurd things can be. Fiction can help readers connect with characters that might be made up, but have similar thoughts, feelings, and worries about what they see or experience. And non-fiction can help readers make sense of the world and the people in it. It’s something I go back to over and over again in True or False, but the key here is to investigate what you’re looking at and where the information is coming from so you don’t end up being fooled. It can be tough when social media moves so rapidly. We all want to be part of the conversations, get followers and likes on our content, and all that good stuff. But in the end, if we’re not careful with what we put out there, we could end up spreading false information.

This has nothing to do with satire, but I just have to say that I can’t *wait* for Kate in Waiting! Thank you so much for talking with me and for all your support for True or False along my publishing journey.

Becky: I’m so grateful for the work you do to minimize that spread, and I can’t wait for True or False to enter the conversation.

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By Julia
Julia is a writer/editor/content assistant for Nerds who joined the team in 2019.
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