Author L.C. Rosen (also known as Lev AC Rosen) is back with a brand new YA book, Emmett, which officially released on November 7. The latest novel from Rosen is a modern-day, gay retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma. It follows title character Emmett Woodhouse, an 18-year-old who lives a life of privilege with his good looks, good grades, and financially stable home, among other things. As such, Emmett does his best to give back how he can, striving to be a nice person. So, when his friend-with-benefits Harrison decides he wants a boyfriend — something Emmett firmly does not want — Emmett seeks out the perfect guy for Harrison. However, as Emmett’s search wears on, he realizes that love isn’t as straightforward or easy as he expected.
Rosen is an award-winning author whose work spans age ranges within the YA and adult space. Beyond Emmett, Rosen most recently released his latest adult novel The Bell in the Fog in October, a follow-up to Lavender House. In YA, Rosen is known for books such as Camp, Lion’s Legacy, and Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts).
In conjunction with Emmett‘s release, we had the chance to interview Rosen about writing an updated version of Emma, how he approached the story, and more.
Nerds & Beyond: First things first, congratulations on Emmett! I had a blast reading this book, and I can’t wait for people to get their hands on it. For those who don’t know, it’s a modern-day gay retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma. What prompted you to tackle and reinvent this particular story? Were there any specific elements that stuck with you from Austen’s work to inspire your own?
L.C. Rosen: Thank you so much! I mean, I’d always loved Austen and Emma is a fave (along with Northanger Abbey), so it had always been in my mind. I love that quote Austen has about writing someone everyone is going to hate – like I absolutely wanted to do that, to give myself permission to write someone who is totally the worst. Which most people don’t like seeing in queer characters. But it was at this romance-round table interview I did where I was talking with other authors about what a happy ending in a YA romance looks like – because teens lives are just starting. I’ve always felt a little iffy about them, about encouraging the idea of someone you meet when you’re 17 being your forever person, but that round table really helped me sort of work past that discomfort and crack what a sort of “true love” story would look like. And that led me to the over-the-top Bridgerton romance visuals in the book, too – wouldn’t it be funny if romance itself is larger than life not just in the people, but in the environment? Then it all came together. Book ideas are like little magnetic pieces floating in my mind – once enough have clicked together, it works, and I start writing.
Nerds & Beyond: One of the primary aspects of this book is that Emmett is very focused on being nice, and I would argue that he is a nice character. It also got me thinking about how there is a distinct difference between someone who is nice versus someone who is kind. Why was it important to you maintain that Emmett is specifically nice not only in how he views himself, but how he interacts with others?
L.C. Rosen: I’ve been thinking of the Sondheim Into the Woods quote so much these past years. “Nice is different than good.” As a queer person, I think that distinction has become very clear, lately. So many people who are nice to us, tell us they have no problem with queer people, voted for a man whose campaign platform involved undoing gay marriage. And then, when we were like, “so you don’t actually care about queer people,” we were told we weren’t being nice. Or even people who didn’t vote for him – they still chat with people who did, are friends with them, and invite them to events with us, and if we confront them over how they have literally tried to take away our rights, if we tell our friends that they’re saying they’re okay with that, then again, we’re not nice. Nice is politeness, nice is covering up truths for the sake of no one being uncomfortable. For Emmett, nice is letting someone he finds annoying sit with him and then taking little “friendly” digs at her. It might be nice to let her sit there, but it’s not coming from a place of kindness. It’s not good. And I think that’s something we could all stand to point out more often.
Nerds & Beyond: Of course, a major part of the story is Emmett’s quest to find Harrison a boyfriend, which first comes through with Clarke — who is obsessed with his social media views and following. That was something I think is pitch perfect especially for this day and age. Do you think people who do post a lot online about their relationships searching for external validation can maintain healthy ones? What do you hope readers take away from seeing how Clarke approaches relationships versus others’ response to learning about Clarke’s agenda?
L.C. Rosen: I think relationships online today, especially queer ones, are often more advertising partnerships. Which isn’t to say some of these people can’t be genuinely in love, but choosing to use their relationship as a sales tool inevitably makes it a business partnership, and they often feel that way to me, too, from the outside. I think it’s funny how the queer male relationships especially, the “love is love” kind of ones, tend to be selling mostly to straight people. I’m not judging – get your money, boys – but what does it say about us as a society that relationships are a form of commerce now? Clarke talks about follower counts and posts and sponsorships he wants. He never talks about love. If capitalism has turned relationships into a form of sales, then what does wanting a relationship look like to teens being raised on that stuff? If you grow up and all the queer relationships you see are really just advertising for something… what is a real romance?
Nerds & Beyond: Throughout most of Emmett’s mission, he’s adamant that he himself doesn’t want a boyfriend. I thought his logic of not yet having a fully developed brain was such a cool way of justifying his thought process. In the book, that comes from his mother, but I’m curious why that was a tidbit you as an author decided to include?
L.C. Rosen: Because I sort of believe it. Not like Emmett does. But I do believe you shouldn’t get married until you’re at least 26 because you don’t know who you are until you’re 25, and then you should take a year to meet that person. To me that’s very sensible. Now, I don’t think you shouldn’t date or anything, like Emmett, and if at 26 you want to marry the person you’ve been with ten years, that’s amazing, you’ve grown together! But generally, when you’re a teen, you’re still figuring yourself out. I don’t think you should also be worrying about finding your forever person while you’re doing it. That’s way too much pressure. So, it’s included because I think there’s some truth to it.
Nerds & Beyond: We learn that Emmett’s mother died, and it takes a noticeably profound toll on his father, who struggles with hypochondria. It also, I think, fits incredibly well his character and his interactions with Emmett. How did you land on hypochondria as the type of anxiety he faces as opposed to something like OCD or more generalized anxiety?
L.C. Rosen: I can’t take credit for that one – that’s from Emma. In the original Austen text, Emma’s dad is concerned about drafts and eating healthy gruel, always very worried about Emma being sick. I just turned gruel into antioxidants.
Nerds & Beyond: For me, one of the biggest indicators that I’ll enjoy is a book is the character dynamics, and I love the ones in Emmett. We see a lot with Emmett and his friends, Emmett and his father, even between other characters like Miles’ moms, etc. They all feel organic and unique, in my opinion. Can you talk a little about how you approached creating some of these characters and building the relationships between them?
L.C. Rosen: Well, I started with the characters from Emma. Emma became Emmett, of course, and Harriet became Harrison. I decided early on that since this was about queer characters that it should be messier – lovers, friends, hook-ups all coming from the same pool, as opposed to how it is for straight people, who are told to befriend their own sex and date the other, makes it messier. So right off the bat, I decided Emmett and Harrison should be more than friends. Then there was Mrs. Taylor in the book, who becomes Taylor in Emmett. She’s barely in Emma, so I had more reign with who she was, and I knew she had to be someone who saw the best in Emmett, even when the reader might not. And then with folks like Clarke and Georgia, they’re pretty much modernized. Mr. Elton is status-seeking, so Clarke is follower-seeking. Miss Bates is obsessed with her niece Jane, so Georgia is obsessed with her bestie John, who’s studying abroad this semester. Almost everyone is drawn from Emma in some way, and then refashioned, edited to the times and to the story I wanted to tell. Once I had a handle on them through that, having them interact is just a matter of figuring out who they are in each moment, and what they’d want and do to get it. Almost all these characters have known each other for ages, so there’s no need to awkwardly get to know them – they just have to be who they are with one another. Sorry, I know that’s not so helpful but once I have a handle on the character, they tend to just fall into place.
Nerds & Beyond: One character that really caught my attention was Miles. He’s such a great foil to Emmett, and I loved that later reveal with him. Did you always plan for Miles to reach that revelation the way he did, or was it something you had written much earlier and decided to save? Or none of the above?
L.C. Rosen: Mmmmm, spoiler territory. Let’s keep this brief and just say it was always the plan.
Nerds & Beyond: A small recurring event in the book is that things often fall around the couples, like the items at the art exhibit, the spices with Jasmine and Priyanka, and so on. So just as a fun little question, if you were to get caught in a moment like that, what would you want falling around you?
L.C. Rosen: Oh gods, something easy to clean up. Not glitter, or anything remotely glittery. Spices could get in your eyes. Flowers fall a lot in the book, and those seem safest. At one point there’s a bunch of condoms, too. That would be easiest to clean up I think (they’re still in the foil). I do like sometimes throwing large, wadded balls of paper down on my cat. She seems to love that. I bet that’s pretty fun.
Nerds & Beyond: Finally, what are you most proud of with Emmett?
L.C. Rosen: Oh, that’s a tough one. I’m proud of all of it, really. I’m proud I convinced my editor to let me keep the “stuff falling on people” over-the-top romantic nonsense. I like that the book doesn’t quite operate in a space of realism, aesthetically, and there were concerns about that, but I stuck by my guns, and I think that makes it a really fun book. So, I’m proud of… pulling off that heightened over-the-top-candy-box-romance-cover-in-real-life-realism. If I pulled it off. Which I hope I did. See, this is why it’s a tough one.