Kevin van Whye is a writer born and raised in South Africa, where his love for storytelling started at a young age. His debut YA novel Date Me, Bryson Keller will be released May 19th of this year. Kevin recently talked with us about religion and queerness, Los Angeles, and his romcom inspirations.
Hi, Kevin! It appears that you were writing stories at a very young age, and I’m interested in hearing about some of the stories you came up with in your youth.
I wrote quite a bit as a teen. Most of those stories were never finished but I do remember some of them. There was my Mortal Instruments-esque story about the descendants of the disciples who battled demons and evil and such. There was a utopian story where everyone was forced to be happy all the time.
The first novel that I finished was an Alice in Wonderland retelling from the point of view of the future Queen of Hearts. The book landed me my first agent. Unfortunately, it died a miserable death on submission to editors. But that was the start and without that experience I would not be where I am today.
You don’t often see queer YA touch on the topic of religion (the last time I read a YA novel dealing with religion it was Zack Smedley’s Deposing Nathan, which did so wonderfully), and so I’m wondering what inspired you to tackle this topic in Date Me, Bryson Keller.
Religion is still a large part of a lot of people’s lives, and a lot of queer youth have to deal with it. So, I knew that it would play a role in this story from the get-go. DATE ME, BRYSON KELLER is not autobiographical but some of my own experiences definitely influenced the story— and the topic of religion was one of them. I grew up with religion. My father’s uncle is a Pastor and so religion was always around me. As a teen I even attended a convent school for a few months—it had nuns and day mass and everything. And so it was a theme I was very interested in exploring.
Your novel is set in “Fairvale, California,” a town bordering Los Angeles. Why create a fictional town? And as an Angeleno myself, I’m wondering why set the story in the L.A. area?
Because I am from South Africa, I found it easier for me to create a fictional town. With Fairvale I was able to pluck bits and pieces of places I researched on the internet with towns/cities from here. With my editors help I was able to further ground this fictional town.
L.A has always fascinated me to be honest. I think growing up and watching all the stuff coming out of Hollywood, it’s always held a sort of allure to me. So, I don’t think it was really a conscious decision on my part. I knew Fairvale was a beach town and that screamed California to me. When it came to a concert and nightlife and the indie music scene that screamed L.A and thanks to some research I found the perfect spot in L.A for the concert to unfold in.
Coming out stories will always be important. And so too are stories with happy endings for queer people, and I really wanted to tell a story that encompassed both those things.
While some books make homophobia nonexistent or the central storyline, your book manages to explore the realities of being queer (and of color) while not making that the focus. How did you go about that?
I knew from the get-go that I wanted to tell a coming out story, but I didn’t want it to be issue driven instead I wanted it to be romance driven. And so, I describe DATE ME, BRYSON KELLER as a coming out story with a rom-com sensibility. Coming out stories will always be important. And so too are stories with happy endings for queer people, and I really wanted to tell a story that encompassed both those things.
I’ve seen this book compared to Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and I definitely see that. What other books have inspired yours?
A source of inspiration was the manga SEVEN DAYS: MONDAY-SUNDAY by author Venio Tachibana and illustrator Rihito Takarai. Overall, I wished to tell a story with gay characters that were fully immersed in the LGBTQ+ narrative. DATE ME, BRYSON KELLER is a story for the LGBTQ+ reader that reflects the world we live in. Aside from TO ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED BEFORE by Jenny Han, there was another contemporary YA book that played a very big role in getting me to write this book, and that was SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA by Becky Albertalli.
Many of our readers are QTBIPOC emerging writers. Do you have any advice for them as they begin their career?
My biggest advice is “never give up.” Believe that your story has worth, because it does. You are the only person in this world able to write the story you want to tell, the way you want to tell it. So never give up on yourself. Some days it’ll feel like your self-belief is all that’s keeping you going. We all have those moments, but you have to keep at it! The world deserves our stories!
What does success look like to you?
Success is different for everyone, but to me, it’s being able to continue telling stories. This is what makes me happy. So, if I’m able to keep doing what I love then I’ll consider myself successful.
Many people especially QTBIPOC folx, find it difficult to find community. inQluded is a platform, a community. Did you have a community growing up? How did you find it?
I did. I was very fortunate in that regard. In High School I found a friend for life. My best friend and I have known each other for over ten years now. Our fathers were business acquaintances, and at first that made things awkward for us but then one day we found out that we actually had so much in common, and since then we’ve never looked back. We live in different cities now, but our bond is still there stronger than ever.
My best friend and I went to different universities. I ended up at film school, and so I was very anxious about not having any friends. But the amazing thing about a place like film school is that you automatically have something in common with everyone around you. We all came to school to make films and so it was easy to make friends. And that’s how the ‘fourth row rejects’ were born. It’s the name we had given ourselves for a group film project that we were working on. When we’d been assigned, we just so happened to be sitting in the fourth row, and well everyone else grouped together and we decided to do so too. But when the project ended, we found we actually really liked each other and so we became the best of friends. Though it’s been several years we still have our very active group chat. (Though the group chat name keeps changing, thanks to one of my friends!)
The theme for our issue is “bloom.” We will center our issue around challenges surrounding mental health and how we bloomed as a result. Do you have any experience with persevering and blooming that you’d be willing to share?
I was forced to drop out of college in my second year due to my financial situation. I remember at the time feeling like the rug had been pulled out from under me. I had given so much of myself and yet I was left with nothing. I remember thinking “what do I do next?”. The life I’d envisioned was slipping away from me. So, my mental health at that time was not great and it took me a long time to get myself back on my feet. But I was lucky because writing seemed to help. So, I poured all my emotions into my writing. And that book became the light at the end of my tunnel. With that book I signed with my first agent.
interviewed by Aaron Aceves