You’re about to hear a lot more of Robbie Couch—the LA-based writer is a rising star in the Young Adult literature world, thanks to the buzz and critical acclaim for his debut novel, The Sky Blues. The novel tells the story of Sky Baker, a small-town teen who fights back after his promposal gets leaked to his entire school!
The author previously hosted a YouTube series on LGBTQIA+ issues, but he’s also an editor and journalist that’s worked for the Huffington Post, Upworthy, and Versa News. Now, the first-time novelist sits down with ProgressPop to talk about his creative philosophy and…his fear of birds?!
ProgressPop: I know these are some trying times, to put it lightly. But what are some ways that you’re coping right now?
Robbie Couch: I made it a goal to get outside and go for jogs/walks in the park near my place …Things are going crazy with The Sky Blues stuff, which is really exciting. And then on top of that, I have another deadline for book two on April 9th.
And I’m at my desk, seemingly 20 hours a day. So I’ve made it a point to get outside every day and try to stretch my legs and get fresh air. And I know I sound a seventy-year-old, but that’s truly a goal of mine.
What’s the most queer piece of media that you saw as a kid, but it wasn’t openly queer?
Oh my gosh. Well, there’s several answers to that. This wasn’t like the moment where I knew I was gay, but one of like in retrospect, one of like the signs that people probably picked up on, I didn’t. I loved the yellow power ranger, Trini. I didn’t like any of the guys, but I was obsessed with Trini. I had like, like the yellow, blow-up doll thing. I had a book that replaced her name with my name in a Power Ranger’s book. It was nuts. Not to say little straight boys can’t love the pink ranger and the yellow ranger. They totally can, but I think I took it to a whole other level.
There’s a book called Auntie Mame that was turned into a movie, and I think there’s been a play or stage adaptations. And it’s definitely dated to be sure, if you were to read it now, there’s certainly some problematic themes. But I remember reading it when I was younger when I was a kid and it just totally swept my little heart away because even though there was nothing explicitly queer about it, there were so many undertones to the story. The story is basically this little orphan boy who gets sent to live with his aunt in New York city when he’s a kid, because his parents are gone and he comes from a very conservative upbringing.
And his dad was a businessman and his auntie Mame is just so flamboyant, off-the-wall, and is friends with all different types of people, and they go on adventures together. And, there was nothing explicitly queer about it, but I was just so drawn to that story. That, yeah, looking back at it, it was definitely one of those moments that I think was therapeutic for me as a kid. And it really made a pretty big impact on who I am and my love of writing and storytelling
What inspired the particular story of The Sky Blues?
I first started writing it back in 2016. It was during the 2016 campaign, once a certain candidate started really drawing attention and getting a lot of positive responses in my home state of Michigan. That was really scary to see that candidate really resonate with people in small towns like the one I grew up in and seeing how that sort of rhetoric and that sort of politics would affect marginalized kids, whether that’s BIPOC communities or LGBTQ kids. It really inspired me to try to center a story of someone who was marginalized in a town the one I grew up in. And then on top of that, I remember doing a story where I interviewed youth who had experienced homelessness. And, although I had known it was a huge systemic issue at the time, it really opened my eyes to how horrible and tragic it is that young kids are kicked out of their homes just for being LGBTQ.
You’ll see if you read the book that, another big theme that comes to play is that, while Sky isn’t homeless per se, he’s dealing with family rejection that puts them in a position where you’re very easily, could be homeless. I think that the dam kind of burst and the idea of Sky Baker kind of came to me, who lives in Northern Michigan. But I think those were kind of the two big catalysts that kind of got the ball rolling on the story. And of course I’m from Michigan, so it was very easy for me to let my own experiences inform the story and how it played out.
What’s unique about the YA genre that made you choose it?
I always loved YA. I’ve always been really drawn to stories that captured the teenage experience. Not that there’s a singular teenage experience, but that time in young people’s lives is so pivotal. You’re going through so many changes. There’s so many different pressures on you to be a certain way, to act a certain way. I think if you’re from a marginalized group or marginalized groups, it can be kind of compounded–all of those pressures and layers and trying to figure yourself out in the world.
In The Sky Blues, you meet Sky right after he comes out of the closet. So, it’s not a coming out story per se, but you’re meeting him at this very pivotal moment where he’s kind of freshly out. He’s graduating high school soon. He’s not sure if college is on the table or not. You’re meeting him in a moment where he’s at a crossroads and there’s a lot of things that could happen for better or worse.
All of those pressures and the weirdness and a lot of those big moments can feel even more intense and brutal. You meet Sky right at the beginning when he’s kind of going through a lot of rough things, he’s dealing with some home homophobic bullies, he’s dealing with family rejection at home.
And the one big thing that’s getting him through his last semester of his senior year is this idea that he’s gonna prompose to Ali. And, Ali is this guy he has a huge crush on. He’s not even sure if Ali is gay or if he’s into him or Bi, but he’s like, “you know what, I’m just going to go for it.” His promposal plans get leaked to the whole school. So everyone sees and, there’s homophobic and racist language in the e-blast–it’s terrible. But he has to figure out “who is this anonymous hacker?” and “how am I going to get revenge?”
Why would you want people to understand about romantic comedy as a genre?
I think there’s a new wave of romantic comedies in the past few years that have really taken the best parts of romcoms in terms of being really heartfelt and cute and adorable with all the warm and fuzzy feelings, but have applied them in a more modern way. We’re seeing a lot more LGBTQ characters included. There’s more racial diversity and marginalized communities being represented in stories. I think the genre has really improved in cool ways since the eighties and nineties. And don’t get me wrong, there are still lots of iconic romcom classics that I just deeply love from those eras. But, they could be pretty bland in terms of whose stories are getting told and pretty exclusive. And so, I think the genre has really improved in that way. Romcoms can still pack a lot of heart and a lot of important themes within them. I think the fact that they’re romcoms doesn’t necessarily mean that they are light on substance or that they’re just kind of highlighting trivial issues. I think the best romcoms can really elevate important topics and can really start an important conversation.
If you had to pick a classic romantic comedy that you would update to highlight those really difficult issues while also not glossing over them, what would be a really good one?
So glad you asked this: this is literally my book number two. I’m doing a gay, YA retelling of Legally Blonde. I love Legally Blonde. If you watch it, there are certainly a few scenes where you’re, “oh, maybe that could have been better representation,” but it still holds up. So, my second book is Blaine for Win. And there are certainly differences in the stories: they’re in high school, they’re not in college, there’s no law school element, but the same bones of the story are there.
And it’s a little bit more inclusive. There’s a lot more representation. There are elements of mental health and mental illness layered into the story, which was something that I wanted to do: to have a romcom that’s accessible, but also touches on darker or serious issues. I think you can have both of those worlds within the same story. I’m in the final phases of drafting that book and it’ll be out next year, but it’s been so fun to focus on Legally Blonde cause it’s one of my favorites.
I’m a little curious about what kind of got you emotional about the past year?
It’s harder for me to pinpoint an exact time with the election. I think that was really a very emotional time. I think having a change in leadership and what Kamala Harris meant to so many people in this country, with her being elected meant. I was pretty emotional throughout that, for sure.
It’s weird to think about the little triggers that just set us off. And then we can’t stop. Not to overcomplicate my answer, but I rewatched Inside Out a couple weeks, a couple months ago. And that movie just gets me. So I was sobbing so hard. I don’t know if you’ve seen Inside Out, but it really messed with me.
I do want to know what’s in your looking-out-a-window-pensively playlist?
Have you heard of Letting Up Despite Great Faults? They are my zoning out the window, looking at a sunset, trying to take it in, or think through the big life questions band. I’ve been really into Frank Ocean. I get into different music spaces for sure. Also Folklore. Folklore is a great, great album.
How’s it been working on book #2?
I feel there were so many moments in the past year, year and a half, I guess that I’ve just been: “pinch me I’ve cause I dreamt about publishing a book for my whole life.”
I have to constantly remind myself whenever I get overly stressed, that when I was younger and a teenager, I always just thought, “if anyone reads it, just getting to that point would be out of this world.”
Your bio says you are afraid of birds. Would you elaborate a little bit more about why we should all be a little suspicious about them?
Yeah. I’m very anti-bird. I don’t encourage violence against birds. I don’t want this to be a justification for hurting birds but I don’t want them near me. I will never own a pet bird. I’ve had many bad experiences. I think it stems off of, I remember one of my first memories, if not my first memory, I was three or four at an amusement park and a huge swan came up and pet me. I just remember sobbing and being, I felt so misled by this beautiful creature that came up to me. And I thought, because I was a kid, I was gonna pet it. And it just went ham on my leg. And ever since then…a bird landed on my head when I was in Italy, when I was studying abroad in Rome. A very big pigeon landed on my head when I was interviewing someone in Rome for a class project. There were huge marks on my face. I know I’ve just had really bad incidents with birds. I don’t like them. They don’t like me. We just need to stay away from each other.
The Sky Blues is out now. His next book, Blaine for the Win, will be out Spring 2022.