Today I’m talking with Chaz Hayden, the author of The First Thing About You (Candlewick, 2022). Chaz’s debut young adult novel is a deeply personal novel about a high school student, Harris, who just wants to fit in, find love, and be a “normal” teenager despite having spinal muscular atrophy and being confined to a wheelchair.
Chaz, all of us writers are constantly told to “write what we know.” There is certainly a lot of you, at least on the surface, in Harris. But that’s just the outside: the use of a wheelchair, the need for a nurse, and of course, having spinal muscular atrophy. But it’s fiction, of course, and he’s not you. What are some traits the two of you share? What are some you don’t? Are there any strengths Harris has that you wish you had? Weaknesses?
You’re exactly right when you say “write what you know.” Before I started drafting The First Thing About You I had written another book and some short stories that rarely saw the light of day aside from the occasional writer’s group for feedback. But that was very early in my journey into writing and none of them had a disabled character. I knew, though, that I had experiences of living with a disability that I wanted to share. A memoir was out of the question because I am terrible at writing about myself and I just don’t enjoy it. I felt like I could tell a story about a disabled teenager but change enough so that it felt more universally relatable for other people with disabilities and able-bodied people. So, there are definitely similarities between me and Harris but mostly through his emotions.
That being said, Harris is so much braver than I was at his age. The fact that he goes to the Halloween party and drives up the sketchy ramp to get inside. I guess I got to live vicariously through him as the story turned into how I wish my teen years would’ve been.
Can you tell me a bit about what the writing process was like for you? How did you separate your experiences from Harris’s? And please tell me that scene with the first nurse in the bathroom did Not happen to you. That was… something (I don’t want to spoil it for readers, because I can guarantee they’ve never read a scene like this one in any book, YA or otherwise. Trust me readers: you have to read it for yourself!).
This made me laugh because I’m sorry to tell you but that bathroom scene really did happen to me. And I was younger than Harris when it did, probably around 11 or 12. Also, the bathroom scene at the end with the brother is real. For some reason a lot of memorable moments happen in a bathroom but that’s probably true for a lot of people with disabilities.
But, to answer your question, it wasn’t very difficult to separate myself from Harris because I never saw myself as him. What I mean is, this story isn’t about me. I wanted to write a very classic teen rom-com and I wanted the main character to also be in a wheelchair. He has SMA because that’s the only disability I felt qualified to write about. I want all readers, not just young, to realize that this isn’t just a story about disability. Like Harris, it contains so much more beneath the surface but is also simply about all the things young people want: to be truly understood and loved regardless of if they’re disabled. I hope the biggest takeaway is that it’s ok to be different, be yourself.
Harris has an interest—maybe even a fixation—on people’s favorite colors, asking everyone he meets what their favorite color is with the belief that it will reveal something about their personalities. For Harris, what started as a simple icebreaker becomes something so defining for him that it keeps him from fostering real relationships with people. For example, Harris is quick to dismiss a potential friend, Zander, because his favorite color is yellow, and Harris’s beliefs about people who like yellow are in contrast with some of Zander’s actions. How did you come up with this idea? It’s so original. How did you decide what colors to assign to which characters? And was that always important to the story, or did it evolve over the writing process?
The favorite color question was not a part of the original story idea. I was probably about 50 pages into the first draft and I felt like I needed something to glue together the themes of the book; this idea of judgment and how we make snap assumptions. Around that time, a friend was randomly telling me how people wear certain color clothing to influence their emotions for the day. The topic of color psychology interested me so later that night I went home and started researching the meaning of different colors.
Like Harris, my favorite color is also blue and I very much related to the descriptions I was reading online. And then I’d read about my family’s favorite colors and all of it was so fitting to their personality. Of course it’s not an exact science but I felt that’s what would make it such an interesting element to the story. Judging someone’s favorite color is just as baseless as judging a person by their disability or anything so incredibly superficial.
Assigning colors to the characters was simple. Obviously Harris would be blue and Miranda had to be the opposite of that just to further push the idea of how opposite she is to him and anything he’s ever experienced. The people surrounding Harris had to be similar and unthreatening to him. Zander is undoubtedly yellow just because of how cheerful and positive he is yet struggles with fully allowing himself to be completely outgoing. That’s just another hint how favorite colors aren’t exact.
The hardest part was deciding whether Nory eventually reveals her favorite color. In early drafts she does but the reveal never felt satisfying. Should Harris be upset or relieved that he finally knows? But then what? Both reactions didn’t feel authentic and when I totally remove Nory’s favorite color, she instantly becomes the catalyst for Harris’s personal growth.
I can’t not ask about Miranda, the young nurse Harris becomes very attached to. I loved the way she seems like a great match, but turns out to be complicated and problematic. Her red Mustang felt like a giant warning light from the get go! At the same time, it is ultimately their friendship—and how it ends—that gives Harris the ability to see who he is and who he wants to be. In other words, it’s Miranda who allows him to finally make real and true connections with others, but not in the way he anticipated. Would you agree with that reading of their relationship? Can you say more about how that developed? Was there a real life inspiration for Miranda?
Wow, you totally nailed Miranda and her relationship to Harris which I absolutely love. Miranda, to the reader, needed to feel immediately dangerous. Like, you’re happy Harris found someone that vibes with him but it’s almost impossible to not see the red flags. Although Harris is narrating everything she’s doing and saying, he doesn’t notice as if he’s under a spell. Or, more likely, he refuses to notice because he finally has someone that makes his life exciting. Miranda pretty much becomes Harris’s conscience.
That was the original idea for Miranda; just a cool nurse that will maybe teach him a thing or two. Unintentionally, their dynamic quickly evolves. Maybe this sounds pretentious but I kind of allowed the characters to flow where they wanted without a concrete destination. I think, because of that, the relationship feels very real and even more dangerous.
Anybody with a disability who has caregivers or nurses knows that it’s hard to keep it strictly professional. These people are with you almost every day, doing very personal things. In my opinion, it would be weird to not get attached in some capacity. When you’re younger, it’s a lot harder to not fall for that because you naturally confide in the people around you. Adults have an easier time setting boundaries.
Growing up, I’ve had countless nurses. Some were only with me for a day and some became like family. Miranda is a culmination of all those people.
This is your first novel. Can you tell us about your path to publication? How did you connect with your agent, Stephen Barr? What are you working on now?
When I graduated from college I was like a lot of people my age and jobless for almost a year. During that time, I read a lot. All of the books were YA and, for some reason, I had the thought that I could do that, that I could write stories. I have no idea why I had that feeling considering I was a finance major, but I always enjoyed reading fiction and creative writing. So, I worked on short stories and poems to hone the skill. Eventually I got a full-time job but didn’t let that slow me down.
I knew I wanted to be traditionally published. I researched how to do that and, of course, getting a literary agent is a big step. My agent, Stephen Barr, stood out to me for reasons I honestly can’t explain. Reading his bio online I just felt a connection. I was also a fan of some of his clients, especially John Corey Whaley.
I understood that I probably only had one shot to query him. The First Thing About You had to be great to respect his clients, not to mention the amazing roster at Writers House. So, when I felt like the manuscript was in a good place I was preparing myself to submit. One day, something happened that made me upset and I guess I just wanted some good news so without really thinking I sent my query. I must’ve caught Stephen at the perfect time because he answered in less than 10 minutes, requesting the full manuscript.
A couple weeks later I signed with him and together we spent the better half of a year revising until we felt it was ready for publishers. I was really honored to have the book go to auction and ultimately choose Candlewick. My editor, Kaylan Adair, and the entire Candlewick team understood the story and characters so deeply.
Currently I’m in the first round of revisions for my second novel, also YA. I want my books to feel like they’re connected but telling stories of different people. What I mean is, I like the idea of taking a topic that I didn’t have enough space to fully explore and then expanding on that idea. For example, in The First Thing About You I touch on the relationship between Harris and his older brother, Ollie. We know they love each other, and Ollie would do anything to protect Harris and vice versa. What if I dig deeper into a sibling relationship, specifically when one sibling has a disability? But what if I also take the Jacobus family (loving and supportive) and flip it on its head? That’s a little preview of my next book.
Anything else you want to add? (can be about what you’ve learned about disability and/or #ownvoices representation in children’s lit, advice might you pass on to others, etc.?)
My advice to other authors is to be yourself. Don’t try to sound or write like anybody else. Figure out who you are and what you want to say and you’ll start feeling way more confident. And, if you’re writing for young people, please do their lives and stories justice. The reason I love writing YA is because being a teenager is, I think, the only time we are truly vulnerable and authentic people. Honestly, teenagers are a lot smarter than most adults I know and they deserve stories that respect and properly portray how they’re feeling or, at the very least, spark their imagination.
See the teacher’s discussion guide for The First Thing About You and the book trailer and book teaser.
Chaz Hayden is a debut author who, like his main character, was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy as an infant and spent his childhood in and out of hospitals. The First Thing About You, he says, is “not just about disability but about friendship and love and all the things that a young person hopes to experience.” Through his writing and his YouTube channel, he speaks with abundant positivity and encourages people to “Be different. Leave a trail.” Chaz Hayden grew up in New Jersey and now lives in Pennsylvania, where he spends too much time thinking about his next tattoo and what concerts to attend. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @TheChazHayden.
Rebecca Kirshenbaum has an MFA in WCYA from VCFA, an MA in children’s literature from Simmons University, and an MA in English literature from Columbia. She really, really likes being a student. She grew up in Cleveland and roots for all Cleveland sports teams even though she now lives in Boston.
She lives with her husband Mark, her teenage sons, Caleb and Eli, plus a lot of animals – guinea pigs Frisky and Sprinkles, a bunch of fish, and her family’s therapy dog (aka best dog in the world), Quimby. (All you kidlit people should get the Ramona reference!). When not reading and writing, she teaches fourth and fifth grade literacy and organizes her bookshelves in rainbow order.