[AUTHOR INTERVIEW] Interview with Aminah Mae Safi, author of “Tell Me How You Really Feel”

Aminah Mae Safi’s newest book, “Tell Me How You Really Feel,” comes out next month on June 11th! I had the opportunity to organize a blog tour for the book, so make sure to check out my ARC review here, as well as the other stops on the tour! (They’ll be hyperlinked in my blog post as they go up.)

Today I have Aminah on the blog to talk about the book! Make sure to preorder the book (ideally from your favorite local bookstore!).


Aminah Mae Safi’s Tell Me How You Really Feel is an ode to romantic comedies, following two girls on opposite sides of the social scale as they work together to make a movie and try very hard not to fall in love.

The first time Sana Khan asked out a girl–Rachel Recht–it went so badly that she never did it again. Rachel is a film buff and aspiring director, and she’s seen Carrie enough times to learn you can never trust cheerleaders (and beautiful people). Rachel was furious that Sana tried to prank her by asking her on a date.

But when it comes time for Rachel to cast her senior project, she realizes that there’s no more perfect lead than Sana–the girl she’s sneered at in the halls for the past three years. And poor Sana–she says yes. She never did really get over that first crush, even if Rachel can barely stand to be in the same room as her.

Told in alternative viewpoints and set against the backdrop of Los Angeles in the springtime, when the rainy season rolls in and the Santa Ana’s can still blow–these two girls are about to learn that in the city of dreams, anything is possible–even love.

COURTNEY: What inspired you to write “Tell Me How You Really Feel,” and how long did it take you to write the first draft?
AMINAH MAE: When I started Tell Me How You Really Feel. It was the summer of 2017 and I wanted to find a way to put joy into the world. I wanted to write about two ambitious girls falling in love and I was also watching tons and tons of old teen rom-coms. I started thinking about rom-com tropes— enemies to lovers, kissing in the rain, jocks and nerds. I loved that a rom-com could take stock characters and breathe life and hope and real world issues into them. The story grew from there.
Then as I was drafting, I was re-watching the entire seven seasons of Gilmore Girls in preparation for the revival. I started thinking about family legacy, about the things we as young women inherit from our mothers. I was also really interested in the idea that young women now are one of the first generations to be seen as being able to inherit their fathers’ legacies. I wanted to think about the push and pull of both of these kinds of inheritances as I wrote.
Did you write TMHYRF chronologically, or skip around to different chapters as you were drafting?
Chronologically-ish. I draft in circles, so I start at the beginning, move forward, hit a snag, then go back to the beginning. This means my first fifty to seventy five pages are nearly unreadable to me by the time that I finish because I’ve looked over them so much. But eventually, I hit a tipping point and just keep pushing forwards. I do tend to hear dialog first, and then fill in with action
Which character changed the most from the first draft to the finished copy?
I wouldn’t say she changed the most, but Sana was the hardest to get at. She was always herself, I think. But she wasn’t a character who opens up very easily, so it took a couple drafts to really hear her voice and make her feel natural on the page. She’s a very “conceal, don’t feel” kind of character— which is always difficult when you’re trying to understand where she’s coming from when making choices throughout the story.
Was there a scene that you absolutely loved that you had to end up cutting from the final draft? If so, can you tell me anything about it?
So I’m ruthless when it comes to cutting. If it doesn’t serve the story, it doesn’t serve the story. I had a whole character that was in the story that my editor said wasn’t serving anything. I kind of doubted her note at first, but, true to form, I told her I’d try to cut the character and lo and behold the story didn’t really change much for about 95% of that character’s passages. 
All that is to say— I care much more about the story than any individual scene. Once I cut something, I’ve really let it go. If a scene truly serves the story, I would fight for it to stay in place (and since I do largely listen to my editor, she’d listen to me if I said something needed to stay).
How did you feel when you first saw the cover? I can’t remember seeing very many lesbian relationships explicitly portrayed front and center on a YA cover the last few times I’ve been at a bookstore, and I’m living for this one!
Honestly, I cried. It just looks like any other rom-com cover, only two girls of color happen to be the protagonists. That was largely the kind of rom com I was going for and getting a cover that translated that— and the most LA of vibes— was really spectacular to see. My cover team is brilliant.
How did you decide to have Rachel’s film based off of stories from the Odyssey? 
Well, I didn’t want to get too bogged down in exactly what film Rachel was making. I tried, in a first draft, to make up a whole new story for the movie. But whenever you do a movie within a movie, it has to serve its own function. It has to put up a mirror to the larger plot or tell its own version of events. The original movie storyline just made the both plots confusing.
But I thought— the Odyssey has been made into a movie so many times, many versions of which are available on streaming services. It’s a thing many people (though not all) still read in school. Even if you’ve just got a phone and access to Wikipedia, you can skim the plot pretty easily. And then, like all great myths, it’s got layers. It’s a story about the telling of stories. There are so many great female characters buried into the plot of the Odyssey and that it seemed like something Rachel would be honestly interested in exploring. 
Plus, Rachel is at a fancy prep school, and I loved the idea of a girl on scholarship taking on this very old-school, mythological Classic and making the story her own. It was ultimately a shorthand, but it was a piece of shorthand that I think allowed me to play with the themes running through the book— who gets to direct the narrative? What does it mean to be a teenage girl in a situation beyond yourself? What does it mean to tackle a story that has been told a thousand times? How can you change perspectives on something that you (and everyone else) is so sure on?
Will we ever learn what ends up happening (or not happening) between Maddie and Diesel?
So I’m currently working on a book about three girls who try to save a dying bookstore in Chicago. It’s an Empire Records kind of story— all the action happens in one day. All three of the girls think they know each other but they’re about to learn a lot more about one another. It’s a story about what happens when things end and how to deal with big changes.
That being said, Maddie and Diesel are still on the back burner, because I know I didn’t leave them in a satisfying place. I do think Diesel has a lot of growing up to do before he can really get to a place where he could legitimately woo her. But until that idea finishes rendering in the background of my mind, and until I sell it, it’s really just in the “maybe one day” folder.
Unbeknownst to Sana, she actually meets Rachel’s dad towards the end of the book. Why did you choose to not have her find out his identity?
Because those are my favorite moments in the most magical kinds of rom-coms. It felt like a meeting you get in a fairy tale and I thought that Sana and Rachel ought to get a little bit of magic in their lives. I also think moments like that happen to you in LA— you run into people you don’t know yet, but one day you wind up everyday friends with them. I wanted that to be a moment that would stick out to Sana, but she wouldn’t find out until maybe later that it had been Rachel’s dad. 
Will we see characters from TMHYRF pop up in any of your other books?
Honestly, I have no idea. I’ve tried a couple times to Easter egg characters into one another’s stories, but I usually end up setting the next books in totally different cities. So, in my mind, all of my characters exist in the same universe. But you couldn’t tell that by reading, because they’re never really in each other’s stories. I’m so envious of authors who do this naturally in the stories that they write!
HUGE thanks to Aminah for answering all of my questions!! Her current work-in-progress sounds amazing, and I can’t wait to read it, and I’m sure you all feel the same way! In the meantime, make sure to go preorder “Tell Me How You Really Feel!”

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