We Were Promised Spotlights, Lindsay Sproul’s debut young adult novel, introduces us to Taylor, a sometimes mean and often messy popular teenage girl coming of age in a small town in the late ’90s. Taylor’s life seems normal, but she still quips, “I wanted to be anyone else in the world besides myself.” Taylor is dating Brad, a popular cool guy with a kind heart; everyone wants Brad, including Taylor’s childhood best friend, Susan. But Taylor wants Susan and she also, desperately, wishes to be straight.
Taylor’s life is laid out for her: She’s going to marry Brad, have children, become a dental hygienist, stay in their small town, and never go beyond what’s expected of her. But Taylor keeps recognizing herself in Corvis, her school’s resident lesbian, who Taylor helped out to distract from her own queerness. “We both loved Drew Barrymore and Madonna just a bit too much,” Sproul writes. “Susan and Heather loved them, too, but then their posters switched to shirtless boys from Abercrombie magazine ads, while Corvis and I both kept Drew Barrymore and Madonna on our bedroom walls.” While Corvis is a a proud lesbian, Taylor finds it nearly impossible to come out because of her small town’s expectations of her. She has a choice to make: Will she continue being a mean girl who gets stuck in a fake relationship and in a town she hates? Or will she upend her life to live the one she dreams of?
We Were Promised Spotlights has the lyricism of Morgan Parker’s 2019 novel, Who Put This Song On?, the realness of Mason Deaver’s 2019 novel, I Wish You All the Best, and the yearning of Robin Talley’s 2017 novel, Our Own Private Universe. Though the book is largely about the way Taylor’s queerness impacts her relationships with herself, her future, and the people around her, it also delves into a wide range of complicated topics, including sexually transmitted infections, teenage pregnancy, and domestic violence. Sproul skillfully weaves these subjects into each character’s plot, resulting in a YA novel where each character—no matter how stereotypical they seem—has depth.
Sproul spoke about to Bitch about crafting a shitty lesbian teen character, not sanitizing queer sex scenes, and keeping the wisdom of an older narrator out of this teen girl’s story as she figures out who she is for the first time.
We Were Promised Spotlights is set in the fictional town of Hopuonk, Massachusetts, in 1999. Both the year and the setting play a massive role in Taylor’s burgeoning lesbianism. Why did you decide to set the book in ’90s Hopuonk?
It’s close to when I was in high school, and the setting is based on my home town in Massachusetts. I think it’s important to remember what it was like in economically depressed small towns in the ’90s and how much has changed since then for queer kids in high school. Looking back at my own time in high school, the language used was so problematic, but it was being used by people who didn’t think about it; it was hurtful. The lack of access to good education is another part of the setting that’s of great importance. In a lot of small towns there’s [only] one high school, it’s not expected that people will go to college, and most of the time the parents haven’t gone to college. I was a first-generation college student. I wanted to show the way that an economically depressed town with lack of access to education could lead to ignorance in terms of language and how that can be really hurtful. They don’t even have the tools to discuss what they want to discuss; they didn’t have a framework for queerness that they might have now.
There are several sex scenes throughout the book; some are straight scenes and some lesbian scenes. How did you decide on how to portray sex to younger readers, especially given that accurate lesbian sex scenes in media are so rare? (For example, there’s a running joke in the book about scissoring not being real.)
I’ve read a lot of YA, especially in the last two years, and I very rarely see sex on the page. But teenagers have sex and a lot of teenagers feel like their awkward sex is shameful or unique when, really, it happens to many teenagers. If I had seen that on the page when I was a teenager I would’ve felt better about my sex life. I think it’s important to show young readers [sex] and to show [them] lesbian sex. Leaving out the awkward sex scenes would’ve felt like sanitizing the teenage experience in a way I didn’t want to do.
As a whole, Taylor and a lot of the other characters kind of suck. They aren’t sparkling young feminists. Instead, they make awkward comments about one another’s weight and hair; they out one another and do other things that would get them canceled if the book was set in 2020.
Looking back on films and books from the late ‘90s and even today, a lot of the time, characters like Taylor—the popular mean girl—are really flat. I wanted to keep that character but give her dimension and show that all teenagers have insecurities and sometimes the reasons for their insecurities are the reasons that outsiders think their life is really easy. I knew I was writing an unlikeable narrator, but I think it’s important to give her dimension because, at that time, that character was always flat, but, in real life, she’s never flat. It was hard to write some of those scenes. I read a lot of the films and books of that time, and that character tends to get a comeuppance, but we never see her dimensions.
By the end of the book, none of the characters are stereotypes.
A lot of my inspiration came from films [released between] 1997 and 2002. There always seemed to be a cast of characters in movies like She’s All That where you know who they are because you’ve seen them a million times. A lot of those films were set in towns that are cut off from education and from the internet. At that point, there was dial-up, but things were a lot harder. That’s reflected in how people talk to one another. Taylor doesn’t have any framework for anything other than her hometown. She doesn’t have the language to express herself in a more positive way. I wanted to write from her point of view because I wanted to show that even when she comes out, it’s not [big enough to mask] who she already is or others’ perception of her.
Taylor’s narrative is wrapped around her passive obsession with figuring out who her dad is. She eventually decides that her father must be a famous movie star named Johnny Moon. He’s always a huge, looming outside force.
I grew up without a father figure, so, the missing father was always this gigantic force in my life. He was not, obviously, a movie star, but when someone is missing they take up this role of something bigger than a human. Having him as a movie star helped illustrate that; but, also, had she followed him and gone to become an actress [with his help], she would just be repeating everything that was problematic about her childhood and her time in her hometown. She has a chance that, to most teen girls, would be a dream come true, but, to her, it’s a nightmare to have the world look at her the way she’s already looked at in her hometown.
You can’t undo your childhood, but you can become someone else when you grow up; if you leave the town where you grew up, you can leave behind the impression everyone has of you. But if she’d followed him and moved to California, she’d be taking on [yet another] role that would be impossible to undo. I wanted Taylor to have the chance to save herself at the end of the book rather than being saved by a man. I wanted her to leave on her own and be able to carve out her own place in the world.
It felt rare that you reckoned with Taylor’s beauty and popularity and the supposed power it gives her.
Being a beautiful teen girl is a huge threat to everyone. It’s a threat to other girls; it’s a threat to boys, who feel a right to her; and it’s a threat to her aging mother. That was something I wanted to convey: it’s not fun to feel like you’re a threat to everyone. When I taught women’s and gender studies classes, we’d had this conversation several times, and it’s interesting to see what students will say. They’ll mention a pretty girl who has taken attention away from them. I don’t think it’s discussed enough, and it’s definitely a threat to the kind of mother Taylor has. In high school, Taylor’s mother, Sandra, would’ve liked it and accepted that power, but when she’s losing it, it’s like her life is ending. So when her daughter is getting the attention, it’s a threat to her, which is a weird dynamic.
Susan and Taylor also have a strange dynamic. Taylor wants nothing more than Susan, especially at certain points in the book, but Susan wants to be around Taylor in this twisted and confusing way. But, ultimately, we find that they don’t know each other well at all. They’re really just projecting onto each other.
A lot of friendships, especially childhood friendships—and I say this as someone who is still best friends with a friend I had as a baby—form because of proximity. By the time you’re 18, you might not have anything in common. It’s hard not to project onto them, including [an ideal of] the childhood you shared. But when the setting is really imposing, that person can come to represent all of that imposition, which happens with Taylor. They both have something that the other character wants.
Taylor wishes she wasn’t gay at the beginning of the book. It would be so much easier for her in that time and place if she wasn’t gay. Being around Susan just reinforces that insecurity over and over. Susan is threatened by Taylor, but by being close to her, she can be close to what she wants. And Brad, who is a really nice person, represents to Taylor what she can’t have because of her sexuality. Susan’s own childhood has been pretty terrible, and all she wants is a family better than what she grew up in. Taylor could have that, and for Susan it’s difficult to understand not being in love with Brad because of her own baggage. Taylor can’t understand how to be in love with Brad. She’s queer.
They’ve all known one another since they were little, and it’s difficult not to impose their whole lives onto one another when there’s no hope of getting out of that town. It’s not the norm to leave.
“Coming of age is messy for everyone, and it doesn’t make sense to sanitize that progression, and it doesn’t ring true to me when I see a character who doesn’t make mistakes.”
For some reason, many YA readers expect teens, especially queer teens, to be good people. We expect sanitized characters who are more like Corvis, who is unapologetic about being gay. But you chose to focus on Taylor, who makes mistakes in almost every step of her coming-out journey. Why is it important to show that queer teens can be terrible people?
Being as honest as possible was the most important thing to me while I wrote this book. When I was a teenager, I couldn’t find many books about queer teenagers. And when I did, the characters died. In one book, The Well of Loneliness, the title alone is like, everyone is screwed. But straight characters got the messy journey into adulthood. Queer teens are no different. Coming of age is messy for everyone, and it doesn’t make sense to sanitize that progression, and it doesn’t ring true to me when I see a character who doesn’t make mistakes.
Taylor makes a lot of mistakes. It was hard to write the scenes because she does terrible things. But everything she does is a product of what’s been imposed on her and her feelings of insecurity and being trapped. Corvis doesn’t feel trapped because she knows that she’ll have a better situation after high school. For Taylor, it’s not even probable: She’s expected to stay where she is and do what everyone wants her to do. That’s going to lead to bad decisions and general unhappiness; people make bad decisions when they’re insecure and unhappy, and all of her bad decisions come from that place of insecurity.
Sanitizing teenage experiences is never comforting to me as a reader. I was really happy when I watched My So-Called Life and I saw Jell-O and dirty bathrooms and it actually looked like my high school. In the late ’90s, all the films took places at high schools that looked like palaces, everyone was wealthy, and it didn’t feel real. Books that felt real for me are books that felt really honest, and Taylor’s journey wouldn’t feel real if she didn’t make mistakes.
Since this is my first YA book, it was hard not to have an older narrator interject and remember the terrible things she did with a retrospective view. Taylor is, at the moment, 17-years-old. It was hard not to have her 30-year-old self coming in and commenting on what she had done when she was 17; it had to be in the moment.
How did you create the space for Taylor’s interpretation of the world to be sometimes off and sometimes cruel without worrying about that reflecting on your own interpretation of the world as the person behind the book?
I choose fiction for a reason. I don’t write nonfiction because there’s no room for creating situations that get at the emotional resonance that I want. I hope that people don’t conflate authors with characters too much. I’m definitely not Taylor. But she’s the character I needed to get across the things I was thinking about.
I’m an #OwnVoices author, but that doesn’t mean my characters are me. I think that conflating an author and their narrator in fiction is really problematic because it’s not memoir. The #OwnVoices movement is wonderful, and I’m so happy about it, but I also think that in the movement there’s been a lot of pull toward conflating author and character.
A lot of my favorite books are really really honest and have unlikeable characters because the teenage experience is so messy. Things have changed so much, even [over the past] five years. When I teach queer literature now, the language is different and there’s more open discussion; that didn’t exist in small town Massachusetts in 1999. It’s important for teenagers to see what it was like for people a generation ahead of them. It’s incredibly suffocating and homophobic in many settings across the world and the United States, and I still see teens in similar situations to where we were in the ’90s; not everyone lives in a progressive city or town, and it’s important to remember the difference between then and now. If I sanitized that or chose a narrator who was a hero, it wouldn’t feel real to me.
Taylor seems to be repenting for her own shittiness throughout the book, especially with Corvis. The scene where she begs Corvis to wrap her up like a mummy in toilet paper as payback for Taylor not using the power of her popularity to stop the kids from egging Corvis’s house is really phenomenal.
Taylor feels tremendous guilt for what she’s done to Corvis, and Corvis feels sorry for Taylor. They share the experience of being queer in this small town, but Corvis always knows what her escape route is, and Taylor doesn’t; Because that’s so suffocating, Taylor does horrible things, like outing Corvis (which she does when she’s 11). She feels guilty about it, and the guilt is eating her up. When Taylor does leave the town, she’ll have a more broad understanding of queerness; she has such a narrow understanding of how to be a lesbian, so her regret will become even stronger, especially as she gets older.