Interview: Chaz Hayden ‘The First Thing About You’

Chaz Hayden YALC

Interview: Chaz Hayden ‘The First Thing About You’

Interview: Chaz Hayden ‘The First Thing About You’ 730 382 YALC

Hi Chaz, thanks so much for agreeing to have a chat with us today about your debut novel ‘The First Thing about you’

Can you give our readers a little overview of your debut novel ‘The First Thing about You’
All the time, people ask me what my book is about and I never know what to say because it’s about so many things. But the story follows 15-year-old Harris who has just moved across the country from California to New Jersey and takes this as an opportunity to reinvent himself. What he really wants is to be known as more than just the boy in the wheelchair. But Harris is stuck on knowing everyone’s favorite color because he thinks it allows him to silently judge people, the same way he assumes they judge his disability. Along the way, he’ll meet his new nurse, Miranda. She’s young and confident and the perfect blend of orange and red but Miranda is dealing with her own problems so we’re not sure if she’s helping or hurting Harris during his journey.

How did you come up with the idea for the story?
As a person with a disability, the same disability as Harris, I felt like I had experiences that I wanted to share with people either for them to relate to or a way to build a more understanding world of disabilities. Though, I’m not very gifted at writing about myself so a memoir was out of the question. I wanted to write a story about a disabled character but not have disability be the only plot. Harris is still a teenager and a lot of his anxieties are just “typical” teen worries like making friends, going to parties, and kissing a girl. At the same time, his disability is still very much a part of him and woven into the fabric of his everyday life. I wanted to create a story that told the difficult balance of those two things.

There’s a great feeling of authenticity to the story – are any of the moments in the book inspired by real events?
I think some of my favorite fiction feels like a lived experience and authenticity is so important to me no matter what genre. There are events that happen to Harris that may have similarly happened to me but twisted so the story feels more universally relatable. What I mean is, the overarching plot is fiction but how Harris feels is real and inspired by situations in my life, maybe at different ages.

Why did you choose to write a character who is dealing with spinal muscular atrophy like you?
To be honest, I’d never read a story about a character with SMA. It’s a community of people all over the world and I wanted to give them a voice. Now, I don’t believe I am the only voice by any means but if a teen with SMA reads this and can relate, or an able-bodied person learns something, I think that’s a success and why I chose to write a character with spinal muscular atrophy.

How important is the relationship between the nurse character Miranda and Harris?
This is a really great question. I feel like their relationship and dynamic is tied to all the themes of belonging, love, and friendship but also, and most importantly, personal growth. Harris and Miranda are both very different people at the end of the story and it’s because of the time they spend together. At one point, Harris believes that Miranda is the only person he needs in his life and when she disappears it forces him to examine all the choices he’s made, good and bad. Because of Miranda, Harris becomes the person he never wanted to be but at the same time she gives him the confidence to truly discover who he is and how he wants to live his life and connect with the people around him.

Do you think it is important that disability in many of its forms is represented within literature?
Absolutely, but it has to be told authentically and preferably by someone who is disabled. I recently wrote a guest blog post where I talked about how inclusivity doesn’t always mean representation. We need disabled people to be portrayed accurately and not just as a pitied secondary character or someone that needs saving. This goes for all media, not only literature, and it means involving disabled people in all stages of the creative and promotion process.

What was the inspiration behind the use of colour in the story?
It wasn’t a part of the original story idea when I started writing. I was probably 50 pages into the first manuscript when I happened to have a conversation with one of my friends about why people choose to wear certain color clothing to influence their mood. At that time in the writing process, I was trying to find something to glue the central theme of the story together: this idea about judging and not always understanding what’s beneath the surface. I did a bunch of research on color theory and it seemed like the perfect fit. Asking someone their favorite color is so simple and easy just like how people are able to easily and secretly judge Harris based on his wheelchair.

What advice would you give someone wanting to write their own YA novel?
I will say this a thousand times for all of my answers, but make sure you’re telling an authentic teenage story. Don’t patronize or create caricatures, make sure you can be a voice for young people. Also, take some time to figure out what you want to say as a writer. My advice is don’t try to write or sound like anyone else. Be yourself!

What do you want readers to take away from ‘The First Thing about You’?
I hope people realize that this isn’t just a story about disability. I like to say that Harris is a teenage boy who just so happens to also be in a wheelchair. Hopefully readers can empathize with him on a human level. As much as the story has disability, it’s also just about a boy and a girl and figuring out who we want to be.

Have you planned your next novel? Have you got anything you are working on?
The initial draft of my second novel is finished (sorry, it’s not a sequel) and currently in the first round of revisions. I’m really excited about it. For all my future books, I like the idea of expanding on a plot that I might not have given a lot of attention to previously. What I mean is, in The First Thing About You I unfortunately didn’t have much space to dig deep into Harris’s relationship with his older brother, Ollie. So, for my next book, I wanted to focus on a sibling dynamic where one is disabled and the other isn’t. But also take Harris’s family, who are very loving and supportive, and flip that on its head.

Where can our readers find you on social media?
I’m on Instagram and Twitter @TheChazHayden. Feel free to reach out if you want to talk books, music, or sports. Or if you want to share your favorite color.

Speaking about all things social media, care to tell us a little more about your YouTube channel?
I don’t post videos as much as I probably should. It really just started as a way to share disability tips and funny stories. Then, during lockdown, I found a journal I kept during college and decided that would be interesting to read on camera. So, if you want to cringe, go check out those videos.

To end things, how about giving us your favourite quote from your book?
“Through the back window, I watched the red-and-blue lights flash, a warning to everyone else on the road. They reminded me of Miranda and myself—two opposite colors. One was calm and the other loud. When put together, they can’t be missed.”

Thanks again for speaking to us at YALC!

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