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Grace and the Fever is a clear-eyed portrait of ‘the girls of the internet’

How Zan Romanoff wrote a YA novel that does the fangirl justice

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World Premiere Of  'One Direction This Is Us'
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Zan Romanoff’s Grace and the Fever is dedicated twice: to the ‘90s pop-rock boy band Hanson, and to “all the girls of the internet.”

The novel, written for a YA audience, is centered on Grace, a teenage fan of a One Direction-inspired boy band called Fever Dream. About to graduate from high school, she’s living in two worlds: the online world of fandom and a California suburb, where she can feel her friends growing away from her, and where she no longer feels like it’s okay to love her pop idols out loud. Grace toggles between shame and moments of cracking out of it, asking “What was the point of pretending to feel things she wasn’t feeling, when she was capable of feeling so much?”

She’s a die-hard believer in a fan theory that two of the boys are secretly in love, and Romanoff writes this part of the story as a tight parallel to the infamous “Larry Stylinson” conspiracy theory. Larry Stylinson has been unfolding on Tumblr for years, with fans compiling evidence that Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson are in love based on tattoos, song lyrics, and the smallest gesture, going so far as to argue that Tomlinson’s son (born in January 2016) was actually just a baby doll, or not his child at all.

what if someone you spent years fantasizing about suddenly appeared in your real life?

Grace and the Fever confronts what would happen if someone you’d spent years blogging about and stewing over were to suddenly appear in your real life. What would the fallout be like?

It’s simultaneously a smart dissection of the pitfalls of fantasy and an eager defense of it, intent on defending girls who are, in Grace’s words, “tired of being told they’re silly or small or that they want things that aren’t going to happen for them.” 

The novel is part of a conversation that’s been a long time in the making, on Tumblr and Twitter, in music blogs and academic papers. Most recently, Mitski, the internet’s favorite melancholy rockstar, wrote a review of Harry Styles’ debut album for the music and art blog Talkhouse, dedicating significant space to the prevalence of fantasy in his solo music: “Perhaps these projections put upon him have since become an authentic and natural part of him, and all of his words, even the ideals he projects onto others in his songs, are as real to him as his body.”

Similarly, Grace and the Fever’s primary concern is the tricky, slippery relationship between girls and the famous boys they love, and how much the two parties should be expected to sacrifice for the happiness of the other. To figure out how it came together, The Verge chatted with author Zan Romanoff about writing from Tumblr experiences, being a grown-up fangirl, and how the internet plays into the modern coming-of-age novel.

grace and the fever
Photo: Penguin Random House

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

First off, I’d love to hear a little bit of the backstory. Where did the idea for Grace and the Fever came from?

When [Taylor Swift’s] 1989 came out [in October 2014], I was writing an essay for the internet. I went on Tumblr and I went into the “Haylor” tag and was shocked to discover that pretty much everyone was saying “Uh, Taylor Swift never dated Harry Styles, that’s a fake relationship. She’s in love with Karlie Kloss, and he’s in love with fellow One Direction-er Louis Tomlinson, and anyone who believes anything else is ridiculous.” I was like, okay! It was the craziest thing I’d ever heard and I was really fascinated. Often, if you say “conspiracy theorist,” you sort of imagine a guy in his mom’s basement writing screeds about the government. You don’t picture a teenage pop music fan. So I got really obsessed with the conspiracy theory known as Larry Stylinson, which then turned into me becoming a huge One Direction fan.

One day I read a post someone had written about how people who are in fandom could translate the skills they were learning into line items on a résumé. So I started thinking, “What would happen if a girl honed her detective skills on a boy band conspiracy and then encountered a larger conspiracy?”

That is not the book I ended up writing, a book in which [the boys in the band] are like drug mules or something. That was the idea, though, and part of the problem was that the character of a hardcore conspiracy theorist is hard to make really sympathetic. I really wanted to write a book about fandom that was about how much I love fandom and how important it’s been to me. I just thought that for people who weren’t in fandom, if I tried to write a main character who was a really serious truther, people would not be able to get there with me. So I walked that back a little bit.

The real simple version of this is that I had all of this stuff going on in my head and then Zayn [Malik] left the band. I saw this picture of him in Heathrow. It’s taken from above, and I’m sure there’s a ton of people around him, but you can’t see any of them. It looks like he’s just walking alone through Heathrow in the middle of the night. And I had this moment where I was like, “oh my god.” I had already been thinking a lot about celebrity and boy bands and persona and all this stuff, and I thought, “What if one of these guys just walked into your life, and all of a sudden you had to deal with the person he actually is, and not the story you’ve built up for yourself?”

You dedicated the book to “the girls of the internet.” For me it feels like the public perception of “fangirl” has shifted a little bit in the last couple of years, like it’s no longer going to be cool or okay for, say, Pitchfork to write something deriding someone for being a fangirl, but do you think the broader culture is changing?

I think you’re right, I think on the one hand there’s been a real shift, like Harry Styles in Rolling Stone saying explicitly, (paraphrased), “No, teenage girls are taste-makers and their taste is really valid.” That is awesome. It’s not revolutionary — people have said it before — but it’s getting to be a more explicit stance and fans are demanding it more. On the other hand, I do think there are still a ton of people who think, “Yeah, teenage fangirls are dumb and adult women who are still fans in that way are just embarrassing.”

As with any cultural shift, it takes a lot of time, and it happens in waves. It sort of doesn’t matter: the same way the culture can tell you “Love yourself! You’re beautiful at any size!” it’ll still [find ways] to tell you “You’d be more beautiful at a particular size.” People can say “Love your inner weird fan,” but it’s hard and embarrassing to do. Being a woman who’s loud about loving something is never an easy position to be in.

You really nailed the style of the Tumblr conspiracy theory post, the way that they’re written, the type of evidence they use, the weird focus on numbers and symbols. How did you research that segment of Tumblr?

Even before I knew that I was going to write the book, I was so obsessed with the idea of young women being the next frontier of conspiracy theorists, and specifically the way in which the conspiracy theory language actually mimics academic language. It’s very much clear that it’s close-reading. It’s like Harry [Styles] and Louis [Tomlinson] or whatever other celebrity is consciously, purposely presenting themselves as a text. And [girls on Tumblr] are like, “Oh, he’s wearing a blue shirt to indicate the color of Louis’ eyes,” as if people can be read like texts and interpreted this way. It’s the opposite of death of the author. Here are these people who are “authoring” all of their tweets, all of their Instagrams, all of their clothing and packing them full of incredibly complex symbology.

I feel like I have a pretty decent ear for that stuff. I’m a good mimic. I had taught myself to hear this very specific voice, so getting the opportunity to use it for something and turn it loose was super fun.

This is the first time I’ve seen Tumblr represented so extensively in a novel. Can you think of any others?

There’s a book called Gena/Finn that’s written in emails, and it includes Tumblr. It’s nothing new to write books that use stuff as if it were primary source material, to include letters or text messages or things like that. As for specifically Tumblr and specifically fandom Tumblr, I think this is the most extensive.

It seems like a hard question, deciding what elements of the internet to include in a novel. What if it doesn’t make sense to anyone in a couple years? How did you make those choices?

Originally I just had Instagram in the book, but then I thought, “Oh, I should put Snapchat in here, too.” But now I’m like, “Oh, Instagram Stories didn’t exist when I wrote the book, but maybe Snapchat should have been Instagram Stories.” It was a delicate thing, because stuff does change so quickly. But I also feel like that gave me some leeway. It comes to a point where you can’t try to get every little detail right. It was right on this day, the day I got copy edits, and that’s going to have to be good enough. It is fiction. Fever Dream doesn’t exist. In the world where Fever Dream exists, Instagram Stories don’t.

And I made the decision pretty early on: this is going to be a book that’s set right now. In a couple of years people are going to read this book and be like, “Oh my god no one’s on Tumblr anymore.” But then, in 10 or 15 years it probably won’t matter. It’ll all sound made up anyway. I felt like I had an opportunity to capture a particular moment really well, because I was so involved in it.

“i made the decision pretty early on: this is going to be a book that’s set right now.”

Grace kinds of rides the line between a fan who’s totally immersed and a detached onlooker who’s trying to understand it. Do you think the book is accessible to both types?

I hope so. When I was writing the book I was sending drafts every day to my friend Logan [Sachon]. I would write 1,000 words and then send it in an email to her, because she was kind of a co-conspirator, we were both down the Larry rabbit hole. I really do think that I wrote it in part as a novel-length attempt to explain to both of us... like, what the hell was going on? Why were we so obsessed with this band, why were we so obsessed with this idea? I wrote it both from a place of very intense, consuming fandom and trying to stand outside of it and ask, “What is this? Where did my rational mind go?”

We all live in a culture where we’re constantly being bombarded with stories about celebrities, and we are constantly telling ourselves stories about celebrities. The book speaks to that broader activity, and hopefully it will help people contextualize or consider why and how we do that, and what worth it is to us and what worth it is to celebrities, who profit a lot off of taking up free real estate in our brains.

The general vibe that I got from the book was pretty positive toward the internet. Do you think this younger cohort has managed to make a better version of it for themselves?

The internet was just starting to exist when I was starting to be a teenager, and there was this culture of “oh my god, this is terrible, you’re going to meet a predator, or you’re going to get sucked into the screen and never emerge.” Teens, they’ll figure it out. People figure it out. They figure it out differently, and they don’t always figure it out in ways that look right to people who are older than them. I try not to have too much of an opinion about teenagers on the internet, because I don’t think it does teenagers any good. Beyond that, I’ll say that I generally have found it to be a positive force in my life.

It can be really fun, but the people you’re talking about are also real people and you really don’t know them. People do really messed-up things in the name of their fandom, and I’m not here to defend those things. The internet can open doors and expose you to a really fantastic community of people. It can be so, so amazing, but it can also put you in an echo chamber, a digital room of people who just agree with you and say “Yes! Harry and Louis are sending us messages and they want us to hear them, and we’ve got to get it out there! We’ve got to defend them!” And then all of a sudden you’re sending someone death threats.

2014 iHeartRadio Music Festival - Night 2 - Show
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We wrote a little bit about Larry theorists back when the Babygate theory was percolating to mainstream awareness. Would you say there was a turning point where the Larry theory went from fun to “too far?”

I think Babygate was a real turning point for a lot of people. That kind of speculation didn’t feel right. Before that I thought, “oh, it’s fun and interesting to speculate,” and now I’m like “hmm, is it?” For me it no longer is.

Louis having the baby happened right around the time the band’s contract was up. And a lot of people had sort of been like, “oh, as soon as the contract with Modest [Management] ends and they go on hiatus, Louis and Harry will announce that they’re together.” And when that didn’t happen, and the baby happened, there was a real schism where a lot of people who thought it was fun and interesting were like, “Hmm, maybe not.” The die-hards doubled down, and I just thought, if Louis fathering a baby isn’t going to convince you... then you’re right, nothing is, and that should scare you.

Are you at all worried — I’m asking because I’ve been on the wrong side of a passionate fandom before — about Larry theorists’ reactions?

Yeah, I am. I haven’t gotten any blowback for it yet, which is not to say it won’t happen. I have a good friend who just got on the wrong side of Larry fandom, which is wild because she is a Larry. I hope it doesn’t happen. It seems extremely unpleasant.

This is what I will say: I’m less concerned about getting harassed by the Larry fandom for writing about One Direction than I am about being harassed by Nazis for writing about being Jewish, which I also do. Not to say that it’s not scary, but I’m a woman who writes on the internet. I’ve been worrying about my safety as long as I’ve been doing it. Here’s another dimension to it, but probably they won’t actually kill me. Who knows.

There’s a lot of focus in the book on tattoos. They’re involved in the conspiracy theory, and Grace also just admires them on the boys in the band and then gets one herself. I’m curious what that symbol means to you.

Tattoos are so interesting as a way of claiming and decorating your own body. One of the reasons I think boy bands are so fascinating is because there are ways in which they are asked to act — there are standards of behavior imposed on them in the same way that they’re imposed on young women.

“there are standards of behavior imposed on [boy bands] in the same way that they’re imposed on young women.”

They need to be attractive, but they’re never really allowed to have sex. They should be friendly and make everyone love them and be available, the same way that young women are asked to be available every time they’re in public. I’m really fascinated by boy bands members, by what they claim for themselves. When they say, “No, there are parts of me that aren’t for the public, there are parts of me that are just mine. I can get as many tattoos as I want, I don’t have to tell you what they are or what they mean.”

That translates really beautifully into thinking about young women’s relationships with their bodies: the way they say, “I don’t care if you like it, I don’t care if you think this is feminine or attractive, I want my body to look this way.” Not only that, but “I think my body would look more beautiful this way, and I think I deserve to have a body that looks beautiful by my definition of that word.” I think it’s a really potent way of claiming space for yourself.

Did you read Mitski’s review of the Harry Styles album?

I did.

To me, it got at one of the major things in the book. The idea that girls have these fantasies around the boys in these bands, and the fantasies are often at odds with the truth of those boys’ humanity. But at the same time, it feels almost unfair that people have picked now to say that that’s wrong. Women have existed as fantasy in pop and rock music forever, and now that the script is flipped, suddenly everyone wants to say “don’t make stuff up about these people, they’re real people.”

In general, I think that people are very, very eager to pathologize women having fantasy lives. Men are just allowed to have them. When women do, it’s only because “boy bands are harmless, and these are men that girls don’t have to interact with emotionally,” and all this fucking shit. Jesus, you know, celebrities are hot and they’re rich. Part of it is just that. That’s it. We’re just attracted to them. Everyone has a fantasy life, and obviously I’m engaged in questioning it and thinking critically about it, but framing it as pathological is just ridiculous.

As it happened, Harry’s album came out on the same day as Jill Soloway’s adaptation of I Love Dick. I Love Dick is all about a woman using a man as her muse and how the man freaks out. There’s a scene in it where the woman’s husband and her muse, played by Kevin Bacon, are having a conversation and the husband asks Kevin Bacon, “What’s it like?” And Kevin Bacon says, “It’s embarrassing.” I was like, exactly! It’s embarrassing, and it’s also embarrassing to have someone say, “I noticed you and I put you in my song without asking.” Harry wrote this song “Carolina” about a girl he met one time and everyone was saying, “Oh my god, what a dream, what a fantasy!” And I was like well, he fantasized about her, he used her in his song, now she’s at the center of attention whether she wants to be or not.

So, all the pop culture and internet culture stuff aside, this is a coming-of-age novel about first love, friends growing apart, and leaving high school. What do you think makes love of a boy band, or love of an internet community, so perfect for that moment in a life?

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with loving a boy band and fantasizing about them, but there is an point where you need to recognize — about boy bands, about men in general, about people in general — “Okay, I have my fantasies about people, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I need to remember that they’re just fantasies. They’re not going to dictate or determine that person’s behavior. And clinging to my fantasies can allow me to hurt other people and can allow other people to hurt me.”

The same way a lot of coming-of-age stories feature moments in which teenagers realize their parents are not heroes or villains, they’re just people. It’s like, yeah... and also boy bands.

“the question of coming-of-age is the enormous question of ‘how can you be yourself?’”

In terms of the internet, it’s so possible to be a selective version of yourself on the internet, and that’s fine. But it’s important to recognize and come to grips with who you want to be and how willing you are to stand up for that — to be a little weird in order to be more true to yourself. In Grace’s case, the part of herself that she’s happiest with is the person she is when she’s online. So the question for her is how does she bring that emotional authenticity out into her life.

The question of coming-of-age is the enormous question of “how can you be yourself?” So really anything, almost anything relates to that. How do you be yourself is such a huge question, everything is involved in it.

Grace and the Fever is available now from Penguin Random House.