By Saffron Coutts.
We are thrilled to welcome Haley Neil to The Reading Corner to discuss her upcoming release Planning Perfect, out February 14th!
Felicity Becker loves watching an event come together. Whether it’s prom, graduation, or just the annual Arbor Day school dance, there’s something magical about crafting an experience that people will remember. So when her mom gets engaged, Felicity sees the wedding as the perfect opportunity to show off her skills.
After Felicity’s long-distance friend Nancy offers up her family’s apple orchard as a venue, wedding planning gets even better. But the more time Felicity and Nancy spend together dress shopping and hunting for just-right mismatched china, the more it starts to seem like there might be something besides friendship between them. Felicity isn’t sure how she feels. As someone on the asexuality spectrum, what would dating even look like for her? And would Nancy be open to dating when Felicity doesn’t even know what she wants from a relationship?
Suddenly the summer is a lot more complicated. Especially when Felicity finds out that one of the wedding guests is an event planner with a prestigious internship available. Can Felicity wrangle her irresponsible mom, juggle her judgmental grandmother, figure out her feelings for Nancy, and plan the perfect wedding? Or will all of her plans come crashing down around her?
We are very happy to welcome Haley Neil to The Reading Corner to discuss their upcoming novel “Planning Perfect”.
Welcome, Haley! I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to discuss your up-and-coming novel at The Reading Corner. In a world where labels feel expected of us, I am so excited for the younger generation to read this book and feel seen.
To begin our Q&A, I thought where better than to start at the beginning of the writing process. What inspired you to write the book?
This is admittedly a silly answer, but this book stemmed from a bit of a joke. I had just watched the movie Under the Tuscan Sun and was talking to a friend about how I thought it should have been sapphic. I feel like that happens a lot, where there are plots that seem so obviously queer, but the story never goes there. So I made a joke, something along the lines of: “Haha, watch, I’m going to write an f/f take on Under the Tuscan Sun.” The plot of Planning Perfect is admittedly very far from that initial inspiration. The big project that the main character is working on over the summer went from fixing a house to planning a wedding, the travel changed from the Italian countryside to Vermont. As I kept going, this book found its own way, its own story.
Felicity and her mother have a close but complicated relationship. Do you think the fact that Felicity feels like the adult in the relationship is the reason why she pushes herself to the extremes?
You know, I actually blame Bubbe for some of that! When I really dug into this story, I started to call it Gilmore Girls but make it Jewish, specifically in reference to the mother/daughter/grandmother relationship. Felicity holds a lot of ideas about what a person’s life should look like. Part of that comes from what she heard her grandmother say about her mother. Another part is the way kids naturally push back from their parents. Her mother is untraditional, so Felicity will do things “right.” She thinks of herself as the adult in their relationship. This leads to some of that pressure she feels.
Another aspect is generational trauma. Their family is Jewish. Bubbe pushes her daughter and granddaughter because that is the way she’s been taught to keep them safe. That concept of safety is very telling. I wanted to show how the message of doing the “right” thing can shift and change through the generations. For Felicity, it builds to this pressure where she pushes herself to get to an impossible standard of perfection.
A moment I particularly loved was from the chapter ‘Two Springs Ago’ where Nancy and Felicity discuss Queer labels and how they feel about them. Particularly that Nancy didn’t feel the need to accept a label, whereas Felicity felt comforted by them. What was your thought process in writing this chapter, and do you think this discussion could help others not feel the need to pressure themselves into a category per se?
That was a deeply personal section to write. I often feel like I’m both Nancy and Felicity in this particular respect. As someone who falls under the asexual umbrella (I go between saying asexual-spectrum and demisexual) and is biromantic, finding words for how I felt meant a lot. Hearing that there were words, that other people felt that way… well, it was a gamechanger. So for people who are seeking out words to understand that they are not alone, knowing that there are these sorts of labels can be helpful. That said, not everyone shares this vocabulary. Some come to those words with preconceived notions. When I’m talking to a person who does not necessarily understand these words, I often sum it up by saying things like, “I’m not attracted to anyone unless I get to know them,” or “I care about the personality, not the type of person.” Beyond that, a label can feel very restrictive for some people. People change. Labels (and the feelings that are attached to those labels) can change. I wanted to show this back and forth between the characters because both are true. Labels can help people, words can change, and it is completely fine if you don’t feel the need to put yourself into a category.
Aunt Gwendoline seems like Felicity’s opposite, she is so secure and confident in who she is that negative opinions don’t seem to touch her. Particularly near the end of the novel, she reassures and encourages Felicity to be herself. Do you think the character of Aunt Gwendoline was essential on Felicity’s journey to acceptance?
Definitely! Felicity has these two opposing role models in the story. There’s Bubbe, who Felicity grew up with (and who shaped so many of her beliefs around what is/isn’t “acceptable”). Then there’s Aunt Gwendoline. Suddenly, Felicity has someone else to look up to. There’s a scene between Felicity and Aunt Gwendoline later in the story that I think is pivotal in Felicity’s journey. In that scene, Aunt Gwendoline says, “Remember to be your beautifully flawed self and know that others will be flawed too.” That advice, that whole conversation really, challenges Felicity. She needs to hear these words.
What do you think the future holds for Felicity and Nancy?
Well, there is a bit of sneak peek into that in the epilogue. I very purposefully planted some titbits into that ending. Beyond that, well, I have to defer to what Felicity learns in this story: you can’t plan perfect. So much of life is unplanned. I’d like to think these two have the best sorts of surprises ahead of them.
What did you personally want readers to learn or be inspired by after reading the book?
There is no single perfect path for your life. I feel like, especially for teenagers, there’s this fear that you need to have all of the answers. You need to know what you’re going to do and stick to it. It’s okay for plans to change. Sometimes the best part of life are entirely unexpected.
What LQBTQ+ books would you recommend to someone who is in a similar situation to Felicity in terms of figuring out her identity?
First of all, I’d recommend reading widely! Loveless by Alice Osman is a great one to read about both ace and aro identities. Another great one with ace-spectrum/bi rep is The Sound of Stars by Alechia Dow!
Finally, where can readers get their hands on a copy of your book!?
If you pre-order from Brookline Booksmith, you can get an absolutely gorgeous art print postcard by the brilliant Jenifer Prince! The book will officially be available in stores (and libraries!) on Valentine’s Day!
Haley Neil is the author of YA Novels ONCE MORE WITH CHUTZPAH (Bloomsbury / out now!) and PLANNING PERFECT (Bloomsbury / February 2023). She graduated from The New School, where she specialized in Writing for Children and Young Adults. She previously obtained her Masters in Education while working full time as a preschool teacher.
Haley now spends her days writing and working in the children’s department at her local library (when she isn’t walking her fluffball of a rescue pup through their Massachusetts town).
Haley’s Instagram: @haleyeneil
Find more interviews here.