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YA authors Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka on Harvard and high school love

The real life couple discuss their latest book, filled with hyper-competitive Ivy League longing

Authors Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka's latest YA novel, "What's Not to Love" is out April 20 from Penguin Random House, following two high school seniors vying for a coveted spot at Harvard.
Authors Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka's latest YA novel, "What's Not to Love" is out April 20 from Penguin Random House, following two high school seniors vying for a coveted spot at Harvard.Sue Grubman

Los Angeles-based married couple Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka have been pumping out peppy YA hits for the last several years. Their fourth and latest book, “What’s Not to Love,” out this week, features two ambitious high school seniors vying for a coveted acceptance to Harvard College. The brainy main character, Allison, spars with arrogant competitor Ethan — a playful inversion of the authors’ names — until, to their dismay, they find themselves falling in love.

The book is a self-aware, nostalgic romp — overly studious Allison goes to school with food poisoning rather than miss a test, and barely makes time to study for her driver’s license. (Cue Olivia Rodrigo.) There’s surplus intrigue stemming from the autobiographical nature of this latest offering: Wibberley and Siegemund-Broka were co-valedictorians — and a couple — at their high school in Southern California. Wibberley graduated from Princeton with a degree in psychology, while Siegemund-Broka graduated from Harvard with a degree in English in 2014.

The book borrows heavily from the authors’ cutthroat Ivy League-bound high-schooler escapades. As we eye the impending conclusion of the school year for the class of ’21, we chatted with the pair about their latest release.

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Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka dedicated "What's Not to Love" to the classes of 2020.
Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka dedicated "What's Not to Love" to the classes of 2020.Handout

Q. “What’s Not to Love” is your most autobiographical book. What was your relationship like in high school?

Wibberley: Much like the characters in the book, we both took every advanced, AP, and honors class. I think our sophomore year we had every class together except for our electives.

Siegemund-Broka: Constantly. The key difference [from the characters in the book] is we were pretty fast friends from the beginning.

Wibberley: That said, we were both wanting to be the valedictorian. Both wanting to get into the top schools. So there’s always a little bit of keeping an eye on one another. … We actually got together in our senior year, shortly before applying to college and going through all of that. We ended up as co-valedictorians.

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Siegemund-Broka: It was tricky because we were growing closer. But at the same time, reaching that crucible where you’re seeing the results of those years of competition against the people vying for spots at the same schools as you, it’s tense.

Q. Were you both vying for a spot at Harvard?

Siegemund-Broka: Certainly, we were both aiming for the top bracket of the Ivy League.

Wibberley: We both have fond memories of each other’s schools — when I would come to Harvard I had no stress about Princeton, and when he would come to Princeton it was the same.

Siegemund-Broka: Train and subway stations have a special gleam for that very reason: South Station and the Park Street and Harvard Square T stops. Those were really special places. Border Cafe in Harvard Square — which I understand is now closed down — was an all-time spot for us.

Q. How did your time at Harvard and Princeton play into how you wrote the book?

Siegemund-Broka: My high school and college experience, and Emily’s as well — they were very intense. It was mostly studying. It was mostly pursuing extracurricular activities. It was a lot of high-pressure questions about whether you were achieving enough to get to the future you wanted. And the thing is, I don’t really regret that. I wouldn’t really have done it another way. That’s how both of our temperaments work. I think it’s how the temperament of a lot of high-achieving kids out there works.

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Q. What advice would you give to kids in high school now?

Siegemund-Broka: It’s so rare to find passion and drive, and to feel like you’re pointed in a direction you want to go. If you feel like you’ve found that direction, don’t let anyone make you doubt it by making fun of it or considering it weird. If you’ve found that thing that makes your engine run, be proud of it.

Wibberley: But also the idea that things can change. If you’d asked us when we were seniors in high school if we would be writing young adult rom-coms together we would have said absolutely not! Yet here we are, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. You don’t have to have all of the answers.

Q. I enjoyed the banter — so many barbs back and forth. What’s the writing process like?

Siegemund-Broka: Emily is skilled at outlining and scene structure so a lot of the time those conversation structures come from her. It looks exactly like us sitting in a room, or me standing across the room and Emily typing, and one of us will offer up a line and the other will say great, what if it went in this direction? The goal there is always to make each other laugh.

Wibberley: I often have kind of the zero draft version where the shape of the dialogue is there and then Austin kind of comes in and derails it with a suggestion. But it’s always good! It’s a good punch-up of what we’ve been working on.

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Siegemund-Broka: I offer a unique service … derailing.

Q. You dedicated the book to the classes of 2020. Did the pandemic affect the way you thought about this book at all?

Wibberley: We thought of them a lot, because here’s this book about how special your high school experience is, and of course all of these seniors are not getting the type of experience Allison and Ethan are getting. But of course I think that they’re making fantastic things out of it, despite the hardships. Hopefully reading a book like this can be a bit of an escapist celebration.

Q. Did the pandemic change your writing process?

Wibberley: For writing, honestly, nothing has changed. We don’t have the distraction of seeing our friends, so we are just in the house writing with each other a lot. As co-writers it is difficult sometimes. I mean, we fight. We have a lot of conflict, as you can see in Allison and Ethan. We have that kind of spirit to us. So when we’re writing, it’s collaboration, but also there’s ego involved and there’s always an edge of competition there.

Q. I loved the first kiss scene.

Siegemund-Broka: There are some scenes that you write because it’s the next scene you have to write and you give it your best, and there are some where you really try to rise to your most Olympic level. The kiss scenes in this book were the latter.

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Wibberley: I will say, we’re married, and we write everything together. Those scenes are sometimes a little awkward and hard to write together. The lines blur and it becomes a bit like you’re saying more than you mean to say. So we have to kind of separate on those.

Q. Interesting. Say a little more. How is writing like that so revealing?

Wibberley: It’s embarrassing because that kind of writing is so personal. As you see in the book, we put so much of ourselves into it. So when you’re writing romantic scenes like that it feels extremely bare. You’d think you’d be comfortable being like that in front of your spouse but in ways it’s like, “Don’t look at me, I just need to write this down!”

Q. How do you deal with those feelings as co-writers?

Wibberley: It inspired our adult debut coming out next year. It’s about co-writers who split and are forced to come back and write another book together. It’s called “The Roughest Draft,” and it’s all about the ways you can and can’t communicate via your writing, with someone you might have feelings for. That one was by far the most difficult for us to write — it was really, extremely meta for us.

Interview was edited and condensed.

Gina Tomaine can be reached at Gina.tomaine@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @gtomaine.