Interview with Bill Elenbark, Author of I Will Be Okay

I wrote my first novel longhand in the empty pages of engineering class notebooks at Rutgers University, tuning out professors blithely discussing the Mechanics of Solids (an actual class name!) to write fiction instead. I went on to get my engineering degree and a corresponding career but I continued to write in my spare time, the only thing that kept me sane after long days spent with math-minded engineers who never quite got my love of writing or indie rock music. I went back to school for a writing degree that exposed me to the brilliant insanity of artistic-minded friends and taught me the skills to write the YA stories I’ve always wanted to tell.

I started an indie rock music blog a decade ago and have attended several hundred shows in that time and I currently reside with my partner and our puppy Elie in Hoboken, NJ, not solely for the convenience of seeing little-known bands play intimate shows in Manhattan and DIY spaces in Brooklyn.

Bill Elenbark

Hello, Bill! Welcome to YA SH3LF. Can you tell us 3 random things about you?

Hi Dane. 3 random things – My day job is as a project management engineer and in normal times, I travel all over the U.S. (and sometimes the world) to visit… warehouses. It’s not that exciting but I do get to visit a lot of different cities.I just adopted a miniature schnauzer with my boyfriend this year – it’s my first dog, her name is Elie and she’s amazing. I go to dozens of indie rock concerts a year (or I used to, before 2020…)

What book first made you realize that words have power?

I think the book that affected me the most was Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim, which I read back when I was in college and it was the first gay-themed story I had read. I really connected with the characters in a way I had never in literature before.

What was the hardest scene to write in I Will Be Okay? And what was the easiest?

Without giving too much away, the party scene at Stick’s house when Staci and Krystle show up, ostensibly as a setup for Sammy, just crushes poor Matt in a way that I had trouble putting down on the page. The easiest scene was the opening 4th of July party scene where we are introduced to Mateo’s sprawling family, a scene I know very well and couldn’t wait to describe.

What inspired you to want to tell this story? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?

The inspiration for the story was the first scene itself – a scene I had written in a published short story called “Fireworks” — and I wanted to tell what happens to Stick and Matt in the aftermath of that scene. In general, my inspiration comes largely from life experiences – here in this story, I borrow liberally from my boyfriend’s childhood, my childhood, and my best friend’s Puerto Rican family (which is like my 2nd family) 

What were the biggest challenges in writing I Will Be Okay? Were there any moments that surprised you?

I Will Be Okay had a number of challenges. About a decade ago, I had written an unpublished novel featuring a similar (but different) set of characters and plot that served as my starting point for I Will Be Okay. The “Fireworks” short story was a flashback in that novel and became the starting scene of this one. So the difficulty was in throwing away some 90% of the scenes of that previous novel in the process of writing I Will Be Okay, which was incredibly difficult – accepting that certain scenes and characters aren’t working for the new story you are telling and having to abandon things you loved for the greater good of the plot.  
The biggest surprise moment was the “trial dating” experiment that Mateo comes up with. That just kind of appeared in the scene literally without me thinking of it ahead of time, almost like Mateo himself was telling me to do this, and it became a crucial turning point in the story.

What lessons have you learned since writing your first book?

Well, I Will Be Okay is my first published work but I had written several full-length novels before and I think each one was an amazing learning experience. The best lesson for me was to trust the characters, trust where they are taking you in the story, and not try to force a preconceived plot onto them, because it will feel contrived. Let the story take you where it wants to go.

Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment? What are you reading at the moment?

I recently turned into my agent a YA/LGBT/horror mashup called Some Kind of Monster that I’m really excited about. And I have another completed novel based on the Mountain Goats song “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” that I believe will be my next project— revising and editing that into a different form based on recent inspiration on how to really ignite that story and take it in a new direction.  
I’m currently reading Adam Silvera’s “Infinity Son” and I just finished Sarah Henstra’s “We Contain Multitudes”.

What YA books would you recommend to our readers?

I love to do recommendations!  Jandy Nelson’s “I’ll Give You the Sun” is a mind-blowing read for YA fans. Adam Silvera’s “More Happy Than Not” and Lance Rubin’s “Denton Little’s Death Date” are great (if very different). And Patrick Ness’s “The Rest of Us Just Live Here” was partly the inspiration for my horror mashup story (not that I have the same gifts of writing that he has but I’m trying).


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