Zack Smedley’s YA debut, Deposing Nathan, was a Kirkus Best Book of 2019 and a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Now his new novel, Tonight We Rule the World (Page Street, Oct. 12), makes our 2021 list, with its powerful story of a teen boy who experiences sexual assault; our reviewer praised it as “stellar and haunting.” Smedley answered some questions by email.

What was the inspiration for Tonight We Rule the World?

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. It was a deeply influential and important book when I read it in my high school English class, but in the decade since, I haven’t seen a mainstream YA book that tells the same story with a male protagonist. So—after exhaustive research—I decided to write one.

The novel has some dark themes, such as sexual assault, along with more mundane life events, such as obtaining your driver’s license. How do you strike the right balance for a young adult readership?

Well, Step No. 1 is to fill the book with at least enough joy and levity to make it accessible—I don’t want to write a story that’s going to relentlessly ruin anyone’s weekend. It’s important to me that my books be as humorous (and, at times, fun) as they are dark and heavy. But beyond that, I think the balance we’re talking about is simply how a lot of teenagers’ lives are. Awful things can and do happen, but high school is also filled with some of the most joyful milestones of your life. I want to write books that feature both.

What is it like having a book come out in 2021? How do you connect with your readers in this socially distanced year?

It’s sure not as fun as back in 2019. The answer is lots of virtual events and fewer in-person ones.

Who is the ideal reader for Tonight We Rule the World, and where would they be reading it?

If I did my job properly, teenagers in English classes. I used to loathe authors whose books included symbols, motifs, and parallel arcs that are ripe for deconstruction. Now I—to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi—have become the very thing I swore to destroy.

What book most dazzled you this year?

Brendan Kiely’s The Gospel of Winter, one of the few YA books I found that discusses sexual assault from a male victim’s perspective, albeit through a slightly different lens. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Tonight We Rule the World