One of our most anticipated reads of 2022 was Only on the Weekends by acclaimed writer and poet Dean Atta!
Atta is also the author of the 2020 Stonewall Award-winning novel-in-verse The Black Flamingo, and delivers a YA romance that’s sweet and lyrical and brings back the classic love triangle. Mack, Karim, and Finlay are characters who are complex and vibrant, and make this a story full of heart, first love, and self-discovery.
Only on the Weekends was published in May 2022 by Hachette Children’s Group / Balzer + Bray, and was touted as for fans of Kacen Callender, Elizabeth Acevedo, and Becky Albertalli.
Fifteen-year-old Mack is a hopeless romantic–likely a hazard of growing up on film sets thanks to his father’s job. Mack has had a crush on Karim for as long as he can remember and he can’t believe it when gorgeous, popular Karim seems into him too.
But when Mack’s father takes on a new directing project in Scotland, Mack has to move away, and soon discovers how painful long-distance relationships can be. It’s awful to be so far away from Karim, and it’s made worse by the fact that Karim can be so hard to read.
Then Mack meets actor Finlay on set, and the world turns upside down again. Fin seems fearless–and his confidence could just be infectious.
We had the chance to ask Atta all about Mack, Karim, and Finlay, and what went into crafting this beautiful story. Check out our conversation below, where we get the behind-the-scenes scoop on writing processes, developing real characters, and why Rihanna should read this book!
How do you think Mack, Karim, and Finlay would celebrate Pride Month this year?
They would all celebrate in different ways. Mack would get his two straight best friends, Femi and Sim, to come with him to Pride London and UK Black Pride. They’ve always been his allies and stood by his side since he came out at age 12. Karim would likely be looking online at all the Pride Month celebrations but as he’s still figuring out how public he wants to be about his sexuality he might not attend anything. While he may feel good about celebrations and Pride flags everywhere he looks, he will be mindful that outside of Pride Month much of the celebration stops and most of the flags come down. Being an out and proud trans celebrity, Finlay would be attending several Pride events across the UK, especially any trans focused events. Finlay may also be doing special events such as book signings and meet and greets with his fans.
If you could put a copy of Only on the Weekends into anyone’s hands from anywhere, who would that person be and why?
I’d love for Rihanna to read Only on the Weekends. She gets several mentions in the book and I think she’d find some mentions amusing and others really flattering as they speak on the positive impact she’s made.
What is one message you’d love your young adult readers to take away from this story?
My biggest takeaway message is that everyone is on their own journey when it comes to their identity and their desires and it’s not fair or loving to rush anyone to come out before they’re ready or to do anything — in the context of a romantic relationship — that they don’t want to do.
Your widely acclaimed coming-of-age YA novel The Black Flamingo set the bar very high, winning accolades and receiving rave reviews from fans and critics alike. Did that put you under any additional strain while writing this novel, or did it work as a positive motivation?
Receiving emails, social media messages and handwritten fan mail from readers who loved The Black Flamingo was really buoying whilst I was trying to figure out Only on the Weekends. When I was having doubts or writer’s block I turned to these messages from people telling me my writing had connected with them and made a difference in their lives. They gave me the drive to carry on and push through self-doubt and writers block.
Your characters are not perfect, and we loved how they are flawed and complex while navigating their lives, which makes them human. How did you carve your simplistic writing path through the complicated emotions, relationships, plot twists, and dynamics of the story and still kept it so intriguing?
I felt liberated when I decided not to focus on the likability of my characters, especially the three boys in the love triangle – Mack, Karim, and Finlay. They are each the main character of their own story and they are each complex and flawed in their own ways. I initially thought of writing the story from all three points of view before deciding with my editors that since Mack is the [center] of the love triangle it would make most sense to tell the story from his point of view. As the author, I knew what all the characters were thinking and feeling even when those thoughts and feelings were opaque to Mack. However, I was mindful that the reader won’t know what I know and wouldn’t see all the plot twists coming even if they were obvious and inevitable from my omniscient point of view. The key for me was reminding myself that the reader only knows what Mack knows.
What spurred you to write this book? Is there a personal story behind it?
I’ve been in several long distance relationships when I was younger and they always involved some drama, miscommunication, and misunderstanding. I only put a fraction of my own experience into this book. I really enjoyed making lots of stuff up for this story.
Can you walk us through your writing process – from brainstorming an idea to finishing a novel? Do your stories spring from an idea first, or a character, or even the climax? How difficult is it to tap into your real-life to find fiction and simplify it for a comfortable ending?
Once I’d decided who my characters were – including the adults – their personalities dictated how the story would unfold. How each of the teens act and react is hugely predicated by their backstory e.g. how they were raised and supported by the adults in their lives. I’m at an age where many of my friends have children, I’m really lucky do a lot of work in schools, and I’ve also reflected a lot on my own childhood in therapy. All this has made me really sensitive to noticing the impact that words and actions of parents, caregivers, teachers and other adult role models can have on young people. This is not to say that the young people in my novels aren’t making their own decisions but just to acknowledge that those decisions are heavily influenced by the examples they’ve been shown by the adults in their lives.
From exploring the beautiful – and sometimes painful – fallout of pursuing the love we deserve with a dash of first-love sparkles and a long-distance relationship, what is a piece of advice you would give to a someone like Mack, a hopeless romantic, who’s sharing the same dilemma as him in the real world?
The love we deserve most of all is self-love. I had lots of short and intense relationships in my teens and twenties and wasn’t really capable of the empathy, patience, and compromise required for a long-term relationship until I started working on my relationship with myself. I think it’s important to consider if you are looking for love from someone else to make up for the self-love you are lacking. Due to the discrimination we face, many LGBTQ+ people may experience trauma from an early age. We need to process this and learn how to love and accept ourselves unconditionally before we can truly believe someone else will be able to do the same. Romantic love isn’t the only love that matters. Though this book is a romance there are many important friendships and family relationships within it. I hope this story illustrates that these relationships shouldn’t be taken for granted or abandoned in the pursuit of romantic love.
How much of Mack, Karim, and Finlay’s experiences and traits can you resonate with? Are there any characters who are inspired by the people in your life?
I resonate most with Mack’s love of food and music and his occasional struggle with negative self-talk despite appearing confident to everyone else. Karim is inspired by a few people I dated when I was younger who wanted to date on the down-low. Finlay is inspired by a number of my trans friends who deal with so much transphobia just trying to live their lives, and who are almost forced to become activists simply by existing.
Is there anything you found particularly challenging about writing this story – perhaps a scene, a character, or something else?
Because I care so much for these characters, it was challenging to see them hurting or misunderstood. I felt like I always understood each of their individual struggles even when they didn’t understand each other. I sometimes felt angry at my own characters when they didn’t see how their words or actions would hurt one another. Of course, this makes for a good story — if they always said and did “the right thing” the story might’ve been pretty boring. Being two decades older than my teen characters, I’ve already made some of the mistakes they make in the book many times over — perhaps some of the frustration I felt at them was misplaced frustration I was feeling at my past self. I found being a teenager super complicated and I was grateful to have poetry as my outlet to process some of my complex feelings. The character of Michael in my first novel, The Black Flamingo, has poetry and drag performance as his mediums of self-expression. The boys in Only on the Weekends keep a lot of their feelings to themselves. Finlay is the most expressive using his zines and social media to share a curated version of himself with the world. Karim is the least expressive and extremely private — despite being on social media this doesn’t tell the full story of who he is either. Mack is somewhere in the middle because he’s pretty open but he doesn’t have social media or a big social circle, which means he cares deeply about how he’s perceived by the few people he is close to irl (in real life).
We are curious, if you got a chance to live in a fantasy realm with a fictional character, where would you go and who would you choose to live with? And why?
I like the idea of Neo in The Matrix. We live and work within so many oppressive systems that it’s almost impossible to totally opt out of. The idea of taking a pill and being able to see through it all is pretty appealing. I don’t know what I’d do with that power but I’d like to think it would be something good.
Your work surrounds queer Black joy stories, which we believe are equally necessary to explore and showcase with sheer authenticity. What prompted you to explore this realm?
Despite facing racism, homophobia, and mental health challenges, my life has been filled with so much love and joy. Therefore, I try to reflect this in my writing. I could focus on the hard times but I think those are well-documented by so many writers, filmmakers, musicians, activists and the like. Joy is a balm to hurt and struggle. In a world where Black and queer people didn’t face such hardship and inequality I would likely write about contentment and inner peace. Joy is a beautiful but fleeting feeling that I wouldn’t necessarily be reaching for or writing about so often if all things were fair and equal.
Could you introduce us to your favorite works from queer literature (old or new) and what was your biggest takeaway from them overall as a writer yourself?
I write poetry as well as YA. As a poet, I’ve felt most sustained and encouraged by the great number of incredible contemporary queer poets, such as Adam Lowe, Andrew McMillan, Danez Smith, Jay Bernard, Joelle Taylor, Keith Jarrett, Mary Jean Chan, Nikita Gill, Peter Scalpello, Richard Scott and Yrsa Daley-Ward. We all have different experiences and ways of expressing them and it’s encouraging for me that there is such a diversity of queer voices out there for people to read. My takeaway is that when I sit down to write I don’t have to try and represent all LGBTQ+ people — it’s okay to tell my stories in my own way.
How do you think LGBTQ+ representation has expanded in recent years? And what should be done, according to you, to improve as a reader, writer, and publisher in bringing LGBTQ+ literature to new heights?
Sometimes it feels like LGBTQ+ writers have been allowed into mainstream publishing to fulfill a diversity deficit and we’re only wanted if we agree to write about very specific issues. I’d like LGBTQ+ writers and writers of color to feel free to write whatever stories they wish to write, even if those stories aren’t focused on their identity or lived experience. I’d like us to be afforded the privileges that were afforded to straight, white, male writers for so long — freedom of imagination and the freedom to pursue our areas of interest.
We’re looking forward to more books by Dean Atta in the future, and coming up in 2022, his second poetry collection, There is (still) love here (Nine Arches Press), and poems in three anthologies: 100 Queer Poems (Vintage), More Fiya (Canongate) and Re·creation (Stewed Rhubarb Press).
Grab your copy of Only on the Weekends here!
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