Interview: Author Joya Goffney discusses the fear of taking risks

Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry author Joya Goffney. Image courtesy Spark Point Studio
Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry author Joya Goffney. Image courtesy Spark Point Studio /

In her debut novel, Excuse Me While I Ugly Cryauthor Joya Goffney explores the fear of taking risks.

When Quinn has her notebook stolen, full of her most intimate thoughts, she has to cross items off of the notebook’s to-do list in order to satisfy her blackmailer, alongside the handsome and frustrating Carter, who could have been involved in the notebook’s theft in the first place.

Along the way, Quinn learns to face her fears and grows closer to Carter as she discovers more about herself and the people around her.

Culturess sat down with Goffney to discuss her debut novel, the challenges and joys of writing romance, and what she wants her readers to take away from Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry. (Read our full review of Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry here before diving into the interview.)

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Culturess:  Quinn has a very dynamic and remarkable character arc that, in the context of the novel, only spans a few days. What was the biggest challenge in crafting the emotional stakes with her character from beginning to end?

Joya Goffney:  The title of my book is Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry, and let me tell you, in the early drafts, Quinn cried a lot. She cried and she cried and she didn’t really do anything else. That was one of the biggest challenges with her character—showing her growth, while still allowing her to feel pain.

Particularly, the scene with Olivia towards the end—without giving too much away—in my revisions, I decided to not have Quinn cry there. Quinn needed to stand up for herself and not let Olivia speak for her. That scene was the catalyst for her bravery thereafter.

Also, in relation to Carter, it was challenging giving Quinn enough time and space to assess her feelings for him, at the end, and giving her enough time and space to forgive him, rather than rushing her into his arms. It was very important to show her taking her time, and to show Carter giving her that time.

With romance, it’s tempting to include grand gestures and immediate swooning. But it would have been so unfair to Quinn to expect her (or any person placed in that position) to forgive and forget all at once.

Culturess:  Carter also goes on his own journey that has plenty of secrets and shocking twists. How did you find a balance for making him imperfect while still likable?

Goffney:  This was so challenging! Carter’s character was maybe, probably, definitely the biggest challenge of writing this book. Carter—he’s just a regular guy, trying to take care of himself and his baby sister, while still being a regular teenager.

I think that’s how I kept my head with his character. He was grounded in his love for his sister, and the way he cares for Imani translates into the way he eventually softens for Quinn.

In earlier versions, I definitely struggled with making his character forgivable. The key was making him a willing partner in tracking down her journal. He doesn’t have much at stake in this race against time, except for Quinn’s opinion of him.

Having him take responsibility in the part he played in losing her journal, and later in the story, for the ways in which he hurts her, made it easier for the reader and for Quinn to forgive him.

Culturess:  Quinn and Carter have incredible romantic chemistry. What was the most fun scene to write between them? What was the most challenging aspect of their relationship to pin down

Goffney:  Writing their relationship was so much fun. The earlier parts, when all they did was bicker, had their own appeal, and the parts when they were just starting to realize their feelings for each other were also a blast to write.

My favorite scene, though, was definitely the first late-night phone call. Dialogue is the most fun for me, and phone calls are primarily that. The dialogue in that scene was so spicy, but also, so real.

We finally get a look at what happened between Quinn and Destany, and we also get a look at Carter’s past, all the while, growing a sense of comfort between them. Not to mention, that they both kind of admit their attraction for each other in a funny, almost raunchy way.

The challenging aspect of their relationship was getting their enemy-to-lover arc just right. Establishing the tension was fun, but it was difficult not making Carter too mean, and not making Quinn too quick to fall for him.

The key was establishing a motive for Carter and putting emotion behind his judgmental and abrasive behavior in the beginning—the fact that he thinks she’s a spoiled rich girl and the way her dad treats him in the first scene.

And the key to Quinn was validating her emotions—she had every right to not trust Carter in the beginning and at the end. Those two establishments for their characters helped me to strike the right balance between them.

Culturess:  A huge aspect of the book focuses on Quinn’s own relationship with her race and identity, especially with regard to her white friends. What did you want readers to take away from this part of the novel?

Goffney:  I want my Black readers to feel seen, especially if they’re currently in a toxic relationship with white friends—and especially if they’re navigating predominantly white spaces. It took me a really long time to open my eyes to the toxicity of some of my white friends.

And when the scene that places a wedge between Quinn and her white best friend happened to me in real life, I spoke up minimally—which, I’m proud of my younger self for even saying anything, because that wasn’t in my nature—but I didn’t have the courage to divorce that friend until much later.

I included the aspect of Quinn’s coming into her Blackness as a way to process some of those feelings I had when I was coming into mine.

Back when I was still going through it—having to sit through lunches while some of my white ‘friends’ told racist jokes—I didn’t realize just how messed up that was. This was my way of processing some of those feelings, venting a little, and essentially moving past it. And I hope my readers will be able to do the same.

Culturess:  Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry spans so many difficult topics (racism, lying and cheating, grief, family issues). How did you balance each of the topics to make sure they had equal weight in the story?

Goffney:  The really cool thing about the infamous to-do list is that it helped me to stay on track with each of these topics. It was like an outline written into the story, allowing me to refer back to it as a way of keeping everything balanced.

I was careful to not let the romance completely take over. As fun as it was to write about Quinn and Carter falling in love, it was just as important to write about their growth through these challenges.

Culturess:  The novel’s plot is fairly high-concept but grounded by real-world emotions and motivations. What led you to the particular premise? What was the most challenging aspect of plotting the story?

Goffney:  The idea for the premise was inspired by lists that I used to write when I was in high school—lists of social challenges that included items such as get my first kiss. After I completed that particular list, my life changed drastically for the better.

But I remember thinking that it took me so long to get myself to move. And the idea came to me when I asked myself, what if I never had a choice?

The most challenging aspect of plotting this story was aligning the romance thread with the list thread. At what point does Quinn fall for Carter? At what point does she trust him? Which items does he help her face? And which items does she do on her own?

I purposely made the climax of the list thread happen at the same time as the climax of the romance thread—they’re actually reliant upon each other. But keeping the timing and the balance between them was the biggest challenge of plotting this story.

Culturess:  As a debut author, what do you most want readers to take away from the novel?

Goffney:  Change is scary, but it’s worth it.

I think, maybe I’m so big on this concept because I’m still really scared of change. I still get stuck and too terrified to move. I am still working on trying to be as brave as Quinn, but I hope you, dear reader, will work on it too.

Culturess:  Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Goffney:  I sprinkled pieces of myself throughout Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry. The way Carter and Quinn get together is a bit similar to the way my current boyfriend of nine years got together—through completing a to-do list of my fears (there was no blackmail involved, don’t worry).

Grandma Hattie is based heavily on my late grandmother and my fears surrounding the state of her memory. Olivia is who I want to be in life. And the instances of racism are all based on my real-life experiences.

Writing this book helped me to work through a lot of my emotions surrounding the passing of my grandma, and the hurt and disappointment that comes with losing a friend.

As funny and sweet and romantic as Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry is, it is also an exploration of pain and fear and courage—and I really hope this story and its message sticks with you long after you’ve turned the last page.

Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry is a sweet and moving YA rom-com. dark. Next

Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry is available now wherever books are sold.