I’ve been in a contemporary mood recently and so when I read My Mechanical Romance, I was hooked. I loved reading about this STEM heroine and her struggle with her family and to take up space. So check out this interview with the author where we chat about all my questions!
About My Mechanical Romance
Bel would rather die than think about the future. College apps? You’re funny. Extracurriculars? Not a chance. But when she accidentally reveals a talent for engineering at school, she’s basically forced into joining the robotics club. Even worse? All the boys ignore Bel—and Neelam, the only other girl on the team, doesn’t seem to like her either.
Enter Mateo Luna, captain of the club, who recognizes Bel as a potential asset—until they start butting heads. Bel doesn’t care about Nationals, while Teo cares too much. But as the nights of after-school work grow longer and longer, Bel and Teo realize they’ve made more than just a combat-ready robot for the championship: they’ve made each other and the team better. Because girls do belong in STEM.
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MY MECHANICAL ROMANCE features a STEM heroine. Can you talk me through the inspiration for this aspect of Bel’s character? Were there any challenges for you? Who are some of your favorite other STEM heroines?
A couple of years ago, I wrote a short story about two engineers falling in love—a rom-com, light and fluffy, that had a surprising response. Some readers were women who felt invisible in their STEM fields, who were excited to find their representations in romance given sensuality and weight. For them, being a woman who “made it” in STEM required such exhausting toughness in the face of adversity that their portrayals in fictional media felt inherently unsexy, as if their struggle was all that defined them in the end. Other readers were women who felt pushed out of STEM from an early age—women for whom the gentler aspects of their experience, like the excitement or curiosity they had as students, were easily trampled by the exact same adversity facing the first group. Basically, a case study in the quiet but unrelenting way that gender constraints had killed their joy.
After that discussion I realized that maybe I needed to tell this particular story to a younger audience, to speak to the girls that some of us were once and offer them a different path—the path we could have taken if it had presented itself to us. It was the first time I’d ever written for the YA space, so that was definitely interesting. I’m a wordy, thinky, character-driven author in general so it was a little bit of a challenge trying to push the plot forward at a faster pace rather than simmering on low in a character’s internal philosophizing the way I usually do. Romance still prioritizes emotional beats, so this was definitely the right genre for the whole who-am-I brand of personal crisis, but I had to be more economical in telling this story as opposed to some of my others.
As for STEM heroines, I think we’re still beginning to see some iconic ones like Sandhya Menon’s Dimple Shah emerge in the mainstream, but there’s obviously no leaving out Ali Hazelwood’s work in the adult space. She definitely makes STEM sexy!
Not going to lie, every time I saw this book title, I immediately auto-corrected it to My Chemical Romance, is this just me?! What music would be on Bel’s playlist?
It is not just you, it’s very much an intentional homage! I couldn’t resist. Bel is a nice mix of sparkling alt-pop and Top 40, I’d say. Taylor Swift of course, and the others of the Taylor Swift School of Expressive Autofictional Pop—Lorde, Halsey, Conan Gray, Olivia Rodrigo, maybe some Haim, Mitski, and Phoebe Bridgers in there too, plus Bastille, Bad Suns, The Wombats, Winnetka Bowling League, Peach Tree Rascals. Shiny, upbeat things.
I loved how Bel is struggling with her family, not knowing how to pick and how to navigate these feelings. Can you talk us through the writing process for Bel’s family? Did you have a favorite member of her family? Was her family conflict always the same in every draft?
Some of it was a characterization exercise. I knew my heroine was creative but, let’s say… uninspired. She definitely wasn’t an oldest child (cue “Surface Pressure” from Encanto) or an only child, and she didn’t seem like she had sisters… so, okay, brothers. What kind of brothers? The kind that offered two diametrically different paths in life, leaving her a little adrift, like maybe her identity was still up for grabs. I knew she had to get a jolt of something, a new environment to force her to make a choice she wouldn’t usually make—an abrupt change to push her out of her comfort zone. Why was she in this new school with new friends? Something going on with her parents. That sort of thing. Structurally speaking this book came together in one draft—it saw revisions of course, but Bel’s story (and her personal conflict) always felt very clear to me.
I do love Bel’s relationship with her oldest brother Luke, who presents as sort of apathetic but who actually cares deeply, and whose personal journey mirrors her own. He’s not the “good” son on the surface, but this whole story is about seeing beyond what people present to the world. Similarly, Teo’s mom is one of my favorites. She’s not a “good” mom, per se, but also, she’s kind of a great one. She’s the reason Teo knows how to care about others, and I think that’s so important. A truly swoonworthy romantic lead doesn’t simply manifest from nothing. You can see, hopefully, that despite Teo’s initial blindspots when it comes to Bel, he genuinely respects and values the women in his life, and that has to come from somewhere. It matters a lot that he takes his cues from his mother when he evolves throughout his relationship with Bel.
What was the hardest thing about writing Bel’s character or this book in general?
I mentioned that from a craft perspective, YA has fewer words. I always use too many. But actually, overall the process of writing this felt very natural. It was a story that I think had been building for a while in my head, a compilation of things I’ve come to understand as I’ve gotten older and things I wish I’d known when I was Bel’s age. Primarily, the intricacies of Bel’s relationship with Neelam. Some of my biggest regrets involve not adequately treating other women like the teammates they could have—should have—been. I didn’t feel supported by other women when I was a teen, and I think some of that comes from a place of not realizing I could admire other girls without feeling the need to compete against them. I really wanted to portray a specific dynamic that I think a lot of us encounter many times: the woman who isn’t much like you, who maybe isn’t going to be your best friend, but who is absolutely going through the same thing you’re going through, or worse. You don’t have to like her. You don’t have to emulate her. But you do have to recognize that you can go farther together than you can from opposite sides. Lifting her up takes both of you higher than the temporary “win” of leaving her behind. That was a lesson I should have learned sooner than I did, and I wanted it for Bel.
Mateo ended up totally charming me. Did you have to change your approach to writing Mateo’s character from Bel’s? Which POV was easier/harder to write?
Bel and Teo are such an important duality. I always write multiple POVs—if everyone is their own unreliable narrator (which, in my experience, is always true in life), then a single POV always feels lopsided to me. Teo sees things that Bel can’t see in herself and vice versa. This is what’s beautiful about love! They see each other’s flaws and strengths and they say yes to all of it. To me, love is that feeling of finally getting to put down the weight of everything you’ve been carrying. To feel like all of you is welcome somewhere, good and bad. So to have someone observe everything gross and selfish and fearful about you and still tell you that you’re enough, that you’re more than enough, that you’re welcome to stay—that’s the height of the human experience. That’s the kind of romance I wanted to write.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that Teo felt as natural to write as Bel did. If anything, I’m actually way more of a Teo—that fear of failure, the heaviness of trying to get everything right and being haunted by every mistake… yeah. That’s how I remember high school, personally.
Mateo’s feelings of having to have this weight on his shoulders and be a different person for everyone resonated SO much with me. Was it difficult to have Mateo explore that theme for you as a writer? Can you talk about this struggle for anyone who hasn’t read the book?
Ah, I jumped the gun a bit there! Yeah, I’m the eldest daughter of an immigrant parent so Teo’s constant compulsion to fix things is my permanent address. Is it weird to say that writing YA is a bit like a meditation on soothing your inner child? Yes, Teo has a lot to learn at the start of the book, but so do all of us. Bel has a line—“you don’t have to fix the whole world just so people will love you”—that is just… that’s what I wish someone would have told me. Like, listen, you came into this world worthy and valuable and deserving of love, you don’t have to earn every second of happiness you feel or fight for every moment of rest. Take a breath. You’re growing, you’re expanding, and that’s okay—it’s what you’ll spend your whole life doing. Might as well get comfortable with the idea that there’s still a lot left to learn.
Were there unexpected challenges you had while writing this book which is your YA debut?
I think the main challenge is that as an author, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get to do this forever. Some of this is my own anxiety, but sometimes it feels like content is disposable and I am replaceable, and so maybe every chance I get to tell a story is my last (or only) chance. In that sense it was hard not to go off on tangents, to try to fit everything I wanted to say into one book, which of course I could never. I may never say everything I want to say, and that’s a little scary. But I think a lot of it is in this book, so ultimately I’m feeling very soft. And very proud.
About Alexene Farol Follmuth
Alexene Farol Follmuth is a first-generation American, a romance enthusiast, and a lover and writer of stories. Alexene has penned a number of adult SFF projects under the name Olivie Blake, including the webtoon Clara and the Devil and the BookTok-viral The Atlas Six. My Mechanical Romance is her YA debut, coming Summer 2022 from Holiday House. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, new baby, and rescue pit bull.