Isaac Fitzsimons writes so that every reader can see themselves reflected in literature. His debut novel, The Passing Playbook, received numerous accolades including being named a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selection, a Summer/Fall 2021 Indies Introduce title, a Kirkus Best Young Adult Book of 2021, and a 2022 Lambda Literary Award Finalist.
We talked with Isaac about the inspirations behind The Passing Playbook, writing young adult fiction, and leading with joy.
The Passing Playbook just came out in paperback this May! If you could only describe the book in five words, what would they be?
Soccer gays fall in love.
In the book, you tell a trans coming-of-age story that centers love and joy while exploring difficult topics like anti-trans legislation, religious homophobia, and bullying. How did you strike a balance that felt right for the story you wanted to tell?
We meet Spencer after he’s gone through a traumatic event at his old school. I purposefully don’t give too many details so as not to traumatize or retraumatize readers who may have experienced something similar. Through their actions, I try to show how Spencer and his family are dealing with repercussions from that incident. This allowed me to write a climax of healing and recovery instead of trauma and pain, which is what we often see in trans narratives. My mantra while writing was to lead with joy, and I hope I accomplished that.
Was there any part of the story, as you wrote it, that surprised you?
Initially, I struggled to make Justice a fully fleshed out character rather than just a love interest. The breakthrough moment came when I decided to give him past romantic history with Grayson, the president of the Queer Straight Alliance. I had already established an antagonistic relationship between Justice and Grayson, which was based on actions Justice’s family took last year. But making it more personal and showing why Justice was reluctant to get involved with someone romantically again helped round out his character and motivations.
What are you most proud of within the book?
In someone else’s hands I think this story would have a lot more trauma. I imagine scenes where Spencer is bullied in the locker room or has parents who refuse to affirm his gender identity. Readers often expect these types of scenes as well and I love surprising them with just how joyful the book is. In one of the early scenes we’re introduced to Macintosh, the soccer captain, when Spencer pings him in the back of the head with a ball. Macintosh could easily have become a bully who targets Spencer throughout the book, but I intentionally made him one of Spencer’s biggest allies. This scene is also a message to the reader that they can feel safe reading the book.
Was there anything you read, listened to, or watched while working on this book that influenced your writing?
I watched a lot of soccer! Most of the soccer set pieces came straight from matches I watched on TV.
On a more serious note, I began writing in 2016 when anti-trans legislation was being introduced at an astronomical rate. I went to a Harry Styles’ concert in DC right around the time of the trans military ban. The entire stage was decked out in pride flags, including the trans flag. For the first time in a while, I felt safe being in public. MUNA was the opening act and if The Passing Playbook were ever made into a movie, I’d want their song “I Know a Place” in the closing credits because it perfectly captures the mood of the book.
What is your favorite part about writing young adult fiction?
I enjoy writing from the perspective of a teenager and tapping into the raw emotions they feel. My intent is always to validate my characters’ feelings while also tempering some of that intensity with insight only gained from life experience. Everything I write is a love letter to some facet of my younger self. I find it really healing, and I hope readers do too.
What are you currently reading? Are there any books you are really looking forward to?
Now that the days are longer, I’ve been reading quite a bit of horror, that way I’m not too scared to read at night! A few I’ve read recently are Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline, Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, and The Terror by Dan Simmons. In YA, I’m excited to read A Little Bit Country by Brian D. Kennedy, which just came out because I’m a huge fan of country music.