Hayley Kiyoko on Turning “Girls Like Girls” into a Swoony YA Novel
If Hayley Kiyoko is lesbian Jesus, “Girls Like Girls” is the Bible. The hit electropop song and its accompanying video have earned the singer, writer, and director a cult following since their release in 2015. But beyond the hype, “Girls Like Girls” is a tale as old as time for queer women that captures the simultaneous thrill and frustration of discovering feelings for your straight best friend. In Girls Like Girls, the novel, released earlier this month, the multi-talented Kiyoko debuts this deeply personal story in book form, following the teenage Coley as she falls for her schoolmate Sonya. For Interview, she called up her dear friend and fellow author Taylor Jenkins Reid, best-known for her bestselling novels The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Daisy Jones & The Six, to talk about about crafting limitless worlds and stopping to smell the roses.
HAYLEY KIYOKO: Hi, Taylor.
TAYLOR JENKINS REID: Hello, lesbian Jesus. How are you?
KIYOKO: I’m great. How are you?
JENKINS REID: I’m good. You’re on tour. Are you in Phoenix?
KIYOKO: I am in Phoenix in my beautiful lounge on my tour bus.
JENKINS REID: Wait, that looks like a good amount of space on a tour bus.
KIYOKO: Well, it’s a double-decker. So this is the lounge area, and then there’s 16 bunks behind me. So when you have 16 people in this room, it’s a little different than just me on Zoom with you. But I appreciate the luxury, truly. You’re just surrounded by books.
JENKINS REID: Yeah, that’s what I’m surrounded by all the time.
KIYOKO: They’re color-coordinated. Do you normally color-coordinate your books? Oh my gosh.
JENKINS REID: It has to do with a filing system of how I can most easily find the book, because I’m like, “Oh, that cover was red.” Then I go over here and there it is.
KIYOKO: Wow. I love color, so when I write music, I see color. So you and I are already the same person, basically.
JENKINS REID: Wait, I do not actually have synesthesia. But it sounds like you actually maybe have it.
KIYOKO: Yeah, I definitely have it. I don’t know how to get tested or whatever.
JENKINS REID: We need to get you tested.
KIYOKO: Honestly, I’ve been tested for too many things. I don’t need another thing to deal with. [Laughs] You know what I mean?
JENKINS REID: I do. Wait, I have a question for you. Did you play the Wiltern last night?
KIYOKO: Not last night, but the night before.
JENKINS REID: Was it the coolest thing ever? Because I feel like it’s one of the best venues in LA.
KIYOKO: It was the coolest thing ever. I wish you were there. I grew up literally lining up outside of the Wiltern to see Imogen Heap, Sia, and all these amazing artists. It was an out of body experience to see the green room and sit on the toilet that everyone sat on. I was freaking out. It was so crazy. It was my biggest show on tour so it was a really cool homecoming.
JENKINS REID: That is awesome. Also, I find this fact really interesting and nobody else cares, but did you know that it’s called The Wiltern because it’s on Wilshire and Western?
KIYOKO: Are you kidding me? My mind has just exploded.
JENKINS REID: Good. That was my job here today, to blow your mind.
KIYOKO: I was scrolling through my messages because I was trying to remember when I slid into your DMs. The story is this. I slid into your DMs in 2019 because I had read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and we got breakfast or lunch at Vivian’s.
JENKINS REID: Yeah. I’m assuming it was breakfast because the pancakes there are so good that we had to have gone there for that. But I was thinking about that too.
KIYOKO: I was so grateful for that blind date because it was one of the few books that I’ve read where I was like, “Oh, my gosh, I feel seen. This is so well done.” I was just taken away by it.
JENKINS REID: It meant so much to me though, because all I’ve ever wanted from the work I do is to make somebody feel less alone. To be honest, watching you the past couple of years, you are showing so many young people that it’s okay for them to be who they are and there’s a world out there that loves them for that. I’m so excited for—what do they call your stans? Is it Kiyokians?
JENKINS REID: I’m so excited for Kiyokians because you have a big two weeks coming up. You have a new song that’s going to come out, you’re ending your tour at the beginning of June, you have a book coming out, all at the same time. Kiyokians are fed.
KIYOKO: We’re trying to feed. I’m always hungry. The novel’s been a long journey, but I’ve been so excited to finally get to share it with my fans because my journey has been backwards. You have your novels and now you’ve got films and TV, but Girls Like Girls obviously started as a song. I wanted to direct a feature but Hollywood is not ready. I spent seven years trying to get a movie made. So writing a novel about it was the most logical next step. I’m excited for people to get to escape in Girls Like Girls again and to know more about it. It’s nice to have this tangible book to feel comfort in, especially because so many queer people are not safe under their own roof or in their community. Because growing up in my teens being a raging lesbian, I felt insane.
JENKINS REID: I think this book is going to do that. One of the things I love so much about you from the very first time that we met is you are one of the most creatively ambitious and confident women I’ve ever met. If you put your mind to something, it’s going to happen. There are so many other people who would’ve taken this story and been like, “Okay, it was a song and that’s what it was.” You’ve blown it out and made it into so many things. So at what point did you decide to make this story into a book?
KIYOKO: You’re going to make me cry. So I have been directing my whole life. I love directing. Girls Like Girls came from me coming out to my co-writers, telling this story of feeling cocky and stealing your girl, and who I’ve always wanted to be, because I am confident but I’m pretty insecure as well. I told my story through these fictional characters in the music video and people loved it. So I was like, “Oh, my gosh, I love directing. How do I expand this story?” I realized the movie may never happen but I was like, “I can’t leave this earth until I expand this story.” And that’s where the novel came in. It was really creatively fulfilling to do this because when you’re directing, you have to pay for every single thing you see. Every color, every moment. I have become a creative person through extreme limitations, taking a penny and going, “How do I make this penny shiny?” So doing the novel, that creative energy came from a different place because it’s just words. You can put a dragon in this scene and then have the dragon disappear. Who cares? You don’t have to pay for the dragon. There are no dragons in Girls Like Girls, by the way.
JENKINS REID: Maybe metaphorically there are some dragons in there.
KIYOKO: Yeah. But it was both interesting and challenging for me because I could take the story anywhere. So even though I’m not Coley, Coley experiences a lot of things, verbatim moments in my life trying to navigate my sexuality and self-discovery and falling in love with my best friend. I felt like I was working backwards the whole time, but I got through it.
JENKINS REID: I think the thing you find difficult about a book is the reason I will never attempt to direct a movie. In my world of storytelling, I am the writer, the director, the props person, the wardrobe person. I decide everything. There is no limit to my imagination so I can build out this world exactly how I want without the limits of reality or a budget. So I love that you are a director because it is a cinematic book and it instantly grabs you from the beginning. Talk to me about Coley and Sonya and how you made them even grander than the constraints of the music video.
KIYOKO: I have this box I created and my story is slightly different, so I had to make it connect. I think the most challenging part for me was building out Sonya’s world and making Sonya likable enough. I don’t know if I’m spoiling things, but we all know it’s going to end in hope. So how do I make her likable enough so we’re happy at the end?
JENKINS REID: You want Coley to get what Coley wants?
KIYOKO: Yeah. As I was writing this novel, I realized I’ve grown up with so much representation that stems from trauma because it’s easier to tell the hardship. It’s harder to bring hope and have a happy ending because the reality is that one out of ten ends in a happy ending in real life. I was also excited to build out Coley’s world and introduce her father. I would talk to executives about it because the father ends up being very supportive, and they were like, “How are people going to relate to the father accepting Coley? That’s not people’s reality.” My rebuttal was, “don’t we all fantasize?” Don’t we all watch rom-coms and we want to see happy endings? Don’t we watch two people fall in love even if we haven’t experienced that yet? But I wanted to ask you, because you were talking about the limitlessness of writing, have you always felt that way?
JENKINS REID: I don’t think I knew how good I had it. I worked in Hollywood on the development side for a long time and I had to explain and validate why these crazy things that were physically impossible had to happen. That’s why I gravitated towards the thing that I instinctually loved the most. When it comes to consuming content, I’m completely agnostic. Novels, TV, film, music, podcasts, I love it equally. But as a storyteller, I am an author. I love that I can make this room look like anything I want. I don’t have to think about how long it’s going to take to paint that wall. But it’s also why I have a lot of respect for directing. You’re a storyteller in every form. Does the fact that you’re able to work in so many different mediums feel freeing or do you feel pulled in many directions?
KIYOKO: That’s a great question. I feel like writing music came from a necessity of not being able to express my true feelings to my family and friends. And directing came out of a necessity of not being able to hire directors. Then the novel came out of necessity because the music industry doesn’t pay for music videos anymore. They never paid for them, but they really don’t now. I’ve crunched every penny I have over ten years trying to make music videos. I hit a point where I was like, “If I can’t make it the quality that I want, then I don’t want it at all.” So that door kind of closed. I crave different mediums through doors closing and needing to find a way to express myself.
JENKINS REID: Right.
KIYOKO: I overexert myself, I burn myself out. I hate trying to compartmentalize and make sure I’m not doing two different mediums at once. But I do feel like if I could just focus on one thing that maybe I could get to the top. It’s funny, I was reading an interview you did with Time and you said, “My happiest moment is not when I’m standing on the top of a mountain. It’s when I’m just about to get there.” It’s crazy because like, Taylor, my album is called Panorama. Literally. My realization was that I don’t need to be on the top of the mountain.
JENKINS REID: Yeah.
KIYOKO: When we’re in the valley, we’ve still climbed so much to just get to the freaking valley, just to be lost and not know where to go. That’s been a huge part of my process because obviously, when I was young, I wanted to be at the very top. My journey has been a slow crawl and I’ve spread myself way too thin in different mediums. It’s a slower process. I have such an amazing view down below, and if I don’t get to the top, that’s okay.
JENKINS REID: I always come back to this thing that my grandmother used to say to me before she died. Every time I would talk to her on the phone, she’d ask me how I was. My answer was always, “Well, I’m working on this and I’m working on that.” She was very effusive in her praise, but she always said, “I want to make sure that you stop to smell the roses.” Then once she wasn’t around to tell me that anymore, I started to realize, “Oh, I’m not smelling any roses at all. I am not stopping to take a moment to be human, to engage with all of my senses, to just be quiet and be.” The past few months have been life-changing for me. I leave my desk and I tell my team that I’m not available and you can’t contact me.
KIYOKO: That is courage for people like us.
JENKINS REID: It’s hard for me to say that because when I watch you hustle, the results are so good. I want to talk about the young people that need your work. Girls Like Girls is a book that I’m personally going to buy for three different teenage girls I know who are trying to figure out their sexuality and also just need a good, fun romance. But who are the people that you want this book to find itself in the hands of?
KIYOKO: Well, first, thank you. I’m definitely on that note of the roses. I do love the smell of roses. So even if I don’t stop all the time, Taylor, I do stop and smell the roses when I walk in the neighborhood and I see a rose. I will trespass on their front yard and I will smell their roses and contemplate clipping the rose and bringing it into my own home. I don’t do that anymore. But as a kid.
JENKINS REID: My grandmother would be so proud of you for that.
KIYOKO: I would stop and steal the rose. Okay?
JENKINS REID: Good. Linda Morris approves. [Laughs]
KIYOKO: To answer your question, and I know it’s probably cliche, but I envision anyone and everyone to feel heard and seen and validated in their feelings. I would love someone who’s in their fifties to pick up this book and have it remind them of their best friend that they fell in love with. Or for someone in their thirties who has a boyfriend to go, “Oh, wait, I think I had a crush on that girl I hung out with at dance class.” Or for people who are 12-years-old trying to navigate their feelings to read this book and fantasize and discover. Growing up, as you’ll see Coley experiences, I felt like I was crazy. I would fall in love with this girl and she would say “olive juice” and touch my thigh and I would gaslight myself. So if anything, I would love for this book to validate someone’s experience and tell them they will find the right person that will show up for them in so many ways. We need more happy endings. The world is hard enough as is. To have love that shows up on both sides of the street is so inspiring. I feel like it continues to keep the world going round. I hope the book is in libraries where they’re not allowed to read queer books, which is insanity. It’s a simple story, but it’s a story that needs to exist.
JENKINS REID: Yeah, I think our job as adults is to try to make this country one where this book is on many shelves for the teens that need it. But anyone at any age that wants to read a swoony, cute at times, heart-wrenching at times, great book, Girls Like Girls is that. I literally have a list of young women in my life who are questioning whether they’re attracted to women exclusively, except also Harry Styles. What does that mean?
KIYOKO: Yeah. Harry Styles really is confusing everyone.
JENKINS REID: But this is a book that feels like a glass of water when you are parched. So thank you for writing it.
KIYOKO: It means the world. My girlfriend told me she’d kill me if I didn’t tell you this, but you changed her life. She got to read Daisy Jones [& The Six] and Seven Husbands [of Evelyn Hugo]. You have such incredible storytelling and you have saved so many people’s lives through your stories. So I hope you really are smelling the roses because I’ve really appreciated your friendship and support over the years. I’m so grateful that I slid into your DMs.
JENKINS REID: I know, me too. We’ll go back to Vivian’s and I can tell you all about the book I’m writing next and you can tell me whatever new ideas you’ve come up with.
KIYOKO: I can’t wait to hear all about it. Thank you, Taylor.
JENKINS REID: I’m so proud of you and everything that you’re doing and I cannot wait for people to read this book.
KIYOKO: Thank you so much.
JENKINS REID: Talk soon.