To squash. To squeeze. To deform. To destroy. To “crush” is to be forever changed, which is the crux of Dave Singleton and Cathy Alter’s new short story anthology, Crush, which examines the first celebrity crushes of several authors, including one quite familiar to The Root: our Grapevine editor, Yesha Callahan.
Callahan, along with well-known writers and luminaries including Stephen King, James Franco, Roxane Gay, Jodi Picoult, Emily Gould and Hanna Rosin, dish on their famous, elusive celebrity crushes and the emotional tumult and growing pains that came with them.
“We knew that ‘crush’ meant, to some, a romantic crush that you have at a very young age. Those feelings can be very profound. You see somebody that just rocks your world,” Singleton told The Root in a telephone interview.
“Celebrity crushes teach us what we long for in some very deep part of ourselves. [They] bring out a very deep part of ourselves that we want to connect with … whether it’s feeling lonely or you want to escape or whatever you’re longing for; that’s what they teach us about ourselves. They teach us what we’re longing for. They might teach you and inform you of what you’re looking for later in life.”
Singleton referred to Callahan’s story—about a crush on The Boy in the Plastic Bubble- and Grease-era John Travolta—as having an interracial Romeo and Juliet quality. In it, Callahan writes about how she met her own, teenage version of young Travolta in a neighbor, but then the racial realities of our complex world came crashing down on them.
Callahan called the experience “eye-awakening.”
“It was the first time that I realized that racism was alive and well,” Callahan told The Root. “But thankfully I learned it at a young age.”
Kirkus Reviews singled out Callahan’s story about Travolta over that from one of her idols, Stephen King, much to her bemusement.
“I pretty much assumed, since I was a lesser-name writer, my story would be overlooked because of contributors like James Franco, Stephen King and Roxane Gay,” Callahan said. “I've been reading King since I was 7 years old, so it almost brought a tear to my eyes.”
Finding writers with diverse backgrounds and stories was important for Singleton. He sought out Callahan, as well as writers Nicola Yoon (whose crush was Michael Jackson), Amin Ahmad (who crushed on the “Liril Soap Girl”) and Tony Tulathimutte (his crush was Rydia from “Final Fantasy IV”), among others.
Singleton said that he and Alter wanted “different voices, different ages, different everything.” As a result, Singleton collected stories that included everything from first romantic crushes, like Picoult’s crush as a 6-year-old on Donny Osmond, to things much more abstract, like Gay’s crush on a figure from The Little House on the Prairie books, Almanzo Wilder.
“It never crossed my mind that people would pick literary characters,” Singleton said. “It feels a little different to me because I think it feels a little more intangible. When you’re thinking about a person, when you’re thinking about John Travolta or John Lennon or Mick Jagger, we can all imagine those people, and you have a sense of them. Thinking of cartoon characters or a literary character—you can’t really picture the literary character. It feels different, a little more abstract.”
But maybe the abstraction is what makes these fictional crushes (the cartoon character Speed Racer and Tarzan are also named in Crush) so ideal.
“[Crushes are] a safe place for you to try on feelings. It’s really like a testing ground for you to try on all sorts of new feelings without any of the repercussions. You can crush on somebody else on your own time, your own little laboratory, as you’re figuring it all out,” Singleton said.