Hot Dog Girl summer: Vibe with your imperfection with Jennifer Dugan

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Jennifer Dugan — Photo by Amber Hooper Photography
Jennifer Dugan — Photo by Amber Hooper Photography

The best rom-com finds a way to combine heartfelt romance, swoonworthy love interests, and chaotic misadventures. This week, our book club has the pleasure of experiencing all that and more with Hot Dog Girl, the first novel from Queer rom-com queen Jennifer Dugan.

Hot Dog Girl follows the adventures of Lou, a Bisexual teenager who gets a summer job at her favorite childhood theme park working alongside her loyal best friend and the popular hunk she can't stop thinking about. But while the cool kids, including Lou's crush, get all the best roles — princesses and pirates — Lou is assigned the job of "hot dog girl."

I got the chance to talk with Dugan about her debut novel, Bisexual representation, and what it means to be the hot dog girl.

Learning from mistakes
For Dugan, being a "hot dog girl" can mean making the best of the cards you're dealt and learning from your mistakes.

Learning from past experiences is something Dugan is very familiar with. "[Hot Dog Girl] was my first novel that came out but the fifth or sixth novel that I wrote. So, there were a lot before them that didn't go anywhere," she said.

"When I first started writing, I was writing a lot of straight romances. I thought that was kind of what I had to do. It wasn't until I embraced my voice, and I was, like, you know I'm going to write a book just for me about this messy-disaster Queer girl trying to find her way," after embracing herself and telling the stories she wanted to read, that Dugan found success.

"As soon as I started to embrace that side of myself, that's when everything took off. I had an agent very quickly and book deals very quickly. It's been a dream ever since, but it did take me at least five books before that to... get to that point."

Still, writing a story about a Queer girl was hard for Dugan, who also identifies as Bisexual. "The book right before this was a Queer romance between two boys, because I was... still nervous about really putting myself on the page, so... when I was writing about boys, it didn't feel quite as intensely personal."

She had many fears about embracing her story and writing a Bi female protagonist. For one thing, Dugan feared backlash from homophobes, but she also worried that Queer audiences might not accept her characters as "Gay enough" due to negative biphopic experiences she has faced.

"It was scary," she said, "and the main character of Hot Dog Girl is Bi, so, having her have a crush on a boy and... on a girl, I was worried about some of the things that come up, like biphobia and issues of being 'Queer enough.' Those were things that were in my head, but that was the book I wish that I would have had when I was growing up and trying to navigate having feelings for people of all different genders... It didn't exist for me, so I just wanted to put that out in the world."

A fun summer adventure
Aside from drawing inspiration from her own experiences growing up, Dugan found inspiration in an amusement park near her hometown.

"There is an amusement park not that far from me, and I used to go there a lot growing up," she said fondly. "Now it's been transformed into a Six Flags, so it's this big corporate thing, but there's still these remnants of this old park that's just a little bit crusty.

"One day, I was riding the gondolas, and I was watching people moving around the park, and I was like, this is the best place to put a young adult novel. There's just so much going on, and I'm sure it's just wild to work there."

She thought an amusement park was perfect for a fun Queer summer adventure, but there was another aspect to her story Dugan felt was necessary to set the perfect tone for a summer rom-com.

"They're not figuring out if they are [Queer] — they know that they have these feelings, so it was important for me that I could add that into the Queer kid-lit cannon. It's not a coming-out story. I just wanted to see Queer kids hanging out with other Queer kids, because, at the time when Hot Dog Girl was acquired in 2017, we didn't have this fantastic amount of Queer-girl lit that we've had in the last three years," she said.

"I just wanted to put this fun book out there where you have a Queer kid having these experiences where we've seen so many straight white cis kids having on the bookshelves for our whole lives."

"You don't have to be perfect to have a love story"
Dugan's depiction of Lou as a "disaster Bisexual" is an homage to the disaster Bisexual kid she once was. "I was, myself, kind of a disaster teen growing up, and I still definitely have many elements of disaster in my life as an adult. Even though Lou's heart is in the right place, she makes some bad decisions, and she's trying to figure it out, but she's not figuring it out in an elegant way. She's just running headfirst into walls," Dugan said.

"So, I wanted the takeaway to be that even if you are struggling to figure out who you are or there's a gap between who you are right now and who you want to be, you still are deserving of love and family and joy. You don't have to be perfect to have a love story and have good things."

Image courtesy of G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers  

Writing Lou was a way for Dugan to work through her understanding of her sexuality, and she hopes others can take away some broader understanding of what it means to be Bisexual. "One thing is that everyone thinks it's like fifty-fifty between 'I like boys' and 'I like girls,' and that doesn't leave any space for genderqueer people. And also that's not true. You might [99% love girls and 1% a different gender and still be Bi]. So, I wanted to show that there is a spectrum," she said.

"I also very deliberately wanted her to have a crush on a boy, because that's okay. Because a lot of times, the biphobia is coming from within the house, like, 'Are you queer if you're a cis girl who likes a cis boy?' And that's okay. Even if you're heterosexual appearing, it's still a Queer relationship because the dynamics are not the same. So that was something I wanted to show, that it was okay to have a crush on a boy, and that it was also okay to have a crush on other genders."

Other projects
Since writing Hot Dog Girl, Dugan has been able to mold more of her experiences into relatable, heartfelt, and hilarious stories. Her third book, Some Girls Do, follows two Queer teens in a relationship trying to figure out how and when to come out.

"A lot of my dating experiences [inspired the book]. It's just a situation that happens a lot, especially when you're dating multiple genders," she said. "I do a lot of library visits and school visits, and I'll do different Pride clubs, and it's something that I hear about a lot that comes up in my work with teens. It's not that different from when I was struggling with it when I was younger, so I just... wanted to put it out there for anyone who needs that."

Aside from her swoonworthy rom-coms, Dugan also creates masterful graphic novels. "Those are very collaborative," she said. "You're working very closely with your editor and marketing, and there are always so many hands in the pot."

Some of Dugan's earlier graphic novel work included Circadia, a series in which she chose to work with several different artists and styles for each installation. "I wanted to have it as a showcase [for] the work that is being done. There are so many incredible artists; I thought it would be fun to work together and see their take on the same characters. Every book has a different look to it, [and it] was such a blast watching it all come together and watching them all put different pieces of themselves in the story. It was just cool."

Because Circadia tells the romance between a cis Bi ballerina and a Nonbinary assassin, Dugan also felt it was important to only use Queer and Nonbinary artists for the series.

Whether it's in traditional or graphic novel form, Dugan loves to put as many tropes in her work as possible. Her newest book, Melt with You, is "an ode to tropes." The story follows two former best friends on a cross-country road trip, and Dugan promises she's packed as many cheesy rom-com moments as she can.

"I put pretty much every one in that I could fit. I'm a big fan of enemies-to-romance and only one bed, especially if you combine that with enemies, that's probably key. I love just tropes, like when they physically run into each other for their first meeting, and I love bad meet-cutes."

Another favorite trope of Dugan's is fake dating, which she says can never be overdone, as long as it's done right. "I love fake dating; that's what Hot Dog Girl is about. We have seen hundreds of books and movies [with] white boys and girls [falling] in love with each other through fake dating and all of these different tropes I've mentioned, and I think the reason I'd say they're not overdone is that we all haven't gotten our chances. It's time to see diverse casts and diverse sexualities and diverse identities getting a chance to enjoy these joyful stories and see themselves in the books."

Coming soon
With that in mind, Dugan has many LGBTQ+ novels lined up so readers can enjoy all the tropes. "I don't see myself doing anything but [writing LGBTQ protagonists]. Melt With You is a Queer girl rom-com. I also have a graphic novel coming out called Coven that features a Queer girl protagonist, and everything that is unreleased that I can't tell you about also features a Queer girl protagonist. I don't see myself stepping outside that space."

She explained that even when she writes male/female romantic leads, she does so with Queer people in mind. "With Rona Comics, I did have a male. It's dual POV, and that was my second book, and that was a boy and a girl in a relationship, but they were both Queer and operating with their bisexuality and pansexuality in different ways, so I might do something like that again, but I don't see myself leaving the LGBTQ+ space ever."

While she has many projects lined up for the next few years, Dugan isn't opposed to branching away from literature. She says she would love to see a Hot Dog Girl movie and has the perfect actress in mind for the lead.

"I love Sadie Sink, although she is probably very busy now after Taylor Swift. If Sadie Sink were ever available to take our calls, I think she would be so good in Hot Dog Girl. I think she would be the perfect Lou. ...If I could ever get her away from Taylor, that would be my dream casting," she laughed.

While it may be a while before we can see Sadie in a giant hot dog suit on the big screen, Dugan has plenty of books for us to laugh along with until then.

Melt with You comes out May 17, 2022, and Coven will be released sometime in the fall of 2022. For Dugan's other books, Rona Comics and Some Girls Do, check out your local independent bookstore.