> Skip to content

Q&A  •  10 April 2024


Tobias Madden shares the inspiration behind his new novel, Wrong Answers Only

We caught up with Tobias Madden to learn about his new novel, Wrong Answers Only. Plus, discover his secrets for tapping into your creativity and his top tips for aspiring authors.

What inspired you to write Wrong Answers Only?

A few different things.

I have always wanted to set a book on a cruise ship because my first job out of university was dancing on a cruise ship for about nine months around the Mediterranean. It was completely life-changing. I’ve always wanted to dive into that cruise ship world because it's so fascinating. Not only the amazing places that you get to go but the politics on the ship, the passengers and how everyone interacts . . . it's just a unique world.

I also wanted to write about a protagonist who has just finished high school because I think it's such a fascinating period of life. Suddenly, you don't have that school structure to keep you in line. You feel so much freer.

I also really wanted to write about anxiety and panic attacks, which is something I've been dealing with probably my whole life, but only realised what it was during the last few years.

I just wanted to combine all of that, and luckily, it all fit together quite nicely. Writing the book was a lot of fun because I was really passionate about all those elements. It made the process very special.

When you were working on the cruise ship, you weren’t expecting that you’d become an author later in life. What was it like revisiting that time in your life while writing this book? 

It was really entertaining. I’m glad that I took so many photos during that period. Most of them are completely ridiculous, and we didn't have good cameras back then, so the quality is terrible! But it helped to jog my memory. 

I was twenty-three on the ship, and I’m thirty-six now, so looking back on the younger me helped me pick out moments that would fit into the story.

In all of my books, I put as many things that I love into the writing as possible. So in Wrong Answers Only, the protagonist Marco also embarks on a cruise. 

When deciding where he would travel, I chose my favourite places from the Mediterranean and just based the cruise ship itinerary on that. I wanted to share all these places that I adore.

When my mum read the book, she even recognised so many of the locations because she did a cruise with me at one point, so we have some special memories in certain places. In one chapter, there is a beautiful lemon orchard in Sorrento, and she was like: ‘Ooh, I know that place – we went there together!’

You mentioned your protagonist, Marco. How did you figure out who he was and what his different personality quirks were?

There is a lot of me in all my characters – the three protagonists I’ve written all show very different sides of my personality. 

Of course, they all end up being very different from me as a person, but with Marco, I wanted to hone into the feelings I had as a teenager of being an overachiever and taking school very seriously.

Some readers get quite frustrated with my characters because they make a lot of bad decisions. Sometimes they’re a little selfish, but that’s what being a teenager is like! You’re trying to define your sense of self and who you are, so of course your main concern is yourself – and yeah, everyone makes a lot of bad choices. Everyone’s a bit annoying. But, having characters who do frustrating things is a great tension builder.

Your books are part of the growing representation of queer characters in YA. Is this something you always wanted to include in your writing?

When I first started writing, I actually didn’t feel like I could write a queer protagonist. When I decided to become an author, I planned out this whole fantasy novel with a straight protagonist – which seems so strange to me now because I don’t imagine I would ever do that!

Soon, I discovered authors like Becky Albertalli, Adam Silvera, and David Levithan. Books like theirs didn’t exist when I was a young adult, so they helped me realise that I could tell stories that were genuinely authentic to me.

Teens today are crying out to see themselves, their friends and their families on the page. I think it’s almost a responsibility now to be able to do that, so it’s great to provide that for teen readers. Even as an adult, reading books with queer characters is still powerful to me.

Creativity is very important to you. How do you cultivate your creativity? 

One really important thing is to keep filling up your cup. I'm so lucky to be in New York because there's so much on my doorstep: new musicals, concerts, artists and art galleries. No matter what it is, I think consuming great art is so helpful for your creativity.

Aside from that, something I’m learning after publishing three books in three years is the importance of rest – which isn’t intuitive when you feel the need to keep creating and creating.

After working through some burnout while writing this book, I can see that downtime is so important as well. The downtime doesn't have to mean consuming art either. It can just be sitting on the couch, having a coffee and watching trash TV.

If you go to the gym all the time, you have to have a rest day for your muscles to recover. The creative muscle is the same. It needs to rest and refuel. I’m not sure if I’m achieving that yet – but that’s what I’m trying to do.

Imagine someone who loves your books and has been inspired by your writing to become an author. Maybe they're a teenager, or maybe they’re a bit older and considering a career change like you made. What advice would you give them?

I highly recommend writing to everyone. Even if you don’t want to write professionally, do it and see what happens. It’s really fun!

Regarding tips, my main piece of advice is to finish whatever you’re working on. It’s so tempting as a creative person to start a million new projects. But if you keep starting new things, you might have ten great half-written books, but you’ll never figure out how to finish a book.

Even if it’s a short story, try to see that creative process through as far as you possibly can because I think you learn so much more that way.

Another tip is a common one: Write what you know. I’ve taken it on board, and writing about things I know and love is such a rewarding experience. I know some authors get deep into research, and I take my hat off to them, but I’m so thankful that I have all these experiences in my life that I’ve been able to separate and draw on for my different books. Especially when you’re starting, writing about things that you already love makes it easier and more enjoyable.

Feature Title

Wrong Answers Only
Marco's always done the right thing. But now it's time for wrong answers only.
Read more

More features

See all
Some of the most anticipated YA books of 2024

Exciting upcoming books for YA readers.

Exclusive audiobook content that will inspire you to read more than ever before

Love audiobooks? They’re even better with extra content! Check out some of the audiobooks that include exclusive recorded content for even more enjoyment.

Escape into summer with these YA bestsellers

Dive right into these amazing YA books for a summer of great reading ahead.

Authors were back on the road in 2022 - and we loved it!

Join us as we travel back in time through 2022 with the authors that hit the road this year.

A book publicist shares his top 9 must-reads

Connor Parissis shares his favourite reads of 2022 and the books he’s looking forward to in 2023.

Award-winning and shortlisted books of 2022

Discover the best Penguin Random House books of 2022 with this list of award-winning and shortlisted titles this year.

5 books Tobias Madden thinks you should read

Book recommendations from author Tobias Madden for every type of reader.

6 new and upcoming YA books worthy of your TBR list this winter

Learn about the new YA books that you’ll want to read this winter.

Penguin Teen Christmas Bingo

Join the Penguin Teen read-a-thon this summer.

Superproofs are here!

In stores July 2021, until stocks run out.

Top 10 Queer YA Books of 2021

Read the rainbow with new stories from Becky Albertalli, Tobias Madden, Krystal Sutherland, Alicia Jasinska and more.

Looking for more Q&As?

See all Q&As