There are two leading ladies in "Creep: A Love Story" (Clarion, $17.99), the third YA novel from Roslyn native Lygia Day Peñaflor. One is the so-called creep herself — our narrator, Rafi Wickham, a lonely, damaged sophomore who yearns to connect with the "beautiful people" of her high school. The other is the main object of her obsession — a Filipina-American senior named Laney Villanueva, a gifted dancer and the girlfriend of varsity soccer player Nico Fiore.
Though "Creep" is essentially about a young stalker who commits crimes ranging from breaking and entering to theft and worse, Peñaflor makes you feel quite a bit of empathy for Rafi. In a recent Zoom conversation from a "secret location" where she was vacationing in Montauk, she talked about how she pulled it off.
As a young teen Peñaflor mooned over the established older couples of Kellenberg Memorial High in Uniondale, her fondly remembered alma mater that is the model for the Catholic high school in the book. "I just wanted to be a fly on the wall of their lives," she said of the bright, shiny boys and girls she admired from afar.
Then there was a day in senior year when the tables turned. A girl came up to Peñaflor at her locker and whispered excitedly, "You have the cutest boyfriend!"
"When she said it, I had a goosebump feeling. Something about her was eerie. Suddenly I had become that girl, the one others are daydreaming about. I found myself coming back to that moment over and over through the years, imagining scenarios," she said. "When I created Rafi and Laney, in some way, I had been both of them."
Rafi takes her obsession farther than the author ever did. She uses her job at the school's front desk to help the couple get late passes, to change their schedules so they can have study hall together, and to rig the ballot box so they win the title of Cutest Couple in the yearbook. As the yearbook photographer, Rafi has endless excuses to arrange meetings with the high school's aristocracy and capture their perfection on film for all time.
"Her powers of observation make her an incredible photographer, but her desperate loneliness skews what she sees," Peñaflor explained. Just as she Photoshops herself into a photo of Laney and Niko so it looks like they are a trio of friends, Rafi's mind distorts every interaction into evidence of growing closeness. Meanwhile, the couple is only being polite — until finally, they start to feel nervous. And rightly so.
The members of the "Cutest Couple" 16 years earlier were Rafi's own parents, but Rafi was just a toddler when they left her with her grandparents to move on, separately, with their lives. This situation amplifies her obsession with the warm families surrounding Laney and Nico.
"One of the great joys of this book was creating Laney and her family," Peñaflor said. "I had so much fun writing a Filipina-American teen who is confident and happy, and even though she's an insider, is not a mean girl. Her Filipina identity is part of what makes her beautiful in Rafi's eyes, in the eyes of the other students as well.
"Growing up, my cousins were my best friends — cousins are big in Filipino culture — and I gave that to Laney. Her parents own a dance studio, her cousins have a hip-hop dance crew, and she is a dancer herself, so music and dance are a part of every family gathering."
Naturally, this is completely dazzling to Rafi, who was a dance class klutz.
As in Peñaflor's previous novels, "All of This Is True" and "Unscripted Joss Byrd," the Long Island setting is a key element of "Creep." There's a joyride on the Hempstead Turnpike that takes the kids to a Garden City golf course, references to an Oyster Bay hair salon and to Dog Days at Old Westbury Gardens, as well as a shout-out to famous Island-born entertainers. "A lot of people from this area have become huge celebrities, like Jerry Seinfeld, and Eddie Murphy, and Natalie Portman, and OK, OK, Mariah Carey," says Rafi, among whose nemeses are an annoying girl named after the singer.
Long Island has also produced a number of successful YA authors; Kara Thomas and Amy Giles are two whose work Peñaflor particularly admires (all three will appear together in a panel discussion Nov. 5 at Barnes & Noble in Riverhead). "There's so much freedom in YA," she says. "With adult characters, people are more locked in; the question of who they'll turn out to be has been answered. When you're writing about teens, the possibilities are wide open. The characters are not finished growing yet. So you can go deeper, and darker, with less judgment."
WHAT Panel discussion with Lygia Day Peñaflor, Kara Thomas and Amy Giles
WHEN | WHERE 3 p.m., Nov. 5, Barnes & Noble, 1470 Old Country Rd., Riverhead
INFO Free: 631-655-0249, stores.barnesandnoble.com