This is hardly an original thought, but it would be nice to
live in a world where we didn’t have to create a special LGBTQ genre for
literature. It would also be nice to live in a world without affirmative
action, but only if no affirmative action was needed. And that’s not the world
we live in now.
To get LGBTQ stories to the LGBTQ teens (and other readers)
who need them requires direct action. Somebody has to monitor the health of the
genre, and, more importantly, defend it. The “Don’t Say Gay” crowd certainly
doesn’t want anyone to write about it, either, and I’m afraid it would be
painfully easy to for them to get their way if we didn’t offer up a unified
It may seem like an odd comparison, but when my novel Pay It
Forward was adapted for film, the African American main character turned white.
He turned into Kevin Spacey. And I watched as a lot of people said that was
okay, because casting should be “colorblind.” It’s a nice concept on paper,
this colorblindness, but if it truly worked, then lots of white characters
would turn African American as well. Unfortunately, colorblindness can just be
a white-washed way of describing the process by which we turn a blind eye to
I should also mention that I had two minor gay characters
and one fairly major transgender character in that book. No, you didn’t blink
and miss them in the movie. They disappeared. So it’s pretty clear that
colorblindness can and will eliminate our rainbow if we let it.
In a perfect world, about 10%-20% of fictional characters
should be LGBTQ, because that’s a roughly accurate representation of the world,
so far as I know (my apologies if I’m misstating the statistic). But we are so
not there yet. And until we get there, I think we need to continue to separate
out LGBTQ fiction to honor it, to make it easy for teens to find it, and to
monitor its ongoing health.
I never really set out to write exclusively, or even mainly,
LGBTQ fiction, despite my own sexual orientation. In no other way do I tie my
characters to my own experience. I write about all kinds of people who are
different from me. Male characters, the mentally ill (some would say that’s
open for debate), Viet Nam veterans, children…part of the joy of being a writer
is finding the universality in all humans, and being able to imagine the
experience of someone you’re not. If I told you that my overall life background
falls somewhere between bisexual and gay (which is true, it does) you might
think that factors into my ability and/or willingness to write straight
characters. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. For years I had a pushback
against writing a straight female character with a love interest, because I
couldn’t find the enthusiasm to relate to her feelings for that man. So if I knew
the character wanted to be straight, I’d write from a male point of view.
For reasons I can’t possibly fathom, that block evaporated.
And now my character simply tells me who he or she is. And I would no sooner
reject that simple truth than I would reject a new friend for being straight. I
would hope that the idea here is unity rather than more separation.
All that said, when I got into Young Adult literature
(where, frankly, it doesn’t seem I will stay), two out of five of my YA books, Becoming
Chloe and Jumpstart the World, fit distinctly into the LGBT genre. And that’s
no accident. I felt that a lot more such literature was needed for teens. (This
was around the mid 2000s, but I’d still like to see the numbers come up.) So I
contributed some. And of course it’s a subject close to my heart, because I
know how it feels to grow up without the books you need. No kid
should have to get The Well of Loneliness out of the library and try to make
sense of that depressing, archaic, boring tome. I’m guessing only a few people
who will read this are even old enough to understand the reference, but before
Rubyfruit Jungle, there just wasn’t much, and what there was stank badly.
We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.
Yes, I’m in favor of a future in which books are not gay or
straight, but simply books. And in reading a sampling of books in this
imaginary new world, one will see straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual,
transgender, questioning, intersex, and a rainbow of gender-nonconforming
characters represented in about the same numbers they appear in life. I’m
optimistic, yet a realist—I’m not holding my breath on living to see this.
In the meantime, it’s essential that we not pretend we are
any closer to that ideal than we really are. Until then, yes, we carefully
create and defend a separate genre of our fiction, because it’s needed. Because
it saves lives. With an epidemic of LGBT suicides in recent months and years,
we’d be foolish, in my opinion, to treat LGBTQ fiction as anything less than a life-or-death
issue. If we stand for life, we make a strong stand for our books.
Catherine Ryan Hyde is an award-winning author of both adult and young adult fiction. Her debut adult novel, Pay it Forward, was made into a film, and her most recent YA novel, Jumpstart the World, has received two Rainbow Awards and is up for two Lambda Literary awards. You can learn more about Catherine at her website.
A few days ago, Emily Danforth graced the blog with a fabulous interview concerning LGBTQ writing and her debut novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Emily has offered up a signed book and some swag for LGBTQ Voice readers! Pay attention to the interview linked above, too - commenting on it will net you a bonus entry if you would like one (totally optional, of course).
You’ve written a large number of LGBTQ books for young
adults, as well as an LGBTQ book aimed at more adult readers.What makes you, a straight woman, inclined to
write for an LGBTQ audience?What does
your perspective allow you to do with the fiction that an LGBTQ author might
It’s really a lot less to do with sexual orientation than with age. My
earliest experiences in writing focused on young people – teens or children –
and their process of maturation. I’ve always found it cathartic writing about
characters who undergo the same processes of discovery that I’ve already
undergone, but they do so in ways that are consistent with their lives and
personalities and are wholly foreign to me. It’s very much the idea of
possibilities and endless “what if?” scenarios and looking at the world through
the eyes of a kid whose life is so far removed from mine.
I suppose my contributions to LGBT YA fiction have a lot to do with being
an outsider looking in – a bit of a role reversal, really, given how the LGBT
community tends to be regarded as the outsiders by way too many people. While I
can’t fully empathize with the too-real fears of growing up gay (bullying,
rejection, threats of physical harm, etc.), I do enjoy exploring stories that
place LGBT kids front and center for no other reason than that THEY CAN AND
SHOULD BE heroes of fantasy adventures or historical dramas because I rarely
ever see them in those roles. It’s the classic theme of the resilient underdog
overcoming obstacles and emerging a stronger and wiser person in the end.
writers of LGBT YA fiction do a fantastic job exploring real issues pertaining
to daily struggles and fears that their audience might be suffering and need
guidance in. As a straight woman who’s never gone through the process of coming
out, etc., I prefer to focus on genre fiction and the conspicuous absence of
young LGBT protagonists. I’ve been asked why by well-meaning friends and
family, and my answer is why even question it? No one questions the fact that
99% of YA fiction involves straight teens in main roles in every genre and
sub-genre that’s out there. Why not LGBT teens? I might not offer much by way
of wisdom in the process of coming out, but at the very least, I can offer an
escape that’s both fun and, I hope, a source of some insight or inspiration for
of your works are genre fiction – the bulk of them historical, historical
fantasy, and contemporary fantasy.What
makes you attracted to writing fantasy and historical stories for teenagers,
and why do you enjoy putting LGBTQ protagonists into the genre mold?What about genre fiction helps LGBTQ
characters and teenagers that coming-out/literary fiction ignores?
I prefer to offer LGBT teens an escape, and I suppose I’d like to write
them in a way as to normalize them through genre fiction because the focus is
on individual growth regardless of their sexual orientation. My first love is
classic literature and historical fiction, and even before I got into gay
literature, I was attuned to “romantic friendships” between same-sex characters
such as James Steerforth and David Copperfield. Those relationships in the 19th
century were purely platonic and were widely accepted by society, but there
were relationships that developed into something more, however short-lived they
might’ve turned out, no thanks to social conventions and the law in that time
period. And that’s just scratching the surface. So at least as far as history
goes, it wasn’t as if gay people never existed, and I’d like to acknowledge
that and show that we don’t live in a bubble that’s limited to just the 21st
fantasy is my current baby in the sense that I love writing my own original
fairy tales / alternate history for LGBT teens. Again, the point here is why
not? We’ve got a rich treasury of fairy tales from all over the world since the
dawn of time, really, with most of them focusing on romantic themes between
heterosexual partners. We live in a different age now, and I think that it’s
high time that LGBT teens are given fairy tales that they can call their own.
Whether or not these fairy tales come from straight writers or LGBT writers
isn’t the issue; rather, it’s all about getting these books out to teens who
need or want them and would like to see themselves in stories that are uniquely
Recently, you’ve shifted over to writing more
contemporary fantasy.What do you think
attracts readers to contemporary fantasy stories these days?What about your historical works would be
appealing to today’s readers, considering they are more overlooked than your
contemporary fantasy books?
Even in the bigger, more mainstream picture, historical fiction enjoys
far less popularity than contemporary fiction. It’s simply the audience’s
taste, and I don’t have any control over it. The most obvious attraction for
contemporary fiction – whether realistic or steeped in magical realism – is familiarity.
Setting, language, behavior, popular culture – we live in it now, and by and
large, it’s great to see ourselves reflected in fiction in a way that we can
easily relate to. Historical fiction is – perhaps in
non-historical-fiction-readers’ eyes – too far removed from current reality for
us to fully appreciate.
Human nature is universal, though, and pretty consistent through time.
What changes are beliefs and laws, and I do believe that in order to fully
appreciate the strides we’ve made today as far as LGBT rights go, we shouldn’t
ignore history and the struggles that LGBT people went through, especially
since countless suffered in silence, while others were subjected to exile,
execution, or prison sentences, etc.
I can understand, though, the reluctance to embrace historical fiction,
especially where LGBT characters are concerned. It’s largely because, yes, the
past was cruel, and happily-ever-after was quite unusual. But what I tried to
do – at least in my historical novels – was to emphasize HOPE, no matter what
choice the young gay character ends up making down the line in the course of
his maturation. My goal in each novel is to show the main character’s growth
against obstacles that are unique to his time period and to show how much stronger
he is in the end – both as an individual as well as the beneficiary of a loving
friendship or relationship with an unlikely ally. True, this kind of story can
easily be explored in a contemporary setting, but a historical novel offers a
different challenge to the writer, and his success in tackling his subject can
translate into an enjoyable reading experience for the audience.
said, historical fiction shouldn’t be limited to just drama. Classic
literature’s rich in satire and humor, and I tried to take advantage of that
with DESMOND AND GARRICK, a historical paranormal series that’s also a satire
on modern paranormal romances. You can do anything with historical fiction,
even if the balancing act – you do have to make sure to stick to historical fact
as much as possible – can drive you crazy sometimes. On the whole, though,
historical fiction can be a good diversion from what’s modern and familiar.
do you consider to be the most rewarding part of writing LGBTQ fiction for
teens?What do you hope to accomplish as
a writer who writes this type of fiction?Do you like your position as an indie author?Why or why not?
Just the idea that somewhere out there, someone for whom I’m writing
these books might be enjoying any given novel and that, perhaps, s/he is
gaining something from the experience, even if it’s just as simple as
forgetting the world for X number of hours. I know that I’m currently focusing
on contemporary fantasy, but my real love is historical fantasy, and I’d love
to have a large enough backlist of original folktales for LGBT teens – either
in novel or short story anthology forms. I’d love to be an active contributor
to a small niche and watch that market expand and grow before age takes over,
and I run out of ideas and am forced to bow out and make room for the next
generation of writers.
been urged before to seek out an agent, but it’s not in the cards for me. My
fiction writing preferences are strictly niche, which really means working with
small presses who’re more open to taking chances on unpopular novels than
mainstream presses can ever be. On the whole, I love the freedom to write
whatever pleases me and not worry about being dropped from my contract because
of lack of sales. Seriously, if the opposite were the case, I’d have been
dropped from my contract after my first novel was released! Writing unpopular
fiction for a small niche is a very, VERY lonely place to be, and finding
people willing to help with marketing through word-of-mouth promo can be
exasperating at best. However, I really enjoy writing stories that I love to
read and that I hope are making some kind of difference in the market in very
small ways because they’re still pretty much “uncharted territory” on the
What are your favorite LGBTQ books that are
aimed at teens or would crossover well to teens?What about non-LGBTQ books that would still
appeal to LGBTQ teens?What, to you,
defines these books as favorites?What
books do you wish more LGBTQ teens would discover?
My favorite LGBT YA books are
Perry Moore’s HERO (for obvious reasons) and Julie Anne Peters’ LUNA, which
broke my heart twenty different ways. On one hand, you’ve got genre fiction
(superhero fantasy) that also works as a coming-out novel, and on the other
hand, you’ve got a heart-breaking account of a transgender teen’s difficult
process of coming to terms with her identity. The fact that Luna’s story is
told from her sympathetic sister’s POV makes the story all the more
gut-wrenching. Those two novels are prime examples of just how broadly we can
expand the LGBT YA market, and it’s good to see more and more writers taking
genre fiction and running away with it in their novels, placing LGBT teens
front and center.
As for non-LGBT books, I’m a huge
fan of classic short fiction. HUGE. Some of my desert island keepers are M.R.
James’ CASTING THE RUNES AND OTHER GHOST STORIES, Oscar Wilde’s COMPLETE SHORT
FICTION, and Chris Baldrick’s THE OXFORD BOOK OF GOTHIC TALES. While most of
them deal with the fantastical and supernatural, some of Wilde’s short stories
also tackle some pretty complex social issues even if they were written for
children (“The Happy Prince” comes to mind). Those books are my biggest
literary sources of inspiration. I love classic ghost fiction, and I don't particularly
care for contemporary horror films because of the shift in focus toward
violence and gore. Victorian ghost fiction is my favorite genre to read;
despite some of the clichés or hackneyed plots, 19th century writers
like M.R. James were masters of atmosphere and foreboding. It would be great if
young readers, regardless of sexual orientation, were to try them out and
discover some really well-crafted, spine-tingling stories that are more
psychological than visceral.
are the realities of being a writer of LGBTQ fiction?What are the rewards and the risks involved
in writing this type of fiction alone?Do you think the market is becoming more or less receptive to it – especially
the genre portions of it?Do you think
more writers should write genre fiction with LGBTQ characters in mind?
Like I’ve noted in a previous answer, writing niche fiction is incredibly
lonely and brutal to one’s confidence. There’s always that shadow hanging over
you as you spend hour after hour slaving away at a novel that you know only a
handful of people will be reading or that could very well slip through the
cracks, regardless of your marketing efforts. It not only takes a lot of
patience to put your baby together and to release it in the big bad world, but
also a lot of faith in your own ability to tell a good enough story that people
would be willing to spend money on. And for that faith, you really have to dig
deep in order to sustain the madness of repeating the cycle with every new
That said, the rewards are incredible. Knowing that you’re contributing
something unique to a market that’s necessary for an underrepresented audience
makes up half of the fuel that keeps you going (the other half is dark
chocolate). Every once in a while, you’ll be lucky enough to receive a message
from a complete stranger thanking you for writing something s/he has never read
before and that s/he has enjoyed. Royalty checks be damned; those messages,
however few and far between, are worth their weight in gold.
The LGBT YA market is definitely expanding, and I’m seeing more and more
writers tackle genre fiction with LGBT teens for their main characters, though
it appears that it’s mostly small presses and self-published authors who’re
more consistent in supplying the market with these titles. But it’s a great
start, and I hope to see it blossom even more. Writers approach their craft
differently. There are those who write genre fiction with LGBT characters in
mind, and there are those who allow their characters to determine their sexual
orientation once they begin writing. It really depends on how the author does
things. But if you’re talking about writing genre fiction in which LGBT
characters’ stories revolve around things outside their sexual orientation,
then yes – I’d love to see more of that happen. I still see pockets of
resistance – for lack of a better term – in certain groups I’m a member of or
used to be a part of, toward stories outside coming-out fiction. There seems to
be this odd fear that genre fiction will push realistic fiction aside and make
it unpopular or unnecessary.
not a zero-sum game. It never was, and it never will be. There’ll always be a
need for coming-out fiction, but there’s also enough room for stories that go
beyond that. Both work together as complements, and both are important and
necessary for LGBT kids everywhere.
As both an editor and an author, you hold a dual role in the publishing world. What is it like to hold these two different positions, and which profession do you prefer participating in?
All I can say is this: if you want to commit yourself to a life of both writing and editing, you had better love—and we’re talking undying, soulmate, fires of a thousand suns love—reading. Because you will do a lot of it. You will read your own stuff over and over and you’ll read other people’s stuff over and over. Then when you’re done, you read it all again. Many people assume that because I’m an editor, I must be really good at editing my own work. And I laugh when I hear that. I always require an extra set of eyes on my own work because I’m just too close to it. I think this is true of every writer, regardless of their background. I think, if anything, holding both these positions makes me uniquely empathetic to what each goes through. When I draft an editorial letter for one of my authors, I try to temper the things that must be said with the way I’d want them to be said as a writer. Similarly, when I’m working on edits for my editors, I try to anticipate what they’d like to see and how they’d like to see it.
I don’t know that I can say I prefer one profession to the other. Some writers get asked, “What would you do if you weren’t a writer?” My answer, of course, is I’d be an editor. I’m in big trouble if both careers blow up because there’s not much else I’d rather be.
You edit for Flux books and have acquired several LGBTQ young adult titles in the process of gaining your editorial position at the publisher. What type of LGBTQ books are you seeing more of as an editor, and what type of LGBTQ books do you wish you saw more of?
There was a time when you basically had two kinds of LGBTQ books for teens: the coming out/coming to terms with sexuality story and the bully story (and often, they were combined). As LGBTQ themes started to emerge more in YA lit, it was perfectly natural that these would be the types of stories appearing. These are important stories and I think we’ll always need them. That said, I’m glad I’m seeing much more diversity in LGBTQ books. Teens are dealing with sexual identity and coming out younger and younger these days. So while we need the coming out stories and the bullying stories, we also need to hear about people who have become comfortable in their skins and are living their lives. I’m very pleased to see LGBTQ characters who are strong and smart and not completely defined by the sexuality.
You may have heard the quote from Anton Chekhov. It’s usually paraphrased like this: “If there’s a gun on the wall in Act 1, it must be fired by Act 3.” What Chekhov is saying is that details are important and if you include a detail as vivid as a gun, the expectation is that it will be important. Right now, a character’s sexuality is seen as a gun on the wall. For many people, when they learn a character is gay, they expect it to have some significance. They expect it to be an important part of the story. I really hope we reach a day when a character’s sexuality isn’t the gun on the wall.
As for the types of LGBTQ books that I’d like to see, I’ll talk a bit more about that in my answer to another question.
Publishing has always been a rocky area with LGBTQ fiction. In your opinion, what is the current and future likelihood of LGBTQ novels selling more to publishers? Has the likelihood increased or decreased in recent years, and do you think any of it has to do with the type of books people are currently pitching to them with LGBTQ content?
I think it’s safe to say that publishing could do with more diversity across the board. Whether it’s a portrayal of the LGBTQ community, or questions of ethnic diversity, or treatment of any minority, it’s important to keep the selection of literature rich with different viewpoints. We’re getting there but we’ve got a long way to go.
Would I like to see even more books with LGBTQ characters? Absolutely. Is there currently enough to satisfy the market for such books? Probably.
Remember about a year ago? There was a brouhaha where a couple writers alleged that an agent had told them to “de-gay” their book so it would sell. It was a brouhaha that was kind of hard to miss. Lots of finger pointing, name calling, etc. One of the things that came out of that was an analysis of how much material on the market featured an LGBTQ element. The number was fairly low, given the wide variety of books out there. Many people saw this as a conspiracy: publishing is trying to repress the LGBTQ crowd!
Here’s something that not a lot of people in publishing said during that time: there’s a dearth of quality stuff out there. (I’m probably going to editor hell for saying that, John. I hope you appreciate that.) Do some houses pass on LGBTQ material because, historically speaking, sales for those types of books are low? Possibly. Probably. Do some houses pass on LGBTQ material because of general homophobia? Possibly. Probably. I can’t say for sure but I do know that that’s only part of it. When I acquired the rights to bring I’LL GET THERE… IT BETTER BE WORTH THE TRIP back into print, it was like a big rainbow colored beacon for agents and authors: “QUICK! HE’S BUYING GAY BOOKS! GET HIM!” My inbox exploded with submissions that had some sort of LGBTQ component. And it sounds harsh to say it but just because someone has written something with an LGBTQ component doesn’t mean it’s publishable. I saw things that ranged from “so close but not quite there” to “there is absolutely nothing original that hasn’t been covered in a dozen other books.” I’m glad that there’s an interest in writing LGBTQ content but it still has to be written well.
All in all, I think we’re going to see more LGBTQ content in literature in the years to come. It’s already grown exponentially in the past 10 years. I don’t think we’ll reach the level of saturation that would make some people happy. But something else that came out of that brouhaha which I think is very true is this: if you want to prove to the publishing world that there is a demand of LGBTQ material, then buy it when it’s available. That is the only way to send a very clear and distinct message.
Your debut novel With or Without You does not contain a coming-out storyline in terms of sexuality. Your characters are out and proud and maintain that identity throughout the novel. You do, however, make Evan's relationship with Erik a secret - and not because of the sexuality. Why did you decide to make this the chief romantic conflict of the novel? What benefits does it have compared to the traditional coming out story? Do you think readers will respond better to LGBTQ young adult novels that focus more on the actual relationships post-coming out as opposed to novels that focus on coming out and don't contain much of a romantic arc?
These are interesting questions for a few reasons. When I sat down to write this, I knew I wanted to write about change. How we change, how we react to change, etc. I knew I wanted to write about two forces that I believe to be very transformative: art and AIDS. Both can change a life forever. So I began imagining a young artist who was far removed from the AIDS epidemic of the 80s but came to understand more about that time in history through his art. The idea of any kind of romance never entered my mind. The first few chapters of the first draft were written completely off the cuff (meaning I had no idea what I was going to write or where it was going to go). A lot of that early material got cut as I began to figure the book out. Some stuff remained: Evan painted on windows, he’d spent most of his life bullied and alone. One of those early scenes (a version of which is still in the book) involved Evan painting an attractive guy playing volleyball at the park. The idea for the scene was that it was supposed to show how awkward Evan was socially. At the end, the hot volleyball player said goodbye and we never heard from him again. I continued writing but didn’t like anything that came after that scene. When I get stuck, I sometimes write what I call a “never scene.” It’s a scene that will probably never end up in the final book but I give my protagonist a “what if” scenario to deal with so I can see how he’ll react. In this case, it went like this: “What if that’s not the last we see of the volleyball guy?” That’s when the idea for the secret relationship came in. So the romantic element came as a complete surprise to me. This turned out to be a “never scene” that ended up influencing the whole of the book.
The second reason that’s an interesting question is that, even when I’d finished the book, I never considered it to be romantic. Even though I clearly had a romantic relationship within the story, it was part of a whole and didn’t stand out in my brain. But an earlier draft of the book was my master’s thesis and when I sat down at my thesis defense, a member of my committee said, “This is a lovely romance.” I blinked a couple times and went, “Huh.” Not that I had a problem with that… I’d just never thought of it that way.
The final reason is that when Simon Pulse went to sell the book, buyers didn’t like the original title (CHASERS). They wanted a title that played up the romantic angle more. That’s how WITH OR WITHOUT YOU was born. I think that’s what it finally took for me to understand how important the romantic elements are. I’ve never DENIED them but, as strange as it sounds to say, I didn’t really see them in my own book. It took others to tell me that.
So far, I haven’t answered your question. Hang tight, we’re almost there.
The short answer is that I didn’t consciously set out to write a romance that was already in place at the start of the book. It was an accident. I’d love to be able to say I made the deliberate decision to do that because I wanted to avoid another love-at-first-sight kind of tale. But the reality is that once I came up with the idea for the secret relationship, it had to be about two guys who had been a couple for a year.
As for whether or not readers will respond better to a relationship that’s been going strong since before the start of the book… Honestly, that kind of thing never enters my mind when I write. Writers who try to second guess how readers will respond are buying themselves a one way ticket to insanity. I have to write what I feel is the best story and not care how people might respond.
Your second novel is a middle grade novel with a completely different idea. Will the novel also feature LGBTQ characters, or characters that may not realize they are LGBTQ? What was it like to go between writing for a young adult audience and a middle grade one? How do you keep up with it all and your editing career?
I don’t want to be all Cagey and Mysterious Author but I’m trying to avoid talking too much about the middle grade in advance. I’d rather people approach it with a slim idea of what’s going on. I’m afraid if I speak too much about how I see the characters before anyone else has a chance to read it, I could unintentionally influence their perceptions. Some people criticized J.K. Rowling for revealing Dumbledore’s sexuality AFTER all the books were out. But I think it was shrewd of her. I’d rather readers focus on the writing/story than form any preconceived notions. (And, please, can anyone honestly say they couldn’t figure out about Dumbledore? I mean, I’ll admit I always wondered why we’d never heard about a Mrs. Dumbledore but by the time DEATHLY HALLOWS rolled around and we learned more about Grindelwald, it was pretty obvious…)
I honestly never gave it much thought when I switched gears between young adult and middle grade. My brain is like that. I work on lots of different things: young adult, middle grade, plays, adult, science fiction, screenplays, etc. When I’m writing a first draft, it can be influenced by whatever my last project was. For example, if I was just working on a screenplay, my next novel might start out very dialogue heavy. If I was just working on a young adult novel, my middle grade novel might accidentally include language that they typically frown upon in middle grade. But that’s what first drafts are for: to make all the mistakes and fix them when you realize you got hung up on the last genre.
The question about how I keep up with the writing while juggling my editing career is the #1 question I get asked. Here’s the answer I give: I don’t know. It’s not just trying to write and trying to edit but it’s also trying to have a life. I have a husband I love very much and as any married writer will tell you, all writer spouses deserve knighthood for putting up with a lot of weird stuff. Every now and then, I have to step away from the writing and the editing and have a, you know, life. But I haven’t found that magical formula yet (which I why I’m also not selling a book every two months; I’m a very slow writer.) I promise to let you know when I figure it out. There are days I’m convinced I’m not doing it at all. What I really want to do is sneak up on David Levithan and siphon out whatever it is that keeps him going. There’s a very real chance he’s a Cylon. I’m convinced that’s the only way he can manage his duties at Scholastic and still put out lots of quality material. When his programming becomes corrupt and he takes over the world, remember you heard it here first: Levithan=Cylon.
What type of advice would you give to LGBTQ writers or people wanting to write LGBTQ fiction? What have your experiences in publishing taught you that could help people wanting to improve LGBTQ literature? How do you think LGBTQ literature can be improved on the whole?
Oh, John. You ask such wonderful questions that hurt my brain.
OK, first, advice to LGBTQ writers or people wanting to write LGBTQ fiction: avoid stereotype, avoid cliché, write something that rings with emotional resonance. “But, Brian, isn’t that just general writing advice?” Yes. But you’d be surprised how much stuff I see that has some sort of LGBTQ angle but is missing these very basic tenets.
As I said earlier, I see plenty of books with LGBTQ characters. But not all of them are ready for primetime. Most often, it’s clear that the inclusion of certain scenes (graphic sex or language) is gratuitous, meant to shock or be controversial, rather than tell a powerful story. That’s why I’m recommending very basic advice for anyone who wants to write in this vein. Perfect your craft. Understand the market so you’re not just doing something that’s been done before (if you’re doing a coming out book, it better be something no one has ever seen before). Throwing a few gay characters into your book means nothing if the story/language/syntax aren’t unique and powerful.
Yes, the number of LGBTQ characters in books are still vastly outnumbered by their heterosexual counterparts. But the number has still improved greatly in recent years. Strides are being made, I promise you that. However, where once it was risqué/risky/unique to have a gay character or—gasp!—protagonist, it’s no longer enough to make a book stand out. THAT’S the kind of progress we’ve made. My point (by gum, I do have one) is that it’s no longer enough to write about LGBTQ characters. There’s something that didn’t really exist ten years ago: competition. Make your book unlike anything the editor/agent has read.
1. Your debut novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, is a self-described GAYge novel – a coming-of-age novel featuring an LGBTQ character. What made you want to write a coming-of-age story when there are so many out there already? What did you bring to the table that no one else did before you?
I think the coming-of-age novel is an appealing tradition (especially for a debut novelist) for a couple of reasons, 1) Since—like so many other writers’ coming-of-age novels—Cam Post is semi-autobiographical (which I know you’ll ask about it a minute), it covers some particular experiences from my own adolescence that I’d already processed and was ready to reflect on (in what I hope is a nuanced way) in my fiction. In other words: I felt equipped to realistically and render these experiences, to sort them out in fiction. Many of these moments are fairly universal, which is appealing—adolescence can be such an emotion-rich, complicated time full of tons of brand new experiences: it’s no surprise that so many writers gravitate to it.
2) It’s a very malleable “form” (if we even agree that it’s a form). Generally in these novels an adolescent (or even a pre-teen) protagonist experiences various rites-of-passage and attempts to sort out her/his identity and understanding of self, particularly as it pertains to entering/enacting “adulthood.” But To Kill a Mockingbird is not Catcher in the Rye is not The Virgin Suicides is not White Oleander is not Sag Harbor is not Where Things Come Back--and yet I would argue that all of these are successful examples of the “coming-of-age” novel. (There are plenty of “coming-of-age” memoirs and essay collections and short story collections, too. Julie Orringer’s fantastic How to Breathe Underwater is a great example of the latter.) While some of the thematic elements might be the same or similar in each of these novels (innocence vs. experience, for instance), the stylistic approaches, the casts of characters, the individual situations that shape the protagonists’ “comings of age”—these are all very distinct. All stories have been written before, all forms have been used, all plots already been generated. Each year probably three-dozen (or more) variations on the Cinderella story appear in novel form: and still readers respond to many of them, not necessarily because they recognize that plot immediately—or at least not always—but rather because it lends itself well to being “made over.” I don’t approach my fiction thinking “what can I do that no one else has ever done” in/with a novel? That’s a daunting task, to be sure, one that would likely stop me from ever thinking I could ever write fiction again. Instead, I focus on creating complicated, messy, “real” characters and putting them in equally complicated/messy situations. I also tend to spend a lot of time exploring place and the ways in which particular places inform our lives—even our options for living said lives.
That labeling “coming-of-GAYge” is a little bit cheeky and comes with a story. My good friend Dave Madden (he recently published a wonderful nonfiction book—The Authentic Animal—about the history of/subculture around taxidermy) and I were in the PhD in English-Creative Writing program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and we coined that term together one afternoon shortly after I’d sold the book. Dave has fairly specific ideas about coming-of-age novels (not a fan, in general), and even more specific ideas about the “coming-out” novel—mostly that he sees that form as no longer particularly relevant or interesting in the face of, say, the many coming-out novels already published and more recent works of “post-gay” fiction. (Writer David Leavitt coined this term in a 2005 essay for the New York Times, categorizing it as “…novels and stories whose authors, rather than making a character's homosexuality the fulcrum on which the plot turns, either take it for granted, look at it as part of something larger or ignore it altogether.” http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=990DE1D6163DF934A25754C0A9639C8B63&pagewanted=all)
Anyway, I think the “coming out” novel is a fairly particular form, one wherein the protagonist typically works up to declaring or enacting (to characters in the novel who had previously assumed her/his heterosexuality—as we tend to do in a heteronormative society) her/his non-straight identity/sexuality (queerness) in one or more specific scenes or moments, and then spends the rest of the novel dealing with the consequences of those actions and hopefully reconciling them (though certainly not always). There is a kind of “formula” there: public declaration followed by consequences (and there’s also usually much shame and guilt involved, too—not surprisingly). As Leavitt might say, this announcement or reveal becomes the fulcrum on which the plot turns. I think these novels were crucial for the LGBTQ community (such as it is---a problematic label, to be sure) in that these stories do have a universal quality, they do speak to so many of us—coming-out as anything other than straight is so often fraught and even dangerous for teens (and adults, too—depending on location and situation). However, for those interested in the many, many other stories of LGBTQ lives that might be explored and reflected in our contemporary fiction, these novels, after awhile, maybe begin to feel like just not enough. (It’s the feeling of been there, seen that, is that really all there is?)
While you might point to its origins in some of these literary traditions, I don’t think my novel actually is a coming out novel—coming-of-age, yes; coming out, no. I suggest this for a variety of reasons, a crucial one being that Cam is found out, she doesn’t actually work up to an official “coming out” moment, and also because her sexuality is in fact less an issue for her than it is those around her. It’s important to remember that sexuality—especially burgeoning sexuality—is confusing whether you’re gay or straight or bi or questioning or whatever—it’s messy and complicated and it doesn’t always “work the same” on any given day. Certainly Cam’s coming to terms with all of this, trying to sort out her desires and how society/her family/friends might view those desires, but while she is dealing with quite a bit of guilt over her parents’ deaths, she’s not the kind of self-loathing protagonist that you might assume her to be (before reading the novel). She’s got more verve/humor than that, I think, and even for all her relentless questioning: a stronger, more secure sense of self. Also, this novel offers a fairly specific portrait of reparative/conversion therapy, one that’s not been treated in quite this way in the novels I know of that touch on it. Finally, it prominently features a rather large cast of fairly complicated characters and a place and time—Montana in the early 1990s—that’s treated as a kind of character, too: all of these things make it a very distinct novel, I hope.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is considered to be vaguely memoir-ish in its base. How much of your life did you put into this novel? What about growing up LGBTQ made writing this book a necessity?
This novel is autobiographical most specifically in terms of its rendering of a particular time and place—Montana in the early 1990s—as seen through the eyes of a closeted gay girl who grew up there. I was a closeted gay girl in small (cattle/ranching) town Montana in the early 1990s and so absolutely some of own my attractions, fears, guilt, desires from that time informed the way I constructed Cameron as a character. We have other things in common, too—both of us swimmers and one-time lifeguards, both of us a little pop culture obsessed (particularly lesbian pop culture); but in all kinds of really significant ways, Cameron Post is just not me—not even teenage me. For starters: I’m not an orphan and I was never sent to conversion therapy (thankfully on both counts). It’s impossible to offer a specific number on the percentage of “my life” that ended up in this novel—certainly my own experiences and memories and belief-systems informed the whole thing, simply through the act of writing it.
Growing up LGBTQ in a time and place where that was not only not sanctioned, it wasn’t even talked about (I didn’t personally know anyone who identified as anything other than straight—anyone at all—until college) meant that I missed out on a lot of the “big teenage stuff” that was/is so celebrated in the popular culture (that I was then obsessed with). Those rites of passage that were “supposed to be” meaningful (crucial, even)—the first kisses and dances and dates—just weren’t an option to me as a girl who liked girls in eastern Montana in the 1990s. The reason that Cameron Post so obsessively seeks out queer representations in the movies she rents—a half-second kiss between two women in one, maybe just a series of romantic “glances” in another—is because it’s so necessary (at that age in particular) to see various options for the way you love, the way you desire, reflected back at you in the culture that surrounds you: it’s part of how you recognize and form your own identity. That process of always having to seek out cultural representations—to find them, or to “make” them by queering culture so that it speaks to you—can be both exhausting and lonely. Sure, it can also build community—as it does between Lindsey and Cam in my novel—but it’s a constant reminder that the way you love and express love is not “the norm.” Instead it’s other/less-than/wrong/sinful/different (take your pick). All of this is part of the thematic scaffolding upon which my novel is built.
2. Your novel deals with some hard topics that occur in Aunt Ruth’s attempts to change Cameron. How hard is it to write about a character going through being “fixed” like that? Was any of it therapeutic in some ways?
I don’t think that I’d call writing the God’s Promise sections of the book “therapeutic.” I’ve (luckily) never personally had conversion/reparative therapy forced on me so it wasn’t like I was using this novel to “work through” any of that from my own life. I did however, do a considerable amount of research on the topic and was often horrified by the personal accounts of teens (and adults) who had spent weeks, sometimes years, unsuccessfully trying to rid themselves of homosexual desire/thought/attraction through a variety of exercises, devotionals/prayers, and behavior-modifications. I also chatted online or via email with some of these people and their stories are as upsetting as you’d imagine—particularly the shame and guilt they felt when they just couldn’t change their thoughts or attractions, their core senses of identity, no matter how hard they “worked the program.”
3. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is your debut novel, which makes it the novel that introduces you into the publishing world. What has the experience been like? Was it hard to enter into traditional publishing with a book focusing on an LGBTQ character?
Publishing Cam Post has been almost entirely a “dream” experience and I feel so incredibly lucky to have such smart, dedicated people on my side making/keeping it that way. I think your readers are likely well aware that traditionally publishing any novel presents a host of challenges, and that plenty of excellent fiction goes unpublished because of some of those challenges. However, I can’t say loudly enough or often enough that I, personally, experienced absolutely no bias against my novel’s characters or themes, while attempting to sell it; nor did my agent (the most excellent Jessica Regel) ever suggest that this novel would maybe be better suited to an indie press specializing in feminist or LGBTQ titles. Those presses do amazing work and regularly publish important fiction and nonfiction, but they also, necessarily, tend to reach much more specific/smaller audiences. And though my manuscript bounced around for a little while before it found its home, never once did any of the editors who passed on it suggest that their hesitations had anything to do with Cam’s emerging sexuality or the novels’ themes. Frankly, I think my experience is really quite the opposite: Cam’s specific situation, her burgeoning sexuality, the conversion therapy she’s forced to endure, all of that material made this novel more attractive/interesting to publishers. As you noted: there are many coming-of-age novels published each year and I think the story of Cam’s particular sexual awakening and identity-formation stands out because she’s a young woman attracted to other women, because she’s trying to negotiate an identity as something other than heterosexual and finding incredible resistance at many fronts. My editor—Alessandra Balzer—has been such a champion of this book since day one, and really absolutely every person I’ve worked with at Balzer + (I realize my very good fortune and am thankful for it daily.)
4. Are you currently writing anything else? If so, does it feature an LGBTQ protagonist or other LGBTQ characters?
I’m working on a couple of novels right now and they both feature LGBTQ protagonists and other queer (or non-straight) characters. Though one of the novels would likely (if sold—fingers crossed) be marketed to adult audiences, the other is a much better fit for YA. It focuses on the lives of the various cast and crew members involved in filming a controversial movie based on the unexpected romance of two girls who fall in love at their women’s college in the 1920s. The POV rotates through several of the novel’s characters, and many of them are varying degrees of “non-straight.”
5. What do you hope for teen readers to get out of Cameron’s story? Do you write with them in mind, or another audience entirely?
The only audience member I write with in mind is me: really and truly—at least for the first several drafts. I would shut down entirely and feel it impossible to compose fiction if I imagined an audience and tried to anticipate their various reactions to a scene I’d just finished or a character I was developing. I try to remain true to the characters I’ve created, to their various situations—I feel beholden to them and I try not to force my own “writerly agenda” on them, rather I try to give them room on the page to surprise me. I don’t, however, feel beholden to prospective readers: I just can’t bring the audience to the desk with me when it’s time to write. I try to fully inhabit the world I’m creating on the page, and there’s barely room for me there to chronicle this world, let alone a myriad of additional voices and opinions. I value my readers so much, and it’s been an absolute pleasure (and surprise!) to hear from so many of them since Cam Post was released in February, but that all has to come later in the process for me.
I hope that both teen and adult readers find points of connection in Cam’s story—her crushes, her specific brand of humor, her overwhelming desire to make sense of her place in the world—that it resonates with them and possibly even holds up a mirror. I hope that readers recognize her world, in some ways, anyway, as now a part of history—the lack of resources for non-straight youth or even available LGBTQ culture to consume—but also see the unfortunate ways in which we haven’t come so far in two decades. (At least not far enough.) Mostly I hope that readers feel, upon completion, that after viewing the world through Cam’s eyes for 400+ pages, something of that experience now remains with them in their own sense(s) of the world. I think that’s what compelling fiction does for me, anyway: it lingers beyond its pages and colors my view, often in ways I can’t fully name or categorize.
6. As an LGBTQ author, what do you have to say to other writers who are LGBTQ and/or aspire to write LGBTQ works in regards to publishing and writing? What about in regards to pulling from life experiences for novels – especially for coming-of-age tales?
Part of my advice is universal for all writers, whether or not they identify as LGBTQ: read everything you can get your hands on (especially the books that confuse/confound/surprise you) and then write and write and write. Remember that wanting to publish is not the same thing as wanting to write—and that neither of those things is the same as actually sitting down and writing. After that, it’s really about devoting yourself to your craft and to finishing particular projects. I don’t believe in arbitrary, one-size-fits-all approaches to novel writing; any rules that I might give you about how to approach your material or how to sell your novel will undoubtedly have lots of good/important exceptions. What I’ll say is this: there are absolutely agents and editors and publishers out there excited about fiction featuring non-straight characters. But you can’t focus on publication from the outset. I just don’t think that’s any way to develop as a writer. Focus on story, focus on characterization and the nuances of language—focus on your fiction. And then revise. And then get some people to read it. Then revise some more. After that: start doing the necessary research into publication (and it does take some research). But don’t start there: start with story.
All pictures found on Emily Danforth's awesome website. I am not responsible for the artful pictures of her and her occasional canoe. For more information about her and her book (or for another Emily + canoe picture), go to the website.
I'm John, and I started Dreaming in Books to make a difference in the reading lives of teenage and adult readers alike. I love the YA genre, but chick lit and romance are also some favorite ventures of mine. This blog is a way for me to not only express my love for reading in general, but to help other readers in their search for thousands of great books. :)
If you are an author/publicist/publisher that wants me to review for you...Well, I'd be honored!
Email me at dreaminginbooks(AT)gmail(DOT)com and I'll get back to you as soon as possible! I can review MG, YA, and appropriate Adult work. LGBTQ books as well! Also feel free to inquire if you want an interview/giveaway/guestpost/ or Rainbow Thursday spot.