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    Entries in Interviews (5)

    Monday
    Jul122010

    YA author Lee Bantle on growing up gay, falling in love, and the catharsis of writing DAVID INSIDE OUT

    Not all books stick with me. Even if I really like a book, six months later I may not remember much about it. The books that do stay with me, the ones that I remember months and even years down the road, tend to fall into one of two categories--the alternate realities that I lose myself in (Gone with the Wind, The Stand, Harry Potter, Twilight), and those books with a character or a scene that just gets under my skin (in a good way), like the whiny character Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye or the hysterical Joe Bunch in Totally Joe, or the rather shocking scene outside the nightclub in Naomi & Ely's No Kiss List or the hilariously provocative personal ad in Someday This Pain will be Useful to You.

    Lee Bantle's David Inside Out is one of those second kinds of books. At 184 pages in hardback, it's not an epic story. But it is a story that gets under your skin. Raw, honest, totally believable, and at times so funny that ten months later I still chuckle over one of the passages. Lee probably doesn't remember this, but I even emailed him about the church scene after I read the book, and he emailed me back to say he almost left that out. I'm glad he didn't. And okay, I'm going to share that passage with you, a passage in which the main character is living his frustrations.




    Mom made me go to church on Sunday and we got there late. We had to sit in the front pew, right under a nearly naked plaster statue of Jesus on the cross. When the Lord's Prayer came, I looked up, inspecting the folds of the loincloth, trying to imagine what was underneath. This is what I had sunk to. Checking out Jesus.



    Lee's novel is based loosely on his experiences growing up gay, which makes this passage even funnier because I remember doing exactly the same thing as a young girl! I guess some experiences are universal. His novels are also about romance and the search for identify. As character David says, "How can you be yourself if you don't know who that is?"

    So I was thrilled when I got a chance to interview Lee. Here you go!

    I know that David Inside Out is based loosely on your own experiences. How cathartic an experience was writing this novel for you?

    Writing the book was cathartic, no question.  When I came of age in Minnesota in the 70's, homosexuality was a sin.  And also just plain weird.  Thinking that my natural feelings were immoral, that I was wrong to think the things I did and feel the way I did. Religion teaches a harsh lesson. That kind of mind-set gets in the way of a healthy ego. I am on a lifelong quest to gain acceptance of gay and lesbian people.  This book is one step in that direction.  But, I am still raw from my childhood, from the current political battles.  I don't think anything will change that.

    Recently, I spoke at a conference on the legal protections for LGBT people in employment.  Twenty-nine states still allow an employer to fire someone because he or she is LGBT.  There is no federal law which protects gays and lesbians in employment.  I grew very emotional during my talk.  It still hurts.  And when I think that I can't marry the love of my life in NYC if I want to, it makes me nuts.  This issue is still very alive for me.

    What advice would you give gay teens who are the most vulnerable in this struggle for equal rights?

    Follow your heart and don't let anyone tell you that you can't.  Come out.  Get involved.  Don't suffer alone or stay on the outside looking in.  Get involved in the LGBT community around you.  Start a Gay-Straight Alliance at your school.  (For help with that check out glsen.org/jumpstart. )  Read all the wonderful gay-themed books out there.  And write up your own stories because being creative is one of the ways to be happy in life.

    Since you brought it up, can you tell us about the man in your life?

    Well, I recently met a wonderful man.  After all these years, I found him.  His name is Mitchell Vines and he is a classical pianist.  I know it's corny, but listening to his music brings tears to my eyes.  The first song he ever played for me was The Man I Love.  He told me he will be by my side no matter what comes.  And he's really sexy.  How could I not be in love?

    Lee (right) with the man in his life, Mitchell Vines

    How do you get from an idea to a finished work?

    With a full-time job, I write on weekends. Mostly at night.  I'm not a morning person.  But on occasion I have been up writing when the sum comes up.  Ghastly. My biggest fear is having no idea what shape the book will take.  I don't outline.  I don't plan ahead.  I drive with my headlights off and hope there are not too many collisions.

    It took 12 years (off and on) to write David Inside Out.  At one point I consigned it to the third drawer of a metal filing cabinet.  I could hear the characters calling to me:  "Lee, Lee, don't give up on us."  But I thought the book was fatally flawed and there was no point in going on.  An experienced writer read the MS and helped me resurrect the book and get it into publishable form.

    The structure is the most difficult part for me.  Getting everything to build to a denouement. When I edit, I read a hard copy, scribble notes in the margins, flag all the pages that need work, and then ask myself who am I kidding with this crap.  Not always.  My first drafts are pretty dreadful.  But I dive back in at the computer using the marked up MS as a guide and make it better.  Many drafts and much hair-pulling are needed to create something good.

    My novels are character driven.  I hope to create distinctive characters who you can fall in love with.  Then you can identify with their problems and walk through their lives with them.  I fall in love with my characters.  You have to in order to write a convincing novel.

    What are you working on now?

    My latest book is called The Memoirs of Odell P. Livingston, Grade 6. Odell has a black dad and a white mom. Obama has just been elected.  It is the story of Odell's quest for identity, social belonging, and romance.  My novels always have romance.  I think readers like this.  And, of course, I like this. My editor hasn't even read the MS yet.  Publishing takes forever.  So, I don't know what the status is.  Any release date is at least a year or two away.

    You have written two middle grade novels and one YA. Are you more comfortable writing middle grade?

    Well, I'm also working on a YA called Riverfire.  It's about a whitewater rafting trip filled with danger and romance.  And true to my favorite theme, the protagonist, Joie, is searching for her identity as a Korean girl adopted by a single mother in Minnesota.  I like writing for both age groups.  Teens are harder because their emotions are more complex and their dialogue is trickier.  But you get much more feedback from your readers after the book comes out, which is gratifying.

    What's on your bedside table right now?

    I just finished The Book Thief about a young German girl whose family hides a Jew in their basement in Nazi Germany.   Amazing.  I am about to order The Help on my electronic reader.  It is written by a white author and portrays three black nannies in the South during the 1960's.  I think it will help me with my Odell book since I am a white man writing about issues of racial identity.  Crossing the line in this way can cause a lot of controversy -- and has with The Help.  But I don't shy away from controversy.

    Who are you favorite authors?

    This is a question worthy of a term paper.  I loved Nancy Garden's Annie on My Mind because she broke new ground in an evocative, beautifully realized novel.  Rita Mae Brown captivated me with her sassy Rubyfruit Jungle.  James Baldwin is brilliant and emotional. I  read everything by Christopher Isherwood when I was in college because of his insight into my issue.  I'm also a fan of some of the great English literary lions -- George Elliot, E.M. Forster, Charles Dickens -- because of the depth and the complexity of their novels.

    One final question. Libba Bray (Going Bovine) sings with the first ever YA-author rock band, Tiger Beat, which includes Daniel Ehrenhaft, Barney Miller, and Natalie Standiford. Assuming they're looking to expand the band, what talents could you offer?

    I am a black hole as far as music talent goes. But my BF Mitchell is a talented keyboardist, so maybe we could bring him in as a ringer. Or else I could play the castanets.

    [tweetmeme source="JanetTrumble" only_single=false]Lee is also the author of the 1995 middle grade novel Diving for the Moon. You can read more about Lee or contact him on his website: http://www.leebantle.com. While you're there, check out his tips on writing and links of interest to both writers and the LGBT community.

    Thursday
    Apr292010

    The Vast Talent of Nick Burd

    Nick Burd is having a great year! His debut novel, THE VAST FIELDS OF ORDINARY (Dial 2009), has already won an ALA's Stonewall Book Award, and been named to both The New York Time's Notable Books of 2009 and Booklists's Rainbow List 2010. And now the book is up for a Lamda Literary Award May 27. Add to that being honored as a member of the OUT 100 Class of 2009 and, well, Nick has got to be feeling pretty good.

    I, for one, believe he has earned every word of the praise that has been heaped upon him.

    The moment I finished the novel I started digging. And what I found? I am not alone in my admiration of this fabulous new voice in YA lit. I especially love Ned Vizzini's July 2009 NYT review in which he describes Vast Fields as "fascinating and dreamy" and applauds Burd for creating a character who "plays against type in two immensely gratifying ways: he fights when cornered, and he wastes no time talking about what it 'feels like' to be gay."

    Ah, but not all reviewers totally agree. According to YA librarian Jessica Neiweem, "Nick Burd doesn’t describe, depict, or convey what it’s like to be a queer teen in the heteronormative suburbs. Nick Burd nails what it’s like to be a queer teen in the heteronormative suburbs, " adding, "Quite honestly, I haven’t ruled out writing him a drooling fangirl letter."

    Um, I totally get that, Jessica.

    So I set out to interview the incomparable Nick Burd. There were a million questions I wanted to ask him, but I stuck to those his readers raised again and again and again in their comments.

    [Spoiler alert--if you haven't read Vast Fields yet and you don't want to know the ending, STOP HERE!]

    I've read quite a few reviews of Vast Fields, and one comment that pops up again and again is regarding the Jenny Moore thread. One reviewer wrote that it was a distraction in an otherwise brilliant novel. Tell me about that plot line.
    I was always really scared of being kidnapped when I was a kid. It's this phobia of mine that I guess somehow made it into the book. I feel like the eighties were all about Stranger Danger and not talking to weird men at the mall. I also think the amount you heard about it was completely disproportionate to how much it actually happened. In Iowa there was this kid named Johnny Gosch who got kidnapped one morning during his paper route. It happened in 1982 and I think the incident sorta haunted a lot of kids who grew up in there around that time. People were always talking about it. It seemed so scary to me and I felt like putting something like that in the book. As for how that was resolved, I knew when I started the book that I wanted there to be some sort of miracle that happened, and the Jenny thing sorta turned into that. I felt like there had to be some sort of unexplained, good thing that happened in the book that could give Dade faith in something. I feel like he's a kid who doesn't have a lot of faith, at least not at the beginning of the book. Dade doesn't have a lot of faith in the fact that he can be happy. So many parts of his life are crummy and he just sort of accepts them. It takes someone like Alex to make him realize he deserves more.

    Other readers were upset that Pablo died in the end. Why suicide? I get the "Why did you kill Pablo?" thing a lot. Some people actually get pissed off because they're like, "All gay books end with a suicide. It's so negative and outdated." I think that's a valid point, but I also know that gay teen suicide is a real thing and for some reason I kept finding myself wanting it to happen in this book. I'd never make Dade kill himself. That'd be cruel. Same with Alex. But Pablo was a huge mess, and a lot of that was because of how the world made him feel about who he really is and it made him make an unfortunate choice. I think Pablo's end makes a lot of people sad, and it's supposed to. It makes me sad, too.

    Some readers think of Pablo as Dade's hookup buddy. That description seems far too simplistic to me. You write so convincingly about love, even noting how difficult that is to do without becoming too sentimental on p 232. So, how would you describe Dade's complicated relationship with Pablo?
    I think Dade loves Pablo, but for all the wrong reasons. Not all love is good, but that doesn't mean it's not love. I'm not sure if Pablo loves Dade. He's important to him, but I don't think he loves him. He's too messed up. As for how old you have to be to have the ability to fall in love, I think it can happen on every age. Like I said before, the quality of it will vary. It's all about maturity and openness and empathy, and whether or not you have those qualities has little to do with age.

    Readers are also intrigued with the character of Alex. Why do you think this character has struck such a chord with readers? Any chance we'll see a novel from his POV?
    Maybe someday. My next book takes place in Cedarville the winter before Vast Fields takes place. A few characters from VFOO appear in the new book, but Alex is not yet one of them. But who knows. It's not done yet! My goal was to make him someone irresistible, someone so charming that he could be a catalyst for change in Dade. I think he's got the right amount of "bad boy"/"nice guy" qualities that usually make someone irresistible.

    What about the work that went into turning your idea into a finished novel.
    I started it in graduate school and I worked on it on and off for a year. I think after a year I only had about 80 pages or something. After that I got a more serious about it and finished it in 7 months or something. It was a pretty long time. I'll never take that long to write another book. I have eight months to write the next book, which is actually sort of nice. It forces you to write on a consistent schedule and keeps you in the world of the book a bit more, which hopefully makes it a better book.

    In terms of revision, I think it's important to get to the end of the book. I always think of reaching the end of the book as having a diagnosis for it. You know what doesn't work and you go in and fix it. With Vast Fields that involved a lot of cutting. Some scenes were too long. I look at sentences a lot and think about if there's a better, more succinct way to put something. I feel like it's important to be as clear as possible, and an easy way to accomplish that is use fewer words. So lots of cutting.

    Dale Peck was one of my early readers. He was my thesis advisor at the New School, and he was great. He was a really encouraging and positive teacher. I also had two great people in my thesis group who gave me a lot of helpful input. My agent is also a great reader. She helps my writing not be too broody.

    There are so many fresh images in your novel. One that comes to mind is when you compare Alex's emotions to the record sleeves in a jukebox. Does this kind of imagery come naturally to you? Or is this something you have to really work at.
    Some I work hard for, some come to me naturally. Of course, people only see the ones I like. There are always bad ones, and those are either thrown out or made better.

    I am fascinated by the playlist on your blog. How does music inform your novel?
    I am a big music fan. It's always been an important part of my life, so I like to talk about the part in plays in my characters' lives. Like, the fact that Dade's mom is a Fleetwood Mac says something that nothing else can.

    What do you say to that reader who complains that Vas Deferens is a made up band?
    I used real bands at first, but it sounded so stupid. Things go out of style so fast. It seemed like there was no way it couldn't date the book at some point. So I made them up. Plus, making up band names is very fun. It's a fun way of suggesting something big with just a few words. As for the name the Vas Deferens, it just popped into my head. It's funny and sexual and fun to say. What more could you want from a band name? I also sorta liked the fact that it sounds like "vast difference," but what that means, if anything, even I'm not sure.

    What can you tell me about the title?
    Everything started with that. Then came the story. I was sort of like the box I pulled the book from. The words just popped into my head. I decided at some point that I wanted the phrase to make it into the book so I had Fessica mistakenly think that it was a Vas Deferens lyric. Otherwise, it's just a phrase that describes what Dade thinks of the world around him.

    Do you consider yourself a romantic?
    I am a romantic. I'm not naive, but I am a romantic.

    When you write about love, are you writing from personal experience? Is there someone special in your life right now?
    I mean, the feeling is something I draw from real life, things like the physical sensation of it and the crazy things you find yourself doing. But the situations are always fictional. It's funny because so many times personal experience is also universal experience. I just try to be honest about it and if enough people connect with it then it belongs to everyone. As for whether or not there is someone special in my life, yes, there is, but enough about me!

    Earlier you mentioned that you're working on your second novel. Do you have a title yet and a release date?

    Right now book #2 is called ANDREW FRANK, which is the name of the main character. He's a straight, African-American boy who finds himself in a bit of a messy situation. As for early readers, no one has read it yet! My agent and editor read the first 30 or so pages, but that's it. So it's very much under wraps. I've been toying with the idea of changing the title to ANDREW FRANK IS NOT IN LOVE, but we'll see if that happens.[tweetmeme source="JanetTrumble" only_single=false]Indeed we will. You can learn more about Nick, read his blog, and follow him on Twitter by visiting his website.

    Oh, and if you'd like to drool a little, feel free to do so in a comment below. And just for the record, not NEARLY enough about you, Nick, and I vote for ANDREW FRANK IS NOT IN LOVE.

    Monday
    Apr122010

    James Howe dishes on Adam Lambert, Barack Obama, and gay rights, and reveals why author Libba Bray might want to watch her back!

    In Parts I and II of my interview with author James Howe (The Misfits, Totally Joe), Jim graciously and freely discusses everything from gay stereotypes to his connection to character Joe Bunch. In Part III, Jim gets even more personal, sharing his feelings on a wide variety of topics.

    Jim in Vermont (notice the one blue egg in the carton)

     


    Barack Obama. Complicated.  I read both his books before and right after he was elected and was amazed to think we could have such a brilliant and deep thinker, writer, and philosopher as president.  Now I look at him more as a politician and I don’t know whether to be disappointed in him personally or just heave a big sigh for politics in general.  I haven’t given up hope, though.  I think he may still go down in history as one of our great presidents.  I do wish he was more sensitive to LGBT issues, however, and would be more mindful of us as full human beings with the same rights as everyone else.  Ironic that his election is the major civil rights breakthrough that it is, and yet here we LGBT people are, still fighting for full citizenship.

    Twitter. Well, it’s fun to say.  (Although I can never remember which is the verb and which is the noun – “twitter” and “tweet”.)  (Personally, I don’t twitter.)  (Or is it tweet?)



    Writing or acting? Writing.

    Parentheses or Em-dashes? I’m such a parentheses guy.  (Seriously.)

    Libba Bray sings for the first ever YA-author rock band Tiger Beat, which includes Daniel Ehrenhaft, Barney Miller, and Natalie Standiford.  Assuming they’re a Gang of Five just waiting for a 5th (a plot element in The Misfits and Totally Joe) what talents could you offer the band? Not to knock Libba out of the spotlight, but I’m a good singer and love to perform.  Harmony?  Back-up?

    Edward or Jacob? Who?

    New York or Austin? New York, but I love to visit Austin.  In the future, I hope to answer: Vermont, but I love to visit New York and Austin.

    Cats or dogs? I have both.  Please don’t make me choose.

    Left to right - Otis, Mark, Zoey and Jim (Christmas 2009)

     


    Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Don’t get me started!

    Reparative Therapy. When it’s suggested for heterosexuals we can talk.

    On good natured teasing. I’m all for good-natured teasing.  I think one of the rights LGBT people are fighting for is the right to take ourselves lightly!  When I talk about teasing and name-calling in middle schools, I always try to make the distinction between good-natured teasing and the mean-spirited kind.  One thing that’s very important is that when people banter and tease they have an understanding (usually unspoken) that they’re playing by the same rules and it’s okay to play with each other this way.  I also think it’s important that when someone crosses the line from good-natured to mean (even unintentionally) that the person on the receiving end let the other person know that what they said or did hurt or upset them.

    Neil Patrick Harris, when asked by a teen on Twitter for advice on coming out, said this:  “Stand tall.  Be proud of who you are.  Don’t break promises.  Want to learn.  Represent well.  But more than anything, be safe.”  In 144 characters (the max length of a Tweet), what advice would you give kids who are struggling with authenticity? Speak your truth and open your heart to those who can be trusted to hear your truth and be tender with your heart.  Be strong and kind and be with those who are good for your being. [Note: We’ll forgive him for not knowing that Twitter counts spaces!)

    Adam Lambert has spoken about his theater days and how he was told by his bosses to tone down the gay.  Colin says a similar thing to Joe.  How do you feel about that? I don’t think anyone should have to tone down who they are just so other people can feel comfortable.   I spent years of my early life “toning down” the parts of myself that others read as girly or “queer” (we didn’t use the word “gay” when I was young).  When I came out, one of the things I noticed right away was how my body began to relax, how I was no longer afraid that my gestures or ways of talking would “give me away” or make others laugh or be uncomfortable.  It’s a terrible waste of time and energy to tone down or change who you are just because other people have a problem with it.  He’s so out there, being who he is.  I’ve got to love that.  Maybe he was a lot like Joe when he was a boy! I say:  Go, Adam Lambert, and Go, Joe Bunch!

    I is for Instant Message:  The IM between Joe and Colin following the Halloween hand-holding incident is so touching.  The life lesson (or question) is “There’s a song (not the Beatles) that says we’re “born free,” so how come we have to wait?”  How can straight people best support gays in their struggle for equal rights? First, by putting yourselves in our shoes.  Imagine what it would be like not to be able to marry the person you love, not to feel you can display a photo of your significant other on your desk at work, or talk with your colleagues about what you did over the weekend.  Become aware of your own unconscious heterosexism.  One of my favorite quotes (I saw on a T-shirt) is: “Heterosexuality isn’t normal, it’s just common.”  Think of all the ways you assume that it’s “normal” for a man and a woman to hold hands or a girl and a boy to have crushes on each other, how heterosexuals never have to “come out,” while this process can be a huge and painful struggle for someone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.  Imagine what it would be like to be a gay student hearing “that’s so gay” everyday in school.  I have a little poem in the book I’m writing about Addie that goes like this:

    “That’s so gay”
    is an expression I hate.
    Do you mind if I change it
    to “that’s so straight?”

    Being conscious is an important step toward becoming conscientious and acting from what you believe as a result of becoming aware.  At the point of acting, do whatever you can to help your LGBT friends and family (or LGBT people as a class of people, if you don’t happen to know anyone), and think about how you want to deal with the rights you have that are denied to others.  I know of two young straight couples that recently married.  Neither would marry in a state that denied the rights of LGBT people to marry, and one made a point of seeking out a minister who would marry LGBT people.  These acts mean a lot to those of us who are still second-class citizens.

    The other thing I’d say is to not be silent or stand by when you hear antigay slurs or jokes.

    Jima nd Mark in Paris

    Your dedication in Totally JoeM is for Mark.  And so is this book.  Totally.  How has finding your Zachary changed you? [Note: Zachary is a boy that Joe Bunch meets in the novel.) My background is so complicated it often confuses people.  I was married twice to women.  I wrote Bunnicula with my first wife and had a daughter with my second wife.  And now my partner is a man.  Mark and I have been together for nine very happy years.  I loved both women I married, but there was always a part of me that was missing in the relationship – a significant part that couldn’t be there because my partner, through no fault of her own, was simply the wrong gender.  Having found the person I was really meant to be with has enabled me to be fully present, to be fully relaxed and at peace with myself and in my relationship at last.  To describe this feeling as joyful or content doesn’t begin to cover it.  It’s a feeling of being whole.  As time that goes on, I get angrier at people who are so willfully ignorant and hateful that they would deny us our rights and in doing so attempt to deny our very existence and our full capacity to love ourselves and one another.  Having “found my Zachary,” as you put it, means that I can balance this anger with a deeper grounding of love and gratitude.  It means that as frustrated as I may be at injustice and the snail’s pace of progress, I can still wake each morning next to the person I was born to love.


    Jim’s new book, Addie on the Inside, is scheduled for publication Summer 2011, along with a 10th anniversary edition of The Misfits. I can’t wait to see the Gang of Five again, this time through the eyes of the political powerhouse Addie.

    [tweetmeme source="JanetTrumble" only_single=false]

    Wednesday
    Apr072010

    James (aka Jadon) Howe fesses up to autobiographical elements in Totally Joe

    In Part I of my interview with author James Howe (The Misfits, Totally Joe), Jim acknowledges that character Joe Bunch (Totally Joe) is, in fact, a rewritten version of himself (only, he insists, "[I was] nowhere near as outrageous or brave”). So I had to ask: "Just how much of Joe’s experience is drawn from your own adolescence?" I presented him with a list. His responses are honest, funny, poignant, and Totally Jim! Here's Part II of my interview:

    Easy-Bake Oven phase? Not.  I got the idea of the Easy-Bake Oven from a book I read called Born Gay: Mom should have known when … I couldn’t believe how many gay men had Easy-Bake Ovens when they were little.  It was almost a rite of passage.  So of course Joe had to have one.

    Dresses and heels? Do I have to tell?  Okay, fine, I was a bit of a cross-dresser.  My mother let me have her hand-me-downs, just the way Joe’s mother does.  I think I had a dress-up trunk, but it was not called a “mannaba.”  I have no idea where I came up with that!

    Barbies? Like G.I. Joes, Barbies were a little after my time, though I would have undoubtedly been into them big-time if they’d be around.  I did play with dolls.  I had a favorite (whose name I can’t recall) (told you I love parentheses) who wore a beautiful wedding dress.  Which leads us into …

    Wedding obsession? My oldest brother was married when I was seven.  I fell head over heels in love with my new sister-in-law and the whole idea of getting married.  I insisted my favorite doll had to have a wedding dress.  Since there were no store-bought wedding dresses available, my mother had one made.  The wedding dress story in Totally Joe is totally autobiographical.

    Bert & Ernie? I love Bert and Ernie.  This comes from when my daughter Zoey was a child, not my own childhood.  I can do both voices, which I did as a regular part of entertaining Zoey and her friends – in puppet shows and just goofing around.  My interpretation of  the Q game was much in demand!  Zoey graciously allowed me to keep her two old Bert and Ernie dolls.  They sit atop a bookcase in my office.  Her old Bert hand puppet sits on a shelf.  Sadly, the Ernie hand puppet was lost.  For the record, my favorite of the two (and of all the Muppet characters) is Bert.

    Earring? Yes.  I got an earring when I was in my late forties, which means I’ve had it for some time.  I wanted one for a long time before I got up the nerve to go get my ear pierced.  Zoey, who was seven at the time, went with me to hold my hand.

    Streaked hair? Never did it.  If I were growing up today, I have no doubt I’d go through a streaked hair phase.  As it is, I’d be happy just to have hair!

    Painted pinky? Nope.  I just came up with that out of the blue for Joe.

    Moonet and Pigasso? Well, I love to draw, but I never pretended to be Monet or Picasso – although the kind of goofing around Joe and Colin are doing when they play at being “Moonet” and “Pigasso” in art class is very typical of what I did with my friends growing up.  (And still do with my partner, but that’s our little secret.)

    Kissing rumors? Never had to endure them.

    Tofurky? I did have to endure Tofurky one Thanksgiving.  My niece Julie thought she was being nice by cooking one for my partner Mark, my daughter Zoey, and me.  We’re all vegetarians.  She even tried to make it look nice, surrounding it with roasted vegetables and greens.  It still looked like a cross between a giant cold sore and a football.  I won’t even attempt to describe the taste.  Let’s just say it wouldn’t have made a vegetarian out of even the weakest-willed carnivore.  I do eat lots of other meat substitutes, though, and for the most part they’re yummy.

    JoDan? Autobiographical.  I played with my name a lot when I was young.  I decided I wanted to be an actor at the age of ten and majored in acting in college.  I thought “James Howe” was too boring a name, and besides I grew up at a time when most movie stars were given names by the studios (Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter).  I spent an embarrassing amount of time coming up with names for myself.  My favorites were Sir Reginald Windsor when I wanted to be a serious Shakespearean actor like my hero Sir (later: Lord) Laurence Olivier, and Gordon Windsor when I wanted to be square-jawed Hollywood star like my favorite Western star (and first crush) Clint Walker.  In college, I seriously considered combining my first and middle names – James Donald – into Jadon, and that’s where JoDan came from!  I was an acting major in college.  Somewhere I still have a program for a play I was in where my name is listed as Jadon Howe.

    Cher? Not a fan.  That’s one thing I would change if I were writing the book now.  I don’t imagine a 12-year-old boy today would be enamored of Cher the way Joe is.  I’m afraid I fell back on a cliché – and an outdated one at that – on that point.

    The dump truck with the rainbow bumper sticker? Just made that up.  I love imagining Joe’s grandfather coming up with that idea and giving it as a gift to Joe!

    The bully Kevin Hennessey? He’s not based on any one person in my life, but believe me I knew a number of Kevin Hennesseys growing up.

    Bright green hi-tops? I’d wear them if they made them in my size (13, since I know you’re going to ask), but no, not autobiographical.

    Coming out at age 12? Not remotely.  I came out at the age of 51, after both my parents had died.  I was married, with a daughter who turned 10 a few weeks later.  It was a liberating and very happy moment in my life – to be able to be myself fully, finally – but at the same time a sad and devastating one, because it meant the end of my marriage and my family as we knew it.  I was worried about what would happen to my friendships.  For the most part, my friendships only deepened (now that I could be fully myself), and there were a number of people who reacted like Joe’s family:  “We’ve known all along.”

    Your parents? I was very lucky.  My parents were very much like Joe’s.  When I was in my forties, I asked my mother, “How did you and Dad feel about having a little boy who played with dolls?”  My mother said, “We thought that’s who you were, that’s all.”  That kind of simple acceptance and unconditional love was what I experienced growing up.  I was Joe’s age in the late 1950s, a time when homosexuality was considered immoral, criminal, and a form of mental illness.  Even though my parents were fine with me being a somewhat “girly boy,” I don’t know that they could have as easily accepted my being gay then as they would now, only because of the times in which they lived and the context we all had for grappling with the idea of sexual identity.  But my parents – my dad, especially – were civil rights activists.  I have no doubt that if I were growing up today my parents would be my greatest allies and would be on the frontlines of the gay rights movement.

    In Part III of my interview, Jim dishes on Adam Lambert, Barack Obama, and gay rights, and reveals why author Libba Bray might want to watch her back!

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    Sunday
    Apr042010

    James Howe on censorship, stereotypes, catharsis and why kids giggle over character Joe Bunch

    Recently I had the honor of spending the day with James Howe, author of more than 80 books, including the middle grade novels The Misfits (which inspired No Name-Calling Week) and Totally Joe, an alphabiography of a 12-year-old gay boy and one of my favorite books ever! This is the first of my multi-part interview with Jim. I learned three things about Jim that day--he's tall, vegetarian, and one of the most open, honest, and passionate people I've ever met.

    How have schools responded to Joe?
    I never expected Totally Joe to be carried in every school or school library in the country.  I know there are parts of the country where that is very unlikely to happen.  But The Misfits is widely read and taught in schools, and many more schools than I would have thought have Totally Joe in circulation as well.  For the most part, the responses I’ve heard have been very positive.  I do know of a few censorship battles over The Misfits and Totally Joe, and I’m sure there are cases of “silent censorship” that I don’t know about.  As for the students themselves, what I hear mostly is that they love the character of Joe.  Often, when I speak in schools, the students get all giggly and self-conscious about Joe – and some are completely grossed out by the idea of anyone being gay – and that is very much the reason I came to write Totally Joe in the first place.  I wanted kids to get to know – and maybe even like – the kind of person who embodies an idea that makes them giggly, uncomfortable, or grossed out.  My hope is that once they get past the idea to the person they’ll be able to change their attitudes.

    What are your thoughts on gay stereotypes in fiction?
    This is something I struggled with in writing the character of Joe Bunch. I’ve been accused of writing him as a stereotype, but my thinking is this: First, there is a reason stereotypes exist, and that is that many people fit them! Also, it was important to me in creating Joe that I write about just the kind of boy who is so often targeted for gay name-calling and bullying: the boy “who acts like a girl more than a boy much of the time,” as Bobby says about Joe in The Misfits. As I said earlier, I think having Joe like Cher and perhaps a few other choices I made about him tipped the balance too far in the direction of the stereotype, but for the most part I’m very happy with the way Joe is drawn. As writers, we can sometimes go too far in the other direction – trying to make our characters “mainstream” so they’ll be seen as normal and “acceptable” to the majority of readers. The greatest danger I see in writing LGBT characters is in attributing their dysfunction or hardships solely to their sexual identity. The suffering gay person who comes to a tragic end was a staple of early young adult fiction. I would hope those days are well behind us.


    Is there added weight on authors to create gay characters who represent well?
    I don’t think that’s the case anymore. I believe it was the case once upon a time, just as it was with other minorities trying to be recognized as full and equal human beings.


    Why do you think there are more gay characters than lesbian characters in YA and MG lit?
    I really don’t know. I have heard that teen girls love to read about gay boys, especially gay boys in romantic relationships. Since teen girls make a large percentage of YA readers, that may be one reason that more books about gay boys are being published. I’d like to see more books with lesbian and bisexual characters.


    You blurb a lot for gay-themed YA and MG novels. Can you name three you wish you could have read as a teenager?
    Boy Meets Boy, by David Levithan. Rainbow Boys, by Alex Sanchez. Absolutely, Positively Not, by David LaRochelle. May I add a fourth? Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, by Peter Cameron, which not only has a main character who is gay but is also one of the best YA novels (or any novel, period) I’ve read in years.


    In David Levithan’s Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List, David uses little hearts and emoticons and other images in his text. You do a little of the same in Totally Joe, especially in "J is for Joe." I know you and David are friends. Did he steal that idea from you?
    No way! David is Mr. Cutting Edge in his books. But he didn’t create the idea any more than I did. Ellen Wittlinger has written an entire book in emails called Heart on my Sleeve and Lauren Myracle has that whole TTFN series written in online chats and emails. I’m sure there are others. Of course, Totally Joe was published in 2001, so I like to think maybe I was the cutting-edge guy in this case.


    Coming out stories – still relevant or yesterday’s drama?
    Still relevant, but can’t wait to see the day (soon!) when they’re not.




    Was writing Joe a cathartic experience for you?
    Absolutely!  After I came out at the age of 51, one of the first emotions I experienced was anger.  I was angry that I had wasted so much of my life being fearful and ashamed over something that was just one part of who I am and should never have been a big deal in the first place.  I was determined to write a character – a rewritten version of myself, if you will – who was growing up gay and feeling good about it.  But I knew it wouldn’t be a good idea to write a book entirely devoted to that character while my anger was still so fresh.  I didn’t want to write a diatribe.  So Joe first appeared as one of the four main characters in The Misfits, then was given center stage in Totally Joe. He’s back in Addie on the Inside, the third book with these characters.  I don’t know how long it took me to write him.  As with all the main characters in The Misfits, once I had them in mind they were so alive to me they almost wrote themselves.

    In Part II, James Howe fesses up to the autobiographical parts of Totally Joe. You don't want to miss it!

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