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?
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.