In Getting It, there was a very strong Latino influence. I think all of the main characters are Latino, how important is it for you to get that out there?
What happened is, in Rainbow Boys, Jason Carrillo, he's Latino and his dad is Cuban. And my mom was Cuban, so I used that in writing the book. And what surprised me was how many Latino young people wrote to me and told me how important it was to them that Jason was Latino because they were Latino, to find a character they could identify with. And I started realizing as diverse as the US has become, still if you read most YA fiction it's about white people. And there's nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't really reflect the diversity of the society and culture. So, I thought, hey, I'm Latino, why don't I go and write about Latino characters and, at the same time, that's not what the books are about.
My agent, she says 'your books aren't really about being gay, they're about people who happen to be gay and they're dealing with a lot of the same sort of issues that non-gay people deal with.' She says 'even when you write about coming out, you write about it in terms of accepting yourself and being true to who you are.' And that's what resonates for so many readers. Since then, I'm writing more and more about Latino characters, and that's not what it's about, that's just one part of their experience.
Like you said initially about having fears about writing, I think when you really just throw yourself in there, the more you write about something intensely personal it twists around to become universal somehow.
Exactly, exactly, I totally agree with you.
It seems strange, though. I know I've faced the same thing where you have the hesitation of 'Do I really want to expose myself this much?' and that's what people seem to latch onto and it becomes 'I'm like that, too.' It seems strange that we have this built-in thing that makes us think this is what makes us unique, and as soon as we get past that it's what really opens us up to other people.
That goes back to that whole emotional honesty thing. I keep discovering that when I can write about the things that I'm most scared to write about, that's what's going to be the most powerful thing in my writing. And, at the same time, it's like 'Oh, man, it's still hard. Can I really write that?' As you say, am I really willing to expose myself and be vulnerable about that, and let people know how weird I am? And then it's like, wait a minute, the response is like 'I'm not so weird, other people have felt this same thing. Other people have had those same thoughts.' So that's both the fear and the power in it. And I think that's why the books get challenged and the books get banned because, on some level, the people who challenge the books understand that power, the power that words can have.
Having known the book was banned before I read it, I went in with a whole 'Let's see what's going on here...' and reading it with those eyes, sort of looking for stuff, I became fixated on how they are just blindly banning it. It seemed everyone in Rainbow Boys was trying to find their truth and trying to be loving. They weren't a bunch of promiscuous young boys having sex orgies. It was just wholesome. They wanted to connect, they wanted intimacy, to find who they were, and I'm like, 'This is what we're banning?'
Exactly. What will happen is that someone will read one paragraph, or one page and they'll be like, 'Omigod, this is scandalous!' They take it out of context. They don't see it as you're seeing it. Part of the power of fiction is that it provides an emotional experience for someone who walks through the steps of the characters as you've described them. But they'll take it out of context and be like, 'See this passage!' I can't remember the website, but that's what they do, they go through not just my books but all these young adult books, where they go through and cite specific passages and that's what they base their judgments on. They don't read the entire book, they don't say 'well, what's the story?'
I'm willing to bet that we can trump Nelson having anal sex for the first time and find 20 more offensive passages in the Bible.
My own personal opinion is that those same people have not really read the Bible. They've just picked out specific parts that they like to read and they don't read the whole rest of the book.
One of the things we have on Oasis is that a lot of people want to get into creative writing and I give them my little spiel here and there, but do you have any specific advice you give to kids?
Sure, I actually have a page on my website with writing advice. I let them know things that helped me and one of them is to surround yourself with people who support and encourage you. Another is to read your work aloud. Another thing is to find passages you really liked in books and study how those passages were written and why they moved you. Oh, the whole thing about showing, not telling. Use dialogue sparingly. What is the character thinking, what is the character feeling, how do they show it?
It just seems like you, Julie Ann Peters, Brent Hartinger, these names keep coming up over and over and over on the site, and only recently due to the relaunch have I been reading this stuff, and it's just been great to see it as such a warm and inviting thing, because I'm 38 (I think we're about the same age), but this was unheard of when we were coming up.
Yeah, when I was in school there were no books that portrayed gay or lesbian teenagers. And that was before the Internet, so I felt like I was the only boy in the world having these feelings. And it was really scary and lonely. When I was writing Rainbow Boys, the first book, I very much had the sense of 'this is the book I wish I had when I was a teenager.' It would have told me it's OK to be who you are, to have the feelings you're having. You don't have to hate yourself. So, this whole process and hearing from these young people, it's been very healing for me, and my inner teenager.
Which I guess you have to keep in touch with, considering all the books you're writing. So, do you actually feel, we'll go for the dime store psychology here... do you feel in Rainbow Boys that you identify with one of the characters as telling your story? Or is there a little bit in everybody?
In everybody, because when I was in high school, I was sort of the invisible kid. I really shut down. I was depressed and feeling so much shame about who I was. I was pretty isolated. I mean, I had the crushes on other boys, but I just couldn't bring myself to even talk to them. So, the way I look at it is Jason, his story is all about accepting who he is; and Kyle, he's looking for someone to love; and Nelson, he's the other side of that, he's looking for someone who's going to love him. Those are three stories that are all part of my story, and part of all our stories. As you put it, in sort of making those stories specific, it's like at the same time, they're universal, regardless if someone is gay or straight, male or female. So much who we are is wanting to love ourselves, find someone to love, and find someone to love us.
Do you plan to stay in the young adult category? Do you want to write an adult novel, for lack of a better term?
Well, I'm sort of in a fortunate bind right now, where I have this great relationship with this publisher. They love me, and I love them, and they keep contracting me to write books, and paying me more, and it's sort of like, 'OK, well... I'll keep doing this until it seems time to move on' if that time comes. But right now, it's a great deal where basically it's a book a year and for this length of books I find that's manageable. And each time I think, 'I don't have anything else to say about being gay...'
One of the things I found in terms of Getting It, was that as I was writing the Rainbow books, I started realizing is that a lot of what I was writing about was 'Yes, it's about being gay, but a lot of it is about growing up male in America.' So with Getting It, part of what I was exploring was how much is Carlos struggling to be who he is because of homophobia? And he's not gay, he's straight. How homophobia hurts everyone, especially boys. It puts limits on who they can be for fear of being called queer or fag, whatever. So, in terms of the gay issues, there are all these other issues around it.
So, the manuscript that I just finished, that will be coming out next year (2007), is about a boy struggling to reconcile being gay and Christian. Again, it's something I hear a lot from young people who e-mail me, and it's like, 'OK, there's a story, something I haven't written about, something I haven't seen anyone else writing about, especially for young adults, so let me explore that.' I like writing about teens, because they are so much more present in so many ways than adults. They're really dealing with situations and can't hide as much as we can as adults, so all the circumstances of this publisher and where my voice seems to be and the opportunity that writing about teens gives me, OK, I'm here for now, so at some point maybe I'll write about adults, but for now I'm really enjoying what I'm doing.
It seems growing up being young and gay, there's a forced self-exploration that doesn't necessarily have to occur if you're straight.
That's a great way of putting it. I really like that.
You see a lot of kids mentioning, 'I don't see any of my other friends having to deal with this...' It may seem like a negative, but self-exploration is ultimately a gift. You might not like what you're having to explore at times... but it's always going to end up at a good place.
I find the product of that is from the gay young people who I meet, they're 14, 15, 16-years-old and they are so self-confident. And it's like, whoa! I think it's reflective that from the time they're in grade school, it's like they are so aware of gay issues and what that means that by the time they're 14, 15, 16 -- some of them, not all of them -- they have done that process of self-exploration and they've come to terms of this is who I am. I'm not apologizing for it. If you have a problem, you're the one that has the problem. It's amazing to watch that.
Part of what I've had to learn on the site is just to take a deep breath, because I deal with people who are 14, out, and complaining they don't have a boyfriend... I didn't come out until I was 23, so you know, you already got nine years on me. You're already a decade ahead of the curve, as far as I'm concerned.
For some of them, it's such a different world.
We talked about writing advice, but for the non-writers, you obviously cover this in the books, but do you have general advice for gay youth?
Some of these young people today, they are so empowered, so open, and so out, and so self-confident. But other young people are still struggling with coming out, so I get those e-mails, and the spirituality ones, where they're having a hard time integrating being gay and primarily being Christian. They feel it's a choice of either I can be gay or I can be Christian, I can't be both. The other issue I find is, especially among girls moreso than boys, is 'I'm bi, I'm attracted to both boys and girls,' or they don't know how to identify themselves. It's like, I like girls, but I also like boys, so really struggling with bisexuality. So for each of those, I don't have page on my site about it. I have a page about writing advice, and a page about coming out, but I don't have one about the whole bisexuality thing. But especially among girls, that comes up.
So, you're explicitly writing in Thailand. It's not teaching English or anything else, it's just writing books?
Yeah, I'm very fortunate in that I have this dream life where it's like I get paid to do what I love, people want to read my books, and they keep me plenty busy. And I'm living in a place that I love and in which I've very happy. I don't know what else to say.