Rafe, Ben, and Labels

I get questions. Sometimes they appear on Goodreads, where I am definitely NOT supposed to go, and I try not to go there almost ever, as it almost always hurts my feelings when I go there.

But I get a notification via email and I do try to answer those questions when I have the time.

Here’s one that I thought was a smart and important questions about OPENLY STRAIGHT and HONESTLY BEN. My answer follows.

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Revisionist History

When I was growing up, it was hard to find a movie in which the word faggot didn’t play at least a minor role.

Truly. Watch 80s movies. You’ll be surprised how often that word comes out.

It was totally acceptable. Everyone said that word. At school, I heard it all the time. I even used it a time or two. Had to fit in, after all!

I had Eddie Murphy’s debut album. This was 1982. I was 11. On it was a bit called “Faggots.”

Eddie Murphy

“Faggot ass faggot,” Murphy shouted, and the crowd howled.

So did I.

So did my friends. They used to do the bit all the time. Or the one where he lisped like a gay guy allegedly would, when he was getting beat up for being gay. “Stop bothering me,” he lisped, and that, too, was hilarious.

I don’t know if I got it, back then. If I knew that I was laughing at myself. I think soon after, if not right away, I did know, and I think it was just part of what I had to do. I had to compartmentalize. My feelings and what I put out into the world. My private self, my public self.

It was just what you did in the 1980s.

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The Bridge!

Let’s take a quick break from what’s on the docket (THE MUSIC OF WHAT HAPPENS) to look a little further into the future! Because in the future, you will be able to read my sixth novel, THE BRIDGE!

Here’s the announcement from Publisher’s Weekly:

Nick Thomas at Scholastic/Levine has bought Lambda, Stonewall, and PEN Center USA Literary Award-winning author Bill Konigsberg‘s new YA novel, The Bridge. The book is about two suicidal teens who meet atop the George Washington Bridge, disrupting each other’s plans and literally splitting the universe into three storylines with dramatically different consequences. Publication is scheduled for 2020; Linda Epstein at Emerald City Literary Agency brokered the deal for world English rights; the Taryn Fagerness Agency is handling translation rights.

I’m writing it now, and…man. This is a challenging one! The three “what if” scenarios are challenging enough, but on top of that, writing about depression and suicide really takes a toll on me. I have to go into a pretty sad, lonely, dark place.

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The Music of What Happens!

So I can finally share it… the cover of THE MUSIC OF WHAT HAPPENS!

TMOWH cover

I am so, so, so in love with this cover. Great kudos to the artist, Patrick Leger, and to the designer, Nina Goffi. Nina has been involved in my covers for OPENLY STRAIGHT, THE PORCUPINE OF TRUTH, and HONESTLY BEN, so this was a real shift in direction.

I can’t wait to tell you more about this book, and I can’t wait for you to read it. For now, here’s the jacket copy:

Max: Chill. Sports. Video games. Gay and not a big deal, not to him, not to his mom, not to his buddies. And a secret: An encounter with an older kid that makes it hard to breathe, one that he doesn’t want to think about, ever.

Jordan: The opposite of chill. Poetry. His “wives” and the Chandler Mall. Never been kissed and searching for Mr. Right, who probably won’t like him anyway. And a secret: A spiraling out of control mother, and the knowledge that he’s the only one who can keep the family from falling apart.

Throw in a rickety, 1980s-era food truck called Coq Au Vinny. Add in prickly pears, cloud eggs, and a murky idea of what’s considered locally sourced and organic. Place it all in Mesa, Arizona, in June, where the temp regularly hits 114. And top it off with a touch of undeniable chemistry between utter opposites.

Over the course of one summer, two boys will have to face their biggest fears and decide what they’re willing to risk — to get the thing they want the most.

The book comes out Jan. 29, 2019. Or 0129/2019 for those of you who like numbers. 🙂

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No Place Like Home, Er, Openly Straight

We are consolidating at our house right now. Which means that I come across things, like  long-expired gift certificates to Barnes & Noble from 2006, and mix CDs I made in 2004 (we no longer have a CD player). Also zip drives.

Zip drives are great because you can never be sure what you’ll find on them. And what I found today was a treasure trove of old creative writing stuff.

I found the first story I wrote in my first creative writing class in grad school (terrible!). I found the first draft of Audibles, which became OUT OF THE POCKET. And I found the very first words I wrote for the book that became OPENLY STRAIGHT!

It was called, at the time, NO PLACE LIKE HOME. And yeah, I’ve made this joke before, but it was going to be like The Wizard of Oz, but gayer.

I wrote the very first words in the very first draft of that book  on April 8, 2009.

It looked like this:

Screenshot 2018-03-31 08.13.07

Screenshot 2018-03-31 08.13.24

This makes me so happy. As you can see, Rafe wasn’t quite Rafe yet. I was playing with an idea. The notion was to turn a coming out story into a going in story, which is what I did. But almost everything else is off, voice especially.

I’m interested that I got Claire Olivia’s name right away. Her name, I had always thought, came from Claire Olivia Casey, or Claire O. Casey, or Claro Que Si, which means “Of course” in Spanish. But apparently I either already knew that, or the joke came organically from the name choice. I don’t know.

The parasol story relates to my nephew, who used to dance around our kitchen with a parasol. And what followed that was a story my friend Bob told me about coming home from kindergarten after his first day. His parents asked how the first day was, and he said, “They have nice curtains.”

Neither of those stories made the novel, but the lesson here is don’t tell me stories or do stuff in front of me. It WILL wind up in a book.

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Other People’s Pain

A few weeks ago I went to a conference called Men2Men. It was co-sponsored by the Men’s Ministry of the Historic Chapel AME Church and Arizona State University’s Project Humanities, and it was held at a church in downtown Phoenix. It was billed as “an opportunity for men across the Phoenix to have intergenerational, interdenominational, and meaningful, critical conversations about pressing issues directly related to men’s lives.” 

There were seminars about all sorts of issues, from sexual harassment, to dealing with law enforcement, to youth bullying and self harm.

What an experience. And in a session on race-based stress, I had an epiphany of sorts. As one of perhaps two white men in a room of African-American men, I realized something both simple and complicated:

I will never, ever, be able to experience what it’s like to be an African-American man living in the United States.

I can have great empathy for those who are living that experience, but I cannot have it. The closest I understand is not all that close; as a gay white male, any time I want to pass, any time I want to get away from the sometimes exhausting experience of being “the other,” I can pass. I can choose to show up visibly as a gay man, or not, depending.

As I said, simple and complicated. Because of course I can’t. But the truth is that as a person who has great empathy, I sometimes think I get it. But what I took not so much from the words but from the anger exhibited in that powerful session, I realized that no, that’s outside of my realm of experience.

It made me think about one of the reigning issues in Young Adult Literature: the We Need Diverse Books movement, and the #ownvoices movement.

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Is Ben Physically Attracted to Rafe?

I get emails. Great emails. I respond to them all (I should say I strive to, in case I accidentally missed yours), though it often takes me some time to get to them.

I got a bunch of great emails in the last couple weeks that put me in a good mood this morning. One of them included a question that I thought would be of interest to a lot of my readers.

Here goes, courtesy of Anissa:

Did you consciously choose to have Ben never mention being physically attracted to Rafe?

I’ve gone through the book (HONESTLY BEN) for the second time and it stuck out to me that while Ben goes into extensive detail about what he finds physically attractive about Hannah, he never mentions how he feels about Rafe’s physical characteristics or appeal.  He only says Rafe is very fit.

 Did you intentionally structure it so that Ben  focused solely on their emotional connection?

 It seems odd to me since they were physically involved. I wondered if it was another way for Ben to buffer himself from the realization that he was attracted to a boy.

honestly ben cover2

Great question! This is what I wrote back:

A lot of times, what comes out on the page is instinctual for me. Meaning that I sit in the chair of the character and I look for their truth. The only way I can answer your very smart question is to say that I think the amount of time Ben spends thinking about Rafe physically is authentic for him. It may be a sort of buffer as he is not fully comfortable being attracted to a boy, and it might be that he’s attracted to Rafe in a more holistic way. My gut feeling is that it’s a combination of both.
This question made me think, even after I sent that answer. How does that work? How do we, as writers, pull off not just sitting in the chair of a character, but getting into that subconscious place where we make the right decisions for them? Because I believe to my innermost self that had I had Ben wax poetic about Rafe’s legs, it would have been inauthentic. And I don’t fully know why, as I say above. I just know, instinctually, that it’s not right. For me as a writer. Which is only half the equation!
And this is why books are alive. Because a reader’s understanding of a book’s truth is actually just as alive, just as important, as the writer’s intention in writing it. I think.
I mean, if a reader decides that Ben is buffering himself from his true feelings for Rafe’s physicality, who am I to say that’s wrong?
Thoughts? Why doesn’t Ben focus on Rafe’s body? What’s your understanding, from your reading? Does it differ from my explanation?
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