Ask Bill

Working on a project about Bill Konigsberg for school? Writing a review of Openly Straight? Here are some Q&A sessions that you may find useful. If you have other questions, write to Bill at the bottom of this page!

Q&A about Openly Straight, Feb. 2013:

Q: How is Openly Straight unlike other “Gay Coming-of-Age” stories?

A: My first novel, Out of the Pocket, was about coming out. So many novels with young gay protagonists center around coming out, and rightfully so; it would be impossible to argue that there’s anything more traumatic in a young gay person’s life than coming out. As writers, we look for the “white hot centers” and that’s where we tend to set up shop. But with this book, I wanted to move beyond that. I wanted to look at a character who had already done that, one for whom homophobia and coming out were not the main struggles, and I wanted imagine what his life was like. Was it perfect? It turns out that beyond coming out, there’s this pesky business of labels, of feeling forever labeled in a way that doesn’t always feel … apt. If a boy is openly gay and plays on the soccer team, does that make him a gay soccer player? How does a person deal with the disparity between what people see (his gayness) and what he is (a person)? Those are the issues I was most drawn to with this novel.

Q: What took you in this direction?
A: For me, it was in many ways a personal journey, and one I only figured out through writing the book. I have been publicly out for more than a decade now, longer among friends and family. I had no idea really that I felt limited by any of this, but one day, as I was struggling to write this book and unsure where it was going, it hit me hard. I was living in Montana at the time, and I took a break from my writing struggles to play racquetball at a local gym in Billings. I just wanted to play and have a nice time with a bunch of other men who were playing. Someone saw my ring and asked if I was married, and an amazing thing happened. This openly gay man got tired! I was tired of having my sexuality be the center of attention. So I said yes. And when he asked me my wife’s name, I said, “Rachel.” After, I realized that what had happened was exactly what was happening to my main character. He wasn’t homophobic, exactly. He simply wanted to be a person, and to fit in, that’s not a bad thing. It’s a human desire, to connect to others, yet it is fraught with disaster because withholding information is a form of lying. From that day forward, this novel poured out of me, and I knew I was writing about something that was new and interesting, at least from a literary standpoint. I’ve never read a book like this, so I felt like I was out on an interesting frontier writing it.

Q: Why write about a teen dealing with these issues instead of an adult?
Beyond the fact that this is the genre I tend to write in, I think it’s a perfect book for teens right now. This generation is so far ahead of mine. While the world is hardly perfect, and homophobia is still rampant, there are teens for whom being gay isn’t such a big issue. So there are many kids just like Rafe Goldberg, kids who are comfortably out and ready for the next thing. And I think this issue of feeling labeled is the next thing. So it wasn’t hard to translate my experience into that of a teenager. It felt very organic when the book moved in this direction.

Q: Is LGBTQ literature still a niche market in young adult literature?
I think that is changing rapidly. A lot of this is because it’s changed on television. Shows like “The New Normal” are no longer niche shows, and today’s teens have grown up in a world where gay characters are on many, many shows. I think it was unthinkable, five or ten years ago, that many straight kids would pick up a gay book. But today, I think that a lot of straight kids are curious about the lives of gay kids. “Will Grayson, Will Grayson,” by John Green and David Levithan, made the New York Times Bestseller List, and one of its two protagonists is gay. So while it may still be a niche market, I would characterize it as a market that keeps growing and becoming more
inclusive of all readers.

Q&A about gays in sports, circa 2008:

Q. Do you really think people like Bobby Framingham, the gay quarterback in your novel, exist?

A. Absolutely, I know they do. I know we have all grown up with the stereotype of what gays are and are not, but there are absolutely guys like Bobby everywhere. He’s just a normal kid who grew up in a normal family, who has something about him that is “different.” He’s gay. It’s up to the reader to decide how important that is, and what they think Bobby ought to do about it. Should Bobby deny that part of himself so he can avoid trouble? Should he address it? Should he decide that it’s an evil thing or a sick thing or should he conclude that the only thing sick about it is the world’s reaction to it? The book has one answer, but there are definitely other possibilities.

Q. Is Bobby based on you?

A. Ha! If you met me, you’d see I don’t quite have a quarterback build. As a kid I was too skinny to play football, but I loved to play with my friends. I played baseball in grade school and high school. But anyway, it was a different time. When I started to realize I was gay I thought it meant that I wasn’t supposed to be an athlete, because I didn’t know of a single role model who played sports and was gay. So mostly I stopped trying to be a pitcher. It probably wasn’t a big loss for the world, by the way. I wasn’t that good.

Q. Why aren’t there more openly gay people in sports?

A. It’s a good question. I think the big thing is about masculinity. If we’re talking about men, sports is one of the last bastions of “masculinity” and some guys (and I mean players, owners and fans) are fiercely protective of their games. Our culture has made good strides at accepting the fact that gays exist, but I think we have a ways to go. Gays are really more acceptable within certain parameters. It’s like Homer Simpson said: “I like my beer cold, my TV loud and my gays FLAMING.” When you take gay men out of that context, a lot of what our culture has come to accept about masculinity and sexuality flies out the window and things get very uncomfortable very quickly.

Q. What do you think would happen if a professional male player came out today?

A. I think a lot would depend on who he was. If he was a well-liked, outstanding player, I think it would be very hard for his team to turn against him, even though there would certainly be some responses such as “we don’t need to know about that, why are you sharing your personal life?” If it was a fringe player, or someone who already had a bad relationship with fans or media, it would be a lot tougher. And the reason for that is that coming out would certainly create a media swarm, and would have a harsh impact on a team, especially during the season. So that person could become a scapegoat.

Q. How is it most likely to occur, a male player coming out as gay?

A. While it could happen at any time, I think it’s most likely going to be someone coming up through the ranks. The younger generations are so much more accepting of gays and lesbians because they’ve grown up with images of gay and lesbian people, in a way that my generation really didn’t and the generations preceding me definitely didn’t. I wouldn’t be surprised if the first openly gay athlete for one of the four professional sports was currently in high school, and already out. He’ll go to college, where he’ll come out while playing, and he’ll be well received by his teammates, and then he’ll move on to the pros. In short, he’s a real-life version of Bobby Framingham.

Q. How did you come up with the other players, and their reactions to Bobby being gay?

A. Research. I spoke to high school football players to get a sense of what their world is like, and what is would be like if one of their guys — and make no mistake about it, these are close-knit groups we’re talking about — came out as gay. I think it would be difficult at first, no doubt about it. I got the sense from some players that they would feel as if their trust had been violated. And I think that it’s a valid feeling. I mean, all feelings are valid. But I don’t think that’s the gay player’s fault. I mean, what’s the right way to handle something like this? I had one kid say that if his best friend came out as gay, he’d kill him. I thought that was pretty shocking, but feelings are feelings. They all have a place in the book.

Q. Why does it even matter who a person sleeps with? I mean, I don’t want to know what my favorite quarterback does in bed.

A. Well, fine, I don’t either. But as it stands today we assume all athletes are heterosexual, and that means when a player isn’t, by not being open about who he is he is automatically perceived to be something he isn’t. Here’s an example: How would you like it if you lived in a world where it was assumed you would marry a woman with the same hair color you have, and the woman you truly loved actually had a different color hair? And all you heard all day was jokes about how people who married “different hair color” people were sick? And if someone found out, you could lose your job and be under attack from people who felt you were sick? It’s not that easy to imagine, but that’s what it’s like to be gay, in a lot of ways. And until things are truly equal in this world, gay people need to be open about who they are so that we can get to the ideal place, where it’s unnecessary to talk about what we do in bed.

Another conversation, this time about writing Out of the Pocket, circa 2009:

Q. What was your writing process like?

A. Unlike me, it was extremely disciplined. I scheduled my writing. I’d wake up, go to the computer, turn off the internet, and write for two hours. Then I’d walk away. I would do an extra hour or two later in the day when the day allowed for it. Then I’d come back the next day, read what I’d written, revise, and start back up where I left off. I did this seven days a week. And when I had “writer’s block”, I wrote through it. Meaning, I’d sit there and write anyway. A teacher of mine used to say you have to “give yourself permission to write poorly” and that’s great advice. Sometimes you need to write crap just to get past it. Only by writing through the crap can you find the one thing that will propel you to make an important discovery.

Q. What made you write Out of the Pocket?

A.I wrote a short story called AUDIBLES my first year in the MFA Creative Writing program at Arizona State. I wanted to write a modern version of a true story, the story of Ed Gallagher, a friend. Ed was a former tackle at University of Pittsburgh, who, at the age of 27, threw himself off a cliff because he couldn’t deal with being gay. He survived and became paraplegic, and became a very powerful gay advocate. I met Ed in 2002 when I lived in Connecticut, after I came out at ESPN, and he had quite an impact on me. He was a special person, who, sadly, died in 2005. I wrote this before he died and for some reason (probably because it wasn’t very good) never shared it with him. I started with the image of a football player standing on the edge of a cliff, and that morphed into standing in a frigid ocean at night, trying to decide if he should just keep walking in until he drowns. Since then, the story has changed a million percent, but that’s where and how it started.

Q. Were any of the characters in the novel based on real people?

A. Sort of. Bobby is sort of a more confident, more muscular, younger me. He has a lot of my voice in that he’s a fairly balanced guy. Carrie was based on a student I taught at Arizona State when I was teaching English there as a graduate student. But recently, she read the book and had no comment, so I think I may have missed the mark. It’s okay; the student is great and Carrie is great, so no worries. I used a guy I played softball with in Arizona as the original voice of Austin, and I threw in some of a former ESPN colleague of mine. I also picture Austin to look like that colleague. It’s all pretty random how that happens.

Q. What’s the hardest thing about writing a novel?

A. Two things. The uncertainty, for one. It’s hard not to know things, like where the book is going, what’s going to work and what isn’t. The process of being in the midst of writing a novel is extremely exciting and difficult, because you’re living there, but you’re living there alone. And even if you have wonderful friends and a terrific partner, they can’t really accompany you. You travel alone and no one can really understand your excitement about “funny things a character said today” for instance. Because, of course, it came from you, not a character. So it sounds sort of self-involved and can get pretty tiring to be around. The second thing is the waiting. If you’re an impatient person, think carefully before becoming a novelist. It’s your baby out there, and you want things to go in a certain way, and it’s totally out of your control. I lost a lot of hair so far, and I’ve just gotten started as a novelist.