How did you come up with the idea for Don’t Let Me Go?
That’s such a complicated question. Don’t Let Me Go started as two books. Initially, I just wanted to write about a young man who falls in love and decides to come out in a challenging environment. But along the way I knew this story had to be so much more. For years I’ve thought about a young man who was brutally assaulted in my community, survived, healed, testified before Congress on hate crimes, then a week after high school graduation, jump from the top of a cruise ship. And no one had any idea how that assault had eaten away at him.
I wanted to rewrite that young man’s story and give him a hero. But at the end of that first novel, I realized that Adam had graduated, so now what? And that became the present day story of Don’t Let Me Go—Nate, still struggling with the lingering effects of his assault—self-loathing, insecurity, doubts. But he lets Adam go because he loves him. He’s needy and he knows it, and he hates it. But he can’t help himself.
You are brutally honest when it comes to homophobia. Don’t Let Me Go is the first book I’ve read for LGBTQ YA Month that deals with the harsh reality of homophobia so seriously, others seeming to focus more on the romance. Why did you choose to be so unflinching about it?
As I said above, that particular incident has weighed heavily on me for years. The young man who was assaulted was not gay to my knowledge. But attacks on gay young men and women do happen. What I cared about was the emotional affect that a very public sexual assault would have on a young man’s identity. How could he ever get past that?
I was happily surprised to find that the romance in Don’t Let Me Go felt universal rather than gay specific romance; at moments I found I forgot I was reading an LGBTQ novel it felt so much like any other YA romance. Did you intend for the romance to feel so universal?
Yes! Because I believe that romance and romantic love is universal. The mechanics are a little different, but I believe the feelings are the same. Everyone longs to be loved and held, and to connect with someone in a really deep way.
Let’s talk about Danial. He might just be the best best friend character I have read in a contemporary novel. Was it important to you for Nate to have such great support from a straight male character?
Very important to me. And I guess the reason is because in most gay novels I’ve read, the gay guy always hangs with girls. They never seem to hang out with guys, unless it’s another gay. And maybe that’s because more often than not, gay guys are just more comfortable hanging out with girls. There’s no machismo there to deal with. But I don’t think that’s some universal principal either. I guess Danial was my way of saying, Hey idiots. Gays are no threat to you.
You mention on your website that your daughter is gay. Did she inspire Don’t Let Me Go? What did she think of it?
No. My daughter didn’t come out until Don’t Let Me Go was a week from release. She has read my novels and loves them all. The sex scenes give her the giggles because she thinks penises are so ugh. It’s funny, you’d think that knowing what I write, coming out would have been easy for her, but it apparently it wasn’t. Knowing that, I can see why coming out is so incredibly hard for some kids.
What research, if any, did you have to do for Don’t Let Me Go?
A bit. I read every YA, gay-themed novel I could find. I also read Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America. Beyond that, I mostly reflected on the gay neighbors and friends I’ve known over the years and on my own experiences as an occasional schizophrenic.
Don’t Let Me Go was your debut novel. Before getting your publishing deal with Kensington, did you encounter any difficulties finding an agent or publisher because of Nate and Adam’s sexuality?
I would say yes. Not so much because any publisher had an issue with a gay couple, but because 1) they didn’t believe the novel had broad enough appeal, and 2) the language and sexual content made it questionable YA. Kensington chose to combine the two books and publish it as an adult novel. I’m actually glad they did that because I feel like I have a little more freedom with other things I’d like to write about.
Your latest novel Where You Are also deals with LGBTQ themes. Why did you decide to continue writing about gay teens? Are we likely to see more books from you covering the other LGBTQ aspects?
Where You Are is kind of a bridge novel; it’s written in two voices—Robert, a 17-year-old high school senior; and Andrew, a 24-year-old teacher. Just Between Us, my third novel, involves a 17-year-old young man and his blossoming relationship with a 19-year-old college sophomore who discovers he’s contracted HIV.
So, yes, I do anticipate writing a lot more gay teen characters. I believe that LGBTQ characters are underrepresented in literature, and I find that their sexuality adds just another layer to any conflict they find themselves in.
Can you tell us more about Where You Are and how you came up with the idea?
Love that novel! Well, the world of public education is one I’m quite familiar with. I also have a friend I’ve known for years who taught history in high school for a year before entering law school. As a teacher, he fell for a senior cheerleader. After she graduated, he asked her out. And now they have four grandchildren together. So I was interested in how a mere four months separates a fully legal, consensual relationship from a class 2 felony and the forever label “child predator.” I wanted to know under what circumstances would a really great teacher allow something like this to happen.
What is your opinion on how YA novels deal with LGBTQ themes?
There are a lot of great novels out there with gay characters. But here is what I never want to read again—a story that revolves around a character’s coming out. I think the literature is just past that. I want to read interesting stories about characters who just happen to be gay. As I said before, however, a character’s sexuality has the potential for adding another layer of conflict to the story. I just don’t want to read another story where that is the main conflict. Beyond that, gay characters are just as diverse as straight characters, so bring it! I am interested in the tangles gays get themselves into when tiptoeing around everyone else’s issues.
Were there any books you found dealt well with this topic when you were a teen?
I don’t know if there were any books with gay characters when I was a teen.
What are you working on now?
I’m wrapping up book number three, tentatively titled Just Between Us, and I’m toying around with a new idea that I’d like to tackle this summer. I don’t think there will be any teen characters involved. I’m just starting to grasp at threads of ideas I’d like to include—political posturing, hypochondria, honor.
Anything else you would like to add?
Yes! Hannah Moskowitz has written a wonderful novel with two terrific gay characters. The novel is Gone, Gone, Gone. You should read it! In fact, I’m finding that wonderful novels with gay characters are showing up more and more frequently. And I believe public school librarians should seek out those books for their collections. It’s important to represent the diversity of our population if we’re going to get past ignorance and hate.
Thanks, Joanne, for inviting me to talk about my books! And thanks for all my fans who send me letters that make me smile and cry in equal measure.
Thank you, J.H., for such a fantastic interview! I don't know about you, but I'm seriously excited to read her other novels! Be sure to check out J.H.'s website, and both Don't Let Me Go and Where You Are are available now. And now on to the giveaway! One lucky reader will win a copy of Where You Are! Read on to find out how.
- Enter by filling in the form below.
- Open to international entrants.
- One winner.
- Contest closes on 14th July 2013 at 12am and will be announced here by Rafflecoptter.
- The winner's contact info will be passed on to J.H. Trumble, who will send out the prize.
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