New York Times best-selling author of queer YA Two Boys Kissing and Boy Meets Boy, David Levithan loves the challenge of working with other writers.
Editor-by-day and author-by-night, Nina LaCour’s The Disenchantments was one of his favourites. Toying with the idea of writing a he-said/she-said novel, as he puts it, “I popped the question, and she accepted.”
The result, You Know Me So Well, is a fun double-hander set during the course of San Francisco Pride Week. The he in question is Mark, a stereotype-subverting, sensitive-sporting jock who has a crush on his poetry-loving geek friend Ryan, which may or may not be mutual. As he struggles with this emotional rollercoaster, he falls in with Kate, a budding artist who’s too scared to make a move on the girl of her dreams, Violet. Just like Levithan and LaCour, their team-up is fantastic.
Ahead of four appearances at this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival, we popped Levithan some questions of our own.
What were the practical mechanics of you and Nina writing together?
It was a blast. I would write one chapter, email it to her, and then she’d write the next, and email it to me. We made it up as we went along, which is the way I always do it, but Nina usually doesn’t write in such a linear way, so it was a challenge to her (that she gleefully accepted).
How important are books like You Know Me Well for young queer-identifying adults?
It’s vital for any identity to be represented in literature. With You Know Me Well, we wanted to talk about queer identity beyond the gender-identified labels, because sometimes ‘gay fiction’ and ‘lesbian fiction’ are shelved separately, as if queer kids and adults should only read one or the other. Nina and I wanted to create a book that was unabashedly more than that on the gay/lesbian front, but also having much of the rest of the spectrum represented.
Was there a lack of representation of queer stories when you were growing up?
Certainly – with the notable exceptions of authors like Francesca Lia Block and Nancy Garden, YA was a fairly gay-free zone when I was a teen, and even when I got into publishing in my 20s, the queer stories were largely defined by their misery, not their joy. My generation of writers aimed to change that.
What inspired you to write your own YA?
Boy Meets Boy started as a Valentine’s Day story for my friends, which turned into a YA novel. I was basically writing the book as a writer that I wanted to find as an editor – a dippy, happy, romantic comedy between two boys. This shouldn’t have been a radical notion in 2003, but it was.
What was the reaction to Boy Meets Boy?
Much, much more positive than negative. We tend to dwell on the people who wanted to ban it or challenge it, and there were certainly a few of those, but most people were just happy to see queer happiness in a YA book. And queer teens in particular were excited to have a book they could connect with.
What sorts of readers pick up your books?
YA is now as much a sub-genre of adult fiction as it is its own genre, so I get readers as young as 11 and as old as 80. In particular, it was amazing how Two Boys Kissing, which is a multi-generational novel, spoke to the many queer generations, from kids who were learning what the AIDS crisis was (and is) to adults who felt their dead friends and lovers had come back to life for a short while during the narrative.
Can you tell us a little about your own coming out experience?
I was very lucky to have a gay uncle, Bobby, who cleared the path for me. He was bringing boyfriends over for family holidays for as long as I could remember, and that was never presented to me as different. So when my turn came, I wasn’t particularly worried about the reaction of my family and friends.
Do you think YA readers now are more open to explore gender and sexuality diversity, even if it’s not their personal experience?
Absolutely. And some of the most vibrant queer characters in YA are part of mainstream juggernauts, like Cassandra Claire’s Mortal Instruments series. Teen readers are very accepting, because it reflects the world they see or want to see. It’s the adults that are sometimes the problem.
Who else is writing good queer-themed stuff?
The awesome thing is that there’s no possible way for me to list them all. I feel you can take all of last year’s finalists for the Lambda Literary Award add in Bill Konigsberg’s The Porcupine of Truth, Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On, and Holly Black’s The Darkest Part of the Forest for good measure and that’s at least a dozen books from last year alone. This year, add Jeffery Self’s Drag Teen and John Corey Whaley’s Highly Illogical Behavior.
How do you see the progress of equal rights for LGBTQIA+ people in America right now?
We’ve come a long way, and still have a long way to go, especially when it comes to the T+. The only way we make progress is when our stories are shared and empathy is created. Literature has a role in that, no question.