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Characters: Gay by nature or choice?

Characters: Gay by nature or choice? by Author Paul Mosier

The following is my response to an email from a woman who kindly beta-read the novel I have recently completed– the middle grade “Summer and July.” Her feedback was thoughtful, intelligent and complimentary. To my surprise she said she enjoyed it in spite of her being ethically opposed to the nature of the love presented in the story, and her worry that my story would contribute to the “normalization” of such love. Below is my response to her. I omit my opening remarks.

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Notes on your notes: The “men in gray suits” is actually one of the several colorful terms in surfer lingo for sharks. Another good one is “landlord,” which is their term for great white sharks. Those don’t appear on the beaches of Santa Monica, or they would have been a good inclusion. But since that didn’t come through to you as a reader, perhaps I need to expand on that exchange. “Noah” is another term for sharks, from the Aussie cockney rhyming scheme of “Noah’s Ark” rhyming with “shark.” Similarly Aussie surfers call Americans “seppos” because “Septic tank” rhymes with “yank.” It’s kinda bizarre.

I, too, was happy with Summer’s method of giving herself permission to feel something other than happy, enthusiastic and optimistic– putting on Juillet’s clothing and makeup. I didn’t plan it– I don’t plan anything in writing, really. I don’t think I am capable of doing something as artful or lovely as that, but as a servant of the muse, I think I do a pretty good job of staying out of her way. I don’t feel like I’m the creator of a story so much as I am the first person to experience it.

I feel the same way about characters. I don’t expect that I’ll change your mind about seeing same-sex love as being somehow wrong, but I’ll make my argument anyway. I have never designed a character, and if I did I think they’d be wooden or cliched. I feel like they are introduced to me by the universe, and I disagree with writers who think that I as an author need to know my characters completely. In fact I feel like I only know them as much as they are willing to reveal themselves to me. An interviewer once asked if I ever found myself disappointed when I finished writing a novel and realized that my characters weren’t real, and my reply was “I don’t think I agree that they aren’t real.”

But I didn’t set out to write a same-sex love story. I think that every story is a love story– the only question is what kinds of love. Summer and July was born from the sense of place of a seaside town with an ice cream shop and boogie boarding, then the characters walked into the scene. But I don’t feel like I determined their sexual orientation any more than I designed the bluebird metaphor. Which I did not design. I’m just witness to it. My understanding of Juillet and Summer, watching them act, is that they are not necessarily drawn exclusively to their own gender. It seems like their affection is specific to the individual case– for Juillet, Summer, and for Summer, Juillet. They’re probably both surprised that their first kiss was with another girl. They’re both young and figuring themselves out.

I don’t choose the sexual orientation of my characters, but if I did, I wouldn’t apologize for representing same sex loves as being as legitimate and potentially beautiful as heterosexual loves. And I would suggest that maybe instead of worrying about texts that “normalize” same sex loves, perhaps you should worry about texts that vilify or demonize love between two men or two women, which has always existed. It’s hard for me to even imagine what motivation lies behind such persecution other than some antique need for maximum regeneration of the species to swell the ranks of armies and churches. It is interesting that you use Plato to support your argument about our need to use care in what we teach our young, when Plato said that the only true type of love was that which existed between two men. Of course I disagree with Plato in this respect, as I think that the love between a man and a woman can be pretty profound, too.

I’m sure that– while gay people have appeared in previous novels of mine– Summer and July will open me to a new level of potential criticism and rejection for elements other than my ability to tell a story. I didn’t wish for this, and it doesn’t represent any kind of bravery on my part– that distinction is reserved for those who wrote about the love between members of the same sex in decades past. I’ve got a left-handed female character named Lefty in my work-in-progress, but likewise people in centuries past have fought the stigma of people who find themselves preferring using their left hands, so there is no heroism for me there, either.

Happily, though thinking ill of same sex love still exists in the world I live in, having a contract with a Big Five publisher I have learned that, generally, in the world of children’s books, publishers have moved beyond the argument. Though opposition to same sex love still exists, my editorial group does not wish to dignify such opposition with space on the page. Nobody in a middle grade book written by me and published by my publisher is going to look askance at two girls or two boys falling for each other.

For me It was easy to make the “normal” heterosexual choice. Girls and women have always been attractive and fascinating to me. Though I didn’t set out to write a story featuring a same-sex love, the idea that maybe some kid will fail to kill him or herself because I didn’t resist presenting a story in which affection and romantic love between two members of the same sex is pretty much the most adorable love story ever– I’ve got to say I like the idea of being on that side of the equation, and of history. And all I have to do is let the characters be who they are. Take them as they are, and love them as they came to me. I hope you’ll consider this position.


Want more from Paul? You can check out his books on Goodreads HERE.

Find Paul on the YA Author Rendezvous site HERE.

This was posted by Lauren Mayhew with the express permission of Paul Mosier.

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Author Spotlight

An interview with author Paul Mosier

By: Michelle Lynn

  1. What are the titles of your work and can you tell us a bit about them?

Completed novels begin with Breakfast At Tuli’s, which I self-published in I think 2013. paulIt’s for grown-ups, and about a young woman with a compulsion to have relations with men she finds pathetic or repulsive. It’s narrated by her pet fish, who is in love with her and who is grappling with the hopelessness of his own situation while waiting for Tuli to find happiness. It’s very sweet when you get past the premise. My second novel is called Genre, but I haven’t done anything with it. It examines the origin of characters and the author’s ability to control them while poking fun at writers, writer’s groups, agents and genre fiction. The third is the first I wrote for a younger audience, and is called Story Girl. It is in some ways a young person’s version of Genre, but they are two different stories for sure. In fact 25 year old Shawnee encounters 13 year old Shawnee in a scene that appears in both books. It was right for those stories. Though Tuli and 25 year old Shawnee appear in each others stories in a scene that appears in both Genre and BAT. That was fun. I self-published Story Girl and had the first proof copy delivered to our hotel in Santa Monica for my older daughter’s 11th birthday. The next novel, Train I Ride, is also for younger readers, middle-grade specifically. It’s about a girl who turns 13 while riding a train from Los Angeles to Chicago, and who has nobody in the world but the strangers she meets on the train. Then since this book found me an agent and my agent found me a book deal, I am continuing to write middle grade, which I am happy to do! My next book should be out May 2018, and the one I am wrapping up now May of 2019.

2. Who’s your favorite character from your books?

I feel so much love for the characters in my stories. But since I also believe that happy is the writer whose favorite story is the one he is working on today, I’ll say Summer from Summer and July, the novel which will hopefully be an executed option for a third book from HarperCollins. Summer is a prototypical California Girl who is adventurous and apparently carefree, and who is viewed through the adoring eyes of a girl named Juillet, a gothic girl filled with fake phobias who is visiting Summer’s neighborhood in Santa Monica for the month of July. It’s hard for me not to adore Summer when I’m seeing her as Juillet sees her.

3. In each of your books, your protagonist is a middle-school girl. Can you tell us about the reasons behind that?

storyThe protags of my first two books were women in their 20’s, which is an age that I have some distance and perspective of. I first wrote a novel for younger readers specifically so my older daughter could read me before she aged into the first two I wrote, and I found it really satisfying. It was the novel Junonia by Kevin Henkes that made me feel I could write for 10, 11, or 12 year old kids with an emotional depth that would be satisfying. I should have known before then but I didn’t read much as a kid. Having girls who are now 8 and 13 puts me into their perspectives, and girls have always been more interesting to me than boys. Now that I have a contract that is specifically middle grade, the age is a must, and though I tumble boy characters in my mind, my protagonists always seem to end up as girls.

4. You’re a writer and a father of two girls. How does each of those aspects of your life affect the other?

Being able to share my work with my daughters is really satisfying. My older daughter Eleri in part inspired Maggie from Story Girl. They are big readers, and I think they think it’s pretty cool that I write. Making most of my livelihood as a writer gives me a lot of flexibility, which is a wonderful thing when you love your children and want to be around them. They enrich my life and give me a greater understanding of childhood, though I also remember it awfully well.

5. Were there alternate endings to Train I Ride that you considered?

My editor wanted to see what happened when the train arrives in Chicago. I felt like the ending I wrote was among the best things I could ever write, so I gave her what she wanted by having Rydr’s chaperone rehearse with her what she will be doing, so we see it without ever having to get there. But more to the point, I think, is that I knew that if she was met at the station by a rich uncle it would make the story meaningless and be a great disservice to the many, many children who have lives that resemble Rydr’s. I asked friends who are social workers what happens to a girl in Rydr’s circumstances, and the answers were heartbreaking. Where does she go? The answer is, does anyone want her? Is there a friend whose parents will take her in? Yet I think it ends on an up note. Not because of what she gets, but because of who she has become.

6. What authors have inspired you to write?

I feel like I am more directly inspired by poets and lyricists. In the case of Train I Ride, Elvis Presley and Allen Ginsberg. I didn’t read a lot as a kid. I write more than I read today. I try to read really well when I do read. In the last year that has been Douglas Adams, Harper Lee, Miranda July, George Orwell, and of course my writer friends! But I don’t write because of a love of books or admiration of writers, but because the muse keeps knocking me up.

7. What age were you when you started writing?

I remember writing when I was very young. I asked my dad what I should write a story about when I was about 6, and he said “write about a boy who runs away to join the circus.” I thought that was a terrible idea and asked for a better one. But I paid homage to that moment in Story Girl, decades later. By fifth grade I was ignoring schoolwork during class to write stories to entertain my classmates. I wrote through high school, though my writing was derailed by my being a practicing alcoholic until I was nearly 25. I never write a novel until NaNoWriMo 2011, in the month I turned 47.

8. Do you ever experience writer’s block?

Happily I haven’t experienced writer’s block much if ever. Maybe because I believe I paul 2don’t have to see past the hood ornament of the story I’m writing. The day I began Train I Ride I had been writing a memoir-ish thing, and I asked myself when I would have my next novel idea. That afternoon the lyric train I ride, sixteen coaches long entered my head. I thought it sounded like a good first line for a novel, but I didn’t know who said it, boy or girl, man or woman, why they were on the train and where they were going. But I wrote it down, and the rest followed. I think my own head has very little capacity, especially for vast stories. It’s preoccupied with bills and healthcare and that kind of thing. But the muse has a gigantic hard drive, and she knows I believe in her, so she believes in me.

9. Do you work with an outline, or just write?

Mainly I just write, like Dory. Or maybe its swimming that she just does. I end up outlining after I’m well into it, but I believe that if I outline a story before I am deeply involved with it, it can only deprive me of the surprises, the opportunities that may come without one. Outlines make the muse feel sketchy and unwanted.

10. Do you ever get sad when you realize that the characters that you’ve created aren’t real?

They aren’t? I guess I don’t really believe that they aren’t real. I do however feel such strong affection for them that I have felt sad at writing the last words, and a sense of duty to them– their entire life is the one that comes through my fingertips, and I want it to be as beautiful as possible. Or stand out of the way of their expressing their beauty. I feel like they’re just characters that the universe presents to me. I don’t create characters, I meet them. If I tried to create a character I think it would be a cliche.

11. Can you tell us about your challenges in getting your first book published?

Breakfast at Tuli’s was a screenplay a few years before I tried to reverse adapt it for NaNoWriMo, which is kind of cheating versus those writing brand new ideas. At least it was my own screenplay, and it was substantially different in that I had to choose who tells the story, and decided upon Tuli’s pet fish, Fish, who is inert in the screenplay. It was a good choice. Then it’s all a challenge, Writing is difficult. Editing it at writer’s group. Having 110 agents say no to it– I think it’s a lovely book but it’s a bit strange. Making the physical book when I finally decided to was comparatively easy. I formerly made my living as a painter so I did the cover. Createspace has tools such that if one’s book looks terrible, there’s nobody but the author to blame. Maybe 200 people have read the book, but I’m very proud of it. Nobody forgets Tuli or Fish.

12. Most of the authors we interview on this blog are self-published or with small publishers, but you’re with HarperCollins. Can you tell us what it’s like to have such a big publishing house behind you?

Having self published I can tell you that it’s SO GREAT TO BE WITH HARPERCOLLINS. I feel very fortunate. The distribution is great– there’s like 20 copies at the library in Singapore. I went to the Powell’s in downtown Portland, where it was a staff pick, and signed the 14 or so copies they had. And then at their airport store in Portland. Having strangers throw back favorite lines to you on Goodreads. But the people at HarperCollins also make it a better book than what I could have done myself. My editorial group edits authors like Neil Gaiman. They’re very good at what they do. From my editor, to the line editor, and the typographer, who is responsible for the whole look of the book, under the jacket and on every page from front to back, and the cover artist, and the marketing people and publicity people, the school visits coordinator– they spend an average of 2000 hours on every book they do, which is considerably more than I did. And it’s everywhere. Because of who they are, Kirkus and Publishers Weekly and everyone else reviews it. Happily all of the six most important reviewers gave it a positive review, three of them starred reviews. And money. An advance that made me consider quitting my job on the spot. So to summarize, IT FEELS AMAZING. I haven’t come down since my wonderful agent called me the morning of July 15, 2015. (takes sip of water.) I feel very lucky. Don’t wake me up.

13.  Can you tell us about your upcoming book?

The second book of my contract is another middle grade novel called Echo’s Sister. It’s paul2different for me in that it bears a strong resemblance to my actual life– it’s about a 12 year old girl whose little sister has been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. This is what my family has been going through for the past year and the next year. It’s not our story, but it’s very much informed by it. I don’t think I would have ever been interested in writing about cancer because it sucks and because I’d be superstitious. I initially resisted when it played in my head like a novel, but I think it’s a mistake to refuse the muse. I knew I’d write a happy ending before I began. I finished it about 9 months ago but am wrapping up the edit this week. It’s been difficult for a lot of reasons, but I think it’s gonna be damn good.

14. What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?

I don’t take criticism very badly. I usually think I’m right and the critic is wrong. I do take a lot of suggestions at writer’s group. But working with a Big 5 editor is a new experience. If you pay someone to edit your book you can fire them or ignore them, but when they pay you a ton of money to edit the book and try to make it the best book it can be, it’s different. As they say, you’re the writer, it’s your book, but it’s their money and their name on the jacket, too. And the editor will one day say “I published that book.” They don’t say “I edited it and HarperCollins published it.” A publishing house is filled with editors who publish books. The last thing I’ll say about criticism is that if you put a book out there, before you read reviews on Goodreads, look at the 1 and 2 star reviews of your favorite book ever. Look at the 20,000 people panning Catcher In The Rye. Then you can look at your first 2 star review and say another 19,999 and I’ll be as terrible as Salinger.

15. Do you have any advice to give to aspiring writers?

I won’t say read, read read, which I don’t think is valid advice. I’d say write, write, write. Show the scene playing in your head. Don’t think you need to see the whole thing before you begin. Trust the muse. Keep a journal. Carry it with you.

16. Do you have any strange writing habits?

Not really. I find that certain locations are better suited to it. My couch late at night. Certain coffeehouses and cafes but not others. I still use my journal to write about what I’m writing, but I can only write the prose on my MacBook Air. Every novel demands a novel approach to tackle the problems it presents. But generally it gets easier and I get better at it. Oh, I do find that I can only write successfully when the laptop is open, the power in on, and I am sitting at it. That is a bit odd I suppose.

What people are saying about Paul Mosier:

“Not afraid to delve into difficult subjects but also capable of showing optimism.”

“Mosier is quite respectful of his young audience. Sad. Funny. Moving. Complex.”

“Heartbreaking, funny, poetic, smart, and tough.”

Paul can be found on Facebook HERE!


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