Friday, March 15, 2013

Industry Q&A with author Bill Konigsberg

Tell us about your most recent book and how you came to write it.

My most recent novel is Openly Straight. It will be published by Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic) in June of 2013. I came to write it because I was exploring the coming out experience for LGBT folks like myself. I wondered why it is that gay people have to constantly label ourselves in a way that seems to overshadow every other aspect of our identities, and how unfair it is that we must continue to do this all our lives. I was interested in the idea that we are being dishonest if we choose to highlight a different label. I felt (and feel) that there are tons of books about the process and value of "coming out," but precious few about what happens after we do.

 Do you think of yourself as a diverse author?

As an author who believes there is great power in diversity of thought and experience, I am definitely a diverse author. In my first novel, Out of the Pocket, I wanted to make sure that my cast of characters reflected the diversity of our culture. In that novel, my main character is a gay Caucasian male. His best friend, Austin, is half Mexican and half Caucasian. His other best friend, Rahim, is African American. I do think that there is a tendency in young adult fiction to whitewash our culture, which may relate to the fact that a high percentage of YA authors are white. In each of my books, I make a point of showing racial, ethnic, and sexual diversity. I do this because I think it is so important for teens to see themselves reflected in literature.

Who is your favorite character of all time in children’s or young adult literature?

I would probably choose Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, because he is such a sensitive soul, such a kind soul.

Hypothetically speaking, let’s say you are forced to sell all of the books you own except for one. Which do you keep?

Oh no! Please don't make me do this! I can hardly imagine having to choose only one book to keep. If I had to, however, I'd probably hold on to Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin, because it is the book that I turn to over and over when I need to believe that the world is a good place. I read this for the first time when I was 17, and I believe it probably saved my life.

What does diversity mean to you as you think about your own books?

Diversity means many things to me. It relates to "Diversity of thought" just as much as it relates to race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity. Beyond that, I want my characters to be full-fledged three-dimensional people. I want them to jump off the page. To me, this is the most important aspect of characterization. Who cares if the characters are diverse if they are flat? That means finding a way to highlight the humanity of my characters, no matter who they are.

What is your thought process in including or excluding characters of diverse backgrounds?

I want to include all different sorts of characters, and I do. In my current project, one of my two protagonists is an African American lesbian who lives in Billings, Montana. In creating a character like this, I need to be careful to sidestep expectations and archetypes. In reality, she is a person. A person whose background includes many different experiences, some that I share, and some that I don't. For those I don't, I need to find another entry point so that I can understand what it feels like to be in her skin. This is one of the great challenges of writing, and I love it. I can't tell you yet whether I will be successful in creating this character, but it won't be for lack of effort.

Please write an example of a paragraph that is tone deaf when it comes to cultural diversity, then write the correct version. Explain the differences in the third paragraph.

Paragraph 1
“I’m so pissed at Ryan,” Sheila said.

“Oh Sweetie,” said Ignacio, brushing the hair out of her eyes with a flick of the wrist. 
“C’mon. Let’s have a little girl talk!”

He set about making Sheila’s favorite espresso drink, which he then served with those fabulous digestive cookies with the milk chocolate coating. Sheila sat there and watched as Ignacio flitted around making everything perfect again. He was the only one who could make it all okay, and she was so grateful that he was always there to fix things when Ryan acted like a jerk.

“Okay,” Igancio said, collapsing dramatically onto the couch. “Here’s what we have to do.”

Paragraph 2
“I’m so pissed at Ryan,” Sheila said.

Igancio grunted as he finished firing off a text. “What now?” he asked. 

“He totally blew me off last weekend.” 

Ignacio glanced up from his phone. “You guys are like a problem factory.” 

“Thanks,” she said. “Thanks a million. How’s Robert?”

“Passive aggressive, mostly,” Ignacio said.

It sets my teeth on edge when I read stories in which gay people exist to make the lives of straight people better. Much like the Magical Negro, these characters are not imbued with their own lives; instead, they focus their wisdom and energy on the lives of straight people, especially straight females. They are the gal pals these females have always wanted – someone to dish with, someone who is beautiful and non-threatening and there at her whim, and just as importantly not there when not needed.

Bill Konigsberg is the Lambda Literary Award-winning author of Out of the Pocket. His second young adult novel, Openly Straight, will be published in June of 2013 by Arthur A. Levine Books. He lives in Chander, Arizona, with his partner, Chuck, and their Labradoodle, Mabel.

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