Brian Farrey is one of my “Tweeps” (translation: Twitter pals). He’s also one of the four people who participated in (and, irritatingly, won) The Bet. Yet, bizarrely, these are not his main claims to fame. Some actually find it more important that he is the debut author of the terrific YA novel WITH OR WITHOUT YOU (which…I just have to say…please let me know if that book doesn’t pull in most of the major LGBT awards in its category so I can go hurt someone for being on the take) or that he is an editor at Flux books. Or that he has a middle grade novel tentatively titled THE VENGEKEEP PROPHECIES due out this year. People and their priorities, huh Brian?
I also find him to be a funny and personable guy. But what do I know?
Me: There was so much I liked about WITH OR WITHOUT YOU. Probably number one would be your talent at not taking easy outs. Nothing turns out to be perfect just as it is. No selfless act masquerades as all that’s needed to change the world. Second, I think, is the way you paint a very comprehensive and detailed view of both the history of being gay in the US, and where things stand for young people right now. Hmm. There should be a question in here somewhere. I guess it’s, “How did you get to be so awesome?”
Brian: I really appreciate the kind words, especially coming from you. To appropriate a familiar saying, “I prefer to think of being awesome as a journey, not a destination.” I’m not even sure that makes sense. My husband made me promise to get better at taking compliments. This is all I’ve got. Baby steps.
Me: Tell me (and my readers) about the title. Whatever you want to tell us about it is fine. I run a loose ship here. I was already going to ask if it was the original title. Then I read on your website that it was originally called Chasers. So I sense a story.
Brian: CHASERS was always meant to be a temporary title. When my agent started shopping it around, I tried to find something better but couldn’t. I was in that “I’m too close to this to be objective” state of mind. I just crossed my fingers that if an awesome editor could get past the title and buy it, we’d come up with something new and better together. So I was surprised when Simon Pulse originally wanted to keep the title. (In my mind, I always assumed a publisher would hate the title because it would make people think of alcohol—a chaser—and that has nothing to do with the book.)
But, in the end, we tossed around several different titles, most of which played up some of the more dangerous/dramatic aspects of the book. Towards the end of the process, the decision was made to play up the relationship angle more. I remember being in the car with my husband, talking about the themes of the book, trying to find a new title. At one point, I uttered, “With or without you.” My husband was quiet for a few seconds, then he whispered, “That’s it.” I feel it’s something that each of the three main characters expresses—directly or indirectly—at some point in the book. Sometimes, it’s a sort of threat—“I’m doing this with or without you”—and sometimes it’s a reflection on different paths their lives could take—what would life be like with you and what would it be like without you? Simon Pulse leapt on the title immediately and it stuck. It was only later that I found out there’s a very famous song by U2 of the same name. And to answer the next question that everybody asks: I have no idea how I got through the Eighties without hearing that song. (I have since heard it. It is nice.)
Me: Yes, I almost tagged that question with the sub-question, or do you just find it funny to get U2 songs stuck in our heads? Alas, I did not follow through.
Moving on. Are you familiar with the tale of Brent, the teenage book blogger from Kentucky? He’s the one who walked into his middle school library and asked the librarian where all the LGBT literature was hiding. She told him if he wanted “inappropriate” titles he should go to a bookstore. Now: Tell that horrible woman how wrong she is! I mean…please elaborate on the importance of diverse depictions of sexual orientation and gender identity in YA books.
Brian: I am very familiar with Brent, who is amazing and brave and fabulous.
Here’s the irony I see: people who seek to suppress access to anything that explores diversity want only one thing: they want everyone to be exactly the same (namely, just like them). The thing about diversity, be it sexual, racial, or what have you, is that it really is the Great Unifier. As long as there’s a wide range of viewpoints out there, there’s bound to be one that lets you say, “Hey, I’m not alone.” When we can make that connection, ideologically or otherwise, we become a little more human.
I desperately needed that in high school. Nothing in my life told me that being gay was okay. The only gay characters on TV were ridiculed. “Gay” was (and, sadly, continues to be) the ultimate insult. I wouldn’t have had to endure years of confusion and shame if I’d seen a positive portrayal of homosexuality. Thank goodness there’s much more out there now. We’re still a terribly long way until everyone who needs access to it HAS access to it. But the existence of people like Brent assures me the message is certainly getting out there.
Me: a) Were you “out” in high school? and b) did you get the snot beaten out of you?
Brian: Oy. I was not out in high school. I was a late bloomer. There’s a wonderful book by David LaRochelle called ABSOLUTELY POSITIVELY NOT that offers a frighteningly familiar portrayal of my own adolescence. In that book, the main character, Steven, has a million and one excuses for the behavior that would seem to indicate he’s gay (like stealing INTERNATIONAL MALE catalogs from his neighbor and hiding them under his bed). The excuses usually go, “I’m not gay, it’s just that….[insert excuse here].” But in LaRochelle’s book, Steven comes to term with his sexuality at 16, much earlier than I did. My excuses lasted for several years beyond high school.
I didn’t get the snot beaten out of me (came perilously close several times) but I suffered a lot of taunting and psychological abuse. It’s the same story of people calling me gay because, to them, it was the worst insult they could think of, not because that was my sexual orientation. I was different and a little odd, which is all it takes to paint a fluorescent bullseye on your chest. At the same time, I was immersed in the drama program where I had a lot of friends who seemed to embrace my oddness. Finding that niche (drama) and those people (several of whom are still my closest friends today) is what got me through that entire period of my life.
Me: I was pleasantly surprised to see, in your acknowledgments, that Swati Avasthi was one of your beta readers. I know you both, but somehow didn’t imagine you knew each other. I blurbed her debut novel SPLIT at the request of an editor at Knopf (our shared YA publisher) and I plan to interview her for this series as well. Maybe I only know you because I saw your tweets through hers. In any case, it nurtures the impression that the Twitterverse book world is a lovely small community. Any thoughts on that community, pro, con, or mixed?
Brian: Swati and I met in a class on young adult literature several years ago and were the founding members of a writing group. She’s been amazingly supportive and I was very lucky to have someone of her intelligence and writing abilities as support when I went through that whole first novel process.
I have positive-to-mixed feelings on the online book world. One thing that I really love about Twitter et al. is its ability to create that sense of community, especially among writers. Forget the perils of bad reviews, a commitment to writing goes hand in hand with toxic levels of self-doubt that can be more corrosive than the snarkiest blogger comment. (This is why I don’t read reviews: I beat myself up enough as it is, thank you very much.) So Twitter et al. has done a really great job of galvanizing the writing community and giving writers a way to be mutually supportive. Also, it can’t be denied that it’s delivered an unprecedented way for writers to connect directly with readers. (Poor Charles Dickens had to schlep himself across the UK to achieve what 30 minutes in front of Twitter can do, even if on a less personal scale.) I’ve “met” several wonderful people (present company included) and discovered tons of new great things to read along the way. For someone who went into Twitter kicking and screaming, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that it’s become a lifeline for me of sorts. (I get my news from Twitter about 20% faster than anywhere else.)
[Me, interjecting: Oh, Twitter is brilliant for news. I follow the tweets posted by the editor of my local paper. I also live down the hill from the Cal Fire forest station. One night I was sitting reading tweets, and the fire engine came down the hill, red lights swirling, and as it went by my house I picked up a tweet telling me about the accident it was responding to. Where exactly on the perilous Highway 1 someone was having issues. Now that’s real time. But...sorry. You were saying...]
My mixed feelings are more about the online world as a whole, really. When I speak at conferences, I often do a presentation called “What Not to Tweet.” It’s about online etiquette, I suppose. There have been many examples in recent memory of authors making poor choices by voicing certain thoughts online (most often about negative reviews). Despite where you sit on the issue, I think it’s symptomatic of the false bravery being online generates. I truly believe people say things online that they wouldn’t dare say when face to face with the person they’re vilifying. Far too many larger than life personas online, rather than real people. After a while, it starts to feel like high school all over again: cliques, popularity contests, etc. I try to ignore this as best I can but it can be disheartening.
Me: Indeed. Always read the good articles online, never read the comments.
Tell us, if you don’t mind, the best very small thing your husband has ever done for you.
I find this hard to answer largely because when I discover small things that I may have not noticed originally, they become massive in my mind. Making me a peanut butter sandwich for breakfast without being asked starts off as a small, loving gesture. But when I start to think about it, and I connect the dots from the sandwich back through his thought process that led to the sandwich’s creation, I see everything he knows about me and the desire to act on that and that turns anything small into something beyond measure. Essentially, I’ll never see anything my husband does for me as small.
Me: I can’t help noticing you’re a Dr. Who fan. I also can’t help noticing that I’m…not so much. I watched one episode. I didn’t dislike it, but I haven’t watched more. Convince me that I should.
Brian: First, I need to explain that I’m a DOCTOR WHO fan from way back. A lot of people nowadays are more fans of the recent WHO revival which has (rightfully) enjoyed a lot of popularity. But I’ve been a fan since the early Eighties when Peter Davison was the Doctor, the sets were cheap, and the special effects were…well, this was the Eighties in Britain. You get the idea. I have seen every episode that exists since 1963 (long story, but several episodes from the Sixties no longer exist, owing to a BBC archive purge long ago). Back when I started watching the show, I thought the reason I loved it was simply because I was a huge science fiction geek.
But as I got older and the internet became a thing, I realized that I wasn’t the only gay guy who loved the show. WHO has HUGE gay following. Russell T. Davis, the producer who first revived WHO in 2005, is gay (and was a fan since childhood). And if you put all the people currently involved in making the new show (producers, writers, actors, etc.), into a room, you can’t throw a stick without hitting a friend of Dorothy. (Is that a non-offensive term? I’m not sure anymore.) It’s well documented that escapist fantasy has a lot of appeal to the LGBT community, as it does with other minorities. Yeah, like a lot of gay kids, I fantasized about having the Doctor’s TARDIS materialize in my backyard. He’d whisk me off for adventures that meant life-threatening encounters with aliens on far off worlds…and still, the threat of disintegration at the hands of a Raston Warrior Robot seemed more comforting that what I had to deal with day to day at school.
I can’t convince anyone to watch DOCTOR WHO. I can only say it came along at a time in my life when I needed to escape and it let me do that. For that, it has my undying loyalty.
Me: You have a cat. Or cats. Correct? This tends to be a pet-oriented blog. So, just for a minute, pretend no one is watching, or will judge, and brag and fuss like crazy about your cat(s). I hereby wave the magic No Shame wand over your head.
Brian: Meowzebub, as I refer to him on my blog, is a very smart cat. Perhaps the smartest cat I’ve met. Case in point: when he was a kitten, he had a toy we called Mr. Spider. This was a rubber spider connected to a long, thin rubber tube with a bulb on the end. When you squeezed the bulb, Mr. Spider jumped. Meowzebub loved playing with Mr. Spider. One day, I got home from work and found Meowzebub sprawled out in the middle of the floor, limbs akimbo, eyes wide open, tongue hanging out, and completely motionless. Mr. Spider’s tube was wrapped all over his body and around his neck. Because he wasn’t moving, I assumed he’d accidentally garroted himself with the tube. I ran to him and he lay there unmoving, staring blankly into space. I reached down to remove the tube. Suddenly, all four paws clamped down and grabbed my wrist. My cat had faked his own death to get attention. It wasn’t just that he’d faked his death. It was that he did it in the creepiest way possible: dead, glassy eyes open and tongue hanging out. And then he’d simply waited for me to come home….
Me: I have this brilliant question in my head about being an author and editor both. Something about how being an author changes being an editor and being an editor changes being an author. But I can’t seem to get it into the right words. Will you please answer it anyway?
Brian: I feel very blessed to be working with some really amazing writers at Flux. When I first start working with an author, I’ll tell them my thoughts on the editor/author relationship. For me, an ideal relationship is a collaboration, not one sided. It’s not me saying “Here’s my list of changes. Make them all or suffer the consequences!” and it’s not the author saying, “I am INFALLIBLE. How dare you touch my words!” It’s both of us coming at the project and saying, “What do we need to do to make this the best it can absolutely be?” I like working with authors to help them solve problems that they know exist but couldn’t find a way to fix on their own. There’s a lot of give and take during the process and I feel that, with each book, I become a better editor because my authors helped me grow.
To that end, I also feel like my own writing has benefitted. Editing other people is a lot like looking into a mirror. It’s a bit like therapy to work with an author on a problem because, so often, I see that same problem in my own work. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been working with an author and had that “Ah ha! That’s why this scene isn’t flowing…” moment and then was able to apply it to something I’m writing. It’s a strangely symbiotic relationship.
Me: Please write your own question, and answer it.
Brian: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Doesn’t everybody? My advice is this: be careful of the writing advice you get. I read somewhere online recently (I wish I could remember where so I could properly cite the author) that “No one can tell you how to write. They can only tell you how they write.” I think that should be the very first lesson any writer learns. How to write is such an intimate, personal, and subjective thing. People can tell you what works for them and then it’s up to you to see if that works for you. If it does, great. If it doesn’t, try something else. I get very grrr and fist-shaky when I see someone touting writing advice in the form of absolutes: “You MUST write every day!” “You MUST put out ‘X’ number of words a day!” Things like that don’t take into account that we, by way of our nature as human beings, are all different and the same prescription doesn’t apply to us all. There are many very generous writers out there who give of their time and want nothing more than to help aspiring writers who want help. The best ones know that all they can do is tell you how things work for them so you can give it a try. So listen to what they have to say and then, like the sword of Godric Gryffindor, only take in that which makes you stronger.
Thank you, Brian. That really underscores why I wanted to do this interview series.
Next week is a real treat for me, as I'll be hosting my longtime friend--and now co-author--Anne R. Allen. Many of you know her from her wildly successful blog Anne R. Allen's Writing About Writing--Mostly. But she also published five novels last year. Yes. Five. Please come check it out.