Nick Burd: Making Cool Books for the Kids

“…I think that’s important, to show young people that you can be gay and have a cool life…”

With his debut novel The Vast Fields of Ordinary (Dial), Nick Burd has written one of those books that many of us wish we could’ve read when we were teenagers—one that probes that confused, lonely, struggling teen mindset that’s often pegged as self-involved, when it’s really just honest and hurting and not pretty.

Dade, the protagonist of the novel, is in his last summer of high school. It is a summer in Dade’s life when everything is slowly revealing itself to be different than he previously thought. His secret relationship with Pablo, a closeted young man, turns dangerously aggressive as the summer heats up, he finds a true friend—who’s also an out lesbian—and he becomes mildly obsessed and then intensely involved with Alex, a slightly older guy who’s a bit lost himself.

Dade’s honest, fumbling relationship with Alex—the kind many of us only dreamed of in high school—is better than porn for a teen reader pining for a real connection to a guy themselves. It shows that those things happen and can happen, that certain things in life are easier than you imagined and hoped, and other things are harder than you ever thought you could take. But you take them, and move on.

The novel quickly accumulated awards, honors, and much love. The film rights were sold, and the film is in production.

I was thrilled to meet up with Burd during the NYC Teen Author fest where he was on a panel of Young Adult writers who are taking strides with GLBT characters in YA fiction.

BW: How long was The Vast Fields of Ordinary in your head before you began writing it?

NB: It was in my head for a while. I moved to New York City in 2004 to get my MFA at the New School. I’ve always written, but the book started taking shape a couple of years before that. I wanted to write something about a gay teenager who feels really alone and alienated in suburbia, and then finds this guy who kind of changes everything. I knew I wanted him to have a pool, things like that. I started writing it actually in February or March of ‘05, so it was in my head in some capacity for three years. Then I started writing is as just a short story. Pretty early on it became apparent that it was more than a short story.

BW: I first saw your writing in the Generation What? Anthology. The piece chronicles touring with a band, so I take it music was a big part of finding yourself.

NB: Yeah, I’ve always been a huge music fan, ever since I was a little kid. Then when I was in high school I started playing the guitar and I went to college and joined a band—my college days were all about me making music with my friends, and recorded some stuff. It’s funny, because it very much came from the same place that my writing does.

BW: That’s what I was wondering, how these parts of you play off of each other.

NB: One of the reasons I wanted to start playing guitar was that I really liked writing poetry, and I was like, “Whoa, I can get a guitar, and start to write songs, and it’ll be fun to write lyrics.” I was always very much more into the lyrical aspect than I was a bitching guitar solo, or something like that. And then when I moved to New York and I was here to focus on my writing, I felt for my own sanity and for the sake of whatever work I chose, I needed to pick one or the other. And since I was here studying writing, and since, you know, it’s easier to be a writer than it is to be in a band with a practice space and a shitty van driving around, I decided I would commit fully to the writing. Writing was my first love. When I was four or five I would dictate stories to my babysitters and have them write them down, so I’ve always really wanted to be a writer.  Writing and music scratch that same creative itch.

BW: Now you’re a New York writer, from a small town. Did the idea of New York terrify you? That’s something the character in your book feels, and I know you aren’t the character, but was that drawn from something real in you?

NB: I think the character who says that, well—I think the whole book is about how going outside of your immediate experience and what you’re familiar with and what you know, on some level that’s what you crave and what you want, but on the other hand it’s scary because it’s very unknown. There is that scary side to getting what you want. Yeah, before I moved to New York City it was scary. I moved out here to pursue my writing career, but also because I was a gay guy in Iowa, and I was kind of like “all right, this is manageable, but I would rather see if I could move to the big city.” I just knew it would be different, hugely different. But yeah, it was scary. It’s not so much about the size, or the people, or the crime, or anything like that, but there’s just—you could replace New York with any other city that you could decide to leave home for. The idea of taking control of your life, and ultimately having to take responsibility for the choice that you make and the foundation that you lay is very scary, while it’s also really exciting. You ask yourself, “am I making the right choice, am I screwing up?” In the book, the last line is “there’s always somewhere else to go.” And that was about, yeah, it’s okay to move out and branch out and discover new things. That’s what life is about.

BW: What about writing for young adults is exciting to you?

NB: To young people, a book is the coolest thing ever, and if it strikes a chord with them they will email you and tell you that. And like you said, when I sat down to write this book, I wanted to write the book that wasn’t around when I was in high school, and to know that that book exists for people, and to have people write me and say it’s just like their life and that kind of thing. It’s awesome. Particularly when you think about where we are as a culture in terms of gays and lesbians being accepted, it’s very humbling, and a huge responsibility—an awesome one—to have a voice that’s being marketed and directed towards young people. It’s exciting.

BW: So do you ever get teen boys who have a thing for you? Hitting on you when you’re on tour? Is that weird?

NB: No, I don’t. Sometimes somebody will seem extra shy, and I’m wondering if it’s part of that. But it hasn’t crossed a line or anything. The most thing is, sometimes people will be like “Are you gay?”  And I’m like, “Yes, I’m gay, (laughing) I’m very gay.”

BW: I’m asking because there are a number of great authors writing gay and lesbian characters for young adults, but you don’t see a lot of young writers who look like they could be rock stars who write characters with gay and lesbian themes for young adults. When I was first finding gay and lesbian literature when I was a teenager, all the authors were interesting, and I could relate to them on a level, but also they seemed to belong to another world. They were…old people. People who were once young. But you, you’re like, “Hey, I’m just a dude, doing my thing.” That shows how far we’ve come, I think, and adds a level to the reading experience.

NB: Yeah, I think that’s important, to show young people that you can be gay and have a cool life, and I think that maybe sometimes the things that people respond to are more about me taking control—owning being gay, I think can be very attractive, and can appeal to a lot of people, especially young people who are wondering if they can, and then they see somebody who has owned it, and has no problem with it. So that’s the thing I want them to take away: it’s nothing that you need to hide, or be sad about, or be ashamed of. It’s who you are, you need to own it, not really care what other people say.

BW: So have your writing expectations changed? What’s changed since the book came out, what, two years ago?

NB: Yeah, it came out in 2009.

BW: And you’ve won a bunch of awards since then. So things have changed for you. You were writing The Vast Fields of Ordinary in a different place than you are writing your new novel. You are now an acclaimed author, and you have a book deal. How does that change, or does it change, the way you approaching writing?

NB: It makes it—it’s funny, because in some ways, it’s easy to let it psych you out, but then ultimately when you sit down at the computer there’s the weird insecurities of being a writer that are always there whether or not it’s your first time out, or whether it’s your second book, or—from what I’ve heard from other writers, I think it’s something that never really goes away. I try not to think about it too much.

BW: What are you working on?

NB: I’m working on another young adult novel that takes place in the same town, and follows a different group of characters. Some of the ones from the first book make cameo appearances, but it’s mostly about new people.