“The thing I wanted to do in this one was take a new approach to how the sexuality is dealt with. In my two previous YA novels the kids are coming out and it’s a really big deal. But that story’s becoming in some ways a product of the past.”
With the publication of Saints of Augustine in 2007, Patrick Ryan became part of the early millennium’s burst of authors who broke barriers by placing GLBT characters front and center in commercially viable young adult literature, breaking previous taboos and giving young readers better access than ever to current stories relating in and around many aspects of the GLBT coming-of-age experience. Around the same time, his first novel-in-stories, Send Me, got him attention from the adult literary world and was a selection of the Barnes and Noble Discover Great Writers. He has straddled both worlds since, working as an associate editor at GRANTA and releasing two more young adult novels: In Mike We Trust, and last month, Gemini Bites, which centers around twins in a large family—one male, the other female—who both become enamored with and in competition over an outsider at their high school who may or may not be the vampire he claims to be.
While attending the NYC Teen Author fest recently, I was thrilled to be able to meet up with Patrick in the lovely Bryant Park outside the New York Public Library to discuss his writing, young adult lit, what post-gay means, and the crippling side-effects of modern technology.
You started writing Gemini Bites a number of years back, right?
Right. Two or three.
So, then, it wasn’t in response to this current vampire craze.
No. Well, it was post-Anne Rice, of course. You know, post-Interview with the Vampire, but pre-Twilight.
Well, I’m assuming it was pre-Twilight. Maybe it wasn’t, I just wasn’t aware of the Twilight books. And they hadn’t been turned into films.
I think Twilight was out then, it was a good year or two before it really started gaining ground. So it probably just wasn’t on your radar.
I love monster stories and the supernatural when I see films, but it’s not what I devour when I read.
Yeah, in your own writing, there hasn’t been that element before—
Well see, I had the idea first to write about the brother / sister twins in fierce competition for the same objective, the same person. Then my brain went to: “let’s give him some mysterious quality, something both of them are trying to not get drawn in by. Then both kind of do anyway. I never – and this kind of gives away, (SPOILER ALERT) but I never for a second entertained the idea that he was really a vampire. It was never about that at all. It was about this idea of pretending and posing.
Pretending and posing. Interesting. That is the center of the book, identity in its many forms; religious identity, homosexual identity, outsider identity – this seemingly vampire boy – and how one’s adapted identity effects a person. The vampire thing’s a really interesting way to approach this idea of how a person identifies, what they do about that, and how people respond to that. You – without trying to – make a comment on the vampire craze, where this has become a thing again that people are attracted to, identify with, get lost in: these stories of people being in love with vampires – the allure of the vampire persona.
I guess, yeah.
Not just the Twilight induced craze. Twilight was the antithesis of Buffy, and Buffy was playing on existing conventions – the vampire allure in general. Once you said Interview with the Vampire, my brain snapped to high school. Twelve years ago, there were kids who dressed up like vampires then. This isn’t a new thing, and I think we forget that sometimes –
Yeah, the goth identity.
Yeah. One of my good friends in high school was a vampire.
Oh my God, I just remembered – when I was in high school, there was a girl who had a video camera, the old BETA, and she had written this script and I starred in this (airquotes) “movie” that lasted about an hour, called Jonathan, and it was all about a vampire, I was turned into a vampire—
You were Jonathan the vampire!?—
Yeah, I forgot all about that. God, it was so—awful. She brought it in and showed it to our writing class and I was just never more embarrassed. We shot it over, like, three weeks. All in her house. With special effects and everything. It was really bad.
That’s fantastic. Are there certain things you do to reconnect with being a teenager, with that time in your life, when you’re writing these young adult characters?
I feel I’m more cynical than ever, more jaded, and like a part of me never really grew up, is still very immature and adolescent – not in terms of overreacting or acting out – but in terms of just being kind of silly and playful, juvenile.
I can definitely relate to that.
So I try to tap into that. The thing I wanted to do in this one was take a new approach to how the sexuality is dealt with. In my two previous YA novels the kids are coming out and it’s a really big deal. But that story’s becoming in some ways a product of the past.
It can feel outdated, and it was such the focus for so long. At the same time, it’s still incredibly relevant, it’s still happening all the time.
It still is. You know, it took me a long time to learn what this phrase “post-gay” meant.
I, ah, I don’t know what that means.
I finally had someone explain it to me. Basically gay kids now, or I guess post-gay kids now are not preoccupied with coming out, with the coming out story being such a huge part of their identity, like it was for people who are in their thirties now and older. I still think it’s kind of strange, odd, and I feel like a bunch of us struggled to get to this location, then the younger kids are just going “yeah, but we’re not here anymore. We’re post-gay. We’re on the train outta here,” and those of us for whom that was a huge part of the forming of our identities, we’re just here waving “wait, wait! But we just got here!” It’s post AIDS holocaust, post pre-protease inhibitor days, when becoming HIV positive meant you were gonna go. It’s don’t-talk-to-me-about Stonewall, or AIDS, or Reagan, or your days in the closet – we’re post-gay, and we’re over it! And I find it kind of disturbing and weird, but I did want to write something that embraces this time where gay is just part of the starting point, not what the story is about.
Do you have an inclination to set your young adult novels in a time when you were growing up? Or are you just happy keeping it in present?
I need to keep it in the present. If the tentative audience ideally is someone who’s fourteen to seventeen, I think they want to read a book that takes place now. The hard thing is balancing keeping up with how easily kids are “in touch” while not getting bogged in the technology – which I barely understand, by the way. I got out of college, I was a teacher in graduate school, and there still was no internet. So, like everybody else, I had to learn while the technology was evolving. And you don’t have to learn something that’s there from the moment you’re born; I don’t think young adults now are any more conscious of having to learn how to use the computer than I was having to learn how to use the television. So sometimes it’s really a challenge to imagine what it’s like to be a kid today. I’ve got to remember, “Oh, right, they’ve all got cell phones. They text. They tweet.” I feel I’m being risky just to write about teenagers and not mention Facebook once, you know? It kind of drives me crazy. When I wrote my first YA novel, Saints of Augustine, I did all of this work to put in temporary references, I was thinking “what are the kids listening to.” (Laughing.) And almost every single one I wrote in, my editor took out. She said “this is gonna be dated.” I had a reference to Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston breaking up. She kept one or two song references, a character turning on the radio, but that was it. And that’s been a consistent experience now, with both books at Harper Collins, and with this one at Scholastic. When I’m getting out a first draft I try not to worry about the contemporary stuff, it’s something to deal with when I go back, and something I’ve been fortunate to have an editor like David (Levithan), to swoop right in and just go “actually this sounds a little dated.” I had a character in Saints of Augustine say to the other, “Come on, don’t be such a sad sack.” And my editor, she circled it and she went, “Patrick, Patrick…I don’t think anyone’s calling anyone a sad sack anymore.” And I didn’t even know where I got that from. Well, there used to be a comic book character named Sad Sack. He was in the army.
So the idea is to do your best to stay away from specific pop-cultural things that would date it.
Yeah, they just instantly become dated. I thought I had to worry about what songs they listen to, but what I really have to do is catch myself and remember, “Oh wait, they’ve all got Twitter accounts.” And even in Gemini Bites I’m still pushing it because…one of the subplots, where the sister gets a laptop, and she’s supposed to be sharing because there’s only one other computer in the house — that was fine when I wrote it. Within a couple years, when I went back to it, I thought, “oh boy, that’s not right. A fairly well-to-do family of 9 would have their share of laptops.”
Yeah, everybody has laptops in high school, and is on the internet all the time. Do you think teenagers are more cynical now because of this? Looking at internet culture, how much criticism is out there, how quick judgments are made into final critiques. Or maybe we were just as cynical before, but it was more in your head, and now everything is just put out there instantly? Or do you just think teenagers are always cynical, always have been?
Everybody’s more cynical. I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon –
Me neither! I’m far too young.
I think extreme sarcasm became super popular in the 70s through television. I watched a ton of television in the 70s as a kid – all the syndicated shows from the 50s and 60s – three different decades of TV shows at any given time, right? So you could see this change of extreme sarcasm taking over. A show like Happy Days started out being a really good mix of different kinds of humor, but by the last few seasons, it was just…everybody was sarcastic. Every line was delivered with extreme sarcasm. You saw that lead right up into Seinfeld, which was a great show completely about being sarcastic and over the top and in your face. Then combine that with the fact that the internet allows everybody to be a critic, everybody’s a writer, everybody’s a memoirist, everybody, and if they have a blog they feel like they are interacting, and you’re not, you’re not interacting with people, even if you have a blog and you’re taking the comments. I don’t think you’re interacting. I’m not knocking it; I think that everybody just feels a little smarter than they really are with the way things have advanced.
Yeah, with more access to information, you can glean more things.
Yeah. And I’m the first one to jump on Wikipedia, but it does make everyone feel kind of privileged in that way. The access to information is great. But there is a downside to it.
There is. There’s a huge difference, for instance, in factors that can keep a book from getting in people’s hands. There’s so much criticism written quickly, posted quickly, to a point where it’s not dialogue on so many amateur blogs and posts, people discussing a book – instead it’s people trying to define it from their perspective, “been there, read that.”
You nailed it – it’s so complex, because that can also be one of the many great things about the internet. Look at this interview: you are going to hopefully help put the book in people’s hands by doing this online.
Yeah, and we met through the internet, and now we’re here in the park talking.
But you just nailed it, in how it all has the illusion of being discussion, but it’s not.
It’s not, its ranting.
It’s ranting. It’s venting. It’s acting out. And, the bleakest of the worst is Twitter. I just have to – I just have to go there.
Twitter kind of grosses me out. Makes me kind of sad inside.
I think we’re adapting to things, and some of them we’ll have to unlearn, and adapt to a new way of using this technology, and we’ll have to relearn how to have a dialogue. Hopefully, at the same time, we’ll keep working toward tolerance and interest in other people, not just in what we have to say.