J.H. Trumble: Beyond Self-Awareness

“I want readers to find themselves in this novel, to see their own potential for greatness, authenticity, to understand that they are not their mistakes and that others do not have the power to define them unless we give them that power, and to see that there is great power in time and perseverance.”

In December, Kensington will be publishing J.H.  Trumble’s debut novel, Don’t Let Me Go. It’s upper YA/adult crossover, and an absolutely fantastic story about a senior in high school, Nate Schaper, and what happens when his boyfriend goes away to NY for college and he’s left battling homophobia in his Texas town alone. It also deals with hate crime, etc., but it’s really just an intense love story.

Trumble took some time to talk with Lambda Literary about being an educator and a writer, the insight that goes into creating characters, and the definition of activism.

When you’re not a writer, you’re an educator. How has working with kids impacted your writing?

Well, kids are certainly a vast source of great material. You just can’t make up some of the stuff they say and do. And they’re funny. But it’s when they’re not so funny that they move me. For the kid who’s mainstream and doing great in the world, life is good. But there are so many kids who aren’t mainstream, who are struggling with things at home or with who they are and where they fit in, or with intolerance and bullying, even from the adults around them. They are so often trapped by their lack of power and their lack of control over their own lives. But youth is a temporary condition. And I so want them to know that. I guess you might say that DLMG is my It Gets Better contribution. Those kids are always on my mind when I write.

You wrote Don’t Let Me Go as upper-YA, yet Kensington is publishing the novel as adult. Considering there has been a huge surge in YA sales over the past couple of years, how do you feel about that?

When I wrote DLMG, it didn’t occur to me that it might be considered for publication as adult. The main characters are 18 and 19, after all, but in truth, I was quite thrilled. For two reasons. One, because I am an educator, there’s always this little voice in my head that says, “You can’t say that. You’ll get in trouble. You might lose your job.” I made a deal with myself when I first started writing—if I was going to do this, I wasn’t going to pull any punches. I was going to write the most honest novel I could write. The adult label has allowed me to relax a little about that honesty. And second, I think the potential for reaching a wider audience may be greater with an adult novel. It is true that sales of YA lit have surged. And that’s great. But I have no doubt that teenagers who might be interested in the story will find their way to it. There’s already been quite a bit of interest by YA bloggers. Overall, I think it was an excellent decision.

You also originally wrote Don’t Let Me Go as two separate novels, one the story of how your two love interests met and a sequel. What was the revision process like, blending two novels into one?

Really hard. Daunting, in fact. My editor asked me to take only those scenes from the first novel that gave context to the relationship and events in the second novel, and incorporate them organically. I tackled the job the way I do all tough things—I just jumped in and did something. Writing is not like practicing medicine where the adage is “First, do no harm.” There are plenty of re-dos in writing. At first it felt like I was taking a cleaver to both novels. There was a lot of trial and error. But it made sense to me that with Adam a thousand miles away, Nate would be living in his memories a lot. So when something would trigger a memory, I’d go there. Coming back to the present presented its own challenges because each memory had to affect the present in some way, however small. Ultimately, it turned out well, but it was a challenge. I included date stamps to help the reader stay oriented. I also published the calendars I used to keep myself straight on my web site, just a little something extra readers can use to help them track the chronology of the story.

What are some current gay novels you feel like your book is comparable to? What would you like to see more of in gay lit?

I don’t see DLMG as being tightly aligned with any gay novels that I’m familiar with, though there are a lot of really good ones out there. But DLMG feels different to me, and maybe that’s why I wrote it. It has all those elements that I’d like to see more of in gay lit, especially a focus on something beyond the self-awareness, self-acceptance stage and more on other aspects of the human condition. I do understand why there is a tendency to focus on angst and coming out. Unfortunately, we’re still there as a society.

I think the character of Danial, for one, is kind of revolutionary. He’s the straight, unfiltered best friend. He says all the wrong things, and yet his respect and fondness for Nate is evident. He’s confident, secure, and not at all afraid of hanging out with the school homo. Nate refers to him as the Rosetta Stone of gay-straight relations. He even goes to the homecoming dance with Nate and pretends to be something he isn’t, so Nate can be something he is. To me, both Danial and Nate are the very definition of “men.”

At the end of Don’t Let Me Go, the reader jumps forward ten years later and sees where the characters are and how their lives played out. How important do you think it is to show that even though things probably won’t get better overnight, they will eventually over time?

That long-term view is extremely important to me. It’s so hard sometimes to see beyond the immediate day-to-day challenges, but so important to try. The fact that Nate couldn’t see past what had happened to him and his own subsequent insecurities almost cost him Adam. And then when he did the “unforgiveable,” he finally gained a clarity and a perspective that he didn’t have before. He fought to repair what he’d destroyed. And it took time.

I wanted readers to see that. Nate and Adam not only got past the hurts, but they thrived. I think that is missing in a lot of gay novels. The stories end with the main character in a place of greater self-awareness and acceptance. And that’s great. But I wanted readers to see a future that I know is out there, and one that I know many long for.

Anyone who reads Don’t Let Me Go can tell that you really know your characters inside and out. What do you do when you first start a new project to really get inside their minds?

Understanding a character is definitely a process. What you think you know about them at the outset may be very different from what you know about them at the end of the novel. Characters really do have a way of stepping in and taking over. Initially, I jot down notes, bits of dialog, whatever I think might be part of my characters’ makeup. The storyline unfolds organically. I ask myself again and again what might logically be happening at any given moment in time, and then I let my characters react. Sometimes I apply my preconceived ideas about the character to his actions only to discover later that his response doesn’t ring true. It takes a while. When I finish a novel I always have to step back and ask what a character is all about. What’s been driving him? Why does he respond the way he does? My answers to those questions will heavily affect the next round of edits. And then I repeat the process.

Nate Schaper, your protagonist, is very proactive and devoted to spreading ideas of tolerance, speaking out against bullying, etc. He’s tired of being shut out and ridiculed for being gay. He’s an activist. What is “activism” to you?

Activism takes a lot of forms. Not everyone can be a Martin Luther King, Jr. Nate is not out there with a bullhorn or marching in a parade or making passionate speeches. He’s not circulating petitions or calling for anyone to write their congressman. He is, however, intentionally provocative, both with his T-shirt protest and his blog. Part of that is his anger over what happened to him and the outrageous response of some of the adults in his life. He’s angry, both for himself and for other kids who deal with the day-to-day institutionalized homophobia he knows too well. But he knows his rights too, and he’s pushing the boundaries. I think that kind of activism is the very spirit of civil disobedience. He’s on the right side of the issue, and his continued provocation really shines a light on homophobia. It speaks to this idea that institutional neutrality on homosexuality is not neutral at all. I really admire that about him. He is part me, and part what I aspire to be.

So, I guess to answer your question, activism is taking a stand, however grand or small. Because it all counts.

What do you most want to accomplish with your writing? If readers take one thing from reading your debut novel, what do you want it to be?

One thing, huh. That’s a tough question. I think more than anything, I want readers to find themselves in this novel, to see their own potential for greatness, authenticity, to understand that they are not their mistakes and that others do not have the power to define them unless we give them that power, and to see that there is great power in time and perseverance.