Julie Anne Peters is a rare treasure in the world of children's and YA writing—as prolific in fiction for young readers as in YA, as facile with writing about mainstream kids as she is with teens on the fringe, and equally talented in telling stories about a variety of lifestyles—straight, gay, lesbian, transgendered. And all this from a former systems engineer! As she points out on her website, "To the utter amazement and absolute shock of everyone I know – including me – I became an author."
It doesn't seem like so much of a shock when you read one of her books—the tragic but compelling Luna, about a transgendered teen; or Define Normal, about a goody-goody girl's friendship with her dyed-and-pierced opposite number. It quickly becomes clear that Peters has a real talent for conveying positive messages of acceptance and support for teens, without hitting her readers over the head or being didactic. It's even less of a surprise when you look at the accolades she has garnered for her work: Between Mom and Jo was a Lambda Literary Award Winner and a Cybil Award Finalist, and Luna's gotten an almost unbelievable list of honors, including Finalist for the National Book Award and a 2005 Stonewall Honor Book. Writing and Julie Anne Peters—it's like it was meant to be.
And once we interviewed her for the SBBT, we found that the woman behind the awards is just as funny, down-to-earth, and encouraging as her writing is. "First off," she told us, "those were HARD questions. Second off, REALLY hard." Well, we did come up with some real doozies, we'll admit that; but we were blown away by the answers, too. As we discovered in the interview, it isn't easy to be considered an "issue writer." TadMack points out that if you're a writer and you're perceived as part of a particular group, people expect a lot out of you when you write, and expect you to carry their flag. The minority experience. The Christian experience. The female experience. The lesbian experience. Peters feels it's important to retain authenticity, but just as crucial is remaining true to your characters and their individual stories. As fellow writers, we agree wholeheartedly.
FW: Congratulations on winning the Lambda Literary Award, and also on Between Mom & Jo being nominated for a Cybils Award. Between Mom & Jo was probably one of the most wrenching novels I've ever read about a family divorcing – because this novel truly shows the ugly impact of Jo and Mom's divorce and the impact of their subsequent choices on Nick. Who was your audience for this novel, and where did you draw your inspiration for Nick?
My audience is you, or any person who reads my work and Feels. The. Pain. Twelve years ago when I was a poorer starving artist than I am today, I took a part-time job as a teacher’s aide for at-risk students. One day in the lounge I overheard a conversation between these four elementary school teachers. Parent-teacher conferences were coming up and one teacher said, "Well, I made this special award for any dads who come tonight. Who do I give it to if both Nick's moms come?"
Another said, "I know. I was going to teach a family unit and now I have Nick in my class so I can't."
Why? I wondered. Why can't you? The whole tone of the conversation was disgust. It stayed with me. Ten years later I'd worked up enough anger about it to write Nick's story. What kind of family would be acceptable to this teacher? Supported? Embraced? If not a same-sex couple, how about bi-racial? Foster families, single-parent families, were they validated at this school? What about a kid who lived with his grandparents or guardians? We don't get to choose our parents.
Discrimination first manifests in a child's life with adults. Parents—same-sex parents especially—are often oblivious to the fact that their children have to defend them. Throw in a gut-wrenching family dissolution and you have a novel.
FW: Your previous novels for 'tweens and Middle Grade readers, including The Snob Squad, How Do You Spell Geek? and Love Me, Love My Broccoli, have no characters who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Do you feel that there is an appropriate time to introduce LGBT characters into books for younger readers? Do you think you will ever write middle grade novels incorporating LGBT characters?
Wow, you really do your research. If you read my work with a knowing eye, you'll see how every story has a lesbian subtext. (This was pointed out to me by a lesbian who, I believe, wanted to see it there.) Actually, Max in the Snob Squad series is gay. She hasn't declared her "alt" identity, but young readers have certainly picked up on it.
The decision whether to star gay characters in novels has more to do with story and purpose. Cultural readiness plays a role, of course. Since we've broken through the mainstream barrier in YA, I don't see any reason why we shouldn't introduce "out" gay characters in younger lit. Most young gaysters don't acknowledge their difference until they're 10 or thereabouts, so it may not be believable to have a flaming kindergartner. Although, if you ask me, Junie B. Jones...
FW: You have rarely mentioned your time as a fifth-grade teacher except to identify it as a disaster worthy of a write up in the Guinness Book of World Records. Do you think you'd be a better teacher now as opposed to when you were just leaving systems engineering? What was the best thing about teaching, and the biggest thing you learned?
I learned I'm a crappy teacher. I'd be a worse teacher now because I have even less patience. Only if capital punishment were reinstated would I consider going back. The best thing about teaching was learning how to deal with failure in my life. Teaching was all I ever wanted to do, and I was horrible at it. The greatest lesson learned was that my first choice of career, and my second, and maybe even my third may only be stepping stones to self-actualization.
FW: You're a writer who also keeps a blog. What about blogging appeals to you as a writer? What got you started, and what do you see as the role or purpose of your blog in relation to yourself and your readers?
The appeal of blogging is that I can say stuff people would slap me for in public. (Barbara Park is looking up my address as we speak.) There's a false sense of freedom in blabbing over cyberspace. You never think anyone is listening. Now that I've moved my blog to MySpace, I find I'm being more cautious about what I say. I actually have readers. And they're young. I better watch my mouth.
What I do know is that young people need adult role models. Whether it's true or not, I believe young people feel they have very few trusted adults they can talk to. LGBTQ youth, in particular, need to feel they have a future; that they can dream; that their dreams and goals are achievable; that they can be successful in life and love.
In my blog I talk about my life with my partner, Sherri, because it's so ordinary. Sherri and I have been together for 33 years now, and young people need to see how same-sex relationships work. LGBTQ youth harbor so many fears about what their lives will be like if they don't marry, have 2.5 kids, a house and a dog. I tell them they can have all those things (though cats are preferable.) The American Dream is not out of reach. Marriage for Sherri and me, though differently defined, is an institution built on love.
I talk about writing because I want aspiring writers to know the truth. Writing is hard. As a job, writing is a relentless taskmaster. Sure, you get to work in men's loungewear, but the end of one book means you'd better have another on the burner.
I talk about my neighbors because I'm always wondering what's going on behind closed doors. Call me Harriet the Spy.
I talk about books and articles I'm reading and loving. Only the ones I love. Writers have enough critics in the world. I don't want to be a critic. I support writers in whatever way I can.
I talk about reality TV. Don't get me started. I'm obsessed, okay? Since I write realistic, contemporary fiction I justify my excessive TV viewing by claiming crapola is pop culture research.
I talk about emotional and physical health issues because young people are so self-destructive. I want them to be happier in life, more optimistic.
Occasionally, I talk about my upcoming books because I had better prostitute—er, promote—myself if I want to work for a living.
FW: Your website and blog show you're very open about your life and work process. Your blog also displays a lot of sometimes self-effacing humor. Has your ability to look at life with a sense of humor made big events like changing careers or coming out easier to deal with? Does it affect, or even assist, your writing process?
Yes on both counts.
FW: It was really nice to see a small town embrace Mike in Far From Xanadu, instead of ostracizing her. What role do you think your books play in allowing others outside the LGBT community to learn acceptance? Do you feel that the current is changing with regard to societies accepting their LGBT teens, or do you feel that more openness has encouraged people like Xanadu, maliciously curious and 'baiting' those in the LGBT community?
Eek. That's an enormous question. Yes, I do feel acceptance and support for LGBTQ people is increasing, propelled by a youth culture who values diversity in all aspects of life. Positive portrayals of gay people in the media have certainly hastened the process. Having grown up in the 70's and 80's when it was still illegal to be homosexual makes everything look rosy to me.
The movement toward equality is advancing at lightning speed today. Young people may not feel it, especially if the climate in their school or home is hostile, but when they come out in today's world, they'll find love and support, as well as unlimited opportunities to share their gifts and talents with the world.
I think because we're gay we have interesting stories to tell. Our slant on life is unique. For example, a straight girl baiting a gay girl. How fun is that? If there's an equivalent in the straight community, I don't know what it is. Relationship issues expand exponentially when you're shifting between sexuality and gender lines. For a writer, it's a burbling cauldron of story possibility.
Lesbian baiting is nothing new to our community. Based on the anecdotal evidence from my reader mail, I'd say there are growing numbers of girls (and boys) identifying as bisexual these days, and/or playing "gay for a day." The universal theme in FFX is how obsession and manipulation feed off each other. Who hasn't fallen for the wrong person, for someone who can't, or won't, love them back?
FW: Luna is an amazing novel in that it manages to be both funny and painful, sad and silly. Did you ever feel that writing a funny novel about a transgender person was a bad idea? Is there anything "sacred" to you that you don't feel should be written about with humor?
Growing into yourself is painful no matter where you start and end. There's a need to buoy that experience with humor. We should all lighten up sometimes, you know? What I felt was a bad idea in Luna, and what made me quit the book halfway through, was writing in her voice. I'm not a transgender person, so there's no way I'll ever fully understand the depth of that reality. If I ever feel I'm exploiting someone's pain for my gain, I don't think I could live with myself. All I know is that one day in the middle of Luna I set down my pen and said, "I can't do this." My notes, my sketches, my two years of research, books, interviews, psychological studies, all got shoved into a plastic crate and carted to the closet.
The next day I read an article in the newspaper about Fred C. Martinez, Jr., a 16-year-old Navajo who'd been brutally murdered in Cortez, Colorado. The reporter was calling the killing a hate crime because Fred (known as F.C.) was gay. As I read the testimonials from F.C.'s friends, who said things like, "She was the funnest girlfriend we ever had," I looked at the picture of this kid and thought, F.C. isn't gay. She's trans. It never would have occurred to me to even question the reporter’s assumption if I hadn't educated myself.
F.C.'s murder was like a sign that this story had been given to me for a reason. As a writer, I could bring voice to the transgender experience. Readers would listen and know.
Immediately I dragged out that crate and began again. With new vision, new eyes and renewed fervor. I started the story over from the point of view of Luna's younger sister, Regan. The moment she spoke on the page, the emotional honesty of the story felt authentic and real.
Luna was still Luna, with her sarcastic, acerbic wit. Her humor saved her, as it does so many of us.
Are there topics I wouldn't poke with a funny stick? Sure. Sexual abuse. Rape. Murder. Reality TV.
FW: The question, "Dude, are you gay?" is something you address repeatedly. How important is that, really, in terms of your writing in general? Do you feel that makes you a more reliable narrator for books directed toward the LGBT community, or does it seem as if it is marginalizing being known as "the lesbian YA author"? And as a follow up, do you believe that people outside of that community should not write LGBT characters? Do you feel a greater amount of pressure writing novels with LGBT characters? Is there a greater pressure to "get it right" and that you, in a way, "represent" for all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons?
This is a topic for a dissertation. Okay, I confess to a stubborn bias for authenticity in LGBTQ literature. I'm not crazy about straight people writing the gay experience. Not that queer characters shouldn't be hangin' in da hood. It's just that I want my gay writers to be gay. BUT THAT'S JUST ME.
One of my fears about writing Keeping You a Secret—which my editor, Megan Tingley, suggested to me: "Julie, why don’t you write me a lesbian love story?" "Megan, why do you have a death wish for me?" —was that I’d be labeled a "gay" writer. I'd never be able to work outside the proverbial box again. Even if my books were banned or I was personally blacklisted, my own community would expect me to carry the rainbow flag. I'm proud to do that, make no mistake. The day may come, however, when a story explodes from me that has nothing to do with gay themes. That day has come. The book scheduled for spring 2008, though subversive and controversial, will not be banned for gay content.
One of the first letters I received after Between Mom and Jo (a story about a boy with lesbian moms, to refresh your memory) was from a lesbian mom who wrote, "Well. That wasn't a very positive portrayal of gay parenting." I screamed. I literally beat my head against the wall. It wasn’t unexpected, and never is, that my books won't resonate with every reader, but at that moment I felt I was somehow expected to write The Gay Way. Sound check. There is no Gay Way.
Our lives aren't perfect. We are wildly dysfunctional and diverse—in our lifestyles, politics, religions, attitudes, opinions, philosophies, fashion sense. The queer community is anything but homogeneous (and we’d argue that point). I'm writing what I know; what I feel in my heart to be true, to a character, to his or her story. If you don't like what I'm saying, write your own damn story. Then come on over for potluck, hon.
FW: Clueless moment: what exactly does a systems engineer do? And how did you bridge the gap between that, and sitting down one day and saying, "Okay, I'm going to be a writer now?"
A systems engineer takes a faulty system, typically human made, and redesigns it so that time, resources, and managerial profit are maximized. Historically, systems analysts were the geeks who converted manual business routines to computer systems.
The logic of flowcharting a system, figuring out how all the pieces and parts are interrelated, and making it work without having to manipulate the cranks is the exact same process as writing a book. My left lobe serves me well when plotting a novel; figuring out the weak links; fitting all the scenes and sequences together.
I hated the work of systems engineering. After ten years, I was completely burned out. My partner came home one day and I said, "I quit my job today. I'm going to be a writer."
She did a slow eye waffle. "Okaaaay," she said. "Have you ever written anything?"
I said, "No. But I can learn." The first thing you learn as a writer is how quickly you spiral into poverty.
All I knew was that writing seemed as far away from systems engineering as any other work in the world. Someone could've told me it's the EXACT SAME WORK.
FW: Congratulations on your soon-to-be released book, grl2grl, which is all short stories. Are you resting on your laurels, or are you already hard at work on something else? How much time do you spend "resting" between books, or do you? Can you talk a little about your ongoing projects?
My laurels are sticker bushes that, when rested upon, remind me the mortgage is due. If I thought about it too long, I'd be scared witless to be a writer. The time between projects is...there’s time between projects?
Right now I'm frantic because I'm working on a draft of an idea and it's not setting my soul on fire. Earlier this year I finished and sold two novels, one for a 2008 release and another for 2009. The second one, Rage: A Love Story, was in revision for four years. I could not figure out what that book meant. Thematically. The story was there, the characters were strong. It just didn’t say anything. So I dumped it on my critique group with a whiny, "Help." They did, God bless 'em. My critique group has saved my ass too many times to acknowledge.
The book coming out next year, By the Time You Read This I'll Be Dead, was written during a two-week trance during which I was completely possessed. I woke up one day and had this finished manuscript sitting on my desk. When I read it, I thought, Holy shit. This is the best work I've ever done—if I did it. (I'm having graphoanalysis experts verify the handwriting as we speak.)
I always want to believe that the book I just wrote is the best work I've ever done. If I don't (like the project I'm tepid about at the moment), I'll likely abandon ship. In each new work I want to challenge myself to push farther, to incorporate different techniques, to explore the essence of story and humanity and life on this planet. Maybe I'll go where no lesbian has gone before.
I never talk about what I'm working on. Surely that drives my agent and editor nuts. A manuscript shows up on their doorstep out of the blue. Thud. Talking about my current project, though, rather than focusing my energy on writing it down, sucks the wind right out of my sails. A ship without sails? Sinker.
One lesson I've learned in the 18 years I've sustained myself as a writer is to trust that it'll come—IT being a compelling story or a compulsive character. Like love, inspiration strikes when you least expect it. You jes gotta keep the faith.
All right. We thought we just loved her books. Now we want to be invited over for that potluck! Excellent interview, and our thanks go to Julie Anne Peters for her thoughtful answers and participation in the SBBT. Tune in tomorrow for our concluding interview of the week with the author of Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies) and Readergirlz diva, Justina Chen Headley.
More Information about Julie Anne Peters
Julie Anne Peters' very informative, very entertaining website
Julie's blog on MySpace
Read an excerpt of Grl2Grl, Julie's upcoming novel
TadMack’s review of Define Normal on our sister site, Readers’ Rants
The JAP Mafia, her MySpace fan club
Julie Anne Peters in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
Stonewall Book Awards, sponsored by the ALA's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Round Table
Lambda Literary Foundation