Sunday, January 23, 2011

Talking with Award Winning Writer Brian Katcher, and a Give Away of Almost Perfect

The Stonewall Book Awards were announced recently, including one for children's and young adult literature for the LGBT community. The book honored by Stonewall this year is Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher.  

This is the story of Logan Witherspoon, a high school student, track star, and recently dumped young man. He's obsessed with his ex, but when a new student shows up at his very small high school, he finds himself attracted to her despite her quirkiness. Sage is a little awkward, too tall, and strangely pretty -- and after being homeschooled for the last few years, needs a friend as much as Logan. As their friendship grows into something with potential for much more, Sage tells Logan her secret. She is really a boy.  

Mr. Katcher captures not only the struggles of growing up in a small town, but also of the fear, fascination, and confusion experienced by the people surrounding a young transgender teen. This book touched my heart -- and the hearts of readers everywhere. I was thrilled to know that Mr. Katcher's story was honored by not only Stonewall, but it was also listed as one of the Best Books for Young Adults by the American Library Association.

Mr. Katcher generously agreed to a short interview for Carpe Keyboard. Enjoy!

Carpe Keyboard: Congratulations on being awarded the 2011 Stonewall Children’s and Young Adult Literature Award for Almost Perfect! How were you notified? Did you faint, shout, or otherwise act like a crazy person when you heard the news?
Brian Katcher: I was at work (I'm a teacher in real life). Someone kept calling my cell phone, but I was with students and couldn't answer. By the time lunch time rolled around, I'd checked my e-mail and gotten several congratulatory messages. Of course, I was still at work. When I announced my good news at a staff meeting later that day, everyone cheered me until they found out it was a 'gay' award. Then they laughed.
I picked up a copy of Almost Perfect based on reviews (specifically the mention from our buds at FYA) and was addicted the moment I started reading. Logan is such a believable character. His voice is genuine in its struggle to make the “right” decision throughout, which I thought came across as such a real way for a young man to handle the situation he found himself in. Any words of advice for other writers about creating that believable teen voice? And such three-dimensional characters?
Thank you! I wish I had some kind of magical formula for writing believable characters. For me, it helps if I think of them as real people, not characters. It's not hard to imagine how someone you know would react in a particular situation. As for writing a teen voice, don't think of your characters as teenagers. Think of them as people.
Why did you choose to set your story in such a small town? The small school certainly plays a large role in how the story unfolds. I wonder how the story may have developed differently if Logan and Sage lived in a big city. Do you think there is more acceptance for all of our differences in either place?
Sage feels absolutely alone, like her sister is the only one she can talk to about her situation. Sure, there's the internet, but sometimes it helps to talk to someone face to face. That's why she needs Logan so much. He knows her secret, he's not obliged to like her, and yet he tries to understand. If Sage lived in a large city with an LGBT support center, she wouldn't have had to rely on Logan so much when she felt overwhelmed. Then they both might have decided to seek companionship elsewhere.
Plus, I live in the real life equivalent of Boyer, MO, so it was easy to write the setting.
 I’ve posted here on Carpe Keyboard before about parents and their role in YA and MG books. I just loved Logan’s mom. She was absent to an extent – with her job keeping her physically away; however, she was so present for Logan when he needed her. (I so want to go on about this, but don’t want to include spoilers!!) On the flip side, Logan has quite a few emotional/heated/tense encounters with Sage’s dad – the only father-figure that appears in the story. How and why did you create the parents in this story the way you did? Was it a conscious decision to surround Logan with emotionally available women, while giving Sage such a difficult (although real) father?
I think the reason I make Logan a product of a single mother is that I wanted him to be poor, which is a good recipe for having to grow up fast. And yes, his mother and Laura probably rubbed off on him, made him willing to see Sage's courage where someone else might have just seen a pervert. As for Sage's father, his reaction was pretty typical, unfortunately. 'Beat the gay out of him,' is a phrase I've heard more than once, from people describing their parents' reaction.  I didn't want to make him evil, but I wanted to give Logan yet another excuse to abandon Sage, one that he refuses to use.
I think this story is on the cutting edge of what the kids’ lit world often calls “edgy” YA books. Did you have trouble finding an agent or publisher willing to take a chance on it? I’d love to hear about your journey to publishing…
You really want the arduous journey? Okay, there I was in my mother's womb...

No seriously. I had spent a few years down in Mexico. My girlfriend and I were on the outs and it was going to be several months before I could return to the US. I figured I could either start drinking heavily or do something that I'd never once considered doing: write a book.

I decided to do both.

One day, back in the US, I realized that I'd actually finished writing the book. Not knowing what else to do, I sent query letters to a bunch of agents and editors. It was rejected with the traditional form letter. I was very close to shelving the whole project, when I decided to send it off to a contest. I didn't win, but it caught the eye of an editor, Claudia Gabel, formerly of Random House. She helped me with the many, many rewrites, and eventually my first book, 'Playing With Matches,' was born.

I think she was a little surprised when I introduced her to Sage, but she was very willing to take a chance on this unusual topic. It's funny, fifteen years ago, writing a 'gay' book for teenagers would have been scandalous. Now, they give out awards for the best one.
You mention in the author’s note at the end of Almost Perfect that you did quite a bit of research when you wrote this story.  What kind of research did you do? How did you go about making contacts with people who would give you the gift of their stories? (And what a gift! To share stories about their experiences being transgender must have taken courage…)
Well, that's thanks to our old friend the internet. Stories such as these are obviously very personal, not the sort of thing you'd tell a stranger. However, thanks to the net, people can unburden themselves without showing their face. Most of the time, I didn't ever have to ask a direct question, I'd just read message boards on transgender support sites. When I needed something clarified, I'd e-mail that person directly. Most people I talked to were very open and very helpful. It was emotionally draining, though. When Sage's father said he'd rather see her dead then acting like a girl, I was quoting one of my sources.
           When do you carpe your keyboard? What are your writing habits?
Well, I have a four year old daughter, so it's not very easy to write after work. I mean, how can you say no to 'Daddy, come dance with me!' On the other hand, I get a few hours in at night, and my wife is great about arranging time for me on the weekends. Plus, as a teacher, I have summers off. That, and caffeine, allow me to be prolific.
To win a copy of Almost Perfect, leave a comment below. You can increase your chances of winning by "following" Carpe Keyboard on Google or Networked Blogs (via Facebook) or adding Carpe Keyboard to your blogroll. Remember to leave a comment here to tell me of all the ways you have entered to win! I'll announce the winner on February 1, 2011 here. If I don't hear from the winner in one week, I will put the book up for another give away.

16 comments:

  1. Loved your chat with Mr. Katcher, Karen! Almost Perfect sounds like a book I would DEFINITELY like to read, as I've been reading some 'edgier' books lately. But before I go putting my name on the waiting list at the library, I'd love to try my chances at winning a copy for myself!

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  2. Karen,

    Thank you for interviewing Brian Katcher in your blog. It was very interesting. Just recently I happened upon a copy of Almost Perfect at a small local bookstore. The cover caught my attention. I was unsure whether or not it would be a book that I would enjoy, but it was when I read the back that I realized I would not be able to return it to the shelf. The subject matter hit a chord with me.

    The book was a good read. Brian's writing style and character exposition drew me into Logan's world and refused to let me go. I soon found myself invested in the character's lives. The story feels very true to life and the drama within does not feel heavy handed, none of it seeming to be without purpose. He writes about what is very much still a taboo subject in our society and does so with compassion while remaining true to real human reactions.

    In the end it is a book that is at the top of my list, a keeper. In fact, I am currently rereading it.

    I recommend it to anyone who is trying to understand what it is like to struggle with gender identity issues, and the fears and challenges that affect relationships.

    I subscribed to your blog via my Google account. I too write, not professionally, but as a means of self expression. Although I would love to win a copy of the book, to lend out to friends, If there are others who enter the contest, that have not read it, I would rather they win it than me.

    Again, thank you.

    Kurt

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  3. Kurt, Welcome to Carpe Keyboard! I'm so glad you found Almost Perfect and it struck a chord with you. I, too, feel it is a keeper -- which is why Brian is generously donating a copy of the novel for this giveaway. That way I get to keep my copy and re-read it whenever I want. I agree with you that he handles this delicate topic with compassion...which is something we could all use more of in our lives. Hope you find other posts you enjoy here at CP!
    Karen

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  4. Loved the book. Such an important book for today's youth.

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  5. "It's funny, fifteen years ago, writing a 'gay' book for teenagers would have been scandalous. Now, they give out awards for the best one."

    May I ask the author, Brian Katcher, a question?

    Mr. Katcher, your award is almost perfect. It would be perfect if the awarding authority were not itself guilty of ignoring the interests of some in the gay community.

    The American Library Association refuses to assist gay librarians in Cuba. See "ALA Screws Gay Librarians; Gay Civil Rights Community Should Demand ALA Action; Rank and File Rebellion Against the ALA Leadership Needed."

    My question is, will you look into the ALA homophobic discrimination I am reporting to see if it is as I am reporting and if you should do something as an ALA-awarded author to speak out against the ALA for its homophobia? Would it advance human rights if you were to rescind your acceptance of the ALA award until such time as the ALA chooses to support the Cuban gay librarians? If you do so, would you contact others winners to advise them of what you learned and whether they too should reject the ALA awards until the such time as the ALA changes its behavior?

    Thank you.

    That said, I hope I can join the running for a copy of the book as offered by Carpe Keyboard.

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  6. Love this interview - and just ordered the book! Can't wait to read/teach from it!

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  7. This sounds like a fabulous book! (Fingers crossed.) Thanks for the great interview. :-)

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  8. @Safelibraries: Thank you for bringing yet another example of oppression by the Castro regime to my attention. I've actually been to Havana, and I'll never forget what it's like to living in a police state, even as a tourist. I'd never seen such poverty. Believe me, homosexuals are not the only ones being jailed there.

    That being said, I'm not sure sure what you expect the American Library Association to do about abuses in another country. Sixty years of embargoes haven't brought democracy to the island. And as bad as human rights are in Cuba, they're worse in the Congo, Iran, N. Korea, etc, etc.

    I guess what I'm asking is, what do you expect the ALA to do for the Cuban people? Even if they condemned the abuses from the rooftops, do you honestly think Raul and Fidel would listen? I'm anxious for your thoughts.

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  9. Mr. Katcher. I'm really a small fish in this area. But Ray Bradbury. He's a big fish. He called on the ALA to act. Andre Codrescu. Nat Hentoff. More big names. The ALA could add its voice to those like Amnesty International seeking justice in this area, but it simply does not do so. Who cares what I expect the ALA to do. What is interesting is the long line of major names who have expected the ALA to act. I am suggesting you join that distinguished line. At a minimum, ALA leadership will not appear to be the hypocrites they are.

    I say take on the ALA for not supporting the gay librarians in Cuba being raided, jailed, brutally treated, and having their libraries burned. You will not only be standing up for justice, but as a byproduct people will buy product. Yours.

    Further, you actually won an award from the ALA. If you were to use that as leverage, your voice might be even louder than some of those big names.

    Nat Hentoff also won an ALA award. Look what he said:

    I now publicly renounce the Immroth Award and demand that the American Library Association remove me from the list of recipients of that honor. To me, it is no longer an honor. Someone I know in the ALA, who was at the San Diego meeting, explained to me that some members of the council whispered privately that they agreed with the amendment calling for freeing the librarians but had to vote it down because they didn't want to be vilified as being "on the wrong team." They have put themselves in their own prison.

    In your case, you won an award for a book having gay content from an organization that refuses to assist gay librarians. If you reject the award, you may help move the ALA to finally support Cuban librarians, especially now that Judith Krug is gone (she wanted the issue to "drown"), and at the same time throw support to the gay civil rights movement.

    At least that's my opinion. Do what you think is best. If it were me, I would reject an award from a disingenuous organization and support civil rights and/or human rights. It would be like the KKK giving an award for the best African-American book of the year. Could you imagine anyone accepting that?

    No, I doubt the Castro's give a whit about the ALA. But that is not a reason for the ALA to do little more than palliative lip service.

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  10. Karen, I found your blog thanks to a recent Twitter post from the GLBTRT, and I'm glad I did! Thanks for the interview with Mr. Katcher, I can't wait to read the book!

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  11. Welcome, Kate! Glad you found Carpe Keyboard and I hope you continue to find entries and info of interest here!

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  12. @Safe Libraries: You make interesting points, however, I'm unclear on certain things. What, exactly, would you like ALA to do about the Cuban situation? You've compared them to the KKK, which is rather unfair, but I still am not sure what it is you expect them to do. Also, why, specifically, Cuba? As I mentioned before, that's hardly the only place in the world where human rights are trampled upon. Thanks for listening.

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  13. I would like the ALA act in a manner that promotes intellectual freedom and that largely satisfies the concerns of the big names calling for the ALA to stop applying a double standard and support Cuban librarians, including gay Cuban librarians. How does the ALA claim keeping inappropriate material from children violates intellectual freedom rights while at the same time it does nothing effective to support the Cuban librarians, and so on? How is a parent objecting to oral s3x in an ALA-awarded book for children considered censorship by the ALA while literally burning Martin Luther King books in Cuba gets ignored? I wish and others wish the ALA would be consistent. Either it supports intellectual freedom or it does not. When it is only selective in supporting certain rights or the rights of only certain people, then it really is not supportive of those rights at all. Rather, it is supportive of its political interests.

    This Cuban situation is just another instance where the double standard exposes the ALA to the very criticism many have brought to bear against the ALA. If the ALA would only be consistent, these criticisms would disappear.

    And it is the ALA that self-arrogates to itself the role of the intellectual freedom police, so it is quite understandable that double standards would be particularly galling to the likes of Nat Hentoff and many others. If the ALA did not hold itself out as intellectual freedom experts, then criticism of its failures to support intellectual freedom would be of less interest.

    Why Cuba? The ALA involves itself in worldwide library issues. Cuba is just another area of involvement for the ALA. However, Cuba is where the ALA has been getting heat precisely because of the ALA's double standards on intellectual freedom. Books burn and librarians are jailed and worse while the ALA provides tepid lip service. What did Judith Krug say? According to Nat Hentoff:

    A key ALA official, Judith Krug, heads its office of Intellectual Freedom. In my many years of reporting on the ALA’s sterling record of protecting American librarians from censorship, I often quoted her in admiration. But now, she said at an ALA meeting about supporters of the caged librarians, “I’ve dug in my heels ... I refuse to be governed by people with an agenda.” The Cuba issue, she continued, “wouldn’t die,” though she’d like to “drown it.”

    Disgraceful, is it not?

    Either the ALA stands for intellectual freedom or it does not. Which is it? Either the ALA's so-called "Office for Intellectual Freedom" should support intellectual freedom or it should change its name, perhaps to "Office for Limited Intellectual Freedom."

    Lastly, the ALA has nothing to do with the KKK. That was just an example.

    I hope you will consider following Nat Hentoff's lead and reject the ALA award for the reasons I have stated above and for other reasons of your own. I hope that helps move the ALA in the direction of supporting true intellectual freedom, not merely limited intellectual freedom.

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  14. Just found this:

    "In the only opinion poll of ALA members on the Cuba issue, conducted by AL Direct, 76% of respondents voted for the ALA to condemn the repression Cuba's independent library movement."

    So even ALA membership wants the ALA leadership to do the right thing.

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  15. @Safe Libraries: You make interesting points, but I'm afraid I'm not convinced. The American Library Association isn't the same as Amnesty Interntational (as is evidenced by their names). You tell me the ALA needs to 'support' the Cuban libraries, but you've not really given me an example of what you think they need to do or not do. Therefore, I will accept my award.

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