Picture drawn by Maggie Stiefvater, 2009. Header made by S.F. Robertson, 2010.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

GLBT Week- Interview with James Klise

1) How did you get the idea for Love Drugged? It’s a unique premise.

First of all, James, thanks for asking me to join you for GLBT Lit Week. It’s a pleasure and an honor and, considering recent news events, very timely, too.

Okay, as for the origins of Love Drugged: In the summer of 2005, I was getting my MFA at Bennington College. Bennington is a very small Vermont town where one of my all-time favorite writers once lived and worked: Shirley Jackson. Do you know her work? Jackson wrote the HUGELY famous story “The Lottery,” among other things. When I was in 7th and 8th grade, I was obsessed with Jackson’s novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The story is about two sisters who live in a crumbling hilltop mansion with their senile, wheelchair-bound uncle. The other members of their family have been poisoned, murdered. All the people in the village hate them. And then things only get worse. Can you tell already that it’s a wonderful novel? Everyone should read it.

Anyway, many years later, I went to the Bennington College library and borrowed the novel. Reading it again after so long, it struck me, more than anything, as a story about extreme isolation—a level of isolation that can drive you crazy. How weird, I thought, that this particular novel appealed to me so much when I was young. After all, I lived in a big loving family, surrounded by lots of neighbors and friends… Of course, I was isolated, too. I was too clueless to know I was gay then, but I guess I felt “different enough”—deep in my gut—to identify with those two crazy sisters.

After I reread Jackson’s novel, I began writing about a teenage boy who was trapped in a large house against his will. Originally he was trapped in the mansion’s library. The only thing was, I didn’t know why! I had to write nearly a whole book to get him there. It did not take long, however, for that teenage boy to become my freaked-out narrator, or for that private library to become a private laboratory.

I should add that Love Drugged is very, very different from Jackson’s great novel. But sometime I wonder: If I had not re-read her fantastic, spooky novel about extreme isolation, would I ever have remembered how extreme isolation makes us feel and act so crazy?

2) What books are you working on now? Can you tell us about them?

I’m just finishing another stand-alone novel. Like Love Drugged, the new one is set in Chicago, and it’s a dark twisted, funny story about a very elaborate scam. Love Drugged is about a scam, too. It seems I am drawn to writing about con artists, but I promise I am a very honest, responsible person!

3) What was it like growing up with so few GLBT books available to you?

Great question. Ah, the 1980s…Well, remember, there wasn’t simply a lack of GLBT books back then. At my Catholic high school in Peoria, Illinois, twenty-five years ago, there wasn’t a single out-and-proud GLBT person I could look to as a role model. AND there was no one on television, and no one in movies, and no one on the radio, and no one in sports, and no one in government, and no one in business, etc. Also, of course, the Internet didn’t exist yet. Back then, GLBT people were invisible to my eyes, except for the drag queens I occasionally saw on daytime talk shows. While the drag queens seemed brave and funny and fascinating to me, their glitz and camp was light-years from my own experience, or what I thought my future might be like. (Also, importantly, quite different from what my present life is like. The diversity within the GLBT community is one of its greatest strengths.)

Because of this absence of role models, it took a bit longer for many gay kids to even recognize we were gay (like I said, I was clueless!) so I didn’t actively search for GLBT books when I was in high school. The funny thing is, we were reading GLBT authors in school all along: Willa Cather, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, EM Forster, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, and so many others. I loved them all as great writers long before I knew what we shared in common.

4) Nowadays, who/what are your favorite GLBT authors/books?

I read everything by Michael Cunningham, Sarah Waters, Alison Bechdel, Stephen McCauley, David Leavitt and the playwright Tony Kushner. Plus all the great YA writers who are writing GLBT material. Of these, I particularly admire Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole, about a Cuban-American lesbian teenager. It’s a big hit with my students in Chicago!

5) Do you have any advice for anyone thinking about coming out, or questioning their sexuality?

Hmm, a big question! The process of coming out is different for everyone—so much depends upon circumstances. First I would ask: Where do you live? What is your family like? What is your high school like? What resources are available where you live? Due to all these circumstances, some people can come out when they’re 15; others feel they need to wait until they’re 35 or older.

At any age, being closeted feels like a huge cloud, visible only to you—a cloud that casts a shadow on all the other elements of your life. But once you start to tell people, that cloud goes away. I promise, it does! In fact, once it’s no longer a secret, being gay will seem less important to you; over time, the other elements of your identity will take priority. You’ll be known for how you spend your life, your work and your accomplishments, not for being gay or lesbian. Being gay or lesbian is fairly common. You, however, are not fairly common.

If you’re not ready to come out now, wait a while. Take your time. Instead work on all the other aspects of your life that will help make your future interesting and meaningful and fun. Explore your passions. Develop useful skills. Make lots of good, open-minded friends. Become the best, strongest version of yourself that you can be.

And then come out when you’re ready to. Check out some of the great links on my site. Once you do come out, all that old anxiety will disappear and you’ll feel much less alone. (And think how happy your future beloved will be to finally meet you!) You should come out when the time is right for you. And you are the only person who knows when that will be.

Thanks for asking such great questions, James. And most of all, thanks for hosting this GLBT week!


  1. Awesome interview! Love the advice to be the strongest, best person you can be and to come out when the time is right for you. I've got this book on my list of must reads. I've heard such wonderful things about it.
    Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

  2. I get what he means about kids not knowing they were gay because they didn't have access to certain stories. I didn't know I was asexual until I read a story featuring an asexual and went, "Wait? You can be that? It's normal that I'm not getting these magic sexy feelings?" It wasn't a great story, but I'll always love it since it helped me figure out who I am.

  3. "Being gay or lesbian is fairly common. You, however, are not fairly common." Love this. :-D

    I just read Love Drugged after meeting James at the Anderson's YA Conference. It's a great read, entertaining and thoughtful and with a good twist on "don't want to be gay" feelings. I continue to be stunned by people -- generally well-meaning, enlightened straight people -- who are surprised that there are teens for whom coming out is still so difficult. (Though maybe the recent publicity about gay teen suicides will change that perception.) I really appreciated that the main character of Love Drugged isn't automatically self-accepting and would rather be straight in this world that favors straight people. I think it still reflects so many kids' reality.

  4. Thank you for sharing this interview! Mr. Klise offers wonderful insight and perspective on the GLBT community and its members. Love Drugged is one of the best novels I've read in awhile and I can't wait to read more of Mr. Klise's work! :-)

  5. "You’ll be known for how you spend your life, your work and your accomplishments, not for being gay or lesbian."

    I love this quote because I'm really hoping that GLBT YA novels can step out of the formula of books that only deal with "coming out". Although some of these books are great, I'd rather read about a character where dealing with their sexuality isn't the main issue. How about some protagonists that are actaully out and comfortable with their sexuality?

    Great interview! I really can't wait to read Love Drugged!

  6. I completely agree that you should come out when you're ready. I think these days people sometimes think it should be right away.

    And I just have to say that I adore Oscar Wilde. :)