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

Friday, October 15, 2010

GLBT Week- Interview with Martin Wilson

1. How did you get the idea for What They Always Tell Us?

The novel grew out of a short story I wrote—basically what is now Chapter 1. An editor at Random House liked that story and eventually published it in a literary journal for young adults called Rush Hour (it has since, sadly, gone defunct). The same editor asked if I had a novel. So, to make a very long story short, my agent told me to write a novel, and I went back to that short story and decided I wanted to explore those characters even further. I wanted to know more about Alex, more about Henry—and more about a character who was off the stage in that story, James, his older brother. What was James’s story, his take on what Alex had done? I wanted to explore how people could misunderstand each other, and how each person has his own unique perspective on a situation.

2) What book(s) are you working on now? Can you tell us anything about them?

Well, I’m only working on one book, my second novel. I’m actually a few weeks away from finishing a draft to turn into my editor. It has been a long, sometimes frustrating process, but finally, I’m almost there! It’s about a boy who moves to Texas with his parents and gets involved with a secret high school fraternity. That’s all I will say about it for now. I hope you get to read it soon, maybe in 2012.

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

Well, I didn’t admit to myself that I was gay until I was in college, so it’s hard to say. It’s true that there were very few YA GLBT books at the time. But there were, of course, plenty of gay adult books, though I’m not sure if my high school or even public library carried any. And if they had, I might not have gone anywhere near them. I remember some high school classmate telling me to read Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray in high school and I put it down after a few pages because it was, I thought, too homosexual. It freaked me out—that’s how in denial I was.

But, once I accepted the fact that I was gay (see the questions below), I did turn to books for comfort. I remember reading and loving Jim Grimsley’s Dream Boy. It made me feel less alone. It’s kind of a dark, sad book, but it’s also beautiful and sexy. It may have been the first time I read a book about gay people. It put into words the desires and emotions that I felt. It was a revelation.

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

There are still so many great GLBT books that I haven’t yet read, so I know there are significant holes and gaps in my list of GLBT favorites. But of the books I have read, some of my favorites are Dream Boy by Jim Grimsely (which I mentioned earlier), An Arrow’s Flight by Mark Merlis, I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip. by John Donovan, At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill, The Rose City by David Ebershoff, Getting Over Homer by Mark O’Donnell, The World of Normal Boys by K. M. Soehnlien, The Hours by Michael Cunningham. Though he’s not gay, William Maxwell’s The Folded Leaf is, in my mind, a gay book—and one of the loveliest, most moving books you will ever read. Mark Jude Poirier’s Goats is a wonderful coming-of-age story. The author is gay, but the protagonist of this book isn’t—but it’s still just a charming book with a loveable protagonist. I also love the works of Allan Gurganus, Bret Easton Ellis, and Peter Cameron. Two of my friends—Patrick Ryan and Bill Konigsburg—have written great gay-themed YA novels. A writer whose work should be better known is Keith Banner. His story collection, The Smallest People Alive, is stunning—visceral, edgy, heartbreaking. And E. M. Forster is amazing, though I must admit I haven’t read his one true gay-themed novel, Maurice. It’s on my “to-read” list, and has been for a long time! And there are plenty of other “classics” on that list.

5) What was your coming out process like? Did you find it hard to accept yourself? What obstacles, if any, did you have to overcome?

Gosh, such a good question. Not sure I can do it justice without going on and on for an eternity, but I shall try. And I apologize for being so long winded!

I didn’t admit to myself that I was gay until I was a junior in college. In another environment, maybe I would have recognized this about myself sooner. Maybe if I’d known any gay people I would have come to that realization sooner. But no, I grew up in the south—a small city, not the country, mind you, but still, not the best environment for a young homosexual trying to find his way in the world. I think not knowing any actual gay people was the biggest reason I couldn’t admit to myself I was gay, even though it was clear I was attracted to boys. But the only gay people I saw represented in culture were stereotypes. It wasn’t until college where I saw the gay student association’s leader from afar—he was a normal-acting (whatever that means!), cleancut, cute guy. Smart and articulate, someone to admire. It was like a light bulb going off. So, I thought, gay people are just like you and me, except they are attracted to the same sex. Okay, that IS me. This guy—I never outed myself to him, never really ever spoke to him. If he only knew the impact he had on me.

After that I still had a year left in college, and I made the decision to stay in the closet. That was just what felt most comfortable at the time. Still, inside myself I felt a new kind of calm and acceptance about who and what I was. I wasn’t self-hating or tormented. I realized I was born this way. And I was happy to finally stop having to pretend to like women in a romantic way. Of course, like many gay men, I had tons of fantastic female friends, many of whom probably adored me because I was so unlike all the straight guys they had to deal with.

I didn’t “come out” until I had graduated and was living in the “real world,” in Austin, Texas. The responses from people were almost universally positive. My brother and sister were amazing, my closest college friends—guys and girls—were great. My parents were great too, though Mom cried at first and blamed herself. It’s harder for parents, no matter how great your parents are. They wonder what they did wrong, as if they are to blame. But to blame for what? I was, and still am, happy being gay. It was like having brown eyes—I was just born with it. It was a process of acceptance for them. Their love for me never wavered. They just worried about whether I would be happy, and they know that it’s still no easy for gay people in the country.

Once I was out to a few people, it felt so good, so freeing, that I just never looked back and never again kept that secret.

I guess I can sound sappy and nostalgic, but it was a momentous and compelling and, I must say, exciting time in my life. You find out who your real friends are. I lost some friends over this. Or some people didn’t react too well and even though we stayed friends, deep down my connection with them was severed in some un-repairable way. Life’s too short to deal with people who don’t accept you 100%. Because life is also full of people who WILL accept you for that.

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

Come out when YOU are ready, when YOU feel comfortable. Trust your instincts. Don’t rush things. Everyone has a different experience. Some people know they are gay at 13, some don’t admit it till they are 40. Get to know yourself first. Love yourself. And then you will know when you are ready to come out.

For those questioning? Be open to experiment. Don’t hold yourself back. I think we are all, to varying degrees, bisexual. Only women seem willing to admit this, sadly.

7) You wrote an essay for the 40th anniversary edition of I'll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip by John Donovan, recently published by Flux. How did you get involved with that? What's your personal story with that book?

I came to the book late in life, but once I read it I fell in love with it and wished I had come across it sooner. Besides being such a monumental book—and being an inspiration, because at the time I was an aspiring YA writer—I simply think it’s a beautifully written, almost timeless story.

I wrote an essay about I’ll Get There that was published in Tin House (a literary journal) a few years back. When I found out the novel was being reissued, I got in touch with the editor at Flux and told him I would love to contribute an essay. Luckily it worked out. I am so so thrilled to be involved with this reissue. It’s really a special book, and I’m so glad it’s back in print for new generations to discover.


  1. Great series of posts, sorry not to go back and comment on them all but I really enjoyed reading them and have added to my TBR iist - again!

  2. Grrr...on question #2, I wish he would have said he's working on a sequel to What They Always Tell Us. I loved that book!