Welcome back to 30 Days of Pride! Today I’m so happy to have had the chance to talk to Derek Milman, who I shook down these answers from during his BEA signing (JK JK JK). Derek is one of my favorite people in YA right now and I know y’all are going to love this conversation. He has also worked as a playwright and actor, and ran an underground humor magazine as a teen…which makes a lot of sense if you read his books. His next book, SWIPE RIGHT FOR MURDER, is out August 6, 2019 and his debut SCREAM ALL NIGHT is out right now. You can pre-order SWIPE RIGHT FOR MURDER, and you should (or else), from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound. And you can find Derek on Twitter!
Taylor: SWIPE RIGHT FOR MURDER, which comes out August 9, is your second book. To start us off, could you begin by talking a bit about how writing your second book was different than writing your first book and what you brought into your sophomore book that you learned from writing your debut?
Derek Milman: I wrote SWIPE right on the heels of of SCREAM ALL NIGHT. Barely a pause at all, I was afraid to pause. It’s like I had the same engine and that thing was just whirring in high gear and I needed that horsepower. I feel like that engine has since been replaced with something more searching and deliberate (which is fine, just different) because my third book which I’m currently drafting is moving at a much more measured pace.
Once SAN got acquired, everyone asked what else I was working on. I really wanted to put a troubled gay kid at the center of an action-adventure story, and address that part of my identity in my own way. I said something to my agent about how I wanted to write a “dark, funny, gay Hitchcock” — something that felt very now but also had a subtle gloss of something classical to it, and she was like: please write this for me! The main thing that was different this time was that I didn’t have Moldavia. I wasn’t sheltered behind a fictional movie studio; this was happening more so in the real world (as we know it), so there was a different level of research needed. Not less, or more, just different. But I got to do some fun reconnaissance work. I went to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel (from the first scene in the book) and scoped it, had their tea service, took photos. I set a chunk of the book around where I live, so I went to those parts of Brooklyn and took photographs (of the tennis courts, for instance, where Aidan makes that climactic drop near the end) and of all the wild urban art in Bushwick, and the glowing re-purposed factory spaces, to see what it all looked like late at night. It has a fantastic Neo-noir glow to it all.
I’ve never been afraid of really “going there” in what I write. Life can be over-the-top and sometimes unbelievable. Look what’s going on right now, it’s like we’re living in a dystopian sci-fi story. But, that said, people might be surprised by how many aspects of SWIPE are real — Vegas Hotel death rays, co-living start-ups, the Merrick Gables, Samy Kamkar, the anonymous leaflet the Swans use as their manifesto — all are real or based on real things. And going off all that, the main thing I brought to SWIPE that I learned from my debut is probably a firmer sense of myself as an artist – -this is what I do, this is how I develop characters and tell stories, this is clearly my style, and having more of an awareness of that and embracing it, which allows for more risk-taking in my writing. And I believe in taking risks. I like when things are a little dirty, a little messy, so they pop.
Taylor: In SWIPE RIGHT FOR MURDER, Aidan is a gay teenager who is both experiencing things that are very normal or average for a gay teenager to experience and also dealing with the FBI, cults and terrorist organizations. Can you discuss a little bit about how you one, created Aidan as a character and two, crafted these very different feelings and situations that he experiences in the book.
Derek: Aidan is similar to me in that we both grew up in relatively sheltered suburbs. But people still go through shit growing up, and coming out, and we both had our hearts broken (albeit in different ways, but pain is pain). Writing books takes a huge toll on me I’ve learned, not just the emotional/psychological/mental, but also physical. For some reason the process of writing SAN led to these mysterious stomach issues; when a doctor did take an EKG and thought my heart might be enlarged (it’s not) I went through the same process as Aidan in the beginning of the book, having an echocardiogram done on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I use everything that happens to me in life in my writing; I have a very slanted, sometimes wicked sense of humor, and if these wild things did occur, I’m pretty sure I would joke about them — in the way Aidan does — since humor is a healthy, necessary way of dealing with all the darkness and the horror of life (and coming of age, especially if you’re broken like Aidan is, and have added pressure on top of all that to figure out who you are, and who you’re going to be).
It’s really about forging a link from Aidan — his distinct voice — to the circumstances surrounding him, and keeping that link strong. They aren’t two diverging things per se, character and plot, it’s all happening through Aidan’s eyes, so he’s the reader’s way in, through his own observations, which are built out of his life experiences. Aidan came alive on the page as I went along. I just don’t see the gay people that I know, that I meet in life, reflected in movies and contemporary literature much. Gay dudes love rock n’ roll and EDM and art and have piercings and tattoos and complex family relationships, and they’re architects and cardiologists and museum curators and drink craft beer.
There’s a whole spectrum of humanity out there, and I wanted to explore that. I wanted to create a very different kind of hero for all the gay kids out there who may not feel like they belong where they are, or see themselves reflected in contemporary media. Aidan’s had some real tragedy in his young life, and out of that, he’s made some questionable decisions as a way of dealing with pain, and guilt, and out of that came more questionable decisions, so creating his psychological profile was like going from point A to point B, understanding all his flaws and where they stem from. It all makes a kind of sense when you think about what he’s been through, what he’s running from. And then this spring break happens to him! In Hollywood parlance, I wanted an out gay teen to be the one “holding the gun” in an action-adventure caper — I wanted him to be Carey Grant. At the end of the day, Aidan just wants to be loved, like any of us do. That’s all he truly wants.
Taylor: In SWIPE RIGHT FOR MURDER, you include a terrorist organization that specifically targets homophobes, which is such an interesting and tantalizing concept. Can you discuss what led you to include this organization in your thriller and what you hope it adds to the conversation around queerness and identity in your book?
Derek: I will never suggest we all become the Swans and kill right-wing homophobes or harm anyone, I’ll never be for violence and destruction, but we can’t let complacency swallow us up either. This is going to shock you — but when I first started drafting this book, approximately three years ago, Trump wasn’t even in office yet! It wasn’t as bad as it is now, and I do think our rights are perpetually being endangered. It just takes one bakery in the middle of nowhere that is allowed to deny service to gay people, and from there, it’s a domino effect. It starts very small, people don’t realize that. Sometimes it just starts with a cake.
I cannot tell you how many gay men told me, around 2016, that “Hillary wasn’t an option for them” and they probably just weren’t going to vote because no one “spoke to them.” SIDE RANT: People have to understand the stakes are even higher for 2020. We may not get the exact candidate that we want; we may not get our first choice, but we have to come together and vote for the right side anyway. The damage being done now by the Republicans is already incalculable; it will reverberate for generations. It is very hard undoing an autocracy. Everyone must vote for the sake of our lives.
This does come up in the book a bit, but there is less of a culture these days, I think, tying LGBTQ people together. We’re all isolated, sprayed out into the digital universe, streaming our own TV shows, having anything we want be delivered via app, any piece of information can be googled, anything can be downloaded, and I think this leads to a removal of reality, of any actual danger, thinking we’re just on the periphery, and it’s other people’s rights who will be taken away. During the AIDS crisis, members of ACT UP chained themselves to the New York Stock Exchange to protest the soaring price of AIDS drugs, they stood in front of the FDA and shut it down! They went to jail. Can you imagine that happening today? Everyone should look to the Women’s March, which is amazing and vital, even though protests need to be constant and organized, and all marginalized communities need to have them CONSTANTLY to protest any infringement on their rights — quickly, constantly, with much fury! Plus, Gay History, the struggle for LGBTQ equality, is not taught in schools, and that needs to change.
The Swans were born out of a simple conversation I had with a gay friend many years ago, who’s a writer and performance artist. We were talking about how it was still just sort of culturally and politically OK in many sectors to marginalize members of the LGBTQ community by hiding behind these loose ideas of “religious freedom” — this was before Mike Pence was our VP. I said, “well, what do we do? How can we mobilize?” He gave me a dark look. He said: “You’re not going to like what I have to say.” I said: “what, tell me?” He said: “we need to start blowing stuff up.” I have never forgotten that conversation.
Taylor: Your writing is so notable for its wit and humor. Can you discuss a bit why it’s important for you to include humor in your books, especially thrillers?
Derek: Thank you, that’s kind of you to say, it’s nice to be considered “notable” for something, haha. I have a humorous brain. I think comically, always have. This keeps me up at night thinking about the absurdity of situations. I think life is absurd; I’ve found escape through humor, through comedy, and as a writer I think it’s important to take the side of your reader, and sort of chaperone them, to an extent, onto the battlefield that is your own book. It can’t just be about you, the writer. Humor is a great way to keep a story tonally balanced; if there’s horror, pain, darkness, you can’t hammer your reader over the head with just the heavy stuff, you have to give them a palate cleanser, a little cup of grapefruit sorbet to keep them going. I always want to write things that will make people feel things, but I never want to leave a reader feeling destroyed, exhausted, and hopeless.
Taylor: What are some queer identities, stories, themes, etc. you want to see in YA that you haven’t seen yet?
Derek: Holy cow, where do I start? OK, this isn’t strictly YA, but I want to read about a gay marriage. Maybe even divorce. I want the whole thing. There is virtually nothing written about long-term gay couples and how they survive and stay together in today’s world. I have been with my partner for almost 19 years. We met when we were very young; I guess I don’t talk about this much for the sake of our privacy, and my partner’s privacy, but young gay men, and perhaps society at large, should know this is possible. Gay people can find lasting love.
More ideas: how gay couples manage their money! Haha, I know that sounds so mundane, but I feel like a whole book could be written about that topic. In more YA, I’d love to see a gay superhero, a gay assassin, a gay warrior, chef, whatever, where the character’s identity isn’t the plot, but just a given about who they are. Spider Man, but instead of Mary Jane Watson he has a boyfriend, who happens to be a journalist. Wonder Woman, but she has a girlfriend who’s also pilots a fighter jet. Why not? I’d love to read more stories about gender fluidity like Jeff Garvin’s amazing Symptoms of Being Human, queer retellings and pansexuality, especially in high concept, like Once & Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori Mccarthy, and f/f romance in beautifully-written fantasy like Girls of Paper and Fire.
Video games are now really upping the level of storytelling, and they have touched on this briefly, but I’d be interested in seeing a gay hero of a video game. I don’t care about the specific genre.
I used to teach at a film school, and I was surprised by how many boys — not just gay ones, but straight ones — were completely obsessed with Kieran Culkin’s character from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. He was low-key, chill about his identity, unapologetically sexual, very confident, he was who he was. That character was quietly groundbreaking, I think.
Taylor: What are some of your favorite queer YA recommendations right now?
Derek: Lie With Me is a beautiful, heartbreaking novel about gay love, essentially YA, similar to Call Me By Your Name, except there’s no age difference, there’s a class difference; they’re both high school boys, in rural France, way too aware that they both have two very different futures ahead of them that will ultimately splinter them apart. Two LGBT graphic novels really gripped me recently: Home After Dark, and Bloom. There are a lot of great authors writing YA with LGBTQ characters and themes these days; people seem to celebrate the same three or four, but make sure you check out books by David Levithan, Caleb Roehrig, Cale Dietrich, Shaun David Hutchinson, Jandy Nelson, Michael Barakiva, and Bill Konigsberg.
Taylor: What other pieces of media (so books, movies, TV, theater, music, etc.) have been fundamental to your experience as a queer person or are your favorite examples of queer representation?
Derek: Andrew Smith with his Winger books has written some of the funniest, truest YA incorporating young gay characters that I can think of. I came of age during the peak of what’s now regarded as New Queer Cinema and early films by Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, and Gregg Araki were formative for me. Oscar Wilde’s life story (and his work) is such a massive influence on queer culture, but too many queer icons and artists are being forgotten and need to be re-discovered: Gertrude Stein, Quentin Crisp, Arthur Rimbaud, Derek Jarman, Jobriath, James Baldwin, Charles Ludlam, Thomas Eakins, E.M. Forster, to name a few.
Taylor: If you could give advice or a message to the LGBTQPIA+ identifying folks who maybe don’t have a sense of community, feel alone, aren’t out, etc. this month, what would you say?
Derek: I wasn’t always OK as a young gay man. Oftentimes, I felt alone, confused, broken, and worthless. I really struggled with my self-worth and identity. I fell prey to a string of unhealthy relationships, because that’s what I felt I deserved. I had no idea where or whom to turn to at times. There was just nothing back then, a dark empty field. I wound up seeing a therapist when I was around 20 who really helped me come to terms with a lot of things. It’s the tangential people sometimes, those in the blurry margins of the painting of your life, who make the most difference, and wake you up. Every human being on this planet has worth, and no one should ever dare tell you otherwise. Thankfully, there are more resources now than ever, and no one should ever feel ashamed about reaching out, and getting help. Being a person is hard. This planet is rough and cruel. As bad as things can get, they will, and they do, get better. Please know that above all. No one is ever alone.