I’m so excited to welcome middle grade and young adult author Greg Howard to the blog today to talk about his middle grade debut The Whispers and his young adult debut Social Intercourse. Greg writes with heart and humor, and I adore both of these books. Greg’s next middle grade novel, Middle School’s a Drag, will be out February 11, 2020 and I am already so excited for it. If you are too, pre-order it here. You can also find Greg on his website and on Twitter.
Taylor Tracy: 30 Days of Pride is all about creating a sense of queer community during Pride Month by giving writers, bloggers, etc. a platform to share their voices and identities. Can you talk a bit about what queer identity, community and pride mean to you?
Greg Howard: It actually took me most of my life to be so comfortable with being gay that I didn’t want any part of my life to be hidden from anyone. Family was the final frontier in that regard. I feel like queer pride is about owning, loving, and accepting yourself. Unconditionally.
Taylor: I love both THE WHISPERS and SOCIAL INTERCOURSE so much, and can’t wait to discuss them both with you. First, how was the experience of writing a queer middle grade novel different than writing a queer young adult book?
Greg: Honestly, they both came pretty naturally but for very different reasons. In high school, I was usually pretty crass—always trying to make people laugh and uncomfortable at the same time. That’s the kind of humor to which I respond, so writing SOCIAL INTERCOURSE (especially in Beck’s point of view) was kind of second nature. THE WHISPERS, of course, is a different voice all together—younger, more innocent, but also wise beyond your years. But since so much of that story is based on my life when I was around Riley’s age, I didn’t have much trouble slipping back into the mindset of eleven-year old queer Greg Howard. And in my opinion, Riley is just as funny as Beck, but in a totally G-rated way.
Taylor: Part of what I loved about THE WHISPERS is that Riley knows that he’s gay, but because he’s a kid he’s also still working out the language to describe himself and navigate his relationships in the beautiful, clumsy way of a kid. At what point did THE WHISPERS become a queer story–did you know that that was a part of Riley’s identity from before you wrote or did that develop over the course of writing?
Greg: Since the story is my story in a lot of ways, and I was a gay kid trying to figure it out, the choice of making Riley gay was always the plan. And I want those queer kids living out in the rural South to feel seen and know that they are not alone. And let’s face it, queer kids are just as “messy” as non-queer kids. I believe in showing that reality—warts and all. When queer kids are romanticized and sterilized in YA and MG books, it’s feels like those books are written for a non-queer audience because it doesn’t always feel authentic (with some exceptions, of course). Obviously, I want non-queer kids and adults to read my books as well because reading promotes empathy. But I mostly want queer kids to feel like they are realistically represented
Taylor: SOCIAL INTERCOURSE is such a special book that looks at the growing friendship, alliance, etc. (no spoilers here!) between the deeply closeted bisexual son of two moms and an out and proud gay teen. How did you go about creating these characters and develop the queer representation in this book?
Greg: It all started with Beck. I wrote that first chapter in the voice of the kid that I wish I had been in high school. Out, proud, honest, confident in his queer identity, because it is the exact opposite of who I was in high school. It was very freeing to get lost in Beck’s voice as he took over the story. Jax needed to be the polar opposite, so I based his character a lot on the non-queer guys friends I had in high school. One classmate in particular as far as Jax’s looks, and another for his personality and how he related to the world and his sexuality.
Taylor: A southern setting is so key to both THE WHISPERS and SOCIAL INTERCOURSE, and it’s so incredibly done in both books. How does your choice to set your books in the south influence how you write books about queerness and community?
Greg: Growing up gay in the South is such an interesting and unique experience—the social norms, over-bearing religion, growing up around casual racism and homophobia, etc. Because I grew up in South Carolina with all of those factors influencing my journey, I feel that I can pretty accurately portray that experience in an authentic way. Of course, my journey is and was not everyone’s journey who grew up there, but I think a lot of the same themes resonate.
Taylor: What are some queer identities, stories, themes, etc. you want to see in YA that you haven’t seen yet?
Greg: One reason why I love writing middle grade, is that I can push boundaries without getting dragged on Goodreads and Twitter. SOCIAL INTERCOURSE (my YA debut) has been called bi-phobic, anti-lesbian, misogynist, fat-phobic, trans-phobic and just about everything else you can imagine. I doubt the people who said those things finished or even read the book at all, because I show teenagers as raw and messy. They do and say really stupid things. And guess what. They are messy! But lessons are learned, and characters are redeemed by the end of the book. And when I talk to teens who read it— they get it all and LOVE it all because it’s realistic. I feel strongly that we need more authentic and realistic queer representation in YA. And I would love to read those stories by “own voices” writers.
Taylor: What are some of your favorite queer middle grade and young adult recommendations?
Greg: In middle grade I absolutely loved Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart, The Best Man by Richard Peck and Hurricane Season by Nicole Melleby. We need more queer reads for middle grade readers, but the representation is improving slowly but surely. Some favorite queer YA books are Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Ziggy, Stardust, and Me by James Brandon, and Proxyby Alex London.
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?
Greg: I am “of a certain age” so when I discovered the first Tales of the City mini-series on PBS, my eyes were opened to a whole new beautiful world of queer possibilities. It was the first unabashedly queer television series I’d seen on television. I immediately devoured the whole series of books by Armistead Maupin and all the following seasons of the show. Right after that first season of Tales of the City aired, Will and Grace took things mainstream—which was great. But Tales of the City made a lasting imprint on me and I am loving watching the newest iteration on Netflix now.
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?
Greg: I see you. You matter. You are not alone. Your story has value.