I am so thrilled to welcome Phil Stamper to the blog today to talk about his forthcoming debut THE GRAVITY OF US, which is out February 4, 2020 from Bloomsbury. You can pre-order it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository, IndieBound and Target. If you pre-order, you can get a signed bookplate that was actually IN SPACE by filling out this form. I talked to Phil about his adorably gooey queer contemporary debut about the sons of astronauts who might have a bit of an out-of-this-world romance while uncovering secrets about the space program and the media. I read THE GRAVITY OF US this summer and loved it a lot. I am so excited for everyone to read this book and see what Phil writes next. To see what Phil is up to, you can find him on Twitter and Instagram and his website.
Taylor: So I loved THE GRAVITY OF US and want to first talk about the mental health rep in it. First, I LOVED Cal’s mom. It was the first time I saw a parent in a YA book who had mental health issues, but managed them and was still presented as a loving authority figure in the MC’s life. And I loved that you included online therapy as a valid, accessible option through her character. Secondly, I loved the representation of Leon’s depression and how that was complicated by his life in the public eye and how his mental health issues affected how he could connect with other people.
Can you discuss a little bit about how these specific elements became a part of the book and why you wanted to write about them?
Phil Stamper: I’m SO happy that you enjoyed the mental health rep in GRAVITY. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years learning how to manage my own mental health, and that was a big inspiration for me in building out these characters. Such a big part of the mental health conversation is in how we communicate our experiences with mental health to our friends and family, and I’m glad I got to explore that dynamic throughout the book, especially in conversations between Cal and his mother, and Cal and Leon.
In GRAVITY, I got to play with how the media treats mental health, but also talk about something we all experience at some point: how big life changes affect those with anxiety or depression differently. I wanted to include characters who experienced mental health at multiple stages: undiagnosed, but prevalent; diagnosed, but untreated; and diagnosed, treated, but still not perfect. Some of this came naturally as I wrote the story, but I’m glad I was able to hone in on these experiences and make it a part of their character—but not have it define who these characters are.
Taylor: THE GRAVITY OF US is also in many ways about the emotional impact of the interfering forces of fame, reality television, science and technology and myths of American nostalgia all encompassed in a book that reflects on the zeitgeist of the 1960s space race and what a space race to Mars would look like today…with queer teen leads! And these forces have a deep emotional impact on Cal and Leon on their families. Can you discuss a little bit about what brought you to write about these forces and how you developed the larger emotional arcs of the story?
Phil: Ah, it always feels so great when someone fully gets what I was trying to do with this book… and articulates it way better than I ever could! To what brought me to write about this: I have always been a space nerd, especially when it comes to the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo missions. I’ve read dozens of astronaut/engineer memoirs, watched documentaries, and I’ve got a growing collection of LIFE magazines from the era.
While reading THE ASTRONAUT WIVES CLUB, actually, I realized that one thing in the background of every astronaut story kept calling out to me. The astronaut families essentially became the celebrities of this era, frequently gracing the covers of magazines and giving interviews for national news outlets. This meant the astronauts’ spouses and children had to be immaculately dressed, polished, and ready to entertain, all while not knowing if their husbands or fathers would come home alive that night. In THE GRAVITY OF US, I wanted to capture this brilliant tension while also showcasing a contemporary queer love story.
I wanted it to be relevant for today, so I built in the Orpheus missions to Mars and the reality TV elements, but I also knew I personally had a lot of nostalgia for this (very flawed) era that I needed to unpack. Cal is what brought it all together: putting a skeptic at the forefront of the story helped so much with keeping my own nostalgic inclinations at bay and, like a true journalist, he got to the root of the story.
Taylor: Finally, what are some of your favorite books, movies, TV shows, etc. that feature mental health representation? And what do you hope to see more representation for in the future?
Phil: In the video game Celeste, the main character deals with anxiety and self-doubt through her journey climbing a mountain. The game visualizes this later on by pitting the main character against a “dark side” copy of herself, and you ultimately realize that you don’t need to outrun this “dark side” but rather try to understand and work alongside her to climb the mountain. As someone who’s trying to get a little more comfortable with breathing exercises, I appreciated one part of the game where she’s guided through a panic attack. The player does this by holding down and releasing a button to simulate breathing, while you’re trying to keep a feather floating in the air. It’s all beautifully and respectfully done, which is rare to see in any media.
I would like to see better rep across the board, but especially TV and movies. While I think we’ve come a long way in book publishing, there are still so many toxic mental health stereotypes getting pushed through. That said, I feel incredibly lucky to be an author who can regularly discuss mental health both on and off the page, and I hope that only continues. We’ve still got a long way to go, but I am definitely happy about where we’re at, and where we’re going.
Phil Stamper grew up in a rural village near Dayton, Ohio. He has a B.A. in Music and an M.A. in Publishing with Creative Writing. And, unsurprisingly, a lot of student debt. He works for a major book publisher in New York City and lives in Brooklyn with his husband and their dog. THE GRAVITY OF US is his first novel, but he’s no stranger to writing. His self-insert Legend of Zelda fanfiction came with a disclaimer from the 14-year old author: “Please if you write a review don’t criticize my work.” He has since become more open to critique… sort of.