The Obvious Question

The Obvious Question

This article first appeared on the Canadian National Post blog under the title 'Throw Yourself at the Ground and Miss'. Read on, though I'll warn you that the short answer is 'haven't got a clue' and the long answer is...well, it's longer. 4186249-toasted-bread-with-toaster-on-white-background

"Why?" people ask me. Intrigued, baffled, smiling and shaking their heads. "A gay main character? A teenage boy? And for your first novel?"

Good question. Why would a forty-ish straight woman choose to write a novel from the first-person point of view of a teenage boy in love with his best friend? Coming out novels are a whole genre in themselves, in fact there are probably thousands of them – the distinction here would be that this one's been written by someone who has no idea what she's talking about. 

Well, if I put myself on the analyst's couch, I guess I could think of a few possibilities. Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World is set in a small town in the 80s, the place and time of my own uncomfortable teenage years. I was a shy nerd in high school, someone who felt like an outsider in a small and closely-knit community. There was no rational reason for me to feel this way, in fact I had every advantage society seemed to favour – white, skinny, straight, good grades, comfortably middle class. Yet I was weird and I knew it, and my experience of school social life seemed like a string of rejections from other kids, caused by my own awkward, off-putting behaviour. I suppose that because of this I was drawn to writing about someone who feels different from the group, and to a certain extent cut off from them.

BKvVFWbCcAAW99CBut all this is rationalizing after the fact, and I'd never be daft enough to believe that a touch of social incompetence in high school would give me any insight on what it would be like to be marginalized and even persecuted for who I am. The truth is that I don't know where my main character, Stephen, came from. The whole thing felt like some kind of bizarre and fantastic accident. I threw myself at the ground and missed.

The whole thing started in 2006, when I was first messing around with writing prose instead of drama. I had an idea for a short story: two boys having an argument on a cliff by a river. One of the boys had a crush on the other one, I decided, and the straight kid was reacting very badly to his friend's confession. I wrote it in a thousand words, from the straight boy's perspective. Then a few months later I switched characters and tried again.

It's difficult to explain what happened next. All I know is that suddenly there was a flood of words and images in my head, all connected with this person named Stephen, who didn't exist and yet wouldn't shut up. I wrote down enough for a novella. A virus erased it from my computer. Oh, well, I thought. It probably wasn't a great idea to be writing about this subject anyway. What do I know about it? But four years later I went back to the character and I got the same result: I could not stop thinking about this kid, the things he'd say or do, his observations on life. Stephen Shulevitz wanted to exist.

Still, there were times I'd come up for air and start to panic. What the hell was I doing? Cultural appropriation was the name we used for this when I was in college, and I could feel the guilt of it first-hand. This wasn't my story to tell. But then I'd get interested in the novel again, and soon I'd be back in there tunnelling away, and the question of "why," or "should I" receded. All I could see was the next chapter ahead of me.

It helped that I never thought of Stephen as "a gay teenager." Stephen to me is a lot of things: bright, impulsive, sarcastic, vulnerable, funny,150px-H2G2 UK front cover frustrating. Gay is in there too, but it wouldn't be the first adjective I'd stick on him, any more than I'd reach for "heterosexual" first and foremost to describe myself. And I don't see Cinnamon Toast as 'a gay novel' so much as the story of one person growing up.

But I was aware that I was in unfamiliar territory, so I tried to get help navigating whenever I could. I read a lot of LGBT writers as I was working on Cinnamon Toast – not to pilfer ideas, but to orient myself in their perspective. I also sent early chapters to a few gay friends or friends of friends, and waited, terrified, for their response. This was largely positive, and when I brought up cultural appropriation, nobody seemed that interested in my dilemma. A professor who'd written books on LGBT literature actually rolled his eyes at the mention of the term. "Stop worrying about whether you have permission to write it," a friend told me in an email. "Just write it."

So, I suspended my disbelief. It was like how Douglas Adams describes his main character learning to fly in one of the Hitch-hiker's Guide novels. Throw yourself at the ground and miss. The only time you'll be in danger of falling is when you stop to wonder what you're doing up there when all this is clearly impossible.

And going back to the question of why, all I can say is, "Beats me." If you read Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World and come up with your own theory, please let me know what it is. It would be nice to have an answer the next time somebody asks me this question.