If there’s anybody who’s paved the way for contemporary literature, especially queer YA, it’s David Levithan.
An author and an editor at Scholastic, David Levithan has been writing novels that address LGBTQ representation in literature since the early aughts, beginning with his 2002 book Boy Meets Boy. At the time that it was released, it was one of the first LGBTQ novels published by Random House Children’s Books.
“[At the time] in YA literature, in YA culture, in culture at large, the gay teen was miserable, and that was the promise,” explains Levithan. “There was acknowledgement that they existed, but with very few exceptions, everything ended in gloom and doom. And I was like, “you know what, I’m tired of this. This is not what our lives are like.”
So Levithan published Boy Meets Boy in hopes of changing the conversation.
“At the time, that was a radical notion, to have dippy, happy gay teenagers. So I wasn’t trying to reflect reality, I was trying to create reality.”
Since then, Levithan has published over 20 books, often with gay characters or LGBTQ-friendly themes, including Two Boys Kissing and Will Grayson, Will Grayson (which was co-written by John Green). He’s even ventured into sci-fi with his book-turned movie Every Day — what would happen if somebody woke up in a new body every day — to address issues of love and gender identity.
“It was deliberately supposed to be about who would you be if you weren’t defined by your body, and all of things that are intrinsic in our bodies that isn’t necessarily intrinsic in ourselves,” explains David Levithan. “If I wrote a novel five years ago that was realistic contemporary that was about an a-gendered person, I don’t think it would have had the same audience [as Every Day]. But because the book has this paranormal conceit to it, suddenly it’s more palatable to a wider audience, which I love. The science fiction conceit or the super natural conceit is the Trojan Horse where you can actually talk about all of these questions about society and identity.”
But Levithan is quick to note, he didn’t pave the road for queer YA alone.
“I think I’m part of a continuum — there are people who are awesome before me and I think are people after me who are awesome. I don’t think Boy Meets Boy changed everything alone. I think it did a lot, but I think it was because it was a part of this dozen books that came out in this two-year period. That’s what changed everything.”
This week on the MashReads Podcast, we chat with David Levithan.
Join us in the episode above as we chat about Every Day, writing queer novels, and how YA literature has grown.
(Edited lightly for clarity)
Where did you get the idea of this concept [for Every Day] of a person who wakes up in a different body every day?
I wish there was this amazing origin story but just like walking to work one day I was like “huh, I wonder what it would be like to wake up in a different body every morning.” And who knows what was going through my own body at the time, but that germ of an idea just happened. And I didn’t really think too much about the implications, I just started writing, but as I was writing, I was like “oh I’m writing this book about this person who has no gender, no race, no class, no family, no DNA,” and then all of the implications of that on identity became what the book was about.
“The supernatural conceit is the Trojan horse where you can actually talk about all of these questions about society and identity.”
There’s a common thread about relationships throughout your books: Two Boys Kissing, Boy Meets Boy, Every Day, The Lover’s Dictionary. Can you talk a little bit more about writing relationships?
I’m much more interested in small “r” relationships than capital “R” Relationships. Not necessarily not a romantic relationship, but the relationships of any of the characters, whether they’re dating or not. I’m much more interested in people in relation to other people than I am to them just by themselves.
The long story short [of my career trajectory] is that I started writing seriously as a writer by writing stories for my friends for Valentine’s Day. So naturally relationships came up a lot in those. And I started that my junior year of high school, and I have done that every year since. So I cut my teeth as a writer talking about people in relationships. But it is something I’m very interested in exploring because it brings out such an interesting part of ourselves as well as the relationship itself.
Your first book Boy Meets Boy is so charmingly queer and gay and LGBTQ-friendly. Can you tell me about publishing that book in the literary landscape of 2002?
It was a different time. What was amazing is that 2002 and 2003 was this sea change of queer YA. A lot of us, not knowing the others were doing it, were all at home writing our novels, whether that was Maureen Johnson with Bermudez Triangle, Lauren Myracle’s Kissing Kate, Brent Hartinger’s Geography Club, Alex Sánchez’s Rainbow Boys.
All of us, in very different ways, were like, “we’re very sick of the narrative.” In YA literature, in YA culture, in culture at large, the gay teen was miserable, and that was the promise. There was acknowledgement that they existed, but with very few exceptions, everything ended in gloom and doom. And I was like, “you know what, I’m tired of this. This is not what our lives are like.”
So I was like “You know what, I’m going to write a dippy, happy romantic comedy.” And at the time, that was a radical notion, to have dippy, happy gay teenagers. So I wasn’t trying to reflect reality, I was trying to create reality. And that, luckily, that went over well. But it was the first queer book that Random House Books for Children published.
“I think the path of queer YA is the path of inclusion, and trying to include as many voices as possible.”
That brings us to today. Can you tell us about what you’ve seen about the queer stories being published in the literary landscape today?
It’s so radically different. We are definitely in the second wave of it. If you look at that first wave, it was primarily, but not exclusively white writers. It was disproportionately male. Trans, gender queer, bi, intersex, there were all of these identities that were underrepresented or not represented at all. So I think the path of queer YA is the path of inclusion, and trying to include as many voices as possible. I think if you look at the past 10 years, it’s astonishing how much its diversified. If you look 10 years from now, it will still be astonishing of how far we need to go. But I think the trajectory is certainly the right one.
Do you have advice that you would offer to any writer putting out LGBTQ literature?
I think it’s just to not hold back and be honest. Nothing frustrates me more. A poor writer sent me some questions to answer about writing, and somebody told him that gay stories are harder to sell. And I [sent this] screed that was like “don’t listen to that. That person is wrong. There is nothing unmarketable about a gay story. People are reading plenty of gay stories. Don’t let it hold you back.” What kind of advice is that, like “don’t be true to yourself, just try to mold yourself to the market to some degree that isn’t actually true.” No. Tell the story in a true way!
It is an inherent part of your queerness to worry about your queerness being exposed, in your life as well as your writing, and everybody at some point has to overcome that in order to be honest to the story you’re telling. And also, realizing that just because you’re queer, you’re under no obligation to tell a queer story every single time. You have to tell the story you want to tell.
And as always, we close the show with recommendations.
David recommends Julien Baker “I think everybody should listen to her. She is incredible. I have a massive musical crush on her.”
David also recommends a host of upcoming books including: I Felt a Funeral In My Brain by Will Walton, Not If I Save You First by Ally Carter, and I Lost My Way by Gayle Foreman.
MJ recommends the band Thirdstory. “Those guys can saaaang.”
Next we’re reading and discussing Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer, just in time for the movie release. We hope you’ll join us.
And if you’re looking for more books coverage, be sure to follow MashReads on Facebookand Twitter.