Timing Is Everything
Author Michael Thomas Ford knows a thing or two about LGBT publishing.
by Donalevan Maines
Michael Thomas Ford has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Since September, the right place for the prolific gay writer has been the posh Pecan Grove neighborhood of Richmond, about 30 miles southwest of Houston.
Ford, 43, is writing in the right genre, too. The beauty of his prose is welcome anywhere, from humor to horror, literary fiction to nonfiction. In step with the recent mash-up craze, Ford wrote a Jane Austen/vampire trilogy. Jane Vows Vengeance (Random House), the third novel in what Publisher’s Weekly calls a delightfully biting and “fang-tastic” series, was released on February 28.
The author of more than 50 books, including the most widely used resource in HIV education programs for young people, Ford was at the right place at the right time—with a car—while attending college in New York State. His school lured novelist Isabelle Holland to teach a class, but her condition was that someone drive her to and from her home on Manhattan’s East Side.
“I was the only one in the class with a car,” explains Ford. “We became good friends.” Holland, also the author of more than 50 books (most famously, The Man Without a Face, the 1993 movie that Mel Gibson directed and starred in), helped Ford land a job, while still in college, editing nonfiction at Macmillan Children’s Books.
There, he advanced to writing nonfiction with 100 Questions & Answers about AIDS: What You Need to Know Now, which was translated into more than a dozen languages. The American Library Association named it, as well as his follow-up, The Voices of AIDS, a Best Book for Young Adults.
As far as his “coming out,” Ford says, “There never really was one. I came out, I guess, to my friends, but there was never any big announcement.
“I was stamped as a gay writer, but I was too young to really care. I didn’t care,” he explains. “It worked out to my advantage.”
Branching into YA novels in 2000, Avon Books allowed him to include gay characters, but only in minor roles. “Back then, it was the only way you could get them in, but my editor was very supportive,” Ford says. Also, he wrote them under a female pseudonym, Isobel Bird.
“All things you pick up from being in the publishing industry,” he explains. “Main characters were girls, for marketing, and there was still a lot of fear that if you were gay and writing for young people, people would assume you must be a pedophile. We’ve moved long past that,” he adds. “At the Lambda Literary Awards years ago, they couldn’t even find five books to nominate. Now, there are probably more Young Adult novels than any other category.
“There is absolutely a market for gay stories,” he explains. “We used to call them ‘problem’ novels. They were about a problem that needs to be addressed, like teen pregnancy or drug abuse. They’ve just become ‘books.’
“The most important thing I’ve learned is that children want books that affirm their identity,” says Ford. “Boy, girl, black, white, children of divorced parents. When they see themselves in a book, it makes them feel important. They were worth writing a book about. That’s what I want them to take away from it. If other people get that, that’s great, too.
“I probably get 20 to 50 letters a week. E-mail makes it a lot easier for people to write. I get a lot of mail from young people.”
They thank him for writing books about gay teenagers. “You have the East Coast and the West Coast, but there’s a whole lot of land in between where things are not that different than they’ve been,” he says.
With a dozen Lambda Literary Award nominations and five wins under his belt, Ford says he likes to write one adult book and one YA book per year. “The Jane Austen series has been a joy from beginning to end,” he says. “It’s been really gratifying, especially from Jane Austen fans, who are probably the most protective. They have really embraced this.”
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.