By Lucy Doyle
Sports journalist-turned LGBTQ YA novelist Bill Konigsberg is on a mission, and it’s going to take a few pit stops to make it happen. This fall, he’s driving almost 5,000 miles and stopping at hot-spot cities and towns across America to start a conversation with queer youth and allies about talking. More specifically, to talk about growing up gay, learning to write about it, and fighting raising suicide rates all at the same time. Bill is responding directly to the LGBTQ youth suicide epidemic through prompting dialogue and real human connection. “To me,” writes Bill on his tour website, “this is an issue of connection and belonging. When young people find that they are different in a fundamental way than their families of origin, core issues about worthiness erupt.”
Next week, he’ll be making his first stop in Dallas, Texas, at the Youth First Resource Center, and then high-tailing it across the country, stopping in 18 venues in 13 states. As if that weren’t cool enough, he’s raising awareness and proceeds for one of the Trevor Project’s outlet resources: TrevorSpace. With Bill preparing for his journey, I chatted with him about his upcoming tour with an altruistic message: the Trevor Project Awareness Tour, his queer YA novels, and how we can all do better.
Lucy Doyle: You’re starting in Texas. How has your experience here been in the past?
Bill Konigsberg: I do think there’s a big difference between the big cities and more rural towns. I’ve only once been to a rural area. The locals were a little less than friendly. What’s most memorable is the one time I came face-to-face with Fred Phelps. He was picketing outside.
Your tour appears to be tailor-made for hot spots in the country where queer youth are at most risk. How did these particular locations find their way onto your tour exactly?
I did it organically. I first got on social media. Then I used the contacts I already had, I said I wanted to be of service, and I’d come free-of-charge. The dates poured in slowly, then faster. Then the tour revealed itself. It actually works out perfectly—it’s pretty much a circle.
The Trevor Project is an umbrella for a holistic collection of resources and services, from direct crisis intervention to trainings to community building. Of all the projects the Trevor Project has going on, you chose to donate proceeds to TrevorSpace, the social media network geared toward queer youth. What was your thought process behind this?
For me, the allure of TrevorSpace is that connection is the most important thing. When I was a gay teen 1,000 years ago, I felt really disconnected from the rest of the world. I couldn’t come out to gay teenagers in my world, because I couldn’t find them. I think TrevorSpace is a wonderful opportunity for kids now.
What is the worst thing about being a teenager?
I have an answer for this! I think the hardest thing about being a teenager is the strong emphasis on fitting in. It’s funny, because it’s the total opposite from the reality of being an adult. As an adult, standing out is encouraged. But as a teenager, being different is seen as a weakness.
Your two previous books were told from the POV of a gay male teen, which is something you yourself have lived through. The Porcupine of Truth is a brave leap across the barriers of lived experience, with a black lesbian character and a straight white male character. How did you prepare to write these characters?
I think writing across from gay to straight is easier than the other way around. For most of us, we were raised in a straight society where we thought we supposed to be straight. Writing straight wasn’t much of a leap. But writing across race, and writing about a lesbian was definitely a leap. I had to locate my own version of that. I was afraid to hear comments that I didn’t do that character justice, so I focused my energy on making her a real person. I think, according to the responses, it’s worked.
Have you learned anything about the writing process from this new experience?
I’m constantly learning new things. It’s funny when you get to a certain point as a writer, you think you’re supposed to have a handle on everything. But it’s still elusive to me! I go through the thought process, I don’t know how to write a sentence. I guess I’m at a place of bewilderment.
Your books are geared toward adolescents and young adults. What do you think adults could gain from reading YA [Young Adult], particularly from marginalized perspectives?
I think really, YA literature is where it’s at. I know I’m biased, but there’s so much interest in the genre. And a lot of things are happening because it’s a hot area. Adults should read these stories because it’s an opportunity to understand what’s going on at that white-hot moment of adolescence. No other moment is as tenuous and life-changing as that. It’s built-in drama.
You are a funny man, and you have definitely used humor freely in your writing. As you were growing up, did you find humor to be a useful tool, or did it develop later in life?
It was really hard feeling different as a teenager. I think I did use humor to shield myself from those feelings. So many comedians are sad people. I think we’re all…the people who are funny tend to also be kind of not funny.
Your own mother was a therapist, and you play with this history by incorporating a similar character in The Porcupine of Truth. Do you feel resources like academic conferences, conferring professionals, or direct therapy are helpful to adolescents going through crisis?
I think anything that allows teenagers an opportunity to authentically connect to something is a worthy resource. I was in therapy as a teenager, and it was not at all helpful. I didn’t connect to that person. But everyone is different. And taking it back to the Trevor Project, I think the counselors are especially easy to connect with.
What other outlets do you think can be supplementally helpful?
One thing that needs to happen is a growth of adult allies. It’s powerful when there are other LGBTQ people that a young person can reach out to. But also getting that understanding and respect from people across the aisle can be incredibly powerful. I know it was for me. Allies can be a source of some of the most powerful work out there.
With your most recent book, you really seem to flirt with the idea that there are different kinds of love. I think this is a really important point, especially for people coming-of-age and feeling a disconnect between their affections and the ones that are forced on them by society. Could you elaborate on these different kinds of love, and why do you think society places so much emphasis on romantic over, say, platonic or companionship love?
Romantic love is sexier. I think it’s easier to talk about. When we start to talk about things like love on a higher connection, it makes people uncomfortable. Talking about those sorts of connections, it seems to weird people out. I don’t know why, it just seems to.
As a writer with a love of prose, I’d like to challenge you: in five words or less, please give your advice for LGBTQ youth interested in writing fiction.[Laughs] Embrace the challenge: do it!
You can help Bill raise $25,000 for TrevorSpace, the social networking site operated through the Trevor Project for LGBTQ youth ages 13-24 and their friends and allies. The Trevor Project Awareness Tour allows you to donate funds by texting “TREVOR” to 41444. As Bill would say, Embrace the challenge: do it.