This year's winner was author Bill Konigsberg for his YA novel, "Openly Straight"
|2014 Sid Fleischman Humor Award Winner and #LA14SCBWI Conference Faculty Bill Konigsberg|
Rafe is from Boulder, Colorado. He plays soccer. He hates tofu. He's won skiing prizes. He likes to write.
And, oh yeah, he's gay. He's been out since eighth grade, and he isn't teased, and he goes to schools and talks about tolerance and stuff. And while that's important, all he wants is to be a regular guy. Not that gay guy. To have that be a part of who he is, but not the headline, every single time.
So when he transfers to an all-boys' boarding school in New England, he decides to become "openly straight" -- not so much going back in the closet as starting over outside it. The transformation works: Rafe revels in a new group of straight guy friends, and the chance to be "just Rafe" at last. But things get complicated when he falls in love with one of his new friends... who doesn't even know that's a possibility.
Bill Konigsberg not only writes funny, he interviews funny. See for yourself...
* * *
Lee: Hi Bill - congratulations! Please tell us about finding out you'd won the 2014 SCBWI Sid Fleischman Humor Award for "Openly Straight!"
Bill: I was in a coffee shop, and when I got the call I jumped up and down like one of those studio audience members on The Price is Right after the announcer calls their name. People winced. Airborne is not the greatest look for a balding, middle-aged guy with a bit of a belly. I was simply so thrilled and honored and blown away. I was also super psyched because now I could throw around the title “Award-Winning Humorist.” This is most useful when I make a joke and it falls flat. I can follow-up with, “. . . said the award-winning humorist.” I should mention that my brother is livid. There is an ongoing battle for the title of “Funniest Konigsberg,” and he was not amused that a book I wrote actually received a humor award. I should also mention that the actual title of “Funniest Konigsberg” probably goes to Woody Allen, whose full name is Allen Konigsberg.
Lee: Ha! Well played, sir. The challenge Rafe faces that makes him move to an all-boys boarding school to start over is that in his old high school, he's just seen as "the gay kid." As a writer of teen novels with gay main characters, do you see a similar trap in being seen as "the gay writer?"
Bill: Absolutely! Openly Straight is in many ways about my own experience dealing with confining labels, just translated into a high school arena. I call this phenomenon “Gay Fatigue,” which is funnier if you pronounce it French. “Gay fah-tee-gay.” Sometimes you just want to be a person, not a “gay person,” whatever that means. It can feel very limiting to be put in a box with a tidy label like that. And at the same time, the label is there for a reason. It helps describe some of my experience, something that makes me (relatively) unique. It’s surprisingly complicated, and unpacking all these feelings was a very invigorating experience.
Lee: "Openly Straight" is really funny; from its premise, to situations, to dialog, to interior voice - like this moment on page 91, when Rafe is with his mom in the car and he says,
"Please tell me you're not taking me to your Shambhala Mediation Center place again." One time the previous summer, she got it in her head that I needed more serenity. Serenity is apparently like a great, big fabulous party, except without food or people or talking or fun. She was not amused when I told her afterward that if she'd wanted me to shut up, she could have just stopped by my room and told me to shut up.
Do you have different strategies in writing different kinds of funny?
Bill: Well first, bless you for thinking that’s funny! Openly Straight is not necessarily a comic novel, but I certainly enjoy writing scenes that I find humorous. As a reader, I enjoy novels that can make me laugh and cry on the same page, so it’s definitely that sort of experience that I set out to write. The great thing about writing a book is that authors can keep all the good stuff and throw out the bad stuff. Meaning that Openly Straight is wittier than I am on a daily basis by far, because all the failed attempts at wit have been deleted. But that also means that I am always working. So many times during the day, I have to write myself an email or dictate on my iPhone a funny turn of phrase that comes to me. I really rely on that, because while there are organically funny things that come to me while writing, just as often the good stuff comes to me while I’m in the shower, or driving. So I’m grateful for the ability to mine that material and use it later. By the way, don’t take your iPhone into the shower.
Lee: Is a particular funny moment (like the one above) a product of inspiration, or revision?
Bill: I think the funniest moments are moments of inspiration, and those moments CAN’T really be revised. Revision is a valuable tool, but I don’t necessarily think of it as a part of the process where a book gets funnier. In fact, for me it’s just the opposite. In my current work-in-progress, The Porcupine of Truth, there was a scene in a farmer’s market, where a hipster does a Chaucer-inspired slam poem rap about being de-friended on Facebook. I thought this was one of the most clever scenes I’d ever written. My editor agreed it was funny, but in the end, it didn’t move the story along. So it got cut, and rightfully so. It all needs to serve the story, and sometimes we have to kill our darlings. Revision is where funny moments go to die.
Lee: "Revision is where funny moments go to die." I think that needs to get needlepointed onto a pillow, somewhere. In our culture, a boy-girl kiss is generally seen as PG, while a boy-boy kiss is seen as R (or certainly PG-13.) How did that impact your writing the scenes where Rafe physically expresses his mutual attraction with another male character?
Bill: Openly Straight was the second book I’ve published in which there is a boy-boy kiss scene, and I’d say that I am painfully aware of that double standard. A scene that remains in the novel was called “nearly pornographic” by an early reader in the industry. I don’t think a similar scene with a boy and girl would ever garner such a comment. On the positive side, I think this is all changing rapidly, and that’s a great development. I think we need more kissing in our books. The good kisses teach us how to love one another, and the bad kisses teach us lessons, too.
Lee: That's pretty sage of you, Bill. You use the thematic device of Rafe writing self-examination journal entries as homework assignments, and add to it the supportive - and challenging him to deeper self-examination - notes of his teacher, Mr. Scarborough (who is also the faculty advisor to the boarding school's GSA club.) By showing the gay-supportive adults in Rafe's life, do you feel like you're in some ways mentoring your readers as well?
Bill: I suppose as an afterthought, I do think that. I mean, I have always wanted to support and mentor young LGBT people, especially those who write. But the reality of writing this book was so much different than that. I found myself in some ways critiquing my own writing in those notes. In the novel, I use the E.L. Doctorow quote, “Writing is an exploration. You start with nothing, and learn as you go.” What I didn’t know was that the exploration wasn’t just Rafe’s—it was my own. Through writing Rafe’s essays, I learned something about writing as a performance, and how that’s different than writing from the heart. That sounds like a simple lesson, but I can definitely say it has impacted me a lot in the last couple years.
Lee: Okay, for this next question, I need you to imagine time and space are bendable... Given that you're in a longterm relationship with another man yourself, what would it have meant for you to read "Openly Straight" when you were a teenager?
Bill: I’m not a hundred percent sure what you mean with the question. Do you mean, Do I wish I’d been able to read Openly Straight as a teen? If so, the answer is yes. Boy. I wish I had read any number of these LGBT YA titles when I was a teen. I felt so hopeless and alone, and I absolutely felt like no one knew what it was like to be me. To see someone like me reflected in literature would have made a huge difference in my life. I have heard from so many teens that they are Rafe, and they are seeking their Ben. Or they are Ben, and they are seeking their Rafe. I was definitely in that place as a teen, and to have had an opportunity to meet Ben and Rafe between the covers of a book would have been an awesome and empowering experience.
Or do you mean, Do I wish I could bend time and space and, as a teen, could read a book by older me, who was now in a longterm relationship? If you mean that, I think that would have been such a life-saving thing for me. I felt at the time like I’d never meet that one special person, because, face it, there weren’t a lot of options at my high school for an out gay kid, as I was. I had no vision for anything outside my own realm. To have been able to know that, 25 or 30 years down the road, I’d be married to a great guy and writing novels for teens? I can hardly imagine what that would have done for me. It would have been like an “It Gets Better” commercial, only with down-the-road proof! I think we should work on a time machine-slash-It Gets Better program to help teens. Let’s get on that.
Lee: Lets! When did you first join SCBWI, and can you share how that's helped you on your journey as an author?
Bill: I think SCBWI is a great opportunity to commune with other writers and to be part of a writing community. It’s so valuable to me, and it always has been. I joined for the first time when I was writing my first novel, Out of the Pocket, back in about 2005. As an unpublished author, it was useful to travel that path with other aspiring authors. As a published one now, it’s useful to stay connected to others who are engaged in the same type of creative process. I write at a coffee shop where people know me but they don’t KNOW me. Meaning, they don’t know what it’s like to sit down at 8 in the morning, look at a blank screen, and start creating something that’s not existed before. But friends and colleagues from SCBWI definitely do understand, and that is empowering.
Lee: In addition to attending #LA14SCBWI - The 2014 SCBWI Summer Conference - to accept your Sid Fleischman Award, you'll also be on faculty, giving the Sunday breakout session "The Seven Deadly Sins Of Young Adult Dialog." Can you tell us more about that workshop?
Bill: Ah, the seven deadly sins of young adult dialogue! I am a lover of good dialogue, and hopefully I write some once in a while. What I’ve done is compile some common mistakes—such as “Oldstering,” “Plottishness,” and “Ontopicide”—and I’ve created examples from fake novels by make believe authors to show what NOT to do. At the end, we have an opportunity to try our hand at writing unbelievably bad dialogue. It’s a lot of fun.
Lee: That DOES sound fun - and very instructive! What advice do you have for other writers working on their novels for teens?
Bill: My best advice is to work hard at your craft, to believe in what you’re doing, and to write the book that only you could write. I’m serious about that. The market is flooded with books that could have been written by anyone. Write something that is, through and through, you. What no one talks about in conference workshops about getting published is that getting published is just the beginning! You’ll need to convince an apathetic world to pay attention to your book. It’s tough work. How does it stand out? Which leads me to my last bit of advice: Write a novel for teens—or any novel, really—because you absolutely have to. If it’s not like drinking water or breathing oxygen, if it’s not that important to you, find something else to do, something normal. I do believe this is the greatest job in the world, but it comes with so many ups and downs! So you have to need it, not just want it, or I promise you’ll turn away when it gets tough. Which it will. That level of desire is truly necessary.
* * *
If you'd like to hear, learn from, and cheer Bill on as he receives his 2014 Sid Fleischman Humor Award, join us at the upcoming SCBWI Summer Conference, Aug 1-4, 2014, in Los Angeles, California.
Information and Registration here.
Would you like to win a free copy of "Openly Straight?"
Leave a comment here on this post in the next seven days, and we'll randomly choose one winner!
(Make sure to include your contact email in the comment - if we can't reach you to let you know you've won, we'll have to choose another winner.)
Illustrate and Write On,