Julie Anne Peters is the acclaimed author of numerous books for young adults and children. Several of them have LGBT protagonists, or, in one case, a protagonist with lesbian moms. Her young adult novel Between Mom and Jo is in fact a finalist in this year’s Lambda Literary Awards. Her 2004 book, Luna, about a transsexual teen, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her other young-adult novels have won numerous prizes from the American Library Association and elsewhere, including several awards based on the votes of young readers themselves. She has also written a popular (non-LGBT) middle-grade series about “The Snob Squad.”
Peters wasn’t a creative-writing major who edited her school’s literary magazine before bursting into the publishing world, however. She first worked as a computer systems engineer, a fifth-grade teacher, and a concessionaire at a zoo. She holds a master’s degree in business information systems; a B.S. in computer science, and a B.A. in elementary education. She quit her job the day she decided to become a writer, though, and never looked back. Lucky for us.
Below, she talks about her writing process, her upcoming book, portraying parents, the musical adaptation of one of her works (complete with punks and goths), and what parents can do to ensure books like hers continue to make it onto school and library shelves.
You have been a teen, but you are not a parent. Is it harder to create the parents in your books without that personal experience to draw on? Where do you get the inspirations for your parent characters? Friends? Your own parents?
I remember my editor once saying, “You create the most horrible mothers. Your mother must’ve been awful.” I said, “Not at all. My mother was a wonderful person.” When my characters are being developed on the page, I never think I’m writing about real people, or even composites of people I know. Since writing for young readers means projecting myself into them and seeing through their eyes, I’m afraid parents are oftentimes the least sympathetic characters. But assembling all the qualities of a believable character requires observation and absorption of human behavior. The parents’ role in young adult literature, as I see it, is to create conflict and dramatic tension. Parents play such a central role in their child’s development that as a young person strives for independence, parents become natural, convenient antagonists.
Between Mom and Jo looks at the dark side of a relationship, as Nick’s two moms break up. One of the things I like about your work is that you’re not afraid to show LGBT characters as real, multidimensional people–as good, but also as flawed, as any others. When you wrote the book, did you ever worry that people would take your characters as representative of all LGBT parents, unable to maintain a relationship and struggling with alcoholism? If so, how did you get past this?
I agonized over the implications of putting out a story where gay parenting might be viewed in a less-than-positive light. The first letter I received after the book was published was from a lesbian mom who chastised me for the negative representation of lesbian moms. Great, I thought. Now I’m going to be a pariah. But I feel strongly that the movement toward equality progresses more rapidly if we’re honest about our human frailties; if people see we have common struggles. To me this is a story about divorce, about a young person caught in the web of a bitter breakup. The fact that Nick has two moms, that the relationship between a son and a mother is a special and profound bond, adds a level of complexity to the divorce issue that people may not even think about. Especially when legislating against same-sex parenting. I want to write provocative stories about our lives that make people realize that our burdens—as humans, as citizens, parents, children—are magnified not only by the oppressive society we live in, but also by the unique nature of our relationships.
You quit your job in order to become a writer before you had ever written anything. You then taught yourself to write. This reminds me of my own decision to leave my job and stay home to be a mother, learning as I went along. Do you feel like a parent to your books? Or more like a systems engineer, the job for which you actually trained?
Both, actually. After a book is written, there’s a long and laborious editorial and publication process. Labor and delivery is a perfect analogy for birthing a book. Yes, my books do feel like children in that I’ve nurtured each into existence. The creative process—building the bones to a story, structuring the internal organs, assembling all the arteries and synapses, the heart and brain—feels very much like systems engineering. I love the art and science of it.
Tell us a little about your upcoming volume, grl2grl: short fictions. Why did you break away from the novel form? What kinds of stories can we look forward to there?
To sustain a career in writing, a writer has to evolve. I begin with the premise that each new work I undertake must be newer, fresher, bigger and better than the last. I’m always asking, What can I do that I’ve never done before? How can I stretch and risk and keep myself and my readers excited? Young adult literature is the ideal venue to experiment with style, form, voice and subject matter. The continuous intellectual and personal challenge gives me game.
So many young readers write to me every day and share their stories—coming out, dealing with hostile environments at home and school, reconciling their faith and their truth. They ask advice about love and life. Years ago I began to keep a list of topics and themes. I thought, If I ever run dry I’ll have a reservoir of subjects to write about. When the list topped twenty-five, I realized I’d never live long enough to write that many novels. I began sketching short pieces. Off my list: My girlfriend cheated on me and now she wants me back. I don’t want to be gay, but I can’t stop the feelings I have for girls. I can identify with Luna, except I’m FTM. I met this girl online, but she wasn’t what she said she was. Please, please, please write another lesbian love story.
Returning to short form, where I taught myself the fundamentals of storytelling by writing for children’s magazines, was a rejuvenating break from novel writing.
Novels are an exhausting emotional and physical drain, since they consume my life for three or five, or in the case of Between Mom and Jo, ten years. I thought short stories would be easier. Proof that I am delusional. Each story was the equivalent of living out an entire novel with the added requirement of giving each selection varied tone, voice, rhythm and pace. At one point I counted forty different characters I was trying to bring to life. Also in this work I wanted to test the limits of fiction, to hone in on the essence of story. In several of the pieces I deliberately veered away from formal short story structure. I hope the artistry is transparent, yet engaging for the reader.
Several of the reviews of Between Mom and Jo say that the bio-mom’s refusal to let Nick see his non-bio mom is unrealistic. There have been several real cases in the news recently, though, where this has happened in real life. How much of your decision to take the story in this direction was to make a political point versus simply wanting to ground the characters in reality? In general, how much do current events and politics influence your work?
Now I remember why I don’t read reviews. I wonder if the same comment would be made about a straight couple, where divorces are often bitter and children are played as pawns. Since I’m writing contemporary fiction, current events are always driving my work. I do focus on how societal attitudes, cultural change and politics might shift the plot of a story, but only as background. My goal is to write about people and relationships.
Your last few books have been targeted at young adults, but several previous works aimed younger. Which age range do you find the most difficult to write for? Is the young-adult area where you’ve moved in and settled as an author, or will you venture up or down the age chart in the future?
I’ve always been a young-adult writer at heart. YA fiction is my first—and last—love. When I began writing and publishing in 1990, YA was a small niche market. I managed to break into publishing with early chapter books and middle-grade novels, but they were never my passion. Now I find I’m tending toward older young-adult literature as my gay novels become more sexually charged. Must be a lesbian thing.
With books about LGBT families being banned from many schools and libraries, what can parents do to ensure books like yours are available and read (besides buying them for our own children)?
Speak up. Request—demand even—that school and public libraries represent diversity in their collections. They’re funded by your tax dollars. I think it’s hard for librarians to keep up with the volume of books being published today, so if you could hand them a list of books you feel would enrich their school collections, they might be grateful. Talk to teachers about cultivating a climate of acceptance and support for your children. A lot of teachers I know buy their own classroom books and resources. Help them out with suggestions. Teachers also keep “private” collections of LGBTQ books for young people to check out on their own. These teachers are saving lives.
Make your voice heard, not only for your child, but for every one who comes after. With raging hatred throughout the world, there are no valid arguments against teaching children understanding and compassion.
Any chance we’ll see your works on the big (or small) screen? Regardless, are there any young actors you’d love to see playing your characters?
Tobey Maguire. I don’t know how he’d play as a lesbian, but I have a serious crush on Spidey.
Define “Normal” is in production as a musical for the Lifetime Channel. Sort of like High School Musical, with punks and goths. None of my LGBTQ books has been optioned for film, or even books on tape. Apparently the profit potential is perceived as low. A few indie producers have expressed interest in Luna and Keeping You a Secret. Hello, out there in Hollyweird. More representation on the big screen, please.