I’m thrilled to be able to bring you a personal interview with J. H. Trumble, two-time Lambda Literary Award nominee and author of Don’t Let Me Go,
Where You Are
and Just Between Us.
I met Janet last year through the proprietor of a local Austin bookstore called Bookwoman, and was intrigued from the beginning. How could I not be intrigued, given that, like me, Janet writes from a gay male perspective? I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in a joint reading with her and Austin author Russ Gregory, and today I’d like to share with you our recent conversation.
1) Tell us about your latest Lambda Literary Award nomination, and give us a little bit of background about Where You Are. The plot’s a provocative one, isn’t it? What was writing that book like for you, and how was it received by your readers?
I have to admit that Where You Are is the work I’m most proud of, so I was delighted when it was shortlisted for a Lambda award. WYA was also the easiest of my three books to write. Maybe that’s because I was writing about two worlds that I knew so well—public school and a family dealing with a terminally ill person.
I was actually working on a different book when the idea hit me to write about a teacher. I have a good friend who has been married to his wife for more than 40 years now. He was her history teacher. She was a cheerleader. He fell for her, but waited until she graduated to ask her out. I was intrigued by their relationship and couldn’t help but wonder what it would take for a really good guy like him to cross that student/teacher boundary before she graduated.
So I gave my main character a young man in crisis, a young man who was fairly mature for his age and who was just months away from a milestone that would render their relationship perfectly legal, and then I just let the relationship develop.
I had only about a week to think about it before I sat down to write. For the six weeks it took me to pound out the first draft, I never once lost the thrill of the initial idea. It was pure Nirvana!
Overall, the book has been well received. Most readers have really liked it, but those who haven’t generally object to the student/teacher relationship. It’s a very black and white issue for them. But I can’t help seeing the world in various shades of grey. Yes, the main character crossed the line, and yes, he suffered the consequences of his actions. But I just can’t see the relationship as wrong.
2) I have to ask the same question my readers ask me. Why gay men? Why are you drawn to your characters and their particular stories?
I get asked that question a lot. The answer is really simple.
The genre is underrepresented.
And my daughter is gay.
Young gay men and young gay women need more role models.
They need to know that they’re okay, that they’re going to be okay, that being gay isn’t what defines them, but merely a part of who they are.
They need characters who are like them, taking on the world, triumphing, falling in love, breaking up, screwing up, having their hearts broken, feeling their hearts burst with love.
But just as important, the straight world needs to experience the same thing.
They need to know that their gay brothers and sisters, cousins and friends, parents and teachers, neighbors and elected officials are really no different than they are.
They need to know that they can root for a relationship between two young men or two young women just as they can for their straight counterparts.
When I first considered writing Don’t Let Me Go, I read everything I could find in the genre. Most of the books seemed to fall into one of two categories—coming out stories and erotica. I don’t know much about the latter, but the former already had some great books out there.
But I wanted more, and I couldn’t find it.
So I wrote my own book about the challenge of long distance relationships, then a book about a forbidden relationship, then a book about a difficult relationship.
While there is a coming out element in each of the books (that’s just reality), coming out is not the focus.
Those are the books I want to read, and those are the books I want to write.
So I write novels about gay young men.
Why not gay young women?
Because my daughter is gay.
It feels a little intrusive to me.
Maybe when she’s older.
3) Sometimes I get the impression that people think I’m pilfering the lives of my gay friends for story ideas (when in reality I’m pilfering the lives of everyone I know!). Where do you get the ideas for your novels?
From everyone I know, from my own life, from news stories that affect me. I tend to write about moments that just won’t let me go because they were side-splitting funny, or tragic, or frightening, or infuriating. The assault in Don’t Let Me Go came straight from a similar crime in my area. The young man eventually committed suicide. I wanted to give him the hero he so desperately needed. The family trauma in WYA came straight out of my own life, much fictionalized for the story, but moments and even dialog were just as I remember them. In Just Between Us I borrowed heavily from my experience during Hurricane Ike and from chaperoning my son’s band trips. My books are, in some ways, chronicles of my life.
And just to set the record straight, I’ve never been involved in a student/teacher relationship! But I’m sure my school colleagues could read WYA and recognize far too much.
4) I’d love to hear about your writing process, and I think my readers would, too. Do your characters live in your head and keep you awake at night? Or do you come up with a topic and think, this would make a good story, and then go to work?
My characters definitely live in my head and keep me awake at night. Once I decide what I want to write about and determine the characters who will live in my story, I think about them all the time—while I’m driving, in the bathtub. They are behind the blank stare when someone’s trying to engage me in a conversation. My daughter says I talk to myself. I don’t even realize it, but I guess I’m working out dialog to see how it sounds.
I keep a Word document going with snippets of dialog and scene ideas that I want to use but I’m not ready for yet. I don’t use much of what I put in that document, but it gives me a place to troll for ideas when I’m not sure what comes next.
5) I love that we see glimpses of characters from one of your novels to the next. What makes you go back to the same characters–or at least the same fictional community–again and again?
Unfinished business! At the end of Don’t Let Me Go, Nate does see Luke again. It’s ten years later and Luke is with his fiancé Curtis. I love the way Curtis crushes Nate’s hand when he shakes it. A little warning? I had to know what that was about. I had to know what got Luke there. So I wrote JBU. And therein, we meet Robert. In one scene, Robert has dinner with Luke’s family—a rather awkward dinner. When Luke apologizes for that awkwardness, Robert tells him it’s no more awkward than dinner with his own family. And I thought, huh. Why?
So almost two years later when I came up with the idea of writing about a teacher and I needed a student in crises, I thought about Robert, and WYA was on its way.
I love it when that happens.
6) How do you feel when you’re writing? Do you find the process difficult? Smooth and easy? What’s your favorite aspect of writing your books, and what do you find most challenging?
It’s different for every book. With my first, DLMG, I just wanted to write a novel. My goal was to hit 50,000 words. And I did it! But the story wasn’t finished, so I wrote a 50,000-word sequel. The two books eventually became DLMG and underwent significant rewriting to combine them.
JBU was torture. I completely rewrote the book at least three times and then revised it until I just couldn’t work with it anymore. I’d love to take another crack at it! But that’s why it was published third. It just wasn’t ready.
WYA was a breeze.
I love watching the novel unfold, seeing connections that I didn’t even know were there, finding those threads that I can pull through. And I love it when my own books make me laugh or cry.
7) In your most recent novel, Just Between Us, you write about a high school student, Curtis, and his reaction to a positive HIV diagnosis. What kind of research did you do for this novel? How have readers reacted?
In the early drafts of JBU, Curtis did not have HIV. But I knew he was keeping Luke at arm’s distance. I just couldn’t figure out why. What would be serious enough to keep two young men who are clearly smitten with each other and who are openly gay from starting a relationship?
HIV was the only thing serious enough to do that. The plot line was born and the research began. My sister-in-law is a doctor. She’s worked with AIDS patients, so I picked her brain plenty. I read And the Band Played On to understand the historical perspective. I corresponded with a young man who wrote an article for The Atlantic about his sero-discordant relationship. I talked to several young gay men whom I became friends with after the publication of DLMG about their feelings about dating an HIV positive man. I read every current article I could find on the current state of HIV. And I became friends with a woman who lost her brother to AIDS in the late 1980’s and whose son is gay and now living in San Francisco.
What I learned is that HIV is very manageable today. But it’s still a devastating diagnosis—the treatment is lifelong and is not without side effects, and the social stigma is significant. That was my story.
The reaction to the novel has been positive, but I do think the subject matter turns off some readers. Sales of this novel have not been as robust as they have been for the previous two.
8) What’s your favorite book of the ones you’ve written? Who’s your favorite character? Who would you like to see more of?
WYA is my favorite book, but I couldn’t possibly choose a favorite character. I love them all!
I’d love to visit all of them again. But I don’t know that I will. I am considering a novel wherein Nate and Adam are parents of a teenager, but they would be secondary characters in the novel (see below).
9) Can you tell us a bit about your current project?
I have a couple of ideas that I’ve been kicking around for a year or more. One involves a closeted married man, one is about a teenager who feels responsible for the disappearance of his sister, and one is about teenage girl with two dads. I’m not quite sure which one I’m going to tackle next. And who knows… I may come up with a totally different idea or some weird combination of the three I already have. It just works that way sometimes.
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