Joel & Jennifer

Sometimes I wonder what Joel would think of me. What might we have said to each other if by some quirk of fate we’d ended up at the same party in college, or run into each other at BookPeople?

We’re not far off in age, just about a year and a half. Joel goes to the University of Texas and I did my undergraduate work at Southwestern University, just north of Austin. In 1990, when Joel’s a freshman, I could get from Georgetown to Austin in less than twenty-five minutes, a feat anyone familiar with current Austin traffic would find shocking. I went to Sixth Street; I hung out at the same bars where Joel talks for hours with James. What if we’d somehow been introduced?

I can’t imagine Joel would have liked me. In 1990, I was quiet and self-conscious. I liked my Gothic Literature class and read The Monk aloud; when I paused, my roommate called “don’t stop” from her bedroom upstairs in the condo we shared. I had a black cocker spaniel with a white goatee. My boyfriend went to Texas A&M.

I was boring as hell and Joel would have thought so, too.

Fast forward seven years. In 1997, Joel’s working his way out of what happened with James. He’s meeting Adam. He has his first art show, his first bad review, his first taste of cocaine. In 1997, I was taking my qualifying exams for my PhD. I was buying my first house, in suburban Fort Worth. I was obsessive about getting to the gym. I have a hard time picturing Joel coming to my pink brick house for a dinner party. I don’t think he would’ve been able to sit still. I think whoever he brought–Jess, most likely–would have put his hand on Joel’s leg under my glass dining room table to stop it from jittering.

Jump with me to 2002. Joel’s actually in a pretty good place: free from his father, living with Adam, painting in his new studio. I, on the other hand, had brain surgery that May, when I was pregnant with my son. I was still thinking about Joel, but for the first time since I’d started writing in his name I couldn’t get in his head. Hormones, probably. I was all MOTHER. Meeting me, Joel would have been polite; he learned small talk from his father. He might even have been nice. After all, living with Adam teaches him a certain amount of patience. I just don’t think he’d want to see how I decorated the nursery.

Let’s look at 2007. I don’t want to spoil what’s coming in Slow Burn, but I can tell you that Joel spends time in Austin, Chicago, Greece and Buenos Aires. Did I leave the city of Austin in 2007? I’m not sure. My son turned five that year. I bought another house, closer to Pearl Street than ever; I’m always trying to get closer. (Ten years and three houses later, I’m a mere 1.6 miles away.) I wrote when I could, mostly during the few hours a week my son was in preschool. I was struggling to find balance between writing, motherhood and a gym membership I wasn’t quite ready to relinquish. Maybe Joel and I could have bonded over yoga; I was just beginning my practice in 2007. Otherwise, we were no kind of match.

I know Joel so intimately, and still I crave more. Sometimes ours feels like such a one-sided relationship. Joel’s a gift I get to unwrap daily: receive, receive, receive.

Of course, I also give him life.

Copyright © 2017 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

Closer Than You Think

It’s always a little heartbreaking to finish writing a novel.

For years I feel as if I’m in the middle of something. I can open my laptop, find my place in my draft and instantly be somewhere else. The unfolding is exquisite. I’m a voyeur, on a ride I don’t want to stop. That I don’t write chronologically–meaning that the first scene I write might be one of the last, the last scene one of the first–just adds to the delight. No matter how much I think I know what’s going to happen, my characters still manage to surprise me.

Most of the time I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.

The end always comes fast for me. I’ll think I still have a good month or two of writing, and a week later I’m done. I’ll send out copies to my beta readers, then listen to what they have to say and assume I’ll need a few weeks to incorporate their suggestions. Days later I’m drawing out the editing process just so I can spend a little more time before I have to say goodbye.

I feel unmoored when I’ve finished writing a novel, emotional and off-balance. Joel and James and Adam: they center me like nothing else. When their story ends, I flounder. I need to know how I’m going to get my next breath.

I’m waiting for my last beta reader to give me her feedback. She’s been with me since I wrote The Crossing, and her honesty borders on brutal. She’ll likely have suggestions; fingers crossed. That will give me a chance to play just a little bit more.

Then the time will come to share this story.

I’m going to ensure that as many people as possible can read what happens next. So stay tuned. You’re closer than you think.

Copyright © Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

 

Slow Burn

jenhritz-184I finished writing Slow Burn.

I keep typing that sentence, then erasing the words. I’m thrilled, of course, and so ready to share with you what happens next for Joel, James and Adam. At the same time, I’m mourning the way I feel when I’m in the middle of something good.

Slow Burn isn’t what I expected. I expected to see more from Adam; I expected to write in his voice. I expected to fall in love with James. (I didn’t.) I envisioned this novel ending in November of 2009, not the previous spring. I thought that after reading Slow Burn you’d have the whole story.

Then, four months ago, I realized I was struggling with the end because I’d already written the end. I moved the seventy pages that comprised the beginning of Part Three into a blank document, which will eventually become the fourth novel in this series. Doing so changed the narrative arc, and the focus. Everything I’d written up to that point became the point. I thought I’d just been writing context. I was wrong.

Now I’m ready to read through the novel, from the beginning. I’ll do that more than once. In a couple of weeks, my beta readers will receive copies. I’ll give them a month, then take their comments into consideration (or not). I might revise a bit, though I’m not anticipating any major restructuring. I know these men. I know what happens to them. There isn’t much more to say, not in this novel.

Over the next few months, I’ll be keeping you updated: on this blog, on social media, and with videos I’ll be posting soon. Get excited. What made you crazy in The Crossing and I, too, Have Suffered in the Garden you’ll find amplified in Slow Burn. What felt hot will burn you better. The tears you cried you’ll cry again, because Slow Burn tells a story of circles, and what happens when the labyrinth never ends.

Copyright © 2016 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

The Second Time Around

Both booksMany authors, once they’ve published their books, never read them again. I understand why. Misspellings and minor discrepancies, especially given the time most writers spend revising and editing before publication, are cringe-worthy. Stumbling across entire paragraphs in need of elaboration–or that should be scrapped entirely–can be downright demoralizing. Better to just focus on the next novel, right?

When that next novel involves the same characters, however, looking back at those previous books becomes a necessity.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve reread both The Crossing and I, too, Have Suffered in the Garden. I started with The Crossing (chronologically speaking, that novel comes first, but was published second), and finished Garden yesterday. As I expected, I found misspellings and minor discrepancies, as well as the inevitable paragraph in need of elaboration or omission. Those errors weren’t what got to me.

Here’s what did.

Joel has balls. Somehow I missed that in the writing of The Crossing, which took a good twenty years.

James has an agenda. He’s also a coward. (For the record, that last sentence was really, really hard for me to write.)

Loving someone and feeling like you shouldn’t be with them sucks. That just might be the most banal statement I’ve ever made, but James’s angst was profound for me with this reading.

Coming out in the nineties, especially in Texas, was arguably more difficult than coming out in 2016. There’s the second most banal statement I’ve ever made, but I keep thinking of Adam’s rant in Garden about the next generation of gay men:

They have no idea what I’ve gone through, what any of us who came of age in the eighties had to endure […] They’re too busy reaping the benefits of the groundwork we were responsible for laying […] I just can’t stand the sense of entitlement I see, the defiance I find undeserved.

Joel’s father has more nuance than I remembered. His mother, while she has her own story, makes me crazy.

Ashley (James’s sister) and Lindsey (Adam’s niece) are little scene-stealers.

The sections that were once my favorite no longer speak to me in the same way. This makes sense, I suppose; I hadn’t read The Crossing since 2013, and I hadn’t read Garden since 2010. My favorite scene overall? The one in The Crossing where Joel picks up the guy who wears too much hair product. I’d entirely forgotten the wording at the end of that scene, and whoa. I felt such a tremendous sense of foreboding.

Parts of each book made me cry. I knew what was going to happen, but I cried anyway. I don’t know if that’s because I love these men so much, or because the scenes in question (I’m thinking specifically of Joel sitting on the floor of the closet in his old bedroom at the end of The Crossing, and Adam talking to his father over Thanksgiving at the end of Garden) are actually that heartbreaking.

The big revelation? My third book might actually be two. I’ll know soon, because next up on my agenda is reading the 171,000 words I have so far. (For reference, The Crossing is 195,000 words, and Garden is 120,000). Either way, I promise you’ll have something to read soon. (That’s writer-speak for within the year.)

In the meantime, I invite you to reread one or both of the novels I’ve already written. I promise your take will be different the second time around.

Copyright © 2016 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

I’ll Take It Any Way I Can

Someone recently asked what inspires me, and I’ve been contemplating the question ever since. My answer is nothing grandiose. I might hear a story of great travail; I might bear witness to a friend’s evolution following a period of trauma and feel amazed. Those aren’t the moments that make me want to write.

InspirationWhen I first saw Katherine Torrini’s Narcissus, I knew I had to have the mixed media piece for myself. Her work inspired my first short story, and introduced me to James’s voice. Every time I see this piece–which hangs on my living room wall, across from my desk–I’m newly enthralled.

But I don’t need something visual to move me. A year ago I was talking to a friend of mine, who told me I didn’t need to get too entrenched in negotiations with the buyers of a property I was then leasing. “They’re just trying to sugar talk you,” my friend said in his perfect southern drawl. I immediately snagged on his words. Sugar talk? I’d heard of sweet talk, but never sugar talk. What a quintessentially Texan phrase, the sort of phrase James would use–and does, in the novel I’m currently writing.

Then there’s scent. Swing & SmokesA year or so ago, out with friends on a Friday night, we sat drinking wine at a local bar where porch swings hang from the trees. Porch swings, like the one that graces Joel’s house on Pearl Street in college. I was already intrigued, and of course my friend Amie, who knows me well, suggested we have a seat. As soon as I caught the scent of a freshly lit cigarette from a table nearby, I borrowed one for myself. I don’t smoke–ever–but the lure in the moment was too tempting. Someone snapped this photo at the perfect time.

I like the details. Jeans torn around the ankles, a smile like a fish hook, a scent so slight it’s almost imagined. I don’t want the story already told, however beautiful or transformative. I want the prompt, the promise of seduction. Make it subtle, so I can play.

Copyright © 2016 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

Chocolate and Tears

Some of you know that I tutor children in creative writing. I’m very careful about selecting these students, in part because I don’t profess to have a set of rules about how to write well. Honestly, I’m not even sure good writing can be taught. Encouraged, perhaps. But the writing processes of the authors I know don’t add up to any sort of rubric. What I offer the few children I work with on a weekly basis is the freedom to write what they want, without fear. I give guidance, certainly. But mostly what I do is hold space for them to get to know their characters and feel their way forward as writers.

Last week, when I arrived at Isabel’s house for our two-hour session, she had a tea party laid out for us.

tea party

We chatted for a while, and then she told me her news. She’d finished writing her novel.

Isabel is twelve years old, and she’s good. Edge-of-your-seat good. There’s no doubt in my mind that you–or your children, because she writes books for young adults–will read her books at some point. The novel she just finished is her second. She started writing it the first week of November. It’s 91,000 words. If I could write that fast, you would’ve had my third novel years ago.

After Isabel told me her news, she added, “And that’s why I spent Wednesday crying and eating chocolate.”

I knew instantly how she felt. So often, people don’t understand. They think the finished product, the book launch, the reviews, the sales… are the point. They’re important, of course. I love sharing my books with my readers, and those of you who take the time to write to me personally to tell me how these men have affected you have a special place in my heart. But there’s something about what happens between a writer and her characters when the last word has been written but the book hasn’t yet been shared.

I feel a profound connection to my characters, and to the stories I’ve written. I live an alternate reality for years. When the story’s over, the heart breaks.

Isabel’s confession felt especially resonate because the day she finished her novel, I finished writing Part Two of my third novel. I don’t usually write in a linear fashion–as a matter of fact, the last scene of Part Two was the first scene I wrote–but for some reason Parts One and Two appeared first this time around. (Part Three remains to be written.) I finished Part Two, and I cried, and I started a read-through of what I have so far.

The read-through took a week, and I’ve had to take the last few days to recuperate. To cry and eat chocolate. What’s getting me through is knowing I still have Part Three to write. I’ve started, of course, and I know what’s going to happen.

But I have a little time before I’ll need that chocolate again.

Copyright © 2016 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

Your Stories

pipeI’m not going to steal your stories.

I said I might, but I lied. I’ll listen to your stories; believe me, I’ll listen. I’m naturally curious and I ask a lot of questions. An hour with me might wear you out. I can’t help myself. I want to understand your motivation. You’re James from Joel’s perspective, a puzzle exquisite in its intricacy. I want to figure you out.

But I’m not interested in appropriating your narrative.

My relationship with my characters might be my most intimate. When I’m writing, I’m experiencing them. As them. The words that come to me aren’t mine. They belong to Joel, to James, to Adam. Whatever they’re seeing, hearing, touching, I’m seeing, hearing, touching. I can smell the smoke from their cigarettes, taste the beer in their mouths. I can feel Joel’s paintbrush between my fingers, grip the steering wheel of Adam’s BMW beneath my hands. I’m not sitting in front of my laptop in Austin, Texas. I’m Joel, watching his father light a cigar. I’m stumbling around a cemetery in Greece, drunk and jealous and pissed, and my name isn’t Jennifer.

If I steal your stories I have to get in your head. And I don’t want to experience you that way.

Your nuance: now that’s what seduces me. A gesture, the inflection of one word. A laugh I’m not expecting from your mouth. That look you gave me when you took your eyes from your cell phone… I don’t think you realize how far that’s going to go. All day every day I’m waiting for the moment that sticks, the one that makes me stop right where I am and pay attention. If you have it, I want it.

I don’t need to steal your stories. I like my own. But I’m taking you in anyway, the way Joel would take a hit from a joint. I want what you do to me. I want you to make me high.

Copyright © 2015 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

When Characters Disappoint

Joel can be such a prick.

I love the guy, but there’s no question that his behavior in The Crossing leaves something to be desired. He’s manipulative and passive-aggressive, self-indulgent and self-loathing. I’ve had readers tell me that if they weren’t so sucked into the story they would’ve shut the book. He can be that despicable.

Of course, in I, too, Have Suffered in the Garden Joel comes off as the complete opposite. Maybe that’s why so many of my readers struggle with Adam’s infidelity. Joel’s so nice, and he’s doing everything he can to be there for his partner.

Adam can be such a prick.

Both novels I’ve written in first person, which means as the reader you’re getting a head full of the narrator. You’re seeing everything from one perspective and that perspective is wildly skewed.

On a weekly basis I work with a handful of girls on their creative writing. We meet one-on-one for an hour and chat about what they’ve been thinking over the past week, then read through what they’ve come up with and talk about what’s working (and sometimes what’s not). I love these girls. They’re smart and insightful and so captivated by the stories in their heads. And they’re so keen to share what they’re thinking. It’s a privilege to have a glimpse into their worlds.

About a month ago, one of the girls was freaking out. She’s twelve and she’s writing a novel—and before you say how cute, believe me when I say that this girl has what it takes. A handful of times I’ve wanted to steal her lines. She’s that good. So Kat was freaking out because she’s writing this book about two teenagers who get lost in the Canadian wilderness during a flash food, and she was at the point in her writing where her characters have become separated from each other. The story’s told from the girl’s perspective and for weeks all Kat could talk about was the girl’s boyfriend. What was he doing, what was happening to him, how was he going to find the girl again? I kept telling her to chill out, that she didn’t need to know what the boyfriend was doing. She just needed to concentrate on her narrator and when the boyfriend showed up he’d tell his story.

She didn’t seem to hear me. Every week she’d show up and say the same thing: what’s he doing, what’s happening to him, how’s he going to find her again? Every week I’d tell her to focus on her narrator and when the boyfriend was ready he’d show.

Then she told me she was afraid he wouldn’t. That he’d abandon his girlfriend altogether.

Oh.

As writers, we fall in love with our characters. We really do. We follow them through one ordeal after another and we just want them to be okay.

And we really don’t want them to disappoint us.

Kat had been so preoccupied with the boyfriend because she’d built him up in her mind as the kind of guy who’d do whatever it took to find his girlfriend after she fell into the river. She didn’t want him to be the kind of guy who gave up.

Now, you might be thinking that she’s the author so she gets to decide. But that’s not how it works, not for many writers. These characters have lives of their own. They make their own choices. We just tell their stories.

I’m about halfway through the writing of my third novel, and this one has three narrators. Joel and Adam both have a voice, and this time James does, too. The only time prior to writing this novel that I’ve written in James’s voice was when I wrote “Mixed Media,” which won the Chris O’Malley Fiction Prize a few years ago. If you read that story (subscribe to my blog and I’ll send you a copy), you’ll want to wrap your arms around James. And the way Joel goes on and on about him in The Crossing you can’t help but think he’s a good guy, even though he makes some mistakes along the way.

A few days ago I was at Steeping Room with a beautiful green coconut tea and my laptop, my conversation with Kat fresh in my mind. I was ready to write a scene, one I’d been thinking about for a long time. Told from James’s perspective, this scene takes place on Christmas in 2006 and has a very specific, disturbing end. All I had to do was get to that end.

But nothing was coming. I couldn’t even see the scene I’d envisioned anymore. Instead I was being pulled in a different direction and god, was I fighting it. Because James wouldn’t behave the way the scene wanted to be written. He wouldn’t make the mistake he was about to make. He was better than what he wanted me to write.

I had to squeeze my eyes shut when I touched my keyboard. I’m sure I was cringing as I wrote. Every so often I’d have to stop and catch my breath.

And let go.

James doesn’t belong to me. I’m in his head right now but I don’t get to make his choices. He makes his own.

And he can be such a prick.

Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

Sharing Space

Steeping RoomI used to write alone. I preferred my office, the familiarity of my own desk, the proximity of my electric kettle and a full container of breakfast tea. I’m not someone who gets distracted by laundry and unmade beds, partly because I’m not the type to leave my bed unmade much past the time I wake up in the morning, but also because once I’m working I’m vigilant about blocking out anything else. I don’t answer the phone, I don’t respond to texts, I don’t sift through the bills. I hold my writing space sacred.

A few months ago I started a new writing project that, while fictional in nature, doesn’t revolve around Joel and James and Adam. This is something peripheral, just for fun, and because a friend of mine was starting a similar project I asked her to come over one night so we could work in tandem. We chatted a bit but mostly we wrote and drank wine. I invited her to return.

Somehow that evening opened the door to another friend, then another. After a few weeks, to escape the house for a few hours when my son was in summer camp–he’s a bit of a homebody and as a single parent I often find myself at home in the evenings–I started writing at Steeping Room, a tea house not far from where I live that allowed me to sit outside, drink beautiful coconut tea and disappear into Joel’s voice. (That peripheral writing project still feels very peripheral.) At first I showed up alone, but soon those same friends who’d found their way to my home in the evenings started meeting me at Steeping Room. Austin experienced a mild summer and for a while we were happy sitting outside, but the heat eventually drove us indoors, where some of us switched to hot tea and others indulged an addiction to iced tea and simply brought along a sweater.

I’m there often, often enough to know the wait staff by name and for them to be familiar enough with my preferences that they quietly slip another glass of beautiful coconut tea beside my laptop without having to ask me what I want. A year ago I would’ve insisted that I couldn’t work amidst such chaos, but I would’ve been wrong. As long as I have earbuds with me, I have no problem shutting out the lunch crowd.

Still, I have to stay out of my own way. The friends I meet there are among my very best. I light up when I see them, and I want to talk to them. Every so often I do. But most of the time I resist. The temptation of my fiction feels far greater, and I know that once I’m in that world I’m in deep. Pull me out and I’m probably pissed, because I know what I’m losing when I turn my attention elsewhere: the perfect paragraph, the right turn of phrase, at the very least the train of thought that will get me exactly where I want to go.

Sometimes I think about Joel, about that moment in The Crossing when he’s painting and decides he’s too deep in the process to meet James for a drink. He makes the call to cancel, then finds himself stuck in a loop of justification.

The more time I have to spend explaining myself the harder it’s going to be getting back into the paint. Already I can feel the image I’ve been seeing loosening its hold, fading into the background.

I know from experience that it doesn’t take long to lose that image, and sometimes it’s crushing when I do. So I’m judicious about who I ask to meet me. And though I almost always see someone I know while I’m there–someone who shows up to meet their own friend, for their own reasons–I usually don’t linger.

A week or so ago I was writing with my friend Amie when someone dropped by to see her. Amie has only been writing for about a year and a half but she’s so lost in her first novel it’s breathtaking. Sharing space with her feels magnetic, and though I pulled my earbuds out long enough to say hello when her friend arrived I went right back to my writing. After he left Amie told me that he could feel the energy surrounding us as he approached our table.

I can feel it, too. And I want to hold it close.

Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

Raspberries, Wine, and Chocolate

Joel and JamesSomeone asked me recently what it’s like inside my head. I told him what some of you have already heard, that it’s all raspberries and wine and chocolate. I’m all filled up, because I’m always writing, even when I’m not.

Last week I met a friend for wine. He tells a good story, and I grilled him a bit about his fraternity days in Vermont. He was talking about hazing and drinking and I was completely focused on what he was saying until he paused and looked up at me. You’re not filing this away, are you? he asked, For one of your books?

Well. Maybe.

I wasn’t consciously thinking about my fictional world as I was listening to him, but as soon as he asked the question I realized that somewhere in the back of my mind I was all caught up in James. Because James was in a fraternity. Because the experience shaped his college years. Because in my third novel, the one I’m writing now, he still thinks about that year he quit.

So yes, it’s possible that part of my friend’s story will end up in my work. At the very least, I left the bar inspired.

Though I’m always thinking about my work, I’m not always talking about my work. People might ask me about my books, but they’re not asking about my characters. So I’ll hear, “how’s the book?” or “how’s your writing?” But the people who text me a photo of the train tracks at Zilker Park when they’re hanging out there with their kid, just because they know I’m going to immediately go in my head to my photo shoot last May (see that beautiful photo at the top of this post, and view it in dim light so you can really see the nuance) are few and far between. My friend who told me about his fraternity days texted after we met for wine and asked, “What are your characters up to now?” and I swear I felt a pang of something so sweet right in the center of my being. For someone to speak so familiarly about these men who inhabit my waking (and sometimes dream) hours feels incredibly provocative to me.

I have plenty of friends who haven’t read my books. Most of my family members, too. Sometimes it’s the subject matter that makes them procrastinate; sometimes it’s time. Their reasons always sound so strange. I don’t judge them; I get it. I really do. I’m busy, too, and the bottom line is that if one of them were to write a book about a subject that feels foreign to me–baseball, for example–it might take a little prodding to get me to read it. At the same time, I feel like my work is that proverbial window to my soul.

If you know my characters, then you know me.

Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

A Day in This Writer’s Life

Many days I’ve spent in isolation, save for the company of my characters. Those days are some of my favorites. I like nothing more–as you know, if you’ve spent any time reading my blog posts–than getting lost in my characters’ heads. But I don’t always have the luxury of entire days to myself. I’m a mother, a friend, a reluctant dog owner. I, too, run out of groceries and cave to invitations of wine, even when I have stories in my head clamoring for release.

And still I make it through. I make it through because I’m always thinking of my work. My characters seep in around the edges of my consciousness, and carry me. They really do.

I thought you might want to know how that works. How this writer’s life fills up with images and phrases and moments stolen from others who will never know that their look, their smile, their particular turn of phrase ended up fodder for inspiration.

My alarm goes off. It’s light outside, but barely. I’m not thinking about my characters at all. I’m thinking about fixing beds and packing lunches and cajoling my child. But then, on the way to the bus stop an hour later, an SUV catches my eye. We’re at a stoplight, and the driver isn’t wearing a shirt. I can tell because his window’s open. Large sunglasses hide his eyes. He’s young. I’m already combing through my characters. Would Adam drive anywhere without a shirt? Hell no. Would James? Maybe… Joel?

I can think of six thousand reasons why Joel would end up behind the wheel of his Explorer without a shirt. And those reasons stay with me through drop-off, through a trip to the bank and a fill-up at the gas station down the street.

Then I’m home. I step in my house and take a deep breath; there’s a whiff of something other here, in this seventy-four-year-old house of mine, and I know there are days when Joel walks through his front door and breathes in the same scent.

Connection: that easy.

Breakfast, email, time to tweet. Last night I happened to stumble across a link to a live show of Soulhat’s, from August of ’91. I watched it over and over, and now I play it again as I post the link on Twitter. I might have been at that show; I know Joel and James were.

More email, some copywriting for a friend who’s launching her website later this month, then lunch with author Susan Michalski. We meet at South Austin Trailer Park & Eatery, because we’re obsessing about tacos and Topo Chico. I’m well aware that Torchy’s opened in 2006, after Adam moved to Seattle. I wonder if James has ever been. Sue and I talk about our work and nothing but our work for an hour: what we’re writing, who’s reading what we’re writing, what it’s like to watch a photographer shoot a scene that we’ve written. I envy the fact that she needs only a few hours of sleep a night: how much more could I write if I slept less than six hours?

I know how much. I’ve done it before.

Back home my terrier screams at the neighbor’s dog as I sit down at the table on my back porch. I want to string some colored lights around the railing like James does in The Crossing, but I can’t find an electrical outlet. I post something on my Facebook author page, a question about who would be more likely to see a psychic, Joel, James or Adam. I scroll through my email again, fill out an enrollment application for school for my son, message a friend of a friend who wants me to tutor her daughter in creative writing. I have one hour left to get in my yoga practice before I have to run to the store and then head back to that bus stop. Yoga: today I tie my hair in a ponytail at the nape of my neck, where Joel would tie his.

I wouldn’t say I spend my entire yoga practice in Joel’s body, but I’m there for more than a breath.

I head to the bus stop. I have a convertible of my own and I put the top down on the way. Joel had a convertible, back in ’95. He doesn’t talk much about the wind in his hair in The Crossing, but he does in book three. The music I play as I’m driving has James written all over it, especially “February Stars” by the Foo Fighters.

I pick up my son. He wants an entire meal at 4:30, and a water balloon fight in the backyard. He has way better aim than I do. By the time we’re finished I’m soaking wet and have to leave to tutor another student. I drop my son off at a friend’s house in Hyde Park, not too far from my house, and just blocks away from where James rented that garage apartment in graduate school. I’m tempted to drive up Avenue G, to see if I can spot the place. Instead my eye’s drawn to two men walking along the sidewalk to my left. I notice them just as they reach a place where hedges on either side of the sidewalk grow tall enough, and curve inward enough, to form a tunnel. So cool. I want to know what they’re doing in there, what’s being said. I want to know which of my characters would disappear into that tunnel, but I really don’t have to think for long.

It’s Joel and James. Of course.

I tutor. I pick up my son. He wants more food, and book time, and help falling asleep. I end up answering emails on my phone: I’m trying to get on a panel at the Texas Book Festival, and author Ann Weisgarber wants to update me on the interview questions I sent her. My friend has questions about her copyedits. My marketing expert needs me to write up a description of a special project I’ve undertaken. I feel like I should take advantage of the hour I have before sleep overtakes me to write a bit, but I’m not sure I’m in the right mental space. I spend my time texting with various friends. I like connection.

By midnight I’m done. I fall asleep thinking of that guy in the SUV this morning. I liked his arms. Where can I work that in?

Somewhere. Undoubtedly. At the very least it’s in my head.

Where I’m always writing, even when I’m not.

Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

An Interview with J. H. Trumble

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,

Dont let me go

Where You Are

Where You Are

and Just Between Us.

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.

Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

Writer, Interrupted

A few months ago I wrote a blog post for someone called “10 Ways to Keep Writing over the Holidays.” My ideas are sound, and personally tested. I really did write part of The Crossing sitting in the mist outside Laguna Gloria while my son took an art class. I really do believe that the more I move my body the more profoundly I can connect to my creativity. And there’s no question that I do my best to prioritize joy. I have nothing to give to anyone or anything around me–and that includes my fiction–if I don’t find at least a little space to take in the ballet or meet a friend for wine.

Some of the other ideas I mentioned in that post aren’t sustainable. I’m happy to stay up every once in a while to get in some extra writing time. But when I stayed up night after night for two years because I had a toddler and no other time to write I eventually crashed. Taking a shortcut here and there–the example I gave in that blog post was buying cupcakes for my son’s holiday party instead of firing up my KitchenAid mixer–makes sense to me. But I don’t like taking shortcuts all the time. I don’t like half-assing anything.

The trick seems to be finding the right combination of staying up late and taking shortcuts and prioritizing joy.

I’m still learning.

I do know that I write best when I have a swath of time to immerse myself in my characters. Fifteen minutes isn’t enough. An hour isn’t enough. I need several hours–at least two, and ideally three–when I’m completely unplugged. No texts, no emails, no Facebook notifications. I remember my mother telling me once that when you’re deep in work and you’re interrupted it takes twenty minutes to fully reengage. I have a feeling that’s pretty accurate. For years I’ve ignored the doorbell and let my phone roll to voicemail. The few times I’ve answered, the first question I’m asked is if I’m okay. Not because I sound irritated as hell (though I usually am), but because I sound completely out of it. I am out of it. I’m somewhere else. I’m someone else.

Writing this today I can’t help thinking of that phone call Joel makes to James in 1999. He’s in the back room and he’s painting, and for the first time in so long he thinks he might actually be able to finish what he started.

Joel's Supplies

But he’s supposed to meet James, and when he finally picks up his phone to cancel their plans James won’t let him off get off the line. This is what happens next:

I turn back to my easel the second I end the call. But I can’t find the image. I try to coax it back, like a lover gone astray, let my eyes fall to my palette. The colors shimmer in the light. I touch my brush to the paint, then try a half a dozen strokes. Nothing. I take a step away, go into the kitchen and pour myself a glass of water. Take a few deep breaths. I can lose myself again; I’ve been interrupted more times than I can count over the years and slipping back inside has never been a problem for me. This time won’t be any different. Cracking my knuckles, I go back to the canvas.

Gone. 

I don’t want to lose the words in my head. I want to lose myself in my characters. I want those wide swaths of time. I want a few hours when I have nothing and no one to answer to except my Muse.

That’s how I write my books. Not in bits and pieces, not a handful of minutes here and a few seconds there. But by surrendering myself wholly and unreservedly.

My characters deserve nothing less.

Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved.

My Own Exquisite Puzzle

“I could never write a book,” someone said to me recently. “It just seems so hard.”

But writing books feels so much easier than anything I’ve done so far today. Writing books feels easier than waking up this morning at 5:15 for no reason I could ascertain, then falling back asleep about five seconds before my alarm went off. Writing books feels easier than discovering we have a third “snow” day here in Austin, Texas, and knowing that the novelty has totally worn off for my bored, eleven-year-old son. Writing books feels easier than trying to convince my son that if he’s old enough to listen to music with explicit content on Pandora, he’s old enough to step up and feed the damn dogs. Writing books feels easier than trying to capture my terrier as he tears around my backyard, howling at the Weimaraner next door. Writing books even feels easier than writing this blog post, which I’ve done with interruptions to make hot tea and answer a phone call and retrieve my son’s favorite stuffed bat from the clutch of that demon terrier’s tiny jaws.

Getting into Joel’s head and writing his story? That’s nothing. It’s not even work. It’s the best kind of play. Even revision doesn’t feel tedious to me.

Occasionally when I’m on Twitter I see tweets from writers talking about how difficult they find the writing process. I never understand.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying I find the process effortless. Sometimes the words don’t come as quickly. Sometimes I work for hours and come up with nothing more than a single paragraph. But even then I don’t feel like I’m working. Instead I feel patient and grounded and wholly curious about what comes next.

In The Crossing, Joel says:

James is […] something I can’t wrap my head around under the best of circumstances, and which tequila renders downright impossible. He’s mystifying, a puzzle exquisite in its intricacy, the one thing I want to figure out. At the same time he’s the simplest thing I know right now, my one constant other than the painting, as sure as the feel of that brush in my hand.

I feel the same way about my work.

Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved.