by Jeremy Behrens -
SGN Contributing Writer
JUST BETWEEN US
(Kensington; 320 pp)
When I first stumbled across J.H. Trumble's debut novel, Don't Let Me Go, I was pleasantly surprised to find an LGBTQ novel with themes that spoke to both younger and older audiences.
Trumble has crafted stories beyond the closet to bring to light some personal and universal issues to all LGBTQ people. Her first two novels, Don't Let Me Go and Where You Are, touched on long-distance romance, bullying, and taboo relationships.
With the release of her third novel, Just Between Us, Trumble tackles the tough issue of HIV diagnosis at a young age. I was able to talk with Trumble to get some insight into her writing style, influences, and what drives her to write these stories.
Jeremy Behrens: With the release of your third book, you have now written three novels about young Gay couples. What motivated you to cover this particular relationship with a focus on the LGBTQ community?
J.H. Trumble: In my other life, I'm a school librarian. In 2007 I stumbled across James Howe's middle-grade novel Totally Joe. It was the first Gay-themed novel I ever read, and I was completely taken with it. Soon I was combing through library catalogs for other LGBT titles. I was fascinated that there was this entire world of literature I knew nothing about. And while I loved the novels, I felt like there was something missing. The themes were becoming redundant; I wanted something more. When I didn't find that something more, I decided to write those books myself. Some of the most amazing, happiest couples I know were high-school sweethearts, so I know true love can happen at a young age no matter what the naysayers say, but it rarely happens in young-adult novels.
Also, I have a Gay daughter, so I've been on the front lines of protecting both her dignity and her rights. The name-calling started when she was in just fifth grade. I knew she was having a rough time, but I didn't know what was really going on until after she came out during her freshman year. I was, and still am, really angry at the bullying she's had to endure. Throw all these things in together and that's pretty much where my novels originated.
Behrens: The bullying scenes in your novels - particularly in your first novel, Don't Let Me Go - are, in my opinion, hard to deal with. Your Gay characters also have their own struggles with 'bullying' in their romantic relationships. Recently, a lot of news coverage has gone to anti-Gay bullying. How would you like your writing to play into that conversation?
Trumble: I've been accused of writing bad stereotypes because my characters all experience some form of bullying, Nate's (Don't Let Me Go) being the most extreme. I don't think my books would be very honest if they didn't acknowledge the sheer meanness that many Gay individuals have to deal with, especially down South. I hope that anyone who's been beaten down by the ignorant, the cowardly, and the weak-minded will find themselves in one of my novels and know they're OK, and they do have power, and a future they can live in honestly.
Behrens: Just Between Us focuses on dealing with an HIV diagnosis at a young age. What inspired you to want to tell this story?
Trumble: Originally, the only thing I knew for sure about Curtis and Luke's relationship was that Curtis wouldn't allow himself to get involved with Luke and yet they were crazy about each other. It was almost two years after I wrote the initial draft, after many wrong turns, that I finally understood why.
When I met my husband, he'd already been given his own devastating diagnosis. He had brain cancer. His neurosurgeon had told him two years previously, when he was just 27, that he had five to 10 years to live and he should just go live his life. But that's hard to do when you're a dead man walking - at least that's how some people saw him: 'Don't get involved, he's just going to die in a couple of years.'
I had to write about the stigmas that I do know, and I saw a clear parallel between my experience and that of those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.
Behrens: You had mentioned an unease about the potential reaction to the content of Just Between Us among the LGBTQ community. Could you speak a little more about that, and perhaps how, if at all, your perception has changed as the release of Just Between Us gets closer?
Trumble: You may recall the reaction to Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help. There are many African-American women who did not believe that Stockett - who is white - was the person to write their story or the story of their mothers and their grandmothers. Is that a fair assessment? I don't think so, but I do understand why those women felt that way. And I guess that's where my concern lies. Just Between Us is just one story about a young man who struggles with a devastating diagnosis, and I hope readers will embrace it.
Behrens: Luke Chesser was introduced in Don't Let Me Go as a supporting character and comes back in Just Between Us as one of the main characters. Did you always know, from the ending of Don't Let Me Go, that you would tell Luke and Curtis's story?
Trumble: Yes, as soon as I introduced Curtis in that last chapter, I knew I had to write their story too. There's that moment when Curtis shakes hands with Nate for the first time and crushes his knuckles in a warning. I had to know what that was all about. And there were other things - the affection they clearly had for each other, the fact that they both became high-school band directors, and Luke's reconciliation with his dad. That resolution seemed right to me, but I had to know how they got there.
Behrens: Family is pivotal in your characters' lives, and something that is different about your families is that most of them seem to be accepting of their Gay child or children's friends. It is very common in LGBTQ literature to tell 'coming out' stories that show a bleak reaction when family is brought into question. What made you want to break away from that convention?
Trumble: In part, I suppose, because it had already been done. In truth, though, the parental response runs the gamut in my novels. Nate's relationship with his dad is pretty darn bleak. They never get past that. His mom, on the other hand, is more worried than anything. Luke's father becomes abusive, but he evolves. And then there are some real heroes - Adam's mom and step-dad, Luke's mom, Curtis's dad. There are some great parents out there who take their kids' sexual identity in stride, and there are others who are scared shitless when their kids come out, but doggedly support them. I wanted to write about those parents too. It doesn't have to be all doom and gloom when your kid comes out. I need people to know that. I've always wanted to do that with my books - show everyone another way. Having a Gay child or being that Gay child - it's not the big, bad bogeyman people fear it is.
Behrens: Music plays a large role in your writing, particularly your first two novels. Was this something that you had planned from the beginning, or did this evolve over time?
Trumble: It was more like something I just couldn't help. If I could have found a way to give music a bigger presence in Just Between Us, I would have. But I did manage to squeeze in 'Wrapped,' which was written and also performed by Austin singer-songwriter Bruce Robinson. Music helps me understand my characters better. I'll hear a song and think, yes, that's exactly what's going on in Curtis's head, or yes, that's exactly what Luke feels when Curtis drops his bombshell. I end up collecting those songs on a playlist, burn them to a CD, and then play them ad nauseam in my car driving to work every day. I spend a lot of time just trying to get a fix on why my characters do what they do, so that I know when something isn't ringing true in the novel. Sometimes music will even suggest a plot point. I didn't make the playlist for Don't Let Me Go with the intention of including it in the book. That was my editor's idea.
Behrens: Something I appreciate about your writing is how much readers can relate to your characters, particularly in Where You Are and Just Between Us where chapters switch between character points of view. How do you approach writing these types of characters as a straight woman?
Trumble: As strange as it may sound, I don't see my characters as men or as Gay so much as I see them as human beings. The mechanics of their sexual relationships are a little different (though not that much), and I think men are generally less expressive than women, but emotionally I just don't think they're that different. So I try to write human characters. And I don't plot my books out ahead of time. I allow my characters to become, to triumph, to screw up, their lives to unfold so that, I hope, the things that happen in the novels, the way my characters react in any given situation, never feels contrived. I struggle and struggle for authenticity. I'm constantly asking myself, is this really something this character would say? Is this how he'd respond?
Behrens: Which of your characters/couples was the hardest for you to write, and why? When you say you don't plot out your books, do you mean that you don't go into the story knowing the issue (i.e., the HIV diagnosis) or that you don't know if, at the end, the characters will still be 'happily ever after?'
Trumble: Nate and Adam were the most difficult to get right, and I think that's because of what was going on in Nate's head. It's counter-intuitive. He's got this great guy who clearly loves him, but he can't accept that love because of all the shame and self-loathing, the byproducts of his assault. I wanted everything to be all right for them, but I knew that wasn't realistic, so I had to fight the urge over and over again to let them just be together. I always know there will be a happily-ever-after at the end because that's the kind of story I want to write, but I don't know how the characters are going to get there when I start out. I just know it won't be easy. And no, I don't always know the issue. In fact, the only book that was pretty clear for me from the beginning was Where You Are. Even so, I did not foresee many of the complications.
Behrens: Who are some of your literary inspirations? What drove you to become an author?
Trumble: I have to admit that my main literary inspiration was and, to some extent still is, Stephen King. I read all his books, The Stand being my absolute, all-time favorite book. Unfortunately, I was plagued by self-doubt and general craziness for many more years before I finally wrote Don't Let Me Go.
Behrens: For what it is worth, in your opinion, what is it that sets literature apart from other art forms - movies, theater, visual art - in how it touches on the human experience? Do you feel there is something literature can bring to the table those forms can't, simply because of the way we take them in?
Trumble: Really good books become a part of me because I spend so much more time in the story than I would if it were on the screen or the stage. I may read a novel over many days - even a month, if it's a really long book. I think about the characters during the day; I think about them before I fall asleep at night. I worry about them, hope for them, cry over them. It can be a much weightier experience. Off the top of my head, I can think of two moments in books that completely undid me for hours. I couldn't read on until I had regained some composure. One was in The Stand when Stu Redman was left in the ditch with a broken leg. The others had to go on. There's one line in The Stand I have never forgotten: 'And they never saw Stu Redman again.' That simple line just killed me. The subtext completely broke me, because I thought I knew what that meant. The second time I read the novel, that line broke me again because then I really did know what it meant. The first time I read that line, I was completely devastated because of what I thought was going to happen; the second time because of what I knew was going to happen. I literally put the book down and sobbed for hours both times. That one line was so powerful, and I knew I wanted to have that effect on people one day. In Stephenie Meyer's New Moon there are three chapters with no text at all - just 'October,' 'November,' 'December.' (I think those are the months.) Bella was deep in depression and that lack of text spoke more than any words could have. I had to put the book down for a while and just cry. I couldn't do that with a movie or a play.
J.H. Trumble's new novel, Just Between Us, hits stores in early October and is published by Kensington Publishing Corp. For information on all Trumble's works, visit her Web site, www.jhtrumble.com.
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