By Jeff Walsh
With the trilogy of books that began with "Rainbow Boys," Alex Sanchez created indelible characters that have helped thousands of gay young adults see fiction that reflected their lives. In his latest book "Getting It," Sanchez has fun with the idea of a straight teenager who wants to get the girl and, after seeing Queer Eye on TV, enlists the help of the gay kid in his high school to help him win her heart.
Sanchez spends most of his time writing in Thailand these days, so we did an interview over Skype recently.
Well, let's start with Thailand. That's interesting to me, because I spent six weeks there and actually wrote my novel longhand down on a beach on Koh Samui.
Oh, cool. When was that?
A little more than ...two years ago? Three? I'm just finishing it up now.
Excellent. What's your novel about?
It's about a guy who starts a national craze teaching people to use inner self-hatred as fitness motivation.
(laughs) Well, I've never been to Koh Samui. I've been to some of the other islands, but not that one. How did you like it?
It was really good, but I expected to see more of Thailand when I was there. It was really a sabbatical and I didn't know if I was going to end up writing or having fun, but I ended up writing religiously every day and had an entire longhand version of the novel by the time I left. So that certainly cut into how much of Thailand I got to see. But I think being disconnected from the US, and the 24 hour news cycle, and everything not being written in English, and where I stayed for a while, no one was speaking English unless I spoke to them, I think it really gave me this social vacuum where I was able to not be inundated like we are here.
Exactly. I find that as well.
So what is your connection to Thailand?
What happened is I came here two and a half years ago. My books are published here, starting out with Rainbow Boys. So, I came for the launch of that, and I just loved it. I kept coming back and eventually decided that, you know, I really like it here. So, this is really my home now.
Wow. And you just fell in love with it? Living in San Francisco as a writer is so expensive, I always thought it would be easier to support myself if I was able to do Thailand full time.
Absolutely. I find the cost of living is lower and the quality of life is higher.
So, yeah, I only did Kho Sahn Road and all the very touristy things. Grand Palace, massages at Wat Pho.
Bangkok is a huge city. I hardly ever get to Kho Sahn Road. My friends here, half of them are Thai, half are American ex-patriates, and over the last couple of years I've sort of been building this community for myself here, and I really like it.
Did you go there with a partner or are you just on your own?
I'm single. I am dating someone here, but we don't define ourselves as boyfriends.
So, "Getting It" was the first book I read, and I've since read Rainbow Boys, so I've gotten up to speed a bit. What attracted you to write for a young adult audience?
Well, Rainbow Boys, I started writing that novel a long time ago. I started writing it in 1993 and I'd been writing since college, but the writer's block I had was not being able to finish things. I would just start projects and then.. looking back, in retrospect, what I think was happening is that writing fiction is all about emotional honesty. And for me, when I would start writing something, as soon as it got too personal, too close, too intimate, then I would just get too scared, and so I'd back off from it and conveniently come up with a new better idea.
This went on for years from when I was in college, and finally I was getting to a point in my life where this was just getting too painful, too frustrating. I've got to either commit to writing something or just let go of this dream. And so I reached out for the help of some friends and it was with their help that I embarked on Rainbow Boys. When I was writing it, I was not writing it for any particular audience. I was just writing the story that was in my heart, part of it based on my own adolescence and the feelings that I had, and then part of it inspired by gay, young people today and the courage they have that I didn't have.
And so I wrote this book and then when I started sending it out to agents, the individual that became my agent, she said if I take this on, I want to market this to the young adult publishing houses. Initially, I was reluctant to that, because even though I read a lot of young adult fiction, I sort of saw that as this second-class, sort of it's not good enough to be an adult novel. I said to her, well, what about the possibility of cross-marketing it? And she was like, well, it's a possibility but publishers usually don't like to do that, they tend to target one audience or the other. So, I really liked her, so I said, OK, let's do it. And when she sold it to Simon and Shuster and I talked to them, they were like, you know we're going to cross-market this. And, so, for the Rainbow books, it doesn't have the young readers imprint on it. And the books have ended up finding this audience of both young adults and adults.
It's been interesting, with the adults what I find is that, because they are coming of age stories, those stories appeal to all audiences. And I get a lot of e-mails from adult gay men who go through the same sort of grieving process that I had in writing the book, in terms of remembering back to what it was like being a teenager, both what we did experience and what we wished we had experienced. The biggest surprise in terms of audience is in the young adults was that... Simon and Schuster, when they took the book, they really loved it, but they were concerned about sales, because even though they wanted to get it out to LGBT young people, they thought well, that's a small percent of the population. What none of us foresaw was the biggest readership has actually turned out to be straight teenaged girls. They love those books.
I know that recently, I don't know if you're aware, but someone recently posted on the site that their local school had taken it off of their summer reading list because of sexual content. Is that a regular thing?
It's been an occasional thing. I wouldn't say it's regular. Ever since the book first came out, there were these challenges to it. As an author, it's awful hard to keep track of all of them. If someone lets me know about it, then I hear about it. But the publisher doesn't pay it much attention, and I'm too busy writing new books to track everything going on with the published books, so I'll hear about them occasionally. What's really moving is how the young people come forward and they defend the books , and when I started this I always had this image of librarians as these sort-of meek, quiet people and I've since learned how many of them are just these amazing free speech champions. They believe in a diversity of voices, and those include gay and lesbian voices. Especially the school librarians, they know that for gay and lesbian kids, libraries are often the safe place to hang out in, and so many librarians are gay and lesbians and they've been tremendous champions of the books. They're my heroes.
I was just amazed because they mentioned it was removed for sexual content, and I just read Rainbow Boys over this past weekend and, to be honest, I doubled back because I thought I had missed the sexual content. I knew they had sex, but you actually had to infer or decipher what took place, it was so non-explicit. It was amazing this is what was getting banned.
It's funny. That's what happens, some people say this is just too explicit and other people are like "Huh? Did I miss something?" It really is people's perceptions. It's frustrating as an author. What I learned from my first editor, he was like "When people are reading a story, they don't want to read the mechanics of sex. What they want is the emotional experience." So, with writing Rainbow Boys especially, going through the editing process, we really focused on that. What are the boys going through emotionally? And since that first book, I'm far more conscious of that young adult audience reading the book and I realize, for them, how important it is. They're at a point in their lives, as I was, where we're really trying to figure things out emotionally. Like, what does this mean? What does that mean? And the sexual stuff, they can figure that out on their own. I think the biggest challenge is "how do I integrate what's going on?"
I guess I was poised... considering it had been banned for sexual content, I went in thinking "Alright, let's see what they're all riled up about.." And then I'd hit it and be all, did he blow him? Let me double back and try and figure this out.
I guess the other perspective is, every time this book gets banned, the book gets press. So, every time you ban it, you're helping sell it.
Yes and no, mostly what happens with young adult books, and I've learned this through the process and talking with librarians, it does get press and it does get sales. But librarians, especially school librarians, they're in touch with each other, especially now through the web. They have all these listservs and stuff. And, so, what'll happen is a lot of librarians, even though they are free speech champions, if they don't have the support of their administration, they will be wary to buy books that might be challenged. So that's the level at which censorship is occurring more. It's not the case in Rochester where the book gets pulled, it's when books don't even make it to the shelves, because the librarians are scared. So, it helps and it hurts.