By Jeff Walsh, Oasis editor
In "The World of Normal Boys," K.M. Soehnlein takes readers on a journey through the late 1970s in suburban New Jersey, a place where the seeds of 13-year-old Robin MacKenzie are beginning to grow in the shadows of New York City, an amazing place so close but yet so far from his life. Soehnlein's debut novel is a richly textured story that can go from heart-warming to heart wrenching in a page, due to his measured, rich storytelling.
While Robin comes of age in the 1970s, which lets Soehnlein exercise his pop culture muscles, the story is really timeless, and is just as poignant and relevant to anyone who has either had, or is still going through, his or her sexual awakening. Soehnlein avoids the pitfalls of many coming of age stories, which paint every secondary character in broad, soulless strokes that just enable the main character to advance within the plot. Soehnlein paints a rich canvas of family, friends, and friends that become more, giving every character a hue and subtlety that adds to the overall reading experience.
Reading "The World of Normal Boys," you get the immediate sense that Soehnlein knows his territory and pulls you through the story with the learned prose of someone who, if not telling his own life story, certainly shared many commonalities with his main character. Soehnlein, 35, recently sat down with Oasis to discuss his book, the amazing reaction it's gotten, and how his story morphed a mystery involving an urban queer twenty-something in New York City to a suburban coming-of-age page turner.
"It's not my story in that it's not a story from my life," says Soehnlein. "I think Robin's emotional life, interior life is a lot like mine. The sex stuff is really a conglomeration of a lot of my friends' stories, where you all sit around and say, 'This was my first time,' and 'This was my high school crush,' so I was always hearing those stories and I really wanted to tell those stories. I think we tell them to each other a lot, but it still remains a semi-taboo kind of topic, 14-year-old boys having sex with another boy that age. I felt like it deserved the whole treatment."
Soehnlein says he never really set out to write a coming of age story, the term most frequently used to describe the novel.
"He's so young and he only progresses for four months in his life. I don't think anyone really comes of age by 14, although it does have that hallmark of sexual awakening," says Soehnlein. "Robin is exploring his sexuality at the same time that his family is in crisis, and the book is a tension between those two things. It's not really about coming of age, it's about coming undone. It's about his world cracking open and just being in this muddle for four months. By the end, he's emerging from it, but he's never going to be the same. He's going to be a rebel in a way that he wasn't at the beginning of the book. His view and understanding of his place in the world is going to shift."
Soehnlein says the book that has been met with critical accolades and positive reader feedback (just check Amazon.com to see for yourself) was actually never intended to be about junior high school and its awkward awakenings.
"I kind of backed into it," Soehnlein admits. "The story was initially about a guy who was 25 in New York, where I was living at the time, and it was a whole story happening in the world where I was living, but I wasn't getting anywhere. I didn't have any perspective on it, and I couldn't see it very clearly. So, I did one of those writing school exercises they tell you about, which is to go back and make up the entire biography of this character, make up his family, where did he come from, what happened to him 10 years earlier, and the next thing I knew I was writing a story about Robin MacKenzie when he was 14. I got really excited about it."
Soehnlein drew on images and memories from his own growing up to inform his protagonist.
"It started with this photo I had of my sisters and I on the first day of school, and I was looking at that photo, that my mother had taken, and thinking about that moment where kids are dressed up on the first day of school and their mothers take a picture of them looking nice, which was a little ritual in my family," he says. "So I wrote that scene of the kids all having a fight the night before, with the brother not wanting to wear the trousers his mother had picked out for him. And I just got interested in that family."
Writing seems to be an innate characteristic for Soehnlein, who says he "always wrote diaries."
"I still own my fifth grade diary, and I recently went back to New Jersey, where I grew up, and had to clean out the attic because my dad is selling the house I grew up in, and I found so much writing," he says. "It was kind of nice to see that I'd always created stories. I didn't really get serious about it until after college."
Soehnlein went to film school, and thought that was where his future would take him, but film had a lot of overhead for someone getting started, like equipment, crews, and money. So, Soehnlein started taking writing workshops instead and started to seriously pursue writing.
"In terms of writing a novel, I just got really frustrated writing short stories after a while, because I got tired of always coming up with the next thing. I thought I just want a big project I can sink my teeth into and stay with and really develop," he says. "And for me, it was really cool to write about New Jersey, and I'm going to keep writing about New Jersey in one way or the other for a while, because I really it's just what I know, it's in my bones."
Despite his love for the MacKenzie family, Soehnlein insists that Robin's story has now been told, and there will be no follow-up novels.
"The end is the end, although I'm reserving the right to write about Robin's sister, who I think got the short end of the stick in this book," he says.
Soehnlein also has no concerns about being pigeonholed as a gay writer (thankfully avoiding the seemingly mandatory response as of late where authors say they are gay, and a writer, but not a 'gay writer.' End mini-rant.)
"I don't reject being called a gay writer," he says, shrugging off the question. "I think it makes more sense than to say you wrote a gay book, because a book can't have a sexuality. I do think it's possible to be a gay writer who writes stuff that gets read by non-gay readers. It depends on who's in your life. If you're a gay man with almost exclusively gay male friends and you live in a gay ghetto in a gay urban city, then you work will be about that experience. The way you live your life is the way your fiction is going to come out."
Soehnlein also reluctantly admits to a love-hate relationship with Amazon.com, where many writers regularly go to see how well their book is selling with its up-to-the-minute sales rankings.
"I am not to proud to admit that I check my Amazon page regularly and I follow the reviews," he says. "But, Amazon is sort of the best thing and the worst thing for writers. It's great because it's a way a lot of people find your book, a way that people talk to each other about what they thought. But, in some ways, it's the worst thing because if your book doesn't have a lot of marketing money behind it, and the first review that gets on there is by someone who doesn't like it, that's the only thing sitting there with this Amazon ranking of 100,000. That would be pretty devastating. Amazon is also problematic for a lot of bookstores, and gay bookstores in particular, but it's been a really good way for people to find out about the book, and a way for people to find the book in places where there aren't gay bookstores and community centers that are really strong."
Soehnlein isn't saying that hypothetically, as he has been getting amazing feedback from people all across the country, including a 14-year-old boy from upstate New York.
"I don't know how he found the book, but he found my Web site after he read the book, wrote me an e-mail about being 14 years old and coming to terms with his sexuality, and 'your book has made such a difference' so we've had a little e-mail exchange," Soehnlein says, smiling thinking about the impact his book has had on this kid, and probably countless more who haven't written.
Soehnlein keeps himself busy, though. In addition to odd freelance writing jobs, he plays clarinet in a rock band called The Cubby Creatures ("We have a violin and clarinet in what is essentially a pop-rock band with psychedelic overtones, and now we have this sort-of Klezmer-gypsy sound going on as well. It's kind of crazy, and we do a lot of things together. We have a cable access show, a Web site, and a zine."), as well as being well into writing his second novel, which is set in San Francisco.
"The main character is a guy about my age in the present day whose father just died, and he's looking into his father's past, who came to San Francisco when he was 20 years old in the 1960s," says Soehnlein. "So, he's investigating, looking through old letters and talking to people, and he's piecing together what his father's life was like. So, it's a father and son story, it's got grief and loss in it, but it's also comparing San Francisco in 1960 to Y2K. It's also about living in an age of irony today compared to an age of discovery back then, because I think people were more idealistic and less cynical."
With a second hardcover printing already out there, and a paperback version coming out in August, "The World of Normal Boys" will get into the hands of a lot of people. If you have any interest in hauntingly beautiful writing about universal experiences and adolescent yearning, make sure you're one of them.
Visit "The World of Normal Boys" Web site.
Read excerpts from the novel.
Hear Soehnlein read from his novel.
Tell Jeff how you liked this story.