By Jeff Walsh, Oasis Editor
With the release of her new book "Billy's Boy" this month, Patricia Nell Warren writes the third novel in the series that began with "The Front Runner" in 1973. "The Front Runner," about a long distance runner who is outed on his way to the Olympics, has sold over 10 million copies to date, and may be turned into a film in the near future.
With "Billy's Boy," Warren tells the story of John William, a 14-year-old youth living in the early 1990s. As a plaintiff in the overturned Communications Decency Act, Warren crusaded to make the Internet safe for queer youth expression and information. She is also the advisor to YouthArts, an artistic area for queer youth to share fiction, poetry and other forms of expression. Her words continually appear in Oasis in her "News You Didn't See on TV" syndicated column.
So, Warren does maintain a lot of ties to today's queer youth. Those ties pay off with the richness found in "Billy's Boy." John William is a confused teen, who through the course of the book finds out about his family and himself. He's obsessed with science and his next-door neighbor, a boy his age. But as the chapters unfurl, John William's world slowly comes crashing down around him, as he learns about his father and the secrets from which his mother tried to protect him.
"Billy's Boy" stands on its own, in that you don't have to know what happened in "The Front Runner," and its sequel, "Harlan's Race," to get right into the story. But, once you finish, you'll know what the two next books are that you'll want to read.
Warren brings a richness of detail and realism in writing about gay youth. The characters are people we know, but the story isn't one we've read before. And "Billy's Boy" doesn't, like many books involving gay youth, tie everything up in a big happy bow at the end. There's resolution, but it's more like real life. Every resolution brings up a new question of what might happen next.
This also isn't a case of Warren merely exploiting a best seller by trying to milk familiar characters for all they are worth. John William is born in the final pages of The Front Runner, so the intent was always there to continue the story, she says. Having not read the previous two books, I still had a great reaction to Billy's Boy as a standalone experience. Warren says she initially planned "Billy's Boy" as the sequel to "The Front Runner," but problems occurred when she sat down to write the sequel.
To write John William as a teen, the story would have to be set in the early 90s. Warren was writing it in the 1970s.
"It was a little bit hard to write about the early 90s in the late 70s," Warren said in a recent phone interview. "I felt really uncomfortable writing what amounted to science fiction, so I went back to Morrow [her publisher at the time] and I said 'I can't do this, we're going to have to wait.' They agreed and we tore up the contract, and I had to return the money."
Looking back on the decision from the vantage point of the late 1990s, Warren is relieved she didn't write "Billy's Boy" back then.
"I'm so glad I waited. Because, even though you could see the religious right were kind of waking up, AIDS was not around yet, we were just barely out of Vietnam. It was such a different world then," she says. "I would have been an idiot to try and wing it with that story. So, I went and did other things, and in the early 90s when I had moved to Southern California, and it was time, I said 'Oh, now I could do Billy's Boy.' But, the country had changed. And I realized there had to be another book in between, so that was when I did 'Harlan's Race,' setting the stage for 'Billy's Boy.'"
As it stands now, The Front Runner series mark decades of gay history. The initial story detailing the 1970s, "Harlan's Race" chronicling the 1980s, and "Billy's Boy" speaking for the 1990s. Warren plans one more volume after the millennium to complete the series.
Of course, some people might wonder how Warren, in her early 60s, can bring a realistic voice to a 14-year-old gay youth of today. She says writing in a voice other than her own is nothing new for her.
"It was pretty much the same question that I had going into 'The Front Runner,' which was written from the viewpoint of a 39-year-old ex-Marine track coach," she says. "But, you see, the secret here is, and I know this a question a lot of people have, but for writers who write from inner viewpoint characters, this is our challenge: to be able to really put your viewpoint of the character and see the world through that person's eyes."
Warren says she is certainly not the first writer to pen a book from the viewpoint of a teenager. There are other examples out there, such as Catcher In The Rye.
"The challenge is to work, think and imagine," she says. "I certainly have talked to a lot of kids and I had several kids who were consultants on the book. When I was about three-quarters done, I showed them a draft and they had some really wonderful suggestions."
Fortunately for Warren, her consultants ranging in age from 16 to 23, thought she was on the right track with the story. She says they took their consultant status very seriously and read the book in a very professional manner. One consultant who had read "The Front Runner" even found an character in the first book that wasn't mentioned in "Billy's Boy."
"Sometimes you think you've made things clear, but you didn't. For instance, the old drag queen at the end, Billy's mother. There was one kid who said 'What happened to the drag queen? Why didn't you bring her into the story? Nobody ever does old drag queens. You ought to have a really, really old drag queen and show her as getting old with dignity.' And he was right!" Warren says. "Why didn't I think of that? He was the one who thought of it. Great suggestion. So, I went back and reintroduced Frances, because it totally makes sense."
Warren doesn't even hesitate when asked why she puts so much emphasis in her work and life on today's youth.
"That's our future," she answers before the question is even finished. "Coming from the Native American background that I come from, where there was such an emphasis that the children are the center of everything. I think we've had a problem in the community in getting clear about that."
Warren says there needs to be more of a dialogue between the generations in the gay community. She says older members of the community need to invest in the younger generation, making sure they finish high school and college. But beyond financial support, the older generations have a lot to offer the new generation, she says.
"We need to invest in them our experience. That's the value of being older, that you've been there and done that," she says. "A lot of the young people I talk to have a hunger and need for that kind of parent-type relationship with older people, a positive relationship. That's how you roll over the experience into the younger generation. It's important to share those things and that's the way it works in the straight world. Otherwise, they're constantly reinventing the wheel with each generation, which makes no sense."
Warren admits there are people who are afraid to, or don't want to, interact with queer youth.
"Some people are very afraid to be involved with young people. They're afraid of the morals charges and the accusation of being a pedophile," she says. "Well, guess what? We're going to be accused of that anyway. So, I say damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. And then there are people in the community who are very glad not to have children, and don't want to be bothered. I can tell you horrible stories of lack of caring that I've run into right here in Los Angeles, where basically I went to people for support and got the cold shoulder."
Warren says today's youth are in the middle of a huge custody battle between the religious right and more liberal voices.
"The religious right are fighting with the rest of the country for access to the next generation. In their minds, it's a question of who is going to control those kids. So, the issues of censorship are bigger than gay youth, although they include gay youth," she says. "Issues about privacy, sex life, making your own decisions about your life, how the criminal justice system is going to treat young people, censorship of school publications. These are all different areas where the religious right want to get their way of controlling young people."
Warren says this is a crucial battle and one the liberal causes can't afford to lose.
"Whoever wins the fight, that's going to be the direction the country goes in in the next 20 to 25 years," she says.
Many years ago, when Warren was younger and felt sexually different, she tried to avoid those feelings.
"I did what many women of my generation did, which was to hope the whole feeling of being sexually different would just go away. I got married and tried hard enough to make it go away," she says. "It didn't work, and it was a very horrible, messy marriage by the time I had been in it for 16 years. Eventually, I saw that it wasn't working."
Warren has always written, though, ever since she was first published in the Atlantic Monthly when she was 17. When her marriage ended, she knew it was time to write openly about her life and her feelings.
"It was time not just to come out personally, but as an artist and to write about gay life and gay experience from a lot of different perspectives." she says. "That's the kind of writer I am, I like to look for different perspectives."
For "The Front Runner," Warren picked a familiar topic, as she was one of the first women marathon runners when long-distance running was a new sport in the late 1960s. She says the sport at that time, which she also wrote about for sports magazines, began to attract a gay element.
"I began running into other people like myself. This was right around the time of Stonewall, so it wasn't like people were running around with 'I am gay' tattooed on their forehead," she says. "But people were beginning to inch out and there was a tremendous influx of people in distance running."
Warren compares the appeal of distance running in the late 60s to rollerblading and other extreme sports today.
"It was very counter culture. People dressed like hippies to run in the races and there was this atmosphere and attitude around it that was very different from track and field and the more traditional sports," she says. "So, in the middle of this counter culture atmosphere were college students, girls and boys, who were coming out little by little. So, the coming out thing was part of the growth of distance running as a sport. I started noticing this and thought there are other people like me here."
Being a writer, though, Warren saw bigger things than just a community amongst runners.
"I saw the potential of this incredible story that nobody had ever written," she says, "which was the story of a gay athlete, gifted enough to make the Olympic team, being outed on his way to the games."
Warren used "The Front Runner" to crush the stereotypes people had about gay people, that they were merely artistic and involved in the arts world, or hairdressers. And even at that early time, Warren says people had an awareness of drag and that scene.
"What there was not was the concept that a gay man could be very macho and what a lot of straight Americans would consider 'normal,'" she says. "The assumption was that if a man was in athletics, he was straight. So, I wanted to attack all these stereotypes, so I went down the list of all the stereotypes in the course of writing 'The Front Runner' and did my best to explode them."
Warren's next battle is trying to bring "The Front Runner" to film. There has been interest in making a film of the best-selling book ever since it was released. Paul Newman owned the rights for a year, and the rights have changed hands repeatedly, until a few weeks ago.
Warren instigated litigation against the current owners of the film rights to "The Front Runner," settled out of court and owns the rights again. She hopes to bring the story to film in the near future, and wants to be involved in the production.
"The movie is still there to be made. There's still interest and always has been," she says. "I'm now talking to some independent producers, and hopefully in the next couple of months, I'll have a deal."
With her activism, drive and success, it certainly seems like Warren will go the distance in this new arena, too. I can't wait to be invited to the movie premiere.