Monday, September 15, 2008

In which Michael Thomas Ford answers some burning questions

Michael Thomas Ford writes adult-oriented short stories and that's it, right? Suicide Notes was his first YA novel, right?

That's what I thought for years. Turns out I was really incredibly wrong. Then, via the wonder of email, I found out that Mike is not only a prolific writer of books for children, young adults, and adults, he is funny, quick to answer emails, and a devoted watcher of sci-fi television. How could I resist asking for an interview? Read on and learn the fascinating life stories behind the most famous author you've only just heard of.

Carlie Webber: A lot of people believe that this is your first YA novel, but it isn't. Can you talk a little bit about your background in writing children's and YA books?

Michael Thomas Ford: There's a great scene in Norton Juster's THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH where Milo, after rescuing the princesses Rhyme and Reason and restoring peace to the feuding kingdoms, is told by King Azaz that he has been withholding a secret from Milo, which is that the task Milo has just accomplished was impossible. Milo, astonished, asks the king why he hadn't warned him, to which the king replies, "So many things are possible just as long as you don't know they're impossible." That pretty much sums up how I managed to forge a writing career.

My final semester in college a class I was signed up for was canceled and the department decided to offer a class on writing for children instead. The instructor was Isabelle Holland, who is best known for the novel THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE. Because I was the only one with a car I was drafted to pick Isabelle up every week at her apartment in New York (the college was in Westchester) and then drive her home again after class. We got to be quite good friends during these drives.

As the semester neared its close Isabelle asked me what I intended to do with my life. I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I had applied to Episcopal Divinity School and to the graduate school at Duke University, but wasn't really thrilled about the idea of being either a seminarian or an English professor. Isabelle suggested the publishing industry, about which I knew nothing. She called a friend of hers at Macmillan Publishing (the late Elizabeth Cater, who at that time was the director of educational publishing at Macmillan Book Clubs), who passed along my name to someone in the children's department. It just happened that a new editor (Frank Sloan, who I believe is now editor-in-chief of Rourke Publishing) had recently started and needed an assistant. He called me in and hired me because -- he told me later -- I wore Hush Puppy shoes and corduroy pants to the interview and he thought that was sort of sweet and tragic. It was all very Ugly Betty.

So I went to work at an imprint of Macmillan Children's Books. We specialized in nonfiction books for the school and library market. Because there were only the two of us working on these books I got to do a lot more than an editorial assistant normally does. Within a year I was editing books, and shortly after than we acquired another imprint and launched a third. I was editing a ton of books and more or less having fun, but I knew I wanted to do something else. It was great to work on other people's books, but I wanted to write my own. I just didn't know what I wanted to write about.

Then one night I turned on the news and Magic Johnson was announcing that he was HIV-positive. The next morning I went in and told Frank that we needed to do a book on HIV/AIDS for young people. Long story short -- I ended up writing it. That book was 100 QUESTIONS & ANSWERS ABOUT AIDS. It was enormously successful. But it wasn't until a couple of years later -- after our imprints were acquired by another company and I chose not to go with them -- that I had to decide whether or not writing was something I could do full time. Against all logic, I decided I could.

Because 100 QUESTIONS & ANSWERS ABOUT AIDS had been so well-received I did more books in that vein. An imprint of Morrow had optioned the paperback rights to the first book, and I did a follow up with them called THE VOICES OF AIDS, which was a collection of interviews with people whose lives had been affected by HIV. I then did a similar book of interviews with gay and lesbian people called OUTSPOKEN, which was a companion book of sorts to a book I'd done with The New Press a few years before called THE WORLD OUT THERE: BECOMING PART OF THE LESBIAN AND GAY COMMUNITY.

At that point I was the "social issues guy." The books won a bunch of awards and got on a bunch of best-of lists, and that's what editors wanted me to keep doing. But I wanted to try something else, and so I convinced an editor friend at Avon to give me a shot at writing middle grade fiction. She assigned me two books in the SPINETINGLERS series (published under the series author name of M.T. Coffin), which was one of the eighteen million horror series that were around at that time. I had a blast doing those, but the series ended and then my editor friend left the company. I was trying to decide what to do next when another editor at Avon called. She was new, and she had just been assigned the job of creating a series of books based on a
television show called EERIE, INDIANA, which had run for one season a few years before and which was about to be re-launched by Avon's parent company. The editor had never heard of the show, let alone seen it, and she was looking for writers for the series.

As it happened, EERIE had been one of my favorite shows. I think more out of relief than any trust in my writing abilities, the editor assigned me the first book in the series. I ended up writing nine of the seventeen books in the series (as Mike Ford), and that was enormously fun. Those are still some of my favorites of my books, and I was sad when the re-launched television series bombed and the book series was canceled along with it.

By then I had started writing the first of what would become the TRIALS OF MY QUEER LIFE series of essay collections for adults. Ironically, as I was becoming well-known as a gay writer I published for young adults a book called PATHS OF FAITH, which was a collection of interviews with leaders from various religious traditions. There was a little bit of the "is that the same guy who wrote THAT'S MR FAGGOT TO YOU?" thing with that book, and although the book was named to many best-of lists by YA review sources it sold poorly. Of course I can't be certain that my adult writing had anything to with that, but it made me a little wary.

After the EERIE books ended I pitched my editor a series of books about girls studying Wicca. At the time she said that they absolutely could not do a series like that because the topic was too controversial. So I put the idea away and concentrated on my books for adults, which had become very popular. Then, just as I was again wondering what I was going to do next, the phone rang and it was an editor at HarperCollins (which had recently acquired Avon) asking if I had any ideas for a series about girls who were witches. The result
of that phone call was CIRCLE OF THREE, a series I wrote under the name Isobel Bird (in honor of Isabelle Holland) about three girls drawn together by their interest in Wicca. It was a wonderful experience, but also exhausting. I wrote 15 books in the period of about 18 months, which didn't give me much time to actually enjoy writing them.

After COT I started to concentrate mostly on my books for adult readers, and I didn't write anything for young readers until 2007, when I did a fun middle grade romance novel (PUPPY LOVE, written as Jenny Collins) as a break between two heavy adult books. And now SUICIDE NOTES is coming out, which will be the first YA with my real name on it. I'm really excited to be getting back to YA books, as the impact they can have on people's lives is really extraordinary.

One interesting thing to note is that when I first started writing for young adults I had an editor (a lesbian, by the way) tell me that she could never publish fiction with my real name on it because people would be put off by the fact that I was openly gay. I assumed that as my gay-themed writing for adult audiences became more popular I was making it even more impossible for me to publish YA fiction under my real name. When I was asked to do SUICIDE NOTES I actually offered to do it under a pseudonym. To my delight they insisted that
I use my name precisely because of my popularity with adult readers. It's amazing how things have changed in the last 15 years.

CW: What inspired you to write SUICIDE NOTES?

MTF: Abby McAden, my editor on the CIRCLE OF THREE SERIES, wanted me to do
a stand-alone novel that featured some of the humor of my books for adults. Eight or nine years earlier I had briefly worked on a novel idea about a boy who wakes up in a psychiatric ward after a suicide attempt. It was written in the form of letters between the boy and his best friend, who is a girl. I asked another writer friend to work on it with me, and for about a year we actually exchanged letters as the characters. But then we both moved on to other projects and I put the idea away. Abby (who, by the way, is the editor who signed Meg
Cabot for THE PRINCESS DIARIES and who is a total genius) wanted me to do something gay-themed, and I immediately thought of this project. I jettisoned everything except the first couple of paragraphs and started over, and that's what became SUICIDE NOTES.

CW: More and more, GLBTQ YA novels are upbeat. Where gay characters used to be killed offstage in car accidents, now we're seeing many books where gay characters live the same lives as straight
characters. Being gay and denying his sexuality, however, is what drives Jeff to a suicide attempt. Why did you decide to go with this darker theme?

MTF: That was something I thought about for quite a while before I committed myself to the book. As you say, in almost all of the early books with gay characters something bad happens to the gay character. I remember reading John Donovan's I'LL GET THERE. IT BETTER BE WORTH THE TRIP, which I believe is the first gay-themed novel written for young adults. The gay character suffers in several different ways, and then when he finally realizes he's gay his dog is killed by a car. That was pretty typical of those early novels. It was almost as if the characters were being punished for being gay.

I think more recent gay-themed novels have been upbeat and light precisely because those early novels were so gloomy. This is a natural response, particularly as we want to portray gay people -- and being gay -- in a positive light. Also, a lot of these books are being written by younger authors, who may have read those early books and who want to write things that are more positive because they never had books like that when they were looking for them.

There's nothing wrong with that, of course, and it does reflect changes in society. But gay people have all kinds of stories and they all need to be told. I remember when M.E. Kerr published DELIVER US FROM EVIE there was a lot of grumbling about the fact that Evie is not a very nice -- or likable -- character. Some people thought Kerr should have written a more "gay positive" book. But to me Evie was a realistic character who was struggling with a lot of the issues that gay young people struggle with. When it comes down to it people like to read books in which their own lives are reflected in some way, either because they want to not feel alone or because they want the validation that who they are is worth writing a story about.

I did worry that having Jeff (the main character of Suicide Notes) attempt suicide because of his realization that he's gay would result in negative response to the book. But the fact is that a significant number of gay teens do commit or attempt to commit suicide. Discovering that your sexuality differs from what people expect of you (or from what you expect of yourself) is still a big deal. Although things have improved dramatically, what with gay groups in high school and a generally increased level of understanding and acceptance of gay people in society, for many young people it's still a very difficult thing to accept about themselves. This is especially true for people who don't live in places like New York or San Francisco or any other place where gay people are much more a part of everyday life than they are in other parts of the country.

Interestingly, one of the first reviews of SUICIDE NOTES appeared on a website where teens review books for other teens. The girl who wrote the review liked the book, but she said that she found the reason for Jeff's suicide attempt to be a little unbelievable. Basically, she didn't think anybody would be so upset about being gay that he would try to kill himself. When I read that my first thought was that the generation gap had finally caught up with me and that my book was 10 years too late. But then a friend pointed out that 1. the
girl (as far as we know) isn't gay herself and 2. she most likely lives in a more cosmopolitan part of the country. While I suspect that some readers will share her opinion, I think many more will recognize themselves in Jeff and realize that they aren't alone in their feelings.

Also, I think that a lot of Jeff's anxiety is caused by how he comes to realize that he's gay and how it has affected the most important relationship in his life. The novel is really about how you figure out who you are and how you learn to accept differences. The fact that Jeff's particular difference is that he's gay is just a way to address that idea.

CW: What kind of research did you do when you were writing SUICIDE NOTES? Did you interview gay teens? Visit treatment facilities? Talk to child psychologists?

MTF: I didn't have to do much research because I basically am Jeff, or at least he's a combination of several things that happened to me. I spent my adolescent and teen years in a very small town, and from an
early age was singled out by my classmates as being different. Suffice it to say that from fifth grade (when we moved to that town) on my life was pretty miserable. I was never physically attacked, mostly because I had very protective cousins, but I was harassed on a daily basis. I almost never left my bedroom, and I was severely depressed, to the point that after my junior year I told my parents I wouldn't go back to high school. Fortunately, I was able to go to college early and managed to get out of that town.

It was in college that I finally came to terms with the fact that I was gay. The difficult part was that I realized it because I fell in love with the best friend of a girl I was going out with. He was straight, which of course made it worse for me. I made myself miserable over him. Then one day I was sitting with this guy on one
side and my girlfriend on the other and somehow the topic of being gay came up. My girlfriend jokingly said to her friend, "I don't think you'd be very good at being gay." Then she turned to me and said, "But it wouldn't surprise me."

We broke up not long after that, but a few months later the male friend of one of my close female friends came to visit her at school. He stayed with me, and one night he revealed to me that he was gay. It was the first time he'd told anyone. He then told our mutual friend, who it turned out had a massive crush on this guy. She somehow decided that I was to blame for his being gay, and she stopped speaking to me. In many ways it's the same thing Jeff in SUICIDE NOTES goes through with his friend Allie.

Now, I never attempted suicide. But I thought about it quite a bit. I think the main thing that stopped me from actually doing it was that I didn't want the people who thought I was a freak to think they'd won or that they were right. But I understand how someone could be driven to that point, so writing Jeff's character came easily. For the more technical aspects, like what it's physically like inside a psych ward and what a daily schedule in there might be, I was helped by a friend who actually did spend some time in such a program. But really the book is about the relationships between the characters, and those were all things I have experienced firsthand.

CW: Do you have plans for another standalone YA novel in the future?

MTF: I'm currently working on a new novel. It's very different from SUICIDE NOTES in that it's set in the future and it involves zombies and a street drug made from their blood. Really it's about discovering that something you've romanticized (in this case war) is not at all what you thought it was. It's also about discovering that humanity exists in people even when you can't see it easily, which I guess is sort of a continuation of one of the themes in SUICIDE NOTES. I'm really enjoying working on this book, and I think it will be something different in the YA world.

CW: All authors I interview get asked this question: What's one book, written by someone else, that you wish you had written?

MTF: For children's books it would be anything by Tove Jansson, who when I was a kid was the author who made me want to write my own books and who became a friend later in life. My personal favorite of hers is MOOMINVALLEY IN NOVEMBER. For adult books it's Mark Helprin's WINTER'S TALE, which is the most beautifully-written book I've ever read.

CW: And now for the fun question! Fill in the blanks in this sentence: I have a scar on my _____ from the time I ____.

MTF: I have a scar on the bottom of my right foot from the time I stepped on the broken-off neck of a glass Coca-Cola bottle. My family was living in Africa at the time, so I must have been four or five. I remember being taken to the hospital and being held down while a doctor stitched me up. Afterward my mother gave me a Snoopy board game so I would have something to do while I couldn't walk.

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