With books like Boy Meets Boy and Will Grayson, Will Grayson (co-authored with John Green), David Levithan has gained a reputation for writing emotionally charged, ultimately positive portrayals of gay teens. In his latest book, Two Boys Kissing, Levithan offers a story that is both very personal and also historical, as it positions today’s gay youth within the historical context of the gay men and boys who came before them. Levithan answered a few questions for BookPage about what inspired him to write this “panorama of queer teen life now.”
You’ve said that there was a real-life event that inspired the story of your characters Harry and Craig, who are attempting to set a world record for longest kiss. Can you tell us a little more about that true story?
Yes! In September 2010, Matty Daley and Bobby Canciello, two teens from New Jersey, broke the world record for longest continuous kiss as a way of drawing attention to inequality. A few weeks later, Matty emailed me to tell me he’d thought of Boy Meets Boy during the 32 ½ hours he and Bobby kissed. I of course had to hear all about it—and that’s when (with Matty’s permission!) the idea for Two Boys Kissing started to take shape.
You also explore a number of other stories in the novel. Were those similarly inspired by real-life situations, or perhaps by stories your young fans have told you?
None of the other stories really tie so tightly to real events. A few days after Matty and Bobby completed their kiss, another New Jersey teen, Tyler Clementi, killed himself. Although I don’t tell Tyler’s story in this book, that juxtaposition of tragedy and triumph is certainly present, and Tyler was very much on my mind.
One of the most striking things about the novel is its unusual narrator(s). Where did you get the idea to narrate the novel in the collective voices of a generation that lost their lives to AIDS?
I have Michael Cart to thank for that. He asked me to write about the current queer generation for an anthology, How Beautiful the Ordinary. In thinking about what I wanted to say, I realized that I hadn’t really written about the generation that came before mine—my uncle’s generation, which was devastated by AIDS. So I wrote the story of the generation before mine talking to the generation after me . . . and the voice stuck with me. So when I realized this book was going to be a panorama of queer teen life now, it made sense to see it from their point of view. I didn’t even realize I was using a Greek chorus until my editor told me I was.
The story you bring up in the afterword about your uncle is a poignant and personal one. How do you view your generation’s connection to the generation of gay men who came before you?
I think we are lucky to be alive. I think we should be grateful for avoiding most of the suffering that came before us, and the most genuine way to express that gratitude is to not forget everything they went through in order for us to be where we are. It already feels like a different world to me, and I can only imagine what it feels like to someone 20 years younger than me.
For today’s young people, the truly frightening beginning of the AIDS epidemic, before the advent of effective treatment, probably feels like ancient history. What would you want today’s gay youth to know about the generation who narrates your novel?
The whole novel is my answer to this question, isn’t it?
Your novels have been celebrated for portraying teen homosexuality as a fact of life rather than as a “problem” to be dealt with. And yet some of the characters in Two Boys Kissing are dealing with pretty big challenges. What hurdles do gay youth stlll face today? Do you see any of these struggles changing any time soon?
You are still facing off against so many societal norms, and that can sometimes (not always, but sometimes) take a toll. And I think that while the advent of the Internet is remarkably liberating in many ways—you no longer feel you’re the only one—in other ways it has fueled a different kind of loneliness. So that needs to be navigated. But, of course, it’s getting better all the times, and as the haters die out, we don’t feel nearly as hated, and the difference will take less of a toll.
Your first YA novel, Boy Meets Boy—which was something of a landmark in YA publishing—celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. How has the publishing landscape changed over the last 10 years, in terms of LGBT characters or themes in books for teens?
I think writers now have a confidence to write as truthfully as they want about these themes and teenagers. There’s much less inner censorship, just as there is less outer censorship (although there still is some of both). LGBT YA lit still needs more diversity, but we’ve come a long way when it comes to both reflecting reality and creating reality.
It’s refreshing for young people coming to terms with their own sexuality to see such a range of fictional versions of themselves in your novels. Were there any books you remember reading as a boy or young man that enabled you to see yourself in that way?
The homage to David Leavitt’s The Lost Language of Cranes in Boy Meets Boy is not accidental. Reading that novel blew my mind when I was in high school—not just because of the gay subject matter, but because he’s such a marvelous writer. That opened many doors to me.
What other (fiction or nonfiction) books or resources would you recommend to young people exploring their sexuality?
The great thing is that there are so many books to choose from—I hardly know where to begin, and any list of authors is going to feel woefully incomplete. So I’ll just say that looking at the ALA’s Rainbow List and the list of Lambda Awards finalists is always a good start in finding quality queer lit for teens.
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