Q&A with J.H. Trumble: Author of Don’t Let Me Go
My guess this week is the lovely and incredibly talented J.H. Trumble. Since picking up her much-praised debut Don’t Let Me Go, I’ve become a huge fan of her work, and was thrilled when she agreed to stop by my blog today to discuss the potentially controversial concept behind her second novel Where You Are, as well as talk a little about her upcoming release.
J, Welcome to Boys on the Brink. Something fun to start off with. Can you share three quirky or interesting facts about yourself?
- I have a piano that I wish I could play better. Nate Schaper in Don’t Let Me Go is the pianist I always wanted to be. The music store he works in is based on the one I took piano lessons in. My kids had guitar and drum lessons there too.
- I get really anxious when I have to read my work aloud. I hear my characters voices in my head, but they never sound right coming out of my mouth.
- My dog has a thing for socks. He steals them, hides them in his doggie bed, carries them around, gnaws on them, takes them outside with him then brings them back in when he’s ready. And he has a flashlight phobia. You can read about him and his phobia in Just Between Us
As a writer, what draws you to the genre of gay fiction in particular?
Such a complicated question. First and foremost, I’m a sap for happy endings. I read my first novel featuring a gay protagonist Totally Joe by James Howe about five years ago and I was completely taken with it. After that book, I read every gay YA novel I could get my hands on, and there are some terrific ones out there. But I always felt like something was missing—the HEA, I suppose. So I decided that I wanted to fill that gap and Don’t Let Me Go was born. I fell in love with the characters and wanted to continue exploring their lives, so I wrote Just Between Us and then Where You Are. They weren’t published in that order, of course. In fact, I never dreamed they’d be published at all.
My daughter is gay as well, so I feel a real commitment to that community. It’s hard for me to imagine writing a novel where gay characters aren’t featured now.
Many authors say the second book is much harder to write than the first, mostly because of the expectation that goes along with it. Was this the case for you?
When I wrote the first draft of Just Between Us, I hadn’t even found representation for Don’t Let Me Go, so there were no expectations. (The first draft of JBU was a mess, by the way. It’s undergone many, many huge revisions.) I was under contract by the time I wrote Where You Are but DLMG wasn’t on the shelves yet, so again, not much pressure. As it turned out. WYA was a much easier novel to write. Perhaps that’s because I was writing about a world I know so well—that of public school. I just had fun with it. I don’t know if I’ll ever find writing that easy again. By the time JBU was under contract, though, DLMG was on the shelves. I don’t know if that’s why I struggled so much with the story or if I struggled simply because it was that kind of story for me. JBU is a novel that came into its own very, very slowly.
The issue of romantic relationships between teachers and their students is always going to be a controversial one, so I think you’re incredibly brave to tackle it. How did the idea for Where You Are first come to you?
Being in public school, I’m well acquainted with the various controversies that arise—some real, some ridiculously overblown. I’ve often been struck by how unfair and distorted some controversies become. I remember one case in particular where an elementary principal found herself accused of having kiddie porn on her school computer. When some of the images were shown on the six o’clock news I recognized them immediately from an email that had been making the rounds that year. It contained adorable photos of kids doing silly things that kids do—a little boy trying to stuff a large frog in his mouth, three little boys pictured from the back peeing in the grass. It was totally innocent stuff, but taken out of context, a couple of the blurred-out images made the principal look like a pervert. I don’t remember the final verdict, but I imagine that principal lost her job. I’ve seen teachers taken down for the most ridiculous reasons.
Just to set the record straight, I’m not suggesting that a relationship between a teacher and a student is innocent or ridiculous. I’m just saying that people on the outside are quick to judge, and judge harshly.
The second part of my reason for tackling the subject involves a friend of mine. He was a high school history teacher for one year before going on to law school. During that year he fell for a senior cheerleader, five years younger than himself. He absolutely did not make any advances toward her until about a month after she graduated. They welcomed their third grandchild not long ago. And he’s not the only former teacher I know who married a former student.
I wanted to explore what it would take for someone like that—a good, decent person—to cross that line that separates teacher from student. I absolutely did not write the book to be titillating or provocative in any way. I intentionally made Andrew a second year teacher—young enough to fall for a student, but old enough and experienced enough to know better. And I made Robert a senior, just months from graduation, just months from that legal summit that would render their relationship completely legal.
And I knew there had to be consequences. And there were.
There’s a whole wealth of feeling in this novel—love, pain, loss, guilt… It certainly put my emotions through the wringer. What, for you, was the most difficult part to write?
Definitely writing about Robert and his mom’s relationship with his father. My own husband died of a brain tumor many years ago. My kids were very, very young, but it was a difficult time for all of us. I wanted to be honest about the ugliness of it all—the overwhelming feelings of frustration and anger, the exhaustion, the guilt. All those things you know you shouldn’t be feeling, but you do.
Recently here in the UK, a teacher was jailed for five years after running away with his fifteen-year-old pupil. Do you have a view on where the law should stand with regards to cases such as this?
I don’t know about the UK, but a fifteen-year-old is a minor in the US, so different rules do and should apply. Just what that penalty should be . . . I can’t really answer that. If an adult ran away with my minor daughter, I know I’d want to see him in jail.
But Robert is seventeen and a consenting adult in the eyes of the law EXCEPT where there is a power differential, as in a teacher/student relationship. The law on the books in Texas treat that relationship very harshly, though, in reality, I don’t believe the full extent of the law is imposed on those who cross that line where the student is legally an adult. It’s a strange place for a seventeen or eighteen-year-old student to be—you’re an adult, but you’re not; you can consent, but you can’t.
I was so excited to see that Just Between Us is due for release soon, and that we’re finally going to get Luke’s story, but what’s up next for you? Any new projects in the works?
I have a couple of projects I’m circling, but I haven’t fully committed to either one yet, so we’ll see. Right now I’m fully consumed by getting one kid off to college and the other her driver’s license. Both have taken a lot of my emotional energy lately!
Thank you so much for this interview, Jamie. It’s been fun!
It’s been a real pleasure, J, and I wish you the best of luck with your next project, whatever it happens to be.
Readers can visit J.H. Trumble’s website for more information about her and her books.