Q&A with Kari Jo Spear: Author of Silent One
My guest this week is Kari Jo Spear author of the gay YA sci-fi novel Silent One I invited her here to talk more about the inspiration behind the book, share her passion for astronomy, and discuss whether there are any issues when it comes to writing gay fiction as a straight person.
Welcome to the Boys on the Brink Blog, Kari Jo. Has it always been a dream of yours to be a writer?
Thank you so much for inviting me! Yes, being a writer has absolutely been a dream of mine forever. My mother was an English teacher and a poet, so I grew up surrounded by books. I was one of those kids who could read before I started school, and I wrote my first novel when I was ten. I majored in writing in college and got my Masters in English. I can’t imagine life without a novel in my head to work on while I’m driving or falling asleep at night. And I wouldn’t want to go through my day without thinking about how my characters would respond to the situations that face me. Fortunately, my “real” family is used to me staring into space or bursting out laughing for no reason.
And what drew you to the genre of gay YA fiction in particular?
Well, it honestly took me a long way to get to it. When I was much younger, a character in a novel I was writing announced to his friends that he was gay. I had no idea that he was going to do that. At first I was very apprehensive, but he was quite adamant, so I kept going. Soon he took over the story and became my main character. Because of him, I became a writer of M/M fiction.
The YA part is more obvious — I’ve worked in a public high school as a writing tutor in the special education department for almost fourteen years. My days are surrounded by young adults, and they’ve wormed their way into my brain. And I’ll never forget how much I loved YA novels when I was a kid, especially The Chronicles of Narnia, Escape to Witch Mountain, and Harry Potter (though he technically came along after I wasn’t exactly a kid any longer).
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
When I was in college, my writing teacher shared a quote by E.M. Forster: “A work of art is never finished. It is merely abandoned.” It’s really hard for me to let go of a story. I want to keep rewriting and rewriting it (as my editors can attest — I keep changing things, even in the galleys!) But at some point, you just have to accept that while it’s never going to be perfect, it’s as good as you can make it right now, at this point in your life, and let go of it. And be proud!
There are some who argue that, unless you’ve grown up gay yourself, you can’t possibly understand the issues involved and so shouldn’t attempt to write about them. What’s your take on that?
Oh, I think that’s ridiculous. Look at all the people who’ve written about death, and I tend to doubt any of them have died first. My wise college teacher spent a lot of time talking about “negative capability,” which is the ability to immerse yourself into your characters no matter how different you are from them. She said that she herself could write from the point of view of a sensitive, academic, male homosexual far easier than she could write from the perspective of a female mud wrestler. And that was many years before the current trend. I took that as permission to write about whomever I wanted to, and I’ve always done so. (Though the first time I ever heard her say that I had very good negative capability, I wasn’t sure if she was complementing me or not.)
Can you remember how the idea for Silent One first came to you?
Well, it goes back to my day job at school. Being a writing tutor is the perfect job for a YA writer. Teachers stand in the front of the room. I sit in a desk with the kids all around me. I see them texting in their hoodie pockets, and see them bored, excited, scared. I overhear their conversations. Sometimes, after I’ve gained their trust, I become their confidant in ways that probably no other adults are. I’ve heard horror stories that make Gareth’s childhood seem rosy. And they’re becoming more and more common. When I hear about kids for whom death is a better alternative than life, it just makes me feel so bad. I wanted to do something about it, and writing is what I do best. I didn’t want to write a preachy, feel good about being gay story. I wanted to write about a real kid for whom being gay was just one aspect of his life, and show that he could have science fiction adventures just like straight kids. I don’t see Gareth as all that unusual in that he hasn’t turned bitter. I work with kids every day who get out of bed and come to school smiling despite what they’ve lived through the night before. Their strength is my inspiration.
Gareth’s voice came very naturally to me, and that carried the story. The boating accident in the beginning almost did happen to my parents and me, but fortunately the operator of the motorboat saw us and veered away at the last second. It was so close that my father had actually yelled at us to jump. I’ve always wondered what would have happened if we’d been hit. I guess Silent One is the answer to that question, with plenty of imagination thrown in. (We still have the blue vinyl cushions, and my parents did get divorced soon after. The canoe on the cover is mine. My mother still has the one in the story. She has never taken OxyContin, I was never put into foster care, and both my parents still love me.)
I suppose the existence of spaceships and races from other planets would place this book under the sci-fi umbrella. Is this a genre you’re familiar with? Did you grow up watching Star Trek and things like that?
Yes, I grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars and later Dr Who. I also read the SF classics, but I have to say I’m more of a fantasy girl. Tolkien was my hero. My science fiction tends to be more character based than science based. I’m not as interested in what makes the ships go as to who is operating them and where they’re going and why. But I do love everything to do with astronomy — I can remember watching a film in fifth grade that was a kind of intro to the solar system thing. When it was over, everybody else was like, “what’s for lunch?” but I was just spellbound. I had no desire to actually go into space — I don’t think there would be much chance to write on a space ship — but right away, my mind was creating people who would want to be there. I love stories that cross boundaries between genres. Anne McCaffrey was another of my heroes that way.
Although there’s no doubt this works brilliantly as a standalone novel, after I finished it, there was still so much I wanted to know about what happened to Gareth and Aranth once they arrived on Rayan. Would you consider writing a sequel?
Aw, thanks. Yes, there will probably be a sequel at some point. Once characters get hold of me, they don’t usually let go.
Thanks so much for giving me this interview, Kari Jo. Where can readers find out more about you and your books?
You are so welcome, Jamie. It’s been a lot of fun. Everyone is welcome to visit me on my blog or email me with your thoughts. You can also watch the book trailer for Silent One I took all the photos myself in the school where I work, which I used as the setting. I had some kids walk around the building with me, helping me decide what to shoot.