Q&A with Russell J. Sanders: Author of Thirteen Therapists
My guest this week is the lovely Russell J. Sanders whose thought-provoking debut Thirteen Therapists is now available. After falling in love with his book, I just had to invite him on to tell me more about the journey that led him to write it, as well as share some of his favorite authors, and reveal what he himself was like as a teenager.
Welcome to the Boys on the Brink Blog, Russell. Let’s start with something fun. Can you reveal three interesting or quirky facts about yourself?
Thank you, Jamie, for having me here on your blog. It is such fun to share with you and your readers. Now, about those quirky facts…
I’m obsessive and anal retentive. My favorite part of any project is the end result. When I do theater, although I love the performances, my greatest satisfaction comes with “strike,” that process when you tear down the set, put everything away and clean up. That tells me that the project is finished, and I can now sit back and enjoy what came before.
I will sell my soul to be able to travel. I save every penny I can to go on new adventures. I’ve been to Bali and Jakarta, Tokyo, India, The Caribbean, Western Canada, Eastern Canada, Holland, France, Italy, England, and all over the US. And, being a born and bred Texan from Cowtown USA (Ft. Worth, Texas, where the west begins—he says, with a drawl,) I have to have Mexican food (Tex Mex preferred) wherever I go. Tokyo Mex was great; Italy Mex not so good.
I’m petrified of meeting new people, but I will do anything on a stage. Just ask former students and colleagues about my “Flashdance” rendition at school, complete with torn t-shirt, tights, and long blond wig.
It’s clear you’re a man of many talents—acting, singing, playing the piano… How has your journey led you to be a writer?
In acting, singing, play directing, piano playing, and teaching, you are always telling stories. I used to jokingly say to my teaching colleagues, “If a student asks a question and I don’t know the answer, I just make it up.” That’s a comedian’s fib, but part of my success as a teacher was that I could spin answers into [hopefully true] stories. When I began teaching writing, the mantra of the method I used was “you can’t teach writing if you are not a writer.” So I wrote along with my students on every writing assignment, sharing my take on the subjects I was asking them to tackle. From those experiences, I “caught the bug” and went on to novel writing. My first works were more like long short stories, but with practice comes mastery (not that I’ve mastered the art yet,) and I’ve managed to get better and better at what I do, learning all that good stuff like character development, layering, and spinning a good yarn.
Who are some of your favorite authors at the moment? Have you read much in the way of gay YA fiction?
I devour books, reading constantly. I number among my favorite authors Thomas Hardy, Willa Cather, and Henry James, but I also voraciously read the crime novels of P.J. Parrish, Michael Connelly, and Faye Kellerman. And yes, I love YA fiction. My favorite contemporary author, perhaps, is Benjamin Alire Saenz, who writes the gamut—adult fiction, poetry, children’s picture books, young adult fiction. His YA novel Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood is one of my favorites—not a glamorous, star-filled saga as the title suggests, but a gritty, intense novel set in the barrios of Hollywood, New Mexico. Saenz’s newest YA, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, just won the Stonewall Book Award for best young adult gay fiction, and it sits on my shelf beckoning me. His Last Night I Sang to the Monster and Michael Thomas Ford’s Suicide Notes were both inspiration for Thirteen Therapists. I had already written a couple of drafts of TT before reading them, but somehow both those novels told me I was going in the right direction. Final word on this topic: my absolute favorite novel is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Gordon Korman’s YA novel Jake Reinvented is amazing. I’m not a fan of authors re-writing classics, but Korman has reimagined The Great Gatsby in a fun way, managing to twist each plot point into a really fun story for teens. Teens should read Fitzgerald first, then read Korman to see what two skillful writers can do with the same material.
I have to say, I completely fell in love with your novel. I found the combination of grit and glamour utterly captivating. Can you remember how the idea for Thirteen Therapists first came to you?
I mentioned to writer friends that I personally had had thirteen therapists in my life. One of them said, “Sounds like a good title for a novel.” I took the ball and ran with it. I began with one question: Could the protagonist—all of seventeen years old at the most—have had that many therapists already? Once I figured out that it was possible, I was on to giving life to that protagonist. I knew I wanted to get out of my comfort zone, so I decided that everything about this book would be different from my previous attempts. I would set the novel in Chicago, Aaron would come from a large family (he actually had two sisters originally, but they got condensed into one in subsequent drafts,) his family would be rich, influential, and well-known, Aaron would be comfortable being gay but longing for a relationship, and most of all, his new found boyfriend would be just as rich, but wild and dangerous. After that, auto-pilot took over, and the story told itself.
We have two very different boys in this story: your protagonist, Aaron, the peace-maker who prefers to stay out of trouble, and Derek, the charming rebel who introduces him to the wilder side of life. What were you like as a teenager?
I was Aaron—the middle child who would do anything to keep the peace in the family and in the world at large. I was kind of a milquetoast—I was involved in multiple activities at school and was very active, but sort of standoffish. I was friendly and likeable at school, but when the afternoon bell rang or the after school activity was over, I went home and kept to myself—most probably because I didn’t feel like anyone really wanted to be my friend. Then, as now, I dreaded parties and gatherings, feeling like I don’t know what to say, but just have one someone ask me a question, and I can expound for hours, never shutting up.
This book tackles a lot of issues from drug use to family conflict. If there was one message you’d like readers to take away with them, what would it be?
A dear friend—a high school counselor–just sent me a list of issues that I tackle in the novel with her take on them. So I’m well-prepared for this question. Besides the obvious, and Thirteen’s mantra “keep your eyes wide open” in order to avoid problems in your life, I think the greatest thing I teach in the novel is that parents maybe deserve a break. I had a student once who was pouring out her problems with her mother. I asked her, “Do you think your mother loves you?” When she answered yes, I said, “Then she’s doing the best she can.” That’s maybe simplistic, but in Thirteen Therapists, Sylvia is mothering the only way she knows how, and Aaron doesn’t realize that. If we all can keep our eyes wide open when dealing with our parents, then maybe we can cut them some slack and make our lives and theirs happier. But what do I know? This comes from a guy who had the most level-headed, most loving, most accepting mother who ever walked the earth.
She sounds a lot like mine! So what’s up next for your writing? Any new novels in the works?
I’m currently working on a revision of a YA novel about child abuse. In it the main character Neil was abused by a pastor when he was nine years old; many years later, he sees the same thing happening to another nine year old, and he vows to stop it. But along the way, Neil faces a girlfriend who is a super Christian churchgoer and the idea that he might lose his scholarship to a prestigious musical theater school if he involves himself in a child abuse scandal. And, yes, there is a gay element. Neil is the star of his high school musical theater program, but a new kid transfers in who not only threatens Neil’s star status, but he also quickly sets his sights on Neil, convincing himself that Neil is in the closet.
Beyond that I have a novel, sitting and awaiting revision, that is about gay marriage. Its main character finds out his Titanic-obsessed father is gay and getting married to his companion, a lot to take in at once. And to add things to the mix, the boy realizes that his father named him after a young man who died on the Titanic, and as the guy learns more about him, a parallel gay story set on the Titanic’s doomed voyage unfolds.
Intriguing! I can’t wait to read them. Thanks so much for giving me this interview, Russell. Where can readers find out more about you and your books?