How to Write a Young Adult Novel About a Gay Kid Without It Being a 'Gay Book'
Justin Sayre's "Husky" approaches adolescent queerness as not just a form of attraction, but as an aesthetic.
Looking at Justin Sayre's career from the outside, you probably wouldn't guess that publishing a kid's book would be high up on his bucket list. After all, his funny, sarcastic, and often raunchy variety show is called The Meeting of the International Order of Sodomites —and if you've been to one, you know that Sayre definitely deserves his title as Chairman of the Order. Michael Musto, writing in The Village Voice in 2012, described Sayre as "sort of Oscar Wilde meets Whoopi Goldberg." His edgy queer plays have been produced regularly in New York City's downtown scene, and he's currently a writer for the sitcom 2 Broke Girls. Nothing on that resume suggests he'd be interested in writing for teens.
Yet in a way, writing a YA novel makes sense for a rapacious artist who is obviously driven to create work in every form that words will support. Husky, Sayre's debut novel that was published last month by Grosset & Dunlap, tackles many of the same issues that appear in Sayre's other work: what it means to be different, queerness not just as a form of sexual attraction but as an aesthetic, how we are perceived versus how we perceive ourselves, and body acceptance, to name just a few.
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Husky follows the story of Davis, a pre-gay middle-school boy preparing to enter his freshman year. In an unusual twist for a YA novel these days, Davis's sexuality is less ambiguous and not fully formed. He knows he's different, but he doesn't quite know yet that it has to do with sexuality. Or as Kirkus Reviews put it, "This is not at its heart a book about sexuality but about humanity."
In high school, Davis's best frenemy Ellen tells him, everyone is known by a single adjective: brain, jock, freak, etc. Davis's one hope is to avoid having "husky" be his. As an opera-obsessed, proto-gay boy with a single mother and few friends, he's hoping to be known as the weird kid, but as he puts it in the opening chapter, "Whether I like it or not, I am the husky kid. I might not even get the chance to be weird."
While there's been a lot of discussion about fatphobia and body acceptance issues among gay men and teen girls, when it comes to teen boys, these topics rarely get addressed. Yet studies have shown that more and more young boys are grappling with similar, if not identical, body image issues. This novel doesn't pull punches, and will hopefully give readers something more to think about than whether they have the requisite number of abs to be loved. I recently sat down with Sayre to discuss books, body issues, and what it's like going from NYC playwright to LA television writer.
VICE: Congratulations on the new book! How'd you come to write it?
Justin Sayre: It's an unlikely story. My friend Karl Jones, who ended up being my editor, approached me about doing an event kicking off the new, gay version of Madlibs. His editor was there, and she said, "Justin's very funny, we should get him to write a book." So they approached me.
I had never really considered it, but I thought, "Oh, that might be fun!" So I submitted what ended up being the first chapter to Husky. They really liked it, and signed me to a two-book deal. I had never thought I would write a kid's book or even really any book. My work is more concentrated on plays and things.
A two-book deal? That's the dream.
I'm a little more than halfway through the second book now! Coming from a theater background, what I love to do is find a new way of communicating for each particular character. So they suggested I write using a different character from the first book. So that became the plan, and I'm writing the second book from Sophie's perspective, the female antagonist in Husky.
Where did the idea for Husky come from?
I wanted to write something gay, but I didn't want to write a coming-out novel. I wanted to write something about a sensibility, rather than a concrete identity. Something about the acceptance of one's own nature. I wanted to write about living in the world knowing you're different, and not knowing why.
I also wanted to write about body image, because that's a really curious time in a person's life, when everyone starts cuing into either society's view for their body or their own kind of yearnings for their bodies. I thought that was an interesting and curious thing to deal with, especially the perspective of a young boy who's not yet totally on board with his sexuality.
Body issues and fatphobia have been an issue in the gay community forever, it seems. Do you think we've changed at all?
I live in Los Angeles so I would roundly say no! I mean, there is a push toward it, there are bears, and Love the Skin You're In, and all that stuff. But it's a curious thing. I think when you're pretty in the gay community, you get stuff, and you just kind of accept it.
It bothers me immensely. Not even from a personal standpoint—I think I'm a fantastic-looking person. I mean, I'm curious-looking, but I'm all right. But I think sometimes people get overlooked because they don't fit an ideal, even though they're doing great stuff. Sometimes as artists, we have to concentrate on sexuality in very brazen ways to get attention, rather than substance, so we'll put some naked guy on a poster, and then people will show up. But if you show the truth of what we're doing, who gives a shit? So that's frustrating.
Everyone's writing about the cultural elite decamping from Brooklyn to LA. As someone who's made the move, is it all that different? Same shit different temperature?
People are moving to LA because LA is manageable, and New York is becoming less manageable. The economics are such a burden on an artist that it makes art prohibitive and makes experimentation prohibitive.
There are so few spaces now to make art. I'm not saying there aren't fantastic, wonderful places to make art in New York. I'm not knocking New York at all because I love it and miss it all the time. But in LA, there's a lot more active space, meaning you can go and plug into a theater, or find spaces to create work.
What else is good about LA?
There's also a kind of "let's make stuff" attitude in LA that's happening right now. There's a real sense of possibility. In New York, it's like you get to a place in your career, a very happy place I will say, but you get to a place where it's like I look at my production, the Meeting of the International Order of Sodomites ... There are five rooms that could hold that. We've played three of them. We're in the biggest one now. Where do we go from here? I love Joe's Pub, I love the work that they do, and I love being part of that community. And I'm not saying this to brag, but my first show has been sold out for two months! Where do you go? I don't know where to go from here.
Writing is so much a solo practice, where you're in near complete creative control. What's it like transitioning into a writer's room for TV?
It's hard. I very quickly realized that I am a part of the vision, but it is not my vision. You're there because your voice fits into the panoply of voices that are at that table. You're there to bring insight, and bring what you particularly bring to that room. But even with a script with your name on it, everybody has a joke and everybody has a thought that went into it. It's much more collaborative, and if you resist that, it's not the right job for you. But if you can go in and say, "I'm part of this team, we all work together to make the best product," you can fit into that world a lot better. So early on I decided that was how I wanted to view it and it's been very helpful.
The other part of it was that I also knew that I had time to work on the book, and my new play, and The Meeting. So I had those outlets where it was just solely mine in other ways. I don't know if I could give that up completely.
Husky is out now via Grosset and Dunlap
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