Underneath This had the pleasure of interviewing Bennett Madison. Per his brief bio statement, Bennett Madison is the author of several books for young people, including September Girls, The Blonde of the Joke and the Lulu Dark Mysteries. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Please describe your path to becoming a writer.
The short version is that I was living with my parents and working in a bookstore after I didn’t quite graduate college. All my friends had graduated at the appropriate time and were mostly in New York and I was miserable. Writing fiction was the only thing I knew I was good at, so I decided that selling a book would be the answer to my problems. It turned out not to be the solution to all of my problems, but at least it did get me out of my parents’ house. (For awhile.)
How do your personal and social identities affect your writing?
I would have a hard time thinking of ways in which my personal and social identities don’t affect my writing. I don’t know… my books are actually mostly about straight people, but, even so, I think they have a pretty obvious queer sensibility. I guess some people would probably disagree that a “queer sensibility” is a thing that even exists, and I’m willing to entertain that argument. But if it does exist, I think my books have it.
How did you decide which genres to write?
My first couple of books were mysteries because I heard publishers wanted mysteries at that moment, and it seemed fun.
For the most part, though, I’m not that wrapped up in the genre thing. I just sort of write what I feel like writing and let people call it whatever genre they want to. Most of what I write usually involves some type of weird mystical bullshit so sometimes it gets categorized as fantasy, which is more than fine with me. But a lot of what I write also takes place in shopping malls, and there are a lot of people who don’t think of that as a fantasy setting.
Basically if you don’t think of the shopping mall as a good place to set a fantasy novel, you probably won’t like my books. (I just thought of that but I think it actually is a pretty good rule of thumb.)
In what ways has growing up near DC affected your creative process?
No one has ever asked me this before! I don’t know– maybe just in the sense that I have an affinity for a certain type of suburban setting?
Actually, I guess the other thing that was nice about where I grew up is that I had a city accessible to me as a teenager. I went to a lot of shows; I sometimes snuck into bars. I spent a certain amount of time standing on street-corners batting my eyelashes and hoping someone would ask me out on a date and every now and then it worked. Particularly because I write mostly about teenagers, those experiences probably inform my work and my sensibility, but I bet not any more than if I had grown up near any other major mid-sized city. DC doesn’t offer a ton of artistic inspiration. Unless you write political thrillers, I guess.
Who and what have been your primary creative influences?
Liquid eyeliner, sparklers, boys, malls, baby-sitters, skipping school, cigarettes (though I quit), sad songs, comic books, trees, weather, certain types of nightclubs. Blond hair, obviously.
In terms of writers, people like Kelly Link, Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore, Mark Doty, Francesca Lia Block, Ben Neihart, Cookie Mueller, Lynda Barry. I mean, I don’t know if they’re influences exactly, but I like them and sometimes I try to copy them. More recently I really adored Danielle Evans’s Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self and Ariel Schrag’s Adam, which comes out in a month or two. But I guess I can’t really claim those as “influences” because I haven’t really written much since I read them.
Also: TV shows. Lots of music. Etc!
What has the process been like of writing from female protagonists’ (such as Lulu Dark) perspectives? What has the response been to this?
I’ve written from girls’ perspectives in several novels. It didn’t seem that hard. I wasn’t trying to say some big thing about how women think or what a woman’s perspective is; I was just trying to write from the point of view of these particular teenage girls. And while I’m not a woman, the characters were both similar and different from me in lots of ways.
Actually, writing from the point of view of a straight guy, which I did in September Girls, was kind of the hardest in some ways. (And that’s also the one people gave me the hardest time about, so.
In what ways is your writing feminist?
There are a couple of reasons that I don’t usually describe my writing as feminist.
First, I try not to have a political axe to grind with my fiction– I mean, I think that fiction is fundamentally political but I’m not usually a fan of stories that grow out of any political agenda.
Second, while I’m happy when my work is described as feminist, I don’t really think it’s my role to claim that title for myself.
Those caveats aside: I’m always interested in gender stuff, particularly when it comes to, like, gender performance, and so those things tend to show up in my books. This is probably especially true in September Girls, which has a lot to do with the narratives that are imposed on us because of our gender and the ways those narratives make us perform gender in certain ways and blah blah blah.
But it’s also a book about mythical sea creatures and sad dads and annoying moms and walking around on the beach and making out, because those are also things I’m interested in. I always have to point that.
What inspired you to write, “I Hate Valentine’s Day” and what has the response been to this book?
I Hate Valentine’s Day was a work-for-hire project, which means that someone at the publisher came up with the idea for it and then paid me to write it. In other words, I was twenty-three and I did it for the money. I don’t actually hate Valentine’s Day– in fact, I don’t really have any opinion on Valentine’s Day at all– which made it very hard to write an entire (short) book about it.
It’s not totally my favorite book I’ve ever written and I sort of wish I’d used a pen name on it, but I do think it has some funny parts. Actually I haven’t looked at it in forever, so who knows. I’m not even sure I have a copy anymore. My mom probably does, I guess.
Characters in your book, “The Blonde of the Joke” were ironically described as homophobic. What do you make of this reaction now?
The Blonde of the Joke is about two girls who do a bunch of fucked-up things. Mostly shoplifting, but they also smoke, skip school, drink alcohol. I could go on. Amidst all that bad behavior, they use the word “faggot” a couple of times, in various contexts. A few people had a real problem with that.
I guess I’m one of those annoying people who thinks that language changes meanings depending on the context. I don’t have a lot of patience for the Pee Wee Herman school of social justice, by which I mean, the thing where you make a list of hate-words and then sound the alarm any time anyone says one. The word “faggot” isn’t always homophobic, depending on who uses it and why, and there are plenty of people who manage to be complete homophobic assholes without ever uttering the word “faggot” at all. Also, I sort of hate to play this card, but I’ve been called a fag enough times in my life that it really infuriates me that anyone– especially a straight person, but really anyone– would try to tell me how I can and can’t use it myself.
I’m also annoying in the sense that I don’t think the views of a fictional character are necessarily the same as the perspective of the book they appear in. This issue came up again in a slightly different form when September Girls came out last year. The fact that several characters in the book exhibit fairly unenlightened and disrespectful attitudes about women, and use language to match those attitudes, is not only realistic in my estimation, it’s also a big part of what the book is about.
Every reader is entitled to their own interpretation when it comes to fiction. If you want to think Huckleberry Finn is a racist book because of certain words that appear in it, you can go right ahead. But just because you are allowed your own interpretation doesn’t mean that your own interpretation is not completely missing the point.
While I’m not seriously comparing my own books to Mark Twain’s, I do think that readers are well-served when they consider the way language functions in a novel as a whole rather than focusing on a few objectionable words. At least, I know I am.
That took me about two hours to sort out. I’ll answer the rest of these questions after I smoke a fag.
Have you written about transgender characters?
Not really. There was a recurring character in the Lulu Dark books who was a drag queen, but that’s perhaps different. At any rate, she was kind of a very unusual type of drag queen in that she seemed to be in drag, like, all the time. Which probably is really unrealistic to anything that would happen in real life, and also probably blurs some lines in ways that aren’t that helpful. If I was going to write those books again, I’d probably try to rethink that character. But anyway, the short answer is no.
From your perspective, what is the climate like for LGBTQ+ writers of young adult books these days? Are there differences in climate compared to heterosexual writers?
That’s a hard question. In a lot of ways it’s not an issue. There are obviously tons of queer people who work in the field of kids’ books, and there’s also a pretty strong tradition of gay people being very successful as authors of stuff for kids and teenagers. (Louise Fitzhugh, Maurice Sendak, M.E. Kerr, Ian Falconer, David Levithan, etc. etc.) So, for the most part, I think that the climate is basically great.
At the same time, I think that when it comes to writing gay content, one has to sort of adjust one’s standards of what commercial success is going to look like. By which I mean: swap in a gay character as the protagonist of any of John Green’s books and I don’t think that book would be nearly as successful. (Come to think of it, the one John Green book with a major gay supporting character is I think the only one that’s not on the New York Times bestseller list this week.)
A mass audience is often really reluctant to try anything that isn’t totally familiar to it, and most people aren’t gay. I think a gay love story, or a gay anything, really, is just going to have a much harder time crossing the threshold into real sales. Which is not to say it’s impossible, just that I think expectations are usually going to be lower. Which, you know, has a certain affect on what gets published and also on what people even bother writing.
You know, this week there was this big thing on Twitter this week about how there should be more diversity in YA books. Which, aside from how much I hate “diversity” as a euphemism, I obviously think there should be. Of course!
However! There are already “diverse” books out there. Not as many as there should be, but enough that there are plenty to choose from. It’s not like there’s this complete shortage of books by people who are not straight white men.
And yet… look at the New York Times bestseller list for teen fiction. Last week it was four white men and two white women, all of whom I think are straight (not to mention cisgender). I love a lot of these authors and a lot of these books– Gayle Forman is the total god of me. But as an author who is by some token “diverse,” it’s all a little frustrating. People of color, queer people, trans people, etc. should all be better represented in terms of what’s published, duh.
But what about the books that are already out there?
On what projects are you working on next? Is there another book in the works?
I’m working on another YA book that I think is going to be called THE LAST RULE OF MAGIC. It’s your typical platonic gay love story bildungsroman about magicians in New Jersey. It probably won’t be out for awhile because it’s kicking my ass right now. I’m also working on a grown-up book that will probably never be done. As usual I have more ideas than I can really execute.
What feedback do you have for aspiring writers?
Do your laundry. It’s easier than it seems and you’ll get ahead faster if you don’t stink. I have a hard time following this rule myself– Justine Larbalestier has scolded more than once for stinking– but I do try.