2017 debut author Bree Barton recently interviewed Jeff Garvin, debut author of the contemporary YA novel SYMPTOMS OF BEING HUMAN (February 2, 2016 from Balzer + Bray / HarperCollins), while rocking out to the Divinyls at Jeff’s behest.
A sharply honest and moving debut perfect for fans of The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Ask the Passengers.
Riley Cavanaugh is many things: Punk rock. Snarky. Rebellious. And gender fluid. Some days Riley identifies as a boy, and others as a girl. But Riley isn’t exactly out yet. And between starting a new school and having a congressman father running for reelection in über-conservative Orange County, the pressure—media and otherwise—is building up in Riley’s life.
On the advice of a therapist, Riley starts an anonymous blog to vent those pent-up feelings and tell the truth of what it’s really like to be a gender fluid teenager. But just as Riley’s starting to settle in at school—even developing feelings for a mysterious outcast—the blog goes viral, and an unnamed commenter discovers Riley’s real identity, threatening exposure. And Riley must make a choice: walk away from what the blog has created—a lifeline, new friends, a cause to believe in—or stand up, come out, and risk everything.
About the Author
Jeff Garvin grew up in Orange County, California, the son of a banker and a magician. He started acting in high school, and enjoyed a fifteen-year career including guest-starring roles in network television series ranging from The Wonder Years to Roseanne to Caroline and the City, as well as several independent features. While studying at Chapman University, Jeff won awards for classical guitar and visual storytelling before graduating with a BFA in Film. As the front man of his rock band, 7k, Garvin released three albums and toured the United States. When the band dissolved in 2011, Jeff, who had always written short stories and lyrics, found his passion in full-length fiction.
Jeff lives in Southern California with his music teacher wife, their menagerie, and a respectable collection of books and guitars. Find him on his website, Twitter, Facebook, or, if you dare, Google Plus.
Bree: So, Jeff. What a terrific first novel. Did the idea come fully formed or did you have to chip away at it?
Jeff: Thank you. The idea came from an argument I had about a local news story—a transgender teen sued the school district for the right to use the restroom that aligned with their gender identity rather than their birth-assigned gender. But once I sat down, the story and the characters took on a life of their own. The book resembles the initial idea about as much as an oak tree resembles an acorn.
Bree: As I read, I found myself wondering what everyone else in the book is wondering—was Riley born a girl or a boy?—and then hating myself for thinking in gender binaries. Was this a compelling tension to play with? Were you counting on the fact that your readers would be fighting their own knee-jerk instinct to label Riley?
Jeff: Like Riley says in the book, “I can’t blame you for trying to categorize [Riley.] It’s human instinct.” It was compelling and challenging. I had to keep reminding myself to make discoveries about my characters instead of assumptions. I had to fight a lifetime of social conditioning. It opened up my heart and my mind. I didn’t intend for Riley’s birth gender to be a mystery that needed solving; rather, I wanted to see if I could fall in love with a character without knowing their birth-assigned gender. I did. My hope is that readers will do the same.
Bree: I absolutely did. Riley is the first YA narrator I’ve met who identifies as gender fluid. It’s exciting and rich and wonderfully complicated. What made you interested in exploring gender identity?
Jeff: When I heard about the transgender teen suing the school district, I was deeply moved. Imagine going to school the day after that story broke: Everyone would know. Everyone would be looking, scrutinizing, judging. I was amazed by that teen’s bravery. I tried to imagine what I would have done in their place. I’d like to believe I would have reacted the way Riley does in the book—but I might have opted to hide instead. To take the easy route. I guess I’ll never know.
Bree: On your blog you talk about your publishing journey taking five years from first typed word to published novel. But SYMPTOMS OF BEING HUMAN’s trajectory was much shorter—it’s coming out less than two years after you typed the first page. Can you walk us through the last five years?
Jeff: In 2011, my band broke up after our second US tour. This triggered a massive identity crisis. I went back to the list of things I had wanted to be when I grew up, and Novelist was at the top. I decided to do NaNoWriMo with a friend in April of that year. It was a thrilling, exhausting, fulfilling experience I’ll never forget. I wanted more. I wrote three manuscripts over the next two years. I pitched at writers’ conferences and met my incredible agent, Rachel Ekstrom, in 2013. We were shopping a different novel when I started writing Symptoms in February 2014 (exactly 2 years ago!). In June of that year, we sold the book based on an unfinished manuscript. That was 20 months ago and my world hasn’t stopped spinning.
Bree: That spinning is well deserved! The way I see it, you’re still a rock star. How has music impacted or shaped your writing?
Jeff: Sting once said (and I paraphrase brutally) that songs are big ideas (like “Love” or “Isolation”) squished into a few dozen rhyming couplets, while novels are little ideas (like “girl meets girl” or “man pursues criminal”) stretched into thousands of words. I think he’s right.
Lyric writing is demanding. Every word counts. Songwriting taught me diction, discipline, and tone. But in the end, art is art. You take something deeply personal and plug it into the well of universal human experience—and then other people ingest it and feel understood or loved or scared or enthralled. It could be a song or a movie or a book or a charcoal sketch on a piece of notebook paper.
ZEUS’S LIGHTNING ROUND
Bowie or Bad Religion?
That’s an impossible question to answer briefly, given we’ve just lost Mr. Bowie. He had an immeasurable impact on gender norms and music and pop culture. But when I was sixteen, Bad Religion had my attention. Listening to punk was cathartic, and Graffin’s and Gurewitz’s lyrics opened my head to a whole platform of social issues.
What were you reading at Riley’s age? What were you listening to?
Reading: Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, The Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. Listening: R.E.M., Oingo Boingo, They Might Be Giants, Nirvana.
Do you write to music?
Yes. Anything without lyrics. Mostly ambient stuff and movie soundtracks on Pandora.
Song that most often gets stuck in your head?
“Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus has been on a loop for about five months now. Help me.
Coffee, tea, or some other magical elixir?
About the Interviewer
Bree Barton wears a fuzzy bathrobe most of the time. She’s wearing one right now. She’s also listening to the Divinyls, because after she confessed to Jeff that “I Touch Myself” has been stuck in her head since 2005 (mortifying), he told her the whole album is great rock-n-roll. Turns out he was right!
Bree’s short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Iowa Review, Mid-American Review, Literary Orphans, and PANK, and a book she ghostwrote was adapted into an ABC TV series. Her debut YA novel, BLACK ROSE, comes out from Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins in 2017. She’s lived in Italy and done time in Vietnam. (Not that kind of time.)
Bree tweets a steady stream of malapropisms/misadventures @BreeBartonYA and will show you half her face at breebarton.com. She lives in a balmy bungalow with Christopher, a brilliant writer, and Finley Fergus Fitzgerald III, a brilliant dog.