Swanky Seventeener Cale Dietrich recently spoke with Sweet Sixteener Kenneth Logan about his YA contemporary debut, TRUE LETTERS FROM A FICTIONAL LIFE (HarperTeen, June 7, 2017).
If you asked anyone in his small Vermont town, they’d tell you the facts: James Liddell, star athlete, decent student and sort-of boyfriend to cute, peppy Theresa, is a happy, funny, carefree guy.
But whenever James sits down at his desk to write, he tells a different story. As he fills his drawers with letters to the people in his world–letters he never intends to send–he spills the truth: he’s trying hard, but he just isn’t into Theresa. It’s a boy who lingers in his thoughts.
He feels trapped by his parents, his teammates, and the lies they’ve helped him tell, and he has no idea how to escape. Is he destined to live a life of fiction?
Kenneth Logan would prefer to forget his own high school experiences, so it’s anyone’s guess why he chose to (1) teach high school English and (2) write a novel about seventeen-year-olds. he wrote his book at a colleague’s suggestion: “This is the book you should write.” He’s in a doctoral program at New York University, where he studies language and literacy development. He lives in Brooklyn but enjoys escaping on outdoor adventures, especially in Vermont.
Cale: First up, I just wanted to say that I absolutely adored True Letters from a Fictional Life! It’s so freaking good, and I can’t wait to see the YA world freak out about it as much as I am right now. Now, onto the questions!
In the novel, there’s a pink alligator Pez dispenser that’s quite important to the narrative (it’s not a spoiler, it’s on the cover!). Is this something that you have in real life? Or no? I’m so curious about the meaning behind this object, and why you chose it specifically to play the role that it does in the novel.
Kenneth: I wish I had a good story for you on this one, Cale! I think the PEZ dispenser ended up in the book because I was trying to think of something silly that a high school kid might carry around in his pocket. I didn’t have a PEZ dispenser in high school, but I remember carrying around other idiotic little things that cracked me up, like the toys that used to be included in Froot Loops and Cap’n Crunch cereal. I was pretty mature for sixteen. There really is (was?) a white alligator at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, where I lived while writing early drafts of the book—that’s where the gator idea came from. The PEZ dispenser’s significance just developed while I was writing the story. I never imagined it would end up on the book’s cover, but when my wicked smart editor, Kristen Pettit, suggested it, I thought, “Yup. Of course.” I did not own that PEZ dispenser in real life until this past Christmas, when my sister gave me one. The gator’s not pink, but otherwise he’s crazy close to what I’d pictured. He keeps watch from the dictionary on my desk.
Cale: That’s a great story! I love how your sister found you one (plus, look at his little face, he’s adorable). Now, question two: what inspired you to write True Letters from a Fictional Life?
Kenneth: A couple of things, I guess. First, they say write about what you know, and I know what it was like to be a closeted gay kid in high school. Also, I taught high school English for years—I taught several hundred students, and I can count on one hand the number of “out” students I knew. Clearly, attitudes towards gay people have improved dramatically in the U.S. since I was in high school, but there are still scared kids carrying around heavy secrets, hoping that one day they’ll wake up a different person. I don’t think stories can solve everything for anyone, but I do think some stories can help some kids better understand themselves and other people.
The idea to write this kind of book actually came from one of my mentor teachers, Barb Sorenson, a fabulous teacher who taught for years at Thetford Academy in Vermont. We were looking for a novel about gay and lesbian issues to assign to a class of students who had a really wide range of reading abilities, and we couldn’t find anything that we would’ve been comfortable handing to a 16-year-old and saying, “Tell your parents I told you to read this one.” (This happened about 12 years ago, before the recent explosion in YA LGBT lit.) At some point or another, Barb turned to me and said, “This is the book you should write, you know.” It took me a few years to follow through with it, but it was really gratifying to be able to send Barb a draft and then, just recently, a copy of the published novel.
Cale: Speaking of, what are your feelings about the current YA LGBT+ landscape? Is there anything you wish there was more or less of?
Kenneth: I think it’s great that there are so many different kinds of YA LGBT+ books being published. I’ve read only a tiny fraction of what’s out there, but to me it seems like kids are more likely to find their own reflections in stories than ever before. I guess my only wish is that publishers keep taking risks by publishing books about characters who undermine the idea that we should judge people against some standard of “normal.”
Cale: I couldn’t agree more! Changing topic: one of the things that stood out to me the most in the novel is the word building. Small details, like being made to stand to the front of the classroom to read aloud, felt so authentic to me. Seeing as you did this so well, do you have any advice for world building in a contemporary?
Kenneth: Thanks! I don’t think I have any sage advice to pass along, actually. Like most writers, I think, I compose as though I’m shooting a movie scene. I have a vivid picture in my head, and I imagine everything that might be going on. Then I select a couple of details that seem especially realistic or relevant and try to describe them as vividly and concisely as possible.
Cale: What was your publishing journey like? How did True Letters from a Fictional Life go from a manuscript to a finished book?
Kenneth: My amazing agent, Rebecca Podos (who is also the author of the wonderful 2016 debut, The Mystery of Hollow Places), took a chance on the book right before I began a doctoral program. She helped me revise the story over a few months—the fiction writing was a nice break from my stats classes—and the book went through another round of revisions after HarperCollins accepted it. The process was long for sure, but I’ve been really fortunate to work with smart, funny, patient people who cared about telling a good story without making it unrealistic or trite. I hope readers agree that we succeeded there.
Okay, I’m going for a tough one first. Favourite Lemonade Song?
“Softkiss,” the final track on Lemonade’s 2012 album Diver. I don’t listen to a ton of dance music, but I like this tune. I love that a guy from Australia is turning me on to bands who are based in my own city!
It just occurred to me that you might’ve been referring to Beyoncé’s new album. I have not heard it.
How did you react when you first saw your cover? Where were you, and how did it feel?
I was sitting outside a laundromat in Brooklyn, and I cracked up when the design downloaded on my phone. I loved the gator PEZ dispenser, and I figured I’d be able to persuade HarperCollins to change the color scheme to something less, uh, flamboyant. If the decision had been all mine, the cover would’ve been blue and grey or green, matching most of my wardrobe. No one’s ever accused me of having a bold sense of fashion or design. Lots of people have already commented that they love the cover’s colors, though, which is always great to hear.
If you had to pick one song to represent True Letters, which one would you pick?
I don’t think a single song properly represents the story, but Stefani over on the blog “Caught Read Handed” hosted True Letters back in March, and I put together a playlist of ten songs to go along with the book. Here’s a link to that playlist on Stefani’s excellent, encyclopedic blog about YA literature.
Team Cap or Team Iron Man and why?
Iron Man because when I texted one of my nephews to ask for help on this one, he replied: “I like the Iron Man more, I guess. The Captain American guy is annoying as hell.”
What’s next for you?
I’m working on Book Two. All I want to say about it right now is that it’s not a sequel to True Letters. I also have to write my dissertation. One of these projects is more fun than the other.
Thanks for taking the time to interview me, Cale! I’m really looking forward to reading your book LOVE INTEREST!
No, thank you, this was so fun! I hope you enjoy your release week, and everyone gets a copy of your incredible book when it releases on June 7th.
Cale Dietrich is a YA devotee, lifelong gamer and tragic pop punk enthusiast. He was born in Perth, grew up on the Gold Coast, and now lives in Brisbane, Australia. Love Interest is his first novel. He can be found on Twitter at @caledietrich