Swanky Seventeener Gwen Katz recently chatted with Sweet Sixteener Caleb Roehrig on his debut YA contemporary thriller, LAST SEEN LEAVING (Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan).
Flynn’s girlfriend, January, is missing. The cops are asking questions he can’t answer, and her friends are telling stories that don’t add up. All eyes are on Flynn—as January’s boyfriend, he must know something. But Flynn has a secret of his own. And as he struggles to uncover the truth about January’s disappearance, he must also face the truth about himself.
Caleb Roehrig is a writer and television producer originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan. A former actor, Roehrig has experience on both sides of the camera, with a résumé that includes appearances on film and TV—as well as seven years in the stranger-than-fiction salt mines of reality television. In the name of earning a paycheck, he has: hung around a frozen cornfield in his underwear, partied with an actual rock-star, chatted with a scandal-plagued politician, and been menaced by a disgruntled ostrich.
Gwen: How is it being a male YA author? Do you ever feel like a black swan?
Caleb: You know, when I first decided to tackle a YA project of my own, the examples I looked to first were authors like Sara Shepard and Suzanne Collins. I really had the impression that, to be successful, I needed to write with an audience of young women in mind. Furthermore, I also worried that, as a gay man who still struggles with social pressure regarding performative masculinity, I would be a fish out of water trying to create the kind of male protagonist I thought was “required” of me. After some trial and error, though, I finally felt the need to speak in my own voice, and what resulted was LAST SEEN LEAVING—my first attempt at writing a teenage boy’s POV.
Gwen: What do you like best about YA?
Caleb: The teenage years are pretty dramatic, filled with “firsts”, and it’s a time when most people’s horizons expand pretty rapidly—very fertile ground for topics like love, loss, and friendship. It gives me an opportunity to explore issues I faced at the time, but which a lack of life experience made difficult to process.
Gwen: Tell me a bit about your writing process.
Caleb: Once I get an idea for a story in my head, the first thing I’ll do is sketch out a couple of paragraphs about the protagonist and the central conflict; then I do some quick character studies, introducing myself to the MC’s friends, enemies, parents, etc; once all the players are realized, and I know what their objectives are, I go back and write out a more detailed overview of the plot.
THEN, once I’m sure the story has legs to stand on, I put together a detailed, four-part outline, using the major beats and twists as tent-poles. (The outline for Last Seen Leaving was twelve pages.) I then use the outline as a general blueprint, although I’ve been known to make changes on the fly. (I’ve learned the hard way, though, that if I improvise too much, I can paint myself into a narrative corner, and it’s…not pretty.)
Gwen: It’s fun that Last Seen Leaving is set around Halloween. What inspired you to do that?
Caleb: In some ways, setting Last Seen Leaving around Halloween was sort of a happy accident; I had fall imagery in mind from the start, and given that the characters needed to be at least a month or two into the school year for certain plot points to hold together, October made a lot of sense. Add to that the subplot of a looming election in early November (timely!), and the Halloween setting fell right into my lap!
Gwen: Rape culture plays a major role in Last Seen Leaving. Were you inspired by current events?
Caleb: The fact is, I’m not sure if current events inspired me, or if a growing awareness of rape culture became something I couldn’t not address. Embedded misogyny plays a huge role in the ugly way that rape accusations and trials play out in the press; we bend over backward to give accused rapists (especially white men) the benefit of the doubt, and fail victims repeatedly with a lack of adequate support. I needed a place to expand on how this mentality puts people at risk, how it enables predators and devalues women, and this book turned out to be that place.
Gwen: Do you think the landscape is changing for GLBT teenagers?
Caleb: Things are absolutely changing! Sometimes it’s easy to forget how dramatically attitudes towards GLBT people have shifted over the past decade—but, unfortunately, there’s still a lot of ground to cover, and queer teens still face serious homophobia (overt and covert) in their daily lives. Good representation is still limited, and anti-GLBT views remain a serious and sometimes life-threatening problem.
Gwen: Female characters are still often expected to be “nice,” but January can be abrasive and sometimes manipulative while remaining sympathetic. How did you walk that line?
Caleb: January McConville is one of the most complicated characters I’ve ever written. Because of her life circumstances she is, in many ways, deeply misunderstood by the people closest to her, and I wanted to create a realistic portrait of a young person who feels powerless and unfairly treated. She makes a number of selfish choices in the book, but most of those choices are motivated by pain or desperation; there’s nothing interesting about arbitrary spitefulness, so I tried to make it clear that all of her actions and reactions came from a real place.
January goes missing before the book begins, and so the reader gets to know her through the accounts of people who have disparate agendas; no one who tells a story about January in Last Seen Leaving is unbiased, and so, in a sense, I’m asking the reader to decide whose accounts are closest to the actual truth. At the end of the day, it was really important to me that January not be “nice” in the traditional sense, because I want readers to face some of Flynn’s confusion regarding what he learns about her in the wake of her disappearance, and because I want readers to realize that it may not actually matter whether they like her—what matters is if they understand her.
Gwen: Ice cream with maple syrup and potato chips. Do you know someone who does this?
Caleb: Ha! Well, I DEFINITELY ate a lot of ice cream with maple syrup as a teenager. (Vanilla or cinnamon ice cream with maple syrup is A+++, trust me.) The potato chips were a total invention, but I bet it would taste surprisingly good.
Gwen: What’s the most important thing you’d like teenagers to take away from Last Seen Leaving?
Caleb: Obviously, I’d love for them to enjoy the central mystery, and to be surprised by the twists—it’s a thriller, after all!—and I hope that all my readers (GLBT and otherwise) can relate to Flynn’s personal struggles; but maybe what I want most of all is for kids who are just like I was in high school (queer suspense/horror junkies) to pick this book up and discover that it is exactly what they’ve been looking for all along: a story that gets them, reflects them, and entertains them all at the same time.
Gwen: So what’s next?
Caleb: I’ll be appearing at the Texas Teen Book Festival on October 1, and immediately after that I’m going on the Fierce Reads fall tour! It’ll hit seven cities in seven days, and I’ll be joining some absolutely amazing authors: Leigh Bardugo, Kami Garcia, Emma Mills, Marissa Meyer, and Anna Banks! I also have a second book on the horizon, but the plot is going to be top secret until after the tour!
Gwen C. Katz is a writer, artist, game designer, and retired mad scientist. She lives in Altadena, CA with her husband and a revolving door of transient mammals. Her debut, AMONG THE RED STARS, is coming Fall 2017 from HarperTeen.
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