Author Interview: Julie Anne Peters on Far From Xanadu

Far From Xanadu by Julie Anne Peters (Little Brown, 2005). Between working out, playing softball, and keeping up the plumbing business her dad left behind, Mike’s days in Coalton, Kansas are if not full, at least familiar. Then one day, she walks into class. Xanadu. The most beautiful, smart-ass, conflicted girl in the world. Mike falls fast, and the two seem to connect. Only problem? Mike’s gay and Xanadu’s…not. A story of family, friendship, and unrequinted love. Barriers that can be broken and those that should be respected. Ages 12-up. See more of my thoughts on Far From Xanadu.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

It’s hard to know the precise moment when an idea implants onto your subconscious and begins to grow. Like sand in an oyster, layer after layer of ochre may produce a pearl, but in the beginning it’s only a mass of guts and goo.

After my young adult lesbian love story, Keeping You a Secret, was published, I was overwhelmed with the passionate response from readers. At the heart of a number of coming out stories, one particular theme began to emerge. Two excerpts from letters are poignant examples:

“Dear Julie,
“This is going to sound ridiculous because well… I think you’re asked this nearly everyday: How do I get over liking a straight girl? I just don’t know how to deal with it. My heart is still hoping and I can’t stop it from doing that…no matter how hard I try, I can’t stop believing things can and will work out for my liking.”

“The girl I was in love with is now going out with the boy who has been my neighbor since I was two. I’m giving up on her, obviously, but here is the bad part. She kind of knows about me. Not outright KNOWS, but still… And she is always touching me and saying stuff, and my mind wants to follow her but I know it’s just an illusion.
“I know you won’t know, but WHY IS SHE DOING THIS TO ME???”

Oh, but I do know. We have a term in our community: Lesbian baiting. Baiters are straight women who lead lesbians on, who play with our emotions and allow us to believe there’s the possibility of a romantic relationship. They have no intention of pursuing or sustaining a relationship, of course. They’re curious. They’re confused. In the extreme, they’re sexual predators.

I have a lesbian friend who’s been obsessed with a straight woman for twenty years. This woman is flattered by my friend’s attention, I’m sure. Who doesn’t want to feel attractive and desirous? The straight woman finally got married and I thought, Great. This is fantastic. Now she’ll free my friend from her self-imposed bondage of unrequited love. But no, this straight woman still calls and says, “I miss you. I think I made a mistake marrying a man.” Oh brother. Could someone please take her out?

Naturally, the phenomenon of preying on a person’s vulnerability and need isn’t confined to our community. I did think it’d be an interesting topic to explore in YA literature – loving someone who can’t love you back. Manipulation versus obsession. The distance between people, psychological and biological, that never can, and never should, be crossed.

Theme, in this case, was the genesis for Far from Xanadu. The main character, Mike, had been growing inside me for a while, augmented by the ochre of irritation, frustration, and anger.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Far from Xanadu was eighteen months in the research and writing, then another three months in revision after my critique group thrashed the manuscript.(Just kidding. They’re kind, astute and trusted readers.) Revisions with my editor, Megan Tingley, took another five or six months. Twelve months in the publication process. Total the column; carry the one; a three-year-plus project. That’s actually the fastest I’ve ever written and published a book.

The major events, as always, were revision, revision, revision.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

Here’s the weird thing about Far from Xanadu. I don’t remember writing this book. I have the first draft on Big Chief paper if the government comes to check, but I have no recollection of sitting down and putting words on paper. What I remember is the research.

You know how writers are always advised to write what they know? Why don’t I listen to that advice? In this book there were so many situations and areas of expertise where I was lacking basic fundamental knowledge, it was ridiculous. Girls’ softball, strength training, morbid obesity, water towers, wheat farming, Kansas, alcoholism, stock car racing, plumbing…plumbing for God’s sake. I can’t even spell pipe wrench. Why Mike had to be a plumber is a mystery to me. I spent hours in Home Depot, sitting on the floor in the plumbing aisle, taking notes, drawing pictures, making lists of parts and figuring out how they fit together. I talked to plumbers. I asked them, “How can you tell when someone does a half-assed job at installing a shower fixture?”

Originally I wanted to set this book in eastern Colorado, in a small town. But when people think of Colorado, they envision mountains and ski resorts. Those unfamiliar with western geography and lifestyle don’t realize the eastern half of Colorado—and the western slope too—is comprised of farming and ranching communities. I didn’t want to spend a third of the book having to educate or overcome mindsets, so I jumped the border and set the story in Kansas.

I’ve never been to Kansas, other than to drive through. I had to buy maps and gazetteers, study the flora and fauna, the weather patterns, the towns, cities, streets and highway systems. Kansas was the perfect setting for wheat farming. But wheat farming? What’s that about? Bread comes from King Soopers, right?

Secondary research doesn’t always bring your details to life, so I queried all my friends and acquaintances to see if I could find someone who knew someone who knew Kevin Bacon’s relatives in Kansas. One Sunday morning I got a call from this nice man, Dan Depperschmidt (no relation to Kevin), a wheat farmer in western Kansas. He said, “I’m supposed to call this gal and tell her everything I know about growing wheat and living on a farm in Kansas.” I screamed, “I’m that gal!” I grilled Dan for hours about the color and size and smell of wheat. About farm equipment and growing seasons. How farm roads are marked and how people spend their time and money. I had pages and pages of notes, hundreds of invaluable details, which were incorporated into maybe five or six paragraphs in the book. I’ve never infiltrated setting so thoroughly in a story and authenticity was crucial. The town of Coalton, Kansas became a character in my mind—of nonspecific gender.

I’m a systems engineer by trade and I love architecture and design, the science of systems and dynamics of logic. Weaving disparate elements into a cohesive theme is what I consider the intellectual challenge of creating a novel. Details add dimension. Language and style add artistry and texture. Far from Xanadu was an exhilarating exercise in bringing order to chaos. Practical application of research is a different branch of science. Don’t ever ask me to replace the ballcock assembly in your toilet.

Cynsational Note

Recent YA author interviews of 2005 titles include: Cecil Castellucci on Boy Proof (Candlewick, 2005); Louise Hawes on The Vanishing Point (Houghton Mifflin, 2005); Jennifer Richard Jacobson on Stained (Atheneum, 2005); Ron Koertge on Boy Girl Boy (Harcourt, 2005); David Lubar on Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie (Dutton, 2005); R. A. Nelson on Teach Me (Razorbill, 2005); Mary E. Pearson on A Room On Lorelei Street (Henry Holt, 2005); Lara M. Zeises on Anyone But You (Delacorte, 2005).

Cynsational News & Links

Austin writer Sean Petrie is a finalist for the ABCs Book Competition for his manuscript, “This Class Is A Zoo.” (Yes, that was a hint). Read all the stories, and vote.

The June Franklin Naylor Award for the Best Book for Children on Texas History: “Given annually to the author/illustrator of the most distinguished book for children and young adults, grades K-12, that accurately portrays the history of Texas, whether fiction or nonfiction.” The award is “endowed by the family of June Franklin Naylor and sponsored by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library.” Scroll for more information and 2005 entry guidelines. Note: The deadline is Jan. 31, 2006.

Not Everyone Has A Novel Inside Them by Tim Clare from The Guardian. Not for the uber sensitive.

2005 Short Story Competition: Because the annual Write It Now! Competition has been so successful in helping new writers and illustrators get their work in front of the editors who helped launch their careers, wants to do that for short story writers, too! Three Categories: Young Adult Readers, ages 15+; Mid-grade Readers, 11 – 14; Young Readers, ages 7 – 10. Grand Prize: $200, plus a 2006 Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market; First Prize, each category: $50, plus a 2006 Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market. Entry Fee: $10 per manuscript. Plus, the 1st – 3rd place finishers in the MG and YA categories will be published in a 2007 anthology by Blooming Tree Press. Entry Deadline: Oct. 31, 2005; Email entries are welcome and encouraged. See Rules, FAQ, submission guidelines, and entry form.