Author Interview: Carrie Jones on Tips on Having a Gay (ex) Boyfriend

Carrie Jones on Carrie Jones: “I am a Vermont College MFA graduate. I used to be in a song-and-dance company with comic/actress Sarah Silverman and Bridget Walsh, one of the first touring leads in ‘Annie’! We sang songs from ‘Fame!’ This is terribly embarrassing. Also at my middle school were the Myers brothers who now are writers on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and ‘Mad TV.’

“I went to Bates College with the brilliant director/poet/playwright Ozzie Jones who I have a perpetual crush on. I studied with poet Rob Farnsworth there.

“I am addicted to fudge bars, the low-fat frozen kind. I have a big, skinny, white dog and a ridiculously plump cat. We live in Maine.

“I’ve won a Maine Literary Award for adult nonfiction, a bunch of Maine Press Awards for column, editorial and sports writing. Yes! Sports! I swear it’s true. I’ve reported on football games. It’s hard to imagine if you know me. I’ve also received a Martin Dibner Award for most promising Maine writer.”

Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?

I’d been at Vermont College for almost a year when I decided to submit Tips on Having a Gay (ex) Boyfriend. It had never been workshopped. No advisors had glanced on it. But I ignored all reason and sent it to Andrew Karre at Flux.

It was a slush-pile baby. And the biggest stumble to its publication was my query letter, which I detailed the whole horrible silliness of on my livejournal blog, which I have excerpted below:

So, I pick up the phone, and a nice resonating male voice says, “Um, is this C.C. Jones?”

“Yes,” I say, while pouring out cat food.

He then proceeds to tell me he is a real live editor person who received my query, wants to see more of my manuscript, but his email requesting it bounced back.

“Really?” I say. “That’s weird.”

“Let me tell you the address,” he says. “cjonese at…”

“Oh,” I say. “Oh. Oh. Oh.”

“What?” he says.

“There’s no e on the end of Jones.”

“I didn’t think so,” he says all deadpan dry.

Luckily, Andrew overlooked my inability to spell my name and bought Tips. He then acquired another young adult novel that’s now called Girl, Hero, but used to be known as The John Wayne Letters. Then he purchased Love (and Other Uses) For Duct Tape. I sold all three in about a year. I’ve also sold a nonfiction picture book to David Godine.

Congratulations on the publication of Tips on Having a Gay (ex) Boyfriend (Flux, 2007)! Could you fill us in on the story?

Tips is about high school senior Belle Philbirck whose long-term boyfriend tells her he’s gay. It delves into the broader effects of homophobia and closetedness. It’s really about self discovery and understanding and all the different kinds of love out there. Okay. It’s not about hamster love or strudel love, but it’s about lots of different kinds of way people can love each other.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I’d heard about this girl who’d been harassed because her boyfriend announced that he was gay. It drove me crazy that something like that could happen. She was tormented for something that had nothing to do with her. I couldn’t understand it, so I began to write about it.

Plus, well, I’ve had a couple gay ex-boyfriends, and I’d found an old love note from one of them. I remembered how I’d absolutely believed every word in that note and how I believed that I’d marry him and live in this cabin on a mountainside and be really poor and have five kids who all wore cotton and wool.

So, the book came out of a combination of those influences, plus the desire to explore the stereotypes around relationships and identity.

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

I wrote the novel in a big rush in November. I submitted it in the winter. I doubled its length after it was accepted. It was published a year later.

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

It was difficult trying to create a form that would convey Belle’s pain and confusion. Because it’s a first-person present narrative, I wanted to illustrate the complex strings of her life and the claustrophobia of the small-town atmosphere while simultaneously having forward motion in her character’s struggle with identity.

I also wanted to make Belle have epilepsy but not have the epilepsy define her character. My critical thesis in Vermont delved into the perpetuation of epilepsy stereotypes and stigmas in children’s literature, and it was important for me to make sure Belle was a cool person who happened to have epilepsy, but not have that epilepsy propel either the plot or the character.

That was hard psychologically difficult for me because I have the same kind of seizures that I gave to her, seizures induced by caffeine and aspartame. Yes! Really! No more coffee for me. Writing anything without coffee is hard, actually. But Postum is a darn good substitute. And think of it… If a writer can write without coffee, a writer can really do anything.

What about the young adult audience appeals to you?

I think everyone in children’s publishing (the agents, editors, booksellers, authors, librarians) is really inspired by young adults. I mean, how cool is it that I can extol the joys of warm beverage cereal in a book? Only young adults would get that. But, it’s more than that.

Obviously, young adult books are about more than an age. They are about an openness to change, about the questioning of personal and political identity as well as the evaluation of cultural mores and practices. There’s an amazing freedom in writing for people who are into that.

What is it like, being a debut author in 2007?

It’s like a good party with a lot of appetizers on the table and decent wine.

With the Class of 2k7, I suddenly have 38 friends who are right there in the book stacks with me. We cheer each other on. We have food fights. Let me tell you, Greg Neri can really throw that lasagna across a convention center hall.

It’s a bit like having a posse. I am so lucky that my book was published this year and that I hooked up with such incredible writers and supportive people, even if it does mean I’m constantly wiping the mashed potato out of my hair and rinsing the JELL-O stains out of my shirt. Yes, I swear they are that bad.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

Current Carrie: Hey! You! Writing in that notebook.

Fifth-grade Carrie: Ew! Am I really going to look like that? Where are my bangs?

Current Carrie: At least your glasses are gone.

Fifth-grade Carrie: Cool.

Current Carrie: Okay, listen. I have writing advice. You know how you’re having Captain James T. Kirk fall in love with your banged hair, glasses-wearing heroine?

Fifth-grade Carrie: Yeah.

Current Carrie: And how Mr. Spock is also in love with same heroine…

Fifth-grade Carrie: Uh-huh.

Current Carrie: And how the Dr. McCoy guy is in love with her too?

Fifth-grade Carrie: What’s your point?

Current Carrie: It’s not all that realistic, sweetie.

Fifth-grade Carrie: It isn’t?

Current Carrie: No, honey. I hate to break it to you. It’s just not. My writing advice to you is that not everyone can be in love with your heroine, unless you’re Laurel Hamilton and your heroine has the ardeur or something.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I kayak. I sail. I walk the dog. I attempt to run. I read, but that sort of counts as writing, doesn’t it? I obsess about strudel and why there is an ultra-large pair of men’s Speedos in my basement. That just doesn’t seem right. Where did the Speedos come from? Why is this swimming suit/undergarment thing so large? And black? Why black? Has it ever been worn? Big life questions such as these bother me.

How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?

It’s horrible. I grew up in New England and we are the kind of people who gasp and hold up garlic cloves and a cross when we hear the words, “self promotion.” I think M.T. Anderson (author interview) said something about that in an interview once, and it really resonated with me because it’s so ridiculously true.

So, I joined the Class of 2k7, a cross-publishers marketing group of debut authors, because I figured I could at least tell myself that I was promoting other people as well as myself. That made it a more altruistic thing, but it also takes a lot of time because I signed up for too many committees. Note to all other debut authors and my fifth-grade writing self: Sign up for only one committee.

Most of my time is still spent writing. The problem isn’t necessarily balancing the other aspects of the business in terms of time spent, but more keeping my mind from obsessively worrying about the other aspects of the business (the sales, the reviews, the promotion) so much that it affects my ability to write.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Free strudel for everyone? No, seriously, my advance was not that big. It’d more be like: Here everyone have a Tic Tac. No, not the whole container, just one.

The nonfiction picture book will be released January 2008. Love (and other uses) For Duct Tape comes out on my birthday, March 1, 2008. Girl, Hero comes out in the summer of 2008.

Cynsational Notes

A related read is The God Box by Alex Sanchez (Simon & Schuster, 2007). From the flap copy: “‘How could I choose betwen my sexuality and my spirituality, two of the most important parts that made me whole?’ High school senior Paul has dated Angie since middle school, and they’re good together. They have a lot of the same interests, like singing in their church choir and being active in Bible club. But when Manuel transfers to their school, Paul has to rethink his life. Manuel is the first openly gay teen anyone in their small town has ever met, and yet he says he’s also a committed Christian. Talking to Manuel makes Paul reconsider thoughts he has kept hidden, and listening to Manuel’s interpretation of Biblical passages on homosexuality causes Paul to reevaluate everything he believed. Manuel’s outspokenness triggers dramatic consequences at school, culminating in a terrifying situation that leads Paul to take a stand.” Read a Cynsations interview with Alex; see his list of “Great Gay Teen Books.”