I’d like to start with your first novel Diving for the Moon which is about the friendship between two sixth graders, a boy with HIV and the girl he’s known most of his life. Their families both spend summer vacations at the same lake. Diving for the Moon is about the summer Josh tells Carolina that he is HIV-positive. What drew you to this subject for your first novel? Where did the issue of HIV/AIDS and hemophilia, which is why Josh became HIV-positive, stand in 1995 when Diving for the Moon was published?
I was drawn to write Diving for the Moon because several close friends had died of AIDS and more were struggling with the disease. I wanted to write it to understand my feelings better. Since I was interested in writing for children – not adults – I made the protagonist a 12-year-old hemophiliac rather than a gay man. In 1995, when the book came out, the first medication – AZT – was out and this gave people some hope. But the blood supply was still not safe, so hemophiliacs were at high risk till later in the decade.
There is a gay couple, Bill and Elliot, among the supporting cast of characters in Diving for the Moon which I suspect was pushing the envelope in books for sixth graders in 1995. The first middle school level books I encountered with gay characters were James Howe’s The Misfits and Totally Joe which came out after 2000. Did including Bill and Elliot in Diving for the Moon make finding a publisher more of a challenge in 1995?
Including secondary characters who were gay – Bill and Elliot – did not turn out to be pushing the envelope much. To tell you the truth, no one said a word about it. Not my publisher (Simon & Schuster), not the reviewers, not the children who wrote to me. If there was any novelty, it was that they were secondary rather than main characters. Perhaps having them show up matter-of-factly in the background was a small breakthrough.
Your second novel, David Inside Out is aimed more at high school age readers. (I’m making this judgment based on almost 20 years of buying books for my middle school classroom. I’d love to hear what you think about the intended audience for each.) What brought you to write for an older audience? I imagine there is a different set of challenges and expectations, rules if you will, for each age group.
David Inside Out is intended for sophisticated 13-year-olds (like kids who go to school in Manhattan) and older. The book depicts real, live, honest-to-god sex and raw emotions so it may not be right for younger teens with tender sensibilities.
Writing for teens is much harder than writing for middle schoolers. The emotions are more volatile, getting the language right is more important, and the teen reader brings more skepticism to bear. (I could hear them when I wrote a bad line of dialogue saying: Oh Puh-leeze.)
Although I intended the book for teens, I am finding that grown-ups like it too – especially gay men for whom it’s a “back in the day” experience.
David Inside Out is about a high school junior coming to terms with his sexuality. He begins having sex with Sean, another boy on his track team, early in the novel. I think this is often dangerous ground for authors of Young Adult novels. I know that some libraries and teachers won’t include books that depict sex in their collections at all let alone the very frank depictions of sex that are in David Inside Out. (I was honestly a little surprised by them. It’s been a while since I’ve read a gay themed YA novel that had actual sex in it.) In my opinion the sex in David Inside Out is very true-to-life. I think you’ve pushed the envelope again. Was there ever a question of “not going there” in the writing and editing process of David Inside Out? Did anyone ever say you can’t include that?
The sex in David Inside Out has been a lightning rod – no question. Here, I was pushing the envelope. But to me, it was essential in order to honestly tell the story. I do not know of any other gay-themed YA book that has gone as far in describing the sexual events in a character’s life. But, come on! Teens masturbate and have sex. How do you tell a gay coming out story without saying what gender the boy fantasizes about when he masturbates?
My editor at Henry Holt was great about it. She had no qualms about the sex scenes and thought it was important to the story. In selling the book, Henry Holt lets schools, libraries and bookstores know about the sexual content, but they don’t make a big deal out of it. In making a presentation to a group of booksellers recently I mentioned that the book had sex in it and one woman replied, “Well I hope so!” That’s my favorite reaction so far.
One last question about sex and then I’ll move on. There has been some controversy among book blogs about the scenes between David and Sean in David Inside Out. In one, David takes a drunken Sean home and puts him to bed. Later that night David got into bed next to Sean and “reached down and felt for him, hoping he would respond.” When Sean didn’t, David rolled away, thought about what might have happened and “found relief.” (I admit, this went right by me. I didn’t recognize what “found relief” meant until I read about it online later.) Whether or not this constituted sexual assault was the cause of controversy over at YA Fabulous. You waded into the debate yourself in the comment section a couple of times. Did you hesitate before entering the debate? You mention in one of your comments at YA Fabulous that the controversy had become a subject of conversation at parties you attended. What was that like? Has the controversy changed your mind about the scenes in David Inside Out or about book blogs?
There have been some bloggers who questioned the sex in David Inside Out. A reviewer at YA Fabulous had an intensely negative reaction. I thought that review was unfair so I decided to weigh in. My response really stirred the pot. (I’m planning to use excerpts in my memoirs someday.) I brought the review and my response to the attention of friends and colleagues. This engendered conversations about the different attitudes of gay men and feminist women, about what’s over the line sexually, and about the role of fiction in portraying characters who are less than perfect. It was all fascinating to me, if not always comfortable. The contretemps has not changed my mind about writing (it feeds my soul), bloggers (often thought-provoking) or the sex scenes (hey, it’s real).
In David Inside Out, David and his friend Eddie write fan letters to the authors of romance novels they love. Have you gotten any fan letters? What has the reaction of actual young adults been to David Inside Out? Do you know what your teenage audience is saying about David Inside Out?
I have gotten many responses from readers, teen and older. They come by way of email, my website (www.leebantle.com) and Facebook. No one uses snail mail anymore. The common theme is that the book in some way captured their experience coming to terms with being gay. Some have said that the book helped them push the closet door open. I interviewed lots of people to gather material for the book. Things have changed since my coming out days, and the sense of isolation is not there anymore. But there are still condemnatory messages regularly hurled at teens (for example, Prop 8, the military, the prevalence of “faggot” and “gay” as insults in schools today). Gay teen suicides are still a problem. The journey to self-acceptance can still be a tough one for some teens and I think David Inside Out speaks to those kids.
You day job is pretty impressive. You’re a partner in a law firm dedicated to fighting for civil rights in cases involving gender discrimination, sexual harassment, race discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination, age discrimination, defamation, first amendment rights, police brutality and wrongful arrest. Is this one reason why you were so long between novels? Have you been tempted to try your hand at a legal novel like John Grisham? Any of your cases provide you with something you could use in one of your books? What’s next for Lee Bantle the author?
I am a civil rights lawyer by day and writer by night. But that is not why David Inside Out was so long in the making. I gave up on it for years, believing it was fatally flawed and that I was a one-hit wonder. A wonderful friend and author drew me back to the book and acted as script doctor. Now, I am at work on books 3 and 4 and cannot imagine not being a writer.
There is so much good material in my day job – the stories that people come in with, the inherent drama of a trial, the good guys/bad guys dynamic. I have not worked this into a book yet, I guess, because there are always other things that interest me more. Right now, I am finishing The Memoirs of Odell P. Livingston, Grade 6, which is about the search for identity of a biracial boy in the age of Obama.
Because I feature regular posts about the books my dog, a Basset hound named Dakota, eats, I like to end each interview by asking if you’ve ever had a pet with similar appetites. (And I will confess here, that, unfortunately, Dakota did eat David Inside Out. If you’ll look at the sidebar, you’ll see that you are in very good company.)
I am glad that Dakota ate David Inside Out. It would be hurtful if Dakota sniffed it and decided to pass. I am not a dog (or cat) person, but they seem to love me. They lick me when I arrive at the door, sit by my side at parties, climb in bed with me on weekends away, not minding in the least that the love is not mutual. I do, however, adore children of any age. I love talking to them to learn how they see the world. I love writing for them
I'd like to thank Mr. Bantle taking the time to participate in this interview. You can find out more about him and his books at his website http://www.leebantle.com/.
Full Disclosure: Mr. Bantle send me a review copy of David Inside Out. His photograph comes from his website.