A Conversation with David Levithan, Author of "Two Boys Kissing"

"Nobody ever asks me what the most played song on my iPod is. Which is strange, because it strikes me as an obvious one to ask a music obsessive."

Aug 27, 2013 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

I love David Levithan. This author and editor has done so much for gay YA, and he's a totally awesome guy, and his books are super great. So when I got an opportunity to talk to him about "Two Boys Kissing," his book out this week, I was tremendously excited. It's not every day that you get a chance to discuss the gay agenda and books at the same time, after all!

I wanted to hear a little more both about his experiences in publishing and with "Two Boys Kissing," and I wasn't disappointed.

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Photo: Courtesy Knopf Books for Young Readers.

xoJane: Inevitably, it's hard to resist contrasting "Boy Meets Boy" and "Two Boys Kissing," each of which revolves around being gay in America and particularly what it's like to be a young gay man in a small town. What are you hoping to see from the reception for "Two Boys Kissing," and what do you think has changed on both a social and literary level in the decade since "Boy Meets Boy"?

David LevithanWell, more than anything else, I just hope that people like "Two Boys Kissing." The best reception it could get would be for people to find it meaningful. As for what’s changed -- well, goodness, where to start? The world is definitely a very different place now than it was ten years ago, when Boy Meets Boy came out. But putting things like the Supreme Court DOMA decision aside, in the YA world I think there isn’t any fear any more about LGBT titles, and there’s much more of an embrace of all of these different LGBT voices.

There’s still a ways to go as far as representing all kinds of LGBT experience, but we’ve come a long way. And in YA literature in general, I think there’s such an incredible freedom to take risks -- not just with subject matter, but with structure and strange forms of narrative. "Two Boys Kissing" exists because of that freedom.  

xoJane: The narrative style for "Two Boys Kissing" is quite distinctive, and a radical departure from what most people are thinking of as commercial/"marketable" YA -- what made you decide to take the route you did?

David Levithan: I’m glad it worked for you! The narrative voice -- using a Greek chorus of men from the AIDS generation to look at the Internet generation of today -- started when Michael Cart asked me to write a short story for his anthology "How Beautiful the Ordinary." When the inspiration for the main plot came to me -- by way of Matty Daley, one of the two boys who broke the world record for longest kiss -- I didn’t initially think to write it from such an unusual point of view. But it wasn’t until I decided on that point of view that the novel really fell into place.

That’s when I learned what the book was really going to be about. Although I would agree it's an unusual narrative structure, I don’t think that in any way makes it non-commercial. If you look at some of the most popular YA novels of the past decade, many of them (like "The Book Thief" or "Looking for Alaska") have nontraditional narrative structures. So I think if you can pull off something different, the audience is intrigued, not turned off.

xoJane: Your work really stands out in its refusal to tragedize gay and trans characters, among others -- I think we're both a bit weary of overwrought issue books -- what kinds of social conversations do you think they force readers to have with themselves and each other?   

David Levithan: I think the key is to look at things from all kinds of angles. Tragic or comic or both. I actually think that YA novels that grapple with hard subjects are usually too easily dismissed -- partially because of a long history of dismissing YA “problem novels” and partially because, quite frankly, truth-telling makes a lot of people very nervous. I think it’s deplorable when tragedy is used for mere sensationalism or in a melodramatic, noncontextual fashion.

But most serious YA avoids those traps. And the conversations that come from those books are usually conversations about the greater (or smaller) truths they expose. I would love for my books to do that. But they’ll do that because, as with most YA, the misery isn’t the point. It’s the grappling with the misery that’s the point.

xoJane: Speaking of issue books, what would you like to see more (and less!) of in young adult as the genre explodes in popularity?  

David Levithan: I think there are many voices we need to hear more of. For LGBT, it’s more of the LB and T, as well as how queerness intersects with other facets of identity, like race or class or physical ability. And, in general, there aren’t enough stories from the margins of society, many of whom are the soon-to-be majority of society.

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The closest I could get to posing with David. 

xoJane: Lots of collaborations on your bibliography: if you dare to pick one (I know, we all love our children equally), which is your favourite?  

David Levithan: I’ve loved all of my collaborations. But it all started with "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," and writing that book with Rachel will, I suspect, always be the most joyous writing experience I’ll have (either solo or with someone else).

xoJane: I'd love to hear more about the Valentine's Day story tradition, because it sounds so whimsical, delightful, and splendid. Where did it originate? 22 years, really? Are we ever going to see a compilation of stories?  

David Levithan: There is a compilation of stories -- "How They Met and Other Stories," which contains many of the valentine stories. The tenth anniversary edition of "Boy Meets Boy," which started as a Valentine story, also has a Valentine story I wrote about the character Infinite Darlene. But as far as the tradition is concerned -- it started for public consumption with a story I wrote for my friends for Valentine’s Day my junior year of high school, because I was bored in physics class. The next year, my friends demanded a new story--– and it’s been the tradition ever since. And that was now 24 years ago.

xoJane: I'm always curious to know what other writers and authors are reading: What's on your to-read and recently read lists, and what really stood out for you?  

David Levithan: David Rakoff’s "Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish" completely blew me away -- it’s a funny, moving novel in verse that somehow encapsulates over a half-dozen lives in less than 150 pages. And Lauren Myracle’s "The Infinite Moment of Us" is one of the best, truest teen loves stories I’ve read in a while. Both of these books had me laughing at parts, and in tears at others.

xoJane: As both an author and an editor, you occupy a somewhat unique place in the industry -- any advice for aspiring LGBQT authors, whether they're going out on submission with their first polished novels or just starting to think about whether they should sit down and write something?

David Levithan: For the writing part I always say: Don’t worry about being published. Just write a damn great book. And once you’re going out on submission -- find an agent who understands what you’re doing, and she or he will find the editor who will do likewise. And don’t be afraid to fail. Either while writing or after. Because most of us “published” authors have the starter books they had to get through before they wrote the ones that were good enough to be shared. Just keep writing.

xoJane: I like to ask my interview subjects to come up with a question they'd love to answer -- one that doesn't come up very often, something they're dying to talk about (it doesn't have to be related to the subject of the interview!), or a question for the interviewer (oh, fourth wall, we hardly knew ye). In the spirit of that tradition, have you got a question you'd love to answer? (And would you answer it, too?)

David Levithan: Nobody ever asks me what the most played song on my iPod is. Which is strange, because it strikes me as an obvious one to ask a music obsessive. In this case, it’s Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” -- and, truth be told, has been Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” for about two years. The song this year that’s coming closest is, fittingly, Tegan and Sara’s “Closer” -- but they’ve got a ways to go before they catch up with the Swedish pop queen.  

xoJane: Finally, a key question for our readers: cake, or pie?  

David Levithan: One should never have to choose! BOTH!

Now that you've heard a bit from David, go out and get his book, "Two Boys Kissing," because it's totally fabulous; you're going to love the interconnected stories of his narrative, his Greek chorus of storytellers, and the people you encounter in its pages. And, in a supergreat gesture (I told you David was a stand-up guy), he's donating $2 for every copy sold before 10 September to The Trevor Project