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Saturday, April 21, 2012

YA Author James Klise

James Klise is the author of Love Drugged, a 2011 Stonewall Honor book, Lambda Literary Award Finalist, and an ALA Rainbow List selection. His short stories have appeared in many places, including Story Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, New Orleans Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Chicago, where he works by day as a high school librarian. His website is

First of all, thanks for the invitation to join you this month at Romancing the Genres. It’s a pleasure to be here!

How did you come up with the idea for your story?

I began with a frightening mental image: a teen trapped in a room against his will. In my mind, I saw a panicky teenager who was trapped in what appeared to be the library of a very large house. There was a gothic element to it. I just had to figure out what this boy was doing there, and how he might get out. It sounds a bit silly in retrospect, but it took me (a gay man) an embarrassingly long while to realize that my main character was a gay teenager and that the private library was, in fact, a private laboratory. I was most eager to write about a teen romantic relationship that wasn’t perfect and maybe felt awkward, but still felt real and important. (Like a lot of teen relationships, in fact.)

What made you decide to be a writer? What motivates you to write?

My love of writing is certainly linked to my love of reading, which goes way back to childhood. My parents read to my sisters and me each night before bed. Once a week, we all piled into the station wagon and drove to the public library on Main Street in Peoria, IL. We got 10 books each and read everyone else’s books, too. Even now, on any given day, I’m always more eager to READ than to write.

What I love most about writing fiction is the challenge, crafting scene after scene, building a satisfying story. First drafts can be nerve wracking, but I enjoy revision, making improvements to sentences, clarifying moments to make them sharper, funnier, or more suspenseful. Writing a novel requires such extreme commitment, and endless patience. So it’s extremely satisfying to finish a project. Later, of course, there’s the fun of seeing if it will ever be published!

What genre are most of your stories? Why did you choose that genre?

Everything I have written is realistic fiction. Well, let’s say “realistic” with quotes, because I am thrilled when out-of-the-ordinary things happen in stories, even realistic ones. I’m most drawn to stories that take chances and offer big surprises. While my stories take place in a familiar world, usually modern-day Chicago, I hope there are elements of the fantastic, too, that help keep teen readers turning pages.

A funny thing regarding genre: When I wrote LOVE DRUGGED, my aim was to write a thriller. I read many thrillers for inspiration and instruction. It wasn’t until after the novel sold that my editor told me how happy he was to acquire… a comedy. (And he was right! The narrator is funny.) Maybe any book, regardless of genre, can benefit from having the bones of a thriller.

If you have children/teens, tell us how they impact your YA writing?

I work full-time as a high school librarian in Chicago—so my days are spent with teens. Many of them are ardent readers. It’s not a stretch to say that I would probably not be writing for teens at all if I didn’t know so many of them. (Prior to working in a school, I only wrote short stories about grown-ups.) The useful thing about being around teens is that they always remind me what they want: gripping, relevant stories about characters they can relate to. Teens are not what we might call “patient” readers. They’ll close a book, and return it, if they’re bored on page 3. They really hold an author’s feet to the fire! Because of this, when I write for teens, the work needs to be as sharp as possible. Writing for teens has made me a better writer.

What was the most challenging book you’ve written?

That’s easy—the one I’m revising now. I bet everyone says that.

What books do you have available now?         

My first book is a novel for teens called LOVE DRUGGED (Llewellyn/Flux). My book definitely includes a romance—but this romance is doomed from the very beginning! The story, which takes place in Chicago, is about a closeted, freaked-out gay teenager who gets his hands on an experimental drug that claims to “cure” same-sex attraction. The premise sounds outrageous, but I tried to handle it realistically, because I wanted to explore those normal, confusing feelings many LGBTQ kids experience before they come out.  In the novel, my character steals and experiments with the drug at the same that his romantic relationship with a female classmate heats up. Spoiler alert: Things do not end happily for these lovebirds.

I'll end with a question:         

Most YA novels contain some element of romance. After all, for many people, the teen years are filled with exciting first experiences in this area of life. What do you think - does a YA novel NEED an element of romance to hook a teen's interest?
I'm curious to hear what people think!


B. A. Binns said...

The romance element isn't mandatory, but if you don't have that, there better be something else HUGE. FOr example, in one of my favorite YA novels, Revolver, there is no romance, the fifteen year old hero spends a day trapped in a room with his father's dead body and a man with a gun out to kill him and his sister. Non-stop tension there, so no need (or time) for romance.

I admit, though, when I tell kids that there's a hot girl in my book because the hero is seventeen, they all nudge each other or giggle. The romance helps.

Judith Ashley said...

James, We are delighted your schedule permitted you to guest with us and a huge thanks to B.A. for the fantastic Y.A. author line-up!

While I exclusively read and write romance now, that hasn't always been the case. The story has to be good - for me that doesn't mean gripping - but it needs to hold my interest. That said, the characters need to be realistic and engaging (not the same as likeable), the story/plot needs to have a momentum to it, and I need to care what happens to everyone at the end of the story.

I've never been a fan of stories that end in angst - while all stories do not need romance they do need something that engages the reader.

James said...

Yes, I really enjoyed Revolver! Great example. And I just recently read Lockdown by Walter Dean Meyers - a YA book without any romance that was popular with our teen book group; they didn't seem to miss the romance at all.

Hi Judith - I love your description of a good book, and I agree that stories that end in angst leave me unsatisfied. In my book, though the love story doesn't work out, there is an upbeat ending for the main character. I like when novels (especially teen novels) close on a hopeful note.

Sarah Raplee said...

Love Drugged sounds like an engaging story teens will relate to.
I don't believe a romantic element is essential for a good YA story, but in many cases a romance element makes the book more reflective of many teens' lives. As in stories written primarily for adults, great stories for teens come in all genres/sub-genres/blended genres. Different people are drawn to different hooks.

Christy Carlyle said...

Hi James -
I don't think a romance in a YA story is essential, but it would certainly have made me (as a teen) more drawn to the story. Heck, the same would be true now. In any story I read, I always look for the romance.

By the way, I really enjoyed hearing about how you came up with the idea for this story. What a great process: being struck with a vivid image and then investigating the story around it. The premise of Love Drugged sounds compelling.

DTTarkus said...

With females comprising over 80% of YA readership, I think it tends to be more a market driver than a requirement.

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi James,
Great interview. I think it must be incredibly hard writing for teenagers, they have so many other things to do that reading would be a low priority for many.



Anonymous said...

James, great interview!

I'm a day late to the party because I see all these announcements on digest, but ...

I think DTTarkus's comment re the % of teen girl readers is right on-target. I've noticed that movies about women pretty much always include a love story, whereas movies about men often don't. I think most (note I say "most," not all) teenage girls want to read about a girl falling in love or a guy who's got a girl heavily on his mind.

Your book sounds fascinating! I will keep an eye out for it.