Article Title:Taking a risk to tell the truth
Author or Credit:Chris Banks
Published on:13th September 2003 - 12:00 pm
Story ID:102
Text:William Taylor is one of New Zealand's most popular authors of books for children and young adults. His style is humourous, economical and compelling, with characters and settings firmly ingrained in New Zealand society and culture.  For an author of Taylor's pedigree to attempt writing gay-themed books would be described by some as "risky", yet he has done it on no less than three occasions in the last ten years, facing equal amounts of praise and damnation with "The Blue Lawn", "Jerome", and the latest release "Pebble In A Pool". The first of these, "The Blue Lawn", told the story of 15-year-old David, a promising rugby player who finds himself being drawn to Theo, a new boy in his class whom he soon befriends. Over the course of the story they must come to terms with their mutual attraction in an environment where being gay is tantamount to being invisible. Concern about Taylor's reputation as a writer for young people nearly stopped this sensitive tale of aching (yet non-explicit) desire from ever being published. Written in the mid-eighties just after the passing of homosexual law reform, Taylor himself kept it on the shelf for four years before submitting it to Penguin Books in 1991, who rejected it on the grounds that it was "not a work of good taste" and would harm his career. It was at the urging of fellow authors and friends Tessa Duder and the late Gaelyn Gordon that he try another publisher in 1994. Paul Bradwell of HarperCollins phoned Taylor after reading only the first half of the manuscript and said they wanted to publish it immediately. The book went on to win New Zealand's premier award for young adult fiction the following year, and has been published internationally. Taylor still receives letters from young and old thanking him for telling "their story". Many in New Zealand were not happy for a story about "those people" to be told, and after "The Blue Lawn"'s publication, school principals in some rural areas banned it from libraries, sensationalist elements of the press scoured the pages looking for dirty bits, and questions were even asked in Parliament. Things did not get easier upon the publication of "Jerome" in 1999, which dealt not only with awareness of same-sex attraction, but the potentially tragic consequences of not being able to come to terms with it. The book dispenses with a traditional narrative for the most part and tells its story in the unique manner of a series of reprinted letters, emails and faxes between teenagers Marco, in New Zealand, and Katie, an exchange student in America, whom have both lost their best friend Jerome in a shooting accident. In typical New Zealand fashion, the events leading up to his death and the very manner of his death itself have been swept under the carpet, and it is up to Marco and Katie to not only deal with their grief, but uncover the truth of what has happened. The attitudes displayed in the book were ironically mirrored by the society depicted within it, stifling discussion of the very issues that were raised. Taylor's decision to use Marco and Katie's correspondence for the bulk of the book is a brilliant device, infusing the book with a potency founded in realism. We don't feel like we're being told a story, rather that we're party to something particularly private, eavesdropping on these characters at their most vulnerable, and invariably, most human moments. The rawness of the book's style did not go down well with one major bookselling chain, who refused to stock "Jerome" until it carried warning stickers about the lanugage, although curiously, no warnings were deemed to be required for the excessive drinking and smoking also featured. There is evidence to suggest that times may be changing, however. Taylor was invited last year to speak at high schools in the very district that had previously banned "The Blue Lawn", and he was delighted to discover both that book and "Jerome" were very popular titles, with positive word-of-mouth ensuring that they were rarely to be found on library shelves. This turnaround has not been enough to encourage Taylor to publish his third gay-themed novel, "Pebble In A Pool", in New Zealand, a decision he has made himself. Instead, it has been published so far exclusively in America by Alyson Books, the same publisher responsible for the American editions of "The Blue Lawn" and "Jerome". "Pebble In A Pool" tells the story of Paul, a high school senior thrown out of his home by his rabidly fundamentalist father when he speaks out in defence of the flamboyant Spike, who has recently been murdered in a homophobic hate crime. A mature work, "Pebble" is probably the most specifically gay of the three, dealing with issues such as butch/femme identity and relationships between older and younger men. All the male characters in your books have quintessentially masculine identities, and this is equally true of the male protagonists in your three gay-themed novels. Sometimes this is to their downfall, as in "Jerome", where the adoption of homophobia-as-defence has tragic consequences. Why is masculine identity an important theme for you? There are a couple of reasons there - firstly, I try to show in the characters that our sexual orientation has little to do with how we present to the world. It would have been very easy to write about flamboyant extremes, and indeed i do touch upon that in "Pebble In A Pool" with [the character of] poor Spike. Certainly I have drawn characters who parade a macho and masculine swagger but, invariably, I have countered or contrasted these with female characters fully capable of taming any mere male. It is not by accident that in these books I tend to write the stories of very ordinary kids, the girl or boy next door who looks the same, talks the same, shares the same peripheral interests... even if, for all of that, their deepest feelings, their sexuality, is beginning to follow a different path. I have not only written these books in the hopes that they'll get into the hands of kids who may think they have a different orientation sexually, I also happen to feel that it is equally important that the young people of, shall we say, the sexual mainstream, are able to view those of their peers who have different feelings in a more positive light. You were a successful writer of children's books for a number of years before "The Blue Lawn" came out - why did you feel, at the time you wrote it, that it was the right time for such a story? The gestation period [for the story] started right back when I was the same age as David and Theo. Take your pick, I am one or the other or, more likely, an amalgam of the two. How different my life may have been if at age sixteen I had been able to pick up a book like "The Blue Lawn" and been able to see that there were others going through the same hell that I lived. Slight of build, sweet of face, scared and forever confused about the nature of what I felt within me, but with enough wit to know that in that time and that place it was imperative that I force myself into a certain mould in order to quite simply survive. I did. "Pebble In A Pool" is certainly the most explicit of the three novels, in "Jerome" the relationship between Marco and Jerome is unconsummated, and Theo and David's relationship is left largely up to the imagination in "The Blue Lawn". "Pebble" is also the only novel of the three not to be published in New Zealand - why? I made a conscious decision not to publish "Pebble In A Pool" in New Zealand. I was asked to write another book by Alyson Books (the American publisher of "The Blue Lawn" and "Jerome"), who are a gay publisher, and I agreed to do so. I tossed up whether I would do a co-publishing deal locally as was done with "Jerome", but I didn't want to go through some of the same hassles that I had with the other two books, having to field the same questions, comments and criticisms from the right-wing fundamentalists, so I thought to hell with it - if an American publisher wants it, some copies will come through to New Zealand, in this day and age people can buy it on the internet, people will hear about it. I make no concessions for the American market, that publisher has never required that I do, and in fact I think with one or two exceptions, they even keep my British spellings without changing them...I didn't concede at all, with setting or language. "Jerome" was published with Creative NZ funding. Was the topic of youth suicide and internalised homophobia too much for major publishers to handle after the sensitive portrayal of gay teenage love in "The Blue Lawn"? The themes and language did panic some people, but I would have had no difficulty finding a publisher for "Jerome", I made a decision to use Longacre Press because they keep their books in print, which is very important. I may jibe at most forms of censorship and I think that at my age and stage of general life experience I may be trusted to censor my own work. Bigotry of any ilk is anathema to me, be it racist, sexist or religious. In all three novels, the characters are in different situations and are at different levels of comfort regarding their homosexuality, but there are similarities in the personalities and the relationships - Theo from "Blue Lawn" and Steve from "Pebble" for example...where are these characters coming from? You could say that there are similarities between those characters, and also characters from the whole body of my other thirty-something books, and that even includes the books for much younger kids. The characters come from my experiences with young New Zealanders - I taught school for 25 years, mainly 11-13 year old kids. I loved every year I spent teaching and loved working with kids. As a solo parent I raised my own family of two sons from an early age. One of my sons tells me that I've used him so many times in my novels that it's about time I paid him a share of the royalties, but it's totally unconscious! I guess it's just how I see people. I am big-headed enough to think I am as well equipped as anyone to write for the young and, even at my great age, am able to catch and capture their hopes and their fears, joys and sadnesses, ups and downs - the whole warp and weft of growing up in the 21st century. Pebble In A Pool is available is available through The Women's Bookshop, 105 Ponsonby Rd, Auckland. Email: Website: Chris Banks - 13th September 2003    
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