James Klise is the author of the new
young-adult novel, Love Drugged (Flux), which tells the story of a gay teen who
steals an experimental drug that, if it works correctly, will “cure” same-sex
attraction. Klise holds an MFA from
Bennington College and is a high school librarian in Chicago. He is also the adviser of his school’s
gay/straight alliance. His website is www.jamesklise.com.
What first sparked your interest in writing fiction, and what, if
anything, specifically drew you to writing YA novels?
Hi, Gavin, first of all,
thanks for asking me for the interview!
To answer this question:
I’ve been writing as long as I can remember, but I got really excited about
fiction writing in college by taking a few fiction-writing classes. After
college, I wrote and published short fiction for grown-ups for many years
before working on young-adult novels. For me, the change came when I began
working as a school librarian, which not only exposed me to all the great new
YA fiction that is being published, but also to real teenagers—an excellent
source of material for any writer. I had forgotten all about being a teen.
In your novel, you’ve invented a medication,
“Rehomoline,” that promises to alter sexual orientation. What kind of feedback have you been getting
from gay teenagers about the concept of a pill that would make them stop being
I have gotten lots of
emails from teenagers, both gay and straight, who have enjoyed the book. Most
readers have observed that Jamie’s story is relevant to any teen who’s trying
hard to “fit in,” by any means necessary. It’s something a lot of kids can
relate to. In my book, the pill is just the miracle my narrator has been
praying for—a way of not having to deal with being different.
Interestingly, just last
month, Matthew Shepard’s mother, Judy Shepard, was in Chicago, and she was
quoted in a local paper as saying that Matthew once told her that if he could
take a pill to “be like everybody else,” he would. When I read that, I just
about fell to the floor.
Let’s play devil’s advocate. Let’s say an anti-gay scientist is reading
your book and thinks, “Aha. The problem
here is that Rehomoline is a dangerous drug that leaves the user sick and
unhappy. What I need to do is create the
same drug without the side effects!” So,
first, have you run across criticism that it’s not the concept of the drug
that’s the problem, it’s your villain’s execution of the drug? Second, how would you respond to such
I haven’t really gotten
this kind of criticism yet. I think because people recognize that too many
people really are trying to “cure” young LGBT kids through a variety of
terrible “treatments,” including prayer and therapy. It’s happening now, all
over the country. (All I did in Love Drugged was to make up a new method.) So
what are we going to do about it? It’s
usually not an “anti-gay scientist,” of course. Usually it’s the ant-gay
religious leaders, the anti-gay members of government, anti-gay school administrators,
anti-gay parents—all the people who actively promote messages that make young
people feel so badly about themselves that they end their lives. I have
messages to share with them as well, which is part of the reason I write. I’m
always interested in learning their names, so I can use them for the villains
in my novels.
Your teen protagonist has some “typical” gay
traits. He loves musicals and he’s got a
flair for wrapping gifts. On the other
hand, he also likes horror movies. How
did you decide what traits to give him?
Jamie’s likes and dislikes
are similar to my own—I love musicals, horror movies, and even wrapping
presents! Jamie also is a good baseball player, but hesitates to play for the
school team because he fears the locker room may make him uneasy. I remember
that uneasiness, too, from when I swam on my high school team. So that’s
probably where most of Jamie’s traits came from. I didn’t consciously make a
list and then add them into the book.
You have a character, Mimi, who we’re told doesn’t
like Jamie simply because “he tries too hard.”
I think the lesson there is that no one can please everyone, but is
there more to Mimi’s dislike for Jamie than that?
No, I think you got it. I
do think a lot of teens—not just gay teens—try way too hard to get people to
“like” them, and the effort often backfires. I specifically remember knowing a
girl in high school who I desperately wanted to think I was “nice,” and I
learned from a friend that she thought I tried too hard. The funny thing was,
as soon as I stopped trying, we became friends!
The one gay person Jamie knows of at school is
someone he doesn’t like at all he calls Crazy Paul, and I don’t think we see
Jamie ever coming around. Were you
saying that just because someone is gay doesn’t necessarily mean he makes for a
compatible friend or are there other sentiments you want the reader to take
away from the Jamie-Paul disconnect?
Great question! In my
view, the Jamie-Paul disconnect comes about because Jamie is so terrified of
what Paul represents: a sort of “out there,” visible gay teen. Fear motivates
most of Jamie’s responses in the book. By the end of the book, Jamie is more
visible, too, but not because of any newfound courage on his part—the drama of
the story propels him there. Which happens in real life, often enough. A lot of
times, LGBT people come out because of circumstances beyond their control.
You’re a high school librarian. What changes, if any, have you noticed in the
atmosphere at your school since the problem of anti-gay bullying began
receiving national attention?
I’m fortunate to work in a
community that is extremely diverse, a place where celebrating “differences” is
just standard practice—so I wouldn’t say that I’ve seen anything new or
different at our school. From what I’ve seen, most people’s anti-gay behavior
tends to change only when they know actual gay or lesbian people, not by media
attention or school policy. This is why it’s so important for LGBT people to
come out, whenever possible.
There was a recent “It Gets Better” campaign to
combat gay teen suicide. As a teacher,
what do you say or what do you think any adult should say to help a gay
teenager in despair?
I think every educator is
responsible for ensuring that every student feels safe. We’re not therapists,
but we can make every kid feel safe. We can answer questions and point to
resources. Someone recently asked me, “So do all the gay kids in your school
feel they can come and talk to you now?” And I said that I hope that they feel
that they can talk to just about every member of our faculty, not just me. It’s
every single teacher’s job to bring out the best in every single student.
In the back of your book, you mention that you were
once one of the many gay teens who hoped for a magic pill that would “take away
the gay.” Now you’re quite content with life.
What events in your life do you think led you to change your
outlook? Around what age did things
start turning around?
I think just growing up,
being on my own during college and after. I needed to MEET some gay people.
Find some role models, you know? That was the greatest challenge for me as a
gay teen: the complete invisibility of GLBT people in my life. When you don’t
have any role models, it is very difficult to know who you might be, or to
imagine any kind of future for yourself.
I think now if I could take a magic pill, I’d want
one that would cause me to always make good decisions such as going to the gym
instead of eating cookies. Or maybe a
pill for Pat Robertson that would make him see the light. What kind of magic
pill, if any, would you still want to take?
LOL at this question! Boy, I could use that get-me-to-the-gym pill,
too. My partner, if he were answering
the question, would suggest a take-a-break-from-the-Internet pill. I would love
a pill that would allow me to get by with less sleep. (I mean, yeah, I know
such pills really do exist, but…no, no, no—not for me!)