A Conversation with Bill Konigsberg

bill konigsberg headshot 2015Bill Konigsberg is the author of three novels, including Out of the Pocket, which won the 2008 Lambda Literary Award for YA fiction, and his second book, Openly Straight (2013), which received numerous accolades. His latest book, The Porcupine of Truth (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic), released this May. Bill previously worked as a sports writer for the Associated Press. He came out to the world in an article for ESPN.com entitled “Sports World Still a Struggle for Gays,” which won a GLAAD Media Award in 2002. Bill lives outside Phoenix with his husband, Chuck, and their Labradoodles, Mabel and Buford.

 

Out in Print: Hi, Bill! Thanks so much for agreeing to the interview. I thought your premise in The Porcupine of Truth was beautifully inventive—A straight teenage boy from New York and a beautiful homeless lesbian meet at a terrible zoo in Montana, quickly form a strong bond, and take off on a road trip to find the boy’s long lost grandfather. How did those plot threads first form for you?

Bill Konigsberg: It all began with the voice of the main character, Carson. I found that voice and realized he had a female sidekick. From there, I did a lot of exploring and the various threads—that Aisha was homeless, that Carson was in town to take care of his ailing, alcoholic dad, that he had a long-lost grandfather, all came together. It’s always an interesting journey when I start a novel. I have no idea where I’ll wind up, and this was no exception.

OiP: You weave positives and negatives of religion throughout your story. I thought the most enlightening moment took place when a character said whatever someone believes about God is “totally, completely, irrevocably true” as long as “you add two words,” which I won’t reveal. I found that passage eye-opening. What, if anything, in your background helped create your spiritual outlook?

BK: I grew up with a real aversion to organized religion. My family was agnostic if not atheist, and I was taught that believing in God was a sign of weakness and a lack of intelligence. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that I don’t actually agree with the lessons I learned when I was younger. I think a person can be intelligent and strong and still very much believe in a power greater than oneself. I personally don’t have a strong need to be right about what’s out there in the universe, but I’ve found that having my own beliefs is really important. Also, as a gay man, I’ve been taught that “the cosmic mystery” is not my purview. I think that’s really unfair. Straight people don’t own the concept of God.

OiP: What has your experience with road trips (or spontaneous adventures with someone you barely knew at the time) been like?

BK: I love road trips! There’s nothing like exploring the open road, alone or with a friend, a bag of Swedish Fish and Sour Patch Kids at my side. I can’t say I’ve ever taken a road trip with someone I’ve barely known, but I did think as I was writing it that the closeness of a car would be a real challenge for two people who think they know each other better than they do.

OiP: Based on his improv skills and on his epiphany at the end of the story I have conflicting thoughts on this, but where do you see your narrator, Carson, in five or ten years?

BK: Hmm. I haven’t really thought about it. I think Carson has a lot of potential, and that the greatest thing he gains during the course of the novel is a connection to the universe and to other people. I think he was entirely alone at the start, and by the end he’s accepted that he’s a human being like everyone else, which is of course a great thing and a horrible thing, depending on one’s attitude. I do think that Carson will come to believe that being a human being connected to other human beings is a great thing. As for what he does with his life? Not sure.

OiP: I noticed you have a playlist for The Porcupine of Truth. How does music help you get to know your characters or your story better? Or is it that certain songs help you focus on your writing?

BK: I simply cannot write while listening to music, as I am so attuned to lyrics that they tend to overwhelm me when any music is playing. So for me, a playlist is more of something I will think about during the process. I played that playlist over and over during the writing of Porcupine, as it helped me think about my characters and their internal struggles.

OiP: How about sports questions? What’s on the list of your top five favorite moments related to LGBT acceptance in sports since your 2001 article?

BK: Certainly Michael Sam’s coming out would top the list, though I must say I’m so disappointed that he never played a snap in the NFL, at least not yet. I think it’s very telling, how that all played out. The noise about it all came with the caveat that “he wasn’t a good enough player,” which tells us that at least we’re beyond the blatant homophobia where it’s okay to hate an athlete simply because he’s gay. Now, instead, what happens is that a gay player is scrutinized more harshly than a straight player. Someday soon that will change. It’s progress, but there’s still a long way to go to equality obviously.

OiP: More sports: What do you think about a controversy in men’s pro tennis? A former pro, Francisco Rodriguez, came out after he retired and said in an interview that being out on tour would be a competitive disadvantage as opponents would think, “Oh, he’s a sissy. [I] can’t lose to him.” How true or untrue do you feel that is? If there is some truth, would that apply to male athletes in most individual sports?

BK: I wasn’t aware of this, actually. To me, it’s hard to judge the comment without knowing more about his career. I will say that for me, I had to separate out my own internalized homophobia from that which comes from the rest of the world. I know that as a gay sports writer, I had issues with my own masculinity, in terms of feeling the need to prove it. That was a hard thing to recognize, that sometimes the person giving me the most grief was me, not anyone else. Surely there’s homophobia out there, but who are we to say what other people might think? And also, why does it matter what an opponent thinks?

OiP: Going back to writing, can you tell us about YA books that you admire or have inspired you? If fledgling authors asked for tips on effective story telling for teens, what might you tell them?

BK: I’ve been inspired by many YA authors. Perhaps at the top of the list are John Green, Andrew Smith, and A.S. King, but so many others, too. Jandy Nelson is certainly one who has inspired me recently. As for effective story telling for teens? I’d tell them to stop thinking about teens. I really don’t think about my audience when I’m writing. I’m busy trying to get authentically inside the heads of my teenage characters, and I think if I do that, my audience will respond. When I think about writing for teens, I run the risk of writing down to them, which is not a good idea. Teens can sniff that stuff out, and it isn’t pretty when they do.

OiP: Ready for some wish-fulfillment? If you could be anyone else for a day or a week, who might you choose? If you could be the inventor or discoverer of something society doesn’t have yet, what would you pick?

BK: Meh. These days I’m working really hard on being authentically me. It can be so hard sometimes, especially when you’re programmed to people please, as I am. I’ve found myself recently working really hard not to agree with everything people say to me, to own my own beliefs even when they might not be popular. So yeah, I guess if I had a wish, it would be to feel more comfortable in my own skin.

OiP: In terms of a bucket list or in terms of your writing plans, what are you looking forward to accomplishing?

BK: I’d love to be able to continue to make a living this way. I love writing for a living, and I love creating stories. It’s a fickle world and a fickle market, so to me, the goal is simply to get to the next novel. Do I have desires as to how my books will be received? You bet your ass I do! I’d love to be a finalist for The National Book Award or the Printz Award someday. But I have so little control over that, and I find that it gets me in trouble to focus on the outcome rather than the process.

OiP: Is there anything you’ve never been asked in an interview that you’ve wanted to be asked? If so, can you tell us what that is and, of course, answer it for us?

BK: Not offhand… I think you asked some great questions!

OiP: Thanks so much, Bill!

Keep up with Bill at BillKonigsberg.com.

Interview by Gavin Atlas

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