James Klise is a high school librarian in Chicago who published his first book, Love Drugged, last September. Not only did he launch his book at one of our most successful store events (back in the olden days, kids, when you could touch books in a store before buying them), he was also a regular customer, stocking his school’s library from our shelves. We were lucky enough to catch up with him at Printers Row Lit Fest last month, and he agreed to answer some questions for our blog. If you haven’t checked out our review of Love Drugged yet, you can find it here.
[Booksellers Without Borders]: Why should anybody buy your book?
[James Klise]: LOL at this question. Why should anyone pick up my funny, suspenseful, thoughtful, provocative, award-winning novel?
I’ll give you a serious answer. Please buy my book so you can donate it to a local high school library. It’s rare to find a selection of teen novels with gay characters in bookstores, and so we rely on libraries to get them into the hands of readers. But most school libraries are strapped for cash. Speaking as a school librarian, I can tell you that donations of brand-new YA books are always welcome. Many high school teachers have classroom libraries, so these, too, may be a great place to donate your gently used books when you are finished enjoying them.
[BwoB]: Is writing for a teen audience similar to or different than writing for adults? In what ways?
[JK]: The actual process is similar for both audiences. You sit down and you write, crafting scene after scene with vivid and specific details, and you see what happens. More than anything, a writer’s goal is to keep readers engaged and turning pages. The difference is point of view. Young-adult novels almost always reveal the world from a teenager’s perspective. Teens like to read books that explore adolescent experiences: first love, questioning authority, choices and consequences, and wondering how/where do I fit in? Of course, there are many teen readers who will read books about grown-ups and for grown-ups (legal thrillers, tales of extra-marital affairs, Lincoln biographies, etc) but I think most of them would prefer something more relevant to the life they are living now.
[BwoB]: How does being a high school librarian influence your writing? Are you anything like Mr. Covici (the librarian in Love Drugged who paints messages on the wall about silence, kindness, and opportunities)?
[JK]: Before I began working in a high school, I had forgotten what it was like to be a teenager. That is not an exaggeration; the gulf between my adult life and my teen life was so wide, so dramatically different, I could not see that far into the past. Maybe I didn’t want to see that far in the past. But once I revisited that world—with fresh eyes and some perspective—the memories came back. I wanted to tell a story that expressed that adolescent fear and confusion that so often is part of the coming-out experience.
And yes, I am a bit like Covici—the balding, bespectacled librarian and club advisor. This is probably how many of my students see me. But I am also sometimes hapless and afraid, like my main character, Jamie, and I’m sometimes bold and naive like Celia, his girlfriend. It’s pretty easy for me to identify with most of the characters I write.
[BwoB]: At Printers Row Lit Fest last month, you said that students at your school read The Kite Runner. What were your students’ reactions? Did you get any feedback (positive or negative) from parents? (Us booksellers think this is an inspired choice for a high school audience, despite the violence.)
[JK]: Sophomores at our school read The Kite Runner as part of a Humanities class. As you know, the novel contains a rape scene, but the teacher tells me that students typically handle that scene maturely and move on. It hasn’t been an issue.
As for the question about parental feedback: It’s interesting, but I don’t get complaints from parents about books in the library—not one complaint about any book in eight years. And the teacher who uses The Kite Runner hasn’t gotten complaints either. The school where we work is located in the city of Chicago. Our student body is extremely diverse, with many families from other countries and cultures. These parents place their trust in the teachers to make good, responsible choices for the curriculum.
In the library, I am careful to stock books that explore a wide range of personal beliefs, backgrounds and experiences. By doing so, I give students the chance to decide for themselves what is appropriate and valuable for them. Some students ask me to buy books by Zane and similar kinds of urban erotica—which just blows my mind. Who would ask their high school librarian for erotica? I always laugh and tell them, “Sorry, you have come to the wrong place!”
[BwoB]: What did you learn from writing your first book? Have you done anything differently when working on your next book?
[JK]: Wow, so much. I learned I could write a book! I learned to be super patient with the process. I learned to place all my confidence in the specific characters and the compelling story, and not worry so much about my own abilities as a writer.
I have completed my second book, and I’m working on a third. (Not sequels to Love Drugged, but stand-alone novels.) The process changes every time. Each novel has its own unique set of needs, and those unique needs determine the process. With Love Drugged, I began with a character in a very specific situation, and I wrote the book eager to see how it all played out. My second novel is a crime story, and so there was more plotting involved—I worked with a roadmap, which kept changing, but still the map was essential. With the third book, I’m back to a character in a situation, and I can’t see very far ahead. No map! So I’m trusting that the story will entertain me (and a reader) to the end.
[BwoB]: Thanks again for taking the time to answer our questions!
[JK]: Thanks so much for asking for the interview!