I wanted Billy's Boy to be something that young people would read. But what DO young people read these days? We're told they don't read a whole lot, having been rapt away by video games, TV and the Internet.
I've been conducting an ongoing survey of youth reading habits, and find that they do admit to reading sometimes — provided they can read what they want, and not what adults tell them to read. Gay kids, especially, do not appear to read many of those "books targeting gay youth" that the gay book marketplace is so full of...novels and self-help books that read like infomercials, with all the right PC stuff in them. In an MCC youth center in Dallas, 25 young people ages 14 to 23 all confessed that they had read something in the last few months. Tastes run to books that are heavy on imagination — historical novels, science fiction, and fantasy. A young Latino I've known since he was in high school loves to read song lyrics and gothic manga like The Sandman, and has been a loyal fan of Bjork. A few gay male students go for Harry Potter; like straight kids, they're ripe to be told they're magicians. Recently in a Denver shelter, some homeless gay kids told me they'd read if only they had books.
So in Billy's Boy, I fought to get past those stereotypes of what adults think kids should read, and be in the mind of a kid writing something for himself — especially since the story was to be his point of view. Although it was the third book of The Front Runner series, I decided to abandon Harlan Brown's point of view, and go with that of the very young man who had been growing up through Harlan's Race, now on the brink of teenhood. The book that took the series into the 90s and toward the millennium had to have a young voice.
I realized that the most overwhelming fact in John William's life was not his awakening sexuality (though that's important) but his missing father — all the questions about Billy Sive's death that he'd mulled since childhood, and his sense that there was secrecy and mystery around this death. His father's spirit called to him irresistibly. From very ancient times, the symbol of departed spirits has been the starry sky, and so it was natural for his interest in astronomy to swim into being in my mind. From there, the powerful dream he had, about his father being held prisoner on a star very near our solar system, set him on an obsessive quest to find his father and penetrate that mystery.
I feel it's important to make a novel rich and full of what some young readers of Billy's Boy have called "stuff" — real-life story threads and details that have little relevance to the gay part of the story, yet are sharply backlit by the character's viewpoint and made central to the story. "Falcon's" love of astronomy is just as important to the story as his growing feelings for his best friend. I think many readers — adults too — are hungry for "stuff" in books. Their imaginations can feed on it; the "stuff" enhances the realness of the story, their personal experience of reading it. The "stuff" was the real challenge, not the de rigueur parts about Falcon's coming out, and the first sexual experiences, and being bullied in high school, and how he dealt with it.
Most importantly, it was the "stuff" that led Falcon to discover some unsuspected and shattering things about his father.