David LaRochelle shares the story behind his story …
I write picture books. I don’t write novels for young adults. Their length and complexity scare me from tackling the genre, and frankly, what could I ever say that would interest a teen? But thanks to a comment from my best friend Gary, writing a novel is exactly what I did.
It was spring and Gary and I were walking around a lake in St. Paul. Two prom couples were having their pictures taken in front of a lilac bush. What a sweet scene, I thought.
“I hate prom,” Gary said.
That seemed like an odd statement for a middle-aged man to make.
He explained. “When I was in high school, I had to attend prom twice.”
Gary is gay, like I am. When we were in high school, kids didn’t admit to being gay. I could easily understand how attending prom and trying to fake interest in a girl could be uncomfortable, for all parties involved. Attending prom twice could be torture.
As we continued around the lake, I wondered how a teenage boy, who was not attracted to the opposite sex but was too afraid to admit that he was gay, could avoid taking a girl to the prom. The answered seemed obvious. Instead of a girl, he could take a dog. After all, when I was in high school two guys took mannequins to the senior prom. Why couldn’t someone take a dog instead?
That evening I began writing a short story called “Taking Alice to the Prom.” It was readily accepted by the young adult magazine Cicada. The editor told me that my humorous story was a welcome relief from the heavy, angst-filled stories that made up the bulk of their submissions.
With encouragement from my writing teacher Judy Delton and my two critique groups, as well as a supportive editor at Scholastic and four years’ worth of revisions, that short story eventually became my young adult novel, Absolutely, Positively Not. It’s the tale of 16-year-old Steven DeNarski’s many attempts to prove to himself and the world that he is absolutely, positively not gay.
Steven’s story is fictitious, but it’s filled with emotions and incidents from my own life:
• failing my driver’s license test within the first sixty seconds.
• finding a book which promised to “cure” me of being a homosexual if only I snapped myself enough times with a rubber band whenever I had a “deviant” sexual thought (it didn’t work).
• being devastated when the high school teacher I idolized made a homophobic joke in front of our class.
• and when I eventually did take that big step and announce I was gay, being met with comments like, “What’s the big deal? We already knew.”
It was gratifying to take a period of my life which terrified me at the time and turn it into a book that makes people laugh. Even more gratifying has been hearing from readers who have told me that Steven’s story made them feel less alone, changed the way they view gay people, or prompted them to apologize to a classmate whom they bullied in high school. I was also surprised to discover that I could do something I thought was beyond my abilities: write a novel for teenagers.
Thank you, Gary, for telling me how much you hate prom.
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