Write As You Are
I realized I needed to write as the writer I am, rather than trying to force myself to be the writer I was.
- J.S. Kuiken
This month I am interviewing an American writer. Jesse (J. S.) Kuiken has written extensively on queer lives and experiences, which is one of the main reasons why I have asked him for an interview. You can find out more about J.S. on his website, or interact with him via his Twitter or Facebook.
Jesse and I met through the Hannibal fandom (as I have met all of the other interviewees on this blog), but we also have similarly intense passions for two vastly different sports. I am an avid viewer of the soap opera called pro wrestling, while he is obsessed with the elegant showmanship of figure skating. We encourage each other in our respective interests and frequently goad each other on when we are in one of our 'super fan' modes.
(AK - me, JS - Jesse)
AK: Hi Jesse! Thanks for agreeing to this interview.
JS: Thank you! I’m excited. This is my very first interview!
AK: This is a question I've asked the other writers. What is your writing discipline?
JS: I set aside two hours a day, usually in the evening, to sit down and write. I often brew tea for myself before starting, but mostly I just sit down and get to work.
AK: Sounds a lot like my writing discipline, except nowadays I make sure I have a bottle of water. Let's talk about your writing itself. What are you working on now?
JS: Right now I am working on a novella, Bloom, about a straight trans man, Ben, who survives cancer and goes through a divorce, only to discover he has an attraction for his best friend, David, who is a gay man. The two embark on a sexual relationship, which means a lot of exploration about Ben’s masculinity, sexuality, and identity.
I also just finished a novella, The Weight of the Impossible, which I will be shopping around to small presses and publishers soon. It’s about Zach, a fifteen year old junior level competitive figure skater struggling with rage and gaping holes in his memory. He meets a very kind, patient coach, Daniel, who helps him.
(Read more about them here)
AK: What do you find most enjoyable about your work?
JS: In Bloom, I love the characters. Ben is a bundle of sarcasm, David is bookish and sweet. I also love the fact it has no plot. It’s just about the characters and their evolving relationship. It challenges me to think of narrative in ways that are different and exciting.
Similarly, I love the characters in The Weight of the Impossible, particularly the main character, Zach. It’s tricky writing teens and understanding their mindset, but I always found writing Zach a delight. He’s snarky, smart, and definitely a badass. In addition to his issues with rage and memory, he is pansexual and Native American (Ojibwe), which adds a realistic complexity to his identity and his struggles. But the kid blisters across the page. He is both exasperating and entirely sympathetic.
AK: What has been the most challenging aspect of writing these?
JS: The most challenging aspect of Bloom is rediscovering the story. I wrote the first draft in 2016, and a second draft in 2017. The second draft was a dumpster fire, so when I decided to rewrite the story again, I thought I’d rely on the stronger first draft to guide me. But until recently, I had a hell of a time wrangling with that first draft as I rewrote, because I have grown so much as a writer between 2016 and now. I had to let go of the first draft as a good template and just . . . basically take the main concept and start from scratch. I realized I needed to write as the writer I am, rather than trying to force myself to be the writer I was. Once I recognized this, the story began to flow a lot more easily.
AK: What are some challenges you have discovered when writing queer characters?
JS: This will sound conceited, but I do not usually have challenges writing queer characters. All my work features queer protagonists, and quite often queer secondary characters. Therefore I've had a lot of practice in writing queer people, in thinking about how to define "queerness" and how to represent that. I can't say I get it "right" all the time (whatever that means), but I don't find myself facing challenges all that often. When I do, it's usually about an aspect of queer identity I don't have much experience with, so I do my research: reading about people's experiences, asking questions, and just generally learning.
AK: What do you do for fun outside of writing?
JS: Take walks. I hope to get back into hiking soon too. This is because it brings me close to nature. I always enjoy the cadence of the seasons, understanding particular flowers, trees, bushes, and wildlife. Nature brings me back to myself in small, but important ways. (My favorite place in the world would be) the mountains. They have a solitude and beauty to them which brings me peace.
Figure skating! That is, watching figure skating. I like learning about the sport (which is ever evolving), and simply enjoying how athletes strive for beauty.
(AK's note: Go Google Shoma Uno and then you can flail together with Jesse)
I am also into archaeology. I am one of those nerds who reads academic articles on the Bronze Age (and proud of it!).
AK: How do your interests inspire you?
JS: Nature is an integral part of everything I’ve written, even from an early age. It sometimes exists as a character in its own right. Nature tells us so much of who we are, and how we have evolved, and how we fit into the greater scheme of things. It’s impossible for me not to include the natural world in my work to some degree.
As for figure skating: I do make a figure skating reference in Bloom, but it’s The Weight of the Impossible that was directly inspired by my love of the sport. That love truly propelled the story on some levels. It got to the point that I was choreographing Zach’s routines, which was very, very hard as I am not a professional. Thank goodness for the sage advice of actual figure skating coaches and choreographers!
I have written other works which employed my knowledge of archaeology extensively, including They Are Life.
AK: You've written for a long time. What advice do you wish you had received when you first started writing?
JS: It’s going to take longer than you want to publish. When I was twelve or thirteen, I had very precise lists of books I would write, when I would finish them, and when they would be published. I expected myself to write at least one or two novels a year, I think. It was madness. And unreasonable. I’m thirty-five and haven’t published a book (yet), but, I am pursuing projects which interest and challenge me. I think that growth and enjoying your craft is most important.
AK: I have difficulties channeling teen or children's voices. Do you have any advice for writers facing the same problems?
JS: This is going to get long, so fair warning!
Having worked a lot with teens and some with children, my advice is always to remember they are smart people with complex inner lives. Yes, they are silly, they make errors in judgement adults would not. But they are not stupid. They are keenly, sometimes painfully aware. For instance, Zach in The Weight of the Impossible is vividly aware of race and how his race (Ojibwe/Native American) separates him from the very white world of figure skating. He is aware something is wrong with him even though he doesn't understand it. And he is aware of his sexuality. He can be cruel and he makes childish mistakes. But he also owns some of those mistakes.
All of these attributes could easily be ascribed to an adult. But they belong to a 15 year old. The difference is usually how teenagers and children react to the problems they face. Teenagers and children tend to be reactive, acting without thinking so much, acting out of emotion rather than logic and experience. Zach blows up when he faces certain issues, in ways most adults would not. Children have temper tantrums to get attention, reacting out of emotional necessity rather than having the ability to self regulate like an adult.
So the short version: teens and children are smart and complex, they just don't self regulate yet. So it makes them messy and fun to write. They are apex unreliable narrators to be honest.
And please, when developing that teenage or child voice, don't mistake using a lot of contemporary slang as a fill-in for the actual building of a character. Slang varies widely; there is no one size fits all. Slang also goes out of style very quickly. If you use too much of it, you risk making your work obsolete in a decade or less.
Write a person, albeit kind of a ridiculous one. Let who they are guide the voice, not the other way around.
AK: Finally, let's talk favorite authors and book recs. What or who do you usually read for pleasure?
JS: I will read any genre or author. I don’t discriminate. My go-to authors include Toni Morrison, Paulo Coehlo, Sherman Alexie, and the poet Deborah Randall.
AK: What are some books that you love re-reading or you're looking forward to reading?
The Sin Eater by Deborah Randall. I would re-read that a thousand times.
Beloved by Toni Morrison. A staggering work that well deserved the Nobel Prize.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo. A very popular book, and for good reason. Simple, touching, and gives you food for the spirit.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. I haven’t finished this yet, but I am enjoying it immensely. The author displays consummate skill in developing character and structuring the story.