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Interview: March 8 ,2002

March 8, 2002

THE BIG BOOK OF MISUNDERSTANDING is Jim Gladstone's debut novel that takes a sometimes funny, sometimes poignant look at the process of growing up. In this interview with Roberta O'Hara, Gladstone gives his views on love, sexuality, and the variety of relationships that impact a young boy's life.

BRC: Is there a bit of autobiography in Big Book?

JG: I've drawn on events and people, and, especially, emotions, that have been a part of my life. But TBBOM is most definitely a novel, and not a memoir. One example that I'm happy to give you is that my own parents are about to celebrate their 40th anniversary. It's one of the most solid relationships I've ever seen, and I admire them immensely for it. They're hardly Harris and Becca Royalton, who, to me, seem destined for divorce from very early in the book. Josh certainly has significant bits of me in him, but I identify with almost all of the characters in the book. I spread myself around, concentrating different aspects of my personality in different characters. It's the feelings, and the character traits that reflect me and my life much more than the particular events in the book.

The metaphor I've come to really believe in in this: my life gives me a lot of material, like a huge mound of clay. But its a messy, formless lump. What I do as a writer is take bits and pieces of that clay, reshape them, model them, and try to turn them into a sculpture; it's made of clay, but it looks completely different from the stuff it started as!

BRC: Josh genuinely loved Meredith, his one attempt at a heterosexual relationship. Why did you choose to include a heterosexual relationship?

JG: First of all, I think that, because Josh has these incredibly intensely loving and sexual parents, it's hard to imagine him not even trying to form a relationship with a woman. But, more importantly there's this...and it's an answer that's right in your question: I wanted to write about love much more than I wanted to write about sexuality. And I absolutely believe that love can transcend all sorts of barriers. A straight girl can love a gay boy as intensely as she can love a straight boy. It might not work out in the end, for all sorts of reasons, but that's not saying the love isn't altogether real. Likewise I wanted to show intense love of all sorts in the book; I think Harris' romance (and I don't use the word lightly) with his entire family is as intense as any teenage love affair. And of course there are no sexual implications in that, regarding his sons, but I think anyone who reads this book will see that the father loves his sons as intensely as anyone loves anyone else in this book. It's not about gender, or sexuality; love trumps all.

BRC: Teenage angst and sexual awakenings are tough enough territories to traverse in the heterosexual realm, but come to those arrivals in a homosexual world and you've got a whole host of other issues to deal with. What responsibilities did you feel to your audience in creating Josh? Especially to a younger --- perhaps teenage --- audience?

JG: I do hope that some teenage readers will find this book, and that it will touch them. The most important message I think that they might find here --- and an important message for all of my readers --- is that being gay is not a defining characteristic. With Josh, I wanted to create a kid who happens to be gay, but is a very complicated person, like most of us are. I don't think Josh can be summed up at all by saying he's gay. He's smart, he's observant, he's loving, and all of these strengths don't come from his being gay. He's insecure, he's awkward, and he's sometimes flat-out weird...and none of those weaknesses come from his being gay. I didn't want Josh to be reducible to "a gay young man." I don't like it when people define others by a single trait. We're all very complicated. One's sexuality is a small piece of one's humanity, and we should look at each other primarily as human beings, not as sexual beings. Josh is a unique, idiosyncratic individual, just like the rest of us. He happens to be gay.

BRC: Harris is at once the most pitiable and pitiful character in the book. I liked him, and I hated to see him in so much pain, but at the same time I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and shake him into present day. How did you do that? He's so beautifully round and drawn out so how did you strike that balance with him?

JG: It's really important to me that I be able to walk a 360 degree circle around my characters, to see their strengths, their flaws, their darkness and their light. I don't believe in heroes or villains, and so I feel very dishonest if I truncate a character's personality and turn them into someone less than three-dimensional. It's why I was never able to effectively write short stories about any of the Royaltons, although I did try. I felt like I was selling them short, only showing limited aspects of their personalities. And when I did that, I felt like the result felt like I, the author, was trying to make an argumentative point, rather than to tell a realistic story. Harris Royalton is so full of love and affection for his own family, but he's also the product of his own upbringing, in which there wasn't enough love and affection. He overcompensates, and things misfire, but there's no malevolence anywhere. That's what's heartbreaking to me, the way that people can hurt each other while acting on the best intentions. It's one of the great tricks of dealing with loved ones. One reader said to me, "Parents just can't win, can they?" I think the answer is no, they can't. And kids can't win either. We ought to stop thinking of family as an arena to win or lose in, and come to understand it as a noncompetitive game; and we should just try to enjoy it as much as possible.

BRC: In real life, in your opinion, can an immature relationship like the Royaltons survive when one partner grows up?

JG: I hope not, because I think that the key to a good relationship is that both partners need to grow over time, and to appreciate each others' growth. That's not always easy, but its much less painful in the end than stagnation, or repression of one partner's needs. I think that even though Harris and Becca Royalton split up, it's very clear that they will always love the way they once were together. Just because people move on doesn't mean that there was never anything worthwhile between them. Most loves don't last a lifetime, but that hardly means that the love wasn't real or worthwhile. Look at Josh's relationships with Meri and Eugenio. They're sincere, and meaningful, and valuable to both parties. In the first one, Meri grows faster and moves away; in the second, Josh begins to grow emotionally, and realizes he needs to move beyond Eugenio. But all of these loves are very real. I think its good that these characters are willing to face the unknown rather than sticking with something that offers familiarity, but discomfort. You have to be brave to leave a relationship. You have to love yourself a lot to move on.

BRC: Do you have authors you particularly like (beyond the author of "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask," that is)?

JG: I'm a real fan of William Wharton, a pseudonymous author whose novels include BIRDY and DAD (which I adore, and which I think is reflected a bit in TBBOM). He finds rich and marvelous moments in mundane life; in fact, his writing suggests that daily life isn't mundane, that it's a complex and emotionally stirring world to be explored, you just have to tune your brain in, and know where to look for the magic. I've read all of Michael Chabon, but THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY is leagues beyond his earlier work. I adore it. I love that one of the main characters in this Pulitzer Prize-winning book is gay, but what makes the book such a bellwether for me is that there's a very clear feeling that the author truly loves all his characters, that they are real people to him, that nobody has been created to serve as a mechanical plot device. Lately, I've been revisiting the work of Jonathan Carroll, an American expat who lives in Vienna, and who has a wonderful way of combining very realistic people with oddly fantastic circumstances. My favorite of his is AFTER SILENCE, and right now, I'm reading his new one, THE WOODEN SEA.

BRC: What was the inspiration for the "Big Book of Safety Fun?"

JG: Sad to say, it was inspired by a real children's book, perhaps from the 1960s, called SAFETY CAN BE FUN. It was part of a series which also included MANNERS CAN BE FUN. The images of little kids burning their butts in the shower, sticking their fingers in electric sockets, falling down stairs, being bitten by dogs, and other lovely scenarios are really in that book. It's a horror show. The weirdest thing of all is who the author was: Munro Leaf, who also wrote (I think, maybe he just illustrated) one of the most sensitive kids' books ever, FERDINAND THE BULL.

BRC: After you wrote the sentence "The next chapter - 'Masturbation' - provided enormous relief" did you smoke a cigarette? Seriously, that sentence, short, but so clever, must pack a lot of satisfaction for an author. And Big Book is full of these gems.

JG: I didn't smoke, but, yeah, it was good for me, too! Glad you "got it." (Well, per your review, you really "got" the whole book. You were really open to discovering what was in there, rather than assuming it fit stereotypes). In truth, a lot of the one-line humor in the book came to me rather spontaneously. Crafting realistic psychologies for the characters was what really took acute concentration and emotional effort over time.

BRC: After you completed Big Book, did you think of what becomes of Josh's life beyond the last page?

JG: I hope that I made Josh, and all my characters real enough that they can have lives of their own now, that they can step out of my mind and into the readers'. I'd be thrilled to learn that other people were imagining the further lives of these characters, but I was interested in taking them up to a particularly challenging passage in their lives and imagining how they would deal with that period of time. On the whole, I think they all managed differently, but all made huge steps forward in their lives. I love them and I wish them well, but I've moved on to other characters who have different emotional dilemmas to deal with.

BRC: What's next for you? What are you working on?

JG: I've got a novel called IMAGINARY FRIENDS that I hope to have done by year's end. It's about a father and daughter who have never met, but whose lives have been motivated by their fantasies of each other. The third major character --- in some sense, the main character --- is a man who knows both of the others and has the chance to orchestrate a meeting between them; he's faced with decisions about whether people should allowed to live with useful fantasies, or whether the truth most be told, at any cost.