QYAS: Matthew J. Metzger talks asexuality, mental illness


vivaldi in the dark matthew metzgerWith the Queer YA Scrabble running all weekend long, we’ve redevoted the site to talking about issues and writing relating to queer YA.

Today, Matthew J. Metzger is stopping by to talk about writing as an asexual and transgender man and his novel Vivaldi in the Dark! In Vivaldi in the Dark, Jayden loves troubled violinist Darren. Jayden can’t change Darren’s depression – until a mugging goes wrong gives him the chance to change everything. Metzger is also the author of the YA novel Our Last Summer.

Do you identify along the LGBTQ spectrum in real life? How does that affect your writing?

I prefer to use QUILTBAG, because LGBTQ misses off one of my letters. I’m asexual and transgender, so I steal two letters out of the alphabet soup, and I tend to use queer for simplicity’s sake. Plus the word ‘quiltbag’ amuses me.

But actually, being queer doesn’t really affect my writing. Being mentally ill and brought up in a crappy home environment affects it far more.

I write QUILTBAG characters in non-QUILTBAG fiction, if that makes sense. My Vivaldi in the Dark trilogy was about mental illness, not being gay. A novel coming out in September 2015, The Suicidal Peanut, is about hopeless crushes, and being gay isn’t an issue at all. The central conflict in another work in progress, The Brothers Marsh, is about two brothers falling out over a girl and that conflict now preventing one from helping the other when he’s in trouble. One of my proudest moments was a comment from an editor on an adult work saying ‘I liked that this story had a main trans* character with issues relating to his identity, but the story itself wasn’t primarily about those issues. It was really refreshing!’

QUILTBAG people are just people. They have a lot of the same issues as straight, cisgender people. They’re friends with straight, cisgender people. Their mums don’t like their new boyfriends. Their girlfriends turn into raging psychopaths once a month. They have a crush that would be a super bad idea to do anything about. They hate geography. They fight with their siblings over the TV remote. They don’t only have QUILTBAG issues on their plates, and their worlds don’t revolve about the QUILTBAG sun. And that’s what I like to write best – characters that are incidentally QUILTBAG, rather than characters who are exclusively QUILTBAG.

What was the hardest part of writing authentic LGBT fiction? Do you tackle intersectionality in your writing?

Going with my gut. There’s a tendency in the LGBT fiction community to want to write just about gay men/boys, and either completely gloss over any issues they may have relating to their sexuality, or, alternatively, make the entire story just pages upon pages of angsting about it. It was hard, at first, to go with my gut and write characters with other problems, who messed around and told stupid jokes and had dumb friends. (I have a particular speciality for dumb friends.)

I don’t like the concept of intersectionality. It prescribes too heavily what counts, without regard for the experiences of real people. Being transgender and atheist wouldn’t be intersectionality in the UK, but my atheism has enormously affected how I relate to my devout Catholic extended family. Conversely, my best friend is a classic for intersectionality – she’s mixed race and bisexual. And yet she feels that neither has ever had an impact on the other.

Intersectionality is too limited and too prescriptive. Mental illness is often left out of intersectionality argument altogether, and yet I would argue it’s mental illness we’re in most desperate need of when it comes to reaching out to suffering youth. I would have killed for a story about a kid going through the terror that I was when I was fourteen.

What we should aim for, and what I do aim for, is diversity. True diversity, of all kinds, without insisting what counts and what doesn’t. I ticked the intersectionality box with a story featuring a gay Iraqi, but my proudest works are the Vivaldi in the Dark trilogy, and the as-yet unreleased In The Blood. Both are about very different mental illnesses. And they’re both the stories that I needed when I was a kid, and that hundreds of kids out there, suffering in silence, still need now.

What has your experience with your editors and publicists been like, in terms of writing LGBTQ fiction?

Being a UK author makes it a bit more challenging when you work with US publishing houses. One of my publishers, JMS Books, will always have a special place in my heart for accepting books set in the UK written in UK English. When you’re writing contemporary teenagers slagging each other off, that’s a godsend!

Publishing houses can be very intimidating, but they’re generally staffed by very friendly people. And once they’ve seen you, they like to see you again, especially if you’re successful. Both of my publishing houses have at different times asked if I have anything else I’m working on that fits their submissions criteria.

What advice would you give to young, aspiring LGBTQ YA writers?

QUILTBAG fiction is real fiction. It sounds stupid, I know, but I see a lot of aspiring writers saying maybe they ought to straighten out their characters, or the publishers won’t be interested. They will be. The Big Six are not the only publishing houses out there, and there are plenty of publishing houses that actively seek, publish and promote QUILTBAG fiction. Some are even exclusively for QUILTBAG fiction. Don’t straighten out your work, don’t struggle and force yourself to write what you don’t want, because you fear there’s no market for it. There is. Write what you want to write, say what you want to say – and then worry about the publishing.

This weekend – including this interview – is part of the Queer YA Scrabble, to raise money and awareness for Stonewall. Stonewall is a charity committed to helping queer people (especially teens) navigate adversity and promoting education. The Queer YA Scrabble will run this entire weekend, from to the end of the day on Monday, June 8.

We here at YA Interrobang have partnered with the authors of Clan Hydra to bring you the most awesome prize box imaginable. Laura Lam donated a signed paperback copy of Shadowplay. Tess Sharpe donated a signed paperback copy of Far From You – with a specially written short story accompanying it! Robin Talley donated a signed paperback copy of Lies We Tell Ourselves, along with some swag. Astor Penn donated a signed paperback copy of All the Devils Here. You will also be entered to win a paperback copy of Christopher Hawthorne Moss’ Beloved Pilgrim, a paperback copy of Matthew J. Metzger’s Vivaldi in the Dark and Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You The Sun.

To enter the giveaway, you can fill out the form below. You’ll need to find and decode a special phrase in some of the Queer YA Scrabble posts back into its original word to enter, but we promise – it’s not hard. The giveaway is open to the United Kingdom, Ireland, United States of America, Canada, Mexico, and anywhere in continental Europe except Russia. Unfortunately, do to the prohibitive cost of shipping, the giveaway and auctions are not open to countries in Africa, South America, Asia or Australia. (Sorry, Aussies.)

The Queer YA Scrabble giveaway is over; thank you for participating!

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YA Interrobang

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