What inspired you to write a gender fluid character?
There was a court case in my county—a transgender girl and her parents were suing the school district for the right to use the girls’ restroom at her high school. The reaction of my peers surprised me. One person actually said to me “Ew, it’s probably just some pervy boy who wants to see boobs.” When she said that, I was flabbergasted. I thought how brave that girl was to stand up for herself.
I woke up three days in a row thinking about that transgender girl. When I sat down to write, Riley’s first blog post came out: The first thing you’re going to want to know about me is: Am I a boy, or am I a girl? I thought it would be a challenge to write a character whose birth-assigend gender even I didn’t know. Fifty pages in, my writing group encouraged me to continue. Somehow, I got through the whole book. Along the way, I definitely fell in love with Riley. I don’t know what it says on Riley’s birth certificate, and I don’t care. Hopefully, readers won’t either.
How do you think the cover represents SYMPTOMS OF BEING HUMAN?
I was blown away when I got my first peek at the cover (designed by Sarah Kaufman.) To me, it’s iconic, like a Saul Bass movie poster from the sixties. The colors (white, purple, and green) are drawn from the genderqueer/non-binary flag. The Riley hair icon is my favorite feature. Somehow it captures Riley’s identity (and the struggle therein) in a single shape. I’m getting it tattooed on my body. That’s how much I love it.
What was the hardest scene for you to write (that isn’t spoiler-y)?
Well, the hardest scenes to write are DEFINITELY spoiler-y. But barring those… the scenes with Riley’s parents were challenging. As the story proceeds, they have to change almost as much as Riley does. They come from a time and a place where gender is completely binary, so they have to accept a lot of new ideas in a very short period of time. And, even though IRL I’m closer to Riley’s parents’ ages, I definitely relate more to Riley than I do to Sharon or Congressman Cavanaugh, so I had to step outside my own POV to imagine how they might feel and what they might say. My editor at Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, the inimitable Kristin Rens, did an amazing job of guiding me through that process.
What’s your favorite food? Curious minds want to know 😉
There’s a place in Orange County called Native Foods (which may have been the inspiration for On the Vedge in the book.) They have a vegan sandwich called The Chicken Run Ranch Burger that is INSANELY good. But there’s the Scorpion Burger too. Great. Now I’m salivating and I have no time to drive there. Thanks.
Was there any part of your childhood that influenced SYMPTOMS OF BEING HUMAN?
Symptoms definitely has roots in my high school experience. I didn’t go through anything so intense as Riley does in the book—but it sucked nonetheless. I was the small kid with the big mouth and it got me in trouble in class and in the locker room. Writing Symptoms was incredibly cathartic for me. Through Riley, I got to stand up and say all the things I’d always wanted to say to the bullies in my life. If Bloglr had been around in my day, I’d have done some serious ranting, I assure you. But my old green journal had to suffice. I’m probably lucky journals can’t go viral. Very, very luck. #BadPoetry
What Hogwarts houses would you put your main characters in?
FAVORITE. QUESTION. EVER. I’d put Solo squarely in Hufflepuff: he’s loyal and he gets along with everybody. Riley’s bravery (and a certain disregard for the rules) are solid Gryffindor material. Bec is probably the toughest. I think the sorting hat would have given her the choice between Gryffindor and Slytherin—because she’s courageous, but she’s also cunning. Bec would choose Slytherin, probably because she’d find Gryffindor too obvious a choice. (BTW, dear readers, I initially put Bec in Gryffindor, but my wife made a strong argument for Slytherin.)
Could you recommend us some of your favorite books?
OF COURSE. How much time do you have? My favorite books as a teenager were The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and The Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. I also read The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. (I was a SF&F geek even then, and I still play Dungeons & Dragons every month with the same people since Junior High!) I love 11-22-63 and IT by Stephen King, and in case you hadn’t guessed, I am a Potterhead to the core. I re-listen to the audiobooks every single year. #JimDaleIsMyHero. Also must-reads: All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy, The Beach by Alex Garland, and anything by Robert Heinlein. There are some amazing debuts coming out in 2016, and I’ve had the chance to read a few. In the YA world: The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner is AMAZING. I wish I’d written it. Save Me, Kurt Cobain is creepy, nostalgic, and deep—a must. Also, Fenway & Hattie is an awesome middle-grade adventure about a dog and his girl. I hugged my black lab dozens of times while reading it.
Do you think that social media has helped or hurt teenagers?
I think it’s done both in equal measure. Social media magnifies gossip and creates opportunities for cyber-bullying—both can have a devastating impact on vulnerable young people. On the other hand, sites like Tumblr allow teenagers to connect with like-minded souls half a world away, which can be incredibly healing. I sometimes wonder if I would have turned out the same if I’d had an iPhone when I was sixteen. The truth is, I’ll never know. Part of my job as a writer and a human being is to promote kindness and acceptance, and to provide context and guidance to the young people in my life so that they develop tools to sort through the terabytes of noise bombarding them every day and find the good stuff.
I am going to admit: I haven’t read a ton of LGBT books. Why? I’m not sure. Yes, I do think that there should be more diversity in books, and yes, I definitely plan on reading more LGBT books in the future. Absolutely. I’m just being honest and saying that this was the first book that I went into KNOWING that it was about a LGBT character, and wow, what a first. It was absolutely fantastic.
The author’s voice is incredible, and he is able to convey Riley, the main character’s emotions, extremely well. I will admit that I didn’t know much about being gender fluid, but now I at least feel like I have a basic understanding. But, gender fluidity isn’t the only LGBT part of this book. This book incorporates a ton of characters that span the LGBTQIA community and makes them all easy to understand. For more information on what LGBTQIA is, click HERE.
I don’t want to tell you anything else about SYMPTOMS OF BEING HUMAN, because this is a book that you NEED to read and experience for yourself.
I absolutely loved this book and give it 5/5stars.