The short answer, of course, is “Because I wanted to.” Last summer at the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Emerging Writer Workshop in Los Angeles, someone asked Sarah Schulman how she figures out if she should “trunk” (meaning put aside) a book project. She may have blinked once or twice before answering, but her response was her classic curtness:
Why would I start any book I didn’t want to finish?
Well played, Ms. Schulman. And of course, it makes sense for a veteran writer and focused activist to say something along those lines. I try to write with confidence. Fortunately, it comes more easily during book number 5 (with two earlier trunked books in a forgotten computer somewhere in my house) than in my first foray for long form. Now if an idea kicks around in my head long enough, I grant it some kind of existence, either as back story, short story, or full-fledged novel.
So it was with The Unintentional Time Traveler. I’ve wondered and pondered my past history as an epileptic for a couple of decades now, trying to process what it meant for a person who didn’t know any differently at the time. I also love time travel stories, everything from H.G. Wells to Dr. Who. The more I tried to come up with reasons to write this story, the more reasons I identified, as if some kind of narrative fission was happening. That was also a sign that this was a story worth telling and never ever trunking. So here are just a few ideas behind the book:
Reconceptualizing disability for young readers—Even if the rote activities of taking anti-seizure medication was under my radar, it was noticeable by my grade school and middle school classmates. I spent so much time in doctors’ offices and hospitals that I got to know other children with chronic conditions. Many of us, contrary to what society would presume, didn’t go through our days concerned about our diseases. I wanted to write a novel for young adults that would recast disability as something other than albatross or reason for pity.
Showing LGBT identities directly and not as metaphor—I love metamorphoses just as much as the next reader, honestly. But am I going to write them better than Kafka or the ancient Greeks? No. Still, I wanted to take a “regular” kid and put him in an extreme situation that pressured his sense of gender identity. The protagonist, Jack Inman, is just that kid. And throughout the novel I juxtaposed him against another character who self-identifies on the LGBT spectrum, showing one extraordinary way of coming to consciousness, and one very ordinary way. And I hope that seeing active LGBT people in both kinds of arcs allows more readers to identify with their story lines.
Our sense of today comes from yesterday—Two things piqued my interest along these lines. First, the way in which family stories are lost or recreated over generations, and second, how our short cultural memory gives more power to ideas than they (often) deserve. In TUTT, some of Jack’s relatives intentionally hide information from him, presuming it’s for his own good, but leaving him open to trouble. And more broadly, I wanted to ask why we continue to believe in debunked myths, or why we cycle through truths from one generation to the next. And I’d like young readers to ask these questions too, especially as they’re ramping up for adulthood.
Good books stick with a reader for a while, and terrible books do too. My favorite books are ones that made me want to read more, that I use to compare to other narratives I’ve encountered, and that left some kind of emotional echo in my mind for a long time. If TUTT comes anywhere near those effects for my readers I’ll consider it a success.