Author Interview: Danny Freeman

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Lynette Latzko is talking with Danny Freeman, author of The You I See.

FQ: Since you are a new author, can you tell readers a bit about yourself?

FREEMAN: I’m a bit of a wanderer, wonderer, dreamer, realist, and skeptic all rolled into one. Maybe that’s because I’m middle-aged and have gained a perspective on life that’s somehow ‘glass half-full’ and ‘glass half-empty’ all at once.

I spent a number of years after college graduation (1996) in various forms of full-time Christian ministry. I also lived in England for a few years, and I moved around Texas and Louisiana after that. I decided I was ready to leave full-time ministry in 2005. By that time, I was in the middle of a significant re-examination of my religious beliefs and commitments, and I knew I needed to earn a salary that wasn’t tied to my religious beliefs!

I went through a fast-track teacher certification program in the Dallas area in 2006 (January – June), and I began teaching 3rd grade later that August. I taught for five years and really enjoyed it. Then I had a chance to move into some administrative work, and I did various administrative jobs in a large suburban school district between Dallas and Ft. Worth for seven years.

Like many administrators, I burned out quickly! Unlike many administrators, however, I knew I had some options other than continuing in that work, so I resigned from the school district in June 2018. I will always be a huge supporter of public schools, but it is very demanding and often disheartening work.

I left Texas and spent some time exploring a few new vocational paths in 2019. I was able to do some traveling before the pandemic began in March 2020. I ended up writing The You I See as the pandemic spread and worsened. I’ve completed a second novel about a totally different set of characters. We’ll see what becomes of that!

These are a few of my favorite things in life: first flush Darjeeling tea (must be loose leaf); Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, op. 11 and the Adagio from Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, op. 27; The Remains of the Day and Call Me by Your Name (both the books and the film adaptations); long hikes in the English Lake District and along the California coast around Pacific Valley; Five Little Pigs and A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie; homemade quesadillas and chocolate-tahini tarts; Queen’s ‘Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy’ and Iris DeMent’s ‘When My Morning Comes Around’; the scene in Titanic where Rose jumps back on deck while the distress flares burst over Jack’s head and that iconic melody by James Horner kicks into overdrive; and really good British comedies like Dinnerladies and Fawlty Towers!

FQ: What was your writing experience been like? What were the hardest or easiest parts for you to write?

FREEMAN: My experience of writing The You I See was thoroughly enjoyable. It was an easy story to tell for the most part. It took me about seven weeks to complete. In fact, it was so easy to tell that the original manuscript was considerably longer than the published book. Once I started, it was hard to stop! I loved creating a world for Alex and Brandon. I loved exploring Alex’s inner life as he looked back in hindsight at his teenage years. I also really enjoyed writing about some of my favorite places in Houston.

The editing process was hard, to some extent. I wanted to keep every line of every chapter in the original manuscript, but I knew I needed to trim down the book. It was painful to cut some of the chapters. I felt like I was being disloyal to Alex! But I know the final version was better for the editing and revising. In fact, I look back now and think I could have trimmed it some more in a few places. I suppose most writers look at their finished product and continually think of small things they might change.

It was hard to write about the two episodes of physical, homophobic violence that Alex and Brandon experienced. I wanted the scenes to be real and gripping, but I didn’t want the violence to be unnecessarily graphic. I believe I achieved the right effect.

It was also hard to get Alex’s parents just right. I knew from the start that I wanted his parents to be 100% supportive and affirming as opposed to the grossly over-used trope in YA books of the dimwitted, bumbling parents who can’t quite make sense of their daughter’s or son’s non-hetero orientation. I didn’t want to go down that route with the Kennedys, especially with the silent yet undeniable disapproval Brandon’s parents harbored in their hearts.

The challenge was to keep my portrayal of the Kennedys from being anachronistic in the sense of projecting modern parenting attitudes onto this couple back in the late 1980s. I did my best to give the Kennedys some context and a little back story so that their open and affirming stance toward Alex and Brandon was believable. And to whatever extent they are not 100% believable, I don’t really mind! There are plenty of young LGBTQ+ people who lack supportive parents. I hope the Kennedys can stand in as surrogate literary parents in the same way Mr. Perlman’s conversation with Elio in Call Me by Your Name (both the novel and film) was a healing balm to many gay men who never heard such affirmation from their own parents. If I blurred the lines between art and advocacy with some of the dialog that comes from Alex’s parents, that’s not a big deal in my mind.

Just on a practical level, I did find the actual writing/typing hard-going in the sense of sitting for hours staring into a computer screen. I take lots of breaks when I write, but I do find it quite draining after a few hours. It’s one of the challenges of writing.

FQ: In your Afterword section you mention that The You I See is loosely autobiographical. How did you make the decision to write your story in this manner?

Author Danny Freeman

FREEMAN: Well, I’ve always heard the advice that writers should write what they know about. So, I started with what I know something about: a gay teenager growing up in a fundamentalist Christian context in a diverse and rapidly changing place like Houston. Alex and I both like Agatha Christie, The Princess Bride, and classical music, but most of the rest was pure invention. That’s why I say the story is only loosely autobiographical. It’s a deeply personal story, but it’s not necessarily a re-telling of my teen years (which is a shame).

FQ: Do you have any advice or tips you would give to new authors? Perhaps that you wish someone would have told you when you first started writing?

FREEMAN: It’s important to write something you’d want to read and that you don’t see other people doing. I know that sounds fairly obvious, but it’s easy to get caught in a trap of writing something that you think will please agents and publishers in an effort to make your book more marketable. Obviously, we want people to like our books and buy them, but marketability and people-pleasing ought not to be the primary concern (in my opinion). I suppose it’s a matter of not letting the tail wag the dog.

For example, I made a conscious decision to explore Alex and Brandon’s sexual awakening over the course of six years. I’ve read a fair number of YA ‘coming-out, coming-of-age’ novels, and very few of them explore the idea of sexual awakening. That made those novels less authentic in my eyes because I’m not sure how you separate coming to an awareness of being queer apart from the initial stages of sexual awakening. By sexual awakening, I don’t necessarily mean engaging in sexually intimate contact. I simply mean that coming to an awareness of who we find attractive and what arouses us usually goes hand-in-hand with coming to a clearer sense of our sexual orientation. Alex and Brandon realize they are gay precisely because they turn each other on and find one another deeply attractive, both emotionally and physically.

We now have a better understanding that orientation is more like a continuum than a binary choice, thanks to research insights coming from psychology, sociology, and anthropology. So, in one sense, I presented Alex and Brandon’s sexual awakening in a binary way, but I think that’s how they would have understood it at the time. In any case, I wanted to put their sexual awakening front and center because I saw that gap in other YA novels.

All of that is to say this: don’t be afraid to do something different. Don’t be afraid to push the boundaries a little and see how readers react. I think there is a conservative tendency in publishing. Publishers want books that will sell. I understand that, and it makes sense. At the same time, some of the greatest novelists of the last couple of centuries were constantly pushing the boundaries. They didn’t all see gargantuan sales figures in their lifetime, but we read and cherish their work today precisely because they were ahead of their time and willing to rock the boat.

FQ: The movie The Princess Bride is watched and quoted by Brandon and Alex quite often throughout the story as their favorite movie. Why did you choose this particular movie?

FREEMAN: There are several reasons.

(1) I remember watching The Princess Bride not long after it came out in theaters. (Not many people can say that!) I don’t recall much about that first viewing except that I couldn’t take my eyes off Cary Elwes, the actor who played Westley! It’s one of my earliest memories of realizing that my eyes were on the ‘wrong’ person onscreen. All the guys I knew were lusting over Robin Wright, who played Buttercup. I knew I ‘should’ have been attracted to her, but I wasn’t. I was captivated by Westley, even though I had a sense I shouldn’t have been. It was unsettling and confusing as a 12-year-old. I didn’t really know what gay meant at that time, but it was one of those early signs that helped me later realize I was gay.

(2) It’s a sweet, funny, uplifting movie about two seemingly ill-suited lovers who overcome the odds to be together. That seemed like a fitting metaphor for Alex and Brandon’s own story. Alex and Brandon didn’t have to survive the fire swamp or outwit Prince Humperdinck, but they did have to make their way through a perilous series of obstacles and setbacks.

Here’s a little scene from the book. Alex and Brandon are nearly two years into their friendship. The astute reader knows how they feel about each other and how they circle around one another constantly, like moths to each other’s flame. But Alex and Brandon are hesitant and unsure – afraid to say the wrong thing and push the other one away. Their mutual love for The Princess Bride gives them a language they might not otherwise have access to.

From Chapter 9
Brandon held my gaze and said, “Does love really always have a happy ending? Do you think people really end up happy in life like they do in books and movies?”
“I don’t know. Maybe you have to take a chance on love. You have to say ‘yes’ to it, even if you don’t know how it’s going to end. Maybe you love someone, but you’re not sure they love you the same way. You have to take a chance.”
“Even if you have to go through fire swamps, and fight the R.O.U.S., and survive the life-sucking machine?”
“Yes, even if you have to storm the castle.”
Brandon chuckled. “Maybe you need a chocolate-covered miracle pill from Max.”
I held my breath for a few seconds. Could I say the words pressing against my lips from the inside? Could I say the words, once spoken, I could never pull back? I thought of Westley and the old hag who booed and hissed at Buttercup when Prince Humperdink announced their engagement. Love seemed so powerful, yet so fragile; so certain, yet so precarious.

(3) The movie is quite popular among many fundamentalist Christian groups, and, to be blunt, I wanted to claim the movie for the LGBTQ+ community, too.

FQ: An extremely important theme in your book is about religious beliefs and teachings of sexuality and how some religious beliefs can be incorrect and harmful. Even though you included a few resources at the end of your book, I believe it's worth mentioning here. Could you briefly explain the issue, and provide some information on where someone can further explore the topic?

FREEMAN: I’m sure most readers are aware that issues of gender and sexuality are extremely contentious among various versions of the world’s major religions. I know a bit about Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but I come from a Christian background. That’s what I know best from personal experience and education. So, I’ll just speak about Christianity at this point.

Broadly speaking, most Christian denominations and churches base decisions about morality on some combination of scripture (the Bible), tradition, reason, and experience. Some groups emphasize the Bible almost exclusively, and they maintain that the Bible is the final authority for morality. They say, in essence, that whatever the Bible condemns is wrong and whatever the Bible endorses is right. These groups often also take a very literalist approach to the Bible. They believe the Bible is inspired and inerrant in such a way that they can know the mind and will of God on various matters based on their correct understanding of the biblical text. You sometimes hear people with this mindset say, “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.”

There are a number of passages in the Bible that seem to condemn same-sex behaviors. These are often called the ‘clobber passages’ because fundamentalist/conservative Christians use these verses to clobber, demean, exclude, and condemn LGBTQ+ people.

There is, of course, a wide array of beliefs among Christians regarding LGBTQ+ affirmation and inclusion. Many progressive Christians who are supportive of LGBTQ+ rights and equality point to a number of issues when it comes to the ‘clobber passages’. Some of these issues are:

(1) The verses about same-sex behavior are not as unambiguous as some people believe. The famous passage about Sodom in Genesis 19 is about violent gang rape, NOT about consensual sexual acts between loving same-sex partners! The Bible is not an easy book to read in many respects because of its antiquity and the wide cultural gap between modern readers and the various people who wrote the Bible. We often read our own situations back into the text and assume that what we mean by homosexuality (a life-long, fixed orientation) is exactly what the early writers meant. Ancient biblical writers had no conception of orientation the way we do. They assumed everyone was ‘straight’; therefore, any kind of same-sex behavior was wrong.

(2) Even when a passage is somewhat clear, it’s difficult to make a case that the passage has any kind of authority over people today. For example, in some of his letters which form part of the New Testament, the apostle Paul commanded slaves to obey their masters. He had no problem with slavery and wrote many passages that supported the institution of slavery. Very few Christians today think slavery is a good idea just because Paul was content with it. Times have changed, and no Christians I know think we ought to bring slavery back, even though it’s endorsed throughout the Bible. In the minds of many progressive Christians, the Bible is just as wrong about the condemnation of same-sex relationships as it is about supporting slavery, the subordination of women, the stoning of witches and disobedient children, and other barbaric practices that we rightly reject today.

(3) Christians disagree about the exact nature of the Bible. As I mentioned earlier, some Christians see it as a perfect, error-free book straight from God via various human authors. This leads them to view the Bible as a timeless source of authority to which modern Christians must be entirely obedient.

There are plenty of other Christians who recognize that the Bible is a purely human document: full of errors, fables, myths, legends, and reprehensible moral commandments. These Christians don’t reject the Bible wholesale. They see value in it, but they don’t treat it like an instruction manual. This gives them freedom to reject the parts that are obviously outdated, bigoted, and harmful.

This is an oversimplification of a complex topic, but I hope it’s helpful in the sense of laying out the terrain. A few good books on the subject are the ones I mentioned in the Afterword: God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships by Matthew Vines; UnClobber: Rethinking Our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality by Colby Martin; and Changing Our Minds: Definitive 3rd Edition of the Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians by David P. Gushee. I would also add Homosexuality and Christian Faith, edited by Walter Wink.

Readers can find more information on my website. Scroll all the way down to the bottom of the ‘Resources’ page, and you will find a list of helpful resources.

I should also mention that many progressive Protestant Christian denominations are open and affirming, and they often have very clear policies regarding the full affirmation and inclusion of LGBTQ+ Christians. They are: the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Episcopal Church. Other denominations such as the United Methodist Church and various Baptist, Mennonite, and Quaker churches have more ambiguous policies, but you can find individual clergy and churches that are open and affirming. It just takes more investigation.

FQ: You quote Tennessee Williams on the front page of your website: “The world is violent and mercurial – it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love – love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.” Would you tell our readers why this quote “speaks” to you and how it relates to your book?

FREEMAN: It’s a meaningful quote on two levels.

(1) The quote is meaningful to me because it’s hard to deny the violence and despair that is all around us. Over a million U.S. citizens died in the pandemic; the vast majority of those deaths were 100% preventable. (An additional 3,000 people continue to die needlessly every month!) Inequality is on the rise, and millions of Americans face unimaginable economic hardship. SCOTUS recently took away women’s right to bodily autonomy. Gun massacres plague our nation like a malignant cancer while feckless politicians mouth pious platitudes and cash checks from the NRA and arms manufacturers. Hundreds of millions of people around the globe face dire circumstances on a daily basis: the Uyghurs in China; Syrian refugees and most of those left behind in the tattered ruins; sweatshop workers across Asia; the war-weary people of Yemen and Ukraine; the subsistence farmers in Africa and Afghanistan on the brink of famine; and on and on. Just a few days ago the UN chief, Antonio Guterres, spoke about the climate crisis in dire terms, warning that we face ‘collective suicide’ if we fail to limit carbon emissions now. Perhaps he’s being a tad hyperbolic (not much!), but nobody really denies that we as a species are heading in the wrong direction on so many metrics at an alarming – almost irreversible – rate.

There’s obviously a lot that needs to be done! It can feel overwhelming at times, but this quote reminds me there’s a very simple first step: love. Look out for the interests of others in your own home, your own neighborhood, your own city, and, where you can, around the world. If nothing else, start with love. If we don’t start there, all our other efforts are probably not going to make much difference.

(2) I see another layer of significance in terms of Alex and Brandon’s story in the simple fact that these two boys found love, acceptance, and safety with each other in the middle of a predominantly dangerous and threatening context. Alex lived a few blocks from the scene of the brutal murder of Paul Broussard. Their world, like ours, was violent and mercurial. They found a refuge from the storm in each other’s arms. I like to think Williams wrote what he did, at least in part, with boys like Alex and Brandon in mind.

FQ: Will there be a sequel? I must say I would love to read more about Alex and Brandon's lives and their future together.

FREEMAN: I’ve given this some thought. I actually had an idea to go back and tell the same story from Brandon’s perspective by including some of the material I didn’t include in The You I See. It’s still an intriguing idea for a sequel-of-sorts, but I’m not sure how easy it would be to pull off. I think what makes The You I See work is its freshness and the ‘will they? won’t they?’ element. Perhaps I’d lose the emotional uncertainty and intensity by telling the story again, even if it’s quite different hearing it from Brandon’s perspective.

But, on the whole, my sense is I finished Alex and Brandon’s story in a perfect place. They made it through junior high and high school together. We last see them side-by-side in Alex’s bed just before he goes off to Harvard. I’d like to think they find a way to make their relationship work in the years to come, but maybe they don’t. If you’ve ever read the sequel to The Princess Bride, you’ll know things don’t go ‘happily ever after’ for Westley and Buttercup. Far from it!

Part of me that knows Alex and Brandon would have a rocky road ahead of them in their college and young adult years, so I like to think of them suspended there in Alex’s bed with ‘Forever Young’ playing in the background! The sentimental romantic in me wants to leave them there – giggling about emaciated philosophers and snuggling up close for a little bit longer.

Thank you for this opportunity!

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