'Frankie & Bug' author Gayle Forman

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday March 1, 2022
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author Gayle Forman
author Gayle Forman

There are probably many readers of contemporary fiction who are familiar with the novels of Gayle Forman, including the bestselling If I Stay, which was made into a 2014 movie starring Chloë Grace Moretz.

For her latest book, a middle-school novel titled Frankie & Bug (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, 2021), Forman takes us back to the summer of 1987 in Los Angeles. Bug (aka Beatrice) and her older brother Danny navigate the streets around Venice Beach, trying their best to avoid the skinheads.

When Frankie, the young trans nephew of Bug's gay neighbor Phillip comes to visit, Bug makes a lifelong friend, while learning new and important lessons about people and acceptance. As with so many middle-school and YA novels, Frankie & Bug has something to offer readers, young and old.

Gregg Shapiro: Gayle, I'd like to begin by asking you to say a few words about why you set your new Y/A novel in the mid-1980s?

Gayle Forman: The inspiration for the book was when I began thinking about my own childhood, and how certain injustices seemed to have improved with breathtaking speed, while others seemed mired in place, or even moving backward.

And this landed me in the 1980s, a time period that doesn't feel that far off to me, but for today's kids, is ancient history (indeed, the book is considered historical fiction). By setting the book then, I could show readers what had changed, and what hadn't, and also gave them a vantage point to understand Frankie and Bug's and Phillip's and Danny's futures in ways the characters themselves cannot.

Because of its 1980s setting, the New Wave music of the time is highlighted, with shout-outs to Bono, Echo and the Bunnymen, Oingo Boingo, The Cure, Duran Duran, Thompson Twins, and other artists featured on the LA radio station KROQ. Would this also happen to be a reflection of your own musical taste?
Oh, yes. Down to the argument over claiming which Duran Duran Taylor was mine. (I called dibs on John). KROQ was always on, and I won tickets on the radio more than once. When I waited tables, I once served the DJ Jed The Fish, which was a "major moment" for me!

Bug and Frankie are both fascinated by and frightened of the serial killer called the Midnight Marauder, and would probably have been fans of true crime podcasts, if they'd existed back then. Is this character based on Richard Ramirez aka Night Stalker?
Yes. In the original draft, I had actually used the Night Stalker but it was proving too challenging to make his timeline work for my story and we also thought it might be best if kids did not Google what was really a truly terrifying psychopath.

At the heart of the book is Frankie's revelation, a subject that is handled with grace throughout, including the Disneyland bathroom sequence. Please say a few words about your inspiration for creating and writing about a young, trans character.

I started this book in 2013 after, as mentioned, I began musing about the way things had changed. I was thinking, particularly, for my queer friends who came of age (or, in many cases did not) during the AIDS crisis.

I knew immediately that the two main characters would be Frankie and Bug and that Frankie would be trans. In 2013, we were just beginning to have a broader conversation about trans rights and nonconforming gender identities, and when those conversations came to the fore, I back-burnered the book for years because it did not feel right for me to invade that conversation.

But then other events pushed me to write the book, but Frankie and Bug as characters did not change that much from the start. I leaned a lot on trans-masculine readers and friends for help with Frankie, particularly older trans men, who had lived through a world more like Frankie's than today's. They really helped me shape the story.

Frankie's gay uncle Phillip is the victim of a gay-bashing at the hands of skinheads. Would it be fair to say that the skinheads of the 1980s were the precursors to the radical right movement we are seeing today?
Yes. And the precursor to the skinheads of the 1980s were the Nazis and before them. Alas, our history is rife with this kind of hate.

Also woven into the fabric of the novel are immigrant stories, including those of Bug's Salvadoran father and Hedvig's escape from Hungary. Please say something about the significance of that in the novel.
While I was thinking about how certain things had improved —LGBTQ rights, specifically— I was also thinking about what had not improved, particularly the treatment of refugees from Latin America. The 1980s was the height of the Cold War, with much of Central and Eastern Europe under the so-called "Iron Curtain."

In Central America, the US and the USSR were fought via proxy wars, the US propping up some brutal dictators who oppressed and murdered their citizens, and led to a flood of refugees seeking the safer harbors of the USA. Today, we are seeing a new flood of refugees from Central America, many fleeing because of violence and instability that has roots in those proxy wars. As we locked children in cages, I couldn't help but think things have grown much worse than in the 1980s.

Why was that? Why are some prejudices so much harder to shake? I wanted to explore that and so I wound up asking one of my best friends who's Salvadoran about her own family and her grandmother had fled El Salvador for the same reasons Bug's father had—though she didn't die in a car accident; she's still alive, and 98!

Hedvig's story is taken from another good friend's parents (novelists are the worst thieves) who fled Hungary after the Soviets invaded. I wanted to include this because the Cold War was such a huge part of life in the 1980s and in many ways has tentacles today. And I also wanted to show how there are different ways of being a refugee in the truest sense of the word: someone seeking refuge.

Frankie & Bug also deals with sibling relationships; a good one, as in the case of Bug and Daniel, and a bad one in the case of Mama and her sister Teri. Do you have siblings, and if so, how does your relationship with them compare to those of the characters in the book?
I do have siblings, a brother and sister. I'm the baby. My brother is eight years older than me, so he left home by the time I was 10 and we didn't really develop a relationship until we were adults. But my sister, who's four years older, was like a second mother to me. We are very tight. That said, siblings are these people you are thrown together with, who are often very different from you. So, those relationships are always complicated, even if they are not Mama-Teri complicated.

If there was a movie version of Frankie & Bug, who would you want to see play Bug, Frankie, Phillip, Mama, Hedvig, Daniel and Aunt Teri?
I'd want unknowns to play the kids. How exciting to have roles for trans and Latin child actors! As for Mama, someone who exudes warmth and integrity, like Brie Larson. Emily Blunt, or Emma Stone, or Kristin Bell. George Takei as Phillip even though he's probably too old. And some Hungarian actress we haven't heard of (for Hedvig). As Aunt Teri: Katherine Hahn, but I'd watch her in anything.

Have you started working on or thinking about your next book project?
Yes. It's another middle-grade (book)! It takes place over a summer. It's set in present day. So, I'll have to figure some way around cell phones. It was so nice not having to work in the technology (in Frankie & Bug)!


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