Words: Lesléa Newman and Gary Eldon Peter: Young Adult writers in conversation

  • by Michele Karlsberg
  • Tuesday January 30, 2024
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Authors Lesléa Newman and Gary Eldon Peter
Authors Lesléa Newman and Gary Eldon Peter

Books about LGBTQ younger generations living in rural settings helps to save lives. Characters, stories and landscape that young readers can connect with are always important.

Gary Eldon Peter recently won the Minnesota Book Award in Young Adult Literature and the Whippoorwill Book Award for Rural Young Adult Literature for his debut novel, "The Complicated Calculus (and Cows) of Carl Paulsen." Gary's main character Carl discovers his own resilience in the face of grief, adult-sized decisions, and unrequited love, and along the way learns to cope with both the challenges and rewards of being different.

Lesléa Newman, known best for "Heather Has Two Mommies," is changing the world, one book at a time. "Always Matt: A Tribute to Matthew Shepard" is a poignant tribute to the life and legacy of Matthew Shepard, and was recently published to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the creation of the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

On October 6, 1998, in Laramie, Wyoming, Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered. Without shying away from the pain and tragedy of his death, Newman's moving, lyrical prose and Brian Britigan's simple color line drawings present a celebration of his incredible life.

In the realm of young adult literature, where imagination intertwines with the authenticity of life, two brilliant writers find themselves immersed in the captivating stories and landscapes of rural settings. They both bring us tales that resonate with the hearts of readers.

I asked both Gary and Lesléa if they feel it is particularly important to share LGTBQ rural stories whether non-fiction or fiction.

Gary Eldon Peter: It's of course heartening to think about the progress we have made in terms of rights and visibility for LGBTQ+ individuals. I never thought, for example, that I would see marriage equality in my lifetime. But it's very easy to forget that, for LGBTQ+ people in rural communities, being who you are can still require immense courage. I'd like to think that stories like Carl Paulsen's might, in some small way, help readers in similar circumstances know that they are not alone, and to know that their stories matter.

Lesléa Newman: I think it's important to share all LGBTQ+ stories, wherever they take place. Laramie, Wyoming is a college town with a population of about 30,000 people. Many folks who live there had an attitude of disbelief, "It can't happen here," but unfortunately hate crimes such as the one that claimed Matthew Shepard's life happen everywhere, and shouldn't happen anywhere. So yes, we need to hear rural stories, small town stories, suburban stories, urban stories, all our stories.

Enjoy their conversation as these two accomplished authors engage in a spirited discussion about their literary works, exploring the magic and complexity that only rural settings can evoke.

Léslea: I loved your book. Carl stole my heart from the very first sentence. How were you able to capture the voice of a wry, smart, funny, gay teenager so accurately?
Gary: Thank you! A lot of that has to do with the first-person point of view. In earlier drafts, I tried a more "distant"/looking back approach and also third person, but neither worked...it felt very "static." A more "in the moment" perspective helped me develop Carl's personality and voice and giving him lots of opportunity for reflection.

Gary: I loved your use of verse to tell Matthew's story — such an interesting and powerful choice because every word is so carefully chosen and seems just right. What made you decide to use that form?
Léslea: Poetry is my first love and I always turn to it when writing about a subject that contains intense emotion. Poetry is how I get to the heart of the matter. Thank you for noticing that I sweated over every single word! "Always Matt" went through many, many drafts until I felt I got it right.

Léslea: I loved the setting of your book, a farm in Minnesota, which was almost like a character in and of itself. The cows in particular, who are part of Carl's family, were very real to me. Why this choice?
Gary: I wanted the cows to be "characters" because they play, to borrow a word from the title, a complicated role in the story. They're key to the financial survival of the farm (which is at risk) but are also, for Carl, a connecting point to his late mother and her hopes and dreams for the family. To lose them would be yet another thing to endure.

Gary: The beautiful and evocative illustrations by Brian Britigan are an integral part of "Always Matt." They do so much to convey Matthew as a "whole" person who had a childhood and hopes and dreams for the future just like everyone else. Can you talk about the interplay of images and text? How do they work together to tell the story?
Lesléa: Brian's artwork and color palette is exactly right in tone. His sense of composition, particularly his use of empty space, perfectly matches my sparse text which also uses empty space to mirror the empty space that Matt left when he was taken from us. The first time I saw Brian's illustrations, I was so moved, I cried.

Lesléa: Carl's confidence particularly struck me. He doesn't get any support for being gay, yet he knows who he is and never wavers. Can you talk about that?
Gary: There are many excellent YA novels out there about teens struggling with their sexual identity...the "Am I or aren't I" question. I was trying for something a little different. I wanted Carl to be confident in himself but to also grapple with who he is in relation to his community, family, and of course Andy, the guy who comes along and rocks his world. How do I fit in? What is my place? How do others see me?


Michele Karlsberg Marketing and Management specializes in publicity and marketing for the LGBTQ+ community. This year, Karlsberg celebrates 35 years of successful campaigns. www.michelekarlsberg.com

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