It’s time for Nashville Pride, and for readers there is no better way to celebrate than with an LGBT-themed book by a local author! Nashville’s Greg Howard has a new book, Social Intercourse, hitting shelves just in time for Pride — on June 5.
The book focuses on Beckett Gaines, a gay teen living in South Carolina, who has his world turned upside-down by a jock in this laugh-out-loud novel that’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda meets The Parent Trap. Chuck Long, of Out & About Today, sat down with Howard to discuss his latest release.
With Social Intercourse, you have a major release through a major publisher, Simon and Schuster. What’s going through your head?
Total disbelief that it’s finally happening! I secured my agent and sold the publishing rights to Social Intercourse TWO YEARS AGO! That’s about normal timing for the publishing world from sale to publication date, but still, the waiting was excruciating. Now that it’s finally here, it all seems a little surreal—but exciting and wonderful as well, of course.
When did you feel you might have a gift for writing?
Gift is quite the daunting word to embrace, and I’m not just trying to be modest. I will say that I’ve had a passion for writing since I was a kid. I toyed with the idea of being a fiction writer during my teens and then I wanted to be a songwriter as a young adult, but I never had the discipline to pursue those dreams at that time in my life.
The road to getting your publishing deal wasn’t easy. You had to navigate your own way, and like many writers, dealt with a lot of rejection before finally getting that magic yes. What kept you going? Did you ever feel like throwing in the towel?
I’ve dealt with rejection in writing for a long time. My very first manuscript was rejected by Dial Books, which interestingly enough is an imprint of Penguin/Random House where I got my most recent book deal. At least the rejection letter was personalized, and the editor invited me to resubmit in the future. But at the time I couldn’t understand why they didn’t like my book. Looking back, I realize that it might have been because I was only nine years old and I plagiarized the whole thing from a TV movie of the week. True story.
Rejection is just part of the process because the publishing world is so subjective. It can be discouraging and demoralizing, and of course there were times I felt like throwing in the towel. You’re putting yourself out there in the most vulnerable way. Bearing your soul and bracing for when someone says they just don’t like what you’ve spent weeks, months, or years creating. But while I was getting all those no’s, I kept reminding myself that it took Kathryn Stockett five years to write The Help and she received over sixty rejections from agents before getting a yes—for The Help, a book that has now sold over ten million copies in forty-two languages! The thing you have to remember is that it only takes one yes. I wrote Social Intercourse in five weeks and got over thirty no's from agents before I got my yes. My previous book racked up over sixty rejections from potential agents and not one yes. So as hard as all those no's were to hear, I feel so fortunate to finally have landed a dream agent with one of the largest and most respected literary agencies in the world, who then sold my manuscript to a big five publisher in less than a month. The whole process was brutal, but SO worth it. And if I’d given up, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.
I love one of your social media posts. You wrote, “My motto for the last five years has been - "Better Now Than Never". Whenever panic inducing regrets rear their heads and I feel to old too be starting this journey.... I take a deep breath and remind myself of this.” Was that a lesson hard learned, or born out of necessity?
I guess it was born out of necessity. I came to Nashville and jumped right in the music business and that’s all I’ve known for over 25 years. Now that I’m starting to have success with my writing, regrets do rear their ugly heads. Why didn’t I do this 25 years ago? I would be so much farther along. I’m too old to start this now! But you can’t look at it that way or it will make you crazy. Obviously, I wasn’t ready to really devote myself to writing until the last few years, or I would have done it. The past is the past. I can’t change it now and all those choices made me who I am today—a successful new author. So that’s why I always say, better now than never.
What’s your writing routine?
I still work a stressful full-time job in the music business, running an independent record label. So for the last four to five years, pretty much every Monday through Friday, I get up at 4am and write (or edit) for a couple of hours before work. Then I spend most Saturdays and Sundays writing, editing, or working on marketing, website, etc. I learned pretty quickly that I write better early in the morning and even though I’ve never been a morning person, I had to become one. I decided if this was my dream, I had to make sacrifices and change my personal habits. So, during the week, I’m heading off to bed around 8pm. That’s it. That’s the routine. That, and multiple cups of hazelnut coffee and my three pups laying all over me while I work. They make good arm rests. I don’t listen to music when I write, because of my day job. I have to listen to music all day long. Silence is my muse.
How do you decide what you want to write about?
With my first book, the adult paranormal Blood Divine, it was a story that had been brewing in mind for a long time. With my young adult book, Social Intercourse, it really all started with a character (Beck) and the story kind of blossomed around him. With my next book, The Whispers, the idea came from my own life experiences and my relationship with my mother when I was very young. With some of the new ideas I’m working on, I usually just go with whatever interesting idea comes to mind, flesh it out a little with a blurb and a few sample chapters, then run it by my agent. She gives me feedback on if she thinks it’s something that she can sell. And since I want to do this full time one day, those are the ideas I focus on and develop. I will probably always write gay main characters, because I wish I’d had access to more middle grade and YA books them. And it feels natural for me.
Why did you want to write Social Intercourse and what was the inspiration?
I’d never considered writing in the young adult genre because I honestly didn’t think I could pull it off. And when I read young adult, I don’t really read contemporary. I’m more of a The Hunger Games and Maze Runner kind of YA reader. But I’d been reading some contemporary young adult novels with gay main characters like Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, More Happy Than Not, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets to the Universe and Will Grayson, Will Grayson, and I loved them all. All of those books have such different points of view and none of them were anything like what I thought my point of view or voice would be in that genre. That made me wonder if I might have my own unique perspective to offer. So, I gave it shot and wrote the manuscript during National Novel Writing Month (every November) with no idea what I was doing and no expectations—which was probably a good thing. All I knew was that I wanted to write a really funny book, with some romance, and show a different kind of gay teen character than what I’d seen before—one that is unapologetically out and proud, knows who he is, and not afraid to let his freak flag fly. Beck is a self-proclaimed “femmy choir boy” looking to lose his virginity via a gay hook up app called Bangr on the first page of the book. And he’s looking forward to becoming a bossy power bottom. That edginess, raciness and balls to the walls attitude guided the whole story. Sure, gay teens can be sweet, adorable, chaste, and perfectly straight-acting (a term I hate), but they can also be wonderfully messy, just like straight teens. Beck is a hot mess.
Some agents and editors initially passed on Social Intercourse, even though they loved the writing, because they felt it was too “racy” or “edgy” for the young adult genre. But it’s actually less racy than a lot of heterosexual YA romances. Is there a double standard for LGBTQ YA fiction?
I had several potential agents initially request more pages, then some requested the whole manuscript. Most of them said they loved the voice and the writing, but they felt it was “too much” for YA. The same thing happened when my agent started sending it to potential publishers. I found it very perplexing because Social Intercourse is, as you said, less racy than a lot of het YA romances. After talking to my agent, my eventual editor at S&S and other YA authors, I learned that, yes, there is in fact a double standard. And to make matters worse, a straight woman writing a book about LGBTQ teens can go a lot farther with regards to raciness than a gay man writing the same thing. Somehow, it’s perceived as more subversive when a gay man writes it. It’s extremely frustrating, but it’s actually a thing.
Did your publisher ask you to tone it down or take anything out?
I have to give major props to my agent, Brianne Johnson, and to my editor at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, David Gale. Neither of them asked me to tone it down or take out any of the naughty bits. I told my agent when I first signed with her, that it was important to me not to water the book down to make it more palatable to the masses. I wanted to be true to the characters, and frankly true to myself and my own experience as a gay teen. I was very lucky to find the right agent and editor partners for this book.
The book is set in the Florence, South Carolina, where you spent your teen years. How similar is the character of Beck to how you were in high school?
Yes, the book is set in my hometown, and like Beck, I was a hot mess in high school. But I wasn’t as brave or as comfortable in my skin as Beck is. I was very closeted. I dated girls, played the game, talked about boobs with my best friend, all that stupid shit. I like to say that Beck is who I wish I’d had the courage to be in high school. He’s my hero.
Social Intercourse shines a light on religious bigotry against the LGBTQ community in the South. Do you think there has been progress in that area, or is there more work to be done?
I grew up in a very religious household of the Pentecostal/Holiness variety. Obviously, that played a big role in my struggle to accept who I really was—who God made me, actually. I tried to pray the gay away for almost half my life! (Newsflash: That doesn’t work, so stop it!) There’s even a Westboro Baptist Church type church creating all kinds of discord for Beck and his queer friends in Social Intercourse. I’d love to think there has been progress, but then I read new stories about religious bigotry and hatefulness from the Christian community against the LGBTQ community and it’s very discouraging. But I know that doesn’t mean all Christians are that way. It’s definitely progress that there are dozens of not only welcoming but affirming churches in the Nashville area. That’s a huge improvement over ten years ago.
Sexual fluidity is also prevalent in Social Intercourse and one of the two main characters, Jax is bisexual. Why did you choose to show a romance between a gay boy and a bisexual boy versus two gay boys?
In the book, Jax is the star quarterback and has quite the reputation around school as a lady’s man. It’s not that his reputation is a lie, it’s just that he’s hiding the other side of his sexual orientation. Deep South plus football plus public school still equals a social mine field for queer teens. There’re are a lot of books about two gay boys falling in love, but there really isn’t a lot representation of bi teens in YA. It’s getting better, but it’s still sometimes an overlooked group.
One of the more memorable (and hilarious) scenes in the book is the drag queen day spa. Where did that idea come from?
From my twisted brain. I’d heard about a touring show that was an all-drag queen production of The Golden Girls. I think that idea is genius! And wouldn’t you love to see an all-drag version of Steel Magnolias?! Somebody needs to get on that! There needed to be a scene in the book where Beck takes his BFF Shelby to get a makeover, so those thoughts led me to the idea of a salon and day spa staffed entirely by drag queens called Queefy Le Pew’s Pussy Cat Parlor and Day Spa. (Imagine Ginger Minj in a Dolly wig playing the role of Queefy Le Pew in the movie adaptation.) I mean, come on. Who wouldn’t want to go there for a fierce new ‘do or a weekly anal bleaching? I think that would be a hit in Nashville. Somebody needs to get on that, too.
Beck’s best friend, Shelby, is a hoot and their close friendship is a highlight of the book. Was Shelby inspired by anyone in particular?
Some people only have one best friend, but I’m blessed to have three! They all came into my life at different times and I can’t imagine this journey without them. Shelby is an amalgamation of my three besties—Hal, Michelle, and Tom. She embodies their humor, their sweet souls, their loyalty and their hearts. I guess that’s why Shelby is my favorite character.
This is your debut in the young adult genre. How has the YA community responded to you and the book?
There’s actually a wonderful community of YA authors based in and around Nashville. I’ve been fortunate to befriend some amazing YA authors such as Becky Albertalli (Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda) and Jeff Zentner (The Serpent King). Jeff will be moderating my Social Intercourse book launch party at Parnassus Books, drawing focus away from me because of his unfortunate looks. (Insert Google pause here.) They and other YA authors have given me so much advice and encouragement. Jeff and Becky in particular read my book multiple times and gave me such great feedback and direction. They also warned me to beware of the drag. And by drag, I mean the social media trolls who find any little thing to be offended by and attack you on. And believe me, if anyone is looking for something to be offended by, they will likely find it in my book.
There was a major publishing house auction for your next book, The Whispers, so there’s already a lot of industry buzz about it. Give us a little preview of the book. How did it feel to have major publishers fighting over you?
The Whispers is my middle grade debut. It’s a mystery that follows a queer eleven-year-old boy who seeks out all-knowing, mythical wood creatures to help him find his missing mother before he becomes the prime suspect in her disappearance.
This is the most personal story I’ve ever written, so the publishing auction was a tremendous surprise. Going from all those previous no’s to having five major publishing imprints bidding for my new book was just nuts! It was exciting and really nerve-wracking. You want to choose the best home for your book and the best editor to guide the process and champion the book, not just the one offering the most money. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin/Random House, checked all the boxes for me and I’m so excited to be working with them on The Whispers, publishing in Spring 2019. This book got me a film agent and the UK, Italian, and Spanish rights have already been sold too. So, like I said…nuts.
How you would describe Social Intercourse in ten syllables or less?
Jock straps, drag queens, anal bleaching. Oh my!
For more about Greg Howard, or to buy the book, visit greghowardauthor.com. Howard has upcoming appearances at:
PARNASSUS BOOKS: June 5, 2018 – 6:30PM
Social Intercourse launch party and book signing with special guest, critically acclaimed YA author, Jeff Zentner
YA-HOO FEST: September 29, 2018
Chattanooga State Community College