Sara Zarr is the author of Story of a Girl and the forthcoming How To Save A Life. You can visit her online at her website.
A couple of years ago, I was speaking to a bunch of young readers at a book festival, and during the Q&A, one girl shot up her hand and asked, “Why did you decide to make Michael gay?”
The question caught me off guard.
Michael is an adult character in my first novel, STORY OF A GIRL. He runs the pizza dive where the main character, Deanna, has a summer job. On her first day, she learns that a boy from her past, Tommy Webber, works there, too. She nearly quits, hinting about her history with Tommy to Michael:
“I watched Michael watching me. If he was going to be around most of the time, it might be okay. He seemed like the kind of person I could trust. He took another drag of his smoke and it hit me—something about the way he flicked his ash or the way he was talking to me in hushed tones like a girlfriend—Michael was gay. For some reason that made me feel better, like maybe he’d be on my side.”
That was about the extent of me “making” Michael gay—not a conscious choice, but something that just sort of happened in the creative process.
There are some nice scenes between Deanna and Michael. He doesn’t solve any of Deanna’s problems, but he’s there with an ear at a couple of key moments.
When I was in junior high and high school, there was this man I knew through church, a friend of the family. I’ll call him Brian. At the time, his sexual life or orientation never occurred to me, though in retrospect it’s kind of obvious that Brian was gay—certainly in orientation, if not in practice. (I know that sounds like I’m dancing around something, I’m not, but I do have a number of gay friends who are celibate for religious reasons, and he very may well have fallen into that category.)
Brian was good friends with my mom and took an interest in my sister and me. He got me in ways other adults didn’t, he appreciated my sarcastic sense of humor and could dish it out as well as take it, he rolled his eyes at the same things I did, he could understand why certain things about my mother mortified me as a teen. He was an excellent listener—he didn’t ask the questions adults usually did that either seemed prying or stupid.
Brian was the adult who first introduced me to Hitchcock movies, the pleasures of cooking and entertaining well, and why bad, over-the-top art (aka “camp”) was fun in small doses.
I realize my description of Brian could be read as one big confirmation of a certain kind of stereotype. But this was my experience of him, and all I know is that for a girl who didn’t have a father figure, it meant a lot to me to have this adult male take an interest in me and my life. His friendship, his stand-in parenting, in a way, had a great and positive effect on my life and is forever part of who I am.
Let’s face it: There’s always been a special kind of dynamic between teen girls and older men, and I’m not being wink-wink or gross about it when I say this. (The book I’m working on now will explore this in depth.) There are real father issues for a lot of teen girls. And even with great dads, girls are often further along emotionally and intellectually than the boys their age, and an older man—often a teacher, or family friend—who acts as a mentor can be a particularly powerful influence. Or a destructive one, if there’s confusion about the boundaries.
For Deanna, who (like me as a teen) has a lot of issues with men and boys and mistakes sexual attention for love because at least it’s attention, and (again, like me) doesn’t always know how to maintain friends with girls, Michael is exactly who she needs at a crucial point in her life. There’s no danger of anything happening between them, but she gets that specifically male affirmation she so needs, as I needed Brian’s twenty-give years ago.