I am often asked where I get my ideas for my books. I am not Stephenie Meyer; as lovely as it would be, I do not have dreams that direct my writing, word for word. For me, Fighting Gravity was a response to several social phenomena surrounding my life. It was a knee-jerk reaction to wanting to protect the young people in my bubble of the world and wanting to show others the vast rainbow of diversity in their worlds: high schools, relationships, families. The novel became my personal handbook to compassion. I wanted it to be honest, funny, and pleasurable to read, while also bringing up those important questions that every person has to answer for him or herself as an adult.
I remember watching an old episode of Oprah where three mild-looking men were discussing how they met and “groomed” young children for inappropriate relationships. I recall being both disgusted and amazed at how these men got away with such vast amounts of alone time with children, as certainly my children would never be allowed such freedoms, but they did. Somehow, their parents were unaware that grown adults shouldn’t want such time with children, or they were fooled by their titles: coach, clergy, neighbor. What I then recognized, and later saw on an episode of 20/20, was that meeting a teenager online would be an easier task than prying a younger child from a parent’s side (at least my partner and I’s helicopter sides). I knew this to be true because, as a young person (and also a thirty-five year old woman) who had been obsessed with her own looks/weight/popularity, I would have given just about anything to find my soulmate.
People are often driven by emotion, and I think this is the most honest, enviable way to live—but also the most dangerous. A young girl with self-esteem issues, running away from an uncomfortable home situation, would hardly have to be lured at all if she thought the person she was speaking to was another young person, and one who wanted to love and accept her, protect her. I was pregnant with my second child and had a young niece at the time that I wrote this book; my niece was a curious teenager like any other, and worried about her looks and the way people saw her, just as I had. This understanding of my niece as a maturing person grew into Calliope. Calliope is isolated in many ways by her social status as an “unpopular” girl, or so she believes. She, also, finds herself in a tattered relationship with her mother, is torn in her want to relate to her “new” father or run from him, and is uncomfortable with her grandmother’s illness and that impending loss; she is incredibly vulnerable. She is also beyond brave. She is who, perhaps, each of us would be in the same situations.
Once I had the idea for a book about a high school student looking for love online, much of the rest was simply picking and choosing from social belief systems I held. I believe, whole-heartedly, that all men and women are created equal. This is not just a tired phrase from a yellowing document signed by old, dead white men. I wanted to show that equality on a high school level, so I sifted through “outcast” stereotypes. My first thought was to tackle homophobia, because I am a gay mom. My partner and I never want our children to be judged on our choices; it is one of our greatest fears as parents. So I wanted to create a gay character who not only helped others selflessly, but also really cared about the world despite her own, inner demons. I didn’t feel comfortable making Calliope gay on top of all of her other difficulties, both because I didn’t want to lose my reader in melodrama and because even my three year old would have seen the writing on the page. So I birthed Farrah. I wanted readers to respect Farrah even if they had a discomfort for whom I believe she was born to be. I think physical differences are particularly hard in high school, too, so I wanted to add a differently-abled character. Again, this character had to be “real,” thus Lynn’s submissive reactions to popular boys, and also her heroic side, her saving of the boy on the bus: balance. I sewed in images of different faith systems: Farrah’s Christian parents, who are generally good people who want the best for their daughter, and Gandhi, and the hero at the end of the story, the Jewish woman who feeds and drives Calliope to her home after her captivity, are all loving, yet flawed and scarred, people despite deity. Calliope’s uncles are gay men who want to parent; they defy stereotypes in many ways. Calliope’s father is not the “typical” man, either; he is incredibly sensitive, overtly emotional. He wanted to be a father to his daughter. He was deeply hurt by the initial deception, despite his physical and string-less relationship with Calliope’s mother that perhaps society would see as a gift for a young man who played the sexual field.
The idea of the cyber bullying incident happened slowly. Bullying in high school, of course, is not an unusual topic. Technology is used both for good, and to cause pain, with all age groups. Humans who are unsupervised and feeling insignificant might use technology to harm other humans without the courage of signing a name, or standing in front of their victims. We’ve seen this in the news with high schoolers and college students, alike. We’ve seen grown adults humiliate children in this way. I wanted to make a stand with Heather’s character; she did not deserve to be belittled, no one does, and yet that is even our protagonist’s, Callie’s, first response to her. In order to change, I think we need to see that those seeds live within ourselves; we are, after all, human. Literature is a safe way to explore our own weaknesses and, hopefully, vow to change them.
I wrote this book because I went to high school and the experience was less than an award-winning cinematic one. I once worked as a high school English teacher and fell in philosophical love with kids who were strong, proud, struggling to find themselves. I believe that young people have the ability to change our world for the better, and I want to support them in that awesome endeavor. I wrote this book because I was a gay teenager, and one who took 19 years to be able to say, Yes, I am gay, in the mirror of my college bedroom. I wrote Fighting Gravity because the Internet is a scary tool, and bullying is rampant, and “slut shaming” hurts our entire society. I have written and edited all of my books because I believe in the general goodness of people, and I want to remind all of my readers of their own Buddha natures and their inherent value in this—my—world. My hope is that my readers will find their own power in reading about my characters and their struggles, and use that power to “Be the change [they] wish to see in the world” (Gandhi). My greatest joy is hearing from readers who are on that journey, who are surviving.
Brittany Fonte has an MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction. She has three books out: Buddha in My Belly, Fighting Gravity, and she co-edited the new queer spoken word and poetry anthology Flicker and Spark. She teaches writing at the university level, has two wonderful children and a supportive not-yet-legal wife. She is currently working on a boys’ chapter book about an adopted zombie. You can find Brittany on Facebook (she will absolutely be your friend!), and also on Twitter @PoetBFonte.