One of the amazing authors I got to interview at BEA was Caleb Roehrig! Caleb and I were both slightly food-deprived and wholly overwhelmed by the massiveness that was BEA, so some of our questions and answers were a little off the wall (frex: after the interview, I learned some fun facts about the population living around Lake Superior). But we also discussed new narratives in LGBTQIA+ YA, how his debut book Last Seen Leaving fits into the mix, and our favorite LGBTQIA+ YA books. So I’m SUPER psyched to be able to share this interview!
(Also apparently I cannot pronounce EITHER Caleb or Roehrig but *shrug emoji*)
Vee: I am here with Caleb Roehrig, author of Last Seen Leaving, which comes out in October of this year. So, yeah, to start off could you just tell us a little bit about this book?
Caleb: Sure! Okay, so it’s a novel about a teenage boy whose girlfriend disappears, and this is at about the same time that he’s starting to come to terms with the fact that he’s gay, and so the book is a little bit about his self discovery and a little bit about the secrets she kept from him and why, and it’s about the secrets that they kept from each other. And how those secrets impacted those lives and sort of the powers of secrets and whether it does more damage to keep a secret than it does when you reveal a secret.
Caleb: Something else that I really wanted to do with this book is that I really wanted to play with perspective. The girlfriend, January, is missing when the book begins, and you never seem to meet her, you meet her through flashbacks and in stories told by other people, so every story you hear about her is filtered through somebody else’s perspective. And so it’s sort of up to the reader to decide whether or not they believe or doubt the purity of her motivations and doing the things she did and keeping the secrets she kept and what lead up to what ultimately happened to her in the story.
Vee: Yeah! That sounds really interesting.
Caleb: [laughs] my long, convoluted-
Vee: No, that’s fantastic! So when I was reading about this book I was like, that’s like a plot I’ve never seen before in, particularly in LGBT YA, but like all YA in general too-
Caleb: That is exactly, this is– when I was fifteen or sixteen years old, this is the book I wish I could’ve read, because there was no such thing as gay interest YA back then, there was barely YA– but y’know and I thought, I was like a mystery/suspense junkie and I just wanted to read a book where somebody like me was the hero, you know what I mean? Where that could be like a thing, and I feel like– it’s been so baffling to see how any books now address LGBT, like the greater spectrum of queer characters, like it’s so cool, and it’s so important! So it was important to me to contribute to that and some of it was, I don’t know, when I was writing it I worried that maybe no one would be interested in it because it wasn’t just a coming out story or it wasn’t just, yanno, and I, my experience had been, when I was growing up, gay characters were always tragic figures, or like, offensive stereotypes played for comic relief, so it was kind of like… I don’t know! but the reception’s been incredible. The way that people’ve have responded to it has been really incredible.
Vee: Yay! That’s so great. What (if you can do this without spoiling) is your favorite scene in the book?
Caleb: Someone asked me about this and I struggled through answering it without giving any spoilers, but I think I can do it. So, there is a scene about ¾ of the way through the book where Flynn, the protag is sort of hot on his girlfriend’s tail and well, I guess I should say he’s still trying to figure out what happened to her and he’s still trying to find a number of threads and he goes to her school, she attended a private school, he goes to her school and he meets some of the girls that went to school with her. He knows that she didn’t like it there but he knows very little about her experience and in talking with these girls they present a completely different version of who January was than the girl that he knew. And it was one of those scenes where I actually learned things about the character when I was writing the perspective of these people who didn’t like her. And it was sort of looking at, and that’s the thing that’s so rewarding to me as a writer is when I discover there’s something I didn’t know about my own character, which sounds like a weird way to put it.
Vee: No, yeah, I can understand that!
Caleb: But it’s because it’s like these are my characters and you think you know them but at the same time it’s like… I had to reframe the narrative about her in a way I hadn’t really thought about prior to setting the scene up so I really enjoyed writing that scene because I really enjoyed learning something about the character and I learned something about the process so that’s really cool.
Vee: Yeah, that’s really cool! You had a signing today, was that your first signing?
Caleb: Yeah, that was my first official signing. I was a guest on the Fierce Reads tour last week, just in a suburb outside Chicago. So I flew here last week and then I flew back again this week. And they raffled off twenty copies of my book so it was my first signing experience. And last night, there was a book blogger party so I signed some copies there as well but this was my first sit-down signing.
Vee: How did that go?
Caleb: It went really well. Sometimes I feel really put on the spot about how sometimes people ask me questions about the book or about me and I don’t know why but I can talk about all the stupid stuff that I’ve done in my life. I have a story about every stupid thing I’ve ever done but like talking about something like- I just get tongue-tied. My very first… on the fierce reads thing, there, I was so nervous. Like throughout the whole thing, I was so nervous! And finally, I relaxed by the end of it but it was too late, I had all this adrenaline in my system and I couldn’t sit still. And then I’m signing, and I was telling people, you know those movies where the guy gets his arm chopped off and then he has to get a replacement from a serial killer’s so it’s a murder arm and it has a mind of its own, that’s what it was like. I was trying to sign and my arm was doing all this stuff and I was like ‘I’m not making it do that!” So my signature was a giant scrawl, like really sideways.
Vee: [laughs] That’s fantastic. I’ve asked a few authors that question and you had the best answer.
Caleb: Yes, that’s good!
Vee: Special prize *laughs*. Okay my last question is do you have top favourite LGBT+ YA books?
Caleb: Oh my gosh.
Vee: Or like recently?
Caleb: I have a terrible time picking favourites, I just read I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN and I loved that one. So many feelings omg. That was a tremendous book, I had a book hangover for a week after that one.
Vee: Yeah, I was like that too!
Caleb: I love that. I loved WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON. And I really loved that book because it was the first time I had really seen a gay character portrayed with depression, someone who was fighting a totally different battle. Not just coming out, not just adjusting– and it was really interesting, and really sensitive. So I really responded to that.
And I just read Tess Sharpe’s FAR FROM YOU and oh my gosh! I just read that in March and I loved it. And again, it’s one of those things that I recommend to everybody because again it was a thriller that touches upon themes that are important to the greater queer community, and bisexual representation, which you don’t see a lot.
Vee: Yeah, that was a book that made me feel okay as IDing as bi. And I just came out to my mom (C: congrats! V: it was a time) as bisexual, and was telling her like “there’s this book that really helped me” and now she’s reading it.
Caleb: Yeah, the thing is that the environment in which young people are coming of age and coming out has changed so much now which is a great thing but it’s still so intimidating. And I think people don’t realize that. So my husband and I have been together for almost 11 years now and have been married since 2011, coming up on our 5 year anniversary, and sometimes it’s intimidating. Meeting someone new, and it’s a thing you have to bring up, not that you have to but it’s instead making a conscious effort to not bring it up.
Vee: Yeah, I get that. You never quite know-
Caleb: Yeah you don’t know. Most people are okay but you never quite know who you’re talking to. Or where they’re coming from.
Vee: That’s really interesting.
Caleb: My husband is a linguist. We’ve been living in Finland for the past four years because he’s been working with a small community of, historically, they spoke a dialect of South Estonian, but they live entirely within the borders of Latvia, east in the countryside. It’s small villages, that are often very religious. And for him, it was always an issue of whether he could [tell them] or if he would be safe or if this would be an environment where he could find himself shut out of the environment that he needs to do his research. So it’s a tricky thing. So the more stuff that’s out there, I say, yes.
Vee: It’s interesting because WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON was one of the first queer YA that I’ve ever read and that was still during that time in the beginning, when my sister and I started GayYA and we still identified as straight, like “we are the straight allies coming to help these gay people!” which turned out great. Like whoops. I should re-read that, because at that time I was like “man, all these gays are so angsty” but now I feel like I could appreciate what’s going on in the book. So yeah, I’d like to re-read that.
Caleb: Yeah, it was one of the first books that addressed it, that was like a gay YA novel.
Vee: So that’s all my questions, thanks so much for the interview!
Caleb: thank you! It was so nice to meet you.