John Clark interviewing friend and fellow librarian Brian Katcher whose newest book is set in Maine.
You’re a school library media specialist in Missouri, but you’ve had some interesting travels if I remember correctly. What stands out the most?
I spent three years living in Mexico, teaching English. That was a lot longer than I had originally planned to stay, and I realized if I didn’t leave when I did, I never would. I learned Spanish, I traveled to Central America, and got to have some of the best food I’ve eaten in my life. Mexico City is my favorite city in the world.
How has your work influenced your writing?
As a librarian, I’ve seen what happens when politicians decide they need to get involved in what your children are permitted to read. Here in Missouri, the attorney general is trying to make it a crime to allow kids to read certain graphic novels. In other words, a librarian who stocks a book that the government deems ‘pornographic’ could be arrested as a sex criminal. This is a thinly veiled attempt to remove LGBTQ materials from public and school libraries. As a writer and I librarian I refuse to knuckle under to politicians who are willing to throw marginalized children under the bus in order to advance their own political agenda.
Where did you grow up and what memories stayed with you?
I grew up in St. Peters, Missouri (a suburb of St. Louis). I was a nerdy, funny kid who was afraid of girls. I think that comes through in almost all my books.
What’s living in Missouri like?
Missouri combines northern hospitality with southern efficiency. It’s a highly conservative state with large liberal enclaves. It’s kind of fun being an outlier, but what I wouldn’t give to live in some charming New England state like Vermont or New Hampshire, or…
You’ve written a number of young adult books. Let’s start with Playing With Matches which was published in 2008. I really liked it and it made me keep you on my book radar. What was the inspiration for it?
Thank you for reading! Playing With Matches is about Leon, a nerdy high school junior, who is absolutely based on myself at that age. He befriends Melody, a girl with a badly disfigured face, and wonders if they are destined to be more. The town is based on my home town, the school on my high school, Leon’s friends on my friends.
What inspired it? Well, in my favorite novel, Catch-22, the protagonist sees a girl with a badly scarred face and thinks ‘no one will ever love her.’ I thought that was rather harsh. Surely there’d be a guy out there who could see beyond her scars. I think that’s when I got the idea of a rather superficial guy realizing he was falling for a girl who is far from classically beautiful.
Almost Perfect came next and remains my favorite YA story about a transgender teen. I wasn’t the only one who wished for a sequel, but understood why one was next to impossible, Can you talk about how the book came to be?
Almost Perfect is about Logan, a heterosexual guy who discovers that the new girl in his school, Sage, is transgender. When he realizes that he’s still attracted to her, he wonders if this means that he’s gay—or if he still considers Sage to be a girl.
After Playing With Matches, I was determined to write another book before everyone realized I was just faking it. I wanted to write a boy meets girl story that hadn’t been done a thousand times already. I hit upon the idea of a heterosexual country boy and a transgender girl. Could they make it work? I tried it as a short story. The people in my writers’ group told me that there was no way that I could pull this off in eighty pages. If I wanted to tell this story, it needed to be as a novel.
I knew I was out of my depth so I turned to the internet. I went to transgender support pages and asked people if they would be willing to tell me their stories as part of my research. Their histories, especially fifteen years ago, broke my heart. The overwhelming theme was not being able to go to anyone with who they were and feeling utterly alone and misunderstood. That’s when I knew I had to tell Sage’s story.
I believe I was the second YA author to write about a transgender teen (after Luna, by Julie Anne Peters). In retrospect, I could have done a lot better. But I was proud when the book won the Stonewall Book Award.
Everyone Dies in the End was, I thought, deserving of an Edgar nomination. It had mystery, quirky characters and amazing dialogue. Where did it come from?
So you were the one who read it! Seriously, thanks for the kind words. I read entirely too much Lovecraft in college and became obsessed with the idea of finding a forbidden book, an isolated evil town, or a gateway to another dimension. Everyone Dies is kind of a tribute to that era, and what might of happened had I actually succeeded in my quest.
The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak has some of the same flavor as Everyone and is also funny. What can you tell readers about it?
My editor asked me to write a book that was similar to David Levithan’s Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, the story of two cool kids and a crazy night to remember. But she wanted the main characters to be nerds. I had to figure out where a couple of geek kids would go during the night. Not a club or a party or a rave. What’s a wild, nerdy place that’s open all night? Well, one of my favorite events: Comicon. I’ve been attending cons since I was a teenager, and a lot of Ana and Zak’s adventures are reflections of my own experiences.
Deacon Locke Went to Prom took a most interesting look at proms. I think all of us regardless of age have some memories and feelings about proms, (that is if they went to a school big enough to have one instead of going to the gravel pit and shooting cans). What do you remember about yours?
Well, when I was a high school junior I went to a Key Club convention in Kansas City and met a cute girl. We agreed to exchange letters (this was the pre internet era). Much to my surprise, her first letter was to ask me to her school’s junior prom. I, of course, agreed. The problem was, she lived in Hannibal, over 80 miles away. The only way this would work is if I were to stay the night at her house. The fact that our parents agreed to this shows what big nerds we were. It was a very fun night, somewhat soured by the fact we knew this would be our only date.
For my senior prom, it was a double date with a buddy. The girls went with us as ‘just friends.’ We were both kind of crushing on our dates, and it was an awkward evening. But I’m glad I went.
Your new book Marley’s Ghost is set here in Maine. How did that come about? It’s a very interesting look at a character who might be dead, but still plays a big role in the story. I really like it and got the sense that there’s more to come. Will there be a sequel?
I think we’ve all had that uncle, aunt, or older cousin who we looked up to, who’d let us break the rules, and who lived life on their own terms, even if the rest of the family didn’t see them that way. I wanted to tell the story of a couple of cousins who loved their Uncle Marley maybe more than anyone else did, and are having a hard time filling up the hole he left. And if that means taking the two girls they like on a treasure hunt in another state, then that’s a sacrifice they’re willing to make
I have the bad habit of leaving books open-ended, just in case the public clamors for more. Unlike with Almost Perfect, I retain the rights to these characters, so who knows?
How did the pandemic affect you and your writing?
I mean, what do writers dream about? Unlimited time to sit and home and write? Unfortunately, I found that I write better when I have the pressure of a deadline. ‘I have to have this done in a month? I’m on it.’ ‘I have all year to do this? Well, what’s the rush?’ When it was all over and done with, I don’t feel I was any less or more productive than in regular times.
This is the ‘roll your own’ part. What would you like readers of Maine Crime Writers to know that hasn’t been covered?
I’m attempting a science fiction novel. Wish me luck. Writers are some of the most creative people in the world. Here’s to a happy and productive 2023 for all of you.