Peter Cameron, best known as an author of adult novels (The City of Your Final Destination; Leap Year) and short story collections (The Half You Don’t Know: Selected Stories) has written a smart and elegant novel under the Francis Foster imprint of Farrar, Straus & Giroux (see PW’s review here). Protagonist James Sveck is a precocious 18-year-old living in post 9/11 New York City who, through a series of detailed diary entries, offers witty, incisive commentaries on his life and family while struggling with alienation from peers, his sexuality, and future plans. Bookshelf caught up with Cameron after his return from a book tour in Italy.
You are an established writer of adult fiction. How did you come to write a young adult novel?
I didn’t set out to write for a younger audience, and in fact I didn’t know it was a young adult novel. I knew the narrator was younger and I had written short stories earlier in my career that were published in the New Yorker that younger readers liked, but they were later published in adult collections. I set out to write this novel with the same voice. I didn’t do anything different—I thought it was just as interesting and complex a voice as any other—but people expected it to be something else. It is a little bit tighter, but it was what it was, and I thought it succeeded on its own terms.
Have you read other young adult novels that you have liked?
This was not a world I was familiar with. I do remember reading some when I was younger, such as It’s like this, Cat by Emily Cheney Neville. And Leo the Lioness by Constance Green—which I have read many more times since then—about a 13-year-old girl. It is smart and funny, and there is something really fine about the way it is written. I remember how certain books affected me. As you get older you get more jaded as a reader so these first influences are so powerful and they stick with me, reminding me what I was like as a child. So I like that younger people will be reading this novel, but I hope it is not at the expense of alienating adult readers.
In the past several years there have been quite a few young adult novels dealing with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues—are you familiar with any of them?
No, I wasn’t familiar with any, but I did send my book to James Howe [author of The Misfits], who responded very generously and positively. Although I am always perplexed about how books get characterized—what makes one a gay writer? Content? Perspective?
You have captured the voice of a sophisticated, even precocious, teenager—were you like that at that age?
No. I project aspects of myself, moments that seem the same, but it’s not me. It’s interesting, when I first started this novel I thought I would write about a boy growing up in the 1970s, closer to my own experience, but I’ve never been comfortable writing about myself. It’s always been more important that I can identify with and feel close to the character.
James’s grandmother is a wonderful character. Did you have such a woman in your life or is she, too, fully drawn from imagination?
Well, grandmothers keep occurring in my work. I had a close relationship with my grandmother and the book is dedicated to her. Aspects are the same, but not the specific details about her life.
Some might say you have portrayed a fairly dismal view of psychotherapy in the novel, although ultimately Dr. Adler was helpful.
Well, I just got back from Italy where people said, “You must hate therapists”—perhaps it was the translation, but I actually thought she took her time and helped James. I didn’t want a therapist who performed miracles or who fixes him. She does the best she can.
Some have called this a “9/11” novel. What is your response to that?
I wondered how people would respond to the novel and I’m glad readers pick up on that aspect, but it is only a part of what it is about. You put a novel into the world and people respond how they will; I didn’t have any particular agenda.
I love the title. I noticed that you credit Ovid in the acknowledgments, but then you transpose it to a camp motto in the novel.
Well that wasn’t the original title, which was based on the camp motto of “I can do it” with the addition of “but I won’t.” That turned out to be too similar to the Judy Blume title, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t. So I spent months trying lots of different titles and then decided it was best to change the camp motto.
How do you feel about the inevitable comparison of James Sveck and Holden Caulfield?
Everybody asks this question because it is about an 18-year-old who is smart and lives in New York City. In writing this book, I started realizing that, and began to think maybe it is too large a shadow—that this has been done before and done brilliantly. But then I realized I thought that about almost every book I have written, and the important thing is not the subject matter but the details and uniqueness of the characters. That I shouldn’t be cowed more by Holden Caulfield than any other character who is a cultural touchstone.
Do you think you will write again for this audience?
Well, I am a slow writer—it’s difficult for me to come up with ideas since my work is fully imagined and all my novels are different. And, so many young adult novels are coming of age stories and the idea of writing another seems daunting. Right now I can’t see doing it again in an original way.