In his debut novel, Playing by the Book, released this month by Magnus Books, S. Chris Shirley introduces readers to small-town preacher's son Jake Powell searching for peace at the blurry intersection of heart, soul and intellect. In warm, empathetic prose, Shirley portrays the damage we inflict on ourselves, the allowances we make for those we love, and the dignity -- and humor -- that flourish when honesty encounters obstacle.
Sarfaty: Chris, it was a pleasure to read a coming-out story that's smart, sweet, funny and, most importantly, real.
Sarfaty: First question: Why did you decide to write about the predicament of a gay boy in a fundamentalist home?
Shirley: In the town I'm from in Alabama -- a town of ten thousand people -- nobody's out. Growing up, homosexuality was absolutely not talked about -- except from the pulpit, where it was made clear that gays are going to hell. Even now, if I try talking about being gay with my mom she'll either get upset or change the subject. So we mostly don't talk about it.
Sarfaty: How did you get the idea to make the protagonist a preacher's son?
Shirley: The inspiration for Playing by the Book came to me while sitting in church; listening to a pastor I respected say some awful things against homosexuals.
It struck me that if he had a gay son, perhaps he might come around. When I started thinking about this fictitious son and how he'd survive growing up in such a household, I realized that his story was way more interesting than whether this preacher ever reached the point of acceptance.
Sarfaty: That's one of the things I love about this book. Everything's not all tied up in a bow at the end. Too often books about coming out portray things as black and white.
Shirley: Exactly. It would have been easy to depict gay people as enlightened and the preacher as ignorant, but he's a pillar of his community, a good and caring man and worthy of respect. I've lived long enough in both "worlds" to understand them. Having felt a bit trapped between the two, I realized that I was uniquely qualified to write a story about someone attempting to straddle the line where red state meets blue state, fundamentalist Christian meets Atheist, and gay meets straight.
Sarfaty: Do you have a favorite chapter? A section of the book that means a lot to you?
Shirley: Yes, when Jake realizes he's gay. He's making out with the most beautiful girl in his summer program at Columbia University and it hits him that he can't "pray the gay away." It was a lot of fun telling the story of this straight-laced kid -- a real goody two shoes -- going wild, drinking, etc. Writing about Jake figuring out who he is - and who he's going to be -- was the part of the book that I most enjoyed writing.
Sarfaty: While you were working on the novel, did you ever worry that folks might think, "Another coming out story? Haven't we had enough?"
Shirley: Not at all. We won't have enough stories about coming out until we don't have to do it anymore. It's particularly important to tell the stories of people in difficult places, situations, religious environments, etc. It's certainly a story I wish I'd had as a teenager.
Sarfaty: Was it challenging for you to write for the YA audience?
Shirley: In some ways, but I was really fortunate to be able to get feedback from some young people during the process. My friend, Martin Wilson, who also grew up in Alabama, is the author of a wonderful book entitled What They Always Tell Us. He put me in touch with an 18-year-old from Kentucky named Brent Taylor who complained to his school librarian that there were no LGBT books on the shelves. Brent was great! He helped me to clearly see things from a teenager's prospective. I also had a reading group of 17-year-olds and three high school teachers who helped me understand that age better - the amount of peer pressure, what makes a kid popular, and just how much texting they're actually doing.
Sarfaty: Do you think Jake's story speaks to parents as well?
Shirley: I think it's a good story for parents, especially Christian parents who are struggling with this. It's a fish out of water story but it's fun because it doesn't take place in an oppressive environment. Jake, who's concerned with faith and religion, ends up in NYC - a very worldly place.
Sarfaty: You do a great job of portraying the conflict between religion and sexuality. The reader really feels what Jake is going through. Was it hard striking a balance between gay and Christian points of view?
Shirley: It took me 8 years to write Playing By The Book. It was too gay for the religious community and too religious for the gay audience, so I had to choose. I ended up making it a "gay with a capital G" story.
Sarfaty: Eight years! You must be so happy that it's been released.
Shirley: I'm very excited to get the book out there. I really feel like I've done everything I can to make it the best possible. It's from Magnus Books, a wonderful but small press with a limited marketing and PR budget and my hope is that it finds its audience and that its audience finds it. Of course, the ultimate lesson of the book is that it doesn't matter what people think of you and the only approval that really matters is your own.
Sarfaty: The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive but I worry we'll have to wait another eight years for your next book. Do you have any idea what your next project is?
Shirley: I'm not sure -- hopefully it'll be something that won't upset my mother.