​​​​​​​Interview with Bill Konigsberg


About the Author: Bill Konigsberg is the author of four critically acclaimed novels, Out of the PocketOpenly StraightThe Porcupine of Truth, and recently published Honestly Ben. He came to a career in young adult fiction after getting his start in sports journalism, having worked as one of the few openly gay men in the field. His coming out was featured on the front page of the ESPN website and earned him a GLAAD Media Award. This was hardly his only award, he received the Lambda Literary Award for Out of the Pocket, the Sid Fleischmann Award for Humor for Openly Straight, and both the Stonewall Book Award and PEN Center USA Literary Award for The Porcupine of Truth. Bill currently lives outside Phoenix, Arizona with his husband and their two Australian Labradoodles.

Bill’s novels focus extensively on LGBTQ+ themes, each of them featuring the journey of self-discovery undertaken by a teenage narrator.

Find Bill Konigsberg on the following platforms:

We got the chance to got talk with Bill Koingsberg via email about the struggles not only his characters face, but what teenagers of all sorts face, like issues of masculinity and femininity, labels, and the journey of finding one’s identity! A huge thank you to him! Check out our reviews of Openly Straight and Honestly Ben.

Christy Duprey: What made you decide to switch from journalism to fiction? And why young adult fiction, specifically?

Bill Konigsberg: I have always been a fiction writer at heart. I worked in journalism when I was younger because it was a writing job that paid. It’s not to say I didn’t love it at times and I didn’t learn a ton, but really my heart has always been in making up stories. As for why young adult fiction: I wasn’t aware when I first learned about Y.A. fiction that my friend, the sports writer Bob Lipsyte, wrote Y.A. When I learned that, coupled with the fact that I was already writing from a teen perspective occasionally, I decided to take a story I had been working on and turn it into a novel. That novel, Out of the Pocket, was my debut. The rest is history.

CD: Were there books you read as a teenager that have influenced your writing?

BK: The books that most influenced me were the Tales of the City books by Armistead Maupin. They aren’t Y.A. novels, but something about the way Maupin’s dialogue jumps off the page and his beautiful way with showing characters really impacted me and made me want to write books.

CD: At the Tucson Festival of Books this year you were on a panel about how your books are often influenced by your real life. Does that include basing characters around real people?

BK: I do occasionally base characters on real people, but more often than not it’s parts of people I am borrowing to create a character. I used the voice of a former student for Carrie in Out of the Pocket, but Carrie wasn’t in reality much like Alex, the student, just in the way she spoke. Even Ben, who is rather famously based on my husband, is really only partially like my Chuck. Typically it’s the way of speaking that I borrow.

CD: What was the process like to get Out of the Pocket published? Was there hesitancy from publishers, given how few books there are about gay athletes?

BK: The process with Out of the Pocket was challenging, in that back in 2006 (the year it was purchased), there were relatively few LGBTQ novels at all in Y.A. It was for sure considered a niche title, and the fact that it involved an athlete made it even more so, as many LGBTQ readers weren’t interested in reading about a football player. So yes, there was hesitancy, and also there was a sense that they weren’t so interested in supporting such a book when it came out.

CD: Was it easier with some of your later books?

BK: Yes, things have gotten easier in almost every way since then. Because there is a demand for LGBTQ titles, suddenly it’s a positive rather than a negative that my books feature LGBTQ characters. And of course name recognition gives me a leg up when it comes to getting published and having my titles get support from the publishing house.

CD: Speaking of Out of the Pocket, one of the problems facing your narrator, Bobby, in that book is the total lack of representation for gay athletes on college and professional levels. Do you think we’ve made any strides in that area since the book was published in 2008?

BK: We have absolutely made strides in terms of representation of LGBTQ athletes since 2008. There are, especially at the collegiate level, many LGBTQ athletes who are open. And at the pro level, the conversation about these issues has changed significantly. Things are still a little wonky in terms of there being actually out players in baseball and football, for instance, but we are getting closer.

CD: In that book, Bobby also deals with backlash from his own team after he comes out, an issue similarly faced by Rafe and Ben in Openly Straight and Honestly Ben. Do you think sports environments tend to be more homophobic than most, and if so, why do you think that is?

BK: I think that male sports environments tend to be more homophobic, still, because of the pressure male athletes feel to be masculine and invulnerable. There is a misogynistic notion that remains pervasive in and around male sports teams that to be considered female or feminine in any way connotes weakness, and when you couple that with the notion that loving or being sexually interested in men is a feminine trait, it is not surprising that homophobia still flourishes. Things will change when this young generation comes of age, because current teens have different ideas about masculinity and femininity and gender and sexuality.

CD: After Out of the Pocket you moved to Openly Straight. Both these books depict what might be called unconventional coming-out stories. Do you think it’s important to write these kinds of stories, to break with the cookie-cutter gay narrative we often see in fiction?

BK: I think all stories that depict real-seeming characters are important in their own way. I am drawn to finding stories that haven’t been told before. It makes my life as a writer harder, because a lot of stories have been told already! I’m always looking for a new angle.

CD: Openly Straight features a narrator, Rafe, a lot more in touch with the LGBTQ+ community than Bobby. How is it different writing a character who has to go through that process largely unassisted versus one who had a support structure already in place?

BK: Writing Rafe was a little bit more comfortable for me, as he felt sophisticated and knowledgeable in ways that I am sophisticated and knowledgeable. With Bobby, I really had to harken back to a time when I had no real understanding of sexual orientation, and that was challenging. Valuable, but challenging.

CD: Do you think that Rafe’s desire to try and go “label free” is something faced by a lot of teens, gay, or otherwise? Is our obsession with labeling something that’s at its worst in high school?

BK: I think just about all teens—and all people, really—can relate to how labels can overwhelm who we are as people. I do think that high school is a place where people are especially prone to judge others based on labels without going deeper, and that tendency comes from the self-centered nature of adolescence. It’s a lot of work for people who are so inward-focused to see an entire, whole person, so labels serve as shorthand. And by the way, I am not saying all teens are that way. I was, though. Big time.

CD: Your third book, The Porcupine of Truth is rather unique among the other three, in that it’s the only one with nothing to do with sports and it features a straight narrator who instead experiences other people’s coming out. Was this a conscious decision to divert from your previous two books, or did it just happen that you’d done two books that dealt with somewhat similar topics and this third one was different?

BK: It was at first a conscious decision to write a straight narrator, yes. I wanted to expand my repertoire and show that I could exist outside of the LGBTQ bubble. Oddly enough, that novel is probably more “queer” than any of my others. Irony. Beyond that, while I started with this conscious decision, the novel is in some ways more personal to me than any other I’ve written.

CD: You won the Stonewall Book Award for YA literature for that book in 2016, shortly after the PULSE shooting. What was it like to get an award celebrating strides in LGBTQ+ rights at a time when the community was so shaken?

BK: It was an intense time. In fact, I gave the acceptance speech and received the award in Orlando, just weeks after the shooting. I think a lot of us were angry and sad, and wondering about the strides we’d made. I have to believe that we have made strides. Even in the midst of terrible violence and loss, it seems to me that there have been shifts in our society, and I never want to lose sight of that. Even when our community is suffering.

CD: The Porcupine of Truth also deals with another theme not really touched on in any of your other books: spirituality. What made you decide to write a book featuring so many different models of religion and spirituality?

BK: I often write books that relate to what I’m dealing with, what I’m going through at the moment. This was a time of a lot of spiritual searching for me, and it certainly bled into my creative work; and I wanted it to, I suppose. It’s not a great way to sell a lot of books; if you want to write a bestseller, probably don’t write a Y.A. novel about God and religion. But I felt strongly that we LGBTQ people need to reclaim the cosmic mystery, which had felt to me for so long as out of our realm. I believe that’s a gift for all people and I wanted to communicate that.

CD: Your most recent book, Honestly Ben, is also your first sequel. What made you decide to continue the story of our favorite Natick couple, and why focus this second half on Ben instead of Rafe?

BK: So many people were clamoring for more Ben and Rafe, and while I wrote the first book as a standalone, I began to realize that yes, there was more to tell. It was exciting and daunting to go back into a story that was “finished” and re-open it. And I went to Ben’s perspective because I knew it would be an interesting challenge for me to write a character who is not very much like me.

CD: The question of Ben’s sexuality is a contentious one, both in the book and with fans. Was he always going to identify as “straight but gay for Rafe” by the end of the story, or were there earlier drafts where he settled on a more concrete label?

BK: At no point did I ever think that Ben would settle for a more concrete label, because it goes against the nature of the novel. To me, this is a book about a character who tries to find his own path, his own language of expressing who he is. I get that some readers find that offensive, and I suppose I find this issue to be both interesting and frustrating. Foisting a label on Ben, who is trying to create his own path, would be against the nature of this novel. Ben is figuring out what feels true to him at the moment, and I believe him. I believe this is what Ben feels to be true about his sexual orientation. It frustrates me that readers seem to think that the authentic story of one person’s journey somehow stands for all people on the LGBTQ spectrum who find themselves attracted to people of both sexes. I do, in fact, believe that sexual orientation is a spectrum, and I do believe, deeply, that bisexuality exists. I know it does. It does not, however, change the authenticity of Ben’s journey.

CD: Do Rafe and Ben provide different models of coping with the “labels or no labels” debate? Are their stories opposite one another—Rafe spending most of Openly Straight seeking to live without labels while Ben spends his story struggling with the question of how to identify—or are they just taking different paths to reach the same conclusion about the necessary evils of categorizing people?

BK: I think they are just taking different paths to their own authenticity, which is a lifelong journey—at least it has been for me. I think labeling and trying to fit into a box gets in the way of authenticity, and my characters are both trying to find language to describe who they are.

CD: Now that you’ve written one sequel (and hinted at a third in the Openly Straight continuity), are there more planned? Can we look forward to more Bobby or Carson and Aisha?

BK: I don’t have plans at this point to go back into either Porcupine or Pocket. Those feel like finished stories, though, of course, at one point I felt that way about Openly Straight, too. As for a third story in the Openly Straight series, I can definitely see how such a story could go, but I’m not sure it’s a story for me to write. I hate to be evasive, but I’d say at this point I’m unsure about writing a third in that series.

CD: Can we get a hint as to what you’re working on now?

BK: I am hard at work on a novel called The Music of What Happens, which is a love story between two boys who are working on a food truck one Arizona summer. It’s an examination in many ways of masculinity, femininity, and finding balance as a complete person while embracing a single gender identity.

PRR Writer, Christy Duprey