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I imagine it is bad form to start off talking about a book by bad-mouthing its genre, but I felt the need to disclose, if only to emphasize how damn good Everett Maroon’s new young adult novel is: I don’t much care for YA. Well, at least I thought I didn’t. Let me explain.
In late 2012, I graduated from a master’s publishing program, one with rolling admissions throughout the year. Every ten weeks, a new set of geniuses descended upon our program, full of energy and idealism and ready to rake out the tired ashes of the last term’s less-awesome work. The publishing program was an amazing experience, and I got a ton out of it, including developing book proposals for three new book projects. But while I was happy to think of myself riding the big waves of the program, running my department in the trade press and pushing for strategic development and fundraising as a graduate assistant, something happened in the cold of night: the program seemed, as if under the cover of darkness, to become ruled by a bright, tech-savvy, and very young cadre of students who ate, spoke, smoked, and pooped YA.
These bright new stars held court in the office, where once I caught a nap on the couch between classes during my longer days. I was now ejected by animated, if not rabid, conversations about YA. Poetry was hailed an archaic waste of ink, and literary fiction was not only besmirched, but relegated to a cosmic dustbin by the sharp declarations of this team of marauders. Forget my genre, creative nonfiction. It was a genre as long and dead as a fossilized dinosaur turd to these new publishing students. I had to move my nap time over to the silent study lounge. I heard their words spill out into the hallway as I shuffled my weary body and luddite, book-laden backpack out of the publishing program office: “YA is one of the few genres that is actually growing in sales…” I shook my imaginary cane over my shoulders and hung my wizened head. Oh you YA interlopers, I muttered to myself.
This memory came back to haunt me more than once recently, as I stayed up late over a couple of nights devouring The Unintentional Time Traveler (Booktrope), Everett Maroon’s latest novel. The book follows the travails of Jack, a smart, witty teen in the 1980s, whose epilepsy leads to something beyond standard seizures. With little to go on beside his own gumption, Jack finds himself not only in another time and place—prohibition-era Kentucky—but also in another body: that of a bright, self-sufficient and gender-norm-shirking young woman named Jacqueline. While Jack is trying to figure out what is happening in Jacqueline’s world he quickly becomes embroiled in the urgency of her life, and he ends up experiencing longings and feelings he couldn’t possibly have anticipated. While in Jacqueline’s time, life, and body, Jack’s 1980s life continues on, and when he lands back into his body, long chunks of time have passed. Jack is stuck in a mobius-strip of catch-up, where no time gives rest or reprieve from the problems he must decipher and solve. Before he even has a chance to fully figure out his ability to “jump” time, he is faced with putting a stop to a sinister, murderous self-declared prophet. Jack/Jacqueline is the only one who can change the outcomes of actions set in motion, and thereby save the lives of people he loves in multiple temporal planes.
The writing is funny, smart, and crisp. Maroon keeps the action clipping along, each chapter brushes on a new layer to Jack’s dilemma, and I couldn’t stop turning pages. I also could not anticipate what would happen next. I tend to be that annoying friend who can figure out the solution within the first ten minutes of a mystery/thriller-type movie (I try to do everyone I go to the movies with a favor and keep my mouth shut). I imagined that there would be something of the time-traveler trope here that would feel standardized or even familiar, but I never expected what would come next with each new turn in The Unintentional Time Traveler. The plotting of the book was clever: what starts out as Jack’s “present” is no more static a time than the time-periods he moves in and out of. The fluidity of time gives the narrative a non-linear, unconventional trajectory, and while not every storyline gets tied up neatly with a bow on top, the perfect balance of information and negative space is afforded that sets a quick pace and trusts the reader to make leaps, but without feeling as confused as Jack does. The plot twists shuffle quickly through time and place without any sloppiness or moments where one wants to point out gaping holes; it is a tight and expertly-crafted, cinematic narrative. Indeed, I could easily seeing Maroon turning the novel into a screenplay. I hope he opted for subsidiary rights on the back end with his publisher, for in the right directorial hands The Unintentional Time Traveler would make a terrific movie.
One downside of the book is that Jack’s best friends remain somewhat underdeveloped as characters. Like Jack, we are left to piece together their lives as he drops out of and back into his body. The narrative is told from the first person point of view, so we hug tightly to Jack/Jacqueline’s consciousness throughout. The great thing about this is that we get to be privy to the wise-acre internal monologue of the protagonist, the downside is that other characters are held off at somewhat of a distance. Since this book promises to be a series, I hope in subsequent installments that the supporting cast will get space to unfold more deeply.
Maroon seamlessly weaves in themes of sexual orientation and gender identity in a refreshingly un-hammered-to-death manner, pulling off the feat of rendering these themes both seriously and casually while avoiding a listing toward the didactic. Other social justice themes are raised as well, and are handled with similar gravitas. Jack must deal with his own reactions to his best friend’s sexuality without actually remembering the moments in which said reactions occur. He must confront his own sexual longings, and how they point his sexual orientation based on the body he finds himself inhabiting in the moment. And finally, he reckons with the pleasure he discovers while embodying Jacqueline. The protagonist’s trajectory resists common temporal narrative tropes, and perhaps like in real life, where a true sense of self is found isn’t always back at the point from which one has journeyed forth.
By the last page of The Unintentional Time Traveler, I had to catch my own balance around identity. I couldn’t even say that it was not YA I had a problem with, merely its followers, because now I had been sucker-punched into the genre by the clean, sharp, smart work of Maroon. I am already chomping the bit for future installments in what promises to be a series. So, if you are looking for a delicious summer read, pick up a copy of this intelligent, rollicking adventure.
I was lucky enough to catch up with Maroon—a Washington State-based memoirist, pop-culture commentator, fiction writer, and father—to ask him about his writing practice, balancing parenthood with writing and wage-laboring, and his amazing sense of humor.
Tell me something about your path in life as a writer. When did you first know you wanted to write?
Early on. Five? Six? I’d write rudimentary stories on a Royal typewriter in my parents’ freezing front room. We called it the catch-all room. The best thing about it was the typewriter and that the built-in bookshelf had a pencil sharpener screwed sideways into it. I came from two parents who’d grown up very poor, so while they were happy to support my writing through high school, by college they expected me to get a “good job” and lose the fantasy of creative writing for a living. So my path as a writer includes a seventeen-year break, but I’m so glad I got back to it.
Okay, so you have a job and a partner and a kid and a newborn. How do you possibly manage to maintain your writing practice? Do you ever sleep? And what does your writing practice look like?
Well honestly, I haven’t done any writing other than a little blogging in the month after the baby arrived. Before he was born I had carved out one to two hours of writing time a day, and a nice four-hour stretch on Fridays, which I guarded with all my strength. I have friends who get up at 4:30AM to write before their kids wake, and other friends who write late into the night, who take occasional weekend writing trips, and so on. Folks will find a way, I guess.
With regard to writing practice, I wind up juggling a few projects at a time. I may have a commentary piece, a long form project, and a short story that I am working on at any given time, or something along those lines. If I start to get stuck on one, I start in on another. I may spend my writing hour working on a story idea, writing back story that will never appear in the actual narrative, or testing scenes between characters, especially if I’m concerned their chemistry isn’t quite working. I’ve learned to forgive myself the deleted scene or trunked story. And I try to read as much as I can—of course I read a few books at a time—to stay on top of trends, emerging tropes, and the like.
The Unintentional Time Traveler is your first Young Adult novel. Why YA? What can YA do as a genre that general literary fiction cannot? Why are so many adults reading YA? What drew you to the genre?
There are so many reasons I wrote a YA novel I probably can’t answer them all in one space. But most urgently I wanted to give younger LGBT readers a book that would be a better mirror for their lives, something in which they could see themselves, and I also wanted to put LGBT themes and characters into a well known, often-used trope of time travel. I want our communities in the popular culture mythology, and not only as victims, villains, or sidekicks. I like young adult as a genre because I love the audience for YA—young readers and older who are open to anything in a book. It’s not to say that readers of other genres are closed-minded, but I think YA is currently carving out some interesting narrative spaces and is eager to play against form. I was interested in taking on not just a YA story but a speculative fiction one, because I wanted the chance to frame character development and plot in a wide-open, anything goes format. And I hope in so doing that I’ve given readers the widest lens from which to think about LGBT people’s agency, identity, history, and relationships. I want stories that are inclusive of us embedded in the general mythology we create through narrative.
What attracted you to the idea of time travel? Is there a correlation between transgender identity and the idea of time travel?
So this goes back to my personal history—I had epilepsy as a child, and most of my grand mal seizures were in my sleep, so I’d wake up in a hospital room. I told myself I had some ability to teleport because of the epilepsy. I mean, I knew it wasn’t true but it was one way to work through my experience, in a kid’s terms. I know time travel is a little different, but for other purposes in the narrative, it worked better. Suffice it to say I’ve been interested in reframing “disability” for a long time. And the time travel trope was a way to introduce a conversation about gender identity and trans identity in a way that could work for the character. A critic might complain that I’m using one for the benefit of the other, but I’m okay with that. In this story gender identity ideas are supported by looking at gender expectations in different eras, and the time travel piece is made more complicated by the way in which the protagonist shifts as he moves through time.
What do you need to juggle as a YA writer? Do you have to keep certain conventions or restrictions in mind to keep a long form project on track as YA, to avoid creeping into regular adult territory?
I actually had some trouble finding an agent to take on this novel because it didn’t comport with a few conventions popular in YA novels. One person told me she didn’t like that the “present” moment for the protagonist was set in the 1980s, saying that today’s young readers only like books that are set in contemporary time. But for the plot to work I needed the eras I’d selected. And I give young readers more credit than that. (Another agent told me she’d just sold a book on time travel and didn’t want to have another one right away, and a third said, “oh, I don’t do time travel novels.”) But I do read a lot of YA to try and keep up with trends, and try to stay ahead of them, actually. I also wanted to play against a few tropes—I wanted to avoid both the helpless female protagonist caught up in a world of action and romance, and the Katniss Everdeen personality, the hard-to-reach-emotionally young woman who has to save the world. So I intentionally came up with a main character who would push against those conventions, and who had their own kind of voice. I also wanted the voice to be felt differently when the character was Jack and Jacqueline, as a way to get readers to ask about the assumptions they make based on a character’s stated gender. In general I tried to handle any romantic situations with an appropriate sense of the likely readership, keep my dialogue sounding like it came from teenagers, and be true to the kinds of concerns and priorities that young people have. I did have some work in revisions to make it more “YA, and less lyrical” as my editor put it. It really helped to have another YA author like Danika Dinsmore serve as my editor, too.
Humor is a strong element in your writing. Is that just an extension of your personality into your writing? Or do you tend to craft writing projects through a humorous lens? Do you think we trans people could benefit from more humor in our lives? (I do!)
I gave a keynote in DC a couple of years ago on humor and civil rights. I think we can get bogged down so easily in the horrific statistics around violence and depression and discrimination we face as trans people. For me, humor has been a key to my survival, a way to remind myself that it’s not me who is the strange figure here, it’s the whole system around gender and sexism. I think humor for young people especially is a potentially useful coping skill for handling the stress of being queer or trans and like, getting through high school. It may be an extension of my personality in my writing. I’m working on an adult novel right now and there’s not a lot of humor in it, and I may have to work some in because it feels very heavy to me right now. But yes, humor is one way of responding to people who dehumanize us, because it is such a useful way to connect to others within and outside our own community.
Many YA books are serialized. Do you envision this book as part of a series? Will you continue to write other YA books?
Yes! I need to get to brass tacks with my publisher. I see this as a five-part series, but I need to work out the details with them. My next book in the pipeline for my publisher is a sequel to my memoir. This one will be Bumbling into Baby. But I have already sketched out the next four books in the Time Guardians series. And I do have another 20,000 words toward the first book in a trilogy about teens in a parallel dimension, all of whom are shape shifters. The protagonist in that one turns into a red dragon at the most inopportune moments. It’s really hard to finish your pre-calc final when you’ve firebombed your desk with your snout.