Jay Bell: Something Like Love
Author: Dick Smart
June 24, 2013
Jay Bell, the winner of the 25th annual Lambda Literary Award in Gay Romance for his novel, Kamikaze Boys (Jay Bell Books), lives in Germany with his husband, artist and industrial designer Andreas Bell. I asked Jay how the two met.
“I was volunteering for Greenpeace,” Bell shared, “fighting to save whales off the coast of Japan, and this dolphin pulls up to our boat with a German guy on its back.” Jay admits that the story is actually more prosaic, the two met at ‘gay’ night at a bar in Lawrence, Kansas. However, it wasn’t love at first lust. Jay says, “We were together for three weeks before that first time. In gay terms, that’s equal to saving yourself for marriage!”
Andreas, who was in the States studying industrial design when he and Jay met, contributes the cool cover art that has helped to make Jay’s books bestsellers with romance and YA readers. But Bell says their relationship doesn’t make for page-turning romance, “Our relationship is too bereft of drama to make for good reading.” However, their relationship did face the kind of romantic misunderstanding that’s the stuff of formula romance. Bell says, “Andreas’ visa ended three months after we met. I told him that it wouldn’t make sense for either of us to abandon our countries for a relationship that might not last. He returned to Germany, but kept sending me love letters like everything was fine. At the end of the summer, he showed up on my doorstep, having signed up to get his masters at KU (the University of Kansas). Luckily, his English wasn’t as good back then so I don’t think he understood that’d we’d broken up.” Jay laughs at the incident now, but he says, “Recently, while going through my memory box, I found the letter I’d written him before he left, telling him how sad I was that it was over. Reading that now kills me.” He says, “I’m so glad he didn’t listen or understand or whatever!”
In the end, Bell decided to move to Germany so that he could “learn more about the guy I loved.” He says, “The plan was to stay for three years. Now more than ten years have passed.” The expatriate has no plans to return home soon, “Not until the entire United States legally recognizes Andreas as my husband.” Bell reports that Germany has allowed civil-unions since 2001 and is moving gradually towards full recognition of same-sex unions, “We’re very nearly there too!” Whatever, Jay says, when it comes to his relationship with Andreas, Andreas is his husband. Bell says that the idea that conservatives would kill the immigration bill inching its way through Congress if it included language that would grant LGBT couples like him and Andreas the right to petition for their legal spouses to become naturalized citizens, “makes me sick.”
As a home husband in a country where initially he did not know the language that well (“Ich spreche Deutsch. Aber nicht gerne”), Jay put pen to paper. He says as a writer, “All my practical training comes from a lifelong love of stories.” Jay says, “I grew up reading fantasy, so all my influences are pretty odd considering the genre I work in.” Some of his influences include Robert Asprin, Piers Anthony, Terry Pratchett and C. S. Lewis. “To this day, I still prefer to read light fantasy with a young adult edge,” Bell says. His latest read is the Hunger Games trilogy. Jay says, “I don’t read a lot of gay fiction, mostly because it feels like work to me. I read to escape, and sizing up what my peers are doing isn’t my idea of fun. Besides, if I have an idea and someone has already done it, I don’t want to know until it’s too late!”
Jay says, “I’d had a publisher for my first book (The Cat in the Cradle) and felt I’d seen enough of the process to get the job done,” so, he says, when “I shopped Something Like Summer around but no one wanted it,” he decided to self-publish under Jay Bell Books. Jays says, “I like to be responsible for all my successes and failings, so self-publishing suits me well.” He believes self-publishing has increased his sales since it allows him to price his books competitively.
As for marketing, “I’ve been considering a series of tattoos I can flaunt at the nude beach,” Jay says. He adds, “Really, for a book to succeed, it needs word of mouth. If readers love a story, they’ll talk about it to their friends or recommend it online. The most important thing for an author is to make the book available to as many channels as possible. Once you have someone interested, you don’t want to lose them because they can’t find your book at their favorite store.” He says that his ebooks outsell his print books, “Hands down.” As one of gay romance’s most popular writers, Bell says, “I’m lucky enough that I could support myself off my royalties.”
The productive Bell says, “Most people would be shocked how little of my day goes toward penning a new book.” He says, “Being an author is mostly about revising and polishing, or interacting with the readers.” Right now he is “busy” at work on Something Like Spring, but he says, “I haven’t typed a single word yet.” He says, “I spend a lot of time considering a story, getting a feel for where it’s going to go and who it’s going to be about. That’s another reason my writing day doesn’t involve much sitting and typing. Dreaming up a story is crucial and can be very time consuming.” Jays says, “Writing it all down is the easy part.”
Jay is inspired by music, which he says is “one of the most effective forms of story telling.” He says, “Many of my ideas come from trying to interpret the songs I hear. I listen to music, stories unravel in my mind, and I write them down.” Jay says, “It’s become a tradition on my blog that I reveal the songs that inspire each book.” He says that for Kamikaze Boys’ wonderful road trip scene, “I was really into Empire of the Sun’s ‘Walking on a Dream.’ To me, that album really has the sort of road trip, we’re young and invincible feel I was going for.” Jay says, “Billy Idol’s ‘Sweet Sixteen’ also got me in the mood. The lyrics are pretty terrible, but the song has a sort of desperation that appeals to me.” Jay says, “What’s funny is that readers rarely ever say the songs I listen to suit the story.” Apparently they read to the beat of a different drummer.
Bell’s intended audience he says is “myself.” He says, “I don’t think of readers during the first few drafts. Later in the process I do, but only to make sure I’m understood and am communicating the various ideas clearly.” He says the people who actually buy his books are a “breathtaking mix of teenagers, middle-aged people, and senior citizens from all walks of life and every hue of sexuality.”
Bell’s work is as diverse as his readership and many of the fans of his Something Like series might be surprised that he has also written fantasy. “My first release was The Cat in the Cradle,” he says, “a fantasy novel with a gay protagonist.” Jay says, “Andreas and I worked together on that one and its sequel.” Andreas provided the delightful chapter illustrations. Another book, Jay wishes his readers would discover is Hell’s Pawn. Bell admits, “It’s a weird little book, but that’s what I love about it. The entire story is set in the afterlife, but not just the Western concept. I drew from world religions both present and historical, which allowed me to populate the book with gods, demons, monsters, and anything else mankind has dreamt up.” Bell says, “I believe in everything, Andreas believes in nothing.” He adds, “That having been said, I’m not a fan of organized religion or mindlessly following dogma.”
“Yet,” Bell says, “like all of my books, Hell’s Pawn is ultimately about a completely normal guy who wants to be loved and find a place he can call home.” He thinks if readers “would try the first five chapters or so, they’d soon get a feel for the sort of story it really is.” He adds that those very chapters just happen to be free downloads on his website, “for anyone feeling daring.”
When I reviewed Bell’s Something Like Summer I was a bit put off by Ben’s stalking of Tim—to me, it was creepy. But then when I read Kamikaze Boys I started to get what Bell was doing—David and Connor are kids and they’re taking big risks and making big mistakes and don’t always understand the full consequences of everything they do. I guess I was reading it too much like a grand-uncle and not enough like a teenager. I asked Jay if, when writing a character, his inner adult ever screams, No! Don’t do that! How does he let his characters go ahead and do the scary, crazy thing?
“Luckily,” Bell said, “I’m extremely immature, so my inner adult rarely gets in the way.” He says, “I’ve always been the sort of person who goes to desperate lengths in the name of love. My characters, like me, might be aware of the mistakes they are about to make, but they also weigh the odds and decide it might be worth it to get what they want. Whether that’s creepy or charming depends on what the intended target thinks. It’s probably for the best that I’m safely married now.”
The motif of the criminalization of young gay love was powerful in Kamikaze Boys. I wondered if Bell’s experience of the saner sexual attitudes in Europe influenced what he had to say about that in Kamikaze Boys. Bell says, “I first read about age of consent laws being used to break up a gay couple while still living in Kansas.” He says that as an openly gay teen, “I saw firsthand the sort of fear this creates in people. One guy, after finding out that I was under eighteen, drove me straight home. He wouldn’t even speak to me on the way back. His loss, since I was sixteen and legal according to Kansas law, but he lived on the Missouri side where I wasn’t legal.” Jay says, “The laws are ridiculous, confusing, and often abused.” He says in Germany, “The age of consent is fourteen, with a handful of simple rules in place to protect young people from exploitation until they are eighteen.” Bell says, “I suspect that most age of consent laws are less about keeping young people safe and more about parents wanting to control what their kids do.”
With same-sex marriage apparently sweeping the nation and the acceptance of gays in the military, LGBT people have been assimilated into the heterosexual mainstream and can become just like “straight folks” now. Bell single-handedly re-radicalized gay people in Kamikaze Boys. I love that David and Connor physically fight back to free themselves. I asked Bell what gay liberation means for him. He said, “I personally don’t feel like gay people are integrated into straight society yet. Being gay is still a galvanizing issue, as any unmoderated forum on the Internet will prove. I get stared at every day for holding Andreas’s hand in public.” He said, “Teenagers still struggle to come out, still take their own lives rather than admit the truth. For me, gay liberation will occur when such things stop happening.”
The theme of the woods in Kamikaze Boys was beautiful and I thought that Forster’s Maurice might have influenced Bell. When Connor sneaks through David’s bedroom window it seemed Bell is paying homage to the famous scene where the woodsman Scudder comes to Maurice’s bedroom. Bell said, “I’ve neither read the book or seen the movie.” But he adds, “Subterfuge is an art form every young person must learn if they want to fulfill their wishes while going against those of their parents.” He says he discovered such subterfuges when “I became a teenager myself.”
The film version of Something Like Summer is scheduled for a 2014 release from Blue Seraph Productions, with Carlos Pedraza and J. T. Tepnapa, the creative team behind the gay indie hit, Judas Kiss, writing and directing. The film has still to be cast and Bell says, “I’d honestly prefer they find young talent that’s relatively unknown.” Bell says when he sees a picture of the fashion model, Bruno Santos, he thinks, “Hey! You remind me a little of that Tim guy in my head!” Bell says he hand-picked Kevin R. Free to narrate the audio version of Something Like Summer. Bell says, Kevin’s voice had the youth and humor I felt was needed to bring Ben to life.” He said, “Kevin is a natural, and I’m exceptionally pleased with the performance he gave.”
Something Like Autumn is Bell’s newest in the series and it tells the story of Ben’s adult lover Jace’s life before the events of Something Like Summer. Something Like Autumn looks at Ben and Jace’s relationship from Jace’s perspective. Bell promises, “This isn’t a simple boy meets boy and feels all better story.” He says, “Something Like Autumn challenges our concepts of love, commitment, and sexuality.” Bell adds, “It has one of the strangest happy endings ever conceived.”
“The first three books in the Something Like series”—Summer, Winter, Autumn—“each focus on a decade of one character’s life,” Bell says, “the stories intertwining at different points.” But when Jay Bell finally puts fingers to keyboard to pound out Something Like Spring, he says a new character will be stepping onto the page. Bell says, “Something Like Spring will both be a new start for the series and quite possibly the end of it all. I can’t wait to write it and find out!”