Alex London talks writing gay young adult fiction and his new novel, Proxy

"He came out to me early in the writing. Once I realized Syd was gay, the rest kind of fell into place."
June 20, 2013

(Alex London)

In the last few years, gay representation in the geek world has been making slow, painful but steady progress. Companies like Marvel have made big strides in the comic world, and things like Geeks Out's Skip Ender's Game campaign have shown that we are a vocal and present force in the community.

However, gays have made even slower progress into young adult fiction. We've yet to have a lesbian Katniss or a gay Harry. Thankfully, there is group of writers attempting to change this. This month, David Levithan, Bill Koningsberg, Aaron Hartzler and Alex London are taking their Openly YA book tour to New York, reading and signing their novels which feature young characters dealing with their sexuality.  

Alex London's novel Proxy is a wonderful, welcome addition to the sci-fi pantheon, and all fans of the genre should check it out.  Alex was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the book and share his thoughts about the state of queer characters in YA fiction.  

Q: Where did the idea for Proxy come from?  
A: Writing a novel is like summoning a genii, and geniis are wily creatures. They often grant wishes you didn't ask for, so the inspiration for the world of Proxy probably came from more sources that I’m even aware of. I knew I wanted to write a futuristic thriller, but it isn’t exactly the book I thought it would be when I began. The concept, where the rich pay for the poor to take their punishments, came from The Whipping Boy. The main character in Proxy, Syd, got his name assigned to him as an orphan from a database of literary names—his full name is Sydney Carton—so it’d be hard for me to deny that A Tale of Two Cities inspired me. Syd’s crushes on the popular guy and his banter with his straight best friend are right out of my own high school life, even though Syd gets to kiss the straight boy in the heat of battle, something I never did get to do. I love sci-fi, so there's as much Blade Runner and Mad Max informing my imagination as there is Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. I like my books filled with big ideas and big explosions. I hope Proxy satisfies on both counts. 

Q: There is an impressive amount of depth and nuance in these characters. Did Syd change at all during the writing process?  
A: I always knew Syd would be generous and tough and clever and kind of a loner. I always knew he’d have a rough life. But I hadn’t planned to make him gay. He came out to me early in the writing. Once I realized Syd was gay, the rest kind of fell into place. 

Q: Proxy has a lot going on in terms of character and subtext that makes it different from a straight up adventure story. Did you feel added pressure with this novel?  
A: This was the hardest book I’ve ever written. It’s my first YA novel and writing with the knowledge that teens are your audience can be intimidating. You’re competing for their attention with a vast pop cultural machine and they can spot bullshit in books from a mile away. So I had to keep it honest and I had to keep it exciting. There are some heavy ideas about friendship, debt and love in here… but also exploding robots. I can have all the deep thoughts I want, but if no one wants to turn the pages, they don’t do much good. 

As for Syd’s sexuality, I knew it would be part of the story, but I also knew his sexuality wouldn’t be the defining aspect of the story. Syd is much more defined by his ability to kick ass, to escape some heavy situations, and to save the day than he is by his attractions. I wanted to judge Syd by the same standard as any other action hero.

Q: The idea of LGBTQ characters in YA fiction is still controversial—how has the response been for Proxy?  
A: We’re in such a different world from when I was a teenager. There are now out gays in pro-sports, in the military, on TV and in countless books. Of course, action-adventure is still a pretty well fortified genre. I’m enjoying throwing out those conventions. At the end of Proxy, Syd has no interest, obviously, in “getting the girl.” There will be some who are shocked by my casual treatment of same-sex attraction, but I spent my whole life reading about hetero heroes getting all up on each other and I didn’t make a big deal out of it. I hope people will treat Syd with the same respect and enjoy his story because it’s exciting and provocative and action-packed. We’ll see how it goes as the book enters school and public libraries, though. I’m optimistic, but ready to defend it too.

Q: Will we see Syd again?  
A: Yes! I just finished the sequel, Guardian, which will be out in 2014. I don’t want to give too much away, but there is some romance in it. Syd has had a pretty violent life and I thought it was time to give him someone to share it with, even though their relationship is not going to be easy. It’s an easier world to be gay in than it has ever been, but it’s still a tough world out there for an action hero.

Openly YA Tour at Books of Wonder, 18 W 18th St. (btwn Fifth/Sixth Aves) June 22 at 2pm; Free.

Super Queeros is a bi-monthly column by members of New York's Geeks Out!