Rachel Herzl-Betz’s debut novel features queer teens, but it’s not about queer teens.
Whether they're Indian, African, straight or gay is important to her characters’ lives, of course.
But “Hold,” which comes out this Thursday with a book-signing event at A Room of One’s Own, is about the living, breathing young people inside those identifiers.
“I wanted it to be a story in which, say, race and sexual orientation ... are things that matter, but it’s not a book about those things,” said Herzl-Betz, a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who teaches writing.
“For example, one of my characters is a Liberian immigrant,” Herzl-Betz said. “I wanted to be absolutely certain that this wasn’t a book about what it means to be a Liberian immigrant. I don’t feel like that’s my story to tell.
“I don’t feel comfortable telling that story, but I feel comfortable being the one who adds more.”
In “Hold,” high school junior Luke Aday returns to school after the death of his sister in a kind of sick fog. Everyone’s still there, his theater kid friends and the simmering crush Luke has finally learned to deal with. But nothing feels the way it used to.
Then, in a moment of grief, anger and frustration, Luke pitches his backpack at the wall of an empty classroom. The bag never hits the ground. Luke Aday, it turns out, can stop time.
Herzl-Betz published under the name Rachel Leigh Davidson and was among the first authors to get a novel contract with Duet. Her story, “Beautiful Monsters,” was featured in a book of short stories called “Summer Love” released by Duet in 2015.
“In order to be a good YA writer you have to love your audience,” Herzl-Betz said. “You have to respect young readers.
“The most recent announcement of a YA version of a Dan Brown book ... what does that mean? Are you going to dumb it down? Then you are doing YA wrong.”
Herzl-Betz is the assistant director of the Writing Fellows Program at UW, and her scholarly research focuses on disability studies in the Victorian age. But though she published “Hold” under a pen name and will likely continue to write as Davidson Leigh, her identities as a teacher and young adult fiction writer are intertwined.
Herzl-Betz talked recently about her process, the rising profile of YA lit and how the loss of her own sibling as an adolescent appeared in the shape of her first novel.
Because you’re writing for an LGBTQ imprint, is it important for you to identify as a queer writer yourself?
I definitely identify as a queer writer, a bi writer. It’s important for me personally to be a part of that community. I ended up using a pen name because it was easier for me mentally to keep it on a separate stream.
When I started writing short fiction, I (thought), I’m not sure how much I’m going to be able to balance that with my other work. I was scared to have it front and center with people I knew before I knew what it was.
(The pen name) didn’t have anything to do with queerness and everything to do with creative writing, just shifting genres.
You’re a researcher and a teacher as well as a writer of teen fiction. Would you rather be able to focus just on your creative writing?
It’s all of a piece. I love my research too and I love teaching; I can’t imagine myself not teaching.
My creative writing really fuels the other kinds of work I do. It all weaves together, similar themes appear — what does normalcy mean? What is normal? How do you engage with identity, with difference?
Some things in this novel seem drawn from your own experiences. For example, you also had a sibling with a disability who died young.
I lost a sibling in similar circumstances at a similar age. A lot of the situations that Luke finds himself in early on and very late in the story I experienced.
But he’s such a different person, he responds to grief and loss so differently than I do. There were a lot of times where I thought I’m walking him into a situation. In my life, I’d go right, and he’d go left.
There were emotional experiences I was able to tap into from my own life, more so than anything that happened in the book being what actually happened to me. Luke’s parents are so drastically different than mine.
Did your parents read it?
Several times, all along the process. They were my first readers. They’re incredible.
It was hard to feel like I was basically making them relive loss, over and over. The early parts of the book are Grief Central. I repeated several times, “You realize those parents are not you. There’s a lot of me in this book, there’s a lot of Michael, my brother, in this book. There’s not a lot of you guys.”
With authors like J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins and John Green, it seems the overall profile of young adult literature is rising. Do you think the quality is improving too?
The sheer number of incredible artists working in YA lit constantly blows me away. The range of what’s available has expanded, what’s supported and celebrated. The audience is increasing.
There’s also a really concerted effort in the YA community to say, “Are we telling everyone’s stories?” We need diverse books, we need the #ownvoices movement.
It’s intended as a label rather than a galvanizing movement ... it’s a community of people, readers, authors and book bloggers who are saying we want to conscientiously make sure people can tell their own stories and see their stories being told.
That’s a key part of the discussion, right — who tells the story?
The debate isn’t about who can write what. It’s about who’s doing the work, who cares enough to write other people well. No one is saying you cannot go out and write a queer character if you’re straight.
It’s about craft. Accuracy matters. There are gorgeous books that include queer characters by straight authors. It’s about ensuring that people take representation seriously.
When you pick up the baton and say I’m going to write a character who hasn’t lived my experience, what are you going to do to make sure that life is represented authentically?
Talk a little bit about how you work and your process for this book.
I’m a slow writer, so I wrote most of this book in short increments. I set up a calendar ... I used an app online to figure out how many words per day I needed to get it done. I’m an outliner, but I also revise constantly and I revise heavily.
I love getting to know the characters but I don’t like the feeling of wandering in the wilderness that comes with that. I love honing it once I have a pile of words.
You had a lot of readers for this book. Can you talk about that part of the process?
So many of them shared their backgrounds of the characters shared forms of marginalization that I didn’t. Some are people I’ve been working with for years and some are people I reached out to throughout the writing process.
I definitely had teen readers — are they texting correctly? That’s important, that changes. I was making sure interactions read as true.
It matters to me that I can have several voices who can say, “Yes, you did your homework, you’re not doing anything offensive. That’s the bare minimum — let’s make sure we don’t have connotations that are connected to tropes or stereotypes that maybe I didn’t know about.”
Language is difficult and thorny, and you can’t overstate its symbolic importance in a story.
Are you working on anything new?
I’m working on another YA novel, a story about two girls, former best friends who are now reluctant rivals in a national math competition.
(In young adult fiction), I love the readers, I love the community. I like the immediacy of the writing. That’s something you can really do in YA, dig into somebody’s heart and get to know these characters. It’s a community of authors that cares deeply about being good to the readers.
It’s not just telling easy stories. There’s a lot of people pushing artistic and creative boundaries, always with young readers in mind. I think that’s really special.