Interview: Julie Anne Peters
Julie Anne Peters, renowned author of many YA and children’s books, was kind enough to stop by for an interview. Her latest book, She Loves You, She Loves You Not, comes out on June 1. In this new book about second chances and starting over, Alyssa moves in with her biological mother (who she hardly knows) after her father disowns her because he finds out that she is a lesbian. For more information about Peters and She Loves You…, check out more stops on the Teen Book Scene Tour.
In She Loves You, She Loves You Not, Alyssa has to redefine what family means to her. In the fight for legalized gay marriage and rights for same-sex partners, there is a constant push for a new meaning of family. What does family mean to you?
The traditional definition of family is father, mother and children conceived by the biological parents, but in today’s society, family means so many different things. There are blended families, children being raised by one parent, stepparents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, other family members, in foster care, or living with families of friends, etc. I don’t think a same-sex family is outside the range of “normal.”
To me, family is a group of people who love, accept and support each other unconditionally. Family provides the foundation for every member to pursue their dreams and reach their full potential.
Alyssa, like many LGBTQ teens, has trouble coming out to her family. What advice do you have for teens struggling to come out?
Coming out is a lifelong journey. Every person has to do it in her or his own way. Timing is critical. Who you tell and when can make all the difference in your self-esteem, confidence, and emotional well-being. You want to feel supported and embraced by the people you come out to. If you know your family might kick you out or disown you, be sure to have a plan for another place to live temporarily. Believe that, in time, your family will come around. Even Alyssa’s father, who reacted so negatively, may one day see the light. Time has a way of changing our perspective and priorities in life.
You have written stories with romance between characters on almost every point along a spectrum of sexuality. What do you think is universal amongst them?
Easy. The need to feel wanted and worthy of love.
The majority (though not all) of your books have LGBTQ story lines. Do you worry about becoming pigeonholed into that genre?
Absolutely. It was one of the fears I had when my editor asked me to write a lesbian love story. I knew I’d be labeled as a “gay” writer and expected to write more for my community. But the thousands of letters of gratitude I’ve received from readers young and old, gay and straight, have not only empowered me to tell our stories, but broadened by view to believe that it was my calling to write for my community.
You have said in past interviews that you prefer LGBTQ fiction by gay writers, yet you have written stories about transgender teens without being transgender. Do you think it is possible to fully grasp and convey a character’s sexuality without sharing that life experience?
Aargh. You did your research. I know I said earlier in my career that gay (and I’m condensing our alphabet soup of LGBTQQIAP and whatever else has been added into “gay”) books should be written by gay authors, and to an extent I still believe this. Unless you’ve been there, you can’t possibly know what persecution, or coming out, or transitioning feels like. Can you write a good story with believable characters? Yes. Does it have more meaning when the reader discovers you’ve experienced the story yourself? Absolutely. Should writers write outside their realm of experience? Of course. But they shouldn’t expect everyone to be enthusiastic about it.
P.S. Even though I began Luna, the story of a transgender teen, from her point of view, eventually I felt the story didn’t ring true and began again from the POV of Regan, Luna’s sister. Regan was an invested observer, the same way I was.
What is one book that you have read recently that you wish you had as a teen?
Annie on my Mind by Nancy Garden. Even though the book, a lesbian love story, was around when I was a teen, I wasn’t aware of it.
That’s good to hear. I recently bought that one and am looking forward to reading it.
Outside of books, I share your love of reality tv; do you agree or disagree with the saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction”? Have you learned anything about teens from reality tv that has made it into your books?
Truth is weirder than fiction. I love reality TV because you get to study the psychology of how people react in groups (with the understanding that shows are edited for sensationalism). I do pick up a lot of pop culture lingo from RTV, which helps my dialogue seem authentic—I hope. But RTV, for me, is more of an escape from life, and work. It stirs up my emotions, as evidenced by the fact that I yell at the TV when my favorite idols, racers, dancers, singers or survivors go home.
Before you were an author, you were a teacher and a systems engineer. As a teen, what career were you planning to pursue? Did you struggle or have any regrets when making career changes? What have been the greatest challenges and rewards of working as a writer?
I’d always planned to be a teacher. It’s all I ever wanted to be. I’d had so many teachers in my life who were inspirational role models and encouraged me to succeed. Unfortunately, I was the worst teacher in the world. I taught fifth grade for one year and got fired. Fired! Do you know what it feels like to realize you’ll never reach your dream?
The regret I had was spending four years in college, with loans to repay, and no other training to fall back on. But things happen for a reason. I got a job as a clerical worker (sooooooooo beneath me—ha!), and discovered I had an aptitude for computer programming. I went back to school, got a degree and a master’s in that field, and worked as a system’s engineer for ten years.
Two problems: 1) I burned out, and 2) There was no socially redeeming value to the work, that I could find.
One day I came home and said to Sherri, my partner, “I quit my job. I’m going to be a writer.”
She sort of stumbled backward and went, “Okaaaay. Have you ever written anything?”
“No,” I admitted. “But how hard can it be?” Ha ha ha ha ha.
The greatest challenge was beginning at ground zero. I’d never taken a writing class in my life; I didn’t know any writers; I had no idea how to format or submit my work for publication. But I learned. Everything I learned, I found in books.
Of course, the greatest reward is when I’m having a down day, feeling like an utter failure as a writer, or facing a revision that I don’t think I’m competent enough to tackle, and I get a letter from a reader who tells me how my books have saved her life. It’s an amazing cycle of empowerment that keeps me going.
It’s always interesting to me to find out how people stumbled into their careers. In your case, I know a lot of readers are thankful for your decision! Thanks again for stopping by today.
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