Bryan Bliss is now a part of the Minnesota Kidlit Cabal, so sorry if you were hoping to get your hooks into him! TOO BAD; he’s OURS.
I first met Bryan at a conference at the Loft in Minneapolis, when he came to do a presentation on writing realistic boy characters in YA with his cohorts Steve Brezenoff and Jeff Geiger from the late great Boys Don’t Read blog and he was super disarming and chatty and I love that in a man (okay, I love that in any person).
As well as being agent-mates, Bryan and I have had lots of fun online debating about religion (not with each other but with other unsuspecting internet rubes) and he is very very smart about theology and religion and lots of other things. I was lucky enough to get an ARC of his debut novel, No Parking at the End Times and highly recommend it. In this story, twins Abigail and Aaron are living in their van with their parents, who have sold everything to follow a charismatic preacher who has convinced them the world is going to end. Except, the world doesn’t end as predicted, and the family finds themselves stuck in a futureless loop of handouts and hopes in a strange place. It is a multi-layered story that deals with basic YA subject matter (parental disillusionment, becoming independent, taking risks) as well as issues as vast as homelessness, poverty, street culture, and the big obvious one, religion.
Figure 2. The actual man himself, Bryan Bliss
Tell us a little bit about yourself. Likes, dislikes, habits. GO.
I lived most of my young life in Chicago, but I always say I grew up in North Carolina. I moved there the summer before my senior year and it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Part of it is being the new kid and all the allure and mystery that comes with such a thing. I spent the next fifteen years in the south–going to college, getting married, having kids. It’s not an accident that everything I write is strongly tied to North Carolina. For me, that was my sweet sixteen. My prom. Pick your John Hughes trope. Now, I live in Minneapolis with the same wife and kids and I spend most of my time reading, writing, riding my bike. I like to think that I’ll go all Hemingway and get into something like rock climbing or bull fighting, but it doesn’t seem likely.
Why don’t you tell us your opinion on Hemingway, since you brought old Papa up…
I’m not a fan, actually. A lot of it comes from him being the White Male Ideal in a lot of ways. That’s obviously troublesome for a number of reasons, patriarchy being the first. But also, I think he’s also a bit of the exemplar for what a writer should be (again, especially White Males) – manly, gun-toting, drunk. There’s a fucked up romanticism about those things that I unwittingly just aligned myself with. But in all honesty, I hate that. It goes the way of the depressed artist who needs to be broken to create. I think it’s bullshit.
Wow, that was a dark turn. Ask me about My Little Pony next.
There is too much MLP in my actual life! No! Why don’t you tell us a little about what got you started writing fiction.
But I had a story about my son liking MLP and how he once told me, “Dad, it’s okay for boys to like this stuff and I want EVERYBODY to know.” But fine. Fiction.
I’ve written short stories off and on since high school and my first real job was as a reporter at a daily newspaper. So writing has been a part of my life for a long time. But my first serious fiction project came about during a holiday break in graduate school. My daughter was about to be born and I had this intense feeling that I needed to write a book. It was terrible and laughably autobiographic (minus the part where the Olive Garden waiter somehow gets recruited to be a spy… I don’t know.) But that was it. I was hooked. I rewrote that book at least twenty times, eventually turning it into a YA novel. It never sold, but it eventually got me connected with my agent. In a lot of ways, it’s how I really learned how to write fiction. Constantly revising, refusing to let go of an idea that I still think is great. And now that I think about it, this all happened ten years ago exactly. January 2004.
Figure 3. Rocking the turtleneck AND blazer, as one does…
How does having kids affect how you write? Does it affect how you write YA?
Yes and no. Kids take up a lot of time, so it’s a constant battle to carve out an hour or two to work. But I don’t know if there are bigger fans of me or what I’m trying to do with this writing thing. They love to name drop, which I find hilarious. They’re especially enamored with Steve Brezenoff who, in their minds, is a mix of J.K. Rowling and John Green. They’re constantly saying things like, “My dad knows authors… You may have heard of Steve.” It’s hilarious, but it also reminds me that they’re getting to live a life that I would’ve loved at their age. To have connections to writers and books is awesome – even for me now. So I’m happy that I get to share that with them. Now, how it affects the actual words is a different story. I feel a fairly deep sense of obligation to my kids to write stories that will help them understand what’s coming and – this is probably going to sound really arrogant – who I am as a person. I’m pretty communicative, but I like to think that maybe these books are a way that we can talk to each other later on when I’ll be Mr. “Oh My God, Dad, Stop Being Such a Weirdo.”
What about your spouse? What does she think about your vocation?
That’s a good question. She loves books, and she knows that I love writing – so there will always be that level of consent. But if I’m perfectly honest, I know there are times when she wishes she wasn’t married to a writer. It gets old, always having to check out of situations because it’s the only time you’ve got to put some words down. And I’m actually pretty good at establishing boundaries, too. I think we’re lucky It probably would help more if I wrote the kind of books she likes to read. I don’t want it to seem like she isn’t supportive, because that’s not even close to be true. If anything, her level of patience with me and this work is saint-like. But I bet she wishes I had a different hobby… like knitting.
This makes lots of sense to me. I have a husband who supports me but he’s not exactly rushing to read my books (though he sure as hell answers every awful, obscene question I ever put to him).
Let’s talk YA. What do you think it means, to write Young Adult Literature?
That’s a huge question. At a base level, I think it means that you’re interested in and believe that the lives – and stories – of teenagers have inherent worth. That’s where I start. From there, I just think teenagers are damn interesting and fun. They live in a world where Everything is Happening at All Times and that’s a recipe for compelling fiction. That urgency is something I love to tap into. It reminds me of what it’s like to see the Girl, to feel like you’re going to throw up because Holy Hell What Could I Possibly Say and Not Sound Like an Idiot? It’s driving around small towns with friends, listening to music with the windows down. It’s remembering when I was in high school and reliving all those glorious and awkward and legendary moments. I don’t know, it just kicks ass, right?
Figure 4. Bryan Bliss, Actual Teenager
Well, yeahhhh! Also, these aren’t stories solely about teenagers. I think about all the characters in my books very intensely. Adult characters are just as key, even if they don’t dominate the narrative. What are some of the themes in YA that you like to write about.
Oh, you’re definitely right. It’s a huge pet peeve for me when parents or teachers become a way to make things happen in a book. The parents in my book are much maligned by the people who’ve read it, which is always surprising to me because I spent a lot of time writing them with empathy. And I think that’s key – we need to understand the adult characters even when the characters can’t or won’t.
That said, I seem to always come back to a few themes in my writing. I’m supremely interested in the fallibility of parents – it’s heartbreaking for me as a father, to realize that my kids will one day feel like I’m an idiot. But that switch from hero to goat happens to everyone, and I think there’s dynamite in it. Again: I’m not talking about making parents the typical “She’s such a bother” character. Like I said above, real characters with real issues – that’s my jam. A bigger theme is that of class. I grew up poor and can still feel the injustice of not being able to have the things kids want – toys, basketball shoes, all that. That definitely comes out in my fiction. It’s not that I don’t care about wealthy kids, or think that having shoes and toys makes you a happier person, but the struggle of being a kid/teenager compounded with economic realities is something I want to highlight.
In No Parking at the End Times, you write from the POV of Abby, a girl. Got anything clever to say about being a dude and writing from a lady’s perspective? (Please note: I’m contractually obligated to ask you this, because the Imagination Is A Mysterious Thing and Aren’t We All Writing What We Know?)
I honestly don’t. I will say that I’m very nervous about writing all of my characters, because I desperately want to get them right. I want their motivations to be real and their reactions to match. I think when you come from that place – a place of humility about what you can and can’t know – it becomes easier to write outside of “what you know.” I will say that when I came up with the idea for this book, I knew it was going to be told from a female’s perspective. It’s never happened to me before or since, but Abigail’s voice came to me instantly. I knew exactly who she was and how she would sound on the page. In fact, the first lines I ever wrote for No Parking are still in the book, unchanged.
A lot of people have said that No Parking at the End Times is a novel about religion, which is true, but I also see it as a novel about disillusionment, whether that’s with parents or ideas or religion. What is the origin story of this book and what questions were in your mind as you wrote it?
You’re exactly right. When I told my agent about this idea, I pitched it as the story of a girl who loses faith in her parents. While I’m personally interested in stories that deal with religion – in any number of ways – I don’t want to write Christian fiction. In fact, before this, I had decided to never write a book about religion. I’m just too close to the topic and I didn’t want to be seen as a pitch man. As a result, I tried really hard to make the religious parts of this book… not religious. I usually explain it like this: Friday Night Lights is not a t.v. show about football. Football is a part of the lives of the characters. And while football is definitely a big part of the show, we’re not invested in their lives because they play a sport. Same thing with The Walking Dead. Not a show about zombies, right? [EXACTLY! – ed.]
Hopefully, it’s the same way with my characters and story.
That said, I definitely had religion on my mind when I was writing this. Harold Camping had recently predicted the end of the world and of course that didn’t happen. He took a lot of people’s money. Regardless what you might think of them, these are people who faithfully believed in God and suddenly were left with nothing. Hopefully nobody got to the point of the family in No Parking, but that tension was alive for me throughout the writing. What happens when you make a big ass mistake? Adults can come back from it. Can teens? Once I got to that place, I knew I was going to write this book.
What’s the most fun part about writing and publishing books?
I think the most fun is the writing and the publishing, which I realize is a boring answer. But for me, that’s it. I never thought I would get a book published, and I can’t properly explain why. So everything about this process – good, bad – is something I really appreciate. I realize I’m about two seconds from being all #blessed, but that’s really how I feel. We’re lucky to get to do this sort of work, even when it makes you want to hit your head against the wall. And that’s the perspective I try to keep whenever things don’t go as originally planned.
What’s next for Mr. Bryan Bliss?
As for what’s next, book number two is already written and with the publisher. For right now it’s called Meet Me Here, and it’s the story of two former best friends who reconnect at a graduation party. It’s told in that one night, with both of them having to make some pretty big decisions before the sun comes up. I’m also working on what I hope will be book number three, which deals with a topic I’m pretty passionate about. But I’m still keeping that one pretty close to the chest.
Thanks for chatting with me, BB!
For more on No Parking at the End Times and adolescent homelessness and poverty in YA books, here is an excellent post from Teen Librarian Toolbox.
No Parking at the End Times comes out February 24, 2015. Get your copy here and here and here. You can follow Bryan on Twitter to see what he’s got cooking in the future: @brainbliss