The One With Amy Jo Cousins
I’m super excited to be joined today by Amy Jo Cousins, whose queer NA novel Off Campus was published by Samhain at the beginning of this year.
It’s only February and Off Campus is already one of my favourite reads of 2015 for its deft characterisation and its unflinching approach to some very complex issues. It’s witty, compassionate, swoonishly romantic and sexy as hell.
Needless to say, we’re going to be digging into the book so this conversation will contain spoilers. Also trigger warnings for discussion of sexual abuse.
Amy Jo: Hi! Thank you so much for inviting me!
AJH: Okay so the first thing I want to ask you is … like … it’s sort of the question I imagine all m/m writers dread but I just want to flag up I’m not asking you in the “omg, why you womanz write about the menz!” sense but in the sense of asking a writer who has written primarily in one area (het) why they’ve moved to another. So in the genre sense, not the gender sense, what drew you to queer?
Amy Jo: At its most basic level, I wrote Off Campus because it was the story that most strongly spoke to me at that time. There wasn’t anything else in my brain for months except Tom and Reese. But as far as changing from m/f to m/m within romance, that was probably only a matter of time for me. I’ve been reading LGBTQ books my entire life, whether they were SFF, mysteries, literary fiction. I just didn’t realize you could write LGBTQ romance until the last couple of years. Nicola Griffith, Sarah Waters, David Leavitt, Michael Cunningham, Rita Mae Brown. My reading was much wider ranging than my writing. And once I figured out there was this entire genre I hadn’t come across before, I was all, “Wheee! Let’s roll around in the possibilities!” And I don’t think of myself as writing m/m books, so much as LGBTQ books. I write gay men, bi men and women, lesbians, and whoever else shows up in the story. 🙂
AJH: I’ve noticed – and this could be totally just my perception – that within the romance genre NA seems to be a sort of transition point for telling a broader range of LGBTQ stories. Do you think that’s true?
Amy Jo: So many thoughts in my brain! Must learn to type faster. 🙂 I do think that NA is a genre in which we’re seeing a lot of flexibility when it comes to sexuality and/or gender.
AJH: Yes, I have moments when I get grumpy about it. Like … why is it more okay to be gay or whatever if you’re between the age of 18 and 22?
Amy Jo: I think, for me, a lot of it is tied up in my own personal experiences. That age range is when my friends and I all started figuring out our own paths when it came to sex and who we wanted to have it with. A lot of my friends came out in college or experimented. I should say, rather, a lot of my women friends. The men I know who are gay usually came out earlier than that, and those who experimented didn’t do so until later in life. All of this was probably influenced on my part by being at a women’s college, where everything felt safer, if only because you were much less likely to get jumped for holding hands with your girlfriend while walking across campus.
AJH: Yes, that makes a lot of sense. I guess one of the … not problems exactly … but inevitable consequences of having the NA years being the experiment years and the NA books being – at the moment, at least – the place for telling LGBTQ stories is that there’s an extent to which they’re also required to also be coming out stories. Coming out seems quite significant in Off Campus – Reese is very open and comfortable with his identity, but while Tom is aware of his sexuality (so it’s not a GFY), coming to terms with it in the public and social sense is a massive part of his personal arc.
Amy Jo: Yes, although for Tom, I think much of his difficulty is tangled up in his need to avoid being under the microscope of public scrutiny. I like to think that if he’d gotten to the point of coming out in an alternate universe where his dad’s arrest and public scandal had never happened, Tom would have been the type to do so boldly. To come out with a very “If you don’t like it, then piss off” attitude about it. But that’s just not who he is anymore. He’s come to some hard truths about his father, himself, the life they led and the carelessness with which they treated people, and I think he feels both isolated and incredibly tentative in his personal life. It puts him in a not great place, emotionally, for coming out, while he’s at the same time aware of exactly how shitty it is for Reese to be with someone like Tom.
AJH: I really liked the way coming out was handled, actually. I liked that it was hard and incremental and I felt that (hah, here’s when I tell the author of the book what I thought their book was saying) while Tom condemned himself for being cowardly in not coming out … I understood why he didn’t want to? And I felt a degree of sympathy for it, that I also felt was supported by the text? In a lot of books I’ve read coming out is kind of this magic thing you do once and then you’re out and you go on to be a happy, well-adjusted queer. And I understand why that is but I feel there’s a kind of weird internal pressure within the genre to have characters to behave in Approved Ways. Like closet = bad, so queer characters need to jump out of it with a full marching band.
Amy Jo: But it’s so hard! I know what you mean though, and I think that some of the . . . briefness of coming out (terrible phrasing there) depends, literally, on how long a book you get to write. Off Campus is something like 108k words, which gave me a lot of room to unspool the story slowly, in layers. Way too much room, some readers have mentioned. 🙂 But yes, I think it’s easy to imagine that you come out once, and then you’re done. When the fact is, it never ends. Every new person you meet, every new job or new social environment, that first step is taken again and again. I used to work HR and I knew what a decision it was for every person I hired who was gay to mention their partner to me in an interview. It’s still a risk, every time. And I was thrilled to work at a company where, when we pushed to expand healthcare coverage to civil unions/domestic partnerships, our executive team was on board instantly. But the world, although improving, still offers plenty of opportunities for someone like Tom or Reese or any LGBTQ person to get smacked in the face. It never ends.
AJH: Before we start digging deeper into Off Campus itself, I know you said Tom and Reese’s story was just there in your brain, but were you always interested in NA as well? Or did it just happen to be an NA story?
Amy Jo: Writing NA was a bit of a surprise to me. I hadn’t really read much NA at all. I was aware of it existing, but not until I started reading m/m NA books, did it occur to me that I might want to write a book with characters that young. Mostly, the older I get, the more I find older characters interesting! But those guys really hooked me. 🙂
AJH: For some reason I am much more naturally sympathetic to to YA than NA. I think it’s because NA is a generation too close. Like it’s always hard to look back on a recently-passed stage of life (in which you were inevitably a dick) with sympathy and understanding, but it gets easier – I think – the further from said stage you get. But I think, for me, the key to writing YA and NA stories when you’re at least supposed to be a grown up yourself is commitment to the reality and validity of that worldview. I thought Tom’s voice in Off Campus captured this brilliantly. Have you always had an ex-jock in your head?
Amy Jo: cracking up An ex-jock? Hardly. A voice full of tortured self-doubt and a desire just to put one’s head down and get through the hard stuff? Absolutely. 🙂 I think, for me, part of the ease I have found with connecting to my characters, despite being twenty years older than them, is that I barely feel like I’ve managed to grow up at all. Wait, even as I was typing that, I thought, “Except I am definitely less of an idiot now.” But whereas I scarcely remember my grade school years (seriously, for a writer, I have a terrible memory), my college years, and those immediately after, are extremely clear to me. My arrogance and certainty that I knew everything, mixed with an overwhelming shyness and lack of confidence that I was only starting to overcome.
AJH: I mean, there are legit times in that book where I want to shake them both. But the ways in which they were, ahem, fucking idiotic felt completely plausible to me. Based in character and time of life, and the sort of contradictions you mention above.
Amy Jo: Yeah, they both could do with a good shake at different points. I think I probably use far too much of my own experiences when it comes to the stories I tell, but I can remember so clearly the conflicts I had with friends/lovers that came about almost entirely from avoiding talking about the thing that was wrong. Or avoiding admitting that a decision I’d made was a bad one & I needed to correct it. It’s such an old joke in romance: don’t write stories where everything could be solved with one conversation! And I didn’t want to write that book, but I do think it takes some of us a longer time than others (raises hand) to figure out how to open ourselves up to those conversations where we have to be vulnerable. And also, to admit our fuckups and fix them.
AJh: raises hand too When I’m reading romances, if the reasons the one conversation isn’t taking place feels emotionally right for the characters and their situation, I’m less bothered by it. I guess it’s the liberty of NA a bit. Freedom for characters to behave in non-ideal ways. They’re both very flawed and it takes them a long time to figure out how to help each other – did you worry at all about readers losing patience with them?
Amy Jo: Yes and no. When I first wrote it, and was rereading and revising, I was so caught up in this story in a way that’s pretty unusual for me (sometimes by the time I’m rereading a ms. for the tenth or twentieth time, I’m really, really done with it), that I would get sucked in and reread the whole book when I meant to work on a chapter. It didn’t occur to me, at that sort of “drugged on my own story” stage, that everyone wouldn’t feel the same! Sigh. The magic of working before feedback from betas… 😉 I did have more than one early reader point out to me that I was probably going to hear from people who wanted them to just stop being stupid already! But, in the end, my editor, the fabulous Christa Soule, was willing to let me put out this looooong book, and I feel pretty lucky to have been able to tell this story at a pretty slow pace. And my apologies to those who wish I’d been just a teensy bit less slow!
AJH: I honestly did not notice it was 108k words long. When you told me that I was like … holy God, really? So I think it’s fair to say that I didn’t find it slow at all. I think one of the many reasons I liked it as much as I did was because you take on these, frankly, huge and complicated things and you allow the characters to react in ways that – to me – felt recognisable, even if they were also recognisably destructive, if that makes sense?
Amy Jo: It does. I wasn’t writing full-time when I worked on Off Campus. I had no deadlines, no one waiting for this book that started out as a scene I couldn’t get out of my head while doing long marathon training runs. I kept picturing these two boys, men, wasn’t sure at the time. One was hurt and the other wanted to help him–
AJH: I often think about men when I’m running….
Amy Jo: dying As if I wasn’t getting hot enough by putting in 16 mile runs in Chicago in August, that scene (as you know) turns rather quickly to…um, a different kind of caretaking.
AJH: So that’s where the ice came from.
Amy Jo: I could definitely have used some while running & having incredibly explicit thoughts about this scene in what was quite obviously going to be a book unlike my earlier work. 🙂 But a lot of what drew me back to thinking about this again and again was the tenderness and the trust building between these two, who so clearly didn’t know each other well enough to have that trust. I was sucked in.
Wait, I forgot to answer the question! Or comment. One reason I think I was able to get more complicated with this book was that I just kept writing until I had everything I possibly felt/thought about a scene on the page. And there was some definite pruning afterward, because I am a repetitive, wordy person, but mostly I had the time and space in which to go as deep as I wanted. An unusual experience.
AJH: I think, for me, what’s kind of remarkable about Off Campus – partially, I guess, as result of having the degree of freedom you felt you had – is that as well as depicting intensely flawed people, it’s very much a book about personal compromise. Bad things have happened to both characters, things that have demonstrably changed them. Usually what I’ve found some romances is that bad things happen and then the characters learn to move beyond them or whatever. Like the typical sexual abuse arc is: I was abused and now I feel bad about it but oh look true love has made it okay again for me. Whereas this very much isn’t the case with Off Campus. Were you consciously pulling against these type of stories? (which is not to say there’s anything wrong with them and I can see there value as a kind of empowerment fantasy, I suppose, they just don’t reflect my experiences)
Amy Jo: I’m not sure my first drafts are conscious anything, but yes, I was very aware of not wanting to show anyone as being magically fixed by falling in love with someone else. Tom falls in love with Reese and it doesn’t turn him into someone who’s suddenly overcome his issues, and Reese is definitely not “fixed” (terrible word…he’s not a thing that’s broken, even though we use that word as a shortcut all the time) by falling in love with Tom. That’s not my experience with how this stuff works. I know almost no one, self included, who gets better after the really bad stuff without outside help. Whether it’s group work like AA or Al-Anon when alcoholism is the thing that’s fucked up your way of thinking, or one-on-one work with a therapist, I definitely wanted to show the work it takes to get yourself to an even passably better mental place. A partner can be amazing support, but they can’t fix you.
One of the comments that I got from some readers (wow, this is going to be TMI about fictional characters maybe) was that they were surprised to hit the end of the book without there being a scene in which Reese bottoms. And it was high on my priority list that that didn’t happen. Because I don’t think it works like that. Um, not that it can’t. Everyone deals with things in different ways. But I think for many people, the lingering effects of abuse/assault/rape don’t just go away when they find a new lover who’s also a fabulous lay.
AJH: Yes, quite. It’s a difficult thing, though, in the Happy Endings business, isn’t it? To face up to Reese’s reality. Like, it’s the most devastating thing I know really. Obviously different for everyone, as you say, but the moment you have to accept that … everything is different now, and may always be different. Like, I’m remembering the end of To Have and To Hold (which I love) where the heroine has suffered appalling abuse, and then the hero ties her up with lilies and the orgasms do flow like wine. So I think there’s an extent to which romances sort of condition not to see love as a one application panacea but to see hurt as ultimately conquerable. Whereas I think the message of Off Campus is that – if you work very hard – hurt is liveable.
Amy Jo: Jeez, you just made me choke up. Yes. That is it. And liveable doesn’t mean things can’t be great, too. There’s happiness and joy and love still possible. It just means that there may still be some things that you have to work around and keep in mind. Maybe forever, maybe they lessen and mostly go away someday. But you don’t find out until you’ve made it through the years. There’s no sign early on that guarantees where you’ll end up.
My friends find me terribly annoying sometimes, with my inability to work with black and white. 🙂 Almost everything is . . . shoot, I really can’t use the phrase “shades of grey” at all anymore, can I?
AJH: Nope, it’s been killed.
Amy Jo: Also eye-rolling and lip-biting, which is terrible because my characters want to do that all the time!
AJH: Screw your characters, what about me? How am I supposed to make the boys like me now?
Amy Jo: Thank goodness we still have flirtatious winking and some heavy breathing in the repertoire.
AJH: Otherwise we’d all be sexually doomed.
Amy Jo: I’m a single parent. My sexual doom has already taken place.
AJH: I should really be letting you go but there are two more tiny things I’m curious about, if that’s okay? One’s a Craft ™ question, and one is about Cash (spoiler). Again, it’s romance received wisdom that readers prefer multiple viewpoints, but Off Campus is 100% unreliable, clueless Tom. What made you decide to go for such an intense limited third person?
Amy Jo: I honestly didn’t plan to at first. I assumed that I’d write both POVs. But as much as Reese has been through (in my opinion) the more difficult past events, he is still in a better place mentally than Tom is. I have Tom think it, or say it out loud, in a scene in OC actually. Where he says something like, “You’re fucked up, but you’re going to get there. You’ll be okay someday.” And that’s not necessarily true for Tom at the start of OC. He was the one who had a lot more growing to do, so I think it just came about that I entered every scene from inside his head. I’ve just done it again with another book (speaking of Cash), so we’ll see if it works for people a second time. 🙂
AJH: I’m honestly just shamelessly curious is how other people do it. When I write it’s usually there’s one character I really identify with and another character I really fancy.
Amy Jo: I don’t know, Alexis. I fancy almost all of your characters. How can you pick just one? 😉
AJH: cackles Since you mentioned Cash, can I just say how much I loved him. Aaaand I heard some hints he was getting his own book. The next book is Evil!Jack, right? What can you tell us about what’s coming up?
Amy Jo: Evil!Jack. I love it! That’s how I’m going to refer to him from now on.
AJH: If you can make me fancy Evil!Jack I will do something mortifying in your honour in social media.
Amy Jo: Redeeming an antagonist is frigging hard, man. But I fell head over heels for Miguel (also called Mike by most, except for Evil!Jack), and he helped me figure out where all the anger driving this guy came from. NOTHING LIKE PARIS is out in a couple of weeks, and I hope Evil!Jack surprises people with his transformation to MostlyNotEvil!Jack.
AJH: It’s not the Evil! it’s the hipsterstash. How you gonna redeem that bad boy?
Amy Jo: My editor read a scene that happens pretty early on in the book and her comment in the margins was, “OH THANK GOD! I was hoping you’d get rid of the stash!” 😉
AJH: I’m reassured. And book 3 is Cash? puppy dog eyes
Amy Jo: Yes! Cash. Oh, Cash. One of my favorite characters, ever. That book is also solely from Cash’s POV, although that decision was driven entirely by my own selfish love of being in that boy’s head. I love him more than I probably ought to, in order to properly torment him in a romance. THE GIRL NEXT DOOR will be out in June and the cover is frigging gorgeous. I can’t wait to share it. Kanaxa (my Samhain cover artist) is a genius. I actually changed something in the book because of her cover.
AJH: I am now insanely excited in all the ways. Thank you so much for swinging by, Amy Jo. I loved being able to chat to you about Off Campus. I hope you’ll stick around for the comments in case the readers have questions for you too? Honestly, there were about a gazillion other things I wanted to talk to you about, but … uh … I understand you have a life and a child and stuff.
Amy Jo: I’ll absolutely stick around! Teatime readers are always full of interesting insights and it’s pretty common for me not to figure out what I meant to say in my books until a reader explains it to me. Thank you so much for having me here! This has been fantastic fun.
Please do join us in the comments to talk about Off Campus and ask Amy Jo any questions you might have.
Also Amy Jo is currently hosting a giveaway over on Goodreads for Evil!Jack’s book so go check it out.
About AJ Cousins
Amy Jo Cousins writes contemporary romance and erotica about smart people finding their own best kind of smexy. She lives in Chicago with her son, where she tweets too much, sometimes runs really far, and waits for the Cubs to win the World Series.
About Alexis Hall
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,
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