The One Where We Do Megan Erickson
Focus On Me kicks off at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. Through-and-through Southern boy and recent college dropout, Colin offers a ride to an incredibly attractive stranger he nicknames Catwalk for his good looks and fancy clothes. Colin is heading back to his family and Catwalk seems to be working through a bucket list. The two become close, and then closer, but Colin soon realises that there’s stuff going on with Catwalk that sex and love and all the care in the world can’t fix.
Spoilers ahoy, obviously.
As well as trigger warnings for suicidal ideation, depression and … God … is one of the trigger warnings a spoiler? Eating disorders.
AJH: Welcome Santino. How’d you find Focus On Me?
SH: I really enjoyed it. There’s something really refreshing about Megan Erickson’s writing and the way she portrays young people. Also, I love the ongoing theme of the road trip for several reasons. First, because it symbolizes this ongoing effort for them to seek something (whether it’s closure like in Trust the Focus or just an impactful experience like we see Catwalk/Riley searching for here) but also because I think two people being on the road together for days really brings them together in a way other experiences don’t.
AJH: Yes, as a random English dude, there’s something quintessentially American to me about Megan. And that probably sounds a bit weird because the bulk of popular culture is American-by-default. I mean, maybe it’s just because On The Road exists, but to me this kind of journey narrative, this quest for selfhood and self-definition against and within what’s a pretty big and frankly geographically bewildering landscape (I mean, Jesus, The Grand Canyon, what’s WITH that? You do know that’s weird, right?) is something you don’t really get and can’t really have in England. I mean, an English road trip would be like … let’s go … oh we’re there.
SH: I agree with that and maybe that’s why I love road trip books and movies. The idea of exploring this massive country. But I think there’s also something really American about the idea of scrapping your past and re-inventing yourself by starting over across the country somewhere. Clearly Riley has much deeper reasons than just wanting a new job, but we do see him transform after he makes this journey with Colin. By the end, he’s settled happily into what, for him, is this totally new and healthier existence.
AJH: Yes, and Colin’s arc is not so much a reinvention arc as returning to the place you belong. Again, this is really English of me but I tend to look at texts that ‘feel’ American through this whacked out idea you guys have about the American Dream. I mean, no offence but I just don’t get that. Like the entirety of Madmen appears to be some dude in massive crisis because it turns out The American Dream is constructed rather than inherent to the nature of humanity. And, the English response to this is … well duh. Sorry, is that really insulting?
SH: Hahaha, no it isn’t insulting at all. I mean, my parents weren’t born in America so I didn’t have the Manifest Destiny! Must prosper and succeed and do all of the things because Capitalism! stuff infused in me as a small child, but after they moved here I saw them embracing the American Dream hardcore (my father used to say he loves American ambition) so it was a different experience. There’s a lot of pressure in this country to be Successful and it tends to be defined in specific ways by society. Success should be whatever makes you happy/satisfied (in an idealistic world) but in America, success tends to be defined by this specific path of higher education —> career —> become a property owner —> have a family —> retirement. It’s slowly changing but still prevalent in some areas.
AJH: Oh wow. Yes. So with that context, what I find really fascinating about Colin’s arc is that he basically fails at what I understand the American Dream to be. Like, he gets this opportunity to “better himself” at college and he’s even studying business, which is the ultimate self-made man type activity … and yet it isn’t what he wants at all. So he ends up coming back home to help run his parents’ BBQ restaurant.
SH: You’re so right. I really loved that about him? There are a lot of people, especially young people or Millennials or whatever we want to call them, who kind of… drive themselves insane trying to obtain society’s ideals about what success is despite the recession and everything that happened in the past decade, but Colin is just like “this isn’t me” and he accepts that with little angst. He has moments where he goes “I failed” because that’s what society would have him believe, but ultimately he is really happy to be back with his people and I thought that was great and really unique.
AJH: It’s definitely an unusual and intriguing … not ‘message’ exactly but theme for a NA novel. I think, understandably because of the age of the protagonists, the NA preoccupation tends to be leaving home and moving on and spreading your wings and all that sort of stuff – whereas this novel is very much about coming back. And that being totally okay. That you can be 21 or whatever and already know where your home is and what it means to you.
SH: Yes. And on the flip side, you can be 21 and be like Riley who has already attained the “dream” of fame and fortune as a model, but it’s had a really devastating affect on him. So he’s running away from a lifestyle that thousands of young people would kill to have.
AJH: It makes a lovely companion piece for the first book as well (and there’s cameos from Jus and Lan, which is really nice) since that book was all about making choices for your own future away from your parents. Something that sort of surprises me is that I’ve heard people say this one is darker and the first book is sweeter but I actually found them tonally similar.
SH: Same. They both deal with heavy issues and the theme of loss is present in both. In Trust the Focus, Jus is trying to deal with the loss of his father (which isn’t exactly light subject matter, especially if you’ve lost people) and here Riley is dealing with the loss of his… emotions? His sense of self? There are different triggers because he does have an eating disorder and he does struggle with suicidal ideation, but those issues aren’t often explored in M/M Romance so that could be why it seems darker or scarier.
AJH: I found the grief in Trust the Focus had a lot of depth to it – I was quite weepy over it, to be honest. And I wasn’t here, which I don’t mean as a criticism. It’s just I think what Megan does really well is shades of light and dark. I mean, despite the potentially heavy themes in both books, they’re really funny and really sexy as well. And I think what she depicts super effectively, for me, is friendship? Obviously, Trust the Focus is explicitly a friends-to-lovers story but there’s a lot of warmth and affection and laughter in Colin and Riley’s developing relationship as well. That’s also something I don’t see a lot in m/m romance, to be honest. Characters who, err, genuinely seem to like each other?
SH: Yes! For me that goes back to the road trip theme as well. I think some readers may put Colin and Riley in this “instalust” or “instalove” category because they come together in what appears to be a short span of time, BUT them being together in a car 24/7 magnifies things. You learn a lot about someone when you’re traveling with them, and them being on this journey together for a week or two is way more impactful than several weeks of awkward dating and sporadic lusty sexual encounters. They become really close.
AJH: Also, while they do fancy each other straight off, it actually takes them a while to pursue it because they comedically make assumptions about who is straight. So they both work on friendship long before they tumble into bed – and even then while there’s naturally a physical charge, the attraction is based on lots of small personal things, like Colin buying Riley yoghurt and this … God .. this heart-breakingly stunning moment in the middle of the book where Riley is obviously having some kind of borderline manic episode but he ends up dancing in a laundrette in the middle of nowhere.
SH: Those moments were really well done. It not only showed how much Colin had become attuned to Riley and his needs and wants and his inner turmoil, but it also showed how fragile Riley can be at certain times. Also, there are scenes when you can see he’s being triggered by something and it’s done subtly but skillfully if that makes sense.
AJH: Absolutely. Like he’s also allowed to be charming and funny and completely dazzling. Literature is full of … fragile fabulous gays who are supposed to be so bewitching but just end up coming across as whiny and annoying. But while Riley belongs to that sub-category of character type he never crossed that line for me. It would have been so easy for him to just be eternally vulnerable — this beautiful broken guy Colin is running around after. But I really understood both why he was damaged (and how real the damage was) but also why you would genuinely want to be with him, and how he had the capacity to make someone else happy.
SH: Agreed on all points. A lot of readers say, you know, a romance needs to have dual POVs so we can see inside the love interest’s head, but Focus on Me shows that’s simply not the case. There’s a lot going on with Riley but the subtext makes it really clear why he is the way he is and what Colin sees in him, and why they end up together.
AJH: I mean, you do get his emails to Lan but they’re very short and, even then, a little bit unreliable because while he’s semi-honest in them, he’s still composing them specifically to send to a friend. And it’s not right until the end that he admits explicitly that he wants to kill himself when he’s done with the road trip but, I don’t know, I think it’s pretty obvious to a reader that the intent has been there all along. But, at the same time, it makes sense that Colin wouldn’t pick up on it (because why would you). So the first half of the book does have this creeping shadow in it where you-the-reader have a deeper understanding of the emotional landscape than the protagonist. And that feels quite scary.
SH: It was. I was dreading the dark moment of when Colin would realize what’s happening inside Riley’s head or worse, what would happen if Riley doesn’t find what he’s looking for at the end of his journey. And he didn’t find it. Or at least, he didn’t think so. That’s actually one thing I loved. In a lot of books him meeting Colin would have been the turning point when Riley realizes life is worth living, but it isn’t that way. He clearly cares deeply for Colin but that wasn’t a magical cure-all for his problems. He’s still frightened and sunk into a dark place and he still doesn’t know how to crawl out of it until he accepts that he needs professional help.
AJH: Yes, I loved that too. And I like how … quietly things tend to get resolved in Megan’s books. Like there’s often lots of ingredients for huge dramas – loss, betrayal, lies, rejection, self-delusion – but the resolution is usually: Two People Sit Down And Have A Conversation. I find that really refreshing and, at the same time, deeply emotionally satisfying.
SH: Yes. It feels more like… real life? It’s easier to relate to or connect to. Ultimately I think we all strive to have relationships where we can be open with each other and trust each other and have those kinds of discussions with our loved ones, so it’s great to see it done in fiction without random helper characters or big melodramatic sequences.
AJH: And I also really appreciated the Love Isn’t A Cure All message. I think Megan likes to make her characters work, not for love, but for relationships. And, again, that feels like real life to me. I mean, getting professional help is a long and painful process for Riley and while Colin doesn’t directly help, it’s the possibility and the potential of being with Colin that gives him the motivation to get through it and not just … die. That kind of brings me onto maybe … like … one of maybe two super minor aspects of the book that didn’t work for me. The first is the transition seem abrupt. Like Colin goes from happy codependency to “oh shit I’m basically enabling this guy” overnight. Did you notice that?
SH: I did. But I’d also wondered at points why he wasn’t… well we know he was concerned earlier, but why it wasn’t built up from an earlier point. It coalesces after a specific event.
AJH: How do you mean?
SH: In between all of the charming scenes and after they realize they want each other, there’s several dark moments that should have been lightbulbs for Colin. He was aware of the eating disorder, then we have the incident at the sweat lodge, then Riley’s paranoia at the restaurant, and his mania after the club scene with the two guys, and Colin knows all is not well but it seems to hit him suddenly later on instead of a gradual grim acceptance that there are deeper issues.
AJH: Yes, it’s definitely well telegraphed to the reader and while I think it’s fair that Colin doesn’t notice everything we do (he’s living his life, after all, not reading about it) I agree with you that his realisation that their relationship is potentially unhealthy and he can’t actually fuck Riley better is a bit sudden. But, honestly, it’s a minor quibble. I basically noticed it briefly and then immediately jumped back into the book. I also wasn’t entirely sure what to make about Colin’s … I dunno … weird homophobia at the club he goes to.
SH: On one hand, I was also struck by his…. disdain (this might be too strong of a word) for the stereotypical twink boys who flocked to him at the club because 1) I’d not gotten the sense that he had these types of views of other gay men before and 2) well, I kind of imagined Riley to be slim and twinkish? But on the other hand, I did think him being particular about who he bottomed for was… relatable? At least for me. I was like that when I was his age.
AJH: And now you’re just up for anything? 😛
SH: Pretty much! I’m more secure in my old age.
AJH: I’m really torn about Colin’s attitude to other queers. On the other hand, I definitely don’t think fictional gays have a responsibility to be absolutely right on at all times and obviously Colin does come from a certain background, which makes me perhaps unfairly conclude that he would feel more comfortable with certain ‘types’ of queerness over others. But I’m not sure if I necessarily want to run into off-hand depictions of intra-queer hostility in the middle of a romance I’m reading – especially when it’s really stereotypical stuff, like he’s mutters about ‘gigglers’ at one point. And while I totally relate to his fussiness about who he bottoms to (even in my old age, which is thankfully still younger than you – though it’s a trust thing, for me, not a masculinity thing) … it very much comes across as only wanting to be topped by a particular stereotype of masculinity. Which is obviously challenged by Riley. But I was just vaguely troubled and confused by it, since it comes across as kind of Bottom For You, even though Colin prefers to bottom in general.
SH: Bottom For You made me laugh. Sorry. But anyway, I get what you’re saying and I agree. I also don’t think the brief foray into “I’m not into those kinds of guys” was needed because he quickly chucks those hangups as soon as he realizes Riley prefers to top. And it doesn’t come across as a major sacrifice or anything? It’s kind of “oh okay of course” and it’s not a huge deal. So I’m not sure what the twink couple’s purpose was other than being a foil to Riley. But while we’re on the topic of bottoming, (and this is sad that I have to be pleased by this) I was relieved there were no… traumatic past sexual incidences fueling Riley and Colin’s sex preferences.
AJH: Amen and hallelujah. I totally agree. Anyway, we’ve been talking forever. Assuming anyone is still reading, do you have any final thoughts about Focus On Me?
SH: I think it’s a great addition to M/M and I hope Megan Erickson writes loads more. That’s basically it. Oh, and everyone should read it!
AJH: Hell yes!
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Santino is a dedicated gamer, a former anime-watcher and fanfic writer, an ASoIaF mega nerd, a Grindr enthusiast, but most of all he is a writer of LGBT fiction that is heavily influenced by the gritty, urban landscape of New York City, his belief that human relationships are complex and flawed, and his own life experiences.
Read Beverley’s review of Focus on Me here
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