Interview: Nancy Garden on Annie on My Mind

Interview with Nancy Garden
1. How has your authoring style changed over your 20+ years in publishing?

You flatter me! It's been around twice that long since my first book was published!

I'm probably not the best judge of how my style has changed, since I don't really think consciously about style per se, although I do think about form and approach--for example, whether a book is told from the point of view of one, two, or more characters; whether it's in the first person, the third, or even the second; what the book's structure is, etc. The book's style--the sound of its prose--is dependent on those things, I think, and on the voices of the characters and the story's overall mood. I think my style depends more on those factors in each individual book than on anything else.

2. Your most acclaimed book as of now is Annie on My Mind. Where did the inspiration for this book come from, and what were your intentions in writing it?

When I was in my teens and beginning to realize that I was gay, I hunted in vain for books that would help me understand who and what I was. The little I found was almost entirely negative. Encyclopedia articles said I was sick, evil, doomed to a lonely miserable life. There were no books for kids, and the few I found for adults were gloomy or tragic--lesbian characters committed suicide, were sent to mental institutions, died in car crashes, or turned straight. The one book that helped was THE WELL OF LONELINESS, written by English author Radcyffe Hall way back in the 1920s--and tried for obscenity in England and in the US. (It was acquitted here, if one can say that of a book, but banned for many years in England.) WELL is often melodramatic and ends sadly, but it's also sympathetic and is probably a pretty true picture of what life was like for the gay people of that era. And it ends with a heartfelt plea for justice and understanding, which made me vow to write a book someday for my people that would end happily. ANNIE, after several failed attempts, was that book.

My intention in writing it was to provide kids with what I'd lacked as a teen and what was still largely lacking in the late 70s-early 80s when I wrote ANNIE: a book that showed that lesbians are not sick or immoral or evil, that we can and do lead happy, healthy, productive lives and can fall in love just as completely and truly as straight people.

3. Annie on My Mind is probably one of the most widely read - if not the most widely read - LGBTQ books for young adults. Why do you think teens still connect so much with the book after it's been published for so many years?

The teens who write to me still face many of the same problems that Annie and Liza face--primarily uncertainty about their sexual orientation along with anxiety about and practical problems with coming out in a potentially or actually hostile climate. Things have gotten worlds better for LGBTQ people, both adults and kids, but there is still a lot of anti-LGBTQ bigotry and a lot of misunderstanding about what LGBTQ people are really like. Despite our many advances and despite increasing acceptance, teens and pre-teens still often encounter hostility from parents, other family members, peers, and authority figures like teachers and clergy. The need for stories, especially love stories, that end happily is still there, as is the need for stories that show young LGBTQ people facing and solving serious problems stemming from homophobia.

4. Your backlist shows several author titles focused on lesbian teenagers that sound similar to Annie. Are there any plans to write more novels like this or to have the backlist reprinted? What do you think your other books have to offer readers?

Yes, I have written other books somewhat like ANNIE in that I've written several featuring young lesbian main characters. These other books also deal with a variety of different situations.

GOOD MOON RISING (1996)--which, by the way, I wrote before I wrote ANNIE but gave up on for several years--is also a love story. When I dug it out some time after ANNIE was published, our community had become much more visible that it had been previously. More of us, both ordinary people and celebrities, were publicly out. There were openly gay and lesbian people in politics, the arts, the professions, and business; gays and lesbians had begun to appear or even be featured on TV and in books and movies. The AIDS epidemic had also made straight people more aware of our numbers.

One sad result of our largely positive increased visibility was a backlash against us; as we became more public, so did homophobia. LGBTQ kids, and kids perceived as being LGBTQ, were taunted and bullied more specifically than ever in schools. And so when I took GOOD MOON RISING out of hibernation to revise and update it, anti-LGBTQ bullying became a pivotal ingredient.

(GOOD MOON is out of print in its original edition, but has been reissued through the Authors Guild Back in Print program with iUniverse.)

I wrote LARK IN THE MORNING (1991; now out of print), because I thought it was time for there to be LGBTQ teen books whose stories weren't primarily focused on LGBTQ issues. LARK is about how a young lesbian (who has a steady girlfriend with whom she hopes to live after they both attend and graduate from college), helps two much younger, straight, abused runaways journey to safety. However, I think my timing was off; one reviewer thought the book should have been a coming-out story, and another couldn't imagine why the main character "had to be gay."

THE YEAR THEY BURNED THE BOOKS (1999; still in print) is about censorship, comprehensive sex education, and homophobia. The main character, Jamie, is a young lesbian who's editor of her high school's newspaper; she falls in love with a new girl who becomes the paper's photographer and who is straight. Jamie's best friend, Terry, is the paper's sports editor, and is in love with a boy whose parents are homophobic. The paper itself and its staff and faculty adviser become involved in a bitter town-wide controversy about a new health ed/sex ed curriculum.

I'm not sure if you were asking about my other LGBTQ books or my other books in general when you asked what I think my "other books" have to offer readers. Most of my books for teens and pre-teens, LGBTQ and otherwise, deal in some way with controversial issues. ENDGAME is about a young teen boy who is mercilessly bullied and who ends up taking a gun to his school and using it. MEETING MELANIE is about a girl who lives on an island off the Maine coast, her family's precarious economic situation, her friendship with a girl who's a summer visitor, and her involvement in that girl's pregnant older sister's star-crossed love affair. My Fours Crossing sequence consists of three related fantasies based loosely on Celtic lore. PEACE, O RIVER centers on two towns which share a regional high school whose students are rivals; the towns themselves are at loggerheads because locations in both of them both of them are being considered for a new nuclear waste dump. DOVE AND SWORD is a historical novel about Joan of Arc, and about war. HOLLY'S SECRET is about a girl who tries to hide the fact she has two moms when she moves to a new town. My very first novel, for kids from 8-12, is about racism; my second, for teens, is about drugs. I've also written a bunch of mysteries for younger kids, some of which have to do with supernatural creatures like vampires and werewolves, and other teen and middle-grade/middle school novels, a picture book for small children, a novella, and a serial mystery novel published in numerous newspapers. And I have one adult lesbian novel, NORA AND LIZ, essentially a love story.

You also asked if "there are any have the backlist reprinted." That's easier said than done. If an author wants to re-issue an out-of-print book, that author has to get the rights back from the original publisher, and then sell the rights to another publisher. At the moment I don't have any plans for doing that for any of my out-of-print books, but I've certainly thought about it in relation to some of them and it's always a possibility.

5. Your informational essay/short story collection, Hear Us Out! is criminally under-read (in my opinion) with all of the information on LGBTQ history it provides. What do you think teens - and adults - of the reading community can do to help along LGBTQ rights and show the community's voice?

Thank you for those kind words about HEAR US OUT! I wish it were more widely read, too. Perhaps the format has been a problem. It's arranged in sections with each section representing a decade from the 50s to the beginning of this century. Each section is introduced by a historical essay about the LGBTQ rights movement in its decade, and followed by two short stories that could have taken place during that time. I had hoped that the combination of history and short stories would make the book appealing to a wider readership than would have been the case if it had been all history or all stories. I'd also hoped that some readers might chose to read just the stories or just the essays, depending on their interests. But, although some readers have said they like that arrangement, I can see that others may find it unwieldy or too unfamiliar.

I guess one important thing that the reading community can do to help LGBTQ rights along and to show the community's voice is to read and support our books, for it's through stories as well as personal contact that people become known to one another. That kind of knowledge does as much to eradicate prejudice and misunderstanding as do changed laws and policies--often even more. Our books need to be in more libraries and bookstores, colleges and schools!

6. What would your recommendation as a long-time author and member of the LGBTQ community be for reading material of the LGBTQ type? What are some obscure ones people may not now about?

There are now a number of fine new LGBT books for adults, in addition to the classics from years ago. (I'll concentrate on lesbian ones here, for I know those best. But I should add that there's a need for more books for both adults and kids that are focused on bisexual and transgender/gender queer characters, and non-caucasian LGBTQ characters.) As far as classics go, I've already mentioned THE WELL OF LONELINESS, the book that inspired me as a teen. Hall also wrote a novel called THE UNLIT LAMP, which I think is in many ways a better book, although it doesn't mention homosexuality specifically, and it isn't very well-known at all. NIGHTWOOD by Djuna Barnes is another, as is TENDER BUTTONS and other works by Gertrude Stein.

The late John Donovan's I'LL GET THERE. IT BETTER BE WORTH THE TRIP, published in 1969, was the first book for kids with homosexual content. But I'm happy to say I've heard it's being re-issued, and if that's true, it probably won't count as obscure!

Some years ago, I started making a list of LGBT books for teens. There weren't very many when I started, and now there are so many I can't keep up with the new ones! I'm afraid if I started recommending specific books, this post would be much too long, for there are now a number of excellent ones.

There are two terrific reference books, however, that should be helpful to anyone seriously interested in the development of LGBTQ books for kids. LESBIAN AND GAY VOICES by Frances Ann Day, published in 2000, is a detailed annotated bibliography of 275 LGBT books for kids of all ages. (Full disclosure: I wrote the book's foreword.)

Another fine bibliography and analysis--soon, I think, to be updated--is THE HEART HAS ITS REASONS, by Michael Cart and Christine A. Jenkins and published in 2006. It covers young adult (teen) literature from 1969 to 2004.

There are other informal lists, too, like mine. But I think most readers' best bet for finding titles is to consult library catalogs, the SUBJECT GUIDE TO BOOKS IN PRINT, and other, similar sources, both on-line and off.

7. Do you think publishing will eventually allow stuff like m/m or f/f romance (as well as general pairings in other genres) to grace the shelves as simply as the books with characters of the 'average' sexuality?

Yes, I think that day is coming, albeit slowly. LGBTQ books for all ages, adults and kids, are now being published regularly by both mainstream and LGBTQ publishers, and increasing numbers of LGBTQ characters are appearing in otherwise straight books as well. We are becoming--still slowly, admittedly--part of the general literary landscape, and that's very good to see!

What holds publishers back, I think, is the feeling that LGBTQ books have a market limited to LGBTQ readers, and I suspect that's not far from true. I'm not sure how to change that, really, although I think the more compelling (or, come to think of it, the funnier!) a story is, the more it's likely to appeal to a wide and varied audience. After all, we all do share the same life issues! Sarah Waters's adult novels, for example, often feature lesbian characters, as do Emma Donoghue's, but they seem to be read by straight folks as well as LGBTQ ones. Perhaps we LGBTQ authors need to concentrate more on universal subjects, experiences, and interests--birth, aging, and death; travel, crime, coping with children and elderly parents, facing financial woes, establishing careers, etc.-- than on sexual orientation as the main issue.

H'mm! I wonder what readers of Dreaming in Books will think of that idea!

 Nancy Garden is an author who has been writing for many, many years for young adults and middle grade audiences alike.  Her novel Annie on My Mind has become a young-adult classic for its real look at two teenage girls who fall in love.  It has been recommended by the ALA and on many of its 'Best' lists for young adults.  You can contact her and learn more about her work through her website

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Sally Sapphire said...

Great interview - thanks so much for posting this!

A HUGE thanks to Nancy, of course, for being such a pioneer and for continuing to write such wonderfully relevant stories, regardless of what 'polite' society may say about them.

ivanova said...

Amazing interview! I agree with Sally Sapphire--Nancy Garden is like a pioneer who has never stopped.

I loved Lark In The Morning and I wish it wasn't out of print! That made a huge impression on me as a teen. My school librarian recommended it to me.