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Winter Blog Blast Tour: Perry Moore, Part 1

November 5, 2007

I had the opportunity to hear Perry Moore speak at the ALA annual conference this past June. He was one of the authors speaking on a panel in the Trends in Teen Literature session and very passionate about the power of books and libraries. I had some questions I really wanted to ask, and when I finally got around to reading the ARC of Hero, his absorbing debut novel about a teen struggling with both his sexuality and his burgeoning superpowers, there were even more things I was curious about. Thankfully, there’s this blog, I knew the WBBT was coming up, and Perry was kind enough to answer my questions.

Because of the length of the interview, I’ve split it into two parts. Links to the rest of today’s WBBT interviews are at the end of Part 2. Now, on to the interview.

How did you come up with the idea for Hero? How long did it take to write Hero?
Two things helped me come up with HERO. 1. My dad, and 2. comic books.

I’d always wanted to find a way to tell the story of my father, a Vietnam Veteran, and his son. For very different reasons, each of us grew up feeling alienated in a world that didn’t value those differences. In his case, people didn’t always treat veterans the way they venerate them today. In his era, things were very different, much worse. I saw a lot of how he dealt with that from the perspective of the little boy I was. It was very…interesting. In my case I didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere because I was gay. You have to remember I grew up in the conservative South during a time when my friends would gather around the TV set to hear Eddie Murphy tell AIDS jokes. Ultimately I wanted to use these specific characters to tell a very universal story about two lonely souls longing to find their place in the universe. The father-son relationship is the spine that holds up the narrative of HERO.

When I married that idea with my lifelong passion for the world of comic books, the book finally began to take shape. What better allegory for a Vietnam vet than a fallen superhero? What better allegory for growing up gay than a kid who has to hide his superpowers?

My parents instilled two very important values in me. One: that none of us on this planet were put here to ride on the back of the bus. We were put here to shine bright, no matter what our differences may be. Two: from years and years of taking me to the library every week, that there is this incredible power of literature to change the world for the better. In a nutshell, this is the story of how HERO came to be.

To illustrate the second point, I’ll give an example of the power of a book that helped me understand what my father experienced as a Vietnam veteran. I know Dad saw things in Vietnam. He rarely spoke about it when I was growing up. People just didn’t talk about such things back then, about what Vietnam vets went through. That’s something those me had to carry around with them forever. I know Dad won a Bronze Star, and they award those for valor in the field, so he definitely saw things. Years later, when he thought I was old enough to understand, he gave me a book to read that he believed captured the experience. He gave me Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. After I read the book I was in awe of its power, of what my father had finally shared with me. I had a meeting with Tim once about a possible movie adaptation (which I’d still love to do), and he signed a book for my father. His inscription read, “Dear Bill, Peace and Welcome Home.” That signed copy meant the world to my dad. I get teary-eyed just thinking about it.

I wanted to write a book that meant that much to someone. Whether you’re growing up and feeling alienated in the world, whether you want your parents to understand what you’re going through, whether you want your children to understand about young people who are growing up with some of these differences, I hope my book reaches everyone.

At the same time, as an avid comics reader, I was noticing some very disturbing trends in comic books, particularly in their regard to gay characters. I was very surprised and somewhat disheartened by the low number of gay characters in comic books. Every other barrier has been broken in comics: race, gender, age, class, physical challenges. But gay characters remain far and few between, especially gay male heroes. Too few and far between to be killed off so regularly, without bringing attention to some rather ugly publishing trends.

One case in particular shocked me. Freedom Ring, a new gay, aspiring hero in the Marvel Universe. First, he carried a purse, and more importantly he wasn’t very good at being a superhero. But most shockingly of all, Marvel Comics’ head Joe Quesada heralded Freedom Ring’s introduction into the Marvel Universe as their newest example of their open-minded policy toward gay characters. At first glance this sounds like something very good. But then, in the very next issue of Marvel Team Up, Freedom Ring met one of the most horrific deaths I’ve ever seen in comics. An evil, alternate-universe version of the hero Iron Man sliced off Freedom Ring’s finger, then graphically killed him by impaling him with 28 spikes, one through the groin protruding through his anus. You really have to see the whole Freedom Ring debacle to believe it. (For those of you interested in reading my full compilation of the treatment of gays throughout comic book history, please visit my website. I appreciate all input and feedback, and I’d like to keep the list as up to date as possible, and correct any errors or omissions. Hopefully the list will become more and more positive as fans post their ideas!)

Now, I’m a firm believer that you have a choice in how you react to things that disturb you. I mentioned that my parents had done a great job of teaching me that the pen is mightier than the sword. CS Lewis provided me with the same valuable lesson with “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe,” the book that to this day is my inspiration for writing. So I became more determined than ever to finish HERO—a story that features a true front-and-center gay male teen-aged superhero, not as a joke, not as a token, not as a one-dimensional character, not as a supporting character, not as a victim, but as bona fide hero—and have it connect with audiences everywhere. Its mission is vital; its message is more important today than ever. Thank God for such a wonderfully supportive and gifted publishing team at Hyperion—they didn’t shy away from my mission at all. They embraced it!

So that’s the story of HERO. I started the book while we were casting “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe,” and turned in my final draft right when we got back from directing our feature film debut, “Lake City,” starring Sissy Spacek, Dave Matthews, Rebecca Romjin, Troy Garity, Drea De Matteo, and Keith Carradine.

And I can’t wait to write the sequel to HERO!

Why tell Thom’s story in the form of novel instead of a movie or comic book/graphic novel?
I answer this question a little bit in your question later about adapting books to the screen. The short answer is I believe you must always begin with the story. Story and characters must come first. And a novel allows you to do just that more than any other medium.

YA literature in particular allows me to focus on story first. From my earliest age, ever since I read “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe,” I wanted to be a YA author. No constraints whatsoever, so I can be as true to the story as possible. If it’s not authentic, if it doesn’t feel real—even if it’s fantasy—then I’m not doing my job very well.

Even so, I’d love to adapt HERO into a comic book/graphic novel and a movie. Reach as many people as possible with this groundbreaking story. Maybe even a TV show, too. Those characters have so much more to do and say. Once you create the characters, the stories just keep coming, and these folks keep telling me they have more to do. Sometimes it’s all I can do to keep up with them. They’re very much alive.

But I did begin with the world of teen literature, because I knew this would be such a daring concept, and that librarians and publishers are wonderfully forward thinking. Truly the keepers of the imagination. You saved my life growing up. Libraries were always a safe haven for me when I was young. I was free from my peers to explore, to think for myself. Such a gift. And as Dad often pointed out, they were basically free, which fit our budget nicely.

Overall, I trust completely in the power of books, so that’s where I started.

Why write for teens?
Because most people talk down to them, and I don’t. Teens are anything but stupid. They may be a little newer to the planet, sure, but you should never judge teens by MTV or any of that other stuff that gets marketed directly toward them. It’s my experience that all teens are in the process of discovering just how special they are. Aim high when you write, and you’ll find them, and they’ll find you.

One of the most fascinating things about working on Narnia was to see what a genius CS Lewis was at leaving things to a young person’s imagination. That was one of our biggest challenges in making the movie: making what a child’s mind can conjure into something real. Working with two storytelling geniuses, our director Andrew Adamson, and posthumously CS Lewis himself, really taught me almost everything I needed to know. Working on a documentary about Maurice Sendak didn’t hurt either. That man is full of such wisdom and inspiration.

I mentioned that my parents introduced me to the power of literature from a very young age, and for some reason it just took with me. I just read everything I could get my hands on. I think for any of us who long to connect with the world, great books are a source of tremendous solace and inspiration. I feel very lucky, on a good day, to contribute to such a rich tradition of young adult literature. It’s been a dream of mine for years to write for young adults. I hope I can do it half as well as my own literary HEROES.

Having grown up in the south, I can also tell you this much. Old bigots don’t worry me. They won’t be around much longer.

But new bigots? They terrify me. And yet, people make the mistake of talking down to young people. Young people are much smarter than most adults give them credit for. And that’s why I write for them. You can give someone a lot to think about. You can open up minds.

Who are your favorite writers?
Margaret Atwood
Tim O’Brien
Alan Moore
William Faulkner
Flannery O’Connor
Octavia Butler
Jorge Luis Borges
Lorrie Moore (maybe we’re related)
Daniel Clowes
James Sturm
Allan Heinberg
Dennis Potter
CS Lewis (big surprise)

And all the writers who gave me quotes for my book–what an honor!
Maurice Sendak, Jim Howe, Stan Lee, Lisi Harrison. And Lloyd Alexander. That one was really special.

Other than The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, the book that meant the absolute most to me as a young boy was Lloyd Alexander’s “The Black Cauldron.” I remember crying the night I finished reading it. It’s really heartbreakingly bittersweet at the end of the epic adventure. From there I read all of his Prydain Chronicles. After the first Narnia movie came out, I contacted him about getting a live action version of those books going as a movie and we became friends. I learned so much from him, I’d always idolized him as a writer.

So when it came time to ask for author quotes for HERO I called him up and asked If I could send the book. He said in a raspy voice, “Perry, you better hurry up, I’m dying.” Now, I’m also good friends with another literary legend, Maurice Sendak. My partner Hunter and filmmaker Spike Jonze and I are making a documentary about Maurice. Maurice is friends with Lloyd in fact, and Maurice is always joking around with us to hurry up with things or he may die on us. I always thought that this morbid sense of humor was their way of using humor to take the bite out of the fear of the great unknown that awaits us in the great hereafter.

Then I went to the BEA with HERO, and someone told me Lloyd had died just the week before. My eyes welled up with tears. He hadn’t been joking when I called him.

And during his last time in this realm, he took the time to send me a letter with his quote for HERO. I think I may have the last thing Lloyd ever wrote. That letter is forever a treasure of mine. Sometimes I just look at it, I like to feel the paper on my fingers. It gives me this wonderful and terrifying feeling that I am carrying on a very important tradition. It’s a gift and a responsibility that I take very seriously. To give back.

(continued in Part 2)

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