I met Chris last year at my first live reading for HomoCentric at Stories Bookstore in Silver Lake. I saw him again at the West Hollywood Book Fair in October, where we both read for HomoCentric again. I recently did my third reading for HomoCentric (I hope Hank appreciates this plug) earlier this month and was excited to once again be in the same lineup as Chris.
Since our first meeting, I had been meaning to purchase his debut novel “XOXO Hayden”, about the unlikely friendship that develops between a suburban teenager and an international pop star, but had yet to do it.
But in his introduction of Chris, Hank, the proprietor of HomoCentric, pointed out the fact that there was ONE copy left of the novel. I could barely pay attention to the rest of the reading because I was determined to pick up that one remaining copy and was strategizing as to how.
Three days later, I sent Chris an email – pissed off that I tore through the 300-page novel so quickly. I just couldn’t put the book down. So I asked him if he’d do this Q&A. He graciously agreed and I’m thrilled.
1) How did XOXO Hayden come about?
Well, I am a huge Smiths fan. They wrote a song called, "Paint a Vulgar Picture" about a suburban boy's obsession with a famous singer. It's always been one of my favorite songs and after I listened to it for probably the thousandth time, inspiration struck.
2) Describe your writing process for XOXO Hayden. Does this reflect your typical process or did you have to make adjustments to it?
XOXO Hayden was the first book I wrote. It was somewhat linear because there was a definite beginning and end - it was just a matter of connecting everything in between chronologically. So I would say the process was pretty straight forward, especially when I compare it with the novel I'm working on now, which has many temporal shifts and three rotating points of view.
3) What made you choose Southern California instead of your home state of Massachusetts to tell Stephen’s story?
When I was in college, my brother moved to Orange County for a couple of years. I had never been to the west coast and was fascinated by suburban sprawl, the swirls of tract homes. It was especially interesting because I was in New York City at the time and this world seemed so different from anything I had ever seen on the east coast.
4) How did your small town Massachusetts upbringing inform that?
During adolescence, when you're in the process of discovering yourself and constructing your identity, it's easy to feel frustrated with the physical world around you. It doesn't matter if you're in a small New England town or a west coast suburb, the sense of isolation is the same. I think it's natural to examine and question your physical surroundings just as much as your internal, personal world.
5) How much of the novel reflects your own personal experience?
The timeline of my life essentially parallels Steven's life, so I think there tends to be more similarities on that level. Unfortunately, I have yet to fall in love with a pop star.
6) What was behind the decision to tell Steven’s part of the story in the first person while Hayden’s was told in the third?
Strangely, I didn't think too much about it. Like I said, it was the first novel I wrote, so I wasn't overly aware of mechanics. I liked the immediacy of the first person with Steven and by contrast, the distance of third person with Hayden. I was hoping the reader would have a desire to get into the first person with Hayden, in the way that was done with Steven, mirroring Steven's inability to ever really get through to Hayden.
7) Do you consider Steven’s parents to be a cautionary tale for parents of a gay son or are they just a reflection of the typical suburban parent existing in some form of oblivion or ignorance when it comes to them?
I think they are representative of the experience parents go through when they find out their child is not heterosexual, at least parents of that era. Hopefully, things are easier now then they were for Steven.
8) What, if anything, are you saying about celebrity in our culture though the character of Hayden?
Well really, looking back, Hayden had it easy, compared to being a celebrity today. Everything happens so quickly with technology. Information is disseminated as it happens- there’s no real privacy or anonymity anymore. I think ultimately, you really have to care about what you do and do it because you have to - not simply because you want to be famous. Hayden always needed that acceptance and love from the public and when it dried up, it became his undoing.
9) Who is/was the Hayden in your life?
There's a little bit of Hayden in my less successful romantic endeavors.
10) What, if anything, are you saying through the character of Hayden about gay celebrities who feel they have to mute or hide their sexuality in order to protect their careers? Do you see any validity in that?
It's silly that it's an issue but unfortunately it's still the case today. While it may be beneficial career wise, I think it's ultimately destructive for that person. There are serious consequences to hiding who you are or denying yourself the full right to your personhood. I guess it's a matter of what's important to that person and it's a decision only they can make.
11) What aspects of XOXO Hayden came up while you were writing that wasn’t planned at the beginning?
Hayden's childhood and back story was something I kind of figured out as I went along. I had no real guide for it in the way that I did with Steven but ultimately I imagined that even though their situations were different, their experiences were emotionally similar.
12) Were there any places you wanted to go in the storytelling that you and/or your editors decided against?
The most difficult part was the sex scenes. I don't think XOXO Hayden falls into the category of a 'romance' book in the genre as we know it, but I also didn't want to shy away from the sex too much. It was challenging to try to find the right balance and tone.
13) What is your favorite scene from the book?
Oddly, it's a scene with just Hayden. When he reaches rock bottom- and is so injured. He hears the piano playing a song and has to get up and play it. For me, it's representative of the artistic drive and the phenomenon of why people feel compelled to paint or to play music.
Art (of any kind) is what keeps us going, what elevates us. Without it, we're just existing. I recently read "the letters of Vincent Van Gogh" and was so amazed by his conviction and desire to paint and improve himself. He had so much faith in what he was doing even though he never received any validation along the way.
14) What has been the greatest feedback you’ve received for XOXO Hayden?
Well, there is an unexpected demographic of readers who have responded positively to it. Several older women have told me how much they liked it and how they were moved by it, which is both flattering and trippy.
15) What has been the most unexpected thing to come out of XOXO Hayden?
I'd have to say being nominated for a Lambda Literary Award.
16) Who are your professional inspirations?
I'm very inspired by music. I'm still like a teenager in that regard. Waiting for a new release, going to shows. Stephin Merritt, Devendra Banhart, Emily Haines, and of course, Morrissey are some of my musical inspirations. In terms of writers, Alan Hollinghurst, Elizabeth Strout, Wally Lamb, James Baldwin, Edmund White and I have a thing for Edith Wharton.
17) Cast the following characters in the movie version of XOXO Hayden: Hayden, Steven, Eve, Jackie, Stephen’s mother, Stephen’s father, Keith, Henry, Susan and Miles.
Okay, this is tough. Though, I don't think Michael Fassbender would be a bad choice for Hayden, at all.
I took the liberty of casting
the other characters myself (I hope Chris won’t mind):
18) What would another book featuring the characters in XOXO Hayden be like?
Steven is happily living in a tract home in suburbia. You can only resist suburbia for so long!
For more on Chris Corkum, check out his website at www.chriscorkum.com.