By Sharon Gittleman
Kit Webster has a secret – a hidden truth that propels him into the struggle of his life. Does he have the courage to come to terms with being a gay teen and the daring to fight for his dreams? That’s the ultimate question in Kathe Koja’s exciting new novel, “Talk.”
While “Talk” is listed as a young adult novel, the book’s vibrant characters and wistful evocative story will intrigue adults as well as youths.
Koja said capturing teenagers’ attention isn’t easy.
“They don’t feel duty bound to read a boring book,” said Koja, a Berkley resident. “Some adults say, ‘I started it, I have to finish it.'”
Adults have more in common with teens than many realize, she said.
“I think a lot of human experience is human experience no matter the age,” she said. “We all feel jealous, we all deceive ourselves, we all yearn for things, especially people. I think those feelings are really universal, especially in those young adult years when you’re coming into your own sexuality and a coherent philosophy in terms of, ‘Who am I and how do I fit in this world? What’s important to me?'”
Koja, who is not gay, said LGBT characters and themes are appearing more often than they have in the past, in both teen and adult fiction.
“I did with this book what I do with all books. I start out with a character and I look at who they are and where they are going,” she said. “I write about things that mean something to me – to be who you are and not to allow yourself to be stopped by fear, or by your own unwillingness to take that first big leap.”
Koja did a lot of research to ensure the teens in her book, both gay and straight, spoke and acted in a true-to-life fashion. She sat in on theater sessions at Berkley High School and in meetings of the youth group at Affirmations Lesbian and Gay Community Center in Ferndale.
“They were gracious enough to let me come in and let me pick their brains,” she said.
Koja said she asked the gay youths where they saw their experiences portrayed accurately in our culture and what made them roll their eyes and say, “ugh.”
While some parents brutally cut their LGBT children from their lives, one Affirmations teen told Koja other parents go to equal extremes to show their love and encouragement.
“I think that’s another one of those universal things,” she said. “You want your parents to approve of you and support you but you want them to butt out.”
Koja’s research, and the resulting true-to-life feel of her hero and heroine, isn’t the only factor that helps draw readers into her characters’ minds. The two central figures each tell their stories in alternating chapters, their thoughts often pouring fourth in streams of consciousness, creating an intimate authentic portrayal of emotions and events.
“That’s how we think and experience the world,” she said.
Animals often appear in Koja’s books, even if only as supporting players, as in “Talk.”
“I’m an animal rights person, a PETA member,” she said. “I do volunteer work for animals. I have three rescued cats from the Michigan Anti-Cruelty Society in Detroit.”
An author’s life isn’t as exciting as some may think, Koja said.
“I’m really boring,” she said. “I spend a lot of time alone in a room writing.”
Koja hopes her readers will extract one important thing from her books.
“Pleasure,” she said. “I want my books to serve a good purpose, but to do that we have to start with pleasure.”
Whether gay or straight, Koja said it’s our common qualities that make us human but it’s our differences that make us fun.
“To not respect that is to miss out on being human,” she said. “If we were all Great Danes it wouldn’t be much of a dog show.”