by Keith Orr
It’s a mystery.
It’s a coming out story.
It’s both. “Last Seen Leaving” by Caleb Roehrig is a coming out mystery. Not only is it successful on each level, but both the mystery and (especially) the coming out story are better served by the hybrid genre. Don’t be fooled. This is not a brilliant-kid-detective-mystery. This is a story that captures the fear of sexuality and coming out as a young adult, challenges assumptions, and ultimately rings true. This is a coming out story in which coming out is integral to the character, and a part of a larger plot and experience.
Flynn Doherty’s girlfriend, January McConville is missing. The cops figure Flynn must know something. Not only does he know nothing, but the more he tries to make sense of it all, the more he wonders if his perception of his girlfriend is all wrong. Flynn meets January’s new friends at her new school. Stories conflict and facts don’t add up.
On top of it all, Flynn has secrets of his own. He is afraid to talk to cops, or even friends, in fear of exposing his secrets. Ultimately, learning the truth about January forces Flynn to confront the truth about himself.
January is as central a character in this novel as Flynn, and yet she has disappeared before the first page. We only know her through flashbacks and statements from friends, family and acquaintances. In other words, we only know her through the perceptions of others. Since Flynn’s life is based on protecting how others perceive him, the entire novel is built on perceptions, and we are never sure if we are seeing the character, or seeing the character through smoke and mirrors.
I asked Caleb about how he came to write this young-adult-coming-of-age-coming-out-mystery.
“I’ve always been a suspense junkie, and so, reading or writing, I generally gravitate towards mysteries and thrillers – and, in particular, I love stories that revolve around missing persons. Not knowing what happened to the central figure in a story opens the door to so many intriguing possibilities – it could be a book about murder, or kidnapping, or something else entirely. It’s not a “whodunit” but a “what happened?” I always wanted to write one of my own, but could never figure out what my angle would be.
“Meanwhile, I also really wanted to write a book about a gay teenager – something that could contribute to what is an expanding canon of work intended for young readers that explores LGBTQ issues – but I couldn’t figure out my angle there, either. When I put the two half-ideas together, though, I realized I had the plot of a single novel.”
Though Caleb has been writing for years, Last Seen Leaving is Caleb’s debut novel and, other than the occasional blog post, his first published work. He landed a book deal in 2015 fulfilling his dream of publication. Caleb told me, “…it’s as good an opportunity as any to let aspiring writers know that sometimes it takes a while to find and create the project that’s Meant To Be. I don’t think I know any writers who nailed it the very first time, and although rejection sucks, it’s an inevitable part of the game. Keep writing, keep reading, and your craft only gets better!”
Caleb has lived in Chicago, Los Angeles and Helsinki, working as an actor and producer in film, television, and the unreal world of reality television. A world traveler on a budget, he has traveled to over 30 countries. But his hometown is Ann Arbor. I asked him about returning to Ann Arbor for his book launch party:
“Coming back to Ann Arbor for my book’s launch means a lot to me. Although I moved away fifteen years ago, it’s still my hometown. It’s where I grew up, it’s where my novel takes place, and – like the characters in “Last Seen Leaving” – it’s where I tangled with a lot of the deeper issues that teenagers face when trying to negotiate their identities within their environment. I have a lot of love for Ann Arbor; it has the great, close-knit feel of a smaller town, with the broader, cultural sensibilities of a big city.”
I also asked him about his relationship with Common Language Bookstore. I had fallen in love with his book. His answer to this question made me fall in love with him.
“As for my history with Common Language, I can’t say enough how much it mattered to me as a teenager that my town had a bookstore that specifically catered to the LGBT community. At a point in time when I was hiding in plain sight (so to speak) and barely able to admit to myself who I really was inside – because I was so afraid of the target that being “different” would paint on my back – there existed this amazing place right in the center of town that was a positive acknowledgement of that identity. I could walk through the door of Common Language and, even if just for a few minutes, stop being constantly afraid of being perceived as “gay”. Having a place that not only embraced that part of me, but also celebrated it, was absolutely crucial to my self-confidence. I couldn’t be more thrilled that the launch is taking place there.”
You can help Caleb Roehrig celebrate the launch of Last Seen Leaving at Common Language Bookstore in Ann Arbor on Oct. 11 at 7 p.m. Copies of the book will be available for sale and the author will be available to autograph your copy. Wine and light refreshments will be served.