Michigan-Born Novelist On How His Small-Town Upbringing Inspired Queer Debut Novel

By |2021-06-21T10:44:56-04:00June 21st, 2021|Michigan, News|

Novelist Robbie Couch, born and raised in Clio, Michigan, does not like birds. Yes, there are birds on the cover of his novel “The Sky Blues.” Yes, there are images of birds on interior pages. But, no, Couch is not a fan. And he isn’t shy about it.

“I hate them,” he tells Pride Source via phone from his home in Los Angeles. “I never want birds to be physically harmed,” he says. “I think that’s a misconception about me. I just don’t want them near me.”

Couch’s fear of birds started, as many fears do, when he was little.

“My first memory on this planet was getting attacked by a swan when I was 3 or 4,” he explains. “I was on a little trolley at a theme park that went through a wooded little park area, and a swan was hanging out there.” The trolley stopped. “And it came over and bit me on the leg.”

He’s had other run-ins. He’s “been shat on many times,” and then there was that probable pigeon pecking that left him with a scratch in Rome. So while he admits that penguins are adorable and deems owls “tolerable,” it’s no wonder he considers the fact that birds are all over “The Sky Blues” ironic. 

But it’s also fitting. Couch, 32, says Swedish artist Jeff Östberg nailed it with the cover art, saying it “perfectly reflected Sky’s story.”

A bird is a fitting symbol for a book about a young man navigating life outside of the closet, trying to figure out where he belongs and creating his own definition of family along the way. It’s about freedom and flight, but also the fear of falling.

Sky Baker, the book’s main character, is the type of person who, Couch says, “falls very hard.” “You learn right from Chapter 1 that he loves hard, and he’s a loyal friend,” Couch says. “His friends mean the world to him, but he’s also in a very vulnerable place when you meet him.”

Vulnerable, but not weak. “He’s certainly confident enough in himself to come out publicly in a small rural town where he’s the only person he knows at his school to be gay,” Couch says. “He’s also someone who’s very curious about the world around him, and that kind of leads him down some roads where he’s trying to figure out some unanswered questions.” 

Couch adds, “Through trying to find answers to those questions, he really becomes himself. He discovers much more about his true self and is much more confident in his own skin.”

“The Sky Blues” is set in Rock Ledge, a fictional small town in Northern Michigan. Couch also grew up in a small Michigan town, which he described as “not great” when it came to being a young gay man.

“It’s certainly not something that’s specific to Clio,” he says. “There really weren’t any openly gay or openly LGBTQ people in that community.”

Couch couldn’t remember any teachers, school officials or coaches who were openly LGBTQ+, and homosexuality “was sort of either frowned upon or just not discussed.”

“There weren’t really any role models in Clio or in my community that I could have looked to that would have helped me feel more comfortable about myself,” he says.

As a result, Couch didn’t come out until college. “I didn’t know what I would face as an openly gay kid in a town with so few openly gay students,” he says. “They definitely dealt with shit. They got bullied, they got ostracized in some ways, and they had to have really thick skin. I saw that I didn’t want that for myself.”

That’s not to say Couch doesn’t have love for Clio. In fact, he says that LGBTQ+ people who grew up in small towns often have a complicated relationship with those places. “There’s oftentimes so many things we love about it, and it holds such a great place in our hearts, but it also comes with some deeply rooted challenges,” Couch says, adding that there can be trauma associated with these places. 

“The name of the book is sort of a nod to that duality,” Couch says. It’s both a reflection of the physical beauty of Northern Michigan where “the blues are bluer” and an acknowledgment that Sky is in a dark place, literally feeling the blues.

But things have changed a lot in Clio. Since the publication of “The Sky Blues,” several GSAs have reached out to Couch to do events — including the Clio High School Diversity Club. 

“It’s so cool to know that a club like that exists, and it reflects progress and changing for the better, so that’s wonderful,” he says. “It was awesome to know the book really resonated with the students there, and it was a very cool experience for me.”

While “The Sky Blues” is set in a small town, it isn’t autobiographical. 

“I definitely relied on my own upbringing in small-town Michigan in a predominantly white rural working-class town to kind of inform the world around Sky,” he says. “But a lot of the specific things he experiences and has to fight through and overcome I didn’t have to deal with.”

For example, there was no “Promposal,” an event looming over Sky with a countdown starting in the first chapter. There’s a guy he likes at school. And he wants to ask this guy to prom. The problem? One doesn’t just ASK someone to prom at Sky’s school. It’s necessary to come up with an elaborate spectacle of some sort, which is stressing Sky out as much as the fact that he doesn’t even know if the guy he likes is gay.

Couch’s family life growing up was completely different from Sky’s.

“My parents are really accepting and loving, and they have been from the beginning,” he says, “and that is not the case with [Sky’s] family.”

The concept of “found family” plays an important role in the book. “[Sky’s] struggling with some family rejection issues at home,” Couch says. “He’s navigating the world in an openly queer body for the first time, and unfortunately, he’s not getting the love and acceptance at home that all queer kids should be getting.”

Couch adds that a big part of Sky’s journey “is realizing that he can find his people and just because someone isn’t a blood relative they can still love you and you can be part of their family.”

If 32-year-old Robbie Couch could go back and tell his teenage self something, he’d say that he couldn’t imagine his life as a straight person.

“I would tell him that it’s gonna be a weird experience, but at some point, you’ll realize your queerness, your gayness is something you consider a strength and something you’re proud of and something that’s such a cool and important part of your identity and who you are and it’s no longer going to be something you’re afraid to show the world or something you think makes you a freak or abnormal or undeserving of certain things,” he says. 

“I would tell him that it gets better.”

“The Sky Blues” is out now. For more info and to buy the book, visit  https://www.robbiecouch.com.

About the Author:

D'Anne Witkowski
D'Anne Witkowski is a writer living in Michigan with her wife and son. She has been writing about LGBTQ+ politics for nearly two decades. Follow her on Twitter @MamaDWitkowski.