Absolute Brightness by James Lecesne is the story of sixteen-year-old Phoebe and the year her younger cousin Leonard changed the lives of her family forever. Phoebe lives with her older sister Diedre and their mother in suburban New Jersey. She works the phone in her mother’s hair salon, making appointments for a wide range of drab housewives and widows, women who’ve not changed their hairstyle in decades.
Enter Leonard, Phoebe’s “cousin” by marriage, who has no where else to go once his step-father decides he can no longer keep him on his Mexican cattle ranch. 13 going on 14, Leonard is flamboyant. There is a scene in Tony Kushner’s play Angels in American where a woman asks the lead character if he is a “typical homosexual.” He replies “Honey, I’m STEREOtypical!” This applies to young Leonard. Leonard longs for a pair of rainbow platform sandals but can’t find one. So he takes eight pairs of neon flip-flops, cuts off the thong part, Superglues the multicolored soles together and valois, he has a pair of rainbow platform sandals. To Phoebe’s dismay, he then wears them everywhere, even to school.
Leonard is an instant hit at the hair salon. He knows exactly how to improve each customer’s look. Though his suggestions seem a bit extreme, he has such a winning personality that he is able to convince all of the regular customers to follow his advice. Soon every little old lady in town has a new simple black dress, because a woman needs a simple black dress no matter what her age. You never know.
It’s clear from the cover that all is not going to go well for Leonard–“Once Leonard Pelkey disappeared, he was everywhere.” But I came to like Leonard so much that I hoped the author would chicken out, and keep Leonard around. No such luck. One night, Leonard goes out for a few hours and does not come back. It’s only afterward that Phoebe can see how poorly she treated him. He was an intrusion on her family and he was so over-the-top all of the time that she tried to ignore him as much as possible. For his part, Leonard saw Phoebe as a friend, admired her, wanted her to like him.
In the second half of the novel, as each character reacts to Leonard’s disappearance, Absolute Brightness becomes a picture of how such an event affects everyone involved. James Lecesne turns what was a comedy into a mystery thriller that is also a believable and profound character study. Pheobe and Diedre are teenagers going through the typical teenage stuff; Leonard upsets their paths, both by his presence and then by his absence. In the end, Mr. Lecesne has written one of the better Young Adult novels I’ve read in some time, one of the best gay themed novels I’ve read this year.
James Lecesne is the writer of the Academy Award Winning short film Trevor and is still active with The Trevor Project. You can see the trailer for Trevor below.
After I read this book and published this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., I decided to ask the author if he would do an interview with me. He agreed. Below is the interview.
Absolute Brightness by James Lescene is one of my favorite reads this summer, one of my favorite YA reads for 2009 at this point. I’m pleased to say that Mr. Lescene agreed to do an interview for Ready When You Are, C.B. Mr. Lescene is also a screen writer who has worked in film and television, and an actor who has starred in his own one man show as well as many other productions. Absolute Brightness is his first Young Adult novel.
I picked up Absolute Brightness on a whim, more-or-less, and was surprised to find you are also the screen writer of the short film Trevor which is about a 14-year-old boy who is just realizing he is gay and is having a difficult time because of it. I saw Trevor at the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in the Castro Theatre back in 1995 where it was widely viewed as one of the best films that year, long or short. I remember wishing the film had been around 15 years earlier, when I was in middle school. I know you weren’t writing the movie for a 14-year-old me, but were you writing it for a 14-year-old version of yourself? How did the film come about?
One morning many years ago, while listening to the morning news on NPR, I heard a report about teenage suicide. The statistics were (and still are) staggering. For example, suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people ages 13 to 25. And gay and lesbian youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. I sat there aghast, thinking, How had we as a society allowed this to happen? How could we let 13 or 14 or 15 year-old boys and girls make this kind of decision, a decision so final, at a time when they’re not even allowed to drive the family car? Why was no one doing anything about it to address this situation, to fix it, to stop it?
I began to think about myself at that age, my concerns, my friends and my crushes. Fortunately I’ve kept every one of my journals since I began writing a the age of thirteen, so I was able to go back and read what I’d written about myself and my feelings at that age. I don’t know which was worse – having to live through the experience or reading the tortured prose of my adolescent self as he was just learning what it meant to be an emotional creature. I read about my first crush when I was 13, and the humiliation and confusion I felt that evening when I called the boy, and his mother answered the phone. She told me that the boy couldn’t come to the phone and I should try not calling him anymore. After that, it was all downhill, because I knew that she had somehow found me out, and the boy and I would no longer be friends. Though I didn’t understand it until years later, my heart quietly broke that night. I went on, of course, because here I am. But the pain of being so misunderstood and at the same time being so alone in my understanding my own emotions was almost unbearable.
Remembering this experience was enough to inspire me to sit down and write a story about a 14-year-old gay boy named Trevor who through a series of diary entries, comes to understand that he’s gay. Rejected by his friends and misunderstood by his parents, Trevor tries to kill himself. Fortunately, he doesn’t go through with it, but instead, comes to understand that his life just might be worth living — even if for only for one more day.
I performed this story as part of my one man show called Word of Mouth; and I still can recall the terror of stepping out onto the stage that first time to perform a piece that was a thinly veiled personal account. As Lily Tomlin once said in her show, Appearing Nightly: “This is a piece about my mother and father. I’ve changed their names to protect them.” Eventually the piece was plucked out of the show and made into a short film
After the success of Trevor, you helped start The Trevor Project which provides a national 24-hour helpline for LGBT teens. The Trevor Project is still going strong some 20 years later. How about the short film? Does Trevor still get screened? I think it would be an excellent movie for middle and high school students, if you can get in past the local school boards.
The Trevor Project is celebrating its eleventh year of saving young lives. In June we received 2,497 calls from all over the country, but mostly from the South and the middle states where support for GLBT issues is less visible and available. Trevor, the film, is still screened occasionally at film festivals — this year it was screened at the Provincetown Film Festival for instance. And the film is included in our TREVOR SURVIVAL KIT, which we make available to counselors and high schools and middle schools throughout the country whenever there is a request. In addition to the helpline (866-4-U-Trevor) we provide an opportunity for kids to write to us for advice online at Dear Trevor. All our services to Young Adults are provided free of charge and are strictly confidential. It’s an amazing miracle that Trevor continues to exist, but it is a miracle that is made possible by the generous donations of people.
In the years since Trevor, Young Adult fiction with LGBT themes has moved not just towards the positive but towards the comic, much the way Trevor addressed the issue of suicide but never stopped being funny. I remember the scene of Trevor trying to take an overdose of his mothers pills while listening to Diana Ross sing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” He couldn’t help himself. The music was too much for him. He started lip synching. I found that same sort of humor in the first half of Absolute Brightness which is one reason why the events later in the novel come as such a shock. Were you tempted to give Leonard Pelkey a happier ending? Though I knew what was going to happen, I kept hoping things would work out somehow.
The amazing thing about writing is that often a story and its characters take on a life of their own. My job is always to tell the truest truth about a situation or about a character that I’ve created. When I started writing the novel, I did want to address a situation that was slightly different and perhaps more current than Trevor, and that was the difficulty of being obviously and openly effeminate in a society that is seemingly more tolerant. Leonard is simply being himself, but as always simply being oneself, whether you are straight or gay, is often a challenge to others who haven’t yet found the courage to be themselves. It isn’t so much Leonard’s sexuality that upsets (and delights) people, it’s his ability to be himself.
It’s very difficult to talk about Absolute Brightness without spoilers. The plot changes dramatically halfway through the novel, then there is another plot twist and a final reveal at the novel’s close that, I think, calls what we believe to be true into question. I’m just going to plunge in and ask the questions I want to ask. Readers beware. Spoilers may occur. Did you take any heat over what happens to Leonard? I think if I’d read Absolute Brightness 25 years ago, I would have made some noise about it. Trevor lives and finds love; why can’t Leonard? How can Pheobe reconcile with Travis after what he did to Leonard? What sort of feedback have you had from teenage readers?
Without giving too much away, I’ll say this — I got so many text messages from my friends as they read the book. And the emails that I received from YA readers expressed just as much surprise at the turn of events in ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS. And as far as Leonard finding love or experiencing a happy ending, I think that he came into the community of Neptune and awakened everyone to their full potential, he made people see that they were worth while and that they could overcome their circumstances. Not bad for a kid of 14.
What I wanted to show more than anything in this novel is that good and evil reside in each one of us. And that the purpose of evil is to incite the goodness in others. So the evil that Travis did (and he did do it) actually encourages Phoebe to do good and to try and see the good in Travis. If Leonard was able to see it in Travis she figures it must be there. And this, in the end, is Leonard’s contribution to Phoebe. She is forced now to look beyond the surface reality of each person to see their inner self.
One thing I admire about Absolute Brightness is how well fleshed out the characters are. Many YA novels just sketch in a detail or two and leave the rest up to the reader, but your characters feel much closer to real people. Will you revisit any of them again? It struck me that all of them may have more to say, Pheobe and Deidre in particular.
I think they’ve had their journey with me. Though adapting those characters into movie form would make me (and them) so happy. A chance to live with them again. And have many more people come to know them.
You are certainly a very busy man, author, actor and activist. You’ve worked on stage and in print with people like Eve Ensler, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, played lead roles and one man shows for many years, written for television including an Emmy nominated adaptation of Further Tales of the City, been involved with The Trevor Project and The After The Storm Foundation, and I’m pleased to see that a new novel will be coming out soon. How does your work in one field influence that in another? Do you try to start fresh with each new project or does one thing lead to and carry over into the next? How did you come to write YA fiction?
All these various aspects of my career come under one heading: STORYTELLER. That’s what I do. How that story gets told and in what form is often a mystery to me. Things come down the pike and ideas get born inside my head. I can never tell where the next thing will come from and how. But I consider myself a human antenna picking up stories and trying to tell them as honestly as I can. With Absolute Brightness, I wanted to explore the business of good and evil and figure out for myself just how and why it operated in us. Around the time that I began the novel there was a lot of talk in the press about “evil-doers” and there was a great movement to separate people into either a good camp or a bad camp. I’m always suspicious of this kind of separation and yet I’m aware, living in the real world, that real evil does exist. I wrote this story because it pitted good against evil and demonstrated to me how it’s possible to draw out value from even the most evil circumstances. And in fact, this is what I think we are here to do — to create value no matter what the circumstances. As it happened, my agent had the idea to bring this book to a very brilliant and accomplished publisher/editor (Laura Geringer) at Harper Collins and she was the first to make an offer.
When I was in high school there was a YA book about two boys who fall in love called Trying Hard to Hear You that ‘went around’ for a year or so. I stole it from the school library so no one would know I was reading it. I later returned it, secretly of course. (Author Patrick Ryan had a similar experience with A Boy’s Own Story.) Can you list any YA books that inspired you to write Absolute Brightness or any that you read as a teenager that are near-and-dear to you?
There are a few books that rocked my world when I was a YA, and they still remain an inspiration to me. I find myself reading them every couple of years and they still seem the greatest books around — CATCHER IN THE RYE by J.D. Salinger, MEMBER OF THE WEDDING by Carson McCullers, and of course TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee.
You’ve been very active in the theatre for many years, including a role in the New York production of Cloud Nine, which both my spouse and I love. (We went to see a recent production of it in San Francisco twice we liked it so much.) Who do you think we should keep an eye on these days? Are there any shows likely to tour the country or to pop-up in regional productions that we should look out for?
The musical SPRING AWAKENING is amazing and really tackles new ground in terms of what it’s like to be a teenager. And even though it’s set in 19th century Germany, the rock music (written by Duncan Sheik) brings the concerns and vernacular right up to date. I saw it about 14 times when it was in NY and now it’s touring worldwide. Also, Eve Ensler who wrote the Vagina Monologues is creating a new theater piece for teen age girls called I AM AN EMOTIONAL CREATURE. It will be touring the country some time in the next couple of years and don’t miss it. And another thing not to miss is the musical version of TALES OF THE CITY which ought to be coming to San Francisco some time in the next year or so. Armistead Maupin, who wrote the original books which the musical is based on, was way ahead of us all in trying to figure out how we could create alternative families for ourselves. Those characters who inhabit Barbary Lane have a special place for those of us who have tried to carve out original lives for ourselves and our loved ones.
I regularly feature videos of my dog, Dakota, a Bassett hound with a fondness for chewing books. So I like to end each interview by asking if you’ve ever had a pet with similar tastes and just what sort of material that pet liked to eat.
My dog Sophie! She even has a book written about her (STANLEY & SOPHIE by Kate Jennings), which just came out in paperback. Sophie would probably just eat the book, rather than read it. She’s unfazed by celebrity or book sales. But I highly recommend it if you love dogs.
Thanks again for agreeing to an interview for Ready When You Are, C.B.
Mr. Lescene’s new novel, Virgin Territory, about a 15-year-old boy who sees visions of the Virgin Mary on the golf course where he works each summer, is due out in Fall of 2010. For more information about James Lescene see his website. My review of Absolute Brightness is here.