Interview with Adam Sass, Author of Surrender Your Sons

Adam Sass began writing books in Sharpie on the backs of Starbucks pastry bags. He’s sorry it distracted him from making your latte. Raised in an Illinois farm town, his desire for a creative career took him to Chicago, New York, and currently, Los Angeles. He is a Creative Producer for ATTN:, an issues-driven social media video creator. His short story 98% Graves was nominated by Writer’s Digest for Best Science Fiction Story of 2015. His debut YA novel Surrender Your Sons is slated for release Fall 2020 by Flux.

Adam Sass

What can you tell us about your debut novel SURRENDER YOUR SONS?

The pitch I sold is SURRENDER YOUR SONS follows Connor Major, a gay teen kidnapped and taken to a conversion therapy camp on a forgotten island, where he teams up with the other LGBTQ+ teens to uncover the camp’s dark secrets and expose them. It’s a young adult mystery about how danger can hide in the friendliest-looking environments. I want all readers–queer or not–to see the villains in my book and be able to recognize the ways in which evil hides in plain sight in our daily lives.

Who is Connor Major?

Connor comes from low, low, lower-income country folk. The kind of family the news likes to call “white working class.” He’s had a chaotic home life from the jump–his dad’s been out of the picture since he was 12, he lost his grandma, and then his mom tipped over from ordinary religious into hyper-conservative zealotry. His mom has had a troubled life, but she and Connor always considered themselves close buddies, taking on whatever comes. But when Connor came out earlier in the year, they started radically drifting apart. It’s been an intense pain for both of them, and they genuinely want to get back to the way things were, although “going back” isn’t something Connor can or wants to do. He has a boyfriend and a vision for his life that doesn’t include the closet. So they’re at an impasse. Connor is funny. He’s short and scrappy, like a terrier–always has a sharp remark for people, which gets him in trouble constantly. He’s resourceful, determined, and tries his best to take things in stride. Even in his darkest moments, Connor always finds the humor or heart in a situation. He’s an unstoppable force.

SURRENDER YOUR SONS is a really cool concept that has never really been touched in YA fiction. What was the inspiration behind this book?

Conversion therapy has enjoyed some really fabulous depictions in fiction and non-fiction, with the memoir Boy Erased, and in YA–Miseducation of Cameron Post and Orpheus Girl, which is dropping in the next month or so. What I believe makes SURRENDER YOUR SONS unique is that conversion therapy isn’t really the plot, it’s the setting of a mystery. My inspiration was I wanted to put these characters that we see so rarely into a thrilling, action/adventure story. Those other books are wonderful dramas–Cameron Post is even full of very funny moments amidst the hurt–but with SYS, I wanted to take this story into a popcorn movie direction that had the adventure, humor, and scares of a big Hollywood movie, but didn’t sacrifice the truth of what conversion therapy does to people or belittle it as something silly or jokey.

What was the first sentence you wrote for this book? Did you keep it intact or did you change it?

This book has had a million facelifts on its way to getting published, but an early first sentence was “The Reverend moved closer to Connor Major and blocked his way out.” The Reverend is and has always been the antagonist of SURRENDER YOUR SONS–the immovable object to Connor’s unstoppable force. The Reverend is a large, foreboding, and mysterious man who is responsible for Connor’s mother’s evolution into a person with more extreme religious views. Connor knows the Reverend is the problem in his life that won’t go away, and as the story progresses and he’s taken to conversion therapy, he starts to realize exactly how much the Reverend is standing between him and a life of freedom.

What is your favorite scene you’ve ever written in SYS, and why is it your favorite?

My favorite scene I can’t talk about, but what I adored writing were the scenes where Connor and his new friends begin organizing against the camp. It’s everything I wanted–it’s the Mission: Impossible team I’ve been eager to write, but with queer kids. They’re this microcosm of the larger LGBTQ+ community, and I loved putting Connor in a position where he couldn’t just do whatever he wanted, he had to work with other points of view–kids from different racial and gender backgrounds who had been at the camp longer, who knew the dangers better, who had stronger ideas than he did. They bicker, they don’t agree, they’re sometimes at odds with each other, but they’re all in the same frying pan and the only way out is to community build. It’s Mission: Impossible, but make it a metaphor for the struggles of LGBTQ+ action planning.

What books did you read as a teenager, and how do they affect the things you write today?

Goosebumps kicked things off for me, like these mini Twilight Zone episodes that didn’t always have happy endings, that were about people’s darker impulses, and as one of the grouchier teens in my school, I really embraced that. Those books brought me to the more adult, deadlier ones, like Fear Street. It’s difficult answering this because looking back, I realize how much I was starved for seeing myself in anything I was reading. That might explain why I jumped quickly to adult books that may have been more willing to admit that gay people EXISTED, even if they maybe weren’t the best representation. One book that was key for me was Christopher Rice’s A Density of Souls. I read it my senior year of high school, and it scared the hell out of me, even though it’s just a drama. It scared me because it spoke so frankly about gayness and gay life and I wasn’t ready to confront that about myself. What I learned from that, though, is that teens can handle the tough stuff. Don’t shy away from writing something, even if it’s a harsh truth. It may hurt to read at first, but it’s healthy to know as much as you can about the world, the people in it, and yourself.

What are your top five favorite books?

In no particular order:
Naked by David Sedaris: I would kill to be able to observe life with this much humor and complexity.
Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith: this got me into YA. It’s queer emotional drama set against the backdrop of a goofy 50s sci-fi armageddon plot. What’s not to love?
Order of the Phoenix by you-know-who: A hot take, but it’s my favorite Potter. I love seeing people band together out of necessity, and OOTP nails so much about being 15–that every adult is being a total unhelpful asshole for no reason.
Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roehrig: this is such a gem, so much heart, and it’s singlehandedly responsible for making me believe in a thriller with an effeminate gay boy as a lead.
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes: such a brutal read, but a perfect nailbiter. It uses time travel in a way I’ve never seen and captures the essence of how male violence against women can stretch across generations.

Interview : YA SH3LF

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