Called the “queen of heart-breaking prose” by Paste Magazine, Helene Dunbar is the author of BOOMERANG (2018), WE ARE LOST AND FOUND (out fall 2019 from Sourcebooks), and PRELUDE FOR LOST SOULS (Sourcebooks 2020) as well as THESE GENTLE WOUNDS (Flux, 2014), and WHAT REMAINS (Flux, 2015). Over the years, she’s worked as a drama critic, journalist, and marketing manager, and has written on topics as diverse as Irish music, court cases, theater, and Native American Indian tribes. She lives in Nashville with her husband and daughter.
What inspired you to write We Are Lost and Found?
WE ARE LOST AND FOUND is a story that’s been lurking in my head for longer than I’ve been writing fiction. Oddly, a lot of the early jobs and internships I had in my teens and early 20’s were connected, somehow, to the AIDS crisis. When I was training as a drama critic in college William M. Hoffman’s AS IS had just opened on Broadway and my mentor set up an interview with him for me. His play affected me profoundly and a few years later, I worked for the AIDS Activities Office of a state government, writing grant proposals to the CDC which included learning about and being a part of the agency’s outreach initiatives to various communities, and it was truly a life-changing experience.
I think this was the one book I had to wait to write, both in terms of my skills as a writer, and because culturally I almost feel as we are just coming to terms with the extent of our losses and our grief. There are a large number of books and other media coming out in the next few years about AIDS in that time period and I feel as though we needed the distance of time to process the huge scale of our pain.
That being said, my main goal was always to take a snapshot of a very specific moment in time. It’s been easy(ier) to find materials set in the thick of the AIDS crisis, but harder to find stories about that early window during which we had no answers. I was in NYC for 9/11 and I often think of how it must have felt to be 16 or 17 at that time and how horrible and unique that would have been as a coming of age experience. That’s what the AIDS crisis was for me and my friends in many ways. It changed almost everything.
The other motivator is the fact that this disease is still with us, with infection rates remaining frighteningly high, so it felt important to get this story out to readers who were born after that time.
What lessons have you learned since writing your last few books? How did they affect your approach to writing WALAF?
I’m certainly a more skilled writer now than I was when I started out. But aside from craft things, everything I’d say I’ve learned would be on the professional side (such as the value of having the RIGHT agent on your side).
Other than that, WALAF has been a very singular experience and very unrelated to my other projects in almost every way.
What were the biggest challenges in writing We Are Lost and Found? Were there any moments that surprised you?
The style of the book is completely different than anything I’ve written before in that it’s written in short vignettes and with no quotation marks. What’s odd is that, although it wasn’t a deliberate choice, I know where that structure came from. When I graduated college in the late 80’s, one of my best friends gave me a copy of Emily Listfield’s IT WAS GONNA BE LIKE PARIS, which quickly became one of my favorite books. It’s set in the East Village in the early 80’s and has this super gritty feeling of immediacy which felt right for WE ARE LOST AND FOUND. I didn’t necessarily choose to duplicate that style, but that’s how the words his the page when I began to write.
I think there’s always a challenge when you’re writing about a specific time that many readers still remember, particularly one that encompasses so much loss and pain. Time might help you move on, but that devastation and loss doesn’t go away. So I certainly spent a lot of time checking my facts and rechecking myself to make sure that I was telling this story with grace and honesty.
How was writing WALAF different from writing your previous books?
In both every way and in no way. My process for writing this was just as chaotic and slow as my earlier books, unfortunately. But at the same time, I drew so much of it from my own life that I really enjoyed digging deep to put those details in. Additionally, I love research. So I enjoyed that end of things whether it was looking to see which songs were being played in clubs at the time or reading New York Time’s articles.
I was also very careful to take the advice of some very knowledgeable readers who lived through that time as young gay men. Terminology and perspectives weren’t always the same as they are now and it was important to me to stay historically accurate.
What can you tell us about Michael and Gabriel?
Without spoiling anything, Gabriel is the first person who Michael realizes is focused on him as a possible love interest. Michael is surrounded by people like his brother Connor who put themselves out there in a loud way, and people like his best friend James who everyone is drawn to, and people like his other best friend Becky who always seems to be in a relationship. Michael is kind and creative and introspective, but he doesn’t feel as though he stands out, which is difficult when you’re craving love and acceptance. On top of that, add in the uncertainty about whether to come out and when to come out and why to come out and then feel targeted by a plague that no one really understood.
So Gabriel encapsulates everything that Michael wants, yet much of what he fears. And Gabriel does honestly, see all of the good in Michael.
What do you hope readers will take away from WALAF?
There’s a part of me that wants to say “Everything you need to know is in the afterwards,” but of course, I still hope people read my book. 🙂
That being said, I am immensely grateful and humbled to have two closing essays in WALAF: The first is from Ron Goldberg who was a major force in ACT UP NYC in the 80’s and early 90’s and who wrote about his own experiences as a young gay man, moving to New York at that time. The other is co-written by Jeremiah Johnson, HIV project director at Treatment Action Group in New York City. and Jason Walker, community organizer for HIV/AIDS campaigns at VOCAL- NY and discusses what we currently know about HIV/AIDS as well as what’s changed and what hasn’t since the world of WALAF. These are people who are and have been on the frontlines of this fight. Their bravery and courage – and that of those they’ve fought alongside – have literally saved lives and changed our world.
So yes, while the comments I’ve received from readers who have said they want to be best friends with Becky and James touch me deeply, I think if one person either decides to educate themselves or to educate others, or chooses to love and find their own voice, then this book has done its job.
What writing projects are you currently working on?
Well………I’m not sure I can talk about some of them, but PRELUDE FOR LOST SOULS is coming out in August 2020 from Sourcebooks. It’s the story of two best friends living in a town of people who make their living as spiritualists, by contacting the dead. One of the boys is desperate to stay and one of the boys is desperate to leave and when a young pianist arrives in town in search of a mysterious piece of music, it calls everything into question. It’s a story filled with ghosts and love and friendship and hard choices.
And because our readers can never have too many books, what’s currently on your Want to Read shelf?
I have way less reading time than I’d like to. But I’m a huge fan of Maggie Steifvater’s Raven Boys series, so I can’t wait for the first book in her new series, CALL DOWN THE HAWK. On the contemporary side, I can’t wait to see Mia Siegert’s SOMEBODY TOLD ME in print in 2020.
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