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Boy's Life : Sex and the Single Kid

March 21, 1993|RON KOERTGE | Koertge's most recent book, "The Harmony Arms" (Little, Brown), was named an American Library Assn. Best Book last year

Right after my second Young Adult novel got a long, wonderful review in the New York Times and I was famous for about as long as it would take to carry Andy Warhol 15 yards, I got a letter from a gay man.

"Thank goodness," he said, "that one of us is writing the truth for teen-agers in books like 'The Arizona Kid.' "

When I wrote back, I mentioned, among other things, that I wasn't gay. His reply lit up my mail box: "How dare you pretend to speak for us!"

When my publisher flew me to one of the big American Library Assn. shindigs in Chicago a few years ago, a lot of people came up to shake my hand and to say nice things. One young woman from the South took my picture standing by an ice sculpture, then said she'd read "The Arizona Kid" and its predecessor, "Where the Kissing Never Stops," twice.

"I love your books. I just can't buy them for my library."

"Really?" I asked. "Why not?"

Eyes down, she murmured, "Oh, you know."

I started to write novels for teen-agers in 1984 because I was dissatisfied with myself and my own work. Every poem I wrote was like Caspar--a wisp of ectoplasm that just wanted to be liked--while both adult novels after "The Boogeyman" were too derivative to publish. So a friend of mine suggested I try something entirely different, "like a YA. You can write in first person and you don't have to take things so seriously."

I trudged to the nearest library and checked out two or three. Had they been clothes, all could have hung in the closet of any assistant manager for Sears--they were drip-dry, wrinkle-free, sky-blue. Worse, they struck me as bogus resumes of what it was like to be 16.

I didn't know then how many frank and wonderfully written YAs there were out there (Robert Cormier's "Fade" is the first that comes to mind), and it's just as well that I didn't. When I told my friend that I couldn't write a book like the ones I'd just read, she said, "So write your own."

I figured I had two things going for me: 1, I was an inveterate smart aleck, and 2, I remembered the volatile, humid microclimate of adolescence. Like someone at the race track with just $2 who sees a 60-1 shot turn to stare at him from the paddock, what did I have to lose?

In "Where the Kissing Never Stops," the narrator and his singlemom have a frank talk about condoms and responsibility. A young librarian from Baltimore wrote me to say that right after that conversation are her favorite lines in YA literature:

Walker and his girlfriend Rachel are parked in the family car when he is overcome, prematurely, by desire. His dazed partner asks, "I can't get pregnant from this, can I?" Embarrassed by his body's willfulness, he replies, "I've heard of sperms swimming for miles, but never after hiking over the upholstery first."

Billy Kennedy, the eponymous Arizona Kid, goes to Tucson for the summer. Interested in veterinary medicine, he'll stay with Wes, his gay uncle, and work on the backstretch of a local race track.

Wes is a decent guy, witty and kind. When Billy gets serious about a girl, Uncle Wes acts in loco parentis, giving his nephew sensible advice about condoms, HIV and safe sex.

Nietszche once called a letter "an unannounced visit, the postman the agent of rude surprises." Well, me too, Fred. These three all came on the same day:

"What an unsavory idea--a young boy alone with a gay adult."

"I'm supposed to believe that it's okay with this gay guy that his nephew has a girlfriend?"

"This is not a book for young people!"

In "The Boy in the Moon," Nick and Frieda--both about to graduate from high school--fall in love and then make love. Both are dismayed that it's painful for Frieda. Two letter writers found that kind of frankness "unnecessary in a book for children."

It might have been naive of me think that straight talk about sex would be universally welcomed in the secret garden of children's books, or that a gay character in a YA would be treated like another character. But I was simply looking for something interesting to write. As I was planning "The Arizona Kid," I remember walking with my wife down by the Arroyo in South Pasadena. We were trying things out: What if the uncle were a zealous vegetarian? What would it be like if he had just divorced? What would it mean if he were the mayor of Tucson? What if he were gay?

"Now that might be fun to write!" I cried, startling the local squirrels.

When I'm flown somewhere to speak to young people, I tell the story of walking with my wife and of looking for a character it would be fun to talk to for the eight or nine months it takes me to write a novel. I tell every audience I shouldn't be given too much credit for humanism and tolerance because my basic motive was selfish: I wanted to stay interested in the book, to see my name in print again, to make another few thousand dollars.

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