It’s hard to believe that I’ve been writing professionally for 20 years, but here we are. Bleeding Hearts, the first book in my Killian Kendall Mysteries series, was first published in 2001. And yet, somehow, Killian has only aged three years! Unlike me.
(Side note: If Killian had aged in real time, he’d be 36 now!)
So much has changed in the last two decades — the world, me, and the publishing industry, just to name a few. When I started writing, there were VERY few queer YA books available. It was basically just Alex Sanchez, Brent Hartinger and me back in those days. I didn’t even set out to write a YA series (and I’m still not sure that’s how I’d describe it, especially now), but the age of my protagonist in that first book meant that’s how it was categorized by many, so I embraced it. Now, LGBTQ+ YA is thriving as a genre.
Gay mysteries, however… And let’s not even get started on gay romance. While the YA genre seems to be more robust than ever, books about gay men by authentically gay voices seem few and far between these days, a situation not helped by the fact that there are fewer and fewer queer presses. But that’s a different post.
During the pandemic, I was struck by a sense of nostalgia that was unexpected and, at times, disconcerting. I’ve read that this was fairly common, that many of us found ourselves thinking about times that were maybe less complicated and scary, searching for comfort in the familiar. For some, that meant binging favorite old TV shows or listening to songs from their younger years on repeat. I may have done some of that, too, but mainly I found myself seeking out the gay stories I’d read during my coming out years.
As I read these stories I hadn’t thought about in twenty years, two things really stood out to me. The first was how much these stories influenced my own worldview at the time, and the second was how much that worldview has changed in the ensuing years.
So many of those books and stories written in late-90s/early aughts were almost painfully heteronormative. The sex shaming and seemingly pathological need to be “straight-acting” or “normal” felt shocking through the lens of today.
That got me thinking, though, about cultural shifts. That era of queer culture was heavily influenced by a combination of societal blows. It was the age of DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and Matthew Shepard. We were at the tail end of the AIDS crisis and, for many, “promiscuous” sex equaled a death sentence. The only queer people on television (and there weren’t many) fell into two categories — camp stereotypes or sexless eunuchs. Movies weren’t much better. We certainly didn’t have a Lil Nas X to look up to.
We’ve come a long way, baby. Between the sex-positivity movement, better HIV treatment, PrEP, and more representation in media, those ideas feel archaic, at best. And that’s a good thing.
Yet, I knew the early iterations of my books were just as bad. In the original version of Bleeding Hearts, 16-year-old Killian was a bit judgmental and stuffy, a product of his time. In the most recent rewrite, reissued in 2017, I was able to bring him into the present, adjusting his views to feel more modern (along with adding things like texting and cell phones and getting rid of dial-up internet!), though, let’s be honest, he’ll always be a bit of prude. Now, however, his narrow-mindedness when it comes to sex is mainly due to his oppressive religious upbringing and less about conforming to society. And he even grows out of that mentality eventually! After all, he did date a former escort for a while, and in A Kind of Death, out later this year, he continues to explore his sexuality in new ways.
So here we are, twenty years, five Killian novels — with one more on the way — and one book of short stories later…and still going strong. Killian may still be 19, but I’m certainly not. And I’m grateful for that. I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to grow, evolve and change my views. I’m equally thankful that Killian has had the opportunity to do the same. Thanks for coming on that journey with us.