Playing by the Book

S. CHRIS SHIRLEY

It is my pleasure to introduce S. Chris Shirley, award-winning author and director, whose first novel, Playing by the Book, was recently published by Magnus Books. Chris, before we start, I want to tell you how much I loved your book. Every time I put it down, I felt like I had walked away from a friend in mid-conversation.

Playing by the Book is the story of a high school student, Jake Powell, who comes to New York the summer before his senior year for a 6-week internship in journalism at Columbia University. The stakes are high. If he does well and receives an award, he can pursue a career in journalism. If not, he has to go back home and follow in his father’s footsteps; his father is a minister at a fundamentalist church, One-Way Bible, which rejects homosexuality, an issue the protagonist has been dealing with for some time.

Chris, what made you decide to write this particular story?

First of all, thank you so much for having me here today, Lorenzo!

I was originally inspired to write this novel after hearing a fundamentalist Southern pastor—whom I respect very much—say some very hurtful things against homosexuals from the pulpit. I wondered if there was any possible scenario that could bring this Preacher around on the topic, then thought that if he had a son that turned out to be gay, perhaps he might come around a bit. Or not. It was hard to say, but as I turned this scenario over in my mind, I realized that the more interesting story would be told from the point of view of this fictitious gay son and whether he could survive growing up in such a household.

But that was only half of my inspiration. You see, even as this preacher was saying that gay people would burn in hell, I had great empathy for him. He is a good and caring man and a pillar of his community. Of course, I knew that several of my New York friends—many of whom are atheist—would dismiss him as ignorant just as this preacher would dismiss them as plain wrong. I had lived long enough in both “worlds” to understand them and felt a bit trapped between the two. I realized that this may be a tension that other people felt and wanted to examine that as well.

So I set out to write a story that explored the original scenario of a gay preacher’s son, but decided that it had to be written in a way that straddled these two “worlds”: where red state meets blue state, fundamentalist Christian meets Atheist, and gay meets straight.

Are you a PK?—for those who don’t know, the acronym means a Preachers kid. Your depiction of the pressure a minister’s child feels is so on point, it’s hard to attribute it only to research. In fact, I’d love to know how much of the story is autobiographical.

Thank you for the compliment! I’m not a Preacher’s Kid (my father was a businessman) but I was raised in fundamentalist Christian household. I interviewed several PK’s while writing this book, but I think the research that really helped this family come alive was around what it’s like to be a preacher as well as a preacher’s wife. In doing so, I realized that all three members of the family had to have a goal they were striving for: Jake wants to win an award at Columbia (as you stated above), The Preacher wants to launch an aggressive church building program, and Anna (Jake’s mom) is called upon to take a leadership role during a time of family crisis.

The actual plot of the book is not my story at all. Like I said earlier, I’m not the son of a Preacher. In addition, I never studied journalism, and I didn’t come out until I was 31. There are some similarities in the world I created for Jake in that I did go to Columbia University, I was raised in small town Alabama, and I did fall in love with a Jewish man although we are no longer together.

But the internal journey for Jake very much reflects my journey in life. Like Jake, I started out as someone who was always looking outside of himself for approval but finally learned to find approval from within. To be honest, this is something that I still struggle with to this day, but I’m in a much better place than I was before I began writing this novel. In fact, writing this book was therapeutic in many ways.

With Playing by the Book, you have made a significant contribution to the LGBT literature. The issue of struggling with “self-acceptance,” however, is so universal, the book will appeal to a vast readership. Was that your goal from the start?

Thanks so much for your kind words, Lorenzo. My main goal with this book was for it to appeal to both the LGBT and the fundamentalist Christian audience. That’s a lofty goal, so I had to come up with a universal theme that appealed to both in order to succeed. As you point out, that theme is one of self-acceptance and it is indeed universal so hopefully the book appeals to an even broader audience.

Although this book is hailed as your first novel, it’s clear you are no novice writer. What else have you written?

While this is technically my first novel, I wrote four prior versions of this very book—from beginning to end—before this fifth version was published. And I’m not even counting the fact that it was originally a screenplay. So, it would not be inaccurate to say that this is my fifth novel—it’s just that I kept writing the same story over and over again until I finally got it right. In addition, I also wrote/directed an MTV-Logo Top 10 music video and a short film that played at film festivals internationally. I’ve also written several unpublished short stories, three unproduced screenplays, and countless short scripts.

You are President of the Board of the Lambda Literary. Can you tell us what the Foundation does? How long have you been involved with them?

I’ve been involved with Lambda Literary for five years. Lambda Literary believes Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer literature is fundamental to the preservation of our culture, and that LGBTQ lives are affirmed when our stories are written, published and read. No other nonprofit organization does more to promote LGBT literature. Our programs include:

• The Lambda Literary Awards: “The Lammys” are held annually in New York City and attended by over 500 people. These awards identify and celebrate the best lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender books of the year (in 24 different categories) and affirm that LGBT stories are part of the literature of the world. The Awards ceremony consistently draws an audience representing every facet of publishing.

• Lambda Literary Review: Our web magazine publishes more LGBT book reviews than any other source in the world and also includes in-depth author interviews and a daily stream of publishing industry news.

• Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices: A week-long residency that nurtures the skills of up-and-coming writers under the guidance of some of our community’s most accomplished authors.

• LGBT Writers in Schools: A project that places our brightest writers into high school and college English classrooms to discuss LGBT literature with young people.

Here are two questions my writing colleagues would love to know: How long did it take you to write Playing by the Book? What are your writing habits (do you have a set time for writing every day?

Playing by the Book took me eight years to write and was originally a screenplay (my first screenplay—I’ve since written two more screenplays).

What’s next on your writing agenda? There’s certainly room for a sequel to Playing by the Book. Have you considered this?

I’ve been so moved by the number of people who’ve asked me to write a sequel to Playing by the Book, and I am considering it. The other novel I’m considering is on identical twins—one straight, and one gay. I know all about this because my identical twin is indeed straight.

Chris, thank you for being my guest. I wish you great success with this book and on your writing career in general.

Lorenzo, thank you so much. I’m excited about your forthcoming book and hope we can do a reading together one day soon.

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