There were a lot of things on my mind when I sat down, over four years ago, and began to write the novel that eventually became Robin and Ruby. I wanted to return to the characters I introduced in The World of Normal Boys, my first novel, published in 2000. I wanted to capture the mood of the mid-1980s, when Robin MacKenzie and his younger sister Ruby would both be in college—away from their parents and stumbling into adult responsibility. I wanted to write about a young gay man trying to understand his desires at the very moment when AIDS had made sex frightening and fatal. And I wanted to write about a young woman who had lost her belief in God, but not her need to believe in something.
Of everything that was on my mind, there was one guiding idea that I had for this novel that was both very simple, and very complicated: I wanted to write a love story. Make that two love stories—one for Robin, and one for Ruby.
I’d written previously about sexual awakening. I’d written about long-term relationships strained by infidelity. And I’d written about infatuations that seem like love. But until this book, I’d never really explored what it means to fall in love.
Robin, at 20, and Ruby, at 19, seemed exactly the right age for this exploration. But I’m more than twice their age now! To write their stories, I had to take myself back my own college romances, first with a girl in my freshman year, and then with a guy a year later, and remember how each of them absorbed me like nothing before ever had.
Why do we fall in love with this person and not that one? Why does this relationship take us by surprise, often out of nowhere, consume us? Why does someone we haven’t given much thought to suddenly seem like the person we can’t live without? Some combination of sexual chemistry, physical attraction, shared interests and psychological engagement lights a spark—and then emotions blast into overdrive. You realize this person gets you like no one else, and you can’t seem to rip yourself away, even though for some reason, you might rationally want to. You can’t explain it, because it’s not rational.
That was my challenge as a writer: to make the reader believe in what the character feels, no matter what. With Robin, this meant figuring out how a long term friendship with George, whom he’s known since high school, might convincingly offer the possibility for love. For Ruby, this meant capturing whatever it was about Chris—whom she hardly knows at all, and who seems like trouble—that made her feel brave and passionate for the first time in her life.
As a subject, “true love” can be risky. Writers have to be on guard against sentimentality. The writing should never feel manipulative; the emotions should never be sugar-coated for the sake of drawing out reactions from readers. But how do you write about love without evoking sentiment? How do you take yourself, as a serious writer, right to the edge of that depiction, without stumbling into a swamp of cliché? These were some of the challenges for me as I wrote and revised Robin and Ruby.
There were other challenges, too. Would readers of The World of Normal Boys return to discover what happened to these characters, all these years later? Would gay male readers, interested in Robin’s developing relationship with George, be as involved in what Ruby was going through with Chris? Would female readers, who might relate to Ruby’s burgeoning sexuality, relate to Robin’s story as well?
In the end I had to shut down all that worry and mental chatter and just try and write the love stories I wanted to write—and to write the best novel I could. Whether or not I’ve succeeded is up to readers to decide, and I look forward to hearing from them. But for me, in the end, this was a challenge worth taking, successful or not. Going back into those states of love, in order to make my characters true and alive on the page, made me feel young all over again.