Monday, August 31, 2009

The Prep School Story, the Coming Out Story, the Iconic Gay Man/Straight Woman Friendship Story...Sebastian Stuart Covers All Three Bases

Over dinner last week while in Boston for the GABBS show, Mameve Medwed (yes, of our grand opening--author of Of Men and their Mothers and How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life is the only book I ever have and ever will likely blurb) suggested I might try a book from a friend of hers (a rather endless list).

Sebastian Stuart, having previously written a thriller (The Mentor), a ghostwritten soap opera book (Charm), a cowritten (but is there really a Judy Goldstein, except in my Hebrew School class?) New York romantic comedy (24 Karat Kids) and who knows what else, has tackled the prep school coming-of-age, closeted gay boy comes out in the sixties and has special friendship with larger-than-life female friend story.

It all takes place (at least the bulk-of-the-story flashback) at a struggling prep school, veering between free spirit (run unknowingly, by Christian Scientists) and discipline. There's also the angsty Jewish guy, the elfin nerd (who as we learn in the book's opening, is now a very successful fellow with a taste for sexual adventure), the free-spirit hippie, and the townie boy who's also seemingly up for anything. He has a name, but after his initial description, I hereby declare him Snaggletooth (which I didn't know was the name of the mascot for the heavy metal band Motorhead).

It's a lovely tale, and I gobbled it up. I wrote to Ms. Medwed with a proposal that I ask Mr. Stuart some questions, and in short order, we had an honest-to-goodness Q & A. Here it is, "A conversation with yours truly and Sebastian Stuart on his novel, The Hour Between."

Daniel: What's the jumping off point to you in the book?

Sebastian: The book is based on a real boarding school that I went to for my senior year of high school. It was housed in an old inn in the Connecticut countryside and run by a messianic Christian Scientist gentleman whose grasp on reality was somewhat tenuous. The students were mostly misfits, the school was a last resort and parental dumping ground. Like Arthur McDougal in the book, I had been “asked to leave” Collegiate, a very fancy boys school in Manhattan.

Daniel: Anything based on a real incident? You seem to have some connection to the world of New York celebrity, judging by some of your previous writings.

Sebastian: There are a number of incidents in the book that are based on real events. I did know some celebrities as a child. My mother was the Entertainment editor of Life magazine, at a time when Life held a preeminent position in American popular culture. My dad was in the film business. They had friends who were famous. The character of Katrina Felt, the troubled daughter of a movie star, is a composite of about a half dozen girls I’ve known and loved – talented, funny, kind girls who seemed to have the world on a string yet were always close to unraveling.

Daniel: I can tell you really love your characters. It almost seemed like you didn't want anything bad to happen to them. You could have been more brutal--after all, this isn't exactly a comedy--yet you chose not to be? Were you consciously thinking about this when you wrote or edited the book?

Sebastian: I wanted my book to be -- at the risk of sounding simplistic and mawkish -- an affirmation of love and friendship. Earlier drafts were much darker. My best friend and soul mate during my childhood was my cousin Christina. She was a beautiful girl, signed by the Ford modeling agency, but she was more interested in writing poetry. She developed schizophrenia and killed herself at age 36. I still miss her terribly. In earlier drafts, the Katrina character was closer to my cousin. But my pal, Mameve Medwed (see above), read the manuscript and said Katrina’s arc was predictable. And she was right – schizophrenia is an intractable, tragic disease, people can stabilize but no one is cured. Mameve’s advice was revelatory for me. Ultimately I want to entertain. Schizophrenia is many things, but it’s not entertaining.

Daniel: Several minor characters seem to have deep backstories that aren't fully touched upon. What, if anything, wound up being left on the editing room floor in order to preserve the size, structure, and narrative arc of the final book?

Sebastian: Quite a lot was left in delete-key land. The book got shorter and shorter and more and more focused on the friendship between Arthur and Katrina. I think friendships can change us forever, particularly when we’re young. That was what I wanted to write about, the sadness and beauty of those long-age friendships. That’s the heart of the book for me. Many incidents and quite a few characters were cut from the book. Once I knew where I wanted to focus, I was ruthless in cutting.

Daniel: Care to reference the title?

Sebastian: It’s from the French expression for twilight: the hour between the dog and the wolf. I thought it was a perfect metaphor for adolescence. And it’s so romantic.

Daniel: Did writing any of your previous books lead you to this one? Was the idea new, or something you've wanted to write for a while?

Sebastian: I’m embarrassed to admit how long I worked on this book, but here goes: twenty years. Way before any of my other books. All I can to other writers is: persevere! If I can do it, anyone can.

Daniel: It strikes me that you may have originally had a different structure than an extended flashback between two short present-day bookends. Was the book always set up this way or did you try other alternatives?

Sebastian: I added the prologue and epilogue later. As the years passed and I got older, my relationship to the material changed. The immediacy lessened. I wanted a way to frame the book that gave it relevance. As we age, I think we tend to look back with a sense of poignancy and yearning, and also understanding. And I was inspired by Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which is also told as a flashback. I love that book, I think it’s a near-perfect melding of style and emotion. It’s very moving, but somehow light and buoyant. I tried to capture that.

"The Hour Between" is a paperback original, available at Boswell Book Company and other places.

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