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The Delights of Middle-Grade Fiction: Q&A with Gary Pedler

Gary Pedler’s debut book was a travel memoir, Couchsurfing: the Musical published in 2019 and featured at Bloom that same year. But Gary’s publishing ambitions have more often centered around fiction. He’s published short fiction at The Missouri ReviewThe Berkeley Fiction ReviewBryant Literary Review, the anthology Outer Voices, Inner Lives, and elsewhere. He’s published a novel for adults, Gaydonia (Adelaide Books, 2020). Most recently, his middle-grade novel about an adopted teenaged girl who decides to play matchmaker for her gay father is forthcoming from Regal House Books. I had the pleasure of reading Amy McDougall, Master Matchmaker recently. It’s a perfectly tuned romantic comedy for middle-grade readers that adults can enjoy too.

Evelyn Somers: I’ll start with the obvious: After writing primarily for adults–fiction and a memoir and, I believe, a play–what inspired you to try writing middle-grade fiction?

Gary Pedler: Two things coincided. First, I was hearing from my writing friends that it was easier to find publishers for YA and MG books than for adult ones. Second, I had an idea for a story that was suitable for younger readers, that of an adopted child playing cupid for her single gay dad. I had the quasi-misconception that it would be reasonably easy to write in a YA/MG style. I say “quasi” because in some ways it is easier and some ways it isn’t. For example, you use a simpler vocabulary. Sometimes that makes writing easier, but at other times I found myself frustrated trying to find ways to say certain things using a more restricted vocabulary, or attempting to make the language varied, yet not overly complicated.

ES: I’m certainly not an expert on children’s literature, but the book feels perfectly pitched to its audience in terms of diction, pace, and proportion of scene to broad narration.  Did that all come naturally, or did it involve some studying of middle-grade fiction before you started to write?

GP: At the start, writing about a teenage heroine for readers of more or less that age did not come naturally. In fact, the book began as YA, with Amy, the protagonist, portrayed as seventeen. In my efforts to make her sound young, I apparently overshot the mark, and readers told me she often sounded too young for seventeen. Eventually I lowered Amy’s age to thirteen and rewrote the book as MG, which involved a fair amount of work.

ES: It seems like it would be quite an imaginative feat for a sixty-four-year-old gay man to effectively create the voice of a thirteen-year-old girl.  But the details of Amy’s friendships, her particular insecurities, her feelings about being adopted, her minor early-teen resentments and authority issues, all feel quite believable. What knowledge or imaginative resources did you call on to create Amy and her world?

GP: Not only am I far removed from Amy in age, unlike many authors who write YA and MG, I’m not a parent or teacher and have no contact with people of Amy’s age. Mainly I had to rely on my imagination and remembering what it was like to be that age myself. Luckily, I don’t consider myself a very “adult” adult in some ways, and I’ll joke with my friends that my mentality isn’t so far from that of a thirteen-year-old’s. I also had excellent advice from a critique partner who did have teenage children, and she often steered me in the right direction when I strayed from age-appropriate thoughts, language, and behavior.

ES: The cast of characters includes multiple ethnicities and races, as well as several gay characters, most importantly, Amy’s adoptive father and the man who eventually becomes his partner.  The book is delightfully diverse and socially aware in a way that feels contemporary but not heavy-handed. Were you at all worried about it becoming heavy-handed: writing a “message” novel?

GP: The frank answer to that question is: no. If someone were to ask me what the message or messages of the book are, I’d actually have to pause and reflect. I would have an answer, but it wouldn’t be on the tip of my tongue. While writing the book, I was completely focused on telling an engaging story with interesting and likable characters.

If I do reflect, there are obviously some messages in the book. For one thing, I’ve watched the efforts of LGBT+ people to gain acceptance unfold over five decades. We made some interesting strategic moves, though of course they were only partially deliberate. One was to make the right to marry an issue because that was a way to say: we’re people who want to be in loving, committed relationships with each other. Another was the creation of Gay-Straight Alliances in schools. These say: we LGBT+ people aren’t just adults, we’re also teenagers, and we don’t want to be bullied and belittled. As a parallel, my novel says: LGBT+ people are parents, too.

Being from the minority group of LGBT+ also made me more inclined to diversify my characters in ways beyond sexual orientation. I can get as emotionally involved in stories involving straight characters as the next person. At the same time, I’m aware of often not being included in these stories, except perhaps as a minor comic relief character making witty asides. By the same token, I don’t want other people to feel excluded from a story that I myself am telling.

Usually this consideration was in the back of my mind, not the front, with one exception. When it came time for me to create Denry, the boyfriend Amy finds for her best friend Grace, I didn’t want to make the only male teen love interest in the story a white guy. Straight white guys are great and interesting and all that, but they’ve already been given a huge amount of “screen time” in our culture. In my own small way, I wanted to give some visibility to guys from a different racial background, so I made Denry Black.

For an MG novel, the cast of Amy McDougall also has adult characters who are unusually prominent and well-rounded, which further adds to a sense of variegation. I’m tired of the MG/YA cliché whereby the adults are all annoying one-dimensional idiots. As a teenager, I wouldn’t want to live in such a world!

ES: In 2021, there are obvious questions that concern writers and artists and the people who publish or produce their work about who has the authority to tell a particular story, especially when that story involves characters who belongs to groups that have historically been marginalized and, consequently, exploited.  Did that ever worry you, as you were writing Amy’s story?

GP: I wrote Amy McDougall either before the Own Voices debate emerged, or at least before I became aware of it. I’m thankful for that! At the time, I didn’t have any hesitancy about creating the character of Amy. For one thing, she was such a particular case. Her mother was Latina, and her father was Black. She never knew her father, and the authorities took her from her mother when she was six and placed her in the foster care system. After that, Travis, a white guy, adopted her. So who is qualified to portray Amy? Only someone who has exactly the same complex background? What community does she belong to, the Black, the Latino, the WASP?

I’m with the Own Voices movement when it’s a matter of encouragement: encouraging people from under-represented communities to get their voices heard. I’m not on board when it’s a matter of discouragement: discouraging people from writing about characters who aren’t like themselves in one way or another. Fiction is “imaginative literature,” after all. The alchemy of imagination interacting with reality is a fascinating and unpredictable thing. Maybe a straight woman could write an extraordinary story about two gay men. Oh but wait, it’s already happened: Brokeback Mountain.

ES: I was quite convinced by the details of Amy’s adoption.  How much did you have to research the subject of a gay single man adopting a child? Did you discover anything that you didn’t expect along the way?

GP: One of the germs for the story was my meeting a single white gay guy who had adopted a mixed-race girl. I believe in using my imagination, but I also believe in sticking to the facts at times, and I took from these real people the basic facts about Amy and her dad and how he adopted her.

I asked the man if I could interview him. I’ve done this several times and it’s always worked out well – simply told people I wanted to write a story about them, as opposed to getting the information without revealing my purpose. I think people are flattered by my interest!

ES: Tell me a little about the writing itself—when did you first start to think about writing this book? How long did it take you to write and revise?  And what was the submission process like for finding a publisher?

GP: My impression is that all the time spans involved in the book were long. The meeting with the adoptive dad was in 2007, and I worked on the book off and on after that. Once it was finished, it took me quite a while to find an agent. Partway through the process of submitting it to editors, the agent urged me to make the shift to MG and completely rewrite the second half. That, too, consumed a big chunk of time. The agent couldn’t place the book, which led to another extended search, this time to find a publisher on my own. Finally, Regal House accepted it. Even then, I was told the earliest publication date they could propose was two years off, in 2021. Clearly, being a novelist is not about instant gratification.

ES: Any plans for a sequel to Amy McDougall, Master Matchmaker, or perhaps for another middle-grade novel?

GP: In the version of the story where Amy was seventeen, in the second half of the book, she went off to Puerto Rico with her dad and his boyfriend for a summer vacation. That portion of the earlier version could be a basis for a sequel. Because Amy was older in those chapters, I had her exploring her own background and identity more. And she also found romance for herself, not just other people.

I’m currently finishing a YA novel, where the three main characters are eighteen. I sure hope I got the older teen voice right this time! I have an idea or two for other YA novels, though not for another MG one at the moment. Still, you never know when lightning may strike.

*****

The following excerpt from Amy McDougall: Master Matchmaker is reprinted by permission of Regal House Publishing

Author’s note:

Thirteen-year-old Amy McDougall is worried about Travis, the single gay guy who adopted her when she was a kid. He wants a boyfriend, yet isn’t having any luck finding one himself. Amy decides the solution is for someone else to do the finding. Someone like her!

Amy’s first attempts at matchmaking are embarrassing flops, despite advice from her hyper-smart best friend Grace. Soon Amy makes not only a match for Dad, but for other people she knows. Now no one can deny that she’s Amy McDougall, Master Matchmaker. Still, she finds there’s a price to pay for her meddling when her matches cause problems she hadn’t foreseen.

In Chapter 4 excerpted below, Amy takes her first steps toward matchmaking for her dad.

Chapter 4

Later in our talk, Grace did give me one good piece of advice. Before I set off on the great boyfriend hunt, I should learn more about what kind of guy Dad wanted. I tried to sound him out while we were making dinner that evening.

“Dad,” I said, “what do you think the ideal boyfriend is like?”

“For me, or you, or folks in general?” Dad asked. He didn’t look up from a recipe for Tuna Curry in a Hurry.

“Let’s start with you,” I said.

“Well…” Dad began.

I listened carefully, then put what he said in an email that I sent to Grace.

Travis McDougall’s Recipe for the Perfect Boyfriend

 1 cup charm

1 and ½ cups kindness

1 can intelligence

1 package sense of humor

1 tablespoon spirituality

2 teaspoons wickedness

1 pinch common sense

Salt and pepper hair to taste

Bake for approximately 35 years, depending on oven

Comments: when making for teenage girls, reduce baking time and leave out the wickedness

 

Grace wrote back, “OMG, I made this dish myself, and it was soooooo yummo.”

I wrote, “But does Dad’s recipe help me at all?”

Grace sent back an image of a doughnut. That was our symbol for “Dunno.”

[G]

Later that evening, Dad let me use his computer again. I noticed he’d left Match open. I decided to take another shot at it. I’d be picky this time and just write to one guy.

This was San Francisco, so there were a jillion guy-seeking-guy profiles. I typed “kids” in Match’s Search. As in “wants kids.” That got me a quarter of a jillion. I started clicking and reading. I felt like I was pushing my cart down an aisle in a supermarket.

“I’m mellow and shy.”

Maybe.

“I’m smart and have a sense of humor.”

Maybe to you, too.

“I love to cycle, swim, and hike.”

Dad liked doing those things.

“I’m into movies, theater, country outings.”

Ditto.

“I believe in karma and live by it.”

Pass.

“1966 model, low mileage, high performance.”

Huh? Pass.

Then I found the profile for Clearbluewater.

All we need is a sunny room

Where time moves slow

And love can grow.

All we need is a double bed

To keep us close when things are said.

And on stormy nights,

I’ll hold you tight.

The rest, my dear,

We’ll play by ear,

In our sunny room.

 

My mind jammed for four seconds picturing Dad and Clearbluewater tangled up in that double bed. I wanted Dad to have a boyfriend, but didn’t want the whole thing to be so—well, in my face.

On the fifth second, I took a deep breath and my mind un-jammed. After all, Clearbluewater sounded like he might have at least some of the ingredients in Dad’s recipe.

I thought for a minute, chewing on my lower lip. Then I typed.

Dear Clearbluewater,

 

I like your profile. I hope you like mine. If you write back, please pretend you’re making the first move. This is just my thing. It’s the only weird thing about me.

 

Yours truly,

Phototype

 

DELETE

Dear Clearbluewater,

 

I’m a friend of Phototype. He’s shy, so I thought I would—

 

DELETE

Okay, I said to myself. I’ll just tell the truth.

Dear Clearbluewater.

 

I’m writing for my dad. He’s a great guy. I think you two might hit it off. He’s kind of shy, though, and he needs help meeting people. Please write to him if you’re interested, but don’t say I contacted you.

 

Amy

Evelyn Somers is the longtime associate editor of the Missouri Review. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared widely in journals, and her work has been longlisted for Best American Essays. She recently finished a comic novel about an empty-nester and her supernatural pet and is at work on a new novel.

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