To Add, Not Reduce: A Q&A with Rafi Mittlefehldt

Article by Lydia

Rafi Mittlefehldt’s debut novel, IT LOOKS LIKE THIS, is a book I wish I could have read ten years ago—a simple, heart-wrenching story told in a quiet, cautious voice. Protagonist Mike is still adjusting to his new school in his family’s new hometown; his father is still trying to get him to be the tough, sports-driven son he wants; and his family is still attending church, still trying to pretend everything is fine. Then Mike meets Sean, and slowly, then quickly—too quickly—everything changes.

IT LOOKS LIKE THIS will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever loved someone in secret, anyone who’s ever tried to change themselves to fit what everyone else wants, anyone who’s ever had to choose between being accepted and being whole. The plot is tragic, yes, but there are moments of sweetness too, moments where Mike finds himself astonishingly happy, and in the end the tragedy isn’t only an opportunity for sadness, but a catalyst for change that’s been a long time coming. Mike’s hesitation, his self-doubt, his constant desire to please the people around him even while they suffocate him, all feel achingly real, painted as they are with a delicate, knowing hand. Rejecting the shame and self-hatred you've been handed is a personal challenge many LGBTQ teens face, and though it's a hard, scar-riddled victory, Mike does manage this in the end. Spoiler warning, I guess.

I wish I could have read IT LOOKS LIKE THIS when I was a scared queer teen trying balance what I knew of myself and what I knew would happen to me if I couldn't change. But I'm also glad this is a book we have right now. I might know myself better, and we might have more rights and recognition than we did ten years ago, but we still need stories like Mike's and Sean's today, when queer spaces like Pulse nightclub often aren't safe, when more than one in four LGBTQ teens are thrown out of their family home when they come out, and when transwomen of color face more violence than any other demographic.

I was lucky enough to get to send Mittlefehldt some questions about his process writing this book, and he answered brilliantly below.

Brazos Bookstore: One aspect of the book I found really striking was how spare Mike's voice was, how closely guarded he seemed in narrating his own story. Even as he's moving through his day-to-day life, he doesn't really let the reader in or make any big revelations, but rather quietly keeps us at arm's length for much of the story. Did you know when beginning this book that Mike would be so reserved, or did his voice develop as you wrote?

Rafi Mittlefehldt: I knew from the beginning that Mike would be as introverted and reticent as he is. I had a good idea what the story would be, and was curious to see it play out with a main character that is intensely shy.

Coming out is an act of profound exposure. Of course it can be difficult for anyone, and often is, but those who are passive or more private by nature are hyperaware of the vulnerability it creates. They’re telling someone a deep secret, which goes against a core part of their personality. I wanted a character in that camp, to see how he handled not just that, but the even more challenging lesson of learning to live the life he wants rather than the life others want for him.

BB: Another striking technical aspect that stands out is your choice to write dialogue without markers—I've seen a lot of readers comment on this. What was the thought process in choosing to write dialogue that way?

RM: It really goes back to the first question, and Mike’s personality. He is so stilted, and withdrawn, and not comfortable in his own skin, and I wanted that to come out in everything he communicated and in every way he communicated it. The dialogue introductions—“I say”, “she says”—are pretty stark throughout for the same reason.

Mike is not a polished storyteller. His observations are generally matter-of-fact (except when describing Sean), and his retelling of dialogue matches that. He would be uninterested in or unable to follow traditionally accepted rules of writing, formal grammar or punctuation. Though he’s not literally writing all this down, I wanted his narration to imply someone more concerned with the content of what he wants to say, which is difficult enough for him, than in the packaging and stylization.

BB: There's a push in the queer community right now for LGBTQ media to move toward happy endings and a more normalized depiction of queer lives, to move away from the stories of angst and death that have been the norm for us for so long. While positive representation of LGBTQ characters is incredibly important, you could also say that "happy endings" aren't entirely true to life in today's world. Did you wrestle with these issues as you were writing IT LOOKS LIKE THIS? As LGBTQ lit develops, where do you place stories like Mike’s and Sean's?

RM: I love the push for more upbeat stories and normalized, everyday representations of LGBT lives for a number of reasons. Queer folk have many of the same needs and interests as straight and cisgender people, so why wouldn’t we want comedies, romances, fantasy, sci-fi, and all the rest? It also implies we’re just about past the idea of queer novels being a niche market.

But we shouldn’t move away from tragedies to do that. There are still huge numbers of queer teens who are bullied, disowned, beaten, or who are unable to safely come out. It’s hard for those of us who live in more progressive environments to fully grasp that the country as a whole hasn’t moved at the same speed. We’ll say a story about homophobia sounds like it’s from the 90s, even when we just read an article about the same thing happening last week. That influenced a lot of why I wrote IT LOOKS LIKE THIS—the need to remember that, as blindingly fast as progress has seemed, that isn’t yet the reality for a whole lot of teens.

I’m also reluctant to think of queer lit in zero-sum terms. I don’t think any LGBT novel displaces another. We don’t think of books with non-queer characters and stories in this way‑—we allow them this sort of unlimited space. Why would we then create genre caps for our own voices? I think some of this is still ingrained from the days our novels were lucky to be published at all, and it’s been hard to think past that.

That said, we should still address imbalances in the types of LGBT stories. I agree it can be dangerous to have a disproportionate number of queer tragedies. There have to be enough alternatives for those who are ready for something different, and crave representation in positive stories. I just think the best way to adjust the scales is to add novels, not reduce. We have a lot more now than we used to, but we’re still far from having “enough” queer lit for teens. We need more of everything!

And last, even after we are (finally) at a point where being LGBT is truly a non-issue, we’ll never be able to erase our history. We’ll still want stories of all stripes for queer teens, comedies and tragedies alike. It’s just that the tragedies will (hopefully) have to take place in the past, like YA novels about segregation. There will always be a need for LGBT books of certain types to serve historical and archival purposes—novels that say: This is where we came from, and what we lived through. Things are so much better now. But don’t forget.

BB: While there aren't any black-and-white, good-or-evil characters here, there are definitely two who are so important to the story, who become a sort of refuge for Mike (and the reader) when no one else feels safe—Toby, who is one of my favorite fictional little sisters ever, and Mrs. Pilsner as well. Can you tell us a bit about creating these characters?

RM: Toby happened mostly by accident. I did want one voice in Mike’s family to counter his father and offer just a sliver of hope, so it was convenient to make Toby a bit of a black sheep. But she was so fun to write that her personality sort of took on a life of its own.

Mrs. Pilsner was the adult voice Mike needed. Someone to nudge him just enough in the right direction at a crucial moment, so that he can learn to develop his confidence and muster the strength to confront others. I see her as an unabashed advocate who knows she lives in a pretty oppressive community but refuses to back down when she sees something really messed up. Her first name, Jeri, comes from an old and dear family friend of ours, someone I could easily see in that role.

BB: What are some of your favorite books, queer or not, you read when you were younger? What current LGBTQ YA or kids’ books would you suggest for fans of IT LOOKS LIKE THIS?

RM: As a teen, my favorite gay book was DREAM BOY by Jim Grimsley. It was the one that made me realize I wanted to write a gay literary novel. I don’t know if IT LOOKS LIKE THIS would exist if I hadn’t run across it. And reading Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in high school taught me that writing doesn’t have to be overly descriptive or flowery to be beautiful.

For fans of IT LOOKS LIKE THIS, I’d suggest Kate Scelsa’s FANS OF THE IMPOSSIBLE LIFE. It’s beautifully written, with alternating POVs (one of my favorite things!). HONOR GIRL by Maggie Thrash is a gorgeous graphic memoir about two girls falling in love at summer camp. I loved Fransisco X. Stork’s MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD, which, while not queer, has a main character with a similar style of narration (and another character named Toby!).

It Looks Like This Cover Image
ISBN: 9780763687199
Availability: Unlikely to Be Available
Published: Candlewick - September 6th, 2016

Rafi Mittlefehldt presents and signs IT LOOKS LIKE THIS on Thursday, September 22, 2016 at 7pm. Pre-order your signed copy today.

Lydia is the events coordinator at Brazos Bookstore. She received her MFA in fiction from Iowa State University, but happily came back to Texas immediately after. Her writing has been published in Ninth Letter, LIT, and The Rumpus.

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