A conversation with Brian Centrone, author of ‘An Ordinary Boy’

A conversation with Brian Centrone, author of ‘An Ordinary Boy’

I had the pleasure of first meeting Brian Centrone last year at the Rainbow Book Fair in New York.  We’d become virtual friends via Twitter, connecting through a group of writers who support each other’s work.  Friendly and witty, I was interested in learning more Brian and his work, and the publication of his new novel, “An Ordinary Boy,” proved just the opportunity.

Brian, it’s great to connect with you again, and congratulations on your new book!  Your online bio is very charming and witty, but give me some of your back-story. 

Thanks, Kergan. The bio on my website is an attempt to write about myself without having to write about myself in a formal manner. I grew up in the Bronx and attended Catholic school for 9 years. It was in the third grade that I caught the writing bug. The school was putting together their first ever creative writing journal and I was determined to get published in it. I told my teacher I wanted to write a novel and she corrected me by saying short story, but I was really talking about bigger dreams than just the school publication.

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Brian Centrone

My story did get published and I was over the moon. It wasn’t until years later that I realized they published every student who submitted work. My story was about three friends that received an apparition from the Virgin Mary and thus become priests and a nun. It’s God-awful, but it’s my very first publication, and it did fuel my desire to be a writer. I’ve been keeping that one a secret for years!

Aside from the nuns, what have been the most impactful moments in your own life, and how did those shape who you’ve become?

Like Tom in my new novel, An Ordinary Boy, there have been many moments in my life that made me better understand who I was as a person and what I truly wanted in this life. One has to be losing my virginity at the old age of 23 in a London hotel room. I eventually turned that experience into the erotic short story “Mates” which became my first major fiction publication. That story started my career.  New Lit Salon Press will be publishing a collection of my erotic short stories later this year, and of course, “Mates” will lead the pack.

That sounds intriguing!

Another impactful moment would be being told by a handful of writing program directors that I wasn’t a good enough writer and that teaching high school would probably be a good fit for me. Those types of rejections messed with my mind for a long time. Then one day it finally clicked and I realized that I didn’t want to spend my time trying to please academics who weren’t fans of my writing. There were plenty of other editors, publishers and readers who were. It was those people I was writing for. It freed me in so many ways.

I can relate.  Negative comments can really affect our sense of self… 

The last major impactful moment of my life was getting to hold Madonna’s hand while she sang “Like a Prayer.” I wrote a blog post about it where you can get the full impact of this experience, but I will say this, it was absolutely religious. I knew in that moment that anything I desired was possible; that there was no end to realizing your dreams.

An Ordinary Boy tells the story of Tom, a young man entering college.  What can you tell us about his journey?

Tom’s journey is not an uncommon one. He’s 18, starting college, and hungry for independence. He believes that going away to college will allow him the freedom to explore who he really is, in particular as a gay man. But with that freedom and independence comes great responsibility. Tom’s been heavily influenced by his family and his best friend, Marissa. Now that he is on his own, he has to learn to deal with his first relationship, love versus lust, the gay social scene, and college roommates. It’s a story of self-discovery and what it ultimately takes for us to finally figure out who we are.

What was your inspiration for the novel?

Originally, when I first conceived of this novel more than a decade ago, my inspiration was Matthew Shepard. His killing had a profound effect on me. I wanted to tell a story that showed how gay people loved the same way as straight people, made the same mistakes as straight people, that we were no different than them. Over the course of the writing process, it morphed into a desire to tell a cautionary tale about what to expect after high school. I wanted to go beyond the High School Happy Endings of Young Adult fiction and introduce new adult readers to the complicated world of college.

You published An Ordinary Boy through Seventh Window Publications.  Tell me a bit about your publishing journey.

My publishing journey isn’t the normal journey young writers grow up believing in. I don’t have an agent, there was no six figure advance, the New York Times isn’t praising my brilliance (yet). I went down the indie route and found a small publisher who was willing to take a risk the big boys aren’t always willing to take. I knew I had a story to tell. All I needed was to find a publisher who knew it too. I had been social media friends with Ken Harrison (publisher of Seventh Window) since the MySpace days. We had chatted from time to time about projects I was working on, but one day I posted on Facebook that I had finally finished revising and editing my novel and that it was ready to submit. Ken saw that post and asked me about the book. There was some back and forth before he asked me to send him the novel.  He called me almost instantly and told me he wanted to publish it but that a lot of work had to be done—mainly changing the novel from first person to third. I wept silently while on the phone with him. I had been dreaming of that day since 3rd grade. That was almost four years ago. The editing process seemed endless, but it was a good experience and I learned more from working with Ken than I ever did from writing classes.

Prior to An Ordinary Boy, you published I Voted for Biddy Schumacher, which was a collection of three shorter pieces.  You’ve also written an array of short stories.  What kinds of things are you most inspired to write?

First and foremost, I want to write a good story. It’s important to me that my readers are able to relate to the tales that I am telling and that my writing can serve as an escape for them. With that said, my stories really vary because I’m inspired by so many different things. For instance, Biddy Schumacher is a satirical story about a middle aged woman who decides to run for political office in her small town. I had a writing professor who noted once that most of my fiction was about relationships. I was surprised at this because I hadn’t consciously decided to write about relationships, but on further inspection, relationships and identity seem to be major themes in my work. I think that’s particularly true about An Ordinary Boy and very much what the three stories in I Voted for Biddy Schumacher are all about.

In an interview you did with Lambda Literary, you mentioned some of the writers you admire, which was a diverse list of everyone from Truman Capote to Jacqueline Susann and Bret Easton Ellis.  What, to you, is good writing?

To me, good writing sweeps you away. It could be anything from voice to masterful prose to a captivating plot. It doesn’t always have to be technically perfect, but it always has to have that “it factor.”

Are there particular books you’ve read which you consider touchstones?

Absolutely.  Valley of the Dolls, Peyton Place, and American Psycho were early definitive novels for me. Blue Boy by Rakesh Satyal, Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeannette Winterson are books I consider to be the bar.  I am equally in awe of anything Jenn Ashworth writes. I actually studied writing with her at the Centre for New Writer at The University of Manchester. Her first novel, A Kind of Intimacy, blew me away.  These are just some books I think everyone should read.

You’ve written a great many things, culminating with this new novel.  Of all your work, is there one that feels most personal to you?

Obviously I infuse my experiences and interests into much of what I write, but I really try to detach from the work personally. I think it makes it a little easier to be criticized. You don’t end up feeling as if you are being personally attacked. Though with that said, I recently wrote a one-act play called We, the Jury that was produced in Ohio as part of the National Foundation for the Arts’ The Big Read programming. Inspired by Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird, the play was born out of my pain and sadness due to the recent spate of gay teen suicides. It was cathartic to write and highly emotional to watch.

Lastly, where would you like to see yourself 10 years down the road?

Lunching with Madonna, discussing my latest New York Times bestselling novel and our boy toys of the month.

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