Stephen Metcalfe may be new to the young adult scene but he brings with him a ton of experience from his work on various stage and screen plays. His first novel, His Tragic Life, hits bookstores on March 3, 2015 and brings readers an authentic male character who devotedly observes the world around him and, at the same time, reacts to it in some of the oddest ways too. I’ve seen this book compared to the likes of Catcher in the Rye, and even Perks of Being a Wallflower, but I’m confident fans of Jason Myers and even Robyn Schneider will enjoy this quirky novel. It’s full of moments that stabilize us but also the ones that pull us apart in unexpected, dark directions. It’s honest, and heavy on the oh-man-I-can’t-believe-that-happened side.
We’re happy to welcome Stephen into the young adult world today with a Q&A about Billy, The Tragic Age star, his writing inspiration, and more.
Billy is such an observer but, even so, his tendency to be this way is all about burying his true feelings over his sister’s death and all the changes in his family. How did you dive into writing about Billy? Did you know exactly how he would be dealing with all this tension in his life or did it develop as you were digging deeper into the story?
I started with a number of givens when I began writing Billy. I knew that he had, as he puts it, “a mind for useless information”. Billy is a sponge for knowledge – he “likes knowing things”. At the same time I knew that Billy’s fixation on knowing things was also an escape. He uses books, newspapers, the internet, television and movies as a means of not dealing with everyday life. He uses facts to hold feelings at a distance. I wanted Billy to have an air of what I call “innocent cynicism”. He’s trying so hard to pretend he doesn’t care about anything. The reality, of course, is that he cares far too much. I knew part of Billy’s character arc would be that as the story progresses, he finds the burden of “not caring” more and more difficult to carry. And yes, while the voice was consistent from the beginning, the character changed and developed as the story progressed.
There’s definitely something about the pacing of the book that feels like a classic literature tragedy. At some point, I was feeling so positive for Billy. Even if some of his actions were questionable, I was like “hooray he is finding his own happiness”… but well. You and I know how that all goes. Were there any particular books that inspired you (or helped you) in the writing of The Tragic Age?
I wanted very much to write a coming of age story along the lines of Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye, John Knowles’ A Separate Peace and James Kirkwood’s Good Times, Bad Times. All three books have young protagonists who learn and grow through adversity.
It was really great to read a book that was incredibly sex-positive and just doing its thing. Was this a concern when you decided you were writing YA or did you just decide to go with what was natural?
Frankly, it never occurred to me I was writing YA. It was St. Martin’s Press that suggested that The Tragic Age would be best released as Young Adult and after discussing it and thinking about it, I agreed with them. Billy is a young adult. He is dealing with the challenges and uncertainties that have been the bane (and the wonder) of all of us when were young – friendship, sexuality, family, isolation, competition – the future.
What kind of books do you find yourself reading the most frequently?
I read a bit of everything. I have my stack of what I call “airplane reading” – this is the mostly mindless stuff you buy in airport books stores when you want to escape the tedium of plane travel. They don’t take a lot of work and are usually a quick and (hopefully) enjoyable read. The other stack is the stuff that needs and warrants focus, concentration and contemplation. I eat them in mostly small bites, the better to enjoy and analyze the flavors. When I find a writer I like, I eventually try to read everything he’s written. I read two newspapers every day and like Billy, if something intrigues me, I always want to learn more about it.
Thanks so much for taking the time, Stephen! Congrats on the book!
The Tragic Age by Stephen Metcalfe publishes on March 3, 2015 from St. Martin’s Press.