Today on the site I’m honored to welcome Bart Yates, author of The Language of Love and Loss, which just released last week from Kensington Books! Here’s the story:
The Language of Love and Loss by Bart Yates
As it turns out, you can go home again. But sometimes, you really, really don’t want to . . .
Home, for Noah York, is Oakland, New Hampshire, the sleepy little town where Noah’s mother, Virginia, had a psychotic
breakdown and Noah got beaten to a pulp as a teenager. Then there were the good times—and Noah’s not sure which ones are
more painful to recall.
Now thirty-seven and eking out a living as an artist in Providence, Rhode Island, Noah looks much the same—and swears just as
colorfully—as he did in high school. Virginia has become a wildly successful poet who made him the subject of her most famous
poem, “The Lost Soul,” a label Noah will never live down. And J.D., the one who got away—because Noah stupidly drove him
away—is in a loving marriage with a successful, attractive man whom Noah despises wholeheartedly.
Is it any surprise that Noah wishes he could ignore his mother’s summons to come visit?
But Virginia has shattering news to deliver, and a request he can’t refuse. Soon, Noah will track down the sister and extended
family he never knew existed, try to keep his kleptomaniac cousin out of jail, feud with a belligerent neighbor, confront J.D.’s
jealous husband—and face J.D. himself, the ache from Noah’s past that never fades. . . . All the while, contending with his
brilliant, unpredictable mother.
And here’s the post!
When an Old Friend Comes to Haunt You
Once upon a time—when Saddam Hussein was still big news, and I still had a (mostly) full head of hair—I wrote a novel called LEAVE MYSELF BEHIND, about a seventeen year-old gay boy coming to terms with his sexuality, falling in love for the first time, and dealing with both the death of his father and the mental instability of his mother. It was my debut novel. I loved writing about the characters—especially the first-person narrator, Noah York, whose voice came naturally to me—and I missed them terribly when the book went to press. But I thought their story was done. I didn’t completely rule out doing a sequel one day, yet I doubted I ever would.
Never say ever.
Some voices just won’t leave you alone. For nearly two decades, Noah York kept threatening to hijack my computer while I was busy working on five other novels. (Four of these were eventually published, the fifth got exiled to a desk drawer for several years—it was driving me nuts and needed a timeout, though we’ve since kissed and made up; it’s now scheduled for publication next year.) I was largely able to ignore Noah when I was immersed in the new books, but as I finished each one he became downright obnoxious, insisting it was time to let him take over the typing again. Disinclined to reward bad behavior, I refused him again and again, but I finally surrendered when I realized he’d never shut up unless I let him repossess me.
Fictional characters can sometimes be a royal pain in the ass.
In some ways, THE LANGUAGE OF LOVE AND LOSS was an easy book to write. I knew Noah’s voice inside and out, I had a ready-made cast of characters, a setting, and even a partial plot in place, all courtesy of the first book. Everything went well at first: I started off the way I always do, with a one-page outline of the story, then I spent a few days trying to come up with an opening sentence that perfectly captured Noah’s personality. This is the one I eventually settled on:
The next time Mom wants me to come home, remind me why I’d rather roast my own balls over a campfire.
A promising start, or at least I thought so.
The story gradually took shape—I generally attempt to write a page a day, which may not sound like much but you’d be amazed at how much time I can waste, obsessing over the placement of a semicolon—and I was about halfway done with the first draft when Covid-19 came along and gave the world a major kick in the axis.
I used to fantasize about living in extreme isolation for months at a time, believing it would be good for my writing. HAHAHAHAHAHA.
I did manage to write during those endless months of the lockdown, but most of what came out of me felt forced and self-conscious. I’m a proud introvert—I love living alone—but I quickly discovered just how much I rely on close physical proximity to my friends to inspire me in my work. The restorative power of a shared meal and conversation with people I love dearly can’t be replicated online, no matter how hard I try. When the company is great, a dinner party is a writer’s wet dream: A feast not only for the stomach but for all the senses at once. The rich timbre of a human voice not flattened by technology, the touch of a hand on a wrist, the scent of ginger in a friend’s hair. Simple, everyday things like these are the heart of good fiction, and have to be continually renewed for me to write about them with authenticity. It’s amazing how much good material you can get for a novel in a three-hour conversation over a homemade pizza and a few bottles of red wine.
Besides the isolation, the other way Covid-19 messed with my head was in my acute reluctance to write about it. My original intention for THE LANGUAGE OF LOVE AND LOSS was to have the story take place “here and now,” which, at the time, was 2020. But half the book was already written before the pandemic got going full tilt, and I couldn’t bear the idea of starting over and turning Noah’s life into a Covid tale. The “here and now” of the real world was immensely unappealing to me, so I chose to dodge the issue entirely, letting Noah & Co. continue to live in blissful ignorance of the plague affecting those of us with actual physical bodies. Was that cowardly on my part? Maybe. But at that point Covid had already taken up far too much real estate in my head, and the thought of allowing it to take over my book, too, was just too damn depressing to contemplate.
(One of the best things about being a fiction writer, incidentally, is that I get to play God on a daily basis. In my own life, I have precious little control of what happens; in my books, I can do whatever I want. I try not to let the power go to my head, but just between you and me, I often don a toga, pick up a trident, and kill off a character or two with a bolt of lightning, just to prove how mighty I am.)
Another snag I didn’t anticipate in writing a sequel two decades after the prequel was how much I’ve changed as both a writer and a person in those intervening years. When I started writing LEAVE MYSELF BEHIND, I was in my late thirties and had just moved from Massachusetts back to my home state of Iowa. I hadn’t yet come out to my family, published a single thing, or figured out what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I knew I’d continue to teach and play music—both my degrees are in woodwind performance, and I couldn’t imagine living without music as part of my day-to-day experience—but everything else was a crapshoot. I wanted to write a novel, but I had no idea how to go about doing it. Up until that point, I’d tried my hand at essays, poems, and short stories—none of which were very good—but I’d always been in love with novels, and felt that it might be a better fit for me. Anyway, I eventually took a writing class from a magnificent teacher—Gordon Mennenga, may God forever set a flower on his beautiful bald head—then I wrote my book, got an agent, got an editor, and finally got published. I also came out to my family, by the way, which in some ways was a harder process, though just as gratifying.
And then twenty years went by. Twenty years and five books. Twenty years of friends, lovers, family, births, deaths, disappointments, victories, illnesses, trips to Europe, mortgage payments, music students, writing students, cats, kung fu training, t’ai chi classes, French lessons, laughter, tears, beers, late night conversations, stupid arguments, high school reunions, political brawls, manuscript revision, financial headaches, books books and more books, meal preparation, gigs, colonoscopies, dreams, wine-saturated evenings by the fireplace, anxieties, walks in the woods, swimming, parties, shoveling snow, grinding coffee beans, good sex, bad sex, television, gardening, literary critics, napping, depression, holidays, carpal tunnel syndrome, Bach, Ella Fitzgerald, NPR, new wrinkles at the corners of my mouth, new aches and pains in my joints…
In other words, twenty years of life. So much life that the author of LEAVE MYSELF BEHIND now feels like a stranger to me—which is why I decided that Noah had to be twenty years older, too, in THE LANGUAGE OF LOVE AND LOSS.
If I had to get older, then dammit, so did he.
Am I happy with the result of my second collaboration with Noah York? Yes and no. I don’t think any author ever looks at their own finished book and says “Wow, that’s perfect in every way.” (And if they do, they’re delusional.) But I loved falling into Noah’s world again and seeing how everything turned out for him. And if he’s a little more of a dick now than he was as a kid—life often makes a lot of us crankier—he’s also far more interesting to me. I’ve always been a big fan of coming-of-age novels, but maturity, no matter how slow in coming, does have its advantages. Noah’s body might not be as pretty as it once was, but his wit is sharper; experience has not only turned him into a excellent painter—he was a mere aspiring artist in the first book—but has also made him more multifaceted as a person.
And every once in a while, he even manages to be lovable, and to do the right thing—though of course he’s still a work in progress, just like the rest of us.
Bart Yates is the Alex Award-winning author of novels including Leave Myself Behind, The Brothers Bishop, and The Third Hill North of Town, written as Noah Bly. He is also a musician, and plays clarinet, saxophone, and bass guitar. He lives in Iowa City, IA and can be found online at BartYates.com.