An Interview with Nancy Garden

Nancy Garden, winner of the 2003 Margaret A. Edwards Award, is best known for her candid fiction on gay and lesbian issues, including the ground-breaking Annie on My Mind. She defended Annie on My Mind in a major challenge in Kansas that was ultimately settled in the book’s favor in a First Amendment lawsuit brought by several high school students and their parents, and she has spoken and written about her own challenged books and those of other authors against efforts to remove them from libraries around the country. In addition to her work on First Amendment rights, Garden’s work often seeks to reassure and validate the experiences of young people who feel that they are different.

The ALSC Intellectual Freedom Committee recently asked her a few questions about her experiences in fighting for First Amendment rights and how those experiences affect her work and publishing in general.

Do you think those early First Amendment experiences affect your writing process now?

I don’t think so–not my writing process. However, the major challenge to my YA novel Annie on My Mind in Kansas and Missouri in 1993-1995 led to my speaking about censorship, the First Amendment, and LGBT rights in conferences, etc., in addition to testifying in the First Amendment trial about the banning attempt. From the experience, I learned a great deal about speaking in public and about the people who attempt to ban books. Although some of those people appear to have less than lofty motives, I discovered that others are very sincere, troubled, and afraid that books can do great harm to children, and that they truly believe some ideas are too dangerous for the public to have free access to them.

If not, why?

I understand “writing process” to mean how I actually write–style, and how I develop character, plot, setting, etc..  That varies from from book to book, depending on the nature of the book itself, not on any outside factor like the possibility of the book’s being challenged. It’s important to me that my characters speak naturally and the way people of their background, situation, personality, etc. would speak. That does mean that some of them use swear words. I know those words sometimes trigger would-be book-banners–as do sexual situations, homosexuality, kid characters who challenge adults, etc. I don’t self-censor those things from my work, but I do sometimes, when I’m revising, try to make sure my characters don’t use “bad” language unnecessarily or gratuitously. Sometimes if it’s possible for a character to use a less “bad” word naturally, I’ll change it.

Do you approach a new book differently if it has a potentially controversial theme?

Again, I don’t think so! Since I often write about LGBTQ characters, I often write about “controversial” subjects and ideas–not because they’re controversial, but because they concern matters I want to write about. I don’t write to defy potential book-banners; I write to tell stories that I feel are important and need to be told.

How has writing LGBTQ literature changed over the years? For you and for others?

It has changed enormously for all of us! For one thing, traditional mainstream publishers are now far more open than ever before to publishing LGBTQ books. They do tend to assume–to some extent accurately–that those books have a limited market. That means that they usually don’t publish more than one or two LGBTQ books on any given list. That also means that sometimes it still can be harder than it should be for a good LGBTQ manuscript to find a home with a mainstream house. But, happily, some of the new independent houses appear to be potentially more willing to target our smaller–but perhaps not as small as others think–market.

Traditional mainstream publishing is going through a huge upheaval now as publishers try to adjust to the rapid growth and influence of e-books; online marketing, promotion, and publishing; piracy; and other factors.

YA LGBTQ literature has gone from rather dismal stories with tragic endings about LGBTQ characters whose primary struggle is accepting their own sexuality, coming out, and facing homophobia, to more cheerful stories with happy endings about LGBTQ characters whose struggles focus more or as much on issues common to all teens than on those specific to LGBTQ people.

Has an editor ever asked you to tone down (or beef up) a potentially controversial scene or book?

Long ago, an editor asked me to eliminate a race riot from a novel about a friendship between an African-American boy and a white boy in a racially tense town. I pointed out that the riot was a crucial plot element, and managed to win my case. Also long ago, in a book about a relationship between a boy and a mentally unstable girl who used drugs, I was asked–I think (my memory is a little foggy here!)–to make the girl not mentally ill. I refused to make that change, and the editor and I were unable to compromise. I took the book elsewhere.

Conversely, once when an editor asked me to make a vampire story more violent than I felt was necessary or appropriate for my young readers, I did compromise somewhat in a way that I felt wouldn’t cross the line to what I considered inappropriate. That editor left the company, and a second–and later a third–editor asked me to make more changes for the same reason. As I remember, I again tried to compromise a little, but even so I was very uncomfortable with the result and asked to have my name removed from the book as its author. I was told that couldn’t be done because catalog copy had already gone to press. The whole experience was probably the worst and most disturbing that I’ve had as an author.

Do you think publishers are more interested in LGBTQ literature today? Not as individuals who believe in free expression, but from a business perspective.

Yes. LGBTQ characters in books are more acceptable to readers–and therefore to book buyers–than ever before. But that is not to say that this largely financial consideration is the only motive for wider acceptance! Many–probably most–people in publishing also believe firmly in free expression, and many people in publishing are not prejudiced against LGBTQ people. Some, of course, as is the case in most businesses, are LGBTQ themselves.

Has the process of fighting censorship changed over the years? Does the internet, social media, cell phones, 24-hour news, etc. make everything more complicated or easier to deal with or perhaps both?

I guess in the same way that communication in general has been made easier by the internet, etc., the process of fighting censorship has been made easier by the same factors. That probably goes both ways; I’ve also seen through such organizations as Family Friendly Libraries and Parents Against Bad Books in Schools that the internet has made the process of initiating challenges easier  However, I hasten to add that to the best of my knowledge, although there does appear to have been an increase in recorded book challenges in the last few years, the number has been pretty consistently lower than it was in the 80s and 90s.

You’ve talked about respecting the genuine beliefs of the would-be book banner. Could you share an instance or two where you did achieve real dialogue?

In Kansas, I had an interview with a woman who was involved in the banning attempt on Annie on My Mind. She and I had a cordial conversation and I felt that under different circumstances we could have become friends. She was courteous and reasonable and I enjoyed talking with her. In the end, I felt we respected each other and could have gone on discussing our very different points of view amicably. I believe that approach is more likely to result in understanding and a reduction in censorship attempts than is angry confrontation.

There was also a very well-reasoned article in The Horn Book Magazine some years ago by a woman who was eloquent and logical in her pro-censorship stand. I’m afraid I don’t remember her name or the details of her position except that she (like others) seemed genuinely concerned for the welfare of youngsters who were exposed to “controversial” ideas and situations in books. I think I may have written a letter to the editor in response to that article, but I’m not sure. In any case, although we didn’t have an actual dialogue, I know I was genuinely struck by the sincerity of her position and her motives, and would have welcomed having an actual conversation with her. Perhaps we could even have come up with an alternative to out-and-out censorship that would have satisfied both our goals!

There are many intellectual freedom resources out there. Are there any that you find more helpful than others or find that librarians find most useful?

I can’t speak for what libraries find useful, but the most useful resource I’ve found is a book by Robert P. Doyle called the Banned Books Resource Guide. It’s available through the American Library Association, copyrighted by them, and sponsored by it and other organizations, such as The American Society of Journalists and Authors, the American Booksellers Association, etc. It used to be published annually but now appears every few years with an updated list of all recorded challenges since challenges have been recorded, along with reasons given for those challenges, locations of them, and outcomes. Along with that, it includes a great deal of useful information for people fighting challenges.

Other useful resources are available from The National Council of Teachers of English, The National Coalition Against Censorship, and others.

For a complete list of resources, please visit ALA’s Banned Book site.

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