‘Gay Twilight’ this isn’t…author Michael Griffo talks gay vampires in the young adult world with his acclaimed Archangel Academy series: Unnatural, Unwelcome and Unafraid.
When did you decide to start writing?
I’ve been writing my entire life and still have copies of some plays and stories I wrote when I was about 12 years old. I even majored in Journalism at NYU, but of course never officially embarked on a journalism career. In my late twenties I decided to pursue acting and it was while I was doing summer stock in Oregon that I started writing seriously, mainly because I had a lot of free time on my hands and wanted to do something more constructive than lounging by the pool.
Fast forward to 1996 when I saw the wonderful Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s play, A DELICATE BALANCE and that’s when I really got serious about writing. I remember being so inspired by the play and Albee’s dialogue that I went home and started writing the first scene of my first play, NO MORE SUNDAYS, which went on to win the New Jersey Perry Award for Best Original Play. I really haven’t stopped since.
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YALM: Tell us a little bit about your latest work.
I’m currently writing The Darkborn Legacy, which is another YA series. I’ve submitted the first book, MOONGLOW, to my editor and I’ve just started writing the second book in the series, SUNBLIND. This one is about a 16-year-old girl named Dominy Robineau (which is one of my all-time favorite character names by the way!) who falls victim to a family curse.
Just like in The Archangel Academy series there are supernatural elements and otherworldly characters, passages of horror, and flights of fantasy, but at their core both series are about teenage protagonists who are simply trying to find their footing in the world and become the people they were destined to be. I wanted the message to be simple – you can overcome insurmountable odds if you believe in yourself and have courage. All the other stuff – the vampires and the wild, supernatural happenings – are extra, they make the story unique and an incredibly fun read. But the theme and the message are universal and classic.
As a writer of vampire YA novels, do you find yourself often compared to Twilight? What are some of the qualities in your latest work that set it/you apart from what’s currently our there on the market?
Honestly, I thought the three books that make up The Archangel Academy series – UNNATURAL, UNWELCOME, and UNAFRAID – would have been compared to Twilight a lot more than they have been and prepared myself for my series to be labeled the ‘Gay Twilight’. Except for a few instances, that didn’t happen. When comparisons are made, however, they’re usually very superficial and don’t get into the specifics of the story.
When I started writing my books, the Twilight series wasn’t on my radar. And once I did become aware of the series, I didn’t want to read it so I wouldn’t be influenced by the work. Since then I do know the basic plot points of the series and I’m happy to say that there’s little that the two series have in common other than the fact that they both tweak the centuries-old tale of the vampire.
The main distinction is that the protagonist in my series is a 16-year-old boy who is gay. That in itself is rather revolutionary. The other distinction is that the love story between Michael and Ronan isn’t the push-me/pull-me story of Bella and Edward, it’s love at first sight and although their relationship has its own trials, it isn’t threatened by a third love interest, nor does it evolve into a triangle. I wanted any hiccups in their relationship to come from the boys’ emotional state and show how they deal with their love story while growing up and maturing. It’s this element that I think I’m most proud of because at the start I set out to write a love story that just happened to be set against a backdrop of supernatural elements – and that’s what I did.
What attracts you to the Young Adult genre specifically?
For the longest time I didn’t know how to answer this question. When I started writing my series I had never written a YA novel, which I think actually helped me, because I didn’t have any preconceived notions of how to write and what the audience expected. All I did was write my story.
When I was halfway through the first novel, I realized that my writing was a bit different and that’s when I started to examine how it felt to write a YA novel and why I was finding it a very smooth transition. I love the fact that the Young Adult audience is not jaded. They are willing to go along for the ride, no matter where that ride leads. I always say that as long as you adhere to the mythology that you create within your story and remain true to it, your audience will accept whatever you throw at them. It’s incredibly liberating as a writer to have that knowledge and know that your audience wants to go on a fantastic journey. For me, it’s opened up my creativity in ways I never dreamt.
The other thing I truly enjoy about the Young Adult audience is that they’re hopeful. They hope that characters defeat the evil forces they fight against, they hope that they overcome the evil that sometimes lingers within themselves, and they hope there is a happy ending because that’s what they believe life can offer, not because it’ll tie up the story in a neat little bow. It’s a completely refreshing, un-cynical approach and since I’m a “glass half full” kind of guy, it resonates with me, and makes me want to write those types of stories. I guess it’s sort of a win-win situation for both me and my readers.
Was it hard to write (and publish) a YA novel with LGBT themes and main characters?
It’s so interesting that I’ve been asked this question several times and thankfully I can say that it wasn’t difficult at all. In fact, it’s exactly what my editor wanted – a YA novel with main characters who happened to be gay. Throughout the entire process they were fully supportive, have never waned in their enthusiasm, or second-guessed themselves. It’s been the ideal collaboration.
Personally, as a gay man, I wanted to write a YA novel that featured a gay protagonist who fell in love because when I was growing up there weren’t any novels like that around. The closest I got was reading A SEPARATE PEACE. I still have no idea if John Knowles meant for Phineas and Gene to be a same-sex couple, but in my mind they were, mainly because I desperately needed them to be. My hope is that The Archangel Academy series will in some way make it easier for other writers to explore LGBT issues and have LGBT characters at the forefront in YA novels.
The great news is that in all the book signings and readings I’ve done, no one has ever had a problem with Michael and Ronan’s relationship and in fact most of the kids and even the adults who’ve read the books are thankful and grateful that I’ve given them a voice.
If you could cast the Dream Film Adaptation of your work, who would you cast?
This is a tough one! There are so many good actors out there I’m not sure who would best bring my characters to life. In addition, while I was writing the books I never had an actor in mind for any of the roles although I knew precisely what they physically looked like. (And it was a stroke of good luck that my publisher chose the perfect models to grace the covers of the book. They look exactly like the characters do in my mind.)
Having said that, Tyler Posey, the kid who plays the Teen Wolf is who I envision Ronan to be.
Do you have pursuits outside of young adult fiction?
Like all writers I want to flex my creative muscles as much as possible. I do want to get back to writing plays and have been jotting notes and working on outlines for some new ideas. Writing dialogue is one of my favorite things to do so I just need to find the time to bang out some scenes and see where it all leads me.
Someone at a book reading suggested that I turn the Archangel Academy series into a screenplay. At first, I didn’t think it was something I could do, but the more I think about it, the more intriguing the idea becomes. I think it would be an amazing challenge to take something I’ve written and adapt it for a completely different medium. I have no idea how successful I’ll be, but I guess I’ll never find out until I try.
And I have written some adult gay fiction under a pseudonym because the audiences are so different and I’d like to explore that genre again. I also have an idea for a short story collection that would be for an adult audience. But I have to say I really enjoy writing YA and I have a ton of ideas in me and many more stories to tell so for the time being I think this is where I’m going to stay. At least as long as the YA audience will have me!