YEM Author Interview: Danny Freeman shares what inspired him to write his book “The You I See”

Danny Freeman is the author of The You I See. The You I See follows Alex and Brandon, who  navigate the challenges of being gay teenagers in Houston in the early 1990s. The book is an infectiously funny, relentlessly hopeful, and ultimately life-affirming celebration of friendship and young love. YEM was able to speak with Danny about his writing process, what he learned during the process, and what he wants readers to take away from reading his book.

Young Entertainment Mag: When did you realize that you wanted to be an author?

Danny Freeman: I’ve always been a writer! I started keeping a journal in third grade. I kept up with it on and off for years. I wrote a lot of short stories in junior high and high school. I remember a particular assignment in 8th grade English class. We had just finished reading The Diary of Anne Frank, and we had to write an imaginary additional diary entry after Anne and her family arrived at Bergen-Belsen. I won a school award for that short diary entry. I actually saw my 8th grade English teacher about 15 years later, and she told me that diary entry was the finest piece of student writing she’d encountered in 20+ years of teaching. 

I wrote an Agatha Christie-inspired mystery novel called The Murder at Petra in high school. It was basically a rip-off of Appointment with Death. I have no idea what happened to it. I suppose it got lost in a sea of floppy disks back when those were a thing. I imagine I’d cringe if I found it and read it now!

The urge to write The You I See came much later in life. I had a lot of time on my hands during the worst of the global COVID pandemic, and I wrote my heart out in winter 2021. I felt the need to write something hopeful in the aftermath of the January 6th insurrection.

YEM: What inspired you to write “The You I See”?

Danny: I’ve been encouraged to witness a proliferation in YA ‘coming-out, coming-of-age’ stories and novels over the last decade or so. I knew I wanted to write something in that genre, but I also wanted to do something different than what had been done before. As I reflected on some of these recent novels, I realized there was an element missing from many (most) of them – the theme of sexual awakening. So, I knew I wanted to write a YA ‘coming-out, coming-of-age’ that examined the sexual awakening of the two main characters. I also wanted to write a novel that broke free from some of the confines of the genre. As a result, I made several conscious decisions to (1) set the bulk of the action away from a school setting; (2) feature a set of emotionally competent, queer affirming, and sexually knowledgeable parents; (3) focus more on character study in contrast to a simplistic ‘problem-solution’ narrative arc; and (4) expand the timeframe so we could journey with the two main characters for about six years of their lives. 

YEM: What is your writing process like?

Danny: I’m a pretty intuitive writer. I didn’t do a ton of planning for The You I See. I just sat down and started writing. I don’t hold back when I write. If it comes into my mind, it winds up on the screen. I try not to filter my imagination at first. I can always go back and edit later! 

It took me about 8 weeks to write The You I See. Oddly enough, I didn’t start at the beginning. The first chapter I wrote was actually chapter 3, though the final version of chapter 3 is very different from that first draft. Then I went back and wrote from the beginning. Once I finished, I spent many months editing and rewriting. The bulk of the story remained the same, but I trimmed it down, got rid of a few extra characters, cut several chapters, and changed the ending significantly.

YEM: What is something you learned about yourself during the process of writing “The You I See”?

Danny: I learned that I have permission to tell my personal story and any story I write exactly the way I want to tell it! I spent many years of my life trying to please all the people around me and present a polished and acceptable version of myself to the world. I’ve slowly let go of that compulsive desire to please others, and writing The You I See showed me that I’m more comfortable in my own skin than I realized.

YEM: Is there a part of the writing process that you would consider your favorite?

Danny: I simply love writing. I love sitting down in front of a blank page or a blank screen and trying to bring some characters to life. It’s a joyful, mysterious, and life-giving process. 

YEM: Who are some of your favorite authors?

Danny: I’m middle-aged, so I know a lot of my favorite writers are probably not super popular with your readers! Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Evelyn Waugh, Charles Dickens, Josephine Tey, Jane Austen, Geraldine Brooks, Annie Dillard, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Wally Lamb, Mildred D. Taylor, James Cone, Khaled Hosseini, James Baldwin, Wendell Berry, Elizabeth George (the mystery writer), Fitzgerald, Dostoevsky. I could go on and on! And I haven’t even mentioned any poets or biographers or memoirists!

YEM: Do you find that writing for a teen and young adult audience is something you will continue doing or are you going to explore other audiences?

Danny: I do want to continue writing for this audience. I think many teens and young adults are still in the process of figuring out who they are and what they believe. I’d like to continue writing books that will let them know they don’t have to fit into anybody else’s mold if they don’t want to. I’m thinking particularly of LGBTQ+ teens and young adults. I don’t want them to feel ashamed or dirty or perverted because they don’t fit the heteronormative, patriarchal expectations of our society.

YEM: What advice do you have for those who want to start writing?

Danny: You just have to start! Writing is like learning to ride a bicycle or learning to drive. You can read all the theory you want, but at some point you have to get on the bike or get behind the wheel. And you go from there!

Good writers are good readers, so I’d encourage new writers to read widely. Good writers are also disciplined, so I’d encourage new writers to make writing a priority. Turn off your phone. Shut the door. Put your desktop notifications on pause. And write. Just write!

YEM: What do you want your readers to take away from your book?

Danny: I particularly hope that LGBTQ+ readers finish the book with a profound sense of comfort in their own skin. They don’t have to justify themselves or apologize for who they are. I hope that LGBTQ+ allies finish the book with a fierce determination to advocate for their queer family members, friends, neighbors, and even strangers. 

I open the book with a quote from Tennessee Williams, and I hope all readers take this quote with them to the grave! “The world is violent and mercurial – it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love – love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.”

YEM: What is your favorite line or scene in your book?

Danny: This is like asking a parent which of their children they love the most! It’s impossible to choose a favorite. One of my favorite scenes has to be Alex and Brandon’s first kiss. It’s a slow burn between these two boys, and it takes a while for one of them to work up the courage to kiss the other one. I loved writing that scene, and it still brings a smile to my face just thinking about it! One of my friends who’s already read the book told me she stood up and cheered when the teens first kiss!

YEM: What is your favorite genre to write?

Danny: I love writing YA queer fiction. And second-rate mysteries!

YEM: Do you have someone who always reads your work before anyone else does?

Danny: No. 

YEM: Favorite quote from the book?

Danny: Again, it’s hard to choose, but I do love this little speech by Brandon to Alex. This is more than a single quote. Please humor me. This takes place after a counselor at a Christian summer camp finds Alex and Brandon kissing in the pool near the end of the book.

He whispered softly, “It’s not your fault, Alex. None of this is your fault. It’s not my fault either. There’s no blame between us. Only love. Only love.” His voice quivered. “I was so afraid they were gonna hurt you. I was so afraid I would find you bloodied and bruised. I kept thinking about poor Paul and what might happen to you. That’s my worst fear – that someone beats the shit out of you because you love me.” He paused and took a deep breath. “None of this is our fault. It’s their fault, those assholes back there. They have the problem. Not me.” He took my chin in his hand and tilted my face up to his. “Not you. Never you in a million years.”

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