Phil Stamper, who had two books on Jeff & Will’s favorites of 2022 list, discusses his new YA novel Afterglow, which completes the Golden Boys duology. Phil talks about why he wanted to tell the story of four high school students, and the challenges of writing a story with four main characters. He also shares his experience as a new father, as well as a couple of book recommendations, and what’s coming up later this year. Plus, since it’s Valentine’s week, we find out the kinds of dates the Golden Boys would go on.
Look for the next episode of Big Gay Fiction Podcast on Monday, February 27.
Big Gay Fiction Podcast is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. Find many more outstanding podcasts at frolic.media/podcasts!
Here are the things we talk about in this episode. Please note, these links include affiliate links for which we may make a small commission at no extra cost to you should you make a purchase. These links are current at the time the episode premieres, however links are subject to change.
- Phil Stamper Interview
- Phil Stamper website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | TikTok
- Phil’s Holiday Family Photo on Instagram
- Golden Boys by Phil Stamper
- Afterglow by Phil Stamper
- Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants on Amazon Prime Video
- The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper
- As Far as You’ll Take Me by Phil Stamper
- RuPaul’s Drag Race on Paramount+
- Small Town Pride by Phil Stamper
- Episode 401 – Stop Book Banning: A Special Episode of “Fated Mates” on Big Gay Fiction Podcast
- Take a Bow, Noah Mitchell by Tobias Madden
- Phil Stamper – Pro Wrestler on Instagram
- Big Gay Fiction Podcast Links
This transcript was made possible by our community on Patreon. You can get information on how to join them at patreon.com/biggayfictionpodcast.
Jeff: Coming up on this episode, author Phil Stamper is here to talk about his new YA novel “Afterglow.”
Will: Welcome to episode 414 of the Big Gay Fiction Podcast, the show for avid readers and passionate fans of queer romance fiction. I’m Will and with me, as always, is my co-host and husband, Jeff.
Jeff: Hello, Rainbow Romance Reader. It is great to have you here for another episode of the show.
As always, this podcast is brought to you in part by our remarkable community on Patreon. And we’d like to thank Pam for recently joining the community. If you’d like more information about what we offer to patrons, including a monthly bonus episode, go to patreon.com/biggayfictionpodcast.
Happy Valentine’s Day to my husband!
Will: Right back at you, babe.
Jeff: However you are spending your Valentine’s week, we hope it is packed with some extremely good books.
I have to say, I read one of your extremely favorite books from last year. I finally read “Golden Boys” in my preparation to talk to Phil. Oh, I can see so much why that book was on top of your list for the year. It was so absolutely wonderful. Those boys, I tell you, they had an amazing summer in some very different ways.
Will: I don’t lie.
Jeff: No, you don’t.
Will: Just further proof, everyone should always listen to everything I say.
Jeff: He is not wrong about that because ,yeah, if you have not picked up “Golden Boys,” grab that. Get ready for “Afterglow.”
I am so happy we had Phil on the show to talk about the books that we loved so much last year. We have some great discussions about how he came up with the Golden Boys, Gabe, Heath, Sal and Reese, and the challenges in writing books with four main characters. Literally, as I was reading “Golden Boys,” it kind of made my writer brain itch, like, how on earth would I deal with four main characters and all of their friends and everybody else. So it’s a really fascinating part of the conversation. So let’s get into this and find out about the story of these guys.
Phil Stamper Interview
Jeff: Phil, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast. It is wonderful to have you here.
Phil: Hi. Thank you for having me.
Jeff: So, before we get into the books, we have to congratulate you since it was just this past holiday season you became a father.
Jeff: That’s awesome.
Phil: Yes, I did.
Jeff: How is fatherhood treating you?
Phil: Oh, God. It is so challenging and so bizarre. And so it feels like…it still hasn’t really sunk in totally that I’m a father, which is a cliche I think to say, but it’s just really is…it’s bizarre. One day you’re living a completely normal life, especially because my husband and I, neither of us were pregnant. We’ll just say that. So, it’s not like I had that visual reminder every second of every day in my life.
And so it was just all of a sudden it was time to go to the hospital and we were like, “Oh, wow.” It was really starting to set in. And then from then on it’s just one thing after another. You have to survive and keep this baby alive and do well, and then all of a sudden they’re giggling and smiling at you and laughing and… So, that’s the phase we’re in now and it’s just like, “Oh, wow, you’re starting to be like a real human.”
So, it’s already been such a bizarrely rewarding experience that I can’t put down into words, but it’s been an interesting break from the grind that I’ve had. I wanna say I have written six books in a row and I was really close to burnout. And I think also the baby came at a perfect time for me because I was like, “I need a full reset. I’m so worn out. I’m so burnt out from the pandemic and everything.” And we had really wanted to start a family and so it all just kind of worked out at the right time and I was like, “Okay. Like, going full in on this,” and then now I’m trying to figure out how to balance everything but that’s what you have to do as a parent.
Jeff: Yeah, because you mentioned before we started, you’ve got a book getting ready to come out, you’ve got a child to take care of, and you work a whole other job.
Phil: Yep, exactly. And so being on a two-book-a-year schedule with a full-time job was already impossible. But then balancing that on top of having a baby and dealing with childcare and figuring all this stuff out, it’s been wild. But I’m setting boundaries and I’m getting pretty good at figuring my life out. So this might change in a week. Right now we’re recording this a week before “Afterglow” goes on sale, plenty of time for me to lose my mind in the lead-up to that.
Jeff: I loved your picture with your husband and the baby in front of the Christmas tree that came out. It’s like, “Ooh.”
Phil: Yeah. That was such a fun photo shoot. I love the holidays. So, that was also very special to me to share that with her. It was just like, she’s obsessed with lights. That was also fun.
Jeff: Oh, perfect.
Phil: Yeah. It was because she just stared at the Christmas tree all the time like me. So, we bonded over that.
Jeff: Listeners of the show know that “Golden Boys” was one of Will’s very favorite books of 2022. I have since caught up to the wonder that is “Golden Boys.” For those who haven’t picked up that first book yet, tell them a little bit about where we first meet Gabe, Heath, Reese, and Sal and that journey that they take.
Phil: Sure. Yeah. So, for anyone in the millennial generation that’s listening, I’m just gonna say it’s kind of a queer “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”. Like, that’s the vibes that I was going for when I wrote this. And so that might be enough for you to just pause the podcast, buy it, and then come back. But for people in other generations, essentially it’s a YA friendship story between four different queer boys, golden boys, as they were, that they all live in rural Ohio, but they all have very interesting and different summer plans. So, one character is helping his aunt run her boardwalk arcade in Daytona Beach, one is in Paris for design school, one is in DC working with a senator, and another one is working with the Save the Trees kind of foundation in Boston.
So, they’re in four completely different cities and they’re best friends for their entire lives. So, the question kind of becomes, “How do we stay in touch when we’re trying to live what should be our future lives? Like, we’re getting a taste of the future of what real life is gonna be all about and we’re already having trouble keeping the group chat alive. What does that mean for our friendship?” And then the question also remains, what happens when they come back and they’re kind of different people because they’ve all had these life-changing experiences in the summer? And that’s where “Afterglow” actually picks up. So, the summer is “Golden Boys” and then after the summer is when “Afterglow” starts.
Jeff: Where did the four characters come from for you as you were trying to piece together who these guys were?
Phil: Yeah. I spent a lot of time thinking about the characters because I knew I was gonna have four queer boys as characters and I knew right away that was gonna be kind of challenging for people to read through and really understand, oh, Gabe is this one, Sal is in DC. It takes you a while, I think, to orient who is who with any book, but when the characters themselves are kind of similar. I mean, they’re all boys. They’re all queer. So, they are very different people, but I understand how early on it could be really confusing. And so one way that I did that was I just did a lot of kind of character study-type work and tried to figure out who each one was, how they respond in a situation, how they would react to a certain situation, and also what their friendship is like with each other separately and also collectively.
And so there’s Gabe and Sal, they’re kind of anchored together by their past hookup relationship, friends with benefits that they’ve been forever. And they’re trying to kind of go from a lovers-to-friends angle. So, that caused a lot of tension and helped me build their stories separately. And then at the same time, you have Heath and Reese, which are kind of a, hopefully, friends-to-lovers angle because they’re both quietly pining for each other and this time apart really solidifies how they feel about each other.
And so putting all of those dynamics together, I was able to create really distinct characters for it. And it’s more than just saying “Oh, Heath plays baseball and Reese likes to do some sort of art.” Whatever. Like, I didn’t just say “Oh, well, these are the things they like, that’s what makes them different.” I tried to really get into what makes them tick, what makes them afraid. And I think the fear actually was the thing that I locked onto the most. And you could quiz me right now and I don’t think I would even remember what I said, but I tried to think of kind of the biggest fears for each of these characters. And practical fears, not spiders, which is a practical fear, I have to say, but more like what would be the worst thing to happen to them?
And so, for example, we’ll say, Gabriel, who is volunteering at the Save the Trees organization, I was like, he is a very anxious character, he is in therapy for his anxiety, but this is a really big change for him. And he’s separated from Sal, who’s kind of his security blanket as well. And so I then went with the question of what would be the worst thing to happen to him. And very soon into his program with the Save the Trees Boston Foundation, he is kind of sent on the streets to go canvas for donations. So, if you’ve ever been in an environment in a city where people are trying to flag you down with their iPads or their clipboards trying to get you to donate to their cause, I was like, “That would be my worst nightmare. That is Gabe’s worst nightmare. And I think I’ll put that in the book.”
So, I really focused on fear. So, I think that’s what sets us apart from people because if I had given that to any of the other characters, they would have dealt with it completely differently. But for Gabe’s story at that time he needed that push, like he needed that literally to be shoved out of his comfort zone to kind of find out who he wants to be. So, that’s just one example of kind of how I dug into each character separately and tried to tinker with their brain.
Jeff: I love how that fear was my worst, just like yours…
Phil: Oh, my God, I know.
Jeff: ….because I could never do that. I mean, his story just made me itch a little bit.
Phil: I feel so bad too because it’s not like you don’t care about the environment and you don’t wanna completely disregard something, but they’re kind of everywhere when you work in cities, and so learning how to… I don’t know. I just always, if I was on the other side, I would hate my life, and so it takes a very specific person, but I was like, “Well, what if somebody who isn’t that typical outgoing effervescent person who can’t just strike up a combo with a stranger on the street is forced to? Is he gonna flop? And then what happens after he flops? Does it get better or does he just recede because I feel like I would get the urge to just recede and quit and run away? But he doesn’t run away. We’ll say that. But you’ll have to read to find out how he does.
Jeff: Yeah. I was pleased that he did not recede because I don’t think I could have done that either.
As you were determining the fear, did that kind of line up to what the boys were gonna go do for the summer? I mean, it sounds like it kind of did for Gabriel in that instance to go to Boston for that thing.
Phil: Yeah. I mean, in some ways. I think coming to Heath, one of his biggest fears is feeling like an outcast and feeling like the odd one out of the group. Of all the families, he is certainly on the lower income end of the spectrum and he feels that. He’s in a single-parent household by the end of the book and he really feels this kind of financial stress that the other boys don’t see or they see it but they don’t experience it themselves. So, he already feels a little bit like an outsider in the group but then he’s also going to Daytona Beach to help work his aunt’s boardwalk arcade, but that’s kind of a front because his parents are in the process of this messy divorce and they wanted to kind of send him away somewhere so that they could sort everything out, get it all separated so he can come back and then stay full time with his father.
And so the entire story of Heath’s life is fear of isolation or fear of being left out of even his family life and feeling like he’s not connected to his family. And so that was just taking him to Daytona and removing him from the boys and putting him in a place that isn’t Paris or isn’t a huge city. On the surface, that could be a bad thing that could really play into his fears, but then he also gets to really appreciate the family that he is visiting that he’s never really been that close to, and then also he gets to be at the beach, which we realize is actually pretty fun. So he gets to have a fun summer eventually, but that’s the kind of challenge.
And I don’t know, the other two I probably won’t be able to remember off the top of my head, but it definitely informs who they are as people. It might not line up with the plot perfectly, but that’s another example where I was like, “Well, what happens if Heath’s the only one texting the group thread because everyone is too busy doing fun city things?” or something like that. That would drive me mad. And so I wanted to throw that in there because I know how that would feel.
Jeff: How did you approach this from a writing angle? I mean, so many books, you’ve got your primary character and there are some side friends. In this case, not only do you have four primary characters, but then you have all the side people that they know. So, you created a ginormous cast to balance in a book that’s also not epically long.
Phil: Right. No. It’s still like a solid 80,000, 85,000 words. It’s less than most YA fantasies out there. And I wanted it to be accessible and smaller and it could have very easily ballooned out, but also do people wanna read about these boys for that long? I guess they do because I wrote a sequel, but in one setting, probably not. And so I had to be strategic.
I mean, honestly I went into this very naively. Like, I did not have any experience writing multiple POVs before this. If you look at my other books, “The Gravity of Us” and “As Far as You’ll Take Me” book, I have one main character and then there is also a little world around them, but it’s usually a tight circle. I would prefer to always have fewer characters on the page but we get to know more about them than to have a huge cast of characters where some of them have to be cardboard cutouts. And so I did not think this through when I started because I was like, “Oh, wow,” because it’s not just the four of them leaving, those four are gonna then make friends, and then it’s like, “Oh, but how does this even work?”
And so I had to plot this pretty rigidly. And I use what’s called a beat sheet. I’m sure some authors that you’ve had on probably use something similar. I just use a beat sheet for writing because it’s very cinematic, it makes it…it speaks to how my brain works. I don’t usually plot super rigidly when I’m writing, but I do like to have a very structured outline. Like when you’re doing a thousand-piece puzzle, you do the borders first. I do the framework and then I kind of fill it in as I go.
But I try to hit all of the major plot points and beats and I try to think, “Okay. What’s happening in each character’s storyline? What’s happening in the romance storylines that kind of cross over with two of the characters…well, four of the characters, but two and two. And what’s happening with the friends to lovers and the lovers to friends? What’s happening with all four of them and their friendship? And then what’s happening kind of in the world around them?” And then also building on to that with side characters that could have their own stories as well. They could have a whole novel about them. What would that novel be about? How can I bring that in using as few words as possible, but still being able to do that?
I mean I had to really limit myself to the amount of characters each main character interacted with. And so I think Reese is a good example where I really kept it close to mainly Reese’s close friend, Philip, Philip with one L, so different than me, Phillip with two L’s. So, in case anyone thinks I named someone after myself. I actually didn’t. So, Reese’s friend, Philip, in France, he is kind of the only main character there that’s not a professor at the school that he’s going to.
And I try to keep it to maximum three main side characters, we’ll say that. Main side characters that I could focus on to give a story around. And then also they all have parents. So, I have to talk about their parents and make sure they’re not just again, cardboard cutouts of parents because if you’ve read any of my books, you know that I love complicated, messy family dynamics. And so we get a lot more of that in “Afterglow” because they’re all back home. But there were some things I just had to leave off the page because I was like, “You know what? We’re not gonna get to chat to their other friends from school here because they’re all doing their own thing. We don’t have time. We don’t have the amount of pages. No one has the attention span for that.” And I was like, “They’ll be back in school and we’ll get to them.”
And so that was kind of my path through that, which was extremely complicated. Seriously the hardest thing that I’ve done before having a child was writing this…well, writing the sequel was the hardest thing before that. And then before that, it was writing and editing the first one because four POVs, it’s hard because if you mess one thing up or if you wanna tweak one thing, that affects every single storyline.
So, it was a challenge and I’m so proud of these books now that they’re out there and now that I’ve done them, but I would never wanna go through that writing and editing experience again because it’s so… Well, I guess I’d never say never, but I don’t know. It was a challenge. We’ll just say that. And I’m glad that I pulled it off. And I think I did well enough. I did what I wanted to do and that’s all… I could be super happy about that.
Jeff: Did you know from the beginning there would be a sequel or was it, “I like these boys so much, I wanna have a sequel?”
Phil: So, I sold it to my publisher in a two-book deal, but it was very clear that both the books would be part of this series. I talked to my editor a little bit about how exactly we wanted that because for a while I was thinking, “Oh, well it could be…” You have different ideas. Like, I knew the story of the four boys going different places. I knew that I wanted that to be the core of the first book, but I didn’t know what the second book would be about, and so we had a lot of conversations kind of about the journey for the four boys.
But my whole thing anchored to the fact that I felt really good about the idea of the “Golden Boys.” And so at this point, it was called “The Valedictorians.” And the pitch was more focused on the fact that all four of them were kind of fighting for the same valedictorian spot. And so that was like a theme that I started with when I was first originating the pitch. And then I realized that that wasn’t their main story. Their main story is their friendship. It wasn’t about drama, about that. It was their relationships and their friendship. And at the same time, my UK editor said, “Well, we don’t use the word ”valedictorian’ here, so we can’t have that title.”
And so that’s when we ended up with “Golden Boys.” But yeah, essentially, from the very beginning, I knew I wanted both books. If I was investing so much into four characters, I wasn’t going to leave it at one. I wanted it to be a duology. I wanted it to be built in. And I loved the idea of a contemporary queer YA duology. And I thought that itself was pretty special. And I don’t think there’s much like it out there. And I can confidently say that, which is nice.
Jeff: You alluded to this, if I heard you right, that writing the sequel wasn’t easier than writing the first one.
Jeff: Even though you’d done all the plotting and knew how to work with these boys already, what about the sequel was more difficult?
Phil: Oh, God. It was so challenging. People always say that sequels are harder and I guess it’s because you wanna make a satisfying story. And so I couldn’t just lean on the fact that Paris is pretty and Washington DC is cool. When in doubt, I sent Heath to the beach. Like, that was kind of my comfort zone. But what about when they’re all in the same small rural village in Ohio how do I still make that story feel special? And so how do I accomplish everything when they’re all on the same page altogether? And that was the biggest challenge. I was worried I wasn’t going to be able to make it interesting enough because I think that there was a novelty of the first book and that was the travel aspect of it. And so this, I was kind of convinced that it was gonna take me a while to get the right storylines.
And then once I figured out what each character’s main storyline was gonna be, it was okay. However, it was still so hard to write. I knew the characters. That one was not challenging. I could draft and actually write Heath and then go to Reese and then go to Sal and I would have different voices in my head and that was great. That was the best part of it, was the voices really did kind of flow freely from me in that case. But I think making sure that their characters’ journeys still had merit after they’d already had this big transformative summer, that was important and I needed to do it well. And I think the pressure of that really kind of got to me, especially when I was planning it out.
Jeff: Now that we’ve done all this buildup on “Afterglow,” what can you tell us about senior year for these guys?
Phil: Yeah. So, yeah, it follows their entire senior year, basically, picks up from where we left off, give or take a couple of months. Well, not give. Take a couple of months off of that. And then it ends on graduation. So, I knew I wanted it to follow the whole theme of graduation. The cover, if you’ve seen the U.S. cover, are four graduation caps. Each one kind of styled in the way of a character. And so I knew that was the path that I wanted to take with “Afterglow.”
But basically, it follows Heath and Reese specifically in their relationship because, spoiler alert, even though it’s pretty clear from the outset that they’re gonna end up together at the end of book one, book two, they have a lot more to deal with because they are both grappling with their futures. Heath is focused on his baseball career and trying to get into Vanderbilt, which has been his goal for his entire life and to get a scholarship from Vanderbilt.
So, while Heath is focused on baseball and his life, he’s starting to experience a little bit of injury and pain and something is not right with his throwing arm. And as a pitcher that’s a big red flag. However, if he’s not performing at his best, how is he gonna get the scholarship? So, he’s dealing with a lot of internal anguish there that he kind of keeps from Reese because he doesn’t like to burden people.
At the same time, Reese is kind of lost in the world. He went to Paris and during the “Golden Boys” story and he kind of on a whim decided that he didn’t wanna do this graphic design program he had been sent there for. He actually wanted to do fashion design and that was his passion. But he didn’t know who he was designing these dresses for. And so, eventually, he kind of realizes some of these looks like I think I could rock them. And so he starts to kind of pursue being what does it mean to be a drag queen or a drag performer? How can you get into that world? How could he start designing for himself? Like, he knows now how to sew how can he make that a part of his life? But that’s also a huge thing to kind of just put out there because no longer are you just the gay kid, you’re now the gay kid who is also a drag queen.
And if you’ve ever seen “Drag Race,” we see these conversations a lot where it was like, you kind of have to come out twice if you are trying to pursue drag as a kind of a career, as part of your career. And though he doesn’t want to do it as a career, he wants it more as a hobby, he still thinks that’s gonna be a huge part of why he’s going to study fashion in New York is that he wants to design for queer people, design for himself. He wants to see where it goes. However, Vanderbilt and New York are in very different places. And that is looming over them the entire story.
Meanwhile, we have Sal, who kind of comes back from Washington DC jaded. He was kind of manipulated in his internship experience and he feels like it wasn’t a total failure, he got to see that world, but he’s like, “I don’t think this is for me.” And doubly he’s like, “I don’t think college is for me. I don’t really wanna waste my time getting a degree in something that I don’t…” It’s not that he doesn’t care about it. He just doesn’t see how it’s gonna get him where he wants to go now that he has lived the dream over the summer and realized that dream is actually pretty crappy. So, he doesn’t wanna work around the Hill anymore and so he’s like, “Maybe I’ll get invested in local politics.” And I’ll let you see where that takes him in the book.
And then Gabriel is focused more in the school. And he’s part of an LGBTQ resource club at the school that he, ultimately, very timely, uncovers that some of the queer books and some of the diverse titles start slipping away from the bookshelves. And so he and a close friend from the LGBTQ group start investigating it and seeing what they can find. And then at the same time, Sal and Gabe are always going to be reconciling their past relationship, what it meant.
Gabriel is still in a long-distance relationship from the “Golden Boys” era. I don’t wanna spoil too much for “Golden Boys” if you haven’t read it. But he’s in a long-distance relationship. And so that comes with challenges too, especially when your comfort, your support system is right there where you used to have it.
And so it’s endlessly complicated, these four little boys. They just, they have so much going on. However ultimately it’s about their friendship and they get to spend so much more time on the page with each other, which is really what I think makes this book so special compared to “Golden Boys.” Whereas that was focused on the shiny cities and adventure, this is like, “Well, can’t this be an adventure too?”
Jeff: Now, this is premiering during Valentine’s week. And I’m curious to know what kind of dates would the boys set up if they were doing Valentine’s dates?
Phil: That’s such a great question. They’re all so different. And actually one of the fun things about “Afterglow” is that you get to see Heath and Reese in dating mode, which you didn’t get to see in “Golden Boys.” So, you actually do get to learn more about their dating kind of preferences and how they act and what they would set up.
I think Reese sets up a really nice date in the book that I’m just going to say you have to read it to see it to experience it. Heath, this is also mentioned in “Afterglow,” but Heath partially because he doesn’t come from much money, but also because he really does enjoy the simple, beautiful things about living in the middle of nowhere, Ohio. His idea of a date would be driving down a road with corn on each side where there’s no lights, no anything, rolling out a blanket and having a picnic under the stars.
Like, he is such a romantic, but he also just really loves celebrating the kind of country vibe of his home and knows how to celebrate that in a healthy, non-toxic way, which, it’s a little aspirational because I did that kind of stuff in high school too, not as a date, but my friends and I would always do that. And it’s just a really special feeling to be in the back of a pickup truck looking up at the sky, no lights on anywhere around you. That’s something you would definitely do. So, if it was in the summer, probably drive and movie and then a lot of outside time, a lot of outside time for you. We’ll just say that because those activities are also free, which is a really big part of it too.
Okay. So, Gabriel. I’m not positive with this one, but I feel like he would say that his ideal date would be they go to a protest and then hang out afterwards or something. They rallied for whatever is happening. They drive down to Columbus, they get all face painted, whatever they have to do, wear all the stickers, grab all the signs, handwrite all the signs. He would be at the front of the Capitol in Columbus speaking out on something. And I think he would love to do that with someone. Like, he would love to share that with someone who was equally passionate about that with him. So, I think he would say it was a protest. I don’t know if he would actually set it up. He’s kind of more in his head most of the time. So, I don’t know if he’d ever actually do that, but I think he would enjoy that.
And that leaves Sal. Sal, I don’t really trust him to set up a date. He’s very focused on his career his life his goals, his ambitions. He’s not the most overly affectionate on the page. And I think that… And that’s important. He’s always had this kind of distance from his mother even because she’s done some not super pro-LGBTQ things, but she’s a complicated character, let’s just say that. And so I feel like he’s not super sentimental like the rest of the boys are. And so I feel like he would just dress up and go to Olive Garden because it’s kind of the fanciest option we have in the middle of nowhere, Ohio. Being born and raised there, I can vouch for that. So, I think he would absolutely do an awkward first date at an Olive Garden or something. And yeah, I think that’s where they’d all be.
Jeff: I totally picture all of that.
You’ve got a lot in your bio that says, “His stories are packed with queer joy and his characters are often too ambitious for their own good.” I think this duology embodies that completely. How did this become your thing?
Phil: I don’t know. What’s so weird is, like… I mean, I guess you never really, like… Maybe some authors intentionally are like, “This is my niche. This is my voice. This is what I do.” And of course I’m gonna write similarly in all of my books. So if you like how I write in one book or how I characterize someone in one book, you might like that in the others.
But for me, the themes that always jumped out and kind of jumped out to me in my experience as a teen were these goals of ambition and what’s coming next, which totally makes sense. Like, when you’re on the cusp of college or whatever happens after high school, you are always thinking what happens next. And so starting with “Gravity of Us,” I had this… He was so ambitious, almost toxically ambitious. I mean, a character who really had his whole planned out. And I love the idea of flipping that on its head and he is forced to move to Texas even though he’s living his dream life in Brooklyn and has his goals and everything. It’s all set up.
I like having ambitious characters and then questioning whether their ambitions are placed correctly, if that makes sense, and then show them what the world is like outside of that so that they can actually use all of that energy towards what they actually wanna do. And so that’s what most of my character growth is about in most of my books. But obviously, with the “Golden Boys,” just because the whole premise is that they’re all doing these wonderful things, they’re all thinking about the future and when they come back it’s senior year, so they’re all like, “Okay. Well, what are we doing after this?” And so I love ambition as a theme. I’ve kind of moved past queer joy and into queer excellence.
And with my middle-grade novel that recently came out, “Small Town Pride,” that wasn’t as focused on ambition, but it was focused a little bit on activism when a small-town Ohio kid throws the town’s very first pride festival. And so that was not necessarily a story of ambition, but a story of having big goals and finding the way to meet them. I don’t know.
I get a lot of inspiration for that. I relate to that and I think that even though it feels like I have sometimes pigeonholed myself into these overly ambitious characters, I get to play around with it in ways that I never thought because each of these characters is ambitious in a different way. Like, I can say that for all four of the “Golden Boys,” and that I can also say that for my other books as well. They have different goals, priorities, but they would do anything to kind of meet those goals.
And I guess that just kind of is reflective of who I was as a teenager and who I am today still. I mean to have a book published in the world you have to be pretty ambitious and pretty determined and never give up and it’s a lot of that. So, I think I draw on that energy and I thrive in that, but also I can tell how kind of toxic that can be sometimes and how I have led myself astray thinking I knew what I wanted, so I get to poke holes in people’s assumptions as I write that character which is kind of fun.
Jeff: Queer joy giving way to queer excellence I think is a really great thing to put out there. I mean, you look at it in how you weave some of the activism and the standing up for yourself. We see Sal do it with his mom in “Golden Boys.” You talked about what they’re gonna get into with the books disappearing from the library in “Afterglow.” Certainly “Small Town Pride” seizes on that, big time. That was one of my favorite books of 2022. I mean, I read it as it came out, so I read it right in Pride Month. All of the attacks on queer youth really stepped up last year and then continue right into this year. It was such a powerful story about a young man who was both skittish about being outed because you’re being outed by a giant pride flag on your front yard because your dad is so proud of you and then really taking on the town and just… If your universes ever crossover, can Sal just go be the mayor of that town?
Phil: Oh, my God. Yeah. That, I think, works. That’s absolutely the town that Sal should be a mayor of.
Jeff: Yeah. He could do so much good there but there’s a question sitting in here too. It’s like where did “Small Town Pride” come from? Because it seemed even with publishing working one and two and three years in advance it hit it just the right time with such a powerful message.
Phil: Yeah. I mean, it’s one of those things where it’s like, wow, how lucky, and then you realize like, oh, I guess not lucky in the context of the world, but how lucky that this is coming out at a time when it’s needed most because there’s always the…
So, I guess to answer your original question, the inspiration for “Small Town Pride” came, I wanna say, 2019, I think. There was this rundown of, like… It was a news article I saw that was 12 small towns across America that have just hosted their first Pride parade or Pride festival. And so I went through that list and I would say a third of them, maybe more were actually started because of the teens or pre-teens in their town. And I was just immediately like, “Whoa. That’s so inspirational. It’s actually the kids and teens doing the work here.” And actually when we started looking at these book bans in general, a lot of the times that things get overturned, it’s because the teens actually stand up for this and actually go to the school board meetings and fight and are not afraid to be out there and use their voice and be incredible activists.
And so I was like, “Okay. But what if I made the character not your average activist?” He’s not really on the front lines of anything he just wants to live his life and be happy. And so he kind of has that activism thrust upon him, which is kind of what happens to all of us. I mean, that’s what happened to me as an author. It’s like, okay, well, I didn’t realize I was also an author/activist, but, of course, I am because it’s what I do and of course, I’m gonna be an activist for all these causes and my books themselves are activism, but you just don’t think about that when you’re focusing on yourself and your own little journey. And so that was fun to do with “Small Town Pride.”
But leading up to the launch of “Small Town Pride,” I mean, “Gravity of Us” and “As Far as You’ll Take Me” were both banned in a few Texas school districts because of that. There was a list that was released of bad gay books or bad diverse books, whatever, and then schools started pulling it and that’s what kind of started this whole renaissance. Not that there wasn’t book banning a year before not that it wasn’t as bad, but this was kind of the most public.
The first biggest public thing that came out of Texas was that, and then everyone started kind of doubling down on it in the school districts and started pulling everything on that list for review. And then of course, the same thing is happening in Florida right now. People are taking all their books off the shelves because they’re so afraid that they’re gonna get sued by parents or by the state for having a gay book on their shelves because they deliberately wrote the laws to be vague enough to scare people. So, it’s just all these things are happening all across the country and suddenly my book became so relevant. And I wrote it and I remember thinking “Is this gonna have that relevance? Is this gonna make sense?”
That’s why I made it in a small town, of course. We’re not saying it’s Boston’s first Pride festival or anything like that. We’re saying it’s a tiny, tiny, tiny village that if they got 20 people for it, it would be a huge deal. But that doesn’t make it any less impactful. So, I was like, “Okay. There will still be impact to the story because of what he’s doing with this town.” And I was like, “I wanna make sure that the cover looks like small towns that I grew up in. I wanna make sure that it reaches the right people.”
And then I suddenly realized that all these small towns are having the exact same conversations that go on in the book for “Afterglow” now. All these things are just there are book bannings happening, there are so many conversations about just queer people existing at all. And so it ended up coming out at a really pivotal time. And you can’t plan that because it is, yeah, of course, I wrote it two years ago, but it came out in Pride Month right after my books got banned for being gay. So, it was like, “Okay. Wow. This is…what timing.”
Jeff: In such an unfortunate way, as you noted.
One of the things I liked about “Small Town Pride” and the angle that that young man took was so much that he wanted to feel safe in this town so he could stay there. Like, he already saw… I think he was in eighth grade, is that right? That he could already see a future that he wanted to have in that town and he had to make it safe so that he could do that. First of all, it’s disappointing that any kid has to deal with that on their own, of course, and not as adults.
Jeff: But, you know, good on him for even having that perspective on it. It wasn’t to make it good in that moment, but to make it good in the long term.
Phil: Yeah. And so many of my books are about escaping and that’s the wonderful thing about not being a debut anymore, not having only two books in the world. It’s like you get kind of pegged for what you’ve written, which makes sense. Obviously, what else are they gonna base it on? However, I wanted to show stories that yeah, queer teens need to escape their oppressive hometowns to figure out who they are like in “As Far as You’ll Take Me.” However, I wanted to show that okay, but also not all queer people wanna leave their small town like I personally did. And those voices are valid too. And are they on the page and where do we see them? And so that was a big goal for me in stepping into the middle-grade arena. I was like, “I wanna kind of celebrate small…” It’s literally a celebration. The “Small Town Pride” is literally a celebration of small towns. And so that’s what I wanted to do with it. Yeah. It was much more meaningful than I thought it was gonna be just because of the moment. I mean, of course, it was meaningful to me because I put so much of myself in there, but seeing it come out at that time was like, “Whoa.”
Jeff: You mentioned being author and getting into the role of activist. And I just wanna touch on for a moment that just a few days before we were talking, right here at the end of January, you were on social media offering safety tips to authors because of the step-up of all these online attacks against queer middle-grade and YA authors. What is it like for authors out there right now?
Phil: Yeah. I mean, sometimes it’s completely fine, but some days it does get very brutal. I’ve had friends who get targeted because they do a school visit and so then there is a obscure Facebook group of concerned parents of that school who love to just cause drama. They’re a very specific type of person. I’ve had friends be kind of attacked for… Having people go through every tweet they’ve ever sent to try to find something incriminating to be like, “Oh, look at this awful gay that is corrupting our children. Why would they ever invite him?” It’s just to cause problems like that.
And also that was inspired… So, I’ve gotten plenty of hate. It’s always really bad during Pride Month, which is very unfortunate thing about being a queer author is that I really wanna celebrate my books, but I get the most hate during Pride Month, like by far double than I do any other month of the year. And that’s because there are just people who constantly troll through the hashtags to yell at queer authors and to call them groomers and to do whatever makes them happy. And I’ve had weird Photoshop photos of myself sent to me.
It’s just there’s really uncomfortable bad things happening online that there are times that I’ve had to tell my publisher, “I’m not promoting anymore. I’m turning my account on limited mode.” And so nothing happened to me that caused me to write this, but Bill Konigsberg actually just started getting attacks earlier this week. So, some group had decided to misinterpret something as he was writing gay sex books for kindergarteners, which in no world makes sense. Like, those words don’t even make sense together. There’s no logic here. So, this YA author who writes YA books for teens, not even sexually explicit YA book. Nothing I’ve read from his would fall into that category anyway.
Jeff: Not at all.
Phil: But anyway, so, that group is saying that he writes it for kindergartners, and then that got picked up by a local news story, and then he… just tons of comments that just say, like “F you groomer,” like, whatever. And he had to lock his account.
And so when I saw that, I actually went through and I was like… So, part of my day job I work with authors a lot and I help them with resources. So, I work for Penguin Random House separately from this job, and so I work with the author development team, and part of what we do is we make sure authors have access to all the information they need. And sometimes that’s marketing tips, sometimes that’s safety tips, sometimes that is sales data, whatever it is, it’s kind of all-encompassed in my world there.
And so I drew off of that and my own experiences, how I’ve been able to protect myself. And I was like, “You know what? I think I could throw together a pretty good eight-tweet resource” just so people can protect themselves before an attack comes because it’s so much harder to do it while an attack is happening. And it’s been happening more and more lately. Like, I could tell you multiple examples in the past week and a half.
And, of course, it’s gonna be awful for all Pride Month again because that is what happens. And so it’s fatiguing. It’s really sad on top of everything else. It’s like, this is not what I wanna deal with. But it’s a part of our job now. And that’s a really interesting side effect is we get to hear everyone’s opinions of you and especially the negative ones. And it’s fine when they’re critiquing the book. I don’t really care about that. But when they’re saying that you as a human shouldn’t exist and a list of words that I will not repeat, that can be really taxing because you’re like, “I’m just trying to write fun books to make gay kids seen…” And I get those comments from queer teens all the time that shows that my books are getting out there in a way that it’s reaching the right people. However, I know that if some of these people had their way that no teen would ever have access to this. So, it’s just a constant battle.
Jeff: Is there anything that readers can do to help keep writers safe?
Phil: Honestly, I think the biggest thing is if you have a local school board that you can throw support to…make sure you know what’s happening locally. I think the biggest change would be if more people got invested in their local towns events, made sure that their school libraries were diverse, made sure that there were no book bannings happening or if there’s a meeting that you see, even in a nearby town where they’re debating whether books should be pulled from the libraries. And believe me, they happen everywhere. They happened in my hometown not that long ago. And a couple of my family members went to it, which was really special. But these things happen all the time, but if you are able to stay abreast of these issues and know what’s happening in your local community and what’s being discussed, your presence there I think is huge, especially if you’re a parent.
Like, if you’re a parent of a student, they need as many people fighting back against the voices that are saying that queer people shouldn’t exist. And even you being there if there’s a queer teen in the audience seeing people who are actually fighting for you that’s kind of one of the more meaningful things. So, yeah.
And, of course, there are gonna be places you can donate books to and there are probably plenty of resources online if you wanna help the fight. But I always think that we wanna jump to big national things or we wanna send 100,000 books to Texas. And we should do those things. However, we should also think, “What’s happening in my backyard? Will we be the next ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill? Will we have the next experience like that?” Because it doesn’t matter what state you’re in. All states will have book… I think all states have banned books this year and in large ways. So, know what’s happening.
Jeff: So, what you mentioned there, going local and finding those resources, I wanna give a call back to our listeners. If they did not catch Episode 401, which is the rebroadcast that we did of a “Fated Mates” episode about book banning, go back to that episode, find those show notes, listen to that if you haven’t because the interviews that were done in that episode focus on local, focus on things that are going on.
Phil: Oh, incredible.
Jeff: And there’s a lot of great resources there. So, definitely check that out if you haven’t seen that in our backlist yet.
Going back on a more upbeat subject, back to the books that we love, we love recommendations. What have you been reading recently that our listeners should pick up?
Phil: Okay. So, recently I’ve read “Take a Bow, Noah Mitchell” by Tobias Madden. It’s a queer YA book from an author who’s from Australia who just moved to New York and I was able to be a part of his launch, which was really fun. That one was a really fun story in that it combined elements of theater and gaming, which you don’t see together in books a lot, but that was my…
Jeff: I’m excited to read this one.
Phil: That was my teenage experience actually was spending most of my free time with internet strangers or at the community theater. Those were my two safe places. And so to see that kind of represented in a book, I was blown away that I was like, “Oh, it’s not just me.” And one of the things we talked about… I’m not trying to spoil the plot or anything. One of the things we talked about was actually how many people have come up to him and said that, “Oh, this is exactly, like some things I was doing as a teen.” And so apparently there are a lot more parallels to being a queer teen who’s into gaming and theater than we realized.
Jeff: I’m glad you brought that one up because that’s high on my list of things to read. The cover drew me in first and then I read the blurb, I’m like, “Hmm. Yes. I need to read this.”
Phil: Yeah, it’s really good. I read part of it and I listened to the audiobook for part of it. The audio looks really good too. So, if you prefer audio interpretations, that’s a good option too.
Jeff: Oh, that’s good to know because you make good audiobooks for your books.
Phil: Thank you. Thank you. Yeah. I’m so proud of all my audiobooks and I would always recommend them, especially the full-cast ones like “Golden Boys” and the “Afterglow” and “The Gravity of Us.”
Jeff: Looking into your future a bit, what do we have to look forward to after “Afterglow?”
Phil: Yeah. I think we have some naps in my future, which is great because I’m finally off the two-book-a-year schedule. I don’t have to write and edit and do my day job and balance so much during a global pandemic. I sold these and then the pandemic happened and I was like, “Oh, God, now I have to write them and also write these queer joy stories.” Well, it was a little rough, a little rough. And that was actually a part of why I think “Afterglow” and “Golden Boys” were pretty challenging for me was because it was hard to draw on so much inspiration for joy.
But I think one of the greatest things to come out from this is that I feel like I’ve established myself in a way that what comes next for me is I get to play around again and I get to act like an author with zero contracts and zero deadlines because I basically am that now. And that’s kind of fun and that’s exciting to me.
So, I do have a middle-grade book that’s coming out at the end of the year. I think it’s October. And so that’s my second middle grade. It’s not related to “Small Town Pride” but it deals with topics of grief and cooking and set in New York and it was really fun. I’m excited to announce some of that at some point in my life. Of course, with any announcement, I have no idea when that will be, so keep an eye out for that. So, that’s gonna be in the fall.
And then after that, I have nothing. I could retire and go into the woods and never be seen again. However, that’s not my plan. So, I will be spending some time writing proposals and really getting to fall in love with more characters so I can kind of fall back in love with it. Not that I’ve fell out of love, but it’s been a challenging few years just with the pandemic being creative. I think that’s been hard for every author. And now with the new baby, I’m kind of starting a whole new life. It feels like a new part of my life. And now I get to see how to balance it all. And I’m excited for it.
Jeff: That sounds exciting. Yeah, I can’t wait to see what comes next because I’ve become such a fan over the last year.
Phil: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Jeff: What’s the best way to keep up with you online so that people can find the news when it comes out?
Phil: Yeah. So, my @ is stampepk which is just a college username that I’ve kept forever. So, basically, just go into your whatever platform and type Phil Stamper. There will be two that show up. One is a pro-wrestler and one is me. I’m not the pro-wrestler, but I feel like you should go ahead and follow us both because he’s actually really cool. I met him on Myspace back when I was like 16 because I was like, “Ooh, we have the same name.” I was like 14 or whatever, DMing this pro-wrestler on Facebook. But, yeah. So, follow both Phil Stampers. Always gotta have a shout-out for him.
And, yeah, I’m on TikTok, Twitter, Instagram. I joined Hive for a little bit. If there’s a platform out there, I’m probably on it. So, yeah. And then if you go to my website, philstamper.com, that’s where I keep all my information. The tour should be over by the time this airs, but there should be future events happening, so keep an eye out for that. And, yeah. If you wanna find me, you can find me. Just Google.
Jeff: And we’ll link all of it in our show notes too so you can find the social media, all the books we talked about and everything else. Phil, thank you so much for coming and talking about “Afterglow.” I can’t wait to dig into that audiobook as soon as it drops and wish you the most success with it.
Phil: Thank you so much. This was so much fun.
Will: This episode’s transcript has been brought to you by our community on Patreon. If you’d like to read the conversation for yourself, go to the show notes page for this episode at BigGayFictionPodcast.com. The show notes page has links to everything that we’ve talked about in this episode.
Jeff: Thanks again to Phil for joining us. It was really great hearing all about the “Golden Boys” duology and “Small Town Pride.” His perspective on book bans and what’s happening to authors on social media right now was very insightful as well.
He mentioned what we’ve heard so often about rallying on a local level and being aware of what’s happening where we live in terms of book banning and anti-queer laws. It’s gotten really nasty in many states already this year. I’ve seen so much about Texas, Florida, Ohio, and other states that are primarily under Republican control. Please do what you can to be aware and support the freedom to read and the safety of queer people in your city and state.
Will: All right, I think that’ll do it for now. Coming up on Monday, February 27th, Allie Therin is going to be joining us to talk about her new book, “Liar City.”
Jeff: “Liar City” is such an incredible paranormal mystery, and Allie’s gonna tell us all about it and what else we can expect in the new “Sugar and Vice Series.”
Will: Jeff and I want to thank you so much for listening, and we hope that you’ll join us again soon for more discussions about the kinds of stories we all love, the big gay fiction kind. Until then, keep turning those pages and keep reading.
Big Gay Fiction Podcast is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. Find more shows you’ll love at frolic.media/podcasts. Original theme music by Daryl Banner.