20 Questions is a Q&A interview series with musicians, authors, and everyone in between, celebrating experiences both shared and individual in the messy game of being human.
“But I don’t think there is anything more immersive than having your nose in a book. And when a story moves your emotions, you feel it straight through your flesh and into your bones. Reading, for me, reminds me that I am alive.” Tucker Shaw is a writer and editor who first found his family in New York City’s East Village in 1991 when he was 23. He’s the author of Confessions of a Backup Dancer (Simon Schuster), Anxious Hearts (Amulet Books), and Oh Yeah, Audrey! (Harry N. Abrams), among others. Over the decades he has also worked in magazines, newspapers, and advertising. When You Call My Name, his latest YA novel and first for Penguin Random House, was inspired in part by a viral Twitter thread he wrote in 2018 that he never imagined would attract so much attention. I had the absolute pleasure of getting to know Tucker and his creative process for the latest installment of 20 Questions.
What is your earliest memory of wanting to be a writer?
I’m not sure about wanting to be a writer, but I have very, very early memories of wanting to be a reader. I devoured picture books first, then the Babar books, then my all-time favorite, Frog and Toad Are Friends. Later, Lewis Carroll. I was always tuned into the way the authors played with language, making it much more exciting than the way people spoke in real life. I fell in love with the idea of sentences. To find the confidence to write myself came much later.
If you could pick one author that’s inspired you the most, who would it be and why?
There are so many. M.E. Kerr had a big influence on me, with books like If I Love You, Am I Trapped Forever? She created characters and plots that felt very contemporary and recognizable to me when I was reading them in the 1970s and 1980s. Patrick Dennis is another; for his exuberance and camp value. And Edward Gorey, because his work seems so free. Bizarre and macabre and funny and free. His work bears no resemblance to my own, but I am always reaching for that sense of freedom.
Favorite book of all-time?
Oh wow. Probably A Room With A View by E.M. Forster, which I think is clever and thoughtful and sharp and — this is essential — hilarious. I think I’ve read it fifteen or twenty times. I don’t know if it’s a Great Novel, but it’s like a super satisfying meal to me, one I want to have over and over.
One piece of advice you’d give to your younger self?
Stop trying so hard to impress everyone else. Focus on impressing yourself. (I still need this advice.)
Your latest YA novel, When You Call My Name, draws heavily from the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s and ‘90s. A few years ago, you were also the author of a viral Twitter thread in which you observed the ways in which the queer youth of today will never understand the devastating reach of that time. What do you make of the ways that young gay men had to deal and confront such matters at a time when gay visibility was just barely accepted to begin with?
There’s nothing like a headwind to show what you’re made of, and queer people have shown over and over, for decades, just how strong they are when difficulties arise. This was true even before AIDS came along, and will be true for generations to come.
I don’t think queer people have ever had it easy, and these are (again) very uncertain times. The specific challenges may have changed or evolved, and will continue to do so, but the need to stand squarely in the world, without apology and with honest pride, is constant. It wasn’t easy to do then, and it’s not easy to do now. But it must be done, and be done together.
It’s incumbent on people of my generation to make sure our history isn’t lost, but it’s also incumbent on us to listen to younger people and understand what they’re going through and how they see the world. We must be open to learning as well as teaching, and to show up in support. Unconditionally.
What time of day are you most inspired?
Usually at the least appropriate times, like just after I’ve gotten into bed. Crawling out from under the warm covers and sitting back down at the computer for a late-night writing session is a very common occurrence in my life.
What’s the most challenging part of writing for you?
I really love the act of writing. It can feel frustrating at times, when the ideas aren’t flowing, but usually I find it to be a really great escape from the world. If I could live in my imagination all the time, making sentences and creating moments, I would. So maybe the most challenging part of writing for me is stopping, shutting down the computer, and re-entering real life.
Favorite social media app?
Probably Instagram. I love pictures of dogs and food.
You were recently quoted as saying that being gay is the greatest gift you were ever given. In an age where it seems as though LGBTQ+ rights are under attack just as much as they were half a century ago, what do you make of the ways that being queer offers a different lens of the world?
It’s so disheartening to see the attacks on LGBTQ+ people ramping up and getting louder. Disheartening but not surprising. We’ve always been a favorite target for bigotry, and even “nice” people seem to consider us disposable when things get tight.
But no matter what the world throws at you, if you are able to fully inhabit your queerness, and to fall in love with yourself — not in spite of the fact that you’re queer, but because of the fact that you’re queer — so many things fall into place. You see that the world is not beautiful because everything and everyone conforms to a specific, codified structure — it is beautiful because it’s full of things and people that don’t conform, like you. To see things this way, to see your difference not as an obstacle but as a fountain of strength, is deeply energizing. A queer superpower, I think.
One song that you will never be sick of?
“Ain’t Nobody” by Chaka Khan. Actually, anything by Chaka Khan. She’s the greatest singer ever.
The last series you binge-watched?
Pose. Watched all three seasons straight through, twice.
One movie that will always make you cry?
Here’s where I expose my love of corny movies. The Big Blue, an uncomplicated romance from 1988 with Rosanna Arquette and Jean-Marc Barr, gets me every time. Even knowing exactly how it will end, I can count on a sweet, silly little sob session when I get there.
If you could have one writer, dead or alive, to compose your obituary, who would it be and why?
Edward Gorey, and I’d want him to exaggerate the circumstances of my death in the most elaborate ways. Carried off by a large bird, or flung from the bow of a ship, or devoured by bedbugs while asleep in a seedy hotel down near the docks.
Although When You Call My Name does contain some romance, its central themes rely upon friendship and specifically queer friendship. (As Lily tells Adam, “You need some gays in your life.”) What do you make of the ways that friendships often become a sort of platonic love affair for queer people in a culture that still preaches the heteronormative nuclear family?
Heteronormative families are fine. Good for them! But we do things differently. To create a friend group, a family, filled with kindred spirits who really understand you brings such an extraordinary relief — you don’t have to constantly explain yourself or come out over and over. There is so much about queer culture that is imperfect, but when the chips are truly down, our fierce commitment to each other shines. No one can take care of us like we can take care of each other. And so we must do so.
As a writer and artist, what would you say is the best way to rest or decompress?
For me, it’s being outdoors. Fresh air, nature, the rhythms of the sun rising and setting, an unfettered view of the sky. Also, music.
How would you describe the importance of storytelling, especially in an age of social isolation?
It’s an ideal, comprehensive way to escape the complexities of the age. People talk so much about creating “immersive” experiences in media, whether that’s virtual reality, or 3-D movies, or social media, or whatever. But I don’t think there is anything more immersive than having your nose in a book. And when a story moves your emotions, you feel it straight through your flesh and into your bones. Reading, for me, reminds me that I am alive.
What is one thing you hope gay men who weren’t yet born during the brunt of the AIDS crisis take away from learning its history?
The greatest wish I have for When You Call My Name is that readers, especially queer readers, will see qualities in the novel’s characters that they, too, possess: strength, creativity, resilience, forgiveness, a capacity for joy and humor even when times are terribly tough, an extraordinary sense of commitment to each other, and always, always, a willingness to love with a wide-open heart. These are, to me, at the core of what queerness means.
I want young queer people to understand that we have within ourselves an incredible, endemic, mountain-moving strength. All of us. But to unlock that strength, we have to work together. We have to be tender and forgiving and supportive and generous and loyal to each other.
You’re stuck on a long flight. Which world-famous musician would you want sitting next to you and why?
Boy George. I bet he has so many stories to tell.
One thing that’s been keeping you sane throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?
What can we expect to see next from you?
I don’t know! I have hopes and ideas but I’m not sure what’s next. If I somehow have a chance to write another book, I will be a very happy person.