Interview – Amy Kaufman Burk, author of Hollywood High: Achieve the Honorable
Self-Publisher’s Showcase: Today we are joined by Amy Kaufman Burk, author of Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable. Welcome to the Showcase Lounge, Amy.
Amy Kaufman Burk: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
SPS: For any readers who haven’t come across your work previously, can you take a moment to tell us a little about yourself?
AKB: I grew up in the Hollywood Hills, in a film industry family. I went to private schools until tenth grade, when I transferred to Hollywood High School, which was a transforming education, in and out of the classroom. I went on to Yale University, where I learned to pack a snowball, was astonished every spring at the first spray of grass pushing through the melting ice, and where I gained a fantastic education in psychology and English. I married my college boyfriend, became a psychotherapist, and had three children. A few years ago, I shifted careers, to write fiction full time.
SPS: We know from your guest post, that you were immersed in reading from a very early age. But when did you first realize you had a love for writing?
AKB: For me, reading and writing have always interwoven. I was raised in a home with tens of thousands of books, and I tried (and failed) to read them all. My father wrote movies, so I grew up surrounded by screenwriters, novelists, playwrights, poets. I’ve been hopelessly in love with the written word since I was a child.
SPS: What are your perfect writing conditions?
AKB: Anywhere, any time, all I need is a laptop, or a pen and paper. I can immerse myself in writing as I sit alone in our screened porch, looking over the forest in our back yard, in absolute quiet. Or I can write in our family room, surrounded by one of my adolescent kids and six friends, music blasting, conversation at a dull roar. I love writing, and I can always find “perfect conditions.”
SPS: Your debut novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, revolves around Caroline Black and events at her new school concerning homophobia. Tell us about Caroline and where you drew inspiration from her character?
AKB: A friend from college read my novel, and called Caroline my “fictional self.” Caroline and I are both overly-academic nerds born into film industry families. We both rebelled against the industry’s hyper-focus on external beauty. We’re both mannerly bordering on the absurd, and we surprise others (and ourselves) with our hidden fires. We’re both fiercely committed to fighting for anyone who is the victim of bigotry.
SPS: Homophobia is not the easiest subject to tackle. What drove you to tell this story before any other?
AKB: decided to write about homophobia when I was fifteen years old. When I was in tenth grade, a girl came up to me in the hall at school and pointed to a tall, thin boy with the most amazing head of blond hair I’ve ever seen. She whispered that he had been beaten up by the jocks, so badly he was hospitalized for three days. I couldn’t stop shaking for hours. Around a month later, she came up to me again, as though reporting a hot piece of gossip, and told me she heard the blond boy had died, beaten to death by the jocks. Then she smiled, shrugged, and said, “Who cares, one less–” and she used a hateful word for a gay boy.
That night I promised myself I’d write about that boy some day. I wouldn’t let my readers feel indifferent like that girl. I’d become a voice in support of the gay community, against bullying. I built the character of J.D. around that blond boy.
SPS: The story covers gangs, teen prostitution and extreme violence. How much research was involved?
AKB: The story grew entirely out of my high school experience. Hollywood High had gangs, and I knew some of the gang members because I volunteered as a tutor. I was nervous at first, but they all treated me with great respect. We came from different worlds, and we helped each other. I taught them math and reading. They showed me how to navigate through this new environment, which was light years away from the private schools I had attended. I took different traits from many of those boys to create the character of The Duke.
When I signed up for Hollywood High, I had no idea it was an active area of teen prostitution. In my first week of school, I was reading on the lawn, and two pimps approached me. I was absolutely amazed by the silver lame suit one wore (which I put in the novel). They were extremely polite, and figured out in about thirty seconds that I could be of no use to them whatsoever. I got up to go to class, we said a courteous goodbye, and that was the end of it. But those two men provided the foundation for the character I called Drake.
As for extreme violence, gangs fought often, and the gay students were continually targeted. I was deeply affected by witnessing that violence, especially the bullying of the LGBTQ boys. I hope my book will be read as strong advocacy against bullying.
SPS: An author’s debut novel will often include some part of the author. Are there a few of your own experiences in the novel?
AKB: I drew from experiences growing up in the film industry and from high school. All of the characters and events in the novel are extremely fictionalized. But the voice advocating for the LGBTQ community and against bullying – that’s my own voice.
SPS: Are there any other characters we should look out for in the story?
AKB: My readers often tell me that their two favorite characters are The Duke and Valerie. When I ask why, the answer is always the same: Both show tremendous courage, and both break through popular, oppressive stereotypes.
SPS: There are obviously some strong messages delivered. Is there anything in particular you would like readers to take away from reading Hollywood High
AKB: I wrote Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable in support of the LGBTQIA community, as a voice against bullying. In the beginning of the story, different characters show different kinds of homophobia – from mild discomfort, to aggressive ignorance, to violent bigotry. I used these characters to model paths for change, as they become LGBTQIA allies. I hope my book will be read by people who are ready to be more accepting, but don’t know how. I hope that by reading the story, people can start down a path of greater acceptance.
When I created my book, I knew that Caroline’s group of friends would be racially integrated, sexually diverse, from different religious and socio-economic backgrounds. I hope my novel sends a strong message advocating equality for all people.
SPS: Do you have plans to revisit Caroline in the future at all or have things been sufficiently concluded?
AKB: Interesting question. I’ve been asked by several readers to write a book following Caroline and her friends through the years after high school. I’ve been thinking about that for a while, and I have some sketchy notes. I’ll see what develops.
SPS: How pleased have you been with the reaction so far? To hit #1 Top Rated for Gay and Lesbian Literary Fiction in Amazon’s Kindle Store, must have been great.
AKB: I’m deeply grateful to everyone who took the time to read my book, and then made the effort to write a review. I’m still taking in that the book has been #1 on the Top Ratings list for the past 2 weeks.
In the past few months, I’ve started speaking to high school creative writers and students in gay/straight alliances. The young writers are on fire, which is so inspiring. They ask questions that stretch my perspective, and keep me open to learning. The LGBTQIA students are movingly open about the challenges they face – family issues, self-doubt, bullying. Their courage brings me to my knees. A few have come up to me and said my novel helped them. For me, it doesn’t get much better than that.
SPS: We like to spend a moment looking at an individual’s book covers. Can you tell us about how the cover to Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable came about?
AKB: I worked with Tian Sun on the cover design, because she has tech skills I couldn’t achieve in my wildest dreams. I told her what I wanted to convey: gritty, crumbling asphalt like Hollywood High’s quad, uneven font, crimson and white which are Hollywood High’s colors. Tian did a great job capturing my vision for the cover.
SPS: What can we expect next from the pen of Amy Kaufman Burk?
AKB: I’m working on two different novels, both following Caroline past high school. But they’re not developed enough to discuss. When I figure out where they’re going, I’ll let you know.
SPS: Was the Self-Published/Indie-Published route always your preferred route for your work?
AKB: When I started writing Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, the indie route didn’t exist as we know it today. Once self-publishing became more established, I knew that was what I preferred. I wanted to be in charge of the writing, the editing, setting the price. I like the autonomy, and I’m grateful that the self-publishing industry exists. I would be open to reconsidering if the right agent or publisher came along, but I’m not planning for that to happen.
SPS: If you could give one piece of advice for someone looking to get into writing, what would it be?
AKB: Define yourself as a writer, and take your own writing seriously. You don’t need to publish a novel, or become a poet laureate, or have your play produced on Broadway to consider yourself a “real” writer. If you want to get into writing, then just sit down and write.
SPS: Before we bring this interview to a close, it’s your chance to name-drop. Anyone who you feel is deserving of more recognition at present or someone whose writing you have recently enjoyed?
AKB: There’s a wonderful book called Maternal Desire: On Children, Love and the Inner Life, by Daphne de Marneffe. Daphne takes two seemingly contradictory ideas –feminism and motherhood — and blends them into the concept of “maternal desire.” Her writing is down-to-earth, warm, and extremely intelligent. She opens Maternal Desire with her own pregnancy, reworks several theories from her original perspective, and ends the book on a bike path watching wild ducks.
I also want to recommend a beautiful children’s ebook, written and illustrated by Lorraine Paley. The author is a strong advocate for literacy, and the book is free. It’s called Let’s Go Little Blue! I deeply love and admire the author. Full Disclosure: she’s my mother. www.dreamworldblue.com
SPS: Thank you for joining us today Amy, and good luck in the future.
AKB: My pleasure. Thank you for the interview.
SPS: For more on Amy Kaufman Burk please do visit her author page
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