The celebrated authors chat about Walton's new book 'I Felt a Funeral, in My Brain'

By David Canfield
May 17, 2018 at 03:55 PM EDT
Monica Schipper/Getty Images; Halie Johnson

In Will Walton’s new book I Felt a Funeral, in My Brain, experiences of queerness, grief, and addiction are blended into a sensitive poetry-prose mash-up and rendered accessible for YA audiences.

The book centers on Avery, a boy experiencing unimaginable loss. In order to cope and heal, he turns to the expansive canvas of his own mind, searching for solace and answers. In the process, Walton reveals a whole world of Avery’s for the reader to explore.

For Walton, who previously wrote the queer novel Anything Can Happen, I Felt a Funeral marks a heartbreaking encore. Exclusive to EW, the author held a conversation with another writer who knows a thing or two about tackling tough topics for young audiences: David Levithan, best-selling author of Boy Meets Boy, Every Day, and many more.

Check out their conversation below, and pre-order I Felt a Funeral, in My Brain ahead of its May 29 release here.

DAVID LEVITHAN: Your first novel, Anything Could Happen, was a beautifully straightforward coming-out and coming-of-age story. Your second novel, I Felt a Funeral, in My Brain, is a brilliant and bonkers melding of poetry and prose that is as emotionally raw as it is daring in form. Why did you springboard into such a different approach for this book?

WILL WALTON: I think my narrator in Anything Could Happen has a very deliberate goal. As you mentioned, the whole book is basically a coming-out/love letter to his family, so that determines his whole approach. But in I Felt a Funeral I’ve got Avery, who’s trying to tell a story he hasn’t yet processed. A loved one has died, and his mom is grappling with alcohol addiction and recovery. These events complicate his perception of … everything … himself included. At certain points, Avery’s trying to both tell and realize his story, and I think that’s where the bonkers feeling comes from. A couple times I’ve even referred to Funeral as a “live” novel — an illustration of a story that’s still in progress. As the author, I was drawn to that. I think it’s symbolic of the grieving process, as well as the process of leaving childhood behind. I got to depict Avery’s maturation in real time, as he moves into a space where he can truly own his story. It was so exciting.

DL:I Felt a Funeral exists on two queer literary continuums — those of queer poetry and queer YA. Can you talk about your influences as you fused the two?

WW: Yes! With pleasure! There are some gorgeous queer YA novels written in poems, or poem-like prose — not the least of which is yours, David, The Realm of Possibility, which I glommed onto. There’s also I Crawl Through It, by A.S. King, which slayed me, and Billy Merrell’s life-giving Vanilla. Also, I would be totally, totally remiss if I didn’t bring up the classic Weetzie Bat, by Francesca Lia Block, which I know you love too. Weetzie Bat is so perfect: lyrical prose, a sprawling story, a perfect setting, and clothes. When I read it, I remember what it was like to sit in my Nana’s living room with a Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale book in my lap and My Fair Lady playing on the TV.

On the non-YA side: For a long time I’ve been inspired by the work of Eileen Myles. Their book Inferno: A Poet’s Novel really cracked something inside of me. You could say it’s barely a novel, or you could say it’s barely poetry, and so, miraculously, it becomes neither and both. It’s bigger. It’s some of the freest writing I’ve ever read. I also read a lot of long and/or book-length poems, such as IRL, by Tommy Pico; The Morning of the Poem, by James Schuyler; and Midwinter Day, by Bernadette Mayer. Tommy Pico has mentioned that he loves long poems because they leave room for excess and imperfection; I love them for that reason too. There’s this notion of imperfection as something that’s innately feminist, socialist, and queer, since it exists in direct opposition to the patriarchal, capitalistic, and heteronormative strive for perfection. … As soon as I heard this, I was like, “Oh, wow! My rough edges are gorgeous, vital!” It was so liberating.

DL: In the midst of writing about grief and alcoholism, you also have a very stirring, sexy gay romance going on between Avery and his best friend. Where did that come from?

WW: For much of the book, Avery stays very focused on his body because it’s something he can monitor with ease. He’s a nervous person. He has a leg injury. He’s a vegetarian. He gets horny when his best friend is around. The bulk of Avery’s circumstances are undefined, chaotic even; so the feelings he can name — horniness, for one — are actually kind of comforting to him. Those impulses make sense in the way so little else does.

A while ago I read this amazing book called Tribute, by Anne Germanacos, that explores sex against a backdrop of grief. But the sex in Tribute stays sexy; it isn’t sad or unhealthy; it is revelatory at times. Much else in the novel is sad, sure. But the sex is a little island where the protagonist finds relief by being touched and loved by her partner. I think it’s similar for Avery in Funeral. He’d rather fixate on the thrill of having sex with his best friend than deal with the other stuff that’s going on, and I get it; it makes sense. … Also, I’m so glad you used the word “sexy”! I’m afraid there is still not enough healthy, sexy gay sex in commercial media. I try to write honestly about sex, and since my characters are young, I give them space; at the same time, I respect that they get horny — or, as The Giver terms it, “the stirrings” — from time to time.

DL: One of the themes is how reading queer stories and poems helps Avery understand his queer self. What are some of the books that helped you understand your own identity?

WW: Definitely your book Boy Meets Boy, and definitely Martin Wilson’s What They Always Tell Us, and definitely A.S. King’s Ask the Passengers. Also, Weetzie Bat and Eileen Myles’s Cool for You. But I came to those books knowing and recognizing that I was queer already. Here are some that led me to coming out in the first place: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay — Samuel Clay may have been the first openly gay character I ever read; The Great Gatsby, in which Nick’s queerness is undeniable, though my English teacher definitely tried to deny it; A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, because of Gene’s attraction to Phineas; and On the Road: The Original Scroll, which contains queer content that got cut from the text preceding its original printing.

DL: When not writing, you work as a bookseller at the super-awesome indie Avid Bookshop in Athens, Georgia. So it would be remiss of me if I didn’t ask you — what are some great books you’ve read lately?

WW: Hurricane Child, by Kheryn Callender, is a book people need in their homes. Seriously. I read it in one sitting, and I was spellbound. The ending brought with it this perfect, not flashy, and still unexpected resolution; and the prose is just gorgeous. It’s rooted and unpretentious and unlike anything I can call to recent memory. After I read it, I met Kheryn, and I was kind of starstruck by them.

Also, Becky Albertelli’s follow-up to Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, Leah on the Offbeat, is perfection — and, believe it or not, I actually have a little cameo in it! At one point, Leah is driving by a bookstore (the one where I work!) and she sees two boys walking down the street holding hands. It’s me and my boyfriend, Tyler.