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Q&A with Author Barry Brennessel:
- If you could swap places with one of your fictional characters for 24 hours, who would you choose to be? Why? And what would you do that day?
Despite how hardscrabble life could be in 1870s California, especially high in the mountains at a gold panner’s campsite, I’d jump at the chance to spend a day as Todd Webster Morgan from The Celestial. He’s confident and adventurous. He’s not afraid to express his opinions. He stands up for what he believes in. And he sticks his neck out for others.
I think the first thing I’d do is ride a train as many times as I could. I’d send a telegram to President Grant. I’d test-drive a stagecoach. I’d wander through all of Sacramento and out into the orchards and farms. And then return to the city and have dinner in the fanciest restaurant in town.
- Can you tell readers a little bit about your historical YA The Celestial? How did you come to the decision to pick the time period?
The Celestial is about a young man, Todd Webster Morgan, who lives outside the city of Sacramento in the early 1870s. His family has fallen on hard times. In a moment of desperation, Todd decides to borrow what’s left of his late father’s inheritance and try his luck panning for gold high in the Sierra Nevadas.
But his dream is violently upended when he’s caught in the middle of a fight among a group of Irishmen. Now fearing his life is in danger, Todd runs, leaving his belongings behind.
Complicating matters even more, he meets a young Chinese immigrant named Lâo Jian, whose own dreams of finding gold have been quashed by violence. With both their lives on the line, Todd and Lâo Jian flee together.
But the prejudice against both Chinese people and two men who desire each other force Todd and Lao Jian to fight what often appears to be a battle on two fronts. Todd vows not to lose Lâo Jian. The couple must risk everything to make a life for themselves. A life that requires facing fear and prejudice head on.
I chose this time period after coming across a non-fiction book about the horrible way Chinese immigrants were treated in 1800s America. Before reading that book I’d read another non-fiction book about the deep affection that men often showed one another while taming the “Old West.” I then had an idea: what if young Californian met and fell in love with a Chinese immigrant in this time period? And suddenly, these characters sprung to life!
- The Celestial is written in the first person POV of Todd Webster which was extremely beautiful to be inside the character’s head as he met Lao Jian. Can you tell us a little bit about these two amazing characters? For a little fun is there any chance for a first person POV from Lao Jian when he first met Todd?
Todd Webster Morgan lost his father when Todd was just two, and was raised by his mother and his mother’s irascible brother—Todd’s Uncle Ned, who lost a leg in the Civil War. Todd tries very hard to be a peacemaker and caretaker. This desire to make things right for everyone around him often leads him to make rash and unwise decisions. His head may not always be in the right place, but his heart is.
Lâo Jian and his uncle came to America when Lâo Jian was a young boy. They joined another of Lâo Jian’s uncles in Oregon to work in the orchards. But after several years, as the unemployment rate in America starts to rise, the Chinese are forced out and left to fend for themselves. Lâo Jian and his uncle decide to join a group of other Chinese immigrants to work various gold claims in the mountains. Though Lâo Jian faces violence and prejudice, he is a proud and determined young man who doesn’t give up easily and never loses his ability to trust people.
Meeting Todd the first time, from Lâo Jian’s POV:
I sat still as a statue as I peered through the branches of the shrub. The young dark-haired man was on the ground. He breathed heavily and cried out in pain. The lighter-haired man tried to calm him, to keep him quiet. This was good; he knew the cries would lead the men with guns directly to our location.
I was confident I was inconspicuous. But then the light-haired young man called out. “Who’s there?”
I froze, my heart beating faster.
“I said who’s there?”
I panicked. I couldn’t find my voice.
“We have guns and I’m not afraid to….” He paused. “I’m not afraid to…I know full well how to shoot in the darkest of—”
“I am no enemy to you,” I called back. I didn’t wish to die. “I do not—I am not any threat to—”
“Show yourself,” he said.
I rose slowly, and turned in such a way that I could run in an instant. “I am harmless,” I said.
“He’s a Celestial,” the dark-haired boy said.
Though my body trembled, I was no longer panicked. There was a kindness in this man’s eyes. He was desperate to help his injured friend. It was as if I could read his plea for help in those eyes.
“I’m Todd Webster Morgan,” he said, with such…pride.
I remained silent. There was something different about him. Something I couldn’t put to words. He didn’t scowl at me, or back away with revulsion, or leer in anger the way so many others had.
“You have a name?” he said. “I gave you mine, after all.”
I cleared my throat. “I…I am Lâo Jian.” I looked briefly down to the injured one, trying to figure out how exactly he was hurt. My gaze was drawn back to the kindness etched on the face of the other man. This man named Todd.
- Please tell us what inspired you to begin writing Young Adult?
The teenage years, and early adulthood, are just so...potent.
I think when we’re young children, life and the world around us are still so dreamlike. At least it seemed that way for me. And later in life, we kind of settle into our routines, with those occasional shake-ups now and again.
But, wow, from about age twelve through the college years, everything seems monumental. One embarrassing social situation can seem like the end of the world. That first crush can feel like bliss followed by torture and back again. Every sensation is just so heightened.
I think I’m still trying to figure out all that I went through during those years, what it all meant. It’s just such a vast field where you can reach out and pick story ideas from true-life experiences and run wild with them.
Take any time period and any culture and I believe all young adults share universal hopes and dreams, worries and fears, triumphs and trials. It’s just endlessly fascinating to me.
- What would you like young readers to take away from your novels?
The importance of tolerance and compassion.
Bigotry is such an ugly thing. Racism, homophobia, sexism. But I think tolerance and compassion start on an even smaller scale. That quiet kid in the corner who never speaks to anyone? He or she could be extremely shy, unconfident, just plain nervous. Try to get to know this person. Don’t shun him or her.
Don’t assume an unkempt person sitting at a bus stop is just some “worthless bum.” Or that a person who doesn’t look you in the eye or speak to you right away is some arrogant snob.
I know it’s human nature to judge. And that we tend to gravitate toward people that are just like us, where we feel confident and safe. It’s likely ingrained in our DNA and in some way is part of our fight-or-flight survival instinct. I’m guilty of it for sure. But I work at changing it as much as I can.
Sometimes an expression that seems so cliché really does have significant meaning: Treat others as you want to be treated.
Now Available from Barry Brennessel:
The Celestial (Nominated for a Lambda Literary Award in the Gay Romance category)Love was the last thing Todd Webster Morgan expected to find while searching for gold in 1870s California. But that was before he met Lâo Jian. Hardened beyond his nineteen years, Todd Webster Morgan is determined to find gold high in the Sierra Nevadas. But his dream is violently upended. Complicating matters even more, he meets a young Chinese immigrant named Lâo Jian, whose own dreams of finding gold have been quashed by violence. But life back in Sacramento isn’t any easier. Todd’s mother struggles to make ends meet. His invalid uncle becomes increasing angry. Todd seeks employment with little success. Meanwhile his friendship with Lâo Jian turns to love. But their relationship is strained as anti-Chinese sentiment grows. Todd vows not to lose Lâo Jian. The couple must risk everything to make a life for themselves. A life that requires facing fear and prejudice head on...
His grades are a box-office bomb. His friends create more drama than a soap opera. And his love life needs a laughtrack. While there's no script to dictate what happens next, can Micah find the direction he needs? Life, after all, is no film school project. But it is great source material. The only source material.
Let the cameras roll. Micah's quirky story has begun filming.
Recommended Age 18+