Ahead of the upcoming Author Talk and LGBTQ2S+ Youth Gab Session with Curtis Campbell, Huron County Library branch assistant Shannon O’Connor connects with the author to discuss his recently published book, Dragging Mason County, the challenges of writing about where you grew up, shadow banning LGBTQ2S+ books, and more! 

What inspired you to make the switch from theatre and try your hand at writing a Young Adult fiction novel about a group of openly queer teenagers trying to stage their town’s first ever Drag show?

I’ve thought of it as less of a switch from theatre than just finally getting around to writing a book, which I’d always intended to. I’d wanted to be a novelist before I ever knew I could create theatre. The book is about a group of scrappy young artists putting on a show with nothing but some ideas and a lot of nerve, which is how I’ve spent my life since I was the age of the people in this book. When Covid shut down the live arts, I wasn’t able to do that anymore. So it was pretty natural that it became what the book was about.

Dragging Mason County is both meant to represent any rural small town community but also has clear Huron County references. Did you find it challenging to write about where you grew up?

I can’t imagine what you mean by that, my genius is entirely original. I’ve been building an extended Mason lore for quite a while, actually. So by the time I was ready to do it in YA novel form, the majority of the work had already been done in that regard. Mason County is intended as an every-town, for sure. I think the difficult thing was to not get too lost in the specifics of the world, and to find a way to let readers into the world even if you don’t have the shorthand of growing up in a rural area. Universality lives in specifics, but you still have to tune them enough to land.

Your book does such a great job balancing heavier topics like homophobia, queer violence and self-hate with humour through its cast of flawed but relatable characters. Peter Thompkins in particular was an unlikeable character for much of the book but was able to redeem himself by showing up for his friends when it counted. What was your thought process behind writing Peter that way? Did you get any push back to try to tone him down or make him more likable at all?

That’s really just how Peter appeared on the page when the writing started. Peter’s voice came before any real plot specifics, and the fact is that I was just as guarded and barbed as Peter when I was in high school. People have really went off on Peter and how dislikeable he is, but I wasn’t a likeable teenager. I think we’re often asking queer characters to be moral and likeable in an effort to make the queer experience more palatable and user-friendly for straight people. While that is understandable, it is also telling me that I don’t get to be honest about who I was or what I felt at that time of my life.

Annick pushed me to go further with the tone, actually. The first draft that my editor read was much lighter, and he pushed me to go further. The thing that Peter says at the end of the first chapter was initially quite softer, and my editor pushed me to make him say something even worse to get the stakes where they needed to be.

How does it make you feel seeing fellow LGBTQIA2S+ themed Forest of Reading books being targeted for shadow banning?

Deeply unshocking. Canada has a long history of polite oppression, which the character of Jenna Wilbur represents. We often achieve our oppression through quiet acts of bureaucracy. I’d encourage anyone and everyone to read The Canadian War On Queers by Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile, who write on it far better than I ever could.

Dragging Mason County ends on such a hopeful note with Peter discovering his community has more allies and queer members than he realized. What message do you ultimately want queer youth to take away after reading your book?

You’re stronger united, even if you don’t agree on every last thing.

What are you currently working on and do you have any plans to write more fiction in the future? Perhaps even a return to Mason County?

I’m back in the theatre/comedy world of Toronto. I’m writing a new play and a new novel. If I have my way this is far from the last trip to Mason County.