WRITERS TELL ALL
Carter Sickels on THE PRETTIEST STAR, an unforgettable and tremendous storm of a novel (with a silver lining, definitely)
Matthew Turbeville: Carter, it is such a pleasure to get to talk with you. I really loved your newest novel, The Prettiest Star. Can you start by telling us a little of what it’s about and what drew you to both the subject and the story itself?
Carter Sickels: Thank you. It’s great to talk with you. The Prettiest Star, set in 1986, is about Brian Jackson, a young gay man diagnosed with HIV, who leaves New York to return to the small town where he grew up.The novel examines the AIDS crisis of the 1980s through the lens of rural America. It’s about queer survival, the violence of homophobia, and about the binds and fractures of family.
When I was young, I watched an episode of Oprahabout a gay man who was HIV+, and went swimming in his hometown public swimming pool in West Virginia; when he got in the pool, everyone else got out, and the mayor had the pool drained the pool. Oprah took the show to this small town in West Virginia. The man sat on a stage next to his sisters, while people from his own town and even other family members said the most hateful, ugly things. The story stuck with me, and was the spark for this novel.
MT: You write from three points of view—three very different points of view. How hard was it to find these voices, and what problems did you find along the way? Were there any times where you considered giving up this form and trying telling the story another way, or was the story originally told differently and wound up this way?
CS: I knew early on this would be a novel with multiple narrators. Brian’s story is at the center, but it’s also a story about the Jackson family and the larger community. It took some time to find the specific, individual voices, and part of that process required just spending time with the characters and inhabiting them and getting to know them. Sometimes particular details opened up the characters to me. For Jess, it was her love of killer whales. For Brian, the music of David Bowie helped me get closer to him. For Sharon, their mother, I had to step into the shoes of someone who experiences enormous internal conflict—loving and grieving her son, but feels locked up by a cocoon of conservative values.
MT: There are so many books about the big crises in the world—the Holocaust, the AIDS crisis, multiple genocides, etc—but few feel as intimate as this. Do you mind sharing what you brought to the book or applied to make the book so heartfelt and allow this story which might ultimately have been simply tragic to be filled with a lot of joy, and hope, and yearning for learning?
CS: Thank you. Maybe that intimacy partly rises from the novel’s focus on a particular family and one man’s experience, though I hope the novel also speaks to the national crisis, to the country’s response, or lack of response, to HIV/AIDS, this is a story about a single man, a single family. The first person voices also invite a certain closeness with the characters, an intimacy. And, in response to the second part of your question, I wanted to write honestly about the trauma and grief of the AIDS crisis, but also convey the love and resilience. For me, it always comes back to my characters. If they are complicated, flawed, nuanced, then it’s more likely the book will also be emotionally complex.
MT: Growing up, I was always afraid I’d get AIDS. I’m gay, just like the protagonist of The Prettiest Star, and also obsessive compulsive, admittedly, but this goes beyond that. I was conditioned in a small town to think AIDS was automatic: you have sex with a man, you get AIDS (just pass by the HIV illogically, pass by protection, pass by everything). It’s one of the reasons I hid who I was for so long. There’s a similar feeling in this town, and it’s so frighteningly familiar, even if the events in the book took place before I was born. Can you tell me about the stigmatization of gay men, AIDS, transmission, and how this has affected our country in your own way? Why was this so important to address?
CS: I’m certain many queer people who grew up during the 80s and maybe even the 90s experienced a kind of collective fear and shame. The government and the media used a homophobic framework to talk about AIDS, and people with AIDS were stigmatized, blamed, and abandoned. That’s what we saw all around us. If you were a kid during this time, you were likely terrified to come out. I believe this country still has not faced how queer people and people with HIV and AIDS were treated during this time—the intense cruelty, the failure to take care of a vulnerable population.
MT: I was drawn to the grandmother character in the book, who loves her grandson so intensely. Normally I write these characters off, but she feels so genuine. Is she based on someone, or a group of someones? I love that unlike novels from earlier this year (and the previous decade), the women aren’t perfect, but they are amazing, and sometimes vicious, sometimes destructive, sometimes powerful, and sometimes vulnerable, but they feel real and like women I want to know and women I want in my life. How do you manage to write outside yourself and also create a story for these characters to not just survive but thrive? It felt like a coming-of-age story for so many people.
CS: Thanks. I loved writing Lettie’s character. She’s very different from my grandmothers in terms of her personality and physical appearance. But, I was very close to both my grandmothers, and I’m sure my love for them influenced Lettie’s character. She’s the only one in the family who isn’t ashamed of Brian. When he was little, she took Brian with her to sell Avon, or encouraged him to twirl around the house singing Dolly Parton. One of the joys of writing fiction for me is getting the opportunity to walk in others’ shoes and inhabit their lives, and that I want the reader to feel this way too—to fully experience and get to know these characters .
MT: What was the hardest part of writing this book, both emotionally and mentally? What is your writing process like in general? Are you a morning, noon, afternoon, evening, night writer? Pen, typewriter, computer? Do you have any strange or interesting writing quirks?
CS: One technical challenge I had was writing multiple first person narrators; I wanted each of the voices to sounded unique and particular. I paid close attention to particular word choices and syntax for each character, but also listened to their deeper, interior voices.
I write in the mornings on the computer, but I also fill up “novel notebooks,” where I collect my questions, thoughts, and ideas about the novel. I filled up four of these while writing The Prettiest Star.
MT: How do you view revision and rewriting? There are many writers who hate it, and some who absolutely love it. What advice do you give to young and aspiring writers who are reading this now?
CS: I’m one of those writers who believes much of the writing occurs in the revising and rewriting – when I’m shaping the story, sentence by sentence, I’m learning what the story is about. I tend to prefer revising because I find it less daunting than facing a blank page, and by the time I’m revising, I usually possess a clearer understanding of where the story wants to go. I encourage aspiring writers to be bold and ruthless in their revision. You may need to change the point of view or verb tense, or cut characters or plot lines. Listen to what the story wants and needs, and it’s okay to let go.
MT: Who are the writers that shaped you in your formative years, and who do you think are the best writers now? Who deserves more attention than they get, and who do you feel are the writers often overlooked or not read enough these days?
CS: Queer books that came out in the 90s were certainly formative – Jeannette Winterson, Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin, Michael Cunningham’s novels. There are many fantastic queer authors who’ve influenced me, and it’s such an exciting time for queer writing right now.Carmen Maria Machado, Melissa Febos, Ocean Vuong, Paul Lisicky, Garth Greenwell, Brandon Taylor, Andrea Lawlor, Chelsey Johnson are just a few of the many authors whose work I love. I highly recommend two recent, fantastic debuts: Passing With Careby Cooper Lee Bombardier and We Had No Rulesby Corinne Manning.
MT: Are you working on something new now? When can we expect something new from you? I know it’s early to ask, but I’m already addicted. Do you have a work-in-progress and, if so, would you share anything about it?
CS: I’ve started a new novel, but it’s still too early to talk about, and I have a few essays and short stories I’ve been working on.
MT: Thank you so much for allowing me to pick your brain. God, this book is amazing. I advise everyone to pick up a copy of The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels immediately. Carter, if you ever need a proofreader, or just someone to cheer you on and read everything you write, it’s me. Please feel free to leave us with any thoughts, suggestions, feelings, or otherwise. I am so thankful I’ve gotten to interview you, Carter.
CS: Thank you so much, Matthew! I appreciate your support.