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“Good storytelling is always driven by its characters”: An Interview with David Kingston Yeh
Toronto-based David Kingston Yeh is the author of The Boy at the Edge trilogy, a series that explores queer love in Toronto through the misadventures of boyfriends Daniel and David.
We speak with David about how his characters naturally evolved over the course of writing them, their complexity deepened by the final, stand-alone installment The B-Side of Daniel Garneau (Guernica Editions). David shares with us his emotional connection to Toronto (“Daniel’s story is my love letter to Toronto”), how his work as an LGBTQ+ counsellor and educator played a role in his writing, and that “real life is in the details.”
All Lit Up: The publication of your most recent novel The B-Side of Daniel Garneau continues Daniel’s story from the first two novels. What was the process like of writing three novels about the same characters over the span of years? Did the characters evolve over the years in ways you didn’t expect when you first set out writing them?
David Kingston Yeh: When I began Daniel’s story in 2016, there were specific issues and themes I wanted to address relating to sex, intimacy, love, and relationships. A clear authorial intent is critical to shaping any novel. However, good storytelling is always driven by its characters. Over three books, I introduce a large and eclectic cast. Having them breathe and come fully alive meant stepping out of their way and trusting in the creative process. As a result, their words and actions would often surprise me. Sexual and gender fluidity play out in a number of character arcs. There was also an interesting time dilation as I progressed – while my first book spanned five years of my characters’ lives, the second spanned two years, and the third just one. I attribute this to a deeper attunement to my characters’ complex motivations, flaws, and needs. Ostensibly, Daniel’s story began as genre fiction (targeting a gay, new adult readership). But by the third novel, it had shifted much closer to literary realism.
ALU: There are extensive Toronto landmarks in your novel (Buddies in Bad Times Theatre! Java House at Queen and Augusta!). Are there any special connections to these places for you? How do you go about choosing your settings?
DKY: I have an emotional connection with all of my settings – Toronto’s colourful dive bars and coffee shops, theatres and clubs. This is the urban landscape where I personally came out, found community, met my partner, and discovered myself. In this sense, my writing contains strong elements of memoir. I actually fought with my last editor to keep all the Toronto references in the manuscript. Writing from lived experience always contributes to immersive fiction. I also try to choose settings that are integral to a scene. Mark Twain reminds us to “write what you know” but it’s Ray Bradbury who encourages us to “write what you love.” I wanted to do what Armistead Maupin did for San Francisco, or what John Hughes did for Chicago. Daniel’s story is my love letter to Toronto.
ALU: Did you do any specific research for your novels? Do you have writing rituals when you’re working on a novel?
DKY: The B-Side of Daniel Garneau has David planning to donate his sperm so that his brother might become a father. This wasn’t my own personal experience, so I needed to research this plot device carefully. At one point, Daniel recounts a sexual fantasy over FaceTime. Because his efforts were meant to be an inept parody, I found myself studying tropes and clichés in erotic storytelling – definitely a rabbit hole, lol. I also wanted to deconstruct masculinity – and spent some time researching the Hells Angels, wrestling, rugby, and heavy metal bands. In every instance, I discovered queer elements I was able to introduce in the book.
I write best in the mornings when my ego is most quiet. Nothing gets in the way of the creative process more than overthinking. It’s also important that my work space is ergonomic. Writing a novel is a marathon. Cultivating a long-term relationship with writing is as much a physical practice as it is mental and emotional. Inspiration gets you out the starting gate, but discipline gets you across the finish line.
ALU: You’ve worked as a counsellor and educator in Toronto’s LGBTQ+ community for twenty years. How does your work as a counsellor shape your writing?
DKY: The Boy at the Edge trilogy was definitely informed by hundreds of conversations I’ve had with queer and trans youth. Our narratives shape our realities – stories told to us, about us; stories we tell ourselves, about the world and our place in it. In recent decades, the LGBTQ+ community has benefited from a groundswell of affirming YA literature. (TV shows like Sex Education and Heartstopper have also provided much-needed representation for teens.) During this same time, “love is love” became a popular slogan. However, this phrase always seemed overly simplistic and abstract to me. Writing Daniel’s story, I wanted to connect with an older, twenty-something readership, address more mature and complex themes, and offer a more forthright sex-positive message. Real life is in the details. Homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, and enbyphobia are always rooted in ignorance. While I’ve been careful as an author not to be overly didactic, I’m always looking for opportunities to demystify and educate along the way. Hopefully, I’ve been able to do so in a way that also entertains.
ALU: What kinds of books do you read? Are there any books you’ve recently read that you can’t stop thinking about?
DKY: Most of my reading growing up was speculative fiction. I remember how meaningful it was to encounter gay characters in books by Diane Duane, Ellen Kushner, Anne Rice, and others. Later, I discovered Joseph Campbell and folklore studies. As a psychotherapist, I’ve been influenced by Jung and Foucault, and also narrative therapy which understands our lives in terms of the stories we tell. I’m tremendously inspired by the Human Library – an international organization that “loans out” real “human books” to redress stereotypes and prejudice. I’ve often recommended Elizabeth Gilbert’s book on creativity, Big Magic. I suppose the books I read are any that might inspire the imagination to hope and work for a better world.
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David Kingston Yeh has worked twenty years as a counsellor and educator in Toronto’s LGBTQ+ community. He holds his MA in sociology from Queen’s University, is an alumnus of George Brown Theatre School, and attended Advanced Graduate Studies in Expressive Arts in Saas Fee, Switzerland. David lives in downtown Toronto up the street from a circus academy, along with his husband and a family of racoons. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines. David is the author of three novels exploring queer identities and relationships.
Thanks to David for taking time to answer our questions! The B-Side of Daniel Garneau is available here on All Lit Up, or from your local indie bookseller. You can also find the first two books, A Boy at the Edge of the World (2018) and Tales from the Bottom of My Sole (2020) here on ALU.