Train Sounds: A Novel
Train Sounds has been many years in the making. Like most novels, it has passed through many different incarnations, some captured on paper, others never leaving the author’s mind. It started out as a regular young adult story. There would be intrigue, questions about origins, parental secrets, and a grand finale. Maybe it could have been an after school special, or a Hallmark film where everyone would be sobbing at the end. I decided that Train Sounds was not meant to follow such a traditional arc. I just didn’t know how it would be different, until a frank discussion with one of my children led me to an epiphany. I tossed away all the soap opera elements and turned my coming of age into a story with more grit. I came to the realization that my main character was gay. When that came into focus, the rest of the novel was quick to fall into place. How difficult would it be for a gay child to grow up in a conservative area under the horrifying darkness of AIDS? This was a time when health care workers knew very few solid facts about the disease. It was considered a gay illness, making homosexual people even more of a target. Ignorance was rampant and there was an assumption that if someone were gay, they eventually would become ill. This became the world my main character was to grow up in. From the moment I was admitted into UTEP’s Creative Writing MFA program, I knew Train Sounds would be my thesis. As it came together, I knew I’d made the right decision. Despite this knowledge, one worry remains and I believe it will continue to push back despite the passage of time. Writing a gay character, especially a teenager, is tantamount to watching a bunch of folks walk along the edge of a cliff, knowing I could inadvertently give one a shove. I don’t want my work to hurt anyone. Because of this, I spoke with several queer folks to get their opinions. I wanted to know how they felt about a straight person writing a queer character, not even an ancillary character but a main character. I found that the reactions I received heavily depended on their age. Older folks seemed good with it. One gentleman considered it an honor. Another, himself a writer, thought life would be boring if we all wrote only what we knew, besides, he wrote straight characters, so it only seemed fair. Another bluntly told me he didn’t give a f**k, either way. I found that promising, even amusing in the context. On the other end of the spectrum, however, I concluded that younger people were more skeptical. They couldn’t see how someone like me could do someone like them justice, which is understandable. My teenage expert explained it to me in this way: LGBTQ kids of today are more demanding. They’re growing up in an age where they are readily seen and their voices heard, even if they’re still marginalized. They’re pushing back against the status quo. As a result, their stories need be relatable, and not full of pretense or assumptions. Older people are less exacting because they grew up in a time where those kinds of demands couldn’t be made. This insight seemed fair, if not disheartening to me, so much that I almost stopped the project. I ruminated long and hard on how I could write Mason in another vein, and even attempted to write a few CHAPTERs, but it lacked the bite I was looking for. I decided to plow ahead, hoping my research, and my position as an ally could justify making this choice. Now, all I can do is hope I’ve handled Mason’s story with empathy, compassion, and a deep thread of sincerity. If I screwed up, I hope I will be forgiven. After all, we are all very much human.
Polin, Nancy E, "Train Sounds: A Novel" (2021). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI28961932.