So the Nightingale pressed closer against the thorn, and the thorn touched her heart, and a fierce pang of pain shot through her. Bitter, bitter was the pain, and wilder and wilder grew her song, for she sang of the Love that is perfected by Death, of the Love that dies not in the tomb.
– Oscar Wilde, “The Nightingale and the Rose”
Wollstone is the most fairy tale-y of my contemporary fantasy books, and I needed it to be that way. I’ve always wanted to write a gay YA boarding school story, considering my sources of inspiration and writing background, and I decided I didn’t want it to be a realistic one. Just the concept of an exclusive school for boys makes me instantly look at fantastical elements and not the issues that can be raised involving boarding schools and gay kids.
The main reason for defaulting to something less grounded in reality is the fact that a boarding school to me is an isolated world. Not so much a microcosm of the real world – a public school (in American terms) is closer to that than a boarding school – but more like a little world that’s removed from what we see and experience day to day. A boarding school to me has its own history, its own set of rules, its own kind of logic and reality. And with the setting peopled by boys of a certain age group with maybe their school masters, there’s also that removal of real world elements such as parents, family, neighbors, etc.. That to me allows a writer plenty of room to play with possibilities without the added burden of bringing in the outside world to complicate things further. Think of it as a concentrated formula of something – standardized, of course. :D
My writing background’s deeply rooted in yaoi and especially (the now defunct term) shounen ai. I wrote fanfiction for a few years before branching off to pursue fanfiction based on a classic boarding school romance between boys: Kaze To Ki No Uta (The Song of the Wind and Trees) by Keiko Takemiya. It’s through this obscure fandom of one (yes, I was the only one who wrote fanfiction for this series and paid a good deal of money, acquiring old copies of the manga in addition to art books through Japanese auctions) that I learned not to limit myself to the Western tendency toward rationalization in what I read.
Takemiya’s masterpiece is a tragic love story set in a boarding school in 19th century France, and its high levels of angst and melodrama at first made me wonder if this was all campy stuff quite typical of the era (the series was published in the 1970s). But the more I read, the more I realized that the intense emotion and almost fantasy-like setting work incredibly well together in highlighting the love story between two boys: the half-gypsy viscount and the school whore. Literal and metaphorical elements meshed together to create a gut-wrenching and intensely romantic story that spanned seventeen volumes.
And I think that was what overrode my limitations as a reader – emotion that’s not confined. The end result is a pretty aesthetic kind of reading, very baroque and complex, emotional and visual, and as long as I embraced that approach to storytelling, I was fine. And, yep, I was a sobbing wreck at the end.
Another classic shounen ai series that came out a little before Takemiya’s was Moto Hagio’s Toma No Shinzou (The Heart of Thomas). This one is set in a boarding school in Germany. It’s also a tragic love story, but it’s a great deal more subdued than Takemiya’s. I think the original series ran for three volumes, which were later compiled into one volume. Happily for us, Matt Thorn recently released his English translation of the book, which you can find here, and I highly, highly recommend it.
Though Hagio’s series is less trying on one’s nerves insofar as the emotional quotient’s concerned, it’s still a touching and heartbreaking love story, one that Matt Thorn describes as “unabashedly romantic and emotionally complex”.
There’s also one anime series I watched that’d taken deep root in me and inspired my writing of Wollstone. Based on a manga series, Revolutionary Girl Utena was released in four story arcs in the late 1990s. I’ve only seen the first arc (The Student Council Saga) and was completely blown away. It’s surreal, dream-like, nonsensical, almost, in how convoluted the plot is, and I loved it. Here was another work convincincing me to damn my tendencies toward logic as a reader or viewer and simply revel in possibilities, no matter how outrageous and bizarre.
Ohtori Academy, a co-ed boarding school, exists in its own world and is subject to its own rules and abstract kind of logic. Unlike the two shounen ai titles I’ve mentioned, Revolutionary Girl Utena does incorporate Western fairy tale elements, and the plot’s very much steeped in fantasy. Please note the upside-down castle in the video; how awesome is that?
When I first tackled Wollstone, I knew immediately that I wanted to write a gay boarding school story that’s – unusual. It’s a romance, and it’s a fairy tale that involves two lives that are three hundred years apart. I pretty much took pages out of Kaze to Ki no Uta, Toma no Shinzou, and Revolutionary Girl Utena to spin my own take on the genre.
Set in an unnamed place somewhere in the US, Wollstone Academy is a unique boarding school that’s more than just a school. Emil Gogean, the hero, will have to learn the hard way as to why he’s there and why he seems to be the only boy who’s experiencing strange things happening around the campus. I used elements from French Medieval chivalry romances for its back story as well as other smaller details in the setting.
It took me about three years, writing this novel on and off. It was a challenge, largely because it was easy for me to get lost in too much story (read: it got kind of convoluted), and I had to backtrack several times to switch tracks before moving forward. But I guess the biggest challenge for me was letting go of my need to rationalize everything. Wollstone’s its own little world with its own unique reality, after all. Its roots are in an impossible romance betwen two boys from two different worlds, and it sits and waits till the right boy comes along to solve its mysteries as well as to balance the scales.
It might not be as unabashedly romantic as either Takemiya or Hagio’s masterpieces – there’s no way I can equal the emotional depth and complexity of their works – but you do get to have knights, princes, a king, a ruined chapel, and an idyllic woodland campus.
About the Author: I’ve lived most of my life in the San Francisco Bay Area though I wasn’t born there (or, indeed, the USA). I’m married with no kids and three cats, am a cycling nut (go Garmin!), and my day job involves artwork, great coworkers who specialize in all kinds of media, and the occasional strange customer requests involving papier mache fish with sparkly scales.
I’m a writer of young adult fiction, specializing in contemporary fantasy, historical fantasy, and historical genres. My books range from a superhero fantasy series to reworked folktales to Victorian ghost fiction. My themes are coming-of-age with very little focus on romance (most of the time) and more on individual growth with some adventure thrown in.
The Giveaway: Hayden Thorne is offering the chance for one lucky reader to win an e-copy of her new novel Wollstone. To enter the giveaway, just leave a comment right here by Midnight Pacific time on Saturday, May 10, 2014. One winner will be selected at random on Sunday, the 11th, and notified via email for prize delivery.