Debut Queer Romance Takes Readers Out of This World

Posted by Cybil on January 30, 2020
Phil Stamper
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A romance between two queer “astrokids” (the children of astronauts), a mission to Mars, social media, a reality show, and some messy family dynamics form the riveting building blocks of The Gravity of Us, Phil Stamper’s YA debut.
 
Cal is 17 and a successful social media reporter who must suddenly relocate from Brooklyn to Houston after his father is selected to join a NASA mission to Mars. He’s ill at ease in this strange new space world with its attendant media frenzy. But then Cal falls for Leon, a gymnast and fellow “astrokid,” and the pair’s connection swiftly deepens. When secrets about the mission start to emerge, however, Cal must balance speaking out with protecting those he loves.
 
Brooklyn-based Stamper tells Goodreads how an infatuation with the Apollo missions helped inform his novel, how he wanted his book to be both a “safe” space for queer teens and reflect a positive view of the power of social media, and what’s next for him.
 

 
Goodreads: Your debut novel, The Gravity of Us, encompasses space exploration, NASA, friendship and love, families, social media, public versus private life, and mental health. Can you tell us about the book’s journey into being and how these elements came together?

Phil Stamper: First off, thanks so much for speaking with me today! I’ve always been a huge fan of these interviews, so it’s amazing to be on the other side of the screen.
 
All of these elements came together somewhat naturally, and I think that’s because they go hand-in-hand with the story I wanted to write from the beginning. A lot happens in this book, but it was my goal to never make it feel like plotlines or themes were shoehorned in. The book is inspired by the ’60s space race, and the more you look into that era, all of these elements played a huge role in the missions, especially for the astronaut families. 

GR: You’re a self-identified space nerd. How did your research into the Apollo 11 mission help inspire this book?

PS: Ahh, yes, I’m a huge space nerd. When you grow up in a rural area, you spend a lot of time stargazing—or at least, that’s what I did! I think my interest in spaceflight, though, can be traced all the way back to the first time I watched Apollo 13. It revealed this new passion for me, and suddenly I was reading every astronaut/engineer memoir about the space race, watching every documentary I could find, and I even started collecting LIFE magazines from the era.
 
Apollo 11 was a fantastic mission, but the rest of the Apollo missions, plus accounts of the Mercury and Gemini programs, were just as interesting to me. Each mission had its own distinct achievements, and they all had their fair share of drama.
 
Throughout all this research, one thing that always stood out was that while the astronauts were up in the air, their families back in Houston had it just as hard. The astronauts’ wives and children had to be immaculately dressed and polished, ready for interviews at any given moment, all while not knowing if their husband or father would come home alive that night. In The Gravity of Us, I wanted to capture this great tension while building in a queer love story between two sons of astronauts. 

GR: How did you create the character of Cal, and is he based on anyone?

PS: I drafted this story at the dawn of “fake news” and the resulting political turmoil, so Cal’s role as an established social media journalist came, a bit subconsciously, in response to that. A lot of teens—especially queer teens—felt lost around this time, and with good reason.
 
I wanted to show a character that truly believed in the power of journalism, a teen who really used his voice, while highlighting social media as a tool for change.
 
He’s not based on anyone, though! I think a lot of people assume authors model their characters closely after themselves, but that’s not the case here. I’m such a rule follower, and Cal…well, you’ll see he’s not. He’s flawed, but he’s trying, and I think a lot of people (myself included) can relate to that. 

GR: Readers have praised the book’s handling of the characters’ sexuality and that, for Cal and Leon, being gay is not a cause for emotional or identity crisis but a part of who they are. Can you talk about that?

PS: I’m glad you asked this question because it’s something that was really important to me while drafting this book. I think we need all sorts of stories for queer teens—ones where identity is a major conflict, ones where identity is fully normalized, ones where homophobia, etc. can be deconstructed on the page, and worlds that are created without hate. 
 
There’s something refreshing and empowering about taking a story that revolves around a queer romance and putting that story into a world where homophobia isn’t acknowledged. I’ve been blindsided by books with unnecessary homophobic scenes (usually to further the cishet main character’s story line or just to remind queer teens that they’re oppressed), and I wanted to be clear that, in this book, queer teens are safe here. That queer people can read this book without having their guards up. And again, that’s not the right fit for every story, but it was important for me for this story. 

GR: The book also explores mental health issues, such as the anxiety Cal’s mother suffers and Cal’s boyfriend’s depression. What informed your depiction of this, and what were you hoping readers would take away from it?

PS: I put a lot of myself into all of the characters, especially when it comes to mental health representation, drawing from my own experience with anxiety and depression. I wanted to show characters with a variety of mental health experiences: undiagnosed; diagnosed but untreated; and diagnosed, treated, but still not perfect. Illustrating each character’s journey with mental health—and more important, showing characters with different experiences treating each other with respect and patience—was really important to me.

GR: When did you first realize you wanted to write fiction, and what was the first thing you wrote?

PS: I started writing fiction about eight years ago. I was working in PR, and I really loved that I got to write for a living…but I was writing some really dry stuff. Press releases, speeches, news stories for organizations I wasn’t passionate about. I was in my early 20s and burning out fast. Around this time, I’d been reading every YA dystopian novel I could get my hands on. While reading my 800th or so book, it kind of clicked: I could write my own novel, and it would recharge my creative batteries.
 
The Gravity of Us is the fourth book I wrote. My first one, though, was an exciting YA dystopian novel focused on overpopulation and climate change. I kept writing novels, and some short fiction, even getting a YA fantasy short story published in Fairly Twisted Tales from REUTS Publications back in 2014. It’s been a long journey, but it’s been so rewarding, and I’m so excited to get my debut novel out in the world. 

GR: Did you always intend to write a queer YA love story or did you consider other genres like science fiction?

PS: With The Gravity of Us, I always wanted to write a queer YA love story. I never saw this as a sci-fi piece, because like I mentioned earlier, I thought what was happening on the ground during these missions was way more interesting. (Even if I did sci-fi, let’s be honest, I’d have built a queer love story into it!) That said, I did originally start writing this book as a YA historical. The idea was to build this fictional love story into the real Apollo missions, and since I knew so much about that era, it seemed doable. But a couple chapters in, I knew it wasn’t working. It didn’t feel right. It wasn’t relevant, and I worried it wouldn’t be interesting to today’s YA readers.
 
So, I threw that all out and wrote it as a contemporary, focusing on a fictional but plausible present-day mission to Mars. I was able to pull in some of the ’60s nostalgia but have it shown through the eyes of a cynic. Bringing this story into the changing traditional media and social media landscape made this story dynamic and exciting, and from page one, it just worked.

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GR: You have a preorder deal where you’re offering readers signed bookplates that had been into space! How on earth did you do this?

PS: Ha! This was one thing I’d been planning for years, actually, and I’m so glad it worked out perfectly. I partnered with Overlook Horizon, a science and technology nonprofit in New York that sends high-altitude weather balloons to the edge of space for research purposes. They sent the bookplates to an altitude of 100,000-plus feet on their OLHZN-18 and OLHZN-19 flights, then collected the packages once they dropped back to Earth.
 
You can see pictures and video of one of the flights here—I’ve never been so jealous of a few stickers!

GR: Your next book is due out in 2021. What is it about, and is it finished yet?

PS: My second book is another standalone YA contemporary novel with a queer main character. (See a trend here?) In this book, 17-year-old Marty Pierce escapes a close-minded, stifling living environment in Kentucky and moves to London to jump-start his career as a classical oboist. Along the way, he reconnects with old family, makes new friends that accept him for who he is, and finds first love…with the wrong guy.
 
Cover, title, and full description will be coming soon!

GR: Can you name some books that have really inspired you? And which new titles are you excited to read in 2020?

PS: In the world of queer YA, Becky Albertalli and Caleb Roehrig are two authors who really inspired me along the way. I finally got a chance to read Becky’s Leah on the Offbeat this year, and I fell in love with it. And all of Caleb’s books are dear to my heart, but White Rabbit will always be my favorite!
 
I’ve become friends with a ton of fellow debut authors over the last year, so there are a LOT of books I’m looking forward to this year! I recently got to meet Liz Lawson, whose debut, The Lucky Ones, is about a teen who survives a school shooting. That book is already getting a ton of great reviews, and I can’t wait to read it. Cinderella Is Dead by Kalynn Bayron is a queer reimagining of Cinderella with a dark twist, which sounds fantastic. Beyond debuts, I need The Summer of Everything by Julian Winters in my hands now, along with Mason Deaver’s The Ghosts We Keep. 2020 is going to be such a great year for YA!
 

Phil Stamper's The Gravity of Us will be available in the U.S. on February 4. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-18 of 18 (18 new)

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message 1: by annob (last edited Jan 30, 2020 05:00AM) (new)

annob I appreciate the interview focus on queer romance. Looking forward to check out Stamper's debut.

My current favourite YA queer romance is When Everything Is Blue by Laura Lascarso.


message 2: by Chloe (new)

Chloe YYEESSS i want to read thx thx thx for makeing this


message 3: by kittykat (new)

kittykat The Extraordinaries (The Extraordinaries, #1) by T.J. Klune May 5th 2020 by Tor Teen.

You're welcome 😃


message 4: by Lynn (new)

Lynn Painter OMG SPACE BOOKPLATES?? Dude, that is some next-level bookswag! ;) Great interview!


message 5: by Brigid (new)

Brigid I am reading this right now and it is so great <3


message 6: by Kaitlyn (last edited Jan 30, 2020 01:47PM) (new)

Kaitlyn Shane wrote: "Gross!"

Shut up.
Seriously, no one asked for your opinion. That's really rude. If you didn't like the article, then keep that to yourself.


message 7: by Ginger (last edited Jan 30, 2020 06:30PM) (new)

Ginger Shane wrote: "Gross!"

This comment was inappropriate! I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have beliefs or whatever, but a little compassion or sensitivity would’ve been nice. If you’re a homophobic, that’s fine...you’re entitled. This choice isn’t for everyone, and that’s fine. HOWEVER, I am offended. I may not be a homosexual, but I have friends and a couple family members who are. Also a good friend who is the parent of a transgender. The whole would be filled with so much LESS hate if we leave people alone to live their lives.

I may not be reading this book because I’m not a big space fan, but kudos to the author for writing this!


message 8: by pineapple (new)

pineapple head YA has become so diverse and I LOVE IT 🧡💛💚💙💜


message 9: by pineapple (new)

pineapple head Shane wrote: "Gross!"

hello id just like to say your opinion is in invalid go to the neo nazi webpage and rant all you want you piece of dried tomato


message 10: by Amti (new)

Amti Kamara Cheers to more diversity! It´s all just love.


message 11: by Java (new)

Java I got a chance to read this book recently and I LOVED it! It has a modern setting but with a retro feel, something that excites me. The story is believable, not sappy or morose like many queer themed stories I've read. Phil Stamper is an author I'll be reading as long as he continues to write.


message 12: by Java (new)

Java Ginger wrote: "Shane wrote: "Gross!"

This comment was inappropriate! I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have beliefs or whatever, but a little compassion or sensitivity would’ve been nice. If you’re a homophobic,..."


You should definitely read this book, though. It's not so much about space as it is about people, how they interact, how they deal with struggles and upheavals in their lives. The actual "space" stuff is more background, not so critical to the story line. Also, it's a great book!


message 13: by Aimiey (new)

Aimiey Ardiny


message 14: by Henley goodayle (new)

Henley goodayle Good book it looks


message 15: by Aenea (new)

Aenea Jones Shane wrote: "Gross!"

Welcome to 2020, homophobia is out of fashion ;)


message 16: by Ryan (new)

Ryan Sala I am so so so so so excited for this book!!!!


message 17: by Shirley Marie (last edited Feb 12, 2020 03:27AM) (new)

Shirley Marie Bradby "Shane wrote: "Gross!"
Good on you! THAT is your opinion and you should be allowed to say it! I think that the author is old and mature enough to expect both positive and negative reviews—and knows how to handle them! If he doesn't then he will spend his life always being "offended" by someone for some reason or the other!

By the way, this book is about a love story and like all love stories it deals with human nature --- interaction and reaction. You can change the names, gender, race, nationality, place, time, and circumstances but the results are just variations on the same theme! What matters is the writer's skills in being able to tell a good love story! And we all recognize a good story when we read one! Right? Right! Have a great day, everyone! 👍😊


message 18: by Jennerknit (new)

Jennerknit How about we stop giving Shane "Fuel for his 'gross' fire", and refocus on the success of this fantastic author.

Thank you Phil Stampers for your representation of diversity!


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