Janelle Janson: Thank you so much for your time, John. We’re excited to get the inside scoop on your debut, The Bright Lands. First off, how does it feel getting your amazing debut published during everything else going on in 2020? Are you doing okay?
John Fram: I’m doing pretty well! I live in New York City, where the horrible grief and paranoia of Covid is slowly passing and, in its place, we’re finding horror and rage, which feels far more productive. I couldn’t be happier to be bringing this particular book into the world at this particular moment.
JJ: Why is that, exactly?
JF: Well, on the one hand, The Bright Lands is about the small town of Bentley, Texas, where football is king. Joel Whitley, a gay man who left town ten years earlier under mysterious circumstances, comes home to help his brother, Dylan, the town’s star quarterback, only for Dylan to disappear the next day. As Joel and a cast of misfits search for Dylan, they learn more about the shame and secrets and bigotry their town has harbored for decades, and soon all roads lead to a mysterious place known as “The Bright Lands.” And then everything catches on fire.
JJ: The Bright Lands is an impressive debut. What’s your writing background? Is this what you’ve always wanted to do?
JF: This is, truly, all I ever planned to be. I dropped out of school to write, worked crappy jobs, eked by. It’s been the goal from day one, and I’m insanely lucky that it’s worked out so far.
JJ: How long did it take you to write?
JF: From start to finish, a little under a year, but that was a year of hard writing. I honestly don’t remember much of my life in the three months before the novel sold. I’m not entirely convinced I was living in the real world as I finished this book.
JJ: Describe your setup when you write. In front of a window, snacks, coffee? Any fun idiosyncrasies you’d like to share?
JF: I face a white wall. There’s usually coffee. I write from 6:30 to 9:30 every morning, break for an hour for breakfast, then keep going until 1:30. Coffee or tea is a must, but those drinks also help me know when it’s time to quit for the day: typically by 2:00 my bladder is so overcaffeinated I can’t sit still, so then I take a walk and read in Central Park. It could be worse.
JJ: Which character was the hardest to write? Do you have a favorite?
JF: The protagonist, Joel, was a challenge because I very much did not want to write a stand-in character for myself. Joel, like me, is a Texan boy living in New York, but when I was writing The Bright Lands I was extremely broke, whereas Joel is lavishly successful and has a bit of the arrogance that brings with it, though of course much of his ambition has a painful source. It’s incredibly gratifying to see notes from gay men telling me how much they connect with him.
My favorite character would probably be either Sheriff’s Deputy Starsha Clark, Joel’s high school girlfriend and now an absolute ass-kicker, or Luke Evers, one of Dylan’s teammates. It would be a spoiler to say why, of course.
JJ: Is any of the book based on real life characters or situations? Where did the idea come from?
JF: This is a tricky question and I have to be careful with what I say. While I should stress that no one in this book is modeled even in part on real people I know, some incredibly strange shit goes on in rural Texas. When you hear some of the stories I heard growing up (and, later, when I started going to gay bars in the cities and meeting refugee boys from the countryside, I heard even more), that stuff is going to filter into your work.
JJ: There are a lot hot button issues at the center of your novel, such as toxic masculinity, the plight of LGBTQIA people, racism, peer pressure, drug abuse, and police malfeasance – was it your intention to bring these issues to light?
JF: When I started writing this book in 2017 I was so incredibly angry at the way the worst aspects of Texas culture—the chauvinism, the gleeful cruelty, the myopic petulance—had seized our country. I wanted to write a book that felt like Kafka’s brick thrown through a window; I wanted to burn everything down. So yes, I guess you could say it was intentional, but it was also just an effort at looking honestly at the world my generation has inherited.
JJ: The characters are all realistic and relatable – how do you write such three dimensional characters?
JF: That’s incredibly kind of you to say. I think the fastest way to write believable characters is to figure out their flaws and their needs and then get them talking to each other. Character is revealed in action and dialogue, and if you take pleasure in getting fake people talking on the page, you’ll soon find those people taking on three dimensions. Especially if they don’t particularly like each other.
JJ: Are you as obsessed with football as depicted in your book?
JF: I actually looked down my nose at football when I grew up, mostly because it scared me: all that physical contact and tight Lycra was a lot, okay? I didn’t even know the rules of football until I settled down to write this book, honestly. I sort of soaked myself in football for a long time and, the minute the book sold, I forgot all of it. That said, I do hope to watch a game again once we start emerging from Covid, but that might be the contact and the Lycra.
JJ: What is the takeaway you would like readers to get when they read your book?
JF: That you’re allowed to be angry! That things really are as fucked up as they look! That we need to fight! But also there’s beauty and tenderness and love. That those are worth fighting for, too.
JJ: The Bright Lands is a mix of genres: what is your favorite genre to read?
JF: I read whatever has good sentences and a suspenseful hook. Lately I’m finding that combination mostly in the mystery genre, but there’s some really exciting horror coming out in the second half of the year that I’m very much looking forward to.
JJ: Have you always been a reader?
JF: Always. Once I reached my teens, my family had very little money but we always had books.
JJ: How did you get the nickname Stephen Queen? Because, I have to say, it’s fantastic.
JF: This is so far the strangest thing to ever happen to me. Last year I had a big marketing meeting with HarperCollins, my publisher, and there was some talk of positioning me as the “gay Stephen King.” My agent, being a genius, laughingly said, “Stephen Queen!” and it stuck in my head. Then, six months later, I was doing an Instagram Live with @scaredstraightreads, a true king, and (slightly buzzed) I joking referred to myself as “Stephen Queen,” mostly for laughs.
Someone at Library Journal must have been watching that video because a few weeks later, in their very kind review of the book, they described me as Stephen Queen. So, like, I guess it’s official now?
JJ: What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing?
JF: There used to be these things called cocktail bars, and they were arguably the best thing about New York. There were also these places called gyms, and they were alright, too. Whenever those come back I can’t wait to see them again.
JJ: What are you working on next?
JF: I’m finishing up another book but I’m pretty sure my agent would flay me alive if I said another word about it.
JJ: What is the first thing you want to do in the post-pandemic world?
JF: Something that’s as consensual as it is irresponsible.
JJ: What are the three books you always recommend?
JF: This is a brutal one. The Brimstone Wedding by Barbara Vine is one of the most moving mystery novels I’ve read. Ditto for Walter Mosley’s Down the River Unto the Sea—nobody hits harder than Mosley firing on all cylinders like he does in that book. And lastly it’s a toss-up between Duma Key and Bag of Bones. I think they’re two of King’s half-dozen stone-cold masterpieces and maybe his two most coherent, aesthetically satisfying novels. Bag of Bones taught me the absolute magic of a good supernatural suspense story and remains one of the few books I truly, honest to God, could not put down.
The Bright Lands is on sale July 7th.