Over the past few months I’ve gotten to know Juliann Rich via Twitter and her blog, as well as her debut novel, Caught in the Crossfire. It’s a story that is often heard but not told in the way Juliann has done—which is no doubt why it’s had such a strong reception. I wanted to ask her more about it, so we exchanged some questions via email:
Congratulations on the publication of Caught in the Crossfire! How has the reception been for the book so far?
Thank you! I really couldn’t have asked for a better reception! The overwhelming response from readers has been one of incredible appreciation for the book. I’ve had emails and direct messages thanking me for writing it and many have even said they wished it had been available when they came out. I love hearing things like that!
You’ve mentioned that you can appreciate both sides of this story because of your own family history and your background with faith. Can you tell me a little more about that and how the idea for this novel came about?
Sure! I grew up in a very conservative, evangelical Christian home. My grandparents were missionaries, my uncles were ministers, my parents were not only deeply involved with the church, but wonderful role models for what it means to have a personal relationship with Christ.
My own faith journey has always been more of a struggle. I am someone who questions, who examines, who must choose for myself, and frankly, I saw inconsistencies in the Christian church between what is preached (love your neighbor) and what is too frequently acted out (I’ll love the neighbors that are like me). But I never could shake my core belief in Jesus and His message. Time and again, I returned to the faith community for fellowship only to get frustrated and walk away.
About ten years ago my son shared with me that he is gay. As you can imagine, this revelation brought all those issues of concern to the surface for my family, and we struggled. Man, did we struggle. Though my husband and I accepted him immediately, my extended family worried that affirming my son put his salvation at risk and the next seven years were marked by painful discussions. I wrote Caught in the Crossfire as an attempt to give my mother the opportunity to see through the eyes of my protagonist, a Christian teen struggling to accept his sexuality. In a sense, I was gambling on her good heart and ability to empathize, and I won. My mom read my book and called to tell me that she loved it. She also wanted to talk to my son. And this time, she wanted to listen to him.
At that point, I felt that I’d achieved the highest success any writer can strive toward and anything beyond that would be icing on the proverbial launch party cake. In the two years that have followed—as Caught in the Crossfire found an agent, then a publisher, and then its readership—my mother and I talked about everything: sexuality, spirituality, what God’s promise of unconditional love really means. And these conversations have allowed us to know each other better as people and love one another more deeply than ever before. Though we still hold some different views, we’ve created a common ground that is based on the belief that we all deserve to be accepted and affirmed.
One of the things I really enjoyed about the novel was that it takes a common conflict—religion and sexual orientation—and resists strict “us vs. them” or “if you’re gay, you can’t be religious” resolutions. I’m assuming that was a deliberate choice on your part.
Yes, it was, but only because I determined to write as honestly as I could about the Christian community as I know it to be. Sure, we’ve got some loudmouths with megaphones. They get attention because they make great headlines, but I really don’t think those people are representative of the majority of Christians. Nor do their views shed any real light on the true problem when it comes to healing the rift between the Christian church and the LGBTQIA community.
The problem isn’t picketing. It’s polite discrimination, the kind of pervasive message that says, “I love you. Just not what you do.” Therein is the problem because as long as we see an identity as an action, we’re going to be tempted to bring judgment to that action. This is where phrases like “love the sinner, hate the sin” or “pray the gay away” come from.
It would have been easy to vilify Christians based on the few high profile people who say outrageous and hateful things, but I wanted to write a book in which the majority of Christians could recognize themselves. I wanted them to hear words they’ve spoken and see actions they’ve taken. And then I wanted them to see the impact of harm to the LGBTQIA kids who are growing up in their homes and churches.
I firmly believe that if the Christian community can see that wound, they will move toward affirmative love, which is what we are truly called to express as followers of Christ.
It’s interesting how different Jonathan and Ian are from one another. Jonathan is very optimistic and hopeful, and Ian is all sharp corners and internal (and external!) rage. Those stark differences make for a lot of conflict between the two of them. Was it hard to bring the two characters together given that they come from almost completely opposite directions?
This is such a great question, and it gives me an opportunity to talk about something many readers might not realize: Jonathan and Ian are actually very similar. I even chose names that have the same meaning, “God’s gift.” In fact, the name “Ian” is derived from “Jonathan.”
In short, Ian is the person Jonathan could easily become if his core need is not met, which is to accept himself and be accepted in his true identity by his family. He is also the person Jonathan could become if the wounding goes too deep and Jonathan loses his faith altogether. Ian is his own person to be certain, but he is also the spotlight trained on the darkest possible future for Jonathan.
This was not hard to write at all. I just had to think about what would happen to Jonathan if the worst occurred, and then write that as Ian’s backstory and allow it to flavor his entire worldview.
I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it does make sense. Caught in the Crossfire is the first in a three-book series, right? What happens in the next two books?
Hmm, I’m not going to give away major plot points, but I will say this: The next book, Searching for Grace, deals with the reality that sets in once Jonathan leaves the bubble of Bible camp. It’s one thing to embrace an identity when you’re away from home, your parents, and your day-to-day friends. But what happens when you need to integrate that new identity into your real life? That conflict is the core of Searching for Grace. The last book, Taking the Stand, is about overcoming the difficulties that Jonathan encounters in Searching for Grace. It’s literally and figuratively about standing up to them and finding the strength to claim his place and identity in his world.
You’re a PFLAG mom—has your son read the book? Have any of your other family members read it? What sort of conversations has that inspired?
My son has read Caught in the Crossfire and loves it, though he actually enjoys the sequel, Searching for Grace, more because it is a story he can relate to with greater ease. My son never struggled with integrating his sexuality and his spirituality. He ran into the hard wall of judgment within the Christian church and walked away. He has not looked back. But trying to maintain his truth against the resistance of family members and friends? That he can relate to.
Some other family members have read my book and some have not, but those who have read it are all curious. Where do I get my ideas? (EVERYWHERE!) Is anyone in the book based on them? (NO!) Is it hard to write a book? (YES!)
They’ve enjoyed the story, but also the glimpse into the world of my imagination. I’m the only writer in my family so what I do is a bit of a mystery to them.
And then, of course, there are all the deep conversations we have had as a result of my book that I discussed in my answer to question # 2.
There’s also a strong sense of place in your writing, from the Bible camp Jonathan and Ian attend to the natural environment surrounding them. It’s clearly a setting that you know well. Was there anything about it that surprised you when you sat down to write about it?
I spent my summers as a kid going to Bible camp and/or the Native American reservation in Wisconsin where my uncle was a minister. I drew from both locations for Caught in the Crossfire. My favorite place, hands down, is Minnesota’s North Shore. So it was no surprise to me or anyone else that I chose to set Spirit Lake Bible Camp there.
However, I did learn something about myself when it was time to write Searching for Grace, which I set in a fictional high school in the Twin Cities. I discovered that I sorta stink when it comes to writing setting! Yeah, I kinda hate having to take a break from dialogue to describe something! In Caught in the Crossfire I got to luxuriate in a lush forest and swim in a lake so writing setting was fun and brought me to places I love. But a high school boys’ locker room? Not so much.
Here’s what I learned (and yes, it was a surprise): Dialogue is the pedal to the metal that keeps the story moving. Setting anchors the reader to the world and awakens the senses. A great book (and a great writer) provides readers with a balance, and I need to make a concerted effort to write both, even the passages I’d rather skip.
Writing is not your only job. You also work in marketing and PR. When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
Since I was a kid! Seriously. Written communication has always been the go to tool in my toolbox, but I’ve used it to promote others for most of my adult life. This was safer, I think, than stepping into the foreground and writing words that reflect my truths.
I think I instinctively knew that anything I cared enough about to spend years expressing would also be something that would shake the foundations of my life and of the lives of people I love. That’s scary stuff. But ultimately, the pain of not writing my stories was bigger than the fear, and I stepped into my life’s path.
What do you think you’ll write after this trilogy?
My next book is another young adult/new adult book, but it’s very different from The Crossfire Trilogy.
First, it’s not a coming out story. While coming out stories are great, they are not the only valid story in young adult LGBTQIA literature! So I’m writing a book where my protagonist’s sexual orientation and gender identity are not the source of conflict.
And second, I’m writing a story with paranormal elements! I decided to do this after I wrote a speculative fiction short story for BSB’s Queer Fairy Tales anthology and had a blast! I can’t wait to bring what I learned from that experienced into the form of long fiction.
I’ll save some of the more juicy details about the book for when it’s ready to be introduced to the world, but I’ll tell you this: it’s a paranormal murder mystery with a gender fluid protagonist.
I’m intrigued already—and there are a few parallels between that and something I’m working on (but more on that later).
One of the things I tend to do when I visit someone’s house is look first and foremost at their bookshelves. What would I find on yours?
First and foremost, you’ll probably find dust since I’m working around the clock right now to promote Caught in the Crossfire, edit Searching for Grace, and draft Taking the Stand! But beneath the dust, you’ll find my heroes: James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, John Green, Laurie Halse Anderson, Radclyffe, Pete Hautman, Alex Sanchez, David Levithan, Neil Gaiman, Steve Brezenoff, Swati Avasthi, Kirstin Cronn-Mills, Rachel Gold, Molly Beth Griffin, and too many others to name here. I fill my home and my mind with authors who are willing to challenge the world to be a more compassionate place for all people.
Moving from the bookshelf to the nightstand, what are you reading at the moment?
I am re-reading one of my all time favorite novels: Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin. It’s a beautiful affirmative young adult novel set in Minnesota in 1920. It is an amazing book that both awakens and soothes my mind, and I return to it often.
Did you ever find that perfect climbing tree you were looking for during your childhood?
Yes, and it was in my own backyard all along.
Thanks, Juliann! Here’s where to find out more about her and her writing:
Where to find her books: