We continue our coverage of versatile author F. Fox North by discussing their recent indie title THE CHAOS AGENTS, their writing craft, and what led them to take on this diverse, sensual project.
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LS: The Chaos Agents marks a departure for you from YA. What made you break away from that genre and will you return to it?
The truth is, my books have straddled the line between young adult and adult for a while now – my previous novel, STRANGE CREATURES, written under the name Phoebe North, was originally conceived as an adult literary novel, not a young adult title, though it sold in that space to my editor at Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins. I’m not so much interested in a book’s genre or age category as being honest to the characters, the voices, and the story. And frankly, when it comes to THE CHAOS AGENTS, I quickly realized that there was no way to tell this story for teenagers and their gatekeepers. Baron Templeton, one of the leads in THE CHAOS AGENTS, isn’t a character who is particularly interested in self-editing himself – if anything, he’s the type to play up his own raunchiness! I was also interested in the adult lives of Baron and Eddie’s children – in Naomi’s forty-year-old failure to launch, and Matthew’s questions of ambition, relationship angst, and impending fatherhood. It was refreshing to be able to give these adult characters full consideration and rich, nuanced lives of their own.
LS: You were clearly influenced by the Lennon/McCartney dynamic and their often ambiguous relationship. What do you think they’d make of Eddie and Baron and how close to their relationship did you come?
I think it’s important to say that Hammond/Templeton are not Lennon/McCartney – and I say this as a person who sold my soul to John Lennon at the crossroads when I was twelve! There are a lot of folks writing (beautiful, funny, sexy, weird) McLennon fiction out there, and while I’ve read quite a bit myself, what I was really interested was in using the framework of lives like theirs – ambitious, gifted, and very public – to examine closeted queer identity in the 1950s and 1960s and the impacts. The closet has been a theme in my work since 2013’s STARGLASS. Entire queer generations have grown up since then, and while you hope they don’t need histories like Baron and Ed’s, the truth is, society has a way of filing down queer edges. I very much feel we do.
As for what Lennon and McCartney would think – I can’t presume to know. They are and were very different from one another much less my own characters. McCartney remains an intensely private person, which is his right, and I’m not sure Lennon ever gave the public a statement that wasn’t half-fictional. I wasn’t so much interested in interrogating their lives as imagining stories of my own. I don’t think we’ll ever get a full picture of their private selves – even the much more honest account we got in Peter Jackson’s GET BACK is extremely edited and curated by the survivors – but then, I don’t think we necessarily have a right to that full picture either. The story isn’t ours to know, and certainly not mine to tell.
The Tender Familiar
LS: What can your readers expect from book two?
I recently described THE TENDER FAMILIAR to a reader as “smutty, sad, and beautiful” and that feels about right. It started out as a dirty short story – fan-fiction of my own work, more or less – that turned into a series of dirty short stories, a novella, and then, oh, shoot, a sequel. Many of the loose threads left dangling in THE CHAOS AGENTS are answered in THE TENDER FAMILIAR, from “Do Matt and Naomi ever make it work?” to “What happened to Baron Templeton’s Rickenbacker?” But first and foremost this is an expansion of a single paragraph in THE CHAOS AGENTS, where I breeze through Baron and Eddie’s future trysts. There is . . . no breezing in THE TENDER FAMILIAR. If you want to hear about the night one rock star shows up crying on another’s farmhouse door, drunk off his gourd and screaming that he’s off to be a radical in America – if you want to know what happens when his best friend brings him inside and makes him tea (and who doesn’t?) you’ll be very happy with book two. If you want to hear about their long distance phone sex in the 70s, that’s there too. Something for everyone!
LS: We’ve known each other, if you can believe it, for about 12 years. How has your writing changed in that time?
12 years! And so many books, children, and genders between us!
I feel like I’m an entirely different person now, though I know that’s not true. I hope I’ve learned to do myself and my characters better justice. My experiences in publishing have made me, ironically, less interested in the market than ever. I write because stories are bursting out of me, because characters demand it, because there actually is only one way to skin a cat.
In other words, I’ve gotten a lot weirder! My books have, too. But I’m also having a lot more fun, and I hope that’s obvious for the reader.
LS: What’s the biggest surprise you had while writing this book?
I’m not a plotter – every book is a discovery process. I start with a voice in the beginning, and an image at the end. Everything that comes in between is surprising. I do think I underestimated my own structure. THE CHAOS AGENTS weaves together four storylines, a sort of braid through several decades. I wanted to build a story that felt like a novel, even though the events it describes are actually far flung and may have nothing to do with each other. Timing everything justright – the way the reveals come together, the moments characters learn things, and balancing this with what other characters know – was really a challenge.
I didn’t know, when I started, that we would be spending any time in the heads of Eddie, Naomi, Sid, or Richard Charles. But I eventually realized that there was no other way to tell this story. We needed all of their perspectives, and every voice, to be able to create the universe of Saffron. I hope it worked!
The Indie Pool
LS: With THE CHAOS AGENTS you dipped your toes into the indie pool. How different was that experience and will you continue with it? Will you be a hybrid now?
I’m definitely a hybrid author now – I have another young adult book under contract to HarperCollins!
However, I have to say that despite my resisting the call for over a decade, I am absolutely loving the experience of being an indie writer. The pressure of it is a bit more transparent – if I decide to stay in bed, sad and mopey, about my own work, then it’s very clear no one will read it. But I think that may have been always the case. I love making my own covers, pursuing my own marketing whims (want Ed Hammond’s yellow concert t-shirt? Buy your own in my spreadshop! https://the-fox-den-1983.myspreadshop.com/), being able to pivot and act responsively to my readership. And I have to admit that the Baron Templeton in me has enjoyed never, ever having to answer the question of whether he’s likable enough. I like him – the miserable sod – and I think readers will, too.
It’s been empowering, in a career that has often made me feel powerless, and I look forward to moving forward now fully able to advocate for myself and my books better, however I choose to publish them.
LS: What’s the best book you’ve read this year?
Shout-out to my friend Miranda Dubner’s novel THE SPARE (https://amzn.to/3eZ5M5J), which features another bisexual British Ed. Between our books and OUR FLAG MEANS DEATH, I think bisexual British Eds are having a bit of a moment.
LS: What’s the best song you’ve heard this month?
I can’t stop listening to The Beths’ Expert in a Dying Field!
LS: Where do you expect to be in five years?
I set a goal at 30 to be writing full time by 35; I made that goal, and quickly set another – to be in a band by 40. I have two more years. Know anyone who plays the bass?
LS: Which book do you wish you could read for the first time all over again?
This is going to sound terrible – but, well, my own! It’s now been nearly five years that Baron Templeton has owned my heart, and I’m honestly jealous of all the people who get to meet him for the first time. He’s whispering in my ear that he doesn’t give a flying fuck over whether anyone likes him, but, well, I hope they’ll like him!