Just back from the cemetery together, Raziel Reid and I are discussing his book and his life at an artisanal ice-cream parlour. "Oh God," he says between spoonfuls of whisky hazelnut, "this is going to be one of those gay sob stories, isn't it?"
It isn't. This story has a happy ending – although granted, "ending" is surely the wrong word; we're talking about a debut novel and an author who has just turned 25.
The happy part? The book, When Everything Feels Like the Movies, won the Governor-General's Award last year for children's fiction and is one of the five books up for CBC's Canada Reads title this month – unprecedented for a slim, YA volume such as this one.
Reid – who lives in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside but is planning to leave the city, perhaps for Toronto, later this year – is writing a screenplay based on the book for a producer who is interested in turning it into a feature film. And this spring he'll be in New York for the book's U.S. launch – a triumphant return as he hasn't been back since graduating from the New York Film Academy, where he studied acting.
"I get to go back with a book," he says. That book tells the story of Jude, a small-town high-school student, ostracized by the jock-dominated student body, desperate to be famous, confidently gay, flamboyant and a pot smoker with a penchant for dressing up in his mother's high heels .
While it's a stretch to call the story autobiographical, Reid borrowed heavily from his own life, and the life of someone he never met: Lawrence (Larry) Fobes King, a 15-year-old Californian who was killed in 2008 by a male classmate whom he had asked to be his Valentine. This was the event that planted the seed for the novel.
"[I realized] that I could have been Larry," Reid says.
He recalls being bullied in relation to his sexual orientation as far back as kindergarten, and by Grade 6 was leaving school in tears pretty much daily. In high school, on one of the (many) days he skipped class, he was home watching The Ellen DeGeneres Show when the host delivered an unusually poignant and serious opening monologue about an eighth grader who had been shot in the back of the head at school. "Larry was not a second-class citizen. I am not a second-class citizen. It is okay if you're gay," DeGeneres said, to cheers from the studio audience.
"She kept it together, but I didn't. I watched that and just like bawled my eyes out," says Reid, who was living in Winnipeg at the time. "It stuck with me ever since then, but I didn't start writing about it until a few years later."
Like the book's Jude, an earlier ambition of Reid's was to be a movie star, and famous. Reid has since amended that ambition. It still includes fame – and hey, he's getting there – but there's more to it now.
"I wanted to be famous since I was a child. My generation, we grew up on TMZ, so it was kind of like that was the goal; fame was the most common goal," he explains.
"I sort of succumbed to that kind of superficiality when I was a teenager and up until maybe like a couple years ago and then I realized that I didn't want to be that kind of famous. If all I wanted was the attention, I could get on a reality show or be shameless and get a million [online] followers. But I wanted to create something. I learned the hard way that fame isn't a goal; it's a result. Or at least it should be."
Is it difficult to admit that fame itself has been an ambition, I ask him.
"It's not for my generation. I think it used to be vulgar to say that you wanted to be rich and famous … but now it's just so common. I think it's uncommon not to want those things.
"But it's really not about glory; for me, at least. Like I said, it used to be about that. Now I don't just want to be rich and famous. I want to be rich, famous, smart and valid – contributing something important."
Reid was 21 when he began writing the book. He lived close to Mountain View Cemetery in East Vancouver at the time, and would visit daily that summer, writing his first draft in longhand.
"I would sit by a tree and dream," he explained, as we walked through the place. "It felt sort of spiritual, and I used to try to summon Larry Fobes King when I was writing. I would sort of pray to him and think about him. I didn't want to tell his story exactly as it happened to him, but I wanted the energy to be the same."
Reid was raised Catholic and while he doesn't worship regularly, he considers himself a spiritual person and likes to spend time in churches, finding pleasure in the architecture and iconography. And yes, he prays. While he was writing the book, "I used to pray to Larry to come and be my good-luck charm and I would pray for that kind of creative energy to channel through me," he says. "Larry made me brave, for sure."
Always tending toward the insecure, Reid has found his skin thicker following a minor morality kerfuffle, which included a petition calling for his novel, which was published last year, to be stripped of its Governor-General's Award for its "vulgar" and "offensive" content.
Reid takes a long pause before explaining how he felt about that. "I think it's a blessing in disguise because it has highlighted why my book is important. Obviously I'm on the pulse of something that people are reacting to in an extreme way, so that must mean it's real, it's getting under their skin, it's important, it's things that they can't deny."
Reid says the episode – which he also calls ridiculous and a bit of a joke – has given him a new sort of confidence; more confidence even than he's felt as a result of the book's success.
"I believed back then when I was writing the first draft that God wanted me to tell this story and that's why I was writing it," he says. "And so when the criticism happened, even though I had an award and I was on Canada Reads and I should have had more self-esteem, I was still questioning myself and what I had created. And then the criticism happened and I realized that this is what God wanted. This is the conversation God wanted Canada to have." He looks at me and smiles. "Yes, I just said that."