YA Fiction Author Charles Bush talks about his writing sickness

Photos courtesy of Charles A. Bush

Author Charles A. Bush was raised in Philadelphia and attended Cabrini University before honing his craft at the University of Oxford. In addition to writing young adult novels, he spends far too much time obsessing over all things Marvel and has long run out of places to store his mountains of books. Charles’ debut young-adult novel, Every Variable of Us, won the Moonbeam Gold Medal for YA Fiction in 2022. 

Every Variable of Us follows Philly teenager Alexis Duncan, injured in a gang shooting, instantly dashing her college scholarship and pro basketball dreams. To avoid becoming another Black statistic trapped in poverty, she turns her focus to the school’s STEM team. And just as Alexis’ future starts to reform, self-doubts and old loyalties pull her back into old ways.

In a recent interview with PrideIndex, Charles shared how his upbringing served as the muse for Every Variable of Us, how the movie “Romeo and Juliet,” influenced his writing career, and talks about his writing sickness. 

PrideIndex (PI): Tell us about yourself, your journey, and where it’s brought you thus far.

Charles Bush (CB): I grew up in West Philadelphia. Growing up in a poverty-stricken neighborhood, a lot of the stuff that happens in my book, Every Variable of Us, is very much what I went through. That’s how I wanted to write it. Because when I was growing up, I was always told that if you want to get out of your situation, buy your mom a house, or something like that, then play sports or be an entertainer. I was never told I could be a doctor, writer, lawyer, scientist, mathematician, or a teacher. This notion has always stuck with me. So, when I got to a point in my life where I realized I love writing, reading, and all these different things that make me who I am, I just thought it was important to tell that story for that kid that was me sitting in their room, at 16-years-old. And to compound matters, I was told being a Black man, I couldn’t be queer to achieve any of it. I wanted to show those kids who grew up like me or feel like me, that they aren’t alone, that they’re seen, heard, and that they don’t have to feel like they can’t be who they are—fully and unapologetically. Because they can be. And it’s not only that they can be, they should be because it’s beautiful. That’s where I started, and it got me to this place where I’m at in my writing now. Along that journey, as I said, I played basketball. I went to Lower Merion High School, where Kobe Bryant played. And then I went to Harrington and ended up playing basketball at Cabrini University. And then I played basketball overseas in Germany for a little bit. I came back here and wrote Every Variable of Us, which came out March 1, 2022. And now I’m here, getting ready to begin the next phase of my career. Hopefully my career goes to the stars and beyond.

PI: That is a beautiful story. And the perfect segway into your book. Where did you find the muse for it?

CB: Everything I write has a piece of me in it. That’s the best kind of storytelling, when you don’t just write to write but because you have something to say. And I really felt like there was a lot to say that wasn’t being said. I heard once from an agent, when I was first getting into writing seriously and thinking about making this a profession, that if you want to be good at a specific genre of writing then you should read 1,000 books in that genre. So, I went out once a week and perused the YA section of local bookstores. I’d pick up a random YA book and buy it based on the synopsis on the back. When I’d read it, I’d see what worked, what didn’t work, what I liked, and what I didn’t like, and by the time I got to book number twenty-five, I realized there were no books I actually felt seen in. The characters did not look like me, act like me, like the music I liked, talk like me, see the world as I did, or go through the things that I went through growing up. So I said, “I’ll write that book!” In my book, the main character Alexis lives with her mom in this one-room apartment in West Philly; that’s literally where my mom, brother, and sister lived for a good chunk of time. We had to share a bed and often ate Ramen noodles for dinner. I lived all that. Having to go back to those places was hard, but it was important because there are kids that still live that, that’s their reality. And they deserve to be seen, just like everyone else, on-screen or on the pages. It came from a place of representation, wanting to represent the people I come from. These stories come from me being that kid all those years ago, who was queer and wanted to experience the world that way but felt everyone around me was telling me you can’t be that, so you have to stay in the closet. I had to hide that part of myself. The book came from my heart, soul, and what I am, and as I go forward with my subsequent work, I’ll approach writing it in the same way.

PI: When did you know you wanted to become a writer?

CB: I love that question. I’ll tell you a quick story. When I was nine years old, there was a movie that your readers might not know but really should check out because it’s a great film, Romeo and Juliet, directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Hopefully, I won’t get my godmother in trouble. It was New Year’s Eve, and my godmother and mom, too young, beautiful Black women, wanted to go out for a night on the town and have fun on New Year’s Eve. They left my cousin and me with his grandmother. Well, she was out by, like, seven o’clock; she was gone. We got into a bottle of wine and drank it all at nine years old. So we were just toasted! We watched Romeo and Juliet on HBO. My cousin fell asleep, but I stayed up until the end. And, of course, we all know what happens at the end when everyone dies. I was bawling my eyes out. I knew then I wanted to write something that affects people in a way that pulls such emotions out of them. I went to school the following week, and I would write little books on loose-leaf paper and staple them together, and then sell them for a quarter to people in my class. I quickly learned it was a bad business decision because if someone else wanted a copy of the book, I would have to rewrite it all and then staple it together. So while it wasn’t the best business model, that’s when I knew I wanted to write for sure.

PI: Which part of this story is based on your experience, and which is fictional?

CB: Well, the core of it is based on how I felt when I was that age. Everything Alexis does in the book, I did. The way she has that internalized homophobia because of how she’s raised and how our community sees the LGBTQ+ community are all things that I faced growing up in West Philly. I knew I wanted to capture those lived experiences. I wanted to prove that these stigmas, these things, are not correct. That as a Black person growing up in these conditions, you can be anything you want to be. You can be yourself unapologetically and live your truth. So things like the characters were real. They were an amalgamation of my friends that I grew up with. The city itself, Hargrove, in the book, is a fictional city in Philly. Still, I based it off all the lived experiences from me and my friends who lived in North and South Philly; it was just an amalgamation of our communities. It’s exaggerated. But you know, a lot of the stuff that happened in their communities happens in the novel. Like the inciting incident when Alexis is shot at a house party. My friends have stories where that exact thing has happened to them or someone they know. So the novel is very authentic. Stuff like Matthew and the STEM team. Those are all just fictional characters that I made up, but I had a lot of sensitivity readers for them to make sure they also read as authentic. The most important thing in this book and everything I write is representation. For me representation is paramount. For instance, Matthew in the book is autistic. He’s on the spectrum. I’m not. So I had friends and people I know who are on the spectrum read it; to tell me what’s a stereotype or a trope. They really broke it down for me and helped me out a lot. Same thing with Aamani. She’s a Hindu girl, and I’m not. So I had my friend, Sonal Patel, read it for me. And I said to her, “Listen, I’m not going to an agent or publisher until you read this book and tell me you see yourself in Aamani.” And when she got back to me and said she did, I knew I had done right by that representation. So there are a couple of different people in the book, and I wanted to ensure I represented them all authentically. So the stuff that was fiction is still based on some form of someone’s reality. That’s always important to me. So to answer your question, the bulk of the book is based off lived experience by me or someone.

PI: Name three people who have had the most influence on your style as an artist.

CB: Oh, well, that’s a really good question. First, James Baldwin. I read so much James Baldwin, not just his novels, but interviews and his essays. I love the way he views the world. Being a queer Black man and writer, I identify so much with him. And I want to get those powerful themes in my writing. So first on the list is definitely James Baldwin—the GOAT. The next one is Jane Austen. I love the way she writes characters. Like, her banter is so funny and quick and witty. And I love how she has a strong female protagonist in every book, which my book has in Alexis and Aamani. My favorite characters are female protagonists, which Jane Austen is the pinnacle of. So for sure Jane. And then I was going to say Shakespeare, because I do love the Bard, but I’m going to switch up my answer. I’m going to throw a little curveball out there and say Amy Sherman-Palladino. I know she doesn’t write novels, but I’m a massive Gilmore Girls fan; seen every episode at least twenty times (#TeamJess). Like Austen, her dialogue is quippy, funny, and sharp. And the development of her characters and world building is second to none, especially when it comes to Stars Hollow and Lorelai and Rory Gilmore. So anything Amy writes, I love. So definitely James Baldwin and two incredibly talented women in Jane Austen and Amy Sherman-Palladino.

PI: If Amy Sherman-Palladino and James Baldwin (via our time machine) were to invite you to Sunday dinner simultaneously, you couldn’t reschedule either. Which one would you choose? 

CB: That’s not even a debate. I’ll choose James Baldwin every day of the week, all day long.

PI: Amy is going to read this and get mad at you.

CB: No, she’s not. I’m sure Amy would be like, “If you don’t go to Baldwin’s house, I will!” She understands. And if she’s reading this, that means I’m doing something right. So, Amy, please, I’m here if you ever need a queer Black writer for one of your shows. Let me get the gig!

PI: Would you consider writing in another genre? Why or why not?

CB: No. And why not? Because I can’t, ha-ha. When I first came back from Germany, I wrote a few books. They were all terrible. I couldn’t find an agent for any of them. Because again, and I feel like I can’t stress this enough, they were awful. They were written in contemporary adult fiction, in the same vein of a Nicholas Sparks type book. I realized I was failing because this wasn’t my voice. The thing is, I’m a big kid. Like, if you ever look at my Instagram, I’m dressing up like Ms. Marvel and Spider-Man, and different Marvel characters. I’m a nerd but wear it proudly. That’s how I see the world. That’s how I talk. So I just gravitate to the YA genre, telling their stories, the coming-of-age stories.

PI: What would you do next if I broke all of your fingers and you couldn’t write?

CB: I’d play football. Or as it’s called incorrectly here in America—soccer. Because I do that every weekend anyways. I’m also a huge Manchester United fan. So I’d do that. You don’t need your hands to play football.

PI: If I were you, I would look for a Dictaphone or transcription program to record and edit my ideas. We’ll look for somebody fiber to help write. 

CB:  I’m not sure that would work for me. I stole this idea from Jane Austen where I write an entire draft of a manuscript in a notebook. I write it in the notebook, then copy said draft over into another notebook, and then type it up on the computer. Writing the initial drafts by hand is the most important part of the process. So if I don’t have my fingers, I’m not sure my writing would turn out that great.

PI: If your writing style were to be a car, what kind of car would it be?

CB: Oh, man, I never thought of that. If it were a car, what would it be? Hmm . . . okay, it’d be one of those self-driving cars from Wakanda that Shuri’s always using. Something Afro-futuristic, drenched in our roots as Black people and our culture. I know it’s fictional, but whatever. Wakanda Forever!

PI: What takeaway do you want readers to retain from your work?

Well, I actually write this exact message in every book I sign. I’ve been told by other authors that I sign way too much. They’re all, like, “Dude, just sign your name and move on to the next one.” But I tell them that if someone buys my book, even if they stop reading after the first few pages, they’ll still get the message I intended for them, which is: they are beautiful. They are seen. And they are a supernova, as Aamani tells Alexis in the book.

PI: What’s next on the horizon for you? What should we expect to see in the next five years from you?

CB: Hopefully, my follow-up book that’s with my agent and is currently being submitted to publishers gets bought and comes into the world within the next year or two. And then there’s a secret project I’m working on. Hopefully, I will get the green light relatively soon for this project so I can bring it to the world this year. It’s something that I’m extremely passionate about. A story that’s even more personable and intimate than Every Variable of Us. It would be such a dream come true if I’m given the real estate to tell this story. But let me shut up because I may have already said too much. But whatever I do next, you can best believe that representation will be paramount and it will definitely be queer AF.

Instagram: @Charles_A_Bush