"There's nothing to understand," Charlie's mom tells his dad when they find the under-the-bed stash Charlie calls his "collection of photos of future ex-boyfriends." "It is what it is." Charlie shares his mom's matter-of-fact attitude but adds a smart mouth and youthful cynicism—he needs this armor as a gay 17-year-old growing up in Crystal Lake.
Charlie, a self-professed geek, is the narrator of The Screwed Up Life of Charlie the Second, Drew Ferguson's debut novel. Written in the form of a journal, he's "scarecrow gangly at all of 6' foot 4", and a buck-fifty dripping wet," and when he hooks up with the sexy new kid on the soccer team, the resulting blend of humor and heartache makes for the most true-to-life queer coming-of-age story since John Fox's 1994 The Boys on the Rock, whose Bronx teen hero shares the mundane, thrilling, mortifying details of his life with equal candor.
Unlike his creation, Ferguson can't keep a journal going. "I've tried so many times, and I just can't do it. I'll start and I get bored with myself." Instead he jots ideas for scenes and snippets of dialogue "on the trick cards, those little business cards you're supposed to use to copy down people's numbers, or on little scraps of paper, or cocktail napkins."
"Bars," he says, "are places that have that certain edge. You can have a drink, you lower your inhibitions and self-censorship." You can even write a novel: over two years Ferguson wrote much of The Screwed Up Life of Charlie the Second at Big Chicks and the nearby Crew in Uptown. Ferguson finds that the atmosphere allows him to shake the now-I'm-going-to-sit-at-my-desk-and-be-an-important-writer syndrome. Plus, his day job as vice president of an international PR agency leaves him only nights and weekends to write.
His choice of writing environments has confused friends, who show up and want to talk while he's working. "When you've been writing a while, you get into that whole 'other state' thing. When you put down the work, you're sort of shell-shocked. After a while my friends would get used to it and say, 'Oh, you've been writing. Let me give you a couple minutes to get out of that.'"
Ferguson, who grew up in Crystal Lake like Charlie, got his MFA from Columbia College in 1998 and was determined to stick with writing. "The thing that depresses me is that once you're out of the workshop environment, a lot of people just seem to stop writing. But I'm stubborn. Plus, I can only go so long without writing, and then I start losing my mind."
The manuscript for The Screwed Up Life of Charlie the Second won him an agent and eventually a publishing deal with Kensington Books, which has a strong showing of gay fiction and wasn't afraid of the book's sexual content.
With his first book in its second printing, Ferguson is already at work on a sequel catching up with Charlie in college. "I think he's going to end up at either Northwestern or Loyola. I'm going to pick things up at the end of his junior year. He'll be 21, and living in Uptown, and hilarity will ensue because he'll be able to go to bars. So I imagine there's going to be a fair amount more snarkiness and smart-assery."
Ferguson says as a kid "I was always intrigued by writing and reading, but I never saw myself doing that. Although I do remember being in first or second grade, and they brought an author into the school. We all had to read the book that person had written. It was about a cat. And I didn't say anything out loud, but I thought, 'I can write a book about a cat. I can write something better than a book about a cat.'"v
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The Screwed Up Life of Charlie the SecondDrew FergusonKensington Publishing, $15