When Del’s longtime crush, Kiera, joins a teen group at their church and takes a purity pledge, Del joins too. It’ll be a great way for them to spend time together, right? So begins Lamar Giles’ Not So Pure and Simple, a nuanced, engaging and often hilarious exploration of gender politics in the 21st century, all rooted in Del’s authentic and earnest narrative perspective. We spoke to Giles, an award-winning writer best known for his mysteries, about making the leap to a contemporary realistic story, toxic masculinity, teen sex ed classes and his love for ’80s rock ballads. Plus, he reveals the existence of an Easter egg shared by all of his books so far—and it’s something none of his readers have ever noticed!
Conventional wisdom says that authors usually don’t have much say in the cover art of their books, but I loved your book jacket design. What did you think the first time you saw it?
I was blown away. The illustrator is Jor Ros, who’s an amazing artist. His artwork, combined with the efforts of the design team, became something that truly captures the vibe I was going for in Not So Pure and Simple. I’ve been very fortunate when it comes to covers, and this one just continued my lucky streak.
Not So Pure and Simple is your first contemporary realistic novel after a number of critically acclaimed mysteries for both middle grade readers and teens. Can you talk a little bit about the choice to write outside the mystery genre? What was challenging about it? What was enjoyable? What have you learned from writing mysteries that you found applicable to a non-mystery narrative?
Well, the truth is the first iteration of this book started as a school project. I went back to school to get an MFA in creative writing in 2014. My first YA novel, Fake ID, had just been published, I’d mostly finished a second novel (Endangered), and I’d just been laid off from my day job. I wanted to pursue the degree to sharpen my writing skills since writing had become my primary source of income. But coming into a writing program as one of the students (if not the only student) with published work made me incredibly self-conscious. I felt a need to do something different than the work that was already in bookstores, so I angled toward contemporary. And yes, it was a challenge.
To be frank, when writing the mysteries/thrillers, if I ever felt like things were starting to slog, murder was always an option. Not so much—or at all—in a story like Not So Pure and Simple. That was distressing. Did I enjoy it? Not all the time—because I was still writing other books so I could pay bills and trying to complete school assignments that had nothing to do with the novel and still writing the piece of the novel that would fulfill my thesis requirement and trying to complete a separate version that would meet the requirements of my publisher (because what works for school isn’t necessarily going to work for the finished product). So did I learn anything from my mystery work that pertained to this project? Perhaps how villains are created, because I was not that pleasant to be around when all of that was going on. Now that I’m on the other side of it, I am happy with the result.
Del, the main character of Not So Pure and Simple, takes a Purity Pledge—a promise to remain sexually abstinent until marriage—in an effort to get closer to his crush, Kiera. What inspiration or discovery prompted you to explore this cultural practice in your book?
There are probably six different things that inspired this exploration, but I’m going to go with the primary story and try to keep it short. Me and my wife attended a church service about 10 years ago where three boys sat behind us prior to the service starting. They were very plain-spoken about recent sexual exploits, and we couldn’t help but overhear. When the service started, someone in church leadership requested all the teens participating in the purity pledge gather in the foyer and go to wherever those lessons were taking place. All three boys got up to join the class. It’s something I never forgot; I’ve since spent a lot of time thinking about the spaces boys/men enter—or invade—and their justifications for such actions. Del Rainey was largely born from those thoughts.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Not So Pure and Simple.
The relationship between First Missionary Church’s and Greek Creek High School’s perspectives on teen sexuality is complicated, to say the least. What kind of research did you to in order to represent these perspectives accurately and authentically? Did you learn anything in the course of that search that surprised you or challenged an assumption you had held?
This was a combination of research and memory. I was raised in Virginia by regular churchgoers and also had some form of sex ed in my high school. While the exact memories have gotten fuzzy over time, I clearly recall an awkwardness to all of it that I tried to bring across in the book. For the research part, there have been numerous articles about how much sex ed practices can vary, not only state to state but district to district within the same state. One thing that surprised me was a document I found on the Virginia Department of Education’s website detailing how a “family life” (sex ed) curriculum might be developed and approved. I’m providing a copy of the document with highlights so you know I’m not making this up, but it suggested that a clergyperson be appointed to the board that develops the curriculum, and there can be instances where classes are separated by gender to teach “sensitive” topics (all on page 8 of the document). What that means and looks like in actual practice, I don’t know, but it certainly got me thinking. Those thoughts account for the ways Del’s experiences are structured, which is to say, very awkwardly.
I loved the character of Del’s English teacher and Healthy Living instructor, whom Del and the other students call MJ. Can you talk about the role he plays in their lives and in the story? Was his character inspired by a teacher from your own life?
It was important to me that there be a positive, progressive black male in the mix to offer a gentle guiding hand. There are a couple of reasons for my desire here, and I’ll get into those. But to answer the question about if the character was inspired by a teacher from my own life . . . not exactly. There were at least two great black male teachers in my high school whom I knew and spoke to in passing, but I was never in their classes. They also doubled as sports coaches, and since several of my friends were athletes (I wasn’t), I’d often hear them talk about how cool those teachers/coaches were and what good advice they gave. Because I never had that much direct contact with those two seemingly great role models, I created a fantasy of what someone like that might be like if they taught a subject I gravitated toward, like English. Thus MJ.
Additionally, he’s there because when the #MeToo movement first came to my attention in 2017, I recalled conversations with women I was close to; a sentiment that came up often was that women have always known how horrible men can be, but because men have been generally resistant to women expressing such thoughts, male allies need to talk to other men about how to be better—in other words, men might listen to other men. I wanted MJ to be that male voice that could speak to those younger guys like, “Hey, I made the same poor decisions you’re making. I’ve been problematic, and I’ve been checked, called out, shamed—as I should have been. Trust me when I tell you almost everything you know is wrong. Let me help you not make the same poor decisions that may end up hurting a woman in some way or another.”
Now, whether or not the young men listen is another story, but the voice of correction is there.
Not So Pure and Simple presents a nuanced exploration of the idea of toxic masculinity. I especially appreciated the moment in which Del’s father admitted he still had a lot to learn about it. Tell us about your motivation for wanting to explore this theme—particularly in a YA book. Did your own perspective change at all over the course of writing the book?
One motivator around the toxic masculinity theme is timeliness . . . or, rather, lateness. These are conversations that need to be had because we’ve spent so long not having them. Let’s do the thing.
Also, a good writer friend of mine once said he’d given up on the adults, and young people are the ones who’ll make the world better. I won’t go as far as to say I’ve given up on all people my age, but I’d be lying if I told you it hasn’t been tough trying to express these ideas to some of the grown men I know. I’ve run into a lot of “times are different now” and “people are softer now,” which is super insulting and deflects a simple truth: Being a toxic male was never okay. Men just wielded most of the power and controlled large-scale narratives so when women or less powerful men objected, hardly anyone heard or took action. I’m hoping this book starts some conversations earlier, with younger people, before harmful mindsets cement. As far as my own perspective, I’m very much Del’s dad in that the more I learn, the more I realize I have a lot to learn. I don’t ever want to come off like “I’m so woke” (a term I hate, by the way). I’ve realized some stuff that I’m trying to pass on, and I’m open to continued improvement. I’m hoping to find some readers who feel the same.
“I’d be lying if I told you it hasn’t been tough trying to express these ideas to some of the grown men I know. I’ve run into a lot of ‘times are different now’ and ‘people are softer now,’ which is super insulting and deflects a simple truth: Being a toxic male was never okay.”
Youtube, Instagram, Snapchat . . . social media is instrumental in the way that Del and his friends share news and gossip. How do you think social media has changed conversations about and among teens? Are we in a brave new world, or are the conversations the same and only the mediums have changed?
The mediums have definitely changed from when I was a teen (I remember getting a landline IN MY ROOM and having three-way phone calls for hours; also I had a beeper . . . lol). I think some conversations are the same in that teens still have crushes, they still claim their music and artists of the time, stuff like that. But I think conversations that have changed a bit from my youth center around acceptance of identity (there’s so much support online for those struggling with sexuality, anxiety, depression, gender conformity and so on—if they’re not getting support at home and have access to the web, that is). Conversely, and sadly, the negative voices also use the same resources to seek like-minded people and amplify harmful messages. The positive stuff (a YouTuber saying what you’re feeling and what your body is going through is normal) would’ve been appreciated in my youth; an eternal digital record of every public misstep I made, not so much. Social media is a blessing and a curse in that regard.
I loved the small details of Del’s part-time job at a fish-themed fast food restaurant. Some of the menu item names (“Fun Flounder meals,” “Whale-Sized” drinks) really cracked me up. What kinds of jobs have you had on your way to being an author? Did you learn anything at them that you were able to apply to writing or working as an author?
I’ve had all sorts of jobs on the way to being an author, from being a janitor at Disney World to a college academic coach. But in high school, I worked fast food, first at a Subway sandwich shop, then as a McDonald’s employee. So, yes, Del’s time behind the counter at Monte FISHtos is heavily inspired by my time at those five-star eateries, particularly those slow shifts when you’re tasked with all kinds of weird busywork. I recall once having to climb a step ladder and scrub grease off the ceiling tiles.
But there’s another function to Monte FISHtos that I don’t think any of my readers have picked up on yet. I’ve written mysteries/thrillers, middle grade fantasy and now with Not So Pure and Simple, contemporary. Let’s say those are three separate universes, okay? There’s one thing that connects them all: the Monte FISHtos franchise. (Don’t believe me? Go back and read closely.) So, you heard it here first. Stephen King has the Dark Tower, and I’ve got a spot where you can get a Cra-Burger, Fillet Fries and a whale-sized drink for $6.98.
“Stephen King has the Dark Tower, and I’ve got a spot where you can get a Cra-Burger, Fillet Fries and a whale-sized drink for $6.98.”
Although readers will be reading your answers to these questions after Not So Pure and Simple has been published, you’re answering them before its publication. How do you feel? A year from now, what kinds of thoughts and conversations among readers do you hope the book generates?
Honestly, I feel rather anxious. This book is, by far, my most personal. I mean, I’ve never had to really solve a murder (thank goodness), I’ve never frozen time and fought supernatural villains (thank goodness), but I have felt and thought the things Del feels and thinks. I’ve experienced his awkwardness. I’ve made some of the bad decisions he makes. Not in the exact configuration you’re reading—but none of it amounts to shining moments you necessarily want to the world to see. Which is kind of why the world needs to see it.
I don’t recall a single influential male admitting to me that they didn’t have everything figured out or that they’d made horribly embarrassing mistakes, which is part of the problem. So a year from now, I hope there are more conversations, particularly among men young and old, expressing how a long time ago manhood was presented as this absolute thing—this bravado, this confident, error-free movement through the world—by men we trusted, but now we realize they were wrong about a lot of it. It’s okay to not have the answers, so long as your ignorance doesn’t lead to you disrespecting the people around you—especially women. Let’s discuss and learn how to be better together.
OK, enough serious talk. Please tell us about your love of eighties rock ballads. (Maybe your top five favorites?)
LOL! Okay, I set myself up for this, didn’t I? Fine, the genie’s out of the bottle. Top five ’80s ballads. (I’m sure that in whatever you heard me say to inspire this question, I said “rock,” but I’m not sure all of these meet the rock standard . . . they’re just my favorites from that decade.)