Living the Question: What's In A Name?

Anyone who knows me well would not be surprised to hear that the original title for my debut YA novel, Being Roy, was Cross.  I was, after all, raised as a good Catholic girl and, before I “lapsed”, actually had aspirations of becoming a nun (I mostly blame Julie Andrews and The Sound of Music for this). I have been rabidly curious about all expressions of spirituality ever since I turned eighteen, when I skipped my first Catholic mass without parental guilt ruining the heady rush of freedom. The first three books I wrote, once I decided that writing books would be my thing, were all non-fiction pieces about spirituality and religion. But in the case of my young adult fiction, religious iconography had nothing to do with the title.

I chose Cross because the book first took shape around a vague plot in which high school students were challenged by a history teacher to explore the idea of boundaries as both powerful and illusory. Borders, boundaries, and how we choose to interact with them would be the theme. Teenagers being teenagers, and my setting of choice being the bubble of an exclusive boarding school in the early nineties, this would lead to all manner of misadventures and botched experiments in testing limits. Then, Roy Watkins showed up.

Roy stepped forward as my main character straight away, but as I attempted to get to know her in order to capture her in detail, she steadfastly refused definition. You see, Roy is an artist, but not only an artist. She has ambitions beyond her hometown of Benbow, West Virginia, but is also staunchly proud of her humble upbringing, and loyal as the day is long to those friends and family who compose her small world. Roy refused to fall into either the male or female category, though she did permit me to use female pronouns, since her story takes place in 1992, when non-binary alternatives were not yet in common use.  Roy was and is a cross between the many identities, places, and people who shape her, all mixed in with her own untouchable essence. The result is someone utterly unique and unperturbed by being a living, breathing, open-ended question. But maybe I should just let her speak for herself. (from Being Roy)

“Reenie named me Aurora after the Northern Lights she’s going to take me to see one day when we’ve got the trailer paid off and something with enough horsepower to hitch it to.  “Aurora” helps her remember her dreams, she says, and what really matters in life. For Reenie, it’s freedom, but for me it’s about what happens when an eye lands on something that creates a spark in the brain. There’s the right word for that somewhere, besides “art”. That word always reminds me of some sad sack used car salesman at his fifty-year high school reunion, drinking a white Russian and making eyes at the former head cheerleader with her new realtor’s license and her bad boob job. Not exactly what I’m going for.

Our neighbor Mama Dot insists I’m named after the princess in Sleeping Beauty, on account of how “pretty” I am and what a good sleeper I was from Day One. Even now I can put my head down on one of the old café tables at the charity shop where she works and fall dead asleep. Reenie can call me what she wants, but my real name is Roy and always will be. I never could pronounce Aurora as a baby, and ‘Roy’ stuck with everyone but Reenie. I guess that’s her prerogative as my mom.  She still gets ticked off when people call me ‘Roy’, though she never could get anyone to call her by her real name, either, which is Irene. Mama Dot tries to use ‘Aurora’ in front of her when she’s around, which isn’t much. “Born without a sit-still” as Dot says. No matter how much Reenie complains about her back and the long hours, we all know she wouldn’t give up trucking for anything but a topped-up retirement fund, and only then so she could hit the road on her own terms. 

Dot doesn’t believe the sky could look any better than it does here in the Shenandoah, and she prefers her Sleeping Beauty story about my name to Reenie’s anyhow. But I knew it then, and I know it now.  If I’m anyone in that dumbass fairytale, it’s the prince.”

Roy plants her flag in the grey areas, and rejects any attempt to relocate her into a black and white box. This is why I love her, and why I love writing young adult novels. In high school, people might get a little uncomfortable with a teen who lives at the intersection of so many identities, but no one is really surprised. Being a young adult is all about trying things on and casting them off in the search of something that fits like the truth. As adults, we are expected to pick a lane and stay in it for the sake of order. Adult characters that refuse to do so have been written, but it takes a lot more to make their stubborn individuality believable, and to get the reader to go along with a story full of questions that never quite get answered.

Ultimately, I changed the title of my book to Being Roy because, as I wrote, the story became less about boundaries and identity and more about Roy and her world. Cross may encapsulate the nature of the issues she and her friends face as they navigate their lives, but Being Roy is what happens on each and every page. Right or wrong and come what may, Roy remains true to herself with every challenge that rises in front of her, as she learns that simply Being Roy is enough, at least for now.