Burro Hills by Juila Lynn Rubin with Interview!
Burro Hills by Julia Lynn Rubin is a ferociously wild ride, one that will leave you with whiplash but also wanting more! With an eccentric cast of characters, there is never a dull moment in this town. From high school gossip to household dramas to drug trafficking, we follow an unexpected group and are given small breaths of reprieve throughout the novel. In this way, it almost feels like the reader is on this high with the characters, mimicking the bursts of adrenaline.
The story follows Jack, who sticks with his pot-smoking crew and his other best friend Jess. However, the new kid, Connor, rattles the status quo of the group, tearing Jack’s attention away from his friends. Connor seems to know exactly who he is: a kid who gets into trouble—oh, and he’s bisexual. On the other hand, Jack absolutely doesn’t know who he is. By spending time with Connor, Jack opens up and reveals to himself who he really is.
However, what about his old friends? They don’t forgive him for ditching them. And in a town riddled with homophobia, crime, and vengeance, there is no safe space for Jack—not even in his own home, where his dad is a drunk and his mother has a problem Jack cannot understand.
The following is an interview with author Julia Lynn Rubin:
CL: Congratulations on an amazing debut novel! Each character has so much depth, and they all jump off the page as realistic people. What made you write about a group of teen boys?
JLR: Thank you so much! That is such high praise and I’m so flattered! I think I’ve always been fascinated by teen boys and why they say what they do, act how they act. It wasn’t a conscious decision when I first started the novel, but as I kept writing, it evolved into this deep-dive exploration of toxic masculinity. I had a lot of fun with their dialogue and characterizations and making them as “awful” as possible on the surface, while examining how sensitive and confused they are underneath all that exterior bullshit. Basically, in different circumstances, these boys wouldn’t be “bad.”
CL: This was a very interesting read for me since I know you personally. So I want to know which character you think you align with the most and why.
JLR: It’s definitely Jack. He’s the most autobiographical character to me, emotionally at least. I remember my dad read an early draft of the book back when it was a dual point-of-view between Jack and Jess, and he said: “You’re not Jess. You’re Jack.” That stuck with me, and helped inform my decision to make him the sole POV character when my agent and I were revising. He’s sensitive, anxious, thoughtful, observant, and a little too wrapped up in his own interiority to the point that he sometimes misses the obvious and misreads the situation. His cognitive distortions are all too familiar to me.
CL: You really put these characters through the wringer. People say to make your characters go through hell, to make the worst possible things happen to them in order to incite drama and conflict, and you do exactly that. Was there ever a moment in which you or your editor thought there was too much going on that the story would be found unbelievable? Did you have to pull back?
JLR: I remember revising and thinking, “I feel so bad for what I’m doing to these characters.” I even said that to my editor at one point. There are a handful of scenes and moments I kept second-guessing, wondering if I should put them in a YA novel since they’re so damn disturbing (though I know teens can totally handle it). But it’s true, you really have to up the stakes, especially in a character-driven story. And these characters are teenagers, so everything feels very life and death to them, very immediate and all-consuming. I actually had a few major scenes that I ended up either cutting or completely rewriting because they didn’t feel as believable in retrospect. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the whole final scene with Toby’s family was originally much different and maybe a little unrealistic and unsatisfying. I also spent a lot of time with my editor fleshing out Jack’s parents and making them feel like fully realized people, less like caricatures. But I never really pulled back, no.
CL: Now, I know you from The New School in New York City and we both also spent time in Pittsburgh, PA. From where did come up with the setting of Burro Hills? Is it based on anywhere in particular?
JLR: Yes! Small world. Actually, growing up on the East Coast made the decision to set the book in Southern California all the more tantalizing. I’ve always been fascinated with the West Coast and the climate and culture of Southern California. In high school I wanted to go to film school and move to L.A. and become a director. I visited with my mom to check out colleges and I was totally enamored. That’s probably where that setting originated, that and the way Janet Fitch describes it in White Oleander, a novel I’ve re-read many, many times. But I created a fake town so I wouldn’t offend anyone! The setting is also based on my perception of urban sprawl and dying towns and nowhere places; the beauty in the ugliness of America.
CL: In this book, there are themes of sexuality, friendship, broken families, drug use, coming of age, and so much more. What would you most like your readers to get from reading this book?
JLR: I think the great thing about books is that each reader takes away what they need to and sees what they want to see. I love that about art. I know everyone is going to have a different experience reading my book, but I really hope those who read it – teens especially – come away with a sense of being seen, and heard. And hope.
CL: Can you reveal what’s coming up next for you?
JLR: I’m currently on submission with my second YA novel (which I wrote at The New School), so fingers crossed that one lands somewhere!! I also have another YA in the works that was my MFA thesis, and an idea for a fourth. So basically I’m going to keep promoting my debut and writing and hoping and praying.
CL: Thank you so much, Julia, for answering these questions! I can’t wait to see what you do from here.
JLR: Thank you so much for having me! These were excellent questions.