For 17-year-old newspaper reporter Jake Powell, being raised in a fundamentalist Christian home as the son of preacher meant keeping one aspect of who he is hidden from view. That all changes, in somewhat dramatic fashion, when he lands a slot in Columbia Journalism School’s prestigious summer program for high school students. With Playing by the Book, S. Chris Shirley has put a slightly different spin on the well-worn coming out tale. Shirley wrote his debut novel partly as a way to bridge the gap between what can often be seen as two distinct worlds: devout Christians and gay people.
After hearing a Southern pastor he respects speak against homosexuality from the pulpit, the author had an epiphany of sorts (like his protagonist, Shirley grew up in Alabama). “I wondered if there was any possible scenario that could bring this preacher around on the topic,” says Shirley. “If he had a son that turned out to be gay, perhaps he might come around a bit. Or not. I realized the more interesting story would be told from the point of view of this fictitious gay son and whether he could survive growing up in such a household.”
The novel successfully paints the scene of two worlds: the repressive, tradition-laden house that is run by “the Preacher,” as Jake calls him, and the possibilities of New York City—social, sexual and otherwise. As he fights to figure out where he stands in relation to his Christian faith, peeks his head tentatively (at first) out of the closet, and navigates the competing desires of his journalism school friends, you can’t help but root for Jake.
Shirley’s own life trajectory has been different from Jake’s and from that of some writers; he studied engineering at Auburn and business at Columbia before getting into management consulting and working on Wall Street. “Living practically fed my stomach but it starved my soul, so I eventually decided to just live,” Shirley says, adding that he ultimately quit Wall Street to study film at New York University. Over the course of five years he wrote a screenplay—and directed a music video and a short film—and that screenplay morphed into his debut novel. Now Shirley is President of the Board of Lambda Literary, which gives out annual awards in recognition of excellence in LGBTQ literature. “Being involved in Lambda Literary has placed me in the epicenter of LGBTQ writers, publishers, agents, editors, publicists and readers, and I now count many of these people amongst my dearest friends,” he says. “My cover designer, final proofreader, editor and publicist are all involved with Lambda Literary.”
The biggest challenge for Shirley was trying to write a book that would appeal to LGBTQ readers and Christians. Finding that balance was difficult, he says, but he succeeds with a mixture of humor, love and the universal struggle to fit in that everyone faces at some point.
“The internal journey for Jake very much reflects my journey. Like Jake, I started out as someone who was always looking outside himself for approval but finally learned to find it within,” says Shirley. “To be honest, this is something that I still struggle with, but I’m in a much better place than I was before I began writing this novel. In fact, writing this book was therapeutic in many ways.”
Many young queer readers will likely agree with that sentiment.