Bestselling author Patrick Ness (A Monster Calls, Burn) is back this month with Different for Boys (Walker US/Candlewick, March 14), a short but searing work of fiction that explores masculinity, sex, friendship, and the ways in which four teenage boys of varying sexual identities navigate the complexities of understanding and defining themselves. His spare, sharp prose, bolstered with evocative pencil illustrations by Tea Bendix, asks as many questions about being a boy as it answers. Kirkus calls the book “masterful.” Ness spoke with us from his home in Los Angeles; this conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us about the title, Different for Boys.

This story was commissioned originally for an anthology called Losing It, which was about loss of virginity. It made me think, what does virginity mean? There is one classic definition of virginity, but if you exist outside of that, how do you define your virginity? And if you can choose, what kind of power does that give you? The phrase, it’s different for boys is one you hear a lot [in this context]. I wanted to explore that idea. How is it different for boys?

I also thought about the lack of real loving friendships between boys [in fiction]. They exist, of course, but there is always a kind of pressure to make it a certain kind of friendship, to act a certain way around your male friends. What a prison that is! It is a disservice to straight men and gay men and trans men—to everyone—to say that it has to be different for boys.

Your characters use sports, jokes, and even violence to assert their masculinity. One character, Charlie, is intent on identifying himself in opposition to homosexuality, even threatening an apparently queer boy that “there’s going to come a day when someone takes you down.” Of course, Charlie’s own truth is much less clear-cut; he’s been hooking up on the sly with the narrator, Ant.

Everyone assumes homophobia is fear of gay people. But it’s more than that. It’s fear of gay people or of being perceived as gay. That second definition is the one that causes all the trouble. I had a friend growing up; we could do all kinds of physical things with each other, but we couldn’t kiss because that would make us gay. That question, the “no homo” question, has always been interesting to me. It is infuriating and maddening and homophobic. The real tragedy for Charlie is that he’s probably not gay, but he’s lonely in a particular way, where he thinks no one is there for him. He’s got this one friend whom he has physical relations with and whom he loves, but he cannot say that. He desperately needs some tenderness, and that is the thing that homophobia really kills: tenderness. There is no room to be vulnerable. That’s a calamity for straight guys and has always been. They take it out on the rest of us, but it’s a calamity for them. I’m glad to see it warming up some, and I think the current young generation is the healthiest about it that it’s ever been.

It’s a stubborn taboo.

Internalized homophobia is such a poison. If Charlie could just have a little bit of self-confidence—real self-confidence and not the societally imposed ideas of it like sports or your position in the pack—it wouldn’t be so tragic. I really feel for Charlie. He’s the villain of the piece, but he’s pushed there by his own limitations.

How much is he driven by shame?

To me, the single biggest killer for queer teens is shame. It has been the goal of my career to try to eradicate shame where I can. What you like to do in bed is not shameful. What position you take is not shameful. That, to me, is what Different for Boys is about. Charlie is dying of shame. Shame could kill him if he’s not careful. These are human boys, figuring stuff out, and that is something we should all look at with sympathy and love and patience.

Josh, the one unambiguously straight character, is also the most levelheaded, the most at peace. He really knows who he is, and he’s not threatened or threatening.

Those guys exist. There are plenty of jocks who aren’t meatheads—I know some of them. I’ve always said that the real tension in YA fiction is between what is and what should be. Josh is a little bit of the should be but also a little bit of the is.He has the best kind of confidence, where you know who you are.

This story reminded me how important it is for queer boys to be fluent in straight “bro” culture to survive. You have to know the nuances, the jokes, the motivations. But the opposite is not true. Straight boys don’t have to know anything about queer life. In fact, it could be a liability if they do. It could call into question their own sexuality.

You talk to some people one way, to other people another way, in order to protect yourself. Edmund White once wrote about how the queer person does something that the straight person does not, which is to be forced to say: I am not this. I am this other thing instead.It’s such a powerful moment. It’s terrifying and violent, because you are wrenching yourself away from everything you are told you should be, but it is also liberating and empowering, because you have had to reckon with who you are. And part of that reckoning is living in a hostile world. That’s what the closet is. And the closet is so destructive. But it is also sometimes a necessary safety. Recognizing who you are, in what world you live, and what face you put on, is something every queer person goes through.

This is also a story about what teenage boys [in a wider sense] go through: There are role models on television and in literature, there are the fitness models on Instagram that you are supposed to look like, and amid all of that, it’s easy to get lost about who you are. I think a queer person sometimes has a leg up in the teenage years, ironically, because we’ve already had to reckon with a part of our identity. Not everybody gets that.

Throughout the text, you use black boxes to block out some words and phrases as if they were being bleeped. The boxes cover profanity and descriptions of sexual acts, but they don’t cover slurs like homo and faggot. Tell me about that decision.

I wanted to pose the question: Why wouldn’t the slurs be blocked out? It’s because they are not as forbidden as the other words. Still, I wanted to put those words right in front of your face and ask: Why?

Do you have an answer?

It’s because I think the straight world is still uncomfortable with us. Why is that? We have made great strides, but we are not yet unremarkable. There are still people who are willing to go all the way to the Supreme Court to argue for the right to discriminate against us, which you would think would go against everything America stands for.

Tucker Shaw is a writer, editor, and author of When You Call My Name.