With his college graduation gown expertly pitched into the trash, Justin Akron is ready for the road trip he planned with his best friend Landry— and ready for one last summer of escape from his mother’s controlling grip. Climbing into the Winnebago his father left him, they set out across America in search of the sites his father had captured through the lens of his Nikon.
As an aspiring photographer, Justin can think of no better way to honor his father’s memory than to scatter his ashes at the sites he held sacred. And there’s no one Justin would rather share the experience with more than Landry.
But Justin knows he can’t escape forever. Eventually he’ll have to return home and join his mother’s Senate campaign. Nor can he escape the truth of who he is, and the fact that he’s in love with his out-and-proud travel companion.
Admitting what he wants could hurt his mother’s conservative political career. But with every click of his shutter and every sprinkle of ash, Justin can’t resist Landry’s pull. And when the truth comes into focus, neither is prepared for the secrets the other is hiding
Welcome Alexis Hall, who has joined to talk about a book we both enjoyed.: in the space of 2 months I have gone from reading no NA, to reading 4 in a row that have been so good, Trust the Focus being the last of them, and in some ways he best
AJH: Thanks for having me, Karen. The best, eh? Them’s fightin’ words. What are the other three?
K: Amy Jo Cousins, Off Campus and Nothing like Paris, and Lisa Henry Mark Cooper Vs America, in no particular order
AJH: Gosh, I’ve read all of those and I’m not sure I could really rank them. I think they’re quite different books – TRUST THE FOCUS, to me, has a quite a different feel to other NA I’ve read because it’s sort of what you might call late-stage NA. The others are all college set, which give them a certain tone and style and set of preoccupations. College (university) life is quite restrictive after all. But TTF is a road trip story and while its protagonists fit the NA age bracket I found it kind of refreshing to leave campus and dorms behind.
K: Yes, I see that, but fir ne it still has the starting out in life vibe, I loved the road trip, it’s really a romantic thing to be taken away from normalcy and focus on the journey as opposed to the end result
AJH: Also all symbolic and shit.
K: somehow I expected you to be more lyrical, but yes
AJH: I’m keeping it real. Seriously, though, I found TRUST THE FOCUS surprising in my many ways, not just as NA (which, as I’ve said, can sometimes feel quite restrictive to me in terms of the type of stories you can tell) but as m/m.
K: I also have never red any Megan Erkison before, and was wiped away by the credible emotions that she portrayed; I was worried that there would be shed loads of angst, which there wasn’t. Also she normally writes m/f I wonder if that made her not follow the normal lines?
AJH: Maybe. I’m wary of speculating too much about what sort of factors produce certain books. I do like it when, err, het romance turn to queer though because they tend to more concerned with the romance than the queer, and that really works for me. It seems to give more scope for exploring authentic emotions and telling genuinely tender and romantic stories, rather than starting from the idea that a queer romance is different to a het romance. That works for me, as a reader and a writer, because I’m all about normalisation, but of course it may not work for everybody. And some queer people don’t want queerness to be influenced by heteronormative paradigms and some readers want to read a particular type of romance.
K that’s an interesting perspective, perhaps that why it reads more authentically emotional that others, I felt it was about the characters and their relationship as much as their sexuality
AJH: Again, wary about words like authenticity because it’s such a subjective idea. I think what TRUST THE FOCUS is unabashedly emotional – not in the Victorian melodrama sense, but as in ‘about emotions’ and I liked that a lot. I liked the fact that Justin and Landry have a deep, warm and mutually supportive friendship. I liked Justin’s relationship with his dad, and his grief at his lost. I liked the way they handled the transition of friendship-love to romantic-love and the broader context of a loving friendship circle. God, it’s just so fucking nice. In the best possible way. Idealistic and compassionate. I want more stories like this.
K: I think that it’s OK to say authentically, because it’s for me. But yes there is a lushness? About it, although they do try and hide how they feel, for quite a lot of the book, the emotion is weighty. I cried more than a couple of times.
AJH: Me too. Love and grief is a really potent juxtaposition. And themes of acceptance tend to undo me as well. I’m kind of a smoosh for the right sort of happy queer story.
K ah the grief, I was properly worried over this, I have read books where the grief is pervasive that the happy feels like an imposter, and I have to say it was so well done. There was the feeling of loss, yes but also he warmth of a life well lived.
AJH: Erickson has a light touch as a story-teller I think. I mean it’s not that there aren’t deep things going on, it’s just they’re very carefully handled so it never becomes overwhelming or depressing. I think the framing device – the journey – helps a lot as well because the narrative and the emotions are always moving forward and developing.
K: I love friends to lovers, probably because it’s more like life; most people I know have been friends or have met through a friend, their current partner. Sometimes though the UST can get really oppressive in books when there is FtL, but not here
AJH: Is friends to lovers a big thing in m/m? Either by accident or design, I haven’t really read many. I’m sort of wondering if it’s connected to ideas about male friendship lacking intimacy or whatever.
K: I hadn’t thought of it like that, I was basing it on people I knew, as opposed to m/m books. But you’re right, when I think about it, there aren’t that many. And when they are its mainly gfy
AJH: I wonder if it’s a broader cultural. I mean you can find lots of depictions of friendship between women so we all know what’s that supposed to look like. But friendship between menz even has its own portmanteau for God’s sake (bromance) which kind of makes it feel slightly outlandish. And it’s meant to follow this set formula of antagonism to grudging respect to taking bullets for each other. Whereas Jus and Lan have this very deep, real friendship even aside from their romantic love. And that was nice to see on page. Also I liked the fact it wasn’t a GFY.
K: The friendship reminded me of the kind that you have when you’re small, before you become indoctrinated with how you should behave, and it’s about how you want to. They were unabashedly supportive of each other in such a lovely way; it was quite reminiscent of female friendships
AJH: I just really liked seeing male-male friendship depicted so boldly and unapologetically. Was there anything that didn’t work for you about TRUST THE FOCUS?
K; I found Justin’s mother quite one dimensional, I mean I know that she was there to add tension, but it was like she was so bad, and his dad so good. No shades of anything, and yet the other relationships were much more layered.
AJH: I agree. There’s this double-bind in m/m isn’t there, because there’s such a history of misogyny in the genre that – with awareness of that context – you can’t really afford to portray female characters negatively. But then … some people just have crappy parents. But she did seem both shallow and unremittingly rubbish, and in this quite bland way.
K; exactly, it was such a shame after all the complexity to have a wicked mother hoist upon me. I also have issues with the ending, it was kind of abrupt?
AJH: Hmm, I confess I didn’t notice. Like, it didn’t pretend to have a gazillion answers and conclusions. It left Jus and Lan in a good place together, which was sort of all I was looking for or needing.
K: sorry, I didn’t mean the end , end, I meant how story came to its conclusion, the whole book was quite languidly paced, and it was quiet and gentle, Then bam, I wouldn’t go so far as to say it shocked me, but it seemed sudden. Mind you, I’m nit sure how everything could have come together better, so I ‘m nit picking really
AJH: I do see that actually. My only niggle – and spoilers ho – are Lan’s random sexual abuse experience in the back story. Like, apparently he went to a gay club and some dude, uh, semi-fucked him in the toilets. And, as a result, he didn’t really have any sexual experiences before Justin. I just … I don’t know … it didn’t feel a necessary part of the story to me? I mean, it doesn’t actually – in practice – affect his experiences with Justin, and it seemed like maybe Erickson wanted her two guys to come to each other with similar levels of experience, she needed an excuse for a completely-comfortable-with-himself queer guy not to have screwed around. But I felt it came off a bit incidental compared to Off Campus which deals with sexual abuse in a really deep and complex way. And also I’m epically bored of ‘raped or nearly rape’ being Standard Faggot Backstory Number Three. Like this is just a character developing thing that happens to gay people. *scowl face*
K; its actually used quite a bit in het as well, but I think that as there are more diverse stories it’s not always so apparent. The whole non con/ rape issue in any book really troubles me, and it’s totally difficult to get right emotionally (for me anyway). there seems a tendency to get people to fuck their way out of it, which thankful didn’t happen her. But I do see your point
AJH: I think I’m over-sensitive to it, in all honesty. But it did seem particularly half-arsed here. To me, anyway. It just feels like people default to it. But, blah. It didn’t actually have a negative impact on my experiences with TRUST THE FOCUS, which is definitely going onto my favourites list.
K: mine too, thanks for taking , it’s been a blast, you are welcome anytime.
AJH: Very much my pleasure, Karen. Thank you for having me!