In the Key of Dale (Arsenal Pulp Press) introduces YA readers to a teenage music prodigy named Dale Cardigan, who navigates the adolescent terrain of love and desire, grief and anxiety. Quill and Quire calls the novel a “complex, thoughtful, and compelling” read. Author Benjamin Lefebvre’s debut is a fabulous read for both adult and younger readers.
Benjamin Lefebvre lives in Kitchener, Ontario. His edited books include the three-volume critical anthology The L.M. Montgomery Reader (winner of the 2016 PROSE Award for Literature from the Association of American Publishers) and an edition of Montgomery's rediscovered final book, The Blythes Are Quoted.In the Key of Dale is his first novel. He can be found online at benjaminlefebvre.com.
In the Key of Dale tells the story of Dale Cardigan, a teenage music prodigy exploring a complicated relationship with his new friend Rusty. Can you tell us more about how and when the novel came together for you?
I forget now which came first—the idea to write an epistolary novel or the idea to write about a teen music prodigy—but I do remember where and when I wrote the first few lines. I was standing in an airport, waiting to board a flight, when a voice popped into my head: “Dear diary. Are you there, diary? It’s me, Dale. Dear Pen Pal: How are you? I am fine. Actually I’m not. Dear God: Forget it.”
I always carry a notebook or at least a folded sheet of paper with me, so I jotted everything down right away, and while I don’t usually think to include the date of my jottings, this time I did: 18 June 2012. So once I returned home from my trip, I opened my notebook again, reread the scraps I’d drafted, and got to work to figure out who Dale was and what could happen to him next. And the false starts on that page in my notebook remain in more or less the same form in the published book, ten years later.
That page in my notebook also offers a clue about my thinking at this initial stage, something I forgot about until much later: “To the memory of my father.” My own father had died about four years before this, and although I’d done some scribbling about him in another notebook at some point after his death, I soon saw that I didn’t feel that compelled to write about him or about my relationship with him, either in essay form or in fictional form.
But at the same time, I’d become increasingly curious about the longer-term effects of grief—how the feeling of loss can change after a considerable amount of time has passed since the shock of death—and that became the basis of some of the questions I asked myself as I started to piece together what this novel would be about.
What effect might the death of a father have, not on someone like me, who lost his father at thirty-one, but on a teenage character who lost his father as a child? What if there were lingering questions about the character’s father years later, and what if it took a while for a teenage character to figure out how to articulate those questions, let alone ask them out loud?
And so it started from there. I soon decided against dedicating the book to my father’s memory, because I thought doing so would give people the mistaken impression that the story is autobiographical.
One of the striking features of the novel is how it refuses to be pigeonholed into a classic queer teenage coming-out story. Why was this important to you?
There are so many great coming-out stories aimed at young people—Netflix’s recent series Heartstopper is among them—but at the end of the day, that isn’t the kind of book I wanted to write. I was more interested in telling a compelling story about a teen character who happens to be queer and who’s dealing with something else besides sexuality and identity. Because coming-out stories, by their conventions, often end with the queer character embracing and declaring their non-dominant gender or sexual identity, after a while that gives the impression that coming out is the end of the queer protagonist’s journey. But in many ways, it’s just the beginning, and that’s what I wanted to explore for Dale.
Coming-out stories, by their conventions, often end with the queer character embracing and declaring their non-dominant gender or sexual identity, after a while that gives the impression that coming out is the end of the queer protagonist’s journey. But in many ways, it’s just the beginning ...
Part of the challenge that I set for myself in writing this novel was to narrate from an unusual perspective—Dale is writing letters to his father as he goes, which means he’s writing about what he just experienced but he has no idea, as he writes each letter, what’s going to happen next—and to come up with a character arc for Dale of which formally coming out isn’t a major component.
Dale’s deep and abiding passion is for music, and the novel is so rich in explorations and descriptions of music of all sorts. Is this one of your own passions, or something you had to research? And how did you decide what music to include?
I grew up with a strong interest in music, and, like Dale, I attended a music-intensive elementary school for several years. Where Dale and I depart—by a pretty wide margin—is that I sing in choirs or in the car sometimes and I’m an okay piano player, whereas Dale is driven by an ability for and an interest in music that far surpasses mine. I didn’t fully realize just how talented Dale is as a musician until, quite late in the revision process, I consulted the Royal Conservatory of Music website for its piano performance exam repertoire and looked up some of it on YouTube. This may sound silly given that Dale is a character I invented, but I was really impressed by his ability!
A lot of the classical pieces I mention in the book are real—there was, alas, a nineteenth-century composer named William Crotch—and a good many of them are personally meaningful to me, including Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, which my choir school recorded a CD of when I was eleven. But for a lot of the musical detail I relied a fair bit on my husband, whose knowledge of music is far more vast than mine.
But a good many of the contemporary bands that Dale mentions are ones I made up, including the infamous boy band Climax. I tend to have a lot of fun with made-up bands, books, and television series—I’m particularly proud of the cop show called Ranting and Raven, which Dale mentions watching—and I’m always rather proud when someone tells me they searched online for something I wrote about and were perplexed as to why there were no relevant search results.
Dale and Rusty choose to define their relationship on their own terms. Can you speak more to this avoidance of labels, and their desire for the relationship to remain in a somewhat ambiguous space?
There’s still an expectation in a lot of forms of storytelling that a story’s “proper” end is when two people (particularly heterosexual people) get together—they marry or declare their intentions or kiss in the sunset. I did come closer to conforming to that convention in the first draft of the novel, in which Dale and Rusty declared themselves boyfriends and didn’t do anything but kiss. But as I revised, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this kind of resolution didn’t fit for Dale. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to add some queer resistance to a heteronormative convention, since queer characters are just as deserving of happy endings (romantic or not) as straight characters. But I came to the conclusion that Dale—who’s still waiting for his life to begin, who’s self-aware that he has a lot of growing up left to do, and who’s nervous about the fact that he’s never really had a friend before—wouldn’t believably see having a boyfriend as the solution to all his problems.
Not surprisingly, Dale’s ability to see beyond the present moment is informed by my own perspective as a middle-aged adult. And I can imagine that this kind of ambiguous space could cause problems for Dale and Rusty later on (and maybe it will). But for now, this is what works for them.
Finally, there’s been an explosion in queer YA fiction in recent years. How do you feel about this new wave of LGBTQ+ literature for young people, and how have readers been responding to your novel?
I certainly appreciate the much wider range of novels that’s now being published about queer teen characters—there were hardly any when I was a teenager, and it wasn’t too long ago that a queer male character in a teen novel likely was rejected by his straight friend or didn’t live to see the ending. It’s so wonderful to see that that tide has finally turned, given the importance of showcasing the diversity of ways in which queer people live their lives and see themselves in the world.
One common element I’ve noticed in a quite a few recent YA books I’ve read with queer male protagonists, though, involves a peculiar degree of sexlessness. In these books, being queer is shown to mean having feelings, being authentic, wanting to fall in love, and finding community—all of which are wonderful components of any sexuality, of course—but no one seems to have any hormones. And if the protagonist does have some kind of sexual encounter, it turns out to be something he regrets. I’m not sure what to make of this trend or how widespread it is, but it does mean I felt an odd need to warn some readers ahead of time that there’s a bit of sex in my novel.
One common element I’ve noticed in a quite a few recent YA books I’ve read with queer male protagonists, though, involves a peculiar degree of sexlessness.
The responses I’ve received so far from readers or seen online have been really positive overall. Most of them have been from adult readers rather than from teen readers, which isn’t too surprising given the amount of studies over the last ten years that have shown that there are now more adults than actual teenagers buying and reading YA fiction. No one has seemed particularly bothered by the depictions of sex in the novel, including two family members who took turns reading the book aloud to each other. So maybe I’ve been worrying for nothing.
At any rate, I like to think that, much like the “ambiguous space” you mentioned in terms of how Dale and Rusty end up defining their friendship, the novel likewise sits in an ambiguous space between “a novel for teenagers” and “a novel about a teenager and aimed at any one who wants to read it.” And whether adolescence is a present reality or a dim memory for readers of the book, I’ve really appreciated hearing about the many ways that readers have connected to Dale and what they enjoyed from the story.
** Excerpt from In the Key of Dale, by Benjamin Lefebvre, for 49th Shelf
Then Uncle Scott turned around in his seat to look at us. “What kind of food are you boys in the mood for? There’s a great Thai restaurant that we like to go to. Or there’s that new Egyptian–Moroccan–English fusion place that seems promising. Is that the one that’s attached to the mall without being in the mall, Joe?”
Uncle Joe responded by turning on the stereo. It was playing a choral piece that erupted into the most climactic moment—I think it was something by Handel—and then, after a quick wrap-up and a pause, the choir launched into what was clearly the third movement of something epic.
“Um—either one would be fine,” I called out over the sound of two hundred people singing at the tops of their voices. “Right, Rusty?”
Uncle Scott turned his head and nodded before falling silent.
I couldn’t understand what was going on. When I turned in Rusty’s direction, he leaned over and said, low enough not to be overheard, “Why does everyone keep calling us ‘you boys’?
Your mother did it ten times during that photo shoot. And what was up with that photo shoot?”
He looked so appealingly earnest, and I felt so comfortable being that close to him that I unleashed the truth without running it through the filter first. “Yeah—sorry about that.
It looks like my whole family thinks we’re dating.”
What happened next took about two seconds to happen but will need several sentences to describe. First, Rusty broke into a smile, chuckled, and nudged my hand with his knuckles, as though the idea of us dating was hysterical. But then his smile faded and he gazed into the middle distance, looking increasingly puzzled. He started to say something, then stopped himself, looked back at my two uncles, glanced at me again, and then turned right around to look determinedly out the window like I do whenever I’m in the car with Ma. And throughout all this was the sound of a shitload of people singing their devotion to a god that probably none of them believed in.