The Big Idea: James L. Sutter
Labels are a tough thing to navigate. It can be hard to know what fits, or if you even want to apply labels to yourself at all. This is something author James L. Sutter has struggled with, and something he explores in his new novel, Darkhearts.
JAMES L. SUTTER:
You’ve probably never heard of Stuart Sutcliffe. I certainly hadn’t. But from the ages of nineteen to twenty-one, he was the original bassist for the Beatles, leaving the band right before they began their meteoric rise.
When I first stumbled across his Wikipedia entry in August of 2020, I was captivated. While Sutcliffe sadly died before the Beatles achieved full stardom, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like for him if he hadn’t. What would it feel like to know you’d walked away from musical immortality? What would it do to you to watch the band you’d helped build explode into stardom without you? I immediately dove out of bed and began typing what would become my debut YA romance novel, Darkhearts.
Like Sutcliffe, Darkhearts’ narrator, David, had almost been famous: In middle school, he’d formed a goth-rock band with his best friends, but egos grew, and eventually he’d stormed out. And then the band got huge. Now, at seventeen, he’s stuck in an ordinary Seattle high school life while his former best friends (emphasis on former) travel the world as pop stars. But when tragedy throws David and the lead singer back into contact, the boys find themselves trading frenemy status for a confusing, secret romance―one that David realizes could be his ticket back into the band and the spotlight.
When I was fifteen, I started a punk band. We never got big, but we played a lot of shows, and even made it onto the radio a few times. Yet I can still remember the feeling of being eighteen, watching bands younger than me blowing up and getting signed, and feeling like a has-been—like I’d already missed my shot, and I wasn’t even out of high school. When our band broke up a year later, that certainty only got worse.
The thing is, I don’t think it was just me. I think a lot of teens are walking around with the conviction that their life is already over. We’re constantly bombarded by depictions of early success: the sports stars, the child actors, the musicians. We’re told from birth to visualize our dreams, to strive and grind and hustle—but we’re given absolutely no guidance about what to do when we don’t become famous. Because most of us won’t. That question of identity—who am I if not a future rock star?—haunted my teenage years.
And that wasn’t my only point of confusion. In Darkhearts, David has always assumed he’s straight—until he reconnects with Chance and finds himself unexpectedly crushing. For me as well, bisexuality came as a surprise, a slow-burn epiphany that didn’t fully manifest until I was twenty-one. When it did, it came with a whole new set of insecurities: Clearly I wasn’t straight, but was I queer enough to claim the label? After all, I hadn’t kissed that many guys, and I’d never had to fight or suffer for my sexuality the way some of my gay friends had—was calling myself queer just stolen valor? In Darkhearts, David wrestles with a lot of the same issues: How bi is bi? What does it mean to not like guys in general, but to fall for one particular guy?
For me, Darkhearts is about what happens when the labels you’ve been using to define yourself—to yourself—no longer apply. It’s about trading in dreams and identities that no longer fit for ones that might. But most of all, it’s about learning to accept yourself for whoever you are right now—straight or queer, rock star or otherwise.