Out, Open, Truthful, Honest: Secrets of Bill Konigsberg's Success

Author and ASU alum Bill Konigsberg (MFA 2005) is a phenomenon the world has recently acknowledged and is now attempting to explain. Konigsberg’s relatively young career has resulted in multiple awards for young adult fiction, each award bigger than the previous.

In November, he found himself on the 2016 Pen Center Literary Awards stage with the likes of Sean Penn, Bill Maher, Winona Ryder, and Isabelle Allende. That night, Konigsberg's book, The Porcupine of Truth, was honored with the Pen Center USA Literary Award for Children’s and Young Adult Fiction, an honor that has gone to giants such as Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) and Ursula K. Le Guin. The Porcupine of Truth also won the 2016 American Library Association Stonewall Award for "exceptional merit relating to the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender experience." Konigsberg's earlier books, Out of the Pocket and Openly Straight, were also big award winners, garnering two major awards and no fewer than 20 significant honors between them.

His newest book, Honestly Ben, released to reviewers in advanced reading copy, has already received high praise from tough critics, including Kirkus Reviews, which described the new book as "[p]acked with literary references, pranks, heady conversations, humor, honesty, and tribulation, this is one that will be remembered." Konigsberg is assistant professor of practice at the ASU Virginia Piper Creative Writing Center and coordinator of the Piper Center’s entrepreneurial wonder, the Your Novel Year program.

Origin Stories

The fact that Bill Konigsberg can write well has never been up for debate. He was a sports reporter before entering the ASU MFA in Creative Writing program. He was a staff writer for various newspapers, a fulltime sportswriter for the Associated Press, an editor for ESPN.com, and a contributor to a number of newspapers around the country, including the Denver Post and the Arizona Republic. He won the prestigious 2002 GLADD Media Award for his ESPN.com piece, “Sports World Still a Struggle for Gays,” and he was the reporter who broke the story when ex-NBA player John Amaechi publicly came out as gay.

Konigsberg developed a reputation for originality, creativity, and authenticity immediately after graduating from Columbia University, when player strikes ended the 1994 Major League Baseball season. Konigsberg wrote simulated stories on the games that never happened, stories that were syndicated across the New York Daily News, San Francisco Chronicle and Miami Herald. This phenomenon was reported on around the world, including on NBC World News Tonight, Dateline NBC, CNN, and the Tokyo Broadcasting System. Konigsberg’s fictitious world series championship game was even acted out on Dateline NBC using college baseball players in the roles of the New York Yankees and Montreal Expos players. This speculative 1994 MLB season, courtesy of Bill Konigsberg, was featured in the New York Times.

Explaining the Konigsberg phenomenon

With 2016 winding down, Scholastic Publishing (Harry Potter, Hunger Games, etc.) held a publicity dinner at the National Council of Teachers of English Convention in Atlanta. Scholastic editor David Levithan addressed the group and attempted to field questions, including one about the key to Konigsberg’s success.

“The key to Bill’s success is right in his book titles,” Levithan explained, “in one word each: 'Out' [Out of the Pocket]; 'Openly' [Openly Straight]; 'Truth' [The Porcupine of Truth]; and 'Honestly' [Honestly Ben]."

Out. Openly. Truth. Honestly. As most notable poets and authors are, Konigsberg is committed to distilling life down to its most meaningful parts and making a statement about the human experience. As he has explained, "It is an overarching story of my life and of my writing, that I am committed to authenticity, both for myself and for my characters. I think perhaps readers feel that in my writing, and if they do, I could not wish for anything more." Readers do feel the authenticity in Konigsberg's novels, so much so that he has received thousands of letters from readers, first thanking him for giving voice to their stories, and then also for giving them hope for their lives.

Typically, a Bill Konigsberg character is relentless about establishing his or her place in the universe. From Bobby, the high school quarterback whose coach tells him there are no gay football players, to Rafe, the soccer player who is sick of having the adjective “gay” fastened to his every move in his ultraliberal Colorado community, Konigsberg’s protagonists make their own way in the world. His buddy/road story, The Porcupine of Truth, features Aisha, a young woman who refuses to be subdued by her father’s disapproval of her sexuality, and Carson, a young man who refuses to accept the estrangement of his gay grandfather. Konigsberg’s characters are never passive recipients of their fate. Instead, they actively search for the truth of who they are and what they have to offer the world. Due for release in March, 2017, Honestly Ben, the sequel to Openly Straight, follows Ben Carver back to his small hometown in Wyoming where his life can return to normal after the disruption of his undeniably romantic relationship with Rafe Goldberg at a ritzy New England boarding school. But what is normal? Dating a young woman, playing high school baseball, getting good grades and a scholarship to college? Something feels missing and Ben will have to look closely, honestly, openly, and truthfully at who he is and what is “normal” for him before he figures things out.

Normal for Bill Konigsberg has been changing with every book. Out of the Pocket (2008) brought him the Lambda Award and recognition as a new voice in LGBTQ Young Adult fiction. Openly Straight (2013) established him as a rising star in the world of adolescent literature, and brought multiple awards from a variety of organizations along with invitations to speak at conventions, appear at book stores and libraries, and make school visits. The Porcupine of Truth (2015) placed him among giants in the field, also unleashing the potential for movie contracts and more. A normal day for Konigsberg at this point involves working on his next book (with the book after that percolating in his head) and working for the Piper Center, a place and mission very dear to his heart, and the perfect place for him to continue writing stories that resonate with thousands of young people, stories told openly, honestly, and truthfully.

Jim Blasingame

Photo courtesy Bill Konigsberg