New York City, Early 2000s
A Look Back
In "A Look Back," written ten years after the publication of My Heartbeat, Garret Freymann-Weyr discusses how changing the setting of her initial idea helped to flesh out the story:
I wrote My Heartbeat ten years ago because of an image I had then of two boys on a dusty country road having a fistfight. One of them broke the other one's nose, and blood went everywhere. I had no idea what the fight was about, but it seemed to me that the boys were, in spite of the blood, very close. […]
So, in a fit of desperation, I moved the three of them to the courtyard of a small private school, reasoning that I knew nothing about street fighting but a lot about small private schools.
And it turns out that location can indeed be the missing part of a puzzle. Suddenly, I knew their names. James broke Link's nose and Ellen, up on a fire escape, watched. Blood was everywhere as it always was in that scene, but I now had real information. James and Link loved each other very much, and that love was upsetting to them both. Ellen had a crush on James and adored her older brother. She was as confused as I was about the fighting, the blood, and the broken nose.
They always say, "write what you know," right? So instead of writing about a dusty, rural road and a scuff-up between two boys in well-worn overalls, which may have come off as inauthentic from the native New Yorker, she wrote about two young men, navigating a sophisticated conflict.
Sex in The City
One of the central themes of the book is the quest to understand homosexuality and all of the unwritten rules and fears that surround it. The setting plays a pretty important role in how this quest plays out because being gay in one of the most diverse cities in the world is pretty different than navigating homosexuality somewhere else.
If Freymann-Weyr had decided to set the story in a small, rural town, or some place with a reputation for being less tolerant toward people who are different, My Heartbeat would have had a much more oppressive feel to it. New York City, on the other hand, has a reputation for valuing individuality and whatever forms it takes—and if you don't like it you can go to New Jersey. So by setting our story in the Big Apple, Freymann-Weyr is removing any external conflicts for our characters. Link isn't facing any hostility, danger, or reproach from a repressive social network. As Ellen (naively) says:
Now it's not a big deal. There's AIDS to worry about or getting attacked by a redneck, but that's about it. Only people who don't know better still think it's shameful or wrong to be gay, but not people we know. (7.7)
This has the interesting effect of making Link's struggle with his possible homosexuality totally internal. Sure, his dad has quite the influence on his ability to come out (if he wanted to), but for the most part the anger and shame that he experiences is all self-inflicted. James, on the other hand, is pretty casual about his sexual orientation—because he can be. All of those things would have been very different had Freymann-Weyr set the story somewhere else. Cool, huh?
The setting of a story isn't just about its physical location, though; the time in which it is set can play a huge role, too. My Heartbeat represented contemporary New York City when it was written in 2002. Cell phones were still considered a luxury item, VHS hadn't quite gone the way of the Dodo, and the gay rights movement, particularly the marriage quality fight, hadn't yet picked up momentum in the mainstream. As Freymann-Weyr notes in "A Look Back," (the post-script to the 2012 printing):
A lot has changed in the last ten years about what is true for people (and characters) who are gay. Those changes are legal and, to a certain extent, social. But the unwritten laws that must be navigated by Link as he strives to know his heart without disappointing his father are still very much in effect.
Today, someone like Ellen who was truly naïve regarding what it meant to be gay would be a total anomaly. In the age of the Internet and 24-hour news media, it would be pretty difficult to maintain that level of ignorance. However, her quest to fully understand what it means to be gay still holds a lot of truth, no matter when she exists.