Today on the site, we’re celebrating two more authors of brand-new queer YAs: Tessa Gratton, whom you might know from Strange Grace, Lady Hotspur, or any other number of queer books, and whose most recent queer YA is a standalone fantasy called Night Shine—starring a panromantic questioning protagonist and genderfluid, lesbian, and gay love interests—which released on September 8th, and debut Rebecca Coffindaffer, whose space opera, Crownchasers, stars a panromantic and pansexual protag and demisexual love interest in an m/f pairing and releases on September 29th! Make sure you check out September’s New Releases post for info and links to both books! And now, here are the authors!
TESSA: Hi! I’m Tessa Gratton, author of both YA and adult SFF novels. My new release is Night Shine, which I’m pitching as a dark, queer Howl’s Moving Castle. It comes out September 8th from McElderry Books, and as luck would have it, one of my longest-term writer friends, Rebecca Coffindaffer, has her debut novel coming out the same month. It’s called Crownchasers, and is the opening of a wild, intense space opera series. Think gender-bent Indiana Jones in space, with lots of twisty politics, a deadly scavenger hunt, and a both sweet and hot slow burn friends-to-lovers romance.
Becca—Tell me what inspired you to write Crownchasers!
BECCA: I’d say the main character, Alyssa Farshot. Her voice and this concept of sort of a gender-bent Han Solo or Indiana Jones kind of character—someone who flies fast, talks fast, takes tons of risk—all that definitely came first. And once I had her, it just became a matter of exploring everything I’ve always loved about science fiction. I grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars, I had a deep and abiding love affair with the rebooted Battlestar Galactica…I mean, if there is a book or movie or TV show set in space, I will eat it up, and I wanted to write a space opera story that embraced and combined all of my favorite tropes of the genre in some new, fun ways.
Okay, Tessa, talk to me about the initial spark behind the story that became Night Shine and how it evolved from original concept to the book that hits shelves in September.
TESSA: Here is something wild: I don’t remember the initial spark for Night Shine! The first five pages have been sitting in my “ideas” folder since about 2011, and I’ve been trying to remember what triggered them. I can’t, and it’s extremely frustrating, LOL. What I do know is why I picked now to actually write the book. It was September 2018 and Strange Grace had launched, so I wanted to try and sell a new YA. I pulled out all my in-progress notebooks and went through my ideas folder to pick something that might speak to me, that felt ready in that amorphous creative way. I landed on Night Shine because it was the only idea that felt light and fun. That’s what I needed, because I was going to be working on it during long days at the hospital while my mom was dying. Night Shine had the space for me to throw in everything I love, tropes and archetypes that delight me—with nothing to make me sad. I made the four MCs my favorite love interest/villain tropes: dark maybe-evil sorcerer; sexy wicked prince; demon in disguise; loyal beleaguered bodyguard. And I made everybody queer. I gave them unicorns and dragons, demon familiars and a spirit-infested rainforest. Volcanoes and heart-stealing and really complicated relationships. I gave them magic that is definitively non-binary.
tl;dr: the inspiration behind Night Shine was to write a joyful story for myself, for my genderqueer, shapeshifting self, in order to stay grounded and creative during a very tough time.
You mention some of your favorite SFF shows, but is there a current show you’re addicted to right now?
BECCA: I feel like you’re asking me this question because you highly suspect what my answer will be, given that you and Natalie had a hand in creating my latest scifi show obsession! 😀 The truth is, we’re living in an amazing Star Trek resurgence right now—a Star Trek renaissance. A Trek-aissance, if you will. I recently consumed the first two seasons of Discovery and the first season of Picard, all in pretty quick succession after I hit my latest deadline, and it’s absolutely my favorite thing ever to see the evolution of this universe. It’s so much more diverse, the plots are twisty and complex, they really dig into the depth of the characters, but the central driving idea behind Star Trek—that there’s hope and goodness and potential in our wildly flawed selves and in our wildly flawed society that is worth holding on to—that is still a fixed point in the stories they’re telling. They really ground all the pew-pew starship action in these characters you just love and you root for and you want to watch them connect and grow and hurt and heal as a crew together. It’s the same reason I come back to another scifi show, The Expanse—the characters bring you back and make it real, even when you’re transporting onto planets that are wildly different than Earth.
Every time you talk about Night Shine, I’m only more desperate for September to get here so I can get my hands on it. What was your process of building your magic system outside the binary and what challenges, if any, you encountered in creating it?
TESSA: YES Discovery is the BEST. I wish everybody was watching it, if only so I can talk more about how Michael Burnham is the greatest hero in modern television. (BECCA: *interjecting loudly* YES SHE IS!) Also to any fans of Amos from The Expanse in particular: you’re gonna love Hell Monkey in Crownchasers.
When it comes to the Night Shine magic system, it’s more accurate to say I built it inside the binary. I wanted the magic itself to be explicitly non-binary, to exist in between dualities like night and day, life and death, “man” and “woman,” and I started by making a culture that emphasizes and appreciates contrast in all things. From cuisine to architecture, fashion and religion. Their fashion, for example, insists upon stark contrast—colors that clash impressively, and if you have light skin you might dye your hair black or maroon, if you have dark skin you might use pale makeup, and manipulating contrasts to draw attention to your beauty. The dualities they adhere to aren’t valued against each other, so this isn’t a place where women or men are devalued, or day and night preferred, it’s the binary that matters. Anything non-binary is marked as Other, whether that’s the priests in their pastel robes or witches in shades of gray, both of whom work with forces dangerously outside life and death. This is why the Empress has two consorts, a man and a woman, and when there’s an Emperor, he also has two consorts, a man and a woman, so as not to put value on one gender over the other. This brings me to the magic! I wanted magic to be the way to challenge dualities—to prove binary thinking is flawed. So I made magic an energy that connects everything—like shadows, like dawn and dusk, like tendons. In order to use it, a person must step outside of contrast and duality in some way, to exist near liminal space, either becoming a priest (who deals with ghosts and gods) or a witch (who deals with spirits and demons). But the greatest magic uses are the rare sorcerers, who must break entirely free of duality and binary thinking in order to exist entirely AS liminality. They move beyond life and death (usually with the aid of a great spirit or great demon familiar), beyond physical form, becoming literal shapeshifters themselves.
The biggest challenge was language! Moving beyond binary thinking is a struggle when the language you’re using is inherently gendered. Modern English has it baked into the core—did you know that Old English had gendered nouns? Masc, fem, AND neutral. Anyway, while I’ve written books with a variety of gender indicators and pronouns both English and fantastical, in this book the various nonbinary and genderfluid people and creatures stick with he, she, and they pronouns (with the occasional demonic it) because I wanted Night Shine to have the same problems as English. That’s the work: challenging binary thinking (in myself and) in this world.
Ok, Becca, next time lob me an easy one! But first tell me your favorite and least favorite things about working with a whole galaxy of world building.
BECCA: Hey, I didn’t come to play here. I signed on for VERY SERIOUS discussions about OUR BOOKS.
I feel like my favorite and least favorite things are kind of tied up together because I loved brainstorming different planets for my main character Alyssa to visit and different peoples she can encounter—what do they look like? how do they interact with their planet or with the empire? what customs do they have and how do they fit in the wider universe? I could really burn weeks just fleshing out all of these questions, and that’s definitely fun for me. I like playing with those sorts of questions. At the same time—and I guess this is where we get to the least favorite thing and almost a self-critique of sorts—it’s very easy to default to shortcuts when imagining other species and other planets and it’s a challenge to push your brain beyond those limitations. It’s kind of the Star Trek effect, right? Where you go to all these “strange new worlds,” but it turns out most of them are peopled by bipedal humanoid creatures that breathe and have blood and generally share mammalian characteristics. We do this because it’s pulling from what we know, what’s familiar, and also because it makes adapting it for film a lot easier! But one thing I want to keep working on in my writing is breaking down those familiar shortcuts in my brain and challenging myself to conceptualize stuff what outside the realms of our own human society.
All right, here’s one that’s (maybe) a little less intense than my last: Which character in Night Shine was your favorite to write? And which do you most relate to? Or maybe are they the same character?
TESSA: They are not the same! My favorite character to write was Esrithalan the unicorn. As I mentioned above, I really gave myself permission in Night Shine to throw in everything I wanted. To only write fun stuff. So at a certain point I needed a story beat, I wasn’t sure what, to connect two important scenes. It had to be a delight, or I couldn’t do it. That was the rule. I was playing around with various types of riddle-demons or the weirdest air spirit I could think of, when I remembered a throw-away line from one of the characters’ origin stories: it involved a unicorn. OBVIOUSLY that was the answer. A unicorn. Only, I was going to make it a little gremlin of a unicorn. Small, hairy, wise, disinterested in the problems of teenaged maybe-girls, with flashes of beauty. It’s an avatar of the Queens of Heaven so of course it has to be strange. It was only one scene, but I relished every second of it.
I relate the most to Kirin Dark-Smile. He’s ambitious, but driven by love—all his greatest moments and biggest mistakes stem from that. He’s also genderfluid, and comfortable being so—at least when he’s alone—while at the same time he’s spent most of his life hiding his gender for both politics and his ambition. I relate most strongly to the fact that he knows exactly who he is, but that doesn’t make it easier to share himself with the world, or with his loved ones.
Where did you put the most of yourself into Crownchasers?
BECCA: I’m so down for all of this, but especially please let this usher in more unicorns in YA. All the unicorns. Many and sundry unicorns.
I think where I put the most of myself is in Alyssa Farshot’s voice and her internal narrative. To be honest, there is not a lot that she and I have in common on the surface—she’s pansexual and I’m very much gray asexual, she’s a major risk taker and I am professionally risk averse, she’s an explorer and I’m a homebody, she’s extremely brave and confrontational and I wouldn’t credit myself with either of those qualities. But writing her came so easily—she’s got a wry, often self-deprecating sense of humor that is very much like mine and she often reaches for a joke to deflect from herself. And while I didn’t necessarily grow up in a floating imperial spaceship or anything, I did grow up fairly sheltered and so did she. There’s a naiveté underneath all her snark and fast-talking, and a lot of her arc—this unspooling awareness of the bigger picture around her, her awareness of it, her realization of her own power and responsibility within it—definitely mimics my own experience in early adulthood. It helped me a lot to ground her character and give her depth beyond the initial concept of “fast-talking hotshot ace pilot.”
TESSA: Dragons or space ships???
BECCA: Spaceships by a millimeter. Which would you rather have in your house: the Enterprise computer or Calcifer?
TESSA: I have so many questions about how Calcifer got into my house. Favorite childhood book:
BECCA: The Redwall books. Favorite current TV show:
TESSA: Star Trek: Discovery, LOL! Flight or Telepathy?
BECCA: HA! I can’t even handle climbing ladders, so telepathy. Han Solo or Poe Dameron?
Before we descend fully into gifs maybe we should pull this thing together! Thank you so much for chatting with me! I can’t wait for my copy of Crownchasers. Coming to all of us September 29th!
BECCA: This was a lot of fun—thanks, Tessa! And everyone, don’t miss out on claiming a copy of Night Shine for your very own, out Sept. 8th!