Today on the site I’m delighted to welcome frequent LGBTQReads guest Nicole Melleby, author of one of yesterday’s fabulous new releases, How to Become a Planet, and site newcomer Eliot Schrefer, whose The Darkness Outside Us releases June 1st!
Yes, we’re bridging the MG/YA divide here. A rare occurrence on the site, but there is a connection between these authors! Want to know what it is? Read on…
Nicole: Hi Eliot! I’m excited to be doing this interview with you. A fun fact that most people might not know: you were my mentor in grad school, so you’ve actually gotten to see me grow from the baby writer I used to be. It makes it even more fun that we’ve both got books out this year that in some capacity–yours literally and mine as more of a metaphor–involve outer space! (And, of course, are both queer!)
The Darkness Outside Us is such a great addition to LGBTQ+ YA shelves. For those who weren’t as lucky as me to get their hands on it before its June 1st release, why don’t you tell us a little bit about it?
Eliot: Nicole! How amazing is this?! If only we could go back to 2014 and tell baby Nicole and Eliot that they’d one day be having this conversation, and doing gay space book events together (you can check us out together virtually on June 8th hosted by Best of Books.) I’ll have lots more to say and ask about the years in-between later, but for now, yeah, let me tell you about The Darkness Outside Us. It’s set 400 years in the future, when Earth is locked into a cold war between two remaining countries. When the first settler of Titan trips her distress signal, the countries have to mount a joint mission to rescue her—with one astronaut from each country onboard. They start as enemies, but wind up developing feelings for each other, even as they discover that their mission isn’t what they thought it was. At all.
You gave me some awesome feedback on the manuscript, and changed its course! I love this new phase of our lives when we’re peers and friends. The world has some really devoted Melleby fans (“Mellefans”?) in it. It’s been awesome to see your accolades and masses of happy readers—I know how excited they are about reading How to Become a Planet. Would you tell us about Pluto’s story?
Nicole: You gave me feedback on an early draft of PLANET, too, back when it had an entire arson subplot (when in doubt, add fire?) There are no fires in the finished draft, but How to Become a Planet is about a 12-year-old named Pluto who loves outer space, her single mom, her family’s pizzeria, and running around the boardwalk with her best friend Meredith. The novel starts right after Pluto is diagnosed with depression and anxiety, after a month of missing school, finding it too hard to get out of bed, ignoring Meredith’s phone calls, and arguing more and more with her mom. Because of this, Pluto can’t help but wonder how she can try and feel like herself again. Pluto-the-planet isn’t a planet anymore, and Pluto-the-person doesn’t know where she fits anymore, either.
So, Eliot, you are no stranger to kidlit (Mr. Fancy Pants two-time National Book Award Finalist) but, and correct me if I’m wrong, this is your first YA novel with explicitly queer characters. I’m living for gays in space, but why did you decide to write this story now, and has your experience writing gay characters been any different than your other work?
Eliot: I think I’m ten Earth years older than you (though just 0.04 Pluto years!), and it’s been a big ten years for children’s literature, and books in general, around LGBTQIA+ themes. Though there were important early queer works already when I started writing YA, for the most part books were either about queerness or they had no queer characters, with little in between. For the most part, my narrative instincts don’t lean toward romance, so I had characters in most of my books who were driven by other interests, not romantic ones.
With THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US, though, my first moment of inspiration was the book’s big (no spoilers here!) plot twist, which requires two people to be trapped on a ship together. That got me thinking of a romantic storyline, and the romance I came up with was true to my own (gay male) identity. I continue to be a plot-first sort of writer, but this plot really called for these two boys to be on a ship, falling in love. Cue the gaaaays in spaaaace!
In writing their romance I was inspired by Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, where he writes about how seeing Earth from space “underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another.” Nicole, I’d love to know how our conception of space and (non?) planets works in HOW TO BECOME A PLANET, whether literally or metaphorically or anything in between!
Nicole: When I sat down to write PLANET, what I really wanted to do was show that mental illness can be a lifelong issue. I wanted to let Pluto explore what it meant for her, now that she has this diagnosis, moving forward. How does it change her? Does it change her? What does it all mean? Which, in turn, made me start thinking about Pluto-the-planet. When I was in middle school, Pluto was still a planet, and all of a sudden we were told, “no wait, we changed the definition of what makes a planet, so Pluto doesn’t qualify anymore.” What did that mean? Was Pluto-the-planet suddenly different? No, of course not. The definition changed, but Pluto was exactly the same as it was, and still is, as when I learned about it back in middle school. All of its properties are still exactly the same. Getting a depression diagnosis for Pluto-the-person is just like Pluto-the-planet getting a new definition. It doesn’t change who she is; if anything, it gives her a clearer understanding of who she is.
If you’ll allow me to be sentimental for a moment, having you for a mentor in grad school helped me have a clearer understanding of myself, too, and who I was as a writer and a person–particularly one who writes about queer characters and stories. We also had the privilege of launching Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Writing for Children concentration in their creative writing MFA program, you as a professor and me as one of the first batch of students under that concentration. I learned a lot from you (I’m done stroking your ego after this) and I thought I’d ask, if you could teach student writers like myself only one thing, what would that be?
Eliot: Oh, please don’t be done stroking my ego! Nicole, one of the things I love so much about Pluto’s story is how you make her depression feel real and intimate and not like some huge crisis that ruins the lives of “other people.” It’s just part of life, and part of being a person in the world. That’s something I love so much about your novels—even though my life experiences might not always match your characters’, you’ve brought me so cleanly and simply into their minds that I still feel this very close kinship to them.
I should answer your question, though! Lately I’ve been thinking that one of the most important things student writers have to learn is the power of withheld information. I feel like every protagonist should have a secret, even if they’re not consciously hiding it. The instinct as a writer is to tell the reader everything about a character’s situation, as quickly and efficiently as possible. But instead I think it’s so much more powerful to hint at all the things the reader doesn’t know yet, and take your time as an author revealing the information, producing dramatic tension all the while. The first chapter of The Hunger Games is a total master class of this, and I think that’s a big part of the book’s huge success. On this craft topic, do you have any thoughts to share about handling backstory and frontstory in the early part of a book? How do you do it in Pluto’s case?
Nicole: In fairness, The Darkness Outside Us also is pretty damn good at doing exactly that–both of your characters have things they play close to the chest, and the plot twists (don’t even think you’ll get spoilers out of me, reader) in your book speak for themself in terms of knowing exactly when to reveal certain parts of the story.
For Pluto in particular, it was important to me to tell a story from the perspective of what happens after the diagnosis. Which meant that I had to decide how much of the first chapter to bog down with what came before the diagnosis. I wanted to explore the results and consequences instead of showing the entire journey that led to the doctors and medications. I introduce the idea that Pluto needs to be tutored over the summer, and that’s because she missed a lot of school. Her best friend Meredith is upset and mad at Pluto, and that’s because Pluto stopped calling and hanging out with her during the school year. These are the things that happened before the novel started that are part of the reason Pluto ended up with the diagnosis, but I didn’t need to spend the time at the start of the book detailing that.
This craft conversation actually reminds me of the essay I had to write for you during grad school, where I analyzed the moment in a handful of MG/YA books where the author “outs” the character to the reader. It’s again one of those important decisions as a writer: when and how do I reveal this piece of information to the reader. Do you remember what that moment is for Ambrose? (This is just a warm up question, don’t get too comfortable.) For Pluto, its revealed by her slowly developing a crush on Fallon, which was nice to write on my end, because Pluto doesn’t really have an “oh, I might be queer” moment. She just has an “oh, I think I like Fallon” moment.
Staying on the craft conversation: my real question for you is, since Darkness is a SFF novel that takes place in an alternative futuristic version of our universe, what was the worst part about having to develop and world build your idea of this future, and, also, what was the best part?
Eliot: I that essay so much! I learned so much from you, working with you on that. And I remember your presentation of it was also about your coming-out journey, and had half of the MFA cohort in tears.
As far as outing Ambrose: he comes from a really progressive country, 400 years in the future. I let myself imagine how far we might have come by then. They’re well past labels at all, so when Kodiak (who’s from a less progressive society) asks Ambrose if he’s gay or bi or what, Ambrose busts out laughing, because the question sounds like it’s out of a historical fiction. That’s one of the things I love most about sci-fi, that you can imagine better futures, not just worse ones. That was the best part, creating a character and giving him a kinder, more inclusive place to live in.
The hardest part was trying to make a believable future, tech-wise. I tried to imagine evolved technologies, but I’m sure someone actually from 400 years in the future would crack up at my version of future tech. Kind of like how everyone in the 1960s was convinced we’d have robot maids and be riding around in flying cars by now.
Nicole, my last question for you: You stopping by Pluto’s house for breakfast, ten years after the events of HOW TO BECOME A PLANET. How’s she doing? (More important: what does she serve you to eat?)
Nicole: Ten years after the events of PLANET, Pluto would be around 23 years old. She’s doing well–she kept up with her therapist and her doctors and took her medication. There were some bumps along the way, because as Pluto learns throughout the course of the book, mental illness isn’t an exact science and things change and she still has her ups and downs. But she knows who she is and she’s proud of it. I don’t think she studied astronomy or a related science when she got to college–I think while she’ll always love her connection to space and still read and learn as much as she can about it, I think she’ll grow to spread her wings a little bit. Astronomy is what connected her with her mom, and they still share that, but I think Pluto would find something to make completely her own. Still in the sciences–maybe health science? Maybe she’s going to be in a lab somewhere someday helping to advance the resources available for kids with anxiety and depression, just like her.
And, of course, she would serve me some sort of breakfast pizza!
Eliot, thank you so much for joining me in chatting about our upcoming releases. I’ve been a fan of yours since that first year at grad school, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to be able to sit down and gab about our queer books. Thank you Dahlia at LGBTQ Reads for hosting us!
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ELIOT SCHREFER is a New York Times-bestselling author, and has twice been a finalist for the National Book Award. In naming him an Editor’s Choice, the New York Times has called his work “dazzling… big-hearted.” He is also the author of two novels for adults and four other novels for children and young adults. His books have been named to the NPR “best of the year” list, the ALA best fiction list for young adults, and the Chicago Public Library’s “Best of the Best.” His work has also been selected to the Amelia Bloomer List, recognizing best feminist books for young readers, and he has been a finalist for the Walden Award and won the Green Earth Book Award and Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award. He lives in New York City, where he reviews books for USAToday.
Nicole Melleby, a born-and-bread Jersey girl, is an award winning children’s author. Her middle grade books have been Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selections, recipient of the Skipping Stones Honor Award, and a 2020 Kirkus Reviews best book of the year. Her debut novel, Hurricane Season, was a Lambda Literary finalist. She lives with her partner and their cat, whose need for attention oddly aligns with Nicole’s writing schedule.
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