Authors in Conversation: Jonny Garza Villa and Emery Lee

Today on the site I’m thrilled to welcome two debut YA authors, Emery Lee of Meet Cute Diary and Jonny Garza Villa of Fifteen Hundred Miles From the Sun! They’re here to talk about their delightful and romantic books, crafting as racially marginalized authors, and more, so pull up a seat and join us!

JONNY: A huge hello to arch-nemesis, agent sibling, and fellow fire sign sun and 2021 debut author, Emery! Thank you so much for letting me force you to do this! I feel like our friendship sort of began basically right after we first announced we were being published, which was also during the first couple of months of the pandemic and trying to adjust to what the world is now and what that might mean for us, so this seems super fitting to be celebrating our books now together.

Meet Cute Diary might just be my favorite book I’ve read so far this year. It is talented, brilliant, incredible, amazing, show-stopping, spectacular, never the same. And, in all seriousness, I love the trope-iness, the chaos, the humor, and the stress that all, for better or worse, defines Noah’s summer. For anyone who hasn’t read it yet, can you tell us about it?

EMERY: Haha thank you for such a fitting introduction and for all the book praise! I’d say your book is one of my favorites I read this year, but I just remembered I actually read it last year, so we’ll just say it’s one of the best books releasing this year! As for Meet Cute Diary, it’s the story of Noah, a trans teen, who curates a blog of trans meet cutes to give trans teens the hope for a happily ever after. The only problem is that all the stories are fake, so when a troll exposes the blog as fiction, Noah has to stage the ultimate fake relationship with a fan in order to keep the Diary afloat.

It’s always fun discussing our books together since they have a lot in common from the social media element to the pure chaotic messiness of the main character. The world is probably fortunate that Noah and Jules live in alternate universes and can’t actually become friends! But you can tell us more about Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun?

JONNY: Truly disaster children who need their phones and laptops taken away! I like to say that Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun is part my own adolescent traumas, part Selena’s “Dreaming Of You”, and a whole bottle of Patrón. It follows Julián (aka Jules) Luna, a high school senior from Corpus Christi, Texas just trying to have a low-key year with his friends, get into UCLA, and finally be able to move far away from home and all the environments that’ve kept him closeted for seventeen years. That all implodes on itself though when he accidentally comes out as gay on Twitter after getting way to drunk at a party. And in the days and weeks and months that follow Jules will discover all the good things and love that can come from living openly (including a Los Angeles Twitter crush sliding into the DMs) as well as the pain and rejection that can be part of learning to embrace who we are.

Another thing our books have in common is romance, although Noah’s and Jules’ journeys toward finding love are incredibly different. I love how the romantic aspect of Meet Cute Diary is, like, what we know of the rom com meets the scientific method, if that at all makes sense. What was it like writing the romantic elements of your book, Noah as a character determined to find love, and shaping this story into something so wonderfully unique?

EMERY: It’s funny because writing Noah was all about balancing two very opposite things—being a hopeless romantic while also being a cynic. In a lot of ways, Noah doesn’t think he’ll ever find love because as a triracial gay trans guy, he’s just never seen a happily ever after play out for people like him, but at the same time, all he wants in life is a perfect romance and he’s so in love with love that it’s all he can really think about. All of that came together in making Noah this control freak who loves the idea of things just falling into perfection but doesn’t think that’ll happen, and so he crafts these twelve steps based on the movies with the hopes that if he knows exactly how true love works, he can steer his relationship in exactly the right directions. So this opened up the ability to both play around with so many fun tropes while also writing this kind of larger, meta-narrative where I could subvert the way romance typically plays out in fiction, and that just made for a really fun time. I basically got to write all the cute things I’d ever want to see while also turning them all into the most chaotic humor, and that was just a really cool experience.

Writing rom coms, I think it’s pretty easy to accidentally stray into the realm of “too corny”, so for me, subverting the typical rom com tropes really helped steer me away from that. In your case, the book is a coming-of-age novel so there’s a lot more to ground the story in realism, yet the romance you wrote is still so ridiculously cute that it’s pretty easy to forget all the darker elements of the story! How did you strike that balance between the real, heavy elements of Jules’s life with all the romantic joys, and how did you maintain the harmony between those two halves of the story?

JONNY: I wanted, from the very beginning, for the romance in the story, and even Mat as a character and love interest for Jules, to be this one-eighty from his home life. And I wanted Mat to even be someone who also helps move that coming-of-age trope about the story forward just as much as he propels the romance part of the story. While Jules has always wanted to go to college in Los Angeles, now there’s another motive for really putting all his energy into that goal, especially as they get closer while, at the same time, Jules’s home life gets more destructive. And Mat is great at meeting Jules where he’s at in his coming out process and figuring out where he fits in the world now and really encourages Jules’s growth as an out gay young person. I also, and most importantly, wanted to make Mat feel real. Like, while he’s shameless and flirtatious he’s also empathetic and having that complexity there meant being able to be way too cute while also incorporating moments of serious intimacy and even, at times, frustration. I wanted to make their mutual attraction feel real. Especially with long-distance, I think it’s reasonable to ask “why this person who lives so far away?” and I wanted to make sure that both of them felt and read very much like, “out of anyone else in the world, it’s you.”

I think one of my favorite elements of your book, aside from the romance, is its use of social media and the meet cute blog posts from a lumberjack guy to a bakery encounter and commentary we get to see from Noah’s followers (and shit-talkers) throughout the book. Was there any specific inspiration for the blog posts? And I’d love to hear about how you were able to make all of these social media snippets so unique in their own purpose across the book but never really breaking the flow of story, which I think is truly a feat.

EMERY: Thank you! I feel like the blog posts were really just about showing the different sides of Noah’s situation. There’s what’s actually going on throughout the book, and then there’s the way people perceive what’s happening shown through comments and hate posts and stuff. I really pulled the inspiration just from real world social media, the way a conversation will morph and people will twist what originally happened or misinterpret everything because they’re only following along through subtweets or vague posts. So it was really just thinking about ways that a post today can turn into so many different conversations and thoughts down the road and how to apply that structure to the Diary to kind of keep track of how Noah’s fans and haters were feeling as the story unfolded. And, of course, keeping in mind that the internet is composed of so many different people from so many different backgrounds that a post that makes one person swoon can very easily make another person out for blood, and so I really wanted to showcase the scope of how an internet community can be when something like this unfolds.

Speaking of different backgrounds, something we both do in our stories is feature characters from/in different locations. For Meet Cute Diary, I have Noah who moves from Florida to Denver then out to California, and for Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun, you have Jules in Corpus and Mat out in LA. Obviously, you’re well-versed in that Texas lifestyle, but how did you go about crafting Mat’s California and drawing both the similarities and differences between two characters from two very different cities?

JONNY: I think what made it not so daunting is that, although it’s safe to say that Mat—as someone who is very proud to be from and loves California and specifically Los Angeles—would see LA very different from Jules, he tries to create a vision that fits Jules’s idealistic perception of a city he’s never actually been to. So, in that, I was able to bring in a lot of the things that made me fall in love with LA every time I’ve been there and celebrate those: the food, the beaches (which, and I can only speak for the few I’ve been to in/around LA, are much nicer than Corpus’s), the view from Griffith Observatory. I think, in a purely still mainly hypothetical future where we see more of Jules and Mat’s journey, it would be interesting to see how Jules’s idea of LA starts becoming more realistic but also probably still very much in love with the city, just like Mat. And I think, in crafting the ways their environments create two very different people and life experiences, I looked to their cultural backgrounds just as much as their locations, and how being a first-generation Vietnamese American and a first-generation Mexican American shape who these boys are, but also how growing up in a huge city in Southern California versus growing up in a not as huge city in South Texas can equally play a part in who they are. I wanted both nature and nurture present in their identities, I suppose.

Thinking about Jules and Mat and then especially characters like Noah and even Devin, I think it’s safe to say that, in many ways, our stories are presented through the eyes and experiences of main characters we don’t see very often in YA literature. You mind speaking on the significance, whether personally or from reader reactions, of telling a story and centering a character who is not by any means the “usual” kind main character we see in books?

EMERY: It’s funny because I think marginalized authors get asked to weigh in on “not the usual” main characters all the time, but there’s also a huge span in what that means. Like a white gay character isn’t “the usual” when most books feature straight characters, but the difference between that and a triracial gay trans boy is still massive. There are no other books with a main character like Noah. Someone linked me to a website that allows you to search a catalogue of all books available through any library in the country, and just finding a book about a triracial character was all but impossible. Now you look at a book where the character is also trans, which is exceedingly rare, and then you look at the genre (romcom), which is so inaccessible to queer authors and it’s just a whole mess. The response from readers has been amazing, and I’ve had so many people tell me this book is the first time they saw anyone even remotely similar to themselves in a book, and that’s super cool, but the journey has been exhausting. How do you advocate for a book when you struggle to find comp titles? How do you find media support when outlets don’t know where to categorize you? Every day is a battle just to get people to acknowledge Noah’s race along with his gender, to get people to stop misgendering Devin in interviews, etc. and frankly, if I were asked to do it again, I don’t think I would. I don’t think I could ever willingly sign up to have to make this fight day in and day out. But I also know that this book is a doorstopper. It may be one of if not the only title authors can point to in the future when they try to sell their triracial YAs or their trans romcoms or their stories with Spivak pronouns, and that’s what has me still pushing this book despite how endlessly burned out and beaten down I’ve been through this process. I know that there are authors who may only be able to get their foot in the door because this book held it open, and there are readers who may first see their worth in this book, and that’s huge.

I know you understand that QPOC struggle and how big of a deal it is to write these types of characters. How has the experience been for you, and how would you classify the significance of the story you’ve told both for readers but also in conversation with other queer/Chicanx stories?

JONNY: Yeah, I get that. The tolls emotionally and mentally, etc. that are forced to be expended when it comes to that loneliness from being the one singular person or story and being in a world and environment like publishing that can lack the knowledge or even empathy and, you know, at worst can be openly demeaning towards marginalized and especially QTBIPOC creators. I think there’s often that thought about “we’re breaking barriers or glass ceilings or doors” which is great and there’s a certain pride about it that shouldn’t be overlooked, but what is often forgotten about are the bruises and cuts that come from that. I’ve talked to a few people about this, but, even in my own experience with my book, Jules might be the first gay, Mexican American main character on the cover of a contemporary YA novel. And that’s wild to me. And, as I’ve said before, the, maybe, sole book on the gay Mexican American experience in YA (at least, in traditional publishing) is a book that takes place in the 80s. It shows the obvious lack of representation of queer Chicanes in young adult literature and just how large of a hole there is for young people who look like me wanting characters that feel like home for them. And, like, I really don’t like using the word “important” for things like this because I think that allows for it to be misused especially by audiences that don’t actually understand what makes it so important, but I think it’s also hard to deny that it’s there. That these books are important. That feeling of wanting this to be meaningful for young queer Chicanes while also at the same time having this heaviness that comes from being the first or only. This thought that if I and this book don’t do well, what are the implications for others who come after me? All while figuring out how to not let the daunting, very loud imposter syndrome telling me “you’re not Mexican enough to write this book” dictate my choices and how I wrote Jules’s story. Ultimately though, I think we both wrote books that we should definitely be proud of and feel so much like a part of our hearts and those parts of ourselves we put on page, and regardless, like you said, so many readers are going to see themselves for first time in Noah’s and Jules’ stories and that thrills me.

And speaking specifically to the queer identities of our characters, I’d love to get your thoughts on the state of LGBTQ+ YA and what you see that looking like in the next few years.

EMERY: You’re so right about the word “important”. It really can be a double-edged sword, and I think there has to be room to talk about the roles these books play in the grander scheme of things without the way our books get reduced to “importance” all the time. But on a lighter note, I think LGBTQ+ YA fiction in general has come a long way! It’s really hard to say where it’ll be in the next few years just because it’s changed so much in the past few years that I can only imagine (and sincerely hope) that the changes will be well beyond anything I can dream of now. Like SIMON VS released in 2015. That was only six years ago, but that book feels like a relic in terms of queer YA because things have grown and expanded so much since then. If you’d told me a couple years ago that a trans YA book, namely a trans gay Latinx YA book, would hit the NYT bestselling list (Cemetery Boys) or that we’d be getting a Chinese polyamorous throuple from a Big 5 publisher (Iron Widow), I don’t think I would’ve believed it, so looking ahead, I have really high hopes for where we go next. Of course I’m hoping for more intersectionality, more books about casual queerness, more queerness in non-contemporary settings, and more casts with multiple queer characters, but hoenstly, all of these things are becoming more and more common as we speak, so I guess what I’m saying is I’d hate to limit what we could get in the next few years by my own imagination because it just wouldn’t be enough.

Where do you see LGBTQ+ YA going in the near future?

JONNY: That’s such a good point! Like, just in between 2020 and now we’ve had queer fantasies, ghost romances, contemporary sequels, stories in space, gay pirates, thrillers, and that’s just in YA, which is incredible. I think my own hopes are, like, especially when it comes to QTBIPOC authors, that we get to write not only our identities as queer people but as also Black, Indigenous, non-white Latine, Asian people. I’ve had people say that my book reads like it was written for Chicanes first and I can blame that inspiration directly on books like Darius the Great Is Not Okay. And I’d love to see more of that, which I think goes with your own thoughts on more intersectional stories. I’d love to see more queer YA stories about high school freshman and what that adjustment looks like for LGBTQ+ kids. I’d love to see more parents of queer kids in QTBIPOC stories. I’d love to see more non-cis main characters who are BIPOC in all the genres. And I’m manifesting all of those and more.

I won’t keep you much longer, but, as someone who has also experienced publishing your debut during a pandemic and all the unique stress that that’s brought, and especially as someone who’s already got eir book out in the world, any advice for someone who (at least, at the time of this conversation) is getting real close to pub day?

EMERY: Yes, that is so true! The way BIPOC experience queerness is so different than the white queer experience, so it really is important that we be allowed to center people of our race and culture and not get boxed in to rehashing white queer stories but with brown faces! And the best advice I can give you is TAKE A NAP! Like, I’m sure people who’ve debuted at any time will tell you that debuting is a lot of stress and a lot of work and a whole bunch of things will fly out of nowhere and slap you across the face when you least expect them, but I think especially in this panini, we’re dealing with this collective trauma, fatigue around virtual events, financial stressors, etc. and I think the most important thing you can do for yourself is just give yourself some time to relax. Take the good opportunities as they come, but don’t force yourself to take on everything. Six months from now, you’ll still have your book and it’ll still be capable of finding readers, so put yourself first!

How has your pandemic debut experience been thus far and any big plans around release?

JONNY: Oh good, glad to get validation on my current very firm schedule of taking naps in between important things! This whole, what, now fifteen months, maybe fourteen since we announced, has been nothing like I envisioned this experience would be. I mean, when I got the initial offer, it was late January, we were thinking of these grandiose debut and release things. But I’ve been incredibly lucky that even while in solitude and isolation and quarantine, I’ve got to meet so many writers through virtual things or because of my book who I now call friends. It’s different than I thought it’d be but also I’m proud of everything that I’ve done up to now and am really excited to finally throw this book at the world. It will be bittersweet to have this part ending but I will never have taken a louder sigh of relief. And that I get to do that, even if virtually, with some of my favs like PerpetualPages booktuber Adri, Aiden Thomas, Amparo Ortiz, Julian Winters, Crystal Maldonado, Laekan Zea Kemp, and Olivia Abtahi will be absolutely fantastic. Oh, and you and Sonora Reyes too!

Before we say bye, want to let everyone know what’s coming up next or anything else you can share with readers?

EMERY: Haha there are definitely a lot of things I can’t talk about! All I have announced so far is the All Signs Point to Yes Anthology which is out in 2022. I’ll have a short story called “The Cure for Heartbreak” in that one, so look out for that! And I have a bunch of other projects in the works that I can’t really share yet, but I’ll hopefully have some news soon.

What can we expect next from Jonny Garza Villa?

JONNY: And we all wait very impatiently for the news! I was recently able to announce my next contemporary YA novel, Ander and Santi Were Here, about a non-binary muralist who falls for the newest waiter at their family’s taqueria. It’s a college-age YA that I really just let myself go all out with the queerness and the Mexicanness, and I love it very much. Our agent, Claire Draper has said of the book that it “feels unabashedly you” and I’ve had multiple tell me they cried with this one even more than they did with Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun, so I’m so very ready for early 2023 and to get this book out into the world. Other than that, I’ve got a few things currently in progress both on my own and one in partnership with another author, so I’m hoping to be busy for a long while.

Thank you again, Emery, for joining me for some queer chisme and book talk! I didn’t get a chance to call Noah or Devin a loser today, but I’ll make sure to get that in during our next thing together!

EMERY: Haha thanks for inviting me! And we should make sure to add time for a duel next time too. Gotta give the people what they want!

Jonny Garza Villa is a product of the great state of Texas, born and raised along the Gulf Coast, and a decade-long resident of San Antonio. They are an author of contemporary young adult fiction that maintains a brand of being proudly Latinx, and the most queer, and embracing the power and beauty of the chaotic gay. Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun is their debut novel. For more information, visit www.jonnygarzavilla.com.

Emery Lee is a kidlit author, artist, and YouTuber hailing from a mixed-racial background. After graduating with a degree in creative writing, e’s gone on to author novels, short stories, and webcomics. When away from reading and writing, you’ll most likely find em engaged in art or snuggling cute dogs. Eir debut novel MEET CUTE DIARY is available now.

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