Today on the site, I’m delighted to welcome authors Keah Brown and Sarah Moon to talk about their books, The Secret Summer Promise and Middletown, both of which released on Tuesday from Levine Querido! (The former was a brand new release, while the latter was a paperback rerelease with a beautiful new cover.) They’ve written their own intro, so I’m just gonna step aside and let them take it away! (Though I will mention that you can read more about both books in June 6th’s New Releases post!)
As queer writers, Keah Brown and Sarah Moon know how powerful it is to feel seen, especially for young people. In Brown’s The Secret Summer Promise and Moon’s Middletown, both young adult novels published by Levine Querido, these authors go beyond visibility and show how love and family, both given and chosen, can shape you.
Sarah Moon is a teacher and writer. She lives and works in Brooklyn, New York, with her wife, Jasmine, and their daughter, Zora. Middletown, a queer coming-of-age story following siblings Eli and Anna left to fend for themselves after their mom lands in court-ordered rehab, released in paperback June 6.
Keah Brown is a journalist, screenwriter, and author of The Pretty One and Sam’s Super Seats. She is the creator of #DisabledAndCute. Her first novel, The Secret Summer Promise, a friends-to-lovers ode to summer in all its glory, came out June 6.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
KB: I’m so excited to talk to you. This book, boy, from page one. I was so anxious for these girls. I spent the entire book just on the edge of my seat wondering what is going to happen to these children? How are they going to make it? I’ll stop gushing, but it’s so good.
SM: I feel the same way. I will say that I wasn’t worried as much as I spent a lot of time screaming at your characters. I was like “Guys come on, just tell her! Can’t you see it? I can see it!” I had fun with them. Why do you think Drea spends the beginning of the book so convinced that Hailee couldn’t possibly have feelings for her?
KB: I think she sort of believes inherently that she has certain hurdles she has to jump in order for somebody to want her. Which is so sad, to me, because I’ve been there. And she’s convinced that somebody like Hailee, somebody so magical and beautiful and wonderful couldn’t see her [that way].
SM: It made me want to scream at her: “It’s right there! She adores you”. It was honestly so delightful just to get to watch her be adored for most of the book without her understanding it. She had to be able to see herself – then she could see how Hailee saw her. And that’s so beautiful.
KB: For me it was important to showcase the community that Andrea has around her, that people with disabilities specifically have people who love them and it’s not based in fear or pity like the media would like us to believe.
SM: One thing I feel like I hear a lot, and I imagine you do too, is that you don’t have evil adults. There are a lot of evil adults in YA, but Andrea’s relationship with her parents is so special. Her father works in food and her mother works in fashion which can both be landmines for teenage girls. And it’s not for her – it’s just an interesting and beautiful choice for her to have such positive relationships both with them but also with their work.
KB: A lot of people who have read the book early have said that it reads a little young. Her parents are too young, it’s not complicated enough – but I wanted to show that was possible.
SM: So much of who she is and how she is comes from having such strong examples of what love looks like and she knows what it means to be loved. And that when, oh I hate him so much I forgot his name–
SM: George, right. Who’s hoping that she’ll be a secret. And I love that that lasts for her for like a day and a half before she’s like “This is ridiculous.”
KB: A lot of times in narratives featuring Black people, they have a broken home life, and those stories are absolutely valid, but I think it was important for Andrea to be someone who knew what she deserved without having to be like “oh my God I’m disabled and my life is so hard.”
SM: Had you written for teenagers before?
KB: I’m a Virgo, so I have a ten-year plan. It was always on my list. I’m a child of Sarah Dessen; I devoured her books in high school. I wanted to be able to give some Black girl trying to figure it all out an actual view of herself that she can maybe carry with her the same way I carry Sarah Dessen’s books with me today.
KB: OK, can we please talk about Middletown? This book – I’m a sucker for a sister story. And a found family story – you give us both. There’s a really special relationship between Teddy and Eli [who meet at an Alateen meeting]. Can you talk to me about that?
SM: That means the world to me – I’ve never had anybody ask me about the two of them. I wanted to write about found family because I wanted to write a queer story, and to me that’s the essence of a queer story. And I feel like there’s a special thing that happens when you meet somebody who immediately sees you. Because she’s going to look at him and judge him and think that he’s just like all the other guys she’s ever interacted with at school. And there’s a really special kind of teenage dude who can look at a female-bodied, masculine-presenting person and go, “it’s you and me.” I really wanted to give that to her. It’s the nod. “You, whatever little package you come in. You’re with me.”
KB: It was one of my favorite relationships in the book – I was like “Sarah can write another one that’s just about the two of them.” I want to talk to you about your process in creating these relationships – how did you figure out which way to go?
SM: Listen, I’m really bad at writing plot, so I write characters instead, and then they start to do things, and then I’m like “oh look, now there’s a plot.” I wanted found family everywhere, and I wanted Eli to get to explore what that would mean to her through these different relationships. There is this really special thing that happens with your first group of queer friends. And with her friends, Meena and Javi, having to learn to trust those friends was going to be the thing for her. And everything else sort of came later – well she has to learn how to trust them, she’s going to have to do some things that will propel the story forward, the plot for the story.
SM: I think that’s all the time we have. It was great talking to you, Keah.
Today on the site, I’m thrilled to welcome a pair of wonderful picture book authors, Vicki Johnson and Harry Woodgate! They’re here to talk about their books (Molly’sTuxedo, illustrated by Gillian Reid, and Grandad’s Pride, respectively), approaches, history, the process of working with illustrations, and more!
HW:Firstly, huge congratulations on Molly’s Tuxedo, it’s such a gorgeous book. Your writing is full of warmth and humour and Molly is such a memorable character, and Gillian’s illustrations are wonderfully textured and so expressive. It’s so lovely to be chatting to you for LGBTQReads Authors in Conversation.
VJ: I’m so happy to be here chatting with you. First, I have to say congratulations on all the many accolades you’ve received for Grandad’s Camper – Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for Best Illustrated Book; shortlisted for the British Book Awards Children’s Illustrated Category, and a 2022 ALA Stonewall Book Awards Honor, among others. Incredible, and so well deserved!
Grandad’s Pride is a beautiful and vibrant follow-up story, celebrating the diversity of our community and the fullness it brings to the world. Your art, as always, is layered and so inviting and full of color. I would have loved to read this to my daughter when she was young, to talk about all of the intricate details – the signs and t-shirts and hair colors and storefronts and animals and trees and flowers and families. It’s a perfect read together book.
HW: Thank you so much, that really means a lot and I’m so pleased you enjoyed it! I enjoy adding in those details because that’s what I loved when reading as a kid – looking at the buildings, outfits, characters, all the hidden stories within each book.
On a related note, I’m really interested to hear your thoughts on the intersections between fashion, gender and self-expression in picture books, because I think Molly’s Tuxedo explores these themes in such a playful yet meaningful way. How did you approach this and what do you hope your readers take from the story?
VJ: My goal was to explore my own experiences and feelings on these concepts, but to remember them from a child’s point of view. Young children have a tiny bit of agency over decisions in their lives, and self-expression in the form of what clothes feel right is a major opportunity for them to exercise their decision making. The push to conform is stronger as they get older but really young ones can be free and play and they have such strong feelings at that age. It was big for me as a child, and I observed the same with my own child. I also see it all around me every single day where this sense of play and self-discovery can be squashed by rigid and outdated ideas about gender. I drew on those experiences to write, hopefully, a very child-centered story about self-discovery and burgeoning self-confidence. I hope I’ve created some space for conversation about it for children and caregivers. I hope readers take from Molly’s experience that they can follow their inner compass and be brave if need be and feel just as happy as their classmates about their choices, even if it is a different one.
Regarding Grandad’s Pride, I’ve seen you talk about the need to recognize queer elders and their experiences as you have done in both of these books. I came out as a teen in 1980 and it has been a long and winding journey for this diverse community and there are so many untapped stories to tell! Our history and the rich tapestry of individuals within it will help sustain us, especially now. I have on my bucket list to write a story of historical fiction. How did you connect with these stories initially and are there more to come? And what is on your bucket list to write one day?
HW: In some ways I think my academic interest came first and from that I began to draw connections with my own experiences. In the UK, Section 28 prohibited the ‘promotion’ of LGBTQ+ identities in schools from the late 1980s all the way through to 2003 when it was finally repealed, and although almost all my school years came after that date, I still don’t recall learning a great deal about LGBTQ+ history or seeing many books in the library with openly queer characters and storylines. When I began researching these topics at sixth form and university, it revealed a whole alternate timeline of events and individuals and experiences I simply didn’t know had existed – and although I’m sure I could have sought them out sooner had I been so inclined, the point is that nobody should have to seek them out. They shouldn’t be on a separate shelf; they shouldn’t be consigned to a closing paragraph or a footnote; they should be readily available.
With Grandad’s Pride, I was keen to include key moments in LGBTQ+ history, such as Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, Act UP, and the eventual legalization of same-sex marriage. I wanted to link up a few of the dots and reiterate that where we are today is simply another step along a path that has been trodden by countless generations of LGBTQ+ individuals, families, activists and campaigners.
In terms of what’s to come, I recently illustrated the cover for ‘Tales From Beyond The Rainbow’ by Pete Jordi Wood, which is a collection of lost or forgotten LGBTQ+ fairy tales from many different cultures, featuring illustrations by artists from around the world. It’s publishing with Puffin Classics this June. I’m also illustrating a non-fiction book of LGBTQ+ historical figures, which is a nice change to some of the projects I’ve worked on before. As for my bucket list, I think a graphic novel is definitely up there.
What I absolutely love about Molly’s Tuxedo is that we experience Molly’s journey at the same pace as her, which really allows us to understand her feelings in each moment and creates a wonderful sense of anticipation for the final reveal. How did you develop the pacing for the story, and were there any ways in which Gillian’s illustrations informed this?
VJ: I wish I had a grand explanation for my pacing of the story. I knew this was going to be an emotional journey for Molly so I had to write it in a way that kept the emotions high from the moment she wakes up on the big day! It was a bit tricky to find a way for Molly to have her tux with her at school, and for her mom to be there, too. Gillian’s illustrations have everything to do with carrying us moment by moment in Molly’s journey. The way she used spot illustrations to depict each and every line in the scenes where Molly expresses disdain for dresses was perfect. I loved her use of Molly’s cat to mirror Molly’s emotions. Her expressions! Picture books are magical for this interaction of words and images. As an author, it’s the most exciting thing. It will keep me writing picture books for sure.
Yes, I love Molly’s cat too! Your point about the interaction between word and image is so true, and I think sometimes the complexity of picture books in this regard is underappreciated. Visual literacy is such an important skill and picture books teach it so well.
What I love about Grandad’s Pride is the setting: this wonderful seaside village full of diverse individuals from all walks of life. It’s idyllic. I particularly love how you use sweeping lines across the spread like the colors of the pride flag or a road or the rolling hills of the landscape, giving your stories a very unique energy of place. How did you decide on the setting and what is your process for creating a story? Do you ever have to change the art to match the words or the words to match the art?
HW: Thank you! The British seaside has such a hold of my imagination and was a key part of my childhood, so I suppose it’s natural that it continues to crop up in my stories. The village in Grandad’s Pride is an amalgam of several places that are important to me. I wanted any child or family to be able to imagine themselves right there on the seafront amongst the celebrations, so I spent a lot of time populating the village with a diverse cast of characters.
As for how I create a story, I usually have to edit both art and text multiple times! Usually, I begin with character or location sketches before writing a first draft, which tends to come in several hundred words too long. Then I’ll cut out all the extra fluff and exposition by translating that into illustration. I’ll repeat that process until I have a set of rough layouts and a manuscript that flow as one – where the illustrations build upon the words, and the words give structure and rhythm to the illustrations.
It’s always fascinating hearing about other writers’ processes. Coming from an illustration background, I find I tend to begin with the visual world of the story, but I’d love to hear what aspect of the story came to you first: theme, character, structure, or something else? How did you transform those initial seeds into a full picture book, and were there any aspects you particularly struggled with or enjoyed along the way?
VJ: With all my writing I start with a character for sure, then I imagine, through a child’s eyes, the simple topic I’m thinking about. As I generate words it’s more like I am writing verses in a poem without an idea where it is going until I get there! Later I work on whether it makes sense and what kind of structure it needs and what may be missing. That usually means I need to dig deeper emotionally or enliven the language, both of which always work to make the story better. I naturally write in a poetry or lyrical picture book style, and then enhance and correct over several drafts.
I tend to be more serious in my writing and have the highest praise for Gillian who was able to inject lightheartedness and humor and color and motion with her artwork. I get the sense that you and I might be similar in that our stories are heartfelt, and I wonder if you’ve ever written a humorous or silly picture book, or if you’ve considered writing a book completely out of the norm for you? Admittedly I have tried and failed at this, ha.
HW: I think you’re probably right about the kinds of stories we’re drawn to write! I absolutely love how Gillian’s illustrations bring a levity to an experience which, for a child, can feel quite overwhelming, but I think your words portray Molly’s feelings in such an honest way and have their own gentle humour, too. There’s absolutely no doubt that kids love hilarious, silly books, but there are also lots of young readers who will cherish the quieter, more reflective stories such as ours, so there’s definitely a space for both.
Funnily enough, whilst I haven’t yet written a silly picture book, I am writing a middle grade series which is about as un-serious as you could possibly get! I’d been working on some other ideas which alongside the pressures of work, news and social media were beginning to weigh me down, so I just started writing to make myself laugh, and it unlocked an enthusiasm I genuinely feared I had lost.
On the topic of humour: are there any funny rituals, routines or ‘little treats’ that form part of your day-to-day writing process that you couldn’t do without? I think mine is that the closer it gets to deadline, the more I bribe myself with coffee shop trips or G&Ts once I’ve finished work for the day!
VJ: I was going to ask you something similar! You seem to be SO busy with multiple projects, all of the time. I rely on daily walks outside to clear my head, and I need so much head clearing that I live in an actual forest, ha. I also live with five rescue pets who amuse me and interrupt me to no end. So those things give me a respite. As to writing, I am an early bird and do my best generative work when it’s still dark outside, with hot coffee next to me and cats sleeping around me.
Big thumbs up for daily walks (and rescue pets!). Excellent stress relievers, both. I wish I was an early bird. I’m lucky if I haul myself into the office before 11am.
My question for you: Gillian Reid, who illustrated our book, is absolutely amazing, and we have met since and she is just as lovely in person and also very funny. She put a few “Easter eggs” or hidden gems in the book. For example, I have a photo of me at age 7 in a suit and clip-on tie in front of our red family car and it appears on Molly’s family wall. Do you ever include secret references in your books or use friends as visual references for your characters?
HW: Oh I love hearing about these little Easter eggs! Yes, I absolutely do this. My illustrations are full of references that probably only a select group of family and friends will recognize. After all, what is it that draws us to writing or illustrating in the first place if not the opportunity to translate and thereby more fully understand our own internal worlds? They’re not just stories, in the end, they’re time capsules.
Something which is perhaps unique about picture books is how they need to speak to children and their caregivers simultaneously, without patronising either. I wonder if you have any thoughts about this, and if there are any ways it informed your writing, because it’s something I feel Molly’s Tuxedo really succeeds in doing.
VJ: This makes me very happy that you mention this. It was really important to me to write a story where the caregiver had a proper arc, too. I do think even the most present and involved adult can miss something about their child or make mistakes or just be busy and overlook something important. I did as a parent for sure! In this case, Molly’s mom wasn’t tuned in to how important the tux was to Molly until she overheard her talking with her friends at school. I wanted Mom to have an opportunity to have a course correction because this can happen in real life. I didn’t want adults leaving this book feeling bad if they made a mistake or missed something in their own family. I wanted them to feel as empowered as Molly. If you notice in that scene when she ‘sees’ Molly she is hugging Molly but her eyes are open. That’s a moment Gillian made more special with her attention to detail.
HW: It’s so amazing how much difference something small like a character’s eyes being open or closed can make! And that is a lovely point about giving Molly’s mum the space to make mistakes. It’s so important for young readers to know that parents don’t always have the right answers, too, but that you can help each other grow by listening and making space to be open about your feelings. That’s a really powerful message.
VJ: I enjoy photography as another creative outlet, and going to movies and museums, and I’m wondering if you have other things that you do for fun or to fill your creative well?
HW: Me too! I also enjoy music – listening to, playing and writing. It’s so lovely having a creative hobby which you don’t feel obliged to share with anyone. Apart from that, cycling is my favourite way of getting outdoors and making sure I’m not sat in front of a screen for seven hours a day!
A couple of shorter questions to finish! Firstly, are there any other recent or upcoming picture books that you are really excited about or would recommend (or perhaps an older title that you feel didn’t get the recognition and appreciation it deserved)?
And secondly, the various outfits Molly and her friends wear for school picture day are so varied and exciting. If you were back at school, what would you wear for the big day?
VJ: So far this year, I have really loved Out of the Blue by Robert Tregoning and Stef Murphy, and The Wishing Flower by A.J. Irving and Kip Alizadeh, and I look forward to reading Hope for Ryan White by Dano Moreno and Hannah Abbo. As for my time-traveling picture day, in kindergarten I was horse obsessed, and I told my teacher I wanted to be a cowboy when I grew up, so I would probably wear a cowboy hat and boots.
How about you? What would be your dream outfit or what was your favorite picture day memory (Do you have a picture day in the U.K.?)
HW: Yes, I loved Out of the Blue too, and I’m looking forward to the other two as well. And a cowboy outfit sounds iconic! I’m not sure what I’d pick – we had school uniforms in the UK so the only time we got to choose what to wear was on non-uniform day (which usually had a theme, like ‘book characters’ or ‘superheroes’). I think a very swishy, sparkly ball gown would make a fun statement in our imaginary class.
Finally, are you working on anything new right now that you’re allowed to talk about? I’ve got a few picture books in the works, as well as the (hopefully!) funny middle grade series I mentioned earlier.
VJ: I recently wrote a new picture book I’m really excited about! It came to me very quickly and for me that feels like something really true and good. I’m also in developmental edits with my middle grade novel.
Thanks so much for chatting with me, Harry. I hope we get to meet in person one day.
I love what you bring to the world of children’s literature. As Lesléa Newman told me to remember, love wins. Your stories prove it.
Harry Woodgate (pronouns: they/them) is an award-winning author and illustrator who has worked with clients including National Book Tokens, Google, The Sunday Times Magazine, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Walker Books, Andersen Press, Bloomsbury, The Washington Post and Penguin Random House.
Their books include Grandad’s Camper, Grandad’s Pride, Timid, Little Glow, Shine Like the Stars, My First Baking Book and The Very Merry Murder Club. Grandad’s Camper, their debut author-illustrator title, won the Waterstones Childrens Book Prize Best Illustrated Book 2022 and a Stonewall Book Award Honor from the American Library Association. It was also shortlisted for the Children’s Illustrated category at the British Book Awards as well as the inaugural Polari Children’s & YA Prize, and was nominated for the CILIP Yoto Kate Greenaway Award.
Harry is passionate about writing and illustrating diverse, inclusive stories that inspire children to be inquisitive, creative, kind and proud of what makes them unique.
Vicki Johnson (she/her) is a children’s book author, and a former band nerd, White House staffer, and nonprofit director, among other life adventures. Her debut picture book is Molly’s Tuxedo, illustrated by Gillian Reid, releasing June 27, 2023 from Little Bee Books in their publishing partnership with GLAAD.
Born and raised in rural GA, Vicki is a lesbian mom, proud first-gen graduate of Smith College and Emory University School of Law, and an MFA candidate in Writing for Children & Young Adults at VCFA. Vicki was a 2022 Lambda Literary Fellow, a 2020 PBChat Mentee, a 2020 WNDB MG mentorship finalist, and a 2018 grant recipient from the WV Div. of Arts, Culture & History and the National Endowment for the Arts. She’s an active member of SCBWI and was a nominee for the Sue Alexander Award for most promising new work. Vicki is currently working on her middle grade novel and texting cat photos to her college kid. Read more: www.vickijohnsonwrites.com
Today on the site, please welcome Fox North, author of The Chaos Agents, which published this past October, and Miranda Dubner, author of The Spare, which released in April 2020, who are here to chat about taking queer historical subtext and making them straight-up text (no pun intended). More about the books at the bottom of the post, but let’s get to the conversation!
Happy Asexual Awareness Week! I’m thrilled to be celebrating it with some great ace authors, who’ve gathered together for a roundtable moderated by author Rosiee Thor! I’ll let them take it away!
Happy asexual awareness week! I love this week every year–not only is it an affirming celebration of people who share my identity, it’s also a great time to take a look at the growth we’ve seen in ace representation across media. This year has been an amazing year for ace books, so I sat down with a few of my favorite authors writing ace stories to talk about the state of asexual representation and what it means to them as storytellers.
Rosiee: Thank you so much for joining me today for this asexual-spectrum roundtable! I’m excited to chat with you all about ace representation, writing while ace-spec, and the future of asexual fiction. To start us off, could you each introduce yourselves and tell us a little about what you write?
Naseem: I’m psyched to be here; thanks for having us! I’m Naseem Jamnia (they/them), a nonbinary trans gray-ace Persian-Chicagoan currently living in Reno, NV. I write fantasy across the ages, but my debut novella, The Bruising of Qilwa, is adult. It’s about an aroace nonbinary refugee healer who is trying to cure a magical plague in their new home while hiding their blood magic. Heavily inspired by Dragon Age 2, Qilwa introduces my queernormative, Persian-inspired secondary world!
RoAnna: Hi y’all! Really happy and excited to be here, thank you Rosiee! So I’m RoAnna Sylver, a nonbinary gender-weird chronically ill writer/artist/musician/heathen. I write really weird queer SFF books (Chameleon Moon, Stake Sauce), and interactive fiction (Dawnfall from Choice of Games, The Great Batsby upcoming from Tales Fiction). I also have a soft spot for horror, so my next projects lean that way too. Also Naseem, your book sounds legit awesome and I want to check it out for sure. (For many reasons but also ahhh, more love for Dragon Age 2!)
Finn: So happy to have the chance to join in with this! Hi, I’m Finn (they/them), a queer disabled author and medievalist currently living in Cambridge, UK. I write all sorts of genreweird stuff, but my debut, The Butterfly Assassin, is a YA thriller about a traumatised teenage assassin trying and failing to live a normal life in a fictional closed city. And by failing, I mean she kills someone in chapter one. So, you know, doing a great job there.
Carly: Hi everyone! I’m Carly Heath (she/they) a writer, teacher, Libra and horse girl from the San Francisco Bay Area, currently living on the West Coast of the US. My debut YA novel is The Reckless Kind out now from Soho Teen and out in paperback November 1. Like me, the main character in The Reckless Kind, Asta, is hard of hearing, ace, and wants pigs not babies. I write (mostly historically-set) novels about characters who push back against the restrictions placed on them by society and I hope to inspire teens and young people to question and resist authority in all its forms.
AdriAnne: Hi all! So happy to be here. I’m a queer (panromantic gray-ace demigirl) author (she/they) of queer dark fantasy about monstrous or perceived-to-be-monstrous teens just trying to get by. I live in both Alaska and Spain (I just got back to Spain and am super jetlagged so pardon me if I make no sense), and my books are Beyond the Black Door (with a biromantic ace main character, ace love interest), In The Ravenous Dark (pansexual MC, ace side character), and the forthcoming Court of the Undying Seasons (demigirl pansexual MC, ace SCs), all published with Macmillan.
Rosiee: Yay! I’m so glad you’re all here to chat with me. Let’s jump right into it. Most of us were readers before we became writers, so I’m curious to know about your first experience was with asexual characters. Where did you first see an ace character in fiction? What was it like to see your experience reflected in a book?
RoAnna: Hmm… I believe the first ace character I ever read was either Henry from Viral Airwaves, or Hasryan in City of Strife – both by Claudie Arseneault! And highly recommended for fans of hopeful-dystopian/”solarpunk,” and sweeping fantasy, respectively. And the feeling I got was a sense of combined excitement and relief, if that makes sense? Like “oh wow thank God, someone else gets it/this is real… OH WOW THIS IS REAL!” So, really validating for myself as well. Online community is so important, but there’s also something about seeing yourself on a page, in a story, that’s just so wonderful.
Carly: I did not have anything ace-spec when I was growing up, so I think the any time I was first introduced to an ace character was when I was learning about Greek/Roman mythology and encountered Diana/Artemis who I was obsessed with for quite a while because she was not only a “virgin” goddess, but the goddess of wild animals—which I totally identify with (as someone who regularly befriends the neighborhood raccoons and possums). I was also drawn to horse girl books when I was younger—The Saddle Club and Thoroughbred series—I think because they focused more on the relationships between the characters and their horses rather than on romance.
AdriAnne: I didn’t find any ace-spec books as a kid or teen either, so the first time I came across an ace character was as an adult when I read Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire. Not only is the book an amazingly unique take on portal fantasy, but the main character is explicitly ace. I’d only recently discovered my own labels through internet research and AVEN (the Asexual Visibility and Education Network) and it made me feel so seen and not so alone. I can only imagine what it would have felt like to read this book as a teen, which is one of the reasons I wrote Beyond the Black Door–a book basically for teen-me.
Finn: I think the first book I ever read that used the word asexual on page was Quicksilver by RJ Anderson. Although the character’s experiences weren’t particularly similar to mine, since they were fairly specific to her circumstances, it was really validating to see the word in print, when before that I’d only ever seen it on Tumblr and in other online communities. Like, okay, this is a real thing, this is something that people know about. After that one, it would’ve been Radio Silence by Alice Oseman, which has a demisexual character. As someone who really struggled at university, I found that book Extremely Relatable in a lot of ways, possibly more even than Loveless, Oseman’s more recent book that deals much more directly with ace/aro experiences.
Naseem: I actually didn’t realize I was ace-spec (I’m somewhere on the demi/gray side of things) until a few years ago because of the conflation between aromanticism and asexuality. So I don’t honestly know when I first encountered ace characters, since often due to that conflation I didn’t recognize myself in those characters, if that makes sense.
Earlier this year I read We Were Restless Things by Cole Nagamatsu. Besides it being utterly beautiful, one of the main characters is a sex-repulsed ace (not aro), and while I’m sex-neutral, I really loved how Cole grappled with the character’s relationship with sex. Noemi really tries to get over her aversion to sex in order to please her partner, because she cares about her partner, and I thought that was handled with such tenderness and care, especially because these are teens who don’t necessarily have the language of healthy relationships and boundaries yet.
I also really love Kylee in the Skybound trilogy by Alex London. I was especially drawn to her because for her, it at first feels like a matter of priority rather than identity. Kylee isn’t thinking about romantic or sexual relationships because her brother is, and she needs to make sure they have enough money to put food on the table. It’s not until we get into her relationships with others that we see it’s not just a matter of responsibility but a matter of who she is, but I appreciate someone for whom such relationships just… aren’t on her radar because she has so much on her plate. Honestly, as someone who was constantly crushing on someone while being torn about all the other things I needed to do, it’s really nice to read someone who pieces together this part of herself in the midst of a war and all the other stuff going on.
Rosiee: Phew! My TBR always grows so much during these conversations! Can’t wait to read some of those. AdriAnne, you talked a bit about this, but what about the rest of you–what inspired you to write about ace characters? What has it been like to write ace-affirming books as an ace-spec author?
RoAnna: Really natural, actually – after a while, I realized that I basically write all of my characters (or at least the POV ones) as some flavor of neurodivergent, and many of them a-spec just automatically. Like that’s my brain’s default setting apparently, and it takes a bit of effort to turn it off and go “wait, how do you write sexual attraction again?” (I think a lot of ace writers are actually very good at writing sexual stuff though, because… we often have spent a lot of time pondering it from a unique perspective, ha!) So it’s partly super natural and freeing for me personally, but also the response from ace readers is always incredible, so I’m also very much writing for y’all too. I want everyone to have the feeling I mentioned last question, the “holy crap, I’m in a book!” rush of joy and relief. I obviously can’t speak for/give that to everyone, but I still want them to have it from somewhere.
Finn: I feel that about automatically writing ace characters, RoAnna… I sometimes joke that The Butterfly Assassin is not a queernorm world so much as a singlenorm world, because I accidentally forgot that people, like, have partners, and so almost every character throughout the trilogy is single. Whoops?
I didn’t really sit down to write An Asexual Assassin Novel, but that element of the book really arose from my frustration with other media, which at the time was full of sexy assassins who (a) never seemed to actually kill anybody and (b) could be distracted from their deadly missions by somebody being a bit hot. I was also frustrated that in order to get dark, complex upper YA stories, it felt like you had to have romance/sex as a major plot element, and if you wanted friendship-focused stories, well, then, back to MG for you. Not that there’s anything wrong with MG, but when I was seventeen or eighteen, I wanted a generous helping of murder and swearing, hold the sex, thanks. So I decided to write an assassin book that was “all murder, no sex”, where platonic relationships were prioritised and not treated as less important or less mature. And where the “emotionless” character wasn’t “humanised” by sexual attraction because… ew. I read too many of those; they always made me feel like an alien or a monster.
I do worry sometimes that my book is less marketable because of the lack of romance/sex (let’s be real, in marketing terms those are often treated as interchangeable!), but I’ve seen a couple of reviews where people have said they don’t normally like books without romance but didn’t feel like anything was missing from mine because they found the platonic relationships just as fulfilling. So I’m very glad that those people are giving it a chance, and that it’s speaking to them.
Naseem: Okay, I’m screaming, Finn—I need your book yesterday!!! Like RoAnna and Finn, a lot of my characters nowadays definitely sort of naturally fall under the ace spec. I started writing at a young age, and I look back on those stories and I see the ways in which things were ace but also how I tried so hard for them not to be—there were romantic partners in my stories, but I didn’t know how to grapple with sexual desire because I didn’t understand how that was separate from romantic desire.
Nowadays, I have to choose to write a main character who experiences sexual attraction and hope that they… come off as realistic?? The novel I’m about to turn into my agent has three POV characters—a demisexual lesbian who suddenly finds herself in love with a boy; an asexual aro-questioning/demi-aro anxious bean (aka the boy) who’s been in love with his best friend but has denied it and Suddenly Now Has A Crush On Someone Else, aka the demisexual lesbian; and aforementioned best friend, an allosexual enby who doesn’t understand the difference between romantic and platonic attraction but doesn’t think they experience romantic attraction, but does want to sleep with the people they care about. (Love triangle that resolves in polyamory, anyone??) Anyway, it’s been a TIME trying to get the aromantic and allosexual components down. Since all of my secondary worlds are queernormative, these conversations in the story happen differently than they do in real life, because the surrounding context is different. But I hope they still hit home.
AdriAnne: First off, WHEW, I also need The Butterfly Assassin! Anyway, writing an ace character didn’t come naturally to me at first because when I first began to write, I assumed everyone wanted characters who experienced sexual attraction. Realizing who I was and the breadth of possibility out there was eye-opening. (I, too, despite being married, have been baffled by the relationship between attraction and sex for a long while, but just figured I was “weird” and sexual attraction was “normal”–you can see that therapy also helped me.) So while there are many more ace books around now (YAY!), what first inspired me to write ace characters is that I didn’t often see myself reflected on the page. It felt very affirming to write Beyond the Black Door especially, where the MC Kamai is a sex-repulsed ace but also biromantic and interested in romance like I was as a teen. It’s confusing for her, and her journey from confusion and doubt and into wholeness and confidence in herself healed something within me. It was very cathartic. (And YAY for relationship resolutions that involve polyamory and ace folks! I did this in In the Ravenous Dark.)
Carly:The Reckless Kind was a book where I was just learning how to write, so I think it was also a book where I was figuring out my identity through Asta. The first draft was like—I want this girl to have very meaningful, close non-sexual relationships with these boys she loves… and then in later drafts I was realizing “oh, she’s ace” and then now I’m starting to realize “oh, she’s aro.” Like, I think society puts so much pressure on people to believe any type of closeness is sexual or romantic, and in writing and rewriting the book I sort of unpacked a lot of that baggage both in my characters and in myself. The followup books I’ve been writing do feature romances and allo main characters, but I also wanted them to be ace-positive so in many cases they have important relationships with ace characters and their interactions are very affirming. Like I have one character who’s in a romantic relationship with an ace boy and he pushes back against those “it’s not a real relationship if you’re not having sex” sorts of statements. And in the adult romance I’m writing, the main character has a relationship with a woman who’s aro and curious about some types of sex but repulsed by nudity and other types of sex and the conversations they have around those topics and consent are super important. I’d really like to see more characters in media and literature who reflect the reality of the spectrum of human sexuality and nuances of different types of relationships.
Rosiee: I love how much common ground you all have here! That’s the cool thing about the ace community and identity. But the asexual experience isn’t just one thing–we all experience this identity in different ways. So, what are some ace experiences you’d like to see more of in fiction?
Naseem: A lot of people conflate being aromantic with being ace, so I’d definitely like to see characters with all kinds of nuanced ace (and other!) identities. Not all asexual people are sex-repulsed, and some asexual people have sexual partners, and I imagine the same can be for aromantic-spec people—so let’s see the range!
RoAnna: Oh wow definitely seconding Naseem here. I want to see all the intersections and interactions between identities – trans aces, aro and allo aces, sex positive and negative and neutral aces, aces of color, disabled and neurodivergent aces – all of them! I also have a special soft spot for polyamorous narratives, and love to see navigation and negotiations there, between both people and identities. This is something I really got into in Stake Sauce Book 2, which is largely about Jude (our gray-ace, demi-aro and disabled/autistic trans guy MC) figuring out his feelings for several partners. Amid the Vampire Drama, he’s also sorting out which attractions are sexual, or romantic, or neither, and how it’s all rolled together with neurodivergence… it was a complicated, cathartic, fascinating, and deeply personal story to write. And also has queerplatonic witchy girlfriends, and cute chubby punk vampire boys, if y’all are into that.
Finn: I’d echo what the others have said about the range of ace attitudes towards romantic and sexual relationships. And I’d definitely like to see more books that explore the overlap between ace, trans, and disabled identities. Like, for me, so many of my feelings about my body are bound up in all of those things, and they can never be fully separated. On a related note, I think it’s also important to explore how things like trauma can impact on our sense of identity and self (and how that doesn’t negate the identity) – this is something I’m exploring a bit in the sequel to The Butterfly Assassin, but there are infinite angles somebody could take on this, looking at how we’re shaped by our experiences.
I think I’d like to see somebody explore faith and asexuality, too, though it’s not a topic I think I personally could do justice. I’ve left my childhood church behind, but having grown up in an evangelical Christian environment where things like sex were wreathed in shame and guilt, there was a lot I had to process and work through before I could separate my asexuality from that shame and work out how I actually felt, all while also having a gender crisis (which I also felt guilty about). I imagine it would feel quite healing and cathartic to read a book that grappled with that – as long as it did it well!
Naseem: I’m once again screaming that I haven’t read all of your books already, because I need them desperately!! And severely want to echo what Finn said about the intersection of these identities and also trauma—the way I feel about my body is directly tied to both my gender as a nonbinary trans person and the way I inhabit my body as a fat person and someone with a history of eating disorders, among other things.
One thing that’s been frustrating for me is how many fellow aces conflate ace and aro identities. I mean, you identify how you identify, but just within the last few weeks I’ve talked to several people who have ID’d as ace, and when I’m like oh I’m ace too, we talk some more and I realize while they may also be ace, they really are talking about being aro. (Which is 10000% valid!) So more representation that dives into the nuances of these identities can only be a good thing for all of us! People who object to labels don’t, I think, understand the power they can have when we choose those labels for ourselves. It’s partially about finding other like-minded individuals but more about how we learn to describe ourselves.
Carly: I share what you’ve all said about just wanting more diverse representation. The world is full of a multitude of identities and experiences, but for centuries in Western literature only the heteronormative identities got amplified. We need to bring reality back into fiction and the reality is that the heteronormative experience is just one small part of humanity. I’d also just love to see more allos affirming and respecting their ace/aro partners, especially in mainstream media.
AdriAnne: Echoing what others have said, as well! Even within myself I’ve experienced being ace differently. I’ve run the gamut from sex-repulsed as a teen to sex-neutral and sex-positive as an adult, after learning much more about myself and what I find appealing. (I’m one of those aces with a sexual partner.) My gender-feels can also impact how I see sex–and yes, so can trauma, which I’ve experienced as a child and as an adult. So I too would love to see all the ace intersections because no one iteration is “correct” or any one “wrong.” While I’ve written the more common ace/aro combination, I wrote Beyond the Black Door for my teen self when I was sex-repulsed and yet romantic, and have also written a nonbinary, poly, and ace character in In the Ravenous Dark. I would love to see more alloromantic and/or sex-neurtral and sex-positive aces out there, as well as how asexuality intersects with everything from gender to race to trauma to kink to neurodivergent identities and to all other forms of queerness.
Rosiee: Yes to all of that! Here’s to more varied ace experiences in literature going forward–and what about the books that do exist right now? What is a recent read, an upcoming book, or even an old favorite with asexual representation that you wish more people knew about?
RoAnna: An old fave (and auto-rec) is the Mangoverse series by Shira Glassman (starting with The Second Mango) – Rivka is a hetero-romantic demisexual and super-hot masked swordswoman, who gets to protect adorable princesses and also her bf is a dragon (and also super hot in human form). Is the book-crush coming through? Because wow. <3 Also may I say Tarnished Are the Stars? 😀 Because I just… really love Nathaniel still! On the more steamy/erotica side, I will still always rec Nine of Swords, Reversed and Eight Kinky Nights by my dear, always-beloved Corey (as Xan West), for many reasons but primarily their just mindblowingly-inclusive/positive/warm rep for kinky aces, as well as Jewish trans, disabled, fat, queer, so many kinds of people, they’re all welcome here. And an upcoming release that I’m a bit obsessed with is The Story of the Hundred Promises by Neil Cochrane. Lush, wonderful fantasy with so much a-spec, trans, and polyam rep, so much!
Naseem: RoAnna, you keep mentioning books that grow my TBR, and I already have so many books on that pile, so… thanks I think?? At least Tarnished Are The Stars has been on my shelf for a while, since I always try to buy my friends’ books. I want to again point to the books I mentioned above, We Were Restless Things and the Skybound saga, and also The Circus Infinite by Khan Wong, whose main character is a queer ace.
AdriAnne: I will always shout about the aforementioned Every Heart a Doorway and Tarnished are the Stars <3 but a recent read I really loved was What We Devour by Linsey Miller for the ace protag and the deliciously dark relationship therein.
Carly: Seconding what everyone has said about Tarnished Are The Stars. Get it if you want great YA, steampunk style SFF and awesome on-the-page ace discussion. Another favorite which I feel like not enough people know about is The Rat-Catcher’s Daughter by KJ Charles which is just the sweetest, most-endearing and delightful ace romance between trans music hall singer and a man who’s a fence for notorious criminals. They’re both ace and absolutely adorable to each other. It’s probably my favorite ace romance of all time.
Finn: Doing this roundtable has made me really want to reread Quicksilver and see if it holds up after all these years, because it’s ages since I read it, and it’s not a very well-known one. (It’s a sequel – book one is called Ultraviolet – but I actually read it first, and that was mostly fine.) Unfortunately, my copy is at my parents’ house, and I am not, so I can only rec this with the caveat of me not having read it since about 2013 and I take no responsibility for anything I might have forgotten about it that would make me hesitate if I remembered it. I love VE Schwab’s Vicious and Vengeful, which have ace-spec characters, but I would say those are probably not under the radar these days, since V’s work has taken off so much. I’m super behind on recent releases generally, so I’m excited to add lots more books to my TBR after this!
Rosiee: Aww thanks for the shoutouts, everyone! Now it’s your turn–you’re all amazing authors writing important stories. Tell us one or two things about one of your books that makes your ace heart happy! Plug your work
Carly: If you’ve ever wanted to escape to the mountains with your two best friends and a bunch of adorable animals, The Reckless Kind is the book for you.
AdriAnne: Since Kamai in Beyond the Black Door is my only ace MC thus far, I’ll plug that book even though it’s the oldest! It’s a dark fantasy with a darkly romantic relationship at the center. Kamai is a soulwalker, someone who can explore other people’s souls, and while doing so she discovers a deadly force trying to break into her world–a someone she might be more fascinated with than horrified, and she has to decide where her heart lies. My other books only have ace side characters, but I adore them: Japha in In The Ravenous Dark is nonbinary (they/them), ace, and also poly; and Claudia in my forthcoming Court of the Undying Seasons is aro/ace (and a vampire).
RoAnna: Oh boy, self-promo, everyone’s favorite! (/Big Sarcasm) I’m still trying to get better at this – and it’s important, because I DO have a really cool thing coming up! Chameleon Moon was my first published book, and it features Regan, a very soft and anxious dragon boy (but always green and scaly, not shapeshifting), who has to navigate a dystopian, permanently-burning city full of super-people (all very queer/disabled/polyam), and also his own traumatized brain. In the process he figures out that he’s asexual (and PTSD, and definitely ND too, but I wasn’t consciously writing that yet), and finds healing and strength through found family/queer community – it’s a weird book, but still very important to me, and probably my best-known.
And, FURTHER SELF PLUG – it’ll soon be an audiobook! (With the best narrator ever, Kyle Rocco East, though I’m definitely biased lol). I’m running a Kickstarter that features not only the audiobook, but special edition hardcovers, exclusive art/merch, actual original songs, and So Much More! https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/roannasylver/chameleon-moon-the-audiobook I’m ridiculously excited about this, and hope it sounds cool to y’all too! THANK YOU so much again!
Finn:The Butterfly Assassin is always a weird one to plug for queer rep of any kind, because it’s… it’s subtle. Isabel spends most of the book trying very hard not to die, she has got trauma coming out of her ears, and she is absolutely not in a position to be analysing her own sexuality, which means there’s not a lot of on-page discussion of it. Instead, the book’s ace/aro heart comes from the fact that I had dozens of opportunities for the plot to develop in romantic/sexual directions, and decided not to take them, instead foregrounding the various kinds of platonic relationships that Isabel forms. Thus, it is the All Murder, No Sex assassin book that teen me wanted. In the sequel, which comes out in the UK next May, Isabel’s in a much more stable position and she’s safe enough to start exploring her sense of self a bit more. She also finally has people her own age around her, and the result is that we get to see a lot more on-page queerness, which I’m really excited about.
Naseem:The Bruising of Qilwa has been out for about a month (it’s available in World English territories), and the audiobook comes out November 8! The world is queernormative (which also means transnormative), and I’ve got a list of both content notes and rep notes on my website, but the main character is explicitly aroace and nonbinary trans. While it’s a standalone, I’m writing more in this world (the novel I mentioned above is set 40 years after the events of Qilwa), so more to come! Any love for my little book, whether you can afford to pick it up or get it from your local library, is much appreciated!!
Carly Heath (she/they) earned her BA from San Francisco State University and her MFA from Chapman University. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Carly teaches design, art, theater, and writing for various colleges and universities. Her debut, The Reckless Kind (Soho Teen) is winner of the 2021-2022 Whippoorwhill Award and has garnered enthusiastic reviews (including a starred review from BCCB) for its nuanced depiction of queer and disabled identities.
Naseem Jamnia is a Persian-Chicagoan, former scientist, and the author of The Bruising of Qilwa (Tachyon Publications). Their work has appeared in The Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, The Rumpus, and other venues, and they’ve received fellowships from Bitch Media, Lambda Literary, and Otherwise. Named the inaugural Samuel R. Delany Fellow, Naseem lives in Reno, NV, with their husband, dog, and two cats. Find out more at www.naseemjamnia.com or @jamsternazzy on social media.
Finn Longman is a queer disabled writer and medievalist, originally from London. With a degree in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic and an MA in Early and Medieval Irish, they spend most of their time having extremely niche opinions on the internet. They write YA and Adult novels, and have a particular interest in genre-bending fiction that explores identity and tests moral boundaries.
A.M. Strickland was a bibliophile who wanted to be an author before she knew what either of those words meant. She shares a home base in Alaska with her spouse, her pugs, and her piles and piles of books. She loves traveling, dancing, tattoos, and writing about monstrous teens. Her books include Beyond the Black Door, In the Ravenous Dark and Court of the Undying Seasons. She uses both she/her and they/them pronouns, and you can find her on Twitter and Instagram.
RoAnna Sylver is the author of the Chameleon Moon and Stake Sauce series, as well as interactive fiction like Dawnfall and The Great Batsby – and passionate about stories that give hope, healing and even fun for LGBQTIA+, disabled and other marginalized people, and thinks we need a lot more. RoAnna is a member of the SFWA as well as a founding member of Kraken Collective Books, and highly recommends you check them out.
Rosiee Thor began their career as a storyteller by demanding to tell their mother bedtime stories instead of the other way around. They spent their childhood reading by flashlight in the closet until they came out as queer. They live in Oregon with a dog, two cats, and an abundance of plants. They are the author of Young Adult novels Tarnished Are The Stars and Fire Becomes Her and the picture book The Meaning of Pride.
Today on the site, I’m thrilled to help celebrate the release of Briar Girls by Rebecca Kim Wells, a Sapphic YA reimagining of The Sleeping Beauty yours truly called “a tantalizingly dark and majestic fairy tale filled with love, betrayal, and the ways the two inevitably intersect.” The book releases today, and Rebecca’s here to talk about it with another of our favorite queer YA author Rebeccas, Rebecca Podos (From Dust, aFlame), who also happens to be her agent! But before we get to that, here’s a little more about Briar Girls:
Lena has a secret: the touch of her skin can kill. Cursed by a witch before she was born, Lena has always lived in fear and isolation. But after a devastating mistake, she and her father are forced to flee to a village near the Silence, a mysterious forest with a reputation for luring people into the trees, never to be seen again…
Until the night an enigmatic girl stumbles out of the Silence and into Lena’s sheltered world. Miranda comes from the Gather, a city in the forest brimming with magic. She is on a quest to wake a sleeping princess believed to hold the key to liberating the Gather from its tyrannical ruler—and she offers Lena a bargain. If Lena assists her on her journey, Miranda will help her break the curse.
Mesmerized by Miranda and her promise of a new life, Lena jumps at the chance. But the deeper into the Silence she goes, the more she suspects she’s been lied to—about her family’s history, her curse, and her future. As the shadows close in, Lena must choose who to trust and decide whether it’s more important to have freedom…or power.
And now, I’m thrilled to welcome Rebecca Kim Wells and Rebecca Podos!
RKW:We’ve been working together for several years—since 2015! Back then the publishing landscape was very different, especially around diverse and queer stories. What was your agenting outlook at the time? And what drew you to pick Briar Girls out of your inbox?
RP: It was definitely a different landscape! On the one hand, the decade before 2015 was game-changing for queer representation in kidlit. We saw debut books published by authors who went on to change the conversation about was possible for queer YA, a genre that had previously been considered pretty niche. This industry can be truly frustrating in that it often demands “successful” (aka profitable) books within a certain subgenre or representing a certain group before justifying the purchase of future books which might have been the breakout successes. Still, publishing was slow to expand queer kidlit beyond L and G stories, and beyond white and able main characters. We’re still working on that! And as often happens when we talk about representation, the very first books on the shelf were stories of queer pain and trauma, usually as a direct consequence of a character discovering their own identity or coming out. Which does not mean that authors shouldn’t explore trauma and identity in their fiction, or that every queer story should be fluffy and joyful; we need books at both ends of the spectrum. We need to build a bigger bookshelf, rather than dictating which handful of books are allowed at any given moment.
Anyway, this is where the genre was in 2015: slowly moving beyond contemporary stories within a limited spectrum of queer identities. I had been signing authors of my own since 2012, looking for queer stories from the start. Some, I was able to sell! (And some of the authors I signed in the early days have gone on to write many fantastic queer stories after a non-queer themed debut novel). When I started reading your submission—the story that would become Briar Girls —on my subway ride to work, it was this smart, dark, lush, meta fairytale with a bisexual MC that made me miss my stop. I very distinctly remember having to get off at North Station and circle back. I was late to the office, and I still blame you. But that was how I knew I was about to fall in love with the book, and so I did.
It turns out that 2015 wasn’t quite ready for the story. As I told you much later, after your next amazing queer fantasy had sold, we did get pushback, including rejections along the lines of “we’re not sure the market exists for a fantasy with queer themes,” never mind that the brilliant Malinda Lo had been publishing for years. But I have rarely been more thrilled with my job than the moment we found out that Briar Girls was finally going to make its way onto shelves.
So, that’s my agent-y perspective. What had your experience been with queer books in 2015 as a writer and a reader, and what compelled you to tell your own?
RKW: As a teen reader, most of my experience with queer books had been with contemporary stories focused on coming out, like Geography Club or Rainbow Boys. Back then it wasn’t as easy even to search for queer books as it is now, so a lot of my reading came just from browsing at my local library or bookstore. I did manage to find a few queer fantasies—I still have vivid memories of Kissing the Witch (I just looked up a review from 1999 that said the lesbian endings “promise controversy,” yikes!) and reading Ash for the first time—but they certainly weren’t being published or promoted nearly as much as they are today.
I started writing Briar Girls in 2013. I’ve always been into fairy tale reimaginings, and I loved writing a big mashup of my own. That was the first kernel of the book. Then—this feels so weird to think about now—but in the first iteration, the main characters were actually straight. And at some point along the way, I just had the thought that well, it’s obvious that they should be queer. I don’t know why (certainly the market wasn’t particularly encouraging, especially in 2013), but I made the change and never second-guessed that decision. It was so clear to me that was what the book should be, and I didn’t even think about whether that would make it more difficult to publish. And that belief turned out to be so validated by your enthusiasm for the book. It buoyed me through the submission process, even though Briar Girls didn’t sell at the time.
I’m very glad that you didn’t tell me about those rejections in 2015, because I might have gotten nervous about writing queer characters (which would have been terrible!). Instead I got to lick my wounds and move on to the next project, which turned into Shatter the Sky. We sent that on submission in December 2017 and I think we got the offer from Simon & Schuster around the end of January 2018? It was a very different submission experience, both because it sold (yay!) and because it sold so quickly. Obviously part of the reason it sold is that I had grown as a writer, but I also think that the market around queer books for teens had really started to change in those few years.
While this wasn’t my experience, you mentioned that a few of your other authors wrote non-queer debuts and then went on to write queer books. This is also true of your work as an author—a non-queer debut followed by some incredible queer books. What was your experience like as an author making that transition? How did you decide to write your first queer book?
RP: Ah, the days before sites like LGBTQ Reads and Lambda Literary and the Rainbow Book List made finding queer books one million times easier. And yes, the path to publication for Shatter the Sky was so much smoother! I do think the market had evolved, even in the year or two between projects.
In part, my choice to write my first queer book was inspired by you, and my clients writing extraordinary queer stories at that time. As LGBTQ+ YA became more prominent on shelves, and seemed more possible to publish, I was seeing more of it in my query inbox, and reading more of it myself. Eventually I just decided, why not? So I began Like Water in 2015. And some of the choices I made in drafting that book, I made for my younger self. Like the fact that my main character’s discovery and acceptance of her own bisexuality was pretty painless. Her realization expanded her understanding of herself, and the world around her. She doesn’t spend a lot of time in the story coming out to the people around her; I just wasn’t that interested in her coming out as a huge plot point, despite the fact that the question of how and when to come out preoccupied a lot of my youth. Because, again, why not?
By the way,I had no idea that Briar Girls ever existed in a non-queer form! One of the many things I love about your stories is how queerness is baked into the fabric of your fantasy worlds. What do you love about writing and reading queer genre fiction, and how do you approach building these worlds that, while full of conflict and statements on class and colonization and gender roles, still feel so thoroughly inclusive?
RKW: Yes! The first person to stumble mysteriously out of the Gather was a boy named Colin. Then around July 2014 (per Scrivener metadata) it became obvious to me that the mysterious stranger was meant to be Miranda, and the rest is history!
Oh wow, I love everything about writing and reading queer genre fiction! But in the context of this question, I think what I love most about it is the sense of possibility—that the only constraint on what you can do as an author is the bound of your own imagination. If you don’t like a dynamic from the real world, change it! Interrogate it! Throw it out entirely! In the real world, I find homophobia cruel and horrifying—and also very boring. To me it’s the least interesting societal problem because it has the easiest, most obvious solution—just don’t be a homophobe! Mind your own business! Love your fellow humans! Let people live! So I don’t replicate it in my work. I’m proud of the queerness in my books, and I hope to continue writing queerness in all its complexity into my imagined worlds for many books to come.
I totally relate to the way you describe writing Like Water (and am so honored to be a tangential source of inspiration!)—though I certainly thought about coming out as a teen, it’s not something that I’m very interested in exploring in my own fiction at this time. In many ways, I’m writing toward a more inclusive world that I hope to see, rather than the one I grew up with and that exists today.
In addition to introducing queerness into your work, you’ve also genre-hopped from contemporary toward fantasy and now into historical fiction. But your prose is always so precise—sometimes delicate, sometimes cutting, always perfect—and your characters are always preoccupied by the weight of family—family histories, family bonds, family lore. To me, those are a few marks of a Rebecca Podos book. What do you feel are the common threads between your different books? What themes do you keep returning to as an author?
RP: This is such a lovely appraisal, you’ve made my night! And you pretty much nailed it with family being a common thread. In general, I think all of my books explore themes of inheritance—the things passed down to you or put on your shoulders, for good or for ill, and how you navigate that while trying to figure out who you are, and who you want to become. In Mystery of Hollow Places, it was a girl reckoning with the history of mental illness in her family, and how that shaped her as a person, as well as her relationships. In Like Water, it was a genetic illness the main character is scared to inherit from her father, while she struggles to be grateful for all of the wonderful things he’s instilled in her. In Wise and the Wicked, it’s an actual curse, passed down through generations, but it’s also about what we lose when we don’t speak the same language as our ancestors, when their stories slip away from us. And in From Dust, A Flame, which is up next, a girl discovers and engages with her Jewish identity for the first time, and what that means to her… plus golems and shedim and iburrim, and all of these aspects of Jewish myth and magic that I just really wanted to play with. Also, you know, everybody’s pretty gay.
When I think of a Rebecca Kim Wells book, I think of lush and precise worldbuilding, fascinating magical systems, smartly subverted tropes—like the chosen one trope of Shatter the Sky and Storm the Earth or the cursed princess trope of Briar Girls, but reexamined and completely flipped on their heads—and as you say, queerness without cost. What sort of stories do you feel most drawn to telling, and what experience do you hope readers will come away with from Briar Girls?
RKW: First, From Dust, A Flame sounds So! Good! I can’t wait to read it. And I’m sitting here feeling like I have been swaddled in a warm blanket of your compliments, thank you! You too have hit the nail on the head about so much of what I try to accomplish in my work.
I still remember how enthralled I was by the fantasy books I read as a child and teen. A lot of what I do as an author absolutely involves trying to recapture the feel of that classic fantasy while simultaneously interrogating, updating, flipping, and subverting common threads and tropes. I love complications and shades of gray! I want readers to feel both a happy familiarity and an unexpected, exciting destabilization every time they pick up one of my books. I delight in making the familiar strange.
And then the yearning—not always the romantic kind! My characters tend to be profoundly affected by family legacy (another thing we have in common!), they’ve all got wounds, and they all yearn, deeply. I love yearning. I want my books to make your chest hurt as you read them.
As far as Briar Girls goes…I hope readers finish this book feeling like they have been stabbed in the heart—but that they loved it. Lena’s journey still stabs me in the heart, and I’ve been living with it for eight years! Now I’m thrilled to share it with all of you.
Hannah’s whole life has been spent in motion. Her mother has kept her and her brother, Gabe, on the road for as long as she can remember, leaving a trail of rental homes and faded relationships behind them. No roots, no family but one another, and no explanations.
All of that changes on Hannah’s seventeenth birthday when she wakes up transformed, a pair of golden eyes with knife-slit pupils blinking back at her from the mirror—the first of many such impossible mutations. Promising that she knows someone who can help, her mother leaves Hannah and Gabe behind to find a cure. But as the days turn to weeks and their mother doesn’t return, they realize it’s up to them to find the truth.
What they discover is a family they never knew, and a history more tragic and fantastical than Hannah could have dreamed—one that stretches back to her grandmother’s childhood in Prague under the Nazi occupation, and beyond, into the realm of Jewish mysticism and legend. As the past comes crashing into the present, Hannah must hurry to unearth their family’s secrets—and confront her own hidden legacy in order to break the curse and save the people she loves most, as well as herself.
Rebecca Kim Wells writes books full of magic and fury (and often dragons). Her debut novel Shatter the Sky was a New England Book Award Finalist, an ALA Rainbow Book List selection, an Indies Introduce selection, and a Kids’ Indie Next Pick. She is also the author of Storm the Earth and Briar Girls.
Rebecca Podos’ debut novel, The Mystery of Hollow Places, was a Junior Library Guild Selection and a B&N Best YA Book of 2016. Her second book, Like Water, won the 2018 Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Children’s and Young Adult. The Wise and the Wicked, her third novel, was recently released. Her forthcoming books include Fools in Love (Running Press Kids, 2021) a co-edited YA anthology with author Ashley Herring Blake, and From Dust, a Flame (Balzer + Bray, 2022). A graduate of the Writing, Literature and Publishing Program at Emerson College, she’s an agent at the Rees Literary Agency in Boston by day.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Douglass and a few other authors in a roundtable entitled “Where is the Queer Black Male Voice in YA?” The interviewees were all obvious rising stars, in my opinion, but the very next queer Black male voice to rise up in YA after that post actually belonged to an author I didn’t know yet named Julian Winters.
Fast forward to now, when Douglass has debuted on the New York Times bestseller list (and also managed to publish a volume of poetry called Boy in Jeopardy even before that), Winters is three books in with a fourth, Right Where I Left You, on the way, and both of them are here today to talk about The Taking of Jake Livingston. Here’s a little more on the book, first:
Sixteen-year-old Jake Livingston sees dead people everywhere. But he can’t decide what’s worse: being a medium forced to watch the dead play out their last moments on a loop or being at the mercy of racist teachers as one of the few Black students at St. Clair Prep. Both are a living nightmare he wishes he could wake up from. But things at St. Clair start looking up with the arrival of another Black student—the handsome Allister—and for the first time, romance is on the horizon for Jake.
Unfortunately, life as a medium is getting worse. Though most ghosts are harmless and Jake is always happy to help them move on to the next place, Sawyer Doon wants much more from Jake. In life, Sawyer was a troubled teen who shot and killed six kids at a local high school before taking his own life. Now he’s a powerful, vengeful ghost and he has plans for Jake. Suddenly, everything Jake knows about dead world goes out the window as Sawyer begins to haunt him. High school soon becomes a different kind of survival game—one Jake is not sure he can win.
And now, please welcome Julian Winters and Ryan Douglass!
Julian: Ryan! It’s always an honor to chat with you, but this feels especially fantastic because I’m getting to talk to Ryan Douglass, instant New York Times bestselling author of The Taking of Jake Livingston! How wild is that? One week we’re chatting on the day the book is released, then you’re a bestselling author with your debut novel!
Ryan: I don’t even think it’s even sunk in. It’s pretty cool and I’m so glad people have responded well to this story.
JW: Interviewing you for LGBTQ Reads is an extra special occasion for me. A few years ago, you did an interview on here that kind of changed my life as an author. The discussion you had about being a queer, Black author and writing queer Black boys as protagonists gave me the courage I needed to finally sit down and written my sophomore novel, How to Be Remy Cameron. I didn’t know if queer Black boys had the space they deserved as the protagonists in the Young Adult world until I read that interview. It made me want to ensure they did have their voices heard.
Jake’s story continues to inspire me and others to write our books where queer Black boys are at the heart. Where we can celebrate their uniqueness and joy as well as discussing their struggles.
Where did the inspiration for Jake come from? What made you jump into Horror, a genre that doesn’t often showcase Black and/or queer teens as protagonists?
RD: Thank you for saying that. I was very interested in what this book would do for representation politics at the beginning but it’s since become less of a concern. I don’t feel like I’m writing about the “Black queer experience” as much as a slice of life where the MC happens to be Black and queer. I was interested in horror because of the way it explored trauma and fear, how the psyche operates in moments of desperation and the choices people make in perilous situations. That developed as a kid before I realized what it meant to be Black, institutionally, and how the genre treats its Black characters. Later I was able to assess the injustice that occurs in media representation. I wanted to write characters that felt true to me so I put them into the genre I was interested in working in. Since it’s horror, that ends up feeling naturally subversive since the genre usually kills off its Black characters when left to white creators.
JW: I love that this book is gives me old school, paranormal horror vibes, but also looks at the real-life horror Black teens face. It’s very much The Frighteners meets Get Out and so much more. What are some of the themes you wanted to explore, both from the supernatural and real world?
RD: A big theme in the book is how whiteness invades Black consciousness when we’re trying to succeed. It erodes our cultural norms under the guise of professionalism. It’s so normalized to go to PWIs or get a corporate job and link that to merit and moving up. But what you’re doing is negotiating your culture for prestige or financial gain. We’re climbing into systems rooted in a slave system that has never been reformed, and the way we’re treated today mirrors slavery in a way that is better branded. We talk about it but we don’t change these systems in serious ways. It’s so normalized that “talking about it” is a thriving market to make money in. Jake angles into these issues by featuring a Black boy who’s been ripped out of his community and now feels he’s going insane because he can’t get whiteness (Sawyer) off his back. It’s also a book about the ways boys are raised in violence and how hard it becomes to communicate when you feel like you’re being abused and you can’t come up for air. As for the supernatural elements, they’re mostly there to supplement the contemporary issues, and they enhance this “superhero origin story” feel that the book ends up taking on. Black queer boys need superhero icons.
JW: Writing Horror is such a skilled art to me. To be honest, you had me sleeping with the lights on while reading this book! What are the challenges you faced trying to craft out such a terrifying world?
RD: A big challenge when I first chose horror was understanding how it comes to life in literature and how that may be similar or different from what you see in movies. You can’t use jump scares or make use of music and lighting, which are naturally spooky tactics in film. Evoking an unsettling atmosphere with words is the big challenge because it’s so reliant on a sense of dread and zeroing in on the darker aspects of language, imagery, and metaphor. You also have to be irreverent enough to take risks with what is psychologically comfortable.
JW: This book is told from dual POVs. Jake’s story in real time, then the antagonist Sawyer Doon’s world through his diary entries. Sawyer is a frightening character. I love that, through his entries, you explore what brought him to the point he’s at in the novel. But you do it without redeeming him. You don’t excuse away his actions. You weave a tragic story in a way that doesn’t give him exoneration but really dives deep into the psyche of someone pushed to their edge.
What was it like writing a character like Sawyer?
RD: I always sigh with relief when I hear that because a big worry of mine was that he might come off as redeemable or else too evil to for a normal person to tolerate reading from his perspective. Writing Sawyer was all about achieving the right balance. I had to constantly ask myself how much distance I wanted to keep from any vulnerabilities this character might have. That then opens questions of how much distance this character keeps from himself. What about him disturbs himself, and what about his surroundings have disturbed his way of thinking? That’s when I got into the meat of where this character comes from in a way that felt like it wasn’t softening him too much but centering an exploration of how empathy and connection comes into his world as this fleeting object but the crux of him is evil.
JW: Besides all the scary imagery you describe so perfectly, another part of this novel I love is the way you explore queer Black boys like Jake and their relationships with others. Specifically, Jake’s older brother, Benji.
What were some of the things you hope readers get from their relationship, along with the one Jake has with his mother?
RD: I like these boys because they ring true as Black boys without there being any performative emphasis on how “Blackity Black” they are. I want readers to get a slice of human experience without the primary mission being to convince white people that Black people are people too. When the mission is not saying to the reader “hey guys, Black people are actually human”, we’re able to dive into intracommunity issues like the relationships between straight Black men and queer Black men, how straight Black women may support homophobic actions of their straight Black partners at the expense of the queer boys or men in their lives. There’s the issue of whiteness but at the center of Jake’s trauma are the issues he dealt with at home. The experience of living in his identity is having layers of trauma to work through. I think readers who are not of that experience or of an intersectional experience can learn from that.
JW: Let’s talk about Allister! From the moment he appeared on the page, I felt like Jake—like I could breathe again. He’s this amazing addition in Jake’s life. Someone who doesn’t question who Jake is, what he’s going through, nor does he brush off Jake’s struggles. And let’s be real—their romance made me swoon.
Who is Allister to this book and why was it so important for you two show that kind of relationship between two queer Black boys?
RD: Allister serves as a breath of fresh air to the narrative. I didn’t have a lot of time to develop his relationship to Jake because I was trying to develop other things in a time crunch during edits. But I ended up liking how simple it was. I like that Jake has someone in his life that doesn’t feel untrustworthy or overly complicated. I don’t know if boys as perfect as Allister exist, but I think it’s important that gay teens are able to see what healthy love looks like.
JW: As an avid fan of yours, I know you love music! I get some of my best recs from your social media posts. If (or when?) this book becomes a movie, who would be on the soundtrack? What songs or artist would best accompany Jake’s story?
RD: I’m a big fan of the artists that come out of NUXXE, which is Shygirl’s record label. It’s gritty, often spooky experimental pop. I’d want Shygirl, Sega Bodega, COUCOU CHLOE, Y1640 and similar sounding artists to be on the soundtrack. I think their sounds really mirror the tone of the book.
JW: People are gobbling this book up! I know I did. We all have to know: What can we expect next from Ryan Douglass?
RD: I’m working on another YA horror currently. I’ve been trying several genres in recent years, from historical fantasy to paranormal romance to rom-com. I want to tap into so many genres but teen horror and dark academia come naturally. I’m good at that so I’m developing in that genre as a writer for now. Later I plan to spread out to other things.
Ryan Douglass was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, where he currently resides, cooking pasta and playing records. He enjoys wooden-wick candles, falling asleep on airplanes, and advocating for stronger media representation for queer Black people.
Julian Winters is the best-selling author of contemporary young adult fiction. His debut, Running With Lions (Duet, 2018), won accolades for its positive depictions of diverse, relatable characters. A former management trainer, Julian currently lives outside of Atlanta where he can be found reading, being a self-proclaimed comic book geek, or watching the only two sports he can follow—volleyball and soccer. How to Be Remy Cameron is his second novel.
Today on the site, authors Sim Kern and Cynthia Zhang are here to talk queer fiction, gender and diaspora identities, and climate change! Sim Kern’s debut, the climate horror novella Depart, Depart!, came out in September 2020; Cynthia Zhang’s debut, the urban fantasy After the Dragons, will be released on August 19th. Both authors are published by Stelliform Press, a small press focused on climate change and culture. Here’s more info about both books:
When an unprecedented hurricane devastates the city of Houston, Noah Mishner finds shelter in the Dallas Mavericks’ basketball arena. Though he finds community among other queer refugees, Noah fears his trans and Jewish identities put him at risk with certain “capital-T” Texans. His fears take form when he starts seeing visions of his great-grandfather Abe, who fled Nazi Germany as a boy. As the climate crisis intensifies and conditions in the shelter deteriorate, Abe’s ghost grows more powerful. Ultimately, Noah must decide whether he can trust his ancestor — and whether he’s willing to sacrifice his identity and community in order to survive.
Dragons were fire and terror to the Western world, but in the East they brought life-giving rain. Now, no longer hailed as gods and struggling in the overheated pollution of Beijing, only the Eastern dragons survive. As drought plagues the aquatic creatures, a mysterious disease—shaolong, or “burnt lung”—afflicts the city’s human inhabitants.
Jaded college student Xiang Kaifei scours Beijing streets for abandoned dragons, distracting himself from his diagnosis. Elijah Ahmed, a biracial American medical researcher, is drawn to Beijing by the memory of his grandmother and her death by shaolong. Interest in Beijing’s dragons leads Kai and Eli into an unlikely partnership. With the resources of Kai’s dragon rescue and Eli’s immunology research, can the pair find a cure for shaolong and safety for the dragons? Eli and Kai must confront old ghosts and hard truths if there is any hope for themselves or the dragons they love.
And here’s the conversation: please welcome Sim Kern and Cynthia Zhang!
SK: I was struck by how there’s a similar scene in both our books, where the queer protagonist is wondering whether their grandmother would accept them as their whole queer self. In your book, I’m thinking of the scene where Eli visits his grandmother’s grave and comes out to her posthumously. He can’t know how she’d react, but he “likes to think [she] would have been kind about it,” because she had seen the impact of bigotry and close-mindedness on other members of her family. In Depart, Depart! Noah also wonders what his grandmother would’ve thought about him coming out as trans, and he chooses to believe she would have understood him. The similarity of these scenes was uncanny to me. I think many queer people feel alienated from our ancestors, and our ancestral cultures and religions, because we assume they wouldn’t have accepted us. But at least for their own well-being, both our protagonists reject that narrative. That desire to reclaim my ancestors from a queer perspective was a major driving factor behind Depart, Depart! I’m wondering if you had similar motivation for writing After the Dragons? Besides the scene at the grave, are there other places you’re reclaiming your ancestors or your ancestral culture with this story?
CZ: Culture’s a tricky concept in general, isn’t it? On the one hand, it’s often evoked to gatekeep people and police individual behaviors—“our ancestors wouldn’t have tolerated this homosexual nonsense,” etc. What I think is missing in these kind of arguments is the fact that our understanding of tradition is limited and that culture is often more fluid and diverse than we give it credit for. There are people the official narratives leave out, stories that get mixed-up between translations and tellings before they eventually reach the present, in which they’re reinterpreted once again, maybe this time accessing some of the meanings other generations have missed. In Depart! Depart! Noah’s research into dybbuks gives him a way to connect with Jewishness, but it’s also a buried route, one that he has to search for. Against conservative narratives of identity, I think it’s important to remember our understandings of the past are always limited and imperfect.
That’s the abstract, theoretical answer. In terms of After the Dragons, before writing the novel, I don’t think I’d worked too closely with Chinese folklore in my fiction. I knew some of it, of course, from cartoons and books, but it wasn’t familiar in the same way werewolves and vampires were. My Chinese-American experience shares a lot of similarities with that of my cousins in mainland China, but there’s still a significant gap between us, bits of pieces of each other that we don’t quite get. In writing and doing research for After the Dragons, I was searching for a way to lessen that gap, to make myself more familiar with the histories and customs that shaped the way I was raised. It’s not a task that can ever be fully accomplished, but it’s one that I think is worth attempting nonetheless.
In addition to existing within specific cultural histories, our books both also exist within specific genre boundaries and expectations. When it comes to speculative fiction, there’s often the idea that it’s removed from reality – spaceships, Middle-Earth, etc. By contrast, with queer fiction, people tend to expect that it’s going to be broadly autobiographical if not a thinly veiled version of the writer’s own life. With both our books, it’s interesting how both the cli-fi and queer elements complicate this script. Noah is written from your experience of being trans, but he’s not trans in quite the same way you are, even if the transmasc and nonbinary experiences overlap in a lot of ways. On the other hand, the devastating hurricane in Depart! Depart! is in many ways all too terrifyingly real.
The length of this question is quickly approaching “I have a question that’s also a comment” levels, so to follow Carly and cut to the feeling, I’m curious how you feel about the expectations placed on your work as both spec fic and queer fiction. When do you feel comfortable sticking more closely to the facts/your own experience (realism), and when do you feel going a little beyond that (speculation)?
SK: I’m going to echo lots of other queer authors here and say that there has to be room for queer authors to write outside the strict limits of your own gender and sexuality–because writing is often an essential act of queer self-discovery. I figured out I was nonbinary while writing a nonbinary character into my YA novel, four years ago. I wrote Noah’s character at a time when I was wrestling with whether I was truly nonbinary or actually transmasc. I was dealing with some intense gender dysphoria at the time, and I needed to explore those feelings. But after living in Noah’s shoes for a while, I realized I didn’t feel the way he did about his gender. I gained more certainty in my nonbinary-ness. Processing my gender-feelings through writing helped me–and a lot of other authors–come to terms with my own queerness. And I want to make sure to hold that door open for future writers.
All that being said, I don’t think someone necessarily has to be exploring their own identity in order to be “allowed” to write a queer book. I have a story coming out this month in the latest issue of Planet Scumm which features a gay, cis male main character, told in first person. That’s obviously not an identity of mine, or one I could conceivably ever claim, but that’s how the character popped in my brain, wanting to tell his story.
I’m curious if it was similar for you–How did you settle on Kai and Eli for the focus of After the Dragons? Was it a conscious choice to make them both male? And do you feel you need to justify or litigate your right to write outside the boundaries of your own gender?
CZ: It’s been so long since I first started writing the novel that it feels like I’m talking about someone else when I talk about “how this came to be,” but I’ll give it a shot! The first answer is the pragmatic/logistical answer: Eli and Kai are men because quite franky, women and femme-presenting people would not be able to wander around Beijing the way they do. Being a guy in a city gives you a certain level of privilege and freedom that women/fems don’t have in the sense that you don’t have to be hyperaware of the people around you in the same way. It doesn’t nullify all danger, sure, but I also don’t hear my cis guy friends talk about clutching their keys in a parking lot so they can have a weapon in case someone decides to attack them. (Apparently, keys are better as stabbing weapons than as punching ones, so make sure the key teeth won’t gouge into your skin when you’re positioning them.)
The second answer—the vaguer one, but also probably the more honest one—is that when it comes to character creation, I’m not terribly hung up on gender. Eli and Kai came to me as cis guys; thus, they’re guys. When I submitted one of the early drafts of the novel for critique, I got some comments back about gender and whether or not the way these characters navigated the world feels masculine or not. Which is valid criticism (see the above notes on living in a city). But I think there’s also an implicit danger in this line of critique in terms of reifying gender stereotypes. Eli and Kai don’t feel like guys because, what, they’re too touchy-feely? Maybe it’s because most of my friends are some flavor of queer/gender non-conforming or maybe it’s because I grew up identifying with the boy hero protagonists of fantasy novels, but unless it’s something egregious—something like “Caroline considered her breasts, which sagged sadly today”—I generally don’t put too much stock in whether a character feels sufficiently like a particular gender. Certainly, as someone who isn’t part of the gay male scene in Beijing, I know my portrayal of the world is going to be imperfect despite my best efforts. But when it comes to gender more generally? Gender is weird, and we all experience and express it differently. Look at how weird Americans get about K-pop stars! So I suppose the answer is that I write characters who are kind of cavalier about gender because I personally am pretty cavalier about gender.
Honestly, I was more stressed about writing Eli as a Black Asian character, as that’s an experience that comes with its own specific difficulties that I haven’t experienced. In a way, that decision was probably influenced by the fact that one of my college friends whom I love dearly is Barbadian-Japanese-Norweigan, but I wasn’t seeing many characters like them in fiction. When a character’s mixed-race Asian, we tend to assume that one parent is white, but that’s not necessarily always true in real-life, so I guess I wanted to challenge those assumptions a little. I did write Eli’s dad out of his life because I wasn’t confident in my ability to tackle some of the specifics of his relationship to Blackness (but also because I don’t really write father/child relationships in general—see Kai, whose dad is also conveniently out of the picture). I have some ideas for awkward father-son bonding between Eli and the dad he totally doesn’t have mixed feelings towards, but if I were to ever write them, I would do so carefully and with the help of as many sensitivity readers as I can. At present though, this is probably also one section of the narrative that is better left to the exploration of others. All of which is to say, if any readers see themselves in Eli’s story and want to write father-son bonding fanfiction, please do! You’ll probably do it better than I can.
Building on this thread of identity and who gets to say what and for whom, there’s been talk about #OwnVoices lately: who gets to use it and what forms of representation are considered ‘authentic’ enough. As someone’s who Chinese, there were some parts of After the Dragons that I felt definitely comfortable writing. However, as someone who’s specifically diaspora Chinese, there were other parts that were less comfortable (especially considering the last time I visited Beijing was five years ago!) For me, diaspora’s always been a process of questioning your own authenticity, your right to ‘speak’ for a population you only feel partially connected to. Given the role of Jewishness in Depart! Depart!, I was wondering whether you felt any similar feelings when writing the novella? If so, how did you manage to navigate them?
SK: Sure. My whole life I’ve felt “Jewish imposter syndrome,” being a patrilineal, non-religious Jew. I’ve encountered a lot of people (mostly non-Jews, actually) who feel comfortable telling me I’m not Jewish because I don’t meet their criteria for Jewishness. With this book, I decided to confront that ambiguity head-on. Noah feels ambivalent about his Jewishness for all the same reasons I do. He wasn’t raised religious, he doesn’t practice, and yet there’s this way that his Jewishness is powerfully interwoven with his identity. So I think because I was speaking about being an outsider-Jew, who doesn’t tick all the boxes, I felt confident in my perspective.
But I have an idea for another novel, that would be a multi-generational thing, partly set in my ancestors’ shtetl. I actually bought some history books to research it. But that’s as far as I’ve gotten, partially because I’m too intimidated. I’m scared I’m just not Jewish enough to write a shtetl-novel, and that any practicing Jews would be able to see right away that I don’t know what I’m talking about. So I admire your courage in going for it with After the Dragons. There’s a great twitter thread from June Hur about being a diaspora writer, where she relates how her mother responded to her fears that she wasn’t “Korean enough” to write about Korea. She said, “When some diaspora Koreans speak in Korean, they speak with an accent. And likewise, when we write about Korea, there will be an “accent” to our Storytelling. But she reminded me that accents are beautiful. Accents tell a story in itself. We bring in a new perspective.”
I think your “accent” in After the Dragons was beautiful, and it was a story only you could tell. A native Chinese person wouldn’t have told that story better, because it’s not theirs, it’s yours! And I guess I need to tell that to myself and write the dang shtetl book, with my own weird, Texas-Jewish accent.
CZ: That sounds super exciting, honestly! Best of luck with writing it, and I’m looking forward to seeing your Texas-Jewish accent shine through.
Moving from the books into the “real world,” I’d like to talk about a dilemma that lot of socially conscious artists and writers often face, which is how much our work really matters. Stories are important, yes, but because it’s hard to quantify the impact of fiction, there’s sometimes a small nagging voice that says, sure, but what if you devoted your life to NGO work instead? Maybe this is also my background as a grad student speaking, where a lot of angst is devoted to whether writing essays on neoliberalism or the Anthropocene actually does anything in terms of fighting these problems. I’m not sure if this is an issue you’ve dealt with before, but since Depart! Depart!’s been out in the world for a while now, I’m wondering if you’ve been able to see any ways in which the book has had a tangible impact on the real world/other people? Basically, I guess, what are the moments that reassure you about the value of the art we make?
SK: I believe in the importance of climate fiction very deeply. In fact, my faith in the power of stories is probably the closest thing I have to a religion. We cannot create a better world if we cannot imagine one, and writers are the drivers of our collective societal imagination. So I’m a believer in the power of the written word.
But in terms of concrete, tangible things–in the first week after Depart, Depart! was published, a Public Health Response Coordinator shared with me that as a result of reading my book, she was working with the Red Cross in her state to ensure that trans people would have access to safe and equal bathrooms and showers in shelters, that emergency shelters would have LGBTQ+ coordinators, and that evacuees would have access to hormonal medications. I was so moved by that, and if my little book can make even one trans person safer in a crisis, then writing it was worthwhile.
And that reminds me of one of the themes in After the Dragons: Kai is constantly hovering on the precipice of being overwhelmed by the enormity of suffering in his world. Like feral cats, there are so many dragons that are starving, discarded, and tormented–but he resists nihilism and finds his purpose in helping those he can, one at a time. At one point, Eli says, “Kai, you can’t expect everyone to be an activist,” to which Kai replies, “Can’t I?” Were either of these characters speaking for you there? Kai’s story teaches us to manage grief through small, tangible acts of good, and I was wondering in what other ways is this book a guide to channeling climate grief?
CZ: Personally, my view of activism has always been tempered by an awareness of the impossibility of perfection. In the early 2010s, there were a lot of posts floating around Tumblr that pretty hostile towards vegans. Or, maybe less vegans in general than a certain stereotype of them—i.e., self-righteous white women ready to set wild animals free regardless of the effect on local ecosystems. As a vegetarian, it was a weird place to be, but it also gave me a lot of food (ha) for thought when it comes to individual actions and morality even as I disagreed with some arguments. In a food desert, it’s hard to be picky, and there’s something deeply uncomfortable about mostly middle- or upper-class crusaders telling lower-income folks how to live. It’s not impossible to be vegan on a budget (and honestly, the relative cheapness of meat feels is a recent phenomenon—my parents recall only eating meat once or twice a year while they were growing up in rural China), but it’s also important to understand people’s situations as they are. That’s Eli’s side of that exchange, then—the willingness to cut people slack, to realize that sometimes simply surviving itself takes an incredible amount of power.
As for Kai’s side of the story—well. The more I get involved with mutual aid and local organizing, the more respect I have for how much people manage to do even when they don’t have much on paper. Homelessness is a major problem in LA, but overwhelmingly the people I’ve seen do the most for unhoused folks are not millionaires, but ordinary people—some of them earning minimum wage, some of them who’ve experienced or who are experiencing being unhoused. I think it’s important to extend empathy to people when limited mobility or a bad mental health day prevents them from, say, participating in a public protest. But I think it’s also important to remember that the billionaires are not going to save us. It’s our job to take care of each other, in the small, seemingly insignificant ways that it takes. Seeking allies in power is important, as Eli does with Dr. Wang, but it’s ultimately collective action that drives change.
Sim Kern is an environmental journalist and speculative fiction writer, exploring intersections of climate change, queerness, and social justice. Their quiet horror novella DEPART, DEPART! debuted from Stelliform Press in 2020. You can find links to all their stories at http://simkern.com.
Cynthia Zhang is a Ph.D. student in Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture at the University of Southern California. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kaleidotrope, On Spec, Phantom Drift, and other venues. A 2021 DVdebut mentee, her debut novel, After the Dragons, is out on August 19 with Stelliform Press.
Today on the site I’m thrilled to introduce two brilliant authors in conversation: Ada Hoffmann, author of The Outside and The Fallen (the latter of which just released last month from Angry Robot), and RB Lemberg, author of the Birdverse series. They’re here to chat about their work and the worldbuiliding, representation, and themes within it, so pull up a chair and listen in!
RB: I love how in the world of your novels The Outside and The Fallen, issues of faith and ethics take central place. One of the things that made me root for Yasira is seeing her grapple with ethical issues at every step. She constantly makes calculations related to fairness and right and wrong as she perceives them; I found this very relatable, and I think this is relatable to other autistic people as well. I would love to hear how you went about creating this aspect of Yasira’s character, and how this may connect to your larger worldbuilding around issues of divinity, godhood, and justice.
Ada: Thank you, RB! Ruminating and calculating about what’s right or wrong is relatable to me, too. It’s something I can paralyze myself with if I’m not careful. I wouldn’t say that autistic people are any more moral than others, overall, but I do think that this specific kind of rumination is something I see a lot.
I created Yasira some time after creating my main villains, so from the get-go I knew she needed to be someone who’d be caught between them in their machinations and would eventually need to decide for herself what side she was on. (And whenever there’s a plot dilemma like that, I almost always root for the character to come up with their own, third option!) It takes a lot of thinking things over in order to be able to make a decision like that. It was almost a plot requirement more than a character requirement, but I think it fits Yasira’s other traits well and formed a substantial part of who she is.
The worldbuilding of the Outside series is very much one that presents two bad options. I had some fun with the idea of religion being presented mechanistically, as a set of rules to follow that will have a set of well-defined spiritual outcomes–this is highlighted by the Gods of Yasira’s galaxy literally being machines. Someone like Yasira has a desire to be good and follow rules–when she accuses Tiv of doing things just to be good, and not because she really means them, it’s almost a bit of projection. It takes her time and some bad experiences before she really understands that the rules she’s been raised to follow are not just and that she cannot continue to follow them. But on the other side of the equation, the polar opposite of a mechanistic religion is Outside, which is just this wild, utterly unknowable mystical force with no regard for human lives or suffering whatsoever, and that doesn’t seem to be a good option either.
I talk about Yasira finding a third option, but in the end I suppose it’s not fully a third option–she doesn’t go off on her own and create a completely different, third religion. Instead she really does come to revere Outside in some ways, but she has to reconcile that with her own very human belief in justice and human dignity and that it’s worth saving as many human lives as she possibly can. A lot of Yasira’s heroism lies in the ability to do that reconciliation, at great cost to herself. Meanwhile Dr. Talirr is a villain because she discards that belief – her own very human tendency is to sacrifice other people, mostly people she doesn’t know, to advance her own aims.
Or at least that’s my own moral take on what’s going on in this series –I do find it rewarding when readers come up with their own nuanced interpretations that are a bit different from mine. That tells me that I’ve given them enough to chew on, philosophically, that they’re really thinking about it and concluding things on their own, and I like when that happens.
RB, you write a lot about divinity and mysticism as well in your Birdverse series, which I love. In The Four Profound Weaves, I was really struck by the depth of meaning in the four weaves of the title, with characters who can weave carpets out of substances as abstract as songs, bones, sand, and wind. They are a counter-intuitive set of things to build carpets out of at first glance, but each one has a very particular emotional meaning, and the end of the novella combines these meanings and shows them as being intertwined, in a kind of cycle or a weave consisting of all four threads. What led you to choose these four particular substances, these four particular meanings? Did you consider many possible ones, or did you always know deep down it would be these four?
RB: Thank you so much for those thoughtful answers, Ada, lots to chew on! I want to talk more about Dr. Talirr, if that’s OK–I loved seeing two autistic women in a mentoring relationship. I rarely see women mentors and mentees, and I rarely see an autistic mentor/autistic mentee relationship, even though I feel this happens frequently in life, so the complicated relationship between Dr. Talirr and Yasira felt exciting to me. I love how central this relationship is to the world of the Outside, and how deep their conflict is. I think that from a normative human perspective, the value of human lives outweighs most other concerns, but that, too, can be broken – if the fundamental relationship to reality itself is altered, ethics are altered as well, and with them the value of human lives; that is, perhaps, what makes Dr. Talirr a heretic rather than straightforwardly a villain. I guess that’s those other interpretations you mentioned 🙂
As for the four weaves, I was always deeply interested in the relationship between hope and death. Years before I was a published writer, I envisioned hope and death as sibling birds, circling around each other as they descend towards a person on the ground. The imagery of hope and death as birds appears in print for the first time in one of my early poems, “Twin-Born,” in Goblin Fruit.
Hope and death are intertwined in paradoxical yet intuitively familiar ways. I see both hope and death as properties of humanity as a whole, its defining characteristics, if you will. As for change and wanderlust, I envisioned those as properties of individuals, and both are very important to me. In The Four Profound Weaves and elsewhere, I interpreted change as it relates to transness, to coming out; change is both frightening and necessary in order to embrace one’s fullest self. As for wanderlust, it is also a property of an individual, and specifically my own need as an autistic person–to roam both physically and intellectually, to explore and wander. I often think about the absence of wanderlust as stagnation, being stuck in one place that neither hope nor death can reach. Change and wanderlust are weaves that represent the protagonists nen-sasaïr and Uiziya, both of whom are trans, both of whom have been feeling stuck in their lives for a very long time. Embracing both change and wanderlust leads them to the two other, more collective, weaves of hope and death. Readers sometimes ask me which is my favorite weave. Right now I will have say wanderlust; the best ending for me always leads to new adventures. The thing I desire most in my own life right now is to be free to wander, as a person who exists in a physical world, as a writer, as a scholar. I think that in 2021, many people would agree with me. As for how I chose these particular weaves: my process is always organic and almost dreamlike. I endlessly ruminate on imagery, turn things this way and that in my mind, and write poems until the structure solidifies.
Speaking about divinity and worldbuilding process, would you mind talking about how you came up with the individual AI gods in the world of The Outside? Is there any god or gods that you wanted to explore more, but did not have a chance yet?
ADA: I did love writing the complicated relationship between Yasira and Dr. Talirr, so I’m glad that comes off compellingly. They share a neurotype and a kind of mystical experience that almost no one else does, but they’re so different in the ways they’ve been brought up and rewarded or punished for their neurotype, and in the attitudes they take. It leads to a kind of intense ambivalence that was really rewarding to explore. We definitely haven’t seen the last of Dr. Talirr.
For the AI Gods, I knew immediately that I wanted each of them to represent a human tendency, something that’s present in everyone, but drives some people more than others. And from very early on I knew a few of the Gods that I wanted to include–Nemesis, of course, and a God of creativity (who eventually became Techne), and Gods of the pursuit of knowledge (Aletheia) and of love (Philophrosyne), as well as a fallen, demonized figure to play the role of the Keres. But the full list of Gods wasn’t finalized right away. Eventually, an early collaborator suggested that I should name the Gods after ancient Greek personifications of concepts, because my initial attempts at naming Them did not sound God-like enough. So I actually found a list of these and went through them one name at a time, jotting down the ones that seemed compelling to me and sufficiently different from the others to play a role in this cosmology. Not all of the concepts are very flattering – there is a God of conformity, for instance, and a God of laziness! But these are human tendencies that play an important role. Without something that could be labeled as laziness, for instance, we would never know when we need to take a break and rest. I wasn’t dead set on having a specific number of Gods, but the number that I eventually settled on (eleven “proper” gods, with the Keres making a ghostly and implicit twelfth) felt good.
We definitely don’t get a lot of time on the page, in these books, exploring other Gods besides Nemesis, but I would love to do that exploration some day, maybe in side stories. Nemesis is pretty unambiguously terrible, but there are Gods who play much more joyful, gentler roles and I have headcanons about several of Them. I think Philophrosyne’s priests do beautiful wedding ceremonies as well as having ways of honoring other, non-romantic forms of love. I think Gelos, the God of pleasure, has angels who are elusive but who suddenly pop up on a planet every once in a while with some fascinating God-built art installation or theme park-like attraction that’s like nothing the local mortals have ever seen.
The Fallen does contain hints of the complex relationship between Nemesis and Arete, the God of heroism. The two of Them often find themselves working together for the same goals but with very different methods, which leads to Nemesis’ harsh methods being softened a bit, but also Arete’s helpful intentions getting very morally compromised.
Let’s talk more about those trans themes in The Four Profound Weaves. It’s not the first time you’ve written trans characters, but I was struck by the complexity of nen-sasaïr’s arc, with regards to gender. We so often think of physical transition as an endpoint, an end goal, especially in a medical system that often reserves affirming medical care for people who can prove they have already socially transitioned. But nen-sasaïr’s story is almost the opposite of that. He has fully transitioned and is living his life as a man, but he is not in his home culture, and he experiences intense ambivalence as to whether he can ever return to that culture, whether the men of his culture would ever accept him as one of them, whether or not that’s even what he wants. Can you say more about this kind of ambivalence?
RB: I come to my stories from an international perspective, as a migrant and a person who has lived in different parts of the world, so the social norms around transitioning in the US are not where my worldbuilding originates. I always assume that trans and queer identities differ between various cultures and time periods. We can find a variety of attitudes even within a single culture – this is true for our world, and for Birdverse. As a migrant, I am always interested in exploring how trans and queer people navigate intersections of cultures, with all the different cultural norms and expectations. Throughout his life, nen-sasaïr experienced his society as trans-rejecting even as it embraces queerness. There are a lot of what we would call TERFy attitudes among his loved ones and in his home culture. In his twenties, nen-sasaïr accompanies his lover Bashri-nai-Leylit on a trading venture to the great Burri desert. Their journey is motivated by desperation – they are trying to acquire the greatest treasure ever woven, to buy back the life of their third lover, Bashri-nai-Divrah.
In the desert, among the snake-Surun’ people, nen-sasaïr witnesses a very different reality–trans people are affirmed, transition is a communal event; everyone who loves a trans person are invited to assist their transition through the act of weaving. This is shocking to nen-sasaïr. Among the snake-Surun’ he meets Benesret, a famous weaver who is ready to assist him with his physical transition. But he feels that transitioning will take him away from his home culture, and from his lover Bashri-nai-Leylit, who is not accepting of his transness; that would also mean giving up on rescuing Bashri-nai-Divrah. He cannot go through with his transition then, but he always wants to come back, and it takes him forty years to do so. His story cannot end with finally transitioning in his sixties; in fact, it barely begins there. Once he physically transitions, he is still left with those same old traumas and dilemmas – Bashri-nai-Leylit died without affirming him, his culture is still rejecting, the story of Bashri-nai-Divrah is unfinished, and he feels that while he is a man, he has no place among Khana men. His eventual journey does not end on a single triumphant note – he cannot completely change his society, and he is also not willing to leave his friends behind to join the world of the Khana men. But he is able to become more deeply and truly himself without erasing any part of his journey.
This is a story of older people, and older, complex lives in which transness is a huge part of the story, but not the totality of the story. My hope for him is that in his travels, he will find a different pocket of the Khana culture which is more affirming. The Khana people are diasporic, and there are other groups scattered around the landmass. Most are quite similar culturally to nen-sasaïr’s home in Iyar, but a few are a bit different. A certain bird whispered in my ear that he might just be headed that way.
So let’s talk about transness a bit, and villains, although I am honestly reluctant to use this word with many of the Outside villains. I am fascinated by Akavi, who is a shape-shifter and a (eventually, fallen) angel of Nemesis in the world of The Outside. He is a shape-changer who enjoys taking a female form from time to time, and he also assumes female pronouns when he does so – I would love to hear more about how this character came about, whether or not you view him as trans (he seems to identify as a man?), and I would also love to hear you talk about the relationship between shapechange and transness in your work and in general. While we are talking about Akavi, I would also love to hear more about the relationship between Akavi and Elu. Elu is obviously in love with Akavi and he comes across as a gentle, caring person – how come he is an angel of Nemesis? Without spoilers, what does the future hold for these two?
ADA: Oh my goodness, transness and shapeshifting and villains, yes! The first thing I want to say about Akavi and gender is that he’s a character I started wanting to write about long before I realized that I might be genderfluid myself. When I look at him from a queer perspective I see a lot about my early self kind of hesitantly poking my toe into questions and fantasies about gender, about what gender means and what form it can take, but without quite admitting to myself that I was doing it, or that it had anything to do with being trans. There’s an additional layer here in that the person who first came up with Akavi, as a D&D character, is not me – I write the science fiction version of Akavi with that person’s enthusiastic consent, and he is also not completely binary gendered himself. So when I look at Akavi he’s not necessarily the kind of character I would create if I were starting from scratch, trying to write a story about gender today, but he’s still a character who is very important to me.
I think that Akavi does identify as male, but with some caveats. I think that the Vaurian idea of gender is a bit more fluid and flexible than we are used to (and as you point out, I am being a bit North America-centric here). I think it would be relatively uncommon, though certainly not unknown, for a Vaurian to be so attached to a single gender that they won’t want to present as another one sometimes when it fits the situation. Vaurians are not exactly a culture – they are an engineered human variant that has spread through several mortal cultures – but what they have in the way of culture places a high value on blending in and committing to a role. And that includes using pronouns that fit the presentation they are using at the time. So Akavi thinks of himself as a man, but he has a very expansive idea of what it means to be a man, which includes presenting as or referring to himself as though he’s a woman at times. My friend who created the character referred to it as magical cross-dressing, which I think is still accurate.
Shapeshifting is an extremely common trans fantasy but I’ve also seen a lot of non-binary readers complaining that they are tired of shapeshifting characters, especially when that is so often the only trans or non-binary representation that a work will offer. In The Outside the only characters that really invite a trans or non-binary reading are Akavi and his supervisor Irimiru, who is also a Vaurian, and who uses a mix of pronouns including they/them. Needless to say it’s not ideal for the only non-binary characters in a work to be manipulative, untrustworthy shapeshifters! When I wrote The Outside I wasn’t really thinking very hard about this, but by the time I came to The Fallen I was more aware of it. I’m still attached to the Vaurians and I don’t think there is anything wrong with having written them, but there was room in the plot for several new characters, so I have added various characters who are also somewhere on the trans spectrum, and who are not shapeshifters, or manipulative or untrustworthy at all. I hope that goes some ways towards balancing it out.
And then, Elu. Elu! Elu is a character very dear to my heart, and I would also call him a problematic character – not in the sense of being offensive or bad, but in the sense of calling attention to problems and inviting difficult questions. Elu talks about his backstory a little bit in The Outside, and this is expanded on a little more in The Fallen. Nemesis presents Herself as someone who uses ruthless methods in order to protect humanity, to save them from even worse things. Elu had an intense experience as a child where Nemesis’ forces saved his planet from a violent attack by the Keres. He is idealistic, and he grew up wanting to help save other people in that same way. But when he became an angel in order to do this, he discovered that it was not really what he thought, and it was also too late to take it back. Elu’s attachment to Akavi – to an individual in the system who is important to him, rather than necessarily the system itself – is one of his ways of coping with this reality, I think.
I have to say I have a lot of feelings about Akavi and Elu’s relationship. I’m someone who is very attracted to villains, which is not at all uncommon – you can look into any given fandom and see it happening. I have also had, shall we say, not the easiest romantic history ever, and when a person behaves abusively it is very easy to turn it back on myself and imagine I must have invited that behavior somehow; maybe if I am drawn to bad people, even if I don’t fully realize they are bad, then whatever happens next is my own fault for being drawn to them. That feeling is bullshit and victim-blaming but it can feel very emotionally true, and frankly I feel complicit in a lot of the worst things that have happened to me in relationships. So, I often catch myself projecting those feelings onto Elu, too. He is kind and gentle, but he is still a cog in a very harmful machine and he became that way because of his own choices. He is not free from responsibility, and deep down he knows that, and while he is on the run from the Gods with Akavi he continues to be complicit in what Akavi is doing.
It’s very easy to construct an arc for Elu that is all about punishing him for the choices he’s made, either out of naive, misplaced idealism or in a bid to survive. But I hope that the arc I have actually constructed for him in The Fallen manages to avoid this. It’s not an easy arc for him, because he is, after all, on the run with Akavi, and Akavi is not a person who is very interested or capable of maintaining a healthy relationship. But I also found that in the process of writing the book, as I wrote how Elu adapts and survives in a situation that’s increasingly unpleasant for him, I was able to find a lot more compassion for him than when I started.
RB, I find myself thinking of what you said about wanderlust as I look at the impressive variety of things you’ve done in your creative life. You have the Birdverse fantasy setting, which is sprawling and complex enough to include many kinds of stories in many cultures, but you also have other settings, and you write poetry, and you have been a poetry editor putting many projects together; you have written essays and are writing a scholarly volume about Ursula K. LeGuin, and now your memoir, Everything Thaws, is coming out in 2022! I want to know, what challenges have you encountered in a creative life that includes so many diverse things? Do you find that writing in a certain genre helps enrich the writing you do in another?
RB: Thanks for this question! My biggest challenges involve juggling my overwhelming day job in academia, my family obligations, and the fact that I am on the spectrum, and overwhelm and burnout are never far from me. I have diverse interests, and my creativity takes different forms – I write fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and I do scholarship of different kinds; I do art, and I love editing. This diversity can be viewed as a strength, but it can also easily be spun as a weakness. I often think that under capitalism, we tend to view anything which is not “one brand, one push” as a detriment, and it’s certainly much less easy to monetize a creative career which takes so many forms, but that’s me, and I do not want to undo myself. I keep reminding myself that Ursula K. Le Guin, who is in many ways my lodestar, also worked across many genres. She wrote poetry and prose, she edited, she translated, she wrote endless incredible pieces of creative nonfiction, she published with a variety of presses big and small – and can I just say, her doodles are phenomenal! There is more than one way to be a creator in this world. All of my pieces work together – my scholarship enriches my fiction and vice versa, and the art I do comes from my worlds as well; everything is interconnected.
Speaking of which, you too have produced work in different genres and areas! I love your poetry, and I would love to hear more about your recent poetry book Million-Year Elegies. Do you see these poems connected – thematically, philosophically – to the ideas and inspirations of the Outside books? I would also love to talk to you about The Autistic Book Party, your long-running review column highlighting works with autistic characters and/or works by autistic
creators. How does your reviewing inspire or support your fiction?
ADA: I hadn’t thought about connections between Million-Year Elegies and the Outside series until you asked! They’re two very different things, but now that I think of it, they do have several big themes in common – trauma, subjectivity, and upheaval. Both works contain characters dealing with the effects of both personal and collective trauma. Million-Year Elegies really ruminates on the topic of trauma – it writes from the perspective of ancient creatures who have survived (or failed to survive) mass extinctions, as well as creatures dealing with predators and injuries and other shattering events on a more personal level. It talks about loss and grief and how cycles of abuse replicate themselves, and it also talks about growth and flourishing and rebirth and how life springs up again in a new form after devastation.
The Outside series has a lot of individually traumatized characters, and The Fallen in particular does a lot to show how they are coping with trauma and what the longer-term effects are. Maybe it does too much with that; my writing is a little too introspective for some readers’ tastes, even when there are things blowing up, cosmic horrors stalking the earth, and cool cyborg angels swooping around in big spaceships. But that’s just me and how I think. And it deals with massive changes to a particular planet that fundamentally and traumatically alter what life is like there, and how the whole society of that world has adjusted in a bid to survive.
We are, of course, in the middle of a mass extinction right now, as well as a pandemic, a resurgence of fascism, and various other global emergencies, and I think that’s beginning to bubble up through everyone’s creative work in more and more obvious ways. And I’ve never really been interested in writing calls to action about these things – I sort of think that everyone in my reach who can act, already knows they should act, and is probably beating themselves up for not doing more! But I suppose what does interest me as a writer is understanding what these crises do to people’s minds and to the ways they connect or fail to connect with one another. So that shows up in a big way in both works.
The other theme I mentioned is subjectivity. Dr. Talirr likes to say that reality is a lie – that there’s something about our perception that inherently fails to grasp some of the deepest truths. Million-Year Elegies plays with that idea in its own way; there are a lot of poems about humans finding dinosaur bones and inherently interpreting them in a human, culturally specific way, failing to grasp something about them. Filling in the gaps in what’s known with their own human concerns, I suppose, as one would with frog DNA. And my own take on what dinosaurs mean to me or what I imagine them saying and experiencing, in the poems, is just as human and just as subjective. A human point of view is something you can’t ever really escape from, and I’m not even sure the effects would be desirable if we did, but I think about it a lot.
Autistic Book Party is something I started over a decade ago, when I was much less established as a writer than I am now, and the publishing landscape for autistic people was also a bit different. It’s definitely been a project I’ve learned a lot from as a writer – I had to teach myself wider knowledge about autistic community and self-advocacy as I went, and I started noticing all sorts of patterns I hadn’t noticed before. I’ve learned a lot about autism representation, what’s out there, what the common problems are, where the gaps are, and also about the good work that many autistic authors are already doing. It’s enriched how I write about autism but it’s also been something that I feel a need to step away from at times. When you think so intensely about representing a particular thing it gets easy to overthink it, and to stop writing projects before they begin because you’re so worried about getting it wrong. When you see the viciousness on social media towards authors who do get it wrong – which doesn’t just mean writing something bigoted by accident, or phrasing something carelessly but also just writing representation in a way that isn’t what some portion of the audience was hoping for – it’s easy for this worry to be magnified. Sometimes I have to step out of my critical reviewer’s mind and just shamelessly follow some other creative impulse and see what happens, because otherwise I just won’t write anything at all. And sometimes that conflict makes me angst about whether this kind of reviewing is even a good idea. But the reviews series is so important to so many autistic readers, I always end up resolving to keep it going in some form.
Tell me more about Everything Thaws, your upcoming poetry memoir. In this memoir you’ve promised to cover a wide range of topics – Soviet Jews, climate change, queerness, multigenerational trauma. It sounds like heavy and fascinating work. What can Birdverse readers expect from you when they come to this book?
RB: Awesome! I felt there was a connection to be made between Million-Year Elegies and The Outside, and I love how you articulated it. As for being “too introspective”, that’s what I especially love about your writing. I think introspection is necessary with the themes you are dealing with – examining the very nature of reality demands a fair amount of introspection, I think! Of course, this reflects my own preferences – I am always on the lookout for stories that deal with the impact of action – all too often fast-paced books do not stop to consider the impact of these fast-paced, often traumatic experiences on the protagonists, and I find this difficult to relate to. The attention to trauma and neurodiversity is something I really appreciate about your fiction, in-between the cool cosmic horror!
Everything Thaws is about multigenerational trauma and memory, it is a very migrant, diasporic text. It’s my first fully-fledged foray into non-speculative writing, and it’s something I felt compelled to write and worked on for three years after my father passed away. I am glad this book found a good home, and I’m looking forward to what people think about it – people beyond the speculative realm, actually. I have no idea what Birdverse readers might get from this – beyond that it is something I wrote and it deals with my usual themes – identity, migration, queerness, history, art, materiality – in a realistic setting that includes an ice dragon. The dragon existed.
Reading The Outside, I couldn’t stop thinking about the punitive “corrective” treatments Dr. Talirr underwent as a child. The treatments were designed to wean her off the Outside heresy, but given that Dr. Talirr is also autistic, I felt that this evoked a discussion of ABA and similar terrible treatments so often inflicted upon autistic children. This treatment has a traumatizing impact upon Dr. Talirr as a child, and her parents decide to pull her out of treatment despite the wishes of the agents of Nemesis. I would love to hear your thoughts about the “cure” narratives we encounter so often in stories with neurodiverse and/or disabled protagonists – as a field, we have been pushing against these narratives for quite some time, but I feel that we still have quite a ways to go, both as a society and in publishing. Do you intend to continueexploring these themes in the future?
ADA: Thank you for this question! I think we see this less often nowadays in speculative fiction than we did even ten years ago, the idea that a happy ending for an autistic character is to cure their autism and make them neurotypical. People are becoming more aware that this isn’t what an autistic person would consider a happy ending, that it involves essentially destroying the person the character was until that point, and remaking them into a new shape, and autistic people generally do not want to go through that process. Even from the people providing ABA-like therapies, I see slightly more awareness these days. Ivor Lovaas, who invented this therapy, famously said that the autistic child was not a person and that the person needed to be built through conditioning. Nowadays we do not see providers using this language – they talk more about building skills and getting the child to be ready to face the world.
Yet, the therapies are still abusive. The Judge Rotenberg Center is still using electric shocks as an aversive! Even the softest, most outwardly positive, punishment-free versions of ABA are coercive in nature. The child’s expressions of distress or attempts to withdraw consent are ignored. And the aim of the therapy, the skills being built, are skills of conformity and acting as a neurotypical adult expects, even if it compounds the autistic person’s distress. There is an assumption that if the autistic person is outwardly remade and begins to look neurotypical, from the outside, then this will make it easier for them to live a fulfilling life in neurotypical society. When, actually, the opposite is true – the skill of masking, looking neurotypical, has significant negative effects on mental health and even on life skills. This is borne out by the data, when people bother to collect the data on autistic adults. It’s a constant, exhausting, dehumanizing effort. And the impulse to teach autistic people this skill, I think, comes from the same place as the impulse to cure them. The underlying aim is not to make the autistic person happy, but to free neurotypical people from having to think about autism.
I should note that when I talk about this, I am not speaking from lived experience – I am not an ABA survivor myself. ABA is generally done to young children and I was not diagnosed until my teens. But I am speaking based on what I have consistently heard from many different ABA survivors in the autistic community. And I think that even for autistic people who did not go through therapy, we are taught through more informal means that we need to mask in order to survive or be worthy of existing among other people. And at some point in our lives we have to actively unlearn that, often in the wake of burnout when it becomes impossible to do anymore.
As for returning to these themes, it’s really hard to say. My writing process is that I start with a character or scene idea that seems very shiny and exciting to me, and I construct the scaffolding of a plot around that; many of the deeper themes of the work don’t become apparent until later, when I’ve worked on it more and seen the shape it takes on the page. I didn’t know that Dr. Talirr was going to have something ABA-like in her backstory until I was midway through the draft. So, I have no specific plans, but that doesn’t mean I won’t return to it at some point!
Definitely the theme of masking, if not of therapy or cures exactly, is one that I have been thinking about almost obsessively for the past couple of years. Not just in terms of autism, but also in terms of how queer people mask some part of themselves in order to pass or stay closeted, how all sorts of marginalized people have to mask as a part of respectability politics – even if their marginalization as such, in terms of what label applies to them, is not kept secret. It is a survival strategy; I do not want to call it morally wrong. But it takes such a toll on us as humans and on our relationships with each other as humans. I feel like I am actively searching for ways to unmask more, and I am also wrestling with how to balance that need with the need for privacy and safety. So I would be shocked if that search isn’t reflected in my future fiction at some point, but I don’t know yet exactly where it will be, or what it will look like. It will find a place to situate itself, I am sure.
You mentioned that you see Ursula K. Le Guin as your lodestar. You edited a poetry collection, Climbing Lightly Through Forests, in honor of Le Guin, which included your own literary overview of Le Guin’s poetry. (Spoiler alert: a poem of mine appears in Climbing Lightly Through Forests as well.) I heard you have now received a grant to produce an academic book about this topic. Can you tell me more about this project? What draws you to Le Guin’s poetry in particular? What have you learned so far by looking at it, and what are you hoping to learn in the archives?
RB: I’m very excited about any future work you might do that explores masking, both as a survival strategy and something that can be toxic and erasing – it’s something I struggle with in my own life, and I am sure anything you write about it will be meaningful.
As for Climbing Lightly Through Forests, I co-edited this collection with Lisa M.Bradley, whose work in both prose and poetry should definitely be more widely known! When I originally pitched the book to Aqueduct, I promised to write a Le Guin poetry retrospective to round out the volume of poetic tributes. I knew Ursula’s poetry well and read many of her collections, but I did not realize just how much poetry she’s written, and how deeply she cared about her poetry throughout her life – the first thing she’s written, at age five, was a poem, and she worked on her poetry until the very last. The vast majority of her poetry is not speculative, but it reflects her inner rich life, her recurrent and evolving perspectives on dying, and on the nature of the Pacific Northwest. Early in 2020, I was named the 2020 Le Guin Feminist Fellow by the University of Oregon Libraries, but the library closed to outside researchers during the pandemic, and I could not do my archival research. I am finally getting my chance to go this August. I am hoping to find correspondence, any journal entries, and other archival material that could shed light on her process as a poet. I’m also hoping to find unpublished poems! I am tentatively calling my academic manuscript in process My Old Tongue Breaks in Two: The Poetry of Ursula K. Le Guin. I hope to report more on my findings later this summer, mostly on Patreon – this is where I’m mostly at, these days.
What’s next for you as an author? What are you working on right now?
ADA: Right now I am working on Book Three in the Outside series (which has yet to be named, although in my notes I am calling it simply, Nemesis.) I am really struggling with this one and I’m not quite sure yet what form it will take by the time it has been finished and revised and sent to readers, but it is going to happen! My hope for it is that it goes even further – in one direction or another! to be determined! – than the books before it.
And to wrap up, I will ask the same question back to you – what are you working on now? What future project, or projects, are you most excited about?
RB: I am finishing the big revision on my new Birdverse novel The Unbalancing, which is a book about a group of queer and nonbinary magic keepers who are trying to prevent an environmental and magical disaster. The book started out as a novella, but it has been expanded into a short(ish) novel now, and I am looking forward to share these people, and these themes, with my readers. After that, I’ll go back to work on my big Birdverse novel Bridgers, which I keep talking about. It’s about revolution and linguistics and deeply explored Jewish themes, and I need to get this right.
Thank you for a chance to ask and answer these questions! I am very excited for the launch of The Fallen – looking forward to finishing the book, it’s great so far!! I hope more and more people will find your work.
ADA: You’re very welcome, RB, and thank you too for these wonderful questions and answers! It’s been a pleasure and I hope your future projects go very well.
Ada Hoffmann is the author of the space opera novel THE OUTSIDE, its sequel THE FALLEN, the collection MONSTERS IN MY MIND, and dozens of speculative short stories and poems. Ada’s work has been a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award (2020, THE OUTSIDE), the Compton Crook Award (2020, THE OUTSIDE), and the WSFA Small Press Award (2020, “Fairest of All”).
Ada was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at the age of 13, and is passionate about autistic self-advocacy. Her Autistic Book Party review series is devoted to in-depth discussions of autism representation in speculative fiction. Much of her own work also features autistic characters.
Ada is an adjunct professor of computer science at a major Canadian university, and she did her PhD thesis (in 2018) on teaching computers to write poetry. She is a former semi-professional soprano, tabletop gaming enthusiast, and LARPer. She lives in eastern Ontario.
R.B. Lemberg is a queer, bigender immigrant from Eastern Europe to the US. R.B.’s novella The Four Profound Weaves (Tachyon, 2020) is a finalist for the Nebula, Ignyte, and Locus awards. R.B.’s novel The Unbalancing is forthcoming from Tachyon in 2022, and their poetry memoir Everything Thaws will be published by Ben Yehuda Press, also in 2022. You can find R.B. on Twitter at @rb_lemberg, on Patreon at http://patreon.com/rblemberg, and at their website rblemberg.net
It’s always a delight to have new authors on the site, and today we’ve got two! Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman are the coauthors behind The Very Nice Box, which released just yesterday from HMH! Here’s a little more info about the book:
Ava Simon designs storage boxes for STÄDA, a slick Brooklyn-based furniture company. She’s hard-working, obsessive, and heartbroken from a tragedy that killed her girlfriend and upended her life. It’s been years since she’s let anyone in.
But when Ava’s new boss—the young and magnetic Mat Putnam—offers Ava a ride home one afternoon, an unlikely relationship blossoms. Ava remembers how rewarding it can be to open up—and, despite her instincts, she becomes enamored. But Mat isn’t who he claims to be, and the romance takes a sharp turn.
And now, please welcome our authors in conversation, Eve Gleichman and Laura Blackett!
EG: We wrote the novel over eighteen months, having never attempted anything like it before. What was the most challenging part of our collaboration, for you?
LB: The most challenging part was getting started– I can remember the feeling of writing my first chapter and wondering what you would think of it, and whether we’d have compatible voices and writing styles. So starting required a certain amount of vulnerability that felt exciting and very new to me. But it didn’t take long for us to find our rhythm. As we gained momentum I remember feeling surprised by how much fun it was, and I almost forgot that writing a novel in this collaborative way isn’t exactly the norm. I think the collaboration itself is queer in that way, because it exists outside the dominant narrative about what authorship and creativity looks like.
EG: I totally agree. It was such a joy to build off each other’s ideas, which I think you can really feel as you read it. The collaboration forced us to let go of our egos and narrative control. We trusted the characters and each other, and the plot unrolled from there.
LB: Speaking of the characters, let’s talk about Ava. She’s mostly dated women, now she’s falling for a cis man, and the book doesn’t define her sexuality. How have people responded to this? How have you come to understand her identity?
EG: It’s funny, we didn’t set out to write a queer book, or a satirical book, or a romantic book, but it ended up being all three. The most interesting aspect of Ava’s queerness, I think, is that it’s not fraught for her. She’s such a tightly-wound person, and yet her queerness, which is ambiguous and unpredictable, doesn’t bother her. She doesn’t suffer or experience shame–she simply is queer and able to live out that part of her life freely, which is a privilege. I was anticipating that readers would get caught up in whether or not she’s “gay,” but more often what we’ve heard is that readers actually identify with the complexity of her queer identity.
LB: Right, I loved giving Ava the gift of having an identity that was flexible and shifting. We gave her the leg room to be whoever she is, and to follow her curiosity and desires without putting her under a microscope.
EG: Plus, Ava’s already going through a lot. I wonder why we put Ava through so much. What do you think?
LB: Ava’s character was really where the book started. When I think back to the tiniest seed of an idea, it was her character– her neuroses, her rigidity. I think we knew about the things that irk her, and the images she uses to soothe herself, like a screwdriver fitting perfectly into the head of a screw and turning. And then we had to get really curious about her. What happened to her? Why does she move through the world this way? Is it helping her or hurting her? I think once we started asking those questions, her back story started to fill in. It was more interesting to us to have a character whose coping mechanisms are both hurting her and helping her. It’s much better than watching someone who is restrained and closed off for no clear reason. That’s what makes her relationship with Mat so interesting. He, like us, wants her to open up a little.
EG: Right, and I think it’s also what makes Mat at least somewhat appealing. It’s satisfying to see someone disrupt Ava’s routine. He’s a total bro, but we’re willing to give him a pass, because he’s forcing Ava to confront herself.
LB: And it makes sense why Ava in particular is attracted to him. Yes, he’s handsome, but he also moves through the world in this really smooth, confident way. He’s learned how to use his openness and extraversion as a form of currency. He’s the perfect cog in the machine that is STADA, a company that’s obsessed with team spirit and self expression.
EG: One part of Mat that was really interesting to write was his anxiety about dating a woman who has historically only been with other women. He’s sort of performatively surprised to hear this at first, and then he requires reassurance that he’s giving Ava what she needs. What do you think we were going for in those scenes?
LB: It was a really fun way to start to see some fissures in his otherwise completely confident personality. Mat doesn’t have the tools to fully access or understand Ava’s queerness. He’s not asking the right questions, and he’s not really even that curious about her identity. The book is written from Ava’s point of view, and we see her intense curiosity about what makes Mat tick. I doubt that curiosity is reciprocal. It was extremely fun to write Andie, and see the contrast between Ava’s experiences with men and women. Andie is curious about Ava’s desires and interested in (and excited by!) the capaciousness of her identity.
EG: Totally. Andie’s curiosity was such a special part of her personality. I love that when confronted with the complexity of Ava’s desire, Andie leans into it, rather than away from it.
LB: Who’s your favorite queer character in The Very Nice Box? You can’t pick Ava.
EG: And I wouldn’t want to! Ava is great, but her flaws are frustrating. She’s hard-headed and myopic. I’d have to go with Jaime. He’s patient with Ava, whip-smart, a great friend, and incredibly cute. How about you?
LB: I love Jaime too, and I’m extremely curious about his partner Chas, a trans man who is one of the only characters that exists outside the world of STADA. He has no interest in the flashy corporate gimmicks, and I think he seems really cool. I also would like to write some sort of spinoff, if only for my own enjoyment, of the queer Brooklynites we meet at a party that one of Ava’s internet dates brings her to.
EG: Lastly, what’s one thing you hope queer readers take away from the book?
LB: I want queer readers to feel entertained and to walk away with a crush on at least one of the characters.
EG: Yes! The entertainment aspect is big. I had a blast writing this book with you, and I hope our readers can feel that joy and experience it themselves.
LAURA BLACKETT is a woodworker and writer based in Brooklyn. EVE GLEICHMAN’s short stories have appeared in the Kenyon Review, the Harvard Review, BOMB Daily, and elsewhere. Eve is a graduate of Brooklyn College’s MFA fiction program and lives in Brooklyn.
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.