Today on the site, we’re celebrating two more authors of brand-new queer YAs: Tessa Gratton, whom you might know from Strange Grace, LadyHotspur, or any other number of queer books, and whose most recent queer YA is a standalone fantasy called Night Shine—starring a panromantic questioning protagonist and genderfluid, lesbian, and gay love interests—which released on September 8th, and debut Rebecca Coffindaffer, whose space opera, Crownchasers, stars a panromantic and pansexual protag and demisexual love interest in an m/f pairing and releases on September 29th! Make sure you check out September’s New Releases post for info and links to both books! And now, here are the authors!
TESSA: Hi! I’m Tessa Gratton, author of both YA and adult SFF novels. My new release is Night Shine, which I’m pitching as a dark, queer Howl’s Moving Castle. It comes out September 8th from McElderry Books, and as luck would have it, one of my longest-term writer friends, Rebecca Coffindaffer, has her debut novel coming out the same month. It’s called Crownchasers, and is the opening of a wild, intense space opera series. Think gender-bent Indiana Jones in space, with lots of twisty politics, a deadly scavenger hunt, and a both sweet and hot slow burn friends-to-lovers romance.
BECCA: I’d say the main character, Alyssa Farshot. Her voice and this concept of sort of a gender-bent Han Solo or Indiana Jones kind of character—someone who flies fast, talks fast, takes tons of risk—all that definitely came first. And once I had her, it just became a matter of exploring everything I’ve always loved about science fiction. I grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars, I had a deep and abiding love affair with the rebooted Battlestar Galactica…I mean, if there is a book or movie or TV show set in space, I will eat it up, and I wanted to write a space opera story that embraced and combined all of my favorite tropes of the genre in some new, fun ways.
Okay, Tessa, talk to me about the initial spark behind the story that became Night Shine and how it evolved from original concept to the book that hits shelves in September.
TESSA: Here is something wild: I don’t remember the initial spark for Night Shine! The first five pages have been sitting in my “ideas” folder since about 2011, and I’ve been trying to remember what triggered them. I can’t, and it’s extremely frustrating, LOL. What I do know is why I picked now to actually write the book. It was September 2018 and Strange Grace had launched, so I wanted to try and sell a new YA. I pulled out all my in-progress notebooks and went through my ideas folder to pick something that might speak to me, that felt ready in that amorphous creative way. I landed on Night Shine because it was the only idea that felt light and fun. That’s what I needed, because I was going to be working on it during long days at the hospital while my mom was dying. Night Shine had the space for me to throw in everything I love, tropes and archetypes that delight me—with nothing to make me sad. I made the four MCs my favorite love interest/villain tropes: dark maybe-evil sorcerer; sexy wicked prince; demon in disguise; loyal beleaguered bodyguard. And I made everybody queer. I gave them unicorns and dragons, demon familiars and a spirit-infested rainforest. Volcanoes and heart-stealing and really complicated relationships. I gave them magic that is definitively non-binary.
tl;dr: the inspiration behind Night Shine was to write a joyful story for myself, for my genderqueer, shapeshifting self, in order to stay grounded and creative during a very tough time.
You mention some of your favorite SFF shows, but is there a current show you’re addicted to right now?
BECCA: I feel like you’re asking me this question because you highly suspect what my answer will be, given that you and Natalie had a hand in creating my latest scifi show obsession! 😀 The truth is, we’re living in an amazing Star Trek resurgence right now—a Star Trek renaissance. A Trek-aissance, if you will. I recently consumed the first two seasons of Discovery and the first season of Picard, all in pretty quick succession after I hit my latest deadline, and it’s absolutely my favorite thing ever to see the evolution of this universe. It’s so much more diverse, the plots are twisty and complex, they really dig into the depth of the characters, but the central driving idea behind Star Trek—that there’s hope and goodness and potential in our wildly flawed selves and in our wildly flawed society that is worth holding on to—that is still a fixed point in the stories they’re telling. They really ground all the pew-pew starship action in these characters you just love and you root for and you want to watch them connect and grow and hurt and heal as a crew together. It’s the same reason I come back to another scifi show, The Expanse—the characters bring you back and make it real, even when you’re transporting onto planets that are wildly different than Earth.
Every time you talk about Night Shine, I’m only more desperate for September to get here so I can get my hands on it. What was your process of building your magic system outside the binary and what challenges, if any, you encountered in creating it?
TESSA: YES Discovery is the BEST. I wish everybody was watching it, if only so I can talk more about how Michael Burnham is the greatest hero in modern television. (BECCA: *interjecting loudly* YES SHE IS!) Also to any fans of Amos from The Expanse in particular: you’re gonna love Hell Monkey in Crownchasers.
When it comes to the Night Shine magic system, it’s more accurate to say I built it inside the binary. I wanted the magic itself to be explicitly non-binary, to exist in between dualities like night and day, life and death, “man” and “woman,” and I started by making a culture that emphasizes and appreciates contrastin all things. From cuisine to architecture, fashion and religion. Their fashion, for example, insists upon stark contrast—colors that clash impressively, and if you have light skin you might dye your hair black or maroon, if you have dark skin you might use pale makeup, and manipulating contrasts to draw attention to your beauty. The dualities they adhere to aren’t valued against each other, so this isn’t a place where women or men are devalued, or day and night preferred, it’s the binary that matters. Anything non-binary is marked as Other, whether that’s the priests in their pastel robes or witches in shades of gray, both of whom work with forces dangerously outside life and death. This is why the Empress has two consorts, a man and a woman, and when there’s an Emperor, he also has two consorts, a man and a woman, so as not to put value on one gender over the other. This brings me to the magic! I wanted magic to be the way to challenge dualities—to prove binary thinking is flawed. So I made magic an energy that connects everything—like shadows, like dawn and dusk, like tendons. In order to use it, a person must step outside of contrast and duality in some way, to exist near liminal space, either becoming a priest (who deals with ghosts and gods) or a witch (who deals with spirits and demons). But the greatest magic uses are the rare sorcerers, who must break entirely free of duality and binary thinking in order to exist entirely AS liminality. They move beyond life and death (usually with the aid of a great spirit or great demon familiar), beyond physical form, becoming literal shapeshifters themselves.
The biggest challenge was language! Moving beyond binary thinking is a struggle when the language you’re using is inherently gendered. Modern English has it baked into the core—did you know that Old English had gendered nouns? Masc, fem, AND neutral. Anyway, while I’ve written books with a variety of gender indicators and pronouns both English and fantastical, in this book the various nonbinary and genderfluid people and creatures stick with he, she, and they pronouns (with the occasional demonic it) because I wanted Night Shine to have the same problems as English. That’s the work: challenging binary thinking (in myself and) in this world.
Ok, Becca, next time lob me an easy one! But first tell me your favorite and least favorite things about working with a whole galaxy of world building.
BECCA: Hey, I didn’t come to play here. I signed on for VERY SERIOUS discussions about OUR BOOKS.
I feel like my favorite and least favorite things are kind of tied up together because I loved brainstorming different planets for my main character Alyssa to visit and different peoples she can encounter—what do they look like? how do they interact with their planet or with the empire? what customs do they have and how do they fit in the wider universe? I could really burn weeks just fleshing out all of these questions, and that’s definitely fun for me. I like playing with those sorts of questions. At the same time—and I guess this is where we get to the least favorite thing and almost a self-critique of sorts—it’s very easy to default to shortcuts when imagining other species and other planets and it’s a challenge to push your brain beyond those limitations. It’s kind of the Star Trek effect, right? Where you go to all these “strange new worlds,” but it turns out most of them are peopled by bipedal humanoid creatures that breathe and have blood and generally share mammalian characteristics. We do this because it’s pulling from what we know, what’s familiar, and also because it makes adapting it for film a lot easier! But one thing I want to keep working on in my writing is breaking down those familiar shortcuts in my brain and challenging myself to conceptualize stuff what outside the realms of our own human society.
All right, here’s one that’s (maybe) a little less intense than my last: Which character in Night Shine was your favorite to write? And which do you most relate to? Or maybe are they the same character?
TESSA: They are not the same! My favorite character to write was Esrithalan the unicorn. As I mentioned above, I really gave myself permission in Night Shine to throw in everything I wanted. To only write fun stuff. So at a certain point I needed a story beat, I wasn’t sure what, to connect two important scenes. It had to be a delight, or I couldn’t do it. That was the rule. I was playing around with various types of riddle-demons or the weirdest air spirit I could think of, when I remembered a throw-away line from one of the characters’ origin stories: it involved a unicorn. OBVIOUSLY that was the answer. A unicorn. Only, I was going to make it a little gremlin of a unicorn. Small, hairy, wise, disinterested in the problems of teenaged maybe-girls, with flashes of beauty. It’s an avatar of the Queens of Heaven so of course it has to be strange. It was only one scene, but I relished every second of it.
I relate the most to Kirin Dark-Smile. He’s ambitious, but driven by love—all his greatest moments and biggest mistakes stem from that. He’s also genderfluid, and comfortable being so—at least when he’s alone—while at the same time he’s spent most of his life hiding his gender for both politics and his ambition. I relate most strongly to the fact that he knows exactly who he is, but that doesn’t make it easier to share himself with the world, or with his loved ones.
BECCA: I’m so down for all of this, but especially please let this usher in more unicorns in YA. All the unicorns. Many and sundry unicorns.
I think where I put the most of myself is in Alyssa Farshot’s voice and her internal narrative. To be honest, there is not a lot that she and I have in common on the surface—she’s pansexual and I’m very much gray asexual, she’s a major risk taker and I am professionally risk averse, she’s an explorer and I’m a homebody, she’s extremely brave and confrontational and I wouldn’t credit myself with either of those qualities. But writing her came so easily—she’s got a wry, often self-deprecating sense of humor that is very much like mine and she often reaches for a joke to deflect from herself. And while I didn’t necessarily grow up in a floating imperial spaceship or anything, I did grow up fairly sheltered and so did she. There’s a naiveté underneath all her snark and fast-talking, and a lot of her arc—this unspooling awareness of the bigger picture around her, her awareness of it, her realization of her own power and responsibility within it—definitely mimics my own experience in early adulthood. It helped me a lot to ground her character and give her depth beyond the initial concept of “fast-talking hotshot ace pilot.”
TESSA: Dragons or space ships???
BECCA: Spaceships by a millimeter. Which would you rather have in your house: the Enterprise computer or Calcifer?
TESSA: I have so many questions about how Calcifer got into my house. Favorite childhood book:
BECCA: The Redwall books. Favorite current TV show:
TESSA: Star Trek: Discovery, LOL! Flight or Telepathy?
BECCA: HA! I can’t even handle climbing ladders, so telepathy. Han Solo or Poe Dameron?
Before we descend fully into gifs maybe we should pull this thing together! Thank you so much for chatting with me! I can’t wait for my copy of Crownchasers. Coming to all of us September 29th!
BECCA: This was a lot of fun—thanks, Tessa! And everyone, don’t miss out on claiming a copy of Night Shine for your very own, out Sept. 8th!
Today on the site I’m thrilled to have two authors with new YA releases out this month! You may already know Mark Oshiro from Anger is a Gift and Lauren Shippen from The Infinite Noise, and they’re both here to discuss their work, its themes, and what’s up next! (And make sure you check out the September New Releases post for info and buy links for Each of Us a Desert and A Neon Darkness!) The authors have jumped right into their conversation, and so shall we!
Lauren: Mark!! It is so wonderful to talk to you, virtually, as we’ve been doing for the past few months with online book events! We’ve both been making the social distancing rounds for Pride Month events to promote our upcoming books – my second novel, A Neon Darkness, and your new book, Each of Us a Desert. Both of our stories center queer characters and have themes of self-discovery, love, and companionship. For me, the theme of self-discovery is the big one. The protagonist of A Neon Darkness, Robert Gorham, arrives in LA as a lost eighteen year old with a terrible supernatural power and discovers a group of people like him who help him learn more about himself. The whole novel is a discussion about how we define ourselves – is it our intentions or our actions that matter – and about how communities of people and found family help hone those definitions. Rob learns about himself through the eyes of the people he’s learning to love and they, in turn, learn about themselves and their limits. It’s a dark book to be sure, filled with difficult choices. Each of Us a Desert is also about difficult choices, and the consequences of those choices – how do those themes feature in your book?
Mark: HI, LAUREN! I wish this wasn’t digital I WANT TO YELL AT YOUR FACE ABOUT YOUR BOOK. This shall suffice, though!
There’s a lot in Each of Us a Desert that works as a reaction–conscious or not–to what I tried to deal with in Anger is A Gift, my debut. I definitely went into this new book wanting to talk about queerness in a different way. Moss already had his wonderful community in his friends, but that wasn’t my experience growing up. I was eager to explore the notion of queerness in rural communities, and how that intersects with feeling isolated. So many of us grew up in places where we saw out and happy queer people far away from where we lived. Desert doesn’t deal in homophobia–it doesn’t really exist in the world I created–but rather uses a fantastical narrative to speak in metaphor for this experience, which is still centered on two girls who are desperate for someone to see them for who they really are. To me, that’s what love is in all its forms: being seen. Like, TRULY seen!
I was very conscious of what sort of queer representation I was putting on the page, too. I wanted a dark, challenging struggle, but I also didn’t want to repeat what I’d done in Anger. This HAD to be a happy ending. So I’m curious, especially since A Neon Darkness is so much darker than The Infinite Noise: How do you address that balance between joy and tragedy in a queer narrative?
Lauren: Someday in the hopefully not too distant future we can stand in the same spot and yell at each other because I want to SCREAM ABOUT YOUR BOOK TOO.
I love that you brought up that homophobia doesn’t really exist in this world you’ve created and that you were insistent on a happy ending. There is such a place in my heart for those difficult coming out stories, those tragic star-crossed romances, but DAMN! Queer folx need HEAs too and we don’t get them in media nearly as much as we should. That was something I decided when I created the world of The Bright Sessions: homophobia is almost a completely distant memory in this alternate universe and coming out is never traumatic.
Now, that being said, plenty of difficult and traumatic things happen to my characters and I can’t claim a happy ending for everyone inA Neon Darkness. In writing a darker story, I made sure to focus on the fact that any of the tragedy the characters endure isn’t because they are queer. The central queer relationship in the story, between Neon and Indah, brings them joy and also sorrow–but that’s real life relationships! The sorrow they experience isn’t because they’re two women in a relationship, it’s because human relationships are hard. Which is something Robert discovers as well–the tragedies he experiences and the ones he inflicts aren’t a result of his or anyone’s sexuality. Robert goes on his own journey of trying to figure out what he wants in intimate relationships in this book and, even though he doesn’t land anywhere specific by the end, the tragedy is not his inability to define his sexuality, but his inability to connect at all.
Life is full of joy and pain, regardless of how you identify, so in our beautiful, homophobia-free worlds, queer characters are free to go through struggles unrelated to their sexuality. BUT that doesn’t mean the struggles they experience are easy: Xo and Emilia go on quite the journey in Each of Us a Desert and I’m curious how you went about building certain elements of that journey. Writing violence and its horrible consequences is not new for you, but I’m always so enraptured by how you’re able to write difficult, visceral things that are frightening and real, but that never leave me feeling unsafe as a reader. How do you do that??? How do you write violence in a YA setting without it going too far?
Mark: Look, I RELATE TO THIS SO MUCH. Because Anger is a much more dark and more traumatic novel for reasons that are obvious, and I love that you say that you’re trying to find that darkness outside of homophobia, too. I love fiction that is challenging and intense and scary, and we need more queer stories like that, too.
ANYWAY. I would love to tell you I planned everything out ahead of time and fully intended for Xochitl’s and Emilia’s respective journeys to end up as they did when I first began writing the book. But Emilia didn’t even exist until like… the second rewrite. The original draft of Desert was a very different story and a different genre, but it still contained a long journey across a frightening, mysterious desert.
The answer is editing. I was inspired by my editor, Miriam Weinberg, to pursue a much more fantastical story, and almost ALL of the worldbuilding and those frightening moments were created over two sessions at a Le Pain Quotidien in Manhattan. This might make fantasy purists furious, but I crafted all the worldbuilding for the characters, not the other way around. Everything happens and exists to support the journey I came up with, and so I believe there’s a much more intimate sense of stakes and drama because of that. So when I was coming up with the pesadillas–the nightmares that come to life–the character was fully formed and real at that point. So any violence happening… I knew it was happening to a person. I tried to construct the more horrific stuff with empathy in mind. Why is this person seeing this terrifying manifestation? And how can the reader understand it?
I feel like empathy is a HUGE theme across your work, both on your podcast and in your two novels. Like… your work is about stepping into someone else’s shoes and understanding them. How do you see the intersection of empathy and queerness within your fiction? Do you think that fiction can provide empathy for other people?
Lauren: I love what you said about the violence happening to a real person. It isn’t devoid of context. I think if any fantasy purists take issues with how you’ve built your world, they’ve missed the point completely. World building that comes from character first is so powerful, and it’s why your world feels so real and high-stakes. The consequences feel grounded because your characters are grounded.
That’s how I try to approach everything too–I always start with character and build outwards. And you’re absolutely right that empathy is a huge theme. It’s really the only way I know how to write characters at all. I try to understand everyone I create, even the villains, and feel empathy for them and their choices, even when I intellectually understand that they might be bad ones.
For me, queerness is just another element of a character’s being and because I’m queer too, I never think much about how I feel empathy for that aspect of their experience–it’s baked right in. But I do focus on how the other characters approach it within the world and, similarly to the “no homophobia” rule, I always have their queerness met with empathy.
I really do think that fiction can be a force for good and for changing the way people see the world, and the thing I’m always trying to do is just show that queer people are human. It feels so silly to say that to another queer author, for an interview we’re doing for a queer publication, but we both know that there’s still a lot of people out there who have a hard time processing that concept! I want to help those people feel empathy for a person they were taught not to feel empathy for and that means feeling empathy for the WHOLE person. I want my queer characters to be flawed and messy and kind and challenging; I want them to be human, and all the pros and cons that come with that.
I ADORE that all of that scary and fantastical stuff was ideated in a Le Pain Quotidien–not only is the juxtaposition of the incredible world you created and a perfectly normal restaurant a wonderful image, but it really does speak to the power of fiction and how our imaginations can transport us. This is your first fantasy novel – how do queerness and fantasy intersect in your work? And more broadly, what do you think about the way queerness fits into the fantasy genre overall?
Mark: Wow, I’m seriously so mad we don’t get to do this in person. I feel like we could just go back and forth on this stuff forever.
Like you, it’s a default when I’m writing. I center queer people of color in my fiction because we have historically been left out of this world, and I want younger queer kids to see themselves in ways I do not. I came into fantasy more as an adult, so I’ve also had the luxury of getting to see so many rich depictions of queerness in fantasy, but I know it’s been a struggle. What’s so frustrating about it is how much push back there’s been against this sort of realism. (And that’s what it is: realism. The world has queer people in it, the end? It’s not a point to be debated.) I grew up seeing this in multiple genres, but its application to the fantasy world is infuriating because… we can literally do what we want in secondary fantasy. Why are we holding to gender binary? Or to a monotony in sexual identity? How can you imagine a world of dragons and magic and wizards and witches and a million different things we don’t have in our world, but the imagination doesn’t extend to queerness?
So with Each of Us a Desert, I wanted that queerness to be upfront: you meet queer people along the journey. You see Xochitl’s own growing desire for another woman and the conflict that comes from not knowing whether she’s right for her or if this is even the right time to be having feelings of that sort. But there’s a metaphorical element to it all, too: This is a book about being a rural queer person and feeling left out of the world. Granted, where I grew up was geographically large (Riverside, CA), but it felt like a small town. I lived next to a wildlife preserve, I had lots of friends who grew up on farms, and all the cool shit in the world was happening so, so far away. What happens when you feel isolated? When you haven’t found your community where you live and you ache so fully to escape?
If you can’t tell, I love writing about gay angst IT IS MY ENTIRE CHILDHOOD.
Lauren: Yes!! I cannot WAIT to speak with you in person someday soon and talk about all the ways in which fantasy and scifi are the perfect genres in which to break all the binaries and have queerness thrive. I can’t wait to read how everything we’ve discussed will manifest in your upcoming work–that YA contemporary especially sounds terrifying and wonderful! I’m exploring more fantastical elements myself at the moment as I finish up my third and final novel in The Bright Sessions universe, about a girl named Rose who can walk inside people’s dreams. The protagonist of A Neon Darkness appears in that final book as well, so I hope people grab it when it comes out on September 29th, 2020. Thank you so much for talking with me virtually, Mark, and happy happy Pride!!
MarkOshiro is the young adult author of Anger is a Gift (Tor Teen), winner of the 2019 Schneider Family Book Award and nominated for a 2019 Lammy Award, as well as Each of Us a Desert and their middle grade debut, The Insiders. When they are not writing, crying on camera about fictional characters for their online Mark Does Stuff universe, or traveling, Mark is busy trying to fulfill their lifelong goal: to pet every dog in the world.
Lauren Shippen is a writer most known for her work in fiction podcasts. She was the creator and sole writer of the popular audio drama The Bright Sessions. She went on to executive produce The AM Archives and co-produce Passenger List before founding Atypical Artists, a company dedicated to audio storytelling. She wrote MARVELS, an audio adaptation of the popular comic, set for release in 2019 by Marvel and Stitcher. She was named one of Forbes 2018 30 Under 30 in Media and one of MovieMaker Magazine and Austin Film Festival’s 25 Screenwriters to Watch. Shippen grew up in New York, where she spent most of her youth reading and going to Panic! at the Disco shows. She now lives in Los Angeles, where she does the same thing. Visit her at www.LaurenShippen.com and on social @laurenshippen.
I’m so excited to have two of my favorite gay YA sophomores on the site today, chatting about their newest books! Lev Rosen is the author of Jack of Hearts (and other parts)and Camp, the latter of which released this past Tuesday (along with Jack‘s redesigned paperback), and Cale Dietrich is the author of The Love Interest and the upcoming The Friend Scheme, which releases on July 28! Make sure to check out all four of those titles, and to read on below for their conversation about the books, toxic masculinity, internalized homophobia, and more:
Lev: Hi Cale! I’m so excited to talk to you about your forthcoming novel, The Friend Scheme, and my new novel, Camp, which came out on Tuesday. I really loved your last book The Love Interest, so getting to read The Friend Scheme was very exciting! And I love the setup – closeted son of a mafia family falls for a guy who he knows is the son of the rival mafia family who may be seducing him to destroy his family. Love, lust, trust, betrayal, family loyalty. Who could say no to all that? But let’s get this out of the way: There’s a minor character named Lev in The Friend Scheme, and he’s a shmuck. Should I be deeply insulted or merely offended?
Cale: Hi Lev! First up: DEEPLY OFFENDED. Obviously. Just kidding, that schmuck Lev has nothing to do with you, because I adore you. Jack and Camp are two of my all time favourite-YA books, they’re so smart and really explore the modern queer identity while being fun and romantic. I love them. I’m so happy I get to talk to you about Camp! One of the things I loved most about it was its exploration of masculinity, and the complicated relationship it has with being queer. Was this something you’d always wanted to explore in a novel, or did something inspire you?
Lev: WELL! I shall be deeply offended then. Let me get out my burn book…
And yeah, Camp is so much about navigating patriarchal gender nonsense as a queer man, and how somehow, even when we’re out and proud, that straight mindset can creep in and cause a lot of pain. But the original inspiration was actually old Doris Day/Rock Hudson 60s screwball sex comedies. And, if I’m being honest, the post-modern redo of those movies, Down With Love. That was the big inspiration – I wanted a contemporary queer YA version of those movies, because I love those movies. I love Down With Love. But of course, those movies center around the idea of “the battle of the sexes” – very 60s. And making that queer wasn’t going to work quite right, until I realized it could be battle of the masc/femme. And once that occurred to me, everything fell into place – masc4masc stuff, the summer camp setting. I always love exploring post-coming out stuff, though, so I imagine something would have snuck in there eventually. I just knew it needed to be in a queer space to work. If you’re out in the world with this, straight people are going to seriously interfere and try to tell you that masc gays are better, or femme gays are more fabulous, really try to put you in a category. In an entirely queer space, the characters can play with these ideas of gender performance and it can be seen as just exploring identity. Straight people seldom let queer kids do that. And queer community was so interesting to me in your book, The Friend Scheme, as well, because it’s Matt’s lack of queer community that really kind of puts him in this impossible situation – he’s closeted and has no queer friends, so the first one that comes along becomes his everything, his entire community, and he has to rely on that one person so much that it becomes dangerous. I was wondering if that was intentional? Like, did you go into this wanting to show the dangers of being an isolated queer person?
Cale: AHHH. I wonder who else is in that burn book!
INTERESTING. You mention that the straights in relation to saying masc gays are better, or femme gays are more fabulous etc, but what do you think about the pressures of being masculine coming from within the gay community itself? To me it feels like there is a lot of pressure on social media and the like within the gay world to live up to a certain standard of masculinity, (which is really rubbish). I understood why Randy decided to act more masc to attract Hudson – scroll Instagram and you’ll see a specific type of gay sexuality continually heralded as the most attractive – the buff, masc gym gay. I’m just wondering where you think the pressure on gay guys to be masculine is coming from — is it from straight people, or is it from other gay men?
As for TFS and Matt being isolated, absolutely! I think we were both trying to explore queer masculinity in two different ways, which I think is so great and I’m so bummed we no longer share a release date so we could be a double feature! To me, Matt’s whole story is about him not living up to the kind of man his father wants him to be, and a lot of that has to be with his masculinity. As much as he tries to push himself into the guy that his family set out for him, he only really finds happiness once he starts accepting he isn’t the kind of guy his dad wants him to be. I was trying to explore that feeling through a genre story. And to answer your question: it was intentional! I did want to show how that lack of support and community can be incredibly painful, especially when you’re cut off from them by being closeted. I ratcheted things up to fit the genre, but mostly I was trying to explore how that feels. I don’t want to spoil anything but hopefully the epilogue shows how things can improve once you’ve found a queer community!
Lev: The Burn Book is large and long. Top of the list right now is whoever is responsible for the pre-9AM jackhammering directly outside my window during all this social distancing. They are a terrible human being.
And yeah, Camp deals with that internalized homophobia, too, the way the community can essentially take part in that! But I think that problem isn’t exactly exclusive to the gay community. It’s a problem of patriarchy and toxic masculinity – being queer doesn’t save you from that. It can even make it worse; when Hudson starts to explore why he values masculinity so much, it comes out that it’s a form of protection. A lot of “masc4masc” guys think it makes them better because it makes them pass as straight, it makes them acceptable to straight people – which is something I don’t think queer people need to be worrying about. Because while being queer doesn’t save you from the patriarchy, it gives you an opportunity to sidestep it. Being gay is a gift. When you come out, you have a chance to step aside from all that nonsense and look at patriarchy and say “okay, so I’m not into ladies like they want me to be, which makes me less of a man, supposedly, but… what if all those ideas were nonsense? What if everything is meaningless and behaviors we attribute to genders are made up? What if I get to be whatever I want, and fuck gender conforming?” Being given that opportunity – and I genuinely think its a lot harder for straight people to be given it – is a gift. Sadly, its not one a lot of gay people unwrap because coming out is so traumatic for them that they cling to the patriarchy even harder than straight people do, hoping it will make them not actually straight again (well, probably some of them), but make them essentially “count as” straight in the eyes of society. And that sucks so hard for them. There’s nothing wrong with being “masc-acting” and queer (in Camp, Brad fills that role, that’s just who he is, there’s no performance). But to be trapped feeling like you have to be masc acting, like it effects your value as a human being? That’s awful. So I actually feel sorry for those guys on instagram. I mean, I have no problem with a guy who’s built and bearded or whatever (I, myself am bearded, and I DO have a build). But a guy who says he’s “manly” or “masc” – that’s where it gets sad for me. And those guys being more praised for their masculinity by the community makes me sad, too. Like… we were all given this gift guys. Unwrap it.
And yes! Friend Scheme is all about a very old school, very blunt form of masculinity. I keep thinking “murder is masculine,” so you should see if that can be the tagline of your novel. I think, in fact, Matt’s whole story is about having that gay gift I talk about – his queerness is what allows him to see himself outside this mold they try to put him in, this future they want for him. And I love how you somehow manage to combine that exciting mafioso action with what is essentially a really sweet romance. You did it in The Love Interest, too. And they’re both about how these guys know they’re not who they’re supposed to be and fall for a guy who they know they can’t trust. It makes me think about dating in the closet, how you want to be with this person but also by being with them you’re kind of giving them the power to destroy your life. Is that why that theme comes up for you? Do you think dating as a queer person is more fraught with issues of distrust?
Cale: This is such a good answer!!! I agree with everything you say. It’s such a complicated issue, and I’m so happy that you explore it in Camp, as I think it’s a question that’s extremely relevant to modern queer people. I’m such a fan of yours!! Ah!
Omgosh, “murder is masculine,” is the perfect tagline for TFS! I love it! And I totally agree about Matt having the gay gift that you talk about – it is 100% what I was going for! I wanted to explore exactly what you talk about in your answer — I feel like being queer does force you to have these sorts of conversations with yourself, and makes you see yourself outside of the mold people try to put you in. That leads to a lot of questioning and growth. As for the danger of dating in the closet – that has appealed to me as it just made sense for the characters and the stories I was trying to tell – it definitely adds a layer of distrust and danger and that’s what my books are sort of built on! But my book three hero is out and proud, so I think I’ve explored closeted characters as much as I would like to (for a while, anyway).
I’m really curious, what would be your response to someone who says that they have a preference for masc guys?
Lev: I mean, I think I’d say that’s fine. Randy clearly is into Hudson is who is masc… but I think it’s also worth interrogating your own desires. Some people are like “that’s my type, tee-hee, don’t need to think about it,” but if your type is hyper-specific, it worth taking a moment to wonder why. Are you attracted to guys like that because society has always told you to be? Because they represent something you want to be? Because you think being seen with them in public, or by your parents, is what will make people accept you? Is your lust determined by societal approval? Lust isn’t just lizard-brain. Or it can be, but then it gets tempered. I think a lot of about guys who are into plus size women, but never ever admit it. It’s a different issue and I’m not the one to talk about it, but it’s something that happens a lot and at least part of the reason why has to do with societal pressure to punish women for being fat. Likewise, there’s a lot of societal pressure to punish gay men for not being a certain way. And sometimes that effects desire. So if you’re into muscles cause you’re into muscles, cool. But if you’re into “straight-acting” guys, or even just full on straight guys (and many of us have been at some point), ask yourself why. Why do you want someone you know will never want you? Why do you want someone who represents something you’ll never be but which culture is constantly telling you to be? And this can be applied to more than just “masc.”
That being said, I did want to show a character whose masc-ness wasn’t about performance and trying to be the “special gay” who isn’t like those other gays, all in your face, etc. That’s why Brad is there. He’s just as butch as Hudson, but it’s not an entire identity for him. He lets the guy he likes put nail polish on him because it makes that guy happy, he doesn’t care about what his partner is like, socially – even if he clearly likes a man with body hair. And I think that’s the distinction. Are you into a type of guy because of something physical only, or are you into a guy because of something social – some conception of things? A lot of stuff can end up being either, so it’s really about YOU. (and in case anyone is wondering, saying you’re not into a guy because they’re a certain race is always a racist social thing). So yeah, I’d say to a guy “why?” and see what he says. Especially since ‘masc’ is one of those terms that can mean different things to different people. There, that was a long meandering way of getting to the answer. But hey, long meandering way of getting to the answer is just another word for novel.
But I think on that note our word count here is probably becoming perhaps too long and meandering, so I just wanted to say thank you again for talking with me! It was a lot of fun and I’m so excited for people to get their hands on The Friend Scheme. It’s a really fun, sexy novel.
Cale: No, thank you for talking to me! Camp is such a wonderful, important and fun book. I’m so happy teens (and everyone else) will be able to get it starting today!
Welcome back to another Authors in Conversation post on LGBTQReads! If you’ve been following LGBTQA MG, you know it’s been blowing up in the most gorgeous way these past couple of years, and here are two of the authors responsible for that: Kit Rosewater (L), author of The Derby Daredevils, a brand-new illustrated series that kicks off with Kenzie Kickstarts a Team today(!), and Nicole Melleby (R), author of last year’s Hurricane Season, next month’s In the Role of Brie Hutchens…, and at least two more queer MGs after that! (Not to mention co-editor with Katherine Locke of the upcoming all-queer MG anthology This is Our Rainbow!)
Kit and Nicole are here to talk about their new books, what’s up next, and more, so pull up a seat and listen in!
Nicole: Hey Kit! I’m excited to get to do this interview with you! I’m a pretty easy sell when it comes to queer kid lit, but The Derby Daredevils is such a special addition to LGBTQ+ middle grade shelves. It made me want to go dust off my skates, which I haven’t used in, like, a decade. (It’s like riding a bike, though, right?) For those who weren’t lucky enough to get their hands on it before its March 24th release, why don’t you tell us a little bit about it?
Kit: Thank you so much Nicole! I literally dusted off my childhood skates as I researched and wrote The Derby Daredevils! (My feet didn’t grow much after fifth grade.) Book 1 of the illustrated series, Kenzie Kickstarts a Team, follows best friends Kenzie and Shelly as they set out to expand their Dynamic Duo into a whole team of roller derby skaters so they can play together on the Austin junior league. But for every potential new player they recruit, more and more tension gets wound into their own friendship… until Kenzie’s not sure she wants the Dynamic Duo to change at all. As the cast of characters slowly builds, the story shifts, and a big turning point comes when Shelly tries to get Kenzie’s secret crush to join the crew.
You should also tell us about your upcoming middle grade, In the Role of Brie Hutchens! I love how you’ve infused this in-depth history of soap operas and coming out scenes with Brie’s personal story. The way Brie sees the world is so darn relatable, and I have to admit that I slipped right back into my days of first girl crushes as I read along.
Nicole:In the Role of Brie Hutchens is what I keep referring to as Love, Simon meets Lady Bird. Brie is a soap opera obsessed Catholic school girl (much like myself) who has a complicated relationship with her mom, which is only further complicated by her mom’s strong faith and Brie’s first crush on another girl. Nothing seems to really go Brie’s way, especially when her mom walks in on Brie googling inappropriate photos of Brie’s favorite soap opera actress, and to divert her mom’s attention, Brie lies and says she’s been chosen to play the big role in her 8th grades religious May Crowning ceremony…which she obviously hasn’t been. So, to make that actually happen, Brie decides to ask the smartest girl in her class (who happens to be Brie’s crush) for help.
I’m excited we both have queer middle grade novels out this year, especially ones that deal with that awkwardness of a first crush (and those poor decisions you sometimes make because of them!) Kenzie Kickstarts a Team is your debut, and I know you’ll be following up with a sequel later in the year. Would you tell us a bit about your journey to publishing queer middle grade? Did you face any roadblocks or fears when you started?
Kit: I love that both our books explore first queer crushes too! Honestly, this was a subject that until a few years ago, I didn’t realize I was allowed to write about. I was a pretty escapist kid, always trying to disappear into worlds I made up in my head, and my earliest manuscripts were mostly fantasy. I experienced A LOT of typical roadblocks in my publishing journey, from moving between agents to having various projects not make it out of revisions. But the biggest roadblock for publishing queer middle grade was ultimately… me. For so long I had looked back on my first girl crushes in 5th and 6th grade with absolute shame–the same kind I get when I think about accidentally wrecking my mom’s car as a 16-yr-old. It took a long time to realize I could “escape” into positive queer middle grade stories. Now I never want to stop writing about kids who are queer and not cloaked with the type of shame I felt.
There is so much room for all kinds of queer stories in the middle grade canon, and I love every type of story out there–the coming out stories, the unrequited feelings stories, the found families stories, the happy ending stories–all of them! While reading Brie Hutchens, I was so impressed at the way you handled some hefty topics like reconciling being queer within a heavily religious setting. You said that like Brie, you were a Catholic school girl. Would you mind sharing your experience with writing some details from your own childhood into Brie’s story?
Nicole: It’s actually funny–I said earlier that In the Role of Brie Hutchens could be comped to the movie Lady Bird. I actually walked out of the theater after seeing Lady Bird and said, “I want to write about a coming of age queer middle grade story based on my experience in Catholic school.” Only, when I sat down to write that story, I realized that the experiences of middle grade readers now are much different than when I was that age. In big part thanks to the internet (I sound about a thousand years old right now), today’s middle grade readers have access to and an understanding of queer identities and vocabulary that I had no idea existed until I was in my twenties. I had to find a way to tell the story I wanted to tell, but for today’s audience. Brie is exactly like I was: dramatic, confused, a little self-centered, questioning the idea of faith and religion. But Brie knows that she has feelings for girls and doesn’t really struggle with understanding what that means–just what to do about it.
Speaking about main characters–Kenzie (or should I say Kenzilla?) was likeable and relatable right from the start. She’s determined to start her own team, and even with her mistakes along the way, I was rooting for her to succeed while maintaining her changing friendship with Shelly. Can you tell us more about Kenzie, and who she is as a character? Are there any similarities between Kenzie and your younger self?
Kit: Thank you so much! As much as I try not to get personally attached to reader’s opinions… it’s such a relief to know that Kenzie is relatable, because this girl is basically me. I tend to enfold myself into almost every character I write, and because The Derby Daredevils series has rotating protagonists, I wanted a huge chunk of my personality in each team member. But Kenzie feels especially close to home. At her best, Kenzie’s a leader, and she cares deeply about dynamics and how everyone works together. Whenever I’m thriving in a group setting, whether it’s a writers meeting or a school project, it’s because I’m taking on that same role. At her worst, well… Kenzie can be a bit exclusionary. And so was I. I’m embarrassed about how often I bristled when a new person came into my friend group. Maybe I was worried they would replace me in some way. Or maybe, like Kenzie, I was just scared of change. As an adult I try to be really conscientious of including others, but I can still be a bit of a butt about it from time to time. I was one of those kids who always pined for one best friend, and that kind of pining relies on exclusion to some extent.
Brie’s friendship with Parker really tugged on my heartstrings in the best way over the course of their relationship in the book. I love the moments of disconnect they have because they’re such different girls, but the ultimate reassurance that their friendship is one built on mutual support and care. Did you have a close friend like Parker growing up? Were there allies in your life as you explored various parts of your identity?
Nicole: I was actually the kid who was friends with everyone, so I had different groups of friends and different best friends throughout the years. What I wanted to do with Parker was a couple of things. Like I said above, I wanted to tell a coming of age Catholic school queer story for contemporary readers, and Parker played a big role in that. She’s understanding and supportive, because kids are full of empathy and understanding in ways that I didn’t always have growing up. She doesn’t question Brie’s sexuality; they have the knowledge and vocabulary to have a conversation about it. When I was Brie’s age, I remember turning to a friend of mine and saying, “Do you ever just…really like the way another girl’s face looks??” I had no idea I was talking about attraction! I also wanted Parker to be completely boy crazy–because some eighth grade girls are, and there’s nothing wrong with that!–so that I could have Brie encounter those awkward moments and feelings and conversations I was used to. Those ones where a friend says, “Which guy are you crushing on?” and you have to decide, “Am I going to lie?”
As an adult, when I knew I needed to fully come out of the closet, I did have important allies, though, which is why I put a lot of people in Brie’s corner. Teachers, friends, even some family members…it was important for me to build Brie’s support system, because my support system was the only thing that got me through my whole coming out process. I had friends who bought me ice cream and beer the night I came out to my parents, and I had a mentor who listened and helped me get to a point where I was ready to come out at all. Without all that, I don’t know what I would have done. So while not everything goes well for Brie, I wanted some things to go well, too.
What I really liked about Kenzie’s story is that she wasn’t new to the idea of queer identities either–Kenzie even has a transgender parent. It’s another one of those contemporary queer stories–our audience has queer friends and families and are discovering their queer identities themselves openly and in a way queer middle grade books are starting to reflect. Could you tell us more about your decision to write Kenzie’s dad’s identity, along with her own budding sexuality?
Kit: Absolutely! I wrote the queer themes in Kenzie Kickstarts a Teamboth as a queer/bisexual author and also as an ally to the transgender community. Someone very close in my life came out to friends and family as transgender in 2017. They were in the midst of seeking help for anxiety and depression, and the process of coming out was long and fraught with a lot of emotional speed bumps and roadblocks. As their primary support and contact, I spent so many days crying on the phone with this person, sending notes, contacting other people in our network to buffer negative reactions or intercept inappropriate questions… I couldn’t get any writing done during that time. I finally reached out to my agent and said I just wasn’t interested in continuing to work on the darker middle grade project we’d had in revisions for months. I needed to write a different story, one where being transgender was normalized and celebrated, and where being queer in general was normalized and celebrated. I had gotten into the Austin roller derby scene a few months earlier, and it was like all the pieces fell into place. Once I started writing through Kenzie’s lens, I knew I wanted her to explore her sexuality in a positive and open environment. The only queer stories I’d been exposed to as a kid were tragic ones! I wanted young readers–especially young queer readers–to know there is nothing inherently negative about the queer identity. If people react negatively, that’s 100% ON THEM.
Brie ends up dealing with a variety of reactions–both immediate and eventual reactions–as she explores her own sexuality. I absolutely loved the complexity in her dynamics within each of those relationships. There wasn’t a cliché bigot villain or hero ally, which allows Brie the agency and freedom to navigate the coming out process in her own beautiful, messy way. What would you say is the number one takeaway you hope young readers get from reading Brie’s story?
Nicole: My goal in having Brie come out again, and again, and again… throughout the novel, to a variety of responses, was to show that “coming out” isn’t one moment. It’s a lifetime of moments. And it sucks, it does. It’s frustrating for Brie as much as it is freeing. But I wanted to balance the bad reactions with the good ones. I wanted to show that, despite the struggle and the pain, there is good, there is hope. The soap opera scene that Brie consistently goes back to, the one where the character Bianca comes out to her mom, Erica Kane, is this sweet, heartbreaking scene where Bianca begs her mom to see her. “Can’t you see who I am? I want you to see who I am.” That’s exactly what Brie wants throughout her whole process, too. She wants to be seen, she wants her mom to see her. My number one takeaway I’ve always wanted my young readers to get from this story (and every story I write) is that *I* see them, regardless of the rest.
I think that’s so important in queer middle grade especially–for us to give our readers hope. I think you do that especially beautifully with Kenzie’s story, with the queerness being so celebrated and normalized. I know you have a sequel coming out, too. Could you give us a sneak preview of what we can expect from this continuing story? Are you working on anything else at the moment?
Kit: Book 2 of the Daredevils series is called Shelly Struggles to Shine, and follows Kenzie’s best friend Shelly as the Daredevils team gears up for their first roller derby tournament! Shelly’s story is an artist’s story as she tries to figure out how being creative fits into a sport setting… which it absolutely does in derby! But finding that “in” is tricky. Shelly doesn’t identify as queer, but I wanted to keep the loving and open queer community ongoing in this book. Kenzie’s crush continues to flourish. Shelly’s friend and mentor in art class is non-binary. And many characters from Book 1 make some surprising guest appearances!
Apart from the Daredevils series, I have an upper middle grade WIP with characters closer to Brie’s age. There is a fair bit of queerness in there… with some of my favorite cheesy tropes! One pivotal scene chases my two lead characters, who are camp enemies with secret hots for each other (f/f) up a tree and leaves them stranded. I love the camp setting and the bickering, and am having so much fun with the whole project. My biggest hope is that eventually it will make its way onto shelves and be comped to In the Role of Brie Hutchens!
Nicole, thank you so much for joining me in chatting about our upcoming releases. I’ve been a huge fan of yours since Hurricane Season, and couldn’t be more thrilled to sit down and gab about queer middle grade and the long and drawn out process of coming out! Thank you Dahlia at LGBTQ Reads for hosting us!
Kit Rosewater writes books for children. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico with her spouse and a border collie who takes up most of the bed. Before she was an author, Kit taught middle school theatre and high school English, then worked as a children’s bookseller. She has a master’s degree in Children’s Literature and a knack for finding her characters in clouds, ceiling plaster, and Cheetos. Books 1 & 2 of her debut series THE DERBY DAREDEVILS rolls out in 2020 through Abrams.
Nicole Melleby is a born-and-bred Jersey girl with a passion for storytelling. She studied creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University and currently teaches creative writing and literature courses with a handful of local universities. When she’s not writing, she can be found browsing the shelves at her local comic shop or watching soap operas with a cup of tea.
2020 is the year for Sapphic YA fantasy, and I’m thrilled to have on the site two of its authors with new releases that are not to be missed! Linsey Miller’s first book after the Mask of Shadows duology is Belle Révolte, a French-inspired dual-POV about two girls who switch places so each can get her desired education, and it just released on February 4! E. Latimer’s first YA is Witches of Ash and Ruin, about a recently outed bisexual Irish witch named Dayna whose beloved coven is facing down a potential serial killer, and it comes out on March 3rd! But they can both describe their books way better than I can, so let’s let them get to it!
E: I’m so excited I get to do this interview with you! I absolutely loved Mask of Shadows and Ruin of Stars (is it okay if I think Sal is dreamy and have designated them one of my top fictional crushes? That’s normal, right?)
(Linsey: Sal would be thrilled to be considered dashing and dreamy after Rath laughing endlessly about their inability to rob Elise.)
E: For the past few months I feel like I’ve been seeing the gorgeous cover for Belle Révolte EVERYWHERE, and I was so excited to see Witches of Ash and Ruin on some of the same “anticipated” LGBTQ lists, so cool!
Belle Révolte came out February 4th. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Linsey: Sure! Belle Révolte is the story of two girls—Emilie des Marais and Annette Boucher—who are both unhappy in their lives. Because of the strict social hierarchies, neither of them is able to achieve their dreams. Noble girls are not allowed to study the magic required to by physicians because of the damaging effects it has on the boy, and Annette cannot afford to attend university to pursue the only magical career path available to her: life as a hack. Hacks are people able to use magic but not wealthy or noble enough to pursue higher education. They work as assistants to the rich so that they are worn down by the powerful magic they use in place of their employers.
So Emilie and Annette swap places. Annette takes Emilie’s place at finishing school to study magic and get an education, and Emilie attends university to become a physician’s hack and prove her worth. While at their respective schools, they both decide that the state of their nation is unsustainable and join a brewing rebellion.
But when their nation instigates a frivolous war, the girls must work together and decide what they’re willing to sacrifice in order to stop the fighting and save their nation.
I’m excited we both have a book coming out in the same year, and 2020 seems like an amazing year for YA fantasy. Your previous book, The Strange And Deadly Portraits Of Bryony Gray, was so atmospheric and fun! (It’s fine if I think of spooky books as fun, right? There’s something exciting about having to glance over your shoulder when reading.) I know Witches of Ash and Ruin is a completely different sort of book, but I can’t wait to see how the world comes alive in it.
Do you want to talk a bit about the world of Witches of Ash and Ruin and how you navigated creating a fantasy story within the real world?
E: I’ve always been very drawn to witchy women, both real and imaginary, so when the tag line of “rival covens have to come together to defeat a serial killer” popped into my head, I knew this was the perfect story for me, and that I had to write it.
The story is set in Ireland, because that’s the mythology I really wanted to delve into, but I actually think of the witches’ kitchen as the “heart” of the world, if that makes sense. It’s where they learn their craft, where they meet the other coven, and where they solve a lot of the mysteries in order to hunt down a killer.
Just like the rest of the story, the witch’s kitchen is a strange mash-up of fictional and real. I grew up homeschooling, which meant that I associated with a strange, eclectic bunch of people (other homeschoolers). One of the families I spent loads of time with was a lovely, chaotic family with nine children and a massive, disorderly kitchen where everything was hand built, knitted, patched, baked, sewn. It was all so rough-spun and homemade, and it was done with the utmost love. I don’t think I truly realized how special that place was until much later. In fact, I now realize it was a lot like the Weasleys’ kitchen in Harry Potter.
The farmhouse in Witches of Ash and Ruin is basically that house. The table the witches sit around was one I sat around every Tuesday.
Linsey: I love the idea of that kitchen. There are so many memories I have in my grandmother’s kitchen that I find fueling my writing too. Witches of Ash and Ruinalso features a serial killer, which feels terrifying but also separate from those real-world inspirations. Did you base that off of anything in history, and what draws you to this marriage of our world and fantasy?
E: I’ve always had a fascination with serial killers, but the motivation was always something that bothered me. I love magical answers to mundane questions. So the question might be, “What kind of person kills multiple people, and why?” And the answer might just be, “Because he’s evil” or if you want to get more technical, something about the right combination of nature, nurture and a potential head injury.
But that’s kind of depressing. Not only that, it’s boring. I want to put a twist on it, and I want a reason that blows your mind, and makes you realize there’s more out there than you ever dreamed.
Ever since I was a child, I wanted there to be magic. I still do. If there isn’t any magic in the real world, I’ll slip it into the cracks. I’ll make it fit, so that people can uncover it and think, even for the most fleeting moment, This might be real. That’s the magic of blending reality with fantasy, it unlocks something in you as a reader and lets you glimpse the possibility of a bigger world.
Linsey: That’s really interesting. There are so many personal things, not all of them as tender as a warm kitchen or happy memories, we can associate with ourselves that putting them into books can be hard sometimes. Apart from the lighter dark topic of serial killers, how do you navigate the harder to discuss challenges and triumphs your characters face? Mental health in fantasy works can be difficult to explore sometimes because of the nature of the worlds. Do you take any steps to ensure you give it and your characters enough space on the page, and do you find writing about such personal experiences affects you?
E: It’s such a tricky thing to balance mental health depictions and a fantasy plotline, which is why I feel we don’t see much of it. You want to write that big magical battle where the characters are throwing spells back and forth, but you know if she has anxiety she’s probably going to be freaking out. But if you have her just sort of collapse in the middle of things, it’s all going to be over pretty quick.
Also, you can’t just have all the chapters dealing with the mental illness when you’ve got a serial killer to track down. I found it particularly tricky finding the balance for Dayna. With OCD, a completely accurate depiction would just be pages and pages of obsessions, just endless internal dialogue with her obsessing and checking and obsessing and checking, but honestly who wants to read that?
I had to try to pepper the obsession through here and there, and not have it completely take over the narration. It’s considerably pulled back from what it was to begin with. As for questions of how writing this affects me, the answer is “profoundly.” I’d write a scene with her OCD and then I’d have to step back for a bit and concentrate on a different part, and for some reason editing it was just as hard. It really did feel cathartic in the end though. I couldn’t even get through John Green’s Turtles all the Way Down, so to be able to step back and go, “I did it!” at the end of Witches of Ash and Ruin, well, it felt good.
And it meant writing Witches of Ash and Ruin was a deeply personal experience, and many of the character’s struggles and challenges surrounding her bisexuality, and with her mental illness (OCD) are directly inspired by reality. Do you take inspiration from your life, and if so, how does that effect the process of writing for you?
Linsey: I do. It can honestly make it really hard and challenging to put out there. Annette, especially, was hard for me to write at times because her inner narration is tinged with grief and her asexuality. I knew I wanted to create a world where Annette’s asexuality would make her feel like she’s giving into the power structures around her—women are traditionally calm, collected, and sometimes cold in the world of Belle Révolte—and so she questions if she’s actually asexual or just as she is supposed to be and missing something. It’s hard to get at the heart of that but also important.
It took me ages to figure out how Annette would verbalize her aceness, and that’s because I never really knew how to verbalize. So in a way, she is expressing my experiences for me. I hope it’s made me a better writer, but it has certainly made me a better me. It also feels less threatened to be able to do it in a dark fantasy world because the rules are different. Annette can go after her villains with abandon, which isn’t something we get to do too often in the real world. I think it’s why I’m drawn to dark fantasy. It’s cathartic in a way.
Even though the words tend to leave us once they’re off the page and writing them can be emotionally freeing, getting them there can still be very affecting. Do you have any advice for writers who may want to write about something personal but aren’t quite sure how to start?
E: Writing is a great way to work through things you’re dealing with or have dealt with in the past, but if you’re just starting out be sure to “check in” with yourself. Assess how you’re feeling, how it’s effecting your state of mind and mental health.
Keep in mind also, you may deal with different subjects in different ways. I have to go slow and take breaks if I’m writing about a trigger (OCD) but if I’m working through stuff I’ve been repressing, that’s making me angry, it kind of all comes out. Like rage-induced writing, it’s incredibly therapeutic. Better on the page than in your head.
I know that both Witches of Ash and Ruin and the Mask of Shadows duology explore themes of mental illness: OCD and PTSD. For me, writing about mental illness can be both challenging and rewarding, but I have to be careful with myself, and pay attention to how I’m feeling before I dive into writing a scene with (for example) a full-blown panic attack.
In Belle Révolte are there similar themes of mental illness? If so, what motivates you to explore this, and what is your experience with writing about it?
Linsey: There actually aren’t. For Sal, I found writing their experiences with PTSD and grief extremely challenging and upsetting even thought I was glad I did it in the end. Grief, neglect, and war come up in fantasy a lot, and when I was writing Sal’s story, that was something I didn’t want to shy away from. I wanted to make sure that Sal was on the road toward developing healthy habits by the end of the series and wasn’t made to feel lesser for their PTSD. Reading about trauma can be traumatic, so I wanted to make sure readers had a chance to recover with Sal on the page instead of having to assume it after the epilogue. But it was hard to write. In Belle Révolte, I didn’t feel like I would have the proper space to write it, and I sort of needed to give my mind a break.
It became more important for me to give other aspects of the book that page space, too.
E: In your Mask of Shadows duology you play with stepping outside of and challenging gender norms and expectations society has. Are there similar themes in Belle Révolte surrounding Emilie and her desire to be a physician? Can you tell us a little bit about why this is a recurring theme in your books, and what you’d like your readers to take away from this?
Linsey: There are some tangential themes. I have some pretty complicated feelings about gender, and on top of that, a lot of the books available to me as a child had female characters who could only be female in specific ways. Additionally, almost every world had a similar gender binary to ours and identical ways to present gender.
In Belle Révolte, I wanted to explore that in a way I was familiar with while also dissecting some of the inspirations of my past. Magic, like traits, clothing, and careers, is socially gendered, and Emilie has only ever pushed back against that aspect of her life. She doesn’t feel like she fits into the way her world tells her to be female, and so she does that thing that I think is relatable to some of us where she utterly rejects everything she is told she should be. I’ve always felt a bit odd in my own skin, and I wanted to write about a character navigating that same uncomfortableness without throwing other people under the bus.
Or carriage, I guess.
Annette likes things that are traditionally feminine in the world of Belle Révolte, as do many of the people Emilie meets, and it was important to me that Emilie personally hate those things for herself without projecting that hate to those things and the people who liked them.
Ultimately, I hope readers can take away that there’s no wrong way to be their gender. Women who love traditionally feminine things aren’t giving into the system, men who love those things aren’t less masculine, and non-binary folks shouldn’t have to present in some androgynous middle ground for their identity to be believed. We should all be able to live as we are, but I think we also have a responsibility to let others live as they are without considering their truth to be less.
Also—and this is something I always hope to live up to—that cis readers take away a willingness to protect the truths and lives of others since we have more social power. When we have power and say we want to help, we have to follow through.
At the same time, I like seeing happy endings in fantasy. We don’t get them in real life, sometimes, and reading about them can feel like hope. Writing about Annette’s experiences were hard but worth it.
I know that part of Dayna’s story is that she is outed as bisexual in her small, conservative town. Even though that’s something that a lot of people may experience, it’s not something we see often in YA fantasy. Were you writing to fill a void, and do you find that contemporary fantasy allows you to do things other genres may not in regards to writing to fill that void?
E: This is actually a great question. I find it really interesting that I’ve had a few people protest that Dayna is outed in the book, because I feel like this happens. All. The. Time. And not necessarily all at once, the way it happens to Dayna. It’s sort of like coming out by choice, and then having to come out and again and again and again. Being outed can happen that way too. I still remember a friend outing me. It was so casual, that’s what got me. She told a boyfriend, who I had just met. It was so off-hand, the way she said it, but it felt shocking to me, because that was something I’d just started sharing with my close friends. No one else knew.
It happened again later. Both times from a supposed friend who didn’t seem to think it was a big deal, both time I dealt with unpleasant reactions from others.
It was something I was angry about for a long time, and I tend to process a lot of my emotions by writing about them. I also think there’s a lack of books dealing with this that aren’t contemporary, which can leave genre readers sort of adrift.
I know that I never had queer YA growing up, both because my family is extremely religious and it wouldn’t have been allowed in the house, and because I didn’t really know such a thing existed. Years later, I’ve read almost everything I could get my hands on, but up until recently I didn’t seem to be able to find a lot of traditionally published books about bisexual girls, and even less about F/F relationships. I think we’re always on a quest to see ourselves in our fiction, and for me, not finding my reflection was discouraging. I know filling that void has been a big influence on the books I write.
What about you? What draws you to queer fiction and motivates you to write the identities you write about?
Linsey: Like you said, there’s a void. My favorite characters growing up, the ones I related to the most, were the ones I could believe were ace even if I didn’t have the words for it then. Their romances were almost devoid of lust or non-existent. I didn’t even think I would ever be in a romantic relationship as a child, so I clung to characters who felt the same as me. Tris from the Circle of Magic who pushed everyone away so that she wouldn’t be disappointed and Mel from Crown Duel felt closer to me than anyone else, and I want to do that for someone out there so that they feel less alone, except now I want to hopefully give them some words that feel like home. Found families and finding people who love you are very important to me in fiction, and I love reading and writing about characters finding a place where they are comfortable and respected, even if the characters don’t think they deserve that. Emilie is arrogant and a bit oblivious, and I wanted her to find her footing and grow without losing her ambition. Annette is kind but she can be shrewd. Belle Révolte has a bunch of angry people in it all coming together as a happy, angry family, and their anger isn’t dismissed.
Do you have any similar feelings about your characters, anger, and “unlikeable” female characters? Your characters have been described as “achingly real.” What do you think makes them real?
Likewise, relationships—platonic, familial, and romantic—seem to feature heavily in Witches of Ash and Ruin. Can you talk a bit about how you developed those and what sort of relationships readers will be able to enjoy?
E: There are actually a lot of angry characters in Witches of Ash and Ruin as well! Dayna is more on the chill side, but Meiner and Cora work through a lot of anger in the story. They don’t do anything that a male character would be labeled “unlikeable” for, but I’m almost sure one or both of them will get stamped with that. Honestly, male characters could probably run around punching babies, and as long as they’re halfway attractive, it’s fine. Female characters are unlikeable the moment they show a little anger, or do something slightly uncharitable. I think as readers we need to step back and take a good hard look at why that is, and what it is society has implanted in us that makes us think that way.
I think what makes the characters real in Witches, is that they are angry. And jealous, and competitive, and impulsive. Every last character is deeply flawed in some way, and all of them are morally grey at best. I think people are like that. They’re not black and white or good or evil, they’re just people.
I also love exploring relationships in fiction, all types. I think that’s what makes things so interesting. I want to see tension in families, chosen families who are tighter knit than “blood,” betrayals you never saw coming, and the type of friend who’s only question upon learning you’ve accidentally murdered someone is, “Want me to bring a shovel?”
I love genre fiction, but my favorite kind is filled with compelling relationships, both the good and the bad. And of course, I’m a terrible sucker for, “I hate you, but I also kind of want to lick your face,” type meet cutes. I mean, come on, who doesn’t love a good enemies-to-lovers trope?
Ahem, speaking of lovers, Mask of Shadows will forever hold the record for one of my all-time favorite romances. Sal and Elise are precious cinnamon buns who must be protected at all costs. Their chemistry is so great, and I was literally giggling out loud as they flirted with one another. They’re just the right amount of sweet and mischievous, and Sal has that edge of “dangerousness” that makes you fan yourself just a bit, if you know what I mean.
Can you tell us a little bit about the romance/relationship in Belle Révolte and give us a hint about what we have to look forward to?
Linsey: Oh, my precious assassin. I am so glad.
The romance in Belle Révolte is a bit toned down. It’s not as steamy, I guess. Emilie and Annette both have romantic arcs, but they’re similar in that their romantic inclinations are very quiet. Romance sneaks up on them after they become comfortable with a person and learn to trust them. Their romances are built on respect and trust, even if Emilie’s relationship with their future partner is a bit prickly at the start.
Their romances stem from friendships, and platonic love is something I deeply appreciate. Emilie, who doesn’t really know how to express love because no one’s expressed it to her in a way she recognizes, realizes she loves her friends slowly, and then that she romantically loves one of them. Annette, who’s been burned because of her aceness is a bit too hesitant to admit she’s romantically attracted to someone until after it’s brought up a few times by friends.
Whereas Sal and Elise met and sort of mutually went, “Hellooooooooo,” I wanted the Emilie and Annette to have quieter romances bolstered by their friendships and bonds.
E: Okay last question. You have to pick from Sal, Elise, Annette and Emilie in each of the four scenarios:
You’re stranded on a desert island and you need to survive for two weeks before help arrives.
You get drafted into the Hunger Games.
You have to go to an extremely fancy royal dinner party with strict dining rules, and negotiate for peace in your country. It’s imperative you don’t offend anyone, lest you lose your heads at the end of the night.
You’re on a strict deadline to write an entire novel and you have to co-write with someone.
My ever-helpful medical nerd Emilie.
Sal, though I feel like they would not need me at all and Snow should be very
Elise (but also maybe Annette, who I feel would get along very well and probably have more fun than me at a dinner party).
She is an excellent diviner, so hopefully she can just divine the future novel and dictate it to me.
And you’re not getting away without doing this as well. Who would be your savior in these scenarios: Dayna, Meiner, Cora or Reagan?
I think Cora would probably eat me for sustenance, so I’m going to say Reagan. She knows the most spells and would probably be able to keep us alive.
It was between Cora and Meiner, but I suspect Cora might backstab me once everyone else was dead. Meiner would actually attempt to keep me alive, I think.
Dayna is literally the only one in the entire cast of characters who wouldn’t get our heads chopped off.
Reagan or Dayna. Probably Reagan, because I feel Dayna and I would be too neurotic together and wouldn’t get much writing done.
E: This was awesome, I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun in an interview. I am seriously SO pumped for Belle Révolte to come out, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it! Thanks Linsey!
Linsey: !!! Thank you AND thank you for chatting with me. I am so glad Witches of Ash and Ruinwill be out in the world this year, and I can’t wait to read it.
Linsey Miller grew up in Arkansas and has previously worked as a crime lab intern, neuroscience (undergrad) lab assistant, and pharmacy technician. She is represented by Rachel Brooks of Bookends Literary and has an MFA in Creative Writing. Her debut duology, containing Mask of Shadows and Ruin of Stars, was about a genderfluid thief out for revenge who fought their way through auditions to be the next royal assassin. Linsey can currently be found writing about science and magic anywhere there is coffee.
In her spare time, she writes books, makes silly vlogs with the Word Nerds about writing, and reads excessively. You can find her on her website http://www.elatimer.com/ or over on twitter as @ELatimerWrites.
Today is World Mental Health Day, and I’m thrilled to be celebrating it by having two wonderful gay kidlit authors discuss the representation in their book!
Maulik Pancholy (r.) is the author of the newly released The Best At It, a Middle Grade contemporary starring a gay Indian boy with OCD who’s starting seventh grade and getting used to lots of new changes, and Phil Stamper (l.) is the author of the upcoming The Gravity of Us, a contemporary YA love story between two boys who happen to be the sons of astronauts who are on the same mission to Mars. They’re here to talk about the roles mental health plays in their books, especially as it relates to queerness, pressure, and competition. Please welcome them!
Maulik: Hi Phil! I’m excited to get to do this with you. I loved The Gravity Of Us. I wanted Cal’s FlashFlame show to be real so I could actually tune in, and I was rooting for him and Leon from the first moment they met. I also lived in Houston for a year, so I related to all the characters having to deal with all that humidity! For folks who haven’t read it yet, want to give us a quick recap?
Phil: Thank you so much! A bit about my book: The Gravity of Us is a queer teen love story set against the backdrop of a present-day NASA mission to Mars. The story follows teen social media journalist Cal, whose carefully planned life is uprooted when his father is picked as an astronaut for the Orpheus missions to Mars. Amidst the chaos, and the move from Brooklyn to Houston, Cal meets the son of another astronaut on the program and finds himself falling for him—fast. But when Cal uncovers secrets about the program, he must find a way to reveal the truth without hurting the people who have become most important to him.
Do you want to give a brief rundown of The Best at It as well? It’s such a fantastic story. I love Rahul (and Chelsea! And Bhai! And the whole gang, really) and I remember having a similar need to be “the best” at something when I was his age… even if I could never quite figure out what that “something” was.
Maulik: Thanks! I’m glad it resonated with you. The Best at It is about Rahul Kapoor, a 12-year-old, Indian American boy who is just beginning to realize that he might be gay. He’s dealing with anxiety around that, and he’s also being bullied for multiple layers of his identity at school. One night, his favorite person in the whole world, his grandfather, Bhai, tells him a story that makes Rahul believe that if he’s just the best at something, all of his other problems will disappear. So with his best friend Chelsea by his side, he sets off on a mission to prove his self-worth. He’s only got two problems: What is he going to be the best at? And what if he falls short?
Phil, one of the things that I was struck by, is that in both of our books we have characters dealing with different forms or manifestations of anxiety. In your book, Becca, Cal’s mother, struggles with anxiety in a way that really hit home for me. I was drawn in by the way you described her facial expressions, and how it affected Cal to see that. Want to talk about that a bit?
Phil: Ah, that’s so great to hear. Becca’s anxiety was based off of my own experience, but it was really interesting writing Gravity from the perspective of someone who does not share those experiences. At that time, I think I was trying to be more cognizant of what happens to me and how that might affect or appear to people, and that really helped when describing the smaller physical manifestations of her anxiety.
Cal’s mom was such an interesting character, because I wanted to play against the “perfect astronaut wife” trope of the 60s. While she still knows there’s an expectation of her to be polished, steady, and camera-ready when it comes to the media circus of the launch, she gets to break down some of those expectations with Cal and her family, because she’s so open and clear about her experience with anxiety.
While we’re on the topic of mental health, one thing about The Best at It that stuck with me was how naturally Rahul’s experience with probable OCD was “revealed” on the page. Oftentimes with mental health in media, especially with OCD rep, we get something that’s a little less nuanced, but the way it was shown in your story made his experience seem so authentic and relatable. How did you choose to show this throughout the story?
Maulik: Rahul’s behaviors in the book are similar to some of the “checking” behaviors that I dealt with as a kid, and honestly still do as an adult. In my experience, those behaviors presented in different ways. Sometimes it was just checking something, like a lock, in a seemingly absent-minded manner, not really aware of the impulse why. Sometimes it was having an overwhelming feeling that something bad would happen if I didn’t check something, repeatedly. That dread of, “Is the stove really off? Am I SURE?” And, for me, these patterns were certainly triggered–and intensified–by stress, including emotional stress.
I’m hearing from middle school teachers that they see more and more kids dealing with anxiety. So, I didn’t want to shy away from this in the book. I also wrote the scene between Rahul and his father to model the kinds of conversations that I think adults and kids can be having around this.
For Rahul, his checking escalates as the level of competition in the book grows.In your book, Leon is dealing with depression related to the competitive world of Olympic athletics. Would you say that Leon is affected by competition in a similar way to Rahul?
Phil: That’s an interesting comparison, because I do think Leon and Rahul have a similar experience in that competition is a trigger for them. Gymnastics is a really intense sport that is full of pressure, and Leon’s response to that pressure was to pull back, to withdraw from the world and sort of shame himself for feeling this way, even if he couldn’t control it. That said, Leon’s a few years older than Rahul, and he is more-or-less removed from his Olympic trajectory by the time we get to meet him, even if the media conveniently forgets that on occasion.
Not a big spoiler here, but in the end, Leon finds a way to rekindle his passion for gymnastics, without subjecting himself to the pressure of competition. Similarly, and hopefully not a spoiler, but Rahul realizes that finding something you love and doing it until you get better is a better fit for him than competing. Does it mean that Leon and Rahul no longer experience depression or probable OCD, respectively? No, of course not.
But I do think it’s really important that both of these characters are learning more about themselves so they can hopefully better communicate that to their loved ones. Pivoting back to Cal for a moment—while I think Leon actually has a grasp on how to best avoid triggers like pressure and the spotlight, Cal’s kind of torn. He’s used to being in the spotlight, and he wants to be the one to break any and every news story, but he really gets himself into a mess in Houston, and you can really see the pressure and people’s expectations getting to him.
The more I think about it, Cal’s and Rahul’s stories both deal heavily with competition and perfection. With Rahul though, he’s experiencing this need for perfection all while trying to understand more about his queer identity. How do you think this affects his competitive nature?
Maulik: Rahul’s perfectionism and his need to win are 100% about proving his self-worth in a world where being different makes him feel less than. And his queer identity is one layer of that for sure. I just want to say, though, that it was important to me not to pathologize being gay. His mental health struggles are not because he’s gay. It’s the feeling less than, the wanting to fit in, that is stressful for him. And I think there’s something universal about that. What kid–or even adult–hasn’t felt like an outsider at some point?
Speaking of which, I think empathy for other people’s experiences really comes through in both our books, even if the characters themselves aren’t always perfect at expressing it. Rahul’s Dad doesn’t have all the language to talk about OCD, and in your book, you write about Leon’s parents choosing not to push the conversation around depression. In fact, it’s Leon’s sister, Kat, who’s a real ally to her brother. And Cal, of course, has Deb much in the same way Rahul has Chelsea. Was there a reason you wrote such great allies in the form of siblings and friends?
Phil: I guess I’ve written some really great allies and supporting characters, because the amount of comments I get about wanting to see more of Kat or Deb are astounding! Deb is loosely based around one of my best friends from high school, and she was so much fun to write. In the book, she’s the steadfast ally any queer kid would want, but I wanted to make sure she had her own story, her own arc, and didn’t exist solely for the benefit of Cal. So, I got to play with the boundaries of allyship and best friendship a bit. I also got to reflect on my own selfish tendencies, especially while I was in high school, and show how an ally can both offer unfaltering support about you and your identity while also being there to tell you to shut up when you’re out of line!
From our personal experiences with mental health, identity, and even the friendships we’ve had, it looks like we’ve both put a lot of ourselves into our debut novels. Would you like to talk briefly about why you chose to do this?
Maulik: Sure. The characters in my book go on a journey: they change, and they learn things about themselves. And maybe that allows readers to see themselves more clearly as well. What I really wanted was to tell a great story–grounded in reality, with both humor and pathos–and to hold up a mirror for kids who deserve to see themselves in the books they read. I guess that’s why I was willing to be so personal: I wanted to write a book that I could have used as a kid. But I have to say, it’s been gratifying to hear how many people–with experiences far different than mine–have made their own connections to Rahul’s story.
Phil: That’s fantastic. I set out to showcase a queer love story in a unique setting, so the feedback from the romance between Cal and Leon has been amazing. Less intentionally, though, I leaned on my own experiences with mental health while creating characters like Leon and Cal’s mother, and it’s been great to see readers connecting to that too.
I’m so glad we got to chat about this, Maulik! It’s been great getting to know a little bit more about your experience developing and writing The Best at It, and I can’t wait for readers everywhere to get their hands on a copy. And super special thanks to Dahlia and LGBTQ Reads for hosting us!
Don’t you just love when authors buddy up to talk about their work? I certainly do! So I’m thrilled to have the authors of two new queer YAs chatting on the site today about their books, experiences, and character choices.
Amber Smith’s Something Like Gravity releases today, and you can find out more about it here. If you’re a follower of the blog, you’re already well familiar with Mason Deaver’s I Wish You All the Best, which was our May New Release Spotlight! Get to know both authors and books by reading on!
AMBER: I’m so excited to have the chance to chat with you, Mason (and by the way, we are here together in person at one of our favorite local coffee shops right now, so caffeine is definitely fueling this conversation!)
I first remember seeing tons of buzz about your debut, I Wish You All the Bestlast year, and I was so interested, especially because our books had some similarities (both are first love stories that feature a gender nonconforming protagonist). And when I looked you up, I couldn’t believe we both lived in Charlotte, North Carolina! So I promptly sent you a DM on Twitter to ask if we could meet up – I love connecting with other authors, and you were so gracious to meet me for coffee – we talked about lots of things that first time we met: books and writing, LGBTQ stuff, life in general, being in the South.
I moved to NC about ten years ago after having lived my whole life up North. But you’ve lived in NC your whole life… So I’m curious, what was your experience like growing up queer in the South?
MASON: Very weird, growing up there weren’t a lot of openly queer people at my schools, and those that were, were considered the ‘weird kids’ and so part of me always repressed that sort of thing. The South definitely has a reputation when it comes to queer people, especially queer teens, I think. What was it like for you? I know you grew up in New York, so that must’ve been a big departure from what you knew.
AMBER: Yes, it was a pretty big culture shock for me at first (not to mention the humidity down here!). It’s strange, even though I grew up in a more liberal environment in New York, I had a similar experience with there not being any queer people who were out at my high school (I am also, eh-hmm, a bit older than you, so I was in high school a lot longer ago than you were). But I still didn’t feel comfortable coming out to my family until years later as an adult. When I finally did come out to my mom, she was so supportive and accepting, but I remember her telling me that had I come out to her when I was a teenager (a decade or so earlier), she wasn’t sure she would’ve taken it so well. I think people’s perspectives can evolve and change with time.
What about you, Mason? What was your coming out experience like?
MASON: Whew boy, you know, speaking to the liberal environment for just a second. It’s been funny moving to a city in the South that is considered more ‘liberal’ and ‘open-minded’ but still being afraid to really be who I am. Which I think may just be the fear for any queer person no matter where they live or what environment they grew up in. But coming out is still a weird thing for me. I have friends who know, and people in my life who I’m comfortable telling, but it’s still very much a new thing. I’ve never officially come out to any of my family, and when it comes to introducing myself to strangers, I’m still in a place where I don’t tell them right away, like a defense mechanism of sort, which is feel is a very familiar feeling for loads of trans people.
AMBER: Oh yes, I totally get that! For so many years, I didn’t feel safe being out to anyone except a very close circle of friends, and while I will be forever grateful for their love and support, it made my world feel very small. I think you’re right, we still live in a time where so many queer people (especially when you live in the South, like you and I) have to be really mindful of our surroundings. I hate that I still have to check in on my own safety before holding my partner’s hand in public or simply saying “I love you” or calling her “honey” if I know people might overhear. But this is still a reality for so many of us.
Which makes me think of I Wish You All the Best – you chose to have your main character, Ben, not come out to their new classmates. What was it that influenced your decision to have Ben go back in the closet?
MASON: That was a very tough decision to make, because you want the best for your characters, right? And you don’t want them to have to go through anything harsh, but a character going back into the closet was something I’d never seen in any book before. But I’ve been there before, basically feeling like I have an arm or a leg out there, but still mostly firmly being in the closet or totally going back in around certain people or places. It all goes back to that defense mechanism thing, this way we have to protect ourselves. Which sucks because this is such a vital part of who we are, but for a lot of queer people, it comes down to either being ourselves, or surviving.
AMBER: Such a good point, Mason. I feel like “coming out” is often perceived as like this monumental before and after divide in a queer person’s life, but the reality is, we have to come out over and over again, when we meet new people, or making the decision to correct someone when they make a wrong assumption about our identities. I can’t even count how many times I’ve been asked about my husband or boyfriend, and sometimes it just doesn’t feel worth it (or wise) to correct them.
I had to make a similar decision with my main character, Chris, in Something Like Gravity, who is struggling with whether or not he will come out to his love interest, Maia. He wants to be honest and show his true self, but is also afraid of losing the relationship, or something even worse happening if he reveals himself. While I’m not transgender, I’ve had to weigh similar options over and over in my life. And you’re right, it does suck!
If you had to say what you think the most important step/things that we can all be doing to move the needle towards all queer people being safe and accepted, what would it be?
MASON: Oh, I feel that ‘constantly coming out’ thing. It’s never a one and done kind of thing. When you’re queer (visibly or otherwise) you’re constantly weighing in your head, picking your battles and deciding whether or not it’s worth it.
That’s something I loved about Something Like Gravity, was Chris’ decisions. Because it’s hard to trust people, even the people you think you can assume the best of, or even love. There are so many moments where Ben wants to come out to Nathan, but doesn’t. Because there are so many alarms going off in your head like do you really know this person? Will they really react the way you want?
As for moving the needle? I think we’re already doing so much. Publishing is at the height of queer inclusion, I think. Not to say there isn’t more work to do, there are still so many chances that haven’t been given to queer authors of color, or disabled queer authors (or any intersection of the three), but I also feel that we’re steadily moving towards the right place. It’s just taking us a long time to get there unfortunately.
AMBER: Yes, I couldn’t agree more! When I look at where things were when I was a teenager (some twenty years ago now!) there were practically zero queer books out there, and I mean, YA was barely a genre yet, so there has been so much progress. It is very encouraging to see so many new and diverse voices being embraced. There is truly nothing more powerful than sharing our stories and experiences.
And that’s one of the things I loved so much about I Wish You All the Best – that it isn’t just a coming out story, but it’s also a love story. Ben and Nathan’s relationship was so beautiful and felt so real; the way they each gradually opened up to one another and earned each other’s trust was so natural. Was the love story thread always such a prominent part of the book, or was it something that developed as you were writing?
MASON: Well Ben and Nathan have always been Ben and Nathan (or BeNathan, which was a happy accident). In my head they’ve always been destined to be there for one another, it’s always been Ben and Nathan for me. I think it’s so important that we showcase queer teens living and thriving. Getting their love interest, accomplishing their goals, getting the chance to live happy lives.
And for me, there’s no doubt that Ben and Nathan live a happy life together. They’re meant for each other, and I don’t like the idea of them ever being separated from one another. I see a lot of tweets about how it’s more realistic to show people breaking up, that high school relationships hardly last past graduation. And while I think those stories are definitely needed and wanted, with Ben and Nathan I want them to have a happily ever after. I think they deserve it.
What about you? What inspired this love thread through Something Like Gravity? Your other books have handled pretty heavy topics, so was it tough to find a balance between the two in this latest book?
AMBER: BeNathan – I love that (you totally need to start a hashtag!) I agree, I think it’s just as important to show both sides of experience as a queer person: the challenges and hardships, but also the joys and triumphs. I actually started writing Chris and Maia’s stories as two separate books at first. Chris’s story was primarily about his journey with coming out as trans (and a lot of the problems and heartache he was going through because of it). Maia’s story was all about her grief over her sister’s death and trying to rediscover who she was going to be.
I was working on their stories at the same time, but at a certain point they just became too bleak, and I thought about giving each of them a love interest as a way to lighten things up a bit…but then it hit me: Chris and Maia would be perfect for each other! And so, I started re-writing their stories as one book, and I’m so glad that I did. Writing SLG was good for my soul. I loved being able to show a more positive aspect of a queer life through a respectful, loving, romantic relationship.
So, on that note, what’s next for you? Do you plan to continue writing queer characters and storylines?
MASON: Definitely, I remember times even when I was in high school not having a lot of queer books to pick from. And even the ones that were there weren’t… we’ll say the best. I’ve got a second book in the works, and I’d love to venture into middle grade at some point with a few ideas. More queer stories all around, I really can’t imagine writing a book with a non-queer main character haha.
What about you? Any future plans you can talk about with us here or is everything hush hush?
AMBER: Ha, yes I know exactly what you mean! Now that I’m finally out in both my life and in my writing, I have no intention of going back into the closet! It’s still a little hush hush, but I can say that I plan on continuing queer representation in my books – I’m toying with some different genres and formats myself, including (fingers crossed) a middle grade novel, as well.
Okay, my last question for you is a fun one: Since we love getting together for coffee, what do you think Ben and Nathan’s favorite drinks on the menu here would be?
MASON: Oh I like this, unfortunately it won’t be some super fancy coffee drink, Ben would definitely go for a Limonade Classique (can you tell we’re in a French inspired café?) I guess there’s just something about the color yellow that calls to them, I don’t know.
As for Nathan, he’d be the most extra. Like more sugar that actual caffeine or coffee. So he’d pick a Salted Caramel Brownie Café Mocha. That kid’s dentist is going to have a field day. What about Chris and Maia? What are their drinks of choice?
AMBER: Ah yes, very good choices, Ben and Nathan! I think Chris (being a Northerner like me) would love the Café Fouetté – a fancy French iced espresso drink – he would need the caffeine to keep up with all of the overthinking and over planning and worrying he likes to do on the long drives he takes in his old clunker of a car. But Maia (who is a North Carolinian) is a bit more low-key than Chris, a little more laid back, so I think she’d go for something more subtle and sweet, like Lavender + Honey Soda.
Well, that’s it for our coffee talk – thank you Mason, and HUGE thanks to Dahlia Adler and LGBTQ Reads for having us!
Mason Deaver is a non-binary author and librarian in a small town in North Carolina where the word ‘y’all’ is used in abundance.
When they aren’t writing or working, they’re typically found in their kitchen baking something that’s bad for them, or out in their garden complaining about the toad that likes to dig holes around their hydrangeas.
Amber Smith is the New York Times bestselling author of the young adult novels The Way I Used to Be, The Last to Let Go, and Something Like Gravity. An advocate for increased awareness of gendered violence, as well as LGBTQ equality, she writes in the hope that her books can help to foster change and spark dialogue surrounding these issues. She grew up in Buffalo, New York, and now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with her partner and their ever-growing family of rescued dogs and cats. You can find her online at AmberSmithAuthor.com.
This year adds some particularly wonderful and nuanced books to gay YA, and I’m so excited to have authors of two of them on the site today! When Greg Howard, author of Social Intercourse (which releases today!), contacted me about writing something for the site about sex in gay YA and the disparities and perceptions related to it, I immediately thought of Lev “L.C.” Rosen, whose Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) releases in October and deals with those things a lot. So I asked them to read each other’s books and discuss for the benefit of all of us, and here they are!
Lev: Hi Greg! I’ve been avoiding you on social media because I knew we’d end up talking about one another’s books, and I was trying to save that for this, so now we can let loose. Your book, Social Intercourse, opens with out-and-proud Beck trying to lose his virginity on what is essentially grindr. I loved that opening, and I was totally revving up for a queer American Pie style book (or, something like Not Another Gay Movie), but then you actually went in this sweeter direction—much more John Hughes. And I kept thinking about how Hughes’ films were fairly explicit for the time, while also being really sweet and romantic, and how you captured that spirit. So I guess my first question is—were you inspired by Hughes at all? Do you think that writing queer YA is sometimes about trying to capture those experiences that prior straight generations had, in terms of the stories they told? Hughes was, on some level, revolutionary in how explicit he was, but all his stories were straight. We never got to see ourselves in stories like those—are you trying to fix that?
Greg: Hey, Lev! I’ve been so excited to talk to you. Those are some interesting observations. When I first starting writing Social Intercourse, I did think the story was going to go in a different direction as you describe. But you know how it goes when characters take control of the story. The have a mind of their own! While Beck is out and proud and completely confident with who he is, there’s a vulnerability there that’s undeniable and sweet. And now that you mention it, (and I swear I didn’t realize this before), but I can see the John Hughes-esque similarities, but in a queer way. I grew up watching those movies—The Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful, et al, and yes, I always wished there was a LGBTQ equivalent. Even though I didn’t set out to accomplish that, I hope I did in some way. LGBTQ kids today need to see themselves represented in books and in movies. All of them, not just one type of queer kid.
What I love about my Beck and your Jack is that they are bold characterizations of gay boys that we don’t see very often taking center stage in YA lit and movies. They don’t blend in. They’re not straight-acting and they’re not afraid of exploring their sexuality. I swear I laughed so many times reading your book, Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts), thinking “OMG! Beck and Jack are like twins separated at birth, one sent to live in New York and the other sent to live in South Carolina!” Jack is such a great character, and I love how sex positive he is. But I’ve learned with SI that there’s a bit of a double standard when it comes to het YA and LGBTQ YA as far as how far you can go. Did you get any push-back from your editor or agent to tone it down, or to pull back on some of Jack’s narrative about his sex life? And did you set out to show a queer boy who embraces his feminine side and so confident in his sexuality? Any similarities between Jack and your teenage self?
Lev: So many questions!
It’s funny, though I get what you’re saying about Beck and Jack—they’re both out and don’t mind wearing makeup—to me Beck is such a romantic, and Jack definitely isn’t. Beck might be trying to lose his virginity to some dude on grindr, but he says he wishes he could lose it to a real boyfriend who he has feelings for. Jack is way past the losing his virginity stage and didn’t lose it to a boyfriend—didn’t want to. He’s had plenty of sex, but just one boyfriend, and isn’t in any rush to repeat that. His best friend, Ben, on the other hand, is a total romantic, like Beck. I think Beck and Ben are more the twins. But they’re still really different, too. And that’s important. It’s so important for teens to see a variety of queer men in the world—there’s no wrong way to be gay. That’s why I put in so many queer characters. To show that everyone has their own way of being queer.
As for my editor, I was shocked, but no, she never asked me to pull it back. There’s one sex advice column towards the end that gets into some kinky stuff, and I put that in basically assuming she would be like “nope, too far”—I even had a backup column ready! But she had no problem with it. It was amazing. The whole thing has been kind of amazing. I wrote 99 pages of this in a strange furor, because I really wanted to explore the idea of “the good gay”—the way liberal straight society says they’re okay with queer people, but really they just mean queer people who behave to certain standards. In teens, that usually means sweet, romantic hand holding and a little making out—cute, essentially. Cute couples for straight society to go “awww” over and feel good about because it makes them feel accepting. But put an unapologetically slutty teenage gay boy in front of them, and suddenly it’s like “are you sure you’re making the right decisions?” or “maybe if you weren’t so in-your-face about it.” Queerness is acceptable to cisheteropatriarchal society within a set of limits – but go outside those limits and you become a “bad gay”—somehow who is broken, or self-hating, or just bad, and frowned upon. That’s what I really wanted to talk about.
So I write these 99 pages, in like a week or two, but I have this rule: once I pass the 99 page mark, I have to finish the book. Luckily, I’m friends with Alvina Ling, who edited one of my previous books, and I asked her if she would read these 99 pages and tell me if I should just stop, because it would never get published. I literally said “I think it might be a terrible idea.” So, she read them, and when she finished she said “have your agent send these pages to me officially.” So I didn’t have any pushback, ever. Alvina may have though, because I think that the conversation about sex and YA and queer sex and YA is one that’s happening a lot in the editor/gatekeeper/reader.
There have been more and more YA books with gay sex. Look at Release, by Patrick Ness. That has quite the gay sex scene in it, but, and this is the interesting thing: you don’t hear about it that much. And that’s the thing editors are looking out for. There’s a double-standard about sex and queer sex in YA, but it’s not coming from writers. It’s coming from what books people are talking about. And part of that might be gatekeepers—gay books of any kind (with sex or not) are challenged and banned FAR more often than straight books with sex. And when that happens, publishers see it and go “oh, gay sex doesn’t sell” and then even if they love some queer sex-heavy YA, getting it through acquisitions becomes much more difficult. Queer books have to make up for that banning and pushback by gathering fans elsewhere, which isn’t easy.
I feel like the good fight is happening with editors and publicists, and all we can do is give them the weapons to fight with. Readers need to flock behind books with gay sex to get more of them, need to shout about them from the rooftops and tell everyone they know… but readers, even queer ones, are often nervous about saying “I loved this book with teens having gay sex!” Which I get, adults talking about teens having sex is weird. But with abstinence only education on the rise again, maybe it’s time we start talking more about sex, gay sex, and teenagers having safe, consensual sex. Otherwise, kids won’t be hearing about sex from anywhere except from porn sites.
Personally, I’d love to hear about how it’s going for our editors and publicists, though, the ones who have to push for the books even when these things are harder to talk about. (Perhaps a good followup Dahlia?) (Blogger’s Note: EXTREMELY HERE FOR IT.)
As for me in high school, no, I was not much like Jack. My high school was like Jack’s though: a private school in Manhattan with an emphasis on ethics. It was only like five years ago I was there, of course, but there weren’t as many of us out students (my old teachers who still work there tell me that now over 20% of the student body identifies as some kind of queer). So I don’t know who I’d be were I a student there today, but then, I was way more like Jeremy, Jack’s ex, and president of the GSA. I was GSA co-head, and like Jeremy, I was concerned that anything other queer men did would reflect on me, and so I wanted them all to behave in a way that would make sure people took us (me) seriously.
That was always my big issue—if you acted “too gay,” then I felt like no one took anything you said seriously. I also always felt like people were trying to make me act more “gay,” too—even other queer people—and I don’t respond well to being told what to do (what teenager does?), so I tried to avoid that. I remember there was an article in Vogue or something when I was in high school about how every girl needed a gay BFF, and it talked about us like we were purses, like we were actual accessories for straight women. And after that article came out, girls I hadn’t been friendly at all with suddenly were talking to me and trying to be my friend. That made me so angry. I’m still fucking angry. Anger wrote this book.
How about you? Any pushback from your editor on the sexier stuff in the book? I was most surprised by the masturbation scene. We don’t see a lot of that—much less asshole fingering—in YA, and it was definitely the most graphic moment in your book. Is that because it was the one scene they let you keep? Was there any pushback on it?
And was either Beck or Jax based on your own teenager-hood? You’re from the south, I know, but did you go to a lot of Drag Queen Beauty Parlors as a kid? Did you have a drag name?
Greg: I guess you’re right about Beck having some Ben in him too. (I was crushing on Ben, big time.) In my book, Beck wants to be get his slutty phase out of the way so he can be ready for Mr. Right down the road. And Jax, the closeted bi-sexual football star obviously complicates matters for him. Beck is terribly attracted to Jax but really doesn’t want to be, so he fights it.
And I think that’s so interesting that you identified more as the Jeremy in your book when you were in high school. I like to say, Beck is the kid I wish I had been in high school. I graduated a few years (*ahem*) before you, and honestly I didn’t know of one out gay person in my high public school of 1500 students. I knew of some that were in the closet like me, but I was also busy trying to “pray the gay away.” I came from a very religious home and one of those small Southern towns with a church on every street corner. That’s why religion plays such a prominent role in Social Intercourse. Even so, I had a great high school experience, and was popular—but only because I hid who I really was. I dated girls and fooled around with other closeted guys on the side, and then felt guilty and prayed to God for forgiveness. It was an icky and unhealthy cycle. And newsflash: “Praying the gay away” doesn’t work!
I was unagented when I wrote Social Intercourse, so during the querying process, I received several requests for additional pages and the full manuscript, but I also got several “this is too much for YA” kind of responses, which I found perplexing. I didn’t think my book was very racy at all. Not compared to some cishetero YA romances. Luckily I found the perfect agent who “got it” right away and helped me polish it—but not tone it down. I told her I didn’t want to water it down and she was okay with that. When she started submitting the manuscript to editors, we got a similar response. “Hilarious, love the writing, love the voice, but might be too much for us to publish.” Again—me—perplexed. Other than the one gay masturbation scene and the one het oral sex scene, there’s no sex on the page! Sure there’s a lot for frank discussion about sex, and that anal masturbation scene is kind of graphic, but come on—that’s it!
Fortunately David Gale at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers also “got it” right away and made a pre-empt offer pretty quickly. So props to our publishers Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers and Little, Brown! And no—David never asked me to tone down the racy bits. I don’t know if he received any pushback internally. If he did, he never told me about it. But we had the discussion and he agreed that yes—there is a double standard when it comes to LGBTQ YA and cishetero YA.
I also learned about yet another double standard. A straight female writer can go “a lot farther” with gay stories in regards to sex than an Own Voices author. Somehow it’s deemed “safer” when a straight woman writes it, and when it comes from a gay male writer, it’s perceived as more “subversive”. I had several professionals and established authors in the publishing industry confirm that to me also. Nobody was saying it was right…just that yes—it’s a thing. But I feel that it’s as much as reader issue as a “gatekeeper” one. Some non-queer readers want safe, sweet, romanticized representations of queer kids like you said. Gay men tend to write more from their own experiences which is a little too raw, real, and authentic for some readers.
I have a very liberal straight female friend who loved Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda and was trying to convince her very conservative friend who was leery of the gay content, to let her teen daughter read it—who was dying to. And it was only when my liberal friend told her conservative friend that the book was written by a straight woman, that she let her daughter read it. Ugh! But at least that kid got to read the book. But you’re right, I think it is slowly getting better from the publishing end of things and hopefully readers will love and support characters like Jack and Beck, just as much as they love Becky Albertalli’s Simon if they give them a chance. And I do think writers like Becky Albertalli are opening mainstream doors for us Own Voices writers, which I know is important to Becky, so I say thank you and more power to her and those like her.
And I will be honest, when I was in high school, I didn’t even know what a drag queen was, much less have a drag name! I only “came out to myself” after college when I moved to Nashville and a drag show was my first gay bar experience (at 23 y/o). I remember thinking what the hell is this?! But I felt right at home in that bar, with those other LGBTQ people…something I’d never felt before and that was powerful.
And speaking of feeling right at home, I love that both Beck and Jax have supportive parents in Social Intercourse. That was pure fantasy for me when writing the book. I wish I would have had a relationship with my dad like Beck has with his. And I loved the relationship between Jack and his mom in your book. So real. So easy. So loving. Also, Beck and Jack both have some great, supportive close friends. Beck’s best friend Shelby is amalgamation of my three best friends now. Were Jack’s close relationships inspired by yours with your parent(s) and friends when you were a teen?
Lev: I’m so sorry you had to go through all that. I’m lucky in that I skipped over most of the shame/fear parts of coming out and went right to the angry. I was in a liberal environment, my parents and friends were generally great about it, it was the folks who didn’t really know me—the ones who watched me and assumed things about me – that I had the biggest issue with. I did go to an orthodox temple, where the rabbi told me homosexuality was immature and something people needed to get over (not knowing I was gay), but I was able to give up on going there after my bar-mitzvah. It did fuck up my relationship with Judaism for a while, but I don’t know how that could have been avoided.
When I moved to Ohio for college, that’s when I experienced more of the fear of being openly queer in the world. It’s not like New York is a bubble—I still get people shouting “faggot” on the street at me—but I never feel like I’m entering enemy territory here. Maybe because I grew up here. But Ohio, and other rural places I’ve visited—that’s where I get that fear feeling. I change the way I walk, lower my voice. If it feels like a place that would be unfriendly to Jews, I change my name to Lee, too. Growing up with that must have been really terrible. Especially if you thought prayer was going to help. Being gay is a gift.
But, getting less somber—that story about your friend’s friend only giving her daughter Simon when she found out it was written by a woman is FASCINATING. I just did an interview with i-D about m/m ownvoices in YA and why they’re important. What I said was that when straight people write queer characters, they do so seeing queer people through a “straight gaze”—and they’re pretty much writing them for other straight people. They’re telling our stories for themselves, and we become these adorable little puppets they can project things onto—lust, pity, whatever. It’s objectifying. And then those are the stories that are out there—the ones little queers see, the ones straight people see and use to form their opinions about queer people. We become objects and then no one has a chance to see our humanity. And maybe that humanity, as you say, is too real, too raw, and that’s what straight folks are afraid of. That they’ll see what this world really is like for us, instead of for these symbols of us. Seeing someone else’s humanity when you’re part of a society that crushes that humanity can be a terrible thing.
I don’t mind straight people writing queer characters—that’s diversity, and it can be good when done with love and sensitivity readers. But when they take on specifically queer stories, before any of us have a chance to tell those stories from our POV? It’s cutting in line. It’s usurping our stories for their puppet shows. And it ain’t cool. I hope you can smuggle a copy of your book to that girl who was so eager to read Simon.
I loved how you distinguished between the types of Christianitys (Christianities?)—how there were loving Christians who had no problem with queer folks, but there were also the ones with the signs and the angry faces (we had those in Ohio) who protested a dance. You didn’t just say “Christians are bad”—you said “these Christians are bad.” I feel like that’s a nuance we don’t often see when we talk about religion and queerness. If it’s not too personal, have you found a sort of Christianity that works for you? That doesn’t ask you to pray anything away? Or do you think that upbringing really screwed up your relationship with religion? Do you think there is a way to be happy, Christian and queer?
I’m glad you brought up the parents in your book, though, because Jax’s mom? I was SO angry at her. Beck’s dad was great, and JoJo was amazing, but Jax’s mom was outing her son all over the place! I kept yelling at her “you’re queer! You should know this isn’t cool!” What made you want to write that kind of a character—one who’s perhaps so supportive they end up being harmful? Because I found her fascinating, even as I felt she needed a scolding. You know any moms like that? It’s so interesting, as we get more supportive parents, I’m curious about where the line is between supportive—and too supportive. Where do you think it is?
Jack’s mom in Jack of Hearts isn’t at all inspired by my parents. My parents are supportive (fun fact: they’ve read the book), but I don’t think either of them ever partied at Studio 54. Jack’s mom really came from a desire for a cool mom, who wouldn’t mind her son writing a sex advice column, but not so cool that she’d brush off him hiding a stalker from her. Someone Jack felt a need to protect, on some level. All of Jack’s friends have parts of people I know, but I didn’t consciously think “I shall base this person on that one” or anything. Jeremy was kind of me, like I said, but so is Ben, and so is Jenna… everyone is me. I write from a place of pure narcissism. But I think we all do, to some degree.
Greg: Wow. Sounds like you had your own interesting journey with religion and being gay as well. I did finally reconcile my faith with my sexuality and what a burden lifted that was. If you believe in God talking to you, it was kind of like hearing them say “Well, duh. Of course there’s nothing wrong with you. I made you perfectly.” But alas, the older I get, the more agnostic I become. But I absolutely believe there is a place in the Christian church for LGBTQ people. And I knows lots of happy queer Christians. We have several Christian churches here in Nashville that are open, welcoming, and affirming to the LGBTQ community. And I’m SO glad you didn’t think the message in my book was that all Christians are bad or that Christianity, in general, was bad. That was not my intent at all. But I guess is was important for me to show the “good” Christians, who are truly about love and compassion and core principles of the teachings of Christ. So many queer people were hurt by the church and the “bad” Christians get all the press, so that’s all some queer people see of the church—the hate.
But, getting less religiousy—just like there are all types of queer teens, there are all kinds of parents of queer teens. And like you said, as we get more supportive parents out there, it’s breaking new ground and some are figuring it out as they go. They just know they love and support their kids. So with Beck’s mom and dad, and with Jax’s moms, I wanted to show supportive parents, but different types of support! Beck’s dad, Roger and Jax’s mom, JoJo get it right most all the time, Beck’s mom, Lana is supportive, but she doesn’t always get it right. Poor Tracee, Jax’s other mom, tries a little too hard, but she means well. And she has quite the story arc herself. I get why you had such a strong negative reaction to her and so does Beck in the story.
Okay now, I HAVE to ask you about those letters and columns! WOW. Bravo to you for going balls to the walls on those. (no pun intended). I believe I read in the acknowledgments that you had a little input or got some ideas from friends, right? Did like your friends ask you some questions then you formulated the emails to Jack and his responses? Any first hand experiences sprinkled in those letters or columns? (Okay—that’s probably too personal). But tell me EVERYTHING about that part of the process of writing this book.
Oh—and by the way—that fourteen-year-old girl who wanted to read Simon so badly, my friend talked her mom into bringing her to my launch party for Social Intercourse!
Lev: Okay, that’s an amazing happy ending for the Story of the Girl Who Wanted to Read Simon. I am thrilled, please send me photos of you giving her a copy of the book and her subsequent review.
As for the letters and columns, many I came up with on my own, but I did also crowdsource actual questions. Usually, they were short, and I made them into big longer questions. So, the one from the guy who wants to sleep around but keeps developing crushes on his one night stands? That was just someone asking “how can I not fall in love with every guy I fuck?” I switched the sexes around, because I wanted to play with some toxic masculinity tropes, and made it into a longer letter, but the inspiration came from a friend.
Some of my friends’ teen kids asked questions, too. I got the asexuality one from one of them. I didn’t get to every question people asked (some I didn’t think Jack would have the answer to, especially if they were more vaginally focused), but I definitely wanted to reach out and get questions from teens or people who had been teens because I think even as adults these days we have a lot of questions.
One of the things they say in the book is there’s no talk of queer sex in sex-ed classes, and with kids coming out earlier and earlier, that’s an issue. They can figure out the basic premise of giving a blowjob, but if they want to try anal sex? That’s more complicated, and if they’re only getting sex-ed from porn, it is not going to go how they think it will.
Did you see the article in the Times magazine a while back about teens learning so much sex stuff from porn? It’s fascinating and kind of terrifying, too. And that’s for straight porn, which admittedly has different issues, but I think about gay teens going “okay, sex for us MUST be anal, and spit will be a fine lubricant.” So I definitely wanted to cover some of the basics, too, to counteract that idea of easy porn sex. And I brought in a sex-educator to help me make sure nothing Jack said was actively harmful. I didn’t want him to give perfect advice, but I wanted to make sure it was still solid, working advice. But writing the questions was fun. Writing Jack answering the questions was fun, too, because he’s finding his voice there, and he’s really in control of his own narrative for once, instead of being the subject of gossip about how slutty he is.
I really wanted Jack to control the stories of his own sex life, so I fade to black for most sex scenes, but then tell his stories through the column. I wanted to show him really controlling his own sexual narrative. And I’m going to control my own sexual narrative by saying I won’t be talking about my sex life, but I’m sure people will assume Jack’s experiences are based on mine. Which is hilarious, since so much of the book is about not assuming things about peoples sex lives. I did have a bunk-bed, though.
So, I think we should wrap this up before people get bored, But thank you for having us and let us ramble, Dahlia! And as my final question, I know I’m just starting to get ready for Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) coming out at the end of October, and I have some other projects I can’t talk about, but you’re about to launch! You have a launch party you said, anything else coming up? I think I read you sold a middle-grade book, too?
Greg: That is all so fascinating to me. You did a superb job on the both the letters to Jack and his columns. It really was a breath of fresh (and as you said, much needed) air for queer YA.
Well – I call foul on this “some other projects I can’t talk about” business. But I get it, and I look forward to when you can share more. I am SO excited for Jack, Ben, and Jenna to get out into the world and I will be cheering you on every step of the way.
As for me, yes, my launch party for Social Intercourse is fast approaching and I have a few other upcoming events related to that release. And you alluded to my debut middle grade book coming up. It’s called The Whispers and will be published by Putnam/Penguin some time in the Spring of 2019. (Available for pre-order now!) It’s completely different from Social Intercourse, focusing on a queer eleven-year-old boy who’s mother goes missing and he seeks out mythical wood creatures called the Whispers, who he believes can help him find her. It has hints of magical realism and fantasy while also being firmly rooted in the reality of the deep South. It’s the most personal story I’ve ever written, and even so, I can’t wait to share it with the world. Because, yes, Virginia, there ARE queer eleven-year-olds!
Thanks, Lev. It’s been a real pleasure speaking with you. Good luck! And thanks Dahlia for letting us ramble!
Lev: Yes, thanks so much Dahlia! And thank you, Greg! It was a lot of fun!</p>
Greg Howard grew up near the coast of South Carolina, or as he fondly refers to it, “the armpit of the American South.” By the time he could afford professional therapy and medication, the damage had already been done. His hometown of Georgetown, South Carolina is known as the “Ghost Capital of the South,” (seriously…there’s a sign), and was always a great source of material for his overactive imagination.
Raised in a staunchly religious home, Greg escaped into the arts: singing, playing piano, acting, writing songs, and making up stories. After running away to the bright lights and big city of Nashville, Tennessee with stars in his eyes and dreams of being the Dianne Warren of Music City, he took a job peddling CDs and has been a cog in the music business machine ever since.
Now an adult with a brain, Greg finds the South Carolina coast to be a perfectly magical place where he vacations yearly and dreams of the day when he can return to write full time in the most tastefully decorated beach house on Pawleys Island.
Greg’s debut adult paranormal novel, BLOOD DIVINE, was released by Wilde City Press in September 2016. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers acquired Greg’s debut young adult novel, SOCIAL INTERCOURSE, which will be released in Spring 2018
LEV AC ROSEN is the author of books for all ages. Two for adults: All Men of Genius (Amazon Best of the Month, Audie Award Finalist) and Depth (Amazon Best of the Year, Shamus Award Finalist, Kirkus Best Science Fiction for April). Two middle-grade books: Woundabout (illustrated by his brother, Ellis Rosen), and The Memory Wall. His first Young Adult Novel, Jack of Hearts (and other parts) is forthcoming in 2018. His books have been sold around the world and translated into different languages as well as being featured on many best of the year lists, and nominated for awards.
Lev attended Oberlin College, where he majored in creative writing, and then Sarah Lawrence College, where he received his MFA in fiction. Just after graduating from Oberlin, his short story Painting was the inaugural piece for the ‘New Voices’ section of the renowned Esopus magazine. He has written articles for numerous blogs, including booklifenow and tor.com, and been interviewed by several magazines and blogs including Clarkesworld and USA Today.
Lev is originally from lower Manhattan and now lives in even lower Manhattan, right at the edge, with his husband and very small cat.
Jaye Robin Brown: I’m so excited to get a chance to interview you! I vividly remember that Madcap Retreat in Gatlinburg, where you shared a room with me and Robin Constantine. I was so sick that first day, barely knew you, but you graciously let me put my germy hands all over an arc of your first book, The Way I Used to Be. Reading the opening pages, I knew immediately you were going to be a force in contemporary YA fiction and I wasn’t wrong. Now, your second book, The Last to Let Go, has hit the shelves and wow, talk about a sophomore book with a bow and a flourish. My heart hurt in so many ways reading it. You took a girl who’d grown up with domestic violence and really showed us how having that model of relationship can seriously mess up one’s own relationships. I loved how as a reader I got so frustrated with Brooke’s interactions and then at some point I got it, like, OH, OF COURSE, it’s the only way she could be. Was this unspooling intentional?
Amber Smith: I know, I’m so excited to get to have the chance to chat with you too! Yes, I remember that retreat! I remember how sick you were. And I remember being so honored for my little arc to be in your germy hands because I had just finished reading your debut, NO PLACE TO FALL and I totally fell (no pun intended) in love with it. Seriously, I became an instant fan of your writing, so when Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit came out I couldn’t wait to get my copy! I had such high expectations and I was not disappointed. Which is why I’m so touched by your kind words about The Last to Let Go.)
I really love creating complex, flawed characters who don’t always make the best decisions. And one of the things I wanted to show in TLTLG was how being raised in an environment rife with violence can often lead to the cycle of abuse being perpetuated in the lives those who witness it. But I wanted to show not only how this happens, but how it is stopped. I think the cycle of abuse phenomenon can be hard to understand, both from the perspective of an outsider, as well as someone stuck right in the thick of things, and so I wanted this “unspooling” (perfect word, by the way) to happen gradually, once we’re in the main character’s head-space, and hopefully seeing things from her perspective.
And while we’re on the topic of characters who don’t always make the best choices… one of the things I loved so much about Peaches is how you showed the main character, Jo, who was always out and proud, make the decision to go back in the closet for the sake of her evangelist father. It was such a fascinating journey because often we read stories about the opposite process—coming out, rather than going back in. Yet the whole time the one thing that remains constant is Jo’s faith. You struck such an amazing balance, and that’s not something I’ve seen before. So, I’m interested to know, what inspired this story?
JRB: It’s funny, some readers got a bit frustrated with Jo and her retreat to the closet, which I totally get, but I think the reality is very real for most LGBTQ people. We’re still in a world where we’re constantly checking in on our “safety” in any given situation. Jo’s decision was based both on her desire for her father’s happiness and maybe a bit of her own fear in a new situation so she got to use her dad as the out. As to the inspiration, it was a combination of things. I heard an NPR segment on the wealth of radio pastors and thought “What if one of those guys had a lesbian daughter?” But I didn’t want to pursue the wealth angle, and it was too easy to write the stereotypical “you’re going to hell” pastor. I was also teaching high school at the time and had seen, first-hand, the devastation a judgmental church family could have on a queer young person. I knew that in larger cities, LGBTQ affirming churches were (and are) a thing. So out of this came Jo, very gay, very Christian, and unabashed about either.
Like you, my first book, No Place to Fall, featured a straight protagonist. I wrote straight characters for many of my early manuscripts (ironically, my first manuscript to land me an agent was a f/f story—but the agent didn’t want to go out with that one—he and I parted ways and that manuscript is shelved). Now that Peaches has been so well-received and my third book releasing in 2019, The Meaning of Birds, also features an already out lesbian teen, I sometimes wonder if I could do straight romance again. I’ll be honest, I think about it from a financial standpoint, would it be a better career move for me? But then I shudder and think, no way, I don’t want to do that, I’m finally OUT in my writing and unlike Jo, I don’t want to go back in. What are your thoughts on making that switch with The Last to Let Go? Were you nervous about the romance between Dani and Brooke being out in the world or did it feel like a big sigh of relief?
AS: It’s strange, I feel like so often people think of coming out as this one definitive event, but the reality is you have to come out a million times; it’s a decision you have to make over and over again. So, it’s been an interesting process to sort of “come out” in many ways with this second book where my main character, Brooke, is so gay. I think because there was really nothing remotely queer at all in The Way I Used to Be, people haven’t necessarily thought of me as a queer writer (despite all my rainbow emojis). So here’s a fun, little-known fact about The Way I Used to Be: in a VERY early draft of that book I played around with writing the main character as bi, but I ultimately edited that out because, much to my dismay, it just didn’t serve the story. But with The Last to Let Go, I knew Brooke was a lesbian from the start—I could see and feel her so vividly in my mind that it wasn’t even a conscious choice. And in this case it really did serve the story, because Brooke’s journey to embrace her identity and her struggle with coming to terms with her dysfunctional family were completely intertwined from the very beginning.
On the one hand it felt so great to write Brooke as a lesbian, but on the other, part of me was nervous about representation. The #ownvoices movement in yalit is so incredibly important, yet it still feels super intimidating to actually call myself an #ownvoices writer. It’s such a big responsibility, and I really wanted to get not only the story right, but the LGBTQ rep part right, as well (because I think we all know firsthand how it feels to see representation mishandled). My third book, which I’m currently working on, is a first love story that features a trans character, so it’s definitely queer, but not the same setup as the f/f love story thread in TLTLG. Beyond book 3, I really don’t know what’s going to be next for me (which is both liberating and terrifying!). I do often wonder, though, if the sequence of my two books were reversed (if The Last to Let Go was my debut rather than The Way I Used to Be) how that might have affected the reception of both books…I’m still not sure.
You mentioned being a teacher, so I’m curious about whether or not your experience working with young people has influenced your writing at all? And what kinds of responses have you gotten from readers about your books—did they differ a lot from NPTF to Peaches, as you moved from writing a straight protagonist to a queer one?
JRB: Oh for sure it was helpful. I miss having that ready access to my target audience, even for simple things like “do you get this reference?” As to reader responses, the response to Peaches has been much stronger than to my first book. I regularly get emails from readers thanking me and telling me how much it meant to read about a lesbian character of faith. And not just from queer youth, but from adults, both straight and gay. It’s heightened my awareness of the opportunity I have as an #ownvoices writer to put meaningful stories into the world and to be out and proud as I do it. It’s very gratifying. And a heady responsibility to do my best.
So here’s a fun (and final) question. What three queer books (currently published and available) would be on Dani and Brooke’s bookshelves and why?
AS: I LOVE this question! Well, since Brooke and Dani’s personalities are so different I feel like their books would reflect that. I think Brooke would have something more classic on her book shelf, like Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden. Dani, on the other hand, has a much funkier, more eclectic taste, so I feel like she’d have something like the Batwoman comic book series proudly displayed in her bedroom. But then I could see the two of them reading Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home together and totally bonding over it!
This has been such fun, thank you so much for chatting with me, Jaye! I’m so grateful that you are out there writing these stories that need to be told. And I cannot wait to read The Meaning of Birds next year!
JRB: It’s been a total blast! And readers, be sure and pick up Amber’s latest book, The Last to Let Go, so you can meet Dani and Brooke for yourself!
And thank you, Dahlia for the invite!
Jaye Robin Brown, or JRo to her friends, has been many things in her life–jeweler, mediator, high school art teacher–but is now living the full-time writer life. She currently lives in New England but is taking her partner, dog, and horses back south to a house in the woods where she hopes to live happily ever after. She is the author of NO PLACE TO FALL, GEORGIA PEACHES AND OTHER FORBIDDEN FRUIT, and the forthcoming THE MEANING OF BIRDS.
Amber Smith grew up in Buffalo, New York, and now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her two dogs. After graduating from art school with a BFA in painting, she earned her MA in art history. When she’s not writing, she is working as a curator and art consultant. She has also written on the topics of art history and modern and contemporary art. She is the author of The Way I Used to Be and The Last to Let Go. Visit her online at AmberSmithAuthor.com.