A few years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Douglass and a few other authors in a roundtable entitled “Where is the Queer Black Male Voice in YA?” The interviewees were all obvious rising stars, in my opinion, but the very next queer Black male voice to rise up in YA after that post actually belonged to an author I didn’t know yet named Julian Winters.
Fast forward to now, when Douglass has debuted on the New York Times bestseller list (and also managed to publish a volume of poetry called Boy in Jeopardy even before that), Winters is three books in with a fourth, Right Where I Left You, on the way, and both of them are here today to talk about The Taking of Jake Livingston. Here’s a little more on the book, first:
Sixteen-year-old Jake Livingston sees dead people everywhere. But he can’t decide what’s worse: being a medium forced to watch the dead play out their last moments on a loop or being at the mercy of racist teachers as one of the few Black students at St. Clair Prep. Both are a living nightmare he wishes he could wake up from. But things at St. Clair start looking up with the arrival of another Black student—the handsome Allister—and for the first time, romance is on the horizon for Jake.
Unfortunately, life as a medium is getting worse. Though most ghosts are harmless and Jake is always happy to help them move on to the next place, Sawyer Doon wants much more from Jake. In life, Sawyer was a troubled teen who shot and killed six kids at a local high school before taking his own life. Now he’s a powerful, vengeful ghost and he has plans for Jake. Suddenly, everything Jake knows about dead world goes out the window as Sawyer begins to haunt him. High school soon becomes a different kind of survival game—one Jake is not sure he can win.
And now, please welcome Julian Winters and Ryan Douglass!
Julian: Ryan! It’s always an honor to chat with you, but this feels especially fantastic because I’m getting to talk to Ryan Douglass, instant New York Times bestselling author of The Taking of Jake Livingston! How wild is that? One week we’re chatting on the day the book is released, then you’re a bestselling author with your debut novel!
Ryan: I don’t even think it’s even sunk in. It’s pretty cool and I’m so glad people have responded well to this story.
JW: Interviewing you for LGBTQ Reads is an extra special occasion for me. A few years ago, you did an interview on here that kind of changed my life as an author. The discussion you had about being a queer, Black author and writing queer Black boys as protagonists gave me the courage I needed to finally sit down and written my sophomore novel, How to Be Remy Cameron. I didn’t know if queer Black boys had the space they deserved as the protagonists in the Young Adult world until I read that interview. It made me want to ensure they did have their voices heard.
Jake’s story continues to inspire me and others to write our books where queer Black boys are at the heart. Where we can celebrate their uniqueness and joy as well as discussing their struggles.
Where did the inspiration for Jake come from? What made you jump into Horror, a genre that doesn’t often showcase Black and/or queer teens as protagonists?
RD: Thank you for saying that. I was very interested in what this book would do for representation politics at the beginning but it’s since become less of a concern. I don’t feel like I’m writing about the “Black queer experience” as much as a slice of life where the MC happens to be Black and queer. I was interested in horror because of the way it explored trauma and fear, how the psyche operates in moments of desperation and the choices people make in perilous situations. That developed as a kid before I realized what it meant to be Black, institutionally, and how the genre treats its Black characters. Later I was able to assess the injustice that occurs in media representation. I wanted to write characters that felt true to me so I put them into the genre I was interested in working in. Since it’s horror, that ends up feeling naturally subversive since the genre usually kills off its Black characters when left to white creators.
JW: I love that this book is gives me old school, paranormal horror vibes, but also looks at the real-life horror Black teens face. It’s very much The Frighteners meets Get Out and so much more. What are some of the themes you wanted to explore, both from the supernatural and real world?
RD: A big theme in the book is how whiteness invades Black consciousness when we’re trying to succeed. It erodes our cultural norms under the guise of professionalism. It’s so normalized to go to PWIs or get a corporate job and link that to merit and moving up. But what you’re doing is negotiating your culture for prestige or financial gain. We’re climbing into systems rooted in a slave system that has never been reformed, and the way we’re treated today mirrors slavery in a way that is better branded. We talk about it but we don’t change these systems in serious ways. It’s so normalized that “talking about it” is a thriving market to make money in. Jake angles into these issues by featuring a Black boy who’s been ripped out of his community and now feels he’s going insane because he can’t get whiteness (Sawyer) off his back. It’s also a book about the ways boys are raised in violence and how hard it becomes to communicate when you feel like you’re being abused and you can’t come up for air. As for the supernatural elements, they’re mostly there to supplement the contemporary issues, and they enhance this “superhero origin story” feel that the book ends up taking on. Black queer boys need superhero icons.
JW: Writing Horror is such a skilled art to me. To be honest, you had me sleeping with the lights on while reading this book! What are the challenges you faced trying to craft out such a terrifying world?
RD: A big challenge when I first chose horror was understanding how it comes to life in literature and how that may be similar or different from what you see in movies. You can’t use jump scares or make use of music and lighting, which are naturally spooky tactics in film. Evoking an unsettling atmosphere with words is the big challenge because it’s so reliant on a sense of dread and zeroing in on the darker aspects of language, imagery, and metaphor. You also have to be irreverent enough to take risks with what is psychologically comfortable.
JW: This book is told from dual POVs. Jake’s story in real time, then the antagonist Sawyer Doon’s world through his diary entries. Sawyer is a frightening character. I love that, through his entries, you explore what brought him to the point he’s at in the novel. But you do it without redeeming him. You don’t excuse away his actions. You weave a tragic story in a way that doesn’t give him exoneration but really dives deep into the psyche of someone pushed to their edge.
What was it like writing a character like Sawyer?
RD: I always sigh with relief when I hear that because a big worry of mine was that he might come off as redeemable or else too evil to for a normal person to tolerate reading from his perspective. Writing Sawyer was all about achieving the right balance. I had to constantly ask myself how much distance I wanted to keep from any vulnerabilities this character might have. That then opens questions of how much distance this character keeps from himself. What about him disturbs himself, and what about his surroundings have disturbed his way of thinking? That’s when I got into the meat of where this character comes from in a way that felt like it wasn’t softening him too much but centering an exploration of how empathy and connection comes into his world as this fleeting object but the crux of him is evil.
JW: Besides all the scary imagery you describe so perfectly, another part of this novel I love is the way you explore queer Black boys like Jake and their relationships with others. Specifically, Jake’s older brother, Benji.
What were some of the things you hope readers get from their relationship, along with the one Jake has with his mother?
RD: I like these boys because they ring true as Black boys without there being any performative emphasis on how “Blackity Black” they are. I want readers to get a slice of human experience without the primary mission being to convince white people that Black people are people too. When the mission is not saying to the reader “hey guys, Black people are actually human”, we’re able to dive into intracommunity issues like the relationships between straight Black men and queer Black men, how straight Black women may support homophobic actions of their straight Black partners at the expense of the queer boys or men in their lives. There’s the issue of whiteness but at the center of Jake’s trauma are the issues he dealt with at home. The experience of living in his identity is having layers of trauma to work through. I think readers who are not of that experience or of an intersectional experience can learn from that.
JW: Let’s talk about Allister! From the moment he appeared on the page, I felt like Jake—like I could breathe again. He’s this amazing addition in Jake’s life. Someone who doesn’t question who Jake is, what he’s going through, nor does he brush off Jake’s struggles. And let’s be real—their romance made me swoon.
Who is Allister to this book and why was it so important for you two show that kind of relationship between two queer Black boys?
RD: Allister serves as a breath of fresh air to the narrative. I didn’t have a lot of time to develop his relationship to Jake because I was trying to develop other things in a time crunch during edits. But I ended up liking how simple it was. I like that Jake has someone in his life that doesn’t feel untrustworthy or overly complicated. I don’t know if boys as perfect as Allister exist, but I think it’s important that gay teens are able to see what healthy love looks like.
JW: As an avid fan of yours, I know you love music! I get some of my best recs from your social media posts. If (or when?) this book becomes a movie, who would be on the soundtrack? What songs or artist would best accompany Jake’s story?
RD: I’m a big fan of the artists that come out of NUXXE, which is Shygirl’s record label. It’s gritty, often spooky experimental pop. I’d want Shygirl, Sega Bodega, COUCOU CHLOE, Y1640 and similar sounding artists to be on the soundtrack. I think their sounds really mirror the tone of the book.
JW: People are gobbling this book up! I know I did. We all have to know: What can we expect next from Ryan Douglass?
RD: I’m working on another YA horror currently. I’ve been trying several genres in recent years, from historical fantasy to paranormal romance to rom-com. I want to tap into so many genres but teen horror and dark academia come naturally. I’m good at that so I’m developing in that genre as a writer for now. Later I plan to spread out to other things.
Ryan Douglass was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, where he currently resides, cooking pasta and playing records. He enjoys wooden-wick candles, falling asleep on airplanes, and advocating for stronger media representation for queer Black people.
Julian Winters is the best-selling author of contemporary young adult fiction. His debut, Running With Lions (Duet, 2018), won accolades for its positive depictions of diverse, relatable characters. A former management trainer, Julian currently lives outside of Atlanta where he can be found reading, being a self-proclaimed comic book geek, or watching the only two sports he can follow—volleyball and soccer. How to Be Remy Cameron is his second novel.
Today on the site, authors Sim Kern and Cynthia Zhang are here to talk queer fiction, gender and diaspora identities, and climate change! Sim Kern’s debut, the climate horror novella Depart, Depart!, came out in September 2020; Cynthia Zhang’s debut, the urban fantasy After the Dragons, will be released on August 19th. Both authors are published by Stelliform Press, a small press focused on climate change and culture. Here’s more info about both books:
When an unprecedented hurricane devastates the city of Houston, Noah Mishner finds shelter in the Dallas Mavericks’ basketball arena. Though he finds community among other queer refugees, Noah fears his trans and Jewish identities put him at risk with certain “capital-T” Texans. His fears take form when he starts seeing visions of his great-grandfather Abe, who fled Nazi Germany as a boy. As the climate crisis intensifies and conditions in the shelter deteriorate, Abe’s ghost grows more powerful. Ultimately, Noah must decide whether he can trust his ancestor — and whether he’s willing to sacrifice his identity and community in order to survive.
Dragons were fire and terror to the Western world, but in the East they brought life-giving rain. Now, no longer hailed as gods and struggling in the overheated pollution of Beijing, only the Eastern dragons survive. As drought plagues the aquatic creatures, a mysterious disease—shaolong, or “burnt lung”—afflicts the city’s human inhabitants.
Jaded college student Xiang Kaifei scours Beijing streets for abandoned dragons, distracting himself from his diagnosis. Elijah Ahmed, a biracial American medical researcher, is drawn to Beijing by the memory of his grandmother and her death by shaolong. Interest in Beijing’s dragons leads Kai and Eli into an unlikely partnership. With the resources of Kai’s dragon rescue and Eli’s immunology research, can the pair find a cure for shaolong and safety for the dragons? Eli and Kai must confront old ghosts and hard truths if there is any hope for themselves or the dragons they love.
And here’s the conversation: please welcome Sim Kern and Cynthia Zhang!
SK: I was struck by how there’s a similar scene in both our books, where the queer protagonist is wondering whether their grandmother would accept them as their whole queer self. In your book, I’m thinking of the scene where Eli visits his grandmother’s grave and comes out to her posthumously. He can’t know how she’d react, but he “likes to think [she] would have been kind about it,” because she had seen the impact of bigotry and close-mindedness on other members of her family. In Depart, Depart! Noah also wonders what his grandmother would’ve thought about him coming out as trans, and he chooses to believe she would have understood him. The similarity of these scenes was uncanny to me. I think many queer people feel alienated from our ancestors, and our ancestral cultures and religions, because we assume they wouldn’t have accepted us. But at least for their own well-being, both our protagonists reject that narrative. That desire to reclaim my ancestors from a queer perspective was a major driving factor behind Depart, Depart! I’m wondering if you had similar motivation for writing After the Dragons? Besides the scene at the grave, are there other places you’re reclaiming your ancestors or your ancestral culture with this story?
CZ: Culture’s a tricky concept in general, isn’t it? On the one hand, it’s often evoked to gatekeep people and police individual behaviors—“our ancestors wouldn’t have tolerated this homosexual nonsense,” etc. What I think is missing in these kind of arguments is the fact that our understanding of tradition is limited and that culture is often more fluid and diverse than we give it credit for. There are people the official narratives leave out, stories that get mixed-up between translations and tellings before they eventually reach the present, in which they’re reinterpreted once again, maybe this time accessing some of the meanings other generations have missed. In Depart! Depart! Noah’s research into dybbuks gives him a way to connect with Jewishness, but it’s also a buried route, one that he has to search for. Against conservative narratives of identity, I think it’s important to remember our understandings of the past are always limited and imperfect.
That’s the abstract, theoretical answer. In terms of After the Dragons, before writing the novel, I don’t think I’d worked too closely with Chinese folklore in my fiction. I knew some of it, of course, from cartoons and books, but it wasn’t familiar in the same way werewolves and vampires were. My Chinese-American experience shares a lot of similarities with that of my cousins in mainland China, but there’s still a significant gap between us, bits of pieces of each other that we don’t quite get. In writing and doing research for After the Dragons, I was searching for a way to lessen that gap, to make myself more familiar with the histories and customs that shaped the way I was raised. It’s not a task that can ever be fully accomplished, but it’s one that I think is worth attempting nonetheless.
In addition to existing within specific cultural histories, our books both also exist within specific genre boundaries and expectations. When it comes to speculative fiction, there’s often the idea that it’s removed from reality – spaceships, Middle-Earth, etc. By contrast, with queer fiction, people tend to expect that it’s going to be broadly autobiographical if not a thinly veiled version of the writer’s own life. With both our books, it’s interesting how both the cli-fi and queer elements complicate this script. Noah is written from your experience of being trans, but he’s not trans in quite the same way you are, even if the transmasc and nonbinary experiences overlap in a lot of ways. On the other hand, the devastating hurricane in Depart! Depart! is in many ways all too terrifyingly real.
The length of this question is quickly approaching “I have a question that’s also a comment” levels, so to follow Carly and cut to the feeling, I’m curious how you feel about the expectations placed on your work as both spec fic and queer fiction. When do you feel comfortable sticking more closely to the facts/your own experience (realism), and when do you feel going a little beyond that (speculation)?
SK: I’m going to echo lots of other queer authors here and say that there has to be room for queer authors to write outside the strict limits of your own gender and sexuality–because writing is often an essential act of queer self-discovery. I figured out I was nonbinary while writing a nonbinary character into my YA novel, four years ago. I wrote Noah’s character at a time when I was wrestling with whether I was truly nonbinary or actually transmasc. I was dealing with some intense gender dysphoria at the time, and I needed to explore those feelings. But after living in Noah’s shoes for a while, I realized I didn’t feel the way he did about his gender. I gained more certainty in my nonbinary-ness. Processing my gender-feelings through writing helped me–and a lot of other authors–come to terms with my own queerness. And I want to make sure to hold that door open for future writers.
All that being said, I don’t think someone necessarily has to be exploring their own identity in order to be “allowed” to write a queer book. I have a story coming out this month in the latest issue of Planet Scumm which features a gay, cis male main character, told in first person. That’s obviously not an identity of mine, or one I could conceivably ever claim, but that’s how the character popped in my brain, wanting to tell his story.
I’m curious if it was similar for you–How did you settle on Kai and Eli for the focus of After the Dragons? Was it a conscious choice to make them both male? And do you feel you need to justify or litigate your right to write outside the boundaries of your own gender?
CZ: It’s been so long since I first started writing the novel that it feels like I’m talking about someone else when I talk about “how this came to be,” but I’ll give it a shot! The first answer is the pragmatic/logistical answer: Eli and Kai are men because quite franky, women and femme-presenting people would not be able to wander around Beijing the way they do. Being a guy in a city gives you a certain level of privilege and freedom that women/fems don’t have in the sense that you don’t have to be hyperaware of the people around you in the same way. It doesn’t nullify all danger, sure, but I also don’t hear my cis guy friends talk about clutching their keys in a parking lot so they can have a weapon in case someone decides to attack them. (Apparently, keys are better as stabbing weapons than as punching ones, so make sure the key teeth won’t gouge into your skin when you’re positioning them.)
The second answer—the vaguer one, but also probably the more honest one—is that when it comes to character creation, I’m not terribly hung up on gender. Eli and Kai came to me as cis guys; thus, they’re guys. When I submitted one of the early drafts of the novel for critique, I got some comments back about gender and whether or not the way these characters navigated the world feels masculine or not. Which is valid criticism (see the above notes on living in a city). But I think there’s also an implicit danger in this line of critique in terms of reifying gender stereotypes. Eli and Kai don’t feel like guys because, what, they’re too touchy-feely? Maybe it’s because most of my friends are some flavor of queer/gender non-conforming or maybe it’s because I grew up identifying with the boy hero protagonists of fantasy novels, but unless it’s something egregious—something like “Caroline considered her breasts, which sagged sadly today”—I generally don’t put too much stock in whether a character feels sufficiently like a particular gender. Certainly, as someone who isn’t part of the gay male scene in Beijing, I know my portrayal of the world is going to be imperfect despite my best efforts. But when it comes to gender more generally? Gender is weird, and we all experience and express it differently. Look at how weird Americans get about K-pop stars! So I suppose the answer is that I write characters who are kind of cavalier about gender because I personally am pretty cavalier about gender.
Honestly, I was more stressed about writing Eli as a Black Asian character, as that’s an experience that comes with its own specific difficulties that I haven’t experienced. In a way, that decision was probably influenced by the fact that one of my college friends whom I love dearly is Barbadian-Japanese-Norweigan, but I wasn’t seeing many characters like them in fiction. When a character’s mixed-race Asian, we tend to assume that one parent is white, but that’s not necessarily always true in real-life, so I guess I wanted to challenge those assumptions a little. I did write Eli’s dad out of his life because I wasn’t confident in my ability to tackle some of the specifics of his relationship to Blackness (but also because I don’t really write father/child relationships in general—see Kai, whose dad is also conveniently out of the picture). I have some ideas for awkward father-son bonding between Eli and the dad he totally doesn’t have mixed feelings towards, but if I were to ever write them, I would do so carefully and with the help of as many sensitivity readers as I can. At present though, this is probably also one section of the narrative that is better left to the exploration of others. All of which is to say, if any readers see themselves in Eli’s story and want to write father-son bonding fanfiction, please do! You’ll probably do it better than I can.
Building on this thread of identity and who gets to say what and for whom, there’s been talk about #OwnVoices lately: who gets to use it and what forms of representation are considered ‘authentic’ enough. As someone’s who Chinese, there were some parts of After the Dragons that I felt definitely comfortable writing. However, as someone who’s specifically diaspora Chinese, there were other parts that were less comfortable (especially considering the last time I visited Beijing was five years ago!) For me, diaspora’s always been a process of questioning your own authenticity, your right to ‘speak’ for a population you only feel partially connected to. Given the role of Jewishness in Depart! Depart!, I was wondering whether you felt any similar feelings when writing the novella? If so, how did you manage to navigate them?
SK: Sure. My whole life I’ve felt “Jewish imposter syndrome,” being a patrilineal, non-religious Jew. I’ve encountered a lot of people (mostly non-Jews, actually) who feel comfortable telling me I’m not Jewish because I don’t meet their criteria for Jewishness. With this book, I decided to confront that ambiguity head-on. Noah feels ambivalent about his Jewishness for all the same reasons I do. He wasn’t raised religious, he doesn’t practice, and yet there’s this way that his Jewishness is powerfully interwoven with his identity. So I think because I was speaking about being an outsider-Jew, who doesn’t tick all the boxes, I felt confident in my perspective.
But I have an idea for another novel, that would be a multi-generational thing, partly set in my ancestors’ shtetl. I actually bought some history books to research it. But that’s as far as I’ve gotten, partially because I’m too intimidated. I’m scared I’m just not Jewish enough to write a shtetl-novel, and that any practicing Jews would be able to see right away that I don’t know what I’m talking about. So I admire your courage in going for it with After the Dragons. There’s a great twitter thread from June Hur about being a diaspora writer, where she relates how her mother responded to her fears that she wasn’t “Korean enough” to write about Korea. She said, “When some diaspora Koreans speak in Korean, they speak with an accent. And likewise, when we write about Korea, there will be an “accent” to our Storytelling. But she reminded me that accents are beautiful. Accents tell a story in itself. We bring in a new perspective.”
I think your “accent” in After the Dragons was beautiful, and it was a story only you could tell. A native Chinese person wouldn’t have told that story better, because it’s not theirs, it’s yours! And I guess I need to tell that to myself and write the dang shtetl book, with my own weird, Texas-Jewish accent.
CZ: That sounds super exciting, honestly! Best of luck with writing it, and I’m looking forward to seeing your Texas-Jewish accent shine through.
Moving from the books into the “real world,” I’d like to talk about a dilemma that lot of socially conscious artists and writers often face, which is how much our work really matters. Stories are important, yes, but because it’s hard to quantify the impact of fiction, there’s sometimes a small nagging voice that says, sure, but what if you devoted your life to NGO work instead? Maybe this is also my background as a grad student speaking, where a lot of angst is devoted to whether writing essays on neoliberalism or the Anthropocene actually does anything in terms of fighting these problems. I’m not sure if this is an issue you’ve dealt with before, but since Depart! Depart!’s been out in the world for a while now, I’m wondering if you’ve been able to see any ways in which the book has had a tangible impact on the real world/other people? Basically, I guess, what are the moments that reassure you about the value of the art we make?
SK: I believe in the importance of climate fiction very deeply. In fact, my faith in the power of stories is probably the closest thing I have to a religion. We cannot create a better world if we cannot imagine one, and writers are the drivers of our collective societal imagination. So I’m a believer in the power of the written word.
But in terms of concrete, tangible things–in the first week after Depart, Depart! was published, a Public Health Response Coordinator shared with me that as a result of reading my book, she was working with the Red Cross in her state to ensure that trans people would have access to safe and equal bathrooms and showers in shelters, that emergency shelters would have LGBTQ+ coordinators, and that evacuees would have access to hormonal medications. I was so moved by that, and if my little book can make even one trans person safer in a crisis, then writing it was worthwhile.
And that reminds me of one of the themes in After the Dragons: Kai is constantly hovering on the precipice of being overwhelmed by the enormity of suffering in his world. Like feral cats, there are so many dragons that are starving, discarded, and tormented–but he resists nihilism and finds his purpose in helping those he can, one at a time. At one point, Eli says, “Kai, you can’t expect everyone to be an activist,” to which Kai replies, “Can’t I?” Were either of these characters speaking for you there? Kai’s story teaches us to manage grief through small, tangible acts of good, and I was wondering in what other ways is this book a guide to channeling climate grief?
CZ: Personally, my view of activism has always been tempered by an awareness of the impossibility of perfection. In the early 2010s, there were a lot of posts floating around Tumblr that pretty hostile towards vegans. Or, maybe less vegans in general than a certain stereotype of them—i.e., self-righteous white women ready to set wild animals free regardless of the effect on local ecosystems. As a vegetarian, it was a weird place to be, but it also gave me a lot of food (ha) for thought when it comes to individual actions and morality even as I disagreed with some arguments. In a food desert, it’s hard to be picky, and there’s something deeply uncomfortable about mostly middle- or upper-class crusaders telling lower-income folks how to live. It’s not impossible to be vegan on a budget (and honestly, the relative cheapness of meat feels is a recent phenomenon—my parents recall only eating meat once or twice a year while they were growing up in rural China), but it’s also important to understand people’s situations as they are. That’s Eli’s side of that exchange, then—the willingness to cut people slack, to realize that sometimes simply surviving itself takes an incredible amount of power.
As for Kai’s side of the story—well. The more I get involved with mutual aid and local organizing, the more respect I have for how much people manage to do even when they don’t have much on paper. Homelessness is a major problem in LA, but overwhelmingly the people I’ve seen do the most for unhoused folks are not millionaires, but ordinary people—some of them earning minimum wage, some of them who’ve experienced or who are experiencing being unhoused. I think it’s important to extend empathy to people when limited mobility or a bad mental health day prevents them from, say, participating in a public protest. But I think it’s also important to remember that the billionaires are not going to save us. It’s our job to take care of each other, in the small, seemingly insignificant ways that it takes. Seeking allies in power is important, as Eli does with Dr. Wang, but it’s ultimately collective action that drives change.
Sim Kern is an environmental journalist and speculative fiction writer, exploring intersections of climate change, queerness, and social justice. Their quiet horror novella DEPART, DEPART! debuted from Stelliform Press in 2020. You can find links to all their stories at http://simkern.com.
Cynthia Zhang is a Ph.D. student in Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture at the University of Southern California. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kaleidotrope, On Spec, Phantom Drift, and other venues. A 2021 DVdebut mentee, her debut novel, After the Dragons, is out on August 19 with Stelliform Press.
Today on the site I’m thrilled to introduce two brilliant authors in conversation: Ada Hoffmann, author of The Outside and The Fallen (the latter of which just released last month from Angry Robot), and RB Lemberg, author of the Birdverse series. They’re here to chat about their work and the worldbuiliding, representation, and themes within it, so pull up a chair and listen in!
RB: I love how in the world of your novels The Outside and The Fallen, issues of faith and ethics take central place. One of the things that made me root for Yasira is seeing her grapple with ethical issues at every step. She constantly makes calculations related to fairness and right and wrong as she perceives them; I found this very relatable, and I think this is relatable to other autistic people as well. I would love to hear how you went about creating this aspect of Yasira’s character, and how this may connect to your larger worldbuilding around issues of divinity, godhood, and justice.
Ada: Thank you, RB! Ruminating and calculating about what’s right or wrong is relatable to me, too. It’s something I can paralyze myself with if I’m not careful. I wouldn’t say that autistic people are any more moral than others, overall, but I do think that this specific kind of rumination is something I see a lot.
I created Yasira some time after creating my main villains, so from the get-go I knew she needed to be someone who’d be caught between them in their machinations and would eventually need to decide for herself what side she was on. (And whenever there’s a plot dilemma like that, I almost always root for the character to come up with their own, third option!) It takes a lot of thinking things over in order to be able to make a decision like that. It was almost a plot requirement more than a character requirement, but I think it fits Yasira’s other traits well and formed a substantial part of who she is.
The worldbuilding of the Outside series is very much one that presents two bad options. I had some fun with the idea of religion being presented mechanistically, as a set of rules to follow that will have a set of well-defined spiritual outcomes–this is highlighted by the Gods of Yasira’s galaxy literally being machines. Someone like Yasira has a desire to be good and follow rules–when she accuses Tiv of doing things just to be good, and not because she really means them, it’s almost a bit of projection. It takes her time and some bad experiences before she really understands that the rules she’s been raised to follow are not just and that she cannot continue to follow them. But on the other side of the equation, the polar opposite of a mechanistic religion is Outside, which is just this wild, utterly unknowable mystical force with no regard for human lives or suffering whatsoever, and that doesn’t seem to be a good option either.
I talk about Yasira finding a third option, but in the end I suppose it’s not fully a third option–she doesn’t go off on her own and create a completely different, third religion. Instead she really does come to revere Outside in some ways, but she has to reconcile that with her own very human belief in justice and human dignity and that it’s worth saving as many human lives as she possibly can. A lot of Yasira’s heroism lies in the ability to do that reconciliation, at great cost to herself. Meanwhile Dr. Talirr is a villain because she discards that belief – her own very human tendency is to sacrifice other people, mostly people she doesn’t know, to advance her own aims.
Or at least that’s my own moral take on what’s going on in this series –I do find it rewarding when readers come up with their own nuanced interpretations that are a bit different from mine. That tells me that I’ve given them enough to chew on, philosophically, that they’re really thinking about it and concluding things on their own, and I like when that happens.
RB, you write a lot about divinity and mysticism as well in your Birdverse series, which I love. In The Four Profound Weaves, I was really struck by the depth of meaning in the four weaves of the title, with characters who can weave carpets out of substances as abstract as songs, bones, sand, and wind. They are a counter-intuitive set of things to build carpets out of at first glance, but each one has a very particular emotional meaning, and the end of the novella combines these meanings and shows them as being intertwined, in a kind of cycle or a weave consisting of all four threads. What led you to choose these four particular substances, these four particular meanings? Did you consider many possible ones, or did you always know deep down it would be these four?
RB: Thank you so much for those thoughtful answers, Ada, lots to chew on! I want to talk more about Dr. Talirr, if that’s OK–I loved seeing two autistic women in a mentoring relationship. I rarely see women mentors and mentees, and I rarely see an autistic mentor/autistic mentee relationship, even though I feel this happens frequently in life, so the complicated relationship between Dr. Talirr and Yasira felt exciting to me. I love how central this relationship is to the world of the Outside, and how deep their conflict is. I think that from a normative human perspective, the value of human lives outweighs most other concerns, but that, too, can be broken – if the fundamental relationship to reality itself is altered, ethics are altered as well, and with them the value of human lives; that is, perhaps, what makes Dr. Talirr a heretic rather than straightforwardly a villain. I guess that’s those other interpretations you mentioned 🙂
As for the four weaves, I was always deeply interested in the relationship between hope and death. Years before I was a published writer, I envisioned hope and death as sibling birds, circling around each other as they descend towards a person on the ground. The imagery of hope and death as birds appears in print for the first time in one of my early poems, “Twin-Born,” in Goblin Fruit.
Hope and death are intertwined in paradoxical yet intuitively familiar ways. I see both hope and death as properties of humanity as a whole, its defining characteristics, if you will. As for change and wanderlust, I envisioned those as properties of individuals, and both are very important to me. In The Four Profound Weaves and elsewhere, I interpreted change as it relates to transness, to coming out; change is both frightening and necessary in order to embrace one’s fullest self. As for wanderlust, it is also a property of an individual, and specifically my own need as an autistic person–to roam both physically and intellectually, to explore and wander. I often think about the absence of wanderlust as stagnation, being stuck in one place that neither hope nor death can reach. Change and wanderlust are weaves that represent the protagonists nen-sasaïr and Uiziya, both of whom are trans, both of whom have been feeling stuck in their lives for a very long time. Embracing both change and wanderlust leads them to the two other, more collective, weaves of hope and death. Readers sometimes ask me which is my favorite weave. Right now I will have say wanderlust; the best ending for me always leads to new adventures. The thing I desire most in my own life right now is to be free to wander, as a person who exists in a physical world, as a writer, as a scholar. I think that in 2021, many people would agree with me. As for how I chose these particular weaves: my process is always organic and almost dreamlike. I endlessly ruminate on imagery, turn things this way and that in my mind, and write poems until the structure solidifies.
Speaking about divinity and worldbuilding process, would you mind talking about how you came up with the individual AI gods in the world of The Outside? Is there any god or gods that you wanted to explore more, but did not have a chance yet?
ADA: I did love writing the complicated relationship between Yasira and Dr. Talirr, so I’m glad that comes off compellingly. They share a neurotype and a kind of mystical experience that almost no one else does, but they’re so different in the ways they’ve been brought up and rewarded or punished for their neurotype, and in the attitudes they take. It leads to a kind of intense ambivalence that was really rewarding to explore. We definitely haven’t seen the last of Dr. Talirr.
For the AI Gods, I knew immediately that I wanted each of them to represent a human tendency, something that’s present in everyone, but drives some people more than others. And from very early on I knew a few of the Gods that I wanted to include–Nemesis, of course, and a God of creativity (who eventually became Techne), and Gods of the pursuit of knowledge (Aletheia) and of love (Philophrosyne), as well as a fallen, demonized figure to play the role of the Keres. But the full list of Gods wasn’t finalized right away. Eventually, an early collaborator suggested that I should name the Gods after ancient Greek personifications of concepts, because my initial attempts at naming Them did not sound God-like enough. So I actually found a list of these and went through them one name at a time, jotting down the ones that seemed compelling to me and sufficiently different from the others to play a role in this cosmology. Not all of the concepts are very flattering – there is a God of conformity, for instance, and a God of laziness! But these are human tendencies that play an important role. Without something that could be labeled as laziness, for instance, we would never know when we need to take a break and rest. I wasn’t dead set on having a specific number of Gods, but the number that I eventually settled on (eleven “proper” gods, with the Keres making a ghostly and implicit twelfth) felt good.
We definitely don’t get a lot of time on the page, in these books, exploring other Gods besides Nemesis, but I would love to do that exploration some day, maybe in side stories. Nemesis is pretty unambiguously terrible, but there are Gods who play much more joyful, gentler roles and I have headcanons about several of Them. I think Philophrosyne’s priests do beautiful wedding ceremonies as well as having ways of honoring other, non-romantic forms of love. I think Gelos, the God of pleasure, has angels who are elusive but who suddenly pop up on a planet every once in a while with some fascinating God-built art installation or theme park-like attraction that’s like nothing the local mortals have ever seen.
The Fallen does contain hints of the complex relationship between Nemesis and Arete, the God of heroism. The two of Them often find themselves working together for the same goals but with very different methods, which leads to Nemesis’ harsh methods being softened a bit, but also Arete’s helpful intentions getting very morally compromised.
Let’s talk more about those trans themes in The Four Profound Weaves. It’s not the first time you’ve written trans characters, but I was struck by the complexity of nen-sasaïr’s arc, with regards to gender. We so often think of physical transition as an endpoint, an end goal, especially in a medical system that often reserves affirming medical care for people who can prove they have already socially transitioned. But nen-sasaïr’s story is almost the opposite of that. He has fully transitioned and is living his life as a man, but he is not in his home culture, and he experiences intense ambivalence as to whether he can ever return to that culture, whether the men of his culture would ever accept him as one of them, whether or not that’s even what he wants. Can you say more about this kind of ambivalence?
RB: I come to my stories from an international perspective, as a migrant and a person who has lived in different parts of the world, so the social norms around transitioning in the US are not where my worldbuilding originates. I always assume that trans and queer identities differ between various cultures and time periods. We can find a variety of attitudes even within a single culture – this is true for our world, and for Birdverse. As a migrant, I am always interested in exploring how trans and queer people navigate intersections of cultures, with all the different cultural norms and expectations. Throughout his life, nen-sasaïr experienced his society as trans-rejecting even as it embraces queerness. There are a lot of what we would call TERFy attitudes among his loved ones and in his home culture. In his twenties, nen-sasaïr accompanies his lover Bashri-nai-Leylit on a trading venture to the great Burri desert. Their journey is motivated by desperation – they are trying to acquire the greatest treasure ever woven, to buy back the life of their third lover, Bashri-nai-Divrah.
In the desert, among the snake-Surun’ people, nen-sasaïr witnesses a very different reality–trans people are affirmed, transition is a communal event; everyone who loves a trans person are invited to assist their transition through the act of weaving. This is shocking to nen-sasaïr. Among the snake-Surun’ he meets Benesret, a famous weaver who is ready to assist him with his physical transition. But he feels that transitioning will take him away from his home culture, and from his lover Bashri-nai-Leylit, who is not accepting of his transness; that would also mean giving up on rescuing Bashri-nai-Divrah. He cannot go through with his transition then, but he always wants to come back, and it takes him forty years to do so. His story cannot end with finally transitioning in his sixties; in fact, it barely begins there. Once he physically transitions, he is still left with those same old traumas and dilemmas – Bashri-nai-Leylit died without affirming him, his culture is still rejecting, the story of Bashri-nai-Divrah is unfinished, and he feels that while he is a man, he has no place among Khana men. His eventual journey does not end on a single triumphant note – he cannot completely change his society, and he is also not willing to leave his friends behind to join the world of the Khana men. But he is able to become more deeply and truly himself without erasing any part of his journey.
This is a story of older people, and older, complex lives in which transness is a huge part of the story, but not the totality of the story. My hope for him is that in his travels, he will find a different pocket of the Khana culture which is more affirming. The Khana people are diasporic, and there are other groups scattered around the landmass. Most are quite similar culturally to nen-sasaïr’s home in Iyar, but a few are a bit different. A certain bird whispered in my ear that he might just be headed that way.
So let’s talk about transness a bit, and villains, although I am honestly reluctant to use this word with many of the Outside villains. I am fascinated by Akavi, who is a shape-shifter and a (eventually, fallen) angel of Nemesis in the world of The Outside. He is a shape-changer who enjoys taking a female form from time to time, and he also assumes female pronouns when he does so – I would love to hear more about how this character came about, whether or not you view him as trans (he seems to identify as a man?), and I would also love to hear you talk about the relationship between shapechange and transness in your work and in general. While we are talking about Akavi, I would also love to hear more about the relationship between Akavi and Elu. Elu is obviously in love with Akavi and he comes across as a gentle, caring person – how come he is an angel of Nemesis? Without spoilers, what does the future hold for these two?
ADA: Oh my goodness, transness and shapeshifting and villains, yes! The first thing I want to say about Akavi and gender is that he’s a character I started wanting to write about long before I realized that I might be genderfluid myself. When I look at him from a queer perspective I see a lot about my early self kind of hesitantly poking my toe into questions and fantasies about gender, about what gender means and what form it can take, but without quite admitting to myself that I was doing it, or that it had anything to do with being trans. There’s an additional layer here in that the person who first came up with Akavi, as a D&D character, is not me – I write the science fiction version of Akavi with that person’s enthusiastic consent, and he is also not completely binary gendered himself. So when I look at Akavi he’s not necessarily the kind of character I would create if I were starting from scratch, trying to write a story about gender today, but he’s still a character who is very important to me.
I think that Akavi does identify as male, but with some caveats. I think that the Vaurian idea of gender is a bit more fluid and flexible than we are used to (and as you point out, I am being a bit North America-centric here). I think it would be relatively uncommon, though certainly not unknown, for a Vaurian to be so attached to a single gender that they won’t want to present as another one sometimes when it fits the situation. Vaurians are not exactly a culture – they are an engineered human variant that has spread through several mortal cultures – but what they have in the way of culture places a high value on blending in and committing to a role. And that includes using pronouns that fit the presentation they are using at the time. So Akavi thinks of himself as a man, but he has a very expansive idea of what it means to be a man, which includes presenting as or referring to himself as though he’s a woman at times. My friend who created the character referred to it as magical cross-dressing, which I think is still accurate.
Shapeshifting is an extremely common trans fantasy but I’ve also seen a lot of non-binary readers complaining that they are tired of shapeshifting characters, especially when that is so often the only trans or non-binary representation that a work will offer. In The Outside the only characters that really invite a trans or non-binary reading are Akavi and his supervisor Irimiru, who is also a Vaurian, and who uses a mix of pronouns including they/them. Needless to say it’s not ideal for the only non-binary characters in a work to be manipulative, untrustworthy shapeshifters! When I wrote The Outside I wasn’t really thinking very hard about this, but by the time I came to The Fallen I was more aware of it. I’m still attached to the Vaurians and I don’t think there is anything wrong with having written them, but there was room in the plot for several new characters, so I have added various characters who are also somewhere on the trans spectrum, and who are not shapeshifters, or manipulative or untrustworthy at all. I hope that goes some ways towards balancing it out.
And then, Elu. Elu! Elu is a character very dear to my heart, and I would also call him a problematic character – not in the sense of being offensive or bad, but in the sense of calling attention to problems and inviting difficult questions. Elu talks about his backstory a little bit in The Outside, and this is expanded on a little more in The Fallen. Nemesis presents Herself as someone who uses ruthless methods in order to protect humanity, to save them from even worse things. Elu had an intense experience as a child where Nemesis’ forces saved his planet from a violent attack by the Keres. He is idealistic, and he grew up wanting to help save other people in that same way. But when he became an angel in order to do this, he discovered that it was not really what he thought, and it was also too late to take it back. Elu’s attachment to Akavi – to an individual in the system who is important to him, rather than necessarily the system itself – is one of his ways of coping with this reality, I think.
I have to say I have a lot of feelings about Akavi and Elu’s relationship. I’m someone who is very attracted to villains, which is not at all uncommon – you can look into any given fandom and see it happening. I have also had, shall we say, not the easiest romantic history ever, and when a person behaves abusively it is very easy to turn it back on myself and imagine I must have invited that behavior somehow; maybe if I am drawn to bad people, even if I don’t fully realize they are bad, then whatever happens next is my own fault for being drawn to them. That feeling is bullshit and victim-blaming but it can feel very emotionally true, and frankly I feel complicit in a lot of the worst things that have happened to me in relationships. So, I often catch myself projecting those feelings onto Elu, too. He is kind and gentle, but he is still a cog in a very harmful machine and he became that way because of his own choices. He is not free from responsibility, and deep down he knows that, and while he is on the run from the Gods with Akavi he continues to be complicit in what Akavi is doing.
It’s very easy to construct an arc for Elu that is all about punishing him for the choices he’s made, either out of naive, misplaced idealism or in a bid to survive. But I hope that the arc I have actually constructed for him in The Fallen manages to avoid this. It’s not an easy arc for him, because he is, after all, on the run with Akavi, and Akavi is not a person who is very interested or capable of maintaining a healthy relationship. But I also found that in the process of writing the book, as I wrote how Elu adapts and survives in a situation that’s increasingly unpleasant for him, I was able to find a lot more compassion for him than when I started.
RB, I find myself thinking of what you said about wanderlust as I look at the impressive variety of things you’ve done in your creative life. You have the Birdverse fantasy setting, which is sprawling and complex enough to include many kinds of stories in many cultures, but you also have other settings, and you write poetry, and you have been a poetry editor putting many projects together; you have written essays and are writing a scholarly volume about Ursula K. LeGuin, and now your memoir, Everything Thaws, is coming out in 2022! I want to know, what challenges have you encountered in a creative life that includes so many diverse things? Do you find that writing in a certain genre helps enrich the writing you do in another?
RB: Thanks for this question! My biggest challenges involve juggling my overwhelming day job in academia, my family obligations, and the fact that I am on the spectrum, and overwhelm and burnout are never far from me. I have diverse interests, and my creativity takes different forms – I write fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and I do scholarship of different kinds; I do art, and I love editing. This diversity can be viewed as a strength, but it can also easily be spun as a weakness. I often think that under capitalism, we tend to view anything which is not “one brand, one push” as a detriment, and it’s certainly much less easy to monetize a creative career which takes so many forms, but that’s me, and I do not want to undo myself. I keep reminding myself that Ursula K. Le Guin, who is in many ways my lodestar, also worked across many genres. She wrote poetry and prose, she edited, she translated, she wrote endless incredible pieces of creative nonfiction, she published with a variety of presses big and small – and can I just say, her doodles are phenomenal! There is more than one way to be a creator in this world. All of my pieces work together – my scholarship enriches my fiction and vice versa, and the art I do comes from my worlds as well; everything is interconnected.
Speaking of which, you too have produced work in different genres and areas! I love your poetry, and I would love to hear more about your recent poetry book Million-Year Elegies. Do you see these poems connected – thematically, philosophically – to the ideas and inspirations of the Outside books? I would also love to talk to you about The Autistic Book Party, your long-running review column highlighting works with autistic characters and/or works by autistic
creators. How does your reviewing inspire or support your fiction?
ADA: I hadn’t thought about connections between Million-Year Elegies and the Outside series until you asked! They’re two very different things, but now that I think of it, they do have several big themes in common – trauma, subjectivity, and upheaval. Both works contain characters dealing with the effects of both personal and collective trauma. Million-Year Elegies really ruminates on the topic of trauma – it writes from the perspective of ancient creatures who have survived (or failed to survive) mass extinctions, as well as creatures dealing with predators and injuries and other shattering events on a more personal level. It talks about loss and grief and how cycles of abuse replicate themselves, and it also talks about growth and flourishing and rebirth and how life springs up again in a new form after devastation.
The Outside series has a lot of individually traumatized characters, and The Fallen in particular does a lot to show how they are coping with trauma and what the longer-term effects are. Maybe it does too much with that; my writing is a little too introspective for some readers’ tastes, even when there are things blowing up, cosmic horrors stalking the earth, and cool cyborg angels swooping around in big spaceships. But that’s just me and how I think. And it deals with massive changes to a particular planet that fundamentally and traumatically alter what life is like there, and how the whole society of that world has adjusted in a bid to survive.
We are, of course, in the middle of a mass extinction right now, as well as a pandemic, a resurgence of fascism, and various other global emergencies, and I think that’s beginning to bubble up through everyone’s creative work in more and more obvious ways. And I’ve never really been interested in writing calls to action about these things – I sort of think that everyone in my reach who can act, already knows they should act, and is probably beating themselves up for not doing more! But I suppose what does interest me as a writer is understanding what these crises do to people’s minds and to the ways they connect or fail to connect with one another. So that shows up in a big way in both works.
The other theme I mentioned is subjectivity. Dr. Talirr likes to say that reality is a lie – that there’s something about our perception that inherently fails to grasp some of the deepest truths. Million-Year Elegies plays with that idea in its own way; there are a lot of poems about humans finding dinosaur bones and inherently interpreting them in a human, culturally specific way, failing to grasp something about them. Filling in the gaps in what’s known with their own human concerns, I suppose, as one would with frog DNA. And my own take on what dinosaurs mean to me or what I imagine them saying and experiencing, in the poems, is just as human and just as subjective. A human point of view is something you can’t ever really escape from, and I’m not even sure the effects would be desirable if we did, but I think about it a lot.
Autistic Book Party is something I started over a decade ago, when I was much less established as a writer than I am now, and the publishing landscape for autistic people was also a bit different. It’s definitely been a project I’ve learned a lot from as a writer – I had to teach myself wider knowledge about autistic community and self-advocacy as I went, and I started noticing all sorts of patterns I hadn’t noticed before. I’ve learned a lot about autism representation, what’s out there, what the common problems are, where the gaps are, and also about the good work that many autistic authors are already doing. It’s enriched how I write about autism but it’s also been something that I feel a need to step away from at times. When you think so intensely about representing a particular thing it gets easy to overthink it, and to stop writing projects before they begin because you’re so worried about getting it wrong. When you see the viciousness on social media towards authors who do get it wrong – which doesn’t just mean writing something bigoted by accident, or phrasing something carelessly but also just writing representation in a way that isn’t what some portion of the audience was hoping for – it’s easy for this worry to be magnified. Sometimes I have to step out of my critical reviewer’s mind and just shamelessly follow some other creative impulse and see what happens, because otherwise I just won’t write anything at all. And sometimes that conflict makes me angst about whether this kind of reviewing is even a good idea. But the reviews series is so important to so many autistic readers, I always end up resolving to keep it going in some form.
Tell me more about Everything Thaws, your upcoming poetry memoir. In this memoir you’ve promised to cover a wide range of topics – Soviet Jews, climate change, queerness, multigenerational trauma. It sounds like heavy and fascinating work. What can Birdverse readers expect from you when they come to this book?
RB: Awesome! I felt there was a connection to be made between Million-Year Elegies and The Outside, and I love how you articulated it. As for being “too introspective”, that’s what I especially love about your writing. I think introspection is necessary with the themes you are dealing with – examining the very nature of reality demands a fair amount of introspection, I think! Of course, this reflects my own preferences – I am always on the lookout for stories that deal with the impact of action – all too often fast-paced books do not stop to consider the impact of these fast-paced, often traumatic experiences on the protagonists, and I find this difficult to relate to. The attention to trauma and neurodiversity is something I really appreciate about your fiction, in-between the cool cosmic horror!
Everything Thaws is about multigenerational trauma and memory, it is a very migrant, diasporic text. It’s my first fully-fledged foray into non-speculative writing, and it’s something I felt compelled to write and worked on for three years after my father passed away. I am glad this book found a good home, and I’m looking forward to what people think about it – people beyond the speculative realm, actually. I have no idea what Birdverse readers might get from this – beyond that it is something I wrote and it deals with my usual themes – identity, migration, queerness, history, art, materiality – in a realistic setting that includes an ice dragon. The dragon existed.
Reading The Outside, I couldn’t stop thinking about the punitive “corrective” treatments Dr. Talirr underwent as a child. The treatments were designed to wean her off the Outside heresy, but given that Dr. Talirr is also autistic, I felt that this evoked a discussion of ABA and similar terrible treatments so often inflicted upon autistic children. This treatment has a traumatizing impact upon Dr. Talirr as a child, and her parents decide to pull her out of treatment despite the wishes of the agents of Nemesis. I would love to hear your thoughts about the “cure” narratives we encounter so often in stories with neurodiverse and/or disabled protagonists – as a field, we have been pushing against these narratives for quite some time, but I feel that we still have quite a ways to go, both as a society and in publishing. Do you intend to continueexploring these themes in the future?
ADA: Thank you for this question! I think we see this less often nowadays in speculative fiction than we did even ten years ago, the idea that a happy ending for an autistic character is to cure their autism and make them neurotypical. People are becoming more aware that this isn’t what an autistic person would consider a happy ending, that it involves essentially destroying the person the character was until that point, and remaking them into a new shape, and autistic people generally do not want to go through that process. Even from the people providing ABA-like therapies, I see slightly more awareness these days. Ivor Lovaas, who invented this therapy, famously said that the autistic child was not a person and that the person needed to be built through conditioning. Nowadays we do not see providers using this language – they talk more about building skills and getting the child to be ready to face the world.
Yet, the therapies are still abusive. The Judge Rotenberg Center is still using electric shocks as an aversive! Even the softest, most outwardly positive, punishment-free versions of ABA are coercive in nature. The child’s expressions of distress or attempts to withdraw consent are ignored. And the aim of the therapy, the skills being built, are skills of conformity and acting as a neurotypical adult expects, even if it compounds the autistic person’s distress. There is an assumption that if the autistic person is outwardly remade and begins to look neurotypical, from the outside, then this will make it easier for them to live a fulfilling life in neurotypical society. When, actually, the opposite is true – the skill of masking, looking neurotypical, has significant negative effects on mental health and even on life skills. This is borne out by the data, when people bother to collect the data on autistic adults. It’s a constant, exhausting, dehumanizing effort. And the impulse to teach autistic people this skill, I think, comes from the same place as the impulse to cure them. The underlying aim is not to make the autistic person happy, but to free neurotypical people from having to think about autism.
I should note that when I talk about this, I am not speaking from lived experience – I am not an ABA survivor myself. ABA is generally done to young children and I was not diagnosed until my teens. But I am speaking based on what I have consistently heard from many different ABA survivors in the autistic community. And I think that even for autistic people who did not go through therapy, we are taught through more informal means that we need to mask in order to survive or be worthy of existing among other people. And at some point in our lives we have to actively unlearn that, often in the wake of burnout when it becomes impossible to do anymore.
As for returning to these themes, it’s really hard to say. My writing process is that I start with a character or scene idea that seems very shiny and exciting to me, and I construct the scaffolding of a plot around that; many of the deeper themes of the work don’t become apparent until later, when I’ve worked on it more and seen the shape it takes on the page. I didn’t know that Dr. Talirr was going to have something ABA-like in her backstory until I was midway through the draft. So, I have no specific plans, but that doesn’t mean I won’t return to it at some point!
Definitely the theme of masking, if not of therapy or cures exactly, is one that I have been thinking about almost obsessively for the past couple of years. Not just in terms of autism, but also in terms of how queer people mask some part of themselves in order to pass or stay closeted, how all sorts of marginalized people have to mask as a part of respectability politics – even if their marginalization as such, in terms of what label applies to them, is not kept secret. It is a survival strategy; I do not want to call it morally wrong. But it takes such a toll on us as humans and on our relationships with each other as humans. I feel like I am actively searching for ways to unmask more, and I am also wrestling with how to balance that need with the need for privacy and safety. So I would be shocked if that search isn’t reflected in my future fiction at some point, but I don’t know yet exactly where it will be, or what it will look like. It will find a place to situate itself, I am sure.
You mentioned that you see Ursula K. Le Guin as your lodestar. You edited a poetry collection, Climbing Lightly Through Forests, in honor of Le Guin, which included your own literary overview of Le Guin’s poetry. (Spoiler alert: a poem of mine appears in Climbing Lightly Through Forests as well.) I heard you have now received a grant to produce an academic book about this topic. Can you tell me more about this project? What draws you to Le Guin’s poetry in particular? What have you learned so far by looking at it, and what are you hoping to learn in the archives?
RB: I’m very excited about any future work you might do that explores masking, both as a survival strategy and something that can be toxic and erasing – it’s something I struggle with in my own life, and I am sure anything you write about it will be meaningful.
As for Climbing Lightly Through Forests, I co-edited this collection with Lisa M.Bradley, whose work in both prose and poetry should definitely be more widely known! When I originally pitched the book to Aqueduct, I promised to write a Le Guin poetry retrospective to round out the volume of poetic tributes. I knew Ursula’s poetry well and read many of her collections, but I did not realize just how much poetry she’s written, and how deeply she cared about her poetry throughout her life – the first thing she’s written, at age five, was a poem, and she worked on her poetry until the very last. The vast majority of her poetry is not speculative, but it reflects her inner rich life, her recurrent and evolving perspectives on dying, and on the nature of the Pacific Northwest. Early in 2020, I was named the 2020 Le Guin Feminist Fellow by the University of Oregon Libraries, but the library closed to outside researchers during the pandemic, and I could not do my archival research. I am finally getting my chance to go this August. I am hoping to find correspondence, any journal entries, and other archival material that could shed light on her process as a poet. I’m also hoping to find unpublished poems! I am tentatively calling my academic manuscript in process My Old Tongue Breaks in Two: The Poetry of Ursula K. Le Guin. I hope to report more on my findings later this summer, mostly on Patreon – this is where I’m mostly at, these days.
What’s next for you as an author? What are you working on right now?
ADA: Right now I am working on Book Three in the Outside series (which has yet to be named, although in my notes I am calling it simply, Nemesis.) I am really struggling with this one and I’m not quite sure yet what form it will take by the time it has been finished and revised and sent to readers, but it is going to happen! My hope for it is that it goes even further – in one direction or another! to be determined! – than the books before it.
And to wrap up, I will ask the same question back to you – what are you working on now? What future project, or projects, are you most excited about?
RB: I am finishing the big revision on my new Birdverse novel The Unbalancing, which is a book about a group of queer and nonbinary magic keepers who are trying to prevent an environmental and magical disaster. The book started out as a novella, but it has been expanded into a short(ish) novel now, and I am looking forward to share these people, and these themes, with my readers. After that, I’ll go back to work on my big Birdverse novel Bridgers, which I keep talking about. It’s about revolution and linguistics and deeply explored Jewish themes, and I need to get this right.
Thank you for a chance to ask and answer these questions! I am very excited for the launch of The Fallen – looking forward to finishing the book, it’s great so far!! I hope more and more people will find your work.
ADA: You’re very welcome, RB, and thank you too for these wonderful questions and answers! It’s been a pleasure and I hope your future projects go very well.
Ada Hoffmann is the author of the space opera novel THE OUTSIDE, its sequel THE FALLEN, the collection MONSTERS IN MY MIND, and dozens of speculative short stories and poems. Ada’s work has been a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award (2020, THE OUTSIDE), the Compton Crook Award (2020, THE OUTSIDE), and the WSFA Small Press Award (2020, “Fairest of All”).
Ada was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at the age of 13, and is passionate about autistic self-advocacy. Her Autistic Book Party review series is devoted to in-depth discussions of autism representation in speculative fiction. Much of her own work also features autistic characters.
Ada is an adjunct professor of computer science at a major Canadian university, and she did her PhD thesis (in 2018) on teaching computers to write poetry. She is a former semi-professional soprano, tabletop gaming enthusiast, and LARPer. She lives in eastern Ontario.
R.B. Lemberg is a queer, bigender immigrant from Eastern Europe to the US. R.B.’s novella The Four Profound Weaves (Tachyon, 2020) is a finalist for the Nebula, Ignyte, and Locus awards. R.B.’s novel The Unbalancing is forthcoming from Tachyon in 2022, and their poetry memoir Everything Thaws will be published by Ben Yehuda Press, also in 2022. You can find R.B. on Twitter at @rb_lemberg, on Patreon at http://patreon.com/rblemberg, and at their website rblemberg.net
It’s always a delight to have new authors on the site, and today we’ve got two! Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman are the coauthors behind The Very Nice Box, which released just yesterday from HMH! Here’s a little more info about the book:
Ava Simon designs storage boxes for STÄDA, a slick Brooklyn-based furniture company. She’s hard-working, obsessive, and heartbroken from a tragedy that killed her girlfriend and upended her life. It’s been years since she’s let anyone in.
But when Ava’s new boss—the young and magnetic Mat Putnam—offers Ava a ride home one afternoon, an unlikely relationship blossoms. Ava remembers how rewarding it can be to open up—and, despite her instincts, she becomes enamored. But Mat isn’t who he claims to be, and the romance takes a sharp turn.
And now, please welcome our authors in conversation, Eve Gleichman and Laura Blackett!
EG: We wrote the novel over eighteen months, having never attempted anything like it before. What was the most challenging part of our collaboration, for you?
LB: The most challenging part was getting started– I can remember the feeling of writing my first chapter and wondering what you would think of it, and whether we’d have compatible voices and writing styles. So starting required a certain amount of vulnerability that felt exciting and very new to me. But it didn’t take long for us to find our rhythm. As we gained momentum I remember feeling surprised by how much fun it was, and I almost forgot that writing a novel in this collaborative way isn’t exactly the norm. I think the collaboration itself is queer in that way, because it exists outside the dominant narrative about what authorship and creativity looks like.
EG: I totally agree. It was such a joy to build off each other’s ideas, which I think you can really feel as you read it. The collaboration forced us to let go of our egos and narrative control. We trusted the characters and each other, and the plot unrolled from there.
LB: Speaking of the characters, let’s talk about Ava. She’s mostly dated women, now she’s falling for a cis man, and the book doesn’t define her sexuality. How have people responded to this? How have you come to understand her identity?
EG: It’s funny, we didn’t set out to write a queer book, or a satirical book, or a romantic book, but it ended up being all three. The most interesting aspect of Ava’s queerness, I think, is that it’s not fraught for her. She’s such a tightly-wound person, and yet her queerness, which is ambiguous and unpredictable, doesn’t bother her. She doesn’t suffer or experience shame–she simply is queer and able to live out that part of her life freely, which is a privilege. I was anticipating that readers would get caught up in whether or not she’s “gay,” but more often what we’ve heard is that readers actually identify with the complexity of her queer identity.
LB: Right, I loved giving Ava the gift of having an identity that was flexible and shifting. We gave her the leg room to be whoever she is, and to follow her curiosity and desires without putting her under a microscope.
EG: Plus, Ava’s already going through a lot. I wonder why we put Ava through so much. What do you think?
LB: Ava’s character was really where the book started. When I think back to the tiniest seed of an idea, it was her character– her neuroses, her rigidity. I think we knew about the things that irk her, and the images she uses to soothe herself, like a screwdriver fitting perfectly into the head of a screw and turning. And then we had to get really curious about her. What happened to her? Why does she move through the world this way? Is it helping her or hurting her? I think once we started asking those questions, her back story started to fill in. It was more interesting to us to have a character whose coping mechanisms are both hurting her and helping her. It’s much better than watching someone who is restrained and closed off for no clear reason. That’s what makes her relationship with Mat so interesting. He, like us, wants her to open up a little.
EG: Right, and I think it’s also what makes Mat at least somewhat appealing. It’s satisfying to see someone disrupt Ava’s routine. He’s a total bro, but we’re willing to give him a pass, because he’s forcing Ava to confront herself.
LB: And it makes sense why Ava in particular is attracted to him. Yes, he’s handsome, but he also moves through the world in this really smooth, confident way. He’s learned how to use his openness and extraversion as a form of currency. He’s the perfect cog in the machine that is STADA, a company that’s obsessed with team spirit and self expression.
EG: One part of Mat that was really interesting to write was his anxiety about dating a woman who has historically only been with other women. He’s sort of performatively surprised to hear this at first, and then he requires reassurance that he’s giving Ava what she needs. What do you think we were going for in those scenes?
LB: It was a really fun way to start to see some fissures in his otherwise completely confident personality. Mat doesn’t have the tools to fully access or understand Ava’s queerness. He’s not asking the right questions, and he’s not really even that curious about her identity. The book is written from Ava’s point of view, and we see her intense curiosity about what makes Mat tick. I doubt that curiosity is reciprocal. It was extremely fun to write Andie, and see the contrast between Ava’s experiences with men and women. Andie is curious about Ava’s desires and interested in (and excited by!) the capaciousness of her identity.
EG: Totally. Andie’s curiosity was such a special part of her personality. I love that when confronted with the complexity of Ava’s desire, Andie leans into it, rather than away from it.
LB: Who’s your favorite queer character in The Very Nice Box? You can’t pick Ava.
EG: And I wouldn’t want to! Ava is great, but her flaws are frustrating. She’s hard-headed and myopic. I’d have to go with Jaime. He’s patient with Ava, whip-smart, a great friend, and incredibly cute. How about you?
LB: I love Jaime too, and I’m extremely curious about his partner Chas, a trans man who is one of the only characters that exists outside the world of STADA. He has no interest in the flashy corporate gimmicks, and I think he seems really cool. I also would like to write some sort of spinoff, if only for my own enjoyment, of the queer Brooklynites we meet at a party that one of Ava’s internet dates brings her to.
EG: Lastly, what’s one thing you hope queer readers take away from the book?
LB: I want queer readers to feel entertained and to walk away with a crush on at least one of the characters.
EG: Yes! The entertainment aspect is big. I had a blast writing this book with you, and I hope our readers can feel that joy and experience it themselves.
LAURA BLACKETT is a woodworker and writer based in Brooklyn. EVE GLEICHMAN’s short stories have appeared in the Kenyon Review, the Harvard Review, BOMB Daily, and elsewhere. Eve is a graduate of Brooklyn College’s MFA fiction program and lives in Brooklyn.
Today on the site I’m thrilled to welcome two debut YA authors, Emery Lee of Meet Cute Diary and Jonny Garza Villa of Fifteen Hundred Miles From the Sun! They’re here to talk about their delightful and romantic books, crafting as racially marginalized authors, and more, so pull up a seat and join us!
JONNY: A huge hello to arch-nemesis, agent sibling, and fellow fire sign sun and 2021 debut author, Emery! Thank you so much for letting me force you to do this! I feel like our friendship sort of began basically right after we first announced we were being published, which was also during the first couple of months of the pandemic and trying to adjust to what the world is now and what that might mean for us, so this seems super fitting to be celebrating our books now together.
Meet Cute Diary might just be my favorite book I’ve read so far this year. It is talented, brilliant, incredible, amazing, show-stopping, spectacular, never the same. And, in all seriousness, I love the trope-iness, the chaos, the humor, and the stress that all, for better or worse, defines Noah’s summer. For anyone who hasn’t read it yet, can you tell us about it?
EMERY: Haha thank you for such a fitting introduction and for all the book praise! I’d say your book is one of my favorites I read this year, but I just remembered I actually read it last year, so we’ll just say it’s one of the best books releasing this year! As for Meet Cute Diary, it’s the story of Noah, a trans teen, who curates a blog of trans meet cutes to give trans teens the hope for a happily ever after. The only problem is that all the stories are fake, so when a troll exposes the blog as fiction, Noah has to stage the ultimate fake relationship with a fan in order to keep the Diary afloat.
It’s always fun discussing our books together since they have a lot in common from the social media element to the pure chaotic messiness of the main character. The world is probably fortunate that Noah and Jules live in alternate universes and can’t actually become friends! But you can tell us more about Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun?
JONNY: Truly disaster children who need their phones and laptops taken away! I like to say that Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun is part my own adolescent traumas, part Selena’s “Dreaming Of You”, and a whole bottle of Patrón. It follows Julián (aka Jules) Luna, a high school senior from Corpus Christi, Texas just trying to have a low-key year with his friends, get into UCLA, and finally be able to move far away from home and all the environments that’ve kept him closeted for seventeen years. That all implodes on itself though when he accidentally comes out as gay on Twitter after getting way to drunk at a party. And in the days and weeks and months that follow Jules will discover all the good things and love that can come from living openly (including a Los Angeles Twitter crush sliding into the DMs) as well as the pain and rejection that can be part of learning to embrace who we are.
Another thing our books have in common is romance, although Noah’s and Jules’ journeys toward finding love are incredibly different. I love how the romantic aspect of Meet Cute Diary is, like, what we know of the rom com meets the scientific method, if that at all makes sense. What was it like writing the romantic elements of your book, Noah as a character determined to find love, and shaping this story into something so wonderfully unique?
EMERY: It’s funny because writing Noah was all about balancing two very opposite things—being a hopeless romantic while also being a cynic. In a lot of ways, Noah doesn’t think he’ll ever find love because as a triracial gay trans guy, he’s just never seen a happily ever after play out for people like him, but at the same time, all he wants in life is a perfect romance and he’s so in love with love that it’s all he can really think about. All of that came together in making Noah this control freak who loves the idea of things just falling into perfection but doesn’t think that’ll happen, and so he crafts these twelve steps based on the movies with the hopes that if he knows exactly how true love works, he can steer his relationship in exactly the right directions. So this opened up the ability to both play around with so many fun tropes while also writing this kind of larger, meta-narrative where I could subvert the way romance typically plays out in fiction, and that just made for a really fun time. I basically got to write all the cute things I’d ever want to see while also turning them all into the most chaotic humor, and that was just a really cool experience.
Writing rom coms, I think it’s pretty easy to accidentally stray into the realm of “too corny”, so for me, subverting the typical rom com tropes really helped steer me away from that. In your case, the book is a coming-of-age novel so there’s a lot more to ground the story in realism, yet the romance you wrote is still so ridiculously cute that it’s pretty easy to forget all the darker elements of the story! How did you strike that balance between the real, heavy elements of Jules’s life with all the romantic joys, and how did you maintain the harmony between those two halves of the story?
JONNY: I wanted, from the very beginning, for the romance in the story, and even Mat as a character and love interest for Jules, to be this one-eighty from his home life. And I wanted Mat to even be someone who also helps move that coming-of-age trope about the story forward just as much as he propels the romance part of the story. While Jules has always wanted to go to college in Los Angeles, now there’s another motive for really putting all his energy into that goal, especially as they get closer while, at the same time, Jules’s home life gets more destructive. And Mat is great at meeting Jules where he’s at in his coming out process and figuring out where he fits in the world now and really encourages Jules’s growth as an out gay young person. I also, and most importantly, wanted to make Mat feel real. Like, while he’s shameless and flirtatious he’s also empathetic and having that complexity there meant being able to be way too cute while also incorporating moments of serious intimacy and even, at times, frustration. I wanted to make their mutual attraction feel real. Especially with long-distance, I think it’s reasonable to ask “why this person who lives so far away?” and I wanted to make sure that both of them felt and read very much like, “out of anyone else in the world, it’s you.”
I think one of my favorite elements of your book, aside from the romance, is its use of social media and the meet cute blog posts from a lumberjack guy to a bakery encounter and commentary we get to see from Noah’s followers (and shit-talkers) throughout the book. Was there any specific inspiration for the blog posts? And I’d love to hear about how you were able to make all of these social media snippets so unique in their own purpose across the book but never really breaking the flow of story, which I think is truly a feat.
EMERY: Thank you! I feel like the blog posts were really just about showing the different sides of Noah’s situation. There’s what’s actually going on throughout the book, and then there’s the way people perceive what’s happening shown through comments and hate posts and stuff. I really pulled the inspiration just from real world social media, the way a conversation will morph and people will twist what originally happened or misinterpret everything because they’re only following along through subtweets or vague posts. So it was really just thinking about ways that a post today can turn into so many different conversations and thoughts down the road and how to apply that structure to the Diary to kind of keep track of how Noah’s fans and haters were feeling as the story unfolded. And, of course, keeping in mind that the internet is composed of so many different people from so many different backgrounds that a post that makes one person swoon can very easily make another person out for blood, and so I really wanted to showcase the scope of how an internet community can be when something like this unfolds.
Speaking of different backgrounds, something we both do in our stories is feature characters from/in different locations. For Meet Cute Diary, I have Noah who moves from Florida to Denver then out to California, and for Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun, you have Jules in Corpus and Mat out in LA. Obviously, you’re well-versed in that Texas lifestyle, but how did you go about crafting Mat’s California and drawing both the similarities and differences between two characters from two very different cities?
JONNY: I think what made it not so daunting is that, although it’s safe to say that Mat—as someone who is very proud to be from and loves California and specifically Los Angeles—would see LA very different from Jules, he tries to create a vision that fits Jules’s idealistic perception of a city he’s never actually been to. So, in that, I was able to bring in a lot of the things that made me fall in love with LA every time I’ve been there and celebrate those: the food, the beaches (which, and I can only speak for the few I’ve been to in/around LA, are much nicer than Corpus’s), the view from Griffith Observatory. I think, in a purely still mainly hypothetical future where we see more of Jules and Mat’s journey, it would be interesting to see how Jules’s idea of LA starts becoming more realistic but also probably still very much in love with the city, just like Mat. And I think, in crafting the ways their environments create two very different people and life experiences, I looked to their cultural backgrounds just as much as their locations, and how being a first-generation Vietnamese American and a first-generation Mexican American shape who these boys are, but also how growing up in a huge city in Southern California versus growing up in a not as huge city in South Texas can equally play a part in who they are. I wanted both nature and nurture present in their identities, I suppose.
Thinking about Jules and Mat and then especially characters like Noah and even Devin, I think it’s safe to say that, in many ways, our stories are presented through the eyes and experiences of main characters we don’t see very often in YA literature. You mind speaking on the significance, whether personally or from reader reactions, of telling a story and centering a character who is not by any means the “usual” kind main character we see in books?
EMERY: It’s funny because I think marginalized authors get asked to weigh in on “not the usual” main characters all the time, but there’s also a huge span in what that means. Like a white gay character isn’t “the usual” when most books feature straight characters, but the difference between that and a triracial gay trans boy is still massive. There are no other books with a main character like Noah. Someone linked me to a website that allows you to search a catalogue of all books available through any library in the country, and just finding a book about a triracial character was all but impossible. Now you look at a book where the character is also trans, which is exceedingly rare, and then you look at the genre (romcom), which is so inaccessible to queer authors and it’s just a whole mess. The response from readers has been amazing, and I’ve had so many people tell me this book is the first time they saw anyone even remotely similar to themselves in a book, and that’s super cool, but the journey has been exhausting. How do you advocate for a book when you struggle to find comp titles? How do you find media support when outlets don’t know where to categorize you? Every day is a battle just to get people to acknowledge Noah’s race along with his gender, to get people to stop misgendering Devin in interviews, etc. and frankly, if I were asked to do it again, I don’t think I would. I don’t think I could ever willingly sign up to have to make this fight day in and day out. But I also know that this book is a doorstopper. It may be one of if not the only title authors can point to in the future when they try to sell their triracial YAs or their trans romcoms or their stories with Spivak pronouns, and that’s what has me still pushing this book despite how endlessly burned out and beaten down I’ve been through this process. I know that there are authors who may only be able to get their foot in the door because this book held it open, and there are readers who may first see their worth in this book, and that’s huge.
I know you understand that QPOC struggle and how big of a deal it is to write these types of characters. How has the experience been for you, and how would you classify the significance of the story you’ve told both for readers but also in conversation with other queer/Chicanx stories?
JONNY: Yeah, I get that. The tolls emotionally and mentally, etc. that are forced to be expended when it comes to that loneliness from being the one singular person or story and being in a world and environment like publishing that can lack the knowledge or even empathy and, you know, at worst can be openly demeaning towards marginalized and especially QTBIPOC creators. I think there’s often that thought about “we’re breaking barriers or glass ceilings or doors” which is great and there’s a certain pride about it that shouldn’t be overlooked, but what is often forgotten about are the bruises and cuts that come from that. I’ve talked to a few people about this, but, even in my own experience with my book, Jules might be the first gay, Mexican American main character on the cover of a contemporary YA novel. And that’s wild to me. And, as I’ve said before, the, maybe, sole book on the gay Mexican American experience in YA (at least, in traditional publishing) is a book that takes place in the 80s. It shows the obvious lack of representation of queer Chicanes in young adult literature and just how large of a hole there is for young people who look like me wanting characters that feel like home for them. And, like, I really don’t like using the word “important” for things like this because I think that allows for it to be misused especially by audiences that don’t actually understand what makes it so important, but I think it’s also hard to deny that it’s there. That these books are important. That feeling of wanting this to be meaningful for young queer Chicanes while also at the same time having this heaviness that comes from being the first or only. This thought that if I and this book don’t do well, what are the implications for others who come after me? All while figuring out how to not let the daunting, very loud imposter syndrome telling me “you’re not Mexican enough to write this book” dictate my choices and how I wrote Jules’s story. Ultimately though, I think we both wrote books that we should definitely be proud of and feel so much like a part of our hearts and those parts of ourselves we put on page, and regardless, like you said, so many readers are going to see themselves for first time in Noah’s and Jules’ stories and that thrills me.
And speaking specifically to the queer identities of our characters, I’d love to get your thoughts on the state of LGBTQ+ YA and what you see that looking like in the next few years.
EMERY: You’re so right about the word “important”. It really can be a double-edged sword, and I think there has to be room to talk about the roles these books play in the grander scheme of things without the way our books get reduced to “importance” all the time. But on a lighter note, I think LGBTQ+ YA fiction in general has come a long way! It’s really hard to say where it’ll be in the next few years just because it’s changed so much in the past few years that I can only imagine (and sincerely hope) that the changes will be well beyond anything I can dream of now. Like SIMON VS released in 2015. That was only six years ago, but that book feels like a relic in terms of queer YA because things have grown and expanded so much since then. If you’d told me a couple years ago that a trans YA book, namely a trans gay Latinx YA book, would hit the NYT bestselling list (Cemetery Boys) or that we’d be getting a Chinese polyamorous throuple from a Big 5 publisher (Iron Widow), I don’t think I would’ve believed it, so looking ahead, I have really high hopes for where we go next. Of course I’m hoping for more intersectionality, more books about casual queerness, more queerness in non-contemporary settings, and more casts with multiple queer characters, but hoenstly, all of these things are becoming more and more common as we speak, so I guess what I’m saying is I’d hate to limit what we could get in the next few years by my own imagination because it just wouldn’t be enough.
Where do you see LGBTQ+ YA going in the near future?
JONNY: That’s such a good point! Like, just in between 2020 and now we’ve had queer fantasies, ghost romances, contemporary sequels, stories in space, gay pirates, thrillers, and that’s just in YA, which is incredible. I think my own hopes are, like, especially when it comes to QTBIPOC authors, that we get to write not only our identities as queer people but as also Black, Indigenous, non-white Latine, Asian people. I’ve had people say that my book reads like it was written for Chicanes first and I can blame that inspiration directly on books like Darius the Great Is Not Okay. And I’d love to see more of that, which I think goes with your own thoughts on more intersectional stories. I’d love to see more queer YA stories about high school freshman and what that adjustment looks like for LGBTQ+ kids. I’d love to see more parents of queer kids in QTBIPOC stories. I’d love to see more non-cis main characters who are BIPOC in all the genres. And I’m manifesting all of those and more.
I won’t keep you much longer, but, as someone who has also experienced publishing your debut during a pandemic and all the unique stress that that’s brought, and especially as someone who’s already got eir book out in the world, any advice for someone who (at least, at the time of this conversation) is getting real close to pub day?
EMERY: Yes, that is so true! The way BIPOC experience queerness is so different than the white queer experience, so it really is important that we be allowed to center people of our race and culture and not get boxed in to rehashing white queer stories but with brown faces! And the best advice I can give you is TAKE A NAP! Like, I’m sure people who’ve debuted at any time will tell you that debuting is a lot of stress and a lot of work and a whole bunch of things will fly out of nowhere and slap you across the face when you least expect them, but I think especially in this panini, we’re dealing with this collective trauma, fatigue around virtual events, financial stressors, etc. and I think the most important thing you can do for yourself is just give yourself some time to relax. Take the good opportunities as they come, but don’t force yourself to take on everything. Six months from now, you’ll still have your book and it’ll still be capable of finding readers, so put yourself first!
How has your pandemic debut experience been thus far and any big plans around release?
JONNY: Oh good, glad to get validation on my current very firm schedule of taking naps in between important things! This whole, what, now fifteen months, maybe fourteen since we announced, has been nothing like I envisioned this experience would be. I mean, when I got the initial offer, it was late January, we were thinking of these grandiose debut and release things. But I’ve been incredibly lucky that even while in solitude and isolation and quarantine, I’ve got to meet so many writers through virtual things or because of my book who I now call friends. It’s different than I thought it’d be but also I’m proud of everything that I’ve done up to now and am really excited to finally throw this book at the world. It will be bittersweet to have this part ending but I will never have taken a louder sigh of relief. And that I get to do that, even if virtually, with some of my favs like PerpetualPages booktuber Adri, Aiden Thomas, Amparo Ortiz, Julian Winters, Crystal Maldonado, Laekan Zea Kemp, and Olivia Abtahi will be absolutely fantastic. Oh, and you and Sonora Reyes too!
Before we say bye, want to let everyone know what’s coming up next or anything else you can share with readers?
EMERY: Haha there are definitely a lot of things I can’t talk about! All I have announced so far is the All Signs Point to Yes Anthology which is out in 2022. I’ll have a short story called “The Cure for Heartbreak” in that one, so look out for that! And I have a bunch of other projects in the works that I can’t really share yet, but I’ll hopefully have some news soon.
What can we expect next from Jonny Garza Villa?
JONNY: And we all wait very impatiently for the news! I was recently able to announce my next contemporary YA novel, Ander and Santi Were Here, about a non-binary muralist who falls for the newest waiter at their family’s taqueria. It’s a college-age YA that I really just let myself go all out with the queerness and the Mexicanness, and I love it very much. Our agent, Claire Draper has said of the book that it “feels unabashedly you” and I’ve had multiple tell me they cried with this one even more than they did with Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun, so I’m so very ready for early 2023 and to get this book out into the world. Other than that, I’ve got a few things currently in progress both on my own and one in partnership with another author, so I’m hoping to be busy for a long while.
Thank you again, Emery, for joining me for some queer chisme and book talk! I didn’t get a chance to call Noah or Devin a loser today, but I’ll make sure to get that in during our next thing together!
EMERY: Haha thanks for inviting me! And we should make sure to add time for a duel next time too. Gotta give the people what they want!
Jonny Garza Villa is a product of the great state of Texas, born and raised along the Gulf Coast, and a decade-long resident of San Antonio. They are an author of contemporary young adult fiction that maintains a brand of being proudly Latinx, and the most queer, and embracing the power and beauty of the chaotic gay. Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun is their debut novel.For more information, visit www.jonnygarzavilla.com.
Emery Lee is a kidlit author, artist, and YouTuber hailing from a mixed-racial background. After graduating with a degree in creative writing, e’s gone on to author novels, short stories, and webcomics. When away from reading and writing, you’ll most likely find em engaged in art or snuggling cute dogs. Eir debut novel MEET CUTE DIARY is available now.
Today on the site I’m delighted to welcome frequent LGBTQReads guest Nicole Melleby, author of one of yesterday’s fabulous new releases, How to Become a Planet, and site newcomer Eliot Schrefer, whose The Darkness Outside Us releases June 1st!
Yes, we’re bridging the MG/YA divide here. A rare occurrence on the site, but there is a connection between these authors! Want to know what it is? Read on…
Nicole: Hi Eliot! I’m excited to be doing this interview with you. A fun fact that most people might not know: you were my mentor in grad school, so you’ve actually gotten to see me grow from the baby writer I used to be. It makes it even more fun that we’ve both got books out this year that in some capacity–yours literally and mine as more of a metaphor–involve outer space! (And, of course, are both queer!)
The Darkness Outside Us is such a great addition to LGBTQ+ YA shelves. For those who weren’t as lucky as me to get their hands on it before its June 1st release, why don’t you tell us a little bit about it?
Eliot: Nicole! How amazing is this?! If only we could go back to 2014 and tell baby Nicole and Eliot that they’d one day be having this conversation, and doing gay space book events together (you can check us out together virtually on June 8th hosted by Best of Books.) I’ll have lots more to say and ask about the years in-between later, but for now, yeah, let me tell you about The Darkness Outside Us. It’s set 400 years in the future, when Earth is locked into a cold war between two remaining countries. When the first settler of Titan trips her distress signal, the countries have to mount a joint mission to rescue her—with one astronaut from each country onboard. They start as enemies, but wind up developing feelings for each other, even as they discover that their mission isn’t what they thought it was. At all.
You gave me some awesome feedback on the manuscript, and changed its course! I love this new phase of our lives when we’re peers and friends. The world has some really devoted Melleby fans (“Mellefans”?) in it. It’s been awesome to see your accolades and masses of happy readers—I know how excited they are about reading How to Become a Planet. Would you tell us about Pluto’s story?
Nicole: You gave me feedback on an early draft of PLANET, too, back when it had an entire arson subplot (when in doubt, add fire?) There are no fires in the finished draft, but How to Become a Planet is about a 12-year-old named Pluto who loves outer space, her single mom, her family’s pizzeria, and running around the boardwalk with her best friend Meredith. The novel starts right after Pluto is diagnosed with depression and anxiety, after a month of missing school, finding it too hard to get out of bed, ignoring Meredith’s phone calls, and arguing more and more with her mom. Because of this, Pluto can’t help but wonder how she can try and feel like herself again. Pluto-the-planet isn’t a planet anymore, and Pluto-the-person doesn’t know where she fits anymore, either.
So, Eliot, you are no stranger to kidlit (Mr. Fancy Pants two-time National Book Award Finalist) but, and correct me if I’m wrong, this is your first YA novel with explicitly queer characters. I’m living for gays in space, but why did you decide to write this story now, and has your experience writing gay characters been any different than your other work?
Eliot: I think I’m ten Earth years older than you (though just 0.04 Pluto years!), and it’s been a big ten years for children’s literature, and books in general, around LGBTQIA+ themes. Though there were important early queer works already when I started writing YA, for the most part books were either about queerness or they had no queer characters, with little in between. For the most part, my narrative instincts don’t lean toward romance, so I had characters in most of my books who were driven by other interests, not romantic ones.
With THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US, though, my first moment of inspiration was the book’s big (no spoilers here!) plot twist, which requires two people to be trapped on a ship together. That got me thinking of a romantic storyline, and the romance I came up with was true to my own (gay male) identity. I continue to be a plot-first sort of writer, but this plot really called for these two boys to be on a ship, falling in love. Cue the gaaaays in spaaaace!
In writing their romance I was inspired by Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, where he writes about how seeing Earth from space “underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another.” Nicole, I’d love to know how our conception of space and (non?) planets works in HOW TO BECOME A PLANET, whether literally or metaphorically or anything in between!
Nicole: When I sat down to write PLANET, what I really wanted to do was show that mental illness can be a lifelong issue. I wanted to let Pluto explore what it meant for her, now that she has this diagnosis, moving forward. How does it change her? Does it change her? What does it all mean? Which, in turn, made me start thinking about Pluto-the-planet. When I was in middle school, Pluto was still a planet, and all of a sudden we were told, “no wait, we changed the definition of what makes a planet, so Pluto doesn’t qualify anymore.” What did that mean? Was Pluto-the-planet suddenly different? No, of course not. The definition changed, but Pluto was exactly the same as it was, and still is, as when I learned about it back in middle school. All of its properties are still exactly the same. Getting a depression diagnosis for Pluto-the-person is just like Pluto-the-planet getting a new definition. It doesn’t change who she is; if anything, it gives her a clearer understanding of who she is.
If you’ll allow me to be sentimental for a moment, having you for a mentor in grad school helped me have a clearer understanding of myself, too, and who I was as a writer and a person–particularly one who writes about queer characters and stories. We also had the privilege of launching Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Writing for Children concentration in their creative writing MFA program, you as a professor and me as one of the first batch of students under that concentration. I learned a lot from you (I’m done stroking your ego after this) and I thought I’d ask, if you could teach student writers like myself only one thing, what would that be?
Eliot: Oh, please don’t be done stroking my ego! Nicole, one of the things I love so much about Pluto’s story is how you make her depression feel real and intimate and not like some huge crisis that ruins the lives of “other people.” It’s just part of life, and part of being a person in the world. That’s something I love so much about your novels—even though my life experiences might not always match your characters’, you’ve brought me so cleanly and simply into their minds that I still feel this very close kinship to them.
I should answer your question, though! Lately I’ve been thinking that one of the most important things student writers have to learn is the power of withheld information. I feel like every protagonist should have a secret, even if they’re not consciously hiding it. The instinct as a writer is to tell the reader everything about a character’s situation, as quickly and efficiently as possible. But instead I think it’s so much more powerful to hint at all the things the reader doesn’t know yet, and take your time as an author revealing the information, producing dramatic tension all the while. The first chapter of The Hunger Games is a total master class of this, and I think that’s a big part of the book’s huge success. On this craft topic, do you have any thoughts to share about handling backstory and frontstory in the early part of a book? How do you do it in Pluto’s case?
Nicole: In fairness, The Darkness Outside Us also is pretty damn good at doing exactly that–both of your characters have things they play close to the chest, and the plot twists (don’t even think you’ll get spoilers out of me, reader) in your book speak for themself in terms of knowing exactly when to reveal certain parts of the story.
For Pluto in particular, it was important to me to tell a story from the perspective of what happens after the diagnosis. Which meant that I had to decide how much of the first chapter to bog down with what came before the diagnosis. I wanted to explore the results and consequences instead of showing the entire journey that led to the doctors and medications. I introduce the idea that Pluto needs to be tutored over the summer, and that’s because she missed a lot of school. Her best friend Meredith is upset and mad at Pluto, and that’s because Pluto stopped calling and hanging out with her during the school year. These are the things that happened before the novel started that are part of the reason Pluto ended up with the diagnosis, but I didn’t need to spend the time at the start of the book detailing that.
This craft conversation actually reminds me of the essay I had to write for you during grad school, where I analyzed the moment in a handful of MG/YA books where the author “outs” the character to the reader. It’s again one of those important decisions as a writer: when and how do I reveal this piece of information to the reader. Do you remember what that moment is for Ambrose? (This is just a warm up question, don’t get too comfortable.) For Pluto, its revealed by her slowly developing a crush on Fallon, which was nice to write on my end, because Pluto doesn’t really have an “oh, I might be queer” moment. She just has an “oh, I think I like Fallon” moment.
Staying on the craft conversation: my real question for you is, since Darkness is a SFF novel that takes place in an alternative futuristic version of our universe, what was the worst part about having to develop and world build your idea of this future, and, also, what was the best part?
Eliot: I that essay so much! I learned so much from you, working with you on that. And I remember your presentation of it was also about your coming-out journey, and had half of the MFA cohort in tears.
As far as outing Ambrose: he comes from a really progressive country, 400 years in the future. I let myself imagine how far we might have come by then. They’re well past labels at all, so when Kodiak (who’s from a less progressive society) asks Ambrose if he’s gay or bi or what, Ambrose busts out laughing, because the question sounds like it’s out of a historical fiction. That’s one of the things I love most about sci-fi, that you can imagine better futures, not just worse ones. That was the best part, creating a character and giving him a kinder, more inclusive place to live in.
The hardest part was trying to make a believable future, tech-wise. I tried to imagine evolved technologies, but I’m sure someone actually from 400 years in the future would crack up at my version of future tech. Kind of like how everyone in the 1960s was convinced we’d have robot maids and be riding around in flying cars by now.
Nicole, my last question for you: You stopping by Pluto’s house for breakfast, ten years after the events of HOW TO BECOME A PLANET. How’s she doing? (More important: what does she serve you to eat?)
Nicole: Ten years after the events of PLANET, Pluto would be around 23 years old. She’s doing well–she kept up with her therapist and her doctors and took her medication. There were some bumps along the way, because as Pluto learns throughout the course of the book, mental illness isn’t an exact science and things change and she still has her ups and downs. But she knows who she is and she’s proud of it. I don’t think she studied astronomy or a related science when she got to college–I think while she’ll always love her connection to space and still read and learn as much as she can about it, I think she’ll grow to spread her wings a little bit. Astronomy is what connected her with her mom, and they still share that, but I think Pluto would find something to make completely her own. Still in the sciences–maybe health science? Maybe she’s going to be in a lab somewhere someday helping to advance the resources available for kids with anxiety and depression, just like her.
And, of course, she would serve me some sort of breakfast pizza!
Eliot, thank you so much for joining me in chatting about our upcoming releases. I’ve been a fan of yours since that first year at grad school, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to be able to sit down and gab about our queer books. Thank you Dahlia at LGBTQ Reads for hosting us!
Help support these authors and the site by shopping the LGBTQReads Bookshop!
ELIOT SCHREFER is a New York Times-bestselling author, and has twice been a finalist for the National Book Award. In naming him an Editor’s Choice, the New York Times has called his work “dazzling… big-hearted.” He is also the author of two novels for adults and four other novels for children and young adults. His books have been named to the NPR “best of the year” list, the ALA best fiction list for young adults, and the Chicago Public Library’s “Best of the Best.” His work has also been selected to the Amelia Bloomer List, recognizing best feminist books for young readers, and he has been a finalist for the Walden Award and won the Green Earth Book Award and Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award. He lives in New York City, where he reviews books for USAToday.
Nicole Melleby, a born-and-bread Jersey girl, is an award winning children’s author. Her middle grade books have been Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selections, recipient of the Skipping Stones Honor Award, and a 2020 Kirkus Reviews best book of the year. Her debut novel, Hurricane Season, was a Lambda Literary finalist. She lives with her partner and their cat, whose need for attention oddly aligns with Nicole’s writing schedule.
Today on the site, I’m excited to have both brains behind the exciting upcoming Toronto Pride-centric YA, When You Get the Chance, coming May 4th from Running Press! Here’s a little more about the book:
As kids, Mark and his cousin Talia spent many happy summers together at the family cottage in Ontario, but a fight between their parents put an end to the annual event. Living on opposite coasts—Mark in Halifax and Talia in Victoria—they haven’t seen each other in years. When their grandfather dies unexpectedly, Mark and Talia find themselves reunited at the cottage once again, cleaning it out while the family decides what to do with it.
Mark and Talia are both queer, but they soon realize that’s about all they have in common, other than the fact that they’d both prefer to be in Toronto. Talia is desperate to see her high school sweetheart Erin, who’s barely been in touch since leaving to spend the summer working at a coffee shop in the Gay Village. Mark, on the other hand, is just looking for some fun, and Toronto Pride seems like the perfect place to find it.
When a series of complications throws everything up in the air, Mark and Talia—with Mark’s little sister Paige in tow—decide to hit the road for Toronto. With a bit of luck, and some help from a series of unexpected new friends, they might just make it to the big city and find what they’re looking for. That is, if they can figure out how to start seeing things through each other’s eyes.
Tom: It’s been almost five years since I woke up to a text from you that said something like “hey Tom, I just had an idea: we should write a big queer Canadian YA novel together!” Obviously I was totally into it, and before long we were brainstorming and sending chapters back and forth. Do you remember what prompted you to reach out in the first place?
Robin: I missed you! You had moved two thousand miles away, and I missed hanging out and talking about writing. Plus I’d just written a non-fiction book about Pride, so I was out in schools and talking with young people, and realizing just how much queer kids and teens wanted to see their lives reflected in the books they were reading. It was really impulsive though- like I had the idea and sent the text about three seconds later!
Tom: One of the things I love most about When You Get the Chance is that the premise of the story grew from the situation we were in when we wrote it. I was on the east coast, you were on the west coast, and we both wished we could meet up somewhere in the middle to hang out. It was basically a no-brainer to echo that in the plot, bringing cousins Talia (your character, from B.C.) and Mark (my character, from Nova Scotia) together for a family funeral in Toronto. Once we had that framework established, I really felt like the rest of the story came together quite naturally – did you feel the same way?
Robin: Yeah, very much so. I think part of that came from the fact that we both think and care deeply about some of the same things: family, friendship, queer community and history, connections and sharing of ideas between older and younger people, the way our communities and language and identities continue to evolve. Once the characters came to life and the story started taking shape, it became clear that those themes were all woven into the book. I know we both have had opportunities to meet with lots of LGBTQ+ youth because of our previous books… Do you feel like those experiences and conversations influenced this story?
Tom: Absolutely. Like you, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to speak with LGBTQ+ youth groups, GSA’s, etc… and one of the things that I’ve been most struck by is how queer and gender non-conforming teens are able to hang out together in big groups, which would have been completely unimaginable when I was in high school. There’s a long – and proud! – tradition of coming out narratives in LGBTQ+ YA, and I will dig in my heels to defend those stories, because they’re really important, but the reality is that more and more they don’t reflect queer teens’ broader experiences. I will never forget visiting a large group of queer teens in Vancouver during Canadian Children’s Book Week, and during the Q&A one teen made a comment about how much they wanted to see more books that show lots of queer kids hanging out together, because that reflected their reality a lot more than a solitary queer teen in a world full of straight people. I described WYGTC and explained that it was on sub, and hopefully someone would pick it up. The group was so excited about it, and in the cab on my way back to my hotel, Eric called to say we had an offer! That was a definite high point in my career.
Robin: I remember that! I was actually at a cabin in the woods when I got the call…in the middle of a week of school visits as part of a book festival. In fact, the way we celebrated the news over the phone, from different parts of the country, fit right in with the way we wrote the book. And now, because of the pandemic, that will also be the way we’re launching it. We had originally hoped to be at Pride events together, in person, this summer- but it seems like those will have to be virtual events. Still, while parades can be canceled, pride itself cannot! Since Pride is a big part of our book, do you want to share something about your experiences at Pride?
Tom: I’ve lived in several different cities across Canada, which means I’ve been lucky enough to experience a bunch of different iterations of Pride. Each of them has developed its own traditions over time, but some aspects of Pride are universal, like the way the culture of a city or town transforms for just a short while into something much more vibrant and queer. At its heart, Pride is about community, and getting caught up in the energy created by so many people who are joyfully celebrating the right to be their truest selves is magical, every single time. What about you, Robin? Any particular Pride moments stand out?
Robin: I’ve been to Pride events in lots of different places too- from the Chicago Dyke March to the small and super friendly Pride celebrations on Salt Spring Island. Toronto Pride will always be special to me, because that is where my very first Pride events were, when I was still in my teens. And of course, I love going to Pride here in Victoria, with my family and community. My kid was just a month old at his first Pride march! In the last few years, I have been really lucky to celebrate with people who are attending their first Pride events, and that has brought me a whole new appreciation for how beautiful and brave and necessary it is. And of course, I love some of the other Pride events in my town as well- especially the Big Gay Dog Walk, which is exactly what it sounds like- lots of queer people meeting up to walk our dogs together!
Tom: I’ve really enjoyed doing this interview, because it played out exactly the same way the book did! I kicked it off and sent it over to you, and we went back and forth until we reached a natural end. On that note, I’m going to pass it back to you for the final word, but first I want to say that everything about this process has been a total pleasure. I value your friendship so much, and getting an opportunity to share this experience together has been a total treat! I can’t wait until we can finally meet again in person – at a Pride event obviously – and share a long overdue hug to celebrate WYGTC!
Robin: Oh, I CANNOT WAIT to celebrate this book with you in person! You are absolutely one of my favorite people and while I wish we lived closer, I am so grateful that we haven’t let the distance come between us. And I was thinking the same thing about this interview—it’s been so much like writing the book together! Condensed and sped up, and with less plot twists– but really fun! I’d write something with you anytime. Just saying…
When You Get the Chance releases May 4th, 2021 from Running Press Kids!
Last week, we had an excerpt of Singled Out, and I promised its author, Andrew Maraniss, would return. Now he’s back, and he’s joined by Phil Bildner, author of the Lambda finalist Middle Grade novel, A High Five for Glenn Burke! Since they’ve written an intro in addition to their conversation, I’m just gonna let them take it away!
Authors Phil Bildner and Andrew Maraniss have both written books for young readers involving Glenn Burke, the first openly gay Major League Baseball player and the inventor of the high five. Burke played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland A’s in the late 1970s but was driven from the game due to the homophobia of officials with both organizations. Bildner’s middle grade novel, A HIGH FIVE FOR GLENN BURKE, tells the story of a gay sixth grade boy who prepares a school presentation on Burke. Maraniss has written a biography of Burke for teens and adults, SINGLED OUT. Bildner and Maraniss spoke with each other for LGBTQ Reads about their shared interests in baseball, books, and Burke.
Andrew Maraniss: You’re a Mets fan. Why the Mets over the Yankees, and how do Mets fans perceive themselves and their team in contrast to the Yankees and their fans?
Phil Bildner: Well, my dad grew up in Flatbush and was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. He used to tell me stories about Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, and Jackie Robinson and how he would go to Elsie Day Games at old Ebbets Field. So there was no way I was going to be a Yankees fan. The team from the Bronx was the evil empire. I grew up on Long Island and could drive to Shea Stadium or take the Long Island Railroad to Woodside and change to the 7 Train to Flushing. I still remember my very first Mets game, Saturday afternoon April 20, 1974. We sat in the mezzanine, and the Mets won 5-2. Jerry Koosman tossed a complete game five-hitter.
PB: So you’re a Brewers fan from way, way back in the day. I’m old enough to remember the Harvey’s Wallbangers teams from the early 80s. I used to love Cecil Cooper because having 1980 Cecil Cooper on your Strat-O-Matic baseball team was like having a cheat code in your line-up. Who were your favorite players from those teams?
AM: I was born in Madison, Wisconsin, but we moved to the East Coast when I was four. My grandparents were still in Madison and Milwaukee, however, and they made sure I grew up a Brewers fan. We lived in Washington, D.C. when I was in first grade through ninth grade, and every time the Brewers came to Baltimore to play the Orioles, my Dad and I would go see the Brew Crew. I think it shaped my character being a fan of the road team, going against the grain and being happy when everyone else was sad, sad when 30,000 people were cheering. In 1981, we took the train up to New York to see the Brewers play the Yankees in the playoffs. I was 11 and it was my first trip to New York. Yankee fans were burning Brewers caps in the row behind us. It was an eye-opening experience. My favorite players back then were Paul Molitor and Robin Yount, but I loved all those guys — Cooper, Gorman Thomas, Ben Oglivie, Pete Vuckovich. My Twitter handle @trublu24 is a nod to the True Blue Brew Crew and Oglivie, who wore #24.
AM: When did you first learn of Glenn Burke’s story?
PB: Baseball cards! I started collecting Topps baseball cards in kindergarten, and of course, I had to have the complete sets. Each season, I knew every player on every team and even memorized many of their year-to-year statistics. That’s when I first learned about Glenn Burke. But I didn’t know about Glenn Burke. That didn’t happen until I was a teenager — when Inside Sports, a magazine I subscribed to published, The Double Life Of a Gay Dodger.
My origin story for A High Five for Glenn Burke is pretty cool. The first seeds were planted back in 2014 when I watched “High Five,” a short film that was part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series. I remember watching and thinking there’s a picture book in here somewhere, but I was working on a middle grade series at the time and didn’t have the bandwidth for a deep dive.
A few years later I did and wrote that picture book biography, but my editor, Wes Adams didn’t see it as a picture book. That’s exactly what he told me, “I don’t see it.” He didn’t think it was the right way to explore Glenn’s story. Wes was the one who suggested we try to weave Glenn Burke’s story into a contemporary realistic fiction middle grade novel. As soon as he said it, I was all in!
PB: And you? When did you first learn about Glenn Burke? What prompted you to write a biography for teens about him?
AM: Very similar stories involving conversations and baseball cards. My first book, Strong Inside, is a biography of Perry Wallace, the first Black basketball player in the SEC. My second, Games of Deception, is the story of the first U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. As soon as I submitted Games of Deception to my editor, I started thinking about another narrative nonfiction story combining sports and social justice. I was speaking with my agent, Alec Shane, about various ideas and he mentioned that there had never been a biography of Glenn Burke. As soon as he said that, my mind flashed to Glenn’s 1978 Topps baseball card, where he’s swinging a bat in the Dodger road gray uniform. I’m grateful to Alec for suggesting Glenn as the subject of a biography. It was a no-brainer — a chance to write about my favorite sport, a tremendously interesting person and the gay rights movement of the 70s.
PB: What’s your connection to sports? Did you play ball as a kid? Were you a fan of teams other than the Brew Crew? Did you read sports books?
AM: Baseball was my favorite sport growing up. I played through high school in Austin, Texas, and if I hadn’t received a full-tuition sportswriting scholarship to Vanderbilt, I would have gone to school and played ball at Macalester College in Minnesota. They didn’t offer any scholarships but they did play once a year at the Metrodome, which was a ridiculous reason to be interested in a college. But what can I say?! As far as other teams, I’ve always been a big Green Bay Packers fan. My favorite college basketball team as a kid was Georgetown. We had season tickets in the Patrick Ewing era. I loved collecting baseball cards, and those same grandparents who brainwashed me into being a Brewers fan subscribed me to newsletters such as What’s Brewing and Packer Report. I ended up working in sports after college, first as the Sports Information Director for the Vanderbilt men’s basketball team and then as media relations manager for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays during their inaugural season of 1998. I was with a public relations firm in Nashville for nearly 20 years after that. Writing sports-related books has been a bit of a return to what I loved as a younger person. I also now manage the Sports & Society Initiative at Vanderbilt.
AM: How about you?
PB: As a kid, I played baseball, basketball, soccer, and tennis. I started playing little league baseball in second grade, basketball in third, and soccer in fourth.
I was a huge sports fan, too. Of course, I loved the Mets. I was also a Knicks fan — had season tickets in Section 324 of Madison Square Garden and went to all the Reggie Miller and Michael Jordan games and was even there for the OJ game against the Rockets during the NBA Finals in 1994. And I was an Islanders fan – they used to practice at a rink that was biking distance from my house. But I didn’t read many sports books. I read the newspaper, the sports section. That’s how I was able to keep track of my teams.
AM: When it comes to openly gay athletes in sports, we’ve seen many more high-profile women than men here in the U.S. Glenn Burke said on his deathbed that he hoped his experience would make it easier for gay ballplayers in the future. Obviously, there are many reasons why anyone, athlete or not, may or may not choose to come out at any particular time, but are you surprised there aren’t more out gay men in American sports? What would it mean to gay kids to see a pro baseball, basketball or football star in the prime of their career come out today?
PB: It would literally and figuratively be a game changer and have immeasurable value to queer kids.
But am I surprised there aren’t more out gay men in American sports? Unfortunately, no. While we’ve made tremendous strides towards acceptance in recent years, we now live in an era where a disturbingly large segment of our society proudly flaunts their hate and inhumanity. It’s become their brand like the alligator on their shirt or the Swoosh on their sneakers. So it’s understandable, sadly, why a gay male athlete in the prime of his career wouldn’t want to add fighting off fascists to his plate.
PB: What about you? Are you surprised there aren’t any openly gay professional baseball, basketball, or football players?
AM: When I interviewed Billy Bean, the gay vice president at Major League Baseball, he talked about how short the typical pro sports career is, how brief a window to make a life-changing amount of money. A closeted athlete has to make a calculation of whether it’s worth it to risk all that by coming out, not knowing what the reaction will be from teammates, coaches, team management and ownership, fans and the media. As you said, this is one of so many areas of American life where we see polarization between truth and lies. One thing I tried to do in Singled Out is to show the absurdity of the standard arguments against the viability of an out player. They’ll say it would be a “distraction,” as if teams don’t welcome distractions all the time. When Glenn Burke was with the Dodgers, manager Tommy Lasorda was literally inviting actors, comedians, and singers into the team’s clubhouse minutes before games. When Burke was with the A’s, the owner, Charlie Finley, was calling his manager in the middle of games to suggest changes in strategy and had a teenaged MC Hammer serving as his vice president. People say a gay player would be unpopular with teammates. Glenn Burke was the most popular player on the Dodgers. His teammates cried when was traded to the A’s. It was the straight player with the All-American image, Steve Garvey, who was disliked by many of his teammates. I think that while an out male player would be unpopular with many fans, he’d be wildly popular with others, and probably would have the best-selling jersey in the game pretty quickly.
PB: One of the things I loved most about Singled Out was that it was so much more than a biography. It captured a moment in time. As an example, I love how you wove Disco Demolition Night into the narrative. Can you explain what that was and why you decided to include it in the book?
AM: That was a fun chapter to write! On July 12, 1979, the Chicago White Sox encouraged fans to bring disco records to the stadium so they could be placed in a big pile on the field and blown up between games of a doubleheader against the Tigers. Fifty thousand people showed up, twice as many as the team expected, and the night turned chaotic, with fans throwing records on the field like frisbees during the first game, running onto the field and ripping up handfuls of grass. Glenn Burke had nothing to do with this game in a literal sense, but I felt like this event, which has been characterized as representing the symbolic end of the disco era, illustrated a cultural backlash to some of the gains made by gay, Black and Latino people in the 1970s — all of whom had played such a big part in the rise of disco. So, when thousands of mostly white fans showed up chanting “disco sucks,” it was all part of the same backlash that fueled the anti-gay rights rhetoric of Anita Bryant and inspired the fans who taunted Glenn Burke. When the 1979 season began, Glenn was a starting center fielder in the major leagues. By June, he was driven from the game. In July ‘79, the top six albums on the pop charts were all disco. By late September, there were none in the top 10.
PB: Another thing I loved about your book was how you created context for the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Obviously, when you first sat down to write Singled Out, you didn’t know it would be published while we were living through another global pandemic Do you think the fact that we are helps young readers to better understand what it was like during that time?
AM: In some ways, yes, I think the experience of having lived through COVID will help young people better understand what it might have felt like in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, particularly the initial uncertainty and confusion about what causes the virus and how to prevent its spread. There is also the parallel of a Republican administration not taking the virus seriously — even mocking it — and treating the lost lives as unimportant because of who was most at risk — gay men with AIDS and Black and brown Americans with COVID.
PB: My book came out last winter at the start of the pandemic, and there’s a cruel irony in publishing a book celebrating the high five at the very moment in which we were being urged to physically distance ourselves from one another.
AM: What have been some of the most meaningful reactions to the book from middle schoolers, teachers and librarians?
PB: There have been so many, but by far the most meaningful ones have been from elementary and middle school readers who’ve taken the time to let me know they saw themselves or their experiences in Silas, the main character in the book. In a lot of ways, I wrote A High Five for Glenn Burke for middle school me. It’s the book I wish I had when I was twelve. Unlike Silas, I didn’t have the internet. I didn’t have his access to information, language, words, and ideas. All I knew is that as much as I loved playing ball, kids like me didn’t. I didn’t know queer kids played sports. I didn’t know queer kids could play sports. A book like this would’ve given middle school me hope. Visibility matters. Representation matters. Our truths matter.
For more information on Phil Bildner and his books, visit philbildner.com and follow him on Twitter @philbildner.
For more information on Andrew Maraniss and his books, visit andrewmaraniss.com and follow him on Twitter @trublu24.
Phil Bildner is the New York Times–bestselling author of numerous books for kids. His latest is the 2021 Charlotte Huck Award Honor-winning A High Five for Glenn Burke. His many picture books include the Margaret Wise Brown Prize winning Marvelous Cornelius, the Texas Bluebonnet Award winning Shoeless Joe & Black Betsy, Martina & Chrissie, Twenty-One Elephants, and The Soccer Fence. He is also the author of A Whole New Ballgame, Rookie of the Year, Tournament of Champions, and Most Valuable Players in the critically acclaimed middle grade Rip & Red series. In 2017, Phil established The Author Village, a children’s book author booking business.
Andrew Maraniss is a New York Times-bestselling author of narrative nonfiction. His latest book, SINGLED OUT, is a biography of Glenn Burke, the first openly gay Major League Baseball player.
His first book, STRONG INSIDE, was the recipient of the 2015 Lillian Smith Book Award and the lone Special Recognition honor at the 2015 RFK Book Awards. The Young Reader edition was named one of the Top 10 Biographies and Top 10 Sports Books of 2017 by the American Library Association and was selected as a Notable Social Studies Book for 2019 by the National Council for the Social Studies.
His second book, GAMES OF DECEPTION, is the story of the first U.S. Olympic basketball team, which competed at the 1936 Summer Games in Nazi Germany. It received the 2020 Sydney Taylor Honor Award and was named one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2019. Both the National Council for the Social Studies and the American Library Association honored it as a Notable Book of 2019.
Andrew is a Visiting Author at Vanderbilt University Athletics and a contributor to ESPN’s TheUndefeated.com.
Andrew was born in Madison, Wis., grew up in Washington, D.C. and Austin, Texas and now lives in Brentwood, Tenn., with his wife Alison, and their two young children. Follow Andrew on Twitter @trublu24 and visit his website at andrewmaraniss.com.
I’m tickled to have two utterly delightful authors on the site today: Auriane Desombre, author of debut contemporary f/f YA romanceI Think I Love You (which just released yesterday with Underlined!) and Sonia Hartl, whose f/f YA vampire romance The Lost Girls releases September 14th from Page Street! They’re here together today to chat about their books, other faves, and more! Take it away, Auriane and Sonia!
SONIA: Hello! I’m Sonia Hartl, author of the upcoming f/f paranormal romance The Lost Girls (think John Tucker Must Die, with vampires, but make it gay). It will be out on September 14th with Page Street. I’m thrilled to be in conversation with one of my best friends, Auriane Desombre, whose f/f romcom I Think I Love You will be out on March 2nd with Underlined! It’s a hilarious and heart warming queer take on both Emma and Much Ado, and I love it with my whole heart. I’ve read this book a few times now and I’m so excited for the rest of the world to experience the joy of falling into an Auriane story.
Auriane, I love so many scenes in I Think I Love You, what was the first one that felt fully formed in your mind before you wrote it?
AURIANE: A lot of the banter felt fully formed going into the first draft! The witty back-and-forths in Much Ado About Nothing have always been my favorite parts of the play, so I was definitely most excited about incorporating that element into my modern take. There’s also a scene between Emma and Sophia at the first film competition screening, where they let themselves get more vulnerable with each other for the first time. That scene has changed a lot since the first draft (as you know, the film competition didn’t even exist until you told me I had to add a plot during the Pitch Wars mentorship!), but the vulnerable moments in that scene have been in my head since the beginning.
“John Tucker Must Die, with vampires, but make it gay” will never not be my favorite pitch for a book. I can’t wait for this one! What was your favorite part of turning that incredible premise into a first draft?
SONIA: I think my favorite part was building that bond between the girls who had all given up their mortality for this guy. Friendship is such a complex and satisfying relationship to write, especially with these girls who should’ve been enemies (according to societal expectations anyway), and I think allowing these characters to find the humanity in each other as they learn how to forgive themselves is where the heart of The Lost Girls beats strongest.
And speaking of girls who are/should be enemies, I love how well you balanced Emma’s optimism and Sophia’s pessimism in I Think I Love You. Which girl do you relate to more? Or does that change depending on the day?
AURIANE: I definitely relate to both of them! As a rom com writer, I obviously see myself in Emma’s love of all things romance, and I’m always rooting for a happily ever after. That said, I agree with Sophia’s view that friendships are just as important as romantic love. I’m also more of a Sophia when it comes to grand gestures and rom com finales—Emma might live for a grand gesture, but I always love the quieter, more matter-of-fact declarations the best.
The friendships in The Lost Girls are some of my favorite parts of the book, and the relationships in the main friend group are to die for (Get it? A vampire joke!). I’m also fully obsessed with the world your characters live in. What was the most challenging part of creating your own twist on vampire folklore?
SONIA: I think the most challenging part was creating something new, while also being cognizant that vampires are beloved and also come with certain expectations. I enjoyed playing with known tropes, but I took a few risks too that I wasn’t always sure would resonate with readers. Ultimately, I’m very proud of the story I told, but there were times when I wasn’t sure if what I saw in my head was translating on paper.
In I Think I Love You, you have such an incredible secondary cast! What is your favorite part about writing friend groups?
AURIANE: Yay for big friend groups! I loved fleshing out all of the characters and making sure they each had an arc of their own. Since the friend group in I Think I Love You is so big (and so messy, always in each others’ business), I had a lot of fun thinking through the different relationships the individual characters have with each other within the group, and how that affects the dynamic as a whole. This friend group in particular made that process extra fun because of all the scheming and matchmaking they get up to!
The Lost Girls has such a rich cast too, and I fell deep in love with the vampire girl squad. Which character was your favorite to write? Which do you relate to the most?
SONIA: My favorite character to write was Ida, because she’s such a grumpy cynic, but also has an incredibly soft center, and I loved peeling back her layers. As for who I relate to the most, my main character Holly and her love interest Parker are the two characters who have the most pieces of me in them. There are some things I’ll only ever be able to say through characters I create, and Holly and Parker both allowed me to drain some of the poison from old wounds.
You do enemies to lovers so well (and the grumpy/sunshine dynamic is perfection), what are your favorite romance tropes? Which one haven’t you written yet that you’d like to try?
AURIANE: Enemies-to-lovers is by far my favorite! I love the banter that fits into the beginning of the trope, and all the little moments that crack a rivalry and turn it into romance are so delicious. Aside from that, I’m always a sucker for some fake dating (which is one of the many reasons I’m obsessed with your debut, Have a Little Faith in Me!). Gooiest of brownie points to any book that combines the two!
In terms of tropes I’d like to try, the greatest tragedy of my writer life is that I have yet to work in a “there’s only one bed” scenario into any of my projects! That’s definitely a situation I’d love to play with at some point in a future manuscript.
I am obsessed with every single bit of the world in your book and your take on vampires. What is your favorite worldbuilding detail?
SONIA: I think my favorite worldbuilding detail started when I was doing some research on object memory, and how holding objects allows people to recall things in more vivid detail than sight, sound, or smell. I can’t really explain it without getting into what heirlooms are and their significance in The Lost Girls, so I’ll just say that I really enjoyed playing with the psychology behind object memory.
I love how funny and warm your book is, and the way it makes me smile every time I read it! What are some of your favorite queer romcoms?
Speaking of favorite f/f books, The Lost Girls is so important in so many ways. What are you hoping readers will get out of this fabulous book?
SONIA: What I hope readers will get out of this book most is that regret is too heavy a burden to carry, and it’s okay to share it with other people and let it go. It’s okay to walk away from people who hurt you. It’s never too late to forgive yourself for mistakes. And you deserve to love and be loved, always, freely, and without demand.
AURIANE: That’s such a wonderful message! This book has my whole heart, and I can’t wait for it to capture readers’ hearts too. I’m counting down the days until I can hold my copy!
Auriane is a middle school teacher and freelance editor. She holds an MA in English Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing for Children & Young Adults. She lives in Los Angeles with her dog, Sammy, who is a certified bad boy. I Think I Love You is her debut novel.
Sonia Hartl is the author of The Lost Girls,Not Your #Lovestory, and Have a Little Faith in Me (Page Street), which received a starred review in BookPage and earned nominations for the Georgia Peach Book Award, YALSA’s Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers, Bank Street College of Education’s Best Children’s Books of the Year, and ALA’s Rise: A Feminist Book Project List. She’s also the author of an adult romcom, Heartbreak for Hire (Gallery). When she’s not writing or reading, she enjoys playing board games with her family, attempting to keep her garden alive, or looking up craft projects she’ll never get around to completing on Pinterest. She’s a member of SCBWI and was the Managing Director for Pitch Wars 2020. She lives in Grand Rapids with her husband and two daughters.
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!