Category Archives: Authors in Conversation

Authors in Conversation: Maulik Pancholy and Phil Stamper Talk Mental Health

Today is World Mental Health Day, and I’m thrilled to be celebrating it by having two wonderful gay kidlit authors discuss the representation in their book!

Maulik Pancholy (r.) is the author of the newly released The Best At It, a Middle Grade contemporary starring a gay Indian boy with OCD who’s starting seventh grade and getting used to lots of new changes, and Phil Stamper (l.) is the author of the upcoming The Gravity of Us, a contemporary YA love story between two boys who happen to be the sons of astronauts who are on the same mission to Mars. They’re here to talk about the roles mental health plays in their books, especially as it relates to queerness, pressure, and competition. Please welcome them!

Maulik: Hi Phil! I’m excited to get to do this with you. I loved The Gravity Of Us. I wanted Cal’s FlashFlame show to be real so I could actually tune in, and I was rooting for him and Leon from the first moment they met. I also lived in Houston for a year, so I related to all the characters having to deal with all that humidity! For folks who haven’t read it yet, want to give us a quick recap?

Phil: Thank you so much! A bit about my book: The Gravity of Us is a queer teen love story set against the backdrop of a present-day NASA mission to Mars. The story follows teen social media journalist Cal, whose carefully planned life is uprooted when his father is picked as an astronaut for the Orpheus missions to Mars. Amidst the chaos, and the move from Brooklyn to Houston, Cal meets the son of another astronaut on the program and finds himself falling for him—fast. But when Cal uncovers secrets about the program, he must find a way to reveal the truth without hurting the people who have become most important to him.

Do you want to give a brief rundown of The Best at It as well? It’s such a fantastic story. I love Rahul (and Chelsea! And Bhai! And the whole gang, really) and I remember having a similar need to be “the best” at something when I was his age… even if I could never quite figure out what that “something” was.

Maulik: Thanks! I’m glad it resonated with you. The Best at It is about Rahul Kapoor, a 12-year-old, Indian American boy who is just beginning to realize that he might be gay. He’s dealing with anxiety around that, and he’s also being bullied for multiple layers of his identity at school. One night, his favorite person in the whole world, his grandfather, Bhai, tells him a story that makes Rahul believe that if he’s just the best at something, all of his other problems will disappear. So with his best friend Chelsea by his side, he sets off on a mission to prove his self-worth. He’s only got two problems: What is he going to be the best at? And what if he falls short?

Phil, one of the things that I was struck by, is that in both of our books we have characters dealing with different forms or manifestations of anxiety. In your book, Becca, Cal’s mother, struggles with anxiety in a way that really hit home for me. I was drawn in by the way you described her facial expressions, and how it affected Cal to see that. Want to talk about that a bit?

Phil: Ah, that’s so great to hear. Becca’s anxiety was based off of my own experience, but it was really interesting writing Gravity from the perspective of someone who does not share those experiences. At that time, I think I was trying to be more cognizant of what happens to me and how that might affect or appear to people, and that really helped when describing the smaller physical manifestations of her anxiety.

Cal’s mom was such an interesting character, because I wanted to play against the “perfect astronaut wife” trope of the 60s. While she still knows there’s an expectation of her to be polished, steady, and camera-ready when it comes to the media circus of the launch, she gets to break down some of those expectations with Cal and her family, because she’s so open and clear about her experience with anxiety.

While we’re on the topic of mental health, one thing about The Best at It that stuck with me was how naturally Rahul’s experience with probable OCD was “revealed” on the page. Oftentimes with mental health in media, especially with OCD rep, we get something that’s a little less nuanced, but the way it was shown in your story made his experience seem so authentic and relatable. How did you choose to show this throughout the story?

Maulik: Rahul’s behaviors in the book are similar to some of the “checking” behaviors that I dealt with as a kid, and honestly still do as an adult. In my experience, those behaviors presented in different ways. Sometimes it was just checking something, like a lock, in a seemingly absent-minded manner, not really aware of the impulse why. Sometimes it was having an overwhelming feeling that something bad would happen if I didn’t check something, repeatedly. That dread of, “Is the stove really off? Am I SURE?” And, for me, these patterns were certainly triggered–and intensified–by stress, including emotional stress.

I’m hearing from middle school teachers that they see more and more kids dealing with anxiety. So, I didn’t want to shy away from this in the book. I also wrote the scene between Rahul and his father to model the kinds of conversations that I think adults and kids can be having around this.

For Rahul, his checking escalates as the level of competition in the book grows. In your book, Leon is dealing with depression related to the competitive world of Olympic athletics. Would you say that Leon is affected by competition in a similar way to Rahul?

Phil: That’s an interesting comparison, because I do think Leon and Rahul have a similar experience in that competition is a trigger for them. Gymnastics is a really intense sport that is full of pressure, and Leon’s response to that pressure was to pull back, to withdraw from the world and sort of shame himself for feeling this way, even if he couldn’t control it. That said, Leon’s a few years older than Rahul, and he is more-or-less removed from his Olympic trajectory by the time we get to meet him, even if the media conveniently forgets that on occasion.

Not a big spoiler here, but in the end, Leon finds a way to rekindle his passion for gymnastics, without subjecting himself to the pressure of competition. Similarly, and hopefully not a spoiler, but Rahul realizes that finding something you love and doing it until you get better is a better fit for him than competing. Does it mean that Leon and Rahul no longer experience depression or probable OCD, respectively? No, of course not.

But I do think it’s really important that both of these characters are learning more about themselves so they can hopefully better communicate that to their loved ones. Pivoting back to Cal for a moment—while I think Leon actually has a grasp on how to best avoid triggers like pressure and the spotlight, Cal’s kind of torn. He’s used to being in the spotlight, and he wants to be the one to break any and every news story, but he really gets himself into a mess in Houston, and you can really see the pressure and people’s expectations getting to him.

The more I think about it, Cal’s and Rahul’s stories both deal heavily with competition and perfection. With Rahul though, he’s experiencing this need for perfection all while trying to understand more about his queer identity. How do you think this affects his competitive nature?

Maulik: Rahul’s perfectionism and his need to win are 100% about proving his self-worth in a world where being different makes him feel less than. And his queer identity is one layer of that for sure. I just want to say, though, that it was important to me not to pathologize being gay. His mental health struggles are not because he’s gay. It’s the feeling less than, the wanting to fit in, that is stressful for him. And I think there’s something universal about that. What kid–or even adult–hasn’t felt like an outsider at some point?

Speaking of which, I think empathy for other people’s experiences really comes through in both our books, even if the characters themselves aren’t always perfect at expressing it. Rahul’s Dad doesn’t have all the language to talk about OCD, and in your book, you write about Leon’s parents choosing not to push the conversation around depression. In fact, it’s Leon’s sister, Kat, who’s a real ally to her brother. And Cal, of course, has Deb much in the same way Rahul has Chelsea. Was there a reason you wrote such great allies in the form of siblings and friends?

Phil: I guess I’ve written some really great allies and supporting characters, because the amount of comments I get about wanting to see more of Kat or Deb are astounding! Deb is loosely based around one of my best friends from high school, and she was so much fun to write. In the book, she’s the steadfast ally any queer kid would want, but I wanted to make sure she had her own story, her own arc, and didn’t exist solely for the benefit of Cal. So, I got to play with the boundaries of allyship and best friendship a bit. I also got to reflect on my own selfish tendencies, especially while I was in high school, and show how an ally can both offer unfaltering support about you and your identity while also being there to tell you to shut up when you’re out of line!

From our personal experiences with mental health, identity, and even the friendships we’ve had, it looks like we’ve both put a lot of ourselves into our debut novels. Would you like to talk briefly about why you chose to do this?

Maulik: Sure. The characters in my book go on a journey: they change, and they learn things about themselves. And maybe that allows readers to see themselves more clearly as well. What I really wanted was to tell a great story–grounded in reality, with both humor and pathos–and to hold up a mirror for kids who deserve to see themselves in the books they read. I guess that’s why I was willing to be so personal: I wanted to write a book that I could have used as a kid. But I have to say, it’s been gratifying to hear how many people–with experiences far different than mine–have made their own connections to Rahul’s story.

Phil: That’s fantastic. I set out to showcase a queer love story in a unique setting, so the feedback from the romance between Cal and Leon has been amazing. Less intentionally, though, I leaned on my own experiences with mental health while creating characters like Leon and Cal’s mother, and it’s been great to see readers connecting to that too.

I’m so glad we got to chat about this, Maulik! It’s been great getting to know a little bit more about your experience developing and writing The Best at It, and I can’t wait for readers everywhere to get their hands on a copy. And super special thanks to Dahlia and LGBTQ Reads for hosting us!

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Buy The Best At It: B&N | Amazon | IndieBound

Preorder The Gravity of UsB&N | Amazon | IndieBound

Authors In Conversation: Amber Smith and Mason Deaver

Don’t you just love when authors buddy up to talk about their work? I certainly do! So I’m thrilled to have the authors of two new queer YAs chatting on the site today about their books, experiences, and character choices.

Amber Smith’s Something Like Gravity releases today, and you can find out more about it here. If you’re a follower of the blog, you’re already well familiar with Mason Deaver’s I Wish You All the Best, which was our May New Release Spotlight! Get to know both authors and books by reading on!

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AMBER: I’m so excited to have the chance to chat with you, Mason (and by the way, we are here together in person at one of our favorite local coffee shops right now, so caffeine is definitely fueling this conversation!)

417ThF0vLVL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_I first remember seeing tons of buzz about your debut, I Wish You All the Best last year, and I was so interested, especially because our books had some similarities (both are first love stories that feature a gender nonconforming protagonist). And when I looked you up, I couldn’t believe we both lived in Charlotte, North Carolina! So I promptly sent you a DM on Twitter to ask if we could meet up – I love connecting with other authors, and you were so gracious to meet me for coffee – we talked about lots of things that first time we met: books and writing, LGBTQ stuff, life in general, being in the South.

I moved to NC about ten years ago after having lived my whole life up North. But you’ve lived in NC your whole life… So I’m curious, what was your experience like growing up queer in the South?

MASON: Very weird, growing up there weren’t a lot of openly queer people at my schools, and those that were, were considered the ‘weird kids’ and so part of me always repressed that sort of thing. The South definitely has a reputation when it comes to queer people, especially queer teens, I think. What was it like for you? I know you grew up in New York, so that must’ve been a big departure from what you knew.

AMBER: Yes, it was a pretty big culture shock for me at first (not to mention the humidity down here!). It’s strange, even though I grew up in a more liberal environment in New York, I had a similar experience with there not being any queer people who were out at my high school (I am also, eh-hmm, a bit older than you, so I was in high school a lot longer ago than you were). But I still didn’t feel comfortable coming out to my family until years later as an adult. When I finally did come out to my mom, she was so supportive and accepting, but I remember her telling me that had I come out to her when I was a teenager (a decade or so earlier), she wasn’t sure she would’ve taken it so well. I think people’s perspectives can evolve and change with time.

What about you, Mason? What was your coming out experience like?

MASON: Whew boy, you know, speaking to the liberal environment for just a second. It’s been funny moving to a city in the South that is considered more ‘liberal’ and ‘open-minded’ but still being afraid to really be who I am. Which I think may just be the fear for any queer person no matter where they live or what environment they grew up in. But coming out is still a weird thing for me. I have friends who know, and people in my life who I’m comfortable telling, but it’s still very much a new thing. I’ve never officially come out to any of my family, and when it comes to introducing myself to strangers, I’m still in a place where I don’t tell them right away, like a defense mechanism of sort, which is feel is a very familiar feeling for loads of trans people.

AMBER: Oh yes, I totally get that! For so many years, I didn’t feel safe being out to anyone except a very close circle of friends, and while I will be forever grateful for their love and support, it made my world feel very small. I think you’re right, we still live in a time where so many queer people (especially when you live in the South, like you and I) have to be really mindful of our surroundings. I hate that I still have to check in on my own safety before holding my partner’s hand in public or simply saying “I love you” or calling her “honey” if I know people might overhear. But this is still a reality for so many of us.

Which makes me think of I Wish You All the Best – you chose to have your main character, Ben, not come out to their new classmates. What was it that influenced your decision to have Ben go back in the closet?

MASON: That was a very tough decision to make, because you want the best for your characters, right? And you don’t want them to have to go through anything harsh, but a character going back into the closet was something I’d never seen in any book before. But I’ve been there before, basically feeling like I have an arm or a leg out there, but still mostly firmly being in the closet or totally going back in around certain people or places. It all goes back to that defense mechanism thing, this way we have to protect ourselves. Which sucks because this is such a vital part of who we are, but for a lot of queer people, it comes down to either being ourselves, or surviving.

AMBER: Such a good point, Mason. I feel like “coming out” is often perceived as like this monumental before and after divide in a queer person’s life, but the reality is, we have to come out over and over again, when we meet new people, or making the decision to correct someone when they make a wrong assumption about our identities. I can’t even count how many times I’ve been asked about my husband or boyfriend, and sometimes it just doesn’t feel worth it (or wise) to correct them.

I had to make a similar decision with my main character, Chris, in Something Like Gravity, who is struggling with whether or not he will come out to his love interest, Maia. 41139667He wants to be honest and show his true self, but is also afraid of losing the relationship, or something even worse happening if he reveals himself. While I’m not transgender, I’ve had to weigh similar options over and over in my life. And you’re right, it does suck!

If you had to say what you think the most important step/things that we can all be doing to move the needle towards all queer people being safe and accepted, what would it be?

MASON: Oh, I feel that ‘constantly coming out’ thing. It’s never a one and done kind of thing. When you’re queer (visibly or otherwise) you’re constantly weighing in your head, picking your battles and deciding whether or not it’s worth it.

That’s something I loved about Something Like Gravity, was Chris’ decisions. Because it’s hard to trust people, even the people you think you can assume the best of, or even love. There are so many moments where Ben wants to come out to Nathan, but doesn’t. Because there are so many alarms going off in your head like do you really know this person? Will they really react the way you want?

As for moving the needle? I think we’re already doing so much. Publishing is at the height of queer inclusion, I think. Not to say there isn’t more work to do, there are still so many chances that haven’t been given to queer authors of color, or disabled queer authors (or any intersection of the three), but I also feel that we’re steadily moving towards the right place. It’s just taking us a long time to get there unfortunately.

AMBER: Yes, I couldn’t agree more! When I look at where things were when I was a teenager (some twenty years ago now!) there were practically zero queer books out there, and I mean, YA was barely a genre yet, so there has been so much progress. It is very encouraging to see so many new and diverse voices being embraced. There is truly nothing more powerful than sharing our stories and experiences.

And that’s one of the things I loved so much about I Wish You All the Best – that it isn’t just a coming out story, but it’s also a love story. Ben and Nathan’s relationship was so beautiful and felt so real; the way they each gradually opened up to one another and earned each other’s trust was so natural. Was the love story thread always such a prominent part of the book, or was it something that developed as you were writing?

MASON: Well Ben and Nathan have always been Ben and Nathan (or BeNathan, which was a happy accident). In my head they’ve always been destined to be there for one another, it’s always been Ben and Nathan for me. I think it’s so important that we showcase queer teens living and thriving. Getting their love interest, accomplishing their goals, getting the chance to live happy lives.

And for me, there’s no doubt that Ben and Nathan live a happy life together. They’re meant for each other, and I don’t like the idea of them ever being separated from one another. I see a lot of tweets about how it’s more realistic to show people breaking up, that high school relationships hardly last past graduation. And while I think those stories are definitely needed and wanted, with Ben and Nathan I want them to have a happily ever after. I think they deserve it.

What about you? What inspired this love thread through Something Like Gravity? Your other books have handled pretty heavy topics, so was it tough to find a balance between the two in this latest book?

AMBER: BeNathan – I love that (you totally need to start a hashtag!) I agree, I think it’s just as important to show both sides of experience as a queer person: the challenges and hardships, but also the joys and triumphs. I actually started writing Chris and Maia’s stories as two separate books at first. Chris’s story was primarily about his journey with coming out as trans (and a lot of the problems and heartache he was going through because of it). Maia’s story was all about her grief over her sister’s death and trying to rediscover who she was going to be.

I was working on their stories at the same time, but at a certain point they just became too bleak, and I thought about giving each of them a love interest as a way to lighten things up a bit…but then it hit me: Chris and Maia would be perfect for each other! And so, I started re-writing their stories as one book, and I’m so glad that I did. Writing SLG was good for my soul. I loved being able to show a more positive aspect of a queer life through a respectful, loving, romantic relationship.

So, on that note, what’s next for you? Do you plan to continue writing queer characters and storylines?

MASON: Definitely, I remember times even when I was in high school not having a lot of queer books to pick from. And even the ones that were there weren’t… we’ll say the best. I’ve got a second book in the works, and I’d love to venture into middle grade at some point with a few ideas. More queer stories all around, I really can’t imagine writing a book with a non-queer main character haha.

What about you? Any future plans you can talk about with us here or is everything hush hush?

AMBER: Ha, yes I know exactly what you mean! Now that I’m finally out in both my life and in my writing, I have no intention of going back into the closet! It’s still a little hush hush, but I can say that I plan on continuing queer representation in my books – I’m toying with some different genres and formats myself, including (fingers crossed) a middle grade novel, as well.

Okay, my last question for you is a fun one: Since we love getting together for coffee, what do you think Ben and Nathan’s favorite drinks on the menu here would be?

MASON: Oh I like this, unfortunately it won’t be some super fancy coffee drink, Ben would definitely go for a Limonade Classique (can you tell we’re in a French inspired café?) I guess there’s just something about the color yellow that calls to them, I don’t know.

As for Nathan, he’d be the most extra. Like more sugar that actual caffeine or coffee. So he’d pick a Salted Caramel Brownie Café Mocha. That kid’s dentist is going to have a field day. What about Chris and Maia? What are their drinks of choice?

AMBER: Ah yes, very good choices, Ben and Nathan! I think Chris (being a Northerner like me) would love the Café Fouetté – a fancy French iced espresso drink – he would need the caffeine to keep up with all of the overthinking and over planning and worrying he likes to do on the long drives he takes in his old clunker of a car. But Maia (who is a North Carolinian) is a bit more low-key than Chris, a little more laid back, so I think she’d go for something more subtle and sweet, like Lavender + Honey Soda.

Well, that’s it for our coffee talk – thank you Mason, and HUGE thanks to Dahlia Adler and LGBTQ Reads for having us!

Amber and Mason

Mason Deaver is a non-binary author and librarian in a small town in North Carolina where the word ‘y’all’ is used in abundance. 

When they aren’t writing or working, they’re typically found in their kitchen baking something that’s bad for them, or out in their garden complaining about the toad that likes to dig holes around their hydrangeas.

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Amber Smith is the New York Times bestselling author of the young adult novels The Way I Used to BeThe Last to Let Go, and Something Like Gravity. An advocate for increased awareness of gendered violence, as well as LGBTQ equality, she writes in the hope that her books can help to foster change and spark dialogue surrounding these issues. She grew up in Buffalo, New York, and now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with her partner and their ever-growing family of rescued dogs and cats. You can find her online at AmberSmithAuthor.com.

Authors in Conversation: Greg Howard and Lev “L.C.” Rosen

This year adds some particularly wonderful and nuanced books to gay YA, and I’m so excited to have authors of two of them on the site today! When Greg Howard, author of Social Intercourse (which releases today!), contacted me about writing something for the site about sex in gay YA and the disparities and perceptions related to it, I immediately thought of Lev “L.C.” Rosen, whose Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) releases in October and deals with those things a lot. So I asked them to read each other’s books and discuss for the benefit of all of us, and here they are!

36373456Lev: Hi Greg! I’ve been avoiding you on social media because I knew we’d end up talking about one another’s books, and I was trying to save that for this, so now we can let loose. Your book, Social Intercourse, opens with out-and-proud Beck trying to lose his virginity on what is essentially grindr. I loved that opening, and I was totally revving up for a queer American Pie style book (or, something like Not Another Gay Movie), but then you actually went in this sweeter direction—much more John Hughes. And I kept thinking about how Hughes’ films were fairly explicit for the time, while also being really sweet and romantic, and how you captured that spirit. So I guess my first question is—were you inspired by Hughes at all?  Do you think that writing queer YA is sometimes about trying to capture those experiences that prior straight generations had, in terms of the stories they told?  Hughes was, on some level, revolutionary in how explicit he was, but all his stories were straight. We never got to see ourselves in stories like those—are you trying to fix that?

Greg: Hey, Lev! I’ve been so excited to talk to you. Those are some interesting observations. When I first starting writing Social Intercourse, I did think the story was going to go in a different direction as you describe. But you know how it goes when characters take control of the story. The have a mind of their own! While Beck is out and proud and completely confident with who he is, there’s a vulnerability there that’s undeniable and sweet. And now that you mention it, (and I swear I didn’t realize this before), but I can see the John Hughes-esque similarities, but in a queer way. I grew up watching those movies—The Breakfast ClubPretty In PinkSome Kind of Wonderful, et al, and yes, I always wished there was a LGBTQ equivalent. Even though I didn’t set out to accomplish that, I hope I did in some way. LGBTQ kids today need to see themselves represented in books and in movies. All of them, not just one type of queer kid.

What I love about my Beck and your Jack is that they are bold characterizations of gay boys that we don’t see very often taking center stage in YA lit and movies. They don’t blend in. They’re not straight-acting  and they’re not afraid of exploring their sexuality. I swear I laughed so many times reading your book, Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts), thinking “OMG! Beck and Jack are like twins separated at birth, one sent to live in New York and the other sent to live in South Carolina!” Jack is such a great character, and I love how sex positive he is. But I’ve learned with SI that there’s a bit of a double standard when it comes to het YA and LGBTQ YA as far as how far you can go. Did you get any push-back from your editor or agent to tone it down, or to pull back on some of Jack’s narrative about his sex life? And did you set out to show a queer boy who embraces his feminine side and so confident in his sexuality? Any similarities between Jack and your teenage self?

Lev: So many questions!

35442720It’s funny, though I get what you’re saying about Beck and Jack—they’re both out and don’t mind wearing makeup—to me Beck is such a romantic, and Jack definitely isn’t.  Beck might be trying to lose his virginity to some dude on grindr, but he says he wishes he could lose it to a real boyfriend who he has feelings for.  Jack is way past the losing his virginity stage and didn’t lose it to a boyfriend—didn’t want to. He’s had plenty of sex, but just one boyfriend, and isn’t in any rush to repeat that.  His best friend, Ben, on the other hand, is a total romantic, like Beck.  I think Beck and Ben are more the twins.  But they’re still really different, too.  And that’s important.  It’s so important for teens to see a variety of queer men in the world—there’s no wrong way to be gay.  That’s why I put in so many queer characters.  To show that everyone has their own way of being queer.

As for my editor, I was shocked, but no, she never asked me to pull it back.  There’s one sex advice column towards the end that gets into some kinky stuff, and I put that in basically assuming she would be like “nope, too far”—I even had a backup column ready!  But she had no problem with it.  It was amazing.  The whole thing has been kind of amazing.  I wrote 99 pages of this in a strange furor, because I really wanted to explore the idea of “the good gay”—the way liberal straight society says they’re okay with queer people, but really they just mean queer people who behave to certain standards.  In teens, that usually means sweet, romantic hand holding and a little making out—cute, essentially. Cute couples for straight society to go “awww” over and feel good about because it makes them feel accepting. But put an unapologetically slutty teenage gay boy in front of them, and suddenly it’s like “are you sure you’re making the right decisions?” or “maybe if you weren’t so in-your-face about it.”  Queerness is acceptable to cisheteropatriarchal society within a set of limits – but go outside those limits and you become a “bad gay”—somehow who is broken, or self-hating, or just bad, and frowned upon.  That’s what I really wanted to talk about.

So I write these 99 pages, in like a week or two, but I have this rule: once I pass the 99 page mark, I have to finish the book.  Luckily, I’m friends with Alvina Ling, who edited one of my previous books, and I asked her if she would read these 99 pages and tell me if I should just stop, because it would never get published. I literally said “I think it might be a terrible idea.”  So, she read them, and when she finished she said “have your agent send these pages to me officially.” So I didn’t have any pushback, ever. Alvina may have though, because I think that the conversation about sex and YA and queer sex and YA is one that’s happening a lot in the editor/gatekeeper/reader.

There have been more and more YA books with gay sex.  Look at Release, by Patrick Ness. That has quite the gay sex scene in it, but, and this is the interesting thing: you don’t hear about it that much. And that’s the thing editors are looking out for. There’s a double-standard about sex and queer sex in YA, but it’s not coming from writers. It’s coming from what books people are talking about. And part of that might be gatekeepers—gay books of any kind (with sex or not) are challenged and banned FAR more often than straight books with sex. And when that happens, publishers see it and go “oh, gay sex doesn’t sell” and then even if they love some queer sex-heavy YA, getting it through acquisitions becomes much more difficult.  Queer books have to make up for that banning and pushback by gathering fans elsewhere, which isn’t easy.

I feel like the good fight is happening with editors and publicists, and all we can do is give them the weapons to fight with.  Readers need to flock behind books with gay sex to get more of them, need to shout about them from the rooftops and tell everyone they know… but readers, even queer ones, are often nervous about saying “I loved this book with teens having gay sex!” Which I get, adults talking about teens having sex is weird.  But with abstinence only education on the rise again, maybe it’s time we start talking more about sex, gay sex, and teenagers having safe, consensual sex.  Otherwise, kids won’t be hearing about sex from anywhere except from porn sites.

Personally, I’d love to hear about how it’s going for our editors and publicists, though, the ones who have to push for the books even when these things are harder to talk about. (Perhaps a good followup Dahlia?) (Blogger’s Note: EXTREMELY HERE FOR IT.)

As for me in high school, no, I was not much like Jack.  My high school was like Jack’s though: a private school in Manhattan with an emphasis on ethics.  It was only like five years ago I was there, of course, but there weren’t as many of us out students (my old teachers who still work there tell me that now over 20% of the student body identifies as some kind of queer). So I don’t know who I’d be were I a student there today, but then, I was way more like Jeremy, Jack’s ex, and president of the GSA. I was GSA co-head, and like Jeremy, I was concerned that anything other queer men did would reflect on me, and so I wanted them all to behave in a way that would make sure people took us (me) seriously.

That was always my big issue—if you acted “too gay,” then I felt like no one took anything you said seriously.  I also always felt like people were trying to make me act more “gay,” too—even other queer people—and I don’t respond well to being told what to do (what teenager does?), so I tried to avoid that.  I remember there was an article in Vogue or something when I was in high school about how every girl needed a gay BFF, and it talked about us like we were purses, like we were actual accessories for straight women.  And after that article came out, girls I hadn’t been friendly at all with suddenly were talking to me and trying to be my friend.  That made me so angry.  I’m still fucking angry.  Anger wrote this book.

How about you?  Any pushback from your editor on the sexier stuff in the book?  I was most surprised by the masturbation scene.  We don’t see a lot of that—much less asshole fingering—in YA, and it was definitely the most graphic moment in your book.  Is that because it was the one scene they let you keep?  Was there any pushback on it?

And was either Beck or Jax based on your own teenager-hood?  You’re from the south, I know, but did you go to a lot of Drag Queen Beauty Parlors as a kid?  Did you have a drag name?

Greg: I guess you’re right about Beck having some Ben in him too. (I was crushing on Ben, big time.) In my book, Beck wants to be get his slutty phase out of the way so he can be ready for Mr. Right down the road. And Jax, the closeted bi-sexual football star obviously complicates matters for him. Beck is terribly attracted to Jax but really doesn’t want to be, so he fights it.

And I think that’s so interesting that you identified more as the Jeremy in your book when you were in high school. I like to say, Beck is the kid I wish I had been in high school. I graduated a few years (*ahem*) before you, and honestly I didn’t know of one out gay person in my high public school of 1500 students. I knew of some that were in the closet like me, but I was also busy trying to “pray the gay away.” I came from a very religious home and one of those small Southern towns with a church on every street corner. That’s why religion plays such a prominent role in Social Intercourse. Even so, I had a great high school experience, and was popular—but only because I hid who I really was. I dated girls and fooled around with other closeted guys on the side, and then felt guilty and prayed to God for forgiveness. It was an icky and unhealthy cycle. And newsflash: “Praying the gay away” doesn’t work!

I was unagented when I wrote Social Intercourse, so during the querying process, I received several requests for additional pages and the full manuscript, but I also got several “this is too much for YA” kind of responses, which I found perplexing. I didn’t think my book was very racy at all. Not compared to some cishetero YA romances. Luckily I found the perfect agent who “got it” right away and helped me polish it—but not tone it down. I told her I didn’t want to water it down and she was okay with that. When she started submitting the manuscript to editors, we got a similar response. “Hilarious, love the writing, love the voice, but might be too much for us to publish.” Again—me—perplexed. Other than the one gay masturbation scene and the one het oral sex scene, there’s no sex on the page! Sure there’s a lot for frank discussion about sex, and that anal masturbation scene is kind of graphic, but come on—that’s it!

Fortunately David Gale at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers also “got it” right away and made a pre-empt offer pretty quickly. So props to our publishers Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers and Little, Brown! And no—David never asked me to tone down the racy bits. I don’t know if he received any pushback internally. If he did, he never told me about it. But we had the discussion and he agreed that yes—there is a double standard when it comes to LGBTQ YA and cishetero YA.

I also learned about yet another double standard. A straight female writer can go “a lot farther” with gay stories in regards to sex than an Own Voices author. Somehow it’s deemed “safer” when a straight woman writes it, and when it comes from a gay male writer, it’s perceived as more “subversive”.  I had several professionals and established authors in the publishing industry confirm that to me also. Nobody was saying it was right…just that yes—it’s a thing. But I feel that it’s as much as reader issue as a “gatekeeper” one. Some non-queer readers want safe, sweet, romanticized representations of queer kids like you said. Gay men tend to write more from their own experiences which is a little too raw, real, and authentic for some readers.

I have a very liberal straight female friend who loved Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda and was trying to convince her very conservative friend who was leery of the gay content, to let her teen daughter read it—who was dying to. And it was only when my liberal friend told her conservative friend that the book was written by a straight woman, that she let her daughter read it. Ugh! But at least that kid got to read the book. But you’re right, I think it is slowly getting better from the publishing end of things and hopefully readers will love and support characters like Jack and Beck, just as much as they love Becky Albertalli’s Simon if they give them a chance. And I do think writers like Becky Albertalli are opening mainstream doors for us Own Voices writers, which I know is important to Becky, so I say thank you and more power to her and those like her.

And I will be honest, when I was in high school, I didn’t even know what a drag queen was, much less have a drag name! I only “came out to myself” after college when I moved to Nashville and a drag show was my first gay bar experience (at 23 y/o). I remember thinking what the hell is this?! But I felt right at home in that bar, with those other LGBTQ people…something I’d never felt before and that was powerful.

And speaking of feeling right at home, I love that both Beck and Jax have supportive parents in Social Intercourse. That was pure fantasy for me when writing the book. I wish I would have had a relationship with my dad like Beck has with his. And I loved the relationship between Jack and his mom in your book. So real. So easy. So loving. Also, Beck and Jack both have some great, supportive close friends. Beck’s best friend Shelby is amalgamation of my three best friends now. Were Jack’s close relationships inspired by yours with your parent(s) and friends when you were a teen?

Lev: I’m so sorry you had to go through all that. I’m lucky in that I skipped over most of the shame/fear parts of coming out and went right to the angry. I was in a liberal environment, my parents and friends were generally great about it, it was the folks who didn’t really know me—the ones who watched me and assumed things about me – that I had the biggest issue with.  I did go to an orthodox temple, where the rabbi told me homosexuality was immature and something people needed to get over (not knowing I was gay), but I was able to give up on going there after my bar-mitzvah. It did fuck up my relationship with Judaism for a while, but I don’t know how that could have been avoided.

When I moved to Ohio for college, that’s when I experienced more of the fear of being openly queer in the world.  It’s not like New York is a bubble—I still get people shouting “faggot” on the street at me—but I never feel like I’m entering enemy territory here.  Maybe because I grew up here. But Ohio, and other rural places I’ve visited—that’s where I get that fear feeling. I change the way I walk, lower my voice. If it feels like a place that would be unfriendly to Jews, I change my name to Lee, too. Growing up with that must have been really terrible. Especially if you thought prayer was going to help. Being gay is a gift.

But, getting less somber—that story about your friend’s friend only giving her daughter Simon when she found out it was written by a woman is FASCINATING.  I just did an interview with i-D about m/m ownvoices in YA and why they’re important. What I said was that when straight people write queer characters, they do so seeing queer people through a “straight gaze”—and they’re pretty much writing them for other straight people. They’re telling our stories for themselves, and we become these adorable little puppets they can project things onto—lust, pity, whatever. It’s objectifying. And then those are the stories that are out there—the ones little queers see, the ones straight people see and use to form their opinions about queer people. We become objects and then no one has a chance to see our humanity. And maybe that humanity, as you say, is too real, too raw, and that’s what straight folks are afraid of. That they’ll see what this world really is like for us, instead of for these symbols of us. Seeing someone else’s humanity when you’re part of a society that crushes that humanity can be a terrible thing.

I don’t mind straight people writing queer characters—that’s diversity, and it can be good when done with love and sensitivity readers. But when they take on specifically queer stories, before any of us have a chance to tell those stories from our POV? It’s cutting in line.  It’s usurping our stories for their puppet shows. And it ain’t cool. I hope you can smuggle a copy of your book to that girl who was so eager to read Simon.

I loved how you distinguished between the types of Christianitys (Christianities?)—how there were loving Christians who had no problem with queer folks, but there were also the ones with the signs and the angry faces (we had those in Ohio) who protested a dance. You didn’t just say “Christians are bad”—you said “these Christians are bad.” I feel like that’s a nuance we don’t often see when we talk about religion and queerness. If it’s not too personal, have you found a sort of Christianity that works for you? That doesn’t ask you to pray anything away?  Or do you think that upbringing really screwed up your relationship with religion?  Do you think there is a way to be happy, Christian and queer?

I’m glad you brought up the parents in your book, though, because Jax’s mom?  I was SO angry at her. Beck’s dad was great, and JoJo was amazing, but Jax’s mom was outing her son all over the place! I kept yelling at her “you’re queer! You should know this isn’t cool!” What made you want to write that kind of a character—one who’s perhaps so supportive they end up being harmful?  Because I found her fascinating, even as I felt she needed a scolding.  You know any moms like that?  It’s so interesting, as we get more supportive parents, I’m curious about where the line is between supportive—and too supportive. Where do you think it is?

Jack’s mom in Jack of Hearts isn’t at all inspired by my parents. My parents are supportive (fun fact: they’ve read the book), but I don’t think either of them ever partied at Studio 54.  Jack’s mom really came from a desire for a cool mom, who wouldn’t mind her son writing a sex advice column, but not so cool that she’d brush off him hiding a stalker from her.  Someone Jack felt a need to protect, on some level.  All of Jack’s friends have parts of people I know, but I didn’t consciously think “I shall base this person on that one” or anything.  Jeremy was kind of me, like I said, but so is Ben, and so is Jenna… everyone is me.  I write from a place of pure narcissism. But I think we all do, to some degree.

Greg: Wow. Sounds like you had your own interesting journey with religion and being gay as well. I did finally reconcile my faith with my sexuality and what a burden lifted that was. If you believe in God talking to you, it was kind of like hearing them say “Well, duh. Of course there’s nothing wrong with you. I made you perfectly.” But alas, the older I get, the more agnostic I become. But I absolutely believe there is a place in the Christian church for LGBTQ people. And I knows lots of happy queer Christians. We have several Christian churches here in Nashville that are open, welcoming, and affirming to the LGBTQ community. And I’m SO glad you didn’t think the message in my book was that all Christians are bad or that Christianity, in general, was bad. That was not my intent at all. But I guess is was important for me to show the “good” Christians, who are truly about love and compassion and core principles of the teachings of Christ. So many queer people were hurt by the church and the “bad” Christians get all the press, so that’s all some queer people see of the church—the hate.

But, getting less religiousy—just like there are all types of queer teens, there are all kinds of parents of queer teens. And like you said, as we get more supportive parents out there, it’s breaking new ground and some are figuring it out as they go. They just know they love and support their kids. So with Beck’s mom and dad, and with Jax’s moms, I wanted to show supportive parents, but different types of support! Beck’s dad, Roger and Jax’s mom, JoJo get it right most all the time, Beck’s mom, Lana is supportive, but she doesn’t always get it right. Poor Tracee, Jax’s other mom, tries a little too hard, but she means well. And she has quite the story arc herself. I get why you had such a strong negative reaction to her and so does Beck in the story.

Okay now, I HAVE to ask you about those letters and columns! WOW. Bravo to you for going balls to the walls on those. (no pun intended). I believe I read in the acknowledgments that you had a little input or got some ideas from friends, right?  Did like your friends ask you some questions then you formulated the emails to Jack and his responses? Any first hand experiences sprinkled in those letters or columns? (Okay—that’s probably too personal). But tell me EVERYTHING about that part of the process of writing this book.

Oh—and by the way—that fourteen-year-old girl who wanted to read Simon so badly, my friend talked her mom into bringing her to my launch party for Social Intercourse!

Lev: Okay, that’s an amazing happy ending for the Story of the Girl Who Wanted to Read Simon.  I am thrilled, please send me photos of you giving her a copy of the book and her subsequent review.

As for the letters and columns, many I came up with on my own, but I did also crowdsource actual questions.  Usually, they were short, and I made them into big longer questions.  So, the one from the guy who wants to sleep around but keeps developing crushes on his one night stands? That was just someone asking “how can I not fall in love with every guy I fuck?” I switched the sexes around, because I wanted to play with some toxic masculinity tropes, and made it into a longer letter, but the inspiration came from a friend.

Some of my friends’ teen kids asked questions, too.  I got the asexuality one from one of them.  I didn’t get to every question people asked (some I didn’t think Jack would have the answer to, especially if they were more vaginally focused), but I definitely wanted to reach out and get questions from teens or people who had been teens because I think even as adults these days we have a lot of questions.

One of the things they say in the book is there’s no talk of queer sex in sex-ed classes, and with kids coming out earlier and earlier, that’s an issue.  They can figure out the basic premise of giving a blowjob, but if they want to try anal sex?  That’s more complicated, and if they’re only getting sex-ed from porn, it is not going to go how they think it will.

Did you see the article in the Times magazine a while back about teens learning so much sex stuff from porn?  It’s fascinating and kind of terrifying, too.  And that’s for straight porn, which admittedly has different issues, but I think about gay teens going “okay, sex for us MUST be anal, and spit will be a fine lubricant.”  So I definitely wanted to cover some of the basics, too, to counteract that idea of easy porn sex.  And I brought in a sex-educator to help me make sure nothing Jack said was actively harmful.  I didn’t want him to give perfect advice, but I wanted to make sure it was still solid, working advice.  But writing the questions was fun.  Writing Jack answering the questions was fun, too, because he’s finding his voice there, and he’s really in control of his own narrative for once, instead of being the subject of gossip about how slutty he is.

I really wanted Jack to control the stories of his own sex life, so I fade to black for most sex scenes, but then tell his stories through the column. I wanted to show him really controlling his own sexual narrative.  And I’m going to control my own sexual narrative by saying I won’t be talking about my sex life, but I’m sure people will assume Jack’s experiences are based on mine.  Which is hilarious, since so much of the book is about not assuming things about peoples sex lives. I did have a bunk-bed, though.

So, I think we should wrap this up before people get bored, But thank you for having us and let us ramble, Dahlia!  And as my final question, I know I’m just starting to get ready for Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) coming out at the end of October, and I have some other projects I can’t talk about, but you’re about to launch! You have a launch party you said, anything else coming up?  I think I read you sold a middle-grade book, too?

Greg: That is all so fascinating to me. You did a superb job on the both the letters to Jack and his columns. It really was a breath of fresh (and as you said, much needed) air for queer YA.

Well – I call foul on this “some other projects I can’t talk about” business. But I get it, and I look forward to when you can share more. I am SO excited for Jack, Ben, and Jenna to get out into the world and I will be cheering you on every step of the way.

As for me, yes, my launch party for Social Intercourse is fast approaching and I have a few other upcoming events related to that release. And you alluded to my debut middle grade book coming up. It’s called The Whispers and will be published by Putnam/Penguin some time in the Spring of 2019. (Available for pre-order now!) It’s completely different from Social Intercourse, focusing on a queer eleven-year-old boy who’s mother goes missing and he seeks out mythical wood creatures called the Whispers, who he believes can help him find her. It has hints of magical realism and fantasy while also being firmly rooted in the reality of the deep South. It’s the most personal story I’ve ever written, and even so, I can’t wait to share it with the world. Because, yes, Virginia, there ARE queer eleven-year-olds!

Thanks, Lev. It’s been a real pleasure speaking with you. Good luck!  And thanks Dahlia for letting us ramble!

Lev: Yes, thanks so much Dahlia!  And thank you, Greg! It was a lot of fun!</p>

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15640212Greg Howard grew up near the coast of South Carolina, or as he fondly refers to it, “the armpit of the American South.” By the time he could afford professional therapy and medication, the damage had already been done. His hometown of Georgetown, South Carolina is known as the “Ghost Capital of the South,” (seriously…there’s a sign), and was always a great source of material for his overactive imagination.

Raised in a staunchly religious home, Greg escaped into the arts: singing, playing piano, acting, writing songs, and making up stories. After running away to the bright lights and big city of Nashville, Tennessee with stars in his eyes and dreams of being the Dianne Warren of Music City, he took a job peddling CDs and has been a cog in the music business machine ever since.

Now an adult with a brain, Greg finds the South Carolina coast to be a perfectly magical place where he vacations yearly and dreams of the day when he can return to write full time in the most tastefully decorated beach house on Pawleys Island.

Greg’s debut adult paranormal novel, BLOOD DIVINE, was released by Wilde City Press in September 2016. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers acquired Greg’s debut young adult novel, SOCIAL INTERCOURSE, which will be released in Spring 2018

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4731557LEV AC ROSEN is the author of books for all ages. Two for adults: All Men of Genius (Amazon Best of the Month, Audie Award Finalist) and Depth (Amazon Best of the Year, Shamus Award Finalist, Kirkus Best Science Fiction for April). Two middle-grade books: Woundabout (illustrated by his brother, Ellis Rosen), and The Memory Wall. His first Young Adult Novel, Jack of Hearts (and other parts) is forthcoming in 2018. His books have been sold around the world and translated into different languages as well as being featured on many best of the year lists, and nominated for awards. 

Lev attended Oberlin College, where he majored in creative writing, and then Sarah Lawrence College, where he received his MFA in fiction. Just after graduating from Oberlin, his short story Painting was the inaugural piece for the ‘New Voices’ section of the renowned Esopus magazine. He has written articles for numerous blogs, including booklifenow and tor.com, and been interviewed by several magazines and blogs including Clarkesworld and USA Today.

Lev is originally from lower Manhattan and now lives in even lower Manhattan, right at the edge, with his husband and very small cat.

Authors in Conversation: Jaye Robin Brown and Amber Smith

Excited to welcome two wonderful authors to the site today, Jaye Robin Brown, author of Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit, and Amber Smith, author of The Last to Let Go, both of which are contemporary YAs with lesbian protagonists! Come learn more about their books and thoughts!

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Jaye Robin Brown: I’m so excited to get a chance to interview you! I vividly remember that Madcap Retreat in Gatlinburg, where you shared a room with me and Robin Constantine. I was so sick that first day, barely knew you, but you graciously let me put my germy hands all over an arc of your first book, The Way I Used to Be. Reading the opening pages, I knew immediately you were going to be a force in contemporary YA fiction and I wasn’t wrong. Now, your second book, The Last to Let Go, has hit the shelves and wow, talk about a sophomore book with a bow and a flourish. My heart hurt in so many ways reading it. You took a girl who’d grown up with domestic violence and really showed us how having that model of relationship can seriously mess up one’s own relationships. I loved how as a reader I got so frustrated with Brooke’s interactions and then at some point I got it, like, OH, OF COURSE, it’s the only way she could be. Was this unspooling intentional?

Amber Smith: I know, I’m so excited to get to have the chance to chat with you too! Yes, I remember that retreat! I remember how sick you were. And I remember being so honored for my little arc to be in your germy hands because I had just finished reading your debut, NO PLACE TO FALL and I totally fell (no pun intended) in love with it. Seriously, I became an instant fan of your writing, so when Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit came out I couldn’t wait to get my copy! I had such high expectations and I was not disappointed. Which is why I’m so touched by your kind words about The Last to Let Go.)

I really love creating complex, flawed characters who don’t always make the best decisions. And one of the things I wanted to show in TLTLG was how being raised in an environment rife with violence can often lead to the cycle of abuse being perpetuated in the lives those who witness it. But I wanted to show not only how this happens, but how it is stopped. I think the cycle of abuse phenomenon can be hard to understand, both from the perspective of an outsider, as well as someone stuck right in the thick of things, and so I wanted this “unspooling” (perfect word, by the way) to happen gradually, once we’re in the main character’s head-space, and hopefully seeing things from her perspective.

And while we’re on the topic of characters who don’t always make the best choices… one of the things I loved so much about Peaches is how you showed the main character, Jo, who was always out and proud, make the decision to go back in the closet for the sake of her evangelist father. It was such a fascinating journey because often we read stories about the opposite process—coming out, rather than going back in. Yet the whole time the one thing that remains constant is Jo’s faith. You struck such an amazing balance, and that’s not something I’ve seen before. So, I’m interested to know, what inspired this story?

JRB: It’s funny, some readers got a bit frustrated with Jo and her retreat to the closet, which I totally get, but I think the reality is very real for most LGBTQ people. We’re still in a world where we’re constantly checking in on our “safety” in any given situation. Jo’s decision was based both on her desire for her father’s happiness and maybe a bit of her own fear in a new situation so she got to use her dad as the out. As to the inspiration, it was a combination of things. I heard an NPR segment on the wealth of radio pastors and thought “What if one of those guys had a lesbian daughter?” But I didn’t want to pursue the wealth angle, and it was too easy to write the stereotypical “you’re going to hell” pastor. I was also teaching high school at the time and had seen, first-hand, the devastation a judgmental church family could have on a queer young person. I knew that in larger cities, LGBTQ affirming churches were (and are) a thing. So out of this came Jo, very gay, very Christian, and unabashed about either.

Like you, my first book, No Place to Fall, featured a straight protagonist. I wrote straight characters for many of my early manuscripts (ironically, my first manuscript to land me an agent was a f/f story—but the agent didn’t want to go out with that one—he and I parted ways and that manuscript is shelved). Now that Peaches has been so well-received and my third book releasing in 2019, The Meaning of Birds, also features an already out lesbian teen, I sometimes wonder if I could do straight romance again. I’ll be honest, I think about it from a financial standpoint, would it be a better career move for me? But then I shudder and think, no way, I don’t want to do that, I’m finally OUT in my writing and unlike Jo, I don’t want to go back in. What are your thoughts on making that switch with The Last to Let Go? Were you nervous about the romance between Dani and Brooke being out in the world or did it feel like a big sigh of relief?

AS: It’s strange, I feel like so often people think of coming out as this one definitive event, but the reality is you have to come out a million times; it’s a decision you have to make over and over again. So, it’s been an interesting process to sort of “come out” in many ways with this second book where my main character, Brooke, is so gay. I think because there was really nothing remotely queer at all in The Way I Used to Be, people haven’t necessarily thought of me as a queer writer (despite all my rainbow emojis). So here’s a fun, little-known fact about The Way I Used to Be: in a VERY early draft of that book I played around with writing the main character as bi, but I ultimately edited that out because, much to my dismay, it just didn’t serve the story. But with The Last to Let Go, I knew Brooke was a lesbian from the start—I could see and feel her so vividly in my mind that it wasn’t even a conscious choice. And in this case it really did serve the story, because Brooke’s journey to embrace her identity and her struggle with coming to terms with her dysfunctional family were completely intertwined from the very beginning.

On the one hand it felt so great to write Brooke as a lesbian, but on the other, part of me was nervous about representation. The #ownvoices movement in yalit is so incredibly important, yet it still feels super intimidating to actually call myself an #ownvoices writer. It’s such a big responsibility, and I really wanted to get not only the story right, but the LGBTQ rep part right, as well (because I think we all know firsthand how it feels to see representation mishandled). My third book, which I’m currently working on, is a first love story that features a trans character, so it’s definitely queer, but not the same setup as the f/f love story thread in TLTLG. Beyond book 3, I really don’t know what’s going to be next for me (which is both liberating and terrifying!). I do often wonder, though, if the sequence of my two books were reversed (if The Last to Let Go was my debut rather than The Way I Used to Be) how that might have affected the reception of both books…I’m still not sure.

You mentioned being a teacher, so I’m curious about whether or not your experience working with young people has influenced your writing at all? And what kinds of responses have you gotten from readers about your books—did they differ a lot from NPTF to Peaches, as you moved from writing a straight protagonist to a queer one?

JRB: Oh for sure it was helpful. I miss having that ready access to my target audience, even for simple things like “do you get this reference?” As to reader responses, the response to Peaches has been much stronger than to my first book. I regularly get emails from readers thanking me and telling me how much it meant to read about a lesbian character of faith. And not just from queer youth, but from adults, both straight and gay. It’s heightened my awareness of the opportunity I have as an #ownvoices writer to put meaningful stories into the world and to be out and proud as I do it. It’s very gratifying. And a heady responsibility to do my best.

So here’s a fun (and final) question. What three queer books (currently published and available) would be on Dani and Brooke’s bookshelves and why?

AS: I LOVE this question! Well, since Brooke and Dani’s personalities are so different I feel like their books would reflect that. I think Brooke would have something more classic on her book shelf, like Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden. Dani, on the other hand, has a much funkier, more eclectic taste, so I feel like she’d have something like the Batwoman comic book series proudly displayed in her bedroom. But then I could see the two of them reading Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home together and totally bonding over it!

This has been such fun, thank you so much for chatting with me, Jaye! I’m so grateful that you are out there writing these stories that need to be told. And I cannot wait to read The Meaning of Birds next year!

JRB: It’s been a total blast! And readers, be sure and pick up Amber’s latest book, The Last to Let Go, so you can meet Dani and Brooke for yourself!

And thank you, Dahlia for the invite!

Jaye Robin Brown, or JRo to her friends, has been many things in her life–jeweler, mediator, high school art teacher–but is now living the full-time writer life. She currently lives in New England but is taking her partner, dog, and horses back south to a house in the woods where she hopes to live happily ever after. She is the author of NO PLACE TO FALL, GEORGIA PEACHES AND OTHER FORBIDDEN FRUIT, and the forthcoming THE MEANING OF BIRDS.

Amber Smith grew up in Buffalo, New York, and now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her two dogs. After graduating from art school with a BFA in painting, she earned her MA in art history. When she’s not writing, she is working as a curator and art consultant. She has also written on the topics of art history and modern and contemporary art. She is the author of The Way I Used to Be and The Last to Let Go. Visit her online at AmberSmithAuthor.com.