Category Archives: Release Day Interview

Guest Interview: Julian Winters Talks to Author Adib Khorram in Honor of the Release of Darius the Great is Not Okay!

What happens when you get two delightful authors of queer YA coming together to discuss one’s new release, that just happens to be so beloved by me that it’s this month’s new release spotlight? This amazing interview, conducted by the absolutely wonderful Julian Winters, author of Running With Lions. I’m thrilled to have Julian and Adib on the site today discussing mental health rep, relationship dynamics, and more! Come check it out!

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Hi Adib! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions about your amazing debut YA novel, Darius the Great Is Not Okay. I don’t know if you’ve heard but… I’m a huge fan. The last book that drew me in and stayed with me like this one was Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. The friendships, the look at parent/child relationships, the journey and growth of the characters—everything a reader needs, especially a young adult reader, is in this book. Can you tell us a little bit about your book journey and what inspired you to write this one?

Thank you for having me! Aristotle and Dante is amazing company to be in. It’s one of my favorites, so I definitely hoped to hit some of the same notes.

I started writing Darius while I was visiting my dad’s side of the family (the Iranian side) in Vancouver for Nowruz. I had just finished a first draft of a book I thought was unique and different and was sure to be the kind of book that would get me an agent. It seemed fresh and fantastic.

The next day I saw a deal announcement from Publishers’ Weekly that sounded like…pretty much what I had just finished. So I flipped some tables and moped for a day or two and then I decided to write something only I could write: about being Iranian-American, torn between two cultures, growing up with depression. Things I knew intimately, that I still struggled with, and that I felt I needed to reconcile.

I wrote it, and revised it, and revised it, and revised it, and revised it some more, and started querying. I did an R&R at one point that made some hugely beneficial changes. And I eventually landed an agent, Molly O’Neill, who loved Darius and wanted to represent it. So we revised it more and then she started sending it out to editors, and we got acquired by Dana Chidiac at Dial. And then we edited it even more! But I’m so happy with how it came out.

Darius is such a soft boy. He cries, struggles with his emotions and appearance. He loves hard. It’s so heartfelt but also very real. He also has clinical depression and I loved the way mental health is treated in this book. It’s openly discussed and Darius—nor his immediate family—never once tries to ignore that it’s there. Can you talk about how important it was to show Darius’ depression? Also, his relationship with his father in regards to depression?

I’ve been heartened to see the increased representation of depression and mental illness in YA literature, but a lot of it didn’t speak to my experience, which was and has been, for the most part, one of low-level, persistent melancholy rather than suicidal ideation or other crisis. I wanted to write about people whose depression is manageable, whose lives are informed by it without being defined by it.

I think, because there’s a genetic component depression, and because my own family has a long history with depression, it was important to acknowledge that it can be a generational disease, and I think generational diseases can lead to complicated feelings for both the parent and the child.

I’m glad you mentioned how soft he is. I think it’s so easy to characterize people with depression as aloof or detached. But I often experienced it as too much feeling. And I also think it’s important to show boys that it’s okay to be soft. Unpacking and dismantling toxic masculinity is something I hope to grapple with in all my work.

The father/son dynamic is honest and incredibly-well done. Darius’ issues with his father ache somewhere deep. They don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, but they have one common groundStar Trek: The Next Generation. For me, that hit home because the only connection I have with my own father are through our shared love for sci-fi series or movies. What inspired this interesting look at father/son dynamics?

It came from a lot of places. Like I said, some of it came from my wanting to examine how generational disease can shape relationships. And part of that is that, as the child of diaspora, I and others like me often have a hard time dealing with parental expectations.

I also wanted to explore how we form our loves. I got some of mine from my parents, and some from my friends. I was introduced to Star Trek by my friend in second grade, but it was something that my grandma and I watched every Thursday (which is when new episodes aired on our local NBC affiliate). I think those special moments of shared experience can really come to define our relationships. And it sounds like you found that, too!

Darius has a lot of great relationships—his mom, grandparents, Sohrab—throughout the book. My favorite was the one with his younger sister, Lelah. It’s apparent how much he cares for her. But he’s also quietly frustrated with how easily she blends with his family in Yazd—something he’s struggling to do—because she speaks Farsi. And how their father welcomes her into the ST: TNG viewings when that’s the only thing Darius shares with him. Again, those moments were so easy to connect with. Was that an aspect of sibling relationships you set out to write? Was it something that developed as you wrote?

That’s something that developed in the edits. Originally Darius and Laleh’s relationship was maybe a little too saccharine; my genius editor pointed out that no matter how much Darius loves her, there would still be moments when he was sick of her. That’s just human nature. And I’m so glad she did point that out, because I think it makes their relationship read as so much more real.

Majority of the book takes place in Yazd, Iran. It’s rare but wonderful to see a YA contemporary novel take place in somewhere other than America. It was refreshing and insightful. Was it difficult to explore Darius’ journey while also taking readers on a journey through Yazd’s landscape, explaining cultural differences, food, Persian holidays, and Farsi?

Actually, I don’t think I could have told the story without having it take place in Yazd. To me, Darius’s internal journey was always mirrored by his external one. He couldn’t know who he was without knowing where he came from, and he couldn’t appreciate where he came from without understanding how that influenced who he was.

By the way, my life goal now is to have you introduce me to the wonders of faludeh!

I accept this challenge. It can be hard to find but it’s worth it.

There’s this beautifully understated romance in this book. But it’s not your paint-by-numbers romance. It’s not even a boy-meets-boy romance. It’s Darius falling in love with the city of Yazd. It’s the platonic romance of Darius and Sohrab. It’s Darius falling deeper in love with his grandparents and, by extension, himself. Were those your intentions—to show a main character experiencing a different type of love? Was there ever any push for you to have a romantic storyline in the novel?

All of my most important relationships in life have been non-romantic love, and that was even more true when I was a teenager. I think it’s important and true to show that the love between two friends, or the love between a son and his grandmother, can be as life-shattering as a romance.

There was never any push to add romance—indeed, one of the first things Molly said to me on “the call” is that she loved that Darius told “the love story of a friendship.”

Okay, we have to address the nerdiness of Darius. It’s perfect! His excitement/dedication to things like the Lord of the Rings and ST: TNG is as much hilarious as it is relatable. How much of that is you? And, for the record—besides Captain Picard, who is your favorite ST: TNG character?

I’m super nerdy, and I am beyond excited to see Captain Picard’s return! It’s like a dream come true! So I did borrow a lot of my own nerdiness to bring Darius to life, though I tried to channel the shape my nerdiness took when I was in high school rather than what it’s like today. I feel like I loved things in a really remarkable and passionate and consuming way when I was a teen, and I suspect I’m not alone in that.

Favorite character aside from Captain Picard? Hmm. Probably Guinan.

Can we talk about Sohrab for a second? I loved him. He’s an unexpected delight and a great best friend to Darius. He’s excited about anything that involves Darius and that was such a poignant part of Darius’ journey. To feel like someone understood him and loved everything about him. Someone who made Darius “belong.” SPOILER ALERT: When Sohrab gave Darius the Team Melli jersey? I experienced a major containment failure.

Sohrab isn’t without flaws. He makes mistakes. He also owns up to them. Did he represent anyone in your own life?

When I was Darius’s age, I already had a small but stable friend group of really close friends. Darius has never had that before, though, so I kind of borrowed bits of lots of my other friendships when trying to craft Sohrab.

I also tried to capture the feeling of meeting and instantly falling into friendship with someone, something I didn’t experience myself until I was much older and had a day job and found myself instantly friends with some of my colleagues.

Let’s talk writing methods: I read you don’t necessarily write to music playlists. Shocker! You did write Darius to Young the Giant—hello, I could write to Mind Over Matter for years, such a great album—but what helps you in your writing process? What inspires your writing moods?

Right? Home of the Strange came out while I was in revisions and it was even more perfect for Darius!

I can’t write without tea. I need the ritual to kind of get into my writing headspace. And I need to be in a place that’s “for work” and not for relaxation. If I’m writing at home, I’ll sit in a different place than I sit if I’m watching TV or playing a game. But I love writing at coffee shops even more.

The buzz leading into the release of this book has been phenomenal. Starred-reviews. Authors talking non-stop about it. Obviously, that’s exciting and always a positive, but has any of it been intimidating? Any advice for other debut authors about handling the pressures of a book release?

It has been super intimidating. I’ve always been the kind of person that’s waiting for the other shoe to drop. My good friend Lana Wood Johnson said during her agent search that she always took rejection as a sign she was working hard, and so hearing yes was a strange feeling, and I think she really hit the nail on the head. So some days, I still struggle with the feeling that everything will come crashing down around me. I try not to listen to that voice, though.

My advice is to have a good support network. Some need to be writers, and some need to not be writers, because you’re going to need to unburden different parts of the experience to different people.

I’m calling it—there’s going to be a lot of “book hangover” once people finish Darius. People are going to need something to tide them over until your next great novel arrives. What books are you enjoying, either in the same vein as Darius or beyond?

For other people wanting awesome Iranian characters, I’ve loved Arvin Ahmadi’s Down and Across and Sara Farizan’s Here to Stay. For people wanting stories about life-defining friendships, I’d point them to your debut, Running with Lions! I’m still reeling from my own book hangover from that.

For a self-deprecating narrator, this may be a surprising recommendation, but I’ve been obsessed with Martha Wells’s The Murderbot Diaries, a series of novellas about a rogue SecUnit (essentially a cyborg designed to provide security for humans) who can’t seem to stop caring about people, despite trying not to.

The book world is going to fall in love with you, which only means one thing: What’s next for you? Will we see further adventures of Darius and Sohrab?

Well, I’m working on another book, another stand-alone, but I can’t say too much about it right now. I will say that it’s another contemporary, it takes place mostly in a Kansas City high school, and the main character is a GSA President with some serious Leslie Knope-ish tendencies.

I really loved getting into Darius’s head, so I’d never say no to returning to him. I think I know what story I would want to tell. But ultimately that’ll be up to the book doing well enough to make a companion novel viable. Fingers crossed!

Thanks so much for agreeing to this interrogation Adib! And thank you Dahlia for this wonderful opportunity. Now, Adib, how many lights are there?

Thank you, Julian! And you, Dahlia! It’s been a blast.

And THERE! ARE! FOUR! LIGHTS!

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Amazon bestselling author Julian Winters is a former management trainer who lives in the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia and has been crafting fiction since he was a child, creating communities around his hand-drawn “paper people.” He began writing LGBTQ character-driven stories as a teen. When he isn’t writing or using his sense of humor to entertain his young nephews, Julian enjoys reading, experimental cooking in the kitchen, and watching the only sports he can keep up with: volleyball and soccer. Running with Lions is his debut novel.

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Release Day Interview with Radical author E.M. Kokie!

I’m psyched to have E.M. Kokie on the blog today, in honor of her brand-new YA, Radical, about a lesbian pro-gun survivalist named Bex who falls for a girl with a strongly differing ideology from the one that’s defined her life. It’s such a different book for the YA canon, and one of so few with a butch lesbian MC, I knew I had to pick her brain about it.

First, a little more about the book:

Radical Cover MediumDetermined to survive the crisis she’s sure is imminent, Bex is at a loss when her world collapses in the one way she hasn’t planned for.

Preppers. Survivalists. Bex prefers to think of herself as a realist who plans to survive, but regardless of labels, they’re all sure of the same thing: a crisis is coming. And when it does, Bex will be ready. She’s planned exactly what to pack, she knows how to handle a gun, and she’ll drag her family to safety by force if necessary. When her older brother discovers Clearview, a group that takes survival just as seriously as she does, Bex is intrigued. While outsiders might think they’re a delusional doomsday group, she knows there’s nothing crazy about being prepared. But Bex isn’t prepared for Lucy, who is soft and beautiful and hates guns. As her brother’s involvement with some of the members of Clearview grows increasingly alarming and all the pieces of Bex’s life become more difficult to juggle, Bex has to figure out where her loyalties really lie.

And here’s info on the special deal if you order a signed copy from indie bookstore A Room of One’s Own today!

Pre-order Twitter Graphic

And now, the interview:

Right off the bat, let’s discuss the fact that Radical is tackling some tough topics at a tough time. What thoughts have come to mind about releasing a book with a very pro-gun lesbian MC just a few months after the shooting at Pulse?

I knew, even when I was writing the early drafts of Radical, that writing about a pro-gun lesbian was going to be a double whammy. In later drafts, I found myself calling Radical the book with “something for everyone to hate”—some might really struggle with the parts about the guns (or the mere mention of guns might turn them off), some readers might not be comfortable with the lesbianism, and some might be uncomfortable with the sex. But this was the book I needed to write. I needed to better understand our gun culture, the pervasive fear and anger feeding movements like the survivalist and private militia movements, and I wondered about the girls and women within these subcultures. But in early drafts and in the first years working on the manuscript, I couldn’t have foreseen just how hard it would be to talk about a book about guns and queers in the months before publication.

And not just because of Pulse, but also because of the steady and horrific string of shootings we’ve seen in recent years. Every one has hit me hard, and every one is part of why I wrote this book.  But in the months after Pulse, it seemed impossible to talk about any of this. I ached for every lost life, every shattered dream, every face and name and their families. And I didn’t want to talk about guns—or Radical.

In the last few months I’ve re-read bits of Radical and reminded myself why I wrote it.  I’ve never been a gun owner. I’d never touched a gun before the research for Radical. Writing Radical didn’t change my mind about gun ownership for myself, and probably not for those in my home. And I still have complicated thoughts about gun ownership in general. But it helped me understand a little better what I had thought of as “gun culture” in this country, and gave me some insights into the factors driving movements like the survivalist and private militia movements. And I think I was also working through some issues about why we laud as feminist and empowering stories about a girl saving the world, but don’t often embrace stories about a girl saving herself—especially when we don’t like where she comes from or some of her choices—even when the latter often takes more bravery.

Radical doesn’t offer any quick and easy answers. Not about family. Not about survival. Definitely not about guns. And I get why it makes some readers uncomfortable. My hope is that it stimulates questions, and conversations, and an attempt to get beyond the “them” and “us” so many big issues seem to devolve into.

Probably the thing that’s most startling about Radical is how familiarly Dystopian the feel is, but then it’s in fact a Contemporary. How intentional was that? Or do you think it’s just inevitable with the subject matter?

It was not at all intentional. In fact, when I shared the first bits and pieces of early drafts at conferences and with writer friends, I was surprised by how many people thought it was a dystopian novel, or not even our world at all.  I worked hard to anchor the first chapters in our here and now reality.

But it does feel sometimes like we’re living in the early chapters of a dystopian story, doesn’t it? Or maybe not a dystopia, because there was no utopia preceding it, but the things we think of as the hallmarks of a dystopia—oppression, targeting of immigrants and minorities and women, chilling of a vigorous and objective media, wealth inequality, ever-present fears of external threats, scary politics and scapegoating, and an uptick in violence and weapons stockpiling.

Radical has a seriously well-researched feel. What kind of work went into its creation?

I’m an attorney, so research is my first instinct whenever something piques my interest or puzzles me, or when I want to better understand something or someone.  The first glimpse of the idea for Radical began with a newspaper story that led to several years of research into survivalist training and organizations, preppers, and the private militia movement. I first needed to understand the differences between these movements and the common threads, politics, and influences.  Then, as I knew nothing about guns, I needed to do significant research into firearms handling, gun laws, and related legal issues. I also did some reading and engaged in conversations about gender and sexual identity. I did a lot of the early gun research online, but when it came to the guns, I needed to viscerally experience them. I needed to feel the heft, weight, kick, how it felt to aim and fire, and the smells and almost taste of the tang in the air right after a shot.  How it felt to take them apart, clean them, and what it might be like to be responsible for your own firearms.  So, I had to shoot a gun for the first time, multiple guns, in fact.  I was lucky enough to connect with some experienced gun owners, and so I was able to experience shooting their firearms in an outdoor setting, much as Bex and her brother would shoot in their woods.  Then I connected with an expert in firearms training and handling who offered insights and advice while I was writing and revising Radical. Candlewick later hired him to do a content review of the manuscript, which was fantastic.

What’s a particularly conscious choice you made in Bex’s representation?

It took three drafts to work out Bex’s gender identity. Everything about it was deliberate, but also sort of organic at the same time. In the earliest draft I thought Bex might be transgender, or maybe genderqueer. But as I worked through the early drafts, I started to wonder how Bex would identify and if she was a butch lesbian. I tried really hard to separate my understanding of identity and identity politics from Bex’s far less studied understanding.  And to ultimately understand Bex, I needed to work out how Bex actually felt about her body and how she experienced the world in that body. It was a deliberate choice to walk those lines between butch lesbian, genderqueer, and transgender in the early drafts, trying to figure out who Bex is. Ultimately, I chose to write her as a butch lesbian because it’s what felt most natural for her character, and for me, but also because it spoke to me to write this butch girl, clear in her love of other girls, clear in her identity as a girl, but also embracing her expression of that feminine as not the girly version her mother attempted to instill. She knows who she is and how she feels most herself. I love that about her.  I get why some describe her as masculine, but that, to me, implies she is rejecting her female identity. I don’t see her as rejecting the feminine, so much as expectations of femininity. And, of course, she knows she looks good in cargo shorts.

What’s the first queer representation you saw in any medium that really stuck with you, for better or for worse?

At some point in my early teens I read both The Color Purple by Alice Walker and The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher. I can’t remember which I read first, but it’s my memory of reading The Shell Seekers that has most viscerally stuck with me. I can barely remember the sprawling plot, but I remember how the cover felt and I can remember exactly where I was when I realized the older women who lived down the way in the book were lovers. They were lesbians. And the other characters called them lesbians, on the page. But they were…old. Like, old-old (to my young teen sensibility). And lovers. And other characters knew it. And still talked to them and liked them. And people like my mom and women in her book group read this book. And they liked it.  I was giddy and thrilled and shocked and filled with glee to find comfortable lesbians in this book-group-type-book.  I was probably fifteen years or more from fully coming out, but it was the first moment I realized there were happy, old lesbians, and maybe I could be one of them someday. (And I have to say, my recollection was that the lesbianism wasn’t a large part of the plot or even really mentioned in the book. But when I went looking for it to confirm my memory, it’s discussed even more than I remembered. One character even references The Well of Loneliness, which went over my head at the time I read the book. Maybe if I had gone looking for that, it would have moved my coming out up by quite a few years).

What’s something you’ve seen in LGBTQIAP+ lit that’s really stuck with you, for better or for worse?

The lack of sexual experiences between queer characters, especially girls. We’ve seen queer romantic storylines for a while, but they seem to fade to black even more often than heterosexual teen romances in young adult lit. Sometimes in queer YA lit it even feels like a cut to black with only the merest reference to something physical happening beyond kissing. And looking at heterosexual sexuality in YA isn’t really a substitute for exploring queer sexual experience, in part because of the gender dynamics such experiences often involve and in part because of what acts are often classified as “sex” and what acts are discounted or ignored. I find it problematic that there isn’t more exploration of the significance and value of a wider an array of sexual experiences.

While working on Radical, I went looking for YA novels with lesbian relationships specifically to see what was already out there. I was surprised to find very few with any kind of specific sexual experiences or any sensory detail. It left me feeling a little like I was treading unexplored territory when I first started working on those scenes in Radical. And prompted some soul searching and blogging of my own. [http://emkokie.com/attractive_nuisance/2013/05/09/in-our-own-words/]  I was frustrated that I didn’t even feel like I had go-to language for my characters to use in thinking about and discussing their bodies.  It was really important for me that Bex and Lucy’s physical relationship feel organic and natural to them, but that it also explored consent and language and a more female-centric exploration of sexuality.  I’m happy to see that since those early drafts of Radical there seem to be more explorations of the physical side of romance in LGBTQIAP+ YA novels, but I think we still have a lot of unexplored territory. To be clear, I’m not saying there aren’t novels and characters in which a fade to black isn’t appropriate or that every queer YA should include sexual exploration or even romance. But I would like to see more parity for LGBTQIAP+ teen characters, and overall a better exploration of positive depictions of female and queer sexuality.

What are your favorite LGBTQIAP+ reads?

These questions haunt me. Tomorrow, or next week, or three days after this interview posts, I will inevitably think of one or more books I can’t believe I didn’t think to include. But some of my favorites are: George by Alex Gino, Ash & Huntress by Malinda Lo, Sister Mischief by Laura Goode, If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan, Freak Show by James St. James, Empress of the World by Sara Ryan, Aristotle and Dante by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger,  Ask the Passengers by A. S. King, Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash, 37 Things I Love (In No Particular Order) by Kekla Magoon, and After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson. They’re not all perfect, flawless books, and some of the queer characters or storylines are secondary to the primary plot, but these are some of the ones that really stick with me for a variety of reasons.

What would you still love to see in LGBTQIAP+ lit?

Queer girls of all kinds, shapes, colors, cultures, class, and identities. More happy queer girls. More exploring queer girls.  More genderqueer and genderfluid characters. More truly questioning characters, maybe who are even still questioning at the end of the book, or at least obviously and proudly still evolving. I’d like to see more stories where the focus isn’t on the teen confirming their identity for all time, but on exploring who they are and who they are becoming.  And more exploration of what it’s like to be queer outside of upper-middle-class suburbia.

What’s up next for you?

Radical took a lot out of me. The research, the writing, and even ramping up to promotion with everything going on in the world. So, I’ve been working on several projects, but not really sure quite yet which will reach manuscript, or book form, next.  😉

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3013aAbout E.M. Kokie

I have always loved the way a good book could sweep me away, but I was a lazy student and never thought I could actually be a writer. So in between the usual tortures of high school, I made up stories, but kept them in my head. Now I share my stories—specifically, novels about teens on the cusp of life-changing moments, exploring issues of identity and self-determination. My debut novel Personal Effects was published on September 11, 2012 by Candlewick Press. I am represented by Chris Richman of Upstart Crow Literary. I live in Madison, Wisconsin with my partner.