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Judith Utz Interviews Liz Jacobs on Her Debut, Abroad, Being an Immigrant Teen, and More

Today on LGBTQReads we’ve got a first for the site: a guest interview! Judith Utz, owner and curator of Binge on Books and Open Ink Press, chats with debut author Liz Jacobs about her upcoming New Adult romance duology, beginning with Abroad; her personal experiences as a queer immigrant teen; and what makes this debut so genuine and hard hitting.

First, check out Abroad!

Nick Melnikov doesn’t know where he belongs. He was just a kid when his Russian-Jewish family immigrated to Michigan. Now he’s in London for university, overwhelmed by unexpected memories. Socially anxious, intensely private, and closeted, Nick doesn’t expect to fall in so quickly with a tight-knit group of students from his college, and it’s both exhilarating and scary. Hanging out with them is a roller coaster of serious awkward and incredible longing, especially when the most intimidating of the group, Dex, looks his way.

Dex Cartwell knows exactly who he is: a black queer guy who doesn’t give a toss what anybody thinks of him. He is absolutely, one-hundred-percent, totally in control of his life. Apart, maybe, from the stress of his family’s abrupt move to an affluent, largely white town. And worrying about his younger brother feeling increasingly isolated as a result. And the persistent broken heart he’s been nursing for a while . . .

When Nick and Dex meet, both find themselves intrigued. Countless late-night conversations only sharpen their attraction. But the last thing Nick wants is to face his deepest secret, and the last thing Dex needs is another heartache. Dex has had to fight too hard for his right to be where he is. Nick isn’t even sure where he’s from. So how can either of them tell where this is going?

 Be sure to check out Abroad on Brain Mill Press’s website

Here’s a little more info on the book from Judith:

College might seem like the perfect opportunity to let loose and party, to revel in the chance at being alone, adult-free for the very first time in your life. And even though that’s definitely one aspect of the college experience, there are so many more that define it. Growing up, discovering parts of yourself you never knew existed, and ultimately coming of age is the crux of the new adult experience. With a sharp wit and unflinching portrayal of the ups and downs of college life, Liz Jacobs will blast onto the New Adult scene on June 27th with her stellar debut, Abroad. Russian-born, Jewish, and questioning his sexuality, Nick is an American who decides to uproot his life in the States to spend one year of college abroad in the UK. That too-brief-span of time serves to define and change who he will become.

Struggling to understand himself, his identity, and his constantly shifting feelings about his past, Nick discovers that home and identity are not limited to family or even a homeland. He also learns to trust himself and his own needs, and begins finding friendships in the most unlikely of places. Interwoven into this is a fragile love story that may or may not withstand the year. Liz Jacobs’ debut is a sophisticated and refreshing take on the New Adult novel and she caught up with me recently to talk more about this book and what it means to her.

Judith for LGBTQ Reads: Welcome to LGBTQ Reads! Please tell us all about your debut, Abroad.

Liz Jacobs: Abroad is, to me, a romance, and it’s also a story of coming into your own. It’s about identity and how we hide from ourselves and from others. A lot of it is about one’s cultural identity and what happens when “outsider” identities intersect and how. For instance, Nick has always been an outsider in some sense–in Russia, he was a Jew. In America, he’s Russian. And that’s just for starters. For Dex (Nick’s love interest), it’s being black, it’s being queer, it’s being brilliant and having to carve out space for himself because nobody else will do it for him. For his best friend Izzy, it’s a whole journey of self-discovery she doesn’t realize will happen. It’s also very much about that liminal space at the end of college when you know you’re leaving security behind. It’s also about made families, queer spaces, and people uplifting one another.

Judith: So when did you first have the idea to write this story? How many iterations has it been through?

Liz: I always knew I wanted to write something like this story, because immigrating remains one of the most defining moments of my life. I remember being in sixth grade, speaking zero English, and thinking, “how would I write about this?” I think partly because the experience was so viscerally difficult, it felt like I had to get it out or it would rot inside me. But I didn’t know how to tell it, I didn’t know the angle to take, what to do with it, until I realized that I could write a romance. Then, it coalesced super easily. But it was years of trying different approaches in my mind before this came into being. Then I sat down, wrote the first scene, and it just kept going. In terms of iterations, I’d say it’s one and a half, because the story was always this, but in speaking to someone about it, we realized that it was too much story to be contained in one volume. Also, Izzy’s character was elbowing for her own space, so once she got a POV, it really clicked fully.

Judith: Nick’s experience as a queer, Jewish Russian immigrant mirrors your own experience. Would you say that makes this story autobiographical?

Liz Jacobs: Let’s say, it’s “heavily inspired by” my life, though it is definitely its own story, with its own trajectory and conclusions. But I would be lying if I said that Nick’s character and experiences wasn’t based on my own. I wrote him through that lens, and it was important for me because for years, I kept a lot of this stuff inside, either through fear or the conviction that nobody would want to listen, and it has felt really wonderful, actually, to let this story out. So, not fully autobiographical, not entirely fictional.

Judith: Since it is so heavily inspired, did any of your own experiences infuse Nick’s story?

Liz Jacobs: Yes. Actually, the opening scene is lifted directly from my own life, pretty much verbatim. It has stayed with me for over a decade. It’s one of those “I think about this way more than I really should” moments. It was such a strange moment of cognitive dissonance, realizing that the person sitting next to me who presented very much as maternal and nurturing was holding some exceptionally xenophobic and harmful views with no idea that she was hurting me. The rest, I think, are just little touches, and largely fictional.

Judith: Have you always been a writer? What’s the first thing you wrote?

Liz Jacobs: I have been. I honestly can’t remember what the first thing I wrote was, and I have a feeling it’s through a sense of self-preservation (I was thirteen or thereabouts). Actually, I just remembered that I wrote a LOT of self-insert Mary Sue fic on a message board at 14-15. Really, I just haven’t stopped writing. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write. It’s always been my constant, I can’t stop myself. Except for when I’m under deadline, and then my brain blocks it for me.

Judith: What’s a question you hope readers ask you about Abroad?

Liz Jacobs: I’m literally scratching my head right now, because I don’t know! I think I’d be excited to get any questions, to be honest, because it means that I’ve engaged the reader, made them think, touched them in some way. Maybe, “hey, did you have any visual inspirations for the characters?” in which case, I will be, like, “heck yeah, I did. Wanna see?”

Judith: Name your top writing influences (authors, books, tv, music, what have you!)

Liz Jacobs: The first name that comes to mind is, honestly, Anne Frank. She was the first person who made me think I, too, could be a writer. She was also a scared Jewish girl whose inner world was so much bigger than the outside world allowed for. Her words made an indelible impact on my life. I’d say another big influence is Jamie O’Neill, author of At Swim, Two Boys. This book blew me away when I read it at 20, and it continues to blow me away now, every time I pick it up for a reread. The way he brings the reader into each scene, how every character has their own voice, the sheer impact of his work–it’s almost magic to me, except better, because it all sprang from his mind. It took him a decade to write this book, and when you’re reading it, you can see why. That level of dedication, to me, is incredible. There’s another writer who few people outside Russia know about (and, actually, not so many in Russia, either) named Frida Vigdorova. Her writing had such a heart, such an intimacy to it, it made me yearn to write as well as she did. I’m still yearning for it.

Music wise, I’d say Tom Waits, being the giant weirdo that he is! Honestly, I feel like if Tom Waits can make a career out of being a (incredibly talented) whackadoo, why can’t I try?

Other than that, it’s hard to say, because I often feel like I’m an inspiration sponge–I just soak everything up and then stuff comes out without me realizing.

Judith: Speaking of writing influences, of all the authors out there, who would you most want to write a book with and why?

Liz Jacobs: The first person who came to mind was Roan Parrish, because I adore her writing and think she’s amazing. Where We Left Off is one of my favorite books of the last, like, several years. (Hi, Roan!) I also have a friend I’ve written with in the past (let’s call her B) and would love to write something new with her. (Hey, B) I love co-writing, and it also scares the bejeezus out of me, because it brings out the biggest control freak AND self-critic in me, but it can so gratifying and so much fun. You never know!

Judith: And lastly, what else have you written? What’s up next?

Liz Jacobs: Abroad: Book Two, of course! The story is very much not done at the end of Book One, and I’m writing Book Two right now and having a lot of fun with it (when I’m not having angst). I’ve got a whole bunch of things on the back burner that may never see the light of day, but I’m having quite a bit of fun with them, too. I’m writing a queer historical romance that is my happy escape place at the moment about the son of an Earl and a gardener. There’s gardening shed naughtiness. I have another project I’m hoping to develop, but I’m actually a bit superstitious, so I don’t want to say anything about it yet. But it’s YA. Intrigued yet?

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Debut author Liz Jacobs came over with her family from Russia at the age of 11, as a Jewish refugee.  All in all, her life has gotten steadily better since that moment. They settled in an ultra-liberal haven in the middle of New York State, which sort of helped her with the whole “grappling with her sexuality” business.

She has spent a lot of her time flitting from passion project to passion project, but writing remains her constant. She has flown planes, drawn, made jewelry, had an improbable internet encounter before it was cool, and successfully wooed the love of her life in a military-style campaign. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for her essay on her family’s experience with immigration.

She currently lives with her wife in Massachusetts, splitting her time between her day job, writing, and watching a veritable boatload of British murder mysteries.

New Release Spotlight: The Love Interest by Cale Dietrich

I utterly adored this debut. Not only is the premise utterly delightful, but I love the way it spins the YA love triangle on its head, and it’s chock full of lighthearted meta digs at the prevalent, unrealistic image of the hardbodied, green-eyed teen boyfriends that’ve become a category convention. This one releases on May 16, and you’re gonna wanna nab it ASAP!

There is a secret organization that cultivates teenage spies. The agents are called Love Interests because getting close to people destined for great power means getting valuable secrets.

Caden is a Nice: The boy next door, sculpted to physical perfection. Dylan is a Bad: The brooding, dark-souled guy, and dangerously handsome. The girl they are competing for is important to the organization, and each boy will pursue her. Will she choose a Nice or the Bad?

Both Caden and Dylan are living in the outside world for the first time. They are well-trained and at the top of their games. They have to be – whoever the girl doesn’t choose will die.

What the boys don’t expect are feelings that are outside of their training. Feelings that could kill them both.

Buy it: Amazon * B&N

Fave Five: LGBTQ YA Sibling-Themed Books

Note: the above are all books with LGBTQ MCs in which siblings are central to the plot and theme (and in some cases also have a POV), not books with siblings who are LGBTQ. The latter will be a separate post.

And I Darken by Kiersten White

Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

Jerkbait by Mia Siegert

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

Bonus: Coming in 2018, Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake

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Fave Five: LGBTQ YA Set Outside US/Can/UK/Aus

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan (Iran)

A Darkly Beating Heart by Lindsay Smith (Japan)

Our Own Private Universe by Robin Talley (Mexico)

Another Word for Happy by Agay Llanera (Philippines)

Kaleidoscope Song by Fox Benwell (South Africa)

New Releases: April 2017

The Noble of Sperath by Siera Maley (8th)

When the emperor of Eveinia is murdered alongside his heir, the kingdom’s twelve nations are thrown into chaos. A fortnight later, a young woman wakes up with no memories, having been unwittingly selected for an impossible mission—to track down the chosen successor from each nation and appoint one as the emperor. If she fails, she may never be able to return to her old life.

But a dark order is emerging. Hunted by assassins and escorted by a stableboy, Lia sets out on a journey to uncover the truth about who she is and why she was chosen.

Her first target is Jade, the beautiful but mischievous princess of Sperath. Disguised as her maidservant, Lia must navigate the treacherous waters of the court, her daunting task, and a growing closeness with Jade. When suspicious poisonings begin to plague the castle, it’s up to Lia to find the culprit, or else risk failing her mission—and losing Jade entirely.

Buy it: Amazon

Huntsmen by Michelle Osgood (13th)

33636785Months after saving Jamie and Deanna from crywolf, Kiara and her brother Cole have moved into the city. While clubbing one night, Kiara is stunned to see her ex, Taryn, on stage. But before she can react, Jamie notices a distinctive tattoo in the crowd: an axe rumored to be the mark of the Huntsmen, a group of werewolf-tracking humans. The girls need to leave immediately—and since Taryn is also a werewolf, they need to take her with them.

The Huntsmen are more than a myth, and they’re scouring the city for lone wolves just like Taryn. Until the General North American Assembly of Werewolves lends a plan of action, Kiara’s small pack is on lockdown in Nathan’s apartment building, where she and Taryn must face the differences that drove them apart. Furthermore, the longer the group waits, the more it seems the Huntsmen haven’t been acting entirely on their own.

Buy it: Amazon

Meg & Linus by Hanna Nowinski (18th)

meglinusCan friendship, Star Trek, drama club, and a whole lot of coffee get two nerdy best friends through the beginning of their senior year of high school?

Meg and Linus are best friends bound by a shared love of school, a coffee obsession, and being queer. It’s not always easy to be the nerdy lesbian or gay kid in a suburban town. But they have each other. And a few Star Trek boxed sets. They’re pretty happy.

But then Sophia, Meg’s longtime girlfriend, breaks up with Meg. Linus starts tutoring the totally dreamy new kid, Danny—and Meg thinks setting them up is the perfect project to distract herself from her own heartbreak. But Linus isn’t so sure Danny even likes guys, and maybe Sophia isn’t quite as out of the picture as Meg thought she was. . . .

Buy it: Amazon * B&N * IndieBound

The Edge of the Abyss, by Emily Skrutskie (18th)

edgeoftheabyssThree weeks have passed since Cassandra Leung pledged her allegiance to the ruthless pirate-queen Santa Elena and set free Bao, the sea monster Reckoner she’d been forced to train. The days as a pirate trainee are long and grueling, but it’s not the physical pain that Cas dreads most. It’s being forced to work with Swift, the pirate girl who broke her heart.

But Cas has even bigger problems when she discovers that Bao is not the only monster swimming free. Other Reckoners illegally sold to pirates have escaped their captors and are taking the NeoPacific by storm, attacking ships at random and ruining the ocean ecosystem. As a Reckoner trainer, Cas might be the only one who can stop them. But how can she take up arms against creatures she used to care for and protect?

Will Cas embrace the murky morals that life as a pirate brings or perish in the dark waters of the NeoPacific?

Buy it: Amazon * B&N * IndieBound

Thaw by Elyse Springer (24th)

32673586Abigail is content with her quiet life as a librarian. But when she’s invited to a high-profile charity auction, she finds herself dancing with one of the most beautiful women she’s ever met. Abby’s sure she’ll never see her again, but then Gabrielle calls and asks her on a date. And soon after, another.

Supermodel Gabrielle Levesque has a reputation as the Ice Queen—cold and untouchable—except she warms up whenever she’s with Abby. Only Abby isn’t interested in the heat between them; she’s asexual, and she’s worried that admitting as much to Gabrielle might spell the end of their blooming romance.

They’re two different women from two very different worlds, but Abby knows she can love Gabrielle. Her passion for books, travel, and theater prove there’s more to the Ice Queen than meets the eye. But they’ll have to overcome Abby’s fears—and Gabrielle’s own threatening secrets—in order to find their way to love.

Buy it: Riptide * Amazon

Fave Five: M/M Historical Romance

Prosperity by Alexis Hall

Enlightenment series by Joanna Chambers

Mechanical Universe series by E.E. Ottoman

Society of Gentlemen series and pretty much everything else by KJ Charles

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee (YA)

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New Releases: March 2017

Insight by Santino Hassell (13th)

30364791Growing up the outcast in an infamous family of psychics, Nate Black never learned how to control his empath abilities. Then after five years without contact, his estranged twin turns up dead in New York City. The claim of suicide doesn’t ring true, especially when a mysterious vision tells Nate it was murder. Now his long-hated gift is his only tool to investigate.

Hitching from his tiny Texas town, Nate is picked up by Trent, a gorgeous engineer who thrives on sarcasm and skepticism. The heat that sparks between them is instant and intense, and Nate ends up trusting Trent with his secrets—something he’s never done before. But once they arrive in the city, the secrets multiply when Nate discovers an underground supernatural community, more missing psychics, and frightening information about his own talent.

Nate is left questioning his connection with Trent. Are their feelings real, or are they being propelled by abilities Nate didn’t realize he had? His fear of his power grows, but Nate must overcome it to find his brother’s killer and trust himself with Trent’s heart.

Buy it: Riptide | Amazon | B&N

Born Both by Hida Viloria (14th)

born-bothA candid, provocative, and eye-opening memoir of gender identity, self-acceptance, and love from one of the world’s foremost intersex activists.

My name is Hida Viloria. I was raised as a girl but discovered at a young age that my body looked different. Having endured an often turbulent home life as a kid, there were many times when I felt scared and alone, especially given my attraction to girls. But unlike most people in the first world who are born intersex–meaning they have genitals, reproductive organs, hormones, and/or chromosomal patterns that do not fit standard definitions of male or female–I grew up in the body I was born with because my parents did not have my sex characteristics surgically altered at birth.

It wasn’t until I was twenty-six and encountered the term intersex in a San Francisco newspaper that I finally had a name for my difference. That’s when I began to explore what it means to live in the space between genders–to be both and neither. I tried living as a feminine woman, an androgynous person, and even for a brief period of time as a man. Good friends would not recognize me, and gay men would hit on me. My gender fluidity was exciting, and in many ways freeing–but it could also be isolating.

I had to know if there were other intersex people like me, but when I finally found an intersex community to connect with I was shocked, and then deeply upset, to learn that most of the people I met had been scarred, both physically and psychologically, by infant surgeries and hormone treatments meant to “correct” their bodies. Realizing that the invisibility of intersex people in society facilitated these practices, I made it my mission to bring an end to it–and became one of the first people to voluntarily come out as intersex at a national and then international level.

Born Both is the story of my lifelong journey toward finding love and embracing my authentic identity in a world that insists on categorizing people into either/or, and of my decades-long fight for human rights and equality for intersex people everywhere.

Buy it: B&N * Amazon * IndieBound

Star Crossed by Barbara Dee (14th)

star-crossedMattie, a star student and passionate reader, is delighted when her English teacher announces the eighth grade will be staging Romeo and Juliet. And she is even more excited when, after a series of events, she finds herself playing Romeo, opposite Gemma Braithwaite’s Juliet. Gemma, the new girl at school, is brilliant, pretty, outgoing—and, if all that wasn’t enough: British.

As the cast prepares for opening night, Mattie finds herself growing increasingly attracted to Gemma and confused, since, just days before, she had found herself crushing on a boy named Elijah. Is it possible to have a crush on both boys AND girls? If that wasn’t enough to deal with, things backstage at the production are starting to rival any Shakespearean drama! In this sweet and funny look at the complicated nature of middle school romance, Mattie learns how to be the lead player in her own life.

Buy it: B&N * Amazon * IndieBound

Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde (14th)

queens-of-geekWhen BFFs Charlie, Taylor and Jamie go to SupaCon, they know it’s going to be a blast. What they don’t expect is for it to change their lives forever.

Charlie likes to stand out. SupaCon is her chance to show fans she’s over her public breakup with co-star, Jason Ryan. When Alyssa Huntington arrives as a surprise guest, it seems Charlie’s long-time crush on her isn’t as one-sided as she thought.

While Charlie dodges questions about her personal life, Taylor starts asking questions about her own.

Taylor likes to blend in. Her brain is wired differently, making her fear change. And there’s one thing in her life she knows will never change: her friendship with Jamie—no matter how much she may secretly want it to. But when she hears about the Queen Firestone SupaFan Contest, she starts to rethink her rules on playing it safe.

Buy it: B&N * Amazon * IndieBound

Future Leaders of Nowhere by Emily O’Beirne (15th)

33849121“Finn’s solid. Not in body, but in being. She’s gravity and kindness and all those good things that anchor.”

“Willa’s confusing. Sometimes she’s this sweet, sensitive soul. Other times she’s like a flaming arrow you hope isn’t coming for you.”

Finn and Willa have been picked as team leaders in the future leader camp game. The usually confident Finn doesn’t know what’s throwing her more, the fact she’s leading a team of highly unenthusiastic overachievers or coming up against fierce, competitive Willa. And Willa doesn’t know which is harder, leaving her responsibilities behind to pursue her goals or opening up to someone.

Soon they both realise that the hardest thing of all is balancing their clashing ideals with their unexpected connection. And finding a way to win, of course.

Buy it: Ylva

Growing Pains by Cass Lennox (20th)

Gigi Rosenberg is living his best life: performances in the big city, side gigs at a dance company, a successful drag act, and the boy of his childhood dreams who now adores him. Even if the boyfriend part isn’t the sparkly ride of passion he expected it to be, life is sweet. So when his sister’s wedding calls him back to his hometown, he sees an opportunity to show the hicks from his past how wrong they were about him. Only, his boyfriend isn’t quite on board.

Brock Stubbs left their hometown and his parents behind for a reason, and the prospect of facing them again is terrifying. He swore he’d never go back, but Gigi has made it clear refusal isn’t an option, and Brock will do nearly anything for him. There’s just one deal-breaker of a problem: Brock promised Gigi he was out to everyone, including his parents. He lied

It’s magical to run into the sunset together, but staying the course takes work. For Gigi and Brock, going home feels like the finale of a long, disappointing year. Sometimes love isn’t all you need.

Buy it: Amazon * B&N * Smashwords

Strays by Garrett Leigh (27th)

Work, sleep, work, repeat. Nero’s lonely life suits him just fine until his best friend, Cass, asks him to take on a new apprentice—a beautiful young man who’s never set foot in a professional kitchen. Despite his irritation and his lifelong ability to shut the world out, Nero is mesmerised by the vibrant stray, especially when he learns what drove him to seek sanctuary on Nero’s battered old couch.

Lenny Mitchell is living under a cloud of fear. Pursued by a stalker, he has nowhere left to run until Nero offers him a port in a storm—a job at the hottest restaurant in Shepherd’s Bush. Kitchen life proves heady and addictive, and it’s not long before he finds himself falling hard and fast for the man who has taken him in.

Fast-forward a month and a neither man can imagine life without the other, but one thing stands in their way: a lifetime of horrors Nero can’t bring himself to share with Lenny. Or can he? For the first time ever, happiness is there for the taking, and Nero must learn to embrace it before fate steps in and rips it away.

Buy it: Amazon * B&N

Honestly Ben by Bill Konigsberg (28th)

In the companion to Openly Straight, Ben confronts pressure at school, repression at home, and his passion for two very different people in figuring out what it takes to be Honestly Ben.

Ben Carver is back to normal. He’s working steadily in his classes at the Natick School. He just got elected captain of the baseball team. He’s even won a full scholarship to college, if he can keep up his grades. All that foolishness with Rafe Goldberg the past semester is in the past.

Except . . .

There’s Hannah, the gorgeous girl from the neighboring school, who attracts him and distracts him. There’s his mother, whose quiet unhappiness Ben is noticing for the first time. School is harder, the pressure higher, the scholarship almost slipping away. And there’s Rafe, funny, kind, dating someone else . . . and maybe the real normal that Ben needs.

Buy it: Amazon * B&N * IndieBound

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Fave Five: Queer Romances for Music Lovers

A&B by JC Lillis (YA, f/f, B)

Grrrls on the Side by Carrie Pack (YA, f/f)

Stygian by Santino Hassell (m/m)

One Kiss with a Rock Star by Amber Lin and Shari Slade (m/f, B)

True Brit by Con Riley (m/m)

Bonus: For shorter reads, check out novellas Full Exposure by Amy Jo Cousins (m/m), Fearless by Shira Glassman (f/f), and Lioness in Blue by Shira Glassman (m/f, B)

Double Bonus: Not a Romance, but Another Word For Happy by Agay Llanera has a gay main character who’s a piano prodigy

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Fave Five: LGBTQ YAs Featuring First-Generation Americans

Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard (Portuguese)

A Darkly Beating Heart by Lindsay Smith (Japanese)

Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before by Karelia Stetz-Waters (Estonian)

 One Man Guy by Michael Barakiva (Armenian)

Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan (Persian)

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