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.
This is one of my favorite posts (courtesy of Jamie of Perpetual Page Turner) to do on my personal blog, and I thought it’d be fun to bring it here, using just the LGBTQIAP+ books I’ve read this year, and hear what your answers would be in the comments! (Note: a few of these answers on my personal blog were LGBTQIAP+ books anyway, so those have been copy-pasted here.) So, let’s see how this goes:
2016 Reading Stats
Number Of Books You Read: 64 books w/LGBTQIAP+ protags
Number of Re-Reads: Just Out on Good Behavior, for obvious reasons!
Genre You Read The Most From: Contemporary YA
2. Book You Were Excited About & Thought You Were Going To Love More But Didn’t?
Pretty much any book I expected/hoped would have better representation than it does.
3. Most surprising (in a good way or bad way) book you read?
Best surprises are the ones that had queer POVs in books I definitely did not expect to see them in, and wouldn’t necessarily have read this year (if ever) if bloggers didn’t push me to! So: Cherry by Lindsey Rosin, Winning by Lara Deloza, and This Song is (Not) For You by Laura Nowlin.
4. Book You “Pushed” The Most People To Read (And They Did)?
Series Ender: Pretty sure Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo’s the only one I read with any queer POVs!
6. Favorite new author you discovered in 2016?
Santino Hassell – picked up one book, continued to read four more of his throughout the year.
7. Best book from a genre you don’t typically read/was out of your comfort zone?
The Abyss Surrounds Usby Emily Skrutskie! I know that conceptually that book is so many people’s dream, but it’s not my usual thing and I found it totally unputdownable. AndNot Your Sidekick by CB Lee – not usually a superhero-book reader but this was so much fun, and I’m so psyched it’s gonna be a continuing series.
8. Most action-packed/thrilling/unputdownable book of the year?
14. Book you can’t believe you waited UNTIL 2016 to finally read?
How to Repair a Mechanical Heart by JC Lillis. That’s one of my favorite LGBTQIAP YAs of all time now and people were talking about its greatness for SO LONG, but I was slow to it for no good reason.
15. Favorite Passage/Quote From A Book You Read In 2016?
To the boys who get called girls,
the girls who get called boys,
and those who live outside these words.
To those called names
and those searching for names of their own.
To those who live on the edges,
and in the spaces in between.
I wish for you every light in the sky.
We Are Okay by Nina LaCour. It didn’t even happen immediately, but as the book sank in, I just completely lost it.
27. Hidden Gem Of The Year?
I feel like in LGBTQIAP+ lit almost everything is a hidden gem because they rarely get decent marketing budgets, but I have such a soft spot for Seven Ways We Lie by Riley Redgate, for quietly delivering both (explicit) pan and (implicit) ace rep in a mainstream YA. While both of those words pop up a bunch in 2017 YA, 7WWL was the only mainstream 2016 YA I saw to contain either one. (And yes, it’s also a good book!)
Queer Lit on my Mind, which isn’t exactly a book blog but it’s a (now-) friend’s Tumblr I think posts great reviews.
2. Favorite review that you wrote in 2016?
I’m actually a terrible reviewer, and since I keep needing to remind people this isn’t a review site, I’m going to abstain from this question so I don’t send the wrong message!
3. Best discussion/non-review post you had on your blog?
Not that I can take any credit for it, personally, but gotta go with Casey Lawrence’s “Goodbye, Bad Bi“!
4. Best event that you participated in (author signings, festivals, virtual events, memes, etc.)?
Only did one LGBTQ panel this year – with Adam Silvera, Jenn Marie Thorne, and Kenneth Logan – but it was great! Also attended a good one featuring Rebecca Podos, Kenneth Logan, Cordelia Jensen, and I.W. Gregorio.
5. Best moment of bookish/blogging life in 2016?
Kicking off this site, I’d say!
7. Most Popular Post This Year On Your Blog (whether it be by comments or views)?
Thank you to guest-posting author Casey Lawrence, whose “Goodbye, Bad Bi” was by far the most popular post on the site this year.
8. Post You Wished Got A Little More Love?
I did hope more people would share the post of Trans Lit Under $5 – most of those books are #ownvoices titles that could definitely use some love!
9. Best bookish discovery (book related sites, book stores, etc.)?
The LA all-Romance bookstore The Ripped Bodice is amazing, and so great for queer romance. And I’m not just saying that because they made Out on Good Behavior their book club pick one month, but I’m also not not saying that? Because choosing an f/f NA for book club is pretty damn awesome.
10. Did you complete any reading challenges or goals that you had set for yourself at the beginning of this year?
Finally launching this site! (And my personal Goodreads challenge of reading 175 books.)
1. One Book You Didn’t Get To In 2016 But Will Be Your Number 1 Priority in 2017?
So Sweet by Rebekah Weatherspoon – I’ve been saving that series for myself forever!
2. Book You Are Most Anticipating For 2017 (non-debut)?
Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert. I freaking loved Pointe and this character is bi and Jewish, so, no-brainer! But absolutely highly anticipating Noteworthy by Riley Redgate and Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee, both of which sound super clever and fun, and by authors I’m really curious to see more from as well. Redgate did something really fantastic for YA by bringing it its first mainstream on-the-page pansexual character, and Tash reportedly contains fantastic on-the-page ace rep, so, lots to look forward to!
After so many years of LGBTQIAP+ lit struggling for recognition, it’s been pretty killer to watch literary news this year. Whereas a starred review for an LGBTQIAP+ YA book used to be a needle in a haystack, this fall was absolutely rife with them. Whereas coverage of queer Romance novels used to be relegated pretty entirely to queer publications, now it’s been everywhere from Bustle to Washington Post (*tips hat to Sarah Maclean*). And since I think at any given time, we could all use some good news about the progress of LGBTQIAP+ books in publishing, here’s to highlighting some of this year’s biggest successes in mainstream media:
This is Where it Ends by Marieke Nijkamp spent 29 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list and was named among 19 of the Best YA Books of 2016 by Buzzfeed and one of the best YAs of the year by Paste.
For those of you who feel like you’ve already read every LGBTQIAP+ book in existence, not to worry – there’s plenty still to come! Every TBRainbow Alert will have a mix of five LGBTQIAP+ titles to make sure are on your radar, along with three reasons why you should know them. Here are a few coming up in 2016! (Title links to Goodreads; Author links to book pages for preorder.)
Title:Roller Girl(July 25) Author:Vanessa North Genre/Category: Contemporary Romance Rainbow details: f/f, trans woman and cis woman Why put it on your radar?
1. Ummm roller derby? Did you not catch that?
2. This is actually gonna be my first Vanessa North read, but far as I can tell she’s pretty great!
3. Mainstream f/f Romance is still reasonably rare, and including at least one trans woman even more so.
Title:Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit(August 30) Author:Jaye Robin Brown Genre/Category: Contemporary YA Rainbow details: f/f, both MC and LI are lesbian and cis Why put it on your radar?
1. Super fun, cute, and hot f/f YA with an HEA; all the things I almost never find together in one space.
2. Really great exploration of the intersection between queerness and religion.
3. It’s set in the south, where queer teens could especially stand to see their stories in happy contexts right now.
Title:As I Descended (September 6) Author:Robin Talley Genre/Category: Paranormal YA Rainbow details: f/f, bi MC Why put it on your radar?
1. This is a freaking Macbeth retelling. In boarding school. With ghosts. I MEAN.
2. I haven’t read this one yet but I’ve heard rumblings of a much A+ representation in this book, in addition to queerness.
3. Robin Talley is maybe the author most frequently and consistently publishing LGBTQ YA with a big house right now, and always does so with an eye on intersectionality; she’s just generally a fabulous person to support.
Title:Last Seen Leaving (October 4) Author:Caleb Roehrig Genre/Category: YA Thriller Rainbow details: Questioning/Gay boy Why put it on your radar? 1. Thrillers are my crack. Willing to bet I’m not alone there.
2. Debut author! Love getting in on the ground floor of a potential great new voice in LGBTQIAP+ YA, and all signs (and reviews)(and, if I’m being honest, his tweets) point to him being someone to watch
3. It’s just so…interesting. And resonant. And the representation is every bit as beautiful as the writing.
Title:When the Moon Was Ours(October 4) Author:Anna-Marie McLemore Genre/Category: Magical Realism YA Rainbow details: m/f, queer cis girl and straight trans boy Why put it on your radar?
1. The writing is melt-your-brain beautiful.
2. QPoC are incredibly rare in YA, as are romances between PoC (and especially interracial romances between PoC), and this is between a Latina girl and a Desi boy.
3. It’s just so…interesting. And resonant. And the representation is every bit as beautiful as the writing.
Stay tuned for the next TBR Alert, coming soon; in the meantime, please spread the word about these!