Doesn’t it seem totally reasonable when I write it in such an official way? Using “our” like I’m not the one writing this post? Whatever, look, it’s been a really tough year and a really tough week and I have two books coming out this year and a paperback release and so I have decided to dedicate today to Me. (But also, it’s a Tuesday, so make sure you check out this month’s New Releases post to see what else you need!)
Coming up on March 16th, my Shakespeare reimagining anthology, That Way Madness Lies, releases from Flatiron books! My story in this one actually isn’t queer other than a minor character being nonbinary, but it also contains work from AR Capetta and Cory McCarthy, Mark Oshiro, Anna-Marie McLemore, Lindsay Smith, and more, who have made sure this collection is bursting with rainbows. (Mostly trans and ace-spec rep, for those curious!)
If you preorder from Third Place Books, you’ll get a bookplate signed by a whole bunch of us (one of my dream bookish goals is to get an anthology signed by all its contributors, so this takes you halfway there!), and if you preorder from Mysterious Galaxy, the same is true, but your book will also be signed by the lovely Kiersten White!
Fifteen acclaimed YA writers put their modern spin on William Shakespeare’s celebrated classics! West Side Story. 10 Things I Hate About You. Kiss Me, Kate. Contemporary audiences have always craved reimaginings of Shakespeare’s most beloved works. Now, some of today’s best writers for teens take on the Bard in these 15 whip-smart and original retellings!
Contributors include Dahlia Adler (reimagining The Merchant of Venice), Kayla Ancrum (The Taming of the Shrew), Lily Anderson (As You Like It), Patrice Caldwell (Hamlet), Melissa Bashardoust (A Winter’s Tale), A.R. Capetta and Cory McCarthy (Much Ado About Nothing), Brittany Cavallaro (Sonnet 147), Joy McCullough (King Lear), Anna-Marie McLemore (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Samantha Mabry (Macbeth), Tochi Onyebuchi (Coriolanus), Mark Oshiro (Twelfth Night), Lindsay Smith (Julius Caesar), Kiersten White (Romeo and Juliet), and Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka (The Tempest).
And in case you haven’t seen my biconic cover everywhere, Cool for the Summer is my first novel since Out on Good Behavior (!) and it releases May 11 from Wednesday Books! Get your bisexual questioning, mulling over compulsory heterosexuality, Demi Lovato references, graphic novel recs, Jewish rep (both Ashkenazi and Sephardi!) and more within! (No indies are specifically tied to this one, so please preorder from wherever you like – there is a campaign TBA!)
Larissa Bogdan was supposed to spend her summer babysitting and bookselling. Instead, she tagged after her mom to the Outer Banks, working on her tan and making new friends. Now she’s back and starting her senior year at Stratford High, only to face another unexpected turn: she’s finally attracted the attention of superstar quarterback Chase Harding, the guy she’s crushed on since middle school.
Then Jasmine Killary shows up. Jasmine, who’s supposed to be in North Carolina, not the New York City suburbs. Jasmine, who immediately entices Stratford’s student body with her glittering beauty and casual-cool style. Jasmine, who gave Larissa the three most perfect months of her life.
But now Jasmine’s keeping her distance, not even acknowledging their friendship, much less the hot summer nights they spent together. Larissa knows she should be glad to bury their secret, but she also knows she never felt more comfortable, more confident, more herself than when she was with Jasmine. What was supposed to be a playful fling became something much deeper than she ever could have imagined.
If Larissa’s finally got the guy, why can’t she stop thinking about the girl?
And of course, if you haven’t yet read His Hideous Heart, you can grab that in paperback starting September 7th!
Thirteen of YA’s most celebrated names reimagine Edgar Allan Poe’s most surprising, unsettling, and popular tales for a new generation.
Edgar Allan Poe may be a hundred and fifty years beyond this world, but the themes of his beloved works have much in common with modern young adult fiction. Whether the stories are familiar to readers or discovered for the first time, readers will revel in Edgar Allan Poe’s classic tales, and how they’ve been brought to life in 13 unique and unforgettable ways.
Dahlia Adler (reimagining “Ligeia”), Kendare Blake (“Metzengerstein”), Rin Chupeco (“The Murders in the Rue Morgue”), Lamar Giles (“The Oval Portrait”), Tessa Gratton (“Annabel Lee”), Tiffany D. Jackson (“The Cask of Amontillado”), Stephanie Kuehn (“The Tell-Tale Heart”), Emily Lloyd-Jones (“The Purloined Letter”), Hillary Monahan (“The Masque of the Red Death”), Marieke Nijkamp (“Hop-Frog”), Caleb Roehrig (“The Pit and the Pendulum”), and Fran Wilde (“The Fall of the House of Usher”).
Finally, in case you missed it, I have a new anthology coming in Fall 2022! At the Stroke of Midnight is a collection of fairytale retellings, a number of which are absolutely guaranteed to be queer as hell, and you can add it on Goodreads!
I hope you’re all having a wonderful Dahlia Day, and I can’t promise this will be the last time I’m this wildly self-indulgent on here, but I can promise that oh look at the time, I’ve gotta go, bye! xoxo
You’ve been seriously busy these past couple of years! But let’s focus on your newest release first:the fabulous The Never Tilting World, your YA fantasy that released on October 15 and has been billed as Frozen meets Mad Max: Fury Road. What drew you to this story, and were either of those movies in fact inspirations?
I love the aesthetics involved in Mad Max: Fury Road, and wanted to construct a world where those aesthetics would feel right at home. There’s a lot of sparseness to Fury Road that I wanted to emulate, and what strikes me is that the lack of any specific settings never detracted once from the story. In fact, the absence of any concrete locations is what helps propel the story – all Furiosa knows is that she must make it to the mythical Green Place, and is disheartened to find that it’s long gone. For the same reason, both Odessa and Haidee are trying to get to the Great Abyss, the center of Aeon where the worst of the destruction had happened, because they believe there’s something there that will help them figure out how to heal the world. Their hope is what pushes the story forward, too.
TNTW is a little different from Frozen in that, while it’s a story about two sisters, both Haidee and Odessa haven’t even met each other yet. Both begins their travels with an idealized idea of what their sister must have been like, what kind of a family they could have been, and it’s their motivation to try and make the world a better place, because its destruction is what tore them apart in the first place. And it’s a great way to highlight their similarities and their differences with each other before they even meet, so readers get an idea of what kind of relationship they could have as they barrel toward the story’s climax!
There are four characters who really take center stage in The Never Tilting World, including an f/f couple. What one character in the group would you trust to take you to the end of the world, and why?
Right off the bat, it’s not going to be Arjun. We are too similar in personality, which is why I know I can’t trust him for crap. His only advantage is that he’s got a better sense of direction than I do, but we are going to drive each other wild snarking on each other and ignoring all the warning signs and wind up getting eaten by a monster goldfish or something.
Odessa’s a bit too sheltered to understand how the world works at the book’s beginning, and Haidee will be too distracted by the possible automata she could be building en route, and also she will be absent-minded enough to bring helpful inventions to aid on the trip, but not enough food and water. So it’s definitely Lan I’m going to trust, because she’s a responsible leader who is also an excellent healer, scout, fighter, and tracker…. as long as we’re not making the journey on a ship.
You had another work out just before autumn hit, which happened to be in His Hideous Heart, an anthology I know a little bit about. “The Murders in the Rue Apartelle, Boracay” is such a cool and different take on one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous stories, and one you completely made your own, including setting it in the Philippines. Can you share some details about it that are especially meaningful to you?
Boracay was where I, four months pregnant with my first kid, was when Typhoon Haiyan hit. It was one of the first places in the Philippines where it made landfall, and considering that it was a super-typhoon – well, you can only imagine the destruction we saw, and the destruction we barely managed to avoid. Boracay had always been my safe place, in a way – it’s a gorgeous beach, I know how to avoid all the noisy party areas and where to go so it feels like you’ve got the whole place to yourself. That’s where my mind goes when I feel stressed and want to recharge. But that changed a lot after the typhoon, and I started to look at it as a place where bad things could and do happen, even though it’s still one of my most favorite places in the world. Edgar Allan Poe is a huge inspiration to me, and I thought it would be great then to marry a tribute to him with the one place that I know best. Most of the locations in the story are actual places in Boracay, down to the drinking challenges at the bars and the cafe where you can get calamansi cupcakes (although of course, I wish there were eldritches and fairy beer there, too!) One of the murders in my story though, was based on an actual murder of a trans girl by a US marine that made national news (and I can’t really say much else beyond this, because spoilers!).
But wait, there’s more! In just a few months, you have another queer YA fantasy coming, this one with a gay male MC. What can you tell us about Wicked as You Wish?
WICKED AS YOU WISH was seven years in the making, and it’s about a Filipina teen descended from the Filipino mythical heroine Maria Makiling, who winds up helping a young Avalon prince defend his kingdom against the Snow Queen. It’s my “what if fairy tales were real historical events” storyline that I’m really proud of.
My deuteragonist is Alexei Tsarevich, a prince with a HUGE chip on his shoulder, mostly because he’d witnessed his parents’ murder, had to flee his own kingdom when he was five years old, had to watch his kingdom freeze for twelve years, making it inaccessible to all and worrying about any survivors still inside, and had been bouncing from one hiding place to the next, because many governments are searching for him and the powerful spelltech patents his family own. (because yay, capitalism.) To make things worse, he also has a curse where everyone he kisses turns into a frog – excepting Tala, and he cries when he realizes there’s at least one person in the world he couldn’t hurt. He’s kind and loyal and supportive, but he also harbors a lot of survivor’s guilt, and also guilt for many other things he’d had to do to survive. He’d always believed his family’s most powerful weapon, the firebird, had been destroyed decades ago – so when it comes for him on his eighteenth birthday, he now has to deal with suddenly being given the power to change his destiny for the first time in twelve years. Sometimes he does that poorly, and often a little too aggressively to make up for the feelings of vulnerability that had been a constant to him over the years, but I think this is also why I like him very much. Like Lan and also like me, he deals very poorly with trauma, and I wanted to emphasize the different ways people process that, because those ways have happened to me.
One of the most interesting things about watching your career is seeing you thrive thousands of miles away from the so-called center of YA publishing. What’s it like building a career in American publishing from Southeast Asia, and what’s the bookish scene like in the Philippines?
The writing community in the Philippines is a lot similar to the one in the US, I think, albeit in a smaller scale. A big difference though, is that many writers prefer local publishing, which I find personally disheartening. There’s a lot of good stories here waiting for an international audience, but I also think colonial mentality plays a big part in the reluctance. We’re used to looking at the US as something infinitely grander, so we tend to think the works that we do pale in comparison to the works abroad, and that’s not the case at all. This was the mindset I had to unlearn because it’s very prevalent here, but that might also be because I had big dreams and wanted to write for a living, which would not have been possible with the local publishing industry. As odd as it sounds, my name is probably recognizable in the US pub field, but not in my own country. So many people have assumed I’m American simply because I published abroad, and most local panels I’ve done always inevitably wind up with people coming up to me and going “wait what, you’re Filipino?! You’re not visiting from the US, you actually live here?!” There’s a lot of other factors, too (my books are too expensive for many, I don’t look like a typical Filipino and my last name is more of a Chinese-Filipino hybrid, looking down on children / teen books – yes, this isn’t just an American thing – or looking down at books written in English and not in Tagalog) but what IS heartening is the number of writers here who do know me and started querying agents because they saw it was possible. That’s what I want to encourage more of!
What other books do you recommend for queer Southeast Asian rep? What would you still really love to see?
I can’t answer this question without talking about Gail Villanueva and My Fate According to the Butterfly, because I think it gives the best perspective on Filipino culture and issues, primarily the drug war here, and there are some relationships between Sab and important people in her life, including gay supporting characters, that breathe life into her work. America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo is about trying to define your own Filipino-American identity along with also being queer. For other Southeast Asian but not queer-centered, there’s also Hanna Alkaf and her gorgeous poem of a book, The Weight of Our Sky, and I can’t help but tear up just thinking about this. But speaking specifically for Philippine gay rep though – as I mentioned before, that’s the most frustrating part. There’s so many LGBTQ+ books here in the Philippines, many of which try to navigate being gay while at the same time still being Catholic – and often in humorous tones, because Filipinos find a lot of solace in humor – but they’re virtually unavailable to most people outside of the country. There’s Tagalog books written to make people laugh, like Happy Na, Gay Pa (“Not just Happy, But Also Gay”) by Danton Remoto, or something that explores the issue more seriously, like Don’t Tell My Mother by Brigitte Bautista, but as a whole it’s not something people outside of the Philippines can very easily find.
What’s your first recollection of LGBTQIAP+ representation in the media, for better or for worse?
I don’t think there’s been any one specific recollection that I remember, because I grew up with LGBTQ+ prevalent enough in local media. While that sounds like a good thing, considering that the Philippines is a very highly conservative country that doesn’t even have divorce laws yet, much less abortion rights or marriage rights for same-sex couples, it’s also very problematic. You’ll see a lot of gay celebrities and gay representation in TV series, but the mindset seems to be treating them for their entertainment value, not for them as people. You’ll also see problematic depictions of them (the one I remember most clearly as a kid was this movie called Barbie: Maid in the Philippines, which is a pun. A straight cis man pretends to be a female maid because he’s on the run, and gets into hijinxes. It’s like a weird combination of Some Like It Hot and Mrs. Doubtfire. They shot this movie across from my house, and I actually have old pics of toddler me being held by some of the actors, so I remember it well.) So it’s “you can give them rights in movies and other media, but you can’t make that official in law”, which has always been the strangest thing to me. I’ve seen some LGBTQ+ people enforce this opinion even, like “I shouldn’t be given rights because it’s against the Bible and so it can’t be officially legal – but as long as no one’s stopping me personally to be the way I am, it’s fine”. There’s a lot of Catholic guilt to unpack.
I know fandom and gaming are big parts of your life. What in particular are your great loves?
I feel like I’ve been in every major 90s and early 2000s fandom that’s ever been made, from Buffy to Harry Potter to Deadwood to even the really niche ones like Kindred the Embrace or Harvey Birdman. Star Trek is my first and biggest love, but I think the one with the really biggest impact to my life is probably anime, simply because so many people here were into it. Almost everyone in the Philippines with a working TV know what anime is, and we love it. (There was this popular variety program / gag show that has one frequent skit that satirizes televangelist Bible readings, and they used the Voltes V theme song as their ‘religious’ song to open, and it’s hilarious how so many people here can sing it from memory. Heck, we celebrate a Naruto Day.)
Anime was really the gateway drug that opened me up to gender fluidity. Ranma 1/2 in particular was very eye opening, but not necessarily the way I wanted it to be. This is about a martial artist who falls into a cursed spring, and now he turns into a girl when he gets hit with cold water, but turns back into a boy with hot water. The whole plot is about him trying to find a way to undo the curse, and I always wind up mentally screaming at him. Like – “You can TURN into a man or a woman! That’s a BLESSING! Why are you trying to get rid of this blessing?! I would kill for this power!” And that opened doors into understanding deeper definitions of fluidity beyond just the binary, for me. Anime really made me understand the gay parts of me I didn’t realize I had. I was defined by series like Gravitation (which was really gay boy porn for girls and it’s so embarrassing to remember how teen me was so hot for the main character, who was also an angsty brooding traumatized bisexual AUTHOR) and Revolutionary Girl Utena (lesbian swordfighting! personally, I believe Utena walked so that Gideon the Ninth could run). Video games really emphasized that too, particularly with my favorite category, mmorpgs / multiplayer rpg – I could subsume myself into the personality of a male berserker instead of being limited to say, a female healer. I was always the main (male) tank / defense for group runs with friends, for example, and that grew to be my trademark class.
As we stare into the abyss of 2020, what upcoming queer titles are you most excited for?
Is it too early to be super-excited for Harrow the Ninth??? Also, Reverie, The Gravity of Us, and Belle Revolte! I’m still only just starting on amazing 2019 titles as it is, including Crier’s War and Her Royal Highness, just because I’ve been so busy!
Rin Chupeco wrote obscure manuals for complicated computer programs, talked people out of their money at event shows, and did many other terrible things. She now writes about ghosts and fairy tales but is still sometimes mistaken for a revenant. She was born and raised in the Philippines and, or so the legend goes, still haunts that place to this very day. Find her at rinchupeco.com.
Well, this is a pretty exciting post for me, considering I’m the editor of this particular anthology! Getting to see different takes on Poe was fun in itself, but getting to see half the collection come back with queer protagonists? Now, that was utterly delightful. I asked the authors of those stories to share a little bit about them, so come check it out!
Edgar Allan Poe may be a hundred and fifty years beyond this world, but the themes of his beloved works have much in common with modern young adult fiction. Whether the stories are familiar to readers or discovered for the first time, readers will revel in Edgar Allan Poe’s classic tales, and how they’ve been brought to life in 13 unique and unforgettable ways.
Contributors include Dahlia Adler (reimagining “Ligeia”), Kendare Blake ( “Metzengerstein”), Rin Chupeco (“The Murders in the Rue Morge”), Lamar Giles (“The Oval Portrait”), Tessa Gratton (“Annabel Lee”), Tiffany D. Jackson (“The Cask of Amontillado”), Stephanie Kuehn (“The Tell-Tale Heart”), Emily Lloyd-Jones (“The Purloined Letter”), Hillary Monahan (“The Masque of the Red Death”), Marieke Nijkamp (“Hop-Frog”), Caleb Roehrig (“The Pit and the Pendulum”), and Fran Wilde (“The Fall of the House of Usher”).
Tessa Gratton, “Night-Tide”, a retelling of “Annabel Lee”
“Annabel Lee” is one of the poems that used to get stuck in my head when I was a kid. Something about the rhythm, the longing, and the weird imagery—not to mention morbid aesthetic—spoke to thirteen year old Tessa. I used to recite it to myself in a sing-song way, letting the imagery wash over me. When I set out to write a short story inspired by it, I knew I needed a story with a refrain, and that it needed to be filled with longing and angst, and the anger I felt as a kid when adults pretended they knew better than me what I was feeling. It wasn’t until I was a few pages into writing that it occurred to me I never actively decided to make “Night-Tide” about girls in love with each other—because, to me, the poem always had been about emo teenaged lesbians.
“Annabel-Lee” is so unapologetically passionate, and as a poem it’s unashamed of its melodramatic nature. When I was a teen I was passionate and melodramatic, but I knew shame, because the world had already taught me what I was and was not allowed to love and desire. That makes me angry, and as an adult I see more shades of anger in “Annabel-Lee” than I noticed as a teen. It’s all woven into my story “Night-Tide,” which I hope inspires passion and drama and, yes, anger, in readers. Because love is so messy, and queer people deserve the space to embrace melodrama, anger, and to confront shame. We deserve the chance to take risks as we discover and decide who we are and want to be.
Caleb Roehrig, “The Glittering Death,” a retelling of “The Pit and the Pendulum”
With a cast of one, “The Pit and the Pendulum” is one of Poe’s simplest narratives: an anonymous man, alone in a dungeon, tries to evade a series of inventive death traps set by the Spanish Inquisition. The sexuality of the prisoner is irrelevant to the story—and, in my opinion, that was the perfect reason to queer the character in my adaptation of it. Laura Bonelli, the central figure of “The Glittering Death,” is questioning. (Possibly bi, though she’s not sure yet.) This fact has nothing to do with how she ends up in the clutches of a villain who calls himself the Judge; it has nothing to do with the dangers she faces, or how the story eventually concludes; but it has something to do with who she is. It’s her identity, and would still be if the story was about a driving lesson, a graduation party, or a first kiss.
I balk at saying a protagonist “just happens to be queer,” because nothing about identity can be reduced to pure happenstance; but there’s power in bringing casual visibility to identity—especially when the character in question is the one to whom it matters most.
Rin Chupeco, “The Murders at the Rue Apartelle, Boracay,” a retelling of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”
“The Murders at the Rue Apartelle, Boracay” is the story of Ogie Dupin, a Filipino-French amateur detective investigating a strange murder set in a supernatural island getaway. In keeping with the original Poe story, it’s told by an unnamed narrator, this time a young trans girl. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is not an easy story to retell – I had to write a locked room mystery believable enough for Ogie’s deductions to make sense, and yet complex enough to keep people guessing at the solution till the end. But more than that, I also wanted to write my trans narrator in a way that would give her just as much agency as Ogie, in stark contrast to how these detective stories are often written. It’s difficult to find the right balance, showing off her own intelligence without taking away from Ogie’s skills and the murder mystery, but I think I was able to pull it off!
“Hop-Frog” is, in its essence, a story about monsters. About who gets to be human and who is considered a monstrosity. About how we can be monstrous in our humanity–or our inhumanity. It’s a story about disability, too. Historically those two–disability and monster narratives–intersect quite often. (After all, every changeling story is a disability story at heart.) So when I brainstormed reimagining Hop-Frog I knew I wanted to include both those elements. I wanted to center it on disabled characters, my two queer, broken girls who are both looking for revenge—or perhaps belonging. I wanted to throw in an element of historicity (which Poe alludes but never quite commits to). And I wanted to play with monsters. I’ll just leave it up to you to decide who the monsters are: the fae, the unseelie folk, or the humans?
Emily Lloyd-Jones, “A Drop of Stolen Ink,” a retelling of “The Purloined Letter”
“A Drop of Stolen Ink” came about the way so many of my stories do: with a weird sequence of events. I was at work, thinking about Poe because the always-lovely Dahlia had mentioned how awesome it would be to rewrite those tales for a modern audience. (I believe I responded with, “OH PLEASE PLEASE LET ME DO THE PURLOINED LETTER.”) I’ve always adored mysteries – and Poe created the detective archetype with his character of C. Auguste Dupin.
And then I reached beneath a cash register scanner. Which would have been fine and normal – up until the scanner beeped and brought up a number on the computer. I made a joke about someone equipping my arm with a barcode and then my brain immediately jumped on the possibilities.
I adored working on this short story because it’s about how much of ourselves we share with the world. There are some characters’ names who are never revealed and others who put all of themselves out there. It’s about identities, both stolen and reclaimed. And I also just wanted to write an adorable budding f/f romance set in a cyberpunk near-future world, I’ll admit it. I’m really excited to share this story with both new and old readers of Poe.
Dahlia Adler, “Lygia,” a retelling of “Ligeia”
People ask me how I chose to retell “Ligeia” in particular, and the truth is that it basically chose me. I don’t share the horror/thriller strengths of my co-authors here, and I knew that whatever I did was going to have a sort of romantic contemporary sensibility, just a lot more Gothic and tragic than my usual.
“Ligeia” is a story about a man who loses his first wife to illness and remarries, but never quite finds that same love for his second wife before losing her to illness as well. The second wife, however, is the one who returns from the dead…but she returns as his first wife, Ligeia.
Knowing I didn’t want to go paranormal, I knew this was going to be a story about turning a new girlfriend into an old one, trying to revive something that couldn’t be revived and going to mad, toxic lengths to do it. It’s a story that requires praying on insecurities in a way teenage girls have truly mastered, a story I knew would thrive on a specifically female main character. Add that to the perennial queer problem of never quite being sure when your next possibility can or will come along in an area where so few people are out, making the narrator’s loss all the more dramatic and her new venture feel all the more necessary, and you have so many of the components that created “Lygia.”
I’m wildly excited for this month’s featured author, who’s written one of my favorite gay YAs ever, which is also one of my favorite mystery/thriller novels ever, and who just released his sophomore novel on April 24. He’s also got some killer (no pun intended) work coming up and one of my favorite accounts on Instagram, so basically, yeah, he’s a good guy to know! Get to know Caleb Roehrig and you’ll become a huge fan too!
New book! New book! I haven’t gotten to read it yet, but by all accounts, White Rabbit is nooo victim of the Sophomore Slump, and you know I’m a massive fan of your debut, Last Seen Leaving. Can you tell us a little about White Rabbit and what it was like to write book 2?
White Rabbit is about a boy named Rufus Holt who has one night to prove his sister is being framed for murder, with no allies to trust or count on but the ex-boyfriend who crushed his heart. The entire story unfolds over the course of about eight hours, and I call it my tribute to Agatha Christie—a murder mystery with a small pool of suspects, all of whom have something to hide.
As for writing Book 2, let me assure you that Second Book Syndrome is no joke! I actually completed a manuscript in between Last Seen Leaving and White Rabbit, but was in such a weird head space that I never felt comfortable with it. Once it was done, I shelved the project and started all over again. It was absolutely the right choice; the new story—this one—felt right from the very beginning, and I’m so excited to share it with the world!
You also recently announced a new book called Death Prefers Blondes, which I am so excited about. What can you share about it, and in what ways is it a departure from your previous work?
What I can say about Death Prefers Blondes is this: it’s my take on Hamlet, wherein Hamlet is a rebel heiress and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are a pack of kickboxing drag queens. It’s a story I’ve told myself in one form or another since I was a teenager, and in many ways it feels surreal to finally have it captured in a manuscript. I tell everyone my signature content is Murder, Mayhem, & Make-outs, and Blondes has all of that in spades; but otherwise, it’s a huge departure for me. It’s less a whodunit than an action/adventure story, and I’ve never written a character quite like my protagonist, Margo—a wise-cracking, death-defying, face-punching socialite, hell-bent on revenge!
As a thriller master, you’ve got to get yourself into some pretty dark places, and do some really twisted plotting. What are your favorites ways to both get yourself into those modes and pull yourself back out as needed?
This is probably going to be an unsatisfying answer, but once upon a time, I was a professional actor; and as such, I have long experience with finding my way in and out of dark places. Acting is storytelling, of course—conjuring emotions out of words, and communicating that journey to the audience. The difference is that now I get to choose the tale that’s told, and how my reader will enter and exit the more intense scenes. To be honest, getting myself in and out of those frames of mind is easier than you might think; I get a lot of satisfaction when I feel like the mood is working right. In a way, creating misery is perversely rewarding.
Talk to me about your main characters. What do you see as common threads between Caleb Roehrig leads, and in what ways do they differ? How much do their very different romantic situations play into that?
I think my protagonists tend to be sarcastic, self-righteous, and prone to overthinking things. As for their differences, Flynn is definitely more of a joiner, and Rufus is more of a proud outcast. In terms of their respective journeys, Rufus has been out for a couple of years before the events White Rabbit, while Flynn is only just embarking on that journey in Last Seen Leaving, which definitely plays into their respective attitudes.
It’s hard to explain how being closeted affects a person, but the best way I can describe it is to say that it’s like living with a ten-second delay. Every word that comes out of your mouth has to clear the censors first, to be sure it won’t give away your secret. A lot of Flynn’s actions and interests are directed by what he thinks will best help him fit in with his friend group; on the flipside, Rufus has had more time to accept and embrace what makes him different, which is, in part, what helps him find his friend group.
As a result, Flynn’s romance is complicated by the fact that he’s put so much time and effort into resisting what he really wants, so that breaking through that shell is a challenge. For Rufus, knowing what he wants isn’t enough—because the boy he wants it with runs in a different social circle, and is going through a difficult journey of his own.
Anyone who doesn’t follow you on Instagram might not know that you take some seriously gorgeous travel photography, and are a hell of a traveler. What are your top 3 travel spots, and what are the top 3 on your travel bucket list? (Also, so everyone can see what I’m talking about, please share a fave travel photo!)
This one is hard! I’ve been a lot of places, but mostly in Europe, because I lived there for four years. That said, I think my top three might be: Venice, Italy; literally anywhere in Norway; and Vevey, Switzerland.
My bucket list includes: Tokyo, Marrakesh, and Rio de Janeiro. And Machu Picchu. And Australia.
As for a fave travel photo, please enjoy the attached snapshot I took of Silvaplana, a town in the Swiss canton of Graubünden, while hiking the Alps!
And as long as we’re discussing travel, if you were going to set a book outside the US, where would it be and why?
Without giving too much away, there’s a sequence in Death Prefers Blondes that takes place in Europe; but as for setting an entire novel outside the US, I definitely have every intention to do so! I was so fortunate to live in Finland for a while, and to get to know that part of the world in an intimate way, and I would love to set a book there. It would mean a lot to me to bring that country alive on the page as a personal love letter.
I would also love to set something in Stockholm. It’s another of my favorite world cities, and I have kind of an affinity for Swedish culture. I’ve been low-key studying the language for the past seven years, which involves reading tons of gritty, Nordic crime fiction, and it’s been making my imagination run wild.
We’ve been seeing some more discussion lately about the importance of queer-guy YA written by queer guys, and as one of my favorite authors bringing #ownvoices gay YA to the canon, what are some books/voices you’d love to see get some more attention? And what milestones would you still like to see hit?
One of my absolute favorite #ownvoices novels is Adam Silvera’s History is All You Left Me, and I think it deserve more love. It’s a beautifully-written work about some very ugly emotions, and digs its fingers into some situations that are very specific to the gay experience, and which ring with an authenticity that gay readers deserve. I’m also really fond of Tim Floreen’s Willful Machines, Cale Dietrich’s The Love Interest, and Simon Curtis’s Boy Robot, all of which are SciFi/Spec Fic stories with thriller sentimentalities and queer protagonists. I am 110% here for books about kids who navigate their queerness as only one element of a more expansive plot, because that’s how it works in real life, too.
As for milestones I’d like to see hit, well…there are so many. I’d love for more queer writers to hit The List with #OV fiction, of course, but beyond that I would love to see readers really engage with queer art. When we express ourselves in our own words, we communicate truths that can get lost in translation when others tell our stories for us, and sometimes those borrowed narratives deliberately misrepresent the queer experience to appeal to non-queer readers. (I want to add here: writing outside your lane with respect and accuracy is absolutely possible, and I’ve got a list of an incredibly well-done books in that vein to rec as well!)
Honestly, I could talk for ages about this, but to keep it short, I’ll go with this: a milestone I would love to see hit is for #OV gay YA writers to earn awards and recognition based on genre as much as on category. I’d love to see readers abandon their preconceptions and embrace a fuller representation of what queerness is.
Heading back to the root of my fandom, now that you’re a ways away from publication of Last Seen Leaving, what have your takeaways been from the experience, especially with gay YA thrillers being so rare?
My experience has so far been great. It’s funny…I always thought of myself as a thriller writer, because I’ve been telling murder mysteries since long before I ever believed I could sell a book with a gay protagonist. Last Seen Leaving was actually my first attempt at an #OwnVoices novel, and when I first started it, I didn’t actually expect it to go anywhere. So it took me a while to internalize that I’m also a queer lit writer.
I’m really lucky, I think, because with one foot in the genre world and another in the growing field of queer rep for young readers, I get the opportunity to speak on a number of topics that I’m really passionate about. And what’s so great is to know that the gay YA thriller is a growing subcategory right now. I’m not sure where it comes from, but most of the gay men I know love horror movies, and I think—I hope—that more and more OV books are on their way about queer teens fighting monsters and busting crime!
For better or for worse, what’s the earliest LGBTQIAP+ representation you remember reading or seeing onscreen?
I think the very first time that I saw definitively queer rep (something more than subtext) it was in excerpts of Madonna: Truth or Dare, the controversial documentary of the 1991 music tour, Blonde Ambition. I remember these black-and-white clips being played on the news, showing Madonna sitting around with her flamboyant and unapologetically gay back-up dancers, speaking in blunt, provocative terms. Everything featured on the news was heavily censored, of course, but they were there. Madonna was one of the most influential artists in the world at the time, and I’m not sure people can really appreciate what her deliberate and highly visible acceptance of the queer community meant at the time.
Other than Death Prefers Blondes, what’s up next for you? (This is only slightly leading for an HHH plug. Really.)
So, in addition to Death Prefers Blondes, I have a fourth book scheduled with Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, and then I’m contributing a short story to an anthology of Edgar Allen Poe retellings, entitled His Hideous Heart, edited by one Dahlia Adler! (For those keeping score, I’ll be tackling The Pit and the Pendulum.) I’m also contributing to a second anthology, which has not been announced yet, and tweaking an adult fiction project I’ve been working on for a while. So…I think I have a busy year ahead!
Caleb Roehrig is a writer and television producer originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Having also lived in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Helsinki, Finland, he has a chronic case of wanderlust, and can recommend the best sights to see on a shoestring budget in over thirty countries. A former actor, Roehrig has experience on both sides of the camera, with a résumé that includes appearances on film and TV—as well as seven years in the stranger-than-fiction salt mines of reality television. In the name of earning a paycheck, he has: hung around a frozen cornfield in his underwear, partied with an actual rock-star, chatted with a scandal-plagued politician, and been menaced by a disgruntled ostrich.