Jay Coles is a graduate of Vincennes University and Ball State University. When he’s not writing diverse books, he’s advocating for them, teaching middle school students, and composing for various music publishers. His debut novel Tyler Johnson Was Here is based on true events in his life and inspired by police brutality in America. He resides in Indianapolis, Indiana, and invites you to visit his website at jaycoleswrites.com.
First of all, congratulations on your upcoming book, Things We Couldn’t Say! How did you find yourself coming to write this story?
Thank you, thank you. Gio’s story came to me quite easily during the period of time I was stuck in my house in quarantine this past year. I knew that once Gio first popped into my thoughts, that his story was one about love, parental abandonment, forgiveness, second chances, and all the ways that family can hurt each other. Gio’s story is one that I can really empathize with because a lot of Gio is actually, well, me.
What drew you to writing when you first started? What keeps you motivated to keep writing despite the challenges?
I’ve always been a writer. Before I wrote books, I wrote instrumental/symphonic music. The idea of telling a story (whether it’s through words or music notes) is the joy of my heart. Also, I love the idea of starting a task and completing it. There’s no greater feeling, in my opinion, than finishing a draft of a book. I feel like that’s an easy motivation for me to finish writing, but to start? That’s a whole other thing.
Your book explores an interracial relationship between the two characters, Gio and David, who come from very different places mentally? What were the hopes in writing a relationship like this?
I wanted to show just how two VERY different people can come together and love each other well, to reveal layers of each other they didn’t know they had, and to show how even people who feel like love aren’t meant for them or in the cards they’ve been dealt are worthy of love, of any kind, if they want it. Also the trope of unlikely romantic love interests will forever have my heart. Wait. Is that even a real trope?
Part of the book’s beauty in navigating family, navigating the pain caused by those you love as well as the joy in found family? Was this always something you wanted to explore?
I looooove talking about found family and how family can be those we are born into or those we walk into later in life. Long story short, family can be complicated. Family are the people who know us the most and who are supposed to love us the most, but they can also be the ones who hurt us the worst and cut deep wounds into us that last years and years and years. I feel like this is super underexplored in YA, so I’m very glad to continue that conversation through Things We Couldn’t Say.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were asked?
I wish people asked me about the playlists in the book. Now, I know, I know. The book isn’t out just yet, but I’m hoping people ask me about the music in the book.
Besides being a talented author, what are some things you would want readers to know about you personally?
I’m a professional musician! I play drums!
What advice would you give to other writers on their own writing journeys, especially QPOC writers?
I hate when people give advice to write every single day; that’s SO unrealistic. The only thing I’ll say to young writers is to enjoy the journey – enjoy the initial drafting stage, the editing, the querying, the eventual publication, etc. We are all somewhere along in the journey of life together, let’s enjoy the little moments, even the ones that feel incredibly hard to enjoy.
Are there any other projects or story ideas you are currently nursing and could tell us about?
I am working on SEVERAL projects, but sadly none I can talk about just yet. But stay tuned!!
Crystal Frasier is a girl from small-town Florida who now has twenty years’ experience writing for comics, fiction, and games. She has contributed to major brands like Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons, as well as small-press projects and anthologies, but she got her start self-publishing transgender-focused webcomics. Today Crystal is the proud mama of two energetic corgis, Calamity and Adamant.
Val Wise is a cartoonist originally from Clearwater Beach, Florida. He’s contributed to a handful of anthologies, including Dates! and Wayward Kindred, as well as projects like Rolled & Told. He currently lives in the Southern U.S. with his husband, two best friends, and two talkative cats named Biscotti and Ciabatta.
I had the opportunity to interview both Crystal and Val, which you can read below.
CF: Cheer Up! is a sweet, sometimes dramatic, sometimes sarcastic look at being a queer kid in high school, using the friendship and drama of a cheerleading squad as the template. It looks at how we grow and become better people because of the friendships we form, and also there are girls falling in love and smooching.
What was the inspiration for Cheer Up? Were there any stories or media you drew upon for inspiration while creating it?
CF: The book actually started as a random thought one day on a very long escalator ride, about trans youth winning more acceptance and recognition, and how nice it could be to just have small, happy stories about trans kids making friends and falling in love. A friend had mentioned the comic Check Please earlier that day and even thought I hadn’t gotten to read it, I thought the idea of gay romance set against such a strongly male-coded activity like hockey was wonderful and thought that the same thing for girls would be something like cheerleading, and that spun together into what if there was a sweet story about two girls on their school’s cheerleading squad, falling in love?
A lot of the details didn’t develop until I teamed up with Val. We realized we grew up within a few miles of each other on the gulf coast of Florida, and it’s an area with a distinctive feel and culture, so we decided to set the book there. That fleshed out a lot of the side-character personalities by drawing on people I knew (including some of my friends from high school who were on the cheer squad) and places we visited. It all made the story feel a lot more real and easier to write.
How did you both get into comics?
CF: I started young. When my mother was teaching me to read, she noticed I struggled less with the newspaper comics than I did with my young reader books. So she started buying me comics at the grocery store to practice with. Neither of us knew it at the time, but I was dyslexic, and having the text in all capital letters, in clearly divided subsections, made reading a lot easier. That grew pretty quickly into a lifelong love of combining art and literature.
VW: Art runs on my dad’s side of the family – my dad especially is a big comic book fan. I grew up reading Tales from the Crypt (his influence) as well as a LOT of shoujo manga (Tokyo Mew Mew, Pita-Ten, Sugar Sugar Rune, etc.). I used to lay on the floor drawing comics on printer paper when I was in elementary school. I didn’t consider comics as a career path until I was a senior in high school, but I’ve been drawing comics for pretty much my whole life!
What are some things about the industry that surprised you upon entering it? What things do you wish you had known when you first started?
CF: When you see the slick, final product, it’s easy to imagine everyone i the comics industry is very professional, has a clear plan, and knows exactly what they’re doing at all times. That is not generally the case. Comics—the whole publishing sector—is kind of a chaotic sprawl behind-the-scenes and can be pretty confusing to navigate. So much of success and getting work relies on who you know. Cheer Up only came to be because I know Jay Edidin and Amy Chu and they both knew my earlier writing work and believed in me and talked me up to Oni. So I suppose I really wish I’d known to start attending comic conventions and networking with editors and writers sooner.
VW: It wasn’t a surprise necessarily, but I didn’t fully grasp how many different roles + jobs you have to juggle when you’re working as a freelancer — and this includes day jobs! Though I’m VERY lucky to be a full time freelancer now, I worked food service + barista jobs while I was working on Cheer Up!. There’s no shame in needing a day job to pay the bills, but it can be draining to have very limited free time. The most helpful thing for me in this regard was finding ways to simplify my art style to make drawing quicker and easier – especially simplifying the things I liked to draw the least!
Right now, the Young Adult publishing and comics industry seems to be experiencing a wave of queer sports narratives, including Fence, Check Please!, and more. What are your thoughts on this shift and what do you think is so gay about sports narratives?
CF: I’m all for it. I’m in favor of more gay stories in every genre. Heck, I have a gay noir mystery series I’m currently shopping around. But I think it works well with sports because these tend to be gendered spaces to begin with; for a straight romance, one party by necessity has to be an outsider to that unit, but with a gay romance you can keep the story contained within group you’ve already developed. And sports stories are already about people perfecting themselves, pushing their limits, developing close connections to others; it’s a natural progression for these to all build to romance. Sports are gay.
VW: There’s a stereotype, I think, that gay people don’t like sports (as a lifelong baseball fan I’m bravely breaking this mold, haha). But even in straight/assumed straight sports stories, there’s so much love between the members of the team. I think these narratives have often served a “safe” way for straight people to find intimatcy with people of the same gender — it only makes sense that queer writers would take that a step further.
In the increasing field of trans representation in media, there still seems to be a lack of depictions of trans people who aren’t straight? Was Bebe created intentionally with this in mind?
CF: One of the big goals of my adult life has been adding more and better trans representation to any medium I can get my hands on. Bebe’s sexuality—and I’m not sure she really knows what it is yet except Annie-sexual—wasn’t really made as a queer political statement about trans narratives so much as it was to add some trans representation to the girl/girl romance genre.
For those curious about the process behind a graphic novel, how would you describe the process? What goes into creating a script and collaborating with an artist to translate that into panels?
CF: A graphic novel starts out as a pitch—a few paragraphs to a few pages talking about the book, it’s target audience, its characters, and the rough trajectory of its story. This is sometimes paired with character sketches from the artist (although Cheer Up was pitched without an artist attached; Oni hooked Val and I up after approving the project).
Either during or after the pitch process, the writer and artist work together to design the major characters of the story and flesh out some more specific twists and turns for the story to take. This is the stage where we established that Annie was a little metalhead and that the Anole existed, that Annie’s mom was basically the coolest mom in the world, that Annie and Katrina had a history and Annie would show growth by apologizing for it, and we could show Bebe learning assertiveness by having her stand up to her loving but overbearing parents. You take these character concepts and the big set piece moments you know you want and start building an outline that connects those moments together; basically a list of bullet points.
Once you’ve got your characters and your big moments and your outline, you start writing. I think the first draft of Cheer Up took me two months, with revisions and suggestions along the way from our editors to help spot story problems or find small improvements.
Once you have a rough script, the artist can go to work while the writer starts trying to get the dialogue just right. The artist usually starts with thumbnails; tiny sketches of each page just to block in the panel layouts and the character placement. Then they start actually drawing pages, starting with sketches or “pencils” that are rough but a little tighter than the thumbnails. This is the stage where you make the most artistic changes, tweaking who might be in a scene or the expressions or the action. After that, the artist starts inking the final lines, and then the colorist comes in to give everything some life.
Usually while the art is happening, the writer and editor are tinkering with the script as well, not changing any of the action but toying with the dialogue to get the final “lettering script.” This lettering script gets handed off to the letterer who adds all the word balloons, text, sound effects, signs—anything involving letters.
Once you have the text and the colored pages, everything comes together into what’s called “proofs,” your final proof of concept that shows what the book will be when it’s done. Those proofs go to several editors, the artist, and the writer who all read over them and search for any errors—typos, word balloons pointing at the wrong character, coloring errors, unintentional racism or sexism—and fix it before the book is finally approved and sent to a printer to be printed, packaged up, and sent out to stores.
VW: While Crystal was writing the script, I worked on concept art for the characters and environments. This made it a lot easier once I got to the thumbnail stage, because I already had a good idea of what pretty much every location would look like. For Cheer Up!, I did the thumbnails all at once, then the pencils, then inks, etc. I prefer to work this way, because it kind of feels like building a house. The thumbnails are the blueprints, so I like having them done all at once, so I always know exactly what I’m working towards once I start drawing the comic itself.
On my end, the script is already broken down into individual pages and panels. Crystal’s pacing was already so spot on with the script, that it honestly made my job pretty easy! It was very easy to have a visual for what the final page would look like, just from looking at the words on a page.
As queer creators, did you ever draw upon your own experiences and insights when creating your work?
CF: All the time. My life when I first came out was… fast-paced, and if nothing else it gave me a very rich collection of experiences I can draw on to tell stories. A lot of Bebe’s awkwardness and not wanting to start drama is lifted entirely from my own people-pleasing nature in high school, and a lot of Annie’s bravado is from the mask I wore later once I gained just enough confidence to fake having a lot of confidence.
VW: Of course! I think this is especially apparent for me in Edie’s fashion choices – I pulled a lot from my own experiences of exploring my gender through clothing in high school, as well as when I first started transitioning as an adult.
What is your favorite thing about making comics? What if your favorite thing about fandom, especially queer fandom?
CF: I love how well art and words play together to tell a living story that’s different from either. It really plays with how good the human imagination is at filling in details—like when you read a novel—but also stimulating the visual side of your brain the way television, film, or other visual arts do.
And queer fandom is its own beautiful beast. I still remember being run out of Sailor Moon fan forums in the ‘90s because at the time I strongly identified with Sailor Jupiter and read her as a trans girl like me—in the ‘90s there was no mainstream queer representation, and little queer kids had to read between the lines to find anything that reflected us—and even though I wasn’t arguing that as canonical fact, even the suggestions that Makoto could be trans was read as insulting and disrespectful. The refrain you heard over and over again in fandom spaces toward any queer reading of the text was “if you don’t like it, go make your own,” ignoring the fact that obviously we liked it or else we wouldn’t be in those fan groups to begin with.
Regardless, queer fans grew up and started making out own stories both out of love but also, I think, from a heavy dose of spite. Now you have comics like Check Please, Young Avengers, Avant-Gardes, Backstagers, Mooncakes, Nimona—just a slew of amazing queer stories in addition to queer updates of classic properties like Supergirl and She-Ra. Queer fandom is the next generation of queer creators.
VW: The creation process of making comics is my favorite part (especially inking), but there is something really special about holding something complete that you made in your hands. I love the passion in queer fandom, since there’s so little media made specifically for us. I think queer readers pick up on a lot of things that other readers don’t, and it makes creating a queer comic feel like a much more personal and intimate experience.
Can you give us any trivia about the main characters of Cheer Up!?
CF: I can tell you some things from their character sheets that never quite made it into the text of the comic:
Bebe is half-Cuban on her father’s side, but neither she nor her father speak much Spanish. When her grandparents emigrated to Florida, they were worried speaking Spanish would label their kids as outsiders and end up with them being made fun of in school, so they refused to teach bebe’s father or his sisters any Spanish. Bebe worries it makes her “not really Cuban,” so she doubles down on trying to master Cuban cooking—while her dad wont admit it out loud, she’s already a better cook than his mother was.
Annie loves manatees and once swam with them in the Hillsborough River.
For Annie, we had originally planned to plaster her stuff in stickers from her favorite fictional bands, and I even sketched up logos for all of them, but didn’t have time to design the stickers before things went to print. Her favorite bands include: the Dung Beatles, the Marthas, Sweet Rose Riot, Charon, Land-O-Goshens, Dead Donna Reed, and the Twits.
Jonah smells like garlic, one of his favorite foods.
Coach Dupont and Celeste (Annie’s mom) were best friends in high school and raised all kinds of hell in the ‘90s. They shared a very awkward first kiss that didn’t really go anywhere.
VW: I based the design for Annie’s bedroom on my own from childhood – down to the pink walls and Florida essential ceiling AND floor fans.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?
CF: “Were you a cheerleader?” And the answer is no, but with most other interviews about sports stories, I see the writers get asked if they had much experience with the sport involved, and I really hate the assumption that I couldn’t have been because I’m transgender. The real reason I couldn’t be a cheerleader is because I was goth.
VW: No one so far has asked about specific places from my + Crystal’s hometowns that I used as reference, but I kind of like leaving that a mystery for people from around Tampa Bay to figure out, haha.
What advice would you have for those aspiring to enter the comics industry, whether as writers or artists?
CF: Best advice ever is just to make friends and help each other practice. Brainstorm together, read each other’s work, edit each other’s work, get excited for each other. It makes you a better writer, it makes you a better editor, and it means that any contacts they make inevitably become contacts you make.
As with most things in life, the secret to success is “don’t be a dick.”
VW: Don’t undersell yourself! Art is often a very personal craft, and it’s easy to tie your worth as a person to your art, or your art to how you feel about yourself as a person. So hyping yourself up can feel a little awkward (especially with self-deprecating artist jokes being a constant). Yes, it’s important to know your weaknesses, but it’s even MORE important to be proud of your strengths! There’s no shame in loving your own art, or in advocating for yourself as an artist. If someone is reaching out to you for work, they want your work – don’t be afraid to ask for the rates and accommodations you need.
What queer books/comics would you commend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
CF: My perennial favorites are the Backstagers and Lumberjanes, but I also fell in love with Lila Sturges’ Girl Haven and can’t recommend that enough if you like fantasy, sapphic romance, or trans narratives.
VW: Right now I’m reading She Drives Me Crazyby Kelly Quindlan, and Ace of Spadesby Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé — and I would absolutely recommend both. As a fan of dark academia, I really think Ace of Spades cuts much deeper than other books that fit within this genre/aesthetic are prepared or willing to go.
In this week’s episode of the Geeks OUT Podcast, Kevin is joined by Bobby Hankinson, as they discuss the queer start to American Horror Stories, enter the ring in the new trailer for Heelz, and celebrate Michaela Cole joining Black Panther: Wakanda Forever as our Strong Female Character of the Week.
KEVIN: All of the Hollywood studios/guilds to require vaccination in COVID protocols, but Sean Penn wants more for his new show BOBBY: New trailer for Heelz
DOWN AND NERDY
KEVIN: Old, Snake Eyes, American Horror Stories, MOTU: Revelations BOBBY: Behind the Attraction, Shark Beach, 100 ft. Wave
Kalynn Bayron is the bestselling author of Cinderella is Dead and This Poison Heart. A classically trained vocalist, she grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. When she’s not writing you can find her listening to Ella Fitzgerald on loop, attending the theater, watching scary movies, and spending time with her kids. She currently lives in San Antonio, Texas with her family. I had the opportunity to interview Kalynn, which you can read below.
First of all, congratulations on your upcoming book, This Poison Heart. Could you tell us a little of what it’s about?
Thank you so much! I like to describe This Poison Heart as equal parts Little Shop of Horrors and The Secret Garden with a Greek mythology twist. It’s about 16-year-old Briseis Greene, a young woman born with a unique ability—she can grow plants from seed to full bloom in seconds. She’s struggling to keep this power in check when she finds out her aunt has recently passed away and left her a sizable estate just outside of Rhinebeck, NY. When she and her parents go up for the summer they realize that nothing is what it seems. The house comes with a specific set of instructions and a walled garden filled with the deadliest plants on the planet. Briseis begins to uncover her family’s complicated and deadly history while learning to lean into her own power.
Where did the inspiration for the book come from? Were there any music/media/ stories you were influenced by while writing this book?
Little Shop of Horrors and The Secret Garden were some of the biggest influences for this story. but I was also fascinated by the real-life poison plants in the Alnwick Garden in Northumberland. I wanted this story to have the feel of a gothic novel set against a contemporary backdrop. I love how atmospheric it is and that was heavily inspired by my love of gothic horror.
How did you find yourself becoming an author? Do you remember some of the notes of your own origin story? Did any writers or books inspire your writing journey?
I’ve always loved storytelling. The medium didn’t matter to me—music, tv, movies, theater, literature, I loved them all. I read everything I could get my hands on. One specific story was Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit. My teacher read it aloud when I was in the 3rd or 4th grade. I remember having such a strong reaction to it and being unable to get it out of my head. It was the same thing with musicals. I watched Annie, Wizard of Oz, and Little Shop of Horrors on loop from the time I was little. A neighbor introduced me to The Phantom of the Opera when I was ten and I became weirdly obsessed with the Phantom. I wanted to know why this man was living in the sewer and why everybody was so scared of him. So I guess you could say I’ve always been interested in the parts of popular stories that don’t get as much attention.
I wrote my first novel when I was 19 and it was awful, but it taught me that I could start and finish a manuscript which, as any writer will tell you, is half the battle. Storytelling has always played such an important role in my life—stories helped me cope when things felt overwhelming, they provided an escape. When I sat down to write Cinderella is Dead in 2016, I wanted to tell a story that might provide an escape for someone else.
Along the way the work of literary giants like Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston have inspired me to tell stories in the way that I want to tell them and to be unapologetic in my work. I return to their stories any time I need a reminder of what we are allowed to be on the page.
Besides being a writer, what are some small facts you would want your writers to know about you?
I’m a classically trained vocalist. I love musicals. I love Biscoff cookies and I really think they should sponsor me the way brands sponsor athletes.
How would you describe your writing process? What do you wish you had known when you first started writing?
I wish I’d understood that there are a lot of non-writing things that count towards the development of a story. All the time I spend thinking about the story, the characters, the setting, the world building—it all counts! In fact, I now recognize it as an integral part of my process. I need time to sit with my ideas for a while before I get them on the page.
For me it starts with an idea, or a collection of ideas. Once I have a good idea of the scope, I start a zero draft which is essentially just a few plot points in chronological order and some character work. As I’m doing this, I’m thinking about the story but it’s really just vibes at this point! No plot just vibes! Then, if I feel like a firm grasp on the story, I’ll work through a detailed synopsis and then a first draft. The synopsis acts as an outline for me and because things always change, I’ll write added scenes on index cards and lay them out and attach them to the outline. It’s usually not until I complete the first draft that I know my story and characters well enough to go back and really fill out the narrative. My process is always evolving and I’m always picking up new tricks and practices that work for me.
Your first book, Cinderella is Dead, is a Cinderella remix with some horror/dark fantasy elements. Why did you find yourself exploring/reconstructing this specific story and why do you think as writers and readers we keep getting drawn back to older fairytales when making new stories?
I have a lot of nostalgia associated with fairytales. I loved fairytales as a kid but it was painfully obvious that there was never anyone who looked like me in those stories. I wanted to do a Cinderella retelling that addressed the issue of feeling like I was an outsider looking in on this tale. I wanted to show the ways in which something as innocent as a children’s fairytale can be used as a tool of both empowerment and oppression depending on who’s penning the story.
I think we return to these stories again and again because there’s comfort in the familiarity of them but that doesn’t mean that they don’t need to be examined and critiqued, sometimes critically. As creators, especially those of us from historically excluded backgrounds, it’s important for us to be able to reclaim these tales on our own terms.
Which books or authors does Cinderella is Dead and The Poison Heart stand in conversation with?
I’d like to think Cinderella is Dead stands in conversation with the Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella and the Charles Perrault version. And I’d like to think This Poison Heart stands in conversation with The Secret Garden and contemporary fantasy in general. To be able to compare and contrast my work with the stories that inspired them is a great way to think about the ever-evolving process of storytelling. I’d also like to think of both This Poison Heart and Cinderella is Dead as being in community with books like Legendborn by Tracy Deonn and A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow because contemporary fantasy is such a perfect place to interrogate who has, and who has not, been allowed to take folktales, or fairytales, or specific myths or legends and reimagine them.
When you’re not writing, what do you enjoy doing or consuming in your free time?
I love musical theater and I’m really looking forward to being able to get back to live shows. I love music. I love scary movies. I’m looking forward to seeing the Candyman reboot! Other than that, I really enjoy spending time with my family. I’m very much a homebody.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were (and the answer to that question)?
That’s a tough one! Most people know I have a musical background, but nobody has asked me yet about my favorite opera. I get asked about my favorite musicals but never about opera! My favorite opera is Donizetti’s Lucia Di Lammermoor. Fun fact—there’s an aria in Act 3 of this opera that, even if you’ve never seen it, probably sounds familiar because it was in the movie The Fifth Element.
The Poison Heart features a Sapphic badness with a proclivity towards plants and poisons. Any relation to Poison Ivy? And on that note, how would you imagine any interactions between the two?
I love Poison Ivy! She’s a queer icon! I’m definitely inspired by her and I’ve heard that Poison Ivy was originally inspired by a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne called Rappaccini’s Daughter. It’s a story about a man who raises his daughter around a collection of poisonous plants and in doing so she becomes immune to their toxicity. The story has also been adapted into several operas. If the folks at DC Comics ever need someone to do a one-shot deal for anything Poison Ivy related, I would jump on it. I’m just sayin.
Poison Ivy is a morally gray character. She does villainous things and sometimes with not-so-villainous intentions. Bri is kind of the opposite of that but I can totally see Poison Ivy trying to recruit Bri for some nefarious purpose. I don’t think Bri would sign up, but I don’t think that would stop Poison Ivy from trying.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Try to have some fun with your writing, don’t be afraid to take risks, and take any sort of writing advice with a grain of salt—even mine.
Are there any projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?
The follow up to This Poison Heart comes out next year and so does my debut middle grade debut. The middle grade is called The Vanquishers and it’s the story of 12-year-old Malika “Boog” Wilson. It takes place in an alternative San Antonio where vampires were known to have existed but were wiped out during an event known as the Reaping by a group of masked vampire slayers called The Vanquishers. However, when Boog’s new classmate goes missing, the local community starts to think maybe a vampire is responsible. I like to describe it as Stranger Things meets Watchmen with a Buffy twist. I’m SO excited about it!
What books/authors would you recommend for the readers of Geeks OUT?
Tara Sim is a YA fantasy author who can typically be found wandering the wilds of the Bay Area, California. She is the author of the Timekeeper trilogy, which has been featured on Entertainment Weekly, Bustle, and various media outlets, and the Scavenge the Stars duology. When she’s not chasing cats or lurking in bookstores, she writes books about magic, murder, and explosives. I had the opportunity to interview Tara, which you can read below.
First of all, how did you get into writing? What drew you to the Young Adult genre specifically?
My dad loved telling people about how I would dictate poems and stories to him when I was 6. I dabbled in writing random stories (especially when I learned how to type) and I loved fantasy books, which eventually led to me writing my first novel at 15 (which was very long, and very bad). Some of those first fantasy books I loved were young adult, so I’ve always had a soft spot for those types of stories.
As a Young Adult writer, how would you describe your writing process? Would you describe yourself as a pantser, a plotter, etc…?
Solidly in-between. I like to plan out the big moments in a story, such as plot twists, and let the rest come to me while drafting. That way I have somewhat of a roadmap while discovering important landmarks on the way I wouldn’t have been able to see ahead of time.
According to the fact that both your series, The Timekeeper trilogy and the Scavenge the Stars duology, are speculative fiction, you seem to be a big fan of those mediums? What draws you to fantasy/science fiction?
I was basically raised on it, though unintentionally on my parents’ part. I think Disney movies had a part to play, as well as the discovery of certain fantasy books that were popular when I was younger. By the time I was in high school I was reading thick door stopper adult fantasy books, watching anime, and playing Final Fantasy video games. There’s just something about magic and different worlds that really compels me.
As a writer you have featured both LGBT/BIPOC characters in your books, creating a diverse, fantastic world? Would you say your own experiences as a queer author of Desi descent motivated this, and have you ever incorporated your own experiences into your stories?
Absolutely. I never found myself in books growing up, and I wanted to change that for readers like myself who feel left out. I like creating safe spaces in my work (even if my characters are undoing harrowing circumstances).
What are some of the challenges of writing historical fiction, fantasy or otherwise? What are some of the joys?
The research. I never thought I’d end up writing historical fantasy as my debut, and I’ll probably never do it again, but it was as fun as it was aggravating. I could play with an alternate timeline even as my editor forced me to become BFFs with etymology and realizing a phrase I wanted to use wasn’t invented yet.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked before or wish you were asked more often?
I wish I was asked more goofy questions! I love talking about my characters and how they’d react to weird situations.
What advice would you have to give to authors, especially those struggling to finish their first stories?
I would tell them that a first draft is supposed to be bad, and you can’t make it better until you finish it. That, and to not be afraid to write what you specifically love, not what you think others will love.
Are there any other projects or story ideas you are currently nursing and could tell us about?
My adult fantasy debut, THE CITY OF DUSK, comes out April 2022 from Orbit! I’ll also have more YA news on the horizon.
Finally, what are some LGBTQ+ stories you would recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
In this week’s episode of the Geeks OUT Podcast, Kevin is joined by Geeks OUT President, Nic Gitau, as they discuss MJ Rodriguez’s historic Emmy nomination, GLAAD’s report on representation, and celebrate Meghan Markle’s new animated series Pearl for our Strong Female Character of the Week.
KEVIN: Disney made $60mil opening weekend of Black Widow in Premier Access NIC: In historic nomination, Mj Rodriguez is recognized for the final season of Pose
DOWN AND NERDY
KEVIN: Escape Room 2, Space Jam 2, Barb & Star, Loki, Gossip Girl NIC: Gunpowder Milkshake, witches (Motherland: Fort Salem, Fear Street trilogy) and dramatic baby geighs (genera+tion, betty)
STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER
Meghan Markle creating/producing animated series Pearl for Netflix
THIS WEEK IN QUEER
New GLAAD report shows lack of trans rep in major movies for last 4 years
• New trailer for Free Guy teases Deadpool’s entry into the MCU • New trailer for Pixar’s Turning Red • WandaVision director signs on to direct new Star Trek movie • Not satisfied with the current streaming wars, Netflix is getting into gaming • New trailer for the documentary Pray Away
• Paramount+ renews revival of iCarly for second season • Paramount+ orders Grease prequel series following the Pink Ladies • New trailer for season 3 of Titans • Cartoon Network teams with Matthew Cherry for Battu animated series • Disney+ officially renews Loki for season 2 but without director/EP Kate Herron • New trailer for Disney+’s Behind the Attraction • New teaser for Chucky series
The trilogy of films concludes with Fear Street: 1666. I’m not typically a fan of historical horror, but I loved R.L. Stine’s Fear Street Saga. Like its predecessors, 1666 makes a tonal shift for the third part of the story that fits the time period is set in. I appreciated how the color palettes of the films shifted with each movie, and I’m glad that trend continued. 1666 by nature is more somber than its predecessors, but the way that it brought back the cast of the first two films to play each character gave it a sense of familiarity. It dives deeper into the Shadyside mythos and delivered us even more queer energy. I think my favorite part of this was how the filmmakers leaned into the fact that queer people have always existed. I also appreciated how the truth about the curse unfolded. It went in the direction I had hoped it would and still threw in plenty of surprises. On a technical note, 1666 is more like two films in one. The 1666 portion is roughly one hour, but the rest is 1994: Part 2. While it felt a little disjointed compared to the previous movies, I think it worked really well for the trilogy. It might be harder to grade a standalone film, but that’s because it does an excellent job of tying all three movies together. After watching it, it’s hard not to think of the trilogy as a single bloody epic. 1978 and 1666 tell their stand-alone stories, but 1994 is the glue that holds them together. I went into this trilogy with high expectations, and I was not disappointed. 1666 might be tough to score by itself, but it was the conclusion we needed.
Score: 4 Stars
Observations & Spoilers
Keeping with the trend from my Fear Street book reviews, everything from this point on contains spoilers. So you can wait until you’ve seen the movie and come back, or you can read on ahead with reckless abandon. Consider yourself warned.
Most of us who grew up in the United States are familiar with the Salem witch trials witch of the late seventeenth century. It was the original Satanic Panic. We have our own legends about them, too. A lot of people think that the accused witches were burned at the stake, even though that was never the case. Even R.L. Stine’s The Betrayalacknowledges this fact, as it was only in the fictional Wickham Village where witches were burned alive. Fear Street: 1666 played into this beautifully. I loved the way that the curse was revealed to be quite different than the Shadysiders in 1978 and 1994 had been lead to believe. Sarah Fier was never the one who placed the curse; she was its first victim and the only one who ever figured out the truth.
I’m not typically a fan of historical horror. I found The Witch boring as hell. 1666 shares a similar aesthetic, but it never felt slow or inaccessible. Part of this was helped by all of the familiar faces assuming similar roles. It gave us a sense of who each character was without having to say very much. Likewise, the legwork done in the previous movies had already established knowledge of the Union settlement and the Shadyside curse. While 1666 was certainly darker and struck a much more somber tone, it still managed to maintain enough of the campy flair that has made this trilogy so enjoyable.
I was already impressed with the queer love story in Fear Street: 1994, and I’m glad that we got another one in 1666. The love story of Sarah and Hannah felt familiar because of the parallels to the 1994 story. Just like Sam, Hannah had an overbearing mother that didn’t approve. Witchcraft became a metaphor for queerness. Sarah and Hannah’s relationship became a scandal that got them accused of laying with the devil. The original Shadysider was a queer woman falsely accused in order to cover up the evil of man. I appreciated the way that this made the film feel current.
It was a bit jarring to be thrust back to 1994 after an hour in the seventeenth century, but we had a storyline to finish. It felt like an odd fit at first, but it worked when I stepped back and regarded the trilogy as a whole. We got some more 90s jams, we got some more bloody kills, and we got to see the family line that had cursed Shadyside brought to its knees. I will also note that the trilogy is very rewatchable. There are so many things that will jump out from the first two after seeing the final installment, especially the words and actions of Nick Goode. The movie also left the book open for future installments and spin-offs. I could easily see this becoming an anthology series of sorts. I hope that whatever comes prominently features the actual street in its title and that Reva Dalby shows up at some point.
And finally, a few weeks ago I got to interview Leigh Janiak (the director) and Phil Graziadei (co-writer of 1994 and 1666) on behalf of GeeksOUT. We got to talk about the queer elements of the trilogy, what books/movies influenced their storytelling, and whether we’ll be seeing more from Fear Street in the future. Check it out below.
Thank you for reading along on these reviews. If you’ve enjoyed these movies as much as I did and are maybe looking to scratch the nostalgic itch of your childhood R.L. Stine binge-reading days, I’ve been reading and reviewing a bunch of them on my blog for the last few years. My reviews are honest and not always glowing like the reviews for these movies have been. There’s plenty of memes and gif used to illustrate my points and have fun with the ridiculousness of it all. There are also plenty of other Fear Street, Goosebumps, Point Horror, and Christopher Pike books in the mix as well.
Mara Fitzgerald writes YA fantasy about unlikable female characters who ruin everything. She is a biologist by day and spends entirely too much time looking at insects under a microscope. She was born near Disney World and now lives near Graceland, which is almost as good. She is the author of the Beyond the Ruby Veil duology.
When did you realize you wanted to become a writer? At what point did you realize you actually were a writer?
I’ve always been a writer. For me, the transition from “writer” to “author” was the one that felt like more of a change. My books were no longer a series of words on my computer that I wrote to entertain myself—they were products. In many ways, this comes with a lot of pressure, because “products” have expectations and cold, hard sales numbers. In other ways, it’s been fascinating to know that my creative work is now out there for anyone to access and interpret. As a great supporter of fanfiction, one of the most striking moments for me was when I realized that I’m now on the other side of the fanfiction equation—that is, I’m the one making the thing that people might create fan work about.
In the realm of queer media and fiction, there’s often this unspoken pressure to present the LGBTQIA+ community within the best (i.e. moral) light, given the history of queer coding in villains and other cultural factors. What made you develop this obvious queer anti-hero, and how did she come to be?
I just think villains are neat.
In all seriousness, most of my favorite fictional characters are the ones who are causing the most problems in the story, because they’re the most interesting to me. I didn’t set out to write Emanuela as an anti-heroine. Rather, the process of writing was a discovery, as it often is with characters. Sometimes it feels like they live in your head, and it’s your job to get them out onto the page as honestly as you can. This is, of course, a lot easier said than done. For a long time, I resisted letting Emanuela’s arc get so dark and messy. Even though other queer authors have already paved the way with amazing literature that’s way more complex than mine, I do still feel that pressure to create characters who are “role models.” I felt like centering the story around a lesbian who was very obviously flawed meant that she had to learn and become not only better, but perfect, and I struggled a lot with trying to fit her into an arc she clearly didn’t belong in.
A big part of fiction for me is escapism, and there’s more than one way to escape. I have never had a reader say that they literally want to be Emanuela—and if I had, I would be very concerned—but there is something escapist about her. I do not endorse being rude to everyone in your life, behaving in increasingly unhinged ways, leaving a trail of destruction in your wake, and refusing to grow as a person. But sometimes…it’s fun to read about.
What are some of your favorite examples of queer anti-heroes, villains, and heroes?
Radu from the And I Darken series by Kiersten White (definitely a hero). Villanelle from Killing Eve (definitely not a hero). And everyone in Gideon the Ninth.
Beyond the Ruby Veil seems to be set in this glamorous, alternative deadly Italy. What comes first in your writing, the world-building or characters?
They usually arrive together. I tend to write worlds that are like ours, except for one wild, highly unlikely change that actually ends up being a lot of changes. When I start with a fantasy version of Earth where something is making the way people live drastically different, the rest of the world starts to fill itself in. The characters also fill themselves in, too, because I naturally find myself gravitating towards characters who would interact with that world in the most interesting way. For instance, Beyond the Ruby Veil is about a world where one immortal, irreplaceable woman who can make water is keeping the whole city alive. Because of how my morbid mind works, my next question is: what would happen if that woman died? What if somebody killed her—and what if I wrote a story about that killer?
Would you say there’s a difference between the anti-hero and villain? What are the similarities?
My general understanding is that with an anti-hero, you as the reader ultimately want them to win. You can love a villain as a character, but you still don’t want them to win. What makes this so fascinating to me is that the lines can get blurred. A character can start out as the unambiguous villain and ultimately end up as someone who’s still very much themselves, rough around the edges and all, but who we find ourselves rooting for. Alternatively, we can start out supporting a character, knowing that they’re messy, but then things start getting messier and messier and one day we realize…we don’t want this character to win anymore.
This was my goal with Emanuela. The first time she murders somebody (not a spoiler: it’s in Chapter 3), it’s certainly messy, but there’s something there to root for. As the story goes on, she makes it more and more challenging to support her. There’s a point in the book where Emanuela says that she doesn’t care if people like her or think she’s a good person—she just wants, in essence, to be perceived. That’s how I try to write all my characters, not just ones who are crossing the line into villainous. I try to just portray them as they are, whatever that may end up looking like.
Are there any other projects or ideas you are currently nursing and would be at liberty to say?
The sequel to Beyond the Ruby Veil, which is called Into the Midnight Void, will be out in January 2022. This is the conclusion to the duology, where we will find out exactly how Emanuela’s quest for power ends. Writing it was certainly an experience, so I hope reading it will be, too!
What’s an interview question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were?
“How would you adapt Beyond the Ruby Veil: The Musical?” I’m so glad you asked. First, and most importantly, there would be a splash zone for all the inevitable blood coming off the stage. The story itself would be a condensed version of the entire duology—somebody much smarter than me is doing the condensing, to be clear. A lot of musicals have a very clear Event happen at the end of Act 1, and then Act 2 begins in a different place, with a different mood, and without spoiling anything, I think the transition between book 1 and book 2 lends itself well to that. The beginning would have a little bit of evil Wizard of Oz vibes, and early Wicked vibes as Emanuela sings about what she wants and how ambitious she is, but as the audience, we get the sneaking feeling this isn’t going to turn out well for her. Anyways, I’m open to all thoughts on this. I just think there’s potential!
Finally, what are some LGBTQ+ books or authors you would recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers is an adult coming-of-age novel about a PhD student who accidentally marries another woman while in Vegas. Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender is a delightful YA contemporary about a transgender teen at a competitive arts school. And I just read an advanced copy of A Dark and Starless Forest by Sarah Hollowell, which is about a big queer family that lives in a spooky house in the spooky woods!
IOLANDA ZANFARDINO is a comic book artist, writer and cover artist currently working for Black Mask Studios, Image comics, Titan Comics, Marvel and several independent publishers. Her first Original Graphic novel “Midnight Radio” was published by Lion Forge comics. After a long arduous “I’ll do what I really love!” process, she finally works on queer (love) stories, and she’s so excited she still can’t even believe it. She likes rock musicals, street art, Pride parades, dystopian literature and brave heartwarming comedies.
ELISA ROMBOLI is a comic book artist and illustrator currently working for Black Mask Studios, Image comics, Titan Comics and various independent publishers, partnered briefly with Marvel and with Square Enix for promotional illustrations. Co-author of Helen Bristol published by Shockdom.
Since she was a child, her dream has always been to be a comics artist. The thing is: she didn’t know what she was getting into. Now she’s almost completely absorbed into drawing and has forgotten everything else. Cat owner full time.
I had the opportunity to interview Iolanda and Elisa on their current project, Alice in Leatherland, which you can read below.
To start off, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourselves?
Both: Hi Geeks OUT, and thank you for this great opportunity! We’re so honored to be on your website!
I: I’m Iolanda Zanfardino, a comic book artist, writer and cover artist currently working for Image comics, Black Mask Studios, Titan Comics and Marvel. After a long arduous “I’ll do what I really love!” process, I finally work on queer (love) stories, and I’m so excited I still can’t even believe it!
I like rock musicals, street art, Pride parades, dystopian literature and brave heartwarming comedies.
E: I’m Elisa Romboli, a comic book artist and illustrator currently working for Black Mask Studios, Image comics, Titan Comics and various independent publishers, co-author of Helen Bristol published by Shockdom.
Nostalgic video game lover, I have a strong passion for enamel pins and miniatures. I like robots and mechanical designs in general, I have an odd thing for triangle-shaped objects. Oh, and space!
How did the both of you get into comics? What drew you to the medium?
I: Telling stories has always been like a physical need I’ve perceived in my life, even when I was following a different career path. At a particular moment, I took the decision to quit everything else to pursue my dream to become a comic book creator. It was a tough journey (where I found myself being so behind people my age) but I’m happy for real now. If I could turn back time I’d do it again.
E: I’d say it was because of anime series airing on tv when I was a child. I used to watch a lot of those and I really enjoyed drawing those characters on paper, giving it my own direction. I loved to tell fighting stories, with monsters and robots. I used to make a ton of little stapled books with crazy things in there, without any kind of focus. Sadly, I’ve never been able to create stories that made sense, but this didn’t stop me from drawing.
What are your favorite parts of making comics? What are the trickiest and or hardest?
I: As a writer, my favorite part is the very first one of the creation itself: those vivid and sudden images that appear in your mind and you have to write them down before they become a huge avalanche inside you.
The hardest part is to let the characters free to come to life on the scripts while not losing sight of the direction and the meaning of the scene itself (and of the limited number of the pages!)
E: My favorite part in making comics is finally drawing that specific scene that gave birth to the whole project. There’s always that scene, that small frame that gets stuck in your head until you don’t start unfolding the rest of the story.
The hardest? Imagining a full environment from scratch, like a whole new world. Some might find it entertaining, but it’s not my cup of tea; it’s tricky, you have to remember lots of stuff and I’m quite a forgetful person.
Could you tell us a bit about your current project, Alice in Leatherland? Where did the inspiration for that story come from?
Both: From the very first moment we found ourselves working at home side by side, we dreamed of being able to do it together as a team on something of our own. We chose a rom-com because it’s the kind of movie we most love to watch together after a hard day.
Plus, many of the events of “AiL” are inspired by real life events, that’s too bad we can’t say what they are!
A large part of the book involves discussing sex positivity and exploring one’s sexuality, one’s comfort and limits with it. How did you approach your characters exploring that in ways that were organic to their character arcs?
Both: We tried to create a juxtaposition between Alice and Robin, the two main characters. Robin is very open to new sexual experiences and she’s thrilled with the queer scene in San Francisco, but she also made up for herself strict rules against serious relationships that are not getting along with what she actually feels for Alice.
In the meantime, Alice is trying to set aside her “true fairy-tale love search” for a while in order to explore her sexuality (and to mend her broken heart). At first, she finds herself completely out of her comfort zone, but despite this she will learn to love and know better herself.
The meaning of the research of the firefly’s light in Alice’s own fairy tale is that true love cannot be forced and doesn’t depend, for example, on a partner’s mathematically calculable qualities. It’s something you find yourself in all of a sudden, without apparently any rational reason, and when it’s too late for you to get yourself out of it.
And this beautiful thing is what happens to Alice, while she’s freely exploring her sexuality and her relationship with her body!
Often when thinks of erotica, they think just that, erotic. But Alice in Leatherland combines sex with a sense of humor and tenderness, making sex both silly and playful and a larger part of the emotional story. Was this always your intention?
Both: Thank you so much! Sure it was: at the beginning, “AiL” had to be just a short funny story about cliches of sapphic dates on dating apps, but then we got involved with our characters and the story evolved into something more complex, long and romantic than we planned!
The sex positivity is a very important part of the story, and the main focus of our creative process of this project.
Within your books, Midnight Radio and Alice in Leatherland, there’s an obvious queer aesthetic that makes other queer readers smile in recognition at how familiar it is? Did you feel your own experiences as queer creators influences your work?
Both: Our experiences as queer creators not only influence our work but it’s our big push. We believe that the representation of LGBTQIA characters in stories that talk about growth, friendship, life experiences and adventures, other than our “traumas” and difficulties or the discovery of our sexuality, is very important.
The world needs more different stories with queer protagonists. We needed it as teenagers and now that the world is finally changing, we want to do our part and participate to this necessary revolution.
I previously read and loved your last book, Midnight Radio. Where did the inspiration for that book come from?
I: I’m so glad you appreciated my “Midnight Radio”! I wrote that story during my year in San Francisco. It was a life-changing experience for me.
The inspiration of the book is the thought that everywhere there are people that are facing the consequences and frustrations of a life spent suppressing, for different reasons and in different ways, their true selves and aspirations. But that often they just need some kind of signs, an unexpected message to give them the strength to free themselves and to take hold of their lives again! Like little and unpredictable bursts of truth.
I’m sure it happens often! That’s surely happening in this right moment somewhere.
What advice might you have to give to other aspiring creators?
Both: What we really want to say is: If you have a story to tell, something you truly believe in, please, please, please write it down! Draw it!
You’ll definitely find someone who wants to read it out there, or needs it in their life without even knowing it.
What projects are you currently working on and at liberty to speak about?
Both: We’re currently working on “A Thing Called Truth”, a new comics mini-series. It’s a queer romantic-adventure road-trip story!
Issue #1 will be published by Shadowline IMAGE Comics this November. We can’t wait to know if someone will love it as much as we do!
What books/comics might you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?Both: Among our favorite comic books there are: “Betty Boob“, a lovely silent bande dessinée by Vero Cazot and Julie Rocheleau, “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel and all Liv Strömquist‘s irreverent books!
In this week’s episode of the Geeks OUT Podcast, Kevin is joined by Mel Cone, from NYCGaymers, as they wonder What If…? Marvel’s latest statement about LGBTQ+ representation in the MCU was enough to tide us over until they actually come through, and get excited for the introduction of Renee Montoya in season 3 of Batwoman in This Week in Queer.
KEVIN: In a new “community outreach” effort the NYPD introduced a new Game Truck MEL: The exec-VP of production at Marvel Studios promises more LGBTQ rep
DOWN AND NERDY
KEVIN: Fear Street: 1978, Sweet Tooth, X-Men MEL: Black Widow, Loki, Otome games
STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER
Black Widow subverts with even more female representation