Interview with Jeremy Atherton Lin

Jeremy Atherton Lin is an Asian-American essayist based in the UK. He has contributed to The Yale Review, Noon, Granta, The White Review, ArtReview, Literary Hub, Port, The Face, W, Tinted Window and the Times Literary Supplement. His debut book Gay Bar (2021) was selected as a New York Times Editors’ Choice and the Guardian Book of the Week. Jeremy’s mixtapes can be heard on NTS Radio, Spotify and Mixcloud. He has also appeared on NPR, BBC Radio London, BBC Radio 4 and Resonance FM. Teaching and speaking engagements include The Courtauld Institute, Cornell University, Central St Martins, the Royal College of Art, Camberwell College of Arts, University of Glasgow, Birkbeck University and the Edinburgh International Book Festival. He is an editor at Failed States, the journal of art and writing on place.

I had the opportunity to interview Jeremy, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT and congratulations on your debut book, Gay Bar! Could you tell us a little about yourself and the book? How did you find yourself gravitating toward this specific topic?

Thanks so much for having me. Sorry I’m late! I’m Jeremy, from California and currently living in London. My favorite color is pale lilac. I love pickles, okra and nectarines. I write, and teach sometimes, always seem to be running errands, and ride a rusty Dawes Galaxy that my next door neighbor gave to me.

With Gay Bar, I revisited spots where I’ve hung out over the years in an attempt to interrogate the connection between place and identity. I conceived the book around 2017, when over half the gay bars in London had closed within a decade. So this got me thinking: What does it all mean? Should we unequivocally lament the closure of these venues, or is it possible their time was up? Why should my identity be dictated by a commercial aesthetic and particular form of socializing? Had gay bars informed me, and how? With each bar in the book, I dug deep to figure out what went on before my time there, uncovering euphoric and problematic histories, dating to the 1970s and as far back as the 17th century. 

When it comes to gay bars, what often comes to mind is “gay men” rather gay men and women, or queer people in general. Why do you think that is?

One reason could be that, in very general terms, women have often socialized in private spaces. In the States, for instance, there is an incredible history of house parties in locations like Oakland and Fire Island. Some early lesbian-run bars were known as much for other aspects, like poetry readings and live folk music. Commercial gay venues were generally dominated by white men. Now, of course, the most exciting parties may be those that center womxn, femmes and trans people of color. But my choice to write specifically about gay bars populated by men was deliberate — I was interested in rethinking a somewhat passé institution.

While the historical and symbolic significance of gay bars can’t be denied, there is something to be said about how gay bars have not always felt accessible to various members within the queer community, including the disabled/neurodivergent members of our community and others. How do we reconcile the idea of this queer safe space and its limitations?

It’s hard for me to think of gay bars as safe spaces at all — in that they rely on the consumption of booze, usually neglect to provide adequate wheelchair access, are lookist and ageist and have been blatantly racist and sexist, too. It was never my intention to write about what gay bars should have been or could be, but rather to consider what they have been, including the failings. 

As a queer woman who’s also asexual, I’ve found that bars (gay or straight) haven’t exactly felt comfortable for me, since most contain an element of hook-up culture. Do you find the gay bar to be inherently sexual in nature or is the answer more complicated?

Oh, yes, the answer is always more complicated, right? Bars, after all, are commercial spaces, and sexuality of course has been repurposed as a weapon of commerce. Bars and other institutions of gay culture were selling sex even at the height of AIDS infections — they just sold an idea of sex, of its promise, and not just a promise of getting laid but of power and status. But in terms of my own approach, I was absolutely interested in gay bars as a site in which to cruise and engage in semi-public sex. I wanted the book to be as much about sexual proclivity as cultural identity, and about the tension between.

This book seems be a reflection on the past (both your own personal experiences as well as the collective memories of the queer community). As a writer, how did it feel exploring the lines between non-fiction writer/essayist and historian?

I would not claim to be a historian. I am, however, very interested in history as one strategy of learning, including the foibles of historical retelling. I gave myself the title of essayist in my twenties as a kind of risk, as if on a dare, and that’s how the job has remained — all about trying things out through writing. To essay, as a verb, means to attempt. 

I sometimes say that I’m an unreliable narrator of non-fiction. Why do we expect our fictional characters to be flawed and complicated in order to appear ‘real,’ yet demand non-fiction authors achieve some kind of neutral and all-seeing stature? Writing Gay Bar, as I searched my memories, it was very much through the lens of my specific positionality — as Asian-American, gay, cis, West Coast, and so on. So I’m not going to bury any of these aspects, but lean in. And as I researched the historical elements of the book, I found various events — and the ways they were reported — to be delightful, funny, icky, repulsive, depressing, sexy, everything. I’m not inclined to hide my impressions of what I’m seeing. I reveal my point-of-view by selecting the very stuff that I find the most delightful or repulsive or whatever to share with the reader, because I want us to go on an intense journey together. And I can never be an objective guide.

What have been some of your favorite gay/queer bar experiences?

Those moments when I realized I’m dancing in a fire trap, but still can’t resist the beat. 

In the time of Covid-19, has there been any cognitive dissonance about writing about a subject that has been shut down for so long?

I had mostly finished the book before the pandemic, but the interviews have been conducted throughout lockdown so yes, there was a kind of estrangement. On a personal level, I’m pretty adaptable. I began making radio shows as a way of communicating with others under the new conditions. And I’m very lucky to have a roof over my head, and a partner with a sunny disposition, so we approached much of lockdown as if it were a two-person house party. 

In an article from i-D, “the gay bar is dead: how the queer space killed it” the author writes about the shifting cultural perspective on bars and how the gay bar may be losing significance in terms of other queer people finding alternative spaces to celebrate queer identity. What’s your take on this and your take on the future of gay bars?

I think these kinds of spaces have been, at their best, about exploring the possibilities within oneself and between others, rather than arriving into one uniform thing. And as everything continues to evolve, the ways we explore need to change, too. So the advent of new forms of coming together seems absolutely as it should be. However, that doesn’t mean I believe there’s no longer a need for the old school gay bar. For one thing, some elder lesbians, gay men and trans people might happen to like perching on a barstool in a comfy old dive, and I hope they continue to have destinations that afford them that kind of refuge. 

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?

“Which Sex and the City character are you?” Answer: I’ve never watched Sex and the City.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers, both those working on their craft and looking to be published?

Make playlists and mixtapes. For me, fostering musical arcs and a logic of transitions is akin to the nuts and bolts of storytelling. So that’s my advice on craft. As for getting published, I’d say worry first about the integrity of what you’re making. My own trajectory has been long and full of detours, but I was learning and improving. Then when the time comes, try sending short, polite emails to the agents who represent other writers you admire. Be precise, humble and open. Bring your sense of humor. Be prepared to listen. And remember: Be brief.

Finally, what queer books would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

I’m going to recommend a book that isn’t explicitly queer, but to me has a kind of queer undercurrent: The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford. The young girl at its heart is prickly, dissatisfied and non-conforming. She’s perceived by others as unlikable, but she’s struggling to make sense of a sick world. Many, if not all, of the same things could be said of another of my favorite books, Cruddy by Lynda Barry. I am recommending them because they are about being messy. And I identify as a mess as much as anything.

Interview with Author Jason June

Jason June (it’s a two-name first name, like Mary-Kate without the hyphen or the Olsen twin) is a writer mermaid who loves to create picture books that mix the flamboyantly wacky with the slightly dark, and young adult contemporary queer rom-coms full of love and lust and hijinks. When not writing, JJ zips about Austin, Texas, with his Pomeranian, Pom Brokaw.  His work includes the queer-inclusive Valentine’s Day picture book, Porcupine Cupid; the whimsical chapter book series, Mermicorn Island; and the YA rom-coms, Jay’s Gay Agenda (out now) and Out of the Blue (May 31, 2022).

I had the opportunity to interview Jason June, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Thanks so much for having me! My name is Jason June (it’s a two-name first name, like Mary-Kate but without the hyphen or the Olsen twin), and I’m the author of Jay’s Gay Agenda and the upcoming Out of the Blue. I love writing YA featuring the love lives and shenanigans of queer characters!

When did you know you were first interested in writing, and what drew you specifically to Young Adult Fiction?

I’ve been writing my entire life! I actually started by writing down word for word the dialogue in the movie Labyrinth starring David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly. I was probably seven years old and completely robsessed with that movie. But in that moment I realized the magic of a movie started with the words in a script. And then I became completely smitten with words in general, and read like my life depended on it. My love for YA came about a few years ago, after a few failed attempts at publishing middle grade fantasy. I needed a palate cleanser to just clear my mind, and became totally wrapped up in contemporary YA and how there is magic in real life that doesn’t have to be literal fairies or witches or potions, but the sort of electric buzzing that occurs when we’re creating strong connections in our teen years. 

Where did the inspiration and the impetus to write your debut book, Jay’s Gay Agenda come from? (Also I’m very curious how you came up with the title.)

JGA is very loosely based on my experiences as the only out queer kid at my rural eastern Washington high school. While I didn’t keep my gay hopes and dreams in a list, I did have a diary that detailed all I couldn’t wait to experience when I finally met another gay person. I didn’t get to jump into a queer community until college, but I used that diary as the seed for the book along with my Type-A Virgo tendencies of list-making, which led to the creation of the titular Gay Agenda. I specifically wanted Gay Agenda in the title because I think it’s hysterical that some people think there is this Queer Master Plan, and instead wanted to show how each person in the LGBTQIA+ community has their own individual relationship wants and goals, and the chaos and joy and magic that can come about when you actually start accomplishing them. 

One element that people have seemed to responded to is the open discussion about sex positivity in Jay’s Gay Agenda? (Also on a small note, as an asexual person, thanks for the brief asexual acknowledgement.)

I’m really happy that people have responded so well to the sex positivity in the book. Going in, I knew that was something I wanted to include in this story because starting around the age of 15, I was thinking about sex constantly, but everywhere I looked I was told that my desire was wrong. So JGA was made to be an antidote to that, to show gay teens that as long as everything is safe and consensual, their physical desires are just as beautiful as anyone else’s. It’s part of human connection for so many of us! And thank you for the thanks! I think it’s important to note in any sex positive discussion that all sexualities are fabulous!

Something I’ve noticed with a lot of queer authors is often they write the books that they wished their younger selves would have wanted. Was this in any way true for you?

Absolutely! I needed to know I wasn’t alone when I was a teen in my relationship and physical hopes and dreams, but minus a selection of books I could count on less than one hand, I couldn’t find many books that I felt truly represented me. It’s why I pretty much stopped reading for enjoyment in high school and didn’t really get back into it until after college. It’s now super important to me to write stories that will always center a queer protagonist and queer relationships.

Were there any stories (queer or otherwise) that you read or watched growing up that had touched you or felt relatable in any way?

Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchez was the first time I read a book where I was like, “Okay, wait! I relate to this!” It’s actually one of the books I was thinking of above where there was representation I could connect with. And there was Marco on Degrassi

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?

To keep at it! You’re going to hear no so many times. No, an agent doesn’t want to take you on as a client; no, an editor doesn’t think your story is right for their imprint; no, a reader doesn’t like your book. But you’ve got to keep going! There are going to be those times that people say yes, they absolutely love what you’re writing, or relate to your story, or can’t wait for what you’re coming out with next. So anytime you hear a no, know that a yes is out there for you too, and you’ve got to keep writing for those yeses. 

Aside from writing, what are some things you would want others to know about you?

Chikorita is the best Pokémon and that’s all there is to it. 

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet and wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?

I honestly can’t think of one! Interviewers like you are so good at coming up with questions that let me discuss the heart of my work, so I don’t feel like I haven’t been able to talk about the things that mean the most to me. So thank you! 

Can you tell us about any new projects you are working on and at liberty to discuss?

Yes! My second novel with HarperTeen comes out in May and it’s called Out of the Blue. It’s a contemporary YA with light magical elements featuring queer merpeople! It’s dual POV between a merperson (Crest, pronounced like the actual sound of a cresting wave, which is impossible for humans to say, so they go by the human name Ross while on land) who has to come on land for a month to help a human, and the recently dumped lifeguard (Sean) that Crest fake dates to help Sean save face in front of Sean’s ex. And we all know what happens when fake dating ensues! This is about romance helping us discover parts of ourselves we hadn’t yet realized, and it also explores the whole emotional journey of having to choose between love for a person and love for your home when you literally have to choose one over the other. I’m so excited for it! 

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

I love love love book talking! Here are a few that I have absolutely adored this year:

Jonny Garza Villa’s FIFTEEN HUNDRED MILES FROM THE SUN. It follows Julián as he gets drunk and accidentally comes out online, unleashing a whole storm of excitement (a Cutie McCuterson DMs him after coming out) and anxiety (having to still stay in the closet when it comes to his dad). Jonny has so perfectly found that balance of jubilation at being yourself after you come out that can come hand in hand with fear when we’re still in an environment that’s not safe. It’s so beautifully done, with both laugh-out-loud and heart-clutching moments.

Ashley Shuttleworth’s A DARK AND HOLLOW STAR. It it is an epic high fantasy told from four POVs, and they’re all queer! It was so amazing to get all this magical action and high stakes and be surrounded by queerness!

Emery Lee’s MEET CUTE DIARY. In this we follow Noah, a transgender teen, who runs a blog full of trans happily ever afters. But, all the stories are fiction. And when a troll calls Noah out for making up stories, Noah starts a whole fake-dating escapade to get real-life material that teaches him so much about relationships and what makes a good partner. I loved it so much and everyone should read it!

Stephan Lee’s K-POP CONFIDENTIAL in which we follow Candace as she moves to Seoul to train to become a K-Pop idol! I loved every last second of this and felt like I could see the choreography and hear the music. And I just finished the sequel, K-POP REVOLUTION, which comes out in spring 2022, and everyone should preorder it now!

Interview with Cartoonist Damian Alexander

Damian Alexander is a cartoonist and storyteller who grew up in and around Boston. Damian’s illustrations and comic shorts can be found on The Trevor Project, Narratively, The Nib and others. He loves ghost stories, miniatures, and watching cartoons with his cats on sunny afternoons.

I had the opportunity to interview Damian, which you can read below.

First of all, congrats on your debut book, Other Boys! Could you tell us a little of what it’s about?

Thank you so much and thank you for interviewing me! Other Boys is a graphic memoir, primarily following my middle school experiences in the mid-2000s, but follows little me from kindergarten up until that age. Bullying, gender roles and stereotypes, and the death of my mother are some of the more serious issues it touches on. Though I made sure to sprinkle humor throughout and balance it all with bright and colorful artwork. Eventually the story leads up to middle school me realizing that I’m gay. I’ve wanted to tell a story about growing up as a little boy who played with dollhouses and doesn’t fit in, but never knew I’d be writing one about myself.

What first attracted you to comics? Were there comics or stories that caught your eye growing up that later inspired you to become an artist yourself?

When I was really little I would read “The Peanuts” comic strips in the newspaper with my grandfather and I loved how these colorful and cartoony characters were so poignant and witty. I think that was the first series that drew me to comics. My grandfather also gave me older comic books before I could even read, so I’d just stare at Archie and the 1994 Super Boy because I thought they were cute and didn’t realize it yet. Later, I found Brian Selznick’s illustrated books and fell in love with them, and it really got me into illustrated storytelling.

Could you describe your artistic background in some detail. Like how you got into art and what your art education was like?

I had always been interested in art because I always loved cartoons. My grandfather used to draw all the time in our dining room when I was growing up, and I’d watch him in amazement. He was a retired garbage man and it was like a side hobby as he got older. Most people in my family liked to draw, but would eventually move on from it at some point to pursue a different career. I come from a very low income family, so dreams were often put on the back-burner. I wasn’t lucky enough to afford art school, but I was lucky enough to end up at a public high school with great art classes and teachers. I continued to take art classes through college while also studying writing.

Queer graphic memoirs is definitely an emerging field right now. What drew you to writing non-fiction and do you believe your book stands in conversation with any other books at the moment?

There’s a lot more graphic memoirs coming out now than I’d ever seen before and I think “Other Boys” will fit comfortably beside books like “Flamer” by Mike Curato. In all honesty, I was much more into fictional stories and escaping in worlds of fantasy. Though occasionally I would post these little shorts online about my childhood, inspired by the weekly format of “The Peanuts,” and people liked them so much. “Other Boys” just blossomed out of that.

Your graphic novel originally started as a webcomic, correct? What drew you toward that medium?

The webcomic format is so easy and accessible. Anyone can just draw up something they think is funny or interesting, post it, and then get immediate reactions. The format also allows any artist from any diverse background and skill level to share whatever they like whenever they want. And allows queer artists like me to be seen as well. For the longest time comics seemed very white, straight and male, but I’m loving all of the diversity that’s breaking through recently.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?

I suppose, something like, “What were your artistic influences for this book?” I’ve been nervous people might not realize the way I illustrated the book was entirely intentional. The bold primary colors and black outlines are meant to be reminiscent of the cartoons, video games and LEGO sets I loved growing up. A lot of graphic memoirs have simple muted color schemes, and I wanted an explosion of color to fill the page, helping to off-set the melancholy tone at times. These colorful shows, games and toys, are what helped me get through the bad times during my childhood.

What messages do you want to give to your readers through your art? What stories or messages do you wish you had gotten when you were a young reader yourself? 

I would like my readers to know that they are not alone. I felt so alone as a kid, and I wish that I had even the slightest inkling that there were people out there who understood me or were even a little bit  like me.

What advice might you have to give to other aspiring creatives who might want to make their own comics? 

The best advice I think I could give young creators is to just keep drawing and keep sharing it. Even if someone puts you down, which will probably happen at some point, just don’t let that stop you from doing what you love. At the same time, don’t feel pressured to share if you’re not ready or comfortable with it yet.

Finally, what queer books/comics would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

For other queer graphic memoirs I would recommend “Flamer” by Mike Curato as mentioned above, and “Spinning” by Tillie Walden. Some queer young adult novels I think Geeks OUT readers would also love are “Surrender Your Sons” by Adam Sass, as well as Caleb Roehrig’s “Last Seen Leaving” and “White Rabbit.” I also love everything by Brian Selznick, but especially “The Marvels,” which made me cry when I first read it.

Interview with Author Amy Ratcliffe

Amy Ratcliffe is part of many fandoms, including Star Wars, The Witcher, and anything Tolkien. She’s cosplayed as Han Solo and Merida. She’s the author of Star Wars: Women of the Galaxy and Elee and Me. She’s the managing editor for Nerdist, a host, and an entertainment reporter. Her latest book, A Kid’s Guide to Fandom, was illustrated by Dave Perillo and is available now. Based in Los Angeles with her husband and two cats, she’s always looking forward to the next time she eats pizza.

I had the opportunity to interview Amy, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Thank you! I’m a geek, an author, an entertainment reporter, a host, and a managing editor for Nerdist. My first fandom was probably The Wheel of Time book series; I started reading them as a teen. Then fast forward several years later, and I fell in love with Star Wars: The Clone Wars and that series (especially Ahsoka!) led me to discover my passion for writing.

How did A Kid’s Guide to Fandom come to be? Did someone reach out to you about the project or did you generate the idea on your own?

My incredible editor at Running Press Kids, Britny Brooks-Perilli, emailed me with the idea of writing something to help kids learn about fandom and get involved. Through a lot of back and forth, the project took the shape of a guide. We wanted it to be welcoming, practical, and helpful for any kids who might be curious about finding other kids who felt enthusiastic about similar things. 

How did you get your start in pop culture journalism?  What would you say are some of your favorite fandoms to cover?

When Star Wars: The Clone Wars premiered, I was just finding my way in the blogging world. At the time I was blogging about regional travel and food, but it never quite clicked. Then in gushing about The Clone Wars it hit me: I could start a blog about geeky things from my perspective. I launched Geek with Curves through Blogger in around 2009 and I did so with the intent of covering a wide range of topics and styles with the hopes that I could build a portfolio of sorts to show editors who might have paying work. And after a couple of years of pouring a lot of hours into Geek with Curves, I started getting a little money writing for various outlets.

The fandoms I cover depend upon what’s in the pop culture zeitgeist to some degree, so recently my favorites have included: Shadow and Bone (I adore the books this series is adapted from), Loki and the MCU at large, and Star Wars.

Many would argue that pop culture isn’t that important to talk about, serving merely as shallow entertainment. What would you say is the significance or function of pop culture in our culture?

This is something I think about a lot in my role at Nerdist. Pop culture is hugely important. Stories are never just stories. Fiction is a reflection of our world and sometimes a lens through which we can examine IRL issues. Representation matters. Stories can present different perspectives and ideas, and writers reacting to those stories through essays or interviews can do the same. As a culture we give a lot of attention to pop culture, so we can’t dismiss it as shallow at the same time. Pop culture should broaden our horizons.

What advice would you give to someone looking to break into your field?

It’s definitely a constantly changing field, and I recognize that the path I took over 10 years isn’t as likely to work out now. So I’d say get in touch with entertainment writers and editors you admire. Challenge yourself to think of pitches connected to contemporary pop culture—even if you’re not ready to pitch yet, it will help put you in the right mind set. Have some kind of writing samples, even published through your own site or blog, to share with editors. And once you do start pitching, be very aware of the kind of stories the outlet you’re pitching to publishers. Finally, be persistent.

In your book, A Kid’s Guide to Fandom, you advise kids to reach out to their parents/guardians upon first entering fandom, which might be tricky for some closeted kids? Are there any alternatives you might suggest?

That’s a really good point! When kids are entering spaces online or IRL where they’re meeting new people, I think it’s wise for someone else—usually an older someone else—to be in the loop for safety. Perhaps closeted kids can stick to sharing details about only the fandom, whatever that may be.

Since the time of the pandemic, are there ways you’ve seen fandom evolve, change, or adapt when much of fandom hasn’t been able to meet up IRL?

In the earlier days of the pandemic, before many of us experienced Zoom fatigue, being able to meet up online was a boon. It was an easy way to connect with people regardless of distance, or traffic, or schedules. For myself and for friends, playing RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons became easy and happened on a more regular schedule because we took away the in person aspect. Likewise conventions have scrambled to bring experiences online for fans, and it’s made those kind of events more accessible. I hope we see more of that accessibility in the future, even after it’s safe for in person events to resume.

Can you name any of your favorite fandom experiences growing up?

I definitely didn’t know the word fandom until I was in my 20s, but looking back, I was absolutely part of The Wheel of Time fandom. I started reading the Robert Jordan books in high school. I had to visit a family friend to use her dial-up internet in order to visit fan sites and roleplay as an Aes Sedai in a fan forum.

Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

I have a few projects in the works right now, but I can’t talk about any of them yet unfortunately.

What queer books/media would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

I recently read and adored Molly Ostertag’s The Girl from the Sea graphic novel for middle grade readers. On the adult side, I recommend Casey McQuiston’s One Last Stop and Cat Sebastian’s The Queer Principles of Kit Webb.