Katherine Locke (they/them) lives and writes in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with their feline overlords and their addiction to chai lattes. They are the author of The Girl with the Red Balloon, a 2018 Sydney Taylor Honor Book and 2018 Carolyn W. Field Honor Book, as well as The Spy with the Red Balloon. They are the co-editor and contributor to It’s A Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes and Other Jewish Stories, and a contributor to Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens and the forthcoming Out Now: Queer We Go Again. They are also the author of Bedtime for Superheroes and What are Your Words?. They not-so-secretly believe most stories are fairy tales in disguise. They can be found online @bibliogato on Twitter and Instagram.
Nicole Melleby (she/her/hers), a born-and-bread Jersey native, is an award-winning children’s author. Her middle grade books have been Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selections, and have earned the Skipping Stones Honor Award, as well as being a 2020 Kirkus Reviews best book of the year. Her debut novel, Hurricane Season, was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. She currently teaches college literature and creative writing, and spends most of her free time roller skating. She lives with her wife and their cat, whose need for attention oddly aligns with Nicole’s writing schedule. You can find her on Twitter @NeekoMelleby.
Katherine and Nicole co-edited the short story collection This Is Our Rainbow: 16 Stories Of Her, Him, Them, And Us which is available now. I had the opportunity to interview them both, which you can read below.
First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT. Could you tell us a little about yourself?
KL: Hi! I’m Katherine Locke, co-editor and contributor to THIS IS OUR RAINBOW, a queer anthology for readers 9-12 years old, as well as the author of WHAT ARE YOUR WORDS?, THE GIRL WITH THE RED BALLOON, and the forthcoming THIS REBEL HEART, amongst other titles. I’m a nerd, a cat lover, a horse lover, a writer, and a huge fan of naps.
NM: Hi! I’m Nicole Melleby, and I am a New Jersey native who spends way too much time by the ocean. I currently teach creative writing and literature classes with a couple of New Jersey universities, and I spend most of my free time roller skating. My debut novel, Hurricane Season, was a Lambda Literary finalist, and I live with my wife and our cat, Gillian, who is basically a puppy. Seriously—she even plays fetch!
How did you find yourself becoming an author? What drew you to telling your first story and what makes you keep going?
KL: I have been writing ever since I was a little kid! My earliest stories were essentially fanfiction about my life where my mom and I had a farm, I was an only child, and there were plenty of animals. It was true wish fulfillment writing. I wrote my first novel in high school (it was very bad but I’m impressed I finished it!) and kept going. I love stories. I see the world in stories and I hear stories and I’m always dreaming up stories. I think it’s so fun to explore new worlds and new characters, and I find myself learning how to deal with this real world through fiction. I can’t imagine my life without writing, so I guess that’s what keeps me going!
NM: When I was eight, I saw the Nickelodeon movie Harriet the Spy. I was obsessed, I loved everything about it, but I especially loved the main character, Harriet, and the way she always carried around a notebook to write things in. I used to beg my parents to buy me marble composition notebooks just like the one Harriet had every time they went to a store that carried them, and I would fill those notebooks up with everything. I started off by taking notes about the people around me much like Harriet did while spying, and from there I started writing stories instead. I’ve been writing stories ever since.
A good number of your books are queer middle-grade fiction. Was there anything that drew you to writing for this age group? Is there anything about writing middle-grade to you that is distinctive than writing for other age groups?
NM: I actually started with writing young adult. I got my MFA for young adult literature and then slowly found my way to middle grade. I have more of a middle grade voice; I don’t know what it says about me that my natural voice is that of a 12-year-ol, but it’s true! The more I started writing about that age group, the more it felt right, especially because all of my characters are queer and I think that’s such an important time to see that reflected in these books, as you’re slowly understanding who you are. I read once that young adult novels have the characters trying to explore themselves outside of their friends and family, but for middle graders, it’s about exploring who you are within your friends and family and within the people around you, because you’re too young to really have that independence, and I like that. I like being able to write about these characters within the world around them. That’s really what I love about middle grade books.
How would you describe your writing process? Are there any patterns or habits you have to help with inspiration or productivity?
KL: I like to work around other people! If my bed is within reach, I will nap (see also: the first question.) So I tend to write at cafes (pre-COVID) and when I’m on writing retreats, I like to write in a busy room with headphones on. I usually like to have a hot beverage nearby (tea or chai lattes). I write with and without music, depends on my mood. My writing process is a lot of trial and error. I like to know a lot of emotions and moods and vibes of the book before I go in, but all the nitty gritty details come to me as I work. I go through many drafts to get to the book I want to write.
NM: When I write, I like to be as comfortable as possible—usually with a soft blanket wrapped around me, a huge cup of coffee, and my cat Gillian awkwardly splayed out in my lap. I don’t write to music, I find it distracting, but I do usually have the Food Network on in the background because I can’t write to silence, either. I’ve also always been a “character first, plot later” kind of writer—which I think I get from my love of soap operas and their focus on character and relationships.
As a writer, you have explored themes tied to both Jewish and queer identities in your characters, as seen in The Girl with the Red Balloon and It’s a Whole Spiel. Can you discuss your connection to that?
KL: Yes! I am both Jewish and queer. It’s really important to me to share those identities on the page, both together and separate. It’s how I connect to the kinds of stories I want to tell.
What Are Your Words? A Book About Pronouns features a young non-binary child discussing switching pronouns. As a non-binary author yourself would you say this story might be a bit personal to you?
KL: Though I’m nonbinary, I’m not as genderfluid as Ari, the character in the story, is. Ari’s pronouns change, but mine stay they/them. But Ari’s feels about how pronouns feel when they aren’t the right pronouns is definitely personal. And I hope to grow up to be as supportive and affirming as Uncle Lior in the book!
Your latest book, How to Become a Planet, deals with the sensitive issue of mental health, specifically depression and anxiety. What drew you to writing about this topic?
NM: I wanted to show that mental illness can be a lifelong issue. I wanted to let Pluto explore what it meant for her, now that she has this diagnosis, moving forward. How does it change her? Does it change her? What does it all mean? Getting a diagnosis isn’t the end for Pluto—it’s a new beginning, like it ends up being for a lot of kids (and adults) struggling with mental illness. And it can be scary! She’s got all of these big emotions, and her depression has set her back in a lot of ways while she and her mom were trying to figure out what was wrong, and now that they know what is wrong, where do they go from here? Ultimately, I wanted to show my readers that it’s okay to have these diagnoses, that it doesn’t change who they are, and I wanted to show them that despite it feeling so hard, there is always hope.
What advice would you have to give to other writers starting out as well as those looking to finish their first book?
KL: Learn to finish books. Unfinished books don’t get published (if that’s your goal). Even if publication isn’t your goal, the art of telling stories relies on the completeness of the telling. Learn to finish books. Even if it feels bad and messy. You can’t fix what you haven’t written.
NM: You don’t have to write every day—I see so many writers wracked with guilt over how much or how little they write day-to-day, and it’s hard! Write how much you want to write, how much you need to write. You decide what those answers are.
Also: If you’re facing a rejection? I find it best to sing this ridiculous song, because it’s so ridiculous it makes me feel better every single time I have sung it to myself (which has been often, because rejection is part of being a writer!): Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I should just go eat worms. Worms! Worms! Worms!
What’s a message something you directly want to give to the readers of your books?
KL: I hope you carry that story with you into the world, even for a little bit, and that it stays with you, even for a little bit.
NM: I really just want them to know that they’re not alone, that there are other people who are struggling and that I see them and I’m listening.
Aside from writing, what do you like to do in your free time?
KL: I ride my horse, take wayyyyy too many photos of my cats, try to remember when I last watered my house plants, read, and spend too much time on the internet!
NM: I love to roller skate with the New Jersey Skate Collective and play roller derby with my Central Jersey Roller Vixens!
Is there a question you haven’t been asked yet but that you wish you were asked? If so, what is the answer to that question?
KL: I don’t think so, but thank you for asking this!
NM: Yes! Is there a connection between my (standalone) middle grade novels?
The answer is yes! All of my books (and my short story in This Is Our Rainbow) all take place in the same area of New Jersey—where I call home. Because of this, I make references to my books in my other books: background characters, schools, teachers, locations. I won’t tell you what—you’ll have to read and see if you can spot them yourself!
Are there any project ideas you are incubating and at liberty to speak about?
KL: Oooh, great question. I have a project I can’t speak about yet, but I can tell you that I’m working on a Jewish historical portal fantasy with queer characters, and it’s a bit of a glorious mess right now but I’m extremely excited about it. No release date yet! My next books are a picture book called Being Friends with Dragons out now and This Rebel Heart, a queer Jewish historical with a fantastical twist, out April 4, 2022.
NM: My next book is called The Science of Being Angry, out May 10th, 2022. It’s about an 11-year-old girl named Joey who has anger issues she’s trying to understand. She throws temper tantrums and sometimes gets violent and gets in trouble a lot in school and at home because of it. She’s a triplet, and her brothers never get angry like she does, and neither does her mama, the one of her moms she shares DNA with. In her search to figure out why she is the way she is, she and her best friend (and crush) end up turning to 23-and-Me to try and find out information on the sperm donor her moms used to conceive the triplets. It’s a messy story about family, as Joey tries to fix things so that her mom (the one she doesn’t share DNA with) will love her anyway, and Joey won’t keep hurting the people she loves most, either.
What queer book recommendations would you have to give to the readers of Geeks OUT?
KL: COOL FOR THE SUMMER by Dahlia Adler is a super fun book about a girl who falls for a girl over the summer but then comes home to start school to find the boy of her dreams is into her—and her summer fling is the new student. And THE CITY BEAUTIFUL by Aden Polydoros is the queer Jewish gothic light horror of my dreams—and it’s historical, which is truly the icing on the cake for me. The writing is *chef’s kiss* perfect. And forthcoming, I would highly recommend FROM DUST A FLAME by Rebecca Podos out now!
NM: Some recent queer middle grade books that I loved are: A Touch of Ruckus by Ash Van Otterloo, The Best Liars in Riverview by Lin Thompson (out March 2022), and Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston by Esme Symes-Smith (out Spring 2022).