Interview with Hope Larson and Rebecca Mock

Hope Larson is the author of All Summer Long, which was a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2018 and an Eisner Award Nominee, as well as the recently published sequel, All Together Now. She also adapted and illustrated A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel, which spent forty-four weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and for which she won an Eisner Award. She is additionally the author and illustrator of Salamander Dream, Gray Horses, Chiggers, and Mercury, and the author of Compass South and Knife’s Edge, both illustrated by Rebecca Mock.

Rebecca Mock is an illustrator and comics artist. They illustrated the graphic novels Compass South and Knife’s Edge, both written by Hope Larson. Their work has also appeared in various publications, including the New York Times and The New Yorker. They are the co-organizer of the Hana Doki Kira anthology.

I had the opportunity to interview Hope and Rebecca, which you can read below.

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

HL: I’ve been a cartoonist for nearly 20 years. I’ve lived in multiple cities and countries, but currently, I reside in my hometown of Asheville, NC, with my husband and our 3-year-old.

RM: I’m an illustrator & comic book artist living in NYC. I’ve made 3 graphic novels with Hope including Compass South & Knife’s Edge, and Salt Magic, all for which she wrote and I drew. Additionally, I’ve worked in games, TV, editorial, and branding.

How did you both get into comics, and what drew you to the medium specifically?

HL: I fell in love with comics when I was 8 and my family moved to France for a year. My dad is a professor and he was on sabbatical, translating a book. I didn’t know any French when we moved over, so my parents bought me French comics to read, to help my language skills. Reading classic series like Tintin and Asterix were how I got into adventure comics like Compass South and Knife’s Edge, too. After comic back to the US I didn’t read comics again for a while–superhero comics were all I could find, and they didn’t appeal–but when I was in high school, I discovered manga, and they completely blew my mind.

As for how I ended up making comics myself, I was always writing and drawing, so it felt like a natural extension of what I’d been doing all my life. Visual storytelling is my jam.

RM: For me it was a combination of Sunday comic strips and Archie comic digests–those books they sold in grocery stores? I read as many of those as I could. Comics were fun to read and re-read, unlike many of the books that I had access to and was required to read for school. From Archies, I migrated to manga, which hit its first US boom in the early aughts, when I was in middle school. It was an emotional time, and again comics filled a void where prose books didn’t–manga in particular was energetic, outlandish, dramatic, racy–and chiefly, very easy to consume. 

I was also always a good drawer, and part of the reason why I stayed so passionate about art throughout my childhood and teen years was a desire to reproduce the cartoons and comics I loved so much. Comics is a medium that invites conversation–it’s easy to pick up some basic tools and start making your own comics. From an early age, I wanted to create stories that would inspire others to make comics too.

As a writer-illustrator team, you’ve worked on a number of comics together, including Compass South and Salt Magic. How did the two of you meet and come to work together?

HL: We were connected by a friend of Rebecca’s on Twitter! And the rest is history.

RM: That’s right. I was a big fan of Hope’s work, so when I heard from my friend that she was looking for an artist for a new book I sent my little portfolio .PDF over. We got started on the pitch for Compass South quickly after that.

What can you tell us about one of your most recent Eisner-award-winning work, Salt Magic Where did the inspiration for this story come from? 

HL: For me, it was one of those stories that shows up like a gift from the muse. I wrote the original outline in one night, which isn’t the norm for me, and although it did change throughout the process of making the book, the core of the book was there from that first night. I was going through a rough time in my personal life, dealing with the aftermath of a divorce and a traumatic failed relationship, struggling with my career, and wondering if I would ever get to have a child or a family. Wondering what I really wanted out of life. I took all of that fear and anguish and reframed it as a fantasy middle-grade story. I have to stress, of course, that this is just the stuff that planted the seed for the story, and the book is its own weird, magical flower. Vonceil is her own person and has her own journey, and so much of that was built by Rebecca through their work.

RM: I think we’d just wrapped up Knife’s Edge when Hope sent me the first outline for Salt Magic, and it definitely had that feel of something magically sprung from a burst of inspiration. It captivated me right away, and I immediately had this clear vision for the artwork–lots of softness, beauty, ornamentation, with plenty of sinister shadows and exciting action. It had all these elements that matched with my own sensibilities–historical detail, unique environments and side characters, and a theme of feminine power. It was different from anything I’d read before, which was so enticing as an illustrator, giving me so much to start from scratch with.

Hope Larson Photo Credit: Lan Bui

Reading the book, I found myself wondering if the main character of Salt Magic was coded as being aspec (i.e. aromantic and/or asexual) due to her lack of interest in romance. Would you say there’s any weight behind this head cannon? 

HL: That’s a totally valid read. I didn’t sit down intending to write a story about an aromantic character, but there’s nothing in the book to suggest that Vonceil has any interest in romance. I’m trying to avoid spoiling the ending completely, but we see this character at the end of her life, and while we don’t learn anything about her experiences between age 12, when we met her, and old age, it’s plausible that she was never partnered with anyone. She cares very deeply about her family, and she longs for adventure, and those are the main things we know about her.

RM: I’m on the ace spectrum, so I likely imbued both Vonciel and her uncle Dell with a bit of that energy. It was part of why I connected strongly with the story–that feeling of observing romance happening for others, and feeling a confusing distance from it. I remember discussing with Hope early on that there’s big queer energy to Vonciel’s fascination with Greda too. The point of her character’s journey is that she wants her future to be her choice, not just following the patterns she sees others follow. We don’t see what she does once the story ends, but we know she led a full life and feels satisfied. So whatever you imagine for her, is as valid as anything else.

Growing up, were there any books/media that inspired you as a creative and/or that you felt yourself personally reflected in?

HL: Madeleine L’Engle’s books, Diana Wynne Jones’s books, Lloyd Alexander’s books. I was a big fantasy kid. For comics, Ranma ½, the adventure comics named about, Ghost World, Blankets. I think I’m flubbing this answer pretty badly, but I have Covid right now, so I’m going to blame it on brain fog.

RM: So much inspired me–I loved stories like Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden, for the heroines who were fiercely independent. I liked historical adventure for its distance from my own average life, and how that distance helped me connect with characters who felt out of place in their own time. I was obsessed with any comics that made me laugh–strips and Archie, as mentioned, and I loved Ranma ½ as well. So much manga–I would read everything in the store, then go online and find scanlations of manga that weren’t published in the US. Comics that had good slapstick or action stuck with me much more than comics that were more dialogue-focused. I watched a lot of cartoons and shows too–weird segway but I have been rewatching MASH, a show I was obsessed with as a teen. It may seem odd, but I guess I identified with those characters who were really goofy and strange, like me.

What are some of your favorite elements of writing/drawing? What do you consider some of the most frustrating and/or difficult?

HL: For writing, I love outlining, and I love editing. The very beginning and the very end. I enjoy the rest, too, but I’m most delighted by the spark of inspiration, when I’m discovering what the story’s about, and the mechanical process of fixing the parts that are broken.  For drawing, I like inking the best.

The most frustrating part of writing is the first draft. Absolute hell! For drawing, it’s when I’m in the middle of the book and it feels like there’s no end in sight.

RM: I love research! There’s a lot about the beginning phase of building a story that I love, but I particularly relish gathering research materials and learning all about every aspect of whatever I’m writing or drawing. That’s probably something borne from drawing so many historical fiction books–there is so much to learn and draw inspiration from!

Every phase of the art is frustrating, with small rewards–thumbnailing each page takes full concentration, but goes fast and can be easily re-done. Sketch and inking and coloring are all endless, especially towards the end when your brain already feels done with the story, but you know there’s plenty of work ahead before you can celebrate.

Rebecca Mock Photo Credit: Kat Mukai

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers/illustrators? Any specific advice for those who only draw or only write comics?

HL: Writers, even non-drawing writers, should attempt some thumbnails or lettered stick-figure comics from their scripts. It really helps you get a sense for what will fit on the page in a way that’s hard to grasp if you don’t try it yourself. I still get this wrong all the time; it’s very hard stuff. Another suggestion is to read a bit about cinematography and try to think in shots, and in three dimensions. If the characters were in a room, how would they move around the space in a scene? I try to give an idea of this when I’m writing scripts, especially scripts for someone else to draw. If it isn’t working the artist can change it, but it’s much easier to go into drawing with even a rough stab at how the scene should play out. And yes, I know, comics and movies aren’t the same, but a lot of the concepts do cross over to an extent.

RM: If you feel more confident drawing than writing, I suggest trying your hand at writing some prose. It can be short scenes, or rambling epics, or fanfiction, or anything that holds your interest. Give yourself a break from thinking about the art, and let yourself have fun with a fresh challenge. If you have a story you want to turn into a comic, but aren’t sure how to start, I suggest choosing a short scene, something that might only take a paragraph to write, and turning that into a comic that’s a few pages long. This way you don’t feel overwhelmed, and you can start practicing the process–thumbnail the scene, sketch & ink & letter, add color, even try printing it as a small booklet and see how it feels to hold a comic you’ve made in your hands. 

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

HL: I’m working on the art for Be That Way, a YA hybrid book that should be out next year from Holiday House. It’s a diary-format book that tells the story of one complicated year in a teenage girl’s life, through prose, illustration, and comics. After that, I’ll be swinging back to self-illustrated comics, but nothing’s been announced yet.

RM: My newest comic, a slightly-adult adventure comedy called Die Horny, is up for preorder at Bulgilhan Press and will debut at Small Press Expo in September! It’s quite different from the books I’ve done with Hope. The title makes it sound more raunchy than it actually is–it’s about a couple of goofy lovebirds on their honeymoon in a humans-and-monsters post-apocalypse kind of world. Beyond that, I’m in the beginning stages of a new graphic novel for kids about a ballet summer camp–a story about being young and creative, and finding friendship in a competitive environment.

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

HL: For middle-grade comics, I really enjoyed Picture Day by Sarah Sax. Currently reading Conversations with Friends and enjoying that, too, although I’m very late to the party on that one. And I haven’t read Jose Pimienta’s Twin Cities yet, but Rebecca and I were on a panel with them at San Diego Comicon and the book looks wonderful.

RM: A recently released GN I loved was Slip by Marika McKoola and Aatmaja Pandya–teen drama and romance with some fantasy. A book that’s coming out soon from First Second that I’m excited about is In Limbo by Deborah Lee–I got a chance to read an advance copy and it blew me away. And I’m obsessed with the werewolf comics that Olivia Stephens is making–Artie and the Wolf Moon, a YA supernatural GN–and she’s self-publishing a series of short stories, also about werewolves–Darlin’ and Her Other Names is the most recent/upcoming one she’s announced.

Interview with Author Andrea Hairston

Andrea Hairston is a novelist, essayist, playwright, and the Artistic Director of Chrysalis Theatre. She is the author of Redwood and Wildfire, winner of the 2011 Otherwise Award and the Carl Brandon Kindred Award, and Mindscape, shortlisted for the Phillip K Dick and Otherwise Awards, and winner of the Carl Brandon Parallax Award. In her spare time, she is the Louise Wolff Kahn 1931 Professor of Theatre and Afro-American Studies at Smith College. She has received the International Association of the Fantastic in the Arts Distinguished Scholarship Award for outstanding contributions to the criticism of the fantastic. She bikes at night year-round, meeting bears and the occasional shooting star.

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

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

I love words! I love talking in tongues, dropping into another mindscape, and expressing myself in different modalities. I write poems, plays, essays, and novels. I’ve translated plays from German to English. Under duress, I have even written a few short stories! In my spare time, I’m the Louise Wolff Kahn 1931 Professor of Theatre and Africana Studies at Smith College and the Artistic Director of Chrysalis Theatre. I bike at night year round, meeting bears, multi-legged creatures of light and breath, and the occasional shooting star.

What can you tell us about your latest book, Will Do Magic for Small Change

Cinnamon Jones dreams of stepping on stage and acting her heart out like her famous grandparents, Redwood and Wildfire. But at 5’10’’ and 180 pounds, she’s theatrically challenged. Her family life is a tangle of mystery and deadly secrets, and nobody is telling Cinnamon the whole truth. Before her older brother died, he gave Cinnamon The Chronicles of the Great Wanderer, a tale of a Dahomean warrior woman and an alien from another dimension who perform in Paris and at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The Chronicles may be magic or alien science, but the story is definitely connected to Cinnamon’s family secrets. When an act of homophobic violence wounds her family, Cinnamon and her theatre squad, Klaus and Marie, determine to solve the mysteries and bring her worlds together. The three of them also start falling in love.

Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

Doing research for an earlier novel, Redwood and Wildfire, I came upon a photo of African women performing/being displayed at the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair. They were former warrior women from Dahomey, West Africa, or they were acting as the warrior women—so-called Black Amazons who’d fought French colonialists in fierce battles. After Dahomey’s defeat, this troupe of “exotic savages” was exhibited at the edge of the Fair. I gave the Dahomeyan women a moment in Redwood and Wildfire, but I wanted to do more. I wondered who were these women? What did they think, feel, or do?  What was their story? As I was thinking about writing a novel about Redwood and Wildfire’s granddaughter, I decided the Dahomeyan women would be a major part of the story. 

I researched Dahomey, West Africa, and their warrior-women, but the record was scant: descriptions of them, accounts of their deeds, and history in broad strokes. The warrior women were wives of the King of Dahomey—not his bedmates, but his assassins and bodyguards, his army, and political advisors. Women had considerable power in Dahomey’s fluid yet hierarchical society and could rise from slave to Kpojito—ruling consort of the King. By the mid- 19th century, Dahomey’s elite had grown rich selling slaves to the Europeans. The King bypassed the nobles and governed using a cadre of commoners, including the warrior women, whose status depended on his authority. Unfortunately, nobody really talked to the warrior women or to the performers who were at the Chicago Fair. European and American journalists, adventurers, and explorers talked about them. So, to create characters, I had to speculate on this scant historical record. Taiwo, the Great Wanderer, is a storyteller, an alien griot from another dimension who comes to know our world from the perspective of Kehinde, a warrior woman. Taiwo struggles to make sense of our world, to deal with love, betrayal, heartbreak, joy, and injustice. The Chronicles that Taiwo writes are a lifeline for Cinnamon and her crew.

What inspired you to get into writing, particularly speculative fiction? 

When I was six, I played a willow tree in a play and I got hooked on trees and theatre, on the journey from self to other. But growing up in Pittsburgh, PA in the 1950’s I had the wildly ambitious yet worthy and admirable goal of becoming a Theoretical Physicist or a Mathematician. Theatre Artist or Novelist were wildly ambitious goals for young Black girls too, but surely I was not going to waste my math/science talents, my brain capital, and creative spark on lesser pursuits!

Now, I come from a family of storytellers, of big talkers, and tall-tale-tellers. Nobody in my family ever knew when to shut up. This got me into hot water at school. My mother was desperate and said, “If you get bored, write stories for me. Don’t disturb the other kids. They’re trying to learn.” Keeping out of trouble, I wrote epic adventure sagas for her. I’ve been writing epic adventure sagas ever since. 

The second semester of my junior year in college, I ran away to the theatre! My plays have always been speculative, always on the fantastic side of realism. I ask myself: What’s the world, the universal feel like to an ant, a river, people from a hundred years ago, the lady next door, or the alien from another dimension? My first full-length production was an alternate reality play about Einstein in which Marie Curie was a Black woman revolutionary. There was singing and dancing, mystery and magic, science and comedy, and revolution of course. 

Were there any writers or stories that sparked your own love and interest in storytelling?

I was/am a voracious reader. I lived in the library as a child, reading everything. My older brother was a comic book collector and sf fan, so as little sister I read what he read: Orwell, Tolkien, Huxley, Lewis, Heinlein, Asimov, Herbert, Verne, Wells, Clark, Dick, and Bradbury. I watched Star Trek the original series. That was a family event.

In the 70’s I would read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and find Ursula K. Le Guin, Vonda McIntyre, Marge Piercy, and Margaret Atwood. In the 90’s several writers and directors gave me works by Octavia Butler. They insisted that given the plays I wrote and the theatre I did, I would love Butler. They were on the mark. And all along, the work of Black women playwrights sustained and inspired me: Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Childress, Sonia Sanchez, Adrienne Kennedy, Pearl Cleage, Lynn Nottage, Aishah Rahman, and Anna Deavere Smith.

How would you describe your writing process? 

Writing is a rehearsal. I show up every day and try to find the joy, solve the problems, and rework what I have discovered and uncovered.

What are some of your favorite elements of writing? What are some of the most challenging?

Favorites: Getting lost in the characters, the setting, the poetry of action. Asking questions, solving problems, finding possibilities I can imagine only as I am in the process of writing.

Challenges: Making sure that I tell the story so that a reader can appreciate what I have uncovered and discovered.

As someone influenced by Afro-futurism, could you define what the concept means for those unfamiliar with it, and describe what it means to you personally?

I am one of the pioneers of Afrofuturism.

I have always been interested in stories that haven’t been told; in characters who have been left out of the official narratives of the “American nation” or who don’t play on the world stage; I am curious about the lives that don’t get written down. I want to explore voices that were/are barely heard and I insist on telling of the unknown people who made me and all of us possible. I have been researching West African cultures and Indigenous American cultures since I was fourteen. This is important to all my work.  

A mathematician at a conference in the early 1990s told me that we shouldn’t worry about losing Indigenous languages. While teaching Black women playwrights at the Universität Hamburg in Germany in 1995, I went to an international conference where many people were eulogizing Africa, proclaiming her demise, mourning the impossibility of any sort of African survival. Decolonizing the indigenous African spirit was seen as a hopeless futile fantasy—a negative word for these folks. Folks kept telling me, the savages have to become civilized westerners! People have been telling me some version of that all my life. I refused the demand that I check Africa at the door to modernity or the future.

I am an Afrofuturist keeping company with Indigenous Futurists. Afrofuturism and Indigenous Futurism are aesthetic philosophies and cultural practices that center on Africa and the diaspora and other non-western cosmologies. Afrofuturists/Indigenous futurists use science fiction, fantasy, the magical realm, and historical fiction to critique the present, re-envision the past, and invent the future.

My first full-length play Einstein was written in 1973. Many other plays feature mystery and magic, science and comedy, and singing and dancing. I began calling these plays sci-fi carnival jams. The titles give you a taste of the plays: The Enemy’s Not On Safari Coming to Round Up in The Jungle No More (1979), Incantations (1986), Dancing With Chaos (1995), Strange Attractors (1996), Lonely Stardust (1998), Hummingbird Flying Backward (2000), Thunderbird at the Next World Theatre (2014), and Episodes from Continuing Drama of Cinnamon Jones—scientist, artiste, and hoodoo conjurer (2018)  

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

Don’t Give Up. Give yourself the time to find your way to writing the stories you want to tell, the stories only you can tell.

Besides your work, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

I love cooking and inventing recipes. 

I plan to hit the bike trails around the USA in 2023!

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

I have completed a draft of my next novel, Archangels Of Funk, which is part of my five-book deal with TorDotCom. Five Books! Hard to believe, sometimes. Each word I write makes it more real. Archangels is the story of Cinnamon Jones, that scientist, artiste, and hoodoo conjurer in my 2018 play. The novel takes place in the Massachusetts of my mind in an alternate present after Water Wars have scrambled the world. Disruptors and the Nostalgia Militia roam the roads wreaking havoc. Invisible Darknet lords troll the internet solidifying their power. Cinnamon and her Circus-Bots are part of a community of Motor Fairies, Wheel-Wizards, and Co-Ops trying to hold on to who they’ve been while coming up with the next world. Of course, not everybody has the same vision for the future—so who gets to tell the story of our lives?

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

C. L. Polk—The Kingston Cycle, starting with Witchmark

Sam J. Miller—Blackfish City and The Blade Between

Charlie Jane Anders—The City in the Middle of the Night, Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak, and Victories Greater Than Death

P. Djèlí Clark— A Master of Djinn 

Interview with Author Jesse Leon

Jesse Leon is a social-impact consultant to foundations, impact investors, non-profits, and real estate developers on ways to address issues of substance abuse, affordable housing, and educational opportunities for at-risk youth. Since receiving a master’s degree from the Harvard Kennedy School, Jesse has managed multi-million dollar philanthropic grantmaking for various foundations and banking institutions, managed over $1B in public sector investments for affordable housing, and built thousands of units of mixed-income housing as a real estate developer for Bank of America. Jesse recently moved back to San Diego to be closer to his mother and to pursue his dream of publishing this book. He is a native Spanish speaker and fluent in English and Portuguese.

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

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

I am an openly gay Latino author living in San Diego with almost 30 years in recovery. I work in the field of philanthropy as a consultant to foundations, impact investors, non-profits, and real estate developers on ways to address issues of affordable housing, substance abuse, sex trafficking, and educational opportunities for at-risk youth. I am fluent in English, Spanish, and proficient in Portuguese. 

What can you tell us about your book, I’m Not Broken? Where did the inspiration for this book come from?

I’m Not Broken is the story of the journey I took to win back my life. A story of resilience and moving from surviving to thriving after spending a childhood devastated by sex abuse, street life, and substance abuse. 

I wrote my book without the intention of ever publishing it. I was inspired to write in order to document not only my life, but the lives of the women in my family to inspire the next generation to not give up. Then it morphed. My inspiration would come from my volunteer work in juvenile hall and in speaking at recovery conventions across the country where people would ask me, “So, when are you writing your book?” In seeing so many others struggling with addiction, mental health, and depression, I wanted to do something about it from a place of my lived experience. As a teenager, I wasn’t sure I’d graduate high school—let alone attend Harvard, or write a book. I was homeless and sleeping in Balboa Park, doing anything and everything to support a drug habit that was my only escape from reality and the violent, traumatic abuse that drastically changed my life. It wasn’t until I heard stories from people with experiences similar to mine that I realized that I wasn’t alone. So I write to help others not feel so alone in this world. 

How would you describe your general writing process?

Cathartic. At times painful. Overall – healing. My process was to just write. I knew my beginning and my ending but had no clue how to structure it in between. I tried an outline and then tried post-its to capture ideas, but in the end, I just started writing. I’d spend countless hours at coffee shops after work writing. Once I knew I was done, then I began editing.  

What drew you to writing? Were there any books or authors who you believe inspired you and/or influenced your own personal style?

There are so many authors who have inspired me. I love reading. The ones that come to mind who inspired me to write are: Reyna Grande’s The Distance Between Us, Victor Villasenor’s Rain of Gold, Michelle Obama’s Becoming, Viola Davis’ Finding Me, Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. In terms of authors who help me escape reality: Keri Arthur’s Riley Jenson Guardian Series, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicle, and Frank Herbert’s Dune and all the books in the Dune Universe.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading I’m Not Broken?

In sharing my story, I hope to remind others that they are not alone and that there is hope. I write for anyone who struggles with circumstances similar to mine, so they know they don’t have to resort to suicide or substance abuse. And I write for our families so that they can see that in spite of the horrors of addiction, sexual abuse, and the painful experiences we undergo, we can accomplish anything. That we can move from surviving to thriving in this life. 

What advice would you have to give to aspiring writers?

Just start writing, don’t listen to the noise, and don’t give up! I wrote without being concerned about editing. I just wrote. When I reached out to so many agents and authors for guidance and very few, maybe three, responded, I felt like a failure instead of focusing on the positive – that three actually did reach out and I am eternally grateful to them. At times, I felt like a failure and had to go back to my original purpose for writing the book. Then one day – it happened. It all came together. Someone introduced me to my agent when I least expected it. 

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

No one has asked me if I’d want to do audiobooks for other authors’ books or voice-over projects. The answer is yes. I really enjoyed recording the audiobook. There is a major lack of diversity in that space and it irritates me when people butcher the Spanish and Nahuatl languages. So, yes, if anyone needs me to read their book or voice-over projects once they hear my voice in both English and Spanish – then please reach out! 

Are there any other projects you are currently working on (professional or personal) that you feel free to speak about?

My hope is that my book gets picked up to be a book-to-series or book-to-film project. 

What books/authors (LGBTQIA+ or otherwise) would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

Aside from the ones I mentioned above, James Baldwin (all of his books), Gloria Anzaldúa (all of her books), Benjamin Alire Saenz (all of his books), Vickie Vertiz (all her works), Emanuel Xavier’s Pier Queen, and Antonio Salas’ Operación Princesa (even though it is not LGBT and only written in Spanish but writes extraordinarily well about sex trafficking.)

Header Photo Credit Martin Mann

Interview with Cartoonist Will Betke-Brunswick

Will Betke-Brunswick is a cartoonist and a recent graduate of the California College of the Arts MFA in Comics program. Will’s work has appeared in the new print edition of Trans BodiesTrans SelvesHow to Wait: An Anthology of Transition; and the websites INTO and Autostraddle. A former high school math teacher, Will lives in Boulder, Colorado.

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

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

Hi! Thank you for this opportunity. I’m a cartoonist living with my partner and our chihuahua in Colorado. A Pros and Cons List for Strong Feelings is my debut book. I graduated from California College of the Arts MFA in Comics program and I share my comics online and at lots of zine fests.

What could you tell us about your new book, A Pros and Cons List for Strong Feelings? What inspired the project?

A Pros and Cons List for Strong Feelings is a graphic memoir that takes place in 2009, when I was a sophomore in college and my mom was dying. I was motivated to chronicle this time in my life, to celebrate my mom, and to explore our family’s quirky dynamics. I drew the characters as penguins originally because it was too hard emotionally to draw my mom sick and dead as a human, but then found that my penguins morphed into their own distinct characters.

How would you describe your creative process? What are some of your favorite/most challenging parts for you?

I sketch out my comics using pens in a one subject college ruled notebook. I use pens so I can’t erase anything at this stage, and I do a lot of crossing out and rewriting speech bubbles. I have used one subject college-ruled notebooks for everything since high school. In college, I hand-wrote all my papers before typing them, and over time these notebooks have contained so many of my ideas and dreams, and doodles. When I’m drawing ideas, I don’t want them to be precious or neat or tidy. This is the most fun and creative part of the process for me, and I draw either at the library (I have a specific table I call the inspiration station) or on my couch. After this initial stage, I work digitally on my iPad, usually drawing at my kitchen table. The hardest part for me is drawing panel borders, I don’t like drawing lots of straight lines!

As a creator, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?

My greatest creative influences are Lynda Barry and Nicole J Georges. Their work inspires me to accept my own work and myself and to keep drawing and stop thinking about what or how I am drawing. They also both draw lots of creatures and animals, which I love to draw as well.

As an author, when and where you say you first found your interest in storytelling? And what specifically you to comics?

I started making comics to process the world around me and inside me. Comics can go in multiple directions at once, with text, images, arrows, things inside and outside the panel borders, speech bubbles, thought bubbles, narration, flowcharts, emanata, and page layout. There are multiple methods to communicate emotions, time, actions, reactions, emptiness, jokes, and anything I see or feel or experience, or dream. I appreciate the freedom and expansiveness of comics.

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

I love jogging. I am part of a running club with the motto, “All Speeds, All Distances!”

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

I wish someone would ask me, “Hey, will you make a precalculus comic series?” I have been wanting the energy to make a whole series (I’ve only done one on logarithms) but external motivation would be helpful. If I knew someone was really excited to read it, I would be thrilled to make it for them. I taught high school precalculus for 5 years and have tutored it for 5 years, so I have a lot of thoughts about precalculus.

What advice would you give to other aspiring creators?

You can make whatever social media boundaries you want or not use it at all. There are other ways to share our comics, and let’s find and use whatever works for us!

Are there any projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?

I am brainstorming my next book and currently working on a zine about my grief and depression and another zine of gay vegan love comics. I also have a weekly diary comic on my Patreon.

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

I recommend comics by Nicole J Georges, Lawrence Lindell, Emma Hunsinger, Ajuan Mance, and Sharon De La Cruz!!!

Interview with Author John Elizabeth Stintzi

John Elizabeth Stintzi is the recipient of the 2019 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award and the inaugural Sator New Works Award. Their writing has appeared in Ploughshares, The Malahat Review, Kenyon Review, Best Canadian Poetry, and others. They are the author of the novels My Volcano (2022) and Vanishing Monuments, as well as the poetry collection Junebat.

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

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

Happy to be here! My name is JES and I’m an award-winning non-binary writer and visual artist, currently based in Kansas City, MO. I grew up on a cattle farm in northwestern Ontario, Canada, and currently am working on a variety of projects, primarily writing and illustrating my first narrative comic.

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

Stories have always been a thing in my life, but at the root of my history with stories is the fact that the imagination was the most vivid way to augment the somewhat unstimulating (at the time) life growing up on a farm in the middle of nowhere. My brothers and I were always playing make-believe as a kid, running around with toy guns or creating stories over piles of Lego in our crawlspace. I also credit my love for stories from the fact that I started reading early. My mom was a journalist and a writer, so she did a good job of putting books in front of us.

I didn’t really come to writing prose fiction as its own thing until college, though. In high school, I was mostly writing (bad) poetry and coming up with my ambitious epic graphic novel series that would never get beyond the imagining phase. I came to prose when I realized, in my first year of college, that I didn’t have what it took to illustrate that graphic project myself, and that the thing that really kept me coming back to the idea was the creation of the world/the ideas—the writing. So I decided to go into English and take some creative writing classes, and my love for prose finally started to click.

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

I grew up in a time and place where queerness was barely even a distant theory, let alone a practice, so I can’t say there was anything I can think of that particularly spoke to me in an explicitly queer regard. As a kid, I was really into A Series of Unfortunate Events, I think because of how strange and smart those books were, and also because of the story’s darkness (not to mention the illustrations really struck me). I was also always interested in stories that featured animals as characters, I think, like My Side of the Mountain and Silverwing (and its sequels). I believe that was speaking to the way that I felt a little bit out of place, and that the creatures I felt like I was able to really connect with at the time were animals—particularly our dog, Annie.

Today, I definitely am nostalgic for writing that is rural, and of course anything where gender in particular is queered. I’ve also returned to comics/graphic novels/manga again, which has helped me reconnect with some of the wonder of that confused kid who grew up with those epic, dark fantasy stories unfolding in their head.

How would you describe your writing routine or process? What are some of the enjoyable, hardest, and strangest parts about writing for you?

My routine has been shaky the last few years, for obvious reasons, which also include the weirdness of beginning to publish books. I have become a little unmoored, dipping into projects here and there, then moving onto other ones. I’m one of those writers who has a million projects in progress.

When I do finally find myself working on something in earnest, though, I do tend to whip myself into a pretty good routine. These last few years, I’ve been able to accomplish the most when I get up extremely early (around 5am) so that I can get a few hours of work done before anyone can ask anything of me (mostly my dog). The parts I love about writing are the feverish idea-forging times, when the project becomes a sort of electric storm of ideas, connections, possibilities. The hardest thing for me, sometimes, is catching that lightning in the bottle and actually putting the work in.

How would you describe your upcoming book, My Volcano? What can readers expect from this story?

One of the great challenges in my writing career is describing My Volcano. The novel starts on June 2, 2016 when a mountain slowly begins to emerge from the middle of the reservoir in Central Park, which, over the course of three weeks, eventually grows into an active volcano two and a half miles tall. All the while, across the world, many other strange things begin to happen: a boy in Mexico City accidentally ends up going back in time 500 years to the beginnings of the fall of the Aztec Empire, a Mongolian nomadic herder gets stung by a bee and finds himself transformed into the avatar of a mysterious and powerful hive mind that intends to put every living thing under its thrall, a white trans writer tries and fails to write their science fiction novel, and a young Russian woman wakes up to find herself enclosed within a giant insect. And these are only a few of the many stories that follow the volcano’s emergence in New York City.

I would say that readers can expect many different things from this book, but on a whole I think readers can expect something that is very surreal, a little darkly humorous, somewhat galactic and magical. They should expect something that feels tonally resonant to these strange, intense time that we are living through.

Did you draw on any resources for inspiration while writing the book, i.e. books, movies, music, etc.? Where do you draw inspiration or creativity in general?

There are likely bucketfuls of things which have somehow trickled into the chamber of My Volcano, so much so that it is hard for me to isolate many without feeling like I’m forgetting something very important. I would say that at its heart is story itself, in its various form: fiction, non-fiction, sci-fi, myth/folk-tale, advertisements, etc. There are also a few explicit allusions, like the young woman who wakes up inside of a giant insect, which is of course an allusion to The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Much of the work is inspired by a deep love for “unreal” multimedia works by people like Kafka, Nikolai Gogol, Hieronymous Bosch, Karen Tei Yamashita, and so many others. The title of the book (and some of its content as well) is partly inspired by the very “unreal” film My Winnipeg by Guy Maddin.

Two Dollar Radio

Out of all the stories and words you’ve written are there any essential messages or themes you wish to convey to your readers or simply express as a writer?

I have plethora themes and messages in my work, but one which touches most of what I’ve published thus far would be: certainty is a myth.

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?

Write your favorite books, not the books you think you should write because you think other people will like them. Lean into yourself, your loves, your obsessions, and don’t get too caught up in the successes of others. Focus on what you can control, lest the world—far too built on luck over merit—grind you to dust before you can create the work you want to create.

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

That I’m finally getting around to illustrating some narrative comics, which was my original intention when I decided to become a “writer” when I was a teenager (but was never quite talented enough to push through—but I think I’m brave enough now to finally give it a try).

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

My opinion on chests-of-drawers as a means of clothes storage. The answer is I am not a fan.

Can you tell us about any new projects or ideas you are nurturing and at liberty to discuss?

I’m nurturing an extraordinary amount of projects, but particularly am finding a lot of joy in scripting and sketching out ideas for several narrative comics. It’s a lot of fun to write stuff that takes place staunchly in genre. Other than that, I’m sitting on the “sequel” to my first novel, Vanishing Monuments, which I’m hoping I’ll be able to polish up and find a home for soon.

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

Ritual Lights by Joelle Barron (poetry), A Dream of a Woman by Casey Plett (stories), Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through by T Fleischmann (non-fiction), any poem by beyza ozer, J Jennifer Espinoza, the novel Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) by Hazel Jane Plante, NDN Coping Mechanisms by Billy-Ray Belcourt (poetry), and I’m particularly partial to the audiobook version of Joshua Whitehead’s novel Jonny Appleseed—to name a few!

Interview with Author Nina LaCour

NINA LACOUR is the Michael L. Printz award-winning and nationally bestselling author of Watch Over Me, We Are Okay, Hold Still, and Everything Leads to You. She hosts the podcast Keeping a Notebook and teaches for Hamline University’s MFA in writing for Children and Young Adults program. A former indie bookseller and high school English teacher, she lives with her family in San Francisco.

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

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

Thank you so much for having me! I am a writer living in San Francisco with my wife and our daughter. I write for all ages. I got my start with YA literature, mostly writing about queer teens and grief and friendship and love. I also have a picture book called Mama and Mommy and Me in the Middle about a little girl who misses her mommy for a week while she’s away on a work trip. Yerba Buena is my first novel for adults, and I’m so excited that it’s out in the world!

What can you tell us about your latest book, Yerba Buena? What was the inspiration for this book?

Yerba Buena is a love story nestled within two coming-into-adulthood stories. We follow Sara and Emilie, women from opposite ends of California, grappling with the wounds of their teen years as they decide what they want and need from their lives. The inspiration came from so many aspects of my life: California, where I’ve always lived; my relationship with my wife and how we’ve grown so much together over the years; experiences on the periphery of drug addiction, and how terrible it is to stand by, unable to do anything; complicated family dynamics; my grandparents’ journey to Los Angeles from New Orleans as part of the Great Migration…. It’s a book with so much of my life in it—but heavily fictionalized, of course!

As a writer, when and where did you find your love for storytelling? Were there any stories or authors that inspired you as a writer coming into your own creativity?

Absolutely! I read voraciously as a kid and college student and those books and authors shaped me. When I was in high school, my dad introduced me to the collected stories of Raymond Carver, and that book was so influential as I was figuring out what kind of stories I wanted to tell, and how to tell them. His stories are very much of their time and problematic in a myriad of ways now, but there’s a lot to admire. I was drawn to how much space left for the reader, his quiet moments, his understated emotion. And in college, I took a Virginia Woolf class that blew my mind. I love how actively Woolf explores consciousness—how her characters are working so hard to make sense of their thoughts and experiences.

As a prolific young adult writer, what drew you specifically to the realm of young adult fiction?

I started writing YA when I took an adolescent fiction class in grad school at Mills College. I had an assignment to write a YA chapter and it came pouring out of me in a new way. Writing is usually pretty arduous for me, and this felt so different. I was in my early twenties then and that proximity to my own teen years helped me a lot. I was close enough to remember in vivid detail and old enough to have the distance I needed to tell a good story. That first assignment ended up turning into my thesis and then my first novel, Hold Still. Our teen years are so formative, contain so many first experiences, and are endlessly fascinating to me from the standpoint of storytelling.

How would you describe your writing process? What do you do to help yourself as a writer? Any tips to spark or help creativity?

I consider myself to be a pretty slow writer. My strategy is to write some words on most days. That’s how I’m able to stay connected to my story even when I’m not inspired to write for long stretches of time. I’ve also grown a lot more forgiving of myself when I have writing days that don’t yield anything; I’ve learned that I need those days just as much as the more prolific ones. Those are the days when I’m working things out, even if I don’t feel it at the time. I have a lot of tips–in fact, I have an online class called The Slow Novel Lab full of exercises and mindset strategies and thoughts on crafting novels! I’ve been a teacher as well as a writer for almost twenty years, and I love examining how creativity works. One of my favorite tips is to always leave yourself something for the next writing session–maybe a paragraph to read over and improve, or a line of dialogue from a scene you plan to write, or some musings on a theme you’re exploring. It doesn’t really matter what it is as long as it acts as an invitation to get back into your story. 

What would you say are some of your favorite craft elements to work on? What are some of the hardest?

I absolutely love atmosphere and mood and tension. These are all somewhat mysterious, difficult-to-pin-down elements, which might be why I’m so drawn to them. I love a mood piece. Often the first draft of one of my scenes will be all mood and atmosphere and tension, without much else going on. And then when I figure out the plot I have to work to make the scene do what it needs to in order to advance the story without losing the feeling of that early draft. I love that challenge, which often involves making better, deeper use of the images and lines of dialogue I already have. It’s such an intuitive, mysterious process.

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

Do you play the ukulele? Yes, I do! I play it very badly but I really love it. I only started playing a couple years ago and I’m not at all consistent. In most areas of my life, I care a lot about doing things well, doing them right, which is something I’m trying to let go of a little bit. Playing the ukulele gives me the opportunity to be a beginner, to do something purely for the challenge and the fun of it, to be bad at something and keep doing it anyway. It’s great for my creativity and my mood and I enjoy it very much.

Are there any other projects or ideas you’re sitting on and at liberty to speak about?

I’m working on several projects right now, for all different ages and in various stages of the writing and publication process. I’m currently really excited about a chapter book series that’s coming from Chronicle Books called The Apartment House on Poppy Hill. It’s about a nine-year-old girl named Ella who lives in a five-unit apartment building on a fictional San Francisco hill. She is the only kid in the building and it falls on her to keep all her quirky neighbors together. It’s fun and light and queer and has been a delight to work on. It’s being illustrated by Joana Avilez whose work I love. I’m also in the drafting stage of my next adult novel.

What advice might you have to give to aspiring writers?

To trust in your own way of experiencing the world, and to be true to that on the page. It’s how there can be so many stories about the same things and yet no two are the same. Often we worry that what we’re doing isn’t new or different enough, but really it’s the way we tell it–the details we focus on, the language we use, the characters we create–that set our stories apart.

What LGBTQIA+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

My friend Eliot Schrefer has a wonderful new non-fiction book called Queer Ducks and Other Animals: The Natural World of Animal Sexuality. It’s fascinating, funny, and illuminating. As far as novels go, some recent favorites are Michelle Hart’s We Do What We Do in the Dark and Bryan Washington’s Memorial. Both are so gorgeous and moving.

Header Photo Credit Kristyn Stroble

Interview with Author Stephanie Burt

Stephanie Burt is Professor of English at Harvard University and the author of several previous books of poetry and literary criticism, among them Advice from the Lights, Belmont and Close Calls with Nonsense, as well as The Poem Is You.

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

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

I write about poems and comic books and science fiction and pop songs. I teach at Harvard. My hair is longer than it’s ever been and my nesting partner just dyed it ultramarine and I love it. Together we take care of two human kids and two cats and one dog, who is looking at me with slow sad eyes right now, because she wants another walk, even though she’s had five today. Oh, fine. Let’s go, Toasty. [walks dog] Also I am an easy mark. Just make big sad eyes at me and I’ll do anything. 

What can you tell us about your latest book, We Are Mermaids? What inspired the collection?

It’s about finding queer and trans community. It’s about reaching out and connecting to people who share your fins and scales, or your experience of roundness in a straight world, or your lifelong identification with the Red Queen of the Hellfire Club, Kate Pryde, the Captain of the privateer Marauder.  It’s about my friends. It’s also about punctuation marks. Each punctuation mark that speaks a poem represents a particular queer community. Trans girls, of course, are quotation marks.

Why mermaids?

Because we’re comfortable where the straights can’t be comfortable, and very much vice versa. Because we’re not dangerous, really, but land people think we are.  Because everyone knows we’re trans. Because we’re attested in many traditions.  Because they’re low femme, like me, with sparkly hair. Because we like clams. 

Also because if we’re going to get through global climate change, we need to learn to live with the water in ways that coastal humans have only sometimes learned to do so far.

What drew you to storytelling, particularly to the poetry medium? Were there any favorite writers or stories that sparked your own love and interest in writing and poetry?

Early on: Asimov, and Chris Claremont and Ann Nocenti and Bill Sienkiewicz and Paul Smith, and William Butler Yeats and Samuel R. Delany and James Tiptree, Jr., in middle school. Robert Lowell made me think that I could and should write about my teen baby-trans angst in painful detail. Elizabeth Bishop showed me that I didn’t have to write that way: there were other options. John Donne. Marianne Moore. Paul Muldoon.

If you want a single wormhole into the part of me that makes up poems, as poems, you might not do better than Marianne Moore’s “The Steeple-Jack.” But if you want a window into the part of me that wants to tell stories, period, try New Mutants, vol. 1, no. 21. 

How would you describe your creative process?

Find time, make time, try not to blow off your friends. I write when I can. I’m lucky: my kids are old enough that I can ask them to wait five minutes for something and I won’t feel too guilty about that. Seriously, though, I just… try to find the time. I have no idea.

What are some of your favorite elements of writing? What are some of the most challenging?

Definitely magnesium, followed by fluorine. I’m sorry. I’ll show myself out now. 

For real? I have come to think of even my weirdest and most personal writing as social. Writing and reading poems, in particular, lets me share, and embody, and make interesting to others (if the poem works), parts of myself I did not even know were there.

I have trouble knowing when poems are finished. And I can’t come up with satisfying narrative work all by myself. I used to think I couldn’t tell stories. Now I think that when I’m on my own I don’t want to tell stories, but I love telling stories in collaboration: tabletop role-playing games, for example, or fanfiction (which is a kind of collaboration with existing characters and stories), or just co-writing comics scripts and prose. (I’ve written published fiction together with other authors, such as Mara Hampson and Rachel Gold, and I’m certain to do more of that.)

As a creative, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and sources of inspiration?

Now that’s a broad question! The novels of Rachel Gold. The music of Game Theory and the Loud Family. New Mutants comics by Vita Ayala and Rod Reis. The Songs and Sonets of John Donne. Commissions from my friends, allies, and editors, seriously—the punctuation poems in We Are Mermaids came about because Nicholas Nace from Hampden Sydney Poetry Review asked if I had any punctuation poems, and the Dazzler and Plastic Man poems are indirect commissions from the comics scholar and critic Douglas Wolk!

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

Hi, I’m contacting you on behalf of a company famous for publishing superhero comics. Would you like to write one? Why, yes, I would.

Besides your work, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

I miss attending Minnesota Lynx games. I used to make phone calls and knock on doors for the DFL (the Democratic Party in Minnesota) and I’m pretty serious about working within existing institutions to make progressive change. (If you get the chance to knock on doors, and you think you can temperamentally do it, please try it!) I love capybaras and wombats. I play the melodica. I wish you would read the very queer poetry of Angie Estes, who has been sparkling since the late 1990s. Also, a lot of lovely poetry and some neat comics are happening in Aotearoa New Zealand. I wish this site’s primarily North American readers knew about that.

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

Several! Rachel Gold and I and several other critics and writers are putting together a book of essays called Reading the X-Men, long-form chapters on aspects of the Marvel mutants and their metaphor—there’s one about schools and education, another about nations and nationalism, another about Storm and Afro-diasporic religion, another on Illyana Rasputin and complex trauma recovery. Columbia University Press expects to publish that one when it’s finished. 

I’m doing a book of short essays on single queer or trans poems—one essay, one poems—for Harvard University Press. Working title: 30 Super Gay Poems!!! It’s kind of a sequel to a book of 60 essays on contemporary poems (only some of them super gay) that I did for Harvard in 2016.

There will be an anthology of older (pre-1922) queer or queer-coded or queer-adjacent poems in English, also from Columbia, that Drew Daniel (Johns Hopkins professor, also a member of Matmos) and Melissa Sanchez (Penn) and I are compiling. I was surprised to learn that no such book existed. So we’re putting one into the world.

And more fiction (co-written, of course). And, you know, more poems.

What advice might you have to give to other aspiring writers and poets?

Find your peers—people your age or life stage who share your tastes and interests in writing. Send your work out, when you’re ready, to the least famous magazine (or website) that regularly publishes work you genuinely like. Read widely and at random. Read old stuff, too. And if you write poetry, please, please read other languages. Not just work from other languages in English translation: give yourself the ear and the experience that comes from reading other languages. Even if all you have is middle school Latin or Spanish or a heritage language you mostly hear or speak, that’s enough to read poems with a dictionary or facing-page translation. Then try making your own rough poetic translation, or adaptation. That’s the single best way to improve your ear. The second best is finding peers.

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

I already named a few! In terms of contemporary work, novels by Rachel Gold and Charlie Jane Anders, comics by Vita Ayala and Leah Williams, poems by Chen Chen and D. A. Powell and Trace Peterson and Cat Fitzpatrick (some of these people are personal friends, others I swear I have never met). Maybe that’s enough for now?

Header Photo Credit Stephanie Mitchell

Interview with Author Priyanka Taslim

Priyanka Taslim (she/her) is a Bangladeshi American writer, teacher, and lifelong New Jersey resident. Having grown up in a bustling Bangladeshi diaspora community, surrounded by her mother’s entire clan and many aunties of no relation, her writing often features families, communities, and all the drama therein. Currently, Priyanka teaches English by day and tells all kinds of stories about Bangladeshi characters by night. Her writing usually stars spunky Bangladeshi heroines finding their place in the world—and a little swoony romance, too. You can connect with her on Twitter and Instagram @BhootBabe. The Love Match is her debut novel.

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

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

Hi, I’m so happy to be here among fellow geeks! My name is Priyanka and I’m a writer and educator from New Jersey, where I live with my family and my dashing tuxedo cat, Loki! I am a big fan of romance and fantasy novels by marginalized creators, Webtoons, Marvel movies, Final Fantasy games, Kdramas, and food!

What can you tell us about your upcoming book, The Love Match? What was the inspiration for this story?

The Love Match is a young adult romantic comedy about a Bangladeshi American teen named Zahra Khan who is struggling to help support her family and follow her dreams of college after her father’s death. When her meddling but well-meaning mother decides setting Zahra up with the son of a wealthy friend will be the end of all their financial woes, Zahra and Harun, her supposed “perfect match,” decide to fake date in an effort to please their families—while also slowly sabotaging their relationship and hiding Zahra’s growing feelings for her decidedly unsuitable coworker, Nayim, a young man from Bangladesh with big dreams.

It’s got all the cuteness and drama of a Jenny Han novel, but with the social politics of a modern Jane Austen, inspired by the vibrant Bangladeshi diaspora community of Paterson, New Jersey where I myself grew up.

What drew you to storytelling, and what drew you to young adult and romance specifically? 

As a kid, I was always seeking an escape. I grew up in the wake of 9/11 and frequently felt torn between two worlds. I faced the same Islamophobia, xenophobia, and racism as the other Bangladeshi kids in my classes, but I was one of the few who were born and raised in the U.S., so I didn’t quite fit in with them either. I’d hide away in the school library as much as I possibly could to avoid my bullies, with my nose in a book, but also loved other storytelling mediums—shows, movies, video games, comics.

It wasn’t long before I started writing fanfiction and that cemented my love of telling stories, but the world of fandom still isn’t very inclusive and particularly wasn’t during my childhood, so I never saw characters like myself on page or on screen. It took me a long time to realize we belonged there just as much, so it became my dream to push toward the goal of publishing books that center Bengali characters. Moreover, I’ve always wanted to center them in stories about things other than simply facing bigotry, because that’s already reality for so many kids and they deserve escapism in stories as much as anyone else. Instead, I like to write escapist books that touch on very universal conflicts, like grief, but ultimately give readers a little light in a challenging world.

I was drawn to romance for that reason. I feel like it’s one of the most escapist genres. There’s a reason romances sell so well. They allow readers to believe in happy endings and that they are deserving of love, but while there have been authors fighting to diversify romance for a very long time who have been breaking more and more ground recently, it doesn’t feel like enough just yet. I don’t know if it will ever be enough. I can probably count diaspora Bangladeshi authors writing romances on one hand, perhaps without even needing every finger, and that’s across age categories. I also wasn’t seeing very many that centered Bangladeshi male characters as romantic heroes, particularly darker-skinned leads, so I set out to write not one, but TWO Bangladeshi love interests in The Love Match who are very different, to at least touch on the vast spectrum of what it means to be Bangladeshi, to be diaspora, to be Asian, and whatever other facet of identity. 

Zahra wonders often what it means to be a “Good Bangladeshi Kid” but I wanted to show there’s lots of different ways to inhabit a particular identity so you don’t have to conform to one ideal.

How would you describe your writing process? What are some of your favorite/most challenging parts for you?

I’m very much a characters first author. While I might get a small nugget of the plot before anything else, it doesn’t start to feel real until I know the characters and what drives them.

I’m a massive plotter, and a relatively neat first drafter, but that doesn’t usually mean the book is good to go as is. Some of my earliest drafts are very indulgent with the characters and their relationships (as well as random food scenes, haha) and then I end up trimming down the filler to hone in on the plot that best shapes their arcs, fleshing things out as I go.

Rewrites can be difficult for me for that reason. I know they’re necessary and that they’ve always improved my work, but after indulging in everything fun for me in the first draft, it feels a lot like I’ve worked really hard to build a tall but very precarious jenga tower and am suddenly being asked to move pieces around without everything collapsing on top of me.

I’ve noticed my most favorite moments, where characters are deepening their relationships and coming to realizations about themselves, usually tend to stick around. In The Love Match, the date chapters are all among my favorites and have changed from iteration to iteration, but the details I love most about them have always stayed.

As an author, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration? 

For The Love Match, my upbringing in Paterson was a great source of inspiration. It’s, I believe, the second largest Bangladeshi diaspora community in the United States, but there’s not a lot of media that explores the nuances of living in a place like Paterson, with its working class population, or focusing on the beauty of its diversity and history.

I also think it provides an interesting, untapped perspective because a lot of South Asian American authors tend to write about the experience of being surrounded by “Americanness,” especially white Americanness, and what it’s like for this character who is the only brown person in a room. There’s not as much exploring when you’re very much American, but a particular sort of American that is enmeshed in a microcosm of your family’s heritage even if you’re thousands of miles away from the motherland. I can speak Bengali, often eat the food, wear the clothes during every holiday, etc. So I see a lot of South Asian American authors move away from those things, and it’s great, but for me, while my Bangladeshiness and Americanness don’t always fit together perfectly, the puzzle pieces have always been in the same box. There would be an irreplaceable hole left behind if I only focused on being one thing.

I am, however, deeply inspired by the authors who have come before and chipped away at the glass ceiling so I could creep in too. If not for Jenny Han and Sandhya Menon and Beverly Jenkins, for scores and scores of authors of color who reinvented the idea of what romance is allowed to be and who is allowed to exist in it—as well as all the Bangladeshi authors who proved to me that I have a place in this industry, like Adiba Jaigirdar and Karuna Riazi—I know I wouldn’t be here.

Here at Geeks OUT we’ve interviewed quite a few diaspora writers who’ve talked about the ways they’ve explored the multiple cultures that exists in their lives in their work. If you wouldn’t mind, could you talk to us about what representation means to you?

I’ve talked a bit about it already, but to me, representation is so important! Even when I escaped into the pages of a romance or a fantasy novel as a teen, they were often authored by white writers who would sometimes use subtle microaggressions that would jar me out of the story and make me wonder if that was all that was possible for someone like me, even in a made up world—to only be present to be the villain, or for the sole purpose of uplifting the white protagonist, or to die for them, or to just fade into the background.

I grew up in Paterson, which is extremely diverse. I hope that Paterson comes alive in The Love Match and feels a little like a character in its own right, because I set off to bottle just a bit of that vibrancy. The entirety of the main cast is populated with people of color, the majority of them South Asian and Muslim (and while the book explores the characters’ Bangladeshiness more than their faith, different characters have different relationships to their faith). There are also intersectional identities represented on page, like my protagonist Zahra’s best friend Dani, who is a queer Pakistani Muslim girl.

So I hope readers pick up The Love Match and know, even if the characters’ experiences might not be exactly like their own, it’s a story about brown girls deserving to be at the center of epic love stories if they want to be, about “tall, dark, and handsome” belonging to an actually brown-skinned boy for once, about an ensemble cast not needing a white character to anchor readers because themes of experiencing grief and coming of age and embracing change are universal enough even when the characters aren’t white. I hope what readers take away from that is that they’re enough too. That they’re complicated and nuanced and so many wonderful things all at once. They are more than a side character or villain in anyone else’s narrative.

Aside from your work as a writer, what would you want readers to know about you?

Honestly, I’m pretty boring! Teaching high school full time while juggling writing doesn’t leave me much time or energy for anything aside from enjoying other media… (Case in point: Abbott Elementary is very realistic, in my opinion) But readers can find me on most social media accounts under the @bhootbabe and I will provide them with cute cat pics in return!

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

Hmmm…maybe what recurring themes, tropes, and motifs do you find in your work? I very frequently end up writing books that center complicated families. In fact, I am working on a book right now that I sort of hate myself for, because so many characters why do I do this to myself, but when it all finally comes together and these characters leap from the pages like real, fleshed out people, when readers tell me that they loved the whole cast and felt they were written with love and nuance, I feel such a deep pride!

But in the meantime, there are many tears involved, haha. I also tend to write a lot of Tired Oldest Daughter heroines, somehow always fall headfirst into love triangles, and tackle themes like grief or pursuing ambitions.

Oh, and cats. I want mine to feel represented, haha.

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?

Find your community. It may take some time. Not everyone is a good fit for you and your work. But having trustworthy people you can run your questions by, get feedback from, and can vent your frustrations to will help this lonely industry feel a little less daunting.

Also: you’ve got this! Don’t give up! We need your words!

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

I’m going to shout out some recent books by authors of color that center QPOC, which I’ve either read or are on my radar!



SHE IS A HAUNTING by Trang Thanh Tran


THE IVORY KEY duology by Akshaya Raman


WHERE SLEEPING GIRLS LIE by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

SORRY, BRO by Taleen Voskuni




BLOOD DEBTS by Terry J. Benton-Walker


DAUNTLESS by Elisa A. Bonnin


Header Photo Credit Prithi Taslim

Interview with Author Ashley Herring Blake

Ashley Herring Blake is an award-winning author and teacher. She holds a Master’s degree in teaching and loves coffee, arranging her books by color, and cold weather. She is the author of the young adult novels Suffer Love, How to Make a Wish, and Girl Made of Stars (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), and the middle-grade novels Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World and The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James. Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World was a Stonewall Honor Book, as well as a Kirkus, School Library Journal, NYPL, and NPR Best Book of 2018. Her YA novel Girl Made of Stars was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. She’s also the author of the adult romance novel Delilah Green Doesn’t Care, and a co-editor on the young adult romance anthology Fools in Love.

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

First of all, welcome back to Geeks OUT! How have you been and could you tell us a little about yourself for readers who are new to you? 

I’m Ashley Herring Blake and I’m a romance author! I’ve also written young adult and middle-grade novels, and I’m a teacher in coastal Georgia. 

What can you tell us about your latest book, Astrid Parker Doesn’t Fail? What was the inspiration for this story? 

Astrid Parker is about a perfectionist interior designer who lands an opportunity to renovate an inn that’s being featured on an HGTV show, and hopes this will finally prove to everyone—herself, her ex, her controlling mother—that she’s a success. Trouble is, she doesn’t expect to clash with her lead carpenter, the disaster that is Jordan Everwood, and she certainly doesn’t expect to catch feelings for that lead carpenter. The inspiration came from a few different places. As it’s the second book in a loosely connected series, a bit of Astrid’s story was decided in the first book (Delilah Green Doesn’t Care), but I really wanted to write a story about a person who is so intent on not failing that she inevitably does. Also, this is a later-in-life queer awakening story, which is very similar to my own, so it was very important to me to write this story.

As a writer, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically romance? 

I’ve always loved romance, so when I was trying to decide what kind of adult novel I wanted to write, romance was a natural choice. I also just love that—aside from the complexities that go into writing any novel well—my one goal in a romance is really to get two people together! It’s a wonderful and glorious goal!

In addition to adult fiction, you’ve also written for young adult and middle-grade audiences as well. What would you say is the personal appeal of writing for all these various age ranges? 

I would say that I have a very different purpose for each age group. I started my publishing career in young adult, and at the time, those were the stories I was reading and connecting with. I wanted to contribute to the category, but as I gained more self-awareness, I also wanted to write queer stories for teens I knew needed them. This goes double for middle grade, as there were even fewer queer MG stories—there are so many now, which is a beautiful thing to see!—and I know for a fact that if I had had queer middle-grade stories as an actual middle grader, they would’ve changed my life. With adult, I was ready to write stories that had characters who were dealing with similar things as I am now. And again, I wanted more queer romance! So I wrote some.

Growing up, were there any stories in which you felt touched by/ or reflected, in terms of personal identity? If not or if so, how do you think this personally affected you as a writer? 

Honestly, I loved Judy Blume and Mary Downing Hahn, but there isn’t one book or one writer that I look at and say “That one. That made me want to be a writer/made me love reading.” I loved so many books, but again, I think at the time I was really searching for stories that either didn’t exist yet, or that I didn’t have access to, and I just didn’t know it yet.

As a writer, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration in general? 

I can name some classic queer writers here—the letters of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West are particularly compelling to me—but I think my biggest sources of inspiration are my contemporaries and peers. Writers like Talia Hibbert, Meryl Wilsner, Kiley Reid, Lauren Groff, Bolu Babalola—they are my true inspiration.

What are some of your favorite elements of writing? What do you consider some of the most frustrating and/or difficult? 

I love the planning stages, love those first sparks of ideas. I used to really hate drafting, but now I actually love it. Revising and drafting have sort of flipped positions, and now drafting is my favored stage, with revising coming up last. 

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

I’m a bit of a planner nerd. I decorate my planner each week, like a little ritual that gets me ready for the week. I play guitar and sing—used to semi-professionally as well! I tend toward melancholy music and love rain.

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers? 

Keep writing. That’s what’s going to make you a better writer. Focus on your words, because at the end of the day, that’s all you can control. Next, find your people. Writers can be a self-deprecating and solitary bunch, so we need a crew to hold us up. It’s also a very…strange profession. Publishing has a lot of ups and downs, and creating has its own share of challenges. Find people who understand!

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

I’ve finished the first draft of the third book in the Bright Falls series, IRIS KELLY DOESN’T DATE, and I’m in the first stages of a queer holiday romance, MAKE THE SEASON BRIGHT.

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

Meryl Wilsner, Talia Hibbert, Courtney Kae, Adrianna Herrera, and Alison Cochrun.

Header Photo Credit Craig Pope

Interview with Author Naz Kutub

Naz Kutub was born and raised in Singapore and currently lives in Los Angeles with his partner Benson, and his two furry garbage collectors – Alex and Raffe. He will forever be grateful to fried chicken for being a primary motivator in his early years, and also for preventing him from becoming a fitness model because writing is much more fulfilling.

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

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

Hi Geeks OUT! I’m Naz Kutub and I was born and raised in Singapore, but currently make Los Angeles home. I write Young Adult novels and my debut – THE LOOPHOLE – was released in June of this year, just in time for 2022’s Pride month.

What can you tell us about your debut novel, The Loophole? What can readers expect?

It’s a tale told in three alternating timelines. The present day sees Sayyed and his journey across the ocean to try and find his missing ex-boyfriend, with the hopes of bringing him home, while accompanied by an alcoholic genie. The second shows his recent romantic relationship with his ex, and the reason for them breaking up. And the third showcases the genie’s origin story and how she came about to be.

Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

I’d written five full-length novels before this, but they’d always featured white protagonists, because there was always this myth that brown-skinned characters would never sell. This was the first time I decided to write a character that reflected me and my cultural upbringing, while allowing myself to infuse a ton of my lived experiences, along with the people I’ve known throughout my life, including my family members. And I’m glad for it, because it got the attention of my agent, and eventually sold in a two-book deal.

As a writer, what drew you to storytelling, specifically young adult fiction and fantasy?

I’m of the belief that it can be near impossible to change the mind of an adult, since our thoughts have atrophied over years and decades of compartmentalization and learning. Whereas the mind of a young person is extremely pliable and malleable and if handled with care, can be guided towards great causes, like instilling empathy. Hence, I think young adult stories is the last chance we get to change a large percentage of minds.

Growing up, were there any books/media that inspired you as a creative and/or that you felt yourself personally reflected in? Or there any such narratives like that now?

I grew up poor hence I’d read to escape what we didn’t have. Lots of books about white kids getting to play with snow or escaping their lives to foreign imaginary places. Growing up in Singapore meant lots of content from the UK, and it’s only now that I see more and more literature featuring brown kids getting to do everyday fun things we never could before. But without that form of escapism, I wouldn’t be writing what I am today.

The book centers on a queer Muslim boy as the lead protagonist. Could you speak a bit as to what that intersectional representation means to you?

Gosh, it’s nice to finally get to see someone like me on the page. I’d like to think I’m adding to the pile of queer brown kids books out there, specifically queer brown Muslim kids. There aren’t a lot of stories that feature us and our upbringing and the turmoil that exist within us while trying to navigate family and religion, but I’m hoping THE LOOPHOLE can be one such story.

Considering The Loophole centers non-Western mythology (specifically the genie/jinn), was there any particular research you had to do considering this element of the book?

The genie’s origin story was based on ‘Orpheus and Eurydice,’ a classic myth about a man who goes through hell to get his dead wife back. I read it a long time ago and had to reread it just to make sure that I do the story justice, but in my own way and with my own twist. 

What are some of your favorite elements of writing? What do you consider some of the most challenging?

I love when I get a brand new idea and my brain just starts whirring with the possibility of the plot, and how I can infuse it with conflict and raise the stakes every step of the way. Working out the kinks of the story to make sure I get to a satisfying conclusion is a wonderful exercise my brain can’t seem to get enough of. Plotting and getting rid of plot holes is one of my strengths and I always try to help out friends who get writer’s block when they reach a point in their story they can’t write their way out of. 

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

Uh, this is the toughest question ever, so without getting too Inception-y about it, let’s just go with: 

Question: Why the obsession with fried chicken in your book, like it’s even in your bio?

Answer: Growing up, we could only afford chicken once a week, that was how poor we were. But when I was nine, I was one of the top scorers in my studies, and the principal recognized this. So when my mom applied for a license to operate a food stall in my school, he granted her request because he wanted her to make sure I was taken care of. Fried chicken became a miraculous, everyday thing that I could never get enough of. To this day, it signals success in everything I do, which is why I always celebrate any achievement with it.

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

Learn how to find joy with it and not expect anything out of it. Success may not come by, not in a long while, and maybe never, but if you know you want to write for life, then you’ll find that it doesn’t matter if it ever comes because even being able to complete one piece of writing is a major accomplishment to be proud of. Writing a novel is something a lot of people wish they could do once in their lifetime, and to write hundreds of pages of a complete story arc all the way to ‘THE END’ and then taking a break, before starting all over again with ‘CHAPTER ONE’ shows that you may want to do this for life because it just feels like the oh-so-right.

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

I have a short story in an anthology coming out in May 2023 that’s a queer retelling of Bajirao and Mastani, along with my second book that’s scheduled for February 2024, which should be announced pretty soon.

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

Everyone should check out Erik J. Brown’s ‘ALL THAT’S LEFT IN THE WORLD’ and Brian D. Kennedy’s ‘A LITTLE BIT COUNTRY.’ Both were released this year and will bring so much joy to readers of all ages.