Interview with Author and Photographic Artist B.A. Van Sise

B.A. Van Sise is an internationally-known photographer and the author of the visual poetry anthology Children of Grass. His visual work has previously appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Washington Post and Buzzfeed, as well as major museum exhibitions throughout the United States, and his written work in Poets & Writers, the Southampton Review, Eclectica, and the North American Review.

I had the opportunity to interview B.A. Van Sise, which you can read below.

CW: Discussion of the Holocaust and religious intolerance.

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

I’d tell you if I knew. I’m a photographer and author, the creator of two books: Children of Grass: A Poetry of American Poetry, and a new book, Invited to Life: Finding Hope After the Holocaust, which came out on January 27th!  It’s a very large, somewhat complex book exploring the diverse journeys made by Holocaust survivors— whose existences were constructed on the worst foundations possible— to build new lives, new hopes, and new happiness in their American futures. It’s also got essays by Neil Gaiman, Mayim Bialik, and Sabrina Orah Mark, who are the only names Walmart puts on the tag.  

I’ve been a travel journalist most of my adult life. I’ve been to 102 countries and have never met a stranger in any of them. 

What can you tell us one of your latest works, Invited to Life: Finding Hope after the Holocaust? What was the inspiration for this project?

It began in late 2015; I was working as a photographer for the Village Voice, and at that time there was a guy running for president who was talking a lot about the supposed dangers of refugees, particularly Mexicans: there was a lot of rhetoric about how they’re not sending their best people, that we need to build a wall to keep us free. I asked my then-editor to let me do a spread to run that spring during primary season: I wanted to make a dozen portraits or so of refugees who had come to America, explore what their lives looked like once they could be seen in their whole. The folks who’d come in from the various wars in the 90s were still too young to really reflect on lives entire; the big wave of Cuban immigrants from the 1980s and 1960s (my original inclination, especially as I’ve done lots of work in Cuba) were not quite there yet. But I realised there was a huge wave of particularly “other” refugees, in Holocaust survivors, who’d come to the States penniless, broken, not speaking the language, of a religion alien to the majority, who’d still, against every odd, made their way over the following 75 years.  They were the refugees, the “not their best people.” I wanted to show how that experiment had turned out.

At its core, it’s never been a Holocaust project to me: it’s about America. It’s about diversity of experience.

I reached out to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, who helped me find survivors; I aimed for 12 and found it so meaningful that I ended up doing 37. It ended up as an outdoor show at the MJH and I then put it on a shelf. When the pandemic hit I was absolutely, totally ruined: of course, my main job had been as a travel photographer, and then shooting a few weddings a year. Travel was done!  Love? Forget about it. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself, but my mind kept turning back to the survivors, almost obsessively- every one of them had gotten a worse deal than almost anybody in the current troubles. I wanted to hear, and see, and then tell, the stories of how these folks had not only survived but thrived. I worked with… most every museum related to the topic in the States, and then photographed the next hundred survivors, all over the country, through the pandemic. That was my pandemic: the Holocaust, in a Hyundai.

As a Jewish photographer, how would you describe the personal significance of this project for you?

I think there’s a natural inclination in modern times to require a personal angle to every project, but we also learn best, and most, when we learn from those who are most different from us. It’s complicated. I walked into this with no close personal connection to the Holocaust- and now I’ve got 140 of them. A lot of the survivors I’ve met, interviewed, photographed have become, truly, friends. With the book coming out now, I had lunch with one just today, in fact. I’m dropping in on five people in this very book next week.  Right before it comes out, I’m going to dinner with the French survivor who has somehow, horrifyingly, turned into the lightning rod for much of the hate mail I get around this project. If there’s somebody I want to celebrate every day somebody has shot at me and missed, it’s her. These people have become very, very special to me.

Anyway, the personal significance for the project, to me, is this: I find these folks incredibly, unspeakably inspiring. I wouldn’t be able to process what they went through. If I’d gone through it, I’d not be able to feed or bathe myself. But here are folks who endured, who lived lives as diverse as they are:  alone, accompanied, atheist, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, gay, straight, wealthy, poor, honest, criminal. Artists and accountants, vagabonds, and the unjourneying, invited to life and choosing to live in every way imaginable, against all odds.  

As an artist, what drew you to the art of photography, specifically portraits?

Greed. Unmitigated greed. Insatiable greed. By which I mean: I have a hard time defining what my job is, but I fundamentally look at my career as a conduit for my own personal kind of greed: I believe everybody you meet, absolutely everybody, has something to teach you. And this gig lets you meet absolutely everybody. 

Now, I have a varied body of work- a person could argue I’m a portraitist, a writer, a street photographer. But all of them feed that same greed:  again, everybody has something to teach me, and I want it.  I want it so badly. I want as much of it as possible. 

For those curious about the process behind a photography book, how would you describe the process? 

The Book is kinda my ideal medium- I loooove doing exhibitions, but because my work is so inherently tied with language, the book is where it is, I think, purest. You’ve seen Invited to Life, so you’ve seen, surely, that it’s an eccentric book: it’s unfair to call it a photo book with text. It’s unfair to call it an illustrated book-book. If a person called it a book of poetry, nobody would argue with them.  It’s not about the Holocaust. It’s not not about the Holocaust. There’s a lot going on.  

I didn’t originally plan to do books, but while working on my first big-big-big project, about notable American poets, I photographed very last the poet Alicia Ostriker (an artist whose work should be frocked, at all times, by the eager readers of Geeks Out, whose Venn diagram with her is a perfectly overlapping set of circles.)  She urged me to make a book of it and that’s how it goes:  your whole life, you’re painted red, and then one day somebody breezes past you with a blue brush and you’re forever purple. When that project ended up getting turned into a massive, unbelievable, six-month solo show at the Center for Creative Photography- one of the most venerable photo institutions in the world, which will be at the close of my life still one of the greatest honors in it- everybody involved kinda said: “oh shit, there should really be a book.” And so, on an incredibly short timetable, the folks from the Arizona Poetry Center, a publisher named Schaffner Books out in Arizona, and 90 poets all got into cahoots to get the whole thing put together. It was really something.

With Invited to Life, it was different. By the end of the first shoot I did of the “new batch” (of Werner Reich, who opens the book with the pull quote of the century) I knew that other people needed to benefit from what was helping me through all of it. It was obvious- this was in the late summer of 2020- that we were all going to come out of this with awkward bends in our machinery. I wanted to put something together that would share lessons from folks who’d been through the worst but still could put their whole lives ahead of them.

We had the luxury of time; my agent, Charles Kim, got to shop it around a lot and there was a lot of interest. In the end, it came down to a very big famous publishing house- the sort of place that makes a writer’s knees wobble- and a smaller house in Pennsylvania, Schiffer Books.  Schiffer specializes in illustrated books and I knew and had been impressed by them from a few titles they’d sent me to review over the years (I’m a reviewer for the New York Journal of Books, and they’d lobbed a bunch of stuff over my transom.) I knew they’d put the kind of attention to the book that I could really be proud of. And, well, you’ve seen it: they did a phenomenal job, in really adverse conditions: a pandemic, paper shortages, shifting tariffs, and other factors beyond their control. Generally, with books, there’s a lot of back and forth and bickering and creative egos and so on, but we didn’t have that; we fought over the title (they won), and over the cover (I won,) but their editors were great and their designers were amazing. And the book is BIG. It’s big and heavy and meaty. Rarely does one meet such an inspiring cudgel. 

For the book, you included a variety of survivors and their loved ones, including images of multiracial families and queer survivors too. How did you go about finding the people you photographed for your project and your interactions with them?

It was very, very intentional; I believe, strongly, in the idea of a pluralistic America, a pluralistic future, and that’s where you really can feel me in the book. From the get-go, I wanted to include families of color, people with different lifestyles. I knew that survivors don’t fit the box the world wants to put them in– everybody’s seen the endless pictures of survivors portrayed as pathetic, weakened, hopeless victims. I know too many to not know better: their lives are as diverse as any other. I knew there were survivors whose family lives had stepped out of the traditional bounds of faith and ethnicity; I knew that there were surely queer survivors. And I knew they wouldn’t be hard to find.

They weren’t.  

A fellow named Ari Goldstein- who was super helpful, and shares some of my thoughts on identity- stepped up and delivered really incredible, inspirational people:  survivors who’d fought hard roads and had families that didn’t look like folks expect them to, lived lives that folks expect them to. This goes for faith, too: not all of the survivors are Jewish.  Not many of the survivors are religious. I made a point, after my 72nd survivor was the first to mention God, specifically to deny his existence- to find survivors who, often because of their experience, did believe. There’s a million different paths to the life one wants to live. 

What were the reactions like to Invited to Life?  

All over the place. I get so many notes from people who thank me for sharing these survivors’ inspirational stories; I also get a fair share of hate mail- I’m apparently at the weird crossroads where White Nationalists, a more recent group I’ve come to call The Kanye People, and dextrocardial Jewish folks meet up. I get weird mail from people who- seeing my surname and making assumptions- call me a race traitor. I get weird mail from people who tell me I’m making up stories as part of some massive ill-defined Semitic conspiracy. And I get mail from religious and/or traditionalist people upset that Invited to Life contains people of color, LGBT folks.   

I was really glad that the Center for Jewish History in New York was so eager to put it up this Spring/ Their institution houses a lot of different groups with different opinions, backgrounds, and they still put up the kind of show I hoped for: one that’s purposefully inclusive. But I’ve lost two potential exhibitions-one at a Holocaust museum, one at a museum focused on 20th century history- because they couldn’t allow my inclusion, specifically, of LGBT Holocaust survivors. Both said they’d easily be able to put it up if I’d just remove my portrait of two men embracing-  the first museum was institutionally opposed, and the second had a sympathetic curator but a frowning board member with one hand clutching pearls and the other pursestrings. I make work to be seen, I tell stories because I want them to be heard. And I believe, strongly, that one should welcome a wide breadth of opinions, even and perhaps especially if they counter my own. But I couldn’t metabolize the thought of erasing queer people, people of color.  

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

Lots. I grew up in a storytelling family on both sides: my father’s people had a really very old lineage with a couple of famous people in it, a cool demeanor but a deep, deep sense of legacy. my mother’s people had spent centuries on the move, originally North African and then into Italy and had a very hot-blooded aspect to their character. There’s a richer story I could tell you, but honestly, when you asked this my mind first jumped to my father’s father: I don’t really remember him, just the faintest little bit, but his ghost loomed very large over our family. He had a car I never saw, a boat I never saw, a voice I can’t remember, a face I can’t remember, but I am absolutely certain –in my marrow– that I know him. But, of course, I also know that I don’t. At all. It really instilled in me the idea that there’s such a thing as not a person but the idea of a person, as not a place but the idea of a place. No matter how much you construct them, no matter how much you define them, they’re never real. 

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

I read more poetry than anybody you know. I look at a lot of paintings, a lot of sculpture. I actually don’t peruse a lot of photography, funny as it sounds. That’s not exactly my influence. Coming up, I interned for a while with Arnold Newman (as famous a portraitist as ever there was) but I learned nothing from him but that one can- and often should- be disappointed by their heroes. Truth be told, more of my work comes from my love of poetry, and from my childhood fascination with prestidigitation. I joined the International Brotherhood of magicians at the age of 14 (and am still a member)- but legerdemain is not my domain. I’ve not turned a card in decades, or palmed a coin in just as long. I put that instinct, instead, into photographs.

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

There’s a cliché in the world of professional poker: the great players are constantly besieged by people wanting to tell them their “bad beat” stories. Some players rudely decline, some turn a deaf ear until it’s over. For me, the worst element of photography is people talking about their gear. Writers don’t compare their word processors, nor pianists their Steinways. I truly believe this: when Woody Guthrie put “this machine kills fascists” on his instrument, the guitar was not the machine he meant. 

My favorite element of photography: I have an aunt who, when I was a kid, would make us watch very long slideshows of whatever she’d done in the last few weeks whenever we went over. We were always bored to tears, but she treasured those photographs like they were all worthy of Pulitzers. And that’s correct: photographs- like poems, and children, and lots of other things- always look a little better when they’re your own. Photography lets you make new babies, every day.

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

I’m allergic to grapefruit. Tell the waiter.

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)?

Two: nobody’s asked me who I wish I could’ve included: Dr. Ruth! She said yes and then changed her mind, due to covid. And George Soros. He’s probably the most famous Holocaust survivor alive in America today, though imagine the mail I’d get.

The second I don’t have an answer for, but if somebody wants to tell me I’m all ears: I wrapped the photography for Invited to Life in April of 2021, wrote it in late summer, and the delivery of Neil’s essay in September of that year finished the book. From that moment to this, 23 of the 90 survivors in the book have died. What does this work look like when they’re all gone?

What advice might you have to give for aspiring artists?

The same advice they give young priests: if you can do anything else, do that. It’s a tough life.  But! I have the thinnest acquaintance with the art critic Jerry Saltz, and enjoyed something he said recently:  that the art world is, in a lot of ways, like a gang. Blood in, blood out. If you’re in, you can’t leave. You can never, happily, settle into doing anything else. You’re in it, forever, and you need to understand that going in.

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

I write a lot. I wrote three chapbooks of poetry and one full length book last year, of which I’ve not so much as even put them in front of my agent or any publisher. But the thing I’m most proud of is a project I started in mid-2021 (now about halfway done) about the poetry inherent in America’s endangered languages. It’s called On the National Language: the Poetry of America’s Endangered Tongues– named after the first line of a colonial-era law written to protect minority languages- and it’s been an amazing, amazing experience. Have been traveling all over the country, working with speakers of all these languages (many of which come from minority and marginalized communities,) giving them a place in their own representation (something not often afforded, historically, if we’re honest) and most importantly: it’s just cool. It’s really. Freaking. Cool. Poetry in motion. I spent a week on an Amish guy’s farm, milking his cows and talking about the ways his daughter’s language is different from his. A Louisiana Creole lady taught me songs and made me drink tinctures. And I did a shoot with a speaker of Nahuatl out in Los Angeles the other day, and there’s a single word in that language that means you are bursting into bloom all over with stars like flowers. Everybody has something to teach you. There’s so much to learn. 

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

Let’s see- what have I seen lately that I’ve loved? 

Poetry: Shelly Puhak’s book of poems, Harbinger, and Mosab Abu Toha’s Things You may Find Hidden in my Ear. I’m excited for Janine Joseph’s Decade of the Brain, Gabrielle BatesJudas Goat, and Jane Hirshfield’s The Asking, which aren’t yet out but which I’ve gotten to see through the sonogram of criticism. 

Prose: He’s surely familiar to your readership, but I’m low-key obsessed with Taylor Brorby’s Boys and Oil. We were paired on a story a few years back and I’ve really enjoyed watching him bring such a stunning gift into the world. 

Photography: Lately, I’ve really been enjoying Ann Prochilo’s This is Water, which I saw at a show at the Los Angeles Center of Photography last month. Also Mitch Epstein’s Recreation, and just generally Kurt Markus, who just died, the cake of whose life can be defined by no one crumb. 

Interview with Author Chana Stiefel

Chana Stiefel is the award-winning author of more than 30 punny and poignant books for children. She loves to visit schools and libraries to share her passion for reading and writing with children. She earned a Master’s degree in Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting from New York University. Chana is represented by Miranda Paul at Erin Murphy Literary Agency. You can follow her on Instagram for updates on her work.

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

CW: Discussion of the Holocaust and religious intolerance.

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

Thank you so much for having me! I’m a children’s book author from New Jersey. I’ve published 30+ books for kids, both fiction and nonfiction. I love to swim, hike, read, travel, spend time with family, and visit art museums and indie bookshops (not necessarily in this order). My pediatrician husband and I just published our first co-authored book. It’s called Mendel’s Hanukkah Mess Up, illustrated by Daphna Awadish (published by Kalaniot) about a character who always messes up, but learns that sometimes mistakes can be marvelous.

What can you tell us about your latest book, The Tower of Life? What was the inspiration for this story?

The Tower of Life is a picture book biography about Yaffa Eliach, a Holocaust survivor and historian whose mission was to restore humanity to the victims of the Holocaust. I first learned about Yaffa when I read her obituary in the New York Times in 2016. She was born in a Polish town called Eishyshok in 1935. Her grandmother was one of the town’s photographers. In 1941, nearly the entire Jewish population of Eishyshok was murdered by the Nazis. In just two days, 900 years of history were uprooted. Miraculously, 6-year-old Yaffa and her family escaped to the forest. Yaffa tucked some family photographs in her shoes and held on to them throughout the war and beyond. 

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter reached out to Yaffa to help build a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Washington, DC. (By then, Yaffa was a professor and a trailblazer in Holocaust education.) But Yaffa didn’t want to focus on death and darkness. Her photos reminded her of people of her beautiful town and the lives they led. Did relatives who had left Eishyshok before the war save photos too? 

Yaffa set out on a mission to find the survivors and rebuild her town, not brick by brick, but photo by photo, story by story. Over 17 years, she traveled the world and collected over 6,000 photos of nearly every man, woman, and child who had lived in Eishyshok in the 100 years before the war. And she created the Tower of Life (also known as the Tower of Faces), a three-story high central exhibit at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, shining a light on the lives that were lived. On dignity, not disaster. It’s a story about community, empathy, hope, and resilience. 

As a writer, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically children’s books?

The first memories that come to mind are sitting on my mother’s lap, listening to her read books like Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal. I remember that closeness and love that comes from reading a book together. My mother and I still share a love of reading and talk about books all of the time.

After college, I went to journalism school at NYU. I had an internship, which developed into a job as an editor, working at children’s science magazines at Scholastic. I loved writing for kids so much, I never looked back. My first 15 children’s books were nonfiction, sharing the wonders of science and cool (sometimes yucky) history with kids. 

For those curious about the process behind a picture book, how would you describe the process? What goes into writing one and collaborating with an artist to translate that into a book?

Unless you’re a celebrity, writing children’s books can be a long and arduous journey. But I have to say, the kidlit community is incredibly warm and supportive. For every challenge, whether it’s getting a manuscript critiqued or finding a shoulder to cry on after a pile of rejections, there is always someone to turn to for support. 

Interestingly, in trade publishing, authors and illustrators generally do not communicate at all during the process. It’s an unwritten rule that publishers prefer that authors give illustrators creative freedom. Sometimes, we can recommend illustrators for our projects. We may include some illustrator notes for clarity and occasionally we’re given an opportunity to review sketches and offer feedback. But until the book is released, we generally work separately. It’s just how the industry runs.

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

I grew up in a home that encouraged creativity. I remember that my father and I once climbed onto our roof, poured paint onto a canvas, and splattered the side of our house. My parents encouraged me and my siblings to follow our passions.

My parents were also very involved in social justice, particularly when it came to the Jewish community. Many young people today are not aware that during the 1970s and 80s, nearly two million Soviet Jews were trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Practicing religion was forbidden, but at the same time they were refused exit visas. Thousands of dissidents (also known as “refuseniks”) lost their jobs or were imprisoned just for applying for visas, speaking out, or demonstrating. 

Living in Miami, my parents not only spoke to us about these injustices, but became very involved in the worldwide movement to save Soviet Jewry. We joined phone calls to refuseniks, attended rallies and marches, and wrote letters to Congress. Legislation was passed to link trade with human rights. My parents even traveled to the USSR in 1975 to secretly meet with refuseniks and bring back important information. On December 6, 1987, my sister and I joined 250,000 people marching in Washington to show solidarity for Soviet Jews. 

These are some of the examples that my parents set for me and I hope that I am transmitting these lessons to my four children. As Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I am working on a book about this period of history to ensure that it is not forgotten. It is a piece of modern Jewish history that actually has a happy ending. 

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

I admire the persistence of authors like Jane Yolen (author of more than 400 books for children and adults), whose advice to writers is BIC (Butt in Chair). Books don’t write themselves. I have a Post-It next to my computer with a quote from Jane reminding us to take joy in our writing. 

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

Favorite element: When you have that “aha” moment of how to solve a tricky line or passage or when you come up with a fresh idea that gets you writing.

Frustrating/difficult: We all get rejections. They’re not fun but they’re an unfortunate part of the publishing process. The best ones are the “champagne rejections,” when you’ve come close and an editor gives you some praise, encouragement, and some advice on how to make your story better.

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

I have seen Kilauea pour lava into the sea, snorkeled in an undersea crater, kissed a giant stingray, hiked on a glacier, and watched in wonder as brown bears dug for clams on an Alaskan beach. All glorious! But give me a blanket, a cup of coffee, and a good book…bliss!

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)?

What’s my next picture book? BRAVO, AVOCADO, coming from HarperCollins on March 28, 2023. It’s about an avocado at the Farmers’ Market who has a pit in her stomach. She wants to be Today’s Special. It’s about finding your self worth and uplifting your friends.

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

Write your story! Only you can tell your story…and somewhere in the world, there’s a child who needs to hear it.

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

I’m working on a book about stereotypes and how to avoid them—but in a funny, kid-centric way.

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

Too many to list! Here are a few recent picture books that shine a light on the LGBTQ+ community.

BLOB, by Anne Appert, Harper Collins, 2021.

STITCH BY STITCH: Cleve Jones and the AIDS Memorial Quilt, by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Jamey Christoph, Magination Press, 2021.

MY PAATI’S SARIS, by Jyoti Rajan Gopal, illustrated by Art Twink, Kokila/PRH, 2022.

WHAT ARE YOUR WORDS? A Book About Pronouns, by Katherine Locke, illustrated by Anne Passchier, LittleBrown/Hachette, 2021.

PRIDE: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag, by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Steven Salerno, Random House, 2018.

TWO GROOMS ON A CAKE: The Story of America’s First Gay Wedding, by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Robbie Cathro, Little Bee Books, 2021.

A COSTUME FOR CHARLY by CK Malone, illustrated by Alejandra Barajas, Beaming Books, 2022.

 “No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics” to Premiere on PBS

‘To be black and queer and learn about Rupert Kinnard’s work — only two years ago! It was very profound to me, yet also sad… How many other Rupert’s are there that I didn’t know about? ….’ was the reaction of cartoonist, Lawrence Lindell, when he discovered the Brown Bomber and Diva Touché Flambé, drawn by black gay cartoonist, Rupert Kinnard. It’s a bittersweet moment.

Decades later, the works of the five pioneering queer cartoonists are still being discovered by the next generation of artists (including myself).  Lindell reflected on how Kinnard’s work could have aided him on his artistic journey — “…It would have been nice not to struggle.”

“…I wanted to create a film that I needed when I was a queer youth…” was director Vivian Kleiman’s mission. Inspired by queer comic artist and historian Justin Hall’s anthology of the same name, No Straight Lines — The Rise of Queer Comics is a celebration of the history of comics by and about LGBTQ people, telling the stories of the five pioneers of queer cartoonists: Alison Bechdel, Howard Cruse, Mary Wings, Rupert Kinnard, and Jennifer Camper.

No Straight Lines is a labor of love that started as a conventional documentary then later evolved into a cross-generational think piece that intersects everything from the AIDS crisis, coming out, and same-sex marriage, to themes of race, gender, and disability.

It’s highly-stylized editing creates the illusion of a comic book coming to life. It cuts between candid interviews of the five pioneers, then to comic panels featuring commentary from contemporary queer cartoonists, and lastly a heartfelt tribute of the founder of Gay Comix, Howard Cruse.  

No Straight Lines is a rare gem, a brilliantly crafted masterpiece that crosses historical preservation and inspiration. We’re reminded that all one needs to tell their story is a pen and paper. It remains a powerful idea to write about yourself when not seen.

Premieres Monday, January 23 at 10:00 pm EST and streaming on starting Tuesday, January 24

Interview with Author Taleen Voskuni

Taleen Voskuni is an Armenian-American writer who grew up in the Bay Area diaspora surrounded by a rich Armenian community and her ebullient, loving family. She graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in English and currently lives in San Francisco, working in tech. Other than a newfound obsession with writing romcoms, she spends her free time cultivating her kids, her garden, and her dark chocolate addiction. Sorry, Bro is her first published novel. 

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

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

Thank you for having me! I’m Taleen Voskuni, an Armenian-American writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. I’ve been writing all my life but only buckled down and tried to unlearn all that I thought I knew about six years ago. It eventually worked out! I’ve got two young kids that keep me busy and I work in tech. I’m not the mom that creates elaborate crafts, but I do tell some decent bedtime stories.

What can you tell us about your debut book, Sorry, Bro? What inspired the story?

The book is about an Armenian-American woman in the Bay Area named Nar, who gets convinced by her mom to go to this series of Armenian events to try and meet Armenian men. There’s lots of Armenian line dancing, cooking classes, and brandy tasting. But it isn’t any of the mom-approved bachelors that catch her eye, but a witchy Armenian woman instead. The two of them are pretty taken with each other right away but the issue is that Nar isn’t out as bi, and her traditional family and community don’t really seem supportive of it. And the final event is a huge banquet which her entire family is going to be attending along with her new…secret girlfriend.

In terms of inspiration, the first spark of Sorry, Bro came to me when I heard the voices of two women talking to each other. One saying something like, “can’t we have just one conversation without bringing up the Armenian Genocide?” and another woman gently and curiously correcting her. So strangely, my romantic comedy started with a conversation about this heavy topic, but it was also the dynamic between them, the forgiveness in Erebuni’s response to Nareh, that I found so compelling and wanted to explore. 

Also, Nar’s journey, embracing her Armenianness sort of parallels mine where I rejected parts of my Armenianness for too long, or refused to see it and then embraced it so fully that I wrote a book about it. 

Sorry, Bro is said to feature Armenian and queer representation. What does it mean to you as an author writing this type of representation in your work?

It means so much! This is an intersection that has not been fully explored in the Armenian commercial cultural canon. There has been a lot of work done by Armenian academic writers and literary and experimental artists, which I have loved and savored, but I hadn’t seen much universally accessible on the topic, so I wanted to write it. Where is our fun Armenian queer book? Now I can say: here it is!

One of my goals with Sorry, Bro is to reach a wide audience and to teach non-Armenians about who we are. To have an Armenian-American story out there, one that is joyful and has the potential to reach readers who don’t know anything about Armenian culture; that is very important to me. Armenia is under siege, and I hope that by learning about Armenians and getting a peek into our culture, more people will care and will try to do something when we call for help.

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

I have been writing since I was five, and I am wondering now if part of what draws me to writing is my inability to express myself well verbally. My thoughts fly at me a mile a minute and it’s hard for me to get organized thoughts out in the moment, especially if I’m passionate about the subject. But writing? You can take your time, edit, shuffle around and organize on your own time. I think writing helps me make sense of my own life, then share my insights with others. 

Long before I knew what a romance novel was, I’ve always been drawn to romantic subplots in movies and books. I was the girl in high school for whom having crushes was a hobby, maybe even a personality. I loved love. I still do! 

So many writers! Jane Austen was and is a huge influence, and when I was younger, every Disney princess movie ever made. The Mummy—there’s a joke that this was a bisexual awakening for thousands of us in the ‘90s and it’s not wrong. And Clueless! What a masterclass in humor and timelessness. I love vast multi-generational epics like East of Eden, and more recently, Pachinko and Homegoing. I also love getting my heart broken, and I think the most effective heartbreak I’ve ever felt in a book was In the Woods by Tana French. I’m still not over it, seven years later. 

How would you describe your writing process? What inspires you as a writer?

I swear by the outline, the outline is my beacon and savior. So first I nail that down (and of course while writing, it always changes a bit, but that’s part of the fun), then begin drafting. I can usually only write in the margins of time, so on the weekdays, at lunchtime, or after the kids go to sleep. I have bi-weekly writing goals, not daily, and that really helps give me flexibility. 

For inspiration, I find that showers really help! I can usually solve plot issues while in hot water. Or meditating. Sometimes I meditate for 5 – 10 minutes before writing and can write a lot more clearly.

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

I used to detest scenery, and now I feel like it’s my greatest weapon, and love using it in my writing to heighten emotion in a scene. I also love writing humor, it makes writing such a pleasure, and I hope my enjoyment shines through on the page. 

I find that writing realistic dialogue and making characters sound different without turning them into caricatures is tough. I still have a lot of work in this area, but I’m looking forward to learning and improving!

One of the hardest parts of writing a book is finishing one. Were there any techniques/ strategies/ advice that help you finish a first draft?

This is not going to work for everyone, but I need someone to send pages to every 2 weeks. I’ve found that 15 pages every 2 weeks is a doable chunk for me, and I must have someone on the other end who I trust (who is both non-judgemental and helpful) receiving those pages. Without accountability like this, I simply will not finish. 

That, and having a deadline. I’m actually thrilled that now with an editorial team, I have deadlines! I love and respect a deadline. I will move heaven and earth to meet a deadline when there is someone who is relying on me. But without that, I would endlessly draft and tweak.

This is why I love writing contests so much. PitchWars and Author Mentor Match were my first deadlines; the reason I finished my first and third novels. 

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

None, I’m happy with all questions asked!

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

That I am truly grateful for the opportunity to be published. There is nothing about this process so far that has been disappointing. Anything I get I am so thankful for. It’s beyond my wildest dreams.

And most importantly, I truly do not want to be known, but I do want to share Armenian diaspora culture with the world. Armenia is on the verge of being wiped out by its genocidal neighbors, who are scheming every day to find some way to ethnically cleanse Armenians from their indigenous lands. Literally (not figuratively!) every interview I give, there is some new horror happening in Armenia at the hands of Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey. So I would love readers to take an interest in what is happening in Armenia. Here is an on-the-ground media source that is providing accurate information: ​​

What advice might you give to other aspiring writers?

I feel success in writing is a combination of: (1) Constantly trying to improve (2) Putting in the actual work of writing (3) Finishing (4) Luck 

Not much you can do about #4, which honestly is a huge factor, but you can control the first three! 

I’ll elaborate on the first one. Approach your writing with an open eye—what can you improve? Study writers you admire and try to learn what makes them so good (I’m still working on this myself, and feel it can be a lifelong pursuit). Find writers in the same boat as you and share work. It is shocking how much editing someone else’s work will improve your own.  

Then just keep trying! 

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

I am! I was lucky enough to get a 2-book deal with Berkley, so I am in the developmental editing stage of that book. I’m not sure if I can give away the plot yet, but I’ll say that it’s another queer Armenian romcom, this time a foodie book that takes place in Chicago. And surprise, the parents are once again heavily involved. 

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

Yes! Here are some books that came out recently:

Meryl Wilsner’s Mistakes Were Made, or as you may have heard of it, the MILF book. Holy steaminess!

Ashley Herring Blake’s Bright Falls series is a fabulous sapphic series full of memorable characters. Delilah Greene Doesn’t Care might be my favorite romance ever.

Courtney Kae’s In the Event of Love is the most delightful holiday romance, both sweet and steamy. 

Dahlia Adler’s Cool For the Summer is the perfect YA bi-anthem book. I adored it!

Forthcoming books:

For fans of horror, Trang Thanh Tran’s book She Is a Haunting is full of lyrical prose and one terrifying house. 

Elle Gonzalez Rose’s book Caught in a Bad Fauxmance is one of the funniest books I’ve read in a while.

Header Photo Credit Clouds Inside Photography

Interview with Author David Slayton

David R. Slayton (He/Him) grew up outside of Guthrie, Oklahoma, where finding fantasy novels was pretty challenging and finding fantasy novels with diverse characters was downright impossible. David’s debut, White Trash Warlock, was published in 2020 by Blackstone Publishing and was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award. The Adam Binder series continues with Trailer Park Trickster (October 2021), and Deadbeat Druid (October 2022).

In 2015, David founded Trick or Read, an annual initiative to give out books along with candy to children on Halloween as well as uplift lesser-known authors from marginalized backgrounds.

A lifelong Dungeon Master, video gaymer, and sci-fi/fantasy/comic book fan, David has degrees in History and English from Metropolitan State University in Denver. He’ll happily talk your ear off about anything from Ancient Greece to Star Trek.

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

Sure! Like Adam, the main character in White Trash Warlock, I grew up in a trailer outside of Guthrie, Oklahoma. Like him I’m gay and a high school dropout. Now I’m fortunate enough to live in Denver, Colorado with my partner Brian and write the books I always wanted to read.

Congratulations on releasing the last book in your first series, Deadbeat Druid! Could you tell us what it’s about and where the idea for the book came from?

It really springs from my rural background. I love urban fantasy but could never find myself represented on the page, not just as a gay man but as someone who comes from where I do. I wanted to tell a story about people like us and I can’t express how touched I am by some of the emails I’ve gotten from readers who connect with it. Deadbeat Druid is the third book in the series (I hope for more) and is my take on the Odyssey, only it’s a road trip through hell to get the two love interests back together. It’s spooky and weird and full of healing your trauma by facing what you don’t want to.

As a writer, what drew you to writing modern fantasy?

Urban fantasy as a genre has so much flexibility in it, so much variation. I always saw myself as a high fantasy or epic fantasy author, and there’s a lack of representation there too, but I wasn’t making headway publishing in that space so I tried something new and it paid off. I originally started writing White Trash Warlock to remember why I love writing. I was very tentative when I shared it with my agent, but she loved it and it ended up being my debut book. I’m very grateful that it’s been so well received.

Since Geeks OUT is a queer centered website, could you tell us a bit about the LGBTQ+ characters featured in your books?

Absolutely! I focus on gay main characters for all of my current books, as that’s my experience. The Adam Binder series also features a bi love interest and including that representation was very important to me. The elven characters we meet are pansexual. Argent is also aromantic and Vran is asexual.

I’m writing the spin off, Rogue Community College, now and I’m happy to get to work with a bigger cast and show more LGBTQ+ characters and relationships.

Your book(s) tend to center around gay and bisexual protagonist(s). Could you tell us about some elements of these character(s) you’re excited for others to see in stories?

I love getting to include the characters’ identity without it being the thing that drives the plot. I always say that I write books about LGBTQ+ characters that aren’t about being LGBTQ+. The Adam series is contemporary fantasy and Adam is from Oklahoma so homophobia and other issues exist, but they aren’t the focus of the story. I’m especially happy to be releasing Dark Moon Shallow Sea later this year as it’s high fantasy in an original world where I could leave homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, etc. behind. In that world, nobody cares about your identity or orientation but which god you worship? That can get you in trouble.

Were there any books that touched you or inspired you growing up?

I especially loved Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin when I discovered her work. My mother went deeply into religion at one point and my reading was limited to Star Trek books (big shout out to David Mack here), which were fantastic, but as with fantasy, we just weren’t on the page or on the screen. It’s great to see Star Trek correcting this, but I’ll always be sad I didn’t have that representation when I needed it the most.

How would you describe your writing process? Are there any methods you use to help better your concentration or progress?

I use an Agile Project Management approach to my writing, which means I set weekly goals, track everything in spreadsheets, and try to maintain a consistent daily practice, though sometimes the day job means I just don’t get to write on a weekday and have to make up the time on the weekend. The best thing I can do is turn off the Internet, social media especially, and just lose myself in the work. It’s also been really important to me to not compare my career trajectory to others. That way lies madness. A lot of what happens in a writing career comes down to luck. The only think you can really control is your writing, so I focus on always learning and continually improving my craft.

What’s something you haven’t done as a writer that you’d like to do?

I’d love to be nominated for a Lambda or a Hugo. I’d especially love to see the Adam Binder novels made into a TV series, to see that representation on the screen. I’ll admit that I’m always fan-casting my books. I saw that Noah Schnapp from Stranger Things just came out and my first thought was that he’d be great for Adam.

Your first series has characters that come from the southern states in the United States, why did you pick this area that is usually unwelcoming to people like your protagonist?

We’re not often portrayed in urban fantasy. Books like this one are usually set in big cities like Chicago or New York. It was nice to be able to showcase small town Oklahoma and a smaller city like Denver (where I live now). I also think that so many LGBTQ+ people come from places like Guthrie or have experiences like mine. I wanted to tell our story and I wanted us to have the chance at being the hero. Someone recently asked me why there’s a car chase with a dragon in the book and my answer was how often do you see a gay action hero?

All three of your books mix the modern day world with high fantasy, can you explain how you developed the world you’ve placed your stories in?

I’m all about trying to undermine stereotypes and encourage readers to look beneath the surface. I like to take fantasy tropes and mess with them or flip them on their head. No one in my books is simple and the worlds they inhabit reflect that. For example, the elven realm is beautiful but there’s a shady side to their politics and some of their motivations are outright evil. My friend Shiri said that my elves would have Tolkien spinning in his grave and I take that as a high compliment.

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

I mentioned Dark Moon, Shallow Sea. It’s queer and dark and full of ghosts and dead gods. It’s everything I love in high fantasy and it’s out on Halloween 2023! It’s Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn meets Dark Souls. On the other end of the spectrum, I have a gay, geeky romance called To Catch a Geek coming out late 2023, maybe 2024. It’s nerdy and full of every nerdy reference I could work into it. It’s really fun. I have also have a spin off to the Adam Binder series, Rogue Community College, coming out in 2024. It picks up on developments in Deadbeat Druid and it’s Umbrella Academy meets Doctor Who with lots of great representation. It’s a bit more cozy which is funny since the main character Isaac is an assassin, but he’s quickly faced with his attraction to another student and the problem of trying to murder a living building.

Aside from writing, what do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I’m a huge gaymer. I’m really excited to see what Bethesda’s Starfield will look like later this year and for Baldur’s Gate III to leave early access. I’m also anxious to get my hands on Jedi: Survivor, the sequel to Jedi: Fallen Order. That quickly became my favorite Star Wars game. Let’s hope Cal gets a boyfriend this time around. I’m a big fan of TTRPGS, Dungeons and Dragons especially. I’m writing an adventure set in the world of Dark Moon, Shallow Sea that I’ll give away on my website as we get closer to the book’s release.

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

I was stumped so my partner Brian suggested this one: how do you write about your experience without opening yourself to hurt or pain when you put yourself on the page? My answer is that you don’t. You have to open yourself to the pain to write authentically. Obviously, my characters are fictional. They aren’t me, but I try to give them pieces of myself, enough to make them feel real to the reader. A lot of Adam’s experience around his family and upbringing in the White Trash Warlock series come from my experience. A lot of Raef’s hurt and anger in Dark Moon, Shallow Sea come from my hurt, anger, and my own experiences with faith and religion.

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

Some of my favorite authors working in the LGBTQ+ space are:
K.D. Edwards’s Tarot Sequence is great urban fantasy. It’s high action mixed with cool magic and witty banter.
Cale Dietrich: The Pledge, The Friend Scheme, etc. He just captures that sense of teen want like no one else. Reading Cale’s stuff takes me back to being an awkward gay teen.
Helen Corcoran: Queen of Coin and Whispers, Daughter of Winter and Twilight. This is low magic YA sapphic fantasy with deep political machinations.
Barbara Ann Wright: The Pyramid Waltz, Thrall, etc. Barbara is the queen of sapphic sci-fi/fantasy romance and has fourteen books ranging from fantasy to space opera.
I’m also really excited about Trip Galey’s A Market of Dreams and Destiny coming in September.

Fanart for David Slayton’s Adam Binder series, first three are from Jake Shandy (permission given to author for use); second three are from (permission given to author for use)

Interview with Cartoonist Chan Chau

Chan Chau is the creator of the New York Times bestselling graphic novel adaptations of The Baby-Sitters Club: Kristy and the Snobs and The Baby-Sitters Club: Jessi’s Secret Language by Ann M. Martin. They graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Their work appears in the award-winning comics anthology ELEMENTS: Fire and they have designed backgrounds for animated TV shows. Chan lives in Tacoma, Washington.

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

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

I am Chan, a nonbinary cartoonist, and illustrator based in the Pacific Northwest. I have been working in comics for several years and have been nominated for multiple Eisners and several other awards.

What can you tell us about your latest project, and how did you get involved in illustrating for the Baby-Sitters Club series in general?

I am finishing up a book called Enlighten Me with writer Minh Le, published by Little Brown Ink. As for Baby-Sitters Club, my involvement was a surprise! I received an email one day from the lovely editor, Cassandra Pelham Fulton, with an offer to adapt the series, and that was that!

Did you have any previous connections to the Baby-sitters Club universe before working on this project?

I did not! I had heard of the Baby-Sitters Club when I was growing up, but I had no real connection to it otherwise.

How did you find yourself getting into comics? What drew you to becoming an artist?

I read comics and manga growing up. It wasn’t considered “reading” at the time; however, it was one of the only ways I read books. Comics require the ability to parse words and images together. I wanted to share my love for them and grow up wanting to make art.

As someone who both writes and draws comics, what is your favorite part of both processes? How would you describe your process working on comics in general?

Oh gosh, it varies from project to project, but my process is either highly chaotic or having assembly line-like precision. Nothing in between, unfortunately. I find myself loving either the Thumbnailing or Inking process; one requires me to set the whole stage of a book or story, and the other is where I can mindlessly listen to Youtube and work.

I’ve noticed within your work, whether working on Young Adult content, superhero-inspired comics, or the supernatural, you have a really beautiful style that’s so soft and elegant, and yet still super dynamic. As an artist, would you say there were/are any artists or comics that have influenced you creatively over the years?

While in school, I studied a lot of Western European and East Asian artists and styles. A few of my biggest influences are Roger Ibáñez, Shirahama Kamome, Thierry Martin, and Kerascoët. They all have a keen eye and hand for inking.

A comic of yours I’ve really enjoyed was Soft Lead, in which you imagine Superman as a newspaper cartoonist. I think the theme of discussing the value of creating art in a world that constantly needs saving is really potent right now and was wondering on your thoughts about what art means to you personally?

Art, to me, is an expression. Whether done for commercial use or fun, it’s all made with a purpose. Some folks would argue with me about that, but I don’t think artists would make art if they genuinely didn’t want to. I certainly wouldn’t, haha!

What advice might you have to give to aspiring artists/comic book creators, to both those who draw and those who don’t?

My advice is to get out there and make that thing you want to make. Try it out and see where it takes you because you will only know if something is working if you put your pen to paper (for both artists and writers). Read many comics and indulge in other media that bring you joy!

Aside from comics, what would you say are some of your other skills or interests?

Before I did comics full-time, I spent most of it being a freelance illustrator or product designer. I love to make merchandise with my art on it and present it at shows! There’s something about making your art a tangible object that I love.

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

I wish people would ask about my constant decision to make short stories or zines. Some of my peers will laugh at me because they know I continuously preach it as a valuable skill! Short stories provide a platform to show off a cartoonist’s vision, storytelling prowess, and ability to finish a comic. I’m utterly grateful for all the opportunities that zines/short stories have brought me. 

Are there any projects you are working on and at liberty to discuss?

I have also been dabbling in pitching my own story, and I hope to talk about it in the near future!

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

Most folks inundated with LGBTQ+ comics probably already know these authors, but I highly recommend checking out Trung Lê Capecchi-Nguyễn, K Rhodes and Jen Xu (KaiJu), and Petra Erika Nordlund.

Interview with Author Davinia Evans

Davinia Evans was born in the tropics and raised on British comedy. With a lifelong fantasy-reading habit and an honours thesis in political strategy, it was perhaps inevitable that she turn to a life of crafting stories full of sneaky ratbags tangling with magic. She lives in Melbourne, Australia, with two humans (one large and one small), a neurotic cat, and a cellar full of craft beer. Dee talks more about all of that on Twitter as @cupiscent.

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

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

Thanks so much for having me! I’m Davinia Evans, a lapsed goth, small-child-wrangler, and fantasy author. I live in Melbourne, Australia, where I follow the local traditions of drinking lots of coffee, wearing lots of black, and being baffled by the weather. I love reading, writing, enjoying a nice bourbon-barrel-aged stout (probably while doing one of the first two!) and baking very simple cakes.

What can you tell us about your upcoming book, Notorious Sorcerer? What can readers expect?

Notorious Sorcerer is about a dockside errand boy who raids other planes for the ingredients used by the posh alchemists he aspires to join. But when he commits an impossible feat of magic, he’s catapulted into the middle of a world-wrecking crisis. To save his city, he’ll need the help of sword-slinging street gangs, his bitchy ex, a pair of rebellious sisters, a bloodthirsty demoness in love, and an arrogant young man with a proposal too intriguing to refuse.

It’s a whirlwind of hijinks, hangovers and heartfelt decisions, so readers can expect a lot of fun, but also a lot of feelings!

What drew you to storytelling, and what drew you to speculative fiction specifically? 

My father’s motto was Never let the truth get in the way of a good story, and he gave me a great appreciation for the ways a well-crafted story could entertain, inform, and resonate far beyond what it was specifically saying. I always loved speculative fiction as it had the biggest lies with the boldest truths hiding inside them; in speculative fiction, you can paint the biggest what-if that you can think of, and nothing is out of bounds if you tell it well enough. There’s a lot of power in that to explore possibilities, and you get to have dragons, magic and flashy sword fights as well! 

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

I actually don’t remember not having seen the original Star Wars movies, so I’m sure they have shaped me in ways beyond what I’m conscious of! Later on, I spent a lot of time desperately wanting to write like Guy Gavriel Kay, with that sort of deft elegance and sweeping vision and deep emotion, which taught me a lot, but I eventually admitted that was not really my voice. Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora was a joyous awakening to the idea that fantasy could be urban-set and complex and fun (and also full of swearing… sorry Mum!)

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

I sometimes feel like there’s not much to me aside from writing, but that’s mostly because everything, sooner or later, is grist for the writing mill! Everything I encounter gets stirred into a bubbling pot of mental stew, simmering away on the theme of: what does it mean to be human? And sometimes it’s about things that came up in my politics degree, or that non-fiction book I read about the Mongol khaganate, and sometimes it’s my ongoing feud with the ants overrunning my garden, or how the cheese melts to the burger wrapper. We contain such multitudes, individually and collectively, and I never get tired of learning more.

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers? 

A lot of it is pretty common, but I think it’s common for a reason. Things like “write what you’re passionate about” and “read a lot, write a lot” and “cultivate writing as a regular habit, however that looks for you” are just solid pieces of advice that I can see underpinning all of the steps of the long path that led me here. The other advice I might share is that it is a long path, so I think it’s really important to have goals to work towards, but also to enjoy the working itself. You have to do the thing to get the thing done, so you might as well be having fun too. Obviously writing isn’t always unbridled joy, but even on the hard days, on some level I get great satisfaction from wrestling with the problems, untangling the knots, catching those slippery fish.

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

Well, Notorious Sorcerer is the first book in the Burnished City trilogy, so my work is pretty much locked in for the next couple of years! I’m thrilled to have the chance to dig deeper into the world I’ve created and tangle my characters in new and fiendish problems. (Poor folks, they’re just trying their best!)

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

I’ve been asked “Which of your characters is your favourite?” (and the answer is: all of them, but especially Laxmi the gleeful murder-harpy) but the more amusing option is perhaps: “Which of your characters would you want to be?” And the answer to that is that in anything I write there will always, somewhere, be an older woman smoking a pipe, drinking booze, cackling at her own dirty jokes, generally behaving badly and giving absolutely no fucks. #goals

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

Like so many people, I’m dying for Tamsyn Muir’s third Locked Tomb book, Nona the Ninth. (Coincidentally, it’s coming out the same day as my book!) I have no idea what to expect, but the series has been such an amazing rollercoaster that I’ll follow Muir anywhere.

Freya Marske’s A Marvelous Light was a delightfully sharp m/m-romantic fantasy of bad manners, and the forthcoming sequel, A Restless Truth, has been pitched as “lesbian Knives Out on a boat”. I’m keen!

And CM Waggoner’s The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry is an amazing confection of heist shenanigans, badass ladies of many kinds, a desperately wonderful f/f romance line, and a wonderful freewheeling style.

Header Photo Credit Gray Tham

Interview with the Creative Team Behind Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story Graphic Novel Adaptation


A landmark American novel, hailed by the New York Times as J.D. Salinger crossed with Oscar Wilde, is masterfully reimagined as a timeless graphic novel.

A Boy’s Own Story is a now-classic coming-of-age story, but with a twist: the young protagonist is growing up gay during one of the most oppressive periods in American history. Set in the time and place of author Edmund White’s adolescence, the Midwest of the 1950s, the novel became an immediate bestseller and, for many readers, was not merely about gay identity but the pain of being a child in a fractured family while looking for love in an anything-but-stable world. And yet the book quickly contributed to the literature of empowerment that grew out of the Stonewall riots and the subsequent gay rights era. Readers are still swept up in the main character’s thoughts and dry humor, and many today remain shocked by the sexually confessional, and bold, nature of his revelations, his humorous observations, the comic situations and scenes the strangely erudite youthful narrator describes, the tenderness of his loneliness, and the vivid aching of his imagination. A Boy’s Own Story is lyrical, witty, unabashed, and authentic.

Now, to bring this landmark novel to new life for today’s readers, White is joined by co-writers Brian Alessandro and Michael Carroll and artist Igor Karash for a stunning graphic novel interpretation. The poetic nuances of White’s language float across sumptuously painted panels that evoke 1950s Cincinnati, 1980s Paris, and every dreamlike moment in between. The result is a creative adaptation of the original 1982 A Boy’s Own Story with additional personal and historical elements from the authors’ lives

I had the opportunity to interview the creative team of this graphic novel adaptation, which you can read below.

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

Michael: I’m a long-time fan of author Edmund White. The first book of his I read I read aloud with my partner at the time Patrick Ryan when we were on a road trip in college, States of Desire: Travels in Gay America. Next was Boy’s Own Story.  A few years later while I was in Eastern Europe in the Peace Corps, I wrote Ed a fan letter and at the end of that summer moved to Paris to live with him. Then later married him. Patrick Ryan and I became writers and moved to New York at the same time.  Patrick lived with us for a month while he was getting his bearings. That’s part of gay life, this portable sense of commune.

Igor: I am an illustrator and designer and was born in the city of Baku in Azerbaijan (while it was still a republic of the Soviet Union).

I designed my first theater set in 1979 at the age of 19 and published my first illustrated book in 1993. In that same year, I immigrated to the U.S. with my wife and children.

Immigration is quite the challenge for an artist: one is removed from their artistic and cultural roots, environments, and people that stimulate one’s creativity. Although my overall experience in America has been very positive, financial pressure diverted my career into the field of design.

I re-emerged in the sphere of illustration in 2012 when I won an illustration competition and subsequently illustrated several major titles for the Folio Society in London. 

Michael Carroll

What can you tell us about your latest book, the graphic novel adaptation of Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story? What was the inspiration for this project?

Michael: The project started when Ryan Runstadler, founder of Closure Creative, asked me what I thought of the idea of making Ed’s novel into a graphic novel. I think we were walking down Duval Street in Key West. I hadn’t thought of what my second book would be, but I had published my first and it looked like I was a viable writer, and in the next moment Ryan asked if I’d like to write the script. It didn’t really take off until I met Brian Alessandro, who nudged me along. We did versions of the script back and forth. It got frightening and kind of hot when Brian inserted the flash-forwards into our character Eddie Valentine’s later life, taking in the changes wrought by gay rights, AIDS, and the developments of his own career. Flash forwards are not easy to manage. There’s something about the bending of narrative time that can be abrupt or confusing.  Brian was in a channel that brought Igor Karash in as the illustrator, and among all of us including Ryan we thought about and discussed which flash forwards should have smoother transitions and which ones could benefit the book with quick jumps. I don’t remember which are which.

Brian: It is a visual interpretation of Edmund White’s 1982 classic novel, of course, but also an intimate epic of a gay man’s experiences throughout the second half of the 20th century, from the oppressive 1950s to the liberation of the late 1960s-early 1970s occasioned by Stonewall, and on to the devastation of the 1980s due to the AIDS crisis.

Igor: This book is my first major ‘graphic novel.’ Previously, I have produced a number of limited-edition publications in this format but had not attempted anything of this scale.

In my visual interpretation of the masterfully written adaptation (and original novel, of course) I focused on weaving together inspiration from fine art, graphics, and literature that I felt had sophisticated and painful qualities: Balthus with his erotic sensibilities and Nabokov’s Lolita. Another source of inspiration was Edward Hopper’s empty cityscapes and interior spaces, containing people that are lonely and uncomfortable. I live in the Midwest and looking at my own surroundings became a reference for the colors and textures of the Midwest as depicted in this story; I am very much inspired by local architecture and traces of ’50s advertising on old brick walls.

As a writer/illustrator, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically comics?

Michael: My first graphic novel was Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? I loved it, but because I can’t draw I never gave much thought to the idea of branching out into the form. Writing ours, I thought more cinematically about the story. It took Igor to make the page very real.

Brian: I grew up reading comic books and graphic novels and have always loved them. I even attended Comic Con in New York long before it became the phenomenon it is today. I always found in stories the opportunity to explore the lives of other characters. It is a gift to live vicariously through an invention.  

Igor: Well, in my country of origin, comic books and graphic novels were almost completely missing from the market. 

I only remember seeing a few primitive comic strips on the end pages of children’s magazines. Only upon my arrival to the U.S. did I learn of so many amazing graphic works by artists such as Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Shaun Tan, Brian Selznick, Dupont, and Nina Bunjevac. My first experiment in this format was writing and illustrating a grotesque political satire entitled Sir Drakon. This work was produced years before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but it was my attempt to warn of his regime. At that moment, my exploration of graphic narratives evolved into a passion. 

Brian Alessandro

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

Michael: I’m very old-fashioned. I loved the Peanuts, who were very real to me. But my favorite writers were Salinger, Irving, Capote, Stephen King. Later I added gay writers since it was obvious I wasn’t going straight. And Ann Beattie, Joy Williams, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Yates, VS Naipaul, and Muriel Spark.

Brian: In film, it’s Stanley Kubrick, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Chantal Ackerman, and David Lynch. In literature, it is Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, William S. Burroughs, and James Baldwin. In theater, it is Edward Albee and Tony Kushner. And in visual art, it is Francis Bacon, Gustav Klimt, Lee Bontecou, and Jim Lee.

Igor: The heart of the city of Baku is a walled city called Icheri Sheher. My experiences of this ‘city within a city’ in the ’70s remain a large inspiration for my work. Back then, I couldn’t imagine myself ever leaving that place. Currently, I am surrounded by the urban landscape of old St. Louis, and I find inspiration from this city as well.

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

Michael: I love writing non sequitur (see Joy Williams). I find transitions difficult so largely I just double-space and ignore them. Illustrated panels are a marvelous form or element to play with.

Brian: My favorite elements are also the ones I find most frustrating. It’s a fulfilling frustration, though. Working out a character’s development, structuring a story, dissecting themes, and developing a style. It’s all hard work, but also very rewarding.

Igor: Process is everything to me: my favorite part of illustrating is making a deep dive into the story to find the theme. Then, it can be difficult to stay focused and find a path through an endless sea of research and visual references. Sometimes starting this process can be scary, but after many attempts, it has grown easier.  

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

Michael: My life isn’t about writing. It’s about becoming the adult I wanted to be and was afraid to be as a teenager dealing with the advent of AIDS. If reading and writing aren’t pleasurable, the way the pursuit of romance and sex are, then I want nothing to do with it. Life is too short.

Brian: I also hold an advanced degree in clinical psychology from Columbia University and have taught at the high school and college levels for over a decade.

Igor: Aside from illustration there’s very little of me. I guess I am an alright husband, father, and now grandfather.

I am a huge Beatles fan, from my days in art school playing prohibited rock songs with my friends in the underground (physically). Now, I sit in my basement studio and perform some of these songs when having bits of free time.

Igor Karash

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)?

Michael: What’s the relationship between my writing and my personal desires and disappointments? It’s complete. Even when I’m not working autobiographically, I’m thinking that way: my growing up wasn’t that different from Edmund White’s.

Brian: About this project? It’s what inspired me to incorporate so many other elements of Edmund White’s life and work into this adaptation. I wanted to make the project my own. Doing a straightforward transcription of someone else’s work would not have been satisfying, so I had to put my own twist on it. I also wanted to give Ed’s fans something unexpected and more substantial to chew on and explore the themes that have plagued and blessed gay men over the past century. About me, it would be: what is my general worldview? I find the human condition bittersweet, though maybe a bit more bitter than sweet. 

Igor: I haven’t been asked: What is the relationship between your personal style and the stories you create or illustrate? 

I don’t have a strong signature style, or maybe I was unable to develop one. I would say I wasn’t too focused on creating one. It’s a big question of one’s philosophy, ethics, and marketing. Personally, I believe the most important part of illustration, as a profession, is to find the right visual ‘key’ of a story. This ‘key’ leads me to develop a unique visual language for each project. So, on the marketing front, I sometimes suffer, but in the end, I am pleased with my work when I solve visual problems.

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers/illustrators?

Michael: Work pleasurably and don’t try to destroy others in your quest.  Work steadily but don’t be in a hurry.  You’ll never become a less good writer unless you lose your way creatively.  You’ll be better in ten or twenty years.  I published my first book when I was 49.  I’m glad.

Brian: Be patient and stay open to constructive criticism. It takes a while to get to where you need to be, and you don’t do it alone. 

Igor: Visual ideas do not come out of your mind fully formed as beautiful and complete visions. Great visuals only follow after you draw, practice, and improvise to develop meaningful work over time. So, draw, draw, draw.

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

Michael: Zero. I’m working on being a housewife who goes to the gym and collects underwear.

Brian: My second novel, Performer Non Grata, will be released in April 2023 by Rebel Satori Press. It is about how fragile egos can wreak havoc when not coddled.

Igor: I have a few ongoing projects: One is a large graphic novel about the siege of Leningrad (how horribly ironic it is to be making a book about a tragedy of that scale while at this moment Russia is bombing the Ukrainian power grid as winter approaches). Another war-themed project is a series of illustrations for the dark satire Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. 

This will be an illustrated edition of the novel and not a graphic novel, but maybe one day? Also, the decline of Russia into fascism has been driving a self-initiated series of satirical graphics. However, the horrific loss of human life in Ukraine has made it more difficult to keep this series going.

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

Michael: Dancer From the Dance by Andrew Holleran (and everything else by him).  Anything by a gay writer. Support them. One thing I need to do is branch out and read more work by trans and other queer authors.

Brian: Edmund White, naturally. Edward Albee. Severo Sarduy. Herve Guibert. Jean Genet. Tony Kushner. Tennessee Williams. Edouard Louis. Andrew Holleran. James Baldwin. David Santos Donaldson. Brian Broome. There are too many to list! 

Igor: To my knowledge, Edmund White, Michael Carroll, and Brian Alessandro are the best! I would also add Alison Bechdel as a great visual storyteller. To be honest, I am not as familiar with the works of LGBTQ+ creators as I could be. So, I am always open to seeing and reading more!

Interview with Author Mike Albo

Mike Albo (he/him/his) is the author of the novels Hornito and The Underminer: The Best Friend Who Casually Destroys Your Life (co-written with Virginia Heffernan), as well as the novella, The Junket, and memoir, Spermhood: Diary of a Donor. His articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, New Yorker, Town and Country, and many others. He also performs.

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

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

I’m a writer and performer living in Brooklyn. I was obsessed with poetry when I was a young adult and wrote a lot of it in spiral-bound notebooks. I went to college and then grad school with the idea that poetry was going to remain my field, but I began to grow confident in expressing myself in prose as well as on stage as a comedian and monologuist. 25 plus years later, here I am writing a YA novel about teenagers obsessed with poetry. 

What can you tell us about your upcoming novel, Another Dimension of Us? What inspired this story?

ADOU is about a group of queer 15-year-olds who live in the past and future (1986 and 2044) who find a mysterious book about astral projection. When a demon possesses the ones they love, the characters must team together and travel to the astral plane to save them. 

My initial inspiration came from a book I have had on my shelf for a long time: The Art and Practice of Astral Projection by Ophiel. I thought about what would happen if the someone truly became a practitioner. It had me thinking about the power of books in general, how all books are really portals, especially poetry, which I believe has powers to conjure and connect the reader with the poet across time.

When the pandemic hit, I began thinking about the last time I was terrified of a virus — growing up gay in the 80s — and how teenagers now must be grappling with similar feelings: fear, anger, hopelessness for the future but, still, despite it all, this unbreakable will to live and love who they want to love. I began thinking about how kids from different times could meet and share their experiences. 

What inspired you to get into writing, particularly speculative and young adult fiction? Were there any favorite writers or stories that sparked your own love and interest in storytelling?

It’s funny — I was about to say that this is my first speculative fiction work, but as a comedian and theater maker I have written and performed dozens of sketches and scenes as well as two science fiction-ish plays in which characters live in extreme, twisted, satirical versions of our so-called “real” life. 

This is my first young adult project. It’s been so liberating to create these characters I care so deeply about. Something broke free inside me while writing of this — it may have been that a young adult book released me from any literary pretensions I had (“maybe I’ll win a Pulitzer!” All writers have these accolade fantasies, they are so embarrassing!) and I could get out of my own way and just tell a story. 

Fantastical, satirical and speculative fiction have always inspired me. The classics I read in school: Johnathan Swifts Gulliver’s Travels, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984 were very important. 

But along with this, there is always, always poetry. When I was a teenager I enjoyed EE Cummings for his playfulness with words, but that was just the beginning. I remember being 15 in the bathtub reading (and often trying hard to understand) Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell. My lifetime love of poetry is boundless — from Lucille Clifton to Gerard Manley Hopkins, WS Merwin to Cathy Park Hong.

How would you describe your writing process? 

I do a LOT of walking and thinking. I need tons of time alone before I can even conceive. Once I (finally) get something down on paper, I will usually type it into the computer, and then print it out and take THAT draft and do a lot of walking and thinking with it in hand. This process is repeated over and over – walking, writing, typing out, printing – and the pages begin to add up.

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

My favorite element of writing is doing it in the world – on the street, in a restaurant, on the subway. If I can keep my channels open, usually the outside world brings me the image or bit of dialogue or the idea. 

The most challenging aspect of writing is one that I still need to keep in mind: just write it out — the only way through a sentence or subject or story is by moving through it. It will only work out when you get it down on paper. 

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

What were you put on this earth to do?

I think I am here on the earthly plane to communicate (I am a Gemini, Gemini Rising, Leo Moon) — I think it’s my purpose to connect with other people, support other people’s creativity, and inspire everyone to express themselves. I believe everyone has the power — and the right — to creatively express themselves. 

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

I have been working as a writer for 30 years. Play the long game. No matter what you may have to do to earn a living, always keep working on that big, solid, monumental project that means something to you. It’s not easy, but remember – everything you write — whether it is a little 40-dollar blog post about beauty products to a celebrity profile — is all training and material for your big projects. 

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

I’m a comedian and performer!  I love to swim!  I love Latin pop music!

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

I have another novel that I finished before ADOU that I have been working on for 15+ years called Touch Anywhere to Begin. It is speculative fiction centered on two characters: a young woman looking for love in a very twisted, perversely commercial meta verse, and her mother, a struggling writer living in Brooklyn who discovers she may be the first person able to create virtual life. It’s out to editors now and I am looking for the one editor and publisher daring enough to take it on because it’s VERY bonkers.

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

Loves Next Meeting: The Forgotten History of Homosexuality and the Left in American Culture

by Aaron S Lecklider

Faux Queen – a Life in Drag 

by Monique Jenkinson

Feral City: On Finding Liberation in Lockdown New York

By Jeremiah Moss

Header Photo Credit Ali Levin Photography

Interview with Author Maya Deane

Maya Deane first retold the Iliad at the age of six. Athena was the protagonist; all six pages were typed up on a Commodore 64; there were many spelling errors. (She has only doubled down since then.) A graduate of the University of Maryland and the Rutgers-Camden MFA, Maya lives with her fiancée of many years, their dear friend, and two cats named after gods. She is a trans woman, bisexual, and fond of spears, books, and jewelry. Aphrodite smiles upon her.

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

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

Sure! I’m a novelist and a visual artist with a lifelong obsession with history (especially ancient history) and mythology, particularly mythology in its historical, changing context.

What can you tell us about your book, Wrath Goddess Sing? What inspired this story?

Wrath Goddess Sing is the story of the young trans princess Achilles, who has run away from her home in Phthia to live as a woman on the island of Skyros, where she has found trans community and love. But the patriarchal world of the mainland follows her to Skyros, for she is the daughter of a goddess, and as the Achaians mount a war to take back their stolen queen Helen, Athena, the Silent One prophesies that only with Achilles’ spear can Helen be recaptured. Unwilling to fight as a man, Achilles prepares to die, but Athena offers her another path. 

While other authors have reimaged the myth of Achilles in queer context, in particular The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, your version of Achilles is a trans woman. May I ask where that idea came from?

One long-standing episode/variation in the myth of Achilles is her sojourn on the island of Skyros, a common theme in art from pre-Classical times to the 18th century. On Skyros, Achilles lived as a woman named Pyrrha for years, and even had a relationship with another woman, the princess Deidamia. Some versions of this story have framed it in horrifically transmisogynist terms, like the Roman writer Statius who wrote Achilles as a cross-dressing rapist who invaded women’s spaces to sexually assault them, so in Wrath Goddess Sing, I offer a rebuttal: what if Achilles lived as a woman because she was a woman?

What draws you to Greek mythology, and what are some of your favorite stories/ deities?

I’m particularly drawn to the way Greek mythology tries to make sense of the catastrophic collapse of the Bronze Age world. Much of Greek myth was created during a literal post-apocalypse by the impoverished survivors of the wreck of a rich, sophisticated, multicultural world, and from Homer and Hesiod on we see a grappling with the fallout of the end of the Bronze Age. I’m fascinated by the stories of the Argonauts, which seem to preserve memories of Mycenaean Greek nautical expeditions, and by Athena, whose myths often put a veneer of order over terrifying chaos and horror. And also by Aphrodite Ouraneia, the older version of Aphrodite born from the castration of Kronos, who seems to be a trans-coded sky goddess in the tradition of Inanna and Ishtar before slowly being tamed into Zeus’s daughter Aphrodite Pandemos by the Archaic period.

What inspired you to get into writing, particularly speculative fiction? Were there any writers or stories that sparked your own love and interest in storytelling?

I grew up thinking writers were the most incredible magicians, and Tanith Lee’s books saved my life more than once as a child. Wrath Goddess Sing, like all my books, is a story I’ve always needed, a story that would have made a difference if I encountered it younger, a gift I can offer to others as Tanith Lee and others offered their gifts to me. 

How would you describe your writing routine?

Controlled chaos. Rigid order. Marathon writing sessions. Enormous planning. Sudden change. 

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

I love lyricism, point of view, and bringing worlds to life by finding those details that magically combine with other details to summon up a whole vanished time and place. Most challenging is probably the enormous amount of research that it takes to get things right. 

What advice would you have for aspiring writers? Any specific advice for other queer writers?

Find mentors who know what you’re actually trying to do and have done similar things themselves. You need someone to tell you how the game is played, how to navigate it, how to manage your expectations, what to do, how to thrive. And then practice, and be patient, and write something wonderful.

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

I’m working on a story set in late Bronze Age Egypt at the height of the 18th dynasty colonial empire. The main character is a captive from the provinces of Kna’an trying to get home to her beloved father and brother, and trying to wreak horrible vengeance on the treacherous sister she used to idolize. It’s sort of a retelling of the myth of Joseph in Egypt, but it’s also a meditation on empire, power, time, and love. 

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

In no particular order, Jeanne Thornton’s Summer Fun, Alison Rumfitt’s Tell Me I’m Worthless, Gretchen Felker-Martin’s Manhunt, Ryka Aoki’s Light From Uncommon Stars, Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became The Sun, and Vaishnavi Patel’s Kaikeyi