JULIA LYNN RUBIN received her MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from The New School in 2017. A lover of film, psychology, and literature, Julia has been writing creatively since first grade, and her short stories have appeared in publications such as the North American Review. She currently lives in Brooklyn, where she is currently freelancing while working on her next book. Julia is the author of Burro Hills and Trouble Girls. I had the pleasure of interviewing Julia, which you can read below.
First of all, congrats on the release of Trouble Girls! In your own words can you tell us what it’s about?
Thank you so much! Trouble Girls is a queer, Sapphic reimagining of Thelma & Louise, following the story of two best friends sick of their Rust Belt town who set out to go on a weekend camping trip together, but that gets derailed by a night of violence at a local bar. The girls make a run for it and become the face of a #MeToo movement they never asked to lead as their journey across the country grows darker and more dangerous. It’s a love story, but also one of teen girl rage, resilience, and hope.
What drew you to writing, particularly queer young adult fiction?
I’ve always loved writing and anything creative! I was a voracious reader as a kid and always wanted to write my own “books” (in spiral notebooks, mostly, and some even had mocked up copyright pages!). I wrote all of the time: poems, short stories, half-finished novels. I got into writing young adult in particular through reading authors like Laurie Halse Anderson and being inspired by the voice-driven narratives. I also write general short stories and “adult” fiction, but they tend to be about younger people and often teens, so it was a natural fit. When I applied to my MFA program for Fiction, I was actually asked to be in the Writing for Children program because they thought my voice and style suited it, so I agreed!
Trouble Girls is said to be inspired by the film, Thelma and Louise, set in modern day #MeToo era. What draws you about this film, and what inspired you to make an adaption of it?
I’ve always been a huge movie fan, and when I was in high school, I’d rent at least one to watch at Blockbuster every week or every other week. Thelma & Louise was one movie I adored. It was dark and harrowing but also full of adventure and light. It championed female friendship, and was groundbreaking for its time in being one of the first “girl buddy” road movies and also one of the first to directly address the issues of sexual assault and rape.
The movie has Sapphic undertones and subtext that many people have read into it. I also love Bonnie & Clyde, and the idea of two people in love on the run. I thought it would be a really concept to piece together and adapt to YA, telling the story from the perspective of a queer teen girl while giving it my own spin, of course.
In addition to queerness, you also explore themes relating to class and mental health and how it affects the characters’ lives. Could you expand on this?
My first book, Burro Hills, is about working class kids in California. I wanted to write another story about working class teens, as I think there needs to be more of those stories in YA fiction. Trixie and Lux, my main girls, have enormous privilege due to being white, but they come from broken families, and Trixie’s mother has early Alzheimer’s dementia and she is her primary caregiver, so they don’t necessarily think of themselves that way. I wanted to show the nuances of life for queer working-class girls, and how in some ways, they are blind to their privilege as it keeps them alive on the run for quite some time. I also wanted to depict a segment of American teenage life that isn’t wealthy or middle-class. Mental health ties into everything. It affects Trixie greatly, and Lux to a degree as well. The trauma they experience from the incident at the dive bar stays with them, and leads them into a brief fantasy period in which they indulge in things they know they can’t afford, a way to escape from the horrors of what they did and what happened to them.
As a fellow student of the New School MFA Program, I’m curious about your experiences in the program. Could you describe it and some of your favorite parts of the program? Would you say it helped you grow as a writer?
I absolutely loved the program! I met some of my best friends in it who I’m still very close with to this day; many of them came to my book release party and launch. I especially enjoyed workshops and reading each other’s work and cheering everyone on; it was so fun to watch us all evolve as writers and see where each other’s stories went next (and possibly have some say in that). I also loved David Levithan and Coe Booth’s class on YA fiction, which was amazing and immersive. I won the MFA Chapbook award in my concentration in my graduating year, and that was so special. I felt so supported by everyone and it was great to be among fellow writers.
What advice would you to other queer writers, especially those trying to finish their projects?
Never give up. Your stories matter, and they need to be told and heard. They need to be shared, and they deserve to. If you can, find a writer’s group that can hold you accountable, whether it’s friends online, a workshop class, it doesn’t matter. Read widely, and read outside of the genre you want to write in. Read classic queer literature and new queer literature. Promote other writers and authors, and get involved in the community. That’s a great way to make friends and find writing buddies. Above all, know that this is a long game. Keep at it, no matter how many rejections you receive. Treat each one like a badge of honor. Persevering through rejections will often lead you to great success.
What LGBTQIA+ book/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
Oh wow, this is the hardest question I’ve had to answer, as I love so many!! Here’s a shortlist:
Jay Coles is a graduate of Vincennes University and Ball State University. When he’s not writing diverse books, he’s advocating for them, teaching middle school students, and composing for various music publishers. His debut novel Tyler Johnson Was Here is based on true events in his life and inspired by police brutality in America. He resides in Indianapolis, Indiana, and invites you to visit his website at jaycoleswrites.com.
First of all, congratulations on your upcoming book, Things We Couldn’t Say! How did you find yourself coming to write this story?
Thank you, thank you. Gio’s story came to me quite easily during the period of time I was stuck in my house in quarantine this past year. I knew that once Gio first popped into my thoughts, that his story was one about love, parental abandonment, forgiveness, second chances, and all the ways that family can hurt each other. Gio’s story is one that I can really empathize with because a lot of Gio is actually, well, me.
What drew you to writing when you first started? What keeps you motivated to keep writing despite the challenges?
I’ve always been a writer. Before I wrote books, I wrote instrumental/symphonic music. The idea of telling a story (whether it’s through words or music notes) is the joy of my heart. Also, I love the idea of starting a task and completing it. There’s no greater feeling, in my opinion, than finishing a draft of a book. I feel like that’s an easy motivation for me to finish writing, but to start? That’s a whole other thing.
Your book explores an interracial relationship between the two characters, Gio and David, who come from very different places mentally? What were the hopes in writing a relationship like this?
I wanted to show just how two VERY different people can come together and love each other well, to reveal layers of each other they didn’t know they had, and to show how even people who feel like love aren’t meant for them or in the cards they’ve been dealt are worthy of love, of any kind, if they want it. Also the trope of unlikely romantic love interests will forever have my heart. Wait. Is that even a real trope?
Part of the book’s beauty in navigating family, navigating the pain caused by those you love as well as the joy in found family? Was this always something you wanted to explore?
I looooove talking about found family and how family can be those we are born into or those we walk into later in life. Long story short, family can be complicated. Family are the people who know us the most and who are supposed to love us the most, but they can also be the ones who hurt us the worst and cut deep wounds into us that last years and years and years. I feel like this is super underexplored in YA, so I’m very glad to continue that conversation through Things We Couldn’t Say.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were asked?
I wish people asked me about the playlists in the book. Now, I know, I know. The book isn’t out just yet, but I’m hoping people ask me about the music in the book.
Besides being a talented author, what are some things you would want readers to know about you personally?
I’m a professional musician! I play drums!
What advice would you give to other writers on their own writing journeys, especially QPOC writers?
I hate when people give advice to write every single day; that’s SO unrealistic. The only thing I’ll say to young writers is to enjoy the journey – enjoy the initial drafting stage, the editing, the querying, the eventual publication, etc. We are all somewhere along in the journey of life together, let’s enjoy the little moments, even the ones that feel incredibly hard to enjoy.
Are there any other projects or story ideas you are currently nursing and could tell us about?
I am working on SEVERAL projects, but sadly none I can talk about just yet. But stay tuned!!
Crystal Frasier is a girl from small-town Florida who now has twenty years’ experience writing for comics, fiction, and games. She has contributed to major brands like Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons, as well as small-press projects and anthologies, but she got her start self-publishing transgender-focused webcomics. Today Crystal is the proud mama of two energetic corgis, Calamity and Adamant.
Val Wise is a cartoonist originally from Clearwater Beach, Florida. He’s contributed to a handful of anthologies, including Dates! and Wayward Kindred, as well as projects like Rolled & Told. He currently lives in the Southern U.S. with his husband, two best friends, and two talkative cats named Biscotti and Ciabatta.
I had the opportunity to interview both Crystal and Val, which you can read below.
CF: Cheer Up! is a sweet, sometimes dramatic, sometimes sarcastic look at being a queer kid in high school, using the friendship and drama of a cheerleading squad as the template. It looks at how we grow and become better people because of the friendships we form, and also there are girls falling in love and smooching.
What was the inspiration for Cheer Up? Were there any stories or media you drew upon for inspiration while creating it?
CF: The book actually started as a random thought one day on a very long escalator ride, about trans youth winning more acceptance and recognition, and how nice it could be to just have small, happy stories about trans kids making friends and falling in love. A friend had mentioned the comic Check Please earlier that day and even thought I hadn’t gotten to read it, I thought the idea of gay romance set against such a strongly male-coded activity like hockey was wonderful and thought that the same thing for girls would be something like cheerleading, and that spun together into what if there was a sweet story about two girls on their school’s cheerleading squad, falling in love?
A lot of the details didn’t develop until I teamed up with Val. We realized we grew up within a few miles of each other on the gulf coast of Florida, and it’s an area with a distinctive feel and culture, so we decided to set the book there. That fleshed out a lot of the side-character personalities by drawing on people I knew (including some of my friends from high school who were on the cheer squad) and places we visited. It all made the story feel a lot more real and easier to write.
How did you both get into comics?
CF: I started young. When my mother was teaching me to read, she noticed I struggled less with the newspaper comics than I did with my young reader books. So she started buying me comics at the grocery store to practice with. Neither of us knew it at the time, but I was dyslexic, and having the text in all capital letters, in clearly divided subsections, made reading a lot easier. That grew pretty quickly into a lifelong love of combining art and literature.
VW: Art runs on my dad’s side of the family – my dad especially is a big comic book fan. I grew up reading Tales from the Crypt (his influence) as well as a LOT of shoujo manga (Tokyo Mew Mew, Pita-Ten, Sugar Sugar Rune, etc.). I used to lay on the floor drawing comics on printer paper when I was in elementary school. I didn’t consider comics as a career path until I was a senior in high school, but I’ve been drawing comics for pretty much my whole life!
What are some things about the industry that surprised you upon entering it? What things do you wish you had known when you first started?
CF: When you see the slick, final product, it’s easy to imagine everyone i the comics industry is very professional, has a clear plan, and knows exactly what they’re doing at all times. That is not generally the case. Comics—the whole publishing sector—is kind of a chaotic sprawl behind-the-scenes and can be pretty confusing to navigate. So much of success and getting work relies on who you know. Cheer Up only came to be because I know Jay Edidin and Amy Chu and they both knew my earlier writing work and believed in me and talked me up to Oni. So I suppose I really wish I’d known to start attending comic conventions and networking with editors and writers sooner.
VW: It wasn’t a surprise necessarily, but I didn’t fully grasp how many different roles + jobs you have to juggle when you’re working as a freelancer — and this includes day jobs! Though I’m VERY lucky to be a full time freelancer now, I worked food service + barista jobs while I was working on Cheer Up!. There’s no shame in needing a day job to pay the bills, but it can be draining to have very limited free time. The most helpful thing for me in this regard was finding ways to simplify my art style to make drawing quicker and easier – especially simplifying the things I liked to draw the least!
Right now, the Young Adult publishing and comics industry seems to be experiencing a wave of queer sports narratives, including Fence, Check Please!, and more. What are your thoughts on this shift and what do you think is so gay about sports narratives?
CF: I’m all for it. I’m in favor of more gay stories in every genre. Heck, I have a gay noir mystery series I’m currently shopping around. But I think it works well with sports because these tend to be gendered spaces to begin with; for a straight romance, one party by necessity has to be an outsider to that unit, but with a gay romance you can keep the story contained within group you’ve already developed. And sports stories are already about people perfecting themselves, pushing their limits, developing close connections to others; it’s a natural progression for these to all build to romance. Sports are gay.
VW: There’s a stereotype, I think, that gay people don’t like sports (as a lifelong baseball fan I’m bravely breaking this mold, haha). But even in straight/assumed straight sports stories, there’s so much love between the members of the team. I think these narratives have often served a “safe” way for straight people to find intimatcy with people of the same gender — it only makes sense that queer writers would take that a step further.
In the increasing field of trans representation in media, there still seems to be a lack of depictions of trans people who aren’t straight? Was Bebe created intentionally with this in mind?
CF: One of the big goals of my adult life has been adding more and better trans representation to any medium I can get my hands on. Bebe’s sexuality—and I’m not sure she really knows what it is yet except Annie-sexual—wasn’t really made as a queer political statement about trans narratives so much as it was to add some trans representation to the girl/girl romance genre.
For those curious about the process behind a graphic novel, how would you describe the process? What goes into creating a script and collaborating with an artist to translate that into panels?
CF: A graphic novel starts out as a pitch—a few paragraphs to a few pages talking about the book, it’s target audience, its characters, and the rough trajectory of its story. This is sometimes paired with character sketches from the artist (although Cheer Up was pitched without an artist attached; Oni hooked Val and I up after approving the project).
Either during or after the pitch process, the writer and artist work together to design the major characters of the story and flesh out some more specific twists and turns for the story to take. This is the stage where we established that Annie was a little metalhead and that the Anole existed, that Annie’s mom was basically the coolest mom in the world, that Annie and Katrina had a history and Annie would show growth by apologizing for it, and we could show Bebe learning assertiveness by having her stand up to her loving but overbearing parents. You take these character concepts and the big set piece moments you know you want and start building an outline that connects those moments together; basically a list of bullet points.
Once you’ve got your characters and your big moments and your outline, you start writing. I think the first draft of Cheer Up took me two months, with revisions and suggestions along the way from our editors to help spot story problems or find small improvements.
Once you have a rough script, the artist can go to work while the writer starts trying to get the dialogue just right. The artist usually starts with thumbnails; tiny sketches of each page just to block in the panel layouts and the character placement. Then they start actually drawing pages, starting with sketches or “pencils” that are rough but a little tighter than the thumbnails. This is the stage where you make the most artistic changes, tweaking who might be in a scene or the expressions or the action. After that, the artist starts inking the final lines, and then the colorist comes in to give everything some life.
Usually while the art is happening, the writer and editor are tinkering with the script as well, not changing any of the action but toying with the dialogue to get the final “lettering script.” This lettering script gets handed off to the letterer who adds all the word balloons, text, sound effects, signs—anything involving letters.
Once you have the text and the colored pages, everything comes together into what’s called “proofs,” your final proof of concept that shows what the book will be when it’s done. Those proofs go to several editors, the artist, and the writer who all read over them and search for any errors—typos, word balloons pointing at the wrong character, coloring errors, unintentional racism or sexism—and fix it before the book is finally approved and sent to a printer to be printed, packaged up, and sent out to stores.
VW: While Crystal was writing the script, I worked on concept art for the characters and environments. This made it a lot easier once I got to the thumbnail stage, because I already had a good idea of what pretty much every location would look like. For Cheer Up!, I did the thumbnails all at once, then the pencils, then inks, etc. I prefer to work this way, because it kind of feels like building a house. The thumbnails are the blueprints, so I like having them done all at once, so I always know exactly what I’m working towards once I start drawing the comic itself.
On my end, the script is already broken down into individual pages and panels. Crystal’s pacing was already so spot on with the script, that it honestly made my job pretty easy! It was very easy to have a visual for what the final page would look like, just from looking at the words on a page.
As queer creators, did you ever draw upon your own experiences and insights when creating your work?
CF: All the time. My life when I first came out was… fast-paced, and if nothing else it gave me a very rich collection of experiences I can draw on to tell stories. A lot of Bebe’s awkwardness and not wanting to start drama is lifted entirely from my own people-pleasing nature in high school, and a lot of Annie’s bravado is from the mask I wore later once I gained just enough confidence to fake having a lot of confidence.
VW: Of course! I think this is especially apparent for me in Edie’s fashion choices – I pulled a lot from my own experiences of exploring my gender through clothing in high school, as well as when I first started transitioning as an adult.
What is your favorite thing about making comics? What if your favorite thing about fandom, especially queer fandom?
CF: I love how well art and words play together to tell a living story that’s different from either. It really plays with how good the human imagination is at filling in details—like when you read a novel—but also stimulating the visual side of your brain the way television, film, or other visual arts do.
And queer fandom is its own beautiful beast. I still remember being run out of Sailor Moon fan forums in the ‘90s because at the time I strongly identified with Sailor Jupiter and read her as a trans girl like me—in the ‘90s there was no mainstream queer representation, and little queer kids had to read between the lines to find anything that reflected us—and even though I wasn’t arguing that as canonical fact, even the suggestions that Makoto could be trans was read as insulting and disrespectful. The refrain you heard over and over again in fandom spaces toward any queer reading of the text was “if you don’t like it, go make your own,” ignoring the fact that obviously we liked it or else we wouldn’t be in those fan groups to begin with.
Regardless, queer fans grew up and started making out own stories both out of love but also, I think, from a heavy dose of spite. Now you have comics like Check Please, Young Avengers, Avant-Gardes, Backstagers, Mooncakes, Nimona—just a slew of amazing queer stories in addition to queer updates of classic properties like Supergirl and She-Ra. Queer fandom is the next generation of queer creators.
VW: The creation process of making comics is my favorite part (especially inking), but there is something really special about holding something complete that you made in your hands. I love the passion in queer fandom, since there’s so little media made specifically for us. I think queer readers pick up on a lot of things that other readers don’t, and it makes creating a queer comic feel like a much more personal and intimate experience.
Can you give us any trivia about the main characters of Cheer Up!?
CF: I can tell you some things from their character sheets that never quite made it into the text of the comic:
Bebe is half-Cuban on her father’s side, but neither she nor her father speak much Spanish. When her grandparents emigrated to Florida, they were worried speaking Spanish would label their kids as outsiders and end up with them being made fun of in school, so they refused to teach bebe’s father or his sisters any Spanish. Bebe worries it makes her “not really Cuban,” so she doubles down on trying to master Cuban cooking—while her dad wont admit it out loud, she’s already a better cook than his mother was.
Annie loves manatees and once swam with them in the Hillsborough River.
For Annie, we had originally planned to plaster her stuff in stickers from her favorite fictional bands, and I even sketched up logos for all of them, but didn’t have time to design the stickers before things went to print. Her favorite bands include: the Dung Beatles, the Marthas, Sweet Rose Riot, Charon, Land-O-Goshens, Dead Donna Reed, and the Twits.
Jonah smells like garlic, one of his favorite foods.
Coach Dupont and Celeste (Annie’s mom) were best friends in high school and raised all kinds of hell in the ‘90s. They shared a very awkward first kiss that didn’t really go anywhere.
VW: I based the design for Annie’s bedroom on my own from childhood – down to the pink walls and Florida essential ceiling AND floor fans.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?
CF: “Were you a cheerleader?” And the answer is no, but with most other interviews about sports stories, I see the writers get asked if they had much experience with the sport involved, and I really hate the assumption that I couldn’t have been because I’m transgender. The real reason I couldn’t be a cheerleader is because I was goth.
VW: No one so far has asked about specific places from my + Crystal’s hometowns that I used as reference, but I kind of like leaving that a mystery for people from around Tampa Bay to figure out, haha.
What advice would you have for those aspiring to enter the comics industry, whether as writers or artists?
CF: Best advice ever is just to make friends and help each other practice. Brainstorm together, read each other’s work, edit each other’s work, get excited for each other. It makes you a better writer, it makes you a better editor, and it means that any contacts they make inevitably become contacts you make.
As with most things in life, the secret to success is “don’t be a dick.”
VW: Don’t undersell yourself! Art is often a very personal craft, and it’s easy to tie your worth as a person to your art, or your art to how you feel about yourself as a person. So hyping yourself up can feel a little awkward (especially with self-deprecating artist jokes being a constant). Yes, it’s important to know your weaknesses, but it’s even MORE important to be proud of your strengths! There’s no shame in loving your own art, or in advocating for yourself as an artist. If someone is reaching out to you for work, they want your work – don’t be afraid to ask for the rates and accommodations you need.
What queer books/comics would you commend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
CF: My perennial favorites are the Backstagers and Lumberjanes, but I also fell in love with Lila Sturges’ Girl Haven and can’t recommend that enough if you like fantasy, sapphic romance, or trans narratives.
VW: Right now I’m reading She Drives Me Crazyby Kelly Quindlan, and Ace of Spadesby Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé — and I would absolutely recommend both. As a fan of dark academia, I really think Ace of Spades cuts much deeper than other books that fit within this genre/aesthetic are prepared or willing to go.
Kalynn Bayron is the bestselling author of Cinderella is Dead and This Poison Heart. A classically trained vocalist, she grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. When she’s not writing you can find her listening to Ella Fitzgerald on loop, attending the theater, watching scary movies, and spending time with her kids. She currently lives in San Antonio, Texas with her family. I had the opportunity to interview Kalynn, which you can read below.
First of all, congratulations on your upcoming book, This Poison Heart. Could you tell us a little of what it’s about?
Thank you so much! I like to describe This Poison Heart as equal parts Little Shop of Horrors and The Secret Garden with a Greek mythology twist. It’s about 16-year-old Briseis Greene, a young woman born with a unique ability—she can grow plants from seed to full bloom in seconds. She’s struggling to keep this power in check when she finds out her aunt has recently passed away and left her a sizable estate just outside of Rhinebeck, NY. When she and her parents go up for the summer they realize that nothing is what it seems. The house comes with a specific set of instructions and a walled garden filled with the deadliest plants on the planet. Briseis begins to uncover her family’s complicated and deadly history while learning to lean into her own power.
Where did the inspiration for the book come from? Were there any music/media/ stories you were influenced by while writing this book?
Little Shop of Horrors and The Secret Garden were some of the biggest influences for this story. but I was also fascinated by the real-life poison plants in the Alnwick Garden in Northumberland. I wanted this story to have the feel of a gothic novel set against a contemporary backdrop. I love how atmospheric it is and that was heavily inspired by my love of gothic horror.
How did you find yourself becoming an author? Do you remember some of the notes of your own origin story? Did any writers or books inspire your writing journey?
I’ve always loved storytelling. The medium didn’t matter to me—music, tv, movies, theater, literature, I loved them all. I read everything I could get my hands on. One specific story was Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit. My teacher read it aloud when I was in the 3rd or 4th grade. I remember having such a strong reaction to it and being unable to get it out of my head. It was the same thing with musicals. I watched Annie, Wizard of Oz, and Little Shop of Horrors on loop from the time I was little. A neighbor introduced me to The Phantom of the Opera when I was ten and I became weirdly obsessed with the Phantom. I wanted to know why this man was living in the sewer and why everybody was so scared of him. So I guess you could say I’ve always been interested in the parts of popular stories that don’t get as much attention.
I wrote my first novel when I was 19 and it was awful, but it taught me that I could start and finish a manuscript which, as any writer will tell you, is half the battle. Storytelling has always played such an important role in my life—stories helped me cope when things felt overwhelming, they provided an escape. When I sat down to write Cinderella is Dead in 2016, I wanted to tell a story that might provide an escape for someone else.
Along the way the work of literary giants like Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston have inspired me to tell stories in the way that I want to tell them and to be unapologetic in my work. I return to their stories any time I need a reminder of what we are allowed to be on the page.
Besides being a writer, what are some small facts you would want your writers to know about you?
I’m a classically trained vocalist. I love musicals. I love Biscoff cookies and I really think they should sponsor me the way brands sponsor athletes.
How would you describe your writing process? What do you wish you had known when you first started writing?
I wish I’d understood that there are a lot of non-writing things that count towards the development of a story. All the time I spend thinking about the story, the characters, the setting, the world building—it all counts! In fact, I now recognize it as an integral part of my process. I need time to sit with my ideas for a while before I get them on the page.
For me it starts with an idea, or a collection of ideas. Once I have a good idea of the scope, I start a zero draft which is essentially just a few plot points in chronological order and some character work. As I’m doing this, I’m thinking about the story but it’s really just vibes at this point! No plot just vibes! Then, if I feel like a firm grasp on the story, I’ll work through a detailed synopsis and then a first draft. The synopsis acts as an outline for me and because things always change, I’ll write added scenes on index cards and lay them out and attach them to the outline. It’s usually not until I complete the first draft that I know my story and characters well enough to go back and really fill out the narrative. My process is always evolving and I’m always picking up new tricks and practices that work for me.
Your first book, Cinderella is Dead, is a Cinderella remix with some horror/dark fantasy elements. Why did you find yourself exploring/reconstructing this specific story and why do you think as writers and readers we keep getting drawn back to older fairytales when making new stories?
I have a lot of nostalgia associated with fairytales. I loved fairytales as a kid but it was painfully obvious that there was never anyone who looked like me in those stories. I wanted to do a Cinderella retelling that addressed the issue of feeling like I was an outsider looking in on this tale. I wanted to show the ways in which something as innocent as a children’s fairytale can be used as a tool of both empowerment and oppression depending on who’s penning the story.
I think we return to these stories again and again because there’s comfort in the familiarity of them but that doesn’t mean that they don’t need to be examined and critiqued, sometimes critically. As creators, especially those of us from historically excluded backgrounds, it’s important for us to be able to reclaim these tales on our own terms.
Which books or authors does Cinderella is Dead and The Poison Heart stand in conversation with?
I’d like to think Cinderella is Dead stands in conversation with the Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella and the Charles Perrault version. And I’d like to think This Poison Heart stands in conversation with The Secret Garden and contemporary fantasy in general. To be able to compare and contrast my work with the stories that inspired them is a great way to think about the ever-evolving process of storytelling. I’d also like to think of both This Poison Heart and Cinderella is Dead as being in community with books like Legendborn by Tracy Deonn and A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow because contemporary fantasy is such a perfect place to interrogate who has, and who has not, been allowed to take folktales, or fairytales, or specific myths or legends and reimagine them.
When you’re not writing, what do you enjoy doing or consuming in your free time?
I love musical theater and I’m really looking forward to being able to get back to live shows. I love music. I love scary movies. I’m looking forward to seeing the Candyman reboot! Other than that, I really enjoy spending time with my family. I’m very much a homebody.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were (and the answer to that question)?
That’s a tough one! Most people know I have a musical background, but nobody has asked me yet about my favorite opera. I get asked about my favorite musicals but never about opera! My favorite opera is Donizetti’s Lucia Di Lammermoor. Fun fact—there’s an aria in Act 3 of this opera that, even if you’ve never seen it, probably sounds familiar because it was in the movie The Fifth Element.
The Poison Heart features a Sapphic badness with a proclivity towards plants and poisons. Any relation to Poison Ivy? And on that note, how would you imagine any interactions between the two?
I love Poison Ivy! She’s a queer icon! I’m definitely inspired by her and I’ve heard that Poison Ivy was originally inspired by a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne called Rappaccini’s Daughter. It’s a story about a man who raises his daughter around a collection of poisonous plants and in doing so she becomes immune to their toxicity. The story has also been adapted into several operas. If the folks at DC Comics ever need someone to do a one-shot deal for anything Poison Ivy related, I would jump on it. I’m just sayin.
Poison Ivy is a morally gray character. She does villainous things and sometimes with not-so-villainous intentions. Bri is kind of the opposite of that but I can totally see Poison Ivy trying to recruit Bri for some nefarious purpose. I don’t think Bri would sign up, but I don’t think that would stop Poison Ivy from trying.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Try to have some fun with your writing, don’t be afraid to take risks, and take any sort of writing advice with a grain of salt—even mine.
Are there any projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?
The follow up to This Poison Heart comes out next year and so does my debut middle grade debut. The middle grade is called The Vanquishers and it’s the story of 12-year-old Malika “Boog” Wilson. It takes place in an alternative San Antonio where vampires were known to have existed but were wiped out during an event known as the Reaping by a group of masked vampire slayers called The Vanquishers. However, when Boog’s new classmate goes missing, the local community starts to think maybe a vampire is responsible. I like to describe it as Stranger Things meets Watchmen with a Buffy twist. I’m SO excited about it!
What books/authors would you recommend for the readers of Geeks OUT?
Tara Sim is a YA fantasy author who can typically be found wandering the wilds of the Bay Area, California. She is the author of the Timekeeper trilogy, which has been featured on Entertainment Weekly, Bustle, and various media outlets, and the Scavenge the Stars duology. When she’s not chasing cats or lurking in bookstores, she writes books about magic, murder, and explosives. I had the opportunity to interview Tara, which you can read below.
First of all, how did you get into writing? What drew you to the Young Adult genre specifically?
My dad loved telling people about how I would dictate poems and stories to him when I was 6. I dabbled in writing random stories (especially when I learned how to type) and I loved fantasy books, which eventually led to me writing my first novel at 15 (which was very long, and very bad). Some of those first fantasy books I loved were young adult, so I’ve always had a soft spot for those types of stories.
As a Young Adult writer, how would you describe your writing process? Would you describe yourself as a pantser, a plotter, etc…?
Solidly in-between. I like to plan out the big moments in a story, such as plot twists, and let the rest come to me while drafting. That way I have somewhat of a roadmap while discovering important landmarks on the way I wouldn’t have been able to see ahead of time.
According to the fact that both your series, The Timekeeper trilogy and the Scavenge the Stars duology, are speculative fiction, you seem to be a big fan of those mediums? What draws you to fantasy/science fiction?
I was basically raised on it, though unintentionally on my parents’ part. I think Disney movies had a part to play, as well as the discovery of certain fantasy books that were popular when I was younger. By the time I was in high school I was reading thick door stopper adult fantasy books, watching anime, and playing Final Fantasy video games. There’s just something about magic and different worlds that really compels me.
As a writer you have featured both LGBT/BIPOC characters in your books, creating a diverse, fantastic world? Would you say your own experiences as a queer author of Desi descent motivated this, and have you ever incorporated your own experiences into your stories?
Absolutely. I never found myself in books growing up, and I wanted to change that for readers like myself who feel left out. I like creating safe spaces in my work (even if my characters are undoing harrowing circumstances).
What are some of the challenges of writing historical fiction, fantasy or otherwise? What are some of the joys?
The research. I never thought I’d end up writing historical fantasy as my debut, and I’ll probably never do it again, but it was as fun as it was aggravating. I could play with an alternate timeline even as my editor forced me to become BFFs with etymology and realizing a phrase I wanted to use wasn’t invented yet.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked before or wish you were asked more often?
I wish I was asked more goofy questions! I love talking about my characters and how they’d react to weird situations.
What advice would you have to give to authors, especially those struggling to finish their first stories?
I would tell them that a first draft is supposed to be bad, and you can’t make it better until you finish it. That, and to not be afraid to write what you specifically love, not what you think others will love.
Are there any other projects or story ideas you are currently nursing and could tell us about?
My adult fantasy debut, THE CITY OF DUSK, comes out April 2022 from Orbit! I’ll also have more YA news on the horizon.
Finally, what are some LGBTQ+ stories you would recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
Mara Fitzgerald writes YA fantasy about unlikable female characters who ruin everything. She is a biologist by day and spends entirely too much time looking at insects under a microscope. She was born near Disney World and now lives near Graceland, which is almost as good. She is the author of the Beyond the Ruby Veil duology.
When did you realize you wanted to become a writer? At what point did you realize you actually were a writer?
I’ve always been a writer. For me, the transition from “writer” to “author” was the one that felt like more of a change. My books were no longer a series of words on my computer that I wrote to entertain myself—they were products. In many ways, this comes with a lot of pressure, because “products” have expectations and cold, hard sales numbers. In other ways, it’s been fascinating to know that my creative work is now out there for anyone to access and interpret. As a great supporter of fanfiction, one of the most striking moments for me was when I realized that I’m now on the other side of the fanfiction equation—that is, I’m the one making the thing that people might create fan work about.
In the realm of queer media and fiction, there’s often this unspoken pressure to present the LGBTQIA+ community within the best (i.e. moral) light, given the history of queer coding in villains and other cultural factors. What made you develop this obvious queer anti-hero, and how did she come to be?
I just think villains are neat.
In all seriousness, most of my favorite fictional characters are the ones who are causing the most problems in the story, because they’re the most interesting to me. I didn’t set out to write Emanuela as an anti-heroine. Rather, the process of writing was a discovery, as it often is with characters. Sometimes it feels like they live in your head, and it’s your job to get them out onto the page as honestly as you can. This is, of course, a lot easier said than done. For a long time, I resisted letting Emanuela’s arc get so dark and messy. Even though other queer authors have already paved the way with amazing literature that’s way more complex than mine, I do still feel that pressure to create characters who are “role models.” I felt like centering the story around a lesbian who was very obviously flawed meant that she had to learn and become not only better, but perfect, and I struggled a lot with trying to fit her into an arc she clearly didn’t belong in.
A big part of fiction for me is escapism, and there’s more than one way to escape. I have never had a reader say that they literally want to be Emanuela—and if I had, I would be very concerned—but there is something escapist about her. I do not endorse being rude to everyone in your life, behaving in increasingly unhinged ways, leaving a trail of destruction in your wake, and refusing to grow as a person. But sometimes…it’s fun to read about.
What are some of your favorite examples of queer anti-heroes, villains, and heroes?
Radu from the And I Darken series by Kiersten White (definitely a hero). Villanelle from Killing Eve (definitely not a hero). And everyone in Gideon the Ninth.
Beyond the Ruby Veil seems to be set in this glamorous, alternative deadly Italy. What comes first in your writing, the world-building or characters?
They usually arrive together. I tend to write worlds that are like ours, except for one wild, highly unlikely change that actually ends up being a lot of changes. When I start with a fantasy version of Earth where something is making the way people live drastically different, the rest of the world starts to fill itself in. The characters also fill themselves in, too, because I naturally find myself gravitating towards characters who would interact with that world in the most interesting way. For instance, Beyond the Ruby Veil is about a world where one immortal, irreplaceable woman who can make water is keeping the whole city alive. Because of how my morbid mind works, my next question is: what would happen if that woman died? What if somebody killed her—and what if I wrote a story about that killer?
Would you say there’s a difference between the anti-hero and villain? What are the similarities?
My general understanding is that with an anti-hero, you as the reader ultimately want them to win. You can love a villain as a character, but you still don’t want them to win. What makes this so fascinating to me is that the lines can get blurred. A character can start out as the unambiguous villain and ultimately end up as someone who’s still very much themselves, rough around the edges and all, but who we find ourselves rooting for. Alternatively, we can start out supporting a character, knowing that they’re messy, but then things start getting messier and messier and one day we realize…we don’t want this character to win anymore.
This was my goal with Emanuela. The first time she murders somebody (not a spoiler: it’s in Chapter 3), it’s certainly messy, but there’s something there to root for. As the story goes on, she makes it more and more challenging to support her. There’s a point in the book where Emanuela says that she doesn’t care if people like her or think she’s a good person—she just wants, in essence, to be perceived. That’s how I try to write all my characters, not just ones who are crossing the line into villainous. I try to just portray them as they are, whatever that may end up looking like.
Are there any other projects or ideas you are currently nursing and would be at liberty to say?
The sequel to Beyond the Ruby Veil, which is called Into the Midnight Void, will be out in January 2022. This is the conclusion to the duology, where we will find out exactly how Emanuela’s quest for power ends. Writing it was certainly an experience, so I hope reading it will be, too!
What’s an interview question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were?
“How would you adapt Beyond the Ruby Veil: The Musical?” I’m so glad you asked. First, and most importantly, there would be a splash zone for all the inevitable blood coming off the stage. The story itself would be a condensed version of the entire duology—somebody much smarter than me is doing the condensing, to be clear. A lot of musicals have a very clear Event happen at the end of Act 1, and then Act 2 begins in a different place, with a different mood, and without spoiling anything, I think the transition between book 1 and book 2 lends itself well to that. The beginning would have a little bit of evil Wizard of Oz vibes, and early Wicked vibes as Emanuela sings about what she wants and how ambitious she is, but as the audience, we get the sneaking feeling this isn’t going to turn out well for her. Anyways, I’m open to all thoughts on this. I just think there’s potential!
Finally, what are some LGBTQ+ books or authors you would recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers is an adult coming-of-age novel about a PhD student who accidentally marries another woman while in Vegas. Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender is a delightful YA contemporary about a transgender teen at a competitive arts school. And I just read an advanced copy of A Dark and Starless Forest by Sarah Hollowell, which is about a big queer family that lives in a spooky house in the spooky woods!
IOLANDA ZANFARDINO is a comic book artist, writer and cover artist currently working for Black Mask Studios, Image comics, Titan Comics, Marvel and several independent publishers. Her first Original Graphic novel “Midnight Radio” was published by Lion Forge comics. After a long arduous “I’ll do what I really love!” process, she finally works on queer (love) stories, and she’s so excited she still can’t even believe it. She likes rock musicals, street art, Pride parades, dystopian literature and brave heartwarming comedies.
ELISA ROMBOLI is a comic book artist and illustrator currently working for Black Mask Studios, Image comics, Titan Comics and various independent publishers, partnered briefly with Marvel and with Square Enix for promotional illustrations. Co-author of Helen Bristol published by Shockdom.
Since she was a child, her dream has always been to be a comics artist. The thing is: she didn’t know what she was getting into. Now she’s almost completely absorbed into drawing and has forgotten everything else. Cat owner full time.
I had the opportunity to interview Iolanda and Elisa on their current project, Alice in Leatherland, which you can read below.
To start off, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourselves?
Both: Hi Geeks OUT, and thank you for this great opportunity! We’re so honored to be on your website!
I: I’m Iolanda Zanfardino, a comic book artist, writer and cover artist currently working for Image comics, Black Mask Studios, Titan Comics and Marvel. After a long arduous “I’ll do what I really love!” process, I finally work on queer (love) stories, and I’m so excited I still can’t even believe it!
I like rock musicals, street art, Pride parades, dystopian literature and brave heartwarming comedies.
E: I’m Elisa Romboli, a comic book artist and illustrator currently working for Black Mask Studios, Image comics, Titan Comics and various independent publishers, co-author of Helen Bristol published by Shockdom.
Nostalgic video game lover, I have a strong passion for enamel pins and miniatures. I like robots and mechanical designs in general, I have an odd thing for triangle-shaped objects. Oh, and space!
How did the both of you get into comics? What drew you to the medium?
I: Telling stories has always been like a physical need I’ve perceived in my life, even when I was following a different career path. At a particular moment, I took the decision to quit everything else to pursue my dream to become a comic book creator. It was a tough journey (where I found myself being so behind people my age) but I’m happy for real now. If I could turn back time I’d do it again.
E: I’d say it was because of anime series airing on tv when I was a child. I used to watch a lot of those and I really enjoyed drawing those characters on paper, giving it my own direction. I loved to tell fighting stories, with monsters and robots. I used to make a ton of little stapled books with crazy things in there, without any kind of focus. Sadly, I’ve never been able to create stories that made sense, but this didn’t stop me from drawing.
What are your favorite parts of making comics? What are the trickiest and or hardest?
I: As a writer, my favorite part is the very first one of the creation itself: those vivid and sudden images that appear in your mind and you have to write them down before they become a huge avalanche inside you.
The hardest part is to let the characters free to come to life on the scripts while not losing sight of the direction and the meaning of the scene itself (and of the limited number of the pages!)
E: My favorite part in making comics is finally drawing that specific scene that gave birth to the whole project. There’s always that scene, that small frame that gets stuck in your head until you don’t start unfolding the rest of the story.
The hardest? Imagining a full environment from scratch, like a whole new world. Some might find it entertaining, but it’s not my cup of tea; it’s tricky, you have to remember lots of stuff and I’m quite a forgetful person.
Could you tell us a bit about your current project, Alice in Leatherland? Where did the inspiration for that story come from?
Both: From the very first moment we found ourselves working at home side by side, we dreamed of being able to do it together as a team on something of our own. We chose a rom-com because it’s the kind of movie we most love to watch together after a hard day.
Plus, many of the events of “AiL” are inspired by real life events, that’s too bad we can’t say what they are!
A large part of the book involves discussing sex positivity and exploring one’s sexuality, one’s comfort and limits with it. How did you approach your characters exploring that in ways that were organic to their character arcs?
Both: We tried to create a juxtaposition between Alice and Robin, the two main characters. Robin is very open to new sexual experiences and she’s thrilled with the queer scene in San Francisco, but she also made up for herself strict rules against serious relationships that are not getting along with what she actually feels for Alice.
In the meantime, Alice is trying to set aside her “true fairy-tale love search” for a while in order to explore her sexuality (and to mend her broken heart). At first, she finds herself completely out of her comfort zone, but despite this she will learn to love and know better herself.
The meaning of the research of the firefly’s light in Alice’s own fairy tale is that true love cannot be forced and doesn’t depend, for example, on a partner’s mathematically calculable qualities. It’s something you find yourself in all of a sudden, without apparently any rational reason, and when it’s too late for you to get yourself out of it.
And this beautiful thing is what happens to Alice, while she’s freely exploring her sexuality and her relationship with her body!
Often when thinks of erotica, they think just that, erotic. But Alice in Leatherland combines sex with a sense of humor and tenderness, making sex both silly and playful and a larger part of the emotional story. Was this always your intention?
Both: Thank you so much! Sure it was: at the beginning, “AiL” had to be just a short funny story about cliches of sapphic dates on dating apps, but then we got involved with our characters and the story evolved into something more complex, long and romantic than we planned!
The sex positivity is a very important part of the story, and the main focus of our creative process of this project.
Within your books, Midnight Radio and Alice in Leatherland, there’s an obvious queer aesthetic that makes other queer readers smile in recognition at how familiar it is? Did you feel your own experiences as queer creators influences your work?
Both: Our experiences as queer creators not only influence our work but it’s our big push. We believe that the representation of LGBTQIA characters in stories that talk about growth, friendship, life experiences and adventures, other than our “traumas” and difficulties or the discovery of our sexuality, is very important.
The world needs more different stories with queer protagonists. We needed it as teenagers and now that the world is finally changing, we want to do our part and participate to this necessary revolution.
I previously read and loved your last book, Midnight Radio. Where did the inspiration for that book come from?
I: I’m so glad you appreciated my “Midnight Radio”! I wrote that story during my year in San Francisco. It was a life-changing experience for me.
The inspiration of the book is the thought that everywhere there are people that are facing the consequences and frustrations of a life spent suppressing, for different reasons and in different ways, their true selves and aspirations. But that often they just need some kind of signs, an unexpected message to give them the strength to free themselves and to take hold of their lives again! Like little and unpredictable bursts of truth.
I’m sure it happens often! That’s surely happening in this right moment somewhere.
What advice might you have to give to other aspiring creators?
Both: What we really want to say is: If you have a story to tell, something you truly believe in, please, please, please write it down! Draw it!
You’ll definitely find someone who wants to read it out there, or needs it in their life without even knowing it.
What projects are you currently working on and at liberty to speak about?
Both: We’re currently working on “A Thing Called Truth”, a new comics mini-series. It’s a queer romantic-adventure road-trip story!
Issue #1 will be published by Shadowline IMAGE Comics this November. We can’t wait to know if someone will love it as much as we do!
What books/comics might you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?Both: Among our favorite comic books there are: “Betty Boob“, a lovely silent bande dessinée by Vero Cazot and Julie Rocheleau, “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel and all Liv Strömquist‘s irreverent books!
Barbara Perez Marquez was born and raised in the Dominican Republic, now she lives in the USA. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Manhattanville College. She writes short stories and fiction, usually using coming of age and LGBTQ themes in her work. During her career, she has also been an editor for several publications and projects. Her work was first featured in a student collection in the 7th grade, the same year she decided she wanted to be a writer. Since then, she’s been featured in a number of literary journals, as well as anthologies. Her latest works include The Cardboard Kingdom and its sequel, The Cardboard Kingdom #2: Roar of the Beast.
I had the opportunity to interview both Chad and Barbara, which you can read below.
First of all, congratulations on your latest book, The Cardboard Kingdom #2: Roar of the Beast! Could you tell us a little of what the book’s about?
CHAD: Thank you! ROAR OF THE BEAST follows the Cardboard Kingdom kids as they get ready for Halloween. But something is amiss in the kingdom–the kids start seeing a shadowy monster lurking through their neighborhood at night. No one can agree on what the monster looks like and what to do about it: hunt it down, study it, trap it, or simply stay far, far away! Because we have an enormous cast of characters, we were able to explore the many different approaches that the kids take in facing their fears and solving the mystery.
How did The Cardboard Kingdom series come to be? What was the impetus for the project?
CHAD: I love creativity, comics, and costumes–at its heart, The CARDBOARDKINGDOM series is all about how kids use all three to explore aspects of their identity. What does it mean for a boy to dress up as a glamorous sorceress? Or for a little girl to dress up like a mustachioed mad scientist? How can play and make believe help us explore and express new aspects of ourselves that would otherwise stay hidden?
The Cardboard Kingdom is an anthology of different stories from different kids set in the same neighborhood. What was it like collaborating with other artists and creatives on the project?
BARBARA: I think we owe a lot of its seamlessness to Chad, whom really endeavored to bring our team together and as a leader, keeps it all cohesive. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to be able to tell the stories in The Cardboard Kingdom as a collaborative effort, since its a perfect reflection of what’s going on in the book too.
How did you find yourself getting into comics? What drew you to this medium?
BARBARA: I started pretty late in comics myself, and it wasn’t until graduate school when I properly started to look at comics as a creator as opposed to just a reader. As a storyteller, comics provide a unique approach to telling a story that can draw in any type of reader. Being able to capture a reader is super important for me as a writer and comics make it that much more simple.
CHAD: I agree with Barbara–comics are such an inviting form of storytelling! I love that a kid who can’t even read will pick up CARDBOARD KINGDOM and still get totally engaged with the story, even if they’re making up a lot of it on their own! That’s the appeal of comics for me.
One of the characters in The Cardboard Kingdom is an aspiring gender-bending Dominican American mad scientist. As a queer Dominican American yourself, would you say you incorporated any of your own experiences into this character or other parts of the story?
BARBARA: I think the short answer is yes, but I think if we were to put our experiences side to side, then they’d be much less alike. As a writer, I always strive to fill in the gaps from my own experiences, so for me, it was more important to present Amanda in ways that I wouldn’t have necessarily done as a kid myself. I think in that way, it becomes a more robust effort towards bringing to life stories that I wish I’d had as a kid. I think especially in a moment where we still need to push for representation, we have to continue to look at our experiences and not just reflect ourselves, but also the tools that would have been useful to us and to potential readers.
What are some moments/characters within the book that you most related to in regards to your own experiences as a kid?
CHAD: The CARDBOARD KINGDOM character I most relate to is Jack the Sorceress, and he continues his journey in Roar of the Beast, exploring how to imbue more of the Sorceress’ fabulous magic into his everyday life. But he also wrestles with a lot more: his little sister is becoming her own person, developing sinister new schemes instead of serving as his helpful little assistant. And Jack also has a powerful moment of recognition and connection with another young queer character, Miguel the Rogue. I remember as a kid how powerful it was to encounter other children like you, but also how scary it could be, too! We wanted to capture all of that complexity in their scenes together.
BARBARA: I was definitely one of the kids that bounced around different friend groups, so seeing The Knight’s journey throughout the book really resonated with me as she continues to find her own place in the Kingdom and what that means. I think with the book as a whole we definitely pushed further our efforts to create spaces for everyone, even when we are scared to look for that place.
What advice would you give to aspiring young artists/writers working on their craft and for those who wish to work in the field?
CHAD: We’re living in such a fascinating time for comics, in terms of webcomics, the booming kids’ market, and the countless new ways to find and support creators. It’s kind of overwhelming, particularly for young artists–you can’t be good at EVERYTHING, and you can’t possibly appeal to EVERYBODY. There’s no one way to be a successful artist, and so it’s up to you to figure out where you fit best, what approach works for you, and what work you want to make. Try to find peers who are doing what you’re doing, seek out resources to learn more about the industry, and look into the different kinds of mentorship opportunities that have been emerging online!
BARBARA: I agree that this is a great time to be in comics and publishing, but for someone that’s still looking to find their path, it’s still invaluable to stay up to date on what’s happening around you. As we create, we can often get lost in our own process or even just aiming towards the big names, but there’s new content available everyday, so staying on the lookout for works that feel similar to what you want to do is a great way to have a bit of a compass on what’s happening while you get your work ready for the world.
Previously, you had both paneled for an event at Flame Con, a queer comic con sponsored by Geeks OUT, called “Telling All-Ages Queer Stories.” Can you talk about your work and personal motivation creating inclusive stories for young queer kids?
BARBARA: That panel was so fun! I spoke a bit already on how I try to not just create stories with elements from my own life, but also with the tools that were missing when I was growing up. I think for myself, it’s always been important for my work to be inclusive because it’s the least we can do as creators. When it comes to stories for queer audiences, and I think Chad mentioned it too, it’s not about representing EVERYTHING at once. On the contrary, if that’s the main focus it can often come off as disingenuous. Instead, I often try to tell stories with the same care I would hope someone would have talking about me. With that in mind, I always strive to make space, even when the story might not reflect everything I’d want it to, I hope it provides space for ANY reader to find something to connect with.
CHAD: Yeah, as Barbara said, it’s so powerful to see yourself reflected in a story! A lot of my early conceptions of queerness and identity were shaped by the comics I read as a kid, which is unfortunate, because those early 90’s comics made it seem like coming out would literally mean getting chased out of your hometown by an angry mob! So I’m hoping that our books offer a much more affirming and inclusive sense of recognition to our young readers, and a sense that their world is expansive and multi-faceted.
Oftentimes for younger generations, knowledge of queer language, whether that referring to orientation or gender identity, is often limited. How did you set about depicting queerness in a way younger generations could access?
BARBARA: I think I’ll leave Chad to speak a little more at length on this, but comics are visual and that’s super important when there’s that lack of language. I think it’s also really important to remember that younger audiences may not have the direct terms to correlate to something, but they are still experiencing life in the same way we did and that’s universal in many other ways than just language.
CHAD: Barbara is totally right! We generally tried to convey aspects of queerness situationally and visually rather than relying on terminology or language. So in Barbara’s story The Mad Scientist, the main character Amanda’s father is confused and upset that she’s dressing up in a cardboard mustache and lab coat with her friends. But they don’t address that with an extensive discussion of gender identity and expression–instead, we resolved that chapter wordlessly with a final image full of love, acceptance…and mustaches.
Aside from comics, what would you say are some of your other skills and interests?
BARBARA: I had an interest in publishing in general when I started out, so I’m also a bit of a freelance editor in my spare time. I also grew up learning other languages and playing video games, so that’s pretty much where I focus my attention when I’m not writing. Whether it’s playing a new game or doing translation or watching content in other languages.
CHAD: I’m also an avid videogamer, and I love a good tabletop board game, too! (I’m in the final stretch of an epic GLOOMHAVEN campaign right now!) I love cooking, too–the kitchen is a place for me to get creative and experiment with extremely low stakes involved. After all, it’s just dinner!
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet and wish you were asked (and your answer to that question)?
CHAD: Barbara and I both had a really hard time coming up with an answer to this, which means you’ve asked a ton of good questions in this interview!!
Are there any other projects or story ideas you are currently nursing and could tell us about?
CHAD: We’ve been crafting more tales for the Cardboard Kingdom, and I’ve been working on a stupendously fun new superhero series with my friend Mary Winn Heider–hopefully that will be announced soon!
BARBARA: I’ve got a few stories in the works that will hopefully be announced by the end of the year.
Finally, what queer books would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
CHAD: I’ve been loving Kat Leyh’s recent books–SNAPDRAGON is a fantastic, layered graphic novel for younger readers, and THIRSTY MERMAIDS is a hilarious romp for adults. THE MAGIC FISH by Trung Le Nguyen and FLAMER by Mike Curato are great picks for teens!
BARBARA: One of my favorite new reads recently was Molly Ostertag’s THE GIRL FROM THE SEA. I’ve also been working through my backlog of books and really enjoyed the graphic novel adaptation of JULIET TAKES A BREATH by Gabby Rivera and Celia Moscote.
Briggon Snow is a queer actor best known for voicing Caleb Michaels in the cult hit podcast THE BRIGHT SESSIONS and its spinoff THE COLLEGE TAPES, as well as other popular fiction podcasts like THE BIG LOOP, IN STRANGE WOODS, LOOK UP and Netflix’s upcoming Stranger Things prequel REBEL ROBIN: SURVIVING HAWKINS. With roles on TV including SEAL TEAM (CBS), GAME SHAKERS (Nickelodeon) and MASTERS OF SEX (Showtime). I had the opportunity to talk with Briggon, which you can read below.
Welcome to Geeks OUT! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today. Could you tell the readers a little about yourself?
Thank you! My name is Briggon Snow (he/him). I’m a gay man and an actor/writer living in Los Angeles. Originally from Maine. I live with my husband James and our two pups, Dodger and Gug Gus. I moved my life to LA for acting and discovered that storytelling – not just performing – is really what I love. The Bright Sessions is what your readers might know me best for – if they know me at all – hi mom! In my voice work I play a lot of teens but I’m very much in my thirties feeling like that Steve Buscemi “How do you do, fellow kids?” meme. I live in that space; with a pocket full of Lactaid and a dream.
Was there any LGBTQ+ media around growing up that you related to? If not, did you feel that influenced your own aspirations being an actor?
There wasn’t a ton out there other than queer coded villains and adult content that I found myself watching on the dl for answers; clearing that history and those cookies. I really wished there were more examples growing up. But I think off the top of my head I remember movies like ‘Shelter’ or TV like Queer As Folk and the odd storyline from Jack & Bobby and Everwood. And I wish I could say this vacuum of queer representation influenced my acting aspirations, but as a kid I had it in my mind that I would never come out. It wasn’t until I embraced who I was that I realized how desperately I wanted to be a part of stories that would have meant the world to me as a kid.
One of the things you’re most known for is for your voice work as Caleb Michaels, one of the main characters of the acclaimed podcast series, The Bright sessions. Could you tell us how you got involved in that project, and on that note how you got into podcasting in the first place?
I was in an acting class with this really talented acquaintance (at the time), Lauren Shippen. She’d seen me in class – all of the good and the bad – and somehow thought of me for this role that she’d written. She just messaged me and said a free pizza was in the cards if I said yes. I was honestly just blown away that someone would want to include me in something they had created. I had no idea there was this world of modern audio storytelling. I grew up falling asleep to old Abbott & Costello radio show cassette tapes my mom would get from the local library, so I actually had always loved radio plays and variety shows. When I was thrown into the fiction podcast world it was like coming home to a form of entertainment I never thought I’d get to be a part of.
As a friend and collaborator with Lauren Shippen, creator of The Bright sessions, what has it been like working with her all these years?
A total dream. I was spoiled with the writing, creative freedom, and the spirit of collaboration that she’s all about. I’d always joke and call it “Lauren Cove”; a safe and beautiful place to perform and create. But more than anything, we became best friends. And she’ll always be one of the most important people in my life. The greatest thing about art and creating is the human connections that are made…and I’ve got a sister for life now.
As someone who has admittedly only recently gotten into podcasts, what do you think is the appeal of this medium? What are some of your favorite examples?
It’s intimate. It’s vulnerable. Audio somehow has a direct line to our imagination. It sits next to our inner monologues and thoughts. You ever drift asleep – or come in and out of it – and a movie is on in the background? The absence of our other senses, and the lowering of our alertness – you ever hear things more clearly and all-encompassing when you do that? It feels intimate and peaceful. Does that make sense? That’s kind of what fiction podcasts feel like for me. These stories and performances are delivered directly to my brain and imagination; voices up close – hopefully pulling your heart into the alchemy of that experience too – and that’s just a unique thing. It’s just what I love about it.
In previous interviews and articles, you had spoken a little about the significance to getting to play a younger queer character, such as Caleb, as a queer actor and the character’s exploration of mental health and non-toxic masculinity. Could you expand on this?
It’s so important, right? Not just from a sexuality standpoint, but as boys we’re brainwashed into what it means to be a man in this world. And if you’re anything but aggressive, strong, rough, whatever, you’re somehow other – or less-than. I think boyhood and manhood is beautiful. It’s way more complex and precious than the shit older generations forced on us. I think to be a boy or a man in this world is to be courageous – and not the hyper-masculine coding of the word; saving others and being strong or anything like that. I think in this instance “courageous” means being brave enough to feel and to exist in a world where we can call on our capacity for tenderness and vulnerability and feel empowered by that just as much as holding our ground or pushing through obstacles.
What were your favorite parts of getting to work on The Bright Sessions as Caleb?
It felt like a do-over, honestly. I find so much healing and fulfilment in acting. Even though I loved my years and experiences in high school, however closeted and confused they were, I got to step into this kid’s shoes and cosplay someone I wish I had been a bit more like at that age. I did have a lot of anger as a kid (like Caleb), buried beneath a friendly face, and I think exercising some of those demons as Caleb did helped me become who I am today. I’m forever grateful for him, and for the gift Lauren gave me. I still get messages weekly from new and old listeners who’ve said Caleb has helped them find their way in the world to embracing themselves or coming out to a loved one. It’s an honor every time someone shares their story with me. I’m blown over by how strangers can affect one another. It’s a beautiful thing to be a part of.
Are there any other projects you are currently working on right now or aim to in the future that you would wish to speak about?
I’m currently searching for that next lightning in a bottle thing. The Bright Sessions has been such a big part of my life, and while I’m having so much fun doing things here and there, I’m ravenous for that next challenge; that next role I can really explore. After getting my sea legs writing on shows like The College Tapes, I ended up writing and acting in a gay coming-of-age limited series podcast called “Look Up”. It’s being released weekly right now and I’m really proud of it. Again, I want to put more things out into the world that say “I see you” to that kid out there trying to figure out where they might fit in the universe. Honestly, I think one of those kids out there is in me, and the work I do is part of an exercise of reminding myself that my story, humanity, perspective, and who I am has value.
As a creative, what advice might you have for other people wanting to get into the acting/podcast industries?
You’re going to have up days and down days; without a balance between the two probably. It’s hard. But I’ve found what keeps me going is the knowledge – like deep in my bones – that it’s all going to happen for me. And it might not, right? But you have to sort of live in this beautiful delusion that your dreams will come true. I haven’t had a live-action tv/film job in two years? Yikes,maybe more. I miss it. But I know it’s going to work out and I’ll find my fulfillment and my happy (despite all current albeit fleeting evidence to the contrary). And that’s kind of the whole thing of it. As actors or creatives or whatever, we’re asked to be profoundly vulnerable and crazy thick-skinned; that combination doesn’t make sense. But we do it because we love to create. And, I’ll say, I think queer creatives are especially good at this because of our heightened super power, the side-effect from all of the things we go through to find ourselves: Empathy.
As a queer geek, are there are roles or characters you would fancast yourself into one day?
I’ve been shooting my shot on social media about this the past year, but I want to be Northstar in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so bad. A friend of mine surprised me with a poster of me as the character and I lost my mind. What Jean-Paul means to me, the idea of him, it’s just a tremendous pipe dream. Fun to imagine and work towards but maybe/probably it won’t end up being the destination but the pursuit of it reveals something else that’s exciting and wonderful. Anyway, if not me, I hope an actual queer actor gets to play Northstar. But man oh man would it be a dream to be so visible as a gay man in a gay role in a blockbuster universe.
Besides being an actor, what are some things you would want people to know about you personally?
I’m still figuring it out. I’m an actor and a writer and a creator, but as a person in this world…I’m earnestly trying to figure out what I want and who I am. I’m at a point in my life where I’m so far out from my early twenties #ActorLife energy and really deep in the work of nurturing and exploring who I am to me, my husband, the people I love in my life and full-on committing myself to the things that bring me joy and peace. Life is so short. I want to live it well and not just for the success. Last night my husband and I sat down to watch the new Pixar film “Luca”, and it took me back to that barefoot summer glow feeling of friendship and connection and optimism. Ambition was a distant future thought at that time in my life, and I think being an adult is balancing that ambition and pursuit of creative fulfilment…leaving your mark on the world…and the simple innocent feelings of connection and play that come so naturally when we’re kids.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked (and the answer to that question)?
Do I dare wade into the discussion around non-queer actors in queer roles? It’s been on my mind a lot lately; not even just from me being an actor but as an audience member too. I’ll say this: I think that yeah absolutely straight folks can play gay roles – but I think we need a lot more of actual queer actor representation and opportunity before it all stops feeling a bit like creative tourism; straights taking an adventure vacation in my community’s truth and experience. It’s strange, even if the straight actor is well-meaning and does a beautiful job and exemplifies true allyship in their real life and all that…it still feels like a bummer to me. Watching a queer person in a queer role just hits different. And damn if it isn’t complicated because nobody should have to out themselves to play a role. I don’t know what the fix is here, but maybe just talking about it more. It’s just that no matter how much a straight cis man says they wanted to make it authentic and worked really hard and talked with gay family members or whatever, it still falls short for me. And to be sure, this isn’t just about actors; we’re part of a system and an industry that still is super cowardly when it comes to gay storylines and creatives in the mainstream. But if a straight actor plays a gay role, they’re celebrated for their commitment to the work – the lengths they went – the sheer fact they were willing to do it – the believability – and then they end up on the covers of queer magazines of all things and we all applaud. When an out gay actor plays a straight role (not as common) you don’t see that kind of fanfare because straight is the “normal”, right? You get what I mean? I’m not bitter about it – truly I promise – and I’m grateful for any scrap we can get out there (some of those scraps are so damn great and helped me on my journey to being an out and proud gay man), I just want more for us, ya know? Until more LGBTQ+ performers are out in the Hollywood wild telling our own stories, a lot of these mainstream victories will just keep feeling like they’re asking more from us queer audience members than we are of them.
Finally, what are some LGBTQ+ media (i.e books/ comics/ podcasts/etc.) you would recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
Julia Drake grew up outside Philadelphia. As a teenager, she played some of Shakespeare’s best heroines in her high school theater program, and their stories would stay with her forever. She received her BA in Spanish from Williams College, and her MFA in creative writing from Columbia University, where she also taught writing to first-year students. She currently works as a book coach for aspiring writers and teaches creative writing classes for Writopia, a nonprofit that fosters love of writing in young adults. She lives in San Francisco with her partner and their rescue rabbit, Ned. Her debut novel, The Last True Poets of the Sea, is available now. I had the pleasure of interviewing Julia, which you can read below.
First of all, when did you want to be a writer? What drew you to creative writing?
I have always written, though it wasn’t until I was a senior in college that I took my first creative writing class and started taking writing more seriously. Writing for me was always a balm, and a way of thinking, a way of slowing down and sorting out the chaos of my inner life. I have always found Joan Didion’s assertion in “Why I Write” to be relatable: “Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write.”
What were some of the first books you fell in love with and why? What were some of the first queer books the clicked with you?
As a child, I read and re-read Charlotte’s Web a thousand times. It’s such a beautiful story of friendship, change, and the passage of time, and I returned to it during the pandemic and found myself completely undone. When I was a little older, I loved books by Sharon Creech, especially Absolutely Normal Chaos and Mary Lou Finney’s hilarious take on the world. I wasn’t exposed to a lot of queer lit growing up, but I remember a short story called “Cowgirls & Indie Boys” by Tanuja Desai Hidier (author of Born Confused) in an anthology called Sixteen: Stories About that Sweet and Bitter Birthday. I must’ve been thirteen or so when I read it, and it was remarkable to me at the time because it was a short story that ended happily in two girls kissing, and no harm came to them. It was the first time I’d seen queer young women validated and celebrated, and I found myself so moved by it without quite being able to express why.
Where did the inspiration for The Last True Poets of the Sea? Were there any authors or books that influenced you while writing this novel?
The original inspiration for this book was Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which has long been a favorite of mine. Viola and Olivia are both such great characters, and I wanted to explore their relationship through a queer lens. I thought a lot about Sharon Creech’s books while I wrote, and how she manages to create stories that are both extraordinary and ordinary.
So the title, why the sea? Why poetry?
The title comes from a line from Jacques Cousteau’s Diving for Sunken Treasure, a book that the character Sam adores. I don’t want to spoil the meaning, but the line felt applicable for many reasons. While the book isn’t expressly about poetry, it felt fitting to me: Violet finds herself moved by an Adrienne Rich poem and later winds up writing song lyrics; Toby, her uncle, reveals he writes poetry.
Often for queer fiction, there’s almost this pressure to write “clean” sanitized narratives where the characters are morally unambiguous and practically perfect, and your story and characters are anything but. Was it always your intention to write this kind of messy queer character in this messy queer story?
Absolutely! Who among us is perfect? I’m extremely interested in characters that make mistakes and don’t have things figured out, because those are the only kind of people there are (especially true when writing about teenagers). At the same time, it was important to me with this book that Violet’s messiness not come from her queerness, but rather exist alongside it. She’s not messy because she’s queer, she’s messy and she’s queer.
Mental health/illness is a strong theme within this book, and the spider-like-threads it weaves between the different characters in the book. Was this always something you wanted to cover and what would you say about the process/trials of discussing mental health in YA?
I truly did not set out to write a book about mental health – I wanted to write a whimsical book about having a good time in an aquarium! But mental illness found its way in because it’s been so much part of the fabric of my life, both in terms of my personal history and family and friends. Writing about mental health is for me, always a balance between being authentic and vulnerable, but also about not being afraid to invent and fictionalize. The trick comes in being empathic towards and honoring characters whose experience differs from your own.
As a queer woman, would you say you have incorporating any of your own experiences/memories as a queer person navigating their identity?
I am very lucky in that Violet’s experience of being met with love and acceptance has been my experience as well. I’m very straight-passing, and I share in Violet and Liv’s discomfort when others make assumptions about their identities. Liv’s parents, for instance, suggest that both girls will eventually meet a nice man someday, and Violet finds herself thinking something along the lines of, or person, or no one at all.
Aside from writing, what hobbies/interests do you enjoy exploring in your free time?
This past year, watching TV and going on masked walks were my principal interests. But I’m excited to get back into swimming this summer, and maybe even read a book or two if I can muster the focus! I also have an extremely handsome bunny who I spend a lot of time with and discourage from eating my houseplants.
What advice might you have to give to other aspiring writers, especially those trying to finish their first books/projects?
Commit to small and consistent goals, especially when you’re starting out: thirty minutes a day, and you’ll get to the end eventually. Learn to be patient with yourself and your progress – if it takes a long time, you’re doing it right. There really is no shortcut.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked?
I wish someone would ask about the great mind behind the amazing fish puns in the book, because the majority of them come from my brother-in-law, the incomparable BJ Thompson, who also took my author’s photograph. I am forever in his debt!
Are there any projects you are currently working on and at liberty to speak about?
Yes! I’m working on a second book that will be published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers in 2022. There’s a road trip in it, and a dog.
Finally, what queer books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT? Ashley Herring Blake writes heartbreakingly beautiful, moving young adult and middle grade novels that I wish had been around when I was growing up – I would have devoured all of them! Every Body Lookingby Candice Iloh was another book I really enjoyed this past year. And James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Roomshould be required reading for everyone, everywhere.