Interview with author SJ Sindu

SJ Sindu is the author of the novel Marriage of a Thousand Lies, which won the Publishing Triangle Edmund White Debut Fiction Award, was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, and was an ALA Stonewall Honor Book; as well as the hybrid fiction and nonfiction chapbook I Once Met You But You Were Dead. Her latest novel, Blue-Skinned Gods, is available now. She holds an MA in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a PhD in English and Creative Writing from Florida State University. Sindu teaches at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

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

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself and your latest book, Blue-Skinned Gods?

Blue-Skinned Gods is a novel about a young boy who has blue skin and who is believed to be the last human incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, born to lead us into the next epoch. He lives at an ashram run by his father in Tamil Nadu, India, leading prayer sessions and healing the villagers who live nearby. Soon, his fame starts to spread, and the ashram attracts wealthy foreigners and investors. The boy’s father dreams of a world tour, but when it finally happens, the boy—now a man—runs away to join the underground music scene in New York. Blue-Skinned Gods explores questions of religion, faith, identity, and the spiritual industrial complex.

When and how did you realize you were first interested in writing, and what drew you specifically to the mediums you write?

Like many geeks, I wrote fanfiction in high school. Mostly Harry Potter, but also a handful of other fandoms. I was deep into LiveJournal and a whole bunch of forums and such, too. That’s really how I got into writing. I wrote a bit of my original stuff here and there, but it wasn’t until I took my first creative writing class in university that I really dove into original fiction. Now I write in multiple mediums (poetry, creative nonfiction, novels, short stories, graphic novels, etc.) and I love the different opportunities and challenges presented by each one.

As someone who has not read your latest book, Blue-Skinned Gods (yet!), the title reminded me of the medical condition, Blue Baby Syndrome, which is correlated with vulnerability in an early stage of a child’s life. Is there any parallel to that within your story, between physical and emotional vulnerability?

The story is definitely about vulnerability, the ways in which we’re vulnerable to those who hold power in our lives—like our parents—the ways in which people are vulnerable to manipulation by authority and religion, etc.

How would you describe your writing process? 

I’m a drafter, meaning I like to write a lot of drafts for a single story. Especially with fiction, I think I do my best work when doing multiple drafts. My first drafts are often exploratory—I start with an idea or a premise and a few milestones I want to hit, but usually I’m not fully sure of what the story is yet. I write toward that story, and usually it clarifies by the second or third draft. That’s when I really start the bulk of the writing and revising. Blue-Skinned Gods went through twelve drafts before it even went to publishers, and twenty drafts total before it became the version you see on shelves.

What some of your favorite or most difficult parts of the writing parts?

The second draft is always difficult for me, because I’m just starting to figure out what the story is, but it also feels like I’ve been working on the project for a long time, and I get frustrated because the quality of the writing is nowhere near where I want it to be. It’s a long way from that draft to finished, and it’s easy for me to get overwhelmed thinking about all the work that still needs to be done. But I have to remind myself that I need to take it one page at a time, and I have to trust that I’ll figure it out.

As a queer writer of a different diaspora (Ukrainian-Jewish), I think I can understand a little something about the challenges of writing about queerness while existing as part of a community that does not speak about it or may speak about it in code. As an author, what are your thoughts on writing about the intersection of queerness and your other backgrounds?

This kind of intersectionality is really important to me to write about. I feel like the publishing world hasn’t always been kind to multiple marginalized experiences—they really like it when you’re only one kind of minority, because there’s a sales/marketing box for that. It’s hard to publish as a multiple-minority author, especially when you’re wanting to write about those lived experiences. There’s a fear—which is somewhat valid—that diaspora communities might not be welcoming to queer stories, and that mainstream queer culture might not be seeking out racialized stories. But in my experience—and I think publishing and Hollywood is starting to catch on to this fact—having multiple identities in one story actually doubles or triples your potential audience. So not only are these stories important, they also have the opportunity to cut across communities and reach farther than conservative corporate estimates.

Aside from being a writer, what are some things you would want others to know about you?

I’m also a professor of creative writing (I teach currently at the University of Toronto Scarborough). I brew beer. I’m into bespoke gift wrapping. I love geeking out about Sailor Moon, Avatar the Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra, BBC’s Merlin, and Warehouse 13.

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

No one has asked me any in depth questions about fanfiction, or how that has impacted my original writing. I think starting out writing mainly fanfiction as a teenager shaped my later writing in that it taught me the importance of creating memorable characters and worlds. The reason why we are drawn to write fanfic is usually because we find the worldbuilding compelling, and/or the characters compelling. Often it’s both. I try to apply that wisdom to my own writing. My own personal goalpost for “making it” is to write something that inspires someone to create fanfiction or fanart with my world and/or characters.

What advice would you have to give to other aspiring writers?

The three best things you can do for yourself are: learn to take criticism and rejection well; meet your deadlines; and be patient. Writing is a long, slow relationship with creativity, and the publishing industry is even slower. The stories you’re seeing on the shelves or screens took years to write and years to publish. There is no immediate reward in this career, except for your own satisfaction at making a good story. But at the same time, if you love writing, pursue it. You don’t want to regret the life not lived.

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

Yes! I have two graphic novels coming out: Shakti, a middle-grade fantasy about witches, forthcoming 2023; and Tall Water, a YA graphic novel about the 2004 tsunami set in Sri Lanka, forthcoming 2024.

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

Oh there are so many! But my go-to authors are Gloria Anzaldúa, James Baldwin, Jeanette Winterson, Audre Lorde, Eli Claire, Shyam Selvadurai, and Alison Bechdel.

Interview with the “Shuri and T’Challa: Into the Heartlands” Creative Team

Shuri and T’Challa set out to remove a curse from Wakanda in an action-packed, totally original Black Panther graphic novel, Shuri and T’Challa: Into the Heartlands available now!

The creative team includes Roseanne A. Brown, Natacha Bustos, Dika Araújo, and Claudia Aguirre.

Roseanne A. Brown was born in Kumasi, Ghana and immigrated to the wild jungles of central Maryland as a child. She graduated from the University of Maryland with a Bachelor’s in Journalism and was also a teaching assistant for the school’s Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House program. Her journalistic work has been featured by Voice of America among other outlets. Rosie currently lives outside Washington D.C., where in her free time she can usually be found wandering the woods, making memes, or thinking about Star Wars. Her debut novel, A Song of Wraith and Ruin, was a New York Times bestseller.

Dika Araújo is a Brazilian animator, comic artist and illustrator based in Sâo Paulo. Her previous work includes several independent Brazilian anthologies, including Amor em Quadrinhos, which was nominated for the Angouleme International Comics Award in 2018.

Natacha Bustos is a Spanish comic book artist who drew the story Going Nowhere, written by Brandan Montclare, for DC/Vertigo’s Strange Sports Stories. Bustos then made her Marvel Comics debut on Spider Woman before re-teaming with Montclare and co-writer Amy Reeder on the inaugural run of Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur, winner of Glyph Award for Best Female Character in 2016. In 2020, she drew the Buffy the Vampire: Willow miniseries (BOOM Studios!) and became part of Marvel’s Stormbreakers Artist program, dedicated to spotlighting the next generation of elite artists.

Claudia Aguirre is a GLAAD and Eisner Award nominated artist and writer. She is co-founder of Boudika Comics. Her works include Hotel Dare (Boom!Studios), Morning in America (Oni Press) and Lost on PlanetEarth (Comixology Originals

I had the opportunity to interview Roseanne A. Brown, Natacha Bustos, and Dika Araújo which you can read below.

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

Roseanne A. Brown: Hi! My name is Roseanne A. Brown, but everyone calls me Rosie. I’m a Ghanaian-American young adult and middle grade SFF author. My debut novel, A Song of Wraiths and Ruin, is a New York Times bestselling YA Fantasy inspired by West African folklore that’s been described as what would happen if Aladdin and Jasmine had to kill each other. The sequel, A Psalm of Storms and Silence, came out in November 2021, and I have several more books on the way. On the rare day I’m not writing, I can usually be found watching obscure documentaries on Netflix or trying to cook the perfect poached egg. (It’s really hard!)

Natacha Bustos: Hi! I’m Natacha Bustos. I draw comics and live in Malaga. I’ve enjoyed comics since I was very young, and I’ve always loved telling stories. I like going for a walk in the countryside or having a nice meal in good company. My everyday life is dominated by my two loves: my son, Alan, and my cat, Momo.

Dika Araújo: Of course! I’m a 28 year old Brazilian illustrator. I work in animation and sometimes I make comics.

What can you tell us about your project, Black Panther: Into the Heartlands? How did each of you get involved?

RB: Back in early 2020, my agent sent me an email saying she’d heard that my now editor Lauren Bisom was looking for pitches for a new line of young reader graphic novels featuring some of Marvel’s most popular teen heroes: Miles Morales, Shuri and T’Challa, and Kamala Khan. The idea of a sibling story featuring the prince and princess of Wakanda came to me almost immediately; while there have been both books and comics about the two as youths, there were few centered on their relationship as children. Then during my research, I learned that the two share a father but have different birth mothers. As a member of a large, blended family myself, I really connected to the idea of these fantastical characters dealing with complicated family dynamics just like millions of kids around the world, and the idea for Into the Heartlands grew from there.

NB: Lauren Bisom contacted me to talk about a project that Dika had started. I really like Dika and her art, so the idea of working on a comic with her was appealing. Then, I saw that Claudia Aguirre had also joined the team, which was cool. I’ve known her for about ten years now through social media. I love the Black Panther universe and Shuri’s my girl, so this type of project is a no-brainer.

DA: I developed the character designs and drew the first batch of pre-Heartlands pages. 

Roseanne A. Brown

Before this project, how would you describe your connection to the Black Panther universe? What does it feel like to be working on this project now?

RB: I’m relatively new to the world of Wakanda as I really didn’t know much about the characters before the movie came out in 2018. But I was blown away by the world in that film, particularly by how the creators organically wove in the African influences that created these characters. Shuri, T’Challa, and the Black Panther as a concept are icons in every sense of the word. Getting to write them has been an honor, and I only hope that my entry into the Black Panther world is full of the same heart and power that have drawn people to these characters for decades. 

NB: I’ve done some Shuri and some Black Panther covers for Marvel and I’ve read Kirby’s comics. I love Shuri as done by Nnedi Okorafor and Leonardo Romero, as well as Brian Steelfreeze’s interpretation of Black Panther. They’re really powerful, all told with a singular voice.

Becoming part of the family of Black Panther authors is really a dream come true. So I’m delighted to have added my own little drop into this ocean.

DA: I started paying more attention to it after the MCU movies. Me and my brother hadn’t connected together so intensely to a character before since the Blade movies came out. So it was really exciting getting to contribute a little bit to the Wakanda canon.

Are there any other superheroes besides Shuri and T’Challa that you feel drawn to (excuse the pun)?

RB: I’ve loved Static since I was a child. He’s of Ghanaian descent, like me, and the episode of Static Shock where he went to Ghana was the first time I ever saw Twi spoken in an American media. The Batfamily were my entry point into superhero comics, with the second Robin, Jason Todd, being my absolute favorite. And I have to shout-out my girl Storm. She was a big inspiration for the character of Karina in A Song of Wraiths and Ruin. 

NB: Many, including Storm, Ironheart, Ms. Marvel, Doctor Strange, Loki, Miles Morales, etc.

DA: Hehehe, that was a good joke. Yesterday I watched the first episode of Moon Knight and being autistic I could relate a lot to the chaos and general disorientation the character goes through. I could say the same about Jessica Jones. Besides that, I tend to relate to side characters more: Peridot (Steven Universe), Wolf (Kipo), Toph (Avatar the Last Airbender)…

As author of the book, A Song of Wraiths and Ruin and A Psalm of Storms and Silence, how did you find yourself becoming a writer? What drew you to young adult and speculative fiction specifically?

RB: I can barely remember a time before I wanted to write. When my family first immigrated to America when I was three, I couldn’t speak English. After years of struggling in school, it was books that opened up the world for me and helped me connect with my new community. Since then, I’ve wanted to create works that help people feel a little less alone like the books I loved did for me. As for YA and speculative fiction, I love how they’re categories where the extraordinary becomes the extra ordinary. Everything just feels a little more possible in SFF, and with YA, there’s something so refreshing about depicting the world through the eyes of a character with one foot in childhood and one foot in adulthood. 

Dika Araújo

How would you describe your writing/illustrating process?

RB: Rather than a plotter or a pantser, I’m what some like to call a headlighter. That’s to say, I write books similar to how someone drives at night—all I can see is exactly what’s in front of me at the moment, but that’s enough to get me where I need to go. All my first drafts are written like that, which often leaves me with an extremely heartfelt, yet incomprehensible manuscript. From there, I’ll revise/rewrite as needed until a structure weaves through the emotion. It’s not the most efficient process, but it’s mine.  

NB: I can be quite chaotic but working digitally provides me with a certain amount of order. I start sketching first off and I tend to be extremely focused at this stage. I can’t have any music on, I need silence. I pretty much skip the penciling stage when working on the final art because I’m working digitally. It’s a really fun stage: my hand is engaged in one thing, while my mind may be elsewhere; I have music playing or podcasts or even a TV series.

DA: Err… Chaotic, time-consuming, but at the same time very orderly. 

What are some of your favorite craft when it comes to writing/illustrating?

RB: The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass is one of my favorite craft books of all time. For plotting, I tend to use a mixture of Save the Cat structure alongside the 7 Point Plot Structure by Dan Wells. But I always say the best craft techniques are the ones that work for you. Pick and choose what fits your writing style! 

NB: I really love Pentel for illustrations; I tend to use it particularly for commissions.

DA: Getting to translate the script into a visual form of storytelling, for sure.

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

RB: Ooh, I love this question! I’ve always wished someone would ask me where the weirdest place I’ve ever written is. The answer would be on the floor of a bathroom in a grimy club in Osaka, Japan. Pass pages for ASOWAR were due, but my friends were visiting and wanted to go out. I learned the true meaning of multi-tasking on that trip. 

DA: “What are your favorite reality shows?”

I love The Circle, Blown Away, Too Hot to Handle… The more random and further removed from my reality, the better. I work in animation all day, and it’s hard to watch movies and cartoons without having my “work brain” on. That kind of show lets me turn off my brain completely.

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

RB: After Into the Heartlands, my next published work will be a short story in the Star Wars anthology Stories of Jedi and Sith, out on June 7th. I’ve been a Star Wars geek since I was a teen, and have written my fair share of fanfiction, so I’m still freaking out that I got to write a canon story in the world. My next full-length book is my middle grade prose debut, Serwa Boateng’s Guide to Vampire Hunting, out with Rick Riordan Presents on September 6th. I describe that book as Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Mean Girls with a huge helping of Ghanaian folklore. It’s a lot of fun, even if writing it did force me to relive my middle school days. *shudder* 

NB: I have a few projects. I could tell you, but then….

DA: I’m working on a Brazilian animation studio called Copa Studio, and they’ve just released a Carnival special for a series called Jorel’s Brother, on HBO Max! I hope people like it, we made it with a lot of love.

Natacha Bustos

What advice would you give to other aspiring creatives, whether those working on prose novels or graphic novels?

RB: Give yourself permission to take your work seriously. I always tell people that if you want to play sports at a professional level, you have to be practicing at that level long before you ever make a pro team. Writing is similar. This doesn’t mean write every single day, because I sure don’t do that, but it does mean carve out time for your craft when you can and guard it like you would any other major commitment. You and your art deserve that. 

NB: You need to have a routine and persistence to finish the job. It is also vitally important to have your free time, so you don’t burn out. This is essential for your mental well-being and so you enjoy your work!

DA: Don’t be fooled, it’s a career that requires a lot of hard work, but at the same time you need a lot of luck and privilege to “make it”. I’m not telling anyone to give up their dreams, that’d be an *ssh*le move, but don’t feel guilty or compare yourself to people who may have had more opportunities than you did.

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

RB: Some of my absolute favorite comics as both a reader and a creator are:

NB: Miles Morales: Shock Waves, Ms. Marvel comics, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Shuri, Black Panther! Read some OG stuff by Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert, Gil Kane, Buscema, José Luis García López, Mazzucchelli, etc. In the world of manga, I love Osamu Tetzuka, Shigeru Misuki, Kentaro Miura, Naoki Urosawa, Hiromu Arakawa, and Rumiko Takahashi.

DA: A big inspiration when working on this comic, for me, was The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook by Eleanor Davis. Other than that, all I can say is BUY AND READ ROSIE’S BOOKS. Sorry, I got carried away, haha. Buy and read everything Roseanne writes. She’s amazing.

Interview with Author Shveta Thakrar

Shveta Thakrar was one of the inaugural Walter Dean Myers grant recipients of 2015 and has been a shining mainstay in fantasy, appearing on conference panels since 2010. She has had fiction published in Uncanny Magazine, Faerie Magazine, and forthcoming from anthologies TOIL & TROUBLE (HarlequinTeen, 2018) and A THOUSAND BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS (Greenwillow, 2018). She is also the author of Star Daughter.

I had the opportunity to interview Shveta, 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 am a very spiritual dreamer who believes in magic and kindness and has a violet felt witch’s hat I like to wear around the house sometimes just for fun.

Congratulations on your latest book, The Dream Runners! Could you tell us what’s about?

I really love the blurb my editor came up with, so I’m going to cheat and just paste that here.

“Seven years ago, Tanvi was spirited away to the subterranean realm of Nagalok, where she joined the ranks of the dream runners: human children freed of all memory and emotion, who collect mortal dreams for the entertainment of the serpentine, immortal naga court.

But when one of Tanvi’s dream harvests goes awry, she begins to remember her life on earth. Panicked and confused, she turns to the one mortal in Nagalok who might be able to help: Venkat, the dreamsmith responsible for collecting the dream runners’ wares and shaping them into the kingdom’s most tantalizing commodity. And as they search for answers, a terrifying truth begins to take shape—one that could turn the nagas’ realm of dreams into a land of waking nightmare.”

Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

A number of things, starting with my fascination with the ancient lore of the war between the nagas (serpent shape-shifters) and their cousins and nemeses, the garudas (eagle shape-shifters). You can read more about that here: https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/mythic-creatures/air/opposites-attack.

I love the idea of selling dreams, and originally I was thinking of a store where you could buy and sell dreams—as inspired by Laini Taylor’s wonderful Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, in which wishes are sold in exchange for teeth—but once I combined that with another of my favorite folklore motifs, that of the changeling, and realized the story would be set partially against the landscape of the mythical war mentioned above, I had the foundation of this book. And it grew from there!

How did you find yourself drawn to the art of storytelling? What drew you to young adult fiction specifically?

I’ve told stories as long as I can remember, even if they were just adventures in rich worlds in my imagination, so it was natural for me to start writing them down. And once I realized I never saw myself in any of the books that I loved, especially minus the real-world problems of things like prejudice, I decided to do my part to help change that.

Young adult fiction is a place of firsts, and I really like thinking maybe I could bring hope to someone who needs it. But also, it’s a great place for adventure and exploration, both inner and outer, so there’s room for all kinds of stories.

How did you find yourself getting drawn into the world of fantasy? What were some of your favorite examples growing up? What are some of your favorite examples now?

This question made me laugh, only because I’ve never not been attracted to fantasy and magic! See above, re: adventures in my head.

My favorite examples from childhood: I’m not even sure where to start! Maybe Dorrie the Little Witch and collections of fairy tales and Amar Chitra Katha comics?

My favorite examples now (always an impossible question, so I’ll just grab a few at random): Holly Black’s Modern Faerie Tales trilogy; Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone; When the Moon Was Ours, by Anna-Marie McLemore; A Green and Ancient Light, by Frederic S. Durbin; The Light at the Bottom of the World, by London Shah; Magical Women, an Indian anthology edited by Sukanya Venkatraghavan. (There are definitely many more than these five, all of which I’m sure I’ll start remembering the second I send this off.)

How would you describe your writing process?

I’m definitely an intuitive writer, and I figure out things as I go, layering in various aspects through various drafts. That means some mistakes along the way, but I’m getting better about accepting that and even starting to view it as a challenge. And revision is where I shine.

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

Creative influences: Holly Black and Laini Taylor and Anna-Marie McLemore, all for different reasons.

Sources of inspiration: their books but also my Hindu/Indian background and its folklore and mythology, along with global folklore and mythology. Plus the possibilities hidden in the world all around us.

What are some of your favorite parts of writing? What do you feel are some of the most challenging?

My favorites: the fact that I’m spinning something out of nothing. Literally nothing. That’s magic! And that people I don’t know then get to read it and play in the worlds I’ve created and get to befriend the characters who sprang from my imagination and my heart.

My most challenging: it’s a toss-up between figuring out how to get the story right (sometimes it takes many drafts and lots of despairing) and accepting that sometimes what a reader is looking for doesn’t mesh with what you wrote. But as long as you’re happy with what you produced, that’s what counts.

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

I recently got back into video gaming after a twenty-year or so hiatus, and it’s been so fun, both revisiting games from my youth and trying ones out now. It’s a different type of storytelling, and I’m so excited to see what it inspires in my own work!

I’m also a big fan of cupcakes and kaju katli (definitely with the silver leaf on top, thanks).

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

If you had to choose between hands or wings, which would it be?

I’m leaning toward wings; I could fly, and falling would just not be a thing. I could figure out how to make up for hands, even if it would be challenging.

As of now, are you currently working on any other ideas or projects that you are at liberty to speak about?

I’m not sure when the announcements will be made, so I have to keep it vague for now, but I can say you’ll definitely be seeing more fantasy from me! It’s probably safe to say it’ll also be drawing on more Indian folklore and mythology, because of course.

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?

I actually have two separate bits of advice to offer. The first is to figure out what kind of story you want to tell. Not what you think other people would want to read, but what the reader in you would want to see in the world. What would be fun for you to write? Follow that glimmer of a notion down the rabbit hole and see what results!

Secondly, I’ve been working with Becca Syme and the team of her Better-Faster Academy for writers, and it’s been so illuminating to understand what kind of a writer I am based on my CliftonStrengths and how to work best with that, rather than trying to follow advice meant for someone else. I’d strongly advise any writer to check out Becca’s work!

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

Let’s see; off the top of my head, aside from the authors I’ve already mentioned:

Bethany C. Morrow

Imani Josey

June Hur

Axie Oh

Lori M. Lee

Akshaya Raman

Rati Mehrotra

Maya Prasad

Ciara Smyth

Cassidy Ward


Header photo credited to Luminous Creative Studio

Interview with Creator Laura Gao

Laura Gao is a 25-year-old queer artist, author, and bread lover. Originally from Wuhan, China, Gao immigrated to a small town in Texas when she was four. Gao’s art career began by doodling on Pokémon cards and has since blossomed to be featured on NPR, the MOCA in NYC, and most notably, her parents’ fridge. Her debut graphic memoir, MESSY ROOTS, was published on March 8, 2022 with HarperCollins.

Gao graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2018. She worked at Twitter as a Product Manager until 2020, when her webcomic, “The Wuhan I Know“, went viral on Twitter and ignited her art career. She swears on Jack Dorsey’s beard she did not pull any strings to go viral, and wishes people would stop asking her for tips. Besides drawing and complaining about early-onset back pain, Gao enjoys living nomadically and biking around the world, designing apps for nonprofits, bakery-hunting, and watching SNL. Laura’s pronouns are she/her and they/them.

I had the opportunity to interview Laura, 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 am a queer artist and author of the upcoming graphic memoir, Messy Roots. I was born in Wuhan, China and then immigrated to a small town in Texas where I grew up. I’ve been drawing ever since I was a toddler doodling (and probably slobbering) on Pokemon cards, but I didn’t start pursuing it professionally until 2020 when a comic of mine went viral and got me a book deal. 

What can you tell us about your debut graphic novel, Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese American? Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

Messy Roots is about my self-discovery journey as a queer, Chinese American teenager stuck between cultures, homes, and expectations of “who I should be” instead of “who I want to be”. It explores my differing experiences between Wuhan, where I was born and visited later on, Texas, where I grew up and experienced the most amount of racism and homophobia, and college and San Francisco, where I had to reckon with and love my entire identity.

Messy Roots started out as a viral comic I created called, The Wuhan I Know, which highlighted the beautiful things I loved about my hometown and shared my own experience with racism growing up and at the start of the pandemic. When the comic unexpectedly went viral, I received countless heartwarming notes from people around the world! The one that struck me the most was from an Asian-American mother whose daughters had read and were inspired by the comic, asking if I was planning on writing more. 

And that’s how this book began.

How did you find yourself getting into comics? What drew you to the medium?

I didn’t start drawing comics until after graduating college, although I’ve been reading them for as long as I could remember how to read. The most impactful graphic memoir I read, Spinning by Tillie Walden, was pivotal in helping me understand my own LGBTQ identity despite growing up in a conservative place like Walden did. After graduating college, I worked a standard corporate job but kept up drawing after work as a creative outlet. I’ve always loved telling stories, and had taken animation classes in college where I learned my favorite part was the storyboarding, so comics became a natural medium for me to explore.

For Messy Roots, I wanted to magically transport the reader into my shoes as they undergo the same identity-seeking journey I did. From squirming in embarrassment as the entire school mocks the Asian mathlete, to staring in awe at the beautiful Wuhan skyline reflected on the Yangtze river the first time I went back to my hometown, to my internal battle with identity portrayed by the white rabbit from Chinese candies and folklore. Comics enable me to marry my storytelling with my art to give readers the full, immersive experience.

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

Makoto Shinkai’s works, Weathering With You and Your Name. Tillie Walden. Anime and manga I grew up on, like Yotsuba, Naruto, and Haikyuu. Comedy TV, like SNL, Parks and Recreation, and Sex Education.

In light of the pandemic and this being a memoir, this story seems like a highly intimate and potent project for you. Could you discuss some of the craft elements you utilized when trying to depict the personal?

Talking about personal and sometimes traumatic events is incredibly hard, especially when sharing with millions of strangers! However, in the same way I often cope with bad memories through humor, I balance out the heavier scenes with comedic ones throughout the book. It lets the reader take in all the Big Feelings while also allowing them a break before the next Big Feeling. 

I also depicted some intangible feelings through motifs, such as the dream-like scenes with the white rabbit from Chinese candies and folklore that symbolize my internal battle with my Asian American identity, and the moon being hidden by clouds as signs of my closeted feelings.

What are some things you would want readers to take away from Messy Roots?

I hope readers understand that everyone’s search for identity and home is different and complex. And that’s okay!

I just wrote a whole memoir about it, and every day I’m learning new things about myself. However, by letting your voice shine above the doubts, you’ll realize the right people and places will naturally gravitate towards you. No matter how messy your roots are.

What advice might you have to give to other aspiring creators?

Post terrible work! 

Yes, you heard right. The quicker you get over your perfectionism, the faster you’ll finish projects, get feedback, improve, and overcome imposter syndrome or “artist stage fright”. I give myself a deadline for when I must post the art, finished or not. Even if it has mistakes, after I post, I realize 99% of people never even notice. Ultimately my goal is to tell a story; I don’t need to be perfect to be impactful. 

When I look at “The Wuhan I Know” I see plenty of ways I could’ve improved it, and I’m sure I’ll feel the same about my book when it comes out, but if I kept the comic in my drafts trying to get it perfect, I’d never have published it and gotten the book deal to give me my dream career. 

Besides your work as an artist what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

I lived nomadically last year, splitting my time between Taiwan and Europe, and would love to continue exploring the world while drawing and hunting for the best bread. I also build websites and apps for various nonprofits. My bucket list includes biking every major long-distance trail in the world, and starting a media company that only creates queer joy content.

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

What’s your favorite queer ship? Korrasami hands down.

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

I’m currently working on my second book, which will be a queer rom-com about astrology throwing a group of teens’ lives into a hot mess! 

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

Any book by Tillie Walden, She Drives Me Crazy by Kelly Quindlen, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal, Flamer by Mike Curato, and Stone Fruit by Lee Lai.

Interview with Xiran Jay Zhao

Xiran Jay Zhao (they/them) is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Iron Widow series. A first-gen Hui Chinese immigrant from small-town China to Vancouver, Canada, they were raised by the internet and made the inexplicable decision to leave their biochem degree in the dust to write books and make educational content instead. You can find them on Twitter for memes, Instagram for cosplays and fancy outfits, TikTok for fun short videos, and YouTube for long videos about Chinese history and culture. Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is their first middle grade novel.

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

What can you tell us about your upcoming book, Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor? What inspired the story?

It’s a middle grade adventure I pitch as Chinese Percy Jackson meets Yugioh! It features a 12-year-old Chinese American boy who’s not really connected to his Chinese heritage, but is compelled to go on a journey across China to fight historical and mythical figures and heist real artifacts after the First Emperor of China possesses his AR gaming headset. I was inspired to write this story when my friend Rebecca Schaeffer, author of the Not Even Bones series, encouraged me to try my hand at writing MG, since I’d been hyper fixating on Chinese history and myth, and myth stories make for very good MG novels. Immediately I thought of doing a Chinese take on Yugioh, the most formative anime of my childhood, in which I would combine modern gaming tech with ancient myths and magic.

When did you know you were first interested in writing, and what drew you specifically to speculative fiction and writing for young adult and middle grade audiences?

I’ve always had stories in my head inspired by the media I love. 7-year-old me would babble imaginary scenarios to my friends at recess—which I now recognize as basically Yugioh fanfiction. So in a way, I really came full circle on that with this book! I write kidlit because I’m drawn to coming of age stories, having had quite a tough time finding my identity while growing up. Writing kidlit allows me to share what I’ve learnt along the way to future generations, and I hope it can help them in some way. Not to mention that I can be as wacky as I want!

From the looks of the synopsis description, it looks like this book will explore the themes of diaspora and Chinese identity. As a member of a different diaspora myself, I’m curious what working on these subjects has meant to you as an author, exploring it within Zachary’s character and your writing in general?

Zachary Ying—both the book and character—pull deeply from the inner turmoil I struggled with when I was around his age (12). That was when I first immigrated from China to a small town in Canada and landed in a school where I was the only Asian kid. My experience there plummeted my self-esteem, and it took me years to unpack the shame I was made to feel about my heritage and identity. I’m incredibly grateful that I now get to write the books I wish I had when I was younger. Through my stories, I hope I can help the next generation of diaspora come to terms with their identity, so they will have a smoother adolescence than mine.

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

I figure out the character arc I want my protagonist to have, the specific goal they’re trying to achieve in the story, then how the antagonist(s) competes with them for that goal. I used to have a problem with my plots meandering, but I solved it by constantly keeping in mind what my antagonist is doing and building a push and pull between my protagonist and antagonist. Then I whine nonstop to my friends about how impossible it’ll be to finish the book until I finish the book. I love worldbuilding and imagining the exciting scenes I want to put in a book, but putting the actual story to words is an absolute chore for me.

Were there any author, books, or media influences you feel have helped shaped you as a writer?

As mentioned before, Yugioh is the biggest direct inspiration for this book. I’ve always loved how Yugioh blends ancient magic with sci-fi technology—they don’t have to be kept in separate genres! I’m also inspired by a lot of Yugioh-adajcent shonen anime like Dragon Ball Z and Saint Seiya, plus superhero comics on the Western side. For some reason, I seem really drawn toward media that’s meant to target teenage boys. As for books, Lemony Snicket, Laini Taylor, Marie Lu, Rick Riordan, and Wu Cheng’en are some authors who’ve had big influences on me!

In addition to being a writer, you are also known for your YouTube videos discussing Chinese history and representation (and for your amazing costume!) May I ask how you got into both?

I got really into Chinese history a few years ago when I was in a pretty dark place in my life. Finding the stories of defiance and resilience in the historical records inspired me like nothing else. While there’s “typical Chinese culture” that seems to make everything about Confucianism and obedience and sticking within your designated social roles, there has also always been a counterculture that rebelled against that, and that spirit is just as Chinese. I think there’s much misunderstanding about Chinese culture from Western points of view, so I’ve made it my life’s mission to demystify it by spreading the stories I love. I didn’t have serious thoughts about becoming a YouTuber until I accidentally blew up with my first video though. I just wanted to rant about how terrible I found the 2020 live action Mulan movie, and Twitter wasn’t enough to express all my feelings, so I recorded a 35 minute video on a shoddy camera and made a YouTube account to throw it up there. Next thing I knew, the video had hundreds of thousands of views and my brand new account had more than 80 thousand subscribers from the single upload. I knew I couldn’t waste that platform, so I committed to making more videos. The costumes and clothing are stuff I’ve accumulated in my closet in my years of cosplaying. Turns out, the editing and makeup skills I’ve picked up from being active in fandom spaces translate really well to YouTubing.

As a queer writer, you are known for including some pretty cool queer characters within your work (including polyamory within Iron Widow, which is still pretty rare in YA!) Would you mind discussing what queer representation means to you (and whether we might see any in Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor?)

Oh yes, Zachary Ying is a queer book! Let’s just say his Chineseness isn’t the only identity Zack has to come to terms with. I will never write a book without queer rep because I’ve experienced what it’s like to crawl and scavenge for crumbs of representation when I was younger (and mainly by hanging onto characters the official creators will never admit to being queer), and that’s not something I want the next generation to go through. I want them to have a selection so large that they can find exactly what delights them.

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

Who are my inspirations when it comes to pop history outreach? The answer is famous Chinese historians like Yuan Tengfei, Meng Man, and Yi Zhongtian! Indeed, Chinese media has famous historians and archeologists who constantly appear on TV. A big show that broke them out was Lecture Hall (百家讲堂), which aired every day around noon and featured a professor giving a lecture on a certain topic, often history. I used to catch it every day during lunch break when I went to school in China (did you know Chinese schools and work give like 2-hour lunch breaks because you’re supposed to take a noon nap?). I never would’ve become so interested and knowledgeable in Chinese history without exposure to these amazing lecturers. My YouTube style is very inspired by them—I sit there and talk for a long time while giving my own opinions freely instead of doing short animated videos like most HistoryTubers. I’m grateful this works for me because I have neither the talent to do animations like that nor the restraint to talk about a topic for just 5-10 minutes.

Aside from being an author, what are some things you would want others to know about you?

I am honestly a huge mess of a person. My life is not glamorous as it may seem. It involves a lot of sleeping and waking up at improbable hours and stressing out over deadlines.

What advice would you give for aspiring authors?

When you’re on your first draft, stop constantly going back and editing. Power through the whole thing so you train yourself to actually finish books, THEN dive into the mess to edit. This way, you’ll avoid the trap of being one of those writers who starts a lot of stories but can’t finish them.

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

Linden A. Lewis’ THE FIRST SISTER is a mind blowing space opera, pitched as Red Rising meets The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s seriously SO GOOD and has amazing queer characters. Please read it! There’s a full review on my website if you wanna know more.

SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN by Shelley Parker-Chan, a genderbent retelling of the founding of the Ming dynasty, should appeal to those who enjoy the historical aspect of my books as well.

FRAGILE REMEDY by Maria Ingrande Mora, a YA sci-fi, gave me huge Yugioh 5D’s vibes, so I’d recommend it for fellow Yugioh fans.

CUTE MUTANTS by SJ Whitby is a delightfully chaotic and queer take on superheroes!

Interview with Author Adiba Jaigirdar

Adiba Jaigirdar is the critically-acclaimed and bestselling author of The Henna Wars and Hani & Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating. A Bangladeshi/Irish writer and teacher, she has an MA in Postcolonial Studies from the University of Kent, England and a BA in English and History from UCD, Ireland. All of her writing is aided by tea, and a healthy dose of Janelle Monáe and Hayley Kiyoko. When not writing, she is probably ranting about the ills of colonialism, playing video games, or expanding her overflowing lipstick collection. She can be found at @adiba_j on Twitter and @dibs_j on Instagram.

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

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 Bangladeshi-Irish author and former ESL teacher. I was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, but have been living in Dublin, Ireland since the age of 10. I love reading and playing video games in my spare time. 

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

I’ve always loved storytelling since before I could even read. So once I learned how to read and write, writing stories seemed only a natural progression of my love of storytelling. Some of the most memorable books I read are from when I was a teenager, many of them being Young Adult books. I think of them as formative to me, both as a person and as a writer. I think this is the case for a lot of people. The stories that we grow the most attached to, the ones that we remember and often go back to, are the ones that we read when we were teenagers. And so, I wanted to write those stories that hopefully help teens see themselves, and that I hope stay with kids for a long time. 

How would you describe your writing process? 

Chaotic. I don’t really have a single writing process. I try a bunch of different things with each book that I write and see what works and doesn’t work. I like to go where the story and characters take me. 

As a queer Jewish person, can I say how cool it is that your books feature complex queer characters of faith. Would you mind speaking a bit about what that kind of representation, or what representation in general means to you?

Sadly, I think a lot of the world views faith and queerness as mutually exclusive. In my experience, when we have this quite narrow point of view, we drive people away from faith, and oftentimes we also make people feel uncomfortable with their own sexuality. I’ve always simply wanted to write stories that feel authentic to my experiences, or the experiences of people that I know, and that includes the representation of people from religious backgrounds who are also queer. And so that’s the representation I often end up writing, because it’s true to my experiences. 

Did you draw on any specific sources of inspiration while writing your debut novel, The Henna Wars, and your more recent novel, Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating, i.e. books, movies, music, etc.? Where do you draw inspiration or creativity in general?

In general, I draw inspiration from anything and everything. For Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating, specifically I was inspired by the TV show Faking It. I was a little annoyed at the sapphic representation and the bisexual representation in it, and so I just wanted to write my own version of a sapphic fake dating story, where the representation was more authentic to my experiences, and the sapphic characters got to have a happy ending. 

One of the notable things about your novels, is not only featuring Bangladeshi/Muslim characters but also queer characters from Ireland, something that is still rare (though getting less so) in YA. What do you think are some of the distinctions between US centric and Irish YA/cultures, in terms of queerness or in general?

This is a difficult question to answer because I’m not from the US, so I don’t actually know what US culture looks like in terms of queerness or really, in general. I know America is also hugely influenced by religion, but I do think a big part of queerness in Ireland comes with having to unlearn a lot of the harm that the Catholic church has perpetrated over the years. Most of our schools are single-sex and run by the church, and we often have nuns as teachers and principals, and if not that, then living on school campus. This is the kind of school I went to (and I graduated just a decade ago), and there were no out students during my school years. There was also quite a bit of homophobia which was probably both a result of the culture and the times. Ireland has come a long way in terms of this though, and we were the first country in the world to vote for marriage equality by way of popular vote. 

Besides being a writer, what are some things you would want your readers to know about you?

My favourite way to unwind is by playing video games. My favourite video game franchise is probably Uncharted, closely followed by Assassin’s Creed. But I love any good action/adventure game that has a compelling storyline and enjoyable gameplay. I also like to read a lot of adult thrillers in my downtime, and find them very comforting to read when I’m feeling down. 

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

What’s your favourite flavour of donut? I love coffee flavoured donuts. 

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

Later this year, my first YA historical will be released. It’s called A Million to One and it’s about four girls who board the Titanic in order to steal a rare jewel-encrusted book. Next year, I have another romcom coming out called Donut Fall In Love. It follows a Bangladeshi-Irish girl who joins a Great British Bake-Off style reality TV show, only to find that her ex is one of the competitors, along with another girl who she may be developing a crush on. 

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

There are so many I love. I would definitely recommend any book by Alechia Dow, who writes the most wonderful sci-fi books starring LGBTQ+ characters. I highly recommend Ace Of Spades by Faridah Abike-Iyimide, which is a brilliant thriller pitched as Get Out meets Gossip Girl. I am a huge Nina LaCour fan, so I would recommend absolutely anything she has ever written, because it’s all brilliant. In terms of romance, I love Meet Cute Diary by Emery Lee, She Drives Me Crazy by Kelly Quindlen, and Fifteen Hundred Miles From The Sun by Jonny Garza Villa.

Interview With Editor Shelly Romero

Shelly Romero (she/her) was born and raised in Miami by Honduran parents. She now resides in New York City where she is forever chasing the perfect café Cubano and pan tostado. 

She is a member of Latinx in Publishing, People of Color in Publishing, is a junior mentor for the Representation Matters Mentorship Program, and a planning committee member for DVcon. Shelly was selected as Publishers Weekly Star Watch 2020 Honoree, which “shines a light on innovative, talented professionals from all parts of the industry.”

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

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

Thank you so much for having me! And of course! In a nutshell, I’m currently the Lead Editor at Cake Creative. I’ve been in publishing for nearly five years, which feels like a lifetime to be honest. I’m a proud Honduran American, daughter to immigrants. A lot of what drives my work in publishing is the fact that I never saw myself represented in the pages of the books I devoured as a kid and teen. So my aim is to publish stories by BIPOC creators that showcase the range of our experiences. 

Outside of my work, I’m a huge fan of all things horror. I write Ghoul Gal, a horror pop-culture newsletter. Every year, (around this time actually), I begin planning my annual trip to Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights. I’m also a big fan of going to concerts, so I try to see as many artists and bands that I love in a year. 

And I’m a Sagittarius Sun, Rising, and Taurus Moon ☺ 

How would you describe your literary/ geeky tastes and preferences?

Oh, that’s such a good question. It’s hard for me to pin-point it because outside of loving horror, I do read a lot of genres. Though, I’m less of a fan of epic high fantasy nowadays. Space operas are also tricky for me. Westerns are definitely a no. But almost everything else is fair game if it interests me enough. 

And despite my goth sensibilities and interests, I love a good, fluffy rom-com or coming-of-age story.

As an editor, how would you describe your journey into publishing?

I always credit joining the staff of Harbinger, Stephens College’s literary magazine, as a catalyst. Before my freshman year of college, I changed my major to English from fashion design. I had wanted to be a designer for so many years but realized that it just wasn’t in the cards for me. I had always been a bookworm so switching to English felt like the best choice. 

I didn’t grow up knowing that a career as a book editor was possible. But when I joined Harbinger, I absolutely loved learning about the history of lit magazines, about how to work collaboratively on a team to read submissions and then publish our selections in the new editions of the mag. 

From there, I ended up interning at The Missouri Review for two semesters, as well as continuing my work on Harbinger all the way up until I graduated. I served as the 2017 Co-Editor-in-Chief for our “Face the Strange” issue. 

And from there, I decided that I wanted to move to New York and be where publishing was. I ended up doing the 2017 NYU Summer Publishing Institute (SPI) and a few weeks after the program ended, I received a job offer to be an Editorial Assistant at Scholastic. 

Is there anything you wish you had known when you first entered the field?

I wish I would’ve been told more on what it meant to be in editorial. While we got editors who would speak to us at SPI, they were often higher-ups who hadn’t been an assistant in decades and would call working in editorial, “solitary work.” Which couldn’t be further from the truth. I wish I would’ve known that to be an Editorial Assistant means balancing the work of being an admin assistant with being a burgeoning editor who is learning the ropes of the role. 

It’s a tough position that pays pennies. Not to mention, most houses want you to remain an assistant for nearly five years or so. So as you grow your personal editorial skills and begin to acquire, edit, and manage your own lists…you’re also expected to remain assisting your boss(es). 

It is not solitary work at all, either. As an editor, you’re the point of contact between so many other departments that are all necessary to publish a book and get it out in the world. Which means there’s so many meetings to attend. There are often not enough hours in the day to work on your own editorial work because of this…and the industry expects you to just do your submission reading or editing on your own time without overtime which is absolutely absurd. 

What would you say are some of the greatest lessons you learned about the publishing field?

That this industry weaponizes the whole “it’s for the passion of literature” in order to defend its lack of pay, raises, promotions, etc. And it also weaponizes a lack of transparency on so many levels from people who are wanting to enter the industry not knowing where to find resources on how to make a career in publishing to advances and salary discrepancies as well as lack of information into the “publishing process.” 

That you need to be wary and watchful of the people who say they’re allies and that they’re there for you (especially as junior level employees) in public, but their actions and words behind closed doors speak the whole truth.

That community is absolutely necessary to survive and thrive in this industry. I don’t know where I would be without my best friends, the same ones I’m always in twenty different group chats in. They keep me sane, humble, and build me up when I need it. 

And lastly, that you are your biggest advocate. No matter whether you have decent bosses or a supportive team…you are always your biggest advocate and you have to fight for everything you want in your publishing career. 

As someone who is involved in projects from acquisition to publication, what would you share are of the hardest/weirdest/ and coolest parts of the development process?

When I was acquiring, the hardest part was always the week leading up to acquisitions when I was prepping everything necessary for the meeting, including my speech. I don’t think I talk about it as much as I should, but I actually do get a stage fright for public speaking. Which might be surprising to people who know me since I’m very extroverted and loud. But presenting can be very nerve-wracking. In that acquisitions meeting, I was the one who had to convince the higher-ups of the projects and creators that I was head over heels for. That’s another thing I didn’t know about working in editorial – the amount of public speaking necessary. 

Coolest would definitely have to be the cover. I was so grateful to have worked with incredible designers at Scholastic like Steph Yang and Maeve Norton. They would take my concepts and the ideas the authors would provide and work with an artist to bring them to life. And they always knocked it out of the park. But it was always so cool to review the passes and proofs of the covers and see the layers of specs they would have. Showing the author their book’s cover was also just a special moment, I think. It, as well as saying their designed pages, would cement that “my book is being published” feeling.

As a queer woman of color, you’ve probably noticed quite a bit about the successes and failings of the publishing industry when it comes to promoting diversity. Could you share some of your thoughts on this?

How much space do I have? I mean, I tend to talk a lot about this because it’s so consistent. The conversations seem to come back in cycles and it’s usually everyone who wants to change things at different levels vs. the execs and higher-ups who hold the power to change things but never do. 

I think publishing and its gatekeepers have said “yes, we can have a little “diversity” as a treat” and then have become arbiters of what is authentic or not. We’ve seen how the #OwnVoices hashtag went from a helpful tool of amplifying traditionally marginalized authors’ works to being weaponized against those very authors. Ashia Monet recently wrote about this in her essay “The Curse of Good Representation” and further nailed down the nuances of this topic.

I mentioned earlier that people needed to find their communities but also be wary of people who seemed like allies. With that, I also urge creators to fully do their research whenever these agents/agencies, and imprints/publishers do calls for marginalized creators, especially BIPOC. Often, these calls are for unagented creators and that to me is a very slippery-slope that could lead to creators being taken advantage of and/or not being advocated for properly. I see these calls pop up during major moments of tension or unrest in the world. A lot of them popped up after the protests in summer ’20. Yet a lot of these agents, editors, and imprints calling for Black authors or authors of color are filled with all white teams and/or have never really had any BIPOC on their editorial or client lists. So how do you expect BIPOC creators to trust that you’ll take care of them and their writing if you haven’t even shown you can actually support them? Most of the time, I think these calls can do a lot more harm than good. Because support or calls for traditionally marginalized creators shouldn’t only occur during these very traumatic moments if you’re actually wanting to do this work.

Aside from reading and editing books, what are some of your other interests and hobbies?

I love playing video games. I don’t play nearly as much as I used to as a kid, but I’ve grown up with consoles. My first one was a Nintendo GameCube and I was just hooked from there.

Does shopping count as an interest? Haha! You asked me about my style below and this is truly how I feed my wardrobe. But it does stem from my love of fashion and failed childhood dreams of becoming a fashion designer. 

I’m also an avid moviegoer. I have the Season Pass for the Alamo Drafthouse so I tend to watch a lot of movies in the theater. 

Also, how do you have such an immaculate style and where did you develop your gothic aesthetics?

Ah! Thank you so much! That really means a lot. It’s taken me quite a bit of time to find that style. I’ve always been a goth/alt person but now that I’m making my own money, I’ve really been able to experiment with my style as well as support some amazing small shops in the process. I tend to describe my look as “corporate goth.” But I do have quite a mix in my wardrobe which is reflected in my style. That mix includes: alt, Victorian goth, chic, dark academia, vintage (typically 1940s/50s), and 90s in my wardrobe. I do also love corsets and leather-wear like harnesses. 

Now that I feel like I’ve nailed down my clothing, I’ve been buying a lot of accessories (jewelry, hats, bags) and adding them to my outfits of the day to amplify my looks. 

I’m not going to lie…it’s taken me a while to find both the aesthetics that work for me and the confidence to wear those pieces. 

What advice would you have to give to aspiring creatives, both who wish to enter the publishing field and those who wish to be published?

For those who want to enter the industry – protect yourself, pick your fights (unfortunately), be your biggest advocate, and find your community. This industry is not easy and it will try to break you down in so many ways. 

For creators – also find the people who are going to be your advocates. If you’re looking for agents, be sure to research and research and research. If you’re looking for editors or a house to be published at, also do your research. Always do your research. And know that while there are not a lot of us in the industry who are BIPOC or queer, we are here…and we are trying our hardest to fight for your books. 

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)?

This is so hard, but probably what my favorite tattoos are? Which is also a hard question to answer since I currently have 15 (with the 16th scheduled for early April). So, I’ll give you three:

  • I have the lyrics “You, in somber resplendence, I hold” written in my mom’s handwriting on my right arm. The lyrics are from AFI’s “Silver and Cold” which is her favorite song from my favorite band. 
  • On my left arm, I have this really cool vampire kind clutching this sun in the American Traditional style. I was like “I can’t do anymore lyric tattoos!” but I wanted a tattoo based off of my favorite My Chemical Romance song, “The Sharpest Lives.” So, I ended up emailing my artist Brendan Haehnle the lyrics from the chorus and that I wanted a vampire and then to just have at it. The design was a complete surprise until the appointment. And it was just such an amazing piece that was well worth the pain.
  • One of my biggest pieces is a scarecrow –based off of the scarecrow briefly seen at the beginning of Sleepy Hollow (1999)– with a murder of crows all surrounding it. It’s gorgeous and done in the signature style of the Murray twins who own Black Veil near Salem, MA. They have been dream artists of mine and I got to have Ryan Murray tattoo me in December 2020.

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

Professional – I cannot say too much other that there are some coming down the pipeline that are projects of my heart and I am so excited for them. Y’all will have to wait and see 😉

Personal – I’m trying to focus on my own writing when I can. I love writing Ghoul Gal because it feels very much a thing for me. It would be great to grow but I’m just happy to be writing about the genre that I love so much. 

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

For authors, I highly recommend: 

Aiden Thomas

Ash Van Otterloo

Racquel Marie

Leah Johnson

Julian Winters

Ashley Woodfolk

And Claribel A. Ortega

For books: 

THE WITCHERY by S. Isabelle – which I had the honor of editing and it publishes this coming July!

Interview with Graphic Novelist Jessi Zabarsky

Jessi Zabarsky lives in Chicago with her cat and forty three plants. She was raised in the woods and will one day return there. Her first graphic novel, Witchlight, was published by Random House Graphic in 2020. You can find her online at @jessizabarsky.

I had the opportunity to talk with Jessi, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself and your latest book, Coming Back?

Hi, I’m Jessi! I make comics with a lot of plants, magic, food, and big difficult feelings in them. Coming Back is about two young women, Preet and Valissa, who love each other very much but still have trouble navigating each other’s desires and beliefs. A threat appears in their isolated community, and soon afterward they each have to depart on separate journeys, both of which strike at the heart of their respective anxieties.

What drew you to comics? Were there any comics or artists you believe who inspired you and/or influenced your own personal style?

I’ve read comics from a pretty early age, but I think reading the first volume of Ranma ½ was when it clicked for me that comics were something that I could make, too. Takahashi’s work in general is a big influence on me, plus Miyazaki movies, the Nausicaa manga, and YA fantasy authors like Diana Wynne Jones and Tamora Pierce. I also have a deep love for picture books, especially ones with lots of little fiddly bits to look at in the illustrations.

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

Writing is really fun and inking is so satisfying to me. Thumbnails are the hardest! There’s so much to keep in your head at once, it takes a ton of focus and mental effort. Good thumbnails also make penciling easier, so I have to try extra hard at them. 

In addition to your latest book, Coming Back, your debut graphic novel, Witchlight, is also known for its beautiful queer characters. What does representation on the page (queer or otherwise) meant to you as an artist and reader?

I mostly want to reflect all the different kinds of people I see around me, it just feels natural. I also get bored of drawing the same type of person over and over very quickly! I love fantasy and sci fi, and when I started Witchlight, I wasn’t seeing a lot of comics with queer characters in those settings. I want to make and read the kinds of fantastical stories with rich worlds that I love, with different types of people as the leads. I want so many varieties of queer stories that it stops feeling like its own genre. I want fantasy that happens to feature queer people, and for that to feel completely unremarkable.

For those curious about the process behind a graphic novel, how would you describe the process? 

The process varies person to person and project to project, but generally I start with a script, then do thumbnails, then page layouts and pencils on paper, and inks directly on top of the pencils. Then I scan the pages into my computer, do digital cleanup and fixes, lettering, and finally, color. With a publisher, they’ll want the front cover figured out earlier in the process, so that gets worked in around halfway or a bit later. It’s a long road and requires a lot of different skills!

What advice would you give to aspiring creatives who would want to create their own comics, whether as artists, writers, or both?

Start making comics. Use whatever paper you have on hand and whatever you have to draw with (I made my very first comics in lined notebooks with regular pencils). Start with something low pressure, like a gag comic or journal comics. It can help to give yourself constraints, like the same panel structure every time, at first. Read lots of comics formats- newspaper strips, webcomics, manga, superhero comics, YA comics- check your library, most now have at least one comics section, if not several. Read critically- what do you like/dislike and why? Where do you get confused and what would you do to fix the problem? What works really smoothly? What stands out?

If you’ve already been making comics for a while, find tricks and shortcuts where you can. Making comics takes a lot of time and effort and you are one finite person! Remember that people read comics very quickly and no one will notice if every panel isn’t perfect. Work hard but make sure you’ll also be able to work for a long time! Do your stretches!!

Are there any other project ideas you are working on and at liberty to discuss?

I’ve got secrets in the works but for now you can check my social media (IG @hug_box, Twitter @jessizabarsky) for weekly journal comics where I draw myself as a small rabbit.

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

‘Hey, Jessi, why do you draw the moon as full in nearly every instance regardless of the time that’s passed in the story?’

Thank you for noticing, it’s because circles are a great design element and I love the moon and she deserves it.

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

I really love the Hakumei & Mikochi manga! It’s plausibly deniable in its queerness, but it centers two tiny “roommates” who live in the base of a tree and cook, shop, eat, and explore together (they’re wives). There are also several other female characters who definitely don’t have crushes on each other. 

For more direct queerness, I’ve been really enjoying the book series that begins with A Memory Called Empire, a space opera about colonialism and selfhood. And an all-time favorite of mine, Ursula Le Guin’s short stories are really excellent for imagining different ways of thinking about sex, gender, and relationships!

Interview with Author Darcie Little Badger

Darcie Little Badger is a Lipan Apache writer with a PhD in oceanography. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, Elatsoe, was featured in Time Magazine as one of the best 100 fantasy books of all time. Elatsoe also won the Locus award for Best First Novel and is a Nebula, Ignyte, and Lodestar finalist. Her second fantasy novel, A Snake Falls to Earth, received the Newbery Honor and is on the National Book Awards longlist. 

I had the opportunity to talk with Darcie, which you can read below.

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

It’s great to be here!

My name is Darcie, and I’m a Lipan Apache writer with a PhD in oceanography. My scholarly interests include toxin-producing plankton, transcriptomics, and the deep sea, especially its weird stuff. I once worked as a researcher and scientific editor, but I transitioned to full-time writing after my debut book, Elatsoe, was published. Since then, I’ve released A Snake Falls to Earth, another young adult (YA) fantasy.

What else? Oh, yeah, when I was an undergrad, Princeton rejected me from the creative writing program twice. After that, my debut was featured in Time Magazine as one of the best 100 fantasy books of all time, and my second book received the Newbery Honor.

For fun, I take long walks, read, watch horror movies, and play rhythm games like Beat Saber. When my spouse Taran is also free, we go on adventures together. 

As a writer, what do you think drew you to young adult fiction, especially speculative fiction?

I’ve always enjoyed reading spec fic; my mom introduced me to science fiction and fantasy (she was an original Trekkie), and growing up, I haunted the SFF shelves in bookstores and libraries. Guess I’m creating what I love!

As for choosing to write YA fiction: the books I read as a teenager made an incredible impact. They provided happiness and solace when I was a shy, bullied kid; they fed my imagination, encouraging me to dream; they shaped the person I was and would become. I hope that my books make a similar difference in the lives of young readers.

What can you tell us about your latest book, A Snake Falls from Earth? Where did the inspiration for this story come from? 

A Snake Falls to Earth is told through two perspectives. The first main character, Nina, is a human teenager living in a near-future version of Texas. Her great-great grandmother tells her a story in Lipan, and Nina is initially motivated by the desire to understand this story and its significance to her family.

The second main character, Oli, is a cottonmouth snake person who lives in a land of spirits, monsters, and magic. After he’s unceremoniously cast from home, Oli learns to survive on his own, making lots of friends (and a few enemies) in the process. Unfortunately, his new best friend becomes terribly sick, and the only cure is on Earth.

At that point, the two characters meet, their stories interweaving, and Nina and Oli help each other save their friends and family.

The structure, themes, and characters in this book are heavily inspired by the Lipan stories Mom told me. In particular, several of Oli’s early chapters are self-contained misadventures with larger-than-life characters—similar to my favorite traditional stories—that tie into the greater plot. 

In addition, my background as a geoscientist informed the environmental features of near-future Texas. In Nina’s world—that is, her homeland—hurricanes are becoming stronger, temperatures are rising, and the survival of vulnerable plant and animal species is a serious concern. Amidst these difficulties and others, Nina and her family fight to remain on their traditional land.

Where did the inspiration for your first book, Elatsoe, come from? Also note, as a aspec reader, I just really want to thank you for writing more aro-ace characters into the world!

Thank you! It’s my pleasure!

As a teenager, I wrote a short story about a haunted house. Its ghost causes mysterious drafts and screeches “Hello!” in a shrill, inhuman voice. A bunch of meddling kids sneak into the house on a dare and discover that the ghost belongs to a parrot. They free its spirit by opening an old metal cage in the attic. 

Since then, I’ve amused myself by thinking about all the cool supernatural powers different creatures—velociraptors, mosquitoes, sharks, etc—would have. This fascination led to Elatsoe’s original story seed: a person who can raise animal ghosts. That person became Ellie, the hero of Elatsoe

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

Sometimes, writing is so fun, I don’t wanna do anything else. That’s my favorite part: the joy of creation. I let stories sweep me up and take me on adventures.

Unfortunately, the amount of time required to finish a novel is really frustrating. My typical daily word count is 500-700, which means first drafts take at least 6 months, accounting for weekends off. Thing is, the stories are itching to leap out of my head and onto the page. I get impatient—so much to write, so little time!—but that’s life.

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

If you could master any instrument, what would it be?

The saxophone. 

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

Oh, gosh, I can share that I’m writing a third YA fantasy book. The contract’s signed, but it hasn’t been announced yet, so I’m unable to say more. Stay tuned!!

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

Here are a couple words of advice to aspiring writers:

First, everyone has a different writing journey. What works for me may not work for you; in other words, there’s no one right way to be a writer. But I can make a few general suggestions. When writing, take breaks, if needed. Don’t compare yourself harshly with others. And most of all, write the stories that make you happy and/or are creatively fulfilling.

Above all, persevere.

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

Check out Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction. It’s edited by Joshua Whitehead and has a great TOC of Indigenous writers you should follow. 

Interview with Authors Katherine Locke & Nicole Melleby

Katherine Locke (they/them) lives and writes in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with their feline overlords and their addiction to chai lattes. They are the author of The Girl with the Red Balloon, a 2018 Sydney Taylor Honor Book and 2018 Carolyn W. Field Honor Book, as well as The Spy with the Red Balloon. They are the co-editor and contributor to It’s A Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes and Other Jewish Stories, and a contributor to Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens and the forthcoming Out Now: Queer We Go Again. They are also the author of Bedtime for Superheroes and What are Your Words?. They not-so-secretly believe most stories are fairy tales in disguise. They can be found online @bibliogato on Twitter and Instagram.

Nicole Melleby (she/her/hers), a born-and-bread Jersey native, is an award-winning children’s author. Her middle grade books have been Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selections, and have earned the Skipping Stones Honor Award, as well as being a 2020 Kirkus Reviews best book of the year. Her debut novel, Hurricane Season, was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. She currently teaches college literature and creative writing, and spends most of her free time roller skating. She lives with her wife and their cat, whose need for attention oddly aligns with Nicole’s writing schedule. You can find her on Twitter @NeekoMelleby.

Katherine and Nicole co-edited the short story collection This Is Our Rainbow: 16 Stories Of Her, Him, Them, And Us which is available now. I had the opportunity to interview them both, which you can read below.

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

KL: Hi! I’m Katherine Locke, co-editor and contributor to THIS IS OUR RAINBOW, a queer anthology for readers 9-12 years old, as well as the author of WHAT ARE YOUR WORDS?, THE GIRL WITH THE RED BALLOON, and the forthcoming THIS REBEL HEART, amongst other titles. I’m a nerd, a cat lover, a horse lover, a writer, and a huge fan of naps. 

NM: Hi! I’m Nicole Melleby, and I am a New Jersey native who spends way too much time by the ocean. I currently teach creative writing and literature classes with a couple of New Jersey universities, and I spend most of my free time roller skating. My debut novel, Hurricane Season, was a Lambda Literary finalist, and I live with my wife and our cat, Gillian, who is basically a puppy. Seriously—she even plays fetch!

How did you find yourself becoming an author? What drew you to telling your first story and what makes you keep going? 

KL: I have been writing ever since I was a little kid! My earliest stories were essentially fanfiction about my life where my mom and I had a farm, I was an only child, and there were plenty of animals. It was true wish fulfillment writing. I wrote my first novel in high school (it was very bad but I’m impressed I finished it!) and kept going. I love stories. I see the world in stories and I hear stories and I’m always dreaming up stories. I think it’s so fun to explore new worlds and new characters, and I find myself learning how to deal with this real world through fiction. I can’t imagine my life without writing, so I guess that’s what keeps me going! 

NM: When I was eight, I saw the Nickelodeon movie Harriet the Spy. I was obsessed, I loved everything about it, but I especially loved the main character, Harriet, and the way she always carried around a notebook to write things in. I used to beg my parents to buy me marble composition notebooks just like the one Harriet had every time they went to a store that carried them, and I would fill those notebooks up with everything. I started off by taking notes about the people around me much like Harriet did while spying, and from there I started writing stories instead. I’ve been writing stories ever since.

Katherine Locke

A good number of your books are queer middle-grade fiction. Was there anything that drew you to writing for this age group? Is there anything about writing middle-grade to you that is distinctive than writing for other age groups?

NM: I actually started with writing young adult. I got my MFA for young adult literature and then slowly found my way to middle grade. I have more of a middle grade voice; I don’t know what it says about me that my natural voice is that of a 12-year-ol, but it’s true! The more I started writing about that age group, the more it felt right, especially because all of my characters are queer and I think that’s such an important time to see that reflected in these books, as you’re slowly understanding who you are. I read once that young adult novels have the characters trying to explore themselves outside of their friends and family, but for middle graders, it’s about exploring who you are within your friends and family and within the people around you, because you’re too young to really have that independence, and I like that. I like being able to write about these characters within the world around them. That’s really what I love about middle grade books.

How would you describe your writing process? Are there any patterns or habits you have to help with inspiration or productivity? 

KL: I like to work around other people! If my bed is within reach, I will nap (see also: the first question.) So I tend to write at cafes (pre-COVID) and when I’m on writing retreats, I like to write in a busy room with headphones on. I usually like to have a hot beverage nearby (tea or chai lattes). I write with and without music, depends on my mood. My writing process is a lot of trial and error. I like to know a lot of emotions and moods and vibes of the book before I go in, but all the nitty gritty details come to me as I work. I go through many drafts to get to the book I want to write.

NM: When I write, I like to be as comfortable as possible—usually with a soft blanket wrapped around me, a huge cup of coffee, and my cat Gillian awkwardly splayed out in my lap. I don’t write to music, I find it distracting, but I do usually have the Food Network on in the background because I can’t write to silence, either. I’ve also always been a “character first, plot later” kind of writer—which I think I get from my love of soap operas and their focus on character and relationships.

As a writer, you have explored themes tied to both Jewish and queer identities in your characters, as seen in The Girl with the Red Balloon and It’s a Whole Spiel. Can you discuss your connection to that? 

KL: Yes! I am both Jewish and queer. It’s really important to me to share those identities on the page, both together and separate. It’s how I connect to the kinds of stories I want to tell. 

What Are Your Words? A Book About Pronouns features a young non-binary child discussing switching pronouns. As a non-binary author yourself would you say this story might be a bit personal to you? 

KL: Though I’m nonbinary, I’m not as genderfluid as Ari, the character in the story, is. Ari’s pronouns change, but mine stay they/them. But Ari’s feels about how pronouns feel when they aren’t the right pronouns is definitely personal. And I hope to grow up to be as supportive and affirming as Uncle Lior in the book!

Nicole Melleby

Your latest book, How to Become a Planet, deals with the sensitive issue of mental health, specifically depression and anxiety. What drew you to writing about this topic?

NM: I wanted to show that mental illness can be a lifelong issue. I wanted to let Pluto explore what it meant for her, now that she has this diagnosis, moving forward. How does it change her? Does it change her? What does it all mean? Getting a diagnosis isn’t the end for Pluto—it’s a new beginning, like it ends up being for a lot of kids (and adults) struggling with mental illness. And it can be scary! She’s got all of these big emotions, and her depression has set her back in a lot of ways while she and her mom were trying to figure out what was wrong, and now that they know what is wrong, where do they go from here? Ultimately, I wanted to show my readers that it’s okay to have these diagnoses, that it doesn’t change who they are, and I wanted to show them that despite it feeling so hard, there is always hope.

What advice would you have to give to other writers starting out as well as those looking to finish their first book? 

KL: Learn to finish books. Unfinished books don’t get published (if that’s your goal). Even if publication isn’t your goal, the art of telling stories relies on the completeness of the telling. Learn to finish books. Even if it feels bad and messy. You can’t fix what you haven’t written.

NM: You don’t have to write every day—I see so many writers wracked with guilt over how much or how little they write day-to-day, and it’s hard! Write how much you want to write, how much you need to write. You decide what those answers are. 

Also: If you’re facing a rejection? I find it best to sing this ridiculous song, because it’s so ridiculous it makes me feel better every single time I have sung it to myself (which has been often, because rejection is part of being a writer!): Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I should just go eat worms. Worms! Worms! Worms!

What’s a message something you directly want to give to the readers of your books? 

KL: I hope you carry that story with you into the world, even for a little bit, and that it stays with you, even for a little bit.

NM: I really just want them to know that they’re not alone, that there are other people who are struggling and that I see them and I’m listening.

Aside from writing, what do you like to do in your free time? 

KL: I ride my horse, take wayyyyy too many photos of my cats, try to remember when I last watered my house plants, read, and spend too much time on the internet!

NM: I love to roller skate with the New Jersey Skate Collective and play roller derby with my Central Jersey Roller Vixens! 

Is there a question you haven’t been asked yet but that you wish you were asked? If so, what is the answer to that question? 

KL: I don’t think so, but thank you for asking this!

NM: Yes! Is there a connection between my (standalone) middle grade novels?
The answer is yes! All of my books (and my short story in This Is Our Rainbow) all take place in the same area of New Jersey—where I call home. Because of this, I make references to my books in my other books: background characters, schools, teachers, locations. I won’t tell you what—you’ll have to read and see if you can spot them yourself! 

Are there any project ideas you are incubating and at liberty to speak about? 

KL: Oooh, great question. I have a project I can’t speak about yet, but I can tell you that I’m working on a Jewish historical portal fantasy with queer characters, and it’s a bit of a glorious mess right now but I’m extremely excited about it. No release date yet! My next books are a picture book called Being Friends with Dragons out now and This Rebel Heart, a queer Jewish historical with a fantastical twist, out April 4, 2022. 

NM: My next book is called The Science of Being Angry, out May 10th, 2022. It’s about an 11-year-old girl named Joey who has anger issues she’s trying to understand. She throws temper tantrums and sometimes gets violent and gets in trouble a lot in school and at home because of it. She’s a triplet, and her brothers never get angry like she does, and neither does her mama, the one of her moms she shares DNA with. In her search to figure out why she is the way she is, she and her best friend (and crush) end up turning to 23-and-Me to try and find out information on the sperm donor her moms used to conceive the triplets. It’s a messy story about family, as Joey tries to fix things so that her mom (the one she doesn’t share DNA with) will love her anyway, and Joey won’t keep hurting the people she loves most, either.

What queer book recommendations would you have to give to the readers of Geeks OUT? 

KL: COOL FOR THE SUMMER by Dahlia Adler is a super fun book about a girl who falls for a girl over the summer but then comes home to start school to find the boy of her dreams is into her—and her summer fling is the new student. And THE CITY BEAUTIFUL by Aden Polydoros is the queer Jewish gothic light horror of my dreams—and it’s historical, which is truly the icing on the cake for me. The writing is *chef’s kiss* perfect. And forthcoming, I would highly recommend FROM DUST A FLAME by Rebecca Podos out now!

NM: Some recent queer middle grade books that I loved are: A Touch of Ruckus by Ash Van Otterloo, The Best Liars in Riverview by Lin Thompson (out March 2022), and Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston by Esme Symes-Smith (out Spring 2022).