Interview with Authors Sofía Lapuente & Jarrod Shusterman

Sofía Lapuente (she/her) is an author, screenwriter, and avid world traveler who immigrated from Spain to the United States to realize her dream of storytelling. Since then, she has received a master’s degree in fine arts at UCLA, worked as a producer and casting director on an Emmy-nominated show, and received co-author credits in Gleanings, the New York Times bestselling fourth installment of the Arc of a Scythe series, with her partner, Jarrod Shusterman. Together, the couple writes and produces film and television under their production company Dos Lobos Entertainment.

Jarrod Shusterman (he/him) is the New York Times bestselling co-author of the novel Dry, which he is adapting for a major Hollywood film studio with Neal Shusterman. He is also the co-author of the accoladed novel Roxy. His books have all received critical acclaim and multiple-starred reviews. Sofí Lapuente and Jarrod are partners in every sense of the word, with love and multiculturalism as an ethos—living between Madrid, Spain, and Los Angeles, California. If they are not working, it means they’re eating. For behind-the-scenes author content and stupidly funny videos, follow them on Instagram and TikTok @SofiandJarrod.

I had the opportunity to interview Sofí and Jarrod, which you can read below.

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

Sofi: Hi there, Jarrod and I are partners! I’m from Madrid, Spain so English is a second language for me—and I immigrated here to make my dream real of writing stories. It’s important for me to represent strong female protagonists, my Hispanic culture, and to make sure everyone feels included in our books <3

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

Jarrod: It started with the thought, that considering all the apps and algorithms, do we really have control over our own thoughts, or does technology? We also heard this crazy concept, that ever since the advent of the smartphone humans have become cyborgs, with our computing systems in our pockets. We’re not the same. It’s like that moment we discovered tools and moved from monkey to man. It happened in our lifetime and it made us think, Why aren’t there more YA books that not just include technology, but talk about it.

Sofi: It got us thinking, can we really live without our smartphones? And in our book RETRO that’s exactly what the characters have to do. They take the Retro Challenge— and if they can make it the whole year without those smart devices they’ll win a full ride scholarship! And they’ll do it in style, dressing in vintage gear and living life like a fun retro movie. Only when contestants start going missing, it’s up to our protagonists Luna and her friends to figure out who is sabotaging the challenge, or maybe they’re next. RETRO is a fun guilty pleasure thriller where you go on this adventure with all these characters who end up being your new best friends! Get ready to laugh, cry, and devour the book like a serious Netflix binge!

How did the two of you come together to work on it?

Jarrod: Sofi and I met rather serendipitously in LA—and we were both working in the Film and Television business at the time, while I was also working on my first novel DRY. After a few months of being together we decided to merge our dreams together and start writing screenplays and novels, and here we are! It’s so amazing to work with your life partner, and you really learn interesting things about them, like: would you go in that burning building? Would you throw a milkshake in jerk person’s face? What would you do if you were kidnapped? Most couples don’t play those scenarios out over dinner, but we like it this way 🙂

Sofía Lapuente Photo Credit Diego Bravo

As writers, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically young adult fiction?

Sofi: For me, as an adult, storytelling is the last true form of magic in the world. You can transport to any place, in any time, you can be anyone and live a thousand lives. And YA fiction is special because it’s about such an awesome formative time of your life. I was also drawn to the amazing industry of YA literature. We have found a world of librarians, teachers, and readers that are some of the coolest people we’ve ever met. And every time we meet a YA author we know that we have so many shared experiences, it’s like we’re the only people in the world who really understand each other. Signings and conferences can be stressful, but in the end, it’s a form of therapy. And the reason everyone is so cool is because we’re writing for young people, so there’s a responsibility, and it makes you a better writer and a better person.

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

Jarrod: I would have to say we are really influenced by ALL media. We’re incredibly influenced by music, and that’s why every chapter title in RETRO is a throwback song, making the index a playlist—that has a QR code so you can listen while you read! I picked up a lot from my father’s books, Neal Shusterman, because when your dad reads you bedtime stories of people getting ‘Unwound’ and ‘Gleaned’ it kind of makes an impression as a kid. And we take A TON from movies and television. Because series aren’t afraid to cross genres, and we think the literary world is moving in that direction too. RETRO is the kind of book that dabbles in many genres, from thriller to drama to comedy with the right amount of romance and chili-pepper spice! 

Sofi: I really appreciate activism. People who fight for the LGBTQIA+ community, feminism, and the immigrant community to name a few. That’s why our characters are so diverse. Because it represents my reality as a Hispanic immigrant and I’m a part of all the aforementioned worlds! 

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

Sofi: My favorite part about writing is definitely when we are shaping the premise and have stars in our eyes. Everything is flowing together, and we are just so excited about the potential of the project. We LOVE to develop fun and quirky characters. And there is no more satisfying feeling than to give voice to these interesting people we are creating—and definitely in an inclusive way that makes everyone feel a part of the story! The most frustrating part is when you’ve written your characters into a corner and you have to get them out, which we all know as ‘writers block’ but there is an easy way out, which is just do research, research, research. The more you learn or invent about your world or characters the more creative pathways you’ll be able to fluently come up with! One of the most difficult parts is definitely after the drafting phase. Rewriting. It’s the most important part of the writing process because it’s when everything comes together and finally takes form as a finished project, but taking notes and applying them and deleting things that you love is just so painful for writers. It’s like your little darling is undergoing surgery, and they are making you do it!

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

Sofi: I love to travel the world with Jarrod! My fist language is Spanish and I have an accent like Puss in Boots <3 I am really passionate in general and I love to laugh loud, dance and party. I’m obsessed with food and it is obsessed with me. I have a really high tolerance for spicy food and we have competitions all the time (and I always win) As a kid I wasn’t incredible bookish, so the passion for reading came from a passion for communicating and storytelling!

Jarrod: We want people to know that we’re really accessible people and we’re always making fun behind the scenes author content and videos on TikTok and IG: @sofiandjarrod You should definitely follow us because we are always doing these contests to see whose name gets to be in our book (there are five winners who are in RETRO) and we often do free giveaways of Advanced reader copies. We just have a ton of fun being ourselves online, and if you ever have a question or something we’ll usually always respond!

Jarrod Shusterman Photo Credit Diego Bravo

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)?

Sofi: This is a great question! We’ve always wanted to hear: “Can I get a ticket to the movie premier?” Because one of our big dreams is to have one of our books adapted, by us, into a movie or a television series. Having started our journey together in Lalaland, California, working in showbiz, there is a huge part of our hearts stuck in that golden age of Hollywood. There’s something so transportive and romantic about it, we simply can’t get enough. Oh, And of, course, the answer to that question is: YES! You are so 100% Invited!”

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

Jarrod: I would tell any aspiring writer that although this is an art form, but more so it is a craft. You have to put in your ten thousand hours or more, and they need to be quality hours. Find a mentor, even if it’s just a book or a master class. Have the humility to accept notes/criticism, and recognize that you are not a reflection of your art, your art is a reflection of you. Don’t take things personally when you didn’t execute something masterfully or have to erase scenes. Because erasing should be easy for a writer, because they must trust in their craft, and in themselves that they can recreate any scene! The first fifty things I wrote totally sucked, so don’t be surprised if your first fifty short stories or scripts or outlines suck too : ) Hey, maybe they don’t suck as bad as mine and you already have a better starting point than I did. Basically, I would say just keep writing, and with the right guidance and effort, you will get it!

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

Sofi: We are currently finishing up our first Adult novel, which we’re about to begin showing publishers this year, so we’re quite excited about that. It’s a dramedy inspired by my crazy life, and my friends’ lives, as Immigrants in the States. Because there’s tough parts to life, but also there’s a lot of warm moments full of friends, love and laughter. Life has highs and the lows—and for us we want our books to always be entertaining—with just the right amount of romance. We’re even developing the second YA novel as well, which we are super excited to write. But it’s a secret project at this point! 

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

Sofi: As for YA we are fans of Kat Cho, Claribel A Ortega, and Adalyn Grace—who wrote BELLADONNA. Then there’s Gina Chen, Alex Aster, Stephanie Garber, Susan Lee, Kristin Dwyer, Margaret Stohl (and the list goes on)! LEGENDBORN by Tracey Deon is amazing, and Adam Silvera’s books like THEY BOTH DIE AT THE END are a must. There’s also our long-time favorite by Nancy Farmer called THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION, which you have to check out! But we are biased because we’re all friends! <3

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

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

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

CW: Discussion of the Holocaust and religious intolerance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They weren’t.  

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

What were the reactions like to Invited to Life?  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m allergic to grapefruit. Tell the waiter.

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

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

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

What advice might you have to give for aspiring artists?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Author Chana Stiefel

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

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

CW: Discussion of the Holocaust and religious intolerance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

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

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

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

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

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

BLOB, by Anne Appert, Harper Collins, 2021.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Author Taleen Voskuni

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

None, I’m happy with all questions asked!

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

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

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

What advice might you give to other aspiring writers?

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

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

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

Then just keep trying! 

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

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

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

Yes! Here are some books that came out recently:

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

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

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

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

Forthcoming books:

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

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

Header Photo Credit Clouds Inside Photography

Interview with Cartoonist Chan Chau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Author Davinia Evans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Header Photo Credit Gray Tham

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Carroll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brian Alessandro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Igor Karash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Author Mike Albo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How would you describe your writing process? 

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

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

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

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

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

What were you put on this earth to do?

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

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Aaron S Lecklider

Faux Queen – a Life in Drag 

by Monique Jenkinson

Feral City: On Finding Liberation in Lockdown New York

By Jeremiah Moss

Header Photo Credit Ali Levin Photography

Interview with Author Maya Deane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How would you describe your writing routine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Hope Larson and Rebecca Mock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope Larson Photo Credit: Lan Bui

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca Mock Photo Credit: Kat Mukai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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