Bred in Alaska, James Sweeney is an actor-turned-playwright-turned-filmmaker. His debut feature, Straight Up, was the Breakthrough Centerpiece at Outfest and distributed by Strand Releasing. I had the pleasure of interviewing him recently, which you can read below.
To start, how did you first find yourself getting involved in the filmmaking industry? What attracted you to it and how do you find yourself wanting to change it?
My first love was theater, then television, and film came later. I do believe good storytelling can positively affect the world, and that, plus the buckets of cash, is what drew me to Hollywood. I would like to see the entertainment industry become more sustainable environmentally and socioeconomically, for upcoming talent and crew alike.
When the trailer for the film first premiered, various people including asexual activist David Jay, picked up on some ace coding for the main character. Were you influenced by the asexual community in any way while writing for this film?
Certainly. We wanted to address asexuality both explicitly and implicitly, but also didn’t want to misappropriate Straight Up by marketing it as an asexual romance because this is a story about two people who enter a sexless relationship for different reasons. Also asexuality is a spectrum, like most terms under the queer umbrella, and the reality is not everyone knows exactly how they want to define themselves by age XYZ (if ever) and I think that’s perfectly okay. So while personally I do see Todd as on the ace spectrum, I don’t know when another label is in the cards for him—and it was important to me to end Todd’s arc with a departure, instead of a destination.
At a movie event in New York, you had described Straight Up as an “homage and deconstruction of rom com and screwball.” Could you expand on this statement and reconstruction on classic film tropes?
The screwball comedy is historically sexless because the genre was popularized during the Hays Code era; Todd and Rory would fit right in. Besides the staple fast-talking banter, the classic screwballs also challenged femininity, masculinity, and gender roles—and I like to believe Straight Up continues that tradition, but updates it for a modern, more fluid generation. As for romantic comedy tropes, we’ve got the meet-cute and the grand gesture, but we also question what even constitutes romantic love, and is it practical or laudable for one person to ‘complete’ you? One of my greatest frustrations with many romance films is how often I don’t understand why the leads even like each other, besides both parties being insanely attractive. In Straight Up, you know it’s not about that.
What’s so unique about this film is its exploration of queer identity, touching on a period intense analyzation/ dissection of “attraction” that is familiar in many queer persons (especially ace persons) lives. Was it always the intention to explore how queer identity exists beyond single word descriptors like “gay?”
Yes. Todd mentions in passing, but the politicalization of the word ‘gay’ had a specific purpose in history for civil rights, but on an interpersonal level, labels can be limiting and detrimental. As our vocabulary for various attractions and orientations expands and is normalized, I hope folks learn to view words as tools for communication, not barriers to distance or disparage others, or yourself.
Within the film there’s a truly captivating chemistry between you (Todd) and Rory (Katie Findlay) on screen. What was the energy like working together on set and would you work on any projects together in the future?
Thank you. Controlled chaos energy levels. And yes, Katie and I are looking to find something else to do together.
In quite a few ways you seem to mirror your protagonist, Todd, in being a queer Asian man navigating his identity in a world that doesn’t reflect it back to him often. In what ways would you say you relate to your own character and what ways do the lines of fiction and reality separate?
On a scale of 6, I’m a Todd 2. Maybe a 3 pre-pandemic when I wasn’t wearing sweatpants every day.
Are there any projects you are currently working on or project ideas you are currently working on and are at liberty to say?
Twins. Parallel universes. That’s all I can say for now.
Ethan M. Aldridge is a New York Times and Indie bestselling author and illustrator. He is the creator of the fantasy graphic novel ESTRANGED (a Junior Library Guild selection, Indie Bestseller, and YALSA Great Graphic Novel For Teens), and its follow up THE CHANGELING KING. Ethan was raised in a small town in Utah.Growing up, Ethan’s favorite things to draw were monsters and whatever dinosaur he liked that week. He now does more or less the same thing for a living. Ethan lives in New York City with his husband, Matthew, and their dog, Kitsune. I got the chance to interview Ethan, which you can read below.
To start with, how did you first come to realize you wanted to be an author/ illustrator? What were some of the stories that originally drew your eye as a child or inspired your artistic journey?
I’ve enjoyed telling stories, and telling stories visually, for about as long as I can remember, though it wasn’t until I was about 16 or so that I realized that doing things like making comics and illustrating books was something I could do as a living. I adored strange detailed fantasies, everything from the book “The Dragons Are Singing Tonight” by Jack Prelutsky and Peter Sis to the epic fantasy films of the 80’s like “Willow” and Jim Henson’s “Labyrinth.” I poured over them again and again as a child.
Much of your work centers around folklore and fae mythology, particularly that of the changeling. What drew you specifically to this story?
I’ve always enjoyed old folklore and fairy tales, for all of their beauty and strange, surreal poetry. Just prior to starting work on my graphic novel series “Estranged,” I became fascinated with changeling stories, where faeries would steal a human baby and replace the child with one of their own. Sometimes the stories are silly, and some pretty sinister, but at their core they all seemed to be about the same thing; a parent is convinced that the child in their care is not who they thought they were. As someone who grew up queer and in the closet, and who didn’t figure myself until much later, these stories seemed all too familiar. In the folktales, the swap is always discovered and the rightful baby returned, but I wanted to see what would happen if that wasn’t so. I wanted to see if the parents would learn to love the child they had, instead of the child they wished for. I wanted to give the story a happier ending, at least for the changeling.
Within your books, the Estranged Series, there are many parallels between one of the protagonist’s dual narratives as a changeling and as a queer teen, including the sense of being and feeling different from the people around you. For years, queer people have often gravitated towards fantasy, why do you think that is?
There are so many themes and tropes in fantasy that resonate with the queer experience; outsiders finding their way through a strange world, transformations, hidden identities. People find impossible loves, change form and gender, escape from inescapable isolation into a world wider and more strange than they ever imagined. Fantasy is all about a life and a world outside of what we are told is possible, and I think that sense is something that speaks to a lot of queer people. We grew up with those feelings in us, so we gravitated to the stories that told us those feelings meant something true and important and beautiful. From changelings to voiceless mermaids to love-lorn princesses locked away in remote towers, queer people have been using fantasy as a way to express feelings of queerness for a long time.
You are currently working on a new project called The Legend of Brightblade. Can you tell us in your own words what it’s going to be about?
It’s a brand new graphic novel about a long journey undertaken by a trio of bards, people who use music and storytelling to weave literal magic. Alto, the youngest child of a storied hero, runs away to create his own legend, and bumps into all sorts of trouble he’s not prepared for. It’s part epic journey, part coming-of-age adventure, and part Battle of the Bands rivalry. It’s about the way stories of the past affect us, and how we tell our own stories in response. It’s also got trolls, elves, a long-haired goat named Knud, and at least one dragon, and that’s always fun.
Hypothetically speaking, if the characters of your books or you yourself could interact with characters from any other fictional universe, where would they be from?
That’s a tricky question! The stories I tend to like the most have very messy protagonists, and the boys from “Estranged” don’t always play well with others. Imagine Edmund from my books meetings, say, Edmund from the Narnia books? It would be chaos. And a lot of sulking.
As a creator what advice would you give to other budding artists/writers on their own creative journeys?
If what you’re interested in is telling stories, then go ahead and do it. Don’t wait for a book deal or a publishing offer. Make sure it’s something you’re interested in, not just something you think you could sell, and make sure it’s something you can finish. Short comics are great for this. Having a complete story you can show to people is very beneficial, both for you and for your would-be readers.
Finally, what are some LGBTQ+ comics or books you would recommend to the readers of Geeks Out?
There have been so many great ones, especially ones that have come out lately! Some of my favorite recent LGBTQ+ comics are “Snapdragon” by Kat Leyh, the Witch Boy series by Molly Knox Ostertag, “Beetle And The Hollowbones” by Aliza Layne, “Mooncakes” by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu, and “TAZ: Petals To The Metal” by Carey Pietsch and Justin, Travis, Griffin and Clint McElroy. There are more coming later this year, like “The Magic Fish” by Trung Le Nguyen, that I’m very excited about
More of Ethan’s work can be found online at ethanaldridge.weebly.com, and on twitter and instagram at @ethanmaldridge
Known for her diverse and beautifully written books, Brandy Colbert is the best-selling author of Pointe, Little & Lion, Finding Yvonne, and now her Middle-Grade debutThe Only Black Girls in Town. Raised in Springfield, Missouri, Colbert currently lives in Los Angeles, and is currently on faculty at Hamline University’s MFA program in writing for children. Geeks OUT’s own Michele Kirichanskaya had an opportunity to interview Brandy Colbert recently, which you can read below.
To start off, congratulations on your debut middle-grade book, The Only Black Girls in Town. Where did the impetus for this book come from and what were your thoughts going into this novel?
Thank you so much! I’m thrilled to be writing for a new age group. I knew I wanted to write a middle grade novel, but I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted it to explore until one day I had the idea: What would happen if you were the only Black girl your age in your town and another Black girl your age moved in? My life doesn’t parallel Alberta’s, but like her, I grew up in a predominantly white town. I had friends at the Black church I attended every week, but I didn’t go to school with any of them and always wished for more Black girls my age at school.
As a critically acclaimed author known for your Young Adult novels, how was the creative process different when writing a novel intended for younger readers? In what ways was the process the same?
At first, I was too focused on that age difference, and tried too hard to make the story read like what I thought a middle grade novel was supposed to sound like. I’ve read a lot of modern middle grade, but I wasn’t quite sure how to make that transition. Once my literary agent told me not to focus too much on that and just write, the story fell into place. I’m still trying to figure out the difference, but I think there is a lighter feel. I’m tackling heavy topics, like in my YA novels, but there is something a bit gentler about being twelve, even though middle-school kids are already dealing with a lot of issues at such a young age. There’s an innocence and openness that unfortunately fades for a lot of people by the time they get to high school, so I tried to capture that sweet spot of being on the cusp of adolescence.
As an author, you have previously included LGBTQ+ characters and themes in your other books, such as the Stonewall awarded book Little & Lion. You have also mentioned in previous interviews that you grew up in an environment not known for much “diversity of any kind.” Has this factored into your persistence to include diverse representation? How important would you say representation is for younger readers today?
I grew up in the Missouri Ozarks, about two hours from the Arkansas border, where it was a bit rough for anyone from a marginalized community. I had a lovely, privileged childhood, but I always felt like I was under a microscope as one of the few Black people in our town. I wanted more people around who looked like me, but I also wanted to meet people from other underrepresented backgrounds to learn about their experiences. I didn’t meet an openly gay person until I was 18, and I remember thinking how brave my coworker and his husband were for living their truth in such a closed-minded region, especially back in the ’90s. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for a long time now, which is one of the most diverse cities in the country, so I try to write the world as it looks for me. Writing a world without LGBTQ+ characters just isn’t realistic to me. But I also like to represent Black kids and other marginalized groups living in towns where they are the “other” because that’s a very real experience, too.
If the characters of your stories could interact with other characters from any fictional universe, which ones would they be and where would they be from?
Ooh! Well, I love animation, and one of my favorite shows of all time is Daria, so I’d love to see my characters go back to the late ’90s to interact with Daria, Jodie, Trent, Jane, and the rest of the Lawndale crew in animated form.
Aside from writing, what do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I love cooking, baking, tap-dancing, reading, yoga, and hiking. I’m also a huge TV fan, and like going to the movies.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers today?
Try to shut out the noise, keep going, and keep improving your craft! That’s advice I have to remind myself of often, as there are so many other things to focus on in the publishing industry. But at the end of the day, all that matters is the work and putting out books that I’m proud of.
Are there any projects you are currently working on or project ideas you are incubating and are at liberty to speak about?
My next YA book, The Voting Booth, will be out on July 7 from Disney-Hyperion, which I’m really excited about! And then there are projects that haven’t yet been announced that I should be able to talk about soon, including my next middle-grade novel. I can’t wait to tell everyone more about them!
Finally, since this is an LGBTQ+ website, are there any LGBTQ+ authors and/or books that have inspired you and your own work? Can you recommend any titles or authors for other readers?
So many! I highly recommend anything by Nina LaCour, Abdi Nazemian, Ashley Herring Blake, Lev (L.C. Rosen), Kacen Callender, and Adib Khorram. I could go on, but these authors are writing really special books that speak to so many kids and teens who’ve never seen themselves depicted in literature before. Their stories are beautiful, sometimes painful, and always real, and I’m so grateful their books are on shelves as both mirrors for kids who desperately need that representation, and windows for people like me, who grew up wanting to know more about communities that were different from mine.
Goldie Vance: The Hotel Whodunit, “Move over, Nancy Drew – there’s a new sleuth in town! Inspired by the beloved comic series, Goldie Vance is ready to sleuth her way through never-before-seen mysteries in this original novel series by Lilliam Rivera featuring 16 full-color comic pages!“
Geeks OUT’s own Michele Kirichanskaya got the opportunity to chat with author Lilliam Rivera about her involvement in the Goldie Vance universe and more!
How did you get involved with the Goldie Vance universe? Did someone from BOOM! Studios reach out to you? Were you a reader of the comics prior to signing onto Goldie Vance: The Hotel Whodunit? Who pitched the idea for the story?
I remember when Goldie Vance comics first appeared back in 2016. I wasn’t well versed in the world but I was definitely a fan of Hope Larson’s work and the lovable Goldie Vance character. When I was approached by Little, Brown for Young Readers about their joint project with Boom! Studios, I was totally game for it. They allowed me full reign to come up with the story idea and it’s been a blast work with both Boom! and Little, Brown.
Prior to this book, you had already written critically acclaimed stories of your own, including The Education of Margot Sanchez and Dealing in Dreams. What was the process like writing a story with an already established universe? What elements felt different or the same versus your usual mode of writing?
Not only was I stepping into a well-created world, it was also my first venture into writing a middle grade. I was definitely a little nervous. I immersed myself in reading everything I could about Goldie Vance and that time period the comics are set in. If you think about it, I’m writing historical fiction middle grade novel so I had to make sure I did research but it was fun learning about the late 1950s culture, the music and fashion. I loved all of it.
What are some of your favorite parts about the Goldie Vance comics and characters?
Goldie is such a go-getter. She doesn’t let anything stop her from solving a case. I love that energy. I need that energy! Her family and friends also just want her to succeed. It was a very different vibe from my usual teenage angst fair I write about in my young adult novels.
Would you be interested in writing novels for any other established universes, i.e. other comics or television/movie projects?
I definitely love exploring other worlds. It’s a challenge I love to take. I’ve written comic books before and I’m currently working on a secret graphic novel so writing for television/movie is inevitable.
Hypothetically speaking, if the characters of your books could interact with characters from any other literary universe, where would they be from?
It would be pretty amazing if Goldie Vance can find herself somehow working alongside literacy’s famous detectives like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple or Sir Anthony Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. They probably wouldn’t know what to do with Goldie because she’s all sunshine and determination!
As a writer, what advice would you give to others, especially diverse writers, who are just starting on on their journey?
My one advice is to finish your projects. I think most people give up before the miracle happens. To consistently write in spite of so many obstacles is the true test. I’m a writer not because of my prose. I’m a writer because I refuse to give up and I know my voice is needed. You have to believe that.
Finally, what are some LGBTQ+ comics or books you would recommend to the readers of Geeks Out?
There are so many great novels and comics out there but I would love to recommend Gabby Rivera’s (No relation to me!) new comics b.b. free, Adam Silvera’s young adult novels, and Hurricane Child by Kacen Callendar.
Once a manager trainer from the outskirts of Atlanta Georgia, Julian Winters (He/Him) is now an acclaimed author of queer YA fiction, including his debut book involving soccer and boys crushing on other boys, Running with Schools. A lovely writer, with a heart of gold and wonderful sense of humor, Julian Winters strives to write intersectional queer literature, focusing on LGBTQ+ characters with multifaceted identities. Now coming out with his latest book, How to Be Remy Cameron, Geeks OUT had the privilege and opportunity to sit down with Winters for an interview.
When and how did you first realize you wanted to become an author?
I first realized I wanted to be an author, not just a writer, probably…it was later on in life. I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t think there was any actual space for me in the author community being black and being queer and writing the stories I wanted to write. It was later on when I started writing fanfiction and people actually started saying “Oh, my gosh. This is really good. You have really great stuff.” And I was like, “oh wow, this is not just me sitting at a computer for hours, dreaming stuff up,” this is like a real thing. And so that’s when I realized I could maybe do this, but it took a lot of pushing from like friends because otherwise I was just content doing fanfiction and that would have been the end of it.
It’s funny about that. I actually wrote an article about how fanfiction is so important to the queer community because we kind of like get to deconstruct and reconstruct like something that’s in the cannon, and tailor it to our audience.
Exactly! That is exactly what it is, because these are things that are already deemed what’s acceptable, the cannon that’s already created for these characters and what not. And so, us being able to take something that’s considered “acceptable” and actually making it out own, and making it about us, makes us in a way feel accepted. But I think it’s such a great leap. I encourage people all the time, if you’re nervous about writing, nervous about the things that you write, write fanfiction. Because you’ll find not only an opportunity to kind of build off the stuff that’s already there, but you also find this great supportive community. Like the fandom community is amazing. Amazing.
It can have its trolls.
Yeah. Like with any great thing in life it has its downfalls, but I still have so many friends from fandom who read my books, and it’s awesome.
Awesome. I personally think there are some fan-fiction writers who write better than actual published authors.
This… listen, I don’t want to get into trouble,
but there are many a fanfiction writers that I have encouraged to take it to another level where they can actually profit off of what they do. They are some tremendous writers, but they’re also very comfortable in that sense of community, and sometimes it’s very hard to step of it. Like it was very nerve-wrecking for me to step out of this community that had already built around me, and step into a whole other world where people did not know me, and you kind of have to…it’s that whole starting over, like high school or any kind of thing where you’re moving from a place you’ve always called home. It’s always that starting over things that’s like, “oh, wow. Let me just stay where I’m like comfortable.”
Are there any LGBTQ+ authors or themed books that have inspired you or your own work?
Yes, I will say there are definitely ones that inspire me. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. That book is life-changing in so many ways and I turn to it all the time. When I’m in a reading slump I go to it. When I need some kind of creative energy I go to it because I think it’s just so masterfully done in the way that he makes everything so simplistic, but it’s so deep and there’s so much emotion behind it, and I absolutely love it. So I definitely turn to that one for inspiration. Anything Becky Albertalli writes, I swear… I just feel like she understands my inner-geek. She understands my inner-romantic. She understands who I am… I don’t know, so I enjoy everything, and at the end of the day I just feel good reading her books. So stuff by her. One of my biggest inspirations right now is Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram. Oh, I will never stop talking about that book. It is simply amazing in all the different layers and things that it tackles without feeling like it’s an overwhelmingly messaged book.
It’s not didactic.
It’s not at all. It’s just so good and so human and at times so soft, but at times so complicated, which I love because it shows that you can be both, you don’t have to be one or the other. So these are my big ones right now.
If the characters of your book, Running with Lions, could interact with characters from any other fictional universe, which characters would they be and where would they be from?
Oh gosh. They would interact with the kids from Shady Creek in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Only because I think the team would get along with their soccer team, obviously. I don’t know if they would be rivals or if they would just be friends and what not, but I love Bram, so I would love for any chance for Sebastian or Amir to interact with him. I love Garrett, too. He’s just like the biggest dude-bro, but also like deep too. And so I love that. He’s comes across as like this guy who you’re like “you’re just a stereotypical jock” kind of thing, but you find out like Leah in Leah on the Offbeat that he’s actually a lot deeper than that. He’s actually a really cool person. So I definitely like them to interact with them.
Which characters from your Remy Cameron book? Who would they interact with?
Oh gosh. Who would Remy interact with? This is a great question because I have to think about it. If anything, I think Remy would interact with… you know there’s a book called Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan. I think Remy would interact well with that universe in the sense that book is so much about music and friendship and you know, kind of defying the odds, and also kind of like defying labels put on all those characters. Because it is the best book when you want a book that defies every label possible when it comes to you know what a jock is, or what popular is, or relationships and stuff like that. So I think Remy would definitely interact very well with that.
I’d also love to see Remy interact with Starr from The Hate U Give because I love Starr period and I think Remy enjoy being around her because they both share the same kind of sentiment where they’re in-between worlds in the sense that, you know, Starr goes to this posh private school.
A very white, posh private school.
Yes, a very white, posh private school. But she also has this home life that is completely different from that. And Remy is in, at that point, where he recognizes that he goes to this school where he’s one of five black kids in the entire school, and so at times he’s at odds with, “Oh ok, I love the same things that some of them do, but they also don’t share a lot of the background or challenges that I have to go through.” And so I’d just love for him to be around her, because she was just so inspirational. Even through everything she had to go through through that book, she was still just so inspirational in the sense that she was Starr the whole way through. It’s just a great evolution.
Got it. I actually was asking this question because I noticed you’re a fan of Quinn Dreaming by TJ Ryan.
Oh gosh! That’s a great one. I didn’t think of that one.
And I imagined them interacting with Sorrell and Quinn.
I think, and I know TJ Ryan very well, they’re awesome.
They did fan art of Running with Lions.
Yes, they did fan art of Running with Lions. I love TJ. And I didn’t think of that. I think that Amir and Sebastian should definitely hang out with Quinn and Sorrell. It would be fantastic.
Just sports fans. Fellow bisexuals.
Yeah. Fellow sports fans. Fellow bisexuals. Fellow great time people. Like they just generally have a great time. So I can’t believe I forgot about that. But read Quinn Dreaming the web-comic, it’s awesome.
Recently, many prominent athletes have come out and are playing openly in interactional competitions, such as Gus Kentworthy and Adam Rippon at the Korean Winter Olympics. Do you believe this increased level of visibility has begun to affect everyday lives of other LGBTQ+ youth and athletes?
Yes. I am so grateful for them. I’m grateful for the people who have come out in soccer, people who have come out in rugby recently. I believe there have been some swimming or diving people who have come out also. I think what they’re doing is beyond brave because the sports world has never really been accepting of any kind of LGBTQ person.
Or plus anyone who’s like non-white or able-bodied.
Exactly. Exactly, and I think there’s a lot of barriers to break through there. But I think what they’re doing is awesome. There is a blog that I follow happily called Outsports that has actual high school or college athletes who get to tell their own coming out story, written by them. And it’s so inspiring to see how many times they quote these athletes, and say you know they helped me to be able to say to my teammates, “Hey, this is who I am. I hope that you still accept me.” And the stories are just so joyful because the teammates are accepting, the coaches are accepting, the community, the parents, the family. It’s awesome how much they stand behind these athletes because they recognize you’re still gifted at the sport you’re playing, and that’s the part that should be the deciding factor of whether whether or not you’re on a team or that you’re competing. It should have nothing to do with your sexuality. It should have nothing to do with your gender. And so seeing that is just so gratifying. But knowing that these prominent, popular athletes are out there competing and still saying, “Hey, this is who I am,” it’s amazing to me.
Yeah, I think so, too.
In previous interviews you had mentioned that you integrated personal details/ elements from your own life and personality into your protagonist, Sebastian. Can you expand on this?
Yes. Um, wow. This is a fun question. It’s always fun when you get to go deep into your own self. So for Sebastian, I struggled severely in high school with what I was going to do after high school. Because I was so content with my friends and club organizations that I was a part of, and that’s where I was happiest, and I didn’t know what I was going to do after high school.
In fact, I actually picked my college based on what my best friend chose. And biggest mistake in the world because that college was great for her. It was not great for me. But that’s just the element that I was in, and that’s definitely what Sebastian goes through in the book is facing that challenge of who are you outside of your friends, outside of your comfort zones, and things like that. Another thing I wrote that was very personal was Sebastian’s body issues. You know, while everyone else is around like saying, “Oh, you’re perfect. You’re healthy. You’re in shape,” and this and that, he was not comfortable throughout the book with who he was physically. And that’s something I struggle with even now is who I think I am in other people’s eyes physically and who I see in the mirror kind of thing. And so writing that was challenging, but I think it was so important because it’s not often depicted that males have issues with their body and representation like that and I needed to have that in there. And I needed to show it’s ok to say to someone, “Hey, I have this issue,” and get healthy outlets to kind of help you work through that. And so, those were the two major things I wrote about there about Sebastian that was very personal, very much me in Sebastian.
Yeah, and you included a lot of personal stuff with Remy, too.
Oh right, well Remy is super personal, and when I have to start really talking about that I think I’m really going to have to work my way through my way of how I’m going to talk about that. But a lot of Remy’s things is issues with identity. He goes through issues with whether he’s feels black enough, he goes through issues with whether he’s too gay. A lot of these issues that I think aren’t discussed that we face throughout the world, being a person of color, or being somebody whose sexual identity is other than straight, being, you know, who we present ourselves to others, it’s a lot and I wrote it all throughout Remy. Like through the whole book. But with Sebastian, it was a bit easier because there were certain sections that I tackled these things, but with Remy it’s like throughout the book that I’m just exposing parts of myself to show people that this is just not like an isolated incident, and that you’re not alone in this, and you know there’s a place where you kind of can let these things out.
Prominent queer and African-American poet, Audre Lorde wrote, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” Within your book many characters have intersectional identities, which include issues related to mental health, religious identity, race/ethnicity, queerness, and more. How did you handle capturing the intersectionality among your characters? Do you have any advice for other writers specifically on how to handle this topic?
I think one of the things you have to draw from is the world that you live in, and fortunately for me I live in a world where I’m friends with or I associate with people who have so many different intersectional identities, so I’m able to kind of pull from that and show a space that it exists, it happens. I myself have intersectional identities, so it is in a way easy for me to be able to say “Ok, I can write this because I live it” kind of thing. It’s always based on my own experience kind of thing.
But I also suggest if you want to write these things and you’re not from that identity, you’re not from that world: one, research, obviously, but there’s only so much Google’s going to tell you, ok. Get to know people, talk to people. For Remy, I actually sat down and interviewed friends, and said, “talk to me about the things that you face. Talk to me about the joys that you have, you know, with your intersectionalized identities, but also talk to me about the struggles that you have.” I seek out sensitivity readers all the time because it’s like, yeah I want to write about these things. I want to expose it. I want people to see and live these joys, and also see the problems that they face. But I also want to get accurate. I want it to be honest. I want it to be authentic, so I always suggest you get sensitivity readers, even if it’s something you’re just the least bit unsure of. Ask a friend from that identity and say, “hey can you just read this over for me and let me know does this sound ok, does it sound stereotypical, does it sound like it’s contrived, things like that I always suggest. But yeah, just get to know people. Like this world is brimming with fantastic, amazing people. Just talk to them, and don’t talk to them in a way that’s just like, I want to know about this part of you, where are you from, what language do you speak, things like that, or what are the struggles you face.
Just get to know them as people vs. identity.
Exactly. And then you’ll kind of see the parts of their humanity that are so much like you, but the parts that aren’t, that maybe you didn’t think of, “oh wow, I didn’t realize this person might face this,” as you know, this part of their identity that I don’t actually face and I’m thinking “well no one else faces,” because we all sometimes live in our own heads that these are our own struggles and no one else faces them. Or these are own own struggles and everyone faces them. So I definitely suggest like those things: research, sensitivity reader, get to know people.
Do you have any upcoming projects you’d also like to share with us?
Oh gosh, I love this question. Ok, so I am a part of an anthology that comes out next year. There was an anthology that came out two years ago called All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages by Saundra Mitchell, and the next edition of the anthology is called All Out Now: Queer We Go Again, which I love, and it’s a group of contemporary stories, and so I have a short story in there that I’m super excited about because it was so much fun to write about a father-son relationship and the ways… because oftentimes in the queer community it’s either one way or the other with the parents. It’s either they’re supper accepting or they’re super not accepting. And it was fun to kind of write about how the layers of sometimes a parent-child relationship, it’s a bit different, you know, in the ways that each of them deal with the coming-out process. So I’m super excited about that one.
I can’t wait to read it.
And then I’m working on another book… when I say working I mean thinking a lot about it. (Laughs) It is going to be a book about teens trying to go to a comic con convention, but of course, you know conventions are not cheap, and so they kind of have to find a way to go to the convention without actually having passes to get in. Super queer. It’s going to be very comic book geeky, which that’s me whole-heartedly, so I’m going to explore that, and I’m also going to explore the lack of representation that we have throughout, you know, graphic novels, comic books, and what not when it comes to queer representation. Which is super like good for me to talk about because for so long I just accepted, you know, “ok, well these are just comic books, these are just superheroes, these are just villains, and that’s how it needs to be,” and whatever, but I’m happy to talk about that. And then with any book of mine it’s going to be a quirky little rom-com on the side, which I hope has a plot twist that people aren’t expecting, but the way I’m writing I’m sure they’re going to figure it out pretty soon, pretty early in the book.
No, it’s great. It actually sounds like Queens of Geek.
Listen, let me quick shout out to Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde. Let me shout out Geekerella by Ashley Poston. Let me also shout out Death Prefers Blondes, which is a great heist book. Immoral Code is another great heist book and I drew from those books on kind of how to combine the elements of the geeky comic book kind of stuff and also the “let’s break into something we’re not supposed to be at” kind of thing.
I wholeheartedly love that.
Which means that I can mess it up. (Laughs)
So ad-lib question number nine, since the premier of Love, Simon, there’s been more of a push for LGBT movies, especially towards teen-oriented movies, so which books, which YA books, would you love to see adapted into their own movie?
Oh, you would hit me with this one. Let’s see. Listen, to be honest with you and I know Becky has talked about it in a sense that it’s not in her control and she doesn’t necessarily know if she wants to have it, but I would love for Leah on the Offbeat to get made into a movie, because I love Leah and relate so deeply to Leah. I think it’s happening, but I don’t know if it’s got confirmation, but Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Obviously I want that to become a movie. I think that would be such great representation. I think the story’s important. I think it would do such great things for teens. I would also love to see Darius the Great Is Not Okay get made into a movie because I love that book. There’s two others. One is Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee. We need to see a teen superhero movie with queer characters. And that book is so diverse in sexuality and gender, in identity. It’s perfect. And I’d also love to see a book called Noah Can’t Even by Simon James Green. I just need a rom-com where the main character is a compete klutz, gets it all wrong, misinterprets everything, and we can just laugh out loud because there’s so many great teen movies where you just laugh out loud, but none from a queer perspective.
With a new edition of The PLAIN Janes available now, Geeks OUT’s Michele Kirichanskaya had the opportunity to interview the creative team of Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg about the original release, what makes this new expanded hardcover edition so special, and more!
It’s been over two decades since the original PLAIN Janes graphic novel debuted. What was the impetus for bringing it back in a new hardcover edition, along with the triquel, Janes Attack Back?
Rugg: The original PLAIN Janes books were planned as a larger story. The PLAIN Janes was published by DC Comics as part of their young adult imprint, Minx. But Minx was cancelled after two years, before Cecil and I had a chance to tell the whole PLAIN Janes story. Eventually, the rights to The PLAIN Janes reverted to us. When this happened, we realized we had a chance to finally finish the story that we started with The PLAIN Janes! Little, Brown liked The PLAIN Janes and our idea to finish the story so we all decided to do it in one epic hardcover!
Castellucci: Echoing exactly what Jim says. Also, it felt like when The PLAIN Janes came out, the infrastructure for kids comics wasn’t really there. We were really eager to have it come out when it could actually be supported by bookstores and libraries who now have such great curated sections. It was hard to be a little bit ahead of the curve with the book.
Throughout the books, art fulfills a number of roles in the stories of the Janes, acting as a source of healing recreation for the Janes and as rebellious protest against homogenization and terror, carried itself through the vehicle of comics. What is the importance of art to you?
Rugg: Art has always been a source of escape, joy, expression, and hope for me. It’s a way to connect with others–something I really enjoyed bonding over with Cecil. Cecil exposed me to a lot of public art, concept art, and other art that informed The PLAIN Janes.
For me, art is a way to see and better understand the world through other people’s experience and expression. It was my dream for a better life when I was growing up in a small town and felt alone, like I didn’t belong. And it’s become my livelihood as an adult. Art has given me so much and I hope my art pays that forward with others. And by art, I do mean comics!
Castellucci: To me art saves, as I write in the book. I think it is what helps us to make sense of our world and what it means to be human. It can soothe, it can inspire, it can incite, it can heal, it can connect. For me, art is everything. And I mean all types of art. I feel so incredibly lucky to be able to tell stories and make art as a profession.
I think it would be safe to say that the original books touched upon very hard truths, drawing parallels between the attacks on Metro City and events following 9/11. Nearly two decades later, our generation is still navigating a terror-world, touched by gun violence and attacks on human rights around the world. In what ways has the audience changed since the original debut versus today? How do you feel you yourselves have personally changed?
Rugg: The relevance of The PLAIN Janes is good and bad. Obviously, you want to tell stories that feel relevant. But in this case, it’s sad because of the parallels that you mention. One of my favorite parts of the Janes is how Cecil was able to show the Janes’ art in so many ways–first as underground fun (almost like punk rock), then community-based and public, and finally as activism. I think that reflects how the audience has changed. People are so active and engaged today. Personally, I think I’m more aware of the challenges that we face today and the role that art and stories can play in this ongoing conversation.
Castellucci: I agree with Jim. I wanted to tell a story about how art saves us in times of trauma. How it can make sense of a world gone mad. I strongly believe that it does that. It actually pains me that the book is still relevant, if not more so. But I also hope that it helps people of all ages to remember that even when it feels like nothing can be done, something can be made. And that art helps us to navigate big complex feelings and helps us to have a common language with which to be able to affect change for good.
Which of the Janes is most modeled after yourself? If you could create a fifth Jane what would she/he/they be like?
Rugg: Probably Jane Beckles since she’s into art. If I could create a fifth Jane, she would be a skateboarder!
Castellucci: I think they are all different facets of me! But I think probably Main Jane as well because she’s the instigator, and as a writer I instigate. A fifth Jane, huh, I actually think of Payne who arrives in book three to be that fifth Jane! But a sixth Jane would be Jane that had wanderlust. A world traveler Jane.
Where do you see the Janes in the future? What would they be doing?
Rugg: Main Jane is an international artist, documentary filmmaker, and works with people to make art (young and old). Brain Jane is a physicist and robotics engineer. Theater Jane is a writer and director (stage and video). Polly Jane is a coach, teacher, and ultra-runner.
Castellucci: Ha ha. I think Main Jane is a fabulous contemporary artist. Brain Jane works for NASA and builds rovers that explore other worlds. Theater Jane is a director. Polly Jane is a dancer!
If the characters of your books could interact with other characters from any fictional universe, which one and who would they be?
Rugg: They would interact with Jason from Friday the 13th and they would figure out a way to defeat him and save Camp Crystal Lake.
Castellucci: They would be in the Magicians and be the magicians who have art magic.
The discussion of mental health plays a major part in the book, from Jane’s and Jane’s mother’s experiences with PTSD and anxiety. In what ways do you think art can help with mental health, or just coping as Theater Jane would say the “crudeness of reality”? (Paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw “Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.”)
Rugg: Art can help mental health in a lot of ways, and art therapy has been used with people suffering from PTSD. Some art making is very meditative which can be a good thing for anxiety and the “crudeness of reality.” Art is a way to connect with others which can be a very healthy thing–interacting, connecting, sharing.
Castellucci: I think it goes back to being able to express things when you lose the ability to articulate that fear or dread or anxiety. Sometimes making art leads you to the next step of being able to cope.
Who are some of your personal artistic and literary influences? Did any directly inspire or influence The PLAIN Janes?
Rugg: A lot of my influences come from comics. Dan Clowes’ Ghost World is a big influence and it featured two high school girls as protagonists. Love and Rockets, specifically Jaime Hernandez’s Hoppers’ characters from the early days, when they were young punks.
Castellucci: Yeah, for the Janes, I’d say exactly the same as Jim. Ghost World and Love and Rockets.
Any future plans for The PLAIN Janes or other independent projects?
Castellucci: Well I always hope that someone will make The PLAIN Janes into a tv show or a film. Right now I’m working on Batgirl over at DC.
Finally, since this is an LGBTQ+ website, are there any LGBTQ+ authors and/or books that have inspired you and your own work? Can you recommend any titles or authors for other readers?
Castellucci: Sure! Tons! I’m a big fan of David Levithan’s books; Two Boys Kissing was a favorite. I loved Malinda Lo’s Cinderella retelling Ash. Mariko Tamaki is always great; I love This One Summer.
Cecil Castellucci is the author of books and graphic novels for young adults including Boy Proof, The Plain Janes, Soupy Leaves Home, The Year of the Beasts, Tin Star, Don’t Cosplay With My Heart, and the Eisner nominated Odd Duck. In 2015 she co-authored Moving Target: A Princess Leia Adventure. She is currently writing Shade, The Changing Girl, an ongoing comic on Gerard Way’s Young Animal imprint at DC Comics. Her short stories and short comics have been published in Strange Horizons, Tor.com, Womanthology, Star Trek: Waypoint and Vertigo SFX: Slam! She is the Children’s Correspondence Coordinator for The Rumpus, a two-time Macdowell Fellow, and the founding YA Editor at the LA Review of Books. She lives in Los Angeles.
Jim Rugg is a comic book artist, bookmaker, illustrator, and designer. His books include Street Angel, The Plain Janes, Afrodisiac, Notebook Drawings, Rambo 3.5, and Supermag. He is a recipient of both the Eisner and Ignatz Awards and he teaches visual storytelling at the School of Visual Arts and the Animation Workshop in Denmark. He lives and draws in Pittsburgh.
A non-binary author with a love for baking and gardening, Mason Deaver (They/Them) is the best-selling author of their debut book, I Wish You All the Best. One of the first YA books featuring a non-binary protagonist written by a non-binary author, I Wish You All the Best tells the story of Ben De Backer who comes out their parents, and deals with the consequences of that decision, as well as falling in love for the first time. Geeks OUT recently had the pleasure of siting down with Mason Deaver to talk about their new book as well as their writing process.
How and when did you come to realize that you wanted to be a writer?
It’s a story that I think a lot of authors have. You know whenever you’re younger, you write a lot of books. You take drawings and stories that you type up and you staple them, and like that’s your book. But I really got serious about it after I read Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. That was a book that sort of I guess kicked me into high gear about wanting to tell my own story and have something similar to that, that people could react to in the same way I reacted to Simon Vs. and Becky’s other books and other queer books that were out there.
How did I Wish You All the Best first come to conception? What were some of the original sparks?
Well, I guess you already answered that.
(Chuckles.) Well, there’s a few more things. Obviously Simon Vs., but then just wanting there to be more out there for trans teenagers. Like there was… I wouldn’t even say shortage, there were just no trans or non-binary books out there. The only one I would say I would even read at that time was If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo. So I saw this sort-of gap and I wanted to fill it because, you know, I can’t imagine what a book like this would have done for me when I was a teenager and confused. And so, there’s no way for me to go back in time and hand a book to myself, but if I can do that for someone who was like me, someone who struggling with things and trying to figure things out, then that is like what I wanted to do.
How would you describe your writing process?
For I Wish You All the Best, very chaotic, because I did not plan anything out. That first draft was a 120,000 words of just a hot mess I never want to see again. Thankfully I had people who helped me along the way. Friends, critique partners, and eventually my agent and editors who helped me trim it down and clean it up. And it’s very much different from the things that I had to write after. A lot of the time a book two is a contract obligation, so you have to plan things out so that you can actually sell it. And so book two, I had to plot from beginning to end, and it’s changed a lot, but the basics are still there. And then you know, I’ve had other ideas where I just want to see what happens, just plan this out. And of course I’m writing something else now, but it’s just out there in the wind and I don’t know what I’m doing, and it’s working for now. That might change. (Laughs.)
What has the journey been like since your debut as a YA author?
Oh, it’s been very interesting. A lot of things have changed. I’ve talked with friends who are in similar situations. You know, whenever you debut it’s almost like a wall has to go up, sort of in a way to protect yourself. There are mean people out there on the interest who want to send you random emails talking about how they want to kill you, and it’s not fun.
Oh my goodness (Laughs nervously.)
Yeah, that was a weird morning. But there’s a lot of good things too. Like it’s definitely not been a negative process, and I don’t want to make it seem that way. It’s seeing people online and on Instagram, posting pictures of my book, and reviews talking about how even if they are a cis person how much they still enjoyed it, and if they are trans or non-binary, like how much they saw themselves in the book, and that’s just been, I can’t describe it in any other way but magical. It’s very heartwarming and it makes me feel very good about like what I’ve been able to be
Yeah, you’re actually making a difference with your words.
Yeah, and that’s like what I wanted to do, and I feel accomplished in that now and it makes me feel very proud.
So what are some of the queer YA titles or some of the authors who inspired you?
So Becky Albertallli, who I already talked about her. Definitely Meredith Russo with her books, especially If I Was Your Girl. It was the first time that I saw a trans main character actually get her happy ending and what I felt that she deserved, and the book discussed and talked about her book, but it was never in a way that felt like it was…
Yeah, exactly. It felt like it was coming from a real place, a real author who has gone through these things. And then of course, you have authors like Adam Silvera, who discusses such heavy topics but in such a neat and concise and sometimes messy way that I just adore. If I had to pick three it’s definitely like Becky, Meredith, and Adam.
In the scope of LGBTQ+ literature, how do you think queer YA differentiates itself or distincts itself from other fiction?
I think that, and this is a question that I get a lot and I’m glad that I’m asked it because I’m always feel like we are at the height when it comes to queer YA. You know there’s still a lot of work to do. Queer authors of color and queer disabled authors still don’t seem to have a space and it completely sucks and we still need to fix that, but I also feel like we’ve made a lot of strides in including a lot of people, specially in queer YA. And so, you know, I think what really sets it apart is whenever you look at, say Adult fiction that’s queer, a lot of that has been on tragedy, and it does not end well. But I think in queer YA we’re finally at a place where, you know… of course a queer author deserves to tell a tragic quote, unquote tragic story.
Yeah, like Adam Silvera.
Yeah, like Adam has every right to do that because that is his life and he has lived it, and he has the space to do that. But then on the other side you have people who are telling happier stories, like Becky Albertalli, or I would even say Shaun David Hutchinson. You know, his books are not tragedies, they end happy.
Yeah, that’s exactly it. That’s exactly the world.
They’re realistic, but hopeful.
Realistic, but hopeful, and I think there’s really never been a better time for that.
Yeah, I also say that with new shows like Queer Eye, exposing that queer joy is a revolution in itself.
Like people need to see that in order to let them know they can survive and thrive in our society.
Yeah, and it’s, you know, so much of, if you go back, older again quote, unquote queer YA which wasn’t really queer, is a lot of it based on tragedy.
Like Annie on My Mind was one of the first joyful ones, actually.
Yeah, and you have books that did have trans characters, but like they died. They were killed off, they were murdered, they died of something.
Luna by Julie Anne Peters was one of the exceptions.
Yup, and it’s just very refreshing that I feel like if you are a queer teenager there’s a lot to choose from nowadays.
There’s more variety.
Yeah. There’s definitely a lot of spaces that we need improvement, and, you know, keep striving for that improvement, but I don’t think we’ve ever been better.
Hypothetically, if any of the characters from I Wish You All the Best were to interact with characters from any other established fictional universe, what characters from which fiction universe would they be?
So this is another fun question that I don’t get very often, so I’m glad you actually asked it. But the popular thing, and I do not know exactly why, I have a hint of why, but not a hundred percent, but people seem to love the idea of Ben and Nathan being with Alex and Henry from Red, White, and Royal Blue. Which I, unfortunately, I do not think is plausible because one side of that is the Prince of England and the First Son of the United States, and my characters are just two teenagers in North Carolina.
Who knows, they might do a political campaign.
Yeah (laughs.) Nathan would work on the next one. I do, I am a firm believer that Nathan wakes Ben up at three O’clock in the morning, and while Ben is not happy about being up that early in the morning, they will sit there and they will support Nathan with the t-shirts and the snacks and the custom flags and everything.
Ok, last question. As a debut author what advice would you give to other writers who wish to write themselves?
That it’s going to be hard, and you are definitely going to have to reach into places that may not be comfortable. That you may not feel entirely ok with showing, and that’s ok. There are pieces of the book that I wrote that maybe going back I would not include, but I’m glad that I did, because the book is very honest and I think that that is the most important thing you can be whenever you’re writing a part of yourself into a novel is that you’re honest about the things that you’ve been through, the things that you experienced, the things that you thought, and the things that you know. I really think that honestly is the key. And again, it can be so difficult to be that vulnerable and present yourself in such a way, but in the end it’s worth it because the people you are trying to help that’s what they’re going to appreciate that most.
Niki Smith is the writer and illustrator of the fantasy graphic novel, The Deep & Dark Blue, her debut Middle-grade read. Known for her gorgeous illustrations and queer and diverse storytelling, Smith is also the Lambda Literary nominated author of Crossplay, a queer erotic graphic novel. Self-described “Artist, writer, lover of fine comics (and some pretty trashy ones too),” Niki Smith currently resides in Germany with her wife, Kiri.
Where did the inspiration for The Deep & Dark Blue come from? What were some of the some of its artistic influences? (Was Avatar the Last Airbender one of them?)
I’m sure it was! I loved both Avatar: TLA and The Legend of Korra (and though we didn’t get to see Korra and Asami’s relationship play out in the show, the subsequent graphic novels have allowed the world and characters to be so much more openly queer and I couldn’t be happier.) More than a direct influence, though, I think it’s a matter of shared influences– the styles and pacing of Avatar and The Deep & Dark Blue are both inspired by manga and anime, stories about kids and teens saving the day while still dealing with the day to day struggles of being a kid. There’s something about that mix of adventure, sincere friendship and inventive magic that will always appeal to me. Story-wise, The Deep & Dark Blue was inspired by characters like Mulan or Alanna– girls who took new names and disguised themselves as boys to have adventures, to learn to fight and save the day. But in all of those stories, the main character went back to a happily cis, straight life– I wanted more, and I know I wasn’t the only queer kid out there who wanted the same.
The Deep & Dark Blue features one of the first cannon trans protagonists in a book geared towards younger audiences? How do you feel the landscape of kids/ young adult comics is changing in regards to queer representation?
Things have come so far since I was a kid, and it’s wonderful to see. Growing up, it was rare to see an LGBT character that wasn’t a two-dimensional stereotype, and even more rare to have that identity go beyond subtext. We still have a long way to go in many regards– particularly when it comes to diversity– but the graphic novels I’ve seen come out over the last few years give me so much hope. Young adult books like The Prince and the Dressmaker and Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me are winning awards and helping pave the way for the next generation of artists. The incredible reception that Molly Ostertag’s The Witch Boy received was part of what gave me the courage to finally pitch The Deep & Dark Blue— it looked like the world of publishing was ready, and I’m so happy I was right. We’re slowly moving beyond “coming out” stories. Authors like Sarah Searle, Melanie Gillman and Katie O’Neill are all creating wonderful queer graphic novels for kids and teens, where a character’s journey with gender or sexuality is an undeniable aspect, but it’s only one of part of a much richer and more complex story.
The comic also features one of the first nuanced non-stereotypical depictions of twins I’ve personally seen in general media? Did you take into account the fictional obsession about twins to counteract the stereotypes? How did you develop the twin siblings’ personalities?
I decided early on to make my main characters twins. The two find themselves in a situation they never expected, forced into hiding, living as girls to disguise their identities. Being side by side lets the reader see just how stark a contrast there is between their reactions– Hawke resents having to live in disguise, yearning for revenge, while Grayce blossoms. It’s the first time in her life that she’s been able to live as herself and she doesn’t want to lose it.
Since The Deep & Dark Blue is a graphic novel, the most important thing to me was that readers could tell the twins apart even if they were wearing the same uniform. There are no Parent Trap hijinks or speaking in unison, just two kids who happen to be identical. The two have wildly different personalities, and I wanted their body language to reflect that. Hawke is bold and hot-headed, while his sister Grayce is reserved; she has a lot on her mind and always thinks things through. Body language says so much about a person– a head lifted high in confidence, compared to someone who shyly averts their eyes– and I love drawing that difference.
As an LGBTQ+ artist and creator, how did you incorporate elements of your own identity or experiences into your comics?
I think most LGBTQ+ kids can relate to Grayce’s story in some way– a secret you’re not sure you can voice, that fear of feeling like you’re letting someone down, family who have expectations of you that you know you can never fulfill. I wanted to write about the strength it takes to come out, even when your hands are shaking. And I knew I wanted to write about found family, about surrounding yourself with people who love and support you unconditionally.
Do you have any projects you are working on right now and are at liberty to discuss?
I’m working on a new graphic novel for kids/teens, though this one will be a contemporary story, not fantasy. But still just as queer!
Finally, are there any LGBTQ+ authors and/or books that have inspired you and your own work? Can you recommend any titles or authors for other readers?
I listed some above, but there are so many! For graphic novels, Takako Shimura’s Wandering Son, Yuhki Kamatani’s Our Dreams at Dusk, Tillie Walden’s On a Sunbeam, Blue Delliquanti’s O Human Star, and Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer. Ashley Herring Blake’s middle grade novels are some of my favorites from the last few years.
A writer for all ages, L.C. Rosen (otherwise known as Lev Rosen) is the author of Young-Adult books Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) as well as the upcoming novel Camp coming out on May 26th that you can pre-order here. Known for their sex positively and deconstruction of toxic masculinity, Rosen’s books are unapologetically queer, as quoted to give “queer kids own voices queer writing. So they can see THEMSELVES, and not their reflection in straight culture’s eyes. Let queer kids see themselves as messy, and making mistakes and HUMAN.” L.C. Rosen lives in New York with his husband and cat.
Geeks OUT’s own Michele Kirichanskaya had the privilege to ask Rosen some questions about their previous and upcoming work.
When and how did you first realize you wanted to become an author?
I’ve been writing my entire life. At my 8th grade “graduation” the teachers gave me a little wizard figure and told me I was a “wizard with words” and was sure to be a writer. I still have it! I’ve just always loved stories and making up stories. I honestly feel like I never had a choice in the matter. Oh, except lawyer. Dad really wanted me to be a lawyer (like him). I think I made the right decision.
What was the inspiration for Camp?
The real starting inspiration was this desire to do a contemporary queer YA version of a 1960s Doris Day/Rock Hudson sex comedy. I have no idea where that desire came from (probably watching Down With Love over and over), but once it was in my brain, I fussed around with it until I realized that instead of a battle of the sexes, it could be a battle of the masc/femme. And these movies always have a playboy pretending to be a romantic to woo a romantic woman, but then they actually become a romantic! But that alone felt like an unpleasant motivation. So I mixed up the elements a bit – a romantic pretending to be a butch to win the supposed love of his life felt like a modern queer interpretation of those elements. But once I started writing it, I realized I needed to sort of get to the heart of Hudson’s masc4masc mentality and if Randy really feels like it’s love if he’s pretending to be different, and it opened itself up to more complexity.
In 2019, the Met held an exhibition called Camp: Notes on Fashion, inviting a variety of artists and performers to provide their own interpretation on the word. In your book we see multiple meanings of the word. What’s your take on Camp?
Oh man, how much time you got? First, I think telling people to dress camp is an act of pure sadism. Being told to do camp means you can’t really do camp, because camp is about expectations and playing with them, so it’s defined by context. Doing drag on a camp runway isn’t camp. Doing drag at your grandmother’s funeral is. So because of the expectations of camp, these poor guests were being told to do a camp version of camp, which involves playing with the idea of camp itself. I thought Lady Gaga did an ok job of it, but she did that by making it about her performance: the changing of outfits, the parading in front of the cameras. Celine Dion did it by becoming a camp version of Celine Dion. She was making fun of her own image, toying with it. But for the most part, I thought the outfits didn’t suit the nearly-impossible challenge.
As for the exhibit itself, I wished they’d provided more context. It felt like they were saying “look, this outfit has a big collar – that’s camp, right?” But again, it’s about context – show us what this outfit was playing with in the context of when it was created. As for why it’s the title of my book – it wasn’t originally. This was a title by committee situation, as often happens with books. But I like it because it has a lot of meaning – not just the summer camp location – but the idea of the performance of gender. That butching it up is just as camp as a drag look. At one point in the book, Randy even puts on a “masc fashion show” for his bunkmates, mixing up his outfits to look butcher as they shout stuff like “she almost passes” and “Ooooh, honey, butch!” – it’s masculinity as a drag show. That’s why the title works for me. Everyone is camping up their identity – even if it’s a false one.
If the characters of your books could interact with any other fictional universe, which universe would it be? Which characters from that universe would you be most interested in seeing your characters interact with?
I’m going back to my inspiration here, and saying Down With Love. Randy, George and maybe Ashleigh would worship the way Barbara and Vikki dress, enter a room, walk, talk. It would be hilarious. I’d love to see that crossover.
In a previous interview with i-D, you talked a little about the disparity between Own Voices m/m fiction and that which is written by female (often cis-het) authors? Can you expand on this?
I think that own voices m/m work in YA is something that often gets overlooked and is actually really important and vital. The way I look at it, an author’s first audience is almost always themselves. When you write about someone who isn’t like you (as a main character), you have to ask yourself why you want to write about them. And I think when people who aren’t queer write queer men, the answer is often fetishizing or exploitative. Plenty of m/m writers who aren’t queer men talk openly about how m/m makes more money, so they focus their attention there. Or how they think m/m romance is hot (the same way straight men would say lesbian porn is hot). When you’re writing for adults, that doesn’t matter much, because adults usually have a sense of their own sexuality in relation to the outside world, have a sense of their own identity. But when you’re talking about teenagers, who are still figuring out how the world sees them, if they look for that in a book that was written by someone who wrote about people like the teenager just because it turns them on, or because it makes them money, then that view is going to be in the writing, and it’s how the teenager is going to end up seeing themself. They’re going to fetishize themselves, or see themselves as an object for straight people to tell stories about, as opposed to someone with their own stories to tell. Authenticity is important because it tells queer teens about what being queer is really like. And that’s not to say non-gay men shouldn’t write stories about gay men, but I think it requires a real examination of their motives and a willingness to make someone else the first audience and put their own viewpoints as secondary, which is difficult. It means doing the work, and talking to queer men about their experiences, and how they see themselves and how the world sees them. And it means not just writing about gay men because you think it’s fun or hot or whatever. If you want to do that and keep it in a journal, fine, I won’t kink shame. But if you’re doing it to be published and read by queer teens, then you’re essentially telling queer teens that they exist for your pleasure or to make money off of. That’s not cool.
In both your books, Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts) and Camp, you talk about the prominence of femme shaming of queer men, even within the queer community itself. How is this topic relevant for you as well as relevant for the YA audience?
I think a lot of gay men grew up thinking that being gay meant behaving in a specific way, and if they were like me, they resented that, and so tried to prove we were more than just the vapid stereotypes we saw on TV, and which our peers expected of us. But the truth is, that’s just straight people telling gay people what being gay is: either you’re a stereotype, or you’re a “real person” – which means you act the way straight people do, defined by the patriarchy and obsolete gender roles.
In Jack of Hearts, I wanted to show the way straight culture punishes gay men for having the nerve to be both a stereotype and full-fledged human, and I wanted readers to see someone who acted like a “bad gay” but was a complicated and good person. But with Camp I want to play with the way gay people can internalize that and then become enforcers of the patriarchy ourselves. I thought a lot about the idea of the “Special Gay.” That is, gay men who come out, and whose homophobic parents or friends tell them “I don’t like gay people aside from you – you’re special, you don’t act like the rest of them.” When you’re a teenager and your parents or friends tell you that, you start clinging to that identity because you know the moment you wander from it, you’ll be rejected by the people you depend on. You internalize it – it becomes the most important thing about you: “I’m gay, but I’m not like those other gays. I’m special.” And when you start looking for romance, you know that you need to find someone else who fits those standards too, otherwise this potential partner will be rejected by your loved ones, or worse, they’ll see your choice in partner as a reflection of you and reject you. So I wanted to play with that idea – that behaving a certain way, for queer teens, is needed to survive. And in both Camp and Jack, what I’m really talking about is how coming out isn’t the end of a story. It’s not a happy resolved thing like a lot of books and movies want us to believe. One you’re out, you still experience homophobia – often even from people who love you, and that shapes the way you see your queerness. Coming out is just a first step. Not a happy ending.
What do you wish to see for the future of YA?
More diversity, of course, especially in terms of authors. More diversity in terms of where YA takes place. More queer communities in YA, instead of just one or two queer kids with mostly straight friends. More sex-positive YA. More YA that says “there’s no wrong way to be queer.”
Finally, are there any LGBTQ+ authors and/or books that have inspired you and your own work? Can you recommend any titles or authors for other readers?
Oh man, I have so many recommendations! I’m going to limit myself to three. Surrender Your Sons by Adam Sass, which is coming out soon and I had the pleasure of reading early, is this amazing queer adventure novel – essentially imagine queer kids shipped to a conversion camp on the island from Lost fighting to escape. Julian Winters most recent book, How to Be Remy Cameron, is all about shedding labels, which is a topic dear to my heart. And I am CRAZY excited for The Fell of Dark by Caleb Roehrig, which I haven’t read yet, but is gay vampires and Roehrig does suspense so well I’m sure it’s going to be a bloodsucking delight.
Before you became a full-time author, you earned a BA in history and worked as an amateur historian. How did you transition from your academic pursuits to writing fiction?
Very easily because my writing was so not suited for academia! I had a professor who told me that my papers read like novels—which was not okay as a history student, but maybe I should consider writing historical fiction. So I was already writing that way. But when I started writing fiction, I also got to make things up! The biggest difficulty with the transition was feeling like I was giving up on my career as a historian. I had been working for so long on that degree and walking away from it felt like a huge gamble. Betting on yourself is hard and scary!
Were there any writers in particular who inspired you to make this transition?
I loved Shannon Hale’s books when I was a kid, and rereading her books as an adult was what really inspired me to pursue writing.
How much does your passion for history—and research—inform your writing?
Most of my books start with a historical phenomenon or weird fact or person that I become obsessed with. With This Monstrous Thing, it was Mary Shelley. With Gent’s Guide, it was the Grand Tour. For me, it always starts with history.
History (at least Western history) is dominated by straight, able-bodied, cisgender, white, male narratives? How do you challenge this or subvert it in your work?
I believe that everywhere in history that we are told white men are doing things, there were also women, minorities, queer people, disabled people, etc. doing the exact same thing… We just don’t talk about those stories. But they’re out there! You have to look for them, but they’re there! I try and subvert this narrative in the best way I can—by putting these characters in my books and giving them plot lines and identities that extend beyond their marginalization.
Can you tell us about your upcoming project with Marvel about Loki, a character whose canon pansexuality and gender fluidity has thus far been conspicuously underrepresented?
I actually can’t. I’m not allowed to say anything about the book right now! Sorry! But soon…
Are there any other works in progress that we can look forward to?
I have a book coming out at some point in the future called Semper Augustus, which is set in Holland in the 1600s. I also have two more books with Marvel about other anti-heroes. Stay tuned!
Recently there has been news from Variety, that Greg Berlanti, a very successful and openly queer film and television producer optioned your book as a potential project. How do you feel about The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue possibly being adapted into a queer historical television narrative?
It’s absolutely wild to me. There are still a lot of hoops to jump through before the show actually arrives on screen, but as someone who has long been frustrated by BBC period dramas with queer characters relegated to tragic subplots, it’s amazing to be part of this incredible movement forward toward more representation.