K. Ancrum is the author of the award winning thriller THE WICKER KING, a lesbian romance THE WEIGHT OF THE STARS and the upcoming Peter Pan thriller DARLING. K. is a Chicago native passionate about diversity and representation in young adult fiction. She currently writes most of her work in the lush gardens of the Chicago Art Institute. I had the opportunity to interview her, which you can read below.
First, how did you come to realize you wanted to be an author?
I’ve written books since I was 13, but I never really considered it to be a viable professional option until I was around 19. At the time I was writing on tumblr at lot and had started to write a web-book on there that was gaining a surprising amount of popularity. An agent who predominantly represented non-fiction began following the story and eventually reached out to me and encouraged me to consider submitting my work to agents who represent fiction. I think if she hadn’t approached me I probably would have continued writing just as much as I do today, but it would probably just be for my own satisfaction, instead of as a career
Who or what stories inspired your own personal realization as a writer?
A WRINKLE IN TIME was extremely influential and was the reason I started writing in the first place. I read it when I was 12 and I remember thinking “I want to make something that makes other people feel the way this book made me feel.”. I’ve mentioned this one quite a lot in interviews, but HOLES was also massively influential to me in regards to understanding that writing can be an intensely technical skill, from a very young age.
A large theme in your books, especially in The Wicker King, is on negligent adults who either refuse to recognize teens in need or are oblivious to it? Could you expand on this topic?
There are so many ways that parents can be “not there” for their children and I think that a lot of the time only a few ways are discussed.
The Wicker King was unique in that it showed many kids without present adults and how that impacted them, rather than orphaning the main characters for convenience. August had a mother who was physically there but emotionally unavailable in a way that wasn’t really her fault. Jack’s parents were physically absent and emotionally absent, but provided for him financially. Roger and Peter’s parents absence was more periodic but they formed a bond between each other that didn’t allow for outsiders very similar to Jack and August’s but less destructive. Rina’s parents straight up moved away to England and left her living in squalor as a barely-adult teenager. She’s perilously lonely and friendless and pushes people away. This book is filled with isolated children trying to make a house into a home: Rina letting August and Jack into her apartment and integrating them into her routine. August and Jack playing house and clawing each other to the bone searching for warmth. Peter and Roger letting August into their world and slowly forming a bond of trust with him.
I had a lot of friends in similar situations and a lot of them didn’t make it out okay in the end. It was a bit of a relief to have this make believe space to pretend that there could have been a world where they were okay.
Your books, while all grounded in the real world, seem to contain otherworldly elements, relating to magical realism like in The Wicker King, literally being out of this world in The Weight of the Stars, or even fairy tale elements like in Darling. Did you intentionally set out for this or did the style organically evolve this way?
Its intentional. I like fabulism and I feel more comfortable there than in strictly fantasy or contemporary. A lot of real life seems to straddle the ordinary and extraordinary and I enjoy playing with that in my own work.
Your upcoming book, Darling, is said to be a modern twist on the classic Peter Pan story. In what ways will the story touch upon the original tale and what ways are you planning to invert it? Also, fellow queer author, Aiden Thomas, is also coming out with a Peter Pan based novel, Lost in the Never Woods. Any theories for why this story seems to be resurging all of a sudden?
This is going to sound strangely straight forward, but it’s because the Peter Pan book copyright expires January of next year. There’s going to be an explosion of Peter Pan content for probably a year after. I plotted DARLING in 2013 and have been waiting for this to happen to release it.
Hypothetically speaking, if the characters of your books or you yourself could interact with characters from any fictional universe, where would they be from?
This is less characters and more about the fictional universe but, I’m very enamoured with Narnia and the melancholy freshness of the worlds in that IP. The concept of life-supporting worlds/universes at different life stages: Some barely budding with small creatures in the light of a weak young sun and some in desolation and burdened under the weight of time cast red in the light of dying stars. The newness of creatures trying to find a home in these places, living their own individual creation myths. There is a lot about the books that is worth giving one disapproving pause. But I think I would like to be that place in the magician’s nephew where the world was so new that anything you plant becomes a kind of tree.
Within your writing and work in general, what messages do you want to give to your readers? What do you wish you had received from books as a young reader yourself growing up?
I wish there had been more LGBT content. I actually went into this in a paper I recently wrote about fanfiction and I want to include an excerpt:
We are in an interesting age of resurgence of mass produced LGBTQIAP+ media. As you all know, progress isn’t linear and its a bit too early to boast that “Things have permanently changed”, but currently we’re doing a lot better than we were just ten years ago. It’s recent enough for me and many other LGBTQIAP+ YA authors to vividly remember the time before these changes. It has also existed briefly enough that we can dubiously envision a time in our future without it. The maintenance of a place where marginalized communities can create and share artwork is vital, and has always been a part of LGBTQIAP+ culture. Fan fiction, small indie publishers and self publishing communities have been supporting marginalized writing for almost a century and show very little sign of being eroded by the shifting tides of public moral opinion or whims of mass production. Fan fiction in particular, is the cheapest and lowest risk form of community building within this art form. It is not a mistake or coincidence that nearly all of the mainstream published authors who admit to their past participation in fan fiction culture are women, people of color and LGBTQIAP+ people. Groups that have been historically underserved by mainstream media. Fan fiction isn’t a stepping stone to “real writing” or a place where people write weird NSFW. It’s a hurricane shelter: A place we can play in on an average day, and the most important place for our survival when the weather begins to look dangerous.
Are there any other projects or story ideas you are currently nursing and would be at liberty to say?
Yes! I’m working on an UNTITLED Train Heist Novel. A cool UNTITLED cult novel for Scholastic and an adult novel about immortality called WE STOOD ALONE, that hasn’t been purchased yet but my fingers are crossed!
Finally, what are some LGBTQ+ books or authors you would recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
Please please please buy Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas and Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender. They are both stunning and written with so much love.
When did you first realize you could tell stories through words and images? What drew you to the graphic novel art form?
I think I internalized the combination of words and images at a very young age, from children’s picture books, which remain one of my favorite forms of media. I started reading graphic novels (specifically, Japanese manga) when I was in junior high, when they started to trickle onto my local library’s shelves. I love both writing and drawing, so graphics novels seemed like the perfect merger of my two loves.
Your book, Genderqueer, features one of the first discussions of asexuality I’ve seen in comics. If you feel comfortable, can you expand on your relationship to your asexual identity and what the process was like in depicting it?
Asexuality can be very hard to define or explain to people who haven’t spent time thinking about it, since it’s the lack of something, rather than the presence of something. I’m actually aromantic as well, which I think is maybe an even more important factor in how my life has developed. I received so much passive messaging from basically every single book and movie that eventually I would both fall in love with someone and also want to have sex with them. Though I did get crushes as a teen, I never had any desire to act on them. I think I kind of just kept waiting, thinking, well, is this romantic urge going to just hit me out of the blue at some point like I’ve been taught to expect? But it never did. By age 30 I felt confident saying “okay, enough time has passed that I think I can firmly say that romantic partnership is just something I don’t care about at all, and sex is interesting only at the level of curiosity.” I tried to depict this partly through trial and error experiences that helped me fumble towards greater clarity.
Within the course of your graphic novel, you discuss how your identity has changed and evolved over the years, showcasing the beautiful and often frustrating reality of gender/sexuality identity exploration. Can you expand on that?
I spent a lot of time not knowing what I was, not having a label for how I felt. I can’t tell you how many countless pages of journal entries I wrote asking, “Am I gay, am I bi, am I a lesbian, am I a boy, am I a girl, am I neither, am I half and half” etc. This questioning took up a huge amount of my mental space, and I definitely wanted to hold the readers in that period of uncertainty, in that undefined grey area.
In Genderqueer, pop culture plays a very big role, whether being mentioned within the form of comics/manga, figure skating, fantasy literature, etc. How as queer individuals do we respond and relate to the pop culture around us in terms of conceiving and understanding our own identities?
As a young queer person who only knew two or three out queer adults, and was uninterested in dating and sex, consuming queer media was my main form of exploration and discovery of queer identities. I think lots of young queer feel this need to research who we are, especially if we don’t see any role modes in our family or community. Many of the queer books I read as a teen remain my very favorites to this day because of how intensely intimate and emotional it felt to read them.
What’s a question no one has asked you yet or that you wish was asked more?
I wish more people asked me, “Should I write my own memoir?” so I could tell them yes!
What are some of your favorite elements of comics/graphic novel medium? What craft elements/techniques stand out to you the most?
One element I love is called a non-adjacent sequence. It’s a series of panels or even pages which are repeated, with a new twist, two or more times in a book. The idea is that the reader will either consciously notice this call back and flip back in the book to find the first example, or else be unconsciously influenced by the repetition and better understand that the two scenes are linked. In “Gender Queer” I used the same panel layout for pages 125 and 219. I also repeated the same plant motif on pages 66, 67 and 191.
Aside from Melanie Gilman, the queer/ non-binary mentor stated within your book, who are some of your other creative/artistic influences?
I am influenced by a lot of other cartoonists, especially ones who draw from their own lives: Mari Naomi, Lucy Knisley, Lucy Bellwood, Erika Moen, Raina Telgemeier, Alison Bechdel, Dylan Edwards, Ajuan Mance, Thi Bui, Sarah Mirk and Shing Yin Khor immediately come to mind. The comics journalism website The Nib has also impacted me a lot- I am both a reader of and a contributor to their site, and their latest anthology “Be Gay, Do Comics.” Many of my very first nonfiction comics were published by The Nib and I benefited greatly from working with their all-star editorial team.
As a creative person, what advice would you give to other aspiring artists/writers?
Go forth! Be recklessly honest, be gentle, be bold, be strong, be soft. If you tell your own darkest secrets with a spirit of compassion towards your younger self, you will help readers heal their own wounds.
What are some things you wish to say to your trans/non-binary readers?
I love you, and we are family.
Are there any projects you are working on at the moment and are at liberty to speak about?
I illustrated a YA prose novel called “We Are The Ashes, We Are The Fire” by Joy McCullough which is due out from Penguin Random House in Feb 2021. It’s got some very heavy themes, but also a renaissance-fair obsessed nonbinary teen character who I love very much. I am also developing my next full length graphic novel in collaboration with the nonbinary cartoonist Lucky Srikumar.
Finally, what are some LGBTQ+ comics or books you would recommend to the readers of Geeks Out?
Buckle your seatbelt, I have a lot of recommendations. I post 100 book reviews per year on Goodreads, so feel free to follow me on there if you want even more! But here are some comics with trans and nonbinary characters which I really loved: Grease Bats by Archie Bongiovanni (a slice of life comic – nonbinary main character) (author is also nonbinary)
Heartwood: Non-binary Tales of Sylvan Fantasy edited by Joamette Gil (anthology of short comics, all with nonbinary authors)
The Avant-Guards by Carly Usdin and Noah Hayes (an ongoing comic series, one nonbinary character, one trans character)
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (a slice of life comic – a nonbinary secondary character)
Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu (fantasy YA comic – a nonbinary main character)
Snapdragon by Kay Leyh (a trans secondary character)
Stage Dreams by Melanie Gillman (trans character, nonbinary author)
As The Crow Flies by Melanie Gillman (trans character, nonbinary author)
The Deep and Dark Blue by Niki Smith (trans main character)
O Human Star by Blue Delliquanti (trans secondary, nonbinary author)
Wandering Son by Takako Shimura (a manga series, multiple trans characters)
Paradise Kiss by Ai Yazawa (a manga series, one trans character)
On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden (sci-fi comic – a nonbinary secondary character)
Where did the impetus for Ace come from? Has this project been something you’ve been ruminating on for a while?
The short answer is that I wanted to write about asexuality because I am ace and didn’t realize it until I was 24. More specifically, it was frustrating to me that the existence of asexuality and the ace lens felt so hidden—like something that I had to go searching for in order to find, instead of a perspective integrated into the way that we already think about sexuality and relationships. There were other books about asexuality out there, like The Invisible Orientation, but not many. I really wanted to write a reported book that included detailed narratives from people’s lives and, because I am a professional journalist, thought that I’d be able to do that.
In previous interviews, such as the one with the podcasters of Sounds Fake But Okay, you noted a difference between talking to ace interviewers versus non-ace interviewers. Could you elaborate on this?
Absolutely. When talking to non-ace interviewers, or for publications that primarily have a non-ace audience, I receive a lot of questions asking me to define asexuality or to debunk misconceptions. It’s very ace 101. I really appreciate all the interest from non-aces and think it’s so important that we show that the ace lens can be valuable for everyone, but the questions necessarily are more basic.
When talking to ace interviewers, we can skip all the questions about what asexuality is and isn’t, and talk more about what it means and explore more nuances instead of focusing on definition. I also feel like I can be more critical of the ace community when speaking with ace interviewers. The community isn’t perfect—no community is—but when speaking to allos, I feel more pressure to emphasize the best parts of the community and that people are ace and happy.
When talking to ace interviewers or an ace audience, I feel more okay talking about what I think the ace community could be doing better, or saying that sometimes I don’t feel great about being ace, and that should be okay too.
In the book you provide a parallel between the term “Gold Star Lesbian” with the inspired term “Gold Star Asexual,” and the ways in which the asexual identity is being gatekept by this unattainable ideal. Could you expand on these qualifications and how in your words the “Gold Star Asexual” is a “fantasy and a false promise” (p.99)?
There’s still so much questioning about whether asexuality is valid. Doubters really want to explain asexuality away by saying that someone isn’t asexual, they’re just shy, or haven’t found the right person, or maybe it’s because of childhood trauma, or repression, or whatnot. Basically every ace person that I know has questioned whether they’re “really” ace, which can be exhausting and drain energy that could be better used elsewhere.
Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s good to ask questions and explore and of course there’s nothing wrong with deciding that you’re not ace. But it’s telling that people really want aces to question until they discover they’re allo, whereas allos are not really encouraged to question whether they’re ace. It’s a double standard, because it’s okay to be allo but many people think it’s not okay to be ace. Instead of exploration being a valuable and good thing that you do to understand yourself, aces feel like we have to keep questioning ourselves because we might be deluded.
Allos aren’t the only people who gatekeep either. Because aces are doubted by others, which is painful, it can be tempting to become gatekeepers ourselves. Especially in the early years of the community, there was talk about how people couldn’t be truly ace if they were disabled or if they were victims of sexual trauma, because that would “delegitimize” asexuality.
To my mind, that view is wrong. Very few people are gold-star aces, and we shouldn’t focus on that anyway. The purpose of the ace community is to be accepting and inclusive and help people find each other and share resources. Playing into ace respectability politics will make us turn on each other and exclude those who must be included and it doesn’t help us help each other and organize to change society. The way I see it, you can be ace for whatever reason and that’s fine, and it’s also fine if later you decide you’re not ace. (In general, I think it’s good to think of sexualities as fluid.) I think it’s important that aces fight compulsory sexuality and make it clear that you can have a happy life if you’re asexual, no matter why you’re asexual or for how long—and none of that relies on someone being a gold-star ace.
Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex is one the first asexual non-fiction books to be published by a “mainstream” publisher. Was there a lot of pressure riding on this book? What challenges did you experience in trying to publish it?
I think a lot of publishers thought that the book would be too niche—essentially, that because the ace population isn’t huge, there wouldn’t be a big audience for the book and it wouldn’t sell. Others thought that maybe it’d be too academic. I disagree with both assumptions. The book is a bit academic, but it’s also reported and has a lot of stories of people’s lives. And even if the ace population isn’t huge, it’s still valuable to have this book exist. Not to mention that, as I keep saying, the ace lens is valuable for allos too.
I did feel like there was a lot of pressure riding on it, though I felt that from myself, rather than from my publisher. There’s such a void of ace representation and discussion in mainstream nonfiction books, which means that any new book on the topic is going to be expected to do so much and capture every sub-experience, even though that’s never possible for any book. I tried hard to make the book diverse in a lot of ways and cover topics like race, disability, and gender, as well as different types of ace and aro experience. But of course no book could cover all of ace experience. I said that right at the beginning, in the authors’ note. I tried to say what my limitations were, because I think that’s far more honest than not showing the limitations and pretending one book is representative. It’s not. There is so much more to say. There needs to be a rich ace canon.
Considering one book can’t cover everything about asexuality, are their subjects you wish you to expand upon? Would you be open to writing a follow-up to Ace?
At least right now, I don’t think I’ll be writing a follow-up to Ace. I’m primarily a science and technology journalist and think my work in the immediate future will go back to focusing on that. But there are so many other subjects that I wish other aces would write books about. There should be books just about sex-repulsed aces, and books focusing only on aros, books about aroallos (who often get overlooked), more books about demisexuality and queerplatonic relationships. I feel like every chapter of my book could have been its own book! Plus, there definitely need to be books about aces outside of the Western world—there’s so much to say about the aspec experience and many who are more qualified than I to write about these experiences.
While much of the book discusses the challenges and prejudices facing the asexual community, you also highlight some of the positive elements about this identity. Could you talk about that here?
Absolutely. Being ace can give you such a rich and valuable perspective on the world. Sometimes, it can feel like a superpower, like it makes you see things that other people don’t, like it makes you more perceptive. It can make you question so much about relationships (of all kinds) and sexuality that people take for granted. I think that, often, it can help you have richer and closer and more intimate relationships. Ace are some of the most emotionally and socially intelligent people I know. Like many other experiences that deviate from the norm, it makes you see the norm for what it is—and then it can bring more freedom by having you question it.
What asexual resources/pop culture references would you recommend for the readers of Geeks OUT?
In terms of general ace resources, I would recommend Julie Sondra Decker’s book The Invisible Orientation, as well as The Asexual Agenda, which is a wonderful group blog.
To be honest, I have never been the best at pop culture references—there’s a reason I’m primarily a science and tech journalist! (And writing the pop culture parts of the book was difficult for me.) There’s a lot of wonderful ace YA out there, which I think is super important. Alice Oseman’s Loveless comes to mind, for example, as does Claire Kann’s Let’s Talk About Love. This Goodreads list might be useful too.
And finally, are there any projects you are currently working on or project ideas you are currently developing and are at liberty to speak about?
A. J. Sass is a writer, editor, and occasional mentor. A long-time figure skater, he has passed his U.S. Figure Skating Senior Moves in the Field and Free Skate tests, medaled twice at the U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships, and currently dabbles in ice dance. When he’s not exploring the world as much as possible, A. J. lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his boyfriend and two cats who act like dogs. Ana on the Edge is his first novel. I had the chance to have a Q & A with A. J., which you can read below.
Recently, you wrote an article for TIME regarding the recent controversial statements J.K. Rowling had made about the trans community. As an admitted fan of her Harry Potter works, but not her real-life opinions, how does a queer fan reconcile their love for the series and feelings for the creator?
This has been on my mind ever since I caught wind of Rowling’s tweets, and it’s taken time for me to assess my feelings, in all honesty. The Harry Potter series helped me embrace my own identity, and I met so many wonderful friends as an active member of the fandom community. As I mentioned in the article, I even made the series an integral part of my international travel itineraries by hunting for foreign language editions to bring home with me. But it’s not as simple as divorcing the author from her creative work, at least for me. While I will always cherish what the series meant to me when I was younger, I’m branching out now and reading stories by queer authors and those who vocally support queer folks. There are so many wonderful, inclusive fictional worlds to explore.
Your debut novel, Ana on the Edge, features a non-binary Chinese-Jewish American protagonist. As a writer who is Jewish and non-binary how much of your experiences are reflected in Ana’s? Were there any concerns in portraying a character not from your own ethnic background, and what steps were taken towards creating authenticity?
Just as a note, I refer to my main character, Ana, with female pronouns because Ana hasn’t chosen a new set by the end of the story. Nonbinary people use a variety of pronouns, including male and female pronouns in some instances. In Ana’s case, she’s still exploring what feels right.
The process of figuring out my identity and the anxiety I felt when deciding how to come out to my friends and family are absolutely reflected in Ana’s story. For example, when Ana’s new friend, Hayden, mistakes her for a boy and Ana decides not to correct him, I pulled from a time in my life when I didn’t know what nonbinary meant, just inherently knew I was trans. I chose a traditionally male name and asked people to refer to me with male pronouns. Just like Ana, being seen as a boy initially didn’t feel 100 percent right, but I decided it was good enough for the time being since it was closer to correct than people referring to me as a woman.
Once I discovered what it meant to be nonbinary, everything felt like it fell into place, in terms of how I internally saw myself. Ana’s life is different than mine in many ways, but her path to embracing her authentic self is quite similar to my own in that respect. In terms of Judaism, the longstanding friendships I’ve made at various temples I’ve attended throughout my life are encompassed in Ana’s relationship with her best friend, Tamar, as are her concerns for how her religious community will react to her nonbinary gender identity.
My goal when developing Ana’s Jewish-Chinese heritage was to reflect the diversity I see in the Bay Area rinks I skate at myself. I chose not to focus on how the San Francisco Chinese-American community might view gender identity since that has always felt like another person’s story to tell. Instead, my focus was on how the gendered aspects of figure skating might impact a nonbinary athlete. At the same time, I don’t believe characters of color should or even can be divorced from their cultural heritage. I was fortunate to work with authenticity readers to ensure a sensitive and culturally accurate portrayal of the part of Ana’s heritage that differs from my own.
As a figure-skater yourself, how have you incorporated your own experiences into Ana’s story? What hopes do you have for Ana’s figure-skating generation and for the generations ahead?
Ana is definitely more talented and confident on the ice than I ever was, that’s for sure! But as a competitive skater myself, I understand pre-competition nerves on an intimate level, not to mention the sensation of unfamiliar ice at a rink you’re skating at for the first time and the pressure to perform well and justify years of money spent on training. These were all elements from my skating background that made its way into Ana’s story.
My hope for kids Ana’s age is simple: I want every skater to feel safe and comfortable being themselves, on the ice and off. It’s already starting to happen, thanks to brave trailblazers who’ve come out during their Olympic-eligible careers, like Eric Radford, Adam Rippon, Timothy LeDuc, Karina Manta, Joe Johnson, and Amber Glenn. These skaters and others are paving the way for a new generation of skaters.
How would you describe your writing process? What elements and techniques would you say you incorporate into your craft?
My writing process is honestly something I’m still trying to pin down since it seems like I approach each book I write differently. Ana on the Edge came out in a flood of words during the spring of 2018. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but Ana’s story felt like a natural extension of myself that my wonderful agent and the fantastic editorial team at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers helped make even better.
Outlining was one strategy I used for Ana that I hadn’t tried with previous manuscripts. I also learned about Save the Cat! beat sheets. Traditionally a screenwriting technique for honing plot and pacing within the context of the three-act structure, I found it helpful in laying out my already-written scenes and seeing where they might fit if Ana were a movie.
Queer figure-skating and ice-sports related media has increased in the past few years from Tillie Walden’s Spinning to Ngozi Ukazu’s Check, Please! to Sayo Yamamoto and Mitsurou Kubo’s Yuri!!! On Ice. Is there any figure-skating media you admire and/or relate to?
I love Spinning and Yuri!!! On Ice (and definitely want to take a look at Check, Please! now that you’ve tipped me off to it). I admire what the wonderful people at Skate Proud (website | Instagram) are doing in featuring queer athletes around the world in both figure and roller skating. In addition, it’s always a treat for me to sit down and watch the videos produced by On Ice Perspectives (website | Instagram). The founder films skaters up close and personal, in skates and on the ice himself. It makes for an incredible viewing experience.
Aside from figure-skating and writing, what activities do you enjoy doing in your life?
This probably comes as no surprise, but I’m an avid reader. I’ve always loved middle grade and YA, plus memoirs and biographies of historical figures, and I’ve recently fallen in love with picture books. Additionally, my boyfriend and I are avid travelers (or were, in pre-pandemic times). One of our favorite things to do is decide on our next vacation destination, then figure out the most affordable way to get there so we can experience all the location has to offer. Since our travel plans are postponed for the foreseeable future, I’ve doubled down on my attempts at language learning. Mandarin is my latest challenge. I studied a handful of languages in high school and college, so I’ve also been trying to refresh my memory on some of them, specifically Arabic, Hebrew, and French.
As a writer, what advice would you give to others, especially other queer writers, who are just starting out on their journey?
When I first thought about becoming a writer over a decade ago, there weren’t many queer authors or stories I could look to for inspiration. The landscape is quite different for queer writers today. Everyone from my agent to the team at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers has welcomed me (and Ana) with open arms and boundless enthusiasm.
But before Ana sold, and before I connected with my agent, it was the online writing community that encouraged me and kept me going. Twitter is a great place to find support and critique partners, especially if you’re writing in the kidlit space (which encompasses picture books, chapter books, middle grade, and YA).
It was on Twitter that I also first learned about mentorship opportunities, programs where an agented or published author works with a pre-agented author to revise their manuscript in preparation to query agents. I was a #WriteMentor mentee in 2018, and the friendships I made with some of the other mentees and mentee-hopefuls remain strong to this day. My biggest piece of advice is to find your community, whether it’s online or off. Let your fellow writers cheer you on and give back to others as much as possible.
Finally, what are some LGBTQ+ comics or books you would recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
Oh gosh, do you have a free afternoon? There’s so much great LGBTQ+ content out there, I could talk about it for hours.
One online comic that I dearly loved and related to when I was figuring out my identity is Tab Kimpton’s Khaos Comix series. Tom’s and Alex’s stories were the first portrayal I’d seen of a relationship between a transgender boy and a cisgender boy, and it meant so much to me, as someone who is transmasculine/nonbinary and gay.
Other queer graphic novels I’ve read and enjoyed recently are Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu (a YA Fantasy that also has great Jewish and disability rep!) and The Deep and Dark Blue by Niki Smith (a middle grade fantasy featuring a trans girl and her supportive twin brother).
2020 has been rough on the whole, but one bright spot is how many fabulous LGBTQ+ books have recently released. Here are a few of my favorites that Geeks OUT readers may enjoy:
The Derby Daredevils: Kenzie Kickstarts a Team by Kit Rosewater: roller derby and queer characters, plus fabulous illustrations by Sophie Escabasse
Pet by Akwaeke Emezi: speculative fiction at its best, featuring a trans girl main character as an organic part of the narrative
The Deep by Rivers Solomon: a lyrical fantasy novella (I also highly recommend Solomon’s SFF debut, An Unkindness of Ghosts).
An alternative fashion model of Caribbean descent (Trinidadian, Jamaican, and Barbadian descent) Yasmin Benoit is a proud Black Aro-Ace model/activist from the UK. Creator of #ThisIsWhatAsexualLooksLike Benoit revels in breaking stereotypes about what asexuals/aromantics are perceived and look like. I had the pleasure of interviewing her, which you can read below.
How did you get into modeling? What made you decide to stay on this path and how did you come to incorporate your identity as an asexual aromantic person with it?
I just started reaching out to local photographers, building a portfolio, and then I started getting the attention of brands who wanted models with my look. I try to use my work to increase representation for alternative people of colour, that was why I was motivated to do it in the first place, and break down the misconceptions about how black people in particular are supposed to dress. I stay on that path because I’m pretty good at it, I get to be creative, work with cool people, get free clothes and use it to amplify the other messages I want to put out there – like raising awareness for asexuality and aromanticism. That’s how I incorporate it. Now that I’m out, my modelling work inevitably connects to my modelling too and helps to dispel misconceptions about being aspec.
Because of your identity, you stand at both the fronts of hypersexualization as a model of color and desexualization as an asexual person. Do you ever experience these contrasting forces, and if so, how do you resolve that tension?
They can be amusingly contrasting sometimes, like completely contradicting. It’s fine for me, I’m just doing my thing and expressing myself how I want to, but it’s pretty funny when I’ve got some people calling me a “slut” and a “whore” and others calling me a “virgin loser” at the same time. It’s other people who can’t decide which stereotype they want to go for and both can’t exist at once.
David Jay, American Asexual activist and creator of AVEN, is often held up as the “Model Asexual” for his visibility and non-threatening position as a white, cisgender, able-bodied, neurotypical man? Why do you think that is and how can we change this to broaden people’s understanding of what it means to be asexual?
Within the community, I think he’s mainly known for having founded one of our biggest asexuality organisations and most popular forums. I don’t know how many relate to his experiences as a white, cisgender, able-bodied, neurotypical man but he’s palatable and inoffensive, which is always helpful. I think that for those outside of the community, his ‘normality’ was part of the appeal. They made the point of being like, “Look at this guy, can you believe he’s asexual?” but that was a different time. There’s a lot more activists out there now so we aren’t only represented by David Jay. Sure, most of the activists are white, our representation is predominantly white and the community does tend to find them easier to process, but I’ve had a lot of support and I’m pretty much the opposite of David Jay in terms of our demographic.
There are those who might say that Aro-Aces do not belong in the LGBTQ+ community. What would you say to this?
I’d say that I don’t really care because we’re already there and it isn’t a point of debate. It doesn’t make a difference if Jane from Nebraska thinks we aren’t part of the community, that shouldn’t impact what we can and can’t do. A large amount of my work is within the LGBTQ+ community, I’ve never encountered real-life exclusion from anyone in the community and I’ve felt like part of the community since I saw my first asexual flag at a pride festival when I was fourteen. That’s the first place where I met other asexual people and I felt embraced by the queer community quickly. It’s a shame that assholes on the internet make aro-ace people feel like they can’t have that experience, because we really can. We are queer.
What resources/ pop culture references would you recommend for the asexual/aromantic readers of Geeks OUT?
There’s quite a few books out there with aro-ace characters or covering that topic. Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann, Loveless by Alice Oseman, I’ve heard that Beneath the Citadel by Destiny Soria, Beyond the Black Door by A.M. Strickland, Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand, Last 8 by Laura Pohl and Scavenge the Stars by Tara Sim have characters on that spectrum somewhere. Also, Ace by Angela Chen is a non-fiction example that I actually wrote a piece for. As a writer, I come out with new articles on asexuality and aromanticism quite regularly. I have the #ThisIsWhatAsexualLooksLike series that I write for Qwear Fashion and I hope to realise a book someday. There’s also Todd from Bojack Horseman, he’s ace.
What changes do you personally want to see within the mainstream visibility of the LGBTQ+ community?
I’d like to see a more diverse representation, not just in terms of casting, but in terms of the kind of stories that are focused on. I’d like to see more asexual and aromantic representation, more intersex representation, just more than just the usual stuff and the same old narratives and love stories. We’ve got enough LGBTQ+ representation that we’re starting to have cliches. The media needs to be more adventurous and represent what the world actually needs to see.
Lastly, what advice would you give to other asexual/aromantics out there?
Just do you. As far as we know, you’ve only got one life, so don’t waste it trying to be someone you’re not or trying to impress people who don’t deserve it.
A graduate of UC Santa Cruz, April Daniels is the Lambda Literary Award nominated author of the Nemesis series, following trans superhero, Danny Tozer, who inherits her superpowers after a fateful encounter with a dying superhero. Adding to the growing LGBTQ+ superhero narrative, Daniels continues to write characters who are queer, powerful, and often a little imperfect. I had the opportunity to interview April, which you can read below.
Who are some of your favorite superheroes, fictional or in real life?
Spider-Man, when done well, is hands down the best superhero. His mix of powers and vulnerabilities is perfectly tuned. His motivations and weaknesses are tightly wound through each other and his supporting cast is balanced and expansive. He is relevant everywhere from street-level crime to cosmic warfare. The rest of us can only hope to create a character so versatile and finely conceived. Also, I just want to take this opportunity to point out that he’s even more interesting if you read him as Jewish and bisexual. No, it’s not cannon, but come on. Come on.
In various interviews, you had spoken about how you had written Danny’s physical transformation as a response to the media’s fixation/ fetishization of the trans (especially trans female) body. Could you expand on this?
Sure. Trans girls have body issues just like cis girls, and I blame ads targeted at young women for this. If, at the start of my awareness that I was trans, I’d had the option to completely rewrite my body and look however I wanted to, I’d have ended up looking something like Danielle–with a form that validates and answers the unrealistic demands of the advertisement agencies. Transition is scary. Transition is hard. Transition seems like it’s going to take forever. And at the end, there’s a big unknown of how we will look, and it’s terrifying.
Fear of ending up looking “bad” kept me from transitioning as soon as I could have. It has taken me years to understand that feeling good about how I look doesn’t require me to look like the girls in magazines. A big part of my life was spent feeling ugly and unlovable. For this, I blame the beauty and fashion industries, which push a very narrow concept of feminine power.
This is why one of Danielle’s superpowers is being “super pretty” and also why she is disgusted when she realizes what caused her to make that choice–her perceptions of herself and what she could be were warped by a childhood growing up around ads targeted at creating and exploiting insecurities among women. At first, she’s scared of losing this narrowly-proscribed beauty, but by the end of the book, after she’s seen that her beauty helped her accomplish none of the tasks that mattered, she doesn’t care so much.
Noticing the general landscape of publishing and media, while trans representation seems to be steadily (if slowly) expanding, there continues to be a dearth of rep for trans people who do not identify as straight. Why do you think that is and was Danny, who identifies as a trans lesbian, written as a response to this?
Oh Dreadnought was absolutely a reaction to that state of affairs. There was nothing–nothing–like Dreadnought out there for me when I was young. Anything which featured trans women was a Very Indie And Painfully True kind of affair set in the real world I was trying to escape, or it was lurid cis-gaze bullshit centered on demonizing and exotifying trans women. Or it was both, that was always an option, too. A really popular option, as it turned out. (Transamerica is a terrible movie that should eternally shame everyone involved.) The idea of someone changing their gender presentation was “wacky” or “scary” or “outrageous” but not “empowering” or “beautiful” or “healthy.” Transition was something broken, depraved adults did. It wasn’t something kids daydreamed about–not officially. Not publicly.
So I sat down to write what I wish I’d found when I was 15: crunchy wish fulfillment that almost completely avoided reckoning with the cruel realities of being trans while also leaving the facts that will inevitably force such a reckoning hanging out clearly in the background of the narrative. Then her parents showed up in Chapter 3 and there was no avoiding them. I realized I’d have to wing it for most of the emotional texture, and just do what felt “right.” It ended up being as much a howl of outrage as it was a celebration.
While the books fit into the superhero narrative of containing dastardly foes with larger than life powers, it seems that the actual villains are those who bear a closer resemblance to people in real life, like the TERFy Graywytch and Danny’s abusive parents. How do you think fiction can reflect the real challenges queer teens go through and inspire them to be their own heroic selves?
Really, I’d like a world where queer kids didn’t need to be heroes. I don’t really know what advice I can give except that it’s a good idea to learn when to run and when to fight and how to tell the difference. If you find yourself doing one all the time, try doing the other.
As a writer what advice would you give to other young queer writers on their own creative journeys?
Write what makes you excited. Don’t worry about breaking radical new ground, just make it as good and satisfying and exciting as you can. If if it doesn’t sell, write something else that also makes you excited. Keep writing different things that make you excited. Sooner or later, someone else will get excited, too. Don’t get too attached to your projects; none of my early work got published. The important thing is that you learn something every time you complete a project. And yes, you need to bring projects to completion even if it looks like nobody is interested in what you’re doing. They’ll become more interested once you’ve completed a few and shown them that you’re the real deal.
Are there any stories you are currently working on and are at liberty to speak about?
Yeah, I’m working on Dreadnought 3. I can’t say much about it, except that I’m determined to stick the landing on this trilogy. There aren’t many new faces in this one, but there are a lot of returning players, some whom have radically new relationships to each other, and some who are in a very different place in their lives than when we last saw them. It’s taking a long time because to tell a coherent story I have to understand how I think the world works, but after the monster’s inauguration, I decided I didn’t really know anything after all. As a consequence it’s taken a while to build back up to a coherent idea of how Danielle’s world functions. Anyhow, totally unrelated, but remember Bosco the superpowered bully? He’s a cop now.
Finally, what are some LGBTQ+ books you would recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
Fence, created by C.S. Pacat and Johanna the Mad, follows the story of sixteen year old Nicholas Cox as he enters into the world of competitive fencing. I had the opportunity to interview C.S. Pacat, Johanna the Mad, as well as Fence: Striking Distanceauthor Sarah Rees Brennan which you can read below.
In your own words, how did the genesis of Fence come to be? How would each of you describe your own path to becoming involved in Fence?
Sarah Rees Brennan: I came in at a later date than the others! I was a fan first: I love C.S. Pacat’s writing so I read the Fence graphic novels and was delighted by all the ingredients (the setting of a fencing team at an elite boarding school, the boy from the wrong side of the tracks versus the Olympic hopeful), and thus naturally became a fan of Johanna’s fabulous artwork. My lovely editor at Little Brown reached out to my agent and expressed interest in me writing a tie-in novel. My first reaction was ‘that’s so great, they must be doing really well! They deserve it.’ I’m always so delighted when wonderful LGBT stories find the audience they deserve. Then I went ‘Wait… me?’
C.S. Pacat: I got really into sports comics in Japan, where I lived for about five years. I love the striving and intense rivalries, the friendships and found families, the way you can take characters to their breaking point. I fenced épée all through high school, and thought it was the perfect sport for that kind of comic: it’s intensely strategic and psychological, a solo combat sport with a rich history. Fencing is also a sport famous for its striking visuals, its silhouettes, and its arresting lines. I had started to see the first queer sports stories begin to appear, like Ngozi Ukazu’s fantastic LGBT hockey comic Check, Please! and the joyously queer-coded Japanese anime Yuri!!! on Ice. I started to wonder, what happens when all these energies come out in a combat sport?
Johanna the Mad: At the time, I had recently read C. S. Pacat’s Captive Prince trilogy and instantly became a huge fan of her writing. Parallel to this, I was also really into sports anime and manga so when I was offered to be part of Fence it was like a dream come true.
As a queer person, would you say you incorporated some of your own experiences into the queer media you create?
CSP: I know that for me, as a queer kid growing up, there were so few queer characters that I remember how I clung to each one, rereading the tiny handful books or manga I could find with queer protagonists over and over again. It was the era where queer stories usually had sad endings, and it made me want to write stories of joyful and exuberant queerness. That’s where my decision to write prejudice free, homo-normative worlds came from. I developed this approach to art where I thought: if the purpose of the art is realism, then of course it’s important to show real-wold prejudices, but if the purpose of the art is escapism, then I want everyone to be able to escape equally.
I write a lot of “found families”, because I grew up in a time where being able to be openly queer meant having to step outside the mainstream, and “find” others like you, with whom you could be yourself. More prosaically, I’m bi, and all my main protagonists end up being bi, and in fact I have to make a Herculean effort not to instinctively write every character as bi. Bobby is probably the closest that I’ve come to writing a character that expresses my gender(queer) identity, at least as I understood it back when I was in high school.
JM: Sure. My work is mostly based on displaying emotions which, the majority of the time, are romantic. There’s something about romance that I enjoy illustrating so I guess it’s a given I’d translate my vision and experiences into what I want to draw.
Prior to this book, you had already written critically acclaimed stories, including the Lynburn Legacy series. How did you get signed on to writing a novel for Fence? What was the process like writing a story with an already established world and characters? What did it feel like trying to stay faithful to the feel of the original material while providing your own spin?
SRB: I have written quite a few books! And it’s been so great to see the publishing landscape changing to be more inclusive over that time. I’m also a longtime fan of C.S. Pacat’s work. I loved her Captive Prince series, so when I went to live in Australia for six months several years back, I reached out and was like ‘Hey, be my friend.’ (I make friends like a pleasant, garrulous hostage taker.) Thus followed many writing dates in which I continually ate ice-cream while we yelled at each other about narrative tropes, and an adventure on a pirate ship on the Yarra river surrounded by black swans.
As a writer, she’s extremely generous with her time and her story insights. C.S. Pacat has this amazing internal compass for story, a sense for finding the truest path, so when the opportunity offered I knew it would be fun to work with her, and that when we talked through story paths I could trust her to guide me right.
I’ve written work in previously established universes before, most recently for tie-in novels in the universe of Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. A graphic novel is like a TV show in that they’re both visual mediums. I love storytelling in all its forms, so it’s an exciting challenge to think, how could this form work to tell this story? What light can this particular medium shed on this universe? A book has less surface than any other form of entertainment. Books can go into the deep waters, can offer introspection, so you know more of the characters’ pasts and feelings, and that knowledge can illuminate the action in all forms of the story. So to me, writing books in previously established worlds feels like going into the story spaces with a light.
In previous articles, part of the stated inspiration for Fence came from sports-related anime and manga, such as Haikyuu, as well as American comics like Check Please! What would you say are some of your other favorite examples from the genre?
SRB:Hikaru no Go! I loved learning about the game of Go, and the fantastical premise of the ghost pushing a boy to learn a game which he doesn’t care much about… until he meets and becomes fascinated by a prodigy at the game. I love intensity of a rivalry, which has all the joy of enemy interactions but none of the moral dilemmas. You still really really want to beat them, but you don’t usually kill them at the end! (Sometimes you do. Sometimes rivalry goes wrong.) The characters’ connection to, and pride in, their skill at the game of Go/tennis/the magic ninja path/fencing leads them to connect to each other whether in hatred or love, or a mix of the two. And then the connection works in a feedback loop, so the more you care about your rival the more invested you are in the sport, and more the audience cares about the characters, the more invested they are in the outcome of the game.
CSP: My favourite sports manga is Hikaru no Go. It was one of the first sports manga I read that took its sport completely seriously. No one turned into a demon on the field, no one did a supernatural “finishing move”, it was just a young boy playing Go, often in smoke filled rooms with old geezers. Counter-intuitively, that made the sport itself seem more intense and thrilling.
I’d also want to shout out to my all-time favourite anime Utena. Although it’s not a sports anime, it was a huge influence on Fence. Each episode features the characters duelling in an arena swordfight, in a fantastical queer reimagining of the classic shounen level-up structure.
JM: My all-time favorites would be Slam Dunk, Eyeshield 21 and Kuroko no Basket. A special mention would be Yuri on Ice since I love how they managed both the sports theme along with the protagonists’ queer relationship.
While all the characters of Fence are all incredibly lovable, are there any characters you have a preference writing about/ drawing?
SRB: I agree all the characters are lovable, which I can say without shame as I didn’t create them. Seiji was my favourite character to write, actually! I love them all, but there’s a particularly fun challenge in writing the guy for whom so much is internal. There’s a certain archetype of a character who’s a stickler for the rules, and doesn’t evince many emotions, but who clearly has so much going on under a seemingly cold surface. I love the frozen lake with lava beneath sort: the repressed emotion is always going to manifest in interesting ways.
I just started watching, on the recommendations of many people, a Chinese drama called The Untamed, and I spotted a disgruntled elven-appearing gentleman, and was like ‘Ah, here we have that guy again. Love that guy.’ I do think, however, that character is much easier to convey in a visual medium. An actor can give you microexpressions to let you know where they’re at, or Johanna can give us clues through her fabulous art! So I read the graphic novels and read about this fencing prodigy whose life is about his skill, and went, ‘I love Seiji,’ and then thought ‘oh no… I have to write Seiji from inside his head!’ Nobody’s distant, emotionless or formidable in their own mind, and the drive to excel comes from deep caring. Writing Seiji required a lot of thought about how he saw the world, versus how he saw himself. Seiji and his parents have trouble connecting—Seiji and the world have trouble connecting—and the challenge of connecting to him made me love him.
CSP: Don’t ask me to choose!
JM: Yes! My favorites are Bobby, Harvard and Nicholas. Can’t have enough of those three. I get so excited whenever they’re in a panel together, it’s ridiculous.
One of my personal favorites from the series, Seiji Katayama, seems to display a number of attributes that could be coded as being on the autistic spectrum, i.e. trouble reading social cues, hyper-focus on specific subjects, etc. Are there any characters from the series that could be said to be neurodiverse?
CSP: One character that will be explicitly neurodiverse is Assistant Coach Lewis. I don’t want to spoil anything from upcoming storylines, but I’m looking forward to her having her moment to shine later in the series.
One of the key defining elements of the series is the intense dynamic between Seiji Katayama and Nicholas Cox. Could you elaborate on their relationship, and the very slow-burn element of their story?
SRB: It is a slow burn, isn’t it! I love that, I hate when a relationship feels rushed. In the words of Oscar Wilde, ‘the suspense is terrible… I hope it will last.’ Seiji has a profound effect on Nicholas from their first fencing match, in which Seiji’s skill and dismissal of Nicholas spark fresh determination in Nicholas, and when they continue as roommates in a school where neither of them ever really thought they would be, Nicholas begins to have an effect back—not just Nicholas’s promise in fencing, but irrepressible Nicholas starts talking about being friends. It’s unstoppable force vs immovable object, so every step has to be earned. In Striking Distance we see Seiji making a concession to Nicholas, and C.S. Pacat and I had several discussions about how much of a concession it might be. It had to be tiny. The progress is incremental, but it is there. The suspense is terrible… and I do hope it will last.
CSP: I’m fascinated by the dynamic of “natural rookie” versus “highly trained pro”, which is a classic staple of sports stories. But I never really liked the way that the rookie always wins out in Western sports stories, either triumphantly beating the pro (like Rocky beating Ivan in Rocky IV) or with a moral victory when the pro realises they live a life of empty of feeling and quits their sport (like Maureen quitting ballet in Center Stage). It just seemed so unfair to the pro who had put in so much more work, dedicating their whole life to their sport! I much prefer the way these archetypes are handled in Japanese sports comics, where the rookie and the pro each have something to learn from the other (like Hikaru and Akira from Hikaru no Go, or Nodame and Chiaki in Nodame Cantabile). I loved the idea of using these opposites as the basis for an intense and developing relationship, where each character completes something in the other.
As for the slow-burn, I always think—well, difficult accomplishments are the best because you have to work to achieve them.
Without any spoilers, how does Striking Distance fit into the timeline of the Fence comic universe? Will any references from the novel make its way into future comics?
CSP: Striking Distance is set right after Fence Rivals, the newly-released fourthvolumegraphic novel. Sarah Rees Brennan has a genius for amazing detail. A lot of her glorious and delightful additions will be carried over to the comics, including Aiden and Harvard’s childhood, and characters like Seiji’s father.
SRB: I know not about future comics, but Striking Distance is set after Volume 4 of Fence, with events from Volume 4 giving their fencing coach a Brilliant Idea. The nature of tie-ins is that they should work both standing alone, and as a piece of a whole, fitting in and illuminating the rest. So the book has to introduce the characters and the world in an endearing way for new readers, but still be something new to (with luck) delight and surprise longtime fans. It’s like writing a sequel, magnified by ten. So far I’ve seen readers of advance copies who weren’t familiar with the universe getting into it, and readers who were familiar seeming pleased, and that’s all and more than I could hope for.
As creators from different parts of the world, what were the challenges in collaborating on these projects together? What were some of the benefits?
SRB: I’m a total night owl, so C.S. Pacat’s and my schedules fit pretty well. We tend to do long video calls, to plot the novels and then to check in at intervals. In between I send her what I’m writing, and sometimes I’ll call her at 9 pm, we’ll talk for ages, and then C.S. Pacat will be like, ‘What time is it where you are!’ and I’ll go, ‘Wow, it’s only four a.m… chill…’ I send C.S. Pacat chunks of the book, so I can send it off and wake up to her comments, and she can wake up to more book! On our latest video call, I was typing up notes about our careless playboy character Aiden’s narrative arc to come, and she was twiddling her fingers to amuse my new kitten so the kitten wouldn’t get all up in my keyboard. The wonders of technology—Irish kitten provided with Australian playtime.
CSP: Honestly, the hardest thing is the time difference. We have A LOT of dawn and twilight video chats. It might be a cliche to say, but the benefit is the different influences and perspectives.
JM: I guess the biggest challenge for me was the availability of each one of us. Living in different countries also means different time zones so we have to schedule calls, emails take a bit longer to be answered, etc.
What I love about it is the different points of view all of us bring to the table. They come up with the best ideas for the story and image of the characters so I’m always excited to get their notes on my designs.
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?
SRB: I would like to see Nicholas learn from Westley in The Princess Bride, though Nicholas actually is left-handed! The skill of swordsmanship is such a big thing in the novel of The Princess Bride, even more so than in the book, because we can enter into people’s love and grief so strongly. Inigo Montoya learns the blade because he wants to avenge his beloved father. Our hero Westley learns because he wants to return alive to his beloved lady. It’s another classic example of love for a person, impelling you on to love for a skill. To prepare for writing the Fence novels, as well as reading fencing books and taking fencing lessons and talking to a fabulous fencing coach named Olga Velma, I watched a lot of the old Basil Rathbone movies with famous fencing scenes, and the duel on the Cliffs of Insanity remains a favorite for both skill and intensity of feeling. Maybe the Fence characters and the Princess Bride characters could all teach each other some moves.
CSP: The Ouran High School Host Club.
JM: Oh, I’d love a crossover with Slam Dunk. I think our Fence guys would look amazing in basketball uniforms. Plus, it’d be cute to see the interaction between Kings Row and the Shohoku team.
Are there any projects you are currently working on or project ideas you are currently nursing and are at liberty to speak about?
SRB: I’m always thinkin’. No idea how other people even make toast without considering battle scenes or tortured confessions or love. Currently playing around with ideas for a rom com in which rival actors fall in love, and horror in a town featuring evil bargains and drowned children… plus I very recently finished some more fun in the Fence universe.
CSP: My next project is a YA fantasy called Dark Rise that’s due out next year. It’s set in an alternate London, where the heroes and villains of a long-forgotten war are being reborn, ushering in a dangerous new age of magic. I had wanted to write a queer fantasy series with a vast world and epic stakes for a long time.
Finally, since this is an LGBTQ+ website, are there any LGBTQ+ authors and/or books you can recommend for our readers?
SRB: A recent fave for me is Leah Johnson’s YOU SHOULD SEE ME IN A CROWN. A fabulous heroine of color competes for the title of prom queen which will help her accomplish her academic goals… but she’s terribly distracted by the cute new girl in town. Zen Cho’s THE TRUE QUEEN has a really unique fantasy world as well as a slow burn, low key, but totally compelling wlw relationship at its heart, along with musings about the twists, turns, and bonds of sisterhood. For fans of swordsmanship and LGBTQ+ romance, a can’t-miss ur-text is Ellen Kushner’s SWORDSPOINT about the master swordsman and a boy of mystery, and the fabulous follow-up about the niece of the mad Duke who learns the blade, THE PRIVILEGE OF THE SWORD.
CSP: Fire From Heaven, by Mary Renault which tells the story of Alexander the Great and his love for Hephaestion. This one is a favourite, and Renault has been a huge influence on my own writing.
I just finished All Boys Aren’t Blue by LGBTQIA+ activist George M. Johnson, a memoir describing his experiences growing up Black and queer in America.
Barracuda, by Christos Tsiolkas—and I’d highly recommend the TV series of the same name. Tsiolkas and I share an ethnic background as Australian w*gs, and I really identify with the way the book and the TV series portrays the experience of being a queer w*g growing up in Australia in the 90s. Plus, it’s a sports story about boys at an elite private school!
Lastly, keep your eyes out for a book that’s coming out next year, She Who Became The Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan. It’s a queer/genderqueer retelling of the rise of China’s first Emperor, and it is phenomenal.
Fence: Striking Distance is available September 29th
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.