Jessi Zabarsky lives in Chicago with her cat and forty three plants. She was raised in the woods and will one day return there. Her first graphic novel, Witchlight, was published by Random House Graphic in 2020. You can find her online at @jessizabarsky.
I had the opportunity to talk with Jessi, which you can read below.
First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself and your latest book, Coming Back?
Hi, I’m Jessi! I make comics with a lot of plants, magic, food, and big difficult feelings in them. Coming Back is about two young women, Preet and Valissa, who love each other very much but still have trouble navigating each other’s desires and beliefs. A threat appears in their isolated community, and soon afterward they each have to depart on separate journeys, both of which strike at the heart of their respective anxieties.
What drew you to comics? Were there any comics or artists you believe who inspired you and/or influenced your own personal style?
I’ve read comics from a pretty early age, but I think reading the first volume of Ranma ½ was when it clicked for me that comics were something that I could make, too. Takahashi’s work in general is a big influence on me, plus Miyazaki movies, the Nausicaa manga, and YA fantasy authors like Diana Wynne Jones and Tamora Pierce. I also have a deep love for picture books, especially ones with lots of little fiddly bits to look at in the illustrations.
What would you say are some of your favorite craft elements to work on? What are some of the hardest?
Writing is really fun and inking is so satisfying to me. Thumbnails are the hardest! There’s so much to keep in your head at once, it takes a ton of focus and mental effort. Good thumbnails also make penciling easier, so I have to try extra hard at them.
In addition to your latest book, Coming Back, your debut graphic novel, Witchlight, is also known for its beautiful queer characters. What does representation on the page (queer or otherwise) meant to you as an artist and reader?
I mostly want to reflect all the different kinds of people I see around me, it just feels natural. I also get bored of drawing the same type of person over and over very quickly! I love fantasy and sci fi, and when I started Witchlight, I wasn’t seeing a lot of comics with queer characters in those settings. I want to make and read the kinds of fantastical stories with rich worlds that I love, with different types of people as the leads. I want so many varieties of queer stories that it stops feeling like its own genre. I want fantasy that happens to feature queer people, and for that to feel completely unremarkable.
For those curious about the process behind a graphic novel, how would you describe the process?
The process varies person to person and project to project, but generally I start with a script, then do thumbnails, then page layouts and pencils on paper, and inks directly on top of the pencils. Then I scan the pages into my computer, do digital cleanup and fixes, lettering, and finally, color. With a publisher, they’ll want the front cover figured out earlier in the process, so that gets worked in around halfway or a bit later. It’s a long road and requires a lot of different skills!
What advice would you give to aspiring creatives who would want to create their own comics, whether as artists, writers, or both?
Start making comics. Use whatever paper you have on hand and whatever you have to draw with (I made my very first comics in lined notebooks with regular pencils). Start with something low pressure, like a gag comic or journal comics. It can help to give yourself constraints, like the same panel structure every time, at first. Read lots of comics formats- newspaper strips, webcomics, manga, superhero comics, YA comics- check your library, most now have at least one comics section, if not several. Read critically- what do you like/dislike and why? Where do you get confused and what would you do to fix the problem? What works really smoothly? What stands out?
If you’ve already been making comics for a while, find tricks and shortcuts where you can. Making comics takes a lot of time and effort and you are one finite person! Remember that people read comics very quickly and no one will notice if every panel isn’t perfect. Work hard but make sure you’ll also be able to work for a long time! Do your stretches!!
Are there any other project ideas you are working on and at liberty to discuss?
I’ve got secrets in the works but for now you can check my social media (IG @hug_box, Twitter @jessizabarsky) for weekly journal comics where I draw myself as a small rabbit.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?
‘Hey, Jessi, why do you draw the moon as full in nearly every instance regardless of the time that’s passed in the story?’
Thank you for noticing, it’s because circles are a great design element and I love the moon and she deserves it.
Finally, what queer books/comics would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
I really love the Hakumei & Mikochi manga! It’s plausibly deniable in its queerness, but it centers two tiny “roommates” who live in the base of a tree and cook, shop, eat, and explore together (they’re wives). There are also several other female characters who definitely don’t have crushes on each other.
For more direct queerness, I’ve been really enjoying the book series that begins with A Memory Called Empire, a space opera about colonialism and selfhood. And an all-time favorite of mine, Ursula Le Guin’s short stories are really excellent for imagining different ways of thinking about sex, gender, and relationships!
In this new episode of the Geeks OUT Podcast, Kevin is joined by Will Choy, as they discuss their love of Everything Everywhere All at Once, the new teaser for Thor: Love and Thunder, and celebrate a new trailer for Angelyne as our Strong Female Character of the Week.
Darcie Little Badger is a Lipan Apache writer with a PhD in oceanography. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, Elatsoe, was featured in Time Magazine as one of the best 100 fantasy books of all time. Elatsoe also won the Locus award for Best First Novel and is a Nebula, Ignyte, and Lodestar finalist. Her second fantasy novel, A Snake Falls to Earth, received the Newbery Honor and is on the National Book Awards longlist.
I had the opportunity to talk with Darcie, which you can read below.
First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?
It’s great to be here!
My name is Darcie, and I’m a Lipan Apache writer with a PhD in oceanography. My scholarly interests include toxin-producing plankton, transcriptomics, and the deep sea, especially its weird stuff. I once worked as a researcher and scientific editor, but I transitioned to full-time writing after my debut book, Elatsoe, was published. Since then, I’ve released A Snake Falls to Earth, another young adult (YA) fantasy.
What else? Oh, yeah, when I was an undergrad, Princeton rejected me from the creative writing program twice. After that, my debut was featured in Time Magazine as one of the best 100 fantasy books of all time, and my second book received the Newbery Honor.
For fun, I take long walks, read, watch horror movies, and play rhythm games like Beat Saber. When my spouse Taran is also free, we go on adventures together.
As a writer, what do you think drew you to young adult fiction, especially speculative fiction?
I’ve always enjoyed reading spec fic; my mom introduced me to science fiction and fantasy (she was an original Trekkie), and growing up, I haunted the SFF shelves in bookstores and libraries. Guess I’m creating what I love!
As for choosing to write YA fiction: the books I read as a teenager made an incredible impact. They provided happiness and solace when I was a shy, bullied kid; they fed my imagination, encouraging me to dream; they shaped the person I was and would become. I hope that my books make a similar difference in the lives of young readers.
What can you tell us about your latest book, A Snake Falls from Earth? Where did the inspiration for this story come from?
A Snake Falls to Earth is told through two perspectives. The first main character, Nina, is a human teenager living in a near-future version of Texas. Her great-great grandmother tells her a story in Lipan, and Nina is initially motivated by the desire to understand this story and its significance to her family.
The second main character, Oli, is a cottonmouth snake person who lives in a land of spirits, monsters, and magic. After he’s unceremoniously cast from home, Oli learns to survive on his own, making lots of friends (and a few enemies) in the process. Unfortunately, his new best friend becomes terribly sick, and the only cure is on Earth.
At that point, the two characters meet, their stories interweaving, and Nina and Oli help each other save their friends and family.
The structure, themes, and characters in this book are heavily inspired by the Lipan stories Mom told me. In particular, several of Oli’s early chapters are self-contained misadventures with larger-than-life characters—similar to my favorite traditional stories—that tie into the greater plot.
In addition, my background as a geoscientist informed the environmental features of near-future Texas. In Nina’s world—that is, her homeland—hurricanes are becoming stronger, temperatures are rising, and the survival of vulnerable plant and animal species is a serious concern. Amidst these difficulties and others, Nina and her family fight to remain on their traditional land.
Where did the inspiration for your first book, Elatsoe, come from? Also note, as a aspec reader, I just really want to thank you for writing more aro-ace characters into the world!
Thank you! It’s my pleasure!
As a teenager, I wrote a short story about a haunted house. Its ghost causes mysterious drafts and screeches “Hello!” in a shrill, inhuman voice. A bunch of meddling kids sneak into the house on a dare and discover that the ghost belongs to a parrot. They free its spirit by opening an old metal cage in the attic.
Since then, I’ve amused myself by thinking about all the cool supernatural powers different creatures—velociraptors, mosquitoes, sharks, etc—would have. This fascination led to Elatsoe’s original story seed: a person who can raise animal ghosts. That person became Ellie, the hero of Elatsoe.
What are some of your favorite elements of writing? What do you consider some of the most frustrating and/or difficult?
Sometimes, writing is so fun, I don’t wanna do anything else. That’s my favorite part: the joy of creation. I let stories sweep me up and take me on adventures.
Unfortunately, the amount of time required to finish a novel is really frustrating. My typical daily word count is 500-700, which means first drafts take at least 6 months, accounting for weekends off. Thing is, the stories are itching to leap out of my head and onto the page. I get impatient—so much to write, so little time!—but that’s life.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?
If you could master any instrument, what would it be?
Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?
Oh, gosh, I can share that I’m writing a third YA fantasy book. The contract’s signed, but it hasn’t been announced yet, so I’m unable to say more. Stay tuned!!
What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?
Here are a couple words of advice to aspiring writers:
First, everyone has a different writing journey. What works for me may not work for you; in other words, there’s no one right way to be a writer. But I can make a few general suggestions. When writing, take breaks, if needed. Don’t compare yourself harshly with others. And most of all, write the stories that make you happy and/or are creatively fulfilling.
Above all, persevere.
Finally, what LGBTQ+ and/or indigenous books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
Nicole Melleby (she/her/hers), a born-and-bread Jersey native, is an award-winning children’s author. Her middle grade books have been Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selections, and have earned the Skipping Stones Honor Award, as well as being a 2020 Kirkus Reviews best book of the year. Her debut novel, Hurricane Season, was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. She currently teaches college literature and creative writing, and spends most of her free time roller skating. She lives with her wife and their cat, whose need for attention oddly aligns with Nicole’s writing schedule. You can find her on Twitter @NeekoMelleby.
First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT. Could you tell us a little about yourself?
KL: Hi! I’m Katherine Locke, co-editor and contributor to THIS IS OUR RAINBOW, a queer anthology for readers 9-12 years old, as well as the author of WHAT ARE YOUR WORDS?, THE GIRL WITH THE RED BALLOON, and the forthcoming THIS REBEL HEART, amongst other titles. I’m a nerd, a cat lover, a horse lover, a writer, and a huge fan of naps.
NM: Hi! I’m Nicole Melleby, and I am a New Jersey native who spends way too much time by the ocean. I currently teach creative writing and literature classes with a couple of New Jersey universities, and I spend most of my free time roller skating. My debut novel, Hurricane Season, was a Lambda Literary finalist, and I live with my wife and our cat, Gillian, who is basically a puppy. Seriously—she even plays fetch!
How did you find yourself becoming an author? What drew you to telling your first story and what makes you keep going?
KL: I have been writing ever since I was a little kid! My earliest stories were essentially fanfiction about my life where my mom and I had a farm, I was an only child, and there were plenty of animals. It was true wish fulfillment writing. I wrote my first novel in high school (it was very bad but I’m impressed I finished it!) and kept going. I love stories. I see the world in stories and I hear stories and I’m always dreaming up stories. I think it’s so fun to explore new worlds and new characters, and I find myself learning how to deal with this real world through fiction. I can’t imagine my life without writing, so I guess that’s what keeps me going!
NM: When I was eight, I saw the Nickelodeon movie Harriet the Spy. I was obsessed, I loved everything about it, but I especially loved the main character, Harriet, and the way she always carried around a notebook to write things in. I used to beg my parents to buy me marble composition notebooks just like the one Harriet had every time they went to a store that carried them, and I would fill those notebooks up with everything. I started off by taking notes about the people around me much like Harriet did while spying, and from there I started writing stories instead. I’ve been writing stories ever since.
A good number of your books are queer middle-grade fiction. Was there anything that drew you to writing for this age group? Is there anything about writing middle-grade to you that is distinctive than writing for other age groups?
NM: I actually started with writing young adult. I got my MFA for young adult literature and then slowly found my way to middle grade. I have more of a middle grade voice; I don’t know what it says about me that my natural voice is that of a 12-year-ol, but it’s true! The more I started writing about that age group, the more it felt right, especially because all of my characters are queer and I think that’s such an important time to see that reflected in these books, as you’re slowly understanding who you are. I read once that young adult novels have the characters trying to explore themselves outside of their friends and family, but for middle graders, it’s about exploring who you are within your friends and family and within the people around you, because you’re too young to really have that independence, and I like that. I like being able to write about these characters within the world around them. That’s really what I love about middle grade books.
How would you describe your writing process? Are there any patterns or habits you have to help with inspiration or productivity?
KL: I like to work around other people! If my bed is within reach, I will nap (see also: the first question.) So I tend to write at cafes (pre-COVID) and when I’m on writing retreats, I like to write in a busy room with headphones on. I usually like to have a hot beverage nearby (tea or chai lattes). I write with and without music, depends on my mood. My writing process is a lot of trial and error. I like to know a lot of emotions and moods and vibes of the book before I go in, but all the nitty gritty details come to me as I work. I go through many drafts to get to the book I want to write.
NM: When I write, I like to be as comfortable as possible—usually with a soft blanket wrapped around me, a huge cup of coffee, and my cat Gillian awkwardly splayed out in my lap. I don’t write to music, I find it distracting, but I do usually have the Food Network on in the background because I can’t write to silence, either. I’ve also always been a “character first, plot later” kind of writer—which I think I get from my love of soap operas and their focus on character and relationships.
As a writer, you have explored themes tied to both Jewish and queer identities in your characters, as seen in The Girl with the Red Balloon and It’s a Whole Spiel. Can you discuss your connection to that?
KL: Yes! I am both Jewish and queer. It’s really important to me to share those identities on the page, both together and separate. It’s how I connect to the kinds of stories I want to tell.
KL: Though I’m nonbinary, I’m not as genderfluid as Ari, the character in the story, is. Ari’s pronouns change, but mine stay they/them. But Ari’s feels about how pronouns feel when they aren’t the right pronouns is definitely personal. And I hope to grow up to be as supportive and affirming as Uncle Lior in the book!
Your latest book, How to Become a Planet, deals with the sensitive issue of mental health, specifically depression and anxiety. What drew you to writing about this topic?
NM: I wanted to show that mental illness can be a lifelong issue. I wanted to let Pluto explore what it meant for her, now that she has this diagnosis, moving forward. How does it change her? Does it change her? What does it all mean? Getting a diagnosis isn’t the end for Pluto—it’s a new beginning, like it ends up being for a lot of kids (and adults) struggling with mental illness. And it can be scary! She’s got all of these big emotions, and her depression has set her back in a lot of ways while she and her mom were trying to figure out what was wrong, and now that they know what is wrong, where do they go from here? Ultimately, I wanted to show my readers that it’s okay to have these diagnoses, that it doesn’t change who they are, and I wanted to show them that despite it feeling so hard, there is always hope.
What advice would you have to give to other writers starting out as well as those looking to finish their first book?
KL: Learn to finish books. Unfinished books don’t get published (if that’s your goal). Even if publication isn’t your goal, the art of telling stories relies on the completeness of the telling. Learn to finish books. Even if it feels bad and messy. You can’t fix what you haven’t written.
NM: You don’t have to write every day—I see so many writers wracked with guilt over how much or how little they write day-to-day, and it’s hard! Write how much you want to write, how much you need to write. You decide what those answers are.
Also: If you’re facing a rejection? I find it best to sing this ridiculous song, because it’s so ridiculous it makes me feel better every single time I have sung it to myself (which has been often, because rejection is part of being a writer!): Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I should just go eat worms. Worms! Worms! Worms!
What’s a message something you directly want to give to the readers of your books?
KL: I hope you carry that story with you into the world, even for a little bit, and that it stays with you, even for a little bit.
NM: I really just want them to know that they’re not alone, that there are other people who are struggling and that I see them and I’m listening.
Aside from writing, what do you like to do in your free time?
KL: I ride my horse, take wayyyyy too many photos of my cats, try to remember when I last watered my house plants, read, and spend too much time on the internet!
NM: I love to roller skate with the New Jersey Skate Collective and play roller derby with my Central Jersey Roller Vixens!
Is there a question you haven’t been asked yet but that you wish you were asked? If so, what is the answer to that question?
KL: I don’t think so, but thank you for asking this!
NM: Yes! Is there a connection between my (standalone) middle grade novels? The answer is yes! All of my books (and my short story in This Is Our Rainbow) all take place in the same area of New Jersey—where I call home. Because of this, I make references to my books in my other books: background characters, schools, teachers, locations. I won’t tell you what—you’ll have to read and see if you can spot them yourself!
Are there any project ideas you are incubating and at liberty to speak about?
KL: Oooh, great question. I have a project I can’t speak about yet, but I can tell you that I’m working on a Jewish historical portal fantasy with queer characters, and it’s a bit of a glorious mess right now but I’m extremely excited about it. No release date yet! My next books are a picture book called Being Friends with Dragons out now and This Rebel Heart, a queer Jewish historical with a fantastical twist, out April 4, 2022.
NM: My next book is called The Science of Being Angry, out May 10th, 2022. It’s about an 11-year-old girl named Joey who has anger issues she’s trying to understand. She throws temper tantrums and sometimes gets violent and gets in trouble a lot in school and at home because of it. She’s a triplet, and her brothers never get angry like she does, and neither does her mama, the one of her moms she shares DNA with. In her search to figure out why she is the way she is, she and her best friend (and crush) end up turning to 23-and-Me to try and find out information on the sperm donor her moms used to conceive the triplets. It’s a messy story about family, as Joey tries to fix things so that her mom (the one she doesn’t share DNA with) will love her anyway, and Joey won’t keep hurting the people she loves most, either.
What queer book recommendations would you have to give to the readers of Geeks OUT?
KL: COOL FOR THE SUMMER by Dahlia Adler is a super fun book about a girl who falls for a girl over the summer but then comes home to start school to find the boy of her dreams is into her—and her summer fling is the new student. And THE CITY BEAUTIFUL by Aden Polydoros is the queer Jewish gothic light horror of my dreams—and it’s historical, which is truly the icing on the cake for me. The writing is *chef’s kiss* perfect. And forthcoming, I would highly recommend FROM DUST A FLAME by Rebecca Podos out now!
It’s the return of the Flame Cast, our celebration of past, present, and future Flame Con guests. Join Kevin in a conversation with Eric & Ray with Rage Gear Studios (@ragegearstudios) as we get to know their influences and what they get Down & Nerdy with in pop culture. You can find out more at: www.ragegearstudios.com
Emily X.R. Pan lives on Lenape land in Brooklyn, New York, but was originally born in the Midwestern United States to immigrant parents from Taiwan. Her debut novel, The Astonishing Color of After, was a New York Times bestseller, winner of the APALA Honor and Walter Honor awards, a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize, longlisted for the Carnegie Medal, and featured on over a dozen best-of-the-year lists. She received her MFA in fiction from the NYU Creative Writing Program, where she was a Goldwater Fellow and editor-in-chief of Washington Square. She was the founding editor-in-chief of Bodega Magazine, and went on to co-create the FORESHADOW platform and anthology. An Arrow to the Moon is her second novel. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @ exrpan.
I had the opportunity to interview Emily, which you can read below.
First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?
Hello hello! Thank you so much for having me! I’m a Taiwanese and Chinese American writer based in Brooklyn, New York. I was born in the States and grew up moving around quite a lot, but I’ve lived in NYC longer than anywhere else, so I feel most like a New Yorker.
How did you find yourself becoming a writer?
I’ve been making up stories for as long as I can remember. I was raised on a daily dose of fiction from my dad, who’s a phenomenal storyteller. At bedtime, instead of reading to me, he would invent a new tale on the spot. And eventually he started encouraging me to help brainstorm, and we would spin out these complex threads, and play them out with my stuffed animals. My mom is also a writer—she writes creative nonfiction in Chinese—and has been publishing essays for pretty much my entire life. I remember being a small child and listening to her read sentences back to herself, watching her cross them out and rework them. She was always so engrossed. Growing up that way, I think it was just so much the air I breathed that I couldn’t help but fall in love with the written word myself.
What drew you to young adult and speculative fiction specifically?
Ah, I love this question. What I love about the young adult category is specifically the readers of young adult books. YA readers are so open-minded about genre, about format. They’re willing to try something very strange, or something completely different from what they typically read. It’s quite a different attitude from the readers of adult lit who make a beeline for the sci-fi shelves in a bookstore, or exclusively read romance, or only want to consume what they dub to be high-brow and literary enough. On bookstagram you see YA readers sharing stacks of their recent favorites, and so often it will be such a wide variety of genres, such different types of writers. I love that about the YA world. It feels like I have endless possibilities to play with, so many opportunities to blur genres and experiment, and the YA audience will be ready to try just about anything.
As for speculative fiction, I just can’t imagine myself writing anything that doesn’t have a touch of the strange or the magical. I remember being a kid and having those moments that feel perfectly encapsulated by the exploding brain emoji, wondering whether a wardrobe or an attic could truly have the power to transport me to another place. So many of my hours were spent searching among the trees for signs of the fae, wondering about the possibility of me being a changeling. Once I started reading about other worlds, about things that defied logic and physics, I couldn’t go back. All the stories I write will forever be fulfilling this ongoing fantasy for me—this idea that maybe if I just look hard enough at something, maybe if I tap on a stump the exact right way, walk past a wall at the exact right time, I’ll find something very special and out of this world.
What can you tell us about your upcoming book, An Arrow to the Moon? Where did the inspiration for this story come from?
There were two major points of inspiration. I mentioned before that my dad was always telling me stories. Sometimes he would tell me the legends and fairytales that he had been raised on himself. And my favorite of those were his stories about Houyi the divine archer and Chang’e the moon goddess—I asked to hear them over and over again. Throughout my childhood it always bothered me that I never saw either of those characters in the fairytale collections that I would find at school or at my local library.
The second piece of inspiration was, of course, Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, which I just fell in love with when I read it in school. I think it might have been my first time ever reading Shakespeare on the page, and I was so captivated by his way of playing with words. I’m also a fan of the Baz Luhrmann film from 1996. So I’ve known for some time that I wanted to do a retelling of Romeo and Juliet—but I wanted it to be more feminist, and I wanted to somehow capture what it felt like when I was growing up, before everything revolved around the internet. I was turning around in my head the idea of doomed, star-crossed lovers…and realized making Houyi and Chang’e my Romeo and Juliet was the perfect combination.
Drawing from your work, it seems that East Asian mythology and culture is a large part of the heart of your work. Besides the story Houyi & Chang’e, are there any other mythologies or contemporary Asian drama/stories you’ve found yourself drawn to and taking inspiration from?
I would actually say that the heart of my work is me wrestling with the same questions of identity that I’ve had all my life—especially as a kid who always found myself living in predominantly white neighborhoods, attending predominantly white schools. I never saw myself represented in the books that we were assigned, or that were handed to me in the library. I never saw myself represented in movies. When I went over to friends’ houses, they always had a different way of doing things compared to my family—it often felt like going on an adventure through a strange land. And so the way I think of it is that I’ve been aiming to write very American stories, imbuing my characters with pieces of myself and my truth. In The Astonishing Color of After, I simply incorporated elements from my own family. In An Arrow to the Moon I remade Houyi and Chang’e as Asian American teenagers in the 90s. So I’m not sure what other inspiration I might be drawing from next—at the end of the day it’s just about pinning my own experiences on the page, with the hopes that other Taiwanese and Chinese American people see themselves reflected.
Your debut novel, The Astonishing Color of After, is a beautiful YA novel touching on grief, mental health, and Taiwanese culture and identity. As a writer, what was it like writing this book, and do you feel changed as a writer or a person after having completed it?
Oh, thank you so much! It was certainly a difficult book to write, but for me it was a way of processing my own grief, answering questions that had been spinning in my head. I definitely feel like a different person from the me who was writing it. Sometimes I open the book up to a random page, curious to see how I’ll feel about my prose, and it so often feels like the words I’m reading could not possibly have come out of my brain. It’s a very bizarre experience. The cool thing about a published work is that it’s a snapshot of its creator at a very specific moment in time—or if the book was written over the course of many years, then it’s a collection of snapshots. The Astonishing Color of After is absolutely a time capsule for me. I can see myself mourning right there on the page. I can also see my fears about my writing career, my aching desire to share my words, to make myself known. My new novel feels very different to me because I wrote it when I was older and wrestling with very different things.
How would you describe your writing process?
I’m a chronic rewriter. On my first few drafts I’m writing my way through a dimly lit forest. I have some sense of certain events and situations I want to aim for, but I try to keep myself in the dark aside from those to leave ample space for discovery. I spend a lot of time in those early iterations figuring out what the story is even meant to be. And then on later drafts I’m reshaping, restructuring, cleaning up the mess and shining up the words.
What are some of your favorite elements of writing? What are some you find the most challenging or difficult?
The first draft is probably the scariest for me. That’s when impostor syndrome hits me the hardest. The second most challenging aspect is trusting that I can take a mess of a manuscript and somehow make it good. It always gets so much worse before it gets better—kind of like decluttering and reorganizing a house. But it’s terrifying to start ripping things apart, throwing scraps here and there, attempting to rebraid the chapters.
The best moments—my absolute favorite moments—are always when I’m wrestling endlessly with a puzzle and finally a solution suddenly sparks in my brain, and it turns out that the answer I needed was connected to something I’d already written in another part of the book. Those moments make me feel like a sneaky genius. I love them because they remind me to trust in myself, and trust in the process.
If you could go back and tell your writer-self anything, what would it be?
Oh gosh. If I could travel back in time to visit young Emily, who so badly wanted to be writing and publishing books, who was so full of fear that that dream might never come true…I think I would tell her to be less afraid. To write what’s true to her. To ignore what feels commercial, what feels most “doable.” And to write the books she thinks are too ambitious for her to write.
What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?
I would tell them, first, to read constantly, and read widely. To read everything—even genres and age categories they have no interest in—and to challenge themselves to find at least three craft lessons in each thing they read.
Second, I would tell them that if there’s a glittering story idea that scares them, that they don’t think they’re good enough to write yet: that’s exactly what they should be working on right now.
Are there any other projects you are working on right now and at liberty to speak about?
I’ve got quite a few secret novels that I’m chipping away at, including an adult novel and a middle grade book. But those are on the backburner because I’m on deadline for a new YA novel that’s very different from what I’ve published so far. I think that’s all I can say right now—but I am very excited for all of these!
Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
Oh gosh. Everything Malinda Lo writes. I must scream especially loudly about her newest book, Last Night At the Telegraph Club, which has at this point won a gazillion awards and is so absolutely deserving of all the hype. Anna-Marie McLemore is another brilliant writer who will forever give me brain envy, and their book When the Moon Was Ours is one I go back to quite often. Charlie Jane Anders, too—I will read everything she writes. I love love love her short stories, plus she’s currently publishing a trilogy—the first book is called Victories Greater Than Death, and it just has so much wonderful representation in it. It’s amazing how the landscape of publishing has changed. I remember being a teen trying to specifically find queer stories, and having to mostly rely on word-of-mouth recommendations. It’s so much easier to find these books now. There is still so much to be done in publishing, so many gaps to be filled—that work is endless, really. But also there is so much more out there, so many more people being given the opportunity to share their voices. It gives me a lot of hope.
New York Times Bestselling and award-winning author, Claribel A. Ortega is a former reporter who writes middle-grade and young adult fantasy inspired by her Dominican heritage. When she’s not busy turning her obsession with eighties pop culture, magic, and video games into books, she’s co-hosting her podcast Bad Author Book Club and helping authors navigate publishing with her consulting business GIFGRRL. Claribel is a Marvel contributor and has been featured on Buzzfeed, Bustle, Good Morning America and Deadline.
Claribel’s debut middle grade novel Ghost Squad is out now from Scholastic and is being made into a feature film. Her forthcoming books include Witchlings (Scholastic) and the graphic novel Frizzy (First Second.) You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Tiktok @Claribel_Ortega.
I had the opportunity to interview Claribel which you can read below.
First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT. Could you tell us a little about yourself?
Hello! And thanks for having me. My name is Claribel, I am a former reporter and book marketer who writes middle grade and young adult fiction. I grew up in the South Bronx and am Dominican American. When I’m not writing, I’m playing video games. Usually on my Nintendo Switch though I am a big Sims fan and my go-to karaoke song is either Black Velvet by Alannah Myles or Mean by Taylor Swift.
When did you know you were first interested in writing, and what drew you specifically to writing for younger audiences and speculative fiction?
I have loved writing from a very young age. I probably began writing short stories in second or third grade. I mostly wrote poetry and song lyrics though, and started writing in longer form in college. I never made a conscious decision to write for kids, the stories I wanted to tell just so happened to have young protagonists, and that’s probably because the things I watched and read in middle school were really formative for me. I’m always returning to the lessons and themes I discovered in things like Goosebumps or Disney Channel original movies like Halloweentown and Twitches.
How would you describe your latest book, Witchlings? What inspired the story? And on that note, where do you find inspiration in general?
It’s about a twelve year old witch who is sorted as a Spare, which means she doesn’t belong in any coven, along with her bully and the new girl in town with a terrible secret. When they can’t seal their coven and are about to lose their magic for good, Seven invokes the impossible task–a magical trial that will allow them to keep their magic if they can defeat the dreaded Nightbeast. If they fail they’ll be turned into toads. Witchlings is what I’ve been calling Shrekian fantasy (thanks to editor Angeline Rodriguez who I first heard that description from) in other words, prophecies and mythical monsters but with cellphones and the internet. Or the witchernet as it’s called in Witchlings. It’s also a fun, magical adventure wrapped in a mystery that tackles heavy topics like friendship breakups, abuse and classism.
The story was inspired by a few different things. One was the River Towns, which are a group of towns along the Hudson River in New York. Ravenskill, the town where the book takes place specifically, is based on Peekskill New York. It was inspired by my love of fantasy and underdog stories and by the trans and nonbinary community that is often left out and treated much like Spares are.
Were there any stories (queer or otherwise) that you read or watched growing up that had touched you or felt relatable in any way?
I didn’t have the kind of representation kids today have, so I unfortunately don’t have examples of queer stories that impacted my growing up. The House on Mango street was definitely one of my childhood favorites though, and one of the books that inspired me to be a writer.
How would you describe your writing routine or process? What are some of the enjoyable, hardest, and strangest parts about writing for you?
It’s basically chaos. I try to outline, but the story always changes a ton no matter how much I try to plan ahead. My characters are rebellious as well. I transitioned to becoming a full time writer just as the pandemic started, so I didn’t really have a chance to set my writing routine in a way that I was happy with until recently. I’m usually at the desk by ten, and trying to write, and I’ll be there until at least six, even if no writing has actually occurred. It’s been hard having to write at home for the better part of the past two years. I used to love writing in coffee shops and bookstores, and that really helped my creativity and productivity but writing at home felt a bit stifling for me. In terms of what’s enjoyable, I love when a story finally comes together. There is a cycle of “this is amazing, this is actually awful, no wait it’s amazing!” that I go through every time I write a book, and getting to the “it’s amazing” phase is really satisfying. And honestly, it’s strange to make things up for a living. Not gonna lie. I make up stories and get paid for it, it sounds fake. And it’s weird, but I love it so much!
In addition to prose, you’re also a comics writer (as seen with your upcoming book, Frizzy.) Could you walk us through how you learned to write for a graphic novel medium and what writing the script was like for Frizzy?
I am a huge graphic novel fan, so my first stop in learning to write them was pulling from my experience as a reader which is much like my prose. My incredible editor at First Second sent me a box of graphic novels as well, and a few scripts for me to study and learn from. Everything after that was a hands-on learning process but I adored it. I am a very visual writer normally, so writing graphic novels really appealed to me and I felt comfortable doing it.
Aside from writing, what are some things you would want others to know about you?
I think people already know way too much about me because I talk too much on the internet, but I guess I wish they knew I am a harmless troll and a lot of the things I post about online are actually running jokes. Like the fact that I write my books in Wingdings 3. I’ve been telling people that for years but it’s not true at all lol.
What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?
Read a lot, don’t try to be perfect, and write what makes your heart feel like it’s about to explode.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet and wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?
How are you? Just kidding, I wish people asked me more about my young adult writing! I’m currently working on a dual POV sapphic murder myster fantasy I’m really excited about that’s based on Dominican folklore and I hope to go on submission with it this year.
Can you tell us about any new projects or ideas you are nurturing and at liberty to discuss?
I can’t really talk about my other projects at the moment but I just handed in Witchlings book 2 and it’s not only bigger, but more dramatic, and a lot of fun.
Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
In a new episode of the Geeks OUT Podcast, Kevin is joined by Tea Berry-Blue, as they discuss the new trailers for Russian Doll and The Bob’s Burgers Movie, the queer storylines in Our Flag Means Death, and hope that MCU executive and fellow queer, Victoria Alonso’s words sway the Disney CEO to do more, in This Week in Queer.
Amelia Loken writes Young Adult Fantasy and Contemporary fiction, exploring the courage of people who forge bridges from the shards of old obstacles. Professionally, she’s worked in the Deaf community as an ASL/English interpreter and currently in the field of assistive technology. Not only has she studied sign language, but also swordplay, embroidery, music, theology, disability rights, and the history of pirates; bits of this flotsam turn up in her manuscripts without invitation. Her debut YA Fantasy novel, UNRAVEL, is an Amazon bestseller and tells of Marguerite, a deaf princess who must oust her uncle from his ill-gotten throne relying on her embroidery magic, a homemade invisibility cloak, and the one boy she never should have trusted.
Amelia lives in Arkansas on the edge of a wood with her husband and five sons. Though she technically has no pets, she will feed any animal (or kid) who comes around whining for food.
I had the opportunity to interview Amelia, which you can read below.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am a writer who seeks for hope and happy endings in the middle of the storms. Many of my stories center around disability and the d/Deaf community. I worked as a licensed sign language interpreter for several years until I started losing my own hearing. I consider myself an ally and advocate for disability rights even as I fight my own internalized ableism. I’m a grad student, earning a Masters in Public Administration and use ASL interpreters in classrooms settings to support my communication needs.
When life gets hard, my self-care is either reading or creating. Often, I’ll do both. I’ll listen to an audio book with the volume cranked up while embroidering. Stabbing something a hundred times is self-soothing, but eventually the needlework becomes rather beautiful and that’s always so satisfying.
How would you describe your debut book. Unravel, and its origins? What kind of things can readers expect?
Unravel is the story of Marguerite, a deaf princess who has been hiding her embroidery magic from her tyrannical uncle who is waging a war against witchcraft. Everyone believes magic is gendered. Gifted women can use it to make jewelry and charms, enhance meals or make medicines, or stitch it into clothing. For a period of time after they use magic, their aura is visible to men who are voyants – and can condemn them to death. Marguerite can do both. In chapter one, she meets Tys, an itinerant acrobat who is gifted in both too, as they attempt to rescue a child from the witch trials. As Marguerite’s uncle’s power grows, she must flee her kingdom – for safety and to master her craft. The Fates cross her path with Tys’ several times, tangling their lives and their heartstrings. When her uncle makes his ultimate bid for power and Marguerite must challenge him, all she has is the truth, her homemade invisibility cloak, and Tys, the one person she never should have trusted.
When did you know you were first interested in writing, and what drew you specifically to young adult fiction and speculative fiction?
My mom was a children’s librarian, so I practically grew up in libraries. I’ve always loved stories, but never thought of myself as a writer, until it became a tool for me as I battled depression.
I love all sorts of books with magic, alternate history, or interesting futures, but you’ll usually find me reading those books created for young people. I do read some adult fiction, but mostly in the romance genre. I generally steer clear of anything “hardboiled” or bleak. I’m a girl who loves a happily ever after. I’ve dealt with emotional abuse when I was a child and with depression as an adult, so if I’m going to go through a harrowing experience between the pages of a book, it better reward me with something good at the end. I need it for my own mental and emotional health.
How would you describe your writing process? What are some of your favorite/most difficult parts of the process?
I start with the spark of an idea. Do a little exploratory writing. Try to figure out where it’s going. Get some vibes going with a Pinterest board and a playlist. Sketch out a plot. Then I write. Lots of words. All the description! The world-building, clothes, the expressions, all the shrugs, background info. It’s all in there. THEN, I have to figure out what’s the most important parts for the story and move the rest of it into the computer version of an attic. I still have it, but don’t look at it again. I go back through with more precise trimming of the text. Again and again until it’s the right shape and story. Unravel was – at one point – 170,000 words. That’s twice as long as your average YA novel. I whittled it down to about 105,000 words by the time it was published. So cutting back on so much of what feels important can be really hard. It’s the most difficult part for me, but when it’s done, I see that my story is still there – like a rich, complex broth that simmered down to its essence through that process.
The most enjoyable part of the process for me is drafting the story. There’s still so many possibilities. It’s just the story and me. I’m currently in that place with another manuscript right now and it is pure joy!
At any point during your life have you found media (i.e. books, film/television, etc) in which you could see yourself reflected or relating to in terms of personal representation?
I grew up in a family with three siblings, a dependable, loving mom, and an unstable, charismatic father. My dad was intellectually impressive, but struggled with mental health issues, affecting his employment, so we moved often. My siblings and I were each other’s friends no matter where we lived. We became a unit, despite our personality differences. I find this reflected in a lot of ensemble casts and found-family stories. I am a big fan of Avatar: The Lost Airbender. My family watches the full series at least once a year. I love Shannon Hale’s Books of Bayern series beginning with The Goose Girl. I’m anxiously awaiting more books in Susan Dennard’s Truth Witch series. I want to join Kaz, Inej, and Jesper in whatever heist they are planning next on the screen or in Leigh Bardugo’s books. If I’d read the Circle of Magic series by Tamora Pierce when I was a teen, I would have ached to join Briar, Sandry, Daja and Tris at the Winding Circle temple.
Juliette Marillier’s Wildwood Dancing, a retelling of the twelve dancing princesses set in Romania and Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith both have looming, suffocating danger and slow-burn, yearning romance. These recreate the vibe of my teen years and is what I tried to recreate in Unravel.
As someone who is part of the d/Deaf/HOH community, disability seems to be strong element in your work – How did you set about representation in your book, particularly representing a three-dimensional language like ASL onto the page?
I wanted to be sure that sign language was understood as a language and lip-reading as a tool. Often both are minimized as fun party tricks. ASL wasn’t recognized as a language (outside of the Deaf community) until 1965 and there is a history in the United States and elsewhere of sign language users being isolated and even punished for using it. It’s a traumatic part of Deaf culture and Deaf history. I wanted to give readers a taste of what many d/Deaf individuals experience through Marguerite’s story.
She learned “hand language” as a young child, but when her religiously zealous uncle thought her use of it a sign of deviltry, he crushed her dominant hand. When we meet her, she hasn’t signed for twelve years and doesn’t remember using “hand language.” When it is reintroduced, she has a new way of communication that brings freedom. Marguerite’s magic-imbued silver hair combs – which act similarly to bone-conduction hearing aids – are not a “cure” for her deafness, but they are helpful. Between the combs and lip-reading, she is able to understand most of what is said to/around her. However, there are times when she can’t hear everything. I use ellipses to indicate the gap of information. (i.e. “Whilst the trial proceeds…stitch the essence…speed, not precision.”) From context, Marguerite and the reader can puzzle out what’s being said, but when the speaker is too far away or turns their back, whatever is being spoken is totally missing. This reflects my experience and that of others.
Now as for the three-dimensional language, I don’t have specific hand shapes or movements mentioned often. For the average hearing reader, the signs mean nothing. I tried to stay in close first-person point-of-view, so when Marguerite sees signs she understands, she’s not going to think of hand-shape and movement, but of what it means. She sees a sentence: “I can visit you,” rather than the position of fingers and palms. When I do mention signing movements, it’s in moments when Marguerite is struggling to understand what’s being communicated with those particular hand shapes and movements. But most of the time, there will be sentences with he signed rather than he said as dialog tags. My intention is for the message to become more noticeable than the means of communication – until that communication is interrupted or obstructed.
A unique facet of your world building involves craft-based magic. Could you speak about this, and how you might have developed it?
I come from a long line of creative people. My mother and grandmothers were very skilled in baking, cooking, and general homemaking, but my grandmother tried to do a task each day that she wouldn’t have to do again. Dinner must be cooked again tomorrow. Clean laundry will be dirty next week. Canning jars of food will be eaten by next year. So, the women in my family made quilts, curtains, embroidered tea towels, Christmas ornaments, pretty hair ties, home-made jewelry, fashionable (and not so fashionable) clothing. It was economical and a great creative outlet. This thrifty creativity was very much a part of my upbringing though not as common in some of my friends’ homes. I wanted to explore and celebrate the “women’s arts” in this magic system.
You might also notice that many of the books/shows I mentioned above are element-based magic systems. The idea that ‘I can master this, and you/they can master something else and together we coordinate some kind of plan using all our skills,’ is a cooperative perspective centered in my core beliefs. I linked embroidery magic to the element of air in Unravel, and hint at what elements other skills are connected to.
What advice would you give for authors for portraying disability (whether that of their own or of others) within their own work?
Do the work.
I think it’s very important to be own voices when possible, but if not, then you, the author, must do the work to understand what it means to be in this body, facing these obstacles, experiencing this discrimination or fighting against this bias. I am hard-of-hearing, but wasn’t always. I started learning ASL in my twenties and became a serious student for the past thirteen years. I earned a bachelor’s degree in ASL/English Interpreting. I have worked as an interpreter for d/Deaf clients and have d/Deaf friends. Yet, I still had Deaf friends look over my manuscript. There were points they brought up and I corrected. Still, there may be other things I overlooked. But I know that I put in the due diligence necessary to create as authentic as possible characters and situations that would feel real to a d/Deaf readers.
What’s something about deafness/disability you might want someone to take away from this interview?
We are all human. We each are vulnerable, and we are each valuable. There’s no reason to avoid persons with disabilities. Fifteen percent of the world’s population is disabled in some way, but most of us will experience some kind of disability during our life. It might be short-term while recovering from surgery or an injury. It might be longer if disease or age brings limited mobility, sight, hearing, or cognitive function. Reading, especially with first-person point of view from a disabled character, can be the closest thing to experiencing the emotions and perspective of living in a disabled body right now. I invite readers to embrace that experience. Use it to grow your compassion and fight your internalized ableism. Use that compassion to push for equity and accessibility for all.
Are there any projects you are currently working on and at liberty to speak about?
I have a contemporary YA project that centers around a hard-of-hearing, theatre geek who is in denial about her dad’s mental illness until he hits a crisis. When she joins a fencing team, and meets two handsome ASL users (one Deaf, one selective mute) she learns to trust herself, her teammates, and the truth about her gaslighting dad.
The other is a newer project, but I’m having so much fun! It’s a dual POV mash-up of D&D and Steampunk. Zeota is a typical Non-Player Character – an indentured craftsman with low-vision who makes equipment for all the explorers. Since she uses a Brailler to take notes and a white cane around town, no one expects her to go on adventures. When the only survivor of a missing exploring crew stumbles back to town and tells of a “dragon” who attacked them, she’s hard to convince. But when her delivery of his especially commissioned armor goes awry, she finds herself stuck in the Wilds on a journey she’s always dreamed of, partnered with her one-time crush who’s been hiding his hearing loss from everyone. Unfortunately, it’s a race against a rogue crew who believe the news of a dragon in the Wilds and plan to bring it back to civilization, dead or alive.
What general advice would you give to aspiring writers?
The first is to develop your craft. This can be done in a variety of ways. Writing-craft books are definitely a go-to for me. I also love that there’s so many podcasts out there with writers and writing advice. I’ve sampled some free online writing resource classes, too. There’s also a lot of great learning opportunities through writing organizations. Find one that fits you and your chosen genre and dive in! I’ve been a member of SCBWI since 2012, and though there have been some issues with leadership that have come to light, I have gained so much from this volunteer-driven organization. The conferences and meet-ups have offered good tutelage in writing craft and how to get started in publishing. Often there are editors, literary agents, and more established writers on faculty who share bits of truth that applies to whatever I’m currently struggling with. That said, I don’t believe there is ever ONE piece of advice that fits all, so I’d advise taking it all with a grain of salt and to sample widely.
I also believe that developing a “writer’s room” for yourself is really important. I’m using the term “writer’s room” to include any critique group, critique partners, or other writing pals you may have. Critique partners and groups can be found through writing organizations, like SCBWI, which is how I found my first group, as well as online, through book clubs, or even your local coffee shop. I’ve been a member of several critique groups sometimes multiple groups/partners at once. Each one had a different feel and were of varying sizes from nine to three. Notice if your “writer’s room” looks just like you and try to make/keep it diverse: writers who have skills you admire, those who may be newer at the game but could use some pointers, writers with different backgrounds and life experiences. Developing more relationships and wider circles (even if just acquaintances) can help you if/when you find yourself in a weird (read: toxic) situation. When things get awkward and you question yourself –
Is it me? Is it really that bad? Maybe their harsh criticism really is the truth?
Creating your “writer’s room” means you’re never dependent on just one person or group for writerly advice. Even if you’re “just acquaintances,” most writers are happy to offer you a gut check if your crit group is heading toward AITA drama.
Finally, are there any books, particularly books showing disability/deaf rep you would recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
A great start is the graphic novel, El Deafo, by CeCe Bell. It’s an autobiographical story that is frustrating as well as heart-warming.
If you’re into creepy, older YA, you should definitely pre-order Kelly Andrew’s debut novel, The Whispering Dark, coming out this fall. Kelly is Deaf, as is her protagonist in this dark academia, enemies-to-lovers novel with an Orpheus/Euridice vibe.
Sara Novic’s debut novel, Girl At War, which revolves around the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, broke my heart a few years ago. I discovered she is Deaf and follow her on Twitter for pithy, anti-ableist nuggets. I’m looking forward to her deaf-centric novel True Biz which comes out this Spring.
I’m super excited about All for One, which is a gender-bent retelling of the Three Musketeers by Lillie Lainhoff. The author and the main character, Tania, have the chronic illness POTS. Characters and individuals with chronic illness or disability can fight injustice and defeat bad guys. They might need to wait until they have enough spoons, but then watch out!
I’ve also enjoyed the Bergman Brothers adult romance series by Chloe Liese. The first book, Only When It’s Us, has a frenemies-to-lovers vibe with a deaf leading man. The other books have all the classic tropes I enjoy in romance and seamlessly include main characters who have chronic illness, anxiety, and neurodivergence. The next book coming out is a m/m romance with the next brother in the family line-up.
Other great books: Feeling Like Home by Haleigh Wenger explores Crohn’s disease in a teen who gets thrills from vandalism. Padma Venkatraman’ novel, A Time to Dance centers around a dancer who’s had a below-the-knee amputation and is trying to recapture her joy of the art while using a prosthetic. Oh, and I have to include Unbroken, an anthology starring disabled teens, written by disabled authors, and edited by Marieke Nijkamp.
There are also many great individuals and resources online that have helped me examine my own internalized biases and live like a better human:
Freya Marske lives in Australia, where she is yet to be killed by any form of wildlife. She writes stories full of magic, blood, and as much kissing as she can get away with. Her short fiction has appeared in Analog Science Fiction, Andromeda Spaceways, and several anthologies. In 2020 she was awarded the Australian National SF (Ditmar) Award for Best New Talent. Her debut novel, the queer historical fantasy A MARVELLOUS LIGHT, is available now in hardcover.
First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Sure! I’m Freya Marske, a writer and podcaster based in Australia. I’ve moved through various flavours of geekdom in my life (shout out to my high school self, who was passionately into anime and also first in line for the opening screenings of the Lord of the Rings movies) but I’ve always been a reader of fantasy, so I’m delighted to have my debut fantasy novel published this year.
Where did you get your start in writing? How did you realize you wanted to be a storyteller?
I can’t recall a conscious choice being involved; I had a poem published in the newspaper at age 5, and never looked back! By which I mean I wrote on and off for years, including a lot of time in my twenties writing fanfiction and building my skills before I actually finished my first original novel.
Where did the idea for your latest book, A Marvellous Light come from?
The first seed of an idea that grew into the book was the question of who would liaise between a hidden magical society and an unmagical civil service, and what would happen if the wrong person ended up in that job. Because I always knew it would be a romance, too, I began to build the two protagonists—their backgrounds, their personalities, their relationship—at the same time as building the plot outwards from that initial idea.
What was the process like working on this story? Did you consult any resources while developing the background of your Edwardian magical fantasy?
I did quite a bit of reading about Edwardian society at the time, especially the daily life of the upper and upper middle classes and the kind of country manor house party that the book features. Plus I had to look into a lot of nitty-gritty details as they arose: the sort of cars that were popular, what the London Underground looked like in 1908, what a young man in mourning for his parents would have worn, etc. I enjoyed the process of learning about that time period and then weaving my own magical worldbuilding through it!
Regarding magical systems, oftentimes writers will build one based off familiar magic systems used in the past, i.e. magic schools, or fuse it with various other ideologies or systems, like Maggie Tokuda-Hall, author of The Mermaid, The Witch, and The Sea, fusing her magic system with marine ecology. Which makes me wonder how di you approach your worldbuilding?
Honestly, the magical system was the part I had the most fun with during the drafting process. I’ve always enjoyed those magic systems that don’t necessarily come easily to practitioners, and which have rules or constraints on what can and can’t be accomplished, but which also allow for creativity and wonder. The idea of using cat’s cradle string as a building block for gesture-based magic was my own, and I enjoyed teasing out the implications of it as I went through the book.
In a genre like historical fiction (much less historical fantasy), it can often be tough to describe queer identities without the queer language we have today. How did you work your way around that?
Absolutely—neither of my protagonists would describe themselves as gay, the word homosexual was I believe only just coming into English parlance, and they would feel uncomfortable with the word queer as it was used then. Despite having sexual experience with other men, neither think of themselves as part of a queer community, and a lot of their awareness of their own sexuality is around the necessity of it being secret. With all of that said: I wasn’t interested in telling a story about internalized homophobia or shame. Robin and Edwin take some time to recognize this aspect of one another, but once they do, the barriers to their love story unfolding are related to who they are as people, and the ways they’ve been hurt in the past. Not the fact that they’re both men.
What are some of your favorite parts of the writing process? What do you feel are some of the most difficult or frustrating?
I love the very beginning: when the outline is done and I’m leaping into a first draft, wrapping prose around my ideas and characters for the first time. And I find the final round of editing to be very satisfying, too. As an over-writer, I will always end up needing to trim unnecessary sentences and stray words, and I enjoy the process of making the end product as lean and punchy as possible.
There’s always a frustrating time for me around two-thirds of the way into a book. Now that I’ve written a few, I’ve learned to look out for those 66.6% doldrums! Somewhere around there I will become convinced that the book is terrible, I’m terrible, the entire thing is a waste of time, and nobody will ever enjoy it. It always passes. I just have to grit my teeth, trust the process, and write through it.
What can we expect from the main characters of A Marvellous Light?
I’ve been affectionately referring to Robin Blyth as a ‘sunshine himbo jock’, which tells you most of what you need to know. He’s good-hearted and straightforward and spent his university years on the cricket pitch or the river rather than studying hard, and he sincerely believes in punching his problems.
Edwin Courcey, the magician assigned as his liaison, is prickly and self-protective and vastly prefers books to people. With an analytical mind and a weak magical gift, Edwin has always been both interested in how magic works and frustrated by how little of it he can do.
Aside from writing, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?
In my spare time I can be found having strong opinions about wine, gin and whisky, lurking in art galleries, and figure skating. Everyone always seems keen to hear about that last one—it’s certainly an unusual sport to have chosen in Australia! But I did it as a kid and then picked it up again as an adult. I love how it calls for the slow improvement of individual skills, but also demands musicality and performance.
What advice might you have to give to other aspiring writers?
Don’t give up! You’ll write thousands upon thousands of words as you’re honing your craft, and you’re always going to be looking ahead at the people who you admire and want to emulate, and feeling frustrated with where you are in comparison. It’s human nature. And remember that any book you read has been meticulously revised and polished: first drafts are allowed to be, supposed to be, a bit of a mess! Let yourself have fun discovering your own stories.
And finally: write exactly the kind of book you most want to read yourself.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were asked, as well as the answer to that question?
Hmm! Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever been asked which books I’ve reread the most times in my life. I’m a huge comfort rereader, and there are some books I return to again and again. Topping the list are: Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, Megan Whalen Turner’s The King of Attolia, and Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather.
Are there any other projects you are currently working on and at liberty to talk about?
I’m about to get started on book 3 of the Last Binding series; I can’t say much about it yet, except to say that one of its protagonists appears briefly in A Marvellous Light. But I’ve also written a couple of contemporary romance novels which my agent has just taken on submission—it’s very exciting to be back at the beginning of the process in a new genre!
Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
This year alone I’ve really enjoyed Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo (m/m Southern gothic horror with fast cars and revenants) and The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri (engrossing high fantasy with a central f/f pairing). In the romance sphere, married cowriters Mikaella Clements and Onjuli Datta brought out an amazing celebrity fake-dating story in The View Was Exhausting, and my favourite romance author KJ Charles finished up her Will Darling Adventures (a 1920s adventure series with stabbing, spies and m/m romance) with Subtle Blood.
However, to finish us off: one of my favourite books of all time—Regeneration, by Pat Barker—is a historical novel set just after the time period of A Marvellous Light. It’s about gay war poets, and trauma recovery, and no magic beyond that of kindness.