Interview with Author Zachary Sergi

Zachary Sergi is a queer author of Interactive Fiction, including the print Choices novels, Major Detours and So You Wanna Be A Pop Star?, and the digital Heroes Rise, Versus, and Fortune The Fated series. Zachary was raised in Manhattan, studied Creative Writing at Regis High School and the University of Pennsylvania, and now lives in Los Angeles with his husband, where he also writes for television. Learn more by following Zachary on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook

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

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

This is where I get to write a whole novel, right? Okay, I’ll keep it relatively brief. I’m a queer author of (mostly) interactive fiction. Nine digital novels for Choice of Games (I’m exhausted just saying that) across the Heroes Rise, The Hero Project, Versus, and Fortune the Fated interconnected books (which readers—not me, I swear!—dubbed the Sergiverse). I also write a whole bunch of episodic series for various apps that are in-universe. But in the past few years, I’ve gotten to translate my interactive style into two hardcover Choices novels, Major Detours and So You Wanna Be A Pop Star? I’m from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, have lived in LA since graduating college (an unspecified number of years ago), and am a massive geek at heart: I have the action figure and comic book collection to prove it.

What can you tell us about your latest book, So You Wanna Be A Pop Star?: A Choices Novel? What was the inspiration for this story?

The other things I am a geek for are pop music and reality television competitions (I won’t list them because I watch all of them). I’ve been an avid watcher of American Idol, X-Factor, and The Voice since the start, plus a fanatic for most pop girl groups. If you follow me on Instagram (which my editor does), you’d know this. So it was actually Britny (editor) who emailed me asking if I’d like to do another Choices novel about a pop group. I had mostly written science fiction stuff up until then, and our first novel together (Major Detours) was about a tarot card cult. But I actually had a long-running idea about going behind the scenes of a Fifth Harmony / One Direction type group who are thrown together against their will and become famous overnight, but to make them mostly queer and gender-diverse so they could be dating (and hating) each other. This became the basis for Pop Star, which is by far the juiciest and most dramatic novel I’ve ever written (he says with devious glee).

One of the things that stands out about this book is that it’s an interactive novel (which is pretty unusual for young adult fiction.) What made you decide to go with this type of format?

Unusual indeed—and in print, maybe one of a kind? The print CYOA novels are mostly middle-grade, right? Anyway, I had spent many years writing digital interactive novels (Heroes Rise, Versus) and honing in on my own unique style for the publisher Choice of Games. My interactive fiction is like layering an RPG on top of a novel. I’m not super interested in open-world plot control, but instead providing the basis for the reader to build a character and their relationships, then using a series of statistics to determine alternate scenes and endings. My goal when a reader gets to a big choice is to make them stop and think. There’s rarely any winning or losing, it’s about making tough calls for gaining and sacrificing and defining all at once. 

It’s a long story, but I was on sub for a different print novel (This Pact Is Not Ours, more on this later) and my now-editor couldn’t take on that book but had read my interactive work and asked if I was interested in adapting that for a print format. The answer was obviously yes, and that’s how Major Detours was born. Britny (editor) and I put our heads together to invent a new interactive format for young adult, based on my body of work. Every formatting choice was made by us and the team, from how often to use choices, how they look, how many options—the list goes on. But the two biggest defining factors are that you always move forward in the page count and that there’s a personality-quiz like matrix in the back of the novel where you can plug in your choices and get a kind of reader horoscope, based on the decisions you made.

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

My favorite titles tend to have something in common (Busiek’s Avengers run, Hickman’s X-Men run, the Crossgen universe, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Everything Everywhere All At Once)—they all cross genre boundaries in a tone that is young adult/new adult adjacent. So I often say I write what feels organic to my instincts and influences in a blender brew, and it comes out young adult more often than not. I’m definitely a product of the WB-era teen TV dramas, and I’m so thrilled that Y2K vibe seems to be cycling back in (which I think has more to do with the age of editors/development execs/artists now in their 30s/40s and calling the shots, but who knows). 

That said, I am so proud to be a queer author in this space now more than ever representing queer teens. Pop Star also has a drag queen PoV character—I was not intending this to be a bold statement back in early 2022, but alas here we are. But I also know so much of the young adult audience is actually made up of geeky adult readers (like me), drawn to the genre because there just feels like there is more freedom to tell really big, open-hearted, diverse, fun stories.

How would you describe your writing process?

Outlines so thick they accidentally turn into novels? The following is also blasphemous for a mostly-digital writer, but I draft everything by hand at first (even when writing in interactive formatting language/code). I can get into the flow if it’s just me and a pen and some paper, no computer or phone in reach. Whatever time I lose typing my drafts up, I gain back in focus-without-internet-procrastination and using the typing as an edit process. I’ll do it as long as my aging wrists allow. I am also very intense about curating specific playlists for projects (most of which can be found on my Spotify profile). Bouncing between so many mediums, genres, and titles, I find the mood of music really helpful in re-anchoring myself in a project (and the lyrics don’t interfere with my process, thankfully).

Many authors would say one of the most challenging parts of writing a book is finishing one. What strategies would you say helped you accomplish this??

First, it helps to understand there’s a pretty standard cycle every creator goes through. It’s usually something like THIS IS THE BEST IDEA ANYONE HAS EVER HAD to THIS IS THE WORST IEA ANYONE HAS EVER HAD back to Hey This Is Okay to I Can’t Look At This One More Second. You bounce between those poles until a deadline arrives, basically. These downturns are inevitable, and I think that’s where many creators get stuck. Also, setting very small and realistic daily goals is everything, otherwise, the whole thing can feel daunting. Lastly, it’s essential to experiment and find a writing process that works for you—it usually involves lots of mental trickery, but the best guiding principle is that there is no such thing as a bad first draft.

Growing up, were there any stories in which you felt touched by/ or reflected in? Are there any like that now?

I mentioned the big ones already (Buffy and EEAAO), but The Perks of Being a Wallflower always really hit home with me. It was books like The Magicians, The Hazel Wood, We Were Liars, and Surrender Your Sons that made me want to return to YA publishing after my digital run.

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

It used to be a much more unique answer when I discovered it in college long before the TV show, but The Handmaid’s Tale remains my favorite novel of all time. It does everything I ever want to as a writer in terms of character, prose, and societal allegory. I’m also constantly blown away by the work of Kristin Cashore. If you haven’t read Jane, Unlimited—run don’t walk. That book blew my plotting mind, and I write complicated interactive fiction for a living.

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

I love outlining and editing. First-drafting is maybe my least favorite part of the process—but there’s also nothing like the feeling of being in flow on a project and feeling things click. Outside of process, I find being a writer in the social media age—where we are basically expected to be full-time PR/Marketing people and author personalities who are also subject to the full whim of every criticism ever uttered about us—really exhausting. But on the flip side, we can reach and connect to readers in a truly unprecedented way, which is always what makes every ounce of perspiration worth it.

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

I am a rabid Bravo / Real Housewives fan. If anyone is looking for someone to write The Real Housewives of Earth 616, I’m your writer. But we said no work…Kelly Clarkson is my diva avatar of choice. Symone is my favorite drag queen. I have always hated and will always hate melted cheese. And I was outed in high school by someone who eventually became a very famous pop star, a story I wrote into Pop Star.

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

Will you accept our invitation to be on the next season of The Traitors? (The answer is yes).

What advice might you have to give for other aspiring writers?

The only thing that makes you a writer is actually writing, the rest is a matter of scale. If you can find a day job you love (or feel fulfilled by at least), take that day job and write on the side. If you absolutely have to write full-time, be prepared to make a lot of sacrifices, because most working writers live paycheck to paycheck. We hear a lot about the big success stories, but they’re the 1% of the 1% who ever get published. Finding an agent and an editor is largely not about your talent level or the quality of your writing, it is more like dating—it’s about finding your writing love match who gets you. Never spend more time absorbing a review than it took a person to write it.

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

Yes! So remember that novel I mentioned? This Pact Is Not Ours is a non-interactive (gasp) queer horror novel and it is being published this October by a killer new indie queer press (they have 5 books out right now, each one of them stellar): Tiny Ghost Press. The novel is another genre layer for me, my homage to early Kevin Williamson, I Know What You Did Last Summer set on Dawson’s Creek, with a dash of Stranger Things and We Were Liars. Here’s the premise: four college-bound best friends return to the idyllic campsite their families have visited every summer, only to discover they are cursed by an ancestral pact that threatens to tear their friendships–and the world—apart. It’s maybe the most personal and horrifying work I’ve ever written, and arriving just in time for spooky season (10.3.23). Preorders should be up next month!

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

In no particular order, these fellow young adult authors all have A+ queer books, and all happen to be absolutely lovely people too: Robbie Couch, Emery Lee, Adam Sass, Erik J. Brown, Aaron Aceves, Claire Winn, and Adib Khorram, to mention just a few. Their (multiple!) titles can be found wherever books are sold.

Header Photo Credit Chase Baxter

Interview with Author Mike Albo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How would you describe your writing process? 

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

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

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

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

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

What were you put on this earth to do?

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

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Aaron S Lecklider

Faux Queen – a Life in Drag 

by Monique Jenkinson

Feral City: On Finding Liberation in Lockdown New York

By Jeremiah Moss

Header Photo Credit Ali Levin Photography

Interview with Author Kacen Callender

Kacen Callender is the bestselling and award-winning author of multiple novels for children, teens, and adults, including the Stonewall Honor Book Felix Ever After and the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature King and the Dragonflies. Callender enjoys playing RPG video games, practicing their art, and focusing on healing and growth in their free time.

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

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

Thanks for having me—and yes! I’m a writer, and aspiring illustrator, and love to game in my free time. ☺

What can you tell us about your latest book, Lark & Kasim Start a Revolution? What inspired the story?

Lark & Kasim is about seventeen-year-old nonbinary Lark who is an aspiring author and thinks that the only way they can be published is to gain over 50K followers on Twitter. They’re well on their way, until their former best friend and now number one enemy, Kasim, accidentally posts on Lark’s Twitter page about Kas’s unrequited love. The post goes viral, and Lark is pulled into a spiral of lies where they need to learn authenticity and accountability, and self-love.

The story was originally inspired by response to another of my YA novels, Felix Ever After—though I was so happy to see the overwhelming amount of love that Felix received, I also saw a backlash to his mistakes as a learning, growing human, and realized that there is a double standard in both books and real life: that the more marginalized a person is, the less space we have to make mistakes and learn and grow before we’re deemed as unlikeable. This sparked Lark, a character who desperately wants to be liked so that they will feel safe in a world that so often does not accept them.

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

I loved fanfiction when I was young—my first fanfic was a Card Captor Sakura retelling of The King and I (I’m not sure how it makes sense, either). Storytelling was always an important form of escape, so I was lucky to have books like the Animorphs series.

How would you describe your writing process? 

The only constant in my writing process is that with every book I write, I have to sit down and figure out what the process is going to be. It changes from book to book, with some stories requiring a strict outline, and others needing more of a flow. My favorite process is when there’s a perfect balance of an outline that allows for flow and surprising new storylines in between every planned plot beat.

For Lark & Kasim, the process was very different because, originally, the story was meant to be set during the year 2020, following the timeline of the year. I realized as I wrote that the book was becoming much more about the year 2020 than it was about the characters, so I gave space to the setting and allowed it to be in a vaguer timeline that has been still affected by the pandemic. The original first draft became a very detailed outline where the characters were able to experience more conflict and scene together because they weren’t in quarantine.

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

My favorite element of writing is dialogue—getting so into character and scene as I’m writing that I catch myself saying the lines with my characters and acting out their gestures and facial expressions. That’s when I know a scene is particularly working.

The most challenging is making sure that readers are seeing the world and characters as fully as they are in my head. I feel the emotional attachment to my characters and story because they’re already inside of me, but sometimes language, scene, character development, etc. isn’t enough to transfer that same energy that’s inside of me into the reader, because we just haven’t had the same lived experiences and will always view the same story and sentence through a different lens.

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

I don’t think I’ve been asked “What was your favorite part about writing Lark & Kasim?” yet. My answer: I had a lot of fun breaking the fourth wall by playing with the parallels of Lark being a character who is at times aware that they’re a character in a book, and wonders what it means to be an unlikeable character, or an unlikeable person, as someone who will make mistakes. Breaking the fourth wall wasn’t planned, so those are the best moments when a spark of the unexpected makes its way past the outline and into the story.

What advice might you have to give to aspiring writers?

Lark & Kasim would be a great novel to check out for advice because I also enjoyed including a lot of thoughts on craft for young writers and teens or advice I wish I’d had when I first started out. But, it all mostly boils down to suggesting that writers follow their joy, instead of writing what it is they think others want to read.

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

I held out for a while, but I’ve finally started watching JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure.

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

There are projects that I’m excited about but unfortunately can’t speak on yet.

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

I recently started Mariama Lockington’s In the Key of Us—she’s a magician with language.

Header photo credit Bella Porter