Interview with Natalie Caña, Author of A Dish Best Served Hot

Natalie Caña writes contemporary romances that allow her to incorporate her witty sense of humor and her love for her culture (Puertominican whoop whoop!) for heroines and heroes like her. A PROPOSAL THEY CAN’T REFUSE is her debut novel.

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

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

Hi all, I’m Natalie Caña (pronounced K-ah-n-ya). I’m a Domini-Rican author of saucy Latiné romances with shenanigans and sabor. I’ve been writing for many years, but my 2022 novel A Proposal They Can’t Refuse was my first published work. I’ve had multiple careers throughout my adulthood, but being an author is the most authentic and personal.

 What can you tell us about your latest book,  A Dish Best Served Hot? What was the inspiration for this story?  

The original inspiration for A Dish Best Served Hot was my personal experience teaching in an urban school district with not many resources. As I dug deeper into the characters and the world became chaos thanks to the pandemic, the story evolved into something much deeper. It became about the essence of community and the ways we, not only, affect it as individuals, but how it affects us in return. The story became about how we have the tendency to base our value off our communities (whether a neighborhood or a family) and how we serve them. 

As a writer, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically romance? 

I have always been a storyteller. From the moment I could talk I was telling stories. I used to spend hours creating elaborate tales with my Barbies to the point where none of my cousins wanted to play with me because I was doing too much. (I stand by my stance that every single story needed an ending!)  

I honestly believe that my love for romance in general began with the telenovelas I used to watch daily with my grandmother. I loved that in the end good overcame evil and everyone who deserved it received their happy ending. That balance after all of the chaos, spoke to me on a deeper level even as a kid. When I discovered that same feeling in romance novels…it was a wrap. I knew that’s what I wanted to create. I set out to do so. 

As a queer and Latinx author, what does it mean for you featuring queer and Latinx representation in your books?

Man, it means everything to me. I grew up going to schools where BIPOC people were the minority. I felt an immense pressure to assimilate even though I knew it would never truly work. One look at me was enough to prove that I didn’t belong there regardless of whether I wore the same name-brand clothes, spoke the same way, or straightened my hair to match those around me. It took me a long time to accept and appreciate that my “otherness” was a gift not a curse. 

It took even longer for me to acknowledge my queerness. Even as I supported and did my best to uplift the queer people around me, something held me back from looking more closely at myself. I honestly don’t know if I would’ve taken that deep dive into myself if it weren’t for Lola, the heroine of book 2. Researching and writing Lola, made me come face to face with aspects of myself that I’d been ignoring for over 30 years. It made me finally acknowledge and accept that I’m a bisexual woman and that’s a valid existence no matter who I am or am not in a relationship with. 

At the end of the day I want readers to take that away from my books: It doesn’t matter what you look like or who you are attracted to, we are all deserving of a love that nurtures and accepts us wholly. To be able to spread that message is priceless to me. 

How would you describe your writing process?

The only way to describe my process is “contained chaos”. I try so hard to be one of those organized plotters who has every chapter planned out and just sits down and cranks out words. Unfortunately, I am not that person. If I plan my scenes too much, my brain tells me “Ugh, we already did this. Let’s do something else” and I struggle to get any words out. I’ve learned that I just need to tell myself what is the main thing the scene needs to accomplish and then let myself go from there. I do end up all over the place, but I fix all of that in editing. That’s where I really dig in and shape the story into what it needs to be. I end up doing more work because I inevitably have to rewrite scenes and chapters, but it’s honestly the only thing that works for me. 

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

I was not a reader growing up at all. I mostly watched Disney and/or Shirley Temple movies. However, when I was sixteen I heard that J.Lo (my idol at the time) had started her own production company and was going to be making a movie based on the book The Dirty Girls Social Club by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez. Of course, I went and bought it immediately so I could see what it was all about, because I’m nosey like that. It was a revelation. Here was this book that was being sold in the big named bookstores that was 100% about Latinas and their lives. They weren’t the sassy sidekicks dishing out advice to some basic white woman. They were the main characters and they all had very different personalities. It blew my mind. It was the first time I’d ever seen anything like that and for a long time it was the only instance. 

Now there is a growing list of Latinx women writing romance that feature many ethnicities and sexualities and everytime I read one I feel seen in the same way I did back then. It’s a beautiful and inspirational experience every single time. 

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

I know I mentioned them already, but I have to bring up telenovelas again. The fact that these are relatively short stories (only a new months) that feature all the drama one can think up, but still end with a happily ever after for the main characters is what really influences me as a writer and as a person. It gives me hope that no matter what happens, everything will be good in the end. That message is exactly what drew me to the romance genre and what makes me continue reading and writing it. I want my stories to give someone that hope.

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

I think my favorite aspect of writing is building the characters. If y’all could only see how much work I put into developing each and every person who shows up on the page, it would look like that GIF of the guy standing in front of his crime wall with the pictures and the red string all over the place. You know the one I’m talking about. That’s me creating a rich backstory for every character whether they are in every chapter or they show up one time. I know I go overboard, but I can’t tell you how many times it has saved my butt. The heroine of book 2, Lola, is the perfect example. She was originally just a blimp in the hero’s past, but when it became clear that the heroine I’d chosen was not the right one for him, I had to go back and look at his backstory. That’s where I found Lola, the girl who gave Saint his nickname, changed his life, and disappeared. And boom, just like that, book 2 had a new heroine and a way better plot. 

As for challenges: setting has always been the most challenging for me to write. I see things so clearly in my mind that I struggle to get it on the page the way I see it. I either end up going into not enough detail (because I forget that the reader can’t see into my brain) or way too much (because I remember they can’t see into my brain, so I add tons of description so they can see what I see). It’s hard for me to find the right balance, which is why I’m eternally grateful for my editor. 

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?

In a virtual panel I heard the great Beverly Jenkins say, “Stop just talking about your story. Sit down in the chair and write the damn book. You are not a talker, you are a writer.” Boy did that light a fire under my butt, because that is exactly what I was doing. I was talking about my story and daydreaming about it instead of writing it. That’s when I realized that it wasn’t enough to have it all playing out in my head like a movie I was watching. I needed to get it from my head to the paper in order for it to be of value to anyone but me.

Around the same time, Hamilton the musical was making a splash. I remember listening to “Wait For It” and bawling my eyes out, because it resonated so much with me. I was waiting for my time to come, but what was I really doing to make it happen? I needed to “write like I was running out of time”. So I did exactly that. I sat down and wrote the damn book. It was a mess, but it was there. I finally had something to work with besides the visions in my head. 

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

Oh God, this is the worst question to ask me. As the most introverted of introverts I don’t want ANYONE to know ANYTHING  about me EVER. But as a Gemini with both a Leo Moon and Leo Rising, I have the tendency to overshare once I get started. There is no middle. Honestly, I feel like I’m relatively basic AF. I like to be in my house with my dogs watching the same shows over and over. I’m basically your run of the mill anxiety ridden Millennial with tons of student debt and an unhealthy obsession with anything nostalgic (Disney, Nickelodeon, 90s music, and childhood snacks like Lunchables and Dunkaroos). AND YOU WILL HAVE TO YANK MY SKINNY JEANS AND SIDE PART  OUT OF MY COLD DEAD HANDS!

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)?

Okay, I thought about this for a while and I still have NO clue. I’ve been asked some great questions since beginning my author journey. Most of which I’ve given super random and rambling answers to, because that’s just how I am. It’s basically my brand at this point: random, rambling, nonsense with crumbs of intellect sprinkled in. Therefore, I could come up with a really good question for this, but the answer would still be absolute trash, so yeah. Sorry I’m not better at this. *wince

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

Find yourself an author community by joining a writer’s group in person or finding people online. As much as your friends and family want to support you, they don’t get it like other writers will. Having like minded people to talk to, vent to, or bounce ideas off of is immeasurably valuable. Also, work on your craft. There is always something to learn or improve upon. 

But honestly, everyone will give you advice on what to do or not do, how to do it or tell you something is wrong. At the end of the day, you have to learn for yourself what works for you and what doesn’t. Remember first and foremost that this is your story and no one else will or can tell it like you. 

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

I’m currently in the process of editing book 3 of the Vega Love Stories series, titled Sleeping With The Frenemy. It was the story I was looking forward to writing the most out of the three and I’m incredibly excited for people to read it. I am obsessed with this hero and heroine. I’d love to write more stories about the Vega family, but if  I don’t get that opportunity I know that this book will be a good place to end. 

As for other projects: I have some other ideas percolating in my mind, but nothing set in stone yet. 

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

There are so many fantastic queer authors out there telling amazing stories just waiting to be found and devoured. I personally look to one of my favorite BookTokers @Orlandoreads, for recommendations whenever I need some TBR inspo. 

However, off the top of my head here’s what I have to share:

If you haven’t read Adriana Herrera’s Dreamers series yet, then what are you even doing with your life? Same with her latest release An Island Princess Starts A Scandal. And really anything she writes. 

My good friend, Liz Lincoln has a sapphic soccer book called Loving A Keeper which is AMAZING. 

Speaking of sapphic soccer, Meryl Wilsner’s Cleat Cute is great along with their debut, Mistakes Were Made (not about soccer, but still sapphic). 

J.J. Arias is a surefire winner for those wanting hot sapphic romance. 

Cat Giraldo’s Wild Pitch was fantastic and I’m super pumped for Outfield Assist which comes out in October as well. 

If you are wanting some Queer wedding vibes there’s I’m So (Not) Over You by Kosoko Jackson and D’Vaughn and Kris Plan a Wedding by Chencia C Higgins

Again, this is just the tip of the iceberg. I know that YA is really doing the damn thing when it comes to LGBTQ+ rep in books, so make sure to check them out too!

Interview with Author Kika Hatzopoulou

Kika Hatzopoulou writes stories for all ages, filled with lore and whimsy. She holds an MFA for writing for children from the New School and works in foreign publishing. She currently splits her time between London and her native Greece, where she enjoys urban quests and gastronomical adventures while narrating entire book and movie plots with her partner. Find Kika on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok @kikahatzopoulou.

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

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

I’m so excited to be here! I’m Kika, a native Greek who’s been writing in English since childhood. I completed my MFA in Writing for Children at the New School in New York and have held teaching and publishing positions in the past. I love all things fantastical, both as a writer and as a reader!

What can you tell us about your debut book, Threads That Bind? What was the inspiration for this story?

Threads That Bind is my debut YA fantasy noir, the first in a duology that comes out from Razorbill in May 2023. It’s a twisty story about a detective with the powers of the Greek Fates that is charged with solving a series of otherworldly murders while navigating a soulmate romance and her complicated family dynamics. The story came together by combining a lot of the things I love: Greek myth, especially side characters such as the Fates, the Furies, and the Muses, noir settings, murder mysteries, post-(climate)-apocalyptic scenarios!

With many novels inspired by Greek mythology, there’s often a sense of these stories lacking original cultural context, i.e. relating back to real-life Greece or Greek culture.  As an author of Greek descent, what does it mean to you writing a novel like this?

It truly means a lot. Back when I was first querying this story to agents in 2019-2020, I often got the feedback that Greek-inspired fantasy is oversaturated or that my particular mix of Greek myth and noir would be a hard sell. The feedback discouraged me at the time, particularly as a Greek writing about their own culture, and because so many of the books referenced in the rejections were retellings written by non-Greeks and set in antiquity – which is vastly different to the Greece of today. Modern Greece is an amalgamation of cultures with a rich recent history of wars, immigration, and political upheavals. In Threads That Bind, I attempted to pull this modernity into the story and form a world that reflects our own. I feared such a weird combination of Greek myth, noir plot, and contemporary setting wouldn’t resonate with readers, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by early reactions that praise these very same elements!

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

I love creating and exploring new worlds – it’s one of my favorite parts of writing and one of the foundations of speculative fiction. When I first started writing as a teen, I was mostly imitating the stories I was reading at the time: Meg Cabot’s works and modern YA classics such as Eragon, Graceling, and The Hunger Games. But as my writing matured, I became more interested in reinventing the tropes I loved and exploring new ways to tell a story, which has led to manuscripts that range widely in age group and genre. Fun fact: when I signed with my agent, I was pitching Threads That Bind as adult, but after discussing it with my agent, we chose to send it to young adult publishers – both because Io’s character arc is one of coming-of-age and because YA fantasy is my first (true) love. I’d love to continue writing widely in middle grade, young adult, and adult in the future, but I doubt I’ll ever tell a story where there isn’t at least some small magical element. The act of reading is its own kind of magic; and for me, it’s all the better if there’s actual spells and powers in it!

How would you describe your writing process?

I think the best way to describe it is explorative. Strictly speaking, I’m a planner, but I like to pants the first chapters, take my time with the first act of each new story, and try different things before settling on the voice, world, and themes. And beyond that, I’m the sort of book nerd that enjoys every part of publishing. I love the first light bulb moment, I love brainstorming and outlining, I love the messy first draft and revising with my editor, I love nitpicky copyedits and pass pages (all of which shows you what a wonderful team I’m surrounded by!).

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?

Oh, yes, finishing a book is definitely one of the hardest parts! Every writer is different, but what personally helps me is dividing the story in smaller chunks. I love a 3 or 5 act structure, depending on the needs of the story, and I like to pause between acts and reorganize my plans for both the plot and the character’s journey. In the duology of Threads That Bind, I structured each act to end on a twist or revelation, which created some momentum as I wrote – I really wanted to get to that twist and put my vision into words! In more practical terms, I’d suggest using placeholders: for names, descriptions, worldbuilding elements, nitpicky things you need to research further. Keeping up momentum is crucial in finishing a first draft!

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

I love this question! The first one that comes to mind is The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. My jaw was on the floor the entire time I was reading it when I was 18. I remember I kept thinking, “I didn’t know we could write that!” For those unfamiliar with the book, it’s a character-driven zombie story that centers on religion and faith in a way I had never seen before. It really resonated with my experience growing up as an inquisitive kid in a religiously conservative community. More recently, I had the same experience with Naomi Novik’s The Scholomance trilogy, which are my absolute favorite books in the world. I guess something about teens picking apart the system they’ve been raised with really resonates with me!

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

Definitely myth and history, but also other media! I love that moment where you’re reading a book or watching a movie and a completely random small element of the story makes you go, “Oooh! This could be interesting to explore!” In terms of prose, and especially as someone writing in their non-native language, I have found that reading a text closely greatly helps in learning new words, new turns of phrases, new ways to structure a sentence or paragraph. And personally, because I love setting so much, I’ve lately been enjoying researching natural phenomena, scientific discoveries, and different types of governing systems. 

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

As I mentioned above, I have enjoyed all parts of writing so far, because I’ve been blessed with a really great publishing team! I particularly love the exploration of the brainstorming stage, but I think my absolute favorite part of writing is those internal monologue moments towards the end of the book when the character comes to terms with their own self-sabotage and chooses a new way to live their life. (If you enjoy character journey arcs, do check out Michael Hauge’s Six Stages!) What I usually have trouble with is trying to narrow the world I’ve created into a cohesive elevator pitch to send to my agent or editor! 

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

KH: I’d second the advice often given by other authors that you need to read a lot, read outside your genre and read critically. But I’d also suggest to seek the joy; do you love voice and character, romance, twisty plots? Hold on to that joy as you write, seek new ways to embrace that feeling, make writing time into a little ritual. Writing can be lonely and publishing is a hard business, so the joy that you find in your own creative process is vital to sustain you during the hard times!

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

I’m putting finishing touches on the sequel to Threads That Bind as I’m writing this. I’m so excited for readers to experience the conclusion of Io’s story and find out how the Muses’ prophecy comes to pass. I’ve also seen the sequel’s cover and I’m in awe – Corey Brickley have really outdone themself with this one!

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

I love this question! Some of my recent favorites are: Bitterthorn by Kat Dunn, which is a dark gothic fairytale with a swoony f/f romance; Bonesmith by Nicki Pau Preto which is a sprawling fantasy world with a kick-ass necromancer at its center; and Seven Faceless Saints by M.K. Lobb, a murder mystery in a fantasy world with one of the most well-drawn angry girls I’ve ever read!

Header Photo Credit Kostas Amiridis

Interview with Author Lio Min

Lio Min writes about music, magic, and sadness at the nexus of queer youth culture and metamorphic Asia America. Their culture reporting and fiction have appeared in The FADER, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Nylon, and many other outlets. They live in California.

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

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

At various points in my life, I’ve been a boba barista, mailroom attendant, summer camp teacher, floral clerk, and call center operator. Throughout it all, I’ve reported and written stories all over the internet and a few times for print. The things I most write about are Asian American youth and music. Beating Heart Baby is my first novel.

What can you tell us about your most recent book, Beating Heart Baby? What was the inspiration for this project? And where did the title come from?

BHB is about boys, bands, and Los Angeles—and also internet friendships, anime, viral stardom, historical trauma, and modern Asian America. The summary that I personally feel is most accurate comes from a writer for the Chicago Review of Books, who described it as a story that shows “the violence and ecstasy of what it means to become an artist, to really be seen, both as and beyond a young adult.” My joke/not joke synopsis is, imagine if The Song of Achilles was actually about a song, set in our contemporary world, and ended with something more ambiguous than death.

So. Back in 2018, I worked at a summer camp, primarily with kids aged five to thirteen. There were a couple of kids there who left an impression on me — as an adult, you can too easily build an idea about who kids are and what they want out of life, and lose sight of the wonder and mischief and dangers and desires of childhood as it plays out. (Which, of course, you lived through the whole circus yourself, but at a certain point you begin to slip into the binary thinking of “my” generation versus “other” generations.) So I came into this job thinking I knew about kids and left the job much more tender-hearted about the trials and tribulations inherent in modern childhood. Some of the kids are, based on honed intuition, definitely going to go through “gender stuff” in the future, at a time when that vector of children’s autonomy is more and more surveilled if not outright criminalized. I found myself wondering if/how I could build a vision of the future these kids deserve, one that’s set in “the real world” but imagines what could be as the template for reality. 

Re: the Asian American POV centricity, there are unique cultural frameworks within the multitudes of Asian Americas that I wanted to blow up (as in photography, not explosives) and examine as someone who lives in, critically observes, and conflictingly loves the coalition and histories suggested by the term “Asian American.” Re: the music element, I wanted to play with ideas about ownership, visibility, and identity (as an aesthetic influence but also as a commercial imperative) within the music world, focusing specifically on the increasingly more meteoric journeys that increasingly younger artists have to navigate with infinitely more eyes watching their every creative but also personal move. 

The name of the book comes from a song released in 2004 by the pop-punk band Head Automatica. I liked it a lot when I was a kid; I definitely downloaded it off Mediafire or some site like that and revisited it every so often, usually as a running song. A decade later, one of the editors at my then-job polled the newsroom for their favorite crush songs. That was my contribution, and when years later I tried to figure out what to name the manuscript I couldn’t stop working on, I eventually thought of “Beating Heart Baby” — its relentless pacing and pleading as the singer sounds like he’s about to get crushed by his crush.

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

Growing up, I was an avid reader of pretty much everything. The stuff I wrote in my spare time was also pretty much anything. But once I got to high school, I stopped being encouraged to read widely and was definitely not encouraged to write, period. So for the most part I just didn’t. I eventually found my will to write (or rather, couldn’t keep it muzzled), but it took me well into my twenties to start reading regularly again, and then yet another internal push to start reading literary fiction again, which was a precursor to writing fiction not just for myself, as I’d done as a child, but to be read by other people.

I actually thought I was never going to write fiction as an adult. Then I started experimenting with some short stories and was like, “Okay, that’s it.” Then I had that fateful summer experience and realized that the only way I was going to export all of these ambient influences and ideas out of my brain and into the world, given my limited creative toolbox, was through…sigh…long-form fiction. 

There was an early crossroads for BHB, whether it would be a YA or an “adult” book. What pushed me to choose YA was because the only time in my life when I read like my life depended on it was in childhood, because in some ways my life did depend on the worlds and ideas I only encountered and imagined through reading. And while plenty of adults read YA, there are some people who will only ever be able to (for a variety of reasons) read like their lives depended on it during childhood, and who will only have access to books through portals like teachers and librarians tasked with the job of curating books “for them” specifically. So I made that choice “for them.”

In addition to writing fiction, you are also a pop culture and music journalist. How did you find yourself getting into that line of work? 

I’ve always loved music but I wasn’t allowed to go to shows as a kid, so once I moved from suburban New Jersey to Los Angeles for college, I gorged myself on all of this culture that I’d only been able to admire from a far distance. Through a stroke of divine intervention, the journalism school (of which I was initially not a part) had just started a new digital outlet and was actively soliciting writers. (This is different from most college newspapers as far as I know, in that you normally have to have more samples/experience and formally apply. I did not have to turn in a serious application and sometimes that makes all the difference.) Through another stroke of divine intervention, my editors had no interest in covering music outside of celebrity news, so with their complete blessing/indifference, I took my college press credential and shared use DSLR into LA’s music scene and never looked back.

How did you find that connecting to your work with Beating Heart Baby?

I’m generalizing wildly here, but I think music is the most galvanizing and popular force within modern youth culture. Maybe all culture throughout history, but I can only really go to bat for the “modern youth” modifier. To some extent, the relationship between artists and fans has always had the potential to be downright religious with obvious cult overtones, but these associations are growing stronger and starting younger. Those relationships are then intensified in ways both affirming (as with the markedly more gender/race diverse pool of working musicians creating art on their own terms) and debasing (cult overtones are not good!), all filtered through the distortions of social media. When you combine this with the traditional coming-of-age narrative, specifically the somewhat traditional queer coming-of-age narrative, you have an endlessly replenishing powder keg of conflicts and desires. 

Also, I love describing music through writing, even though it’s a Sisyphean endeavor. You don’t always have the full creative freedom to get weird/go deep with those descriptions in reported work, but in fiction, you have that freedom and in fact must follow it in order to get readers to imagine something that, by virtue of its existence, is impossible to pin down into words alone. 

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

I always tell people that BHB is the novelization of an anime. I grew up reading manga and watching anime, and the intentionality of animation is my single greatest artistic inspiration. As with writing, nothing exists until you place it just so; there are no accidental symbols, no ambient scener and sounds, or improvised moments. Every sunbeam was designed and drawn and its movement over and against someone’s outstretched hand is choreographed in sync with that hand, with the leaves that swirl in the languid late summer breeze— You get the gist. My favorite anime series simultaneously leave nothing and everything to imagination; you sense the impossible world beyond the impossible frame and long to step into it.

So, anime. And then there’s music. As I wrote BHB, I obsessively curated three playlists: one for the events of the book from the protagonist Santi’s POV, one for the events of the book from the protagonist Suwa’s POV, and one from my authorial POV. There are sequences of the book that are beat-by-beat soundtracked by a specific song; for example, the ending of Track 7 is synced with Mitski’s “Geyser.” On a structural level, the moment when the POV switches halfway through the book was my way of pulling off a beat switch; the song that inspired that choice was Frank Ocean’s “Nights.” Pretty much all of my writing is “scored” to, rather than inspired by, what I’m listening to.

And then of course, other writing. Specific to BHB, I meditated on Bryan Washington’s Lot, Cynthia Kadohata’s The Floating World, Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, and Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko.

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

I love writing sensory immersion and crescendoing a scene toward a specific action or line. Dialogue is fun to refine; I imagine it as parrying myself until both of “my” weapons have been honed to gleaming.

The most frustrating part of writing is getting not just a first draft down, but connected, which is a bear no matter if I’m reporting a story or writing something personal, and especially gnarly when I’m both the conductor and the train, so to speak. An exquisite corpse is still a corpse… 

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

I did marching band for three years at a big football school and learned all of my music by ear because I couldn’t read/translate the sheet music. (The double-edged sword of perfect pitch.)

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

“What, if any anime was the main inspiration for Mugen Glider?” (The fake anime in BHB.)
In terms of imagery/mood, From the New World, specifically this ending credits sequence. In terms of story, the films 5 Centimeters Per Second and Millennium Actress, directed by Makoto Shinkai and Satoshi Kon respectively.

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

Live. Both as an imperative and as a person beyond writing. 

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

I’m doing a residency soon wherein I will supposedly be working on Book 2… More generally, I write a monthly-ish column for Catapult called Formation Jukebox, in which I deep dive into songs and relate them back to transness/transitioning, a process I am currently…undergoing? Living? 

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

David Wojnarowicz’s memoir Close to the Knives cleaved me to my core. There’s my writing and like, life and thinking pre-Knives and then post-Knives. I like their books too but I go up for the “other writing” (short stories, essays, criticism, reports) by Bryan Washington, Andrea Long Chu, Alexander Chee (especially this, oh my god), and K-Ming Chang. Anthony Veasna So’s “Baby Yeah.” (RIP.) If it’s a cliché to recommend Ocean Vuong, I don’t want to be original. Our Dreams at Dusk by Yuhki Kamatani is a gorgeous and tender manga for those of y’all searching in that world, as is Blue Period by Tsubasa Yamaguchi (which is also about becoming an artist, in this case within the unique ecosystem of fine art). 

Header Photo Credit Bao Ngo

Interview with Artist Sabina Hahn

Sabina Hahn is a Brooklyn based illustrator, animator, and sculptor who loves stories and tall tales. Sabina has been drawing from before she was born; she is a master of capturing subtle fleeting expressions and the most elusive of gestures. She is a co-founder of Interval Studios. Pineapple Princess is her debut picture book.

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

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

My name is Sabina Hahn. I love words and pictures and clay. And cats. I moved to New York from Riga, Latvia when I was 17 and I have been here ever since.

What can you tell us about your most recent project, Pineapple Princess? What was the inspiration for this story?

Pineapple Princess first appeared as a drawing of a surly kid; then the title  “Pineapple Princess” dropped into my head like a gift. They kind of melted into one and soon I started to idly think of her and where she came from and what she liked to do. I kept drawing her and writing small snippets. Soon I felt curious enough about her to sit down and write her story. I wanted to know more about this kid who knows she is a princess and is also sticky and surly and sure of herself. 

How did you find yourself getting into storytelling, particularly picture books? What drew you to the medium?

I fell in love with books when I was 4 or 5, the first time I read “Alice in Wonderland”. The combination of earnestness and absurdity really spoke to me. For me, the best children’s books have that quality because kids tend to think in leaps and sometimes those leaps happen sideways or upside down. I like to stay in touch with my inner child and children’s books are the easiest way to do so. 

I personally started to write kid’s books when I decided to change my career from animation to something else. Books seemed like a logical place to go to. It appealed to me that I can make key frames and then the reader does all the in-between work inside their mind. 

How would you describe your creative process? 

Meandering. Very very meandering. I have a small notebook where I jot all of my ideas for stories, no matter how small or vague it might be. Generally, one or two stories are particularly interesting to me or close to my heart. And so I will start writing a little, sketching a bit and also – very important – “researching”. ‘Researching’ is what I call all the rabbit holes I jump into. It is a great joy to me. One of the best things about being a New Yorker is our library. I love working in the libraries – this year, my favorite has been the Main library with the lions. I go there and write, and when I need a break I pick up a random book to be inspired. 

I tend to alternate between drawing and writing. Then, when I have the bones of the story, I start doing both at once.  Afterwards,  I make a book dummy. It is a great way to see the flow of the story and to tighten it up where it is needed. I might have anywhere from 3 to about 7 book dummies of various degrees of sketchiness by the time I am finished with a story. 

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

Anything that makes me stop and wonder is the source of  inspiration. It is people sometimes, overheard conversations, misheard words, books, art – anything and everything.

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

I find writing challenging. I want to use all words and no words at once and have a hard time balancing that dichotomy in my books. When I get discouraged, I remind myself of these words by Felicity Beedles from “Thud” by Terry Pratchett : “‘… how hard can writing be?  After all, most of the words are going to be and, the and I and it, and so on, and there’s a huge number to choose from, so a lot of the work has already been done for you.’ ”

My favorite things about creating (be it words or images) are the moments of wonder. Every once in a while I am surprised by what I create. It is as if it has a life of its own and I am the lucky one who gets to spend time with it.. 

Besides your work as an author/illustrator, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

I love working with clay. It brings me joy and equilibrium. You should try it too. 

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

‘What is your favorite animal’ is a question people over a certain age (11 maybe) don’t get asked enough. At the moment my favorite animal is a hog nose snake who very dramatically pretends to be dead when it is scared. So much drama!

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

A lot of my stories I am working now are in their caterpillar cocoon form. I am afraid to disturb them while their existence is so precarious. But one of the characters that keeps showing up lately when I am daydreaming is a cat in a cat suit. What it is doing or what it wants is unclear, but it’s pretty persistent. 

What advice might you have to give to aspiring creatives, to both those interested in making their own picture book? 

Read, read, read! When you get tired of reading, make, make, make. When you get tired of that, connect with other similarly minded people. And then show your work; be present in the world you want to inhabit. 

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

I tend to read pretty widely, so here are some of my favorites from the last few years. 

Paradise Sands by Levi Pinfold (picture book)

Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch (picture book)

Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascot  (graphic novel)

Shadow Life by Hiromi Goto (graphic novel)

Wolf Doctors by Sara June Woods (poetry)
The Gray House by Mariam Petrosyan (because it’s one of my all time favorite books)

And all of Terry Pratchett too.

Nature of Oaks by Douglas Tallamy (non-fiction, one of the books I read for my research, so interesting!) 

Header Photo Credit Anna Campanelli

Molly’s Tuxedo Interview with Vicki Johnson & Gillian Reid

Vicki Johnson is a children’s book author, a former band nerd, White House staffer, and a nonprofit director. Her debut picture book is Molly’s Tuxedo (Little Bee Books, June 27, 2023), illustrated by Gillian Reid. Born and raised in rural GA, she is a proud first-gen graduate of Smith College and Emory Law School, and an MFA student in Writing for Children & Young Adults at VCFA. Vicki is a 2022 Lambda Literary Fellow and the single parent of a college student. Her empty nest is a historic log cabin in Appalachia where she caters to the whims of five rescue animals. 

Gillian Reid is a children’s book illustrator, character designer, and life drawing teacher. Originally from the UK, she now lives in Canada with her partner and two cats. She loves to draw, go to the movies, and practice yoga. She likes to dress mostly in black and hopes to add a black tuxedo and bowtie to her wardrobe soon! 

I had the opportunity to interview Vicki and Gillian, which you can read below. 

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

VJ: Thanks so much for having us! I’m a children’s author, and Molly’s Tuxedo is my debut picture book. My bio says I am a former band nerd, White House staffer, and nonprofit director which is my attempt to sum up a long life in a few words. I grew up in rural Georgia, and now, many schools, jobs, and cities later, I find myself once again in a rural place. I live and write in a 200-year-old log cabin on a hilltop in West Virginia. I’m the single lesbian parent of a college student. When we hang out we watch a lot of movies and talk incessantly to the dogs and cats who live with us.

GR: I am a children’s book illustrator, character designer and life drawing teacher. Originally, I’m from Belfast, Northern Ireland but my work has taken me around the world and now I have landed in Ottawa, Canada. Outside of illustration, I enjoy learning new things. At the moment teaching myself piano and taking pottery wheel classes. I also love to go to the cinema, practice yoga and read mostly nonfiction books about the brain!

What can you tell us about your most recent project, Molly’s Tuxedo? What was the inspiration for this story?

VJ: Molly is a kindergartener with big plans to wear her brother’s dashing tuxedo for picture day, but her mom has picked out a dress. Molly has a strong sense of self and her character arc is all about being true to that, even in the face of resistance. This resonates strongly with me. The inspiration for the story comes from my own experiences growing up gay and gender nonconforming in the very conservative world of the Deep South in the 70’s and 80’s. But the impetus for writing this when I did was that I saw a couple of recent news items where girls were being gender policed about their clothes, in one case by her school and in one case by her peers. This ongoing need to control kids’ clothing choices really struck a chord. I wanted to write about how that feels, because I remember it vividly from my own childhood after so many years.

GR: I loved Vicki’s story the minute I got the email from Little Bee Books with the synopsis. I wasn’t really taking on new work at the time, but I couldn’t NOT be part of this story. It hit my heart immediately and brought up so many feelings from my own childhood that I knew I had to illustrate Molly’s Tuxedo!

How did you find yourself getting into storytelling, particularly picture books? What drew you to the medium?

VJ: I was a voracious reader growing up, and when I had my daughter and began reading to her on a daily basis, I guess the idea just clicked in my head that I’d like to try to write for kids. I primarily wrote middle-grade fiction for a long time, but in January 2020 I wanted to take a break from my work in progress, so I decided to try picture books as a side-writing exercise. This is the very first picture book I wrote. Also, I’m a very visual person, and a huge fan of art in all forms, so the idea that I could write words that are interpreted by a (real, human) artist is the most incredible thing I could imagine. And with Gillian’s work, it all came true. Her art is full of joy and warmth and movement. I feel so lucky to have been paired with her by my editor!

GR: After working in the animation industry for over a decade as a character designer, I wanted to try storytelling through illustration to have more ownership of the whole visual of a project. In animation, we work in such big teams and it’s really the director’s aesthetic vision you are creating, not your own. Picture books allow me to have almost 100% of the say in how the illustrations look (with input and guidance from the publishing team of course!)

Vicki Johnson

How would you describe your creative process? 

VJ: I’m not sure I have a set process. I go in spurts doing morning pages and writing free hand, which inevitably works well for me to get into a more emotionally connected place. I discovered writing poetry late in life if you can call what I write poetry. But my ideas work best when I am plotless in the initial phase and just try to get a sentence down and then I just continue to write until I’m done with that idea for the moment. It might result in a verse or a paragraph or several pages. From there it may go nowhere, or I may decide to flesh it out more fully.

GR: When working with a manuscript, I read it several times, highlighting keywords throughout the text that jump out at me and generate images in my head. I particularly try to note the tone and emotion of the story as a whole as well as across each spread. Once I feel I have an understanding of the mood of the book, I create inspiration boards on Pinterest, saving anything that appeals to me that may or may not influence me later. Then I go to the drawing board! I work on loose pieces of printer paper and just bash out lots of small, rough thumbnails and doodles, not filtering ideas too much and just letting them come out. I do several passes of the rough sketches until I feel I’ve got something, then it’s taken into Photoshop to sketch out with more information and refinement. 

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

VJ: I write about a combination of my own life experiences, things I have observed as a parent, animals I see outside my window, something I read in the news that sparks my interest or ire, and then I find myself typing out a sentence. I feel compelled to write about LGBTQIA+ kids because I was one, so that experience will always be a source of inspiration. I feel inspired to write about brave girls, because I was one, and I survived growing up in a particularly stifling time and place. These are the young people I want to create space for in my work.  I’m also drawn to authors of all stripes who write about animals and nature because growing up that was what I read constantly. Animals are so pure in their own existence, and in their relationship to you whether they are companion animals living with you or box turtles sharing the land you live on, or flying squirrels who sneak into your house. Animal stories saved me. They made sense to me and offered a respite. Stories at the edges of where humans and animals interact inspire me.

GR: Animation art is still a huge part of my life, so I frequently get inspiration from animated films and character designers. I’m also building a library of beautiful picture books to teach me new approaches, techniques, and execution. Currently, my favourite illustrators are Marta Altes, Rebecca Green, Matthew Forsythe, Julia Sarda, and Chris Chatterton. 

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

VJ: My favorite part of writing is the meditative effect it has on me when I’m in the zone. The most challenging part is getting there. Getting the flow started. Because once it does, it’s indescribable. But the space I need to get there, from the world around me, can be challenging to achieve, along with a day job, and other responsibilities. I like the generative work better than the editing work for sure!

GR: The best part of the illustration process is right at the beginning for me. Anything is possible at this point, the options are endless and I love doing the research, generating lots of ideas, and then boiling them down to what feels best in that moment. The most challenging part is probably the colouring stage. By the time the colour gets added, I’ve been looking at the illustrations for months and it can be hard to keep the excitement and energy that were present at the beginning all the way through to the end. 

Besides your work as an author/illustrator what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

VJ: I’m answering these questions in my Geeks OUT “Strong Female Character” shirt I bought at a con a few years ago. Also, I’ve been vegan or vegetarian for almost 40 years, and I’m a passionate advocate for animals and the environment. My stories often reflect that. I came out as a lesbian in my teens and have worked in or for our community in some capacity for a lot of the time since. The escalation of homophobic, transphobic, racist, and misogynistic rhetoric deeply concerns me and reminds me of how far we have come and how far we have to go. I have a deep well of hope though, and I know the strength of our community. 

GR: I am also a life drawing teacher! I spend a lot of time in the life drawing room working with young artists who hope to become storytellers themselves in the future. Teaching life drawing and gestures helps build my skills as an illustrator, so I can be playful with posing characters and building their worlds.

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

VJ: My question would be: “What is on your writer’s bucket list?” and my answer is: “I have many, but the top three at the moment are: I’d love to be on a panel at a comic con, I’d love to write a graphic novel, and I’d love to write for children’s television.”

GR: “What would my dream collaboration be?” I would love to do a book on the environment with Leonardo DiCaprio! 

Gillian Reid

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

VJ: Currently, I’m finishing up developmental edits from my agent on my middle-grade novel which I hope to be on sub for soon. It features a GNC queer main character and a cast of supporting characters – humans and animals – a camp and a fight for the environment.

GR: Currently I am working on developing my children’s book portfolio to push my style a little more and find out what possibilities lay within!

What advice might you have to give to aspiring creatives, to both those interested in making their own picture book?

VJ: Find something you are passionate about – a memory, an issue, a moment. Take that spark and run with it. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, and let yourself feel what you are writing. That will come through and make it magic. Be as specific as you can in your language but always leave lots of room for the illustrator’s interpretation. It’s a PICTURE book, after all!

GR: Just start! Don’t wait until you have read all the books or done all the courses. If you have an idea just get it started, you don’t need to be great to begin, you just need an idea. 

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

VJ: Oh my gosh, there are so, so many, but I’ll mention just a tiny few. 

In young adult fiction, the book I’m most looking forward to reading this year is Jen St. Jude’s 2023 debut If Tomorrow Doesn’t Come. Jas Hammonds’ We Deserve Monuments is on top of my TBR pile. Two other YA debuts at the top of my list are Jenna Miller’s Out of Character and Edward Underhill’s Always the Almost. I loved Erik J. Brown’s All That’s Left in The World. My favorite YA graphic novel of 2022 was Hollow by Shannon Watters and Branden Boyer-White, art by Berenice Nelle. Add Tirzah Price to your must-follow list of YA authors. Also, obviously anything by Malinda Lo, including Last Night at the Telegraph Club! Mike Curato’s Flamer is a beautiful and powerful graphic novel that you all should have read by now. (I love his picture books, too!)

In middle-grade fiction, the 2022 debut graphic novel The Real Riley Mayes by Rachel Elliott blew me away and was my favorite read last year. I love Michael Leali’s work and Molly Ostertag’s middle-grade graphic novels. Anything written by Alex Gino or Kyle Lukoff should already be on your shelf. 

In picture books, I adored the ground-breaking picture book Love, Violet by Charlotte Sullivan Wild and Charlene Chua. I recommend the beautiful Grandad’s Camper by Harry Woodgate and look forward to their follow-up, Grandad’s Pride. I read and loved all of Kyle Lukoff’s picture books last year, and there is another on its way, just announced. Hannah Moushabeck has a debut picture book coming soon that I can’t wait to read. And look for AJ Irving and Kip Alizadeh’s The Wishing Flower, and in nonfiction, Sarah Prager and Cheryl ‘Ras’ Thuesday’s Kind Like Marsha.

I honestly hate to leave anyone out, so this is stressful because I definitely did. Okay, that’s all for now. I could list pages and pages of names!

GR: Dare I say my book with Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness, ‘Peanut Goes for the Gold’, featuring a non-binary guinea pig with big dreams of being a gymnast?! 

Interview with Author Jas Hammonds

Jas Hammonds (they/she) was raised in many cities and in between the pages of many books. They have received support for their writing from Lambda Literary, Baldwin for the Arts, the Highlights Foundation, and more. They are also a grateful recipient of a MacDowell James Baldwin Fellowship. Her debut novel, We Deserve Monuments, is available now from Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan.

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

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

Thank you so much for having me! My name is Jas (pronounced like Jazz) and I use they/them & she/her pronouns. I’m a writer, flight attendant, and lifelong book lover. I moved around a lot as a kid, but I call New Jersey home for now. I love rainy days, coffee, and jigsaw puzzles.

What can you tell us about your debut novel, We Deserve Monuments? What inspired this story?

We Deserve Monuments is about a 17-year-old named Avery who is uprooted her senior year of high school so her family can care for her terminally ill grandmother, Mama Letty. It’s a contemporary coming-of-age novel, a meditation on generational trauma and racism, a tender love story, as well as a slow-simmer mystery—so a little bit of everything! 

It was inspired by a lot of questions that started brewing when I moved to a new city in 2016. Everything was unfamiliar, and I was lonely. I started thinking about what makes a home. What makes a family? What are some ways to ground yourself in a place that feels like you’ll never belong? Once I began seeking answers for myself, Avery’s story began to emerge. 

Since your book is about monuments, are there any that exist IRL that you feel drawn to? And what figures would you love to see monuments dedicated to if they don’t already exist?

I think my book is less about literal monuments and more about asking the questions of who deserves them and who gets to decide that. Also, challenging what a monument can even look like. Physical places can hold so much more significance than a lone statue, such as that rickety porch swing on your grandma’s front porch that always witnessed conversations filled with love. There are so many everyday people who live extraordinary lives that will never make the pages of history books. I always appreciate people acknowledging the folks in their own lives they want to commemorate.  

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

I think there is something so special about telling stories about people who are on the verge of so much discovery. I remember vividly feeling so eager to explore the world when I was a teenager and figure out who I was “destined” to become. And everything feels so grand and all-encompassing because it’s often happening for the first time—first love, first heartbreak, perhaps first time questioning the things you’ve been taught your entire life. I think these emotions are so intriguing to read and write.

How would you describe your writing process? 

Chaos! As a flight attendant, no two days are ever the same. And I’m often super exhausted after working and writing is the last thing I want to do. So I tend to write on my days off. I write in big spurts, often for hours at a time. Once I get in the groove, it’s hard to stop!

What are some of your favorite parts of the creative process? What do you find to be some of the most challenging?

I really love editing. I love already knowing my characters thoroughly and being able to finetune what I’m truly trying to say. Drafting is a lot harder for me. I get stuck a lot, and my internalized perfectionism can make it hard to move forward when I know a scene isn’t working. I’m guilty of stalling around the 30-40% mark while drafting and just returning to the beginning to start over instead of pushing through until the end.

Were there any stories (queer or otherwise) that you read or watched growing up that had touched you or felt relatable in any way? What stories feel relatable to you today?

I grew up reading the Alice McKinley series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Because a new book was released every year, it became a touchstone of my childhood, something to look forward to every spring. I loved reading contemporary stories about girls who were going through the ups and downs of adolescence like I was. First crushes, friendship woes, family dramas. Now, as an adult, young adult contemporary is still one of my go-to genres. Some of my favorite authors are Ashley Woodfolk, Nina LaCour, and Rebecca Barrow.

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

I’ve never been asked what kind of music inspired We Deserve Monuments, and it was one of my biggest influences! Early drafts were heavily influenced by R&B and soul music of the 1950s and 60s—The Supremes, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke. I love making playlists and imagining what kind of music each of my characters would love and listen to. My main character, Avery, is definitely a fan of alternative R&B.

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?

Read! Read widely across age groups and genres. Also, it helps to find a critique partner so you can have someone to read drafts of your work and give feedback. Plus, it’s just nice to have someone in your corner working toward a common dream of becoming published.

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

I’m currently working on edits for my second young adult novel. It’s a story about toxic friendships and the desperate need to be loved for who you are. It’ll hopefully be published in 2024.

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

I have to give flowers to Jacqueline Woodson because I’ve been a fan of her work forever. Some of my other favorite recent favorites are A Scatter of Light by Malinda Lo, Lark & Kasim Start a Revolution by Kacen Callender, How to Succeed in Witchcraft by Aislinn Brophy, and the upcoming If Tomorrow Doesn’t Come by Jen. St. Jude. 

Header Photo Credit Kay Ulanday Barrett

Interview with Roller Derby Player and Author Gabe Montesanti

Gabe Montesanti is a queer Midwestern roller derby player. She earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from Washington University in St. Louis. Her piece “The Worldwide Roller Derby Convention” was recognized as a notable essay in The Best American Essays. She lives in St. Louis with her wife.

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

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

Thank you so much for having me! My name is Gabe Montesanti, (she/her) and my debut memoir Brace for Impact was released on May 24th, 2022 from The Dial Press, an imprint of Random House. I grew up mostly in Michigan and was a competitive swimmer for over twelve years. My BA is from Kalamazoo College, and I attended Washington University in St. Louis for my MFA in creative nonfiction. I am a roller derby player and live in St. Louis with my wife.  

What can you tell us about your book, Brace For Impact? Where did the inspiration for this book come from?

Brace for Impact uses roller derby as a lens through which to look at other big topics like body image, queerness, and healing from trauma. The book’s timeline is one year—my first year joining Arch Rival Roller Derby in St. Louis—and is punctuated by flashbacks from childhood and adolescence that give context to what’s happening in the present. 

Most of the inspiration for the book came from my team, Arch Rival. I’ve been in awe of them ever since I showed up at the St. Louis Skatium for roller derby recruit night. There was something so seductive and tantalizing about the world they were introducing me to: a space where queer people and misfits take center stage rather than our typical place in the margins. I’m also very inspired by Catholicism—I was raised in the Church—and by places that we make holy for ourselves. The roller derby track is very much that for me. 

How would you describe your general writing process?

I wrote most of Brace for Impact longhand on several green legal pads. (There’s just something about the color green.) Transcribing my work to the computer is the first of many rounds of editing. I’m very lucky in that I started my book in an MFA program, so I always had eyes on the material. After graduating, I developed a very loyal writing group with four other women. We would exchange work often and meet at each other’s houses for workshops.  

I’ve always heard that there are overwriters and there are underwriters. I definitely am an underwriter—which might be surprising, given that my book is on the long side. It takes me a lot of time and layers to really craft a quality piece of work. I wish I was the kind of writer who could just spew onto the page and then chisel away at it—that’s just not who I am. 

What drew you to writing? Were there any books or authors who you believe inspired you and/or influenced your own personal style?

Being a writer has been a part of my identity long before I started sports or knew I was gay. I have most everything I’ve ever written and look back on it often, sometimes to pillage it for details and other times to simply reminisce. I wasn’t allowed to buy books very often, since we practically lived at the public library, but one of the first books I called my own was Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo. The protagonist was my age, ten, and although the story was fiction, it spurred me to start drafting little vignettes about my own life. I guess I’ve been writing creative nonfiction longer than I’ve had a name for it. 

What do you hope readers will take away from reading Brace For Impact?

My goal with Brace for Impact has always been to reach people who don’t fit the mold and be at least one voice who’s telling them they’re not alone, and that there’s joy and beauty in our differences. More than anything, I hope the book inspires in readers a reawakening of the resiliency that already lives within them. I’ve always found power in bringing together seemingly opposite forces, in particular sadness and grief paired with humor and levity, and I hope readers will find that they, too, don’t need to try and outrun the difficult and painful parts of life, because there’s so much strength and freedom in turning around to face, and even embrace, that darkness.

What advice would you have to give to aspiring writers?

One thing I tell my students when they start sending work out is that rejection is inevitable and comes with the territory. At one point in time, I played a game with myself to see how many rejections I could rack up in a year. It was a fun way to twist the idea of “failure” and really reframe it. I had some huge successes that year, as a result of this practice. Just—persist. 

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)?

One of my biggest insecurities when I started graduate school was my youth. Right before my MFA, I read Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir and Karr takes a firm stance that writers should wait until they’re 35 before publishing a memoir. I was twenty-two when I started graduate school with the goal of publishing a book, and twenty-five when I sold my memoir. So, one question I haven’t been asked yet is, “What is it like to publish a book at a relatively young age, and soon after finishing graduate school?” My answer to that is that it’s been wild. I realize I’m so lucky to have found a path to publication relatively early, and that this book is just a snapshot of a time in my life, which is ever evolving. I love looking back at authors who have a body of work and tracking their progress over the years. I hope that Brace for Impact is the first of many books in my collection. 

Are there any other projects you are currently working on (professional or personal) that you feel free to speak about?

I still have a lot of work and development to do for my next project, but I intend to really turn my focus to that in the coming months. All I will say is that it looks more outward rather than inward, and involves more research, interviews, and observation. It’s also very gay.  

I also have a variety of in-progress essays that are in various states of completion. One that I finished recently is about my job at a correctional center and akathisia, a movement disorder that made it impossible for me to be still. I think there’s something really interesting about the way in which working in a prison asked me to think about freedom of movement—or the lack thereof—and how my akathisia gave me a unique perspective in that regard. 

What books/authors (LGBTQIA+ or otherwise) would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

One author I cannot live without is Lidia Yuknavitch—in particular, her book The Chronology of Water. People keep describing Brace for Impact as raw, but Chronology is the rawest piece of art I’ve ever encountered. That is not to say it’s not shaped beautifully by Yuknavitch, just that it’s so vulnerable and honest and real. It tackles themes of sports and abuse and grief so directly.  Other must reads: Know My Name by Chanel Miller, Just Kids by Patti Smith, and anything by Melissa Febos. 

Author Photo Credit, Dena Patterson

Interview with author Jen Ferguson

Jen Ferguson (she/her) is Métis and white, an activist, a feminist, an auntie, and an accomplice with a PhD. She believes writing, teaching and beading are political acts. The Summer of Bitter and Sweet, her debut YA novel, is out now from Heartdrum/HarperCollins. She lives in Los Angeles.

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

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

Hi, I’m Jen! I’m queer and totally geeked out. I have a PhD in English and Creative Writing but what that really means is I’m curious and love research. I’m Métis and white, an activist, a feminist, an auntie, and an accomplice who is down to protest and do the hard work. My favorite ice cream flavor is mint chocolate chip and I never say no to nachos. Never.

As a writer, what do you think drew you to young adult fiction?

In 2016, I had just finished my PhD and I was super disillusioned by books and writing. I’d been writing for a long time and kept getting my adult novels rejected by agents. Plus, after graduation, I couldn’t read. As someone who discovered reading for pleasure at Girl Guide sleepaway camp at the age of 12, and read voraciously every day afterward, this was a horror. 

What got me back into reading and writing were the young adult novels I checked out from the library in Wolfville, Nova Scotia that year. They introduced me to the wonderful, challenging world of teen fiction and I got really excited about what you could do as a writer when you wrote for teens. The rest, as they say, follows from there.

What can you tell us about your latest book, The Summer of Bitter and Sweet? Where did the inspiration for this story come from? Growing up, were there any books/media that inspired you as a creative and/or that you felt yourself personally reflected in?

The Summer of Bitter and Sweet is about 18-year-old Métis teen Lou, working at her family’s struggling organic dairy and ice cream business alongside her recently-exed boyfriend, her best friend who is going through mental health issues of her own, and her once friend, King Nathan, who has returned to town after a three-year absence. On top of all of this, Lou’s white biological father has been released from prison and he wants a relationship with her—something she does not want. At all. The book features many secrets and lies, and a teen discovering her sexuality and owning her identity alongside tones of ice cream. 

I’ve talked about inspiration a lot in the last few weeks and my inspiration is related to the lack of media where I saw myself reflected. What I’ll double down on here is that I’d never a read a book with a demisexual protagonist until Claire Kann’s Let’s Talk About Love in 2018, nor had I ever read a book with a Métis protagonist until Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves in 2017. So I wrote one.

In a lot of ways, Lou’s story comes out of me finally being ready to write a Métis demisexual teen girl’s journey—so that teens who need stories like this, like I desperately did at that age but didn’t have, won’t miss this kind of representation.

As an Aspec reader, I’m always excited to see more asexual/demisexual representation in the world. Could you talk about what featuring this type of representation in The Summer of Bitter and Sweet means to you?

Oof. So much. 

Like many other marginalized identities, there aren’t enough stories out there about our experience written by us. But there’s something about asexual spec stories: we’re queer, but we’re not the right queer according to so many people.

So to have a book, published by one of the big publishers, that’s very much a story about one ace-spec teen’s experience, I’m completely and totally overjoyed. Wait, no. There is no such thing as overmuch joy. I’m simply thrilled. 

One thing I noticed about the (beautiful) cover was the protagonist’s earring, which I believe in other interviews you mentioned related to Indigenous beading and crafting. Would you mind elaborating on that?

Lou’s mother gets into beading as a way to reconnect to her culture and to find her own way through trauma. I also got into beading when I was processed a lot of the colonial trauma that comes from being Indigenous in Canada. So it was so important for me to include that in the book.

I’m also just totally geeked by the fact that my good friend Katherine Crocker beaded a replica pair of Lou’s earrings for me to wear!!! They are my favorite thing!!!

What are some things you hope readers take away from this book?

That even when life is hard, you have to remember there’s joy too. The bitter doesn’t exist without the sweet, nor does sweet exist without bitter. This can be really hard to remember.

Alongside this, I want readers to take away something about being supported by and supporting your community. That your kin and community are there for you. And that you have to be there for your kin and community too. I’m not saying to keep toxic family in your life. Kin can be those you’ve chosen. But it’s okay to need help, to trust others with the vulnerable parts of yourself. It’s important to learn how to hold the vulnerable parts of others and to keep them safe.

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

Oh, I absolutely dread drafting and adore revising. So it’s always tough when I have to get a new story on the page—but when it’s time to revise and make it better, then I’m having fun. 

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 make any animal into a pocket-sized animal, which would you choose?

Ahhhh, thank you for asking me this!! I would totally miniaturize a buffalo and keep them with me at all times. I love them so much! I’d only buy shirts and dresses with pockets. But if I got to miniaturize a second pocket animal, it would totally be a raccoon. They just get into so much mischief. I do love mischief. 

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

Stop calling yourself an aspiring writer. If you write, you’re a writer.

And bonus advice because I’m feeling it: this business is full of rejection. Even after you have big success, you’re still going to be told no a lot. So work on developing tools to help yourself navigate this. The more tools you have at your disposal, and the more you know how to use, the better on this ride that is called becoming a published writer. 

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

Yes! My second YA contemporary novel is out from Heartdrum in 2023.

The book stars Berlin, a depressed perfectionist bisexual Métis teen; Cameron, a Cree teen who laughs at everything, even the things that hurt; and Jessie, a white settler who is both utterly boy-and-girl crazy. Together they’re going to take down capitalism. Or at least save Pink Mountain Pizza, an independent shop where the ragtag band of teenaged employees are largely left to their own devices to serve up weirdly delicious flavors like peanut butter and jelly pizza, each slice garnished with sharp cheddar. As they try to organize the community, they start to piece together rumors and gossip hinting at a much bigger story: the disappearance of a local Cree teen girl, who Berlin thinks she may have seen, late one night, closing the store, the day before the franchising news was revealed.

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

The queer and trans books on my to-rec list: Laura Gao’s graphic memoir Messy Roots is awesome; I’m incredibly eager for Edward Underhill’s 2023 debut, Always the Almost; I’m in the middle of Racquel Marie’s Ophelia After All and am really excited for Anna Meriano’s It Sounds Like This. In terms of Indigenous writers, I’ll read anything Cherie Dimaline writes and the same goes hard for Alicia Elliott. For both Indigenous and queer/trans writers, my go-tos are Billy-Ray Belcourt and jaye simpson. Get to reading!