Interview with Author Kip Wilson

Kip Wilson is the author of White Rose which won the Malka Penn Award for Human Rights in Children’s Literature, and the poetry editor of the Young Adult Review Network. She has a PhD in German Literature. She is also the winner of the PEN/New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award, and her work has appeared in several children’s literary magazines. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts. Find her on Twitter @kiperoo, and on Instagram @kipwilsonwrites.

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

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

Hello! I’m Kip Wilson. I write YA historical novels-in-verse (talk about niche!), and I love reading all sorts of YA. I’m an early-morning swimmer, an early-morning writer, and an early-morning coffee drinker.

Where did the inspiration for your latest book, The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin, come from?

The spark for this story came from the 1930 black-and-white movie, Menschen am Sonntag (“People on Sunday”). It’s a slice-of-life film about young people living in Berlin in the last years before the Nazis came to power. But I also knew that this fascinating glimpse didn’t tell the full story of Berlin at the time—that it was in fact an especially glorious and liberating time for all manner of queer people. So basically, Menschen am Sonntag, but set in a queer club (of which there were many at the time in Berlin).

How did you get into writing, and what drew you to writing Young Adult fiction and historical fiction specifically?

I know a lot of writers always wanted to become a writer, but I wasn’t one of those people who was a writer as a kid or even as a teen. I didn’t start writing fiction until I finished my dissertation for grad school and realized, hey, I like this writing stuff, and now I can write whatever I want. In the end, I write YA historical because that’s what I love best to read.

It would seem that a lot of historical research has went into this book. How would describe the process and how it intertwined with you writing the actual novel?

Thank you for this important question! Everyone who writes historical handles research differently, but I definitely consider it an iterative process. I have to do enough basic research before beginning to write to be able to start the project (basically enough to understand the character and their world). With each subsequent draft, I do more and more research to fill in the details so it feels authentic for the reader—and it really never ends until pass pages for me.

How would you describe your writing process?

Because I write in verse, my process basically consists of creating a very basic outline with important turning points and then creating a list of must-have poems (as simple as “Hilde enters Café Lila and meets Rosa”). I keep adding to the list as new things occur to me, and I write the poems I feel like writing that day. I don’t really pay attention to word count. When I’m drafting, if I write two to five poems, I consider it a good writing day.

Both your novels, White Rose and The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin are novels in verse. What do you think drew you to that medium and were there any novels in verse or poets that influenced you as a writer regarding style?

I actually used to write exclusively in prose, and have drafted about ten (unpublished) books. It was only after a conversation with a couple of verse novelists that I realized that verse might be the right format for White Rose. Once I started drafting it in verse, it just felt right to me—while prose had been a real struggle. Since then, everything else I’ve worked on has been in verse. Some of my greatest influences are Kwame Alexander, Padma Venkatraman, and Margarita Engle—I absolutely love all of their work.

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

No one really asks me if I’ll ever write a contemporary novel! And while I never say never, my response would be, “Probably not.” I do love to read contemporary YA, but my voice and personal interests line up much more with stories from the past.

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

Definitely be open to trying different things! If I had kept working in prose only, I might not even be published today. And that goes for being open to different things in all aspects of writing—format, genre, age category etc. You never know when you’ll stumble upon the magic.

Are there are other projects you are working on and at liberty to discuss?

I am working on some other projects, but unfortunately I can’t talk about anything else yet (ah, publishing). Hopefully soon!

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

One of my absolute favorite authors is Anna-Marie McLemore. I swoon over everything they write, and I’m sure Geeks Out readers will too! Also, Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo is simply stunning. It’s a National Book Award finalist this year, and it was everything I’d hoped for. I also love Nita Tyndall’s work, and cannot wait for their next book (a historical set in Germany).

Interview with Author Samantha San Miguel

Samantha San Miguel grew up barefoot in South Florida. Living in this wild, diverse, and exuberant state taught Samantha a lifelong respect for the natural world with both its dangers and delights. Working there as an adult taught her a love for the colorful personalities that crowd the state’s borders. And leaving it taught her that whether in Florida, Cuba, or anywhere else in the world, you can never be an exile if there’s sunshine in your heart.

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

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

Hi and thank you! I’m Sam. When I’m not writing you can usually find me reading, practicing some kind of sport, or hanging out with my family. I love animals and the outdoors.

What can you tell us about your latest book, Spineless? What was the inspiration for this story?

Set at the turn of the 19th century, Spineless is the story of twelve-year-old aspiring naturalist Algie Emsworth, whose family winters at a remote South Florida hotel. While searching for new species in the surrounding swamps, Algie makes a discovery bigger than he bargained for!

Though the book is set in a different location, the city of St. Augustine furnished both my concept inspirations. While visiting there a few years ago, I was startled to walk around a corner smack dab into a gigantic Spanish renaissance castle just hanging out along the sidewalk. “What is that?” I asked my husband, who was more familiar with the area than I. “Oh, just Flagler College,” he answered. As I delved deeper into the matter, I discovered that the college campus had begun as the flagship of Florida’s grand hotels: elaborate Gilded Age enterprises as architecturally fantastical as they were financially unviable. Their history captured my imagination, and the inkling of a story was born.

My second inspiration was a vintage photograph of the St. Augustine Monster carcass. Florida is rife with cryptozoological lore, and the St. Augustine Monster was a flesh blob that washed up there in the late 1800s. Modern science has since determined it to be a decomposed whale, but at the time people hypothesized it was a gigantic, Jules Verne-esque octopus.

What drew you to storytelling, and what drew you to middle grade specifically?

Some of my earliest memories are of my siblings and I telling stories to each other before falling asleep. As we got older the stories progressed into RPG campaigns in various fandoms, writing and filming our own movies, and for some of us, full-length novels. We never really stopped—these days, my older brother is my critique partner! So storytelling has always been a very natural part of my life.

As for why middle grade, this answer may sound funny but is the unvarnished truth: there’s not a huge adult market for books featuring monstrous creatures and happy endings, and I really love monstrous creatures and happy endings!

Spineless, while historical fiction, was said to be inspired by your experiences living in Florida. Could you elaborate on this and any other personal elements that may have made their way into the book?

When I was a kid, the marine research institute in our area had a fantastic educational program specifically for homeschoolers. They’d show us deep sea submersible footage, bring us aboard their research vessel, and take us out for days exploring various aspects of the ocean and lagoon. One day we might hike to a jetty and learn about worm reefs, the next we might spend hours wriggling through mangroves on our stomachs observing fiddler crabs. If you’ve read Spineless, you can see how those early experiences impacted the book. Another major influence was growing up close to Pelican Island, the first U.S. national wildlife refuge. It was created to protect endangered wading birds, and hearing about the historic struggles between plume hunters and early conservation champions made a big impact on me at an early age.

A few of the talking points of this book in the promotion of this book were the fact of Latinx representation and chronic illness representation, especially with the main character having chronic asthma. Could you discuss a little how you went about writing this and what writing this type of representation meant to you?

My family’s roots are Cuban, and the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. is complicated and sad. It reminds me of Jane Austen’s description of a bad breakup: “Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement.” I grew up down the road from my abuelo, who said goodbye to Cuba after Castro took over. Our heritage is a huge part of our family culture and identity, but despite many of us living only a day-trip’s distance away, no one in my family has been able to even visit the island for generations. The closest us younger ones have gotten is seeing the love in our older relatives’ eyes when they talk about it. As a kid, I got used to hearing people (never Cuban Americans) laugh at me when I mentioned I was Hispanic, because I don’t speak fluent Spanish. I wanted to express a little bit of what it felt like, for me at least, growing up as a child of that estrangement. Different century, different war, same sense of exile.

Switching gears to chronic illness rep, I’m a registered nurse by profession and noticed long ago that it was tricky to find thoughtful depictions of characters with physical challenges in children’s media. In most of the instances I saw, either the story revolved around the character’s health issues, or else their disability was essentially cosmetic. For example, in the recent movie The Sea Beast, the first mate has an above-knee prosthetic leg, yet is shown as having superhuman balance on swaying, slippery, and uneven surfaces. I wanted to portray a character who had physical challenges, but without subsuming his identity in his health or ignoring the real risks and roadblocks associated with disability.

How would you describe your general writing process? What are some of your favorite/most challenging parts for you?

Here’s my creative process in five easy steps.

Step 1: Think of a concept. Decide it sucks, think of ten more, and pick the least boring one.

Step 2: Wrestle said concept into a one-page synopsis and read it aloud to every friend, family member, or stranger who will stand still long enough, watching like a hawk to see if they betray a gleam of interest.

Step 3: Write a draft. Decide it sucks. Rewrite it.

Step 4: Declare nothing on earth will ever make this story come together. Press onward anyway.

Step 5: Repeat Step 3 five to sixteen times.

I’m happiest once my drafts become a collaborative process between me and my agent or editor/s. The earlier drafts are always a struggle for me when the disconnect between my vision for the book and the messiness on the page is most glaring. There’s always the temptation to give up, but I get through it by gritting my teeth and reminding myself that anything worth doing is worth doing badly.

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

My years working as an acute-care nurse had a huge influence on me as an author because they changed the way I view the world and other people. I’m not afraid to write about characters acting with impossible bravery in dire situations—my patients and coworkers showed me long ago that that kind of bravery isn’t actually impossible.

Aside from your work as a writer, what would you want readers to know about you?

I became a triple amputee in my early thirties after a bout with septic shock. Athletics are a huge part of my life, and I’m a serious paratriathlete. I have separate pairs of prosthetic feet for walking, running, biking, and dancing.

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

Q: How do you manage your time as a mom, writer, and adaptive athlete?

A: I prioritize. I have limited hand function due to nerve damage, so it takes me a longer time to get things done than it used to. Sleep, exercise, family time, and a healthy emotional and spiritual life come first. Writing is the next rung, and I’m also involved with various projects in the disability & accessibility arena. I try to keep everything else as lowkey as possible. For me, this has meant investing a lot of energy upfront into learning how simplify things like meal prep, laundry, scheduling, etc. Doubling up on stuff helps—for example, my husband is my training partner, so we get lots of great quality time working out together.

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?

Think of writing the way you would a sport. Nobody’s born knowing how to do a backflip on a balance beam. Similarly, no one (at least no one I’ve ever met!) is born knowing how to effortlessly manipulate prose, characterization, and long-form narrative structure right off the bat. It takes practice. Read stories you love, read craft books, attend conferences or critique groups if you find those helpful—and if not, don’t. Find a writing buddy to swap stories with. Ask yourself why you write and put it on a sticky note somewhere visible. Don’t chronically sleep deprive yourself in order to fit in writing time—fire up your creative brain by figuring out a different way to fit the writing in. Never underestimate the value of mental white space.

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

Right now I’m finishing up a middle-grade contemporary fantasy. I’m also working on a YA alternate history graphic novel.

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

For tropical steampunk vibes, check out The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois. For a well-rounded protagonist with physical challenges, try Insignificant Events in the Life of A Cactus by Dusti Bowling. To satiate your sea monster cravings, go for The Monster Missions by Laura Martin.

Interview with Author Alexandra Rowland

Alexandra Rowland is the author of several fantasy books, including A Conspiracy Of Truths, A Choir Of Lies, and Some by Virtue Fall, as well as a co-host of the Hugo Award nominated podcast Be the Serpent, all sternly supervised by their feline quality control manager. They hold a degree in world literature, mythology, and folklore from Truman State University. 

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

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

Hi, thanks for having me!

I’m Alexandra Rowland (they/them), and I’m a very queer fantasy novelist writing very queer fantasy novels, all set in the same expansive worldI have a degree in world literature, mythology, and folklore, which definitely informs the sort of stories I tell and the ways in which I tell them. I’m also the person who coined the word “hopepunk”, and a four-time Hugo Award nominee as a co-host of the podcast Be the Serpent, which discusses tropes in literature/media and particularly the role of fanfiction in the broader literary conversation.

Please link to this article, *NOT* the Vox one: https://festive.ninja/one-atom-of-justice-one-molecule-of-mercy-and-the-empire-of-unsheathed-knives-alexandra-rowland/

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

When I was eight years old, a friend of my parents said to me, “Wow, you really love reading, I bet you’ll be a great writer someday!”—whereupon I, outraged and affronted at the very suggestion, told her in no uncertain terms that I hated writing and that I would never be a writer. (So that’s clearly going well, LOL.) If I had realized at the time that the little stories I made up in my head or wrote down in my diary totally counted as writing, I might have had a different answer—because I’d been doing that for as long as I can remember.

Likewise, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love speculative fiction. My parents were both geeks, and my dad in particular really loved fantasy, so I grew up with those books being read to me or readily accessible around the house. My dad was also a bit… voluble, shall we say, especially once he got going on topics he was interested in (of which there were many), so oral storytelling was a great part of my childhood as well.

In terms of specific authors who have shaped me, I’ve probably been most influenced by (in no particular order) Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Neil Gaiman, Lois McMaster Bujold… And, of course, KJ Charles for the enormous epiphany that I did like romance novels, it’s just that I needed to be reading queer romance novels, not straight ones.

What’s probably been most influential on me, though, is two decades of reading fanfiction. Now, there are still a lot of people who turn up their noses at fanfic and who might be sneering and scoffing at the mere mention of the fact that it’s been that influential on me. But the truth stands! Fanfiction is a part of the broader literary conversation, and there is absolutely no better school for teaching you how to do incisive literary criticism through the medium of really, really deep character work—and, as it happens, characters have always been what I am most interested in.

Reading fanfiction also taught me a great deal about how writing can be a joyfully self-indulgent thing, that self-indulgence and your own personal pursuit of what delights you is not something shameful or embarrassing. There is a strong tendency in our culture to assume that things that make you happy are also things that make you weak or worthy of scorn—why? Why make such an effort to conceal the things that bring us simple, uncomplicated joy? Why spend so much energy trying to convince people that we’re aloof and disinterested and without human feelings? Why perpetuate that toxic bullshit?

Self-indulgence and the personal pursuit of joy was a hugely influential thing with this book in particular, whiiiich… seems to lead us to the next question!

What can you tell us about your upcoming book, A Taste Of Gold And Iron? What inspired this story?

There’s two ways to answer that!

First, the surface-level answer: A Taste of Gold and Iron is about an Exquisitely Beautiful Prince and his Hyper-Disciplined Stoic Bodyguard investigating some counterfeited coins—and then they fall in love! It’s got heartfelt oaths of fealty, erotic handholding, and a scene where they wash each other’s hair and talk about ethics. If you’re looking for big, epic, swoopy action scenes and multi-kingdom battle sequences, this might not be the book for you, honestly! But if you are looking for lots of deep, intimate character work and all the quiet, soft moments of two characters realizing their first impressions of each other might have been wrong, and then doing the work on themselves to grow as people, come closer together, and have extravagant feelings, then this is definitely the book for you. Also a little magic system, as a treat.

On a deeper level: A Taste of Gold and Iron came about because back in 2017 or so, I was mulling on some of my favorite tropes in fiction—and, in particular, my personal hands-down favorite, the Benevolent Liege/Devoted Vassal romance (which is a specific aspect of a broader category, the classic Courtly Love trope). Then I had that grouchy thought, as so many writers do, that nobody had yet written that trope in precisely the way I wanted to read it, so I had to do it myself. (I have taken to calling it “Fealty+Feelings”.)

This was unusually deliberate in comparison to my general writing process—I started from a place of “I’m going to write this favorite trope of mine in exactly the way I would want to read it,” and then it was sort of a natural progression to, “Okay, what other tropes do I also love which would underpin and support the main one to best effect?” and thence with increasing giddiness to, “What if I just cram as many things as I like into one book?”, and then further to, “Now let’s dig in even deeper to interrogate some of those tropes and unpack them, so that they’re complex, intentional, meaningful building-blocks of story.” (For example: “Kissing to avert suspicion” is a great trope—why do I like it? What makes it so appealing? What’s the realistic, logical aftermath? How would two people navigate that, when there are so many other factors in play?)

But then, that’s the sort of thing that I really, really love—not just going through the motions to recreate a trope as if I’m following a script or a recipe, but also interrogating what underpins it. It’s the difference between “In making bread, we must knead the dough for ten minutes” and “In making bread, first we must understand how gluten is formed and what the act of kneading does to the end product.”

The entire writing process was like that—not just finding the things I liked best, but asking myself questions about why I liked them, and then about what could be tweaked or emphasized to make me like it even more. It was an exercise in the exploration of my own delight, and long before I ever sold the book, I used to tell people that I’d already gotten paid in joy, just from the time that I got to spend with this story and these characters.

This novel is said to be set in a world inspired by the Ottoman Empire. Did any particular kind of research go into making the world you created?

To be specific, it is only this particular kingdom of the world which is inspired like the Ottoman Empire! In terms of research, much of it was of the “read seven Wikipedia articles, glean two or three interesting pieces of information, and extrapolate outwards from there” variety. I’m not trying to replicate the Ottoman Empire (But Make It Fantasy), but rather create a new setting that has enough of the the flavor, the vibes, the texture—whatever you want to call it—that someone with a working knowledge of that period/area of history would find it comfortably familiar and hospitable.

For research on general flavor/vibes/texture, one of my favorite methods is to watch foreign movies or TV shows (ie: in this case, I watched several dozen hours a Turkish period drama, Magnificent Century, as well as a couple other Turkish shows). The key thing I’m looking for with things like this is, again, not to do an empty recreation, but to catch really visceral details of everyday life (like how and what they eat, or what the architecture looks like, or how people move when they’re wearing the clothes), but also, more importantly, how a story oriented to an in-group audience chooses to depict itself: What is the implicit scaffolding that the story is leaning on? What does it frame as romantic or epic or scandalous? What does it consider so normal and mundane as to not require any explanation whatsoever, and what does it go out of its way to inform the audience about?

The one thing I did borrow directly from the Ottomans is the governmental structure, particularly in regards to the janissary corps and bureaucracy—in particular, the fact that their soldiers and ministers were “recruited” as children and provided with years of education and elite training, after which they were appointed to government office and could potentially rise to be the second most powerful person in the empire after the sultan himself. Of course, the Ottomans, being an empire, were doing this “recruitment” in usually non-consensual ways (as empires so often do), by which I mean “forcibly taking children from their parents and enslaving them.”

While obviously I strictly avoided replicating that particular aspect, I did find it interesting to think about a system of governance that relies so heavily on investing time and money into educating the next generation of ministers, soldiers, bodyguards, and other servants of the Crown, especially when juxtaposed against the book’s themes of the ethics of power (both theoretically and in practice), and specifically the question: “If a vassal owes his loyalty to his liege, what does his liege owe in return to him?” We currently live in a society where we can expect to be actively and carelessly exploited by anyone who is in power over us—we regard that as no more than the mundane cost of earning a paycheck! So asking questions about power and responsibility and what fealty really means is a juicy subject.

What can we expect from the main characters of A Taste Of Gold And Iron?

[slaps the roof of Kadou and Evemer] These good boys can hold so many feelings!

Kadou is Exquisitely Beautiful, the prince of the richest nation in the world, very tenderhearted, and lightly traumatized. He is pretty much permanently worried about whether he is taking care of his people sufficiently, or whether he is inadvertently causing harm. Part of this is due to the fact that he has one hell of an unmedicated anxiety disorder; part of it is just very real philosophical concerns about the ethical expectations and responsibilities of his position.

Evemer is Beefy and Stoic. He has shoulders like a hero out of legend, an extremely rigid and unyielding sense of right and wrong, a tendency to be quite harshly judgmental of others’ shortcomings in the privacy of his own mind (or so he thinks). He has never failed at anything in his life. Hell, he’s rarely even felt ill-prepared for a challenge. (Spoilers: He is very ill-prepared for dealing with Kadou.)

They both have big, big feelings about responsibility, obligation, duty, and serving something greater than themselves.

Evemer: [wistful sigh] My most romantic fantasy is that I will one day be able to dedicate myself to the service of a worthy lord, throw my whole self into his service, and then maybe… just maybe…. save his life and die tragically in his arms, in the rain, while he cries on my face. Like in an epic poem.

Kadou: ??????? UM… Sorry, but why does this so-called romantic fantasy involve you dying? Can we revisit that???? Because that’s one of my dealbreakers.

What are some of your favorite elements of writing? What do you find to be some of the most challenging?

I love writing beginnings, unusual worldbuilding, vividly emotional scenes, introspective characters, and tangents about fantasy economics. I love characters that are complex, by which I mean “capable of accessing a broad range of feelings”—I don’t really enjoy books where everyone seems to feel only one thing in a sustained note the whole way through the story, so I don’t write books like that. I like it when characters have the capacity for a variety of different emotions, where they might get a chance to be funny, or tease a friend, or feel insecure, affectionate, fascinated, bored… All the things people feel.

The most challenging part of a book for me is the middle, particularly just before and during the “darkest right before the dawn” part. You know, the bit when the main characters are facing setbacks and feeling disheartened and discouraged and all seems lost. I haven’t yet quite figured out how to dodge that, partially because the temptation to write all the juicy emotions of a character being really sad is nearly irresistible (love those vivid emotions!). But that section always makes me grind to a halt and lose a lot of momentum, and it’s not nearly as much fun as other bits.

In addition to being a writer, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

I haven’t the foggiest idea how to answer this question, so I have chosen to willfully interpret it as a request for Three Quirky Facts About Me:

1. I grew up on a sailboat in the Bahamas.

2. My superpower is to intuitively Perceive when someone is on the asexual spectrum and hasn’t twigged to it yet (this is kind of ironic because it took me until age 28 to grasp that I was not “just really picky”, that was in fact demisexuality I was experiencing).

3. I’ve done every fiber art you can name, and some that you can’t

What advice would you have for aspiring writers?

From a craft perspective: Ask questions. Always. About everything. Especially when you think you understand something innately and effortlessly, ask questions about it. Push yourself to think deeper and go a step farther. When you think you’ve walked all the way to the end of Understanding a thing, turn around and walk back to the other end and interrogate it all again from a slightly different perspective. Your whole job is to see something in the world that nobody else sees and to then tell people about it, so don’t ever accept the obvious answer without turning it around and peeking underneath to see what’s there.

From a career perspective: I know it feels icky to think of writing as a business, but getting out of that mindset is an essential part of protecting yourself, giving your work the best chance that it has, and slowly encouraging this industry away from the ways that it so egregiously everybody working within it. You can still be an artist when you’re all alone in a room with the manuscript, but having a business brain is invaluable.

Additionally, whether you decide to go for traditional publishing, indie publishing, or hybrid, take some time to look at the ways other people are doing it—on both sides of the aisle. Learn the tricks and tools the other side has, and see if any of them are useful and applicable for you and your situation.

Most importantly: Be a cockroach. This is a hard career, and for most people, it takes a lot of time to see results from the effort and time you’ve invested. Be a cockroach! Refuse to be squished, survive the nuclear winter, spread your cockroachy dominion across the earth when all others have perished—ok, this analogy is getting away from me a bit, but you get the picture. This game isn’t over until you decide you don’t want to play anymore.

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

Q: Favorite line of the book?

A: Hard choice, it’s between “I got you this door” or “Oh, fuck, I think I just got religion.” You’ll laugh about this later, I promise. 😉

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

Yes! I’ve branched out into hybrid publishing this year (that is, a blend of both traditional publishing and indie publishing), and I’ve been releasing a novella series called The Seven Gods (of which the first book is Some By Virtue Fall), and it is chock full of disaster lesbians, fantasy-Shakespearean theater intrigue, dapper fancy hats, and arson. Right now, I’m putting the finishing touches on another installment of that series—The Light of Ystrac’s Wood, a small spinoff about a secondary character who will be quite important in book two of the series—which due to be released in early May.

I’m also hard at work for another book for Tordotcom, and while I can’t quite tell you any solid details yet, I’ll give you a fun clue: One of the Three Quirky Facts I gave you earlier will be, ah, relevant. 😉

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

Victoria Goddard’s The Hands of the Emperor, ALWAYS—if A Taste of Gold and Iron sounds good to you, this one will probably also appeal! It is about a god-emperor who doesn’t want to be emperor and his incomparable secretary, and together they institute Universal Basic Income, have a deeply romantic friendship/queerplatonic relationship, yearn at each other from across a room because there is a taboo against touching the emperor, and… eventually… hold hands. GASP. Scandalous, I know. (Lots of queer rep throughout the series—the two main characters of this one are bisexual (the emperor) and somewhere on the ace/demisexual spectrum (the secretary).

I’ve also recently loved Seducing the Sorcerer by Lee Welch and The Bachelor’s Valet by Arden Powell, which are both M/M romance novels. And for authors in general, I’m always delighted to boost Tasha Suri, Jenn Lyons, Freya Marske, Everina Maxwell, Alexis Hall, AJ Demas, and Cat Sebastian!

Interview with author Rachel Hartman

Rachel Hartman is the author of the acclaimed and New York Times bestselling YA fantasy novel Seraphina, which won the William C. Morris YA debut Award in 2013, and the New York Times bestselling sequel Shadow Scale and Tess of the Road. Rachel lives with her family in Vancouver, Canada. In her free time, she sings madrigals, walks her whippet in the rain, and is learning to fence. To learn more, please visit SeraphinaBooks.com.

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

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

My name is Rachel Hartman, and I was born in Medieval Kentucky, nearly 50 years ago. I’ve lived in a variety of fascinating places, such as England, Japan, and Philadelphia, before finally settling in Vancouver, Canada. In the before-times (sigh) I loved to travel, sing with a madrigal choir (the QuasiModals), and fence with my 80-year-old swordmaster. Nowadays I walk my whippet in the rain, sing sean nόs songs all on my own, and teach creative writing at UBC.

When did you know you were first interested in writing, and what drew you specifically to young adult fiction and fantasy?

I had always been a voracious reader, but I first became interested in writing in sixth grade. That teacher, Mrs. Chamberlain, was the first to give me creative assignments, and I would write twenty pages if she assigned five, that’s how interested I was (by contrast: I could barely find time to finish my math). As for young adult fiction and fantasy, that’s what I loved most and was reading in those days, so that’s what I started writing. After a detour in university, when I decided it was time to “grow up” and read “real literature,” I got right back to fantasy and YA as soon as I graduated, and I’ve never looked back.

I write for young people, really, because that’s the age I was when books were still magic to me, when a single book still had the power to change my life, and to say thank-you to all the authors who’d helped me through difficult times at that age. I might attempt an adult novel at some point, but I would never not write fantasy, or some kind of speculative fiction. I use fiction as a laboratory for thought experiments, and as a way of mythologizing my experience. Setting something in the real world would feel very constricting and uncomfortable for me.

How would you describe your upcoming book, In the Serpent’s Wake? Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

In the Serpent’s Wake is the second book in a duology, and is most easily understood in context with the first. The first book, Tess of the Road, asked, “After grief and trauma, how do you find yourself and become the protagonist of your own life again?” The second book then asks, “Once you’ve become the protagonist of your own life, how can you learn to set yourself aside occasionally and help other people become the protagonists of theirs?”

Honestly, both my duologies seem to follow this same pattern: first you address your inner issues, then you take that new knowledge out into the wider world and see how (or whether) it applies.

In the Serpent’s Wake is a continuation of your previous work, Tess of the Road. How do you feel you may have changed or evolved as a writer since that book and since the publication of your debut novel, Seraphina?

I change with every book. Novels are so long (at least, mine are) that by the time I get to the end, I am a different person than I was at the beginning. I’ve learned so much, not least about myself. It’s challenging to go all the way back to Seraphina and remember how I was different then. Certainly there are tropes I used then that I wouldn’t use now. There was some fatphobia, alas. But, we screw up and we (hopefully) learn.

I will say, on a less abstract level, I’ve learned to handle a complicated storyline better. Shadow Scale, the sequel to Seraphina, was really too much story to be contained in one viewpoint character. I’m learning to let other characters carry some of the burden of narrative.

Since Geeks OUT is a queer centered website, could you tell us a bit about the LGBTQ+ characters featured in your latest book?

I have tried to give LGBTQ+ characters prominent positions in all my books. I am bi myself, and have abundant queer family and friends, so a fictional world would not feel complete to me without characters of varied orientations and presentations. I made up a six-gendered civilization in my second book, Shadow Scale, just to give a trans character a comfortable place to live, so this has been an ongoing interest of mine.

The first one you’ll meet in Serpent is Spira, since the first chapter is from their perspective. Spira is a dragon (in human form), who ends up questing after their proper pronouns (they does not end up being exactly correct, but I’m using it here because that’s where they start). Then there’s their human love interest, Hami, who I hesitate to label because I still don’t know everything about him. There’s Argol, a Porphyrian sailor, who uses a neutral pronoun in her native language but is content with she in Ninysh. The quigutl – a subspecies of dragon – change sex several times over their lifespans. And there are hints of Tess being bi (which she is), but the book was so long and she doesn’t have a romance subplot, really. You’d kind of have to know it was there to even see it, haha. Kind of like me, I suppose.

Growing up, were there any books or authors that touched you or inspired you as a writer or made you feel seen? Are there any like that now?

Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown was an early inspiration, I would have to say, as well as Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Cycle. I actually got to meet Lloyd Alexander a few years before he died, and say thank you, which is such a rare thing. As an adult, the books that have touched me most closely are Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion books, particularly The Curse of Chalion, and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.

When Terry Pratchett died, I was supposed to do a school presentation that day. I was terrified that the kids would ask “Who is your favourite author?” and I would burst into tears in front of the entire 8th grade. Well, they asked, and I did, in fact, cry. But I was able to say to them, “This is the power of books, kids – someone I never met has touched my life so profoundly that I’m crying because he’s gone.” And that moment of vulnerability worked some kind of strange alchemy, and it was like we were all friends after that. I was singing to them, by the end, which I never do.

How would you describe your writing routine or process? What are some of the enjoyable, hardest, and strangest parts about writing for you?

I’m not great about routine. The one constant is that I get up early to work. You might suppose this means I am a morning person, but not really. My Inner Editor – that critical voice that tells me I suck – sleeps in late, so I like to get some work in before she starts yammering at me. All my strangest, wildest ideas come to me then, and there’s no Voice to veto any of it. It’s great.

One of the strangest, most enjoyable, and simultaneously frustrating parts of writing, for me, is that I am a very intuitive writer. And by “intuitive” I mean my brain works by taking in lots of information, turning it over and over (picture a composter), and letting it all ferment into something astonishing. It takes time, and you can’t force it, and that can get frustrating in a world of deadlines and obligations. If I can be patient, however, my brain always comes through with some delightful surprise.

What are some of your favorite craft elements when it comes to writing?

I hate confessing this because it makes me sound like a weirdo, but I love syntax. Like, what order the words go in. I can sit with a single sentence and change the order of words for hours, until finally I end up with… almost the sentence I started with, but for a slight change that no one will register but me. This, to me, is a joyous occupation.

I’m also a big fan of a really good metaphor. They’re not easy to get just right, but when they’re spot-on, they almost feel more true than the unadorned truth.

Did you draw on any resources for inspiration while writing your debut book, i.e. books, movies, music, etc.? Where do you draw inspiration or creativity in general?

For my first book, I was inspired by Medieval and Renaissance music. Actually, who am I kidding, music inspires all my books – you can find egregious madrigal and prog rock references all over the place, mostly song titles, if you know what to look for. Shadow Scale was largely Pink Floyd, I recall. In the Serpent’s Wake contains a lot of YES titles.

I am also deeply inspired by nature. This has always been the case for me, but I usually forget to credit it because it just seems like part of my day. The pandemic has underscored for me that I have to go outside amongst living things every day. If you looked at the pictures on my phone, you’d think there was nothing in my life but flowers and mushrooms. Ironically, I can’t keep a houseplant alive. I figure my proper orientation to plants is to observe them quietly and let them do the growing all on their own, outdoors. They know what they’re doing.

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

I’m a very introverted individual, and it’s a big challenge just opening up about the writing!

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?

Writing is never wasted. “Anything worth doing, is worth doing badly,” according to comic creator Carla Speed McNeill. Art is an ongoing conversation that you are worthy to participate in. Publishing, on the other hand, is a business that is often soul-sucking and terrible. Be patient and persistent, and above all else, be kind and gentle with yourself.

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

What’s one thing you wish you had known before you were published?

I wish I had understood that writing was my art therapy. Once you’re published, suddenly writing becomes all bound up with income and ego. It becomes the source of stress, and as such is not as therapeutic as it used to be (you can get back to it eventually, but it takes time and effort). I had to find something else that could be my art therapy. I settled on singing, but I know writers who draw, dance, do calligraphy, craft, all kinds of things. You need something that’s just for you, and not for the consumption and approbation of other people.

Can you tell us about any new projects or ideas you are nurturing and at liberty to discuss?

Well, I’ve just sent the draft of a middle grade book to my agent. I had been describing it as The Graveyard Book x The Decameron, but it ended up being nothing like either of those, so I’m going to need a new comparison. It’s about plague, ghosts, and moral injury, and I’m not even sure it’s really a middle grade book. I feel certain my agent will have an opinion on this.

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

Because it’s my special party trick (as a Canadian), I will recommend you some CANADIAN LGBTQ+ authors who I’ve enjoyed very much.

·  Xiran Jay Zhao – Iron Widow has been so popular and done so well that you may have read it already, but maybe you didn’t realize they are my fellow Vancouverite. No, we don’t know each other in real life, but I hope to correct that someday, if the pandemic ever ends *weep*.

·  E. K. Johnston – Aetherbound is her most recent space opera, but That Inevitable Victorian Thing is also a delightful place to start. Like Iron Widow (and like my own Shadow Scale), she gives us poly resolutions to love triangles. It’s a Canadian literary tradition, maybe.

·  Erin Bow – The Scorpion Rules is probably my favourite underrated post-climate-disaster AI-rules-the-world book. I’m always surprised more people haven’t read it.

·  C. L. Polk – Witchmark! The Midnight Bargain! Don’t make me choose! Polk is one of the best fantasy writers out there, bar none, and if you haven’t read their books yet, you are in for a treat.

Interview with Author Freya Marske

Freya Marske lives in Australia, where she is yet to be killed by any form of wildlife. She writes stories full of magic, blood, and as much kissing as she can get away with. Her short fiction has appeared in Analog Science Fiction, Andromeda Spaceways, and several anthologies. In 2020 she was awarded the Australian National SF (Ditmar) Award for Best New Talent. Her debut novel, the queer historical fantasy A MARVELLOUS LIGHT, is available now in hardcover.

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

Sure! I’m Freya Marske, a writer and podcaster based in Australia. I’ve moved through various flavours of geekdom in my life (shout out to my high school self, who was passionately into anime and also first in line for the opening screenings of the Lord of the Rings movies) but I’ve always been a reader of fantasy, so I’m delighted to have my debut fantasy novel published this year.

Where did you get your start in writing? How did you realize you wanted to be a storyteller?

I can’t recall a conscious choice being involved; I had a poem published in the newspaper at age 5, and never looked back! By which I mean I wrote on and off for years, including a lot of time in my twenties writing fanfiction and building my skills before I actually finished my first original novel.

Where did the idea for your latest book, A Marvellous Light come from?

The first seed of an idea that grew into the book was the question of who would liaise between a hidden magical society and an unmagical civil service, and what would happen if the wrong person ended up in that job. Because I always knew it would be a romance, too, I began to build the two protagonists—their backgrounds, their personalities, their relationship—at the same time as building the plot outwards from that initial idea.

What was the process like working on this story? Did you consult any resources while developing the background of your Edwardian magical fantasy?

I did quite a bit of reading about Edwardian society at the time, especially the daily life of the upper and upper middle classes and the kind of country manor house party that the book features. Plus I had to look into a lot of nitty-gritty details as they arose: the sort of cars that were popular, what the London Underground looked like in 1908, what a young man in mourning for his parents would have worn, etc. I enjoyed the process of learning about that time period and then weaving my own magical worldbuilding through it!

Regarding magical systems, oftentimes writers will build one based off familiar magic systems used in the past, i.e. magic schools, or fuse it with various other ideologies or systems, like Maggie Tokuda-Hall, author of The Mermaid, The Witch, and The Sea, fusing her magic system with marine ecology. Which makes me wonder how di you approach your worldbuilding?

…improvisationally.

Honestly, the magical system was the part I had the most fun with during the drafting process. I’ve always enjoyed those magic systems that don’t necessarily come easily to practitioners, and which have rules or constraints on what can and can’t be accomplished, but which also allow for creativity and wonder. The idea of using cat’s cradle string as a building block for gesture-based magic was my own, and I enjoyed teasing out the implications of it as I went through the book.

In a genre like historical fiction (much less historical fantasy), it can often be tough to describe queer identities without the queer language we have today. How did you work your way around that?

Absolutely—neither of my protagonists would describe themselves as gay, the word homosexual was I believe only just coming into English parlance, and they would feel uncomfortable with the word queer as it was used then. Despite having sexual experience with other men, neither think of themselves as part of a queer community, and a lot of their awareness of their own sexuality is around the necessity of it being secret. With all of that said: I wasn’t interested in telling a story about internalized homophobia or shame. Robin and Edwin take some time to recognize this aspect of one another, but once they do, the barriers to their love story unfolding are related to who they are as people, and the ways they’ve been hurt in the past. Not the fact that they’re both men.

What are some of your favorite parts of the writing process? What do you feel are some of the most difficult or frustrating?

I love the very beginning: when the outline is done and I’m leaping into a first draft, wrapping prose around my ideas and characters for the first time. And I find the final round of editing to be very satisfying, too. As an over-writer, I will always end up needing to trim unnecessary sentences and stray words, and I enjoy the process of making the end product as lean and punchy as possible.

There’s always a frustrating time for me around two-thirds of the way into a book. Now that I’ve written a few, I’ve learned to look out for those 66.6% doldrums! Somewhere around there I will become convinced that the book is terrible, I’m terrible, the entire thing is a waste of time, and nobody will ever enjoy it. It always passes. I just have to grit my teeth, trust the process, and write through it.

What can we expect from the main characters of A Marvellous Light?

I’ve been affectionately referring to Robin Blyth as a ‘sunshine himbo jock’, which tells you most of what you need to know. He’s good-hearted and straightforward and spent his university years on the cricket pitch or the river rather than studying hard, and he sincerely believes in punching his problems.

Edwin Courcey, the magician assigned as his liaison, is prickly and self-protective and vastly prefers books to people. With an analytical mind and a weak magical gift, Edwin has always been both interested in how magic works and frustrated by how little of it he can do.

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

In my spare time I can be found having strong opinions about wine, gin and whisky, lurking in art galleries, and figure skating. Everyone always seems keen to hear about that last one—it’s certainly an unusual sport to have chosen in Australia! But I did it as a kid and then picked it up again as an adult. I love how it calls for the slow improvement of individual skills, but also demands musicality and performance.

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

Don’t give up! You’ll write thousands upon thousands of words as you’re honing your craft, and you’re always going to be looking ahead at the people who you admire and want to emulate, and feeling frustrated with where you are in comparison. It’s human nature. And remember that any book you read has been meticulously revised and polished: first drafts are allowed to be, supposed to be, a bit of a mess! Let yourself have fun discovering your own stories.

And finally: write exactly the kind of book you most want to read yourself.

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

Hmm! Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever been asked which books I’ve reread the most times in my life. I’m a huge comfort rereader, and there are some books I return to again and again. Topping the list are: Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, Megan Whalen Turner’s The King of Attolia, and Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather.

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

I’m about to get started on book 3 of the Last Binding series; I can’t say much about it yet, except to say that one of its protagonists appears briefly in A Marvellous Light. But I’ve also written a couple of contemporary romance novels which my agent has just taken on submission—it’s very exciting to be back at the beginning of the process in a new genre!

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

This year alone I’ve really enjoyed Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo (m/m Southern gothic horror with fast cars and revenants) and The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri (engrossing high fantasy with a central f/f pairing). In the romance sphere, married cowriters Mikaella Clements and Onjuli Datta brought out an amazing celebrity fake-dating story in The View Was Exhausting, and my favourite romance author KJ Charles finished up her Will Darling Adventures (a 1920s adventure series with stabbing, spies and m/m romance) with Subtle Blood.

However, to finish us off: one of my favourite books of all time—Regeneration, by Pat Barker—is a historical novel set just after the time period of A Marvellous Light. It’s about gay war poets, and trauma recovery, and no magic beyond that of kindness.

Interview with Author Amina Luqman-Dawson

Amina Luqman-Dawson loves using writing to tell stories and to build an understanding of race, culture and community. Her published writing includes op-eds in newspapers, magazine articles, travel writing and book reviews.  She authored the pictorial history book Images of America: African Americans of Petersburg (Arcadia Publishing) as well as the novel Freewater. She’s worked as a policy professional, researcher and consultant on issues of education and criminal justice. She has a BA in Political Science from Vassar College and a Master of Public Policy from UC Berkeley. She’s a proud mother of a 13-year-old son.  She, her husband and son reside in Arlington, VA.

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

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

I was born in New York City yet raised in Lynwood, California (that’s in Los Angeles County). I am trained as a policy professional, however, part of me had a desire to write. For years I moonlighted as a writer. I did op-eds for newspapers that appeared in the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and more. I also did travel writing for a magazine and some journal article writing. I wrote a pictorial history book entitled Images of America: African Americans of Petersburg (Virginia). These were all wonderful experiences. Still, I had a desire to write fiction. Over several years, I undertook the project to write Freewater. 

What can you tell us about your newest book, Freewater? Where did the inspiration for the story come from?

Freewater is the story of two children, Homer and Ada, who escape enslavement on a plantation. They run into a nearby swamp and deep within it, they discover a clandestine community of formerly enslaved runaways, called Freewater. Homer and Ada meet other kids while in Freewater and they learn what it means to be free and find lots of adventure along the way. 

I was inspired by a very cool nugget of history—maroons in America. Enslaved people who sought refuge deep in the swamps and forests of the south. Many were caught, but some managed to survive and live free. That’s quite an inspirational piece of history. What was equally motivating was using that maroon setting to connect young readers to the lives, hearts and minds of enslaved children. That felt like important work. Inspiration also helps when you have a great support system around you. 

As a writer, where did you find your love for storytelling? And what drew you to the realm of historical fiction, as well as fiction for younger readers?

Growing up I loved reading fiction. I always think of my middle grade years as the best reading time of my life. The stories felt so vivid and I truly felt like I was being taken to new places through them. I think that’s why I chose to make Freewater  a middle grade book. I wanted to create that same feeling for my son, and for other kids in their middle grade years. I’ve also always enjoyed learning about history through storytelling. As an adult I see the importance of sharing history, particularly history that has been overlooked or rarely told.  In particular, I was struck by the way our nation tends to treat its history of slavery and the enslaved people within that system. There’s great avoidance, fear, pain and awkwardness surrounding how we feel about the subject. I knew historical fiction could address that shortcoming. My book creates an opportunity to place hope, empowerment and love at the center of how we feel about enslaved people and decenters feelings of victimization and pain. 

How would you describe your writing process? What helps you become or stay inspired and motivated?

This is my debut novel so I can only speak to this experience. I researched and wrote this novel off and on over several years. I began with a very rough draft of about fifty pages. Those fifty pages had the basic arc of the story.  From there I revised and revised more times than I can recall. Each time the story became more layered and the characters deepened. I felt inspired to continue because I thought it was an important story to tell. I was lucky because I also had a wonderful support system of people who kept encouraging me to continue, particularly my husband. 

What are some of your favorite parts of writing when it comes to craft? What do you find are some of the most challenging or difficult for you personally?

I think I most enjoy crafting a great story. In Freewater  I was always preoccupied with the movement of the story and keeping the reader’s attention in a way that made sense. It’s great fun taking readers to the edge of their seats. In writing I most feared character development. It was new to me and I wanted the characters to resonate with readers. As a result, I started writing the story using very few characters. During revisions I layered on each one separately. It was a laborious process, and in the end I’d say the characters in Freewater are what I’m most proud of in the book. 

Aside from your work as a writer, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

I’m also a mom of a fabulous thirteen-year-old son. Hmmm, here’s some other random stuff. I love historical documentaries. I have a bird’s nest outside my window and I spend lots of time peeking in at the birds who choose to nest there. There’s nothing better than a nice urban park. 

What are some things you would want readers to take away from your book, Freewater?

I want readers to leave feeling that they’ve connected to people who were enslaved. If they feel connected, some of the awkwardness, pain and fear we tend to carry around about the nation’s enslaved ancestors will have been washed away. 

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

What are some great things to take your manuscript from an idea to a published work?

It really takes a team. First, it’s great to have your personal team. Your partner or friends and family cheering you on. Then it’s great to have your writing team—a seasoned writer as a mentor, a new writer like yourself who is also trying to figure things out and other people whose opinion you trust. Then it’s great to being open suggestions and to taking chances with your writing. 

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

Keep writing. If you aren’t finding the success you seek, bring other writers (new and seasoned) into your life for feedback and support. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your writing, it can always be revised or re-written. FREEWATER is my debut novel and at several junctures I wasn’t sure of my ability to write in one way or another. I soon learned the value of taking the leap and trying to do the things I most feared.  

Do you have any books to recommend for the readers of Geeks OUT?

I have a fabulous picture book I just purchased for my niece and nephew! It’s entitled When Langston Dances, by Kaija Langley. It’s a wonderful story of a Black boy who loves dance despite feeling the pressures of only doing other things like basketball. It’s great for readers to see kids outside of their typical gendered spaces.


Header photo taken by Zachariah Dawson