Interview with Author Jesse Leon

Jesse Leon is a social-impact consultant to foundations, impact investors, non-profits, and real estate developers on ways to address issues of substance abuse, affordable housing, and educational opportunities for at-risk youth. Since receiving a master’s degree from the Harvard Kennedy School, Jesse has managed multi-million dollar philanthropic grantmaking for various foundations and banking institutions, managed over $1B in public sector investments for affordable housing, and built thousands of units of mixed-income housing as a real estate developer for Bank of America. Jesse recently moved back to San Diego to be closer to his mother and to pursue his dream of publishing this book. He is a native Spanish speaker and fluent in English and Portuguese.

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

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

I am an openly gay Latino author living in San Diego with almost 30 years in recovery. I work in the field of philanthropy as a consultant to foundations, impact investors, non-profits, and real estate developers on ways to address issues of affordable housing, substance abuse, sex trafficking, and educational opportunities for at-risk youth. I am fluent in English, Spanish, and proficient in Portuguese. 

What can you tell us about your book, I’m Not Broken? Where did the inspiration for this book come from?

I’m Not Broken is the story of the journey I took to win back my life. A story of resilience and moving from surviving to thriving after spending a childhood devastated by sex abuse, street life, and substance abuse. 

I wrote my book without the intention of ever publishing it. I was inspired to write in order to document not only my life, but the lives of the women in my family to inspire the next generation to not give up. Then it morphed. My inspiration would come from my volunteer work in juvenile hall and in speaking at recovery conventions across the country where people would ask me, “So, when are you writing your book?” In seeing so many others struggling with addiction, mental health, and depression, I wanted to do something about it from a place of my lived experience. As a teenager, I wasn’t sure I’d graduate high school—let alone attend Harvard, or write a book. I was homeless and sleeping in Balboa Park, doing anything and everything to support a drug habit that was my only escape from reality and the violent, traumatic abuse that drastically changed my life. It wasn’t until I heard stories from people with experiences similar to mine that I realized that I wasn’t alone. So I write to help others not feel so alone in this world. 

How would you describe your general writing process?

Cathartic. At times painful. Overall – healing. My process was to just write. I knew my beginning and my ending but had no clue how to structure it in between. I tried an outline and then tried post-its to capture ideas, but in the end, I just started writing. I’d spend countless hours at coffee shops after work writing. Once I knew I was done, then I began editing.  

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

There are so many authors who have inspired me. I love reading. The ones that come to mind who inspired me to write are: Reyna Grande’s The Distance Between Us, Victor Villasenor’s Rain of Gold, Michelle Obama’s Becoming, Viola Davis’ Finding Me, Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. In terms of authors who help me escape reality: Keri Arthur’s Riley Jenson Guardian Series, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicle, and Frank Herbert’s Dune and all the books in the Dune Universe.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading I’m Not Broken?

In sharing my story, I hope to remind others that they are not alone and that there is hope. I write for anyone who struggles with circumstances similar to mine, so they know they don’t have to resort to suicide or substance abuse. And I write for our families so that they can see that in spite of the horrors of addiction, sexual abuse, and the painful experiences we undergo, we can accomplish anything. That we can move from surviving to thriving in this life. 

What advice would you have to give to aspiring writers?

Just start writing, don’t listen to the noise, and don’t give up! I wrote without being concerned about editing. I just wrote. When I reached out to so many agents and authors for guidance and very few, maybe three, responded, I felt like a failure instead of focusing on the positive – that three actually did reach out and I am eternally grateful to them. At times, I felt like a failure and had to go back to my original purpose for writing the book. Then one day – it happened. It all came together. Someone introduced me to my agent when I least expected it. 

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)? 

No one has asked me if I’d want to do audiobooks for other authors’ books or voice-over projects. The answer is yes. I really enjoyed recording the audiobook. There is a major lack of diversity in that space and it irritates me when people butcher the Spanish and Nahuatl languages. So, yes, if anyone needs me to read their book or voice-over projects once they hear my voice in both English and Spanish – then please reach out! 

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

My hope is that my book gets picked up to be a book-to-series or book-to-film project. 

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

Aside from the ones I mentioned above, James Baldwin (all of his books), Gloria Anzaldúa (all of her books), Benjamin Alire Saenz (all of his books), Vickie Vertiz (all her works), Emanuel Xavier’s Pier Queen, and Antonio Salas’ Operación Princesa (even though it is not LGBT and only written in Spanish but writes extraordinarily well about sex trafficking.)

Header Photo Credit Martin Mann

Interview with Author John Elizabeth Stintzi

John Elizabeth Stintzi is the recipient of the 2019 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award and the inaugural Sator New Works Award. Their writing has appeared in Ploughshares, The Malahat Review, Kenyon Review, Best Canadian Poetry, and others. They are the author of the novels My Volcano (2022) and Vanishing Monuments, as well as the poetry collection Junebat.

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

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

Happy to be here! My name is JES and I’m an award-winning non-binary writer and visual artist, currently based in Kansas City, MO. I grew up on a cattle farm in northwestern Ontario, Canada, and currently am working on a variety of projects, primarily writing and illustrating my first narrative comic.

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

Stories have always been a thing in my life, but at the root of my history with stories is the fact that the imagination was the most vivid way to augment the somewhat unstimulating (at the time) life growing up on a farm in the middle of nowhere. My brothers and I were always playing make-believe as a kid, running around with toy guns or creating stories over piles of Lego in our crawlspace. I also credit my love for stories from the fact that I started reading early. My mom was a journalist and a writer, so she did a good job of putting books in front of us.

I didn’t really come to writing prose fiction as its own thing until college, though. In high school, I was mostly writing (bad) poetry and coming up with my ambitious epic graphic novel series that would never get beyond the imagining phase. I came to prose when I realized, in my first year of college, that I didn’t have what it took to illustrate that graphic project myself, and that the thing that really kept me coming back to the idea was the creation of the world/the ideas—the writing. So I decided to go into English and take some creative writing classes, and my love for prose finally started to click.

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 in a time and place where queerness was barely even a distant theory, let alone a practice, so I can’t say there was anything I can think of that particularly spoke to me in an explicitly queer regard. As a kid, I was really into A Series of Unfortunate Events, I think because of how strange and smart those books were, and also because of the story’s darkness (not to mention the illustrations really struck me). I was also always interested in stories that featured animals as characters, I think, like My Side of the Mountain and Silverwing (and its sequels). I believe that was speaking to the way that I felt a little bit out of place, and that the creatures I felt like I was able to really connect with at the time were animals—particularly our dog, Annie.

Today, I definitely am nostalgic for writing that is rural, and of course anything where gender in particular is queered. I’ve also returned to comics/graphic novels/manga again, which has helped me reconnect with some of the wonder of that confused kid who grew up with those epic, dark fantasy stories unfolding in their head.

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

My routine has been shaky the last few years, for obvious reasons, which also include the weirdness of beginning to publish books. I have become a little unmoored, dipping into projects here and there, then moving onto other ones. I’m one of those writers who has a million projects in progress.

When I do finally find myself working on something in earnest, though, I do tend to whip myself into a pretty good routine. These last few years, I’ve been able to accomplish the most when I get up extremely early (around 5am) so that I can get a few hours of work done before anyone can ask anything of me (mostly my dog). The parts I love about writing are the feverish idea-forging times, when the project becomes a sort of electric storm of ideas, connections, possibilities. The hardest thing for me, sometimes, is catching that lightning in the bottle and actually putting the work in.

How would you describe your upcoming book, My Volcano? What can readers expect from this story?

One of the great challenges in my writing career is describing My Volcano. The novel starts on June 2, 2016 when a mountain slowly begins to emerge from the middle of the reservoir in Central Park, which, over the course of three weeks, eventually grows into an active volcano two and a half miles tall. All the while, across the world, many other strange things begin to happen: a boy in Mexico City accidentally ends up going back in time 500 years to the beginnings of the fall of the Aztec Empire, a Mongolian nomadic herder gets stung by a bee and finds himself transformed into the avatar of a mysterious and powerful hive mind that intends to put every living thing under its thrall, a white trans writer tries and fails to write their science fiction novel, and a young Russian woman wakes up to find herself enclosed within a giant insect. And these are only a few of the many stories that follow the volcano’s emergence in New York City.

I would say that readers can expect many different things from this book, but on a whole I think readers can expect something that is very surreal, a little darkly humorous, somewhat galactic and magical. They should expect something that feels tonally resonant to these strange, intense time that we are living through.

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

There are likely bucketfuls of things which have somehow trickled into the chamber of My Volcano, so much so that it is hard for me to isolate many without feeling like I’m forgetting something very important. I would say that at its heart is story itself, in its various form: fiction, non-fiction, sci-fi, myth/folk-tale, advertisements, etc. There are also a few explicit allusions, like the young woman who wakes up inside of a giant insect, which is of course an allusion to The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Much of the work is inspired by a deep love for “unreal” multimedia works by people like Kafka, Nikolai Gogol, Hieronymous Bosch, Karen Tei Yamashita, and so many others. The title of the book (and some of its content as well) is partly inspired by the very “unreal” film My Winnipeg by Guy Maddin.

Two Dollar Radio

Out of all the stories and words you’ve written are there any essential messages or themes you wish to convey to your readers or simply express as a writer?

I have plethora themes and messages in my work, but one which touches most of what I’ve published thus far would be: certainty is a myth.

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?

Write your favorite books, not the books you think you should write because you think other people will like them. Lean into yourself, your loves, your obsessions, and don’t get too caught up in the successes of others. Focus on what you can control, lest the world—far too built on luck over merit—grind you to dust before you can create the work you want to create.

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

That I’m finally getting around to illustrating some narrative comics, which was my original intention when I decided to become a “writer” when I was a teenager (but was never quite talented enough to push through—but I think I’m brave enough now to finally give it a try).

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

My opinion on chests-of-drawers as a means of clothes storage. The answer is I am not a fan.

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

I’m nurturing an extraordinary amount of projects, but particularly am finding a lot of joy in scripting and sketching out ideas for several narrative comics. It’s a lot of fun to write stuff that takes place staunchly in genre. Other than that, I’m sitting on the “sequel” to my first novel, Vanishing Monuments, which I’m hoping I’ll be able to polish up and find a home for soon.

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

Ritual Lights by Joelle Barron (poetry), A Dream of a Woman by Casey Plett (stories), Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through by T Fleischmann (non-fiction), any poem by beyza ozer, J Jennifer Espinoza, the novel Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) by Hazel Jane Plante, NDN Coping Mechanisms by Billy-Ray Belcourt (poetry), and I’m particularly partial to the audiobook version of Joshua Whitehead’s novel Jonny Appleseed—to name a few!

Interview with Author Naz Kutub

Naz Kutub was born and raised in Singapore and currently lives in Los Angeles with his partner Benson, and his two furry garbage collectors – Alex and Raffe. He will forever be grateful to fried chicken for being a primary motivator in his early years, and also for preventing him from becoming a fitness model because writing is much more fulfilling.

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

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

Hi Geeks OUT! I’m Naz Kutub and I was born and raised in Singapore, but currently make Los Angeles home. I write Young Adult novels and my debut – THE LOOPHOLE – was released in June of this year, just in time for 2022’s Pride month.

What can you tell us about your debut novel, The Loophole? What can readers expect?

It’s a tale told in three alternating timelines. The present day sees Sayyed and his journey across the ocean to try and find his missing ex-boyfriend, with the hopes of bringing him home, while accompanied by an alcoholic genie. The second shows his recent romantic relationship with his ex, and the reason for them breaking up. And the third showcases the genie’s origin story and how she came about to be.

Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

I’d written five full-length novels before this, but they’d always featured white protagonists, because there was always this myth that brown-skinned characters would never sell. This was the first time I decided to write a character that reflected me and my cultural upbringing, while allowing myself to infuse a ton of my lived experiences, along with the people I’ve known throughout my life, including my family members. And I’m glad for it, because it got the attention of my agent, and eventually sold in a two-book deal.

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

I’m of the belief that it can be near impossible to change the mind of an adult, since our thoughts have atrophied over years and decades of compartmentalization and learning. Whereas the mind of a young person is extremely pliable and malleable and if handled with care, can be guided towards great causes, like instilling empathy. Hence, I think young adult stories is the last chance we get to change a large percentage of minds.

Growing up, were there any books/media that inspired you as a creative and/or that you felt yourself personally reflected in? Or there any such narratives like that now?

I grew up poor hence I’d read to escape what we didn’t have. Lots of books about white kids getting to play with snow or escaping their lives to foreign imaginary places. Growing up in Singapore meant lots of content from the UK, and it’s only now that I see more and more literature featuring brown kids getting to do everyday fun things we never could before. But without that form of escapism, I wouldn’t be writing what I am today.

The book centers on a queer Muslim boy as the lead protagonist. Could you speak a bit as to what that intersectional representation means to you?

Gosh, it’s nice to finally get to see someone like me on the page. I’d like to think I’m adding to the pile of queer brown kids books out there, specifically queer brown Muslim kids. There aren’t a lot of stories that feature us and our upbringing and the turmoil that exist within us while trying to navigate family and religion, but I’m hoping THE LOOPHOLE can be one such story.

Considering The Loophole centers non-Western mythology (specifically the genie/jinn), was there any particular research you had to do considering this element of the book?

The genie’s origin story was based on ‘Orpheus and Eurydice,’ a classic myth about a man who goes through hell to get his dead wife back. I read it a long time ago and had to reread it just to make sure that I do the story justice, but in my own way and with my own twist. 

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

I love when I get a brand new idea and my brain just starts whirring with the possibility of the plot, and how I can infuse it with conflict and raise the stakes every step of the way. Working out the kinks of the story to make sure I get to a satisfying conclusion is a wonderful exercise my brain can’t seem to get enough of. Plotting and getting rid of plot holes is one of my strengths and I always try to help out friends who get writer’s block when they reach a point in their story they can’t write their way out of. 

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

Uh, this is the toughest question ever, so without getting too Inception-y about it, let’s just go with: 

Question: Why the obsession with fried chicken in your book, like it’s even in your bio?

Answer: Growing up, we could only afford chicken once a week, that was how poor we were. But when I was nine, I was one of the top scorers in my studies, and the principal recognized this. So when my mom applied for a license to operate a food stall in my school, he granted her request because he wanted her to make sure I was taken care of. Fried chicken became a miraculous, everyday thing that I could never get enough of. To this day, it signals success in everything I do, which is why I always celebrate any achievement with it.

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

Learn how to find joy with it and not expect anything out of it. Success may not come by, not in a long while, and maybe never, but if you know you want to write for life, then you’ll find that it doesn’t matter if it ever comes because even being able to complete one piece of writing is a major accomplishment to be proud of. Writing a novel is something a lot of people wish they could do once in their lifetime, and to write hundreds of pages of a complete story arc all the way to ‘THE END’ and then taking a break, before starting all over again with ‘CHAPTER ONE’ shows that you may want to do this for life because it just feels like the oh-so-right.

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

I have a short story in an anthology coming out in May 2023 that’s a queer retelling of Bajirao and Mastani, along with my second book that’s scheduled for February 2024, which should be announced pretty soon.

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

Everyone should check out Erik J. Brown’s ‘ALL THAT’S LEFT IN THE WORLD’ and Brian D. Kennedy’s ‘A LITTLE BIT COUNTRY.’ Both were released this year and will bring so much joy to readers of all ages.

Interview with Author Will Taylor

Will Taylor (he/they) is a reader, writer, and honeybee fan. He lives in the heart of downtown Seattle surrounded by all the seagulls and not quite too many teacups. When not writing he can be found searching for the perfect bakery, talking to trees in parks, and completely losing his cool when he meets longhaired dachshunds. His books include Maggie & Abby’s Neverending Pillow Fort; Maggie & Abby and the Shipwreck Treehouse; and Slimed (as Liam Gray). Catch That Dog! and The Language of Seabirds coming 2022. 

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

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

Hi hi! Feeling star-struck to get to be here! I’m Will (or Liam sometimes when I feel like living the other half of my name). I am gay, biromantic, gray ace, and enby, or, as a teacher friend once dubbed me, multidisciplinary queer. I’m a dual US/UK citizen, though I’ve lived around Seattle my whole life and don’t get to visit my family over there nearly enough.

I write mostly Middle Grade, but I’ve got several picture books doing the editor rounds and am piecing together a super gay murder-mystery-musical-romcom which I’m crossing all my fingers will turn into my first YA. (Let me tell you I am daunted, but if it comes together it’ll be so fun.)

How would you describe your upcoming book, The Language of Seabirds? Where did the inspiration for the story come from and where did you come up with the beautiful title?

The Language of Seabirds is the book of my heart, and also a real departure for me. My first four books are all silly, bouncy romps full of pillow forts and ghost mooses and evil slime and dogs who think they’re people. Seabirds is a contemporary romance about the first big feelings of love, and how the time and place where they arise (in this case summer on the Oregon coast) gets woven into our hearts. My own first big feelings happened in fifth grade and were immediately drowned out by shame and the fear that someone would be able to tell I liked a boy. I wanted Seabirds to be a book where the good feelings win, and where a kid who’s not super certain of anything yet gets to just feel and celebrate and be.

And hey, thanks for the kind words about the title! It came to me as I was lying on the couch eating mac and cheese and watching cooking shows on Netflix. (My natural habitat.) A Danish chef was saying something about “the alphabet of Nordic cuisine,” and all in a flash I saw a boy watching another boy running along a beach in my mind, with birds wheeling and crying overhead. The title showed up in the same moment, just there suddenly, and as I got into writing the book I discovered that the language of seabirds is actually a code the two boys come up with, a way to say what neither of them is quite ready to say out loud yet in the big noisy world. I feel like I can’t take any credit for the title; it definitely felt like a gift!

How did you get into writing, and what drew you to Middle Grade fiction specifically?

I was that kid who preferred the library to the playground, so the love of books and stories was always there. I started writing in seventh grade when a fabulous English teacher liked a poem I wrote and encouraged me to keep going, and I was lucky enough to get more fabulous English teachers in high school who pushed me to work hard at it and grow. I stepped away from writing for a decade or so after college as I bounced around trying to find my place in the world, but when nothing else seemed to fit I came back to it, found I still loved it, and got to work.

As for Middle Grade, oof, that’s a big answer. I guess at a core level my heart is still eleven years old, and the sheer magic and wonder I remember books giving me access to at that age has never gone away.

The field of LGBTQ+ Middle-Grade literature is slowly, but steadily growing. What are your thoughts on the medium as it stands, and can you name any titles that stand out to you?

I cannot express how excited I am to see this field finally expanding! I wrote Seabirds because it was the exact book I needed as a kid. Not to sound all own-horn-tooty, but speaking as someone who didn’t feel safe enough to come out until after college, I guarantee my life would have been different if I’d had access to this book in fifth grade. With every LGBTQ+ Middle Grade book added to the shelves another kid in our community gets a mirror to see themselves and feel good about who they are and who they’re on their way to becoming.

I’ll save my book recommendations for the question at the end, but I have to shout out absolute legend Kacen Callender here, who has 100% led the way with LGBTQ+ Middle Grade. Their work is extraordinary, and I’ll remember the first time I read Hurricane Child for the rest of my life.

How would you describe your writing process? What are some of your favorite things about writing?

Once my agent has approved one of the endless ideas I send him (*blows kisses to Brent Taylor at Triada US*) I usually spend a few weeks getting all the themes and arcs and characters in place. I’m definitely a plotter; I write best knowing where I’m going and trusting that I’ve already done the heavy lifting to make sure it will all work. After that I tend to set up a checklist system so I have a certain doable amount to get done every day, which builds into a positive sense of momentum—another thing that’s essential to me doing my best. Writing’s hard enough without feeling like I’m behind all the time!

I should say it’s taken several books to figure out how I like to write, and I’m sure it will change along with me in the future.

Favorite things about writing: I love the way scenes and pages stack together and accumulate. Putting words into a blank space is such an act of faith, and it’s always magical to see the threads you’ve laid down start to weave together, to see the characters learn and change, and to be able to channel your own emotions into something other people can experience.

Were there any stories or authors that inspired or touched you growing up?

Oh, so many. I think the ones that really stand out in my brain are the ones about strange, overlooked kids being summoned by mysterious forces to worlds where they are powerful and needed. (Strong resonances for LGBTQ+ kids in that archetype for sure!) Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising was huge for me, as was A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. So You Want to Be a Wizard, by Diane Duane; Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson; A String in the Harp by Nancy Bond; the Redwall series by Brian Jacques; everything by Rosemary Sutcliff, especially The Eagle of the Ninth and The Shining Company… so, so many.

Besides being a writer, what are some things you would like others to know about you? 

Ha ha, oh nooo, this is like filling out a dating profile! I’m sorry but I’m honestly so boring! I spend the vast majority of my time reading kidlit, writing kidlit, comparing movies and TV shows to kidlit, talking about kidlit, or hanging out with kidlit friends. I like to bake, is that cool? I have a degree in sacred architecture… I’m blind in one eye… I collect teacups…

I guess it might be worth sharing that if I weren’t a writer I’d want to be a garden designer, and that I did static trapeze for a good chunk of my twenties. Somewhere there’s a video of me doing a solo performance as a merman to Part of Your World from The Little Mermaid in a blond wig and teal lycra. I’m sure it will resurface at some completely embarrassing time.

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

Ooo, okay: What one person alive today would you want to have lunch with if you could?

With absolutely zero hesitation, Kate Bush. I was introduced to her music at a very young age by my British family, and it’s irreversibly woven into my creative DNA and imagination. I don’t know of any other artist who describes so perfectly the world I’m always writing toward. If I could write a book that had one-tenth of the intimacy and grandeur of her songs I would be happy forever. It was Kate Bush who taught me that it’s possible to be both deeply romantic and fiercely independent, and I’d give a lot to eat tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches with her.

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

Read! Read as much as you can, and as widely. The more you read the more your imagination has to work with. You’ll know what you like and don’t like, what works in story and what doesn’t, and what kinds of people and experiences you’re genuinely interested in exploring.

The second half of that, of course, is write! Write as much as you can. Above all, finish projects, even if they stay as rough drafts. Give yourself first-hand knowledge of what it feels like to go from a blank page to the words The End. Build those pathways in your brain, reinforcing that this is what you love and want to do, and with every piece or project you complete it will be that little bit easier to embark on the next one.

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

Well, there’s that ridiculous YA idea I mentioned before, but at the moment I’m on the third draft of what I hope will be my next Middle Grade: a 12th-century historical escape adventure full of castles and frozen rivers and swords and stolen jewels. 

I’ve also got another Scholastic book coming out the month before Seabirds, a silly, heart-achy, overlooked-girl-and-her-doggo-best-friend story called Catch That Dog! It’s based on the real-life dognapping scandal of Masterpiece, the toy poodle who helped set off the poodle craze of the 1950s. There’s no sweeping summer romance in this one, but there are a whole heap of feelings, well-earned comeuppance for nasty grownups, and hopefully plenty of laughs. Think Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie crossed with Christopher Guest’s movie Best in Show, all set in fabulous small-town New Jersey. I’m really proud of this book, actually. Preorders welcome! Comes out April 5!

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

Okay, seriously, I could do another three pages of answers here, so I’ll try to limit myself to my absolute top faves. Everything by Kacen Callender, obviously, also Alex Gino and Adib Khorram.  I loved This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron, The Darkness Outside Us by Eliot Schrefer, Almost Flying by Jake Maia Arlow, Thanks a Lot Universe by Chad Lucas, Between Perfect & Real by Ray Stoeve, Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukoff, You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson, Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian, The Remarkable Heart of Sunny St. James by Ashley Herring Blake, Alan Cole is Not a Coward by Eric Bell, The Insiders by Mark Oshiro, Runebinder by Alex Kahler, Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas, Camp by L.C. Rosen, and argh I’m going to have to make myself stop!

Oh! One big resource I want to recommend is, run by the fabulous Dahlia Adler who also makes sure LGBTQ+ books get plenty of love on Buzzfeed. She’s curated a stunning and incredibly searchable list of books that encompass the whole spectrum of our community, and it’s always growing as our options on the shelf grow. Dahlia is a total champion, and so is her site. And of course so is Geeks Out! All the very biggest thanks for having me today! It’s been a dream!

Header Photo Credit Joshua Huston

Interview with Author Lin Thompson

Lin Thompson (they/them) is a Lambda Literary Fellow of 2018. An earlier version of this novel was workshopped in Pitch Wars and it also received the Travis Parker Rushing Memorial Writing Award at Emerson College. Lin grew up in Kentucky but now lives in Iowa with their wife and cat.

I had the opportunity to talk to Lin, which you can read below.

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

Hi! I’m a queer middle-grade author of The Best Liars in Riverview. I grew up in Kentucky and now live in Iowa with my wife and our cat. The pronouns I’m currently most comfortable with are they/them, and I identify as a trans nonbinary person.

What can you tell us about your debut book, The Best Liars in Riverview ? Where did the inspiration for this story come from? Did you draw any inspiration from other author or books while writing it?

The Best Liars in Riverview is about twelve-year-old Aubrey’s journey to find their best friend Joel after Joel has run away from their hometown on a raft the two of them built together. Along the way, Aubrey is piecing together everything that’s led up to Joel running away, and they’re also finding the space to really question their own gender for the first time.

The book grew out of a short story I wrote in college about two kids who want to run away on a raft. I’d been writing lots of stories before that about people wanting to run away from home and start over someplace new, away from the expectations and assumptions of everyone they knew—but it took me a long time to realize why I was so pulled to that idea. It wasn’t until I was starting my own queer journey that I started understanding the discomfort I’d been feeling when the people around me were assuming a gender for me that wasn’t right. The story about the kids and the raft was the one I kept coming back to as I was figuring out these huge pieces of my identity.

On your website, you described this book as “the story of my heart,” writing that “it’s grown and changed as I’ve grown and changed.” Could you tell us what you mean by that?

When I first started working with these characters, I was very early in my own queer journey—just barely even beyond “I want to be supportive of my queer friends” and moving into exploring my own identity. As I started realizing I wasn’t straight, and then later realizing I wasn’t cis, this was the story I kept coming back to and using to work through some of those feelings. I worked on this book on and off for about seven years before I ever started trying to get it published, and when I look back through the older drafts now, I can definitely see each step of my queer journey. In that original short story, the character who eventually became Aubrey was really just trying to figure out how to be a good ally, and then the story shifted with Aubrey having a first crush on a girl, until eventually, it became the version it is now, with Aubrey realizing that they aren’t a girl.

When did you know you were first interested in writing, and what drew you specifically to middle-grade fiction?

I’ve been interested in writing for as long as I can remember. My parents read to me a lot when I was little, and then I read a lot on my own, and I was telling everyone I wanted to be an author when I grew up from at least kindergarten onward. Middle-grade has always been really special to me, because the time in my life when I probably read the most was in middle school, and the books I read during that time have stuck with me in a way no others can. Middle school is such a confusing, transitional, formative time. I don’t remember reading about any openly queer characters back then, but I’ve thought a lot since about how much of a difference it might have made for me if I’d had access to the wide range of queer MG titles available now.

While I was writing Best Liars, I was also working as a children’s librarian, so I was seeing every single day just how important it is for kids to have queer stories available to them. The kids I was working with were always looking for recommendations, and it was so exciting to see the genre keep growing and to keep having more stories to offer them.

How would you describe your writing process?

Honestly, my process is pretty chaotic. On the plotter vs. pantser scale, I’m probably a chaotic plotter—I always want to be organized, and I have to know the story pretty thoroughly before I can really start writing, but I also jump around constantly as I’m writing and very rarely write chronologically or follow the plans I made. I love making outlines, but I also love changing the outline constantly as I go. I spend a lot of time feeling like my brain is trying to hold onto too many pieces of the story while I frantically try to get them into place before I forget them. I was diagnosed with ADHD fairly recently (as I think a lot of us have been—the pandemic really messed with the coping strategies a lot of us had in place before!), and I’ve also been realizing that my process for writing one book doesn’t necessarily work for writing the next one, so I’ve been trying to embrace the chaos and to find strategies that work for me.

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

The main character, Aubrey, is questioning their gender and over the course of the story admitting to themselves for the first time that they’re not a girl. It was important to me that we leave Aubrey in a place of questioning without finding a clear, perfect label for themselves by the end of the book—I like to describe the story as less about finding an answer and more about learning to ask the question. I was definitely in that questioning stage of my queer journey as I was writing—in some ways, I still am in that questioning stage—and I wanted to get to show a character becoming more okay with not knowing exactly the right way to describe themselves, but still being able to accept themselves and find support.

And while Aubrey is looking for Joel, Joel is also doing his own questioning and (minor spoiler, I guess) realizing he’s gay. The characters live in a fictional town in Kentucky, and while Joel has been facing a lot of overt homophobia at school, Aubrey is also picking up on the ways people in their community signal their disapproval of queerness by just never talking about it. I wanted to explore how both those loud and quiet kinds of queerphobia can be damaging in different ways.

What are some of your favorite elements of writing? What would you say are some of the hardest or most surprising for you?

I really enjoy the early stages of a story, when I’m still mulling over all the different parts of it and haven’t put many words down on paper yet. I love how malleable it all feels, and I love the excitement as I figure out each new piece and see how the story can come together. I think that sometimes as I get farther into a story, it’s really easy for me to get stuck on one way of writing it and forget that there are so many possibilities, so I really love the moment when I realize how I can change the pieces to make something work—when I remember that, at the end of the day, the whole story is made up, and I can change whatever I need to make it into the book I want it to be.

The field of LGBTQ+ Middle-Grade literature is slowly, but steadily growing? What are your thoughts on the genre, and can you name any titles that stand out to you?

I’m so excited about how many more queer MG books are coming out every year! I think it’s so important to have LGBTQ+ stories for kids, because again, the middle-grade years can be such a formative time—it’s so important for kids who are figuring out who they are to have a wide range of queer stories to potentially see themselves in. I think Kacen Callender has been truly pushing open the doors for what’s “allowed” in queer middle-grade stories, and I’m so excited for their upcoming Moonflower. Kyle Lukoff’s Too Bright to See had me crying within the first fifty pages because the way the main character experienced gender made me feel seen in a way I’d never been before, even as an adult. Other titles I’ve loved recently are The Best At It by Maulik Pancholy, Almost Flying by Jake Maia Arlow, Thanks a Lot, Universe by Chad Lucas, and This Is Our Rainbow, an amazing anthology put together by Nicole Melleby and Katherine Locke!

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

Experiment and figure out what works for you! I definitely used to get discouraged by people saying you needed to write every day or that you need to have a certain routine or whatever, because the thing I’m most consistent at is being inconsistent. It turns out everyone’s process is going to be different, and the best thing you can do is figure out how your brain works and how you can best make stories.

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

I love baking, embroidery, making music, playing video games, gardening…I tend to cycle through hobbies, picking up new things and doing them obsessively for a month or two before I get bored and move on to the next interest. I also absolutely love being in the woods, and I have a very special place in my heart for the Kentucky woods I grew up around.

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

Honestly, I’m very new to being interviewed and these questions have been great! I’ll say that I’m always excited to be asked if I have any pets, because then I get to talk about my cat Nasa who’s allergic to everything and who I absolutely adore.

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

I just turned in my revisions for my second middle-grade book, which is about a trans boy and his siblings investigating their grandmother’s possibly haunted house. The main character, Simon, is much more secure with his gender internally than Aubrey is in Best Liars, and I’ve really enjoyed writing about him and his family and exploring the gender euphoria Simon gets from this new name that he’s chosen.

I’m also working on a YA historical fantasy about three queer teenagers in the 1840s who find their way aboard a sailing ship with a majority-queer crew. It’s obviously a very different age group and genre, but with a lot of similar themes around self-discovery and found family. I’ve been really enjoying figuring out how to write in a time period when the language we use now to describe queerness didn’t exist yet, and when even the framework of queerness as an identity hadn’t really come about yet—it’s been challenging but also a lot of fun!

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

In addition to the MG titles mentioned above, I’m so excited for these books for YA readers coming out this year and next: When the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb, We Deserve Monuments by Jas Hammonds, and If Tomorrow Doesn’t Come by Jen St. Jude. Sacha, Jas, and Jen were all Lambda Literary fellows with me, and their writing and characters are all absolutely stunning, so definitely keep an eye out for these queer books in 2022 and 2023!

Header Photo Credit Katherine Ouellette

Interview with author Brian D. Kennedy

Brian D. Kennedy writes books for young adults. Born and raised in Minnesota, he now lives in New York City with his husband and their very photogenic dog. When he’s not writing, Brian can be found working at an LGBTQ non-profit. His slightly unhealthy obsessions include: seeing as many Broadway shows as possible, buying weird trinkets off eBay, and all things Dolly Parton. 

I had the opportunity to talk to Brian, which you can read below.

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

Thanks for having me! My name is Brian D. Kennedy, author of A Little Bit Country. When I’m not busy writing, my time is spent working at a LGBTQ non-profit, buying books faster than I can read them, and watching TV with my husband and our miniature schnauzer, Stanley.

How did you find yourself drawn to the art of storytelling? What drew you to young adult fiction specifically?

I’ve been drawn to storytelling for as long as I can remember. One summer when I was a kid, instead of setting up a lemonade stand, I set up a table to sell stories I wrote. Throughout the years I’ve also tried my hand at poetry, playwriting, improv and sketch comedy, and acting. I didn’t discover young adult fiction until I was in my mid-30s, though. I was taking a non-fiction personal essay class and the instructor said my writing read like “a young adult novel.” (I don’t think she meant it as a compliment.) That prompted me to pick up my first YA book. I instantly fell in love with the voice, and there was no turning back from there.

What could you tell us about your debut book, A Little Bit Country? What inspired the story?

A Little Bit Country is my love letter to country music and Dolly Parton. It’s about two boys who spend their summer working at a Dollywood-esque amusement park. Emmett, an aspiring musician from Chicago, wants to be country music’s biggest, gayest superstar. Luke, an aspiring chef from Tennessee, hates country music. So naturally, the two meet and fall in love. In my book, Wanda Jean Stubbs in the fictional country music icon that owns her own amusement park, Wanda World. It just seemed like a rich setting for a novel, and I knew that my love of country music would give me plenty to play off of.

How would you describe your writing process?

Full of procrastination and snacks. If I have all day to write, it will often take me a while to find my groove. It definitely helps if I know what I’m writing, which is why I’m a die-hard plotter. Even once I have a full outline, before I start each chapter, I like to go for a short run if I can. It gives me a chance to ruminate on the scenes I have to write without out the distraction of the internet or my phone. I also like to keep track of my daily word count in the notes app on my phone, because I’m a Virgo who’s fueled by constantly trying to one-up myself. (I usually fall short.)

A Little Bit Country definitely contains some strong music themes. What music would you say you’ve gravitated to while writing this book and in general? Do you have any personal experience singing/ playing an instrument?

Well, the obvious answer is Dolly Parton. The first thing I did when I sat down to start drafting this book was to treat myself to a box set of her music that had some previously unreleased tracks and spanned four decades of her career. But there were a lot of other country artists I listened to while writing A Little Bit Country as well. Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Lori McKenna, Maren Morris, Hailey Whitters, Brandy Clark, the Highwomen…I could go on for a while.

I took piano lessons as a kid and played baritone all the way through high school. (Our marching band uniforms consisted of polyester shirts and black cowboy hats. Thankfully, the internet wasn’t around to document this.)

And for the record, I’m a terrible singer.

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

At the risk of repeating the same answer again…Dolly Parton. I’ve always been drawn to classic female country singers. Performers like Dolly and Loretta Lynn, who sang bold songs and defied expectations to find success in a male-dominated industry. That’s why I created the fictional icon of Wanda Jean for my book. I knew she would serve as a great inspiration for my main characters, two boys who are trying to follow their own dreams in a world that isn’t always ready to accept them.  

What are some of your favorite parts of writing? What do you feel are some of the most challenging?

I am quite possibly the world’s slowest drafter. It’s hard for me to turn off the critiquing part of my brain and just get words down on the page. Editing seems to be a less excruciating part of the process for me. (Unless I just received an edit letter—then I reserve the right to change my answer.) When I’m editing, I feel like a sculptor who’s sitting with a giant block of clay. It might be a lumpy mess, but at least I have something to work with and (hopefully) make better. A book usually goes through many rounds of edits, and with each one, I can feel my story taking shape.  

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

Although I consider myself a New Yorker, I grew up in Minnesota and there’s no denying it shaped who I am. I love nature (especially bodies of water), and could tell you how to make a mean Tater Tot hotdish.

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

I love talking about the research I do for a book! For A Little Bit Country I read biographies by Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, and Tanya Tucker. I also watched Ken Burns’ eight-part docu-series, Country Music, which so informative and thoroughly enjoyable, and the documentary Bluebird, about the Bluebird Café in Nashville. While in the middle of drafting my book, I was also extremely fortunate enough to take a trip to Dollywood for the first time. (It was my 40th birthday present to myself.)

As of now, are you currently working on any other ideas or projects that you are at liberty to speak about?

I have a second young adult rom-com coming out with my publisher in 2023. I’m not allowed to say much yet, but I can tell you that it’s a new story with new characters. It will still involve a setting with music, though not country music this time.

What advice would you give to other aspiring creatives?

Writing can be a solitary profession. Finding other writer friends will help. It doesn’t even have to be in person. There’s a large community of writers online. (Probably procrastinating.) Good writer friends will talk you through your low points and help you celebrate your wins. Writers can also be extremely generous and there are a number of mentorship programs out there (Author Mentor Match / Diverse Voices, Inc.) that are worth seeking out.  

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

I would love to give a shoutout to some of my fellow #22debut authors who are releasing a book this year. Erik J. Brown wrote a post-apocalyptic love story between two boys that has the slowest of slow burns in the best possible way. It’s called All That’s Left in the World, and it’s almost impossible to read without shouting “Just kiss already!” at some point. I’m also very much looking forward to The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School by Sonora Reyes and The Loophole by Naz Kutub.

Interview with Author Cory McCarthy

Cory McCarthy (he/they) is the author of numerous books for young readers. They live with their family in Vermont, where they teach writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. 

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

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

Hey! I’m Cory (he/they), a nonbinary trans dude. I’ve been publishing for ten years, and I’m releasing my first book about what it was like to grow up closeted in Ohio. If that sounds a bit ominous, errr, you’re on the right path!

What can you tell us about your upcoming book, Man O’ War? What inspired you to write it?

Man o’ War is about cultural captivity. The hero, River McIntyre (they/them), is an Irish and Arab American, like me, who has been required to perform femininity and whiteness for the sake of other people’s comfort. We meet them at the tender age of fifteen when they encounter a happy, healthy queer person—and begin the long process of releasing themself. The book follows River into their college years and through gender affirmation surgery, which was a joy to write about for a teen audience.

I was inspired to write this book because of a rather notable part of my small-town upbringing: I grew up down the street from SeaWorld of Ohio. The park has been out of business for many years, but between the memories and the metaphors, I knew that I had to talk about how being trans in a close minded community is exactly like being an orca stuck in a bathtub-sized tank.

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

I fell in love with poetry and memoir writing in middle school and transitioned to screenwriting after undergrad. I’ve always known I wanted to write for a living but finding my niche took three degrees in writing and endless ambition. I fell into YA backwards. I was writing high fantasy and ended up at Vermont College of Fine Arts where I learned that I was already writing what publishing calls YA. I now write in other formats and age ranges, but YA has been quite an education.

How would you describe your writing process? What do you find are some of your favorite or most challenging parts of writing?

For me, every book is written differently. Over my decade in publishing, my process has evolved to become more fluid. Some books take over a year to write. Man o’ War fell out of me over a few weeks of tears and pain and fingers-on-fire. That being said, my favorite part of writing is drafting. Revision takes more out of me, and requires more time, patience, and planning.

In addition to featuring trans representation, the book also features an Arab American protagonist. Can you speak as to what that intersectional representation means to you?

It is scary to write about being Arab American. While the rampant fear and miseducation quadrupled after the tragedy of 9/11, this country has a long history of forcing Arab Americans to forcefully assimilate. It’s this wildfire fear that River was bathed in from birth. Don’t let people know who you really are…or they might attack you.

This is the same message currently being blasted at trans folks. The echo chamber of intolerance is all the way up to eleven right now. I hope readers of Man o’ War find the strength and courage to live their lives openly and safely despite our cultural chaos.

Since the book is centered around swimming, I was wondering if you have any personal connections or memories about water yourself that you would like to mention?

The book has minimal sports content, although River is a competitive swimmer. The story is very much about water, however, and that parallel of the marine life in the tanks and feeling like a captive animal in the lanes. This is also based on personal experience. I started competing at the age of seven, and it was everything to me. I walked away my senior year in high school because the gender dysphoria I experienced in the female suits was too intense. In the story, River goes on to be a trans athlete in college, something I would have loved to do, so in a way, I rewrote my own story into something much more affirming.

Both you and your spouse, A.R. Capetta, seem to be writers as well as co authoring books together. Would you say your creativity as writers sometimes bounces off each other?

We are indeed both authors! We co-wrote the bestselling Once & Future series, aka queer King Arthur in space, and have heaping individual backlists at this point. (Takes a lot of books to pay the bills!) We definitely bounce our ideas and passion for stories off of each other, and we have very different strengths, which we find to be ideal in a co-authoring situation.

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

Hmmm, I wish people would ask more about how publishing works. It’s an incredibly predatory industry, and until authors feel empowered to talk about it, nothing will change. We are—at a dangerous speed—approaching something that could very well shutdown publishing, not unlike the screenwriter strike in 2007-2008. The industry is currently forcing out marginalized authors with advance payouts that don’t happen until seasons or years after the book is released.  If this continues, the only people who will be writing books will be those who are independently wealthy. And we know what that demographic largely looks like, now don’t we?

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

Congratulations! You will write STORIES for a living, and it will set your soul on fire in the best way. Also: condolences! This industry is a trash heap, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope for a better future. There is always hope.

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

I have a middle grade sci-fi series rolling out now called B.E.S.T. World, where tweens get augmented bodies to become literal heroes—only the corporation granting the augs has other plans for these youths. But that’s the thing about becoming a hero…no matter who empowers you, what you do with that power is up to YOU.

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

Grand question! Check out Charlie Jane Anders’ new space opera, the Unstoppable series. It starts with Victories Greater Than Death and the newly released Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak. Also, try Kiss & Tell by Adib Khorram, and if you grew up longing to go to queer camp, well, L.C. Rosen penned some fantastic summer memories for you in his CAMP, which is on its path to becoming a motion picture!

Thank you so much!