Interview with Author Liselle Sambury

Liselle Sambury is a Toronto-based Trinidadian Canadian author. Her brand of writing can be described as “messy Black girls in fantasy situations.” She works in social media and spends her free time embroiled in reality tv because when you write messy characters you tend to enjoy that sort of drama. She also shares helpful tips for upcoming writers and details of her publishing journey through a YouTube channel dedicated to helping demystify the sometimes complicated business of being an author. I had the chance to interview Liselle, which you can read below.

Congratulations on your debut! Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming book, Blood Like Magic?

Blood Like Magic is about a family of Black witches living in a near future Toronto, and in particular, sixteen-year-old Voya Thomas who is given the horrifying task of either killing her first love or losing her family’s magic forever.

What drew you to writing? Do you remember the first stories/authors that inspired you to write or simply strengthen your love of reading?

There wasn’t anything specific that drew me to writing, I just wanted a way to vent my feelings and tell stories that distracted me when I was having a hard time, and writing ended up being that medium. I honestly didn’t even read much. I volunteered in the library in elementary school because I wanted to be indoors during recess. I was that kind of kid. But I did love to go to the public library, and I would basically pick out anything that interested me. I was a big fan of the Saga of Darren Shan which was a gruesome vampire series. I devoured those books so it’s not surprising that I hopped right on the Twilight train when it came around. 

As a writer, where do you find your sense of inspiration and what sources do you draw on to refresh your creativity?

I find that books, TV shows, and movies are fantastic fuel for my inspiration. Books so often make me think ‘wow I wish I could write something like this’ and spur me on that way because I’m so invested in trying to create an experience like that, or, like in the case of Blood Like Magic, trying to add to an experience I didn’t get when I was younger. With TV Shows and movies though, it’s often that there’s an aspect unexplored that nags at me, and I have to write that unexplored premise. Anime is usually where I discover a lot of different ways of telling a story that I’ve never seen or heard of. Some anime just blows my mind with the sorts of narratives they weave, and that’s also incredibly inspiring.

Your debut book is said to feature a magic system with strong New Orleans roots. Could you tell us something about that?

The magic in the book doesn’t draw from anything existing in New Orleans purposely because I truly don’t know enough about those cultures and that history. Those practices that have real ties and significance in that region, and I don’t know enough to write it into my work. However, I was familiar with some of the historical events during the period of slavery that happened in New Orleans when it was the U.S. Territory of Orleans. The particular event that stuck out was the revolt that occurred nearby, led by slaves in sugar plantations. With the combination of the history within slavery and of African folk magic in that area, it just felt like the right place for the Thomas witches have ancestors from.

I actually tried to dig into my ancestral history to see if I could pinpoint where my ancestors were from when they were slaves in the U.S. to use that location, but due to the nature of colonialism and records, I unfortunately wasn’t able to find anything.

Your protagonist, Voya Thomas, comes from a Trinidadian-Canadian background like yourself, correct? Was it always your intention to have this aspect mirrored in your fiction, and what are your thoughts on Caribbean representation in the YA world today?

I had always intended to write Voya as Trinidadian-Canadian because I really wanted to put that experience into a story. Prior to Blood Like Magic, I hadn’t explored that in my fiction and thought it would be fun to show that experience. I was truly putting a lot of myself into the story and that’s such a huge part of me.

I think we’re starting to see more Caribbean rep in YA now which is really exciting like Witches Steeped in Gold by Ciannon Smart and Where The Rhythm Takes You by Sarah Dass, which are both coming out this year. I haven’t read a lot of stories with Caribbean rep in YA so I’m really happy to add my voice. Especially within a Canadian context because I find that to be less common in YA as well.

Since Geeks OUT is a queer centered website, could you tell us a bit about the LGBTQ+ characters that will be featured in your book, including the main character’s love interest who is a trans man?

Of course! Luc, the love interest is trans man and he’s my snarky genius. Voya’s cousin Alex is a trans woman, and she’s the fashionista of the family with a talent for sewing and design. Voya’s other cousin Keisha is lesbian and demiromantic, does modelling part-time, and never holds back her opinion. Johan is the head of a family with close ties to the Thomases and he’s gay. One of his sons, Topaz, is also gay, but it’s not explicitly said until the second book.

Aside from witches, are there other magical/mythological/ spiritual backgrounds you are drawn to?

I am a big fan of ghosts which is hilarious because I’m actually really fearful of death and have no desire to ever experience a ghost sighting. But I think there’s something super intriguing about the idea of unfinished businesses and the world beyond death that can be explored in really interesting ways. I loved Watch Over Me by Nina LaCour because she took the idea of ghosts and created a completely unexpected story that was so beautiful.

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

I don’t actually think that I’ve asked who the easiest and hardest character to write were, but I love that question. I have found that Voya is the hardest for me to write because I frequently struggle with getting her motivation as a character just perfect, and it’s hard to make a character who has difficulty with decisions active in the narrative. I’m so dedicated to telling her story right that I tend to spend a lot of extra time with her. On the flip side, I find her cousin Keisha the easiest and the most fun to write. I have no idea why. I think she just asserted herself as a character with a really strong voice and so it just flows. I absolutely love her.

Are there any other projects or story ideas you are currently nursing and could tell us about?

Right now, I’m working on my first novel-length adult project which is currently uncontracted. It’s going to be a horror, but no ghosts this time. It’ll edge on thriller and include discussions about toxic workplace environments and culture.

What advice would you give for writers who are exploring their own creativity and looking to step up their game?

I would highly recommend reading and writing craft books. That’s something that I do a lot even now and there’s so much you can learn from them. And I would say to read a variety because you may find some you agree with that work for you and some you don’t. They also often have exercises that you can do to experiment with your writing and find what works best for you. I just find that guidance to be so helpful. 

Finally, what are some LGBTQ+ stories you would recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

I would definitely recommend Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas which is about a trans brujo who accidentally summons a ghost who won’t leave. A Dark and Hollow Star by Ashley Shuttleworth about four queer fae teens solving a murder mystery (also set in Toronto!). Sweet and Bitter Magic by Adrienne Tooley which is a fantasy about a girl cursed to live without love and a girl trying to save her father who makes a bargain. And finally, Surrender Your Sons by Adam Sass which is about teens escaping from a conversion camp and has such an amazing use of atmosphere and dread.

Interview With Emery Lee

Emery Lee is a kid-lit author, artist, and YouTuber hailing from a mixed-racial background. After graduating with a degree in creative writing, e’s gone on to author novels, short stories, and webcomics. When away from reading and writing, you’ll most likely find em engaged in art or snuggling cute dogs. Find em online at emeryleebooks.com. I had the chance to interview Emery, which you can read below.

How would you describe yourself to people who haven’t met you yet?

I’m an author who writes stories about marginalized kids having fun, falling in love, and discovering themselves. I always shoot to do things a little unconventionally and bring something new to the table that I desperately needed as a teen but have yet to really find. 

What are three facts that you would want people to know in particular?

I’m a YA author, an anime nerd, and a huge fan of boba tea.

How did you come to realize you wanted to be an author? 

I never actually planned to be an author. I started writing when I was really young just for fun and to satisfy my chaotic imagination and all the things I felt weren’t resolved in the media I was consuming. I used to carry notebooks around and scribble whole books in them, and when I was maybe ten or eleven, I started sharing them with friends and classmates, and it just became a universally accepted truth that I was the class author and would go on to write a million books one day.

Where did the idea for Meet Cute come from? Was anything about it inspired by real life?

It was inspired by a road trip I went on with my best friend! In Colorado, she had what we called a “near meet cute” and I turned to her and said, “if this were a book, you’d be marrying that guy right now”, and it just struck me that it would be such a fun idea to write about a character who just took every real-life run in like that and wrote happily ever afters to them.

In your book, you discuss neo-pronouns and other examples of gender inclusive language we don’t often see enough of yet in fiction? Would you care to discuss that?

So I use neo-pronouns (e/em/eir) and a common issue I run into is people just straight up telling me they didn’t realize they were pronouns at all. Just asking people to use they/them is really difficult for some people, so introducing these words that people think are brand new or made up (all words are made up, and most neo-pronouns have been around for 30+ years) just really trips them up. I wanted to put a book out into the world through a major publisher that just treated these things as normal. I wanted to help show teens that you can question your identity and change your labels and cycle through as many as you want, and the only limits are the limits you have on your own language. But it was really important for me to emphasize in the book that normalizing these things should start early, and that ultimately, it’s not hard to pick up gender inclusive language and changing your identifiers doesn’t have to be hard or miserable. It can actually be really fun and freeing.

Title aside, you seem to be a big fan of romance tropes. What are some of your favorites, and which ones can we expect from the book?

My all time favorite trope is enemies to lovers, but I love most romance tropes, as long as they’re used well—childhood friends to lovers, only one bed, fake relationships, marriage of convenience, etc. MEET CUTE DIARY obviously calls on meet cutes and fake dating as major plot elements, but I also throw in some hate to love, mutual pining, friends to lovers, and forced proximity.

Hypothetically speaking, if the characters of your books or you yourself could interact with characters from any other fictional universe, where would they be from? 

I’m gonna say the characters from Becky Albertalli’s Simonverse because I feel like Noah would really have a great time making friends with so many great queer characters!

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet or wish you were asked?

“Which boba tea flavor would each of your characters be?” or “Who would win in a fight? Your main character fighting Katsuki Bakugou in which both of them have a quirk? Or if neither of them have a quirk?”

What are some trivia facts about the characters in Meet Cute that you would love to share with our readers? As a self-professed anime/manga fan, what are some of your favorite examples?

oah’s an anime fan, his favorites being My Hero Academia and Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Devin hates sprinkles and really love the scent of lavender. Becca has a Yorkie named Noodles. Drew’s favorite show is Rick & Morty.

As a debut author, what advice can you give to aspiring writers, both in terms of creativity and promotion?

I think writing and promotion can often feel at odds with each other. Sometimes it feels like the more you look to sell yourself, the harder it is to write or the more you focus on writing what feels right, the less marketable you become. Ultimately, I think the key is learning when to turn off the noise. It’s good to learn from other people and incorporate what they do well into what you do, but learning how to take a step back when things become too much and go back to that place where you can just be you and just write what you love and not have to think about it too much is a vital skill to surviving publishing, and I think it’s a good one to start learning early.

Are there any new projects you are working on right now and are at liberty to speak about?

I’m currently working on a short story that’ll appear in the ALL SIGNS POINT TO YES Anthology edited by Candice Montgomery, Cara Davis-Araux, and Adrianne Russell. My story’s all about a reclusive brujo who has to help the school jock get over a bad breakup only to realize he’s developing feelings for him, and that comes out in 2022. I’m also working on several other novels, but those can’t be revealed just yet.

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

I highly recommend anything by Ryan La Sala, Phil Stamper, Kacen Callender, Claribel Ortega, Adam Silvera, Becky Albertalli, and Aiden Thomas. I also really loved FIFTEEN HUNDRED MILES FROM THE SUN by Jonny Garza Villa which releases this June!

Interview with Casey McQuiston

Casey McQuiston is the New York Times bestselling author of Red, White & Royal Blue, as well as a pie enthusiast. She writes books about smart people with bad manners falling in love. Born and raised in southern Louisiana, she now lives in New York City with her poodle mix and personal assistant, Pepper.  I had the opportunity to interview her, which you can read below.

How did you know you wanted to be an author? 

Honest, I can’t remember not wanting to be an author, so it’s hard to answer this. I’ve always gravitated to storytelling and books, as far back as preschool, and I always dreamed of writing my own one day. I started and abandoned a dozen novels throughout my teens, and eventually tried to find a job that seemed more practical, but I could always tell I wouldn’t really be fulfilled until I gave it a real try. I’m so glad I did, because five-year-old me was right: writing books is what makes me happiest. 

What books inspired you growing up and inspire you now? 

Growing up, I loved fantasy novels and voice-y, contemporary comedies. I was into all the big escapist blockbuster series like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings and things that made me laugh like Louise Rennison’s Georgia Nicolson series, plus whatever raunchy supermarket romances I could steal from my older sister. Now, I read across all genres, looking for anybody doing something cool with voice or craft. Some of my favorites lately have been The Locked Tomb series by Tamsyn Muir, Hanif Abdurraqib’s backlist, basically any romance novels by Alyssa Cole or Talia Hibbert, My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, and good old fashioned Jane Austen. 

Your debut novel, Red, White, and Royal Blue, can be described as a very contemporary book entranced in the here and now. What was it like writing in such a precarious time while creating a novel filled with so much joy and hope? 

It was hard, but at the same time, it was easier than it would have been if I tried to write the same book right now. I conceived the idea in early 2016 and wrote it in 2016 and 2017, while I was still relatively close to the feelings of hope and optimism I felt when I voted in my first election and helped re-elect Obama. I think the reason it works is because I was still able to access that. I wanted to create something that could be a small amount of sustenance for readers who wanted a momentary escape, and that was the motivation that kept me reaching for joy when I was writing. 

Could you tell us any trivia about the main characters of Red, White, and Royal Blue, Alex and Henry that we might not know yet? 

For Alex, his favorite Whataburger order is a patty melt with bacon. For Henry, his moon is in virgo. 

As one can tell by your writing, you seem to be a fan of tropes. What are some of your favorite tropes, and what are some tropes we can expect from your writing in the future?

Obviously, one of my all-time favorites is enemies or rivals to lovers—so much banter and tension, plus the idea I think many of us covet, which is that someone could see the very worst of us first and fall in love with us anyway. I also love gratuitous karaoke scenes, forced proximity, star-crossed lovers, and a grumpy character falling for a sunshine character. One trope I haven’t explored yet in a main romance pairing is best friends to lovers, so I definitely have that one at the top of my to-do list. 

To quote a friend, where do you get all your amazing dad shirts? 

Haha, thank you for asking! I’m so proud of my collection, so I’m happy they seem to be something people associate with me. I get them from all over! Some are thrifted or vintage, some are from the men’s section of Forever 21 or Target, some are from Ragstock, some are from Madewell, and I have one that a friend brought back from the Philippines for me. 

What can you tell us about your forthcoming book, One Last Stop? Any minor spoilers you can give to the readers of Geeks OUT? 

I can tell you that I love this book so much. The jacket copy covers the basics: it’s about a struggling waitress/student who falls for a girl on her subway commute who turns out to be displaced in time from the 1970s. What there wasn’t room to mention is that it’s also very much about finding family and community. It’s a love letters two weird roommates who saved your life in your early twenties, dive bars, 24-hour diners, drag shows, and queer history. I can also tell you that it will make you very hungry. Food plays a major role in the book—especially fried chicken and dumplings. 

What’s a question no one has asked you yet or that you wish was asked more? 

I feel like you already nailed it when you asked about my dad shirts! They’re my pride and joy, so I could talk about them all the time. But also more people should ask me what my favorite cocktail is (it’s a paloma). 

What advice would you give to those who may want to create their own stories or are struggling in the process? 

Write for yourself and for your characters. Say what you mean, and say it for no other reason then because it is what you want to say. The purpose of writing is not to have your point of view validated by others—it is to have a point of view and write it. 

Finally, what queer books would you recommend to others?

A lot of my recommendations are up there under what books inspire me! To add a few, I’d definitely like to shout out all of Danez Smith’s poetry, anything by Akwaeke Emezi, Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki, and The Locked Tomb series (again).

Interview With A. J. Sass, Author of Ana on the Edge

A. J. Sass is a writer, editor, and occasional mentor. A long-time figure skater, he has passed his U.S. Figure Skating Senior Moves in the Field and Free Skate tests, medaled twice at the U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships, and currently dabbles in ice dance. When he’s not exploring the world as much as possible, A. J. lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his boyfriend and two cats who act like dogs. Ana on the Edge is his first novel. I had the chance to have a Q & A with A. J., which you can read below.

Recently, you wrote an article for TIME regarding the recent controversial statements J.K. Rowling had made about the trans community. As an admitted fan of her Harry Potter works, but not her real-life opinions, how does a queer fan reconcile their love for the series and feelings for the creator?

This has been on my mind ever since I caught wind of Rowling’s tweets, and it’s taken time for me to assess my feelings, in all honesty. The Harry Potter series helped me embrace my own identity, and I met so many wonderful friends as an active member of the fandom community. As I mentioned in the article, I even made the series an integral part of my international travel itineraries by hunting for foreign language editions to bring home with me. But it’s not as simple as divorcing the author from her creative work, at least for me. While I will always cherish what the series meant to me when I was younger, I’m branching out now and reading stories by queer authors and those who vocally support queer folks. There are so many wonderful, inclusive fictional worlds to explore.

Your debut novel, Ana on the Edge, features a non-binary Chinese-Jewish American protagonist. As a writer who is Jewish and non-binary how much of your experiences are reflected in Ana’s? Were there any concerns in portraying a character not from your own ethnic background, and what steps were taken towards creating authenticity?

Just as a note, I refer to my main character, Ana, with female pronouns because Ana hasn’t chosen a new set by the end of the story. Nonbinary people use a variety of pronouns, including male and female pronouns in some instances. In Ana’s case, she’s still exploring what feels right.

The process of figuring out my identity and the anxiety I felt when deciding how to come out to my friends and family are absolutely reflected in Ana’s story. For example, when Ana’s new friend, Hayden, mistakes her for a boy and Ana decides not to correct him, I pulled from a time in my life when I didn’t know what nonbinary meant, just inherently knew I was trans. I chose a traditionally male name and asked people to refer to me with male pronouns. Just like Ana, being seen as a boy initially didn’t feel 100 percent right, but I decided it was good enough for the time being since it was closer to correct than people referring to me as a woman. 

Once I discovered what it meant to be nonbinary, everything felt like it fell into place, in terms of how I internally saw myself. Ana’s life is different than mine in many ways, but her path to embracing her authentic self is quite similar to my own in that respect. In terms of Judaism, the longstanding friendships I’ve made at various temples I’ve attended throughout my life are encompassed in Ana’s relationship with her best friend, Tamar, as are her concerns for how her religious community will react to her nonbinary gender identity. 

My goal when developing Ana’s Jewish-Chinese heritage was to reflect the diversity I see in the Bay Area rinks I skate at myself. I chose not to focus on how the San Francisco Chinese-American community might view gender identity since that has always felt like another person’s story to tell. Instead, my focus was on how the gendered aspects of figure skating might impact a nonbinary athlete. At the same time, I don’t believe characters of color should or even can be divorced from their cultural heritage. I was fortunate to work with authenticity readers to ensure a sensitive and culturally accurate portrayal of the part of Ana’s heritage that differs from my own. 

As a figure-skater yourself, how have you incorporated your own experiences into Ana’s story? What hopes do you have for Ana’s figure-skating generation and for the generations ahead?

Ana is definitely more talented and confident on the ice than I ever was, that’s for sure! But as a competitive skater myself, I understand pre-competition nerves on an intimate level, not to mention the sensation of unfamiliar ice at a rink you’re skating at for the first time and the pressure to perform well and justify years of money spent on training. These were all elements from my skating background that made its way into Ana’s story. 

My hope for kids Ana’s age is simple: I want every skater to feel safe and comfortable being themselves, on the ice and off. It’s already starting to happen, thanks to brave trailblazers who’ve come out during their Olympic-eligible careers, like Eric Radford, Adam Rippon, Timothy LeDuc, Karina Manta, Joe Johnson, and Amber Glenn. These skaters and others are paving the way for a new generation of skaters.

How would you describe your writing process? What elements and techniques would you say you incorporate into your craft?

My writing process is honestly something I’m still trying to pin down since it seems like I approach each book I write differently. Ana on the Edge came out in a flood of words during the spring of 2018. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but Ana’s story felt like a natural extension of myself that my wonderful agent and the fantastic editorial team at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers helped make even better. 

Outlining was one strategy I used for Ana that I hadn’t tried with previous manuscripts. I also learned about Save the Cat! beat sheets. Traditionally a screenwriting technique for honing plot and pacing within the context of the three-act structure, I found it helpful in laying out my already-written scenes and seeing where they might fit if Ana were a movie.

Queer figure-skating and ice-sports related media has increased in the past few years from Tillie Walden’s Spinning to Ngozi Ukazu’s Check, Please! to Sayo Yamamoto and Mitsurou Kubo’s Yuri!!! On Ice. Is there any figure-skating media you admire and/or relate to?

I love Spinning and Yuri!!! On Ice (and definitely want to take a look at Check, Please! now that you’ve tipped me off to it). I admire what the wonderful people at Skate Proud (website | Instagram) are doing in featuring queer athletes around the world in both figure and roller skating. In addition, it’s always a treat for me to sit down and watch the videos produced by On Ice Perspectives (website | Instagram). The founder films skaters up close and personal, in skates and on the ice himself. It makes for an incredible viewing experience.

Aside from figure-skating and writing, what activities do you enjoy doing in your life?

This probably comes as no surprise, but I’m an avid reader. I’ve always loved middle grade and YA, plus memoirs and biographies of historical figures, and I’ve recently fallen in love with picture books. Additionally, my boyfriend and I are avid travelers (or were, in pre-pandemic times). One of our favorite things to do is decide on our next vacation destination, then figure out the most affordable way to get there so we can experience all the location has to offer. Since our travel plans are postponed for the foreseeable future, I’ve doubled down on my attempts at language learning. Mandarin is my latest challenge. I studied a handful of languages in high school and college, so I’ve also been trying to refresh my memory on some of them, specifically Arabic, Hebrew, and French.

As a writer, what advice would you give to others, especially other queer writers, who are just starting out on their journey?

When I first thought about becoming a writer over a decade ago, there weren’t many queer authors or stories I could look to for inspiration. The landscape is quite different for queer writers today. Everyone from my agent to the team at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers has welcomed me (and Ana) with open arms and boundless enthusiasm. 

But before Ana sold, and before I connected with my agent, it was the online writing community that encouraged me and kept me going. Twitter is a great place to find support and critique partners, especially if you’re writing in the kidlit space (which encompasses picture books, chapter books, middle grade, and YA). 

It was on Twitter that I also first learned about mentorship opportunities, programs where an agented or published author works with a pre-agented author to revise their manuscript in preparation to query agents. I was a #WriteMentor mentee in 2018, and the friendships I made with some of the other mentees and mentee-hopefuls remain strong to this day. My biggest piece of advice is to find your community, whether it’s online or off. Let your fellow writers cheer you on and give back to others as much as possible.

Finally, what are some LGBTQ+ comics or books you would recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

Oh gosh, do you have a free afternoon? There’s so much great LGBTQ+ content out there, I could talk about it for hours.

One online comic that I dearly loved and related to when I was figuring out my identity is Tab Kimpton’s Khaos Comix series. Tom’s and Alex’s stories were the first portrayal I’d seen of a relationship between a transgender boy and a cisgender boy, and it meant so much to me, as someone who is transmasculine/nonbinary and gay. 

Other queer graphic novels I’ve read and enjoyed recently are Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu (a YA Fantasy that also has great Jewish and disability rep!) and The Deep and Dark Blue by Niki Smith (a middle grade fantasy featuring a trans girl and her supportive twin brother).

2020 has been rough on the whole, but one bright spot is how many fabulous LGBTQ+ books have recently released. Here are a few of my favorites that Geeks OUT readers may enjoy:

Middle Grade:

The Derby Daredevils: Kenzie Kickstarts a Team by Kit Rosewater: roller derby and queer characters, plus fabulous illustrations by Sophie Escabasse

Young Adult:

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi: speculative fiction at its best, featuring a trans girl main character as an organic part of the narrative

Adult:

The Deep by Rivers Solomon: a lyrical fantasy novella (I also highly recommend Solomon’s SFF debut, An Unkindness of Ghosts).


Follow A. J. Sass on Twitter and Instagram @matokah