Interview with Author Jonny Garza Villa

Jonny Garza Villa is a product of the great state of Texas, born and raised along the Gulf Coast, and a decade-long resident of San Antonio. They are an author of contemporary young adult fiction that maintains a brand of being proudly Latinx, and the most queer, and embracing the power and beauty of the chaotic gay. Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun is their debut novel. I had the opportunity to interview Jonny regarding their debut novel, which you can read below.

CW: Discussion of toxic relationships/parental abuse.

First of all, congratulations on your debut novel, Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun. Could you tell us a little of what it’s about?

Thank you so much! I like to call Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun part of my own adolescent traumas, part Selena’s “Dreaming of You,” and part Patrón. It’s a coming of age, contemporary romance that follows Corpus Christi, Texas teen Julián (aka Jules) Luna, who’s just trying to have a lowkey senior year, hang out with his friends, get into UCLA, and finally be able to move away from all the environments that have kept him closeted his entire life. That is, until he accidentally comes out as gay on Twitter after getting tremendously drunk at a party. And in the days and weeks and months that follow, Jules will realize all the good that comes from allowing ourselves to live openly and authentically—like having a long distance Twitter crush slide into his DMs—as well as the bad, like figuring out how to come out to his extremely machista dad.

Where did the inspiration for this book come from? Were there any books/media/music that inspired you prior to or while writing it?

Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun was hugely influenced by Simon Vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, as well as its film adaptation, Love, Simon. I love both of them so much, but they also left me with the question of what would Simon Spier’s journey look like if he was a Chicano kid living in a socially conservative, Mexican, Catholic household in South Texas? Because there would absolutely be drastic differences, and I felt like there needed to be something that gave queer Chicane and Mexican American youth the same chance to see ourselves as Simon did for so many.

Also, specifically with characters, On My Block had a lot of influence on a couple in particular. I like to say that Jules is very much like Ruby meets Simon Spier, and his friend Lou takes a lot of influence from Jasmine and how wildly and wonderfully chaotic she is.

How would you describe your writing process?

Constantly changing. I pantsed Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun, which basically means I came into it with a very vague, basic idea of what I wanted the story to be and then just started writing it without any sort of outline. Even my second book, Ander and Santi Were Here, was largely pantsed. However, I have started embracing the idea of outlining and, I think, all of my current projects have been plotted and thought about much more intensely before just going at it. In the end, I’m a fan of both and figuring out what works best for you, whether it’s one or the other or somewhere in the middle.

One of the hardest parts of writing a book is finishing one. Were there techniques/ strategies/ advice that helped you finish your first draft?

Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun is the very first book I’ve ever written and only the second idea I’d ever attempted, so I definitely went into it with very little knowledge on craft or best practices. But what I think helped was that I had a deadline. I drafted it during National Novel Writing Month, so having that set, last day of November deadline to get as much of this idea out onto a page helped keep me focused.

I’m also a big advocate of things that aren’t writing but are still absolutely creative productivity. If I was having a hard time thinking of words, I’d spend the afternoon creating playlists or listening to music that felt close to the vibe I was going for in the next scene. I’d go on Pinterest and make mood boards. I’d cook. I’d think about any random situation and how these characters might react.

A significant part of the book involves exploring toxic bonds, including family ones. If you feel comfortable would you mind discussing that a little?

Yeah, of course. So, while I love writing about the cool and beautiful parts of my culture and being Chicane, I also feel compelled to write about the not so great aspects of my community and, specifically here, that meant calling out how harmful machismo philosophy is and specifically its prevalence when it comes to raising sons or AMAB children.

Also, while I get it, I’m not huge on crappy parents in YA suddenly becoming this embracing or even at least tolerant person. Like, realistically, just because we ourselves decide we’re gonna stop hating this specific part of ourself, that doesn’t mean everyone around you jointly decides they’re going to stop hating that part of you too. And I think that needs more attention. I think it’s okay to recognize those relationships that are going to always be bad for us because that then allows us to rely on those that are good for us.

What are your favorite parts of this book and of the writing process in general? What message did you want to send with Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun?

I love those specific scenes where Jules is with just one of his friends. Those times with Jordan or before Homecoming with Lou or that one scene with Rolie or in the days after his birthday with Itzel. Friendship and platonic relationships were, for me, as important as the romantic plot between Jules and Mat, and in those times of intimacy between Jules and his friends, they were and are so incredibly special and meaningful for me.

My favorite part of the writing process is revisions. That feeling of knowing I’m getting closer to what a book is supposed to be is such a driving force for me.

And the message I wanted to send with Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun, specifically to anyone who knows what it is to be in Jules’ shoes, is that I hope you find love and acceptance in this story, even if it’s alone, in the quiet of your room, between just you and Jules and Mat and Jordan and Itzel and Rolie and Lou and Piña and Xochi. And that I hope you know that you are enough for this world just as you are.

Upon reading the book, the reader tends to notice a moon and sun theme coming up, especially with the lotería themed character art cards of Jules and Mat drawn by Mars Lauderbaugh? Where did that symbolism come from?

In all honesty, at first I thought it was just a very clever thing, personally. Like, oh what if there’s moon in his name and sun in his name? That would make me the greatest writer of all time. I’m obviously the first person to ever be this creative with language. But as Jules and Mat’s personalities began to really take shape and then I learned that there’s actually a trope that is literally sun type and moon type (absolutely crushing my ego and idea of originality), I ran with it and embraced it.

What’s a question that you haven’t been asked but wish you were asked (along with your answer)?

One thing I haven’t had the opportunity to talk about is Jules relationship with religion and specifically as a gay Catholic. While I’m not anymore, I was raised and was pretty devoutly Catholic, which left me with an appreciation for what it is at its best while also with the ability to be critical. From the beginning I knew that I wanted Jules to, one, not be a character who was trying to convince himself he isn’t gay but instead just a closeted gay boy waiting for his chance to not be closeted, and, two, that I didn’t want his sexuality to be a hinderance in his personal relationship with his beliefs. Originally there were at least a couple of scenes with him actually at Mass and pretty committed to practicing his faith. I wanted the God he believes in to be one that doesn’t care who Jules loves. I wanted to show the difference in those who believe religion to be a tool of love, like his Güelo, compared to those who use it to oppress, like his dad. And, ultimately, I didn’t want it to be a story of someone running away from their faith but as someone who knows he can exist as he is. That it was never God who was withholding love, but those who believe to know God best who are the ones withholding love and, in the end, we don’t need it from them.

What advice might you give to other aspiring writers? What advice might you have to give as a debut author specifically?

To aspiring writers, I would say to not listen to anyone who says you have to write every day. Write when you’re able. Write when you feel like it. Don’t push yourself. Don’t create a relationship with writing that makes it into something you force on yourself.

And to debut authors, don’t procrastinate! Got a cool preorder idea? Want to get with a local indie for a virtual thing? Get on that now; do not wait.

Are there any project ideas you are currently thinking about and are at liberty to speak about?

One project I’m currently (slowly) revising is a rivals to lovers story that centers around high school mariachi. Big ego, Leo sun main character and a love interest who will not be pushed into the background. Less coming of age feels and more strictly romance, which has been pretty cool to write, as much as writing coming of age stories is my favorite.

And I feel like I can mention these because they’ve been brought up publicly already, but I am putting some thought into what happens after the end of Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun; also, there is some pondering going on about a potential co-written YA gay cowboy story with one of my favorite people that I’m very excited about.

What books would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

For contemporary, Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera; Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram; Meet Cute Diary by Emery Lee; The Summer of Everything by Julian Winters; and Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet by Laekan Zea Kemp.

For contemporary fantasy, Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas; Blazewrath Games by Amparo Ortiz; and The Witch King by H.E. Edgmon.

For fantasy, We Set the Dark On Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia; Each of Us a Desert by Mark Oshiro; and Crier’s War by Nina Varela

For speculative contemporary, They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera and The Grief Keeper by Alex Villasante

For romance that’s not YA but still has that coming of age feel, Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

Interview With Author C. L. Clark

C.L. Clark graduated from Indiana University’s creative writing MFA. She’s been a personal trainer, an English teacher, and an editor, and is some combination thereof as she travels the world. When she’s not writing or working, she’s learning languages, doing P90something, or reading about war and [post-]colonial history. Her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, FIYAH, PodCastle and Uncanny. You can follow her on Twitter @c_l_clark. I had the chance to interview her, which you can read below.

First of all, congratulations on your new book, The Unbroken. In your own words, could you tell us what the story is about?

Thank you! The Unbroken is about finding your place in unjust systems, and defining loyalty (and family) on your own terms. 

Where did the inspiration for The Unbroken come from? Were there any sources you drew from for inspiration while writing this story?

My inspiration for The Unbroken came from three different things hitting me all at the same time–I was studying the colonial relationship between France and North Africa, post-colonial literary theory, and violent women in fantasy. That lit the spark and then I kept drawing from European and American imperialism more broadly as I thought about what I wanted to address in epic fantasy narratives.

How did you come to find yourself becoming an author? What would you say lead you on this journey?

I always wanted to be one. I’ve loved reading since I was really young; both my grandmothers were teachers, so that helped. Writing lets you become a lot of different things, a lot like acting (I also wanted to be an actor), and so it was really just an extension of playing pretend. Now I can put the things I want to enact on the page into more sophisticated language, but it’s pretty much the same thing–I’m writing what I want to see in the world, even if they never happen.

As a queer writer yourself, have there ever been instances where your experiences bleed into your writing? Have you ever seen yourself in a book and if not what would you want to see?

Oh, I’m sure they do, as I write about women who desire other women and queer people. I’ve seen bits of pieces of myself in a couple of books–I think of Gaela and Hal, from Tessa Gratton’s Queens of Innis Lear and Lady Hotspur respectively, and Tavi from Sofia Samatar’s Winged Histories. Still, wanting to see myself in fiction is a big reason Touraine from The Unbroken is a butch woman of color who likes other women, who embraces big muscles and rough physicality and even violence in ways that I haven’t seen for women in SFF.

One of the many things that stands out about The Unbroken is the fact that it is a fantasy inspired by a North African setting? Can you tell us about your motivation in writing this, as well as exploring the cultural and historical context that went into developing this story?

Well, to expand a bit more on what I said above, I was really motivated to dissect the notion of empires in science fiction and fantasy. Many authors use Europe as the base-inspiration for their worlds, and there are the ‘enemy hordes’–often people of color–or there are places with exotic artifacts that heroes have to retrieve. So I wanted to dig a little deeper into that. The cultural and historical context of colonialism, of imperialism…well, that’s everywhere around us. As a Black American, I live it. You can see it in climate injustice, in the (lack of) global vaccination dispersion, in the fight for Palestine. And on a more individual level, people in diasporic communities and previously-colonized places are often dealing with the same questions of identity and ambition that Touraine and others in The Unbroken deal with. People with power, or even just substantial financial and racial privilege, have to decide where their interests lie, too–and when their support is a true alliance or just something that makes you feel good while you get what you want, just like Luca does.

What’s one question you haven’t been asked but wish you were?

I recently got to ask some other Orbit authors what book changed how they understood the craft of writing–something that made them go “oh, you can do that?!” But I didn’t get to answer it myself, so here’s mine: The Fifth Season. I’d never read anything that manipulated point of views or structure so well–and to such painfully beautiful effect! If you haven’t read it, do, and you’ll see what I mean. I’ve even dissected and have a name for the phenomenon, but I haven’t tried to do anything like it myself.

What advice would you give to other writers starting out on their own journeys?

Take the time. Don’t rush the novels, don’t rush the queries. Don’t let yourself fall into the trap of thinking it has to be done now, now, now, and that you have to breakout immediately. A rushed product doesn’t help anyone. Content yourself with the words and the telling the stories you want to tell as honestly as you can. That’s the only thing that’s guaranteed–happiness in your own work.

Oh, and study what you read.

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

Definitely working on books two and three in the Magic of the Lost trilogy. Touraine and Luca aren’t done yet. And I edited a queer anthology that should be out later this year with Neon Hemlock Press called We’re Here, a Best Of for queer SFF.

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

I’d definitely recommend all of the stories in the We’re Here anthology! They’re a collection of some of my favorite stories from 2020, and some of them are available online, like R.B. Lemberg’s “The Weight of Khalem.” Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire is a new favorite, and along with The Traitor Baru Cormorant…let’s just say The Unbroken is very much in conversation with them and discussions of empire.

Interview with Author Ashley Herring Blake

Ashley Herring Blake is an award-winning author and literary agent at Rees Literary Agency. She is the author of six novels for young adults and middle grade readers, as well as the adult romance novel Delilah Green Doesn’t Care. She lives on a very tiny island off the coast of Georgia with her family. I had the opportunity to interview Ashley, which you can read below.

First of all, where did you first discover your love of writing? What stories made you fall in love with the art of storytelling itself and when did you realize that was something you could do as well? 

I’m not sure exactly when I discovered writing, but I do remember that I’ve always done it. Poetry, little stories when I was a kid, it was always a part of my life. I didn’t really think I could do it for real as an author until I was past 30 years old. I was at a point in my life where I really wanted to go for everything I wanted, so I devoted myself to trying to write fiction. It worked out pretty well, I think. 🙂 

How would you describe your crafting style? How do you go about writing on a continual basis while balancing day-to-day life or stresses? 

I think of my craft as a connect-the-dots method. I know the big plot points I’m going to hit, where my character starts and ends, but how I get to each major plot point, I don’t plan out. I connect those dots as I go. I have two other jobs other than writing, so balance is key. I’m not always actively writing, but when I am, I try to write a little each day, or I set a weekly word count goal and make sure I hit it by Sunday, but day-to-day goals work best for me. And I stop pretty soon after hitting the goal–I don’t push it, I just do what I can each day.

Where do you find your story ideas? Are there any particular sources you go to draw inspiration from, i.e. movies, authors, etc.? 

I don’t know specifically where I get my story ideas and there’s not a set place I get inspiration from. Really, and simply put, I write the kinds of stories I’d like to read.

Two of your recent books, The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James and Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World stand out as two additions to the field of LGBTQ+ Middle Grade. What is your take on this still growing field and the importance of younger queer representation? 

I think it’s extremely important. Even since writing IVY, there have been so many more queer middle grade books released, which is wonderful. We still need more though, particularly from authors of color. We also need a variety of queer experiences and intersections. We need coming out stories and stories where queerness is simply part of the character’s life already. We need queer stories with diabled characters, neurodiverse characters, and characters of color. 

One of the lovely themes I noticed in your book The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James, was how the physical struggles paralleled the protagonist’s internal struggle, i.e. Sunny’s heart troubles paralleling her emotional vulnerability or ability to be “open with her heart.” Was this intentional? 

I’d like to think it was. 🙂 I think more often than not, external events do mirror internal events, even in real life, so I think it’s only natural that that comes out in fiction as well. 

Romance is often a tricky thing to describe, much less write about. Part of what makes middle grade stand out is the way it handles romantic narratives, usually those in which the protagonist experiences romantic attraction for the first time via crushes or beginning to understand their own romantic orientations. How did you find yourself tackling this particular narrative element through such a young lens?

For me it was much more about identity. “Am I okay and will someone love me?” That’s a question I think a lot of young people ask themselves, particularly when it comes to first crushes. It’s not so much about actually making out in middle grade, but about the possibility of romance that you now have as a young person and how you perceive yourself being perceived by others. 

Do you ever experience writer’s block, and if so what methods do you use to combat it? 

I do, but I don’t think it’s a “block.” It’s usually because I need a break–I need to input to output–or because there is somewhere in the draft where I’ve gone wrong and it’s “blocking” forward progress. I usually go back to where it felt right in the draft, and retrace my steps, see if there’s anything I need to change. 

As a writer, what advice would you give for writers who are looking to explore identity in their craft? 

Keep writing and keep reading. I learned how to write from reading great writing. And I learned by writing a lot myself, even if it’s bad. Because it will be bad at first. It’ll get better. 

How do you establish first meetings between characters (both platonic and those who will have a future romantic connection)? How do you set things up? 

It all depends on what my main character needs/wants and why they can’t have it. Often, the major secondary character (particularly romantic) is going to be in direct opposition to this, or challenge this in some way. I want their first meeting to set this foundation. 

What are some tips for writing dialogue? 

Read dialogue that you love and try to model that. Read it out loud. Only use the dialogue tags “says/said” and “ask/asked.” Sure there are some exceptions, but most often, you don’t need “bellowed, snarked, whined, cackled” or what have you. Your dialogue itself and the context around it should show how they’re saying something.

Finally, what books would you recommend to other aspiring writers? 

I’m not sure if this means craft books or just books to read in general, but I don’t really have any craft books to recommend. I’ve heard great things about Save the Cat Writes a Novel, though I haven’t read it. As far as other reading–read what you love!

Interview with Alyssa Zaczek

Alyssa Zaczek grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, where she spent her childhood writing stories about nervy girls and slowly amassing a landslide of books beneath her bed. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Playwriting, which she uses to justify her love of banter. When not reading or writing, she enjoys cooking, curating vintage clothing and making her partner laugh. She currently lives in St. Cloud, Minnesota, with said partner and their four animals. MARTIN MCLEAN, MIDDLE SCHOOL QUEEN is her debut novel. I had the opportunity to interview her, which you can read below.

First of all, how did you come into writing? What draws you in most about the craft, be it middle grade or other genres?

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, but I only began to explore it seriously when I merged it with my love of theatre in college and majored in Playwriting. Interestingly, coming back to prose in adulthood, I’ve found that the aspects which draw me in the most are also the most theatrical aspects — the ways language can be used to reveal or conceal elements of character, the way a story can set a scene and keep you there, fully immersed in that world. Writing middle grade in particular, I’ve found a great deal of joy in exploring those difficult emotions of that age and expressing them in ways that feel true. It’s a wonderful age group to write for, because it is so inherently full of tension — these kids are not quite as “grown-up” as high-schoolers, but they’re also not exactly “children” any more — and tension makes for dynamic, emotionally rich stories! 

Where did the inspiration for your debut novel, Martin McLean, Middle School Queen, come from? Was there some impetus for writing queer middle grade book as a queer writer yourself?

When I began to consider writing my first novel, I knew immediately that I wanted it to be middle grade. Middle school was a deeply formative — but also deeply difficult — time for me, and I think it’s a season of life where we tend to feel lonely, and stories can be an incredible comfort in loneliness. I also knew I wanted it to incorporate the performing arts in some way, because discovering theatre in my middle school years was so pivotal for me, but I didn’t want to limit myself strictly to theatre. Drag, which is so inherently theatrical already, seemed like a perfect fit, both for its inextricable ties to the queer community as well as its joyful exploration of self. 

I identify now as a queer person, but in middle school, I wasn’t even aware that there was a spectrum of queerness. As far as I knew, there was gay and straight, and that was it. None of the books I had access to at that time had queer protagonists, and if a queer character did appear, they were always a supporting character and always either the butt of the joke or a caricature of  an ultra-femme gay man. When I began to explore my queerness as an adult, I reflected often on how differently my experience as a young, questioning person would have been if I’d been exposed to books with queer protagonists — particularly ones that were diverse and complex,  who questioned and lingered in that uncertainty. That was a huge driving factor in creating Martin as a character and as a narrative. I wanted to show kids that not only is it okay to be different, it’s okay to not be sure where you fit in. 

Martin McLean, Middle School Queen centers an Afro-Cuban-American queer boy. What concerns did you have with writing a character outside of your own identities, including consulting sensitivity readers?

As a white cis woman, I knew that writing a BIPOC protagonist outside of my own gender identity would be hugely sensitive, and I wanted to approach those aspects of Martin’s identity as a listener, not a speaker. The BIPOC experience, the Afro-Cuban experience, the mixed-race experience, the queer man experience — these are all well outside my own lived experience, so I knew going in that I wanted to do a great deal of listening to others who have lived those experiences.

Martin’s Afro-Cuban identity was inspired by the roots of drag; drag was built by Black and Latinx queer men, and I felt that having anything other than a POC at the center of this story would be doing a disservice to the institution of drag. His father being Irish-American is a nod to my own roots, but from a story standpoint, Martin’s mixed background serves to highlight that sense of not really fitting in anywhere — having one foot in one world, and one foot in another. Choosing an Afro-Cuban background was also a conscious choice. I’d noticed that in popular queer media, the queens that received the most attention and the most opportunities were almost always Black, white or white-passing, while queens from Latinx backgrounds were pushed aside, teased for their accents, etc. It never sat well with me, so I wanted Martin to offer some positive representation for young Latinx queens.

But therein lies the question I asked myself repeatedly in the writing and publishing of MARTIN: As a white woman, can I even offer that kind of representation? Would it be accurate and authentic? The answer is no — not without a lot of help. Knowing that, I was passionate about finding sensitivity readers, paying them for their work and expertise, actively listening to their feedback and making changes accordingly. I was humbled and blessed to have been able to do exactly that. We worked with sensitivity readers on every single diverse identity in this book. I was honored to listen to their feedback — from the Spanish language and Cuban turns-of-phrase throughout the book to the mechanics of Violet’s motorized wheelchair — to make this book something I’m proud to put in the hands of readers. 

With the emergence of younger drag artists and more queer middle grade fiction, it seems like there’s more exploration of queer identity in all-ages audiences. What are your thoughts on the current state of LGBTQ+ literature and how do you think we can do better?

I’m delighted to see young people feeling the validation and safety they need to express themselves with curiosity and joy, and that there are more queer stories on the shelves than ever before to reflect their experiences. As a young reader, I don’t think I could have fathomed that queer literature would move into the mainstream the way it has even in the last 5 years or so. 

Personally, I’m excited by queer literature that very mindfully moves past the coming-out narrative. MARTIN was specifically written to be an exploration narrative, not a coming-out narrative, because I felt — and still feel — that the questioning phase of queerness is one not yet richly explored in our books for young people. I also love books that are moving past queer pain and into queer joy. In 2021 and beyond, I’d love to see more books with queer characters at the center of a story that is not driven by their queerness — that is to say, more books about queer people simply living their extraordinary lives! I’d also like to see publishing steer away from queer retellings and start putting some significant resources behind original stories by queer authors. Don’t get me wrong — I love a retelling, especially a queer one, and I think examining classic literature through a queer lens is both important and just plain fun to read! — but the fact remains that queer people are good for more than simply stepping into stories already validated by history. Ultimately, my feeling is that true equality is only achieved when queer readers can see themselves represented in the same depth and breadth of literature as straight readers — so I’m excited to see more original queer narratives emerge across every genre and age group! 

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

So far, I’ve not been asked why I chose to have Martin’s two competitions turn out the way they do. [In the interest of keeping things spoiler-free, I’ll stay vague as to what those outcomes are, but if you know, you know!] I’d love to talk about why I made those decisions. 

Learning to cope with failure was a massive part of my middle- and high-school experiences. I’m naturally ambitious and competitive, and I threw myself into theatre and the speech team in a big way. Experiencing failure — bombed auditions, coming this close to landing a role, not placing at a competition — was extremely hard for me, but eventually I learned how to process it without derailing my mental and emotional health. Middle school is a time where a lot of kids experience their first significant failure, be it a low grade on a test or a lost championship game, so it was important to me to show that, even with all his talent, preparation, support, ambition and positive attitude, Martin could still fail. But — and this is the most important part — he learns from it, and doesn’t let it crush him. That’s a huge lesson at that age. 

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?

Martin would definitely want to hang out with the Marvel heroes, that’s completely his jam. I could see him really enjoying time with Miles Morales, or the Tom Holland iteration of Peter Parker. Carmen would want to be thrown into the world of a musical — maybe Prom Night or something classic, like Grease. I could see Pickle in the world of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, as all the characters on that show are very erudite and clever, just like him. 

Are there any projects you are currently working on or project ideas you are currently nursing and are at liberty to speak about?

My next middle grade project, which I’m working on currently, is a dark fantasy retelling of Peter Pan that transforms Peter into a monstrous antagonist and sends Wendy on a quest through Neverland’s creepy shadow world to rescue her little brother with the help of Captain Hook and her flying pirates. 

It is very different from MARTIN, and intentionally so. Authors, especially in the middle grade and YA spaces, are often told that it’s best to find their particular niche, but I have interests coming out the wazoo! I couldn’t possibly pick a single age range or genre to write in, so I’m quite happy to write whatever tugs at my mind and my heart at that moment in time. I hope that you’ll see many different kinds of novels from me in the future, especially in middle grade and YA. 

What advice would you give for writers who want to attempt to write middle grade or just in general?

The hardest part about writing is getting started. If you have a story that’s been nagging at you to get out, or even just an inkling that you’d like to write a novel, start! Start today! Start right now! 

After that? Listen to what interests you. If you don’t feel like you know what you might like to write about, make a list of your favorite books, TV shows and movies. Then look at each title and ask yourself: What exactly about this do I like? What makes it interesting to me? Write those things down, too. Soon enough, you’ll have a list of story elements that could help inspire your first (or second, or third, or thirty-third) novel. 

Finally, don’t listen to the people who insist “real writers” write every day. That’s a privileged, nonsense point of view. It doesn’t matter if you write every day — it only matters that you write. Whenever you write, you’re a “real writer,” and you don’t stop being one just because you’ve walked away from your laptop or notebook for a while. I promise, your words will still be there when you get back. Take your own time and run your own race. 

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

I read James Howe’s THE MISFITS when I was in middle school, and it was a major influence on MARTIN all these years later. There are now several books in the series, and I love them for their frank, empathetic approach to difficult issues, like Joe’s queerness or Addie’s insecurities. 

Other recent middle grade books I love that fans of MARTIN will enjoy, too, include the ALAN COLE books by Eric Bell and the BETTER NATE THAN EVER series by Tim Federle, STAR-CROSSED by Barbara Dee, LILY AND DUNKIN by Donna Gephart, and IN THE ROLE OF BRIE HUTCHENS by Nicole Melleby.

For young lovers of graphic novels, I recommend NIMONA by Noelle Stevenson, THE DEEP & DARK BLUE by Niki Smith, THE TEA DRAGON SOCIETY by Katie O’Neill and LUMBERJANES by Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis, Brooklyn A. Allen and Noelle Stevenson. For grown-up graphic novel lovers, SAGA by Brian K. Vaughan makes my heart sing.

Interview With Musician And Author Adrienne Tooley

Adrienne Tooley grew up in Southern California, majored in musical theater in Pittsburgh, and now lives in Brooklyn with her wife, six guitars, and a banjo. In addition to writing novels, she is a singer/songwriter who has currently released three indie-folk EPs. Sweet & Bitter Magic is her debut novel. I had the opportunity to interview Adrienne, which you can read below.

First of all, congrats on your new book! Where did the inspiration for Sweet & Bitter Magic come from?

Thank you!! It definitely started with a few big concepts. At the heart of it, SWEET & BITTER MAGIC is a book about grief, love, and  power. These concepts are explored through the eyes of two very different girls. With a dual POV I got to see the world through the eyes of Wren, a girl who feels everything, and Tamsin, who feels nothing (though not by her own volition). 

I also wanted to explore the idea of strength and power and how that affects the world and the individual. When being told that strength is good, and weakness is bad, how does that affect the ways a person can grow? How does that affect their relationships? How does that affect their own perceived value? And then, on the flip side, how does a person deal with the consequences of that power? In SWEET & BITTER MAGIC I got to attack those concepts head-on. 

How did you find yourself drawn to storytelling and the YA genre specifically? And what was it about fantasy that drew your attention?

The books I read when I was a teenager are the books that have stuck with me, even to this day. There’s so much room for exploration in YA. When you’re a teenager, that’s the first time that you’re really finding your place in the world, and those are the stories that really call to me as a writer. Fantasy also offers the ability to build a world on top of a story. Especially as a queer writer there is a freedom in fantasy and building a world for your characters to inhabit that is different than the world we live in.

In an essay you wrote for YA Pride, “Finding My Queer Self Through Books,” you had discussed a little bit of your publishing journey, including telling potential agents, “All of my books will be queer. In every age-category or genre I choose to write. This is important to me and I want to make sure it’s important to you, too.” With publishing, I feel like there’s sometimes this hesitancy for new writers to advocate for themselves, especially those from more marginalized communities, i.e. the LGBT community. What made you decide to say this?

I definitely recognize the privilege in being able to advocate for myself in that way. Not every publishing gatekeeper will respond positively to something like that, but I was fortunate enough to find an agent who prioritizes queer stories, who didn’t even blink when I made that request. In no way do I think writers should need to out themselves in order to write queer stories, but for me personally, I live the rest of my life out and wanted to make sure that my writing career was in the hands of someone who understood and respected that. 

Besides queer witches, are there any other mythological or magical elements are you are hoping to explore in future stories?

I’m hoping to delve deeper into different types of magic and magical systems in future books. I’m also fascinated by cults and hope to explore something like that in one of my future stories. One of the best parts of world-building is getting to create brand new lore and legends and religious figures and deities, and in that sense, the possibilities are endless! 

As an out author, what would you say to your young queer self? What message do you hope to give to young queer readers and writers out there?

You matter. Your heart matters. Your love matters. Your words matter. So keep supporting and seeking out and writing those books that make you feel seen, because there are so many stories to tell, and there is room for your voice. 

What advice would you give for aspiring authors who are navigating writing and publishing?

Be diligent, be patient, and always be looking for ways to level up your craft. Read widely and often! Since so much about what happens to a book after you write it comes down to luck and timing, it’s important to focus on what you can control: ie your characters, the heart of your writing, constructing an intriguing voice, and studying and improving your craft.

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

Yes! My second book, SOFI & THE BONE SONG is a standalone fantasy about a young musician whose future falls apart when another girl wins the title she’s been training her whole life for. It’s got magic, music, taverns, an endless winter, and an exploration and dismantling of the idea that people should suffer for their art. Also, it’s sapphic!! Currently, it’s slated for a Spring 2022 release. 

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

There are some INCREDIBLE LGBTQ+ books coming out this year! This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron, Rise to the Sun by Leah Johnson, She Drives Me Crazy  by Kelly Quindlen, These Feathered Flames by Alexandra Overy, The Unpopular Vote by Jasper Sanchez, & The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould are just a few that immediately come to mind!!

Interview with Author Aiden Thomas

Aiden Thomas, author of Cemetery Boys, received their MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College. Born in Oakland, California, Aiden often haunted Mountain View Cemetery like a second home during their misspent youth. As a queer, trans Latinx, Aiden advocates strongly for diverse representation in all media. Aiden is notorious among their friends for always being surprised by twist endings to books/movies and organizing their bookshelves by color. When not writing, Aiden enjoys exploring the outdoors with their dog, Ronan. Their cat, Figaro, prefers to support their indoor hobbies, like reading and drinking too much coffee. I had the opportunity to interview them which you can read below.

How would you describe yourself to someone you’ve never met? What are the first things you would want someone to know about you?

Hello! I’m Aiden Thomas and I am the New York Times bestselling author of “Cemetery Boys” and soon to be “Lost in the Never Woods”! I’m a queer, trans, Latinx author and, unfortunately, I’m also a Disney Adult. I was born and raised in Oakland, CA but moved up to Portland, OR about 4 years ago. I love anime, I’m afraid of wolves, and I’m a night owl which is when I get most of my writing done!

Your debut book, Cemetery Boys, seems to have a unique origin, stemming from a Tumblr writing prompt. Could you tell us more about that?

That’s true! “Cemetery Boys” was inspired by a writing prompt I saw on Tumblr — I follow a bunch of writing prompt blogs and one day as I was mindless scrolling, I saw one that said, “What would you do if you summoned a ghost and you couldn’t get rid of it?” A lot of folks replied with scary story ideas with lots of Paranormal Activity type events, but my brain went, “Yes, and what if he was cute?” From there, I knew if I was going to have a Latinx main character and ghosts were involved, I wanted the book to revolve around my favorite holiday, Dia de Muertos.

As the first trans author to have a trans-centered fiction book on New York Times Best Seller list, how do you feel about the legacy of that impact? And what do you want to see for the future of trans narratives?

Honestly, it was completely wild and unexpected. I don’t think me or my publishing team thought “Cemetery Boys” would take off the way it did! I didn’t even know that a trans-centered fiction book had never hit list until like a month beforehand, and when “Cemetery Boys” did, it was incredible but also disappointing that it had taken this long. Honestly, I don’t really think of it as me “paving the way” because these stories have been written for a really long time. I like to think of it more as me shoving my shoulder into the publishing door and sneaking as many other trans and BIPOC authors as I can with me.

In your bio it is stated that you are a graduate of the MFA Creative Writing Program from Mills College. Could you tell us about some of your grad school experiences for those out there considering a supplementary education?

Grad school was really difficult! It was a great way to produce writing. I wrote five short stories that were published in literary journals during my grad school studies, which was fantastic. However, I’m also a firm believer that you don’t need to go to college or grad school to be a good writer! There’s so many free or cheap resources to help you learn craft that you don’t need to drop thousands of dollars on. One of my favorite resources is Jessica Brody’s “Save the Cat Writes a Novel” series! She has some Udemy.com courses that I take every time I start a new project and it’s honestly been life changing! 

Speaking of MFA programs, your second upcoming book, Lost in the Never Woods, was your thesis project, correct? What drew you to the story of Peter Pan, aside from the fact that the book copyright expires very soon? Are there any other fairy tales or myths you might be interested in exploring in the future?

That’s true! Honestly, the inspiration for “Lost in the Never Woods” was definitely the slow and creeping kind! I loved the Disney film as a kid (I’ve recently learned kinship with Peter is a very common experience among trans masculine folks!) and had the BIGGEST crush on Jeremy Sumpter in the 2003 adaptation. There’s also some incredible lines in that movie, but the one that really stuck out to me was when Peter says, “I want always to be a boy, and have fun.” And Wendy replies, “You say so, but I think it is your biggest pretend.”

That concept that Peter was trapped in Neverland, that he had some sort of duty to the Lost Boys when he was clearly so drawn to Wendy, stuck in brain. I wanted to know why he was in Neverland, what it meant for him to be afraid of his feelings, and what this concept of growing up really meant to him. I read the original “Peter Pan” quickly after that and learned how really dark the canon is how, and how deeply troubled and traumatized Peter was. I was really interested in his mental and emotional turmoil, which led me to wondering, “What happened to Wendy after Neverland?” and that was the real beginning of “Lost in the Never Woods”.

There are TONS of stories I’d love to do retellings of! There are some Greek myths I’d love to put a contemporary twist on, like Hercules and Icarus. I also love fairytale retellings and have been toying with a “Beauty and the Beast” retelling in my head

Besides the Day of the Dead festival, what other holidays do you think the characters of Cemetery Boys would gravitate towards and in what ways would they celebrate?

Nochebuena, or Christmas Eve, is a HUGE holiday in my family! There’s always huge parties that go late into the night so kids can open presents at midnight, and just SO much food! It’s my second favorite holiday after Dia de Muertos. Both Yadriel and Julian’s families would definitely celebrate and go all out. I think they’d start the night with Yadriel’s family at the cemetery to do all the official pomp and circumstance but close out the night at Julian’s apartment. Yadriel and Maritza would be crowded into the tiny living room with Julian, Rio, Flaca, Rocky, Omar and Luca opening presents and eating lots of Rio’s famous chocolate box cake.

As a writer, what advice would you give to other writers who are stepping into their own creativity? And advice to those interested in representing their own backgrounds/cultures?

FINISH YOUR FIRST DRAFT! I feel like writers always ask for advice when it comes to improving their story, but you have to get that rough draft down before you can make it better. The hardest part is finishing that manuscript, and you can query or get published until you have a completed draft to work on! When it comes to representation, I think creating stories and writing about your lived experiences is really powerful, especially when you’re marginalized. There’s young adults out there who haven’t seen themselves in a book, and you can make that happen.

One of the lovely things about your book is multilingual inclusion of different languages? Can you talk about how you incorporate them, and is the significance of this inclusion to you?

There’s a real push and pull when you have multiple marginalized identities. Being trans and part of the Latinx community can be very complicated for a lot of different reasons, a large one being that the Spanish language is gendered. Because of that, there’s much more instances of being mis-gendered within the Spanish language as opposed to English. The family and cultural dynamics can also be incredibly complicated. For “Cemetery Boys” it was important to me to show that and to also use Spanish casually and without translations, as it should be.

As a self-proclaimed geek, are there any anime/manga/cartoons you are drawn to at the moment?

Oh my gosh, I’m fully obsessed with “Haikyuu!” and “Given”! I haven’t been able to watch much since I’m on deadline right now, but as soon as I get a break, I’m really looking forward to binge watching “My Hero Academia”.

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

I’m currently working on the next book in my upcoming duology that’s due April 1st! It’s a young adult fantasy series that’s Percy Jackson meets “The Hunger Games”. I came up with a Latinx-inspired pantheon (like a goddess of Pan Dulce and a music god named Mariachi) and creation myth which was a lot of fun. It’s about demigods in a life-or-death competition and I am SO excited to share more about the story when I can.

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

She’s too Pretty to Burn” by Wendy Heard is coming out in March 2021, which is a YA thriller I absolutely fell in love with. Also be on the lookout for “Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun” by Jonny Garza Villa (my new ultimate favorite queer romance!) and “Meet Cute Diary” by Emery Lee (if you like romance tropes, you’re going to LOVE this book!).

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