Interview with Deya Muniz, Creator of The Princess and the Grilled Cheese Sandwich

Deya Muniz was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where they grew up watching Pride and Prejudice and reading copious amounts of shojo manga. In 2017, they moved to the United States to pursue a master’s degree in sequential art, where they met and fell in love with a wonderful girl who makes delicious grilled cheese sandwiches.

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

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

Thank you!! I’m Deya, I’m from Brazil, I have a beautiful wife and two dogs. You may know me from my comic strip series Brutally Honest, or me and my wife’s WEBTOON Blades of Furry!

What can you tell us about your graphic novel, The Princess and the Grilled Cheese Sandwich? Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

It’s cheesy and silly and gay!! I got the inspiration from my beautiful wife!! I explain it better in my author’s note at the back of the book. Basically, it all came about because of an incident involving grilled cheese sandwiches while we were both brainstorming ideas for a scriptwriting class.

In addition to The Princess and the Grilled Cheese Sandwich, you are also known as the co-creator of the webcomic, Blades of Furry (a webcomic that said to be a mix of Yuri on Ice meets flurries, co-created with your partner-which is like the gayest thing ever ). What inspired this project, and co-creating it with your spouse?

Blades of Furry came about for my MFA thesis! I was writing about suspension of disbelief, so to prove my point I came up with the most out there concept I could at the time! I was at the early stages of my figure skating obsession then, and my wife had turned me into a furry. I have also always loved vampires and had a pretty intense Twilight phase, so that’s how that all came about.

Emily became an official co-creator when it came time to actually start production on BOF! I was already working on Grilled Cheese and realized I couldn’t do both at the same time on my own, so I asked if she would like to join. She had such a big influence in the creation of the concept, and we knew we worked really well together, so it was a natural fit! Little did I know that even doing Blades of Furry with her, I was very far from being able to pull off all the work I had to do on time. Whoops.

How did you find yourself getting into storytelling, particularly comics/graphic novels? What drew you to the medium?

I’ve always liked comics, and even at the tender age of 8 I was writing silly little comics with my friends at school. When I was on the final year of my Bachelor’s degree, I was mostly thinking of going into either animation or video games. However, I started making the Brutally Honest comic strips instead of working on my thesis and they got popular online! One thing led to another and my thesis ended up becoming a comic, and then I went on to get my masters in Sequential Art. I was still considering getting into animation, but my pitch for Grilled Cheese got accepted before I got any storyboarding job offers, and now here we are!! I’m happy with how it all turned out!

For those curious about the process behind a graphic novel, how would you describe the process?

Slow and painful. I like getting attention on the stuff I make, so it was really really hard for me to be putting in all this effort into writing and drawing this story with NO ONE giving me compliments. Yes, I know exactly how ridiculous that sounds, but it’s true!! It’s a big difference between online publishing where you’re interacting with your readers at least weekly, and print publishing where you work in the dark for years and get no interaction or feedback until the work is finally published, however many months of years after you’re done working on it!

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

I could list so many things… For The Princess and the Grilled Cheese Sandwich I was very much inspired by Pride and Prejudice (the 2005 movie version specifically) and by shoujo manga/anime. I was obsessed with CLAMP as a kid and LOVED the way they did sparkles, fabric and hair. From there, I became obsessed with the work of Alphonse Mucha, who was a big influence on the CLAMP style.

More recently, and around when I was working on Grilled Cheese, I was mostly inspired by artists I followed on twitter. I get a lot of inspiration from that nowadays, whenever I end up in a new fandom there’s always so many incredibly talented people pumping out beautiful art, it’s wild! Back then I was heavily into this story called Mo Dao Zu She (or Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation) and the art coming from that fandom was incredible!

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

Yes, so many!! I already mentioned a few in the previous question, but there’s many many stories that have touched me deeply through the years – Kingdom Hearts, Fruits Basket, Howl’s Moving Castle (both the book and the movie), Yuri on Ice, Banana Fish… I don’t know if I felt reflected by them as a whole, but there’s always little pieces of who I am or want to be reflected in some of my favorite characters.

Right before starting work on Grilled Cheese I was reading TONS of gay webtoons/manhwas and my absolute favorites were Wolf in the House and Dark Heaven (both 18+, be warned!) – both stories had an iron grip on me. Wolf in the House has incredible heart and humor, and Dark Heaven had me extremely deep in my feelings. Those two helped me get through some tough times.

Right now I’m profoundly infatuated with Trigun Stampede. I’m listening to the soundtrack while writing this!! I also just read Monotone Blue and really liked it!

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

I broke my skull when I was a baby and I’m fine, so I have reason to believe I might be immortal and undefeatable.

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

“Would you like 10 million dollars deposited in your bank account yearly?” The answer is yes!

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

… Unfortunately, I am legally bound to secrecy. 

What advice would you give to any aspiring creatives out there?

Be self-indulgent in your creativity. Doing what you think you should instead of what you want to do is going to lead to some serious burnout pretty quickly. Enjoy yourself in your work as much as possible.

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

Ok! I have already mentioned a fewso here’s some more:

Manga/Anime: Our Dreams at DuskRestart After Coming Back Home, Given, the Kase-San series.

Western/US WEBTOONS: Castle Swimmer, Covenant, LoveBot, Not so Shoujo Love Story, Prince of Southland, and Nevermore.

Also, look into Danmei. Phenomenal stories there!

I’m not very good at recommending western LGBTQ+ books/comics because I get anxiety reading them. I’m also behind on every single Webtoon I mentioned for that reason. Everyone is so talented and imposter syndrome sucks! Anyway, I really liked The Prince and the Dressmaker!

Interview with R. Eric Thomas, Author of Kings of B’more

R. Eric Thomas is the bestselling author of Here for It, a Read with Jenna book club pick featured on Today and a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is the co-author of Reclaiming Her Time, a biography of Rep. Maxine Waters. He is also a television writer (AppleTV+’s Dickinson, FX’s Better Things), a playwright, and the long-running host of The Moth in Philadelphia and D.C. For four years, he was a senior staff writer at Elle.com where he wrote “Eric Reads the News.” Kings of B’more is his YA debut. 

I had the opportunity to interview R. Eric Thomas, which you can read below.

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

I’m a bestselling author, television writer, and playwright based in Philadelphia, where I live with my husband, who is a Presbyterian pastor.

What can you tell us about your latest book, Congratulations, The Best Is Over!? What inspired this project?

I turned 40 a year into the pandemic while living in a house I never imagined I’d want in a suburb that gave me the creeps sometimes and I looked around and thought “Okay, what now?” I had planned to have an elaborate costume party with very annoying rules for my 40th and invite everyone I’d ever met, but instead I was unexpectedly living in my hometown again, struggling to make adult friendships, bleaching my mail, and tweeting out jokes about the apocalypse. I thought the juxtaposition of a common phase of life change with this shocking, seismic global upheaval was worth exploring. And as someone who primarily writes comedically, I thought it was a worthy challenge to see if I could make enough jokes about my mid-life/existential crisis to find hope again.

As a writer, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically non-fiction (essays)?

Stories are empathy engines and there’s something extraordinary that happens when you tell a true story to another person. It opens up a bridge between you, it inspires both of you–or all of you—to think more expansively about commonality and connection. It’s generous and vulnerable. Storytelling changes us, it teaches us and excites us and challenges us. I started out telling true stories, live, with no notes at shows like The Moth, and I’d never experienced anything like it. I’ve done standup, I tried my hand at spoken word, I’ve hosted cabarets and drag shows; I loved all of those experiences but I found that there was nothing like storytelling.

Recently, you’ve entered into the world of young adult fiction, with your book, Kings of B’more? May I ask what inspired this story, as well as your interest in writing YA?

I wanted to write about platonic love between two Black, queer boys; I wanted to write a story where their trauma wasn’t the focal point; I was interested in a space of possibility for their exuberance and their softness. I wanted to craft the world as I knew it could be. And I knew that if I didn’t write it, that some young person out there wouldn’t get to know that it was possible. I wrote what I’d never read, a world that I get to live now as an adult. My trips to the library as a middle and high schooler expanded my view of the world in so many ways; I’m still learning from books I discovered in 9th or 10th grade. I wanted to add to that tradition for those coming after me.

How would you describe your general writing process?

Chaotic. I always have multiple projects going on. I follow inspiration. I get lost. I have to trick myself into finishing things. I recently remodeled my office for a week because a chapter was making me nervous. It’s a mess. I should be exiled from writing.

Are there any ways in which it is similar or different when writing fiction vs non-fiction?

With both forms structure is very important, particularly in the way that I approach non-fiction. I write non-fiction as if I am the main character, the protagonist, and the essay usually follows the natural arc of me getting closer to or farther from what I want. I think trope and genre can be as useful in non-fiction as they are in fiction and can expand the possibilities of what I’m creating.

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

I both love and hate revision. I really try to embrace the freedom of being able to write a very imperfect first draft and the process of slowly, painstakingly finding the right piece inside of the imperfection. But I also get really frustrated sometimes in the writing process because there is never a single “right” piece. It’s easy to get lost in the searching, which is why I value having such smart editors.

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

I am obsessed with Toni Morrison, August Wilson, Colson Whitehead, and Ann Patchett.

Many authors would say one of the most challenging parts of writing a book is finishing one. What strategies would you say helped you accomplish this?

Having a regular practice can be key. As can having deadlines, even if it’s just a friend who you’ve promised to get a draft to. Knowing that someone is waiting, whether that someone is the hopeful version of yourself who made your schedule or an eager reader, can push you over the finish line.

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

I’m in the middle of writing another novel, this one for adults. It’s a queer love story about second chances and a vacation town trying to reinvent itself.

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

Philip Ellis’s Love and Other Scams is such a delight and I can’t wait for his next book, We Could Be Heroes. Everyone should read Audre Lorde, particularly Sister Outsider, and Alexander Chee, particularly How to Write an Autobiographical Essay. Meccah Jamilah Sullivan’s Big Girl is phenomenal. I cannot stop screaming about how great Idlewild by James Frankie Thomas is. Holy cow! What a masterpiece!

Interview with St, Illustrator of English translations for The Husky and His White Cat Shizun and Remnants of Filth

St., aka Suto, is a Taiwanese-American illustrator with an anime-inspired art style. They are the illustrator for the English translations for The Husky and His White Cat Shizun and Remnants of Filth both by Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou, and have provided artwork for the Barnes and Nobles edition of Scum Villain’s Self Saving System by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu. When they’re not busy drawing, they’re busy playing video games and sleeping. They are currently set to illustrate the English translations for Ballad of Sword and Wine: Qiang Jin Jiu by Tang Jiu Qing.

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

All statements and opinions are my own (St.) and do not represent Seven Seas or JJWXC.

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

Hi hi, thank you so much for having me, it’s an honor! I’m Suto, also known as St., a Taiwanese-American illustrator/dreamer/cat, dog, and fox lover.

How would you describe what you do professionally and creatively?

I’m a mostly independent artist who does illustrative work and other small jobs for a bunch of things. What I do is nothing crazy, haha. Some of the things I’m working on I can’t say much on, so apologies for the boring answer!

Meanwhile, during my free time, I like to doodle and write down stories and ideas for my original characters.

What drew you to illustrating? Could you describe your artistic background for us?

I’ve been drawing and doing all sorts of creative-related things since I was able to pick up a pencil, but I don’t really have any formal artistic training. The highest level of art education I’ve received was an art elective during high school.

Actually, I was offered a scholarship to an art program back when I was applying to colleges. But I ended up not accepting it… instead, I became an English literature major while doing a minor in East Asian Studies. Even funnier is that my focus was/is Japan, and not China, so it’s a little funny I ended up as an illustrator for historical Danmei works.

As someone known for their work illustrating the English translations for The Husky and His White Cat Shizun  and Remnants of Filth both by Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou, what draws you to this author’s work?

At first it was the interesting plots with all the twists and turns, but then it was definitely the characters that kept me drawn into Meatbun’s writing. I’m pretty sure the cast in Husky is my favorite cast of characters out of all the Danmei stories I read. Also, the humor! I think Meatbun’s works are really well known for angst (for a good reason!) but the comedy had me stifling laughs at 2 AM when I stayed up reading.

What are your thoughts on the current danmei (Chinese genre of literature and other fictional media that features romantic relationships between male characters) publishing field and fandom?

Regarding the publishing field for Danmei, I cannot offer much. All I can say is that it is a complicated and difficult business, so I wish fans would be a little more understanding and patient when it comes to official international releases.

Fandom-wise… It is also difficult to express all my thoughts. As with all fandoms, there are pros and cons.

For Danmei specifically, there are issues of culture appropriation, fetishization (whether intentional or not), misinformation, and so on.

But on the other side, people can be very very supportive and excited when it comes to Danmei. There’s just tons of creativity spilling out from fanworks shared online and other sorts of positivity. I’ve been seeing more and more people (re)connecting with their Chinese background and history, as well as others wishing to learn more about Chinese culture thanks to Danmei – which is always a delight to see!

What are some of your favorite danmei or queer Chinese titles in general?

Mo Du by Priest

Qiang Jin Jiu by Tang Jiu Qing

Here U Are by Djun

Tamen De Gushi by Tan Jiu

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

I’m always admiring and being influenced by various and fellow artists online on sites such as Twitter, Tumblr, pixiv, etc.

But to list a few more inspirations:

-My family

-Character arts from mobages (mobile games) such as Granblue Fantasy and Fate/Grand Order

-Behind-the-scenes concept works from basically anything, such as games to live-action movies

-Chinese shanshui and Japanese ukiyo-e style artworks

-Costumes and historical dress from various cultures, although I’ve been focused primarily on China these days due to my work. The Ming Dynasty is my favorite fashion-wise, and the history of some of the fashion choices is incredibly fascinating too.

-Various types of music ranging from Gufeng and Qinqiang styles to niche EDM

-Touhou Project

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

There isn’t any specific question that I’d like to be asked, I think. But if there’s a topic that I’d like to be asked about and that I could go on and on talking about it’d probably be about my original characters haha… I will spare the interview from my rambling, though!

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

I love cats and think they are super cute, but I’ve only ever had dogs and probably will only raise dogs in my life. I’m allergic to mangos. One of my hobbies is doing research, so I have a love-hate relationship with academic databases. I truly believe the old animated Barbie movies are some of the peakest/most peak(?) fiction to exist. Also, I think everyone should read The Twelve Kingdoms by Fuyumi Ono at least once in their lifetime.

As an illustrator, what advice would you give to aspiring creatives? 

Health-wise, remember to regularly stretch and take breaks. Many of us creatives have terrible and unhealthy lifestyle habits, so don’t forget to drink and eat regularly (setting up alarms helps sometimes…). And also try to get as much sleep as you can no matter how busy you may be. I often joke about staying up all night and having to rush to deadlines, but in reality, I do try to get as much sleep as possible.

Creative-wise, I think it’s good to take a look at other things or do something unrelated to your creative work from time to time, and not just do the stuff you like. Such as taking walks outside in nature, watching YouTube lectures or documentaries on a bunch of different things, going to a science museum, and so on.

Making art takes a lot of brain power, so it’s easy to get stuck. I think it’s always important to take breaks from thinking creatively and let yourself have a breather.

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

There are a few things I’m working on now that I cannot reveal at the time of this interview, but I’m excited for when it gets revealed publicly.

As for a more personal project, I’ve been working on a series of original character illustrations inspired by the Chinese 24 Solar Terms. At first, it was just something I decided on a whim and I wasn’t really that serious about. But I’m now halfway done, so I’m quite proud that I’ve gotten so far and pushed myself to do this illustration series. I might do something similar but simpler next year though…

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

Until I Met My Husband by Ryousuke NanasakiMy Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Kabi Nagata

Interview with Claribel A. Ortega

New York Times Bestselling and award-winning author, Claribel A. Ortega is a former reporter who writes middle-grade and young adult fantasy inspired by her Dominican heritage. When she’s not busy turning her obsession with eighties pop culture, magic, and video games into books, she’s co-hosting her podcast Bad Author Book Club. Claribel is a Marvel contributor and has been featured on Buzzfeed, Bustle, Good Morning America and Deadline.

Claribel’s NYT Bestselling debut middle-grade novel Ghost Squad is being made into a feature film. Her latest book Witchlings (Scholastic) was an Instant NYT and #1 Indie Bestseller. Her graphic novel Frizzy with Rose Bousamra was the winner of the 2023 Pura Belpré Award for Children’s Text and an Indie Bestseller. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Tiktok @Claribel_Ortega, on Twitch as Radbunnie.

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

First of all, welcome back to Geeks OUT! How have you been?

Thanks! I’ve been great, busy working on more books, and had a good summer. 

What can you tell us about your latest book, Witchings: The Golden Frog Games?

The Golden Frog Games takes place a few months after the events of the first Witchlings book, and centers a magical olympics called The Golden Frog Games. Thorn is the first ever Spare to be a competitor but someone is turning her competition into stone and it’s up to the Witchlings to figure out who it is before Thorn is next! The stakes are bigger than book one, there are first crushes and new characters and we get to see all the Coven Houses too. 

As an author, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically middle grade and speculative fiction (especially witches)?

I’ve always loved fantasy and the potential for exploring real world issues through the lens of magic. Witches are the perfect vehicle for the stories I want to tell too, because historically they’ve just been people who were responsible for healing and helping those in need but were villainized for being different or misunderstood or just for being women. All of my books center the perspectives of women, and marginalized people so in a fantasy world witches really embody that experience. Writing middle grade fantasy is so much fun, and for me feels really comforting. There’s something special about a cozy town with adorable animals that has an undercurrent of danger just beneath the surface. It’s those kinds of stories that spoke to me as a child, so I think that’s why I’m drawn to write them as an adult. Also, my readers are the best. They are funny, and kind and ready to believe whatever wacky scenario I throw at them. Middle grade readers are willing to go along on the adventure with my characters and root for them no matter how weird they are. 

As a writer, you have spoken a bit about featuring Dominican and queer representation in your book, from your fantasy novels to your debut graphic novel, Frizzy. Could you speak a bit here about what representing those elements mean to you as a author?

I am just writing my honest experience which I think is important. Kids know when you’re talking down to them or keeping things from them, and while I always make sure that my books are appropriate for the ages I write for, I think writing about the world as it really is with all the diversity that entails is my job as an author. After all, being Dominican and queer are things that represent me, I shouldn’t have to keep my own existence from my books. 

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

I have quite a few! I always say that I aspire to write something as powerful, funny and perfect as Little Shop of Horrors, haha, so that’s my North Star. In terms of writers, Diana Wynne Jones, Lin Manuel Miranda, Leigh Bardugo and Gregory Maguire are big ones. I’m always inspired by my own life too, the things I love to do (like play video games) the music I listen to, or just my experiences are all sources of inspiration for me. 

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

I adore character creation and world building. It’s been so much fun for me to make up systems and monsters and pop culture in the Witchlings series. Writing on deadline is super challenging for me! I love taking my time with stories, and a lot of my writing process is about daydreaming and thinking about the story to let things come to me but I don’t get to do that as much while on deadline and it’s a bummer. 

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

I would love to be asked more questions about the content of the Witchling series versus just the representation or diversity angle. I think oftentimes marginalized authors get looped into talking about diversity over and over again so our books get seen as a lesson to be learned rather than a story to enjoy. The Witchlings series is about friendship, and political turmoil and the nature of monstrosity– who gets called a monster versus who is really doing those monstrous things. I would love for people to know that despite the very adorable cover of the books, the core story is a dark one with parallels to many of our real world social and political issues. The ultimate message of the Witchlings series is about the power of community and how self-efficacy doesn’t have to come at the cost of that community. 

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

Focus on the words. Don’t get caught up in stats about querying, or what everyone else is doing on social media, focus on the words and your craft and being the best storyteller you can be. 

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

The third Witchlings book will be out next year, so I’m busy working on that and there is another graphic novel in my future which I will hopefully be able to talk about soon. 

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

Definitely check out Small Town Pride by Phil Stamper and In The Key of Us by Mariama J. Lockington! 

Interview with Cynthia Yuan Cheng

Cynthia Yuan Cheng is an illustrator and cartoonist who creates funny, bittersweet stories centered on connection, identity, and belonging. When not at a desk, you can find Cynthia laughing at manga or eating a good meal with friends. Cynthia lives in Los Angeles.

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

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

Hi! My name is Cynthia Yuan Cheng, I’m a cartoonist and illustrator, and I love telling stories that make people laugh and cry! Thank you for having me!

What can you tell us about your latest project, Mary Anne’s Bad Luck Mystery and how did you get involved in illustrating for The Baby-sitters Clubseries in general?

Mary Anne’s Bad Luck Mystery is the 13th installment in The Baby-sitters Club graphic novel series. The story is kicked off when Mary Anne receives a mysterious chain letter in the mail– the club members try to figure out who sent the letter, and spooky shenanigans ensue! I enjoyed the spooky Halloween moments in this book, and getting to sprinkle in some horror-comedy moments throughout the story.

I met my editor, Cassandra, during my senior portfolio review at my art school (Maryland Institute College of Art, MICA), and she kept me in mind a few years down the line when the series was looking for a new adapter.

Did you have any previous connections to The Baby-sitters Clubuniverse before working on this project?

Aside from recognizing the vast popularity of the original novel series and the graphic novel adaptations, I actually didn’t have any previous connection! I’d been a big admirer of all the previous (and upcoming) adapters, but I’m very fresh to the world of BSC, so I’m really grateful to my editor and the team at Scholastic who trusted my vision with adapting the book and provided great guidance along the way.

How did you find yourself getting into comics? What drew you to becoming an artist?

I’ve drawn comics and created art since my elementary school days, and loved reading manga and graphic novels all throughout my life. I wasn’t always interested in pursuing comics and art professionally, but I guess I couldn’t resist that love for storytelling! I’m very grateful to have a career in creating comics and art.

What advice might you have to give to aspiring artists/comic book creators, to both those who draw and those who don’t?

Make sure you’re always having fun with your projects! Comics require so much labor and time, so any project you’re committing to should be something you’re excited about and can genuinely enjoy the process of.

Also, explore interests outside of comics— it’ll enrich your storytelling and make your voice more unique!

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

I love thumbnailing, especially when it comes to a funny scene. Crafting the comedic timing is a lot of fun for me, and it’s always satisfying when the joke lands successfully.

Regarding the challenges, I’m still new to creating full-color comics and have lots of growing to do there. I’m so grateful to Hank Jones and Braden Lamb whose color work made Mary Anne’s Bad Luck Mystery come to life. I really admire colorists whose coloring work adds so much mood and depth to the overall story!

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

I’m relocating to New Jersey soon, really close to NYC! I’m so excited to explore the creative scene there and better familiarize myself with the thriving indie comics scene on the East Coast.

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

I don’t really get asked about my hobbies and interests outside of art and comics, even though I love talking about it. I love bouldering, trying new restaurants, and hanging out with my friends! I believe strongly in a work-play balance, so I try to get out and play and goof around often. It’s great.

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

I’m currently working on a YA graphic novel memoir with First Second, tentatively titled Win. It’s about my time in high school playing American football on the boys’ team, and centers on gender and (toxic) masculinity. I don’t want it to sound too heavy; I ultimately think of it as a hopeful story about chasing your dreams. I’m really looking forward to getting this story out in the world some day!

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

So hard to choose, but my most recent favorites are the manga short story To Strip the Flesh by Oto Toda and indie comics by Kimberly Wang. I’m also deeply excited for the graphic novel Firebird by friend and cartoonist Sunmi, which came out on July 18th!

Interview with Shelley Parker-Chan, author of She Who Became the Sun

Shelley Parker-Chan (they/them) is an Asian Australian former international development adviser who worked on human rights, gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights in Southeast Asia. Their debut historical fantasy novel She Who Became the Sun was a #1 Sunday Times bestseller and has been translated into 15 languages. Parker-Chan is a previous winner of the Astounding Award for Best Debut, and the British Fantasy Awards for Best Fantasy Novel and Best Newcomer. They have been a finalist for the Lambda, Locus, Aurealis, Ditmar, and British Book Awards. They live in Melbourne, Australia.

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

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

Hello, thanks for having me! I’m Shelley Parker-Chan, and I write highly emotional, ostensibly historically based, epic fantasy novels. I’m Australian, but I’ve spent a lot of my working life in Asia.

What can you tell us about your upcoming book, He Who Drowned the World?

Drowned is a direct sequel to She Who Became the Sun, and picks up just a couple of months after the action of that first book. The two books of the duology are organised around the Buddhist principle that desire begets suffering. The first book was very much about desire, especially as experienced by people traditionally denied it: women, queer people. The characters’ desires ranged from basic survival, to the ambition to become the greatest person in the world: the emperor. In Drowned, we see the other side of the equation. We see the suffering and sacrifices that are the price of those desires. And it asks: is it worth it?

What was the inspiration for your original series The Radiant Emperor duology, which includes She Who Became the Sun and He Who Drowned the World?

The idea came out of my weird obsession with monks. I know the image we hold of them doesn’t reflect their lived reality, either now or historically, but I’m fascinated by the idea of people who set aside worldly interests in favour of the pursuit of self-perfection. Of being ‘good’, according to a set of rules. But even more than a monk, I love the idea of a bad monk: someone who can’t—or doesn’t want to—overcome their ambition, their desire, their attachment to the world. So I was playing around with the idea of monks in a wartime setting: a monk who deliberately violates their vows of nonviolence to defend their people.

And then, lo and behold: I came across the life of Zhu Yuanzhang, who started life as a peasant in Mongol-occupied China. He became a monk, then a rebel commander, then finally the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty. I was like: aha! He’s my bad monk. But I realised I also wanted to twist the story. What if I took this man, whose whose ambition and capacity for violence led him to become the ultimate patriarch, and made him not a man? How would that change the meaning of his ambition, and rise, and rule?

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

Like lots of people these days, I started off writing fanfiction. Fanfiction was a cradle of queerness in a time when there was so little of it in mainstream media. It was where we subverted the texts to add our queer selves back in. It was a sort of communal yearning, but also a source of communal joy. It taught me to write what I liked, and how to express my authentic self on the page, and that if you wrote truly you would always find people who would recognise those words as true for themselves, too. A lot of fanfiction stories are romances, structurally speaking, but the ones I read and wrote were based on SFF media. Fantasy and science fiction, like historical fiction, give a lot of room to play with big stakes: life and death, and the times when love isn’t enough because there’s something more important: duty, or the fate of the world. I love writing in that slightly melodramatic register. It makes the feelings more intense.

How would you describe your writing process?

I start by laying out a plot in Excel. I put a timeline down the side of a sheet, the POV characters across the top, and then I fill each cell with a scene. By the time I start drafting, that plot is pretty fixed. But plot is a far less important element to my stories than the characters and their emotions. I like to call my subgenre ‘emo fantasy’, because it’s all angst, all the time. So when I’m drafting, I spend inordinate amounts of time shaping and re-shaping character arcs, and making sure I understand what they feel and think at every moment. I’ll have to write a scene twenty times, with twenty slight variations on a character’s understanding of themself, before I find the one that works for their arc, the story themes, AND the plot. I guess it’s a form of discovery writing. But as a process, it’s definitely slow and frustrating.

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

I love thinking about character. What makes characters tick, and how they relate to themselves and each other. I could do it forever. But there are so many aspects of the craft of fiction writing that I’m still learning. I really struggle with simple things, like starting and ending scenes. How to feed in details about the world, how to build those mini plot arcs that keep the reader engaged, how to keep dialogue moving. I’m inspired by the authors I know who sit down and really study these elements, and learn how to execute them—not just well, but quickly.

In previous interviews, you’ve spoken about an interesting part of literary background, of being heavily influenced by Asian historical dramas while emphasizing the distinction of writing from a diasporic lens. Would you spend expanding on that please?  

I first started watching Asian TV dramas when I was a young adult, living in Asia for the first time. I was raised in Australia, and when I was growing up if you saw an Asian onscreen (which was super rare), they were usually some kind of joke or horrible stereotype. They were never fully-realised human beings the way the white characters were. So when I started watching Asian dramas, I was blown away. Not only did I see characters who shared the same values and cultural worldview as me, but the full-Asian casts meant that Asians could be any and every kind of character: the heroes, the villains, the love interests, warriors, scholars. I knew I wanted to write a story like that in English—the story I’d never had, growing up.  

But at the same time, I’m from the diaspora. Even if I fill my story with Asians, and set it in China, I don’t have the same worldview as someone who grew up in that environment. My perspectives are shaped by being a minority in a white-majority country. Some of that is the simple feelings of rejection, exclusion, of being misunderstood. And you can see those themes in my work. But being diaspora goes deeper. It comes with ambivalence, as well as pride, because aspects of my traditional culture also reject who I am. Reimagining the history of imperial China is my attempt to grapple with the exclusionary elements of the history and culture that’s been bequeathed to me. What if what had been handed down had been different? What if I didn’t have to feel this painful ambivalence, because my culture actually embraced queerness?

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

I almost exclusively read nonfiction and romances, which gives me a lot of trouble as someone who gets asked to blurb epic fantasy books. On the nonfiction side, I read a lot of memoirs, biographies, psychology, philosophy of the self and the emotions, gender studies, religion, nature writing—it all feeds my understanding of how people work, the variety of ways we can be in the world, what consumes us. And as for romances: they’re usually purely character driven, which is the good stuff as far as I’m concerned. I’m constantly looking for stories that have a raw and uncomfortable edge, and that give me big feelings. That’s what I want to learn to write well.

Many authors would say one of the most challenging parts of writing a book is finishing one. What strategies would you say helped you accomplish this?

Especially for a first book, I think mutual accountability with friends was the most helpful thing in getting me to the finish line. If I hadn’t been on a journey with them, I’d probably have quit halfway through, thinking, “oh, this is shit, it will never be as good as I’d imagined it to be, I’d better start something else.” But when I saw them grinding away at their books, and bemoaning the process as much as I was, I understood that the bad feelings were normal—and if they could get through them, I could too. I think it also helps to believe that you’re writing the book that only you can write. Even if it didn’t turn out how you dreamed, it’s your unique contribution to the world.

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

If you know my work, then you basically know all of me that there is to know.

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

I’m offended that nobody yet has asked me about how I organise my bookshelves. The answer is: by subject for nonfiction; by era and country for literary fiction; and by how much I like them, for genre fiction. I’m ruthless about fiction, though. If it’s not a re-read, then it’s instantly off to the nearest Little Library.

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

I want to do something different after a historical fantasy, so I’m working on a secondary world fantasy. It’ll still feel like one of my books, though. It seems I can’t escape the lure of exploring gender and daddy issues.

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

I’ve long loved Lee Mandelo’s horror-fantasy works starting from his debut Summer Sons, and his new one goes even harder. It’s called The Woods All Black, and it’s about anti-trans small-town religious bigotry—and monsterfucking. The cathartic queer rage it delivers is EPIC.


Header Photo Credit Harvard Wang, 2018

Interview with Ciera Burch

Ciera Burch is a lifelong writer and ice cream aficionado. She has a BA from American University and an MFA from Emerson College. Her fiction has appeared in The American Literary MagazineUnderground, the art and literary journal of Georgia State University, Stork, and Blackbird. Her work was also chosen as the 2019 One City One Story read for the Boston Book Festival. While she is originally from New Jersey, she currently resides in Washington, DC, with her stuffed animals, plants, and far too many books.

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

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

Hi! I’m Ciera Burch, a Black, queer children’s author with a huge fascination with ghosts in storytelling. I’m also a photography lover, amateur baker, and D&D enthusiast. 

What can you tell us about your debut book, Finch House? What was the inspiration for this story?

Finch House is a middle-grade horror novel about a headstrong young girl, Micah, whose curiosity leads to her grandfather’s disappearance in a haunted Victorian house that has a surprising connection to her and her family. There are haunted house shenanigans and ghosts and a couple of very brave kids, but at its heart, Finch House is a story about the things we do for and to the people we love and how change is a big part of the human experience but isn’t always bad.

I’ve found inspiration in so many things (the Victorian houses in a town near where I grew up, Rita’s water ice, time periods in American history) but, honestly, my main inspiration was the door to my Poppop’s basement. It’s in this cheery, bright yellow kitchen and that door, always open, is just a gaping mouth of darkness that you can’t see past. It’s terrified me since I was very little—and still does!

As a writer, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically middle grade fiction?

What a good question! I’ve always loved stories. I think we don’t think enough about oral storytelling but, in that sense, my family is full of storytellers—they can all turn the smallest interaction with another person into a hilarious or moving story. So, I very much grew up steeped in story, often emphasized with loud laughter. My mom was also a big reader and she read to me a ton before I could read to myself, so it was only natural that once I could, I started devouring any and all stories that I could get my hands on. When I was in about 5th grade, I realized I could write my own and I’ve been trying to do so ever since.

I was drawn to middle grade because it’s such a pivotal time in life, and it’s the time in my childhood that feels most real to think back on. It was when I was first truly felt like I was becoming my own person with very clearly defined interests and curiosities and questions—and when I started writing in earnest. Writing middle grade is lovely because it brings me back to those crossroads moments of childhood when “kid” doesn’t feel like it fits but “teenager” definitely doesn’t. It feels very other in a way that, as someone from multiple underrepresented communities, I was drawn to. 

As implied by the book’s description, the setting of the book, a haunted source, acts as a metaphor for intergenerational trauma. What inspired you to go with this theme?

As a person of color, and particularly as someone interested in the themes surrounding horror and what makes ghosts, intergenerational trauma is not far from the surface of my mind at any point. Especially with the idea of breaking generational curses and cycles being so prevalent online and in social media, I wanted to explore that in a way that was not only accessible to kids but that also puts intergenerational trauma in your face and surrounds you—to make it a space, essentially, so that it can be fully interacted with and explored outside of, well, therapy. 

How would you describe your writing process?

Oh, man. I’d love to say it’s pretty methodical and planned out, which it often is, but Finch House came at me fast and hard. I had no outline, a few characters, and the idea of a house that consumes people and then I just…started writing. This book was like a solo-NaNoWriMo for me, I got the first draft down in about 30 days.

When I’m not so consumed however, or just busy or trying to track down my muse, I usually have outlines, sometimes even character profiles. I always write in order but I also have plenty of half-baked scenes and scattered pieces of dialogue jotted down in the notes app of my phone. I can get very much in my head about word count and can be big into perfectionism (it’s the Virgo in me) so I try to block out actual time and space where I can just actually write without thinking too hard about what’s going on the page, and try to remember to have fun with my story and my characters and not stress too much if a certain description isn’t coming out how I wanted it to or if a big, planned scene is running in its own direction. I also no longer force myself to write at my desk. If I want to write on my couch or the giant bean bag chair I have or the courtyard of a museum, I try and let myself do that.

I love writing, even the messy, stressful, agonizing parts of it, and I try to keep that in mind when I get really frustrated or down on myself.

One of the hardest things about writing a book is finishing one. What strategies or advice might you have to say about accomplishing this?

I’m such an introvert but I’m going to have to say a strong support system. My friends and family have been so monumental in helping me actually finish Finch House. They were always there with encouraging words or distractions when I needed them, but they also let me bounce things off of them, just to get them off my chest. Sometimes they had great advice and sometimes they didn’t, but it was the act of having to think about the book as I talked through it and explained my thought process to other people that spurred me along.

Also breaks. Sometimes you just need to walk away or eat a snack or three.

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

Life. Anything, really! It’s surprising how some of the simplest things can spark ideas. Music lyrics, a fascinating interaction on a bus, the way someone pronounces a word, anything. I do a lot of people-watching when I’m out and I really enjoy seeing how other people go through the same spaces I do in such unique ways.

In terms of actual people, Mildred D. Taylor hooked me on her portrayal of family, especially Black family, as a child and has stuck with me ever since whenever I’m writing interpersonal, and especially intergenerational, scenes.

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

I love dialogue. I often start off writing it without any tags or descriptions to get a feel for the flow of the conversation and whether each character’s voice feels true to them. My characters are very vocal in my head, so it’s always fun to get to put that to paper and let them have a little bit of free reign. Getting to a point that shaped the main idea for a story is also really fun, whether it’s a bit of description or a major plot point.

Endings are most difficult for me. I will prolong finishing a book or tv series for years because I don’t want them to end, so coming to the end of my own work is often difficult. Especially because, if I’m writing without an outline or veered pretty far from it, I don’t always know how a piece of writing will end and I’ll wonder if I’ve earned an ending I might have in mind or if the events of the book led me somewhere faithfully enough that my ending feels warranted. It’s the last thing a person reads and remembers and it can really make or break or a book, so it feels so pivotal to me.

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

I’m very much into Dungeons and Dragons these days and I could fangirl about it for hours if anyone let me. I don’t know all the rules or classes or technicalities, but I make up for that with sheer enthusiasm, I hope.

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

Would you live in a haunted house? The answer is absolutely not, but I would admire it from afar and take plenty of pictures.

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

Don’t give up! Really, truly. I know it’s hard and it can feel like literally everyone in the world is better than you at it, but they’re not! Only you can bring what you have to your writing (and the world) and so you should. It doesn’t exactly get easier, but I like to think we all get better at it as we go.

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

I have a YA coming out next year, Something Kindred, that deals with more ghosts and more generational trauma but in a very different way and with two sweet, queer girls in a small town. I’m also working on another middle grade that I’m not sure I can spill the beans on plot-wise, but it involves a New Jersey icon.

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

Oh man, there are so many books, past, present, and future! I’m going to say EPIC ELLISONS: COSMOS CAMP by Lamar Giles, IT’S BOBA TIME FOR PEARL LI! by Nicole Chen, and my forever favorite ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY by Mildred D. Taylor.

Interview with Crystal Maldonado

Crystal Maldonado is a young adult author with a lot of feelings. She is the author of romcoms for fat, brown girls, including The Fall of Whit Rivera, which will be released Oct. 10, 2023; Fat Chance, Charlie Vega, which was a New England Book Award winner, a Cosmopolitan Best New Book, and a Kirkus Best YA Fiction of 2021; and No Filter and Other Lies, which was named a POPSUGAR and Seventeen Best New YA.

By day, Crystal works in higher ed marketing, and by night, she’s a writer who loves Beyoncé, glitter, shopping, and spending too much time on her phone. Her work has been published in Latina, BuzzFeed, and the Hartford Courant. She lives in western Massachusetts with her husband, daughter, and dog. Follow her everywhere @crystalwrote.

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

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

Hi, Geeks OUT! Thank you so much for having me. I’m a young adult author who writes inclusive stories for fat, brown girls that hopefully make you laugh and swoon at the same time. I’ve long been a huge fan of the YA genre, especially as a reader. Romcoms are the way to my heart! Outside of reading and writing, I love shopping (I’m obsessed with anything glitter and I collect quirky earrings), rewatching “Gilmore Girls,” playing Animal Crossing, boy bands, TikTok, and Beyoncé.

What can you tell us about your latest book, No Filter and Other Lies? What inspired the story?

“No Filter and Other Lies” follows 17-year-old Kat Sanchez, a fat, Puerto Rican photographer who’s obsessed with Instagram. While grappling with typical teenage insecurities and some difficult family dynamics, she becomes fixated on gaining clout on IG. When that doesn’t happen naturally, Kat takes matters into her own hands: she steals her friend and co-worker’s photos, makes a new identity on Instagram, and starts to catfish (or #katfish, in Kat’s case). Suddenly she gets that attention she’s always wanted, but it all comes crashing down when Kat meets a follower she develops feelings for and she has to decide whether to come clean or keep up the lie.

This story was my attempt at writing about a fat girl whose fatness wasn’t integral to the story, and who was, quite frankly, a little unlikeable. Kat’s decision to steal her friend’s photos is awful! But don’t we all sometimes do things we’re not proud of? I wanted to explore that imperfection through her story, and also shed some light on how immense the pressures of social media can sometimes feel, especially when you’re a teenager. I hope I accomplished that!

What drew you to writing, particularly young adult fiction? Were there any favorite writers or stories that sparked your own love and interest in storytelling?

Young adult fiction has always been my favorite, and I’ve been reading it for as long as I can remember. I was absolutely obsessed with the “Gossip Girl” (by Cecily von Ziegesar), “Making Waves” (by Katherine Applegate), and “California Diaries” (by Ann M. Martin) series when I was in high school. I also read a ton by Paula Danziger and Sarah Dessen. I would devour those types of books, finishing them in a day!

As a writer, I can’t help but be drawn to young adult fiction, especially contemporary romance. First, I’m such a sucker for those first feelings—the swooning, the loaded glances, the butterflies! I also think a lot of our teen experiences and the big, raw emotions that come with it are universal, and there is something very comforting reading about others who feel the same way you do. I also think YA allows you to explore important issues, like identity and sexuality, in meaningful and nuanced ways, which is important to me.

No Filter and Other Lies is said to feature queer and Latinx representation. What does it mean to you as an author writing this into your work?

When I was a young reader, I rarely saw these parts of myself in books I was reading. There were so few queer characters; many Latinx characters were stereotypes; fat characters were never the love interest; and forget about characters that had one or more of those identities. You just didn’t see that. So, even though I loved books, the lack of representation often made me wonder if books loved me back. I knew as an author I wanted to try to fix that by creating characters that I’d have appreciated when I was a teenager in hopes that readers might pick up my books and feel less alone.  

How would you describe your writing process? What inspires you as a writer?

My writing process is definitely chaotic. I wish I could say I was one of those pragmatic authors who has a specific routine, who is great about creating outlines, who sits down and writes 1,000 words per day, but none of that is true. My writing is very much about feelings and daydreaming. I spend so much time imagining my characters, who they are, what scenarios they’ll find themselves in, and what might happen—all before I even write one word! Once I develop the characters, then I’m usually able to sit down and figure out a rough outline, but I very much change direction as I’m going.

Sometimes I’m inspired by other media I consume, like books, movies, music, or TV shows, but sometimes my inspiration comes from personal experience or even small things. The idea for my upcoming book, “The Fall of Whit Rivera,” came to me when I was sitting in a rainy parking lot waiting to get my daughter from daycare and drinking a pumpkin spice coffee. So, I never know when inspiration may strike, and I kind of love that!

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

One of my favorite parts of writing is getting to know the characters. It sounds really silly to say since the characters aren’t real, but you get to a point where they feel real, you know? After a while, you start to know what your character would or wouldn’t do. I also love writing dialogue! For me, that’s how I build on the relationships between characters in an authentic way. But I’ll admit I find plotting and outlining to be challenging. I’m very much that person who sometimes thinks, “Can I forget the plot and just write on vibes and feelings?”

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

Don’t edit while you write! This used to be my biggest downfall. I would go back and re-read my book over and over and over and then get hung up on the editing, which would slow down the writing. Now I try to write a first draft as fast as I can and give myself permission for that draft to be messy. First drafts are supposed to be bad! It’s more important to get the story down on the page than it is to have a perfect first draft. Polishing your work comes in the editing. Just write! 

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

“Have you ever been catfished?” And the answer is… YES. Back in the days of America Online, when I was around 11 or 12, I made friends in Backstreet Boys chatrooms. I was young and naïve then, and I was catfished by this random person who pretended to be Nick Carter. We would talk all the time and I was so infatuated. We’d email and he’d be like, “I’ll be thinking of you at my concert tonight,” and I was like, “Wow, I can’t believe THE Nick Carter and I are in love!” Obviously, that person very much turned out not to be Nick Carter. That person’s mom emailed me and my friend to say he had been just pretending to be Nick. It was totally devastating at the time, but it’s hilarious when I look back on it. And also super embarrassing. I can’t believe I willingly shared that.

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

I’m deeply passionate about trying to do my part to make the world better, however possible. I think empathy is one of the most important traits anyone can have, and I’m trying to teach my daughter to bring kindness into every interaction she has. Also: I have a very adorable dog named Obi!

What advice might you give to other aspiring writers?

Write your heart out, get that first draft done, and then be open to edits. It’s through the editing that your book will really come alive. And never read reviews for your own books on Goodreads!

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

I briefly mentioned my next book, “The Fall of Whit Rivera,” which will come out mid-2023. It tells the story of Whit Rivera is a Type A, office supply-obsessed, pumpkin spice latte-sipping, fat Puerto Rican girl, whose story is an ode to second-chance loves, bodies, family, being Puerto Rican, living life with chronic illness, and New England autumns. I can’t wait for people to meet this new character!

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

There are SO many amazing LGBTQ+ books and authors out right now. I love anything by Anna Marie McLemore (“Wild Beauty” is one of my all-time favorites), Adib Khorram, and Jonny Garza Villa. I also adored “The Summer of Jordi Perez” by Amy Spalding, “The Grief Keeper” by Alex Villasante, and “Cemetery Boys” by Aiden Thomas. Lastly—and not a YA rec—“Honey Girl” by Morgan Rogers was phenomenal. Happy reading!

Interview with Clarkisha Kent

Clarkisha Kent is a Nigerian-American writer, culture critic, former columnist, and up-and-coming author. Committed to telling inclusive stories via unique viewpoints from nigh-infancy, she is fascinated with using storytelling and cultural criticism not as a way to “overcome” or “transcend” her unique identities (as a FAT, bisexual, and disabled Black African woman), but as a way to explore them, celebrate them, affirm them, and most importantly, normalize them and make the world safe enough for people who share them to exist.

As a University of Chicago graduate with a B.A. in Cinema and Media Studies and English, she brings with her over seven years of pop culture analysis, four years of film theory training, and a healthy appetite for change.

Her writing has been featured in outlets like Entertainment Weekly, Essence, The Root, BET, PAPER, HuffPost, MTV News, Wear Your Voice Magazine, and more. She is also the creator of #TheKentTest, a media litmus test designed to evaluate the quality of representation that exists for women of color in film and other media.

Clarkisha Kent is the author of Fat Off, Fat On: A Big Bitch Manifesto (Feminist Press, March 2023).

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

CW: Discussion of fatphobia

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

I’d describe myself as an internet shit-talker (laughs)! But on a serious note, I’m a writer who’s been doing so online (and then professionally) for just under ten years. Before then, I attended the University of Chicago to study English and Film. When I’m not concerned with any of that, you can catch me watching BoJack Horseman (again) or playing some version of the Sims.

What can you tell us about your newest book, Fat Off, Fat On: A Big Bitch Manifesto? What was the inspiration for this project?

So Fat Off, Fat On is my first book and while it primarily deals with my life, I mainly use my life story to explain how insidious fatphobia is. And that, yes, it’s not about merely “name-calling”. It’s a systemic issue.

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

My upbringing. It was rather oppressive and in order to escape (first mentally, and then physically, to Chicago), I used writing to tell the kind of stories I was into and wanted to see. Essentially, it was a way to imagine me being somewhere else.

How would you describe your writing process?

A little chaotic for the most part. I jot down ideas/random tidbits in my notes app and on my waterproof notepad in my shower. That’s usually the brainstorming part. But whenever a serious project is on the horizon, I’ll return to my desktop–in its special corner–and throw whatever I need to on the page. I usually also give myself a minimum time (1 – 2 hours) to write, depending on deadlines and etc.

Many authors would say one of the most challenging parts of writing a book is finishing one. What strategies would you say helped you accomplish this?

Some of y’all gonna roll your eyes, but…outlining. It sounds so cliché (it is kind of), but it’s true. If you have an idea of where your story is supposed to end, it’ll be much easier to finish it.

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

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, (and so much more). Presently, I really fucked with Red Lip Theology by Candice Marie Benbow and Communion by bell hooks.

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

Definitely bell hooks. Toni Morrison.

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

Getting paid for it (hahaha). But probably coming back to read the work. Sometimes I’ll wait years to read something I wrote in its entirety and then be like “damn. I really did that)!

Challenging elements would be the editing process. Either I do too little or too much. No in-between. That’s I consider a good editor a national treasure.

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

Other than the obvious, I am a Pluto truther. #JusticeForPluto!!!

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

I can’t think of anything off-head.

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

Consider another profession. I kid, I kid! On a serious note, you need patience. And if you don’t have it, well, you’re gonna have to spend time cultivating it. And I’m so serious.

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

I’m working on a Western about a Black female outlaw and, possibly, another nonfiction project.

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

If you’re serious about fatphobia, and learning about its anti-Black origins, then you need to read Fearing the Black Body by Sabrina Strings.

Interview with Meeg Pincus and Meridth McKean Gimbel, creators of Door by Door: How Sarah McBride Became America’s First Openly Transgender Senator

Meeg Pincus (she/her), M.A., is the author of 26 picture books in the trade and school/library markets. She’s been a nonfiction writer, editor, educator & diverse books advocate for over 25 years. She lives, writes, sings & homeschools with her family in coastal Southern California. Meeg is represented by Jenna Pocius at Red Fox Literary.

Meridth McKean Gimbel is an illustrator, author, and world champion taco cruncher whose work has received several fancy schmancy awards such as the National SCBWI-LA Mentorship award. They are passionate about creating books that are like a snuggly blanket, an open window, and a very accessible door. (Meridth is also passionate about donuts, corgis, and ghost stories.)

I had the opportunity to interview Meeg and Meridth, which you can read below.

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

Meridth: Hello Geeks OUT! Thanks for having me! Believe it or not I used to be a competitive discus thrower and weightlifter. I had a serious injury in college, where I couldn’t walk for 6 months, that permanently took me out of competition. As a kid I had always wanted to be an illustrator or writer, but that type of career was highly discouraged. Losing the ability to pursuit one of my passions gave me the push I needed to pursuit the other. I’ve been illustrating as a freelancer for 15 years now and this is my debut as a children’s book illustrator.

Meeg: Thank you so much for inviting us, Geeks OUT, so happy to be here! I’m Meeg Pincus (she/her) and I write “solutionary stories” – nonfiction picture books for kids about solving problems for people, animals, and the planet. I’ve been a writer/educator for 25 years and I’ve had the joy and honor of publishing 27 picture books.

I also do lots of other things: sing with a women’s acoustic group, volunteer/advocate with LGBTQ+/trans-related nonprofits, cook plant-based food for my family, talk on the phone with my besties (yep, the actual phone!), read and share diverse books, make art, manage chronic illness (my own and my kids’) and my kids’ homeschool studies, eagerly await new seasons of Queer Eye and The Great Pottery Throwdown

What can you tell us about your most recent project, Door by Door: How Sarah McBride Became America’s First Openly Transgender Senator? What inspired you to create this book?

Meridth: Door by Door is a picture book biography about Senator Sarah McBride written by Meeg Pincus, illustrated by me. I get teary eyed every time I read it. In this biography we read that two things were very clear to Sarah, as a young child. She always wanted to change the world through her leadership and service, and that although she had been assigned male at birth, Sarah knew she was a girl. The story follows Sarah as she grows into her leadership roles, and as she embraces her gender identity, eventually sharing it with her loved ones and the world. Senator McBride became the first openly transgender person to address a national convention, to work at the White House, and to become a state senator. This story shows, as Senator McBride has said, “[that we] can grow up as [ourselves] and dream big dreams all at the same time.”

Senator McBride is such an inspiring, well spoken, and graceful person so it’s been neat to illustrate a book about her life. And I will say that as a non-binary kid growing up in the 80s and 90s, I didn’t have the privilege of reading about gender diverse characters who did great things. I’m delighted I get to be part of this team that created such an important book.

Meeg: Please see Meridth’s answer for a beautiful description of this picture book biography of Senator Sarah McBride. I was inspired to write it amidst a decade-long journey that began with reading Sarah’s coming out story in our college alumni magazine in 2012 and realizing with great emotion that, while I’d been working for gay rights for 20+ years, as a cis woman, I really didn’t know much about trans rights or trans experiences. So, Sarah’s story inspired me to dive in and learn from other trans stories, which then made a huge impact on my own life when a very close loved one came to me for support around their gender identity. I had such better understanding and resources to offer than I would have without those stories.

As I had the honor to walk alongside my trans loved one on their transition journey and to get involved in the trans advocacy community, I kept thinking back to Sarah’s story. As a children’s book author, I knew hers was an important story that kids could relate to, and I approached her about writing it – before she became a senator, actually! Fast forward five years, and we have Door by Door!

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

Meridth: I have always loved stories and art. I went through a series of traumatic events in my childhood, and when I was in the thick of it, I didn’t really know who to turn to, so I turned to books. Books were my lifeline then. I know how important and powerful books can be. So, I find it really fulfilling to make books that can help kids feel loved, empowered, and seen.

Meeg: I’ve loved books and have been writing and illustrating stories since before I could even read! My parents were professors and I used to take their extra “Blue Books” – little lined booklets for written exams – and make stacks of my own books, first with scribbles and pictures and then with actual words. I have one in which I wrote my own author bio, at probably age six, that says “[Meeg] loves books. She can hardly stop making them.” (Ha!)

I’ve been working with words and books professionally my entire career, from journalism to academia to book editing, and eventually I found writing children’s nonfiction to be the perfect blend for me as a writer, artist, researcher, and educator.

How would you describe your creative process? And what went into collaborating with others for Door by Door?

Meridth: At my core, I love to research. I read Senator McBride’s memoir Tomorrow Will Be Different, which is so moving. I also read a lot of articles, watched documentaries, etc. on trans history for the spread that talked about trancestors. (I will say that one must research carefully. Trans history has not always been respectfully represented.)

I submitted rough sketches and then my final illustrations to my editor, Kelly Delaney at Crown Books for Young Readers to review. She then would share my art with Meeg Pincus, the author, and most importantly with Senator McBride. I think because of the personal nature of Senator McBride’s journey of embracing her gender identity and life aspirations, we could not have done this book without her feedback. Senator McBride was really generous with her time and an integral part of helping us create a respectful representation of her life, including her pre-transitional moments, which needed delicacy.

Meeg: When I get an idea for a nonfiction picture book, the first step is research, research, and more research! Reading books/articles, watching documentaries/video clips, interviewing people.

Once I have what I feel are enough facts on the subject, I dip into my creative mind and try to come up with an innovative approach to sharing it with kids. For some of my books, that means poetry, for others lyrical storytelling, some are more serious and some more lighthearted. I let the subject and the voices of the subjects guide me to how to write it – within the picture book structure that I’ve studied and practiced and is now second nature to me!

Again, Meredith gave a great answer about our collab on Door by Door. Every picture book takes a village to create, which is why I love writing picture books! I teach a workshop for picture book writers that compares it to writing stage plays, and a big part of that is that the writer is just one piece in a full visual production. All the pieces must work together cooperatively, and every piece is crucial, to create the final artwork. In picture books the main players are the author, illustrator, editor, and art director but also like a theatre, there are all the people on the business side that get the artwork to the public as well.

Meeg Pincus

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

Meridth: Oh goodness, there are too many to name. Here’s a very condensed list of some creatives that I love:

  • Author/Illustrators I adore: Vera Brosgol, Adam Rex, Isabelle Arsenault, Lorena Alvarez, Carson Ellis, Luke Pearson, Anoosha Syed, Wallace Tripp, Tomi Ungerer
  • Authors whose books I love to read:  Neil Gaiman, Charles Dickens, Angie Sage, Terry Pratchett, Kate DiCamillo, Kelly DiPucchio,
  •  Illustrators: Julia Sarda, Ivan Bilibin, JC Leyendecker, Kay Nielson, Eyvind Earle, Luisa Uribe, Maribel Lechuga
  • Animation: Cartoon Saloon (Studio that created Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea), Laika (Studio that created ParaNorman), Over the Garden Wall

… Hard to stop, there is so much to be inspired by.

Meeg: My first creative influence was children’s author/illustrator Richard Scarry, whose books I just loved. (I even wrote to him in Switzerland when I was five and was over the moon when he wrote me back!) Judy Blume was also a huge influence for me as a kid. My mom’s best friend was a fine artist, and she was a great influence and encouragement to me as a creative as well.

Later, influences include so many writers and fine artists I don’t even know where to begin! I’m drawn to art that gives me a visceral emotional response – that can be anything from joy to tenderness, grief, rage, existential wonder; and it can be any art from writing to sculpture to collage to theatre to music to cartoons.

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

Meridth: When I was a kid, I was a mega fan of Roald Dahl. Mostly The Witches, Matilda, and The Twits. I loved the absurdly dark and twisted nature of the worlds he created. It really resonated with me, and it felt really empowering to read about how kids in his stories confronted the baddies. (I still love his books, but he has a complicated legacy that can’t be overlooked.)

A lot more stories have been published featuring gender diverse characters since I’ve reached adulthood, which is so exciting. Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe is one of those books I needed growing up. I feel like a lot of cis folks don’t understand what it means to be non-binary. It would have given me a lot of peace and validation in my youth.

Meeg: Two books I read many times over were The Diary of Anne Frank and Judy Blume’s Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. I related so much to these Jewish girls who had so much emotion, so much to express, so much they were afraid of; they didn’t know where they fit into the world, but they wanted to be brave and make a difference somehow. Clearly, I saw myself in them, and I still relate to them!

These days, I love reading memoirs, particularly by people who may not “fit in” to the mainstream dominant culture – be that due to their race, religion, sexuality, gender identity, disability, body size, immigration or ­socioeconomic status, etc. – people grappling with these same kinds of struggles and finding their voices through telling their stories. I love getting to know different people’s life experiences, which I always find opens my eyes to new ways of seeing and reminds me how alike we all are in so many ways at heart.

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

Meridth: If we’re going to be friends, I need you to know that I’m a big fan of sweets. One of my favorite tasty treats are alfajors. It’s a yummy chocolate covered cookie/sandwich that I discovered while living in Argentina. My husband makes pretty good homemade alfajors, which I am always happy to consume.

Meeg: Hmmm. I worked as a character at Disneyland as a teenager, and I cannot go a day without eating dark chocolate?!

Meridth McKean Gimbel

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

Meridth: The question, of course, is what superpower would I have if I could have just one? I would have the ability to stop time whenever I feel like it. And I would use my superpower in the most boring way. There would be no crime fighting for me, thank you very much. I would just be really productive and take a whole lot of naps.

Meeg: I guess a question about the current book bans of LGBTQ+ and race-related children’s books. Given my roles personally and professionally — in the queer, publishing, and education communities — these books bans are weighing heavily on me, and I’m extremely concerned about them. Cutting off children from seeing themselves reflected in books and learning about others with different experiences and identities than them in books, and from learning about important history and social movements, is cruel and dangerous to a healthy, inclusive, democratic society. It’s a very intentional step toward just the opposite.

What can we do to stop these book bans? Most are taking place locally, so showing up at school board, city council, or library board meetings to oppose book bans makes a huge difference. We can write letters to decision makers, purchase banned books to show publishers we want them, donate banned books in communities where access is cut off in public schools and libraries, and donate to organizations fighting book bans. What we can’t do is let the loud minority trying to ban these books and topics win just because they’re the ones showing up.

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

Meridth: Currently my projects under the radar, but I am finishing up a zany picture book proposal, and I have a dark graphic novel pitch coming down the pipeline too. I love to write and illustrate stories in a wide variety of genres. I want to make silly, dark, serious, nonfiction and fiction, picture book, middle grade, and graphic novel stories.

Meeg: I’m working with some theatre folks who are adapting a few of my books into stage plays for children, which is exciting. I’m teaching workshops with The Writing Barn to picture book writers, which is motivating. And I’ve got a picture book in the pipeline for 2024 (a collaboration with the Smithsonian’s wildlife conservation arm), a true story about a crane who doesn’t fit in with her species but must help save it, which I realize is fitting, given my other answers!

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

Meridth: Who you are and all the experiences you have had, good and bad, have given you a specific point of view. We need your stories, told from your perspective. Believe in yourself, take your craft seriously, and do the hard work.

Meeg: I’d say immerse yourself in the picture books you love. Read them all, study them, figure out what works about them for you. Remember that creating picture books is a craft that takes study and practice, and dive into it. And, most of all, write and/or make art about what you are most passionate about, what’s deep within you, and that will shine through.

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

Meridth: Again, I’ll try and narrow it down;

Meeg: I curate all the book lists for the nonprofit Trans Family Support Services (TFSS), so I would encourage you to check out the TFSS Bookshop (which supports TFSS and indie bookstores) to find all kinds of books specifically about trans experiences and issues: https://bookshop.org/shop/tfss.

I also have my own Solutionary Stories Bookshop, and here’s my list of nonfiction picture books by and about LGBTQ+ solutionaries: https://bookshop.org/lists/great-nonfiction-picture-books-about-lgbtq-solutionaries.

And I hope to be adding more and more books to these lists every year!