Interview with Author & Illustrator Emily B. Martin

Emily B. Martin splits her time between working as a park ranger and an author/illustrator, resulting in her characteristic eco-fantasy adventures. An avid hiker and explorer, her experiences as a ranger help inform the characters and worlds she creates on paper. Her books include Woodwalker, Ashes to Fire, and Creatures of Light. When not patrolling places like Yellowstone, the Great Smoky Mountains, or Philmont Scout Ranch, she lives in South Carolina with her husband, Will, and two daughters, Lucy and Amelia.

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

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

I work as a park ranger with the National Park Service during the summertime and as an author/illustrator during the school year. I love baking, hiking, camping, gardening, and being with my family.

What can you tell us about your latest book, A Field Guide to Mermaids? What was the inspiration for this story?

For me, nature and magic have always gone hand in hand. During childhood hikes with my family, my parents would always point out not just the flora and fauna of the region, but of mushrooms that could be fairy houses or ivy drifts that looked like sleeping monsters. When my own kids were born, I continued this tradition of looking for both magic and science outside. When I first started publishing novels, I knew A Field Guide to Mermaids was something I wanted to tackle when I felt ready to both write and illustrate something.

As an author, what drew you to the art of writing?

I’ve always written as a hobby and turned to it particularly when I began staying home after my daughters were born. It helped me maintain a sense of self outside of being a new mom. After a while, my husband asked if I had ever thought about publishing anything. I hadn’t really, but out of curiosity, I started researching what it took. That brought me through the querying and pitching process to my first published book, Woodwalker, then my first trilogy, then my first duology, and now my first picture book.

What drew you to fantasy, particularly mermaids?

Fantasy was a real home for me as a young reader, and now it’s one of many tools I use in my role as an environmental educator. I try to communicate to park visitors that nature is full of magic if we know how to look for it. And everything in nature—plants, animals, people—revolves around water. I hope looking for mermaids will pique kids’ curiosity in the aquatic ecosystems near them.

How would you describe your writing process?

I’m definitely a plotter. I like having my basic structure laid out before writing—otherwise, I tend to be frozen by all the possibilities my plot could take. My sketchbooks play an important role in developing not just my illustrated books, but my novels as well. With Field Guide, I also went in a cyclical process of research – writing – sketching – repeat. 

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

I was fortunate growing up to be represented by many of the young heroines in my favorite books, but one character that made me feel especially seen was the character of Queen Helen in the Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner. Helen is described as not classically beautiful, with a broken nose and awkward features. In a world of button-nosed, sleek-haired Disney princesses, I used to be self-conscious about my own large, hooked nose and bushy dark hair. I loved reading a character who looked similar and was also skilled, brave, empathetic, and beloved by other characters.

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

Some of my greatest creative influence comes from being outside and learning about nature, especially for this book. When I first started planning it, I wondered if I would be able to come up with enough habitats and aquatic creatures to fill it out, but every time I started exploring, both outside and in books, I found more and more things I wanted to include.  

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

I love research. I love finding new things that spark my imagination and nudge that desire to create, and then I love weaving them into my text and illustrations. I also love the stretches of time where the writing just flows and I can tell all my previous work is coming together.

The frustrating parts for me are all the tertiary parts of writing—keeping up with my finances, tracking sales, maintaining my hardware and software, that kind of thing.

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

For a long time—like ten years—only my best friend knew I wrote and drew fantasy and fan fiction and art. I was painfully embarrassed about it throughout grade school. Now I love that there’s a huge, proud writing culture built around all the weird niche interests we were into in grade school and how they made us the authors we are today. Dinosaurs! The age of sail! Marching band! The Silmarillion! They’re all in the mix for me.

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)?

What’s my favorite owl? Thank you for asking—I’m partial to the barred owl because their call is just the best and they’re such a quintessential Birds 101 Checklist owl, but I also adore the eastern screech owl, and I love the barn owl for being such a nightmare.

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

For young writers in grade school, my best advice is to just have fun with it! Find a friend to write stories with, write fan fiction, and write without worrying if it’s good or not. All of these things helped me foster my own love of writing without realizing that’s what I was actually doing. 

For older writers, it’s helpful to keep your focus on the long game rather than pinning all your hopes and expectations on one manuscript. Writers who expect to publish one novel and rake in the cash/accolades are setting themselves up for stress and disappointment. Adjusting your goals toward slowly building a sturdy career over many books is more realistic and satisfying.

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

I always have several other manuscripts going—I have an adult novel with my agent and a middle-grade fantasy in the drafting stage, and then several others in the planning stages. 

Finally, what books/authors (related to mermaids or otherwise) would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT? 

I really love Makiia Lucier, Intisar Khanani, and the aforementioned Megan Whalen Turner. One thing they all have in common is juxtaposing the mundane with the magical, which makes their worlds feel lived in. On a completely different note, I adore Robin Wall Kimmerer’s work on the spiritual and scientific connections between humans and nature.

Interview with Author Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester is the author of Running, her YA debut, as well as two novels for adults. Born in Lima, Peru, she grew up in Miami, Central Florida, and South Texas, and received a BFA from the University of Miami. She currently lives in Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @NataliaSylv.

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

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

Thank you, I’m so happy to be here! A few things to know about me: I was born in Lima, Peru and have also called Miami, Fl, Gainesville, Fl, Mission, TX and Austin, TX home. I grew up swimming in my cousins’ pool and pretending to be a mermaid (hence, the mermaid book!) and when I wasn’t in the water, I was reading books and writing poems. I’m obsessed with my various houseplants and two rescue dogs. I’ve been (in no particular order) a magazine editor, a steakhouse hostess, a belly dance teacher, a medical biller, and am currently a copywriter and novelist. 

When and how did you realize you were first interested in writing, and what drew you specifically to Young Adult Fiction?

I realized I was interested in writing as soon as I learned to read. Because I was born with hip dysplasia and had many surgeries growing up, my mom used to take me to work with her during the weeks I was recovering from surgery. She had a typewriter in the corner of her office, and I’d keep myself busy by typing up poems on it. 

My first two published novels (Chasing the Sun and Everyone Knows You Go Home) are actually for adults, but for my third novel (Running) I was drawn to Young Adult because there’s something so joyous and hopeful about the moments in life when you’re on the cusp of becoming who you’re going to be. It’s also a hugely critical time, when you’re asking not only, who am I becoming, but who gets to decide who I’m becoming? I still ask those questions. I’m still fascinated by our capacity to grow and change. 

I write YA because when you’re 13 or 15 or 17, you hold all these seeming contradictions—you’re fearless and insecure and apathetic and empathetic and strong and fragile. But really you are everything, and you’re trying out everything, and all of what it means to be human is evolving and alive inside you.

How would you describe your writing process? What are some of your favorite parts of it? What inspires you to write and keep on writing?

I have tried to make my writing process as gentle an excavation of myself as possible. And what I mean by that is that writing is self-discovery for me, and being honest with and about myself is hugely important…but it can also mean that sometimes, I dig deep in places and wounds that I may or may not be ready to explore. So I write slowly. I let my ideas simmer. I try not to put too much pressure on myself on a day-to-day basis. I feel like, so long as I’m living with the story I’m writing (whether that looks like actual writing or taking a self-care day) then I know I’ll bring it to life on the page in the time it was meant to happen.

My favorite parts of the process are when I write something that totally surprises me but that I instantly recognize to be true. There’s power in finding the right words and finally naming something you’ve felt your whole life. 

Your latest novel, Breathe and Count Back from Ten, features a young Peruvian American teen with hip dysplasia training to become a mermaid. Where did the inspiration for this story (and title) come from?

I was born with hip dysplasia and so I was in and out of surgeries as a child. Even from a young age, I would journal about my experiences. At the same time, I loved swimming and I dreamt of being a mermaid. These things were therapeutic for me. When I was writing or in the water, I felt free and full of joy.

I think in a lot of ways, I’ve been writing Breathe and Count Back from Ten my whole life. It’s just that only now do I have the right words and language to make sense of this story. And I made sense of it by making it about so much more than me. It really is my protagonist, Vero’s story. She and I have so much in common but she’s her own person, and writing her taught me so much about who I wanted to be as a child and who I can still be now. 

As for the title, it’s from the first line of the book! It also has multiple meanings, which I shared a bit about here.

You mentioned on Goodreads, that you “used to hide my scars & now they’re on my book cover.” How does that time of visibility feel?

I get emotional every single time I see the cover. I never want any young person to ever feel the kind of shame that I felt about my body and scars growing up. I’m lucky to have shed that fear and embarrassment, but it wasn’t easy, and it took me years to get here. I love my body for all it is, everything it’s been through, and all it’s helped me become. Putting my scars on the cover was never even a question—it was always simply about being truthful and unapologetic. I’m so lucky that my publisher was on the same page about it. If my scars on a book cover can help someone else feel that same love, every little bit of hardness I ever experienced would have been worth it. 

What inspired the mermaid training element? Do you have any personal connections to mermaids or the water itself?

I’ve always felt at home in the water, which is probably why I dreamed of being a mermaid my whole life. Though I never got to audition to become a professional mermaid the way that Vero does, I was (for a short, glorious time!) signed up for mermaid camp at Weeki Wachee, the springs that inspired Mermaid Cove in the book. Sadly, mermaid camp was canceled due to the pandemic so it continues to be a dream, one that I lived vicariously by writing this book!

When you’re not writing, what do you enjoy doing or consuming in your free time?

I have several plants that I’m tending to and constantly propagating. I also really love baking and making art in very hands-on ways. Most recently, I created a mosaic out of vintage repurposed pool tiles, and now it hangs in front of my home.

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

What was the inspiration behind Vero and Alex’s love story?

The book opens with Vero first meeting Alex, the cute new neighbor moving into her apartment complex. They have an almost instant connection and happen to come together at a time in their lives where they can give each other a gentleness that they’ve been lacking in other relationships. I just remember being Vero’s age—looking back at my romantic relationships, there were aspects that weren’t necessarily healthy, and they caused me a lot of hurt. Vero and Alex have both been through so much due to her hip dysplasia and his struggles with depression. I wanted to just give them space to see each other and be there for each other, in a way that didn’t necessarily center their pain. 

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

Be kind to yourself. Writing can be so personal, to the point that we can end up equating our own self-worth with how much we write, how good we think the writing is, whether it gets published, etc. But the best way to nurture your writing is to nurture yourself as a person. 

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

Not at the moment! 

Finally, what books/authors, particularly those exploring Latinx or disabled identity in their work, would you commend to the readers of Geeks OUT? 

I’m such a huge fan of Jonny Garza Villa and can’t wait for their next book, Ander and Santi Were Here. Melissa See’s You, Me and Our Heartstrings (out in July) has been happily on my TBR forever. And Bethany Mangle’s All the Right Reasons just came out in February and is next on my list!