Interview with Writer Chad Lucas

Chad Lucas has been in love with words since he attempted his first novel on a typewriter in the sixth grade. He has worked as a newspaper reporter, communications advisor, freelance writer, part-time journalism instructor, and parenting columnist. A proud descendant of the historic African Nova Scotian community of Lucasville, he lives with his family near Halifax, Nova Scotia. He enjoys coaching basketball and is rarely far from a cup of tea. Thanks a Lot, Universe is his debut novel. I had the opportunity to interview him, which you can read below.

First of all, congratulations on your debut. Could you tell us in your own books what your debut book, Thanks A Lot, Universe, is about?

Thank you, Michele! Thanks A Lot, Universe is about two seventh-grade boys, and it’s told in alternating chapters from each of their perspectives. Brian has always been anxious, but things get worse when he and his brother are placed in foster care. Ezra notices Brian pulling away and wants to help, but he worries his friends might figure out he has a crush on Brian. But when Brian and his brother run away, Ezra takes the leap and reaches out. Both boys must decide if they’re willing to risk sharing parts of themselves they’d rather hide. If they can be brave, they might find the best in themselves—and each other. 

What books inspired you growing up? What books inspire you now?

I was a huge Gordon Korman fan growing up. His books made me laugh so much. I also loved a lot of kidlit classics—Roald Dahl, Judy Blume, the Chronicles of Narnia. But what I rarely saw in those books were kids who looked like me. So now I draw a lot of inspiration from kidlit writers like Jason Reynolds, Lamar Giles, and Julian Winters, to name just a few. I also admire Rebecca Stead and Laura Ruby, who are both so inventive but also gifted at crafting great characters. 

How did you find yourself coming to write this story? What drew you to writing in general?

I’ve loved writing for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been lucky enough to make a living with my words, first as a journalist and later in communications. But fiction was always my first love. For this book, I had Brian’s character and general story arc in mind for years. I tried to write it in different ways that just didn’t click until I realized that Ezra needed his own storyline too, and I wove the two together. 

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

It does feel like LGBTQ+ Middle Grade books are becoming more common, though when you look at how much Middle Grade has grown overall lately, there’s definitely room for more. For me, Eric Bell’s Alan Cole is Not a Coward and the sequel, Alan Cole Doesn’t Dance, were really influential—and I was lucky enough to work with Eric as a mentor on Thanks a Lot, Universe. I also love The Best at It by Maulik Pancholy and Felix Yz by Lisa Bunker. One great thing about both of those stories is that the main characters’ sexuality isn’t the sole focus; it’s just part of who they are. Stories that help middle graders explore their identities are certainly important, but I’d also love to see—and write—more Middle Grade books where kids are just queer as a matter of fact.

Though the book is not autobiographical, you have stated in various interviews that it does explore issues you went through in junior high as well, such as anxiety, discovering queerness at an early age, and so on. Would you say fiction is a safe medium for authors to explore their own lives and issues?

I can’t speak for everyone, but that’s certainly been the case for me. I grew up in a conservative evangelical environment, and I knew by junior high that I wasn’t straight but I was well into adulthood before I could comfortably call myself queer. Writing a kid like Ezra, who accepts himself in a way that I couldn’t at that age, was liberating in ways I didn’t expect. I heard a great quote from A.S. King in a podcast recently where she said she asked teenagers in her writing workshop, “What makes you angry right now?” I love that. Not that all writing must be driven by anger, but the heart of that advice is to dig into the things that matter most to you. I think doing that can be both a healthy outlet and the source of our best work.

Out of all the age groups to write for, the Middle-Age can be one of the trickiest to write for as the audience is both vulnerable and particular as middle-graders? What drew you to writing Middle-Grade, as opposed to other age groups?

I really like middle graders! I’m a parent, I’ve coached a lot of kids between 10-13 in basketball, and they make me laugh all the time. One of my favorite events from my book launch week was a virtual school visit with two seventh grade classes. They asked such great questions, and I had a blast. I find it such a fun age to write for as well. Kids that age are discovering themselves, they’re starting to tackle big ideas and decide what they’re passionate about, and books can be part of that journey. 

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

Three things about me:

  1. I’m Canadian, and it pains me every time I have to surrender the ‘u’ in words like “favourite” and “colour” to make my American publisher happy. (I still love you though, Abrams!) 
  2. I love the beach and I’m not sure I could handle living too far from the ocean. 
  3. I play the piano, and my latest pandemic project is learning Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

What advice would you have to give to authors, especially other QPOC authors?

Write the stories that feel truest to you, in the way that feels truest to write them. Publishing is a strange and fickle beast, and all we really have control over in this industry is how we write. And feel free to write stories that are full of joy. Serious topics will always have their place—there are certainly some in my book—but queer kids of color also deserve to see characters like themselves solving mysteries and learning magic and doing things that other kids in books get to do. I don’t know who first coined this phrase, but I believe that joy is an act of resistance. 

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

I’m in the editing stage on my next book, due out next spring. It’s quite different from my debut—a Black boy moves to a mostly white small town and stumbles across some spooky things happening behind the scenes. I’m looking forward to saying more about it soon!

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

I think anyone who likes Thanks a Lot, Universe will also enjoy Almost Flying by Jake Maia Arlow, which releases on June 8. It has a whole cast of queer characters, found family, and roller coasters! And Meow or Never by Jazz Taylor is also a sweet Middle Grade story about dealing with anxiety and facing a first crush.

Interview with Author Ashley Herring Blake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are some tips for writing dialogue? 

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

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

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

Interview with Alyssa Zaczek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview: Brandy Colbert

Known for her diverse and beautifully written books, Brandy Colbert is the best-selling author of PointeLittle & LionFinding Yvonne, and now her Middle-Grade debut The Only Black Girls in TownRaised in Springfield, Missouri, Colbert currently lives in Los Angeles, and is currently on faculty at Hamline University’s MFA program in writing for children. Geeks OUT’s own Michele Kirichanskaya had an opportunity to interview Brandy Colbert recently, which you can read below.

To start off, congratulations on your debut middle-grade book, The Only Black Girls in Town. Where did the impetus for this book come from and what were your thoughts going into this novel?

Thank you so much! I’m thrilled to be writing for a new age group. I knew I wanted to write a middle grade novel, but I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted it to explore until one day I had the idea: What would happen if you were the only Black girl your age in your town and another Black girl your age moved in? My life doesn’t parallel Alberta’s, but like her, I grew up in a predominantly white town. I had friends at the Black church I attended every week, but I didn’t go to school with any of them and always wished for more Black girls my age at school.

As a critically acclaimed author known for your Young Adult novels, how was the creative process different when writing a novel intended for younger readers? In what ways was the process the same?

At first, I was too focused on that age difference, and tried too hard to make the story read like what I thought a middle grade novel was supposed to sound like. I’ve read a lot of modern middle grade, but I wasn’t quite sure how to make that transition. Once my literary agent told me not to focus too much on that and just write, the story fell into place. I’m still trying to figure out the difference, but I think there is a lighter feel. I’m tackling heavy topics, like in my YA novels, but there is something a bit gentler about being twelve, even though middle-school kids are already dealing with a lot of issues at such a young age. There’s an innocence and openness that unfortunately fades for a lot of people by the time they get to high school, so I tried to capture that sweet spot of being on the cusp of adolescence. 

As an author, you have previously included LGBTQ+ characters and themes in your other books, such as the Stonewall awarded book Little & Lion. You have also mentioned in previous interviews that you grew up in an environment not known for much “diversity of any kind.” Has this factored into your persistence to include diverse representation? How important would you say representation is for younger readers today?

I grew up in the Missouri Ozarks, about two hours from the Arkansas border, where it was a bit rough for anyone from a marginalized community. I had a lovely, privileged childhood, but I always felt like I was under a microscope as one of the few Black people in our town. I wanted more people around who looked like me, but I also wanted to meet people from other underrepresented backgrounds to learn about their experiences. I didn’t meet an openly gay person until I was 18, and I remember thinking how brave my coworker and his husband were for living their truth in such a closed-minded region, especially back in the ’90s. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for a long time now, which is one of the most diverse cities in the country, so I try to write the world as it looks for me. Writing a world without LGBTQ+ characters just isn’t realistic to me. But I also like to represent Black kids and other marginalized groups living in towns where they are the “other” because that’s a very real experience, too.

If the characters of your stories could interact with other characters from any fictional universe, which ones would they be and where would they be from?

Ooh! Well, I love animation, and one of my favorite shows of all time is Daria, so I’d love to see my characters go back to the late ’90s to interact with Daria, Jodie, Trent, Jane, and the rest of the Lawndale crew in animated form.

Aside from writing, what do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I love cooking, baking, tap-dancing, reading, yoga, and hiking. I’m also a huge TV fan, and like going to the movies.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers today?

Try to shut out the noise, keep going, and keep improving your craft! That’s advice I have to remind myself of often, as there are so many other things to focus on in the publishing industry. But at the end of the day, all that matters is the work and putting out books that I’m proud of.

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

My next YA book, The Voting Booth, will be out on July 7 from Disney-Hyperion, which I’m really excited about! And then there are projects that haven’t yet been announced that I should be able to talk about soon, including my next middle-grade novel. I can’t wait to tell everyone more about them!

Finally, since this is an LGBTQ+ website, are there any LGBTQ+ authors and/or books that have inspired you and your own work? Can you recommend any titles or authors for other readers?

So many! I highly recommend anything by Nina LaCour, Abdi Nazemian, Ashley Herring Blake, Lev (L.C. Rosen), Kacen Callender, and Adib Khorram. I could go on, but these authors are writing really special books that speak to so many kids and teens who’ve never seen themselves depicted in literature before. Their stories are beautiful, sometimes painful, and always real, and I’m so grateful their books are on shelves as both mirrors for kids who desperately need that representation, and windows for people like me, who grew up wanting to know more about communities that were different from mine.