Interview with Authors Katherine Locke & Nicole Melleby

Katherine Locke (they/them) lives and writes in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with their feline overlords and their addiction to chai lattes. They are the author of The Girl with the Red Balloon, a 2018 Sydney Taylor Honor Book and 2018 Carolyn W. Field Honor Book, as well as The Spy with the Red Balloon. They are the co-editor and contributor to It’s A Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes and Other Jewish Stories, and a contributor to Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens and the forthcoming Out Now: Queer We Go Again. They are also the author of Bedtime for Superheroes and What are Your Words?. They not-so-secretly believe most stories are fairy tales in disguise. They can be found online @bibliogato on Twitter and Instagram.

Nicole Melleby (she/her/hers), a born-and-bread Jersey native, is an award-winning children’s author. Her middle grade books have been Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selections, and have earned the Skipping Stones Honor Award, as well as being a 2020 Kirkus Reviews best book of the year. Her debut novel, Hurricane Season, was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. She currently teaches college literature and creative writing, and spends most of her free time roller skating. She lives with her wife and their cat, whose need for attention oddly aligns with Nicole’s writing schedule. You can find her on Twitter @NeekoMelleby.

Katherine and Nicole co-edited the short story collection This Is Our Rainbow: 16 Stories Of Her, Him, Them, And Us which is available now. I had the opportunity to interview them both, which you can read below.

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

KL: Hi! I’m Katherine Locke, co-editor and contributor to THIS IS OUR RAINBOW, a queer anthology for readers 9-12 years old, as well as the author of WHAT ARE YOUR WORDS?, THE GIRL WITH THE RED BALLOON, and the forthcoming THIS REBEL HEART, amongst other titles. I’m a nerd, a cat lover, a horse lover, a writer, and a huge fan of naps. 

NM: Hi! I’m Nicole Melleby, and I am a New Jersey native who spends way too much time by the ocean. I currently teach creative writing and literature classes with a couple of New Jersey universities, and I spend most of my free time roller skating. My debut novel, Hurricane Season, was a Lambda Literary finalist, and I live with my wife and our cat, Gillian, who is basically a puppy. Seriously—she even plays fetch!

How did you find yourself becoming an author? What drew you to telling your first story and what makes you keep going? 

KL: I have been writing ever since I was a little kid! My earliest stories were essentially fanfiction about my life where my mom and I had a farm, I was an only child, and there were plenty of animals. It was true wish fulfillment writing. I wrote my first novel in high school (it was very bad but I’m impressed I finished it!) and kept going. I love stories. I see the world in stories and I hear stories and I’m always dreaming up stories. I think it’s so fun to explore new worlds and new characters, and I find myself learning how to deal with this real world through fiction. I can’t imagine my life without writing, so I guess that’s what keeps me going! 

NM: When I was eight, I saw the Nickelodeon movie Harriet the Spy. I was obsessed, I loved everything about it, but I especially loved the main character, Harriet, and the way she always carried around a notebook to write things in. I used to beg my parents to buy me marble composition notebooks just like the one Harriet had every time they went to a store that carried them, and I would fill those notebooks up with everything. I started off by taking notes about the people around me much like Harriet did while spying, and from there I started writing stories instead. I’ve been writing stories ever since.

Katherine Locke

A good number of your books are queer middle-grade fiction. Was there anything that drew you to writing for this age group? Is there anything about writing middle-grade to you that is distinctive than writing for other age groups?

NM: I actually started with writing young adult. I got my MFA for young adult literature and then slowly found my way to middle grade. I have more of a middle grade voice; I don’t know what it says about me that my natural voice is that of a 12-year-ol, but it’s true! The more I started writing about that age group, the more it felt right, especially because all of my characters are queer and I think that’s such an important time to see that reflected in these books, as you’re slowly understanding who you are. I read once that young adult novels have the characters trying to explore themselves outside of their friends and family, but for middle graders, it’s about exploring who you are within your friends and family and within the people around you, because you’re too young to really have that independence, and I like that. I like being able to write about these characters within the world around them. That’s really what I love about middle grade books.

How would you describe your writing process? Are there any patterns or habits you have to help with inspiration or productivity? 

KL: I like to work around other people! If my bed is within reach, I will nap (see also: the first question.) So I tend to write at cafes (pre-COVID) and when I’m on writing retreats, I like to write in a busy room with headphones on. I usually like to have a hot beverage nearby (tea or chai lattes). I write with and without music, depends on my mood. My writing process is a lot of trial and error. I like to know a lot of emotions and moods and vibes of the book before I go in, but all the nitty gritty details come to me as I work. I go through many drafts to get to the book I want to write.

NM: When I write, I like to be as comfortable as possible—usually with a soft blanket wrapped around me, a huge cup of coffee, and my cat Gillian awkwardly splayed out in my lap. I don’t write to music, I find it distracting, but I do usually have the Food Network on in the background because I can’t write to silence, either. I’ve also always been a “character first, plot later” kind of writer—which I think I get from my love of soap operas and their focus on character and relationships.

As a writer, you have explored themes tied to both Jewish and queer identities in your characters, as seen in The Girl with the Red Balloon and It’s a Whole Spiel. Can you discuss your connection to that? 

KL: Yes! I am both Jewish and queer. It’s really important to me to share those identities on the page, both together and separate. It’s how I connect to the kinds of stories I want to tell. 

What Are Your Words? A Book About Pronouns features a young non-binary child discussing switching pronouns. As a non-binary author yourself would you say this story might be a bit personal to you? 

KL: Though I’m nonbinary, I’m not as genderfluid as Ari, the character in the story, is. Ari’s pronouns change, but mine stay they/them. But Ari’s feels about how pronouns feel when they aren’t the right pronouns is definitely personal. And I hope to grow up to be as supportive and affirming as Uncle Lior in the book!

Nicole Melleby

Your latest book, How to Become a Planet, deals with the sensitive issue of mental health, specifically depression and anxiety. What drew you to writing about this topic?

NM: I wanted to show that mental illness can be a lifelong issue. I wanted to let Pluto explore what it meant for her, now that she has this diagnosis, moving forward. How does it change her? Does it change her? What does it all mean? Getting a diagnosis isn’t the end for Pluto—it’s a new beginning, like it ends up being for a lot of kids (and adults) struggling with mental illness. And it can be scary! She’s got all of these big emotions, and her depression has set her back in a lot of ways while she and her mom were trying to figure out what was wrong, and now that they know what is wrong, where do they go from here? Ultimately, I wanted to show my readers that it’s okay to have these diagnoses, that it doesn’t change who they are, and I wanted to show them that despite it feeling so hard, there is always hope.

What advice would you have to give to other writers starting out as well as those looking to finish their first book? 

KL: Learn to finish books. Unfinished books don’t get published (if that’s your goal). Even if publication isn’t your goal, the art of telling stories relies on the completeness of the telling. Learn to finish books. Even if it feels bad and messy. You can’t fix what you haven’t written.

NM: You don’t have to write every day—I see so many writers wracked with guilt over how much or how little they write day-to-day, and it’s hard! Write how much you want to write, how much you need to write. You decide what those answers are. 

Also: If you’re facing a rejection? I find it best to sing this ridiculous song, because it’s so ridiculous it makes me feel better every single time I have sung it to myself (which has been often, because rejection is part of being a writer!): Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I should just go eat worms. Worms! Worms! Worms!

What’s a message something you directly want to give to the readers of your books? 

KL: I hope you carry that story with you into the world, even for a little bit, and that it stays with you, even for a little bit.

NM: I really just want them to know that they’re not alone, that there are other people who are struggling and that I see them and I’m listening.

Aside from writing, what do you like to do in your free time? 

KL: I ride my horse, take wayyyyy too many photos of my cats, try to remember when I last watered my house plants, read, and spend too much time on the internet!

NM: I love to roller skate with the New Jersey Skate Collective and play roller derby with my Central Jersey Roller Vixens! 

Is there a question you haven’t been asked yet but that you wish you were asked? If so, what is the answer to that question? 

KL: I don’t think so, but thank you for asking this!

NM: Yes! Is there a connection between my (standalone) middle grade novels?
The answer is yes! All of my books (and my short story in This Is Our Rainbow) all take place in the same area of New Jersey—where I call home. Because of this, I make references to my books in my other books: background characters, schools, teachers, locations. I won’t tell you what—you’ll have to read and see if you can spot them yourself! 

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

KL: Oooh, great question. I have a project I can’t speak about yet, but I can tell you that I’m working on a Jewish historical portal fantasy with queer characters, and it’s a bit of a glorious mess right now but I’m extremely excited about it. No release date yet! My next books are a picture book called Being Friends with Dragons out now and This Rebel Heart, a queer Jewish historical with a fantastical twist, out April 4, 2022. 

NM: My next book is called The Science of Being Angry, out May 10th, 2022. It’s about an 11-year-old girl named Joey who has anger issues she’s trying to understand. She throws temper tantrums and sometimes gets violent and gets in trouble a lot in school and at home because of it. She’s a triplet, and her brothers never get angry like she does, and neither does her mama, the one of her moms she shares DNA with. In her search to figure out why she is the way she is, she and her best friend (and crush) end up turning to 23-and-Me to try and find out information on the sperm donor her moms used to conceive the triplets. It’s a messy story about family, as Joey tries to fix things so that her mom (the one she doesn’t share DNA with) will love her anyway, and Joey won’t keep hurting the people she loves most, either.

What queer book recommendations would you have to give to the readers of Geeks OUT? 

KL: COOL FOR THE SUMMER by Dahlia Adler is a super fun book about a girl who falls for a girl over the summer but then comes home to start school to find the boy of her dreams is into her—and her summer fling is the new student. And THE CITY BEAUTIFUL by Aden Polydoros is the queer Jewish gothic light horror of my dreams—and it’s historical, which is truly the icing on the cake for me. The writing is *chef’s kiss* perfect. And forthcoming, I would highly recommend FROM DUST A FLAME by Rebecca Podos out now!

NM: Some recent queer middle grade books that I loved are: A Touch of Ruckus by Ash Van Otterloo, The Best Liars in Riverview by Lin Thompson (out March 2022), and Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston by Esme Symes-Smith (out Spring 2022). 

Interview with Author Katryn Bury

Katryn Bury works with middle-grade readers as a youth library technician. A lifelong true crime nerd, she has a bachelor’s degree in sociology and criminology. Her short and serialized fiction can be found in Suspense Magazine and The Sleuth. She lives in Oakland, California, with her family and a vast collection of Nancy Drew mysteries.

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

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

Thanks for having me! I’m a middle grade writer and a library tech working with youth here in the San Francisco Bay Area. My debut, DREW LECLAIR GETS A CLUE, is set in Oakland, where I live with my husband and irrepressible six-year-old daughter.

Where did the inspiration for Drew Leclair Gets a Clue come from? Did any stories or media inspire the book while you were writing?

Books that I read as a kid, such as Harriet the Spy, and the Nancy Drew series, were definitely early inspirations. I have always loved a good girl detective. For this book, however, my primary inspiration was reading I’ll be Gone in the Dark. I remember reading it and thinking: “wow, I wish I had this kind of hero growing up.” In the book, Drew has a criminal profiler hero, Lita Miyamoto, who was very much inspired by Michelle McNamera.

How would you describe your writing process for this book? What was the querying process like?

My writing process is somewhere between plotter and pantser (plantser?) so I wrote my first draft in a month. Then, I spent several more months revising an idea into an actual story. As for submitting, this book was unlike any other I’ve queried. I got responses that ran the gamut of: “I love this idea!” to “You can’t talk about true crime in a middle grade book; what are you thinking?” I had a lot of interest, but the manuscript really took off thanks to Beth Phelan and the team at #DVpit. After that contest, I got five offers within just a few weeks and signed with my superstar agent, Chelsea Eberly.

Drew Leclair Gets a Clue deals with a subject that gets mixed reactions, true crime. What is the appeal of true crime to you as a fan of the genre?

Like any topic of interest, I think there’s a line between being into true crime and being too into true crime. My interest started, like Drew, when I was just a kid—bonding with my dad and trying to solve Jack the Ripper. Studying the psychology of criminals helped me deal with the “villains” in my own life, from scary strangers, to not-quite-friends, to bullies. That being said, there is another end of the true crime spectrum, including those who have a genuine affection for serial killers and publicly speculate about open cases in a way that I believe can cause harm. For my dad and me, and for so many people who call themselves “murderinos,” true crime isn’t about that. It’s about understanding the mind of a killer in order to feel safe. That sense of security, however false, is compelling.

How did you get into writing, and what drew you to middle grade fiction specifically?

I wrote my first mystery at six (it was very well-received…by my parents) and my first novel at twelve. If I’m being honest, I don’t remember a time in which I wasn’t writing stories. As an early reader, I would frequently run out of books to read. My mother suggested I write more for myself! I have always been drawn to the middle grade space because I adore coming-of-age books. It’s both a blessing and a curse that I remember that time so well.

From your bio and previous interviews, it would appear you have quite a lot in common with your protagonist, from interest in true crime, to both being bisexual and dealing with chronic illness. Was it intentional making this story so personal?

I always set out to write the book of my heart, so everything I write is at least a little personal. The combination of carbohydrates and true crime in this book is a direct homage to my relationship with my father, who passed away in 2017. As for the rest, it comes down to this: as a sick and anxious kid, I read many characters I aspired to be, but none that made me feel seen. The same goes for my coming out as bisexual. That part of me was hidden for a long time because I didn’t see it in the world around me. Media representations were either grim or played for laughs—a big part of why I didn’t come out until later in life. I wanted to write a book that makes kids who are queer, sick, or neurodiverse (or all three!) feel seen. It can be truly life changing to see yourself in what you read.

What advice would you have for aspiring writers?

Everyone tells you to develop a thick skin, but I believe in being yourself. You can be sensitive, as long as you don’t give up.

Aside from writing, what are some things you like to do in your free time?

I can often be found swimming (or just being in the water, really), and I’m a big movie and television watcher. Stories in all forms calm me down. I’ll watch anything with Cary Grant or Audrey Hepburn. I also love reading, as you can imagine, and I still read every new Nancy Drew book.

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

I wish you’d ask what the best Christmas movie of all time is, at which point I could finally tell everyone about the best holiday movie they’ve never seen, Fitzwilly. It stars Dick Van Dyke as a thieving butler who has to pull off a Christmas Eve heist. I promise you; you will not be sorry.

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

Oh, dear. I am working on several and I’m not at liberty to speak about any of them yet. But, stay tuned!

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

I’m can’t wait to get my hands on the many upcoming queer kidlit debuts in 2022. As for what’s out now, in the middle grade space, I adore Kacen Callender, A.J. Sass, and Nicole Melleby (especially In the Role of Brie Hutchens). In YA, I love Becky Albertalli, Leah Johnson, and just finished the amazing Yesterday is History by Kosoko Jackson. 

Interview with Author Aden Polydoros

Aden Polydoros grew up in Illinois and Arizona, and has a bachelor’s degree in English from Northern Arizona University. When he isn’t writing, he enjoys going to antique fairs and flea markets. His debut novel, The City Beautiful, is available now. He can be found on Twitter at @AdenPolydoros.

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

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT and congratulations on your debut book, The City Beautiful? Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Thank you! There isn’t really much to tell. A couple years ago, I acquired my bachelor’s degree at Northern Arizona University, and ever since then, have been working toward becoming a professional author. In particular, I’m interested in writing stories with queer and Jewish protagonists, since I didn’t have that kind of representation growing up.

How would you describe The City Beautiful? And where did the title and inspiration for this book come from?

The City Beautiful is a queer gothic thriller that draws from Jewish folklore. Set during the 1893 World’s Fair, it is about 17-year-old Alter Rosen, who recently immigrated to the US from Romania, and after being possessed by his best friend’s vengeful dybbuk, is forced to embark on a quest to free himself from the ghostly possession. 

It would seem that a lot of historical research has gone into this book. How would you describe the process and how it intertwined with you writing the actual novel?

It was definitely important for me to get the research right. A lot of it was spent working on the timeline, trying to figure out how to link the different events in the story together. The story follows a very tight timeline, beginning on the Fourth of July and ending the same day as a disaster that occurred at the World’s Fair, on July 11th, so I wanted to keep as close to that timeframe as possible. 

The other research I focused on involved Jewish folklore and customs, as well as the evolution of LGBTQ+ rights. I wanted to figure out how Alter would have acted, talked, etc. during that time, considering both the era, the Jewish communities in Romania at the time, and his level of observance. 

As a queer Jewish person, I quickly want to say how grateful I am that more books like yours exist in the world. I feel like there’s often this gatekeeping or expectation about what Jewish stories can be, or are allowed to be, which usually involves a certain type of pain that you might be familiar with. Could you tell us how you felt writing this story into existence?

I’m not going to lie—this was a difficult story to write at times. I drew from some of my own experiences and feelings, so I became emotionally invested in the project. But it was so important for me to get it out there. Like you said—for me at least, it sometimes feels like there’s an expectation for Jewish stories to focus solely around the Holocaust, and to reduce the Jewish characters in those stories to passive victims. I grew up reading Holocaust stories, and more often than not, the Jewish characters weren’t even the POV characters. I wanted to change that.

What are your hopes for the future of queer/Jewish fiction?

I’m hoping that more queer and Jewish stories will be brought into the world. I already feel like there’s so many of them coming forward, and I’m so excited for what the future holds in publishing. I know that I’ll be working on more. 

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

I can’t really think of anything else. The only other interesting thing about me is my love of antiques. 

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

Probably: What other sort of media projects are you interested in working on? And to answer—I’d really love to someday write for video games or television, or do IP work.

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

I have a few books in the pipeline. My next YA, BONEWEAVER is a dark Slavic fantasy coming out in Fall 2022, while my MG debut, THE RING OF SOLOMON, comes out in winter 2023.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers, especially those looking to finish their first book?

Don’t give up. This industry can be difficult and lonely at times, but it’s important to keep going and believe in the story you’re trying to tell.

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

I’m incredibly excited for HELL FOLLOWED WITH US by Andrew Joseph White. I read an ARC of it, and it’s absolutely incredible. I also can’t wait to read FROM DUST, A FLAME by Rebecca Podos, which is a queer Jewish fantasy. 

Interview with Nina Moreno and Courtney Lovett

Nina Moreno was born and raised in Miami until a hurricane sent her family toward the pines of Georgia where she picked up an accent. She’s a proud University of Florida Gator who once had her dream job of shelving books at the library. Inspired by the folklore and stories passed down to her from her Cuban and Colombian family, she now writes about Latinas chasing their dreams, falling in love, and navigating life in the hyphen. Her first novel, Don’t Date Rosa Santos, was a Junior Library Guild Selection, Indie Next Pick for teen readers, and SIBA Okra Pick. Her second YA novel, Our Way Back to Always, was published by LBYR in Fall 2021.

Courtney Lovett received her BFA in Visual Arts and Animation from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She works in different mediums and artistic disciplines, including illustration, character design, and animation. As a Black American and a native of the DC, Maryland, Virginia area, her work reflects her heritage and upbringing, which adds to today’s cultural shift of creating diverse and relatable stories from perspectives that are often underrepresented or misrepresented in art and media.

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

NM: Thank you! I’m a Florida girl who was born in Miami but moved to a small town outside of Atlanta after Hurricane Andrew. I returned to my home state and attended the University of Florida (go Gators!) where a class about kid lit reminded me how much I used to love reading and got me back to writing.

CL: Thank you, I’m honored. I am from the DMV, born and raised in Maryland, where I currently live. I specialize in illustration and character design, but I am passionate about all things storytelling. I love reading it, watching it, analyzing, and discussing it. Switching off that part of my brain can be difficult, sometimes to the annoyance of my family whenever we’re watching movies and tv (haha). My family is my biggest inspiration for my work and beyond. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the outpouring of love and support from them and the community that raised me. I’m also passionate about kids and education, so when I’m not creating stories, I teach digital art at a local art studio.

Where did the impetus to create Join the Club, Maggie Diaz come from? How did you both come to work with each other on this project?

NM: The initial spark actually came from my editor, the incredibly funny and fellow Florida kid, Shelly Romero. As someone who was working on YA novels, I hadn’t planned to write a middle grade story yet, but Shelly came to me with an idea and my imagination just took off. I love writing about friends, families, and communities and fell in love with writing MG. And when Shelly and the team showed me Courtney’s illustrations, the entire project came alive in this really exciting way. Courtney’s work is amazing and she brought so much to the story and characters. It’s a total dream team. 

CL: I was excited to work with Scholastic since their imprint was on so many books of my childhood. When I read Nina’s writing, I fell in love with the project. I saw so much of myself in Maggie and her journey, and she’s so funny! The grounded story combined with the laugh-out-loud scenarios fed into my inspiration. It was also enlightening for me as a Black woman to learn more about Cuban American culture. Representation and diverse stories are important to me, so any project that reflects that, I’m all in.

Photo by Craig Hanson

Do you remember any books or authors/artists growing you that touched you or you felt reflected in your identities in any way?

NM: I loved going to thrift stores with my mom when I was younger and searching the shelves of used books. That’s where I found all of my books as a kid, and so discovering Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban on one of those shelves was a really big deal to me. The title alone was a thrill. I loved reading and tended to secretly imagine some mentioned brunette was Latina like me, but that was the first time I realized a story could be so specific to me and my family’s experience.

CL: Hmm, it’s difficult to say because growing up I wasn’t exposed to many books that reflected my identity as a Black girl. The only one I can think of was the novel The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake I read in fourth grade. It was the first time I read a story that reflected my experience and had characters that behaved and spoke as I did. There weren’t many protagonists that looked like me, but interestingly it wasn’t something I was fully aware of. In the same way I related to Maggie, I latched on to the characters’ personalities and journeys. Judy Blume was one of my favorite authors growing up because her stories had some of the most relatable characters I ever read. The lack of representation wasn’t something I paid attention to until I started comparing it to what I saw on television. I grew up in the 90s and early 2000s watching many sitcoms where Black people were at the center. One of my all-time favorite shows that inspires me to this day is The Proud Family because it combines two things I’m passionate about – animation and representation. I was not seeing that reflected in children’s publishing. Now the landscape has changed and there is a push for representation from all walks of life. I believe both are necessary. Kids should see themselves as heroes of their own stories, but they can also engage with stories where they are not at the center. Everyone gets a seat at the table, where we all can acknowledge our similarities as well as celebrate our differences, where all of us are seen. To me, that is what it means to be inclusive.

What do you think pushed you toward going on the paths you went?

NM: It took me a while to realize that writing and publishing was even a possibility. I loved books, sure, but to become a professional writer? That meant being able to afford going to some fancy college for a hundred degrees or becoming a journalist. It meant having connections or being brilliant and I was not that shiny of a student. But then I rediscovered my love for reading and writing after college. I remembered what it was to be a voracious reader and I had so many story ideas that I knew I had to try. So, I went to the bookstore and bought this huge book about queries and it had all these literary agents listed in it. And then I got to work.

CL: I always knew I wanted art to be my career choice. I didn’t, however, foresee how much the dream would change. At first, I wanted to be a children’s book illustrator, then I wanted to be a comic artist, then I wanted to be a cartoonist, an animator, a writer, a teacher. After I earned my degree, I dabbled in freelance, where I tried anything and everything that would land me more work. My current path in publishing started in 2019 when a client I personally knew approached me to illustrate her picture book. I realized through that experience and my time in undergrad that what I was truly passionate about wasn’t simply the art or being an artist. When I think about all the dreams I had, there is but one through line – storytelling. Once the book was self-published nine months later, that same year I signed with my agent and began my career as an illustrator. The amazing irony of where I am now is that publishing allows me opportunities to live in nearly every dream I named earlier. I’m an illustrator, a cartoonist, I create short comics, I dip into writing, and outside all of that I am a teacher. It’s crazy to think about all these pivots when my career has only begun. The path of a creator is beautiful and unpredictable in that way.

Your first book, Don’t Date Rosa Santos, is a lovely YA novel reflecting grief, magical realism, and Cuban identity. Where did the inspiration for this book come from and what was it like writing it?

NM: I wrote Don’t Date Rosa Santos while I was on submission with my first book that never sold. I was feeling burnt out and anxious over whether this whole writing thing was going to work out. Instead of worrying about that book, I started to write something new that was bursting with stuff I loved. I wanted something where a girl like me could live in a cute, seaside town and not have to sacrifice any parts of herself or her culture to be the main character. I love Rosa so much because writing her book reminded me why I love doing this and that there’s always another story around the corner.

Photo by Jacadra Young

As a writer, what would you say are some of the best and hardest parts of your process creating something?

NM: The blank page can be as intimidating as everyone says it is. There’s such a thrill to coming up with a new story and getting lost in daydreams about it, but then you have to somehow get what’s in your head onto the page and when it’s not clicking or working, it can be really tough to keep writing. But that’s why, for me, I love editing and revising so much. It’s the promise of making it better and knowing you’ll be able to step back later and see the bigger picture. If I can just get those first words down, I know that I can fix it in edits and get the story to that place I imagined or somewhere even better.

As an illustrator, what would you say are some of the best and hardest parts of your process creating something?

CL: The most difficult part of the process is the beginning. A blank canvas can be intimidating. How I learned to work through the fear is to get inspired – an engaging book, a fun movie, browsing artwork from my favorite artists, sometimes a walk – and then come back to the blank canvas with a much more relaxed mindset. The best part of creating is to witness an idea evolve into a completely different result from what I initially envisioned in my head. I find, more often than not, allowing myself to play and be fluid in my process lends itself to better results.

Could you describe your artistic background in some detail, like how did you get into art and what your art education was like?

CL: Since I was very young, I was captivated by the cartoons I used to watch with my siblings. Actually, the reason I started drawing in the first place was that my elder sister did it, first. Like any little sister, I wanted to try all the cool things my siblings did (haha). From that point, I couldn’t put down my pencil. I kept drawing and eventually caught the eye of my second grade art teacher. She invited me to enroll in her art program More Than Conquerors (MTC) Art Studios, where I trained over ten years in the foundations of visual art. Once I graduated from that program, I attended the University of Maryland, Baltimore County where I earned my BFA in Visual Arts and Animation. I’m so grateful for the solid foundation I received at MTC, which prepared me for any challenge I met in undergrad. I credit my training there for my ability to adapt to different art styles and mediums.

How would you describe your writing/ illustrating process? What are some of your favorite things about writing/ illustrating?

NM: I live for the moments when I’m able to capture a feeling or idea. When the words click together in a satisfying sentence that says exactly what I hoped it would. I’m a pretty big outliner and like to work on story beats when I’m daydreaming the story. It feels a little like detective work figuring out what might happen next and it helps me stay engaged and in love with the idea. I’m at my best when I’m obsessed with something, so I love losing myself to a story idea and finding my way around it. And with those beats and outline I feel more confident when it’s time to finally face the blank page.

CL: Much like my body of work, my process can be quite eclectic and my style varies from project to project. For Maggie Diaz, specifically, I was heavily inspired by Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Where my approach deviated from Jeff Kinney’s brilliant style was the amount of detail I included in each spot illustration. My goal was to capture the warm setting of Miami in the environments and the richness of the Cuban American culture in the characters’ features, the hair (my personal favorite part), the details in the food, and so much more. That is what I love about illustration – the opportunity to explore settings and cultures outside my everyday experiences.

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

NM: I’ve never been asked this! I love getting to talk craft and inspiration. Writing stories so closely linked to my identity is a gift that I don’t take lightly, but sometimes it can feel like I get put into the Latinx box and left there until our heritage month rolls around. But getting interviewed about this book has been really fun because I get to talk so much about comedy and humor now too. 

CL: What motivates you to create stories? Kids. Whenever I’m making a decision on any project, young people are always at the forefront of my mind. It was the stories I read and watched as a child that inspired me to become an artist. At the very least, I want to bring joy to young lives. Beyond that, I want to help bring out that same spark in another child and encourage them to use their voice and tell their story no matter who they are and where they come from.

What advice might you have to give to other aspiring writers and creatives?

NM: Remember to stop and fill the creative well with the books, art, and media that inspires you and gets you excited to create. Turning something we love into a job can be tough as the work and all the deadlines hit, so it’s important to rest and hydrate and remember.

CL: Harkening back to my previous answer – allow the dream to change. Have a goal, yes, but do not be so rigid as to limit your options. Explore. Play. Try everything. You never know what skill or insight you will acquire from trying different art forms, or even things unrelated to art. One of my course requirements in undergrad was screenwriting, which I initially had little interest in. It ended up being my favorite class and broadened my interests beyond illustration and animation to writing and directing. You might think because of what I do that my biggest inspirations are other illustrators and cartoonists, when in fact, I am most inspired by performing artists – singers, dancers, actors, musicians, and theater performers. The best advice I can give is to never stop learning and to expose yourself to a wide range of influences.

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

NM: I am working on something and because this is publishing, of course I’m not able to discuss it yet. Ha! But I’m really excited about it and can’t wait to share!

CL: Yes! I recently signed on to a 4-book deal with Scholastic. It is an early chapter book series Disaster Squad written by educator and STEAM expert Rekha S. Rajan. Each book follows a family that travels the U.S. as first responders to natural disasters. The first book will be released in fall 2023.

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

NM: I love Mark Oshiro’s books so much and their latest is a fantastic middle grade debut called The Insiders that is so full of heart, some magic, and is all about honoring ourselves. And This is Our Rainbow just released and is the first LGBTQA+ anthology for middle graders with a wide range of stories and amazing authors! 

CL: Oh, good question. I recently read What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli & Adam Silvera, and I could not put the book down. It’s beautiful, it’s emotional, and relatable for any young person simply trying to navigate life. I can’t wait to pick up the sequel Here’s To Us.

Interview with Author Katherine Battersby

Feature Photo Credit To John W. MacDonald

Katherine Battersby is a fan girl of comics, ice cream, tea and travel. In her spare time she is the president of the Cranky Club and can be found grumbling about bananas, loud music and exclamation marks. She is also the critically acclaimed author and illustrator of eleven picture books and one chapter book, including Cranky Chicken, Trouble and the popular Squish Rabbit series, which have been published around the world. Her books have been reviewed in The New York Times, have received starred Kirkus reviews and have been shortlisted for numerous awards. She is regularly booked to speak in schools, libraries and at festivals and she is a passionate advocate for literacy and the arts.

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

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

Hi – thanks for hosting me on your gorgeous, queer, colourful blog! I am a fangirl of comic books, ice cream, mischief, tea and travel. I am also the author and illustrator of a whole bunch of quirky picture books, like TROUBLE and PERFECT PIGEONS, and I also now get to make my very own comic books (CRANKY CHICKEN is my first!). I grew up by the beach in Australia and now live by the mountains in Canada. I can be found most days either making books, reading books or sharing books with my three year old (and occasionally even my dog).

How would you describe your latest book, Cranky Chicken? Where did the inspiration for the story come from?

CRANKY CHICKEN is a humorous comic book / graphic novel about a very cranky chicken who accidentally saves the life of a super excitable worm. Worm decides they are going to be BFFs – Best Feathered Friends. The book follows their quirky and unlikely friendship across three mini stories.

As for where the idea came from, well … would you believe I’m scared of chickens? Because all chickens are cranky chickens (I was chased by a lot of chickens in my youth). Then one day, during one of my author school visits, I met this tiny girl who was a huge fan of chickens. She told me, “They’re not scary – they’re hilarious!” I couldn’t stop thinking about her, so I decided to spend some more time drawing chickens. CRANKY CHICKEN is what emerged. It turns out we were both right – chickens are cranky and hilarious.

The story itself is inspired by the mischief my best friend and I used to get up to as kids. She was an extrovert who was an only child, so she was always turning up on my doorstep just like Worm – full of excitement and ready to play. Whereas I was an introvert who was part of a big blended family. I never had any time to myself, so I could be a bit of a cranky chicken. Even now we often laugh at how different and yet similar we are. Chicken and Worm are a lot like that, too.

Reading Cranky Chicken, I loved the relationship between the two different personalities, Chicken and Worm. What was it like writing their relationship together?

Chicken was the first character who turned up in my brain and she burst onto the page with that unwavering unibrow. It was clear right from the beginning that she was going to be spectacularly cranky. But she only truly became alive to me when she met Worm. I always find characters most intriguing when you see them in contrast with someone else. When they have someone to react to and bounce off of. So as soon as the two were together on the page, I got a pretty immediate sense of who they were and how, despite their differences (and possibly because of them) they are perfect for each other. I love mismatched friendship tales – maybe because I feel like all my friendships are slightly mismatched. Maybe that’s what friendship is? With my very closest friends I share deep core principles, but there is always so much about us that is different, too (and often quite opposite!). It’s these differences that allow us to challenge each other and provide alternate perspectives and allows for great conversations. Chicken and Worm are just like this, and they are always learning together. These characters are so vivid to me they almost write themselves. They are such a joy to work with.

What would you say are some of your favorite craft elements to work on?

I do love the craft of writing and illustration. All the little decisions and ideas and skills and thoughts that add up to make the magic that is a book. I love talking about it, learning it, teaching it, practising it. I love it all! I think my favourite might be whatever I feel my current weakness is, because I do love a good challenge. Before writing CRANKY CHICKEN, my weakness was dialogue. As soon as I admitted this to myself, my brain threw me the idea for CRANKY CHICKEN. My brain is cheeky like that – of course it went and threw me a dialogue only concept when I felt that was my weakness. So I studied and learned and challenged myself to be better, and I hope I did Chicken and Worm proud!

Could you describe your illustration background in some detail? Like how you got into art and what your art education was like?

As a kid, I always turned to drawing when I was moved by something. It was my way of trying to make sense of a complex world. I loved art all through school and was always known as ‘the girl who draws’. That said, drawing never came as naturally to me as writing. I felt like I could call myself a writer but I was never quite as confident in my art. So when it came to university and deciding what I was going to do with my life, I was too scared to follow my secret goals as an artist and chose something else.

I studied occupational therapy, having always been drawn to working with people (specifically children), and went on to specialise as a paediatric counsellor. I worked in this field for about ten years and I can see now, looking back, that I was kind of becoming a specialist in the hearts and minds of children (something that is really useful now that I make books for kids!). At some point I realised working as an OT wasn’t fulfilling me in quite the way I’d hoped and I turned back to art in my spare time. A friend pointed out that all the art I was making (and the stories I was writing) was clearly for children’s books, which was news to me. Once this was said out loud it was like a door opened up inside me that I didn’t even know was there and very quickly I realised that this was my calling. 

After that I did everything I could to make it a reality. I read everything about becoming a children’s book author / illustrator I could find online, attended workshops, wrote and wrote and wrote and drew until my hand was sore. At some point I realised that I needed some formal education in the arts if I was going to break into illustration professionally. There were no illustration degrees where I was living at the time, but there was a great Arts School and an equivalent to a Graphic Design degree. So I enrolled in that (part time as I continued to work) and basically used my electives to pick and choose and create the degree I was hoping for. I managed to make nearly every one of my assignments into some kind of kids book! My first published children’s book, Squish Rabbit, came from a character I designed for one of those assignments.

For those curious about what goes into making a graphic novel, how would you describe the process? 

For me, the thinking part of storytelling always takes the longest. An idea stays in my head anywhere from six months to several years before I commit anything to paper. This is because it takes that long for an idea to become rich enough to be worth working with – I need to consider it from every angle, watch the characters move and talk and react to each other, consider all the different possibilities and start building the world of the story. Then, eventually, I start making notes and doing some character sketches. Typically I work with the words first, developing the script over time. I let the characters talk to me and flesh out the story bit by bit, letting in unroll in my mind and then on paper. After that I break up the manuscript into pages, figuring out where the page turns will be and how to pace the story across an entire book. Through all this I will also be developing the visual style for the book – playing with how the characters will look, the colour palette and building the visual world. Next comes storyboarding, where I do quick rough sketches of each page, working with the classic comic book panels and challenging myself to come up with fresh perspectives and to match the illustrations to the developing emotions of the narrative. I also have to rough out how the speech will look on the page, fitting it into all the speech bubbles (in CRANKY CHICKEN I use a font I created based on my handwriting). After this I rough out which colours I will use on each page, making sure there’s good variation across the book and that the colours match the mood of each spread. Then comes the final art – doing all the line work and colouring. And then I sleep.

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

I LOVE this question. I haven’t had the chance to talk about gender representation in comic books yet, which is something I’m really passionate about. As a young reader I loved comic books and grew up surrounded by ones my parents collected on their travels – Asterix and Obelix, Tin Tin, Footrot Flats (a New Zealand comic) and The Far Side. But at some point in my teens I realised all the comic books I had access to were written and illustrated by men (and featured all male leads). Of course this has changed a lot over time, but it’s still quite a male dominated industry. This only made me want to make my own comic books even more. As soon as I stumbled across Chicken, I knew she’d be my perfect lead – she’s spectacularly cranky and somehow more loveable for it, plus she’s got this admirable confidence that comes from being pretty comfortable with who she. I wanted to put her front and centre in a book that joys in all her cantankerous ways (we so rarely celebrate female grumps in stories, which is another reason I fell in love with Chicken as a character). All that said, I never use gender to shape a character, but rather allow my characters just to be exactly who they are. Chicken identifies as female, Worm is more gender fluid (which is something I can relate to and is how worms actually present in nature) but both play with different gender norms throughout the book – play is something I enjoy a lot in gender expression. Interestingly, because the entire book is in first person speech there’s no pronouns and therefore few gender signifiers in the book, and I’ve found about 90% of reviews automatically assume both characters are male. It’s a shame that male is still our default – not that I blame individuals, this is a long entrenched societal norm. But I’d love to be a small part of the change! 

What advice might you have to give to other aspiring creatives?

Well … try not to listen to too much advice! Or at least, figure out what works for you and only listen to that. There’s a lot of conflicting advice out there and it can often steer people wrong. I think the best thing you can do is read lots of great books, watch lots of great films, engage with all the art you’re drawn to, do all the things that bring you joy and then write and write and write (or draw and draw and draw). Play with the ideas that fascinate you, as opposed to the ones you think you should pursue. So there’s my advice, which I also advised you not to listen to, so do with it what you will.

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

Yes – so much more crankiness! I have just finished proofing all the final illustrations for CRANKY CHICKEN 2 and last week I handed in the final manuscript for book 3 (phew!). While waiting for feedback from my editor I have a little time to work on a couple of picture book manuscripts I have knocking around my mind. One I’m currently storyboarding and the other one I’m still writing (it’s currently with my critique partners for feedback). I also have a newer idea for a middle grade graphic novel which I’m currently collecting ideas for and world building. I always have many stories on the go, all in various stages of development. My brain is very active and needs to be kept busy.

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

I could spend my life just reading graphic novels and comic books and have so many I’ve loved. Here are just a few that are on my desk currently…

The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner, Strong Female Protagonist by Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag, Snapdragon by Kat Leyh, Treasure in the Lake by Jason Pamment, The Daughters of Ys by M.T Anderson and Jo Rioux

Interview with Writer David Valdes

As a playwright, David Valdes‘ work has been seen across the US and abroad, is published by Samuel French, and earned multiple awards, fellowships, and commissions. He is the author of five books, including the forthcoming Spin Me Right Round. As a gay Cuban-American in a multiethnic family, intersectionality is his jam. He resides outside Boston with his daughter.

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

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

I write books and plays, teach writing and theater, and am a single dad to a teenager. I’m a gay Cuban-American, so a lot of my work foregrounds queer and intersectional stories. My geek side is fed by any hooky sci-fi and all things speculative—I love seeing elements of our world but spun into time- or space-travel, magical or impossible events, and futuristic what-if scenarios.

Congratulations on your upcoming book, Spin Me Right Round! Could you tell us what it’s about and where the idea for the book came from?

Spin Me Right Round is kind of the love child of Back to the Future and Love Simon. My daughter and I were watching season three of Stranger Things together and she found the 80’s stuff really cool and funky, and it was fun for me to re-see my own past through new eyes. I had the idea of Spin Me Right Round almost immediately—Back to the Future was my favorite movie in the mid-80’s. The first draft of the book came so fast, it was done in eight weeks. (I had no idea how many drafts lay ahead!)

What sparked your interest in Young Adult fiction?

I’m around teenagers all the time, not only my daughter and her friends, but 18-year-olds—I teach freshmen at Tufts and Boston Conservatory. Their voices and their ideas fill the air I’m in.

What were some of the first queer books you read and connected to, as well as those that paved your own interest in storytelling?

I found the The Boys on the Rock by John Fox in Mr. Paperback in Maine and was shocked that it said it was a gay novel right on the back cover—and the front has a shirtless gay kid sunbathing on a rock. I bought it and then hid it inside the lining of my coat so that I could sneak it into my house unseen. I only read it at night after my mom was asleep. It was illuminating—gay sex did not work how I imagined—and a little sad, because a rom com it is not. But it was the first time I read a queer story with queer hero, one whose life and loves were treated seriously. 

For many queer authors, fiction is a medium in which they can explore their own truths vicariously, reimagining queer youths that they themselves didn’t get to have. Was there anything like this in the motivation for writing Spin Me Right Round?

I set Spin Me Right Round on a campus very much like the religious boarding school I went to. Whereas I was completely closeted in high school (apologies to my girlfriends Cindi, Jill, and Colleen), my protagonist Luis is out out out. It was fun mashing up worlds, with the guy I couldn’t be sharing space with the guy I was.  

Spin Me Right Round centers a queer Latinx (Cuban-American) protagonist. Could you tell us about some elements of this character you’re excited for others to see in the book?

Luis is a lot – he can be too full of himself but he also can be hilarious. I liked the idea of seeing what happens when somebody so sure of his place in the world ends up in another world.

The book allowed me to create a community as diverse and inclusive as the ones I’ve found in real life but are so absent from popular media. Chaz’s life is populated with kids of color, his best friend is nonbinary, and the important adults in his life are Black and Latina. I’m excited to have a book that defies the pattern of four white boys on bikes with one Black friend and a girl; in this book, the kids of color are the leads; girls and women are core to his life.

On your website it mentions you have quite a background in theater. Could you talk about that a little here and what pulled you towards that direction?

The first play I ever saw was when I was 9. I was really poor and my family never went to the theater. Someone invited me to a local community theater production of the Fantasticks – and I was hooked by the magic they made with simple props and lighting. I started writing skits in high school and plays in college. Now I’ve written 25 plays and one musical—and I still love the magic of it.

As an author, what advice would you give to other aspiring writers?

Rejection is not personal. You have to write, submit, keep writing, and keep submitting. You can’t ever know what a reader’s day or week or year were like before they got your manuscript. You don’t know what pressures their business is under. So many factors beyond you are controlling the outcome. So let it go. 

In both playwriting and fiction, I’ve had rejections that actually led to opportunities months or years later—people who saw my work and didn’t publish or produce it, but who filed away in mind that they wanted to work with me someday when the time was right. I never knew they were thinking of this until they finally reappeared. It’s a good reminder that no one can champion work you haven’t written and submitted.

What’s something you haven’t done as a writer that you’d like to do?

I’d love to be in a writer’s room for TV, helping make stories queerer and more focused on people of color; I’d especially like to work on genre projects in comedy or thrillers, not just topical and issue-focused fare.

As a writer, who or what would you say are some of your greatest sources of inspiration and creativity?

In my life, my daughter, naturally; Spin Me Right Round wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for time shared with her. In writing or the arts, James Baldwin has always been a touchstone, with his queer and non-homogeneous worldview. Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban is one of the most impactful books in terms of my sense of what and how to write. In general, I get inspiration from exposure to all modes of storytelling: hearing people talk about their lives, reading an unusual news story, or watching a great TV show or a movie – any good story can inspire me to make my own.

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

I just turned in a second book for Bloomsbury about the romantic lives of three kids whose actual identities don’t match their online personas very well—and what happens when real and virtual worlds come together.  I’m hoping to be in submission soon with an adult novel about the aftermath of a queer kid’s disappearance in a small town. And I’ve just started writing a fun project I can’t say much about but would be the most me a YA novel could possibly be.

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

Back when I was coming out, I read a lot of Adrienne Rich poetry and was really into Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, as well as all the Baldwin stuff. More recently, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong really floored me. In Young Adult, I’d say check out Kacen Callender and Adam Silvera

Interview with Author Ash Van Otterloo

Ash Van Otterloo was born and raised in the Appalachian foothills, then made their home for seventeen years as an adult in Eastern Tennessee.

They currently reside in the PNW with their best friend and four wild forest gremlins. Ash is the author of CATTYWAMPUS & A TOUCH OF RUCKUS! (Watch for new announcements soon)

Whether or not their house is haunted is a topic for gossip among their neighbors. The ones, at least, that the ghosts haven’t monched yet! You can learn more about Ash at ashvanotterloo.com.

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

Sure! I’m Alder (Ash) Van Otterloo, my pronouns are they/he, I was born in Charlotte, NC, and grew up in North AL/GA/East TN. I’ve always loved expressing myself through language, though I got a later start in my author journey. I’m trans and nonbinary/agender, queer, a parent, a lover of nature and hiking, a lifelong learner, and I write middle grade books with a hint of spookiness and varying degrees of magical reaslism. I also work as a creative writing tutor and freelance editor. 

What can you tell us about your newest story, A Touch of Ruckus? Where did the inspiration for this book come from? Also, nice title by the way!

(Thanks!) A Touch of Ruckus is the story of Tennessee Lancaster, a girl who uses her secret gift (she calls it her ‘superburden’) of psychometry to learn her family members’ difficult secrets and play peacemaker to their constant bickering. She tries escaping the drama to visit her beloved grandmother inside an old growth forest, but there her gift does something new—it awakens a ghost from an old watch who starts haunting her! Her new friend Fox talks her into looking for ghosts on purpose, and soon, they’re both in over their heads. The ghosts have secrets to tell about the Lancaster family, and keeping the peace is not an option!

The story has cozy Halloween vibes, heart-in-your-throat haunting scenes, a tenderhearted nonbinary crush, themes of communication and the importance of mental health awareness…and SO MANY CORVIDS!

As a writer, what drew you to writing fiction/ fantasy, especially that intended for younger audiences?

I adore that fantasy allows young readers to explore their fears and feelings in a way that’s every bit as colorful, adventurous, intense, and fantastical as the strong emotions they’re experiencing at that age. Everything’s new, a little bit scary, and unpredictable! Fantasy can match those big feelings, stride for stride, and serve as a safe mirror—sometimes even a dress rehearsal—for the new experiences of growing up, but in a low-risk, high-empathy way. I really love that. Outrageous stories about struggling characters are affirming, and they say, “No, you’re not too much. Your enthusiasm, interests, anger, and sadness aren’t too big. Your fears aren’t, either. It’s okay that you have them, and you can learn to navigate them.” 

Were there any books that touched you or inspired you growing up? 

You know, I didn’t realize the pattern as a young reader, but I was consistently drawn to stories about community outsiders who overcame difficulties in communication or culture to find beautiful niches in the world to thrive as their truest selves. I loved Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe, The Borrowers, Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web, the Pevensie children, and Beetle from The Midwife’s Apprentice

They were all often displaced or varying degrees of misunderstood yet managed to fight for their character arcs that included compassion, healing, and a desire to bring goodness to the communities that hadn’t embraced them at first. I think those notes of hopeful, Promethean fierceness really stuck with me, and carry over into my own writing. 

Also, what magic systems/worlds/ characters drew your attention then and now?

When I was young, I was so drawn to anything mysterious and weird! I loved cryptids, local ghost stories and legends, and anything that explored possibilities just beyond the realm of everyday life. That hasn’t changed much, though I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for old stories and archetypes, too, and seeing how we’re still using the patterns from legends and fairy tales today. I really enjoy trying to find new ways to explore older-than-dirt themes, because it makes me feel like I’m adding a useful link to a long chain of storytelling. 

Your first published book, Cattywampus (also another nice title as well) features a variety of queer characters, including a character that is intersex (which is still rarely seen in middle grade literature). What drew you to writing about this subject, and do you feel you draw on your own experiences as a queer Appalachian non-binary person while writing in general?

Writing Katybird was a unique undertaking! I needed to familiarize myself not only with many firsthand perspectives of others and the concrete details of what it means to androgen insensitive (Katy’s specific intersex experience), but I also had to become quite clear on how Katy’s experiences and mine intersected or diverged! 

Being nonbinary like me (which has to do with the cultural construct of gender) is different from being intersex (which is a distinct, physical experience). Many people who are intersex are also trans/nonbinary, while others identify strongly with their gender assigned at birth. I decided to write Katy’s character because many people from my home region view both gender and sex as attached purely to a very binary categorization of humanity based on physical sex characteristics—you’re “one or the other”—when this is simply not true. There’s so much variety encompassed in the human experience that falls outside the rigid physical and gender binary! In fact, there are as many intersex people in the world as there are naturally redheaded people! (For more information and a much better explanation of what it means to be intersex, please visit https://interactadvocates.org !) 

Tangible traits are sometimes a bit easier for folks to wrap their minds around, I think, especially for people who are resistant to new information. Careful, thoughtful education and inclusion can go a long way in stretching out people’s ability to perceive the world beyond their own very basic binary understanding. Both physical sex and experience of one’s own gender can defy categorization, and that’s a wonderful, normal, and beautiful part of reality. This is what I hoped to convey to readers. 

In a more general sense, Katy’s arc speaks to anyone who feels misunderstood or undervalued within their home culture, and encourages them to recognize their uniqueness as an crucial and precious gift to the community around them. 

While steadily growing, queer rural/ Appalachian life in literature is still underrepresented. What does it mean to you personally bringing this to the page?

Because queer folks have always existed (and will continue to exist!) in Appalachia and rural areas, I want to be careful when expressing my gratitude for the opportunity to write queer rural middle grade books. In one sense, I count myself humbly lucky to live in a moment in history where the stories are being valued and embraced in the publishing world, because wow, what a happenstance and privilege is that after all that waiting? But it’s not that those queer stories haven’t always deserved space—they absolutely have. So we’re not overly beholden to anyone for this. I view this moment more as a creative partnership that I’m grateful to take part in, as we begin to collaboratively bring balance to imbalance. The world needs queer perspectives, wisdom, beauty, and imperfections, just like it needs every other voice—and it’s lucky to have us. 

I do feel a strong sense of responsibility to write with excellence and honesty, and to do everything I can do hold the door open for more queer writers, especially those writing from intersections of racial diversity, neurodivergence, disability, and fellow trans writers, whose voices are still underrepresented from the region. It takes hundreds of queer rural stories from all different perspectives, walks, genres, interests, and styles to form a beautiful, lush body of work that any young queer person can visit and find themselves present. That’s the dream, ultimately. 

What are some of your favorite parts of the writing process? What are some of the hardest/ most frustrating for you?

I enjoy writing conflict and dialogue! Somewhat related, I love creating relationships between characters with opposing life philosophies, which is my favorite relationship dynamic in real life too. It’s so much fun to see characters challenge one another’s small beliefs just by being themselves, or gently nudging one another toward new understandings through love or opposition. Dreaming up odd couples then setting them free on the page blisses me out like nothing else. 

The most frustrating part of writing is absolutely navigating my own attention span, hands down. I’d write for days on end if my focus would let me! I’m a roamer, and I like to tinker with lots of different hobbies. But in some ways, this really drives me to try and hold my own attention with plot twists and compelling emotional arcs, so it probably works out best for readers in the end. 

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?

Fight the urge to compare your writing to your favorite authors, and instead keep an open mind about what sort of writer you might be. Try lots of different stories and voices, and make sure you’re bringing your own heart and emotional experiences to the table. There’s only one you!

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

Weirdness of every sort makes my soul happy. I adore nature, especially plants, entomology, and mycology! I have a lot of tattoos, a ball python named Sophie Adder (Ghibli/snake pun), three cats, an old dog, and some really amazing kids who I’m lucky to raise. 

What’s your greatest fear? 

Clowns, hands down. The creepy ones are fine; they’re straightforward. It’s the cheerful ones you have to watch for. What do they want from us? It can’t be good.  

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

I’m currently working on a contemporary MG about a 12yo whose mother is suffering from an addiction problem and mental health issues, which the MC compensates for by performing well in school and winning the approval of authority figures. When the mom ends up in rehab, the main character stays with an estranged aunt who runs a close-knit community garden, where they encounter kind, supportive new neighbors (many of whom are elderly, disabled, and/or queer). A mysterious Shadow begins following the MC, challenging their old rules for survival, and slowly the MC begins forming their own identity, separate from meeting their mother’s needs. 

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

I really strongly recommend fellow queer middle grade authors who debuted and sophomored in 2020/2021! We poured so much time and skill into our novels, and despite running into parent after parent looking for great MG books with queer representation, there’s a huge disconnect between the books and potential readers due to pandemic/lack of buzz. And, unfortunately, like everyone, authors are tied to a capitalist system in order for their books to reach young readers. 

If we want amazing queer rep in kidlit, we have to bolster demand via purchase of the big wave of queer MG books which happened to coincide with the pandemic. (Hie thee to bookshop.org!)

Authors Nicole Melleby, Kacen Callender, Kit Rosewater, A.J. Sass, Jules Machias, Jazz Taylor, Schuyler Bailar, and Kyle Lukoff are just a few of my favorites! I’ve also had the privilege of reading Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston (fall 2022) by Esme Symes-Smith, which is excellent. 

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.