Interview with Ciera Burch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How would you describe your writing process?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Lin Thompson

Lin Thompson (they/them) is a queer author of books for middle-grade readers. Lin grew up playing pretend games in the backyard and basement of their home in Kentucky. Now they get to write pretend stories in the backyard and basement of their home in Des Moines, IA, where they live with their wife and cat.

I had the opportunity to interview Lin once again, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome back to Geeks OUT! How have you been and could you tell us a little about yourself to readers who haven’t met you yet?

Thanks for having me, I’m very excited to be back! I’m a trans author of two books for middle-grade readers: The Best Liars in Riverview (out last year) and The House That Whispers (which just came out in February!). I grew up in Kentucky and love to write stories about queer kids growing up and figuring themselves out.

What can you tell us about your latest book, The House That Whispers? What was the inspiration for this story?

The House That Whispers is about an eleven-year-old trans kid named Simon and his two sisters as spend a week in their grandmother’s house—but when Simon starts sensing a ghostly presence there, his hunt for the ghost turns up more feelings and family secrets than he’d anticipated. I knew fairly early on that I wanted to write about a trans kid who starts the story knowing who he is, even if no one else in his life does yet. And I had a pretty good sense of Simon’s character and of the emotional arc I wanted for him. But if I’m honest, what inspired me to make this book a ghost story was watching The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix. I love how the show uses horror elements to explore the characters’ emotional journeys, and I started thinking about how I could use some of the classic ingredients of a haunted house story to draw out this internal journey I was imagining for Simon and bring it out into his world.

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

I’ve wanted to be a writer for longer than I can remember—storytelling is just something I’ve always loved. Even when I wasn’t reading or writing as a kid, I was always playing pretend games or making up stories with dolls or stuffed animals. I love writing for middle-grade specifically because it’s such a formative time in developing your worldview and starting to understand more of the world outside yourself. I probably read more at that age than I have at any other point in my life, and so many of the books I read back then have stuck with me, in big ways and small.

How would you describe your writing process?

Somehow both very organized and very chaotic at the same time. I almost never write or revise in order—I’m always jumping around depending on which scene is caught in my head that day or which scene has gotten me stuck. I love being able to just follow where my interest takes me. But it also means I have to have a very solid sense of the plot and structure before I can get very far into working on a story. I love making outlines and beat sheets and lists of scenes—even when those lists inevitably change about a hundred times through the process.

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

I definitely understand that challenge—even though I’ve been writing for my whole life, my debut was only the second book I’d ever actually finished, and it took me years and years to even get a first draft done. But I think the biggest help for me is having external accountability—someone besides just me to push me and ask when the book will be ready, haha. The House That Whispers is the first book I’ve written under contract with a publisher, and it made a huge difference to have that official deadline and to be able to work with my editor throughout the process. (To compare with that years-long timeline from my first book, this one went from an idea to a draft to a fully revised manuscript in less than a year total.)

But that external accountability doesn’t have to be an agent or editor or anything official—it can be a friend, or a beta reader, or a made-up deadline you’ve set for yourself and told your friends to hold you to. I might never have finally finished that first book if I didn’t have my amazing writing group to help push me. Writing is such a solitary activity, but it can be hugely helpful to have a community of other writers where you can all cheer each other on.

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

There were definitely books that I connected with as a kid, but I don’t remember reading a book with a specifically queer character until I was well into college. Instead, queer fanfiction sort of filled that role for me, and had a big hand in helping me realize that I was queer. There were so many amazing queer creators writing these beautiful, nuanced explorations of identity in ways I’d never seen before, and that helped me see myself reflected in ways I hadn’t even known to look for yet.

And now, even just within middle-grade, there are so many books coming out that would have totally changed my life if I’d had them as a kid. I cried more than once reading Kyle Lukoff’s Too Bright To See because of how closely the narrator’s experience of gender mirrored my own in younger years, before I had the words for what I was experiencing. And Nicole Melleby’s In the Role of Brie Hutchens explores what it’s like to be a queer kid raised in a very Catholic environment in a beautiful, funny way that hit me really hard.

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

I love to branch out into other creative projects when I hit a writing block—baking, painting, doing embroidery. All of it feels so much better than just staring at a blank page feeling bad about myself, and having other hobbies can really help refill my creative well. My latest project is historical fiction, so sometimes when I’m stuck on something in it I’ll give myself permission to just poke around through the research and go down all kinds of rabbit-holes into weird and interesting parts of history, and see what sticks.

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

My absolute favorite feeling when I’m writing is when I know something in the plot isn’t working but I’m totally stuck on how to fix it—and it’s incredibly frustrating, and I’m sure there’s no solution. And then finally, I find some piece of the story that I’ve been assuming has to be a certain way, and I realize that it doesn’t, actually, and I can just change it to fix the problem. Because it’s all made up. Which sounds so obvious, and yet somehow I forget that every time! But I made the whole story up in the first place, and I can adjust whatever I need to, and it’s empowering and terrifying at the same time. I always feel like I’m breaking the book when I make changes like that, but I love the feeling of getting to put it back together better.

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

I have a cat who’s very cuddly and too smart for her own good and is absolutely perfect. I really enjoy studying old maps and am slightly obsessed with historic sailing ships. And this last one is a little bit of a brag but—like Simon in The House That Whispers, I am also very good at Tetris.

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

Have you ever lived in a haunted house? Which, I don’t think so, but my old high school was definitely haunted, and the teachers had all kinds of stories, and sometimes for drama club we had to store props in the haunted section of the third floor and it was terrifying.

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

Figure out the writing process that works for you! Everyone’s brain is different and no one’s creative process is going to look exactly the same, so don’t be afraid to experiment with different strategies and approaches and see what feels right for you.

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

I’m still in the very early brainstorming stages for my next middle-grade book. In the meantime, though, I’ve been working on a YA historical fantasy that’s very, very queer, which has been a really fun challenge and something I’m really excited about!

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

In middle-grade, I loved Camp QUILTBAG by Nicole Melleby and A.J. Sass. In YA, I’m super excited for Jen St. Jude’s If Tomorrow Doesn’t Come (I got to read an older draft of it and was fully bawling in the most beautiful, cathartic way). Others I’ve loved lately include We Deserve Monuments by Jas Hammonds, When The Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb, and The Sunbearer Trials by Aiden Thomas.

Header Photo Credit Katherine Ouellette