Interview with Amber McBride, Author of Gone Wolf

Amber McBride is an English professor at the University of Virginia. She also low-key practices Hoodoo and high-key devours books (150 or so a year keep her well fed). In her spare time, she enjoys pretending it is Halloween every day, organizing her crystals, watching K-dramas, and accidentally scrolling through TikTok for 3 hours at a time. She believes in ghosts and she believes in you.

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

CW: Discussion of Unite the Right Rally and depression.

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

Hi, so happy to be here! Thank you for having me!  My name is Amber McBride, and I am the author of Gone Wolf, Me (Moth) and We Are All So Good At Smiling! I am a poet and professor who lives in the countryside in Virginia. I am also a Mother of Bees, two hives of bees to be exact—one is feisty one is relatively calm. Outside of professoring and writing I practice Hoodoo, which is an African American folk magic system.

What can you tell us about your latest book, Gone Wolf? What was the inspiration for this story?

The idea for Gone Wolf first flickered to life after the Unite the Right Rally that happened in my mother’s hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia in August of 2017. Being Black and living in the United States is such a compilated, nuanced and sometimes frightening experience. I wanted to challenge myself to dive deeper into that nuance and fear. The only way I could do that was by leading with feeling which is what the main character, Imogen, does throughout Gone Wolf. I sat with the idea for a long time and ended up writing several versions before the story of Imogen and Ira surfaced.

While writing this book I also read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson for the second time in my life and the feeling that history often repeats when it is not told truthfully really came to light.

As an author, what drew you to the art of storytelling, particularly novels in verse?

I come from a lineage of storytellers; people who told stories but did not write them down. So, I think storytelling, mythmaking, folklore crafting is in my blood. I was always a child who felt a lot—like my skin could not hold all the emotions inside of me. Then, out of nowhere, when I was 11 I wrote a story about a unicorn who flew down from the sky and saved a little girl from all her feelings. Soon after that I wrote my first poem. For me poetry became a gift that helped me process complex emotions.

In my books I usually write in verse when the heart of what I want the reader to grasp is a feeling that I can’t explain. A feeling that poetry gives life to. Gone Wolf is mostly written in prose because it has a clear message—what happens when we don’t tell history correctly?

As someone who has written both young adult and middle grade fiction, what attracts you in writing for these demographics?

I trust young adults as readers. I trust that they can glide on vibes and feelings. I trust that they will follow a character to the edge of the known universe even if the plot is wonky. It’s a privilege to write for young people.

When I write poetry for adults, I know logic will enter the chat very quickly. I love the whimsy, joy, and hope that YA and MG has space for, but most of all, writing for this demographic makes gives me hope. Young people make me hope-filled.

Regarding your previous work, We Are All So Good at Smiling, I found it profoundly beautiful how you explored the subject of mental health with magic. What inspired you to write about depression this way? Also, if you feel comfortable, could you talk a little about what writing about this subject means to you?

Thank you for this question. I’ve been an advocate for mental health awareness for all my adult life. I was first “officially” diagnosed with clinical depression in college and more recently diagnosed with treatment resistant depression—so my mental health is something that stiches through much of my life. I wanted to write about it differently in We Are All So Good at Smiling because the haunting feeling of being depressed is so real, heavy and often it feels like only magic can help it.

I also wanted to highlight that anyone can experience depression—Baba Yaga, Mama Wata, it’s not a thing to ashamed of and there are many tools and resources out there to help. In We Are All So Good at Smiling, Whimsy and Faerry realize that there are flickers of magic everywhere; in friendship, in community, in fairytales and with the right tools they can make it out of any haunted garden.

In previous interviews, you’ve discussed how you and your characters are informed by unique belief sytems such as root work and Hoodoo. Would you mind speaking a little of what it means to you to feature this in your books?

Seeing a belief system that had to be hidden for hundreds of years on the page means everything to me. My ancestors crafted Hoodoo while in bondage and used its tenants to keep healthy and to create balance. My ancestors are fierce and brave—I hope they are proud of me.

These practices sustained my ancestors and have fortified me. When I have young people, from all backgrounds, ask me about it I love being able to start a conversation about ancestral respect, herbalism and magic—finding power in oneself and the living world around them.

How would you describe your writing process?

I don’t plot. I don’t have daily word goals, but I do sit down six days a week hoping diligence gets creativity to spark.

Dance is a huge part of my process. I was a competitive contemporary dancer when I was younger. So, I often will want words to feel like a certain sequence of choreography on the page, which means I am often standing up moving, then sitting back down and writing.

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

As a kid the stories that most touched me were the ones that my dad told me and my sister as bedtime stories. They were tall tales of him growing up in Alexandria, Virginia and Washington DC. Outside of that the stories that my grandparents and great uncles told me—I would listen to them for hours.

That’s not to say there was not literature I loved, Chronicles of Narnia series, Amber Brown is not a Crayon books—but there were not many books with characters that looked like me in the 1980’s-90’s. When I was in high school, I devoured Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. That’s when I really started seeing myself in books. When I met Toni Morrison right out of grad school, I sobbed.

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

Dance. Music. Nature. People. Dance (again). Documentaries. The phases of the moon. My bees. The fact that crows can talk but just don’t! Forests are connected by a network underground! Love is a medicine that amplifies all others!

Everything. Life. Curiosity.

Also (always) ancestors inspires me.

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

I love editing. I think that’s the poet in me. At risk of sounding too cliché, I really don’t find any part of writing frustrating. I find joy in the working and unworking of it. Like when you are learning new choreography and you practice till the movement fits your skin seamlessly. Like when you have to dig a 24-inch-deep hole to plant a tree and when you are filling the dirt back in all you are thinking about is how at this very moment—the living soil and living roots are conversing; literal magic is happening. I like the process in most things, especially writing.

Wait, I just remembered, I do very much dislike the first round of copyedits on novels in verse. lol. 

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

Don’t feel like you must write in sequence. Write what you are excited about.

Let yourself write badly. No first draft is stunning.

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

Mystery is fine.

Jokes aside, I think everything you need to know about me is in my books.

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)?

Q: If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

A: If you believe every living thing (even trees and leaves and streams) have awareness and a soul, yes. If you don’t, no. So, clearly the answer is, yes.

This question spurs hour long debates with my friends.

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

Only you can write the story living in your heart and I promise you, someone needs it. Someone is waiting for it.

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

Very excited to hype up all the extraordinary Black poets featured in Poemhood: Our Black Revival, which is a young adult poetry anthology on folklore and the Black experience that comes out January 30, 2024. My debut (adult) poetry collection, Thick with Trouble, comes out in February 13, 2024. My next MG, Onyx and Beyond, is inspired by my dad and is about a boy named Onyx whose mother has early onset dementia, come out in October 2024. Also, a picture book in 2025.

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

This is my favourite question! In the Shadow Garden by Liz Parker is a perfect fall witch book. This Appearing House by Ally Malinenko is brilliant, and her next book Broken Dolls is also wonderful. Vinyl Moon by Mahogany L. Browne is an excellent novel in verse and To Break a Covenant by Alison Ames who also has a pirate book and a demon book coming so look out for her name. I am most looking forward to The Other March Sisters which is a queer Little Women reimagining coming out in 2025 and Blood at the Root by LaDarrion Williams.

Interview with Author Stephanie Burt

Stephanie Burt is Professor of English at Harvard University and the author of several previous books of poetry and literary criticism, among them Advice from the Lights, Belmont and Close Calls with Nonsense, as well as The Poem Is You.

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

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

I write about poems and comic books and science fiction and pop songs. I teach at Harvard. My hair is longer than it’s ever been and my nesting partner just dyed it ultramarine and I love it. Together we take care of two human kids and two cats and one dog, who is looking at me with slow sad eyes right now, because she wants another walk, even though she’s had five today. Oh, fine. Let’s go, Toasty. [walks dog] Also I am an easy mark. Just make big sad eyes at me and I’ll do anything. 

What can you tell us about your latest book, We Are Mermaids? What inspired the collection?

It’s about finding queer and trans community. It’s about reaching out and connecting to people who share your fins and scales, or your experience of roundness in a straight world, or your lifelong identification with the Red Queen of the Hellfire Club, Kate Pryde, the Captain of the privateer Marauder.  It’s about my friends. It’s also about punctuation marks. Each punctuation mark that speaks a poem represents a particular queer community. Trans girls, of course, are quotation marks.

Why mermaids?

Because we’re comfortable where the straights can’t be comfortable, and very much vice versa. Because we’re not dangerous, really, but land people think we are.  Because everyone knows we’re trans. Because we’re attested in many traditions.  Because they’re low femme, like me, with sparkly hair. Because we like clams. 

Also because if we’re going to get through global climate change, we need to learn to live with the water in ways that coastal humans have only sometimes learned to do so far.

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

Early on: Asimov, and Chris Claremont and Ann Nocenti and Bill Sienkiewicz and Paul Smith, and William Butler Yeats and Samuel R. Delany and James Tiptree, Jr., in middle school. Robert Lowell made me think that I could and should write about my teen baby-trans angst in painful detail. Elizabeth Bishop showed me that I didn’t have to write that way: there were other options. John Donne. Marianne Moore. Paul Muldoon.

If you want a single wormhole into the part of me that makes up poems, as poems, you might not do better than Marianne Moore’s “The Steeple-Jack.” But if you want a window into the part of me that wants to tell stories, period, try New Mutants, vol. 1, no. 21. 

How would you describe your creative process?

Find time, make time, try not to blow off your friends. I write when I can. I’m lucky: my kids are old enough that I can ask them to wait five minutes for something and I won’t feel too guilty about that. Seriously, though, I just… try to find the time. I have no idea.

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

Definitely magnesium, followed by fluorine. I’m sorry. I’ll show myself out now. 

For real? I have come to think of even my weirdest and most personal writing as social. Writing and reading poems, in particular, lets me share, and embody, and make interesting to others (if the poem works), parts of myself I did not even know were there.

I have trouble knowing when poems are finished. And I can’t come up with satisfying narrative work all by myself. I used to think I couldn’t tell stories. Now I think that when I’m on my own I don’t want to tell stories, but I love telling stories in collaboration: tabletop role-playing games, for example, or fanfiction (which is a kind of collaboration with existing characters and stories), or just co-writing comics scripts and prose. (I’ve written published fiction together with other authors, such as Mara Hampson and Rachel Gold, and I’m certain to do more of that.)

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

Now that’s a broad question! The novels of Rachel Gold. The music of Game Theory and the Loud Family. New Mutants comics by Vita Ayala and Rod Reis. The Songs and Sonets of John Donne. Commissions from my friends, allies, and editors, seriously—the punctuation poems in We Are Mermaids came about because Nicholas Nace from Hampden Sydney Poetry Review asked if I had any punctuation poems, and the Dazzler and Plastic Man poems are indirect commissions from the comics scholar and critic Douglas Wolk!

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

Hi, I’m contacting you on behalf of a company famous for publishing superhero comics. Would you like to write one? Why, yes, I would.

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

I miss attending Minnesota Lynx games. I used to make phone calls and knock on doors for the DFL (the Democratic Party in Minnesota) and I’m pretty serious about working within existing institutions to make progressive change. (If you get the chance to knock on doors, and you think you can temperamentally do it, please try it!) I love capybaras and wombats. I play the melodica. I wish you would read the very queer poetry of Angie Estes, who has been sparkling since the late 1990s. Also, a lot of lovely poetry and some neat comics are happening in Aotearoa New Zealand. I wish this site’s primarily North American readers knew about that.

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

Several! Rachel Gold and I and several other critics and writers are putting together a book of essays called Reading the X-Men, long-form chapters on aspects of the Marvel mutants and their metaphor—there’s one about schools and education, another about nations and nationalism, another about Storm and Afro-diasporic religion, another on Illyana Rasputin and complex trauma recovery. Columbia University Press expects to publish that one when it’s finished. 

I’m doing a book of short essays on single queer or trans poems—one essay, one poems—for Harvard University Press. Working title: 30 Super Gay Poems!!! It’s kind of a sequel to a book of 60 essays on contemporary poems (only some of them super gay) that I did for Harvard in 2016.

There will be an anthology of older (pre-1922) queer or queer-coded or queer-adjacent poems in English, also from Columbia, that Drew Daniel (Johns Hopkins professor, also a member of Matmos) and Melissa Sanchez (Penn) and I are compiling. I was surprised to learn that no such book existed. So we’re putting one into the world.

And more fiction (co-written, of course). And, you know, more poems.

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

Find your peers—people your age or life stage who share your tastes and interests in writing. Send your work out, when you’re ready, to the least famous magazine (or website) that regularly publishes work you genuinely like. Read widely and at random. Read old stuff, too. And if you write poetry, please, please read other languages. Not just work from other languages in English translation: give yourself the ear and the experience that comes from reading other languages. Even if all you have is middle school Latin or Spanish or a heritage language you mostly hear or speak, that’s enough to read poems with a dictionary or facing-page translation. Then try making your own rough poetic translation, or adaptation. That’s the single best way to improve your ear. The second best is finding peers.

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

I already named a few! In terms of contemporary work, novels by Rachel Gold and Charlie Jane Anders, comics by Vita Ayala and Leah Williams, poems by Chen Chen and D. A. Powell and Trace Peterson and Cat Fitzpatrick (some of these people are personal friends, others I swear I have never met). Maybe that’s enough for now?

Header Photo Credit Stephanie Mitchell

Interview with Author Sarah Katz

Sarah Katz is the author of Country of Glass (Gallaudet University Press, May 2022). She holds an MFA in creative writing from American University. Her poems appear in Bear Review, District Lit, Hole in the Head Review, Redivider, RHINO, Right Hand Pointing, Rogue Agent, the So to Speak blog, The Shallow Ends, and Wordgathering, among others. Her essays and articles have appeared in The Atlantic, Business Insider, The Guardian, OZY, The Nation, The New York Times, The Rumpus, Scientific American, Slate, The Washington Post, and other publications. Sarah is Poetry Editor of The Deaf Poets Society, an online journal that features work by writers and artists with disabilities. 

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

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

I’m a writer living in Northern Virginia. I write creative nonfiction, journalism, and poetry. I mostly cover disability rights issues, and I’ve written for publications like The New York Times, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, and others. 

I’m also deaf. I have a cochlear implant in my left ear and a hearing aid in my right ear. In addition to writing, I enjoy reading poetry and memoir, walking around my neighborhood, and watching TV shows like “The Americans” and “Better Call Saul” with my husband Jonathan. 

How would you describe your book, Country of Glass? What was the inspiration for this project?

Country of Glass deals with a variety of subject matter, including deaf identity, illness, injury, war, and alienation, among others. More specifically, it’s an exploration of the precariousness of everyday life. It wasn’t a book I set out to write—I was just writing poems on themes that interest me, and it turned out that there was an overarching theme to them. 

When did you know you were first interested in writing, and what drew you specifically to poetry?

I first fell in love with poetry when I was around five years old. I was exposed to a lot of poetry in speech therapy, and I began writing poetry when I was around eight or nine years old. At that age, I knew I was going to be a writer. I was slipping poems under my English teacher’s door every morning before school began.

At the time, I was reading a lot of children’s poetry. Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky wrote humorous verse full of rhythm and rhyme. I was probably drawn to the musicality and imagery of their work.

How would you describe your writing process? What are some of your favorite/ most difficult parts of the creative process for you?

When it comes to poetry, I would describe my writing process as sporadic. It’s probably not a great strategy, but I only write when inspired. Lately, I haven’t been very engaged with my poetic side, and I probably won’t be for a long time. But I know that at some point I’ll return to it.

Being a writer of multiple genres works for me. When I’m not inspired by poetry, I’m writing nonfiction or journalism. 

My favorite part of the creative process is when I’ve found the subject matter that I want to write about, I’ve come up with an outline, and I’m just about to begin. That moment feels pregnant with possibility. 

The most difficult part of the creative process is definitely feeling uninspired. There are stretches of time when I’m not writing, and it feels like failure. But I have tried to treat these stretches as fallow seasons. 

At any point during your life have you found media (i.e. books, film/television, etc.) in which you could see yourself reflected or relating to in terms of personal representation?

In 2019, I watched This Close, a TV show featuring actors Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman, which has come closest to resembling my life experience as a deaf woman. Like I do, Kate, a public relations professional (played by Shoshannah) speaks verbally in addition to signing. She also has a hearing partner, like me. She struggles in hearing situations, and he struggles in deaf situations. It’s the only show that I’ve watched that shows the diversity of the deaf experience.

As someone who is part of the d/Deaf/HOH community, disability seems to be strong element of your work. Had you always intended to cover this part of your identity within your writing, or was it simply a happy accident?

I began writing about deafness and disability because it’s what I know, and because it’s not written about enough. There are only a handful of people writing about disability.

What’s something about deafness you might want someone to take away from this interview?

When you’re deaf, you often mishear or misunderstand, which leads to interesting insights that hearing people don’t have. That insight is where all good writing begins.

What advice would you give for other writers/poets?

Lean into your obsessions. Try to find different entry points into them and write about them as much as possible.

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

I’m currently working on a memoir-in-essays on life with deafness. It’s about the different aspects—learning as a deaf person, coping with abuse, mental illness, etc. I expect to be working on it for a long while.

Finally, are there any books, particularly poetry books or books showing disability/Deaf rep, you would recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

I recommend True Biz, a novel by Sara Novic, which wonderfully portrays the diversity of the D/deaf experience, and Being Seen: One Deafblind Woman’s Fight to End Ableism, a memoir by Elsa Sjunneson that also explores the representation of disability in books and movies. I also recently enjoyed A Face for Picasso: Coming of Age with Crouzon Syndrome by Ariel Henley and Sitting Pretty: The View from My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body by Rebekah Taussig, and I’m looking forward to John Lee Clark’s poetry collection, How to Communicate. And of course, Ilya Kaminsky’s poetry collection Deaf Republic is a huge gift.