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 Mara Fitzgerald

Mara Fitzgerald writes YA fantasy about unlikable female characters who ruin everything. She is a biologist by day and spends entirely too much time looking at insects under a microscope. She was born near Disney World and now lives near Graceland, which is almost as good. She is the author of the Beyond the Ruby Veil duology.

When did you realize you wanted to become a writer? At what point did you realize you actually were a writer?

I’ve always been a writer. For me, the transition from “writer” to “author” was the one that felt like more of a change. My books were no longer a series of words on my computer that I wrote to entertain myself—they were products. In many ways, this comes with a lot of pressure, because “products” have expectations and cold, hard sales numbers. In other ways, it’s been fascinating to know that my creative work is now out there for anyone to access and interpret. As a great supporter of fanfiction, one of the most striking moments for me was when I realized that I’m now on the other side of the fanfiction equation—that is, I’m the one making the thing that people might create fan work about. 

In the realm of queer media and fiction, there’s often this unspoken pressure to present the LGBTQIA+ community within the best (i.e. moral) light, given the history of queer coding in villains and other cultural factors. What made you develop this obvious queer anti-hero, and how did she come to be?

I just think villains are neat. 

In all seriousness, most of my favorite fictional characters are the ones who are causing the most problems in the story, because they’re the most interesting to me. I didn’t set out to write Emanuela as an anti-heroine. Rather, the process of writing was a discovery, as it often is with characters. Sometimes it feels like they live in your head, and it’s your job to get them out onto the page as honestly as you can. This is, of course, a lot easier said than done. For a long time, I resisted letting Emanuela’s arc get so dark and messy. Even though other queer authors have already paved the way with amazing literature that’s way more complex than mine, I do still feel that pressure to create characters who are “role models.” I felt like centering the story around a lesbian who was very obviously flawed meant that she had to learn and become not only better, but perfect, and I struggled a lot with trying to fit her into an arc she clearly didn’t belong in. 

A big part of fiction for me is escapism, and there’s more than one way to escape. I have never had a reader say that they literally want to be Emanuela—and if I had, I would be very concerned—but there is something escapist about her. I do not endorse being rude to everyone in your life, behaving in increasingly unhinged ways, leaving a trail of destruction in your wake, and refusing to grow as a person. But sometimes…it’s fun to read about.

What are some of your favorite examples of queer anti-heroes, villains, and heroes?

Radu from the And I Darken series by Kiersten White (definitely a hero). Villanelle from Killing Eve (definitely not a hero). And everyone in Gideon the Ninth.

Beyond the Ruby Veil seems to be set in this glamorous, alternative deadly Italy. What comes first in your writing, the world-building or characters? 

They usually arrive together. I tend to write worlds that are like ours, except for one wild, highly unlikely change that actually ends up being a lot of changes. When I start with a fantasy version of Earth where something is making the way people live drastically different, the rest of the world starts to fill itself in. The characters also fill themselves in, too, because I naturally find myself gravitating towards characters who would interact with that world in the most interesting way. For instance, Beyond the Ruby Veil is about a world where one immortal, irreplaceable woman who can make water is keeping the whole city alive. Because of how my morbid mind works, my next question is: what would happen if that woman died? What if somebody killed her—and what if I wrote a story about that killer? 

Would you say there’s a difference between the anti-hero and villain? What are the similarities?

My general understanding is that with an anti-hero, you as the reader ultimately want them to win. You can love a villain as a character, but you still don’t want them to win. What makes this so fascinating to me is that the lines can get blurred. A character can start out as the unambiguous villain and ultimately end up as someone who’s still very much themselves, rough around the edges and all, but who we find ourselves rooting for. Alternatively, we can start out supporting a character, knowing that they’re messy, but then things start getting messier and messier and one day we realize…we don’t want this character to win anymore.  

This was my goal with Emanuela. The first time she murders somebody (not a spoiler: it’s in Chapter 3), it’s certainly messy, but there’s something there to root for. As the story goes on, she makes it more and more challenging to support her. There’s a point in the book where Emanuela says that she doesn’t care if people like her or think she’s a good person—she just wants, in essence, to be perceived. That’s how I try to write all my characters, not just ones who are crossing the line into villainous. I try to just portray them as they are, whatever that may end up looking like.  

Are there any other projects or ideas you are currently nursing and would be at liberty to say?

The sequel to Beyond the Ruby Veil, which is called Into the Midnight Void, will be out in January 2022. This is the conclusion to the duology, where we will find out exactly how Emanuela’s quest for power ends. Writing it was certainly an experience, so I hope reading it will be, too! 

What’s an interview question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were?

“How would you adapt Beyond the Ruby Veil: The Musical?” I’m so glad you asked. First, and most importantly, there would be a splash zone for all the inevitable blood coming off the stage. The story itself would be a condensed version of the entire duology—somebody much smarter than me is doing the condensing, to be clear. A lot of musicals have a very clear Event happen at the end of Act 1, and then Act 2 begins in a different place, with a different mood, and without spoiling anything, I think the transition between book 1 and book 2 lends itself well to that. The beginning would have a little bit of evil Wizard of Oz vibes, and early Wicked vibes as Emanuela sings about what she wants and how ambitious she is, but as the audience, we get the sneaking feeling this isn’t going to turn out well for her. Anyways, I’m open to all thoughts on this. I just think there’s potential! 

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

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers is an adult coming-of-age novel about a PhD student who accidentally marries another woman while in Vegas. Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender is a delightful YA contemporary about a transgender teen at a competitive arts school. And I just read an advanced copy of A Dark and Starless Forest by Sarah Hollowell, which is about a big queer family that lives in a spooky house in the spooky woods! 

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 Dahlia Adler

Dahlia Adler is an editor of mathematics by day, the overlord of LGBTQReads by night, and a Young Adult author at every spare moment in between. She is the editor of several anthologies and the author of seven novels, including Cool for the Summer. She lives in New York with her family and an obscene number of books. I had the opportunity to interview her which you can read below.

As a person who wears multiple hats in the literary community/publishing industry and as an author/editor/book blogger and more, how do you maintain a balance between all of those responsibilities as well as work/life balance?

Not well! I mean, I’m sort of kidding, but the truth is that when you love so much about what you do, it can be really hard not to overload yourself, or least that’s true for me. Probably the most balancing thing is that because I observe Jewish Sabbath, I’m completely offline from Friday night through Saturday night, which means nothing but family, food, and reading. 

I also try as much as I can to be absolutely done with things by 5 p.m. I might do social media stuff or beta read with a baby sleeping on me, but thanks to both my husband and me working from home during the pandemic, we actually get to do family dinner pretty often. This does mean a lot of pressure to back things in during my workdays and Sundays, and I’m learning hard lessons this year about there just not being any way to pull more than 24 hours into a day. 

As a bisexual writer, you have discussed the importance of canon bi representation to combat biphobia/erasure as well as provide validation for those who are questioning. Could you speak a little more on this?

Bisexual books have been so heavily gatekept for so long, and even when we started to finally get some actual bi rep, it always had to be the “perfect” kind of bi who never leaned into any stereotypes. But anyone who’s actually gone through the process of questioning as a bi person knows that it comes with a lot of messiness and complexity, and those stereotypes exist for a reason; they’re just not who a whole person is. I think telling people they can’t ever have conflicting feelings or wonder “what if?” or experiment to see where your heart and head are at because it’s “bad representation” is not only invalidating but harmful. I embrace the messy. And I love the other bi books that embrace the messy. 

Your latest book, Cool for the Summer, features a bisexual Jewish main character. Did this story feel in any way personal to you and what are your thoughts on queer/Jewish representation in the YA world today?

It’s definitely personal to me, although Lara’s experience with Judaism isn’t reflective of mine, being that I’m considerably more affiliated and observance. Truthfully, Jasmine’s Judaism, despite being further from my background with her being Syrian, is a little closer. But I’m grateful to have been able to show two of the million ways to be both queer and Jewish, and I love how much more queer Jewish lit we’re seeing, and queer religious lit in general where those two aspects of a person don’t have to clash. I think that’s one of the most important directions YA can take, and I’m really excited to see more of it. 

Aside from Demi Lovato, whose song obviously inspired the title for your latest book, what other musical artists have inspired you? Which singers or songs would be the go-to on any of your characters’ (previous or new) Spotify playlist?

I tend to write girls with some fire to them, so I love artists like Hole and Halestorm and Garbage and The Pretty Reckless. Lara is a little softer than my usual, so Cool for the Summer is more Demi and Taylor Swift—the song “Betty,” which I obviously hadn’t heard until my book was already done, is a shockingly dead ringer for the story. 

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

What would you put in a book box dedicated to Cool for the Summer? Random, I know, but it’s a really fun thing to fantasize about! Obviously heart-shaped sunglasses, and a packet of coffee, because Lara’s a barista. An art print by one of the illustrators behind Lara and Jasmine’s mutual favorite graphic novels, probably Wendy Xu because I’m obsessed with Mooncakes which means so are they. A cheesy little souvenir from the Outer Banks—I personally have a flip-flop-shaped magnet with real sand inside. A mini bi pride flag. And sparkly peach body lotion, for Reasons. 

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

A few! I’m currently revising my next f/f YA novel, which is tentatively titled Home Field Advantage and hopefully coming out in Summer 2022 from Wednesday Books—it’s a dual-POV Romance between an aspiring cheer captain and her high school’s very unwelcome first female quarterback. I’m also editing my next anthology, At the Stroke of Midnight, which is a collection of fairytale retellings releasing in Fall 2022 from Flatiron Books—my third anthology with them. And in the background, I’m also treating myself to writing a Chanukah rom-com novella I’ll probably ultimately self-publish. 

What advice would you give for writers who are stepping into their own creativity?

Don’t get in your own way. That means don’t shoot down your own idea for sounding too similar to something out there—I sold a bi YA Grease to the imprint that published a gay YA Grease!—don’t edit into oblivion as you go as an excuse not to finish your draft, and don’t tell yourself you suck; there’ll be enough people eager to do that for you in publishing. You’ve gotta be your own cheerleader and advocate, especially if you’re going to ask people to spend their time and money on your books. 

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

Oof, so many. It’s an incredible time for LGBTQ+ lit in all categories, which is so new. I definitely haven’t read as many of this year’s titles as I should, but a few that feel like perfect Geeks OUT reads are It Goes Like This by Miel Moreland, about a one-time all-queer, all-girl band that blew up when they were in high school and then fell apart, and their potential reunion despite all the bad feelings, a painful romance, new lives, and one of the members no longer identifying as a girl; Meet Cute Diary by Emery Lee, which has so many fun romance tropes and a rare main character who’s already confidently out as trans, plus a love interest who’s still working through gender identity and trying out different pronouns; Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan, which is a take on Romeo & Juliet with beautiful mental health rep and set in the world of comics; and a great riff on Empire Records but with a bookstore and a super queer cast, The Summer of Everything by Julian Winters.

Interview with Ashley Shuttleworth

Ashley Shuttleworth is a young adult fantasy author with a degree in English literature and a slight obsession with The Legend of Zelda, Kingdom Hearts, and Final Fantasy. They currently live in Ontario, Canada, with their cat named Zack and a growing collection of cosplay swords. I had the opportunity to interview Ashley which you can read below.

When did you first realize you wanted to become a writer? What were some of the first stories that grabbed your attention and inspired you?

I knew I enjoyed writing from a very early age. I spent much of my childhood writing fan fictions for the shows and video games and books I loved, filled so many notebooks with handwritten chapters (because back then, I was more into writing scenes than full complete stories) and eventually took to online communities to post the fanfic I wrote. Some of the first books I can ever remember adoring were The Bailey School Kids books (I love my paranormal mystery novels) and the Artemis Fowl series, which played a huge role in developing my fascination with faeries. A little later on, I discovered Holly Black’s MODERN FAERIE TALES and I was hooked.

Where did the inspiration for your debut novel, A Dark and Hollow Star, come from?

A DARK AND HOLLOW STAR was influenced by a number of things—my university studies in English Lit and Ancient Greek and Roman history/mythology; my love for video games like Final Fantasy and Legend of Zelda; books I enjoyed reading such as THE STAR TOUCHED QUEEN by Roshani Chokshi and DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE by Laini Taylor and CITY OF BONES series by Cassandra Clare. I’m also heavily influenced by music and shows and day to day things in my personal life, but I think the biggest inspiration for ADAHS was the lack of LGBTQ+ representation I had growing up, and my desire to be the change I wanted to see in the world. I just wanted to write a book full of different identities, all being accepted and represented in a casual, normal way while at the same time, leaving nothing ambiguous.

Your book, A Dark and Hollow Star, is a queer urban fantasy that touches upon fairy mythology. Are there any urban fantasy authors/stories you looked to for inspiration while writing this project?

Well I was definitely inspired by Cassandra Clare’s CITY OF BONES and Holly Black’s MODERN FAERIE TALES (particularly VALIANT, my favourite) when it comes to who I probably have to thank for my fascination with urban fantasy. But honestly it was probably FINAL FANTASY XV that I looked to the most for crafting my particular world, an expansive world of its own that blended high fantasy with urban fantasy in a really neat way. I like to try and balance reading fiction with “research” for my projects though, so I did pick up a few books on European folklore and the science of alchemy. 

As a queer author, what were some of the LGBTQ+ stories that first caught your attention? What kind of stories did you feel were missing or lacking and did this inspire you as a writer today?

ASH by Malinda Lo stands out to me as one of the first LGBTQ+ books with a queer MC to really grab my attention. A fairy-tale retelling of Cinderella, at the time of reading this I hadn’t come across too many traditionally published works that were both Young Adult and fantasy in genre, that depicted main characters doing and going through the same sort of fantastical and every-day things you’d encounter in books about allocishet characters. Growing up, there really wasn’t all that much available to me that had openly queer characters with meaningful development, going on grand adventures, falling in love, and exploring magical settings. It definitely inspired what I write now, my desire to put more content into the world like what I found in ASH.

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

Well, I’ve never been asked which author I would choose to do a panel/event with, if I could pick from anyone—and I’d have to say I would love to do one with Laini Taylor. Her books have been a pretty big inspiration to me and I really admire her talent. It would be fun (and also intimidating) to get to chat craft with her.

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

I do have a few things on the go right now, a couple that are just private tinkerings I hope to unleash on my agent, and then the public, one day soon. For now, I’m currently working on the second installment in the HOLLOW STAR story, where I get to expand on the characters introduced in the first, as well as bring a new play or two into the mix whom I hope people will enjoy.

What advice would you give for writers who are navigating writing and publishing?

The best advice I can give is to find your community—other writers to keep you company and share in this experience with you—and honestly just to keep writing. The road to publication can be a difficult journey at times. It never goes the way anyone expects it to, and set-backs can become discouraging the more of them you encounter. But if authoring books is something you genuinely want to do, first and foremost you just have to write that book. It’s okay if it isn’t perfect, if you need to edit it multiple times, find beta-readers and critique partners to help you catch what you miss on your own—it’s okay even if that story ultimately gets shelved and you have to start a new one. It’s all experience that will lead you to the story you need to tell, but nothing else is worth worrying about without that first draft to work with. So just keep going, learn how to drown out the impostor syndrome (which never really goes away, I have to say, but it does get easier to manage with writing friends as support, and time) and focus on things one step at a time.

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

There are so many incredible LGBTQ+ books coming out this year—definitely buy and read as many as you can! But a few that I’m personally VERY excited for:

SWEET & BITTER MAGIC by Adrienne Tooley (out now)

IN THE RAVENOUS DARK by A. M. Strickland (May 18th 2021)

THE WITCH KING by H. E. Edgemon (June 1st 2021)

ACE OF SPADES by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé (June 1st 2021)

GEARBREAKERS by Zoe Hana Mikuta (June 29th 2021)

IRON WIDOW by Xiran Jay Zhao (September 21st 2021)

Interview with Author Aiden Thomas

Aiden Thomas, author of Cemetery Boys, received their MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College. Born in Oakland, California, Aiden often haunted Mountain View Cemetery like a second home during their misspent youth. As a queer, trans Latinx, Aiden advocates strongly for diverse representation in all media. Aiden is notorious among their friends for always being surprised by twist endings to books/movies and organizing their bookshelves by color. When not writing, Aiden enjoys exploring the outdoors with their dog, Ronan. Their cat, Figaro, prefers to support their indoor hobbies, like reading and drinking too much coffee. I had the opportunity to interview them which you can read below.

How would you describe yourself to someone you’ve never met? What are the first things you would want someone to know about you?

Hello! I’m Aiden Thomas and I am the New York Times bestselling author of “Cemetery Boys” and soon to be “Lost in the Never Woods”! I’m a queer, trans, Latinx author and, unfortunately, I’m also a Disney Adult. I was born and raised in Oakland, CA but moved up to Portland, OR about 4 years ago. I love anime, I’m afraid of wolves, and I’m a night owl which is when I get most of my writing done!

Your debut book, Cemetery Boys, seems to have a unique origin, stemming from a Tumblr writing prompt. Could you tell us more about that?

That’s true! “Cemetery Boys” was inspired by a writing prompt I saw on Tumblr — I follow a bunch of writing prompt blogs and one day as I was mindless scrolling, I saw one that said, “What would you do if you summoned a ghost and you couldn’t get rid of it?” A lot of folks replied with scary story ideas with lots of Paranormal Activity type events, but my brain went, “Yes, and what if he was cute?” From there, I knew if I was going to have a Latinx main character and ghosts were involved, I wanted the book to revolve around my favorite holiday, Dia de Muertos.

As the first trans author to have a trans-centered fiction book on New York Times Best Seller list, how do you feel about the legacy of that impact? And what do you want to see for the future of trans narratives?

Honestly, it was completely wild and unexpected. I don’t think me or my publishing team thought “Cemetery Boys” would take off the way it did! I didn’t even know that a trans-centered fiction book had never hit list until like a month beforehand, and when “Cemetery Boys” did, it was incredible but also disappointing that it had taken this long. Honestly, I don’t really think of it as me “paving the way” because these stories have been written for a really long time. I like to think of it more as me shoving my shoulder into the publishing door and sneaking as many other trans and BIPOC authors as I can with me.

In your bio it is stated that you are a graduate of the MFA Creative Writing Program from Mills College. Could you tell us about some of your grad school experiences for those out there considering a supplementary education?

Grad school was really difficult! It was a great way to produce writing. I wrote five short stories that were published in literary journals during my grad school studies, which was fantastic. However, I’m also a firm believer that you don’t need to go to college or grad school to be a good writer! There’s so many free or cheap resources to help you learn craft that you don’t need to drop thousands of dollars on. One of my favorite resources is Jessica Brody’s “Save the Cat Writes a Novel” series! She has some Udemy.com courses that I take every time I start a new project and it’s honestly been life changing! 

Speaking of MFA programs, your second upcoming book, Lost in the Never Woods, was your thesis project, correct? What drew you to the story of Peter Pan, aside from the fact that the book copyright expires very soon? Are there any other fairy tales or myths you might be interested in exploring in the future?

That’s true! Honestly, the inspiration for “Lost in the Never Woods” was definitely the slow and creeping kind! I loved the Disney film as a kid (I’ve recently learned kinship with Peter is a very common experience among trans masculine folks!) and had the BIGGEST crush on Jeremy Sumpter in the 2003 adaptation. There’s also some incredible lines in that movie, but the one that really stuck out to me was when Peter says, “I want always to be a boy, and have fun.” And Wendy replies, “You say so, but I think it is your biggest pretend.”

That concept that Peter was trapped in Neverland, that he had some sort of duty to the Lost Boys when he was clearly so drawn to Wendy, stuck in brain. I wanted to know why he was in Neverland, what it meant for him to be afraid of his feelings, and what this concept of growing up really meant to him. I read the original “Peter Pan” quickly after that and learned how really dark the canon is how, and how deeply troubled and traumatized Peter was. I was really interested in his mental and emotional turmoil, which led me to wondering, “What happened to Wendy after Neverland?” and that was the real beginning of “Lost in the Never Woods”.

There are TONS of stories I’d love to do retellings of! There are some Greek myths I’d love to put a contemporary twist on, like Hercules and Icarus. I also love fairytale retellings and have been toying with a “Beauty and the Beast” retelling in my head

Besides the Day of the Dead festival, what other holidays do you think the characters of Cemetery Boys would gravitate towards and in what ways would they celebrate?

Nochebuena, or Christmas Eve, is a HUGE holiday in my family! There’s always huge parties that go late into the night so kids can open presents at midnight, and just SO much food! It’s my second favorite holiday after Dia de Muertos. Both Yadriel and Julian’s families would definitely celebrate and go all out. I think they’d start the night with Yadriel’s family at the cemetery to do all the official pomp and circumstance but close out the night at Julian’s apartment. Yadriel and Maritza would be crowded into the tiny living room with Julian, Rio, Flaca, Rocky, Omar and Luca opening presents and eating lots of Rio’s famous chocolate box cake.

As a writer, what advice would you give to other writers who are stepping into their own creativity? And advice to those interested in representing their own backgrounds/cultures?

FINISH YOUR FIRST DRAFT! I feel like writers always ask for advice when it comes to improving their story, but you have to get that rough draft down before you can make it better. The hardest part is finishing that manuscript, and you can query or get published until you have a completed draft to work on! When it comes to representation, I think creating stories and writing about your lived experiences is really powerful, especially when you’re marginalized. There’s young adults out there who haven’t seen themselves in a book, and you can make that happen.

One of the lovely things about your book is multilingual inclusion of different languages? Can you talk about how you incorporate them, and is the significance of this inclusion to you?

There’s a real push and pull when you have multiple marginalized identities. Being trans and part of the Latinx community can be very complicated for a lot of different reasons, a large one being that the Spanish language is gendered. Because of that, there’s much more instances of being mis-gendered within the Spanish language as opposed to English. The family and cultural dynamics can also be incredibly complicated. For “Cemetery Boys” it was important to me to show that and to also use Spanish casually and without translations, as it should be.

As a self-proclaimed geek, are there any anime/manga/cartoons you are drawn to at the moment?

Oh my gosh, I’m fully obsessed with “Haikyuu!” and “Given”! I haven’t been able to watch much since I’m on deadline right now, but as soon as I get a break, I’m really looking forward to binge watching “My Hero Academia”.

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

I’m currently working on the next book in my upcoming duology that’s due April 1st! It’s a young adult fantasy series that’s Percy Jackson meets “The Hunger Games”. I came up with a Latinx-inspired pantheon (like a goddess of Pan Dulce and a music god named Mariachi) and creation myth which was a lot of fun. It’s about demigods in a life-or-death competition and I am SO excited to share more about the story when I can.

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

She’s too Pretty to Burn” by Wendy Heard is coming out in March 2021, which is a YA thriller I absolutely fell in love with. Also be on the lookout for “Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun” by Jonny Garza Villa (my new ultimate favorite queer romance!) and “Meet Cute Diary” by Emery Lee (if you like romance tropes, you’re going to LOVE this book!).

Interview with Kat Leyh

Kat Leyh is a Chicago-based writer and artist. She’s best known as the current co-writer and cover artist for the Eisner and GLAAD Award–winning series Lumberjanes, and for her critically acclaimed YA graphic novel Snapdragon. She’s also worked as a cover artist, back-up writer, and artist for several BOOM! Studios series. I had the chance to interview Kat which you can read below.

How did you come to find yourself working in comics? What attracted you to the medium in the first place?

I got into comics in sort of a roundabout way because I didn’t even read them until high school. I went to college for illustration because I loved to draw and tell stories. I was also interested in animation and storyboarding, but what got me into drawing comics was the fact that I could tell a complete story on my own. 

I started making my own short comics and found that I loved the medium. I got my first paid gigs after posting my comics online.

What were some of the stories you loved as a kid? What kind of stories are you drawn to now?

I was a voracious reader as a kid. I loved stories with supernatural elements and I still do. I remember being really shook by His Dark Materials. I read everything by Lois Duncan (usually stories about girls with ESP and murder) .

My favorite author since high school til now has been Sir Terry Pratchett. And I’m always a sucker for the found family trope. 

In your comics you’ve covered superheroes, taxidermist witches, and drunken mermaids. Where do you get your inspiration from?

It’s easy to write about my own interests! I start with that and go from there.

Growing up a fan of action movies and other traditionally misogynist, heteronormative genres left me with an ache to write to fill the void of stories I wish existed.

Much of your work seems to consist of LGBTQ+ media generated for younger audiences. Can you tell us about your motivation for creating queer content for kids and the relevance of it today?

This is a question that I love to dig into.

I think many writers who come from marginalized spaces like to write the stories they wish they had when they were kids. I certainly do. Even now, so many people equate queer stories with sex, because they don’t understand queer adults were once queer kids. 

Queer folk are also a unique group in that they don’t get taught their history and culture as they grow, because we’re usually not born into queer families. Many of us find our queer community as adults. Acknowledging that queer youth have unique experiences much less that they EXIST is essential to healthier and happier future generations.

What messages do you want to give to your readers through your stories? What stories or messages do you wish you had gotten from books when you were a young reader yourself?

Question things.

In your newest book, Thirsty Mermaids, you feature a number of references to mermaid centered pop culture including The Thirteenth Year, Splash, and so forth. What are some of your personal merfolk inspired fiction/narratives?

Who didn’t love Little Mermaid? Some of Glen Keane’s best animation.

I am not especially into mermaids, but they are so familiar a concept that I really wanted to do my own version. The kind of merfolk that I would like to exist. 

As a writer and an artist, what advice would you give to creatives who are tackling one or both skills professionally?

I suppose…take inspiration from everywhere. Not just comics. 

If you’re just starting out, try completing shorter stories and go from there. 

Are there any other projects or story ideas you are currently nursing and would be at liberty to say?

Mmmm… I’m currently thinking a lot about werewolves and bicycles. 

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

I love a lot of the books being published by First Second right now. The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang and Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’connell are a couple of my faves — and all those creators’ other works are worth checking out as well. 

Tiger Tiger by Petra Erika Nordlund is my favorite webcomic right now. And everything Otava Heikkilä makes is really cool.

Interview With Emery Lee

Emery Lee is a kid-lit author, artist, and YouTuber hailing from a mixed-racial background. After graduating with a degree in creative writing, e’s gone on to author novels, short stories, and webcomics. When away from reading and writing, you’ll most likely find em engaged in art or snuggling cute dogs. Find em online at emeryleebooks.com. I had the chance to interview Emery, which you can read below.

How would you describe yourself to people who haven’t met you yet?

I’m an author who writes stories about marginalized kids having fun, falling in love, and discovering themselves. I always shoot to do things a little unconventionally and bring something new to the table that I desperately needed as a teen but have yet to really find. 

What are three facts that you would want people to know in particular?

I’m a YA author, an anime nerd, and a huge fan of boba tea.

How did you come to realize you wanted to be an author? 

I never actually planned to be an author. I started writing when I was really young just for fun and to satisfy my chaotic imagination and all the things I felt weren’t resolved in the media I was consuming. I used to carry notebooks around and scribble whole books in them, and when I was maybe ten or eleven, I started sharing them with friends and classmates, and it just became a universally accepted truth that I was the class author and would go on to write a million books one day.

Where did the idea for Meet Cute come from? Was anything about it inspired by real life?

It was inspired by a road trip I went on with my best friend! In Colorado, she had what we called a “near meet cute” and I turned to her and said, “if this were a book, you’d be marrying that guy right now”, and it just struck me that it would be such a fun idea to write about a character who just took every real-life run in like that and wrote happily ever afters to them.

In your book, you discuss neo-pronouns and other examples of gender inclusive language we don’t often see enough of yet in fiction? Would you care to discuss that?

So I use neo-pronouns (e/em/eir) and a common issue I run into is people just straight up telling me they didn’t realize they were pronouns at all. Just asking people to use they/them is really difficult for some people, so introducing these words that people think are brand new or made up (all words are made up, and most neo-pronouns have been around for 30+ years) just really trips them up. I wanted to put a book out into the world through a major publisher that just treated these things as normal. I wanted to help show teens that you can question your identity and change your labels and cycle through as many as you want, and the only limits are the limits you have on your own language. But it was really important for me to emphasize in the book that normalizing these things should start early, and that ultimately, it’s not hard to pick up gender inclusive language and changing your identifiers doesn’t have to be hard or miserable. It can actually be really fun and freeing.

Title aside, you seem to be a big fan of romance tropes. What are some of your favorites, and which ones can we expect from the book?

My all time favorite trope is enemies to lovers, but I love most romance tropes, as long as they’re used well—childhood friends to lovers, only one bed, fake relationships, marriage of convenience, etc. MEET CUTE DIARY obviously calls on meet cutes and fake dating as major plot elements, but I also throw in some hate to love, mutual pining, friends to lovers, and forced proximity.

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? 

I’m gonna say the characters from Becky Albertalli’s Simonverse because I feel like Noah would really have a great time making friends with so many great queer characters!

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

“Which boba tea flavor would each of your characters be?” or “Who would win in a fight? Your main character fighting Katsuki Bakugou in which both of them have a quirk? Or if neither of them have a quirk?”

What are some trivia facts about the characters in Meet Cute that you would love to share with our readers? As a self-professed anime/manga fan, what are some of your favorite examples?

oah’s an anime fan, his favorites being My Hero Academia and Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Devin hates sprinkles and really love the scent of lavender. Becca has a Yorkie named Noodles. Drew’s favorite show is Rick & Morty.

As a debut author, what advice can you give to aspiring writers, both in terms of creativity and promotion?

I think writing and promotion can often feel at odds with each other. Sometimes it feels like the more you look to sell yourself, the harder it is to write or the more you focus on writing what feels right, the less marketable you become. Ultimately, I think the key is learning when to turn off the noise. It’s good to learn from other people and incorporate what they do well into what you do, but learning how to take a step back when things become too much and go back to that place where you can just be you and just write what you love and not have to think about it too much is a vital skill to surviving publishing, and I think it’s a good one to start learning early.

Are there any new projects you are working on right now and are at liberty to speak about?

I’m currently working on a short story that’ll appear in the ALL SIGNS POINT TO YES Anthology edited by Candice Montgomery, Cara Davis-Araux, and Adrianne Russell. My story’s all about a reclusive brujo who has to help the school jock get over a bad breakup only to realize he’s developing feelings for him, and that comes out in 2022. I’m also working on several other novels, but those can’t be revealed just yet.

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

I highly recommend anything by Ryan La Sala, Phil Stamper, Kacen Callender, Claribel Ortega, Adam Silvera, Becky Albertalli, and Aiden Thomas. I also really loved FIFTEEN HUNDRED MILES FROM THE SUN by Jonny Garza Villa which releases this June!

Interview: Mason Deaver

A non-binary author with a love for baking and gardening, Mason Deaver (They/Them) is the best-selling author of their debut book, I Wish You All the Best. One of the first YA books featuring a non-binary protagonist written by a non-binary author, I Wish You All the Best tells the story of Ben De Backer who comes out their parents, and deals with the consequences of that decision, as well as falling in love for the first time. Geeks OUT recently had the pleasure of siting down with Mason Deaver to talk about their new book as well as their writing process.

How and when did you come to realize that you wanted to be a writer?

It’s a story that I think a lot of authors have. You know whenever you’re younger, you write a lot of books. You take drawings and stories that you type up and you staple them, and like that’s your book. But I really got serious about it after I read Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. That was a book that sort of I guess kicked me into high gear about wanting to tell my own story and have something similar to that, that people could react to in the same way I reacted to Simon Vs. and Becky’s other books and other queer books that were out there.

How did I Wish You All the Best first come to conception? What were some of the original sparks?

Well, I guess you already answered that.

(Chuckles.) Well, there’s a few more things. Obviously Simon Vs., but then just wanting there to be more out there for trans teenagers. Like there was… I wouldn’t even say shortage, there were just no trans or non-binary books out there. The only one I would say I would even read at that time was If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo. So I saw this sort-of gap and I wanted to fill it because, you know, I can’t imagine what a book like this would have done for me when I was a teenager and confused. And so, there’s no way for me to go back in time and hand a book to myself, but if I can do that for someone who was like me, someone who struggling with things and trying to figure things out, then that is like what I wanted to do.

How would you describe your writing process?

For I Wish You All the Best, very chaotic, because I did not plan anything out. That first draft was a 120,000 words of just a hot mess I never want to see again. Thankfully I had people who helped me along the way. Friends, critique partners, and eventually my agent and editors who helped me trim it down and clean it up. And it’s very much different from the things that I had to write after. A lot of the time a book two is a contract obligation, so you have to plan things out so that you can actually sell it. And so book two, I had to plot from beginning to end, and it’s changed a lot, but the basics are still there. And then you know, I’ve had other ideas where I just want to see what happens, just plan this out. And of course I’m writing something else now, but it’s just out there in the wind and I don’t know what I’m doing, and it’s working for now. That might change. (Laughs.)

What has the journey been like since your debut as a YA author?

Oh, it’s been very interesting. A lot of things have changed. I’ve talked with friends who are in similar situations. You know, whenever you debut it’s almost like a wall has to go up, sort of in a way to protect yourself. There are mean people out there on the interest who want to send you random emails talking about how they want to kill you, and it’s not fun.

Oh my goodness (Laughs nervously.)

Yeah, that was a weird morning. But there’s a lot of good things too. Like it’s definitely not been a negative process, and I don’t want to make it seem that way. It’s seeing people online and on Instagram, posting pictures of my book, and reviews talking about how even if they are a cis person how much they still enjoyed it, and if they are trans or non-binary, like how much they saw themselves in the book, and that’s just been, I can’t describe it in any other way but magical. It’s very heartwarming and it makes me feel very good about like what I’ve been able to be

Yeah, you’re actually making a difference with your words.

Yeah, and that’s like what I wanted to do, and I feel accomplished in that now and it makes me feel very proud.

So what are some of the queer YA titles or some of the authors who inspired you?

So Becky Albertallli, who I already talked about her. Definitely Meredith Russo with her books, especially If I Was Your Girl. It was the first time that I saw a trans main character actually get her happy ending and what I felt that she deserved, and the book discussed and talked about her book, but it was never in a way that felt like it was…

Sensationalized. 

Yeah, exactly. It felt like it was coming from a real place, a real author who has gone through these things. And then of course, you have authors like Adam Silvera, who discusses such heavy topics but in such a neat and concise and sometimes messy way that I just adore. If I had to pick three it’s definitely like Becky, Meredith, and Adam.

In the scope of LGBTQ+ literature, how do you think queer YA differentiates itself or distincts itself from other fiction?

I think that, and this is a question that I get a lot and I’m glad that I’m asked it because I’m always feel like we are at the height when it comes to queer YA. You know there’s still a lot of work to do. Queer authors of color and queer disabled authors still don’t seem to have a space and it completely sucks and we still need to fix that, but I also feel like we’ve made a lot of strides in including a lot of people, specially in queer YA. And so, you know, I think what really sets it apart is whenever you look at, say Adult fiction that’s queer, a lot of that has been on tragedy, and it does not end well. But I think in queer YA we’re finally at a place where, you know… of course a queer author deserves to tell a tragic quote, unquote tragic story.

Yeah, like Adam Silvera.

Yeah, like Adam has every right to do that because that is his life and he has lived it, and he has the space to do that. But then on the other side you have people who are telling happier stories, like Becky Albertalli, or I would even say Shaun David Hutchinson. You know, his books are not tragedies, they end happy.

They’re hopeful.

Yeah, that’s exactly it. That’s exactly the world.

They’re realistic, but hopeful.

Realistic, but hopeful, and I think there’s really never been a better time for that.

Yeah, I also say that with new shows like Queer Eye, exposing that queer joy is a revolution in itself. 

Yeah.

Like people need to see that in order to let them know they can survive and thrive in our society.

Yeah, and it’s, you know, so much of, if you go back, older again quote, unquote queer YA which wasn’t really queer, is a lot of it based on tragedy.

Like Annie on My Mind was one of the first joyful ones, actually.

Yeah, and you have books that did have trans characters, but like they died. They were killed off, they were murdered, they died of something.

Luna by Julie Anne Peters was one of the exceptions.

Yup, and it’s just very refreshing that I feel like if you are a queer teenager there’s a lot to choose from nowadays.

There’s more variety.

Yeah. There’s definitely a lot of spaces that we need improvement, and, you know, keep striving for that improvement, but I don’t think we’ve ever been better.

Hypothetically, if any of the characters from I Wish You All the Best were to interact with characters from any other established fictional universe, what characters from which fiction universe would they be?

So this is another fun question that I don’t get very often, so I’m glad you actually asked it. But the popular thing, and I do not know exactly why, I have a hint of why, but not a hundred percent, but people seem to love the idea of Ben and Nathan being with Alex and Henry from Red, White, and Royal Blue. Which I, unfortunately, I do not think is plausible because one side of that is the Prince of England and the First Son of the United States, and my characters are just two teenagers in North Carolina. 

Who knows, they might do a political campaign. 

Yeah (laughs.) Nathan would work on the next one. I do, I am a firm believer that Nathan wakes Ben up at three O’clock in the morning, and while Ben is not happy about being up that early in the morning, they will sit there and they will support Nathan with the t-shirts and the snacks and the custom flags and everything.

Ok, last question. As a debut author what advice would you give to other writers who wish to write themselves?

That it’s going to be hard, and you are definitely going to have to reach into places that may not be comfortable. That you may not feel entirely ok with showing, and that’s ok. There are pieces of the book that I wrote that maybe going back I would not include, but I’m glad that I did, because the book is very honest and I think that that is the most important thing you can be whenever you’re writing a part of yourself into a novel is that you’re honest about the things that you’ve been through, the things that you experienced, the things that you thought, and the things that you know. I really think that honestly is the key. And again, it can be so difficult to be that vulnerable and present yourself in such a way, but in the end it’s worth it because the people you are trying to help that’s what they’re going to appreciate that most.