Interview with Mel Valentine Vargas, Co-Creator of Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass: The Graphic Novel

Mel Valentine Vargas is a Queer Cuban-American graphic novelist based in Chicago. They hope to draw the kind of illustrations that their younger self, and others like them, could have seen to feel less alone. Mel Valentine Vargas loves singing in Spanish, playing farming video games, and eating lots of gyoza with their friends.

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

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

My name is Mel Valentine Vargas, I am a Non-Binary Queer Cuban- American graphic novelist and illustrator. I speak both Spanish and English and currently reside in Chicago, but I am originally from Florida. 

What can you tell us about your most recent project, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass: The Graphic Novel? How did you come to work on this book?

I can say that it is as relevant today as it was ten years ago when the original chapter book came out. I loved working on a book that my younger self would have really needed while growing up. I’m very thankful to my agent Elizabeth Bennett, Transatlantic Literary Agency, for getting this book deal for me and connecting me with Candlewick. 

How did you find yourself getting into storytelling, especially comics/graphic novels? What drew you to the medium?

When I graduated High school back in 2015, that following summer was such a weird time for me. I didn’t really know what to do with myself and I was about to start college on a biology track. I spent that summer like a bit of a hermit, but I was reading so many webcomics and watching so many animated shows. Something within me was really drawn to those stories and mediums, I wanted to be part of their creation. I’ve always loved storytelling, both listening and creating, so as I tried creating my own comics that summer it’s like things just clicked.

What are some of your favorite things to draw?

My favorite things to draw are people. I love drawing different kinds of people. I love deciding their outfits, coming up with silly t-shirts they wear, styling their hair, it’s like having Barbies all over again. I also love drawing plants, I really enjoy making some up as I go. And while we are on this topic, my least favorite thing to draw is animals… I should practice that.

How would you describe your creative process? And what went into collaborating with Meg Medina for the book?

My creative process always starts with immersing myself into the topic and medium for said project. With this book I read the original book twice. You should see the copy Candlewick gifted to me, it’s covered in highlighter marks and little color-coded sticky notes. It’s important for me to really get to know what I will be drawing, and in this case, adapting. 

I think people would be surprised how little illustrators partner with authors of graphic novels. I actually didn’t get to speak with Meg very much during the process of this book. Of course, she saw and approved everything in the end, but she and I really did not discuss anything much during the making of this book. Occasionally I would get a note from my editors that Meg really wanted something a certain way and I would of course make sure that what I drew was true to her vision. 

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

Some of my greatest influences are, of course, other graphic novelists and cartoonists. I love Rosemary Valero-O’connell’s work as well as Leslie Hung’s and Lucy Knisley’s comics. Generally, I get very inspired by work that showcases people.

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

Growing up I didn’t have many stories that I saw myself in. I grew up Hispanic, bilingual, and fat. It was difficult finding books or movies and shows that talked about that in a positive way. I really gravitated towards media that showcased awesome women though. I remember being awestruck at Raven and Starfire from Teen Titans and Marceline from Adventure Time. Now I am so thankful that there is much more media that showcases different people in a way that I would have loved to witness as a kid. Turning Red, Dead End: Paranormal Park, The Owl House, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, and so much more.  

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

I would want readers to know that illustrators, like me, work really hard on graphic novels and would love it if you spend just a tiny bit more time on every page. Just really soak up the details. I would want readers to know that all comics and graphic novels are a labor of love. I would like readers to know that I watch so many shows while I draw, specifically BoJack Horseman which I watched about 13 times through the course of making this book alone. 

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

I’m not too sure. This is my first book interview. What is my zodiac, perhaps? It’s cancer by the way. I’m a cancer sun and moon, do with that info what you will. 

Are there any other projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?

YES! My next graphic novel Pillow Talk, written by Stephanie Cooke, is coming out in 2024! There are also other projects in the works that are a bit hush-hush. 

What advice might you have to give to aspiring creatives, especially those interested in making their own graphic novel one day?

The advice I always give people who say they want to get into comics is MAKE COMICS! You can’t possibly get hired or followed or whatever your end goal is with comics if you aren’t producing them. It doesn’t matter if they are bad, or if you don’t post them, just make them. Diary comics, or little joke comics, zines, or fan art comics. Read and make comics!

Finally, what books/authors (LGBTQ+ and/or otherwise) would you recommend to the readers of GeeksOUT?

Books I recommend-

Anything by Nicole Dennis-Benn, Maggie Nelson, and Madeline Miller. Of course anything by Meg Medina! Graphic NovelsLaura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, Snotgirl series, The Leak, and honestly any graphic novel written/ drawn by women and genderqueer people.  

Interview with Shannon C.F. Rogers, Author of I’d Rather Burn Than Bloom

Shannon C.F. Rogers is a multiracial American writer of Filipinx and European descent. Her work has appeared in Bodega Magazine, Newfound Journal, and on stage with Tricklock Company, Lady Luck Productions, and the UNM Words Afire Festival of New Plays. She earned her B.A. in Creative Writing from the University of New Mexico and her MFA in Writing For Young People at Antioch University Los Angeles. She has served as an educator, after-school program director, and lost mitten finder at schools in Albuquerque, Chicago, and NYC, and now lives in Brooklyn, NY. I’D RATHER BURN THAN BLOOM is her first novel.

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

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

Thank you so much for having me! I’m a multiracial Filipinx-American writer based in Brooklyn, NY, and I grew up in Albuquerque, NM. I work in the education field and I’D RATHER BURN THAN BLOOM is my debut novel.

What can you tell us about your debut book, I’d Rather Burn Than Bloom? What inspired this story?

It’s a story for teens (14+) about rage, loss, and learning to drive. The main character, Marisol Martin, is sixteen and grieving a parent, her mother, who dies suddenly in a car accident. Marisol blames herself for her mother’s death because they’d been in a huge fight right before it happened. Her story is one of personal growth – messy, and nonlinear, like grief really is. This book is inspired and informed by my own experiences with grief and growing up with a Filipina mom and a white American dad in the Southwest. Losing a parent is always traumatic, and for Marisol, she is also dealing with losing the parent who she feels was her only connection to her cultural heritage, which causes her to question her identity.

As an author, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically young adult fiction?

Reading was a big part of my life as a young person, I was at the library all the time, checking out the maximum number of books allowed. Writing flowed naturally from that. I wrote stories as a kid in Elementary school and that evolved to writing a lot of fanfiction when I was in high school– I wrote a self-insert Animorphs fanfiction with a word count that makes my eyes water, I wish I could still write that quickly and with so much abandon. Someone sent me a piece of fanart about it and I was over the moon. That was such a fun, magical time on the internet and my first experience being part of a writing community which I think is so crucial. I believe the reason I’m still drawn to writing for young people now, and about adolescence especially, is because it’s a time of life that’s about self-exploration and growth and change – all powerful ideas that still capture me as an adult reader and writer.

How would you describe your writing process?

I start with a character and see where that takes me, though my process is evolving to include more attention to structure earlier on in the drafting process, like outlining. It really makes life easier, I hate to say it, but it does. I’d describe my natural writing process as one that relies heavily on vibes, the vibes are very important and I love a book that really captures an elusive feeling and a mood, and ideas that are hard to articulate succinctly, ideas that need an entire book’s length of words to tease out. Because of this, I revise a lot. Like, a lot. I revised I’D RATHER BURN THAN BLOOM more times than I can count, but that was the process I needed to use in order to figure out what I was really trying to say.

Growing up, were there any stories in which you felt touched by/ or reflected in, in terms of personal identity? Would you say there are any like that now?

There are so many amazing stories I’ve read recently that resonated with me as a multiracial person, someone who feels very much in between – many more recently as opposed to when I was growing up, but that being said, back then I was searching for myself in every story and usually found something to grasp onto even if it wasn’t literal. I remember picking up The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw at my local library as a kid because of the image on the cover – it somehow communicated to me that the main character was an outsider. The Moorchild is about a fairy who grows up in the human world because she was switched with a human baby, and she never fits in. When she finds out the truth, she goes on this quest to get her family’s real daughter back. That struck me to my core as a kid. I think it was this feeling of not belonging, this feeling that your people are somewhere out there, that really resonated. As an adult, I’ve read so many amazing books about the experiences of young people that resonate with me, one that had a huge impact on me and my writing is Nicola Yoon’s THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR that places a romance in the context of family legacies impacted by the histories of colonization and immigration, which I so relate to, and also has a really interesting story structure, which showed me that you can be creative and take risks there.

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

Reflecting back, I can see that Miyazaki movies had a strong impact on me as a young person– Kiki’s Delivery Service, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and Princess Mononoke especially. I loved these stories that centered on girl protagonists and honored their feelings and inner worlds and also treated nature with so much respect and reverence. Creating a specific sense of place is really important to me in my writing. In the case of my debut novel, the setting of New Mexico is a key component in the story, both the physical landscape and its cultural history.

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

I love writing dialogue, that always flows the easiest for me, and I think that’s because my primary interest in fiction is character. Why are people like this? Why do we do all the weird things we do? I love listening to how people talk and how people say things they don’t mean at all or say things they mean by accident. The most difficult for me is plot and structure, distilling down the scope of the story and articulating it in a way that feels satisfying for the reader– I have to pay a lot of attention to that as I revise my many drafts!

As a writer, often one of the hardest parts of writing a book is just finishing it. Could you tell us any tips or strategies you used that helped you accomplish this?

Something I do is write out of order so that I can write something I can be successful with that day rather than get mired in writing a scene I’m struggling with for some reason. I used to waste a lot of time doing that before I realized that sometimes I really need to let things percolate, render in the background. There is a reason why “sleep on it” is very good advice, there is a great deal of subconscious work in writing and sometimes the best thing to do is just not write. Then, you might wake up the next day and realize you know just what to do.

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

Although it’s fiction, I think people can probably infer a lot about me from my work! I think maybe the fact that I’m left-handed doesn’t appear anywhere in my book– that’s one thing!

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)?

One element of the book that I loved writing that I haven’t talked about much yet is the impact of music on Marisol’s life and how closely tied to her friendships her experience with music is. When I was in high school the mixed tapes and burned CDs my friends gave me were life-changing. In the book, Marisol’s friends take her to some basement shows to see touring bands and it’s like opening up a whole new world in her city she didn’t know was there. I guess the question I’m dying to be asked is “what are your favorite local Albuquerque bands?” and I would say: Red Light Cameras, Self Neglect (which is my brother’s band), and Prism Bitch.

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

Honestly, the writing life is really hard, but don’t let that stop you! Just know that it’s really hard for everyone, but it’s something that you will get better at over time, and that is so satisfying. The time is going to pass anyway, you may as well spend it doing the thing you want to do. Focus on your work, about why you want to do it, what ideas you’re interested in, and that will take you a long way. Join a writing group with other writers you trust. Give their work your time and attention. You will grow together, and it will be beautiful.

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

My second book is currently scheduled to come out next summer from Feiwel & Friends! It’s another YA contemporary also set in Albuquerque, New Mexico! It’s a lot lighter and funnier than my debut in many ways (it centers on an aspiring stand-up comedian), but I would say it’s still pretty emotional (Sad Girl Summer remains the brand!).

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

So, so many great books on my shelves right now! I’ll mention a few other YA contemporary novels: THE NEXT NEW SYRIAN GIRL by Ream Shukairy, told in alternating perspectives between a Syrian-American teen, Khadija Shami, and the Syrian refugee her family takes in to live with them in Detroit, Leene Tahir – a really beautiful and nuanced story. MY HEART UNDERWATER by Laurel Flores Fantauzzo, which follows Fil-Am teen Cory Tagubio who is sent to live with her half-brother in the Philippines when her mother discovers her kissing her 25-year-old history teacher, Ms. Holden. I loved the exploration of Filipino familial duty in conflict with self-actualization and the tenderness and care Fantauzzo brings to the subject. BECOMING A QUEEN by Dan Clay is a heartbreaking yet very funny story about loss and coming of age which follows Mark Harris who begins to pursue drag as part of his healing and grieving process. Just lovely.

Additionally, for my book launch event I was lucky to be joined in conversation by author Yume Kitasei, whose debut book, THE DEEP SKY also just came out. This is a fascinating Sci-Fi thriller for adults that I just started reading – it follows Asuka Hoshino-Silva, a biracial Japanese-American who has been selected as one of a small crew of a spaceship bound to start a new civilization after climate collapse on earth. I’m also looking forward to reading FORGIVE ME NOT, by Jenn Baker, which explores family, forgiveness, and centers Violetta Chen-Samuels who is incarcerated as a juvenile defender, as well as THESE DEATHLESS SHORES by P.H. Low which is already on my TBR for 2024 – it’s a gender-bent retelling of Captain Hook’s origin story in an Southeast Asian-inspired setting.

Interview with Linda Cheng, Author of Gorgeous Gruesome Faces

Linda Cheng was born in Taiwan and spent her childhood moving between cultures and continents. She received her BFA from the Savannah College of Art and Design, and worked as an art director across South Carolina and Georgia where she developed a deep love for sweet tea, grits, and Southern Gothic stories. She currently resides in Vancouver, Canada with her family. Gorgeous Gruesome Faces is her debut novel.

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

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

Thank you so much for having me! I’m Linda, I was born and raised in Taiwan, spent a good chunk of my adult years in the Southern United States, before settling back in Vancouver Canada. I write spooky love stories that are often served with a side of body horror.

What can you tell us about your debut book, Gorgeous Gruesome Faces? What was the inspiration for this story?

GORGEOUS GRUESOME FACES is about a disgraced teen pop star who comes face to face with her estranged former groupmate and the demons of their shared past at a deadly K-pop competition. It’s also a deeply personal story about grief, and how to forgive and love yourself again after making big, terrible mistakes.  

This book was written in 2020 when I was going through a lot of personal hardship. I wanted a way to explore that pain, but also to throw myself into the things that have always brought me joy. GORGEOUS GRUESOME FACES is my love letter to Asian horror, pop idol survival shows, fan culture, complicated female relationships, and queer girls.

As a writer, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically young adult fiction and thriller genre?

Like many writers of my generation, I started my ‘career’ writing fan fiction, and then progressed to original works. Having moved across multiple countries in my formative years, I naturally gravitated towards coming of age stories, usually ones containing themes of self-discovery.

The supernatural world and the spiritual beliefs surrounding it are intimately tied to daily life in Taiwanese culture. Growing up as a child I was both scared and fascinated by the plethora of ghost stories, which eventually evolved into a full on love affair with the horror/thriller genre.

As Gorgeous Gruesome Faces is centered on K-pop, I was wondering if you have any favorite artists of your own that you like to listen to, as well as any that influenced your book?

My favorite K-pop girl group is ITZY, and I listened to a lot of IU, Red Velvet, and BLACKPINK as well when I was writing the book. The music videos of Pink Fantasy also inspired some of the imagery.

Since Geeks OUT is a queer centered website, could you tell us a bit about the LGBTQ+ content featured in your book?

I like to refer to my book as a horror-romance, as the sapphic love story is equally as important to the plot as the horror and mystery elements. Like me, my protagonist Sunny is bisexual, and her relationships with her love interests run the gamut from friendship to lust to obsession to rivalry. I wanted Sunny to have plenty of opportunities to be messy and make tons of mistakes, because growing up and falling in love and trying to find your identity is a messy process!

How would you describe your writing process?

My stories are character driven, and so I typically start by creating the main characters first, and then build the plot and setting around them. I tend to be more of a plotter, and I like to do a detailed outline before drafting so that I have a road map to follow, even if I do usually end up changing things along the way.

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

I really can’t recall seeing any Taiwanese-American protagonists in young adult literature back when I first immigrated, and there certainly were no queer ones. Malinda Lo’s Ash was the first young adult sapphic romance I’d read, and I remember being blown away. Seeing authors like Emily X.R. Pan, Cindy Pon, and Gloria Chao not only write about Taiwanese characters in their young adult books but also set their stories in Taiwan has been so inspiring, and was a huge motivating force for me to write my own.

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

Horror/thriller movies and television shows are some of my biggest inspirations when it comes to writing. GORGEOUS GRUESOME FACES was greatly inspired by Korean vengeance thrillers and classic Japanese horror movies like The Grudge.

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

I love exploring flawed characters and the bad choices that they make, writing romances, and of course, coming up with good scares! I also enjoy creating unexpected plot twists that will take the reader by surprise. Developing the right pacing and figuring out when to deliver the scares and reveal the plot twists takes a lot of trial and error on the page.

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?

Having a critique group of other writers encouraging me and holding me accountable was what got me through to the end. Community support is invaluable.

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

Despite loving horror movies, I can’t actually watch them alone!

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)?

I love reciving and giving horror movie recommendations. My current recommendation is the Taiwanese folk horror movie Incantation.

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

Write what brings you the most joy, what makes you smile. Don’t put the pressure on yourself to constantly produce. If writing becomes draining and you’re finding a lack of enjoyment, give yourself permission to step away for as long as you need. Your story will be there for you when you’re ready again.

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

I am currently working on the second book in the GGF duology!

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

The short stories of Alyssa Wong, Eugenia Triantafyllou, and Nathan Ballingrud

She Is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran, I Feed Her to the Beast and the Beast Is Me by Jamison Shea, The Witchery by S. Isabelle, Chlorine by Jade Song, Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung, Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado.

Interview with K. X. Song, Author of An Echo in the City

K. X. Song is a diaspora writer with roots in Hong Kong and Shanghai. An Echo in the City is her debut novel. Visit her on Instagram @ksongwrites.

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

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

Thanks for having me! My name is K. X. Song and I’m a diaspora writer with roots in Hong Kong and Shanghai, currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

What can you tell us about your debut book, An Echo in the City?

AN ECHO IN THE CITY is a dual point of view novel set in Hong Kong, following Phoenix, an aspiring photographer and student protester, and Kai, a police officer in training and artist from Shanghai. The two meet when Kai is assigned to spy on Phoenix due to her involvement in the protest movement, but of course, nothing goes as planned. 

What was the inspiration for the project?

AN ECHO IN THE CITY was very much inspired by its setting, Hong Kong. Hong Kong in the summer of 2019 was simply an electric place. Through story, I wanted to somehow capture that dynamic energy, and the vibrant, beating pulse of the city. People often say change is hard, or even impossible, but that summer, it felt like change was not only possible, but already in motion all around us. It felt like we could do anything, everything. Of course, much has changed since then, but for those who were there, I wanted us to remember, and for those who were not there, I wanted to write a bridge, a way for readers to experience a bit of what it was like.

Based on the book’s description, this story seems to center diaspora identity and culture. I was wondering if you could expand on that theme here, and what it might mean to you as a diaspora author yourself writing it?

As a first-generation immigrant myself and someone who grew up moving between cultures and countries, I often felt a sense of guilt and isolation in struggling where to place myself. For example, in the east, I felt weird calling myself Chinese. In the west, I felt awkward calling myself American. Even calling myself Chinese American felt dishonest at times, given I didn’t relate to Chinese Americans who had never grown up outside America. The thing that was hardest for me was choosing where to call “home”. Home meant many places for me, which, in other words, meant no place. And that led to a pervasive feeling of otherness.

Since then, I’ve met many diaspora kids who experience a similar feeling of being stuck in liminal spaces. I hope readers, both diaspora and otherwise, who relate to these experiences of alienation, can read AN ECHO IN THE CITY and resonate with Phoenix and Kai’s struggles, whether it be through the question of where one belongs, or of who one belongs with, or even of belonging itself–and how one can endeavor to make sense of their place and purpose in an ever-changing world.

As a writer, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically young adult fiction and romance?

I don’t remember the exact moment I became interested in telling stories, but what I remember as a child is writing stories on the backs of paper towels and napkins, in restaurants or trains or even at school. As a kid I spent many aimless hours in Shanghai, with my grandparents, where the only English language books available to me were long classics like War and Peace—not exactly appealing to a child! So I started writing my own stories to amuse myself. Young adult romance was particularly interesting to me because often, you’re telling stories about first love in YA romance. All your emotions are heightened; everything is big, intense, powerful. Growing up as a kid, I loved coming of age stories, and as an adult today, I love them still, and find them equally relevant.

How would you describe your creative process?

During the novel ideation process, I’m a pantser. The first spark for AN ECHO IN THE CITY came to me as a setting, but from there, I continued to ask myself freeform questions. Which perspectives do I want to showcase here? What different kinds of stories can I tell? These questions spark images, scents, slivers of scenes. A girl in the rain, waiting for a boy who shouldn’t come. A boy looking at a painting on a billboard, feeling seen and yet invisible. These emotions and images guided me as I then took a more structured approach to outlining. Of course, my outline doesn’t remain the same as I write. The original outline for the story would’ve made the book over 150,000 words. I had to shorten and rearrange the order of several scenes. Certain beats I had planned didn’t make sense in lieu of a character’s changing personality. So I would say my creative process is a combination of pantsing and plotting, with pantsing at the beginning and end, and plotting in the middle.

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

I love coming up with the idea for a story, I love writing dialogue, and I love tension. Building tension is so important to keeping your readers engaged. You can do this by asking questions, then leaving them unanswered (until later in the plot). In books that are dual point of view, like AN ECHO IN THE CITY, you can have one character keep a secret that you know the other character would react negatively to, if they found out about that secret. In this way, the reader knows something that one of the narrators does not, and that anticipation adds to the overall tension of the plot.

What I found most challenging was writing a fictional story based on a historical event. In my first draft of ECHO, nearly all the events took place according to a historically accurate timeline. However, this made for a slow-paced and often tedious draft. My editors at Little, Brown were instrumental in helping me tighten the timeline and become more liberal about reconfiguring the order of events to refine the plot and pacing. Writing historical fiction, I learned you often must make a choice between story and fact-telling. As a novelist, I intentionally chose the former, while trying not to sacrifice the core of the historical time and place.

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

As a child, I loved the Studio Ghibli movie SPIRITED AWAY, and the novel CORALINE by Neil Gaiman. Both pieces examine the idea of being able to traverse between worlds, and the consequences of such an ability.

As an adult, I love PACHINKO by Min Jin Lee, for its examination of intergenerational trauma, as well as the film IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, which deeply touched me and reminded me why I create stories. 

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

I’m a huge fan of Rainie Yang, BTS, and Younha. I’m also a huge foodie–I could go on and on about all the foods I love. One of my favorite foods of all time is zongzi–sticky glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves. I eat it with sugar sprinkled on top, which is the perfect blend of sweet and savory. Chinese people eat zongzi year-round, but particularly during the Dragon Boat Festival, in honor of a famous poet named Qu Yuan with an “interesting” back story. According to legend, Qu Yuan drowned himself in a river after the king ignored his wise counsel. The Chinese people, grateful for Qu Yuan’s loyalty to the country, threw zongzi into the river to feed the fish, so that the fish would not eat his body.   

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)?

I wish more people asked who the illustrator of the gorgeous cover is! The cover of An Echo in the City is illustrated by Hsiao Ron Cheng, an incredibly talented Taiwanese artist who coincidentally also illustrated the album cover for Troye Sivan’s Blue Neighborhood (an album I adore and listened to while writing this book!)

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?

I always start with questions. Ask yourself why things are the way they are. Look at your city or hometown through the eyes of a tourist. What is novel, unusual, strange? Contrast your hometown to other places. How are the people here different? What sets them apart? How do you know when you’re home again? What does coming home feel like? These questions can help you start to see your hometown–which can often feel mundane or ordinary–in a new and engaging light. Follow those questions like a trail of breadcrumbs, leading you to a seed of a story. That seed can come in the form of a character, for example, someone new to town. Or it can come in the form of an event, like the Hong Kong protests. What’s important to remember about documentation is that it’s impossible to be fully comprehensive. You can try, if that’s the aim of your novel, but don’t let the need for comprehensive documentation overwhelm the plot or heart of the story.

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

Yes! My next project is a big departure from AN ECHO IN THE CITY. Coming out next summer, THE NIGHT ENDS WITH FIRE is a Chinese fantasy inspired by the ballad of Mulan and the Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, set in a thrilling world of magic and danger, strange beasts and otherworldly realms. I’m currently in the middle of revisions and can’t wait to share this book with the world. (You can add the book on Goodreads here!)     

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

So many good books to recommend, but I’ll settle for three. THE IMPOSSIBLE CITY by Karen Cheung, which is an adult memoir about life in Hong Kong, amongst other things. A painfully honest read, beautifully written and truly thought-provoking. WHEN WE WERE INFINITE by Kelly Loy Gilbert, for its flawed yet loving mother-daughter relationship, which made me bawl my eyes out. And THIS PLACE IS STILL BEAUTIFUL by XiXi Tian, which is about hate crimes and racism, but also about sisterhood and identity, and how one’s identity changes over time, all rendered in gorgeous prose.  

Interview with Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Parker, Co-Editors of Mermaids Never Drown: Tales to Dive For

Zoraida Córdova is the acclaimed author of more than two dozen novels and short stories, including the Brooklyn Brujas series, Star Wars: The High Republic: Convergence, and The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina. In addition to writing novels, she serves on the board of We Need Diverse Books, and is the co-editor of the bestselling anthology Vampires Never Get Old, as well as the cohost of the writing podcast, Deadline City. She writes romance novels as Zoey Castile. Zoraida was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and calls New York City home. When she’s not working, she’s roaming the world in search of magical stories.

Natalie C. Parker is an author, editor, and community organizer. She has written several award winning books for teens and young readers and has edited multiple anthologies including the Indie Bestselling anthology Vampires Never Get Old. Her work has been included on the NPR Best Books list, the Indie Next List, and the TAYSHAS Reading List, and in Junior Library Guild selections. In addition to writing, Natalie also runs Madcap Retreats, which has partnered with We Need Diverse Books and Reese’s Book Club to host the writers workshops for their new internship Lit Up. She grew up in a navy family finding home in coastal cities from Virginia to Japan and currently lives with her wife on the Kansas prairie.

I had the opportunity to interview Zoraida and Natalie, which you can read below.

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

N: Hi Geeks OUT team! Thank you so much for having us! Zoraida and I are both authors of young adult, middle grade, and, in her case, adult SFF and we’ve been friends since the day we met. Which was at the very beginning of our careers.

What can you tell us about your latest anthology, Mermaids Never Drown: Tales to Dive For? What was the inspiration for the project?

N: To tell you about the inspiration for Mermaids Never Drown we actually have to back up a bit and tell you about the first installment in the Untold Legends series, Vampires Never Get Old, which came out of a writing retreat. We were both floating in a pool that was far too cold for rational people to endure, and Zoraida breezily mentioned missing vampires. Suddenly we were deep in a discussion about how many vampires were missing from the stories we were most familiar with. Our solution was an anthology featuring an array of voices who were excited to revamp, if you will, the mythology we know and love. That book came out in 2020.

Z: Back in the pandemic days! It became an Indie bestseller and since then, we’ve seen one of the stories from Vampires, “First Kill” by V.E. Schwab, be adapted as a Netflix show, which was very exciting. And we sold two more installments featuring two more of our favorite cryptids/magical beings. Which is how Mermaids Never Drown came to be.

As authors, you’ve both written about merfolk before. This is also the second mythological creature you’ve tackled in this anthology series. May I ask what do you think draws you and the other writers from the Mermaids Never Drown anthology to this mythological creature?

Z: Mermaids have always been my favorite mythological creature. There are so many metaphors that can be applied to magical beings, but for me, the mermaid story is about straddling two worlds. As an immigrant living in the diaspora, what better metaphor could I choose? I’m not trying to belong to one world or the other. I belong to both, and that’s pretty powerful for me.

N: I’ve been captivated by mermaids for as long as I can remember. I’ve been a swimmer, a sailor, and a SCUBA diver and all of the mercreatures I write tend to be monstrous in some way, always hungry with sharp teeth and rough skin. That really fits my experience of queerness–I have felt monstrous and strange and also hungry and vicious at various points in my life, like I both did and didn’t fit in my own body or among regular humans. So for me, mermaids and queerness have a lot to do with finding home inside yourself, and making a new one in the world.

Zoraida Córdova Photo Credit Melanie Barbosa

For many people, mermaids and merfolk in general have often been a queer symbol, a marginalized creature traveling between different worlds, longing for love and freedom. Could you maybe tell us about some of the queer contributions to Mermaids Never Drown?

N: So many of our stories play on that theme of feeling trapped or pulled between two worlds, or on being denied access to spaces that feel crucial to identity or a sense of history. The stories in this collection use mermaid mythology and tropes to explore everything from intergenerational trauma to diaspora to queerness. In particular, I’m very excited for Rebecca Coffindaffer’s Storm Song, which grapples with sexuality and expectations. Queer romance is front and center in Julian Winters’s We’ll Always Have June, and Julie Murphy’s The First and Last Kiss. Katherine Locke’s Nor’easter features a nonbinary protagonist, andand several of the other stories have queerness braided throughout, including Kalynn Bayon’s Return to the Sea, Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s Shark Week, and the story I’ve co-authored with Zoraida, The Merrow.

What draws you to the art of anthology creation?

N: There is something really powerful about being invited into a story. As a queer person, stories about magical and mythical creatures have felt strangely off-limits. Anthologies give us an opportunity to change that, and while there’s no single collection that can invite every single reader in, I love working on projects that are opening doors rather than closing them.

Z: Short stories were my first love. From the classics we had to read in school, to the strange and experimental zines and flash fiction I found in college, to putting together these collections with Natalie. I love giving other writers a prompt and seeing what unfurls from planting that idea.

As writers, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically young adult, fantasy, and romance?

Z: The real world is a mess, to quote our favorite soft shell crab. From the moment I decided I wanted to be a writer in high school, I’ve been dreaming up worlds. Fantasy is a reflection of our world, but at a distance. I don’t think you can truly leave the problems of our worlds behind. In fact, it should power your fantasy and shine a light on what, as an author, you are trying to say.

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

N: When it comes to anthologies, my favorite part is always getting the stories and reading them for the first time. It’s exciting every single time and I love the tantalizing feeling of not knowing how our authors will have tackled the prompt. It reminds me that stories are limitless and a single prompt can inspire wildly different and robust creations–it’s a kind of magic. The most challenging part is deciding the order of the stories! Seriously, we agonize over placement. Every. Single. Time.

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

Z: There are so many. I loved all the teen urban fantasy that came out in the late 90’s and early aughts. Those books really shaped me as a writer. I grew up watching Latin American TV, so I did see aspects of myself reflected in Spanish-language television and media, but until recently, that wasn’t the case in US American books and media. I think the first time I felt represented in a show was the first episode of ‘Jane the Virgin,’ which came out in my 20s. I’m still waiting for a book to do that to me, as an Ecuadorian person, but I’ve still found connections with books that feature strong main characters like Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, On the Hustle by Adriana Herrera.

N: The first books I remember feeling a deep connection to as a queer kid were the Heralds of Valdemar books by Mercedes Lackey. It was the first time I’d ever seen queer characters on the page who weren’t villainized. In fact, they got to be the main characters, have magic of their own and go on epic quests! Now, there are many queer books that reflect parts of me and many that don’t, and I love that we are getting to have that kind of expansion in literature. In particular, I’m currently obsessed with the works of Zen Cho, Andrew Joseph White, Tessa Gratton (I know Z already mentioned her, but I can’t help it), Adib Khorram, and Mark Oshiro.

Natalie C. Parker

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

Z: Natalie and I have a podcast called Untold Legends, where we deep dive (no pun intended) pop culture with our authors. Season one is all about vampires, and of course, season two is about mermaids. You can listen here.

N: I know this is giving the impression that Zoraida and I do everything together, but we also work with a new company called Electric Postcard Entertainment. Our mission is to act as a launchpad for creators whose backgrounds and experiences have long been marginalized by entertainment industries. Aspiring writers can learn more here!

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?

Z: Read everything. It was the first piece of advice I received, and it holds true. Consuming stories–in whatever format–is part of the job. For me, it sharpens my sentences, and helps me figure out how I want my own voice to be different.

Any specific advice for those looking to create/organize an anthology themselves?

N: My best advice is to take your time and be really intentional about the project. The more focus you can bring to the idea at the pitch stage, the better the collection will be in the end. So, what I’m saying is that it’s good to be very clear about your mission from the beginning. 

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

Z: I’m working on my next adult book. It’s tentatively titled The Fall of Rebel Angels and is a love story between a woman suspected of murdering her former lover and a fallen angel who is cursed to search for his wings on Earth every one hundred years.

N: I am just about to announce two new projects that will be released in 2024 and 2025. The first is my first young adult horror novel, which has been a dream of mine for ten million years, and the second is a project I pitched as John Wick meets Adventures in Babysitting. Full details, titles, and covers will be released VERY soon.

Finally, what book/authors would you recommend to the readers of GeeksOUT?

Z: All of the authors in our anthologies have tremendous novels of their own. Make sure you check out their work!

N: What Z said! I will also offer a quick set of spooky season queer YA reads for consideration: My Dearest Darkest by Kayla Cottingham, You’re Not Supposed to Die Tonight by Kalynn Bayronn, The Honeys by Ryan La Sala, and These Fleeting Shadows by Kate Alice Marshall, and Burn Down, Rise Up by Vincent Tirado.

Interview with Ellen T. Crenshaw, Artist of Stacey’s Mistake: A Graphic Novel (the Baby-Sitters Club #14)

Ellen T. Crenshaw is the creator of the New York Times bestselling Baby-sitters Club graphic novel adaptation of Stacey’s Mistake by Ann M. Martin. She is the co-creator, with Colleen AF Venable, of Kiss Number 8, which was nominated for an Eisner Award and longlisted for a National Book Award. She is also the creator of What Was the Turning Point of the Civil War?, a Who HQ graphic novel. When she’s not making comics, Ellen loves playing video games, hiking with her dog, and deconstructing movie plots with her husband.

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

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

Thank you for having me! I’m Ellen T. Crenshaw, a cartoonist and illustrator. I worked for years as an editorial illustrator and a studio freelancer for children’s media development, but now I almost exclusively make comics and graphic novels. Journey is the best video game I’ve ever played. My favorite movie is Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. This past spring I drove 3,000 miles with my husband, cat, and dog from California to Massachusetts, where we now live!

What can you tell us about your latest project, The Baby-sitters Club: Stacey’s Mistake: A Graphic Novel and how did you get involved in illustrating for The Baby-sitters Club series?

Stacey’s Mistake is the 14th book in the Baby-sitters Club graphic novel series. Kristy, Claudia, Mary Anne, Dawn, Jessi, and Mallory all visit Stacey in New York City for a big baby-sitting job, but the girls clash with Stacey’s New York friends and her city life. There’s lots of big emotions, and loving depictions of NYC sights.

I got involved with the BSC graphic novels when my agent came to me with interest from the series editor, Cassandra Pelham Fulton. I was a Baby-sitters Club reader when I was a kid, so I couldn’t have been more excited!

Did you have any previous connections to The Baby-sitters Club series before working on this project?

I read my older sister’s hand-me-down copies of the original series when I was little. The two of us watched the ‘90s tv show on PBS, and to this day we can both sing the theme song. My niece also read the graphic novels when she was in middle school. It means a lot to me that my family and I have such ties to the series and my work on it now is something I can share with them. (I’ve actually consulted my sister a handful of times for advice and input on my adaptations!)

As an author, what drew you to the art of storytelling, particularly comics?

My mom instilled in me a love of grammar, and she was basically my first writing teacher. When my dad got home from work he would read with me, and my favorites were always a book of Hans Christian Anderson tales and the daily newspaper comics. I’ve always loved cartoons, too—so much that baby-me wished Toon Town was a real place—and I was constantly drawing my favorite characters. I was in elementary school when I started making my first comic books with friends, drawn on computer paper and stapled into booklets. Comics are just so accessible as a storytelling medium, it was only natural as someone who loved both writing and drawing to keep doing it.

As a comic creator, you are known for another queer fan-favorite, Kiss Number 8. Could you tell us what it was like working on that project?

Thank you! Kiss Number 8 was what made me decide to try out for my first graphic novel. Before then I was making short comics for myself and small-press anthologies. Reading Colleen’s script was transformative; I felt so strongly for those characters and the story, I wanted with my whole body to be the one to draw it. The balance of humor and drama was right up my alley, and thankfully First Second thought so too! The process was exceptionally hard for me, though, because making short comics is a sprint while a graphic novel is a marathon. The hours were grueling. (They still are!) Colleen was a real champion for me throughout; she gave me so much encouragement. When it was done, she gifted me a crocheted trophy! I’m so lucky to have collaborated with her, and our book is one of my proudest efforts.

How would you describe your creative process in general?

It seems to change with every project, but one thing is consistent: I avoid my desk for as long as possible. I go for walks, I take the dog to the beach, I play games, I read, I come up with ideas in the shower. I’m on the couch with my sketchbook, laptop, or iPad—sometimes all three—while I write a script and begin sketches. The rest of my process is usually some combination of traditional and digital tools, my favorite being ink on paper.

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

As I said, ink on paper is my favorite. By that point, all the meticulous planning is over and it’s just me and my brush, guiding those lines, making textures, delighting in happy accidents. I can lose myself in the story and characters.

Pencils are challenging for me. They can be really tedious. It’s when I’m drawing endless perspective lines, poring over reference. There’s still an element of fun—especially when I’m taking photos of myself for posing—but it’s the most eye-melting, back-breaking part of my process.

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

A single influential moment that changed my entire creative life was when my college professor, the late great Robert Jay Kaufman, told me that I should convey more emotion in my characters’ hands. I took that to heart and I’ve since built a whole reputation of drawing expressive hands!

In general, I’m inspired by projects in which I get to research and learn new things. I’ll always prefer narrative fiction, but I appreciate any chance I get to do a historical piece that requires a trip to the library archives.

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

I mostly read my sister’s hand-me-down books growing up, my favorite among them being Anne of Green Gables. The first book of my own I remember loving was Totally Disgusting! by Bill Wallace, in which an uptight, scared little kitten learns to loosen up and be brave. I was a nervous kid and I wanted to be adventurous like Anne Shirley, but I think I felt more like Mewkiss the kitten.

Nowadays I’m really into historical fiction, adventure, and stories that explore the spectrum/question the boundaries of womanhood. I really enjoyed the Winternight trilogy by Katherine Arden and Circe by Madeline Miller. I’ll read and reread This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki from now until the end of time.

I’m also dabbling in horror, and Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass tv series especially moved me as a formerly religious person. I talk about it constantly.

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?

Deadlines help a ton, haha! Honestly, a looming due date is mostly what keeps me moving forward. Finished is better than perfect.

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

I laugh exceptionally loudly and if you’re one of my neighbors I sincerely apologize.

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: What’s your favorite cookie, and would you like one?

A: White chocolate macadamia nut, and yes, please and thank you.

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

Find your people and hold ‘em tight. Community is everything. The support you’ll give and receive, how you’ll influence each other; it’ll make you a better person and artist.

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

I’m in the middle of two more Baby-Sitters Club graphic novel adaptations: Kristy and the Walking Disaster and Jessi Ramsey, Pet-Sitter.

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

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan is wonderfully romantic and adventurous and turns the whole idea of a “chosen one” on its head.

I grabbed this series for work reference and I instantly fell in love with it: Cross Game by Mitsuru Adachi. It’s baseball manga, completely out of my wheelhouse, and I love it.

Header Photo Credit Matt Boehm

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 R. Eric Thomas, Author of Kings of B’more

R. Eric Thomas is the bestselling author of Here for It, a Read with Jenna book club pick featured on Today and a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is the co-author of Reclaiming Her Time, a biography of Rep. Maxine Waters. He is also a television writer (AppleTV+’s Dickinson, FX’s Better Things), a playwright, and the long-running host of The Moth in Philadelphia and D.C. For four years, he was a senior staff writer at where he wrote “Eric Reads the News.” Kings of B’more is his YA debut. 

I had the opportunity to interview R. Eric Thomas, which you can read below.

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

I’m a bestselling author, television writer, and playwright based in Philadelphia, where I live with my husband, who is a Presbyterian pastor.

What can you tell us about your latest book, Congratulations, The Best Is Over!? What inspired this project?

I turned 40 a year into the pandemic while living in a house I never imagined I’d want in a suburb that gave me the creeps sometimes and I looked around and thought “Okay, what now?” I had planned to have an elaborate costume party with very annoying rules for my 40th and invite everyone I’d ever met, but instead I was unexpectedly living in my hometown again, struggling to make adult friendships, bleaching my mail, and tweeting out jokes about the apocalypse. I thought the juxtaposition of a common phase of life change with this shocking, seismic global upheaval was worth exploring. And as someone who primarily writes comedically, I thought it was a worthy challenge to see if I could make enough jokes about my mid-life/existential crisis to find hope again.

As a writer, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically non-fiction (essays)?

Stories are empathy engines and there’s something extraordinary that happens when you tell a true story to another person. It opens up a bridge between you, it inspires both of you–or all of you—to think more expansively about commonality and connection. It’s generous and vulnerable. Storytelling changes us, it teaches us and excites us and challenges us. I started out telling true stories, live, with no notes at shows like The Moth, and I’d never experienced anything like it. I’ve done standup, I tried my hand at spoken word, I’ve hosted cabarets and drag shows; I loved all of those experiences but I found that there was nothing like storytelling.

Recently, you’ve entered into the world of young adult fiction, with your book, Kings of B’more? May I ask what inspired this story, as well as your interest in writing YA?

I wanted to write about platonic love between two Black, queer boys; I wanted to write a story where their trauma wasn’t the focal point; I was interested in a space of possibility for their exuberance and their softness. I wanted to craft the world as I knew it could be. And I knew that if I didn’t write it, that some young person out there wouldn’t get to know that it was possible. I wrote what I’d never read, a world that I get to live now as an adult. My trips to the library as a middle and high schooler expanded my view of the world in so many ways; I’m still learning from books I discovered in 9th or 10th grade. I wanted to add to that tradition for those coming after me.

How would you describe your general writing process?

Chaotic. I always have multiple projects going on. I follow inspiration. I get lost. I have to trick myself into finishing things. I recently remodeled my office for a week because a chapter was making me nervous. It’s a mess. I should be exiled from writing.

Are there any ways in which it is similar or different when writing fiction vs non-fiction?

With both forms structure is very important, particularly in the way that I approach non-fiction. I write non-fiction as if I am the main character, the protagonist, and the essay usually follows the natural arc of me getting closer to or farther from what I want. I think trope and genre can be as useful in non-fiction as they are in fiction and can expand the possibilities of what I’m creating.

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

I both love and hate revision. I really try to embrace the freedom of being able to write a very imperfect first draft and the process of slowly, painstakingly finding the right piece inside of the imperfection. But I also get really frustrated sometimes in the writing process because there is never a single “right” piece. It’s easy to get lost in the searching, which is why I value having such smart editors.

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

I am obsessed with Toni Morrison, August Wilson, Colson Whitehead, and Ann Patchett.

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?

Having a regular practice can be key. As can having deadlines, even if it’s just a friend who you’ve promised to get a draft to. Knowing that someone is waiting, whether that someone is the hopeful version of yourself who made your schedule or an eager reader, can push you over the finish line.

Are there any projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?

I’m in the middle of writing another novel, this one for adults. It’s a queer love story about second chances and a vacation town trying to reinvent itself.

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

Philip Ellis’s Love and Other Scams is such a delight and I can’t wait for his next book, We Could Be Heroes. Everyone should read Audre Lorde, particularly Sister Outsider, and Alexander Chee, particularly How to Write an Autobiographical Essay. Meccah Jamilah Sullivan’s Big Girl is phenomenal. I cannot stop screaming about how great Idlewild by James Frankie Thomas is. Holy cow! What a masterpiece!

Interview with Maria Ingrande Mora, Author of The Immeasurable Depth of You

Maria Ingrande Mora (they/she) is a content designer and a brunch enthusiast. Her love languages are snacks, queer joy, and live music. A graduate of the University of Florida, Maria lives near a wetlands preserve with two cats, two children, and two billion mosquitoes. She can often be found writing at her stand-up desk, surrounded by house plants. Unless the cats have destroyed them.

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

CW: Discussion of mental illness (specifically depression and anxiety)

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

Hi! I’m a genderqueer Floridian trying to survive their state’s authoritarian regime and stay in love with the beautiful place they call home. I’m the parent of two teens and the author of two queer books for young people.

What can you tell us about  your latest novel, The Immeasurable Depth of You? What was the inspiration for this project?

The Immeasurable Depth of You follows extremely online Brynn as she’s banished to Florida to spend the summer with her estranged dad on a houseboat with no internet access.

It’s a story for and about teens who are living with mental illness. It’s a story of self-acceptance in the face of the negative self-talk that so often becomes an indelible part of the lives of young people with anxiety, depression, and other diagnoses. It’s also a little bit spooky and a little bit funny!

As an author, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically young adult fiction and speculative fiction?

I was a precocious reader as a young person. I found a lot of comfort and companionship in books. While it was a long journey to get there, it was also a natural journey to contribute my own stories to young people needing a moment of escape.

I am very drawn to speculative fiction in all forms. Stepping slightly outside of our world allows for so many creative ways to hone in on the ways we connect with others and with ourselves.

Growing up, were there any stories in which you felt touched by/ or reflected in, in terms of personal identity? If not or if so, how do you think this personally affected you as a writer? 

Weetzie Bat had a huge influence on me as a teen. I remember reading it cover to cover in the bathtub, refilling the water every time it got cold. It was one of the first unabashedly queer and magical stories I read as a young person, and it let me recalibrate what fiction could be.

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

I feel like I’m one giant mishmash of creative influences because I’m so drawn to stories in any form. I’ve fallen in love with fictional characters my whole life, and their worlds and narratives have consistently inspired me to tell stories that make people feel things. Big, huge emotions can be so satisfying when they’re contained by the safe constraints of a story.

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

I love whatever part of writing I’m not currently doing. When I’m drafting, I’m longing to revise. When I’m revising, I’m longing to start a new draft. That friction is part of what keeps the creative process exciting to someone like me (a person with ADHD).

Every once in a while, I get in such a deep flow that I feel like I’m experiencing the story first-hand. This often involves sort of weeping over my keyboard. Those are my favorite moments. I hope those transformative moments exist for the reader, too.

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

I’m in my 40s and I’m still on an ongoing, evolving journey of self-discovery. Life doesn’t stop being exciting when you hit a certain milestone age. And you’re never locked into one label or identity.

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)?

What Florida animal are you most scared of?

Definitely water snakes. While I’m also VERY scared of alligators, the whole thing where snakes can swim at the surface or under the surface makes them profoundly terrifying to me. I become nearly catatonic with fear. If the snakes ever figure this out I’m done for.

What advice might you have to give for aspiring artists?

Don’t wait for someone else to tell you that you’re an artist.

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

On Free Comic Book Day, you can check out my comics debut, Ranger Academy! It’s an all-ages story that you don’t need to be a Power Rangers fan to get into. I hope you’ll check it out.

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

I just finished She Who Became the Sun and I’m just haunted by how beautiful and perfect it was. I cannot wait for the sequel. Time to suffer!

Interview with Gabi Burton, Author of Sing Me to Sleep

Gabi Burton grew up reading and writing in St. Louis, Missouri. She graduated from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine in 2021. Now, she works as a paralegal and author on the East Coast. When she’s not working or writing, she’s probably watching Netflix, scrolling through Twitter, or finding beautiful places to walk—preferably near a body of water.

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

Thanks for having me! I’m Gabi and I’m a YA fantasy author. In my every day life, I’m a paralegal who never wants to be a lawyer. When I’m not writing, reading, or working, I’m probably watching something trashy on Netflix or out for a walk somewhere.

What can you tell us about your debut book, Sing Me to Sleep? What was the inspiration for the project?

Sing Me to Sleep is about a siren named Saoirse who lives in a kingdom where her existence is illegal. She lives in disguise in her kingdom’s army by day, and at night, she satisfies her craving to kill as an assassin. When she becomes a bodyguard to the crown prince, she’s enlisted to help him track down a deadly assassin— but he doesn’t know the killer they’re looking for is actually Saoirse.

I got the inspiration for Sing Me to Sleep while on a zoom call with author friends. It was Spooky Season so we were talking about monsters and someone mentioned sirens. I’d always loved mermaids and sirens and I thought the idea of sirens as monsters was really compelling. The first element of Sing Me to Sleep was Saoirse as a character. I knew I wanted to play around with the idea of her monstrosity. I wanted her to be a flawed character who is beautiful, deadly, out of place, and more powerful than she knows how to handle. The world of Keirdre and the rest of the story developed around how I wanted her to feel and how I wanted her to show up in the world.

As a writer, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically young adult and fantasy?

I can’t remember what first drew me into wanting to tell stories because I’ve wanted to be an author since before I can remember. As a kid, I used to bounce a ball against the wall for hours on end and tell myself stories in my mind. I kept track of character names and plot points in notebooks I hid around my room. When I started middle school, I got a laptop and started typing those stories out. They were all awful of course and they’ll never see the light of day but at the time, I loved them.

Because I started writing as a kid, I first wrote books for kids about kids. I was writing from the only perspective I knew at the time. As I grew up, my characters tended to grow up with me. When I aged past my characters, I started writing stories for childhood me, a Black girl who read voraciously but never about people who looked like her. I wanted to write books she would have loved, with characters she could see herself in.

If I’m being honest, I never actually wanted to write fantasy. All the books I wrote before Sing Me to Sleep were completely different genres. I loved reading fantasy, but writing it felt too daunting since I wasn’t the biggest fan of worldbuilding or descriptions. When I became fascinated by the idea of writing about a siren, I decided to bite the bullet and write fantasy. I fell in love with writing the genre as well as reading it. And now, all my ideas for future books are fantasy and I want to add magic to every non-fantasy idea I’ve ever had. So, I wasn’t drawn to writing fantasy as a genre so much as I was drawn to writing about a mythical creature that forced me to step outside my comfort zone in order to tell her story.

How would you describe your creative process?

My creative process tends to be very character driven. I’m a plotter, first and foremost, which means I need an outline before I can start writing. But before I even get to the outline stage, I have to know my characters. Most of my ideas start with a main character, before I even have a plot. I match character concepts with ideas I have for a premise. The characters shape the premise and vice versa until they fit together. After that, I outline. I usually outline until just before the climax and then write the book up until that point, edit it a few times, and after a few rounds of revisions without an ending, I finally figure out how I want the story to end. After that, I can finish writing the book and I’m free to edit over and over again some more.

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

Characters are easily my favorite part of writing! I love digging into their brains, exploring why they are the way they are, and what experiences they’ve had that shaped them into who they are. In that same vein, writing character dynamics and dialogue are some of my favorite parts of writing.

There are a lot of elements of writing that are battling it out for most difficult. I think the hardest part of the writing process changes depending on my mood and what aspect of writing is giving me grief in the moment. That said, endings are definitely on the list of the most challenging aspects of writing. And so is drafting. And I’ll add descriptions in there as well. It takes me several drafts before I figure out how I want a story to end, and even after that, I tend to rewrite my endings more than any other part of the book. Drafting is one of the most frustrating parts of writing because first drafts are inevitably terrible and powering through a rough first draft is hard. Descriptions make the list because I’m not naturally a very visual person so I have to use parts of my brain that normally lie dormant when I write descriptions, especially descriptions of people.

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

I definitely didn’t see myself reflected in any books I read as a kid. I don’t think I read a single book by a Black author about a Black person doing something other than being a slave or living through segregation before I was twenty. That said, I read lots of books that, though not reflective of me, I loved and I think are really influential to my writing now. I could rave about Kristin Cashore forever. She’s the author who made me fall in love with fantasy as a genre and a prime example of how to write strong female characters. Graceling and Fire will forever be some of my favorite YA fantasy books of all time.

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

I love streaming but I have horrifying TV watching habits. I rarely finish TV shows. I have a habit of switching shows whenever a character annoys me too much. Which means I tend to switch shows about once a week. I love rewatching shows but I usually start from the beginning so I’ve only actually finished, from start to end, a handful of shows. If you asked me my favorite TV show, I’d probably say something like The Good Wife or Grey’s Anatomy but technically, I haven’t finished either and probably never will. It drives my friends crazy.

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)?

What is your favorite mermaid or siren related media? H2O: Just Add Water! I absolutely adored that show as a kid. My whole family knew when it was on, I had dibs on the good TV in the living room because I was obsessed. It’s currently on Netflix and sometimes I rewatch a few episodes to see if it’s as great as I remember. It always is.

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?

Finish the book! An estimated 97% of people who start writing a book never finish it. If you finish the book, you’re already in the 97th percentile of all aspiring authors. Of course, that’s easier said than done. When writing, all authors run into the inevitable moment (many, many, many times) where you doubt yourself and think the book you’re writing is awful.

I’ll go ahead and spoil it for you: it is awful. But that’s ok. Your first draft, especially for your first book, is allowed to be awful. That doesn’t mean it can’t become great with time and edits. You have to let it be bad in order for it to have a chance to be good. It’s easiest if you have encouragement. Writer friends to write with you, cheer you on, and boost your ego can be invaluable to cranking out that first book.

Any specific advice for those wishing to write fantasy or picture books?

Detailed worldbuilding can be fun but know when to let go. A lot of authors spend a ton of time developing every element of their fantastical worlds. They know the name of every kind of made-up flower and when they bloom. The know the pH of the water in their fictional rivers. They know the history of their kingdom’s monarchy going back 1,000 years. There’s nothing wrong with that! Knowing your world to that level of detail can help immerse you in the story. But remember that just because it’s knowledge you have, doesn’t mean it’s information that should go into the book! Know your world inside and out, build the world so readers can envision it, but not every detail you crafted about your story should make it into the book. Those details might be useful for informing your writing process but that doesn’t mean it’s relevant information your reader is interested in, especially if the only way to convey it is through info dumps.

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

I’m working on the sequel to Sing Me to Sleep now. It’s called Drown Me With Dreams and it’s set to come out in June 2024!

Finally, what book/authors would you recommend to the readers of GeeksOUT?

Anything by Kristin Cashore! For more recent fantasy books (by Black authors!) I’d recommend Daughters of Jubilation by Kara Lee Corthron, Blood Scion by Deborah Falaye, The Blood Trials by N.E. Davenport (it’s a blend of sci-fi and fantasy), and Blood Like Magic by Liselle Sambury. There are a few upcoming Black fantasy books I’m super excited about as well, including So Let Them Burn by Kamilah Cole and The Poisons We Drink by Bethany Baptiste.