Interview with Anna Sortino, Author of Give Me a Sign

Anna Sortino is a young adult author who writes stories about disabled characters living their lives and falling in love. She’s Deaf and passionate about diverse representation in media. Born and raised in the Chicagoland area, Anna has since lived in different cities from coast to coast, spending her free time exploring nature with her dog or reading on the couch with her cat. Give Me a Sign is her debut novel.

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

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

Thanks for having me! I’m Anna Sortino, and I’m the author of the upcoming YA novel Give Me a Sign. When I’m not writing, I love spending time outside, crafting, and obsessing over my pets. Originally from Chicago, I’ve since lived in DC, CA, and soon, NC.

What can you tell us about your debut book, Give Me a Sign? What was the inspiration for this story?

Give Me a Sign is a sweet YA contemporary romance novel set at a camp for deaf and blind kids. Lilah wears hearing aids and feels caught between deaf and hearing. She gets a job for the summer where she finds community, brushes up on her ASL skills, and falls for a cute Deaf counselor. It’s up to Lilah to find where she belongs, especially when the comfort of camp is no match for struggles in the real world.

The main inspiration for this novel was the setting. Growing up, I went to a similar camp. We were kids enjoying the summer, hanging out in the lake, getting mosquito bites and sunburn, and eating tons of s’mores. We were loud, animated, and eager for interactions in the Deaf community that many of us didn’t have access to back home. When it comes to disabilities, there are always a lot of stereotypes or assumptions at play. I wanted to use this setting to write a book full of disabled characters, showing a wide range of experiences, while centering joy.

How did you find yourself getting into storytelling, particularly young adult and romance? What drew you to those things?

Growing up, I was always a big reader, hiding away with a book whenever attempting conversation grew too taxing. After deciding upon the idea for Give Me a Sign, I realized summer camp was the perfect setting for a teen romance! Young Adult explores the time in our lives when we’re figuring out where we fit into the wider world and what things are most important to us. It’s a great age category to explore questions about identity and belonging.

How would you describe your creative process?

Bursts of frantic creativity and lulls of stalled frustration.

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

My greatest influences are some of the amazing disability advocates out there doing the work. Every time Imani Barbarin (@crutches_and_spice) comes across my newsfeed, or an incredible documentary like Crip Camp makes its way to Netflix, I’m reminded that our stories are important and deserve to be told.

As someone who is part of the d/Deaf/HOH community, disability seems to be a strong element in your work. How did you set about representation in your book, particularly representing a three-dimensional language like ASL, or general Deaf culture onto the page?

I grew up in a household with a mix of significant hearing and vision losses, so to me, accessibility can be commonplace, as simple as watching tv on a school night with closed captions while voicing aloud anything that might be hard to view on screen. My entire life I’ve been surrounded by disability. Since my hearing aids can be an obvious giveaway, many people have felt comfortable sharing their otherwise invisible disabilities with me. Some might consider the sheer volume of disabled characters in Give Me a Sign as extraordinary, but I know for a fact that a novel with an entirely able-bodied cast is not an accurate representation of the world we live in.

When it comes to depicting a visual language like ASL on the page, each Deaf author puts their own spin on it. Since Give Me a Sign is a first-person story told from Lilah’s perspective, it was important to me that the ASL read how she was internally interpreting it. As her comprehension progresses throughout the novel, so does the complexity of the signed translation.

What advice would you give for authors for portraying disability (whether that of their own or of others) within their own work?

For those wanting to write a novel with a more inclusive cast of characters, please do your research and utilize authenticity readers. So much of our disabilities make us who we are, therefore it’s not as simple as creating a character and sprinkling a disability on top. Also, consider whether you are the right person to tell a certain narrative—disabled people should first and foremost be the authors of our own stories, because for far too long, that hasn’t been the case.

For disabled authors, know that while infusing your experiences into fiction can be cathartic, don’t feel like you have to give every piece of yourself to the world. It’s okay to keep some distance so any negative comments that may come about your novel won’t shatter your self-worth. Also, support your fellow disabled authors since we’re in this together, and the world needs all our stories and perspectives.

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

Deafness is a spectrum, and every individual has their own experience with it. Kids with hearing loss aren’t born with an innate knowledge of ASL, so it’s important to foster community and shared learning so that children can flourish with the benefits of Deaf culture.

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

I absolutely LOVE revising. The hard part of getting all those initial words down on the page is over, and I get to play around in this new world I’ve created. During drafting, I might struggle to write a hundred words, but during revising, I could blink and have accidentally written five thousand new ones. It’s like the pressure is off—this book is a real thing and now I can totally enjoy creating it.

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

Meet my writer’s assistants! I’ve got a mischievous Shiba Inu named Mika, and a daring little orange cat named Zuko. Both find it of the utmost importance to obstruct my keyboard and remind me to stand up every once and a while.

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

“Are you a hand model?” And the answer is, kind of!

To help my illustrator (the incredibly talented Christina Chung) get the positioning just right on the cover of Give Me a Sign, I took reference photos of my partner and I signing the words used. The result was such perfect and life-like signing!

Follow up question, “So what are the characters saying on the cover?”

Lilah is signing “right!” while Isaac signs “interesting.”

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

Ah there’s much in the works that I wish I could discuss! I will say that my next YA project has been referred to as a “slightly older sibling to Give Me a Sign”, and I can’t wait to share more about that one soon.

What advice might you have to give to aspiring writers?

Find people who will help make your journey more bearable. It’s no secret that publishing is tumultuous, and you’ll want to make friends with fellow writers who understand the ins and outs of the querying and submission processes. Because no matter how many times you explain it to folks outside the industry, they won’t fully understand why some piece of news has you either dancing around the room or crying into your pillow. That’s what your writer friends are for.

Finally, what books/authors, including possibly those related to Deafness/disability, would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

I could rec books for daaaaays. To keep it short and sweet, here are some great reads by Deaf authors:

Middle Grade – Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte

Young Adult – The Loudest Silence by Sydney Langford (summer 2024)

Adult – True Biz by Sara Nović

Interview with Creator of Dead End: Paranormal Park, Hamish Steele

Hamish Steele (he/they) is a freelance animation director and illustrator who grew up surrounded by legends, myths, and folktales. Since graduating from Kingston University in 2013, Hamish has worked for the BBC, Cartoon Network, Disney, Nickelodeon, among others. He is the creator of and showrunner for the Netflix series Dead End: Paranormal Park, based on his graphic novel series, DeadEndia, and the Eisner Award-winning creator of the graphic novel, Pantheon. Hamish currently lives in London.

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

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

Hey! I’m Hamish Steele. I’m a creator of comics and animation. I recently showran Netflix’s Dead End: Paranormal Park which was an adaptation of my webcomic series DeadEndia which has just been published by Union Square & Co. I’m gay and actually yes that is my whole personality. 

What can you tell us about your graphic novel series, DeadEndia? Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

It came from problem solving. I had these original characters, Barney and Norma, and I loved writing their dynamic but I didn’t really have a story. I also loved ghost stories and time travel plots and queer romantic comics… so I basically just threw it all together. I often tell people if they can’t decide which idea of theirs they should focus on, to throw them all together and see what happens. That’s essentially what I did. 

Speaking as a fan of your work, a few of the reasons why so many people love your work is because of its excellent queer sensibility (including awesome trans rep) and neurodivergent representation. Could you possible speak a bit as to what this type of representation means to you?

I mean, I sometimes feel like a bit of grinch when it comes to representation. I always see these meagre crumbs being applauded in giant blockbusters. Oh! Everybody clap! Spider-man swung past a pride flag. We’re so much further along than that! We deserve better! I’ve been in rooms where I’ve asked to be included in the story I’m writing, and they’ve said it’s not appropriate this time around but maybe next time! NO! Take up space! Demand to be seen! It’s so important, now more than ever, that we’re seen and our stories are told! If people aren’t seeing what’s happening in the world right now, the battles that are about to be fought, I don’t know what to tell you. I used to be thankful for the tiniest drip of rep. Now, I will never work on another project where the lead isn’t queer again.

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

I just loved stories and I wanted to tell stories – big, bold adventures! And comics are so marvellous, because you only need a paper and pencil and you’re already there! With a paper and pencil you have actors, locations, costume departments, cinematographers, all the visual effects you could want! I never have to scale down my stories in comics. 

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

I have a special interest in Godzilla, Ultraman, Super Sentai… all those Japanese special effects shows and movies. I find their constant inventiveness so inspiring. They’re not scared of being laughed at – they just GO for it! I find that endlessly inspiring. 

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

As I said before – I’m gay and that really is my whole personality. My hobbies include kissing my husband! And kissing my boyfriend! And watching gay things and reading gay things and hanging out with my gay friends. I really, really feel sorry for straight people, they all seem so miserable. 

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

Are you free for dinner later? And yes, if you’re paying. 

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

I’ve just signed a deal for my next comic series! It’s my take on the aforementioned Godzilla type story, but really focussing on my experiences as a queer, autistic kid. I know it feels like that’s what DeadEndia is, but this is 10x more personal. It’s actually a project I’ve been wanting to do since before DeadEndia was a thing. 

What advice would you give to any aspiring creatives out there?

The “aspiring” word is always so weird to me. What I do now is no different than what I was doing 10 years ago, I just obviously have people paying me to do it now. But if you’re telling stories, making stuff – you’re IN the industry. So don’t change who you are, just find the people who wanna hear what you gotta say. 

Interview with Crystal Maldonado

Crystal Maldonado is a young adult author with a lot of feelings. She is the author of romcoms for fat, brown girls, including The Fall of Whit Rivera, which will be released Oct. 10, 2023; Fat Chance, Charlie Vega, which was a New England Book Award winner, a Cosmopolitan Best New Book, and a Kirkus Best YA Fiction of 2021; and No Filter and Other Lies, which was named a POPSUGAR and Seventeen Best New YA.

By day, Crystal works in higher ed marketing, and by night, she’s a writer who loves Beyoncé, glitter, shopping, and spending too much time on her phone. Her work has been published in Latina, BuzzFeed, and the Hartford Courant. She lives in western Massachusetts with her husband, daughter, and dog. Follow her everywhere @crystalwrote.

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

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

Hi, Geeks OUT! Thank you so much for having me. I’m a young adult author who writes inclusive stories for fat, brown girls that hopefully make you laugh and swoon at the same time. I’ve long been a huge fan of the YA genre, especially as a reader. Romcoms are the way to my heart! Outside of reading and writing, I love shopping (I’m obsessed with anything glitter and I collect quirky earrings), rewatching “Gilmore Girls,” playing Animal Crossing, boy bands, TikTok, and Beyoncé.

What can you tell us about your latest book, No Filter and Other Lies? What inspired the story?

“No Filter and Other Lies” follows 17-year-old Kat Sanchez, a fat, Puerto Rican photographer who’s obsessed with Instagram. While grappling with typical teenage insecurities and some difficult family dynamics, she becomes fixated on gaining clout on IG. When that doesn’t happen naturally, Kat takes matters into her own hands: she steals her friend and co-worker’s photos, makes a new identity on Instagram, and starts to catfish (or #katfish, in Kat’s case). Suddenly she gets that attention she’s always wanted, but it all comes crashing down when Kat meets a follower she develops feelings for and she has to decide whether to come clean or keep up the lie.

This story was my attempt at writing about a fat girl whose fatness wasn’t integral to the story, and who was, quite frankly, a little unlikeable. Kat’s decision to steal her friend’s photos is awful! But don’t we all sometimes do things we’re not proud of? I wanted to explore that imperfection through her story, and also shed some light on how immense the pressures of social media can sometimes feel, especially when you’re a teenager. I hope I accomplished that!

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

Young adult fiction has always been my favorite, and I’ve been reading it for as long as I can remember. I was absolutely obsessed with the “Gossip Girl” (by Cecily von Ziegesar), “Making Waves” (by Katherine Applegate), and “California Diaries” (by Ann M. Martin) series when I was in high school. I also read a ton by Paula Danziger and Sarah Dessen. I would devour those types of books, finishing them in a day!

As a writer, I can’t help but be drawn to young adult fiction, especially contemporary romance. First, I’m such a sucker for those first feelings—the swooning, the loaded glances, the butterflies! I also think a lot of our teen experiences and the big, raw emotions that come with it are universal, and there is something very comforting reading about others who feel the same way you do. I also think YA allows you to explore important issues, like identity and sexuality, in meaningful and nuanced ways, which is important to me.

No Filter and Other Lies is said to feature queer and Latinx representation. What does it mean to you as an author writing this into your work?

When I was a young reader, I rarely saw these parts of myself in books I was reading. There were so few queer characters; many Latinx characters were stereotypes; fat characters were never the love interest; and forget about characters that had one or more of those identities. You just didn’t see that. So, even though I loved books, the lack of representation often made me wonder if books loved me back. I knew as an author I wanted to try to fix that by creating characters that I’d have appreciated when I was a teenager in hopes that readers might pick up my books and feel less alone.  

How would you describe your writing process? What inspires you as a writer?

My writing process is definitely chaotic. I wish I could say I was one of those pragmatic authors who has a specific routine, who is great about creating outlines, who sits down and writes 1,000 words per day, but none of that is true. My writing is very much about feelings and daydreaming. I spend so much time imagining my characters, who they are, what scenarios they’ll find themselves in, and what might happen—all before I even write one word! Once I develop the characters, then I’m usually able to sit down and figure out a rough outline, but I very much change direction as I’m going.

Sometimes I’m inspired by other media I consume, like books, movies, music, or TV shows, but sometimes my inspiration comes from personal experience or even small things. The idea for my upcoming book, “The Fall of Whit Rivera,” came to me when I was sitting in a rainy parking lot waiting to get my daughter from daycare and drinking a pumpkin spice coffee. So, I never know when inspiration may strike, and I kind of love that!

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

One of my favorite parts of writing is getting to know the characters. It sounds really silly to say since the characters aren’t real, but you get to a point where they feel real, you know? After a while, you start to know what your character would or wouldn’t do. I also love writing dialogue! For me, that’s how I build on the relationships between characters in an authentic way. But I’ll admit I find plotting and outlining to be challenging. I’m very much that person who sometimes thinks, “Can I forget the plot and just write on vibes and feelings?”

One of the hardest parts of writing a book is finishing one. Were there any techniques/ strategies/ advice that help you finish a first draft?

Don’t edit while you write! This used to be my biggest downfall. I would go back and re-read my book over and over and over and then get hung up on the editing, which would slow down the writing. Now I try to write a first draft as fast as I can and give myself permission for that draft to be messy. First drafts are supposed to be bad! It’s more important to get the story down on the page than it is to have a perfect first draft. Polishing your work comes in the editing. Just write! 

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

“Have you ever been catfished?” And the answer is… YES. Back in the days of America Online, when I was around 11 or 12, I made friends in Backstreet Boys chatrooms. I was young and naïve then, and I was catfished by this random person who pretended to be Nick Carter. We would talk all the time and I was so infatuated. We’d email and he’d be like, “I’ll be thinking of you at my concert tonight,” and I was like, “Wow, I can’t believe THE Nick Carter and I are in love!” Obviously, that person very much turned out not to be Nick Carter. That person’s mom emailed me and my friend to say he had been just pretending to be Nick. It was totally devastating at the time, but it’s hilarious when I look back on it. And also super embarrassing. I can’t believe I willingly shared that.

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

I’m deeply passionate about trying to do my part to make the world better, however possible. I think empathy is one of the most important traits anyone can have, and I’m trying to teach my daughter to bring kindness into every interaction she has. Also: I have a very adorable dog named Obi!

What advice might you give to other aspiring writers?

Write your heart out, get that first draft done, and then be open to edits. It’s through the editing that your book will really come alive. And never read reviews for your own books on Goodreads!

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

I briefly mentioned my next book, “The Fall of Whit Rivera,” which will come out mid-2023. It tells the story of Whit Rivera is a Type A, office supply-obsessed, pumpkin spice latte-sipping, fat Puerto Rican girl, whose story is an ode to second-chance loves, bodies, family, being Puerto Rican, living life with chronic illness, and New England autumns. I can’t wait for people to meet this new character!

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

There are SO many amazing LGBTQ+ books and authors out right now. I love anything by Anna Marie McLemore (“Wild Beauty” is one of my all-time favorites), Adib Khorram, and Jonny Garza Villa. I also adored “The Summer of Jordi Perez” by Amy Spalding, “The Grief Keeper” by Alex Villasante, and “Cemetery Boys” by Aiden Thomas. Lastly—and not a YA rec—“Honey Girl” by Morgan Rogers was phenomenal. Happy reading!

Queer Quills and Nerdy Thrills: Glimpses Through My Geeky Glasses – Science Fiction and Space Opera

Greetings, esteemed readers! As a 100% real human person and not a droid, I am thrilled to embark on this literary journey with you, delving into captivating books that traverse distant galaxies while shedding light on LGBTQIA+ and Queer-Coded experiences, all in the spirit of beloved geek culture. Strap on your seatbelts, and let us get a”byte” of adventure in the wonders of the following literary gems.

Busy Geek Breakdown (TL;DR): Check out these titles!

“Cinder” by Marissa Meyer

“The Disasters” by M.K. England

“The Darkness Outside Us” by Eliot Schrefer

“The Prey of Gods” by Nicky Drayden

“The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers

And, for those of you still with me, on to why I recommended you put these stories into your brain!

5. “Cinder” by Marissa Meyer: 

Prepare to be enchanted by this imaginative retelling of the classic Cinderella tale with a sci-fi twist. In a futuristic world, cyborg mechanic Cinder, an LGBT+ character, is entangled in political intrigue while exploring her identity and desires. A narrative that challenges gender norms, “Cinder” blends futuristic tech and romance.

Within the pages of “Cinder,” Marissa Meyer gracefully introduces readers to the complexities of identity, love, and self-acceptance. Cinder’s journey of self-discovery unfolds seamlessly against a backdrop of futuristic technologies and social stratification. Through this futuristic retelling of the beloved fairy tale, Meyer empowers LGBT+ readers by presenting a cyborg protagonist who embraces her uniqueness and navigates her burgeoning feelings without restraint. By defying traditional norms and expectations, “Cinder” ignites a spark within us, urging us to embrace our authentic selves and champion those who dare to be different.

Meyer creates a cybernetic wonderland brimming with steampunk aesthetics and diverse characters, celebrating individuality and love in all its forms. “Cinder” stands as a beacon of hope, promoting acceptance and showcasing that our uniqueness is what makes us extraordinary.

4. “The Disasters” by M.K. England: 

In this fast-paced sci-fi adventure, a motley crew of cadets must band together to thwart a sinister plot. Geek culture takes center stage, entwining fandoms and pop-culture references with identity exploration and burgeoning romance.

“The Disasters” propels readers on an exhilarating rollercoaster of action, friendship, and geek culture, all while celebrating diverse identities. England creates a thrilling narrative filled with witty dialogue and pop-culture references that resonate with readers.

As they navigate a treacherous mission and their own identities, their experiences serve as a testament to the beauty of authenticity and the strength of unity. “The Disasters” is a vibrant testament to the power of found family, geek pride, and the courage to be true to oneself.

England captures the essence of geekdom, enveloping readers in an exhilarating escapade. Through witty banter, queer empowerment, and found family dynamics, “The Disasters” strikes a chord with those who revel in embracing their true selves.

3. “The Darkness Outside Us” by Eliot Schrefer: 

Amidst the interstellar void, two young astronauts find themselves in a gripping tale of mystery, betrayal, and unexpected alliances. Our main characters grapple with their identities as they embark on a high-stakes mission. The exploration of love and trust is central to the narrative, showing the intricacies of queer relationships.

In this gripping and psychologically charged narrative, Schrefer delves into the complexities of human relationships as our protagonists, set adrift in the vastness of space, must confront external threats and the internal struggles.

Schrefer’s deft storytelling prompts readers to question the barriers imposed by society and to embrace the fluidity of human connections. “The Darkness Outside Us” reminds us that love and acceptance can be beacons of light guiding us home in the darkest times.

Schrefer weaves a mesmerizing narrative, blending sci-fi and psychological drama elements. This absorbing read challenges the boundaries of human connection and explores the complexities of self-discovery.

2. “The Prey of Gods” by Nicky Drayden: 

Enter a fantastical South African world where mythology and technology converge. This genre-defying novel takes readers on a thrilling ride with a rich cast each on their own journey of empowerment. Fluid identities, extraordinary powers, and battles for acceptance create a vibrant tapestry in this unforgettable tale.

In a stunning tapestry of mythology, technology, and queer empowerment, Nicky Drayden weaves a tale that leaves an indelible mark on readers’ hearts. The vibrant characters challenge conventions and embody the power of self-discovery. In a world where the boundaries of identity are fluid, and the definition of heroism is reshaped, “The Prey of Gods” celebrates individuality and reminds us that our diverse identities are a wellspring of strength. Drayden’s exquisite portrayal of queerness and the embrace of nonconformity make this novel a dazzling gem in the constellation of inclusive sci-fi literature.

Drayden crafts a breathtaking universe that combines the best of speculative fiction with cultural depth. “The Prey of Gods” is a kaleidoscope of wonder, challenging norms and embracing the extraordinary.

1. “The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers: 

A voyage awaits you in this enchanting space opera that unfolds on board the Wayfarer, a diverse crew of interstellar misfits. This heartwarming tale of camaraderie explores love, friendship, and gender identity among alien species. LGBT+ themes find a tender portrayal through the endearing romance between two characters as they navigate their emotions amidst the vastness of the cosmos.

In the heart of the Wayfarer’s crew, readers encounter an eclectic mix of personalities, each grappling with their pasts and embracing their true selves. Through this diverse ensemble, Chambers deftly explores the nuances of gender identity and sexual orientation, fostering an environment where acceptance and respect flourish. The interplay between cultures and species serves as a poignant mirror of our society, prompting us to cherish our differences and celebrate the beauty of inclusivity. A touching portrayal of LGBT+ love and camaraderie amidst the stars, “The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet” becomes a hopeful reminder that unity and empathy can conquer even the most daunting challenges.

Chambers skillfully crafts a universe where acceptance, inclusivity, and personal growth converge in a masterful symphony. This book transcends the boundaries of science fiction, resonating with readers on a deeply human level.

Another great thing about this entire series is something I’ll gladly go on a separate rant about later … pronouns and honorifics. In this series, in the Galactic Common Language, Kliptorigan frequently referred to as Klip, if a being’s gender is not known or stated, then ze/zir is understood to be appropriate, and the honorific M. is used for elders and formal settings, pronounced “Ehm”. Used like, “Good morning M. Johnson” or “I’d be happy to help you with that M.” It’s wonderful, it’s understated but it feels so right.

As we close this cosmic chapter, we celebrate these five exceptional works for their portrayal of LGBT+ and Queer Coded experiences alongside the captivating tapestry of geek culture. These books transport us to far-off realms and remind us that love, acceptance, and the exploration of identity are timeless quests that resonate across the galaxies. Until next time, may the force of understanding and inclusion be with you, dear readers!

Interview with Carlyn Greenwald and Todd Milliner

Carlyn Greenwald writes romantic and thrilling page-turners for teens and adults. A film school graduate and former Hollywood lackey, she now works in publishing. She resides in Los Angeles, mourning the loss of ArcLight Cinemas and soaking in the sun with her dogs. Find her online on Twitter @CarlynGreenwald and Instagram @Carlyn_Gee.

Todd Milliner is an Emmy Award–winning producer and writer who cofounded Hazy Mills Productions with Sean Hayes in 2004. He has produced over 400 episodes of television, including hit NBC drama Grimm and the TV Land sitcom Hot in Cleveland. He lives with his husband, Michael Matthews, in Los Angeles.

I had the opportunity to interview Carlyn and Todd, which you can read below.

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

Carlyn Greenwald: Hi! So happy to be here! My name is Carlyn Greenwald and I’m a YA and Adult romance and thriller writer from Los Angeles. I’ve been writing YA since I was a teenager myself, and after going through film school and attempting to break into Hollywood as a screenwriter, I returned to novel writing where I currently reside. My queer adult romcom debut, Sizzle Reel, hit shelves April 18th and with Time Out and other books on the horizon, hopefully this’ll be the start of an awesome career.

Otherwise, I’m Jewish and bi and spend my time outside of work gaming, scouring random pockets of pop culture YouTube, and hanging out with my incredible chihuahua mix, Phoebe.

Todd Milliner: Thanks for the invite. My name is Todd Milliner and I’m a television producer and writer in Hollywood (which sounds a lot more glamorous than it is). I’ve produced shows like Grimm (NBC), Hot in Cleveland (TVLAND), and QForce (Netflix) along with a bunch more. I’ve been doing this for about 20 years and before that I worked at a bunch of corporate jobs while trying to be an actor in Chicago. Sean and I went to college together at Illinois State University and we started our company years later in 2003. This is my first novel and this is Sean’s second book. We are so excited to be sharing this story.

What can you tell us about your latest novel, Time Out? Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

CG: Time Out is a YA Contemporary novel that’s kind of Heartstopper meets Friday Night Lights about the #1 ranked high school basketball player in Georgia who decides to come out to his whole town via a pep rally. When the town doesn’t react well, he ends up quitting the team, joining his friend’s underground voting rights group, and starts to fall for a school newspaper reporter.

I’m sure Todd will talk about this more, but it was inspired by him and Sean growing up in vastly different social circles (Todd was into athletics and Sean the arts) thinking about what it would’ve been like in high school if they’d had each other. From there, we wanted to involve high school sports as the backdrop since it remains one of the strongest pressure points for young men to conform to rigid ideas of masculinity, which only makes it more stressful for our main character Barclay to come out.

TM: Carlyn is right! The story is very loosely based on my friendship with Sean. I was an athlete growing up and played many sports. I settled on running after I broke my collarbone playing football. And, full disclosure, I was never as good as Barclay, so it was probably best to write this book! Sean wasn’t involved in the school paper, but he is a classically trained pianist and that took up most of his extracurricular time. So, we came from different worlds, but became great friends. We wanted to tell a little of that story. And after that jumping off point and a whole lot of help from Carlyn, we had Time Out.

How did you find yourself getting into storytelling, particularly the young adult medium?

CG: I think from when I was a teenager (like, we’re talking 13), YA was just where my story ideas came from. I’d been an avid reader all my life and like most middle schoolers, I was eager to read up at the time. YA was going through a particularly interesting era of what I like to call “weird YA” — where storylines were just wild and outlandish and kind of trippy but still so heartfelt and commercial. I wanted to write stories like that. There’s something so special about the high intensity of emotion and emotional stakes writing for teenagers. It creates this vivid energy that is infused into every genre that I loved when I was younger and never grew out of now.

TM: To us, storytelling is our entire life. We like to tell those stories from many different ages, experiences and points of view. The most important thing to us is to tell the right story at the right time. The YA medium felt especially important for this story. Coming out can be hard for people of any age, but we felt like that layered on top of all the other things young adults are dealing with made the story even more compelling.

Carlyn Greenwald – Photo Credit Molly Pan Photography

As Time Out was written between multiple authors, what could you tell us about your collaboration process together?

CG: The best way to describe it would be to compare it to somewhat of a writer’s room in television. Sean and Todd had originally written a TV pilot and worked with S&S to develop a full outline of a book version that I saw. So, I brought in my experience with contemporary YA to hammer out the first draft. Within even the first draft, I’d offer up suggestions as I saw opportunities, including changing some character backstories and motivations, suggesting tiny scene changes, that sort of thing. Sean, Todd, our editor and I then all collaborated on notes and revisions, eventually beefing up the voting rights storyline and really delving into where to start the novel and how to translate the humor and heart from the pilot into the book.

TM: What Carlyn said 🙂 I will add that it was about the easiest process I’ve ever been part of. It helps when your partners are talented, nice people.

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

CG: Hmm, with YA, from the really early days, I absolutely loved Libba Bray, Jennifer Brown, Barry Lyga, and Neal Shusterman. All totally different genres (with Libba, different genres among her career) but every one of these authors just created these super entertaining books with complex characters I rooted so hard for. But I still remember learning about absurdity and humor from Libba Bray’s books, how to write emotion and difficult topics from Jennifer Brown’s books, how to write commercial suspense from Barry Lyga, and finally mixing moral complexity and depth into speculative fiction from Neal Shusterman.

TM: For me, I find creative influences from many different disciplines. I’d say great television (in my opinion) like Beef or Succession or Hacks to great movies like Everything Everywhere All At Once, great plays like Good Night Oscar or Kimberly Akimbo, to great music like from The Lumineers or Coltrane, and great books like the OG YA To Kill a Mockingbird or my friend’s book Scream All Night. I find inspiration in many places. Sometimes even Chipotle.

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

CG: Avatar: The Last Airbender will always be that seminal story that changed my life. I watched it when it was airing and I was around ten years old, glued to the TV when my older cousins were making fun of me for watching a cartoon. (Guess who then watched it and loved the show too?) It really captures what a masterpiece story can be, especially when you balance plot, tension, world-building, and just a stellar, stellar group of characters who are all given the love and attention they need. There’s something for every writer to take away from the show.

TM: I was always drawn to stories about growing up that were funny, but tinged with melancholy.  Things like The Body or The Outsiders touched me the most. Big Fish is another one that got me. Read the entire book on a flight, just amazed at the imagery.

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

CG: Hmm…that I never feel like I’m done learning about my writing — what I like to write, what new challenges I could bring into future works, what my favorite book is. I try to take each new project and say “what new skill am I developing by writing this?” My answers have ranged from “new age category” to “new genre” to “new main character personality type” to “new multimedia aspect” etc. With that said, I still have so many dream projects and elements I want to work with — something historical, a main character who wants to go into STEM, stuff like that.

TM: I think I’m pretty fun to hang out with. I mean, not all the time. Who is fun all the time? But, I genuinely like people. I like learning about their stories, finding fun things to discuss and new adventures to embark upon. And I love mint chip ice cream.

Todd Milliner

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

CG: What’s the significance of Christopher (the love interest in Time Out) being Jewish?

When it came to the collaboration process of Time Out, I really wanted to make my mark on the book in some very obvious Carlyn sort of way. And I got thinking — there really is so little LGBTQ+ Jewish representation, and often it’s Jewish LGBTQ+ girls. So, I wanted to really advocate for our love interest to be Jewish, to show that there’s space for Judaism in love interests across sexuality. It became this really fun, silly challenge where right as I was about to send the email asking about the change, I realized that I was asking to make a character name Christopher Jewish. But I was determined to make it happen without changing his name. So, I thought — what if it was a family name? He could be half Jewish, like I am. And then the lore grew – it ended up being a bargain between Christopher’s mother and father and I think makes for a great little joke for any mixed faith readers.

TM: I guess I wish people would ask what I think is truly important. Like, “Todd, cut through the clutter and tell us one thing that’s really important”. And, the answer to that question from me is to always lead with kindness. It’s just so much easier than being mean. And a big bonus is that people will tend to lead with kindness back. Pretty easy stuff.

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

CG: Not too much yet! I have a second adult romcom coming out summer 2024 that I’m revising right now! I can’t say too much, but it’s another sapphic book and takes place in film school. Beyond that, I have some irons in the fire that I am perpetually fingers crossed will turn into tomorrow’s news.

TM: We are working on a bunch of television and film and theatre projects and they are all pretty secret, but I am working on a comedy with Kevin Smith that I’m pretty excited about. Oh, and guess what? He leads with kindness.

What advice would you give to any aspiring creatives out there?

CG: Love your writing, but also expand the way you love your writing. There’s this idea that one book will be the book of your heart and I think that sets so many writers up for more mental strife than is necessary in an already difficult industry. Every book of mine is a book of my heart. Sure, some are more personal to me or have more of my favorite tropes or comp to my favorite TV shows. But find a reason to love every book you write, even if you have to hamfist it in just for you. It’ll make every step of the process easier and make you happier in the long run.

TM: If this is truly your dream, stick with it. There’s plenty of time, god willing, to do something you hate.

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


ALWAYS THE ALMOST by Edward Underhill

OUT OF CHARACTER by Jenna Miller


TM: Gosh there’s so much good stuff out there. I think you should start with Carlyn’s Sizzle Reel and mix in a great new book by Robbie Couch called If I See You Again Tomorrow. Then, before you fill your cart, grab Byron Lane’s Big Gay Wedding.

Interview with Charlie Jane Anders

Charlie Jane Anders is the author of Victories Greater Than Death, the first book in the young-adult Unstoppable trilogy, along with the short story collection Even Greater Mistakes. Her other books include The City in the Middle of the Night and All the Birds in the Sky. Her fiction and journalism have appeared in The New York TimesThe Washington PostSlateMcSweeney’sMother Jones, the Boston ReviewTor.comTin HouseConjunctionsWired Magazine, and other places. Her TED Talk, “Go Ahead, Dream About the Future” got 700,000 views in its first week. With Annalee Newitz, she co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct.

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

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

Sure! I’m a trans woman in San Francisco who writes science fiction and fantasy. I also organize local events, including a ton of spoken word events, but also the monthly Trans Nerd Meet Up here in SF. I love karaoke and queer performance art, and I have been known to do some pretty outrageous performances myself. I won a Lambda Literary Award for transgender/genderqueer writing, and helped to organize a national tour of trans authors called the Cross Gender Caravan. Lately, I’ve helped to create a trans superhero for Marvel Comics named Escapade, who’s appearing in a miniseries called New Mutants: Lethal Legion that I’m writing — it debuted in March 2023.

What can you tell us about your latest books, the Unstoppable series?

The Unstoppable trilogy is an epic story about figuring out who you are and how far you’re willing to go to save the people you love. Tina Mains looks like a normal human girl, but she’s secretly a clone of an alien hero who died — they hid the clone on Earth, disguised as a human baby. And now it’s time to return to the stars and reclaim her heroic legacy. Tina is expecting to leave home and step back into her former self’s life, but it turns out things aren’t that simple, and being a hero is kind of a messy business. Luckily, Tina’s not figuring it out alone: a group of other Earth kids join her in space, and they help her realize that instead of trying to be the second coming of the heroic Captain Argentian, she should try being herself. And then in the sequel, things get a lot messier, and there’s a fascist takeover and we learn the truth about an ancient threat to all life in the galaxy, and Tina pays a heavy price to save her friends.

What was the inspiration for this series?

When I was a kid, all I wanted was for aliens to drop out of the sky and tell me that I didn’t belong here on Earth — that I was secretly an alien, and I belonged with them. As a visibly queer kid with a really severe learning disability, I didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere here, and I just wanted someone to take me away from this honestly disappointing planet. So when I started thinking about writing a young adult novel, I wanted to write a book for my younger self — about what would happen if aliens showed up and took you away on a huge, awesome adventure in space.

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

I’ve always loved making up weird stories, and that was a huge part of how I dealt with the aforementioned learning disability. I’ve written fiction in lots of different genres, but I keep coming back to speculative fiction because it’s the best way to deal with how strange and confusing the real world is. People are constantly pretending that stuff makes sense, when it really doesn’t. At all. Especially nowadays, the world is changing too fast to keep up with, and tons of people loudly pretend that their imaginary rules are super important and real. And I’ve found that goes double for young adult fiction: when you’re a teenager, you’re surrounded by adults who are pretending that nonsense makes sense, and sometimes it seems like everyone else is playing along. I love stories that gently (or not-so-gently) point out how fake and bizarre all the stuff we pretend to believe in is.

How would you describe your writing process?

It really varies, but I try to do some writing every day, when I can. I know some writers who only write on weekends, or on some other schedule, but I find that if I can keep the story fresh in my head, it flows easier every time. I like to try and get some writing done in the mornings with my coffee, and then take a super long walk to the ocean or to Chinatown, to clear my head and just kind of work things out in my head. Long walks are a big part of my writing process, and so is hanging out with my cat.

As a writer who has written on the importance of fiction as a form of healing and accessing agency, particularly your book, Never Say You Can’t Survive, I’m wondering if there’s anything you could say now on what creative expression and art means to you personally?

Making up stories helped me survive some rough times in my childhood, and it’s still doing that now. Writing stories helped me figure out my gender when I was transitioning. I love getting lost in my own imaginary world, where I can identify with my characters as they struggle to survive and do the right thing, and I especially enjoy when my characters are having a deep emotional conversation that speaks to something in my own life. Writing is my happy place.

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

As a kid, I loved big escapist stories with larger than life adventures, and I definitely wanted to be Wonder Woman when I grew up — I also loved Doctor Who for the way that the Doctor used creativity and silliness and kindness to solve problems instead of just shooting everything in sight. I also loved Monty Python and Victor/Victoria, which fed my love of anarchy and seemed to hint that gender was something you could reshape to tell your own story. The books that spoke to me were weird, surreal things like Phantom Tollbooth, A Wrinkle in Time and the works of Daniel Pinkwater. In my early teens I discovered Prince, and his music and his image changed my life.

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

Oh, so many. There are so many incredible authors writing right now — N.K. Jemisin’s work has changed the way I think about stories, over and over again. A whole bunch of amazing trans/non-binary authors have come along recently in speculative fiction, and their giving me life and encouraging me to take bigger swings creatively. Among others, Isaac Fellman, Ryka Aoki, Naseem Jamnia, Nino Cipri, R.B. Lemberg, Elly Bangs, April Daniels, H.E. Edgmon, Aiden Thomas and Rivers Solomon… I’m just scratching the surface. It’s a wonderful time to be a trans SFF fan.

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

Man, I have good days and bad days, like most people. I love it when the characters are speaking through me and doing stuff that surprise me — that’s the best thing ever. And then there are the times when I know I need a scene where something happens, but I can’t come  up with it to save my life. Revision is also often a nightmare, because you have to make the best of all the choices that seemed like a good idea at the time.

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

I used to belong to a skipping team. My cat’s name is Marcus Aurelius Sassafras Vespasian IV, but sometimes he goes by Dr. Sassafras or just Dr. Sassy. I used to have a giant collection of Doctor Who memorabilia, but I sold it all and gave the money to charity.

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

You have to be simultaneously humble and arrogant — you have to believe that your work is amazing and important and will change people’s lives, so you’ll keep going and doing the boldest and most audacious work you possibly can. But you also have to remember that there are a million other writers out there who are also doing awesome work, and that you’re part of a whole community of creative people who need to support each other. You have to be okay with tons of rejection — I racked up hundreds and hundreds of rejections when I was starting out! — and not take it personally. Also, you should totally make writing a communal activity as much as you can: join a writing group, organize writing dates with friends, share your work online, take part in open mics and other readings. Just find ways to make it a social thing.

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

I already mentioned this at the start, but I’m writing a miniseries for Marvel called New Mutants: Lethal Legion. It includes Escapade, the trans mutant superhero I created with artists Ted Brandt and Ro Stein, who has the power to trade places with anyone. The plot has to do with Escapade organizing a heist with some of her mutant friends, which (not surprisingly) goes pear-shaped. And the New Mutants are forced to face off with some of the worst villains in the Marvel Universe. It’s a super silly, heartfelt, goofy comedy miniseries about trauma and what we do to take care of the people we love.

Charlie Jane Anders is a guest this year at Flame Con on August 12th and 13th at the Times Square Sheraton.

Interview with Victoria Ying

Victoria Ying is a critically acclaimed author and artist living in Los Angeles. She started her career in the arts by falling in love with comic books, this eventually turned into a career working in animation and graphic novels. She loves Japanese Curry, putting things in her shopping cart online and taking them out again and hanging out with her husband and cat, Bandito. Her film credits include Tangled, Wreck it Ralph, Frozen, Paperman, Big Hero 6, and Moana. She is the author and illustrator of her own series “City of Secrets and City of Illusion” through Penguin/Viking and the illustrator of the DC series “Diana Princess of the Amazons.” Her upcoming graphic novel projects her YA debut, “Hungry Ghost” and the Marvel/Scholastic “Shang-Chi and the Secret of Immortality.”

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

CW: Discussion of eating disorders

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

Hey there! I’m an author and illustrator of the new graphic novel, Hungry Ghost! I started my career in animation working at Disney on films such as Tangled, Wreck it Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero Six and Moana. I wanted to tell my own stories so I left to pursue my dream of writing. Hungry Ghost is my YA debut based on my own experiences but fictionalized.

What can you tell us about your upcoming graphic novel, Hungry Ghost? What inspired you to write this story?

I struggled with an eating disorder for nearly a decade and the thing that surprised me about media surrounding ED was just how much of it didn’t reflect my experience. As a child of immigrants surrounded by western culture, I saw the stories of worried families and emaciated young white girls and didn’t see myself in those stories. I wanted to share what the experience is like beyond the gory details of protruding bones and write a story about what it FEELS like to actually live with an ED.

Doing some research, I noticed that the term “hungry ghost is a common concept in Buddhism and Chinese traditional religion. Was that intentionally chosen in mind when choosing the title and/or developing the story itself?

It is definitely a concept in folklore, but in my family, it was used with derision if you ever ate quickly. “You’re like a hungry ghost!”

I wanted to use the phrase because it felt appropriate for Val’s struggles. She’s hungry, not just for food, but for love as well.

How did you find yourself getting into storytelling, specifically comics? What drew you to the medium?

I had always loved comics. Comics drew me to an artistic career in the first place when I was in middle school, but once I got to college, someone told me about the tough working conditions in comics and I pivoted. I came back to the medium after working for a few years and was able to advocate for myself in the labor market. I got to work with amazing editors at First Second for this project and I couldn’t be happier with my comics experience.

Growing up, were there any books/media that inspired you as a creative and/or that you felt yourself personally reflected in? Is there anything like that now?

As a second generation child of immigrants, It’s difficult to see yourself in any media. As a kid, I saw token representation for Asians sometimes and when I would express my alienation, people would tell me to watch Chinese media. But I wasn’t Chinese either. I couldn’t speak fluently and it just made me feel even more alien. I’m glad that we live in a media environment where we’re talking about immigrants and kids of immigrants. We’re in the golden age of diaspora stories! Films such as the Oscar winning “Everything Everywhere All at Once” prove that our stories can be relatable and unique.

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

My inspirations are changing all the time, but I love people who follow their creative spirit. I love watching directors like Taika Waititi tell wildly different stories and yet still hold onto their special voice. Whenever I can tell that an artist is being true to their creative vision, I am most drawn to them.

For those curious about the process behind a graphic novel, how would you describe the process?

It’s like the process for making a drawing, but expanded out into a longer process. You start out with the script, get that working, and then move onto thumbnail drawings, where you draw the whole book in tiny scribbly little doodles. Once that’s working, you take those scribbles and tighten them up to something that people can actually look at. Once it’s presentable, you can add color. I worked with a fantastic colorist Lynette Wang for this book and others. Last but not least, you add in the final text.

What are some of your favorite parts of the creative process? What do you find to be some of the most frustrating/difficult?

I love the first draft of something and the inking phase. I love telling myself a story and seeing the whole thing come together. It’s fun and feels organic and natural. I also really enjoy the inking phase because I can actually let go of my storytelling brain and just get lost in making the artwork look the way I want it to. I find artistic flow most easily here.

Spoiler, regarding the main character’s mother, I really appreciated how you depicted a familial relationship that was filled with both love, but also misunderstanding and some toxicity. Would you mind speaking about that here?

I felt like a lot of parental relationships in media never rang true for me. Our parents are human. They have their own flaws, their own traumas, and to treat them as cardboard cutouts of “good parents” never really works. I was really inspired by “The OC” in high school because the parents were complicated, they had their own lives and that effected how they related to their kids. I wanted to write a mother like that. I wanted to show how ED is often passed down and how sometimes, we don’t get a fairy tale ending with the mythical apology, but we still have to move on and build a life for ourselves.

What are some things you would want readers to take away from Hungry Ghost?

It’s okay if the people you hoped to rely on can’t be there for you. You can be there for yourself and even though that’s not ideal, you can build your own support system and heal yourself.

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

Write short stories and write a lot of them. I had to learn how to tell stories with structure and catharsis and if I had only done full length stories, it would have taken me a long time to fix the mistakes. If you write short you can see the whole thing laid out in front of you and learn to be a better storyteller faster.

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

I’m an elder millennial and it took me this long to have something worth saying. My path to publishing is long and winding, but I don’t regret a single moment of it because it all led me to the place that I am now.

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

“How do you manage your time to avoid burnout?”

One of my biggest things I advocate for with young comics artists is never to schedule yourself to the max. Yes, you CAN work 7 days a week, but that can’t last and you’ll be an absolute husk of a person in a matter of months. Whenever you are figuring out how long a project will take, protect your weekends and evenings. 8 hours a day MAXIMUM. Also, remember to build in two weeks of sick time! You’re your own HR department, so be that for yourself!

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

I have a book coming out with Scholastic for Marvel’s Shang-Chi on October the 6th! I was allowed to write a fun, twisty little story for this character and I can’t wait to share it.

I’m also working on a second YA contemporary about growing up on the internet and navigating inappropriate relationships.

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

Ooh! I just finished Ryan LaSala’s “The Honeys!” It was a fun, queer, horror romp that I can’t stop thinking about!

Interview with Terry J. Benton-Walker

TERRY J. BENTON-WALKER grew up in rural GA and now lives in Atlanta with his husband and son, where he writes fiction for adults, young adults, and children. He has an Industrial Engineering degree from Georgia Tech and an MBA from Georgia State. When he’s not writing, he can be found gaming, eating ice cream, or both. Blood Debts is his first novel.

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

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

Thank you so much! As a geek myself, I’m honored for the opportunity. I’m Terry J. Benton-Walker (it’s also okay if you call me TJ), the author of Blood Debts, my young adult contemporary fantasy debut coming from Tor Teen on April 4th in the US and from Hodder & Stoughton on April 6th in the UK. I’m also the author of Alex Wise vs the End of the World, my middle-grade contemporary fantasy publishing with Labyrinth Road and Random House Children’s on September 26th. I am a toddler daddy, which means I’ve been fighting on the front lines of the Preschool Plague Wars™ for my second year now and am battle-weary but love being a parent to my son, who’s actually a really cool little guy. I’m also a video game geek, who is presently struggling as I’ve banned myself from gaming until I meet my current deadlines.

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

Here’s a short synopsis of Blood Debts:

Terry J. Benton-Walker’s contemporary fantasy debut, Blood Debts, is “a conjuring of magnificence” (Nic Stone) with powerful magical families, intergenerational curses, and deadly drama in New Orleans.

Thirty years ago, a young woman was murdered, a family was lynched, and New Orleans saw the greatest magical massacre in its history. In the days that followed, a throne was stolen from a queen. Now, Clement and Cristina Trudeau—the sixteen-year-old twin heirs to the powerful, magical, dethroned family—discover their mother has been cursed. Cursed by someone on the very magic council their family used to rule. Someone who will come for them next.

Clement and Cristina’s only hope of discovering who is coming after their family, is to trust each other, to trust their magic, and solve the decades-old murder. If they don’t succeed, New Orleans may see another massacre. Or worse.

The inspiration for Blood Debts was three-fold. First, I was inspired by my personal experience with Game of Thrones and wanted to create a world where Black and Black Queer people could be centered and represented authentically in an epic fantasy story.

Then, while drafting the manuscript, I went through a rough time where I struggled with injustice both in the world at large and my personal life. Writing Blood Debts (in addition to therapy) became catharsis for me, as I got to process my complex and nuanced feelings about justice while exploring concepts of intergenerational trauma and the cycle of violence.

Lastly, anyone who follows me on social media most likely knows that I adore the video game, The Last of Us Part II, in which the story developers crafted an exceptional tale about the danger of perpetuating the cycle of violence through a unique dual perspective that was pitch-perfect and incredibly effective (albeit highly divisive among hardcore fans). The story of Blood Debts is also told through multiple perspectives of characters who are all seeking the justice they believe they’ve been wrongfully denied, whether right or wrong in their pursuits. This experience is meant to probe the layers of morality and justice through a story crafted with a 360-degree view of the central issues between these deeply complicated and compassionate characters.

As a story rooted in New Orleans, much of the story seems to rely on its historical significance, as well as its connection to Black magic/belief systems. Could you expand on your choice to center your story there?

I created Blood Debts for Black and Black Queer teens (and adults, y’all can enjoy it too), which means for them to have a truly immersive and heartfelt experience, the foundation of this story had to be authentic and Black. A major part of Black culture is our connection to our history, the good and the bad and the veiled, and our family, those who are still with us and those who are not. I wove those elements into the foundation of this series, because I want readers to feel at home from the first page, and on the last, I want them to close the book and hug it to their chests with pride in knowing that that is their story and Clem and Cris and Valentina belong to them.

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

I’ve been a fan of stories from as young as I can remember. My mom always fed my curiosity as a kid, and when it came to stories in any form, I was ravenous. Life wasn’t always great for me growing up for several reasons, so I often escaped into the speculative worlds of books, video games, and movies. And I still have the same habits as an adult.

I enjoy writing both young adult and middle grade fiction, because I adore kids and have so much respect for the innocence and honesty with which they view the world and the people in it. As a parent, I’m very careful to respect and nurture that in my son, though I also worry about the day he goes out into the world and external influences start chipping away at that innocence and honesty to replace it with respectability politics and other nonsense. The stories I write are entertainment first and foremost, but they also represent the lessons I’ve learned through tough experiences in my life that I hope, in sharing with kids, helps them hold onto their authentic selves and not make the same (or as many) mistakes as I have.

How would you describe your writing process?

My writing process is incredibly organized, because otherwise my high-functioning anxiety would not allow me to be great. I’m a heavy planner/ plotter, so before I draft a single word, I need to know everything about the world, the characters, and the plot. I front-load the majority of the heavy lifting at the beginning of my writing process, which means drafting takes me a bit longer, but revisions tend to go super fast for me.

I also created a Novel Planning Kit that I use for plotting and writing stories, which is available for download on my website as a free resource to help authors with their own projects. 

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

Growing up, I had no stories at all that made me feel truly seen. If I wanted to escape, I had to learn how to connect with stories and characters who were nothing like me. The media landscape has significantly improved since then, despite still having a long way to go. There are so many stories featuring Black and Queer characters in so many genres that at times I’m jealous of the treasure trove of content available for today’s kids to escape into. However, it’s my hope that publishing and other media industries continue to champion intersectional stories in speculative fiction, particularly ones centering authentic Black gay characters like Blood Debts and Alex Wise and Jamar Perry’s Cameron Battle series.

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

I’m endlessly inspired by Black creatives who are never complacent but continue to push their talent and skill with each new project. Whenever they level-up, they also motivate me to keep pushing the limits of my creativity and developing my own craft. Some of my recent favorites and inspirations: Beyoncé. Issa Rae. Jordan Peele. Quinta Brunson. Regina Hall. SZA. Kalynn Bayron. Jordan Ifueko. Alexis Henderson.  

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

My favorite element of writing is how extraordinary it is that we start with a literal blank page—nothing—and create entire worlds with rich characters and intricate stories that ripple through the very real lives in our world. Art in every form is the closest form of magic that’s accessible to almost anyone, and we artists are all magicians in that way.

The most frustrating element about writing is how slow it can be sometimes. My creative brain is very temperamental and doesn’t always want to clock-in when I want or need it to, but I’ve found that if I allow myself and my brain the time I need and take breaks to recharge, we always find our way through eventually.

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

Since this is Geeks OUT, I’ll share a geeky not-so-secret secret with you. I was a total band geek in high school. I played the Alto Saxophone and was pretty good at it (second chair in symphonic and first chair in concert band). I have not played in years, though I miss it dearly. My horror short story in Karen Strong’s Cool. Awkward. Black. anthology (which is out now, by the way) was inspired by my love for playing music. It’s titled “Requiem of Souls” and is about a Black gay band geek who finds supernatural sheet music that summons the dead—and something else far more dangerous than ghosts.

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 talking about craft, so I’m always game to discuss some of the cool craft tricks I did with Blood Debts. Everything I write is curated to be enjoyed more than once. I try to be extremely deliberate with every sentence so that on multiple reads, readers should find new and intriguing pieces of information they hadn’t picked up on during prior reads.

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

It’s hard, especially now, but you owe it to yourself not to give up. Blood Debts recently got a starred review from Kirkus, and on the day it was announced, I received a status memory on Facebook of a post from exactly ten years ago where I’d sent out over a hundred queries for a fantasy series I was hopeful would interest an agent. Spoiler Alert: It did not. But I didn’t quit. And ten years later, I have a starred review on my debut young adult contemporary fantasy story. I hope it doesn’t take you as long, but the only way it won’t happen for you is if you quit.

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

Yes! Later this year, September 26th to be exact, my debut middle grade contemporary fantasy, Alex Wise vs the End of the World is publishing from Labyrinth Road / Random House Children’s. It’s about a twelve-year-old boy whose summer vacation takes a dramatic turn when Death, one of the spirits of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, possesses his ten-year-old sister and threatens the end of the world.

I’m also working on a YA horror anthology, The White Guy Dies First, which is coming from Tor Teen, Summer 2024. It features 13 scary stories from 13 BIPOC authors that subvert classic horror sub-genres and, most importantly, where the cishet white guy always dies first. The lineup is epic. In addition to a story from me, readers can expect frights from bestselling and award-winning authors: Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, Kalynn Bayron, Kendare Blake, H.E. Edgmon, Lamar Giles, Chloe Gong, Alexis Henderson, Tiffany D. Jackson, Adiba Jaigirdar, Naseem Jamnia, Mark Oshiro, and Karen Strong.

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

There are soo many LGBTQ+ books coming out this year that I’m super geeked about—and I’m also super jealous of Queer kids who’re getting all these amazing stories because I had to live vicariously through Rainbow Brite and My Little Pony haha.  

The first LGBTQ+ book I’m hyped about is The Black Queen by Jumata Emil, which is a YA thriller coming from Delacorte on January 31st. It’s sapphic, utterly addictive, and thought-provoking—easily one of my most anticipated thrillers of the year!

The second is Your Lonely Nights Are Over by Adam Sass, coming from Viking / Penguin Teen on September 12th. It’s a witty, fun Slasher that’s a Queer Scream meets Clueless, and I cannot wait for more people to read it this fall.

Last, but certainly not least, is Godly Heathens by H.E. Edgmon, which is coming in November from Wednesday Books. H.E. is also one of the contributors in The White Guy Dies First, so I know first-hand how adept they are at crafting gripping, visceral experiences that still hold tight to you long after you finished the last word. Can you tell I’m excited?

Header Photo Credit Derek Blanks with crowdMGMT

Interview with Jen St. Jude

​Lambda Literary Fellow Jen St. Jude grew up in New Hampshire apple orchards and now lives in Chicago with her wife, daughter, and dog.  Their debut YA novel, IF TOMORROW DOESN’T COME, will be published by Bloomsbury Children’s (US) and Penguin Random House (UK) in 2023. 

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

CW: Discussion about mental illness and death.

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

Thank you so much! I’m a big fan of your organization, so this is fun for me. I’m a queer YA writer who truly loves to geek out about anything I love. That includes books, of course, but also women’s sports, pop music, and queer-coded action films.

What can you tell us about your debut book, If Tomorrow Doesn’t Come? What was the inspiration for this story?

I’ve been working on this novel for over a decade now, and for so many years it was just a constellation of thoughts. Hard to say which one was the true start of it all, but I wrote my way into this story because I had so many questions. If we’re all going to die, why don’t we live that way? Why don’t we treat each other better, chase the things we want, experience every big and beautiful thing that we can? I also live with depression and when I started this book I was in some of my worst stretches. For many moments and years it was too debilitating to write. But when I could, I put these scenes and characters on the page in an attempt to ask why Avery felt the way she did, and could she ever feel better? Could people in the very worst circumstances still find some light?

Mental health is a big part of the conversation within and around this book. If you feel comfortable, could you talk a little about what writing about that means to you?

To this day, I feel shame around my mental illness, even though I know I shouldn’t. Even though I have been working on it so hard and for so long. Sometimes it’s romanticized in media and I was very aware of that in my writing; I didn’t want to do that. But in real life, it often looks like self-destruction, and worse, it impacts other people in a negative, devastating way if left unchecked. There is absolutely no shame in struggling, and if more people talked about this, more people would get help. Maybe everyone would hurt just a little less. This novel is my way of talking about it.

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

When I was a little kid I would play with dolls for hours, or with my brother and the other neighborhood kids, imagine we were the characters from Power Rangers or Captain Planet and run around the yard making up stories about ourselves. I really think that was the beginning of it; writing fiction is play (even when it’s not feeling very fun). Speculative fiction in particular feels very liberating to me because we can explore our reality through a lens that makes us question our day-to-day, just a little. It also lets us feel ever so distant from the events happening in the story. It gives us perspective.

On our website, we’ve featured a few other writers who have Lambda Literary Fellow, such as Sacha Lamb and Lin Thompson. Could you maybe touch upon your experiences within the program?

Oh! The best question. I attended the Lambda Literary retreat for emerging writers during the summer of 2018 and was in the YA cohort. Like any writing workshop, it takes quite a bit of luck for it to work. It’s always about the chemistry and personalities of the group. But it was also the first time I was in an all-queer space for writers (actually maybe the only time I’ve been in that space), so it was transformative for my work. I used to be adamant that Avery wasn’t depressed because of her queerness, because I knew people were looking for queer joy and I didn’t want to imply being queer makes you mentally ill. In that workshop it became clear we all shared similar experiences and it shaped my perspective on the novel. No, Avery isn’t depressed because she’s a lesbian, but it’s also true that living in a family and culture that tells her she’s wrong, that she may go to hell, that she might lose everything she holds dear if she comes out…yeah, that’s not going to help.

The people in my cohort were the real magic of Lambda, though. emily danforth was our workshop leader, which was an entire dream come true. She was generous with her time and advice, and offered to read every single one of our novels if we completed them that year. The other writers in my cohort included Sacha Lamb and Lin Thompson, as well as Jas Hammonds (We Deserve Monuments), J.D. Scott (Moonflower, Nightshade, All the Hours of the Day), Avery Mead, Tia Clark, Amos Mac, Amal Haddad, Kirt Ethridge, and Caitlin Hernandez. I’m still in touch with everyone, but a group of us still talk every day (pretty much all day). It’s become one of my most treasured families.

How would you describe your writing process?

I’ll admit I’m still figuring it out. I’m working on a new project for the first time in a long time, and just trying to let myself have some fun and lean into the character dynamics and play around with setting and voice. Jas has said If Tomorrow Doesn’t Come is my winter book, and this next one is summer.

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

 I actually pursued my master’s almost completely because I just needed structure and help finishing a draft. I was having such a hard time on my own. Tip one: Did you know if you work at Harvard you can take classes at the Extension School for $40?! But tip two: You don’t need a master’s to finish your novel, but you may need some structure. You could create that through taking classes, joining a writing group, or finding a friend to hold you accountable. You’re not lazy and you’re probably not even uninspired, you might just need something to keep you on track. I’d also say that sometimes novels *should* sit dormant for a while. You collect live experiences and change as a person, and so your writing changes too.

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

You know, not really? The first time I really saw myself on the page was when I read The Miseducation of Cameron Post as an adult. This is so completely embarrassing but I cried while telling emily that Cameron was the very first character I felt truly represented by. I could relate so much to the voice, so much to Cam’s desire, gender expression, and sense of humor. It took me a long time to realize I’m not alone in the way I thought I was.

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

I really love sharing my work with my trusted peer readers. It’s such a joy to read their raw drafts and see how their brains work, and what their first instincts are. I also really appreciate their feedback on my work. I never know if scenes or lines or even specific words aren’t working until I get to see them through the eyes of someone else. I’m always deeply grateful for the time people spend in my messy drafts. I think one thing that’s really frustrating is how patient you have to be. I’m sort of a fixer by nature, so I want to just sit down and bang out a draft and know every answer. I’m always so embarrassed to not have the answer! But the truth is, it may not exist yet. I might need to go for a walk, read a beautiful book, or talk to a friend. Not everything I need to write exists in my head, and I always feel so frustrated until I remember I have to go out and find the tools and words I need.

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

 Forgive yourself. For taking too long, for not writing, for not being perfectly polished. Forgive yourself if you don’t have time to read or write during a season in your life. Forgive yourself for your typos and your weaknesses. And find strength in that forgiveness. It all means you’re trying. It all means you’re wanting. I’m saying this because I need to hear it too.

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

 I’m currently working on a second novel that is tentatively coming out from Bloomsbury in 2025. It may change completely, we’ll see. But right now it’s about a high school soccer team, climate change, and the way we keep people in our life when things are destroyed and shifted. And, yes, everyone’s gay.

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

Oh, I could be here all day! I read all genres and all age levels. Jas Hammonds, Lin Thompson, and Sacha Lamb are must-reads. But just a few more: In the adult romance space, my editor Camille Kellogg’s book Just as You Are. It’s a hilarious and deeply queer Pride and Prejudice retelling. I found it incredibly healing. I’m currently reading Alex Crespo’s San Juniper’s Folly and loving every minute of it—I keep pitching it as Practical Magic meets Cemetery Boys. Adrienne Tooley’s The Third Daughter is out this summer and it completely blew me away. Jenna Miller’s Out of Character is out now and it’s the role-playing romance you absolutely need.I so love Justine Pucella Winan’s Bianca Torre is Afraid of Everything, and they have a middle grade book out this fall too with Bloomsbury called The Otherwoods. Each book is so different but so playful and wonderful. Other MG favorites include Ellie Engle Saves Herself by Leah Johnson, Skating on Mars by Caroline Huntoon, Jude Saves the World by Ronnie Riley, and The Song of Us by Kate Fussner. And I am DYING to read Vicki Johnson’s picture book, Molly’s Tuxedo. A few more adult recs: Marissa Crane’s I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself, Ruth Madiesky’s All Night Pharmacy, Endpapers by Jennifer Savran Kelly. I’m incredible excited for The First Bright Thing by J.R. Dawson. And finally (I am forcing myself to stop) I am writing this from Des Moines, Iowa where I met an author named Anya Anya Johanna DeNiro whose novel, OKPsyche is forthcoming from Small Beer Press. Their pitch: An unnamed trans woman is looking for a sense of belonging, a better relationship with her son, and friends that aren’t imaginary in this playful and aching short novel. I mean, yes! Sign me up. I cannot wait to read it.

Interview with Author Mark Oshiro

MARK OSHIRO is the #1 New York Times bestselling, award-winning Latinx queer author of Anger Is a Gift, Each of Us a Desert, and Into the Lightas well as their middle-grade books The InsidersYou Only Live Once, David Bravo, and Star Wars Hunters: Battle for the Arena. They are the co-author (with Rick Riordan) of The Sun and the Star: A Nico Di Angelo Adventure. When not writing, they are trying to pet every dog in the world.

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

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

Hello, Geeks OUT! I’m Mark Oshiro. I’m a middle grade and young adult author based in Atlanta. And I really love dogs. And vinyl records!

What can you tell us about one of your upcoming books, Into the Light? What was the inspiration for this series?

Well, so far, this is still intended to be a standalone book! Some day, I’ll get an idea that will become a series. Into the Light is my foray into writing a thriller. It’s a very personal story because it is both inspired by and based on a lot of my experiences as a teenager, particularly my upbringing as an adoptee in a religious family. I wanted to write something that was frightening, emotional, and would also challenge me as a writer.

In addition to your own original stories, you’ve also been working on another, The Sun and The Star: A Nico di Angelo Adventure? What was it been like focusing on a character with such as strong queer fandom and history? How would you describe your connection to the Rick Riordan fandom before signing on to this project, and what was your reaction afterward?

I’m a latecomer to the Percy Jackson series. I read the books when I was on tour for Anger is a Gift back in 2018 and immediately fell hard for them. To the surprise of NO ONE, once I met Nico in the third book, I instantly connected with him. So to get the opportunity to write from his point of view? It’s surreal. I create stories that often about kids dealing with trauma or difficult childhoods, and I know that’s why I was drawn to Nico. In many ways, I do feel uniquely qualified to contribute to bringing The Sun and The Star to life. Suffice to say, this journey the past couple of years has been one of the most rewarding and thrilling things I’ve ever done.

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

Well, I was drawn to storytelling mostly because it was the only thing I was both good at AND interested in when I was a kid. I’ve been creating stories since I was in the first grade. But it didn’t feel like a real possibility to me until I was a freshman in high school. My English teacher that year (shout out to Ms. Alford!) assigned us The House on Mango Street to read. It changed my life. It was my first real sense that Latinx folks could be authors and that we could write about our lives.

I’ve generally always loved the weird and the strange! It’s very natural for me to write in that space. The same goes for writing stories for a younger audience. I’m genuinely trying to capture the excitement and wonder I felt as a teenager who was a giant bookworm. So I’m absolutely writing the kind of stories I wanted back then.

As an author whose switched between young adult and middle grade, what is the appeal of writing between different age groups?

Right now, I tend towards wackier and funnier plots in my middle grade books, while my young adult work is far more intense, introspective, and complicated. From a creative standpoint, it helps me feel more free to write whatever kind of story I want. I also love how vastly different the two audiences are to interact with as well. You can ask any author writing for multiple age categories about this, but middle school and elementary visits/events are VERY different from young adult ones. Though don’t be fooled: kids will still shade you or rip your soul out of your body, no matter your age.

How would you describe your writing process?

Much better than it used to be, ha! These days, I’ve figured out what works best for me, so I do feel like it’s been streamlined in a sense. I take an idea and do freewriting until I feel like it’s fleshed out enough that I have a vague beginning, middle, and end. Then I write a detailed outline for all the scenes, and once that’s done, I start drafting! I am a fast drafter in general, but require a lot of time for re-writes and edits.

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

I mentioned The House On Mango Street earlier. I was a huge fan of Poe, Stephen King, Jane Austen… I devoured all the Goosebumps books in elementary school. That’s where my love of story, structure, and horror came from. It was a TV show, though, that actually made me see myself in the story: My So-Called Life. Wilson Cruz’s portrayal of Ricky Vasquez changed my whole life. He was the first queer Latinx person I had seen in any fictional medium ever.

That’s another purpose I imbue in my writing: I want to be someone else’s Ricky Vasquez. I am thankful that there’s a lot more of us—those of us excluded from so much of publishing or film or the TV industry—telling the stories that we want to tell.

I will say that the story that most resonated with me in the last few years? Probably Midnight Mass. And I have a bunch of recommendations for y’all at the end of this!

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

Every day life. My childhood. Really, really good works of art. Extremely cursed jokes in the group chat. 1am meals in diners.

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

I love a good framing device and a very voice-y first-person narrator. I’m also a sucker for a mind-trip of a structure. Unfortunately, those are all really challenging to pull off and I constantly keep using them. One day, I will write something that’s a lot easier to execute.

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

I’m a big lover of music; if I could be doing anything else, it would be writing and playing music. I can talk anyone’s ear off about music in a heartbeat. Into the Light is also based heavily on my experience as a transracial adoptee. I’m Latinx (as is my identical twin brother, who thankfully never got separated from me), but my adoptive parents are white and Japanese/Hawaiian. Hence the last name that often confuses people! Also, I love long distance running.

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)?

Oooh! The question would be: What are the three albums you’ve listened to the most while writing your books? And the answer would be: Sing the Sorrow by AFI; The Other Shore by Murder by Death; Gone Forever by God Forbid.

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

Don’t throw away any old drafts. I’ve turned old drafts into novels. Twice! And if you struggle with perfectionism, the best thing I ever did for my process was to write what’s called a zero draft: a draft that I show to literally no one. Not friends, not my agent, not an editor. No one sees it. So I just write my trash draft that’s littered with errors and might not make any sense, but the story is on the page. I can do something with it. Give it a try!

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

I’m currently in the development stage of what will hopefully be my eighth book and third original middle grade novel. It’s a spooky and funny and will absolutely also punch you in the heart because it’s a Mark Oshiro book. I’m also thinking of branching out into adult horror, but that’s all I can say at the moment.

Also, I’m pretty sure I know what my next YA novel is going to be, and unfortunately for me, it is yet another speculative novel with a bizarre narrative structure. I’ll see myself out now.

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

Any and everything by Leah Johnson.

Nothing Burns As Bright As You by Ashley Woodfolk

We Deserve Monuments by Jas Hammonds

The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus

Any and everything by Sarah Gailey

Fifteen Hundred Miles From The Sun by Jonny Garza Villa