By Alaina Leary
Happy Pride Month! Today we’re pleased to welcome Kacen Callender, Anna-Marie McLemore, Aiden Thomas, Victoria Lee, and Mason Deaver to the WNDB blog to discuss their work.
You’ve written middle grade, YA, and adult novels, and your books also span different genres. What differs about your approach to writing for each age group and in each genre? How do you approach a fantasy novel versus a contemporary novel?
Hope is the main difference in my approach for writing for different age groups. When writing for middle grade, the voice still has an earnestness as my main character is likely experiencing their first major hurt, which is what the story usually centers on. In Hurricane Child, Caroline is experiencing the loss of her mother and heartbreak for the first time; King in King and the Dragonflies is grieving the death of his brother and the end of a friendship. Both protagonists are also questioning their sexualities for the first time. Their voice remains earnest and hopeful throughout because they’re still at a young enough age where they can expect a hopeful outcome. I always make sure to deliver a hopeful ending for the middle-grade age range.
In my YA books, the protagonists have experienced more hurt and pain. In This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story, Bird lost his father, his best friend moved away when he was young and was broken up with by his ex-girlfriend/current best friend. Felix’s mother also abandoned him in Felix Ever After, and he’s struggled with transphobia throughout his life. Both have voices that are a little more jaded and skeptical rather than earnest and hopeful, and the plot also centers on a tension between them wanting to hope for better but being afraid of experiencing hurt again. While my YA characters are a little more jaded, the plot also always delivers a hopeful ending.
Queen of the Conquered and King of the Rising, my adult fantasy novels, are a lot less hopeful. The characters have experienced enough hurt, pain, and loss that they do not automatically expect a better outcome. I don’t want to spoil the ending of the series, but let’s just say that this doesn’t have a particularly happy ending either.
The lack of hope is also because Queen of the Conquered is set in a fantasy world, where I have more freedom to create levels of conflict/pain my contemporary characters aren’t able to experience, such as Sigourney Rose’s family being murdered, her people enslaved, and her needing to take power back from her colonizers. Another difference between the genres is that contemporary is a more straightforward approach to modern issues, while I use fantasy as a metaphor: Queen of the Conquered is about slavery, yes; but it’s also about what it means to be an oppressed person who also has privilege, and asks the reader if we should be willing to burn down an oppressive society to truly begin again.
A major theme in Felix Ever After is the idea that someone’s marginalized identities can be “too much,” particularly if you’re multiply marginalized like the eponymous Felix is. Did you write this book as a sort of love letter to young adults who are multiply marginalized? What do you hope people take away from the story’s exploration of intersecting identities and the racism within the LGBTQ+ community?
I did write Felix Ever After for teens who might feel like they’re treated less than others because they’re “one marginalization too many”—and I also wrote it for myself, as someone who struggles with this feeling every day. It’s painful to feel rejected from your own communities because of other intersecting identities, and I wanted to explore that pain and hurt in an honest, vulnerable way, and affirm that I and other teens with multiple intersecting identities are worthy of love and respect, even if people from our communities don’t always know this.
I also wanted BIPOC queer and trans readers to feel validated that, yes, racism does exist in our queer community, because sometimes the racism we see is the sort that can be difficult to identify. It’s the type of racism that belongs to liberals who publicly claim that they are on our site, but don’t truly accept us behind closed doors. I also wanted to explore the transphobia often seen with cisgender gay men who attempt to gatekeep identities to protect their own level of privilege. I hope that readers who’ve made similar racist, anti-queer, and transphobic micro and macroaggressions might learn from Felix’s pain and learn and grow into better people.
First and foremost, though, this was absolutely written for BIPOC queer and trans and nonbinary teens to affirm that they are also worthy of their own happy ever afters.
Felix is a flawed character who makes mistakes. Why did you want to write this journey for him? What do you think it means for Felix (and other characters) to be accountable and take responsibility for those actions?
I think that it’s always important to create flawed characters because all humans are flawed and make mistakes. Characters who don’t make mistakes not only make for bad storytelling, but they’re unrealistic—and as a writer, it’s taking a character and their mistakes and portraying how they learn and grow, or don’t learn and grow, that gives an opportunity to show who they really are.
In today’s age, there’s a lot of emphasis on never making any mistakes to prove that we as individuals are not problematic. This becomes an issue of the ego: we’re more concerned with protecting ourselves, and not as concerned with what to do once we have inevitably messed up. We become defensive instead of pausing to listen, apologize for the mistake, and taking actionable steps to make up for the mistake and prevent ourselves from making another in the future.
That’s partly why I wanted to show Felix making mistakes throughout the book. First, there’s the entire revenge plot that centers around catfishing. No spoilers, but he does eventually learn that this wasn’t the right way to go, and there are consequences that he must accept. There are also conversations around privilege where Felix and his best friend Ezra make mistakes as well and are shown apologizing and taking accountability. And, of course, there’s the anonymous transphobic troll, who in the end is held accountable as well.
Felix also deals with the role social media plays in how we experience the world and Felix’s decision about whether to engage with transphobic people online. How do you think social media affects the way marginalized people (especially kids and teens today) see themselves? Are there positive spaces on social media that can be affirming and offer a sense of community for marginalized people?
In the book, social media is used to both attack Felix, and help him make a new connection. This sums up how I feel about social media perfectly: it’s where I myself have been attacked by a good number of trolls and bots for being trans and nonbinary, and openly affirming my love of my community; but it’s also where I’ve made wonderful connections with other trans and nonbinary people who affirm and validate me, too.
Social media can be harmful, but it’s also how so many teens who otherwise feel isolated can connect with community. Social media also spreads information and knowledge, sometimes helping people understand their own gender and queer identities, and often times giving them the support to come out, whether it’s to themselves or to the online community or to people they know in real life. That online support and community can be life-saving for people who find themselves without support and community in real life.
What other YA novels do you think your work is in conversation with? And are there any upcoming or published books you’d recommend?
Felix Ever After is specifically in conversation with romantic YA contemporary books that celebrate trans and nonbinary identity, like Mason Deaver’s I Wish You All the Best, and books that examine what it’s like to have intersecting identities, like Julian Winters’ work, Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett, and Odd One Out by Nic Stone.
I recommend Leah Johnson’s You Should See Me in a Crown, which is the queer rom-com my soul needed, and Rahul Kanakia’s We Are Totally Normal, which takes a beautiful look at what it’s like to question your identity. I also love Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, and am so excited for the sequel, Darius the Great Deserves Better!
What do you hope most that readers take away most from your books?
Each book has different themes and messages, but the one goal that connects all of my novels is to increase visibility for queer Black people and our community.
Anna–Marie McLemore was born in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and taught by their family to hear la llorona in the Santa Ana winds. They are the author of The Weight of Feathers, a finalist for the 2016 William C. Morris Debut Award; 2017 Stonewall Honor Book When the Moon Was Ours, which was longlisted for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature and was the winner of the James Tiptree Jr. Award; Wild Beauty, and Blanca & Roja.
Your work is often inspired by fairy tales except in your stories, marginalized people are centered and celebrated. What draws you to write these kinds of stories and reimagine what a fairy tale looks like and who gets to be a part of one?
I grew up wanting to be both a Disney princess and a Disney prince (looking back, I kinda can’t believe it took me so long to realize I’m non-binary), but most fairy tales in popular media didn’t show characters who looked (or loved) like me and my communities. I want to write my queer, Latinx, trans and nonbinary identities into fairy tales, and I want to be part of opening what we imagine fairy tales to be to include characters of color and LGBTQQIA+ characters. Dark and Deepest Red is about “The Red Shoes,” and the 1518 dancing plague, but it centers queer, trans, and brown characters because we were there, and we have been there through history. Queer readers, trans and nonbinary readers, readers of color, we deserve to be heroes in our own stories and our own fairy tales. Every tradition has fairy tales. They’re something that belongs to all of us.
What other YA fantasy novels do you think your work is in conversation with? And are there any upcoming or published books you’d recommend?
I feel a little bold saying my work is in conversation with the novels I’ve admired for years, but I’ll be bold for a second: I’d love to think of my work in conversation with books like Malinda Lo’s Ash, one of the first books that made me feel like there might be a place for someone like me in YA, and Robin LaFevers My Fair Assassin series, where I got to read complicated girls navigating a world that’s part history, part fantasy.
As for recommendations, a book from last year that I keep talking about is Alex Villasante’s gorgeous and heartbreaking The Grief Keeper, and a book that’s about to come out this year that’s perfectly, painfully, transcendentally human is I.W. Gregorio’s This Is My Brain in Love. I’ve been waiting for her next book and it’s finally almost on shelves.
Your first book with a co-author, Miss Meteor, comes out later this year. What was it like collaborating with Tehlor Kay Mejia? Did you learn anything about your writing process from working with another author?
Tehlor recently described writing Miss Meteor as the most fun she’s had writing a book, and I think fun is exactly the word for this story. Tehlor came up with Chicky and I came up with Lita as characters before we ever talked about writing a book together, but once we realized they belonged in the same book, it felt like they’ve been Meteor girls the whole time.
If you were to co-author another book with someone else, who else would you love to collaborate with?
Oh I so want to answer this, but this enby might have to keep a few secrets for the time being…
What do you hope most that readers take away most from your books?
That all of us—our identities, our communities, our hearts—deserve magic.
Aiden Thomas, author of CemeteryBoys, received their MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College. Born in Oakland, California, Aiden often haunted Mountain View Cemetery like a second home during their misspent youth. As a queer, trans Latinx, Aiden advocates strongly for diverse representation in all media. Aiden is notorious among their friends for always being surprised by twist endings to books/movies and organizing their bookshelves by color. When not writing, Aiden enjoys exploring the outdoors with their dog, Ronan. Their cat, Figaro, prefers to support their indoor hobbies, like reading and drinking too much coffee.
Did you draw from any myths or legends to build the magic system and brujx culture in Cemetery Boys?
Brujx culture comes from many different Latinx cultures. There isn’t a Latinx monolith. We’re nuanced and different. Still, I wanted to focus on what we have in common. Especially in the United States, where Latinx people congregate, it’s a mix of cultures and traditions. Even Dia de Muertos isn’t celebrated the same way in every country, but it has a recognizable core.
I wanted the brujx to honor lots of traditions, so characters from Mexico, Cuba, Haiti, Colombia—they all bring ideas from their respective countries and cultures. It was important to me to show the different traditions coming together to create a diverse community.
Throughout the book, we never learn Yadriel’s deadname. But the reader is able to deeply empathize with his experiences being deadnamed, misgendered, and not accepted as a brujo—and the moments of joy when he’s embraced by people like Julian, Maritza, and his mom. Why was it important to you not to use Yadriel’s deadname?
There is a scene early on in Cemetery Boys where Yadriel’s grandma, Lita, haphazardly calls him by his deadname, but I cut the dialogue off, leaving only Yadriel’s visceral, gut-clenching reaction to it. It didn’t lose any impact.
A trans person’s deadname is very personal and private. Usually, it brings up a lot of bad memories and feelings. It’s sort of like looking at a picture of yourself during a time you were miserable. It makes you cringe. You may feel embarrassed or ashamed. You don’t want other people to see it, and you especially don’t want to look at it yourself because of those terrible feelings you associate with that time in your life.
Yadriel’s deadname isn’t important and really isn’t anyone’s business. What is important are the feelings around the deadname—how it makes him feel to hear it, and how it makes him feel about the people in his life who still use it, even if it’s just a slip up. I want readers to connect to his feelings—of displacement, disconnection and rejection—whether they’re trans or not.
Do you have any advice for unpublished writers? What’s the best piece of writing (or publishing) advice you’ve been given?
The best writing advice I can give is to find your community of writers. Find folks who are interested in the same genre and writing about the same things as you. When you find critique partners who understand your writing, that’s when you can start making real progress as a writer. People who don’t want to read what you want to write are going to give you bad advice!
Social media platforms like Twitter, Tumblr, Wattpad, and AO3, are wonderful places to meet other writers and make writing groups! Go find them!
What other fantasy books do you think yours is in conversation with? Any works by marginalized authors that you’d particularly recommend for readers who enjoyed your book?
The first time I really thought “Wow, I can write about my culture? In FANTASY?” was when I read Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova. That book meant the world to me and really made me feel like it was possible to write a story like Cemetery Boys. I also really love Undead Girl Gang by Lily Anderson! I feel like all three of these books could conceivably exist in the same, Latinx magic-powered universe!
Victoria Lee grew up in Durham, North Carolina, where she spent twelve ascetic years as a vegetarian before discovering that spicy chicken wings are, in fact, a delicacy. She’s been a state finalist competitive pianist, a hitchhiker, a pizza connoisseur, an EMT, an expat in China and Sweden, and a science doctoral student. She’s also a bit of a snob about fancy whiskey. Lee writes early in the morning and then spends the rest of the day trying to impress her border collie puppy and make her experiments work. She currently lives in Pennsylvania with her partner.
In the Feverwake series, you explore the intersections of science and magic. What draws you to writing about magic from this perspective?
In my day job, I’m a science doctoral student, and I suppose I wanted to craft a form of magic that I’d actually be good at (in the Feverwake series, you can only perform magic if you understand the science behind what you’re trying to do—so for example, to perform telekinesis you have to know physics). I also liked the idea of playing with the notion of magic being defined as things we just don’t understand yet—the way our ancestors used to invent magical explanations for scientific phenomena such as constellations or fire. It seems like we’ve always perceived some degree of overlap between science and magic; for all scientists love to decry the existence of magic, much of what we study was once considered such.
A major part of Noam’s journey is about his experience as the child of undocumented immigrants who advocates for refugee rights. Why was this central to his character arc?
I wrote this book many years ago, long before the 2016 election—and although immigration issues were still a major part of the political landscape at the time, this story was more inspired by the history of Jewish people and Jewish immigrants. I wanted to write about history as a cycle, the ways in which we keep perpetuating the same crimes over and over, the way society always seems to need an outgroup to demonize and blame for its problems. Perceived to be outsiders even in their own countries, Jews throughout history have been blamed for a number of ills—including plague, as Atlantians are blamed for the outbreaks of viral magic in Carolinia in the Feverwake series. And this occurs over and over, despite the warnings of history about the risks of placing the onus on minority communities for somehow inflicting struggles on the empowered majority.
In the series, a character’s grandparents survived the Holocaust; he himself survived a massacre of magic-users in his childhood; and now his country perpetuates its own kind of genocide against Atlantians through mass deportation and through the illegal occupation of Atlantian land. Noam, the main character, is the child of undocumented Atlantian immigrants and has to reckon with his loyalty to his people and his desire to fight for their existence in Carolinia—while also being forced to work within the systems of Carolinian power to fight Carolinian xenophobia and corruption. Meanwhile, Noam’s new magic has lent him incredible privilege within Carolinia—as a magic-user, he’s perceived as one of the elite, and this new privilege is totally at odds with his identity as an Atlantian and the child of refugees. But nevertheless, during the story, Noam comes to terms with this power he’s been given and is able to understand his identity holistically—both as an Atlantian, but also as someone with privilege. He has to figure out a way to use this newfound privilege for good, to help his people.
Do you have any advice for kids and teens in our world who want to participate in activism for refugees’ and undocumented immigrants’ rights?
I think my top advice would be to listen to what modern-day refugees and undocumented immigrants say they need from allies. It’s common for allies to decide for themselves what kind of help they think minoritized communities need—but often what minoritized people want you to do isn’t what you think you ought to do. Be humble and learn to listen and be willing to step aside and let refugees and undocumented people speak for themselves. Use your privilege and power to help give a platform and a voice to marginalized people, rather than claiming that platform to speak on their behalf.
There’s a lot of loss and grieving in the Feverwake series. How did you explore the way each of your characters learns to survive and live in the wake of trauma?
I would say that this series is fundamentally about trauma and the intersection of intergenerational trauma with personal trauma. Characters both struggle with their own individual traumatic experiences of violence or grief or abuse, but also with the legacy of trauma inflicted on their ancestors, their family, their people, their nation. I wanted to show how there are so many paths people taken to handle trauma—some people internalize their trauma and use it as a form of self-injury. Some externalize it, perpetuating that trauma and becoming abusers themselves. And some take their trauma and use it to motivate activism, trying to make a change in the world. In the Feverwake series, three characters experience trauma, and each of them handles it in one of these ways.
I also wanted to show how there’s no one “right” way to respond to trauma, and that people can be the “wrong” kind of victim—unsympathetic, or drug-abusing, or promiscuous, or angry—and that doesn’t mean their trauma wasn’t real. I feel like there’s this narrative in media and society a lot of the time that victims should be soft and frightened and fragile and broken, but that’s just one story. There are as many ways to be a survivor as there are survivors in the world. Just because someone doesn’t react the “right” way to their trauma doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be believed.
What was it like writing The Electric Heir and did you have any unexpected challenges in writing or editing a sequel? Was there anything surprisingly easy about the process?
For me, the whole book was pretty easy, at least compared to writing my third book (which is in a different series)! Maybe it’s because I’d been working on the Feverwake series for so many years at that point that it just felt like putting to paper all the thoughts I’d had about these characters for ages. Writing a book so focused on trauma was hard, but that was a different kind of hard than writing a sequel, I think.
Is there anything you can tell us about A Lesson in Vengeance? How would you pitch the book to potential readers in one or two sentences?
A Lesson in Vengeance is my lesbian gothic dark academia book coming in summer 2021, and it’s about a girl named Felicity who returns to boarding school after her girlfriend’s death the previous year. She meets a new student named Ellis who is something of a literary prodigy and falls into Ellis’ cult of personality as they both try to unravel the mystery of five witches who lived and died at the school hundreds of years before.
What other YA novels do you think your work is in conversation with? And are there any upcoming or published books you’d recommend?
Depends on the book, really. I think the Feverwake series would fit well on a shelf next to The Hunger Games series, but A Lesson in Vengeance is definitely more adjacent to If We Were Villains. In terms of recommendations, I love Legendborn by Tracy Deonn, Burn Our Bodies Down by Rory Power, The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid, and Rebelwing by Andrea Tang.
What do you hope most that readers take away most from your books?
I hope they start to see the ways in which they can claim agency over events happening in the world—that they don’t have to wait for someone else to take action against an injustice; they can be the person who tips the first domino or who speaks up first.
Mason Deaver is a non-binary author and bookseller who lives in Charlotte, NC, where the word ‘y’all’ is used in abundance. Typically, they’re writing incredibly queer stories, but when they decide to take a break, they love gardening, baking, and playing video games.
One of the major themes in I Wish You All the Best is acceptance. Ben is learning to accept themself and a major part of that is being seen for who they are and accepted by their loved ones.
Acceptance was a theme I really wanted to explore. I actually find that it’s a common theme in most of my work, whether it’s acceptance of self or from others.
Your forthcoming book, The Ghosts We Keep, is about Liam Cooper, a nonbinary person who loses their twin brother in a tragic accident. Is there anything you can tell us about the book and Liam’s story? Why were you drawn to write this story now?
It’s a deeply personal story to me. I’ve faced extreme loss, one similar to the one that Liam experiences. The book began as a way for me to grieve, for me to mourn. It’s still a symbol for that, for myself. But for me the book has become more a story about accepting the grief and beginning the grieving process, and not so much about the process itself.
You also love to garden and bake. Can you tell us about some of the things you’ve been baking lately or what’s growing in your garden?
Unfortunately, where I live now there isn’t a ton of garden space. But my aloe and jade plants are doing great! As for baking, that’s another thing that’s suffered, but only because I’ve been working so much. I did try to throw together a recipe out of random ingredients one night, I made sugar cookies with dark chocolate chunks and sea salt. I was the only one in my apartment that liked them, but also I love dark chocolate.
Tell us about a moment connecting with a fan that had a positive impact on you. What do you love most about being able to meet and talk to readers who are excited about your work?
I’m lucky enough to say that I have too many to count. I’ve received letters, messages, emails from readers telling me just how much my work has meant to them. I’ve met readers face to face who told me that they related so much to Ben and that my book helped them figure things out. It’s a magical feeling.
Who are a few authors who have inspired your work or your writing practice?
Oh so many, but my favorite people ever are Becky Albertalli, Adam Silvera, and Kacen Callender.
What other books do you think that your work is in conversation with? Are there any upcoming or published books you’d recommend?
There are a lot of books that are close to my heart. Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender is one in particular that I urge all of my readers to pick up. And upcoming, I’m extremely excited for Ray Stoeve’s Between Perfect and Real that comes out next year!
What is one question that you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
I rarely ever get asked about my favorite movie, which is to say that it’s Midsommar directed by Ari Aster.
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Alaina Leary (Lavoie) is the communications manager of We Need Diverse Books. She also teaches in the graduate department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College and is a book reviewer for Booklist. She received a 2017 Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for her work in the publishing industry. Her writing has been published in New York Times, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, Allure, Healthline, Glamour, The Oprah Magazine, and more. She currently lives in Boston with her wife and their two literary cats. Follow her @AlainasKeys on Instagram and Twitter.