Today we’re pleased to welcome Aiden Thomas to the WNDB blog to discuss their young adult novel Cemetery Boys, out September 1, 2020!
Yadriel has summoned a ghost, and now he can’t get rid of him.
When his traditional Latinx family has problems accepting his true gender, Yadriel becomes determined to prove himself a real brujo. With the help of his cousin and best friend Maritza, he performs the ritual himself, and then sets out to find the ghost of his murdered cousin and set it free.
However, the ghost he summons is actually Julian Diaz, the school’s resident bad boy, and Julian is not about to go quietly into death. He’s determined to find out what happened and tie off some loose ends before he leaves. Left with no choice, Yadriel agrees to help Julian, so that they can both get what they want. But the longer Yadriel spends with Julian, the less he wants to let him leave.
What was the process like of getting published with Swoon Reads?
Swoon Reads is a really cool imprint! They take unsolicited manuscripts through their website, and based on readers’ ratings, editors go through submissions and pick books they want to publish. It creates a lot of opportunities for unagented writers to break into publishing!
Cemetery Boys is actually my option book. The original book I submitted, Lost In the Never Woods, was my MFA thesis. It’s a dark, contemporary reimagining of Peter Pan set in a coastal town where kids are disappearing in the woods. When Swoon selected Lost In the Never Woods, I got paired up with my incredible editor, Holly West. During copy edits, I kept poking at her because I wanted to work on my option book. I put together a proposal for Cemetery Boys and Swoon wanted it! They liked it so much, in fact, they decided to make it my debut! So now Cemetery Boys is coming out in September, and Lost In the Never Woods is set to be published March 2021!
Tell us about the cover design process. How did you choose Mars Lauderbaugh to illustrate?
Typically, Swoon Reads books get their cover voted on and selected by readers via social media! But the Swoon team wanted to do things differently for Cemetery Boys. Way back before Cemetery Boys was even a completed draft, I had commissioned Mars to do some character art for me, which I loved and shared with my editorial team.
When it was time to design the cover, they sent me a list of artists to pick from, all of which were either nonbinary, trans, and/or artists of color. It was incredible! They included Mars because we all loved their art so much, and I immediately asked that they use Mars. I absolutely believe Mars’s amazing cover is a very large part as to why Cemetery Boys has captured folks’ attention. Mars also designed all of the cool swag that comes in the Cemetery Boys preorder campaign swag, so everything matches!
It still blows my mind that there’s a gay, trans, Latinx boy on the cover of a Big 5 book! It means the world to me.
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.
Maritza is a vegan who chooses not to use her healing powers because she doesn’t want to use animal blood. Was she vegan from the beginning or was there a point during the writing process when this aspect of her character came to life for you?
Maritza was a vegan from the get go! When I first got started, that was her defining characteristic, other than being Yadriel’s partner in crime. I love her as a character because she has very strong convictions and sticks to them and doesn’t care what others think.
I also wanted her to be in juxtaposition to Yadriel—Maritza can perform bruja magic but chooses not to because it requires animal blood and she’s vegan, whereas Yadriel desperately wants to perform brujo magic but the other brujx won’t let him. In the brujx community where everything is built on tradition, I wanted Maritza and Yadriel to show ways in which their beliefs and practices are archaic and need to change in order to suit these younger generations who exist outside their expectations (which is a problem you find a lot of different communities). Both approaches are valid and necessary!
The animals in Cemetery Boys have so much personality. I felt like I really knew Purrcasso (best cat name ever), Donatello, and Michelangelo. Did you draw inspiration from any cats or pit bulls you’ve loved?
Oh gosh, I really love animals, and the animals in this book! Purrcaso was inspired by a picture of a very crooked, snaggle-toothed cat I saw on Tumblr! I thought she would be this perfect physical representation of Yadriel’s mother’s magic and love. Donatello and Michelangelo were absolutely modeled after my sister’s dog, Mylee. Mylee is a pitbull mix who is the size of a small horse and just the sweetest dog you could ever meet, but also not the brightest. When Donatello is happy, he wiggles so enthusiastically that she smacks himself in the face which I directly stole from Mylee.
Chosen family and the family one is born into are major themes in Cemetery Boys. Yadriel struggles with the gendered role of magic in his brujx community, while Julian wants to make sure his friends (who are his chosen family) are safe. How are the two boys’ experiences of family similar and different?
I wanted to use Yadriel and Julian’s families to show the nuance to what makes a family—and also to align with their journeys as characters.
Yadriel is trying to find his place in his very traditional Latinx community as a trans boy. I wanted to present readers with a family that isn’t intrinsically transphobic or homophobic. Yadriel’s family is not aggressively or purposefully trying to be hurtful. These aren’t bad people; they don’t hate Yadriel or those parts of him, they just don’t understand. Very often, that teaching falls onto the shoulders of queer/trans kids, which can be exhausting. I hope this book, and other books coming from authentic queer experience, might help some teach some folks so the trans kids in their lives don’t have to.
Then you have Julian who is trying to keep his queer found family safe while navigating a world that has written them off. The only family Julian has by blood is his older brother, Rio, so he’s created a family of his own. Julian’s family is one that’s formed under the bonds of personal experiences, especially under forms of oppression. Often time, queer kids who aren’t accepted by their families find each other and become each other’s family. Along with the cultural oppression many Latinx kids face—like being written off by society or having their parents taken away due to deportation—these queer kids literally survive by relying on one another.
Yadriel and Julian have parallel stories that explore the nuance of different marginalizations, and how they impact both of them in different ways. Yadriel’s story is about birthright and finding his place among his blood, while Julian’s story is about choice, finding the people who are his family, and protecting them.
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!
Aiden Thomas, author of Cemetery Boys, received their MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College. Born in Oakland, California, Aiden often haunted Mountain View Cemetery like a second home during their misspent youth. As a queer, trans Latinx, Aiden advocates strongly for diverse representation in all media. Aiden is notorious among their friends for always being surprised by twist endings to books/movies and organizing their bookshelves by color. When not writing, Aiden enjoys exploring the outdoors with their dog, Ronan. Their cat, Figaro, prefers to support their indoor hobbies, like reading and drinking too much coffee.