By Alaina Leary
Today we’re pleased to welcome James Sie to the WNDB blog to discuss his YA novel All Kinds of Other, out May 4, 2021!
In this tender, nuanced coming-of-age love story, two boys—one who is cis, and one who is trans—have been guarding their hearts, until their feelings for each other give them a reason to stand up to their fears.
Two boys are starting over at a new high school.
Jules is still figuring out what it means to be gay…and just how out he wants to be.
Jack is reeling from a fall-out with his best friend…and isn’t ready to let anyone else in just yet.
When Jules and Jack meet, the sparks are undeniable. But when a video linking Jack to a pair of popular trans vloggers is leaked to the school, the revelations thrust both boys into the spotlight they’d tried to avoid.
Suddenly Jack and Jules must face a choice: to play it safe and stay under the radar, or claim their own space in the world—together.
[Video description: James Sie, author of All Kinds of Other is seated facing the camera. He holds up an ARC of his book and says, “My name is James Sie, and I am the author of a book called ALL KINDS OF OTHER. It’s a YA book about two boys — one cis, and one trans — who find each other in a new school in Los Angeles. I also have an alter ego. Not only am I an author, but I am… a cabbage merchant. And I can prove it. MY CABBAGES!!!! Thank you. Hope you read the book. Bye!” James waves goodbye, and the screen fades into end credits with the WNDB logo on an animated rustling paper background. as music plays.]
All Kinds of Other is a contemporary novel but the world-building and the setting is just as important as it would be in a sci-fi or a fantasy. Can you tell us how you built out Jules’s and Jack’s world?
Jules’s world was easier for me because I live in Los Angeles, where Jules is from, and my son was around the same age that Jules was when I started writing. So I had a leg up as far as the teen world in Los Angeles, and an unwitting accomplice in my son as far as getting the nuances of teen-speak and writing down. I would be driving him home from school and listening to him and his friends, and just saying “Wait wait, when you said ‘cringe,’ did you mean, did you say that as a noun or an adjective? Or was it a verb?” And he’d be like “stop it, dad, stop it stop it, stop listening!” But you know, I was shamelessly eavesdropping on him.
With Jack, there had to be a lot of research done because Jack is very much out of my own experience. And I knew that if I wanted to get it right and make it authentic as possible, I would need to do quite a lot of background work. So through interviews and watching many hours of youtube videos vlogs and Tumblr posts I started to find Jack, you know?
Then I went to Pittsburgh, on a kind of fact-finding mission, and it was wonderful to find him in certain places. Like you can only do so much through Googling, for instance, what Pittsburgh is like, what the Pittsburgh LGBT youth scene is like. And so to go there and either have my ideas confirmed or get new ideas to supplant the old ones, was really really beneficial. And I got to meet with a group of kids at what used to be called the GLC of Pittsburgh, and I would say that all of that research made the book much different than what I had envisioned when I started out. Because if you don’t do the homework then you’re only, you’re going mostly on your own intuition and your own thoughts of, “Oh this is what it must be like.” You don’t know what your preconceptions are that are actually not valid. So I’d say listening to the kids, and observing them, helped me really be able to reflect back their experiences.
It was a much different book because of that research, and I would say it was a much different book because of the time we were in. I started writing in 2016. Obama had just instituted a lot of federal guidelines for trans employees. There was a lot of movement against the anti-bathroom bans that were cropping up in different states. And then the election happened and I’d say the book got a little darker because of it.
I had started out wanting to write a book that was affirming and that would give trans kids hope. And when I was doing the research and when I was talking to the kids, especially a year later in September 2017, I realized that to present a completely rosy everything-is-great picture would minimize the very real challenges that the kids were going through. And in talking to them, they directly correlated the election to a change in their experience. And that was kind of frightening to me, that people suddenly seemed to have the boldness to say out loud what they might have been hiding, and it became a kind of much more scary time for trans kids. And so I felt like I wanted to reflect that. So it was a balance between finding a way to affirm and present a positive experience, but at the same time to reflect what kids were going through. So that’s kind of how the world spun out, from there.
It’s so cool that you actually took a trip to Pittsburgh. Do you consider yourself sort of a method writer? Is that a part of your process?
Absolutely, because you find, you find the nuances, the specificity, by experiencing. There’s an Indian pastry called Gulab jamun in the book and I made that many times! I think I’m pretty good at it by now, and you know you learn through doing, so I could talk more specifically about the texture of them, how they form, what the senses are. Because the more you know about something the more you can create a 3D image of it. You can explore what it tastes like, what it sounds like, what it looks like.
So you give the reader a much more sensory experience if you experience it. The only thing that, and this is, I don’t know, the hardest thing for me was Jules plays basketball. And I have absolutely no interest in basketball whatsoever! It was so, that was the most, in a way the most difficult thing to write authentically. But I did have several people who did have passion who were able to kind of get me through the basic minimum of what it means to play basketball. So thank god for good friends who like sports.
I always wonder that about characters who play a sport or are very interested in a sport, and I’m always wondering you know especially if the sport plays a big role, to what extent the author also plays that sport or knows that sport.
And you know, there are varying levels of need for the research. So for instance for basketball, because it doesn’t play a huge role, I could learn enough to hopefully get across the vernacular and make it sound like it’s from someone who is steeped in basketball lingo, right? So that’s one kind of research. But researching a character whose experience is not your own, in this case, the trans community, it’s not just a way of writing or researching, it’s vital because I think as someone who is writing something that is not my own experience.
So it’s imperative to do the research because you have a higher bar if you’re writing outside your own experience. And so you want to be really careful and really thoughtful about how you portray those characters. And so there wasn’t, it wasn’t even an option for me to kind of wing that aspect of the book, you know.
I appreciated how you mentioned earlier that meeting with real teens and the time period shaped the book, and I feel like you included a lot of difficult moments in this book. There’s bullying, there’s homophobia, there’s transphobia, but you also balanced that in a lot of ways. So how did you balance sharing the impact that these types of harm have had on Jules and Jack, but also providing a safe place for LGBTQ+ readers?
Oh good. That’s my huge fear, right? Is getting that balance wrong. And there’s a certain line, right? And I’m hoping that it’s successful, that balance is successful for most readers. And there might be, but every reader’s experience is different and you know, I’m always thinking about that.
The way to create that balance, for me, the biggest thing was I had a great editor, who is, his name is Andrew Eliopulos and he really guided me through, because this is my first YA book too. He really guided me through the challenges of writing something that is authentic but not so authentic that it recreated trauma, right? He was so diligent about looking at every interaction, every microaggression, and saying, “Do we need this? Do we understand this already? Do we need to say it explicitly?”
And so an example would be, in the background of one of the characters, there is an incident that escalates into something a little harsher. And I had one of the bullies call this person, who was a trans person, a very transphobic slur. And it is something absolutely that this bully would say! And he, my editor, very gently looked at that and said, “Do we need the word?” And you know, as a writer you think, “No, all the words are important, of course, I chose that word!” But then looking at it I was like “Is there a way to do it where that word is not used?” And there was! So the character who is writing about it actually says, “I don’t want to give that word air,” and now looking at it, it’s a much more elegant and thoughtful way of doing it.
And so I’m really really grateful for that. There used to be a lot more microaggressions that went unchallenged in the book. Maybe the book doesn’t need as many of them. We understand it. We get what bullying is, we get what the microaggression is, so maybe we can write beyond it. And so between the editor and I, I think we tried really hard to arrive at that balance. I’m so glad, you know I don’t know what it would have been like if I hadn’t had him. He was just really instrumental in riding that line.
It almost sounds like a lot of it was just the writing and revising process naturally. It’s almost like when you write out a character’s backstory. Like their blood type is never going to come up. And they might not come up in the finished story but it was important for you to know that to get the emotional impact of who this character is.
Exactly. That’s why it was so important for me to have Jack’s backstory so rendered but it’s in the past so that we know where he’s coming from by the time he, his perspective takes over.
And speaking of the balance, that’s also another reason why I chose Los Angeles as the setting because here in Los Angeles you would say that we are relatively more progressive in our values. By and large, that’s a huge blanket generalization. But especially in Los Angeles itself, it’s pretty progressive. It was easier to imagine a school that had not as much violence, and that the transphobia would be more isolated. Do you know what I mean? And so I could kind of concentrate on the little microaggressions that people don’t normally think of. So it’s not so much the threat of physical violence, but it’s those little needling microaggressions that also can cause so much hurt and anxiety.
And I’m not saying that the people who committed these microaggressions are all evil horrible villains. A lot of it has to do with ignorance and taking your own worldview as the right one, to the exclusion of looking at those around you. So yeah. It’s a small nuance but that’s something that I was interested in exploring.
You are also a voice actor and playwright. Why did you decide to write young adult novels? What made you make the switch into this sphere and did you take anything that you had learned from playwriting and voice acting to your work as a YA author?
I did most of my playwriting in Chicago when I lived there. And so that was my main focus of writing because they were getting produced by a theater company. It was writing that was instantly gratifying. Right? When I came to Los Angeles, the opportunities for playwriting were much less so and I was more concentrated on the voice acting. But I still missed the writing. Also, I was raising a son at that time, and so I didn’t have as much time to write. So I was mostly concentrating on raising a child and my voice-over career.
So I started writing when he was old enough to kind of be more on his own, and then I started YA because let’s see. My first book, Still Life Las Vegas has an eighteen-year-old character in it. And he is one of the three major perspectives. I hadn’t thought of it as YA, but one might consider it slightly YA just because of the character’s coming of age, his sexual awakening, all of that. But it also had two adult narrators. So, but during the selling of it I met Becky Albertalli, who was the first person to blurb the book, and I didn’t even know her! So I read her book, Simon Versus the Homosapien’s Agenda, and it blew me away because there’s something about the writing of that, and as I found later YA books in general, which kind of act upon you immediately.
There’s a certain directness to YA writing that is less intricate, perhaps. But it is emotionally accessible quickly. And I was obsessed with that book. And I think I read it twice, and I listened to the audiobook. And I just thought wow, what power YA books have. And then I read Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell and a variety of other authors. And so I started discovering that world.
It seemed like a natural progression to try to write it in the YA vernacular, whatever that might be! I mean I know YA is largely a marketing term, and so many things could be YA. But from what I understand it to be, to try to write in a more accessible way.
And to your other question, I’d say the playwriting helped me a lot as far as dialogue. In playwriting, it’s mostly dialogue that you’re writing, and then the action of it is the director’s purvey, by and large. So dialogue is it, for playwriting. So I think that did help me a lot in writing this book as far as getting the voices right and the interactions between characters, correctly. And I don’t know if the voice-over helped, but I do a lot of reading out loud, and so I could hear if something didn’t feel right in a character’s mouth.
Your debut, Still Life Las Vegas, is actually listed as YA on some websites. You didn’t write that with the intention of it being a YA, so what would you say is the difference between writing Still Life Las Vegas and writing All Kinds of Other, which you very intentionally knew you were writing a young adult novel?
In the same way that I don’t want people to think that All Kinds of Other is a frothy rom-com, you know I wouldn’t want people to come to Still Life Las Vegas as a YA lover and feel steered wrong. I guess the difference is in Still Life Las Vegas, it’s about a family, and how a traumatic incident reverberates through generations. And so there’s not only the perspective of the young kid but also the mother and father, who experience the same trauma. So it’s about generational grief, basically. And I don’t know, it seems like the themes are much more about adult loss, and how adults process the loss. I’m not saying that teen readers wouldn’t enjoy it, I hope they would. But about I’d say half of the book is from the more adult perspective, you know? I mean what it has going for it is that it has graphic novel sections, which I think younger readers, younger audiences, are able to kind of process better. And yeah it does have this great kind of coming of age story within it. But if you don’t want to hear about the grown-ups, then maybe it wouldn’t be for you.
You spoke to this a little bit earlier, but I love all of the desserts and the foods that you’ve been making and sharing on Instagram. I noticed that you made a croquembouche which really leans right into the weirdness of 2020. I’m curious, how did you come to love cooking and baking and how do you decide on those new projects to tackle? I know you mentioned the dessert that was sort of research-based. But I have to assume they’re not all entirely research-based.
No, no. I’ve been a cook for a long time. But I hadn’t been a baker until like maybe six years ago. My husband bought me a series of baking classes at a culinary institute. It was the most selfish gift he ever could have given me because he gets so many desserts now. I don’t know, I love the precision of baking. And I love that out of such simple ingredients you can create this amazing confection that people enjoy so much, you know? And that if you follow the instructions currently it can yield this amazing result. So I don’t know, I do love it. If you go onto my Instagram, you might be like “Wait, is he an author?” There’s a lot of voice-over things, there’s a lot of baked goods. So you kind of have to search for the author stuff.
It’s really wonderful, you just showing who you are to the world on social media and being authentic. And it’s kind of cool because you said baking is so precise, if you do it right it’s supposed to come out almost the same or the same every time. And writing is just not like that! It’s just there’s no step-by-step.
But, at the same time, now that you bring this up, baking is about doing it, and doing it, and doing it again, until it comes out the way you want it. And I think the thing that it shares with writing is that it’s so easy to stop writing. And then if you go too long without it, you almost have to start over again. The idea of writing and writing and writing yielding better results is true. When you bake and bake and bake, you get better results.
And the other thing about baking, which is true about writing, at least for me, for my process of writing, is with baking you cannot rush it, like if it says to let it rest for at least an hour, you shouldn’t pull it out after fifteen minutes and just say, “I’m gonna throw it in, I have no time!” because you won’t get as good a result. And for me, I am a notoriously slow writer. I used to despair about it. But I’ve learned to discover about myself that time is important, because ideas, scenes, characters, they all are kind of slow simmering in my brain. And so many things get worked out over time without me even doing anything. It’s like bread rising. As long as I keep the idea in my head, as I’m walking the dog, or as I’m putting a loaf of bread in, those ideas get worked out. And it yields a much more flavorful round of writing than if I had just tried to power through the writing.
If the characters in All Kinds of Other showed up on your doorstep, in real life, who do you think you would get along with the most? And is there anyone who would grate on your nerves, even though you loved them? Or maybe you don’t love them!
Well, I’ve always thought that Jules is the teenager that I was, and Jack is the teenager I wish I could have been. I so admire Jack’s resilience and his confidence. It’s not to say that he doesn’t have a lot of things underneath but he presents as very strong and confident, and the idea that he knows himself as well as he does is something that I wish I had more of as a teenager.
And because I’m writing as a parent as well, the parents, they’re not, I hope you didn’t find them like villains. Because I didn’t think of them as that, but they’re just different modes of parenting that might not fit with what the child needs, you know? I’ve definitely seen myself as all the parents. I would like to think I was more like Jack’s mother, but I’m afraid at times that I’ve probably been more like Jules’s mother.
I have a fondness for Jules’s best friend Greg. If I’m being honest he reminds me a lot of my son, and so that, it’s just nice to write him, because I get connected with my son, who’s now at college, you know. But a lot of Jack’s snarkiness, you know, his comebacks and his sullen-ness, also directly my son! So because of that I have such a deep and abiding fondness for him. Both of those kids, feel like my own son. So that’s why I feel really protective of them, and I want them to do well.
I think that really comes across in the writing that you care about your characters. And the fact that you’ve spoken a few times to the fact that you know no one’s a hundred percent a villain really shows in that writing. That you were not intending to make two-dimensional characters, these are all people that you care about to the extent that you want them to grow. If they’re flawed, you want them to change.
Yes, absolutely. And at the same time, I try not to have change happen too quickly, you know what I mean? For the parents, I know that the idea that a parent changes their mind, and does a complete one-eighty as far as their perception seems a little unrealistic to me. And so I want there to change, but it has to be earned, and it might not happen within the context of the pages. So the idea that there’s hope for change.
If you were going to design your dream panel promoting this book, what would you want that panel to be about and what other authors would you just love to have on it if you could pick any authors.
Oh, that’s a really interesting question. I guess I would love to have an All Kinds of Other panel where there are all kinds of other represented. Skylar Kergil, author of the memoir Before I Had the Words. Alex Bertie, the author of the memoir Transmission. And a variety of other people! I’m not sure!
I’ll let the panel host decide that! Just a group of people who have felt othered, talk about their experience and how writing their book helps people who feel marginalized. How they hope it affects people who might read it who feel marginalized. That would be a very interesting panel.
What other books do you think that All Kinds of Other is in conversation with?
There’s a book called Stay Gold by Tobly McSmith, which presents in a very similar, it has a very similar premise, but it’s a straight love story. That was really great to read because you can see how there are many different kinds of trans stories.
When I started writing, there were, there aren’t a lot of trans YA novels out. And especially not a lot of trans masculine novels out. And now there’s such, a relatively larger number of own voices and trans character books. Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas was great, I just finished reading that. And that’s so exciting because it’s a different kind of genre, but it does center a trans character.
What’s one question that you wish you were asked more often? And the answer?
Because I’m somewhat of an introvert I don’t want anyone to ask me any questions, so I can’t really relate to that question!
I want them to ask me, what would it take for this to become a movie? That’s the question. How much would you take for us to make the movie?
James Sie is the author of Still Life Las Vegas, his debut novel, which was a Lambda Literary Award nominee for Best Gay Fiction. An award-winning playwright, he has had productions performed in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York (Lincoln Center Institute) and across the country. He has contributed essays to The Rumpus, The Advocate, Pen America, and Esquire. In addition to writing, James is also a voiceover artist for many cartoons and games, including Jackie Chan Adventures, Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness; Final Fantasy VII Remake, and Avatar: The Last Airbender, where his excessive love of cabbages has earned him immortal fame. James now lives in Los Angeles with his husband and son.
Alaina (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.