By Maria Mayor
Today we’re pleased to welcome Maya MacGregor to the WNDB blog to discuss The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester, out May 3, 2022!
Sam Sylvester has long collected stories of half-lived lives—of kids who died before they turned nineteen. Sam was almost one of those kids. Now, as Sam’s own nineteenth birthday approaches, their recent near-death experience haunts them. They’re certain they don’t have much time left. . . .
But Sam’s life seems to be on the upswing after meeting several new friends and a potential love interest in Shep, their next-door neighbor. Yet the past keeps roaring back—in Sam’s memories and in the form of a thirty-year-old suspicious death that took place in Sam’s new home. Sam can’t resist trying to find out more about the kid who died and who now seems to guide their investigation. When Sam starts receiving threatening notes, they know they’re on the path to uncovering a murderer. But are they digging through the past or digging their own future grave?
The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester explores healing in the aftermath of trauma and the fullness of queer joy.
The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester is your YA debut, but you have plenty of publishing experience. How does your process writing YA compare to writing adult fiction?
Sam Sylvester really took me by surprise. As you mention, I have a large backlist in my adult catalog as Emmie Mears (and Sylvie Greenhart), and I didn’t really expect to write a YA. But Sam’s voice grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go. I sat down and wrote this book in 2017 very quickly. This book had a much more intensive revision process than some of my other books have had, and it grew by almost twenty-five thousand words over the course of those revisions. I always tend to write a bit bare bones in my early drafts, but this was different in the amount it grew by!
Although we see different types of parent-child relationships in the novel, Sam and their dad have an extremely close-knit relationship where they truly understand each other. Why was it so important to show this kind of fierce and unconditional love?
I realised a few years ago that I largely wrote protagonists who had either estranged or bereavement-based relationships with their parents, which in many ways mirrors my own life. But I’m also very fortunate that I am very close with several of my (seven!) parents—my mums who adopted me and my biological father, whom I only met in 2018. Parental relationships, particularly for queer kids, can be very fraught, and it was important to me to show what it could be like for Sam and Junius. While I certainly am no stranger to complex and complicated relationships with parental figures, writing Junius Sylvester was very healing for me in a lot of ways, even before I found out about my paternity. Being a parent is always a choice, blood or not, and I am thankful for the parents who have chosen to be mine.
Sam’s group of friends is very diverse in many aspects; how did you go about developing each character?
I think for me I was just sort of writing Sam’s world the way I have seen mine. It feels natural to write characters who are as diverse as my own friends and family. Shep was really special to me, and I think through her I really leaned into the intergenerational transmission of family knowledge that I only had sporadically in my own life and still yearn for; her relationship with her late grandmother is a formative aspect of her existence, and when those ties are severed either by death or distance, it can be really difficult to orient oneself. Sky is a lot of myself; his struggles to be seen as he is reflects my own experiences of biphobia. Aidan is the same on a class axis—I grew up very poor. Ronnie and Jax and Aerie are all similarly bits of me I either wish were stronger or aspects of friends I love. I hope that every reader can feel welcome in Sam’s group of friends.
You mention in the acknowledgements that this book was written in 2017. Did the original idea shift much from then to its final version?
It actually started out where Sam had literal past lives, but that got reworked for a revise and resubmit, and then it got some of its paranormal flavour back in the editorial process at Astra. I’m most comfortable in fantasy, whether that’s pure second worlds like my Stonebreaker series or small strangeness like A Hall of Keys and No Doors, and I am glad I could bring a bit of that into Sam’s world too.
Sam is a queer, non-binary, autistic teen and a really refreshing aspect of the book was how we’d get references to these intersectional identities (like binding or stimming) in passing. Why was it vital to show these small moments in this manner?
Very simply because I am a queer, non-binary, autistic person, and I know there are a lot of people like me out there. While I seldom bind personally, stimming is a daily (hourly, minute-ly?) part of my life. I was also in the process of receiving my official autism diagnosis while I worked on revisions for this book, and that process is often so riddled with barriers and hoop-jumping that I think some of my frustration came out in really leaning into those things.
I think a lot of autistic people have noticed throughout the pandemic just how much energy we expended masking in the Before Times, and that experience and revelation played a huge part in how Sam’s autistic traits are shown in the book. I want to normalize neuroatypical behaviours—so often we are forced to adapt to neurotypical expectations (eye contact, certain facial expressions, small talk, sitting still, and more), and it would be nice if there was more understanding and if neurotypical people would adapt to us the way we are always expected to adapt to them. I wanted to show what that could look like in Sam’s story—Dad gets them a punching bag so they have an outlet that isn’t self-harm. Shep accepts and even encourages Sam’s stimming. This world is outright hostile to autistic people and to trans and non-binary people, and autistic people are very likely to also be trans or non-binary, so that intersection in particular was deeply, deeply important to me to write.
There’s a mystery at the core of the book, what was the process of plotting it like?
In short, I didn’t! This book happened so fast when I wrote it that all I had were the basic turning points staked out, and a lot of the revision process was translating my knowledge in my head of each major moment’s nuance onto the page so the reader could follow it.
This story deals with heavy topics as Sam goes through some deeply traumatic events; what were some of the challenges that you had to face when writing about them?
While I haven’t experienced the kind of physical violence Sam has, many of their experiences in Montana are mine. So writing it brought up a lot of past trauma with bullying, but it was also really cathartic in some ways to have Sam stand up to bullies and exist in their own power.
My schoolmates really did play a game called “Smear the Queer” on school time. I was a kid with two mums in Montana when Matthew Shepard was murdered one state over. I lost friends when they found out about my mums, though there were a few people, notably, who didn’t care. But I remember getting cornered on the bus and getting asked if my mum was a dyke. When I told my two best friends just before winter break one year, I came back to school and they’d outright shunned me. They left a really nasty note sitting in the cafeteria for anyone to find, and thankfully, the kid who found it actually brought it straight to me so it wouldn’t fall into cruel hands.
Two of my bullies later apologized to me without equivocation or excuses, and one of them is now a high school teacher who I respect a lot and hope he now stands up for kids like me. I’m very grateful for that, but needless to say, I remained deeply closeted myself throughout high school and all the way into my late twenties. Writing a story where someone like me could be out, could find acceptance and friendship and romance was just something very close to my heart. I want that for all the kids like Sam out there, especially now when lawmakers are so intent on attacking trans kids’ entire existence.
The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester is a novel that will touch many people. What were the stories that had an impact on you as a young adult?
I read mostly adult when I was a teen in the 90s, but I was obsessed with L.J. Smith’s Nightworld and Secret Circle series (really anything of hers, actually!). I also have always loved Madeleine L’ Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time—I was desperate to see characters who were at all like me, and Meg really resonated for a lot of reasons. In retrospect, I feel like she’s got a lot of similar traits to mine that feel cued autistic to me. I also adored Lois Lowry’s The Giver and Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet—tales of survival and defiance seem to have struck a lot of chords for me over the years. The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander and Patricia Wrede’s The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, David Eddings’s Belgariad and Malloreon, Jordan’s Wheel of Time.
I also loved portal fantasy. O.R. Melling’s The Druid’s Tune and Stephen Lawhead’s Endless Knot trilogy as well as Bruce Coville’s Into the Land of the Unicorns, which I always wanted more of. That book also sparked some of my linguistic interests, because a character is given the gift to understand and speak any language, and that has become one of my ideal superpowers.
Some themes: female leads, finding magic, fighting oppression, and being defiantly oneself. Not much has changed there, I think.
Do you have any book recommendations for readers that enjoyed Sam’s story?
Oh, gosh. Every time someone asks me this question, my brain suddenly forgets any and all books I’ve ever read, and my TBR pile is . . . precariously steep. This one is adult, but I’ve recently loved Caitlin Starling’s The Death of Jane Lawrence (a very creepy gothic novel with an autistic protagonist). In that vein as well, Francine Toon’s gorgeous rural Scottish gothic Pine, which alternates between a young girl’s POV and her father’s. This one has a chilling murder mystery to it as well as a vivid glimpse of rural Scottish life. I also got to read an early copy of Neil Cochrane’s gorgeous, hopeful, very queer and trans fantasy novel The Story of the Hundred Promises that comes out later this year. It’s also adult, but I think it would really resonate with a teen audience as well for its themes of confronting past familial rejection as well as queer found families and healing.
I loved Rebecca Podos’s The Mystery of Hollow Places a few years ago, and I’m similarly looking forward to her new book From Dust, A Flame. Because the Young Folks mentioned that folks who loved The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Nichols Gould would likely love Sam Sylvester, that one is also on my list to pick up!
I have mostly been reading nonfiction in line with my special interests between absolutely frantic work weeks. Currently reading The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben and The Body Keeps the Score (a book about trauma) by Bessel van der Kolk. I’m also slowly working through Sarah Kurchak’s I Overcame My Autism, and All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder, which is both very raw and cathartic. I tend to bounce around my nonfiction more than fiction—I don’t usually have three novels going at once!
Maya MacGregor is an author, singer, and artist based in Glasgow, Scotland. A fluent Gaelic speaker, Maya is active in many community activities in Gaelic music as well as writing contemporary YA and adult fiction (as Emmie Mears and M Evan MacGriogair). Maya has a degree in history and is passionate about writing the stories for teens they wish had existed when they were younger—and fills them with the type of people who have always populated their world. Their pronouns are they/them.
Maria Mayor is an English Studies graduate from Spain. She’s passionate about language learning and literature and especially devoted to finding every book with good LGBT+ representation. She has completed various courses on different aspects of the publishing industry and is currently in the process of getting her master’s degree on Library and Information Science. You can find her at her blog called The Character Study, where she talks about all things books.