Spend enough time in the YA book world, and you’ll hear a writer—or several—speak with a stricken look about the stumbling process of writing a second book. Sometimes it happens on second published books. Sometimes it happens on second manuscripts, whether those books become agented or published or not. I wish I could tell you what it is about the second book that catches so many of us. I can’t.
But I can tell what it was for me.
Writing my second book, I told myself to be patient. Well, one part of myself: the queer part. I was already writing about characters of color, including Latinx characters that reflected my own experience. But I told myself this wasn’t the time to go further and include LGBTQ characters. I could do that on my third, or fourth book, when I’d earned it. Yes, this was how I thought, that incorporating two aspects of my identity into one book was something I had to earn.
So I wrote a very straight book…and, well, considering how I started this post, you can guess how it went. My critique partners patiently gave notes on different versions. My agent tried to shepherd me toward a better direction. My editor shared what was working and what wasn’t. But despite the help and advice of everyone I had in my corner, I kept turning out one forced, bloodless draft after another.
When my fear of writing a book I couldn’t stand behind overcame my fear of writing LGBTQ characters, I surrendered to this story. I gave in to its wishes. I made this book the queer, of-color book it wanted to be. A story about a Latina girl who grows roses from her wrist, and a transgender Pakistani-American boy who paints a hundred versions of the moon. A story in which they understand and love each other’s bodies, and in which they have sex on the page.
I turned in the book that had now become When the Moon was Ours, ready for someone to say, “We can’t publish this.” But what I heard instead was, “Yes, this is what this book was supposed to be.”
Until then, I hadn’t let this story be what it wanted to be, because I had been afraid of what I was. In the same way I sometimes feared there wasn’t space in the world for queer girls of color, I worried there wasn’t a place for this story I had in me.
This is what I’ve learned, not to resist what a story wants to be, especially if it’s because I’m afraid there is too much different about me for the world to accept. What’s at the heart of us is who we are. These are our stories. And when our stories ask us to speak from our hearts, from everything we are, they won’t let us go until we answer.
Anna-Marie McLemore was born in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, raised in the same town as the world’s largest wisteria vine, and taught by her family to hear la llorona in the Santa Ana winds. Her debut novel, THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS (out now from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press), was a Junior Library Guild Selection, named to YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults list, and a finalist for the William C. Morris Debut Award. Her second novel, WHEN THE MOON WAS OURS, will be released on October 4, 2016, and WILD BEAUTY is forthcoming in 2017. You can find Anna-Marie at annamariemclemore.com or on Twitter @LaAnnaMarie.
I’ve lived with depression and suicidal ideation since I was a teenager, much of it stemming from an overwhelming need to live up to my parents and my own expectations, along with never feeling I was good enough, and never feeling like I fit in. I was ashamed of myself, ashamed that I was a burden on my family, ashamed that I had failed in every way: school, career, relationships, and more.
It was a long road to recovery with my depression, and it’s still a work in progress. There’s a huge stigma surrounding mental health, especially in the Asian American community where we were raised to “save face.” Learning the patience to work out what I needed emotionally from my family and friends and being able to voice it has been a long journey.
I escaped into books, devouring anything and everything, disappearing into endless possibilities of worlds, delighted in travelling alongside my favorite heroes as they saved the universe.
And yet at the same time I was always a spectator; I felt wrong and broken for being attracted to more than one gender, because I hardly ever saw it portrayed in novels, especially in speculative fiction. I wasn’t white or straight like the heroes of renown, and I had internalized that adventures and saving the world and falling in love and happy-ever-afters were not for people like me.
I started writing because I wanted to write the books I wish I could have read as a teenager. I want romance and adventure and fantasy and science fiction and horror and every genre imaginable.
My novel Not Your Sidekick began as a project that was born out of frustration. I was tired. I was tired of characters of color being sidelined in supporting roles, I was tired of stories where girls who fell in love with other girls were met with tragedy at every front.
I’ve always loved the superhero genre because there are so many ways you can talk about identity, super or otherwise. One of the things Jess struggles with in Not Your Sidekick is living up to expectations. Since she doesn’t think she’s going to get superpowers, she’s struggling to prove herself. Her parents are immigrants, and she and her siblings are the first born in this new country— similar to my own experience growing up, albeit Jess lives in the year 2132. This theme of redefining success really hits close to home for me, and I wanted to show how first-generation children really feel that pressure.
Not Your Sidekick is lighthearted and and often skirts the line of ridiculous. I don’t take myself too seriously, and the novel doesn’t either; I poke lots of fun at superhero tropes and secret identity shenanigans. While I touch on issues that are important to me, like the theme of expectations and defining your own success— I want most of all to bring joy and laughter and silliness and light. I want readers to have fun.
I hope readers will find joy in the novel, as I have bringing it to the world.
C.B. Lee is a bisexual writer, rock climber and hiking enthusiast based in California. She is a first-generation Asian American and has a BA in Sociology and Environmental Science, which occasionally comes in handy in her chosen career, but not usually. Lee enjoys reading, hiking and other outdoor pursuits. Her first novel, Seven Tears at High Tide, was published by Duet Books (Interlude Press) in 2015 and named a finalist for two Bisexual Book of the Year Awards. Ms. Lee is also a Lambda Literary Emerging LGBTQ Voices Fellow.
Radical launches tomorrow. It is the culmination of more than four years of hard work. Research about guns and the survivalist movement and what it is like to be a butch queer girl in such a hyper-masculine pocket of America. Multiple drafts of first kisses and first touches and deciphering friends from enemies. And now it is book-shaped and people are reading it. I’m thrilled and excited and anxious.
Part of what is making this launch season even more exciting is the amazing number of young adult novels featuring queer characters out this year, especially this fall. If you aren’t following the #FallLGBTQ hashtag on Twitter, go follow it that to learn about and help celebrate many exciting queer YA books out this fall.
2016 is seeing a bumper crop of queer young adult lit. There’s even another book about a butch queer girl! I love that like Radical, Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard also features a butch lesbian teen, figuring out what that means for how she sees herself, and how she navigates relationships and the world. So many queer books to love. And yet, we still need so many more.
In the last few years, I have heard and read so many people say LGBTQIAP+ YA needs to “move beyond” coming out stories and stories where the teen character struggles because they are queer. I bristle every time. Because here’s the thing, it may feel to the adult creators of queer books, or the adult teachers or librarians, or maybe even to the queer readers who have seen themselves in queer stories, that there are “enough” coming out stories and struggle narratives out there. That coming out and struggle stories have been “done” to death. I even get that some young readers are personally tired of the coming out and struggle stories. They are hungry for the humor and the light and the stories that aren’t about the character’s gender or sexual identity. But not all young queer teens live in comfortable and supportive communities. Until queer kids and teens don’t have to come out, until they are safe everywhere, we will still need stories about struggles and coming out.
Now, I completely agree that we need more than coming out and struggle stories. That we need much more balance in LGBTQIAP+ young adult literature. Of course we need more teen characters who are out and comfortable and supported and happy. More queer teen romances, especially funny, happy teen romances. And definitely more stories where the character’s sexual identity and gender identity or expression is not the focus of the story. When a funny or fluffy queer teen novel is treated as a rarity, we don’t have balance or parity in YA literature.
But today’s teens also need fresh, evolving coming out and struggle stories. Because they are still coming out. They are still struggling. The world has changed, and continues to change, some for the better and some not. But the kids and teens coming of age in this changing world need to see their stories – not a version of what their stories might have been eight or ten or fifteen years ago.
I still get letters and emails from kids who are struggling. Teens who are coming out to me because they aren’t safe to come out where they live. And you will notice I didn’t say that they don’t “feel” safe – there are still many places where it isn’t safe for a LGBTQIAP+ teen to come out. There are teens who are just trying to hold on. And of course they deserve happy stories as lights in the darkness. But they also need stories about the struggle, about coming out when it isn’t easy, so they are not alone where they are.
So when someone says we need to move beyond coming out stories or struggle stories, I always want to jump up and say, well, maybe you are ready to move on because your experiences feel well-represented, but there are too many queer teen identities who are barely represented in young adult literature. We need more stories of all flavors about queer teens of color. And poor queer teens. And many more stories about queer girls and genderqueer, genderfluid, and non-binary teens. More stories about asexual, bisexual, and pansexual teens. More stories about transgender teens, especially transgender boys. And many more stories about our truly questioning teens. And unless we are telling historical stories, those stories should reflect our world and be fresh, modern versions of these stories.
When we use LGBTQIAP+ to describe the literature for teens, it should mean that all of the letters are represented. Too often “LGBTQ” or “LGBTQIAP+” is used as a catchall when we are mostly talking about cis male gay characters, and, to a lesser extent, cis female lesbian characters. The other letters have meaning, too, and until they are all adequately represented in our literature for teens, then we won’t have “enough” of any kind of story.
I want more queer YA, of all kinds, of all flavors. And maybe the balance in coming years should tip to the light, the funny, the happy, the stories where the characters’ sexual identities and gender identities and expression are not plot points. Queer characters at the heart of horror stories and space odysseys and grand adventures and rom coms. But it comes from a place of privilege to say that “we” don’t “need” any more of any kind of queer book when there is so very much unexplored territory in YA. “We” not only still have room for stories that reflect the tough realities many queer teens still face, but many queer teens still have a very real need for fresh and modern versions of these stories.
E. M. Kokie is the author of Radical (Candlewick Press, 9/13/16), which explores family, identity, survival, and guns, not necessarily in that order. Her first novel, Personal Effects (Candlewick Press, 2012), was a YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults and Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults Top Ten, a Lambda Literary Award Finalist, and a 2013 IRA Young Adult Honor Book. She also contributed to the anthologies Things I’ll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves (Candlewick Press, 2015) and Violent Ends (Simon Pulse, 2015). Visit her online at www.emkokie.com.
M-E Girard’s debut novel, Girl Mans Up, is a coming-of-age story about a queer girl named Pen and what happens when her best friend and parents keep crossing the line—always blaming it on the fact that Pen looks and acts like a boy. It’s about Pen having to make choices about who deserves her respect and loyalty. It’s also about video games, hot girls, guy-code, and Ninja Turtles.
M-E joins us today to answer some hot button questions about identity, queerness, sexuality, and gender.
What is Pen’s identity? What makes her queer?
When I decided to write Pen’s story, I was most interested in exploring gender norms within the binary (man and woman), and how a teen who doesn’t quite fit on their assigned side of that binary might handle what life puts them through. My character, Pen, is not trans. She is cisgender (or simply “cis”), which means her gender identity is in line with the one she was assigned at birth.
What makes Pen queer is her sexual orientation: she is a girl who is attracted to other girls. Her gender expression and presentation complicate things, because she is also a girl who doesn’t look and act according to contemporary North American ideas about what a girl should look and act like. In fact, she very much conforms to our society’s ideas about what a boy should look and act like.
How much awareness does Pen have when it comes to her identity and queerness?
Pen knows very little about things like the gender binary, non-binary-identified people, transness, the concept of self-identifying, or even queerness. She just hasn’t been that curious about it, and definitely doesn’t have anyone in her life who would facilitate these kinds of conversations. This makes it really hard for her to understand what she’s dealing with. It makes her doubt herself because she doesn’t feel smart enough to “know what she’s talking about.” Words empower us, they help us understand what’s going on around us and within ourselves. Words give us the ability and confidence to work through our feelings and speak about our lives—they validate our existence. I know for myself, my
understanding of queerness and where I fit within it changed and evolved the more I learned about it: listening to other people talk about their queerness, reading theory books, reading novels featuring queer voices, etc.
Still, Pen has a strong sense of self—she’s been that way since she was very little. She’s presented herself in the way that felt natural, and she resisted the pushback she was getting, even as a kid. The older she gets, the more this pushback upsets her. She faces near-constant criticism and policing of the way she performs her “girlness.” She feels very dissatisfied with what it seems to mean to be a girl, and she doesn’t believe that all her masculine characteristics belong only to boys.
She knows everyone thinks she’s “not doing it right.” Part of her wants to redefine what being a girl means, but the other part—the part that feels beaten down by the criticism and judgment—feels like maybe she’s hanging on to an identity that she has no claim to. She wonders if she’s going to wake up one day and realize she was something or someone else altogether, and everyone around her knew it all along.
Was Pen always going to be a lesbian?
Yes. I could have told the story from the point of view of a heterosexual, cis Pen, because all of the gender expression stuff wasn’t dependent on Pen being a lesbian, but her being attracted to other girls was something that was important to me for a few reasons: I have always had a soft spot for girls like Pen, and since the inspiration for her came from my girlfriend (who obviously like girls!), Pen was always going to be attracted to girls. Her sexual orientation was also important because I wanted to explore the fact that the way a queer person looks—how identifiably queer they look—will often determine how much and what kind of negative reactions and treatment they’ll get from others. Pen learns that it’s not the fact that she likes girls that makes her stand out; it’s the fact that she looks the way she does.
You talk a lot about language, so why use sexist expressions like “man up”?
I write about real people, and we real people are not always all that pretty to listen to or watch, are we?! Realistically, a lot of people use these sexist words and expressions—often without even realizing what they’re saying. So with GMU I wanted to incorporate this into the story; I wanted to show the seeds of awareness, when it comes to language, being planted within this character’s consciousness.
Pen manning up never had anything to do with acting like a man. Just like Pen decides certain clothes and behaviors don’t belong exclusively to certain genders, she also realizes the definition of “manning up,” the actions and behaviors that constitute “manning up,” don’t belong to one gender in particular, and don’t describe one gender in particular either.
Anyone who reads GMU will hopefully see my attempts to complicate some of the sexist and misogynistic terms and expressions I used. In this story, words are tested on their meanings, and they’re assigned new meanings as Pen experiences life and decides what is true and what isn’t. It happens with the sexist/misogynistic words and expressions the same way it happens with words like respect, loyalty, friend, family. Pen’s whole world is shifting, and part of that shift involves the language she uses and the ways she understands those terms.
Does GMU engage with trans* issues?
I did not write about a trans character, but I did write about issues that affect gender-nonconforming cis people and trans people, often in very similar ways. Pen is a girl, and for the duration of the story, she struggles to retain the right to be who she says she is. She feels like the world is pushing her out of her identity as a girl because the way she expresses her gender is more in line with being a boy or being neither. There are similarities between the narratives of some trans people and some gender-nonconforming cis people. Pen deals with things like daily microaggressions, being misgendered, and bathroom issues. She may even be dealing with some form of gender dysphoria, depending on what one’s definition of the term is.
I hope many readers will be able to relate to Pen’s struggles—trans, cis, queer, non-queer, and straight alike.
M-E Girard lives just outside Toronto, where she splits her time between writing YA fiction about badass teen girls and working nights as a pediatric nurse. A 2013 and 2015 Lambda Literary Fellow, M-E is a proud feminist who is endlessly fascinated by the good, the bad, and the ugly regarding the concept of gender. Her debut novel GIRL MANS UP was published in September 2016 via HarperTeen and HarperCollins Canada. You can find her online at www.megirard.com and all over social media.
Here’s the setup of my young adult sci-fi thriller Willful Machines: in a near-future America, conscious, self-aware machines have just become a reality, and it has people seriously freaked. Members of the newly formed Human Values Movement insist machines can never be considered truly alive, like humans, because humans have something special: free will. Unlike computers, people don’t follow programs. Their actions and identities are up to them.
It sounds like a nice idea. But Human Values hardliners are now arguing seemingly fixed traits like sexuality are choices too. That’s bad news for the book’s main character, 16-year-old Lee Fisher, who happens to be both the son of the Human Values Movement’s founder (now the President of the United States) and gay.
In writing my book, I drew inspiration for the Human Values Movement from certain real-world groups and individuals who also call sexuality a choice. According to a recent study by Pew Research Center, four in ten Americans continue to think being gay or lesbian is “the way some choose to live,” and it always intrigues me how anyone could arrive at this belief. I don’t know for certain, but I have a theory it all comes down to a failure of empathy. I’m guessing people who hold this view have a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea that someone else could be so fundamentally different from them, so they end up assuming LGBTQIA folks are just like them but have chosen to be different.
Empathy is the ability to imagine yourself into another person’s place, and people fail to do it all the time. I’m pretty sure you could trace a lot of the world’s problems—maybe even most—to failures of empathy. Luckily, there’s a cure: the novel. When you read a book, it plops you in someone else’s shoes—often someone very different from you—and it takes you on a walk. And hopefully you become a more open-minded and compassionate person as a result. That’s the novel’s super power. Novels are empathy machines. It’s even been scientifically proven! A couple years ago, Scientific Americanreported on a study that showed reading literary fiction markedly improved subjects’ “ability to infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions” and called fiction “a valuable socializing influence.” So there you go. You can’t argue with science. (Unless, of course, you still think sexuality’s a choice.)
Another cool thing about fiction: writing it can be just as mind-opening as reading it. As an author, I try to empathize with all my characters, including the ones whose motivations and values and beliefs differ radically from mine, because I know it’s absolutely necessary if I want to make my characters convincing. When I wrote Willful Machines, I found Lee Fisher’s dad, the Human Values guy, pretty unsavory. But I did my best to understand him and how he’d arrived at his worldview, and in the end, though I still didn’t subscribe to his beliefs, I found myself caring about him.
In my book, the new (and very cute) kid at Lee Fisher’s boarding school, Nico Medina, has a thing for Shakespeare. He says when he acts in Shakespeare plays, the characters he portrays “might seem really different from me at first, but the more I read the lines and play the parts, the more I can relate to what they’re feeling.” Nico then quotes his drama teacher, who likes to say, “Reading Shakespeare helps us become more human.” (Of course, to complicate matters, Nico may also be an android—which would mean he would really need to study his Shakespeare—but you’ll have to read the book to find out more on that.)
I’d go one step further and say reading just about any literature makes us more human. Especially the stuff written from a point of view far from our own. The novel’s ability to foster empathy, to help us all understand each other a little better, is exactly what makes reading so important. It’s also what makes the We Need Diverse Books movement so vital. Readers—especially younger ones—need to see themselves represented in fiction, and they need to see people very different from them there too. If you ask me, it’s the only way we’re ever going to learn how to coexist peacefully. And then when the conscious, self-aware robots do show up, we’ll know exactly what to do with them too: just hand them a stack of novels. And maybe ask them if they’d like to write a few of their own.
Tim Floreen lives in San Francisco with his partner, their two cat-obsessed one-year-old daughters, and their two very patient cats. In a starred review, Kirkus called Tim’s first novel, Willful Machines,“gothic, gadgety and gay”—which is an accurate assessment. His second novel, Tattoo Atlas, comes out next year. You can find out more about Tim and his secret obsession with Wonder Woman on the Internet at timfloreen.com and on Twitter at @timfloreen.
Recently, a reader asked me if I’d intentionally set out for my new book, What We Left Behind, to have an almost entirely LGBTQ cast. The answer to that question is no, not really ― it wasn’t until I was on the seventh or so revision that I realized how few straight, cisgender characters have actual speaking roles in WWLB ― but his question really got me thinking.
What We Left Behind is very different from my first book, Lies We Tell Ourselves. Lies was set in 1959 Virginia. Both of its main characters, Sarah and Linda, are on the queer spectrum (in my mind, they’re both bisexual, but being that the only sex ed they’ve ever received is the 1950s public-school edition, these characters don’t have terminology for their identities beyond “That one girl makes me feel kind of funny”). They have no awareness of any other LGBTQIA+ people existing in their world. They assume that by default, everyone they know is straight and cis. (Again, in my head, there’s one other gay character in the book ― their choir teacher ― but Sarah and Linda aren’t aware of that, so it isn’t on the page.)
But What We Left Behind is set in the present day. It starts out in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, where the lead characters are from. Then the setting moves back and forth between the two college campuses where they’re starting their respective freshman years ― Harvard, and NYU.
All three of those settings are considered hotbeds of liberalism by the Fox News types. And, well, they’re not entirely wrong. Toni and Gretchen, the two 18-year-old protagonists of What We Left Behind, have been out to various degrees about their queer identities for years. When they arrive at their new schools, they both find communities of classmates who are on the LGBTQ spectrum, too. And for Toni, who identifies as genderqueer at the start of the book, becoming part of a group of trans* friends opens up a whole new world that just might change everything.
Writing a book with an almost entirely queer-identified cast was so much fun I don’t even have the words for it. Now that we’re safely living in the 21st century, for some LGBTQIA+ people ― and yes, I was one of them ― college is the first place where you can really be part of a community of friends who get what it’s like to be you.
I get to keep indulging in queer communities after this book, too. The book I’m working on next, As I Descended ― which is also set in the here and now, though it’s more on the SF/F side of things (it’s a retelling of Macbeth set at a haunted Virginia boarding school) ― also has a lead cast made up entirely of gay and bi folks.
It’s awesome to get to write about more-or-less out-and-proud teenagers after spending years dwelling on the repressive world that was 1950s America. But more than that, there’s something unique and exciting in writing about queer communities, specifically. That’s also something that I feel has been lacking in YA. Sure, YA has been short on LGBTQIA+ representation (and marginalized community representation across the board) since its inception, and the numbers show that we’re nowhere close to rectifying that today. But even in many YA books with LGBTQIA+ protagonists, it’s still pretty common for just that one character, plus maybe a BFF and/or love interest, to be the only non-straight, non-cis people around.
And that’s certainly a common experience for a lot of teens on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. That’s basically what it was like for me in high school in the 1990s. But it’s not the only reality, especially in today’s social-media-connected world. And for me, writing ― and reading ― about queer teens who are plugged into that bigger world is both fun and fascinating.
But even when they’re living in relative isolation, like in my first book, I’m still more interested in writing about LGBTQIA+ characters than straight, cisgender folks, at least when it comes to protagonists. It’s partly that I relate to the sexuality aspect of their identities, being queer myself. But I think it’s also because, to some degree or other, these characters are operating outside cultural expectations. It may not be the 1950s anymore, but we still very much live in a world where straight and cisgender are the default. And for now at least, I’m most interested in writing about characters who don’t conform to that assumption.
Never say never, of course. Someday a straight, cis character might pop into my head whose story I simply can’t wait to tell.
But for now… I’m sticking with lesbian Macbeth.
Robin Talley, author of Lies We Tell Ourselves (September 2014) and What We Left Behind (October 2015), grew up in Roanoke, Virginia. A Lambda Literary Fellow, Robin now lives in Washington, D.C., with her wife, plus an antisocial cat and a goofy hound dog. When Robin’s not writing, she’s often planning communication strategies at organizations fighting for equal rights and social justice. You can find her on the web at www.robintalley.com or on Twitter at @robin_talley.
In Weird Girl and What’s His Name by Meagan Brothers, Rory and Lula are definitely not the cool kids, but they don’t care. They’re best friends who share everything from their “messed-up parent situation” to their obsessive love of The X-Files. But when Lula finds out that Rory, who’s gay, has been secretly dating his middle-aged boss, their friendship comes apart. In the aftermath, both of them will discover what it means to be friends, to be family, to be in love, and to be themselves.
I don’t know why I even went into Target in the first place, but it was too late to turn back now. I was frozen in the aisle next to the Home Electronics section, beside a pop-up kiosk full of DVDs. I was trying to talk myself out of the inevitable. Nope. No way. I’m not going back to all that. I’m a perfectly normal person now. No way is that DVD going into this shopping cart. No way – no – I said no – what are you doing? Put that down! I’m not kidding!
But it was too late. The damage was done. A quick trip through the express line and I was the proud owner of a two-DVD set called The X-Files: Revelations, the “Essential Guide to The X-Files Movie,” featuring “8 Critical Episodes Handpicked by the Series Creator.” Critical Episodes! So what if I had no money to spare and I’d already seen almost every episode of The X-Files at least twice? This was critical.
Actually, the only thing that was truly critical was this new story I was writing. It was growing every day at an alarming (dare I say supernatural) rate. It had started a couple of weeks before, in June of 2008, when I’d gone to see the new X-Files movie on opening night. The last time I’d spent a Friday night alone with Mulder and Scully, I was 19. Despite the fact that this new X-Files movie wasn’t the franchise’s greatest cinematic achievement, its effect on my psyche was downright Proustian. A few days after the premiere, this story about two friends obsessed with the show started coming to me, and I started writing it down as quickly as I could.
But if we’re being completely accurate, this obsession – and this story – really started back in the early spring of 1995, during my junior year of high school. My friend Liz, who shared her classic Twilight Zone episodes on VHS with me and knew my penchant for quirky TV like Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure, casually mentioned that I should check out this show on Friday nights called The X-Files. I was immediately hooked. From the first episode, this dark, obsessive little show caused me to vibrate on heretofore unknown frequencies. For a 17-year-old who spent much of her spare time down in the basement, pecking out bad poetry and odd little vampire stories on the family computer, The X-Files was everything. Our hero, Fox Mulder, was literally and figuratively alienated, a brilliant agent exiled to the basement of the FBI because of his all-consuming quest to find his sister, who he swore was abducted by UFOs. His partner, Dana Scully, was sent to spy on him and discredit him, but became his biggest ally. Together, they investigated the strange, the disturbing, and the inexplicable, traipsing about in misty nighttime forests against the backdrop of an atmospheric synth score. Here was a show about loneliness, about devotion, about friendship and faith. Here was a show aimed directly at the heart of a moody little weirdo like me.
I became, in the parlance of the fandom, an X-Phile.
I spent the next few years taping every episode I could. I bought any magazine that promised even the tiniest hint of an X-Files article. When we went off to college, Liz bought me an “I Want To Believe” poster for my dorm room wall. I remained a die-hard fan for the next few years, until graduation gave way to a more time-consuming life in the “real world” and the show, in its final seasons, became a bit mired in retcon and muddled mythology. Unexpectedly, I found myself in Phile Apostasy, even giving away my treasured box of taped-from-TV VHS episodes to a guy named Moon Pie who worked with my mom. He was a down on his luck sort who drove an ancient Chevrolet Celebrity wagon with a sheet of plastic covering the perpetually busted-out back window. My mom somehow found out that he didn’t have cable or a TV antenna at home, just a TV set with a VCR, and he spent his weekends trolling the flea markets and thrift stores for budget entertainment. Already a veteran thrifter myself, I felt for the guy, so I gave him my X-Files collection, which was just sitting around gathering dust. A year or two later, Moon Pie won $100,000 in the lottery. He ditched the Chevy, but I hope that he still kept my “X-Files Miscellaneous” VHS with the Simpsons crossover episode and David Duchovny hosting Saturday Night Live. Because, as I now know, that’s the sort of thing that no amount of money can replace.
Which brings us back to Target, and the summer of 2008. I was in the feverish throes of this story, but I knew that, to tell the story of these two best friends whose love for each other was matched only by their love of The X-Files, I would have to get back into the show. This show had already taken over my life once, when I was a teenager whose main worry was that I was failing algebra. Now I was an adult with a relationship, a job, and a burgeoning writing career. No time for TV love, Dr. Jones. And, beyond that, this weird thing had happened and I was actually sort of cool now. I’d been in a band. People in town who knew me knew me as “the guitar player from that band.” I’d been introduced to other actually cool people in actual cool bands as “the guitar player from that band.” I’d been on tour in a van. I’d worked as a record store clerk and on indie movie sets. I’d written a YA novel that got some nice notices and I was finishing another one. I was a cool person doing cool things. Why would I need to devote myself to sitting around, obsessively watching some TV show? What could be more uncool?
Well, that’s one angle to the story. But, brace yourself for the big confession: I was never actually cool! Not even for a minute! That person in the cheap sunglasses throwing the guitar around and trying to be a badass was never separate from the insecure kid with the terrible math grades and the I Want to Believe poster. (I know. It was a shock to me, too.)
So I’d bought my little 8-episode set, and I wrote my little story. Which actually wasn’t very little at all – it ended up being almost fifty manuscript pages. Way too long for any magazine or anthology that published short stories. What the heck was I supposed to do with fifty pages of X-Files nerd lore? Leave it to gather dust in a desk drawer, that’s what. Oh well. That was fun. I guess.
I ignored the story for a year while I finished rewrites on my second novel and tried to dive into a third, a Big Serious Adult Novel. But something about that too-long short story wouldn’t leave me alone. So I dove back into this little saga of these two friends, Rory and Lula, joined by their impossible love of a television show. I started watching the show again myself. Somewhere along the way, I stopped caring whether people would think I was cool or not. I’d already written one book that was inspired by my own Debbie Harry fandom – if I could weather the slings and arrows of my serious music snob friends and their eye-rolling disdain for Blondie, a mere pop band, then I could deal with people thinking I was a nerd for loving The X-Files. I stopped caring whether people thought I was serious enough, or literary enough. I was doing something I loved.
I loved writing this story. It was a story about loving something that I actually loved. And when you love a thing, or a person, or a song, or a TV show, then it doesn’t matter what other people think. You just love that thing to death and worry about the rest later. It took almost five years for this book to get published. But that’s okay. Not everybody is going to love what you love in the way that you love it. It takes patience. People might try to think up all kinds of ways to try and make you feel bad for loving what you love. Don’t listen to them. Just don’t. Love is a truth that vibrates in every fiber of your being, and that is not a hyperbole. It is truer than whatever name-calling or petty ugliness can be conjured up by people outside of your love. Your love may not make you any money, or get you any awards, but who cares? Those things all fall away in time, anyway. What’s going to matter is that point at the end where you are tired and jaded and old and you look back on your love and you vibrate and light up and it feels like something supernatural is happening to you but in fact all it is is recognition. That’s all love is. It isn’t badass. It isn’t cool. It’s human beings, isolated and lonesome, waving to each other from across some nameless void, saying hello, I see you! And you see me! Thank God, you see me! Hello! I see you! I love you! Hello!
Meagan Brothers is the author of two previous novels for young adults, Debbie Harry Sings in French and Supergirl Mixtapes. She has also been, variously, a musician, a performing poet, a record store clerk, and an adjunct professor of creative writing at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY. A native Carolinian, she currently lives and works in New York City.
Rainbow Rowell’s newest novel, Carry On, tells the story of Simon Snow, a boy wizard at a British boarding school — with a twist. Carry On is about characters that Rainbow first created for her novel Fangirl, but Fangirl wasn’t about those characters (well, not exactly). In Fangirl, college freshman Cath Avery spends much of her time writing fan fiction about Simon and his roommate Baz, who come from a Harry Potter-like series of novels written by the fictional Gemma T. Leslie. Cath’s magnum opus is also titled Carry On, but Rainbow’s novel isn’t Cath’s novel; it’s Rainbow’s version of the Simon Snow books.
Confused? Then forget about my attempt to explain Carry On’s meta origins, because you don’t have to understand any of that to enjoy this book. Carry On is a fantasy novel about a boy wizard named Simon, set in a fantasy world that is much like our own but with several key differences (magic being one of them). It’s about Simon’s identity as a chosen one, and how he struggles with that responsibility. It’s also about Simon’s first love, his roommate Baz, who happens to be a vampire. Their love story is a central element in Carry On, and it’s their love story that makes it clear that this is a Rainbow Rowell book.
Recently I had the pleasure of reading Carry On and asking Rainbow a few questions about her latest novel.
Malinda Lo: How would you describe Carry On?
Rainbow Rowell:Carry On is a chosen one story that’s also about chosen one stories. I think my UK editor Rachel Petty summed it up better than anyone else so far: “It’s is a love story to love stories and the power of words — it’s an homage to every ‘chosen one’ who ever had more on his mind than saving the world.”
ML:Carry On is your first full-length fantasy novel, though you wrote several Simon/Baz scenes in Fangirl and you’ve also written fan fiction based on fantasy novels. However, you’re best known for your realistic fiction. What did you find to be the biggest challenges in writing fantasy instead of realistic fiction? And what aspects of fantasy came most easily for you?
RR: I’ve always read more fantasy and sci-fi than realistic fiction, but I never thought I could write it myself. It seemed too much to get my head around. When you write realistic fiction, all the walls are already built, in a way. The laws of gravity apply. Plus I was a newspaper journalist for so long that even realistic fiction felt like too much lying at first.
I think that the Simon Snow scenes in Fangirl were a way for me to experiment with writing fantasy without risking too much. To splash around in the water without leaving dry land.
But those were my favorite parts of the book to write. And the first six months of writing Carry On were the happiest I’ve been as an author.
I have read so much fantasy in my life. I realized that there were so many tropes and magical situations that I wanted to play with. Carry On was supposed to be a short story about Simon and Baz falling in love, but it quickly became this whole big story with eight different narrators.
The most challenging part was definitely the plot. This book reads like one of my books; it’s character driven and relationship-driven. But I wanted it to have a big plotty engine under the hood. And I wanted the plot to make sense. (Even though I love so many fantasies with plots that disintegrate when you look at them too closely…)
ML: Obviously, one aspect of fantasy that is not present in realistic fiction is magic. In Carry On, rather than turning magic spells into Latin words the way J. K. Rowling does in Harry Potter, you use everyday English phrases that are heavily weighted with meaning. The students at Watford in Carry On even take a class called Magic Words to teach them how to construct their spells with phrases ranging from “U can’t touch this” (only relevant if the target of the spell knows the song) to nursery rhymes. How did you develop this idea? It seems so ingenious and I wish I had thought of it! Words do have power, even in our world without magic.
RR: Thank you! Well, it’s a familiar idea, I think, that there’s magic in belief and recognition. In Peter Pan, it’s our belief in fairies that keeps Tinker Bell alive. And in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Bill Willingham’s Fables, regular people give gods and fairy tale characters power by telling their stories.
I don’t know how I came to this exactly — the idea that certain phrases would be more powerful the more that normal people say them.
It was so freeing to build the foundation for Carry On — the magical rules and the way the society worked — while I was writing Fangirl. Because there was no pressure! I felt like I was playing.
Once I had the Magic Words idea, it was so much fun to come up with the spells, and to think about what would make a powerful magician in Simon’s world. Like, one of the reasons Simon is such a crap mage is that, even though he has infinite power, he trips over his words.
Probably it’s not that surprising that someone like me would imagine a world where words are the most powerful currency. They’re my only currency!
ML: If the World of Mages existed and we lived it and you could do magic, what spell would you use to get through a difficult writing day?
RR: Ohhhh … Maybe “Coin a phrase!” That would be a super powerful spell. Like a wish for more wishes.
ML: You’re well known for the romances in your realistic novels, which are all heterosexual. The central romance in Carry On is between two boys. Did you have any worries (writing craft-wise or otherwise) about writing a same-sex love story?
RR: Well, I wanted to be thoughtful about it. I knew how I didn’t want it to feel: like a homoerotic tease, all subtext and nothing real; or fetishized.
But mostly I just wrote Simon and Baz falling in love the way I always write characters falling in love. I want my love stories to feel real. I want them to have depth and texture.
ML: As you and probably everybody out there knows, same-sex love stories hardly ever make it onto the bestseller lists. David Levithan and John Green’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson did, but only for a short time. Given your fan base, Carry On really does have a shot at making it onto those lists, and if it does, it certainly is poised to change a lot of publishers’ minds about same-sex stories. How do you feel about this?
RR: I hope it’s successful, of course. (I mean, of course.) And I’d love for it to be part of a huge wave of bestselling books about queer characters. But I try really hard not to think about the lists.
I wrote my two most popular books when I was in a place of not caring at all what would be successful — and not having any hope for success. After my first book, Attachments, didn’t do anything sales-wise, I wrote Eleanor & Park and especially Fangirl, feeling like I may as well write whatever I wanted because I couldn’t afford to keep going. I’d used up all my spare time and money and my family’s good will, and it felt very final.
Only later did people say things to me like, “Eighties stories don’t sell” and “Asian characters don’t sell” and “Fanfiction is a dirty word in publishing.” I wasn’t thinking about any of that when I was writing!
So the publishing lesson for me has been: Keep your head down. Don’t listen to conventional wisdom. Write the book that you want to spend a year of your life on.
Carry On was that book for me.
ML:Carry On isn’t exactly fan fiction since you created the story, but it is definitely a metafiction of some sort. So I have to ask you a meta question. Fandom often generates a lot of love for secondary characters — Draco in the Harry Potter series is one of the biggest examples of this. If someone were to write fan fiction based on Carry On, which secondary characters do you think would generate the most (and unexpected) fandom love? (My money’s on Ebb. Honestly, I’d like to read some fanfic about her.)
RR: Yes! I love that about fanfiction! I really think people are motivated to read and write fic because of what they don’t see in the stories they love. It’s about filling gaps and exploring the unexplored.
And, oh, I’m glad you like Ebb! I loved writing the adult characters. And I’ve already thought about writing more about Baz’s aunt and her ex. Like, how they hook up again and become vampire-hunters.
I’d also like to write a story about Ebb’s true love, and how that person reacts after the events of the book. (That was a hard sentence to write without spoilers.)
ML: Oh, I would so love to read that story! Will you be writing more fantasy in the future, or is it back to realism for you?
RR: Oh God, I don’t know. This is the first time in my writing career that I haven’t had at least the first draft of my next book written when my book was coming out. The future is wide open, I guess.
But my next project is a graphic novel. I have two outlines — one fantasy, one sci-fi.
I think I’d like to stay flexible, writing about teens sometimes and adults sometimes, and moving between genres and media. I want to keep feeling completely engaged by whatever I’m working on.
ML: I have one more question, and it’s a selfish one for me. You now write across adult and YA, fantasy and realistic fiction. I think that genre and category boundaries are useful for readers in terms of finding books, but how do they affect the way you write, if at all?
RR: I agree, they are useful for readers — and useful for marketing; you don’t want people to be confused about what you’re selling. Unfortunately, categories and genre don’t seem to be useful for me as a writer.
When I get done writing a book, the last thing I want is to start something similar. I want fresh air and a new challenge. And my ideas are all over the place.
So I’ve decided to just write what I feel driven to write, and to hope that my readers follow me — or that new readers find me.
I think I’m going to be a sharper creative person and a happier person if I keep moving.
Some of this comes, I think, out of my career so far. I was a newspaper columnist. Then I was an advertising creative director. I’m really glad that I kept taking risks and trying new things.
I’ve been lucky to work with a literary agent and editor who support and encourage me on this path.
silvermarmoset said: I know that one of the characters in my fantasy novel is a transgender woman, but I don’t know how to properly handle her transition. Is it disrespectful to have the transitioning process be easy, by magic? I’ve read divided opinions on this. Thank you!
Short Answer: It depends.
Long Answer: Asking if a plot point, character, narrative arc, or other aspect of your story is disrespectful is a great way for any writer to begin a project, and I appreciate that you’re coming from such a careful place. Let’s back up a step and ponder a question you’ve probably already answered: why is this character transgender? Put another way, why are you writing a trans character? This is, of course, the question I ask myself when I’m in the weeds of my character sketches, and I ask it no matter what string of identities I layer into the actors in my story. After all every choice you make as a writer opens up some possibilities for the story and closes down others, so I ask myself: what am I trying to communicate via the characters I’m establishing to tell the story?
The final analysis answers the question, does this character have to be transgender? If your answer is no, then you are risking tokenizing trans people through the placement of this character, and you should probably reconsider making them trans.
If your answer is yes, then great, write them as thoughtfully as you can. To be thoughtful, however, isn’t a simple task. First, you need to avoid stereotypes that have so often been attributed to trans characters, especially trans women — here I’m talking about as victims of violence, as sex workers (think, Law & Order: SVU), as lonely and unloved, as perverts, gay men and/or drag queens who can’t deal, as narcissists, broken men, and on and on. You need to be familiar with these stereotypes because 1: they amount to lazy, bad writing, 2: they’ve been done to death and aren’t interesting subjects, and 3: they actively hurt trans women by making the myths about their community persist in an untrue way in the popular culture consciousness. It is not an overstatement to say that people ignorant of trans issues will turn to someone they know who is starting transition and use these stereotypes that they’ve seen on television (I’m looking at you, NCIS), and matter-of-factly explain that they’re doing it wrong because so and so on TV did it this other way, or that they shouldn’t transition because yo, they’ll wind up dead in the street, etc. When writing for a mainstream audience, authors need to think about how the marginalized characters they’re portraying represent that community, because readers are real people who take our stories into their hearts and minds, and because marginalized people read books.
For more reading about trans stereotypes, there are many folks on the Web who write about them in a nuanced, helpful way (Casey Plett, Monica Roberts, and Janet Mock are a good start). But there are also tropes to avoid — let’s think about tropes as tiny pieces of narrative that become overused and that sometimes support the stereotypes in question. For trans women, tropes include putting on makeup (Amazon’s Transparent does this almost the time, and while I know the show just won major Emmys, this is not a reason to continue the trope), buying pretty clothes (or shoes) in a boutique, getting shunned by some relative, and there are many more, but they largely do include some aspect about transition. How one presents a transition can be problematic, so I’m glad you’re wondering about it. And if you really want to go against stereotypes and tropes, do something really radical and don’t show it at all. As a trans reader myself, I love reading trans stories that aren’t about transition, just like many gay and lesbian readers enjoy stories that aren’t about coming out. Those are our beginnings, full of trauma and conflict and revelation, it’s true, but ultimately they turn LGBT characters into their genesis when there is so much more to relay. Don’t pick the simplest story to tell when there are far more compelling ones out there.
There are other problems with depicting transition: if you show transition as a magical experience, you may present it as easy, when in real life, transition is anything but. If you show it as super onerous (which I just said it can be), it may come off like one of those stereotypes about trans people. So I ask again, writer to writer: Do you have to depict her transition at all? If you’re looking to write respectfully, your trans character may be best represented in your story after (thus, apart from) her transition. Also, remember that every identity aspect of every character needs careful thinking through — we don’t write in Mexican characters just to have someone dropping Spanish into the dialogue, so we don’t really need to write trans characters in order to have a transition in the story, either. A great example of handling transition without making the story about transition is Susan Jane Bigelow’s story “Ramona’s Dreams” in The Collection from Topside Press.
So, as with any kind of character work, research, research, research. Beginning writers are told ad nauseum to write from their own experience. If all writing were limited to that mantra literature would be a pale cousin of its actual self. But the further afield you push from your own lived reality, the more preparation, thinking, and reading you need to do in order to respect the people that character represents. And happily enough, that you’re asking around is a good sign you’re already on the right track.
Everett Maroon is a memoirist, humorist, pop culture commentator, and fiction writer. He is a member of the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association and was a finalist in their 2010 literary contest for memoir. Everett is the author of a memoir, Bumbling into Body Hair, and a young adult novel, The Unintentional Time Traveler, both published by Booktrope Editions. He has an essay, “In a Small Town, Nothing Goes Wrong, in the anthology Untangling the Knot: Queer Voices on Marriage, Relationships & Identity, from Ooligan Press, and a short story, ”Cursed,“ in the anthology The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, from Topside Press. He has written for Bitch Magazine, GayYA.org, Amwriting.org, RH RealityCheck, and Remedy Quarterly. He has had short stories published here and there. Everett’s blog is transplantportation.com.
Sometimes, like the adult that I am, I can be a little dense.
When I was fourteen, my dad and stepmother had a baby girl, my little sister M. When I visited them and wheeled her around the grocery store or carried her on my shoulders through the park, strangers often assumed I was her teenage mother and gave both of us the stinkeye. I adored her, but the gap in our ages and the fact that we lived in different states — her in Louisiana, me in North Carolina — meant that our relationship was more like that of an aunt and niece, rather than two sisters. At times, I envied her, growing up in a stable home with wealthy parents, a stay-at-home mom, and encouragement to develop her artistic skills. M has always been a remarkable visual artist.
I should have known that even with all of that going for her, things wouldn’t be as easy or perfect as they seemed.
M started dropping hints that she was unhappy a few years ago, when she entered high school. “I feel so different,” she told me over the phone. “I don’t fit in.” I sympathized, but I was sure it would pass. I had definitely felt like a dysfunctional weirdo in high school, stuck in a small, conservative community, and her high school was in an equally conservative, if larger, city obsessed with keeping up appearances. It was not her scene, but she would be away at college in a handful of years.
Then, last summer, my husband and I went to visit our Louisiana family. M had been having a particularly hard time that year, and I wanted to see her. I brought books for her and my other younger sister, like I always do, including Brandy Colbert’s exquisite and painful Pointe, about a young ballerina coming to understand and overcome her past sexual abuse by a pedophile. We had several wonderful days to hang out, share silly Youtube videos, play board games, make waffles out of cake mix, and catch up. One afternoon, M and I were sitting in the living room reading, like the introverts we are, when she let Pointe fall to her lap.
“Ugh. This is just like my life!” she said.
“What!?” I said, monumentally freaked out and ready to break kneecaps.
“This thing with Hosea,” she said. “It’s just like this girl at school.”
I calmed down marginally. Hosea is the sort-of love interest in Pointe who toys with the main character’s affections, not a creeper who preys on teenage girls. But in my momentary rage-cloud, I missed the really important part of what M said. There was a girl at school. Not a boy, a girl. It didn’t sink in until later. M was opening up to me about an important part of her life, and like an idiot, I’d missed the opportunity to talk to her about it.
M did end up dating the girl at school, and it wasn’t a Hosea situation at all. They really like each other, and as of this writing, have been together for a year. However, my desire to break kneecaps was back soon enough. While my father and stepmother supported M, the kids at school and her girlfriend’s parents reacted exactly the way you would expect in a conservative Bible Belt town. Bullying. Friends abandoning her. Lectures about Hell. Demands that the two of them break up. The whole nine yards.
Around the time all of this was coming out, I had been writing Sound. Miyole, the main character, is lesbian, but I wasn’t getting the chemistry between her and Cassia, the love interest, right. Their relationship was either moving too fast or not hitting the right notes. I knew love was love, but I hadn’t yet figured out that the power dynamic in a relationship between two women is very different than it is in a heterosexual relationship. I was getting it so wrong that my editor had suggested I pull back and make the two female characters friends. I was seriously considering her suggestion, though I felt like a massive failure.
Hearing about what M was going through strengthened my resolve to keep trying to make Cassia and Miyole’s relationship work on the page. I might have botched my chance to talk to M during our visit, but maybe this was a small way to make it up to her, to show her I supported her. Science fiction helped me escape a bad home situation as a teenager. I wanted to give M and other teens in her shoes a chance for escape, as well. I read more books with lesbian narrators, which are surprisingly harder to find in YA than those from the point of view of gay male narrators. I asked a friend and her partner to read my draft and give me feedback. I rewrote and rewrote, and with each draft, my book got a little closer to what I wanted.
Writing as an ally is tricky. Do you have the right to tell this person’s story? What if, despite all your research and your best intentions, you get it wrong? Are you helping or hurting the people you want to support? I’ve thought about this a lot while writing Sound (at least, when I wasn’t thinking about sci-fi pirates and sea monsters). What I’ve decided is that, even if I fail or only partially succeed, the only way to get better is to keep trying. If, along the way, one girl sees herself having fantastic adventures that she wouldn’t have seen otherwise, it’s all worth it. If M knows she’s not alone, it’s all worth it.
Alexandra Duncan is an author and librarian. Her YA science fiction novels SALVAGE (2014) and SOUND (2015) are available from Greenwillow Books. She lives in the mountains of North Carolina with her husband and two monstrous, furry cats. You can find her online at www.alexandra-duncan.com.