When Being Emily came out in 2012, it was the first YA novel to tell the story of a transgender girl from her perspective. This May, a new edition will be released with updated language and science, new scenes, a new author’s note and an introduction by poet and Harvard professor Stephanie Burt.
To celebrate this upcoming edition, Being Emily author Rachel Gold and Stephanie Burt interviewed each other about the novel and related topics. We begin with questions for both of us and then devolve into Rachel sidetracking Stephanie to talk about comic books. (Which is really easy to do!)
Why is now the time for a new edition of Being Emily?
Rachel: I’ve wanted to change the language in Being Emily for years. For a number of reasons, parts of it were outdated not long after it came out and I learned a lot in the years since its publication. Also it gets taught in Gender Studies courses, so I wanted to update the science to make it even more current. There’s a lot that people still don’t know, so I want this story to be able to do as much as it can for both trans and cis audiences.
Plus early 2017 sucked and I figured trans kids needed all the love we can give them, so I asked my publisher what it would take to re-release Being Emily. That turned out to be a really easy sell. (Thank you, Bella Books!)
Stephanie: a new edition is always a good thing for an important book, so why *not* now? Also, the new edition means new scenes, especially the last scene (the epilogue), which I selfishly want all humans to read. Some non-humans may benefit too. Plus I got to write an introduction, which the first edition did not have!
Rachel: Which is an introduction I want many humans to read!
What’s one of your favorite parts of this new edition?
Rachel: There’s more about Emily’s relationship with her dad—I want to say a bunch about that, but I’ll just end up spoilering people. I didn’t take out anything from the original, but I added scenes that deepen that relationship. Also I changed a lot about Claire’s chapters. I could see better ways to highlight the journey that she goes through. Plus she gets to think and talk about being bisexual more.
Stephanie: Among the other additions, one that’s extraordinarily important to me—and it’s brief—comes when Emily and her dad are learning about the science behind medical transition, from a doctor who’s kind and together enough to explain it.
The new edition explains fertility preservation for trans women starting medical transition. I’m very glad that I’m out and have started transition. I’m also glad that my partner and I have kids. I’d hate for trans teens, or anyone really, to think that you can’t have biological children, if you want them, once you’ve transitioned! You can. But you have to take certain steps first.
Rachel: Also I want to add that I love Stephanie’s introduction, but of course in saying that, I’m going to sound like a cheeseball. The part about it being the first YA novel, “…with a trans girl’s voice at its center, the first one you could give a trans girl and feel good about the idea that she’ll see herself in it.” That’s exactly what I wanted it to be, but had never articulated it that clearly.
Stephanie: [blushes really hard]
What do we want the next generation of trans kids to know?
Rachel: You don’t have to have it all figured out and you can trust yourself. And there are a lot of ways to be trans. I keep reading amazing posts from people on their blogs or tumblr talking about their experiences of being embodied—there’s so much diversity and wonder! Being Emily a very specific book about one girl’s experience, it’s not the definitive text on how to be a trans girl or a trans person. If it speaks to your experience, wonderful! If it doesn’t, keep reading and if you write, keep writing!
Stephanie: Again, you’ve said the most important things!
The first time I tried to come out as trans, in the early 1990s, what I should have heard from my cis friends—and did not hear, or wasn’t ready to hear (TBH at least one of them tried to tell me), was: FIND YOUR PEOPLE. If you don’t already have friends who have your back, and who have your interests at heart, and who can teach you what you need to know, or work with you to discover those things together, then you need a way to find those friends. And now, in 2018, there are lots of ways. Online communities organized around being trans; online communities organized around something else; in-person meetups and conventions; trans-friendly subcultures of many sorts; Twitter… I tried to say as much in my introduction, and of course the book says so itself. Every Emily needs a Natalie. Ideally more than one.
Corollary the first to the above: YOUR PEOPLE ARE OUT THERE. If you think nobody understands you right now, you may be right (for now), but that’s likely to change, especially if you make some effort to change it.
Corollary the second: your straight or cis or longstanding allies, including your birth family, may well stick by you; you do not necessarily have to abandon them, or expect them to abandon you, in order to figure out who you are. (That’s part of Claire’s arc, but also part of the now stronger arc with Emily’s dad.) Individual straight cis people are not the enemy, and will not necessarily stare at you in blank incomprehension! Sometimes they’ll take a while to understand, but will, nonetheless, eventually understand.
That said, the systems of patriarchy and domination, and the unacknowledged assumptions that go with those systems—from what a man is, to what a woman is, to what sex is supposed to be and why sex matters…. Those systems are, actually, the enemy. The more of us come out, the more of us say what we think, the more of us write about what we think, the more we will be able to understand those systems and dismantle them, or at least get them out of the way, so that we can build something at least a bit better (whether or not what we build looks like the old systems from the outside).
Rachel: And that’s why you’re in charge of saying the things that aren’t stories, because you just put that so much better than I would have, and I wholeheartedly agree.
What do we want the next generation of trans kids to teach us?
Rachel: How to dress. Also how many things don’t have to be a big deal. I’m always impressed when I see young people breezing by things that seemed so hard when I was a teen. Like how we’re so far beyond coming out about your sexuality in some areas that it’s not even “coming out” anymore—it’s either just being or “bringing in.” That doesn’t mean it’s easy for most people, but I think seeing moments of ease helps all of us have more confidence and hope.
Oh and this isn’t exactly teaching (but is), would some of you please program video games with nonbinary characters? I really want to play them! I know some exist, but more and bigger, please!
Stephanie: (deep breath) I’m still learning. It would be a cop-out to say “surprise me; I don’t know what I don’t know.” Wouldn’t it?
I’m older than almost all the other trans people I know, and when I see people younger than me coming out and learning how to be out and describing their lives, my reaction is sometimes “I want to be there to help you” (that is my chief reaction when they are my students). Sometimes, though (when they are not my students), my reaction is “you get to be who you are! Hurrah! I’m happy to stand on the sidelines while you inhabit your awesome world. Thanks for letting me stick around. Please show me—even if you cannot tell me—what you’ve figured out.”
Also, how to dress.
We’re both a little more out than we were a few years ago, how’s that going?
Rachel: [hides behind Stephanie]
Stephanie: [hides behind Rachel] I read BE1.0 when I had just come out for the third time, as publicly nonbinary but privately thinking “maybe I’m really a girl and I should just be a girl all the time and start medical transition.” And I recognized myself so completely in Emily, who was, also, starting to come out.
I’m now pretty much all the way through the social and emotional coming out process, although of course I’m still learning how to do makeup (it’s hard! But parts of are fun, if you are me!) and the legal/financial name change stuff is a ridiculous time suck. I did the whole social and medical transition thing (starting hormones, presenting myself as a woman full-time, using Stephanie all the time as my name and rejecting my guy name) in 2017. None of the things I most feared about doing an honest-to-Artemis social and medical transition—that I’d become a worse parent; that I’d become a worse or less honest partner; that I’d regret what my transition did to my parents; that our kids’ school community would reject me; that I’d become a worse teacher—none of those things happened. My life is better in literally every way.
But it’s still scary. I’m still very afraid of being too open, revealing other people’s secrets, offending people I should not offend, crossing lines and making mistakes. That fear is, also, part of being me.
Rachel: It’s been delightful seeing you come out more. And me too except that I mostly haven’t settled on what to call myself. I keep wanting to give lists or complicated charts, which I think is part of being genderfluid or gender malleable or a nonbinary lesbian. I like that there isn’t a handy box for me to be inside of. I don’t like the boxes, but it makes being out and talking about things a little harder, at least for me right now. And I appreciate that you, and a lot of people, have created space for me to be in a process and not at a destination—and that there may be no destination.
For Rachel: You’ve made some additions and changes between BE1.0 and BE2.0. Is there one big, or biggest, change, or just a stack of small ones?
Rachel: In the first two-thirds of the novel it’s mostly small changes. The language has changed. There are mentions of nonbinary trans people and we briefly meet one! There’s more understanding that not all trans women want surgery, that not all trans women fit the “I knew really young” narrative.
In the last third, I added about four major scenes, including deleting an entire Claire chapter and replacing it. Honestly, I’m a better writer than I was seven years ago (since most of the editing of Being Emily happened in 2010-2011). I got a little mad at myself in the editing process because I could see what I’d been trying to do, but reading it now, it didn’t work. Writers grow and learn; we’re not perfect out of the gate. I’m really glad to have this opportunity to take a story that I love and make it better.
For Stephanie: We both grew up reading comic books. (Now Kitty Pryde is leading the X-Men!) Why is it important to have both metaphors for how you are in the world (“I’m like Kitty”) and to have real-world how-to advice like the kinds in Being Emily (“I’m a trans girl; here are things I can do”)?
Stephanie: That’s a great question! Metaphors and fictional worlds, especially nonrealist fictional worlds (superhero comics, science fiction and fantasy, myths, games), show us possibilities for being and doing that haven’t been realized, or haven’t been realized yet, or couldn’t be realized literally in the real present-day world, even if what they represent emotionally could be realized here and now. They show us that the future can be different from, and better than, the present.
They also let us escape from the here and now, from the constraints and the pressure of having to be the same person all day long (a pressure which, so I’m told, gets to cis people too). And they’re fun! If you identify with X-Men characters, for example, you have to think about problems that in the real world you should be very glad not to have (being infected with Brood embryos, for example) but you also get to make things explode, or become invulnerable, or walk through walls.
If you have only metaphors and nonrealist models for your own experience, though, you won’t be able to make the connections you need to make to your real life, to answer the literal question “what should I do next?” Some kinds of psychological interactions—especially those that involve very long-term relationships, or birth family who are not entirely hostile, or money—are usually better modeled by realist novels (adult-literary or YA) than by science fiction and fantasy. I’d be worse off, and unhappier, without Kitty and Wolverine and Scott and James Tiptree, Jr. and Nnedi Okorafor. But I’d also be worse off, and a worse person morally, if I had never read Middlemarch.
For Stephanie: In BE, after Emily comes out to her parents, her mom goes into her room and takes, among other things, her X-Men comics. Why?
Stephanie: Let me answer that with a series of links:
For Rachel: BE1.0 was almost all alone in the world when it appeared: there were trans people in YA and in adult fiction but not many, and literally none you could recommend to someone vulnerable or young or not yet out (or all three). How much do you think the fiction landscape has changed?
Rachel: I think fiction has changed less than nonfiction, which surprises me. Also I see more changes in speculative fiction than in contemporary. I really want to see more contemporary YA that’s about challenges trans kids face but where those challenges aren’t getting beaten up or your parents freaking out. I’m getting a little hypocritical here because Emily’s parents freak out and in my second book, Just Girls, there’s transphobic violence (against a cisgender character). I know those are real challenges people face, but I feel like we’ve covered that territory enough so let’s move on.
There’s such an opportunity in YA because that’s a time in all our lives when we’re learning about hormones and being adults and embodiment in the context of intimate relationships. I want to see more stories about trans kids learning to have empowering relationships and being joyful in/with their bodies. These stories are out there to be told and they’re more universal than mainstream publishers might think. In YA, everyone is feeling awkward about how to be an intimate/sexual being, but more so if there’s a complicated relationship with how your body is read by others.
That’s not just a problem for trans kids. And there’s starting to be good fiction about cis people deconstructing the gender boxes they’re given. But I think it’s a set of problems that trans kids and authors have more insight about. I’d love to see a novel with a genderfluid protagonist figuring out how to be seen in a relationship when their sense of their body changes day to day. (And yes, if you make me wait long enough to see this, I’ll write it.) I’d love to see more characters who attain whatever aspects of medical transition they want but don’t feel they have to fit completely into female or male boxes. I’d love to see more trans kid protagonists who don’t hate their bodies but hate what the dominant culture insists their bodies mean. And I want to see these told in the subtle, interior ways that make the experiences more universal.
For Stephanie: In your intro you talk about the importance of trans girls being able to see themselves in BE, but also the importance of being seen by others as trans girls. Is there a balancing act to this or do those to aspects reinforce each other?
Stephanie: I’d say there’s a positive feedback loop, at least for me (but I’m pretty other-directed and pretty sensitive to what other people think, especially for somebody in my fields, so YMMV).
The more I think other people can see me the way that I want to be seen, the more I think I can be, or become, or become visible as, the person I want to be, which in this context means: the girl, or the woman, I want to be. (The ambiguity between “girl” and “woman” in there says a lot about who I am, and how I see myself, and I am still figuring out just what it says.)
There is a philosopher I like a lot, Marya Schechtman, who argues that our very sanity, our ability to keep function as souls and minds, depends on our sense that somebody else can see us, and our life stories, in ways that we can recognize as ours.
There’s also a thing that happens when you, or at least when I, read a work of imaginative literature (poetry or novels or comics or anything) and see aspects of ourselves there—the feeling that “this person gets me! This author gets me!” is one of the best feelings in the world, and you can get it from a real live person, or from a book.
Ideally we get it from both. (And then we tell real live people to read that book.)
For Rachel: Emily comes out (sort of) through gaming and gameworlds before she comes out at all in real life (or what we are pleased to call real life). Can you talk about the importance of gaming and gameworlds to trans people, or to LGBTQ+ people more generally, or to you as a writer?
Rachel: In gamewords, you get to try on different bodies and different roles. I think that’s beneficial to a lot of people, not just trans people. But of course it can be especially powerful if you’re walking around in the world and people always treat you one way and then you get to log into this other world and get treated the way you want. I might especially like it because I can have different bodies on different days, which is how I feel in real life too.
Interactive play spaces are great environments for trying out the ways we want to be seen by others and getting feedback. I still remember being a teen, telling a group story with friends, and my character was a werewolf who started as a woman and then turned into a man for a while—and that was a powerful experience for me that I could be someone whose body changes and not just be tolerated, but be valued for that.
For Stephanie: In the novel, Emily’s little brother is always doing these superhero match-up fights, so … Starfire vs. Kitty Pryde, in which they’re both trans? Do they fight, just for fun, or go shopping? If so, where and for what?
Stephanie: They fight briefly, realize they’re not really enemies, and definitely go shopping. Does Starfire have the power to get off Earth whenever she wants, in this continuity? I think not, which means they have to find the nearest awesome mall.
There’s probably a superhero fight going on *in* the mall, because that’s what happens when X-characters go to the mall. I like to think that they stop the fight and then go right on shopping. Assuming it’s time-displaced 1980s Kitty and Starfire, rather than present-day Kitty (whose style has changed!) I’m pretty sure I’ll see them in Sephora, and then at Charlotte Russe.
Rachel: I could not agree more! I was assuming classic 1980s Kitty & Starfire, in which case I think the fight in the mall should be Wolverine vs. anyone and when it’s over, he ends up sitting outside the dressing room holding Kitty & Starfire’s purses and giving shockingly good advice about what looks good on each of them.
Stephanie: I would trust Logan on a lot of things, but I’m not sure I’d trust him on that. But maybe that’s why it’s *shockingly* good?
Stephanie Burt is an expert in American poetry, both in its composition and its critique. She has been called “one of the most influential poetry critics” of her generation by the New York Times. Burt teaches at Harvard University, sharing with students not only her expertise in poetry, but also LGBTQ literature and graphic novels and comics. She is the author of several texts on poetry, including Close Calls With Nonsense: Reading New Poetry (2009), The Forms of Youth: Twentieth-Century Poetry and Adolescence (2007), and The Poem Is You: Sixty Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them (2016). Her essays have been featured in a wide range of publications, including the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Review, and the Times Literary Supplement. She has also published four full-length collections of poetry, among them Belmont (2013), and her latest, Advice from the Lights.
Raised on world mythology, fantasy novels, comic books and magic, Rachel is well suited for her careers in marketing and writing. She is the author of multiple award-winning queer & trans Young Adult novels, including Being Emily (2012), Just Girls (2014), My Year Zero (2015), and Nico & Tucker (2017). As a marketing strategist, Rachel gives presentations and trains professionals on topics ranging from branding to search engine optimization. But if that makes her sound too corporate and stuffy, you should know that Rachel is an all around geek and avid gamer. She also teaches at The Loft Literary Center, including a course that is a roleplaying game. For more information visit: www.rachelgold.com.
by Kaitlin Mitchell
Happy New Year! We’re so excited to announce that we’re bringing back book lists! Each month, we’ll feature a themed list to keep your tbr lists full. To start off 2018 on a positive note, our first list features 10 uplifting quotes from some of our favorite books. Do you have any favorite quotes from LGBTQIA+ YA you think we missed? Add them in the comments, or tell us on Twitter @YA_Pride!
“If you want a chance at being happy, exist. Because yes, life can suck, but as long as you’re alive, there’s a chance you can be happy.” Kathryn Ormsbee, Tash Hearts Tolstoy
“There is no reason that we should ever be ashamed of our bodies or ashamed of our love.” David Levithan, Two Boys Kissing
“You may be born into a family, but you walk into friendships. Some you’ll discover you should put behind you. Others are worth every risk.” Adam Silvera, They Both Die at the End
“[M]aking a decision isn’t about knowing every potential consequence. It’s about knowing what you want and chasing a path that takes you in that direction.” Malinda Lo, Huntress
“If it’s a phase, so what? If it’s your whole life, who cares? You’re destined to evolve and understand yourself in ways you never imagined before.” Gabby Rivera, Juliet Takes a Breath
“Life could be cruel. But it could also be wonderful.” Claire Kann, Let’s Talk About Love
“The world isn’t binary. Everything isn’t black or white, yes or no. Sometimes it’s not a switch, it’s a dial. And it’s not even a dial you can get your hands on; it turns without your permission or approval.” Jeff Garvin, Symptoms of Being Human
“I know it hurts. I know it hurts so bad you can barely breathe sometimes. I know because I’ve been there. Please don’t leave us. I promise life can be good, and we need you too much.” Meredith Russo, If I Was Your Girl
“The only time it’s hopeless is when you’re dead! Long as you’re alive, you can get better – you can make it better.” RoAnna Sylver, Chameleon Moon
“I was okay just a moment ago. I will learn how to be okay again.” Nina LaCour, We Are Okay
Jen Wang, author of the upcoming graphic novel The Prince and the Dressmaker, interviews Tilly Walden, author of Spinning, an autobiographical graphic novel about growing up and coming out.
First of all Tillie, I wanted to say Spinning is so fantastic. Reading it felt so intimate, I kept flashing back to my own teenage memories. So much about being a teenager is about learning what you do or don’t have control over. You started skating before you were old enough to know what you wanted and later as a teenager you took up art. In both you’re extremely driven. How do you compare the drive you had toward skating with the drive toward making art, or being successful in comics?
Thank you so much! And honestly, it’s kind of exactly the same. Which sort of endlessly cracks me up and also makes me feel a little weird, haha. When I was skating, I felt this huge urge to excel. This urge to win, to be known, to be recognized, all of that. And good lord, does that parallel me and my comics. When I started making comics seriously in 12th grade I remember thinking to myself “I need to do this right. I need to be great at this.” And that of course led me to think “I will be great at this. If I work hard enough, I will get there.” That kind of thinking was so familiar to me. But I forget that it’s the same because how I feel about my comics is so different from skating. I worked hard at skating and at the same time, I didn’t like it. Now, I work hard on comics, and I fucking love it. Can you imagine what that’d done to me? To feel this work ethic inside me while also actually enjoying what I do… and people ask me how I produce so much work so quickly. That’s how.
It’s rare to see underage female desire depicted in literature. It’s often desexualized to appear more innocent. In Spinning you recount early memories of realizing you are a lesbian that feel very honest. Were you conscious of this while making the book?
It is rare! That drives me crazy too. As if kids feel no sexual desire, what bs. I was very conscious that I was putting that in SPINNING. I really wanted it in there. I wanted people to know that I felt desire towards women and girls at the age of 6. I never understood why feeling that way would make people think I was less innocent. Of course I was innocent, I was 6! It was an innocent kind of love. Just because I was too young to have the words to explain how I felt doesn’t mean that I didn’t feel it. People are so afraid of sexuality, especially when it creeps into the LGBTQ spectrum. I want to wash that fear away, and I want kids to know that its normal to have desires.
Everyone recognizes Texas as a conservative state, but you grew up in Austin which is a city known for being a “liberal haven”. Do you feel like that environment impacted your experience as a queer teenager? Do you think it would’ve been different if your family stayed in New Jersey?
I think my life would have played out very differently had I stayed in NJ, yes. But honestly that idea of Austin sort of bugs me. Yes, it is much more liberal than most of the rest of Texas. But people act as if it still isn’t Texas! I was acutely aware of where I was growing up. The homophobia of Texas seeped in from all sides. I remember in high school I read about a lesbian couple being attacked in Corpus Christi, a town not too far from Austin. That really, really impacted me. I was a car ride away from that.
There are very few queer heroes in fiction for young people to connect to. Were there characters that were important to you or that you projected queerness onto as a kid?
Great question! I had none in fiction, haha. Really, I can’t think of anyone. My heroes were all in musicals. Music was where I found my heroes. There’s a musical called Spring Awakening, and that changed everything for me. It had queer characters, it had sex, it had violence and honesty and youth all mixed together. All the characters in that musical did something for me. The same with Rent. I saw Rent at a local theater in Austin in middle school and that was the first time I got to see two women kiss. I gave up pretty quickly on books because I couldn’t find what I was looking for. And when I found queerness and openness in musicals, well, that was where I put my heart.
As drawing comics has become more of your job and part of your public life, are there creative activities you do outside of it that are more private outlets?
God, YES. Haha, I would go crazy if this was all I did! I play a lot of music. I play cello and I’ve been learning violin. I will say that I’m very proud, that after only a month or so of playing, I sound like a really solid 6th grade player. That feels good, and I’ll keep getting better. I also love singing, though I do it very casually. In fact, after I finish answering these questions I need to practice some violin, I have a lesson in an hour!
Skating and comics both involve a sense of exposure and being vulnerable in public. With Spinning your personal life is now public. Are there boundaries you’re setting to cope with that?
I have a lot of boundaries, and I appreciate you asking about it. People are very quick to ask me ALL the personal questions, most of which I can deal with, but it can go pretty far. I have very clear lines. Everyone ever wants to ask me about how people in my life reacted to the book, and that’s no one’s damn business but my own. I won’t talk about other characters in the book, unless it’s me. And for the most part, I keep the information I share pretty close to what I said in the book. There’s a lot more about me and my life that isn’t in the book, and will never be a part of my public persona, and that’s really just to protect myself. It’s a struggle though – people read Spinning and feel like they know me. And in a way, they do know a part of me after reading the book. But that’s all it is: a part of me. A piece. Not everything. And its been a balance to try and negotiate that.
In the book there’s a scene where you mention not being on Facebook. Many teenagers out of step with their environment end up seeking connection on social media. Did you eventually find a community or space online that became important to you?
You know, I really didn’t. I never felt entirely comfortable online, I don’t think it’s ever really suited me. It works for a lot of teens, but I found it all to be a little too artificial. Ultimately, I found a community when I went to school, The Center for Cartoon Studies, aka CCS. It was the first place in my life where I had been fully out of the closet, and I made some friends there that will be in my life forever. And I’m still sort of seeking a real LGBT community, or a place for that. Somewhere physical, not online. I’m only 21 though, I think I have some time. I’ll keep hunting for the spot where the lesbians hang.
The process of making comics can be so isolating and many comic artists turn to social media to share their process. Do you think creators are becoming more or less private online about their work? What is your relationship with it?
Huh, interesting question. I think creators are becoming less and less private because I think social media naturally encourages us to share. I like the isolating nature of comics, actually. I’m an introvert, though most people don’t believe me when I say that because I’m quite adept at pretending to be an extrovert. I find social media pretty toxic, actually. I’m also a bit secretive about my comics process and I sort of prefer it that way. I don’t like all that information coming at me so fast, and I don’t like the whole culture of favs and likes and retweets. It feels performative, and it feels competitive. And that right there is what I ran away from in ice skating, and what I’m still running from. And as soon as I have enough money to pay someone to run all my social media… well, then I’ll have a lot more time to practice violin.
Today, Serial Box kicks off Season 3 of Tremontaine, a wildly lush, queer, gorgeous fantasy told in a serialized format through their app. I’m a fan of the work and especially the writers who’ve come through the series like Malinda Lo and Tessa Gratton. So when Serial Box reached out to us about doing something for the launch of season 3, we absolutely jumped at the chance!
We’re thrilled to have Tessa Gratton here with us today to talk about writing for Serial Box and writing queer characters, especially!
How did you get involved in Serial Box?
I met Ellen Kushner, the creator of the Riverside series, in the fall of 2014 at the Louisiana Book Festival, and we hit it off immediately—it helped, I think, that I was a huge fan of Swordspoint and nearly melted when I realized I was talking to her. We kept in touch through social media, and in December 2015 she emailed me out of the blue to ask if she could call me to discuss something mysterious. I obviously said yes, and we talked about my career and my writing, and then she just asked me right on the phone if I wanted to join Tremontaine season 2. It would require I join the writing team in NYC in just over a month for the Story Summit. I leapt at the chance. It felt very once-in-a-lifetime, not only because I’d be working with someone I admired on a series I’d love since I was about 14 years old, but because of how exciting I found (and continue to find) Serial Box Publishing in general.
What’s been the hardest about working on a story with other people?
Oh, I am not great at group work. I knew it would be a challenge—and I remember telling Ellen as much on that very first phone call. She didn’t believe me! I’d had a successful group fiction blog for 3 years (merryfates.com) and collaborated on two books about writing for teens. But I really, truly, have never liked relying on other people to create stories. I feel very wild when I’m drafting, and chaotic, and introducing other people’s ideas throws me even more. So I knew going in I was going to have to be brave and find the right kind of structure to allow myself creative space but also flexibility. Two things really worked in my favor: 1) my co-writers are all smart, talented, and don’t mind arguing with me, and 2) Tremontaine is based on an already living series, so I wasn’t bringing my own, intensely personal creation or story to be touched by other people. I was the dabbler, I was the one approaching another wild animal in order to try and get along.
I was sick to my stomach with nerves at the first story summit, because I wanted everybody to like me, to think I was smart and creative, and also I wanted to find a way to put my own mark on the series. It was a stressful balance, but it also seemed like what I wanted was what everybody wanted: to create something awesome and come out the other side friends.
Were you intimidated to come into something in its second season?
I joined for season 2, so this season 3 is my second full year working on Tremontaine. But as I indicated in the previous question, I was extremely intimidated. I was sleeping on the sofa in SFF legends Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman’s NYC apartment in order to create backstories for characters I’d loved and hated for twenty years. That was my life! I had a lot to live up to, regarding the cult classic status of Swordspoint and my own expectations for myself.
How does this differ from what you normally write?
Oooof, besides the obvious things, like solo work verses collaboration, the serial aspect and incredibly speedy editorial and publishing schedule, there are creative things. I have never written something without magic in some form, so although technically the Riverside series is fantasy, it feels more like alternate historical to me. Everybody in the stories is queer and it’s built into the world so there’s no real structural homophobia (though as we expand the world to other nations and continents we’re playing with different forms of structural oppression based on gender and sexuality, as well as class). All my novels so far have been analogs for our world in some way that include most of our Western systemic oppressions, so it’s very freeing to not worry about homophobia.
Do you think it makes a difference being a queer author writing queer characters?
I do! It always makes a difference to write about a marginalization from the experience of that marginalization—even though queer folk aren’t marginalized in Tremontaine (for the most part—like I mentioned, we’re bringing in some complicating factors including the Chartil characters, who come from a nation that is homophobic, and introducing genderfluid characters). The most intense way it makes a difference to me is that there are things I write about that I feel so deeply, because I’ve experienced it, because I remember what that epiphany or that heartbreak feels like exactly. There’s a moment in season 3 when our Chartil character is reflecting on how when he was in Chartil he never was allowed to be open about his lover, but in Riverside he could have been. It’s too late for them, so even though it’s a wondrous realization, it’s also bittersweet. And it’s such a small moment, just a couple of lines, but I barely could write them without being overwhelmed because I remember the first time I was in a space where I wasn’t afraid at all just to hold my lover’s hand. That’s the sort of moment I can write in Tremontaine and it feels cathartic to me as a queer writer.
But along with that catharsis comes a particular vulnerability that I only associate with writing about a marginalization from that marginalization. You know the danger and hope, and you know the truth of that moment, and it can be terrifying to put that on a page in bald, plain words. It’s nice to be on a team when you hit a moment like that.
What’s been your favorite part about writing Tremontaine?
Those moments when everything comes together. I love this part of working alone, too, when you’ve been holding a story in your head for a long time, picking at it, reworking, trying to find the right expression… and then boom, it comes together at a point, and you see the entire story spool out in front of you, behind you, in every spiraling direction the story has gone to and come from. When that happens in a group it’s even better, because it’s harder when the pieces are coming from different imaginations. You can’t touch other people’s vision, no matter how clearly you discuss it together. So when one of the other writers’ vision aligns perfectly with mine, or when all of us slam together and have that yes yes yes moment, it’s shockingly satisfying.
Who’s been your favorite character to write?
Oh, this is hard! Of the characters present when I joined, I think Rafe—he’s so melodramatic and makes bad choices, but from this place of genuinely wanting to make the world better. I see my younger self in him to an almost embarrassing level. When I was in grad school I was impossible to shut up, and I’d argue anything for hours if I believed in it; anytime, anywhere. I was determined to change the world, and be wildly in love, and I also was not good at diplomacy. I enjoy writing Rafe’s thought process, his trying to reign himself in, but also when he lets himself get flirtatious or just resort to ridiculous, flowery language.
But this season I’ve also really gotten invested in Reza, our Chartil ambassador. I sort of took over Chartil and Reza in season 2—we needed somebody to be point on the world building and the Reza/Vincent backstory, and I was happy to do it (Vincent was one of my favorite characcters in Swordspoint). So with Reza I have a close, possessive understanding of who he is and what he needs as a characters. Luckily, everybody else is really into him, too, and all the writers bring unique insight into him. I’ve loved how Karen Lord has worked to draw out the nuance of Reza’s relationship with sword-fighting, and with the character of Esha in particular, and Joel Derfner gives such great dialogue when Reza and Rafe are together, especially regarding their education and philosophies. Reza wouldn’t be the character he is without all the writers.
We’re so excited for Tremontaine, and you can check out Season 3 here!
Tessa Gratton has wanted to be a paleontologist or a wizard since she was seven. Alas, she turned out too impatient to hunt dinosaurs, but is still searching for a someone to teach her magic. After traveling the world with her military family, she acquired a BA (and the important parts of an MA) in Gender Studies, then settled down in Kansas with her partner, her cats, and her mutant dog. She now spends her days staring at the sky and telling lots of stories about magic. You can find her online at tessagratton.com or @tessagratton.
Alice had her whole summer planned. Non-stop all-you-can-eat buffets while marathoning her favorite TV show. The only thing missing from her plan? Her girlfriend (who ended things when Alice told her she’s asexual). Alice is done with dating—no thank you, do not pass go, stick a fork in her, done. But when Alice meets Takumi and she can’t stop thinking about him or the rom com-grade romance feels she did not ask for, her blissful summer takes an unexpected turn.
Claire Kann is the author of the forthcoming novel Let’s Talk About Love, which comes out January 23, 2018.
Let’s Talk About Love will be published through Swoon Reads, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group that invites writers to submit YA manuscript directly to its site and allows readers to have a say in what gets published. Writers chosen for publication are offered a traditional publishing contract.
Here’s Claire in conversation with her editor, Kat Brzozowski.
Kat asks Claire…
What inspired you to write Let’s Talk About Love?
“Write the kind of book you want to read.”
So I did.
Alice has such a strong voice in this novel. How did you develop Alice’s character?
At any given time, I have several characters and storylines running through my mind. Alice popped into my head fully formed. Initially, she had zero chill, tended to overreact, was always laughing and screeching her joy, and cried at the drop of a hat—a lively, raw, and emotionally driven character.
It took a lot of time, finessing, and cut words to whittle her personality down to get to the core of who Alice was. In the first draft, I wrote LTAL in first person, but upon editing, I realized Alice was just too chaotic to steer the narrative, so I switched to third person in efforts to give the story the structure it needed—Alice told me what happened, I wrote it down.
However, I still wanted her to be able to shine. I would write a section and Alice would throw out a million asides—I ended up incorporating her exact words into the book using parenthesis.
Alice identifies as asexual. How did this help shape her character?
When Alice came to me, she had already known she was biromantic asexual but didn’t know those specific words existed. I decided to set the story after that tumultuous period of discovery and self-acceptance because it definitely shaped how she interacted with the people she was romantically interested in. Alice, the hopeless romantic that she is, was so insistent on focusing on a her future HEA that it became the one thing she wanted most, which I believe is always the most compelling story to tell.
What made you submit your novel to Swoon Reads?
I adored Love Fortunes and Other Disasters by Kim Karalius. I read it on the site, pre-selection. I even remember the original title! LTAL was kind of an outlier for me. Contemporary romance isn’t my preferred genre to write. My work typically dives into the magical side of life. Seeing Kim’s book get chosen for publication, in all of its quirky, whimsical, Kissingtown-esque glory, gave me hope that there might’ve been a place for me and my strange, magical books at Swoon Reads.
How did the feedback from readers on Swoon Reads help guide your writing process?
Pre-selection, the majority of the feedback was open, positive, and constructive. Post-selection, the original manuscript had remained up on the site for a limited time, and there was an influx of new reviews that were decidedly less positive—some were flat-out negative, invalidating, and angry. I won’t lie: sifting through those negative reviews was an emotionally brutal process and hurt me both as a writer and as a person more than I thought it would. But I still had time to correct my mistakes. It would have been irresponsible of me to ignore what they had to say. I became determined to find a common root for the issues pointed out and apply those changes during edits.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers, particularly for those writing books with LGBTIA+ characters?
Critique partners and beta readers aren’t for everyone, but I would suggest thinking twice about writing in a bubble. Everyone has internalized biases and prejudices that they aren’t aware exist. Those will show up in the work—even if it’s considered #ownvoices, they’ll still be there. Write your truth, but also seek feedback, compensate your readers for their time, be open to listening and learning from differing experiences, and always strive to do better.
Claire asks Kat…
When I found out you were going to edit LTAL, I nearly fainted because of your author list. How do you approach working with such an eclectic and diverse group of authors?
*blushes* No matter what kind of book I’m working on, whether it’s magical realism, LGTBQIA+ contemporary, a mystery, or a genre book, I’m always drawn to a few key things – a strong sense of voice, fully developed characters, and great dialogue. I love working on so many different genres because my editing workload always feels totally fresh, and I learn new things from every author on my list.
Does your editing process change depending on the book you’re working on or do you employ a one-size fits all approach?
It definitely changes based on the book I’m working on! Some books need more editorial help when it comes to big picture changes – restructuring the plot, clarifying character motivations, etc. Some books have all of the big stuff worked out but need time finessing the writing on the sentence level – making the dialogue feel natural, letting the voice shine through. I try to start with big picture notes and work towards the smaller notes as we progress, because it doesn’t make a lot of sense to edit lines that are going to be cut later when we chop scenes away! I love to line edit, though, so I can’t help making line notes here and there, even in early drafts.
Does the feedback from Swoon Readers affect how you approach an edit letter?
Definitely! Before I start editing a Swoon Reads book, I look at all of the comments from our trusty readers, and I often incorporate their feedback into my editorial letter. It’s especially useful when I see the same comment over and over; that means there’s a big glaring thing that’s hanging up readers, and that’s what the author and I should focus on first. It’s wonderful to have real readers offer feedback on a novel before it’s even published!
Is Swoon Reads open to using sensitivity readers during the editing process if needed? How do you approach potentially incorporating the feedback?
Definitely! We are always open to using sensitivity readers on our novels. The process of incorporating feedback from these readers starts with sharing their feedback with the author and talking about what changes should be made to the text. The author has to feel comfortable with the final product, of course, so we always discuss any changes that should be made first and then work together to make these changes. We always appreciate sensitivity reads because they help draw our attention to issues that the editor and the author aren’t always aware of.
The colors for the final LTAL cover were purposefully chosen to reflect the asexual flag. As an editor, do you have any part in deciding which elements of representation appear on the covers?
I swoon so hard for the Let’s Talk About Love cover! As an editor, I offer suggestions about what the cover should look like and provide background info like character descriptions, setting descriptions, and more, but the designer has a lot of freedom to play around, and the designers often come up with ideas I never would have thought of! What’s so great about Swoon Reads is that our users vote on the cover direction they want, and we were so excited they chose this beautiful cover for your book.