When I (Vee) was at BEA this Summer, I had the marvelous opportunity to meet and interview Anna-Marie McLemore. We had been chatting about trans & queer YA for a few months on Twitter, so it was LOVELY to be able to meet her in person. Her book When the Moon Was Ours (which is releasing tomorrow!!), is SO amazing ya’ll. AND it’s our #GayYABookClub read this month, so I have the perfect excuse to make you all read it immediately. 😀
When the Moon Was Ours follows two characters through a story that has multicultural elements and magical realism, but also has central LGBT themes—a transgender boy, the best friend he’s falling in love with, and both of them deciding how they want to define themselves.
To everyone who knows them, best friends Miel and Sam are as strange as they are inseparable. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrist, and rumors say that she spilled out of a water tower when she was five. Sam is known for the moons he paints and hangs in the trees, and for how little anyone knows about his life before he and his mother moved to town.
But as odd as everyone considers Miel and Sam, even they stay away from the Bonner girls, four beautiful sisters rumored to be witches. Now they want the roses that grow from Miel’s skin, convinced that their scent can make anyone fall in love. And they’re willing to use every secret Miel has fought to protect to make sure she gives them up.
Tell us about When the Moon Was Ours!
Sam and Miel’s friendship was born from them being considered sort of strange in their town, and that actually had nothing to do with their identities, it was more for other reasons in the book. Sam is known for painting these moons and hanging them in the trees all over town. Miel has roses that grow out of her wrists and she’s rumored to have fallen out of a water tower when she was five years old. So they have this sort of mythology surrounding them. And there’s also the undercurrent that they both are of color in a very white community, so that’s something that bonds them… even if that’s not something that they’re explicitly talking about until they get older, it’s something that has helped form their bond for the last ten years.
So they’ve been friends for a while?
Yeah, they started being friends when she fell out of the water tower at five years old, and their friendship develops from there. And what happens in the book is that these four sisters who are rumored to be witches in this town– they’re sort of the only people considered as odd as Sam and Miel– they decide that they want the roses that Miel grows from her wrists. And they are willing to take her life apart to get them, and to take Sam’s life apart because they know how close they are.
Aaah, that sounds so good. When does it come out again?
Awesome. Yey! So.. the character in the book is a queer Latina girl, and you’re also queer Latina yourself?
And your husband is a trans guy?
Yeah, he is.
That seems like… I mean, it’s obviously not the same story but it seems like a very personal experience. And I was wondering what is it like to write something so similar to your life, in that regard?
Well, I really ran away from it to start with, I ended up rewriting this book, my second book, four times just from the ground up. I was afraid of writing a queer book. I was trying to make it a straight book, just no LGBT content whatsoever, because I was afraid to go there. And I think there’s always that sense, this is an awful thing to say– though it’s something I hear in reviews sometimes which is terrible– but there’s this sense of “too much diversity”. There’s that fear that… am I going to tank my career by going there? But the book was just awful when I was trying to choke that out of it so I just went for it and wrote a draft that had everything queer that I wanted in it. That’s my running joke now “if you don’t know what to do with the book, maybe it needs to be more queer!” *laughs* But yeah, that’s when it started to take shape and it was really scary for me but I think I got to a point with this book where that was killing it, trying to censor myself.
I was writing a book when I was like fifteen or something, like when I had just come to terms with my own identity and all of the characters were queer or trans. And I was like “nobody is going to like this book”, it’s not marketable, it’s not a book that can exist because… I just didn’t think that was a thing. And then I read Love in the Time of Global Warming, and all of the main characters were queer, and it was a fantasy book and I thought “oh my god, books like this can exist?!” And that enabled me to try writing that again. It almost gave me a permission to write it. So I was wondering if there’s anything specific like that that happened for you in regards to this book?
It definitely helped reading other queer books, Robin Tally’s Lies We Tell Ourselves, and… If You Could be Mine was another book that, just that intersectionality between that queerness and being of color. Definitely reading those books helped give me permission, helped me see that there could be space for that. And also the conversation about diversity, how strong it’s gotten, how people realize there’s a problem, even if there’s a long way to go. That definitely made it a more welcoming environment to write that kind of book. So are you going back to that book?
Yeah, I am! It’s a difficult book to write right now but I’m still working on it. So, I went to the We Need Diverse Books: Love and Loss in Children’s Literature and… it was honestly the best panel I have ever been to, everyone said so many amazing things. I was trying to live tweet it all and just couldn’t keep up, like aah! But I really loved a lot of stuff you were saying and I was wondering if we could cover some of those topics again? For people who weren’t able to be there?
Thank you! Yes!
You talked about writing queer sex scenes and your journey in realizing that that was ok to do in young adult books, I was wondering if you could talk about what that journey was like for you?
I started with what felt natural to the story but then I pulled it back just because I was like “can I really do this?” But then when I decided yes, I need to do this I need to show what I want to show in the story I want to show safe consensual queer sex…it also involves walking a line, because I never want to objectify transness or objectify genderqueer identity. But at the same time I want to show that queer characters, that trans characters are desired, they deserve to be desired in the same way. I thought about this as something that comes up a lot with being a brown girl, with being Latina, owning the fact that we deserve to be desired without being objectified, so that was something I wanted there to, to show that these characters do desire each other. They are of color, she’s queer, he’s trans and they desire each other this is a loving relationship. And it kind of came to the point where I thought would I really be asking these questions if these were two cis heterosexual people? And I probably wouldn’t have been. And that’s the point where I thought this is my issue as much as it is about the book. I need to stop going to that place where I think my own identity is dirty because I would never think that about someone else’s queer identity, someone else’s gender identity, so why am I thinking that about mine?
Like you said, it’s definitely not autobiographical, it’s very different than my life but also I wanted to depict that kind of love. My husband is a trans guy, and this is the kind of love I know. And I wanted to show that kind of desire in a respectful way, but also show that it can have as much of a passion behind it as we see in heterosexual relationships. So I get to a better place with that through the process and that was never my editor, or my agent telling me to pull it back, that was all me. So we’ve got both sides of it in the whole process towards inclusion, we’re fighting both sides of it, with censoring ourselves and also making sure that the people who are putting the books out in the world aren’t censoring us either.
One of the other things you talked about on the panel was about happy endings and sad endings with marginalized characters. I appreciated what you said… everyone was saying that you need to be true to the story and that means not always having a happy ending, which I agree with. But you made a really good point about how, while it’s important to be true to the story and that may mean not having a happy ending… as marginalized people we are already told that we don’t get a happy ending, so where does that impulse come from? And I really appreciated that point.
I’m not really in the position of saying that we should do all, one of the other, I think that definitely depends on the story. And that’s why I liked what Jenny Han was saying about a story that’s honest. For me, the stories I write are a lot of times love stories, there’s a lot of other stuff going on but often at the core of what I’m writing there’s a love story. There’s also usually a family story and often those two stories are often in conflict depending on what’s going on. And I have to get to a place where I let myself write happy or at least hopeful endings. Like I mentioned on the panel I told my mother “of course it has a happy ending, it’s me!” and then she read the book and she was like “that’s not a happy ending what kind of happy ending was that?” I had to get that voice out of my head that said that brown girls, queer girls, trans guys, of color guys don’t get a happy ending, I had to get that voice out of my head because it was there, it was there with me when I was falling in love, it stayed with me for a long time. So I had to get out of the place where I thought I had to put what the world had told me about what my life had to be on to the stories.
When I was coming to terms with my trans identity, that’s why it was so hard for me to realize that I was trans because I didn’t realize that trans people could be happy. I thought that every trans person was sad or had a terrible life.
For my husband, what the world tells you about being trans was a huge thing that stood in the way for him. Both because of what you were talking about and also because there’re sort of these myths going around this is what transness is “born into the wrong body”, that it’s this very narrow definition that gets passed around. And that’s not even passed around by the trans community. It’s these stories that we get told and that’s why for the longest time he was like “that’s not me.” That’s part of what I’m writing about… it’s sort of everyone around this character knowing he’s trans before he does and that’s something that mirrored the experience I had with my husband, but you can’t push that. Sometimes it happens, I had a teacher in high school that asked me if I was queer before I knew I was queer. But if you love someone you can’t push them like that. And in this story, Miel does and she knows she did something wrong and she knows she needs to pull back. So that’s another thing I’m trying to write about, the mistakes you make when you love someone, when you want what’s best for them, when you want to help them, when you have to take action when you love them and when you also have to step back. Let them figure shit out. I keep swearing today! Like, I don’t usually do this! *laughs*
Awesome! Well, that’s… I am SO excited for this book, like, I can’t even explain….
Thank you so much.