Determined to survive the crisis she’s sure is imminent, Bex is at a loss when her world collapses in the one way she hasn’t planned for.
Preppers. Survivalists. Bex prefers to think of herself as a realist who plans to survive, but regardless of labels, they’re all sure of the same thing: a crisis is coming. And when it does, Bex will be ready. She’s planned exactly what to pack, she knows how to handle a gun, and she’ll drag her family to safety by force if necessary. When her older brother discovers Clearview, a group that takes survival just as seriously as she does, Bex is intrigued. While outsiders might think they’re a delusional doomsday group, she knows there’s nothing crazy about being prepared. But Bex isn’t prepared for Lucy, who is soft and beautiful and hates guns. As her brother’s involvement with some of the members of Clearview grows increasingly alarming and all the pieces of Bex’s life become more difficult to juggle, Bex has to figure out where her loyalties really lie. In a gripping new novel, E. M. Kokie questions our assumptions about family, trust, and what it really takes to survive.
Now, onto the interview! (Thank you so much to Dill Werner for transcribing this interview!)
Thank you so much for taking the time to do this.
You’re welcome. I’m glad we could connect here and do it face to face.
Could you tell us a little bit about RADICAL?
Sure. RADICAL is about a 16-year-old girl named Bex, who lives in Michigan. Her family have been a part of the mainstream survivalist movement, which means they have real regular jobs and regular lives, but they spend a lot of free time and weekends in the woods and shooting and practicing survival skills, and really extreme camping. It’s a family of gun owners, who do it for sport but also do it as a way of life and have always sort of had an interest on being out on the land and being able to sustain themselves. But with some economic stressors and some other things that have been happening in the world, Bex has started to go even further extreme. And she’s become really obsessed with there being some kind of impending crisis. Whether it’s going to be the government trying to take away all of the guns, or whether it’s going to be some multinational corporation trying to take everything, or some major plague–something bad is going to happen. And she becomes really obsessed with survival skills and being even more serious about training.
So that’s the sort of where the book is starting. But she’s also a butch lesbian. So she’s a butch lesbian in the survivalist movement, which is often hostile to people of color and queer people and pretty much anyone who is not unified with them, a usually white, although not entirely, group.
That was actually one of the fascinating things I came up with in the research. I went in thinking these groups are almost uniformly white supremacist groups. And I found there are a lot of people of color in the groups. Not all of them, obviously. Not all the groups are that accepting. But there are people of color who are also survivalists. So it was really interesting.
But anyway, the book starts, Bex is doing a lot of that training on her own and really focused on it when she–As the book progresses, she finds a larger group and is really excited to find people like her. But then, there’s ways that they’re not like her. And then she meets a girl. And then there are all these pieces of her life she’s trying to juggle and balance and try to figure out who she is. That’s a very long-winded version of it.
No, that’s great. My sister’s read it. I haven’t read it yet– I started it on the plane ride here, and I thought I’d have more time to read!
No, there’s never time to read at ALA.
I’m so excited to read it, though. My sister loved it.
It’s a really interesting thing because I often write books about questions I have, that I want to understand better. So the first book PERSONAL EFFECTS, I didn’t plan to write that book. The characters sort of came out of nowhere. I was doing free writing exercises, and I wrote this scene about this boy in the office after a fight. And he’s not exactly sorry about the fight. Then his father shows up. I wrote the next 30,000 words trying to figure out why he was so angry. But once I had figured out why he was so angry and his brother had died in Iraq, then it opened lots of questions I didn’t even know I had.
So with RADICAL the idea started through a news story about a family that are a part of a survivalist cult–Well, cult is probably a loaded word–a survivalist group, but they’re very non-mainstream, very off the grid. The youngest member of that family that was arrested was a 19-year-old boy. And he’s the son of the leader. And I started thinking about if you’re growing up in this at what point do you become responsible for your actions and for thinking for yourself. If you have grown up in this, what about what’s happening in the world now is making so many people be so afraid? So that’s kind of what came in. I ended up with a book that asks more questions than answers them. Some readers have complicated feelings about it, but I’m really OK with that. I want you to have to think about it, and I want you to have to figure out what you think.
That was one of the things we were talking about the other day. At the end, it’s not like Bex gives up the guns or anything. She still very much still–
Yeah! She learns. She goes through a lot in this book. And she’s starting to learn to think for herself, to realize all the ways in which she hasn’t been thinking for herself. It’s a book about survival and about trust and family. Surviving what? For me, I never really know what a book is about until it’s done. Now, I can see, for a butch lesbian in a very conservative society, of course you’d be focused on survival. Because every day you feel like you are under attack. You focus on the government Because it easy to focus on the government, but it’s the people around you you might be most afraid of. There’s always a metaphor. She grows and she changes, but she’s not fundamentally different person at the end. It was really important for me to be true to her.
My editor and I talked about the fact that a lot of authors, when they deal with tough topics, leave an author’s note at the end that explains where they’re coming from. We didn’t do that on purpose, because I feel like anything I said there would impact how the reader would interpret Bex. And I want her to be herself on the page. I don’t want to–I think the story gets to be interpreted by the reader. And I didn’t want it to feel like I was judging my character. So we chose not to have any acknowledgments or an author’s note to let it stand alone.
I hadn’t really thought about that.
But there’s a really good book I love called BLINK AND CAUTION by Tim Wynne-Jones. And it’s a great YA novel. I love this book. And it has guns and it to some extent, not as a central theme like mine. There is a gun and story line in there that’s important, and he added an author’s note at the end to explain some bigger thoughts about guns that wouldn’t necessarily be organic for his character to say. For that book, it works because it’s not central to this story, and it’s not central to his character’s. So he’s not taking anything away from the story he has on the page. And he’s getting to share some helpful information. For me, I couldn’t do it in a way that wasn’t going to feel like I was judging my character. And I never judge my characters. Or I try not to.
That’s really interesting. When you’re writing this book, did you think it was a book that would be published? Were you concerned about that at all?
When I was first coming up with the idea, I thought, “There’s no way they’re going to go for this. There’s no way they’re going to tell me I can write about a butch lesbian who loves guns in the survivalist meet.” I felt like that, even though I’ve had a really good experience working with Candlewick, and they’ve never ever tried to steer what I write in a way that isn’t about telling the best story. I kind of was ready for my editor to come back to me and say, “You know you’re putting a lot in one story. Maybe these are separate stories.” And she didn’t. And she acquired a base on a partial. I hadn’t even finished the book, it was a 100-pages and an outline of what might happen in the rest. Probably, she knows me well enough to know by now that I don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of a book until I finish it. So there was a leap of faith. The first draft I gave her was over 120,000 words. And I said to her, “I think there’s enough material here for three books. I just don’t know which one of them is the best book. And I don’t know which one of them you think you want to work on. So take a look at it and tell me which elements are working.”
At that stage, Bex was a little unclear. I was struggling with whether she was transgender, genderqueer, or a butch lesbian. And I really struggled with that. And I wrote whole drafts in each of those kind of places to figure out who she was and how I can best represent her story. So even then, my editor Andrea I had conversations about how do I see her vs. how she sees herself, and that helped us shape the story. They were great about never balking or backing away from the story even when it got even really messy and complicated. We did a lot of revision. It took a lot of–It took about a year longer than we thought it would because I kept revising more than we anticipated. It’s one of the dreams of working with a publisher that lets you to do that. They didn’t rush me. I knew they were going to let me tell a version of the story. I just didn’t know which version. Andrea and the rest of the Candlewick crew–She’s asked questions to make it stronger but she’s never ever suggested it was too much or something needed to be lost in it.
That’s one of the things I really appreciate looking at Candlewick. Like LIZARD RADIO…
They take risks. I can’t speak for all of the editors. Obviously, I’ve only really worked with Andrea. Although, indirectly, I’m sure I’ve worked with other staff because I know she’s had other colleagues read drafts or read pieces of drafts at times to get another person’s take. And I know another person at the company always read the whole manuscript once it gets to a certain point. They are willing to take risks on books and trust their authors to get them right. There’s a really nice freedom to that, as from an author’s standpoint. They’re a dream to work with. *laughs*
So how was the panel that you were on?
Oh, I loved it.
I didn’t get to see it, and I’m SO upset!
It was really, really–it was a really good experience. The panel–I’m going to mangle the title. Let me look it up. I think it was something like It’s Not Just a G Thing: Exploring the LBTQ and beyond of LGBTQIA+ Literature. And I tend to default to queer because I think we’re all queer, and it’s just easier. Then we’re not mangling the letters or leaving anyone out. We’re all queer in my world. I know some–I know is primarily the older folks who have issues with that. I think it’s a generational thing, but anyway.
I was really excited when I got invited to do this panel. And they were sort of fine-tuning the idea. We narrowed it down to how we don’t want to just talk about queer lit, but we want to talk about underrepresented voices in queer lit. And I love that idea because so often I look at a conference schedule, and when there’s queer content, it skews toward the white male cisgender version of queer lit. Which is queer-lite and some ways. I’m not saying that the books are light.
Because they’re not. It’s just, like… the most comfortable way for a lot of YA readers to approach queer lit is to read about funny, intelligent, sensitive queer boys having their first romances with first heartaches. And books have become much more diverse. We’re seeing more heat. We’re seeing more tough edges. I read a lot of it. And I love a lot of it. And I’m not someone who even thinks we’re–I still think we need coming out stories because kids still come out, people still come out. But where are the baby dykes? The budding queer lesbian girls, who have those striking moments in their eighth or ninth grade year or tenth grade year or senior in high school of I really want to kiss that girl. And those life changing moments. We don’t see those a lot. I don’t think we have had a book from a trade publisher about a trans boy, that I can think of, in recent years.
Yeah, in recent years.
We’ve had a number of trans girls.
Right. And there’s some trans boys. Like back in the late 2000’s. But we need more.
I said on the panel this jokey thing of, you know, we need like trans pansexuals in space. We need to get beyond the upper middle class white gay kid in high school, who comes out and goes to prom and who goes off to college, and everything’s great. Or everything’s not great, but… one of the things I think we’re really missing is– and it might be out there and I haven’t read it yet because my to be read stack is huge– but it’s one thing the transition when you’re upper middle class with health insurance and a supportive family, and they’ll take you to all the appointments, jump through all the hoops, get you the medication. Your insurance covers the therapy, the procedures, the medication, and the devices you may need. And this is not a quick process. So you may need a stable financial picture that is going to remain stable for the next 4 to 5 years if not more until you’re an adult, and you can be sustainable on your own medical care because this is a commitment. There are an awful lot of trans folks out there who don’t have any of that. And then, it’s not a question of being your true self. You are not financially able to do what you want to do. And it’s not just what you want to do. If this is something you need to live, you cannot afford what you need to live. And we’re not seeing that yet.
I was thinking the other day, I know one book with a trans woman of color. And she’s a side character. And that’s ridiculous.
When I think of the media, actually know more trans women of color in the media than I can think of, you know–and I loved Matt de la Peña last night at the Newbery told an anecdote about an African-American girl he met at a bookstore out on tour–it was a school. He applauded her audacity. Maybe it’s her audacity that’s going to help her get out of a tough situation and succeed. It takes an awful lot of audacity to change everything about how you relate the world. But it also takes a lot of money. And that’s a tough thing. I don’t think we see–I tend to write about working class kids. And I think there are reasons that even in working class kids, kids don’t tend to come out as much. Because when your concern is that you might be homeless, there might not be enough food to eat, how am I getting to work, do I have clothes, can I afford to take care of my hair and my appearance? Coming out becomes less of a visceral moment and less, okay you meet someone and you have to come out. If you’re just trying to get by in the world, those things become secondary.
I’d love to see more stories about kids who are queer but are dealing with bigger issues than being queer. Bex’s family was probably working class then her father lost his job. And now they are living with a family member. There’s food on the table. And they’re safe. But they’re certainly not financially viable. She’s working, and her mother’s working. Her mother has plans to get them back on their feet. But they are struggling financially. And that is a stressor for everyone in the family. But it’s also a part of what makes them scared.
I think we have a lot of economic stressors in this country that we don’t talk about. We tend to talk about really poor kids and upper middle affluent kids. We rarely talk about the kids in the middle, who, for all outward appearances are financially fine, but there are days of the month where and their parents are struggling to feed them. Or they don’t have the money for the school trip, or the school treat, or the club, or the sports team, or any number of special things. Because, you know, we didn’t have a lot of money. We were comfortable. But we didn’t have a lot of money. We didn’t take vacations that weren’t going somewhere within driving distance where my grandparents were helping out. We took a lot of day trips. I didn’t feel deprived. I grew up in a nice little community. We did the pool in the area things. But we didn’t have a lot of extra money. I never really wished for more. But I think my parents made a lot of sacrifices. And I knew not to ask for certain things because I knew we didn’t have a ton of extra money, especially in summer because my parents were teachers. And there are a lot of kids out there like that. And I don’t know if we see them that much.
Yeah. Stamp of approval, to all of this. So is Bex out in RADICAL?
That’s a really interesting question because– everything about Bex’s identity and her sexual orientation are too prompt with RADICAL. I have to know what I think of her and I have to know what she thinks of herself. So I think, and I think Bex would agree with me, but she’s never been in. Her family gets her. They just don’t want to believe it. And they’ve seen her. And she’s making concessions. In the beginning of the book, she’s made concessions in her appearance to look a little more feminine and less androgynous because it keeps her mother happy, and it’s a simple thing. [AS BEX] So, I’ll wear my hair longer, and my mother will stay off my back. And she gives me a little bit of a hard time about my cargo shorts and my baggy clothes and my overall appearance. I’m not what she wants me to be. I think inherent is that there is an on spoken understanding between them of who and what she is. And it sort of comes out in their conversations. None of it is that textbook coming out conversation because, when they hit confrontation level, Bex says something like, “You can’t change me.” And, to me, I really had to think about where they were. Especially in families, we just don’t talk about things that make us uncomfortable.
So, in my mind, Bex has never been in. Since she’s been little, I think–and especially now that she’s an adolescent, a teen– I think she knows that her parents know what she wants, which is to be with a girl. And that, left to her own devices, she would keep a very androgynous appearance. But as a lot of teens do, she’s placating them with longer hair so that they can feel comfortable about who she is, biding her time for them to get over it or whatever.
And it’s interesting because… I’m very conscious of the tropes of you can’t be gay and happy in a book. And my first book–and it’s been out long enough that I don’t mind spoiling it–Matt doesn’t know at the beginning of the book that his brother’s gay. And when he finally meets his brother’s lover, his lover is devastated by his death and grieving. And I know there were some people for whom that made them really uncomfortable. There’s no happy gay person in that book, but there shouldn’t be. His lover is dead from a war that maybe he shouldn’t have been in any way, a tour he didn’t have to sign up a for, and it’s been pretty devastating. You’re supposed to be sad about that. I hoped that the bigger themes of acceptance, sacrifice, being at the heart of somebody who wholeheartedly believes in serving their country even if it means sacrificing their lives gets past any of that trope.
But, with Bex’s story, things might not work out perfectly. It’s not a romance destined for the ages. And I don’t want to give too much away. I like to say that Bex being queer saves her life. And I hope for young readers looking for affirmation that they will see that Bex survives this story because she chooses to be true to herself. Maybe, when you’re done, we can revisit that. She may not survive this story if she’s not at least true to herself, if she’s not being open and forcing conversations with her parents. So we will see. [LAUGHTER] You might not agree with me. And that’s okay. I don’t love every book, and I argue with people about books. There are award winning books I have issues with. I will talk with people, and argue with them. I have very strong opinions, and I like talking about books. I don’t expect every reader to love my book or to like my book or to get what I was going for. I just hope some readers get it. Or get something out of it.
Cool. Well, I think those are my questions. I don’t know if there’s anything else you want to–?
No, terrific! And, if after reading, you have any follow-up questions that’s fine. We can’t do it by e-mail or by phone. I really appreciate gayya.org. I think it has really blossomed into something that I think a lot of people are looking for. And they come looking to see what’s going on. I think the guest posts have been great. I saw Edie Campbell the other day and her guest post, which I think it’s fantastic. You know, I’m really happy to see it doing so well, and having people started to look at it as a resource. Congratulations for growing it.
Thank you. I’m very happy with how it’s gone. Especially with–yeah–It’s been quite a year. Especially with the last couple of months, I’m really proud of everything that’s–
And you know, anything worth doing there’s going to be stumbles, there’s going to be times you get something wrong and you learn from it. Or you do something less effectively than you could have. Or you’re doing everything right, but you’re just not getting traction.
So you hope for things to come through. And I just feel like more and more I see people quoting it or retweeting it, and I think that’s really good. That it’s becoming somewhere people look to see what’s happening. So congratulations. After you read, if you have follow-up questions, you can e-mail me. That’s fine. Even if those questions are, “Why did you do this?”
*laughs* Okay. Well, thank you very much!
You’re welcome. And I’m glad you’re doing ALA.
Yeah, thank you.