Wednesday, December 18, 2019


I first met Mary Volmer at Bridging: A One-Day Writing Retreat at St. Mary's College. This writing retreat offered a great space to write, think, and meditate. I was much more in tune with my writing process, and I felt at peace throughout. If you're near the Bay Area (or even if you aren't) this retreat is a necessary one.

I also got acquainted with Mary's writing--in particular, a historical novel called RELIANCE, ILLINOIS, which has an unforgettable protagonist. Have a look:

Illinois, 1874: With a birthmark covering half her face, thirteen-year-old Madelyn Branch is accustomed to cold and awkward greetings, and expects no less in the struggling town of Reliance. After all, her mother, Rebecca, was careful not to mention a daughter in the Matrimonial Times ad that brought them there. When Rebecca weds, Madelyn poses as her mother’s younger sister and earns a grudging berth in her new house. Deeply injured by her mother’s deceptions, Madelyn soon leaves to enter the service of Miss Rose Werner, prodigal daughter of the town’s founder. Miss Rose is a suffragette and purveyor of black market birth control who sees in Madelyn a project and potential acolyte. Madelyn, though, wants to feel beautiful and loved, and she pins her hopes on William Stark, a young photographer and haunted Civil War veteran.

You founded Bridging: A One-Day Hedgebrook Writers Retreat for Women. The retreat is centered upon the idea of radical hospitality. How did this become part of your vision? 

Radical hospitality is the brain child of Nancy Nordhoff, founder of Hedgebrook, a writers residency on Whidbey Island, Washington. I was fortunate to attend a few years ago. The goal of the residency is to provide women writers time and solitude to work. Just as important, the residency offers the kind of nurturing atmosphere women are usually charged with providing for others.

When we were designing the Bridging Retreat at Saint Mary’s College, we knew we couldn’t possibly replicate a month-long Hedgebrook experience. What we could do was offer a day nourished by the same spirit. So, we opened the doors of our bucolic little campus and embraced the concept of radical hospitality. We invite women writers of all descriptions and disciplines, from the vast network of communities that make up the San Francisco Bay Area. What we offer is a taste of Hedgebrook: hours of uninterrupted writing time, great food, camaraderie and connections, and inspiration to propel us forward.

Inspiration that I'm still tapping into now. RELIANCE, ILLINOIS follows Madelyn Branch and her journey toward self-discovery during a time of immense change. In what ways can her story apply to what's happening in our world today?  

Good question. I think the only way I can answer is to give a snapshot of the historical moment of the novel. The book is set in the 1870’s in the long shadow of the American Civil War. This was a dark time. The promises of early Civil Rights legislation was being violently countermanded by Jim Crow laws. Trumped up morality statutes (like the Comstock laws) were being wielded as weapons against women’s reproductive, professional, and economic rights.

And yet, with all this backsliding into racism and misogyny, reformers, like Miss Rose and Mrs. French in my book, continued to fight for equal rights and representation. Their story, and the story of Madelyn and her mother Rebecca, is one of stubborn hope and gritty resilience. I fear it’s more relevant now than when the book came out.

I don't doubt it. What do you think is one of the most common misconceptions that writers have? 

a. "Thinking or talking about writing is as good as writing."

Thinking and talking about writing are necessary, but are no substitute for the labor of pen to paper. Imagine a person who watches, talks and thinks about sports, but who never plays or practices. I’ve described a fan, not athlete. You have to get messy in the work, fail a lot, read a lot, and sweat through the early drafts. That’s how stories (and writers) are made.

b. "Writing gets easier over time."

It doesn’t, but it does become more interesting.

c. "Publishing makes you a writer."

This is not true. What makes you a writer is the conviction that you have something to say, and (this is important) the patience and persistence to find the words to say it well.

Great analogy. What are some of your current projects? 

I’m working on a new book set in the Sierra Nevada foothills during fire season. It’s a departure from my historical novels. I’m accustomed to studying events through the long lens of history. Now, I find the most compelling and unsettling moment is the current one. At the center of the story is a suspicious death and a tempestuous relationship between neighbors living in an rural, unincorporated foothill community. It’s also, more broadly, a story of survival, and a story about the ways we reconcile the life we’ve lived with the life once imagined or expected.

Buy: BookPassage ~ Barnes & Noble ~ IndieBound

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

A GOOD KIND OF TROUBLE by Lisa Moore Ramee

I first met Lisa Moore Ramee at an author event, and bought her debut middle grade novel, A GOOD KIND OF TROUBLE, at an SCBWI event in October. Her book has been cited as one of NPR's best books of 2019, and was mentioned in Booklist as one of their Top Ten #OwnVoices Middle Grade novels. Have a look:

Twelve-year-old Shayla is allergic to trouble. All she wants to do is to follow the rules. (Oh, and she’d also like to make it through seventh grade with her best friendships intact, learn to run track, and have a cute boy see past her giant forehead.)

But in junior high, it’s like all the rules have changed. Now she’s suddenly questioning who her best friends are and some people at school are saying she’s not black enough. Wait, what?

Shay’s sister, Hana, is involved in Black Lives Matter, but Shay doesn't think that's for her. After experiencing a powerful protest, though, Shay decides some rules are worth breaking. She starts wearing an armband to school in support of the Black Lives movement. Soon everyone is taking sides. And she is given an ultimatum.

Shay is scared to do the wrong thing (and even more scared to do the right thing), but if she doesn't face her fear, she'll be forever tripping over the next hurdle. Now that’s trouble, for real.

According to your website bio, you wrote your first book in second grade (Me too!--it was called Stewert and the Wind, and was basically a rip-off of The Muppets Take Manhattan). What was that first book about, and in what ways, if any, did it inspire your writing journey?

My book was called Sky Palace and told the story of Princess Avistina (because even then I was a killer at creating names) who was unhappy living with the gods and goddesses and wanted to be with humans. (Let me add this was before Disney's The Little Mermaid movie and before Rick Riordan brought so much attention back to mythology. Lol) I think even at seven I was interested in exploring themes of not belonging and writing stories that would appeal to a young audience. I also gave my mc a small bit of personal power, something I still try to instill with my characters.

Lisa First Book from Second Grade

I love characters that have personal power! A GOOD KIND OF TROUBLE explores finding identity and conquering fear in new and unfamiliar environments. How did Shayla's story form as you wrote it? 

When I first started the book, a had a few primary goals, that all can be narrowed down to say, I wanted to write Judy Blume for Black girls. Which is not to say that Black girls can't read and enjoy Judy Blume--I certainly did--but rather, I wanted Black girls to have a story where not only could they identify with the themes of friendship and crushes and family but also see themselves. The theme of social justice came later and was a direct result of all the stories I saw on the news, (seemingly every day) that showed yet another Black person being killed by police instead of simply being arrested/questioned, and I started imagining how it would feel to see those news stories if I was only twelve? How would it make me feel about being Black? How would I feel being told over and over that because of the color of my skin, my life matters less than others, or perhaps not at all? I knew that Shayla had to be affected by these questions and ultimately I knew I had to show her take a stand. Another thing that developed was the character of Bernard who became a larger part of the story. His character gave me a great opportunity to show how a kid might be judged too quickly.

And I'm so glad that kids with those experiences can see themselves in books like yours. What kinds of books would you like to see more of in Middle Grade?

Always more books with kids of color. We've made some progress but we have a long way to go. I'd also like to see more books that are at the higher end of middle grade. There's a noticeable gap between traditional middle grade and young adult and I think we're missing a whole lot of readers who want stories that speak to their specific age group. There's a big difference between an eighth grader and a junior in high school. But in addition to that I want more middle grade FANTASY with the main character being a person of color--especially with boy mc's.

Sounds wonderful. What are some of your current projects? 

My next book is another MG contemporary but the main character, Jenae, is very different from Shayla. Jenae wants to be invisible and left alone. She doesn't want friends. She just wants to fix her older brother who is home from college with a basketball injury. But a new boy is determined to befriend her, and eventually Jenae has to decide if she's willing to give up this new friendship in her effort to never stand out or up. I love the book because it touches on the fear of public speaking (something I struggled with all through school) and it looks at what history we remember and respect and whether we should still value celebrities after we know of their objectionable beliefs. It will be out summer 2020. Right now, I'm working on a middle grade fantasy that goes directly to my desire to see a Black boy front in center in a fantastical world. I'm really excited about it--even though the writing has been challenging. Hopefully an editor will love it as much as I do.

Buy: BookPassage ~ Barnes & Noble ~ IndieBound

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Wednesday, December 4, 2019

REVERIE by Ryan La Sala

REVERIE has been on my To-Be-Read list ever since I connected with Ryan La Sala on Twitter. I'm happy to announce that the book finally debuted yesterday. Have a look:

All Kane Montgomery knows for certain is that the police found him half-dead in the river. He can’t remember how he got there, what happened after, and why his life seems so different now. And it’s not just Kane who’s different, the world feels off, reality itself seems different.

As Kane pieces together clues, three almost-strangers claim to be his friends and the only people who can truly tell him what’s going on. But as he and the others are dragged into unimaginable worlds that materialize out of nowhere—the gym warps into a subterranean temple, a historical home nearby blooms into a Victorian romance rife with scandal and sorcery—Kane realizes that nothing in his life is an accident. And when a sinister force threatens to alter reality for good, they will have to do everything they can to stop it before it unravels everything they know.

This wildly imaginative debut explores what happens when the secret worlds that people hide within themselves come to light.

According to your website, you are represented by Veronica Park at Fuse Literary. How did you know Veronica was the right agent for you? 

She understood my villain. It sounds like an odd criteria — usually you’d want someone to really emphasize with your hero — but for me, the hallmark of understanding REVERIE is understanding why Poesy does what she does, and what it matters that there’s a great deal of sympathy for her in the book’s narrative. That’s always been the case with the reactions to REVERIE that I value; a critical understanding of the villain.

Plus she goes by Agent V, which reminded me of Sailor Venus (who goes by Sailor V sometimes). And if I were to have one Sailor Scout as my agent, it would absolutely be Sailor V(enus). They share a lot of great qualities: compassion, leadership, smarts, resourcefulness, and a sense for drama. I appreciate those things in a business partnership, and in an artistic partnership.

And lastly, Veronica understands potential in a way that is really impactful for queer creators. First, she believes in queer story tellers, and is a huge advocate for such a thing. But she also understands the harsher battle queer creators face in a largely heteronormative industry, and having her understanding alongside my project was essential in finding the right home for REVERIE.

Lesson learned? I strongly encourage writers to ask both "who will be my best advocate?" AND "who will be the best advocate for the work I can't help but produce?" Veronica is both of those people for me.

Those are excellent questions to consider in looking for an agent! You've stated that you've "always lived on the partition between the real and the unreal." Can you elaborate, and in what ways, if any, did this inspire the worldbuilding in REVERIE?

Yes, of course! From a young age, I used had the urge to participate in the stories that most inspired me. It might have been because there was no one like me in stories (being gay, and very flamboyant, and proud about it), or it could have just been the self-centered nature of a child. But I never outgrew it. I’ve forever sought to take my wild imagining and externalize them, map them onto my own world, and live among them. As a kid, that meant roleplaying and acting out stories and participating in drama. It also meant pretending to have magic powers all the time, and collecting any strange artifact that I thought might curse me or transport me to a magical land.

As an adult, I’m very conscious of the power I can exert on the reality around me. I am more focused in my creative pursuits. I spend less time lying about magical powers, and more time writing about magical powers. I spend less time role-playing heroics, and more time crafting elaborate schemes to get my gay heroes in front of kids, and into classrooms, and out there on social media.

So I sort of see myself as the line between the real and unreal. Kane, the hero in REVERIE, occupies a similar position. He's halfway in, halfway out of fantasy at all times, and as a result he is the person best suited to navigate the reveries (a dreamy phenomenon taking over his town). He understands how stories work, how adventures can turn ugly, and so he's able to navigate in many different kind of stories.

As for the reveries themselves, many are built off of recurring daydreams that have swept me up at one point or another. I can't give specifics, but many of the more bizarre portions of the book are very much related to the things that scare me, captivate me, or disgust me.  As a kid, I used fantasy to deal with a reality I didn't love, so it's kind of fitting that these fantasies now align characters that are conversely trying to reclaim their own love of reality.

What a great way to build a fantastical world based on the reality you experienced. What are your thoughts (and/or opinions) about the upcoming CATS movie? 

THANK YOU for asking about this.

I adore CATS, and unironically. I sort of went as a joke my first time because I won tickets to see it, and heard it was bananas. But then I fell in love, and I saw it two more times that year on Broadway, and then went to the national tour. I am super excited about the movie. Here is why:

CATS defies so much about what we think a story should be. Most people say there’s no plot, but in fact the plot is just incredibly hard to interpret as a plot, since the show is truly about a bunch of humanoid CATS singing about themselves. Ultimately, they also have a goal, but it almost doesn’t matter because the point of the show is uncanny spectacle, self-referential lyrics, and shenanigans. It’s this huge, elaborate hoax dressed up as a Broadway show, and it’s been baffling the public for years, yet folks love it.

LOVE it.

I love CATS, and I love the confusion is causes. I’m so excited that the movie looks like it’s going to be this gorgeous, grotesque spectacle. It’s creating the exact level of artistic panic that I absorb to become more powerful. More Ryan, if you will.

And….the movie will feature Jennifer Hudson belting Memory. This isn’t an opinion. It’s wish-fulfillment. It’s how I know the universe is looking out for my very specific, very narrow interests.

I think I'm interested now too! What are some of your current projects? 

My immediate next project now that REVERIE is out is: playing Pokemon Sword. I just bought it today, and I can’t wait to explore the new region. Aside from Pokemon, I’m also going to work on some cosplays I put off this fall, so I have some killer looks ready to go for cons this spring and summer.

Recently I got to write an essay on about my lifelong obsession with Sailor Moon, and that was super cool! I’m hoping I get to do even more essay writing, now that REVERIE is out, and now that people are beginning to associate me with a queer perspective on culture and media.

I’m also in the midst of editing my second book, due out in late 2020. It’s about arts and crafts, cosplay, relationship drama, and the lessons learned in the world of competitive costuming. It’s not related to REVERIE at all, so I’m a little anxious folks are going to be upset with me for doing that and not working on, say, a sequel, but I’m hoping I get to do both. Interpret that as a hint, if you want. 🙂

Buy: BookPassage ~ Barnes & Noble ~ IndieBound

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