I’ve been following author Kelly DeVos’s career and enjoying her work and social media posts for years. I even had the pleasure of meeting the young adult writer at a pre-pandemic SCBWI conference in Los Angeles. Her latest novel, Eat Your Heart Out (Razorbill, June 2021), is smart, funny, satirical and original. Here’s a description of the novel, an Amazon Editor’s Pick in the Best Young Adult category:
Eat Your Heart Out follows a group of six teenagers who are disgruntled at the prospect of being shipped off to a fancy fat camp during winter break. When they arrive at camp, they discover things are worse than they thought. The place is crawling with zombies. They may be the only six survivors and they have to both escape and figure out what’s really up with the mysterious pharmaceutical company running the camp.
I am thrilled to share this Q & A with deVos to celebrate her new novel as well as her timely and important work on body positivity, fat positivity and fat representation.
Your debut novel, Fat Girl on a Plane (Harlequin Teen, 2018), was written after an incident you experienced when you were about to board a flight. What happened, and how did it evolve into a young adult book?
Yes! I got the idea to write the book after I was asked to buy a second seat on a flight to Salt Lake City. Right around that time, I was contemplating giving my dream of becoming a published author another shot but I also happened to be working on setting up a photoshoot with Project Runway Season Four contestant, Keith Bryce. After leaving the show, Keith went on to set up a successful photography and wardrobe studio and I was headed there for a shoot.
I arrived at the Phoenix airport for my flight to Utah. The opening scene in my book was inspired pretty directly by what actually happened to me. I was told that I’d need to purchase a second seat. A lot of panicked questions raced through my mind. Could I afford the second seat? Did they even have one available? But most of all: Should I even go on the trip? For a moment, I couldn’t help but think that it would be less trouble and less humiliating to just stay home. I reminded myself that I had done a ton of work behind the scenes to make this shoot happen and I had as much right as anyone to be there. So, I got on the plane. But that experience was the genesis of my book. I kept wondering. Does fatphobia make us feel like we’re unworthy of pursuing our own dreams? I wanted to write not only about the way fat people are treated but also about how those negative experiences impact the choices that we make.
What inspired your subsequent novels (which include the duology Day Zero and Day One as well as Eat Your Heart Out)? How did your writing processes differ for each of these (and/or compared to your debut)?
After FAT GIRL came out, I was supposed to be working on another YA contemporary book, but I was having a lot of trouble. The 2016 election was in full swing. My awareness of a lot of issues had changed and, for me, the social and political climate, didn’t put me in a place where I was able to focus on upbeat writing. I wanted to change what I was doing. As I was changing to writing thrillers, I found I really liked that process quite a lot and I wanted to go more in that direction. I’ve always loved horror movies so I decided to lean into that genre and write EAT YOUR HEART OUT, which was such a blast to work on.
What is it about summer camp that made you want to write about it? What do you most remember about those days, and how did those experienced impact you as a person and a writer?
When I was growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money and I only got to go to summer camp once, but it was honestly the best experience ever. As a child, I was really scared of spiders. I still don’t like them now, but at that time I was absolutely terrified. The camp I went to had these pretty basic, VERY rustic, wooden cabins where six or eight kids could sleep on bunkbeds. The very first night I found an enormous spider in my bed and almost got hysterical.
They moved me into the cabins that they had for adults which were (to a ten-year-old) super luxurious. There was a private pool and a kitchen with free snacks and a queen size bed and air conditioning. It was fabulous. The other kids thought I was some kind of celebrity or something. I’d be out at camp during the day, doing arts and crafts and sitting by the campfire and then I’d go back to the fancy part and swim and snatch Oreos. I took a lot of inspiration from that experience into EAT YOUR HEART OUT. It was a camp setting for people who almost wanted to pretend to be camping rather than actually be roughing it.
You’ve written thoughtfully about body positivity in several publications, most notably The New York Times (May 2018). How has your thinking about it evolved since writing that article? And how does this translate into the messages you share (without being didactic of course) through your novels?
Body positivity, fat positivity and fat representation are all topics that are very near and dear to my heart. I continue to feel that there should be space for nuance in how we handle these issues, particularly in fiction. But I feel like what I have had to learn is that, as fat people, we’re not all in the same place in our journey to self-acceptance and self-love. So, I have tried to proceed with a lot more sensitivity to try to make sure that my material finds an audience who’s able to and interested in engaging with it. Using content warnings, describing the plot of my books very accurately and making sure that books that contain fatphobia (even just to condemn it) are marketed to prepared readers are things that I’ve gotten much more serious about.
How has the pandemic impacted your writing, and how do you balance that with book promotion?
Possibly because I have been writing horror, I actually got quite a bit of writing done. Feelings of mortal terror have been coming quite naturally! During the pandemic, I’ve struggled with what, if anything, I could do to effectively promote my books. Many of the things I would have done in the past, like bookstore or library events, haven’t been paused due to COVID. In terms of balance, I try to prioritize writing. Beyond that, for promotion, I try to focus on things I enjoy. I mainly stay on social media channels I like and do things that are fun. That way, I am always satisfied with the use of my time.
What has been the best part of writing for young people?
Reading was so important to me growing up and I love the idea that my books are available for teen readers. I think the best part is getting to see my books find their way into the hands of teens and hope that they impact the readers’ lives in some way.
Any writing resources (books, podcasts, etc.) that you can’t live without?
I love Outlining Your Novel and the workbook that goes with it from K.W. Weiland. She also has a fantastic website (https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com) full of a ton of free resources for writers. For podcasts, I listen to What Book Hooked You with Brock Shelley which I find fascinating because authors talk about the books that inspired them to write. I also really like Writer Writer Pants on Fire with Mindy McGinnis. I’m a big fan of her work and I think she often has really interesting topics and guests.
Please share any advice that has helped you in your journey from writer to published author.
A couple things have really helped me. First of all, I’ve made some great friends who are writers and who really understand what the process is like. From being in the query trenches to finally have a book on shelves, it helps so much to have a support system. Second, I try to keep moving forward. I keep a couple of projects going at the same time and I try to do things to improve my craft.
I have one last question that’s completely tangential to book talk. I learned on your website that you have a sticker collection! One of the things I personally loved about sleep away/overnight camp was sharing with others and organizing my sticker and stationary collections. What are your tips for those (including me) who might want to revisit/reintroduce the popular pastime into our lives?
I basically live for stickers!! Just kidding. But I do like them an awful lot. Growing up, I absolutely loved all that Lisa Frank stuff. A few years ago, I saw an ad online for a sticker club and it dawned on me that I could collect stickers now too. Whenever I travel anywhere I pick up stickers and there are some local boutiques here in Phoenix that have incredible offerings. I was a member of the Pipsticks club for a while but I had to pause that a bit because I was running out of places to store my stuff.
Kelly deVos is from Gilbert, Arizona, where she lives with her high school sweetheart husband, amazing teen daughter and superhero dog, Cocoa. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from Arizona State University. When not reading or writing, Kelly can typically be found with a mocha in hand, bingeing the latest TV shows and adding to her ever-growing sticker collection.
Her work has been featured in the New York Times as well as on Vulture, Salon, Bustle and SheKnows. Her debut novel, Fat Girl on a Plane, was named one of the “50 Best Summer Reads of All Time” by Reader’s Digest magazine.
Learn more about deVos on her website. You can also follow her on Twitter, on Instagram, and on Facebook. You can also learn more about her work on Goodreads. You can purchase Eat Your Heart Out from Amazon, B&N, Indiebound or wherever books are sold.
In 2019, I had the pleasure of doing a Q & A with novelist Laura Sibson about her writing life and beautiful debut novel, The Art of Breaking Things. A fan of hers and her wonderful work, I was excited to learn about her sophomore novel, Edie in Between (Viking Books for Young Readers, August 24, 2021). Here’s a description from Sibson’s website:
A modern-day Practical Magic about love, loss, and embracing the mystical.
It’s been one year since Edie’s mother died. But her ghost has never left.
According to her GG, it’s tradition that the dead of the Mitchell family linger with the living. It’s just as much a part of a Mitchell’s life as brewing healing remedies or talking to plants. But Edie, whose pain over losing her mother is still fresh, has no interest in her family’s legacy as local “witches.”
When her mother’s teenage journal tumbles into her life, her family’s mystical inheritance becomes once and for all too hard to ignore. It takes Edie on a scavenger hunt to find objects that once belonged to her mother, each one imbued with a different memory. Every time she touches one of these talismans, it whisks her to another entry inside the journal–where she watches her teenage mom mourn, love, and hope just as Edie herself is now doing.
But as Edie discovers, there’s a dark secret behind her family’s practice that she’s unwittingly released. She’ll have to embrace–and master–the magic she’s always rejected…before it consumes her.
Tinged with a sweet romance with the spellbinding Rhia, who works at the local occult shop, Edie in Between delivers all the cozy magic a budding young witch finding her way in the world needs.
Sibson and I recently reconnected about her writing life and latest work. Here are the highlights.
What has been the best part of becoming a published author with your debut novel, The Art of Breaking Things (Viking Books for Young Readers, 2019)?
The best part of being published is having the opportunity to interact with readers – either in real life at book events or through email – and hearing that your book affected them in some way. The other aspect of being published for which I’m very grateful is the doors it’s opened for me to lead workshops at The Highlights Foundation and to teach writing at the university level, both of which have been long-held dreams for me.
Was the process of writing your sophomore novel, Edie in Between, very different than that for your debut? If so, how?
The process of writing a second novel on deadline is night and day from the process of writing a first novel on your own schedule. For The Art of Breaking Things, I had years to work on the prose and the plot. I shared that manuscript with several trusted readers more than once. Edie In Between, on the other hand, was crafted through collaboration with my editor at Viking, Maggie Rosenthal. I threw some ideas at her, she came back and suggested I merge two of the ideas and the current version of Edie was born. I wrote a skinny first draft, then after receiving global revision notes from Maggie, threw out half of the draft and wrote even more. Maggie was instrumental in guiding me toward infusing the story with more magic and inspiring me to increase the stakes. I love the story that has resulted and I’m so grateful to work with an editor who has such a keen eye and is so skilled at her job.
I’m intrigued by the cover of Edie in Between. It’s so retro! Can you tell us the thought behind it?
The book is about a young witch who is reluctant to take on her power. In the book she meets a girl at an occult shop who reads tarot and helps Edie learn to wield (and accept) her magic. (Spoiler alert: there are sparks of attraction!) The design team wanted to pull in that tarot card sensibility for the cover, so they commissioned Lisa Sterle, who created the Modern Witch Tarot (among many amazing things) to create an image for the cover. And it’s perfect! While the book deals with parental loss, it’s also a fun story of friendship, magic, and adventure. This cover captures all those elements.
What personal experiences inspired this novel?
There are several elements in Edie In Between that stem from real life. First, the grief narrative was inspired many years ago when I wondered what it was like for my mother to have lost her father when she was just eighteen years old. That original story, which was my creative thesis at VCFA, was a contemporary realistic story of a girl who is navigating grief in an unusual way. The family name of the witches, Mitchell, is my mother-in-law’s maiden name. We lost her in 2014, so using that name is my way of paying tribute to her. Also, the setting of this final incarnation comes from my life. Cedar Branch is a fictionalized version of a place on the Chesapeake where I camped with my family when I was a kid. I have the best memories of crabbing and learning to paddle a canoe and swimming in the river. And finally, our younger child, who is 21, came out as transgender while I was drafting this story which inspired me to use Edie’s reluctance around magic as a metaphor for acceptance and claiming your full self.
How has the pandemic affected your reading/writing life?
I wrote like crazy while on deadline, but now that I don’t have an editorial deadline, I confess that diving into the drafting process has been more challenging than I’d like. As for reading, initially when the pandemic hit, it seemed that I couldn’t read anything longer than a news article. But I’ve gotten beyond that and have been reading a lot lately. Partly out of necessity. I’m teaching a college-level writing course this fall so I needed to read widely to select books to assign. (And there’s VCFA rep on that list! I’ve included Nora Carpenter’s Rural Voices Anthology as well as Varian Johnson’s Twins.) I’m also moderating a virtual YA rom-com panel for Salem Lit Fest in September, so I’m reading the panelists’ books as well.
As writers, we’re always studying, learning, and focusing on the craft of writing. How have you been able to maintain/guard your writing time while handling the rigors of the business (which includes engaging in social media, doing events, etc.)?
I find that it all comes in fits and starts. At the moment, I’m very focused on promoting Edie In Between so drafting my next novel is taking a back seat for a few weeks. But I’m also developing the syllabus for the course I’m teaching, and I do volunteer work as well. I find that the social media aspect of promoting a book could take up the entire day if you allow it. I set specific amounts of time for social media and then I use Freedom to limit access to those sites while I’m working on the course or the new writing project.
How do you generate ideas for future novels (if that’s something you are pursuing), and what do you do with those ideas once you have them?
When an idea lights upon me, maybe through a conversation with someone or a news story or walk in the woods, I’ll generally start writing what comes to mind to evaluate if the idea has legs. Many sparks don’t go anywhere. The ones that keep my interest or seem to have possibility, I’ll continue drafting as scenes come to me. Eventually, I get to a place where I need to stand back and see what I’ve got and figure out how to move forward. Usually is this around the 20k words mark. I’ll start to create a loose plot and keep going from there.
What’s your writing routine during drafting and/or revision?
Now that meeting in coffee shops to write isn’t really feasible, I’m fortunate to have a room on the third floor of our old Victorian home where I can work. My desk is perched before a set of windows that look out over the big magnolia in our front yard. I usually put in some ear buds, make sure I’ve got plenty of fresh coffee, turn on the Freedom app and dive into the writing. Having said that, I can’t sit still for long periods of time, so I’ll get up to walk around every hour or two.
What writing tools/resources would you not want to live without?
Scrivener. I still believe that I would not be able to draft a novel without it. My brain gets overwhelmed when drafting in a word document, partly because I tend to draft out of order. I’ve also become increasingly reliant on my white board for plotting.
Any tips for aspiring novelists just getting started on their writing and/or publishing journey?
Finish the thing. That is the best advice I can give because it’s really all the advice wrapped up in one short sentence. Finish the thing means don’t give up on yourself or your story. It’s also intensely practical because you cannot query agents until you have a completed manuscript. Many, many people start, but never finish. You’ve got to finish if you want to be published.
What makes you want to keep writing?
To be frank, I don’t think I could not write at this point. I get grouchy and irritable when I’m not working on a new story. Even when the world of publishing feels tough and I wonder if I want to keep going, a character or a setting or a situation calls to me and back into the writing cave I go.
Check out reviews of Edie in Between by Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. You can also learn more about Laura and her work by visiting her website.
Edie in Between is available at AMAZON, BARNES & NOBLE, INDIEBOUND and BAM.
About Laura Sibson: After a career in undergraduate counseling, Laura Sibson pursued an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. When she’s not writing in a local coffee shop, you can find her running the neighborhood streets or hiking with her dog. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and their two sons. Laura is available for school visits, book clubs, workshops and conferences. She can speak on the process of writing and publishing to audiences from middle school into adulthood. With her background in one-on-one counseling, giving presentations and facilitating both panels and writing groups, Laura brings both warmth and professionalism to all of her endeavors.
Full disclosure: Emma Kress is my dear friend. During our MFA studies, my Revisionary cohort at Vermont College of Fine Arts was lucky enough to adopt her (though we all respected the fact that we’d forever have to share her with the Tropebusters). Despite my obvious bias, this teacher and writer can only be described as a force, both as a human and a novelist. She has a lot to say and says it all with heart and hope and humor. Her powerful debut novel, Dangerous Play (Roaring Brook Press, August 3, 2021), more than proves that.
Described by Kirkus as “[A] contemporary feminist debut. . . . A timely and absorbing character study of a sexual assault survivor,” and by Corey Ann Haydu, author of Ever Cursed, as “Vibrant, daring, and deep, Dangerous Play is both a thrilling ride and a profound exploration of female friendship, rape culture, and the difficulty of doing the right thing in a world built on wrongs. An unflinching and empowering debut,” the novel is a timely, gripping and thought-provoking must-read for teens.
Here’s a brief description of the novel from Emma’s website:
Zoe Alamandar has one goal: win the State Field Hockey Championships and earn a scholarship that will get her the hell out of Central New York. She and her co-captain Ava Cervantes have assembled a fierce team of dedicated girls who will work hard and play by the rules.
But after Zoe is sexually assaulted at a party, she finds a new goal: make sure no girl feels unsafe again. Zoe and her teammates decide to stop playing by the rules and take justice into their own hands. Soon, their suburban town has a team of superheroes meting out punishments. But one night of vigilantism may cost Zoe her team, the championship, her scholarship, and her future.
I had the pleasure of doing an email Q and A with Emma about the novel and her writing life. Here are the highlights:
When did you know you were a writer, and at what point did you decide you’d write for children and young adults?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was ten but it took me until 2010 to take my writing seriously and commit to a daily practice. Writing for children and young adults was a natural choice as I was a teacher, surrounded by both children and children’s literature. At the start of my teaching career, I taught 5th grade and started a few middle-grade books. By the time I was writing seriously, I was teaching teens and reading a lot of YA fiction. But it was more than proximity, I think, that drew me to write for children and young adults. I think it was the same thing that drew me to teaching children and teens: our society underestimates kids, trivializes their concerns, and romanticizes their experience, all while exerting a lot of control over their existence. As a result, giving space on the page to teens and children is a radical act of resistance. And, most of my favorite stories center around change and power. I don’t think there’s any period of life that hits those more than childhood and adolescence.
What’s the greatest source of joy and fun for you when it comes to your writing life?
I love to learn and grow and writing offers a great path to both. I love figuring out the way the world or people work, though the eyes of my characters. I love the way a character can surprise me even though, technically, I’m the one doing the writing. I love the way at some point during the writing process I recognize some deep psychological struggle and get to say, “oh, that’s what you’re about.” Writing for me is like how running is for my husband—it keeps me steady, it keeps me sane. And, um, I don’t even need to sweat.
How has teaching fed into your creative life/process?
I think my love of teaching and the kids I’ve taught has been very helpful in terms of character voice and dialogue. I also feel very present in that time of life. I don’t have to rely on my memories as a teen when students are so ready to say, “you’ll never believe what just happened in the hall.” As a result, I think my stories feel authentic and of this moment. But I also think my commitment to honoring the voices and experiences of children and teens as a teacher is the same thing that drives me as a writer. As I said earlier, I think it is a radical act of resistance to listen to and honor children and teens.
How did getting your MFA at VCFA change your life (writing and otherwise)?
I could wax poetic about all that I love about VCFA for yeeears. VCFA gave me so many tools to improve my writing. As a result, I’m so much better at story structure, character development, side writing, and precision. But my time at VCFA was so much more for me than just a Home Depot for writing tools. VCFA emboldened me to experiment with new genres and audiences. VCFA fed my confidence and helped me pinpoint my strengths while shoring up my weaknesses. And I was actually shocked by the close-knit community. The alums I’d spoke to before I went all talked about it, but somehow, I didn’t think it would apply to me. Wow, I was wrong. It’s such a powerful network of talented and beautiful humans. I’d never been a part of an institution that was built on the twin pillars of compassion and creativity. As a teacher and former administrator, it was incredible to see that in action.
What are three tools you’ve used or created to help draft your novels?
My three biggest tools that I’m obsessed with right now:
- side writing
- working out problems with fat markers on big chart paper
- graph paper spreadsheets (not on the computer)
(For me, a big way to solve problems is often to step away from the manuscript and get off of the computer.)
What was the spark that led to Dangerous Play, why was it important for you to write this particular story, and what did the process from spark to book look like?
Dangerous Play is about the captain of a girls’ field hockey team. When she’s sexually assaulted, her ride-or-die team turn into vigilantes…but it might cost them everything.
This team of fierce, hyper-athletic, determined girls showed up when I was in the middle of writing something else. I told them to go away, but they didn’t listen. Even though they showed up sudden and loud, I had been thinking about some of book’s components for some time. For instance, I’d long noticed a gap in YA literature. While there were powerful books that followed a survivor’s journey, I didn’t see any books about rape culture overall. I’d also never seen a book about girls’ sports and the kinds of friendships that can happen on an intense, competitive girls’ team. I started writing Dangerous Play back in 2014. Thankfully, now there are books like Moxie, which address rape culture. And while there are more books featuring athletic girls (like 2021 debuts In the Same Boat, by Holly Green, and The Knockout, by Sajni Patel) there are few that feature full teams. As a result, I was thrilled when the girls of Dangerous Play showed up, filling a need I’d had for a long time. In many ways, this was the book I needed both when I was a teen, and as an adult.
Where do you like to write?
I used to like to write here, surrounded by books. And yet, thanks to the pandemic and everyone in my family in virtual school or working from home, I’m now squeezed in between my bed and the window on a folding table. But while it’s not as pretty, being able to shut my bedroom door is EVERYTHING.
What’s the best thing about transitioning from writer to debut author?
EK: I’ve been thinking a lot about that old version of me—that 10-year-old girl—who wanted more than anything to be a published author. It’s a surreal and incredible thing to be able to give her this gift. How many people get to do that? It feels like a true privilege. And I think the gift feels all the bigger because of how long it took for me.
What’s the most challenging thing about transitioning from writer to debut author?
Every day I’m learning something new. Which in many ways is wonderful, because luckily I like to learn new things. But the learning curve is steep. It’s a bit daunting and tiring to be standing at the foot of yet another learning mountain on a near daily basis. Part of that is the debut year. But part of that is debuting in a pandemic. So even if I ask my mentors who are more experienced for advice or insight, none of them debuted in a pandemic so it makes things a bit more interesting for us pandemic debuters. Thankfully the kidlit community is the most inclusive and supportive of which I’ve ever been a part—so we’re weathering this together.
Please share any advice that’s helped you best (from others or yourself) in your kidlit career?
I think A LOT about my boat and I recommend every writer get themselves a boat. Inside my boat are the things I can control: honing my writing craft, how much I dedicate to my writing, how vulnerable I am on the page, getting the words on the page, teaching my kids to clap when I finish a draft. Literally everything else is outside my boat: book deals, reviews, lists, other people’s opinions, whether my kids actually clap, etc. It’s so helpful to train your focus inside your boat. In publishing, there are a lot of shiny somethings, lots of ego catnip, lots of opportunities to, as one writer friend likes to say, “compare and despair.” Retraining our focus to be inside our boat must be a habitual and intentional act. Let craft and our enjoyment of it be our unwavering center.
Hope Sparkers–what are they, and where can people get some?
I love that you asked! As you know, I’ve done a lot of research on hope and how helpful it can be for writers for children and young adults to incorporate hope as part of their writer’s toolkit. I made up the term “Hope Sparkler” to refer to all the things that I believe give us hope: friends/family/inspirational leaders in your community; religion/ philosophy/ belief system/ faith in ruling bodies; your own positive characteristics (creativity, humor, optimism, gratitude etc.); passion/talents (baking, gardening); place; and, of course, books. Books not only can contain hope sparklers but they can be them in their own right. If there’s anything we learned during this last year, it’s that we need as many hope sparklers as we can get. We need them to light our way during those dark days. And children need them most of all.
Where can writers and educators access your awesome Instagram videos for use in their practice or classroom?
Oh my gosh, these videos have been such a gift to me as well. Every single writer I’ve interviewed has offered such wisdom and inspiration. With the exception of one long-form video, all videos are about 15-minutes and packed with craft. At this point, there are thirty-six videos and you can find them all on my IGTV. I plan to offer these again during this year’s NaNoWriMo. I love any opportunity to blend my love of teaching and writing!
What’s on the horizon for Emma Kress?
I’m busy revising what I hope will be my second book—also a contemporary stand-alone YA. Like Dangerous Play, you can expect it to be feminist, funny, and fierce. On August 3rd, I’ll have a virtual launch with the great Nova Ren Suma along with several other upcoming launch events and writing workshops. I offer one general and one writing-focused newsletter every month (sign up here: https://www.emmakress.com/contact ). I’m also very active on all my social media. I look forward to connecting with all of you.
Some other mentions of Emma Kress and Dangerous Play to check out: A review on Publishers Weekly, a craft lesson on writing about sports on Kid Lit Craft.
Emma Kress is a long-time educator and 2014 finalist for NY State Teacher of the Year. She’s a graduate of Vassar College, Columbia University’s Teachers College, and the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives with her family in Saratoga Springs, NY. Dangerous Play is her debut novel. Learn more about Emma Kress and her amazing work on her website and on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and TikTok.
I recently read Liara Tamani’s All the Things We Never Knew (Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins Publishers)—a 2020 Kirkus Best YA Book of the Year that’s now out in paperback—and I couldn’t put it down. I laughed, cried, and swooned over the romantic, immersive, and layered story—a perfect YA novel. Here’s a brief description of the title from Tamani’s website:
The Sun is Also a Star meets “Love & Basketball” in a tumultuous, lyrical teen romance about two African American, high school basketball stars who fall in love hard and fast, but struggle while navigating their own tough family issues.
Carli feels completely lost. She secretly wants to quit basketball, but has no idea what dream she wants to replace it with. To make matters worse, her parents are getting divorced and she and her brother must decide who to live with. The only thing saving her is her belief that signs will ultimately reveal her destiny, and they all just pointed to Rex.
Rex craves love. He might be ESPN’s #1 high school basketball player of the year, but he’s terribly lonely. An only child, his mother died giving birth to him and he’s sure his father blames him for it. Plus, Rex has moved to a new school where all of his new teammates hate him. But meeting Carli changes everything. With her, he feels all the love he’s ever wanted to feel.
Set in Houston over the last few months of Rex and Carli’s junior year, ALL THE THINGS WE NEVER KNEW will make readers feel the all tenderness, messiness, and bliss of first love.
Cover art by Loveis Wise.
Before diving into Tamani’s gorgeous first novel, Calling My Name (Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins Publishers)—a 2018 PEN America Literary Award Finalist and an SCBWI Golden Kite Award Finalist—I had the pleasure of chatting with Tamani about her work and writing life. Here are the highlights:
EZ: We share something in common—we’re both graduates of Vermont College of Fine Arts. You received your MFA in Writing from VCFA in 2010. How was that experience for you?
LT: I loved the sense of community and still have good writing friends from the program. I loved getting different feedback every semester from different advisors. Each gave you something new to look at, and every semester a fresh set of eyes saw your work. Each advisor’s feedback resonated with me in different ways.
EZ: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
LT: I think all writers go through this thing where they’re afraid to call themselves a writer until they’re published. I’m sure it’s an insecurity many writers wish they could rid themselves of, and I definitely had it. I don’t know if I would have called myself a writer until I got a short story published. I had been writing for many years, and had definitely earned the title. But I didn’t want to say I’m a writer and then have to answer the inevitable question, Where have you been published? The fear in me never wanted to answer, Nowhere, to that question.
EZ: What inspired you to write specifically for children and young adults?
LT: Initially I didn’t have a specific plan for writing for children and young adults. At Vermont College of Fine Arts, I wasn’t even aware of the Writing for Children and Young Adults program. I did the adult program. I was also ignorant and naïve about all aspects of business and marketing, and where books fit in the market. When I was writing my first book, Calling My Name, I was just trying to write the best book that I could.
The girl who narrated the story had a young voice. So, during the first round of submissions, my agent pitched it as young adult. The plan for the second round was to pitch it as an adult novel. It ended up selling really quickly and then I got a two-book deal with the expectation that my second book would be written for the young adult market.
But I will say it’s been a huge blessing, and I’m so grateful that I get to write for kids. I always try to see the beauty in the world all day, every day, and to be aware of living a life in loving kindness. I try to do all of these things, and I love learning about the human experience because we are constantly evolving and growing. Just because we are adults, the learning never stops. Even when you learn things, you have to relearn them. Our learning takes place in a cyclical manner, just like everything else in life. We learn things and then we forget things, and then we learn them again. Writing for kids helps me remember.
Photo credit: Seneca Shahara Brand Photography
EZ: It’s kind of like revisions. We rewrite something, looking at one thing, then we rewrite again looking at something else. We can’t make all the changes, or tackle everything all at once.
LT: We have these daily experiences where we’re living in the minutia of it all, and sometimes we forget some of the larger guiding principles. Sometimes we forget all the things we’ve learned along the way. I always have to remind myself of things I’ve learned but forgotten.
EZ: How did your writing process differ between the first two novels? Did you write each of them very differently?
LT: The process of writing both books was very different. I’m not sure I could write any books in the same way. For Calling My Name, because it’s based on my childhood—it flowed for me very easily. I wrote short chapters and vignettes completely out of order and did so by accessing and creating fiction around things that had made an impression on me growing up. At first, I didn’t know it was going to be a book. I’d probably written twelve to fifteen chapters that could stand on their own. But when I found the voice, I was like, oh—I love this. I loved her so much and kept writing more and more.
EZ: I understand you’ll have a third and fourth novel come out. Congratulations on that! Where are you in that process, and how are you approaching them?
LT: Every time I write a book I feel like I don’t know how to write a book. For me, the hardest thing about writing a book is coming up with what I’m going to write about. I didn’t have that problem with Calling My Name because I didn’t even know it was going to be a book at first. It was very organic the way the pieces came together for that. For my next book I wanted to write something that was meaningful and I had to fall in love with the idea of the book before I started writing it. So, my process was filling up many notebooks with ideas. I get excited about an idea and then I start to write about it, and then I’m like, no that’s not it.
I wrote my second book, All the Things We Never Knew, so differently than my first. I wrote it chronologically and used a short outline (a one-page guide) to let me know where I was going. For my first book, I had zero outline and wrote out of order. The third book, the one I’m working on now, is the hardest. Maybe because of Covid, but it has been very hard for me to find my way inside the characters.
Even in All the Things We Never Knew, I was able to easily embody my characters. That’s what it takes for me to get going. Then I let them lead me–it’s their story. With the story I’m currently working on, I couldn’t get inside the main character for a long, long time. I find that the interaction with the world is necessary for me to write. My brain had been slow and sluggish and I was writing and writing, feeling like it was all going to waste. I kept writing about her, writing in different voices. I was trying to write her in every way I could, trying to find my way inside. Eventually I did—it just took me a long time. And now that I’m there I see that all the writing I did wasn’t wasted. I realize that I was figuring things out even when I didn’t know it. We struggle and struggle, and when we’re struggling we can’t often see the fruits of our labor–they’re invisible. We just feel the pain of the struggle. But afterwards, we can see there was fruit that came from that struggle, and I’m grateful for it.
Cover art by Vashti Harrison.
EZ: I love that. And I love how you said that nothing’s wasted. So many times, when you look back at your writing, you find a nugget of something that helps you figure something out. Or you use the nugget in some other way. Or you realize it led you to answers or to a voice or to something that gives you satisfaction or helps you feel like you’re making connections that you can then put on the page. I think that’s a good message for all writers, that nothing is wasted. Even if you cut something, it’s not wasted because you needed to go there to get to where you’re going. We’re all emotional, we all have feelings about our writing that sometimes get in the way, but we have to know that’s part of the process. And part of the beauty of it is finding your way through and realizing the struggle was leading you where you needed to go. You mentioned the pandemic—something you said that resonates with me is not being in the world and how that has affected our ideas and our ability to write and inhabit characters. So much of life is being out in the world, observing, being in nature—and with other people. Socializing, eavesdropping, listening and conversing–it’s all been so different. Have you found the light in that, or has it all just been very difficult, or both?
LT: After having that power outage [in Texas] and now that we are getting back out in the world, things are blooming and it’s spring and I’m feeling that energy—I’ve never felt spring so hard, things coming back to life and growing. I feel that growth in myself, and of course it’s all happening in conjunction with the world slowly opening up, and with people getting vaccinated. I feel that energy of people coming together. We’re all growing together. I definitely see the light, and I’m seeing it more and more. I’m grateful for that.
EZ: What are some things you need to have you when you write? Do you listen to music? Do you need silence? Is it different when you’re drafting versus revising? What helps you write your best and be productive?
LT: I’m not a writer who does a lot of drafting. I write line by line, and when I finish a book it’s mostly done. Of course, there are different things you need to go back and change, but I write line by line and revise as I go. I realize it’s less efficient, but it’s how I write. I love language and the rhythm of words and how they’re put together. I love the sound of writing and love it too much to neglect it at all. I have to love the way something sounds before moving on. I typically go back and read what I write every day to make sure that it all flows together. But what I need is silence. I have a young daughter, but I need to be by myself to write.
EZ: What would you consider the highs and the challenges of being a published author?
LT: Life after publishing becomes more complicated. It’s not just about the craft or about writing the most beautiful story you want—I still do that in terms of my work, don’t get me wrong. I’ll never sacrifice the work I do to try to write the most popular book. I have to write words I love and the stories I believe in. However, once you’re in the market, you do need to be concerned with marketing your work. A lot of the onus is on authors, especially if you don’t have a lead/chosen title where the publisher puts a lot of money behind your book. The money behind those books subsidizes other titles. The money is not spread out evenly. So, the vast majority of writers have to do their own marketing. That’s something I’ve found very difficult—just being out there selling yourself. I’m not good at that. It’s taken me awhile, but I’m working on getting a system down that’s intentional—where I’m offering something to my readers. It’s taken me three years and two books, and I still haven’t figured it out. But I’m excited to design a system moving forward that will work for me. Still, I prefer communicating with people in person—it feels more real.
EZ: A lot of times, interactions on social media feel transactional. You can have genuine relationships, but when you start promoting and marketing your work, it’s definitely a challenge. I’m like you and don’t really like selling myself or my work. But I love the way you present yourself in social media. Still, it’s a challenge to have genuine connections online.
LT: It’s a business where you’re helping people learn about books, but then you’re promoting your book and helping everyone promote their books. It’s a lot to bear. My mental health has taken a beating with social media, and I’ve had to step back. If I then sell fewer books, so be it. Sometimes I think about abandoning social media altogether. At the end of the day, writing the most books is going to be the most fulfilling. Not posting the most.
EZ: Social media can be dispiriting and taxing, and you do need to protect yourself and allow yourself to be in a certain headspace as a writer. Speaking of writers, who are the authors or books that have most influenced or inspired you or your writing?
LT: There are so many because I’m such a book lover. Toni Morrison is one of the big reasons I write. I read so many of her books when I was young. Entering the young adult space, I’m very inspired by the work of Renee Watson and Jason Reynolds. Also, Nicola Yoon’s books are beautiful and sweet but still manage to get teens to ask themselves the big questions.
EZ: If you could offer one piece of advice to writers—or share something that’s helped you—what would it be?
LT: Keep writing. Everyone has a story to tell. Only you can tell yours.
To learn more about Liara Tamani and her work (which includes being featured in the Black Enough anthology), visit her website. She has also been featured on NPR, and wrote this great piece for TIME.
If you tend toward perfectionism (like me), the following guest post, written by debut novelist and Instagram story star* Emma Kress, is a MUST READ. I saw the post in #SQUADGOALS, Kress’s awesome monthly newsletter, and thought it had so many nuggets to help us acknowledge and tame our inner (and outer) perfectionist. It’s too good not to share.
Let’s talk about perfectionism. Perfectionism isn’t the wink-wink negative trait we used to woo employers back when we first applied for jobs. Perfectionism isn’t an oh-so-cute strength masquerading as a flaw. Nope. It’s an honest-to-goodness evil within that we must hunt and kill on the regular.
I know, I know. I sound dramatic. But perfectionism IS dramatic. Certainly, the voice in my head gets awfully dramatic when it’s yelling at me that I’m not good enough. And, more important, the consequences of that voice can be deeply dramatic.
This recent editorial from the NY Times never names perfectionism but it does talk about America’s obsession with an unhealthy work ethic—one that’s maybe killing us. And I think maybe perfectionism is at the heart of that.
Perfectionism has two modes: work-to-the-bone or duck-and-cover.
Neither are good playmates with creativity.
Perfectionism isn’t something I’ve been able to chop off and leave behind like a good haircut. (I just got my first post-Covid haircut. The relief!) No. Perfectionism is a third limb that I hack away but it keeps growing back like a stubborn starfish. Stupid starfish.
Emma making use of tip #5–Keep Going–as below. Moments before this photo was taken, Emma climbed many, many steps.
And lately, my perfectionism has been manifesting in duck-and-cover paralysis. What do I do when this happens?
1. Name it. “Oh, hey,” I say. “You again.” Now that I know perfectionism has a hold of the megaphone inside my head, well, it’s easier to dismiss. Because perfectionism is a liar.
2. Be self-compassionate. I take a daily routine—showering, toothbrushing, doing dishes—and the whole time I’m doing that routine I heap niceness on myself: Look at you! Washing dishes in a pandemic! You’re a downright superhero! (Revisit my last newsletter for saying nice things in the voice of your BFF.)
3. Step away. Rest. Read. Write silly things that don’t have a deadline or pressure attached. Garden. Make something. Get creative in a way that is all about being messy and imperfect—finger-paint with a toddler. If perfectionism tells you you’re not good enough so you better work yourself into sickness, well, show it you know how to rest. Get some work-life balance going.
4. Focus. The perfectionist paralysis for me often comes when I’m overwhelmed by All The Things I want this work to be and do. So focus. Allow yourself to be perfectionistic about one thing only. With writing that means I’ll focus on dialogue or setting or a minor character. Zero in.
5. Keep going. If perfectionism is all about telling you you’re not good enough so you might as well quit, well, keep going. Even if you’ve got no bounce in your step, your steps are still steps.
6. Virgo it up. I have no scientific basis for this but I’m pretty sure every Virgo is a perfectionist. While I can’t help that, I can use my love of schedules and routines to help fight perfectionism. Schedule the rest, physical exercise, playful writing, focus, and self-compassion.
7. Lean into the joy. What do you love about your work? Do that. Do that like your life depends upon it.
The people I love the most are the messiest. Perfectionism is a lie. Messy is authentic. So snatch that megaphone back from your inner perfectionist, and hand it to your inner BFF. You’ve got this.
You can preorder Emma Kress’s debut YA, Dangerous Play (Macmillan/Roaring Brook Press, August 3, 2021), here, and subscribe to her monthly newsletter about writing, books, and so much more by visiting her website.
*Check out Emma’s recent interview with the equally awesome A.S. King about her latest YA novel, Switch, writing, emotions, and life, right here.