If you’re looking for an immersive, beautiful and expansive story about friendship (with romance), Laura Taylor Namey’s third novel, When We Were Them (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, November 16, 2021), more than fits the bill. Told over the course of one week and laced with rich memories and moments between three friends, the story is sure to resonate with teens and adult readers alike who have experienced or aspired to have deep, meaningful relationships.
Here’s a description of the novel from Taylor Namey’s website:
When they were fifteen, Willa, Luz, and Britton had a friendship that was everything.
When they were sixteen, they stood by one another no matter what.
When they were seventeen, they went through the worst.
And when they were eighteen, Willa ruined it all.
I had the pleasure of doing a Q & A with Taylor Namey, an author I’m also proud to call a friend since we met years ago at the SCBWI annual conference in Los Angeles. Here are the highlights from our email exchange.
In what ways has your writing process and daily practice changed since writing your debut novel, The Library of Lost Things?
Now that my children are older, I definitely have more time to work in longer chunks, but my workload has increased ten-fold. I think what has changed the most is having to adapt to various seasons. My day looks much different when I’m actively drafting to other times when I’m focusing mainly on promotion or editing. My new motto is a combination of a day-by-day mentality as well as completing new tasks as quickly as I can, so they don’t pile up.
What was the spark for your latest novel, When We Were Them, and what made you want to explore female friendship?
After writing two coming of age YA novels with heavy romance subplots, I wanted to stretch my wings a little and try something different. WHEN WE WERE THEM is my most complex work to date, but I felt ready for a challenge. Having a brilliant editor who knew how to push and bring out my best made all the difference.
While A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow is a tribute to my Cuban family, WHEN WE WERE THEM is an ode to my California beach girl childhood. I set the novel in the small community where I grew up. As a teen, my female friends and those relationships were so crucial to my identity and development. I wanted to celebrate a ride or die friendship between three teen girls, but also explore the way grief and loss and growing up can affect relationship, as well as the fallout that ensues when one girl leans too hard on the others. The novel asks the question, is everything they were strong enough to survive everything they’ve become?
While all of WWWT comes from you, which specific parts of which characters are most like or drawn from your family and friendships (childhood and/or current)?
These three characters and their friendship contain bits of me, in contrast to the character of Lila Reyes from A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow. She embodies most me as a teen. Future opera star Britton shares my love of music, and Luz’s obsession with the heart and the human body and medicine is a tribute to my father who passed away from heart disease. Willa’s surfer girl and ocean loving spirit comes right from my childhood. I grew up on the beach featured on the cover.
You dive deep into the ocean (pun intended), medicine, opera, becoming a Navy SEAL, and so much more in your novel. What did you know about each of these ahead of time, and what kind of research did you have to do before/while writing WWWT?
I knew very little about each of these aspects of my book, beyond surface level, before I started researching. Growing up in San Diego, I was familiar with Navy SEALs, used to live next door to a former SEAL. But it took interviews with active military personnel and a lot of reading to educate myself well enough to be able to include this experience in my story. The rest just took time and study, and a lot of YouTube watching. I particularly enjoyed watching hours of opera masterclasses and teaching sessions filmed at universities. Opera is such a gorgeous art form and it was a privilege to include a bit of this rep in my story.
You seem to be a master of juggling book drafting and revision as well as book promotion. What’s your typical schedule (or secret)?
Thank you! When I’m in a drafting or promotion season, or lately, both at once, I work between eight and ten hours a day. I draft in short 45-minute increments, spending the last fifteen minutes of every hour answering emails, prepping material for workshops, or maintaining my social media accounts. After dinner, I’m usually reading or working on my critique partners’ work. I’ve tried to be better about taking weekends off, but the month before a new book comes out, I typically have to spend a few weekend hours catching up. Despite the long hours, there is nothing I’d rather be doing.
Anyone who knows you knows how connected you are to your two critique partners. How has that relationship evolved and grown as you’ve all moved from pre-published writers to agented and/or published authors?
Now that the three of us have worked on multiple projects over the last three and a half years, I feel we’re better equipped to provide support, developmental feedback, and pinpoint editing within our workspace. We are the best of friends and mutual cheerleaders, and we trust each other implicitly. I am so lucky to have them.
What was the best part about having your sophomore novel, A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow, become a Reese’s YA Book Club pick—and a New York Times bestseller?
Being chosen for Reese’s Book Club has truly been one of the highlights of my career. The entire team is wonderful and so supportive, and the club works like a big family. I love being able to share my book across a wider platform and audience.
What has been the most challenging aspect of publishing three books in two years? And what have you learned about yourself as a writer (and a person) during that time?
Having to juggle multiple projects at once has been hard. Setting aside a draft to work on another book that might be in a different stage can be tricky. Now, I’m used to it. I’ve learned that I have a unique process that works for me and my writing style. And I’ve learned how much I truly love this job. The work is hard and long and taxing at times, but it is the only work I want to be doing.
What are some tips you have for aspiring writers to help them find ideas/inspiration for stories they’re meant to tell?
The world and the people you meet simply by living your life can provide so much inspiration. I’m also a fan of combining story ideas. The memory of a high school friend, plus a sparkling event three years ago, plus a curious letter or single line overheard at a café can be combined to create a thrilling new story. Also, ideas breed other ideas if you give them space. Jotting notes about story tidbits can unleash your creativity and many times, your mind will expand the scope of a few loose ideas into a novel worthy premise and a compelling tale.
Please share a favorite prompt or two for writers to help them get started on a new idea, or to get to know their characters better (especially those like me who are doing Nanowrimo in November).
My favorite exercise to get to know my character better is a long check list that I fiddle with before I start my book. Here is an abridged version. You should be able to answer these questions in your character’s voice.
I want most to:
I could have that except:
I am thrilled by:
I am inspired by:
I am terrified by:
I am disgusted by:
I’m most centered when:
I’m most anxious when:
My personal style looks like:
Not counting my pets, or family members, if I could only save three objects in a fire, I’d choose:
What are some of your favorite recent reads, TV shows, films or songs/albums?
Some recent favorite reads are You’d Be Home Now by Kathleen Glasgow, People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry, and Our Way Back to Always by Nina Moreno.
Professor Henry Higgins (aka Henry) is a big fan of his mother’s new novel!
Laura Taylor Namey is the New York Times bestselling author of Reese’s Book Club pick A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow, The Library of Lost Things, and When We Were Them. A proud Cuban-American, she can be found hunting for vintage treasures and wishing she was in London or Paris. She lives in San Diego with her husband and two children. To learn more about Taylor Namey and all her work, visit her website here. You can order her books wherever books are sold, and check out her preorder campaign with Mysterious Galaxy Books in San Diego here.
You’d Be Home Now (Delacorte Press, September 28, 2021) is already a STAR. Kirkus calls the latest novel by bestselling author Kathleen Glasgow “A gut-wrenching look at how addiction affects a family and a town,” and “Necessary, important, honest, loving, and true.” Also praised by Booklist, and School Library Journal, this fantastic find according to Shondaland is at the top of my TBR list. I devoured Glasgow’s first two novels, Girl in Pieces and How to Make Friends with the Dark, and am especially excited for her latest work (which, for better or worse, makes me think of my own childhood). I have no doubt it will resonate with young adults and not so young readers alike. Here’s a brief description of You’d Be Home Now:
No one knew just how bad Joey Ward’s addiction was until the night Candy MontClaire died. Four months later, he’s back from rehab, hoping for a fresh start in a town that doesn’t know how to forgive. His sister, Emory, is tasked as his keeper. Because in a family with a “beautiful one” (her glamorous and outgoing older sister Maddie) and a “bad one” (Joey), Emmy has always been “the good one.” Of course she’ll keep her brother safe. She loves Joey more than anything. She’ll do anything to keep him alive.
But what if love isn’t enough to save someone?
Glasgow was kind enough to do an email Q & A for my blog. Read on to learn more about her latest novel and her writing life.
What was the spark for You’d Be Home Now? And did you know from the get-go you wanted—or had to—write about a teen girl tasked with picking up the pieces after her brother’s drug addiction?
You’d Be Home Now was inspired by Thornton Wilder’s classic play, Our Town. It’s a loose reimagining of Grover’s Corners and what a town like that might be like today. If Wilder wrote the play today, I have no doubt the opioid crisis would be part of the plot, as this epidemic has ravaged families, towns, and communities. I chose to write the book from Emmy’s POV because there’s collateral damage in addiction: families, particularly siblings, who often become overlooked, overwhelmed, and exhausted in the face of a sibling’s addiction. The impact of addiction touches everyone in a family and really does a number on their mental health. They deserve a story, too.
I’m intrigued by the idea of examining who we are and what role we play within our families and our communities, and how that impacts our relationships and self-perception. I, for example, have always been a rule-follower who sought others’ approval, and who was always considered to be ‘the good one.” My older brother who was frequently in trouble was deemed “the bad one.” (We’ve been estranged for more than 15 years, and obviously haven’t worked through those narratives—maybe someday?!) What made you want to explore this idea in your novel, and did you have any revelations (in general or about your own life) along the way?
Everyone, for better or for worse, gets slotted into a role in a family: “the good one,” “the troubled one,” “the beautiful one,” “the difficult one.” It’s endless. But it’s not who each kid is, it’s who they are being defined as, and that’s not fair to any of them, because it makes them suppress emotions and not feel comfortable moving out of the role they’ve been assigned, if that makes sense. In YOU’D BE HOME NOW, Emmy is “the good one.” Quiet, rule-follower, caretaker of Joey since she was very small. In essence, because of this role, she’s never really discovered who she really is, or what she really wants out of life, or even how to get it. She doesn’t have an identity she forged on her own; it was given to her by her family. And of course, she wants to help her brother. But at what cost? She also wants to live a life of small, normal joys, like having a boyfriend, or going to dance. Those things make her feel guilty, though, because how can she enjoy herself while her brother’s life is disintegrating? I tried to be very careful in the book about Emmy’s journey with Joey, because she’s at the very beginning of this struggle with Joey, and many people (especially older readers) have reached a sort of end with the Joeys in their lives: they can no longer give all they’ve got; they’re exhausted. And that is valid! The question is learning to set your boundaries: what you can do, what you can’t do, because in the end, you also have to take care of yourself. It’s Emmy’s struggle in the book to realize this. I wanted to show the process of taking care of yourself, too. And to stop assigning people roles that don’t actually define who they are.
How was the process of writing this third novel different from that for Girl in Pieces, and How to Make Friends with the Dark?
Well, it was very hard to write with Thornton Wilder in the room! But I eventually overcame that, because the story became its own. I would say writing this book was different because Girl in Pieces and How to Make Friends with the Dark are pure emotion—Charlie and Tiger’s POVs are very interior and heavy. I needed to make Emmy’s narrative somewhat less intense than my other books to stretch the story beyond Emmy and into the town and the school to show how the tentacles of addiction ensnare everyone, not just the person struggling with addiction. An Instagram poster in the book called Mis_Educated is a character in the book and through their posts, a reader also gets a chance to hear from kids in the town of Mill Haven (in the comment section) about what’s really happening and how they feel about their lives.
How has the pandemic changed your writing life in terms of practices and inspiration?
I don’t know if the pandemic has changed my writing practice or inspiration so much as it has changed me, slowly, over time. I’m already an introvert and being even more isolated during the pandemic led me back into a deep depression. I wasn’t writing at all for several months, actually, until a joke between me and fellow author Liz Lawson (The Lucky Ones) turned into . . . a book. I needed something fun and different, I needed something to look forward to every day, and so did Liz, and those Twitter DMs between us eventually turned into a mystery called The Agathas, which comes out May 2022. Writing that book quietly with Liz, with no one watching (we didn’t tell our agents for a long time), really lifted me to a better place. And it’s a different tone of book for us, as both Liz and I tend toward heavier topics. We kept everything speedy, and fun, and about friendship (two teen girls become unlikely detectives and even more unlikely, become friends) and it was really a balm for me.
What has been the most rewarding part of being a young adult novelist? What has been the most challenging part?
It’s rewarding in the sense that I hear every day from readers who have discovered Girl in Pieces and How to Make Friends with the Dark that those books have touched them deeply. I can’t really articulate what it means to know your book has impacted someone’s life in a deep and meaningful way. It makes me want to cry, actually! I’m grateful for that interaction. Writing is often hard and lonely, and sometimes you just don’t know if the story will land, especially with teens. I would say a challenging part is trying to do my best by teen readers and to articulate the adolescent experience in an authentic and believable way. And to give them a good and satisfying story to read.
What advice (in terms of craft or process) do you have for writers just starting out?
I don’t know if I’m an expert on anything having to do with writing, actually! I just try and write when I can, when a story keeps nudging me and won’t quit. I think in practical terms of craft, reading widely and often is the best teacher. You can learn from re-reading books you love: how the author structured this, how they handled that, how they went from A to B. I will say that you’ll learn what works for you in the beginning and then as you continue to write, you’ll improve through practice. I think the hardest thing for beginning writers is how to start. Like, literally, how to find time to sit in a chair (or couch, or bed, or coffee shop) and . . . get those first few words down. There’s a real fear: who am I to call myself a writer? Well, if you write, you’re a writer! And there’s a fear of: what if this isn’t any good? My answer to that is: what is good? One person might like your story, one might not. You can’t control that. But the most important thing to remember is, those things are abstract in the beginning: if you don’t sit down and write that story, no one will be able to read it. And believe me, someone wants to! Of that, I’m sure. We writers have a hard time getting out of our own way! We can imagine a million things might happen after we write a story and send it into the world, but if we don’t write it first, we will never know if any of those million things come to fruition.
What books, TV shows, and music have you most enjoyed during the pandemic (and more recently)?
I tend to have the television on in the background when I write and I wrote the entirety of You’d Be Home Now with Grey’s Anatomy on an endless loop. The shows I watched in the past two and half years when I WASN’T writing include (and I’m sorry on some of these because often it takes me years to watch a show everyone watched fifteen years ago): Game of Thrones, Mad Men, The Wilds, The Sopranos (could not finish, too many dream sequences), The Wire, 30 Rock, The Crown, Breaking Bad, Big Mouth, Forensic Files, Cold Cases, PEN15, Broadchurch. Some of my favorite books to read this past year were: The Lucky Ones (Liz Lawson); Never Saw You Coming (Erin Hahn); Something Happened to Ali Greenleaf (Hayley Krischer); When We Were Strangers (Alex Richards); That Weekend (Kara Thomas); The Project (Courtney Summers); Off the Record (Camryn Garrett). That’s just a small list. My music listening is all over the place, but lately I can’t stop listening to a song by Bright Eyes called “At the Bottom of Everything.” A weird thing about me is that while I don’t listen to music AS I write, I actually can’t start physically writing a book until I have everything in my head AND I have found the song that kind of drives the story, and “At the Bottom of Everything” is the song that drives what I hope will be my fifth book. (Girl in Pieces was “Kamera” by Wilco; How to Make Friends with the Dark was “Sign of the Times” by Harry Styles; You’d Be Home Now was “Let You Down,” by NF).
You’re a master storyteller, especially because you manage to inject hope into all of your stories no matter how raw, emotional, and painful they may have been to write or read. What’s one thing you’ve learned through your life and/or writing—especially during these especially challenging times—that has helped you persevere and continue to push through and make your art?
Honestly, I don’t know what else I would do if I couldn’t write. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be, a writer. And stories are what keep us all going, right? When do we ever not need a good story?
About Kathleen Glasgow: She is the New York Times bestselling author of Girl in Pieces, How to Make Friends with the Dark, You’d Be Home Now, and the upcoming The Agathas (with Liz Lawson) (Delacorte, May 2022). She received her undergraduate degree from the University of New Mexico and her MFA from the University of Minnesota. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.
Check out my previous Q & A with Kathleen Glasgow for the launch of How to Make Friends in the Dark. And learn more about Glasgow and her work on her website. Her wonderful work is available wherever books are sold.
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.
Words Composed of Sea and Sky (Running Press Kids/Hachette, 5/25/21) by debut YA novelist Erica George had me at the gorgeous title, and stunning cover in hues of yellow and blue. But the novel itself more than lived up to my every expectation. George’s beautiful poetry and prose, the dual timelines, the evocative setting (Cape Cod), and the engaging and interwoven stories of two poets—Michaela Dunn and Leta Townsend—told in the current day and in the 1800s, respectively, make this a strong and worthwhile read. And if you’re a fan of layered characters and some swoon, this one’s for you.
I had the pleasure of doing a Q and A with George. Full disclosure: we first met when we shared a workshop at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I knew then of George’s talent and am thrilled for her debut and to share more about her novel and writing life.
EZ: Was there a moment in time you discovered you were a writer, or was it something you’ve always done without thinking much about it?
EG: Writing is something I’ve always done. There has never been a point in my life where I haven’t written (unless I wasn’t physically capable yet!), and there has never been a moment where I didn’t know that I was going to be an author.
EZ: What lured you to write fiction for children and young adults?
EG: I definitely think that being a teacher has made me gravitate toward writing for young people. I remember being a kid and trying to enjoy the books that were assigned to me in school, but also desperately wanting books that spoke to me (and were more interesting, let’s be honest!). Writing for young people is an honor I work hard to live up to.
EZ: How has your creative writing fit into your teaching life, and how has teaching/working with students informed your writing?
EG: They’re absolutely intertwined. I value student choice in reading and writing (as often as I can) in my classroom, so we’re always discussing what we’re reading or which author has a new book coming out. If I’m being honest, I would really have to think about the last adult book that I’ve read! There’s always a middle grade or young adult novel on my nightstand or in my bag.
EZ: You’re a candidate for an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the Writing for Children and Young Adults. What were your motivations for wanting to study at VCFA and how has the experience impacted your writing and career?
EG: Two of my critique partners actually have their MFAs from VCFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and they couldn’t say enough about the program. After doing my research, I knew that I wanted a degree that would not only benefit my writing career, but also instruct my teaching. There are so many topics we discuss at VCFA during workshops and seminars that I always jot down so that I remember to bring it up in a lesson or in conversation with my students.
EZ: What was the spark for, and trajectory of, your debut young adult novel, Words Composed of Sea and Sky?
EG: I think the initial spark began when I was thirteen (let’s not discuss how long ago that was!). I started writing about one of the characters in Words Composed of Sea and Sky, Captain Benjamin Churchill, when I was in middle school, and he hasn’t left me since then. He’s weaved his way in and out of books, trying to find which story belongs to him, and it didn’t all come together until the summer of 2018 when I decided I wanted to write a book about two female poets from two separate centuries, and suddenly he just belonged. He had an effect on both of my main characters (for better or for worse!)
EZ: What have been the best parts of being a debut author so far (being a 21der etc.), and what’s next for you?
EG: Being a part of the debut process with my fellow 21ders has been a dream. I’m so lucky to be a part of a group with so many talented, driven, and supportive authors. Currently, I’m in the middle of revisions for my second novel, a YA contemporary called The Edge of Summer, coming out with Little, Brown BFYR in summer of 2022. It’s about a girl named Coriander who spends her summer on Cape Cod completing a marine biology internship all while she copes with the unexpected loss of her best friend, first love, and rescuing a humpback whale from entanglement.
EZ: If you had to give advice to writers about craft, and the profession, what would it be? (Or what was the best advice for either you’ve received?)
EG: I think that the best advice that I’ve received and that I would pass on (and it works every time), is to make sure you always have something you could be working on. There is so much waiting in the publishing industry! So much. It’s a constant game of “hurry up and wait,” and sometimes the waiting can be absolutely painful. What makes it go by more quickly is working on something new—focusing your energy on something that’s within your control.
EZ: Who are some of your favorite authors? Any favorite recent reads/books on your nightstand that you’re excited to get to?
EG: Such a good question! I love Leigh Bardugo, Elizabeth Acevedo, Jennieke Cohen, Jeff Zentner, Laura Taylor Namey, Jason Reynolds, Gita Trelease, Joy McCullough, (and let’s not forget Jane Austen!). The list goes on and on. This is not at all exhaustive! Currently on my nightstand, I’m reading Don’t Call the Wolf by Aleksandra Ross.
EZ: Where do you do most of your writing/what are the conditions that are most ideal for you? And if you could write anywhere, where would you go—and what would that day look like?
EG: My typical writing conditions are in my office with soft music playing, a lit candle, and my dog snoozing next to me. These are not my ideal writing conditions, though! Inevitably when I write from home, I find something to distract me from getting my words down. I really enjoy writing in libraries or coffee shops, or even writing at a friend’s house. Anywhere really, as long as the only thing I have to focus on is writing.
EZ: What’s next for you, and how can readers/educators learn more about your work?
EG: Words Composed of Sea and Sky hits shelves with Running Press Kids/Hachette on 5/25/21, and you can preorder using this link.
You can find more information about Erica, my books, and upcoming events on my website, www.ericageorgewrites.com
Erica George is a writer of young adult fiction. She is a graduate of The College of New Jersey with degrees in both English and education, and is currently an MFA student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She resides in scenic northern New Jersey, but spends her summers soaking up the salty sea air on Cape Cod.
“This collection of poems and photos beautifully illustrates the complex emotions of living in New York during a global pandemic.” ~ Kelly Ripa, Entrepreneur, Host, Actress and Producer
Living in New York City during a global pandemic has been some combination of surreal, dispiriting, challenging and inspirational. While many of us have yet to fully process and make sense of what has transpired on our usually vibrant streets and in our parks over these last several months—especially in its early epicenter days—several artists have continued to create.
Nicole Freezer Rubens, a native New Yorker, owner of a boutique design firm, and mother of three, is one such artist. Through her dual passions—poetry and photography—she has beautifully and poignantly chronicled her personal experience during the pandemic and shown its impact on our beloved city in her gorgeous debut, “The Long Pause and The Short Breath” (Three Tomatoes Publishing, 2020).
I had the pleasure of doing an Q & A with Nicole about her new book, one that gives readers a highly personal tour of the city during a moving and unforgettable time.
EZ: I’ve been enjoying your vibrant and gorgeous Instagram photos for years. What was it about the pandemic that made you take the plunge— not only to create a book of photos, but one that includes poetry too?
NFR: I have been writing poetry since I was 9 years old. Right after I read Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, I set out to create my first book of rhyming poems, bound in a denim blue loose leaf and including images and drawings. In college and after I studied poetry writing as well and throughout my life I have always written for myself. When the world shifted at the beginning of the global pandemic I was quite relieved that we were allowed to walk outside for exercise. Seeing our city empty out inspired me to write, often as I was walking in Central Park. With little else to do, I walked and explored a lot as a means to investigate and process what was happening. The poems began to accumulate after a few weeks. Not only did writing become therapeutic for me, but I began to feel a responsibility to myself to chronicle the events and repercussions of Covid-19 as a diaristic record for the future.
EZ: What was your process in taking and choosing photos specifically for the book, and how did you tackle the poetry (and do the photos pair with the poems or did you see them as separate if not related entities)?
NFR: I am generally a little obsessed with Instagram and love taking photos on my phone everywhere I go. Exploring new neighborhoods and photographing them is absolutely one of my favorite pastimes. When Covid prevented me from doing that, I began to take long walks to relatively local neighborhoods I had overlooked before. You ask an interesting question Elisa. The photos and poems were created as completely separate entities for me. Although they evolved simultaneously, I did not think to use them together until I realized that the poetry I had accumulated, was
becoming a body of work that could be a book. Once I finished writing I sat down to pair the poems with photos. This flowed naturally since they were captured to record the same subject matter of our city under lockdown.
EZ: So many writers and other artists have thrived during the pandemic, but many have also struggled (present company included). Did putting the book together help you cope and stay motivated during such tough times, or was it a struggle (or something in between)?
NFR: I have always had an easier time writing from the lows than from the highs. I have constantly used poetry writing as a coping mechanism. I realize as I write this, that that first binder of poems I wrote at nine, was written right after my parents got divorced. I am lucky because writing is a hobby, so I did not have the pressure to produce as so many artists do. I can say that on the days that I wrote a poem, I felt the satisfaction of productivity and that was personally rewarding and pushed me to continue to write. My interior design work was on hold for six months. My three grown children were home for three months, and cooking and cleaning occupied my days but did not satisfy me. I am very grateful that I was able to use some of my time on pause to create something long-lasting and that is important to me. It was not a struggle at all, it was more of a blessing for which I am grateful.
EZ: How would you sum up what you’ve experienced living in New York City during the pandemic, and what are some of the images or poems from the book that best encapsulate or capture the pandemic for you?
NFR: Overall, one of the most powerful aspects of being in NYC during the pandemic was bearing witness to the positive side of humanity. The Clap Because We Care round of cheering and applause that happened all over NYC at 7pm daily was always a bright spot in my day. Hearing, seeing and feeling the gratitude for and supporting the tireless healthcare workers and essential workers reminded me of the fundamental goodness in people and amplified my love for my city. Being able to scream for those two minutes, sandwiched between my family and neighborhood as we clapped, was a personal and helpful release. I also realized early on how fortunate I was in so many ways, including having bonus time together with my family. Although I felt frightened and deeply sad and frustrated, sharing that universal sense of loss with the world over made it easier to cope.
The cover image Off Limits of an empty Grand Central Station and You Are!! which shows a hand drawn heart-shaped message of strength taped to a lamppost truly define the times for me. Selecting a poem might be like picking a favorite child, but I can say that after I wrote March 30, 2020 about the field hospital being erected so unnaturally in Central Park, I felt I was on my way to having the writing soothe me.
EZ: What advice has helped you create in the face of a pandemic or grief or any kind or loss? (Or what advice would you offer to other artists?)
NFR: That is a very personal question, and each individual and creation is a unique situation which is what keeps artwork so interesting to me. I was always taught to write what you know, and the same applies to photography. I believe if one uses her voice, she will create from her truth and then it will certainly be meaningful and authentic.
The Long Pause and The Short Breath is available on Amazon or wherever books are sold. (If you don’t see it at your favorite independent bookstore or on their website, please request it.)
More about Nicole Freezer Rubens: She studied studio art, art history, creative writing and photography. Following a career in the art world, she launched NFR Consulting. Since childhood she’s written poetry and taken photos. Her favorite current pastime is exploring new neighborhoods and posting her treasured finds on Instagram. You can follow Nicole on Instagram at @nfrconsult.
Laura Taylor Namey is a woman on a mission. This dog loving, piano playing, former teacher is a mother of two and full time writer. She aspires to live in London someday, but right now is truly living the dream (and working her a** off) as the debut author of the brand new young adult novel, The Library of Lost Things (Inkyard Press, October 2019). Here’s a description of the novel from Goodreads:
From the moment she first learned to read, literary genius Darcy Wells has spent most of her time living in the worlds of her books. There, she can avoid the crushing reality of her mother’s hoarding and pretend her life is simply ordinary. But when a new property manager becomes more active in the upkeep of their apartment complex, the only home Darcy has ever known outside of her books suddenly hangs in the balance.
While Darcy is struggling to survive beneath the weight of her mother’s compulsive shopping, Asher Fleet, a former teen pilot with an unexpectedly shattered future, walks into the bookstore where she works…and straight into her heart. For the first time in her life, Darcy can’t seem to find the right words. Fairy tales are one thing, but real love makes her want to hide inside her carefully constructed ink-and-paper bomb shelter.
Still, after spending her whole life keeping people out, something about Asher makes Darcy want to open up. But securing her own happily-ever-after will mean she’ll need to stop hiding and start living her own truth—even if it’s messy.
I had the pleasure of doing an email interview with my lovely friend whom I had the pleasure of meeting several years ago at a Society for Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators annual conference. Read on to learn about her writing journey and why she loves #pitchwars and her critique partners (not necessarily in that order).
EZ: At what point in your life did you know you wanted to write for children and young adults? And when did you know you were a writer?
LTN: I have always felt like a natural writer, even if I didn’t have the logistics figured out until a few years ago. I am a former teacher, and I found myself using a lot of literature in my classroom lessons. I began to long for the chance to write my own stories. About five years ago, I started writing a young adult novel (this one will forever live in a drawer). I’d had no formal training, but I used that work to find out what I really did need to work on more. I got help, read a ton, and decided that I wanted to focus on the young adult age group. I love the emphasis on coming-of-age themes, high-concept storytelling, and exploring complex and relevant topics.
EZ: What has been the best part of transitioning from a pre-published to a published author?
LTN: I have such admiration and respect for career authors, and creators who consistently come up with beautiful and compelling content. Being able to take my small place beside them, with the word Published next to my name, is an incredible experience.
EZ: How do you fit writing into the rest of your life (and fit the rest of your life into your writing)?
LTN: I am blessed to have a supportive family, and the opportunity to write full time right now. I work best in the morning, so having a new teen driver in my home has helped to free up some of my time to build up my word count before lunch time. I take breaks to take care of my home and family, and to squeeze in a workout. Admittedly, I don’t watch a lot of TV. I am usually writing, or reading during down time.
EZ: What are your favorite kinds of books to read, and how do they inspire your writing?
LTN: I love books that stick with me long after I’ve finished them. I enjoy a wide variety of authors, age groups, and genres. Make me care, feel, and want to chat about your book all day and that’s my idea of a winner. I believe all writers need to actively read other writers. I am most inspired by other authors in the areas of scope and opportunity. There are so many ways to attack and deconstruct even the same topic in drastically different ways with differing points of view. Reading more only confirms my belief that so many possibilities lay in front of our pens.
EZ: Can you describe your experience with #pitchwars on Twitter?
LTN: I was a 2017 #pitchwars unofficial mentee. Besides working with a fantastic mentor who became the first person to work on THE LIBRARY OF LOST THINGS, #pitchwars brought me into a supportive community of writers. This is the real prize in any online contest. Put your work out there. Meet fellow writers. Team up and share and hone your craft together, and know that you are not alone in your struggles and hopes.
EZ: You are a big fan of your critique partners. How did you meet them, and what makes your partnership work? What advice do you have for other writers who want to work with critique partners or groups?
LTN: I have two fantastic critique partners that work with me almost every day. We met because we were all 2017 #pitchwars unofficial mentees. We began chatting privately on Twitter DM, and became lifelong friends through sharing our work and supporting one another. What sets our group apart is that we don’t wait until we finish a novel to edit or weigh in. We are always working together on our three individual manuscripts. We plan together from idea-up, talk through issues, name towns or characters, and share snippets of our writing as we go. When I get stuck, I can ask a question directly from the point of concern. My partners already have such a deep knowledge of my manuscript, plot and theme, and character arcs, that they can weigh in quickly. And I do the same for their work.
For those who would like to join or form a group like this, hang out on private writer’s boards or the community groups associated with social media programs, such as #pitchwars. Put yourself out there. It might take some time, but you will find your people. It’s okay if you try out a CP and that person isn’t quite right for you. Keep sharing and investing in others.
How will you know if you are collaborating with the best people for you? Your perfect CPs will be similar enough to you and your work that they share a taste level and basic skill level. But they should be different enough that they can expand your scope and contribute to your growth. A good CP walks beside you, while also possessing the tools to push you. My CPs and I are the best of friends, but when it’s time to work, we give tough feedback with love.
EZ: What are you currently working on? And where do you see yourself in five years?
LTN: Right now I am almost finished with the draft of a secret junior novel. I’m hanging out in the young adult contemporary world for a while, and hope to have a few books side-by-side on shelves in five years.
To learn more about Laura Taylor Namey and The Library of Lost Things, visit her website. You can also find her on Twitter and on Instagram. Stay tuned for Namey’s sophomore novel, A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Sweaters and Stars (Simon & Schuster, Fall ’20) and future titles as well!