Novelist Emma Kress On Dangerous Play and Writing

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:

  1. side writing
  2. working out problems with fat markers on big chart paper
  3. 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 Sparkerswhat 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

 

Q & A with Debut Novelist Erica George

I’ll admit it—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.

Q & A with Debut YA Novelist Laura Taylor Namey

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!

 

When I Was Summer: Q & A with J.B. Howard

When I heard about J.B. Howard’s debut novel, When I Was Summer (Viking Books for Young Readers, April 30, 2019) and saw the absolutely gorgeous book cover, I began counting the days until it would be in my hands. Intrigued by the promise of music and mystery (maybe some mating too?!), I pre-ordered the novel and anxiously await its arrival. If it turns out to be anything at all like its author–because what work of fiction doesn’t include at least part of the soul from which it comes–I can’t imagine it’ll be anything less than awesome.

Here’s a description of When I Was Summer from the publisher:

A relatable novel about unrequited love, rock ‘n’ roll, and what you find when you go searching for yourself.

Sixteen-year-old Nora Wakelin has always felt like an outsider in her own family. Her parents and older sister love her, but they don’t understand anything about her: not her passion for music, not her all-encompassing crush on her bandmate Daniel (who is very much unavailable), not her recklessness and impulsiveness. Nora has always imagined that her biological mother might somehow provide the answer as to why she feels like such an outsider.

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My Writing Journey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last week, I started grad school at Vermont College of Fine Arts to pursue an MFA in writing for children and young adults. I first learned about the low-residency program a few years ago after reading the book jacket of Jandy Nelson’s incredible young adult novel, I’ll Give You the Sun. Since I devoured her book — in fact, I love it so much I’m rereading it now — I went on the VCFA website to learn about the program. I subsequently attended VCFA’s annual Writing Novels for Young People retreat three times and simply loved the experience and the wonderful community fostered there.

Although I had a million and one reasons to avoid going back to school — how could I leave my home and family for 10+ days twice a year, and how would I fit in the 25+ hours of study (which for me will be many more since I’m not a fast reader or writer)? And what about my 22-year nutrition career? Even if I were to be accepted, would I be worthy to study among so many talented students? Would I have earned the right to learn from such an esteemed faculty?

Fast forward to now. Fears and all, I applied, was accepted, and am now a proud VCFA grad student. And I could not be more excited. (more…)