Three Debut YA Authors Explore Identity and Connection

Mara Fitzgerald, Vitor Martins, and Shannon Takaoka discuss the characters who are allowed to be unlikable, being vulnerable as an author, and protecting creative space.

Mara Fitzgerald, Vitor Martins, and Shannon Takaoka discuss the characters who are allowed to be unlikable, being vulnerable as an author, and protecting creative space.


Beyond the Ruby Veil cover and Mara FitzgeraldMara Fitzgerald, Beyond the Ruby Veil (October 13)

Now that you’ve gone through the process, do you have any advice for upcoming debut novelists?
First off, some practical advice: Think of two- and three-word phrases you can use to pitch your book that will stick in people’s minds and get them excited. Learn how to make decent-looking graphics (I use an app called Word Swag). Be prepared to spend more on postage than you expected.

And some advice for your mental and emotional health: Find outlets for the variety of feelings you may have—some of these feelings will be justified, and some of them will be completely irrational. One of the best ways to do this is to make friends with other writers, because very few nonwriters want to talk about publishing ad nauseam. Celebrate your friends’ wins alongside your own—you’ve all earned it.

Don’t forget to enjoy the process. It’s probably not going to be anything like you imagined, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be great.

What was the most challenging thing to write in this book?
This answer may be true for every book I write, but I was really challenging myself to “level up” in my craft, and I felt every second of it. I wanted to write a book that had snappy pacing, but also slowed down at just the right spots to show a world that felt detailed and lived-in. I wanted to write something that was dark, but also funny, like my favorite stories growing up. And I wanted to create characters complicated enough to keep everything from feeling like a lifeless cartoon, but who still had a bit of a larger-than-life element to them. Often when I would get revision notes back from my editors, I went through a period of despair where all I could think was, “Yes, I agree that all these parts could be improved, but you need to find a better writer to do it—not me!”

You’ve described Emanuela as “unlikable.” Why was it important for you to write a character who rubs people the wrong way?
In my mind, trying to create “likable” characters isn’t the goal—rather, the story is best served by creating characters with dimension. Emanuela is awful and absolutely unrepentant about it, but her character is also built around deep vulnerabilities—her fear of death, and her fear that her life doesn’t matter. As the author, I feel it’s my job to show all of this, and make it fun and interesting to read, then readers can decide how they feel. This goes for every character—nobody here is a saint, nor are they entirely terrible with no reasons for the bad things they do. Historically in Western literature, characters who are straight, white, and male are the only ones who are “allowed” to get this treatment—allowed into publishing, and allowed to be thought of as “complicated,” or “morally grey,” or even “they’re the worst, but I love them anyway.” Fortunately, this is changing. One great recent example I would shout out is A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown. Both her main characters do some questionable things (yes, even our perfect tenderhearted boy Malik)—but we as readers absolutely see why, because we see their full dimensions. I love it!


Vitor Martins, Here the Whole Time (November 10)Here the Whole Time cover / Vitor Martins

What was the most challenging thing to write in this book?
Here the Whole Time is a fun and heartwarming story but, at the same time, it’s a book that deals with a lot of important issues. When I decided to write from the perspective of a fat gay teen, I chose to revisit my teen years and my own body issues. Every time we open ourselves up in a more vulnerable way, we feel scared and insecure, so opening up like this and showing myself though Felipe was, at times, painful and difficult. I believe every writer goes through this process of putting their story out there and understanding that from a certain point on, that story is not theirs anymore—it belongs to the readers. So every time I receive a reader’s message telling me how this book helped them and made them laugh and cry or both at the same time, I feel that all the hard work of sharing these parts of me paid off.

What’s one thing that surprised you about the publishing process?
I am Brazilian and this book was first published around here in 2017. The whole process of seeing my book being translated and sold to another country (countries!) was a series of surprises, one after the other. I kept thinking that at any time I would receive a phone call like “Oops, we were talking to the wrong Vitor the whole time, sorry!,” but with each step of the publishing process I got more and more excited! The first translated version, the tweaks we did to make the US edition special for North American readers, the first sketches of the (gorgeous) cover illustration and even the small things like case samples got me like “Oh, look at that SPINE, it's so beautiful!.” I have written so many stories already and, to this day, Felipe still is my favorite main character. I simply love how he's being cherished in this whole new process of publishing and I just can’t wait for US readers to get to know him.

Boys are often left out of the conversation about body positivity. Why was this an important story for you to tell?
Growing up as a fat gay boy, loving myself was a hard task. I’ve always wanted that external validation, to hear from someone else that my body was valid. This is not a subject that often involves boys but, especially when you’re a gay man, being fat can affect your socialization in so many different ways. Even when I felt accepted by my friends and family, I didn’t feel loved in my own community unless I had something else to offer, like being The Funny One. It’s undeniable how mean and cruel the media can be on female bodies, but I think the more we talk about this, more people will get together to fight the stigma on fat bodies in general. Here the Whole Time tells just a tiny slice of Felipe’s life. It is not enough to make him change his whole perception about his own body, but those 15 days represent the first steps into a self-love journey. It’s a bumpy ride, for sure, but with this book I wanted to remind the readers that they’re worthy of love.


Everything I Never Knew cover / Shannon TakaokaShannon Takaoka, Everything I Thought I Knew (October 13)

­Now that you’ve gone through the process, do you have any advice for upcoming debut novelists?
Well, my first piece of advice is to take all advice with a grain of salt! When it comes to writing and publishing, every writer’s path is a bit different and what works for one person might not for another. That said, here are a few things I learned that might resonate: 1) Be patient. Getting a book published is a slow process and there’s a lot of waiting involved. This can be difficult at times, especially if you are, like me, kind of impatient! So whatever stage you at on the publishing journey—whether querying, or on sub, or in between editorial rounds, it helps to have other projects on your radar so you are not just focusing on (and perhaps stressing over) the one thing. 2) Be kind to yourself. There’s a lot about the debut process that is out of your control (hello 2020!) and that can mess with your head a bit. And I think writers put a lot of pressure on themselves to be “on” all the time—especially when it comes social media platforms. But that also makes it really easy to compare yourself to what other people are doing, which can sometimes be unhealthy. So, protect your creative space, make time for self-care, and know that it’s okay to step back from things that cause too much stress. When it comes to promotional activities, focus on the activities and platforms you really enjoy. You don’t have to do everything.

What was the most challenging thing to write in this book?
While my book takes place in a contemporary setting, it has some significant speculative elements that depart from reality. So I think the most challenging part was getting the balance right between the realistic aspects of the book and the more fantastical aspects. There were also a couple of scenes that were especially emotional, and those were probably the ones I rewrote the most.

There’s a long history of “sick lit,” books with characters who have serious medical issues. Were you inspired by, or pushing against, any of the books that have a similar theme?
I don’t know if I really set out thinking this would be a book solely focused on medical issues, so I wouldn’t say I was actively pushing against anything that had come before. I was interested in exploring how a serious life/death issue, in this case a heart transplant, would change a person after they’d been through it. Aside from the opening chapter, most of the story takes place once my main character, Chloe, is on the path to recovery, although of course there will be aspects of her life that will never go back to how they were before. But also, as I mentioned above, Everything I Thought I Knew has some pretty significant speculative elements that take it out of the realm of realistic fiction. If anything, I’d say my inspiration came more from stories that play with our concept of what’s possible, and use “What if” scenarios—for example, “What if you kept reliving the same day?” or “What if you met your doppelgänger?”—to explore themes related to things like loss, love, identity, and connection.

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