"Reverie" Author Started Writing His YA Debut in High School

La Sala sat down with SLJ to talk about giving power to underdogs, how drag queens are the ultimate world-builders, and the 10 years it took to write his debut novel...which he finished out of spite. "It was a selfish desire to correct many things I thought could be done a lot better, and a lot gayer."

Kane Montgomery doesn't remember what happened before he was found unconscious in the river. All he knows is that he almost died, and a woman is missing. The pieces are coming together slowly, but the picture they're forming makes even less sense. Three of his classmates claiming to be his friends tell him they're The Others, a super-powered group who dismantle dangerous dreams known as reveries—and so is he. Suddenly, Kane is thrown into enchanted alternate worlds just as he's trying to come back to his own. SLJ spoke with La Sala about his thrilling debut featuring queer teens, fantastical adventures, and a drag queen determined to right a lifetime of wrongs. 


Photo by Lauren Takakjian

What did creating this book look like for you? What was the seed of your idea?

I wrote this book as a tool for myself. I was a teenager and reading what was meant for young adults at that point, during what I would call the advent of YA as a market. I felt like I was reading the same story over and over; it almost always rotated around a straight teenager, and that just wasn’t my world. My diverse group of friends was predominantly queer, and I didn’t really recognize myself in any of those narratives.  


What got me going was the Toni Morrison quote: “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” That’s how Reverie started, as a project of pure self-indulgence. It was just gay shenanigans, queer revenge—all the things that I knew would never be put into a book. It was a selfish desire to correct many things I thought could be done a lot better, and a lot gayer. I’ve worked on it for ten years. I started in high school, at the same age as the characters, and I didn’t get around to taking the book very seriously until it was done, which was right after college. 


With Kane, you have a protagonist who's an amnesiac and often avoidant when it comes to conflict. Sometimes he’s an unreliable self-narrator, because people are constantly telling him details about himself that he doesn't remember, which allows the reader to experience the plot unfolding in a unique way. Why did you center this adventure on someone like Kane?

I wanted Kane to be the antithesis of the classic hero, in part because I wanted to show how the traits of a classic hero do not necessarily equal success in every story. Oftentimes, the stories we read prioritize valiance and clarity. I really enjoyed creating a character in a magic system who would prioritize other things as a means of highlighting the subversive magic in Reverie. I wanted to give people powers based upon that [subversion]. Kane's power comes from his ability to empathize, observe, and live as this "in-between" figure. And so he was always going to be this introverted, kind of gloomy person. I also wanted him to be a bit selfish, because that's very much how I was as a kid. Designing Kane was an exercise in figuring out ways to make the story about somebody who was interesting without the story itself.


Kane not having his memories was a deliberate choice for a few reasons. It is hard to write a complex magic system and have it be known to the main character, and then explain it to the reader. It's even harder to embed that in worlds that are being created on the fly when you also have to talk about how they got there in the first place and how they’re going to be unraveled. Having a character who is essentially new to this established world where people have to explain things to him (and thus to the reader) was my mechanical shortcut to making sure that the audience was paced with Kane's understanding.


You’re able to craft vivid fantasy sequences that give the reader just enough description of what's happening, but also leave space for them to use their imaginations. What was your process for constructing those scenes?

I knew that I couldn't start from scratch with every single reverie, because it would be futile to start with worlds that felt completely original. So I made each one of them referential to a cultural touchstone, with the hope that readers would have some familiarity with the trope or genre. I wanted it to feel like something you might have seen before, but twisted out of control by the dreamy quality of the reveries. That’s why each one does bear a resemblance to a classic story, but it's distorted by the actions of the characters. I actually took out a lot of world-building because I didn't want it to detract from all the plot that has to weave through. I wanted people to arrive with their own imagining of these things and not be distracted.


Why did you decide to make Poesy, a drag queen, the villain in this story?

I grew up going to drag shows; they have been there my whole life as a refuge. My parents started taking me when I was nine and while the drag queens were always themselves, which isn’t typically kid-friendly, they received me. I think anybody who's ever been to a drag show understands their power. Here is a person who has created a liminal space just by getting on stage. Drag queens are such incredible performers because they not only transform themselves—they transform an entire room the second they walk into it. I don't know any other type of performer who can bend reality and bring you into this world they're creating in real time.


Drag queens are beautiful artists and I love them. I revere the art form, the culture around it, and the ballroom scene. I think there's a ton to be said about what drag queens do and how they act as the defenders of spaces for queer communities that are oftentimes like reveries themselves. They are places of escape, and drag queens are often the people who establish them, defend them, and advocate for them. There’s a metaphor in Poesy being this entity who is the defender of anti-reality. She's there to bring destruction to our reality and the things that make it bad. In my head, Poesy is also an author. She is somebody who is trying to write a story and design a world for herself. I loved the idea of giving all of this power specifically to a drag queen.


Speaking of Poesy and power makes me think about spite. There's a moment where Kane says, "Let me have power that they can't take from me." There’s many moments where characters are acting from a spiteful place but it’s treated with compassion, which feels significant in the context of the novel.

My favorite topic is spite, and it often comes up in terms of, “How did you get your start?” I started writing because I was literally looking to spite myself and the people who told me that a book this gay would never get published, that a book this chaotic would never do well in a mainstream market. I'm just a spite-driven person. I've always been very flamboyant, and I was outed at a really young age just by my mannerisms. But I was also an ambitious, precocious, and really social child. The idea of withdrawing myself was not an option; I just couldn't stand the idea of being shunned. So I mobilized every spiteful particle in my body and set about changing things for myself. And I'm still very much like that: I create stuff that I feel is for me and is for people like me. And in that way, I'm actually very similar to Poesy. When you are beat up by the world, it often creates brittleness in you because you've got to form some sort of barrier. And it also doesn't really lend you a lot of warmth towards yourself.  


If you watch anything at all, you see the underdogs often get some type of power. They are granted redemption, and society suddenly sees value in them. But if you're a kid in reality—where's that going to come from? Who's going to give you that power? And if you were me, or any young queer kid, you've probably thought about that time and time again: I just want something that someone cannot take away from me. So many marginalized people have to work so hard just to have something. I would think, “People wouldn't treat me this way if I could control water, if I was Avatar Korra.” I would be so cool, they would have no choice but to love me. And so that's what Kane means when he says that. He wants something he can call his own.


It's interesting to me how adults do (or don't) show up in YA. In Reverie, we see glimpses of parents, but the adults who are most present are two elders—Helena and Maxine. What role did you envision for these two in a story where teens literally save the day?

No one's asked me about this, and it's frustrating because adding them in is one of the best choices I have ever made. I think that showing queer elders in YA is really important. I think that we younger queer people can forget there's this generation who has been battling for us for a really long time. I would be remiss to not include queer elders in a book as gay as this.   


I also wanted to write about queer generational struggles. The tension between Poesy and Kane comes down to the same struggle over different periods of time and in different ways. I wanted to show another side of it; many queer people find refuge within one another and do manage to live perfectly quiet lives until somebody else barges in and tears it open. I wanted to show that they're not tragic. Helena and Maxine had a beautiful life before this, and I wanted to give it back to them. For me, it seemed very incomplete to put these two people through something rooted in what is ultimately queer pain and to not resolve it. I always wanted Helena to have a moment where she was the victim of this adventure, but to have it not be for nothing. Maxine's participation in that became imperative. Originally, she was this nameless figure in the book, which didn't feel right. To me, it would have been really unsatisfying to the end things without their storyline being resolved because that's ultimately where the story begins. Even before Kane's part of it, Reverie begins with them and it ends with them.


Do you have a part of the novel that felt difficult to write?

The logistics of writing this many fantasy worlds were mechanically difficult but also a lot of fun. In no way would I describe that as an emotional difficulty. For a long time as I was writing, I did not see the connection between this book's themes of escapism and how they relate to queer communities. Now it's very obvious that I was writing a book about fantasy as a form of escaping my own reality. But at the time, I was determined not to write a queer tragedy book. I made every effort to avoid what I thought was an "issue book" to the point that people would ask me, "What's your book about?" And I'd say, "Oh, it's about a gay kid. But it's not about him being gay. He just happens to be gay."


I listen to that memory and wonder, what did I mean by this? What is this weird self-slander that I shoved out in front of people and made tap dance so that they took me seriously? I know what I was getting at— the idea that a book does not need to be entirely about a character coming out or coming to terms with their queerness. But I jumped onto that ship without looking at everything around it. There’s a whole wealth of experiences of dealing with queerness and how that might affect the world around you. For me, it was unrealistic to not have that affect the story at all, especially when it was so integral to Kane's relationship with reality. That process was a really hard thing for me to retroactively acknowledge. But I reached this conclusion and here I am on the other side of this lesson learned.


Storytelling is such an instrumental component of the book. Here, there's a dark side to imagination and dreams, while they're also stories that people tell themselves to survive. What was your inspiration for this approach?

Ultimately, the thing that gave me a lot of fuel for Reverie was not reading other books like it. It was talking to people about their lives, hearing their own queer histories, and understanding that we actively build our reality around us as we walk through it. In a way, we’re all in these rooms that are layered atop one another. People’s reactions to the world and the worlds that they build within are not always narrative. They can be a layer that exists on top of the world they're already in. And that's why all the reveries resemble the world itself, but they are heightened versions.


What would your own reverie look like?

It's in the book actually. It’s the [scene on the] starship, which is named after one of the cars my father rebuilt when I was growing up. As someone who indulges in escapism, I love the idea of gathering all my loved ones onto a ship that provides everything and blasting off on in this floating theme park with a very queer dance party. There's a fourth-wall moment when Kane even muses to himself that whoever imagined this world imagined it full of the gays. It's mine and it's a form of protectiveness. I absolutely do want to gather every queer person and say, "We're leaving! We are going." And I would absolutely do that if I wasn't so sure that we would leave people behind.  


What’s next for you?

Well, people have been so excited and reacting so well to Reverie! I’m thrilled with the story and with these characters. The next thing is a queer romantic comedy. It's set in our reality and features two ex-boyfriends forced to compete with one another in a competitive arts and crafts competition. And it's focused on cosplay! I'm very excited about it—it's very, very gay. I think people are surprised because I'm going from high fantasy to romantic comedy. But if you've ever been to a comic con, you know that's high fantasy! That is a different world.

Read our starred review of Reverie here.

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Ashleigh Williams

Ashleigh Williams (awilliams@mediasourceinc.com) is the Assistant Editor of Chapter Books and Middle Grade for School Library Journal. Find them on Twitter @bombus_vagans.

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