An Interview with Zoe Hana Mikuta

Gearbreakers has been such a success, congratulations! What was the first month like? 

It was fun! It’s been really cool seeing people excited over it online—because those are my kind of people. I was initially worried because I was really young when I wrote the book, and my writing style has changed a lot since then, but I’ve been able to ease up and be excited that people will be able to see my growth with the things to come.

How did the concept of Gearbreakers come to be? Were there any specific sources of inspiration?

I knew I wanted to write about big robots. The rest just spilled from there. Pacific Rim is definitely one of the inspirations, and also one of the best things to exist in modern media in general.

Your opening sentence “It makes sense that, when the times were desperate enough, when the people were frenzied enough, at a certain point we went past praying to deities and started to build them instead” kicked me in the teeth. I read it several times over. Has that sentence always been the opening to Gearbreakers? Has Gearbreakers always been the title? Are opening lines particularly meaningful to you as a reader? 

Nope! That first line came from a couple of chapters in, and my editor suggested I move it up. I think the original line was “We evolve the day the sky bleeds.” Gearbreakers has always been the title, though for the sequel I had trouble coming up with something that would match its energy—my editor and I settled on Godslayers, which I like more and more every day. As a reader, opening lines are always so important. They can establish a tone almost immediately; it’s a first impression.

One of the themes that I loved throughout Gearbreakers was resilience and taking charge of your own destiny come hell or high water. Was that something you had in mind from the beginning? Did Sona and Eris start with their feisty, scrappy personalities? Or did that come through while drafting? 

I think agency and the resilience that agency implies will always be some kind of theme in what I’m writing. Sona and Eris were always feisty; it was their softer parts that came through with drafting, to make them dynamic, but I also think I wouldn’t have been able to put those parts in during the first round—they weren’t established in my head yet, and it’s like I needed that framework in order to hang other traits on. (I’m writing this down and the logic holds and yet I still freak out whenever my first drafts aren’t perfect).

You do such a brilliant job of keeping Sona and Eris separate through their distinct voices. Between Sona and Eris, who was the easiest to write and why?

I don’t think that one was necessarily easier than the other—like with the question prior, they became more distinct in my head as I continued to draft/edit, and that certainly made writing them in the sequel, Godslayers, smoother because they were already fully-formed. It’s an element of writing I find so thrilling in general, that character voices will become actualized in my head the more I build on them so that I’m basically switching off narrators when I’m reading it over.

The theme of refusing to accept a destiny someone else wrote seems to me very different from the simpler “I crave my own destiny.” In this world, there are clear and expected pathways for both Sona and Eris, and at numerous points, they spurn the expectations of the dystopian world around them. How important was this to you?

One of the major themes in Gearbreakers is how, when you’re born onto a side, it’s hard to see anything but the path you’ve been placed on. This goes for both the Pilots and Gearbreakers—they’ve been raised to think the world is black and white and that the way to have a long life is to act in hatred and violence. To love someone is to humanize them is to have a greater ability to do it again, like practice, even though in this harsh world it gives you more to lose. In a setting where the opposite is said to keep you alive, to fear loving other people and doing it anyway is to refuse that destiny.  

Of the themes in Gearbreakers, which was the most important to you? Did you have a touchstone theme as you were writing that you kept returning to?

Defund the military.

You grew up in Colorado, where Brink is based, so yay Colorado! Secondly, you’re a Husky! (I lived in Seattle for a time after I graduated high school.) How did you find writing a novel (and publishing said novel) while studying? Were there any particular challenges or benefits of being based in Seattle? Are you close with the writing and publishing world there?

Writing has always been my downtime, and it’s just something I have to drop into my routine. It helped on-campus that we had such a gorgeous library for me to sit at and work in for hours. Email is definitely all I’m using to communicate professionally, and everyone’s on Twitter so that’s where I’m getting more of my bookish current events. I can’t wait to do in-person things, though—maybe Comic-Con next year? I was a panellist over Zoom this year but I’d love to be able to freak out over it in person.

What was the biggest change between the draft you submitted to your editor and the ARC that I read?

Nothing big—a couple of tweaks on the romanizations of Korean words. A few sentences in the beginning chapters were clunky, so I trimmed those. When Eris is facing off with that guard in that first takedown, I think I changed her response from “Do you really?” to “No, you wouldn’t” when he says he’d like to see her try to kill him. I liked the little arrogance boost.

What was the publishing process like for you as a debut novelist? How’d you catch the eye of Feiwel & Friends? What advice would you give a writer seeking publication?

You have to make sure that your representation is solid—I think that’s the most important, especially as a debut novelist who might not know a lot about the publishing world. I was really young, eighteen, when I signed my agency contract and nineteen when I signed with F&F. I started off being really timid with what I wanted creatively, so the advice I would give to a writer is to not back down when it comes to establishing your creative freedom.

Apart from the unnamed sequel to Gearbreakers, are you working on anything else? What’s next for you? What are some of your aspirations as a novelist?

The sequel is named now—Godslayers! Again, I love it. I’m editing my YA fantasy horror right now—Rabbit & Sickle—a gothic Alice in Wonderland meets Attack on Titan meets Gideon the Ninth (read: there’s gooey magic and feral Saints in Wonderland!). I want to write pretty much every genre, so I’m just going down the list. I’m also drafting a YA contemporary sci-fi about kids building robots in their basements and then illegally brawling them in the abandoned underground of 2053 Seattle—basically Perks of Being a Wallflower meets Real Steel. It’s all for fun.

Lastly, has your mission to befriend the murder of crows on the University of Washington campus succeeded? They remember faces for generations—how is that going for you?!

As I’ve been off of campus for a year and a half, I have switched my bird-befriending intentions from the campus to around my house a few blocks away, where I feed the crows cashews in the alleyway. My current regulars are Rosie (she came first), Francis (her buddy, they’ve been coming together lately), and Ragnarok (ragged and old and comes alone; if others beat him to the cashews, I can catch him on the roof staring them down and waiting for them to go away). They come and caw at my window regularly when I’m trying to write, which cultivates the setting, which motivates me to work. My current goal is more crows.

A review of I’m Not Hungry But I Could Eat by Christopher Gonzalez

Published December 1, 2021 by Santa Fe Writers Project.

What drew me to Christopher Gonzalez’s debut short-story collection I’m Not Hungry But I Could Eat was how it seamlessly plotted hunger and identity by intertwining the themes of longing and cravings. Where does a craving for food end and longing for another begin? By centering each encounter of these queer Puerto-Rican men on food, Gonzalez hones in on the uncertain, turbulent moments that manifest in their lives. And all of these choices stem from the visceral need to connect with one another and to build on that relationship or sometimes step away from it.

This collection is heartfelt, humorous, and chaotic—each a very real depiction of the imperfections that make us human. Gonzalez follows the train of thoughts of each character with such credibility that you can’t help but find a bit of yourself in every episode, in the wild range of emotions that are captured on these pages. Each story is accorded its own unique identity in the way it’s written. Gonzalez also employs a lot of inventive writing patterns. In “What You Missed While I Was Watching the Cat,” you won’t find a clear plotline but rather an odd recollection of the narrator’s thoughts as they engaged in a lot of questionable, yet chaotic, action in their friend’s home that they were asked to look after.

“Here’s the Situation” is unique in the way the entire story is broken down into mini-episodes with a cause-and-effect element, wherein Mateo first explains his friend Eduadro’s fling of messy relationships and hurtful breakups. The following story explains how Mateo reacted to the breakups or how one of Eduardo’s flings reacted and the decisions they took as a result of that breakup. However, my personal favorite is “Half Hearted,” which plays around with the question “How’s your heart?” It touches upon the emptiness, longing, desperation, and desire felt by Hector. He always feels weak and tired in the face of life, wondering if it’s his half-heart that brings him and those around him pain, which also makes it difficult for him to open up, to build and sustain relationships with people.

What I loved about Gonzalez’s work is how he lets his characters be who they are without passing any moral judgments; he touches upon the vast spectrum of people’s eccentricities with curiosity, enthusiasm, and so much acceptance. In “Little Moves”, you find Felix dancing in the middle of his living room while spilling the ashes of his long-gone sister. While in “Juan, Actually,” our two characters are on an adventure taking a hit-and-run victim (caused by their car) to the hospital.

Gonzalez’s characters do their best while reveling in their own skin on these pages, even though at times the outcomes of their actions aren’t necessarily what they expect. And while human relationships also take center stage along with a hunger for food and for others, there is so much thoughtfulness in the way the relationships a person builds impact their lives. What might appear as a short, light read ends up expressing the potential conflicts as well as the inherent tenderness that mark these relationships. In “That Version of You,” our narrator continues complaining about his friend throughout the story but never leaves his side, at the very end offering him half of his sandwich and recognizing how important this relationship is to him despite all the faults he finds. While in “I’m Not Hungry but I Could Eat”, the narrator continues stuffing himself with food beyond his capacity to fulfill the simple need of lending his friend a listening ear. The narrator in “Unplucked,” who sets out to get new eyebrows sewn in, is consistently impacted by the words of judgment (or advice) offered by their friend, Sarah. “Enough for Two to Share” takes a different route by touching upon how family trauma plays out in who we become years later and what we seek in other people.

I’m Not Hungry But I Could Eat does not present itself as a neat collection of stories that can be captured within a singular theme. Instead, it subverts the tendencies of clear-cut narratives and vouches for itself as a fresh, unique, and inventive voice. Yes, it is about Puerto Rican men. Yes, it is about hunger. Yes, it does play around with the metaphor of food. But these can hardly capture the complexity of human emotions that Gonzalez has portrayed. It takes tenderness and a genuine love for the messiness of being helplessly human to write these stories. As a reader, it is a constant reminder of the diverse characters out there that we’re yet to encounter but at the same time, it’s a secret message to you: it’s okay to be who you are, to feel what you feel.

Review of Barbaric #1 or Come for the talking axe, Stay for the eternal asks

Published June 30, 2021 by Vault Comics

Barbaric #1 from Vault Comics asks the question: what puts a character on the path to act selflessly? Writer Michael Moreci crafts a perfect set-up: a hedonistic barbarian cursed to perform acts of valor. Three witches show Owen the Barbarian an afterlife of eternal damnation for a life misspent on drinking, fighting, and physical pleasures if he does not follow through on his penance of accepting any plea of distress. And since this is a barbarian comic book, Owen is given a talking axe—that gets drunk on blood—as his moral path guide.

Nathan Gooden’s art style demands attention. He captures the moment when Owen is shown his damnation in a fluid transition, the reader flipping the page to see a sea storm turned into Hell. Gooden switches the tides of raging waves effortlessly into the fiery infernos of the afterlife as Owen is given a vision of what awaits him should he not agree to the witches’ curse. Gooden’s pacing reflects Owen’s internal debate about whether it’s worth taking the plunge into Hell and facing the devil he knows or surviving the storm and serving out the curse.

Gooden’s artwork flows past panels in the blood-soaked battles and sword and sorcery of the world of Barbaric. In the arena battle that opens the comic, the panels are both interlocked and scattered on a two-page spread to give the reader a sense of how quick Owen is when fighting in battle. Gooden’s pacing can, at other times, capture the slow burn of a speedy kill in scenes where characters’ deaths come so swiftly that they have not yet realized what has happened.

But it is in the slow moments that Gooden shows the depth of Moreci’s characters. This barbarian named Owen is not a parody character. Gooden’s artwork gives Owen time to show his moments of frustration, lamenting, and brooding as he is bound to the curse, as well as his rage when he is acting in service of the curse.

Owen isn’t the only one whose face makes an impact. As each battle scene increases in mayhem, the forged open fangs of the talking axe grin and its tongue licks its teeth after each slice. These facial expressions highlight the complexities of Moreci’s characters and even make a talking axe into a believable supporting character.

Owen the Barbarian is not on a hero’s journey to go down in legend. Moreci sets Owen up as someone who never wanted to do anything more than be a barbarian because it is his nature. But in fact, Owen does not celebrate his achievements. In a tavern scene after an arena fight, Owen overhears someone else taking credit for one of his previous adventures. The axe, drunk on blood from the arena, taunts Owen that this armor-clad man is telling his tale. Owen hates the man’s false bragging, but Owen does something selflessly against his nature without prompting from the axe or the curse—after the braggart leaves, Owen reacts to the shouts of an angry mob wishing to burn a witch, demanding that the mob “stop murdering women” and explains in his own way that what they are doing is wrong instead of just attacking them.

These moments hook me as I begin to wonder whether Owen is slowly getting ahead of the curse with his selfless actions in small ways, and I am certainly intrigued to see what Moreci has planned for the long game. For me, the book takes a look at the existential question asked most Sundays about nurture and nature: What causes our selfish and savage actions to become less self-serving and when do we start thinking outside of ourselves to instead put others first? Is humanity good because of a threat of judgment in the afterlife or are we good to benefit each other in the here and now in order to avoid living in a barbaric world?

To find out the answer, I recommend adding Barbaric to your pull list at your local comic shop (Issue #2 released July 28th, 2021) to follow Owen the Barbarian on this cursed journey every month from Vault Comics.