A Review of Skater Boy by Anthony Nerada

*SPOILER ALERT *This review contains plot details of Skater Boy.

Skater Boy by Anthony Nerada was published on February 6, 2024  by Penguin Random House/Soho Teen.

It isn’t easy being your high school’s “resident bad boy.” But you know what’s harder? Being handed that title without wanting it in the first place. Skater Boy by Anthony Nerada centers around Wesley “Big Mac” Mackenzie, who isn’t what you’d call a model student. He’s skipping class, stealing lunch, and getting into fights, because that’s how the universe sees him, so that might as well be who he is, right? Teachers and other students don’t see him as someone trying to provide for his family or someone struggling with anxiety and trauma. That is, until Wes meets Tristan, the beautiful ballet dancer, after being forced to see The Nutcracker, and realizes what he wants might not be what he currently has.

Wes is a very real, awkward character. There were times he had me smacking my hand against my forehead. Hard. Thanks to teenage boy defense mechanisms and intentionally stunted dialogue, Wes’s and Tristan’s first interaction gave me secondhand embarrassment that made me want to bury myself alive. And Wes’s thoughts, sentiments, and actions mimicked those uncomfortable feelings throughout the book. That’s the beauty of seeing things through his eyes, though. He isn’t perfect, and he lives up to his age by making silly mistakes without understanding how to fix them. Wes felt like a testament for anyone that as long as they keep pushing, things will end up okay.

There are readers who will see themselves in Wes. And, when it comes to characters in media, whether that be in television, articles, or books, representation is important. The alleged failure, the gay kid with no future. They’ll see it’s okay to not understand where they are in their lives. There are also people who will see themselves in Tristan. The gay, black ballerina who loves what he does. And at first, maybe they’ll blink because, “Black guys are supposed to play basketball, right?”

That representation extends to highlight the ways Wes was failed in Skater Boy. A failure I’ve seen first-hand. Society has and continues to fail children, because yes, teenagers are children, who need patience, understanding, and guidance. Instead, they get belittled and told they aren’t good enough. They can’t get into a certain school, because have they seen their grades? They’re not going to graduate on time, because have they seen their track record? They aren’t going to amount to anything in life, because, well…look at them. This is the exact situation Wes faces as we’re welcomed into his story. His guidance counselor breaks the news that he won’t be graduating, and rather than encouraging him, he discourages Wes by saying, “You’ll never be a lawyer, not with those grades.” At first, Wes doesn’t care as he doesn’t believe college is the end-all-be-all. But then he discovers what he really wants to do—photography—and starts working hard to get his grades up to achieve his dreams, despite the lack of encouragement.

Nerada explores other important topics throughout Skater Boy, too. In one scene, Wes follows Tristan to practice after dropping a ballet slipper. Tristan freaks out, ready to attack. Wes apologizes but doesn’t understand why he’s so upset. Then, he notices the Black Lives Matter sticker on Tristan’s bag and realizes how terrifying the situation must have been. Incorporating social movements in media will always be important because they’ll never go away. The self-awareness shown by Wes is needed and appreciated in this novel—especially since he takes the situation as an experience to learn from.

Without going into detail, there’s a point in Skater Boy where Wes loses sight of himself and starts to push away those he loves. While that choice frustrated me, I understood. Even though things start to improve in his life, his emotional problems don’t disappear. Wes changes, but it’s slow. And it’s certainly not every part of him at once. He’s a teenager who’s been through a lot, and a few weeks of happiness with Tristan isn’t going to miraculously fix that. A kiss isn’t going to wipe away the trauma, the fear, or the doubt bubbling up inside of him. And I am glad it doesn’t. It only makes Wes’s character that much more human and relatable.

The relationships portrayed throughout Skater Boy further emphasis the nuances of Wes’s world. Nerada explores an array of connections that expand as the story unfolds. There are relationships between Wes and Tristan, his best friends, his single mother, a future stepfather, and even past victims of his bullying. As someone who lives and breathes well-developed, meaningful side characters, I was ecstatic about everything they offered in the novel. Almost every character pushed Wes to become the best possible version of himself. His former bully victims, for example, showed him there is redemption if you’re willing to try.

With that said, there are a few side characters I wish had more light on them—a great example being Hannah, Wes’s future stepsister. Wes’s seemingly positive relationship with Hannah was a great foil to his negative feelings about Tad, Hannah’s father. Wes pretends Tad doesn’t exist, but he’s gentle with Hannah. He tickles her, tosses her over his shoulder, and gives her candy when he could have ignored her. We only get a couple of moments between Wes and Hannah but giving them more time together would be an opportunity for Wes to explore, in depth, why he felt comfortable with Tad’s daughter but not Tad himself. Is it because she’s young, because he likes the idea of having a sibling, or is there something else left unsaid? This rings true for other side characters, too, such as Tristan’s best friend, Emily. By the end of the story, I felt I still didn’t know who some of these characters were outside of them knowing Wes. Expanding upon these characters would give Wes (and readers) a better chance at understanding him and his actions, how they affect those around him, and how those around Wes affect him in return.

Skater Boy is an amazing debut novel about a boy who learns what it means to rip off labels and be himself. But this is not only a story teenagers deserve to read—it’s a story that needed to be told. A story about what it means to to be young and queer in a world where adults may fail you. A story about taking the first steps to overcome the struggles one might be facing. A story about how you owe no one, but yourself, the life you want to live.

For more information on Anthony Nerada, check out this interview!

An Interview with Anthony Nerada

Skater Boy is your debut novel—congratulations! What was your biggest struggle when writing this story, and how did you overcome it?

Thanks so much! After a lifetime of writing (and perhaps a borderline unhealthy dose of wishful thinking), it is very surreal to know this story is now out in the world.

My biggest struggle in writing Skater Boy was creating a believable angry character that people could relate to, and maybe even want to root for, by the end of the story. When readers first meet my main character, Wesley “Big Mac” Mackenzie, he is quite literally confronting another character on the page, which I’m sure will elicit a visceral response in many. So, the main question quickly becomes­­—how do you take this person you’re supposed to hate and craft a story around them that leaves readers feeling satisfied? In Wes, I wanted to bring a character to life who doesn’t often get their story told—a gay kid on the outskirts who is conflicted and confused and maybe even operates in unhealthy ways—and show that there is so much more to them than how they present themselves to the world. To overcome this as a writer, I kept asking myself, what would I like to see Wes do to come to terms with himself? And sure enough, the answer ended up being a lot easier than I anticipated. It meant showing Wes interacting with the world and putting him up against situations and people he wouldn’t normally come across. In watching him break down his own barriers throughout the novel, I hope readers learn to love Wes—faults and all.

I’m seeing more and more queer YA books being published! However, the industry still has a way to go. Were there any challenges you’ve faced with this story?

Right from the start, I knew Wes’s story would be a hard sell. In an industry that historically only published young adult books that featured palatable gay characters—ones who always made the right choices, only ever expressed happiness, and never mentioned anything even remotely associated with sex—where exactly does Skater Boy fit? So, unsurprisingly, when it came to being on submission, I faced rejection after rejection for nearly two years from editors who couldn’t connect with Wes or didn’t have an editorial vision for the story. And I can’t fault them for that; when we’re constantly fed only one side of a story, it’s difficult to imagine what to do when confronted with the other. That is why I am so thankful for Soho Teen, and specifically my editor, Alexa Wejko, for taking a chance on me. Right from the start, Alexa inherently understood what Wes was about and loved him anyway.

What did your writing process look like for Skater Boy? Did you outline? Do you just go for it? Will you do the same for your future novels?

When it comes to writing, I am a chronic plotter (though in the editing stages I tend to write by the seat of my pants and will randomly throw in scenes or dialogue I make up on the fly). Typically, though, the overarching storyline comes to me first, so I like to jot down all the major plot points on cue cards and organize them on a corkboard so I can visually see what my story looks like. Of course, when it comes to character development, that usually throws a wrench in my plans, but for the most part, laying out every chapter helps me stay organized and on task.

Skater Boy touches on some extremely important topics—the idea of being labeled, the BLM movement, harmful stereotypes. What made you think, “This is something I have to write. Something I must put out there?”

I don’t think I necessarily went into this story knowing I would touch on such large/important topics, but as I got to know my characters more, I knew I couldn’t ignore them. I touch on this briefly in the Author Note at the beginning of Skater Boy, but I originally set out to write a light-hearted romantic comedy that paid tribute to its namesake. However, it was only after better understanding Wes’s internal motivations, that I realized that wasn’t the story I had to tell. Even with Tristan—Wes’s love interest—I couldn’t write a Black secondary character, at the height of the BLM movement, without acknowledging (even as an outsider) how being a Black male teenager in the United States would inform his own lived experience. In many ways, throughout the length of this story, Wes is exposed to several different lived experiences outside the narrow reaches of his own life, and it’s through them that he learns more about the world around him and grows. Whether we like it or not, everyone has dealt with labels or harmful stereotypes in some way (especially in high school), so making sure I touched on these topics become paramount to the story and helped inform many of Wes’s actions throughout it.

Are there any books coming out in 2024 that you’re looking forward to, and why?

Where do I even begin? I’ve had the absolute pleasure of beta-reading some incredible young adult novels coming out in 2024 and am so excited for readers to experience this new wave of queer stories filled to the brim with messy “gray” characters like Wes.

Some recent favorites include: Teenage Dirtbags by James Acker, The Last Boyfriends Rules for Revenge by Matthew Hubbard, and Cursed Boys and Broken Hearts by Adam Sass.

I always say, when I begin reading a story and immediately think “Wes would probably be great friends with this character,” I know I’m in for a real treat!

What are you working on now? Can we expect them to be the same genres as Skater Boy (YA, queer) or are you branching out into something different?

I am always ideating and brainstorming— my Notes app in my phone is a true testament to the chaos of my imagination, haha— so when it comes to branching out into something different, I never say never! For now, though, I have a few more contemporary/romance stories in the pipeline including a dual POV contemporary set in Los Angeles amongst the real-world events surrounding the L.A. Dodgers/Pride Night controversy that happened this past summer. I like to think of it as What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera meets This Is Why They Hate Us by Aaron H. Aceves, with a focus on queer activism and joy as anti-LGBTQIA+ hate crimes are at an all-time high. It has similar, underlining themes that are present in Skater Boy, while also looking at what it means to be a queer teenager in the spotlight.

If you could give one, general piece of advice to aspiring authors out there, something that they should follow to the ends of the earth, what would it be?

This may sound cliché, and it’s said time and time again for a reason, but just keep writing. I was in the querying trenches for ten years before I landed my first agent and then spent two years on submission with Skater Boy. It would have been so easy just to give up, but instead of focusing on every rejection, I continued to write, I read and absorbed as much as I could, and I honed my craft. Every time you put pen to paper, or fingers to a keyboard, you are expanding your horizons and improving your skills as a writer, so don’t give up! It just takes one yes to make all your dreams come true.

You left a very meaningful message at the beginning of your novel. To those of your readers who can see themselves in Wes, those who have lost sight of who they are, what are you hoping they can find by the end of Skater Boy?

That really means a lot to me. It’s funny you should mention that because the Author Note at the beginning of Skater Boy was only ever meant to be in the advanced reader copies (ARCs). But after some initial feedback from early readers on the importance and resonating impact of that message, we decided to keep it in.

I wrote Skater Boy as much for myself as for all the queer kids out there who feel they don’t belong— because the reality is that being queer is not a monolith, it’s up to you to decide what that looks like for you. By the end of the story, I hope readers understand that no matter where they are in their journey of self-discovery, no matter how the world sees them, it is never too late to embrace the person they were always meant to be. Labels and expectations be damned!

A Brief History of the Romance Novel

I’ve always loved romance novels. There was a time when I refused to read anything that didn’t have romance in it. My love for the genre eventually transferred to my other hobbies and interests—I never watched shows that weren’t centered around romance, I never wrote stories where the words “I love you” weren’t muttered between soft kisses, and I never played games that wouldn’t let me choose someone to date from a handful of candidates. There’s just something about the sweet, deserved intimacy between two or more people that makes my heart swoon and my days a little brighter.

So why is it that whenever I share my love for this genre, people give me weird looks?

In Maya Rodale’s work Dangerous Books for Girls, she highlights the history of romance novels and why they’ve always been so historically important to women. Women used to be shamed for reading romance books, and sometimes we still are, but despite that shame, these stories have life-changing lessons to teach.

What Did Life for Women Once Look Like?

In the early 1800s, men and women’s gender roles were split into two separate spheres: the public sphere and the domestic sphere. Men, in the public sphere, went out to work, participated in politics, and socialization came easier. Women, in the domestic sphere, cooked, cleaned, took care of the kids, took care of their husbands, and cooked some more. Day in and day out they stayed at home, listened to their babies wail, and finally their husbands “rewarded” them with unsatisfactory sex. If they were in the mood, of course. Many women feared that this was how the rest of their lives were going to be.

Keep in mind, this is how white women lived their lives. For minorities, it was a completely different ballpark. Women of color had no social lives, were deemed property, and were abused until later in the 19th century.

Introducing the Romance Novel

The origin of the romance novel starts around the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded was one of the first, released in 1740. In it, a young woman tries to resist giving her virginity to a wealthy landowner, making it clear that Richardson was writing for the landowning male class.

Fast forward to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility in 1811 when women began writing for women. Though they often wrote under male pseudonyms, to decrease the chance of harassment and so their books would be taken seriously, it was usually obvious when women wrote them.

When romance novels became popular around the Jane Austen era, women wasted no time reading them. Being a part of the domestic sphere meant the same boring routines. But romance books were new and exciting. They offered a world previously unheard of. Women in romance novels had hopes and dreams that they strove for and achieved. Their romances often featured men who treated them, if not as equals, at least as real people—and who were very much in love with them. The heroines of romance novels experienced more to life than being a mother and housewife. Women of the nineteenth century wanted that. 

Romance Novels’s “Bad Reputation”

The concept of the romance novel and its freeing power for women seems like it should have been a great thing, but that wasn’t the consensus of the time. Men did not view these changing ideals positively, saying the books set “unrealistic” expectations for them. Books like Pamela, written by men, upheld the idea of virtue being pure and sacred. The romance novels written by women seemed like erotica in comparison, disrupting the innocent nature men wanted women to have. 

The world belittled and berated women for ever hoping they had a chance of living the same lives as their favorite fictional character. Because the books were just that—fiction. Anyone who thought of them as real-life possibilities were dreamers and delusional. At the end of the day, however, it wasn’t that these books held ideas that tainted women and their expectations. It was that women were starting to realize how they’d been treated thus far was not enough.

Don’t Settle for Less, Ladies

Romance novels aren’t nearly as subversive as they once were. Some people—usually men but sometimes traditional women—will always be spooked by the idea that women can be the center of attention, have jobs, and chase after hopes and dreams. But every day more women are empowering each other, loudly and proudly. Younger generations are reading romance novels and realizing they want to marry someone like the main character’s love interest. Beautiful, grown women read these stories and realize they deserve to be treated like the queens they are.

It’s also important to recognize that these novels are no longer solely about straight, white women. Now, women of color and queer women get to find love too. It’s an ever changing industry that will always have room for improvement, but has come a long way.

To every woman who has felt shame for reading a romance novel and longing for what the main character has, wishing you were her—I hope that one day you’ll come to understand that you deserve to be swept up in a good book. You deserve to enjoy all kinds of scenes, no matter how “impure.” And you deserve a partner who will give you just as much as you’re willing to give them. Here’s to your Happily Ever After.

“Your here and now is not your forever. Your situation on page one is not where you’ll end up in the epilogue….your birth is not your destiny.” — Maya Rodale, Dangerous Books for Girls, p. 19

An Interview with Tiana Warner

Congratulations on releasing your latest book, The Road Trip Agreement! What did your writing process look like for this story compared to your other series’?

Thank you! This story was inspired by a road trip I took along the Oregon coast, so the process kicked off with some real-life setting research—which is obviously quite different from writing fantasy books. I began the draft while on the trip and finished it fairly quickly while the setting was fresh in my mind. Compared to writing fantasy, I find contemporary romances to be quicker because you don’t have to spend time creating or researching the fictional world(s) and magic rules.

As a bisexual woman writing and publishing much needed sapphic stories, what are the struggles that you’ve faced within the industry?

When I first started publishing, there weren’t a lot of LGBTQ+ publishers or even that many LGBTQ+ novels, so I remember being unsure whether there would be space for my trilogy about a girl who falls in love with a mermaid. Now, there are more options than ever for sapphic literature, which is amazing! It’s lovely to see the genre grow and become more mainstream. I’m lucky in that I haven’t had serious struggles within the industry, other than the occasional bigoted one-star review. But those people don’t deserve my mental energy. Overall, the book community is a wonderful and accepting place, and I’ve definitely felt the love.

Do you think there are differences between writing adult sapphic romances and YA sapphic stories?

The only real difference is in the age of the protagonist. YA protagonists are teenagers, and adult books have adult protagonists—simple as that. For my stories, there is also a difference in the heat level of the romantic scenes, but that’s not necessarily a rule. There are lots of adult stories with closed-door romantic scenes and YA stories with more graphic scenes. Same with violence levels and the intensity of the subject matter.

Staying on the topic of genres, do you have a preference between writing adult sapphic novels or fantastical mermaid and valkyrie stories? Is there a new genre you’d like to try out?

I alternate between writing contemporary adult romance novels and YA Fantasy novels, and I love being able to do both. Fantasy novels are so fun to write but take a lot longer and are more mentally draining because of all the worldbuilding involved, so it’s nice to break those up with something that takes place here and now. Both genres are equally fun to write and have their unique challenges! As for trying out a new genre, I’ve always wanted to write a psychological thriller (à la Gone Girl, my favorite book), but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. One day!

Are there any books coming out in 2024 that you’re looking forward to, and why?

Oh, Ylva Publishing has a lot of sapphic romances launching next year that I can’t wait to read. I’m also always excited for whatever Kate Quinn’s next book is—she’s one of my favorite authors. She has a new one coming out in February that I can’t wait to get my hands on.

I noticed that you’ve had books optioned for film—that’s amazing. Which of your stories would you like to see on the big screen?

I’m still trying to pitch my Mermaids of Eriana Kwai trilogy to Hollywood! The world needs this story in cinematic form, and I know the audience is there—I just need to convince the studios. Really, as a writer, seeing any of your work on the big screen would be a dream come true.

If you could give one, general piece of advice to aspiring authors out there, something that they should follow to the ends of the earth, what would it be?

Being an author is super tough and a solitary career, so connect with other writers! I have a critique group that I owe my sanity to. I met them through a local writing group on Meetup.com, and we’ve been friends ever since. We meet in person once in a while to read excerpts and get feedback, and generally are just there for each other in a group chat. It’s nice to have people who are going through the same struggles, who you can go to conferences with, exchange drafts with, talk about the industry, and celebrate your successes together. Try checking out local writer conferences or joining various online spaces.

What can we look forward to from you in the future? Do you have any other stories you’re working on right now? Any other projects?

2024 will see the launch of my next adult sapphic romance, Snowed in with Summer, which is inspired by a dog-sledding trip I took in the Yukon. There’s also the third and final book in my Sigrid and the Valkyries trilogy, a young adult sapphic fantasy that takes place in the nine Norse realms. I’m also drafting several other stories in the meantime! I invite readers to sign up for my newsletter and/or follow me on Instagram to stay up to date with all of my new releases.

An Interview with Margot Douaihy

Your latest novel, Scorched Grace, is a crime fiction novel. What is it that draws you to this genre?

Hardboiled literature is obsessed with shadows, mirrors, and vice. Solving riddles and restoring order. Even for a brief moment, even for a client who doesn’t pay. 

The hardboiled story begins with the acknowledgment that the world is broken, but it’s still worth the fight. Indeed, life is painful but can still be miraculous and achingly beautiful.

The hardboiled subgenre includes the lineage of wisecracking, hard-living, hard-drinking “lone wolf” PIs on the mean streets, pounding the pavement for cases. These sleuths are insider-outsiders, loners, rebels who test their mettle at high heats.

Hardboiled, like other subgenres, remixes elements from other categories, but tone, voice, and mood are key. Hardboiled stories are often gritty, unsentimental, or seductively subtextual, voice-driven narrative experiences. The sleuth is a piece of work—never afraid to throw a punch. But showing raw vulnerability is terrifying. 

For all of these reasons and more, this subgenre has won my heart.

Landmark hardboiled authors include Black Mask Magazine writers. Think Raymond Chandler (elegiac, poetic), Dashiell Hammett (also a Pinkerton private eye), and Mickey Spillane. Then, the neo-hardboiled writers such as Sue Grafton, Walter Mosley, and Sara Paretsky, to name a few. 

Styles and themes vary. Canonical PIs from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s have tons of misogyny, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia problems. Sometimes it’s hard to stomach. And yet, many foundational hard boilers also probed PTSD and post-war specters. In the lineage, writers like Katherine V. Forrest and Cheryl A. Head offer incisive critiques and stalwart LGBTQ characters. Most private eye characters work alone, but Spade paired with Archer. More codes than rules.

Some screen riffs on hardboiled include Jessica Jones and Veronica Mars. (There are so, so many.) The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon are classics. I am excited about decolonized, queer, trans, and nonbinary POVs in hardboiled lit. I am happy to see Scorched Grace situated in this wild legacy. 

Speaking of inspiration, what gave you the idea to write Scorched Grace about “a chain-smoking, heavily tattooed, queer nun”? That’s quite the character! Were you inspired by someone specific? Did the idea just come to you?

I wanted to recast the hardboiled sleuth as a tatt’d up queer nun named Sister Holiday, a lone wolf by her own design. Her subversion is a reclamation of the hardboiled sleuth trope and my investment in queer futurity. Scorched Grace embodies dichotomies. dialectics, and the thrall of damage, ghosts, and queer resilience.

Image Credit: Margot Douaihy

Continuing on the topic, you pride yourself as a queer artist who writes queer books that “shake the heteronormative.” There are a lot of us out there who need books like these. Were there any challenges in your publication journey, either in the beginning or even now, that you’ve faced with these queer stories? 

When it comes to popular fiction, there are a bevy of market realities to consider. The investment in a new title (and a new author) is significant, and many publishers want to feel confident in their investment, and indeed, the return on investment. There is a balance between writing books for broad trade audiences—books that innovate, experiment, and test the elasticity of genre—while still delivering the experiences that genre readers crave. In other words, how do you write a truly inspired piece of art, a wildly weird book that takes a big creative swing, while ensuring it will sell well? For all these reasons (and so many more), I am fortunate to be published by the brilliant Gillian Flynn, who leads the imprint Gillian Flynn Books with Zando. Their mission is to publish books that are propulsive, culturally incisive, and conversation starting. It’s been a dream to land my weird series with this remarkable team. Gillian herself is a genius, so I’m very lucky to have her blessing and encouragement. It’s heartening to witness the gradual shift in the industry, but there’s always work to be done to ensure that diverse voices are not just heard but celebrated in the pop fic world.

As someone who also teaches, what would you say are some important lessons from a professor’s POV when it comes to writing?

The writing workshop is the art of self inquiry and an act of shared imagination. To intone Susan Sontag, writing is not necessarily about the world; it is its own world. Art is a world unto itself. This is a tenet that I hold dear to my heart. When I teach, I pose questions that I ask of my own art and process. Sharing ideas and experiences, informed by lived experiences, is one of the greatest gifts of being a writing teacher and working in the arts. I learn from my students every single day.  

Your artist statement says: “…working across genres, I allow the identity of the project to locate its final form.” What does that kind of process look like for you?

I usually start a piece with a feeling. In the case of Scorched Grace, that feeling was heat. Total incineration. Raging fire. The passion of burning and burning of passion. I wanted to write a novel about the ways that fire can live inside the intellect as well as in the viscera—the corporeal and the cerebral in tandem. The liturgical layer and epistemologies complicate the mystery. With other pieces of art, the feeling may begin as a poem, but since form and content are crucially linked, I could start a draft with economy and concision, but the idea itself explodes out, demanding and insisting on a much longer form. Another example of this would be my poem, “The Book of Lace” in my collection Scranton Lace (Clemson University Press). It started as a meditation on the elegant danger of a needle, and the sculpture of a needle as utility, as well as aesthetic beauty of what the needle creates. Critical theory by Barthes and Bachelard about imagery and post-structural notions of text (meaning “to weave”) informed this work. The draft started as a tiny series of couplets, needle fine. Then the draft took on more POVs and it needed a richer home. The final draft is an eight-page poem that serves as a re-imagined origin story of lace. The book itself is an extended metaphor, yoking the derelict space of an abandoned lace factory to internalized homophobia. Two elaborate structures that once served a purpose but are no longer needed. And they are also hard to raze or dismantle completely. 

Are there specific challenges you’ve faced writing crime fiction (specifically lesbian crime fiction) that may not be present in other genres you partake in?

I am interested in offering alternative narratives of power, agency, the illusion of good vs bad, and “justice.” The idea of justice is not axiomatic nor is it fixed. Justice looks very different depending on context and life experience. When I first started writing crime fiction, I encountered more “copaganda” types of storyline portrayals that romanticize and/or idealize law enforcement characters and PIs, and therefore perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Media and pop fiction can shape and influence societal perceptions, so this topic is extremely important to me. I am part of a movement to enrich and evolve our beloved genre of crime fic by incorporating intersectional perspectives, with a particular emphasis on featuring main characters from queer, BIPOC, and neurodiverse backgrounds. 

As a professor do you often, if ever, find that working with students and their creative pieces and processes help you with your own? Has your process changed? If so, how?

Absolutely. Engaging with students and their creative journeys is a deeply enriching experience. Observing new perspectives and idiosyncratic approaches often offers fresh insights that let me reimagine craft and process. Teaching art and making art is a fundamentally reciprocal relationship. Pedagogy and individual creativity inform each other. Art in any form is a living, breathing thing. No one owns it. No one should be a gatekeeper. Education outfits writers with the support, rigorous contexts, craft consciousness, and skillful means to create compelling work, each person holds the magic inside.

You have another book coming out next year, Blessed Water. How do you balance life—teaching and everything that comes with that, hobbies, etc.—with writing your books?

A very detailed and disciplined daily list. Lists of lists. I try to keep each weekend free to play. To bike. To hike. To spend time with my family and cats. For about fifteen years, I worked for seven days a week. It began to erode my sense of self. We must stay attuned to our creative selves and inner child. 

Are there any books coming out in 2024 that you’re really looking forward to, and why?

Humble nod to my own book, Blessed Water, which is a lyrical ripper that takes place over the course of three hellish days: Good Friday, Saturday, and Easter Sunday. It starts with Sister Holiday pulling the body of a dead priest out of the flooded river and takes off from there. I wanted to write a mystery that was both fast-paced and rich. Most chapters are about three pages. This is a mystery that readers can devour in real time during a weekend or in one sitting. Blessed Water is a queering of the traditional three-act structure. I’m also so excited about Ocean’s Godori by Elaine U. Cho. Becky Chambers meets Firefly in this big-hearted Korean space opera debut about a disgraced space pilot struggling to find her place while fighting to protect the people she loves. 

Are there any books about writing that you recommend and swear by?

Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders, and Meander, Spiral, Explode by Jane Allison.  

If you could give one, general piece of advice to the aspiring authors out there, something that they should follow to the ends of the earth, what would it be?

Ack, just one! Writing is a process. Writing is rewriting. Reading is a form of writing. Reading (including via ears and audiobooks) enriches our storytelling abilities. Never ever ever give up. There is only ONE you in this world and your story deserves to be told. 

January Staff Picks

Inanna Carter

My Time at Sandrock

Farming sims and RPGs have been around for quite some time. The classics of Harvest Moon and Story of Seasons, the iconic Stardew Valley, the upcoming Fields of Mistria—they’re not going away for a long time. Now, take that and add…building?

My Time at Sandrock is an RPG where rather than moving to a new town to take over your deceased grandfather’s farm, you move to a new town to take over a builder’s workshop. The full release recently came out, and though I only just got around to starting it, I’ve been having a blast. This game is heaps better than its predecessor, My Time at Portia (though Portia has a special place in my heart).

Aside from building for the community, you can mine, fight, farm, and form relationships with the other townsfolk. It’s something you can easily sink your time into, and overall, it’s a great game. The writing is witty and the plot keeps you on your toes. Games like Sandrock and Portia, ones with complete storylines, remind me so much of books. They don’t have to be perfect or extraordinary, but if the story is engaging and the characters evoke emotion, then I’d say they end up being something pretty special.

Dominic Loise

Wesley Dodds: The Sandman

When I talk about the Sandman, I am not like most comic book fans. The character I am talking about isn’t Spider-Man’s granulated, morphing foe or Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking goth-classic character. My Sandman is the Golden Age character, Wesley Dodds. Dodds, in his WWI gas mask, stood out to me against his WWII counterparts by wearing a three-piece suit, trench coat, and fedora while the rest of the Justice Society of America were flexing their muscles in tights and domino masks.

The new DC Comics miniseries by writer Robert Venditti and artist Riley Rossmo delves into Dodds as a man-of-mystery hero rather than a two-fisted, vigilante crime fighter. Venditti writes to the core of the character by looking at the nonviolent nature of the Sandman’s sleeping gas and PTSD from Dodds’ father in WWI, which led to his path as a hero and experiments with nonlethal weapons.

Rossmo’s art style is perfect for a series that needs to be grounded in the urban alleyways of gangster pulp and other times drift away in the dreams of a tormented hero trying to make the world safer. Besides hired thugs and gang bosses, the main villain is a darker version of Dodds, using toxic gases and tapping into the hero’s horrors and his work against chemical weapons in warfare.

Wesley Dodds: The Sandman shows a character a step between comic book and pulp novel heroes. It also shows the mindset of someone trying to make the world better between two world wars all while dealing with local violence and injustice in his city.

Sara Santistevan

Marry My Husband

*SPOILER ALERT* The following contains plot details about Marry My Husband.

If Marry My Husband is just your run-of-the-mill K-Drama, then I sincerely regret sleeping on K-Dramas until now! Based on a Webtoon by Sung So-jakMarry My Husband follows the story of Kang Ji-won, a woman who gets a second chance at life after she is murdered by her husband and best friend, who were having an affair.

I’ve often wondered what life decisions I would make differently if I got the chance to go back in time with the knowledge I have now. I also love a good revenge story! What makes Marry My Husband special is the plot’s seamless acknowledgement of some of the technical complications of time travel. In early episodes, we learn that in her previous life, Ji-won was diagnosed with stomach cancer, which was implied to result from gastritis due to the stress of her marriage. When Ji-won is thrust back into her life prior to her illness, she learns, through a series of experiments, that although future events can’t completely be avoided, they can be delayed or passed on to someone else. With this knowledge in mind, Ji-won makes it her mission to set up her best friend and future husband to avoid her fate.

Along the way, Ji-won forms genuine friendships, learns to stand up for herself, and grows more confident in her appearance and personality. Oh, and don’t worry—there’s plenty of romance, too, courtesy of the mysterious Yoo Ji-hyuk, Ji-won’s manager who seems to know more than he should about Ji-won.

Memory Man 

He comes once a month on the last day during the last hour. Never late, like clockwork, tick tock, and always on time. You gotta be lucky enough to find him, people say, but when you do, you’ll know. Only a handful of people have seen him, even with a backpack you can’t miss and a hat that covers eyes you’ll never see. People say if you’re desperate enough, you’ll find him.

You’re desperate enough. She was desperate, too.

You could go to The Center and tell them it was an accident. They’d ask you why and you’d tell them you don’t know. They’d buy It and take It away, but then they’d take you, too. You could go to a dealer in one of those alleys, the kind where piles of trash somehow tumble out of half-full dumpsters, where cats look for a feast and lampposts only ever flicker and there are rotting corpses of people who were hurt by accident—it was an accident, don’t forget that. They’d buy It and sell It, but then they’d sell you out because that’s ten times the money.

So, you look for him instead, clawing up hills like she clawed up your arms, dirt burying itself under your fingernails like your flesh buried under hers, like you buried her—

You notice his hat first. It’s tugged so far down his face that his nose is barely visible. Tufts of white hair curl themselves underneath, snaking around one another and fighting for the chance to say hello. She fought for the chance to see another day.

His backpack is twice his size, and the way it’s being poked and prodded and slammed into from the inside tells you that’s where your Memory will go. Dog tags hang off the side, limp like the overcooked noodles you had that night, limp like her when she took her final breath—your fingers pressed firmly against her neck, her mouth slack and lips drained of color when you tossed her into the now-full dumpster.

He doesn’t speak, doesn’t need to. And you, you don’t dare utter a word. His fingers are thin, delicate, smooth—hers: scratched, broken, swollenas they flick up his hat. You look into his eyes. Those big, round, purple eyes people said you’d never see. But they’re right there and they’re telling you it’s okay. It was an accident. They know.

The last thing you hear is the wind before the world goes black, and you’re being pushed and shoved and poked and prodded at and slammed into and finally—you don’t remember a thing.

He leaves once a month on the first day during the first hour. Never late, like clockwork, tick tock always on time. You won’t even know he came, people say, save for the body he leaves behind. You can find it if you’re lucky enough.

But no one who’s truly desperate ever sticks around long enough to hear that part of the story.