It's the final week of Pride Month 2019. The guys wish everyone celebrating World Pride in NYC a wonderful time. Jeff talks about being homesick for New York and missing playing hockey. Pose's early season 3 renewal is praised.
Will talks about the special Masterwork Experiment happening on The Story Grid Podcast where they are breaking down and analyzing the story structure of Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain.
Jeff and author/blogger Lee Wind have an extended interview in which Lee discusses his debut YA novel, Queer as a Five Dollar Bill and how he's become engaged in discovering queer history. They also talk about the YA book blog I'm Here. I'm Queer. What the Hell Do I Read? that Lee began over a decade ago. Lee also recommends a couple of his favorite YA books and the queer history project he's trying to jump start on Instagram.
Complete shownotes for episode 194 along with a transcript of the interview are at BigGayFictionPodcast.com.
This transcript was made possible by our community on Patreon. You can get information on how to join them at patreon.com/biggayfictionpodcast.
Jeff: Lee, welcome to the podcast. It is so great to have you here.
Lee: Thank you so much. I'm really excited to be here, Jeff.
Jeff: Now, I recently read your debut novel, "Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill". In fact, I reviewed it back in Episode 189. And absolutely love it. Now, tell people in your own words what this YA novel is about.
Lee: So it's all about the fact that I don't have a time machine. When I went...in 2011, I went to a game in summer camp kind of weekend. And there was a guy talking about the letters that Abraham Lincoln wrote Joshua Fry Speed that convinced him that Abraham was in love with Joshua. And I just thought he was full of it. Like how could that have been possibly been true? It's the first time I heard about it.
And I went to the library, and I got the letters and I read them and because the emotions Lincoln speaks about are the same emotions I experienced when I was closeted in dating girls and sort of judging it the right thing to do, but not feeling it, I had this moment of sort of goosebumps, and I was like, "Oh my gosh, I think maybe Lincoln was in love with speed."
And I thought, "Oh, if I had a time machine and go back and tell my 15-year-old self that the guy on Mount Rushmore, the guy on the $5 bill, the guy on the penny, was maybe in love with another guy, I think it would have changed my whole life. I don't think it would have taken me until I was 25 years old to fully come out. I think it would have been a game changer. But I don't have a time machine.
So "Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill" is my paying it forward. I'm a writer, I wanted to write the story about a 15-year-old who's closeted and bullied and dating a girl because he kind of judges it's the right thing to do, but he doesn't feel it. And then he's assigned a book report on Lincoln and he gets the same book that I got from the library, he reads the actual letter, where Lincoln is asking his best friend, after the best friend has gotten married to a woman, "Are you now, in feeling as well as judgment, glad you're married as you are? From anybody but me, this would be an impudent question not to be tolerated, but I know you'll tolerate it for me."
And he ends the letter saying, "Please tell me quickly, I feel very impatient to know." And we don't have Joshua's answer, because Mary Todd burned all the letters on that side of the correspondence. But we do know it was only four weeks later that Abraham had married Mary. So to me, it felt like wow, that, like what would happen if a kid today found that out and decided that he wants the world to know? Because everyone loves Abraham Lincoln in our country. And he thought, "Well, okay, so if he tells - the main character, Wyatt - if he tells the whole world that Abraham Lincoln was in love with another guy, he thinks it's going to change how everyone feels about gay people, cue the songbirds and the rainbow and happy ending."
I do think if in our culture today if someone was to go really viral with the information that Abraham Lincoln was, wrote these letters and was in love with Joshua Fry Speed, I think there would be a huge conservative backlash and media firestorm. And that's really that what I wanted to show in the novel, how this Wyatt, how Wyatt, this main character makes his way through this incredible maelstrom of fury that he's ignited by just sharing what actually is part of American history.
And then to kind of ratchet the stakes up even further, I wanted to make it, like, how was it important for a teenager today? Why is Abraham Lincoln important? So I kind of situated him in Lincolnville, Oregon, a town I kind of made up. His parents own the Lincoln Slept Here Bed & Breakfast. And when the economy of the town kind of starts to tank and they're threatened with losing their business, they bring in a civil rights attorney to help and she has an openly gay son and sparks fly between the two teens. But the main character Wyatt can't do anything about it.
Because gay kids saying Lincoln is gay is really different than a straight kid saying Lincoln is gay. And he's faced with his choice, does he follow his heart and see if something might be happening with this guy, Martin? But the cost of that is letting this secret fade back into history, and nothing will ever change in our world. Or does he sort of sacrifice himself and his own happiness, and persist with the story that Lincoln was indeed in love with another guy and see if he can change the world a little bit, even though it won't change for him? So that's the story of "Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill".
Jeff: And I feel like even before I read this book that I had heard, you know, some of the rumblings that Lincoln may have had a relationship, may have been gay. So I think it kind of dances around the edge of what some people know, because I can't even begin to tell you where I heard it or anything else, just that it had been kind of back there somewhere in the memory of I don't know, something. Does that even make sense?
Lee: Well, it's been a big thing on "Will & Grace", the revived series. They've been doing a whole run on jokes about Jack doing a one-man play called Gaybraham Lincoln, which is sort of all about Lincoln being gay, which I think has been good on the one hand, because it's letting more people know that this is something that people are talking about, but it's also doing so as if it's a farce, as if it's not true at all, and completely made up in a complete flight of fancy on the part of this bigger than life character. When in fact, if you read the letters, it is remarkable how to me it feels so clear that Lincoln was in love with Joshua.
Jeff: What was your process for researching the history? Because there's more in here than just the letters themselves. There's a lot of Lincoln history, there's comparisons drawn between Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. In my review, you know, I kind of likened it a little bit, you know, you go see "Hamilton" and you get this big infusion of history, while you're wildly entertained. What was kind of your process around gathering all the pieces you needed?
Lee: Well, first of all, thank you for comparing it to "Hamilton." That is like the best compliment ever. I need to embroider that on a pillow or something. I did a lot of research. I started out with the letters and then I realized that I just didn't know enough. I looked around and I live in Southern California. And it turns out in Redlands, California, there is an Abraham Lincoln Memorial shrine and museum. And it's like a three-room edifice that has display cases and a gift shop.
And so many of the things that ended up being part of the bed and breakfast that Wyatt's parents own were kind of taken from that real-world experience of going to this place and seeing that they actually had, you know, civil war chess sets. And they had, you know, little teddy bears that were gray or blue. And they had, you know, Confederate Flag and a Union Flag. And that was hugely helpful. And then just starting to dig in deeper to some of the things I discovered there, there's a whole sort of subplot about how Wyatt feels that there's no one he can actually talk to.
And so he's developed this strange internal dialogue with this image of a soldier in the background of one of their display cases. And I actually have a photo of it from when I went to this Lincoln shrine. And it was there, it was behind all these ammunitions. And I don't know that my gaydar works 150 some years later, but definitely, there's somebody in that, they're one of the soldiers in that photo does look like he could be gay. And I thought, "Wow, what if this was the only way that Wyatt felt that he could have somebody that recognized who he was, and how sad that was that he didn't really have a friend?" And that was why I was excited to create the character of Martin so he had somebody.
Jeff: Were you a history buff all along?
Lee: No, I hated history. And I'm sure that they're all these teachers that are like hitting their foreheads in shame right now. But like, honestly, I never had a history teacher that kind of got me excited about the stories of history, because I really feel like the way we teach history today, and my daughter's in 10th grade right now and her history textbook could have been my history textbook from the 1980s, where basically, it's the stories of rich, white, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied men from Europe.
And, you know, history is more than that. There are the stories of disabled people and people of color and women and men who loved men and women who loved women and people who looked outside gender boundaries in history. And I kind of feel like, we have to crack that facade of that false facade of history and let people know that that there's all this amazing light and you can see yourself in history. And, you know, Lincoln and Joshua are just sort of like the tip of the iceberg.
There's, you know, Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, there's Mahatma Gandhi and his love for this German Jewish architect, Hermann Kallenbach. There's the pharaoh Hatshepsut in Egypt, there is Safa, there's so many stories that impact us today. But we don't really know them because they don't get taught, or when they are taught, they're not taught in a sort of, queer inclusive or respectful manner. So I kind of feel like now I love history.
And in fact, I wrote this novel, but as I was writing the novel, there was so much history, there was so many things that came up, so many more pieces of evidence, so many more pieces of the pie, things that made me surprised, like, I didn't really know that Lincoln was sort of a racist, even though he's credited with freeing all the slaves, he had this whole plan that he signed off on with Congress at that time to sort of, you know, explore shipping all black people back to Africa.
And I didn't know that. And the deeper I dug, when I found a piece of information that kind of contradicted what I knew, I really wanted to find a way to include it in the story. Because I feel like that's what we should be doing when we find things that show that history is complex, and that people are not black and white, that it just makes it all so much more real and so much more relatable. And if we can see reflections of ourselves in the past, like if we know that there were men who love men in the past, then we can believe that we have a place at the table today.
And if we know that we have a place at the table today, we can envision a future that is sort of limitless. And I want that for everyone that doesn't feel like their history is included. I want it for all the women and all the people of color and the disabled people and the women who love women and the people who lived outside gender boundaries, too. Because that's, you know, we call it LGBTQAI+ or QUILTBAG or whatever. But really, the job is about being an ally to other people. And me as a gay man, I have to think, "Well, how can I be an ally to everybody else?" And hopefully, they're thinking the same thing. And that's how we start to create societal change.
Jeff:: That is wildly profound. And especially, given that this episode of the podcast is dropping in the last week of June, as you know, the queer community celebrates Stonewall 50.
Lee: Oh, yeah. Well, you know, I love that we're celebrating Stonewall, I love that the gender non-conforming people that were there, the transgender people, the drag queens are getting some respect now that they were part of that and they were in fact, the leaders of standing up to the police finally. But for many, many years, Stonewall had a banner, the Stonewall Inn had a banner outside that read "Where Pride Began".
And I think that's really misleading. And we talk in the queer community in America as if that's where pride began, right. Like, pride, "Hey, we're celebrating 50 years of Stonewall, Hooray." But wait a minute, Karl-Maria Kertbeny came up with the word homosexual 100 years before Stonewall. Right? Like Lincoln and Speed were writing these letters to each other 20 years before that.
You know, you can go back thousands and thousands of years and there's this beautiful story from China before China was unified, where the State of Wey that the guy that ruled it, his name was Duke Ling and he had a guy he loved his name is Mizi Xia. And they were walking through the orchard one day and Mizi Xia picks a peach off a tree and starts to eat it. And halfway through, he stops because it's so delicious.
He wants to share it and he gives the half eaten peach to the Duke and the Duke makes a really big deal out of it. Like, "I can't believe your love for me is so profound that you would sacrifice your own happiness to give me the peach." And something about that moment captured the imagination of people in that pre-unified China.
And for over 1,000 years, the way in Chinese that they said gay love was love of the half-eaten peach. Like we have this amazing, amazing history. And we just need to kind of breakthrough that facade and let all this amazing rainbow light shine through. So that's kind of what I feel my mission is to kind of let people know that we have all this amazing history, and we can start to dive into it.
Jeff: Is this all history? Because you mentioned earlier that you're not, you weren't a history buff and you hated history. Have you gathered up all of this new knowledge since you were researching to write "Queer as Five-Dollar Bill"?
Lee: Yeah. So while I was writing "Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill," like I mentioned, there was just so much stuff that came up, so much evidence that I was like, "I can't really cram all this into a novel, because at the end of the day, the novel is really about a kid today." And I didn't want it to feel like a historical novel. I wanted it to be this page-turner. So I realized that maybe it was two books, maybe there was the novel. But what if there's a nonfiction book as well that presents the primary source materials, like a popup video thing on MTV or VH1, whatever it was, helps interpret, or at least how I interpret the thing?
So like, there's all this talk about Shakespeare's Sonnets, and how, while they're very rarely taught, over 100 of the sonnets, Shakespeare wrote to another guy. And these are love sonnets that include really, really famous lines that we all recognize, like, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day. Thou art more worthy, yet more temperate." That's a line that Shakespeare wrote to another guy.
For hundreds of years, they had changed the pronouns of that in one of the folios. So it ended up being that for hundreds of years, people thought that Shakespeare wrote all those poems to a woman, to the Dark Lady. But when "The Riverside Shakespeare" came out, the editor of that section, he talked about how, "Well, we've restored the sonnets to their original, you know, pronouns, but you shouldn't mistake that, you know, the affection men felt for each other in the 1500s was nothing like the homosexual attraction today."
He wrote this in 1970s. And I'm like, "Really? Really?" Because, you know, "A man in hue all hues in his controlling, Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth," it sounds pretty romantic to me. So what I realized what I wanted to do is to create a book that wouldn't be just a book about Lincoln and Speed, but it would be a book about the broader thing, about men who love men and women who love women and people who lived outside gender boundaries.
So there's 15 chapters. One is about Lincoln and Speed, one is about Shakespeare. And then there's, like, you know, a bunch of other amazing people in history, and it really presents the primary source material. And I'm really excited because today - that we're recording this - is the day that I'm signing the contract for that book with a publisher.
Jeff: Oh, that is exciting. Congratulations.
Lee: Thank you. It's been a long journey, long and crazy journey. Because the book originally was set up at one of the big five publishers, and I worked on it for a year and a half with them. It was approved, we were talking cover design. And then two weeks after our current president was elected, they canceled the book. I think they were concerned that it was going to be too controversial. They just didn't have the courage to proceed.
And that was really devastating. And it took a long time to find a new home for it. There were a lot of shenanigans, a lot of plot twists. The agent I had had at the time turned out to be a criminal who, well, she was telling all her clients she was submitting things and that they were having all these pending book deals. She was lying.
And the book was never submitted anywhere. Even after it was returned, the rights were returned to me. And the novel, "Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill" ended up getting crowdfunded because I thought that I was being, well, stonewalled by the children's book industry and they didn't want word to get out about Lincoln and Speed so much so that no one would even respond to the submissions. So I crowdfunded it.
I have a blog, I think we're talking about that a little bit later. But I have a bunch of people that know who I am and what I was trying to do, and they all supported me to not just publish the book professionally, but also, what I wanted to do is raise enough money to donate at least 400 copies of the novel to LGBTQ and allied teens, and the Kickstarter funded in six days, it was amazing. And then it went on for another 24 days. So we ultimately raised enough money to give away 910 copies. So that's been really, really gratifying.
Jeff: That's incredible. I mean, it's really one of the great things about publishing today is that there's really no more gatekeepers out there. Anybody can publish, get it on Amazon, get an audiobook done, etc, and get their messages out there.
Lee: There still is the thing, though, that being with a traditional publisher, you generally can reach more, especially when we're talking about like middle grade, you know, or books, where you go into libraries, which I think that this nonfiction book really is a, you know, hopefully, it'll sell like hotcakes. But also, I do think that to get it adopted more broadly into schools and into libraries, I think that coming from an established publisher is really useful and really helpful. So I'm excited about that. I do think that yeah, that there are many, many fewer boundaries than there used to be - or barriers than there used to be.
But at the same time, we have the additional challenge that while access to the marketplace has never been easier, the marketplace has never been bigger. So getting noticed in a marketplace, where there's over a million books that are published every year now in the U.S., is a challenge. And that's why it's so important to have safe places to find out about these things, like your podcast, and my blog.
Jeff: Yes, absolutely. To spin back on "Five-Dollar Bill" a little bit and talk a little bit more about it. What were your inspirations for both Wyatt and Martin and the type of teenagers they would be?
Lee: When I was growing up, or when I was coming out, I think it felt like you couldn't be gay if you lived anywhere except for one of the big cities like San Francisco or New York. And I really wanted to have a character that felt connected to nature. And that one of the thematic subplots would be, 'Could he be himself where he was? Could he be himself in small town America, in a rural community, was there a way through for him to be successfully himself and authentic?'
I feel like I spent so much of my life being inauthentic, that I want to do everything I can to help teens be authentic now. So on the one hand, Wyatt was the study of a kid that was on a journey to be authentic and Martin was the flip side of that. Martin was the character that already was authentic, and was already reaping the benefits of that level of confidence. And you know, as soon as you, for me, when I came out, it was like this huge burden off of me.
And suddenly, I realized the weight of it was on everyone else, right? Like, if they had a problem with it, that was their problem. But it wasn't me hiding or holding back, or pretending or acting, which I did for so long. My husband and I have a joke, where when you go to a Starbucks or something, they're always like, "What's your name?" And every time my husband changes his name. Like he just makes up different names every single time.
And they ask me and I'm always Lee because it took me 25 years to even start to like myself and to accept myself. And I finally got here. And I'm like, "Yeah, I'm not anybody else. I am me. I am Lee." It's funny. I take a spin class and as a motivational thing the spin instructor does, "Who do you want to be today?" I'm always like, "Me, I want to be me."
I spent so long being other people. And then also, it was really cool when I was creating Martin's character, to think about him being African American. And that being an opportunity for me to talk about the complexity of Abraham Lincoln and him not being so perfect and explore those themes a little more. And it's funny because I hear from a lot of people how much they love Martin. And yeah, he's pretty lovable.
Jeff: Yeah, I really liked them both in their individual ways. For sure Wyatt...I grew up, I spent like middle school, high school, college in Alabama. So I could totally relate to where Wyatt was in his journey like he knows, but there's no way he's telling anybody. And I didn't have a Martin for a best friend. So I also loved Martin, because he was the ideal friend to have for Wyatt in the moment to show him what could be.
Lee: Yeah, exactly.
Jeff: What do you hope the audience takes away from this kind of history/fiction mashup?
Lee: So I think a lot about words, you know, being a writer, and I think that the word homosexual isn't helping us. I think that if we, because we're so reactive and weird in our culture, in America about sex, and we are obsessed with it, and we don't want to acknowledge it. And especially we don't want to talk about it to teens. So when we talk about homosexual rights and homosexual history, all straight people are hearing, you know, to paint with a broad brush, is they're thinking about sex and that we have sex differently than they do and how do we have sex.
And I just don't think that's particularly helpful. And I think that if we talked about love as sort of the binding element that makes me and my husband and our teenage daughter a family, or the love between you and your husband, if we talked about HomoLOVEual rights and HomoLOVEual history, I think we'd have a very different cultural conversation. So what the tagline of my book is, "What if you knew a secret from history that could change the world?" And I love this because it gets a little meta.
But it's the challenge that Wyatt faces, right? He finds out the secret about Abraham Lincoln writing these letters and maybe being in love with Joshua Fry Speed. And he decides that he's going to tell the world because it could change the world. And then it's the same challenge that I faced because I knew the secret from history and I thought this drumming sense of responsibility, like I had to share it, I had to get it out in the world.
And because I wasn't getting anywhere with traditional publishing, I thought, "Okay, well, I'm going to crowdfund it, I'm going to get it out in the world, myself." And then what I am really excited about is that it's also the challenge that the reader faces. Because when you've read the book, or you even heard me talk about the book, you know that there is something more to the story of Abraham Lincoln that has been taught to you.
And it's that first crack in that facade of history. And it makes you think, "Well, wait a minute, when you see the picture of Mount Rushmore, or when you pick your kid up at the Lincoln middle school, or you're driving on Lincoln Boulevard, you know, does it occur to you that, you know, our culture has not shared that part of who Lincoln is? And does it make you feel a little more pride about the fact that you know what, we do have history, queer people, and we need to lean into it?
And we have the opportunity to because there are hundreds of years of historians that are going to argue with us and that are going to say, "Yeah, yeah, it's not true. It was very typical for men to share beds on the frontier." Not that Springfield, Illinois was the frontier. But for four years, you know, Abraham and Joshua shared a bed long after Abraham could afford his own bed. "Well, it was cold." Okay, yeah. But they shared a bed for four years. It's not proof. But it's interesting.
And I think that as all those things add up, we can all make our own determination of what we think, you know. Is it important for me that I convince the world that Abraham Lincoln was in love with Joshua Fry Speed? No. I think a lot about Anne Lamott, she's a writer, and she writes about writing. She has a beautiful book called "Bird by Bird".
And in that book, she talks about lighthouses, and how they don't run all over an island looking for boats to save, they just sort of stand there and they shine. And I think a lot about that. Like, I need to be a lighthouse. Like I found out this amazing, cool stuff about history, and how it relates to today, and how empowering it is. And I just want to shine. And if people are interested, they can come closer to the light. And if they're not interested, no worries, you know, watch out, there's some rocks over there.
Jeff: Any chance of a sequel? Because I know I would love to see more of Wyatt and Martin at some point
Lee: I haven't really come up with a good angle on a sequel, I had this funny idea for...one of the other pieces of history that really struck me was Mahatma Gandhi and the story of his love for Hermann Kallenbach. And we talk a lot about Gandhi having this sort of breakthrough where he talked about it doesn't matter whether you pray facing left and I pray facing right - I may have that reversed. We're all praying to the same God. Like he had this huge breakthrough, not just in terms of, you know, a peaceful protest, Satyagraha.
He changed our world in such profound ways. And at the same time, he was in love with this German Jewish architect named Hermann Kallenbach. And if he was in love with a Jewish guy, like that's actually really interesting and really germane. Like maybe that's why he had that inspiration, that insight about it doesn't matter who you're praying to, because it's, we're all sort of bonded by this sense of spiritual connection. Like, that's really exciting. And I feel like there's so many stories like that, like Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok.
Eleanor Roosevelt was the woman that after, you know, her husband died, she went to the UN and became this advocate for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And would she had done that if she didn't have this experience of being in love with another woman, and feeling that sort of outsider status, while at the same time being this empowered woman in our world? History starts to open up like a flower. So I don't have an exact idea for a sequel for Wyatt and Martin, but I will put it in the hopper as ideas.
Reason I brought up Hermann Kallenbach and Mahatma Gandhi was that I thought, that would be an interesting thing to talk about a kid finding out about that, and how that would have changed their life. And then about, "Wait, that's the exact same story over again, I don't need to do that. I already wrote that." So for now, I'm going to focus on the nonfiction piece and some other fiction writing that I want to get to that, actually, I'm very inspired by your book too, by the "Codename: Winger" series, because I love the idea of mashing up a gay teen with a sort of spy thriller.
Jeff: And I can't wait to read what you might do with that. So please, bring that to the marketplace.
Lee: Thank you. I keep thinking, "Is there a way I can get gay history in here somehow?" I haven't figured that either yet. But, you know, I'll work on it.
Jeff: You'd mentioned earlier that you've got your blog, which I was so excited to find right around the same time as finding the book. You've been a YA blogger for more than a decade now. I believe you said it'll be 12 years in September. And the blog is called "I'm Here. I'm Queer. What the Hell do I Read?" What led you to starting that?
Lee: Thanks. Yeah, there was no safe space to find out what were the books with queer characters for kids and teens. And I remember, there was a review on Amazon for a really sweet picture book called "The Family Book" by Todd Parr. And it's sort of a cartoon-y book. And there's like one page, it says, "Some families look alike." And it's a bunch of dogs that they all have similar features. "Some families look different." And it's a tree with all these different kind of animals in it.
"Some families adopt children." And it's a bunch of ducks. And on the back of one duck is a penguin. And then you turn the page and it's, "Some families have two moms or two dads." And it's a picture of two women and two men. And then it continues, and there was a review, pretty high up that said, "If you tear out the page with the two moms and dads, then this is a lovely book on diversity."
And I thought, "Wow, way to miss the entire point of what diversity is." And I got so upset and so hurt, you know, because I'm a gay dad. And I thought this was an amazing book for my daughter, but also for all of my daughter's classmates to see and recognize, "Yeah, yeah, you know, some families do have two moms and two dads." And to Amazon, that wasn't hate speech, it didn't violate their terms of service, it was just somebody's opinion.
Albeit kind of, you know, nasty, or at least I interpreted as nasty. And it got me thinking about how there really needed to be a safe place online, where a kid could go and find out what are the books that were out there. And when I started, there were maybe 30 books total that were inclusive of LGBTQ characters and themes for kids and teens. And what's happened over the years is that by keeping this curated safe space, where I'm not vetting all the books, but I'm making sure that no nastiness is happening on the site.
We have over 500 books now in many, many categories. And it's been really exciting to see that sort of explosion of content. And yet, it's that sort of similar problem again. Like now, suddenly, there's so much content, how do you make your way through it? How do you find the things that you want? So the idea behind it was to post about the books, what's queer about the books, and then let readers add their own reviews. There hasn't been a lot of review, there's just too many places for people to leave reviews these days.
So I don't see a lot of that. But I also didn't want to make it, you know, "Lee's favorite book site" because I think that that has a limited value, I thought that there was more value in it being a site that felt really comprehensive. And that's what I aim for. And then it just became a place where I could talk about the stuff that I really care about, that I want queer and allied teens to know about. And over the years, what I've discovered is that the readership is split into thirds. There's about a third, queer teens and queer and allied teens on it.
There about a third of librarians and teachers and people that work with LGBTQ teens. And then there's a whole bunch of adults that are sort of reading the books for themselves and sort of healing their inner teen. And I think that there is a healing that happens. Every time I read a queer book that has a happy or even a hopeful ending, there's a healing that happens. And I think maybe that's part of why romance as a genre is so popular.
I know Will was saying in a previous episode that people get on his case for like ruining the ending, but it's all romance, you know it's going to be a good ending. And I think maybe that's why people turn to it. So I know how empowering it is for me when I read something where I see a reflection of myself, and it's a positive thing. Because when I was growing up, there was nothing to read, nothing positive. The only queer characters were like evil pedophile villains, it wasn't particularly helpful.
Jeff: Yeah, that's, unfortunately, the case in the history that you and I have from that era when we were growing up. In the decade-plus that you've been running the site, other than just more YA, how have you seen it all evolve?
Lee: There's more, and there's better and there's deeper, and there's less preachy and there's room for it all. It's funny, there was a kind of push a few years back for...well, maybe we're beyond the coming out story. And I kind of got my dander up a little bit on that. And I felt like, "Well, we're never going to be beyond the first love story when it's, you know, a straight romance. So, Andrew Solomon has this great book that he wrote called "Far From the Tree" and it's a nonfiction piece.
And he talks about how, you know, when your identity is...where you're the apple that does fall far from the tree, or falls from the tree and rolls across the, you know, down the hill and across the orchard, when you're queer, most likely your parents were not. And so you have this moment where you have to find your sense of community outside of the family that you grew up in. A lot of other identities, you share that. Like, usually, like me, I was raised Jewish and so I would, you know, my parents were Jewish. So I sort of shared that identity.
For all of our identities, we sort of are either sort of close to the tree or far from the tree. And when you're far from the tree, there's more work involved. So coming out, I think is going to continue to be this universal thing. Because just like, you know, my daughter has two dads, but she's straight. So in a funny way, she's going to have to, you know, she had a bit of a coming out where she had to tell us, sort of, you know, abashed, hoping that we'd be okay with it, that she was straight. And we had a good laugh about it. Because it's not that big a deal for us. We just want her to be her authentic self and to be happy.
So we do want to have coming out books, and we also want to have books where being gay, like your character Winger, Theo, where it's the least interesting thing about him. I loved when you said that in your interview. Because yeah, we want those stories, too. It's like in acting, right? In improv, the rule is yes/and. So we want these books, and we want those books. We want the fantasy, we want the romance, we want the science fiction, we want all of it because truly, if you look at the numbers of books that are published - traditionally there about 5,000 books published a year for kids and teens.
And then, if you look at the world of self-publishing, let's say that 5,000 are doing it really beautifully. And the books are indistinguishable with the quality of that from traditional publishing. That's 10,000 books a year, a year. And you have all those years going back too. So what we want is the opportunity to sort of have all of those books and right now we still only have like 500. So we have a long way to go. We need lots more books, we need lots more voices, we need people writing their own voices, stories, we need more diversity included in everybody's stories because truly, you're not going to have a classroom today that doesn't include someone that's LGBTQ, we need it all.
Jeff: That's very true. Given that you had the blog, did you always see yourself eventually writing the YA novel that you did? Or did that just kind of manifest itself because you have the story to tell?
Lee: I've always been a writer. I've written...I remember one summer when I was like between 9th and 10th Grade in high school, I was like, "I'm going to write a novel." I sometimes think of those poor characters still trapped in the broken space station that was orbiting the Earth. And I'm like, "Oh man, I have to do something with that someday." I don't think I will. I've always written.
I think that for the last 14 years, I've really focused on writing for kids and teens. I also write picture books and middle grade. And when I found out this thing about Lincoln and Speed, it really inspired me to focus on writing that as a novel. I think that the blog has been a way to have my voice heard in a more direct way, and not wait for somebody to tap me on the shoulder and say, "Okay Lee, we're ready for what you have to share." So that's been really empowering.
I remember, when I started the blog, there were very few people reading it, and I would get all excited, I'd be like, and I'd tell my husband, "Hey, 15, people went to my blog today." And I was so, so excited. And now, all these years later, we passed 2.6 million page loads. I get between, you know, 15,000 to 25,000 page views a month. It's remarkable, and humbling, and also a really cool responsibility to continue to maintain this safe place. And at the same time, I'm trying to keep writing and work on the new stuff, which has been really a good thing, because balancing the day job and the blogging, there's a lot but I have stories I want to tell. And I'm going to keep trying to tell them.
Jeff: Good. Yeah, keep putting it out there. Because we always need more, to be sure. For people who haven't seen the site yet, and we're certainly going to link to it in the show notes. It has an amazing hero image across the top of the superhero. Where did that come from? And where did the name come from? For folks who might question the name too, because I have a pretty good idea where the name came from. But let's hear it from you.
Lee: Sure. So "I'm Here. I'm Queer. What the Hell do I read?" is a play on words of something we chanted in Act Up in the '80s and '90s. The chant was "We're here. We're queer. Get used to it." And I thought, well, my issue is a little more "What the hell do I read?" Because I felt so starved for any books that included somebody like me. I mean, you know, I grew up and I really and truly thought I was the only person in the world that felt the way I felt about other guys.
And which was super ironic, because I have an older brother, who's five and a half years older, and he's gay too, but we never spoke about it. We are the children of immigrants and when my parents came from Israel, they sort of brought all their homophobia with them. And the American culture at the time was super homophobic, especially where we lived outside Philadelphia. It was not a safe place.
And it's so amazing to think that you can grow up and feel like you're the only person and everything I read, I was obsessed with the series by Anne McCaffrey called the Dragonrider series. And there was this super between the lines, sort of thematic thing that you could maybe interpret that there was gay stuff happening in that world, but you had to really stretch for it. And looking back, I think, well, maybe that's why I was so obsessed with that book, with that series, because there was some faint, not even mirror reflection, but like the gleam of a tarnished piece of silverware. I was like, "Wait, wait, maybe that's me."
So that's where "I'm Here. I'm Queer. What the Hell do I read?" came from. The image happened a few years later. I had been running the site for about two years, it had been doing really well. And I realized I wanted to have a customized image. And yet, it's a pretty wordy title. So I realized I needed an image that didn't have any additional words to it.
So I contacted someone I knew, an artist I knew, Jim DeBartolo. And, I said, "Look, I need an image that says empowerment." And he came up with this sort of superhero moment of like ripping the denim shirt off. And there's this sort of T-shirt underneath with the sort of superhero logo, which is the website, which is leewind.org. And it was funny. We tried to play with the sort of partial face that you see, we tried to, you know, could we make it a person of color?
Could we do some things with you, know, the physique? But ultimately, it was sort of an avatar of me, and it took me years to admit it that's sort of what of course it is, it's an avatar of me, but I don't have that good a jawline. But at least in my mind, I think that it's been this sort of symbol of empowerment. And that's really what I hope that people get from visiting the site, from reading anything I write. I want them to feel empowered.
Jeff: I like that. That's a great story behind that.
Jeff: So relying on your...I'm going to call it a YA expertise because of the site that you run. What are three or four titles of current YA that you would recommend our audience to take a stab at?
Lee: Sure. So I have to start with "Carry On" by Rainbow Rowell. I know it's not super recent. But this is the gay Harry Potter book that I wanted so badly. And I was so frustrated that JK Rowling didn't include Dumbledore as being gay in the canon. It sort of was outside the books that that revelation happened and you can go back and sort of, you know, read subtexts and stuff. But I really was hoping that there would be some sort of, you know, on the page, queer love or something, and it didn't happen, there was really nothing.
And, you know, Rainbow Rowell, she wrote two books, one about the girl that writes the fan fiction, which is called "Fangirl", which is really good. And then there was this book, which was the fan fiction, that ended up being a huge success on its own, called "Carry On". And I don't want to say too much, but it is absolutely brilliant. And if you are queer, or love queer stories, and you had any connection to Harry Potter, and that sort of world of magic, you've got to go read this. It's just wonderful.
Jeff: Excellent. Her books have been on my TBR forever. And I actually need to take the leap and read them.
Lee: Read this one first. It's just you will be so happy you did.
Jeff: So you mentioned the nonfiction that you've just signed the contract on and other stuff noodling around in your head... anything else you want to shout out that's coming up soon for you?
Lee: So there are a bunch of things percolating. But nothing has come to full boil yet. So I will let you all know when it does.
Jeff: That is fair. I can't wait to hear what they are. Because I think that, yeah, having read the one book from you, I'm looking forward to reading so much more. So where can people keep up with you? There's leewind.org as we talked about, which is the "I'm Here. I'm Queer. What the Hell do I read?" site. Anyplace else people should be looking for updates?
Lee: Yeah. I mean, I'm playing around with Instagram. I'm trying to do this thing. I had the idea that we could do a #queerhistoryiseverywhere. And I wanted people to upload photos of Abraham Lincoln or the word Lincoln wherever they saw it and just start posting it on Instagram. It hasn't exactly caught on yet. But I still like that idea.
Jeff: Maybe our podcast listeners will play along with that.
Lee: Oh, yeah, that would be really fun. And also, I mean, as, you know, more queer history happens. I was speaking at the Bay Area Book Festival recently and someone came up after my panel and they said, "Did you know that Bābur from the Bāburnāma when he was a teen he was in love with another boy?" I was like, "Really?" Totally, I have sitting on my desk right next to me right now the "Bāburnāma" and indeed, when he was 18, he was in love with this other boy. And it's so exciting to find out this stuff. So I feel like because it's been hidden, the more we can crowdsource this information and share it and then all amplify each other. I think it's very, very exciting.
Jeff: Very cool. So we will link to all that stuff, the books we talked about - everything else - in our show notes. And Lee, I'm so glad we got the opportunity to talk, spread the word a little bit more about this book and the website and thank you for all you're doing to get more out there about YA literature too.
Lee: Thank you, Jeff. I really want to say thank you to you and to Will. I'm really a fan of the podcast and getting to be on it as a real thrill. So thanks.
Jeff opens the show talking about the work he's doing on the manuscript for the Hat Trick re-release.
New patron Lucy is welcomed.
The guys talk about Tales of the City on Netflix and the new season of Pose on FX. Will reviews Anticipating Disaster by Silvia Violet while Jeff reviews Prince of Killers (Fog City #1) by Layla Reyne.
Jeff interviews Layla Reyne about the new Fog City series as well as how it felt wrapping up the Trouble Brewing series earlier this year. They also talk about Layla's RITA nominated book, Relay, and the upcoming fall release, Dine with Me.
Complete shownotes for episode 193 along with a transcript of the interview are at BigGayFictionPodcast.com.
This transcript was made possible by our community on Patreon. You can get information on how to join them at patreon.com/biggayfictionpodcast.
Jeff: Welcome Layla back to the podcast. It’s great to have you here.
Layla: Thank you for having me back.
Jeff: I had to have you back to talk about this new series, “Prince Of Killers,” as listeners will have heard right before this interview, blew my mind to pieces and back.
Layla: That’s what I wanna hear.
Jeff: Tell everybody what this new series is and in particular what they have to look forward to in “Prince Of Killers.”
Layla: Sure. So the series is “Fog City.” It’s set here in San Francisco. It’s a new romance suspense series. You don’t need to have read any of my series before that. I won’t say that there aren’t some Easter eggs for those that have, because we are all existing in the same place and time. But, this is a little different because this is following a family of assassins. So in books one to three of the “Fog City” trilogy, starting with “Prince of killers,” you’ve got Hawes Madigan, who runs a cold storage business by day, a very successful family kind of business in the city. And then by night, the families, they’re assassins. And he and his two siblings, Helena and Holt, are kind of the triumvirate that is currently the heir apparent. He’s the heir apparent and they kind of all run it together. His grandfather is ailing and so that’s kind of the setup and fairly successfully he is making some changes in the organization.
And so in comes…in the first scene, which is actually set at one of my favorite restaurants in the city, Gary Danko, walks Dante Perry who kind of has this strut about him, you know, long hair, looks like a rock God. But he’s carrying a gun, which he immediately notices, Hawes does, and Perry tells him, “There is someone trying to kill you.” And Hawes kind of laughs it off to start with because, dude, he runs an organization of assassins. That’s what they’re paid for. But then as Hawes and the family come to learn, it does look like someone is trying to stage a palace coup, so to speak. And so “Prince Of Killers” involves sort of the first stages of that and them trying to figure out who it is. And Dante has his own motivations as well. You know, he is trying to find the killer of someone who was close to him and Hawes doesn’t want him to find out who that is either. So I will leave it at that without spoiling too much.
Jeff: Let’s talk about the elephant in the room a little bit, and that is the fact that while you have left, for example, the books of the Whiskeyverse on some subtle cliff hangers, this one’s bigger than normal for you.
Layla: Yeah, I’m not hiding anything, guys. This one’s got a cliffhanger. I wouldn’t say anyone’s life is in jeopardy, but it’s definitely a cliffhanger. I have made no bones about that “The Usual Suspect” is one of my favorite movies. So hello. And, you know, I grew up in TV land and so I love cliffhangers and I kind of embrace it with this. And, you know, the good thing is the plan is for all the books to be out this year. All the covers are done. By the time this airs, book two will be in the hands of editors and I should be working on book three by then. So, they will all come this year and it’s in the blurb. So you know, everybody, fair warning. I’m not trying to hide it here. So…
Jeff: Yeah. And I love how you make the analogy to TV because I would put the cliffhanger that you did on the level of like the mid-season break. Not quite the end of season break, but that mid-season, it’s Christmastime, we’re gonna go away for a while and we’ll have a big thing when we come back.
Layla: That’s right. It’s the end of November sweeps.
Layla: That’s where we’re at, not gonna lie. And then book two picks up right where it ended and goes on in there.
Jeff: Yeah. Which I’m super looking forward to.
Layla: I’m writing. It’s been a…It’s fun and, you know, I can’t…yeah, I can’t spoil anything.
Jeff: Yeah. Don’t say anything else. I don’t wanna know. I don’t want the listeners to know.
Layla: Okay. Okay.
Jeff: What was the inspiration for “Fog City” overall? Because since you’ve gone with this family of assassins, it’s certainly different from what we’re used to in the Whiskeyverse where you’ve got all the, you know, FBI agents and other kinds of, you know, law enforcement as your main characters.
Layla: So ironically, I was wandering through Wander Aguiar’s photography website looking for covers for a different project and I saw this picture of what will be the book three cover. And I had to know what the hell is their story. I mean it just jumped at me and I was like, I have to know the story. And then one of my good writer friends, Allison Temple said, “You can’t buy the pictures until you have a story.” She’s like, “Do not spend the money.” So by the end of the weekend, I had the story. I had all three of them and then I was like, “Okay, so let me piece together the three covers.” And so that’s kind of how it, in its original, came about, you know, thinking about doing it. So art really did inspire art in this case because the photos were just amazing.
I wanted to branch out and do a little bit of something different. There have been hints of the people in the gray area, you know, Jamie, good guy, but some of that hacking is not exactly on the up and up. Mel, I think we saw go more and more, you know, in her bounty hunter business and be a little bit more flexible once she left the FBI. And so kind of going from there and wanting to play more in that gray area and having read books too, L.J. Hayward’s “Death And The Devil” series, in particular, you know, it’s fun and it’s to some extent pretty liberating. I don’t think it was…it wasn’t harder. There are less rules. Right? I don’t have to check the FBI’s hierarchy chart every day to make sure I’m naming someone the right position. So in that regard, it’s actually been a bit easier.
Jeff: Your shades of gray is 100% right because it’s not a spoiler to say that Hawes, not only did he have the legit business on the side, but he’s even trying to modify the ways that the family does the assassin business to make it, I guess, less bad maybe.
Layla: Yeah. So, there’s an event that happened three years ago that kind of drives a lot of the series and when you read you’ll find out what that is and to the extent it drives Hawes’ three rules, which are in the blurb, which is no indiscriminate killing, no collateral damage, and no unvetted targets. So, if they’re not…He is turning the organization away from kind of the killing machine that his grandfather, Papa Cal, was. And his parents were very methodical, very efficient, not a whole lot of emotion in it. And so, he’s trying to find the balance between those two of it being, you know, I don’t wanna say the killer with a heart of gold, but he is a killer with a conscience. And so he doesn’t even like the moniker Prince of Killers and what that stands and how it came about, which you’ll read about in the book as well. So, he’s definitely a great character.
And then when you look at the broader picture of everyone in the series, Holt is, you know, this…he has a kid and he is, first and foremost, a father, right? And he is a hacker and he, because of where he’s at in his life, has pulled back to being kind of the digital assassin of the bunch. And then Helena, who is the sister, who is my typical female complete badass, love her, she works for…she does a criminal defense work in her day job where she is actually working for people who are wrongfully accused. And so there’s some shades of gray in her as well. And then even one of the other side characters is the chief of police who has an interesting relationship with the Madigans and he knows that there is some benefit to what they do and you’re gonna find out there’s some backstory with him as well as to where he is. So, there’s a reference to him in…If you’ve read “Trouble Brewing,” there’s a reference to him in “Noble Hops.” It’s the same chief, for those who are watching, that read that. So…
Jeff: That was one of the Easter eggs that I missed. Because you and I have talked about the Easter eggs and there was some that I caught it and some was like, “Dang it.”
Layla: So that’s one of…he’s the new chief, you know, that’s a little bit more flexible in the way things are done. And so everybody…and then Dante is also, you know, playing in his shades of gray as a PI and how far he’s willing to go and what he’s doing personally and professionally. Like where’s that line for him?
Jeff: Helena is the one that I found the most interesting in her shades of gray because here’s an officer of the court who occasionally does some, you know, very illegal things, which isn’t to say that, you know, all lawyers are, you know, on the right side of the law. But for her, it seemed like really…
Layla: Right. And she makes a line about balancing out her karma, right? That’s kind of how she approaches it to some extent of, you know, part of what they’re doing and why he…particularly Helena and Hawes are so well aligned like that, you know, Hawes wants the contracts of the people the law can’t reach or that escape the law, you know, who get around it, let’s just say, because of who they know or who they pay. And that’s kind of who their targets…that’s the targets he wants. People that have, you know, skirted justice for nefarious reasons. And her day job is the people who justice has wrongfully done. And so they kind of work hand in hand and her feeling on it plays to both of her careers.
Jeff: You mentioned in this book you had less rules, so like, you’re not looking upon the FBI flow chart and things. Were there challenges to coming at these characters who had these shades of gray or was it…”free for all” is a little bit much, but certainly more freeing I guess.
Layla: Yeah, certainly challenges. Though, I mean, you still have to balance the fact that, “Hey, they’re killing people.” Right? And how you balance that with their conscience, with the people around them, particularly Kane, who was the police chief, has a lot to deal with and going on kind of. So yeah, I mean it is definitely there. There were different challenges for me, I kind of liked it because I got to go a little bit more, even though it’s a shorter book than usual, I think going into their heads more than I typically would because there’s a lot more internal conflict – while still having tons of external conflict. I felt like there was more internal conflict about what they’re actually doing than, you know, being an FBI agent and knowing you’re on the right side of the law. So this was more…they had to kind of walk that line, particularly Hawes.
Jeff: One of the things I like most about the book that is…in a lot of ways, it’s separate from the romance and it’s separate from the suspense element a lot is the family unit. And it’s a recurring theme, at least in the books that I’ve read of yours from, you know, Irish And Whiskey and their families. And then what we see of the families in “Trouble Brewing” of the main characters. And here I really feel like maybe it’s because we’re so much closer to the family that we really, even in the shorter book, get a lot about Hawes and Holt and Helena and their interaction with each other. What was your plan as you like populated this family and the characters that you wanted to put on the page?
Layla: So, it kind of, I would say, came about organically to an extent. The first scene I wrote like that weekend when I saw the pictures, I wrote it and then I posted it in my little reader group’s like, “I hate you.” And in that first scene, actually there’s a reference to the siblings, but you actually don’t see them, but then they pop up. And part of it too was I had already found their pictures as well. I kind of knew who they all were, but, I also knew who we needed to do X, Y, and Z from a plot standpoint. I also didn’t want Hawes to be an island to himself. Right? And to some extent, giving the life that he lives. And, you know, the two aspects of his life, that family is gonna be the only…like they can’t really let anyone else get close. Right?
And so, they’re so tight with the family. That’s the only people they trust. And so, that’s, I think, particularly why, you know, that’s who he debriefs with. That’s who they’re planning with and everything because that’s kind of it. And then, sort of, you have in that expanded family, you also have Holt’s wife, Amilia, and you have the grandmother, Papa Cal’s wife, and like that’s the tight-knit crew. And it has been that way for that family for three generations. And that’s kind of what you find out is that, this is what they do. And because of that, they have to keep it close to the vest and the families who they trust.
Jeff: But even through that, you’ve got Helena pushing on Hawes to make the connection to find somebody. Which I love because even as all hell’s breaking loose, it’s like think about doing that because you could have what Holt has.
Layla: Yeah. They both…you know, Holt’s happily married with a kid. And I think for both, for Hawes and Helena, you know, that’s the ideal. Their parents were happily married, right? Papa Cal and Rose were. So you can have happiness, right, in this. You just have to find the person who accepts it and where’s that line? And Dante is someone who could be that person, right? He comes in and he seems to know what they do. He seems to be okay with it. And it’s got a hint of insta-lust for sure. Like they’re immediately attracted to each other, but it’s not until later where Hawes kind of starts to think, “Huh, here’s this person who maybe gets it and is okay with it,” the way that Holt and Amelia ended up working out. And Amelia is part of the group, she actually has her own specialty with pressure points and being kind of a perfect Trojan horse for the group because she’s not as out there as the rest of the Madigans are with the business. So yeah. So, he starts to see that. And Helena is kind of also walking a thin line of, “I wanna be happy, but do we know who this dude is?” Right. “Hey, Buddy. Okay, go have fun. But be careful.” So, he’s trying to be the rational one in that scenario.
Jeff: So, we know that this is a trilogy. How far does “Fog City” go overall? Do you have a grand plan?
Layla: I do, I do. Hawes and Dante will have a trilogy. So they’re the main characters through books one to three. And then Helena will have a book and then there’s another fifth book, but I’m not gonna say who that is because that’ll spoil things. But everybody will get their HEAs by the end of it. I’m looking at five and then I’ve got some ideas for spin-offs and I may already have some cover photos bought for them. I would say I like building big verses, right? I mean, I grew up…I mean my intro to really reading a lot of romances, Kristen Ashley, and I love that big verse concept. And so I like building them too.
Jeff: And if you, you know, put it back on TV, I mean, you look at things like the Arrowverse and all of its characters or all of the Chicago shows on NBC, you can have all of your one big, huge comboverse.
Layla: Yeah. No, and that’s kind of like that. I grew up in all that too. I was a TV person first. I come from that world where it is all intertwined like that. I like doing that. I like cameos and seeing characters and it’s fun. And you know, Mel runs everything, just remember that. That’s all you need to know.
Jeff: Even if the characters don’t know that, she’s really in charge.
Layla: Everything. Yeah.
Jeff: Now, we gotta give you a congrats too because in the midst of you getting this ready, it was announced you’re a finalist for the Romance Writers of America RITA Award, for the book, “Relay.”
Layla: Yes. Yes.
Jeff: Which is awesome. For those who don’t know, tell us what “Relay” is about.
Layla: “Relay” is book one and the “Changing Lanes” duology, which is “Relay” and “Medley.” So, two books. The duology follows the four men who are on the U.S. men’s medley relay team, swim team. And so, the first book, “Relay,” which was nominated, is about Alex Cantu and Dane Ellis, who had a little summer love affair at a training camp 10 years ago and didn’t go well because Dane is the son of an evangelical minister and very closeted. And so he ends up on the same Olympic team with Alex, who is the team captain, who’s worked his tail off basically to get where he’s at and he is…you know, it’s enemies to lovers to start.
Obviously, there’s a lot of friction there from what happened in the past. And then they end up on the relay team together, have to work together. And so then you’ve got a bit of a second chance love story. That’s what it rolls into. And so you see up through the first two legs of training camp and Olympic training in the first book. So you see the two domestic sites. And then in the second book, “Medley,” which follows the other two characters, Boss and Jacob, that’s a mentor-mentee. A little bit of an age gap, like 26 to 19, I think. And Jacob’s this lovely like pirate-quoting cinnamon roll. I love him. He’s so much fun. And two bi characters.
Jeff: Pirate-quoting cinnamon roll?
Layla: Yeah, he’s a cinnamon roll character, like, he’s a total dork.
Jeff: I love that description of him.
Layla: And so, then you see international training in the Olympics in that book. So they go hand in hand. And I’m really…you know, there are definite problems with the RITA awards has been brought up with getting better representation. I am happy this book got through. Alex is a character of color. And, you know, when I wrote this, I wanted to say, you know, “This is the U.S. Olympic team, a representation that I would like to see,” right, that’s diverse in sexuality and race and, you know, I’m glad that it did get to the finalists because that’s at least out there.
Jeff: And again, congrats for that. That’s cool. I’ll have to go pick that up now because I have not picked up your sports books and I’m certainly like a sports romance lover anyway, so…
Layla: One of my good friends was a competitive swimmer up through college and so I talked to him a lot and then one of my other friends swam up through high school and then a little bit in college too. So, it was something different, you know, and I think it was right about the Olympics time where we started talking about that idea and then it just rolled.
Jeff: As I mentioned, there was some research involved there too, just to know what the training program was like and where it happened.
Layla: And then some of it was my own, like, but too, they go to Vienna for training and I studied abroad there. And I’ve kinda always wanted to put it in a book. And so that was a lot of fun – everywhere there is somewhere that I went and even the fight that happens up in the wine country kind of happened to a friend. And so it was interesting like to see kind of, it was a different source of the fight, but you know, I was traipsing through this little village in the middle of the night going, “Where’d you go?”
Jeff: That’s awesome. Drawing from real life events. You’ve got a bit of a con schedule going on this year. You’re headed to BLC so you’ll be at the first incarnation of Book Lovers Con in New Orleans, but you’re also making your very first trip to GayRomLit this year.
Layla: I know, I can’t wait. It’s finally back out here, relatively close to us on the West Coast. I’m so looking forward to that. You know, I loved…I’ve been to an RW International and then I went to RT last year and I love the reader interaction like that. I like that part of it so much. And so that’s why I’m going back to Book Lovers Con to get more of that, but then I really want to go to GRL because those are particularly our readers, right, and my favorite authors, so I can’t, you know, wait to meet some folks. See folks that I met last year, meet others, and then like… two of my closest writing friends I’ve never met in person, they’re both going to be there. So I can’t wait for that.
Jeff: So name drop a little bit. Who are these people you’re meeting in person for the first time?
Layla: Well, what’s cool at Book Lovers Con is that I’ll get to meet Annabeth Albert, who’s been a sprint partner, publishes with the same…with Carina Press too. So that’ll be awesome. But then, yeah, at GRL, it’ll be Erin McLellan, who you actually reviewed “Clean Break,” and Allison Temple. So we’re looking forward to that.
Jeff: Very cool. Now, of course, “Fog City” continues through this year. I know you’ve got at least one other book sneaking it’s way out there. What else is coming up this year?
Layla: So there’ll be the three “Fog City” books and then “Dine With Me” comes out in September and it’s very different from everything else. So, well, I guess not, you know, if you read my books, and even in “Fog City,” there’s food, there’re restaurants because I am a complete and total foodie. And so “Dine With Me” is kind of my love letter to restaurants that I’ve loved, to food experiences that I’ve loved. And it follows Miller Sykes who is an award-winning chef who gets a diagnosis, a medical diagnosis, and basically if he gets treatment, he will lose his sense of taste. It’s a high likelihood that the treatment and surgery will compromise the sense of taste. And as a chef, dude, how? Like even as a foodie, you know, God, I can’t imagine and I can’t even…as a chef, wow. And so rather than get treatment, he decides to go on the last tour of his favorite meals. And it’s not just high end, you know, it’s dive bars and, you know, there are high-end restaurants also all across the spectrum for everything a different place offers. And that’s partially my experiences too, everywhere there is based on somewhere I’ve been.
And then Clancy Rhodes who is the financial backer for this effort is kind of along for the ride. He’s a total foodie, experiencing it, and how he starts to piece together what’s going on and also starts to realize they have a lot in common. Despite, you know, a bit of an age gap and coming from different places in different worlds, they are both kinda facing these great expectations and how to handle that. And he has to convince him that, you know, life is more than just your taste buds, right, and that love’s worth it. And so it’s the book of my heart. It’s been in my head for years. I’ve sat on the first chapter since 2015, 2016 it was on the initial list of blurbs I gave my agent, and we finally found a place to make it happen. So I’m super excited about it.
Jeff: That’s awesome because it’s always good to get the book of your heart out there.
Layla: Yes. Yeah. Like I said, it’s different. You know, there is a ticking clock aspect to it given the diagnosis and what’s going on but, there’s not a car chase, which is unusual. But it’s a much more internal book and a lot of food gushing. So, you know, I generally say have snacks and tissues, just FYI.
Jeff: That’s not really a bad thing for any book to have the snacks and the tissues nearby.
Layla: You’ll really need it. So, I’m excited. That comes out September 16 and that’ll be from Carina, that one will.
Jeff: Cool. And I have to ask before we wrap up, how was it to wrap up the Whiskeyverse for now – as “Trouble Brewing” wrapped up earlier this year?
Layla: Yeah. I mean, good. Right. I like where everybody got to. I loved writing that last scene in “Trouble Brewing” and “Noble Hops.” You know, it was just kind of a nice – everybody’s where they should be. Right. I was glad to give everybody their happily ever after there. I did see some things, which are in the pipeline. And so, things may happen in the future depending on time and whatnot. But I’m excited for it and I’m glad Nick and Cam and Mel and Danny and Aiden and Jamie all got their happy. They definitely deserved it.
Jeff: Yeah. Yes, they did. They worked for it.
Layla: They worked for it.
Jeff: Yeah. It was such a satisfying read. If anybody hasn’t picked those books up, they need to for sure.
Layla: Thank you.
Jeff: So what is the best way for folks to keep up with you online so they can keep track of all the “Fog City” releases and the upcoming “Dine With Me” and everything else?
Layla: Yeah, so probably my Facebook group, Layla’s Lushes is where I’m at the most. And you can find a link to that on my Facebook page too, which is just Layla Reyne. So, that’s me on pretty much all the platforms on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. I’m on Instagram a fair bit. There’s a lot of food and my pugs there, so just FYI. I would say the reader group and the newsletter too, which is on my website, there’s a banner, so it’s laylareyne.com and you can follow and find it there.
Jeff: Yup. We will link to all that in the show notes along with all the books. The reader group is the place to be because it’s where you find out about like, oh, the first chapter of “Fog City” well before anybody else does.
Layla: Yeah. I kind of like…I have a hard time sitting on stuff. I ran one of the big “X-Files” spoiler sites back in the day, so if that tells you anything, I’m a bit of a spoiler junkie and have a tendency to spoil things though, just FYI.
Jeff: Yeah. Everybody should go join up with that if you’re into Layla’s books in any shape, form, or fashion.
Jeff: All right. Well, Layla, it’s been so good talking to you. Thank you so much for the great read that is “Prince of Killers” and I look forward to keeping track of “Fog City” as the year progresses.
Layla: Excellent. Thank you so much for having me again. It’s been fun.
Here’s the text of this week’s book reviews:
Anticipating Disaster by Silvia Violet. Reviewed by Will
Nice-guy Oliver enjoys his quiet bookish life – so he’s less than thrilled to be attending a family reunion at a ski resort. He braves the frigid temperatures and disapproving attitudes of his extended family to please his grandmother, who he adores.
Irresistibly sexy bisexual outdoorsman David is in town to help his friend mend a broken heart. While his bestie distracts himself with a pair of slope bunnies, David sets his sights on klutzy Oliver, offering to give him private ski lessons.
Flirtation leads to friendship and to David accompanying Oliver to some of the planned reunion activities. When certain family members mock Oliver’s nerdish tendencies, David fiercely defends him. Can’t they see how smart and sweet and kind he is?
To give Oliver a vacation from his relatives, David takes Oliver to Anticipation, the picture-perfect mountain town that he calls home.
The more time that our heroes spend together, the more they think this might just be the real deal. The problem is that neither one of them does casual relationships. David has his life in Anticipation and Oliver has his life back in Florida with his grandmother.
A long-distance arrangement doesn’t seem particularly practical and they sadly part ways.
Oliver returns to his real life and, after some time apart from David, he realizes (with some help from grandma) that his quiet existence might be more about hiding from life than truly living it.
He decides that David is well-worth the risk and heads back to Anticipation to start a new adventurous chapter in his life story.
I really enjoyed Anticipating Disaster. The author takes some familiar character types and story tropes and crafts a really compelling story, while at the same time giving the romance her own twist. The set-up might be pure category romance, but let’s be real, this is a Silvia Violet book, so you know that the heat level is going to be cranked up to 11.
Oliver has a penchant for lacy undergarments and, over the course of the story, David discovers he likes cute guys with a penchant for lacy undergarments – like, A LOT.
Also, in the bedroom, David has a talent for turning some particularly filthy turns-of phrase. So the time our that heroes spend together do not disappoint – these aren’t the kinds of sex scenes you’ll skim over.
This book is the first in a series with the quaint town of Anticipation serving as the backdrop for future installments. A few side characters are introduced in Anticipating Disaster and I look forward to the new romances that will unfold in upcoming books.
Prince of Killers (Fog City #1) by Layla Reyne. Reviewed by Jeff.
Anyone who’s been listening to the show over the past year knows that I’ve fallen hard for romantic suspense, and in particular the stories that Layla Reyne writes. As soon as I offered the chance to read an advanced copy of Prince of Killers I jumped on it and devoured it in just a few days. Not only is the suspense tight but the budding romance had great sizzle.
I’ve never read romantic suspense where someone in law enforcement wasn’t at least one, if not both, of the central characters in the love story. In this book, our main character is on the flipside of the law as the leader of a family of assassins. This provided an interesting twist and I loved the ride.
The titular prince of killers is Hawes Madigan who has recently come into leading his family’s business because his grandfather is on his deathbed. One evening, just before a job, Hawes gets information that someone inside the organization is looking to take him out and possibly targeting others inside his family. The bombshell is dropped by the mysterious Dante Perry.
The news of betrayal from the inside throws Hawes for a loop. He figured some associates might take issue with the new rules he’s put into place, which include no indiscriminate killing, no collateral damage and no unvetted targets. He introduces these rules because of past incidents that haunt him.
The introduction of the Madigan family and how they approach their line of work fascinated me as much as the suspense of the internal sabotage and the romance that blooms between Hawes and Dante. Hawes has a twin sister, Helena, and younger brother, Holt who has a wife and baby daughter. Holt’s the tech wizard for the organization and Helena has another career as an attorney helping those who are wrongfully accused. Hawes’s life revolves solely around the family businesses–both the legit refrigeration business and the not-so-legit assassin game.
The interplay of the family members as they try to sort out the traitor in their midst while dealing with their dying grandfather is so sharply written. There’s barely time for them to process any one thing that happens and yet the do make time to support and care for one another. Helena even pushes Hawes toward Dante as a potential partner because she wants her brother to have someone. Hawes taking the leap to trust and fall for Dante is one of things I love most about the book as he finds the strength to overcome the fear of putting his family at risk. Even though Holt has made a family for himself and his parents and grandparents had a successful family life, Hawes feels that he needs to be cautious since he’s the family leader now.
Dante also goes out of his way to get Hawes and the family to trust him with not only their brother’s heart but aspects of the business as well. Hawes using Dante as his rock as the plot against the family unfolds, exposed his vulnerabilities perfectly. Meanwhile, the bombs that dropped in the final quarter of this book were ones I hadn’t seen coming and got my heart thumping.
This is book one of a trilogy and as was the case with Layla’s other books I can’t wait to see where she takes this story. Similar to the Irish and Whiskey and Trouble Brewing trilogies, the Hawes and Dante’s story doesn’t fully wrap up at the end of the book. Of particular note, Prince of Killers ends with a significant cliffhanger. I don’t mind cliffhangers but if you are averse to that kind of ending you might want to wait until book two’s out so you won’t be waiting long to see what happens next. For me Layla’s redefined what a family of assassins looks like with this book. Fog City kicks off with some mind-blowing twists and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
The guys open the show congratulating the winners of the 31st Annual Lambda Literary Awards. They also discuss the podcast’s inclusion in Apple Podcasts’ Pride Month recommendations. Jeff also talks about some of the past week’s happenings with his Codename: Winger series and Will asks him what it was like wrapping up the series.
Jeff and Will discuss the new Tales of the City series on Netflix. Will reviews the first two books in Piper Scott & Susi Hawke’s Redneck Unicorn Series.
Aidan Wayne is interviewed about their three new books out this year: Hitting The Mark, Play It Again and the forthcoming Stage Presents. They also talk about how they decide what goes into the books, how they got started writing, author influences and what’s coming next.
Complete shownotes for episode 192 along with a transcript of the interview are at BigGayFictionPodcast.com.
This transcript was made possible by our community on Patreon. You can get information on how to join them at patreon.com/biggayfictionpodcast.
Jeff: Welcome, Aidan, to the podcast. It’s great to have you here.
Aidan: Thank you. I’m excited to be here. It’s an interesting experience for me. Never done this before.
Jeff: Oh, cool. First podcast. Always fun to have people doing their first podcast with us. Now, you’ve had a busy few months of releases and we wanna talk about the most recent one first, which is “Hitting the Mark.” Tell us a little bit about that book and what inspired it.
Aidan: Okay. So “Hitting the Mark,” in a nutshell, it’s about a famous movie star named Marcus Economidis, who used to train in martial arts when he was really young and really shy. And that helped him come out of a shell and then he moves. And being in martial arts actually helps him become more confident and he ends up getting a movie role, and that spirals, and then becomes a famous…10 years later, he’s a famous movie star who is also famous for doing his own stunts. Meanwhile, in Marcus’s hometown essentially, his original school – Choi’s Taekwondo Academy – is now run by Taemin Choi. Taemin was Marcus’s kind of assistant instructor growing up. They’re about 10 years apart. So Marcus was 10, Taemin was, like, in his early 20s and Taemin runs the school now. And Marcus happens to be coming back into town for a shoot and he decides to pay a visit to his old school… kind of nostalgia. He lost contact with Taemin when he moved.
And so, he kind of wants to bridge the gap again, just like say hi, see what happens. And then they do meet with Marcus being an adult and, you know, there’s kind of an instant connection. The entire book is essentially about them navigating, first, relearning each other because they knew each other for several years, but it’s been several more years since they actually talked again. So they’re relearning who they are as people, especially Marcus as he’s grown into his own self, and that turns into a romantic relationship. And they’re just figuring out how to be in one considering that, you know, Marcus is this famous person and Taemin is a very busy man who runs his own school and takes care of a lot of things. And just, that’s the story basically. I do a lot of character-based stories where the plot is kind of, like, playing the course as opposed to, like, a person antagonist sort of. So it’s kind of like another one of those things for me.
Jeff: Okay. And it ticks so many boxes because there’s friends to lovers, and second chances, and an age gap.
Aidan: I tend to, when I write, sometimes I have several different things that I wanna include in various ideas. And so, sometimes when I have, like, the base, I’m just like, “Let’s just squish them all together. Let’s just push them all in one thing and see what happens, and if I can pull it off.”
Jeff: And you mentioned when we were emailing to set this interview up that this is one of the books you didn’t have to do a ton of research on because…
Aidan: Thank God.
Jeff: …movies and martial arts, you had the knowledge there. What aspects of your background, you know, play into that?
Aidan: Well, I’ve been involved in martial arts for about 20 years now, primarily Taekwondo and that’s the style that I had Taemin doing because I know the most about Taekwondo in Korean style. I technically have my black belt in two disciplines. One is Taekwondo and the other is a mixed type of martial art that I actually ended up teaching. I used to run a school. So a lot of my experience did transfer over into Taemin’s experiences in running a school and dealing with students and various endeavors that are required. And with movies, I actually majored in media production in college. I was on movie sets a lot both behind the camera and also growing up, I kind of dabbled in acting and I’ve been in front of the camera a lot too including on some big sets. Michigan used to be a pretty big movie hub before the tax thing happened and a lot of places moved away from it. And I was actually on a few different, like, SAG films.
So I got to kind of be both in front of the camera and behind the camera. So learning about that aspect was…It was fun to basically shove as much knowledge as I could, especially the martial arts into one book because I have such a love for martial arts that it was like, “Let’s include inside jokes and inside knowledge. And I’ve never had to spell this Korean word in English before. So I have to probably look that up.” And fun fact actually, I’m not gonna spoil anything, but one of the plot points is Taemin working towards the Olympics. He’s qualified for the qualification and that entire piece is actually based on a co-worker of mine I used to work with who did qualify for the Olympic matches.
Jeff: Incredible. You did stuff a lot in here in terms of all of your knowledge kinda went into this book.
Aidan: Yeah. It was kinda, it was a nice break. I still had to do research obviously because I had to, like, fresh some things and again, like, Korean, making sure that I got that right. But for a lot of it, like, I have another book that I released late last year, “His Two Leading Men,” which takes place in New York with a Broadway star, and I’m like, “I like Broadway, I can just write about plays, that’s fine.” No, I ended up having to map out the entire city to figure out distances to whichever…I’m crazy…whichever restaurant he’d like to go to, which is closer, where is laundromat was. Like, I’m absolutely ridiculous when it comes to stuff like that. Nobody is gonna notice but me. But, like, I care.
Jeff: But the native New Yorkers might. And so, it matters.
Aidan: Yeah, yeah.
Jeff: I have stopped myself of books going, “That’s not right. I know where that is and that doesn’t work that way.” So you do work Michigan into a lot of your books. “Hitting the Mark” is in Michigan. “Play It Again,” which we’ll dive more into in just a second, has a Michigan element simply because you have somebody sending Dovid, the main character, some Faygo Red Pop and some other Michigan treats, some Mackinac fudge included. Obviously, you live in Michigan. Is it something you try to work into the books, a little Michigan angle?
Aidan: Kind of. Half of it is ‘write what you know’ because I’m thoroughly uncreative when it comes to that and it’s way easier to just, like, I don’t have to make something up, I don’t have to do more research. I just can set it in Farmington Hills or wherever it is. But sometimes it’s because I have, like, certain places in mind or I want to include certain things like, with Dovid receiving a care package, I wanted to make sure that I had a care package that at least was state-based and was really cool and could include especially a lot of food because a lot of…Dovid being blind, a lot of his things are food-based, it’s part of his schtick. So he reacts to taste and stuff. So knowing that I have my own experience with various Michigan cuisines and snacks and stuff, I could include that pretty easily and know that it would ring true but also be kind of funny. And even if the person didn’t necessarily know what things were, it would still, like, be something that they could get.
Jeff: Speaking of “Play it Again,” that I reviewed back in episode 186 and really, really loved it. It was like the book I didn’t know I needed at the time.
Aidan: Thank you.
Jeff: And it’s quite different from “Hitting the Mark.” What was the inspiration behind this tale of two YouTubers who managed to find love even though they live half a world apart?
Aidan: Well, going back to my ‘I have various ideas, but squish them all together into one sometimes.’ I really, really wanted to showcase a blind character. A lot of the characters that I do showcase are disabled in some way or have, you know, different aspects of their life that aren’t typical, you know, part of normative parts of society, etc., etc. And I apologize if my verbiage isn’t the best. And I really want to showcase a blind character, but obviously, I didn’t wanna fetishize that I wanted him to be successful and happy, and not be just blind as his character if that makes sense. And I thought YouTube would be a fun angle for that. And on the other side, I really wanted to focus on, like, a Let’s Player because I thought that it would be fun to try to, like, figure out how to write that because it’s so much narration and video-audio-based. And I like playing and like, “Can I do this? I will see if I can.”
So making it a long-distance relationship was also kind of something that sort of happened because long-distance relationships, specifically internet-based ones, are very important to me because I have several relationships that started being internet-only and I consider a lot of these people some of my closest friends and I’ve met many of them in person now. One of my friends, I’ve only ever met them once, and it was in our first meeting ever…we then spent two weeks together, but our first meeting ever was in Narita Airport in Tokyo where we both flew separately and then spent two weeks in Japan together. So, like, yeah, there’s a lot that can come from internet relationships and I really wanted to showcase something like that too.
Jeff: And I’d imagine here that the research was more than “Hitting the Mark” because you needed to make sure that Dovid was portrayed in the way that you wanted to where, you know, he wasn’t necessarily defined by the blindness.
Aidan: Oh, yeah. I do extensive research whenever I write, especially disabled characters, because, you know, there’s so much misinformation out there and it’s so easy to fall into the trap of what the media has portrayed a person to be like or to do as opposed to actually reading experiences and watching experiences about, you know, real people. I kind of posed this question to myself on Twitter a while back, but it was basically, how does one write about a successful blind YouTuber? Watch a lot of successful blind YouTubers basically. So I watched a lot of, like, “The Tommy Edison Experience” is a man who is blind and he has a lot of Q&As; on YouTube. A lot of his videos are older and he’s an older gentleman. But it was still, you know, very informative. He has, like, an episode about cooking, which Dovid is the chef of his little family where he lives with his sister, Rachel. So it was interesting to, like, make sure that I was, you know, portraying his ability to do that correctly and, like, different tools that he’d use. Molly Burke is also a YouTuber that does makeup and fashion. But how she interacts, you know, with her audience and interacts with herself, and the things that are important to her – her experiences – because she does talk about that as well. It was very important.
There’s a Tumblr called “Actually Blind” that did Q&As; and did a lot of commentary on different things and responded to different situations where, you know, there’s one impairment affected daily life that was not considered. And “Actually Blind” was a huge help in doing a lot of research because even when I didn’t actually ask the question myself, sometimes they just talked about things that I hadn’t thought about before. So that was a really good thing to notice. Like for instance, they had a post about the fact that the face touch thing in so many books and so many movies is absolutely ludicrous and no blind person really does that. And because it was made up by a sighted person who thought that it was kind of like romantic and intimate to have the blind person, like, touch the other person’s face to see what they look like and “Actually Blind” was like, “No, no. Uh-uh.” So it was something that I didn’t include then and I might have if I hadn’t read something like that.
Jeff: The research is oh, so important.
Aidan: Absolutely, absolutely. And I do a lot of sensitivity readers too. I have a short story that is going to be coming out probably in October, because I’m spacing it out a little bit, where one of the main characters is in a wheelchair. So luckily, I’m like, “Hey, sibling, I’m gonna ask you some wheelchair questions.” And know about how my experiences in, you know, living with somebody who uses a mobility aid and all that. So proper portrayal is really important to me.
Jeff: And you have still yet another type of story coming out with your upcoming YA novel, “Stage Presents.” And I’m fascinated by this way because you’re taking us to Disney College Program. Do you have experience in that or was that a ton more research? And of course, what is this book about because it sounds just delightful?
Aidan: Oh, well, thank you. I hope it is delightful. I hope people enjoy it. And to your question, yes and yes. I did experience, I did do the Disney college program many years ago, but I also did do a lot of research for the story in part because, you know, Disney updates and changes things. So some of the things I had to look up were the current menus and stuff because, again, it’s like a tiny little detail that only I will notice but I cared about. But I also had to make sure that I was getting details right in terms of characters because one of the main characters, Ashlee, with two Es, is a Disney princess literally. I did a lot of research into behind the scenes of that a little bit. I watched a lot of ex-princess interviews and posts about the experience of being a character performer.
I didn’t have a lot of experience in that capacity. I knew some people who are friends with characters while I was in the program and I did ask, you know, I did learn about it that way. But princesses, I had to learn a little bit more. And, oh, yeah, what the book is about. Two girls who both get onto the Disney College Program and end up his roommates. One, Dana is a kind of, you know, calm, cool, collected, very down to earth, logical girl who is going into international business, she’s excited about working in a Fortune 500 company. She’s looking forward to living away from home. She’s trans. So, you know, that’s just another aspect of who she is as a person and she’s kind of like not sure about how she’s gonna get along with people. But she kind of has the mindset of ‘judge people before they judge you’ sort of thing because of past experiences.
Meanwhile, on the other side, Ashlee, with two Es, loves Disney…I know, it’s a very important detail. She loves Disney, she’s a Disneyphile, she loves all the movies, she loves all the songs. She gets cast as an actual Disney princess. This is her dream come true. She’s been dancing since she was little. So one of her goals is to be a parade performer Disney princess, essentially, and she’s super excited. She’s from good old Southern Georgia and has never really, you know, met somebody who’s not exactly like her and her little clique, you know, popular, excited, happy group. So she doesn’t really know what trans means and she was born around…she knows what the internet is, but still, it’s different from knowing and meeting and, like, actually talking to somebody and interacting. And then so, Ashlee is kind of ignorant and Dana is kind of standoffish, and they hate each other.
A good portion of the book is just them hating each other, and eventually, of course, a couple of different things happen and it turns into a begrudging friendship, which turns into actual friendship, which turns into more. And it was, you know, writing the evolution of enemies to lovers, which is something that I hadn’t done before really, and integrating different aspects of their situation and being roommates and living in such close quarters and, like, what constitutes that kind of relationship too, especially while you do not like each other and then as friends, and then, you know, once you’re more intimate as well. So that was, like, a whole encompassing aspect of the story itself.
Jeff: And now, it sounds even more delightful than when I read the blurb.
Aidan: Okay. Good. I had a lot of fun. I like my stories, which is, you know, a fun thing to be able to say because a lot of them I think, just kind of get defined as ‘fun’. There are obviously elements of angst and stuff and, you know, negativity that happens, but I have fun, you know, writing them. I hope that people have fun reading them.
Jeff: What got you into writing and M/M romance in particular?
Aidan: Well, I’ve always been a storyteller. My dad also, when we were kids, he would make up bedtime stories. We got read to a lot too, but he would make them up. So I grew up with the elements of imagination as something that you could play with and figuring out different elements of what characters could do. Really, you know, being totally honest, fan fiction. I was really, really interested in “Elfquest” as a kid. It is a fantasy novel by Wendy and Richard Penny. And man, I was an “Elfquest” fan. I read and actually own, I’ve collected almost all of the books and volumes and made up as a tiny little 9-year-old, self-inserts in my head as being an elf with such and such power, and being part of that self-insert stuff.
And as I got into more media growing up, I really enjoyed reading and writing fan fiction because it was a way to interact with something that I enjoyed so much past where the media itself went. And sometimes things happen that you didn’t like. So you could make them better by writing it yourself or reading it by other people who did a good job or further exploring the world that had already been created with characters you already liked. And from there, it was kind of like, “Oh, I could do this with my own characters and make whatever I want to happen, happen. What? Oh.” And the kickoff was when I was, I don’t know, like, 15, I participated in my first NaNoWriMo and that was the first, like, write a lot of words and also write them really quickly. So you can’t think too much about what you were doing, you know, “wrong.”
I wrote 50,000 words in the 30 days. And man, I still have it and it really portrays what I was into, what I was learning, and what I was experimenting with as a 15-year-old because it is a lot of stuff. And I really enjoyed doing that and I kind of just kept at it. And eventually, I had a friend who I really admired, Mina MacLeod, who was also a writer that I was friends with at the time. And she talked about an anthology and encouraged me to also, you know, submit a story, a piece, and I did. And we both got in and I still have the copy of the book, but we’re both in the anthology, both me and this writer that I really admire. And, like, that was really cool. And from there, I went, “Oh, wait, publishing is possible, that this is a thing that actually can happen to, like, real human people as opposed to just authors who are these untouchable people on pedestals.”
So my next book that I wrote was written with publishing in mind. That was “Loud and Clear.” And it was technically my first original, original piece. Speaking of smooshing everything together at once, that book is about a man who is so dyslexic, he is essentially illiterate and a businessman who has a stutter so bad that he is a selective mute, falling in love and entering into a relationship. So you got someone who can’t read and someone who communicates through writing and I was like, “Let’s just make this as complicated for myself as possible. That’s a good idea.” But, you know.
Jeff: Yeah. For a first book, you took on a lot there.
Aidan: You know, it suffers from an overuse of italics, but it’s still something that I really appreciate that I did as a writer. I really like it. I had a lot of people really like the fact that I, you know, portrayed people that way, and of course, it does focus on non-normative people with disabilities and challenges in, you know, typical normal society. The illiteracy was actually based on a friend of mine who is illiterate. His dyslexia is so bad, he is effectively illiterate. He’s also an engineer. So, you know, it doesn’t stop you. It doesn’t have to stop you as long as you have the right elements and encouragement and resources. And that’s what a lot of people do struggle with. Like, he had to be homeschooled because his school that his parents had put him in originally were like, “We don’t know what to do with this child.” So being homeschooled allowed him to learn and actually grow and actually learn.
Jeff: I have a suspicion a little bit where this next question at least will go a little bit given the “Elfquest” things, but what authors and genres do you tend to read?
Aidan: Basically everything, but gore horror to be honest. I really enjoy contemporary pieces. I like fantasy. I really like nonfiction. I love learning stuff. This is probably not a surprise considering my need for research, my favorite author in the entire world is Terry Pratchett. That probably will never change. The man was absolutely brilliant and his ability to tell stories, and well-rounded characters, and development in plot, and his care in structure, and how he’s able to tie things up neatly with, you know, no questions except for like, what could happen next? He’s absolutely amazing. I really admire him. If I like a tenth of his ability to just, like, story weave, I’d be content in my ability to create.
One of the other authors I really enjoy, he’s a very lesser known author, but Barry Hughart. He wrote “Bridge of Birds.” That is a Chinese fantasy mythology story, which basically happens in a historical China, but is written as if mythology was real. And he’s also, like, a very unknown and should be more known author for what he’s able to do with creativity. Other books that I appreciate, I enjoy a lot of Tamora Pierce’s work, especially the “Keladry” series because I really enjoyed her portrayal of a woman, a girl growing up and wanting to be a knight and fighting and dealing with a lot of the prejudices that come from, you know, girls trying to do anything that boys like to do. So, those pieces and she also is essentially…she’s written as not really interested in amorous connections, so to speak, and Tamora Pierce did end up saying that she did write her as asexual even though she didn’t, like, really know the term at the time. So that was really appreciated.
Oh, that dovetailed a lot. M/M romance, yes, okay. There is a lot of het romance out there and that’s fine, you know, it’s got a market for a reason. It can be very well done. Me personally, it’s done by other people well and I gravitated more towards queer characters. M/M romance was easier for me to write because it was easier for me not necessarily to identify with the characters, but write about them in ways I wanted to, you know, with gentler portrayals and different effects. I wouldn’t say that I particularly write, like, alpha man male sort of things because it’s not really something that appeals to me personally as an author or as a person. I like people who are settled into themselves and know who they are and may be confident, maybe inconfident. For instance, in “Play it Again,” Dovid is a very confident individual who knows who he is and is really happy with himself. And Sam is much shyer and he’s wracked with anxiety all the time. But they’re both human. I like portraying clear people as human and I think that’s why I gravitated towards it first.
I’m not super sure why I write M/M mostly. It’s just because it is a little bit easier for me to…I guess, it does come back to identification. I’ve written one…I have one published female-centric romance, which I do really like. It’s called “Making Love,” which I think is one of my favorite titles ever. It’s about a succubus and cupid falling in love. I was very proud of that, and it’s adorable. It’s very cute, it’s very loving, it’s really soft. And Carla, the cupid is just, like, made of cotton candy and love, sweet, and is really happy and bubbly. And Leeta, the succubus, is kind of cool and had reason to put up a lot of walls. Carla melts her heart and it’s so cute. It’s very silly, a lot of my reviews were like, “It’s cute, but cheesy.” And I’m like, “Yes, that was exactly what I was doing.” It’s called “Making Love,” what were you expecting?
And then, same thing with “Stage Presents,” both the main characters are female. Dana is trans. I really enjoy portraying again, like, different aspects and different facets of queer people being human. They make coffee and they’re grumpy, and they might have disabilities or other challenges in life. And they also like stuff and are bad at things, and aren’t just, like, one cutout of a representation that, you know, people have one idea about. I like character-driven stories. Queer people deserve happy endings too. That’s the other thing.
Jeff: Yeah. Absolutely on that one for sure. So we know “Stage Presents” is coming up here soon. What else is coming for you this year?
Aidan: Well, I’ve mentioned it briefly, I have a short story that I had been kind of working on off and on. I was calling it “Baker Story” on Twitter and I did name it “Not So Cookie-Cutter” or something terrible like that because every single one of my titles…you may or may not know this, every single one of my titles are puns or play on words because I’m ridiculous and I love it. Yeah. So the book, “Bakery Story,” is called “Not So Cookie-Cutter.” I’m probably going to release it around October. It’s about two POC characters, which I did get sensitivity readers for because that was important to me. Jerel who is a baker at like, a cafe/coffee shop and Rafi who is a client who falls in love with Jerel’s pumpkin cheesecake essentially, and romance. They’re cute, it’s cute. One of my favorite things about the story is Rafi uses a wheelchair and Jerel is so smitten by Rafi that he doesn’t notice for, like, two chapters because Rafi is sitting down when he’s, you know, at the cafe and Jerel is just like, “Oh, my gosh, this handsome, amazing human being who is talking to me, like, he thinks I’m cute, okay.” And then, like, when Rafi actually, like, moves in front of him and he rolls away, Jerel’s like, “Oh, my God. I’m an idiot. This is fine. I’m an idiot.” So…
Jeff: Nice. That will be one to look forward to this fall.
Aidan: Yeah. I think, you know, it’s cute, cute and dumb. That’s kind of my mode.
Jeff: What’s the best way for everyone to keep up with you online?
Aidan: Twitter is mostly what I use, @aidanwayne is my Twitter handle, user name thing, and that’s primarily where I am. I have a website too and if you go to my website, there’s an option to sign up for my mailing list and mailing list is kind of how I send out information about releases to people. But I don’t like inundate people with mail. It’s just like, “I have a release, yay. Here it is, yay.”
Jeff: Cool. We will link to those as well as all of the great stuff that we’ve talked about in this interview.
Jeff: Aidan, thank you so much for hanging out with us. It has just been a delight talking to you.
Aidan: Yeah. Absolutely. Thank you for having me. Again, I’m ridiculous. So I appreciate being able to be ridiculous on a podcast. That’s cool. And, yeah, this was a lot of fun. Thank you so much.
Here’s the text of this week’s book reviews:
Seriously Horny (Redneck Unicorns #1) by Piper Scott & Susi Hawke and Dangerously Horny (Redneck Unicorns #2) by Piper Scott & Susi Hawke. Reviewed by Will.
Unicorn shifter Isaiah is pure white trash. How do we know? We’re introduced to him as he’s settling in for the evening, in his trailer with a bottle of his pappy’s moonshine – but he’s also an expert tracker. He’s tasked with finding a missing teenage dragon shifter.
He runs into the kid’s college age brother, Eric, an irresistible dragon omega. They go to search together for Eric’s brother. One night, in a motel room they give in to their desire, and trust me, the scene lives up to the book’s title.
Eric has the power of second sight, kind of like Faye Dunaway in Eyes of Laura Mars, and he ‘sees’ where his brother lays injured. Isaiah and Eric find him and bring him back to the dragon compound where he can heal from his injuries.
Eric is with child after his night with Isaiah, and months later we find our heroes happily in love with the beginnings of a new family.
In Dangerously Horny, Unicorn shifter Bo Luke finally gets up the nerve to tell Mitch just how he feels. But broken-down dragon is a less than ideal match for someone so young.
The rejection hits Bo Luke hard and he runs off, straight into the clutches of a crazed woman who has uncovered the secret of the unicorn clan, and desperately wants to touch Bo Luke’s horn – and yes, that euphemism means exactly what you think it means.
Mitch and some of his dragon buddies are sent to find Bo Luke. They rescue him and subdue his kidnapper.
Because this is a paranormal shifter Mpreg romance, omega Bo Luke finds himself in an uncomfortable situation, and alpha Mitch is the only one who can scratch his particular itch.
They fuck and it’s hot and amazing and (of course) totally magical. Mitch’s misgivings were unfounded, they are now fated mates.
While waiting for their child to be born, Bo Luke’s stalker escapes custody and attempts to kidnap her unicorn obsession once more. In an action sequence that I thought was particularly bad-ass, Mitch and the entire dragon clan literally reign down fire upon her, rescuing Bo Luke once again.
The story wraps up with a hilarious scene in which our heroes experience a very memorable wedding/birthday.
The covers of these books tell you everything you need to know. The hot cover models clue you into the sexy times ahead, while the titles, which are decidedly camp, tell you that these romances also about the humor – humor with heart.
I loved both of these stories and think they’re a fantastic way to kick off the new series.
While ‘Redneck Unicorns’ is a continuation of the author’s previous dragon series, they stand alone just fine.
Happy Pride Month!
Jeff discusses the awesome Pride Month video from the NHL. He also talks about all the things that happened during release week for Netminder.
Members of the Queer Sacramento Authors Collective had a reading this past week at the Lavender Library and will be reading again this coming week at Time Tested Books. The live streams are available on the podcast’s Facebook page.
We talk about the Coastal Magic Convention 2020 lineup of m/m romance featured authors.
We review the Elton John biopic Rocketman. Jeff reviews Max Walker’s A Lover’s Game. Will recommends books for Pride month: Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag by Rob Sanders, Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution by Rob Sanders, The Stonewall Riots: Coming Out in the Streets by Gayle E. Pitman, Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the LGBTQ Rights Uprising That Changed America by Martin Duberman and The Stonewall Reader curated by The New York Public Library.
Jeff interviews C.B. Lee about the latest book in her Sidekick Squad series, Not Your Backup. We also discuss the origin of the Sidekick Squad, what C.B. hears from readers and what’s coming up next.
Complete shownotes for episode 191 along with a transcript of the interview are at BigGayFictionPodcast.com.
Jeff: Welcome C.B. to the podcast. It’s great to have you here.
C.B.: Hello, thanks for having me. I’m so excited to be here.
Jeff: Yeah, it’s very exciting. We got to see you last year at the LA Times Festival of Books for a little, teeny, tiny interview. But we’re thrilled to have you back as we start to talk about “Not Your Backup” which will come out on June 4th, just the day after this airs actually.
C.B.: Oh my gosh, that will be really exciting. I actually got to touch the advanced copies for the first time last week at YALLWEST, which due to this fun time jumps of podcasting…
Jeff: Well, actually a bit about a month ago.
C.B.: Right, right. But, yeah, it was really interesting just to, like, hold it for the first time and see it in print. Granted, the advance copies have typos since, you know, I went through and did all the pass through the typos. But it’s fun, it’s fun. It’s great that, you know, it exists, it’s in physical form, hasn’t quite felt real till now, but now it’s a real book or will be very soon, or tomorrow for your listeners and readers.
Jeff: There is something about holding that physical copy, even if you see it, you know, even if it’s on your tablet as an ebook. It’s like there’s nothing like that paperback when it gets there.
Jeff: Now, “Not Your Backup” is book 3 in the “Sidekick Squad Series.” And, for those who haven’t experienced this series or heard of it, tell us what this series is all about.
C.B.: Sure, it is about a group of queer teens that take on a corrupt government superhero agency. And they live in this sort of post-dystopian world where superheroes are kind of treated like celebrities. And there’s, you know, shadowy government organizations and mysterious heroes, league of heroes, that kind of dictates who gets to be a hero and who gets to be a villain. And our protagonists all kind of uncover this huge conspiracy, and then they work together to build a resistance and take it down.
Jeff: It’s quite the world that you’ve built here. I mean, you hit so many things that are dystopian, U.S. future, superheroes, villains. What was your inspiration for all of this?
C.B.: So I’ve always been fascinated by kind of the, like, post-apocalyptic or dystopian worlds. But a lot of the media that I’ve read mostly focuses on kind of the…when you’re in the middle of the disaster, when you’re in the middle of the catastrophe, when everything is going wrong, how are people struggling to survive. So I really wanted to see a world that was…you know, so this is more of like a solarpunk take where the world has started to move forward, where it’s 100 years after all of these disasters have happened – kind of the impetus for the superpowers. And my book is a really extremely intense solar flare that catalyzes latent gene in people.
And then after the flare, which knocks out a bunch of nuclear power plants, also, it starts kind of a chain reaction of a bunch of environmental disasters. So 100 years later the governments of the world have kind of shifted and changed, there’s been wars, there’s been fights over resources, so the United States is now part of the North American collective, which is the entire continent of North America, which is now the habitable places. There’s, you know, 24 regions, which is, you know, kind of what’s left of the states. So there’s different areas all across North America, which are now the regions in which people live and, you know, continue to move forward with, like, their amazing technology, and hover tech, and all this amazing, clean technology. But, at the same time, you have all of these like high-tech cities, but outside of those regions, everything else is like the unmaintained lands. So, you know, the government is claiming there’s radiation danger and don’t venture out, but, of course, our heroes are like, you know, what the government tells us isn’t necessarily true. So a lot of…actually, the fun of writing “Not Your Backup” is one of my working titles was “Not Your Road Trip,” because there’s a lot of road tripping in this book.
Jeff: Yeah, I noticed. There’s a bit of a road trip in the sneak peek that I got to read too, that they’re out on this road trip, essentially on a mission.
C.B.: Right, right. Yeah, there’s the heist in the beginning of the very first chapter. But, yeah, there’s a lot of fun. We get to see a little bit more of the country outside of the cities in this book, so that’s exciting.
Jeff: Now, each of the books deals with one of the main heroes, if you will, or the sidekicks, if you will, given the titles of the book, but they’re really the heroes. In “Not Your Backup”, we focus on Emma, who is really the only one of them without the powers. What’s happening to our heroes this time out?
C.B.: So at the end of “Not Your Villain,” we have destroyed the registry, which…the big name of everyone who’s ever registered with powers that Captain Orion was planning to use to kidnap people and use for experiments. At that point, our heroes have been looking for the resistance the whole time. And they find a mysterious group that’s been leaving messages on encrypted channels. But then, at the end of the book, they realize that this is actually like a group of nerds that have been joining together to watch movies like “Star Wars,” and “Harry Potter,” and stuff.
So they realize that they need to start the resistance. So that’s where we are at the beginning of “Not Your Backup,” where Emma and Bells are back in Nevada, and they are kind of in the midst of this fledgling resistance group – meanwhile, Jess and Abby are at the villain’s guild hideout in the Rockies and they’re trying to corral all the other meta-humans into taking action. So, the beginning of the book, you know, where kind of everyone has different goals, but then they all come together. It’s more about like building the resistance and finding… For Emma, it’s her journey in finding who she is. And, really, she’s a very natural leader, she loves coming up with plans, and she’s definitely a Gryffindor. She’s the first to jump in and try to take action. Her default is, like, fight me. But she also is, as you mentioned, she doesn’t have powers, and so when she’s trying to take a more active role in the resistance, she kind of butts heads with a few of the other members as they have different ideas about who is and who isn’t part of the resistance.
Jeff: She just needs to remind them that Batman didn’t have powers either. He just had a really good utility belt and brains. So she could definitely fill that role. What’s been the driving force behind deciding the type of character that you have at the forefront of each book? Because the three books have very different, distinct character types and personalities, and just everything about them is just…they’re just very different from each other.
C.B.: So, from the beginning, I wanted to tell this story about, you know, this fun adventure story with queer protagonists. So each book would center on another one of them in the main four. So there’s…and then after “Not Your Backup”, there’s one more book which will be Abby’s story, and so she will round out the quartet. But each of their…you know, they have very different personalities, but it’s been interesting writing their stories because each of them are on their own journey in what makes them a hero and finding how do they define success, and how do other people see them, and how do they see themselves. So, for each story, because we’re moving forward in time, as we get to see who is really, you know… It’s been interesting, because all four books will fit together as a series, but in each book, everyone gets to have their own journey.
Jeff: Which I really like because we’ve been introduced to all of them all the way back, you know, back in the first book, but then they get to their own story, which could essentially be read as a stand-alone, if you wanted to, I guess, although reading all of them together is much better. What was the bigger challenge to come up with the trajectory of these four diverse characters or to build this alternate universe of the U.S., or were they kind of equal challenges?
C.B.: I feel like the challenge for me is I’m not like a great outliner or I haven’t ever really been a planner. So I’ve always been more of the pantser in the writing style. So when writing a series, when I wrote “Not Your Sidekick,” I didn’t know, up until I think I was about 50,000 words in when I realized that I could not basically solve the problem in that one book, you know, because when I pitched it, it was one book. And then I was like, “Well, I really love all of these characters.” There’s a huge…there’s a bigger story here that I’ve introduced, and I will need more than one book to solve it.
And so, from the get-go, I knew the next story after Jess would be Bells because you get into, like, the backstory of the meta-human training and the heroes, league of heroes. And so, I think, overall, just planning a series is really challenging. Some people are great at it, where, you know, they have very detailed outlines, they know, from the very beginning to the very end, what the key points are going to be. And so, as I was writing book 1, I kind of had a panic attack and I was like, “Oh, no, I have to figure out what’s going to happen in each of the books.” And then as I restructured things and then writing book 2 and then 3, it’s kind of come to a point where I’m working on book 4 and now, like, everything that I… One of the reasons why it took me a longer time between book… So “Not Your Villain” came in 2017 and “Not Your Backup” is coming out in 2019. So I didn’t have a book come out last year because I was still working on crafting the storyline because whatever I did or didn’t do in book 3 would determine what would happen in book 4.
So everything had to fall into place, and I had to like figure out a lot of stuff. So it was challenging, but I think, you know, it’s still challenging, but that’s part of the joy of writing is to figure out how to tell the story you want to tell.
Jeff: If you do a series again, do you think you’ll try to do outlines more in the upfront or now that you’ve had this experience, do you kind of know how to do it and keep your pantser ways going on?
C.B.: I don’t know if I’ll ever… Like, I feel like with each book, I’m like, “Oh, do I know how to write a novel now?” But like every book is its own challenge. I do have a better sense of like, okay, you know, how do I plot as a pantser? And then plotting for pantsers, and like learning how to like… For me, I just tend to think of an outline like a road map where I have these destinations I wanna hit, but I’m not committed to – I don’t have to see everything and if I go off track or take a different route, that’s okay as well. So as long as I kind of get the same…like, it’s all in the journey of how I get there, and then the destinations that I pick along the way, if I get to them or not, that’s cool. I kind of have these benchmarks that I want to reach. But I really like thinking of the framework in which I think about my books as a roadmap. So I’ll try to plan out, you know, all the cities I want to visit, but I’m open to discovering places along the way and kind of building up on that.
Jeff: How does the pantser sort of method work while you’re world building? Or do you try to, at least, before you start writing, “No. This is my world. This is what’s happened. This is what the U.S. looks like now, and how all that works?” Or does that come organically as you go as well?
C.B.: I actually thought like, really early on established the world and what it looked like. I drew a map of which countries were left and which, how, who, what alliances were made in probably much more detail than you’ll ever see in the books because basically I plotted out what happened in that World War III, and what areas were no longer habitable, and all of these things, and all the different lines of, like… I probably spent way too much time figuring out the socio-economic holes, ramifications of which country is now aligned with what country and which countries refuse to join a union or…and they’re all new countries.
So there is this whole political backstory of, like, which country fought….you know, which alliance was at war, which alliance and what’s still happening overseas. Some of which you’ll see, but it is the world itself. I’ve always enjoyed world building, and I think it’s really fun to come up with the…I think once I wrote book one where I established, like, how do the powers work. Every power level is different. For example, like the A class, B class, or C class, depending on how…basically, I wanted all the meta-humans in my world to…their powers basically are dependent on…like, they have a limited number of time per day that they can use their powers. So once they’ve used it, then they can’t use it for the next 24-hour period. So it’s a different sort of look at superpowers and abilities because you have to be more mindful about how you use your powers. And so that was an element that I established early on, but overall, I think for me, world building, there are some details I discovered along the way, but I pretty much plotted the world building which is a funny like…and it’s interesting to think about, even though I do consider myself a pantser, how much of this series I did very much envision out from an early stage.
So like some of the confrontations and the fight scenes, and the stuff that… I’ve been planning one particular scene in book 3 since book 1, and I didn’t get to do it until… And, so that was like a fun way to be like, “Oh, yes, I’m finally going to like write the scene that I’ve been waiting for.” But I’d had a lot of these moments in my head, and just planning it out and getting the opportunity to like, “Okay, yes. Now, I’m getting to that chapter. I’m getting to the point in the whole series where we’re getting…you know, it’s coming full circle.” So that’s very satisfying.
Jeff: It sounds like you’d have a lot of bonus material too if you ever wanted to release it, if all the stuff that you’ve got of the world itself, and the disaster, and how it’s split up.
C.B.: Yeah, I mean, potentially, I have a whole timeline that I could release. And then I did these fun… For “Not Your Villain,” I did all the deleted scenes, well, deleted as far as they were cut for length. But I still consider it part of the story, the cannon. So those are an extra that are available on my website. I’ll probably do something similar for Backup, but I’m not at that stage yet.
Jeff: Right. It’s good to know about the Villain extras. I’ll be going to check those out.
C.B.: Yeah, yeah, they’re fun. They’re all in one PDF. And my book designer, C.B. Macera, was amazing. And she formatted them the same way as the book because we have a lot of extra art as well because she does these amazing, like, chapter headers for each chapter. She’s so talented and amazing designing the covers and the interior of the book, really, you know, capture that feel. And so, “Not Your Villain” actually, in the edits, went from…yeah, it was cut a lot. So, you know, it’s really sad as a writer to kind of see these scenes go, but, you know, as far as, yes, and my editors are great about, like, “This scene is great. But, you know, it kind of slows down the pacing,” or like, “This scene takes us in a different tone or direction, and, like, while they’re great, they don’t fit in the story at that moment and kind of take us away from the main action.” So I understand why they had to go. And, yes, the story is stronger overall, but I like them as an extra.
Jeff: Yeah, we’ve all gotten used to those on DVDs over time, so there’s really no reason books can’t have them too.
C.B.: Yeah, yeah, it’s a fun extra to have the deleted scenes.
Jeff: So you mentioned one more book in the series, the fourth one, is that gonna be it for these heroes?
C.B.: Yeah, I can’t say for sure that the door is completely closed. But for this arc, this storyline, that will be the series. It will be completed with Abby’s book.
Jeff: We could treat it like the Marvel Universe. Now, if phase 1 is over, and there could be a phase 2 eventually, once you figure out what that is. What got you started in writing?
C.B.: I love telling stories. And think I was very young when I tried, like, writing a story for myself. I had an old notebook that I would scribble this adventure story in when I was in sixth grade. And then I’d kind of start and then every recess, I’d pick it up or I’d work on it when I was supposed to be doing homework or stuff in class. And so I’ve always wanted to tell stories. I didn’t really think of it seriously as a career. And then, after college, I went to school for science. And so I was going to get a PhD and do all this stuff, and I, you know, ended up going a different route.
And really writing has been a journey where it kind of comes…it ties back to, and I guess like the “Sidekick Squad Series” and the titles were all, you know, the titles are all about, like, hey, I’m not who you think I am, I’m not the person that you’re claiming that I should be or expect me to be. It comes back to where, as a queer woman of color, I didn’t really see a lot of myself in books growing up. And so what I really hoped to write was, like especially when I was writing Sidekick for the first time, I wanted to write a book for my 16-year-old self. So this is the book that I wanted to read. And I wanted it to exist. And so writing…and then I also just like telling stories. So I wanted the story to be fun, I wanted them to be happy and have, you know, there’s drama in them. But overall, I wanted to see kids like myself, and kids who looked like me, and other kids, that reflect the world that we live in because trans kids exist, asexual kids exist, mentally ill kids exist. And there aren’t enough stories where they get to be part of something that’s a superhero adventure, or something fun and fantastic like this.
And so I wish that I hope…and I think there are definitely now, in the past, you know, 5, 10 years, there’ve been a lot more stories, and I think that’s great. So I’m just really excited that now people are writing more and more and reading more and more, and there’s a lot of great books to come.
Jeff: And one of the things to not…I don’t want to knock the coming out story because those are very important and very needed. But in these books, that’s not really part of it. I mean, this is a much bigger adventure these teenagers are on that just doesn’t revolve around their sexuality so much, that just, there’s so much more going on, which I think is awesome and gives everybody something different to read.
C.B.: Yeah, I love that…like, I want us to have the breadth of different types of genres and stories that there are for, like, able-bodied heterosexual people. Like, I want there to be so many stories to choose from. And so, you know…and I really love…I think there’s a lot of power in having joyful stories as well and stories where, yes, sexuality is a part of it, but, you know, who I am is not just my sexuality. Like, every person is multitudes where who you are is made up of so many things like your passions, your dreams, your hopes, your hobbies, your friends. Who you are as a person isn’t just one thing, and we’re all…I love being able to explore that and getting to see… I want people to see that people in the LGBTQ community are like fully nuanced people that get to be complicated and have flaws and go on adventures, or fall in love, or discover more about themselves in the way that all straight people can.
Jeff: Well said. I like that for sure. Who were some of your author influences as you got started on your writing journey?
C.B.: So I really love the “Harry Potter” series growing up. That’s a huge influence for me. That was one of the first ways I started writing was “Harry Potter” fan fiction because I loved that world so much. And just a lot of…I read so much fantasy like Ursula Le Guin, Diane Duane, Eoin Colfer, like tons of fantasy, Jane Yolen. I started to read a lot more widely. I think when I was a kid, there was a point when I would like go to the YA section and just read like everything in the library. So I would pretty much read everything, but I tended to love fantasy and sci-fi the most.
Jeff: Nice, and now you get to write your own.
C.B.: Yes. I’m really lucky.
Jeff: Is there a genre you want to branch into as you close up the “Sidekick Series?”
C.B.: I’m excited to write more fantasy. So the “Sidekick Squad” is more sci-fi, speculative. So I’m working on some fantasy stuff. I’m excited to share it. I have some contemporary stuff. I have a short story coming out next year in the next “All Out” anthology. So that’ll be fun. It’s like a very fluffy high school romance that’s just set in like… The only magic is the friendship and the romance so…
Jeff: Aww, sometimes that’s all you need though.
C.B.: Yeah, yeah, it’s fun because when I was writing it, I hadn’t written just contemporary in a long time. So that was really fun to try and explore that. Plus, I got to put a lot of puns in there, so it’s all good.
Jeff: You seem to travel a lot. I feel like every time I see you on social media, it’s like, “I’m going to this event” or, “Here I am at this event, come see me over here.” What drives you to be out on the road so much?
C.B.: So I like the opportunity to see, meet readers. I live in Los Angeles, and I’m really lucky to have the opportunity to go to a lot of events that are fairly local. I also think it’s really important to travel when I have the opportunity to, and I’m lucky that I’ve been able to, and sometimes I will just commit to doing it out of my own pocket because I want to meet readers in those areas. So I love…yeah, I already said it, I love meeting readers. But, especially in places where you don’t get a lot of, you know, LGBTQ resources, or teens don’t necessarily get to see a lot of authors or books with this content come their way and getting to meet teens in, you know, small towns or getting to meet people even though I do a lot of web chats. And so that’s fun chatting with libraries or classrooms through the power of the internet, which is amazing.
But, part of being on panels and having these conversations is important to me just because, you know, I get to share with people that might not have heard of my books before or are just learning about it for the first time. And so that’s always a very special moment to me when someone’s like, “Oh my gosh,” like, “This is exactly what I’ve been looking for. I didn’t know it exists, but now I do.” And so that’s very meaningful. And sometimes I get to meet people who have already read the books, and that’s very important to me. And that’s a part of the most rewarding things to me as a writer is knowing that your work has made an impact on someone, whether it’s just making them smile, or, you know, to the depth of having someone like… I’ve cried over several really long emails just because sometimes people are really sweet and talk about like, “Oh, this is my coming out experience”. I want people to see that they’re valid. And so knowing that someone else has read my work and recognize themselves, that’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.
I was in Seattle recently, earlier this year, and one of the events I did was with the Seattle Public Library where we went to the LGBTQ Youth Center. And that was really powerful just to, like, hang out with kids and chat with them and what are they looking forward to as far as like, “Hey, what’s powerful to me, what’s fun to me?” A lot of this is stuff that I totally resonate with when they connect with a character on TV or are upset that, you know, that character got killed off in one season or whatever, because of TV. But, you know, it’s always great to chat with people. Everyone’s always going through something.
Jeff: Yeah, for sure. So we’ve hinted a little bit about some stuff that’s coming up for you. You’re working on Sidekick 4, you’ve got a short story coming out next year, anything else we should know about?
C.B.: I’m also writing the new “BEN 10” original graphic novels with BOOM! Studios and Cartoon Network. So one is already out. It’s called “The Truth Is Out There.” It’s where “Ben 10” is part of the Cartoon Network show where Ben can turn into 10 different aliens. So it’s fun. It’s a fun, middle-grade romp. So I’m doing a number of those graphic novels with BOOM! So those will be available throughout…I can’t recall the dates off the top of my head, but another one is coming out in July, and then one more in October of this year and then the next year, there will be some more coming as well.
Jeff: What’s it like writing for graphic novel because, I mean, that’s a different sort of animal, a novel that, you know, is 60,000 or 70,000 words long?
C.B.: It was definitely a new experience. It was a lot of fun trying a different medium. Like, definitely writing a script goes differently as far as…and I catch myself like “Oh, I’m being too descriptive. This is literally…the only person who will see this is the artist.” And it’s also a great collaborative process. So it’s really fun to work with the artists and editors and bring together this story that exists in its own medium. It’s not just me, the writer, but what the artist is bringing, and collaborating with them, and getting to like…you know, I’ll write the dialogue and the action. And then they’ll imagine it in a certain way of like, “Oh, I didn’t think of that,” and that’s really fun. I really like the graphic novel format. I’m hoping to do more. I’m really excited to be working on these projects. And, yeah, hopefully, I’ll be able to share more upcoming projects.
Jeff: Pretty cool. And speaking of, what is the best way for people to keep up with you online?
C.B.: You can always find me on Twitter and Instagram at, C-B-L-E-E_C-B-L-E-E, because it’s double the trouble. My website is cb-lee.com, and then you can find more links to other ways you can connect with me. Usually Twitter and Instagram, where you can find me the most – that’s where you can connect with me. So in my website, it has like fun stuff. I try to update it with writing resources and my upcoming events. And I also have a newsletter, which will have some special tidbits probably like the deleted scenes, which is the very first place I offered the “Not Your Villain” extra scenes.
Jeff: Pretty cool. Well, C.B., thank you so much for hanging out with us. We wish you all the success with “Not Your Backup” when it comes out on June 4th.
C.B.: Thank you so much for having me. And I really appreciate it. I’m so excited. And I hope everyone enjoys the book.
Here’s the text of this week’s book reviews:
A Lover’s Game by Max Walker, narrated by Greg Boudreaux. Reviewed by Jeff
I was so happy that this fourth book in Max’s Stonewall Investigations series released in audio just a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been eagerly awaiting the final installment of the series and I was not disappointed.
The series has been working up to the final showdown between private investigator Zane Holden and the Unicorn Killer. The Unicorn has loomed large over the series–a serial killer that terrorizes the gay community in NYC. The killer’s gone after partnered gay men and Zane’s husband was aomng the victims. In the first book we find out the Unicorn’s returned and now in the fourth one Zane’s obsessed with bringing the reign of terror to an end.
At the same time, Zane is preparing for his wedding to Enzo, the defense attorney who captured his heart in that first book. Unfortunately, Zane is so occupied with the case, he’s missing things, like cake testing and venue selection, and he hasn’t told Enzo that he’s even back on it. Zane thinks he’s protecting Enzo by keeping his activities a secret, but Enzo feels it puts him more in danger not knowing.
And boy does everything hurtle towards a massive, satisfying conclusion.
Max had me super stressed in this installment. He always does a great job of creating suspense. Here though I suspected everything. Is the Uber driver a killer? Is that bottle of wine spiked with something? What does it mean that someone looked at them on the street? Is the person providing information or misinformation? I suspected everything and also never figured out who the Unicorn was ahead of the reveal. I love that!
While Zane and Enzo have been featured in the middle two books of the series, it was great to see them returning to the spotlight. Their dynamic as the move towards their wedding date was wonderful to watch. The quiet, sexy moments they share along with their wedding planning and time they spend with Enzo’s family shows their strong relationship and amazing friends. And, man, are there some super sexy times in this book. There’s always steamy scenes in this series, but these were the best yet.
Max contrasts these happy times with how they handle the increasing threats–they want to be strong for each other and also do what’s necessary to keep the other safe. They find it’s hard to maintain the balance and that only increases the tension. I both hated and loved what Max put them through because it was so realistic.
Is it weird to say that I liked the terrible choices were made? Despite being great at their jobs, Zane and Enzo sometimes do things that are terrible choices and what makes those so good in the story is that I could see myself doing the same thing. These two are flawed and make bad decisions like anyone can. It makes them human. It makes you scream at them to not do something. It makes you cheer when it all works out too.
Kudos to Greg Boudreaux. He’s done a great job with this series overall but I have to shoutout his work voicing the Unicorn. It’s a creep, calm yet evil voice that made me shudder.
The spin off for Stonewall Investigations Miami is set up here too. That first book, Bad Idea, just released last week and I can’t wait to pick it up as soon as there’s an audio version.