Fresh Voices Q&A

Fresh Voices: Katie Heaney

Welcome to Fresh Voices! In this new series, we are excited to share with you authors whose books capture a unique aspect of the human experience. Enjoy this Q&A with Katie Heaney, author of Girl Crushed!

June is Pride month, and we’re so happy to have Girl, Crushed as our monthly feature. What does Pride month mean to you?

Pride looks a lot different this year, and I think it’s more important than ever that, as much (or more) than we celebrate, we treat Pride month as a time to give our time and resources to the members of our community who need it most. Any money I have to spare this June is going to the Trevor Project and other nonprofits that work with trans and queer young people of color, who are already at-risk, and even more so now. The official Pride can be super corporate, and so for me it’s also a good time to gather with my actual queer community rather than the companies that want to sell rainbow merch for a few weeks.

What inspired you to write Girl, Crushed?

After coming out in my late twenties, I felt a certain amount of grief for the queer adolescence I didn’t get to have. This book was a good way to let myself have some of those vicarious experiences — and it was also a way to have fun imagining my own version of my wife’s youth. She came out at 14, in 2002, and I am so continually impressed by the bravery in that. I wanted to see a YA novel where the queer protagonists are already out and comfortable with their sexuality, so I wrote it!

What was the most difficult part about writing this story? What part was the easiest?

I think the hardest part for me was putting myself in the shoes of a main character unlike me. Quinn and I may both be anxious, but she’s confident and self-possessed in a way I just wasn’t at 17. The easiest part was the feelings. I’m 33 now, but I still have such ready access to those swoony teenage feelings about love. Maybe that never really goes away.

What character do you identify with the most and why?

I’m probably most like Jamie — kind of a control freak, type A, snarky.

If you could put any character from another book into this story, who would it be and why?

This question makes me laugh because I am, as I mentioned, a control freak, so the idea of inserting someone I didn’t put there already makes me kind of antsy. It’s already set the way I want it! But if I had to, my first thought is Jo March. I can see her definitely fitting in with these girls.

What do you want teens today to take away from this story?

I want them to know that it’s okay to figure themselves out on their own timeline, and also that they’ll never really be done figuring themselves out. I also think an important theme here is accepting that there are alternate futures for all of us, and that the one you’ve been counting on isn’t necessarily superior just because it’s the one you’ve always had in mind, or been told is right for you.

Katie Heaney

Katie Heaney is a freelance writer and was most recently a senior editor at BuzzFeed. Her writing has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Hairpin, The Awl, and Pacific Standard, among other places. She is the author of a memoir, Never Have I Ever, and the novel, Dear Emma. She lives in Brooklyn.

Fresh Voices: Kelly J. Baptist

Welcome to Fresh Voices! In this new series, we are excited to share with you authors whose books capture a unique aspect of the human experience. Enjoy this Q&A with Kelly J. Baptist, author of Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero!

What’s it like being a debut novelist? 

It’s very exciting to be a debut novelist! It kind of feels like I’m bringing a new baby into the world, so there’s a lot of joy and anticipation in seeing the great things that baby will do out in the world.

What inspired you to write ISAIAH DUNN IS MY HERO?

Isaiah is a continuation story; he first appeared in The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn, a short story in the Flying Lessons  and Other Stories anthology. I was originally inspired to write the story because I wanted to explore the gradual steps that might occur on the path to homelessness, and how a kid would process and chronicle that journey.

What were the challenges of reshaping your short story “The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn” from FLYING LESSONS into the novel?

Isaiah has had quite a journey! He started in 2011 as a full novel-in-progress, to transforming to a short story, and stretched out to a full-length novel again. One challenge with that was that since the short story was out, there were certain things that I could not change: names of people/places, things that had already happened, etc. Also, I had to juggle moving the novel forward from where the short story left off as well as crafting a story that could stand on its own, in case there are readers who haven’t read the short story.

Isaiah has a strong connection to poetry. Do you have a connection to poetry as well? What made you decide to include that element in the book?

Yes! I love poetry, and that is probably the kind of writing I did first as a young girl. Lots and lots of poems to my parents and friends. I loved rhyming words, and would often make handmade cards featuring my poetry. I think I get all of that from my father, who also loves poetry! I wanted Isaiah to express himself through poetry in the book because it shows he is connected to his father by their mutual love for words, but that he has his own style and own voice in that he loves poetry and his dad loved the story format.

What was the most difficult part about writing this story? What part was the easiest?

The most difficult part about writing Isaiah was plotting out where I wanted the story to go. I was used to writing by the seat of my pants (pantser!), but with Isaiah, I found it helpful to give myself more direction. The easiest part was continuing with Isaiah’s voice. I had the advantage of being able to listen to the audio narration of Chronicles, masterfully done by Adam Lazarre White. Listening to the short story always helped me stay in tune with Isaiah.

What character do you identify with the most and why?

I think I identify with Isaiah’s mom the most. I haven’t been in her exact shoes, but I know what it’s like to have to grieve or be stressed and overwhelmed, but still have kids depending on you to be strong and hold it together.  I wrote her character the way I did not for her to be judged, but for readers to put themselves in her shoes and imagine how such a huge loss can really knock you down. I also identify with Sneaky, because like him, I did not play when it came to money when I was a kid. I had a little candy hustle at school, and I made two dollars a week gathering the trash at home!

There are many heroes in the novel.  Not just Isaiah.  How do you want your readers to think about the concept of “hero”?

I want readers to remember that heroes aren’t just the ones who do something big to “save the day”. Heroes save the small moments, like Ms. Marlee in the reflection room, Mr. Shephard at the library, and Rock at the barbershop. A kid is a hero when he or she goes from being someone’s foe to being a friend. Being resilient and persevering when giving up seems easier is definitely hero activity!

What do you want young readers today to take away from this story?

I want young readers to take away that everyone’s story is important; everyone deserves to exist and be treated with respect. You never know what someone else is dealing with, but if you take the time to learn their story, you will likely discover that you have much more in common than you think!

What are you currently reading?

I have a habit of reading multiple books at once. Right now, it’s Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams, House Arrest by K.A. Holt, and Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay. My kids and I are listening to the audiobook version of Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dee.

What are you currently writing?

I’m currently writing a middle grade novel-in-verse and a middle grade contemporary, as well as working on a few picture books.

Kelly J. Baptist

Kelly J. Baptist won the Ezra Jack Keats/Kerlan Memorial Fellowship for her YA novel-in-progress, Young. While visiting the Kerlan Collection, Kelly had the privilege of studying the dialogue techniques of the great Walter Dean Myers. Fast-forward a few years, and Kelly was fortunate enough to meet Myers at a literary event in Florida. A native of southwest Michigan, Kelly enjoys life with her five children, who give her plenty of inspiration for writing. Though her busy family life often results in having to type with one hand, Kelly is committed to using the written word to inspire and transform lives. Find her online at kellyiswrite.com.

Fresh Voices: Lisa Allen-Agostini

Welcome to Fresh Voices! In this new series, we are excited to share with you authors whose books capture a unique aspect of the human experience. Enjoy this Q&A with Lisa Allen-Agostini, author of Home Home!

What inspired you to write Home, Home?

I sat down to write one day and the girl just came out, cursing the wind. I had an experience similar to what I wrote about at the start of the book. In my case I was too anxious to catch the right bus, got off at the wrong stop and had to walk for an hour to get home. I had a coat like the one she wears. And in its pocket were a handful of bus schedules. The story mostly wrote itself after that scene; I think I finished it in two or three weeks.

The main character’s experience of being sent from the Caribbean to Canada after a depressive episode is based on the story of a girl I knew at school, though she never felt exiled like the protagonist does and her foster family wasn’t queer as far as I know.

What was the most difficult part about writing this story? What part was the easiest?

Writing about depression and anxiety can trigger depression and anxiety. Sometimes I would be affected by what I was writing.

Developing the mother’s character was hard; my editors had to force me into expanding what was originally a shadowy figure in the story. I had a tough relationship with my own mother and I suppose that’s why I was so reluctant.

What character do you identify with the most and why?

I love the protagonist. She is smart and funny and beautiful. She just doesn’t know it. I love how she speaks her truth.

What do you want teens today to take away from this story?

I hope they see that mental illness is not as unusual as they might think, that ordinary people in their villages might suffer with it, that it’s just an illness, not a curse, and that treatment helps. I would also like them to consider how racist beauty standards affect them. And, finally, I would like them to see that love is love.

What are you currently reading?

These are scary times. As someone who has an anxiety diagnosis, I’ve found the COVID-19 pandemic very difficult to navigate. I minimize my anxiety by reading the Bible and watching 20-year-old episodes of Law and Order, a blissfully formulaic TV show.

Lisa Allen-Agostini

Lisa Allen-Agostini is a widely published novelist, journalist, and poet from Trinidad and Tobago. She writes primarily about the Caribbean, its people, and its culture. Lisa lives in Trinidad with her family; her dog, Sassy; and her fabulous cat, Fennec. Home Home is her second novel for young adults and a CODE Burt Award finalist. To learn more about Lisa, visit lisaallen-agostini.com and follow @AllenAgostini on Twitter.

Fresh Voices: Tae Keller

Welcome to Fresh Voices! In this new series, we are excited to share with you authors whose books capture a unique aspect of the human experience. Enjoy this Q&A with Tae Keller, author of When You Trap a Tiger!

What inspired you to write When You Trap A Tiger?

I loved the stories my Halmoni told me, especially the story of the sun and the moon. I remember, vividly, curling up in bed, listening to her tales and imagining there was a tiger right outside, pacing in the hall, scratching at my door. The first seed came from that thought—what if there really was a tiger?

The rest came slow and steady from there. Not so much a flash of inspiration, but just me sitting with the idea, day after day, building a story through trial and (lots of) error. The first draft didn’t even have a halmoni in it; in that version, the stories were told by Lily’s mom, and Lily was trying to navigate a new school and find her dad. So, the story evolved significantly.

What was the most difficult part about writing this story? What part was the easiest?

The hardest part was making sure everything fit together—that the star stories, Halmoni’s history, and Lily’s current story all made sense in one world, both logically and thematically. This took many revisions to get right, and thankfully Chelsea was patient and reassuring throughout the process!

Nailing down the thematic consistency also meant rewriting the star stories many, many times. Originally, I tried to leave the myths mostly untouched, but by the end, the star stories were almost entirely invented, though still inspired by the themes and structure of mythology.

As for the easiest part… I’m not sure any part of it was easy. But the most fun part was the research, both Korean history and folklore. I loved learning new things, finding ways to weave real world history into the narrative, and discovering connections in the writing that I hadn’t intended to make.

What character do you identify with the most and why?

When I write any character, I try to draw on my own heart—maybe not in experiences, but in feelings. I’ve been afraid to tell my whole story, like Halmoni. I’ve felt trapped in my own skin, like Sam. I’ve felt helplessly overwhelmed like Lily’s mom. And I’ve felt invisible, like Lily.

If you could put any character from another book into this story, who would it be and why?

I’m cheating a little because I already took the tiger from mythology. 🙂

What do you want kids today to take away from this story?

I always want them to see that they are not alone. And to know that growing up in this world is often scary and heartbreaking, but it’s full of wonder and beauty, too. They’re going to be okay.

What are your social distancing book recs?

I’ve been talking about Station Eleven non-stop, because it’s one of my favorite books, and unfortunately topical right now. I’m also in love with Sharks in the Time of Saviors, which weaves a contemporary Hawaiian family story with Hawaiian mythology. It’s incredible. 

Tae Keller

TAE KELLER was born and raised in Honolulu, where she grew up on purple rice, Spam musubi, and her halmoni's tiger stories. After high school, she moved in search of snow, and now lives in New York City. She is also the author of The Science of Breakable Things. Visit her at TaeKeller.com, follow her monthly love letters at bit.ly/lovetae, and find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Fresh Voices: Mae Respicio

Welcome to Fresh Voices! In this new series, we are excited to share with you authors whose books capture a unique aspect of the human experience. Enjoy this Q&A with Mae Respicio, author of Any Day with You!

Since May is Asian American Heritage month, could you speak about what this means to you?

Growing up, I danced in a Filipino folk dance troupe (lending some inspiration to The House That Lou Built!) and we performed at festivals for Asian American Heritage Week (later “month”)—so it has special significance for me. I feel fortunate to have parents who’ve always tried to instill the value of my culture and of knowing where my family came from, and I think that’s a large drive behind why I write what I do. And while Asian American Heritage Month is every day for me, it’s meaningful to have an official time to spark thoughtful questions and conversations—especially with young readers.

What inspired you to write Any Day with You?

I wanted to celebrate a lot of things in this book—family, friendship, creativity—but my main gem of inspiration came from wanting to explore how our family’s stories take root, and how that can shape a young person’s lens as they discover their world. The book has a lot of personal connections for me too, including the setting and bits of the storyline. I lived in walking distance to the beach in L.A. for many years, I briefly worked in the film industry (fun fact: my husband and I worked for the Walt Disney Animation Studios and he did the teeniest bit of interior art for Any Day with You!), and my grandfather survived the WWII Bataan Death March, which is a part of Kaia’s great-grandpa’s backstory… so weaving in familiar details came somewhat naturally for this one.

What was the most difficult part about writing this story? What part was the easiest?

Hmmm… hard question! When I set out to write Any Day with You, I tried to focus on themes of change and resiliency; change, whether big or small, can be huge in a kid’s world. But figuring out the specific change my main character Kaia would face, ended up being a difficult-at-first but good-in-the-end challenge. Dana Carey and Wendy Lamb will tell you that my version of “change” went through a huge revision, which had me staring at my computer screen and eating a lot of donuts and chocolate (is that too much info into my writing process?!). The easiest part about writing this story was in developing Kaia’s 90-year-old great grandfather, Tatang. Once I figured out who he was and who I wanted him to be, that joyous flow of writing began to happen. I loved figuring out his eccentricities and the different kinds of Hawaiian shirts he wears!

What character do you identify with the most and why?

I identify most with Kaia’s mom, Joy—we both want the best for our kids and try to ground them in our family’s history, so they deeply know where they came from. I’m finding more and more that I’m identifying with the mom figures in my books, I think largely because I’m knee-deep in parenting my own middle-schooler right now (pass the donuts and chocolate again, please). It gives me an intimate perspective through which to examine my characters’ choices and their story arcs, which can feel nicely organic as I’m writing.

If you could put any character from another book into this story, who would it be and why?

There’s a beautiful middle grade novel called Everlasting Nora written by an author-friend Marie Miranda Cruz, that’s a realistic story about a twelve or thirteen-year-old girl who lives in a Manila cemetery, which is a real subculture in the Philippines. I was deeply moved by this book—it’s such a different perspective from growing up Filipina American. It reminded me of a trip I took to the Philippines as a young teenager, where I saw poverty and culture and how others live from a more mature lens for the first time. Those kinds of moments can really shape your view and opinions of the world. I think it would be interesting to put Nora and Kaia into a story—both young Filipina girls, but with very opposite lives. They’d learn more about each other, but ultimately they’d be learning about themselves.

What do you want kids today to take away from Any Day With You?

When kids read Any Day with You, I hope they take away that even when our lives are unexpectedly upended, we can find strength in those we love and within ourselves to keep going and stay inspired. I love middle grade fiction because it can dig deep into themes and issues and still bring readers joy—that’s what I always aim for in my writing.

What are your quarantine reading book recs?

Funny, I tried to read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel the other day—a title I’d been meaning to read for so long, and I thought: “Well, maybe now’s the best time!”—but honestly I couldn’t do it. I’ll pick it up again in the future, but I’m not reading pandemic, plague, or dystopian books right now. I’m in the middle of Ali Wong’s memoir, Dear Girls, which has given me so many laugh out loud moments. I’m also about to dive into Jessica Kim’s debut middle grade, Stand Up, Yumi Chung (Kokila), about a girl who wants to be a standup comedian; I’ve heard such good things about it and can’t wait. Escape, joy, and humor seem to be my go-to reads in these strange times.

Mae Respicio

Mae Respicio writes novels full of hope and heart. Her debut, The House That Lou Built, received the Asian/Pacific American Library Association Honor Award in Children's Literature and was an NPR Best Book of the Year. Mae lives in the Bay Area suburban wild with her husband and two sons where they love hiking, hanging at the beach, and some good old fashioned family slime time. Visit her online at maerespicio.com, and follow her on Twitter (@maerespicio) and Instagram (@maerespiciobooks).