Authors We Love
By johnhansen/November 1, 2018at1:30 pm
YA Open Mic is a monthly series in which YA authors share personal stories on topics of their choice. The aim of the series is to peel away the formality of bios and offer authors a platform to talk about something readers won’t necessarily find on their websites.
This month, 10 authors discuss everything from difficult births to school bands. All have YA books that either release this month or released in recent months. Check out previous YA Open Mic posts here.
Natasha Ngan, author of Girls of Paper and Fire
It was the day after my boyfriend of eleven years broke up with me. I posted a picture on Instagram—something inane and flippant about having a cosy morning in bed, complete with perfectly brewed tea and cute socks. So good! I typed through my tears.
#instalife, whilst sobbing on my floor.
For five years, I’d run a fashion and lifestyle blog with said ex-boyfriend. Whilst at first it was just a fun project, a thing to do on the weekends to compliment my work as a social media consultant and get the two of us exploring London more, it soon became my job. Then, what felt like, my life.
Or rather, one of my lives.
My social accounts were fun, positive spaces. Glittering excerpts from a life full of social events and creative energy and great shoes. And—that was all true. But at the same time, I was burned out from years working seven days a week. From juggling three jobs which barely brought in enough money to get by. From dealing silently with a genetic health condition which was deteriorating my physical and mental health by the month.
And now—a broken heart.
I felt paralyzed, trapped between a career I’d been building for half a decade and being true to myself. Definitely, I could have shared these aspects of my life on my blog, but I didn’t want to. I’m a very private person, ironically enough. When faced with difficulties my instincts are not to talk but to withdraw, to shelter, to find peace in my simple routine and the love of my closest friends.
So I stepped away. From blogging, from the pressure of posting perfect pictures every day of a not-so-perfect life. In the years since, I’ve learned better how to balance my online and offline lives, as well as how to get them to meet in a way that I’m comfortable with. Now, I enjoy my time online. It’s not a competition, or a presentation. It’s connection. Talking with writer friends on Twitter. Sharing genuine happy moments on my Instagram.
Online, you don’t see someone’s whole life. Remember that if you ever feel like your own life is inadequate. You’re not just seeing someone’s highlight reel on their social accounts—you’re seeing their curated highlight reel.
To me, what’s more important is to curate your life. Fill it with the things you love. Craft healthy routines that make you feel good, inside and out. Eat and laugh and cry and chase joy. Your real-life feed won’t ever be perfect, but it will be true, and messy, and amazing, and that’s something no amount of Instagram followers can give you.
Rebecca Barrow, author of This Is What It Feels Like
When you write a band book, people always ask: were you in a band?
So yes, I was.
Was it an all-girl punk band? No.
Was it a twelve-piece swing band that idolized Bobby Darin? Uh, hell yeah it was.
It started innocently enough. Our school had a variety show every year; a friend of a friend wanted to sing but needed musicians. You know how there are those kids who are way too into their chosen thing, are weirdly casual with the teacher and can be found hanging out in random rehearsal spaces? That was me. So, I was pulled in to play piano.
We were only doing one song—”Beyond The Sea.” We stayed after school on Fridays, rehearsing after philosophy lessons and before going to the curry house that didn’t ID. When the show came, we were a hit.
And then we didn’t want to stop. We needed more shows—the A Level music recital? We hijacked it. Summer concert? We were the entire second half. Our set list expanded—”Mack the Knife,” “New York, New York,” “Bad Bad Leroy Brown,” we were on fire. Our first paid gig came—a family fun day, playing in an empty car park. Sure, we were paid in Papa John’s, but it counted, okay?
But like all great bands before us, it couldn’t last. Our final show took place in a meaningful, historic venue—the back room of The Phoenix, a terrible pub that our entire school would soon be banned from. We played “Come Fly With Me” and (my favourite) “Song For You” without knowing it would be our last time. Afterwards we made promises to play again, book another show.
But our singer, drummer, and trumpet player left for university. Years passed; reunions were brought up, but never happened. Aaron Lee and the Black Cab Jazz Band were no more.
At least we still have the T-shirts.
Emiko Jean, author of Empress of All Seasons
You were born nine weeks early. You came into the world not with a bang but with a whimper. Early in my pregnancy I learned an unborn baby doesn’t need air. The baby gets its oxygen from the umbilical chord attached to its mother. I pictured you both then—like tiny scuba divers.
Baby B isn’t getting enough oxygen, the doctor explained. One of my intrepid divers was suffocating. For thirty-one weeks I’d had your hearts beating inside my body, four heartbeats for every one of mine. In utero a baby’s heart beats twice as fast as its mother’s, I learned this, too. As they wheeled me to the operating room I thought of your hearts—rapid beats slowing to dull pulses.
I don’t remember much from your actual birth. A heavy drug rolled over me in a dark, unwelcome tide. I woke up in recovery, my body a wrecked ship. Are they okay? I asked the nearest nurse. She assured me that you were. But okay is relative. You were alive, she meant.
Hours later I held you. One of you was two pounds, the other barely three. You fit in the palms of hands. You reminded me of leaves faded by the sun. Tangled in wires, you curled onto my naked chest. I stared at you, at the carved hollows of your cheeks. I knew then what love looked like. I also knew then what it felt like to have your heart living outside your body. This was not the start I wanted for you.
Before you were born I envisioned an entire life for us, foolishly certain of so many outcomes. If anything you’ve proven how uncertain everything is. One year later and that uncertainty still rattles inside me like a ghost. But I do know two things with a fierce absoluteness. One, I’d do it all over again. I wouldn’t hesitate. And two, the world is so much brighter with you in it.
Livia Blackburne, author of Umbertouched
Thus far I’ve only taken small steps.
A doctor gave me an incomplete explanation toward the end of an appointment. In the past, I would have let it slide, not wanting to bother her. But this time, I press for a better answer. It only takes two minutes, and I leave the appointment far better informed.
At my daughter’s swim lesson, I’m curious what the instructors look for when they decide a student’s ready to move to the next class level. I’m embarrassed to ask, but I get over it, and the instructor’s answer is both interesting and helpful.
By nature, I’m not an outspoken person. I’m slow to rock the boat, and I worry about what people think of me. I wanted to be “nice.” But to quote Taylor Swift, “due to several events in my life and in the world in the past two years, I feel very differently about that now.”
In 2016, I gave birth to my daughter. As I recovered from childbirth, I watched a man who bragged of sexual assault get elected to this country’s highest office. As she learned to take her first steps, I read the stories of #metoo victims and wept. And as my little girl neared her second birthday, I watched our country’s leaders ridicule rape victims on the national stage and treat assault allegations like a political nuisance.
So yes, as my daughter grows older, I feel “very differently” about being silent. I’ve made a promise to speak up and tell my story. Thus far it’s only been small steps, but there will be more. I will grow louder with practice. I will tell my story. I will call out injustice. And I will do my part to create a better world for my little girl.
Lydia Kang, author of Toxic
I never considered myself an introvert until my first novel debuted in 2013. Back then, I did what many bright-eyed debuts did. If someone asked, “Will you do this event?” I’d reply, “Just say when.” It meant a lot of traveling and meeting strangers. Hordes and hordes of strangers.
But a pattern emerged. During cocktail hours or author mixers, I’d grit my teeth over the small talk and blurry sea of new faces. I’d practically run back to my hotel room, craving solace. I wanted to curl under a blanket fort and watch a comfort movie, like Eat Drink Man Woman, over and over again.
It was all so odd. Didn’t I wish for this exciting, new author life?
The truth was…I was a heretofore undiscovered introvert. Even less fun? My introversion led to a blossoming fear of flying, which made traveling for book events feel anything but glamorous.
Now that I’ve lived with it, I’ve learned more about introversion and myself. There is evidence to support that social connection (in real life, not via social media) is really good for you. Like, longevity-boosting good for you. Too much isolation isn’t nourishing for the heart, mind, or soul. And luckily, health is a great motivator for me.
But also, spending my entire time at a book or library conference alone is, well, lonely. So I have made a real effort to meet online friends that I didn’t know in real life. When I push aside my reticence to exist around new people, after the nails-on-a-chalkboard awkwardness, (“HEY HANG OUT WITH ME PLEASE”) I am always richly rewarded. I might still slip away from chatting groups for no apparent reason to recover quietly in a corner, and I might still be exhausted at the end of the day, but I’m getting better. The new friendships are 100% worth it.
Now, to work on that flying phobia…
Jennifer Yu, author of Imagine Us Happy
The first story that I remember writing is called “How the Porcupine Got Its Spines.” I wrote it not because of a particular affinity for porcupines or for Aesopian origin stories, but rather because my elementary school teacher had given it to us as an assignment—For Friday, please write and illustrate your own fable—and it seemed like a pretty cool idea.
It wasn’t a particularly good story—spoiler alert: the porcupine got its spines because it decided to hug a cactus, although why the porcupine did such a thing goes sadly unexplained—but it was the story that got me hooked on writing. For the next decade, I wrote constantly: A sci-fi religious allegory that was somehow inspired by both M-theory and the Bible, a retelling of Queen Elizabeth I’s childhood years, a collection of vignettes that were definitely NOT about the boy I had a crush on for all of eleventh grade—a parade of stories that had nothing in common other than that they were all more interesting than doing my math homework.
About a decade after “How the Porcupine Got Its Spines,” I signed a publishing deal. It was a literal dream come true—something I had wanted so badly and for so long that I very rarely even allowed myself to acknowledge it as an ambition—but with it came a pressure I had never before experienced with my writing. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to tell a story because it seemed cool. It had to be marketable. It had to have a strong voice and a compelling hook. It had to resonate with readers and reviewers on Goodreads. It had to be “good enough.”
Writing didn’t feel like writing anymore. It felt like math homework.
I don’t have a moral for the story that I’m telling now: This isn’t a fable. But when I’m feeling particularly stuck or weighed down by the pressure to write something that’s “good,” something that’s well-reviewed, something that’s meaningful or profound, that won’t be a waste of my agent’s time or laughed out of a publishing house, I try to go back to 2004. I try to put myself back in the shoes of an eight-year-old girl writing a silly, grammatically questionable, profoundly unmarketable story about a porcupine in the desert hugging a cactus—just because she wanted to.
Robin Talley, author of Pulp
As a kid, I used to dream about being a writer. In fifth grade I was obsessed with The Baby-Sitters Club, and all I wanted was to have my name on the cover of a book. I wrote poems and short stories, often about unicorns, world peace, or some combination thereof. Sometimes I’d get an honorable mention in a school contest, which was always enough to keep me going for another year of joyful scribbling.
That lasted until ninth grade, when I came to a grave realization: I wasn’t actually a very good writer. Suddenly I became self-conscious about showing other people anything I wrote, because I was sure they’d realize I wasn’t a very good writer, too. Thanks to that powerful fear, by the time I finished high school I hadn’t written fiction in years. And during the four years of college that followed, when I was majoring in literature of all things, I didn’t take a single creative writing class. I worked on the school literary magazine, I read constantly and wrote detailed analyses of other people’s writing—I still loved words as much as I ever had—but I was too afraid to create characters or worlds of my own.
It was fanfiction that brought me back. I wrote about Harry Potter, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and obscure fandoms no one would dream of writing about anymore. I didn’t write fanfic about The Baby-Sitters Club (though sometimes I wish I had), but writing fanfic turned out to be joyful in the same carefree way that reading about the baby-sitters of Stoneybrook, Connecticut, had been when I was ten years old.
And so, I found my love of creating again. I’ll never get back the years I lost—I think longingly sometimes about how much more practice I could’ve gotten in, how much I could’ve honed my craft, if only I hadn’t been so afraid for so long—but I found my way forward in the end.
In Pulp I wrote, for the first time, about being a writer. I created two queer teenage girls who explore what they’re feeling within the bounds of their own fictional worlds. The book became my love letter to the creative process, so I made one of the characters a fanfic writer, too. There are so many ways to relish in creation.
Cindy R. Wilson, author of Paper Girl
I’m sure you’ve heard it before. Write what you know. That’s what they say when you ask what you’re supposed to write about. So when I first started writing, I naturally wrote about everything else. My very first YA story (granted, I was twelve when I started it) was about kids with powers. Original, right? But it was fantasy, fun, and nothing like my real life. An escape. That’s what writing was for me. An escape. Since then, I’ve written a story about witches in a utopian society, alternate realities, a serial killer. I even wrote another contemporary story, but made sure my heroine was nothing like me, in a situation nothing like mine. You know, interesting. After all, what’s interesting about a woman with anxiety disorder who spends more days than not inside her house with her computer?
But then I did it. I wrote my story. At first, I wasn’t sure why. I guess I wanted to write a story where the heroine was completely, irreversibly quirky and socially awkward and still the hero. I mean, you’re supposed to be the hero of your own story, right? I wrote my story and my flaws. I wanted to be the hero for once, and I wanted to get it out there. What I was dealing with. Writing Paper Girl was therapy for me and a chance to make myself the hero. But more than that, it’s given me the chance to really be myself and connect with other readers and writers who deal with the same thing. So when they say write what you know, sometimes it’s a good idea to make yourself into a hero—no matter what that looks like. Odds are someone out there can relate, and they’ll want to read that story.
Mia Garcia, author of The Resolutions
I read somewhere (probably Twitter) that characters are like Horcruxes – containing a bit of the author’s soul on every page. This is certainly true for The Resolutions and the four main characters in it; I think of Ryan, Jess, Lee, and Nora and see bits of myself in each of them, not always the best parts, but that’s what I love about them.
And that’s where I’m less of a Lord Voldemort and more of a Galadriel. While my characters may share some of my heartaches, flaws, and worries, I always make sure they have their own lights of Eärendil to guide them in the dark places “when all other lights go out.”
At times these are lights I wish I had or ones I need reminding of.
While Jess struggles with my anxiety and panic attacks, she’s motivated by deep and genuine love for her friends. Though Ryan’s heart may be broken and his artistic soul struggles with insecurities, his relationship with his family stands strong. Nora—bubbly, sugar-coated Nora—struggles to find her own way in the world, placing her own dreams of traveling around the world to the side for family; her endless heart and love for baking keeps her going. Lee and I hide our pain and sadness deep down inside, worried we shouldn’t share too much; we both depend on our sense of humor and wit a bit too much, but it keeps us going.
And above all they have each other—regardless of fights or misunderstandings, they are each other’s light in the darkness. It makes me thankful for all those who’ve taken this journey with me and at times helped me light my own way through the dark.
Karen Rivers, author of You are the Everything
Every time I board a plane, I imagine photos of the other passengers and me, all arranged in exact rows on a glossy page. Specifically, the front page of People magazine, although I’m not sure they do this anymore or if they ever did or if maybe I just imagined it. The headline says: “Plane Crashes Into the Mountains”.
I used to be afraid of flying but I’m no longer particularly afraid of anything, although I’d prefer not to die. But even still, this image won’t leave me alone.
I tell myself, “Don’t.”
But by trying not to do it, I become unable to stop myself from doing it.
I want to blurt: “Do you know which of your photos they would use if this plane goes down?” I know most people would find that seriously unfunny, so I bite my tongue. But I do, in fact, know which photo of me would be chosen. My own mother, who is charmingly convinced I look like Kate Walsh, looked at my recent headshot—the one—and said, “Who is that?”
In the photo, I’m smiling like people smile when they are unencumbered by fear, parenting, mortgage payments, life, death. I’m smiling like someone happy and very much alive.
It doesn’t look like me, yet it was me for a fraction of a second. The shutter opened and closed, captured this me in pixels.
“At least it’s a great picture!” I tell myself, buckling my seat belt. This, I know, is gallows humor.
“Excuse me, does that engine sound off to you?”
“It sounds fine,” I say.
The picture keeps me safe. It keeps all of us safe. I want to tell the frightened woman next to me this, but I can’t, because I can’t explain it, how I used to be scared and now I’m not.
“It’s sounds fine,” I repeat. “We’re going to be just fine.”