15 Authors Discuss Name Changes, Diversity in Literature, and More in July’s YA Open Mic

July YAOMYA Open Mic is a monthly series in which YA authors share personal stories on topics of their choice. The aim of the series, above all, 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, 14 authors discuss everything from dance to name changes to diversity in literature. All have YA books that release this month or that released in June. Check out previous YA Open Mic posts here.

Margot-Harrison-photo

Margot Harrison, author of The Killer In Me

The name on my debut novel is not a pen name. It’s also not my birth name, because I legally changed my first, middle, and last names when I was 14 years old.

Names matter. They help shape our sense of identity and how others see us. Parents put so much thought into choosing the right names for their children. So why on earth would I change mine?

To answer that question, let’s go back into the mind of the teenager I used to be. Her name was Anna, and she didn’t feel at home in her own skin. She’d recently moved from Manhattan to the middle of nowhere. She wanted to hide at school—not easy when you’re nearly six feet tall. Some girls noticed her and started hassling her on the school bus. Her name sounded to her (who knows why?) like a gawky outcast, like a victim.

Movies were Anna’s refuge. In her imagination, she could be as adventurous as Indiana Jones, as tough-minded as Lois Lane, as wisecracking as Han Solo.

So she decided to name herself after the actors who embodied those characters. Margot for Margot Kidder, who played Lois in the Superman movies. Harrison for Harrison Ford.

I didn’t tell anyone this, because my name choice wasn’t about public fandom. It was a private code, a desperate effort to change who I was in my own eyes.

You can probably guess the end of the story. Changing my name didn’t change me. I was the exact same person who’d been bullied in middle school, just with a different name. Real strength had to come from within.

This story used to embarrass me. But now, as I look at my made-up name on my book jacket, I don’t mind. Where most people have names that reflect their family origins, mine reflects the person my teenage self wanted to be. As Indiana Jones once said, “I don’t know, I’m making this up as I go!” I made myself up a tiny bit on the path to becoming who I am today.

Miranda Kenneally

Miranda Kenneally, author of Defending Taylor

When I was 18, I worked at a summer camp. I didn’t get along with one of my co-counselors. He often talked down to me and went out of his way to point out my mistakes. For example, telling me I used the wrong type of wood when building a fire. I did a good job of avoiding him until the week we had to be co-counselors to a group of 12-year-old boys and girls. It wasn’t until that week I noticed that he took an interest in the girl campers, specifically, the ones I was responsible for watching. I confronted him: I told him he needed to pay attention to the boys, not the girls. He told me I didn’t know what I was talking about. I went above his head to the camp director. She explained that my co-counselor was much more experienced than me because he had been working there for three years, and that I should listen to him. When his actions around girl campers continued to concern me, I went to the camp deputy director. Again, I was directed to listen to my co-counselor because “he knows what he’s doing.” That week, I kept my girl campers close to me. I never left them alone and I locked our cabin at night. Unfortunately, at a later time, this counselor sexually assaulted a 12-year-old camper. I blamed myself. I should’ve been more persistent. I should’ve gone to the camp’s board of directors. From this experience, I learned that you need to trust your gut and shout as loud as you can when you know something is wrong. Just because someone has more experience or is older than you doesn’t mean they are always right.

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Beth Revis, author of A World Without You 

I found out I was pregnant with my first child while I was writing a book about my dead brother.

I hadn’t meant to write a book about my dead brother. I meant to write a book about time travel and adventure. But as I wrote, he (and I) discovered that the school for superheroes he thought he was attending was actually a school for mentally disturbed youth. And he started to resemble my brother more and more.

I had meant to get pregnant. I’d wanted a baby for years. But I’d been hesitant, putting it off for just as many years. Partly because I had things I wanted to do, books to write, places to travel. But also because there was a tiny fear in my head—one that grew exponentially as my belly rounded—that my child would be like my brother.

The doctors said his mental illness wasn’t an inherited disease. But they also said they didn’t understand it, that the mind was impossible to fully understand, diagnose, and medicate. And they said he could live with it. They lied on several counts.

I got to the hard parts of the story, where the hero of my novel has to face the fact that his reality is cracked and his mind is irreparable, just when my son started to kick inside me. I tapped into my darkest memories as the most joyful part of my future was developing. I finished the first draft and started editing with the ticking clock of childbirth hanging over me, turning in the book mere days before my baby arrived.

It’s because of that—the fact that I was writing a book that made me dwell in darkness while living a life that filled me with hope—that the story became what it is now. Seeing the world through my character’s eyes helped me see the world through my brother’s past, but it also reminded me of my son’s future.

Caroline Tung

Caroline Tung Richmond, author of The Darkest Hour

My high school self would be very disappointed in me.

This realization hit me a few months back while I was cleaning out my childhood bedroom. Tacked to the wall I found a Goals List I wrote in the ninth grade. The paper had yellowed, but the words were still readable:

1.     Travel to England.
2.     Publish a book.
3.     Go to BYU.
4.     Get married in the temple.

To my credit I accomplished 3.5 of those goals. I studied abroad in London. I published a book (and have another coming out soon). I graduated from BYU, as many good Mormon girls do. And I got married.

But I didn’t get married the good Mormon way—in a beautiful Mormon temple, in the House of the Lord. I got hitched instead at the county courthouse on a Friday afternoon. Two years later, my husband and I made the tough decision to leave the Church entirely.

In Mormon-speak, I strayed from the straight and narrow path. I became the woman my youth leaders had warned against: a doubter, an agnostic, a feminist.

My high school self would be mortified.

I wish I could talk to that girl. If so I’d tell her this—that I’ve never regretted leaving the Church and yet I’ve never regretted joining it either, at the age of 13. Mormonism taught me hope and love. Mormonism gave me refuge as a lonely teen. Mormonism will always run in my blood.

But sometimes your goals will sway and shift. Sometimes they’ll need tweaking. And sometimes you may need to cross one out completely—not because you’re giving up but because the person who set that goal is no longer the person you’ve become.

And that’s okay.

(Also, hitting 3.5 out of 4 ain’t bad at all.)

Sona Charaipotra

Sona Charaipotra, author of Shiny Broken Pieces

Books have always been my vice. My mother tells me I was an early reader—three, she always insists—and books were the one thing she’d always indulge, even as the stacks grew in our small house in central New Jersey. I graduated from Anne of Green Gables and The Baby-Sitters Club to deliciously fun YA reads like The Vampire Diaries (yes, the show is based on a series of books) and more meaty fare by heroes like Laurie Halse Anderson.

But I didn’t see a character that looked anything at all like me until I was in college. It was there that I discovered authors like Junot Díaz and Chitra Divakaruni. Still, writing was a faraway dream, out of the grasp of someone like me (who turned to journalism when my dad cast doubt on the career prospects of an English degree, since at least journalism had a job right there in the title). Then one day, I think it was in my junior or senior year at Rutgers, I met an author. My first. Her name was Ameena Meer, and she’d written a book called Bombay Talkie, a swirling, whirling trip of a novel that starred a brown girl grasping for identity and stability. One who, while so very different from myself, showed me echoes of the girl I was on the page for the very first time. She’d come to speak at Rutgers because her cousin went there, and I was first in line to get my book signed.

Ameena probably gets sick of hearing this story, but to me, that was a profound moment. When I told her about my own writerly aspirations, she told me that if she could do it, so could I. And she scrawled inside that book, playing on my name, that I’d be golden.

It’s so important to see what we want to be, to witness embodied and achievable. I’ve heard from so many other writers of color now about that same moment, the one that crystallized it for them. And oddly enough, I’ve become that person, that embodiment, maybe, to a few others—like my own daughter, Kavya, who at six already has writerly ambitions. Being on the other side of the table, scrawling a few words of hope in the pages of a book I wrote, it’s a small miracle, one I’ll be grateful for eternally.

Victoria Schwab

Victoria Schwab, author of This Savage Song

August Flynn is a monster with an eating disorder.

I say it lightly, to cover how close it hits to home.

In This Savage Song, teenage soul-eater August doesn’t starve himself because he wants to be thin. He does it because he wants to prove he’s in control. For me, it’s always been about control.

Control over my body. My life. As a teenager, the easiest way to do that was restriction. I ate too little. I pushed myself too hard. Every pound lost, every mile run, every test aced, gave me a thrill, a sense of that control I craved more than affection, more than anything. When I got older, the avenues for control diversified, became success, achievement, publication, star stickers on a calendar, day-by-day metrics of a life being lived, a game being won.

Up until August and This Savage Song, Victor Vale from my supervillain story, Vicious, was the most autobiographical character I’d ever written.

Vale’s a social mimic who can read people, expressions, emotions, but not really feel them. Sociopath’s an ugly word, one I shy from more than Victor, but for someone who makes a living writing about people and their emotional arcs, it’s admittedly hard for me to assess my own. It’s the difference between being a keen observer and an empath. I see. I understand. But there’s a gap between comprehension and feeling. I say jokingly that my volume stays at two while others’ fluctuates between zero and eleven. The joking part is because I’m never sure if I want people to take that seriously.

Another writer once said that we are all telling our own story, over and over, trying to puzzle it out. I’ve always said I write about outsiders, but if this idea is true, then I write about people who will always be outsiders, those who will never belong, in their society, in their world, in their head.

I think August Flynn is the version of an outsider I wish I was. The one who actively wants to belong. Victor, on the other hand, is the version I probably am. The one who would rather be in control.

Jeff Hirsch

Jeff Hirsch, author of Black River Falls

There was nothing remotely cool about the kind of outsider I was in middle school.

I wasn’t the blindingly smart but socially awkward math nerd. I wasn’t the sci-fi obsessed geek who might have been an outcast but had a till-death-do-you-part pack of fellow outcasts and a rich fantasy life, or the too-soulful-for-this world art kid doing photorealistic sketches of girls I was too scared to actually talk to.

No, I was just a painfully shy and awkward kid. I belonged to no clubs. Played no sports. My grades weren’t bad but they weren’t good either. I had no real friends and was pretty much baffled as to how one went about making them. Basically, I was the kind of kid you might have sat next to in homeroom three years running and not remembered a single thing about. I was transparent and directionless.

The worst part of it was that I distinctly remember not being able to imagine a scenario in which my life would ever be any different.

And then I got to high school and I walked into the theater on the day they were holding auditions for Equus, by Peter Shaffer. God knows why I did it. I was the last person anyone would have picked to become an actor. I just opened the door and there I was. I didn’t get into that play, but I became hooked on theater immediately and ended up acting in every play my school did until I graduated. On top of that, my grades went up and I made an amazing group of incredibly close friends. I had an identity at last. Theater nerd!

Things have changed since then. I now do theater as a hobby and spend my time writing books for kids in middle school. Over the years there have been several times in my life when I’ve felt just as lost and just as hopeless as I did back then. When I did I remembered that day I walked into the theater.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that who we are and what our life consists of is this solid, consistent thing. This is who I am. This is my life. I get that. It can be a comforting idea. But the scarier, more hopeful truth is that we’re always just a step or two away from complete and utter transformation. All you have to do is hang in there until you reach a door you’ve never opened before and walk through.

Melissa Grey

Melissa Grey, author of The Shadow Hour

I used to define myself by my accomplishments. How high my SAT score was. What universities accepted me. Where I fell in class rankings. I was a textbook overachiever as a kid in pretty much every arena, but no activity brought it to light as strongly as ballet did.

Ballerinas tend to begin their dance education early, and I was a relatively late starter in my tween years. At that point, most of the girls my age at my dance school were already en pointe, so I pushed myself hard to catch up. I didn’t look like them either. All I saw around me was an array of long, lithe legs and sculpted skinny arms, but when I looked in the mirror, I saw a short, stocky girl with muscles more suited to gymnastics than ballet. I pushed myself to catch up there as well but, as you know, the body you’re born with is the only one you’ve got. No amount of stretching would give me that long, elegant line we associate with ballet. That’s just not how I’m built. Teen me found that unacceptable. I drove myself to injury and misery and eventually walked away from ballet with nary a backward glance.

Until recently.

After a prolonged absence, I’ve returned to dance and rediscovered why I cared about it so much. It helps that I’ve just turned 30 this month and there’s no chance I’ll ever become a prima ballerina. This fact would have devastated 14-year old me, but 30-year old me has found liberation in it. The pressure is gone. I don’t need to achieve. I can just dance. And in doing so, I feel like I’ve finally come home.

Kody Keplinger

Kody Keplinger, author of Run

I never used to wear red.

“It looks bad on you,” one of my close friends used to tell me in high school. “It makes you look like a tomato.”

She told me a lot of things. She told me I talked too much. She told me I was annoying. She convinced me she was a better writer than I was. She convinced me she was smarter than I was. And I believed every word of it. Because despite all of this, she was one of my oldest and closest friends. Why would she lie?

Even years after our friendship fell apart, I still internalized all the things she told me about myself. I still had anxiety about how much I talked, how annoying I was, and I never wore red. Never.

Then, one day, while shopping, a new friend—a better friend—pulled out a red shirt. “You should try this on.” I shook my head and told her that I don’t look good in red. She just stared at me, confused. “What are you talking about?” she asked. “Just try it on.”

Reluctantly, I did. And to my surprise, I didn’t see a tomato-girl in the mirror. Instead, I saw a girl who had let a manipulative person trample her confidence. A girl who was ready to see herself the way she wanted to, not the way an ex-friend had seen her. I saw a girl who looked just fine in red.

I talk as much as I want now. I fight to shut down the voice in my head that tells me I’m too annoying or not talented or smart enough. I surround myself with friends that build me up instead of bringing me down.

And I wear red almost every day.

Eleanor Herman

Eleanor Herman, author of Empire of Dust: Blood of Gods and Royals

I was a chubby, clumsy second grader. I snuck candy bars from the kitchen. I fell down stairs, dropped things on my feet, tripped over nothing and hit my head on the wall. I was an excellent student in all subjects except for gym class. I couldn’t run, aim, jump, or throw. I was always last to be picked for a team.

At commencement each June my school had a gym prize for the best athlete in every grade. Every time I tripped and fell, my parents and sister would laugh and say, “Oh! With skills like that we just know you’re going to win the gym prize this year.”

I was so mad I secretly made the decision to win the gym prize just to spite them. The prize was based on a week of tests in May in which we ran, jumped, did sit-ups, somersaults, and cartwheels.

In February, I cut out sweets and ran around the block. I did sit-ups in my room. I did hundreds of jumping jacks in the garage so nobody would hear me. I practiced somersaults and cartwheels over and over again until I fell down dizzy.

During the week of testing in May, I was the last kid running around and around the hockey field, even after Mary Stuart MacKenzie, the class’s star athlete, fell down exhausted. The bell rang and I was still doing sit-ups and refused to stop even when Miss Lund, the gym teacher, told me to.

I didn’t tell anyone about this. But in June when Miss Lund went on stage to announce the second grade gym prize winner, I had hopes. I really did. Then she said, “Mary Stuart MacKenzie” and my heart sank. But after Mary Stuart received her trophy, Miss Lund added, “And Eleanor Herman.” I stood up, looked back at my family, whose collective mouths had gaped open, and bounced up the steps to the stage. Holding my silver trophy high, I reveled in my accomplishment, and fell down the steps, landing hard on my butt.

Everyone laughed, but I didn’t care. Because I had learned I could do anything.

Adriana Mather

Adriana Mather, author of How to Hang a Witch

I came home from school one day in fourth grade and told my mom that people were making fun of a boy for his weight. My mom said that was bullying and that it was cruel. I was shocked. I insisted the boy was laughing along and that it was all a joke. And she said maybe he did laugh, but he also probably went home and cried. And I burst into tears.

I was heartbroken I hadn’t defended him. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t the one saying those mean things; I knew I had participated through my silence. And the impact of that realization stayed with me for the rest of my life.

As a preteen, I was a tiny little thing. I was in an accelerated program at school, I played in the orchestra, and I was on stage crew. I donned fashion that included Winnie the Pooh shirts. So, yeah. I got my fair share of unkind words. But I also had a mouth to be reckoned with and I knew what I knew—that bullying wasn’t right. I never again stood by and let it happen to someone else. I challenged girls older than me, boys bigger than me, and even teachers. Sometimes they turned their comments on me. But I could deal with that, because I knew that I didn’t ever want to be silent again.

Katrina Leno

Katrina Leno, author of The Lost & Found

In 2009 I went to Rome and got my fourth tattoo. My brother had called me one day a few months before and asked if I wanted to tag along on his business trip and I probably packed my bags that very night, never mind the dates were six months away. Besides Mexico and Canada, this would be my first trip out of the country. I wanted to mark it with something special.

Before I left, I had my mother and father write out the words for me in a red Moleskine notebook. I wanted my tattoo to be in their handwriting. My father did “scrivo.” My mother did “vivo.”

Scrivo / Vivo—Italian for “I write, I live.” The words were lifted from Puccini’s “La Boheme”; I’d wanted the tattoo for many years and thought Italian words in Italy would be the perfect souvenir.

My brother and I rented a moped and zoomed all around the streets of Rome. We stopped at the first tattoo parlor we passed and I walked in alone as my brother found a quiet corner to take a work call.

My tattoo artist didn’t speak English—we communicated through hand gestures and facial expressions and of course he understood my tattoo.

At the end of the session he held up one finger and then he disappeared into a back room. When he returned he gave me an old wooden calligraphy pen and a bottle of black ink. He waved another tattooist into the room translate. He said something in Italian and then the translator handed me the pen and ink and said, “He hopes you have much success as a writer.”

I’ll blame jet lag for the fact that I started crying when he hugged me.

Kasie West

Kasie West, author of P.S. I Like You 

As a child my father was larger than life to me, at 6’4” and over 200 pounds. And I was always daddy’s little girl. I could get nearly anything I wanted with a flash of my dimples. And he was happy to give it to me.

One of the main things I remember about the father of my childhood days is that he loved to read. His nightstand was piled high with books. Books on religion and politics, history and science. Books about fantastical places or heartbreaking dramas. If I came to his room to ask him a question, he was usually behind the pages of a book. He read to us as well. My brothers and sisters and I would pile into his (too small) queen-sized bed while he read C.S. Lewis or Tolkien to us. I still vividly remember the passages that scared me (most involving Gollum).

Why am I talking about my father? Well, I became a reader because of him. As a child and teenager and young adult I read and read and read. I didn’t know I liked to write. But reading became my writing education. I had a lifetime of learning story technique and plot building and character development and tension. So when I had an idea of my own, of course I became determined to write it. And then I was hooked. There was no turning back. I loved writing.

My only bit of heartache over my journey into authorhood is that my dad is no longer here to see it. He passed away suddenly before I started writing. Before I held my first finished book in my hands. The day my first book came into the world was bittersweet for me because I wanted so badly for him to be there. I knew he, of all people, would appreciate it. Would understand the accomplishment. Would be proud of me. My larger than life dad gave the world’s best hugs and that day, it’s what I longed for more than anything. But as I continue pushing forward on this path, it is with a grateful heart that he gave to me the gift of reading.

Danielle Rollins Vega

Danielle Vega, author of The Exorcism of Sofia Flores

I got my first real book deal because of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The date was May 20th, 2012—nine years to the day after the teen show about a young vampire slayer and her friends went off the air. I was on my way to a bar to celebrate a friend’s birthday party. It’d been a hard year. In February, I’d finished a project I loved and sent it out on submission with completely realistic hopes that it would sell in a six-book, multimillion-dollar deal. Unfortunately, five months had zoomed by without any good news hitting my inbox. It was a gloomy time. I was starting to believe my book would never sell.

In any case, I was looking forward to a glass of wine and the chance to relax. I told myself I would not cry over The Book That Would Not Sell. I would be happy. Like a normal person. So, naturally, when I found out that my friend’s editor buddy would be in attendance that night, I planted myself right next to her and spent a solid 45 minutes obsessing over Buffy. LIKE A NORMAL PERSON. Before the night ended, she told me that—given my love of television about monsters and vampires—maybe I should try writing horror novels.

This had…literally never occurred to me. The project I had on submission was dark and twisty, sure. But it was more of a lighthearted, Veronica Mars knockoff than a true horror novel. What if I went full throttle into the scary, I thought? What if I actually tried to frighten people?

The editor said we should talk, and I gave her my email address. The very next day we started discussing the book that would become The Merciless. Six months later, I had a book deal.

Laura Stampler pic

Laura Stampler, author of Little Black Dresses, Little White Lies

My junior year of college, when I was curled up with my computer watching soufflés rising on Top Chef before class, my dorm room ceiling collapsed on my head.

Tempted as I am to recount my brief stint of campus-wide fame (my concussed quotes made headlines in the school newspaper!), I’ll refrain. Because this isn’t a story about a broken head. It’s the story of a broken heart.

That night, when the housing department moved me and my roommate across campus to a more architecturally sound living situation—complete with a big bag of Hershey’s kisses that might as well have been wrapped in silver foil notes reading “Please don’t sue us!”—I met a guy. Adam.

Adam, with a low-level Jew-fro and sleepy brown eyes that closed whenever he started strumming Rufus Wainwright on his guitar. (Ah, the off-key key to my heart!)

Suffice it to say, I fell into hard and immediate like. And, shockingly, so did he. For two months we spent all our time together, watching Daily Show clips, holding hands at parties, talking about books and who we wanted to become. I didn’t have much of a romantic track record at the time, and this felt like everything.

But not for long. Suddenly he remembered that he was about to graduate and my not-quite-fairy tale turned out to be the college entanglement he just didn’t want. I won’t go into the abrupt dumping or my endless begging not to be dumped.

Because before my running mascara had the chance to dry, my friends were crowding through the door to rescue me, dragging me away from my computer and saving me from sending my former flame a really regrettable Facebook message. They plied me with homemade breakfast burritos and Katherine Heigl movies and cheap white wine. They listened to me ramble about my misfortune for hours (and then days). They reminded me what caring and good relationships look like. And when, eventually, I moved back into my newly plastered room, my heart was healed and stronger than before.

Because this isn’t a story about things breaking. It’s about the people who put you back together. It’s about keepers.

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