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, 16 authors discuss everything from therapy to the significance of names. All have YA books that either release this month or released in recent months. Check out previous YA Open Mic posts here.
Abdi Nazemian, author of The Authentics
I was new to Los Angeles, an aspiring screenwriter who was starting to get work, but not yet lucky enough to have anything produced. Then one day I ran into a powerful producer. We started chatting and he casually proceeded to suggest I change my name. It was too long and difficult to pronounce, he said, and it wouldn’t look good on a title card. At the time, I felt too insecure to do anything but nod and change the subject.
I didn’t tell him that if I could make it through junior high school with my name, I could certainly survive Hollywood with it. I didn’t tell him that my own relationship with my name was fraught, that Abdi was in fact a nickname for the much longer and harder to pronounce Abdolreza, and that it was legally changed when my family moved west from Iran. I didn’t tell him that as a kid, I idolized old Hollywood stars, perhaps partly because they escaped their given identities and recreated themselves. But here’s what I also didn’t do: I didn’t change my name to accommodate people like him.
Though I would eventually see my name on a title card, the struggle of being a Middle Eastern screenwriter has continued. I’ve had many lucky breaks, but one of my biggest frustrations has been that none of the projects I’ve written about Iranians has been made. That’s one of the reasons I love writing books, because I can freely write characters from my culture without anyone telling me they will be impossible to cast or that their names are too confusing. The character of Daria in The Authentics is born of this desire to represent my culture, and her pride in being Iranian is a way for me to connect to my own pride.
When it came time to name my children, I chose to name my daughter after a city in Portugal I visited and loved. And I named my son after the poet Rumi (I know, I set trends and Beyoncé follows), because Rumi is one of my favorite Persian poets. And also, perhaps, as a subtle reminder that we brown people had writing credits long before anyone could tell us our names were too complicated for them.
Luanne Rice, author of The Beautiful Lost
When I was a teenager, I walked up a bridge planning to jump off. It rose 400 feet over a bay that I’d always loved, and as I approached the crest I saw harbor lights glittering on the water below. Cars passed without stopping. I felt as if I was invisible, and I wanted to be.
When I neared the top, my legs weren’t tired, but my heart was. I had ice shards in my veins. I used to miss half the school year because I hurt so badly. I was sick, but I didn’t have a name for it. Eventually I found out it was depression.
It had overtaken me several times—a storm I couldn’t stop, eternal winter. I wanted to sleep all day. I’d get up at night, when the rest of my family was in bed. I couldn’t concentrate enough to read.
I could write short stories because they didn’t come from me, but through me. They flowed from my fingertips and were always about happy families—on paper I could create what I wanted so badly in my life. Therapy and medication eventually pulled me out of each episode, but they took so long to work.
That night, trudging up the roadway, I thought about my father. We had found out he had cancer and was dying. He was in a hospital within sight of the bridge. He drank and lots of nights didn’t come home. But if he was gone forever, how could we ever make things better?
I stared down at the tide, rippling silver in the light. I told my legs to climb the mint green fence. A car stopped. The passenger asked what I was doing. Nothing, I said. Just looking at the harbor. I turned and started to run before she got out of the car. My gaze went straight to the brick hospital on Friendship Street, rising above the town.
I didn’t jump. I tore down the long hill. He was still there, still alive. So was I. It wasn’t hope I felt, exactly, or maybe it was. Looking back, I know I’d found the strength to save myself, even if I couldn’t save anyone else. That moment when I turned around, when my mind wouldn’t let my legs take me over the bridge’s fence—that’s how I began to heal.
Cath Crowley, author of Words In Deep Blue
Truth be told, I was a mess before my dad died. Words in Deep Blue was going nowhere. There were at least ten versions of the manuscript on my computer, none of them any good. I was close to broke. The only bright spot was that Dad was helping with my writer’s block. And then I got the phone call. And then, well, he wasn’t helping anymore.
I got into a state of mind where, like Rachel, I decided that life was pointless. People die. I’d been alone for twelve years; therefore, I would never fall in love again. I was broke. I couldn’t write my book. I would be living in the same small flat for the rest of my life, writing a novel that would never be finished.
“Cheery,” my best friend said.
Both of us were licking sugar from our fingertips. Quite possibly, the man I would fall in love with was walking by the café window. I’d meet him here, not long after, in the spot where I’d sat crying, and brushing sugar from my lips.
I missed all the small things. I think before then it was my nature to miss them, to look at the bleakness instead of the beautiful. Not until later did I think about how, on the night after my father died, I dreamt of birds so blue that the color hurt to look at. Birds so small they should have broken in the breeze. Or about how, on regular occasions after his death, I dreamt he made long-distance phone calls where we talked all night.
I’m writing this in front of a stained-glass window. Every now and then I look up to see the hundred-year-old mulberry tree on the other side of the glass, to see that man who walked past the café window. He’s making me coffee. We’ve bought an old farmhouse, and we love it despite the freezing cold and the termites that are slowly eating our dreams out from beneath us. If that’s the end, I’ll focus on the middle.
I’ll focus on the coffee he’s put in front of me, the small details. And when other deaths come, when other books arrive in me that I can’t write, I’ll try to think of frail blue birds, long-distance phone calls with the dead, and sugared lips.
Paula Stokes, author of Ferocious
This is the story of an ambitious high school student who realized she had crushing public speaking anxiety in ninth grade when she nearly melted down during a speech in Geometry class. (I know, right? A speech in math class. As if math isn’t bad enough on its own.)
The girl went on to avoid public speaking at all costs, risking her 4.3 GPA to take failing grades rather than read poems aloud or present research papers. The girl grew up in a family where anxiety and mental illness weren’t considered real problems, where people who needed therapy were labeled as “weak.” The girl waited until her anxiety threatened to derail her nursing career to ask for help.
The girl was me.
Fast forward. Now I work as a psychiatric nurse. A few weeks ago I admitted a patient for major depression. The cops had pulled him off a bridge. He said he wanted to die because his wife was leaving him because he didn’t work—all he did was play videogames all day. Before I could reply he continued: “And the reason I don’t work is because I can’t get a job. I’m too nervous at interviews. By the time I get to a place, I’m shaking and sweating so bad I have pit stains under my arms. I can’t even meet the hiring manager because they’ll think I’m gross and pathetic. I just can’t do it.”
I almost cried because I could relate so clearly to that feeling of total panic, to avoiding the situations that cause it, and then to the despair that comes afterward, when you feel like you’ve let yourself and/or other people down. This man felt like a future I had narrowly avoided, the worst-case scenario for letting anxiety go untreated.
Having anxiety doesn’t mean that you’re weak. It’s a medical problem, like diabetes or high blood pressure. You wouldn’t wait to treat those issues until they’re killing you, right? So if you’re struggling with anxiety, please ask for help. If you parents don’t listen, ask a teacher or a counselor or a minister or an aunt or uncle. Keep asking. Keep fighting. Your best life is waiting for you, I promise <3
Brandy Colbert, author of Little & Lion
I went to therapy for the first time in my late twenties. We talked about the usual things—relationships, family, career. But the most surprising part was when my therapist said the issues I discussed with her sounded a lot like her biracial clients. I knew what she meant—that I seemed like someone caught between two identities, even though I have two black parents. I was surprised only because she’d so succinctly expressed what I’d been feeling my entire life.
Growing up, my Southern relatives often commented that I sounded “white.” I have a huge extended family on both sides, so I don’t remember who said it, but their words stung. What I heard was, “You’re not black like us.” At the same time, in my predominantly white Midwestern hometown, I was hearing that I wasn’t “really black” because I didn’t fit the stereotypes my classmates knew. I felt misunderstood by the community I belonged to and by the community I was living alongside, and it was lonely.
I recently returned from a family reunion where I spent time with aunts, uncles, and cousins I hadn’t seen in decades. I was excited to reconnect with family but anxious that I wouldn’t fit in—that I’d be confronted by those old accusations of not being black enough.
Once I arrived, I decided that if I no longer cared about how white people viewed my blackness, I had to stop worrying about what everyone thought. I code-switched without feeling self-conscious. I admitted that sometimes it takes me a while to catch on to slang or concepts that I feel like I should already know. And they laughed, but it was with me—not at me.
I was relieved that they fully accepted me for who I am. But most important, I was happy I had come to terms with the fact that although a large portion of my life was spent around only a few black people, nobody’s perception of me can change that I’m a black woman and that I have always been proud of that.
Rebecca Barrow, author of You Don’t Know Me But I Know You
When I write, I put a lot of me into my characters. Sometimes it’s obvious and sometimes it isn’t—even to me.
The main character in my debut novel, Audrey, is a lot like me. We’re both mixed race; we both wear our hair natural; we both like red lipstick. Then there’s her best friend, Rose: sharp-tongued, closed-off, bisexual.
Sometimes (actually, most of the time) I think I’m more Rose than Audrey. Or some combination of the two, parts of me I didn’t know existed when I was first writing this book five years ago revealing themselves through these girls.
I’ve always had crushes on girls. Except when I was younger they were girlcrushes, right, that was what we called them. I liked boys and sure, if I met a girl and fell in love that would be unexpected but okay—but I liked boys.
And then I wrote Rose and she’s a lot of my messy parts, making mistakes, doubling down, stubborn and willful and scared. Pretty much the only thing she’s certain of is her sexuality.
I found myself thinking: we’re both messy. We’re both stubborn. We share so much already. Do we share this, too?
I wondered about it all: the girl I thought was so cool when I was fifteen; my Ashley Benson love; that idea that if I met a girl and fell in love that would be unexpected but okay. I thought, and I tried out the words: bisexual. Queer. A girl who likes other girls.
I thought: yes.
So me and Audrey, me and Rose, me and all the girls who come next: I wonder what else we’ll have in common?
Jessica Taylor, author of A Map for Wrecked Girls
I was twelve the first time I felt the consequences of saying no to a boy. My friend Christina and I were twelve years old and our parents were inside the middle school auditorium in our rural Northern California town. School was starting back soon and they were hearing a presentation about how to keep us safe—from gang violence, whip-its, underage smoking. They had no idea what was happening outside.
Christina always knew boys—some from different schools, most of them older. She smoked with them when I didn’t. She told them jokes I didn’t understand. After she kissed one of them that night, another boy wanted me to kiss him next. I’d kissed one boy before, the winter before on a church trip to Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park, and while a kiss didn’t feel like a big deal, I didn’t want to kiss this boy now.
When I said no, he grinned at his friends before kicking my shin hard. A burning pain that seared all the way to the bone. The blare from the auditorium speakers made our parents feel close, but nobody walked outside.
Christina threw her head back laughing. I didn’t want her to know it hurt—or worst of all, that I was embarrassed—so I stood there shrugging until the pain faded enough for me to walk back inside without limping.
I wore my shame for weeks. My skin turned black at first, then purple, last a putrid yellow. Dry fall heat made it too hot for long pants, so there was no hiding the bruise. When my parents asked about it, I said I ran into something.
I never saw that boy again and rarely saw Christina, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t everywhere. He was a constant reminder that some people felt they had a right to my body—they felt my body wasn’t my own—simply because I was female.
Chandler Baker, author of This Is Not The End
I was recruited to be the coxswain of my college’s men’s rowing team (a.k.a, the person who yells and steers the boat), the only girl in a group of guys, ages 18 to 22. I considered myself confident with insecurities, but no more than most girls my age. But joining an all-male team pushed me into the trap of wanting to be the “cool girl.” I wouldn’t get offended, I’d be able to hang, nothing would bother me.
Sophomore year I lived with my team. I was conscious not to “female” up their space. For reasons unbeknownst to me, one boy had quit talking to me over the course of the year. One day, a group of us sat around the TV. I reached for a slice of communal pizza and this boy purposefully kicked me in the face, hitting my jawline. He laughed cruelly. Everyone else sat slightly dumbfounded, but silent. I felt ashamed. As my eyes prickled, I still didn’t want to do the “girly” thing—overreact. I got up, went to my room and never said another word about it, though my jaw was bruised.
A year later this boy was up for captain. As was the custom, he left the room so that we could discuss each candidate. That day, I did manage to stand up and tell my teammates what had happened. They assured me he wouldn’t be captain, though a few quickly clarified that the decision had nothing to do with me. I still felt I was in the wrong somehow and, worse, I was doing the girliest thing I could imagine…tearing up. I continue to struggle with needing to be the cool girl. But I come back to these moments in college and am able to view what happened for what it was: a man acting like a jerk and a girl letting him get away with it and I try really hard not to let that happen again.
Stephanie Kuehn, author of When I Am Through With You
I was 19 when I took a summer job at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk—a seaside amusement park packed with games, rides, and overpriced beer. In addition to long lines and demanding customers, my time at the Barbary Coast restaurant included exposure to a surreal animatronic pirate show featuring “Captain Ned and Seaweed the Wonder Parrot.” Every hour, children crowded that restaurant to watch a salty robot pirate regale them with tales of the high sea while his feathered sidekick cracked nautical one-liners. Alas, Captain Ned frequently malfunctioned. Sometimes the curtain covering him wouldn’t open, meaning kids could hear his muffled voice but couldn’t see him. More alarming were the times the curtain would open, but Captain Ned and Seaweed remained dark and motionless.
Many of my coworkers were from the UK, including an English guy named Paul, who enjoyed talking about books as much as I did. Our tastes ran similar, and as summer wound down, we agreed to a US–UK book swap. The only requirement was that we promised to read whatever we received. For my part, I gave Paul Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy, while he left me with John Fowles’ The Magus and Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory.
It’s fascinating to look back and consider how all four of those books have influenced my writing. To this day, I love delving into the folly of indulgence and the frailty of lust. I love allegory and wordplay, and I’m eternally chasing stories that unsettle me. But there were also moments that summer—many found in the high drama of the unpredictable Captain Ned—that cemented my love for the absurd, for the sly humor and downright joy there is to be had in the strangeness of all we’ve convinced ourselves is ordinary.
Kara Thomas, author of Little Monsters
Confession: I’ve never been dumped. I’m not claiming to be some sort of heartbreaker. (Although there was a very dramatic love triangle between two boys and me in the eighth grade. Most of it played out on AOL Instant Messenger and backstage during a school production of The King and I. It was an exciting time. The boys wound up becoming friends and hating my guts.)
When I was sixteen, I dumped my first serious boyfriend by changing my Facebook status to “single.” I did it because I had a crush on the cute guy I’d met at my first job, and, if I’m being honest, I was pretty mean then. But looking back, I realize that I was so unkind because I was scared.
In middle school, I lost my best friend. We had been inseparable since we were five; we owned more matching outfits than some sisters did, and we cried when we weren’t put in the same kindergarten class. She was my person—I didn’t ever think about what I would do without her—until we stopped speaking partway through sixth grade.
See, when I said I’d never been dumped, I wasn’t talking about a friend breakup. In my opinion, friend breakups are the worst kind. Most of my friend breakups didn’t involve tears or drama or late-night conversations on AOL Instant Messenger (typing that makes me feel so old). Instead, we lost each other. Grew apart, as my parents would say.
It seemed like every time I made a girl best friend, we ended up going our separate ways a couple of years later. I began to wonder if I sucked at female friendships. I began to think that maybe I just sucked, period, and that everyone who had a relationship with me would eventually get smart and leave. Hence all that boyfriend dumping.
If I had the chance to go back and tell the girl I was how everything would work out—how that best friend I lost in middle school came back into my life in college and wound up being the maid of honor at my wedding to the cute coworker I had a crush on—I wouldn’t listen. That girl will find out on her own.
Cale Dietrich, author of The Love Interest
Being gay and nerdy is a way more common than mainstream media would have one believe. I’m a member of both these communities, and I think that’s a big part of why it took a while for me to figure out my sexuality. As a teenager, those two worlds seemed so separate. But they aren’t, like, at all! In fact, I think one of the most common unifiers of gay men of all different types I’ve found is that we’re all pretty freaking nerdy about something. Seriously, we’re all huge nerds!! And nobody seems to talk about it.
Aside from Drag Race, I’ve found the easiest thing to talk to a gay guy about is generally something nerdy. If he doesn’t like Harry Potter, he’s a gamer, or he’s hardcore into Dungeons and Dragons. There’s always something he’s way into. The makers of this content don’t seem to know this, though, so I’m going to use this second on the mic to talk about this. It’s 2017, gatekeepers of nerd culture! Why aren’t there any gay characters in the MCU? Why is Poe/Finn teased so much but not confirmed? Why can’t I watch a movie about a gay superhero or a gay space badass?
To be fair, I know progress is slow, and things are getting definitely better. Iceman recently got his own comic series, and it’s SO good. In it, he juggles being gay and being a superhero…and it makes my nerdy gay heart so happy. Now I just need to see it on a big screen.
Katy Upperman, author of Kissing Max Holden
“Are you trying to keep her at a distance?” a friend asked last summer, shortly after my husband and I began foster parenting a beautiful baby girl. “So it’s not so tough if she has to leave you?”
I’d thought about distance and emotional safety versus commitment and a potentially broken heart often over our months of foster care training, and in the days that we waited for the baby to arrive at our home. It made sense to build—if not a wall—a window between her and me. Why dedicate the whole of my heart to a child who might only be with us a week?
But when I saw the baby, all dark eyes and tiny, graceful hands, and felt her, warm and trusting, drift to asleep in my arms, all notions of distance were obliterated.
I was committed. I was devoted. I was in love.
Turns out, it’s impossible to raise a thriving, joyful child without surrendering all of your heart to the endeavor. And I imagine it’s pretty freaking hard to wake up for multiple nighttime feedings, to change blow-out diapers, and to lug heavy strollers and Pack-N-Plays and bags loaded with toys on cross-county trips if you’re not all in.
The same is true of writing fiction, I think. There’s no safe distance when it comes to crafting characters, to breaking them and piecing them back together. You’ve got to suffer their setbacks and revel in their triumphs. You’ve got to be present in their reality every time you sit down to write, because the best stories are born of dedication.
I have plenty to learn in the ways of writing and parenting, but this I know for sure: There will be no distance.
There will be effort, and enthusiasm, and love.
Stephanie Oakes, author of The Arsonist
I recently started teaching myself to play the piano. I had friends who played piano growing up. They were in a different stratosphere from me economically. They had shiny wooden pianos and in-ground pools and finished basements and double-door fridges whose backlit shelves were always completely stocked. I’d hear about their piano lessons, touch the velvet dresses they wore to recitals. And when they sat down at their family’s piano to play, I’d watch them like an audience member, knowing I was not a part of this world, never letting my mind wonder what I’d look like in a velvet dress on a stage. It was an impossible idea.
When you grow up poor, you get used to the idea that some things just aren’t for you. For me, the thought wasn’t a conscious one, but it trickled in, affecting the way I viewed the world. The way I viewed myself.
I still catch myself at it sometimes. I have to halt the impulse to make myself small, to put myself on a shelf, out of the way, where I won’t inconvenience anybody.
I grew up and started asking, “Why not me?” The question was quiet at first, then grew louder and more insistent. Why not me?
I saw a cheap electronic keyboard online one day and, on a whim, bought it. I got an app and started playing, and the sounds I made from that instrument were so ugly, I made myself cringe. But I’d already learned from being a writer that first you have to make something ugly before you can make something beautiful. I’m still a ways away from making anything very beautiful on the piano, but I’m okay with that.
F.C. Yee, author of The Epic Crush of Genie Lo
I used to go perform at standup comedy open mics in the years right after college. There’s a surprising amount of them to be found, especially in major cities like New York where I went with another aspiring comedian friend. On a few occasions, I saw some fairly big names, ones you might recognize, pop in to perform a set.
But if you watch shows and movies about struggling comedians, one of the things they always get wrong about these types of dive is that they’re invariably too nice. On screen, there’s a place for the comedians to sit before performing. There’s a defined stage area. There’s an actual audience (maybe even hecklers!) In real life, you’re inside a laundromat, or on top of a barstool that happens to be more centrally located than the other barstools. And the audience, without fail, is made up entirely of the other comedians who came to perform at the open mic.
If you’re lucky, the MC might have you draw your order from scraps of paper in a hat. Otherwise, it’s first-come, first-serve. What ends up happening is that the people who go on later are forced to sit in the audience until their turn. And the people who are lucky enough to perform early tend to leave right after they’re done. Which means the audience dwindles over the course of the night, until the person going last might be looking at a completely empty room.
I’ve never seen a show about comedians address this phenomenon. A fictional “bad audience” might be small, but it stays the same size. There might be a heckler, but at least it’s someone who stuck it out long enough to hate you. I’ve yet to see a main character watch their audience of people who ostensibly share the same goals and fears simply evaporate as each person in turn gets theirs, before peacing out.
Anyway, I’m sure there’s a life lesson in here somewhere.
Amanda Foody, author of Daughter of the Burning City
When I was thirteen years old, I didn’t make my school’s varsity basketball team. It wasn’t because I wasn’t athletic (I was) or I wasn’t tall enough (I definitely was), but because I didn’t practice hard enough.
Basketball reigned at my small Catholic grade school, and so making varsity afforded you a degree of social status, and failing to make it seemed a worse situation than not playing basketball at all. Especially in a family with professional history in the sport.
I was fortunate during my childhood that academics, athletics, and music all came fairly easily to me. I didn’t need to practice much to excel. This was the first time the drive and effort of others had outshone my own natural ability, and I learned a lot from it.
After the last varsity game, each of the eighth graders accepted flowers as a celebration of their final game played for the school. This included the eighth graders on the B team. As a token of support, every eighth grader was provided varsity uniforms so that no one had to stand out for not belonging.
I was the only one who took my flowers in my own non-varsity uniform. It was a tough statement for a thirteen-year-old girl, who’d never been a rebel as much as an overachieving oddball. But I was a little bit disillusioned with it all, had played a strong season on my team, and was willing to publicly wear my failures.
I’m not ashamed that I didn’t practice hard enough. I enjoyed basketball, but I had found another passion I was more interested in pursuing. Had I not been willing to own my failures and my responsibility for them, then I wouldn’t have gained the tenacity to get where I am today, in a career I love.
Aden Polydoros, author of Project Pandora
I am an introvert and have always been one. It’s incurable, I’m afraid, and social anxiety only makes it worse. I hate being the center of attention, and just the thought of doing a class presentation freaks me out. After twenty minutes at a crowded party, the idea of jumping out the nearest window begins to seem preferable to staying and listening to conversations that I know I’ll never join in on.
It’s not that I don’t want to join in. I don’t think people realize just how much I want to become a part of the conversation. It’s just that before I can voice my opinion, I have to wade through a barrage of thoughts. What if I say something stupid? What if they hate me?
Those thoughts gather like a boulder in my throat, preventing me from speaking. It doesn’t help that when I’m nervous, I have an annoying tendency to thoughtlessly insert the wrong word in a sentence when I really mean another word in the same category: “I need to go to the sink…I mean the toilet.”
Sometimes I can wrestle my anxiety into submission, but other times, it’s just too much. So I step back. I get a drink and linger at the outskirts, hoping that my smile will be enough to convince people that I’m not an irredeemable jerk. I try not to let them see how isolated I feel. How separate, like I’ll never be a part of the party.
I think one of the reasons I have been drawn to writing is that I have complete control over my plot and characters. There are no moments when I don’t know what to say or where social anxiety holds me back. If I type the wrong word, it’s usually a spelling mistake, not the product of my anxiety. I can invest myself fully in characters who might be introverts or struggle with anxiety or depression, but who still lead exciting lives in spite of it.