9 Authors Discuss Backpacking, Becoming Political, and More in December’s YA Open Mic
YA Open Mic is a 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, 9 authors discuss everything from backpacking to becoming political. All have YA books that either release this month or released in recent months. Check out previous YA Open Mic posts here.
Martha Brockenbrough, author of Unpresidented
The summer I turned 18, I worked for a congressional campaign. I wasn’t political. Far from it—politics made me uncomfortable. The way people got all intense about their views…all of the things they knew that I didn’t…I wanted no part of it.
I spent a day a week there at the request of my boss, an artist and writer who paid me generously to help him organize his things, prime his canvases, and type his correspondence. But someone, I realize now, was trying to ease me out of my insulated, suburban existence.
And that’s how this girl from a deeply conservative family ended up taking the city bus from her suburban home to the city across the water. The bus took me right to the oldest part of downtown Seattle. Pioneer Square. Built up after a fire leveled the city, the square has beautiful brick buildings, wide sidewalks with London Plane trees, and a diverse mix of humanity.
I quietly did whatever the senior campaign volunteers asked me to do. Mostly, though, I was observing them. Why were they all doing this? What drove them?
That summer, I began to understand a new way of seeing the world. Where before I’d been taught to idealize individual achievement—hard work, accountability, responsibility—at the congressional candidate’s office, I saw how those qualities could be put to use in service of humanity. No one side has the monopoly on goodness, but I started to understand how much I value the general welfare of our society, and not just individual opportunity.
I registered to vote as soon as I arrived at college, but it still took me another four years to actually cast a ballot, that one for Bill Clinton. The process of emerging from my own personal bubble took a while. And it was uncomfortable, challenging everything I thought I knew.
So this is for everyone who didn’t vote and doesn’t want to talk about it. Who feels uncomfortable around political intensity. Those feelings you’re having are asking you to do something. That discomfort? It’s someplace deep inside of you that has questions in need of answers. And it won’t go away until you begin seeking them. I’ll be right there with you, cheering you on.
M.K. England, author of The Disasters
Some people know their gender and orientation practically from birth. I was not one of them. I knew that being forced into dresses made me deeply uncomfortable, but I didn’t have the language for nonbinary genders yet. Just a tomboy, everyone said. I knew I got embarrassed and looked away from women dancing in music videos, but assumed it was because dancing like that was Bad and Not For Kids. Straight-blinders firmly in place.
Yeah, we all knew something was up, but I didn’t start to figure it out until after my family got our first computer when I was in middle school. No, it wasn’t what you think.
It was video games.
I was obsessed with the Final Fantasy series. Throughout eighth and ninth grade, I played and replayed Final Fantasy 7 and 8, totally in love. I even read fanfic, some of which was my earliest exposure to the idea of queer relationships. Then Final Fantasy X came out in 2001 and I…didn’t love it. There was one character in particular who kind of annoyed me. And yet, a desktop wallpaper of her adorned the screen of our family computer for months. I questioned myself once in a while—”I don’t even like her, why is she here?”—but I’d tell myself I just liked the art and move on with my life.
Reader, I did not just like the art. And Baby Gay MK finally realized that with startling clarity one day.
I changed the wallpaper. That didn’t change me, though. It would be almost fifteen years before I learned the words for my gender (thanks, tumblr), but I was on the path.
I got there eventually.
Sara Holland, author of Evermore
I found it when I was sixteen and pawing through a church basement sale, amidst antique dinnerware and dusty Christmas ornaments. A trombone nestled in an old velvet case, tagged $30.00. Dented and scratched, but the yellow brass still shone under the fluorescent lights.
At this point, I was already a certified band geek. I’d played flute for years and never thought about switching instruments—had never even touched a trombone—but something about this thing called to me. Totally on a whim, I emptied my pockets and brought it home.
I quickly learned that my flute skills didn’t really transfer. Rather than clear-cut fingerings, suddenly I had seven slide positions to learn by feel, and multiple notes on each one, requiring more from my lips and lungs the higher I went. So when I debuted the trombone in pep band, I spent most of my time playing vague harmonies and missing high notes. I was bad at it, and yet…
I loved it. The physicality of the instrument, the space it took up—how when I climbed the bleachers to join the brass section at football games, people had to get out of my way or catch a slide to the gut. The looks I would get: this small girl with a big trombone. But as often happens, I gradually stopped playing in college as I immersed myself in writing.
I’ve often thought about picking it back up—everyone says that professional writers should cultivate another hobby, after all; and I miss it. But the problem with trombone is that the longer you don’t play, the more your form deteriorates, so when you do pick it up, what comes out will likely be just a squeaky splat.
The other problem is it’s LOUD. Meaning that everything you play is extremely audible to anyone around. For instance, the neighbors on either side of your thin-walled NYC apartment.
It’s scary, as an adult who prides myself on competence, to start anything from square one—especially when it feels like the whole world can hear my mistakes. But my trombone brought me joy once. So, an early resolution: in 2019, I’m going to relearn the trombone (during reasonable hours). This is a noisy city, and it can accommodate a little of my noise, too.
My neighbors can deal with it.
Wendy Higgins, author of Kiss Collector
I lost my emotional innocence in eighth grade when my parents separated. It wasn’t one of those civil splits. It was ugly. Messy. Heartbreaking. I won’t go into detail, but I can tell you we moved overnight to the opposite side of the country with less than one day to say goodbye to friends, then back again seven months later. The divorce dragged on for almost four years.
I had my first anxiety attack during that time. My little brother was the only person in my home I wanted to be around. Most of my time was spent away from home with my girlfriends. I learned to self-medicate with alcohol and attention from boys. I lost trust in adults and instead clung to my newfound faith. But the decisions I was making to deal with the chaos of my family life were decidedly…ungodly. Hence, guilt.
The teen years are a unique time. You’re at that malleable, delicate phase between childhood and adulthood. Being a dependent with rules, yet expected to take responsibility. Trying to balance school work, extracurricular activities, family, friends, dating, and possibly a job is like running a gamut blindfolded while hormones throw giant rocks at you. It’s hard. I remember all of the angst and emotions so clearly.
And yet I also remember the feelings of freedom and love I felt amid the drama. So much laughter with my friends, even when we drove one another insane. Even, I daresay, some tender memories with my complicated family, who I’m very close with today.
It’s out of these experiences that my first YA contemporary romance, Kiss Collector, was born. Believe it or not, something beautiful can be born of your pain if you let it. I hope you let it.
Heather Demetrios, editor of Dear Heartbreak
According to a recent study (a legitimate one—you never know with these things), if you are a young adult—18 to 22—you are officially part of the loneliest generation. And if you’re a millennial like me, you’re in the second loneliest generation. But it doesn’t really matter what generation you’re in because the stats don’t look good for anyone: roughly half of all American adults sometimes, or even always, feel alone.
It’s hard to talk about. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry says in The Little Prince: It is such a secret place, the land of tears.
I think one of the reasons I am a writer, and certainly why I’m a reader, is because I’m lonely. Desperately, agonizingly lonely. Sometimes, I’m convinced I’m invisible. You can see right through me.
But then I pick up a book. Or I rest my hands on the keyboard. And, suddenly, I have form again.
My favorite kinds of books are the ones with tightly knit crews. A band of die-hard friends you can go into battle with. All of my protagonists find themselves surrounded by friends who would bury a body for them. Whether I’m writing a fantasy or a contemporary or historical fiction, my books are filled with people who have one another’s backs. The kinds of friends who show up, who pull you out of the whirlpools you’re drowning in. I read for the crew, for Aelin’s court and Dumbledore’s Army, for Anna/Lola/Isla and the women in Rose’s Ravensbrück bunk.
James Baldwin said this, and it is true and it’s why I write and why I read, and probably why I get up in the morning: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
Books can be a cry for help, and also the answer to that cry. These days, my books are a call and response. I’m calling to you, my fellow loneliests. I am saying: we are not alone. And when you open that book, and feel a little less lonely because of it, I’ll hear your answer.
Sarah Beth Durst, author of Fire & Heist
I’ve always wanted to be a writer…except when I was five and I desperately wanted to be Wonder Woman. Or a unicorn princess. (And I wasn’t picky about whether I wanted to be a princess crowned by unicorns or an actual tiara-wearing sparkly horse.) But from the time I was ten years old, I knew I wanted to be a writer.
I probably would have decided that earlier—I’ve always loved books—but I simply didn’t realize that an ordinary person could become a writer. I think I believed that writers were mythical. Or dead.
But then I read Alanna, by Tamora Pierce. It’s about a girl who disguises herself as a boy so she can become the first female knight in her land. I have a clear memory of closing that book and thinking to myself, “If Alanna can become a knight, I can become a writer.”
It’s funny how you can look back and see these tiny moments—little decisions, such as picking up a particular book—shining like stars in the vague darkness of memory, and know that that’s when everything changed.
I knew from that moment on what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: write fantasy novels. I’d spent most of my childhood in the woods behind my house searching for a dragon’s egg, and I’ve always secretly believed that there is no story that cannot be improved by the addition of a dragon. So fantasy was an obvious fit.
My seventeenth fantasy book and my seventh for YA readers, Fire & Heist, just came out on Tuesday. (Think Ocean’s Eleven with were-dragons!) This book and the others I’ve written would never have existed if I hadn’t had that “ordinary people can be writers” epiphany.
Sometimes the things that change your life the most aren’t the huge, dramatic births/deaths/disasters/triumphs. Sometimes they’re the quiet moments, when you say to yourself, “I want this.”
Sarah Raughley, author of Legacy of Light
Time management is really tough.
Especially when it feels like you’re juggling 289,734,234 things at the same time.
When you have too many things to do, sometimes you need to just give yourself permission to work on one thing at a time, even if it means putting things off that you hoped to get done sooner.
For us authors, there’s always pressure to produce the next work. When I wrote Fate of Flames, the first book in the Effigies Series, I spent almost two years writing it on and off, letting myself take breaks every once in a while. Then, once I got the trilogy deal (yay!) I realized that I actually now had to hunker down and write a book a year, meeting deadlines. At the same time, I was going through school—I had essays to write, books to read, applications to fill out, papers to mark, etc., etc. And when I didn’t get absolutely everything done that I wanted to get done right away, I unreasonably felt like a dummy.
But we’re only human. What I learned is: do what you can do and when you need help, ask for it. People are a lot more reasonable than you might think. Work hard, but don’t be too hard on yourself when things don’t come together as perfectly and seamlessly as you would have liked. I’ve spent like seven months trying to write three chapters of my next project and I’m still not done! But, hey, it happens.
So when you find that you’re facing a mountain of work and you’ve just got way too much to do, figure out what needs to be done first, what can be done first, put your all into whatever you do, and remember to relax and take care of yourself.
Heather Fawcett, author of All the Wandering Light
When I was eighteen, I decided I was going to go backpacking in Europe, by myself. I had only ever traveled with my family or a school group—trips where someone else did all the planning, and I basically just showed up. I thought it would be an adventure, and in many ways, it was—though rarely a smooth or entirely safe one. One memorable day in Sligo, Ireland, I ended up in the middle of nowhere, completely lost, with no smartphone (this was the mid-aughts) and night fast approaching.
It was just after my first year of university. I was still living at home, and had very little experience with adulting. I had decided that not only would I go on a solo trip, but I would get a job overseas, which I would use to fund more traveling.
I did not get a job, or even a single interview. Most managers probably took one look at the nervous jeans-and-sneakers-wearing teenager with the Canadian accent and tiny resume and decided she wasn’t close to serious about working at their business.
Now, I was lost, which I recall thinking was yet another failure to add to my first attempt at independence. I kept walking in the wrong direction—away from the historical site I was trying to find—for about six hours, along a series of deserted country roads. Eventually, I found a historical site, but not the one I was looking for—it was an enormous burial mound supposedly belonging to an ancient queen, with not a tourist in sight. I wouldn’t have found it if I hadn’t gone the wrong way.
I did, eventually, find the place I was looking for, and barely made it back to the depot in time for the last bus back to town. Maybe the moral of the story is that it’s good to get lost once in a while, but I also learned that failing a few times on the way to independence isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either.
Arwen Elys Dayton, author of Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful
I grew up at a boarding school in the Pacific Northwest. My parents were both teachers there, and I spent my childhood roaming around a thousand-acre campus while going to school with kids from all over the world. It took me a long time to realize that my childhood, and the view of the world I developed as a result, were not typical.
What was customary for me as a ten-year-old: friends of several socioeconomic levels and five different faiths, from seven countries on four continents. These were details—important details, sure—but the really important thing was that we were friends and we were growing up together. While I considered myself a patriotic American, I took it for granted that there were marvelous aspects to all of the countries of every kid I knew, and I loved to hear my friends describe their homes and hometowns. That was the simplicity of my worldview: I was familiar with many cultures and interested in all of them.
As a writer, you have to get inside the head of each character. I am thankful every day for the odd way I grew up, and my wonderful friends, all so different from each other and different from me, but also, in every way that counted, exactly the same. They made me the writer I am today.