13 Oct 2015
Dive Into Diversity: Robin Talley Interview
For Toni, neither end of the binary gender spectrum ― male or female ― feels quite right. Toni spends much of What We Left Behind exploring gender identity and expression, and uses several different labels for gender over the course of the book, including genderqueer. I should note, though, that this is just Toni’s experience. Other folks who identify as genderqueer may have experiences totally different from Toni’s ― as is the case with labels for gender across the board.
And to your second question, I loved writing these characters. Loved, loved, loved it. There’s always a fear element to writing anything, of course, but I tried to be as authentic as possible in the writing of this story and these characters, and creating What We Left Behind was above all a joyful experience.
You said on your blog Toni and Gretchen are "two of my favorite fictional people ever”. What do you love most about them and what does their story mean to you?
Toni and Gretchen have been with me for a long, long time. They started out as secondary characters in the very first book I wrote, back when I was first teaching myself how to do this whole novel thing. That book wasn’t very good and it will never leave my hard drive, but Toni and Gretchen were my favorite things about it, so I wound up writing another book where they were front and center. And now I’m incredibly thrilled that their story is entering the world. Both of them feel so real to me I sometimes forget I made them up.
From my knowledge, What We Left Behind will feature one of the first genderqueer characters in YA. Along with that, I’ve heard the book will also include a diverse cast who identity somewhere on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. Are you excited about the conversations that your book will encourage? What do hope readers take away from it?
I’m always happy for my writing to spark conversations! At its heart, What We Left Behind is a story about coming of age ― about figuring out your place in the world and in relation to the people you love, and about how that place changes as you grow and change as an individual. So that’s what I hope readers will take away.
I’m not a writer myself, but I would like to think each book you write would teach you something along the way. What did you learn in the process of writing What We Left Behind?
Because What We Left Behind is told in alternating chapters between Toni and Gretchen ― it’s the only book I’ve written in that format ― I had to carefully balance my plot and structure in a new way. It really forced me to look closely at exactly what had to happen when, to make sure I was keeping a fair balance between the two points of view and that the story was moving along at the right pace. It was a challenge, but it definitely taught me some useful lessons about structure.
As someone who is passionate about writing diverse books (particularly LGBTQIA+), what advice do you have for those wanting to write diversely, but are afraid to incase of getting it wrong?
If you’re writing about characters whose experiences are different from your own, your first step is going to be research, research, research. I think a lot of writers who worry about getting things wrong are at the very beginning of the writing process ― conceptualizing a story ― and if they’re too afraid, they might not ever get further than that. But research is an essential part of conceptualizing, no matter what you’re writing about. So my advice is to start there, so you can learn what you need to know before you can dive into the writing itself.
What was the path to publication like for you? Any tips or advice for LGBTQIA+ writers that you wish you’d been privy to back then? (Maybe about what finding an agent was like, and any tips for the process? Or general helpfulness.)
I followed the standard process of querying literary agents when I was first starting out. With the first book I queried (that was the one I mentioned above, featuring Toni and Gretchen as side characters), I didn’t wind up getting representation. But I got a lot of very encouraging rejection emails (for real, those are a thing!). So the very first query I sent for my next book was to the agent who had sent me the most encouraging rejection the first time around. He’s also the one I wound up signing with, and he still represents me today. He’s awesome, and I feel so lucky that he sent me that encouraging rejection years ago! As for LGBTQIA+ writers who are at the beginning of the query process, every YA agent out there seems eager to represent more books with queer characters, so my advice is to put it all out there ― be direct in your query about your characters’ orientations and identities.
And last but not least, recommend us a diverse book (or two!) you think we all need to read and why. I think we can all agree that readers can never have enough good recommendations!
Two books that I read recently and that made me think a lot ― in very different ways ― are George by Alex Gino and The Unintentional Time Traveler by Everett Maroon. Both books have a lot to say about gender identity, but George is for a younger audience and made me weep with joy, and The Unintentional Time Traveler is for an older crowd and is a fascinatingly twisty sci-fi tale.
Robin Talley, author of Lies We Tell Ourselves (September 2014) and What We Left Behind (October 2015), grew up in Roanoke, Virginia. A Lambda Literary Fellow, Robin now lives in Washington, D.C., with her wife, plus an antisocial cat and a goofy hound dog. When Robin’s not writing, she’s often planning communication strategies at organizations fighting for equal rights and social justice. You can find her on the web at www.robintalley.com or on Twitter at @robin_talley.