Welcome to my second in a series of mini-interviews with authors I’ll be paneling with at the ALA Annual Conference in Orlando. The panel is called It’s Not Just a G Thing: Exploring the LBTQ (and Beyond) in Middle Grade and Young Adult Literature, and I really hope you can make it for what I am 100% sure is going to be brimming with some compelling discussion about representation in YA and middle grade titles.
To get you totally hyped up about this all-star panel, I’m conducting mini-interviews with the participants. I’ve already interviewed the lovely Alex Gino and am now super pumped to share this talk with E.M. Kokie.
Hopefully you know E.M. (or Emily, as I’ll be sometimes calling her in this interview), from her novel Personal Effects, which is a YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults and Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults Top Ten, a Lambda Literary Award Finalist, and a 2013 IRA Young Adult Honor Book. It received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. School Library Journal said that, “Kokie beautifully crafts a story about the troubled relationships between an emotionally stunted father and his two sons,” and that it’s “a strong choice for reluctant readers and lovers of realistic fiction alike.” In addition, Emily is passionate about social justice issues, especially in the context of y0uth literature, and blogs about it over at The Pirate Tree. In fact you can read about fellow panelists e.E. Charlton-Trujillo and Alex Gino over there. Check it out. It’s a great resource.
Oh, and did you know that she’s also a lawyer?
Now, if you please, here are Just 5 Things with E.M. Kokie:
Ingrid Abrams: How has your background as a lawyer helped you as a writer?
Emily Kokie: I suppose my training as a lawyer helps with my writing, at least in terms of training the way I think and forcing me to become disciplined about writing and revision. But I think it is more that I have natural tendencies that have helped me become both a lawyer and a writer. I think there is a reason we see so many writers for kids and teens who are also lawyers. Effective lawyers are very good at putting themselves in other people’s shoes, figuring out what that other person thinks, wants, needs, and will compromise. Effective lawyers are natural storytellers — whether that story is persuading a client to imagine a future scenario, advocating for a client’s goals, examining the what-ifs of the application of laws, or, perhaps the height of storytelling, persuading a jury or court to accept your client’s version of events. We are often called on to look at competing explanations, look at documents, and figure out what really happened. And so much of that is also what goes into making a good novel — being able to effectively tell someone else’s story, to know how they would feel and what they would want. To understand that people don’t always say what they mean or show who they really are, and so often the greatest truths of a story are hidden between bits of dialogue and action.
IA: Is there a current YA novel that you wish you had when you were a teen?
EK: Oh, there are many. I was a voracious reader, but I didn’t really find books about queer kids — few about queer adults, either — when I was an adolescent. And I didn’t know any out queer people, and the ones I suspected were queer were also people for whom the suspicion meant they were made fun of or ridiculed behind their backs. I didn’t want to be laughed at or worse. And I’d never even heard the term bisexual. So, I spent my teens and a good chunk of my twenties totally confused about my sexuality and worried something was wrong with me, or that I wouldn’t be able to have a good life if I was queer. If I had had books with queer teens then I might have understood myself sooner, and might have felt more able to be who I was. Books like Empress of the World by Sara Ryan, Ask The Passengers by A.S. King, Sister Mischief by Laura Goode, Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger, Ash by Malinda Lo — books that explored friendship and love and showed me queer girls living, loving, questioning, growing, etc. And books that would have expanded my world view beyond the heart of middle-class, predominantly-white suburbia, like How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon, The Boy In The Black Suit by Jason Reynolds, Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, and Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang.
IA: On The Pirate Tree, you talk a lot about social justice issues. The term “social justice” can be really loaded. What does it mean to you?
EK: I think of social justice in terms of social conscience. To me it means being aware of and interested in the ways in which societies restrict the rights, opportunities, and lives of people without social or political power — whether those restrictions are issues like systemic racism, sexism, ableism, or homophobia, constructs like toxic masculinity or imbalances of economic power, and even violence and war.
IA: What literary character, of any genre, would you least like to spend time with?
EK: Well, there are many. I read a lot. But probably the one with whom I would least like to spend time would be Randall Flagg from The Stand by Stephen King.
IA: You’re a huge Buffy fan. Who is your favorite Buffy-verse couple? Fanfic pairings totally count.
EK: And here is where I admit that fandom/fanfiction questions make me anxious, like admitting to deepest secrets and desires. But, I digress… None of the cannon pairings were my end-all-be-all pairings. Willow and Tara felt incredibly important and empowering to me at the time that relationship was first developing on the TV, but it also always felt very sweet to me. Not enough heat. I wish we had had longer to see where Giles/Jenny would have gone. Jenny had potential to be interesting. I wanted more Faith (though I found the Faith/Wood cannon pairing boring and uninspired). I will admit to being intrigued by a lot of the Buffy/Spike dynamic, as highly problematic as it was (and we could talk for hours about that, and some of the later plot moments I wish had been handled differently). But in fanfic I’ll read almost any pairing if well done. I am incredibly interested in layered stories that explore these characters as full-fledged adults (though not necessarily as portrayed in the post-series comics). Especially well-done Willow and Faith stories. I wish for a post-series Faith exploring her sexuality. And I was always fascinated with Giles, and the layers of that character — straight-laced facade, a lot of darkness, but good intentions, underneath. And Giles’ practically-cannon pansexuality has made for a lot of interesting Giles-centric fanfiction. When I first found Buffy-verse fanfiction, I read a lot of Giles/Xander post-series stories and I hunted for Faith/Willow. But since I see almost all of the characters as having fluid sexuality, at least in fanfiction, there is almost no one I wouldn’t ship, if written well.
Since Alex’s post ended with a picture of them being lovingly glitter-bombed, I figured it was only fair that I did the same for Emily:
As I mentioned in the previous post, since we’ll be meeting in Orlando, I’d be remiss if I didn’t once again ask you to donate to the following:
I did so myself and encourage you to do the same. They take donations of any size. In addition, you can donate directly to The Center in Orlando (you can find their donation button on the top right-hand corner).
Check back in on Monday, when I’ll be talking with author Robin Stevenson.
~Love and Libraries, Ingrid