This post is entirely Alisa’s work. Due to WordPress issues, her post would not post so I’ve had to do it. Apologies! Check out Alisa on Twitter.
Leah Raeder is possibly one of my favorite people. Not only does she write amazing, amazing books, but she’s also a feminist, an LGBTQ activist, and completely awesome. She wrote Unteachable, which was the first New Adult book I didn’t get annoyed at, and Black Iris, which, other than having a bisexual main character, is the prize of this giveaway. It’s also a signed, finished copy and is gorgeous. I had the opportunity to interview Leah for Bibliodaze, and she was basically perfection.
1) Can you tell us about yourself?
Sure. I’m Leah. I’m queer, geeky, and a mouthy feminist. Those themes are pretty prominent in my books. As are science metaphors, geography porn, and saying “fuck” a whole fuck of a lot.
2) How do you deal with writer’s block?
I don’t think writer’s block exists. When writers feel blocked, it’s because there’s a problem we’re not identifying and solving in our creative process. Calling it “writer’s block” is a good way to make it seem huge and mysterious and insurmountable. Then instead of channeling energy into finding a specific solution to a specific (and totally manageable) problem, we inflate it into generalized anxiety and dread.
For me, “writer’s block” usually means not having enough narrative momentum to propel me to the next scene. One method I use for handling it is luring myself with a “candy bar.” I’ll have an upcoming scene that I’m really looking forward to writing—a hot make-out session, a visit to a beautiful location, or whatever—and I’ll be so eager to unwrap and devour that “candy bar” that I’ll plow through the meat and veggies to get to it.
Another thing that works really well for me is getting shitfaced drunk.
3) What were you like in high school?
My high school experience was split into two halves. The first half was pleasant: I was openly gay, my friends accepted it, and I was the snarky geeky queer kid who wrote sappy poems about girls I liked and, naturally, joined drama club with my fellow gays. One time I spray-painted “Queen of the Queers” on a wall backstage. I MEAN, THAT COULD’VE BEEN ANY OF US, REALLY.
But halfway through high school, I transferred to a new district where I had no friends. The kids at my new school were much less tolerant. Much, much less. They bullied the shit out of me. I dropped out. And that’s where Black Iris comes from.
4) Can you give us a synopsis of Black Iris?
A girl who barely survives being bullied in high school makes it her mission to hunt down her tormentors…and give them a taste of their own medicine.
5) How did you come up with the title? I love it!
It was sort of random, actually. My working title was “Tear Your Little World Apart,” from the Garbage vengeance anthem “Vow,” but song lyrics are a big no-no because of copyright issues.
Halfway through writing the book, my publisher said we had to settle on a title so they could do the cover and promo and stuff, and I panicked. We kept focusing on the three main characters and trying to pull something from their relationship, but nothing we brainstormed felt right.
Then I thought about Laney’s mom, who’s this dark, inescapable presence in her life. Laney feels like she carries part of her mother with her after the terrible event that opens the book. Her mom is a gardener, and I thought about what kind of flowers she’d grow, and when I came across black irises I had that proverbial eureka moment. Everything clicked. It was the perfect title, ominous yet darkly alluring, and it became a major symbol for various themes in the book.
6) How did you devise the idea for Black Iris?
High school, man. High school.
Obviously this novel is, in some ways, a revenge fantasy for me. Laney’s sexuality is similar to my own, and the way she’s bullied for it is heavily inspired by what I went through. So part of this was therapy: channeling my own darkness, shame, and rage in ways that I couldn’t. Laney goes way farther than I ever would—both in destroying herself and others—and that’s the fictional part. My story isn’t as dramatic as hers. But it was evil fun, and oh so cathartic, to chase her to the delirious edge.
7) How did you think of Laney, Armin, and Blythe?
There’s part of me in all of my characters. Laney is closer to the bone than any character I’ve written so far, but she took on her own life once I set her loose in the story. They always do.
I thought of Armin and Blythe as two triangle points to balance her out. One would be wild and emotional, one calm and rational. One would destroy and one would heal. Artemis and Apollo. Id and superego. Duality and bipolarity are big motifs in the book, and that manifests in the characters, too.
8) What was the hardest part of writing Black Iris? The easiest part?
Hardest: Structuring the plot. The story unfolds in non-linear chronology. It had to be told out of order because the plot hinges on you not knowing key revelations until certain points of the book. If everything was in order, the whole mystery would be spoiled from the start.
Personally, I love nonlinear chronology in books. I love piecing a plot together like a puzzle. I love books that keep me guessing and racing toward the big reveal. I love reading stuff like that, but actually plotting it? Is a total bitch.
Easiest: Honestly, nothing in this book was easy. It was all raw, brutal, draining. Maybe the spree of *spoiler* scenes that lead to the climax. That was a giant candy bar sequence for me: Laney’s meticulous scheming and patience finally comes to fruition.
9) What are some of your favorite books?
White Oleander – Janet Fitch
Tender is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
Revolutionary Road – Richard Yates
10) A huge theme in Black Iris is bullying. How do you suggest those being bullied in real life to deal with their tormentors?
I don’t want to be a spokesperson or role model for how to handle bullying, because the way I handled mine is only applicable to me. I didn’t forgive and move on. I think forgiveness for bullying is bullshit, personally. For a long time I tried to forgive, but all that did was make me feel guilty that I couldn’t. As if the problem was my lack of forgiveness and not what they did to me. Bullying victimizes you twice—first you get hurt, then society makes you feel like shit if you don’t follow the proper script and absolve those who hurt you.
So instead I’ve chosen to harness that anger and let it drive me. I strike back in the only way I can: through telling stories like this. Refusing to shut up, go away, roll over and die. Refusing to let them silence me.
You decide what makes you feel okay. No one else makes that call. If you can’t work past the anger, then know this: anger is okay, too. Everything you feel is valid and okay. Take control of it and channel it into something positive. Create something, or reach out to help others. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad for feeling bad. It’s okay to be angry, and it’s okay to hold on to it, but don’t bottle it up. Use it. Ignite it. Let it fuel you.
11) One of the things I’ve noticed and loved in your books is how there’s no slut-shaming. Why do you think it’s so prevalent in other novels?
Oh man, where to begin? Slut-shaming comes from the false virgin/whore dichotomy imposed on women: we’re either good little virgins waiting for Mr. Right, or we’re irredeemable sluts. No in-between. (FYI, there is nothing to be ashamed of in being a virgin or a slut. Neither of them are inherently bad things.)
In Western society, women’s virginity is still fetishized. We’re seen as sex objects whose “purity” is a valuable asset. Women internalize this and devise poisonous ideas about self-worth stemming from sexual “purity.” It goes back to pre-feminist times when the only path to a good life was through marriage. When we couldn’t go to college, work certain jobs, or vote, and so all of our aspirations had to be channeled into landing Mr. Right, and Mr. Right wanted a virgin.
We’re only a couple generations removed from that. My mom was born during the Mad Men era. She grew up in a society that told her the best she could hope for was to be someone’s wife. And that’s just America. In many places in the world, women still don’t have basic human rights.
So I guess my answer to this question is: it’s really not surprising that slut-shaming is so prevalent in other novels, because it’s still so prevalent in the world. What’s sad is when I see it perpetuated by people in my own generation, or even younger. My mom rejected that sexist bullshit fifty years ago. She knew her self-worth didn’t come from men, or from society’s ideas about her purity—it came from herself. So when I see girls in their teens slut-shaming each other, it breaks my heart. They’re just playing into a system that turns girls against each other to keep us divided and disempowered. Women who judge each other over imaginary standards of “purity” won’t band together and do scary things like, oh, say, demand equality.
12) What’s a favorite scene you’ve written?
Without spoiling anything, the final scene of Cam Girl is my absolute favorite so far. It’s something I never imagined I’d get to write, let alone find on a bookstore shelf under “New Romance,” instead of buried in some shadowy corner at the back of the shop. It’ll be a watershed moment in New Adult. No one else has done this yet. And I can’t wait to share it with the world.
13) What are you thoughts on the limited LGBTQ YA/NA book category and how do you think it should be solved?
Like the slut-shaming question, I could rant about this for days, ha. YA is making great strides with diversity rep, but New Adult is lagging far behind, so let’s focus on that.
I think the problem is we’re talking about two different worlds: YA is primarily aligned with traditional publishing, while NA is dominated by self-publishing. Which means YA gets more diversity because editors and booksellers can deliberately promote diverse books, whereas NA success is driven by marketing gimmicks—chiseled male torsos on covers, alpha assholes, stepbrothers, billionaires, etc. While the lack of gatekeepers in self-publishing means that, in theory, any great book can rise to the top, what we see in reality is a certain type of NA book enjoying success: one that relies heavily on cliché, stereotypes, and mindless fluff. Often those books are deeply problematic, full of slut-shaming, whitewashing, and other gross shit.
There’s no way to solve people impulse-buying and consuming that stuff. That sort of pandering will always plague New Adult, IMO. But we can expand the readership and bring in new blood, and I think that’s the key to elevating the overall quality of NA. Attract more discerning readers and let them demand better books. With Black Iris and Cam Girl, which are both heavily queer books, we’ve been reaching out more to the YA book world. There are tons of YA readers looking for edgier stories than what you can typically get away with in a YA novel, but which still focus on young adult characters.
NA is perfect for that, and so lots of YA writers have been turning their hands to writing NA romance. My books are merely part of a new wave of upper YA/NA fiction that features LGBTQIA+ characters, people of color, people with disabilities, and other representations of diversity. I’m psyched that this is actually happening, and I will keep beating this drum even if it’s a temporary trend.
But most importantly, I believe we need to focus not on repping diverse characters, but on writing great fiction about characters who are diverse. That’s the sticker. You can’t just throw a checklist of diversity buzzwords out there and expect readers to love a mediocre book because it has good intentions—you need to write a good book first. And that book should naturally reflect the diversity of our world.
14) What will you be working on after Black Iris?
I’ve already finished my third book, Cam Girl, which comes out November 3, 2015. I’m super excited about this one. It’s even queerer than Black Iris, and will be the first traditionally-published New Adult novel I know of that includes transgender characters, a disabled POC heroine, and various other representations of diversity. Oh, and it takes place in coastal Maine. Which is absurdly gorgeous.
Meanwhile, I’m brainstorming my fourth book, which will be out sometime near Spring 2016. It’ll also be in the NA suspense/psych thriller mold, and hella gay. That’s all I can say for now.
15) Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. (Don’t let the bastards grind you down.)
1) Favorite food and drink?
Tuna salad and black coffee. Not together. Ew.
2) Favorite activity?
Reading, of course.
3) Favorite TV Show/Movie?
TV: Orange is the New Black, Orphan Black, Community, Parks and Rec.
Movie: The Neverending Story, Aliens, Jurassic Park…don’t make me pick.
4) Favorite part of the day?
The part where I’m drunk. So, like, the part where I’m awake.
5) Favorite question asked and response?
The slut-shaming one. As an unapologetic feminist, I relish any opportunity to talk about that stuff. And I would love to see other romance writers answer tough questions like that, because they’re the ones pushing slut-shaming onto readers. So, authors…what’s the deal?