Hello, friends! Today I’d like to introduce you to Sacha Lamb, author of a romantic, own voices trans novelette, Avi Cantor has Six Months to Live.
Have you read it yet? You’re going to want to.
Avi comes across these foreboding words scrawled on the bathroom mirror, but what do they mean? Is this a curse, a prediction, or a threat from Avi’s emboldened bullies? And how to they know his real name when he hasn’t even told his mother yet?
Then there is Ian—the cool new guy at school, who is suddenly paying attention to Avi. Ian is just like Avi, but he is also all sunshine, optimism, and magic. All the things that Avi doesn’t know how to deal with…yet.
A romantic, #ownvoices fairy tale for trans boys. (via Goodreads)
If his book sounds up your alley, you can pick up on a copy on Amazon! Today, I am thrilled to get to help you get to know Sacha!
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself, Sacha!
I’m currently a graduate student in library science, looking to be an archivist in an academic or cultural-heritage kind of institution. And like lots and lots of librarians, I also write! 2017 was my big year of realizing that being a professional author (albeit one who plans to keep a day job forever) is within my reach. I graduated from college in 2014 and that’s when I really started getting into YA literature, I think because that’s coincidentally around the time that diverse YA started to take off, and I was able to find queer stories in this genre that I always loved.
As you can tell from the tagline for Avi, “a romantic #ownvoices fairy tale for trans boys,” I am transgender and more or less a boy. My identities when it comes to gender and sexuality are fairly difficult to pin down, but the easiest way of putting it is that I’m a bi trans boy but with some nonbinary gender-fluidity in there too. It was pretty mind-blowing to me the first time I read a YA novel with a trans boy character in it!
When I was a kid I always made up stories and often wrote them down, and as a teenager I liked to write fantasy, but I hadn’t come out to myself at that point and I kind of lost my storytelling side when I was in college. So for the last three years I’ve really been recovering that part of myself, and I made a huge step forward this year by not just submitting work to a few anthologies, but also getting accepted and (wow!!) publishing Avi and one other piece!
Q: What does your writing space look like?
Here’s my desk… A fun game to play anywhere in my room is try counting sheep. I love sheep, and people always give me sheep stuff. I count twelve individual sheep in this photo! You can also see that I have a lot of notebooks and nonfiction here. I’m working on a master’s thesis right now in American Jewish women’s history, so that’s what most of these books are about. My YA collection lives on the other side of the room!
Q: What are your favorite writing tools?
I’m a huge weirdo in that I actually do a lot of my writing on my phone. I used to use Google Docs, now I mostly use Scrivener, but my commute is about 40 minutes each way so if I spend it writing, it’s a pretty good chunk of writing time, at a set time each day!
Scrivener is great for me because I like having my work broken up into chapters that I can rearrange, and I can color-code them, too, which I love–I love color-coding. I also love sticky notes and lists! I basically need something to be on at least three lists or notes before it really sticks in my brain.
Even though I do most of my writing on my phone or computer, I still collect notebooks with pretty covers! Mostly these are for schoolwork, but sometimes I do write fiction longhand, just to shake up my mental process a little. “Avi Cantor” was written entirely on my phone, though! And edited on New York Public Library computers, which was quite the adventure because each branch has different opening times so depending on the day I kept having to go a few blocks uptown or a LOT of blocks downtown to find a computer I could access. Someone’s going to tell me there’s an easier way to find a free computer in Manhattan, maybe, but hey, I got to explore public library architecture.
Q: What should readers know about you before reading your work?
My work deals pretty heavily with themes of bullying and loneliness and trauma, and I think it’s important for people to know going into it that I will always bring my characters through those difficult spaces to a place where they have a family (whether biological or adopted or found) who love them, and that they know they’re worth loving. I know a lot of readers worry with queer fiction that it’s going to be sad, and I won’t claim that there isn’t a great deal of sadness in my work, but I’ll never leave the characters alone in that sadness. There will always be a happy ending, even if a happy ending doesn’t mean every single thing has been fixed.
Q: What was your favorite part of going through the debut author process?
I can barely even choose. It was such a great experience and I just had an amazing year. Some highlights: getting Ana and Thea’s comments and seeing that people whose job it is to recognize good stories had LOVED my work, seeing my book on lists next to books I had been anticipating for months (I saw myself on an Amazon daily stats list next to DRESS CODES FOR SMALL TOWNS!!), seeing people I had never met discussing the book amongst themselves without me, getting invited to the Jewish Book Council’s annual Children’s Literature Seminar to talk about digital publishing! Also, I’ve gotten over the serious anxiety I used to have about reading my own writing after other people have seen it! Who knew that could be done?
Q: What was your least favorite part of going through the debut author process?
The transition from being just somebody who shares writing with their friends to being an “actual author” is a little difficult just because you don’t quite know what to expect and how to conduct yourself. I got some unsolicited critical comments that were sent directly to my personal blog, because I do talk about my work there, and it was difficult knowing how to react. It’s not that I don’t want to hear criticism, but as long as it’s not a bigotry issue, I want to seek it out at my own pace. I’m not used to setting the kinds of boundaries you have to set as a professional, but I’m glad that I had this opportunity to figure that out.
Also, I didn’t quite realize how much work I was getting myself into! You don’t realize before it happens that there’s still a lot of work after the story comes out. I wasn’t prepared for how much energy it takes just to respond to comments and make sure you’re taking opportunities to share your piece where it’s appropriate.
It’s really been a learning experience, and a big takeaway for me is that you have to assume the story will take as much energy post-publication as it took to write, and that way you can pace yourself in terms of how many obligations you take on.
Q: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
The piece of advice that’s really helped me the most is a super simple one: try and absorb as many stories as you can. Read WHATEVER you can get your hands on, but also actively seek out NEW things. If you can’t read, listen to podcasts or watch movies or TV (I find that audio and visual media are especially good for setting a mood, and it’s a fun challenge to then try and translate that to prose).
Ideally you can do all three, read, watch, and listen! The more stories you can cram into your head, the more ideas will leak out of it! It really helps to know what’s out there, what’s NOT out there, what works for you, and what doesn’t. I think I’ve learned as much about good craft from books I hate as I have from books I love (and perhaps most of all from books that are both: looking at you, in-retrospect-racist childhood idol Tamora Pierce).
Q: What made you choose to submit to the Book Smugglers?
There were a couple of things. First of all, the submission call was RIGHT up my alley: playing with the idea of “gods” and “monsters” and what makes those things what they are. My story is really questioning the idea of what a “monster” is, from the point of view of a kid who’s been demonized for what he is (gay, transgender, an immigrant) and at the same time feels like maybe he’d like to be MORE of a monster (after all, monsters are powerful). This submission call really spoke to me, and it was just perfect serendipity that I saw it at the right time to send in this particular story.
Another part of my choice was the way that the Book Smugglers distribute their anthology pieces. The pieces are available for free online, perpetually, but they’re also downloadable as ebooks, if you want to buy them. The Book Smugglers pay their authors upfront (a professional rate), and there’s also a royalty agreement. I really love the model of free access for readers paired with making sure the authors get paid full price for their work. Especially when you’re trying to get diverse work out there, it’s incredibly important to support the artists, but it’s also great to have free access. If I’m reaching the people who need my story most, they’re going to be transgender teens. They might not have any money to spare, or any money they have might be in some form that they can’t hide purchases from their parents. It’s great to be able to have my story out there for anyone to read, no matter what. I’m absolutely thrilled with how this has turned out for me and for the story.
What are your top 3 book recommendations for anybody?
A: If I overthink this, I’ll never be able to answer it, so here’s a quick, top-of-the-head list: WHEN THE MOON WAS OURS, by Anna-Marie McLemore (such a beautiful piece of magic realism, with a trans deuteragonist), THE INQUISITOR’S APPRENTICE by Chris Moriarty (INCREDIBLY Jewish historical fantasy set in 1910s NYC), and JEWISH MAGIC AND SUPERSTITION by Joshua Trachtenberg. That last one will teach you a LOT about antisemitism and how it interacts with European folklore, which I think is a lesson everyone who loves or wants to write fantasy could stand to learn.
Q: What other projects are you working on?
I’m working on a few things right now. The one I’m most involved in is a novel manuscript whose protagonist, Judah, is grieving for his boyfriend Tyler, who died from a serious illness. Tyler left Judah a “bucket list” of things he wants Judah to do to be happy again, and one thing on the list is “kiss other boys.” New kid at school Jake would maybe be down to help with that one–he’s trans like Judah and Tyler, he’s cute, he’s funny–but Judah is reluctant to move on and really just wants to keep living in the closed and secret world that he and Tyler made for themselves. So it’s a love triangle between one boy, one other boy, and the semi-metaphorical ghost of the first boy’s BF. And maybe in the end that triangle gets neatly sealed on all three corners.
Q:What was your last five star read? What made it a five star read?
I think it was Sam J. Miller’s THE ART OF STARVING. It’s another story, like Avi Cantor, of a gay Jewish teen who’s been treated like a monster but isn’t as powerful a monster as he’d really like to be. It deals with bullying and depression and mental illness, but it’s also full of love and humor and it has a happy ending. The protagonist has a serious eating disorder and at the end I just wanted to go eat some cake for the younger version of myself who wouldn’t have eaten it. This book honestly feels like it was written directly for me. I don’t think I’m ever going to get over the emotional experience of reading it, so that’s what makes it five stars.