Back in 2001, librarian and novelist Sara Ryan captured folks’ attention with her young adult novel, Empress of the World. The book (described as “about friendship, love, and the sometimes blurry lines between the two”) is an Oregon Book Award winner, an ALA Best Book for Young Adults and was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. Recently the book was re-released in an expanded edition. Ryan and I conducted an email interview about it, as well as delving into her upcoming comics work, which includes Bad Houses, a collaboration with Carla Speed McNeil. This interview goes in some pleasant directions and I was lucky to get to interview Ryan.
Tim O’Shea: In researching our interview, I searched for your Tumblr page but accidentally discovered the number of people that quote your work (and hashtag it “Sara Ryan”). I think it safe to assume that any writer wonders how much their work resonates with people. How affirming is it when you see people quoting your work?
Sara Ryan: Here’s where I expose my ignorance of the finer points of Tumblr. Until you pointed it out, it hadn’t occurred to me to check if anyone had tagged posts about me/my work. Now that I know said posts exist, I’m certainly pleased!
Speaking of Tumblr, visiting your Tumblr page it becomes obvious (at least to me) that you love the power of photography.
I do. Photography actually connects very much to comics writing for me; I can’t draw, but I can compose images with my camera. I try to use that same visual sensibility when I write panel descriptions — while leaving enough room for the artist to bring their own interpretation, of course.
With that in mind, can you tell me how the cover of Empress of the World came to be designed/selected?
I was super lucky. My publisher set up the shoot and I was thrilled with the results. For instance, both the models have short non-manicured nails, exactly as I describe Nic and Battle’s in the book. And if you compare the original release to the new edition, you’ll see that the new edition has a scratchy pencilled border, a subtle nod to the presence of comics inside.
The new edition is full of all sorts of goodies that I want to talk about, but what first attracted my attention was the “musical archaeology wherein I construct a playlist based on my vague memories of what the heck I was listening to when I was writing Empress”. How does music impact your writing?
The right music definitely helps to reinforce the mood of a scene.
And sometimes I’ll fixate on a particular few albums or mixes while working on a book, and simply pressing Play will trigger a Pavlovian response of Ok, time to write. While I was writing Bad Houses, for instance, I tended to rotate between Little Sue, Laura Cantrell, and the soundtrack to The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford.
And in reconstructing the playlist did you rediscover some music you had not enjoyed for a long time?
I did! Looper and Kruder & Dorfmeister got back in the rotation.
What prompted you to ask David Levithan to write an introduction for the reissue?
We asked him because he is awesome. David’s done a tremendous amount to advance queer YA publishing, both through his own books (including his collaboration with John Green, Will Grayson, Will Grayson, the first queer YA title to make the NYT bestseller list) and via his editorial work at Scholastic.
I have never been sure exactly when he sleeps.
The new edition features three short stories, one with your spouse Steve Lieber, while the other two are by Dylan Meconis and Natalie Nourigat. What was it about Meconis and Nourigat’s work that made you want to work with them on these particular stories?
Subtle but significant shifts in emotional dynamics are a big part of “Click,” so I needed someone who was really good at conveying facial expressions and body language. Those are two of Dylan’s many strengths as an artist, which you can see in her Eisner-nominated Outfoxed and her current graphic novel in progress, Family Man.
It also didn’t hurt that Dylan’s pastor gave her permission to take photo reference of the childcare room at her church! Related bonus fact: the kids in those scenes are all named after actual children of folks in Portland comics.
In “Comparative Anatomy,” I’m playing with the idea that Nicola Lancaster herself is drawing the story, since it’s told from her point of view. So I wanted an artist who’s arguably working with some of the same artistic influences Nic would have grown up absorbing — including the Studio Ghibli films that Natalie credits with making her decide to be a comic book artist. (See When Totoros Attack.) And there’s a sincere, straightforward quality to Natalie’s storytelling that feels right for Nic.
In repackaging the book for this expanded re-release was there any temptation for 2011 Sara Ryan to tweak the novel by 2001 Sara Ryan?
None at all; possibly in part because I worked on it for so long before its original publication!
You recently tweeted “Just finished a writing a chapter. Now I need to overcome the feeling of being ‘done’ to start writing the next one.'” How hard is it overcome that done feeling and keep moving?
It depends. Sometimes I can skip ahead to a scene I’m especially excited about, or switch briefly to work on something that requires a different part of my brain (like answering interview questions!) and then returning to the manuscript.
Other times I’m just tapped out for the day, and if I try to power through I write stuff I’ll end up deleting.
How often do you hear from readers, struggling with their sexuality, who were helped by your writing?
Often. And I also hear a lot from readers who are happy that Empress isn’t primarily about a coming-out struggle, that it’s more concerned with friendship and love and the sometimes blurry lines between them.
And, in that same vein, were there novels that you read as a teen that helped you when you were finding yourself?
Actually, I’d say the most helpful work to me — as I acknowledge in the recommended booklist in the expanded edition — was Alison Bechdel’s long-running comic Dykes to Watch Out For. That said, I also read classics like Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, and Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name by Audre Lorde. I wish I’d known about Nancy Garden’s Annie On My Mind when I was a teen, but I didn’t discover it until I was in my twenties.
Total comics question, where do things stand with Bad Houses, your collaboration with Carla Speed McNeil.
I’m so pleased that Dark Horse will be publishing Bad Houses. They’ve been doing a terrific job with Carla’s Finder books, and I also think it’s a nice fit to have an Oregon publisher for a book set in Oregon. Carla’s art is tremendous as usual — the things I’ve thrown at her to draw in Bad Houses include but are not limited to creepy antique dealers, a carnival, an aikido dojo, and an abandoned brewery. Also: makeouts.
It’ll still be a while before the book is released, but we’ve been talking about doing some exciting things in advance of publication, so stay tuned.