Kacen Callender

Kacen Callender is the award-winning author of Hurricane Child and This is Kind of an Epic Love Story and This Is Kind of an Epic Interview.

 

Hey Kace, how are you doing? You’ve been busy. What have you been up to the last month or so?

I’m great! I’ve just returned from the Southeastern Young Adult Book Festival in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. I’ve also started visiting schools to speak with students about Hurricane Child and This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story. Getting a chance to speak with young readers who felt seen by the books, in the way that I wanted to feel seen as a teen, has been the best part of being an author.

First of all, congratulations on the Stonewall Award for Hurricane Child. For anyone reading that doesn’t know what a Stonewall Award, would you mind telling us what it is?

Thank you so much! The Stonewall Award celebrates “books of exceptional merit” that tell of the LGBTQ+ experience, so it was a huge honor for Hurricane Child to win.

Second of all, both of your books, Hurricane Child and This is Kind of An Epic Love Story are Lambda Literary Award Finalists! Where were you when you found out? What does it mean to you to be a finalist?

I was at the Southeastern Young Adult Book Festival! I’d been on panels, so I didn’t see the news until I checked my email later that day. I hadn’t really expected either book to be a finalist, so for both to appear on the list was a really huge honor. It also feels validating for my two books featuring black, queer characters to be named as finalists.

What has your experience been as an author? Why children’s books? What have been some challenges? What has surprised you?

There’ve been ups and downs, but the constant need to let young readers know that they aren’t alone, and that their stories and lives matter, always keeps me going. It’s the same reason I decided to write children’s books: it was difficult to see myself reflected, which even to this day as an adult, can make it hard to feel like I matter. I never want young readers to feel the way that I felt growing up.

My biggest challenge has been social media. While social media can be great (such as me getting a chance to connect with InQluded!), I think that for authors, it can also be distracting, and make us feel a little like we’re in a competition, when the focus should be on the young readers who need our books.

A big surprise was the Stonewall Book Award, and both of my novels being named as Lambda Literary finalists!

I know you also worked in publishing, I’m curious if you had always wanted to work in publishing or if there were life events that pushed you in that direction?

I hadn’t really known that publishing existed until college. While I was attending The New School’s MFA program, I began to intern at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, and I saw an opportunity to create more change by eventually helping diverse books get published. I worked hard for about five years and got to acquire and edit books like Tyler Johnson Was Here, Internment, and Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World.

How has working in publishing changed your view about writing…. if it has? Has your publishing experience helped your writing?

Working in publishing meant attending “publishing committee” meeting, where I’d listen to people who worked in marketing, publicity, editorial departments, and more, discussing what they think does and doesn’t work in a manuscript. This was a double-edged sword: I learned a lot about my own writing, but I also constantly had a personal publishing committee in my head, telling me that my manuscripts wouldn’t sell. I haven’t been in publishing for a few months now, and I already feel a freedom I didn’t feel before to write what I want to write, regardless of how a single publishing committee might feel.  

My hope is that the future of publishing will reflect the real world, with more people of color of all races, more queer people, more trans people, more religions and different accessibilities and incomes—so that the books will begin to reflect the real world as well.

Diversity has always been a topic in publishing. Was there a point in your life where you felt enough is enough, I need to commit myself to diversifying this industry. Was there a moment you remember feeling that call to action? Tell us about it.

There really wasn’t a single moment. There were many books that I read that suggested whiteness was more attractive, or had people of color who were stereotypes, or that had the “gay best friend” character who was only there to support the main character—the list goes on. I felt frustrated, and I wanted to combat these books by telling stories about my own life and my own QPOC community.

There are a bunch of young writers reading this interview right now (fingers crossed), and so I’m curious if there is any advice you’d give these young writers? Is there something you wish someone told you before you started your writing journey? How can young writers and readers create change in the publishing world?

The biggest piece of advice I would give my younger self is to finish the manuscripts I attempt to write, from beginning to end. I’d spend years writing half-finished manuscripts, but I don’t think I ever really learned how to write a novel until I finished writing my first book. And, though this might seem contrary to the first point, I also wish I’d known that it’s okay to move on. There are some books that I just wasn’t ready to write yet, but I spent years on those as well, frustrating myself when I could have put the book in the drawer, tried something else, and come back to that original idea when I was ready. If you’re stuck on a book, it’s okay to walk away and try something new—as long as one of those new projects does eventually result in a complete manuscript with a beginning, middle, and end.

Young writers and readers can create change by telling their truth, even if their truth feels different from someone else’s. We need to hear more voices, and the fact that young writers and readers are telling their own stories and hearing new voices and fresh perspectives means that they’re changing the publishing industry for the better.

Did you ever take creative writing classes in school? Were there writing clubs? Or book clubs you were an active member in? What were those experiences like?

When I was in high school, there wasn’t really a creative writing class, but my teachers were kind enough to let me write and show them my stories. I also spent a lot of my time writing on fanfiction.net, so I was able to get feedback on stories in general online as well. The experiences were good, because they helped me get used to the idea of my stories being seen and critiqued, which can be scary.

How can the general public support this mission of diverse books? What organizations are doing that type of work and how can we (individuals, communities, schools) get involved?

Buy, buy, buy—and if you can’t buy, then please check the book out at the library, or borrow from a friend, and leave a review on Goodreads or Amazon to help spread the word. Talking up a book that you love is the best support you can give. Various online communities like the Margin Notes Podcast and in-real-life organizations like Lambda Literary’s LGBTQ Writers in Schools program are super supportive. A lot of these organizations take donations, if you’re able to help.

How has your identity played a role in how you create stories? Do you feel that what you create is part of your lived experiences and a deeper reflection of who you are?

My identity is deeply intertwined with my lived experiences, which does influence who I am: because I was one of the only black students at my school, I was bullied by students and teachers alike for years; because I’m queer and trans, I often don’t feel accepted by many in society, except for other queer and trans people of color. Because of this, I’m on a journey of self-love and self-acceptance, even against the tide of hatred I’ve experienced for a lot of my life, and finding a community that also loves and accepts me. This is something that I often write about, in all of my novels.

What is your writing process like? 

My writing process oddly changes each time I sit down to write a novel. Sometimes I’ll have a flash of an idea and outline the entire story; sometimes, the scenes just come to me line in a movie or a dream, and I race to get them all written down. More often than not, though, it’s a mix of both: scenes start coming to me, and then I sit down and decide what the rest of the book should look like by writing out a slight outline.

What is your hope for the future of publishing?

My hope is that the future of publishing will reflect the real world, with more people of color of all races, more queer people, more trans people, more religions and different accessibilities and incomes—so that the books will begin to reflect the real world as well.

Who are some of your favorite QTPOC authors right now?

I don’t think I’ve met my favorite QTPOC author yet. I don’t know of any other authors in the MG/YA space, but I know that there are other writers out there, and if you’re a QTPOC writer and you’re reading this now, I can’t wait for your story to get out into the world!

I saw in an interview that you are working on a MG and YA. Can you give us any more details or are you not allowed? We won’t tell!

I am! Neither have been announced just yet, so I’m not able to give too many details, but the MG explores homophobia and racism and grief, and the YA features of a trans character. I’m super excited about both!

 

 Rapid Fire Questions 

Favorite quote?

“It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”

Favorite food?

Tacos!

Recent show you are binging?

I just started Shrill on Hulu.

What were you like in high school?

A total outcast artist/writer.

What is your first memory of writing?

It’s probably fanfiction for Card Captor Sakura, based on The King and I. It was… interesting.

What was the last text you wrote?

“Aw I love it thank you <3”

What is something you wish people knew about you?

That I’m an INTP, and just because I’m an introvert doesn’t mean I’m not confident.

Hidden talent?

Art! I used to be an even better artist than I am a writer.

Do you have any events coming up?

I’ll be at Bookish in the ‘Burgh, a Pittsburgh YA book festival, on March 23rd; the Chicago YA Festival on April 6th, and the NYC Teen Author Festival on March 29th. I hope to see y’all there!

Thanks so much for taking the time to chat! anything else you’d like to add?

Thanks so much for having me!