Tanya Boteju

photoInterviewed by Artemis Saatchi

Educator, writer, and debut-author Tanya Boteju was born and raised in Victoria, BC. She moved to Vancouver to attend the University of British Columbia, and then never left. She completed her Bachelor of Arts degree in English at UBC, then her Bachelor of Education immediately after. She has been teaching English and Creative Writing at the high school level for almost 17 years now. She completed a Masters of Arts in Educational Leadership from Columbia and a diploma in Creative Writing from SFU in that time as well. KINGS, QUEENS, AND IN-BETWEENS is her first novel. The book is slated for release in May of 2019, by Simon Pulse. She is currently working on a second YA novel, as well as on a short story for a YA collection called ALL OUT NOW slated for release fall 2020.

Could you describe your relationship or history with writing? Have you always known you wanted to be an author? What role has writing played in your life?

I’ve always enjoyed English as a subject, but wasn’t much of a writer or reader when I was younger. And my high school didn’t offer a creative writing class, so I really just dabbled in writing and journaling until much later in life. I can’t remember when exactly I knew I wanted to write a book, but it was some time in my mid-20s. My experiences with drag, being queer, and teaching young people made me feel like there was a fun novel in there somewhere that might make queer kids feel better about themselves. It took me until I was 37 to start writing it though!

Has your teaching career influenced your writing, in terms of style, voice, or content?

Absolutely. I did things a bit backwards—I taught creative writing for 10 years before actually writing much of my own. Having to teach it forced me to learn more about it and practice it alongside my students. And as I started writing KINGS, I found the practice of writing easier because I had encouraged my students to fully participate in and trust the writing process—especially freewriting—so I took my own advice and just kept writing, even if the first draft was “shitty” (shout-out to Anne Lamott). Additionally, there’s no way I could have written this novel without spending so much of my time with teenagers. One, my work with young, queer kids has inspired my desire to write something meaningful and hopeful for them. Two, I think/hope my teenage characters feel more believable because I spend so much time with them. And all of this is a two-way street, of course. My writing informs my teaching as much as my teaching informs my writing!

Do you have a favourite genre when it comes to what you like to read? Could you tell us about some of your favourite authors? KINGS is classified as YA—what genres would you say your writing resides in?

I love literary fiction. And discovering female writers when I took a Women in Literature course at UBC my second year changed my reading life. It was the first time studying English where everyone we were reading wasn’t white, old, male, and (usually) dead. Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Jeanette Winterson, and more opened up a whole new world for me. And I continue to gravitate towards writers of color and queer authors now too—Toni Morrison continues to be a favorite, plus Sarah Waters, Ann Marie MacDonald, David Chariandy, and people like Amber Dawn who are changing the way we write and read about queerness.

Before starting to write YA, I never really read YA. But I knew that if I wanted to write it, I’d need to read a bunch to get a sense of what’s out there and how it might differ somewhat to adult fiction. I read a lot of YA over the past three years, especially YA that included queer stories, and really fell in love with it. There are so many wonderful stories being told now that include diverse characters and experiences. I continue to keep a YA novel on the go almost all year long now, for when I need a slightly faster read and also to keep myself “in the know. To escape I’ll read angsty YA with girl-girl romance, even if it’s not that well written. Some of my favorite YA so far has been The Miseducation of Emily Post, The Hate U Give, and The Marrow Thieves. Miseducation really influenced KINGS—it was the kind of novel I wanted to write in terms of realistic, well-developed characters and storyline. I prefer to read and write realistic fiction.

Is there any kind of writing that you tend to stay away from? Both in regards to your personal consumption and in what you teach?

I teach poetry and short stories because I value them and think they’re important, but I don’t consume a lot of either on my own. I also don’t read a lot of non-fiction. I consume non-fiction-type stories via podcasts and TED Talks instead of through books. Over the years, I’ve also moved away from the ‘“traditional literary canon” in my teaching because…who decided on that canon anyway? We still teach Shakespeare, and we should, because how’d he do all that? But I try to insert as much writing by POC, female, queer writers as possible these days. So I guess I tend to veer away from old, white, dead men and towards more contemporary, within the last 100 years, writing. And feminism! I lean towards complex, diverse female characters, and immigrant and indigenous experiences.

Is there something specific that you’re reading right now or just finished reading?

I’m reading Roller Girls: Totally True Tales from the Track, as research for the YA book I’m writing, which will take place in the roller derby world. By my bedside right now are: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, Boy Erased by Garrard Conley, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. And I just finished I’m Afraid of Men, a short but heartbreaking and courageous memoir by Vivek Shraya.

 

Can you describe the events and emotions that led up to you writing your upcoming debut novel, KINGS, QUEENS, AND IN-BETWEENS? Can you describe your path—was this something you’ve wanted to write for a long time, did the idea come to you all at once, did you get it down on paper quickly, or did writing it span a longer amount of time?

KINGS began as a tiny germ of an idea resulting from my time as a drag king. Since then, I always thought there was a story in there somewhere involving the drag world, since it’s so colourful and fascinating. I’m not sure what finally clicked for me to make me start writing the book—maybe it was the feeling of ‘“what next?” after completing my masters. But I wrote the first words of the book while in France on my own in the summer of 2015. I had a general idea of who my protagonist was—17, female, naïve, queer—and I knew she’d somehow find herself in the drag world. That’s about all I knew. To find out more about her, I began monologuing. It was by far one of the most useful things I did as part of my writing process—getting to know her better helped me write in her voice throughout the novel. She ended up telling me what to write in a sense. I still use that monologuing strategy to get to know my primary characters better as I write.

I only wrote a bit of her monologue that summer. Once school starts, I find it very difficult to write consistently. The next time I sat down to write KINGS in earnest was May-July of 2016. I began taking myself on week-long writing retreats each summer to have focused writing time. I enrolled in the Writers Studio at SFU for the 2016-2017 school year to keep myself on track, and it really helped. I was able to hammer out a manuscript over that year and complete it by the summer of 2017.

Mainly, for KINGS, I wrote out the entire story as it came to me. I’d write a section, and then the next time I sat down to write I’d read over what I’d written and clean up any obvious problems, and then keep writing. I didn’t have an outline for KINGS, but found this problematic later on in the process when I wasn’t sure where I was going for the last third of the book. Now, I try to have a loose outline and a sense of the protagonist’s character arc before writing. I think and have heard from other writers that this helps with efficiency, which I can believe since I wrote about 30,000 words extra for KINGS that I may not have written had I had an outline first!

Can you also offer a rough outline of what happened once the book was written—how you started sending the story out, what you focused on in your query letters, interactions that took place through the story—positive or negative? Are there any specifics you learned through this process that you could share, or any advice you could offer other debut writers?

I had just finished the Writers Studio, which was helpful, as we learned how to write query letters and my mentor, Eileen Cook, guided me through the process. She suggested a few agents to query, and I used online sites like Publishers Marketplace and Bookends to find other agents who specialize in diverse lit and YA.

I sent out about 10 to 15 letters, making sure to emphasize my POC, queer character and the drag element, which, from my research into other YA and even adult novels, I knew to be a unique part of the story.

I received back two requests for the manuscript quite quickly and then a couple more over the next few months. This, from what I’ve heard, is not typical and I am very lucky. I also received two or three rejections and some didn’t reply at all.

Jim McCarthy was the first agent to respond, and ended up becoming my agent. I love him. I signed on with him in August 2017, about a month after completing the book.

He has a great reputation in the publishing world and is with a well-established agency in NYC. He started shopping my book around, and we got a couple of offers. The quickest to read the book and show love for it was Jen Ung at Simon Pulse, however. Her written response to my book won me over—it was heartfelt and glowing. She seemed to really get what I was hoping to do with the book in terms of making a difference for young queer POCs.

Some advice: write from your unique experience; diverse voices are finally in. But don’t write diverse voices just to write diverse voices—write from a true place or the voice will feel superficial. Be ready for rejection, look for agents that are looking for what you’re writing, and find a writing community to help you navigate both the writing process as well as the querying process. Don’t write for fame or fortune—keep writing because you love it. Also, stay open-minded to others’ feedback, but also true to your story and characters. No one knows them better than you do.

What was a highest and lowest point for you, as you underwent your writing and subsequent query process?   

So many high points. I loved the writing process, I lucked out with amazing beta-readers and feedback, I loved my story and characters, and I had probably the most positive querying/publishing process a writer could ask for. Obviously, having someone actually want to publish my book was mind-blowing—I still can’t quite believe it—and since then, every new little thing with the editing and publishing process has felt like a celebration. I’m just riding the wave!

I don’t really have any “lows.” I guess the hardest thing has been balancing writing with teaching full time. I’m tired at the end of the day and feel guilty when I don’t write. I did get a taste of rejection recently when I wrote 13,000 words of what I thought would be my next book and my editor didn’t love it. But it led to me writing my current project, so the rejection turned into another high. I think partly I’m lucky because I love teaching too, so I have this fulfilling career and now I have this other fulfilling career and I feel like everything is just an opportunity to grow.

Could you provide a description of your upcoming novel, KINGS, QUEENS, AND IN-BETWEENS, touching on genre, subject matter, and why you think it’s relevant for today?

KINGS is really a love letter to the drag community as well as to young, queer, brown kids. I wanted to write a hopeful story for queer kids that wasn’t a coming out story. Nima [the novel’s protagonist] isn’t so much struggling with her sexuality as she is with her insecurities, though she is new to the world of dating. I hope the relevancy is obvious. We need more diverse lit. Kids need to see themselves in the lit and media that surrounds them. Kids need happy endings. And I hope people get an inside look at drag too—it’s a magical community and deserves more recognition beyond RuPaul’s Drag Race.

I’ve taken a look at your Goodreads page, and so many people have had a positive reaction—to say the least—to the fact that your Nima is biracial and queer. You really seem to be representing groups of people that have rarely felt seen in the media. What are your thoughts on what has been available as far as minority representation in literature and media? Did you feel a certain responsibility to tell this story? Are there any stories out there that you think did a good job making other people feel seen and heard?

When I first started writing KINGS, Nima was white. I had to stop myself about a third of the way through the first draft and give myself a kick. I had to consciously and very deliberately re-image Nima in my mind to make her brown. This just reiterated to me how insidious and ubiquitous whiteness is in our world/media. I’m brown, I’m feminist, I’m hyper-aware of race and do anti-racist work…but my go-to characterization was a young white girl? So yes, I do feel a responsibility to represent POCs and queer characters and characters that go beyond traditional gender constructs. Thankfully, more YA authors are seeing this need to and writing voices we haven’t always heard. Fat kids, POC kids, immigrant kids, Muslim kids, queer kids, trans kids, indigenous kids, asexual kids, “ugly” kids, “loser” kids, intersex kids…I think YA is doing this better than most genres in general. But two books I read recently that are not YA but tell stories we’re definitely not seeing enough of are Little Fish by Casey Plett and Johnny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead. Trans and Two-Spirit lives told without apology or the need to ‘clean things up.’ Amazing.

Why do you think that there are more minority stories being told today—both in books and in movies? For example, two of the biggest movie phenomena of 2018 centred on East Asian characters and culture, and neither of them relied on the other-ing tropes, or stereotypes, that films tend to employ when discussing people of colour. Do you feel good about the direction in which the media seems to be leaning, in terms of representation?

I do feel good about it overall. Obviously, there’s so much work to be still done as the percentages of these kinds of movies/roles are still abysmally low. But the good news is that when movies like this do come out, they do well financially, so that whole “well, these kinds of stories don’t sell” line can be put to rest. I think the ‘why’ of it has to do with plain, hard work—POCs fighting tooth and nail to have their stories heard and some resolute allies supporting them. And social media has definitely played a positive role in all of this too—even as it has its massive downsides, it’s made these voices more accessible.

How important is it to you that stories centred on minority characters be told by people of the same minority?

You’ve opened a can of worms here! I do believe it’s important for marginalized groups to be able to tell their own stories. I think it’s possible for dominant groups to tell marginalized groups’ stories if they do some serious work/research. And I don’t think it’s always possible for all characters to be written by authors with the same identities. If that were the case, I’d only be writing about brown, queer characters forever. But, the ideal in my view is for people to tell their own stories. Which is why I think it’s important for those in privileged groups to bolster and create space for marginalized artists to tell their own stories. If you’ve got some power and prestige behind you already, find a way to bring marginalized voices up beside you.

Do you feel as though today’s climate is a good environment to release your book into? Is there another time or place that you wish you could share your story?

I feel this is the perfect time to release this book. Diverse YA lit is exploding, RuPaul has made drag mainstream, and people are looking for queer stories that go beyond the tragic coming out trope. I feel very lucky to have written this book when I did.

If you could give the version of Tanya Boteju that existed before KINGS, QUEENS, AND IN-BETWEENS entered your life one piece of advice what would it be?

You can write while teaching, Ms. B. Quit making excuses and figure it out, woman!

How do you feel about the period of marketing that is coming your way, prior to the book’s publication? Is it something that excites you? This might be a silly question, since this is exactly one of those marketing-style things.

It’s not silly at all. I’m really excited about it. I’m not sure what to expect—all of this is so new—but I love the idea of sharing my book with others and being able to talk to people about their responses and hear their stories as well. And my agent and editor have been amazing, so I feel good about where they’re taking me as a writer. My blue-sky desire is that I get to hold lots of book launches in lots of great cities and each one opens with a local drag king or queen act. I don’t know if it’ll happen, but the prospect is thrilling.

Are you planning any other novels right now, do you have any ideas that you’re jotting down for a next project?

My next YA novel is tentatively titled Bruised. It takes place in the roller derby world, which is another subculture I find fascinating. I’ve never done roller derby myself, so I’ll need to do my homework, but that sounds like fun research to me! I’ve heard the sophomore project is very hard, and I can see why. KINGS was a book that was just kind of inside me, waiting to be written. My next book will feel less natural than that, I think. But I’m still excited about it.

Artemis Saatchi is an undergraduate student in the Art History and Creative Writing programs at the University of British Columbia. She specializes in fiction and creative non-fiction. She is currently finishing a YA manuscript, and applying to graduate programs.

 

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