To celebrate the upcoming Growing Room Festival 2020, we are chatting with a few festival authors to learn more about them and their work until March rolls around. Stay tuned for more conversations in this interview series. In the following interview, Room reader and Growing Room Festival author, Nafiza Azad, chats with fellow festival author—Tanya Boteju!
Tanya Boteju is an English teacher and writer living on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations (Vancouver, Canada). Her writing life has mostly consisted of teaching writing for the past eighteen years to teenagers, and she is continually inspired by the brilliant young people in her midst. Her novel, Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens, debuted in 2019 with Simon & Schuster and was named a Top 10 Children’s Book by the American Booksellers Association. Her next YA novel is slated for Spring 2021, also with Simon & Schuster. Tanya is grateful for her patient wife, supportive family and friends, committed educators, sassy students, and hot mugs of tea. She hopes to continue contributing to the ever-growing, positive representation of diverse characters in literature.
In the following interview, Nafiza asks the Growing Room Festival 2020 author about writing as a form of activism, subtext, and Goodreads reviews.
This interview was conducted over email.
ROOM: How has your experience as a teacher shaped your writing? Are there any particular instances when your experience with teenagers affected your writing or plot choices directly?
Tanya Boteju: The greatest influence has come from just being around teenagers—witnessing their daily interactions, how they talk/don’t talk to one another, how they struggle and deal with their struggles. It’s helped me to understand them a bit more—enough that I can write (I hope!) more authentically in the voice of a young person. Perhaps the most specific example I have of a teenager affecting my work directly is in a short story I wrote that will be included in the YA anthology Out Now (Inkyard Press, 2020) coming out in May. It was inspired by a student I noticed at my school who kind of “floated” through our hallways, seemingly in her own world at times. I wanted to explore what her inner life might be like, what might be happening to her mind as she wandered. The story, as a result, is called “Floating” and includes much of those explorations. Additionally, teaching writing has taught me a lot about what works and doesn’t work for me, and helps me to “walk the walk” when I’m making my way through the writing process. I ask my students to trust the process all the time, so I try to do the same. It’s really helped limit the “struggle” of writing—or at least, the time I spend in that struggle.
ROOM: Would you agree that, considering the amount of bias and discrimination faced by the LGBTQ+ community that you belong to, your writing is a form of activist expression?
TB: I guess you could call it that—a form of social justice work. Any writing that addresses/includes/gives voice to/shares/lifts up/respects lives that have been traditionally silenced or ignored is activism and social justice to me. I hope my writing does at least some of those things!
ROOM: Which stage of the writing process do you most enjoy? Alternatively, which stage do you want to throw into a volcano?
TB: No one will like me after I say this, but I love most parts of the writing process, from generating to puzzling through plot and characters, to editing even (I’m an English teacher, after all!). But I suppose my favourite part is generating. Exploring my characters’ worlds and discovering what they have to say and offer is such an extraordinary process. We have some control as writers, of course, but I love that our characters can sometimes take on a life of their own and surprise us. The only part (so far . . . knock on wood) that I’ve found a tad icky is when I first get my editor’s notes back—especially those early, “big picture” notes. I always go through an initial stage of WTF and get completely overwhelmed until I can really sit down and take everything in. That stage is not so fun.
ROOM: Are you an outliner or a discovery writer (aka a “pantser” but honestly discovery writer sounds so much cooler)?
TB: I agree—“discovery writer” sounds more accurate too! I’m definitely a mix of both at the moment. Kings started out as mostly discovery writing until I got stuck about three-quarters of the way through and had to call my mentor, Eileen Cook, to help me with plotting. With my second book, I plotted a bit more, but I still began with thoroughly exploring my protagonist, and then allowing her to tell me some of her story first. I feel my writing is more energetic when I do that, but perhaps, a bit less efficient. But sucks to efficiency! I’d choose energy over efficiency any day.
ROOM: Do you pay attention to the subtext in your novels? Has there ever been a time when you were confronted by a problematic element in your own work?
TB: With Kings, I was hyper-aware of how queer folks would or would not see themselves in the writing. I wanted there to be enough ambiguity with some representations to reflect how much “in-between” there is within genders and sexualities. For instance, my fairy godmother drag queen, Deidre, never identifies as trans in the novel, but she gives she/her pronouns at one point, and lives her everyday life expressing her gender mostly as female. A handful of reviewers took issue with that—they felt it was important for Deidre to identify as trans or thought I was conflating drag queens with trans folk. I understand why they might see it that way, but a) one of the points of the book (the “subtext”) is that gender and sexuality are fluid and sometimes exist beyond existing terminology and binaries, and b) some trans folk are drag performers and some drag performers are trans. But that kind of feedback is helpful even if I don’t agree with it—it makes me think more about what people know, don’t know, want to see, don’t want to see. I don’t see these representational issues as problematic—but I do feel a certain responsibility to do my best in how I represent the communities and identities I include in my writing.
ROOM: In a similar vein, (and because we as writers all know how terrifying Goodreads is) how do you handle negative reviews?
TB: Ugh. I finally listened to my editor who told me to stay the heck away from Goodreads! It’s so hard when you’re a newer writer and you’re just excited to see that people have actually read your work and have chosen to say anything at all about it! But I got over that desire pretty quickly. Those kinds of reviews are so all over the place. It’s hard to not get a bit defensive sometimes, but I just try to remind myself that I wrote a damn book! And I like that book! And how many people can say that? Am I right? Come on—high five!
ROOM: Since I know you are working on book two right now, have you noticed any growth in your own writing after experiencing debut year? I found that writing after debut became a lot more difficult (and terrifying) since I know now how people can react. Did you have a similar experience? A completely different one?
TB: I’m sorry it’s been terrifying and difficult! I can see what you mean—I’ve heard the second book can be challenging just for that reason . . . the expectations we put on ourselves and that we think others have of us can be so daunting. I can’t imagine what Angie Thomas went through as she wrote her second book after The Hate U Give. Maybe I should be more terrified. But I really love writing and try to just stay true to the story I want to tell. I also know that getting better as a writer requires me to learn from the feedback I’ve received (within reason) and again, trust the process. Again, I think being a teacher has really helped me get through some of those insecurities and anxieties we all have as writers because I feel like I need to set an example and have some integrity about what I say in the classroom and what I do outside of it. As for growth, I definitely feel my writing is becoming more precise and that I understand character development and plotting a lot more. My second book is about 20,000 words less that my first, so I think I’m becoming more concise too!
ROOM: What are some of your more favourite books/movies/games you have enjoyed recently?
TB: I recently finished Sarah Henstra’s book, The Red Word, and found it both challenging (in a good way) and riveting. I also just finished The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery and couldn’t believe how fascinated I became with octopuses! (I also learned that the plural of octopus is, indeed, octopuses.) I just saw The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open and almost fell apart. That’s a must-see. As it’s winter holidays right now, there’s been quite a bit of puzzling happening with my wife and family. We just completed a feminist icon puzzle and a beer bottle puzzle—two of my favourite things.
ROOM: Tell us about your new book. What should we look forward to?
TB: My next book is about a teen whose parents have died in a car accident before the book begins and she’s taken to managing her pain by bruising herself. Sounds pretty dark so far, I know. But a friend introduces her to roller derby and she sees it as an opportunity to gather more bruises. Roller derby, in my opinion, is so utterly kick-ass and mind-boggling. It deserves more attention! My protagonist, of course, finds much more than just bruises as the story plays out. Even though the book deals with some heavy situations, there is also a lot of levity throughout. Get excited for all kinds of roller derby and roller disco shenanigans, a pair of over-the-top, musical-loving guardians, a sweet romance, and a saucy protagonist.
You can join Tanya Boteju at the following Growing Room Literary & Arts Festival 2020 events on March 14 and 15:
Nafiza Azad is a self-identified island girl. She has hurricanes in her blood and dreams of a time she can exist solely on mangoes and pineapple. Born in Lautoka, Fiji, she currently resides in BC, Canada where she reads too many books, watches too many Kdramas and writes stories about girls taking over the world. Her debut YA fantasy, the Morris Award finalist The Candle and the Flame, was released by Scholastic in 2019. You can also find Nafiza at two Growing Room panels this year: Black Magic Women: BIPOC Encounters with The Fantastic and Say Mashallah: Celebrating Muslim Writers.