Jeff & Will welcome married couple and collaborators Anna-Marie and Elliott McLemore for a conversation that was recorded live at Sacramento’s Capital Books for the launch of the YA fantasy Venom & Vow. They discuss how the book went from something Anna-Marie was working on solo to a co-writing project, and they share great stories about all aspects of their creative process. We also get to hear their first ever joint reading, and Jeff slips in a question about Anna-Marie’s Great Gatsby remix from last year, Self-Made Boys.

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Show Notes

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Will: Coming up on this episode, we welcome Anna-Marie and Elliott McLemore to discuss their first collaboration, the book “Venom and Vow.”

Jeff: Welcome to episode 423 of the “Big Gay Fiction Podcast,” the show for avid readers and passionate fans of queer romance fiction. I’m Jeff, and with me as always, is my co-host and husband, Will.

Will: Hello, Rainbow Romance Reader. It is so great to have you back with us for another super summer bonus episode.

Jeff: We’re gonna get right into this interview that was recorded live on May 16th at Capital Books right here in our hometown of Sacramento. Anna-Marie and Elliott McLemore had their launch party for the YA Fantasy “Venom and Vow” there, and we thank them and Capital Books for letting us be part of the celebration.

It was such a blast talking to these two and finding out about this incredible book. You’ll hear about how this went from a book Anna-Marie was plotting to one they ended up writing with Elliott. There are some delightful stories about how they worked out the setting and the scenes and what it was like for this married couple to become creative collaborators. Plus, they read the first two chapters, and I even sneak a fanboy moment in before we’re done.

Anna-Marie & Elliott McLemore Interview

Jeff: So, I am thrilled to get to interview Anna-Marie and Elliott McLemore. I have been a fan of Anna-Marie’s for quite some time. I have read “Venom and Vow.” It is absolutely amazing. For those who don’t know, Anna-Marie has written so many books, and picked up so many award nominations. There’s a Williams C. Morris Debut Award finalist, there’s a “Time Magazine” 100 Best Fantasy Novels, there’s Stonewall Honor Book, there’s National Book Awards. Anna-Marie knows how to write a book. Elliott, this is his first fiction. Congratulations.

Elliott: Thank you.

Jeff: I love your bio, because it says, you came from the mountains and loved trees and you romped in dresses, fought with plastic swords, and dreamed up your first stories, and then you went on to academic and professional writing and research. So it’s wonderful to have you back on the fiction side. To kick us off, let’s start with the most basic question. What is “Venom and Vow” about?

Anna-Marie: Okay. I’m gonna see if I can remember the pitch from the announcement, because it has excited me ever since. Let’s see if I can do the elevator pitch or if I’m gonna have to take the stairs. Okay, so, “Venom and Vow” is about a transgender prince who is doubling for his brother, a bi-gender lady-in-waiting/boy assassin. And the two of them, because of their dual identities, don’t realize that they are falling for each other while simultaneously trying to destroy each other. Yes.

Jeff: Well done.

Anna-Marie: Thank you. I did it. That’s gonna be the hardest question of the night.

Jeff: We’ll try to keep it that way. So, now that we know that little bit, I’d love for you to read a little bit for us, so we can get a little flavor of what we’re gonna talk about.

Anna-Marie: I believe this is our first reading from this book.

Elliott: It is.

Anna-Marie: Chapter 1, Valencia.

Of all the things my father taught me, this is the one most likely to keep me alive tonight: “Your hair, mija, can always hold more knives than you think.”

I give my hair another twist and shove in two more of the tiny blades I’ve spent half my life learning to throw. Tonight, I’ll be getting close enough to Adare’s borders to taste the salt in the air. Whenever you get close to Adare, you can never have too many knives.

I learned that the hard way.

My father told me not to go out there that night. Just like he’d probably tell me to stay at el palacio right now.

But my father had to know I’d follow him. He had to know that the best way to get me to do something was to forbid me to do it. And besides, he needed me. I’ve always been my father’s mano derecha, his right-hand boy or girl, or whoever I am at the moment. Whoever I need to be to sneak around somewhere unnoticed, or slip into a room I’m not supposed to be in. I can’t count how many times I’ve showed up in disguise before he even knew he needed me to go get a look at some dignitary’s correspondence or a visiting prince’s books.

And that night, I dressed the part. I put on the most spectacular outfit I had. A deep-green gown refined enough to make me look older. A velvet cape stitched with so many leaves of gold, red, and amber fabric, that I looked like I was wearing autumn. My best cane, ahuehuete wood set with fire opals, hair pinned back exactly like the most elegant ladies. All the best to impersonate someone important enough to be at a negotiation between two enemy kingdoms.

The moment I got to the edge of the woods, I saw the Adare boy—boy? Man? I still don’t know. He didn’t see me, but I watched him. I watch everyone.

There was nothing all that notable about him. Dark hair, gray coat, brown trousers. He had a staff with him—a nice one; even from that distance, I could see the heft and the metalwork—and I could tell from the way he was holding it that he used it to help his walking, similar to how I use my own baston.

There was something about the way he was looking around. Not like he was looking for something, or someone. More like he was checking. Which instantly made me think he was supposed to be an inconspicuous guard. Someone I’d need to avoid as I went deeper in, where half our court and half of Adare’s had gathered.

I should have already had a knife out. I know that now. But I didn’t. I was looking into the trees to plan my route, how best I could casually swan into the proceedings, like a fashionably late duquesa.

So I didn’t see him do it. But when that light came, flashing hard as sun off water, and blue as moonlight through ice, I looked back at him, and I saw.

He was holding that staff with both hands, driving it into the ground. As if he was putting all his weight and strength into keeping it there. He stared into the light like he was calling it by name. And I knew. I could tell he was the one doing this.

I reached to pull out a knife. Whatever he was doing, I knew that if I got a blade in his arm, I could probably throw his concentration enough to stop him.

But I hadn’t woven them into my hair that night. I’d rushed out with them tucked into my boots, but hadn’t taken the time to slip them into my braid.

If I had, I might have been fast enough.

The force following that light came hard as thunder after lightning. It went through me and knocked me to the ground. The leaves of cloth on my cape blew into a whirl. The force of that light was as hard as a current. Even with the help of my cane, I couldn’t get up, not until everything had settled and gone quiet.

By then, he was gone.

What that boy did to the woods that night took our king and queen. It took my father. And every night since then I’ve known what we all should have known: There’s no negotiating with Adare. All we can do is win.

I don’t blame the boy for everything. It’s almost certain that he was acting under orders.

Still, if I ever see him again, he’s dead.

I slip one more knife into my hair.

The mistake I made that night, I’ll never make it again.”

Elliott: Chapter 2, Cade.

I just couldn’t stay away from the edges that night. I hardly ever can.

“Know where your lines are. See the maps in your mind, laid out over the castle, over the battlefield, over the land. Always. If you lose track of those lines, they’ll be in control, and not you.”

My mother’s voice, my queen’s voice, as I’ve heard it my whole life, pulled me to the borders of our land. That night, it pulled me to her, to my father, to the Elianan ruling family and their advisors. Another negotiation. This time with its venue in the most disputed zone of the forest between Adare and Eliana.

I tried to spot one of our guards in the dark, or one of our horses. I have even settled for some of the Elianan contingent. Their bright colors made them stand out in the moonlight. At first, all I could see were trees and some vague movement between them.

A loud crack thundered under my feet and a burst of light brighter and bluer than sheet lightning blasted out from the forest, nearly knocking me down. I had to hold Faolan with both hands to keep steady. I felt him gripping the ground for me, keeping me upright like he does when I’m on the battlefield and about to lose my balance.

“Whatever you do, don’t let them take you to the ground.”

My mother, again, teaching me to be a warrior like her. I searched for her in the burst of light, trying to spot her or anyone close to her. But it was far too bright and pushed at me with far too much force.

As I squinted against the light, I saw a swirl of movement in red and orange, waving like the flames of a bonfire.

I focused my gaze as closely as I could. I made out the form of a person crouching, holding a staff far more delicate and ornate than Faolan. The top of the staff glinted with what looked like small flames, and I was certain that what I thought was a bonfire was actually their cloak.

I’d seen enchanters at work before, but nothing like this. One hand extended to keep their balance. The other held the staff, driving it into the ground, making the flames at the top pulse even brighter.

I knew better than to trifle with enchanters and their staffs. The staff my mother carried had been passed down from queen to queen for generations. Its power was unpredictable even to its wielder. It had surprised my mother more than once.

The light intensified again, like the roots of all the trees nearby were sending veins of lightning out under our feet.

The enchanter lifted their head, dark eyes wide and fixed on the center of the light. I could see her deep red lips and long tendrils of thick black hair escaping from a twist I recognized as one popular in the Elianan court.

I memorized her face that night. And I’ve been looking for it ever since.

Jeff: Absolutely wonderful. I think we saw…

[Applause from the audience]

We learned so much about Cade and Valencia right there in those first, like, five pages and two simple chapters. Where did Cade and Valencia…like, what were their inspirations? Where did they come from for you as you developed the book?

Anna-Marie: You wanna get right into the theater nerdness?

Elliott: Yes. Okay.

Anna-Marie: We knew this was gonna happen.

Jeff: Excellent. I love that there’s theater nerds here.

Elliott: Yes, there is bound to be theater nerdness when there is us. So, yeah, for people familiar with musicals, they tend to identify an A couple and a B couple. And the A couple is, you know, the one that most of the story revolves around, but there’s usually like a secondary romantic pairing. We wanted to focus on what would normally be the B couple, right? So, these folks are not the main prince and princess people. They’re the other ones. And we wanted them to be the center of the story instead. So, that was part of the inspiration, was to have that couple be the central characters.

Anna-Marie: And, like, they’re often the ones that are the comic relief. They’re often the ones that are arguing with each other. So, that whole A couple, B couple thing, which I didn’t really realize until Elliott mentioned it partway through the process, I thought, “That’s exactly what we’re doing.” It ended up being important from an identity standpoint, because you have the B couple that’s not usually the center of the story, and you also have these identities that aren’t usually the center of the story. You have these characters who are both trans. One is a trans guy, one is non-binary, bi-gender. You have one character who’s Latine, you have two characters who have disabilities, who use canes. So, the kind of, like, musical theater nerd part of it that we were connecting with also had this connection to what we wanted to do with identity. Like, these characters that share our identities and that we wanted to be at the center of the story.

Jeff: I’m glad you kind of listed everything that is a part of them. They’re trans, they both have different gender identities, they’re both disabled, in some similar ways even. What made all of that part of it? And then, I’m fascinated by how you made this all so cohesive, because they’re very similar in some ways, and yet they’re very opposite too, like…and the push and pull that develops between them, even as they’re figuring out those similarities, it’s fascinating to me how you must have gone through to kind of plot this out to determine what to reveal when, and how that would impact them.

Anna-Marie: Well, their reveals were definitely helped by his favorite word.

Elliott: Spreadsheet.

Anna-Marie: Yeah, spreadsheet. One of his favorite words.

Jeff: I love that.

Anna-Marie: I have to mention this. We have the lovely lady that we dedicated the book to, Dayna Bryant, who keeps spreadsheets for her video games as she’s playing them. So, as you can tell, we have, like, kindred spirits of spreadsheets around us. But he was really, really just meticulous about keeping…like, keeping the spreadsheets while I was sort of like, “Oh, we’ll figure it out as we go,” and he’s like, “No, we can’t. We can’t figure it out as we go. They actually need to…we need to know what they know, or we’re gonna be on draft seven and be fixing this.” So, this kind of combination of like the mathematical side of it and the artistic side of it was something that was…that, I think, is a big part of fantasy, especially with the kind of sprawling worlds and casts like this.

Jeff: And it’s not just these characters who are complicated. You’ve given them alter egos too, like the alternate identities that they have and the identities that they carry. It’s very Shakespearean in some ways, like the deception and the miscommunication, and the, “I’m not who you think I am.” So I’m glad to hear you used a spreadsheet, because otherwise you might go a little insane to keep it all, you know, in the right spot.

How much of this ended up in like first drafts, and how did it develop over time? How fully-formed were they? Because they are so complex. I wish the folks who are listening could see them, because they’re both just making these great grinning faces at each other as I ask these questions.

Elliott: We redrafted a lot. We changed many things, because we’d keep having these great ideas and, like, be very apologetic about it, right? Like, one of us would go to the other one and be like, “So, I have this great idea, but everything we just wrote, we’re gonna have to rewrite it all.” So we did that a few times.

Anna-Marie: And the thing is, like, it would be…the wonderful thing is that it would be worth it. It would be like, “Oh, yeah, that is better. We should do that. Darn it.” So we would be doing these, like, normal…normal, like, household things, normal life things, and the other one would sort of burst in and be like, “I know what needs to happen in this chapter. I’m so sorry because we’re gonna have to…” “No, I know what you’re gonna say. We have to change everything before it. Yeah, okay.” But that’s part of the magic, I think, of finding the story. Because when you get there, when you get to where it’s supposed to be, it’s, “Of course, how did we think it was gonna be anything else?” And I feel that way as a reader too, reading books, and then hearing about how authors do draft after draft, and I think, like, “Of course. This was how the story is supposed to be.”

Jeff: How many drafts were there?

Elliott: I don’t know.

Anna-Marie: I know. Do we…

Elliott: I definitely lost count.

Anna-Marie: Do we count in decimals? Because there were those ones where we would sort of backtrack and think, like, “Okay, what do we need to change to get to this point?” So, officially, there were probably like five of them… but then you have a lot of like partial drafts in between.

Jeff: For the scope of what happens in this book, that’s not bad, actually. Putting my writer hat on for a moment. What came first here? These amazing characters, or the amazing adventure? Because there is this kind of enemies-to-lovers, opposites attract, but yet similarities attract story, set against this, “We need to fix the kingdom,” kind of aspect as well. Where did it start?

Anna-Marie: I think it started…well, it started a little bit with the concept of it. This started as a very, very, very loose “Sleeping Beauty” re-imagining. And these characters in mind, and the way that Elliott came onto this novel is…I hate when I say this because I sound like such a diva when I say this, but it sounds like I prefer to work alone, but I don’t. This is my second co-written novel. My first one was with Tehlor Kay Mejia, “Miss Meteor,” in 2020. I don’t co-write a novel unless we’re doing something that neither of us could do alone. So, I had this idea for these characters, and I thought, “I can’t write Cade the way he needs to be written. Do you know who I think could?” So, after a fair bit of convincing, I thought I kind of was telling him, like, “This is who I think this character was.” And when I knew that I had him, when he started to like run with Cade and be like, “No, I think this is what it is. I think this is in his character history. I think this is his relationship with his mother.” I’m like, “I have you. You’re gonna write this guy. You don’t know it yet, but you’re going to.”

Elliott: Yes.

Jeff: So that was what pulled you in there. Were you trepidatious at all to undertake…I mean, this is your…not just first collaboration for you, but your first published fiction work too.

Elliott: Yes.

Jeff: …from, you know, creating whatever stories you’d done, you know, before, and you got brought into this. What went through your head when it’s like, “Am I really doing this?”

Elliott: Oh, I was very terrified. Yeah, and surprised that, you know, the feedback early on from our mutual editor now was, you know, encouraging and was, you know, “This part is actually working.” I was surprised and pleased. And, you know, from that point on, I got more excited about it and got more into it. But, yeah, I mean, it’s a little intimidating to work on a first project with someone who is so experienced and talented, and with whom I have lived for so long. You know?

Anna-Marie: I’m flattered that you think that, considering you saw my early drafts of things.

Elliott: I thought they were still pretty good, the early ones.

Jeff: Did you provide some early feedback on those, or was it just like reading to go, “Uh-huh, that works?” Or were you actually providing, you know, feedback on what was there?

Elliott: I feel like, earlier on with some earlier things, I feel like I was a bit more involved in doing feedback. There came a point where everything was going so quickly that I sort of couldn’t keep up anymore. It was all just like, I don’t know, on the bullet train to wherever awesomeness. So, yeah. But early on, I got to read some things, and I got to read some things that became other things later. So that was really exciting.

Anna-Marie: Things that became other things. The story of drafting and revising.

Jeff: Right.

Elliott: Yes.

Jeff: From the perspective of this book then, it sounds like you wrote Valencia and you wrote Cade. Was it a constant, just, back and forth in the chapters?

Elliott: Pretty much. I mean, I don’t know how…I marvel at authors who share points of view or have one point of view between more than one author. I can’t imagine, because we had these two rather distinct characters and points of view and voices. So, you know, we didn’t really have to worry about trying to like match each other. I can’t imagine attempting to do that. But yeah, this, I think it really worked. We did go back and forth a lot, and we had to kind of keep pace with each other. It was difficult to get like too far ahead or fall too far behind because we had to kind of keep comparing notes as we went.

Anna-Marie: Yeah, you can sort of have the rough idea of what happens in each chapter, and then look at what each other has done and say like, “Oh, okay. I took this longer than I had to. I didn’t need to go this far,” or, “Wait, we have a little bit of a time gap here.” So, smoothing those kinds of things out and editing each other. And, like Elliott said, I know authors who do the work of like doing one voice together, and it’s this art form that I marvel at. Because with both collaborations, I’ve done both co-authoring, it’s been, you’re writing one voice, I’m writing another voice, we edit each other.

Jeff: Yeah. The authors who tell me, when I interview them, that they could write and stop midway in a chapter, and the other author come in and just pick up and go, not even switching voices, I’m like, “How? How does that make a cohesive book? And good for you for making it that way.”

When it came to the plot, were you plotting together, or was…all the spreadsheet in the characters, was there a spreadsheet of like the plot too? Because this is very complicated. Like, I can’t…it would be impressive to me if it was like, “Oh, yeah, we just made that up as we went, and it all turned out so well.”

Elliott: No, we used the thing…the thing. Wow, that was specific. There’s like a chart you can use to plot stuff.

Anna-Marie: Yeah, there was a lot of chart. We’ve used a couple of ’em.

Elliott: Yeah. And you put sticky notes on it, and then you move ’em around for, like, when you change when stuff happens. But, yeah, it was very handy to have like the big old chart with the sticky notes on it. It was great.

Anna-Marie: Sorry, I’m laughing because we did that on the wall with like paper, and then we put sticky notes on it, and the other thing we did on the wall was a big piece of paper. So, there’s this beautiful map that our publisher has put into this book, which I’m so excited about because I’ve never had a map in a book. I love this thing. I want to like make a huger version of it and put it on our wall.

So, speaking of walls, we had the piece of paper up, and like, precious debut author that he is, because our publisher is saying, “If you could sort of start to like plot out where things are, draw things, like it’ll give us an idea when we give it to the artist.” So, wonderful debut author that he is, he’s carefully doing like the monastery, and the castle, and everything, and I’m over here like losing it a little bit as we all are during the pandemic. And I’m drawing like, Pusheen and like, Molang, and like, a bird over here. So, I eventually got with the program, and I was like, “Okay, this is where everything is.”

But his side was just this work of art, and mine was just this collection of like cartoon animals in like period attire. So, thank you for keeping me grounded and on task.

Elliott: You are welcome, although to be fair…

Jeff: Are there Easter eggs of cartoon cats in attire somewhere in that map?

Anna-Marie: There are very opinionated quetzals that are not happy if you do not listen to them.

Elliott: Oh, yes.

Jeff: Oh, my goodness. I love that. I love collaborating stories, because you find out so, so much. How was it to move from being a couple to being a creative couple? Easy transition? Weird, bumpy transition? Because it adds a whole different vibe. Living in the same house, and, you know, potentially never getting away from the work, because like you said, you could just bust in in the middle of something and go, “I have an idea. We’re gonna rewrite stuff now.”

Elliott: Yep.

Anna-Marie: That was exactly what happened. Like, “Gee, I sure hope when you say you have an idea, it’s what to make for dinner and not another rewrite.” But the fun part is that you…because you had some previous experience in theater choreography, right?

Elliott: Mm-hmm.

Anna-Marie: So, we choreographed a lot of these fight scenes in like quarter time, of course, but that was a lot of where we started, is like, we have these two characters who use canes. We have our own disabilities that don’t exactly match these characters, but they have a lot in common with these characters. So, like, a lot of the collaboration process was partly plotting and partly like, “Okay, we know these fight scenes are gonna take us a while to do.” So, like, blocking these out, that would be like our…like, our weekend afternoon would be on this old mattress with our canes figuring out how to do this.

Elliott: Yes.

Jeff: I’m so glad you took the safety precaution of a mat, like a mattress, to do that.

Elliott: Yes. We did still get hurt.

Anna-Marie: I know. I did.

Elliott: Not too badly.

Anna-Marie: Yeah. I mildly bruised a rib during this process…

Jeff: Oh, my gosh.

Anna-Marie: …and it was…he told me, “Don’t do it. Don’t do it.” And I’m like, “He’s the theater choreographer, I should listen to him.” I’m like, “I’ve done theater choreography too.” Yeah, it was Irish dance. That was the theater choreography I did. So I should have listened to him, and I was trying to do one of the moves that Val does. I should not have done it. But, yeah, there were mattresses underneath. He was the one who was constantly slowing us down and being like, “When you choreograph, you go slower than you wanna go. Like, we need to go like painfully slowly to figure out how this actually works before you build it up.”

Elliott: Yep, yep.

Jeff: Was it just the canes, or maneuvering the knives as well? Because Val does amazing things. Slipping knives out of her hair, out of her cloaks, from here, there, and…

Anna-Marie: Oh, those were letter openers. Safety first.

Elliott: Yes. No real knives were harmed in the plotting of this novel.

Jeff: Most authors I talk to use action figures, so I love the fact that you were committed enough to do, like, live choreography.

Elliott: I mean, I would say we had to, we didn’t have to. But it really did help to, you know, have done all of that. And I still found, as I was writing stuff, I would try to like act things out so that I could know what to write. Yeah, it was very helpful. We also used stuffed animals when there weren’t enough of us. We were like, “Okay, we got this thing and that thing. Yep. Okay.” Yes. Yes. Good times.

Anna-Marie: And so, like, the stuffed animals, I just got really attached to them, so they were there unnecessarily sometimes during the plotting process. Like when we weren’t doing a fight scene, we would just be doing an interpersonal scene, I would have like this little rabbit puppet who would act surprised when like he confesses something. So, you find the fun in it, especially with stuff that like…there are…with a novel, it talks so much about identity, and so much about people’s hearts. Like, finding the fun in the process helps you build in the comedic moments in the novel itself. Because I think, like, you need some comedy on the page, especially when you have fight scenes, when you have people who are just like going deep into their hearts to figure out who they are.

Jeff: The identity scenes, the fight scenes, the…we need to fix our kingdom. I mean, there’s a heavy need here that has to get taken care of apart from all the other stuff going on. So, I very much appreciated the humor when it cropped up, and I ended up just laughing out loud occasionally, like…and I have to admit, I don’t read a lot of fantasy, because world building kind of can bog me down and it’s like I’m finding out too much, and then…so I appreciated how you kind of parched that out, giving me what I needed when I needed it.

But on top of it all were these amazing characters, and I come back again to those first couple chapters. Like, how can I not read these two people? And then you keep finding out as they reveal more and more of themselves, either through their internal monologue or what they do actually tell the world. And I have to say, the internal monologue in this book blew my mind, because both of these characters are constantly like heavy-thinking about what they’re doing, should they be doing it?

Should they be interacting with this other person? What’s the fate of the kingdom? Again, I come back to the balance of it all, which is pretty amazing. But, where are the actual questions going? The identity here, I feel like anybody who picks up this book, no matter who they are, they’re gonna find a sliver of themselves on the page, because these characters carry so much. Was that the intention all along, or was it more, as you initially described, just characters that also mirrored yourselves?

Anna-Marie: I know. Yeah, that’s a chin-scratching question.

Elliott: Yeah.

Jeff: I hope in a good way.

Anna-Marie: In a good way, yes, because a lot of this book is about intersectional identity, and how do the different pieces of you come together? Because, like, well, all of us have identities that intersect. Like, different parts of ourselves come up against each other. Different parts of our worlds come up against each other. And these characters’ identities, I think of them as so part of who they are, that everything else sort of came from that. It may not be like on their mind all the time.

Like, I don’t go around thinking about how gay I am. Like, some days, but not all days. And it’s just where your heart is sort of based and what is coming together. I’m thinking of things coming together also because one of the people that we worked with was National Book Award winner, William Alexander, who was consulting about disability. And Val’s disability has to do with the spine. And Will was saying, like, “You know, this is the point that…like, this point in your lower spine is the place that all…it’s the hinge that all movement in your body goes through.”

So, this idea of, like, Val is dealing with this one hinge that everything goes through, that’s not really cooperating some of the time. It’s a little bit also what happens with, like, all of your identities like coming together in this central point of intersection. Sometimes it’s going to be wonderful, and sometimes it’s gonna be like, “Okay, how do I exist today? Like, how do I go forward?” And I’d love to hear how that was for you with Cade, especially, because, like, the responsibilities of…and what that related to with his identity.

Elliott: Yeah. I mean, I think with Cade, there’s a big issue of stealthiness, which is, you know, kind of necessary, given what’s going on, but it also wasn’t entirely his decision. So, you know, he’s dealing with the impacts of that on his current life when it was kind of done for him in a lot of ways. So, you know, figuring all of that out. And in terms of, I guess, intersectional identity and trying to make that relatable, I mean, that’s super important, because I feel like one of the criticisms that comes up a lot is that characters who have too much in terms of identity are not relatable. So, you know, some extra effort definitely went into that, and I’m hoping that that, you know, makes it so that even if you don’t have much in common with these characters, you can still connect with them. I would say that was part of the goal. Yeah.

Jeff: Absolutely, because I couldn’t help but feel like…I guess I’ll go with the word impressed, with the level of grit and effort each of them would put through to get to their goal. Even as their body is rebelling against them, it’s like, “The thing that I’m trying to do is that important that I can’t just stop.”

But I’ll say the other thing too, and hopefully this isn’t too much of a spoiler, and you tell me if it is, then I’ll take it out of the podcast, the care they end up showing to each other, because there are times when they’re in distinct adversarial modes, but they know enough about each other to, “I see how he’s leaning on the cane. I see how this person’s leaning this way or guarding this part of them,” and then not taking advantage of it, which is just a beautiful part of the love story to me between these two. So, I really love how you took care of that part too, because I’m just like…I don’t know whether I’m like going, “Oh, please be careful,” or, “Oh, that is so sweet that you’re feeling that way about them as all this other stuff Is happening.” It was a big ball of emotions for me, and how you balanced all that I thought was just amazing.

Anna-Marie: Oh, thank you.

Elliott: Thank you.

Anna-Marie: There’s definitely a code between these characters. There’s a sense that like, “I know enough about what your experience is to not wanna take advantage of it. And also, I’m pretty sure I’m gonna win against you anyway, so I don’t need to take advantage of it. Like, I’ll figure it out.”

Elliott: Yep, yep, yep.

Jeff: And I have to say, I am butchering pronouns, and I apologize for that, as I’m navigating between Valencia and Cade. I should just be using their names, because I try to be respectful of those pronouns and in the moment I think I’m messing those up.

Anna-Marie: I actually struggle a little bit talking about Val, but Cade is he all the time. Val sort of goes between he and she, probably would at least at times like the pronouns they and them, but this is not a world that yet commonly uses those pronouns. So this is something I’ve thought about too in talking about Val.

Jeff: Okay. I feel less bad that I’m at least kind of navigating the same things that you are and you created them. I’m curious for you, Elliott, because this is a first, many firsts. Was fiction on your radar as something you wanted to maybe pursue as a publishing kind of pursuit?

Elliott: I did not think I could write a whole book, or any portion of like a book thing. Most of my fiction-related experience was playwriting and, you know, that theatrical side of things, which I tremendously enjoyed and had a great time doing, but did not think was going to be anything resembling a career. And I was surprised when I was writing, that I could write that much. I was like, “Oh, hey, words. Great.” Yeah. Yeah. It was a positive surprise that, you know, that could happen. And I do think the pandemic had something to do with it, because that happened like partway through…we had already started, but, you know, we did, I would say the bulk of this, during the pandemic. So there was kind of more time to do that. Time that otherwise would’ve been occupied by, I don’t know, going to grocery stores and stuff. So, you know, that was certainly helpful. Definitely, you know, gave some space and time to the writing, which I appreciated.

Anna-Marie: Yeah, we were definitely both…pre-pandemic, were wanderers in stores. Like, you’ll never find me in a Target. Like, once I go in, I’m never gonna come out. And then he’s right. Like, we would just go in really fast and come out really fast. And he would go to work, I would do my work, and then the rest of the time, we were involved in this world. Yeah.

Jeff: Sounds like a lovely pandemic distraction, to be involved in this world instead of what we were doing here.

Elliott: Mm-hmm.

Anna-Marie: It was an interesting way to sort of like transmute, because the feelings aren’t going away. Like, the fear, the grief, it’s not going away. So, to sort of have a place where some of that exists, but there’s also…it’s also a completely different world. I think there was something like heartening about that.

Jeff: And moving from playwriting into this kind of fiction, was there anything about that transition that, like, surprised you or was like, “Oh, wow, that?”

Elliott: I mean, descriptions, in a nutshell, because I didn’t really need to do any of that. So, you know, that took some practice. AM is the master of description. So, you know, I learned a thing or two from your editing of my initial efforts. There were definitely some points where you were like, “This is too much, and this is not enough.” You know, I had to find a balance there. But, yeah, I think it took some practice and it got somewhere, eventually, but it was fun. It was a fun journey of learning how to describe things.

Jeff: Nice. Yeah, there’s a big difference, I guess, between that and stage direction.

Elliott: Italics. Things move this way. Done.

Jeff: So, one of my favorite questions to ask, and tonight there’s two different ways I can ask it, depending on how you want to answer it, I wanna know about favorite scenes. And it could either be favorite scene that you wrote individually, or favorite scene that the other wrote.

Elliott: Okay. So, I think this might…because I think it crosses point of view. So, I think it’s kind of both. We have a part where there’s dancing, which I love dancing. So, yeah, that transitions because Cade and Valencia recognize each other and sort of place each other as, you know, playing these multiple roles, and it dawns on them as they are dancing with one another. So then, of course, they take it outside and start fighting, which…

Jeff: As one does.

Elliott: As one does, and it’s great. So, yeah, that’s probably my favorite. I’m cheating slightly. I think it’s technically two scenes, so yeah, yeah. There you go.

Anna-Marie: I love that one too. Also, I love a lot of our fight scenes that are way up there for me. But since I’ve already talked a lot about our fight scenes, I have one other one that’s coming to mind. I love the scenes that are at the monastery that Cade grew up in. This is a monastery full of trans and non-binary guys. So, there’s a scene that I think is from Val’s point of view, but that basically all of the dialogue except Val’s was him. Like, this happens sometimes, where we’re writing our own points of view, but like the other person is contributing the dialogue of a lot of different characters. So, he’s basically being an entire monastery and I’m being one character. So, there’s this point where, like, Val is dressed as a guy and Val does not yet realize what exactly goes on at this monastery. And one of the monks is saying, like, “You know, you could improve that outfit.” And Val is like, “What? Screw you, I didn’t ask you. But if I had asked you, what would you do?”

So, this idea of trans and non-binary guys, of trans people, of queer people, like, helping each other, and this sense of community, like, “I recognize you. I know you. We have this in common. We are family even though we just met.” That’s something that means a lot to me, that idea of found family coming in there.

Jeff: What do you hope people take away from this book?

Elliott: Well, I mean, and I think one of the big things that this hopefully conveys is that, you know, regardless of your various complicated things that you come from and who you are, and regardless of your ability, you can still be a total bad-ass. So, yeah, there’s that.

Anna-Marie: So, actually, I kind of related to that, the squishier side of that. This is what he does. He’s very concise, and then I’m like, “Add more feeling. Whoever you are, there are people like you and there are people who get you.” And the people who get you, some of them are gonna be like you, some of them are not. But you can find family. Like, you can make family, you can make community. There are people who are gonna love you, and that’s something that I really want readers to take away from this book.

Jeff: Fantastic. And I think they’ll take away both, because it’s just that good. I have to have my own fanboy moment now and talk about “Self-Made Boys” for just a brief moment. This was Anna-Marie’s book from last year, that is a Great Gatsby retelling, and, for me, greatly improved on the source material. And apparently I’m not alone with that. Just one question, because I’ll make you encapsulate the entire book with just one answer. How did you do that? I mean, really to take the bones of that book and recast it the way you did, just was mind-blowing to me. It’s like, I wish I could have read that in high school instead of the original, because it just spoke so much more to me, and I feel like really cast the story in such an amazing way, while also kind of keeping at least true to the bones.

Anna-Marie: So, a couple of things that come to mind about this. One, I did wanna keep the sort of basic framework of “The Great Gatsby” with a happier ending. I don’t mind saying that spoiler. It needed a different ending. But when Emily Settle at Feiwel & Friends came to me and said, “We’re doing this remix classic series. We want you to do “The Great Gatsby.” I was at a point very early on in my trans non-binary, like, journey. But Emily like says this and I’m like, “Yes, I’m the man for this job. Girl. I mean, girl. I’m the girl for this job.”

So, immediately, I knew what I wanted to do. I knew that, oh, well, one, Gatsby and Nick, it’s there. Like, he talks about how beautiful Gatsby is. And also, if you watch some of the film adaptations of like 1970 version with Robert Redford and Sam Waterston, watch very carefully, they’re building it right in. Robert Redford is staring at Sam Waterston’s ass at some point in that movie. It was obvious to me, and it was obvious to a lot of other readers, that was part of the fun of writing this book.

I also wanted to write Gatsby as trans, and I wanted to write Nick as trans, as this idea of like self-made boys, which is true in some sense. Like, they are making themselves, but also not true in another sense because you need other people to help you. Like, to help you become who you are in the same way in “Venom and Vow” at the monastery. So, I wanted to write Nick as this Latino boy from the Midwest coming from this family who supports him as a trans boy. And he was like, “Yes, we get you. Wait. Now you wanna go to a city that none of us have ever been to? Like, you’ve established your identity here and now you wanna do what?” So, I wanted to write Nick as this math genius who has this chance to be this analyst on Wall Street before quant is a word that’s used on Wall Street. And who goes there partially from the convincing of his cousin Daisy, who I wrote as like a lesbian Latina socialite who’s passing as white.

One of my favorite books in the world is “Passing” by Nella Larsen. Please read it if you have it. I want it in every curriculum. Like, why did I read “Passing” once? Why was I only assigned “Passing” once and I was assigned Huck Finn three times? Why? I want everyone to read “Passing.” It is an absolutely spectacular book, and whenever I thought about writing 1920s, I thought I need to do some kind of tribute to “Passing” in there, just because of what this book did for me and what it meant to me to read “Passing” alongside “The Great Gatsby.” Because there’s a lot of racism in the original, and having that book alongside, it was just…I needed it. Like, my reading experience would not have been the same. I’m very grateful to the teacher who assigned it. So, having Daisy as this like Latina girl who’s passing as white, and who doesn’t really realize how much she’s stepping on her cousin who she’s kind of disowned, to do this, how she doesn’t…

Like, in that way, she’s kind of like Daisy in the original “Great Gatsby,” where she’s just kind of like frothing about, not realizing that she’s like breaking things everywhere. So, Gatsby to me was also always gonna be a trans guy. And the thing that surprised me was how many other people had seen that. How many other readers had seen that coding in there, of like how hard he’s working to be who he is. All of that effort that’s in there. So, I wanted to write a story that was in the same time period, that had a lot of the same bones, but that the why was gonna be different. The why these characters do what they do. The lives that they have that are off the page. And to actually like use Nick’s cluelessness in a way that was a little bit endearing. Like, I am not totally understanding what’s going on, even as he’s a very sharp observer. So, like, that’s my very long answer of like, “The Great Gatsby” was always gay and it was always trans. So, it meant so much to me to be able to do this and to be able to kind of, like, make it as blatantly queer as I always thought it was.

Jeff: Yeah, just, ugh, so good. Did you write…because of course, books come out at various times, did you go from writing “Self-Made” into “Venom and Vow?”

Anna-Marie: I think it was sort of alternating because of how the process went. So, I think the earlier drafting process was first, and then I was sort of going into the research process for “Self-Made Boys.” So, they were very, very different, which I think was good because it’s not like you’re mixing up characters or anything. Like, the textures were very different, the feels of the worlds, but they’re also…they’re, like, historical and historical-ish in the case of “Venom and Vow.” So, they were different enough that it didn’t mess up my brain too much, which I really appreciated. So, I didn’t end up with like quetzals flying through Gatsby’s mansion or anything like that.

Jeff: I would love to read that bonus chapter.

Any questions from the audience that we can have these two answer?

The first question is for Anna-Marie. A lot of your characters in this book and other books that you’ve written have Latinx background, and you yourself have a Latinx background. How much of yourself and your background go into these characters?

Anna-Marie: So, for me, a lot of it is about, like, writing the characters as they come to me, and I think I more naturally gravitate toward, like, writing characters who are like me, writing characters who come from the kinds of communities I come from. It looks a little bit different in every book. It’s obviously a lot more fantasy-based in “Venom and Vow.” So, that was something that, once I did that, once I thought…once I didn’t keep giving myself the, “Okay, I have to justify why this character is Latin,” it really opened up, like, my writing brain a lot more. Because earlier on, in my first couple of novels, like, it was almost like I had to get my…like I had to get the Latina identity greenlit in my brain. Like, I had to make a case for it because I thought, “Okay, is there something about this that I’m not allowed to, like, put on the page?” Because I didn’t see many stories like this growing up. And that was a lot. That was a lot. In my head, I had very supportive people around me, so it was more getting to the point of like, “It’s okay.”

It’s like my first instinct is to make a character from like a Latin background. Like, that is the background I come from. That is the reference point that I come from.

Jeff: And the next question is, are you working on another book together?

Anna-Marie: It’s simmering.

Elliott: Yes. Yes. There might be some writing of some words, that might or might not make sense, being done by me.

Anna-Marie: I know what I’m…he’s writing out of order. I’ve gotten to him.

Elliott: Yep, yep, yep. Fun times.

Jeff: Oh. That’s a skill. I can’t do that at all.

Anna-Marie: We didn’t do that on this. We didn’t do that on this book. I don’t think.

Elliott: I did.

Anna-Marie: You did?

Elliott: Yeah.

Anna-Marie: Okay. The secrets I’m discovering.

Jeff: Ooh.

Elliott: Not like a lot, just a little.

Anna-Marie: So, it’s simmering. It’s a many-spreadsheet book, I think.

Elliott: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Jeff: Ooh.

Elliott: It’s complicated. Probably too complicated at this point. So, yeah, yeah. Simplification needed.

Jeff: Do you anticipate anything that you would write solo?

Elliott: Maybe. I might have an idea, maybe, possibly. Hmm. We shall see.

Jeff: And Anna-Marie, what’s coming up next for you? Anything we should be on the lookout for?

Anna-Marie: So, in spring of 2024, I have a YA novel coming out. I don’t know if I’m allowed to tell the title yet, so I’ll just tell you it’s sparkly horror.

Jeff: Ooh, okay.

Anna-Marie: Very, very sparkly horror. I went a little bit into, like, horror in “Dark and Deepest Red” in 2020, which was about the 1518 Strasgbourg dancing plague. I’m excited to go deeper into it and do something that has some horror tropes, but that’s also very, very queer, very Latin. So, I’m excited about working on that. In fall 2024, my first adult book is coming out, called “The Influencers,” which I can best describe as “Knives Out” on Instagram.

Jeff: Wow. That sounds like fun. Can I pre-order it now?

Any other questions, because I kind of jumped back in there with a couple? This question’s for Anna-Marie. Magical realism was a feature of your early work. Are you moving away from that, or just exploring more things, or also still weaving that in?

Anna-Marie: I think it’s always gonna be, like, part of my literary heart. I think, something that I’m excited to do right now is just sort of do things that are really different. Obviously, like, I haven’t…I’ve done some fantasy. I haven’t done really, like, high fantasy like this. I’m excited to go deeper into horror. “The Influencers” is like…it’s like all social media and murder mystery, and I’ve, like, never had like a cell phone in any of my novels. So this is…I’m just doing like a bunch of different things that I wanna do, and I probably will come back to magical realism at some point. It’s still in the short stories that I write for fantasies a lot. So it’s sort of like the natural point that I come to. I’m just excited to do, like, just kind of as different things as I can do right now.

Jeff: The next question is, what are you reading right now?

Elliott: Oh, hooray.

Anna-Marie: He took my copy of “A Clash of Steel.”

Elliott: I did.

Anna-Marie: I see you tearing through it.

Elliott: I am. “A Clash of Steel” is part of the Remixed Classics series, which is also what “Self-Made Boys” is part of. So that whole adventure was basically asking super cool people to rewrite stories that are traditional classics. So, this one’s “Treasure Island,” and it’s awesome. I love it.

Anna-Marie: Yeah, by C.B. Lee. It’s great.

Jeff: So good.

Elliott: Yeah, yeah. So, I’m having a great time with that. I’m, like, about halfway through, I think. So, yes, that is my fun thing I’m reading, in addition to small piles of nonfiction, which are less fun. Still fun, but less fun. So.

Anna-Marie: I’m reading TJ Klune’s latest release, “In the Lives of Puppets,” in the front window. And it just is like heart-grabbing and also hilarious, as you would expect. And TJ was telling me about people, like, bringing their Roombas to be signed at book events. I’m like, “That’s a great idea, because like, this poor little Roomba who just wants to be loved in this book.”

Jeff: This question’s for Elliott. You said you had a background in musical theater and playwriting. What was transitioning to this type of writing like? What was the biggest challenge, and what was the easiest thing to transfer?

Elliott: I mean, to answer the easier one first, the easiest part was probably dialogue. Yeah. I think we also had some fun times doing, like, practice dialogue for other stuff that you eventually wrote just to kind of, you know, get things in the brain. So, yes, dialogue, tons of fun. That was good practice. And I think probably making things a bit more cohesive, rather than, like, in the world of playwriting, you can do some pretty crazy transitions and just like drop things and be like, “Ah, whatever,” and move on to something else, something more interesting to see on a stage. But having some sense of cohesion from scene to scene was…yeah, that was a bit tricky to kind of, you know, have that. Have a logical flow of some kind. Yes. Yes.

Jeff: And the last question is, what were the easiest things about writing this book, and what were the hardest?

Anna-Marie: I think some of the…what immediately came to mind about the hardest parts is, I think, like, whatever you’re working on, like whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, whether it’s fantasy or an academic paper, whether it’s like a tricky email, there’s always one point where like, everything else is coming together and it’s this one thing. I remember that we had a couple of those plot points where it’s like, “This is such a small thing. Why is this the one that’s hard to solve?” But just like slotting those things together, and just like not giving your brain a break and thinking like, “I just need to walk away from this and just come back to it.” That’s what came to mind in terms of hardest. Like, is there…and I think you’re echoing that. What was easiest? Am I giving you the easier question, the harder question?

Elliott: I mean, one of the things that also came to mind as difficult is, I rewrote the ending, like, I don’t know, 12 times. Ah, and it was so hard. Yeah. I’m not quite sure why, but it was really, really tough to get the ending right. Because, you know, I would do it and I would be like, “Yeah, it’s okay. Hmm.” And then I’d have to do it again. So, yeah, that was tough. I think some of the, like, fight choreography and actiony sequences, those were certainly more fun, and therefore I think felt easier and went faster, because, you know, you got people doing stuff and limbs everywhere and it’s great. So, yeah, there’s plenty going on. So, yeah. That probably felt easiest.

Anna-Marie: I think, for me, one of the easiest parts, I was just thinking of this because he said he rewrote the ending 12 times. I’m like, “Oh, yeah, you did, didn’t you?” Now, having some things in a novel be someone else’s problem was really nice. It was just like, “You know what? I’m sure you’ll figure it out and it’s gonna be great.”

Jeff: Anna-Marie and Elliott, thank you so much for a great conversation.

Elliott: Thank you.

Anna-Marie: Thank you, and thank you, everyone, for being here.

[Applause from the audience]


Will: This episode’s transcript has been brought to you by our community on Patreon. If you’d like to read the conversation for yourself, head on over to the show notes page for this episode at We’ve got links to absolutely everything that we have talked about in this episode.

And as a quick reminder, if you want to get book recommendations delivered to your inbox every single Friday, you can sign up for the Rainbow Romance Reader Report, this podcast’s official newsletter. We feature new releases and upcoming books to help keep your TBR healthy and up to date. You can sign up at

Jeff: That was such a wonderful evening. Thanks again to Anna-Marie, Elliott, and Capital Books. I have to say, I loved hearing about the fight choreography that they did with mattresses for padding and stuffed animals for extras. As they were telling that story, I kind of imagined us trying to do that thing and it just not ending well cause we are not the most graceful people to be doing fight choreography. Anyway, and I’m glad we got just a little bit of time in on “Self-Made Boys” too, with how Anna-Marie made their decisions on that “Gatsby” remix. It was so good.

Will: All right. I think that’ll do it for now. Coming up next Monday, we welcome another married couple as we kick off Pride Month with husbands and authors, Steven Rowley and Byron Lane.

Jeff: Yes. Steven, who you all may recall, wrote one of our favorite books of 2021, “The Guncle,” has a new book out called “The Celebrants.” And Byron also has a new book, very aptly titled for this show, “Big Gay Wedding.” We’ll talk to them about those books and about their life as a creative couple.

Will: Thank you so much for listening. We hope that you’ll join us again soon. Until then, keep turning those pages and keep reading.

Big Gay Fiction Podcast is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. Find more shows you’ll love at Original theme music by Daryl Banner.

NOTE: The excerpt from Venom & Vow is copyright 2023 by Anna-Marie McLemore and Elliott McLemore and is used here with their permission.