Jeff & Will present a panel discussion featuring YA authors Abdi Nazemian, Jason June, and Sonora Reyes. They talk about their latest books, Abdi’s Only This Beautiful Moment, Jason June’s Riley Weaver Needs a Date to the Gaybutante Ball, and Sonora’s The Luis Ortega Survival Club. The authors each discuss the inspirations for their stories, how they relate to their lives, and the self-care they practice when writing. They also have book recommendations, and to wrap up Pride 2023 they each share what Pride means to them.
Big Gay Fiction Podcast is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. Find many more outstanding podcasts at frolic.media/podcasts!
Here are the things we talk about in this episode. Please note, these links include affiliate links for which we may make a small commission at no extra cost to you should you make a purchase. These links are current at the time the episode premieres, however links are subject to change.
- Luke by Cora Rose
- Young Adult Panel Discussion Interview
- Abdi Nazemian website | Twitter | Instagram | TikTok
- Jason June website | Twitter | Instagram
- Sonora Reyes website | Twitter | Instagram | TikTok
- Only This Beautiful Moment by Abdi Nazemian
- Riley Weaver Needs a Date to the Gaybutante Ball by Jason June
- The Luis Ortega Survival Club by Sonora Reyes
- Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
- Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian
- Ziegfeld Girl on Amazon Prime Video
- Cover Girl on Amazon Prime Video
- The Chandler Legacies by Abdi Nazemian
- The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
- Can’t Take That Away by Steven Salvatore
- Fifteen Hundred Miles From The Sun by Jonny Garza Villa
- James Baldwin on Amazon
- Armistead Maupin on Amazon
- Andrew Holleran on Amazon
- Your Lonely Nights Are Over by Adam Saas (pre-order until September 12, 2023)
- Yellowjackets on Paramount+
- Our Flag Means Death on Max
- The Untamed on Netflix
- Ander & Santi Were Here by Jonny Garza Villa
- Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez
- Big Gay Fiction Podcast Links
This transcript was made possible by our community on Patreon. You can get information on how to join them at patreon.com/biggayfictionpodcast.
Will: Coming up on this episode, we’ve got a special panel discussion with three incredible authors of young adult books.
Jeff: Welcome to episode 429 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. It’s Will.
Will: Hello Rainbow Romance Reader. It’s so great to have you with us as our super summer bonus episodes continue.
That’s right. The bonus episodes just keep on coming. Originally we planned to be weekly for May and June, bet the fun is going to continue all the way through July, and we have got some truly spectacular interviews coming up for you later this month.
Jeff: Oh, we do. We couldn’t help but keep going weekly because of some of the stuff that we’ve got coming up.
Will: Before we get to our discussion of young adult books, I want to tell you a little bit about what I’ve been reading recently.
“Luke” by Cora Rose has been in my TBR for like ever.
Jeff: Did you go back into the archives for this one?
Will: Kinda. Do you know how sometimes where you just like, you look at something one too many times and you just decide that today is the day. Well, that’s what I did with “Luke” and I am so glad that I finally dove into this. It is, oh, chef’s kiss. So good.
It’s about a laid back, nice guy named Luke, and he meets cute, uptight Dr. Elliot. And I gotta say it’s like a match made in grumpy, sunshine heaven, but like cranked up to 11. Luke has never fallen for a guy before, let alone a trans guy. But it’s so funny, he just cannot seem to keep away or keep his hands off this particular doctor. And Elliot is resistant at first, but he is eventually won over and he takes the sexual lead, which Luke discovers he doesn’t mind in the slightest. This book is so much fun. It is a very sexy ride. I recommend everyone check it out. “Luke” is available in ebook, paperback and audio. So dealer’s choice, pick it up in the format of your choice.
Jeff: This is just gonna be one of those episodes where we do a lot of damage to folks’ TBR, between the recommendation that you just gave, plus what we’re gonna hear from these authors.
Now it may be the beginning of July, but we’re actually gonna keep Pride month going just a little bit longer. To celebrate the month, young adult novelist, Abdi Nazemian, Jason June, and Sonora Reyes joined forces for a book tour. And just before that kicked off, I had the opportunity to talk to the three of them.
We’re gonna talk about their new books, Abdi’s “Only This Beautiful Moment,” Jason June’s ” Riley Weaver Needs a Date to the Gaybutante Ball,” and Sonora’s ” The Luis Ortega Survival Club.” We’re gonna find out about the books, how they reflect each of the authors, and what they’ve been hearing from readers already, and so much more.
Now, I don’t think we’ve ever given a content advisory ahead of an interview, but I do want to give one here. As we’re discussing what pride means to each of the authors, Sonora talks about their mental health, and it might be a story that is too much for some listeners. If it’s better for you to bypass that, you just need to skip forward about 90 seconds.
And now on with this amazing conversation.
Abdi Nazemian, Jason June, and Sonora Reyes Interview
Jeff: I’m so excited about having all of you here. Abdi, Jason June, and Sonora, welcome to the podcast.
Sonora: Thank you so much for having us.
Abdi: Thank you.
Jason June: Thanks for having us.
Jeff: So, I would love for you to each take a moment to introduce yourself and tell us about the book that we’re here to talk about, which in this case is your latest for each of you. And, Abdi, we’ll come and start with you first.
Abdi: So, my name is Abdi Nazemian. My latest book is called “Only This Beautiful Moment.” It’s very much inspired by my desire to piece together my own histories, both my Iranian history and my queer history. So, I was born in Tehran, lived in 4 countries by the time I was 10 when we moved to the United States. And like many immigrants, my parents shielded me from the trauma of our history. Queer history, obviously when I was growing up, wasn’t even available to me.
So, this book is an intergenerational family story about three generations of men in the same Iranian family. And it goes from old Hollywood of the ’30s to the Iranian revolution of the ’70s to the present day in both the United States and Iran. And it’s very much about these generations coming together through finally sharing the truth of their histories and putting the secrets aside and building unity.
Jeff: So much just unpacking that one book. Jason June, of course it’s great to have you back here with us. Tell us about “Riley Weaver.”
Jason June: Yes, I’m so happy to be back, and “Riley Weaver Needs a Date to the Gaybutante Ball” is my latest book with the longest most campy title that I’m so excited about. And it follows Riley Weaver as he’s trying to get into the Gaybutante Society, which is inspired by debutante societies. And in that process, there is a Gaybutante Ball at the very end where somebody from your old life introduces you to society when you’re ready to make your mark as, like, this out and proud queer person ready to take on the world. And you need to have a date for the ball. It doesn’t have to be romantic, but teens being romantically and hormonally inclined tend to have romantic dates.
And Riley is told by another masculine gay classmate that he will not be able to find a gay date in time for the ball because gay guys like guys, that’s why they’re gay. They’re dudes who like dudes. And Riley as a fem person does not fit that mold. And so Riley starts a podcast called Riley Weaver Needs a Date to the Gaybutante Ball detailing the ups and downs of dating while gay and fem and hopefully finding a date in time.
Jeff: Sonora, tell us about your book.
Sonora: Yeah, so “The Luis Ortega Survival Club” follows Ariana Ruiz who is a queer, autistic teenager. She has selective mutism, so she only talks when she feels extremely comfortable around someone, which is really only at home in at least in the beginning of the book. Before the book starts, she is assaulted at a party and so the books follows the event where she teams up with an anonymous pen pal to get revenge on this guy. And they may or may not fall in love in the process.
Jeff: I’d like to stay with you, Sonora, about your book for a little bit because, you know, young people face so many challenges with their orientation, sorting out their orientation, and then you also add some aspects of disability in here as well with being on the autism spectrum and that selective mutism. How did you bring all of that together? What inspired you to have her be identifying in all those ways?
Sonora: Well, I think it’s just me… So, I’m autistic. I had selective mutism growing up. I mean, I still have my selective mutism moments now, but I’m obviously able to talk a lot more than I used to. But I wanted to write a story about what that was like and what things were like, you know, not always being able to express myself. And, you know, I was also queer and I was also Mexican and so I was also, like, all these things. So, I wanted to kind of just tell a story that felt a little bit more like someone that I could relate to when I was in high school.
Jeff: And there certainly, I imagine, weren’t books like this at all when you were in high school.
Sonora: Not that I knew of. If there were, I did not know of them.
Jeff: And, Abdi, for you, you’ve also brought so much together in this book. You’ve got three generations, they’re Iranian American and they have queer identity. Where did this idea come from? I mean, just telling one timeframe of the story would’ve been interesting. And then you take us to three very distinct ones.
Abdi: You know, honestly, my favorite novels are usually intergenerational family stories often about immigrant families because it’s so personal for me. So, I mean, “Pachinko” would be a classic example your readers might have read of a book that I love. And I’m also a film and TV writer, and it’s very hard in film and TV to do, like, the sweep of time because it’s very expensive to do multiple time periods and all of that.
So, I always wanted to do one of these stories. And I didn’t think it was something I could do in young adult, but my editor really encouraged me and each narrator gets to narrate their own adolescent years, and each story focuses on a journey either from the United States to Iran or from Iran to the U.S. So, there’s a bit of a structure to it in that.
And really what’s fascinating to me, it’s called “Only This Beautiful Moment” because the whole idea is that we’re always carrying our history within us. I mean, I might be talking to you right here today, but I’m carrying my ancestors both my Iranian ones and my queer ones within me. And we’re all bringing it into the now.
So, it’s really about how these men’s history is always present in their relationships, and the only way to truly move forward is to be honest with each other about it. And that’s been my journey. You know, it was hard to be queer and Iranian. It is hard to be queer and Iranian still. It’s not easy. And I think I’ve done a pretty good job of navigating the culture and remaining close to my family because I’ve always been honest with them and I’ve asked for the same from them. And we meet through love even when there might be some divisions.
Jeff: How did you pick the timeframes?
Abdi: I mean, some of it was because of history. You know, so obviously the Iranian Revolution was a huge moment when a lot of people had to flee the country, and I wanted to write about that. So, that kind of placed me in the late 1970s. I happened to always be obsessed with old Hollywood. So, as a young kid, when I moved to the U.S. when I was 10, I really didn’t fit in. I was very isolated, and I would just come home from school and immerse myself in old Hollywood movies. It was just this world of fantasy that transported me away.
And that piece was a little bit inspired by…you know, it’s about a young teen who gets a MGM contract, and it’s like that was always my dream. It’s like I just wanted to go to MGM and hang out with Judy Garland. But the truth is I would never have fit in there. I would’ve been this brown queer kid, and Louis B. Mayer would’ve been like, “Get the hell out of here.” So, you know, it was a little bit inspired by that, like, going to these worlds that have fascinated me.
Jeff: I love, too, that you’re bringing, you know, that era of Hollywood to young adults of today who, you know, may not even be watching TCM, you know, and understanding when you say MGM and what that means.
Abdi: Well, you know, my novel “Like a Love Story” is about growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s in New York, and a lot of it is about what it was like to be a gay immigrant in that horrible time in our history, but it’s also a celebration of the culture, the community, the activists. And the title comes from Madonna. And in the book, there’s a movie club where they’re always watching old Hollywood movies. And quite a few teenagers have written to me saying they watched the movies mentioned. They’re watching “Ziegfeld Girl” and “Cover Girl” and going to listen to Madonna because of the book. So, it’s pretty cool to share the culture that, you know, affected me and that culture that I think has been passed down by queer people through generations to be honest.
Jeff: Yeah, it is definitely one of the ways that I certainly got, you know, my gay card back in the day was watching some of the classic movies.
Abdi: That’s right.
Jeff: So Jason June, Riley Weaver, there’s so much here about what it means to be labeled as something. I mean, you hit it right there when you told us, like, the elevator pitch for the book that, you know, because he’s fem, he can’t have a date. What do you hope that readers learn from this story as he navigates his way through this?
Jason June: Yeah, I really hope readers see the nuance in labels and how they can be really liberating, but they can also be so limiting, first of all, because there’s just legit limits to our language. And even though we’re getting so many more labels in the, like, cultural lexicon right now, it still doesn’t fully encapsulate every moment of being for all of us within the queer community.
And also because labels at their core are meant to be a tool to connect with each other, with people who are outside of our same communities too. And people can use those instead as a way to keep you out and instead say, “Oh, because the majority of this label looks a certain way, those are the only people that can have this label.”
And I’m hoping that readers see we should be much more open-minded than that and also to realize, especially when it comes down to gender and sexuality, so much of that is focused on the type of relationships, romantic or physical, that we want to have. And readers need to keep in mind that just because you have certain preferences, which are totally natural, we all have things where, for some people, they love it when their partner is taller than them or shorter than them, or they love a shaved head or they love a belly, whatever it is. There’s just something about physical characteristics of another person that presses their buttons, and that’s a beautiful, totally natural thing of the human experience.
But don’t confuse what you like to that’s what everybody’s going to like. And if somebody is romantically approaching you, that doesn’t fit the characteristics you’re normally attracted to. Respectfully turn them down and don’t take the opportunity to take a dump on everyone that shares their label. Elegantly put…
Abdi: That’s some graphic imagery.
Sonora: But, yeah, this kind of brings me to the whole, like, a lot of people are like, well, with trans people like no one has to be attracted to you kind of thing. But it’s like, okay, sure, no one is saying that you have to be attracted to someone for their identity or whatever. But what they’re saying is be respectful. If you don’t like, I don’t know, blondes and a blonde asks you out, it would be universally seen as rude to just be like, “Blonde hair is disgusting and I hate it, and you can’t make me like it. And no one will ever…” You know what I mean? That’s just not okay.
And so, like, for some reason, when it comes to fem guys or trans people or whatever, people think it’s okay to just be like, “Gross. Get it away.”
Abdi: Well, and there’s a whole history in our community, and I’m sure heterosexual community as well, but racially.
Sonora: Yes, that, too.
Abdi: You know, and, I mean, that’s very, very difficult I know for members of the queer community. I mean, I know myself like I used to have experiences back… You know, now I’m married and I have kids and all that. But back when I would do the online thing and the apps and stuff, I would often, you know, because of how I present in a photo, people tend not to know where I’m from. And I would sometimes have people ask me, “Oh, where are you from?” And I would say, “From Iran.” And then they’d be like, “Oh, sorry, not interested. Only into white guys.” And I’m like, “Wait, but you saw my picture. You were interested, you wanted to chat, and then you decided that I wasn’t for you because you…” And it’s a very hard thing for those of us in the community who always feel a little bit outside.
And certainly, I think with the trans community, I think since the focus here is on our community, I know that as a member of the community who is historical, as I have learned on the older side, there’s a lot of my own friends in our generation who don’t spend as much time with young people as I do who I hear say pretty not great things about the trans community or about the non-binary communities they may not have as much understanding and experience with. And I just think it’s really important to have more intergenerational dialogue in our community.
We’re getting enough hate outside the queer community. To be getting it from within is just really bad, and I think we need to be fostering the opportunities for dialogue within our community so that we can be united. So that when we’re taking on the big, bad enemies, we’re putting up a united front.
Jason June: Yeah, completely. My whole take on it is, for relationships or for hookups or whatever it is, why do people lead with what they don’t like? That makes no sense. You wouldn’t go to a restaurant and go, “Well, I don’t want the clam chowder. I don’t want the steak. I don’t want the salmon. I don’t want…” The server’s going to go, “Well, what do you want? What’s going on here? Quit taking up all my time.” You’re not going to go to the doctor and say, “Well, I don’t need a nose job, and my chest isn’t hurting. And I think I’m okay with my bladder control.” You’re like, “Well, then why are you here? Why are you in this room?”
Lead with what you do like, and the things that you don’t like, you don’t even have to bring up unless you’re specifically asked. And then you can still get colorful. You can still throw your voice in it without being disrespectful to a person or an entire community.
Abdi: This should be like a way of life though, because I have to say outside of getting attacked, when I get attacked with book banners and stuff, and then sometimes I’ll get upset and clap back, my attitude toward social media and all that is I share what I love. If I love a piece of art or I love something, I share it. If I don’t love a piece of art, I keep my mouth shut because I know the creators probably put a lot of heart into it.
But I feel like I go online and primarily whether it’s about the arts or other communities or rights, people are focusing on what they hate. And I just think like, “What if we all leaned into the things we love and sharing them? Wouldn’t the world slowly become a more joyful place?”
Jason June: Yes.
Sonora: Yeah, definitely.
Jeff: I could not agree more on that sentiment. It’s like let’s just talk about what we love, and the things that we don’t, they’re just not for us.
Jason June: Exactly.
Abdi: Yeah, and let the people who love them love them.
Jason June: Yeah.
Abdi: Like, it’s okay. It’s okay if you didn’t love some movie that everyone else loved. Like, let them enjoy it.
Jason June: Yeah.
Sonora: Let people enjoy things.
Jason June: Yes, let them be.
Jeff: Jason June and Sonora, you both got content advisories upfront in your books, and you caution readers to take care of themselves, which I think is more important today than ever before potentially. How do you take care of yourself while writing these stories? Because you’re in those characters and in some cases, like with you, Sonora, they’re reflections of you. How do you take care of yourself as you’re navigating writing the book and then also having, of course, to edit the book? It’s not like you just write it and put it away.
Sonora: Yeah, I actually struggled a lot with the “The Luis Ortega Survival Club.” So, I wrote it originally…like, I wrote a really short first draft that I was like, “Okay, this book is going to be really difficult for me to write, so I’m going to write just a bare-bones skeleton of the book.” And it was a glorified outline. It was like a 23,000-word first draft.
And I was just like… I have, like, a system where I write watermelon for anything that I’m going to come back to later. So, I’ll just write, “Watermelon, make this scene emotional,” or like, “Watermelon, add this scene that this happens,” and stuff like that. So, I just had the watermelons everywhere. And then at the end, I have to…when I’m in a good emotional space, most of the watermelons in that draft were about the emotional scenes and the parts where I had to really grapple with what happened to her and like all of that. So, I was like, “Okay, I’m in a good head space. Let’s do the watermelons.” And so I would just go and like Ctrl+F all the watermelons and do them when I felt good. Yeah, that was kind of my main coping mechanism I think was watermelons.
Jason June: I love watermelon, and I’m going to start to use that. Not only is it one of my top five favorite foods, it’s just the funny thing to say in a tough moment. For me, it’s with humor. You know, all my books are campy, zany, flamboyant, and so I like to weave in the heavier moments of life with funny moments, with somebody falling on their face or with somebody making a funny remark, because that’s how I get through it in life too is where…especially the moments where a character’s gapping with something that I’ve dealt with or seen with people that share a lot of characteristics to me, I can’t in my everyday life let those people win. I can’t let the people that have the negative things to say win. And the way that they don’t win is by me living a really happy, fulfilling, amazing life. And one of the things that gives me the most joy is laughter and finding the humor in things. And so that’s how I really get through that.
Sonora: I think one thing that I also did was make sure that this book was first and foremost a fantasy of what I want to be everyone’s reality who’s gone through this type of drama, because it is like, you know, the revenge fantasy. It’s like you can be any type of person. You don’t have to be the perfect victim or anything in order to deserve your happy ending. And I just wanted to realize that fantasy. If, for anyone watching, I feel like my biggest “I feel good about this book” moment was when I was writing the acknowledgments. So, if you want to check out the acknowledgments, I won’t spoil it, but I felt pretty good with that last paragraph.
Jason June: I love acknowledgments so much.
Abdi: I love acknowledgments.
Sonora: Acknowledgements are so good.
Abdi: It’s the best.
Jeff: Sometimes they’re the first thing that I read in a book just to see who the author felt important…who was important to thank for the journey they just wrote. You can learn a lot from that.
Sonora: You can. Yeah.
Jeff: Abdi, you don’t have a content warning, but I’m curious, given everything that takes place in this book, were there places that were more of a challenge for you to be able to write just because of your own experience?
Abdi: Yeah, absolutely. And I have had a content warning on my previous book. “The Chandler Legacies” I felt really needed one because it really leans into abuse as well and a culture of abuse at a boarding school. So, I’m certainly open when it seems very necessary. You know, with “Only This Beautiful Moment,” there are quite a bit of scenes that are plucked from either my life or from what I imagine the lives of those who came before me, whether my father, his friends, their generation, and what they had to deal with, leaving a whole country.
You know, I went through my own queer traumas as a kid. I can’t imagine what my parents went through. I mean, leaving behind not only a country, a language, family members, your home, your belongings, I mean, everything to try and, you know, find refuge and home in a new country, I mean, that’s not something I’ve experienced the way they did. I experienced it as a little baby with no memory of it.
So, you know, it was trying to imagine all that, and that can be very painful. In a lot of times, you know, I’m going through the emotions as I’m writing. I’m crying as I write. I don’t tend to plot out my book, so I let them guide me. I let the characters guide me. And sometimes they really make me cry because they’re revealing things to me I didn’t even know were there. And that can be really emotional but it’s also very healing to be honest. It’s the most healing thing. With each of my books, I feel like I let go of a little bit more of my own pain. And each time, I end a more open person, and my heart feels more open.
And the greatest gift of my life has been writing these books that are so personal. You can be a writer, but until you write stuff that’s in your heart and your soul, I feel like you’re not really healing yourself. At least that’s my experience.
Sonora: Totally same.
Jason June: Mm-hmm.
Jeff: Putting my writer hat on for a second, the fact that you were able to not have an outline for a book that took place in three different timeframes, kudos to you, because I’m all for discovery writing. But then when you have all these different timelines in play too, well done.
Abdi: No outline whatsoever.
Sonora: That’s wild.
Abdi: And then after…
Jason June: That is so wild.
Abdi: Yeah, but then after the fact, when I have a first draft, then I go back and I outline. I make an Excel spreadsheet. I love an Excel spreadsheet, you guys. Different columns, different colors. I start to map things out. Then it’s kind of fun and I see what needs to change, but, oh, I love writing without an outline. For anyone out there who’s a writer, I don’t know if you guys have done it, but the book, “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron, it’s like a 12-week course in unlocking creativity is my writing guide. And it totally changed my life, that book.
Jason June: Writing without an outline sounds like an attack to me. I’m an obsessive outliner.
Abdi: Oh, really?
Jason June: Yeah.
Sonora: I tried to write without an outline once, like one time. It was supposed to be a romcom, and someone went missing in Chapter 2. And I was like, “This is a murder mystery now.” And I was like, “This can’t happen. I don’t know what to do.” So, like, I can’t write without an outline. I need my outline. Otherwise, I go totally off the rails. It’s bad news.
Abdi: And for the writers out there, I think this is a great lesson, and every writer’s different. Every writer has a different process. Every writer has different needs. It’s really about discovering your own process.
Jason June: Mm-hmm, exactly.
Jeff: These books have each been out for a short time as we’re talking in middle June. I’m curious what you might have heard already from readers about these stories as they start to dig into them.
Jason June: What’s been really nice is to see people’s reaction to the Gaybutante Society, which is this unfortunately fictional organization that I’ve made up of queer teen tastemakers that want to make a mark in arts and media and activism, politics, all of it. And it truly is a space for everybody. And it’s pass-fail. There’s no scoring to get in. You just have to show that you can put in the effort to be a contributing member of the organization, which includes, you know, doing community service, being a mentor to a young up-and-coming gay in need, hosting an epic party.
And causing general gay chaos is my favorite pillar of the Gaybutante Society where, you know… You could tell with all three of us, we’re our own special brand of chaoticness and everybody in the queer community has that. And so it’s just sort of making your mark in your own unique way. And it’s been really nice to see people’s reaction to an organization that truly is there for everybody within the queer community.
And the only label they care about is that you’re a part of the rainbow alphabet soup of it all but where you fall on that, if it changes, it doesn’t matter. And they even strive to really work with allies in ways that they can. And that’s been super nice.
Sonora: So, as far as what I’ve heard so far from people, from readers, it’s mostly been autistic readers and neurodivergent readers who have been reaching out to me just saying like, “Oh, my gosh, thank you so much. I’ve never seen myself represented, especially in this kind of book where it’s also queer, it’s also like Mexican.” So, a lot of intersectional readers will reach out to me like queer autistic readers or Mexican autistic readers. Usually, they’re autistic, and they have just shown a lot of gratitude and they’ve been really, really awesome. So, it’s been exciting.
Jeff: That’s awesome.
Abdi: Yeah, I think, you know, look, for me, the book hasn’t been out very long, but I have had some really beautiful early responses, and it’s always, you know, the most moving are from people who feel represented or who feel like it gave them the power to maybe be more honest with the world about their own story.
I do want to just mention one reader who is my dad. And I was not expecting my dad to read the book. He was actually the first person in my family to finish the book. And because the book is so much about fathers and sons and one of the central relationships is between a gay teen and his father who is not gay and who has trouble verbalizing his love as that generation of men often did, to have his early approval and he really told me I got the details of 1970s Iran right. And of course I spoke to people, but he doesn’t know my research process and I think he felt moved by my ability to dig into his experience and tell it with empathy.
And so that’s the reader that meant the most to me. And I think that response and that conversation I got to have with him is just such a testament to the power of the arts. So, for anyone who’s listening, you know, this is the power of books. I mean, when you try to ban books, we’re banning that dialogue. We’re banning fathers and sons from bonding over a story that might unite their disparate experiences. And, you know, that’s a gift that this book’s already given me one month in that I just wanted to share.
Jeff: I’m, kind of, left a little speechless by that. You don’t always expect your parents to read your books necessarily, but to get that kind of response is really just wonderful.
Jeff: Truly. Kids finding themselves obviously in books is so, so important. And I’m curious for each of you, were there books that helped you , kind of, find yourself when you were growing up? Because young adult fiction even 10 years ago is vastly different than it is today.
Sonora: I actually didn’t like reading as a kid. I didn’t think I was smart enough because I wasn’t a good reader. I wasn’t a fast reader, and my reading comprehension wasn’t great, so I thought that I wasn’t allowed to enjoy it. I didn’t realize you could read for fun until I was way older and started reading fanfiction.
So, it was really fan fiction that got me into reading again and finding characters that really resonated with me. And, yeah, so for me, fanfiction totally saved my love of reading. After that, I started reading a lot more as an adult once I started writing original books, because I also wrote fanfiction.
But, yeah, so I guess just, if any readers are out there or especially teen readers like you feel like you’re not smart enough to read, it’s okay to read in whatever form brings you joy, whether that’s fanfiction or comics or graphic novels or whatever it is, just read for fun in any way that feels accessible to you.
Jason June: Definitely. I had a similar experience reading. I was a really avid reader when I was young, like in elementary school and middle school. And in high school, I just stopped reading altogether, and it wasn’t until I was an adult and could look back in hindsight, it was just that I never saw myself in books in the early odds where I felt truly represented.
And so it wasn’t until my adulthood where I was finding books that I was like, “Oh, wait, this clicks emotionally,” like Steven Salvatore’s “Can’t Take That Away.” Some of the things that Carey, the protagonist in that book, says…some of the things they say, it’s like I have verbatim said before about my own life. There’s this moment where Carey talks about hating their facial hair, and it’s funny, and it’s like this whole moment while they’re having to shave. And it’s like I’ve said the exact words that come out of Carey’s mouth at that moment.
Or, Jonny Garza Villa’s “Fifteen Hundred Miles From The Sun” is such a good book. And it really captures the ups and downs of coming out where it’s not instantly everything is okay, but there is instantly this moment of like hope, and I get to embrace myself, and this is the start of the journey, and that’s so exciting. But then there’s also the reality of the world we live in and not everyone’s going to love the new you. And just Jonny puts in that perfect mix of hope and optimism yet reality. And I just feel so lucky to live in a world where they’re creating books and connecting with them.
Abdi: Yeah, it’s so different. I mean, look, I have 11-year-old twins, and I think for them, you know, there’s such a wide variety of books that can speak to whatever they want to read within different genres. And in terms of who’s represented in each genre, that’s not how I… I mean, when I was very young, like I said, I was always escaping into worlds of fantasy that clearly didn’t represent my life. I mean, in my fantasy world, I was young Joan Crawford, or Rita Hayworth, or Ava Gardner. Like, I wasn’t me; I was escaping me.
And until college when I started to read authors like James Baldwin, and Armistead Maupin, and, you know, Andrew Holleran and, kind of, the classic gay authors who opened my eyes to a new world. I mean, before that, it was like Madonna or … I mean, Madonna was like it for what I understood of gay culture, and I’m grateful to her forever for that.
But, yeah, I mean, for me it’s quite a privilege to be telling these specific stories because I didn’t have them. And when I wrote my first novel, which was an adult novel and which came out in 2014, I was told by an academic, and I assume it’s true that it was the first novel to a gay Iranian man as a lead character. And it came out in 2014, and I wrote it. So, that’s pretty wild when you think about the lack of representation that existed before. And so I’ve made a personal pact with myself that everyone of my books will have a queer Iranian character at the very least, usually more than one. But it’s part of my work in this world to fill the world with representation that was lacking and fill that void.
Jeff: Now, it’s not just a coincidence that the three of you are sitting in the same studio today as we’re talking, because you’re actually out on tour together doing stops in New York, D.C. and Atlanta, and in fact, you’re just hours away from the New York event happening this evening.
Jeff: What does it mean to you to be out together meeting readers this particular Pride Month?
Sonora: It means so much just being able to meet readers and see their faces and hear what they have to say. Some of my moments of… The best moments of my author career have been from meeting readers. Yeah, they move me so much, and I just love seeing them and hearing how my words have impacted them and it impacted me. We have this cycle where my writing does something for them and then they come and they tell me about it and that does something for me. And I’m like, “This is great.” Yeah, so I love it so much.
Jason June: Yeah, it’s amazing to get that reader interaction when we’re sitting alone for so much of our lives. It’s great to know that our words actually have meaning to people or, even if they haven’t read it yet, they’re interested in finding out what we have to say. And especially right now with all these book bans happening, it’s nice that we get to go around to multiple cities and show queer teen readers examples of queer adults thriving and living an exciting life. And it’s not necessarily about monetary success or the fact that we’re published, just the fact that we’re living and old in their minds and really enjoying our lives.
Abdi: When you’re writing books, it’s definitely not about monetary success. Let’s be very clear.
Jason June: Exactly.
Abdi: It’s a strange pride, right? I mean, we’ve seen a lot of attacks within the United States, and my focus is always global. But even within these United States, we’re seeing states rolling back queer rights or passing new legislation targeting queer people, especially trans people. And I’ll speak for myself, when I was getting the worst of the attacks about my book, “Like A Love Story” getting banned, and some of the attacks were very personal. You know, you get called a groomer and a pedophile, and you get death threats. And, you know, a lot of people in my life were telling me to step back a little, mostly to protect myself, which I totally understand, and I have children and a family and concerns around that. But I also think it’s really important for us to show young people that we’re not going to back down to these attacks, that our pride is their pride. And we’re here to stand up and I’ll take those blows for young people. It’s okay. I’m strong. I’ve been through it.
And it means so much to me. And it means a lot to me, honestly, that our… You know, when you see three authors on a book tour, it means a publisher organized it all and put some money behind it all and put time behind it all. And it means a lot to me that they’re sticking by us. I mean, a lot of publishers are not taking this lying down. They’re standing by their queer authors. That means a lot because that’s not happening in every industry.
Jeff: I, kind of, connected to that. Pride is also a time to, you know, celebrate who we are. Maybe after the tour or in addition to the tour, how are you marking this year for Pride?
Abdi: My husband, Jonathan, he has many clients. One of his clients is LA Pride, so he just helped put together the big LA Pride that ended. That was a time for us to celebrate his achievement. We took our kids because one of our son’s favorite singers, Megan Thee Stallion, was the headliner the night we went. So, we got to share that with them, and they invited a bunch of their school friends. So, we got to bring some of their friends. And to me, that was so, you know… I spoke to our kids about how everybody, so many people, and everyone’s showing their Pride in a different way. And for us, our Pride was bringing our families and having this beautiful group of young kids celebrating Pride alongside the community and for the community to see us, these queer families, it was just really…that was really beautiful. So, that was for me, like, the biggest way to celebrate Pride.
Jason June: For me, I’m not a very outward Pride celebrator, which is weird. It’s hard for people to believe this oftentimes, but I’m truly an introvert and not an extrovert. I like to be around people and have such a great time around people, but it does take my energy and I’m realizing, especially as our art becomes more and more politicized, it’s taking more and more out of me, not in a defeatist sort of way, but in a way where I feel like our job is a celebration of Pride all year round where we are creating a public-facing, consumable form of art that people can use to connect with the queer community with an aspect of it. Of course, we’re not representative of the entire community, but it’s a way to get in there.
And so for Pride, I get very inward and I kind of take stock of where I’m at and what I need in my own journey for my gender and sexuality. I have all kinds of insecurities as a male-bodied fem person that I constantly grapple with and, kind of, take stock of and figure out where I’m at. And that leads to me also realizing how far I’ve come in my whole journey, and that’s kind of what I celebrate during pride is just, “You got here 35 years and counting.”
Sonora: Yeah. I feel like kind of similar for me. Like, I just need to celebrate that I’m here still, that I’ve made it this far. I’m 29 years old. I know that’s not super old, but to me, I never saw myself living past like 18, even 16. I thought that it was not going to happen. Sorry, is it okay to talk about, like, mental illness kind of stuff?
Sonora: So, like, I have schizoaffective disorder, and I’m also trans. I’m non-binary. Both of those things, kind of, lead to lower life expectancy. For me, it runs in the family, so everyone that I know is no longer here, that has had what I have, my condition. And so I think it’s just really important that I celebrate every day that I am here, and I celebrate just the fact that I’ve made it this far with all the little pieces of me that exist. And take care of myself. Honestly, I think it doesn’t have to be so much an outward celebration like going to Pride, but for me it really is just self-care, making sure that I’ve had enough sleep, like really taking care of myself this month, and making sure that I’m grateful for the fact that I’m still here.
Jeff: Thank you for sharing that part of yourself with our listeners.
Sonora: Thanks for listening.
Jeff: As we start to wrap up here, we love to get book recommendations and also recommendations of what to watch. What kind of media have you been consuming lately that you think our listeners should check out?
Jason June: Oh, everybody has to read Adam Sass’ “Your Lonely Nights Are Over.” It’s like the gay slasher book we all need. It’s Scream but everybody is gay and it’s so amazing. It’s so well done. I love it so much. Adam is just a dream. And also in terms of watching, it’s also kind of like scary-ish, but “Yellowjackets” I’m obsessed with, and I love that queer relationships are at the center of that but are not the driving force of the whole story. We’re not concerned about our relationship even though when they go back in time, it’s in the ’90s, we’re more concerned of, “Are you going to eat me or not?” Like, literally eat me. I love that so much; it makes me so happy.
Sonora: Nice. So, I have been, kind of, in a reading slump lately, but I just rewatched “Our Flag Means Death” which love, love, love that show. Also, “The Untamed,” which is a C-drama but also very, very good. And I feel like I should have three, right? But I can’t think of a third one. I’ll recommend a book. This one I did read a while ago, but it did just come out, “Ander & Santi Were Here” by Jonny Garza Villa. That one just came out earlier in May. So, highly recommend that one. It’s really good.
Jeff: Two thumbs up. Highly recommend. You can’t go wrong with that.
Abdi: Oh, God, see, now I read so much and then I blank on what I read. I’m halfway through… I know because I’m reading it right now. I’m halfway through a book called “Olga Dies Dreaming,” which is incredible. Did you read that?
Sonora: No, but it’s on my list. I’m ready for it.
Abdi: It’s really good. I’m loving it. So that. And in terms of watching, God, I mean honestly, I’m all about Criterion. I love “The Criterion Collection,” and they just released their queer… Every June, they do a whole queer collection. And this year it’s like an abundance of queer classics but also they have a whole series called Mask, which is really focusing on both butch representation and transmasc representation. I started watching this Brazilian trans film from, I believe, the ’80s. I might be getting the decade wrong but an old film that was really ahead of its time about a trans Brazilian poet that I’m finding quite moving. And then also for people who just love old Hollywood, they just released a Marilyn Monroe collection, which I find that so many people in my life know Marilyn from handbags and wine bottles. And I’m like, “No, she was a genius actor whose work you need to see.” So, highly recommend you delve into that.
Yeah. And then as a family, we watch “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” We’re a drag race family as all the kids are. I mean, it’s so ridiculous all the fear of drag because you see my kids and their 11-year-old friends and they huddle together to talk about their favorite queens. And they also met Gigi Goode and Symone at Pride a few days ago. And all the kids were just literally this group of 11-year-olds bowing down to them. I don’t know if anyone’s watching drag race, but they just did a musical about Joan Crawford and her life. And that was quite a thrill for our family because Joan is like…she’s a part of our whole family, Ms. Crawford, the legendary Ms. Crawford.
Jeff: I haven’t seen that but now I’m going to have to go look at that particular thing just because…
Abdi: You have to see it.
Jeff: That sounds brilliant.
Abdi: It’s so good. It’s so good. Yeah, we loved it.
Jeff: So, what is the best way for our listeners to keep up with each of you online?
Abdi: I’m primarily on Instagram. It’s, I think, for our own wellbeing, we sometimes lean into one social media and accept that. So, I mean, I am on the others, but that’s where I tend to actually be responsive and spend time. And I’m @abdaddy on Instagram, because what else would I be?
Jason June: I’m also mostly on Instagram @heyjasonjune but you can find me at all the others @heyjasonjune also.
Sonora: I’m on Instagram and Twitter mostly. On Twitter, it’s @sonorareyes. On Instagram, it’s @sonora.reyes. And then I think… Yeah, no, I’m not going to give you my TikTok. Yeah, so those two.
Abdi: Oh, God. I want to understand TikTok. I finally went to start a TikTok and @abdaddy was taken, so I’m @abdaddiest on TikTok because whoever took @abdaddy, I’m like, “I’m more @abdaddy than you.” But I don’t understand it. It’s utter chaos.
Jason June: Yeah, it’s a lot. I’m not any Coppola enough to understand how to direct a…
Abdi: So obsessed with that Coppola kid.
Jeff: Thank you all so much for being here. It has been a wonder talking to all of you. Hope you have a great time on this tour and the best of success with your books.
Sonora: Thank you so much.
Abdi: Thank you for having us.
Jason June: Thanks, Jeff, this was great.
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, go to the show notes page for this episode at BigGayFictionPodcast.com. You’ve got links to everything that we’ve talked about in this episode.
Also, if you’d like to get book recommendations delivered to your inbox every single Friday, you should sign up for the Rainbow Romance Reader report. It’s this podcast’s official newsletter. We’ve feature new releases and upcoming books to help keep your TBR healthy and up to date. You can sign up at BigGayFictionPodcast.com/report.
Jeff: And a healthy TBR is a happy TBR.
I dunno, I just couldn’t resist that for some reason.
Thanks so much to Abdi, Jason June, and Sonora. I loved everything about talking with them, hearing about the books, and the distinct difference in having an outline versus not having an outline. That was a whole thing, as I’m sure you heard, and a very humorous part. I also appreciate how much they opened up about how their lives are reflected in these books and how passionate they are about making sure young people find themselves in stories.
Will: All right, coming up next Monday, author Jess Everlee is going to be here, and she’s going to talk about the latest in her “Lucky Lovers of London” series.
Jeff: Yes, we’re gonna find out everything about Jess’s Victorian romances, and in particular that new one, “A Rule Book for Restless Rogues.”
Will: Jeff and I wanna thank you so much for listening, and we hope that you’ll join us again soon for more discussions about the kinds of stories we all love, the big gay fiction kind. 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 frolic.media/podcasts. Original theme music by Daryl Banner.