Ep 201: Amber Smith Pulls Two Characters Together
Jeff & Will talk about their past week of business decisions and the coming week they’ll spend at the Podcast Movement conference. They also remind the authors in the audience to check out the new Big Gay Author Podcast.
The guys talk about the production of The Wiz they just saw as well as the current season of Pose. Together they review Lucy Lennox’s Wilde Love and Jeff reviews Dreadnought by April Daniels.
Amber Smith joins Jeff to talk about her young adult novel Something Like Gravity. Amber reveals how the characters of Chris and Maia had been the main characters in different books before she decided they’d be great together in a single book. Amber also discusses how she got started writing, the trademarks of her books and the research she does to create her characters.
Complete shownotes for episode 201 along with a transcript of the interview are at BigGayFictionPodcast.com.
Interview Transcript – Amber Smith
This transcript was made possible by our community on Patreon. You can get information on how to join them at patreon.com/biggayfictionpodcast.
Jeff: Welcome Amber to the podcast. It is great to have you here.
Amber: Thank you so much for having me. I’ve been really looking forward to this.
Jeff: So I reviewed ‘Something Like Gravity’ back in episode 195 and it was the summer book that I didn’t know I was looking for. I’d like you to start us off by telling everybody, in your own words, what this book is about.
Amber Well, this book is about a lot of things, but really, at its center, it’s a story about falling in love for the first time and finding yourself in the process. It’s told between our two main characters, Chris and Maia, and both of them are going through a really difficult time in each of their lives. Chris has recently come out as transgender and he’s really trying to figure out how to navigate his life now that everything’s suddenly changing, and he’s also trying to process this really terrifying assault that he survived the year earlier. Maia is dealing with the recent death of her older sister. And so both of their lives look very different, but the one thing that they have in common that brings them together is that they’re both trying to figure out who they are going to become in the face of these life changing events that they’ve been through.
Jeff: What was your inspiration behind the book?
Amber: There are various threads of inspiration, but it’s funny, I actually started writing this book as two separate books. Chris was the protagonist of one and Maia was the protagonist of the other. And I do generally work on two things at the same time because, if I get stuck on one I can sort of hop over to the other thing I’m working on. I always thought of these as separate books in the beginning and Chris’s story was primarily about coming out, and being queer, and being trans, and trying to figure all of that out. And Maia’s was a story about grief. At a certain point, I think it became too hard for me to continue working on these stories because both of them were super personal. I was drawing from a lot of my own experiences with coming out as a lesbian and also, you know, dealing with the loss of loved ones myself. At a certain point, I thought, you know what can I do to kind of make this easier on myself? And I thought about giving Chris a love interest. And when I started to think about what would be the kind of person that would be really good for Chris, and would kind of balance him out, and all of those wonderful things that happen in a relationship. I immediately thought of Maia – this other character that I was writing, and that’s when I realized, oh my gosh, I think these stories were always meant to be one story. And it just took me a while to realize it.
Jeff That’s amazing to me on a couple of levels. I can’t do two projects at once because it makes my head want to explode. But also there’s – just coming back to the title, ‘Something Like Gravity’ is like gravity just pulled between these two stories and brought these two together from the disparate places that you had them. Did the characters fundamentally change when you brought them together or did everything just click into place once that happened?
Amber: Well, not necessarily so. I think the biggest part was that I had been working on these stories for so long. I don’t think much of my original writing made it into the final book. I think doing that writing on both of the stories prior to lining them as one, really helped me to get to know each character in that sense because, I knew each of them so well, I knew their voices, I knew their histories. It was sort of easy to bring them together, but I had to rewrite everything better. I think it was almost like telling the stories of two people I knew really well already.
Jeff: Any chance that those original stories get to become prequels or something?
Amber: Oh my gosh I love that idea. Something to think about.
Jeff: As you noted, I see both Chris and Maia have these weighty things that they’re dealing with on both sides. What was your process to present that authentically to the readers?
Amber: I always, whenever I’m starting a story, I begin with my own experience and I always sort of view writing as therapy in a way. So like Chris and Maia’s experiences start out as something very real that’s happened in my life.
But then as I write them they become something else. So, I don’t know. I think I just always have in the back of my mind the roots – like emotion, or the emotional world that I lived in as kind of the parameters for this story. And so hopefully that helps to keep things feeling real and authentic.
Jeff: And then you put the love story in with this. The way that you counterbalance what they’re going through with this super sweet love story. It was unique to me how that worked because for some of the story at least, they’re almost not dealing with their issues because they’re finding this in each other. How did that kind of all mix together for you?
Amber: I think one of the things I’ve realized as I was writing the book, separately in the beginning, was that I was focused so much on the pain that each of these characters felt. I’ve written about trauma, and assault, and grief, in the past and it felt like I was sort of rehashing – or reopening old wounds of my own. I just thought I really need to do something different here. And it took me a while to figure out that I wanted this to be a love story because, as you know, it took me a while to kind of wrap my head around why was I writing it that way in the first place? I had this switch flipped in my mind when I started to think about the love story aspect of, you know, what I’d love to do with this book is make love be more powerful than the pain that each of them were experiencing.
And so that kind of helped me to steer this story in a different direction. And then when I really started thinking about it, that love, and connection, and relationships, those are the things that really helped me heal during the hardest times in my life. And so I think it can be so easy to focus on the darkness sometimes but, when I really thought about even my own life, I realized the things that really got me out of those dark places were my connections with other people, and learning how to love myself, and falling in love for the first time. And so that became something I want to do – explore more than that other side of things.
Jeff: And it’s interesting too that essentially the secondary story for both characters is their relationship with their parents. For Chris it’s his parents coming to understand that Chris has come out as trans, and for Maia they’re going through the same grief that she is, having lost their daughter. How did you approach layering that in? Because, again, you’ve balanced this out so beautifully, how it just all kind of ebbs and flows together – but there’s a lot in play here.
Amber: Oh thank you. You know, I think the family dynamics with each of the characters – I will say that’s the one thing that kind of carried over when I was working on these as separate books. In my original ideas for both Chris and Maia, one of the big things that they were dealing with were these really complicated family issues that were going on. Yeah. So I think I just I always knew from the beginning I wanted part of their journeys to be trying to work out all of this messy, complicated, emotional stuff with their families and with themselves. I don’t really know how I layered it in because I think it was just always in the back of my mind that that stuff needed to be there. And I had thought of Chris and Maia’s relationship, the way that they grow and discover more about themselves, as kind of the framework of getting to the place where they were able to deal with their family stuff because they evolved too.
Jeff: Did you have to do a lot of research? In your acknowledgments in the book you list out a whole bunch of people and things that you looked at to help craft all this, and so it seems like there was quite a bit that went on to create the characters, and create the situations, and then, as we kind of talked about it a little bit, getting it authentically on the page.
Amber: For this book in particular I really reached out to a lot of different readers and friends, people who have gone through similar things to Chris and Maia. So I had friends, who identify as trans or non binary, read different sections of the book looking at Chris’s perspective. I even had a professor at one of the universities here in North Carolina really go through the entire manuscript with a fine tooth comb because, while in particularly looking at Chris’s side of the story because even though I kind of started with a kernel of my own experience, for Chris as a queer person. I’m not transgender, so I wanted to be very careful that I wasn’t doing anything in my narrative, and my representation, that would be in any way harmful or misrepresenting Chris as a transman.
And so that was super super helpful. I found that the areas that I was really worried about in Chris’s story, were not the areas that were pinpointed by my readers as being problematic. I think that goes to show, it really was important for me to seek out those other perspectives, because the things that I thought might be issues were not what they thought were issues. So yeah, that was a really big process… getting that feedback from those other readers.
Jeff: One of the things I’d mentioned in my review, what struck me about the book, is a sweet love story, two characters with trauma, and yet the book itself kind of felt like this lazy summer vacation. I think some of it is because of where it set. So it’s a small town, and you’ve got Chris and Maia essentially living on farms and separated by this field, and I could just envision hanging out on the porch, and just kind of letting the summer go by. Bike rides, and these adventures they went on – where they went to the to the adjacent town to check things out. And it really kind of held the story together – and kind of kept it in this very innocent place. Was that deliberate, or did it just happen that way, because of how it all pieced together as you were going?
Amber: You know, that part of this story really was deliberate. Once I started trying to figure out how to weave Chris and Maia’s stories together, I really sat down and I did a lot of pragmatic planning and plotting, which is not something I usually do at all. I think I knew trying to combine two stories, I really had to know where I was going because it could get really confused. So one of the first things I decided was the setting and the timeframe. I decided I wanted it to take place in a rural North Carolina town, which Carson is fictional, but it’s based on a lot of the small towns on the outskirts of Charlotte where I live. I knew I wanted it to take place across the course of one summer and I did that partially because of that feel that you’re talking about. I really wanted to give Chris and Maia a space where it felt like their lives and their realities are somewhat suspended for a little bit of time, so that they could have the freedom to figure out what they’re going to do, figure out how to process what’s happened in their lives. And I always felt, growing up, summer is sort of this weird Time Warp kind of area, where things just don’t happen in the same way as the rest of the year.
And so I definitely wanted to bring in that kind of like lazy feel because it feels like we have all the time in the world, but of course, we know summer only last so long. That’s also a little bit of a ticking clock I could put in there.
Jeff: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
Amber: I really wanted readers to be able to look at Chris and Maia’s story and find pieces of themselves in each of these characters. Even if a reader isn’t trans, or queer, or grieving, I hope that they might be able to find some commonality with Chris and Maia. And maybe that’s just the simple fact of being able to relate to falling in love for the first time, but that for people who do identify with the things that Chris and Maia are going through, maybe if the reader is trans, or non-binary, or going through a major loss, or some kind of upheaval in their lives, I would hope that they could look at Chris and Maia as a way of knowing that there are people in the world who understand what they’re going through and they’re not alone.
Jeff: Let’s talk a little bit about Amber Smith’s origin story. What got you into writing and coming specifically into writing these powerful young adult books? Because this is not your first one that deals with weighty material.
Amber: I sort of came to writing in a very roundabout way – as a lot of people do. So, when I was growing up, I always wrote. I always kept journals. And when I was a little bit older, like a teenager, I wrote poetry, but all of my writing was very personal and not something I would ever show anyone. It was more like therapy. Like, even when I was a little kid, I remember the little diaries. And it was like I would just write about what happened that day, just sort of like dumping everything out of my head. So I was actually much more involved in the visual arts all throughout my life.
That’s what I really focused on when I was in high school. I ended up going to college for painting. I had my BFA in painting and then I went on to get my master’s in art history because I had worked in some art gallery settings as an undergrad and I was like, “You know, I think I want to be a part of this whole art world in this way, maybe not as an artist, but as someone who kind of brings art to people.” And so I did that for a long time. I was working in my role as a curator, and during that time I was doing a lot of writing for my work, but it was more writing about art history and biography-type writing. Even though I loved what I was doing in the art museum world, I really missed working on my own creative stuff and so it was then that I really looked at writing as, not just a therapeutic outlet, but it became more of my creative outlet, and that’s when I started working on my first book. That first book actually started out as very much therapeutic writing and then the longer I spent with this story, it kind of morphed into something more fictional, and I’ve I guess I was sort of hooked at that point. I realized, “Wow, you know, I can really do a lot with fiction.” And it was really healing, just like when you read a fictional book, it can be a lot easier to sometimes relate to a fictional character and have empathy for their situation, and kind of see the big picture more so than we can sometimes do for ourselves. And that’s sort of what writing became for me very early on. That’s how I got here.
Jeff: That’s a good story. I like how you went from essentially one creative expression to another – from creating works of art to now creating a different work of art, if you will.
Amber: ‘Something Like Gravity’ is the first book where I’ve been able to kind of bring in some of my art background. So that was really fun.
Jeff: Yeah, with Maia’s photography, I could see how that could bridge that gap a little bit.
Jeff: What would you say is the trademark of an Amber Smith book?
Amber: I would say the trademark is the story is going to be emotional. It’s going to deliver some difficult stuff and it’s going to be very real. So I definitely don’t like to kind of sugar coat things all that much, so it can be a little gritty.
Jeff: Gritty is a good word for it actually, having now read this one. Who are some of your author influences?
Amber: Oh, you know, some of the authors who really influenced me the most are the authors that I read when I was in high school. I remember YA wasn’t necessarily a thing yet when I was a younger teenager, but in my senior year of high school I remember there were several books that came out right at that time and I was a big nerd, so I volunteered at my school library, and my librarian was like my best friend, so she would give me all of the books that were coming in – for me to take home and read her first, before anybody else. I remember reading ‘Speak’ by Laurie Halse Anderson. And that book really stands out for me. It just changed my life because I think it was one of the first times I remember feeling like a book truly brought me this deep sense of comfort. I was seen and understood. I was not alone. And that really stayed with me. And then there were other books that came out right around that time, ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’. That was a huge book for me that I read when I was in high school. Let’s see. Sonya Sones, her debut, ‘Stop Pretending’ came out and it was written in verse. And that was also the first time I had read something like that and it really made an impact. I think back to those books I read when I was a teenager, and the ones that really affected me were those ones that were about really serious issues, and they are the ones that made me feel like I was not alone. There was hope things could get better. I guess that’s sort of where I’m coming from now as a writer. What were the stories I needed when I was a teenager?
Jeff: And what’s coming up next for you?
Amber: Well, I’m not entirely sure. I have a couple of things in the works. I’m pretty sure what is going to be next is going to be a middle grade book. So, going a little bit younger. So that’s really exciting. I’ve been wanting to kind of explore different genres. I think back, middle school was actually a lot more traumatic for me than high school. So it’s funny I haven’t gone there yet.
Jeff: I look forward to seeing what that could be because, over time, I’ve read some really compelling middle grade books.
Amber: Yeah. Things that have been coming out recently too are just amazing.
Jeff: What’s the best way for everyone to keep up with you online so they can follow along with what you’re doing and when new stuff comes out?
Amber: I always keep updates going on my website ambersmithauthor.com, but I’m most active on Instagram. On Instagram I’m @ambersmithauthor. I’m also on Twitter as asmithauthor and Facebook as well. So definitely keep up with me there. I love hearing from readers, and I just I get so excited when I see messages come in from you guys.
Jeff: Fantastic. We’ll link up to all those places, the books we talked about, and of course, ‘Something Like Gravity’. Wish you the best of luck with that as this summer continues this year.
Amber: Thank you so much.