The author of the incredible Marcia’s series bares it all, from personal life to his plans for the future.
Clint! What a journey it was to read Marcia’s story! It was quite emotional to be honest, especially the last book. As Marcia herself said, ‘this is the last time for real!’ and we all became melancholic about it – but it was impossible not to! After all that happened during those high school years… tell us: how did you come up with the idea?
Great question! This one is the one I get asked the most when talking about my books – where do your ideas come from? For most of my books, it starts with the characters and a basic idea for a plot.
What if a young teenager was forced to come out publicly as gay before she was ready? (My Name is Marcia) What if two girls fell in love for the first time, but events around them pulled them apart? (Art School Blues) What if a bunch of teenagers signed up for a reality show that turned out to be a total lie? (Island Games) What if everything you thought you knew about your world was wrong? (Wayward Magic).
In the case of my first book, My Name is Marcia, I was working on something completely unrelated during July of 2020, the pandemic summer, and I had a vision of a girl lying in the middle of a football field. She turns to her friend and says, “I think I might be gay.” That ended up being the very first scene in My Name is Marcia. I’d toyed with the idea of writing a book before that, but I’d never had an idea this strong or so fully formed. But I also knew that writing a book would be a MAJOR undertaking, it was easily the hardest creative thing I’d ever done, so I decided that if I was going to do it, I didn’t want to read another book about guys like me (straight, white, older, male). Which is how I ended up creating Marcia Torres, a Hispanic lesbian teenager, but someone who, like me, gets overly excited about things and has tons of empathy for the people and world around her.
Why is it so important for you to portray the teen LGBT community?
The short answer here is that my own kids are LGBTQ and that I teach in an inner city
performing arts high school, so many of my students are also LGBTQ and African-American.
The longer answer is that, when I first started the Marcia books I didn’t have a plan beyond just finishing the first book. But once I had, and once I saw the positive response I’d gotten from my readers – teens or adults, gay or straight, everyone was loving the books and the characters. I could tell how important this kind of representation was going to be, especially to my LGBTQ readers, and ESPECIALLY to my teen students who were LGBTQ. I’ve been told, “I wish this book had been around when I was younger and struggling with coming out.” I’ve gotten thank-you’s from parents of LGBTQ students who have read the books and given it to their parents. A few months ago, at a career fair at my school, a teenage girl came up to my display of books and very quietly asked, “Sorry if this sounds rude, but are your books gay?” I smiled, nodded and replied, “They’re very gay.” She nearly squealed with delight.
I know focusing on LGBTQ characters, as well as non-white characters, might turns away some potential readers, and it certainly makes the writing harder for someone like me who is not directly part of that community, but I feel it’s absolutely the
right call, especially with an increase in book bans in some parts of the US, and a concerted effort from some political groups to bury stories about the kinds of characters I like to write about.
Across the four Marcia’s books you portray a wide array of homophobic and racist characters, and all of them are not of legal age yet. Tell us non-Americans more about it, because it looks like such a distant and almost impossible-to-still-exist world.
First, I want to mention that I think of the world of my Marcia and Katrina series to be a slightly exaggerated version of the world we live in. The good kids are a little nicer, a little smarter, and little more empathetic than your average teen, but that’s because I’ve seen kids like that. I’ve taught kids like that. I’ve taught a Marcia, a Patience, a Charlie, a Katrina, an Anna. They aren’t your typical teenager, but they’re out there. And so, the antagonists of the stories are also slightly exaggerated but also based on real-life examples I’ve seen. I’m not going to say ‘bad’ kids because in some cases ‘misunderstood’ or ‘misguided’ is more accurate. The simple fact is that during our pre-teen years, we still accept most of what our parents show us about the world, and it’s not until our teenage years that we begin to question it. Sometimes, you rebel against your parents’ way of life. Sometimes, you embrace it. I grew up in the American South in the 1970s and 80s – no longer the Civil Rights-era world of MLK and the 60s, but still filled with under-the-surface racism and not-so-under-the-surface anger and mistrust. I saw a lot of people who, like me, pushed back against the history of violence and hatred of our ancestors and instead embraced inclusion and diversity. But I also saw a lot of people who didn’t.
Just remember that every adult KKK member, every Neo Nazi, every ultra right-wing politician who uses ‘them vs us’ as an excuse for the nation’s problems was once a teenager who had to decide which direction to go in. Racism and homophobia doesn’t spout during adulthood. It’s grown and cultivated in kids by their racist and homophobic parents.
Sometimes, the kids fight against it, like my character Ashley Harwood. But a lot of them don’t. I write about kids like that because they’re out there in the real world, spray painting swastikas on synagogues, or tearing down their neighbour’s pride flags, or carrying AR-15s and firing into a crowd of Black Lives Matter protestors. Like a famous author once said, “Fiction is finding the truth in the lie.” My characters may not be real, but they’re all based on the world we live in, the good and the bad.
You said that after “Marcia says goodbye” there will not be anymore Marcia books.
However, “Kathrina’s theory of Starting over” features as main protagonists two girls
who were in the same high school as Marcia. Can we hope for a spin-off?
After completing my first book, I knew a few things.
The first was that I was going to keep writing – the rush of seeing your ideas becoming something real and tangible is simply too great for me to stop. Second was I wanted to keep writing about Marcia and her friends, and that each Marcia book would be one year of her high school life. In America that’s 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grade. And I also knew I didn’t have much interest in writing “Marcia and Patience Go to College”. I knew that after they graduated, it would be time to move on to new characters and new stories. But, what I didn’t expect was how much fun it is to write those characters, especially after several years of them living in my head. So, the Katrina books, which pick up right after Marcia and her friends graduate, will continue to feature cameos
from the old bunch as they drop back into town for the holidays and such.
One last thing I knew as well was that I love taking on books that are slightly outside my norm, and I’ve always wanted to write a book that feels like the fun, goofy Christmas movies you see on cable during the holidays. So, keep an eye out for A Very Marcia Christmas. Not sure when it’s coming, maybe next year, maybe after, but I have a feeling it’ll all come together one day. In the meantime, fans of Marcia, Charlie, and Patience can see them interacting with the main characters of the Katrina series, which I’m two books into, with two more to come over the next few years.
You have written 9 books so far and, exclusively for us, a short story, but how did you
start writing and why?
If you’d asked me when I was younger, I wouldn’t have said, “I want to be an author
when I grow up.” But I was always creative and artistic. I would write, draw, and create little stories with my toys and action figures. Like all kids of the 80s, I watched a lot of TV shows and movies, but I was always more interested in the stories in my head than the ones I saw on the screens around me.
I’d never really thought of myself as a writer because writing was always difficult for me as a kid. As my teachers and parents would tell you, my penmanship was horrible and I was a terrible speller. Besides, what I really wanted to do was make movies. Well, I found ways as an adult to fulfil that dream – first working as a news videographer and editor, then becoming a teacher and turning teenagers into writers, producers and directors, as well as making short films with my own kids as they got older.
What I hadn’t really realised through my twenties and thirties is that writing had always been there waiting in the background as a creative outlet for me. My mom still keeps essays and stories I wrote in elementary school. I still have my journals and notebooks from my high school creative writing classes, including one story that was typed on an actual typewriter. I like to take that out every now and then to show my students when they complain about having to use Google Docs or Microsoft Word. But back to my point – it wasn’t until the past five years or so, as my own kids got older and my life slowed down a bit, that I thought seriously about writing again. Every now and then, my wonderfully supportive wife would say, “You should write a book. I bet it’d be really good.” But she’d never pressure me because we both understood the difference between writing a short story or a five-page script and trying to bang out an entire novel. Taking on an endeavor that large is scary. What if you start and you just can’t find your way to the end? What if you spend months and months working on this thing only to lose the threads that hold it together, so you let it fall apart and
leave it sitting unfinished with nothing to show for it? Or worse, what if you finish your
book… and no one likes it? Your first book is absolutely terrifying.
What I never expected was how absolutely thrilling it is when it goes right. When the
pieces all fall together, when characters come to life, when your readers respond not just positively but in ways you never expected: “I’m OBSESSED with this book.” (Island Games); “I adore your book but I can’t stop crying.” (Art School Blues); “Every high school needs a copy of this book.” (My Name is Marcia). Getting there, though, isn’t magic. It doesn’t just happen. It’s work. Work, work, work. And a little bit of faith.
And okay, yeah, some magic, too. Or, at least, that’s how it feels to me.
You are a self-published author: have you ever tried to go the traditional way? If so, can you tell us anything about your experience?
I think everyone who’s written a book the past few years is aware of a few things.
They know that every year there are more and more self-published books to compete against. I think there’s something like a million new books a year dropped on Amazon,
which is staggering to think about. They also know that life would be so much easier if we had a legitimate publishing house, not a vanity press, backing your book and helping with promotion and sales. And regardless of what some authors say about the ‘freedom’ of independent publishing, which I’m all for, the fact remains that we would all absolutely die with validation if some major publisher like Random House or HarperCollins said, “We like your book SO MUCH that we’d like to pay you for the rights to publish it. How’s a hundred thousand dollars sound? Also, we’d like to talk long-term contracts and movie rights.”
Well, I mean, to be able to make a living off your writing is just the dream, right? So very, very hard to do as an indie writer. Unfortunately, getting picked up by a publisher has about the same odds as becoming a pro athlete when there are a half-million other writers out there putting out books. But yes, I have tried to seek representation. And will continue to try. Last year I spent the summer querying agents and shopping around my standalone romance Art School Blues. I spent months getting the “We love your book, but it’s not for us” email or receiving the “Your book is not what we’re looking for at this time” message. I have several former students who are now actors, local and in LA and NY, and I’ve always told them I admire their ability to put themselves out there auditioning just to be told ‘no’ over and over again. Trying to get into acting means hearing at least ten to twenty no’s for every yes. Often more. Submitting to publishers or querying agents is like that. Imagine asking a girl out and hearing, “You’re very cute, but you’re not my type.” Then imagine hearing that thirty more times in a row. After a while, you stop asking. But yeah, I figure that, eventually, when I hit on the right book, I’ll start the process back up again. I often think of the author Colleen Hoover, now a household name with books like ‘Verity’ and ‘It Ends With Us’. A little research shows that she’d been writing and self-publishing book after book for almost a decade before ‘hitting it big’. But it takes patience and perseverance. And really, really thick skin.
What are the main challenges you find as a self-published author? And what
would you like to do/gave you done about it?
I think almost every self-published author will tell you the same thing. All we want to do is find time to keep writing. But, instead, we have to figure out how to edit and format and upload. We need pretty solid computer skills and knowledge of graphic design for our covers. Even if we pay someone else to do all that, we still need to know how it’s all done so we can make sure it’s done right. And that’s all before the book comes out. We still need to make sure people read our book. Because what good is a book if no one reads it? So we learn to promote, promote, promote. We become experts in social media, building websites, or running promotions, or making ads and book trailers. Speaking engagements and online interviews and podcasts, and all that is if we’re lucky and people liked the book to begin with. And, oh, wouldn’t it be grand if someone would handle all that for us so we could get back to writing? But, alas, that’s not to be unless you have unlimited funds to throw around to pay people to do it for you, and most of us do not.
The upside is that there are so many indie authors now that there is a very supportive
community online (this website is an example) where authors can support each other, find each other’s books, share ideas, ask questions, and uplift each other’s spirits when things get hard. Yes, there are scammers, and companies out there trying to take your money, and occasional professional jealousy from other authors, but my online interactions with other authors are almost always positive.
We know you are a writer but also a teacher, so we presume that you are also a great
reader: what’s are you reading currently and what are the books that most influenced
I read about 20 to 30 books a year, which is either considered a ton or very little, depending on how busy your life is. When my kids were younger, it was closer to maybe a book a month. Now my kids are older (my youngest are in high school) and my life has slowed down a little. I balance reading with writing my own books, keeping up with TV shows and movies, and playing the occasional video game. I am a teacher, as you’ve mentioned, and so I’ll often seek out good YA books, not only to help me as a YA writer but to find books that my students might be into. Recently I read ‘I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter’ by Erika Sanchez and the graphic novel ‘Nimona’ by ND Stevenson. Both were phenomenal five-star reads. I’m currently reading Jimmy Buffett’s memoir ‘A Pirate Looks at Fifty’ in honour of the recent passing of the singer-songwriter (I’ve been a huge fan of his for decades). Then I’m planning to read ‘Local Woman Missing’ by Mary Kubica for a book club, and then I hope to get back to Robert Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time’ series, which I’m hoping to finish sometime before I die. (I’m currently on book #13.) Also, I recently purchased ‘I Just Can’t Say I Love You’ by fellow indie author Debby Meltzer Quick. I highly recommend her books for anyone who’s into sweet romance and the 1980s.
As to books and authors that influenced me, I’m going to say Stephen King, which probably sounds odd since he writes supernatural horror that shines a light on the worst parts of society, and I write sweet YA books about gay kids fighting to make the world a better place. But I discovered the work of ‘Uncle Stevie’ back in college many, many years ago, and since then I’ve read nearly everything he’s written. And while our content may be very, very different, there are a few things our writing has in common.
First, we both love playing with language and structure. Anyone who’s read King’s work
knows that he loves using unconventional storytelling devices and occasionally playing fast and loose with grammar and syntax. He sometimes invents words and phrases for stuff there’s no word for, which I’ve also done from time to time. He never gets too crazy with his formatting, but he isn’t afraid to throw in some weird indenting to get a point across, or he’ll start and stop a scene in an odd place as a way to help the audience feel what the characters feel. And he’ll hop, skip and jump around plot-wise in ways that an author normally won’t. It was through reading King that I learned that you don’t always have to follow the ‘rules’ of writing, but if you are going to break the rules, you’d better have a darn good reason.
And speaking of characters, King knows how to make ‘em. It’s not just that he creates
horrifying situations – anyone can do that – it’s that he makes characters that you really care about, ones that feel like real people, and then he throws them into horrifying situations. A big part of that is through dialogue, which is a major focus of King’s, and that’s a major focus of mine as well. King is sort of like scriptwriters like Quinton Tarantino or Aaron Sorkin in that the dialogue isn’t always a hundred percent true-to-life, but it always feels authentic, and every character speaks with a different voice. That’s what I strive for. My readers always say that I create teenage characters that feel real and authentic, and, yes, part of that is being a teacher and a parent (and being observant and listening to how young people speak), but a bigger part is thinking of your characters as real people with real thoughts, feelings, and lives
outside of the pages, and that’s something I picked up from reading King.
What are your goals for the future?
Well, my current goal is to keep writing. I’m writing and publishing at a pace of about
two books a year. A friend of mine says that I release books faster than she can read them, but the truth is I don’t know how to slow down. Nor do I really want to. Since I’m a teacher, I do the majority of my intense writing during summer breaks and winter/holiday breaks, and I edit and rewrite throughout the year. I started my first book in the summer of 2020, and I’m currently working on book #10, a fantasy novel called ‘Wayward Magic’. It’s my first foray into fantasy. Like all of my other books, it’s lighthearted and funny at times, serious and somber at other times, and, of course, features LGBTQ main characters. I’d told myself that I’d only ever take a stab at fantasy if I had a really good, really original idea before I started.
To do fantasy right, you need to create an original world that feels real and authentic but also isn’t a copy of Lord of the Rings, Wheel of Time, Game of Thrones, A Court of Thorns and Roses, or one of the dozens of dragon books that are out there. But you also can’t create anything too different or it won’t feel like fantasy. The basic starting premise for ‘Wayward Magic’ was to create a world where the reader thinks everything is one way, and then hit them with an OMG WHAT? twist midway through the book that changes everything. When ‘Wayward Magic’ comes out early next year, readers will be able to decide if I pulled it off or not.
In October, I’ll start working on the third Katrina book, ‘Katrina’s Theory of Infinite
Possibilities’. Then, next spring, I’ll start work on another stand-alone book, but I’m not sure which one. I have lots of ideas floating around. I want to try a cozy mystery set in a high school (working title: The Princess and the Quarterback) but mysteries take a lot of planning and I’m more of a seat-of-the-pants writer.
I also want to write a novel that deals with father-daughter relationships (working title: Anchor Points) since I was told by a coworker that YA doesn’t do that often enough. You have tons of mom-and-kids stories, but not a lot showing healthy dad-and-kid relationships. So yeah, that’s my plan for next year – release ‘Wayward
Magic’ in the spring of 2024, and the third Katrina book in the fall, and then find my way forward from there.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s been lovely talking with you, but I have to get back to my writing.
And we are happy to let you go! Reading Marcia’s series has been an incredible experience, and having a glimpse of Wayward Magic just left us thirsty for more. We can only hope the wait won’t be long, but giving his speed, we think it will be short and sweet. Until then, you can have a look at Clint Chico author’s page on Amazon and follow his progresses on his social media account (Facebook: Clint Chico and Clint Chico YA Author, Instagram: booksbychico).