Cynsational Note: Today we are honored to welcome two YA debut authors, Holly Green and Emma Kress, who talk about their debut year and the importance of writing strong, fierce female characters.
Emma: Hi, Holly! I’m so excited we get to chat about our books together for Cynsations!
Holly: Yes! I’ve been so excited about this. For those of you who don’t know us, Emma and I met at VCFA back in 2016 when we started the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program together, and this year we both published our debut books.
Emma: Not only did we debut together, but we debuted mere weeks apart. That meant that at any given time I was feeling something, chances were pretty high you were feeling the same thing. That was such a gift. I loved being able to text you and say, “hey now, so this new thing is happening.” And you’d say, “me too!”
Holly: Yes! Debuting together was such a stroke of luck! You’ve been like a debut fairy godmother, helping me narrow in on what is most important for me to do when I haven’t had much time to give to this. And being able to share experiences has been so valuable. But the absolute best part of debuting together is that we’ve become so much closer! I’ve loved all the Zooms and Facetimes we’ve done that started as us talking about publishing, and ended in us talking about everything else in our lives.
Emma: Yes! I agree. I’ve relied so much on those little capsules of sanity and friendship amidst all this pandemic publishing nuttiness. So, since we both met at VCFA, how do you feel getting an MFA prepared you for your debut year?
Holly: When I applied to VCFA, I’d written 150 pages of the book that became In the Same Boat, and I was stuck because I didn’t have the skill set to finish.
Going to VCFA was absolutely the best decision I could have made for my writing. In my first semester, I forced myself to write to the end, and I studied other stories that had elements similar to mine. After that, I set it aside for a while and tried new things and honed a lot of new skills. By fourth semester, I was ready to do a deep dive into plot. I completely replotted the book and cut almost all of those original 150 pages and at the end of the semester walked away with the draft that got me agented.
Emma: Wow! That’s so cool. While I didn’t work on Dangerous Play much at VCFA, I also experimented with new things and all of the skills I learned there certainly helped me reach that final revision. And I agree, attending VCFA was hands-down the best professional decision I’ve ever made.
It goes beyond the skills I learned; it’s the people too. The wonderful thing about debuting as a VCFA graduate is that you have this whole built-in community of mentors—your old advisors, of course—but also all of the alums and other faculty too. It’s been all the more powerful to have that huge community of people show up for us, especially in a pandemic.
Holly: Yes! Our community has been amazing! So many people have been so kind in giving shout-outs online and blurbs and helping to boost In The Same Boat and Dangerous Play. And I absolutely love the book birthday parties for VCFA books. I’ve felt so lucky to be a part of this community as I debuted.
Emma: In addition to it being a coincidence that Dangerous Play and In The Same Boat debuted the same year, it was also a coincidence that we both wrote books about strong, capable, sporty girls. Why did that appeal to you?
Holly: I come from a very indoorsy family, and I always craved outdoor adventures, so those were the books I gravitated toward. But I never thought that I could go out and do any sort of adventure sport. Honestly, it’s pretty rare to find a contemporary YA with a female heroine having really challenging physical adventures. There are tons of them in fantasy and speculative fiction, but not in contemporary.
And girls like Sadie exist. There are teenage girls who do this race who are every bit as tough as Sadie or even tougher. So I wrote In The Same Boat thinking about the girls like me, who wanted to go out and have adventures, but didn’t really know how or lacked the confidence. I wanted to set Sadie out as a role model (flaws and all) so that girls can see that (if they want to) they can go out and do hard, scary things.
Emma: I think so much of what so many writers try to do is make space for characters they haven’t seen on the page. When I first started writing Dangerous Play in 2014, there weren’t many books featuring fierce girl athletes. “Sports” books featuring girls typically meant that the sport was a side story, subservient to a main romantic plot. I wanted to show serious on-field action. I wanted to depict girls who got sweaty and got turf burn. Girls who counted their bruises proudly, because it was proof that they were pushing their bodies to the limit. Girls who were more concerned with what their bodies could do, rather than what their bodies looked like.
The other thing that I wanted to do differently was put girls in that action-hero space, a space that for the most part, historically, has been reserved for cis-men. I also wanted these girls to physically fight back. We’re used to seeing that characteristic in boys and men in books and film, but girls have rarely been allowed to be physically aggressive. And yet, the rage that fuels that aggression is an authentic part of the journey of many sexual assault survivors.
Holly: How did Dangerous Play shift from first draft to published book?
Emma: So Much Change. When I began Dangerous Play in 2014, I had this guiding question: what happens to girls when we raise them in rape culture?
So imagine me, in 2017, revising this book about a group of girls banding together to fight rape culture and then the #MeToo movement hits. It was powerful and surreal to be writing a thing and then see that very thing played out in such a way on a national and international stage.
Outside of my computer were real people speaking truth to power and rising up—together. I was awed by their courage, authenticity, vulnerability, and relentless pursuit of justice. It’s a wild thing to be writing and the thing you’re writing about is changing underneath your feet. So there had to be some real reckoning and revision, and yet that focusing question remained the same through every draft: What happens to girls when we raise them in rape culture?
Holly: Did the #MeToo movement change how you approached Dangerous Play?
Emma: Ultimately, the movement helped me find and lift up the true story. As it did for all of those survivors, the #MeToo movement helped both me and the book find its voice. I feel really pleased with how the story ended up. How was your revision process for In The Same Boat?
Holly: That must have been amazing to watch the #MeToo movement begin as you were writing this book. Canoe racing did not enter the national stage while I was writing In The Same Boat, but there were huge changes between the first draft and the published draft. Originally I spent about 150 pages and three months within the book prepping my characters to get in the boat, and the race took about 60 pages (Word doc pages, not published book pages), because I was terrified of writing the race. I didn’t know what was going to happen or what they would talk about or how they should change.
But when it came down to it, that draft didn’t work because by the time I finally got the characters on the water, I had already spent all the tension between them. I needed to get them in the boat together while they still hated each other. Once I realized that and how to get them on the water in 50 pages, it all came together, and the majority of the book became the race, which is how I envisioned it in the beginning, but was too scared to write.
Emma: Fear—and overcoming it—is such a powerful part of the writing process. It’s funny because during my first draft, I also wrote 150 pages of backstory before Dangerous Play truly began. While it was a bit frustrating to realize that after 150 pages I hadn’t actually begun the true book, it did help me get to know all of the characters.
Now, thanks to VCFA, I call that side writing and I don’t feel as silly.
Holly: Yes! I agree, all that other writing was so helpful, even though it didn’t make it into the book.
Emma: Speaking of lessons….this has been such a year of learning. What’s one lesson you hope you can carry with you past this moment?
Holly: When you enter the publishing world, there’s this sense that you have to be constantly publishing, constantly promoting, constantly hustling or your career will die. And honestly, to get through the past 18 months, none of that was possible for me.
My lesson this past year and a half has been to think of my writing career as something that will unfold over years, and hopefully decades, not as something that has an expiration date.
Emma: I love that, Holly. I agree. At one point I started to panic that I hadn’t done this or that in Dangerous Play. Then I had this realization that it wasn’t about cramming everything into a single book. It’s about looking long and crafting a full career. Honestly, I think I’ll be sad if I reread my debut in 15 years and don’t find a hundred things to change. Because that would mean I haven’t grown. T
hank goodness we’re not Madonna forced to play the same songs the same way for eternity. Although, I’d kind of love to be Madonna.
Holly: I mean, who wouldn’t? What you say is so interesting, though, because our books are kind of like time capsules for how we felt about something at a certain time or what issues we were wrestling with.
Emma: Oh, I love that. Yes. I’ll also say I’ve been thinking a lot about how we move finish lines in our society. Like the second we reach The End, we run out and plant another one. I don’t want to do that. You and I have had long and hard roads to publication. I think we deserve to just sit and enjoy this moment a little while longer.
Holly: That’s such an important thing to point out. There’s something really lovely and important about sitting back for a while and just being satisfied with what you have and what you’ve accomplished. It’s something I hope everyone gets to experience.
Holly Green is the author of In The Same Boat. A former potter, and Tech Trainer, Holly lives in Austin, Texas with her family and an immortal fish named Ron. Find her online at www.hollygreenwrites.com.
From the promotional copy of Holly’s In The Same Boat (Scholastic, 2021):
It’s the eve of the Texas River Odyssey, and Sadie Scofield is finally ready for the 265-mile canoe race. It’s three days of grueling, nonstop paddling, where every turn of the river reveals new challenges — downed trees, poisonous snakes, alligators — but the dangers are all worth it. Reaching the finish line is the only way for Sadie to redeem herself for last year, when one small mistake spiraled into disaster.
Sadie has spent a year training, and she’s ready for anything . . . except for her brother ditching her at the last minute for a better team.
She has no choice but to team up with Cully, her former best friend turned worst enemy. Everything about him irritates her, from his stupid handsome face to the way he holds his paddle. But as the miles pass, the pain builds, and family secrets come to light, Sadie realizes she’ll have to work with Cully instead of against him. Last year’s race was a catastrophe, but this year’s race just might change her life in ways she never imagined.
From the promotional copy of Emma’s Dangerous Play (Macmillan, 2021):
Zoe Alamandar has one goal: win the State Field Hockey Championships and earn a scholarship that will get her the hell out of Central New York. She and her co-captain Ava Cervantes have assembled a fierce team of dedicated girls who will work hard and play by the rules.
But after Zoe is sexually assaulted at a party, she finds a new goal: make sure no girl feels unsafe again. Zoe and her teammates decide to stop playing by the rules and take justice into their own hands. Soon, their suburban town has a team of superheroes meting out punishments, but one night of vigilantism may cost Zoe her team, the championship, her scholarship, and her future.