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Interview with Anna-Marie McLemore | Shattering Stigmas

Hello, friends! Today we welcome Anna-Marie McLemore, author of The Mirror Season and Dark and Deepest Red. We had a chance to talk about trauma, seeking mental health help, and, of course their books!
Book Cover of Miss Meteor by Tehlor Kay Mejia and Anna-Marie McLemoreQ: Welcome to Shattering Stigmas! Let’s start by talking about your books. This year you released Dark and Deepest Red in January and Miss Meteor, which you co-wrote with Tehlor Kay Mejia, in September. And next year, you have The Mirror Season coming out. Briefly, how does mental health/mental illness show up in these books?
A: Dark and Deepest deals a lot with intergenerational trauma, with the mental health toll of feeling like you have to stay in the closet, and the shared joy and relief of finding and making community. In Miss Meteor, both Lita and Chicky have dealt with a lot of bullying, but together, as they plot the biggest upset in the local beauty pageant’s history, they figure out how to declare their true selves. And in The Mirror Season, two survivors who were assaulted at the same party—a queer Latina girl named Ciela and a boy named Lock—help each other find their magic, their laughter, and their will to fight back even as they’re both dealing with PTSD.
Q: Speaking of Miss Meteor, what was it like to co-author a book? I’ve heard from so many readers that it’s the type of book that will make you laugh and make you cry. What did the writing process look like and what was it like to get vulnerable and write a story with someone else?
A: Miss Meteor talks about some difficult topics—racism, queerphobia, transphobia, white beauty standards, bullying. But something Tehlor and I wanted was to be able to talk about those things while also writing something funny, this group of friends and their sometimes-ridiculous-but-always-creative plans to change their small town. So we got to write about hard things but also have fun and let our characters have fun. 
 Q: I and so many people I know are so excited for The Mirror Season so tell us more about it. I believe this is the first time you’re publishing a book about sexual assault, so how does that intersect with mental health/illness in the story?
A: Though The Mirror Season is fiction, it draws heavily on my own experiences as a survivor. Part of that experience was realizing that I needed mental health help to get to a place where I wasn’t living in everything that had happened. Lock, the survivor in The Mirror Season who’s a boy, seeks mental health help first, because he’s not sure how to move forward without it, and he knows he needs help letting go of thinking it was his fault. And by talking about that, he helps Ciela feel safe acknowledging she can’t move forward alone, without the support of the people around her who care about her. 
Q: Often in your stories, you talk about not only mental health but also racism, queerphobia, sexual assault, and trauma, among other subjects. Is there a specific way you go about handling these topics in your writing or is it unique to the story? 
A: Writing about these topics usually means going deep into my own experience with them. Though I am not my characters, I often have a lot in common with them—whether that’s being mixed-race, Latinx, queer, trans, nonbinary, or being a survivor. When I wrote about generational trauma in Dark and Deepest Red, my starting point was what I had learned about it related to my own ancestors. And though I didn’t know it at the time, when I was writing Page in Blanca & Roja, I was writing about figuring out my own gender identity. So I start with the truths I know, but storytelling sometimes also challenges me on those truths, because to imagine happy endings for my characters, I have to question some of what I heard growing up. I have to imagine that a boy/sometimes-girl like me could live a happier life than I ever thought. 
Q: Shattering Stigmas is an event that aims to keep the conversation around mental health going because it’s such an important topic. So why is talking about mental health important to you? Why is it important to bring up in your writing?
A: One of the many reasons why I’m so grateful for this series is because stigma keeps us isolated, and isolation is so often one of the biggest barriers to mental health. In The Mirror Season, Ciela and Lock are two kinds of survivors who are often forgotten in conversations about sexual assault. Ciela is Latina and queer and has to sort out what the world has told her about who she is. Lock is a boy and has to contend with the fact that the culture of toxic masculinity tells him what happened to him is his fault. In the aftermath of the party where they were both assaulted, Ciela and Lock find an unexpected friendship with each other, which is the start of them breaking that sense of isolation. 
Q: This event also has deep roots in the book community, so let’s talk about representation. Where have you seen yourself represented in media? How do you hope to see mental health representation evolve and improve? 
A: Reading E.K. Johnston’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear was huge for me, seeing a survivor believed and supported from when she first reports. I wrote to the author basically saying “This was not at all my experience, and that’s why I’m even more grateful it’s on shelves.” I’d like to see more and more stories where mental health is shown realistically while also showing a supportive community. 
Q: Time for some shout outs! What are some of your favorite books that talk about mental health? What about other media (movies, TV, music, etc.)?
A: I.W. Gregorio’s This is My Brain in Love is such a caring, nuanced portrait of living with your own thought patterns. The author never forgets that part of them, but also lets them be fully realized characters who are not defined by, but aren’t apart from, how their brains work. 
I’ll also add Emily Scott Robinson’s song “The Dress.” Content warning, it’s pretty specific about the aftermath of sexual assault. Though the author’s experience and gender identity are different from mine, I related to that moment where you get unexpectedly thrown back into remembering.  
Q: Now let’s leave off with some talk about self-care. What are your best tips and tricks for when you’re not feeling so great and need to relax or hype yourself up?
A: Finding small things that can be part of daily life has been so important. For me—and for Ciela—one of those things is makeup (at least on my girl days, though even on my boy days I have been known to rock eyeliner). Whether makeup is your thing or not, we all have an equivalent, something that helps us feel good about ourselves and also lets us play and get out of our own head for a minute. Finding those things may feel small, but they’re a big part of self-care. 
Thank you so much for having me! 
Spades Divider

Photo credit: J Elliott

Anna-Marie McLemore (they/them) is a queer, Latinx, nonbinary author who grew up hearing la llorona in the Santa Ana winds. Their books include THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS, a 2016 William C. Morris YA Debut Award Finalist; Stonewall Honor Book WHEN THE MOON WAS OURS, which was longlisted for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature and was the winner of the Otherwise Award (formerly the James Tiptree Jr. Award); WILD BEAUTY, a Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Booklist best book of 2017; BLANCA & ROJA, which was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and was recently named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Best Fantasy Novels of All Time; DARK AND DEEPEST RED, a Winter 2020 Indie Next List title; and THE MIRROR SEASON. They can be found on Twitter at @LaAnnaMarie.

Hello, friends! Today we welcome Anna-Marie McLemore, author of The Mirror Season and Dark and Deepest Red. We had a chance to talk about trauma, seeking mental health help, and, of course their books!

Ben Ace: Welcome to Shattering Stigmas! Let’s start by talking about your books. This year you released Dark and Deepest Red in January and Miss Meteor, which you co-wrote with Tehlor Kay Mejia, in September. And next year, you have The Mirror Season coming out. Briefly, how does mental health/mental illness show up in these books?

Anna-Marie McLemore: Dark and Deepest deals a lot with intergenerational trauma, with the mental health toll of feeling like you have to stay in the closet, and the shared joy and relief of finding and making community. In Miss Meteor, both Lita and Chicky have dealt with a lot of bullying, but together, as they plot the biggest upset in the local beauty pageant’s history, they figure out how to declare their true selves. And in The Mirror Season, two survivors who were assaulted at the same party—a queer Latina girl named Ciela and a boy named Lock—help each other find their magic, their laughter, and their will to fight back even as they’re both dealing with PTSD.

Book Cover of Miss Meteor by Tehlor Kay Mejia and Anna-Marie McLemoreSpeaking of Miss Meteor, what was it like to co-author a book? I’ve heard from so many readers that it’s the type of book that will make you laugh and make you cry. What did the writing process look like and what was it like to get vulnerable and write a story with someone else?

Miss Meteor talks about some difficult topics—racism, queerphobia, transphobia, white beauty standards, bullying. But something Tehlor and I wanted was to be able to talk about those things while also writing something funny, this group of friends and their sometimes-ridiculous-but-always-creative plans to change their small town. So we got to write about hard things but also have fun and let our characters have fun.

Cover of The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemoreI, and so many people I know, are so excited for The Mirror Season so tell us more about it. I believe this is the first time you’re publishing a book about sexual assault, so how does that intersect with mental health/illness in the story?

Though The Mirror Season is fiction, it draws heavily on my own experiences as a survivor. Part of that experience was realizing that I needed mental health help to get to a place where I wasn’t living in everything that had happened. Lock, the survivor in The Mirror Season who’s a boy, seeks mental health help first, because he’s not sure how to move forward without it, and he knows he needs help letting go of thinking it was his fault. And by talking about that, he helps Ciela feel safe acknowledging she can’t move forward alone, without the support of the people around her who care about her.

Often in your stories, you talk about not only mental health but also racism, queerphobia, sexual assault, and trauma, among other subjects. Is there a specific way you go about handling these topics in your writing or is it unique to the story? 

Writing about these topics usually means going deep into my own experience with them. Though I am not my characters, I often have a lot in common with them—whether that’s being mixed-race, Latinx, queer, trans, nonbinary, or being a survivor. When I wrote about generational trauma in Dark and Deepest Red, my starting point was what I had learned about it related to my own ancestors. And though I didn’t know it at the time, when I was writing Page in Blanca & Roja, I was writing about figuring out my own gender identity. So I start with the truths I know, but storytelling sometimes also challenges me on those truths, because to imagine happy endings for my characters, I have to question some of what I heard growing up. I have to imagine that a boy/sometimes-girl like me could live a happier life than I ever thought.

Shattering Stigmas is an event that aims to keep the conversation around mental health going because it’s such an important topic. So why is talking about mental health important to you? Why is it important to bring up in your writing?

One of the many reasons why I’m so grateful for this series is because stigma keeps us isolated, and isolation is so often one of the biggest barriers to mental health. In The Mirror Season, Ciela and Lock are two kinds of survivors who are often forgotten in conversations about sexual assault. Ciela is Latina and queer and has to sort out what the world has told her about who she is. Lock is a boy and has to contend with the fact that the culture of toxic masculinity tells him what happened to him is his fault. In the aftermath of the party where they were both assaulted, Ciela and Lock find an unexpected friendship with each other, which is the start of them breaking that sense of isolation.

This event also has deep roots in the book community, so let’s talk about representation. Where have you seen yourself represented in media? How do you hope to see mental health representation evolve and improve? 

Reading E.K. Johnston’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear was huge for me, seeing a survivor believed and supported from when she first reports. I wrote to the author basically saying “This was not at all my experience, and that’s why I’m even more grateful it’s on shelves.” I’d like to see more and more stories where mental health is shown realistically while also showing a supportive community.

Time for some shout outs! What are some of your favorite books that talk about mental health? What about other media (movies, TV, music, etc.)?

I.W. Gregorio’s This is My Brain in Love is such a caring, nuanced portrait of living with your own thought patterns. The author never forgets that part of them, but also lets them be fully realized characters who are not defined by, but aren’t apart from, how their brains work.

I’ll also add Emily Scott Robinson’s song “The Dress.” Content warning, it’s pretty specific about the aftermath of sexual assault. Though the author’s experience and gender identity are different from mine, I related to that moment where you get unexpectedly thrown back into remembering.

Now let’s leave off with some talk about self-care. What are your best tips and tricks for when you’re not feeling so great and need to relax or hype yourself up?

Finding small things that can be part of daily life has been so important. For me—and for Ciela—one of those things is makeup (at least on my girl days, though even on my boy days I have been known to rock eyeliner). Whether makeup is your thing or not, we all have an equivalent, something that helps us feel good about ourselves and also lets us play and get out of our own head for a minute. Finding those things may feel small, but they’re a big part of self-care.

Thank you so much for having me!

Anna-Marie McLemore headshot
Photo credit: J Elliott

Anna-Marie McLemore (they/them) is a queer, Latinx, nonbinary author who grew up hearing la llorona in the Santa Ana winds. Their books include THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS, a 2016 William C. Morris YA Debut Award Finalist; Stonewall Honor Book WHEN THE MOON WAS OURS, which was longlisted for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature and was the winner of the Otherwise Award (formerly the James Tiptree Jr. Award); WILD BEAUTY, a Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Booklist best book of 2017; BLANCA & ROJA, which was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and was recently named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Best Fantasy Novels of All Time; DARK AND DEEPEST RED, a Winter 2020 Indie Next List title; and THE MIRROR SEASON. They can be found on Twitter at @LaAnnaMarie.