Every Friday in October, AAR will run a guest post as part of our participation in Queer Romance Month. Today’s is hosted by queer romance author Santino Hassell.
New Adult is one of my favorite romance subgenres because of all the ground that’s covered in these novels. There’s college life, newfound independence, economic struggles, interpersonal issues that pop up as characters broaden their horizons, and of course sexual exploration and those first serious relationships. When queer characters are involved, that landscape of “first” themes can become even richer.
In celebration of Queer Romance Month, I’m sitting down to discuss queer NA with Megan Erickson and Amy Jo Cousins.
SH: Hey guys! Thank you for joining me.
AJC: Hi! Delighted to be here, typing over your every word.
ME: Thanks for having us! Excited to chat.
SH: When I first stumbled upon NA, I expected the books to be very Felicity-esque (is this a dated reference? am I being old?). In other words, I thought they would all be college or career oriented, sometimes wholesome, and sometimes messagey. I was then told that a lot of NA is focused more on sexual exploration and pushing sexual boundaries. What do you guys think? What is NA to you?
AJC: Ooh! I have opinions! I think there are a lot of definitions of NA floating around out there, from the standard “18-26 year old characters figuring out how the launch themselves into life now that they’re adults” to this weird new “anything that is edgy will be called NA” thing I’m seeing. To me, NA is mostly a marketing category. It zoomed into existence because publishers weren’t putting out any romances about characters who were younger. In most other genres, there wasn’t this giant gap between YA books and adult novels. In romance, there was. And boom. When authors noticed the gap and filled it, the books sold like crazy. (YES. But I think I’m done)
ME: So, I might have stolen this somewhere, I can’t remember, but to me, Young Adult is learning who you are, and New Adult is figuring out how who you are fits into the wider world. As in, okay, so I think I’m this, now how do I, uh, adult like this?
AJC: I like that definition better than the ones tied to age, Megan. I’m writing a story now with a guy who’s in his thirties but just figuring out his life and it still feels very NA, although I wouldn’t call it that in the market.
ME: Yes! Which is why I find the market to be… kinda odd and fluid. I think there are many books that have a New Adult feel but yet aren’t categorized as such. Which gets murky and weird, which is why I think publishers are having a hard time with NA. Because labels and bookshelves is how they operate.
SH: I think we’re all on the same page as far as thinking New Adult novels should be labeled in terms of themes instead of a specific age range. Do you think that’s partially why there is discussion of NA kind of… fading away as a subgenre? Publishers don’t know exactly where it fits?
ME: I think so. I’ve heard the talk, for sure. I’m not sure if it’s fading, because I think it still sells well. But I think it’s a very, very reader-dictated genre. And most of them like to see a very strong romantic plot. Which to me, works so well for New Adult. I think that sexuality is such a huge part of finding out how you fit into the world, what kind of partner you want to be, etc. And now, add in some queerness and there’s a lot to unpack there in a novel.
AJC: I have to confess that the vast majority of my NA reading is LGBTQ. The ways people learn to navigate their personal lives, the beginning of their professional careers, etc while queer are both profoundly ordinary and universal, while also having very specific challenges that don’t come up for heterosexual characters.
SH: Agreed! Is that why you chose to write queer NA? Let’s hear the origins of how you got into this subgenre.
ME: Well the first NA I wrote was a straight romance series. And it was mostly because of nostalgia, I think. I had such a fun college experience. It was also a time I made mistakes and yet could still bounce back from them, although the consequences were surely a little more intense. So I wrote a college series, called Bowler University, which is published with Avon.
As far as how my LGBTQ books came about…I had this idea for a while about a young man who had just graduated college and was on a road trip to spread his late father’s ashes. But the story and character were NOT coming together for me. At all. I was missing something and I couldn’t figure it out. And then it hit me like a wall–the MC was gay. I started writing Trust the Focus as a NaNoWriMo project and that book really poured out of me. I think I wrote 60K in a month.
I think the New Adult experience is unique and I really can’t get enough of it.
AJC: I don’t think I actually knew what NA was when I first started writing Off Campus. I had just discovered that, in addition to the LGBTQ sci fi and mysteries and lit fic I’d been reading for years, there were actually LGBTQ romance novels. This had somehow never occurred to me until I bought Suzanne Brockmann’s Jules & Robin holiday book, All Through the Night, and the Amazon algorithm started recommending other m/m romance novels to me. I was training for the Chicago Marathon that summer, and on my Saturday morning long runs I kept picturing this one scene between two college age guys who didn’t know or trust each other, but were in this really intimate situation where one of them was injured. I’d run that scene through my head during three or four hours of jogging when I finally realized I was going to write it, I thought, “Well, no one is going to buy this book.”
But when I went looking, I discovered some terrific LGBTQ NA books, like Sara Alva’s Social Skills and the super sweet and totally hot His Roommate’s Pleasure by Lana McGregor. A lightbulb went off over my head. “Ah ha! This is a thing people will read!” And because my brain is incapable of not writing stories for every secondary character in a novel, the series is now looking to hit eight books in total. So, my entry into LGBTQ NA was accidental, but yes, I’ve been very happy to find myself here. I think the “coming out” story is important, and will always be important, but people forget that no one ever gets to come out once and have it end there. You spend the rest of your life coming out over and over again. When you meet new neighbors, or get hired at a new job, you have to decide whether or not you’re going to be totally open from word one, or if the consequences of doing so are potentially too harmful to make that a safe choice. How do you navigate your relationships with family members who know you’re queer but are still awkward in their interactions? It’s not necessarily life or death, all of these little details, but it fascinates me and is one of the reasons I’ve been so happy working on these LGBTQ NA books.
SH: What do you guys look for in terms of queer NA? Are there any books you would recommend to readers who haven’t dipped their toe into the pool just yet?
AJC: Megan’s! Megan’s! I think the books in her In Focus series are a perfect entry to queer NA, because they are this lovely mix of humor and sexiness and this deeply personal journey, with a sweetness you don’t always find in NA. Man, I sound like such a suck up, but it’s the truth.
ME: Thanks Amy! I’m not just saying this because I’m interviewing with her. If you know me on social media, you know that I have always promoted Amy’s Bend or Break series. To me, Off Campus (the first in the series) had an amazingly spot on gay male voice and the conflict was unique and a little raw. Also, Heidi Cullinan’s Love Lessons series–one book was RITA-nominated–is also a fantastic, well-written series. And oh so sexy.
AJC: I love Heidi’s books. I also think JA Rock and Lisa Henry have nailed a terrific NA vibe with their Prescott College books, Mark Cooper vs. America and Brandon Mills vs. the V-Card. They’ve written a really angry young man in Mark Cooper who is not always likable, which is a real challenge for readers, but he fascinated me. Plus, super hot. I mean, *fans self*, like whoa.
SH: I clearly need to read that because I love books about angry young men. Or maladjusted, grumpy people in general because they remind me of myself! But anyway, my TBR list aside, what would you like to see more of when it comes to queer NA? And who would you like to see it from?
AJC: Wait! I forgot a favorite NA series. Heidi Belleau’s Rear Entrance Video series is terrifically diverse, both racially and with regard to sexuality. Her genderqueer hero in Wallflower is one of my favorites. And I know it’s not out yet, Santino, but I think your Sunset Park is a great addition to the LGBTQ NA scene. I love the race/class conflict in that book, plus David and Raymond’s differing views about their own sexualities and how they exist in the world. Fascinating stuff.
ME: Yes, Amy, I agree so much about Sunset Park, as I was lucky to read an ARC as well. Glad you mentioned it! I know a lot of queer NA books that are being written or will be published, so that makes me incredibly happy. As far as what I want to see? I want to see great conflicts. I want to see characters on the entire LGBTQ spectrum. And more POC characters as well — some intersectionality would be great! And I would love to see it from… anyone who is willing to put in the time and energy to make three-dimensional queer characters, with flaws and goals and intense motivations. I admit I probably don’t always get it right, but damn, I try. I try really hard. I think it’s important to also be willing to take criticism, to hear from someone in the marginalized group you are writing about – “Hey, you did it wrong, here’s why.” Listen, listen, listen and strive to do better.
AJC: Yes! I’d love to see more of the L and the B and the T and the Q. I love my m/m romances, but I’d be thrilled to see the market for a wider range of stories grow. And that only happens when we go out and buy, and then read, those books! I know very few writers who can afford to spend months or years working on novels that won’t sell, so it’s a tough challenge, saying I want to see more f/f or trans or genderqueer romance when I know how difficult it is for a writer to commit to that without readers who will show up to read those stories. But I want them! So I’m writing more myself, and putting my money and my mouth where my, uh, mouth is, by buying and reading and then recommending a wide range of books to my friends and fans.
ME: Yes, to what Amy Jo said. Buy, read, and then talk about those books! If you like them, recommend them. Authors live and eat by word of mouth.
SH: Truer words could never be spoke–typed. How about we close up with me asking nosy questions about your future plans? What can we expect to see next from you guys?
AJC: I have all the things in the last few months of 2015. My f/f NA novella, The Belle vs. the BDOC is out in the ‘90s Playlist next month. I’ve got a story about a trans girl in the LGBTQ YA charity anthology How We Began, and I’m revisiting Tom (who is bi) and Reese from Off Campus in a holiday novella coming in November. I really wanted to take those two from their college years into the grown up challenges of keeping a relationship going. Plus, I got to wallow in the HEA, at last.
ME: I have two more books in my In Focus series. I’m writing Out of Frame right now, which is the third book in the series and will be out in March. One of the main characters is bi and a POC. It takes place on a cruise ship on spring break, so there are many shenanigans. I also have an adult M/M releasing in January called Tied to Trouble. This is an incredibly nerdy book with bow ties used in inappropriate ways. One of the main characters is also bi. Oh! And I wrote a New Adult holiday story for an anthology out in December. That Thing is an m/m story about a wedding planner assistant falling for the best man. Amy Jo wrote a story that anthology too, and all the proceeds go to charity. I write straight romances as well. Dirty Deeds is out in December, which features a female mechanic
AJC: Yes! The holiday anthology is called Wish Come True. I wrote about an older twink who accidentally catfishes a college football player. That was super sweet and fun.
SH: Those answers got me fist pumping. I’m so hyped right now. All of the good reading to come! Thank you so much for discussing queer NA with me, guys. I can’t wait to read your upcoming stories.
AJC: Thank you for having us! I’m gonna go buy all the books.
ME: Thank you, Santino! Can’t wait to read your upcoming books and Amy’s!
Amy Jo Cousins writes contemporary romance and erotica about smart people finding their own best kind of smexy. She lives in Chicago with her son, where she tweets too much, sometimes runs really far, and waits for the Cubs to win the World Series.
Megan Erickson lives in southern Pennsylvania, with my husband, two kids and two cats. She likes a good pint of beer, a greasy bacon cheeseburger, homemade mac and cheese, and a great book with a happily ever after. When she’s not tapping away on my laptop, she’s probably listening to the characters in her head who just. Won’t. Shut. Up.
Santino Hassell is a dedicated gamer, a former fanfic writer, an ASoIaF mega nerd, a Grindr enthusiast, but most of all he is a writer of queer fiction that is heavily influenced by the gritty, urban landscape of New York City, his belief that human relationships are complex and flawed, and his own life experiences.