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A.J. Sass Author Interviews

Lorien Lawrence interviews A.J. Sass for ANA ON THE EDGE

Headshot: A.J. Sass

 

 

A. J. Sass (he/they) is a writer, editor, and competitive skater. A long-time figure skater, he has passed his U.S. Figure Skating Senior Moves in the Field and Free Skate tests, medaled twice at the U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships, and currently dabbles in ice dance. A. J. lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his boyfriend and two cats who act like dogs. Ana on the Edge is his first novel.

 


Lorien Lawrence: Hi Andrew! I’m so excited to be able to interview you about your debut, ANA ON THE EDGE. Happy book birthday! How do you feel? It’s surreal, isn’t it?

A.J. Sass: Hey, Lorien! Thank you so much! And oh my gosh, it does feel a bit like a dream, mostly because I swear we were just in the fifteen week of March and now it’s October, somehow? It started hitting me that this was about to happen when finished copies of ANA arrived on my doorstep a few weeks ago. Now, I keep shifting from this incredible feeling of joy to happily tearful because the reception for this book has been so warm and enthusiastic.

LL: The young voices in this novel – especially Ana’s – were so realistic. And as a middle school teacher, I’m extra picky as a middle grade reader! So well done. What made you decide to write for this age group?

AJS: Fun fact – for years, I’d considered myself strictly a YA writer. When I realized I’m nonbinary a few years back, I rushed to my library to find books about nonbinary main characters. At the time, I couldn’t find a single YA story, which felt pretty devastating (thankfully, there is a growing number of books now being published that fit this criteria).

Still determined, I shifted my focus to the middle grade shelves. While I didn’t find exactly what I was looking for there, I did discover books featuring transgender main characters, like George by Alex Gino and Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky, as well as novels about girls navigating crushes on other girls, like Barbara Dee’s Star-Crossed.

I was intrigued because I’d been operating under the assumption that queer books didn’t exist in the middle grade space, that gatekeepers made it impossible to tell queer stories for that age category. And I quickly fell in love with these stories about kids trying to figure out who they are and where they fit within their friend groups and families. Soon enough, I found myself wanting to write for this age group myself.

This was also around the time that I’d recently passed my US Figure Skating Senior Free Skate test. To say that all things ice skating were on my mind during this time would be understatement; I practically lived at the rink on the weeks leading up to this test to ensure I was adequately prepared to pass it.

It definitely got me thinking about how I would’ve navigated the very gendered world of skating had I known I was nonbinary when I was a kid. That, along with my disappointment at being unable to find novels featuring nonbinary characters, really sparked a desire to help fill that void on shelves. I started working on what would eventually become Ana on the Edge soon after.

LL: Ana was such a well-crafted character. She was sweet and flawed and full of empathy for others. How much of her is based on you and your own personality and life experiences?

AJS: Ana is definitely more athletically gifted and confident on the ice than me! But her path to discovering her identity paralleled mine in some ways. Although I came out as an adult, at first I also struggled to understand how I could feel like something other than a woman or a man. I had no vocabulary to describe how I felt.

When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area after grad school, I started attending monthly meet-ups at an LGBTQ+ community center in Berkeley. It was there that I met a group of wonderful transgender and questioning folks. I couldn’t help comparing my own experiences to those shared within the group. Like Ana, I wasn’t sure I completely identified as a man, but I knew it fit me better than being seen as a woman. And similar to Ana’s experience, it wasn’t until I discovered the term nonbinary that I finally felt all the pieces click into place for me.

By that time, however, I was already using a male name and pronouns so it very much felt like I was juggling two identities (plus a third, because I hadn’t yet come out to my family in any capacity). And in Ana on the Edge, there’s a moment of mistaken identity, where a skater named Hayden who’s new to Ana’s rink mistakes Ana for a boy and she decides not to correct him. It’s not quite quite identical to my own experience, but that feeling of being stuck between two or more identities, and of not knowing how to come out to the people closest to you, is rooted in my personal experience.

LL: This book beautifully showcases the struggle of what it was like for a nonbinary kid to navigate a binary world. Can you talk a little more about that?

AJS: I think the hardest hurdle to get over is the lack of knowledge and resources about what it means to be nonbinary. I definitely hadn’t heard the term until well into adulthood. Thankfully, this is changing and it’s getting easier to find this information nowadays, in part because the internet offers a wealth of resources.

If you don’t know you’re nonbinary, little things might irk you, like being misgendered or expected to wear certain types of clothes. There are even gendered assumptions made about interests and hobbies. Athletics-wise, girls are often expected to participate in sports or activities deemed dainty, while many people think boys should gravitate toward rougher team sports. And if you deviate from these expectations? Assumptions are made about your sexual orientation (ever heard someone make a joke about boys who figure skate or do ballet or girls who play basketball, football, hockey, and so on?).

That’s clearly problematic, and I think nonbinary kids are acutely aware of these expectations and can get overwhelmed trying to navigate what their interests might say about their gender, even if they participate in co-ed activities.

Specifically speaking about skating, sometimes you just can’t get around its gender-coded rules. While there’s no regulation that says girls can’t wear black skates during competitions and boys can’t wear white or beige, you still have to choose which binary division to skate in (outside of a few notable exceptions which are co-ed, like showcase and synchronized skating). In ice dance, you either skate the mens or ladies steps when performing pattern dances. There’s no wiggle room there. Ultimately, it has to be a choice left up to the skater to decide what they’re most comfortable with, knowing that choice may not be the perfect fit. I imagine this is true for many sports.

Outside the ice, nonbinary kids and teens have other obstacles to navigate, including (but definitely not limited to) gendered public restrooms, changing or locker rooms, binary clothing sections in stores, the option to choose male or female but not nonbinary on government-issued IDs in most states, and often persistent misgendering in virtually every realm of their lives, especially if they don’t feel safe to come out at home.

We still have a long way to go to make nonbinary kids feel accepted and affirmed.

LL: There were moments in your book that felt so real and heart wrenching that I cried. What was your favorite scene to write? Was there a particular scene that was the hardest to write?

AJS: I don’t have just one a favorite scene, but I honestly enjoyed writing every scene that Hope, a nine-year-old girl who trains with Ana, appeared in. She’s such a little spitfire and always just said whatever she was feeling. She also may not have completely understood what Ana was going through with respect to gender identity, but she was always sweet to Ana, and I really enjoyed writing their interactions.

The hardest scene to write was the chapter when Ana came out to her mom and her coach, Alex. I was so worried I wouldn’t do it justice or in some way might get it wrong. It was such an important moment for Ana, and I wanted readers to feel the same level of anxiety coursing through her in the moments before sharing who she is with her mom and coach. I also wanted to convey the moment of relief and comfort when Ana realized they accepted her. I must’ve rewritten that scene a minimum of a dozen times before it felt right.

LL: OK, let’s talk figure skating! I am fascinated by this sport! I know that you skate, but I don’t really know your skating history. Were you a competitive skater like Ana? And I loved Coach Alex! Did you have a coach like him growing up?

AJS: I started skating when I was seven, after attending an ice show put on by a local skating club (we had just moved from Nebraska to Minnesota and I was not a happy camper about it so I think it was my mom’s way of distracting me for a couple of hours). I was so mesmerized by the lights, the music, the drama of the performances. I knew right then I wanted to learn how to jump and spin just like those show skaters.

Unlike Ana, skating didn’t come naturally for me, and I also had pretty epic performance anxiety that impeded my progress, especially when it came to testing up levels. I was immediately in love with the sport but I didn’t love having everyone’s eyes on me when I was the only one out on the ice performing. It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I joined a synchronized skating team (think: synchronized swimming, but with 32 blades, all within inches of one another). Skating as part of a team, I learned to enjoy the nerves that came along with competing. I also love the camaraderie of working together to create something entertaining or moving. My team won a national bronze medal in our division back in 2018 and silver in 2019. While I never competed at Nationals as a singles skater like Ana, I eventually connected with coaches who helped me manage my nerves enough to begin taking tests again as an adult. I passed my Senior Moves in the Field test in my mid-20s and my Senior Free Skate test about a decade later. Now I’m working my way through the pattern ice dance tests.

I actually did have a coach named Alex growing up (that was a total coincidence!), but Coach Alex is more of an amalgam of several coaches I trained under, all of whom supported me on my skating journey in different but equally meaningful ways.

LL: Since we talked about your skating journey, it’s only fitting to also talk about your author journey. When did you realize that you wanted to be an author? What was your road to publication like?

AJS: I’m not sure exactly when I knew I wanted to be an author, although I’ve been writing stories since I could hold a pencil. I started college at age fifteen without really having a sense of what I wanted to do once I graduated. I kept hearing that pursuits like skating and writing were ‘nice hobbies’ but not viable career paths, that I should find something more financially stable to focus on. That, coupled with the lack of queer kidlit on bookstore or library shelves discouraged me from pursuing writing as a career for years. Instead, I attended law school, realized it absolutely wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life, and ended up working on content initiatives at various tech companies after graduating (so still writing, just not fiction).

Then queer stories began getting published. Not a lot at first, but enough that it made me take notice. I read as many as I could get my hands on, and that dream of one day being a published author myself returned in full force. I spent the next decade writing everything from epic space operas to small-town contemporary stories, all featuring a cast of queer characters. Each one helped develop my craft and hone my skill as a writer.

But much like skating, I had a form of performance anxiety when it came to writing. I was hesitant about letting people read what I’d written. For years, I rarely shared anything. When I did, it was a chapter here or there that I’d spend literal months polishing before allowing a friend or two to read.

In late 2017, after reading every queer middle grade book I could get my hands on, I signed up for an online class that focused on writing for middle school-age readers. This class is where I developed Ana on the Edge—and also learned to accept and apply constructive feedback. Eager to keep the momentum going, I submitted an application to an online mentorship program called #WriteMentor, where I was chosen by an agented writer who oversaw my revisions on Ana during the summer of 2018. I started querying that September and was fortunate to sign with my agent, Jordan Hamessley of New Leaf Literary, just a few weeks later.

I know many writers didn’t sign with an agent on their first (or even second or third) manuscript they queried. I probably wouldn’t have either if I’d queried any of the half a dozen manuscripts I’d written over the past decade that I’d been too self-conscious to solicit feedback on. Sometimes I still can’t believe I got past that hang-up, put myself out there, and let industry professionals review my work. I’m very happy I did.

After I signed with Jordan, I revised a bit more based on her feedback. We went on submission in early 2019 and received a preempt offer from my editor, Lisa Yoskowitz, at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers a few weeks later.

Technically, it was a little over a year from the book idea to publisher offer. Knowing what I do about the publishing industry now, that feels quite fast. There’ll always be a bit of timing and luck involved in selling a book, but I also can’t forget the decade and a half of shelved manuscripts I worked on before I started writing Ana on the Edge. In fact, I don’t think I’d have been able to write Ana if I hadn’t dedicated those years to improving my craft.

LL: I really loved Hayden as a character! Who was your favorite secondary character to write?

AJS: They don’t appear in a ton of scenes, but it’s a tie between Hope Park, the younger sister of Ana’s training mate Faith, and Cyn Lubeck, Hayden’s snarky high school-age sister. Both gave me opportunities to infuse some humor into scenes, which I think really helped keep the tone of the book light, even while Ana is obviously going through something big, trying to figure out her elements of her identity.

LL: Did you have a favorite literary character when you were in middle school? If so, who? And did you have a favorite book in middle school?

AJS: I can’t say I had a favorite literary character in middle school, probably because there weren’t a lot of books available that featured characters I could relate to. But I did read a lot in middle school. The Goosebumps and Baby-Sitters Club series were both favorites of mine growing up. I also loved books like The Giver by Lois Lowry, Number the Stars, also by Lois Lowry, One More River by Lynne Reid Banks, The Secret of NIMH trilogy by Robert C. O’Brien, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, and A Tale of Time City and Dogsbody, both by Diana Wynne Jones.

LL: I feel like kids in middle school today have a lot more options in terms of literature. What trends in middle grade are you currently loving, and what do you hope to see more of?

AJS: This is probably obvious based one some of my previous answers, but I love the push for diversity in middle grade literature. Specifically with queer stories, we still have a ways to go when it comes to diversity of experiences within the various identities. There’s definitely not one way to be nonbinary, so I’d really love to see more coming out stories like Ana’s, but also stories where the main character is simply nonbinary but not focused on coming out because they’re too busy going on adventures and saving their friends, parents, town, or the entire world. And I want publishers to go beyond the mentality that ‘we already have a story about X and we don’t need another.’

We do. We need all the stories, told from as many perspectives as we can find. I want kids to feel seen, first and foremost, but I also want to see stories that offer windows of empathy into lives that might look different from our own.

LL: I’m an A.J. Sass fan for life, so when can I read your next book?? Are you able to give any details, or is it all top secret?

AJS: It was top secret, until a couple of weeks ago! My next project just got announced, so I’m excited to share that it’ll be another middle grade contemporary book.

Ellen Outside the Lines follows an autistic 13 year old named Ellen Katz as she jets off to Barcelona on a class trip. There, she’ll have to navigate a new city, shifting friendships, a growing crush, and her queer and Jewish identities. It’s slated to publish in fall 2021, and I can’t wait for everyone to meet Ellen.

I am also a contributor to a middle grade anthology called This is Our Rainbow: 16 Stories of Her, Him, Them, and Us that features a host of fabulous queer stories in a variety of genres. That is also slated for fall 2021. Lots of exciting things to come!

LL: Thank you so much for taking time out of your book birthday to talk to me! I truly adored this book, and I can’t wait to share it with my students.


Congrats on the release of your debut novel, A.J.! You can visit A.J.’s website to learn more and follow them on Twitter and Instagram, as well as order ANA ON THE EDGE on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or Indiebound. And don’t forget to add it on Goodreads!