Publishing Pride In A Pandemic: A Conversation With Queer Authors Leah Johnson & Kristen Lepionka

“Race and sexuality are inextricably linked.”

Queer visibility in media can be challenging on a good day, but what happens when your book release is happening, well, right now? Authors rely on sales in order to continue telling stories, but when basic survival takes precedence over reading, how can queer authors get their message out to the world? Kristen Lepionka writes mysteries and Leah Johnson pens young adult fiction, but both are here, queer, and excited for their new books. I asked each of them about their latest projects, Zoom parties, and why queer female stories are more vital than ever.

GO Magazine: Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Kristen Lepionka: I’m author of the Roxane Weary mystery series. I live in Columbus, Ohio with Joanna, my partner of almost 10 years, and our two cats. My books are set in Columbus, too.  When I’m not writing, I’m probably doing work as a freelance graphic designer, doing crossword puzzles, or planning my next crafty project.

Leah Johnson: I say often that I’m an eternal Midwesterner moonlighting as a New Yorker because I will never be able to shake the small-ish town girl in me. And I think that appears quite a bit in my writing as well. Actually, it’s pretty much my whole brand! I write about black girls from Indiana trying to navigate race and sexuality while falling in love with themselves and falling in love — full stop. 

GO: Tell me about your book.

KL: “Once You Go This Far” [available for preorder July 8th] is the fourth book in the Roxane Weary private investigator mystery series. Roxane is hired to look into the seemingly accidental death of a middle-aged school nurse on a hiking trail. The investigation leads to a missing troubled teen, a church with a troubling amount of control over its members’ lives, a charismatic female tech entrepreneur who is running for Congress, and someone who really doesn’t want Roxane to put the pieces together. In describing the book to friends, I keep finding myself saying that it’s about religion, politics, and other impolite party topics.

LJ: “You Should See Me in a Crown,” now available everywhere] is a queer YA rom-com about a girl named Liz Lighty whose goal is to get out of her small (and small-minded) hometown and go to college. But when her financial aid falls through, Liz has to run for prom queen for the chance to win the scholarship that’s attached to the crown. All of that would be hard enough on its own, but then Liz meets the new girl in town, who also happens to be her competition for prom queen, and has to figure out how to keep her newfound crush from ruining her shot at winning the race. It’s heavy on the joy and the romance, but also the importance of those friendships that change your life and the ways that familial bonds — both found family and blood — can hold you together when you feel like you’re falling apart.

GO: Why do you choose to write stories about queer characters?

KL: I identify as bi, and I want to write books about people like me and like the people I know. There are not enough mystery/crime novels with well-drawn queer characters (something that is changing, though not fast enough for my taste!), so it’s very important to me to be able to write complex LGBTQ+ people in my books. Good fiction should reflect the real world, especially crime novels, which are written about social issues.

LJ: I didn’t come out until my adulthood — I didn’t even see a future in which being anything other than straight was an option — but I can only imagine what permission could have been granted to me and so many other kids if we’d seen more varied representation on shelves. If books show us what is and can be possible, then we need a wide array of stories to offer readers mirrors. I want the mirrors my books offer to reflect the totality of what complicated, beautiful, incredible, messy lives of possibility every kid deserves.

GO: Your book is launching in the middle of a pandemic, when in-person events are very limited, or more often, restricted entirely. What are you doing to get the word out?

KL: Even though in-person events are very much up in the air right now, I’ve been enjoying doing a lot of Zoom events. The energy is different for sure but it’s a fun way to be able to connect with people in a very weird time. I also co-host a podcast, Unlikeable Female Characters, which is another way of reaching people. 

LJ: I’ve been fortunate in that most of the events I was planning to do have not been canceled, just moved online. It’s been surprising to find out, though, that virtual events are just as exhausting as an in-person event — if not more so! Just because I’m filming from my childhood bedroom with my Glee poster in the background doesn’t mean that I’m not still trying to show up and engage in the same way. (The only difference is I’m usually wearing pajama pants.)

GO: Do you feel queer books are especially important right now?

KL: Queer books are always important! Right now, things are hard across the board, and queer-identifying people are already at a greater risk of experiencing loneliness, isolation, depression, etc. Books aren’t a magic cure by any means, but seeing yourself reflected on the pages of a book you are reading can help make a person feel less alone. Even though it feels like the world has stopped during all of this, it hasn’t, and every story is an opportunity to reach someone.

LJ: As we’re doing this interview, black folks across the country are in mourning. George Floyd. Tony McDade. Breonna Taylor. Ahmad Arbery. The list goes on. We’re losing our brothers and sisters, still, the way we’ve always lost black folks in this country: to racism, to sexism, to homophobia. All that to say, the work of reminding black children that they’re worthy of lives without pain and violence never stops. The work of reminding black queer kids that even in a country that will not protect them that they are cared for and seen never stops. 

For me, and in these books, race and sexuality are inextricably linked. So as long as both my blackness and my queerness is a threat to this country, and to people in positions of power, I’ll keep putting these stories of black joy and triumph out into the world. It’s all I know how to do, you know? A small contribution to unraveling systems that are likely going to take my entire lifetime to unravel. Black queer joy is a radical act, so these pages are my revolution.

For more on the authors, follow Kristen and Leah on Instagram, and Leah on Twitter!

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