I loved Help Wanted, an NA romance novella set at a magic college with a gender and sexuality questioning ace-spec MC, and a prickly adorable love interest who can turn into a bird! It was sweet and fluffy and I fell really hard for the characters. I’m so glad to be able to share an interview with J. Emery, the author!
(Note: Bolding is mine.)
A Bit About J.
Emery has been slowly writing their way through every fantasy trope since they were little (some of them more than once). Maybe someday they’ll have covered them all. And also made them much more queer.
In their free time, they can be found gaming and documenting the whole thing on twitter at @mixeduppainter. Their ridiculous levels of terror over horror games are near legendary.
An Interview with J.
How would you describe yourself to a new reader just discovering your work?
Wow. That’s a tough one.
I tend to write a lot of weird, mismatchy stories about people who are lost in their own lives. About the only other thing that they have in common is an undercurrent of humor. Some of my stories are really serious, but they still manage to have a sense of humor at the same time. I have a lot of characters that deal with stress by finding amusement in odd places.
What sparked Help Wanted for you? What made you want to write this particular story?
I think most of the idea came from some discussions people were having on Twitter in regards to wanting softer, quieter fantasy stories and also about queering up commonly used tropes. Romances are my comfort reads and have some of my favorite tropes so I decided to give it a shot in a shorter format where there would be less pressure to make a big word count or throw in unnecessary drama. And I knew right at the start that the main character would be ace, questioning but definitely somewhere under the umbrella of asexuality. That was Em’s defining trait before I knew anything else about her. Her story is the intersection of a whole bunch of changes and realizations in her life. It felt like that might be relatable to a lot of other people.
I really appreciated the sexuality questioning representation in the story; it resonated for me, and felt very real. Can you talk a bit about Em and writing questioning ace spec and aro spec characters?
Honestly, I love writing ace characters. The majority of my main characters are ace these days but I hadn’t really written anyone who was still working through what asexuality meant to them. Most of my previous characters were kind of set in their ways and even when questions came up there was always a bigger plot to serve and those small personal moments had to squeeze in between. I never got to focus on characters figuring out the details of themselves the way I wanted. They would still be coded aro or ace but it was a much more subtle thing. Readers who weren’t familiar with asexuality probably didn’t pick up on a lot of the internal processes behind why those characters acted the way they did. So this was my big chance to get into it more.
Em’s journey through questioning is pretty similar to how I figured out my own asexuality. There’s a lot of mental back and forth as she realizes that she doesn’t process attraction like some of her friends do. She spends a lot of time asking herself “do I like this thing or do I just want to like it because it’s expected?” It’s an especially big deal because this is her first time dealing with a lot of these feelings. She has no past experience to fall back on and it’s hard to get a clear cut answer when the only person you can ask is yourself. Often her answer is just a shrug and that’s also okay.
One of my main goals was to show that it was all right not to have answers. People are complicated. I spent years figuring myself out. Em has only had one novella so far. Maybe she’ll have a better handle on what attraction means to her after a couple books, but maybe not.
I really appreciated the representation of Em’s gender in the story, gender questioning is something that I so rarely see on the page. Can you talk a bit about writing this aspect of the story, and why you decided to include it?
To be super to the point, a lot of Em’s gender questioning is based in things I’ve thought myself and heard echoed by other people who were also questioning. Writing about it was kind of like my catharsis. I can remember at least a few occasions when I was in college myself that mirror things Em feels or does so I wanted to give voice to that. Especially since questioning (of both gender and sexuality) is still less common in queer fiction.
Consent is lovely and nuanced in this story, in a way I really appreciated. Can you tell me more about consent in your writing, and how you navigate the complexities of it?
Because this is Em’s first time with anything romantic (and also because she’s mildly touch averse) I wanted to make it clear that her relationship with Phineas would be based on trust. Her boundaries, both romantic and physical, would be respected. Not just because she’s ace (which Phineas doesn’t know), but because he cares about her well-being. When he’s unsure, he asks. They’re still learning each other’s cues and he’s very conscious of that fact in their interactions.
On the other end of the spectrum are Em and her best friend Thaian. Since they’ve been close for a number of years, Thaian knows to check in with Em in regards to touch, even if it’s just being aware of her reaction to it and stopping any contact that’s making her uncomfortable. Em doesn’t necessarily have to say the words because it’s something they’ve discussed in the past and it’s not made into a big deal or treated like an inconvenience.
The consideration of Em’s feelings about physical contact is a subject near and dear to my heart since I’m also touch averse. It can be really tiring to navigate all the unwanted touching that occurs on a daily basis so it was wonderful to write about this kind of care and how it branches into everything they do.
I loved that Em’s relationship with her BFF was so central to her arc, that so much of the story was about her grappling with the ways it felt like that relationship might change. I also really appreciated reading a queer story where the queer MC had a friendship group that was basically all queer. Can you tell me about Em’s friendship group and why it was important to you that she be surrounded by queer folks?
Help Wanted is kind of a dual love story. There’s Em’s more obvious romance with Phineas and everything that goes with it, but alongside that is her platonic love for her best friend, Thaian. The two relationships (and the greater relationship with her friend group) co-exist in her life and I really wanted to make sure that neither relationship overshadowed the other. I even went through while I was editing and tallied the number of scenes devoted to each. They were nearly even.
The plot of the book revolves around the changes going on in Em’s life and, even though she’s kind of a self contained person, she repeatedly reaches a point where she has to turn to someone and ask (usually literally) for help because she’s done all that she can on her own. I wanted to make sure she had someone there that would understand what she was going through even if their variety of queerness is not exactly the same as hers. It’s that supportive friend base that gives her the courage to reach out and explore more of who she is and what she wants.
I know in my own life things became infinitely easier to process once I made some queer friends, especially other ace people, and I wanted to reflect some of that.
This is a queer love story that doesn’t require Em come out to Phineas, and that centers her relationships with her friends plays as much as the romance. Both of these things push against expectations in queer romance. Tell me about what motivated you to push against these genre expectations in this particular way.
I had planned a scene of Em coming out to Phineas at the end, but ultimately left it out. I didn’t want to position Em’s gender and/or sexuality as an obstacle in the way of their relationship, though she worries about it briefly in private. The majority of her concerns are personal ones because whatever the involvement of Phineas in her life, she was still going to be the same person at the end of it. I wanted to honor that. His approval didn’t change who she was.
Plus, Help Wanted is technically set in a secondary fantasy world so I decided that they would just be more open to queerness there. That’s part of what I like about making up my own worlds.
I adored Em, and really enjoyed traveling through the story in her POV, watching her wonder if she was into Phineas or just wanted a gender like his, seeing how she grapples with jealousy and identity struggles. How do you build characterization?
I’m a really character centered type of writer so characterization is my happy place. And honestly I make up a lot of the details as I go. It feels more organic to me that way and lets me play around with ideas as they occur to me. I’m also usually really wrong about what my characters will be like until I start writing them.
This time after I had the basic idea for Em’s personality and how she would meet Phineas, I put together a few ideas for scenarios I wanted to include based on issues that might crop up in her life and what she would be concerned with. The ripple of tension in Em’s friendship with Thaian was one of the first things I came up with and it ended up being one of my favorite parts.
They’re both moving in different directions and getting close to different people for a lot of the story. I think a lot of people can probably relate to the kind of envy that can breed even in stable relationships and the resulting guilt, especially in Em’s case because she’s effectively doing the same things Thaian is doing. Sometimes it’s tempting not to let main characters be too petty or too angry because they run the risk of being unlikeable, but I wanted Em to be someone who was honest about what she’s feeling even if it’s not always pretty. The same trait plays out frequently in her relationship with Phineas and is part of what lets her be open to all the questions presented to her in the story. There are plenty of opportunities for her to lie or turn away from her truth, but she consistently leans into her honesty instead. It was even a little bit of a shock to me while I was writing it. It’s right for her character though and it really guided the direction of the story.
The rest of her characterization and that of her friends was pulled from myself and people I know. Everyone has their own little quirks. My characters aren’t full formed until they have a few habits of their own. And I know I’ve talked a lot on Twitter about the dearth of characters hoarding cafeteria food in fiction so that made it into the book too.
What’s next on the horizon for you, and for this series?
My usual process is to work on six different things at once so I’m currently writing and editing a couple full length novels, one of which is a portal fantasy about an ace chosen one. In between all those things, more Ashveil will be happening too. The original plan had been to give each of Em’s friends a novella of their own but I got really attached to Em and Phineas so I’ll be circling back to them too. They still have a lot of ground to cover with their relationship and with their IDs. And school. Writing about a magic school opens up so many fun possibilities that I’ve barely touched on. Leo hasn’t even gotten to take any magic cooking classes yet.
More About Help Wanted
Em is confused about a lot of things: who she is, what she wants, how she’s going to pass Alchemy when she’s awful at it. The one thing she’s not confused about is how much she wants to buy her best friend (and college roommate) the best birthday present ever. Luckily the local magic supply shop is hiring.
Her plan to get a job there would be working perfectly if not for her coworker Phineas who is in turns aggravating and endearingly awkward. She’s not sure if she wants to date him or wants to be him. The more time they spend together the more she thinks it may be both.
Help Wanted is an 18,000 word novella with a gender and sexuality questioning f/m romance. It is the first in a new series about students at a contemporary magic college.
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