Interview with Jude Sierra

I am thrilled to be a part of the Virtual Tour for the wonderful contemporary m/m romance A Tiny Piece of Something Greater by Jude Sierra. I fell hard for both MCs but particularly for Reid in this angsty NA story about a young man finding love in a time of turmoil and recovery. The ownvoices mental illness representation in this story is beautifully nuanced, and deeply drawn, with great care. I am so glad to help boost the word about this lovely book.

Reboot tour

A Bit About Jude

Jude Sierra is currently working toward her PhD in Writing and Rhetoric, looking at the intersections of Queer, Feminist and Pop Culture Studies. She also works as an LGBTQAI+ book reviewer for From Top to Bottom Reviews.  Her novels include Hush, What it Takes, and Idlewild, a contemporary queer romance set in Detroit’s renaissance, which was named a Best Book of 2016 by Kirkus Reviews. Her most recent novel A Tiny Piece of Something Greater was released in y Interlude Press May of 2018. Shadows you Left, a co-written novel with Taylor Brooke will arrive spring of 2019 from Entangled Press.

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An Interview with Jude

How would you describe yourself to a new reader just discovering your work?

I think I’d best describe my work as lyrical and character driven. My stories take place in different settings, and some are wildly different from each other. I’ve been told that my stories read closer to romantic fiction than romance, although I think our definitions of genre are really subjective. Romance is a huge part of my stories, but each character arc, their growth and development aside from the romance is always really important to me. I’d also say that despite the differences in my books, they are all about surviving, thriving, healing and learning to hope in some form another. Broken hearts and heartache take a myriad of forms in our lives, and I love writing characters coming into their own, healing, and falling in love (although I very strongly resist the idea that falling in love and healing are mutually exclusive, or dependent on each other).

What sparked A Tiny Piece of Something Greater for you? What made you want to write this particular story?

I wanted to write a romantic beach setting, which inspired my use of Key Largo, a place I am familiar with from when I was a kid. But more importantly, I wanted to write a character with mental illness who is recovering and coming to a much happier, healthier place in his life. I wanted to explore how complex it can be to navigate love when one partner has mental illness and the other does not. This is something my husband and I have struggled with; at the same time, our devotion to each other and our willingness to fight for our relationship has always seemed utterly romantic and hopeful. I wanted to share that kind of story too.

In Idlewild, each of the heroes is stuck, and their connection is a catalyst for change for each other. The dynamic between the MCs in A Tiny Piece of Something Greater is rather different. Tell me about writing Joaquim, and why you chose to match him with Reid.

Joaquim has never been in a toxic or codependent relationship. This is something Reid really needed, because he’s never had anything but. Not with his ex, Felix, or his parents. Joaquim is a lovely balance of adventurous and steady. He has an absolutely beautiful capability for steadfast and abiding love that I modeled after my father. People always told me that the way my father loved was very special. It really was. Joaquim has never fallen as hard for anyone as he has Reid, which also means he respects Reid deeply. He never pushes because he understands that Reid needs agency, that it is as important for his wellness as anything else.

I loved how we got to see different aspects of Reid’s experience of recovery after leaving more structured mental health care, and the ways he copes and struggles with his cyclothymia. As a mentally ill reader, it really felt lovely to read a story that goes so deep into that aspect of Reid’s life, and also depicts Reid in a complex way, where he has other layers. How do you build characterization?

I obsess. I commute to school and work — about an hour each way. It gives me a lot of time to listen to music that has a “feel” and to ponder. Once I begin to pull a character together, I spend a lot of time asking myself questions. When I begin to cobble together potential plot points, I really have to sit with how a character would react. Then I have to think through all of the whys and hows. Often, this leads back to altering an idea I had for plot. It takes a long time because there’s a lot of circuitous thinking, and this is why my books are so character driven. I just have never been able to write a plot point without thinking it to death.

In some ways, Reid was easier for me, because I wrote him with the same mental illness I have. There were moments that I just inherently understood when Tiny was in development. As he became more fleshed out, and as he began to experience external life events that were vastly different from mine, I had to sit down with him for a bit longer. But I felt like I understood some core truths about him that informed a lot. This happened with Milo in What it Takes. I’ve lived the emotional abuse, anxiety and PTSD Milo did, which means that there was a visceral understanding of his emotional reactions and perceptions. These are two characters I really am most connected to, and giving them happy endings has literally made me cry.

In Idlewild, there is this quiet moment where Tyler comes out as genderqueer to the reader, while acknowledging that he is not out about it, and might never be. I really appreciated that moment, and that kind of quiet representation of a closeted genderqueer identity, without treating the fact that it’s closeted as a problem to be solved in the story. What motivated you to write that particular moment in the story?

I’ll be honest and say this is a hard question to answer, because a lot of this was instinct and the mirroring of my own feelings. Tyler’s self-acceptance was integral to his arc. Tyler knows how to be loved, he knows how to navigate the world with performance. He’s so charismatic that he can be many things. The struggle with his character was balancing the fact that this isn’t a negative, so long as he navigates the world feels best, safest and most comfortable without giving so much of himself to others that it becomes a detriment to his well-being.

Tyler finds these touch points in his life — his mother, Asher — who have to work a bit to get through to him but make it clear that they love every aspect of who he is. And I think that this helps Tyler find a new balance, one where he can let his guard down in particular moments and still be who he wants to be externally. The fact that he’s genderqueer isn’t ever a problem to be solved; it’s something about who he is that Tyler must really love. And that’s just for him. It was incredibly important to me to make sure he always has agency; we should all always be given room and agency over what parts of us we give the world. Tyler needs to know he is safe and to love himself; that’s integral to his story. He doesn’t owe the world any part of himself he doesn’t want to share.

When we first started talking about doing this interview you said that you were always up for representing Latinx authors and characters. Can you tell me more about why that’s important to you, and about the Latinx characters in your work?

I don’t see a ton of Latinx characters in the books I read, to be honest. I want more! And I think that heritage and culture are really important in creating characters, plots and love stories. People from different cultural backgrounds are going to experience life, love, growth in different ways. There are some things about my upbringing, the way I navigate the world, the way I understand family, that I’ve observed as different from a lot of the suburban American communities I’ve lived in in the States. And those differences are great; human experience is so nuanced and complex and unique, and I want that in romance. I want to be taken on a unique journey in each book I read.

I’ve never written a “diverse” character for the sake of diversity. But my status quo isn’t to assume all characters are white either, because my life doesn’t reflect that at all. My stories represent the world I know, and that’s one that is diverse. When I wrote Cam (Hush), I was missing family so much. I was missing traditions and a sort of fabric of who I am that I got to give him. With Joaquim, I can say that I’d been wanting to write a Brazilian character for an age, but the story was never right. And the story had to be right; the only person who would have ever worked with Reid was Joaquim, and vice versa. Each character I write has to feel like an authentic person, never a cardboard cutout or place holder and I think that’s an important thing to present to readers–depictions of people who feel real, whose lives are realistic, whose portrayal feels genuine and reflects my experiences and self as a Latinx person as well.

In both Idlewild and A Tiny Piece of Something Greater there are these complex moments where characters are very attentive to the consent of their partners. Can you tell me more about consent in your writing, and how you navigate the complexities of it?

When we’re talking about consent, I’ll say that consent is so sexy. Consent gives us the freedom to trust more deeply. From that trust can come really satisfying intimacy. I love that.

There are heavy topics and moments in my books and I’ve found that emotional consent is as important as physical consent when they occur. I think these are layers of understanding consent in everyday life that are important to remember. Joaquim won’t pressure Reid for more of his story than he’s willing to give, because Reid’s agency in these emotional and difficult moments is just as important as during sex. They’re all human experiences, interpersonal experiences, growth moments. I love, love, love writing intimacy and intimate growth so much, consent just seems integral to it.

I think that my relationship to understanding consent as having so many layers, and puzzling through what consent can and does mean, is part of my own evolution. Understanding what consent does and can mean for me. I’ve grown a lot since I first began writing, and writing that touches on consent explicitly is a part of that exploration and growth. I think, too, that raising boys in this world makes me think about how we teach and understand consent differently. My boys are at incredibly impressionable ages, when the groundwork for what consent is is laid both in the home and through social messaging. We find that we’re having to push against the world within our home and the values we teach, and thinking through all of the nuanced ways we can speak to this tension has been at the forefront of my mind the last couple of years.

While reading A Tiny Piece of Something Greater, I really appreciated the contrast of the complex relationships each of the MCs had with their family. What made you decide to make family so important and complicated for each of these characters?

I think that in my life, I have experienced both sides of family. I’ve had codependent relationships that really mirror Reid’s relationship with his family. That kind of dysfunction doesn’t negate love. Reid loves his family, and they love him, but it’s also complicated and toxic for his recovery. Often people in Reid’s position, whose mental illness has been so exposed and central to the narrative of self and relationship, end up being what we call “patient zero”. Everyone sees the dysfunction through them. It’s easy to say “I don’t have a problem, look at Reid.” And so that dysfunction kind of keeps going until someone steps away and removes themselves from that toxicity. Getting out of codependent relationships alone, when it’s not both people making that change, is really, really, really hard. I speak from experience. But it can be done, and part of Reid’s wellness hinges on this.

For Joaqium, I wanted to give him the kind of family that is kind of woven into sense of self, of belonging and comfort in the world. Joaquim has the freedom to wander, to experiment, to follow his whims in part because there are parts of his world he never doubts. His family will always love him. They inform a huge part of who he is. I think one of the most interesting things I had to puzzle out for Joaquim was why he never came out to his parents. And I think it’s because they all depend on that family, that love, as a given almost too much. He knows his parents will still love him. But also, it’s come to a point in his life when they might ask, why did you wait so long? It becomes a self-perpetuating issue. He doesn’t want them to think he doubts them. He doesn’t want it to be a big deal, because for him it isn’t. It’s a non-issue that’s an issue, which…is hard to articulate. In a way, this also serves to show how complex family is, and how the differences in our kin relationships can inform a lot of how we go into forming new relationships.

It’s clear that one of the core things you wanted to do in both A Tiny Piece of Something Greater and Idlewild was to really ground your story in a sense of place. Can you tell me about why that’s important to you and your process for doing that?

Before I was a fiction writer, when I focused on poetry, it took me a bit to learn that the natural and physical world always appeared in my poetry — it was just an instinct, so much so that I didn’t even notice how consistently it layered itself in. Describing the world around us provides beautiful opportunities in prose. So there’s that.

I learned a lot writing my first novel (Hush). One of those was that not being connected to a place made everything feel unmoored. It felt like the setting was a prop, a plot device with no purpose. Place is as important a story tell are anything else. We orient our bodies toward our surroundings: my characters do as well. I think that the experience unsettled me so much I’ve never written about a place I haven’t laid eyes on since. Knowing where they are, what it looks like, what it “tastes” like, so to speak, frees me to focus on the characters. It helps me understand them.

Plus. Pretty prose. I mean, it’s a thing for me.

What’s next on the horizon for you?

I have been absolutely stuck on this idea I had at the Romantic Times convention in 2016, where I wanted to do a queer retelling of Frankenstein (which, c’mon, is really freaking queer on its own). I love that book so much (I think I own three copies). It’s been just a mindfuck to try to envision what I want to do with it for a variety of reasons. I’ve been really unlocking some issues I have internally with it and it’s going in such a different direction in my headspace that I don’t know if it’ll ever actually qualify as a retelling so much as thematic inspiration. But I learned (the hard way, so so so hard) with Idlewild that I cannot force myself to tell a story if it isn’t feeling right for me. Idlewild is about 90% different plot wise than my original concept (just about all I kept from it was Detroit and a widower). I have to let go and let the universe direct me, and that can be hard. But I think NaNo might be the time I really commit to making it happen.

I’m also in edits for my next novel, a co-written with Taylor Brooke, Shadows You Left. It’s  a New Adult title about an underground cage fighter and a tattoo artist set in Seattle. It’s a little edgier than what I’ve written before, but very much still has those core themes that always layer into my stuff — romance, survival, healing. I’m ridiculously excited for the world to read it.

More About A Tiny Piece of Something Greater

tinyReid Watsford has a lot of secrets and a past he can’t quite escape. While staying at his grandmother’s condo in Key Largo, he signs up for introductory dive classes, where he meets Joaquim Oliveira, a Brazilian dive instructor with wanderlust. Driven by an instant, magnetic pull, what could have been just a hookup quickly deepens. As their relationship evolves, they must learn to navigate the challenges of Reid’s mental illness on their own and with each other.

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