Porter Square Books Writer in Residence to Pen YA Queer Romance Novel

Porter Square BooksPhoto courtesy of Kathryn Amato.

Like many other Cambridge residents, Kathryn Amato often finds herself getting lost in the shelves at Porter Square Books.

Come this February, however, Amato will be spending even more time at the beloved bookstore—the romance-novelist-turned-young-adult-author was just selected as one of Porter Square Books’ first two Writers in Residence.

“Along with being a place that sells books, we see Porter Square Books as having a responsibility to provide resources and refuge to our community,” Marketing Director Josh Cook told Scout in an email. “A number of our past and present booksellers have been published writers, including me. We found that the resources working in the bookstore made available to us—galleys of forthcoming titles, a staff discount on our purchases, connections with other writers and other people in publishing, and a better understanding of the book industry—improved both our creative work and our writing careers.”

The Writers in Residence program offers two local authors several helpful perks (including a staff discount and access to the store’s offices as a private writing space) in exchange for supporting the store’s events and online presence. Amato was selected as the Writer for Young Readers, and her term will begin in February, with a kickoff reading scheduled for Feb. 22 at 7 p.m.

We sat down with Amato to learn more about her work and what she is hoping to glean from her Writers in Residence experience.

What was it that motivated you to apply for Porter Square Books’ first Writers in Residence program?

I love Porter Square Books. I was so excited when I found it, because I love buying all my books at independent bookstores. They’ve always had a really good children’s lit and young adult literature section, and then they also added a romance section, so I was really excited about that because I also write queer contemporary romance.

Then I saw on Twitter that they were doing the Writers in Residence program, and it just sounded so wonderful. I love the idea of a bookstore doing a writers in residence program, because it’s so mutually supportive of the community building in a way that I really think is important.

Is there a specific project you applied with in mind?

I applied with this young adult book that I have started and outlined called “The Sugar Bowl.” It’s a queer young adult romance about a girl growing up in the early 2000s in Illinois. It’s kind of a coming-of-age tale with a lot about exploring your sexual and gender identity. So I applied with the first 10 pages of that project and a statement of purpose.

I’m hoping I will finish the book [during this residency]. My goal is to finish a first draft by the end of that year, and then just do my layers and layers of revision and having other people read. I’m confident I’ll at least get a first draft done.

Sounds intriguing! Can you tell me more about the plot?

I usually try really hard to come up with a good outline for books when I start them, but then I always deviate so much from my initial plan, because my characters tend to just do whatever they want. But right now it’s a story about this girl, Annie, who actually moves from Hawaii—where she grew up her whole life—to suburban Illinois, and is experiencing culture shock and a new place and not really knowing how to fit in. It’s right before she goes to high school. She develops some friendships with a group of neighborhood girls and also her next door neighbor, who is very openly queer and really tomboyish. There’s kind of her coming to terms with her own sexuality and trying to navigate that in the midst of trying to figure out what kind of person she wants to be, and how she fits in on the mainland.

Where did you draw inspiration from for this story?

I grew up in suburban Illinois during this period of time that this book is set, high school. I’m a lesbian, so I’m drawing on that.

I’m not good at sports at all, but I really wanted to write a book about a girl being good at sports and finding camaraderie through that. I had just read this really great book that kind of inspired me, called “Dryland.” It’s kind of a queer young adult novel as well. It’s about swimming; the character gets really into swimming. I really liked that plot. I like the idea of writing about sports and queerness and identity.

You say on your website that you’re writing the queer novels you needed when you were growing up. Can you speak a bit more about what that means?

I grew up in a place where I just didn’t really know a lot of people who were gay or queer, and it wasn’t something that I saw being represented basically anywhere. Basically my only queer representation as a kid was “Will and Grace.” I would read books sometimes, like young adult books … and there were queer side characters, but I was very hungry for just knowing that it’s OK to be queer and seeing people thrive in any kind of media.

It’s changed so much now with people like [young adult authors] Adam Silvera and Becky Albertalli, but when I was kid, there just wasn’t so much of it readily available, particularly for girls and feminine-identified people. So it’s really important for me to write books that really are giving kids positive, complex stories so they can see themselves reflected.

I’ve noticed that shift, too—YA seems to be so much more diverse than it once was. Regarding that, though, I’m wondering if you’re satisfied with the way that the queer experience is being represented in YA fiction right now, or if you feel like there are still narratives that are missing.

Yeah, it’s interesting. I’m kind of now just reacquainting myself with YA and current iterations. I feel like I do see a lot of really great representation, particularly from smaller, queer presses. Interlude Press is a queer, small-ish press, but they put out amazing stuff. Their YA imprint, Duet Books, does too—the one book that I loved was called “Running with Lions.” It’s a queer soccer team book. It was incredibly diverse in terms of race and gender identity and sexual orientation.

I feel like probably we could do more as young adult writers to boost the voices of trans folks, and particularly queer people of color as well. We can always be better; we can always boost the voices of others and encourage more stories. But I’m very happy to see that any time I look at young adult Twitter or something, I’ll see so many great, interesting people writing books that I had no idea about before, so I’m pretty happy with it.

Now that there is such a robust canon of young adult literature available, what would you say makes your work stand out?

I think that honestly for queer readers, having this be kind of like an “own voices” story—like that I’m a queer person and this is coming from someone who’s experienced a lot of self-doubt and the difficulties that come from being queer. I think it’s important that we have people sharing their authentic experiences, and that’s my goal with my writing—to be as emotionally honest and complex as possible so that other people can connect with it or feel something good from reading it. It’s important to me, too, that we have stories that have happy endings for queer youth, because so much queer media is very doom and gloom and everybody dies.

Why would you say it’s important for young people to have access to high quality, inclusive fiction?

I mean, I think we just live in a very diverse world. I used to teach high school English, and the stories that are usually in school curriculum are super white, very straight, and very male. It’s just true. And reading Shakespeare all the time—no offense to Shakespeare—is not really relateable, or teachers have to work really hard to make it relatable, and I think it just makes it less enjoyable. I think there is something really powerful about art resonating with your own lived experience and validating your lived experience.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and conciseness.