Finding An Agent, Protecting Your Creativity and Somewhere Between Bitter & Sweet with Laekan Zea Kemp

The Manuscript Academy Podcast

With Author Laekan Zea Kemp

Laeken Kemp

We are so happy to welcome Laekan Zea Kemp to the podcast! We talk about how she got her agent (and made sure she was a true ally), her advice for writers (and how to keep your creative self safe), and how she came up with the idea for this gorgeous new story.

Laekan Zea Kemp is a writer living in Austin, Texas. She’s also the creator and host of the Author Pep Talks podcast, as well as a contributor to the Las Musas podcast. She has three objectives when it comes to storytelling: to make people laugh, cry, and crave Mexican food. Her work celebrates Chicanx grit, resilience, creativity, and joy while exploring themes of identity and mental health. Her debut novel, SOMEWHERE BETWEEN BITTER & SWEET is coming from Little Brown April 6, 2021.

You can find a link to the book’s recipes here:

And you can find Laekan online here:

Episode Transcript

INTRO: Welcome to the manuscript Academy podcast brought to you by a writer and an agent who both believe that education is key. The beauty is the people you meet along the way, and that community makes all the difference. Here at the manuscript Academy, you can learn the skills, make the connections, and have access to experts all from home. I’m Julie Kingsley, and I’m Jessica Sinsheimer. So put down your pens, pause your word counts and enjoy.

JESSICA: Let’s get started. We have a very special guest today. We have Laekan Zea Kemp, and author with a very exciting book coming out and a really great story behind it. Laekan why don’t you tell us a little bit about your work.

LAEKAN: So my debut novel is forthcoming from Little Brown Young Readers on April 6th of this year. It’s been comped to, I’m Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter and Emergency Contact. And in case you haven’t seen the news lately, I’m Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is getting a film adaptation, which I’m so excited about. And I was really, truly honored to be comped to that title when I was out on sub and then when we were going through the acquisitions process. So I, my protagonists are also Mexican and Mexican American, and I tend to write a lot about the Chicanex community, which I’m a member of.

LAEKAN: And so this story is set in Austin, Texas, where I currently live. And it’s about two teens falling in love, dealing with familial expectations, the power of food, and really just finding where you belong. And then all of that is set in a Mexican restaurant. That is the heart of, like I said, a really fiercely, loyal Chicana community.

JESSICA: It sounds like so much fun.

JULIE: You had me up food. I love food based stories. I mean, can you just give us your favorite meal and in your book.

LAEKAN: Oh gosh, favorite meal in the book. I mean, my favorite food in general is tacos. And so the restaurant in the book is called Nachos Tacos. So yeah, tacos are my favorites al pastor with some pineapple, like fresh onion and cilantro. That’s like my ideal meal. And then as far as like dessert, I have a huge sweet tooth.

LAEKAN: So the main character, you know, she loves cooking, but most of all loves to bake and love baking Mexican pastries and our signature flavor is coconut. So that is my favorite flavor. And I think it’s because I grew up eating a lot of desserts with my grandfather who also had like a very strong sweet tooth and coconut was his favorite flavor. So every time he had a birthday, anytime we had a holiday, that’s always what we would eat. And so that flavor holds a lot of symbolism for me, especially in the book.

JULIE: Oh, I’m starving, so hungry. Now I had a protein shake for lunch and it was not that delicious.

LAEKAN: And I have to recipes. So on the books page on my website people can download recipe cards for, I think I have three savory dishes up into like dessert recipes. So people can download those, print them out and make the recipes at home if they want to.

JESSICA: That’s amazing. I love it. Come with recipes. Thank you. We will link to that in the show notes. If you’re listening to this podcast and suddenly hungry, you can fix that. Would you be willing to read us your first page and talk a little about it.

LAEKAN: Yeah, I can do that. Grease hisses and pops beneath the staccato drums, ticking from the speaker above my brotheR Angel’s head. The song fades beneath the clank of metal and the sound of his voice calling orders across the kitchen. “Adobada. Mole verde. Guiso de flor.” I hear him through the crack in the back door of the restaurant. My forehead pressed to the cold metal as I count my breaths beats in between. Go inside. The restaurant is descending into chaos. You don’t have time to fall apart. But the voice in my head isn’t alone. There’s another voice, biting and cold and cruel. Your a mess pen. You’re just going to make a mess. I call it a liar. I pray that it is, then I grit my teeth and yank the door open.

JESSICA: Can you tell us about how you came to this first page? Like, was that your first draft? Did you think about it ahead of time or it just magically happened? I mean, it’s beautiful. There’s so much going on. Was it conscious? Did you plan? it Tell us more.

LAEKAN: So I’ve never given birth, but I have heard that after a woman gives birth, that that experience is sort of like so euphoric that she kind of forgets how painful labor actually was. And I feel like that is sort of what happens to me when I write.  I don’t really remember writing this. Like I remember writing parts of it. I don’t think this was the original first page. I know that I had gotten some feedback early on that I needed to start the story in a more actionable place. And then someone else I think had given me feedback on, you know, using the setting to eliminate something about Penn’s mental health. And so, you know, that’s where the idea came from to start things off in the restaurant, in the middle of a really busy and chaotic night.

JULIE: Well, as someone that worked in restaurants for a long time, I thought it was perfectly grounded and I thought it was just spot on and like how you can start having conversations with yourself when there’s chaos around. I thought it was amazing.

LAEKAN: Thank you. I really wish that I could, you know, tell people more about like the actual writing process of this book, but it is just something that has happened to me with every single novel. I just like, I can’t remember the minutia of it. It’s like it gets wiped from my brain as soon as the book is done in order to make room for the next thing that I’m working on.

JESSICA: Can you tel us a little bit about how you found your agent and you knew that you had an ally for this process?

LAEKAN: So I went through through DVPIT and it was, it was such a whirlwind. I think I learned about DVPIT just a few weeks before it was set to happen that April. So another like really serendipitous moment that kind of made me feel like, well, maybe this really is the book that’s going to get me an agent, get me a book deal. So I participated in DVPIT in April of 2018 or 2019. So I crafted, you know, six pitches to tweet throughout the day and got a lot of likes and retweets and, you know, created a spreadsheet of all of the agents who had liked my tweet. And then I immediately sent out query letters because the manuscript was already revised and polished. And so I was able to send out queries and samples immediately. And, you know, there were a lot of people who gave me great feedback on the query and the sample chapters.

LAEKAN: There were a lot of people who were, I think also like more excitedly reading, other things. And so didn’t have time to quite get to mine. Like it’s kind of a weird experience going through DVPIT because you’re watching everyone else’s movement that day and seeing how many likes they get and how many retweets they get. And so sometimes it’s kind of obvious where everyone’s attention is going to be pulled if there’s like a particular pitch that got a lot of attention and has a lot of excitement around it. And so mine wasn’t necessarily one of those, but I did get a lot of great agents liking the tweet and agents that I really admired and really admired and respected their client list. And so my agent was a junior agent at the time and we had a phone call.

LAEKAN: She is an agent at Writers House. And I think for the same reason that I gravitated towards participating in DVPIT, looking for like a safe place and a community that I could trust, I feel like that was the same sense and the same feeling that I got when I spoke to her on the phone. And in hindsight, just thinking about how our relationship has evolved and all of the different things that she’s helped me navigate.  I’m so glad that I made the choice to go with someone who first and foremost made me feel really comfortable and safe because there’s a lot of aspects of going out on sub and even going through the process of revisions with your editor that can be really scary, that can really shake your confidence. And it was really important to me to have an ally who knows how much I’m trying to prioritize and protect my mental health and who is also trying to do the same thing in all of the decisions that she’s making and in the way that she communicates with me.

LAEKAN: So that was something that just struck me from the first phone call and has continued to be something that I really, really value about our relationship.

JESSICA: I’m so happy you found that.

LAEKAN: Yeah, it’s been really nice. You know, where all of us debuts,  we hang out in like a debut Slack, and I’m not sure it’s probably been over a year now that I’ve been in the Slack and getting to know other debuts and just kinda like watching from the sidelines, their experiences with their agents or their experiences with their editors and knowing all that I do now. Like, I’m just so grateful to have Andrea because for some people it has been a roller coaster ride. And I just feel like my personality does not fit very well with like all of the unknowns, like all of the variables, all of the stress that some of my other writer friends are dealing with related to the business side of things. I’m just so grateful that I’m not having to deal with any of that. And then I have a really great agent who keeps me like calm and comfortable and just feeling really safe and secure.

JESSICA: And even in the best of all possible worlds going on sub is stressful. Can you tell us a little bit about anything you learned during that process or what your time in that time was like?

LAEKAN: It was really fast and I know that that’s that’s happened for many people coming off of the excitement of DVPIT. And so I signed the contract with Andrea for representation in May, and then we went out on submission shortly after. I, I really didn’t have to do much to the manuscript. I think we tweaked a couple of sentences. So again, shout out to Eric in the Manuscript Academy for helping me get that manuscript, not just ready to go out to agents, but really helping me get it ready to go out on sub because we were able to go on sub pretty much immediately after. And I ended up getting my book deal in June.

JESSICA: That’s so fast.

LAEKAN: It was, it was really fast. And I don’t even remember like who finished reading first and who got in touch with us first, but a couple of people when it just scheduled phone calls. And then once that happened, you know, things just started rolling because, you know once someone shows interest, other people find out about it, they kind of speed up the process on their end so they can read and see if they want to compete. And so, so yeah, it all happened really quickly. And then some of the editors who had made an offer, they all happen to be at a particular conference that my agent was also attending.

JESSICA: It’d be like, go to breakfast. Hey, you made enough. Are you going to get it? Nope. Time for bananas.

JULIE: What a crazy story with COVID. Whe’re like what? There were together?!  Tell us more.

LAEKAN: I know, obviously it was pre COVID times. But they all ended up at a conference together. And so I think that’s something that also helped expedite. It was the fact that she was able to talk to them in person about some of these things. And then all they had to do was make a phone call, you know, back to their teams.

JESSICA: They probably didn’t know that the other bidders were also at that conference. That’s amazing.

LAEKAN: No,Probably not.

JULIE: This is the perfect energy. Like your band is ready. It was the right time. Everyone was there together and boom, and then your book’s gonna come out and hopefully we’re going to be out of this and you’re going to be like flying around. You’re gonna come to Portland. I’m gonna buy you coffee. I mean like Jessica and   you could feel her energy. Like, this is amazing.

JESSICA: It’s like a spy novel. I’m sorry, everyone being there. Nobody knows that the other bidders are there except for Andrea. She’s like walking by them looking happy and they’re like, wait, what just happened? Is she getting another offer? I don’t know.

VALENTINA: It’s like she’s just walking around, like, nothing’s going on with all these people are here. Love it.

LAEKAN: I mean, I’m sure it was much more awkward than that.

JESSICA: That version of it sounds really cool though.

JESSICA: It does. It’s like mission impossible book bidding war. How did you do your research on all the editors? It sounds like you had pick up the litter.

LAEKAN: I knew nothing about that. Part of the process. I feel like I was kind of learning things as I went. So when I needed to know, you know, qualifications for what makes a great agent, like, that’s what I was kind of pouring myself into research wise. And then once it came time to be out on sub Andrea shared the list of names with me and kind of went over, you know, why she picked certain people and why she kind of grouped them a certain way. And the only resources that I could really rely on was Publisher’s Marketplace. And so I paid the $20 for a month subscription. I didn’t actually need it the whole month. I just needed it for a couple of days to look up these editors and see what books they had bought recently. I was really most interested to seeing what books they had worked on previously.

LAEKAN: And if they had worked on books by any authors that I loved, or if they seem to be acquiring a lot of books  by POC authors or marginalized authors, that was really important to me. And, and that was really just my criteria. I mean, of course it was interesting to look at the sort of coded language referring to like advanced sizes and that sort of thing. So, you know, I was looking at that information, but really what it came down to was the phone calls and just sort of the energy between me and whoever I was speaking to. And we ultimately decided to go with Sam Gentry at little Brown, and I’ve been so, so happy with that decision. Again, you know, now that I’ve learned so much more about the industry and I’ve developed relationships with other writers and been able to hear about what their experience has been like, I just feel so lucky to be at little Brown. The work that they do and the books that they put out are just so stellar and yeah, it was definitely, definitely the right choice.

JESSICA: Yay. I’m so happy. You ended up at the perfect place for your book. That’s really exciting.

LAEKAN: Yeah. I’m so happy about it. No regrets at all.

JESSICA: And they, they work on so many amazing books. So why don’t you tell us a little bit about your process. Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? Did you always know you wanted to write this book? How did that all happen for you?

LAEKAN: I’ve wanted to be a writer probably since middle school. I didn’t really know how one might go about pursuing a career like that. I read all of the time, but knew nothing really about how books were made or even all of the other people involved in the process. And even when I went to college and decided to major in creative writing, I don’t remember being given any information about publishing as a business or even the basics, like how to get an agent. It was all focused on workshop. And the only opportunities for publication that were really discussed were submitting to literary journals and anthologies and things like that. So it was almost as if commercial fiction had zero presence, like it didn’t exist. So it took another, almost 10 years after that, for me to learn on my own about the publishing industry and genre fiction and kidlit specifically.

LAEKAN: But once I found the kids at community, I was like, okay, these are my people. And I knew that that was where my work belonged because I had always been writing about young people, mostly teenagers. And those were the stories that I loved reading. And so that’s what I gravitated towards the most, but that wasn’t something that was really focused on when I was doing my creative writing program. So I spent a decade just kind of developing my skills on my own and, you know, working with critique partners and connecting with people online and trying to build a community and just learn as much about the industry as I possibly could. And using resources like the Manuscript Academy podcast and other industry podcasts to just fill that gap, all the information that I didn’t get from my creative writing program, so that I could, you know, just better position myself to hopefully get a traditional deal

LAEKAN: One day. I spent a long time self publishing actually in a big reason for that was, you know, I was living in Florida around a really creative community. And there were lots of people who were doing DIY art, whether they were graphic designers or they were musicians. And I felt really inspired by what they were doing and the level of control that they had over the art that they were making. And, you know, this was back in probably around 2012. And so at the time there still, weren’t a lot of Latin X protagonists BIPOC protagonist in general. And those are the protagonists that I was writing. I was writing, you know, mostly female protagonists who were also Chicana. And I just didn’t really get to see that in bookstores. And so self publishing felt like a great opportunity to be able to write the kind of stories that I wanted to write.

LAEKAN: And at the time, lots of BIPOC authors specifically in like new adult in romance were having a lot of success going that route. And so I did that for about five years and published three stand-alones. I published a paranormal romance series, which became, you know, sort of popular. I was able to earn enough money to go back to school and get my teaching certificate. But eventually I just got to the point where I realized what I really wanted and what I really longed for was to be able to see my books in bookstores and to reach a much wider audience. And especially back in 2018, when all of this was kind of coming to a head for me, things were changing a little bit. We had, We Need Diverse Books. People were talking about the importance of own voices stories. And so it just felt like the right time to take a leap of faith.

LAEKAN: And then, you know, coincidentally, I had this story that I was getting really great feedback on from beta readers and critque partners. And the feedback kind of indicated to me that this was something really special and really different from the books I had written previously. I had grown a lot as a writer and basically had just kind of leveled up with this book. And so it just felt like the perfect time to go for it  in a way to make that commitment to myself and to kind of declare the fact that I was going to pursue this dream in earnest. I went to the manuscript Academy and I decided to do a hundred page manuscript critique. And I worked on that with agent Eric Smith and he helped me Polish up that manuscript and gave me so much feedback that I was able to apply, not just to the first 100 pages, but really to the entire manuscript as a whole. And I was able to complete those revisions just-in-time for DVPIT. And then that’s how I got my agent. And a month later I got my book deal.

JULIE: You know, what’s so interesting to me is, you know, I bet people will consider you an overnight success. Right. And hearing your story is so much work the hours, the hours, and honing those skills and like pushing forward, just congratulations. I mean, like it’s such an accomplishment and you know, like I’m so excited to see what happens. I really am.

LAEKAN: Yeah. It’s been 10 years really. I started writing my first book when I was a senior in high school. I was 17. So it’s been a lot longer than it probably seems on social media because I haven’t been plugged into the community since I wasn’t really plugged into the community at all before 2018. But once I did and I started having access to all of these resources, that’s when things kind of sped up for me in the process sped up. So it might seem like all of this is happening, especially my deal seems like it happened very quickly, but I mean, like I said, that was 10 years Of honing my craft and, and trying to get better. And six years just working on this one book, that will be my debut.

JULIE: I got chills.

VALENTINA: Oh my God. So Laekan, I have a question for you. Instead of going like the traditional slush pile way you actually went to DVPIT. So what made you go that route instead of just cold querying people that you may have been interested in getting representation from?

LAEKAN: So during that 10 year period, when I was both self publishing also trying a lot of different things in my work, working with a lot of different critique partners that I had just met randomly online and, you know, was hoping, would develop into a long-term relationship, which usually never did. You know, I just, in that time I had a lot of different eyes on my work and I got feedback from so many different people. And once I started getting plugged into the kidlit  community, and like I said, educating myself with all the resources that people are so generous about sharing. I just realized that a lot of the feedback that I had been getting from beta readers, from critique partners, from writers, I had been sharing my work with. That sometimes that feedback was biased that sometimes that feedback contained microaggressions and I didn’t really have the language for that until I kind of got plugged into the community and got educated.

LAEKAN: And so once I got plugged in, I was gravitating a lot towards the people who were talking about the importance of own voices who are talking about the importance of needing diverse books and disrupting texts. And a lot of them were talking about DVPIT  and it seemed like a really safe place. I knew that the agents who were participating in DVPIT were participating in it because they were purposely looking for a marginalized creators. And so I was hoping that that would, you know, eliminate the possibility of getting feedback that contained that bias or contain those microaggressions. So, so that’s kind of what was in the back of my mind is I felt like, you know, these are the people that I’ve connected with personally, the people who were involved in these sort of movements related to needing more diverse books and championing marginalized authors. Like these are the people I’m connecting with. I want to continue like being in their presence. I want to continue working with people who care about the same things that I care about. And so that seemed like a really good place to find an agent who would share the same beliefs and values that I had and who would value my work and value the community that I’m writing about in a way that would usher the book into the world in the best way possible. If that makes sense.

VALENTINA: So since you’ve been a part of the publishing industry, since you’re getting ready to be published. I’m so excited for you. I really can’t wait to read it. I read the back copy on it and it sounded like an amazing story. Is there anything that has surprised you?

LAEKAN: I recently came to a realization really just over the past few weeks, that kind of correlates to some discourse that’s been happening online in regards to authors as celebrity and how much authors owe readers in terms of sharing information about our personal lives. And so  I personally have recently come to the realization that being put in the position to commodify my identity or my marginalization, or even just my personal struggles is something that actually makes me really uncomfortable. And I was sort of surprised by my reaction to this because I’ve kept a blog for almost 10 years, almost the entire time that I’ve been writing and self-publishing and pursuing traditional publication. And I’ve shared a lot about my mental health journey, a lot about difficult things that I’ve been through both personally and professionally, and I never really gave it a second thought.

LAEKAN: I felt like being vulnerable online was a way of building connections with readers. I didn’t necessarily think I owed it to anyone, but I felt that being transparent was helpful and just a good thing in general. And initially I carried that same attitude over into my social media platforms. I tried to be really open and honest and, you know, unashamed of my own struggles, but because I had a very small number of followers for all those years, I think it created this false sense of security. It made it seem like my small corner of the internet was a safe place to share these things. But once I started doing virtual events and panels and interviews and just all the promotional stuff gearing up for the release of my debut and I started to get the same or similar questions about my characters identities in relation to my own identity about my characters marginalizations in relation to my own marginalization or just questions about home life, about my family.

LAEKAN: It just started to feel really suffocating. Like I felt like these parts of me were being highlighted, but also being consumed or highlighted for the purpose of consumption. I’m not sure if that makes sense.I started to realize that being known in that way by the public is not actually something I’m super comfortable with and it’s actually something that really scares me. And so I’ve changed my mind a lot in regards to how much I value or how much value I place on social media and how much I’m willing to share, whether that’s an interviews or even on my personal blog. I really believe that the vulnerability I’ve poured into my debut novel and the vulnerability I’m pouring into the book I’m editing Now. That it’s enough. I don’t have to give any more of myself than that. If it’s not something I’m comfortable with and all of these, you know, feelings I’ve been having around these issues have just been something totally unexpected.

LAEKAN: So I’m not sure if that quite qualifies as like a surprise. What has surprised me about the industry I probably would have assumed that I would enjoy every single aspect of all of this, right Because it’s so exciting. You work so hard to get to this point. Most of the time, it’s so much fun, like talking to people about my writing journey and talking to people about the book. But I think I just hit a wall a couple of weeks ago because I had done so many panels and interviews and events, you know, one right after the other. And I wasn’t realizing how much emotional labor, like they were actually taking. And so now I’m more mindful of that, but that’s something I don’t think I really could have known before, you know, actually doing it.

JESSICA: Any tips for other writers on how to preserve a sort of emotional energy for themselves, a sense of safety for themselves? Just knowing that there’s a big wide world out there and you need some vulnerability for your work too.

LAEKAN: Right So something practical that I spoke to my agent about recently, and she conveyed this to my editor, and I know that my editor shared the said it in a meeting with the publisher. Is that before doing any kind of event, if you’re a marginalized creatorespecially ,I really think that that event organizer should provide questions beforehand. At least topics that they plan to discuss. I know I’ve seen with my own eyes, some questions that were kind of sprung on an author, on a marginalized creator without them knowing that were incredibly invasive, that were incredibly inappropriate. And we’re not something at all that you would ask a white author or someone without that particular marginalization that that author had. So I think that’s one way that you can protect yourself or something even agents can do to protect their clients is just to make sure that you’re asking for those questions beforehand so that you can look over them, make sure there’s not any microaggressions present, make sure that everything that’s going to be discussed is something that the author feels comfortable discussing.

LAEKAN: And then as far as, you know, an online presence, something that I’m just now in the process of doing now that all of these feelings have kind of come to the forefront for me, is going back through my social media, going back through my blog and my website, making sure that I’m setting boundaries and pulling back on some of the things that maybe I felt comfortable sharing in the past. I have no way of knowing once the book comes out how people might react to the book, react to me, how they might react to something that I’ve set online. And so even though I spent a lot of time and effort like writing 10 years worth of blog posts, it almost feels safer right now to just maybe like deactivate the blog and then kind of wait to see how things go Once the book comes out. Wait to see how that kind of reader/author interaction starts to feel to me. And then slowly maybe roll out some of those old posts if I feel comfortable doing so.

JESSICA: Yeah. I think that makes sense because then you have a little bit of control over how much the world knows about you and how much access they have to your emotional life. Yeah. I can see how it would be a wonderful thing when your audience is small and it feels safe to, to be very open and know that you’ve got a small space of the internet for yourself, but as you become a larger dialogue and hopefully become wealthy and famous with your book, of course, I can see how you’d want to have some control over that.

LAEKAN: Yeah. And for some reason I’m just feeling like this sense of urgency all of a sudden to like take everything down and to kind of like crawl into a little shell just because I can see so clearly now that there’s a lot of me online. There’s a lot of me in the book and that’s creating opportunity for, I don’t ever want to discourage people from being vulnerable, but it creates opportunities for people to take advantage of that or to be unkind. And so I’m just trying to mitigate as much risk as possible, especially considering some of the content in the book I know is not going to make all readers happy. And so I’ve been advised by some by POC authors who I really trusted in that might also be a reason to kind of pull back and, and get into my proverbial shell for a little while, while the book is being ushered out into the world, just to keep myself safe.

JULIE: I’m just thinking that you’re moving into a whole new space, I such a profound way and what opportunity you have, but also you need to heat, keep that creativity going and the pressure around the second book. I think that it’s important that you stay focused on your new work as first books going out. Because if you stop and try to like be both, I think you’ll lose that creative flow. How have you found that? How has that going?

LAEKAN: Oh, gosh book too,

Speaker 5:

JULIE: That’s a thing though, because if you’re worried about what people are thinking about your voice or your content, does that affect book number two and does it affect your creative content?

LAEKAN: Yeah, well, so the problem is that, you know, and I had a really great conversation about this recently for the most part, I feel like I’ve done a really good job of, of focusing on the work and meeting my deadlines and all of the practical things that I need to be worried about in terms of getting book two done. But regardless of whether it’s my first book, or if it’s my sophomore book, there always comes a point where I do start to think about how the book is going to be marketed and how readers outside of my target audience are going to perceive the book. And not because I’m necessarily worried about positioning the book well for all readers, but because, and I think a lot of marginalized authors and especially by POC authors, I have a lot of fear about white readers leveraging something in one of my books to do harm to the community that I’m writing about. I’m not sure if that makes sense.

VALENTINA: That makes sense. It makes it makes perfect, perfect sense. Yeah. Yeah. As a POC I definitely

VALENTINA: Understand what you mean and where you’re coming from, because there are certain situations and things that some, you know, non POC readers could read and not understand because they’re not a part of the community. And some of that information could be used to shed a negative, what they would consider a negative light on the community. So I totally get where you’re coming from.

JULIE: Right. And I guess the teacher may would say how lovely to have books that show us different cultures and show us different point of views. You know, I think, I think for every negative, there is hundreds of positives. You know, it’s such opportunity for us, all of us everywhere to learn from you living in Texas, you know, I’m here in Maine and like it’s a very different culture. And that’s what I appreciate most about books for children.

JESSICA: Well, along the way, you need a good advocate. And I loved the thing that you were talking about with your agent about asking questions ahead of time.

JULIE: So, so what is your top tip for writers?

LAEKAN: My number one tip is to devote some time to figuring out how you work best as a writer. When I was juggling a full-time job on top of writing and being on deadline with my first book, I was using the same method I had been for the past 10 years, which was to just steal time, wherever I could find it and to write in whichever part of the house was the least messy.

LAEKAN: And then when I would have a hard time getting started, or I would get stuck, I would become really frustrated because like I said, I was short on time and I just didn’t know how to work any more efficiently. But I have learned since then that there are certain things I can do to set myself up for success. I’ve learned that I like to have very low lighting while I’m working. I’ve learned that some days I need ambient sounds some days I need instrumentals. Some days they need complete silence. I’ve also learned that I can’t concentrate when the scene is full of dirty dishes or if the living room needs to be vacuumed. And I can’t write when I’m hungry or dehydrated. And I know all of these sort of like tools and adjustments aren’t possible for everyone. These are just some things that work for me.

LAEKAN: But the point is really that I just slowed down enough to observe these things about myself so that I could start addressing them and creating a writing routine that just works better for me overall. So whether you’re writing full-time or not, and I would say, especially if you’re juggling a full-time job on top of your writing, I know it probably doesn’t feel like you have the time to hit pause and kind of get to know yourself better as a creator. But if you can just identify a few things that make you feel more comfortable or relaxed or inspired those small chunks of time, when you are able to steal way to write, they’ll end up being more productive, because you’re giving your creative self what you need.

JULIE: As you were talking. I was thinking of this kind of a metaphor I heard the other day, and it was more for motherhood, but I think it kind of applies to what you were saying, where it was like, you know, when you play soccer or you watch soccer or, you know, and the balls like fly all around and you just settle the ball before you can kind of like organize.

JULIE: I think writing is sometimes about settling the ball, right Like you get enough in place so that you can make your next move. And I love what you said about the dishes. Me too. Like what is it about the dishes that it’s like, well, obviously there’s not a brain cell in my head. That’s going to work for writing unless those dishes are clean. Right. There’s something about it just by doing that and putting that in place and settling your ball. When you sit down, you know that you’re going to be able to do some work. Do you have daily writing, like workouts? Do you write for an hour or do you just let it flow?

LAEKAN: I don’t set a word count goal. I try to poach my writing by giving myself as much grace and kindness as possible. So for me sending a word count goal, it just causes me a lot of stress and then resentment when I don’t meet that goal.

LAEKAN: So instead I try to set chapter or scene goals. And so that’s how I’m tackling revisions right now for book two, I’m trying to do two to three chapters a day. And so that’s what works better for me. I don’t necessarily have a specific time of the day that I write. I have a few things on like my morning to do list. And then as soon as I finish them, that’s when I jump into writing. I used to be more of a morning writer for some reason that has changed. I think it’s because, you know, over the past year, the number of emails that I’ve started to get has just multiplied. And especially right now, just every single day, I get a ton of emails. And that’s another thing that I can’t really ignore in order to work. Like I have to answer those emails before, but where I can get to the manuscript, which is really hard right now, because obviously as I’m getting closer to debut, like there’s more things happening and more things that I have to respond to. So their only ritual would be that like marking things off my to-do list so that I can get to a point in the day, whenever that is that I feel like I’m settled enough and I’m focused enough to actually work.

VALENTINA: I think that makes a lot of sense because on one level it’s kind of like the dishes are in the sink. Those are like little things in the back of their mind that are, are bugging you. So it keeps you from being able to focus. Like you feel like you should be able to on writing. So things like dishes and making sure like all the emails are done, you need almost like a blank

VALENTINA: Canvas kind of in a way in the back of your mind so you’re

VALENTINA: Able to focus and do what you need to do.

LAEKAN: Yeah. I like, I think that that example of it needing to be like a blank canvas that fits perfectly with what I need. I just need like a blank space to be able to focus. And so sometimes that requires me to like clean instead of write. Sometimes that requires me to like eat or meal plan instead of write. But all of these other things, you know, once I’m able to take them off my to-do list eventually like actually helped me with the actual writing.

JESSICA: Also, how so much of what you’ve said today relates to the idea of taking care of yourself as a person is taking care of yourself as a creative. I think that makes a lot of sense. And it’s an important thing.

LAEKAN: And it’s something that I’ve never been good at. And so I feel like I’ve been trying to learn how to rest for 10 years. I feel like I’ve been trying to get better at taking care of myself for, you know, most of my twenties. And I really just feel like I mentioned before a sense of urgency to figure those things out now, before potential craziness begins. I don’t know how the book is going to do. I don’t know how it’s going to be received, but I just feel like I really need to get these things figured out. I really need to build like this little cocoon for myself before it happens. So that’s where all of this is coming from.

JESSICA: That makes sense. And maybe in a few weeks when your book comes out and suddenly it’s the closest thing to a book tour that one can have in the pandemic, maybe you’ll see why you had  that urge.

LAEKAN: Right So in case any listeners don’t know, it takes like two years from the time when you sell a book, signed a contract for the book to come out. So when people are talking about their newest book, it’s something that they probably actually haven’t touched in like a year. And that’s the case for me with this book. I haven’t done revisions on it since March of last year. And so to go back even further to think about writing that first page or writing anything that is still original from the version that I went out on stub with, it just feels like an eternity ago.

JESSICA: Can you give us a little hint of some of the things that will happen in the book So our readers can get excited about getting their copy on soon?

LAEKAN: And this is not spoilery because it happens, you know, in the first couple of chapters, but Penn, the main female protagonist, she dreams of taking over the family restaurant. It’s really the place that she loves being the most. And it’s the place where she just feels grounded. Cooking is something that makes her feel powerful and connected to her roots. And it’s just such a huge part of who she is when her parents really want her to go a more practical route. Her parents obviously know the stressors of, of running a restaurant that Penn doesn’t understand entirely because she’s not in the same position as her father who actually owns the restaurant. And so they’re kind of trying to push her towards, towards a different path. And they think that she’s been going to school for a semester. That she’s going to get a nursing degree.

LAEKAN: And the truth is she hasn’t been going to school at all. And she tries to fix that second semester. She shows up on campus, thinks that she’s going to walk into that class, that she should have taken last semester, and that she’s going to be able to get back on track. And it’d be the person who her parents want her to be. And she just kind of has a breakdown in the parking lot and realizes that it’s not the life that she wants, but she knows that she can’t keep lying about it. So she goes to the restaurant and decides that she’s going to tell her parents the truth. And when she does her father fires her, which is a huge shock because she’s such an integral part of the restaurant. She’s basically the pseudo manager, even though her brother’s the actual manager. She’s the one who’s tweaked almost every item on the menu.

LAEKAN: So the restaurant is really, you know, as much hers as it is her father’s, but of course, he’s so upset about the fact that she lied, that he takes it away from her. The one thing that he knows she wants the most. But on the same day that she gets fired, they have a new hire, which is the Xander AMauro. And he is the  male protagonist in  the book. So it’s dual point of view and the  chapters go back and forth between their different points of view and their different storylines. And so he shows up to his first day of work on Penn’s last day of work, and they have like a meet cute in the employee bathroom. And from that first moment it almost seems like Xander’s only person who really sees her and kind of sees underneath the mask that she wears in order to hide her vulnerability and hide her true feelings, especially in front of the other restaurant employees. And so that’s kind of the inciting incident of the story she gets fired. He gets hired and they have like this meet moment that evolves and grows into something more.

JESSICA: That sounds lovely.

JULIE: We would love to give out three separate copies of your fabulous book. Do you have a special word that the first three people that email us could get a copy of your book?

LAEKAN: Penn’s signature flavor, which is coconut.

JULIE: Okay. Coconut. It is.

JESSICA: And we’ll be sending them from the bookstore that you chose, which is So shout out to Book People in advance for sending those for us. Thank you. This is so exciting. This sounds like so much fun. Is there anything else you’d like to share with writers for encouragement or ideas to help themselves out or anything?

LAEKAN: I would say it took me a really long time to find my community and to develop friendships with other writers. The sooner you can do that, the better. Don’t be afraid of the fact that we’re all kind of forced to forge these connections online these days, all of the friends that I’ve made over the past year, I have never met in person, but that doesn’t make them any less valuable to me. I would try to find organizations that are out there that care about the same things that you care about in terms of, you know, equity and publishing or whatever it is that you’re, you’re championing. I’m a part of a marketing collective called Las Musas. And that’s just one example of a group of Latin X creators whose gender identity aligns with femininity. And we just, you know, support each other.

LAEKAN: We share information in a Slack channel. We boost each other’s work. We celebrate each other’s victories and it truly has been the highlight of this experience for me. Of course, the book deal, all of that is, is so exciting, but like the friendships and the connections have just been the icing on the cake for me. And I wish that I had been able to find that sooner. You know, I worked with a lot of different critique partners over the years, but I never was able to find that community of other Latin X writers. And then once I did, it just felt like coming home. So if you’re listening to this, you are probably already plugged in to the community way more than I ever was. You probably know about a lot of resources that I had no idea existed, but I just encourage you to go beyond that and look specifically for people who care about the same things that you care about. Some of these groups seem really big and it’s kind of intimidating to approach them and to try to connect with people that way. But you just have to keep putting yourself out there until you find your people.

JESSICA: When is your book launch and how can we attend?

LAEKAN: So it’s April 6th of this year and it’ll be at Book People. So they have a sign up on their website, which I can probably share that link with you to put in the show notes, but I’ll be in conversation with Laura Taylor Naimi, who is the New York times bestselling author of A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow. And so we’ll be chatting about the book. Like I mentioned, I’m going to have to do a reading I’m sure. So I’ll be practicing and prepping and getting ready for that. And I’m sure we’re going to be talking mostly about food because that’s something that our books both have in common. Our protagonists are both like really strong, like headstrong and passionate Latinas. So I’m sure we’ll get into conversations about that, but, you know, Laura is super funny. She’s so entertaining. I’m so excited to be in conversation with her because I’m probably going to be nervous and freaking out. And she is just such a calming presence for me. So I know that even if I, like am terrible at the launch she’ll save it and everyone is still going to have a good time because she’s so great.

JESSICA: I’m sure you’re not going to be terrible. One thing I forgot to ask, did you do any food based research for your book that you could tell us about?

LAEKAN: The research for this book was really, really personal to me. My grandmother didn’t actually cook a lot of traditional Mexican meals. She just did not grow up having that kind of relationship with her mother and having those kind of bonding moments in the kitchen. And so there were a few traditional dishes that she would make but for the most partI had to learn a lot of this as an adult, which I think is actually pretty typical for a lot of people living in the diaspora. A lot of Chicanas, we are used to living on sort of the peripheries of our own culture, not having been born and raised in our ancestral Homeland. And so there are some things that many of us have lost like language ,like food, like cultural traditions. And so a lot of the research in this book was about building on what I already knew and also reclaiming things that I had lost.

LAEKAN: So it’s, for that reason, it’s an intensely personal story and the food, he meaning that it takes on for the characters, it means just as much to me as the writer and symbolizes and represents just as much for me as it does for Penn in terms of being that cultural touchstone and being that tie back to our roots.

JESSICA: Well, I can’t wait to read it. Thank you so much. I’m so happy that we were able to talk with you.

LAEKAN: Thank you so much for having me and thank you for your incredible resources. That 100% played a role in all of this happening.


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