The first time I ever bought a romance about two girls at a bookstore, Nina LaCour’s name was on the spine. Books like that weren’t easy to come by in 2014. Without a local indie full of helpful queer booksellers to guide me, I walked into Barnes & Noble armed with a listicle of queer books, typed Nina’s name into the computer in the young adult section, and went home with Everything Leads To You.
These days, thanks to the tireless and trailblazing work of authors like LaCour, it’s easier than ever to find lesbian books. You’ve probably seen the gorgeous cover of Yerba Buena, LaCour’s atmospheric adult debut about two star-crossed young women navigating trauma, family, and romance, anywhere from Book of the Month to Target’s book club. This spotlight has been long time coming: LaCour’s YA debut Hold Still, a tender story of grief and hopeful queer love, came out in 2009. Since then, she’s built a rich, contemplative, and firmly gay backlist — including the Printz Award-winning We Are Okay — and become a beloved mainstay of queer YA as we know it.
Chatting via Zoom from my New York home office to LaCour’s in San Francisco, I was so curious (and more than a little geeked) to ask one of my personal favorite authors all about the stunning Yerba Buena, publishing gay books, and what makes a good cocktail.
How does it feel for you to finally usher this baby, Yerba Buena, out into the world?
Terrifying and also very good and right. I started working on this book when I was 20. I'm 39. It's been a very long evolution. I had this idea for these characters when I was still a senior in college and then they just have lived in my head. I haven't actively been working on it at all; all those years, I've been writing my YA novels and living my life. They've just always been there talking to me, and so to have it be a real book now that is complete, that I can hold in my hands and that will soon be in bookstores is just incredibly exciting. And also feels like — as it always feels when we publish books — like offering a slice of my heart on a platter for people to feast away on.
I love that the main characters represent two very different types of lost girl. I think it's interesting that it's your first adult novel and it's exploring these themes of being lost in early adulthood. Is that something that you were drawn to when writing it?
Yeah. That's part of why the story took me so long, because I knew that's what I wanted it to be. But I was 20 when I started it, and I was trying to write this story where they go into their 30s, and I think I just wasn't ready. Some people have such capacious imaginations that they are able to envision that — and I feel like maybe I could envision life a few decades down the road from where I am — but I think at that time, I hadn't done enough of my own internal examinations to be ready to do that.
So much of so many people's experiences in their 20s is this quest, right? A quest to understand ourselves. But I think in our 20s, those are such formative years, and we are just getting our first true jobs. That's when we're deciding, where do we want to live? All of those adult choices first land on us in that decade.
I was thinking about how the threads of grief come up again and again in your books. I think We Are Okay has the passage: “I must have shut grief out, found it in books, cried over fiction instead of the truth.” Would you say that the draw to writing about grief that you describe there is similar to the draw in reading about it?
I do. I find grief so interesting, because it's something that feels so isolating to us and yet it's one of the most universal experiences that there are, and I really believe in reading and watching things for catharsis. It's always been what I'm drawn to. I always love reading something that's going to make me cry and going to make me clutch my heart and going to make me remember things and feel less alone in any kind of feeling that I've had, whether it's related to grief or even just a moment of pure joy or whatever. I just love it when that's captured and that's what I strive to do over and over in my work. It's been interesting to see just for myself, in this adult novel and then the one that I am currently working on as well, how I'm still dealing with all those same themes that I deal with in my YA work.
It definitely felt like a Nina LaCour book but at the same time, you feel that sense of the characters being just a smidge farther along down the road of contending with those themes.
One of the things I've been exploring is how in my YA, it's like there's some sort of event and my character is grappling with it and they get to the first step of being okay, right? Or knowing what to do next. Some sort of area where it feels okay to say goodbye to them for a little while.
Then with this one, I got to go there but then take it another step and another step and another and really see how those things that we go through when we're young reverberate throughout our lives — but how with distance, our relationships to them do change. That was a real gift of writing about slightly older characters.
One of the things I love is you have this balance of lushness and restraint in your writing. It's like you have this ability to set an emotional mood or pin down this really specific feeling with very few words — and they're not even really big words, they're just very well-selected words. How did you hone that part of your craft?
One of the reasons that it took me so long to write an adult novel was, first, I knew it needed to be third person and I had never written in third person before and found it very difficult. Then also I was really consumed by this idea that was like — I knew how to write YA, I knew what that voice sounded like, but how would my voice transfer to an adult audience? I didn't know and I was just consumed with self-doubt over it.
Then I realized I just needed to write in my own voice. What I teach people over and over and over again [is] just trusting your own voice. It's going to be fine. Everyone sounds different. I would read all of these novels for adult audiences and see how incredibly differently people wrote and assure myself that I had a place there.
One of my passions in craft is thinking about emotion and how to convey it, and my strategy is to front-load all of the work. If you plant all of that [emotion] and you do a good enough job establishing things and reminding your reader, then when you get to these big moments, you don't have to explain how your character feels. There it is, and hopefully, you've done a good enough job of making your reader understand how much this means. Then — because I really do love spare language — you can rely less on language and more on all of the groundwork that you have laid leading up to it.
I think that's such a beautifully confident part of your craft, that you trust the reader.
Yeah. It's one of my favorite things. Writing is so fun. Don't you find that?
You do what you love to do and then you keep practicing and hopefully we all get better and better. Then we're able to rely on these things. So much about writing is so out of my control, and I am somebody who craves control, so it can be very scary. But I find that when there are certain things like that — where I learn, "I know what to do, I've done this before and I can do it again” — that just feels really good to me.
As writers of queer fiction, and especially queer love stories, I feel like I am often expected to sell my work to straight audiences by proving it’s relatable. I think on some level there's a value to the humanization of that, but I also believe that queer love is special and, in many ways, not the same as straight love, because I think it can be more expansive and more revelatory and transformative. What is special and singular about writing a love story between two women, for you?
In the beginning of my writing career, I had this thought that if I wrote about queer women, if I centered queer women in my stories, I might not be able to reach a mainstream audience. I decided, well, that's all right, then I can have a little bit of a quieter career, but I do really want to center queer characters in my work. Once I made that decision and just dove into it, I was able to just stop considering what straight readers would think.
I want to be very clear: This book is one tiny element of queerness and what it means and what all of that encompasses. I think of it as a prism, and I love being one little part of it in this book. Queer love is so expansive, and I think one of the amazing things about it is when we're writing stories that don't begin with the assumption of straightness and just a cisgendered, heterosexual relationship, then we have so many possibilities, right? It's incredible. Then I do think that there's something where finding someone who you're meant to be with does feel even more special, because it isn't prescribed for you from the beginning.
In the novel, Emilie has relationships with men and women and there's something that I really like about that too, because she sees somebody and she knows exactly that she wants [them]. As soon as she sees Sara, she knows that she wants her, and that was my experience with my wife. We were in college at San Francisco State, and I saw her walk into a classroom and had a feeling that I had never had before or since where I was like, "That person is incredible. That is the person I want to be with." It took a while for that to happen, but it was just that sure. I wanted to create that. That was just really beautiful. Neither of us are the characters in the book but I certainly drew from our relationship, our styles of communicating, the growth that we've both had to do because we've been together for — we just had our 20 year anniversary.
Thank you. We met when I was 19 years old. We've grown up together, and so a lot of this figuring out who you are in order to love another person well and be loved well, we've done side by side, which has been just such a powerful experience. I wanted to bring that in. I don't know if that's the best answer to your question.
My last question is, if your body of work was a cocktail, what would be the ingredients in it and why?
Oh my gosh. What a question, Casey.
Well, I will start with the disclaimer that my wife is the cocktail maker.... How about this? I'll go for Sara's favorite in the [book] — I think it made it into the final draft — which is old Tom Gin. I'll choose that because it has the delicious botanical gin notes but it's brown in color. I like that, I like a cocktail that has some color to it. You know? That feels moody. I would choose that because it's both botanical and moody.
It's just a shot of gin? Are you going to add anything else?
I love a cocktail that has tea, some sort of tea in it.
I'm not a mixologist either, but in my head, green tea, lemon, and gin sounds like an incredible combo.
That sounds really good. Yes. I think that also we would need some sort of beautiful garnish, of course. As in the book, something unexpected.
Maybe I'm seeing something, like a little sprig of something that has a little flowering element. Jandy Nelson, the incredible writer, is a very close friend of ours and we own a duplex together. We have a little sidewalk garden, because we live in San Francisco. She planted this yerba buena plant and it has flowered and it has all of these beautiful little white flowers all over it. That has been really lovely. Let's just throw that in there. Let’s put some yerba buena in it, too.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.