Sunday Brunch: A Chat with Authors Ryan La Sala and Madeleine Henry

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[Note from Frolic: Our resident YA expert Aurora got the chance to chat with authors Ryan La Sala and Madeleine Henry and ask them a few questions each. Up first, Ryan La Sala!]

Aurora: What was your inspiration behind your most recent novel?

Ryan La Sala: My actual life! A few years ago, I was with my then-boyfriend at con, dressed up as Hawkman from the DC Universe. Both of us were dressed up as Hawkman, actually. I was a stressed out, exhausted mess because I did most of the work on the costumes and hadn’t slept for like, two weeks. The resulting experience was strange, fun, oddly romantic and it totally tested my relationship in a way I wasn’t expecting. After, I called my agents and told her I wanted to set a rom-com at a comic book convention, focusing on cosplay, starring two ex-boyfriends with vastly different work styles that have to work side by side in a cosplay competition. And then me and my actual boyfriend broke up! The result is: Be Dazzled.

What character in this novel do you most relate to and why? 

Raffy, the main character, is a young, prodigious artist who can make anything he can imagine. He’s way more talented than I’ll ever be, but we share a need to always be creating something, to be working on the next project, to show off our hard work and earn admiration. In other words: we love attention. He unfortunately also inherited my somewhat tumultuous relationship with stress and anxiety around creative projects, and much like my own relationships, Raffy’s bonds to the people around him suffer for it. Sorry, kiddo! 

Why do you feel novels with powerful and unique characters are so popular and have such a voice right now?

There’s so much work to do in the realm of diversifying media and storytellers, but what I can say is this: these voices have always been here, but only recently have many of us been invited onto the big stage. Sometimes we’re not invited, but we show up anyway and make it a real party, like Maleficent. The positive reaction to powerful and unique voices is, I feel, indicative of the fatiguing sameness that’s inevitable when publishers keep putting money behind the same super white, super straight stories. Frankly, I think many of us are desperate to read anything else. 

Please describe the content of your latest book and what can readers expect from it.

Be Dazzled is about Raffy, an ingenious costume designer deadset at taking home the top prize at his region’s biggest cosplay competition. His chances at art school depend on it, but what he’s really after is a reason to shut up his mother, a famous artist herself who doesn’t believe Raffy’s costumes are real art worth recognition. Then, at the competition, Raffy’s ex-boyfriend shows up to compete against him. Raffy’s whole plan is in jeopardy if he can’t figure out how to fix his broken heart, focus, and win. And that’s chapter one!

This book is funny, dramatic, emotional, and of course full of crafts, costumes, and con-talk. From Be Dazzled, you can expect a whirlwind adventure through the world of comic book conventions, fandoms, and of course competitive arts and crafts. And yes, this is a book about art, but it’s also about first love, first heartbreak, second chances, and forgiveness. Beneath all the glitz, it’s a really personal story that a lot of young, ambitious artists will resonate with.

What’s next foryou in the bookish world?

To be perfectly honest, I’m looking to do a few craft projects myself! I’ll get back to books soon, I promise, but for now I’m having a blast co-hosting Celebrity Book Club, a podcast where we read celebrity-penned fiction and discuss them very seriously. Right now, we’re reading Modelland, a fantasy novel written by and then forgotten by Tyra Banks. If you’re a writer, a reader, or just curious, you should check it out! 

Who is your current favorite writer? Why?

I fear he will take a restraining order out on me if I don’t stop talking about him, but I cannot recommend Julian Winters’ work enough. Running With Lions was integral to me realizing how impactful a story focused on queer joy could be.

Any writing advice for aspiring writers?

Everywhere you will find excuses to put down your ambitions and back away from your dreams. People will tell you it’s okay to stop, to move on, to take breaks that never end. That’s true, but I want aspiring writers to know that it’s also perfectly okay to know exactly what you want to accomplish, and to pursue it with unrelenting resolve. I learned about resolve while writing Raffy in Be Dazzled, and I think we often conceptualize naked ambition as bad, but sometimes as an artist it’s the only thing you’ve got. So yes, be gentle with yourself, but know that your dreams are worth the dignity of your best effort, and chase them. 

Up next, Madeleine Henry!
Aurora: What was your inspiration behind your most recent novel? 

Madeleine Henry: The Love Proof is emotionally autobiographical, drawing from some of my personal experiences with loss. At its core, this book is about the love that endures after a relationship ends. It captures the sentiment of, I still care about you. I know you still care about me. Feelings don’t leave just because people do.

The Love Proof also draws from my time at Yale, where most of the story takes place. It was fitting to put Jake and Sophie there because the school is as enduring as the emotions I explore. With all of its traditions, concern for the classics, and centuries-old rituals, Yale feels like a place where time has slowed down to pass at a different rate—a theme in this book.

What character in this novel do you most relate to and why? 

I relate to all of them! While the obvious answer might seem like Sophie—like me, she’s unusually introverted and sensitive—I recognize parts of myself in everyone in The Love Proof.

My fiancé sometimes takes pictures of me while I’m writing. Yesterday, he showed me one where I’m dressed head-to-toe in Nike clothes, hovering over the missing right arrow on my keyboard. When I saw it, I immediately thought of Jake from The Love Proof. He’s always in Nike and that key is missing from his MacBook Air, too. That moment reminded me how much of myself is in my characters.

Why do you feel novels with powerful and unique characters are so popular and have such a voice right now? 

Identity is one of our favorite topics. We’re all thinking and talking a lot about who we are individually. We’re asking, How do I describe and express myself? And the more we consider that question, the more layered and complex our answers become as we break out of binaries and limiting ideas. As we get better at seeing and labeling our own unique attributes, those come out more in our stories.

Please describe the content of your latest romantic read and what can readers expect from it. 

The Love Proof is about the love that endures after a relationship ends. I hope that readers find it to be a beautiful story, not just in the ideas that emerge from the text—most importantly, that we’re always connected to the people we love—but down to the sentence level. I view this book as a tribute to the most beautiful parts of human character, too. It highlights noble traits including dedication, loyalty, hard work, and unconditional, timeless love. I hope all of that comes together in a really gorgeous and stimulating way.

What’s next for you in the bookish world? 

I’m working hard on my third novel, though I’m waiting to reveal more about that until everything for The Love Proof winds down. I haven’t shared the plot broadly yet—in order to foster some anticipation—but I can say that it’s a work of fiction, following a family of chefs in New York City, exploring the idea of true nourishment.

Who is your current favorite writer? Why? 

I love reading Blake Crouch because his stories are simultaneously the most thrilling and the deepest. Some suspense novels hold your attention hostage just by delaying the answer to a key question. So, you keep turning pages just to relieve the tension that the author created. As soon as you finish the book, you do feel relief, but the experience stays shallow—just manufactured tension, then release. 

Blake Crouch does something special. He creates the tension that keeps you hooked, but it’s enjoyable. You want to get ahead, but you don’t really want to finish, because the web of uncertainties he constructs is so complicated and mind-blowing that you enjoy thinking about it. Plus, there’s real depth and substance to the issues that he probes. His stories confront your ideas about what human beings are and what reality is. You don’t just feel relief at the end, but broader, more awake, and more in touch with the universe. It’s a wild experience.

Any writing advice for aspiring writers?  

What I love most about writing is the freedom of it. So, I wouldn’t want my advice to override for anyone else the autonomy that’s precious to me. 

I would say that if you want to build a life as a writer, my advice is to write as often as you can, read a ton, figure out who your audience is, and develop a relationship with that audience (through social media, self-publishing, or otherwise). It’s hard to be heard; it takes consistent effort over a long period of time. My last piece of advice would be to keep the dream alive! You have to believe in yourself, stay stronger than the fear and the doubt, and stay in the game long enough to watch yourself succeed. Never give up on your dream.

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