VISIBLE: Women Writers of Color: Lola StVil
I often rely on interviewees for this column to hip me to other women of color writers whose work they are loving at the moment. Earlier this year, when I asked Samantha Irby what she was reading, she raved about Girls Like Me, a novel in verse by Lola StVil. As soon as our interview was over, I went to the author’s page and was greeted by orange-haired angels, a hero with a telekinetic girlfriend, and accounts of a massive war waged against thousands of demons.
I wanted to talk to Lola StVil.
In addition to Girls Like Me, StVil is the author of four fantasy series, Guardians, The Noru, The Toren, and Kissed by Shadows. She was seven when she first came to the US from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She attended Columbia College in Chicago, where she studied creative writing. In addition to novels, she also writes plays, screenplays, and short stories.
Girls Like Me is a departure from StVil’s usual fantasy fare. The main character, Shay Summers, is a bright and funny fifteen-year-old girl, struggles with grief, her weight, and bullying. An online romance brings new challenges.
Below, StVil shares how her characters demanded to be written, what her family thinks of her writing career, and what it took to land the right agent.
The Rumpus: How did you get started writing fantasy?
Lola StVil: I was really good at being unemployed, and I wasn’t making any money. And I kept seeing a bunch of angels. They were teenagers with a lot of attitude and a lot of power. And I kept looking at them and saying, “Look, I don’t write books. I write plays. I write poems. I don’t do books, so you’re just going to have to find somebody else.” But they hung around for a couple of years on anything high like a lamppost or a traffic light. They would just look at me.
When I was about a year-and-a-half into unemployment, it did not look good because I was a suffering actress. Nothing was working acting-wise and writing-wise. So, I just was deeper into unemployment, and the angels sat on my bed one day in my studio apartment, and they were like, “I’m just saying. You have nothing to do.” [Laughs] “And you’re not making any money. You have absolutely nothing to do but let us tell you the story.”
And I said okay. So, then I tried to write it, and I wrote three pages and they were horrible, horrible pages. And I said, ‘Well, this is obviously not working out.” And they said, “Well, maybe you should shut up and let us talk.” It was very demanding. So, I decided to shut up and just listen to what they were telling me.
You know, once I got out of the way, I ended up writing the first book, Guardians: The Girl, in three months. I took one day off. And I didn’t even watch TV because I kept hearing [the angels] all the time. It’s like a station that’s tough to find, but once you tune into it, you can’t stop hearing it.
So it was a combination of necessity and desperation. Even if it never took off on Amazon, I would still write it because I hear so clearly. It’s just cheaper than therapy, you know?
Rumpus: Do you think that these angels came to you because you’re a fan of fantasy? Is that what you grew up reading?
StVil: No. Actually, I’ve only read two fantasy books in my life. Harry Potter and Twilight. I wasn’t a fantasy person. But I’ve always been fascinated by powers and what would happen if the person who has the power has less maturity than they should? You have all the power in the world, but you’re sixteen. What do you do with that kind of stuff? So, I guess it kind of fell in my lap, for better or worse.
Rumpus: As a reader, what are your preferred genres now?
StVil: Now that I write fantasy, I absolutely can’t read it. Because the characters get jealous. They get really jealous. “Oh, you’re more interested in someone else?” And then they’ll stop talking to me. They literally stop talking to me when I do that. But I can’t get mad. I understand. They’re protective.
I’m a huge James Baldwin fan. And for lighter reading, I love David Sedaris. Me Talk Pretty One Day, that kind of stuff. I love comedic essays that just really crack me up. But it’s harder to read fantasy because it’s kind of like going to work. It’s like deciding to go have coffee in your office on your day off. Why would you do that? So I try not to read because then I think, “Oh, my God. She has great villains. Are my villains great? Maybe I should rewrite.”
But I love reading thrillers. I’m a huge thriller fan. But I don’t get to read. What they don’t tell you is, the more you write anything—the more I write—the less I have [time] to read.
Rumpus: There’s always that trade-off.
StVil: And I have a list of books that I want to read. They’re, like, my wish list. But it really puts shit into the genre that I’m doing. It would be a really bad mash-up. It would not work for anybody. Because the voices stay with me, and I say this knowing that I sound like I belong in an asylum, but the voices stay a long time. If I read a James Baldwin book, his voices stay with me. And the last thing I want to do is write the next day and have a watered-down James Baldwin kind of thing. It’s better for everyone if I just go to a movie and call it a day.
Rumpus: So, your background is in acting.
StVil: For high school, I was at the LaGuardia School of Performing Arts for theater and then Columbia College for creative writing. Much to my mother’s dismay, it is all arts, all the way. I’m not good at anything else. You don’t want me answering your phone.
Rumpus: I can’t believe you don’t know Samantha Irby. You guys would be best friends. She’s a comedian, and she also has Chicago roots. And she told me that her dad would say that writing is not a job—because you don’t get up in the morning and go anywhere.
StVil: My dad was always the same way. Being from the Caribbean, that work ethic is unbelievable. So, when you tell people you’re writing, and they’re like, “Okay, but what do you do for money?” I remember when [Guardians: The Girl] was, thankfully, able to help me buy my first house. And I told my grandfather, and he said, “How did you get the money?” I said, “I wrote stories.” He said, “Say that again?” “I wrote stories.” He said, “So you write stuff, make stuff up, and people put money in your bank account?” I said yes. He said, “God bless America! You see that? That would never happen in Haiti!” [Laughs]
But I also had a hard time explaining to him dog walkers. Because in Haiti, people don’t really keep pets. You might give them a little something to eat, but you’re not officially a pet owner. So when I told them here people have dogs and then they pay someone to walk them. He said, “Are their legs broken?” And I’m like, no. But he doesn’t believe me. “But they’ve been walking their entire lives!”
So, according to my grandfather I get paid for nothing. But he’s happy about it.
Rumpus:It sounds like magic. You touched on it a little bit, but given your roots, was there a time when you felt like, eh, maybe I should do something else?
StVil: Yeah. Mom wanted—like all Haitian moms—for me to be a nurse, because you’re always going to need nurses.
StVil: Yeah, practical. I said I want to do writing when I was thirteen or fourteen. And she said, “Okay, keep thinking about it, keep mulling it over.” Then I got into Performing Arts school, which is really hard to do. And she says, “Eh, keep thinking about it. Maybe my child will have a change of heart.” And I didn’t really get her support officially. And I understood that. I think it’s hard coming from a place like Haiti, where you go from survival mode to a place like this country where you have options, or at least you did. Until more current events. But you have options.
And I remember calling her from a pay phone because I had entered this talent contest sponsored by the NAACP. I had won second place in drama and first place in writing. And [the prize] was $700, which was like a million dollars to us. And I called and said, “Mom, I won.” She’s says, “Oh, that’s nice, baby.” And I said, “They gave me $700.” She says, “What now?” She said come home right now. Get on the train. Come home. And when she cashed that check, I think she decided, “Alright, go ahead and do this little writing thing.“
It took a while. But I couldn’t stop. It was going to happen, whether it happened today or ten years from now. It was going to happen because, again, I wasn’t good at anything else.
Rumpus: So, to say you’re prolific is an understatement. I just went through page after page after page on Amazon of your collections, of your four fantasy series. And then there’s Girls Like Me. Where did that come from?
StVil: Girls Like Me was written maybe two or three years before Guardian. It was a couple of poems, and somebody had said [I] should try and put them together in one story. So, okay, I’m open to trying new things. And the main character in Girls Like Me, Shay Summers, she’s the kind of character that I can tune into her no matter where I am, no matter what’s going on. I don’t have to find her. Sometimes you have to find characters like tuning into the radio station. But she is a megaphone, all sarcasm and wit and vulnerability. And I can find her most of the time.
I remember going on a dating site—which, by the way, is a special kind of hell.
I wrote some poem about this person who’d write to me on there. Literally, I got a hundred emails from guys based on that one poem. I mean, none of them were viable guys.
Rumpus: But they were good fodder for fiction.
StVil: Exactly. And then [the poem] ended up being a book. And my editor from HMH [Books for Young Readers] has been really, really helpful. She oversaw the whole thing. It’s like your little baby. A baby project.
Now I’m working on something new, in the social aspect. Because Girls Like Me is also a social book in that it talks about cyberbullying. So, I’m working on one new social book as I work on the fantasy books.
The thing is, I know people who write so much faster than me. So while you say I have a lot of books, I’m like, oh, my God, I’m writing so slow.
Rumpus: Compared to Joyce Carol Oates?
StVil: I know, right? But indie is different. Indie you just write a book every ten minutes. They’re like machines.
Rumpus: You’re in California right now, and you’ve written for ABC and some other folks.
StVil: It’s TV writing. I’m new at that. I was trying to get my foot in the door. I’ve been able to have a couple of meetings and do a couple of treatments. So, we’re still trying to break through, but I love television and I watch way too much of it. So it feels like the perfect marriage. Sometimes it feels like you’re on the Titanic and other times, it’s like, I’m okay. It’s definitely early in the process.
Rumpus: So nothing you can share yet.
StVil: Not yet. I’ll let you know. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, you’ll hear a big black lady screaming, “Oh, my God!” You’ll hear it.
Rumpus: I’ll have to follow you on Twitter. Do you tweet?
StVil: I do. I mostly retweet stuff about nice things and maybe not very exciting to everybody. It’s mostly just anti-Trump stuff. It’s mostly, “Hey, be kind. Hey, don’t split families apart.”
Rumpus: Speaking of he-who-shall-not-be-named—
StVil: I love that.
Rumpus: —do politics ever find their way into the things you’re working on? I’m thinking specifically of your experience and background immigrating here and about what’s happening to immigrants right now.
StVil: This aggressive, anti-immigrant situation is new. I haven’t had any material out since then, except for what I’m working on now, and I’m pretty sure it will make its way in. Fantasy tends to be political in its own way. Without naming this and that, it tends to be political because there’s always good versus evil, and tolerance versus intolerance. There’s always shades of that. Like you said he-who-shall-not-be-named, that’s Harry Potter, you know what I mean? You’re not the first to make that comparison. So, I think fantasy, by its very nature is political. It’s just dressed in layers, but it’s political no matter what you do.
Rumpus: How did you find an agent, land a publishing deal and so forth. Was it pretty linear?
StVil: You can go to agentquery.com and find an agency that represents the particular book that you’re writing. That’s one of the key things. Don’t send horror to an agent that only does middle-grade books, you know what I mean? So, you do an online submission to agents that rep your kind of work. That was fairly easy.
In the beginning, getting Guardians an agent took a while. I’ve gotten fairly good at grabbing their attention, because you’ve got like three seconds to grab their attention. In that initial email with the query letter, you want to grab their attention. Look at it like a commercial. Commercials are really good at that. They only have a certain amount of time to get your attention.
Getting an agent is one hurdle. Getting the right agent is a whole different thing. It required tequila. But once you get it, and you’ve landed in the right house, you’ll know.
But I just literally just went to agentquery.com, and I put in the field that I was writing in, the genre, and it showed me all the agents that were accepting new writers. And I emailed them, for better or worse.
But you should finish the book first. Obviously. Because a lot of my readers who want to be writers, they inbox me, and they’re like, “What do I do about this idea?” And I say, “Finish the book.” Because that’s the fun part. Because the other part ain’t nothing but work. The fantasy is the fun part. Setting people on fire and getting powers and the kiss of your life in the middle of a battle, that’s the fun part.
Rumpus: Along the way, did you have agents, editors, or publishers try to change something that was really fundamental to you and the work, and you pushed back?
StVil: Oh, God, all the time. The format of all my fantasies is basically two voices. So, the first half of Guardians was from the main character, and the second half was from the love interest, Marcus. So, you have the same story being told by two different people. And I had an agent who said, “Can we just get rid of Marcus, get rid of his point of view?” That’s fifty percent of the book. That’s a lot of the book! And I thought the girls reading the book, the women reading the book, want to hear what the guy has to say. Not just, “You’re pretty.”
Initially, I said okay, and it was a bad decision on my end. I think I just wanted an agent so bad that I was willing. And I chopped it up, and then she said, “I’m disappointed in the way you chopped it up.” And I said, “I think it’s because I really don’t want to. I don’t want to do this.” And she ended up not taking me. And it worked out because the book took off, and one of the reasons was the dual point of view.
The book is fantasy, paranormal romance. And I had one agent say, “You should take out all the romance, and make it for twelve-year-old boys. Kind of like The Lightning Thief.” Rick Riordan is really great writing for kids. But that’s not the book I was writing. So I said, “They need the love because that’s what’s going to carry. It only gets hotter from here, it only gets sexier from here. So, we can’t really do that.”
So, in the end, I know you want an agent. I get that feeling, I know that feeling. But at the end of the day, if it’s not a work that you’re proud of, what is the point?
Rumpus: Because then you’ve got to do the work of promoting it and talking about it. And if you’re not feeling it—
StVil: —then it becomes work. When it’s a book I’m interested in, I write the chapters, and it flies by. I’ve looked up—say, at ten o’clock in the morning, and I started on my laptop, I’m in the cafe—and I’ve looked up, and it’s ten after ten at night. And I don’t remember how the day went. I don’t remember. Because I was in the book, and we were on a snow-capped mountain and having battles and blah blah blah. And the entire day went by. But when it’s something I’m not interested in, I’m aware of every second.
I look outside. I know how many tree leaves are shaking. Oh, a cloud. I’m aware of everything. And it becomes arduous and awkward. Then it becomes like a trip to the dentist. So, I try to write things that I’m passionate about. There might be parts I don’t feel like writing, and you gotta get through that. But overall you should probably love the book.
Rumpus: Who are the women writers of color who are visible to you in your genre?
StVil: Well, there are very few. Like Ednah Walters, who just passed away a couple days ago. A really good fantasy writer. And also, I know a high fantasy writer, Terah Edun, who is fantastic. There are a lot of princes and swords and high fantasy kind of stuff. So, there’s a handful of us. And of course there are people like Octavia Butler, who is obviously [a] legend. And still, among the genre of fantasy writers, I don’t think she gets her due at all.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about Guardians: The Girl on the New York Times bestseller list!
StVil: The echoes in my house were, “Oh my God, oh my God!” My poor husband needs a hearing aid now, he always says to me. It was awesome. And you want to do that every time, but you never know when you’re going to make that. You just crank out the book until you enjoy it and hope that people enjoy your story along the way.
Apparently, people liked girls kicking butt and stuff like that, so that was cool.
Rumpus: What all are you working on right now?
StVil: I’m working on a fantasy series called Toren, the third spin-off of the Guardian series. And I’m working on a new social issue book. Right now, it’s tentatively called Ain’t Been No Light. You know the Langston Hughes poem, “I’ve been going in the dark where there ain’t been no light”? [The poem] is called “Mother to Son,” and it’s about this mother explaining to him all the darkness she’s faced, and how he can’t get tired because she didn’t get tired.
Rumpus: Oh, it’s the one about “life ain’t been no crystal stair” too!
StVil: Yes, yes! The crystal stair. Oh, I knew I liked you!
Rumpus: What’s the social issue in the book?
StVil: Race in America.
Rumpus: Is it an atypical narrative like Girls Like Me?
StVil: No, Girls Like Me is done in verse. This isn’t. I did want to do another novel in verse, and then I thought I wanted to make it [have] broader appeal, so this is standard fiction. It’s about a girl who gets accepted to a posh school and is the only black girl at the school.
Rumpus: That’s very much needed. More books by black folks about black kids.
StVil: Yeah, so hopefully it’ll work out. It’s tricky writing social books. You’re always walking a line, in that if you’re too quote unquote hood, or too whatever the label is, it doesn’t appeal to the masses. But if it’s too general and doesn’t get into specifics then it’s like, you’re not writing it for the black folks that you know. You’re writing a general, washed-out version. It’s hard to find that tone that feels like it’s somebody I know while at the same time it doesn’t feel stereotypical. It’s harder than any of the fantasies I’ve written! It’s definitely a balancing act.
Representation is necessary. It’s essential. It really saved me, because when I first moved to this country, I had no friends, and nobody wanted to talk to me and nobody liked me. And the only way I could escape was through books. It was a godsend really. So I’m really excited that I get to be a part of escapism and being able to tell a story.