Hi everyone! Check out this interview with the marvelous Lillie Lainoff, where we talk about fencing, resilience in publishing, and the importance of disability representation in KidLit!
Can you tell me about the book that got you your agent?
LL: The Keeping House wasn’t my first book, but it was the first of my books that I knew meant much more than just a vessel to achieve my desire of being a novelist. TKH is a speculative fiction novel about how we grieve, how we live, how we survive in the face of persecution, and what it means to truly love ourselves. Its cast is made up of almost only disabled characters, and the novel was born from research on the Aktion T4 program. It’s also a love letter to my disabled body. I wrote it while negotiating my own identity, and in the process it helped me feel more confident in belonging to the disability community.
Can you tell me a bit about your querying journey? For example, was the project that got you your agent the first book you queried?
LL: TKH wasn’t the first book I queried. When my second completed novel was ‘ready’ (reader, it wasn’t ready), I read querying blog posts, scoured agent directories, etc. I didn’t have a twitter account, let alone know that Writing Twitter (or even Kidlit Twitter) existed, so I pretty much just taught myself in my college dorm room. Somehow, I received a few partial requests, and even one full – however, none of them panned out. But the experience did teach me how to query properly.
TKH, on the other hand, is a strange beast. It started as a short story for a seminar my junior fall (2016). The night that I wrote the story that would become TKH, I was on the verge of tears because I didn’t have time to write this new book, but I had to. That story wasn’t going to leave me alone until I did. I was still querying my second novel. I was a starter on the Yale fencing team and a Writing Partner at the Yale Writing Center, like the year before. But I was also general manager of the fencing team, managing editor of The Yale Daily News Magazine, and wrote for Yale Sports Publicity. Looking back, I’m still stunned I managed it. But TKH was special – it just spilled onto the page, all in chronological order. Through the sprint that was junior year, through family tragedies, I wrote. And just under six months later, I had my third novel. I did minor edits along the way, but I didn’t have CPs or beta readers (no Twitter!) So, in possibly one of the riskiest querying moves someone could ever make, I proofread Draft 1 with the help of my mom and then just… queried it. (Cue the horrified gasps.)
My query and manuscript were strong. They were a little polarizing, too – I either got flat rejections, or full requests. Never partials.
Given that I didn’t have much additional insight into if my query was actually good, I signed up for a Writer’s Digest query bootcamp at the end of June. I certainly wasn’t expecting that my soon-to-be agents Nicole Resciniti and Jennifer Wills, would love the query and want to see the full manuscript and outlines for the rest of the series. By July, two months after I started querying TKH, they offered.
Was there a time in your querying journey when you felt like giving up?
LL: My greatest weakness is my stubbornness – it’s also my greatest strength. I’ve been told I’m resilient to a point of ludicrousy. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was five, and at no point did I want to be anything else. There were definitely times I felt hopeless during querying, yes. But I never considered giving up. As far as past Lillie was concerned, she was going to query the rest of her life if necessary.
How did you get the strength to keep trying?
LL: A support system who knew nothing about the industry. My college roommates were my rocks, even though the little they knew about my novels were the brief blurbs I’d tell them. My family also was/is incredibly supportive.
Do you have any advice for querying authors?
LL: I’ve heard a lot of people talk about the importance of the first ten pages. And yes, that’s true – a strong opening is essential to hook an agent (and your eventual readers). But if you only focus on polishing up the first ten pages, there will come a time when you get a partial or full request and the rest of the book isn’t going to be as strong as the beginning… and trust me, agents can tell.
Specifically for disabled writers: look for agents who represent disabled authors whose work you enjoy. Look for an agent who is doing the work to support disabled writers and disabled stories. Not only are you more likely to get a positive response, but they’ll also likely be more receptive to stories that don’t fall into traditional disability tropes. Also: come join the Disabled KidLit Writers FB group! We’re well over a hundred strong now, and it’s a great place to find support, camaraderie, and advice on querying/the publishing industry.
When and why did you start writing?
LL: I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was five. Subconsciously, I’m pretty sure I knew I wanted to be a writer before then, though – when I was too young to really know what being a writer meant, I still knew I wanted to be the person who created the stories I read in books. Nineteen years later, and I’ve never wanted to be anything else.
What inspires you?
LL: The knowledge that I’m providing representation where there is little or none. Fencing. My family and friends. My favorite writers’ books and stories. Fairytales and fables I loved when I was little.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
LL: A reluctant pantser. I wish I could plot. It would save me the time it takes to cut the beginning 20K of my novels (I wish I were joking!) But I do love the organic element of pantsing. I like the fact that my characters aren’t being told what to do, that I discover their choices and mistakes with them.
If you read writing craft books, do you have any to recommend?
LL: Instead of craft books, I like deep-diving into my favorite novels and stories, and figuring out why they’re my favorite. Figuring out how authors achieve character voice, or what imagery techniques they use to create atmospheric settings, etc.
Who would your dream co-author be?
LL: This is honestly one of the hardest questions I’ve ever been asked. If I had to pick? Leigh Bardugo. I met her at a small Yale event on campus, and we talked about disability rep and chronic illness and I accidentally had both of us crying by the end (sorry, Leigh!). But she was kind and supportive and my goodness, when Leigh Bardugo hears your new book premise about chronic illness and fencing and she says, “You have to write that book,” gosh darnit, you write that freaking book. So there’s the fact that her encouragement helped me power through drafting, but she’s also one of my favorite authors, period. And I know I’d learn so much from her. Her books are works of art.
What’s a book you’ve read lately that you’re OBSESSED with?
LL: I read The Bone Houses and The Grace Year back to back, and oh boy those were an emotional few days. The Bone Houses has some of the only disability/chronic illness in fantasy rep I’ve ever read written by a chronically-ill author, and you can tell. It’s authentic in a way other novels can’t accomplish. And then The Grace Year – which is still haunting me by the way – was a punch to the gut. I held it to my chest and cried after finishing. It also gives me hope for TKH, because The Grace Year proves that speculative fiction still has a place in YA.
What’s your author dream? Fanart? Movie adaptation? Fanfic?
LL: Other than holding my book in my hands, signing it, then handing it to a disabled reader? Everything you mentioned. I can’t imagine many things more rewarding or validating than knowing something I created inspired others to create. Even the thought of fanart and fanfic makes me emotional. Readers: if at any point in the future something I write spurs you to create, please send your work to me/give it to me/share it with me on social media.
A screen adaptation though, whether a movie or TV show, would be incredible. Disabled people make up less than 3% of characters on American TV, despite being ~ ⅕ of the US population. Almost all those roles are white men. To have a disabled girl leading a movie or TV show, one that isn’t set in a hospital? Disabled teens need that.
What’s the hardest part about being a writer?
LL: The constant self-doubt.
What’s the best part?
LL: I’m living out my childhood dream. I made it happen. I had help, of course, but still. I did it.
My favorite small moments, though, are still the ones when I get a fragment of a line in my head. A sentence, a thought, a feeling. Usually no character attached. No plot. But it’s the start of something, a small ember I can cradle in my hands and blow on until it transforms into something roaring and blistering.
Advocacy for Disability Visibility is important to you — do you have any Disabled authors or their works that you’d like to boost?
LL: If I posted a full list, this interview would be the length of my novel, so an abbreviated version:
-Esme Weijun Wang
Authors who are going places/you should follow:
Was there any work (book/movie/TV show) where you felt you saw yourself represented well?
LL: As a POTSie, my only representation came in the form of a brief mention in a HOUSE episode, where Dr. House posits a patient might have POTS. Shocker: the patient does not, in fact, have POTS. That minute is pretty much all we have.
In the larger sense of accurate chronic illness/disability representation, there’s very little to be found ever since Speechless was canceled. My favorite books with disability rep are Six of Crows, The Bone Houses, Brave Enough, and Unbroken (anthology).
Can you talk a little about your relationship with your agents, especially when it comes to writing Disability rep?
LL: It was essential for me to find agents who believed in the necessity of good disability representation as much as I did/do. It’s easy to take on books with disability tropes because, unfortunately, the industry is designed to support nondisabled writers writing disabled characters without much research. It’s much more difficult to say, hold on, the way this industry is structured, the way it’s pushing out certain narratives and authors, it isn’t right.
My agents have never asked me to tone down my disability rep. They’ve never asked if maybe my next novel could have a non-disabled MC. And, during revisions, when I push back against an edit because it’s not realistic and/or accurate representation, they aren’t frustrated. They don’t argue with me. Instead, we brainstorm options that will serve both the novel’s quality and the representation’s authenticity (which, truly, go hand in hand.)
You FENCE and I think that’s the coolest thing ever. Does fencing appear in your writing?
LL: My most recent book is a YA historical #ownvoices novel. My MC has POTS, duels in ballgowns, and is the representation I needed when I was teen. If it’s traditionally published, it’ll be the first traditionally published novel to have a POTSie MC… which is alarming. It’s a condition estimated to impact nearly 1/100 teens, and 1-3 million Americans total. Writing the book was cathartic. The novel has so much of me in it: my experience as a chronically-ill teen, what it’s like to fence through dizziness, learning to overcome both internal and external ableism… additionally, I have a few secret WIPs that have fencing in them.
I also run a hashtag, #FencingFriday: a weekly thread that approaches how to understand fencing and accurately write about it. I haven’t updated it in a while because I ran out of ideas for topics (as a fencer, it’s not always obvious what other writers struggle with when writing duel scenes), but if anyone has a question/theme they’d like me to discuss/explain, please reach out!
Does who you are as a fencer influence who you are as a writer?
LL: That’s such an interesting question and a tricky one to answer, because it’s hard to untangle who I am as a person from my fencing and my writing. I started both so young (writing when I was five, fencing when I was nine)… but I think the confidence that fencing instilled in me is present in how I approach experimenting with genre and structure and different POVs (long live second-person imperative!)
How did you get into fencing to begin with?
LL: I loved The Princess Bride and Mulan when I was little (and still do). So when a fencer gave a demonstration at my summer camp, I was immediately awestruck: here was this powerful fencer, a woman, who was living out what I’d yearned to do ever since watching my first Disney movie. I begged my mom to let me take classes. I started with a friend. Coincidentally enough, we both ended up fencing for Yale.
How do you carve out writing time in light of your other commitments?
LL: Writing while chronically-ill is strange, because writing time isn’t really something you can schedule. You have to take advantage of the good days, the days with fewer symptoms, so that the bad days don’t set you back too far.
I’m still in the process of finding the best writing schedule for me. Hopefully I can figure it out sooner rather than later!
Lille, thank you SO much for your time!
About Lillie Lainoff:
Lillie is a YA and general fiction writer based in Washington, D.C. A former Div 1 NCAA fencer, she currently coaches fencing at Capital Fencing Academy and is the founder of Disabled Kidlit Writers. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Washington City Paper, and Scholastic anthologies, received honors from Glimmer Train, and won The Los Angeles Review 2019 Short Fiction Award. She’s represented by Jennifer Wills and Nicole Resciniti of The Seymour Agency.
You can find Lillie here…
Disabled Kid Lit FB group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/622639168232657/