Author Interview: Alyssa Zaczek

Hi everyone! This week, I interviewed my friend and 2020 MG debut author,Alyssa Zaczek! She is represented by Jessica Mileo of Inkwell Management, and Alyssa’s debut novel, MARTIN MCLEAN, MIDDLE SCHOOL QUEEN is out January 7, 2020 from Sterling Children’s!

I’m so excited to grab a copy of her book. Let’s go behind the scenes with her about her querying journey for this novel and about who her dream book blurb would be from!

Can you tell us a bit about what MARTIN MCLEAN, MIDDLE SCHOOL QUEEN? 

AZ: Mixed-race seventh-grader Martin McLean has always been surrounded by people who can express themselves. His mother is an artist, his colorful Tío Billy works in theater, and his best friends Carmen and Pickle are outgoing and hilarious. But Martin can only find the right words when he’s answering a problem at a Mathletes competition—until his tío introduces him to the world of drag. In a swirl of sequins and stilettos, Martin creates his fabulous drag queen alter ego, Lottie León, and decides to compete in an all-ages drag show despite his anxiety. 

As Lottie, he is braver than he’s ever been; as Martin, he doesn’t have the guts to tell anyone outside of his family about her. But when Martin discovers that his first-ever drag show is the same night as the most important Mathletes tournament of the year, he realizes that he can only pull off both appearances by revealing his true self to his friends—and channeling his inner drag superstar.


Did MARTIN MCLEAN have sensitivity readers? What did that process look like, and what should authors know about working with sensitivity readers?

AZ: I was very lucky in that my publisher, Sterling Children’s, connected me with several sensitivity readers to read for multiple aspects in MARTIN. Essentially, each reader received the manuscript and took notes on the things that stuck out to them from their unique perspective. For example, we had a reader who looked specifically at Violet and her background as a POC adopted into a white, American family. Their insights and notes were truly priceless, and made MARTIN infinitely better and more authentic. While I’m sure the sensitivity reading process will differ from publisher to publisher and manuscript to manuscript, after my experience I can only wholly recommend it! The process can only better your book and, frankly, better *you* as an informed, empathetic author. I am particularly grateful to all my sensitivity readers for offering their time and experience to, essentially, educate me (and ultimately, the readers,) regarding some of the issues on which MARTIN touches.


Can you tell us a bit about your query journey?

AZ: I started querying with MARTIN in December 2017. I queried a total of 43 agents before I ended up finding Jess (Jessica Mileo, InkWell Management) through #DVPit in May 2018. Of those 43 agents, six requested my full manuscript, and two offered an R&R (revise and resubmit) opportunity. I got some really wonderful, constructive criticism and commentary during the query process, some of which ended up shaping the final manuscript. For example, the draft that I initially queried with back in December had an epistolary format, with Martin writing (unanswered) emails to his absent father. It was through querying feedback that I ended up reformatting the manuscript to eliminate the epistolary framework, which was hugely helpful and absolutely the right choice. 

Of course, one of the great challenges of querying (and showing your work to anyone, really,) is deciding what feedback to keep and use and what to discard. I received some feedback early on in the process in which some agents wanted Martin’s sexuality to be addressed more definitively — essentially, they wanted him to come out by the conclusion of the book. But MARTIN has never been a coming-out story, though those narratives are equally as important. MARTIN has always been a story about the exploration of identity, about what it is to live in that gray space where labels don’t really matter so long as you’re staying true to your heart. Receiving feedback that pushed for Martin to label himself definitively by journey’s end wasn’t useful to me, and frankly, it showed that the agents in question didn’t understand what this book was trying to say, which made their ultimate lack of interest much easier to swallow! 


Was there a moment in your query journey when you wanted to give up? What helped you pull through?

AZ: I don’t know that I ever wanted to give up, because finding an agent and following the traditional publishing route has always been my dream, but I definitely found myself with doubts. Would anyone ever offer, or would this book always fall short of being “it”? I tried to keep moving forward no matter what, always looking for new agents who might be a good fit or new ways to improve my query. And it helped that I felt, and still do feel, extremely passionately that this book is so needed in the middle grade space. I had to trust someone in the publishing world would share that passion, and that faith was ultimately rewarded! 


What is your favorite part about writing middle grade?

AZ: In middle grade, anything is possible. Middle grade readers are at a wonderful age, one where they’re starting to come to know themselves as individuals for the very first time, but where the magic of childhood hasn’t faded quite yet. It’s the reason why books like the HARRY POTTER series can exist alongside books like HATCHET — middle graders want to gobble up as much about the world as they can, in as many genres and styles as they can. It’s a fantastic playground for a writer, and especially for someone like me, who found her middle school years to be incredibly formative.


Do you hope to write for a different genre or age category someday? 

AZ: Yes! I’m actually hard at work on a young adult fantasy right now. Middle grade is an age group I felt called to write for, but young adult is a space I’ve always dreamt of occupying. I’m very lucky to be with an agent who supports anything and everything I want to write — maybe I’ll even break into adult some day! 


Favorite MG book? 

AZ: Ugh, this is like being forced to pick my favorite of my pets. THE MISFITS by James Howe was the middle grade book I returned to again and again while writing MARTIN, because I’m so impressed by his mastery of middle-grade voices and the way he doesn’t hide from tough topics. But I think THE TWO PRINCESSES OF BAMARRE by the incomparable Gail Carson-Levine is probably the most well-loved middle grade book of my childhood and my adult life. Adventure! Magic! Soft girls still being tough as heck! A swoony wizard! Fairies! It truly has it all. 


What’s a book you’ve been obsessed with lately? 

AZ: WILDER GIRLS by Rory Power is so good it makes me want to drive to Rory’s house and shake her by the shoulders hysterically until she tells me all her secrets. It’s just … *chef’s kiss.* To explain it any further would be to do it a grave injustice, so just … read it. Also, in the world of non-fiction, THREE WOMEN by Lisa Taddeo is a book so skillfully written that it makes me glad to be alive to read it. It touches on some very difficult topics that may be triggering to some, so I wouldn’t recommend it to every one, but it’s an awe-inspiring deep dive into the rich inner worlds and personal lives of, essentially, the women next door. It’s essentially journalism, but it is written with so much empathy and grace and lyrical genius that it stands up to any literary fiction in terms of readability. 


What book shaped you as a person, growing up? 

AZ: Gosh, what books didn’t shape me growing up? I was the girl with piles of library books overflowing from her nightstand to the floor to under her bed; I read the backs of cereal boxes and shampoo bottles with the same intensity as the hottest new release. Obviously, the big series of the late 90’s and early aughts were huge for me: HARRY POTTER, A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS, THE BABYSITTER’S CLUB, that sort of thing. HARRIET THE SPY. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Roald Dahl. Madeleine L’Engle. Lois Lowry. Gail Carson-Levine, again. As a tween and teen, definitely the PRINCESS DIARIES books and all of John Green’s stuff. 

I also read books that were way outside my age bracket, which I would 100% encourage any parent to allow if they know their kid can handle it. One of my favorite books of all time is a memoir of Ruth Reichl’s time as the New York Times food critic, GARLIC & SAPPHIRES. I read it in the eighth grade as my summer beach read! 


Do you have any tips or advice for querying authors?

AZ: Do your research. Read the successful queries of other writers, especially authors you love, if they are available in online interviews or what have you. I remember reading Margaret Rogerson’s query for AN ENCHANTMENT OF RAVENS; it taught me that weaving voice throughout the query is equally as important as hitting the main informational points for the agent! 

Bounce your query off as many people as you can, especially people who have written or read queries before. Your critique partners, beta readers and friends in the writing world that you’ve met online will be great for this. Have them read what you have and ask them: What questions do you still have about this manuscript? Are there details you wish I’d elaborated on, or spent less time on? What would keep you from wanting to read the rest of this book? Listen to their answers and then re-read your query, looking for places to incorporate the advice that was useful to you. Your query can (and should!) be a living, breathing document — don’t feel as though you have to stick with the same exact draft all throughout your querying process!


What’s something you know now as an author that you wish you had known as a querying author? 

AZ: Your book is not finished! 

No, wait  — no, stop screaming, listen! It’s going to change even more as you work with your agent and then again when you place it with an editor  — and that’s a good thing. These people are experts who will see things in your manuscript that you can’t, because you’ve spent the last [insert months/years here] with your nose pressed up against it. And if you’re with the right team, they’ll be 100% open to all your thoughts about their suggestions, and will work with you to make your book the best it can possibly be.


Revising or drafting? 

AZ: Revising! I loathe drafting. I find it very frustrating that I can’t simply download the first draft of the story from my head into Google Docs.


Cats or dogs? 

AZ: I think in another life I was a cat, but in this life, I love them both equally.


Go-to Starbucks order? 

AZ: A soy chai. The size and temperature depend on 1) How desperate I am for a pick-me-up, and 2) the weather, though I will cop to being the kind of monster who drinks iced chai year round. Oh, and if I need to eat something, the bacon egg and gouda sandwich is where it’s at. I know it must be terrible for me, but I just can’t quit it. I’ve even gotten my boyfriend, a notorious picky-eater, hooked on them! 


If you could have anyone– living or dead, fictional or not– blurb your book, who would it be and what would they say? 

AZ: For MARTIN, I think the ultimate blurb would be RuPaul, and she could say whatever she damn well pleased about my book, so far as I’m concerned! My mother has also made it her personal (read: ENTIRELY UNSANCTIONED BY ME) mission to get MARTIN into the hands of Jonathan Van Ness. I do think he’d be a great advocate for it, for what it’s worth! 


Do you have a book about writing or a writing resource you’d like to recommend? 

AZ: Everyone recommends Stephen King’s ON WRITING, but there’s a reason for that, so let me throw my voice into that chorus. If nothing else, it is immensely reassuring to know that even a household name like Stephen King is capable of crying big baby sobs over the publishing process. 

And in general, I’d just recommend finding your people. Whether that’s a group of IRL writing buddies you meet up with to swap manuscripts or some fellow writers you connected with through Twitter, find folks you trust, whose work you enjoy, and share this absolutely bonkers journey with them. Your work will improve, you’ll feel less alone, and you’ll just be better for it on the whole!


Alyssa, thank you sooo much for your time!

About Alyssa

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Alyssa Zaczek is an author originally from Chicago. She now lives and works in St. Cloud, Minnesota with her partner and their four rambunctious animals. Her short fiction has been featured or forthcoming in Midwestern Gothic, Crab Fat Magazine, Jet Fuel Review, et. al. Her debut middle grade novel, MARTIN MCLEAN, MIDDLE SCHOOL QUEEN is out Jan. 7, 2020 from Sterling Children’s.

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