Nina LaCour’s name was on the spine of the first romance novel I ever bought in a bookstore about two girls. In 2014, such books were scarce. I went 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, because I didn’t have a local indie full of helpful queer booksellers to guide me.
Lesbian books are now more accessible than ever before, thanks to the tireless and pioneering work of authors like LaCour. Yerba Buena, LaCour’s atmospheric adult debut about two star-crossed young women navigating trauma, family, and romance, has a beautiful cover that you’ve probably seen everywhere from Book of the Month to Target’s book club. LaCour’s YA debut, Hold Still, a tender story of grief and hopeful queer love, was published in 2009. Since then, she’s amassed a diverse, contemplative, and firmly gay backlist, including the Printz Award-winning We Are Okay, and has established herself as a beloved mainstay of queer YA as we know it.
I was curious (and a little geeked) to ask one of my favorite authors all about the stunning Yerba Buena, publishing gay books, and what makes a good cocktail while chatting via Zoom from my New York home office to LaCour’s in San Francisco.
What does it feel like to finally release this baby, Yerba Buena?
This is both terrifying and excellent and correct. When I was 20, I began work on this book. I am a woman in my forties. It’s taken a long time to get here. These characters came to me when I was a senior in college, and they’ve only ever existed in my head since then. I haven’t actively worked on it in years; I’ve been busy writing YA novels and living my life during that time. They’ve always been there talking to me, so having it be a real book now that it’s finished, that I can hold in my hands, and that will soon be available in bookstores is just incredible. It also feels like putting a slice of my heart on a platter for people to eat, as it does every time we publish a book.
The main characters represent two very different types of lost girls, which I really like. I think it’s fascinating that it’s your first adult novel and that it deals with themes of being lost in adolescence. Is that something you were thinking about as you wrote it?
Of course. That’s one of the reasons the story took so long for me to write: I knew exactly what I wanted. But I was 20 when I started it, and I was attempting to write a story in which the characters reach their 30s, and I believe I wasn’t ready. Some people have such vivid imaginations that they can imagine that — and I believe I could imagine life a few decades down the road from where I am — but I don’t think I was ready to do that at the time.
Isn’t this quest at the heart of so many people’s 20-year-old lives? The search for self-awareness. However, I believe that our twenties are such formative years, as we are just starting out in our careers. When we’re deciding where we want to live, that’s when we’re thinking about it. In that decade, we make all of our adult decisions for the first time.
I was thinking about how your books’ grief threads keep reappearing. “I must have shut grief out, found it in books, cried over fiction instead of the truth,” I believe you say in We Are Okay. Would you say that the attraction to writing about grief is similar to the attraction to reading about it?
Yes, I believe that. Grief fascinates me because it is one of the most isolating experiences we can have while also being one of the most universal, and I believe in catharsis through reading and viewing. It’s something I’ve always gravitated toward. I always enjoy reading something that will make me cry, clutch my heart, and remind me of things I’ve experienced, whether it’s related to grief or simply a moment of pure joy. I adore it when that happens, and it’s something I strive for in my work on a regular basis. It’s been fascinating to see how I’m still dealing with all of the same themes in this adult novel, as well as the one I’m currently working on.
It felt like a Nina LaCour book, but you got the feeling that the characters were a little further down the road in terms of dealing with those themes.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how, in my YA, there’s some sort of event that my character is grappling with, and they finally get to the point of being okay, right? Alternatively, figuring out what to do next. Some sort of safe haven where it’s acceptable to say farewell to them for a while.
Then, with this one, I had to go there, but then take it a step further, and then another, and really see how the things we go through as children reverberate throughout our lives, but how our relationships with them change as we grow older. Writing about slightly older characters was a real gift for you.
One of the aspects of your writing that I admire is the way you strike a balance between lushness and restraint. It’s as if you have this uncanny ability to evoke an emotional response or pinpoint a specific emotion with just a few words — and they’re not even big words, just carefully chosen ones. What methods did you use to hone that skill?
One of the reasons it took me so long to write an adult novel was that I knew it had to be written in third person, which I had never done before and found challenging. Then there was this idea that I was completely consumed by: I knew how to write YA, I knew what that voice sounded like, but how would that voice translate to an adult audience? I had no idea, and I was consumed by self-doubt as a result of it.
Then it dawned on me that all I had to do was write in my own voice. Over and over again, I tell people that they should trust their own voices. It will all work out. Each person has a distinct voice. I’d read all of these adult novels to see how different people wrote and to convince myself that I belonged there.
Thinking about emotion and how to convey it is one of my passions in craft, and my strategy is to do all of the work ahead of time. You won’t have to explain how your character feels if you’ve planted all of that [emotion] and done a good job establishing things and reminding your reader. That’s it, and hopefully you’ve conveyed the significance of this to your reader. Then, because I adore sparse language, you can rely less on it and more on the foundation you’ve laid.
That you trust the reader, I think, is a stunningly confident aspect of your work.
Of course. It’s one of my most treasured possessions. It’s so enjoyable to write. That’s not something you’re aware of, are you?
You do what you enjoy, and then you keep practicing, in the hopes that we will all improve. We’ll be able to count on these things then. So much about writing is out of my control, and I am a control freak, so it can be terrifying. But I find that learning things like that — learning that “I know what to do, I’ve done this before, and I can do it again” — makes me feel really good.
As writers of queer fiction, particularly queer love stories, I often feel pressured to prove that our work is relatable to straight audiences. I believe that humanizing it has some value, but I also believe that queer love is unique and distinct from straight love in many ways, because it can be more expansive, revelatory, and transformative. For you, what makes writing a love story between two women unique and special?
I used to worry that if I wrote about queer women or focused my stories on queer women, I wouldn’t be able to reach a mainstream audience. I decided, “Well, that’s fine; I’ll just have a quieter career,” but I still want to focus on queer characters in my work.” I was able to stop thinking about what straight readers would think once I made that decision and just dove into it.
I want to be clear: this book is only a small part of queerness, what it means, and what it all entails. I see it as a prism, and I enjoy being a part of it in this book. Queer love is so diverse, and I think one of the most fascinating aspects of it is that when we write stories that don’t start with the assumption of straightness and just a cisgendered, heterosexual relationship, we have so many options, right? It’s absolutely amazing. Then I believe that finding someone who you’re meant to be with feels even more special because it wasn’t pre-determined for you.
Emilie has relationships with both men and women in the novel, which I enjoy because she recognizes someone and knows exactly what she wants. Sara knows she wants her as soon as she sees her, and my wife has had the same experience. We were both attending San Francisco State University at the time, and I remember seeing her walk into a classroom and thinking, “That person is incredible.” That is the person I want to be with.” It took some time, but it was certain. That’s something I’d like to do. That was stunning. We’re not the main characters in the book, but I definitely took inspiration from our relationship, our communication styles, and the growth that we’ve both had to go through because we’ve been together for 20 years.
I appreciate it. I was 19 years old when we met. We’ve grown up together, and a lot of the figuring out who you are in order to love another person well and be loved well has been something we’ve done side by side, which has been an incredibly powerful experience. That’s something I’d like to bring up. I’m not sure that’s the most appropriate response to your query.
Last but not least, if your entire body of work were a cocktail, what ingredients would you include and why?
Oh my gosh. What a question, Casey.
I’ll start by stating that my wife is the one who prepares the cocktails…. What do you think about it? I’ll go with Sara’s favorite character in the [book], old Tom Gin, which I believe made it into the final draft. That’s the one I’ll go with because it has delicious botanical gin notes but is brown in color. That appeals to me, and I enjoy a colorful cocktail. Know what I’m saying? That has a dark tone to it. Because it’s both botanical and moody, I’d go with that.
Is it only a gin shot? Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’m a sucker for a cocktail with tea in it, any kind of tea.
I’m not a bartender, but green tea, lemon, and gin sound like a fantastic combination to me.
That is a fantastic idea. Absolutely. Of course, I believe we’d also require some kind of lovely garnish. Something unexpected, as in the book.
Perhaps I’m seeing something, like a sprig of something with a flowering component. Jandy Nelson, the brilliant author, is a close friend of ours, and we share a duplex. Due to our location in San Francisco, we have a small sidewalk garden. She planted a yerba buena plant, which has bloomed and is covered in tiny white flowers. That’s been a wonderful experience. Let’s just include that. Let’s also throw in some yerba buena.
For length and clarity, this interview was edited and condensed.