Queerness, Creativity, & Cocktails: An Interview with Nina LaCour

Nina LaCour is back with another sweeping story full of heart, self-discovery, renewal, and humanity. Known for her young adult books, Yerba Buena is LaCour’s adult debut novel, and it has already won over the staff here at Parnassus. Vivid and sensory, devastating and poignant, Yerba Buena is a gift to the world of queer literary fiction. Musing editor Sarah Arnold got the chance to chat with Nina about her new book, mixology, queer literary representation, and more!

Sarah Arnold: Congratulations on your adult debut! You’ve written six incredible young adult novels, and you also recently released your first picture book! What inspired you to write an adult novel? Did having a different audience change your writing process at all?

Nina LaCour: Thank you so much! Yerba Buena is actually the first novel I ever started writing. Over the years I accumulated so many pages and fragments of scenes. I’d take the massive folder out of my drawer and look at it between deadlines for my other novels and feel part-lost, part-inspired—and then I’d put it back into the drawer. When I finally decided that I was going to attempt a full draft (which was also a full rewrite), the process wasn’t all that different from writing my other novels, but the feeling was. My YA novels are usually quite spare and focused, but when I was writing Yerba Buena I gave myself more freedom to follow the story to all the places it wanted to go. I wanted to capture a feeling of expansiveness within the confines of my characters’ lives.

Nina LaCour | Credit: Kristyn Stroble

SA: You’ve taught English and writing to folks of all ages. How did your experiences in the classroom impact your writing? Did your students influence what you choose to write about?

NL: Something that I love about teaching literature is how closely it makes me read. In my everyday life as a reader I rarely spend an hour analyzing a passage, but when I’m teaching or preparing a lecture I absolutely will, and each time it offers me so much. My years as a high school teacher gave me a tremendous respect for teenagers—for their intellect, their willingness to be challenged, their capacity to grapple with difficult topics, their keen bullshit detectors—and though it’s been almost a decade since I’ve taught high school, I carry it with me in my depictions of teen experiences.

SA: Some folks may think they’re about to read a romance when they pick up this book, but the connection between the main characters, Sara and Emilie, acts as the string that ties the stories of their lives together rather than being the sole focus of the book. How did you decide to prioritize the individual characters over their romance?

NL: I’ve only written one book that I’d categorize as a romance, and that’s my YA novel Everything Leads to You. I’m happy with how the book turned out but it was such a struggle to write! I emerged from the process with so much admiration for romance writers.

An early reader described Yerba Buena as a love story nestled within a dual coming of age story, and I think that’s a perfect way to put it. All along, my driving question when writing was something along the lines of, How do we get to the point where we have dealt with our past traumas honestly enough to truly love another person well, and allow ourselves to be loved in return? In our teen years, so much happens to us, and then come our twenties, when our childhood conditioning butts up against the experience of being on our own in the world, making our own choices, hopefully doing some healing. I wanted to spend some time in that transitional period, and even though the love story does tie the two narratives together, I was equally interested in each of the women on their own.

SA: This book has such a rich sense of place. California clearly has a special place in your heart. Can you talk about the role the setting plays in Yerba Buena?

NL: Absolutely! I have spent my whole life in California and I love writing about it. The Russian River, where Sara grows up, is just an hour and a half north of San Francisco (where I live) but it feels much farther away that that. It’s a place of such majestic nature—redwood forests and valleys and a long river—and it’s also a place with significant poverty and drug addiction, and Sara deals intimately with all of those elements of where she’s from. Emilie, on the other hand, is from Los Angeles, very comfortably upper-middle class, and very aware of her Creole family’s history of upward mobility following the Great Migration. Emilie’s family arrived in LA in search of better opportunities, and eventually Sara does, too.

SA: Both Sara and Emilie are deeply affected by their loved ones’ drug addictions. How did you decide to tell the often overlooked story of those who don’t struggle with addiction themselves but nevertheless bear the heavy weight of drug abuse?

NL: My experience with drug addiction and abuse is one of being on the sidelines, watching something terrible overtake someone I love. It’s such a lonely, frightening, destabilizing place to be. I didn’t go into the novel expecting drug abuse to be so consequential to the narrative, but when I noticed it, it made sense to me. Creatively, it’s endlessly fascinating to me how remnants of my past creep back into my consciousnesses and ask me to pay attention to them again.

A selection of Nina LaCour’s previous books

SA: Queer representation in literature is getting better, but there is still plenty of room for improvement, particularly in f/f representation. I, and many others, certainly consider you to be a trailblazer in that regard. What has your experience publishing queer stories been like? Has it become easier over time? Do you still face any pushback or hate?

NL: It’s a complicated time for queerness in literature. On one hand, representation really is getting so much better, but at the same time we’re seeing so many bannings in schools and libraries across the country which worries me a lot. Overall, though, it’s been amazing to watch queer stories go from niche to mainstream, and I’m very grateful that I’ve gotten to play a part in it. I remember thinking, early in my career, that if I wrote f/f centered books my audience would stay fairly small. I did it anyway, and then We Are Okay was an indie bestseller for many weeks and I won the Printz Award for it. Yerba Buena sold in a big, exciting auction, as did my picture book about a family with two moms. We absolutely have a ways to go—there are so many stories to be told and voices to hear from—but I love where we’re headed.

SA: Speaking of queer representation, your recently-released debut picture book, Mama and Mommy and Me in the Middle, features a family with two moms, but it’s absolutely for anyone who has missed a parent. How did the idea for the book come to you?

NL: In pre-pandemic times, my wife and I both used to travel a lot for work. The idea for Mama and Mommy and Me in the Middle came from one of those trips, when I went to teach at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN. I teach for a low-residency graduate program there that focuses on creative writing for children and teens, and I was sitting in on my brilliant colleagues’ picture book lectures and thinking about the emotional life of the child—and then the emotional life of my own child—and missing my family so much. I’d always wanted to write a children’s book but didn’t know what the story should be, and I finally realized that I was living it! There are painfully few representations of queer families in young children’s literature and media in general, and there’s a hunger for it. Sharing this book with children has been such an incredible joy. Plus, my daughter is very proud of it.

SA: Can you recommend us some books that center queer joy?

NL: You know, it’s funny because I appreciate joy in my books but I love it most when it’s intermixed with hard things. I love books about hard-won fulfillment. So I’ll recommend a few with the caveat that they aren’t really queer joy books, but they are absolutely books that reflect the spectrum of humanity and don’t cheat their queer characters out of that fullness of experience! That said, here are a few of my favorites: Memorial by Bryan Washington, Cantoras by Carolina de Robertis, and a brand new one: We Do What We Do in the Dark by Michelle Hart. If you’re looking for something lighter but no less smart or full of heart, Casey McQuiston’s YA debut I Kissed Shara Wheeler is fantastic and so much fun.

SA: Back to Yerba Buena: Mixology plays a fun role in the book, and you even created a signature drink to go with it! What was that process like? Do you have a background in bartending?

NL: I absolutely love a beautifully made cocktail, and I am lucky to be married to someone who makes them! When I was writing Yerba Buena everything was on lockdown because of the pandemic, so I’d be stuck in my office at home, dreaming up these gorgeous restaurants and bars and meals, and then my wife, Kristyn, would come in with a cocktail for my evening writing sessions and it would feel magical, like a little bit of my novel seeping into my life, and give me an extra boost to keep writing. Kristyn made the cocktail (and a mocktail, too!) for the book, and I got to be her recipe tester.

Try out the cocktail and mocktail recipes, courtesy of Nina LaCour and Flatiron Books!

SA: We always like to finish up with this question: What is your favorite thing about independent bookstores?

NL: Oh, there are so many ways to answer this question! My very first job, when I was fourteen, was in my tiny then-local indie bookstore, and I continued working at indie stores over the course of the next decade. I remember how much care I put into my selections for my staff recommends shelf, and the satisfaction of pairing a customer with a perfect book, and the thrill of opening a shipment of new books and discovering what was inside. Now that I’m no longer a bookseller, I just love the rush of promise that I feel each time I step inside a store.

Yerba Buena will be released on May 31st.

Yerba Buena: A Novel Cover Image