The LGBTQ+ Changemakers series features LGBTQ+ people all over the country who are making a difference through visibility and ingenuity.
Ryan La Sala’s star isn’t just on the rise–it’s surging into the stratosphere. The fantasy and young adult author, who uses he/they/pronouns, has written three acclaimed queer YA books with another coming out in October. His book, “The Honeys,” about a genderqueer teen who infiltrates the clique of popular summer camp girls their late sister was a part of, is being adapted into a major motion picture by Anonymous Content.
We spoke to La Sala about their writing career, inspiring a generation of future writers and finding hope in some dark places.
News is Out: How do you go from planning a career in neuroscience to writing queer YA?
Ryan La Sala: Well, you know there’s the mad scientist’s approach to subjugating an entire population through brain control, but that’s really expensive. So, it’s just easier to find a pen and paper and start writing really compelling, interesting stories that, as it turns out, people really want to read.
NIO: Queer content and fantasy really seemed to be such a perfect match for each other. Many of the television shows and the most popular books we all love tend to fall into the fantasy genre. What draws you to fantasy?
RL: I think that queer people have an interest in fantasy because it’s really the dominion of people who have been rejected by reality and who’ve had to create their own realities out of things considered to be fantastical to everybody else. Things are fantasies until they’re made real by people and you could say the same thing about many queer spaces and queer liberation in general.
That is the fantasy in the mind of our ancestors and our elders that we’ve now made real that we’re living within. If you wrote our story and handed that to someone a hundred years ago, it would be a fantasy novel. But now we’re living in it, and I think that’s fantastic. So, I love to see the fantasies that we’re writing now, and I love that we sort of extended into horror and all these other genres. My hope is that what we consider fantastical now, what we consider to be idyllic or Utopian, is eventually going to just turn into basically a contemporary story, come the future.
And I do literally mean hopefully, there’s like dream magic and science fiction, and all these other things, too. I’m kidding. I mostly mean in terms of kind of what we deemed to be permissible in reality, I think shifts, and I think queer people are often the people shifting that, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I often do think about the position that I have not just in my lifespan, but what my life and work mean to all the people that dreamed I would one day appear. Prophesized that one day somebody like me could do the work that I’m doing. Then I think about the people that I dream will sort of come into the fray, long after I’m gone, who will be building their own world atop the ruins of what I’ve contributed. So, I do think of myself as part of a very protracted queer lifespan.
NIO: I’m sure you’ve planted the seed in many of our many a reader of your books to be the next generation of Ryan La Salas.
RL: I hope so. That will be my greatest achievement. If I could help springboard many people into at least sort of feeling powerful in their own creativity and getting to sort of exert their own imagination on the immediate reality around them. Because that’s how you make change. It’s incremental until all of those bubbles sort of merge into one big, new world.
NIO: Well, you’re not only a fantasy writer. Your books cross genres. “The Honeys” has deep roots in horror. “Be Dazzled” is a queer romance in many ways. When you were first just starting out, did you know you wanted to write all kinds of books and were you ever cautioned against crossing genres?
RL: There are industry-wide mores about switching too often between genres because there’s this sense that you’ll lose your audience. That they won’t go with you wherever you go. I won’t discuss whether or not that’s good or bad advice–but it wasn’t the advice for me.
I never really thought much about staying put in one place because I always knew that I had a really wide range of things that I wanted to do, so I better start establishing that range soon before people pigeonholed me into one thing or the other. And for my entire life, I’ve had a really immense range of interests and I’ve been able to sort of fit into a lot of different spaces.
I did neuroscience for a little while in college. I worked in tech. I’m a writer. I’ve been on the stage. I didn’t want to shoehorn all of those people into one book, because it would have been absolutely incoherent, and somebody already wrote the book, “Paprika.” So where does that leave me? It leaves me at the helm of a writing career that has no choice but to sort of…what’s the word when light passes through a prism? Spectral? Fractal?
NIO: You are asking the wrong lesbian.
RL: [laughs] Yeah, like, you know the Pink Floyd album? That’s what I’m talking about. But a writing career that has no choice but to split itself out into a lot of different stories. I don’t see these as stories that have nothing in common. What they have in common is me; and many queer people, I think, also have as much diversity in the people that they have to become to overcome adversity. I’m sorry that that rhymed, that wasn’t on purpose. And so I think that’s where like. I think that’s where my range comes from. I. I’ve had to sort of develop so many different types of personas and interests in my life, and I’ve done so joyfully. I love it, and I hope my work reflects it.
NIO: “The Honeys” is becoming a movie, the dream of every author. Much bandied about, but rarely coming to fruition. But you’ve done it. How did this all come about?
RL: So, I have a really dedicated group of people working with me, both in book-world and in HollyWorld. The thing that I was sort of looking for when assembling this team was, do people understand that the queerness of these books is absolutely crucial to the sellability of them? You can’t sell “The Honeys” without also establishing Mars, a gender-fluid lead, as the final girl/boy/they/them, right? That was important to me. So, they understood that right away. They understood what I was going for. They have other queer and nonbinary clients that they’ve made accommodations for when looking at the types of places that they pitch and who they pitch to. And eventually, when we started talking to Anonymous Content, I found that same resonance in sort of early conversations.
This is probably too long of a story for the interview, but in summary, when I first sat down with Anonymous Content, the production company that I’m working with, at no point did the inherent queerness of Mars come up. And I thought it was because they were going to try to subjugate, or somehow, like diminish that element of the character. And so, by the very end, I was convinced that this was all going to fall apart, and I started a big speech about how this was crucial to the story, and they stopped me. And they were like, oh, no! The reason we didn’t bring it up is because why would we bring up the main selling feature of this? It’s not a change we would ever conceive of making. That’s why we want to see this on the big screen, and it really adjusted the natural skepticism that I have going into these conversations because there are people out there that really do see the value in these stories, and I’m very lucky that I happen to be working with a bunch of them.
NIO: As a queer author writing about young queer characters, books like yours have been under attack all across the country. Have you found yourself on any banned book lists? And what are your thoughts about these school districts and parents taking away, what in many ways, are lifelines to LGBTQ+ youth?
RL: I have been on lists and I’ve been attacked personally. I had a parent advocacy group trawl my Instagram to find photos of me that they deemed perverse, and they were of me, dressed as a sexy mushroom at a Halloween party.
NIO: Like you do.
RL: There was a moment when I sort of flinched back because I always knew that the people that had this attitude would draw a stark contrast between the version of me that shows up for kids, for school visits, and the version of me that is a 32-year-old gay guy, right? And see these two things as mutually exclusive.
But the fact of the matter is, I can’t apologize for having a life that’s fun to look at, and none of my readers ask me to do that. And my readers are teenagers, but they’re also queer adults that didn’t have my books when they were teenagers. And none of these things should determine what I get to do with my life, because ultimately, I’m not my book. I know what I’m putting in my books. It’s good and I hand that to people. Then I have my own life, which I should be allowed to live as well.
It’d be different if I was like a cannibal (laughs). But Armie Hammer’s in movies, so what the fuck am I supposed to do right? Like, I’m just dressed up as a sexy fungus at a Halloween party.
In terms of my thoughts about the book banning people–it’s obviously deplorable. We know that we don’t even have to reiterate it. But I think there’s an element of this, that when we focus on just a sinister nature, we also miss that there’s a ton of hope to the situation. Because when you are as desperate as these people, that’s when you start banning books.
It’s a situation of appeals. They’re going up against a shift in culture that they can’t even hope to contend with, and so they have to nitpick individuals and books. But what is the telltale sign of a loser and of a movement that is having its last dying gasps of breath as they try to litigate what culture is appropriate. But the culture is already there. Books take years to develop. So, by now these things have been in circulation well past the time when they could actually get them out of the cultural mind and banned effectively. And so oftentimes I think that these book-banning attempts have nothing to do with children, and everything to do with churning up resentment against communities. Which I think, is the much more dangerous and deliberate nature of what’s going on right here. So that’s what I worry about more than the actual books, or more than my individual career as an author being banned.
NIO: What are three pieces of media and art that really shaped you as a writer?
RL: “Sailor moon.” I talk about all the time for the show’s like flagrant feminism and queerness and for its emphasis on compassion as a tool to defeat evil. And redemption. I have a lot to say about “Sailor Moon.”
What else? “Xena Warrior Princess,” I think, is a fantastic show that I watched way too young and thought was…I mean, I want it to be somersaulting over ravines in New Zealand throwing around a Frisbee. I got really good at a Frisbee throw because of “Sailor Moon” and “Xena Warrior Princess” when I was a child.
I’m just thinking about this right now, but “Phantom of the Opera.” Musicals, in general, have, I think, created such a welcoming space for theatricality and for people that just want to give themselves up for an audience. “Phantom” is such an overblown dramatic, you know, saturated version of the real world, that as a kid I was every single character in the “Phantom.”
I understood why the Phantom hid, and I understood why he used Christine and I understood what it was like to be Christine. I loved “Phantom of the Opera” when I was a kid, too, and I’m thinking a lot about it now because it’s just closed on Broadway. So, it’s brought up a lot of like oh, right, like I forgot how much I really adored this as a child.
NIO: Many of your readers, adults and teens alike, look up to you. What advice would you give to them about becoming authors themselves?
RL: If you’re going to say yes to yourself, you’re going to have to say no to others. And no one is going to make the space for your imagination, but you. You’re the only one that knows what you’re capable of. So, if you’re determined and if you really believe in what you’ve got to give to the world, you’re going to have to make some sacrifices to see that through. But it will absolutely be worth it. And if you know that’s what you want to do, then give your dreams the dignity of your best effort in pursuing them.
My Miss America pageant answer.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.