Anne: Hello, Alex! I’m so glad you’re here at MG Book Village to chat about your latest novel, Alice Austen Lived Here, which hits shelves tomorrow, June 7! Could we please start with you giving readers a very brief summary of the story?
Alex: Sure thing. Nonbinary 7th grader Sam and their best friend TJ need to find a local historical figure for a contest to design a new statue to be built in front of Staten Island Borough Hall. With the help of the queer community in their building, they learn about Alice Austen, an early photographer who likely would have been defined as a lesbian today. On the way, they explore themes of LGBTQIAP+ history, chosen family, mentors, and more. It’s the story I’m proudest of yet and I’m excited to share it with readers.
Anne: I love the unique way you incorporated history into this novel: you put your protagonist in the very apartment where photographer Alice Austen once lived. Brilliant. So my question is: how did you get this idea for your setting?
Alex: Thanks. This is an easy one; that’s the building where I lived until I was 12.
Anne: Ha! Too perfect!
Alex: I lived in a different apartment, but I had the same view of New York Harbor as Sam does, and as Alice once did. I knew about Alice Austen growing up, but I didn’t learn she had lived in my building until I was in college and found out that Alice had been partnered with a woman for fifty years. I was so excited to find a part of Staten Island history that wasn’t straight that I found the same biography Sam does in the book and made the same discovery that Sam’s best friend TJ does. Alice Austen Lived There.
Anne: Love it. Now, the characters represent multiple generations ranging from 6 month-old Evie to Leslie, the 82 year-old neighbor. Middle-schooler Sam interacts with them all. With which character do you most identify? Do you see yourself in one more than in the others?
Alex: There’s a bit of me in all of my characters, but probably the most in Evie’s parents. Jess is a self-assured fat femme, and Val is a cheerful nonbinary nerd, and they are both living their lives as fully themselves as possible. I also find a lot of myself in my main character, Sam, unsurprisingly, but they have access to language and community that I didn’t. And so sometimes I feel like Leslie, someone now living in a very different world from the queer community I first discovered nearly thirty years ago.
Anne: The book’s themes are great, particularly the one—as you say in the epigraph—that “language changes; the need to be ourselves doesn’t.” So true. Over the years, there have been huge shifts in LGBTQIAP+ terminology, and even that acronym—oh, my, what a mouthful! Would you please talk a bit about your interest in including “changing language” as one of the story’s themes?
Alex: Language and word play have always fascinated me. In the case of shifting language for the rainbow of communities of people outside of “straight,” repression, shame, laws, and more have kept people from gathering and communicating. We have had to invent and repurpose words to describe ourselves, both because the words didn’t exist and because the words that do exist can be dangerous to use, hurled as insults, or otherwise not right. Now that we are stretching and growing, we have new spaces to explore words that work better for us, and the process will continue. As a writer, whose words get sealed in the time capsule of a novel, that can lead to tricky situations about word choice. For me, the answer has been to incorporate the issue of evolving language into the story itself.
Anne: Nice. The book is about queer history, about questioning stereotypes, about friendship and families, and what makes a family a family, and on all fronts, it’s a breath of fresh air. What do you hope readers will take away from Alice Austen Lived Here?
Alex: Thank you for the compliment. I hope that readers from queer and trans families will see people and connections like theirs on the page. And for readers unaccustomed to queer and trans cultures, I hope that they’ll have the chance to experience a family unlike theirs in some ways, but just as loving and just as imperfect. I’m excited for readers to learn about Alice Austen and to be inspired to discover other queer and trans people from history. We were always here.
Anne: Where can readers go to learn more about you and your work?
Alex: I can most commonly be found on twitter @lxgino. I am also occasionally on facebook @authoralexgino. But if you want to reach me, the best option is to email me at email@example.com. You can also find links to media interviews, blog posts, and more at my website, alexgino.com.
Anne: Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village, and for writing such a heartfelt story!
Alex: You’re welcome and thank YOU for sharing it.
Alex Gino is the author of the middle grade novels Alice Austen Lived Here; Rick; You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P!; and the Stonewall Award-winning Melissa. They love glitter, ice cream, gardening, awe-ful puns, and stories that reflect the complexity of being alive. For more information, visit alexgino.com.
Anne (A.B.) Westrick is today’s MG Book Village interviewer. She’s the author of the older-MG novel Brotherhood. You can learn more about her at https://abwestrick.com/