When most people think of Orange County, California, they think of the rich gaudiness portrayed on The Real Housewives of Orange County. As someone who is born and raised in the area, I can attest that my life has never been so simultaneously tumultuous and glamourous. Life in the OC is relatively quiet. I grew up in the suburbs, and all of my schools are within a five-mile radius of each other. I have rarely seen Orange County portrayed in the quiet light that is its everyday.
That is until 2013 when I came across Robyn Schneider’s The Beginning of Everything. The way she wrote and portrayed places that I grew up to know and love in the OC was alarmingly accurate to my own life. I felt like Robyn and I shared a teenagehood even though we had never met.
Past her Southern California roots, Robyn studied creative writing during her undergrad and later earned a Master of Bioethics (because she’s also a literal genius). Since 2013, Robyn has released three more stand-alone books, including her latest, You Don’t Live Here, in which she ties in her own experiences as a bisexual woman. She recently announced the first book of her new series, The Other Merlin, which is set to debut on September 21st. The series is slated as “a feminist, queer, Arthurian rom-com,” and I can certainly say I am so excited for her to take this leap into the Fantasy YA genre.
In anticipation of the release of The Other Merlin and to discuss the importance of diversity in literature during Pride Month, please enjoy this exclusive interview with bestselling author, Robyn Schneider.
1. Your previous books, The Beginning of Everything, Extraordinary Means, and Invisible Ghosts, include heterosexual relationships. Besides your own experiences, was there anything else that inspired you to include a bisexual protagonist in You Don’t Live Here?
When I wrote The Beginning of Everything, I was telling a story that’s very emotionally autobiographical, which meant I had to fictionalize it somehow. In giving my internal monologue to a popular jock, I was shocked [at] how universal my thoughts and fears seemed when they belonged to someone else. After that, I wanted to write a dual narrative to tell the same love story from two perspectives.
I actually sold Invisible Ghosts and You Don’t Live Here at the same time. So it’s really been a natural progression of writing from a different perspective in each story.
All of my books contain truths that I wish I’d learned earlier. I didn’t discover that I was bisexual until after I’d graduated from high school, so for me, writing heterosexual relationships between teenagers is something that I relate to deeply, and that I hope both queer and straight readers can identify with. But for queer readers, in particular, I hope You Don’t Live Here acts as a catalyst for self-love and self-acceptance.
2. You did an interview last July on Crowdcast where you discussed your publisher asking if you self-identified with aspects of You Don’t Live Here. Do you, as someone who is a part of the LGBTQIA+ community, feel that this is necessary for publishers, or even an audience, to know? How (if at all) does this question impact an author’s process when writing?
I’ve known many YA authors who are reluctant to disclose their LGBTQIA identities online, and I personally found it awkward to be asked to do so explicitly, as a proof of authenticity for You Don’t Live Here. The Own Voices label is meant to guide readers to stories told from places of personal experience, but I’ve also seen it used as a marketing tool that gets attached to novels instead of an actual summary, which drives me crazy. An author’s identity shouldn’t be the main marketing tool of a work of fiction, especially since many queer writers are still discovering the full extent of their identities, and because those identities can evolve over time. I read a Twitter hot take that said, essentially, no one writes a queer YA novel to get rich, and there’s truth in that.
I do think publishers can ask when offering on a manuscript because it can affect how a book is marketed and received, but no, it isn’t necessary for an audience to have that information, just as it isn’t required for authors to keep and regularly update social media accounts meant for their readers.
3. On the topic of queer novels, let’s discuss The Other Merlin! What, if anything, can you tell Bookstr about your new book?
You know those silly, romantic, charming movies from the early 2000’s that you’ve watched a dozen times and are still an endless source of personal joy and comfort? That’s exactly what I want The Other Merlin to be for its readers. Also, it’s a kissing book, it’s feminist, it’s inclusive, and it’s character-driven while still being chaotic and funny. Essentially, it’s exactly the fantasy novel that I wish I could take on vacation and then make all of my friends read immediately so we can discuss.
4. Your books are known for taking place in Southern California. The Other Merlin is certainly expected to have a different setting, but did you sneak any aspects of your Southern California roots into the book?
I’m so excited that I got to write a different setting in The Other Merlin! I actually spent a year living in London, so, really, I’m doing what I’ve always done: drawing inspiration from somewhere I’ve lived. Also, I wrote a lot of The Other Merlin on three separate stays in France, which was wild because I would spend my days writing and thinking in English, but speaking in French, and it made me very aware of language and word choice. As to my Californian roots sneaking into this story, I will say that the voice is very contemporary, so this book reads far more like my other YA novels than you’d think, even though it takes place in medieval Camelot.
5. What are you most excited for your audience to read in this book? Any hints at funny or romantic scenes that you can’t wait for readers to experience? Any moments in the story that you are proud of writing?
I can’t wait for readers to fall in love with Arthur and Emry. I have a couple of favorite scenes I keep going back to [like] the one where they first become lab partners in the wizard’s workshop because up until that moment they absolutely hate each other. And the one where Emry, Arthur, and Lance decide to test Excalibur and discover that the sword cures hangovers, which made me laugh out loud while I was writing it (super awkward, since I was in a library). In terms of moments that I’m proud of writing, hmm. I’ve never gotten to write, like, steamy scenes before? And my editor gave the thumbs up, so I spent a weekend drowning in my favorite romance novels and then went for it, and I love love love how they turned out.
6. On that note, you’ve left some hints on your Instagram about the inspiration for characters in The Other Merlin. What can you tell us about the relationships between the book’s characters? Do you have any personal favorites or even favorites that you’re excited to introduce to readers?
Most of all, this is a story about found families. The characters are all smart, nerdy outsiders, and they all have tough family situations, so their friendships and connections run deep. Emry and Arthur, the two heroes of this story, were so fun to create. I love a good Merlin-King Arthur bromance, and I love a good cross-dressing rom-com, so of course, I wanted to combine the two. Before I started writing, I asked myself what sort of untold backstory would lead to this legend that we all know, about a straight white dude who becomes a legendary king that ushers in a golden age of equality. And that story-behind-the-legend became the focus of this book series. Emry is the snarky, feminist girl wizard we all deserve, while Arthur is the brilliant, considerate, bookish leader we’d be lucky to have.
7. Similarly, you have mentioned the diversity of your characters, both in regards to including characters of different races and sexualities. Why is it important for readers to see this kind of broad representation in your book?
When you’re starting with source material, you have a responsibility to come up with a fresh take on an old tale, and part of that is telling a story that’s reflective of the current world. I think that’s why we have a lot of franchise reboots and sequels that feature female and POC protagonists because those weren’t considerations when the original stories were crafted. I love that so many audiences can finally see themselves reflected as heroes in mainstream commercial stories. The best part of writing fantasy, as well as writing a story based on source material, is that you can make the world as inclusive, diverse, and queer-positive as you want.
8. This is your first series. How different is writing a series from writing a stand-alone book, and how many books can we expect in this series?
It’s strangely harder and easier than writing a stand-alone. Harder because you don’t wrap everything up neatly at the end of book one, and you have to know what comes next for your characters. And easier because, when you sit down to write book two, the voice and tense and characters are already there, waiting for you.
I’ve always envisioned The Other Merlin as a trilogy—ideally with additional books that feature different characters and take place years before and years after the events in this story. We shall see! I love writing fantasy, and I adore these characters, and I’d love to stick with them for as long as there are readers who want me to. There are a lot of King Arthur legends begging for a chaotic fresh take.
9. What do you hope your readers take away from this series? Do you have a message that you hope comes across to your LGBTQIA+ readers?
Most of all, I hope my readers feel they’d be welcome to join Arthur, Emry, Lance, and the gang in Camelot. I remember reading the Harry Potter books when I was growing up, and even though there weren’t any queer Jewish girls at Hogwarts, those stories captured my imagination in a way that left a lifelong impression. I don’t know that I could come back to them in the same way now. So I hope I’ve written a story that captures a little bit of that magic but makes sure readers know that this magic is for everyone.
10. Now for some fun bookish questions! Your Instagram documented your travels while you prepped and wrote The Other Merlin at the beginning of 2019. What was your favorite part about that experience?
I absolutely love running away from my life for a few weeks and setting up shop somewhere new and seeing what inspiration strikes. Probably the best thing I did (besides spending a week writing in a 16th-century library that looks like something out of a fairytale and eating a dozen croissants), was visiting La Musée des Arts Forains, a museum of antique carnival objects.
11. What are you most proud of as an author?
That I get to keep writing books! A surprising amount of the authors I met when I was a debut aren’t publishing anymore. For a long time, I thought my dream was to publish a book, because, as a young girl wandering through bookstores and finding the place where my book would go alphabetically on the shelf, that seemed huge. But it turns out the real victory as a writer is getting to publish your ninth book, which The Other Merlin is for me.
12. And finally, we love to get book recommendations from authors! What are you currently reading, and what are some of your recommended reads?
Get ready, because I have a lot! I’m currently reading: One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston, Cool For The Summer by Dahlia Adler, and People We Meet On Vacation by Emily Henry. Some recent books that I’ve enjoyed and would recommend are Legendborn by Tracy Deonn, The Mermaid, The Witch, and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall, and I Wish You All The Best by Mason Deaver. And some forthcoming books that I’m impatiently waiting to read include A Lesson In Vengeance by Victoria Lee, Reputation by Lex Croucher, and The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova.
We hope you enjoyed this interview with Robyn Schneider. If you would like to learn more about Robyn, you can find her website here. Follow her Instagram for more updates on The Other Merlin, information on her latest novels, and photos of her magical travels (pre-pandemic, of course). And remember to pre-order The Other Merlin here so that you can read along with us in September!