YA Author Aiden Thomas Discusses How Bestselling "Cemetery Boys" Wasn't Originally Supposed To Be Their Debut And How Their Identity Shaped The Story
"I was really unsure that anyone would want this very queer and unapologetically Latinx story I had in my head. I was essentially asking permission — could I write this book that was so much about my identity? One that I had never seen in media? Was it allowed?"
Aiden Thomas's debut YA novel, Cemetery Boys, splashed onto shelves this year, earning a place on the New York Times bestseller list as well as being longlisted for the National Book Award. Cemetery Boys follows a trans, Latinx protagonist named Yadriel who wants more than anything to prove to his family he is a true brujo — and for his identity as a boy to be accepted. When he uses his gift to try and summon the spirit of his dead cousin, things don't go as planned because he accidentally summons the ghost of Julian Diaz, a (cute) bad boy who Yadriel just might be falling for.
I had the opportunity to chat with Aiden about their success with Cemetery Boys this year, as well as their sophomore novel, Lost in the Never Woods — a Peter Pan retelling which explores the trauma and grief Wendy experiences when her brothers don't return from Never Land — and how Cemetery Boys became their debut novel when Lost in the Never Woods was originally supposed to be published first.
Hi Aiden! This is Farrah with BuzzFeed. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me today. I’m thrilled we could set up this interview!
Hey Farrah! I’m super excited too! I thought this was such a cool way of doing an interview!
Thank you — I think it’s a fun format!
First, I want to congratulate you on all your success this year with your debut novel, Cemetery Boys, which debuted on the New York Times bestseller list and was longlisted for the National Book Award. Incredibly well-deserved! It is so, so wonderful to hear news like this during such a turbulent year.
Thank you so much! 2020 has definitely been a wild year, to say the least, especially as a debut. I'm so thankful for all the love and support my book and I have received — I'm not exaggerating in the least when I say it’s been life-changing!
I can believe it! I like to think that social distancing has perhaps given people more time to read, and the more people read, the more authors they discover. On the topic of Cemetery Boys, I read that the idea began forming after you read a writing prompt on Tumblr. What drew you to this idea in particular?
Yes! I was inspired by a writing prompt I saw on Tumblr which was “What happened if you summoned a ghost and couldn’t get rid of it?” Most of the comments were people coming up with creepy stories about being haunted, but my immediate thought was, “Yeah, and what if he was cute?!” I love paranormal stories, and it touched in one of my favorite tropes, forced close proximity, so I really just fell in love with the idea. I knew I really wanted to explore and showcase Latinx culture, and the ghost plot aligned perfectly with Día de Muertos. The story just exploded from there!
Paranormal books hold such a dear place in my heart. I love that stumbling upon a writing prompt online led to this book. The internet is often blamed as a distraction, but not in this case!
I also love your cover — and the fact that it was designed by nonbinary illustrator Mars Lauderbaugh. They did a phenomenal job.
Mars is INCREDIBLE! They actually knew who Yadriel and Julian were before anyone else, including my editor!
Way back before Cemetery Boys was even a completed draft, I had commissioned Mars Lauderbaugh to do some fan art, and then when I came up with Cemetery Boys, I commissioned them for character art. I loved and shared with my editorial team and discussed how I was going to use them for my preorder campaign.
Then, when it was time to design the cover, they sent me a list of artists to pick from, all of which were either nonbinary, trans, and/or artists of color. They included Mars because we all loved their art so much, and I IMMEDIATELY asked that they request Mars to do the official cover. Mars’ art captures how I envision Yadriel and Julian perfectly, and it’s definitely because of all the time they spent on creating art before the book was even announced!
I love this! It’s such a good feeling when someone deeply understands your story and your characters on a creative/artistic level. And so great that you had so much input with selecting an artist/cover!
Your second novel, Lost in the Never Woods, was actually supposed to be your debut. What made you decide to go with Cemetery Boys instead?
My journey into publishing has been kind of a weird one! I got my MFA in Creative Writing and wrote Lost in the Never Woods as my thesis. I spent a couple years editing it, sent it off to about 40 agents, got requests for fulls, but nothing ever came of it. I had pretty much given up and moved on to different interests when I heard about Swoon Reads. On a total whim, I submitted Lost in the Never Woods, figuring it didn't hurt to try! Macmillan ended up making an offer for it, and that was how I sold my first book!
While I was in copyedits for Lost in the Never Woods, I started bugging my editor about my option book. I sent her five different story ideas, and Cemetery Boys was the shortest pitch. It was just a paragraph that started with, "This is a very VAGUE idea with a trans main character." Most of the sentences ended in question marks because I was really unsure that anyone would want this very queer and unapologetically Latinx story I had in my head. I was essentially asking permission — could I write this book that was so much about my identity? One that I had never seen in media? Was it allowed? I was genuinely shocked when this tiny blip of an idea was what they wanted! My editor, Holly West, loved it so much and everyone on my team was so excited! We realized that while Lost in the Never Woods is an incredibly personal story for me, Cemetery Boys was really special because it would reach marginalized readers in a really important way. So, that’s why we swapped the two and decided Cemetery Boys should be my debut!
It’s so interesting, I think, that things have a way of working out in a way we don’t see coming, especially when we’re so focused on the path we thought we’d be on! You wrote a book about your identity, your culture, and it turned out to be a book readers deeply connected to — and needed. YA needs more trans and Latinx stories, and it’s so great your entire team championed this one for your debut. Were you stressed having to write it on such a quick turnaround? Considering you mentioned spending many years on Lost in the Never Woods!
Oh my gosh, YES! It was incredibly stressful! I had to write the first draft of Cemetery Boys in six weeks to hit the deadlines we wanted, and it was beyond hectic! I had to learn how to fast draft, and honestly, the only thing that got me through it was my very extensive outline. I’m a hardcore "plotter." I will outline every chapter, every scene, down to every bit of dialogue. By the end of it, I had a 62-page outline, which usually blows people's minds. (Haha!) But by having that really intense outline, it meant that when it came time to write, I didn’t get hung up on figuring out what was going to happen next — all I had to do was write what the outline told me to write, and that’s how I got it done in six weeks!
And then, of course, the pandemic happened and everything came to a screeching halt. Cemetery Boys was originally supposed to come out on June 9, but that got pushed back to Sept. 1.
I am in awe of "plotters" like yourself who go into great detail in outlines. Your organizational skills are admirable! I’m so glad that saved you when having to meet such an intense deadline, despite it getting pushed a few months.
Lost in the Never Woods is set to release next year, after many years of waiting on your part! I’m curious, what made you want to dive into a Peter Pan retelling?
This might sound strange, but the trauma is what's always drawn me to Peter Pan! I loved the Disney version when I was little, then I read the original story by JM Barrie when I was a teen. As an undergrad, I double majored in English and Psychology and I wrote about the psychological trauma Peter Pan experienced and how it manifested within him as a character.
To me, Peter Pan is more than just a story about not wanting to grow up — it's about what happens to children who have disorganized attachments when they don't have a reliable caregiver, the hoops our brains jump through to protect us from trauma we've experienced, and especially what it means to have to behave like the adult when you're still a kid. That's what interests me in Peter Pan the most, so I decided to write a book about what happens to Wendy AFTER she meets Peter and visits Neverland.
In Lost in the Never Woods, Wendy and her brothers went missing in the woods behind their house as children. Wendy was found six months later, but her brothers never were. The story is about the summer when Wendy turns 18 and suddenly more kids in her town start going missing. Everyone thinks it might be somehow connected to Wendy and her brothers, but she has no memories of what happened to her during those six months. Then Peter shows up, claiming to know where the missing kids and her brothers are, but she needs to help him find his shadow in order to get them back.
This is such an intriguing way to present it, taking a tale we’re familiar with and peeling back the psychological layers of the characters and their journeys. You mentioned it’s also an incredibly personal story. Does it feel a little surreal that it’s finally coming out next year?
It absolutely feels surreal! I've been sitting with this story for SO long, it feels like it was never going to come out, and I'm maybe still in a bit of disbelief, haha! It's been a long journey, and I think there's going to be readers who connect with Wendy on a very deeply personal level. Writing Lost in the Never Woods was very cathartic for me, and editing it has been another, slightly different, form of self-care in that I can see everything I was going through as I wrote it, and now I can show myself — and readers — that there's a light at the end of the tunnel. I really hope it becomes a source of comfort for others.
I’m so glad you get to experience the payoff soon — and that it’s a book readers might find connection and comfort in! Also, the cover for this one is just as exquisite as your debut.
Right?! I've really hit the jackpot with both of my covers! Loika is so supremely talented! I feel like the design team, lead by Liz Dresner, just took all of my favorite things and put them into a cover for Lost in the Never Woods! Blue, pink, and purple is my favorite color combination, and I'm pretty well known on Twitter for being a Plant Dad. (Haha!) But my absolute favorite part is the very subtle silhouettes of Wendy's brothers in the trees. I think most people won't notice them right away, and it really embodies the slow, creeping feeling that permeates through the whole story.
I have to say, I am one of those people who did not notice at first! Way to knock it out of the park!
Because we’re in the middle of NaNoWriMo, I thought I’d end with a writing question. Do you have a certain piece of advice that’s helped you in your writing career?
Hands down, I think the most helpful bit of advice as a writer is to find your community and get writing partners! Writing can be a very insular experience — it can feel lonely, and when you get stuck, it can really feel impossible to figure your way out of it. I have critique partners, of course, but I also have friends I go to for help brainstorming or solving a plot hole. We hop on a video chat or just talk back and forth in DMs, but their feedback is critical! Even if I don't use their ideas, usually just the process of talking out loud helps me come up with a solution (but more often than not, they have BRILLIANT ideas that I used for my book!). Having folks to bounce ideas off of and work through writer's block with is essential to my success and productivity as an author, so find your people! You don't have to be alone in this!
I love this! It’s such great advice, especially now, when things seem just a bit lonelier than they typically would. Writer people are the best people.
Aiden, this was such a delightful chat! Thank you so much for your time. I hope many more readers discover Cemetery Boys and love it as much as I did — and I’m truly looking forward to reading Lost in the Never Woods next year! Before I let you go, what three emojis would you use to describe Lost in the Never Woods?
Thank you so much! This was such a fun interview! And three emojis I’d use to describe Lost in the Never Woods would be: 🌲✨🌑