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Project Open Books Interviews Emily Austin, Author of Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead

Project Open Books is excited to share that we recently had the opportunity to chat with Emily Austin about her amazing debut novel, EVERYONE IN THIS ROOM WILL SOMEDAY BE DEAD. Early last month, we received a free copy from the publisher, Atria Books, and we dove right in. After reading, we can’t hype this book up enough! We loved it so much that we reached out to Emily to get to know more about the author behind the story. Emily was so kind to allow us some of her time and share with us more about her journey becoming a writer, inspiration for her debut novel, and information about what’s next to expect from her. The following is a slightly abridged transcript of our interview with Emily.

Project Open Books: Let’s start this interview off by getting to know you a bit more. The “About the Author” page at the end of your novel is a bit sparse, and there’s not much more biographical information on your website. Who is Emily Austin?

Emily: Sure, so I grew up in southwestern Ontario, which isn’t super far from Michigan--for you Americans. I grew up Catholic, which is topically related to my book; one of my parents is a Catholic school teacher and the other is a public school teacher. I am the third of four children. I went to school to study English and Library and Information Science. I’ve worked in a small elementary school library and, for a short time, at Pride Library, which is a LGBTQ+ focused library at Western University in London, Ontario. It has a great collection of queer books and queer art.

Project Open Books: Great! We love that. So what inspired you to write your debut novel?

Emily: As I mentioned, I grew up Catholic, and when I first started thinking about writing this book I was at a funeral in a Catholic church. My school was Catholic, but when I was eighteen-years-old, I no longer identified as Catholic, so there was a long span of time between being a member of the church and this funeral. But, one of my grandparents had died, so I was at this church, and it was the same church that I had been in while growing up. It was very familiar to me, but because of the long span of time that I had been away, I was looking at the church with fresh eyes. I had processed a little bit about growing up Catholic, and I started to realize what an interesting setting a Catholic church is, especially when you’re someone who struggles with morbid anxiety--and I also considered how this interacts with queerness.

Project Open Books: Related to the previous question--you’ve now discussed your background and inspiration for this novel, and while reading we often felt that the description of certain events was so vivid that they couldn’t have been made up. We thought it had to have come from someone’s personal experience, so we were wondering if you could tell us if there are moments in this book describing things that actually happened? Where is the line between reality and fiction in this story?

Emily: That’s a good question! Another answer I could have given for the previous question is that, while writing this book, I was trying to think of difficult or challenging things that have happened in my life because I’m trying to be a more positive person. It’s not always my immediate instinct to be positive, but I’m trying to work on myself, so I tried to think: okay, what are negative things that have happened to me or things I have found difficult, and how can I write about them or do something with them that would convert them into something good. So now, when I look back on my past and Catholicism--it’s complicated--but for the most part, that was kind of a negative experience for me. Now, however, I can say I was able to write a book about that experience, turning it into something good. And, in that same vein, the writing about anxiety and things like that are also pulling from my own experiences, so there is definitely a blend between reality and fiction there. I do want to say though, I’m definitely not Gilda, and I’ve never been a receptionist at a church. But, of course, there is a relationship and some overlap.

Project Open Books: Wonderful! Another thing that we really enjoyed about this novel, having now read a lot of LGBTQ+ literature, is that there are so many books about the “coming out” experience, and this novel isn’t necessarily about that. Gilda is already out as a lesbian, but then in this story, she is sort of in the closet as an atheist at the church. So, we’d like to know more about the role that identity plays in this novel.

Emily: Sure, so as I alluded to, I went to school to be a librarian, and when you go to school to be a librarian, you study things like how to research and catalog things, but you also study collection development, which is like studying what resources should be allocated to a library. So, I took this collection development class, and there was a project in it where we had to pick a subject, and we had to assess a sampling of libraries’ handling of that subject. The way that you know if a library has a good collection is by looking at statistics of the community around the library and things like that. I picked LGBTQ+ fiction, and then I did research about different communities in and across Canada, like Toronto and other cities, and I evaluated their libraries based on the percentage of people who identified as queer in those communities, the percentage of hate crimes against queer people in those communities, and some other things--it was over ten years ago. Then I came up with a percentage of materials that libraries should have, and I compared that with what they did have, and none of the libraries had adequate representation of LGBTQ+ fiction. So, the next part of the assignment was to recommend what books they should get to fill the gaps. I did a lot of research into what’s really related to your organization, which was how to assess good quality queer fiction, because there is a lot of fiction, like you mentioned, that is about coming out--and I don’t want to say that’s necessarily bad--but there are a lot of stories like that, and those aren’t the only stories that we need queer fiction to be about. I found the criteria to assess queer fiction, which librarians had identified at the time, and a lot of it was similar to assessing any fiction: has it received awards? What are the reviews like?--And things like that. But, then I also considered things like: is this story about just coming out? If the story is primarily about a relationship between two queer people, does it end with one of them dying?--Because that’s a problem in queer fiction. So, I had been lucky when writing this book because I knew this type of information from before, and I knew that I didn’t want to write a story about coming out.

Project Open Books: Another question we have is, back when you were in college, what encouraged you to pick the LGBTQ+ community as an area that you really wanted to know more about in terms of literature and what was available?

Emily: That’s a good question. You know, I’m not really sure what it was. I’m queer, but I don’t think I knew that then even. I have a best friend, with whom I grew up, and he’s a gay man. I love him, and he’s my best friend, so it’s possible I realized--of course it was probably also for me--but at the time I felt very impassioned to defend my friend. I often thought about queer topics in relation to him and thinking about how he, too, grew up in Catholic school. We never read a picture book that had even the subtlest suggestion that anyone was queer. The first material that he or I would had ever read relating to gay topics was definitely the Bible, which is not, well, that great. So, I think it was probably then, and it was probably me thinking of my friend, but also thinking of myself--in retrospect--without realizing it at the time.

Project Open Books: Wow--thank you for sharing that. We are really excited to hear about your personal background and research in this area because there really aren’t that many studies on the representation of LGBTQ+ characters and stories in literature. We usually reference a study conducted by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, which recently started to include the number of LGBTQ+ books in its diversity statistics. So, sticking to a related topic, it’s always so startling to see the statistics published by an organization such as The Trevor Project, indicating--for example--that 42% of LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered suicide in the past year, and that 72% of LGBTQ+ youth reported symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (in the two weeks prior to the survey). Although an adult protagonist, Gilda suffers from crippling anxiety and almost never stops ruminating about death. How important was it for you to tell Gilda’s story, even in those moments when it must have been quite difficult to do so?

Emily: One thing that I did want to write with this book is the relationship between queerness and mental health. I think, like you mentioned, there is clearly a relationship between the two. I know there is a lot of research, which suggests a number of reasons that queer people struggle with mental health--because of homophobia and because of certain hardships, which straight people and cis people don’t necessarily have to deal with. So, I was trying in this book to provide a little insight into what it might be like to be both queer and morbidly anxious or depressed, and that was also part of why I set the book in a Catholic church. There are a lot of ways that being queer interacts with mental health, and in a way that makes it a little bit of a different experience from people who aren’t queer. I think, of course, there are a lot of shared experiences, but--for example--when you think of religion, and I know this isn’t always true, but when I think of many of the most religious people I know, a handful of those people turned to religion after having a serious mental health crisis. So, I think that one way that being queer and dealing with mental health is different from not being queer is that religion isn’t as much of an option to you. I mean, obviously you can be queer and religious, but it’s not as comforting an option often, especially if you look at Catholicism, which tells you it’s sinful. Or, perhaps the Catholic church wouldn’t say that you can’t be gay, but that you need to remain celibate and can’t have your desired relationship. That’s supposed to be inclusive, but it’s not. I was trying to show this in my book. Gilda talks about how it’s really hard for her brain to produce serotonin. She goes into detail saying something like “when I was a teenager, the first time I went on a date with a girl, I felt those happy chemicals, and I don’t feel those often.” She sort of has a girlfriend in this book, and in those moments when she’s with her, those are the moments when she feels happier. There’s also a passage in the book that says something along the lines of, well, she’s having a conversation with someone at the church--and this really isn’t the focus of the book--but someone at the church is talking to her, and they don’t know that she’s a lesbian, and they’re talking to her about being gay, and they mention that they don’t care if people are gay, but they just don’t want to hear about it. They don’t want to hear about people’s bedrooms. And she talks about how being gay isn’t just about your bedroom. Sometimes there’s this perception that, particularly for people with that sort of perspective--that being gay is just about sex--but it’s not. When you think of your grandparents--for example--you don’t think of their relationship as just a sexual relationship. You think of those as people who made a life together, and those are people who love each other, and those are people who will be buried next to each other. It’s not just--it’s definitely not just about sex. So, I was trying to show how when you’re already struggling with your mental health, which a lot of queer people are, then if you also have to struggle feeling bad about the things that do make you happier, like your relationships with people you care about, or like your hopes for the future, or what you want for your life--it’s a terrible thing to do to people, especially when you’re potentially suicidal or depressed. And, like you mentioned, the stats suggest there’s a serious problem there, and I think that part of that is why. If you’re taking away something that makes you feel happy and fulfilled and gives your life purpose and gives you something to look forward to, that’s obviously going to result in people being unhappy and having mental health problems.

Project Open Books: So, on the complete flipside of that, your novel is really fun. There is such a carefully woven balance between tension and humor. As readers, we felt totally sucked into those moments of despair, in which we felt our own heartbeats quicken and palms start to sweat…but then you’re able to diffuse that tension so swiftly and make the reader laugh out loud. How important was it to include humor in this story? What role, specifically, does humor play for you, for Gilda, and for your readers?

Emily: Yeah, so originally when I started writing the book--in that last question it got a little heavier--I wasn’t necessarily setting out to write this very heavy book; it just sort of, it turned out that it needed to be. My instinct is to write something that is a little funnier, and I find, well, obviously humor is a coping mechanism, and when I think of the queer people I know, they’re the funnier people I know. And, even if I think of the depressed people I know, they tend to be funnier too. There is a relationship between those things; it’s a coping mechanism. I don’t think it would be possible to--well, I don’t think that I’d be able to get through a book that was dealing with all of this depression without getting a moment of relief. So, I think it kind of had to have that, but I think it’s also just accurate that someone like Gilda would, in her own way, be kind of funny.

Project Open Books: Our last question is more of a wrap-up question--we saw on your website that you’re working on a collection of LGBTQ+, feminist poetry, and we were wondering if maybe you could tell us a little more about that or another long-term project and what’s next to expect from Emily Austin.

Emily: Sure. Well, with that project I was actually given a writing grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, which is great, so I’m writing poetry, which is, well, I’m actually re-writing biblical passages, and it’s really related to this book--I’m kind of cheating I feel like, using the homework I did for something else, but I think I’m allowed to do that. I’m reusing biblical language and Catholic prayers and songs and things like that, and I’m sort of flipping them to be queer focused or feminist focused. I have been sort of fixated on and interested in religion as a person--I’m not religious, but I find it so interesting. I’ve really thought a little too much about it, and so I’m trying to essentially rewrite biblical passages and use Catholic language. I think, if I look at the bible, with this time removed from when I was younger, one thing that I didn’t realize when I was a little girl, was how the bible always registered as scary to me, and intimidating. Again, there’s some nice things, obviously, but for the most part, I would say this is a very scary book that’s about how I should behave to be a good person. But something I didn’t realize until I was older and reading it was that it’s, well, that if I were a straight man, and I were reading it, I might feel a little empowered by it, and I never felt empowered by it. I didn’t realize that until I was older. I didn’t realize that’s how it read to other people--that some people might read this and think, yeah, I’m the head of my household--above me is God and below me is women; I’m an important person, and my relationship with my wife is like God’s relationship with the church. So, I didn’t realize that until I was reading it when I was older, and I thought it would be interesting to read that and try to feel that way if you are a queer person or a woman or someone who is made to feel sort of oppressed by that language.

Project Open Books: Thank you so much for sharing. We look forward to reading some of your forthcoming poetry! We greatly appreciate you taking the time to speak with us at Project Open Books. It’s our goal to not only improve and promote access to LGBTQ+ stories, but also to support and uplift wonderful queer authors like yourself.

Emily: Thank you so much, and thank you so much for all of the work that you’re doing. When you reached out to me, I was looking at your website and thought: oh, this is so great, this is exactly what’s needed, so thank you so much for everything that you do.

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