Rose Szabo is a queer writer from Richmond, Virginia who loves horror, tabletop games, and material culture, particularly fashion. They hold an MFA from VCU, which is where they currently teach writing.
I reached out to Rose after reading their debut, What Big Teeth, a YA novel about family secrets and werewolves. Their second novel, We All Fall Down, is about queer teenagers in a magical city. I asked Rose some questions about their writing, and in addition to giving me some insightful answers, they shared a page from the never-to-be-published (probably) comic book version of What Big Teeth. (Thank you again, Rose!)
Read on for my interview with Rose Szabo…
What Big Teeth often gets compared to The Addams Family (though I would say it’s much darker!) Is the Addams Family a notion you had when you were first writing the book?
The Addams Family was key to this book! I grew up watching the original TV show on VHS, and my mom collected the old cartoons. As a child, the family made a lot of sense to me–they had a large extended family that wasn’t entirely blood relatives, which was a lot like mine. We had a family friend who had a Lurch-like groan, and my godmother was this kind of witchy character who lived in a cottage right down the road from my parents’ house, and so it was a really easy comparison to make.
In an interview with Publisher’s Weekly you talk about the idea for What Big Teeth beginning when you drew a family tree of monsters. That’s so cool. How often is drawing/doodling a part of your writing process?
It’s been a while since I’ve drawn! I took a comic book making class in grad school in 2016 because I thought I wanted to make a What Big Teeth comic book. I struggled a lot with it, and realized that there are things other people can do with images that I can’t, and that my fluency is in writing. Here’s a page from that comic:
What Big Teeth is a dark gothic fantasy with werewolves and witches and a healthy dose of the occult. Have these always been the sorts of things you gravitate towards in your writing (and/or reading)?
Oh yes. One of my earliest memories is watching a TV show about psychics called The Others. I was maybe six, and it was definitely too scary for me–there was an episode where a guy got laser eye surgery and they accidentally removed the layer of his eye that protects you from seeing demons, so all these demons were tormenting him because they realized that he could see them. Apparently I started having night terrors, so The Others got banned in my house. But I loved the idea that there was a hidden world all around us, even though it scared me a lot. After I saw it, I was always kind of looking for the next thing that was a little too scary for me.
I love hearing about how writers found their agents and got their book deal. Can you tell me your agent and/or book deal story?
Oh, my agent story is like The Notebook—I’ve only ever queried one agent. Right after I drafted What Big Teeth for the first time, I was feeling very confident even though the draft was in shambles, so I decided to query one agent and just see if they liked it. I saw Jennifer Azantian on a list of fantasy agents at the time, and I liked the sound of her from her website, so I sent her a query. She read the whole manuscript and wrote me a very kind letter saying it was great but it didn’t feel like something she could sell, and said I should send her my next project.
Reading her letter about the draft, I realized it needed a lot more work. So I worked on it for another three years, workshopped it in my MFA program, and sent it back to her with a note explaining that I had spent a lot of time revising this, hoping she’d read it again. I still didn’t query anyone else, because I felt like she’d been so nice to me that I should offer her first refusal now that the book didn’t stink. She emailed back immediately saying that the book had stuck with her for those three years and she was excited to read it again! And that time, she decided to represent me.
I’ve heard from other people that this is not usually how agents work, but I’ve always felt great working with Jen because I saw long ago how kind she is with people even when she’s got nothing to gain from it. I found out later that we have the same birthday, which just makes it feel more fated.
That DOES sounds like fate! Can you tell me more about your writing and revision process? Do you have any trusted beta readers or critique partners?
I’ve had a lot of different readers. Jen, my agent, was actually instrumental to shaping the manuscript. Since it was my first book, she wanted to be sure it was perfect before it reached an editor, which took a long time. Before that, I workshopped a draft of What Big Teeth in a novel workshop in my MFA program, which was an incredible experience. Most people don’t get the opportunity to workshop a whole novel, only excerpts.
When I write a book, it’s sort of an ongoing rumination on an idea, on a set of characters, on a mood, and I think what makes it good is the long cook-time to get all these layers of thought. I’ll read a draft a year after writing it for the first time and think to myself “oh, I know the answer to this question now”. I worry a little about how I’m going to do this long-term in publication, because it took me about seven or eight years to get What Big Teeth from a doodle to a final manuscript. I want all my books to feel like a good stew, not a 30-minute meal.
I like that stew metaphor! So did you always want to be a fiction writer? And was What Big Teeth your first novel, or do you have other “drawer novels”?
I’ve wanted to be an author since I wrote my first “book” around the age of eight. And I have a whole pile of drawer novels. One of them is actually going to be my second book, although I started writing it sooner. A lot of my “drawer novels” are partial drafts, but I don’t really think of them as shelved so much as simmering.
You received an MFA in Fiction Writing from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). How was that experience?
I loved it. It was three years where my primary responsibility was to learn new things. I had a teaching stipend, so I’d teach a class each semester, which put me in touch with students who were just learning how to read and write scholarly work, and I took a lot of non-creative writing classes where I read Claudia Rankine and Michel Foucault, and I conned my way into this comic book class, and I was reading other students’ writing in workshops and learning from their successes and their mistakes.
I don’t think you need an MFA to write, but I think you need to always be feeding your mind, and my MFA program gave me a lot of space to just eat voraciously from the big table of human experiences. From a labor perspective, I don’t recommend an MFA unless they’re paying you enough to live on, but I do recommend taking jobs that are learning intensive. Anything you put in your head can come out on the page.
You now teach writing at VCU. How do you balance teaching (and grading!!) with your own writing?
I tend to have on and off seasons now, in a way that I didn’t before. During the summer and winter breaks I commit to my writing, and during the semester I commit to my teaching and to my work with my labor union. I know a lot of people give the advice that you should write every day, but I think that’s a kind of Protestant Work Ethic thing and I can’t be 100% on at everything all the time. Usually as soon as my “writing season” ends, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night with some good idea of how to fix a problem in the writing, because my brain isn’t pushing so hard at it anymore.
You live in Richmond, VA, which is the third most tattooed city in America. Do you have any tattoos?
I have a few tattoos, but none are directly related to my books! I tend to get them to celebrate accomplishments. When What Big Teeth sold, I got a tattoo based on this poem by Rilke. I want more, but I have expensive tattoo tastes–I like big ones with a lot of color.
Your second book is coming out this summer. What would you like to tell us about it? And how did writing the second book compare to writing the first one?
We All Fall Down is a contemporary fantasy about a hidden city where magic exists, but it’s dying. Four young people get unwittingly sucked into playing out an ancient story with stock characters–the Hero, the Maiden, the Witch, and the Monster–in order to revive magic, but the price of magic is human sacrifice. It’s also a book about being young and trying to figure out who you are versus what people expect you to be. I’m very excited about this one from a technical perspective–it has four main characters and a bunch of different writing styles and storytelling devices that I try to make into a seamless narrative.
The fundamental difference between We All Fall Down and What Big Teeth is scale. What Big Teeth was also much smaller in scope–it’s set mostly in one house, about a family like my own. We All Fall Down is a much bigger story and a stretch for me because it’s more about my community, which is the multiracial queer community in Richmond. It took a lot more care, and it wasn’t something I could do entirely on my own. My editor helped a lot, and we hired two readers to read for specific characters’ experiences. When choosing authenticity readers we didn’t just try to hire people who had the race and gender of the characters in question, but who had similar life experiences as well. For example, one character is a Black graduate student, so we hired a reader who had experienced what it’s like to be Black in academia. I wanted to be sure that what we made here would be true, and that required multiple sets of eyes.
It sounds incredible. I’m putting it on my TBR list. Okay, finally, what’s your favorite piece of writing advice?
I get a lot out of Anne Lamott’s advice. She recommends “short assignments”, or “as much as you can see through a one-inch picture frame.” Sometimes it’s easy to get lost in the idea that you have to be able to hold the whole project in mind the whole time, but really, very big things are made of very little things, and you can make a picture of a city brick by brick.
Rose Szabo is a YA author and a writing instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University. They can be found on Twitter or at roseszabo.com. Their 2021 YA debut, What Big Teeth, was a Strand February YA Book of the Month and was reviewed by NPR. Their second novel, We All Fall Down, comes out June 2022.