Cemetery Boys: A Conversation with YA Author Aiden Thomas

We talked to debut author Aiden Thomas about his groundbreaking, YA paranormal romance debut: Cemetery Boys.

Author Aiden Thomas and the Cover of Cemetery Boys
Photo: Swoon Reads

Aiden Thomas’ upcoming YA debut, Cemetery Boys, is not only breaking new ground when it comes to explorations of trans identity and Latinx culture, it’s also a riveting, romantic read filled with paranormal wonder. The #OwnVoices novel follows Yadriel, a trans boy determined to prove his gender to his traditional Latinx family, who all happen to be brujx, with the ability to see spirits. When Yadriel’s cousin is murdered, Yadriel decides to solve the mystery of what happened as a way to convince his family to accept his identity as a brujo. But when, instead of summoning the ghost of his cousin, Yadriel accidentally summons the ghost of (very cute) school “bad boy” Julian, who refuses to leave, Yadriel’s mission becomes much more complicated… especially once he realizes he might not want Julian to go.

We had the chance to talk with Thomas to find out what it was like to build the world of Cemetery Boys, the novel’s ambitions as “empowering escapism for marginalized readers,” and what it’s like writing during 2020.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Den of Geek: This is a very broad, generic question, but do you remember where the idea for this story first started? Was it a character? Was it a scene? Was it a feeling? Can you think back to that moment of inspiration?

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Aiden Thomas: I know the exact moment of inspiration for the book itself. On Tumblr I follow a lot of writing prompt blogs, and one of the blogs posted just a sentence prompt, and the prompt was, “What would you do if you summoned a ghost and you couldn’t get rid of it?” And you see people commenting and stuff and they’re like, “Oh, this super spooky, scary thing.” And I was like, “Okay, but what if he was cute?” And so that’s where the idea came from.

And then I was like, “OK, well, if we’re talking about death and magic, what does that mean to me?” And, as a Latinx person, death and magic is Día de Muertos, right? Day of the Dead. So from there I was like, “Okay, yeah. This could totally work.”

The real inspiration for how the magic system works and the rules and everything that’s laid out is intrinsically related to Día de Muertos. All of the magic stuff that happens in Cemetery Boys revolves around our actual beliefs about how the afterlife works and what Día de Muertos means and bringing our ancestors back. So it was kind of just taking all of this magic around Día de Muertos and just making it literal magic.

So you have this initial idea. (Thank you, Tumblr.) How long ago was that, and what did the process, the evolution of that idea look like? Was it fast? Was it slow?

Oh my gosh. Yeah. Technically Cemetery Boys was actually my option book. The first book that I wrote and sold is Lost in the Never Woods, which is coming out in 2021. So I got all the way through two copy edits for Lost in the Never Woods and then I started bugging my editor. I was like, “Option books, what do you think about that? When do we start talking about that?” And she was like, “Okay, Aiden. There’s no rush. If you want to kick me some ideas, go ahead.” And I was like, “Okay!” And so it was really funny because I believe I sent her five ideas. One of them was like, here’s a full outline, I have 50 pages written, and here’s a synopsis. And then as the ideas went they just kind of got smaller and less detailed. And Cemetery Boys was the last one. And it was, I think, a paragraph, maybe a paragraph and a half. And most of them ended in question marks, the sentences. Because I was like, “Well, maybe it could be this.” And the other thing is that I was really nervous about pitching a book with a trans character and that was entirely Latinx.

The whole book is an entirely Latinx cast. So I always find that kind of funny looking back on it that I was asking permission, to like, “Can I write this? Is this okay? Am I allowed to do this? Seriously, not a big deal. Just maybe.” And then so when she replied, she was like, “Yeah, that’s the one that we want!” And I was like, “Really! Okay.” And then so they needed it fast-drafted. So this is kind of a crazy story. Not last November, but the November before that is when I pitched the idea, and then we got the contract signed. And so it was January where I actually started writing it. It was sold on, what is it called? It was sold with just the synopsis and I think 25 pages or whatever. So I had to actually write the book. I had to write it in six weeks.

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Wow.

Yeah. I wrote the rough draft in six weeks. And pretty quickly after my editor got that first draft she was like, “We think that this should be your debut instead.” And I was like, “Ugh, God!” I was like, “Okay.” Even though I went through all this work with the other book. So it was super fast tracked. And, gosh, when did I send it off to copy edits? Everything was done super quickly in like six months or something, which was a crazy turnaround time compared to Lost in the Never Woods, which I wrote during grad school, so it was like three years and then a year of doing edits with my editor. So it was super crazy. It was a very quick turnaround.

Well, you did it!

You mentioned when you were sending those initial pitches that you were already kind of not even totally allowing yourself permission to lead with this even. For a variety of reasons. And I’m curious, during the process of writing it, did you feel yourself having to push back against that? I don’t know, feeling like you have to reel it back in from the story you truly want to tell because you’re afraid it won’t ever make it to readers? Did that continue as you were writing?

Not so much in the terms of like, “How queer could I make this? How brown can I make this?” I kind of just went full into it as soon as they gave me permission. Then I was like, “Okay, well you already paid me, so here I go!” You know? I think where I got the most anxiety around it was I was really concerned about writing a depiction of whether it’s of someone who’s gay, of someone who’s trans, and/or someone who’s Latinx was that some kind of my internalized “isms” and phobias would come out onto the page and be harmful to young readers. That is what held me up the most and caused me a lot of anxiety. So that was really difficult, and when it came time to start going to copy edits, I emailed my editor and I was like, “I really feel like I need authenticity readers.” I was like, “I know that I’m literally every part of this character’s identity, but I’m really worried about me writing something that’s accidentally problematic. And they were super receptive, and I think I got three sensitivity readers for the main parts that I wanted to hit.

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And they did catch a couple of things. Nothing major, but small things that you just don’t realize. And I think sometimes marginalized creators, they’re like, “Well, this is my truth, so I can write it. I don’t need anyone else to double check me,” or whatever. But for me, that was really important, because I was really, really worried about it.

I was going to ask you about authenticity readers. What was the process like for finding people?

The people I found were on Twitter. So, Twitter’s been a huge resource. I didn’t join Twitter until I sold my first book. And then all of a sudden I was like, “Oh, there’s an entire writing community here. Go figure.” So what I did was that I was basically scrolling through Twitter and people that I follow. I found one person, and I was like, “Great, that fills this one section.” But I still had these other two, so I actually put out a call on my Twitter, and I was like, “Hey, I’m looking for some authenticity readers in these sections, and this is the experience that I’m looking at.” Instead of just having random people being like, “Oh, well I’m brown, so I can read it.” And then I found people super quick, and I sent them to my editor, and then my editor reached out to them. So it was actually pretty easy, especially on Twitter. The community is so responsive and those LinkedIn type connections almost really, really helped find those authenticity readers. It was awesome.

Your characters and your community that you’re mostly featuring here are bilingual. But you’re also writing this book in part for people who don’t speak Spanish. I’m curious what it was like balancing that. And again, making sure it maybe is marketable to a certain extent versus staying true to the experience of these characters and for those readers who also live in a bilingual, in their community. Making sure they see some sort of authenticity on that as well.

Yeah, it’s almost about accessibility, is what we’re talking about. Having those experiences and those words even being accessible to people who speak Spanish and people who speak English and people who do both. And for me, I pretty unapologetically use a lot of Spanish in a way that I thought was realistic to when I was growing up and living around families and how the younger generations tend to use more English and then use more Spanish around their families. And so for me, it was more of a challenge in craft. What I did is that I very unapologetically used Spanish, but when I do that I am hopefully careful to give enough context clues so that even if you have no idea what those words mean, you understand the meaning and the thought behind it. So even if you don’t know explicitly what a sentence means, judging by the character’s reactions or internal monologue, that point gets across either way. So you can absolutely go ahead and Google it if you want to, but it’s also there. That was something very conscious I did going through the process being like, “Okay, I need to make sure that I’m writing this in a way that it’s accessible from all kinds of readers.”

I’m curious about the decision to set the book in east L.A. Was it always set there?

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Yes, it was always in east L.A. I was born and raised in Oakland, California, so I spent pretty much my whole life in California. I moved up here three and a half years ago. And what I love so much about east L.A. is that it reminds me a lot of Oakland in terms of socioeconomic status and definitely in community. It’s super diverse, and east L.A. is kind of like a central hub that a lot of Latinx communities gravitate towards to. And it’s not necessarily just one Latinx community. And for me, it was really important that the brujx were this conglomeration of multiple different Latinx identities. I didn’t want it to be just one, because I wanted this whole myth and this magic to supersede the creation of countries. It’s very much just Mesoamerican.

So east L.A. is really the perfect place for that, and I wanted to touch base on things like kids who are living on the poverty line and kids who are living on the streets. And for me all of those things, it just screamed east L.A. and I love east L.A. is the other thing, is that it’s a very dear place to me in my heart. So I was like, “Yeah, let me write this little love letter to east L.A. and show others.” That city can be so stereotyped by people and I really wanted to break down some of those barriers and show how really beautiful it is. And the community there is just so incredible.

I’m curious if your experiences as an EMT informed this story at all.

Yeah, that’s really funny. Being an EMT in Oakland, it was a crash course in a lot of things. And a big part of it was what it means to serve your community and what your community looks like. Especially in times of dire stress. So, yeah that definitely informed it. I feel like anytime I tell EMT stories I just traumatize my family. So I’m trying to think, “Well, how can I?” But I had a lot of experiences as an EMT, when you show up on scene, especially when there’s kids involved, that you really see the bad things. Like the panic and stuff like that, but also the coming together of a community. I’m a pretty literal, logical person, but there’s some things that I saw that happened when I was an EMT when there was just like a miracle, but I know that those aren’t a thing. But it’s like, well some kind of magic happened there, because that’s crazy! One time I had a child who was going, basically, and the grandmother pushed through and put her hand on him and started praying and then he came back. And I was like, “What the heck is happening!”

So it’s like that kind of magic, you know what I mean? So stuff like that definitely inspired it. And I’ve always been very community focused. That’s why I liked being an EMT so much. And so again, it kind of comes back to that love of the community, which is what Cemetery Boys is for me.

Yeah, it’s nice to get these stories that, I don’t know, there’s so many “chosen one” stories in our mainstream culture. And that’s not normally how positive change seems to happen in the world.

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Cemetery Boys features a Latinx, gay, trans boy protagonist. A first in the YA space. And I think a lot of people have already noted or assumed that this is going to be a story that for a lot of different people, they see parts of their identity reflected back for the first time maybe in a mainstream cultural space. And I’m curious if you can remember the first time you felt that in any way, one of your identities reflected back in a mainstream story for maybe the first time in either a big or small way.

Yeah. It’s funny because I get that question a lot. And when I first started answering, it was kind of like, “When was the first time you saw yourself represented in media?” And for a very long time I was like, “Ugh, I just got to come up with something.” Like, “I’ll just pull this one, I don’t know!” And then I was like, “Well, Aiden, you know what? That’s actually a valid thing to discuss.” So I have never seen myself reflected in media. My whole self, rather. And so when I wrote Cemetery Boys, I was like, “Yeah, let’s have it be all of me.” For me, I was like, “I’m writing this because I haven’t seen myself. So now I’m going to see myself.” And then other people can see themselves who are like me. I didn’t really think of it as, “Oh, this is going to be the first of that.” Until ARCs started going out, and then people were like, “Oh, the first one.” And I was like, “Oh no, I didn’t want that!” I was like, “Wait, no! It’s far too much stress. Too much pressure.” So that was challenging and terrifying.

But as far as parts of my identity goes, Anna-Marie McLemore, their books have absolutely spoken to me. I actually have a stack of them right next to me with all my other books. When the Moon Was Ours in particular, that one was the first time, was definitely the first time I’d ever seen a trans boy in a book, and that was really cool, and it was by a Latinx author, so that was the closest I’ve gotten to and it was life changing, of course. And that’s a pretty recent book. So it’s not like I was a teenager being like, “Oh, finally. Here I am.” I was like, “No, I’m a grown ass adult looking at this teenager in a book.” And I’m like, “Oh my God, finally!” It does feel important to have that answer, create that space for being like, “I haven’t seen myself fully.”

Did you always know this was a love story?

Oh, yeah. I guessed that as soon as I saw that prompt. And I was like, “But then what if you fell in love with the ghost and he was really cute?” So, yeah, it was definitely always a love story. That maybe even came before I figured out what the plot was. And Julian’s character has been a character that I’ve played with in short stories and stuff for 15 years. So that was very easy, coming up with the love interest. I was like, “I already know who he is.” I need to meet Yadriel, though.

Yeah, so that’s always interesting. Especially when it’s your main character. I feel like they’re the hardest to get into their heads and really understand who they are, because you’re not just thinking about what they’re projecting as in a love interest or secondary characters. You’re in their head. So it’s a lot more complicated.

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Cemetery Boys cover

Okay, well I want to talk about the book cover, because it’s amazing. Can you talk about the process of having it happen?

Yeah, totally. When it came time for figuring out the book covers, at that point, sorry I just did something weird. It was like shaking at me. For the cover, I think it was around where we started going to copy edits. They were like, “Oh, we’re going to kick you some artists.” And I was like, “Okay.” I was kind of stressed out about the cover, because I’ve heard so many horror stories from people being like, “Oh my God, it went so wrong. And I hate my cover.” And for Swoon Reads, typically the public gets to vote on the cover, so you really don’t have any say. But for Cemetery Boys, they decided that they weren’t going to do the cover voting, that they just wanted to create a cover and they were really cool about letting me be part of that process. And so the first thing that they did that surprised me was that they emailed me and they were like, “Hey Aiden, we’re moving towards working on the cover. Here’s some cover artists, can you tell us who you’d most like to work with?” And I was like, “Okay, cool.”

So even before I opened it, when I very first started drafting Cemetery Boys, I found Mars Lauderbaugh on Tumblr, and I followed them because I was obsessed with their fan art of Haikyuu and Voltron. And so I had actually commissioned them to do character art back when Cemetery Boys wasn’t even a thing. So I was emailing Mars, I was like, “Hello, I’m a writer, and can you draw my [original characters] for me?” And Mars was like, “Sure, yeah. Here you go.” And then it kind of progressed and I was like, “Hey, it’s getting turned into a book, could you do my character art for me?” And they were like, “Oh, yeah.” And then when I got this list of artists, the first thing that I noticed, which was so cool, was that Macmillan/Swoon had only picked artists who were artists of color and/or trans. And that was amazing and blew my mind. And then I saw that they had included Mars on the list because they had seen the character art, and so I was like, “Yes, yes! Please, Mars, Mars, Mars!” And then so they reached out to Mars, and Mars became my cover artist, and now all of my swag and stuff matches and it just blew my mind. There was three original versions of the cover, so I got to see what those looked like. And they picked my favorite one. Yeah, it was so cool.

And I was nerding out so bad. And being in publishing, I’m very much of the mind of as I’m entering this space, I’m trying to wedge open the door and sneak in as many other people as I can. So being able to take Mars, who is doing commissions for fan art, and being able to get them a book cover deal was really important to me. And that was definitely a highlight. I have the best cover ever. It could not be better.

So had they never done a book cover before?

No, they hadn’t.

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Wow.

And they recently got an agent. It’s all very exciting.

Do you think there are other stories you’d like to tell in this world?

Definitely, yeah. When I come up with ideas and stuff, my brain just explodes and splinters out. So there’s definitely other stories that I would like to tell in this world. There’s a couple of side characters that I’m particularly attached to that I would like to explore more. I can’t say any spoilers, but I would definitely like to do a book focused on Julian even. Because, at the end of Cemetery Boys, he goes through some stuff, and it’d be really interesting to see what happens after that. So yeah, there’s always ideas. Definitely. For sure.

I think most of us are aware that a lot of things are hitting differently right now because the world’s different than it was six months ago. Do you think Cemetery Boys is going to hit differently in the world it’s coming into than the one that maybe you imagined it would be released into?

Yeah, that’s a really good question. Yeah, it’s been kind of strange. In terms of hitting different and what the market is being for, or even what readers would like, I think Cemetery Boys is definitely… It’s funny, because it deals with death and murder and stuff like that, but it’s also very lighthearted. And I would hope funny. So I’m hoping that even with all of this going on, I wrote Cemetery Boys to begin with to be a bit of empowering escapism for marginalized readers. Because even before all this, those readers have it so rough and deal with so much hate on a near constant basis. Now multiply, what, times 10, times 100. So what I am hoping is that now Cemetery Boys is even more important in terms of providing some escapism, some release. But also giving those marginalized readers a story where they see themselves as being incredibly powerful, supported, but very importantly, being loved. Even if isn’t necessarily by people who are supposed to be there for them all the time. So even if it’s not their family, found family is important, your friends are still important. So I really hope that Cemetery Boys will be able to provide some comfort, honestly. And I think now more than ever that’s especially important for young readers, for sure.

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I’m curious how your writing is going right now during this strange and often upsetting time. Has that made you want to write more? Has it led to you writing less? Has it changed the kind of things you’re writing, or how you write?

Yeah, that’s a great question. I think when I’m on Tumblr, not Tumblr, oh now I’m just talking about Tumblr all the time! When I’m on Twitter I get a weird sense of guilt or like I’m not responding the way that everyone else is, because I feel like on Twitter a lot of authors like, “I can’t write anything. How could you possibly write anything right now?” And for me, I drafted a whole other book during quarantine, or finished drafting it anyways. And so I felt weird while I was doing that, because I was like, “Oh, am I not doing this correctly? Am I being an asshole or something?” Because I’m not being super impacted by everything that’s going on. That was kind of stressful, but I finished that draft and to preface, I work in tech. My company shut down, or switched to working from home in mid March, and we’re not opening up for several months as of yesterday. So I’ve been kind of sequestered. This is my entire apartment. I live in a studio. It’s 500 square feet.

Yeah, I’ve just been here. And once I finished drafting that book, I was like “Okay!” And then off it goes to my CPs. And it was like the next day where I realized that writing that book and having that focus had my energies. A lot of other stuff wasn’t getting through, because I was hyper focused. And then as soon as I sent it off and I didn’t have that project to work on, I had three days of just really bad anxiety. And I was like, “Why do I feel so terrible? Why do I feel like I’m stuck in my fight or flight response?” And then I realized, it’s because being so focused on that book was protecting me and distracting me. And then once that was gone, then I was being hit by all these feels that everyone else has been hit by. So that’s been wild. And then so I was like, “Okay, I can recognize that this is what’s happening.” So I started picking up other projects. So I was like, “Okay! Time to distract myself.” Yeah, totally. Right. So it’s definitely had an impact, but as far as impacting my writing, my writing has actually been helping me get through it.

And I’m a really intense outliner. For my project I just finished the rough draft of, the outline was over 100 pages. So having that really strict structure of being like, “This is what’s happening next.” It’s not turning my brain off, but it’s like I don’t have to get lost. I can follow this path, I can stay on track and be focused. So that’s actually helped me during all of this.

And what are you a fan of right now? Or what are you escaping into, if anything? Other than your work.

Animal Crossing has been a big one!

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Popular one.

Yeah. Animal Crossing‘s been great. I’ve got a couple of ARCs that I need to read. So those are on the docket. Those are next to my bed right now. And I have been binging a lot of Netflix. I am on the third season of Hannibal and I just started it maybe a month ago and I’m obsessed.

So good.

So good!

Have you watched Killing Eve?

I have! Yeah, I’ve watched, I think maybe the first season. And I need to pick it back up. I just randomly fell off.

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I’m also obsessed with Hill House on Netflix. I love it so much. But how my friend talked me into watching Hannibal is they were like, “It’s very similar to Hill House. They’re both really stunning and really creepy.” And I was like, “Oh, okay. Well, when you put it that way, I’ll try it.” And now I’m super obsessed with Hannibal.

Thank you so much for talking with me. This has been a lot of fun.

Yeah, this was super awesome!

I’m excited to finish the book. It’s already brought joy into my life, so thank you for writing it.

Oh, I’m so glad. Thank you!

Cemetery Boys will be out on September 1st, but is now available for pre-order (which are super important). You can find out more about the book here. And find out more about Aiden Thomas’ work here. If you’d like to hear more from Aiden Thomas’ about Cemetery Boys, I recommend this expansive, insightful interview with Adriana on YouTube channel Perpetual Pages.