(Editor’s note: NonDoc’s Author Umbrella interviews up-and-coming writers, particularly authors of color, authors of disability and LGBTQ+ authors. The interviews have been transcribed and lightly edited for length and clarity.)
This installment of the Author Umbrella series features an interview with author Jenna Miller. Miller recently spoke to NonDoc about her debut queer, body-positive love story, Out of Character, which hits bookstores today.
A quick synopsis of the novel:
If you asked 17-year-old Cass Williams to describe herself, she’d happily tell you she’s fat, queer, and obsessed with the Tide Wars books. What she won’t tell you—or anyone in her life—is that she’s part of an online Tide Wars role-play community. Sure, it’s nerdy as hell, but when she’s behind the screen writing scenes as Captain Aresha, she doesn’t have to think about her mother who walked out or how unexpectedly stressful it is dating resident cool girl Taylor Cooper.
But secretly retreating to her online life is starting to catch up with Cass. For one, no one in her real life knows her secret role-play addiction is the reason her grades have taken a big hit. Also? Cass has started catching feelings for Rowan Davies, her internet bestie…and Taylor might be catching on.
As Cass’s lies continue to build, so does her anxiety. Role-playing used to be the one place she could escape to, but this double life and offline-online love triangle have only made things worse. Cass must decide what to do—be honest and risk losing her safe space or keep it a secret and put everything else on the line.
Inspired by your own love of role-playing, Out of Character has been referred to as Dumplin’ meets Geekerella. Like your character Cass, you are a longtime member of the role-playing community. Did you ever get to meet any of your online friends. If so, what was that like?
I have met several of my online friends, and it’s always such a delight! It’s so magical going from screens to IRL for the first time and seeing just how in sync you are in person as you are online. You already know each other well by then, so it’s just this instant connection of everything clicking into place, and it’s like you’ve been friends in person the entire time.
In many cultures, owning a black cat is viewed as good luck. While perusing your Instagram to research for this interview, I saw at one time, you had the good fortune of owning two. It got me curious. Did either of them inspire the creation of Out of Character’s cat, Mr. Tuttles?
I love your research skills! The black cats are Sugar and Spice, and they live with my dad and stepmom. We sadly lost Spice a few years ago, but Sugar is still hanging out and living her best life.
But to answer the question, Mr. Tuttles is actually inspired by my best friend Brian’s cat, Nigel. He’s also a chunky ginger cat, full of personality and chirpy language. And like Mr. Tuttles, he’s certain he’s the main character of every story.
It’s always a thrill to me to go through an author’s old posts and see the moment when a story is born. You had written some previous books, including a YA fantasy through NaNoWriMo. Then, in May 2018, you met Puddin’ author Julie Murphy and said, “Their writing has inspired me to take mine to a place I’ve previously not dared to go.” Seventeen months later, Out of Character was complete: a queer, body-positive story set in the upper Midwest. From seeing Out of Character grow from an idea to words on a page to an actual published book, what has been your favorite aspect of the writing and publishing process?
Julie Murphy is the best and such an inspiration to me. Reading her stories about fat main characters who don’t hold back really pushed me in a direction where I felt ready to do something similar. And I think that’s been the most fun for me, creating a character who has so much strength and personality and joy.
I wasn’t comfortable with my body when I was young, and I didn’t realize I was a lesbian until I was 30. Writing a main character who’s accepting of her size and sexuality was cathartic for me in many ways. Even though I wrote the character, Cass helped me feel the same about myself, and that’s been really special.
I’ll have you know that one of the top recommended Google searches under Jenna Miller is “Tater Tot Hotdish Recipe.” What is the significance of the hotdish recipe, and more importantly, can you share the recipe with NonDoc readers?
I didn’t know that about the search result, and I love it! Totdish comes from my upbringing and has a special place in my heart. My dad’s friend gave him the recipe when he and my mom got divorced, and he needed some good staple recipes to make for us. We’ve been obsessed with it ever since.
And the recipe is incredibly simple!
The ingredients are:
- One pound ground beef
- One can (10.5 oz) cream of mushroom soup
- One can (10.5 oz) cream of celery soup
- One can (15 oz) cream-style corn
- One bag frozen tater tots
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F
- Brown the ground beef, drain
- In a bowl, combine the ground beef, soups, and corn
- Spray a 9″ by 13″ baking dish and add half of the tater tots as a bottom layer
- Pour the mixture over the tater tots, then add the rest of the Tater Tots on top
- Bake for 1 hour and enjoy!
One of the main themes of Out of Character is body positivity, which is so important, particularly for young people bombarded by social media. How do you think Cass’ journey will resonate with young adult readers, and what questions do you hope Out of Character spurs?
I really wanted to write a story that shows a fat teenager who is living her life just like anyone else. It’s important to see people valid at any size, no matter what their lifestyle is like. You don’t need to be “healthy” to be viewed as worthy of basic decency and respect. For young readers, I want them to feel seen and heard by this story and know that they deserve to always feel that way no matter what size they are, what their identity is, etc.
You’re an avid cross stitcher. (My personal favorites are your mini-Bob Ross and the Beyonce quote: Twirl on them haters.) We all know that writing can be super stressful. Are you cross stitching anything fun to unwind as your debut approaches?
I actually haven’t worked on anything in a while! Most of my unwinding time lately has been spent reading. The last cross-stitch project I worked on was something for my writing group, which involved creating 12 pieces (one for each of us). After that, I needed a break. I hope to get back to it soon and make something fun. I’m taking suggestions!