Upcoming Agent Spotlight Interviews & Guest Posts

  • Rebecca Williamson Agent Spotlight Interview and Query Critique Giveaway on 7/8/2024
  • Sheila Fernley Agent Spotlight Interview, Critique Giveaway, and One-Hour Zoom Call on 7/29/2024
  • Erica McGrath Agent Spotlight Interview and Query Critique Giveaway on 8/12/2024

Agent Spotlight & Agent Spotlight Updates

  • Agent Spotlights & Interviews have been updated through the letter "K" as of 3/28/2024 and many have been reviewed by the agents. Look for more information as I find the time to update more agent spotlights.

Debut Author Interview: Laekan Kemp and Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet Giveaway

Happy Monday Everyone! Today I’m excited to have debut author Laekan Kemp here to share about her YA contemporary Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet. It sounds like a fantastic story about Pen, a Mexican-American teen trying to follow her dreams and her first love, Xander. And it has food! Being part of my late husband’s Mexican-American family, I am super excited to read it.

Here’s a blurb from Goodreads:

I'm Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
 meets Emergency Contact in this stunning story of first love, familial expectations, the power of food, and finding where you belong.

As an aspiring pastry chef, Penelope Prado has always dreamed of opening her own pastelería next to her father's restaurant, Nacho's Tacos. But her mom and dad have different plans -- leaving Pen to choose between disappointing her traditional Mexican-American parents or following her own path. When she confesses a secret she's been keeping, her world is sent into a tailspin. But then she meets a cute new hire at Nacho's who sees through her hard exterior and asks the questions she's been too afraid to ask herself.

Xander Amaro has been searching for home since he was a little boy. For him, a job at Nacho's is an opportunity for just that -- a chance at a normal life, to settle in at his abuelo's, and to find the father who left him behind. But when both the restaurant and Xander's immigrant status are threatened, he will do whatever it takes to protect his new found family and himself.

Together, Pen and Xander must navigate first love and discovering where they belong -- both within their families and their fiercely loyal Chicanx community -- in order to save the place they all call home.

Follower News

Before I get to my interview with Laekan, I have Follower News to share. JQ Rose has a new MG nonfiction release, Girls Succeed! Stories Behind the Careers of Successful Women. Here’s a blurb and a few links: Discover the inspiring stories of sixteen contemporary women who had ambitious dreams when they were girls. Find out how they made those dreams come true! Girls Succeed: Stories Behind the Careers of Successful Women includes stories about 21st-century women who have discovered cures to stamp out disease, made people laugh, earned Olympic and Paralympic gold medals and crossed the country behind the wheel of an 18-wheel semi-truck. Meet the people who mentored these dreamers and helped them to negotiate the curves and bumps along the way.

Links: BUY LINK https://books2read.com/JQRose; Blog http://www.jqrose.com/

Interview With Laekan Kemp

Hi Laekan! Thanks so much for joining us!

1. Tell us about yourself and how you became a writer.

I’ve wanted to be a writer, probably since middle school. Though I didn’t really know how one might go about pursuing a career like that. I read all of the time but knew nothing about how books were made or even all of the other people involved in the process.

And even when I went to college and decided to major in Creative Writing, I don’t remember being given any information about publishing as a business or even how to get an agent. It was all focused on workshop and the only opportunities for publication that were really discussed were submitting to literary journals and anthologies and things like that.

Commercial fiction had zero presence. It was like it didn’t exist. So it took another, almost ten years after that, for me to learn on my own about the publishing industry and genre fiction and Kid lit specifically. But once I’d found the Kidlit community I was like, okay these are my people, and I knew that was where my work belonged.

2. Funny how you had to learn about publishing on your own. Where did you get the idea for Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet?

Honestly, there are so many pieces of me in this story. Pen's mental health struggles mirror the mental health journey I've been on since my late teens & the conflict with her parents comes from those same late teen / early college years when my father was sick, my mother & I weren't getting along & it felt like my entire world was falling apart.

The setting of the restaurant has more joyful origins & was inspired by my partner's hilarious stories of working in a restaurant in our hometown. I loved all of their quirky traditions & inside jokes & wanted to use that environment to explore this idea of found families & belonging. And there are actually some scenes in the book that happened in real life and some secondary characters too that are based on real people.

When it comes to Xander’s character, he was actually inspired by my former students. I was an ESL teacher and most of my students were immigrants from central and south America. And so I’ve gotten to see up close what it’s like for them and their families to navigate our ridiculous immigration system. And yet through it all they are so resilient and so hopeful. I wanted to capture that in Xander’s character.

3. That’s cool that you were able to draw on your own experiences so much. I read on your website that your mission in your writing is to make people love Mexican-American food. And readers can even download Pen’s recipe cards on your website. I love that! Why is the emphasis on food so important in your writing?

When the male protagonist, Xander, is walking up to the restaurant for his first day of work, he’s kind of going through the mythology of Nacho’s Tacos and talking about the reputation that it has within the community and how there are certain dishes on the menu that can help with certain ailments, whether that’s physical or emotional or spiritual.

So the food in the book carries a lot of meaning. First and foremost, I see it as a symbol for our cultural roots through which we derive so much strength. And especially for those of us who are Chicane and exist on the peripheries of our own culture, not born in our ancestral home, food is one of the ways that we stay connected to that power source.

But it’s also meant to show the ways in which we all have gifts to share with others. You can feed the people you love through all sorts of things. Your time. Your encouragement. Your creativity. I’d love for readers to see how Pen uses her skills in the kitchen to care for her community and to be inspired to use their own gifts the same way.

4. I also read that you like to write about identity, Mexican-American culture, and characters who are straddling two worlds. Share how this weaved this into the struggles that Pen and Xander face in your story.

So not only did I grow up in a mixed-race household but I’m also fourth generation so my personal experience is very different from someone who is first generation or recently immigrated, and I would say that when it comes to traditional Mexican family values and expectations, there’s a spectrum depending on where you fall within the diaspora, how long your family has been in the U.S., whether or not your family had a difficult time assimilating--I mean all sorts of things can play into that expectations a parent has for their child.

I think Pen’s experience with her parents is more similar to the experience my mom and her siblings had with my grandparents than the experience I had at Pen’s age. But that makes sense to me because for my mom and her siblings there was more at stake. My grandparents were not wealthy. They had a lot, but by societal standards, also had very little. And ever since my great-great grandparents arrived in Texas it has been the responsibility of every generation to make sure life would be better for the generation that would come after.

So that was the focus and sometimes it can be a very narrow one. But when the stakes are your family’s ability to not just live, but thrive, it means that distractions are dangerous. But that’s also a very stressful and difficult way to live because people from marginalized communities are not supposed to thrive.

So if that’s your goal you’re going to come up against absolutely everything that systemic oppression has to throw at you. And Pen’s parents know this fight well. They know the generations of sacrifices that have led to Pen having the privilege to be able to go to school. All of the sacrifices that have been made to mitigate risk. To give Pen a sense of security that her ancestors may not have had.

And here Pen is, wanting to make her own choices; to take her own risks. And her parents are absolutely terrified.

On the other hand, we have Xander, who is also fighting against expectations, though his are more societal. That risk-mitigating Pen’s ancestors have been practicing for generations, we’re watching Xander practice it in real time. He knows he has to move through the world a certain way because of his status, because of his accent, because of his skin color. And we see how exhausting and scary that is for him.

He knows that there are so many people out there who would discard him without a second thought and this toxic belief about himself, which is fed by the racism he encounters on a regular basis, in turn feeds his own fears about being rejected by his father who he is desperate to find.

And so all of these expectations that are imposed on these two characters and that are truly in opposition to their true selves, only help to perpetuate this cycle of oppression. And it isn’t until that oppressive force in the story, the antagonist, is temporarily removed, that Pen, Xander, and their families can put down their armor. Even if it’s just for a moment before they have to put it back it on. And before they have to go back to navigating a world that wasn’t made for them and would maybe prefer they not exist at all.

5. What are some of your tips on writing a contemporary story and making it a page turner like it sounds like you did in Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet?

I have always been drawn to writing dual-POV, especially in romance. I just think it’s so much fun to be inside both character’s heads as they’re falling in love. And I actually think it’s my secret weapon when it comes to getting the pacing just right. If things are slowing down plot-wise with one character, I can just jump to the next and keep things moving.

I’m never getting bogged down in a single narrative and that switching back and forth helps to keep things fresh. I think that translates to the reading experience too so that at the end of each chapter you can’t wait to return to that POV or to see how the events of the next section will be influenced by what came before.

6. I never thought how dual POV characters could keep the pacing tight, but you’re right. One focus of your story is the romance between Pen and Xander. Did the growth of their relationship come easy or hard to you? Why? What advice do you have on writing kissing scenes that some writers (like me) find hard to write?

If kissing scenes don’t come naturally to you, you shouldn’t feel like you have to include them. There are lots of different ways to build intimacy beyond just physical touch and I think it’s important to write from a POV you feel comfortable exploring and I try to keep this in mind when crafting every aspect of my romantic relationships--that I’m first and foremost being true to myself and the kinds of romances I like to read about.

Because of this, I feel like I also take a unique approach in that my couples don’t typically follow that formula of falling in love, breaking up, and then getting back together. First, I just think that’s so stressful, and second, it goes back to my own experience of finding comfort and solace in my own relationship and wanting to show that on the page.

I want my protagonists to have their own individual story threads and their own emotional journeys to go on and for the romantic relationship to be a source of comfort and strength that aids them on that journey. And that’s how I make room for the exploration of all of these other things. Because instead of the relationship being a source of conflict in the story, it’s a positive force. It’s a means of self-discovery, and for Pen and Xander specifically, a way to see themselves in a different light.

Xander shows Pen that she doesn’t need her father’s restaurant to feed and heal her community or to feed and heal herself. And Pen shows Xander that families are something you make just as much as they’re something you’re born into and that those bonds are just as worth fighting for.

And they’re able to illuminate these things for each other because they are different and they don’t see the world through the same lens. And to me, that’s the power of romance, and the power of authentic relationships in general. The best ones will always help us learn and grow and get closer to the person we’re supposed to be.

7. Your agent is Andrea Morrison. How did she become your agent and what was your road to publication like?

I wrote my first book when I was seventeen during my senior year of high school. Something had happened recently in my personal life and in hindsight writing that first book was just my way of processing that experience emotionally.

During undergrad I actually finished that novel and with the help of one of my professors I queried it and I got a mix of form rejections and personalized rejections, which was really encouraging. I also entered a short story contest at the same time and I ended up winning. I think the prize was just like $100 or something but you also had the opportunity to pitch something else like a novel. So I sent off the book and they sent back an offer but when I showed it to my professor he was like, “uh, no.” They were a small press and so they weren’t offering me an advance and my professor was like, no. If they can’t even offer you something in the five-figures for a full-length novel then they’re basically operating as a vanity press and those kinds of places tend to be very predatory so it’s best to just steer clear of them.

So I did. I stayed far, far away from them and moved on to another project.

After that, I graduated and my partner and I moved to Florida so he could finish school. While we were there many of my coworkers at this Data Analysis company I was working for were also artists. Some were writers. Some were graphic designers. Some were in bands. And none of them were going the traditional route for whatever it was they were making. It was all DIY and that is kind of how I got turned on to self-publishing.

I was learning more about the industry, particularly Kidlit, and I realized that me writing Latinx protagonists could have played a role in the rejections I had been receiving. Mind you, this was 2012, so it was a different time. It was before #WeNeedDiverseBooks and before DVPit and before this push for more diverse characters.

So I made the decision to self-publish that first novel and over the next four years I ended up self-publishing a total of seven books, including a paranormal romance series which actually gained me an audience, which was so unexpected and so exciting. By 2015 I was making more money from self-publishing than my two jobs (a full-time job and a part-time job) combined.

And you’d think that I would take that as a sign and maybe quit those jobs and start writing full time but I did not do that. Instead of going after this dream of being an author full force I went back to school to get a Master’s degree in Education and become a teacher.

I loved my students but I hated everything else. It’s a very difficult career that conditions you to take abuse day in and day out and after about three years of that I was an absolute wreck. My stress began to manifest physically and it was just awful.

So in December of 2018 I wrote this very emotional blog post about how I was going to finally chase after my dream of being a published author in earnest and I was so serious about it I even gave myself a timeline. I made this online declaration that I was giving myself 18 months to make the transition to writing full time. I didn’t have a book deal yet. I didn’t even have an agent. But I was so done with my current circumstances that I just went all in.

And I’ve blogged more specifically about the things I did during this time to get me closer to my goal so I won’t get into all of those details. But there were a few significant choices I made that I think made all the difference.

First, I paid for a 100-page manuscript critique with Eric Smith and I used his feedback to cut over 20,000 words and completely overhaul the story. Then I participated in DVPit that spring--this was now 2019--and I got my agent, Andrea Morrison, in May and my book deal in June.

But the absolute best part of this story is what happened this past summer, which is that I quit my teaching job due to the pandemic, and without even realizing it I met that 18-month deadline that I had set for myself back in December of 2018. So affirmations definitely work. Visualization works. All of it works.

8. That’s great that you met your deadline without even realizing you were doing it. You’ve already been a speaker at some book festivals and at ALA Midwinter and have other upcoming events listed on your website. How were you able to get these opportunities to share about your book?

A lot of these opportunities came about because my publisher and publicist chose to prioritize them and pitch me for these events. So I’m really lucky that they are trying to get me in front of as many people as possible to talk about my book because not every publisher who acquires a book makes that kind of effort in terms of marketing and publicity. But I’ve also come to realize that some opportunities can arise simply because you’ve been kind to the right people. People remember kindness so whenever you have a chance to meet someone new or be introduced to someone else in the industry, just remember to be kind. It really does go a long way.

9. How are you planning to market your book? What advice do you have for other writers who will have a debut book release in the future?

A few special things that I did on my own, without the publisher’s help, were sending personalized postcards to Latinx librarians and independent bookstores in cities with a large Latinx population. I also sent release day treats to certain indie bookstores using a website called goldbelly. And I also created two giveaway opportunities tied to my launch event--one for a curated gift basket full of goodies to pair with the reading of the book and a class set of the books for a local teacher.

Time will tell if these things actually made an impact but they were (mostly) a lot of fun and I think that’s really important to consider when planning your own promo. Don’t give yourself a bunch of homework you’ll dread doing, especially when you could be using that time to write. So make sure you choose things you actually enjoy doing so that you can consider it a success whether or not it actually leads to sales.

10. What are you working on now?

My sophomore novel is another Young Adult Contemporary Romance, also told on dual-POV. This time it focuses on two musicians who have terrible stage fright, which keeps ruining their plans of auditioning for the music school of their dreams.

They’ve also both experienced the death of a parent, which feeds into the fears they have about failure and rejection. So it’s a story about grief and about the healing power of art, especially music.

And it actually takes place in the same neighborhood as SBB&S so in addition to watching these two characters go through this painful but also hopeful journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance, we also get to see how the neighborhood as a whole is continuing to deal with gentrification and police brutality and other very BIPOC-specific experiences of trauma.

But even though it explores some dark topics, just like with SBB&S, this story is infused with a lot of hope, which is something I really try to emphasize. I never want to dump a bunch of really heavy stuff on readers, particularly young readers, with no light at the end of the tunnel.

So there’s a big climactic scene near the end of the book that feels very reminiscent of the block party scene in SBB&S, though it’s not quite a party. But, there are lots of similarities between the two books. I consider them more companion novels. So if people enjoyed SBB&S I definitely think they’ll enjoy my next book too.

Thanks for sharing all your advice, Laekan! You can find Laekan at:





Giveaway Details

Laekan has generously offered a hardback of Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet for a giveaway. To enter, all you need to do is be a follower of my blog (via the follower gadget, email, or bloglovin’ on the right sidebar) and leave a comment by May 1st. If your e-mail is not on your Google Profile, you must leave it in the comments to enter the contest. Please be sure I have your email address.

If you mention this contest on Twitter, Facebook, or your blog and/or follow me on Twitter, mention this in the comments and I'll give you an extra entry for each. You must be 13 years old or older to enter. The giveaway is U.S.

Upcoming Interviews and Giveaways

Monday, April 26th I’m reviewing and giving away Rescue, a MG historical by Jennifer Nielsen, one of my favorite authors

Tuesday, May 4th I’m participating in the Life’s a Beach Giveaway Hop

Wednesday, May 5th I have an interview with debut author Daniel Aleman and a giveaway of his YA contemporary about immigration Indivisible and a query critique by his agent Peter Knapp and my IWSG post

Monday, May 10th I have a guest post by author Jessica Lawson with a giveaway of her MG fantasy How to Save a Queendom and a query critique by her agent Tina Dubois

Wednesday, May 12th I have an agent spotlight interview with Joyce Sweeney and a query critique giveaway

Sunday, May 16th I’m participating in the Moms Rock Giveaway Hop

Monday, May 17th I have an interview with debut author Payal Doshi and a giveaway of her MG fantasy set in India Rea and the Blood of the Nectar

Wednesday, May 18th I have an agent spotlight interview with Michelle Hauck and a query critique giveaway

Monday, May 26th I have a guest post with agent Maura Kye-Casella and debut author Sam Subity with a query critique giveaway by Maura and a giveaway of The Last Shadow Warrior, a MG fantasy by Sam

Hope to see you on Monday!


nashvillecats2 said...

Always much going on here Natalie, I loved the interview and also the giveaway news.
Take care.

Brenda said...

Congratulations to Laekan Kemp on the debut of Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet! Her book sounds amazing. Enjoyed the interview and hope you have a lovely week Natalie.

Joanne R. Fritz said...

Wonderful interview, Natalie and Laekan! I enjoyed learning more about Laekan, especially about teaching and self-publishing before setting that 18-month goal for herself -- and making it! I have a copy of Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet on my TBR stack. Can't wait to read it. (Natalie, please let someone else win the giveaway copy!)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

There is a lot to consider with bi-racial characters, culture, and immigration. Everyone in that situation hits it at a different level depending on time and experience.

J.Q. Rose said...

Congratulations to Laekan. I love books including food. Offering recipes so the reader can create the dish is a great idea! Thank you, Natalie, for including Girls Succeed! in the Follower News. Thank you for your support!
JQ Rose

Jemi Fraser said...

Sounds like a fabulous story - and I adore the title. It says so much about the tone of the book.

Fundy Blue said...

This book sounds awesome, Natalie; and thank you, Laekan, for providing fascinating insight into your book and writing journey.

Liz A. said...

Sounds like a great book and the kind of thing the kiddos around here would enjoy.

Jenni said...

I really like that it's set in a restaurant and what Laeken said about her mission as a writer! This sounds like a fantastic read!

ken ohl said...

this book looks very intriguing would love to take a look at this

Danielle H. said...

I agree that dual POV for romances especially are fun to read and a great way to get to know each character much better. Plus it adds tension as the reader knows more about a character than the other one does. I have this book on my TBR. Thank you for the interview and chance to win a copy of this exciting novel that will let me learn about a new culture. I follow Natalie on Twitter.

Sandra Cox said...

Great interview and giveaway. Wishing Laekan much success and you a wonderful day:)

cleemckenzie said...

Thanks again for the wonderful interview and giveaway. Loved seeing JQ's newest non-fiction among the other books.

tetewa said...

Congrats on your release always love finding and reading new authors! Best of luck to you!

Leela said...

I'm an email subscriber.

Nick Wilford said...

Great interview, Laekan has lots of excellent advice for writers. It's good that she feeds in lots of real life to her books, which I'm sure makes them more authentic.

Rosi said...

I can't imagine writing in two points of view. Good for Laekan! It sounds like a terrific book. I will pass on the giveaway. Buried in books here. Thanks for the post.

Yolanda Renée said...

What a great interview! Laekan, is an amazing individual and she has a very inspiring story. I loved hearing about her writing journey.

Angie Quantrell said...

This sounds like a great story! I loved reading the interview about Laeken's road to publication. Congratulations, Laeken!

I shared this on Twitter, where I also follow you. angelecolline at yahoo dot com

Megan said...

This book looks amazing (not entering the giveaway) :)

Bethany said...

this book sounds amazing and I'd love to win!! bethany.hensel@gmail.com.

Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction said...

How interesting that Kemp majored in Creative Writing, but they gave their students no advice on the publishing industry. Glad she figured it out on her own!

Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

Patsy said...

It's odd how many of those who teach writing give little information about what to do with the completed work.