Exclusive Interview with Debut Author Heidi Voss

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Heidi Voss is an award-winning writer who has been featured in multiple anthologies and the President of the Salt City Scribes chapter of the League of Utah Writers. She aspires to help other writers with honesty and kindness by teaching workshops and making author connections far and wide. She is also dedicated to keeping her writing diverse and not feed into the white-washed culture she grew up in and instead allow others to see themselves in fiction.

In celebration of Heidi’s debut novel Frogman’s Response, today we’re going to discuss Heidi’s journey and talk a little about Frogman’s Response and her other upcoming works! Make sure to get head over and purchase a copy of this incredible debut novel by a brilliant up-and-coming author. No really, in the time it took us to coordinate this post, she has been accepted to another upcoming anthology and has started compiling an anthology of her own! Keep an eye out for Heidi, she is moving mountains right now!

Naturally, it wouldn’t be right to not do a Bookish Brews Snapshot™ of Frogman’s Response:

Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository

Title: Frogman’s Response
Author: Heidi Voss
Publisher: White Rose Press
Publication date: September 6, 2021
Genre: Contemporary

A relatable story of high schoolers navigating cyberbullying, video games and finding your people

At a glance: Matthew’s anonymous online advice posts have gotten him banned from the school’s counseling forum and brought chaos to his school. When his notebook that has unpublished advice in it goes missing, Matthew worries about everything falling apart.

  • 🍃 Easy Reading
  • ✒️ Debut Author
  • 🌱 Character Growth
  • 🥀 Flawed Characters

Read this if… you have been craving a realistic story of high school experience, if you want to reminisce on your high school days or love to play old video games

This book was definitely the most relatable high school experience I’ve ever read. I was surprised how this book brought me right back to high school, feeling uncertain and confused just like the characters were. I’ll be doing a full review of this book soon, so make sure to keep your eyes out for that! For now, let’s get into this incredible interview with Heidi Voss!

Literary Themes & Representation

Frogman’s Response deals with very important topics that don’t make it into fiction as often as they should, including mental illness as represented in hoarding disorder, cyberbullying, online anonymity, and well-intentioned advice gone wrong. What inspired you to write on these themes?

Some of these topics naturally come up in YA, like bullying. It’s hard to tell a story about a character going to a public school without the other students giving them a hard time. Writing a contemporary story about bullying is different from when I was in school, though. It used to be that people could pass around notes about you or corner you on the playground, but when you go home, you’re away from those situations. Now you can bully someone from the comfort of your own home, hiding behind a screen and connecting with a much wider audience at once. I hope when readers see a character reacting to rude comments online it makes them a little more thoughtful about the fact that a human is always on the other end of that communication.

It was also important for this main character to deal with problems at home on a different scale from what his peers are writing about in their advice requests. While they’re worried about making the cast list for the upcoming play, he’s worried about piles of boxes pushing him out of his own house. The setting contributes to that as well—I feel like hoarding disorder is something you see a lot in the Midwest, though I usually saw it on a smaller scale. And those behaviors have a huge effect on the family members of that household. In shows, we see a lot of spectacle around taking an overstuffed home and reorganizing it, but most of these homes aren’t on a reality show. They’re sometimes lifelong struggles between someone bringing items into a home and family members begging them to stop. I wanted to bring forward someone on the other end of that struggle.

As a mixed-race person to another mixed-race person, I can’t help but ask, how important was it to you to have the main character be mixed-race as well? What was something valuable that you learned from writing a mixed-race character who identifies with different races than your own? What were some challenges?

I began writing Frogman’s Response at a time when I was moving from a more siloed version of writing to engaging with bigger conversations in the publishing world, especially when it comes to describing skin color. In American publishing, characters have been so universally assumed to be white that authors must point out a non-white character the minute they’re introduced or editors may say it’s confusing for a reader to find out that the character is non-white later in the story.

Obviously, assuming white as a default is problematic, but I realized as I examined my own writing that I was doing the exact same thing. Not only were my main characters white, but pretty much everyone else in my stories, too. 

And of course they were! The books I read described beautiful characters as having alabaster or porcelain skin. I watched anime featuring almost exclusively white characters. I went to high school during the emo movement, where the style was to have very straight hair and very white skin. 

My dad has been treated poorly because of the color of his skin and here I was creating more whitewashed stories to feed into the white-as-default hegemony. I knew I had to make big changes to the worlds that I wrote, and that definitely had to involve my main characters. 

As I considered creating a POC or mixed-race main character, I was incredibly nervous about getting the representation wrong. I read OwnVoices books making waves and felt like my skin wasn’t dark enough to step outside of the safe, white characters I was used to. Then again, now that I could see that my white characters were coming from a history of erasing people of color (including people like my dad), I knew I couldn’t go back to my casts of alabaster heroes.

I decided I could write authentically about a character feeling disconnected from their roots, but I didn’t want to just take my experience and repackage it in fiction, so I made Matthew a different race from mine. I made sure, though, to have a reader from his background review the piece to make sure I wasn’t overstepping. 

Now that we’re seeing more books, movies, and TV shows with non-white characters I’m having more bolt-of-lightning moments where I want to shout, “Where has this been all my life? Why am I just now seeing heroes who look like me?” I’m so committed to making sure my work doesn’t feed into the kind of whitewashed storytelling culture I grew up in.

Writing Development & The Benefits of Writing Groups

I always love how important aspects of authors’ lives can bleed into their writing. How has your training at an MMA gym given you insight on how to write fight scenes in your fiction? Has it helped you with any other aspect of your writing?

I don’t have a lot of action-heavy work published, but every time I read an author describe a heart-stopping punch or killing someone by breaking their nose, I wanted to sit down with them and my coach and walk them through why that doesn’t work. Instead of sitting down with them as individuals, I figured workshops in large groups would be faster.

As I’ve studied more fight scenes, though, I’ve grown to appreciate the bigger picture rather than just the particulars. What I see a lot in beginner writing is overpowered main characters who don’t have enough conflict to allow them to grow, which can make for a boring story. Giving your characters flaws and weaknesses is essential, whether you’re writing an action-packed story or not. And the best fight scenes aren’t laser-focused on accuracy but have established clear stakes and take the reader through the emotions the main character is feeling.

I also generally recommend authors find an enjoyable physical activity because sitting for hours working on stories is rough on your body. I write much better after I’ve had some exercise.

As the president of the Salt City Scribes chapter of the League of Utah Writers, Utah’s longest-running writing organization, how has your tenure helped you grow as a writer and as a person?

I always give props to my English degree for giving me a good foundation for quality writing and teaching me important concepts like deconstruction and the interaction between history and art. As far as fiction writing, though, I grew far better and far faster the minute I engaged with a writing group that could offer experience in the field and point-blank feedback. I know finding a good writing group can be a challenge, but friends and family are never going to give the same honesty about your work as a stranger. 

The League also organizes conferences with writers who are out there in the publishing trenches right now. These finally gave me the chance to hear about how to understand the market, what to watch out for when negotiating a contract for a story, and how to build a platform to interact with readers.

As president of the Salt City Scribes, I’ve seen more of the behind-the-scenes work of the writing community and everything really relies on passionate individuals dedicating their time and energy to uplifting others. I’ve been so impressed by the professional and friendly individuals in my local community and I want to make sure I’m doing what I can to contribute. 

At a conference, I even had an agent reject my query, then spend the rest of the pitch session walking me through ways I could improve my letter for the next time I try. That combination of honesty and kindness is what I want to emulate.

Writing groups and writing communities can be so important to authors. How did you find the League of Utah Writers? What has been the best part about finding the right writing community for you?

I was fortunate to find the Salt City Scribes fairly quickly. I searched the internet for writing groups near me and it turned out I was very near a group that focused on critiques. Joining a group is just a launching point, though. As I worked with different critique partners and attended conferences, I’ve built relationships with writers and readers who understand the genre I’m working in and provide really helpful comments.

Now when I have a new story I want to try out, I have a group of friends I can call on for help. I know that if an idea doesn’t land for them, it’s not because my story isn’t their type, it’s because the story isn’t working. 

The best part is when you find your author besties to swap stories and new ideas with! It’s so energizing to have supporters on your team who can celebrate milestones with you since writing is very much a marathon, not a sprint.

In addition to writing, you’ve taught workshops at conferences, such as the Spring Pre-Quill Conference and FanX. What was your experience like switching gears from writer to teacher?

Although I’ve done some teaching and public speaking it was really jarring to participate in FanX, where my coach and I were teaching the MMA class on a stage on the convention floor next to booths of people selling merchandise. We were there on a Saturday around noon so huge crowds of people were moving through the floor and we had a lot of eyes on us as we walked through our presentation. It was really exciting to get to show off our skills, but on the flipside terrifying to try and maintain the energy of the class in a space so big and chaotic. Interacting with a big group like that can be a great chance to connect with new readers, so I hope to return with more workshop ideas in the future.

Teaching at Pre-Quill is nice because it’s a bit more laid back, and I know more of the attendees in that setting. You can also get into the weeds with craft when your audience members are looking for more in-depth knowledge. It can be hard to go from performing a skill to teaching about a skill, but I appreciate the chance to share some of what I’ve learned so other writers can hopefully cut down on some of the trial-and-error process.

If you’re interested in learning more about craft, I really recommend Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace as well as Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

Debut Buzz

How has writing short fiction (and winning awards for your short fiction!) prepared you for your debut novel being released?

Short fiction has been a big breakthrough for me because I’ve only really written in long forms until a few years ago. I tried to put together short stories but they didn’t have much punch because I wasn’t sure what I was trying to accomplish. 

There came a point where I was determined to write more short fiction because novels take a long time to write and when they’re rejected it takes a long time to write another. I wanted to speed up the cycle a bit and add some more publishing credits to my resume. For a long time, I couldn’t get anything published because I was submitting to literary journals and didn’t understand that my work wasn’t literary fiction. Those rejections helped me reassess, figure out what I was doing wrong, and make corrections. The more stories I write and submit, the better I understand my overall style and where my work fits in the larger market.

Having some awards under your belt and published short stories can be really helpful when marketing yourself as an author because you’re able to show that other experts in the writing community have put their trust in you. If you’re struggling with imposter syndrome, having that backup can help you feel better about asserting yourself as a professional in the field. 

I know we’re getting excited about Frogman’s Response, but is there anything exciting you can tell us about Strong at Broken Places, the upcoming anthology that you will be featured in?!

When I was getting ready to submit to this anthology, I had a few ideas for sort of sarcastic takes on the theme and I was really struggling to put together something that felt genuine. Two days before submissions were due, my husband and I found a baby starling in the parking lot that must have fallen out of its nest. We took it to an aviary rescue center, and I’m sure they have taken good care of him, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that angry little bird who was so close to being able to fly, but not quite. I cried about it for two days, then wrote a poem, which made me feel better. I decided that would be better to submit than a half-baked supervillain story, which is what I had started drafting. I’m glad others will be able to read my starling poem soon.

Since the last time I wrote to you, I’ve actually been accepted to another anthology, Beyond Beehives, which is about the first 125 years of Utah’s statehood. I don’t usually write nonfiction, but my mom’s side of the family has deep ties to the state and I felt like skipping out on submitting would dishonor my family. Of course, if I don’t put in some good edits on the piece, I might still end up dishonoring my family, so I better spend some time with the anthology editor on this one. I’m also working on compiling the short stories I’ve written so far into an anthology so instead of just saying I have award-winning short stories, people can read them all. It’s called Humor or Death, and the first story is available on my website for free download.

Diverse Book Recommendations from Heidi Voss

Scythe by Neal Schusterman (mixed race rep)

Quick Take

Two teens are recruited to apprentice for a Scythe in a future where medical advances have eliminated natural death.

  • 💀 Dark Content
  • 📖 Couldn’t Put It Down
  • 💭 Speculative Fiction
  • 📚 First in Series

Goodreads | Amazon |  Book Depository

Why pick up this book?

It’s punchy, dark, and satirical, which are all my favorite things. The author follows up on a fascinating premise with a narrative that’s both calculating and empathetic. Just when you’ve hit a comfortable spot with one part of the story, he throws in a twist that pushes you to dive into the next chapter. I wish I had this kind of book when I was younger.

Undead Girl Gang by Lily Anderson (mixed race rep, plus-size rep)

Quick Take

Mila tries to solve a murder by bringing her friend back from the dead. She accidentally raises two more murder victims and none of the three remember who killed them. They have seven days to solve the murder before the spell wears off.

  • 💀 Dark Content
  • 📖 Couldn’t Put It Down
  • 💭 Speculative Fiction
  • 📚 First in Series

Goodreads Amazon |  Book Depository

Why pick up this book?

You bring your high school friends back from the dead to solve their murders and they just want to run amok? Incredible. This was the perfect combination of fun and heartbreaking at different times.

A Complicated Love Story Set in Space by Shaun David Hutchinson (LGBTQ+)

Quick Take

Three teens wake up on a spaceship on the verge of failing. They must work together to fix the ship and find their way home.

  • 💀 Dark Content
  • 📖 Couldn’t Put It Down
  • 💭 Speculative Fiction
  • 📚 First in Series

Goodreads Amazon |  Book Depository

Why pick up this book?

Usually, longer narratives can lean on changes in setting and a larger cast to keep the story from stagnating. Somehow, this story has both a tiny cast and almost exclusively a single spaceship as the backdrop and I could not put this down. The romance felt authentic and did a good job representing a character dealing with past trauma.

Let’s chat!

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