Lilah Sturges has a lot on her plate these days. In addition to penning the Lumberjanes original graphic novels and scripts for Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, Sturges has created a coming-of-age story in a lush and fantastical females-only world called Koretris in the upcoming Girl Haven.
Koretris is a world run by anthropomorphic animals who battle a menacing faction called the Scourge, adolescent boys who crash the peace and tranquility of Koretris for their malicious designs. Thrust into this conflict are Ash and his friends, who literally gets sucked into this strange world of his mother’s imagination. While searching for his mother and battling the Scourge, Ash grapples with issues of gender identity and self-worth.
Girl Haven is a wonderfully warm, humorous, and infectious story, full of delightful twists and turns. The Beat caught up with Sturges to talk the graphic novel‘s Narnia influences and her hopes for the future of Koretris.
Nancy Powell: In your recent books, you’ve tackled issues of gender identity amongst young adults. There are many books that deal with these issues, but what is it that they’re lacking that made you want to tackle this issue?
Lilah Sturges: I think that there just aren’t enough books for, by and about trans people. And that’s kind of what informs what I do for the most part as a writer these days. There are so many stories yet to be told. There’s just a whole world of trans stories and queer stories out there, and we’ve only just scratched the surface of those stories. And being able to tell those stories in ways that kids could respond to, I think, is really important.
One of the things that I constantly come back to is how absent any kind of LGBTQ themes were in my own reading growing up and how that left me in a vacuum, trying to understand myself because there were no role models. There was nothing that would allow me to see myself in any of these stories. And I just ended up feeling confused most of the time. We’ve now reached a time where we can tell these stories. Kids can read them in context, understand them and hopefully see themselves. My goal with Girl Haven was that it could be a book for a young trans girl, to be the kind of book I wish I had had as a young trans person to help me understand who I was and why I felt the way I did.
Powell: I absolutely loved the world-building and character development in Girl Haven. What inspired you to develop this unique world?
Sturges: It was a couple of things that came together. One idea that I’d always had was there was a man named Henry Darger who created an entire world in his imagination and wrote thousands and thousands and thousands of pages about it, but he never showed anyone. He just kept them in his apartment. They were lavishly illustrated, and they were strange. There’s a wonderful documentary called In the Realms of the Unreal about him and his work. I always thought it was fascinating, the idea that someone would spend their whole life just creating this imaginary world.
I had that idea in the back of my head for years. At some point I was wondering what would be a good way to tell a trans awakening story that would let me simplify a lot of the edges of the world in a way that would take away the things I didn’t want to talk about it and leave just the things I did, and create this stark contrast of like, what if you were a “boy” who suddenly went to a world where there were only girls? What would that say about you? That’s where it came from.
Powell: How was the experience working on this book different from Lumberjanes?
Sturges: It was something I came up with completely on my own, and that in and of itself makes it very different. When you’re working in Lumberjanes, obviously, you have the constraints of what other people have created. And I was just adding to what had come before. I love Lumberjanes. Just the way that it exists is kind of a collaborative effort. As for Girl Haven, I really wanted a book that came from a deep place inside of me and was a book that only I could write. I was very lucky to be paired with Meaghan Carter, who did such a good job of bringing that to life and was so respectful of the script and the feelings that were present and all the nuances that went into it. I couldn’t be happier with what she did.
For me, the overriding impulse was creating the book that I wish that I had had when I was young. I really love kids’ stories, and I love writing stories. One of the things that Lumberjanes taught me was how much of a joy it is to write books for kids because kids love books. They get enthusiastic about them. And I wanted to create a world.
There’s so much that goes into the world of Koretris in the book. There are the Rabbits of the Reeds, and there are the noble horses and the scary insects and the sweet darlings. All of those things were designed to be springboards for kids’ imaginations…that they could see little glimpses of these characters and try and imagine that there is a whole world of stories and adventure around them. My hope was that kids would read the book and be inspired by it, not just by the talk about gender, but just by the sheer force of imagination that went into it.
Powell: Are you familiar with Narnia?
Sturges: Yeah, I loved the Narnia books as a kid, and I have always had a passion for them. And getting to write The Magicians comic books was great as well, because Lev Grossman and I both share a love for that sort of material.
Powell: For me, Girl Haven recalls Narnia, what with the animals playing a big part of the storytelling with Asher and his friends.
Sturges: Narnia, I think, is always like a bedrock fact of my imagination, so I think that the influence is pretty clear.
Powell: Do you see yourself in any of the characters in Girl Haven? Which character would you identify with most?
Sturges: I think like a lot of writers, I put a little bit of myself in every major character. Ash is definitely me as a 12-year-old, just being put into that situation and how I would have responded at that age. The other characters are just different facets of me. Eleanor is a kind, compassionate, loving side of me. Chloe is the part of me that gets feisty and is strident about things. Junebug is still a part of me. So, it’s all me, just different aspects.
Powell: In the story, Ash’s father accepted his emerging identity without any question. Was that by design or from personal experience?
Sturges: It’s always so tricky. And with this book, I wanted to present a best-case scenario of what coming out looked like to a parent. Everyone’s coming out story is different, and we all have to process it in our own ways. I did want it to be something that would make for a happy ending. You know, I didn’t want to go through all that and then have the dad be like, oh, well, this is a problem I could do without It would have been a real downer way to end the book. And I just try to model acceptance wherever I can.
Powell: In terms of writers, who do you look towards for inspiration?
Sturges: Oh, my goodness, that’s such a big question. When I’m writing kids’ books, the writers that especially come to mind are Madeline L’Engle and Judy Blume. What I love about each of those authors is that they created fully realized worlds that kids could immerse themselves in, and for me as a kid, that’s what I really wanted. I wanted to get lost in the world of a book. And each of those authors in different ways allows you to do that. And C.S. Lewis as well in the Narnia books, although that feels different to me because Lewis had an agenda that he was pursuing in his books.
I think I tend to respond better to female authors. I know that what was important to me as a kid in reading books was seeing realistic relationships depicted, seeing how kids were really feeling and trying to find words for the things that they were experiencing and feeling.
When we’re writing a Lumberjanes book, one of the things that we talk about a lot is how do we help these kids find words for the things that they’re experiencing? Because that, I think, is the key. One of the key issues for middle school kids is that they’re experiencing a lot, but they don’t always know how to say it. Knowing how to say what you’re feeling, how to put it in those words and communicate, is a huge benefit to you as you’re growing.
Powell: You mentioned Judy Blume is being one of your influences. Which books in her collection would you consider your favorites?
Sturges: Well, it’s weird. When I was in seventh grade, I was obsessed with this book called Blubber, which is not one of her most famous books or most highly regarded books. It’s about a kid who gets made fun of at school. And the the protagonist is not the kid who gets made fun of at school. It’s one of the kids who makes fun of her. And for some reason, I found that story really, really compelling. And I read it again and again and again and again.
I was also a big fan of anything to do with Sheila Tubman in Otherwise known as Sheila the Great and the Fudge books. Those were my absolute favorites growing up. And I was so happy to learn that after I stopped being a kid, she kept writing books. It was very exciting for me to realize when I had kids of my own that there were more Fudge books to read to my kids that I had never read as a kid. So, it was fun digging into that world again. Beverly Cleary was another huge one for me, especially the Beezus and Ramona books. I very much identified with Ramona growing up.
Powell: How about comic book superheroes? If you had a choice, who would you want to be?
Sturges: I think that for me, I love Wonder Woman because I love what she stands for as a character. She has a great costume, and she looks fantastic. That would probably be my first choice. Maybe Captain Marvel for similar reasons. There are some really good female superheroes out there, and I love that they’re getting their day in the sun in the movies right now. That’s pretty exciting.
Powell: And if there was a superhero you could create, who or what would that be?
Sturges: The superhero I created would probably have a power that was like useless and silly, like the power to know someone’s email address just by looking at them or the power to know where the nearest source of chocolate is. I don’t think as much about superheroes as I used to. I’ve written a lot of superhero books, and it’s not really my cup of tea anymore, but I do still think the idea is a lot of fun.
Powell: I’m guessing there’s got to be continuing sagas down the line for Girl Haven?
Sturges: That’s the dream, and I definitely have ideas for what stories happen if I get to do more books in the series. I wrote it to be able to stand alone by itself. But also I just want to do more books. And there’s a lot more going on under the surface of Koretris that we’ve only touched on in this first book.
Powell: Might the story of Ash’s mother be one of those ideas?
Sturges: We will definitely learn more about Ash’s mother. And it turns out that Junebug is a very important character, maybe even more important than Asher. So we’ll have to see what happens.
Published by Oni Press, Girl Haven arrives in bookstores on Tuesday, February 16th, and in comic shops on Wednesday, February 17th. Preorders for the book are open until Monday, January 25th.