Phil Stamper grew up in a rural village near Dayton, Ohio. He has a B.A. in Music and an M.A. in Publishing with Creative Writing. And, unsurprisingly, a lot of student debt. He works for a major book publisher in New York City and lives in Brooklyn with his husband and their dog. His debut YA novel THE GRAVITY OF US will be out winter 2020 from Bloomsbury Children’s Books.
THE GRAVITY OF US is his first novel, but he’s no stranger to writing. His self-insert Legend of Zelda fanfiction came with a disclaimer from the 14-year old author: “Please if you write a review don’t criticize my work.” He has since become more open to critique… sort of.
When did you first begin writing?
If you count my cringeworthy Legend of Zelda self-insert fanfiction, I started writing at fourteen. But… let’s not count that—it was so bad!
I started writing for my day job back in 2009-2010. I worked in public relations, and my role consisted of a lot of speechwriting, press releases, op-eds, and news stories. I loved being able to say I wrote for a living, and after a while, I realized I really loved telling stories. …Even if the stories I wrote and pitched for my day job weren’t so exciting.
Around this time, I fell back into a love of reading. So, after reading ~3,000,000 YA dystopian novels—I was obsessed with every series—I had a moment of clarity: I could take my storytelling and writing skills and put them toward something creative, something I cared more about. So, in late 2012, I started writing my first novel. (And, no, that one never sold!)
What did your friends and family say when you told them you wanted to become an author?
Around this time, I had a mini-book club with one of my good friends. We both lived in DC and read tons of YA fiction to distract us from our corporate jobs. And she was the first person I told about wanting to write a novel… for a while. She wanted more dystopian fiction, so she was fully on board and would read every chapter after I wrote it. I started telling more people, but for a long time, it never felt real.
My husband was very supportive, and so were all of my friends. They saw me as a future published author, a great writer, but… I was my biggest critic. The more I looked into the publishing process (queries, agents, submissions, and on and on) the less likely this seemed like a viable option for ANY human, let alone me! But I fell in with a good crowd on Twitter, and created some wonderful friendships all based around what we were writing.
And for my family, they didn’t get to learn anything about it until I was already working on my second book. They’re wildly supportive—I knew they would be!—but it’s really hard as an early-career writer to be bombarded with well-meaning questions. So, until I knew I was fully committed to making this work, I kept it a bit of a secret, eventually getting a copy printed for my parents to read so they could see what I’d accomplished.
What are common traps for aspiring writers? Any suggestions for overcoming them?
Oh. God. There are so many. I’ve fallen in most of them.
My biggest pieces of advice for aspiring authors are to 1) know your worth, and 2) focus on your mental health. With your worth, it’s so easy for writers to sign with the first agent who shows them attention, regardless of whether they’re the right fit, whether they have a good track record, and so on. No agent is better than the wrong agent for you/your work.
Regarding focus, you need to make sure you are taking care of yourself. If every rejection is causing you a lot of emotional pain or anger, step back and see how you can rethink your relationship with your work. If you’re working 16 hours a day tweaking bits of text because you think it’ll never be good enough to pitch, get some outside feedback. Rely on your author friends when you feel like you’re “too close” to the situation, and in the end, realize this is a business—a business that is not always kind to creatives. Take breaks, work on your patience, breathe, and don’t forget to celebrate the happy moments.
What’s one of your favorite underappreciated novels?
Oh this one is an easy question for me! THE GALLERY OF UNFINISHED GIRLS by Lauren Karcz is one of my absolute favorites, and I am APPALLED that it didn’t hit every list and win every award. Plenty of people appreciated it of course, but god that book stuck with me for ages after I read it.
What can you tell us about Cal’s relationship with Leon?
To me, THE GRAVITY OF US was never meant to be a will-they-or-won’t-they romance, which is why I pushed so hard for the book cover to represent that. Too often, though this is changing, queer YA book covers are censored to be more palatable, or to … please the greater population. But this book celebrates their romance, and the cover echoes that as it shows the boys on the outskirts of a space facility, their fingers locked as they look toward the night sky.
Cal and Leon’s relationship is new and fast and so incredibly special thanks to the wild environment they’re forced into, but I was also happy to reflect on my own experiences and explore the tricky act of navigating relationships while both partners are managing their own mental health. My main character Cal’s anxiety is on the page but fairly unmanaged—he feels a compulsion to help people in his own way, to get things back to a comfortable “normal” … whatever that is. This is illustrated in the excerpt that’s live on Teen Vogue. Leon’s never been fully able to pin down his depression, and he’s learning how to advocate for himself. Not long after they meet, Cal leans in to kiss him after an exceptionally vulnerable moment, and… well… you can read the rest.
If you could take one of your book characters home to meet your parents, who would you choose and why?
Well, my parents are fantastic bakers. In fact, the last time my husband and I visited they made us three full pies for the weekend trip! So I’d have to bring Cal’s best friend from Brooklyn, Deb. Cal’s got this semi-ironic obsession with retro cassettes, so whenever he drags her along for a cassette hunt in the hipster parts of New York City, she comes along to collect some of her own hipster vices: vegan doughnuts, cupcakes, or really any decadent dessert. So I think they’d hit it off pretty well, and they’d like the challenge of making vegan versions of their favorite desserts.
Now I’m hungry.
If you left on vacation tonight and could only take one book, what book would you choose?
Well, I just bought WITH THE FIRE ON HIGH by Elizabeth Acevedo. I’d bring that because I’m dying to read it, of course, but also have you seen that cover? It’s BEAUTIFUL! I love bringing books on vacation that capture people’s attention and make them take note of the title or cover—it’s my own personal marketing technique. 😉
Interview : YA SH3LF