An Indies Introduce Q&A with Justine Pucella Winans

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Justine Pucella Winans, author of "Bianca Torre Is Afraid of Everything"Justine Pucella Winans is the author of Bianca Torre Is Afraid of Everything, a Winter/Spring 2023 Indies Introduce Kids selection.

Winans is a queer and nonbinary writer who resides in Los Angeles with her husband and cats. Their YA debut novel, Bianca Torre is Afraid of Everything, releases Spring 2023 from Clarion Teen. Their MG debut, The Otherwoods, will release Fall 2023 from Bloomsbury. When not writing, they try their best at Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, read an alarming amount of manga and webcomics, and try to make pasta even a fourth as good as her nonna's.

Rebekah Shoaf of Boogie Down Books in the Bronx, New York, served on the panel that selected Winans’ debut for Indies Introduce. “This book is the weird and wonderful queer-teen-investigates-money-laundering-bird-cult murder mystery I didn’t realize I was waiting for,” Shoaf said. “Simultaneously hilarious and terrifying, sweet and wry, this novel celebrates a narrator who saves the world, the school play, and their friends amidst overwhelming anxiety, an emerging understanding of their own gender identity, and the hope of romance. I loved watching Bianca take flight [shameless bird pun]!”

Here, Winans and Shoaf discuss Bianca Torre is Afraid of Everything.

Rebekah Shoaf: To be super direct, this book is (wonderfully) weird. What inspired you to write it? Were you worried that it wouldn’t fit into a conventional framework or genre?

Justine Pucella Winans: The first page of Bianca Torre is Afraid of Everything introduces the idea of lesbian sheep, which is actually something I came across in an article. That really inspired the character of Bianca and their voice, with me pulling other aspects from my own experience (researching different gender identities on my phone, a love of anime, being an ex-theater kid) and also my cats (being very interested in birds and neighbors). Of course, there is also a clear Rear Window influence in the concept (I loved old movies as a teen and watched a lot of Hitchcock). In a lot of ways, aspects of the book are kind of a love letter to the things I enjoyed at Bianca’s age, while dealing with the kind of queer content I wish I had more of at the time. I was definitely worried it didn’t fit into a conventional genre, as it sort of is one part funny contemporary and one part creepy thriller. However, I really enjoyed writing Bianca’s story and I’ve always loved cross-genre books, so I tried to convince my nerves that it would find its readers. It might not fit in with many other YA thrillers, but I do hope that those interested in weird and unconventional books will flock to it (bird pun intended).

RS: Birdwatching figures prominently in Bianca Torre Is Afraid of Everything. Are you a birder? What inspired you to make birding culture such an important part of the novel?

JPW: I have to admit that I am not an active birder anymore, although my cats do certainly bring my attention to any birds outside my window, and I do still get a little too excited at the bird sections of some natural history museums. For most of my middle school and high school years, I studied ornithology, because no one else on the Science Olympiad team wanted to do it. I did really enjoy the identification part and the community, so even though it’s not something I stuck with a lot, I still can ID a good amount of Ohio birds and thought it would be fun to include, especially since it worked out well with the plot!

RS: Throughout the novel, Bianca keeps a constantly evolving hierarchical list of literally everything [they’re] afraid of. How did you keep track of the list during the writing process? How did you think about the order of the list?

JPW: It was a little bit of a copyediting nightmare, and I definitely messed it up at times. I tried to keep a living word document of Bianca’s fears while writing, and definitely had to repeat the process in edits! The fears were a combination of what made sense for their character and the plot as well as some silly/fun fears to keep the tone of the book relatively lighthearted. There are some fears on the list that don’t really make it into the book text, but still appear in the final list, so I tried to have some fun with those! As for the hierarchy, Bianca tends to move the really scary things higher on the list, while sometimes just tacking new fears onto the end. It’s a pretty informal list, and since Bianca doesn’t actually keep it with them everywhere they go, I probably took a few liberties in what made sense for the story and their character arc.

RS: Both Bianca and Anderson have really supportive parents and siblings. Why was it important to you portray those characters and their family relationships?

JPW: While I am lucky to be supported now, the first time I came out as queer went… probably about as bad as it could go. (Don’t worry, that person is not in my life anymore and my family, especially my mom, have been great!) For that reason, I didn’t really want to write a book where a character had to deal with homophobia and transphobia when coming out, at least at the time of writing Bianca. I wanted to show someone who was entirely supported, in part, because they didn’t feel the need to come out to everyone. They are probably a bit strategic in who they come out to because they are anxious about the response, especially from their mom. While Bianca’s gender identity discovery is a big part of the book, it isn’t really a coming out story, it’s a story of finding a label that feels like coming home (well, the gender identity part at least). Even if it happens in a short and stressful time, sometimes things just suddenly make sense. Trans and nonbinary kids and teens can’t avoid transphobia today. When it comes down to it, I wanted Bianca Torre is Afraid of Everything to be a fun and entertaining escape, and it was important to me to focus on showing characters that support each other.

RS: I found parts of the novel legitimately frightening, and the protagonists find themselves in real danger at times. How did you think about building suspense and fear as a key element of the reader’s experience?

JPW: While I do think Bianca Torre is Afraid of Everything is mostly fun and on the lighthearted side, it still is a murder mystery. It was important to keep it suspenseful and really have Bianca and Anderson feel that sense of danger and higher stakes while trying to solve the mystery. While overcoming fears is a big theme of those book, it was important to show that having fears is natural, understandable, and even necessary at times. I didn’t want all of Bianca’s fears to feel “unreasonable” (even though I’d argue most fears have a reason behind them), and wanted readers to feel emotionally connected to Bianca on this journey, including the parts that get a bit scary. Plus, I’m a huge fan of thrillers and horror (despite also having anxiety, panic attacks, and my own anime-outro-, wait-for-sequel-time-, Porto’s-bakery-line-long list of fears) so it does influence me as a writer a lot. I think my brand is queer characters in a creepy/scary situation with only friendship and their sense of humor for help, so I’m glad that comes across in Bianca’s story!

Bianca Torre Is Afraid of Everything by Justine Pucella Winans (Clarion Books, 9780358721642, Hardcover Young Adult, $19.99) On Sale: 4/11/2023.

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