Growing up in suburban Pennsylvania, 30 minutes outside of Philadelphia, Julia Drake was an avid reader who wrote to “feel better” and to process her thoughts, she says. “I loved writing as a secret place I could go to and work things out for myself.” In her teens, she recalls, YA didn’t really exist in the way it does now. “I remember walking around the bookstore and being really dissatisfied with the choices. There was children’s literature, which I felt I had aged out of, and literary fiction, but it wasn’t really geared toward me or the things that I was thinking about. I remember having a thought in Borders that, when I grew up, I wanted to write something for young adults.”
It wasn’t until she was working on her MFA in creative writing at Columbia University that Drake began seriously considering publishing a novel. “I was reacting negatively toward some of the writing I was doing and the writing I was seeing celebrated in graduate school: things that were impenetrable for the sake of being impenetrable, difficult, and, in a way, elitist,” she says. “I really believe in accessibility in art and that most people read for pleasure. Those two things pushed me back toward young adult.” Drake credits Jim Shepherd, one of her professors, with mentoring and encouraging her to stick with it.
The result of her efforts was an early version of The Last True Poets of the Sea (Disney-Hyperion), a loose retelling of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which follows 16-year-old Violet, who is sent to the fictional town of Lyric, Maine, after her brother’s suicide attempt. Living with her uncle there and volunteering at the local aquarium, Violet grapples with recent events and her own choices while exploring the mythology of the town’s founders, her great-great-great grandparents.
At 15, Drake played Viola in a production of Twelfth Night; she says that she was taken with the play from then on. “There’s a ridiculous love triangle, and the whole play is farcical and slapdash, which I loved, but it’s also really melancholy,” she says. “I think it’s that tension between the darkness and comedy that has held my interest for so many years.” She shares that she was also thinking about sexuality, her own in particular—“I thought the women in the play, Viola and Olivia, were so well matched. The scenes between them have so much chemistry and they’re equals in a way that the men they end up with are not. It’s dissatisfying. I wanted to explore that relationship through a queer lens.”
Drake says that she landed her agent, Peter Knapp at Park & Fine Literary and Media, through traditional means. Creating a tiered list, she sent queries to a small number of agents. Not expecting to hear back for at least six months, she and her boyfriend headed out on a trip to Europe. “Six weeks later, in Vienna, I kept getting full requests for manuscripts,” she says. “And I hadn’t brought my computer!” She was eventually offered representation by two agents, but Knapp “had a really good understanding of what the story was about and what it was trying to do. He loved it for what it was and would become.”
When Knapp began sending the book out on submission, editors expressed interest within a week, with the manuscript ultimately selling to Laura Schreiber at Disney-Hyperion in a preempt for a two-book deal. “I was so blown away by Laura’s insight into the book and where she wanted to take it,” Drake says, but she was nervous about the two-book deal. “I didn’t know what that second book would be. I’m kind of all over the map in terms of taste. I remember I asked Laura if she had a type of book she likes to represent. She said she was very eclectic and that she liked books that have a lot going on.”
That sold Drake, who describes her stories as “overcrowded with crazy things happening and exploding off the page.” She is working on her second book now, writing most of the time and freelance editing on the side. Currently scheduled for 2021, this next story again “has a lot going on.” Drake reveals, “It’s set on a remote island off the coast of Ireland 100 years ago. It’s the story of a 16-year-old girl who meets a famous poet and gets involved in a project with him.”
Drake says her life hasn’t changed much since her debut novel was published, but she jokes that she does get a lot more “photos of books in bookstores” texted to her these days—“specifically of my book!”