Andrew Eliopulos is an executive editor at HarperCollins, where he has helped usher award-winning novels such as Jerry Craft’s Newbery-winning New Kid, into the world. Having previously published The Spider Ring, a novel for tween readers, his debut YA offering, The Fascinators, is a magic-laced story about three friends in small-town Georgia. Eliopulos spoke with PW about magic in queer stories, transitioning between his roles as editor and author, and how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the publishing industry.

Your debut novel for teens is set in a realistic world, like our own, save for the existence of magic. What appealed to you about adding a fantastical element to this story?

I grew up in a small town—Newnan, Georgia—which now feels like a suburb of Atlanta, but, at the time, had a small-town vibe. I grew up in the closet. And, because I was growing up closeted, I turned to a lot of fantasy escapist literature, like Lord of the Rings and Edgar Allan Poe, when he dipped into magic and the surreal. I had an active imagination and was always dreaming of the day that I would finally leave Newnan and my real life would start. I was drawn to magic and magical thinking. From the time I was in middle school I had teachers saying, “You know, we have this Hope Scholarship that pays for in-state tuition in Georgia, but, if you work hard enough, you might be able to get a scholarship for an out-of-state school.” There was always this subtext of “and you might really want to do that.” So, I did. I ended up going to the University of Chicago, which had always been my top choice school, for my undergraduate degree.

During the Everywhere Book Fest panel [I participated in with] Anna-Marie McLemore, they said, so brilliantly, “As queer people, we have to write ourselves into our stories. That can be this act of imagination.” To me, bringing that magic to a fictional town that is like Newnan allowed me to imagine what it would have looked like if a person was out, but still dealing with the pressures of a conservative, religious town; the magic has a similar kind of destabilizing effect. Readers go in knowing they’re in a place that’s not quite real because of the existence of magic, but it’s disarming because it makes you think carefully about the other world-building details that are based on the real world.

Your college majors, Germanic studies and Fundamentals: Issues and Texts, aren’t immediately related to children’s literature, but you’re now both an editor and writer of books for children. How did you find your way to children’s literature?

There were a lot of really great bookstores in Chicago. In my free time, I was going to 57th Street Books and visiting the children’s and burgeoning YA sections. I was reading a lot of intense stuff like Kant, Mann, and Nietzsche in my classes. I needed something a little lighter and gravitated towards young adult. I remember reading Francesca Lia Block’s Dangerous Angels, a book that had a mix of surrealism and a very Los Angeles kind of magic; Pup and Dirk were some of the earliest [examples of] gay representation in a YA book that I’d read and it was different compared to the few books with gay characters I read while in Georgia, like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, books where those characters suffered. Reading a book like Dangerous Angels, where they didn’t, was a gateway into realizing that children’s books were doing really great things from a representation perspective while also asking some fascinating questions that we were discussing in my classes related to these much older, heavier books. The young adult books were making my brain light up and, so, between my junior and senior year, I interned at Penguin Young Readers.

It was one of those lucky things that not only did a friend of mine in Chicago have an older sister who worked in the marketing department at Penguin YA, but someone else actually had a daughter who was a Fundamentals major at University of Chicago, too. I was very fortunate because, a year later, Penguin ended up having an opening for me, as long as I could come right away, the day after graduation. In the end, I was at Dutton for three years, then shifted to Dial. I love picture books, but they were the biggest learning curve for me; I’m drawn to middle grade and YA novels. So, when Harper wanted someone to specialize in novels, I thought, this is for me.

Have you always been a writer?

I always was a writer. It’s funny, I think increasingly, in the last couple years, there are a number of writers I read and follow who have talked about the influence that writing fanfiction had for them. When I was a kid, I remember writing Redwall fanfiction in a forum. I had notecards with all the characters and ship names and weapon names. Thank goodness those don’t exist anymore, that was before middle school!

And, then in high school, I think one of the influential things for me and why I write about magic, was playing MUDs, multi-user domain games, which were like prototypes of today’s World of Warcraft, but instead of an RPG it was a text-based game. So, to do anything in the game you had to write it out.

At one point, in college, I thought I wanted to go into screenwriting, so I took some writing workshops, too. I think those also ended up preparing me to edit graphic novels because it’s so visual.

The Fascinators is being published by your company, HarperCollins. What is it like to work with colleagues, especially ones from the same publisher, as an author?

I was lucky that there were a couple of editors interested in the book. When it came down to it, I had this decision between working with a publisher whose work I really believe strongly in [or a publisher and team I was less familiar with]. I think my design team is brilliant, and I’ve had years watching Rosemary Brosnan, my editor, as a mentee and working for her as editorial director. I’ve seen how she works with authors and how she gets the best work out of people by being a strong advocate and by asking so many questions of her authors. So much of being an author and working with an editor is about building trust to know that when they say something needs work, you believe them. At the end of the day, when I had this choice, I thought, “I know these people and how hard they work, so it’s hard to imagine trying to build new relationships somewhere else.”

Even though I’m edited by someone who works right down the hall and who I might run into right after she tells me to rewrite something, and there was definitely that worry about what if my sales team reads this book and can never look me in the eye again, the thing that made me get past that was that I’ve been an editor at Harper for nine years now; I’ve stayed there because I really think we do great work.

And it’s been borne out in my experience as an author. I was in BookPeople [the Austin, Tex., bookstore] when I got the cover sketch and burst into tears. I had no notes. It was exactly what I had always wanted this book to look like.

How does your work as an editor affect your own creative process and storytelling?

It can be hard not to line edit yourself as you go. If you get too lost in the granular thinking, you’ll never get a full draft out. I think the even trickier thing is when you find yourself in a draft falling into a hole that you’ve been able to help an author get out of, and you think, “wow, why am I doing this?” Rosemary asked me questions on the first draft that she read and I thought, “Oh yeah, I know how I got to that point and that scene, but if I’m not there to walk the reader through the three things that happened before, absolutely, that doesn’t land on the page the way it does in my head.”

My parents were both lawyers in Georgia, so I grew up hearing the phrase, “never be your own lawyer.” I feel the same way about editing. If anything, going through the process of being edited made me feel even better about my job as an editor because it clarifies to me what I bring to a book experience. I feel like I’m contributing and adding value by asking authors all of these questions and making them think critically about what they’re doing.

How has Covid-19 affected you, as both a publisher and an author?

I remember feeling this way a little bit around the 2016 election, where the state of the world and of the news felt so overwhelming that your first response as a human is “how can I get any work done?” I think a blessing of working in publishing right now, especially children’s books, is that your next response is feeling even more inspired to help lift up the voices of authors and to get books into people’s homes during this time. I think what we’re seeing is that people are definitely still ordering books to fill the gap of educating at home and turning to books as escapism. I know I’ve downloaded more audiobooks than ever before!

One of the authors I work with is Jerry Craft, who won a Newbery this year. I think one of the most devastating repercussions of this has been that we won’t get to celebrate together at ALA Annual, all in person. We’re all starting to realize how important those moments of celebrating as a community are, because so many of us work alone in our homes, late into the night, siloed with our work. Even in publishing, where so many of us are introverts and readers, we do have built into our calendar year these moments where we come together and are energized. You try to get that same energy from virtual panels and social media, but it isn’t quite the same. Everywhere Book Fest was a good example of how positive a virtual experience can feel. I think the silver lining is how accessible an event like that can be compared to an in-person event. I had never done a panel before that had a live ASL interpreter or that would live on YouTube for a year, until the next festival. So I think some of these things that we’re coming up with will live on, even after we’re all back at our desks and out in the world.

But thinking about the impact on independent bookstores really weighs on my heart. That said, I have been inspired that we as publishers are asking our authors to boost indies and their neighborhood stores and finding ways to collaborate. I think we’re all feeling, on a personal level, that we have to think about all of the people that are important to the publishing ecosystem.

Are you doing any special virtual events or promotions that readers should look out for?

I have a virtual launch party on May 12, with Books of Wonder. David Levithan, Preeti Chhibber, Anica Rissi, and Will Walton will all be taking part. It’ll be live on YouTube at 6 p.m., but should be available after the live event, too. Books of Wonder has signed book plates for orders, too.

What’s next for you?

I don’t have a book lined up just yet, but I do want to write another. The Fascinators was such a personal story that I’ve been trying to get on the page for so long that I don’t have an immediate vision for a follow-up. It’s been a positive experience with this standalone, but I’ve already seen readers say that the ending of The Fascinators is setting up for a sequel. It’s funny to read that because, actually part of it, for me, was that I never did get a resolution for some of those friendships. Those relationships meant something to me even though they never fit into a clear box and I wanted to capture that feeling, that there isn’t a neat and tidy ending to some things. I love seeing people grapple with that.

The Fascinators by Andrew Eliopulos. HarperCollins/Quill Tree, $18.99 May 12 ISBN 978-0-06-288804-04