Ashley Herring Blake’s focus on diverse communities, queer communities in particular, spans the range of children’s and young adult literature, all the way to adult. Her latest work, Hazel Bly and the Deep Blue Sea, is a middle grade novel about growing up and grief, seen through the eyes of a 10-year-old girl. Blake spoke with PW about writing for different age ranges, collaboration, and balancing multiple roles—author, editor and agent—in the publishing industry.
You’ve written middle grade, young adult, and adult works. How do you approach writing for these different age ranges? Do you prefer one to the others?
I’ve enjoyed writing all three for sure. I started in young adult, but middle grade has always been my first love. I love the wistful, hopeful, and tender tone to middle grade novels, as they simultaneously tackle tough subjects. Young adult is full of possibility, these characters’ entire lives are in front of them, and I really enjoy writing teens navigating who they are and who they will become. For adult, I’m really having fun writing romance. I get to explore themes and content that I’m not able to in kid lit. Each age category is wonderful in its own way and I feel so privileged to be part of all three.
What inspired Hazel’s story?
Primarily, my personal grief journey. After writing two middle grade coming out stories, I wanted to write a story where queerness was normalized—Hazel has queer moms and she develops a crush on an out nonbinary character later in the story. I also needed to write a grief book after losing my mother in 2012. I wanted to show that while grief will change you forever, there is life beyond it. It’s a different life than the one you planned, but it is still life.
What drew you to Hazel’s compulsions, particularly regarding safety?
As I was creating Hazel’s character, I tried to imagine what effect witnessing the traumatic death of a parent might have on a 10-year-old. To me, Hazel felt as though she couldn’t save her mother, so now she tries to save everyone. She’s bent on protecting. When Peach, her little sister, began to take form, she felt like a natural target of Hazel’s overprotectiveness, to the point where she shields Peach and herself from good things as well. She never wants to be caught by surprise again, so she carries around a Safety Pack, which is a fanny pack filled with first-aid items, everywhere she goes.
You have such fully formed adult characters with their own lives and identities outside of their relationships with their children. What are you hoping your readers take away from that portrayal?
I think it’s important for young readers to see that adults are human—they make mistakes, they have lives beyond their kids, they fall in love, they fear, they hope. In middle grade, kids are caught between that stage where their family is their whole world and where friends and their social lives are starting to take equal, if not more ground, in their lives. I think it’s important to show how adults deal with this phase too. And I really enjoy making sure every character I put on the page has a personality that makes them feel like a real, dynamic, full-formed person.
Local seaside myth and lore are such an intricate part of the plot in Hazel. What inspired that?
I’m honestly not sure! The New England shore just seemed like a great place for some lore, and who doesn’t love mermaids? Once I decided to include the myth, I started thinking about how Rosemary—the girl who purportedly became a mermaid in the book—and Hazel complemented each other. Hazel began to see similarities in herself and Rosemary, who had experienced her own family losses and grief, to the point that she disappeared. The myth was she became a mermaid, and Hazel begins to contemplate how grief is changing her, shaping her entire life. It felt like the right journey for her.
How do you handle being an agent, author, and editor? How does that breadth of publishing experience inform how you approach writing?
I think being an author and having seven years of publishing experience helps me work more effectively with my own clients. Creating a book is a very unique experience, and I’m thankful that I can relate to my client in that way, helping them realize their own visions for their books just like my agent has done for me. After publishing several books—and writing even more than that—I understand things I didn’t when I first started. Writing never gets easier. It’s always hard. But after doing it for a while now, I understand that when drafting isn’t going well, I will get through it. I have a better sense of what makes a great story, how to trust my instincts, and I hope that I bring some of that to the table with my clients as well.
How has the pandemic affected your work and process?
I began writing my first adult romance in April 2020, so pretty soon after the shutdown. For me, it was a reason to get up in the morning. I totally understand how the pandemic made creating really difficult for some, and I had a hard time focusing on other things in my life, but writing gave me a purpose when we were all stuck in the house.
Can you talk about your collaboration with Rebecca Podos on the Fools in Love anthology?
This anthology has been such a fun experience! It’s really Becca’s brainchild—she tweeted a while ago about how fun an anthology focusing on romantic tropes would be, and got such a response about it that she decided to actually do it. She’s my agent, and we’ve been together professionally for a long time and have a lot of similar tastes, so she asked me if I was interested in helping her edit. We dived in and haven’t looked back since! We have 13 amazing contributors, and the stories span genres—there’s fantasy, science fiction, and contemporary realism, time travel, superheroes, end-of-the-world scenarios, as well as mixed-up ride shares, the class curmudgeon falling for the class queen bee, snow sled races, and more. It’s such a unique collection and I hope everyone loves it as much as we do!
What’s next for you?
Right now I’m focusing on an adult romance I’m writing. I’m currently writing the second book in a related series and I’m having such fun writing queer people falling in love. For agenting, I’m really focusing on building a diverse client list and I’m specifically looking for queer, BIPOC, and disabled clients, as well as clients whose identities intersect along these margins.
Hazel Bly and the Deep Blue Sea by Ashley Herring Blake. Little, Brown, $16.99 May 25 ISBN 978-0-316-53545-8