Food and community form the heart of Laekan Zea Kemp’s debut novel, Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet (Little, Brown), so it’s no surprise that the book’s lively restaurant setting was inspired in part by the experiences of Kemp’s longtime partner, who worked in a restaurant as a teen. “He would have all these hilarious stories of the hijinks that they would get up to,” Kemp says. “And a lot of it was because there were so many teenagers working at the restaurant.”
A contemporary YA romance set in Austin, Tex., the novel follows 18-year-olds Penelope “Pen” Prado and Xander Amaro as they meet because of their shared connection to Nacho’s Tacos, a beloved neighborhood restaurant, and eventually fall in love. Kemp says she first conceptualized the world of Nacho’s Tacos as a way to “throw people in [an environment] and see how they would interact, how they would build relationships, and build community. And then, you know, I’m a huge lover of food.”
The novel has no shortage of mouthwatering passages describing Mexican cuisine and the desserts that aspiring bakery owner Pen creates, from cocada (which Kemp and her grandmother used to bake and sell: “I would make a killing at every garage sale,” Kemp says) to menudo to Pen’s signature coconut cake with white chocolate frosting. On the many savory and sweet dishes featured in the book, Kemp says the recipes gave her the opportunity “to show Pen’s creativity and also the innovation of not just her, but the [Chicanx] community as a whole.”
Although Kemp wrote her first book during her senior year of high school and has self-published work before, Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet marks her traditional publishing debut. One thing that hasn’t changed in this transition is who Kemp centers in her stories. “I’ve just always written Latinx protagonists,” she says. “That’s just what comes most naturally to me.”
In 2019, Kemp learned about #DVPit, a Twitter pitch event showcasing un-agented pitches from marginalized voices, and she decided to pitch Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet. A few weeks later, she signed with Andrea Morrison at Writers House.
Shortly after the manuscript went out on submission, Samantha Gentry at Little, Brown acquired world rights in a preempt. Laekan credits this to the nature of #DVPit, which “drums up a lot of interest and excitement really quickly,” and the fact that Morrison was able to pitch her book in person at a publishing conference rather than over email.
With the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, Kemp’s debut, which was set for an April 2021 release, faced unexpected complications. Though Kemp says she “wasn’t one of those people who dreamed about having a big launch party,” she has found it difficult to gauge how the book is doing post-publication. She calls the support of Las Musas, a collective of women and nonbinary Latinx authors who write children’s literature, “absolutely essential” in navigating those difficulties. “There’s so much sharing of knowledge and information that happens,” she says. “I also think that it’s really helpful to belong to a community that has a very specific mission and that I’m really passionate about. It really helps me put things in perspective and see the bigger picture.”
Still, exciting things have been happening since the release of Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet: the novel earned two starred reviews and is featured in the current issue of Bon Appétit. For Kemp, however, “the most special thing [about her book’s release] was the fact that my grandparents were able to walk into a Barnes & Noble and pick up a copy.”
While Kemp currently writes full-time, she balances her author responsibilities (“The admin work as an author is unreal!”) with work for Las Musas and the Latinx Kidlit Book Festival. She runs the Twitter account and newsletter for Las Musas and regularly contributes to its podcast, and she also helps create the educator resources for the Latinx Kidlit Book Festival.
Up next for Kemp is Heartbreak Symphony (Little, Brown), another YA dual-POV romance and the companion novel to her debut, which comes out in April 2022. She says its storyline focuses on music rather than food and centers on Aarón Medrano, a secondary character from Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet, as he and fellow musician Mia Villanueva “bond over making a pact that they’re going to audition for their dream music school.”
Kemp says both characters have experienced the loss of a parent and deal with stage fright that stems from that trauma, but much like Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet, it’s “a story about community and about caring for one another.”
For now, Kemp’s wish is that readers of Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet connect with its characters and message. “I write romance that doesn’t necessarily follow the traditional formula,” she says. “I really prefer for the love interests to be sort of a safe haven for each other. What I hope for readers who are looking for love or friendship or any kind of relationship is that [they] find someone who believes wholeheartedly in [their] dreams and would do anything to help make them happen.”