Though they’ve been writing since childhood, Steven Salvatore didn’t know it could be a career until they discovered creative writing classes in college. It “changed my whole trajectory,” they say. Even after Salvatore’s first book, written at age 20, didn’t go anywhere, they didn’t give up. After they took a course on writing children’s literature in 2007, they decided to write stories for young people.

Now a writing instructor for undergrads, Salvatore wrote seven books and queried agents for nine years before writing their debut novel, Can’t Take That Away (Bloomsbury), about a gender-queer teen who has big dreams of becoming a diva. Salvatore finished the book around the same time they parted ways with their first agent in January 2019. In March, Jess Regel offered representation and sold Can’t Take That Away to editor Annette Pollert-Morgan in about a month.

“It’s like living in a drought for nine years and then all of a sudden, torrential downpour,” Salvatore says. “I was in disbelief, I think, until the book came out.”

Salvatore describes their experience at Bloomsbury as “a really refreshing, wonderful surprise.” They had envisioned publishing as cutthroat and editors as demanding, but they found that the team at Bloomsbury was invested in helping them achieve their own vision for the book. Salvatore remembers phone calls with Pollert-Morgan about how to make the story the best version of itself; the question at the heart of their discussions was always, “I see what you’re trying to do here—how do we make it stronger?”

As a debut author whose book was published during the pandemic, Salvatore was careful to manage their expectations. Watching 2020 debut authors navigate the changing publishing landscape was helpful in dealing with the disappointment of not being able to celebrate the publication of Can’t Take That Away in person, as was connecting with other 2021 debut authors. Salvatore has also been moved by emails and messages from genderqueer teens who see themselves represented for the first time in Carey, the book’s protagonist.

Another exciting moment, Salvatore says, was receiving a congratulatory card from David Levithan, who was their
professor in graduate school and whose work has heavily influenced their own—Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy was the first queer YA book Salvatore ever read. “His voice is so funny and witty and sharp,” they say. “He’ll always be one of my biggest inspirations as far as writers are concerned.”

Salvatore’s own life was also a major source of inspiration for Can’t Take That Away. In fact, Carey’s story began when they responded to a writing prompt they’d given their students. Carey “emerged on the page in their therapist’s office, holding a pair of ruby red slippers,” Salvatore says. “I didn’t know what the story was yet, but I knew that this was something I was going to have to untangle for myself.”

At the time, Salvatore was in therapy—in part because they were exploring their gender identity. Though the scene they wrote in class that day didn’t make it into Can’t Take That Away, both Carey’s therapist and their ruby red slippers
feature heavily.

Salvatore’s next book, And They Lived..., which will be released by Bloomsbury in March, is a sex-positive gay romance whose protagonist is obsessed with Disney fairy tale movies. They describe it as “mixed narrative”: an original fairy tale, inspired by the Brothers Grimm, and poetry are woven into the story. Their third novel, A Supercut of Us, is slated for 2023.

In the meantime, Salvatore hopes genderqueer readers continue to see themselves in Can’t Take That Away. “If I just reached one person,” they say, “then that would have been the goal of a lifetime.”