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Seattle couple collaborates to bring Queer joy to a bookstore near you

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Photo courtesy of Daniela Casalino
Photo courtesy of Daniela Casalino

If the luckiest people are those who love their work, Seattle couple Daniela Casalino and Jake Maia Arlow have hit the jackpot — they love their work and the person they get to do it with.

Casalino and Arlow are using their professional and creative talents in art and writing to develop a new young adult graphic novel together, set in Seattle and loosely based on Casalino's experiences growing up in the region.

"I have lived in Seattle since I was about two and a half," Casalino said in an interview with the SGN. "We moved quite a bit growing up, but we would come back to Seattle fairly often, and ever since graduating college in 2019, I've lived here full-time."

While they have decided to set their novel in Seattle, the pair have very different histories with the city. Unlike Casalino, Arlow did not grow up in the Pacific Northwest or even on the West Coast. "I lived in New York for most of my life until January of 2021, when I moved to live with Daniela here in Seattle," she explained.

Cultivating inspiration from their real lives, the early drafts for their graphic novel center on two girls, one from Seattle and one from out of town, who fall in love. "It's fun, because I've heard from Daniela all these things, and I'm like, oh, I wish I had gone on an outdoor trip with my high school! That is so far from my high school experience," Arlow said, laughing. "I can contribute more to the [character] who moves from away, but hearing more about what it was like being a teenager in Seattle sounds so cool, and so far from my own experience."

Some of the scenes Casalino and Arlow have begun to write are pulled right from Casalino's PNW childhood. "We thought about a lot of Washington teenage-specific things that we want them to do, [from] what I remember from growing up," Casalino said.

"That's sort of setting the scene, but more generally, it's about a group of friends in a fictionalized Eastside suburb of Seattle, just following them through a year in their life, and specifically about a girl who moves from out of town into the suburb, who gets into a relationship with a girl who already lives here."

Living vicariously through their characters
While some of their ideas for the graphic novel come from Casalino and Arlow's real-life experiences, other things, like being in an openly Queer high school friend group, are more fictionalized. "We're both people who didn't come out until college. It's like being able to vicariously live through characters that... deal with that earlier on," Casalino added.

Although Casalino and Arlow didn't get the chance to be out and explore their sexualities in high school, they have observed a shift in teen culture, such that more and more young people can come out as LGBTQ+ to supportive and safe communities.

"We both have younger siblings, and we interact a lot with younger people, and we think it's very cool how they're not fazed by sexuality. It's much more integrated. It's not so much a big thing a lot of the time," Casalino observed.

The idea of creating stories for Queer teens to enjoy inspires Casalino and Arlow to keep working. Both admit they did not have much access to LGBTQ+ stories, especially not positive ones, while they were growing up.

"I didn't read any books featuring Queer protagonists when I was younger. I think if I had access to those stories, especially ones that are chill and relatively tame and aren't confronting you with... all the shit you're going to have to deal with [when you come out], it would have made coming out and pursuing Queer relationships more accessible to me. It would have given me a more optimistic view of my life," Casalino said.

"I don't know, I only read Will Grayson, Will Grayson in high school, and it was like the one Queer story I had," she added with a laugh.

"For me, when I was in high school, and Orange Is the New Black came out, I thought the only way I could pursue a Lesbian relationship or have sex with a woman was to be in prison," Arlow said. "Those stories were there, Queer stories were accessible to me, but I wasn't shown them. I wasn't exposed to them as much, so I was like, Orange Is the New Black? I guess I should go to jail."

"No one is thinking that now. I think as a Queer author, and as a Queer bookseller working in a bookstore here in Seattle, I'm seeing so many kids come in, and they'll not even know what they're looking for. They'll be like, 'Oh... do you even have a book that's sort of about two girls or something like that?' and I'll [say] yes, and pull 20 books off the shelf that could be good for them. That's so exciting for both me and them, and I think it's a point of connection for Queer people to talk about a Queer book or to show a younger Queer person a Queer book or... story."

Inspired by another popular Queer graphic novel
Their plan for the graphic novel is to follow in the footsteps of another popular Queer teen romance that has proven very popular in 2022. "I think the closest comp to it is honestly Heartstopper. We were very obsessed with the books and the TV show, and we've talked for ages about high school Queer stories," Casalino said. "One of the things that we liked was that there was this big cast of characters that were diverse in their backgrounds and their sexualities, and that wasn't instantly traumatic for all of them but... kind of a part of the fabric of who they were."

"Yeah, it's inspired by the many different storylines of Heartstopper," Arlow added. "Especially for me, coming from writing novels, it's harder to focus on a large cast of characters, but in a graphic novel, it's just so much easier to say, 'Oh, we want to tell all these many little stories.' It's visual and almost cinematic. You can tell many stories from many different people, and we're excited to plan out all the different stories of all the different characters."

Working with Casalino on their collaborative project has been different for Arlow, whose previous work writing Queer middle-grade novels was much more solitary. "As we conceptualize, Daniela will be drawing different potential scenes from it for proof of concept and to understand what the characters look like, and it's just so cool, even from the beginning to understand visually what characters look like, what the story will... be. It's easier to imagine what the story will look like when you can see the characters," she said.

Success beyond their years
Despite Casalino and Arlow being relatively young, the two bring years of experience and skills to their collaboration. "I have been writing, technically as a career, since college," Arlow said, "and my first book, called Almost Flying, which is a Queer middle-grade roller-coaster road-trip novel, actually came out exactly one year ago today."

Images courtesy of Daniela Casalino  

"And I've never been a full-time professional illustrator, but I have been drawing since I was in middle and high school, and then in college, I was an illustrator at the student newspaper," Casalino humbly added.

"Also, you're an architect, and you draw so much through that," Arlow reminded her.

"That's true. The drawing was kind of an on-ramp to my interest in architecture, because I like to draw buildings and landscapes," said Casalino. "So, nowadays architecture doesn't involve so much drawing by hand, but I like to maintain it as a skill, and it's really fun. I've been doing it side by side with other academic and career pursuits."

Their creative pursuits have brought them valuable experience and, at times, some pretty high accolades. Arlow recalled her experience of becoming a published author for the first time last year with a smile. "It was interesting because it was my introduction into the world of publishing, but also through that, I met so many other Queer authors and storytellers," she said.

"It was exciting because I was living in Seattle when the book came out. The day it came out, I rented a Zipcar and drove around to every bookstore in the Seattle area and signed copies of the book. It was just really thrilling to see that some booksellers... were so excited and had it on their Pride display."

Images courtesy of the publishers  

Arlow's second book, How to Excavate a Heart, will hit shelves in November. The book is already on presale at the Queen Anne Book Company, the store Arlow works at.

Despite all her success, she remains humble, but Casalino was more than happy to remind her that she will also be accepting the Stonewall Honor Award in late June for her first book.

"Yeah, Almost Flying, my first book, got the Stonewall Honor from the American Library Association," Arlow said. "It's specifically for kids' books, and they give it to a few [Queer] books each year... There will be a little ceremony and a little conference in late June, and I'm excited about that."

"I would go, but the tickets are $1,000," Casalino added.

"I get flown out there for free, which is nice," Arlow replied, "and I wouldn't be able to go if that weren't the case... I jokingly tweeted... that they should have a fund for partners of people accepting the awards to be able to go with them, but yeah," Arlow said.

Photo courtesy of Daniela Casalino  

Inspired by each other
Arlow and Casalino's relationship inspires much of their creativity, from small scenes in their upcoming graphic novel to even just providing them with a healthy space to bounce ideas off one another.

"I would say this is the first healthy relationship I've been in. So it inspires me," Arlow said. "When I'm thinking about stories I want to write in the future or what we're writing together, I think [that] the way we communicate and our relationship goes into a lot of it." She said she sometimes puts a conversation or even a style of communication she recognizes between her and Casalino into the scenes of her books.

"It's fun to put those things in, even if it's just a little Easter egg for us," she added. "In my book that's coming out, we were just starting to date when I wrote and was editing How to Excavate a Heart, but even then, I remember telling her, 'Oh, I added something that was like... the emotions that I felt before we were dating'... Just being able to put those emotions into stories was very exciting and feels like honoring our relationship but also being able to share a positive Queer relationship."

"Yeah, I would second that, being in a healthy relationship," Casalino added with a laugh. "I feel like I have learned so much. It is nice just to take in romance stories, and now I can see myself in some of them. Also, it's very inspiring to be with a writer: you process a lot externally, so I have a lot of dialogue and story ideas from early on in the process, and whenever I have ideas, historically, I immediately thought, 'This is so stupid, why would I even say it out loud?' But it's very cool to [think] maybe you should tell someone about an idea you have and not immediately disregard it."

Creative collaboration has become a staple of Casalino and Arlow's relationship. "I'll talk to Daniela about story ideas," Arlow said. "We've been like, let's go on a walk and we'll discuss what our graphic novel should look like and what scenes we want. We'll take a long walk around our neighborhood and [say], okay, this is what we could put in there... It's just nice and fun."

The greatest story of their lives
It's no surprise that Casalino and Arlow can bounce story ideas off of each other so well — their relationship has so far played out as perhaps the most interesting story of them all.

"We met in college through a mutual friend," Casalino recalled. "I was illustrating at the college newspaper, and my friend was an editor there, so we would collaborate a lot on illustrations for essays and articles, and this friend is a really good friend of Jake's."

"She connected the two of us, because she found out we were both fans of this comedy podcast," Casalino continued with a laugh. "It's like cringe to talk about it now, but that is how we met. ...The first time we hung out in person, we were going to a recording of the comedy podcast... but we didn't start dating until a little bit after we had both graduated from college."

"And we have been dating for two years and change now," Arlow added.

They decided to start dating long-distance, with the idea that they would have plenty of opportunities to travel and visit each other.

"Yeah, March 3 [2020] was the day we started dating," Arlow said, "and then literally a week or two later, the world shut down. We were making plans, and then we didn't get to visit each other for a very long time. We would talk on Google Hangout every night for many hours, though."

They made long-distance work for nine months before Arlow decided to move to Seattle. She arrived at SeaTac on January 6, 2021.

"...A rough day for the world, and for the United States specifically, but yeah, that was the day I moved," Arlow said.

"I was driving to the airport, checking my phone in the parking lot, being like, 'I can't focus on the insurrection currently,'" Casalino added.

Despite all the challenges of dating during the pandemic, both Casalino and Arlow agree the challenges they faced early on in their relationship ultimately made them stronger.

"I think our relationship is very supportive and communicative," Casalino said. "I want to say that the months of long-distance where truly we could only talk for like five hours a day helped with that."

"I think having the baseline of our relationship, where we knew each other from before and were friends, and then dating when we could only talk to each other and ...get to know each other on such a deep level allowed us to have such a good mode of communication and understanding of each other," Arlow added.

"Yeah, and I think that we have a very similar sense of humor. We value creativity, I don't know, it is just like a silly, goofy mood all the time," Casalino said.

Photo courtesy of Daniela Casalino  

Advice for future creators
As a pair of young and successful creatives in Seattle, Casalino and Arlow have some advice for anyone looking to forge a career in the arts.

"For writing specifically, I would say just write all the time," Arlow said. "I will sometimes do virtual talks for middle schoolers and high schoolers, and they'll be like yeah, I write on a Google Doc, I have a shared Google Doc with my friends, but that's not writing. And I'm like, 'Yes, that's writing.'

"Even if you're writing out your grocery list or typing in your note app, that's writing. You don't need to have a journal and write these amazing things to be a writer. Just writing your thoughts down or writing a silly story with a friend on a shared Google Doc or typing out an observation in your note app, that's writing. So just write things all the time and connect with other Queer people and Queer writers and readers — which I feel is most Queer people, because we like to share our stories."

"I think I have very similar advice for illustrating, which is just to be not particularly precious with your work and to be very experimental with what you choose to illustrate and... use as a topic and where you illustrate," Casalino said. "Not everything has to be this big masterpiece contributing to your brand or your larger vision.

"Also, you don't have to share everything. For a while, I [thought that] every good illustrator is online and really into sharing every aspect of their process, but I think that as long as you are doing it for yourself and you're engaging through books and media with the kinds of stuff that you're drawn to, that's setting you on the right path."

Casalino and Arlow are active members of Seattle's Queer community and can be found on TikTok at @danielamakes and @jakewhosagirl, where they share some of their creative skills, favorite books, and reasons why they love the Pacific Northwest.