Horses, magic, music, and a girl who gets the other girl: Author Audrey Coulthurst discusses writing Queer YA stories

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Audrey Coulthurst — Photo courtesy of the author
Audrey Coulthurst — Photo courtesy of the author

For our book club this week, I sat down with Portland-based author Audrey Coulthurst to talk about their debut novel Of Fire and Stars. Part murder mystery, part queer romance, part fantasy adventure, Of Fire and Stars has a little bit of everything. In keeping with our Halloween theme, it's about Denna, a princess forced to hide her witch powers from the rest of the world while trying to ascend to the throne of a new kingdom.

The book itself is thrilling from cover to cover, but the story behind the story is just as intriguing.

Coming out as a writer
The idea for the novel first came to Coulthurst around 2009 when they jotted down a rough draft during their annual participation in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). (Coulthurst uses both female and nonbinary pronouns.) Despite completing a whole draft in just 30 days, they tucked the book away in a drawer, hoping to forget about it.

"I was never really someone who considers myself a writer," they said, "but I used to do NaNaWrMo every year, write a book, then... throw it in a drawer, and then never think about it again. Eventually, I realized that's a weird habit for someone who isn't a writer: to write a book every year and think that's a thing other people do."

As hard as they tried, they could not forget the manuscript, however. "The idea for Of Fire and Stars kept nagging at me, because it was the book that the teenage me needed and wanted. I always wanted a book that had all my favorite things in it: horses, magic, music, and a girl who gets the other girl. I always wished for that on some sort of level — and probably would have figured myself out much sooner if I had had a book like that when I was a teenager."

Coming out as a writer was a process. "This was a journey," Coulthurst said. "When I was young, like in elementary school, I always wanted to be a writer. I always wrote these crazy stories about my cats doing absurd stuff, and it would always make everybody laugh. I think that up through middle school, I thought of that as something I wanted to do — but I went through a lot of phases of wanting to be a lot of different things."

Eventually, they found themselves falling victim to "imposter syndrome," brought on by a lifelong struggle with perfectionism. "At some point, I just started telling myself I wasn't good enough. I can't point to a certain thing that triggered that. I guess just my self-criticism and perfectionism. I was self-rejected.

"One of the worst things you can do is self-reject before you can allow anyone else to reject you. It's a safety mechanism, but it's not very healthy, and it's bad for creativity."

Ultimately, they faced the novel with a sense of introspection. "The idea kept nagging at me and nagging at me," they said, "and I was like, gosh, there's probably someone out there who needs this book now as much as I needed it then. That was what kind of drove me to start revising it."

After a few years of serious revision and hardcore research, they were able to sign with a publishing agency. In November of 2016, Of Fire and Stars was officially released.

Thorough research and thoroughbreds
One aspect of the book fans love is the deep plausibility Coulthurst creates in the fantasy kingdom. The subtle details they spent hours researching make readers feel as though that world could be a real place.

"I am a crazy research lady for sure," they laughed. "It's amazing the kind of random things you end up researching. My Google search history is terrifying. I am sure the FBI is watching me.

"The great thing about being a fantasy writer is you can solve [things] with magic and make some things up, but I'm like 'No, I want it to be plausible'... So I get pretty hung up on that kind of stuff. I'd say 10% of the research I do ends up in the book. But it's my favorite part of the process, and I think having that depth of knowledge [underlies] what you write. Readers can feel that."

For Of Fire and Stars, they did a lot of research on wounds — burn wounds in particular — as well as geographical weather patterns. "I was like, what would the weather look like in this sort of kingdom, assuming the mountains are here and the coast is here. I'm telling you, I'm a crazy person when it comes to research, and it's because I love it so much. I feel like it adds a layer of realism to what I'm writing."

One thing they didn't have to research was horses. Although kingdom in the novel centers around horsemanship, Coulthurst had to do very little outside research on the topic. They grew up riding horses and have been working with trained animals for the last 20 years.

Despite horses being a theme of the novel, their editors were wary of depicting images of horses on any promotional material for the book. "They didn't even want to put a horse on the cover of Of Fire and Stars," Coulthurst said, "because they're like, it might make it seem too middle-grade — because horse-girl books are so middle-grade — and I was like, now that's just insulting.

"There are plenty of us adult horse girls around," they chuckled.

Not only is Coulthurst a thorough researcher, but they are also a detailed planner when it comes to their novels. "I almost always know what the mood of the novel is when I'm gonna write," they explained. When writing Of Fire and Stars they knew exactly what kind of emotional climax they wanted to write, as well as what type of character Mare, the reluctant princess, was going to be.

Thoroughness can have its downsides, however. "I am unfortunately to this day an overwriter. In the first draft, I cut probably 50,000 words from that book. I write way too much, and then I need to cut back."

Overwriting has allowed them to explore some rich metaphors that otherwise may not have made it into the latter drafts of their work. "One of the things that people brought up a lot was how... Denna has to hide her magic feels a lot, like a metaphor for how she's also hiding her sexuality." Through metaphors and fantasy, they can explore challenges Queer youth face with empathy and tactfulness.

Writing young-adult coming-of-age stories allows Coulthurst to connect with LGBTQ+ kids who may be struggling to understand that they are valid. It also helps to heal their inner child, who grew up in a world where LGBTQ people were seen differently than they are today.

"I think that it's important to acknowledge that the world I grew up in — even in a relatively liberal city with a relatively liberal family — is very different from the world that kids are growing up in now. I think in the little liberal pockets of the world we are tempted to say, 'Things are better now than they were.' And it's like, no, not really... I think that visibility is helpful, but it doesn't mean that people aren't still dealing with very hard realities in certain parts of the country and certain communities. It can be tough."

Lasting impacts
Words can have a powerful way of changing the world, and nobody understands this better than Coulthurst. After releasing their first book, Coulthurst went to an event at the Pasadena Library, where they learned that Of Fire and Stars was one of the most stolen books there. Instead of getting upset, they responded with empathy.

"I was like, well, that's flattering, because the kids that are stealing it are the kids who can't get it otherwise, who aren't able to buy that, who aren't able to ask their parents for it, and who probably need it the most."

Knowing how important their books have become to LGBTQ+ readers, Coulthurst is determined to make sure all kinds of representation are in their books. "I always wanted to write novels about queer women. I always will write novels about queer women. Those are the stories I am interested in telling."

For them, this means including a plethora of Bisexual characters. In Of Fire and Stars, the protagonist Mare is openly Bisexual. In their second book, Inkmistress, the main character Asra is also Bisexual. However, Coulthurst received heavy criticism from some members of the LGBTQ+ community after giving her a cis male love interest.

"I also have very little tolerance for biphobia in the queer community," they said. They hope the book can remind readers that a Bi character in an opposite-sex relationship is still just as Queer as in a same-sex relationship.

Biphobia isn't the only criticism they have received for some of their books. Shortly after Of Fire and Stars was released, Coulthurst heard about including their book in OwlCrate, a book-delivery service. Coulthurst agreed to include it but soon began to wonder what sort of reaction it might receive. "Statistically, a lot of the people who are going to get this book are not going to be queer people. Are there going to be a lot of people who are mad about it?" They were worried.

Eventually, they got an email from a reader. "She [said], 'I got your book in my OwlCrate, and I was pissed about it.' And I was like, 'Oh crap, this was the email I feared.'" The reader thought being Gay was wrong and evil and told Coulthurst, "I was so mad about your book, and I decided to hate-read it."

But after reading the book, she felt compelled to reach out. She felt horrible and realized how mistaken she'd been. "And I was like, holy crap, she had completely changed her mind. [So it makes] you think about what a book can do for somebody. What's the difference now if a queer person confesses to [the letter writer]? And her reaction, what it would have been before she read the book versus after? It really can be the difference between an ally who saves somebody's life or somebody who's gonna make someone feel terrible for who they are. We have to give the cis/het readers some credit too, because reading these stories can make a difference."

Coulthurst continues to write Queer stories, the kind they wish they had when they were a kid. Since deciding to come out as a writer, they have been able to impact the lives of countless strangers, helping to make the world a more open-minded and magical place.

Audrey Coulthurst's books are Of Fire and Stars, The Ice and Shadows, Inkmistress, and Starworld. Find out more at