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Justine Pucella Winans' debut novel is a thrilling gender/murder mystery

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Justine Pucella Winans and Twinklepop — Courtesy photo  

When Justine Pucella Winans started writing their debut novel, Bianca Torre Is Afraid of Everything, their goal was to create a fun, spooky adventure about overcoming anxiety. When the final draft hit shelves three years later, it was so much more.

Bianca Torre is a book about a Nonbinary teenager daring to explore the parts of themself that can seem frightening while also solving a murder mystery. Discovering their main character's gender identity was a cathartic way for Pucella Winans to explore their identity at the time.

"I was going through my own exploration of gender, and for that reason, I was like, 'You know what? It's pandemic, so I can't go outside and go to any groups or anything, so let me just work through this using this book,'" they said. "That's why, in the book, Bianca is also just first exploring their gender identity, because that's what I felt I needed to say and explore at the time."

While Pucella Winans did not write Bianca as Nonbinary in earlier drafts of the book, they did always expect the character would be Queer. "Bianca's character was always a Lesbian. That, from the beginning, was always something I included," they said. "I love to have Sapphic characters in my writing, and I feel like it allows me to explore that side of myself and feelings and relationships I had and use that in fiction, and add to the growing representation that's available in scenes."

Image courtesy of Clarion  

A not-so-predictable mystery
Bianca's gender and sexuality are minor points of contention in the book but are not the instigating factor that drives the plot forward. Instead, the novel follows a pattern similar to other mystery thrillers.

"If it was just a contemporary book, you would have funny characters and nothing really happening," Pucella Winans said. "I wanted to work on something that inherently needed to have things happening. That drew me to the thriller genre as well, because I'm a big fan of mystery and [thrillers] as a reader, but I just hadn't tried it as a writer before.

"I will say, without giving spoilers, [that] my biggest pet peeve as a mystery reader is when twists come out of the blue, and there's no way you could have solved it. I like being smart and solving the mystery if I can, so I always try to have some clues or make the ending still feel hopefully surprising but not something that feels like, 'Wow I wouldn't have guessed that by reading the book.'"

Its okay to be afraid
Pucella Winans hopes their book can help readers embrace whatever struggles they may be facing — whether it's a murder mystery or a gender mystery — and know that it's okay to be scared.

"I would love all readers to take away the idea that being afraid doesn't have to prevent you from doing things and that being afraid doesn't take away from your bravery," they said.

"That's a big theme in the book. There's this big idea that to be the hero, you have to be fearless, and Bianca is not that, as it says — it's in the title. You can be afraid, your brain can work differently, be very anxious, and have panic attacks, but you can still be the hero and save the day. Your fears don't have to hold you back. They can be valid."

More books on the horizon
Despite spending the last three years writing, editing, and publishing their first novel, Pucella Winans had more than Bianca Torre Is Afraid of Everything on their mind. When Bianca was in the final drafting stages, Pucella Winans started writing their second novel, The Otherwoods, a middle-school mystery that hit shelves last week — while recovering from surgery.

"There was overlap, but at least it wasn't everything. I got to experience things with Bianca on the YA side and then have more of an idea of what to expect on the other side," they said.

The Otherwoods isn't the only release fans can expect to see from Pucella Winans this year. "For people interested in the YA side, my next YA murder mystery — which is similar to Bianca in the sense that it is very Queer and very funny — One Killer Problem, releases next August," they said.

This novel focuses on a Bisexual heroine with IBS who has to solve her math teacher's murder along with her cozy-murder-obsessed best friends. "I think the people who enjoy the humor of Bianca will also enjoy this book as well," Pucella Winans added.

There isn't a set release date for One Killer Problem yet, but fans can keep up with Pucella Winans's progress through her website, https://www.justinepucellawinans.com and her newsletter.