We were thrilled to chat with YA author Maya MacGregor about their new novel The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester. Read the interview below, or in the latest issue of PaperBound here.
Can you tell us a little about your YA novel The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester? What a title!
The title was actually the first thing that came to me in this novel—originally, Sam had literal past lives, all of whom died before nineteen. That was the impetus for the title, and that’s where the story and characters germinated. Sam’s “half-lived lives” morphed through the submission and editorial process to become their autistic special interest, stories Sam felt compelled to keep alive.
Writing Sam was very personal in a lot of ways. It’s a book about a non-binary, autistic teen who has grown up in rural Montana with their single dad, and after a near-fatal queerphobic attack, they move to Astoria, Oregon to start fresh … and right into a home where one of the half-lived lives ended.
With the help of their new friends and love interest, Sam sets out to find out what really happened to this boy, bringing them up against a real-life murderer who has been hiding in plain sight for thirty years.
How much of your own experience did you draw from, as someone who is non-binary and autistic yourself, when creating Sam as a character?
A lot! A lot of Sam’s experiences in rural Montana are drawn from my own (I lived there from 1996-2003), and that was heavily influenced by the fact that I’ve two mums, and things were very hostile towards LGBTQ people. I myself was deeply in the closet until I was almost thirty.
I self-diagnosed with autism when I was in my late twenties and got my formal diagnosis at 36. A lot of writing Sam’s story was influenced by my own self-discovery and understanding the parts of myself that had made me different. I wanted to give Sam that self-knowledge earlier than I had it myself, almost as a way of giving a gift to my inner child.
I think when it comes to my non-binary identity, as an agender person who dislikes a lot of the language around gender (I don’t feel as though I “present” femme—to me, I’m a person wearing people clothes), it can be hard for me sometimes to assert myself. People tend to make assumptions because I don’t bind my breasts, because I love makeup and glitter and dresses. So writing Sam required me to unpack a lot of the internal pressure I feel to be androgynous if I want to be “taken seriously” as a non-binary person.
I still find that difficult. I have a very complex relationship with the word “woman” as it applies to myself, and I don’t think I was fully ready to write a character who was like me. Sam felt safer in that respect—they’re genderqueer, and their personal style does lend itself more to androgyny than mine.
There are also a lot of interesting ways that gender and autism interact—autistics have coined the term “gendermeh” or “gendervague” to describe the fundamentally autistic experience of operating outwith [nb: Scottish usage, not a spelling error, heh] expectations for gender and feelings about the same. It took me another couple books to really lean into writing a character closer to my identity, but Sam was very important to me in getting to actively explore non-binary characters explicitly.
How important do you consider representation within YA novels, not only when it comes to readers but also to yourself?
Vital. Absolutely vital. Just a couple weeks ago, I was in Aberdeen at Hazlehead Academy, speaking to 70-80 pupils from LGBTQIA+ equality alliances across the city, and it was really emotional to me. When I walked into the school and saw Pride murals, Pride flags, and more, that struck me so hard.
I couldn’t have fathomed such a thing when I was that age. And the kids were so eager to speak with me, to ask me everything from how to cope with lack of motivation for writing … to how to come out to their parents. It felt acutely important for Sam to exist for them and for my own visibility in that moment to reflect back at them what I wish I’d had beyond my own family (and the way we were consistently shown that people found our mere existence dirty and shameful).
I think I would have understood myself so much better if I’d had books like Sam, like Heartstopper, like The Gilded Ones and Felix Ever After and I Kissed Shara Wheeler and so many others. The day Sam came out, there were eight other queer YA novels published. The same day. Absolutely unthinkable even a few years ago.
If we look at the power stories have to cultivate empathy for others as well as confidence in ourselves, representation is simply integral. Humanity is a vast and vibrant tapestry—and there’s room for everyone in this world.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
I’m a full-time editor and a full-time author, and I am also a Gaelic singer and songwriter, so I keep very busy! I like to play video games when I have some downtime, and I of course love to read, though because I spend so much time staring at screens and pages, sometimes I just need to turn off my brain and give my poor eyeballs a break!
There’s nothing I love more than escaping into the Highlands, alone or with friends, to enjoy this beautiful land we call home. Last week, I was up in Argyll with my friend Hamish, spending the day hillwalking (25 kilometres, ooft!) and speaking Gaelic.
What books do you consider your favourites?
This is such a difficult question! I adore The Shadow of the Wind by the late Carlos Ruiz Zafón. It’s a Gothic novel set in Catalonia after the Spanish Civil War, and it isn’t fantasy, but it feels like fantasy. Barcelona is a character in and of itself.
Another all-time favourite is A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, which is I think where I realised how important representation was for the first time. Meg reads very autistic to me in her behaviours (she has set ways of doing things, often gets in trouble for being inflexible about it, is very literal), and I related to her so much as a kid.
In more recent favourites, I absolutely loved Caitlin Starling’s The Death of Jane Lawrence, which is a fantastic gothic fantasy with an autistic protagonist. Deliciously creepy and beautifully written.
Can you tell us what might come next for your writing, and if more YA novels might be on the horizon?
I’ve got so many projects working that sometimes I feel like I’m steering a chariot drawn by a hundred horses at once! In most recent YA news, Astra Books for Young Readers also picked up my option book, The Evolving Truth of Ever-Stronger Will this year, which is in a similar vein to Sam Sylvester (non-binary autistic protagonist, some spooky paranormal stuff, resolving trauma and finding family). I’m so excited about this one. I’m actually working on edits for that right now, and you can expect some news about it in the next few months!
Last year, I wrote a YA fantasy called Eatorra, which features (surprise!) an autistic agender protagonist who accidentally stumbles upon the Fair Folk in the west of Scotland and becomes one of them. It’s deeply rooted in Gaelic tradition and lore as well as intergenerational language transmission and coming of age. We’ve not found a home for it yet, but as we say in Gaelic, I remain beò an dòchas! (Alive in hope!)
Beyond that, I’ve got a lot of other projects happening. As Emmie Mears, I’m closing out an epic fantasy trilogy in July 2023 (the Stonebreaker series) with Windtaker, and that series has solid crossover potential for YA readers as well, since the characters start out in their late teens. I’m also working on something under NDA as we speak that will be made public later this month (!), and I also write under a secret pen name, so I’m releasing something entirely different in another genre next month. I keep very busy!
Oh, and I’m also working on my first Gaelic novel, called Sùgan Sàile, which is based on one of my favourite Gaelic waulking songs, “Thig am Bàta”.
Maya MacGregor is an author, singer, and artist based in Glasgow, Scotland. A fluent Gaelic speaker, Maya is active in many community activities in Gaelic music as well as writing contemporary YA and adult fiction (as Emmie Mears and M. Evan MacGriogair). Maya has a degree in history and is passionate about writing the stories for teens they wish had existed when they were younger and fills them with the type of people who have always populated their world. Their pronouns are they/them.
The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester is Maya’s first YA novel, and out now. It will be followed by The Evolving Truth of Ever-Stronger Will.
You can find Maya online at www.mayamacgregor.com, and you can also find their work at www.emmiemears.com. On social media, they like to keep things simple: you can find them on Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok as @Maigheach. (The Gaelic word for hare!)
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