Hello there, GGA readers! It’s the most wonderful time of the year again. That’s right, Pride! And if you’re a bookworm like me, this year is gonna be extra special because the first-ever Pride Book Fest is happening. PBF is “an independent book festival to celebrate LGBTQ+ authors, books and voices.” It’s the first of its kind. Seriously, the first queer book fest. The virtual festival is taking place June 11 to 13.
I got the chance to chat with Steven Salvatore and Jacob Demlow, the two lovely, generous human beings who double-handedly created and organized PBF. We discussed the necessity of an LGBTQ+ book festival, the logistics of orchestrating a virtual event with 100+ participants and a little bit about their favorite fandoms. Seriously, y’all, queer people are just magic.
How It All Began
Melis Amber: What should our readers know about you?
Steven Salvatore: I am a writer. My debut novel Can’t Take That Away came out in March, and it’s about a genderqueer teen who gets the lead role as Elphaba in their high school production of Wicked and because of the actions of a homophobic teacher, they get kicked out. They rally their friends in protest against the school administration. I have another book coming out in March 2022, which is a queer romance sort of situation, and that’s called And They Lived. I’m just constantly writing things, so I’m looking forward to more things coming out in the future.
MA: I loved your book, by the way.
SS: Oh, thank you. You read it? Awww.
MA: Before I knew you were the ones organizing the event, and then I saw the names and was like, “Hey, wait a second…”
SS: Wait, I think I vaguely know that name from somewhere? I love that.
Jacob Demlow: I’m not an author. I am a theatre professional [and] worked professionally on and off-Broadway in New York City, directing, doing some PA work, producing, being a personal assistant, just kinda doing a little bit of everything. And then when the pandemic hit and all the arts shut down, I had more free time, and I pivoted to talking about books on the internet, specifically queer books.
So, I’ve been doing that since about February/March of last year. Then, on Bookstagram and Booktok pretty regularly and picked up Can’t Take That Away late last year and fell in love with it. And so, here we are, making a book festival.
MA: Where did the idea for the book festival come from?
JD: DMs! (laughter). I read Can’t Take That Away. My platform isn’t huge, but my entire goal is to help push queer literature and get it into the hands of young people. And I was like, I wanna help Steven and, I’m pretty sure I was quite annoying [telling them], “Anything you need, anything you need, anything you need.” Finally, Steven was like, “Hey, let’s do a book event.”
So, we did a live on Instagram. After the event, we were just DMing, and they mentioned that they had always wanted to pursue a queer book festival. I was like, “Oh that’s interesting cause I’ve always wanted to do something like that!” Then within the next few days, we were on a Zoom call. It was less than two months between that Zoom call and the day we announced, which is wild.
Putting It All Together
MA: I saw that you have like 80 people?
JD: More at this point. By the time we announce everyone, including moderators, including the bookstore people, we’re going to have close to about 100 people total involved in the festival. Which is wild. We’re gonna have 20 events throughout the weekend, which is really, really special.
MA: So, how does the organization of that many people happen?
JD: Lots of spiraling! No. We have spreadsheets — constant texting — and I think there are a couple of panels that each of us has been spearheading. We’re spreading the workload.
SS: Yeah, I think the load is spread out evenly. And it’s just me and Jacob. There’s nobody else involved in this. It is just the two of us. We’ve had people reach out, asking to volunteer, but everything came together so quickly that we never stopped to think what it would look like if we got other people involved. It’s easy because we’re on the same page with everything, but it definitely does get a little more difficult the more people we add.
JD: It got to a point where we’re having to turn away people. We would love to include every single person who has reached out to us. But in terms of our capacity, there’s only so much we can do, and I think we’re just about maxed out in terms of the number of events the two of us can personally do. So, we’re already thinking of next year. That’s exciting that there’s already so much interest, and I think if all that interest just continues, 2022 will be even bigger and better.
MA: Were you surprised by the level of interest?
SS: I think initially I was surprised, but the more we were talking with other authors, I guess it sort of clicked that [they want to do this for] the same reasons that Jacob and I wanted to: The fact that there isn’t a queer-specific book festival. There are queer-specific panels at other book festivals, but there’s not one, fully LGBTQ-oriented festival with all the different topics and themes and things that we’re doing. So, hearing other authors say that, “I can’t believe that this never existed before,” just solidified that for us.
JD: People are so excited. In the beginning, we genuinely didn’t know if anyone else was gonna latch on to it. But then, as Steven said, we started getting more and more people. And we got Becky Albertalli, who has been such a huge advocate for helping us find other people. She’s been such great support and so helpful. The level of excitement we’ve received isn’t shocking, but I don’t know if we 100 percent expected it.
SS: The other night while we were just about to record a panel, we were talking with all the authors, I was like, “Jacob [and I] we’re nobodies. Y’all are willing to take a chance on something that didn’t exist until we slid into your DMs.” And an author was like, “Don’t say you’re not anybody,” so it was one of those things where there’s this hunger out there — and I think writers and the authors that are involved in this have just been so supportive? And wonderful —
SS: — It’s been very humbling, honestly.
MA: Yay! You know, I was surprised that it was the first queer festival, but it makes sense, that people would say, I don’t know, like one panel’s enough, right?
JD: It always seems like those LGBTQ+ panels at the other conventions turned into either only talking about coming out experiences or the trauma of being queer or … there was no … we’ve already announced a queer fantasy panel, and you would never get something like that at just any other festival. Four authors talking about their queer fantasy stories. And we just announced an entire panel on queer joy. That’s just not something you can find anywhere else. I personally feel really lucky we’re able to get this kinda content out into the world.
SS: The panel topics and themes we have are all very different. There’s literally something in there for everybody. If you’re not a fantasy person, you could watch one on — I don’t know how much I can give away — but you could watch one on the romance theme situations that we have.
JD: Or just, the queer joy one we just mentioned has various, like geek culture. I don’t think there wasn’t a single fandom that wasn’t brought up. It spanned from comic books to Disney to Broadway to Schitt’s Creek. It was just this, pure — it was chaos. Pure joy.
SS: So good.
Why a Queer Book Fest Is Necessary
MA: So, my next question is kinda related to that. Who is the event for? Is it the authors? The readers? Who do you see your audience as?
SS: Honestly? The way I see it, this is for three groups of people specifically. One, it’s definitely for, in part, queer authors. One of the things that Jacob and I had talked about was giving queer authors the space to talk about the things that they want to talk about, that they don’t really get a chance to talk about.
So, when Jacob and I first reached out to the first crop of people we were very deliberate in saying, “What would you want to talk about — if you could talk about anything, instead of talking about trauma or pain or coming out or whatever — what do you wanna talk about?” We were really cognizant of giving authors the space to talk about the things they wanna talk about.
I would definitely say that this is also for aspiring queer writers out there who are looking to these panels and these writers as sources of inspiration. So far of the panels we’ve recorded, even though they’re not craft-specific, there’s always a piece of the conversation that revolves around the craft.
Then, obviously [the fest is] for queer readers out there who are just looking to find out more about their favorite authors. And I mean, honestly, I would love to say that this is for everybody too. You don’t have to be part of the LGBTQ community to enjoy what these writers are talking about, but we definitely thought that of everybody, this is definitely for a queer audience.
JD: Just to piggyback off of that, my biggest inspiration for even joining Bookstagram and Booktok, to begin with, was to help queer readers find queer books. Cause you know, for so long, there was a handful of queer books and those were the ones you got, but now there’s a plethora.
My goal has always been to connect readers to writers and connect readers to their new favorite book. And that was my biggest driving force behind all of this — just making sure we helped these readers find the authors, find the books and helped those authors get their books into the hands of the people that need them.
MA: If I’m not mistaken, you both are, or have been, educators. Did that affect the way that you went into this event?
SS: I would say yes. We are working with a lot of people from the book communities, like Booktok and Bookstagram, to act as moderators, for these events. I don’t think any of them have ever moderated an event before, so we’re working with them on developing questions for the panelists. So, my teacher’s brain clicks in, all those instincts sort of click in for me with that. [And] obviously, just making sure that we balance out our panels, so across the board there is good, accurate representation. I think that’s something that’s always at the forefront of our minds.
JD: And I would agree with that. I would say in terms of my background in education, I’ve always striven to reach queer youth. I’ve done a lot of work with queer youth in theatre education, and so that’s kinda the energy I’ve tried to bring. Bookstragram and BookTok are [about] reaching queer youth and again, helping them find the books that they need and deserve. That was the energy that I tried to bring when we decided to do this thing. I think, I hope, that it’s effective and that we are able to create any kind of change that is needed.
SS: I don’t tell this story too often, but I was full-time at a college — I’m an English comp professor. I’m always making sure that I’m teaching Black writers, writers of color, queer writers, in my classroom, and by and large, the marginalized writers that I teach in my classroom far outweigh the cis, straight white writers.
Maybe one or two pieces a semester comes from a cis, straight white person and it’s the most unproblematic cis, straight white person that could exist. But, I was targeted by my department chair because I did that. She came for me and basically tried to get me kicked out and get me fired.
So, I am always aware — and it’s really sad, right, because the college that I was teaching at was an Hispanic-serving institution. The majority of the student body were students of color and the majority of the faculty were white. And those who were queer were not out publicly.
Except for me, I was like, “I’m so f***ing gay. I just carry my pride flag with me everywhere I go.” And so I was just very aware, from the time I started teaching that students, and young people specifically, need to see stories that represent themselves.
MA: I f***ing hate the education system.
SS: Oh yeah, and higher education is broken. Beyond.
JD: Couldn’t be me, couldn’t be me.
MA: Sorry, now I’m very angry.
SS: Me too, me too.
2021 and Beyond
MA: Next, how will the individual panels be organized? They’re moderated, but is it more free discussion or—?
JD: For the most part, we’ve met with all the moderators beforehand [and told them], “You’re here to guide this discussion, but if it goes somewhere else, that’s fine.” We kind of let the conversation go where it needs to go, where it should go, or where the panelists want to go with it. And every single time we’re recording one of these panels, it feels like, “Oh wow, this is really special.” All these conversations are ending up really inspiring.
MA: What are your hopes for the future of the event? And do you see it always being an online event?
JD: Our dream would be to have an in-person festival. Though, now that we’ve had this year of virtual spaces, I don’t think that it’s gonna be possible for us to completely leave that behind. I don’t want to. I think that the accessibility that this provides, I think that you can’t minimize that. But at the same time, so many of these authors on these panels are like “Oh my God, I want to hug all of you. I want to be in the same room.” I think that there is a world that, like Hannah Montana so iconically said, [would] find “the best of both worlds.”
JD: It’s a gay festival, you know! Our goal is to have it be in person — obviously, that is a huge endeavor — and would take much more than just Steven and I at the helm. But now that we’ve started doing this — people, publishers are reaching out to us, bookstores are reaching out to us, and it feels a little more possible and probable.
But we [just] announced a panel with Sophie Gonzales, who lives in Australia. If we had done this in person for the first year, we wouldn’t have gotten her. We wouldn’t have gotten a couple of other panelists that are in the UK, that are in Ireland. Even though they’re not in the US, they’re still a very vital piece of the conversation. I just feel very lucky that we’re able to have them.
MA: I guess that’s the one nice thing that’s come out of this horrible last year.
JD/SS: Yes. Absolutely.
MA: Will the panels be up indefinitely on YouTube?
SS: Absolutely, unless, someone’s like, “I want this pulled,” for whatever reason.
JD: There’s one panel that because of a publisher thing it has to come down. Things are being read, and that will have to come down. But most of all the panels will be up indefinitely. That’s the plan.
MA: Perfect. And how can people help the festival?
JD: Promote. Push it. Retweet. Share on Instagram. Obviously, even if one person watches it and is affected that’s so important and so necessary, but we want people to watch it.
SS: Logistically, if we’re going to continue this next year, we need more than one viewer to watch these panels. We need people to express their interest. We’re probably going to have a link to donate, because if we’re going to try to do a hybrid-type of situation, then we’re definitely gonna need monetary support down the line to make that happen.
JD: That goes back to viewership again because if we don’t have the viewership that weekend, people are not gonna see this as a viable festival, and so that is honestly the biggest help: pushing this and getting more viewers. If you have a friend who you think would like a certain [panel], send it to them. The more people that view this, the more viable it looks to people that wanna sponsor us and donate, and then it’s more likely that this will happen again.
Is It a Fandom?
MA: Last question. We’re a genre site, so what are your favorite fandoms?
SS: Ooooh, for me, 100 percent Star Wars, I’m a big, big Star Wars nerd. I spent way too much money on a custom lightsaber when I went to Disney — before the pandemic — I just love everything Star Wars. I always have, since I was a kid and my uncle took me to the rereleases in the theatre of the original trilogy, and I just fell in love. And I just love Marvel as well, and everything Disney animation, too. Those are like my top three.
JD: My favorite — I don’t know if you would even consider it a fandom — would be any of those things, “but make it gay.” Actually, this morning I was on your site, and I saw you posted about In Deeper Waters, and that book felt like “Disney, but make it gay.”
JD: Red, White and Royal Blue has become pivotal and monumental in my life. And I feel like that has become a fandom of its own. The Booktok community, especially, has a mind of its own when it comes to Red, White and Royal Blue.
SS: Jacob just needs romance. Anything — I don’t know if that’s considered a specific fandom or just a specific genre.
JD: Gays in love.
SS: Just like in anything that he consumes — from music to TV to films – and books, everything romance for him.
JD: And the fact that Steven has known me for just over two months and has already pinpointed [that] in me, just shows how insufferable I am.
SS: That’s all he talks about outside of this festival.
MA: Romance, queer — what’s wrong with that?
JD: Right, right.
SS: Love it.
MA: Anything else you wanna add about anything?
SS: No, just, thank you for doing this and anybody out there who’s reading, just try to support us. We have a lot of geeky panels in the works. I think your readers will be excited about it.
MA: Thank you so much. It was lovely to meet you and talk to you.
JD: You as well.
SS: Yes. Thank you. Take care.
JD: Thank you.
Interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
This interview was originally published 5/31/21