Happy YA debut day to The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester by Maya MacGregor. This book requires major tissues, as we watch the titular character move into a new school around people who get them all while haunted by personal trauma and the ghost of a teen murdered thirty years prior.
Join me in welcoming this book with an interview with the author. Like Sam, Maya MacGregor is non-binary and autistic, and they took the time to share with me the inspiration for the story and the back stories found within, a sneak peek at their next project, and what’s on their TBR.
Crafting The Many Half-Lived Lives
Where did the idea for this book come from?
Originally, the book was more literal past lives, and it went through a couple iterations, landing in a more contemporary but with a paranormal flavour and elements. I think in large part, Sam Sylvester grew out of the increasing attacks on queer rights and in a lot of reflection I was doing at the time. I moved the opposite way to Sam when I was eleven, from Portland to small town Montana, and it was a huge culture shock for me. While Portland of the 90s was not the bastion of queer acceptance it is known as today, it was comparatively less overtly hostile.
In Portland, I hadn’t lost friends over having two mothers, though some of my friends weren’t allowed to come over to my house for homophobic reasons, but in Montana, I did. And I remember all too clearly kids playing a game called “smear the queer” at school, which is shocking to look back on considering Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder in 1998 when I was fourteen one state away. So Sam Sylvester is born out of the trauma of growing up in a queer family that isn’t welcome, in the context of anti-queer violence both overt and covert, and at its heart, The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester is about owning your own right to exist.
Sam’s journey is every bit as much about accepting that life is as inevitable as death, about claiming their place in this world and embracing joy where they find it. I think many of us live with the intrinsic and inextricable threads of homophobia and queer joy, of acceptance and rejection, of ignorance and adaptation. In giving Sam that chance to pen something new for their own life, I think I was giving myself permission to do the same along with the other Sams of the world.
Shep and Sam have an interest in true crime, especially stories of teenagers who didn’t get to see adulthood. What kind of stories did you research?
Honestly, as I mentioned above, a lot of that comes from a litany of real-life hate crimes and names of kids whose adulthood was stolen from them. Brayla Stone is one other real-life name mentioned in the book. She was a seventeen-year-old Black trans girl from Arkansas, who was murdered by her boyfriend when she wanted their relationship not to be a secret. I donated a portion of my book advance in her memory to Lucie’s Place, a Black-run, queer-run non-profit organisation in Arkansas that works with at-risk trans and queer people to ensure housing security and safe escapes from abusive or dangerous situations.
Most of the other lives mentioned in the book were from my imagination, but Matthew and Brayla were real people. Queer people, particularly trans people and more particularly Black and other trans people of colour, experience disproportionate amounts of violence, and Sam’s story, while it wasn’t directly informed by their lives, is still intertwined with them. While my life has not been threatened like Sam’s, I am a survivor of multiple sexual assaults, and I think often surviving a crime, especially such an intimate one that involves your body and breath and life force, can increase interest in other true crime stories as a form of catharsis. There is a lot of nuance and complexity in that as well–survivor’s guilt, C-PTSD, hypervigilance–that can become unhealthy, but it can also be a reminder that we’re not alone.
So I guess a lot of my research was informed by existence. I want these stories to be things of the past.
What was your favorite scene or moment to write?
Any interaction between Sam and Junius! Sam’s dad is such a powerful character in my mind–he’s the perfect dad in so many ways, and his relationship with Sam is something I envied when I wrote it. My own family life is super complex (I somehow have seven parents, all of whom I love despite being estranged from three of them), and having this one incredibly strong bond in Sam’s life was such a joy to write.
I think one of my favourite moments is something like this:
“Don’t say damn,” Dad says.
“That’s worse. Say damn.”
Were there any differences in the crafting process between this young adult book and your adult titles? Were there similarities?
I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I’ve always loved YA but had only written adult fiction until this point, and while there were procedural similarities in how I outline, it was definitely new territory for me.
I’m not sure if this is an autism thing, though I know many autistic people and neurodivergent people experience similar feelings, but I frequently struggle to place myself in time. Much of my adolescence still feels very present; I have really good recall (sometimes an unfortunate boon), and much of Sam’s experiences stem from the strong echoes of my temporal displacement, for lack of a better term.
When I was in high school, I frequently felt like I was already an adult and strangely older than my peers. Now I feel the similarly bizarre inverse of that. I describe it almost as feeling like I’m present in my whole life all at once, which helped me in the writing of this, because it almost felt like a conversation between me and a . . . more baby me. Sam isn’t based on me directly; they’re definitely not high school Maya. But at the same time, they are an idealised archetype for high school Maya. Someone I wish high school Maya had had to see in books. That aspect is probably the biggest difference between my adult books and my YA: that sense of fulfilling something that was lacking in my own past.
Can you tell us a bit more about Sam’s tattoo?
I love me some ink and have a full back piece myself. A friend once told me she got tattoos only when she could think of three reasons to get them, and I have adopted that philosophy. (Other approaches are also valid!)
Sam’s tattoo is a lot of things. Like the tree on my own back, the branches on theirs are about roots–building them if you don’t have them to start with. Water is about swimming–or drowning. The rest I’ll leave to interpretation. 😉
The Publishing Journey
What are you looking forward to most with this book coming out?
Oh, gosh. Honestly, I just hope it finds the people who need it, especially right now. It’s a bit nerve-wracking to be publishing in the current political climate, with attacks on trans kids coming a mile a minute across the US and here in the UK (though not as legislative here). I think one of the most surreal moments for me was realising that Sam’s loving, wonderful dad would have been a felon under Texan law before the federal government blocked its implementation. Unimaginable.
This was supposed to be good anticipation, oops. I think honestly, though, I can’t divorce the book from this context, and what I most look forward to is Sam being out in the world where queer hands can find copies. I’ve received so many beautiful messages already from queer autistic people like Sam, and those messages tell me that I’m not alone.
Are you working on any young adult projects right now?
Why, yes. I am. *sneaky Grinch grin*
I’ve just sold my option book, The Evolving Truth of Ever-Stronger Will, another contemporary YA with a hint of paranormal about a queer nonbinary autistic kid who watches their abusive mother die of a heart attack and then begins a search for the beloved foster mother who was once going to adopt them. Family secrets, the trials of friendship and romance, and the monster we see when we look in the mirror. We’re expecting a 2024 release for this one, but I’m so, so excited about it!
I’ve also got a Gaelic-drenched YA fantasy we hope to find a home for. Fae caprice and soulmates and shapeshifting princes and intergenerational bonds.
What upcoming releases are you most excited about?
Oh, god. There’s SO many. I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about Casey McQuiston’s I Kissed Shara Wheeler and really want to read that. I also have Rebecca Podos’s From Dust, A Flame by waiting for me to read, as well as Brianna R. Shrum’s Rebel Boys & Rescue Dogs (Or Things That Kiss With Teeth) on my pile just now. I’m really looking forward to I Am the Ghost In Your House by Mar Romasco Moore, and I’m currently reading an advance copy of Jenn Reese’s middle grade Every Bird a Prince, which I’m loving so far. Burn Down, Rise Up by Vincent Tirado is on my radar, as is Sonora Reyes’s The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School.
Just a few! I need six months off just to read, please.
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 they are working on another they hope to share with you soon.
Like Sam, Maya is autistic. Also like Sam, Maya spent much of life learning to mask autistic behaviours. Some of Maya’s special interests are:
- Gaelic (which you can now learn on Duolingo!)
- Dragon Age (especially Dragon Age Inquisition!)
- Gaelic song and poetry