Black History Month – An Interview with Charlene Thomas, Author of Seton Girls; On Her Dark Prep School Debut, Female Friendships, and Navigating Publishing

Black History Month – An Interview with Charlene Thomas, Author of Seton Girls; On Her Dark Prep School Debut, Female Friendships, and Navigating Publishing

Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.

Our Friend is Here: Black History Month Edition is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond during the month of February, where Black authors are invited to celebrate being Black and Black books! Find the introduction post for Black History Month here.

If you love a story set in an elite prep school that delves into themes of privilege and power, then listen up: you’re going to want to read this interview. And if you love a story with a cast of Black and brown girls who love and protect one another above all else, then you absolutely need to read Seton Girls by Charlene Thomas. When Charlene and I connected last year and she shared what her awesome debut was about, I wanted to read it immediately – and I absolutely had to invite Charlene to the Pond so we could learn more about her upcoming book.

I love interviews where our visiting friends bring all their passion and love for their story to the table, and my interview with Charlene today is just that. Charlene visits us as a brown teddy bear wearing a pink striped scarf, a sweater, and skirt! I absolutely loved reading Charlene’s interview, and it’s amplified my excitement for this book so much more – I hope that you will enjoy this interview as much as I did and make you excited for Seton Girls as well.

So, in case you haven’t heard of Seton Girls, allow me the pleasure of introducing Charlene’s upcoming YA debut!

Seton Girls by Charlene Thomas

A smart and twisty debut YA that starts off like Friday Night Lights and ends with the power and insight of Dear White People.

Seton Academic High is a prep school obsessed with its football team and their thirteen-year conference win streak, a record that players always say they’d never have without Seton’s girls. What exactly Seton girls do to make them so valuable, though, no one ever really says. They’re just “the best.” But the team’s quarterback, the younger brother of the Seton star who started the streak, wants more than regular season glory. He wants a state championship before his successor, Seton’s first Black QB, has a chance to overshadow him. Bigger rewards require bigger risks, and soon the actual secrets to the team’s enduring success leak to a small group of girls who suddenly have the power to change their world forever.

Goodreads | Indiebound | Amazon | Book Depository | Penguin

Author Interview: Charlene Thomas

CW: Hi Charlene! A warm welcome to the Pond! Thank you so much for visiting us for Black History Month – we’re super excited to have you. For our friends out there who may only be meeting you for the first time, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Charlene: Thank you so much for having me! The Quiet Pond is such a great blog and I’m so glad to “be” here.

And absolutely! My name is Charlene and I’m originally from Montgomery County, MD, which is a suburb right outside of Washington, DC. I actually recently moved back to the area, but before that I spent time in North Carolina for undergrad, Atlanta for my MBA, and a few years in NYC just for fun! (Kidding, I actually work as a marketer and was located there for a little bit.)

I’m a big foodie and have a genuine appreciation for the pure ART that is reality TV. I love interior design and nail polish. I’m a big dreamer and my soul revolves around the people who I’m blessed enough to love.

Oh, and I also write books 🙂

CW: I am so, so excited for your upcoming YA debut, Seton Girls; it sounds like such a compelling read and I can’t wait to dive in this fall. Can you tell us a little bit about what Seton Girls is about, and what is your favourite part of your book?

Charlene: I’m so excited that you’re excited! I’m really excited, too.

SETON GIRLS is about a lot of things, which is what I love so much about it. On one hand, it’s a story about an elite prep school and its undefeated football team, and the girls who uncover the sinister way that the team has managed to keep its twelve-year winning streak. So, for anyone who’s a fan of prep school chaos and all their dark secrets, SETON GIRLS has plenty of that.

But on the other hand, it’s a story about privilege and the way it corrupts the ones who have it and scars the ones who don’t. It’s about power, and the way it exists even when you can’t see it, or when the people who are wielding it don’t look all that strong. In a lot of ways, it’s really a commentary on the things that certain boys have been able to get away with for far too long, and what it does to the rest of us when we just let it be.

And I think all of those things are really important to talk about, and – in their own ways – are some of my favorite things about this story. But the piece that might be closest to my heart (that I didn’t mention yet) is the female friendships. The way these girls love each other more than anything else in their lives. Their love is big, and it’s loyal, and it’s unapologetic – and I think it’s so powerful and magical to see beautiful, platonic love on a page. I think a lot of times it’s easy to convince ourselves that romantic love is the only real love that matters. But I don’t believe that’s true. I believe soulmates come in all shapes and sizes, platonically or romantically, and if you’ve been lucky enough to find yours – that’s incredible.

CW: One of my favourite things about stories is its themes – and it sounds like Seton Girls will be rich with compelling themes. Can you tell us what themes readers can expect to see in Seton Girls, and tell us how your own lived experiences have shaped how the themes emerge in your story?

Charlene: Whoops! I think I got ahead of myself and dove a bit deep into themes in the question before this. BUT I’m more than happy to talk about the experiences that shaped some of what readers will see in SETON GIRLS.

A huge chunk of it is inspired by how and where I grew up. In a lot of ways, I had what I would have considered an amazing high school experience. We were a uniquely diverse school and friend group – there were rich kids and kids with less, kids who aced tests and kids who struggled more, kids who were white and Black and brown. We were good to each other, and we loved each other, and people weren’t mean the way that you see in so many books and movies about high school. I think readers will see a lot of that carrying over into SG, and hopefully get the feeling that: Hm. There’s something special going on at Seton Academic. 

But as I got older and those experiences became memories, I started to notice our faults. Things that would happen at parties and then “go away” the next day. Things we’d laugh off that were actually not very funny. And that insight as an adult, mixed with so many of the headlines that have existed over the past few years, sort of created a ripple effect of What Ifs in my mind, and I started writing SETON GIRLS.

CW: I’m really looking forward to meeting the characters in Seton Girls! In crafting the characters of Seton Girls, what was something that was important to you in the way that the characters are portrayed – particularly since so many of the protagonists are Black and brown girls? What is your philosophy or approach in writing complex and compelling characters?

Charlene: I can’t wait for you to meet them, too! They are a HANDFUL, lol. But I had so much fun writing them. 

Characters, and the things that make them who they are, are one of my favorite parts about writing. And hopefully people who read SETON GIRLS will see that. When it comes to writing complex and compelling characters…hm. Well, I guess the main thing I do is stop calling them “characters.” They’re people, as far as I’m concerned. And they have to exist in my mind far beyond whatever makes it to the page. It’s like the first question you asked me in this interview when I told you a little about myself. I’m a whole entire person outside of what I wrote there! And I think characters have to be the same way. As an author, I have to know my characters as people first, before I know what pieces of them belong on the page.

And yes, SETON GIRLS does star Black and brown girls, and I’m so glad this came up because it means a LOT to me. I think that representation in all ways is so important, and – as a Black woman – I not only feel a responsibility, but uniquely honored, to showcase Black and brown people in my stories.

One of the things that I really wanted was for this book (and all my books) to star Black girls without the narrative being about them being Black. I wanted them to be able to be the smartest girls in school, the pretty ones, the popular ones, the funny ones, the cool ones, the ones everyone wants to be friends with – because that needs to be normalized. I wanted them to be the center of gravity, not sidekicks. We can and do fit as comfortably in those narratives as our white counterparts have for centuries. We’re beautiful! And I wanted to help all readers – Black, white, brown, purple – see that as truth. 

CW: What was the most challenging part of writing Seton Girls, and why? And what are you most proud of and why?

Charlene: The hardest part was probably landing the version of this story that I wanted to tell. There were so many different ways this could have gone, or parts of the story that I could have focused on instead – which was very much proven by the amount of rewriting and replotting that went into the final version. But I think that goes for a lot of my stories. I probably write fifty thousand words per book that I never even end up using. And I think that’s because I have to know what’s not working before I feel confident about what is.

And when it comes to what I’m most proud of…I think it’s the fact that I’ve written a story that I would genuinely love to read. I love books that can be read so many different ways, that have what’s on the surface and then possess so much more when you dig a little deeper. I love slow reveals and things you never saw coming but make perfect sense on the very last page. I love dual timelines, and when you feel like there are two different but fully complementary stories happening at once. And SG has all of those things. So I’m really proud of that!! I can’t wait to read it again myself 🙂

CW: Let’s take a second to reflect on your author’s journey. What was your author journey like? What is an important lesson that you learned that you wish you could tell younger-Charlene who was just starting out?

Charlene: Yes! I think about this a lot. I do feel really grateful for the journey I’ve had. It’s somehow been both uneventful and extremely eventful at the same time. And here’s what I mean by that…

I’ve been writing books since I was a little kid, strictly and totally for fun. In high school, I got a little more serious about it – and took my first leap into this Publishing Thing when I applied to the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards with a YA novel I wrote titled Poker. It ended up winning the National Novel Silver Award (gold would have been a book deal), and that moment inspired me to look for agents. I had a new book finished by then, and sent about ten queries for that before I got a full request. That same agent who requested the full offered rep. And I signed (obviously!!).

I didn’t know as much about publishing back then as I do now, publishing Twitter wasn’t a thing, and warning signs I would know to pay attention to today went ignored. So, I had a really unfortunate experience, my book died on sub after just a handful of submissions, and I was bruised. I was scared of publishing for a long time after that, and – for a few years – I didn’t try again.

But I gave myself patience and grace, and queried a book right before SG that had a super high agent request rate, but didn’t land in an offer. I had already started SETON GIRLS by the time that that other book wrapped up its query rounds, and I was excited about what was happening on the page so I decided to keep going with SG instead of revising the other book. 

I started querying SETON GIRLS in February 2020. I was really, really intentional this time and was only querying agents whose interviews I read and whose websites made me feel like I would be safe. That strategy worked and I signed with my incredible agent (Ann Rose) in July of 2020. We did some edits and went on sub in January 2021. Before the end of March, we got our first offer. And when we alerted other editors who were currently reading, we got our second offer. That’s how I landed with my absolutely amazing editor, Andrew Karre, at Dutton/Penguin Random House. And, honestly, I couldn’t be happier.

Honestly, I think the best thing I did for myself was taking those years away from books and writing. Because I think if I’d dove right back into it after my first experience, I wouldn’t have been writing at my best, I would have gotten ZILLIONS of rejections, it might have broken my spirit, and who knows if SETON GIRLS would even exist.

I say all that to say that I really encourage writers to take a deep breath and stay focused on their own journey and their own story. They say timing is everything in publishing, and I truly believe that. But it’s not just about it being the right time for agents to get your query or for editors to get your sub. It’s about it being the right time for you. To write at your very best, and try with your whole heart, and believe in yourself. Not every day is the right day for us, as writers, to venture into publishing. And I think that is 100%, completely ok. 

CW: Thank you so much for visiting us today, Charlene! My last question for you is one that I love to ask all of our friends who visit at the Pond – what is a food that reminds you of ‘home’ – wherever or whoever that may be?

Charlene: I love food ❤ This is a softball for me. Fried chicken! Because my dad makes it all the time and, frankly, his is the best 🙂

About the Author

Charlene started writing when she was really little because she has a tendency to love telling stories just as much as (more than?) she loves living them. She was sixteen when she wrote a manuscript that won the National Novel Silver Award from Scholastic Books and went on to minor in creative writing at North Carolina State University. She also has her MBA from Emory University.

Charlene writes books about the world we live in, inspired by her experiences growing up in Montgomery County, MD. She believes a lot in people and what all of us are capable of, and maybe that’s why she loves creating big characters who are steadfastly determined to change their own little parts of the world. ​

Find Charlene on: Website | Twitter | Instagram

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