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M.A. Wardell Interview: ‘Teacher of the Year’ author on steamy romance and self-publishing

By June 15, 2023No Comments7 min read

In Teacher of the Year, the debut novel from author M.A.Wardell, he seeks out authenticity amidst the inherent fantasy of romantic comedies. Released May 9, 2023, the book has already reached a fever-pitch of success through social media, popping up on BookTok and Instagram pages dedicated to celebrating and bolstering queer voices in literature.

The book follows Marvin Block, an exceptional kindergarten teacher who is up for a local Teacher of the Year Award, a prize that would benefit both him and the school he works for. Having just returned from break, the New Year introduces a new student to his class and, due to this new arrival, her dad as well, the charming and handsome Olan. The two soon develop a friendship which turns into something more. 

Described as an “open door friends-to-lovers gay romance novel,” Teacher of the Year handles its deeper themes such as trauma and addiction with delicacy while keeping the emphasis on the central characters and their electric chemistry. 

​Wardell’s second book, Mistletoe and Mishigas already has a release date poised for October 10, 2023, and is available now for pre-order

I sat down with the author to talk about books — we’re both Alexis Hall fans — his writing process, the positives of self-publishing, and more. 

The intense writing process 

I wrote it fast. Part of my ADHD is hyper-fixation and when I’m not interested in things I’ll avoid them but when I am it almost becomes an obsession. So with this book when I made the decision that I was going to do it I kind of — in an unhealthy way that I didn’t do with the upcoming second book — it kind of overtook my life. It took me probably two to three weeks to outline. I’m an outliner and it’s probably not the most detailed outline, but I need to know all the beats of the book before I write it because if I wasn’t I’d be one of those people who are working on a book for ten years. 

I wrote the draft in six weeks — which is really fast but not healthy. I did nothing else. It was the summer and there was a lull in my schedule so I’d wake up and write and write all day. If I stopped to take a walk I’d have my phone out to take notes so that once I got home I could keep going. 

I’m an early-morning person and I get up around 4:30-5 am each day. I usually write until about 7am, I take a walk, and I write more once I get home. I have to have music on, it has to be loud and not playing through headphones, and I pick one thing to listen to — I listened to one album on repeat for the entirety of writing Teacher of the Year. I haven’t listened to it since — I killed it. 

About self-publishing 

The whole time I was writing I thought that I was going to query. When I finished the book and I wrote the filthy version of the book that I wanted, I had some people — some other authors — suggest that traditional publishing venues wouldn’t like a book like this, especially one written by a man. Aside from Alexis Hall, a lot of these queer romances between two men aren’t written by men. 

When I got to the point when I would be querying I started worrying about if my book was good enough. At that point, I’d only had two people who were close to me read it. I couldn’t accept their compliments. Then these voices in my head of ‘it’s too gay, it’s too Jewish, it’s too filthy’ started filtering in too. On top of that, traditionally published authors will tell you that unless you’re someone like Hall or Casey McQuiston, most of those people don’t make a lot of money from traditional publishing. There’s a reason most authors still have another job. 

I wanted to be able to quit my job. There’s a positive flip side to self-publishing. There’s an investment at the start of course. I had a developmental editor and a regular editor, I had to pay for the cover and then the marketing such as art that goes on my Instagram or goes out when I mail people copies of books. So there’s an investment but when you start selling books depending on if you sell your book through Amazon or a bookstore you get anywhere from 60-70% per book. 

Finding the cover art 

Her name is Myriam Strasbourg, and her Instagram is peaches.obviously. She’s well-known as an artist. I sent her a message on a whim after looking at other artists and mentioning my book, figuring she wouldn’t have time, especially since artists like her book out way in advance. That or I won’t be able to afford her. She came back to me and told me she had an opening and I could afford it and was thrilled. 

You have to start thinking about marketing way earlier than you may think and whoever does your cover is a part of that marketing. I love her art and a lot of people love her art so her doing the cover attracted attention before anyone even knew anything about the book. She shared the cover on her Instagram and her reach is way beyond what my scope is. 

People’s expectations of the genre 

Sometimes I get a little annoyed when people read romcoms and complain about how the story doesn’t feel real or that what transpired couldn’t happen in real life — because sure, you’re right. It’s a fantasy. 

I’d recommended The Charm Offensive to a friend because I love that book and they started telling me all of the reasons why that wouldn’t happen in reality shows and I was like one, reality shows aren’t real and two, this is a fantasy. It’s not supposed to be real. If that’s what you want you shouldn’t read these books because you need to suspend your disbelief. 

He’s ready for things to get steamy

When I read Red White & Royal Blue when it first came out I remember thinking like ‘Wow, this is spicy.’ On a scale from 1 to 10, I’d put it at 3 ½. I’d put mine at an 8. The thing about mine that’s not as spicy as some of these other, traditional male/male romances that aren’t romcoms, is that my couple consists of two, consenting adults, and the sex is explicit but it’s vanilla — though I don’t like to use that term. It’s adult and when I was writing this book I thought I was putting the pedal to the metal.

The audience for traditional m/m romance is mainly women. I can’t speak to other people’s sexuality but I get the vibe that it’s a lot of straight women. What I notice is that when women read my book who typically read male/male romance they’re like ‘Oh it’s cute, and a little spicy.’ But when gay men read my book there’s a whole different reaction where they think it’s much spicier.

Focusing on ‘Our Voices’

I love all these great rom-com books but, aside from Alexis Hall, they’re not written by gay men while still writing about gay men. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that especially if you’re queer — you can write about queer people. I just think there’s something different about a gay man writing about gay men. I hear from gay men who will say things like ‘I can tell a gay man wrote this.’ They’re talking about the sex and I don’t know how they’re different but I was very intentional about making the sex a little bit more realistic instead of just a fantasy of what sex is. I think that’s what it is often in this genre of books because like we’ve said, they are fantasies, but I wanted to balance it. 

I’ve read things in some of these books where, as a gay man, I know they’d never happen. But it’s fun. I wanted to try and write about things that really would happen. Then I’m also someone who knows the field the characters exist in and there’s also the Jewish community I’m able to draw inspiration from. I have people messaging me saying they’ve never seen this type of representation before which is why I do it. 

Allyson Johnson

Based in New England, Allyson is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of InBetweenDrafts. Former Editor-in-Chief at TheYoungFolks, she is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. Her writing has also appeared at CambridgeDay, ThePlaylist, Pajiba, VagueVisages, RogerEbert, TheBostonGlobe, Inverse, Bustle, her Substack, and every scrap of paper within her reach.

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