Rebecca Podos’ second YA book, Like Water, stars Vanni Espinoza, a New Mexican high schooler who waits tables at her parents’ restaurant and falls for Leigh, a genderqueer mischief-maker. As they try to figure out their futures, their relationship will have to move beyond breaking and entering and smoking weed if it’s going to last. Our reviewer called Like Water a “worthwhile addition to collections of contemporary romance with depth.” Here we talk with literary agent and author Rebecca Podos about the Turquoise Trail, queer romance, and representations of family life in YA lit.

I lived in New Mexico and think more books should be set there. Why did you set your book in Northern New Mexico?

I did my undergrad in New Mexico when I was the same age as Vanni, at a (now sadly collapsed) art school in Santa Fe. A lot of the locations in the book are real or slightly fictionalized versions of my old stomping ground—the lake in the hills, the wildlife refuge, the weird little towns along the Turquoise Trail. When I think of those places, I remember who I was and how I felt at the time; unsure of myself, uncertain of my place in the world and a little afraid of it, but so ready to get started. The beauty of the Southwest, the plateaus and arroyos and even the particular color of the dust, is the backdrop to that chapter in my life, so it seemed like the only possible setting for this story.

Savannah helps her family, without complaint, both around the house and at their restaurant. Is this something you wanted to see more of in YA lit?

I really like YA novels that dig into familial relationships of all kinds, but I do have a soft spot for fiction where everybody is doing the best they can under difficultLike Water cover circumstances, where nobody is perfect, not the teens or the parents, but the love is present and unquestionable. In a way, Vanni is using her responsibilities at home and at the restaurant as an excuse not to step out into the world and her uncertain future. In a way, her mother is in denial about the depth of Vanni’s fears and just how stuck she is. In a way, her father has fallen out of some of the integral roles he used to play in their family dynamic. But there’s love and respect at the heart of their relationships, and I always enjoy finding that in stories.

This isn’t your first YA novel. What drew you to the genre and why LGBTQ YA?

My first book was a mystery, kind of a detective story, and I loved playing inside the conventions of that genre. Writing straight (hah!) contemporary was intimidating, because I couldn’t use my old plotting crutches. This was all about the characters and their relationships and the evolution of both. But I knew I wanted to tell a story with a bi narrator and a queer romance at its center, because reading (and representing) LGBTQ books has helped me grow comfortable with myself, with the teenager I was, and with my own sexuality. I spent so much time when I was younger trying to find a reflection of myself in fiction, all the while wrestling with the girl I thought I should be, how I was supposed to feel, and who I was supposed to love. In Vanni, I wanted a main character whose world wasn’t upended or even troubled by the realization of her queerness; it was expanded. And that was pretty cathartic for me.

How does being both an agent and a writer inform your work?

Agenting and writing absolutely feed into one another. For instance, I was lucky enough to work on a lot of queer YA in my agent capacity before contributing my own—books like Kenneth Logan’s True Letters from a Fictional Life, Sarah Nicolas’ Keeping Her Secret, Ashley Herring Blake’s How to Make a Wish,and Mackenzi Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtueand reading their stories helped me realize how much I wanted to tell my own. I’m pretty much a superfan of all my authors, and I’m constantly inspired by them and learning from them.

Karen Schechner is the vice president of Kirkus Indie.