Interview with Alexene Farol Follmuth


About the Author: “Alexene Farol Follmuth is a first-generation American, a romance enthusiast, and a lover and writer of stories. Alexene has penned a number of adult SFF projects under the name Olivie Blake, including the webtoon Clara and the Devil with illustrator Little Chmura and the internationally bestselling The Atlas Six. My Mechanical Romance is her YA debut, to be followed by a new YA rom-com from Tor (2024). She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, goblin prince/toddler, and rescue pit bull”  (Bio from author’s website).

Find Alexene Farol Follmuth on the following platforms:

A huge thank you to Alexene Farol Follmuth for taking the time to do an interview with us at Pine Reads! Her debut YA novel My Mechanical Romance is out now from Holiday House. Be sure to check out our review of My Mechanical Romance here!

Aruna Sreenivasan & Erika Brittain: To kick things off, we want to say thank you so much for agreeing to do an interview! We both loved My Mechanical Romance. The book was published by Holiday House in 2022, how has the year been since the book’s release? Any fun stories to share?

Alexene Farol Follmuth: It was so nice to meet you both at the Tucson Festival of Books! I’ve now done a “speed dating” situation twice at the festival and it’s always a bit stressful—8 minutes is too long for an elevator pitch, too short for any meaningful back-and-forth—but ultimately it was really fun. Has it really only been a year? Wow, not even. Living in publishing time is very strange—I’m currently working on things that will be released in 2024 and 2025, so naturally I’ve lost all sense of time. I thought the book had been out for centuries. As far as fun stories, hm… it kind of all blurs together. I have the best job, definitely, but also, not much time to stop and take the pulse of things. I think it has been especially fun to meet people IRL who have been reading my fanfic for years! I love when they drop their voice to tell me that, too. 

AS: I found myself deeply relating to Bel because, just like her, I adore a good glitter eyeliner and funky jeans, and I’m also studying a STEM subject. I loved seeing Bel continue to indulge in her femininity despite the stereotype that “girly girls” lack intelligence and have no place in engineering. Why was portraying Bel as a girl who loves science and has traditionally feminine interests important to you?

AFF: I think I recognized while in high school that I was very purposefully relying on performative femininity for my sense of social acceptance—the right hair, the right clothes, that sort of thing. At the same time, I noticed that the presumption of my competency appeared to be declining. Which is to say, the better I got at doing my makeup or dressing myself on trend, the less competent people assumed I was, including—and I would argue especially—my math and science teachers. I was starting to realize that my female peers in advanced STEM courses were shrinking; by the time I walked into AP Chemistry my senior year, there were only four other girls, none of which dressed like me or cared about the things I did. They were headed for engineering and medical careers, whereas I was already planning to go into the social sciences (my BS is in urban planning and public policy). I’ll never actually know if those girls took themselves more seriously than I took myself, which was what my teachers and peers assumed, or if they just found their sartorial effects more comfortable than mine, but at some point, I realized I wasn’t like them and stopped trying to keep up. The more alienated I felt by male-dominated classrooms and the lack of support from my STEM teachers, the more I intuited the message, as many young women do, that I had no place in math or science. 

Ultimately I am not a woman in science, and I think it’s the result of larger systemic patterns that routinely show girls the exit doors while allowing their male peers to succeed. It’s teachers assuming that interest in STEM subjects is inherently gendered rather than recognizing the microaggressions that lead to socially constructed alienation. Several years ago, I wrote a little romance between two engineers, and the responses I got were equally passionate from two separate groups: women in STEM who felt they had to be “serious” (aka masculine-coded) in order to be treated as equally competent to their male peers, and women who’d been pushed out of STEM because they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, fit into that mold. I wanted to tell a story that could have easily gone that second way—a girl who might have self-identified as uninterested in science despite being preternaturally talented in her eventual field. I wanted to be honest about what those exit doors look like for young women who will almost certainly encounter them, but I also wanted to give Bel, and all the girls like her, a reason to persevere. 

AS & EB: The book depicts the unfortunate reality that men, whether knowingly or not, often don’t believe a woman is actually competent at science. Even Teo, the love interest, often acts in a dismissive way towards Neelam, the only other girl in the robotics club, and towards Bel as well. What made you want to write Teo this way, rather than the perfect feminist gentleman?

AFF: In my opinion, dual POV romance is more interesting than single POV, largely because I don’t trust people—I think everyone is their own unreliable narrator, so if there’s only one perspective, I don’t really buy into what I’m being told. That’s a personal issue obviously, and yes, I’m in therapy, it’s fine. But the reason I bring it up now is because I knew when I started writing that I wanted Teo to have his own POV, both to deepen the story and to provide those fun moments of insight that I personally enjoy as a reader, where the audience can see both characters wrestling equally with new perspectives and feelings. 

I thought it would be significantly more impactful—and more realistic—to have a character like Teo whose biases had not yet been confronted, and to show how his relationship with Bel caused him to become the best version of himself. In my opinion, a love story is ultimately a tale of transformation, where both people are changed as a result of that love. I also don’t think it’s necessarily fair to expect someone to inherently understand their own bias or microaggressions—much more important than perfection, in my opinion, is the willingness to evolve and change. Granted, Teo isn’t not a feminist when Bel meets him. He understands the ways his resources outweigh hers generally, but doesn’t necessarily grasp how that lived experience is felt. He thinks his opposition to Neelam is personal, which is an excuse young men often make about their female peers and a belief they carry with them into adulthood if unchecked. Which is why I think confronting Teo’s misconceptions is helpful to the story, and ultimately more important than making him initially perfect. Because while young men should be called out for their blindspots and contributions to systemic misogyny, most of them see themselves as Teo—someone who isn’t a misogynist in the way the media portrays misogyny. The simple answer is that when I wrote it, I wanted him to grow on the page, but now, as mother to a small goblin who will be a man someday, I think my attitude on how young men are portrayed in fiction has gotten more complex. Individually vilifying young men can be counterproductive and arguably dangerous—would philosophies like Andrew Tate’s be so effective if young men weren’t constantly faced with “we hate men” jokes without a better model for masculinity? Accountability is what’s critical. What matters is the work, and Teo does the work. I think it’s a great takeaway for young women as well, because while we’d all love for the men around us to be better even before we walk into the room, the constancy of personal accountability is more important than the fantasy of total perfection. Our male friends, peers, and significant others can and should change, and that change is not unreasonable to expect or even demand.

Ultimately, it’s a love story, and Bel falls in love with a person, not an object. Teo has flaws, but he is also young. The best version of ourselves is almost always still in progress, especially in adolescence. That the reward for personal evolution could be deep, meaningful love is a powerful message in my opinion, more so than the expectation that everyone should come to the table perfectly formed. As for Teo and Neelam, I think that’s a personality clash—we’ll discuss that later because it’s more critical between Teo and Bel—but I hoped it came through that because of Bel, Teo will never again treat a woman like he treated Neelam, because now he understands the effects of his behaviors.

AS & EB: Speaking of Neelam, she was one of our favorite characters! For a second (emphasis on just a second, knowing your other work), it seemed like Bel and Neelam’s relationship might head down the girls-hating-girls route. Instead you subverted that unfortunately common YA trope by writing Neelam as a fully-fleshed out, complex character who had a logical initial dislike of Bel. Can you describe why you chose to depict Bel and Neelam’s relationship like this?

AFF: I want to emphasize two aspects of the Bel and Neelam relationship—1) that Bel is mistaken about Neelam (and herself) and eventually changes her behavior, much like Teo does after he meets Bel, but 2) Bel and Neelam are still very different people who do not become best friends. I think there are two primary mean girl archetypes in YA fiction: the mean girl who stays a villain and receives her comeuppance in some way, which was definitely a common one in media until recently, and its more sympathetic subversion, the misunderstood rival who becomes best friends with the main character in the end. While the latter is certainly often true and very satisfying (see also: Elle and Vivian in Legally Blonde), I wanted to write something I felt was much more real, especially for young women considering a career in science. 

The truth is there are fewer women than men in STEM fields, and the fallacy of scarcity—meaning, the mistaken belief that fewer resources exist for women, and that only a few women can succeed compared to seemingly limitless men—means that many of those young women will find themselves at odds with their female peers. In all likelihood, every girl who reads this book will experience personality clashes with another woman, purely because people are people, and for girls who read this book and pursue a STEM field, it’s not inconceivable that there may only be two of them in any given room. 

Social constructs suggest that two women who diverge in personality—and Bel, a non-confrontational extrovert, diverges greatly from Neelam, an introvert who thrives on conflict—should always be rivals. Narratively speaking, the opportunity was there to make them friends or even love interests, but I thought it was much more complex and much truer to life to make them professional allies. They aren’t besties by the end of the book, but they have profound mutual respect for one another, and they correctly identify the opportunity to go farther together rather than shoving the other aside to step into the limelight alone. That, in a nutshell, is my understanding of feminism. If you are the only woman succeeding and nobody who comes after you can follow, it’s not feminism. Conversely, feminism does not mean you have to like or love the women you work with. 

Being more tolerable to the men around you than your female peers is not the same thing as acceptance or accomplishment. It is conditional, and it will not last. But together with your female peers, you can change the rules and reallocate those supposedly limited resources. The purpose of Bel and Neelam’s relationship is to prove that together, you can win. 

AS & EB:  Another relationship dynamic we read about is family. Bel’s parents are separated, which impacts her and her siblings, and Teo has a bit of a tumultuous relationship with his parents as well. What about these family backgrounds felt right for Bel and Teo? Did you encounter any challenges when writing about their “flawed” parents?

AFF: My family was not a conventional one, and, growing up, I felt very isolated because of it. I’m sure it wasn’t true that I was the only one without the perfect nuclear family everyone else seemed to have, but that was my perception of the world around me as a teen—that I alone was different. When I’m writing YA, I’m writing what I wish the former version of me had had available to her, and that includes family conflict that doesn’t necessarily get resolved. Because that’s life, right? It would be wonderful for Teo’s father to apologize to him, or for Bel’s parents to acknowledge the tension their separation has caused their children, but in all likelihood that’s not going to happen, so Bel and Teo will each have to find their own way to cope. For Bel, it’s about resolving the conflict within herself of feeling pressured to choose to love one parent or the other. For Teo, it’s enjoying the moment when his father chooses him over work in some way, however small. It’s about loving their parents for who they are and accepting who they are not, which is something I think we all deal with in some form. 

I usually write adult fiction, so it wasn’t hard for me to imagine their parents’ perspectives. I wouldn’t say writing the flaws was difficult, but I wanted relationships that were genuinely complex. For example, Teo’s father could have been a truly shit person, but he isn’t. He loves and is faithful to his wife, and you can hopefully tell that he does care about his son—he just can’t separate his own trauma from his expectations for Teo. With Bel, you can probably empathize with her mother, who is going through a horrific time in her personal life and isn’t necessarily making the best choices as a parent. But you can still feel how that love is real, and hopefully get the sense that if we fast-forwarded five years, the Maier family would be in a much better place. It doesn’t undo the difficulty of this time, but the parents in this book aren’t villains—they’re just people. And what Bel and Teo take away from it is that they can be people too, flawed and all.

EB: Something I have to talk about: the dual-POV. Typically, I’m not a fan of dual-POVs, but I really enjoyed being in both Bel and Teo’s heads. I loved getting both sides of their relationship, and seeing how each character individually saw their world. How did you determine what plot points should be told from Bel or Teo’s perspective? 

AFF: I would say POV choice should fit one of two goals: the character whose interiority informs a necessary piece of their state of mind in order to understand their actions, or the character who will move the plot along at a reasonable pace. For example, we get a lot from Teo being happy in his new relationship rather than hearing from Bel, because Teo’s happiness is more straightforward and moves through time more easily. We jump nearly two months with little more than the knowledge that they get along perfectly and he adores her. By the time we get to Bel, though, we understand that she has now witnessed many things she wasn’t meant to see from Teo’s perspective, which causes her to have serious reservations about her own future. The subsequent conflict that takes Teo by surprise—he’s been so happy!—has been stewing for a while in Bel’s head, but revealing that too soon would have left the audience on a hamster wheel of malaise rather than allowing the robotics plot to progress and time to move forward. (And some of it is just about curating a vibe, honestly!) 

AS & EB: Speaking of Bel and Teo, their relationship splits the page time with robotics meetings and competitions. Balancing multiple major plots isn’t easy to do in any story, but it is especially difficult to do in a standalone book. What advice would you give new writers about balancing relationships and action when writing?  

AFF: I mean, okay, a lot of people will tell you my plots move slowly, and it’s true. They do move slower than other plots, because what interests me is character work and relationships. I’m perfectly happy with slice-of-life stories with characters that ruminate for long periods of time on human existence and I find slow burning romances delicious. So in terms of balance, it really depends on market standards and taste. 

The rules are understandably different if you’re writing for fun vs. writing for publication, but assuming you’re the latter, you should read a lot of books in your chosen genre that were published in the last 5 years, because that will inform how publishing believes pace should move and approximately how much story should be told in how many words. It’s not to say you lose all sense of creativity when writing for publication—what I’m saying is that the pace of my plots is acceptable to my industry because there are other books like it that sell, meaning there is an audience who enjoys the balance I enjoy. By contrast, I could never write YA fantasy—it moves much faster than I am willing to, and by that I mean there are more frequent action beats. But YA romance is more about character interiority, so my indulgences with pacing—places where Bel gets ready with her friends, or Teo sits at lunch with his, which to me are necessary because they prove both characters have life and love outside each other—aren’t total nails in the coffin. There is really no right answer, as long as your imaginary ideal reader’s expectations are met. A lot of times, that means you! Are you bored by your plot or unsatisfied by your character arcs? That is, as the poets say, a bad sign.

AS & EB: Bel and Teo are also both biracial, with Bel being half Filipino and Teo being half Mexican and half Jewish. Their biracial identities are key to their motivations, goals, and beliefs, and especially their relationships with their parents. Besides for My Mechanical Romance, are there any books you love that have good representation of biracial characters?

AFF: I definitely think the biracial experience is an underrepresented one, although for understandable reasons, since lots of marginalized identities are telling their very necessary stories and there are only so many non-white-authored books published a year. So not to criticize anyone (other than publishing as an industry) but biracial storylines are hard to come by. I think diaspora stories achieve some of what I’m looking for in the disconnect between generations (some recent ones I appreciated were Maame by Jessica George and White Ivy by Susie Yang) but in terms of the way I’ve never felt I really belonged with either my white peers or my immigrant family/community… that’s slightly harder to find. Celeste Ng has done it, I think, and I’m drawing a blank which is definitely my failing—I know they exist—but it’s all quite recent, so it’s something I think will grow over time. I did recently get an advanced read of Find Him Where You Left Him Dead by Kristen Simmons, which is YA horror, but I recall that it had some biracial ennui that felt familiar to me. Oh, and Going Dark by Melissa de la Cruz used it to interesting effect for a thriller, but it wasn’t a major plot point for interiority. Maybe When You Were Everything by Ashley Woodfolk, if I recall correctly? It’s something that comes up in my next YA as well (Twelfth Knight, Tor Teen summer 2024).

AS & EB: Fanfiction is something that’s often looked down upon or not held in the same respect as published writing, but a new generation of writers, yourself included, have often been vocal about starting off as a fanfiction writer. What did you learn from your days as a fanfic writer? Are there any similarities or differences between writing fic and writing books meant for publication?

AFF: The primary thing I learned as a fanfic writer was how to please an audience, which is no small thing. (It’s a chicken-and-egg thing as far as my choosing to write character-first stories over plot-first stories; fanfic is a character-forward medium just given the nature of it, but also, did I learn that from fanfic or did I start writing fanfic because I was already drawn to that type of storytelling…?) The thing that’s truly unique to fanfic as a medium is that it takes shape in installments, meaning the story is alive the entire time it’s being written. People are posting reviews and interacting with the story in real time, so even though that wouldn’t have necessarily changed my intentions for plot or character arcs, it did help me learn when things needed more resolution or when a relationship had been angsty for too long. My first fic had a complex plot with a lot of tragedy, and I remember very sharply realizing that I needed to find a way to move through the sad parts more quickly, to make time pass faster so I could move on to a different part of the plot. Things like that drove a lot of my ingenuity with form. I also learned what kinds of romantic moments people like, and what makes people really invest strongly in a relationship. I like to say that because of fanfic, I am always keeping one eye on what the reader’s heart is doing—is it pounding? Fluttering? … Breaking?

Fanfic isn’t the place to learn about plot structure or pacing for obvious reasons (if they’re not obvious: it’s because in fanfic two characters can easily leave the main plot for a side quest if it means they can bicker and be forced to sleep in one bed), but satisfying my audience is a consideration I make because I was beholden to a collective imagination, which I think might matter less to someone who trained for an MFA, for instance. While it might not be considered highbrow, I would argue that given the current trends in media (i.e., the prioritization of empty plot twists or character death for shock value), satisfying your audience is a noteworthy and wildly undervalued skill. Fanfic was also a forum that allowed me my ten thousand hours of writing with an ample constancy of peer critique, which is an opportunity many writers in formal settings never receive, much less solitary aspiring writers. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and I never wrote fanfic for the explicit aim of publishing—none of my books have ever been fics previously—but it was absolutely beneficial as a form of experience. Most of what I know about writing now is the direct result of authoring 4 million words of fanfic. (An obviously mentally ill statistic but, nevertheless, we persevere! 🥳)

AS & EB: To wrap up our interview, we want to know what’s next for you! Are there any upcoming projects we can eagerly wait for? Or, anything you can tease for the future? 

AFF: The third book in The Atlas series, The Atlas Complex, releases January 9 from Olivie Blake, my adult SFF alter ego, and my next YA under my Alexene bio is Twelfth Knight, a Shakespeare remix featuring girls in fandom and gaming. I’ve got more up my sleeve, including a third YA inspired by the Santa Ana winds and a new standalone adult SFF called Gifted and Talented, but let’s not get too ahead of ourselves… she says, melting. 

Thanks so much for having me, and thanks again for reading My Mechanical Romance!

PRR Community Outreach Lead, Aruna Sreenivasan 

PRR Assistant Director, Erika Brittain