Over the last 10-plus years, Saratoga Springs author Emma Kress has put in 10,000 hours working on her craft.
To show for it, her debut young adult novel “Dangerous Play” will finally be delivered into the hands of readers across the country on Tuesday.
The book, which Kirkus Reviews described as “timely and absorbing,” revolves around strong female friendships and surviving sexual assault. It follows Zoe Alamandar, a teen who wants to win the State Field Hockey Championships and earn a scholarship to get out of her hometown in Central New York.
She and co-captain Ava Cervantes assemble a fierce team of dedicated girls, however, things change after Alamandar is sexually assaulted at a party. She and some of her teammates decide to take justice into their own hands and help protect other girls from the same fate.
In an interview with The Gazette, Kress reflected on the forthcoming book’s publication, saying, “I’ve worked almost every day for 11 years and . . . dreamed about this for decades more.”
She grew up on and off in the Capital Region and her mother worked at Skidmore College, initially as an English professor and eventually in administration. Her father also loved language so she grew up in a household surrounded by stories. It’s no surprise that she knew from a young age she wanted to pursue writing.
“I wanted to be a writer since I was 10 but wanting to be a writer and doing the writing it turns out are very different things,” Kress said.
The Vassar College graduate started her career working at the Victim Services Agency in New York City as a peer counselor, facilitating workshops for teens on sexual assault. Then, after realizing how much she enjoyed working with kids and teens, she went into teaching. She taught at schools in Brooklyn and Philadelphia before moving to Central New York, where she taught at Cicero-North Syracuse High School for years and became a finalist for New York State Teacher of the Year.
While teaching and raising a family, Kress was also honing her skills as a writer.
“I started taking my writing seriously right after my second child was born in 2010, which for your readers, is a really dumb time to start taking your writing seriously,” Kress joked.
She often woke up before 5 a.m. to write and found snippets of time wherever she could to jot down ideas or work out plot issues.
“In some ways, it really helped me to have no time,” Kress said. “It really allowed me the freedom to be less precious about how and when I was supposed to or could write. The reality is you can write a book if you have 10 minutes a day. . . It’ll take you a while but you can write a book.”
It also helped her become a better teacher.
“My English teaching became more authentic because of my writing on the side. So I was able to talk what about a real writer does because I was doing it every night,” Kress said.
It also allowed her to show her students the perseverance and patience it can take to publish a book. Before “Dangerous Play,” she wrote two other books, which she sent out to literary agents and were rejected.
However, Kress didn’t get too discouraged, in fact, the more she wrote, the more she realized how much she loved the process.
“I was readying [my book] to send it to a writer friend for feedback and . . . then I remembered this revision strategy that I had wanted to try and I got so excited. And it was an ah-ha moment for me because I realized that if it was just about getting published, or if it was just about the story, then I would have been upset in that moment,” Kress said.
“It really made me see that I was in this not just to have a book in my hands but to become a stronger writer and that I was enjoying the process of becoming a stronger writer and that has actually served me so well.”
She landed an agent after sending out queries with her third book. At the time, she’d moved back to Saratoga Springs, was writing full-time and had enrolled in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Not too long after that, she got the book deal for “Dangerous Play,” which is published through Macmillan.
The setting of her book is inspired by the Central New York school she worked at, where she initially got the idea for the book in 2014. There she’d also noticed a gap in the young adult genre; there weren’t many books about rape culture or books about the types of friendships that can flourish on fiercely competitive girls’ sports teams.
“There’s a famous phrase in the kid lit community which talks about books being mirrors or windows and you want both. You want a book that is reflective of your experience and you also want books that allow you to have windows into other people’s experiences and I didn’t have many mirror books for these girl athletes,” Kress said.
While that’s changed in the ensuing years, Kress wanted to highlight the importance of female friendships.
“I think it’s so important because while I love romances, romantic relationships were not the defining relationships of my teen years; friendships were. And I think it’s so critical that we shine a light on that, especially showing girls models for how you can be intensely athletic and competitive and show up as friends,” Kress said.
The book also delves into rape culture and feminism. As a Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote, “Debut author Kress nimbly alternates between heart-pounding field hockey scenes and social commentary, acknowledging, unlike many books about rape culture, that classism and racism intersect with and compound misogyny.”
“If I have a hope for this book it’s that it can reach somebody who feels powerless and help them imagine new ways to be seen and heard and valued, and empower them to take a new path,” Kress said.
In celebration of the release of “Dangerous Play” Northshire Bookstore is hosting a virtual talk with Kress and Nova Ren Suma, an award-winning and bestselling young-adult author at 6 p.m. Before that, from 3-4 p.m., Kress will be signing books at the bookstore. For more information visit northshire.com.