He’s queer, he’s a bear, and he raps about La Croix and queer sex.
I love him.
REVIEW: The Navigator’s Touch by Julia Ember (September 13, 2018); Interlude Press/Duet Books, 256 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.
The Navigator’s Touch is the continuation of the story begun in The Seafarer’s Kiss; although you can read this one all on its own without reading the first book, why would you? I mean, more books, amIright? You can read my review of TSK here if you’d like—for brevity, I won’t sum that up now. Instead, I’ll tell you that while the first novel is told from the mermaid Ersel’s point of view, this novel is told from her human lover Ragna’s point of view. Ragna is a fierce warrior on a quest to find Ersel, the mermaid/Kracken (a punishment by Loki) who rescued Ragna when…
Let me back up. I’m going to be brief, because the novel itself contains enough of the backstory for you to understand what’s happening (and, even better, you can read the first book, The Seafarer’s Kiss, which is a new telling of the original Norse myth which Disney’s The Little Mermaid bastardized). Ragna is fierce. She’s also got a very special gift (she’s “gods-touched”): her arm contains a tattoo-like map that changes as she moves or as she wills it. In other words, she can find her own way from or to anywhere in the world, and she can even use the map to locate towns, people, things of value. She’s not the only one with this gift, and in an effort to kidnap the children who might possess it, a warlord burned her village and killed the adults (including Ragna’s family). Ragna’s own cousin is among the kidnapped, and part of Ragna’s quest in this novel is to find her.
Along the way, she falls in love with a mermaid, becomes captain of a sea vessel (and its disloyal crew) stolen from her captor, outsmarts the trickster god Loki, and does it all one-handed (she’s got a hook to replace a severed hand). It reminds me of that old saw about Ginger Rogers, who did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. Ragna does everything the other sea captains do, but as a woman and with one hand. I’m pretty sure she wears boots, though.
Before I address the story itself, let me quickly address how it’s told: it’s a page-turner. The narrative voice melts into the story, and Ragna is such a smart, powerful character, one can’t help but want to hear her speak more and more. Neither overly dry nor too flowery, the prose just whistles through the adventure.
This strikes me as a particularly feminist novel. Not simply because it stars a woman in charge (though that certainly helps), but because it’s the story of Ragna figuring out how to be in charge without being oppressive, how to wield power without dumbly blunt force.
The love story between Ragna and Ersel, too, seems feminist: they are each independent beings who love each other, but that love does not cancel out all other duties or desires. There is longing, and there is cleaving (both to and from), and there is desire and beauty, but this is not a story in which everything is put aside for the romance, in which romantic love conquers all. It’s a story in which love helps the heroine conquer all, but it’s not just romantic love. There’s self-love, familial love, loyalty, friendship, intelligence (that is a way of loving the world, you know)… all of it drives Ragna, and all of it helps her get where she winds up.
I’ve read numerous reviews of this book that exclaim over its violence and, yes, there’s some intense violence described, but really, how do you read a book about pillaging pirates and war and not see the violence coming? It would be disingenuous if there were none, I think. When I think back on some of the “classics” I had to read in junior high and high school, I have to laugh at the statement that young folks should not read anything violent because that’s not how we did it in the 1980s. I also remember lots of repression, lots of denial on the part of adults who told me that the violence I experienced in real life (as a daughter, as a young woman in the world) was not fit to be discussed, or did not happen, or was not a worthy social concern. Denying the violence is a big lie, and it sets young women (in particular) up to fail when they inevitably meet it. How much better, then, to give them the gripping story of strong heroes like Ragna who meet, survive, and even triumph over that violence?
REVIEW: Running with Lions by Julian Winters (June 7. 2018); 320 pages. Available from Duet Books, an imprint of Interlude Press, here.
When I was coming up, queer YA was not available. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when my adolescence was in bloom, I felt lucky to have access to Daniel Pinkwater’s quirky, witty novels and novels like Forever, Ahbra (by Mary Anderson) as an alternative to my mom’s old Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries. I never dreamed books could be written about real kids—queer, of color, smart, struggling, complex reflections of me and the other kids I knew.
As an adult, I’m not one of those avid YA readers. I’ve moved on, and there’s so much not-good YA out there… I like complexity in a novel, darkness, a bit of grit and no melodrama, and that order seems in short supply in most YA. All this is to say I’m not a die-hard YA reader like some adults I know, but I can really appreciate a great YA story when I come across one.
Found one, friends!
Running with Lions by Julian Winters hits the spot for me. It’s many things that did not interest me as a kid: boy MCs, sports… well, I guess that’s the list. Nevertheless, it’s a beautifully-written, softly suspenseful queer young-person romance, by turns tender and stubbly and gently humorous. It’s not deliberately wallowing in ignorance of the world (which is what turns me off about many YA books—young folk know what’s going on, and they feel it intensely; no need to pander, authors).
Sebastian Hughes goes to training camp for his high school soccer team, the Bloomington Lions, and comes face-to-face with his former childhood bestie, Emir Shah, with whom Sebastian had fallen out of touch. Emir is sort of a social reject, both because he’s crusty and scowly, and because he’s not very good at soccer. (I marveled-cheered because the fact that he’s gay and brown and Muslim did not factor at all into his exile. I mean, finally.) At first Emir pushes everyone—including Sebastian—away. But Sebastian persists, offering to help Emir train and practice at night, alone, on the field. Sebastian has to fight through that prickly exterior to get to the soft, nougaty center that is the Emir he remembers, but it winds up worth it; slowly, Emir cracks open.
Sebastian, who identifies as bisexual, has never been in love with a boy before, but he falls for Emir (who has). The rest of the novel is a slow, careful unfolding of their relationship, little advances and retreats, skittish acceptance and unpredictably cold rejections. It’s rather like watching someone try to trap a feral cat, but in a good way.
What, perhaps, appeals to me most now, as an adult looking back, is that not only is the queer romance front and center, respected for its complexity and not just used for its queerness, but the major problem in the romance isn’t homophobia, it’s history and mistrust and other interpersonal complications. Queer people, in other words, get to be just as interesting as straight ones, and we get our full and difficult-human story here. The other players don’t care about the queerness, and even the coach is supportive and doesn’t pay mind to his players’ sexuality or masculinity. (How different from Mr. S–, the coach at my high school who giggled and eye-rolled his way through teaching sex ed like a frat boy and never once even mentioned queerness.)
It’s radical that a queer love story for young folk is not centered on homophobia. (In fact, much of the team is either gay or bisexual, and sexuality is hardly an issue.) I mean, it’s really, truly radical. Everyone—kids and adults—needs stories like this.
In some ways, this idea (that a teen’s queerness is not an issue, that there are these queer-majority sports team-havens for kids) seems like a fantasy. Yet all fiction is fantasy (that’s kind of the point). Every single novel contains a made-up world and made-up people. As long as we’re fantasizing, how about a new fantasy with better values, one that doesn’t depress or scare the boop out of young queer kids just coming into their own, one that gives them something to dream about and wish for?
School librarians, please grab this book for your stacks. Parents, slip this into your kid’s bookshelf. Request it at your local bookstore and library. Tell them an unathletic old queer lady sent you.
REVIEW: He Mele a Hilo: A Hilo Song by Ryka Aoki (May 5, 2014); Topside Signature; 342 pages.
As a U.S. mainlander and a non-dancer, I don’t know much about hula or Hawaii, so this novel, at first, felt kind of beautiful-mystical-foreign to me. It follows primarily the lives Noelani Choi and members of her halau (a troupe of hula dancers) in Hilo, Hawaii. But the aura of strangeness soon dissipated, and I was pulled in to the jostling constellation of relationships in which the novel’s webbed. Hula may be the presenting situation, but it’s not the point here; thinking about hula helps sharpen and guide the point, and the novel is certainly generous enough to allow the uninitiated to understand what’s what, but it isn’t the point itself; or it’s not, at least, the only point.
In fact, one of the loveliest things about this novel is that it’s generous. The reader is admitted into the secret lives and points-of-view of several very different characters, and it becomes almost a Babel of voices (in several variations of English and pidgin), perspectives and temperaments and motivations, yet the reader is always drawn near, made able to understand and empathize with the characters.
At heart, it feels like a folktale: specificity and detail vibrate on a larger, more universal scale. The novel pulls together a sensual celebration of food, dance, love and nature, mixes it with some magical strangeness and reality-rule-bending, and makes it all hum together as something larger, both pleasurable and meaningful.
REWVIEW: “Mx. Bond’s House of Whimsy” at Bard College
Yesterday my wife took a vacation day from being a therapist and I took a vacation day from… being… well, being, and she whisked me up through the pouring rain to the Bard College campus in Annandale-on-Hudson to watch “Mx. Bond’s House of Whimsy,” a queer cabaret hosted by Justin Vivian Bond.
The cabaret was held in what I assume was a permanent performance space at Bard, built to look like a giant tent (but with solid doors and walls), a space so lush and glittery and fairy-lit that our seatmates were debating whether it called to mind a circus tent or the set of I Dream of Genie. I kind of think it was the latter, just without the o-shaped velvet couch.
Mx. Bond hosted the evening, and so was less present on stage than I’d wished (I kept hoping for a song or something, but Bond graciously played empressarix to other queer acts). I’ve been a fan of Mx. Bond’s since seeing Shortbus, the heartbreaking film by John Cameron Mitchell in which Mx. Bond was featured, so I came ready for v. But the featured acts were so fun I hardly cared Bond wasn’t the star.
First, I was beside myself a little bit when I spied Leigh Crow (Elvis Herselvis, one of my longtime Drag King heroes) waiting in the wings, who came onstage twice to croon out some Presley hits. Herselvis/Crow is a dreamy butch king/King who can really belt and kind of sparkles an oozy, smarmy-but-magnetic sexuality on stage. I’m not sure if it’s the actually-beautiful-and-powerful singing or the wink-wink type of charm that gets me every time, but I’m got. If I were thinner or more spry, my panties would have dropped. As it was, I just settled for a hot flash and a bit of starstruck fangirling. (I’m old enough now at 47 that perhaps it’s the wrong term… maybe “fanwomaning” is better?) (No. No, it is not.)
Davon, a dancer who lip-synched/danced to some iconic singers, moved Mx Bond (and me) to tears with a beautiful performance about having been hooked on Crystal Meth. Davon danced to music from Porgy and Bess and an aria sung (I think) by Jessye Norman, among other music, and all of It had resonance around Blackness and queerness, and I got good and shattered. One often gets into trouble trying to articulate what’s going on in art… and why would you, when it’s so rightly said by the art itself? I just nod: yes, yes.
As a disabled person who had a youth of able-bodiedness, I always get a bit choked up when I see beautiful dance—that a body can be and do what the body on stage is and does (the agility, the self-possession, the body-as-expression-and-creation) just gets me, it’s so perfectly queer and beautiful. So when the next act, Sadonna—which is a contraction of “Sad Madonna”—came onstage, it was an immense, throat-lump-melting relief. I mean, I was raised by a midwestern white American and an image-conscious Greek immigrant, so public crying is absolutely out of the question.
Sadonna does sad versions of classic Madonna songs—both musically right on and intelligently funny. The leader, Miguel Gutierrez, is funny, but he’s also a beautiful singer; the group (Gutierrez, plus the three Slutinos–Sad Latino boys backup singers) manages to pull to the surface the mournful potential of Madonna’s poppy bubblegum, but balances it with clever wit and the relief of pure camp.
Star Amerasu sang original dance music—confident, bouncy, hair-flipping fun. I think Amerasu might have a great career as a songwriter; there were some nice pop complexities and textures in there.
I flipped a little when Big Dipper was called to the stage—a former student introduced me to his work years ago, and I fell in love with the brainy sendup of that crotch-grabbing, girl-objectifying, hypermasculinist brand of hiphop he ironizes by unabashedly queering it. Apparently, he gets accused often of being “dirty” because his lyrics are explicit in their objectification of bearish men and a frank glorification of gay sex, but it strikes me as a kind of performance art he’s doing, getting folks to balk at the openly queer sexuality when a similar frank-but-hetero sexuality is accepted (perhaps even expected or required) in mainstream hiphop.
That was the roundup of folks, and it was rightly-paced and emotionally-balanced. And it was, as I said, a happy relief to be back in a queer space. Of course, as do many queer spaces nowadays, it held its share of straight folk, most of them white and older and coupled. What felt like a steep ticket price to a lesbian couple may have felt like nothing to middle class established straight couples, and may have been unimaginable to younger queers, but swinging it felt well worth the scrimping we’ll do in other expenses to balance it. And the mainstream folks who were there—the older, white married couples—seemed down and eager to support the performers.
Here’s the gyst: seek out these artists online or, when you can, in live performance. Follow Mx. Bond for new ideas and empressarix services. And more generally, when you find a queer artist whose work moves you, tell them.
REVIEW: Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan (Reprint edition: April 9, 2017); Broadway Books; 306 pages.
I’ve known of Jennifer Finney Boylan as an activist and scholar from my days as a professor teaching queer theory. What somehow eluded me all those years was that she also writes fiction. I discovered this quite by accident when I happened upon mention of her novel Long Black Veil (yep, the title is a nod to Johnny Cash) and picked it up, mostly because I knew who she is and I was really curious.
I’m glad dumb luck led me there, because I stumbled on a book I wound up really loving.
Long Black Veil is a sort of mystery, though It’s not a whodunnit by any means. It’s about a group of young folks who get lost in a creepy old jail and one of them winds up gone and is later found dead. There’s suspense for a while, until you find out who was responsible for her death and why, but that isn’t really the point. It’s about the fallout, the way all the other characters deal with loss, guilt, survival and moving on.
This horrible moment in the past is juxtaposed against the narrative of a trans character who, rather than come out to her friends as trans, winds up disappearing herself in a flaming car wreck so she can establish her transition and emerge a new person, with a new name and a new life.
These two enormous events, both in some measure traumatizing, wind up informing each other—at least for this reader. Judith, who is trans, winds up in a similar situation to those who are guilty of bringing about her friend’s death—she must “kill” her former boy self, then cover up her tracks and keep the secret forever, even from those she loves most (like her husband and son). In doing so, she loses connections to her former friends, and must grieve in secret, telling neither her former friends nor her new family. She winds up alone and in pain, and must struggle with the fear of losing (or having lost) those she loves if ever her true, whole self is discovered.
I pounced on this book not only because Boylan wrote it, but because the description I’d read suggested it is queer magic realism—a category I had, up until recently, thought I may have invented. It just seems so right to me, since magic realism is about the natural and the fantastic juxtaposed, the realness of something that we believe cannot be real; and since magic realism’s initial incarnation was as a form of protest against repressive political systems. But please, reader, please gliss past my hubris here, because it turns out queer magic realism is a thing already.
The novel has elements of this—it is a beautifully strange landscape of events, ripped up by the frequent intrusion of the everyday. Sometimes there are ghosts and visions, and sometimes they are just mirrors—characters are haunted by the ghosts of their pasts, but also by visions of themselves. Dead folks are not the only ghosts, friends, and they’re often not the ghosts most haunting us.
Perhaps I’m not making it sound so, but the writing is quite deft, very smart, and entirely believable, no matter how strange it gets. At its heart, it’s about loss and rejection—both of friends and family, but also of one’s history, one’s identity, one’s self. It’s about how you remake your life in the face of gut-ripping change. It’s about how you grow into newness, and what happens to the old parts of you when you do grow into something new.
Tom Wilinsky and Jen Sternick are the authors of Snowsisters (Duet Books/Interlude Press, Feb 15, 2018), a young adult novel about… well, I’ll let them tell you (they will).
Tom Wilinsky: We’re very excited to be having our debut novel published! Jen and I have known each other since our freshman year in high school, but as writers, we’ve only known each other for two-and-a-half years. We spent our high school years in Massachusetts, but moved around and apart starting in college.
Jen Sternick: Now, we live in separate states, but not too far apart. I’m in Rhode Island and Tom is in New York. I have a husband, two kids and a cat. Tom has a partner and a cat. When we first met, we started talking and passing notes—very high school—and we’ve been doing the same thing ever since.
Alysia Constantine: You two write together as a team, so I am fascinated by you. You are like some bizarre chimera and I want to put you in a cage and stare at you. But, like, one of the nice new “environment” cages that the zoos have now, not the iron-barred depressing cages like the Bronx Zoo had when I was a kid. I mean, I’m not cruel, I’m just fascinated and I want to watch you in a simulacrum of your natural habitat. Is that weird? What kinds of reactions do you get when people find out you’re a writing team?
Jen: Well, apparently co-authors are bizarre, because that’s the thing we get asked about the most. But we love to talk about co-authoring, and we’ve never written any other way, so stare away!
Tom: When we meet other co-authors, they tell us they get the same reaction. People are fascinated with how two people write as a team.
We discuss all the time how much easier we find it to split the tasks of writing, editing, revising and managing social media, not to mention keeping up with reading YA literature. Did we mention drafting? Snowsisters is the first book we’ve had accepted for publication, so we are learning as we go, but there hasn’t been a step in the process yet that we haven’t found easier to manage with a partner.
Jen: We love the back-and-forth of collaborating. We find it both confusing and amusing that other authors think writing is a solitary exercise
Alysia: How did you start working together? WHY did you start working together? How did you two kids meet?
Tom: Jen and I have been swapping books, observations and strong opinions since high school; paper notes we passed in study hall gave way to letters in college, which gave way to emails and texts. A few years ago, Jen started sending me short fictionalized pieces about significant and everyday events, a daily journal of her trip to Provence with her mother, meeting up with a high school friend after several years, and others. I sent a bunch back and it was fun to share, compare and discuss our writing
In 2015, I read Heidi Pitlor’s The Daylight Marriage, a gripping novel written in two perspectives. The structure of the book was so clear that I thought we could do it. I tentatively told Jen in an email that I thought we could and she picked up on it immediately. She often tells me to stop pulling my punches!
Jen: When my son came out a few years ago, I was at a loss for what kind of fiction to give him to read. It’s embarrassing to admit this now, but the only novel (really a short story) I came up with was Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx. My son loved it, but when he asked for “a rom-com for gay boys” I knew I needed to help him find more positive representation and I had no idea where to look. Teachers and librarians had limited suggestions. Tom had some ideas, but many of them were from years ago, and not particularly uplifting.
Tom and Jen: We both started voraciously searching for and reading LGBTQIAP+ young adult fiction and comparing notes.
Once we decided to write our own book, it didn’t take much to settle on creating a book that we were still having a hard time finding–one focused not just on coming out, but on being out, as a young person. We wanted to explore the questions we knew queer kids had: How do I find someone like me? What does having sex mean for me? How do I handle prejudice and ignorance in others? What will my life be like? And we wanted to write happy endings. In the past two years, it’s amazing how much this genre has exploded in quantity and quality. We’re very excited to contribute to it.
Alysia: Because there are two of you and I am assuming you do not have some sort of Matrix/bumblebee/cultish hive mind, I’m assuming you have two different voices. How do you blend things so that the finished novel has a consistent voice
Tom: Hey, I’m a beekeeper–don’t knock the hive mind!
Jen: Each of us has the initial responsibility to write from one character’s POV. But by the time we are done editing and revising, it’s often hard to tell who wrote what. And sometimes I’ll have an idea that I want to write down that needs to be told from Tom’s character’s voice. But I always ask him to edit the voice to read the way he wants it to. On our weekend talks, we go over what each of us has done and what we need to do next. Tom works through new scenes and identifies what does and doesn’t match our storyline. We adjust either the scene or the outline accordingly.
Tom: It’s important to us to have distinctive voices in a story. I think it drives characters’ personalities and I know it helps me to understand them. That being said, right now we are working on a manuscript with three POV’s and we will probably split them by gender–since two are female and one is male.
Alysia: Could you please give us the elevator pitch for Snowsisters? What’s it about?
Tom and Jen: High school students—Soph, who attends private school in Manhattan, and Tess, a public school student who lives on a dairy farm in New Hampshire—are thrown together as roommates at a week-long writing conference. As they get to know each other and the other young women, both Soph and Tess discover unexpected truths about friendship, their craft, and how to hold fast to their convictions while opening their hearts to love.
Jen: That’s the elevator pitch. But honestly, Snowsisters is about a lot more. It’s about young women writers finding their voices. It’s about girls meeting girls who seem very different from one another but turn out to share many, many things. It’s about the magical quality of love in the snow.
Tom: All of the main characters and virtually all of the minor characters in this book are women. They are cis and trans, gay and straight. We wanted to center women’s voices, and except for three very minor characters, we managed to do so. We’re pretty excited about that as well.
Alysia: Why did you want to center women’s voices? The conventional wisdom is that men’s stories sell better than others, and so there’s pressure to produce stories for/about men/boys at the expense of other stories. Personally, I love the shift you’re doing, and I don’t think the economic incentive to exclude women’s voices will go away until there are more stories for women, girls, and nonbinary folk to sell to non-cismale readers. It’s probably a chicken-egg problem.
That old coming-out narrative most of us over 30 know by heart is less and less common among younger folks nowadays. (And anyway, that “coming out” thing always struck me as false, as if you do it once and there’s one big moment of revelation–I still come out, even though I’m “out”—in every new situation, with every new person I meet, I have to decide whether or not I shall “reveal” myself as queer. How tiring.)
I guess all that is to say: seems like it’s time for new narratives.
What was writing it like?
Jen: We confess that Snowsisters is not our first novel. Our first novel is a gay YA romance set in a summer camp. It has not yet found a publisher. After we finished it, Tom suggested writing something in women’s voices. At roughly the same time, Interlude Press put out a request for short stories with winter themes.
Tom: The timing was perfect. My niece, a junior in high school, had just come back from a writing seminar in Vermont. Although that took place in May, I could see it happening over President’s Day Weekend. Jen and I had been discussing how much YA LGBTQIAP+ romance seemed to feature boys and that was another reason to try writing one for girls. I’ve been a city person for most of my adult life, while Jen has mostly lived in small towns.That led us to a “city-mouse-country mouse” theme, which fit with the “opposites attract” trope Interlude was looking for.
I think it took us about sixty days to write Snowsisters, the short story. We were pretty reductive in our writing. There was a lot to include and not much room for extra characters.
Jen: After we submitted Snowsisters, we got a call from Interlude asking us to expand the story to novel-length. We agreed without having any idea what we were getting into! It took another four months to push the story out in all directions. It was very difficult. Every time we added another chapter it messed something up that we had established earlier in the book. There was lots of finicky editing which I am not patient with. If I had been working on my own, I would probably still be at it. Tom really pushed the project to where it needed to be for resubmission.
Alysia: How do you do writing? Do you do the actual putting-words-on-pages alone and plot together, or do you put the words down together as you go? Are you in the same room? How often do you confer? I’m looking for a picture of how you two write something as a team.
Tom: I live in New York and Jen lives in Rhode Island, but I travel regularly to Massachusetts to attend to my elderly mother, so when we first discussed the idea of co-authoring, we arranged to meet for brunch on a rainy Sunday in June 2015 in Providence, and talk about our first novel. Don’t let Jen tell you she’s not methodical–she was the one with the notebook and pen. I just blabbed out potential situations and directions while Jen imposed some order on the chaos. I don’t remember who suggested it first, but we wanted to each take a character and write that character’s voice in the first person.
Jen: We talked in general terms about what we wanted to write, settling on a novel about young gay people meeting other [young gay people], not a coming-out novel, a survival tale or a downer. Then we bounced back-and-forth about where to set it and what the main characters would be like. We came up with individual and group nicknames for the characters. That was fun–it brought them to life. We talked a little about a story arc, but we didn’t have unlimited time.
Tom: In fact, the waitress asked us to leave! It was okay, though. I needed to get back home and I think Jen was excited to start writing. A week later, I sent Jen a first draft of something, the main character’s opening statement of identity and goals. Jen liked it, but then she did me one better. She wrote a short adventure chapter, one in which the two boys met and misunderstood each other.
Jen: Ideas for scenes and story directions pop into my head all the time. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with a good one or a nagging concern. It is not uncommon for me to text Tom from the grocery store something like: “a high schooler who wants to be a drag queen wins a guest appearance on his favorite show!”
Tom: Once we have a general outline, we decide who is going to write what and when. I usually write on weekends, when I can spend several hours at a keyboard. We talk on Saturdays or Sundays–both when we’re really trying to get something out. We do our scenes and chapters on Google Docs and share with each other once we’re ready. Google Docs works for us because we can both have access to the work at the same time and it’s simple. When we’re working on drafts, we use “suggested” for editing so that it’s clear what is new and who is inserting or removing text.
We email multiple times daily about our work. We also talk by phone weekly for at least an hour-and-a-half.
Alysia: How’d you develop your team-writing style? Was there trial and error? Were there things you found that didn’t work for you?
Tom: We started with two POVs because that seemed the easiest way to do it with two authors. We’ve largely stuck with that. Initially, we had pretty long Google Docs, but we found it slow to use as manuscripts grew. So we switched to individual documents for each chapter
Jen: One thing we learned that fascinated me was how our different genders affect writing opposite sex characters. When we write boys’ voices, Tom will correct my approach, and tell me boys would be more aggressive or more confused in certain situations. In Snowsisters I did the same, applying a girl’s perspective to his words.
Alysia: Do you find the same issues apply to writing characters who are not like you in other ways (say, of a different ethnicity or social class or age)? What do you both think about the more frequent use of “sensitivity readers” in fiction? Did you use one for Snowsisters?.
Tom: It’s harder going writing characters who differ from us profoundly. One obvious example is Orly, the trans girl who attends the writing conference in Snowsisters. In our earliest drafts, we wrote around her, gave her less dialogue, and instead concentrated on the two main characters’ reactions to her. Our editor noticed it immediately and recommended that we engage two sensitivity readers. This was very helpful! Not only were they able to give us a sense of what it was like to be Orly, they were able to suggest scenes and plot developments which gave Orly more of a voice. That helped us to flesh her out.
Jen: It was important for us to have trans representation in Snowsisters. The Young Women’s Writing Conference should include all young women, not just cis ones. Bringing Orly to the conference and then setting out the conflict created by Chris allowed us to address not only Orly’s issues, but broader ones like revealing yourself, being revealed or deciding not to reveal. We ended up using four sensitivity readers for the book in total, which helped with voices, and ensuring accuracy for both the cis and trans characters.
Alysia: Is there ever a point when one of you wants to go one way and the other wants something else? How do you solve that?
Tom: I think we’re pretty good at resolving our differences. We talk it through. Some things are pretty minor. Generally the person who has the initial responsibility for one character’s POV gets final say on the content in that character’s section. We always try to negotiate the more important things. And sometimes we’ll ask for an outside opinion–one of our sensitivity readers, our editor, a family member.
Jen: We made an agreement very early on that we wouldn’t let writing get in the way of our friendship. And we’ve learned that things get revised so much during the editing process that you can always revisit parts that you weren’t crazy about earlier, and sometimes they look different later on.
Tom: And we know that, even if we disagree, no one is doing it with bad intent. That helps us compromise.
Alysia: What do you think writing with a partner gives you that you don’t get from writing on your own?
Jen: Someone to catch my typos and correct my grammar instantly! No, seriously, writing with Tom gives me courage. I come up with all kinds of crazy plot ideas and he either thinks they’re really great, or he says, “I’ll think about it,” which lets me know I probably need to tweak it or change it. That’s invaluable. It keeps me from spinning my wheels. Both of us bring different strengths to the work. And we have to agree before we send anything out into the world. So we both know at least one other person thinks it’s worth reading!
Tom: Jen is very good at troubleshooting. Our story arcs need it because I’m logical, by which I mean flat, in my thinking. She’ll come up with something a character ought to do and then we brainstorm about how to do it, who describes it and where it fits into the storyline. She also knows when the story line lacks excitement.
I suck at revising the storyline! I’m stronger at editing and making sure voices are distinct. This is one of the ways we balance each other out.
Jen: I know Tom hates making changes! He’s the type of person who puts the furniture in a room and thinks it should never change.
Tom: Also, the pictures on the wall. Why would you want to change them?
Jen: He usually comes around after having some time to wrap his head around a change, though. And if he doesn’t, we figure out a compromise. On the flip side, he’s much better than I am at fixing language, grammar and punctuation. (True fact: He did all my grammar homework in tenth grade. I never really learned the rules of grammar.) He’s also very good at careful editing, which I hate.
Tom: We also balance each other out in terms of managing anxiety and stress. If one of us is worried about attending an event, or how a chapter will be received, the other one is usually able to calm fears or suggest strategies. Getting a book published takes a lot of work, a lot of persistence and a lot of time. Sharing all of that makes it much easier.
Alysia: That’s a really good point—when I think of writing with someone else, I think about it as being more work, but you’re talking about how the load is lightened. I can imagine how much stress and fret it cuts out when you have another person in it with you.
The obvious questions: what’s great about writing together? What’s hard? What hurdles are there?
Tom: Great: ideas, feedback and support at all times during the process and the excitement of getting a chapter from Jen and seeing what she’s done with it. We love our characters enough that it’s fun to see them pushed around. Hard: Sometimes, I’m nervous about how she’s going to react to a piece I’ve written.
Jen: For me the greatest moments are when we get together in person and we work through a plot point or an outline or a problem. Our most productive moments come when we are in the same location–rare, since we live far apart–tossing ideas back and forth while one of us takes notes on the computer. I always come away from those sessions excited and re-energized to get back to writing.
What’s hard is meeting short deadlines with editors when we need to agree on how to proceed. I think I hung up on Tom three times one week because I was so busy at work when he needed an answer. He ended up having to do most of the work, which didn’t make me feel good. Luckily I trust him completely to make the right decisions.
Tom: Okay, also hard living up to that trust!
Alysia: What do you really like about Snowsisters? What’s your favorite thing?
Jen: Right now one of my favorite things about the book is the cover art. Our art director did an amazing job of mixing so many themes–color motifs, the girls’ writing, snow. She took all of these complicated elements and turned them into a simple, striking image that really captures Soph and Tess and their world. It’s beautiful. I’m also in love with the last chapter, but I can’t tell you details without spoiling it! Let’s just say I really like how and where Soph and Tess ended up.
Tom: I like the girls, even the one who isn’t that likable. I think they came out believable and appealing, warts and all. I’m very proud of how we developed the primary secondary character, Orly, which took research, interviewing and a ton of back-and-forth. I hope people like her.
Alysia: I love that cover, too. I love the color, and the silhouettes.
OK, is one of you more public than the other? I’ve learned the hard way that nowadays most writers must be out there. You must do public readings, sign books, talk to people, be on social media… how do/will you two handle this? I’m trying to picture a reading, for instance: will only one of you read? Will you guys read together like a weird cult chant? Will you trade off paragraphs? Will one of you read while the other acts it out with puppets?
Tom: We’re both used to public speaking for our jobs, so it doesn’t really intimidate us. Jen strongly identifies as an introvert and I test as an extrovert, but I think we’re fairly balanced about how public we are. We haven’t quite figured out how to manage readings, but we will probably each take a voice and read a couple of different sections.
Jen: Puppets would be fun!
Tom: What I hope for from readings is hearing from readers about their reactions.
[I was able to attend Tom and Jen’s book party a while after this interview took place, and can tell you what they did: they each assumed the voice of one character to read–since the novel switches between the two girls’ voices, it seemed like a natural choice.]
Alysia: Longhand, typewriter, Dictaphone or computer?
Tom and Jen: Computer. So that we can share.
Jen: Although I often take notes and make to-do lists longhand in notebooks. If we’re together Tom takes a photo of it so we both have the same information.
Tom: We took typing together in high school, so we’re both keyboarders.
Alysia: Bad habits while you write? (Before I quit, I used to have to smoke while writing, or at least have a cigarette burning in an ashtray. I can’t drink and write, but some people I know do. I still hold my breath while writing for some reason. Maybe the lightheadedness helps…)
Jen: Hmmm. I’m not sure. Probably internet surfing.
Tom: I know Sondheim finds vodka helps him to write lyrics, but I wrote all of Soph’s poetry stone cold sober. I write at a dining table in front of a window and watch birds at the feeder. It works for me, but I end up very stiff-backed! I completely neglect my partner, cat and all other obligations when I do this.
Jen: You pace when we’re talking, both on the phone and in person. Constantly. I don’t know if it’s bad, but it’s a habit.
Alysia: I used to have a poetry instructor in grad school who said that most people walk and pace in iambic pentameter, which is the natural rhythm of English speech, so pacing makes some sense. Taking a walk while composing sometimes helps me, too.
Do you have outside (non-novelist) jobs? What do you do?
Tom and Jen: We’re both attorneys.
Tom: I have a commercial practice in New York.
Jen: And I work for state government in Rhode Island. I used to be a criminal prosecutor.
AC: I feel like there’s a lawyer joke in there somewhere. There’s a long tradition of lawyer-writers and doctor-writers (I always think of William Carlos Williams, who was a country doctor as well as a poet, and who wrote his poems on prescription pads).
Alysia: Being a lawyer of any kind sounds like a rather intense career, rather busy. Why in the world would you add to it by writing non-lawyer stuff, too?
Tom: It’s really a different type of writing and communicating than we do as lawyers, a very refreshing difference. Legal writing is full of constraints—factual constraints and legal structure. Writing a novel is more free-form.
Jen: Part of it is that we both really love to read fiction. riting is an extension of that love. But I’ve always found writing to be a helpful way to organize my thoughts and feelings. And it’s a lot more creative. As lawyers, we’re not supposed to make anything up. With fiction, we do a lot of that!
Alysia: How would each of you describe the other?
Jen: Tom is probably the most loyal person I’ve ever met. He never wants to let anyone down. He’s a very traditional Virgo–likes to think things through, likes to set a path and follow it. That’s helpful because I’m much more scattershot in my thinking and my work. He grounds me, whether we’re writing, or just friending. He’s done that since we were fifteen.
Tom: Jen is passionate in everything she does. She has great loves and beliefs. She’s also an extremely thoughtful person. I don’t just mean considerate, she puts thought into everything she does. I find this very impressive. When I have a problem, I go the refrigerator. When Jen does, she thinks it out. That doesn’t seem scattershot to me at all!
I’m not sure what the adjective for this is, but I’m always interested in Jen’s reaction to things.
Alysia: Speaking of that zoo environment I’m going to put you in, is there anything special you’d like me to put there for you? Typewriter? Laptop? Pets? Pillows? Case of Yoo-Hoo? What do you need in order to write?
Tom: My orange tiger cat, Newky. And some small ground mammals safely outside the cage to keep him happy.
Jen: A space heater, my Ipad and absolute quiet.
You can find Snowsisters at http://www.interludepress.com, or at major online booksellers. You can’t miss it–it has a hot pink cover.
Beulah Land by Nancy Stewart (November 16,. 2017); 250 pages. Available from Interlude Press/Duet Books here: https://store.interludepress.com/collections/beulah-land-by-nancy-stewart
There is something about a tough, smart girl in fiction or film that just melts me. Perhaps it’s because I always felt scrappy inside, but was never that brave. Perhaps it’s because every young lesbian girl like me grows up knowing she will have to fight just to keep herself intact–this feeling is acute and transforming, whether or not that fight ever comes. One feels oneself always endangered. For that matter, most “normal” girls do, too. Whatever it is, Violette Sinclair feels like my better self.
Violette is the voice of Beulah Land, and it’s her story. She’s too smart and too gay to be growing up in the small Ozarks enclave she is in is a place where the ruling clan of nasty, dog-fighting, gun-toting jerks is related to the sheriff and there’s little hope of a girl like her surviving. Beulah Land might be a young adult novel, but like the best of those, it makes for good adult reading as well.
Violette has not only her own toughness but the backup of a popular, football-star best friend to help her out. Not only is she bent on rescuing the dogs abused and discarded by the semi-secret dog-fighting ring, but she needs to discover and fix her own family: her father was murdered when she was younger (and she needs to know what), her mother has a secret past (Vi wants to learn what it is), and her sister is resentful and sometimes cruel to her (one wants a tearful apology and reunion).
The story is told in the voice of Vi, who is determined, tough, take-no-crap and smart. Hers is a great voice to guide us through her own story, and it’s satisfying that she gets to have that control. There’s a comfort, too, through all that awfulness, to know she comes out well enough to tell us the tale.
This is a coming-of-age story in which the coming-of-age is rougher than the one most people experience. All the elements familiar to most of us–secrecy, trauma, helplessness and fight–are there, just writ larger and more dangerous for Vi. It’s about a girl coming to own herself–she’s a lesbian and an animal lover with a strong sense of justice, and all of that gets her in trouble in her small neck of the swamp. One gets the sense that she’s loved despite these things instead of because of them. But she fights on to find happiness and peace, not only for herself but for those she loves. This is no small thing for us queers, and we need narratives that give us this.
When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, there weren’t narratives like this available to me. As a young girl, I didn’t even know what a lesbian was, because nobody spoke of it… ever, anywhere. There were no lesbians on TV, or in the movies outside of porn (and porn didn’t really present a real picture, I knew), or in novels available to me as a kid. In college, I found The Well of Loneliness, Stone Butch Blues and Mrs. Danvers, none of which gave me very much hope. As a result, it took me longer than it might have otherwise to recognize myself and come out as queer. I knew I was different, and I figured there was something wrong with me because I could not feel complete, deep love for my boyfriends. I have a feeling this story is not uncommon. I felt fight in me, and wildness, and passion, but had no way to express it in the real world. I wish there’d been a Violette Sinclair for me to find. I’m glad there is now.
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