Importance of Historical Fiction from an LGBT Perspective

[from my guest post on Art (202), The official blog of the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities]

When I came out of the closet 10 years ago, I had a lot of explaining to do.  Many family members and friends were surprised by my news, and those who weren’t still needed help in adjusting to the out me.  Although, in a broad sense, it’s unfortunate that LGBT people ever have to be closeted or, once out, have to take on the burden of making themselves known, I felt it was my responsibility to make myself known to the people in my life who cared about me.  So I went about explaining myself, telling my hidden backstory, filling in the gaps, righting all the misperceptions, some of which I had participated in creating.  It was exhausting and, at times, trying, but I was glad I did it.

I write LGBT-themed mysteries set in a historical time period, particularly DC during the 1940s.  I’m fascinated by the way a mystery story, by design, is about uncovering hidden backstory, the occluded past.  Much of LGBT life pre-Stonewall (1969) is murky.  Not a lot has been written about it, and personal narratives are scarce.  So often this is the case with suppressed voices of any sort.

There are a several good histories about LGBT life, but first person accounts are the most inspirational to me.  Books such as Jeb and Dash: A Diary of Gay Life, 1918-1945 and For You, Lili Marlene: A Memoir of World War II have helped me do more than get the facts right; they’ve helped me set a tone and begin to understand voices which were obscured by oppressive social dynamics and nearly lost.

Although recovered first person accounts and detailed histories are incredibly important, they are always limited by historical record, fixed by time and fact.  The imaginative leap of historical fiction allows for a more complete emotional understanding of LGBT people from different time periods.  By creating the atmosphere of a particular historical moment (in my case the 1940s in DC), I’m able to render the internal life of LGBT characters in a way that historical fact and even self-conscious personal accounts lack.

When I came out, I was able to reveal my own hidden backstory, to solve the mystery of my identity for family and friends.  Many LGBT people who lived before me remained silent and hidden out of self-loathing or fear of being persecuted or fear of being physically harmed.  Through an imaginative gesture that fiction allows, I can give flesh to those complex and various voices.  That seems the particular goal of writing historically from a LGBT perspective.

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Introversion: A Legacy Through Poetry

Although this photo doesn't have much to do with my grandmother's poetry, I absolutely love it.  Something tells me she wasn't particularly fond of shooting a gun.  Perhaps she was humoring Granddad, also pictured.

Although this photo doesn’t have much to do with my grandmother’s poetry, I absolutely love it. Something tells me she wasn’t particularly fond of shooting a gun. Perhaps she was humoring Granddad, also pictured.

I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southwestern Virginia.  My mother’s mother, Lucile Shanklin Hull, was a local poet and published several books of poetry about the region.  In her book, Lyrics of the Hills*, 1980, she celebrated the region and her community in Smyth County, Virginia.  Many of her poems feel designed to promote a warm and romantic version of the community, such as “The Gay Bazaar”:

Hurry, hurry, hurry
To the gay bazaar!
For just around the corner,
Where throngs of people are
All a-hustle and a-bustle,
There will be displayed
Such a carnival of color-
Mingled art and artless wonder
Eager hands have made. (48)

But in other poems, as is true of the region, there are quiet pools of darkness; she makes commentary about strip mining, rural poverty, and war casualties.  From page to page, there’s a rise and fall, mountain peaks warmed by sunlight—“From this tall pinnacle look far” (35)—to shady brooks haunted by loss: “She had come down the rocky path/ Winding along by Shooting Creek,/ And her clear young voice was mingled/ With the long, wild song of the water” (41).  In yet others, my grandmother expresses her grief and struggle with depression: “The things I fear have tentacles/ To reach the very core of me;/ They twine themselves vine-wise about/ My hidden self insistently (“The Things I Fear” 46).

While I was growing up, my family rarely discussed the darkness in her poetry; the mountaintops were emphasized, not the gloomy valleys.  I knew her as a young boy; she died when I was nine, and during years leading up to her death, her failing health had made it difficult for us to communicate.

When I was a sophomore in college, my mother showed me a folder of her unpublished poems.  As she handed it to me, a newspaper clipping fluttered out.  It was my uncle’s obituary.  Younger than my mother and her sister, he had died as an infant in 1938.  It was the first I’d heard of him.

When I asked my mother about it, she couldn’t talk about him—the pain, even after so many years, was still fresh—so I began rummaging through the poems, looking for those dark valleys in her work.  I came across a poem called “Unseen,” in which she writes frankly of her loss: “No patient toy dog keeps watch;/ No rusty soldier, staunch and true,/ Upon a seldom dusted shelf/ Waits endlessly for you.”  In Lyrics, there’s another poem which now I understand to be about my uncle: “When bugles blow/ And from afar/ The sound of war/ Shall echo near,/ He will not hear” (6).  She imagines him never having to go to war, never waking from his peaceful sleep.

I was startled by these poems; it challenged the notion I had of my grandmother as a person and as a poet.  I’d always read her poems as outward looking, whether she was describing life in rural Appalachia or making earnest objections to strip mining.  I’d not noticed the gloomy, tree-muffled streams in her poetry, the dark waters in which she reflected herself.  In her poem, “Introversion,” she writes:

I often come to you
So filled with thoughts of me
That your own finer self
I cannot see.

Perhaps you come to me
So full of you
That my own truer self
Is hidden too!

This poem is about failed communication, the inability for two introverted persons to reveal themselves to one another, how all that inward-looking can thwart connection, how our hidden-selves can distract us seeing others, from seeing the world.  Although short, this poem hits me hard because it has such clarity and because I see myself in it; I’m often captivated by my own internal world, sometimes blocking out the world around me. I am so much like her.

That her poetry, however quiet and moss-covered, tells me that my penchant for darkness, for depression kept at bay, is part of a legacy. If we’d known one another as adults, we would’ve understood each other well.

*Hull, Lucile Shanklin.  Lyrics of the Hills.  Radford: Commonwealth Press.  1980.  Print.

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Teachers must be subversive literary citizens

Photo classes at Flint Hill create posters of teachers with their favorite books.  This image was created by Afshan Bhatia.

Photo classes at Flint Hill create posters of teachers with their favorite books. This image was created by junior Afshan Bhatia.

While we writers often look to other writers for support and (one hopes) are good literary citizens ourselves, we shouldn’t limit the notion of literary citizenship to other writers and our partners in the publishing industry.  We should reach beyond the boundaries of our community and cross-pollinate with other types of communities, rooting out and connecting with anyone who has a passion for the written word, which of course, means expanding our idea of our own citizenship.

Because I chair English for 7-12 grades at Flint Hill, a day school outside of DC, I’ve become aware of what good literary citizenship looks like in secondary education.  Our education system in America isn’t structured to support a love of reading.  The proliferation of standardized testing and the college application process with its emphasis on test scores and APs attempts to quantify, reduce, and box learning, which places great importance on the acquisition of information and the automatization of skills, and de-emphasizes (or altogether ignores) the richness and diversity of aesthetic experience.

The system, you see, is inherently suspicious of emotional response, of intimate connection.  Defining how a story or poem makes you feel and the exploration of why it made you feel that way is a rigorous step toward self-understanding.  It’s the only way literature has a chance of helping us become better people.  Tests, however, can’t quantify that sort of exploration—it’s not compliant enough and much too slippery, too out of the lines—so test preparation doesn’t emphasize or value it.

To build future literary citizens, which I believe is a significant act of literary citizenship, is working against the flow of contemporary education.  I’m happy to be a part of an educational institution that, given the constraints of being a college preparatory school, does understand this, but it’s not true for many schools, even despite the many passionate English teachers out there.

At Flint Hill, we weave living writers into the curriculum (Kazuo Ishiguro, Marilynne Robinson, Chris Cleave, Gene Luen Yang, Khaled Hosseini, Alan Moore, and Cormac McCarthy to name a few), exposing our students to narratives and voices that immediately resonate with them.  We also fund a professional author to visit for a Writers’ Day celebration, during which we honor student writers for their excellence in creative and academic writing, and provide the time for students to interact with the visiting author.  All of this is our way of suggesting to students the idea that literature isn’t primarily a thing of the past, but a thing of the present—and that reading can be about experiencing something, not just acquiring information, all with the hope of building future readers of contemporary writers, perhaps even future literary citizens.

So I encourage writers to pair with teachers whenever they can to fight this trend and find a way (even if it seems mildly subversive) to reach those students blue about being in a box and hungry for aesthetic experience.

This post originally appeared as part of the Gertrude Stein blog series on the Renegade Writers’ Collective website.

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Event: Waterbear Reading Series, Saturday, October 26 at One More Page Books

Art & Literature

One More Page BooksI’m thrilled to be taking part in the October edition of the Waterbear Reading Series at One More Page Books in Arlington, Virginia. The series, which began earlier this year, has already featured some terrific writers—including both friends (Jen Michalski, Laura Ellen Scott, Amber Sparks) and family (Tara Laskowski!)—and the October event will be the last reading of 2013, given the holidays ahead, so fingers crossed for a big audience to help round out the year with a bang!

I’ll be reading on Saturday, October 26, at 6 p.m., along with three other very distinguished writers:

John Copenhaver placed as a quarterfinalist in the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award for Dodging and Burning.  The last two summers he attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference as a general contributor in fiction.  In 2011 he was invited to be a fellow in genre fiction at the Lambda Writers Retreat for…

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In Search of Messy, Overwritten Beauty

tender-is-the-night-original-dustjacketYesterday I was reading Ali Smith’s book Artful, a form-challenging mash-up of an essay collection and a novel, and as a part of a section about form, Smith quotes Katherine Mansfield, a modernist whose stories I deeply admire.  Inside a copy of D. H. Lawrence’s Aaron’s Rod, Mansfield writes: “There are certain things in this book I do not like.  But they are not important, or really part of it.  They are trivial, encrusted, they cling to it as snails to the underside of a leaf … and perhaps they leave a little silvery trail, a smear, that one shrinks from as from a kind of silliness.  But apart from these things is the leaf, is the tree, firmly planted, deep thrusting, outspread, growing grandly, alive in every twig.  All the time I read this book I felt it was feeding me.”

This quotation resonates with me.  So often I feel this way about books I love.  Yes, they may be by today’s standards overwritten, overly “encrusted,” but ultimately the beauty of them, the energy of the story, of the characters, “feeds me.”  To often—and this is true of a lot of writers who are also reviewers—we judge a book by its editing, not its narrative life-force.  We use descriptors like “clean” and “diamond-hard” or “muscular” to describe fiction, which in my mind is describing editing and perhaps style, not necessarily the full, breathing machinery of fiction.

For this reason, I’ve always preferred Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night over The Great Gatsby.  As a novel it’s messier, more experimental, darker.  For that reason, although at times a little overwritten, it speaks to me on a deeper level, perhaps even because of its messiness, if that’s really a fair word for it.  One mistake book reviewers, often reviewers who are also writers, make is to review a book’s editing, or at least to preference the editing, over the substance or the energy of story.  I’m curious how many of you, out there, have a book which you thought overwritten or messy, but spoke to you despite (or even because of ) the quality of the prose.  I’d love any suggestions … or thoughts.

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Making Summer Reading Lists

As the school year comes to a close, I begin looking forward to the summer by crafting a reading list.  I know, I know, this sounds like it’s making work out of fun, but there’s an art to the reading, particularly the different types of reading, I want to do over the summer.  I want the ebb and flow of challenging books and light reading, fiction and nonfiction, and genre and literary.

Also, I like what creating a reading list tells me about my own tastes, and how those tastes reflect back on the choices I make as a writer. If my novel were sitting on my shelf, would I be reaching for it? (I hope so … but it’s a good question to ask.)

I also like it as a log of my development as a reader and a way to reflect on the influences on my writing.  Over the years, I’ve read books—The Blind Assassin, The Big Sleep, etc.—that have had powerful impact on my work; however, it’s only been since I’ve consciously curated my reading that I’ve started to understand my tastes better: fiction with female protagonists; stories with a historical milieu; morally ambiguous characters; dark emotional terrain; rich, at times lyrical description, but not as the expense of plot—and never sentimental.  Unsurprisingly, my writing embodies my reading tastes.

However—and what interests me the most—are the outlier books, works that don’t easily fit in.  For instance, I placed Ali Smith’s Artful on my summer reading list, a genre-bending book, part novel, part collection of essays.  Am I curious even now why I was initially attracted to this book?  In part, it’s because of its lovely cover (no joke) and in part its because I’ve heard so many intriguing things about Smith’s writing.

Most of all, my reading list is a declaration to myself that I’m free to read what I want (for the most part) after a year of reading for school.  As much as writing, it’s a form of self-expression and requires that freedom to survive.

So, here it is .. and of course it can (and will) change.  (If you have any suggestions, respond to this blog or be my friend of Goodreads.)



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“The Next Big Thing” Interview: Andy Peters

I’m happy to host my friend and fellow Lambda Literary Retreat attendee Andy Peters as he answers  the “The Next Big Thing” interview questions about his new novel.

What is the title of the book?

Werecat: The Rearing

Where did the idea come from for the book?

It started as an experimental piece. I got turned on to shapeshifter and vampire stories only recently, and, as with most everything I read, those stories made me think: how could I write a great story in that vein from a totally queer point-of-view? Not just with gay or lesbian sidekick characters – I wanted to create a gritty, sexy love story between two men that was central to the plot, and really central to a fantasy world. I’m also fascinated by cats, so writing the fantasy aspect came pretty naturally to me.

What genre does your book fall under?

Urban fantasy

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I actually blogged about that subject before my book got picked up by a publisher. What writer doesn’t daydream about casting her/his work? For Werecat, it’s extra fun because I think feline shapeshifters would have to be sexy and dark. I imagine an underground world populated  by hot, scruffy men, high-shouldered and lean, sort of a throw-back to the grunge or heroin-chic model trend of the 90’s. They would have to have great eyes too.

My main character Jacks is a lost, rebellious college drop-out, and I’d be delighted to cast François Arnaud from the Showtime series The Borgias in that role. Jacks’ love interest Benoit would have to be smoking hot with a dangerous vibe. My first pick is Michael Fassbender. Then there’s a supporting character Farzan who may or may not get in between Jacks and Benoit. Farzan is tightly-wound and kind of goofy. He makes me think of Kal Penn from Howard and Kumar.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Werecat is about a young man who goes to Montréal for Spring Break, gets picked up by a handsome drifter, and ends up on a terrifying and erotic journey into the world of feline shapeshifters.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Werecat: The Rearing is the first book in a series of novellas, which are 20-40K words apiece. I wrote the first draft in about three weeks.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Allison Moon‘s lesbian werewolf novel Lunatic Fringe was a major departure point. Beyond her excellent re-imagining of werewolf mythology, her book made me think about the similarities between the shapeshifter trope and the experience of being queer, both in obvious ways like having to hide and being misunderstood, and in ways that are important to me politically and spiritually.

I think there’s something liberating about being able to inhabit two worlds. Queer people learn how to fit in, and sometimes pass within a heterosexual world, and we also cross “genders” at least in our private lives if not publicly. The Native American idea of two-spirit intrigues me – possessing both a female and a male aspect – and I could go on about that subject extensively. Suffice it to say, when I started writing about gay, feline shapeshifters, I became inspired by the opportunities to explore the different facets of having a dual nature, socially, sexually, and politically.

I also worked a good bit of cat mythology – ancient world and native – into the story. Retold myth and legend is a fairly steady thread in everything I write.

Is your book out in print, upcoming from a publisher and/or represented by an agency?

Werecat will be published by Vagabondage Press and is upcoming in May 2013.

(“The Next Big Thing” book interview project asks writers to answer a series of questions about their recent or forthcoming book, post it on their blog/web-space, and tag others for the next week.)

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