Category Archives: Marketing You and Your Work

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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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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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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“The Next Big Thing” Interview: Kate Hattemer

I’m happy to host my once colleague (she left FHS to concentrate on her writing) and now amazing, soon-to-be-published novelist Kate Hattemer as she answers the “The Next Big Thing” interview questions:

What is the title of the book?

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

When a sleazy reality show hijacks their school’s culture, Ethan and his friends write a seditious long poem to foment rebellion — until Ethan’s best friend gets pulled onto the show and betrays them all.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s a realistic, literary, young-adult novel.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Whenever I start something new, I feel as though I’m flailing around at sea, and I end up grabbing hold of anything that’s even possibly driftwood.  So I started with a list of three totally arbitrary things that I thought I just had to include:

1)  A strong and funny first-person narrator.  (This one actually stuck around.)

2)  Embedded text from different genres.  (This one didn’t.  But it gave me the idea that Ethan and his friends would write a long poem in the tradition of Ezra Pound to protest a reality show’s intrusion into their school.  I originally had excerpts from both the poem and the episode scripts, but thankfully, those all got scrapped.)

3)  Pets named after condiments.  (As I mentioned, arbitrary.  I’d just met a dog named Pickles, and thought idly, “Somebody should vow to name all their pets after condiments.”  That’s how the heroic gerbil Baconnaise was born, and it’s from my narrator’s devotion to this rodent that the book gets many of its thematic concerns.)

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

Let me start with the disclaimer that I’m terrible with actors, and that answering this question involved googling “teen actors who are smart and possibly secret nerds.”  Logan Lerman might work for Ethan, my narrator.  Ethan’s charismatic best friend Luke — the man to Ethan’s hench — could be any number of those handsome Hollywood types.  Michael Cera — is he still a thing? — could possibly up his awkwardness quotient enough to play Jackson.  Jackson’s cousin Elizabeth could be Katerina Graham.  And Ethan’s crush, ballerina Maura Heldsman, is obviously Emma Watson, because I would like to be her.

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

I was working part-time, and the very first draft took about two months.  That draft included lots of parenthetical notes such as, and I quote, “Oh my gosh, this is so terrible” and “Have fun dealing with this crap, Future Kate.”  I had to spend several months rewriting before I could show it to anyone.  I almost got hit by a car a few times while I was running or biking, and what flashed before my eyes was not my life but rather my wretched first draft.  I could just imagine my teary parents opening up my files.  “Oh,” they’d say.  “Well, that’s a disappointment.”

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The vast majority of the high school students I’ve gotten to know lately — from my siblings to my students — are intelligent, hilarious, and deeply engaged in their worlds.  They’ve got this really endearing mix of irony and sincerity.  I wanted to write a book with characters like that — who joke about calculus and about farts, who sometimes spend English class arguing that Ezra Pound’s fascism shouldn’t affect our interpretation of his poetry and sometimes spend English class zoning out as they stare at their crushes’ necks.

At the time, I hadn’t read much recent YA, and when my sister gave me a John Green novel I was poleaxed by his hyperverbal, hyperintelligent characters.  It reminded me of the first time I read a David Foster Wallace essay:  I don’t want to apotheosize either one of them, but both times, it felt as though I were experiencing a new way to use words and genre.  Reading An Abundance of Katherines clicked with my distaste for some bad YA I’d read (I hate books that pander) and my perhaps regressive love of hanging out with my teenage siblings and students.  That’s when I started to write.

I try to keep in mind that my favorite books don’t sacrifice readability to literariness nor literariness to readability.  That’s always my ultimate goal.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

My agent, Uwe Stender of TriadaUS, recently dubbed “The Nicest Man in Publishing,” sold Vigilante Poets to Erin Clarke of Knopf a few months ago.  It’ll be published next spring.

(“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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“The Next Big Thing” Interview Project: John Copenhaver

Me in hat“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.  Thanks to poet Chloe Yelena Miller for tagging me last week!

What is the title of the book?

Dodging and Burning.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

My inspiration came from two separate but connected events:  My reading of Walter Benjamin’s analysis of photography, and my decision to come out of the closet as a gay man.  Benjamin argues that photographs distort reality and only can be given value if paired with the right caption.  Being in the closet is like being a photo without a caption.  The only way to correct that distortion is to tell the story behind the façade.  Dodging and Burning is the mystery behind a crime scene photograph, but more accurately it’s an exploration of the way photos can twist our understanding of others and ourselves if their captions remain unwritten, their stories untold.

What genre does your book fall under?

Literary Mystery.

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

I love this question, because I think about it a lot.  Sadly, most of the actors I’d cast are dead.  One of my main characters, Bunny Prescott, is based on Gene Tierney; in fact, other characters tell her that she resembles Tierney.  But, to play fair, I’d cast Elle Fanning as Ceola (my earnest teenager), who has both gravitas and levity, Saoirse Ronan as Bunny (my love-confused debutant), who can be chilly and vulnerable, and Andrew Garfield (my wounded gay war photographer), who is wonderful at playing pained but not self-indulgent characters.  I loved him in Never Let Me Go.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Two young women attempt to solve the mystery of the photograph of beautiful corpse only to discover that the true mystery lies in the heart of the photographer.

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

Three-years.  Keep in mind of course I was working full time as an English teacher.  It took several more years to whip it into shape.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?


It began at Bread Loaf English of English when I took a course called “Photography and Modernity.”  It changed the way I looked at photography and, eventually, all visual media.  Also, I read Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, a genre-bending novel, a masterpiece that skillfully weaves together low and high forms.  And of course, my own personal journey out of the closet.  My theme, as I see it,  is the need for narrative.  Images without narrative (or worse images with a false narrative) can twist our understanding of reality, pushing us further from empathy and deeper into darkness.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m represented by the fabulous Annie Bomke of ABLiteary and currently in search of a publisher.

Look for these writers’ Next Big Thing interviews:

Kate Hattemer

Andy Peters

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Using Scrivener in My Classroom

A while ago, I blogged about why I adopted Scrivener as my new writing program of choice (“Why I Love ‘Scrivener'”).  This year in my novel writing class, I worked with our wonderful tech specialists at Flint Hill and Scrivener to bring the program to my students.

Each of my students received the program in the first week of the second semester, and after I worked with them to propose a novel-length project, they used the program to write approximately 40 pages over the duration of the spring.  Although it was a learning experience for me as well as for them (and there is much I have yet to uncover), the program has the potential to support writing instruction of all sorts in some amazing ways.  The qualities of the program that I found my students most benefited from were its visual and intuitive format, and its organizational flexibility, especially in that it allows the user to keep all aspects of a project—notes, research, etc.—in one document.

Flint Hill is a one-to-one laptop school, which is wonderful because my classroom is nearly paperless.  It’s also wonderful because 80-90% of my students’ work is online in Googledocs or saved on their computers; I see fewer jumbled lockers and backpacks shambling homework papers and notebooks.  However, students still struggle with organization.  The messiness is now on the computer desktop instead of the backpack.  Since everything related to a project can be stored in a single document on Scrivener, it helps students who find organizing their work a challenge.  It also allows students to arrange and rearrange sections of their writing with great ease within individual documents, its intuitive visual format making it simple for them to find all the different components.  They don’t have to spend time combing their laptops for mislaid notes or outlines.

For my student creative writers—particularly those hardy enough to set out to write 40 pages of a novel—it was incredibly helpful for all the reasons mentioned above, but also because Scrivener is a program which by design supports creative thinking (which is gaining more emphasis in the English classroom these days).  Although most narrative projects end up having a chronological construction, they rarely begin that way.  Whereas Word forces students to think linearly— “I can’t get from A to C if I don’t know B!” —Scrivener provides an environment which allows a student to pursue A and C before he knows B.  A left-brain linear program, such as Word, especially for right-brained students, can shut down their creativity and their desire to problem solve.

In my creative writing class, I allowed my students to explore different elements of their projects as they wrote and then later I asked them to fit the chronology of their work together through revision.  Scrivener supports this mode of instruction, which is yet another reason why I love it.

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