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Gay New York

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It’s LGBT Pride Month, and you will definitely want to take a look at something very cool. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission’s website features a first-ever Gay Pride Month slideshow with a sampling of designated LGBT historic sites. My book The Queerest Places (1997) is quoted in the entry about Louis Sullivan.

Which is your favorite site? Vote here! I’ll start it off. My fave has to be the Elsie de Wolfe-Bessie Marbury House on E. 17th Street, very close to where I used to live. They were a lesbian power couple if ever there was one — Elsie an interior designer, Bessie a theatrical producer. They called themselves “The Bachelors” — you can read my post about them here.

Happy Pride!

Today I welcome author Joan Opyr, whose novel Shaken and Stirred has just been released by Bywater Books. Shaken and Stirred is the story of Poppy Koslowski, who is trying to recover from a hysterectomy while her family has other ideas. Poppy is the one with the responsibility to pull the plug on her alcoholic grandfather in North Carolina. So she’s dragged back across the country from her rebuilt life into the bosom of a family who barely notice the old man’s imminent death. “And it’s a comedy,” remarks Joan. “Really. It’s quite funny.”

Considering that Joan Opyr’s first novel was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, this new novel should be a terrific read!

So where does her inspiration come from? Joan told me the queer writer she’d most like to sit down with for a chat is the Bard of Avon himself, William Shakespeare. Here’s Joan:

It doesn’t surprise me that the greatest writer in English, the most deeply kind, funny, and forgiving in his approach to humanity, was a bisexual.  Shakespeare was open to the world, to all that it had to offer.  And I have no time for the fruitcakes who argue that a glover’s son from Stratford could never have written such tremendous body of work.  In truth, you’d have to be a working man or a working woman to understand the broad spectrum of life.  Shakespeare was perfectly placed.  He knew people from the bottom to the top. And he knew love in all its guises.

Has Shakespeare influenced my writing?  It seems obnoxious to say yes, but it’s the truth.  You don’t have to compare yourself to Shakespeare to see that knowing his work broadens your perspective, or makes you more aware of language, and how you can use a vocabulary and an accent to sketch out a character.  Chaucer did this too, of course, but you asked for queer writers.  I like bawdy comedy.  I like slapstick and farce.  I also like the histories and the tragedies, but I’m not ready to write one of those yet.  I’ll need to be a little closer to taking the old dirt nap before I get to tragedy.

Sometimes, I think my story is about addiction and adultery. Other times, I think it’s about bad luck with the Avon lady. And not just one—one I could chalk up to chance. Two rotten Avon ladies feel more like a curse.”

My classic novel, Out of Time, first published in 1990, is being re-issued as an e-book by Bywater Books any minute! History fans will appreciate the blend of past and present in this story about a woman who finds a photo album from the 1920s and is haunted by it … or is she? Take a look at the trailer!

Queer California

For those readers who live in California … or maybe make a yearly trek to San Francisco … or  just love queer historic sites — there’s a new Facebook page you should definitely check out. It’s called Preserving LGBT Historic Sites in California, and it’s an online archive created by a group of preservationists, dedicated to documenting and preserving the sites of significance to queer history in the Golden State. Meeting places, homes, gay rights landmarks, bars, hangouts — you name it, you’ll find information on it there. So drop in and “Like” this great new resource!

My guest today is Hilary Sloin, author of the new novel Art on Fire, which is due out from Bywater Books at any minute. I personally can’t wait to read it.

Art on Fire is the apparent biography of subversive painter Francesca deSilva, the founding foremother of “pseudorealism,” who lived hard and died young. But in the tradition of Vladimir Nabokov’s acclaimed novel Pale Fire, it’s a fiction from start to finish. It opens with Francesca’s early life. We learn about her childhood love, the chess genius Lisa Sinsong, as well as her rivalry with her brilliant sister Isabella, who publishes an acclaimed volume of poetry at the age of twelve. She compensates for the failings of her less than attentive parents by turning to her grandmother, who is loyal and adoring until she learns Francesca is a lesbian, when she rejects her. Francesca flees to a ramshackle cabin in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, working weekends at the flea market. She breaks into the gloomy basement of a house, where she begins her life as a painter. Much to her confusion and even dismay, fame comes quickly. Art on Fire is a darkly comic, pitch-perfect, and fearless satire on the very art of biography itself.

If you’d like to be entered into a drawing for a free copy of Art on Fire, leave a comment here about what excites you about this book and why you, too, can’t wait to read it. A winner will be drawn at random.

And now, some thoughts from Hilary about her writing process:

 

To be quite honest, I am something of a dilettante. If I had lived in Victorian England, people might have rolled their eyes when speaking of me and said I was subject to “enthusiasms.” Or I might have been a witch burned at the stake for being a little excitable. Sometimes I give up writing altogether and take up something else with fervor—for a while it was painting, for years it was music; these days, I am obsessed with finding and restoring antiques. There have been many phases in my life, but always I return to writing of some sort. Ultimately I can’t fight the fact that I need it like I need food and air. My friends all think I am very disciplined because I work all day from very early in the morning at whichever enthusiasm I am currently ruled by. Truth is, I am keeping the meaninglessness away. And nothing keeps meaninglessness away like writing, which, when I am doing it, I can do around the clock. Even when I don’t hold pen to paper, I stare off into space and think about my characters, imagine them walking across the room, lying down to bed. While I walk my dog I hear them talking. I see them sitting opposite one another with nothing to say or with everything to say but too frightened or angry to say it.

 

The one thing that holds true with everything I write—and finish—is that I fall in love with what I am working on, whether it be the story, the place, or the characters. Ideally, all of the above holds me sway. With Art on Fire, which was my first attempt at a novel after many years of writing plays and stories, I fell in love first with Isabella, the protagonist’s mentally ill and acutely intelligent sister.  Isabella is so much smarter and wittier than I have ever proved to be and, of course, this fascinates me.  How can I create a character who surpasses me by leaps and bounds? Soon I fell in love with Francesca, too, but that was for entirely different reasons: I had created my dream lover: a cowboy in girl’s clothing, the one who cannot be possessed, who oozes with the need to express herself but cannot. And again, I was fascinated because to this day I am still not sure whether Francesca’s paintings were any good or whether, as some of the critics in the book postulated, she was simply in the right place at the right time, an icon of pop culture. I fell in love with Evelyn Horowitz, Francesca and Isabella’s terribly human grandmother, because she is basically my grandmother and every time I read the chapters where she appears I cry, missing my own Gram all over again. And then there is Lisa Sinsong, who bears all the tragedy and much of the poetry of the story, who is victim to family legacy in a way that seemed to me to be inevitable in this particular book. How could I not love and want to save her?  I was able to write Art on Fire because it held my attention. It made me laugh and cry as I was writing it. Sometimes I just sat back, took a drag of my cigarette, and felt very good about creativity and that it was the one constant in my life. Like all things that come from the heart, it is a flawed product, but it breathes and pulsates and that is the kind of writing I seek out. Anything else fails to hold my attention. I hope this book will hold yours.

 

Cynn Chadwick Rising

My guest this week is Cynn Chadwick, whose new novel Angels and Manners is about two women with nothing in common but their financial situation and Section 8 housing. Working class mum Carrie Angel is busting a gut to finish her carpentry certification so she can build a home for herself and her two teenaged sons. Middle-class Jen Manners has divorced, forcing her and her resentful daughter from their comfortable, suburban lifestyle into subsidized housing. Jen’s decade-old Lit degree and lack of work history send her into a system she thought reserved for a different class of woman than herself.

A Bywater Books author and digital publisher, Cynn was born and raised in New Jersey but has lived in the South for over 20 years. She’s best known for her Cat Rising series, which have all made appearances in the short lists of the Lambda Literary Awards. A claim to fame is that a book of hers was rejected 181 times (but she’s not telling which one it is).

At the end of this post you can read the first paragraph of Angels and Manners and enter a drawing to win an e-book copy by leaving a comment about why you’d like one. And now … he-e-ere’s Cynn!

If you were a book, what would it be and why?
 Pippi Long Stocking… She probably captures my essence – still, 50-odd years later.

What made you write your last book?
 I pretty much wrote Cutting Loose like Stevie Wonder at the keyboard, eyes closed and taking dictation.

Why would a reader love your book?
 I think readers want to cheer for characters, I like to think I make cheer-able characters.

When did you decide to be a writer? 
When I was four.

What’s your most humiliating moment as a writer? 
I showed up for a reading in Tampa and only one person came… the bookstore owner, the “audience of one” and I drank wine and chatted, so it wasn’t horrible… but… yes, humiliating.

When, where and how do you write?
 My home office, on a computer, when the story calls.

What’s the best thing a reviewer said about your last book?  The best thing said about Angels and Manners was said by a fan: ”As a single mother who raised two kids alone, I want to thank you for writing my story, my kids’ story, and the story of so many of us today…”

What writers do you admire most?
 All the “Southerns”: Faulkner, Welty, O’Connor, Smith, Ehle; my “boys”: Russo, King, Carver, TC Boyle, Gaiman; of late, Kate Morton with The Forgotten Garden, as well as Kate Atkinson, Gillian Flynn, and Tana French.

Did you learn anything useful when you studied writing?
 No….yes. From my mentor, the author Sarah Schulman who read the first draft of Cat Rising and told me that only 50 of my 250 pages were viable and if I didn’t fix that: “Your Novel Will FAIL” (she was right) and ”Simplicity equals Elegance” (she was right).

What are you working on now? 
I have three projects: “Cutting Loose”  #4 in the Cat Rising Series will be released this coming spring 2013 by Napping Porch Press. ”Then Came Jake” should be coming out in 2014. I am currently working on a collection of short stories and essays called “Where I Live, Folks Know How to Act Right,” which will probably be an ebook exclusive, also in 2014.

First paragraph of Angels and Manners:

Carrie stopped at the threshold to the Mediation Center. Standing on the far side of the room with his back to her was Dill, her ex-husband, looking through a magazine. She could see the pages flipping between his outstretched hands. He was slouched; his head tilted into his lean. She had seen the same pose in their son Casper when he was lost in thought. Dill’s hair curled over his collar and was much longer than when she had met him—a lifetime ago—with his Air Force buzz cut. He had gone a little paunchy around the middle, love handles easing over his jeans. She would recognize that mannered posture anywhere. Seeing him like this—unawares—conjured the image of that boy she had met one dismal night in a musty tavern where she was tending bar.

Author Jesse Blackadder’s novel The Raven’s Heart is set in the court of Mary Queen of Scots – and was partly inspired by the discovery that the queen was a regular cross-dresser. The Raven’s Heart has just been published by Bywater Books in the USA, UK and Canada (it was published in Australia last year by HarperCollins).

However, it was another Mary from the time who penned a love poem to her female friend that has survived down the centuries. Here, Jesse crosses the historical divide to “talk” to Mary Maitland and tell us about the inspiration behind The Raven’s Heart.

Mary Maitland, you wrote a passionate poem to another woman and slipped it under your father’s nose, to be published in his 1586 Scottish collection The Maitland Quarto Manuscript. You were compared to Sappho – a poet who was part of classic education in those days – and in the poem you dream of changing into a man so you can marry the woman you love.

It’s (just) within the bounds of friendship poetry of the era, though the lines:

 You wield me wholly at your will

And ravish my affection

suggest a passion struggling to stay within social limits. You compare your love to that of Penelope and Ulysses, Pollux and Castor, and Ruth and Naomi (source of the declaration “Whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge”). At the end you write that your fervent friendship will endure until “death shall us divorce.”

Was a passionate – but chaste – friendship the only option for women who fell in love in the 16th century? Although men of the day were often accused of being sodomites – including the husband of the Queen of Scots – lesbianism didn’t openly exist as an identity. The fact that Mary Maitland’s poem was published in a collection compiled by the Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland, suggests there was no hint of indecency about her declarations.

But this poem (reproduced in The Literature of Lesbianism by Terry Castle) was one of the little jewels I found while researching and writing my story of powerful women struggling for their birthright in the time of the Queen of Scots, herself a powerful and attractive woman.

Unusually tall and highly charismatic, the Queen loved sports and outdoor activities and was accomplished at riding and hunting. She disguised herself as a man and slipped out of her palace at night to explore Edinburgh’s streets and drink in its taverns. Perhaps these experiences piqued the Queen’s interest in clothing, gender and power, for Mary began cross-dressing more politically. She turned up in masculine clothing to a banquet in honour of the English ambassador and joked about how a marriage between herself and Elizabeth I would solve their political problems. When one of her powerful lords in the north of Scotland defied her, Mary donned armour to lead her armies to defeat him and admitted that she loved to live as a soldier. She rode out again when her lords rebelled against her marriage to the unpopular (and rumoured homosexual) Lord Darnley, putting on such a show of strength that the rebels fled without a fight.

There’s no suggestion in contemporary or current history that the Queen was a lesbian, but I couldn’t help being fascinated by this extraordinary character. Mary was the most famous cross dresser of the time – but surely not the only one?

And so the main character in The Raven’s Heart, Alison, is disguised as a boy from a young age to protect her from kidnapping. When Alison goes into Mary’s service to petition for the return of her family’s castle, how can she not fall in love with the charismatic Queen of Scots?

So great joy does my spirit fulfil

Contemplating your perfection

You wield me wholly at your will

And ravish my affection.

Mary Maitland isn’t a character in the book, but I can’t help wondering: did she and her loved one remain “In perfect amity forever”? Or did her marriage to one Alexander Lauder end the constancy of her “holy and religious” love?

Jesse Blackadder’s website is www.jesseblackadder.com

Extract from The Raven’s Heart

Scotland, 1561.

We come across the North Sea, bearing the face of heaven in our hold.

A fleet of ships brings such a treasure, our galley speeding ahead and the rest following slowly with her horses and fineries, her tapestries and clothes. She returns from thirteen years in the French court to take up the reins of power.

Does she remember that she returns to a city of stone? Stone is too old to care what human hands press against it, what blood spills in its crevices. Even the palace, with its French architecture, is made of stone, and looming above it, Edinburgh Castle hewn from the cliff so that none may attack it and none may escape. She sails to a stone city, an icy country and a cold people.

As we draw close to the coast, heavy fog envelopes us. Bass Rock materialises through the mist like something enchanted, its sides steep and forbidding, and the gulls scream and wrack and sweep around it in circles. The sea is brown and heaving, the outpour of the Firth River is a scum of Edinburgh’s rot slapping at the side of the boat. She waits on the deck to set eyes on the land, but it stubbornly refuses to reveal itself through the mist. It is not a forgiving country and she has been gone since she was five.


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