The story behind the story is sometimes, as they say, stranger than fiction.
Stranger is the title of a Viking November release by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith and, if you read this book, as I did (when Rachel asked me, in my paranormal YA novelist persona Tate Hallaway, to blurb it,) you might not think much more beyond how awesome and captivating a story of superpowers and survival in a post-apocalyptic future it is.
This book, however, almost didn’t get published. Sure, okay, you’re thinking, lots of great books don’t get published, what’s the big deal?
I’ll let Rachel and Sherwood tell you, shall I?
Lyda: First of all, congrats on the release of Stranger!
Rachel: Hi, Lyda! Thank you very much!
Lyda: This is a book that was in the news a lot several years back because”New York,” aka the mainstream publishing industry (including literary agents), wanted you to change something fundamental about one of the main viewpoint characters. Do you want to shock our audience by telling them what this was? Because, really, I think they’ll be amazed to discover the extent to which this is still a thing in the 21st century–especially once we get to the part where we tell them all the other amazing, wonderful things you got away with, which includes, among others, a central polyamorous relationship.
Rachel: We had an agent offer to represent the book on the condition that we change the sexual orientation of one of the characters. You see, one of the main characters is straight. The agent told us that the book was unsaleable unless we either made that character gay or took out his heterosexual romance and never mentioned that he was straight– just kidding! But I wanted to highlight the outrageousness of the actual offer, which was to represent the book on the condition that we either make a gay character straight, or else remove his romance and all references to his sexual orientation.
The character was Yuki Nakamura, an aspiring explorer who loves horses, his pet rat, and his boyfriend Paco Diaz. Since you’ve read the book, you know the importance of his romance with Paco. Can you imagine Yuki’s story without it?
Lyda: I can’t (and actually I ADORED Yuki’s rat nearly as much as Paco and Yuki as a couple.) As a lesbian reader/writer, I find that I often really latch on to queer characters of any variety. This has been true from when I was a baby reader of SF and first came across Theodore Sturgeon’s “World Well Lost” in an anthology in my local library to today. I NEVER stop needing to see queer in the things I read. I mean I can read books without it, but when it’s there for me, it’s IMPORTANT, you know?
But, I think, in particularly in the world that you and Sherwood invented, the absence of a queer character would have stood out very starkly. So many other types of people–people from so many different ethnicities and religions, etc.–banded together in this harsh dystopian Wild West-type future. If there were no queer people, I think I would have felt… targeted. Like you two were INTENTIONALLY excluding queers for some reason.
Which, of course, would have been the case if the agent had gotten their way.
Rachel: That’s a really interesting point – and a self-evident one, once you put it that way.
We knew from the get-go that there would be queer characters because, well, queer people exist. Quite a lot of them, even! Arguably, quite a lot of us. I’m in the highly populated gray zone of mostly-straight women with bisexual leanings. I don’t often get crushes on women, but it has definitely been known to happen. When I write about a girl having sexual or romantic feelings for another girl, I’m not just using my imagination – I know what that feels like.
Lyda: Why do you think that queer is still so scary to mainstream/New York publishers? (Because I have stories to tell too, though nothing like what happened to you both.)
Sherwood: In my experience, to this and to similar questions (such as whitewashed covers) I’ve heard variations on “Well, I am personally all for people doing what they want, but we are in the business to sell books.” Which I feel is copping to loud conservatives who would like to return us to the cultural milieu of the 1950s.
Rachel: I think mainstream publishing hasn’t caught up with mainstream culture. That’s not to say that homophobia has vanished from America – obviously not! But in my own experience, larger inroads have been made into the culture overall than have been reflected in publishing. Especially among teenagers.
When I went on my first LGBTQ rights march, back in the early 90s, same-sex marriage wasn’t anything anyone in my social circles expected to have happen in their lifetime. Now it’s legal in more than half of all US states.
Ten years ago, the usual time I saw teenagers coming out was eighteen. They often knew earlier, but didn’t feel safe or comfortable coming out earlier. Now I see teenagers coming out at thirteen. Some of them have faced homophobia as a result. But many of them haven’t. At least in some areas and some contexts, teenagers can come out without causing more of a stir than if they announced their heterosexuality in the way that one declares things considered the norm, by simply dating the person they like.
Publishers may know this about teenagers, but fear that book buyers or parents may still be homophobic. In some cases, they are probably right. But not all of us are homophobic, not all of are straight, and not all of us are unwilling to read about people who aren’t exactly like ourselves. And that even goes for book buyers and parents.
Sherwood, I feel like you and I have switched writerly places – you wrote one pithy paragraph, and I wrote an epic. 😉
Sherwood: Well, I agree with everything you said, so we’re good!
In my own experience (in my family and among friends) there are gay people. They were called “bachelors” or “spinsters,” often with that little smirk and roll of eyes indicating something indelicate meant, that decent persons didn’t refer to.
This went on until the seventies or so. Late in the seventies, I had to lie and pretend to be the fiancée of a gay friend teacher who was afraid to lose his job when a local politician (later discredited in a very sordid affair that showed just how real his “family values” were) tried ramrod an anti-gay proposition through.
When I realized how much they had had to effectively erase themselves in order to bow to mainstream sensibilities, it made me sorry, and finally made me angry.
I did not want to write coming out stories. That was not my experience, or my story to tell. I wanted to write stories in which everyday acceptance was understood: I wrote about the world I wanted to live in.
Lyda: My experience was, I’m sure, tempered by the fact that I was writing books that were also traditional NY published novels, but also marketed to straight romance readers. However, in some ways, I think the whitewashing there felt almost as insidious because it fed into that destructive idea that somehow simply by existing GLBT people ruin the straight experience of love and romance.
What happened to me was that in one of my paranormal romances, I wrote in a superpower by which the heroine could see people’s inner deities. The idea was that everyone had a kind of inner patron that reflected something about the nature of their souls. You can probably see where this is going, right? Well, exactly. In my original draft, I took one of the main characters (a fan favorite, actually), a straight-acting/presenting guy, and had my heroine see his inner Goddess. I wasn’t even trying to say that this character was bi or gay. I just wanted his soul to be represented by a female. I thought it suited him. I didn’t think I was saying anything particularly radical.
I was asked to change that. Because gods forbid a genderqueer character exist. I mean how could a straight woman fantasize about that?
Rachel: This pre-emptive gatekeeping is so frustrating. We will never know if readers would have had a problem with that or not, because the readers never got to see it.
Lyda: Yeah, I was like, really? I know that the stereotype of a romance reader is that she’s an unintelligent, horny housewife, but I think that’s just as destructive a stereotype as the crap they were handing me. I am a lesbian; I read straight romances. I also read gay porn. I found it hard to believe that I was so strange–that there weren’t other women, straight women, who could be turned on by any number of different kinds of sexual situations.
Rachel: I’m guessing a lot, based on the comments to the Genreville article. A number of authors chimed in with their own similar experiences. And that’s not even getting into how many writers never even tried writing queer characters (or queer protagonists rather than supporting characters) because, based on their reading experience, they assumed that would make their book unpublishable.
Lyda: But, I will admit to caving. What did I really know about mainstream straight romance readers? I was already feeling like I was invading their space as a lesbian. Plus, I was under contract and I wanted to be able to keep writing for this particular publisher because, despite this, they’d been very good to me. (I sublimated by adding a number of insider jokes–one of my heroine’s female best friends wore “comfortable shoes,” drove a truck, and owned a big dog.) They also capitulated a little and allowed Garnet, my heroine, to see an inner Goddess in a male waiter (which was it’s own kind of horrible stereotype, but I was like throw me a damn BONE at least, and they did.)
To which I want to say that I’m impressed that the two of you held your ground and stuck to your artistic vision. I think that’s actually far harder than people might give you credit for.
This is why this is a story that needs to be talked about. We have no idea, for instance, how much queerness has been written out in the pre-publishing stage.
Do you think that this is why we’re seeing so many more small press/self-published books take off and do really amazingly well? Because they make room for the reader (of whatever orientation) with expansive tastes? Not just in romance/romantic stories, but in all things?
Rachel: Yes, I think so. I see it as a similar phenomena to gay and lesbian small presses, which have always had (and still have) very devoted audiences. I have a friend who owns literally every book Bold Strokes Books has ever published.
I self-published some lesbian romance under the pen name Rebecca Tregaron, and it did quite well – even though I didn’t advertise it at all! People who wanted to read it found it.
YA authors Zetta Elliott and Neesha Meminger, among many others, also took up self-publishing in order to connect with the readers who wanted to read what they wanted to write. If you click on their names, you will find interviews they did about why they self-publish.
On the one hand, it’s wonderful that writers and readers can now connect via self-publishing. On the other hand, self-publishing should not be the only option for writers trying to portray something other than the straight white experience.
Lyda: Also, at some point I want to come back to the idea, that, in your book, the hate was focused on the gayness, and no one raised a fuss about a relationship that reads to me as polyamorous.
Rachel: We did get a fuss about that! A completely different agent told us in email that it was totally unacceptable in YA to have a boy openly dating two girls, but that if we wanted to preserve that storyline, we could have him do it in secret and lie to them both. So cheating and lying is fine, but consensual non-monogamy is banned.
Sherwood: Oh, yeccch, I’d forgotten that. Ugh.
Rachel: In real life, relationships are often different from the “one man and one woman being completely monogamous starting from their first date” standard that’s acceptable in fiction.. Sometimes people casually date several people before settling on one. Sometimes people have committed relationships with more than one person. Sometimes people have open relationships. I’m really uncomfortable with the idea that certain types of consensual relationships cannot be depicted in fiction, and even more uncomfortable with the idea that consensuality makes them worse!
Sherwood: I suspect that the agent who objected to the gayness didn’t see the poly possibilities in the one relationship. And there was no hate expressed: when we said it was important for Yuki to be gay the agent waffled, saying that maybe Yuki could discover his gayness in book three or so, after readers were already invested in the series. Other agents had said we had too many POVs and it was Yuki they wanted cut. To give them credit, it could be that they didn’t like the way he fit into the narrative, but overall the impression I got was not anti-gay so much as a generalized fear that “they” would not buy the book with a major gay protag.
Lyda, I am sorry about that experience with the inner Goddess. I can bet that was tough, and I believe the story would have been that much richer if you’d been permitted to explore their gender fluidity. But yeah, in my experience, romance readers can indeed get really nasty about Teh Gay creeping into their world of straight cis-gendered romance. I was surprised by the dog-piling of horrible reviews on a popular romance writer who had dared to make her heroine bi.
So this is where small press and indie comes in. Maybe the big romance publishers are giving their readers exactly what they want. But that doesn’t mean there are not a whole lot of readers out there turning away from romance *because* it sticks to a determinedly binary world.
The problem here is that indies and small presses don’t have the budget to get the word out there. I think the readership exists, but only if they can find the books. That’s why I’m glad to see people tweeting and recommending on Goodreads and other book-oriented sites small press works that they loved. Word of mouth is a powerful resource.
Lyda: It is, but is it enough? I mentioned “World Well Lost” by Theodore Sturgeon earlier in this interview and I want to come back to it by way of saying that I found that short story (which was written in 1953, btw.,) at my local library when I was small town girl only just starting to explore any kind of sexuality/sexual expression. Later, in high school, I read Elizabeth A. Lynn’s DANCERS OF ARUN, which features a gay (male) hero but which also has a fantasy world populated with lesbians, etc. In fact, I like to tell people–in a very tongue and cheek way–that science fiction and fantasy made me gay. Of course it didn’t, but what it did do for me was give me options to consider in nicely/safely removed fantasy and science fiction settings.
Do you have books like that? Mainstream published books/ short stories that blew open your mind, particularly when you were teens/young readers?
Rachel: What was actually most influential that way when I was a young reader was nonfiction. I read a lot of Indian history books and comic books that did not erase the role of women in history, and actively celebrated their roles, whether that was as a queen, a war leader, or a poet. Since my social setting was otherwise very sexist, those helped me stick to the idea that a woman could do anything a man could do (only with her baby strapped to her back as she rode into battle.)
Sherwood: I think, reflecting back to the lily-scrubbed fifties and early sixties, and the limited choices at our branch library, that actually, my earliest influence was that pile of Wonder Woman comics at the orthodontist, when I was seven and eight. I pretty much breezed past the usual crime-and-pow stories. What I remember being utterly enthralled with was when Wonder Woman went home to her paradise with all women. I was already secretly writing my all-girl gang adventure stories. But something published! I couldn’t believe my eyes! For years after I tried to find those comics again: nada.
Lyda: Awesome. You know, comic books were a excellent source of strong women for me, too. Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, some stuff is cringe-worthy, but Chris Claremont‘s X-Men were huge in terms of ‘women can do anything’ for my development too. Similarly, I have to say that I always felt that the whole Legacy Virus storyline was about the X-Titles dealing with AIDS. Hell, the X-Men kind of seems like a big gay metaphor a lot of times, but particularly in the 1980s.
This is kind of the issue with SF/F. I feel like we can talk about GLBT issues, but often to get past the censors, we have to hide in these kinds of metaphors…. at least with popular stuff.
I was wondering, actually, what your thoughts are about whether or not this kind of whitewashing/censoring is happening more in YA now, in this supposedly modern age, because YA is such big business?
Sherwood: I don’t know. YA has indeed become so big that it is impossible to keep up with it all. I used to be able to name pretty much everything that came out, and read most of it, save when I knew it wasn’t my cuppa. BR (Before Rowling) YA was, oh, a small-sized terrier next to the gorillas of mainstream and romance, etc. But now, I’m lucky if I’m seeing the elephant’s ear.
From what Malinda Lo has published, counting up how many recent YA books have gay protagonists, the number has doubled . . . from less than 1% to less than 2%. Of course we don’t know what has happened in the editing process; it could be that books with gay heroes and heroines don’t make it to the contract stage.
Rachel: Chris Claremont’s X-Men run was also very important to me as a teenager. I actually named myself after Rachel Summers – the traumatized time-traveller from a future that never happened, the ultimate stranger in a strange land. The metaphor of difference, and how it was both a source of pride and wonderful in itself, but also something that made others prejudiced against you, was very resonant for me.
It was genuinely diverse in many ways, so it wasn’t one of those stories where vampirism or some other fantasy element was metaphoric for being a minority, but all the heroes were white Americans who weren’t any other sort of minority. Kitty Pryde is still one of the very few fictional Jewish characters in a story that isn’t about the Holocaust. (Magneto’s story, which largely is about the Holocaust, was sensitively handled, I thought.)
I don’t think Marvel writers were allowed to explicitly portray gay characters in comics at that point, but there was definitely some queer subtext. There was an issue where Storm went to Japan and bonded with Yukio, a female thief and adventurer. As a result of Yukio’s influence, the formerly calm and tightly controlled Storm cut loose and got a Mohawk! After an entire issue of them running around together having sexual chemistry, they ended up on a roof. Then the scene cut to them lying together on the roof smoking [presumably post-coital] cigarettes. I can’t imagine that was anything but intentional.
Rachel Manija Brown also writes urban fantasy for adults under the pen name Lia Silver, and lesbian romance (also for adults) under the pen name Rebecca Tregaron. When she’s not writing, she works as a therapist, specializing in the treatment of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder.)
Sherwood Smith was a teacher for twenty years. Now retired, she writes full time, and lives in Southern California with her family and several rescue dogs. Visit her website here.
Where to buy STRANGER:
Lyda Morehouse leads a double life. By day, she’s a mild-mannered science fiction author of the Shamus and Philip K. Dick award-winning AngeLINK series. By night, she’s the bestselling paranormal romance and urban fantasy writer, Tate Hallaway. She’s written and published over a dozen novels (five as Lyda and nine as Tate). She is happily married to the woman of her dreams and they have an eleven-year old son, four cats, a gerbil, and a fish.