Queer-Romance-Month-2015Every Friday in October, AAR will run a guest post as part of our participation in Queer Romance Month. Today Ginn Hale, Nicole Kimberling, Astrid Amara and Langley Hyde are here to discuss queer fantasy romance. This piece is hosted by Alexis Hall.


 

AH: So a sense I get from some readers and a lot of publishers, honestly, is that ‘queer romance’ predominantly means contemporary. Have you encountered this as well and what would be your response to it?

GH: I think that tends to happen because contemporary romances are often the easiest to categorize, recognize, and generally speaking most broadly accessible stories. Readers don’t have to puzzle out the rules or norms of a whole new world, or try to empathize with fantastical characters and weird situations. Also it’s much clearer when an author addresses real-world issues in contemporary fiction. So, I think it makes sense that contemporary stories would be the first that come to mind.

LH: Agreed. I find that across the board the public has a strong idea of what constitutes a romance: contemporary, two romantic leads, often a more “vulnerable” p.o.v. character, an unattached love interest, an escalation, a monogamous HEA. If a story deviates from these popular norms, it then needs additional labeling so that readers can know what they’re picking up (if it’s a threesome, or BDSM, or even, let’s get crazy here, science fiction).

GH: Yeah, when authors cover a great deal of territory in their stories pinning them down into just one genre gets complicated. I tend to think of my books as “fantasy novels featuring LGBTQ characters and strong romantic throughlines”,  but that’s just because that’s one of the easiest ways to sum up most of the elements in the books. It sort of cracks me up to imagine that entire phrase being a label on a bookshelf.

LH: That’s what it ultimately comes down to. Where does a bookseller put this book, so that a reader can find what they’re looking for? I know that personally I wasn’t sure how my book would be received. Would it be considered primarily steampunk? Or mostly queer romance? Both aspects seemed equally important to me. In the end, it seemed to depend on reader perceptions.

GH: Right, the romantic element is a huge part of Highfell Grimoires but the way it’s woven together within a steampunk plot and magical world make it something of a disservice to slot the book in just one category. I see the same synthesis of genres in Astrid’s and Nicole’s books –be it historical elements, mystery or humor—there is always more going on in them than can easily fit in a single genre or even two. But I think that’s part of what makes them great fiction.

LH: There’s an element of guesswork done by publishers and booksellers when they compact a huge novel with all of these complex elements down into one phrase that says, “Look here to find what you like.” When the reader flips the book over, they’ll receive additional cues on the blurb: a sassy girl detective, hired by a dark and mysterious femme fatale to recover a demon-cursed family heirloom, etc., that hint at tone and content. The reader opens the book to see of the enticing blurb matches the first few paragraphs. If so, they buy. If genre is done well, it’s like a matchmaking service for books.

LH: Basically, what I am saying is that “queer romance” does typically mean “contemporary queer romance” because it’s a shorthand category, built, like the other categories, on reader perceptions/expectations so that readers can find what they like.

NK: I think you ladies have pretty much covered this one from the marketing perspective–LOL. The only thing that I would add is that “fantasy” and “contemporary” are both really just sorts of settings where a romance plot or subplot may occur, right? And then what makes it queer is the identity of the protagonist. To me the most amazing novels are the ones that can kind of infuse a queer sensibility into more than the character aspect of the novel.

NK: Fantasy is the perfect genre to do this in, IMHO, because the author is able to exaggerate or amplify certain aspects of reality to push the prose into a more thematically resonant direction.

GH: Yeah, I’d say that world building offers science fiction and fantasy authors a distinct advantage when it comes to integrating characterization, theme and setting. Though it also puts the onus on us to deliver stories wherein LGBTQ characters aren’t limited to just exploring their sexualities, nor are they stripped of them. I think Nicole did a great job of that with that in her novella Cherries Worth Getting. The protagonist is gay but that isn’t a point of conflict. His relationship with a transgoblin co-worker however is… Well, that and a series of gruesome otherworldly murders. 🙂 So it makes for a really layered read.

AA: I think the others covered this topic really well, but I’d simply add that, for me, the fantasy or speculative fiction component of the story is always first, then the romance, so I never associated queer romance specifically with contemporary… mostly because that’s where my personal taste lies.

AH: This is really fascinating. World building is, obviously, pretty central to all fantasy novels – but can you tell us a bit more about the freedoms and the challenges of world building within a specifically queer context?

LH: For me, that comes into play as I slowly build in cultural norms. I have to ask myself how minorities (sexual, ethnic, other) are viewed by the perceived majority, what that means for social hierarchy, economic structure, stereotypes, and then how these impact a character’s psychology given their personality traits. This does not necessarily have to be negative. It also sounds very complex, and it can be, but as long as a writer uses a dollop of compassion and common sense, this evolution can occur throughout a novel in an organic and nuanced away (or, at least I hope it does in my writing).

LH: That said, I struggle extremely with including in my work bigotry, prejudice, social inequality, exploitation, and injustice. In many cultures, people find ways to discriminate against one another and create privilege for or within their own groups; a book lacking those elements of human nature would hardly, in my opinion, be complete. But that said, I do not believe bigotry and prejudice are inevitable. I do not want to depict them as such. I want to have novels where there is a better way.

LH: I really admire Ginn Hale’s Rifter for negotiating these factors with such nuance and delicacy. The Rifter includes some extremely hard topics to talk about: bigotry against ethnic groups (the blond Easterners), perceived miscegenation (Fikiri), the criminalization of sexuality outside the cultural norm (the burnings on the Holy Road, priests’ sexuality), the disparate impact culture has on individuals (Ravishan’s sexual secretiveness vs the stable boy’s open promiscuity), plus more than I can list here–AND it does all this while advancing a sweeping, action-filled portal story with time travel, witchcraft, romance, political intrigue, godhood, rebellions, and the founding of a new era.

GH: You are totally making me blush. 🙂

AA: Well one of the freedoms clearly is the ability to establish what kind of society you wish to create and how various sexual orientations are treated within that society. You can create a world where homophobia doesn’t exist, as many do, and this can serve as a metaphor for what a world without bigotry would look like. You can also choose to mirror society’s issues in your fantastical world as a way to shed light on the challenges and serve as a metaphor for what people struggle with every day in the real world. Ultimately I think it comes down to what kind of novel are you trying to write.

One review of my novel Song of the Navigator expressed disappointment that I portrayed a world where racism was still in existence, where poor, Spanish-speaking farmers were being unfairly oppressed by large non-Spanish speaking corporate powers. I  found the comment was really interesting, because I hadn’t even thought of portraying a future world without the evils of racism, homophobia, sexism, class prejudice. To imagine a future without these things seemed too fantastical… and yet it was totally within the realm of expectation to have carbon dioxide breathing humans. 🙂

Basically, I see each novel I write as shining a light on a certain aspect of my own society, either good or bad. The fantasy component allows me to get melodramatic and creative and expressive, but the story has to tell another story besides the fantasy plot and the romance.

GH: Yeah, completely agree. I’d  like to imagine that in the real world we are heading–maybe slowly– towards a future of equality and mutual respect for all humanity. But in the realms of fiction, conflict is extremely important, not just because it drives the plot and motivates characters but because it is the means to explore all those problems that we haven’t worked out here in our flawed real world.

GH: That doesn’t mean that every fantasy world has to embody our conflicts in the same manner. Queer characters shouldn’t only be locked in battle over their sexualities any more than characters of color should only appear in stories centering on racism. I’m a lesbian but LGBTQ equality isn’t the only issue that concerns me; women’s rights, immigration, racial profiling, health care, and the environment–to list just a few issues– are very important to me.

LH: I think those are very good points, Ginn.

GH: Most really awesome fantasy stories layer the conflicts of their worlds and characters–like Astrid’s Song of the Navigator— so that they reflect the sort of complex challenges we all face… and of course there’s also that little joy of getting to solve those problems, if only for imaginary characters in a fantasy world. 🙂

GH: {I don’t know if this is exactly the place to mention this but} I feel pretty strongly that it is important for authors to break away from the tradition of penning unhappy endings for LGBTQ protagonists. I don’t care how many “feels” authors thinks it may give their readers or if the motivation is some well meaning attempt to “show the human cost of bigotry”. The LGBTQ community does NOT need another story wherein we fail, die, are murdered, turn evil, or end up alone and desolate forever. Not one more.

And particularly not in fantasy worlds! If you can conjure up realms of fire breathing dragons, faster than light travel, or wizards transforming energy and matter with the wave of a stick, then go ahead and imagine queer characters triumphing in their own adventures and romances. (Gets down off soapbox. )

NK: That was a nice soapbox speech, Ginn. I concur. But for myself, I’m not sure I’ve ever specifically built a fantasy world in a queer context. I think that might be because I find the most world-building inspiration in taking the mundane and pushing it so far that it becomes extreme–absurd even. I suppose in an earlier time gay marriage could have qualified as a mundane thing that had been made extreme by allowing homosexuals to participate in it. But we’ve moved beyond that now.

AH: Just to focus in a bit on you as writers, what is it about fantasy-romance draws and inspires you? How would you define your core story?

AA: As I said above, I’m drawn to the melodramatic potential of the fantasy genre, the ability to tell a story that’s bigger and brighter than everyday life, but still addresses the same core challenges we all face in the real world.

As far as my “core” story, I’m mostly fascinated with the evolution of morals. I like seeing a character evolve a standpoint or opinion over the course of the story – whether it be judgement in terms of one’s class, an understanding of one’s place in the world, or one’s role in a particular organization or movement.

NK: Basically I love love stories. It’s genuinely difficult for me to imagine writing a narrative where a character does not seek love–and even harder for me to withhold the gift of love from characters I create. So am I sentimental? Sure. But even the most cursory survey of actual human beings in my acquaintance reveals a fundamental and pervasive drive toward seeking substantial sexual companionship. So when I create fictional characters–in contemporary or in fantastical settings–I want to be able to use what I know about people to help lend a greater degree of verisimilitude overall.

Regarding my core story–it’s all about beginning at a mundane point and pushing the characters and narrative into what I like to think of as the “extreme next logical step.” Kind of like how in the film Brazil, bureaucratic paperwork became the primary instrument of fascist tyranny. And I really enjoy the reverse as well, bringing the bizarre into the banal, such as the idea of a book group comprised entirely of werewolves reading men’s movement books like Robert Bly’s Iron John and then having their next club read be something like, Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Women Who Run With Wolves.

GH: I really enjoy the freedom that fantasy gives me to reframe issues and accepted social norms. Sometimes a subject–religion, sexual identity, race– is so strongly associated with certain values that it’s difficult to explore without encountering “knee-jerk” reactions that stop any exchange of ideas right away. Often science fiction and fantasy can offer a new perspective that allows authors and readers alike to explore their beliefs–and maybe even have a good time doing it.

GH: I think the core of most my stories revolves around characters who are, in one way or another, outsiders in their own cultures. I suppose it serves as a means to reflect both upon the dominant societies but also upon those forces in conflict with them… Or maybe my core story is just about people falling in love and kicking down doors and I’m overthinking it. 🙂

LH: Honestly? I tried to write literary fiction in college, mostly because that was what was taught and what people expected me to write. I hated it, and I failed. I’d start out writing a literary short story, and before I knew it, the ordinary seeming hitchhiker would turn-out to be a shapeshifting dragon in disguise, seeking her stolen, jeweled wings along the I-5. I can’t help writing fantasy. It’s how my mind seems to work. I think it’s because fantasy offers so much to a writer–the unparalleled ability to build metaphor throughout a world and a work, the development of a world in and of itself, intense characters facing up against astounding odds… A fantasy novel can be more real than life is true, and it can be significantly more beautiful.

I think I’m still discovering what I write about, as I’m relatively fresh to writing as a professional. Every story has the potential to let me discover and explore something new–it’s thrilling–and that’s part of why I write.

But I do have themes that are important to me as a human being and that will continue to be a factor in my work, probably for many years to come. Class stratification comes immediately to mind. Negotiating gender identity. Rebelling against power structures, social standards, or family expectations. The value and power of knowledge, and the love of learning and excellence for its own sake. Sexuality features in my writing, as romance is such a driving and motivating force for so many people. Including in my novels complex, flawed, and interesting LGBTQIA characters will always be a priority for me.

All that sounds very heavy, and maybe it is, but I actually want my stories to feel very light when they’re read. I want the stories that I write to be fun, and romantic, because romance is fun, and I want them to be funny, and clever, and to have heart-thumping excitement. Basically, I just want to write good books.

AH: I should probably let you wonderful people go – but before I do, what books would you recommend to readers wanting to explore the world of queer fantasy romance?

AA: Well I guess since I can’t again recommend Ginn Hale or Langley Hyde (ha!) I’ll recommend C.S. Pacat’s Captive Prince series. I found it an engrossing story.

NK: Apart from the Blind Eye Books stories that I buy? 🙂  I really enjoyed Jess Farraday’s The Left Hand of Justice. (That one is from Bold Strokes.)

GH: I would certainly recommend all the authors here! (Astrid Amara, Nicole Kimberling Langley Hyde and Alexis Hall, who has so kindly provided questions and kept us–me– from  wandering off topic.)

There’s also Jess Farraday,  Jordan L. Hawk, K.J. Charles, Megan Derr, Jordan Castillo Price, Lou Harper, and Catherine Lundoff.

Malinda Lo, Lynn Flewelling, Melissa Scott, Tenia D. Johnson, Josh Lanyon, and Jim Grimsley all have at least one title that mixes queer romance with a touch of fantasy or vice versa.

And there are many, many more than I could possibly list here; Likely many I haven’t even discovered yet and others still being written!

AH: Thank you all for joining me. That was amazing!


 

Nicole Kimberling lives in Bellingham, Washington with her wife, Dawn Kimberling, two bad cats as well as a wide and diverse variety of invasive and noxious weeds. Her first novel, Turnskin, won the Lambda Literary Award for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. She is also the author of the Bellingham Mystery Series and editor for Blind Eye Books.

After living in New York, Oxford, London, and Friedrichshafen, the old zeppelin-manufacturing center of Germany, Langley Hyde has settled in the Pacific Northwest. Her debut novel, Highfell Grimoires, was given a starred review by Publishers Weekly and named a Best Book of 2014 in the category of SF/Fantasy/Horror.

Ginn Hale lives with her lovely wife and indolent cats in the Pacific Northwest. She spends the many rainy days tinkering with devices and words. Her first novel, Wicked Gentlemen, won the Spectrum Award for best novel. Her most recent publications include the Lord of the White Hell, Champion of the Scarlet Wolf and The Rifter trilogy: The Shattered Gates, The Holy Road, and His Sacred Bones. Her novella Things Unseen and Deadly appears in the Irregulars Anthology, while Swift and the Black Dog appears in Charmed and Dangerous.

Astrid Amara is the author of numerous contemporary, sci-fi/fantasy, and holiday romance novels all featuring gay protagonists. She lives in Bellingham, Washington with a husband, three dogs, three goats, and a horse. When she’s not writing she works for The Man or engages in her favorite hobbies: eating, sleeping, and sleeping longer.