A few weeks ago I did one of those ten-questions-by-email roundup interviews (with Gena Hymowech) for Lambda Literary on the question of “Can queer authors write straight characters?” The answer of course is pretty simple: yes. But I spent an hour or so taking the questions seriously and doing my best to give clear answers. My work was reduced to two sentences in the final article. Other writers who contributed are Alex Sanchez, Val McDermid, Robert Rave, and Nancy Garden. No doubt they wrote a lot more originally, too.
I thought you might like to see my unedited thoughts.
Please give me a few examples of the straight characters you’ve written, telling me whether they are lead or secondary characters, a little bit about them, and which books they appear in.
Too many to list. The protagonists of my published novels are all queer but the majority of the other characters in my books, as in real life, are straight–though you wouldn’t know that from the critical response, particularly for the early books. Reviewers focused on (freaked out about) ‘all the lesbian sex,’ which they confused with porn. Because, clearly, lesbian sex is always porny…
Why did you decide to make these characters straight, rather than gay? Please explain, for each character.
Simple: most of the world is straight. Family, work colleagues, siblings. Parents.
Some writers find it difficult to write about a character who has a different sexual orientation than themselves; while other writers don’t find that difficult at all. Did you face any challenges or fears in writing about your straight characters’ orientation? Give specific examples. If it wasn’t hard, explain why.
It’s not hard because I’m good at my job. I’m an expert writer. Getting inside people who aren’t me is what I do.
Writers often speak about getting into their characters’ heads. How did you go about getting into your straight characters’ heads? Again, please give specific examples.
I’m surrounded by straight people. I grew up with them. They’re everywhere. I’ve read their books, worn their clothes, eaten their food, watched their movies, listened to their music. I’m steeped in their culture. It’s my culture. I know how it works. I know how they work. How could I not get in their heads?
Do you think straight readers care that a writer is queer when that queer writer creates a straight protagonist?
They seriously don’t care.
Do you think the publishing industry cares that a writer is queer when that queer writer creates a straight protagonist?
They really, seriously don’t care.
Why do you think so few gay writers write about straight protagonists?
Writing a novel is arduous. It’s a serious commitment of time, energy, and attention. To write at novel length we must be consumed by the need to tell a particular story. We must burn with it. The stories queer writers want to write are for people like us. Our stories, generally, are queer stories. We want to see ourselves reflected in the world. We want to change the world.
One day, the world will treat queers and straights the same way. One day, there will be no difference between queer stories and straight stories.
Some gay writers might be intimidated at the thought of writing about straight characters: What advice do you have for them?
If your characters intimidate you, you’re in the wrong line of work. Fear kills arts. We must act as though it doesn’t exist.
Do you find you call upon more of your personal experiences when writing a gay character versus when writing a straight character, or does it depend on the character?
People are people. For example, straight people who love wine do so for the same reasons queer people do: it tastes great, it gets them wasted, they want to impress people, whatever. Queer people who are afraid of spiders are afraid of the wee beasties for the same reasons straights are: they’re, y’know, spiders.
Good sex is good sex, no matter what the mechanics. And love is love. And we all, on some level, want more respect/money/privileges than we have. It’s a human thing. So, mostly, nope, the sexuality of the character makes no difference to how I approach a character or to what degree I draw from my own experience. But because sex, in my opinion, if such a huge part of a life lived to the full, it’s also very much part of my protagonists’ lives. And I’m glad that, so far, all the sex I’ve really revelled in, fictionally, is dyke sex. Frankly, the thought of imagining detailed straight sex makes me feel a bit queasy. It’s the whole gender and power differential–it just doesn’t work for me. (But see my answer to your next question.)
Do you plan to write about more straight lead characters in the future? Can you talk in detail about any of them?
You’d better get comfortable because this is going to be a long answer.
The novel I am writing is about an historical figure, Hild of Whitby. It’s set in the 7th century, in the north of England.
The little that’s known about Hild comes from a single source (Bede’s HE). He tells us she was royal, baptised at age 13 in York, became a nun at 33, and died at 66. For twenty years of her life, we know nothing about her. I could make up anything…
…and yet, to be realistic (and I’m writing realism, not fantasy), Hild has to be married (to a man). She was royal, a pawn in the constant power games and alliance-making of that time. Marriage was the premier diplomatic tool. She was a valuable game piece. The demands of the realm, the times, her kin would have made it impossible to refuse her role.
So, she marries: a king or crown prince. Given that royal men of that time were–had to be, it was part of the job description–warlords, Hild married a man of blood, a man who killed and raped. How do I imagine what it’s like to be close to a person who is used to getting his way by the sword, who kicks open the door at the end of a summer’s campaign, walks in splashed with gore, and bellows, “Honey, I’m home!” The answer is, I don’t–because that picture is a cliché. Under the warlord’s bloody armour would have beaten a human heart. That’s what Hild would relate to. And, of course, I have no doubt she would have noticed women, too. As long as she was discreet, I don’t think anyone would have cared. After all, the point of marriage was alliance, household management, and the provision of heirs. Married girls loving other married girls wouldn’t have any impact on any of these points. And this was just before conversion to Christianity, so god wouldn’t have entered into it.
So far, I’ve had it easy: Hild is only twelve, only just coming into her sexuality. (I’ve written 600* pages without any sex–an exceedingly weird experience.) But now she starting to notice the rich scent of a woman who’s just woken up, the coppery tang of male adrenaline, the way her body thrills when she’s near certain people. Very soon she’ll figure out what it is she feels, and what she’s going to do about it…
* Over 700 pages now