In Their Own Words: Part 1

In poems, short stories, graphic novels — really, in just about every genre you can imagine — LGBT writers tell stories that make us laugh, cry and, occasionally, feel a little more at home in the world. On May 29, some of this year’s best LGBT writing will be honored at the 20th Annual Lambda Literary Awards.

To join in the celebration, we asked 12 of the world’s best lesbian/bi writers to talk about the genres in which they tell their stories. They answered our questions via email, and we’re presenting their responses here in their own words.

Our two-part article begins with today’s interviews with young-adult novelist Nancy Garden, short-story writer Amy Bloom, comic-book author and illustrator Ariel Schrag, poet Joan Larkin, novelist Charlotte Mendelson and romance author Karin Kallmaker.

Nancy Garden: Young Adult Literature

Best known for the young-adult classic Annie On My Mind,Nancy Garden has written more than two dozen works, including nonfiction, mystery and fantasy for children and young adults. Name a few YA books or authors that inspired you to write in this genre.
Nancy Garden: Way back in the 1950s when I was around 16, in love with a girl (to whom I am now legally married and with whom I’ve been living for nearly 40 years), and beginning to realize I might be lesbian, I searched largely in vain for books that might help me figure myself out. But there were none available for kids, and for a while all I could find were cheap paperback novels with lurid covers in which the lesbian character ended up committing suicide, dying in a car crash, being sent to a mental institution, or being wooed and won by a straight man.

I know now that many of those books were written for men, but by adult lesbians, and that the only way such books could get published was for the lesbian character to be in some way “punished” at the end. Even so, many books of that kind were read and enjoyed by lesbians who were grateful to find any books at all about characters like themselves. But although I read them avidly as a teenager, they disturbed me and made me angry and discouraged.

Finally, though, I found The Well of Loneliness, written by Radclyffe Hall and published in England in 1928. It’s melodramatic and sentimental, but it’s also honest, and gave a picture of lesbian life in that era that showed that lesbians were good people (and that there were quite a lot of them!).

Radclyffe Hall made it clear that when lesbians were downtrodden victims it was because of the ignorance and bigotry of others, not through any fault or defect of their own. The Well of Loneliness ends sadly, but with an impassioned plea for justice and understanding that made me vow to write a book someday about a lesbian that would end happily. After several false starts, I finally did — Annie On My Mind, published in 1982. How has YA literature developed or changed in recent years, especially in regard to portrayals of lesbians and bisexuals?
NG: There are very few YA books or stories with bisexual characters, unfortunately. Sarah Ryan’s Empress of the World is the only one I know of with female characters; this is certainly an area that needs expanding! The same, by the way, is true of transgender characters, although there’s a bit more now for them.

The good news is that now, at last, more and more YA books are being published in which the lesbian character is in no way a victim. Even if a lesbian character encounters homophobia, she usually comes through it with strength and pride. Our books, too, are beginning to deal with universals as much as they deal with being gay — universals as experienced by young lesbians.

Also, more LGBT books are being published now for teens than ever before. But the bad news is that books for and about gay boys outnumber those for and about young lesbians — as (sigh!) they just about always have. Do you have any suggestions for women aspiring to write YA novels?
NG: First of all, read YA novels — lots and lots of them. Read whatever YAs intrigue you when you browse in bookstores and libraries (which of course you do regularly!), and also read Printz Award winners, Margaret A. Edwards Award winners, and everything you can find that’s been on ALA’s Best Books lists.

Stay as closely in touch with teens themselves as you can, especially if you want to write contemporary fiction — but beware of sticking too closely in your writing to fads in language, dress, music and other elements of popular culture. Remember that they all go out of date quickly and you want your books to last!

But most important of all, write what you truly want to write — write about what moves you, about what’s close to your heart, what you yourself would like to read.

And be careful that your characters are individuals, not types, and not mouthpieces for your “messages” about gay rights and homophobia. It’s tempting to have one’s characters preach about how cruel homophobia is and how unfairly lesbians often get treated, but your job as a novelist is primarily to tell a story. Show injustice if that’s what you want to write about. Don’t just tell about it and point out how bad it is. Show how it happens to your characters and how they handle it. Remember that the book belongs to your characters, not to you. It’s their story and you need to let them act it out.

Next page: Amy Bloom on short stories