What happens when who we love forces us to change our view of who we are? Against her better judgment, Professor Joanna Valois takes on sexually undefinable Sara Falier as her assistant on a trip to Venice. The object of their research is a sixteenth century heretical book and the truth about the woman condemned to death for printing it. The book, a translation of an ancient codex, not only shattered the lives of nearly everyone who touched it, but 400 years later, could still bring half the world to its knees. Like nesting dolls, this story within a story within a story raises the question as to whether gender-breaking has not only challenged the boundaries of love and sexual desire, but altered the course of history.
Now, without further ado, let's learn a little bit about the woman whose travels have brought about such magnificent stories:
♥ For those who may be new to your writing, and who haven't yet checked out your latest release, please tell us a little about yourself.
I’m an American expatriate writer living in Brussels. As a woman ‘d’un certain age’, I’ve had several careers: college professor, opera manager, editor. Now I write full time. My focus is historical fiction, though all of my novels also have romance, a bit of introspection, and usually a thriller ending. Obviously I never learned to color within the lines.
♥ The journey from 'aspiring' to 'accomplished' can be a long one. When did you begin writing, and how did you feel when you first saw The 100th Generation in print?
I learned the discipline by writing and publishing a dissertation (rather like learning to swim by falling into deep icy water) but didn’t really have fun at it until I wrote fan fiction in the 90s. It took a few more years to develop the ‘long breath’ necessary for writing a novel. While I was still shopping around the first novel, The 100th Generation sprang almost by itself out a playful correspondence I had with my then partner who was an Egyptologist at Oxford. It just took a bit of distilling and polishing to turn it into a novel. I had published a scholarly book before, but when The 100th Generation was published, I had the pleasure of knowing it was entertaining a few thousand readers rather than a few dozen graduate students and literary critics. The carefully crafted ‘first’ novel stayed in the drawer a few more years before appearing as Sistine Heresy.
♥ And Sistine Heresy is next on my reading list! I know you talk a bit on your site about why you've used LGBT characters to examine the important events in history, but can you elaborate for us?
It is the historical moment itself that interests me primarily: the Crusades, the creation of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, the fall of Berlin, the Crucifixion, etc. But I feel a certain resentment that the world looks to these great events and never sees gay people, though we were surely there. We’ve always been there, so I simply go back and paint us in. Consequently, my novels are not really ‘gay’ novels, but historical thrillers with gay and transgendered characters.
♥ How did you come to explore such fascinating religious themes and scenarios? Is it the sexuality of the characters that prompts the questions, or are the ideas something you find fascinating in and of themselves?
I grew up and came out during a time when homosexuality was almost universally condemned by religion. And western religion in general has an ugly centuries-long record of mistreatment of women and ‘deviants’ regarding faith, social behavior, sexual desire, and even dress. It’s the concept of purity that is used to attack us, purity of thought, of behavior and body. The ritual bathing, baptizing, ablutions, and slicing off of ‘unclean’ infant private parts, arise from religion’s obsession with sex and of course homosexuals are the most ‘unclean’ of all. Religions – the liberal branches of them - show more acceptance of us now, but I don’t feel particularly grateful. While they grudgingly make a place for us at the table, I have concluded that it’s not all that great a meal.
♥ Clearly, there's a connection between your travels and your writing, but which generally comes first? Do you set out to explore the story you want to write, or do you find its your travels inspire you?
I have lived or felt at home in several European countries as well as in Egypt, Palestine, Morocco. Given a common language, you can ‘connect’ with enlightened and thoughtful people almost everywhere. Although my stories are set in exotic places (Egypt, Jerusalem, Rome, Stalingrad, Berlin, Venice) they don’t feel at all foreign and I know that any American reader can get right into them. Inspiration sometimes comes after a visit to a fascinating place, such as it did in Egypt and Jerusalem, but in the case of Sarah, Son of God, I decided on the story first and then betook me for a week to that unbelievable place called Venice. Even now, I still feel like I lived there inside my characters; that is, I ‘remember’ being them.
♥ If we can talk a bit about your latest (Sarah, Son of God) without giving away too many secrets, what was it that prompted you to explore the story through a transgender character?
I had been mulling over the title for months, wondering what to do with it, and then I saw the transvestite comic Eddie Izzard. I never intended to ‘copy’ him, especially since his feminine persona was ephemeral and he never went the whole route toward MtF. But he was never a parody of women; it was the real person we were seeing and I found his ambiguity rather exciting. I wondered how far I could enter into that mindset and do justice to it. I did some very serious research after that, and consulted several MtF friends before I started writing. Their responses to the finished novel suggest that I got it right.
♥ Have you finished exploring that theme, or do you see yourself revisiting her (or another transgender character) in the future?
I can definitely say that I want to revisit Venice. There is no reason that one of my transgendered persons can’t reappear and I am inclined to give one or the other of them another turn in the spotlight. It is a subject that is very rich in possibilities and very much misunderstood. But I can’t see that far over the horizon just yet.
♥ I realise being asked to pick a favourite book is like being asked to pick a favourite child, but is there a particular passage from your work that you feel particularly fond of? Something that captures the essence of your explorations?
Each of the books has a ‘sweet spot’ for me, a paragraph or a scene that I adored writing. In The 100th Generation, it was the revelation of all the nature gods in the temple of Dendara, in Sistine Heresy it was the description of Michelangelo’s first laying on of color to his fresco, in Mephisto Aria it was the heroine’s almost erotic response to the final Trio in the opera, in Sarah, it is the final declaration in Salome’s letter. In each case, I felt I was not just banging out a scene in a novel, but achieving a brief epiphany.
♥ On the one hand, your stories are very cerebral, with a lot of history and language to explore. At the same time, however, they are very visual adventures. Do you see a cinematic potential in any of the stories, or are you content to remain on the page?
Cerebral, you say? Oh, now you’re going to scare all the potential readers away. They move much too fast to fall under the heading of cerebral. But as for the ‘cinematic potential’ question, I have to smile. Every fiction writer on EARTH thinks their novel would make a perfect film. That probably comes from the way you have to steep yourself in the story and visualize every moment so that you can articulate it. You think that if it’s so vivid to you, it would look smashing on camera, and you begin to imagine your favourite actors playing the roles. In fact, I had an agent who tried to sell Sistine Heresy to someone in Hollywood– unsuccessfully. So yes, I do imagine all of them as films. Sistine Heresy would be fabulous because of the Vatican scenes, and Sarah would be fantastic because of the beauty of Venice and the drama of the biblical scenes.
♥ What is your favourite aspect of the author-reader relationship? Do you actively seek out any formal interaction with your readers?
Like all other authors, I want to be read and admired. Not admired for the glory, truly not. But admired so that people will buy the next book, too. But I feel gratitude when I hear directly from readers and I try to convey that. There are so many thousands of books out there, even in the LGBT genres, that I am always extremely grateful when someone chooses one of my books over the others. I should also add that I occasionally hear from really clever and interesting people who have profound things to say about the subjects in my novels and I try to keep in contact with them. I am lucky to have a community that my straight author colleagues do not enjoy.
♥ Is there a particular author who has influenced or inspired your writing? Somebody who either made you want to write in the first place, or who refreshes your literary batteries?
At the risk of alienating the more lesbian-identified readers, I have to admit that I was initially most influenced by so-called “Dead white men.” I was a professor of literature for many years and so much of my intellectual inventory comes from the classics. But once I was engaged in LGBT literature, I found the most appealing writers were people like Sara Waters. She really knows the craft, and I love spotting the little ‘tricks’ she uses to make her novels pull you from chapter to chapter.
♥ Other than the obvious (travel), what are some of the hobbies and passions that keep you busy when you're not writing?
The other ‘occupation’ in my life is a new dog. When the sister of one of my friends died she asked me if I could adopt the ‘orphaned’ dog a miniature dachshund/terrier. Never having owned a dog, I hesitated, but when I saw the adorable little face, I was smitten and so now am learning how to live with a creature who needs constant attention, and is always competing with my laptop for my lap.
♥ Finally, before I let you go, what can we look forward to from you next? Is there a project on the horizon that you're really excited about?
I’m currently working on Tyger Tyger, Burning Bright, a story that takes place during WWII in Germany. It’s not your usual ‘running from the Nazis’ tale, however. It starts with Leni Riefenstahl’s filming of Triumph of the Will and ends with the fall of Berlin. I’ve always wanted to trace the way this liberal enlightened society degenerated into a murderous, genocidal one. All the good guys are LGBT, though, rather like Aimee & Jaguar, if you are familiar with that story. And of course it will make a perfect film.
A huge "thank you" to Justine Saracen for stopping by. You can check her out on the web at Bold Strokes Books, or on her website at http://justinesaracen.com/.
Spring Celebration going, it's also time for you - the readers - to do your part by stopping by, saying hello, and hopefully even sharing a few thoughts on any of her stories that you may have read . . . or are looking forward to.
Don't forget, this is also your chance to become eligible for this week's giveaways, so be sure to include your email address in your comment. Of course, you don't have to be a follower to win, but being a follower will earn you a bonus entry for the week (just let me know in your comment if you're a new follower or an old favourite).