First, thanks for doing this interview with me. Could you tell us a little about yourself? Where do you hail from, what got you into writing, and why "Wicked Gentlemen"?
I currently live in the Pacific Northwest in the small city of Bellingham, which curls between a lovely green bay and the foot of a lively volcano.
When I was young, my family didn’t have anything like television or radio or even access to many books, but both my parents were great storytellers. My father loved to create humorous versions of history and he encouraged my brother and me to re-enact the scenes as he narrated. We assassinated President Taft (played and narrated by my father) an absurd number of times.
My mother would read aloud from a tattered book of Shakespeare, taking on the voices of each character and when she came across a missing page—as happens with old books—she filled in the story from memory.
I wrote Wicked Gentlemen for much the same reason that my parents told stories. I wanted to entertain two friends. At the time that I wrote it I had no intention of publishing. I simply enjoyed building a story for my friends.
Who would you say are some of your influences? What about favorite writers past and present?
Obviously Shakespeare was a big influence, since his were the first stories I knew. As a child I also loved Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries and J.R.R.Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Once I had access to libraries and bookstores I pretty much devoured books. I was, and still am, strongly interested in science and poetry. I found Richard Siken’s book, Crush, astounding; the way he uses the fluidity of language to alter meaning and reverse assumptions amazes me.
I also loved science fiction and fantasy. My teenage memories are filled with evenings spent pouring over books by Anne McCaffery, Larry Niven, and Isaac Asimov. But I think if I had to pick one book that had the most profound influence upon me as a writer, I guess I’d have to say it was The Watchtower, by Elizabeth Lynn. Hers was the first story I read with gay characters— though by today’s standards you’d hardly notice--and after that I became aware of how profoundly absent we gays and lesbians were from the kinds of exciting, adventurous stories that I wanted to read. So I started to write my own little stories and that’s pretty much how I became a writer.
What are you currently reading, what have you just finished, and what do you plan to read? Any good book suggestions?
Wow I could go on forever with lists of books— I’ll try to control myself.
Currently, I’m reading, and very much enjoying, two books: one for research, The London Hanged by Peter Linebaugh, and the other for pleasure, Turnskin by Nicole Kimberling.
I just finished reading Barth Anderson’s The Magician and the Fool. Reading it was like watching a talented stage magician perform. I knew that I was being deceived and misdirected but the illusion was so engaging that it still thrilled me.
Other recent reads include a charming book called Vintage, by Steve Berman, a beautiful mystery from Josh Lanyon called Snowball In Hell, (I am addicted to his Adrien English mystery series).
As far as book suggestions go, there are a few that I love and have read over and over among them are, Dream Boy by Jim Grimsly, The Charioteer by Mary Renault, and James Thurber’s, The thirteen Clocks.
And oh, all the books that I’m planning to read… Anything from Kelly Link –she’s just so clever and cool. Astrid Amara’s, The Archer’s Heart, The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, Tales of Judge Dee by Zhu Xiao Di and Crave by Catherine Lundoff.
Obviously there's a certain amount of homosexual content in the novel, since it was nominated, and won, the Gaylactic Spectrum Award. How has that aspect of your work been received? Do you get more negative comments or positive comments, or do people not really care?
The vast majority of responses have been wonderful and positive and they’ve cared but in the best possible way.
It’s particularly encouraging that most reviewers haven’t singled out the homosexual content for comment as if it were something aberrant or strange. Instead, they’ve responded to the sexuality of the characters as part and parcel of the book, just as they would treat heterosexual content in another novel.
The very few bits of hate mail I’ve received have all come from people who haven’t actually read the book. So I’m guessing that these people are simply opposed to gays and lesbians as human beings, never mind literary characters.
Additionally, do you receive negative or positive comments regarding your representation of the Church (the Inquisition in "Wicked Gentlemen")?
In writing Wicked Gentlemen I wasn’t setting out to depict any group or institution as purely good or evil, the church included. I tried to balance the brutality of the Inquisition’s treatment of Belimai with depictions of Harper in his role as an Inquisitor protecting and defending people.
And so far, I haven’t received any negative comments on my representation of the Inquisition. This might be because the church in the world of Wicked Gentlemen is obviously fictional, or it could be due to the fact that the real Inquisition committed far greater atrocities than I attribute to them in my novel.
Speaking of the aspects of religion and sexuality in your book, can you talk about the complicated relationship between Sykes and Harper, particularly the nature of discrimination present due to Sykes being a descendant of demons and Harper being a member of the Inquisition?
Well that’s a lot in one question, but let’s see…
To Belimai Sykes, Harper appears to be the embodiment of a social ideal. He is what Sykes could never become but perhaps aspired towards before he was arrested. Certainly at the beginning of their relationship Sykes is both attracted and resentful of that attraction.
Harper on the other hand is more at odds with himself than his attraction to Sykes. Due to the circumstances of his childhood he identifies with Prodigals and longs to be accepted by them. But his only means of interacting with them is as an Inquisitor, and as such he is also a representative of their persecution.
Both characters are at odds with the greater society and each other at first, but as their relationship grows Harper and Sykes begin to perceive each other and themselves outside of the greater social stereotypes. They are able to interact as two individuals, not just as an Inquisitor and a Prodigal. In this way, their shared sexuality is the key to their salvation; it’s the shared bond that first allows them to bridge their differences and begin to build a trust in each other.
How did you come up with your world? Where did the inspiration for Hells Below come from?
The world came from taking the parable of the Prodigal Son to its extreme. It’s one thing to forgive and welcome a wayward child, but what about some one really dangerous, really foreign? And how does a society deal with the loss of its devils when they all repent and move in next door?
Hells Below was inspired by descriptions of London ghettos in the mid 1800’s. I made it a literal underworld because I liked the idea that first generation of Prodigals—fresh from Hell—would have taken comfort in the warm, dark subterranean world. They might have built something beautiful that reflected both their culture and their aspirations, but three hundred years later all of that has degraded, collapsed and become a much more interesting place to write about.
Do you feel like there is a certain level of allegory in your work? Or, at the very least, what do you think your novel has to say about the world we live in now, despite it being very clearly about a world that doesn't exist (although, maybe it might have existed in things had turned out differently)?
As a rule, I try to I avoid allegories and sweeping messages, because I don’t really write either very well. The characters come out stiff and wooden and their actions take on a kind of absolutism that very rarely feels true.
Instead, I try to concentrate on the humanity of the characters, (even the demons), because it seems to me that the most meaningful decisions and realizations take place on that personal, human level.
So, if anything in the book reflects real world issues it would be in the individual choices of the characters: the different ways they each deal with their failure, hurt, triumph and desire.
What about your characters, Sykes and Harper, do you think will draw readers in?
Well I’d like to say their humanity, but that’s a lot to expect a reader to perceive from page one.
I hope Sykes’ turns of cynicism and humor entertain readers long enough for them to come to understand the reasons behind his addiction and isolation.
Harper’s draw is his mystery –his missing sister, her murdered lover, his gloved hands—but I hope that by the end of the book he’s been revealed to be more than just a handsome plot device.
Your novel recently won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Novel for 2008. Can you talk about your experience with that (since I know you were at the ceremony and all)? How surprised were you?
I can't express how honored and surprised I was--and still am.
I honestly hadn't even considered the possibility that I could win; I was just giddy to be attending the awards and to be surrounded by so many of my favorite authors. When Rob Gates called my name I was stunned speechless, which was a funny because I was supposed to give an acceptance speech.
You're published with a small press (Blind Eye Books). What has that experience been like for you and why did you choose a small press over a larger one? What do you think are some advantages and disadvantages of both?
I’ve been really happy with Blind Eye and I’m planning to publish with them again. But obviously that isn’t the right choice for everyone.
I have two friends who have gone with large publishers for their books. One has been happy and is making a lot of money. The other was deeply disappointed. From their stories it became clear to me that large publishers are really good for very mainstream books and authors. A large publisher can afford mass printings, advertising champagnes and national distribution. They aren’t personally invested in an author’s book but they are financially invested. If the book sells well they will keep buying more manuscripts and building your career.
But if a book is hard for them to fit into a bestselling category there can be real problems and it isn’t in the interest of a large publisher to waste time on a “problem” author. This was what happened to one of my two friends. Because her book featured a young protagonist the publisher wanted the book to fit the YA market but her story was far too adult and so she found herself fighting her editor and then the advertising and marketing departments every step of the way.
Small presses on the other hand rarely have much money. This means they usually pay less and have limited advertising and distribution. But because they publish fewer titles they invest more into each of them individually. A big publisher like Bantam might only have the time to promote an individual title for a month, while a small press like Lethe, Small Beer or Blind Eye Books will continue to promote their titles for years.
But to me the real difference was personal. Nicole Kimberling, the editor at Blind Eye Books, loved my story and put everything she had into making it into a beautiful book.
Do you feel that speculative fiction publishers and general publishers are no more open to books concerned with issues of sexuality (gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, etc.), or is the acceptance of such work, in your opinion, still firmly planted within the realm of the small press?
This is a tough one to answer.
Obviously an editor at a small press specializing in gay or lesbian literature is much more likely to consider a manuscript featuring gay,lesbian, transgender or bisexual themes. At a large publishing house the same editor might choose to pass on the same manuscript, since it could be perceived as having a limited audience and thus a lesser sales potential. The discrimination often has more to do with money than overt bigotry. And I think the same can be said for the literary representation of many minority groups. Large publishers want guaranteed bestsellers and anything out of the ordinary seems to make them nervous.
That doesn't mean that there's no hope of a larger publisher buying an LGBT themed manuscript. It just means that the manuscript has to be brilliant or more importantly written by an author with name recognition in her/ his genre. Diana Gabaldon's well established reputation as a bestselling author doubtless helped to sell her Lord John series, which features a gay protagonist.
But even that may be changing, especially in science fiction and fantasy. Over the last few years, it seems that more books from large publishers have cropped up with bisexual, gay and lesbian characters. Just looking over the finalists for the Spectrum awards and the Lambda Literary Awards, I noticed titles from both Tor and Bantam. Lynn Flewelling's, Nightrunner series, which features bisexual men, was published by Bantam Spectra and Tanya Huff's Smoke and Mirrors,featuring a gay protagonist, was published by DAW. So, it's not unheard of for a large publisher to put out a book with LGBT characters or themes, it's just not the easiest sell for an author.
What is some writing advice you would give to new writers out there?
There’s already so much good advice available on craft and technique that I don’t know that I could add much. I will say that if you’re serious about being a writer, you should force yourself to write everyday, no matter what mood you’re in, how busy you are or how uninspired you feel. You won’t just be getting more done by working daily, you’ll also be teaching yourself the discipline that you’ll need to keep going when things get very tough. Write and keep writing.
Do you have any more projects coming up? Can you tell us a little about them? Should we expect to see more of Sykes and Harper?
My novella Feral Machines has been published in the anthology Tangle (Blind Eye Books) and I have another novella, Touching Sparks, in the Hell Cop anthology (LooseId). The first novella is science fiction and the second is a much more racy urban fantasy.
Right now I’m working on a high fantasy novel that follows a young scholar, the first of his ethnic minority to attend the Sagrada Academy, a prestigious school for the sons of wealthy merchants and nobles. Upon arriving, he discovers that his roommate is a nobleman who is said to have no soul and that something dark and murderous is haunting the school.
I should begin writing the sequel to Wicked Gentlemen this coming year, so I hope there will be more of the two of them.
Now for a totally random question: If you could be one character from Star Wars, which character would you be?
I’d like to say Chewey, but sadly it’s just not true. Chewbacca just doesn’t have the kind of lifestyle that would work for me. So, I’m going to have to admit that I’d probably be happiest as Lobot—Lando Calrissian’s cyborg assistant in Cloud City. He strikes me as the only character with the time and perhaps the inclination to finish with a long day of fighting the evil empire and then sit down and work on the next chapter of a fantasy novel.