Talking genre and GLBT with the bestselling author and gay-rights advocate
“I’m bored and tired of books and TV shows and movies that define America as white, upper-middle-class, and straight.”
We’ve received a surprising number of emails over the past several months about categorizing GLBT genre fiction on the Genre Map. The questions came at us from all angles: “Where do I put my male-male Romantic SF [or insert genre here]?” “Where is the GLBT genre?” “Why are there not separate subgenres for GLBT stories?”
Then I started hearing more discussion among writers and readers about the varied responses to GLBT literature and how it’s perceived by the industry, particularly when it comes to genre fiction and young adult fiction. I couldn’t believe the amount of controversy being stirred up by something that, to me, shouldn’t be segregated out in the first place.
So, when I heard New York Times bestselling author Suzanne Brockmanngive her keynote speech and Q&A at the New Jersey Romance Writers’ “Put Your Heart in a Book” conference last month, I knew she’d have something special to add to the conversation. She was kind enough to let me pick her brain on her the matter, delving into her own experiences and beliefs about GLBT fiction. She also gives us a little heads up regarding her own upcoming projects:
DP: Ok, before we dive into the real topic of this interview, I’ve got to ask for your fans’ sakes: There’s a rumor going around that your beloved “Troubleshooter, Inc.” series is coming to an end. Sad but true?
SB: I have a “never say never” policy, and while I definitely can imagine writing more books set in the Troubleshooters universe, I know—from past experience—that after taking a “break” from the series, I might not go back. So I don’t want to make any promises to readers. With that said, yes, I can imagine writing Jay Lopez’s book. But I’ve been writing books in the TS series since 1999, and not only did I really want to do something completely different creatively, I felt (and my publisher agreed) that I’ve hit a plateau with my military romantic suspense readership. As a writer, you’re always looking to grow your audience—and the idea to do something new was well-received by my editor.
So I’ve brought back all the elements I that I love about writing the TS series (close-knit, highly skilled and trained characters who work together as a team; on-going story arcs that stretch out across several books; the dramatic/comedic elements that make character growth rich and multi-layered) but I’ve set this new series, called Fighting Destiny, in a darkly futuristic, urban fantasy world. It other words, it’s a paranormal, but it involves telepathy and telekinesis instead of vampires, monsters and demons. Born to Darkness is the first book in the FD series, and it comes out in hardcover from Ballantine Books on March 20, 2012. And oh yeah, it also features a hero who is a former Navy SEAL. (What can I say? I love writing about SEALs—they make great heroes!)
DP: You first gained recognition for writing romantic subplots of openly gay characters with your 2004 release of Hot Target. How did your agent/editor/publisher first react to the character of Jules Cassidy? Was there any apprehension about publishing his story in such a popular, mainstream series?
SB: I received no resistance whatsoever—not from my editor or from anyone else at my publisher, which is Ballantine Books. But remember, my editor first met Jules close to the same time my readers met him: He came in as FBI agent Alyssa Locke’s partner in the second book in the TS series, The Defiant Hero. By the time I gave him that romantic subplot in book #8, Hot Target, readers had gotten to know Jules quite well—and had a chance to be impressed, over and over again, by his skill as an FBI agent, by his excellent sense of humor, his loyalty and friendship to Alyssa. The guy is a hero, and I was not at all subtle about showing that in the books!
So I really think that everyone was ready for Jules to get a little something-something. <g>
Well, except for the readers I lost by allowing a gay character to be a realistic, living, breathing, sexual human being instead of an asexual stereotype. But we’ll talk about that in detail in a bit.
DP: What inspired you to tell Jules’s story in the first place? Was there anything in particular you were hoping to accomplish in doing so?
SB: I make that extremely clear in the dedication for Hot Target. In a nutshell, I recognized that my son Jason was probably gay back when he was around three years old. It was really important to me that Jason got a chance to grow up without even the slightest sliver of doubt that there was anything wrong with him—because there isn’t anything wrong with him! It was also vitallyimportant to me that Jason not spend his life hiding his true self from the world.
So I was working it, hard, to make sure that he had great gay role models, that we had out gay friends in our lives, and that—at the same time—he was as protected as he could be from society’s sometimes careless, but sometimes even more overt, homophobia. And as a result of wanting to help my son, I became educated and informed about the GLBT community—and that confirmed for me the importance of being out. Gay rights groups around the world agree that things can and will change if more and more gay people move out of the shadows and into the sunlight. I wanted my readers—especially those who lived in extremely socially conservative parts of the country—to have a gay friend, and so Jules Cassidy was born.
But bottom line, I brought Jules into my Troubleshooters world for the very same reasons I create all of my characters: America is a diverse country filled with fascinating and heroic people of all colors, shapes, sizes, orientations, and beliefs. And frankly, I’m bored and tired of books and TV shows and movies that define America as white, upper-middle-class, and straight. I created Jules for the very same reason I created characters who are African American or Asian American or Cuban American—I want my fictional world to reflect the diverse group of people who live in my American neighborhood.
Mr. Spock from “Star Trek” said it best: “Infinite diversity in infinite combinations.”
My hope is that by showing America as I see it—as a richly diverse country—I’ll help redefine normal. Having a gay FBI team leader shouldn’t be a surprise. It should simply be no big deal.
DP: In your personal experience, what challenges were involved in writing a GLBT storyline/character? How did you overcome them?
SB: I think a writer’s challenge when creating any character lies in being able to make this fictional person believable and compelling, to make him live and breathe. Being gay is just one part of who Jules is—it doesn’t define him. He’s far more defined by being a kick-ass, exceptional FBI agent—who happens to be gay. So I didn’t feel that creating Jules was any more or less difficult than creating any other character.
I think the biggest challenge for me came from writing the culmination of Jules’s romantic story arc with movie actor Robin Chadwick. The love scenes. The first time Jules and Robin get intimate is in the back of a limo inForce of Nature, and I spent a great deal of thought and effort in deciding exactly how explicit to make that scene.
By all rights, I should have been able to make that scene as detailed as any other love scene I’d ever written. And I wanted to. It felt wrong even to question this. But I knew that my readership leaned conservative.
It was very important to me when I wrote that love scene to make it a love scene. The emphasis had to be on Jules’s and Robin’s emotions. And I made the very hard choice to pull the gauze over the camera lens (so to speak) and make the scene vague enough so that I didn’t lose my more conservative readers.
I hated having to do that—and you better believe that my more progressive and liberal readers let me know that they were disappointed. Some of them believed that I intentionally pulled back from the graphic gay sex because of squeamishness—suggesting I wasn’t as open and accepting as I claimed. That hurt.
I ended up writing an essay called “So That Happened” that dealt both with the fact that (despite my intention) Force of Nature ended up being the book in which Jules and Robin win their HEA, and the fact that I soft-pedaled their gay love scenes. As I say in that essay, “But my message—love is love is love—is so important, I just couldn’t bear the thought of frightening away a more timid readership by putting in too much man-on-man action. And I believe that the truth is—at least my truth—that making love is about emotions. I felt the most important part of the Robin/Jules love scene was how Jules felt when Robin confessed that he loved him.”
DP: A lot of people are uncertain about how to categorize GLBT fiction, particularly when it comes to genre fiction. Is it GLBT if it’s a male/male romance between secondary characters? Does the GLBT character need to be the protagonist? Does it even matter?
SB: A book is the book that it is, whatever label we give it. And the labels are pretty arbitrary. Still, we live in a society where we use shortcuts and labels to define and organize all kinds of things—books included. And fiction is divided into genres, and those genres are divided into subgenres, and those subgenres are used by publishers to market the books that they sell.
All of my books with GLBT characters are considered to be mainstream, because I’ve made my name as a mainstream romance writer. Even All Through the Night. This is a holiday novella that tells the story of Jules and Robin’s Boston wedding. So it’s a “mainstream” romance with a hero and a hero.
And because it was marketed as a mainstream novel, it failed (IMO) to reach the GLBT audience, which was a shame. (I tried to talk my publisher into printing a trade paperback version instead of a mass market paperback reissue that came out about a year after the hardcover. I thought that would be a good compromise, but they didn’t do it. <sigh>)
Okay, so the pro side is that there was a mainstream hardcover romance novel about a same-sex wedding—a book with a hero and a hero that hit theNew York Times list. That’s awesome. I can’t complain about that on so many different levels.
But on the con side, because of that lack of marketing to a GLBT audience, I’m still practically unknown to that very substantial readership. Yes, some readers of GLBT fiction have found me, but that’s mostly been through my involvement as a gay-rights activist. Or by chance.
You know, I have a production company called small or LARGE Productions, and last June we filmed a low-budget feature-length romantic comedy with a hero and a hero, and we’re currently in post-production. The movie, “The Perfect Wedding,” is not about being gay—no one is in the closet, no one has gay-related health issues, no one’s a drag queen (not that there’s anything wrong with that! <g>). There are three gay characters and they are all out and open, and their friends and families love them, and they love themselves. No angst about being gay—that’s not what the movie is about. It’s about two young men, Paul and Gavin, who spark when they meet, and how they deal with it over the course of a holiday weekend.
And we recently held a screening with friends of ours who are gay, because we wanted their feedback. And they all felt that it would be a mistake to market this movie solely as a gay romantic comedy. They felt doing so would pigeonhole it. And they also all said that they had never seen a movie like this before, where the gay characters were just characters who happened to be gay.
Now, this is our movie, and as producers we get to decide (at least at this stage) how it will be marketed. We have a lot of options and a lot of choices to make.
I want to be really clear, though, that my choice for how my All Through the Night should have been marketed (in the broad sense) would have been 1) mainstream and GLBT, and 2) mainstream. To have had this book marketed only to the GLBT audience would have been, IMO, a loss and a mistake. Frankly, I think it’s more important for me to include gay characters in my mainstream books than it is to write books that reach only/mostly that GLBT audience.
DP: I know a lot of writers who are interested in creating GLBT characters in their novels, but who are reluctant to do so, not because they have a problem with homosexuality but because they are afraid to offend people. Do you have any advice for those writers?
SB: Hmmm. That word “offend” is offensive to me. The idea that my son could offend someone simply by existing is pretty ugly, don’t you think? And that’s what is being implied here. And when something like that is implied, it’s hard for me to not get defensive and protective.
So let’s change the language. What if they’re afraid to “upset” people. I still find offensive the idea that my son could upset someone simply by existing. <g> (See how it plays out when you make it personal, when you make it be about my wonderful, lovely, terrific son, Jason, instead of some unnamed GLBT character…?)
Frankly, if someone is offended or upset or even distressed by my son’s very existence, I don’t give a flying you-know-what whether or not I offend them in return by the books I write and the characters I create. (How’s that for a passionate statement?!)
So for me, it’s very simple. I write what I write, and I don’t write expecting every reader in the world to love my books. In fact, I think the best way to write an incredibly mediocre book is to attempt to please all readers by remaining precisely in the middle of the road.
Bottom line: I would ask those timid and fearful writers precisely why they write. Do they write because they have something important to say? If so, they need to speak from their heart and say it, regardless of who they might offend. I believe when you write from your heart, your passion is in your words and your stories. And I believe that it’s that passion that makes a book really memorable and special.
DP: What about the fear of portraying GLBT characters too stereotypically? There is so much room for error when writing a character that is already under such cultural scrutiny that there can be a lot of sensitivity from the community. What are some pitfalls to avoid when writing an GLBT character? Are there any “do’s and don’ts”?
SB: I’ve never been a petite Asian American former LAPD officer, or a six-and-a-half foot tall African American Navy SEAL who attended Harvard, but I’ve gotten really positive feedback about both of those characters.
I do research for every character I’ve written—I think that’s really important. And I would urge other writers to do the same thing.
One thing that I do is read first-person essays about growing up in America as a black woman, or an Asian woman, or a gay Irish kid from Boston’s North Shore. There’s a lot of great material out there that you can absorb in order to create a truly authentic character.
Always avoid stereotypes by knowing exactly what the stereotypes are. Do your research. There’s a ton of great material out there, blogs a-plenty, and websites galore, including www.HRC.org and www.pflag.org.
DP: You’ve recently taken your writing of GLBT romance to a new level with your novella When Tony Met Adam, which focuses on a gay couple as the main romance. What made you choose to take that step four years after publishing the GLBT subplot in Hot Target?
I also noticed that When Tony Met Adam was pubbed as an e-only short story. What was the rationale behind releasing it in that format? Did the decision have anything to do with the “controversial” subject matter?
SB: I wrote WTMA during the run of an Off-Broadway play called “Looking for Billy Haines” that I wrote, produced, and directed. (William Haines was THE biggest male box office draw in Hollywood in 1930, but he was openly gay, and after the codes came down, he refused to give up his longtime relationship with his boyfriend, a former Navy man named Jimmie Shields and go into the closet. So the powers that be essentially erased him from history.)
But back to WTMA, it was originally intended for inclusion in an anthology of TS short stories, called Headed for Trouble, due out in paperback from Ballantine Books in late August 2012. But it came in a little long [for that]. AndI had the opportunity to use WTMA as a special bonus “extra” for my virtual signing for last March’s hardcover, Breaking the Rules. I try to include a bonus item that will make the virtual signing extra-special, and for BTR, I included a special limited-edition printed version of When Tony Met Adam.
As for selling WTMA as an e-book short story—that was my idea. It was a specific attempt to reach that elusive GLBT readership. I knew, first-hand, through my son, that e-books are huge with the GLBT audience. I asked my publisher to include information about Jules Cassidy and an excerpt fromHot Target at the end of WTMA. (Hello! I am out here…! Find me!) My publisher liked the idea and suggested we release it in June, which is Gay Pride month. Which is what we did!
DP: I would imagine writing such open and honest GLBT storylines would get you a mixture of positive and negative attention. What kind of responses have you gotten from your readers and the media?
SB: The response has been predominantly, overwhelmingly positive. I have thousands and thousands of emails from readers who felt the need to reach out to contact me because Jules’s love for Robin resonated with them. That doesn’t mean I haven’t lost readers, because I definitely have. But I’ve gained far more than I’ve lost.
The biggest problem is that ugly, angry voices tend to be shrill and loud. And people who are satisfied are often quiet in their approval. So it can feel unbalanced at times.
I’ve sometimes come under attack from people who organize fellow haters to hit me with an email campaign. (Most of the time, those attacks are personal, too, which really tells you something about the people who write those emails.) Not from readers—the handful of emails I received were from people who admittedly hadn’t read my books. But they’d “heard” about me, and they were going to tell everyone they knew never to buy my books and yada yada yada. Not that I cared what those people thought. I write what I write. As a reader, it either works for you, or it doesn’t. If you don’t like it, that doesn’t make it—or me, or the millions of readers who do like the books—bad.
In [one] particular instance, fearing [a] deluge of hate mail, I went onto my Facebook page and I sent out a message to as many of my readers that I could reach. I told them if they’d ever thought about maybe emailing me to tell me how much they loved Jules and Robin and the diversity in my books, now might be a really good time to write and send that email—to counteract this wave of hatred.
Turns out the wave was a mere swell, not even close to a surf-worthy monster. I got maybe seven ugly emails in all. But my call for help went a bit viral in the internet romance world, and I got well over a thousand emails from real readers with things like “I love Jules” in the subject header.
DP: Do you think people’s reactions would be different if you were a GLBT writer creating GLBT stories?
SB: No, I don’t. But it’s kinda funny how often I’m approached by older gay gentlemen at book signings. They usually say something like, “I stumbled upon this book, and I couldn’t believe it was written by a straight woman!”
And before I can say something pithy, like, “Yeah, and I’m also not a Navy SEAL. Or an impossibly beautiful African-American former FBI agent, (which is why I think it doesn’t matter who I am)” their eyes fill with tears and they take my hand and they tell me how lovely it was to find an out gay character in a mainstream book, and to read about my own son Jason who came out when he was fifteen. And they tell me that they were thirty or forty or even fifty before they came out, and they never told their parents, and they’re finally—just finally—starting to accept themselves and be truly happy.
I always take the opportunity to thank them for having the courage to come out at a time when coming out could mean losing their job or their home or even their life. I thank them because their act of courage paved the way for young gay men like Jason, who never spent a moment of his life hiding his true self.
DP: What’s next on your writing agenda?
SB: As I mentioned earlier, Born to Darkness, the first book in my new Fighting Destiny series comes out on March 20, 2012. The series follows the adventures of eight recurring characters, seven of whom appear in Born to Darkness. The main hero is a former Navy SEAL named Shane Laughlin, and the heroine is a mysterious woman who works for a scientific research facility called the Obermeyer Institute.
I’m working on a really fun project to promote this book. I took my skills as a film and stage producer and I held auditions and cast actors as the six main characters in Born to Darkness. And I held a photo and video shoot with costumes, and got about 800 fantastic photos—so that readers can see these characters exactly as they appear inside of my head. (Check my website for the first photographs and the first excerpt from the book! The rest of the photos will be featured during my “Countdown to Born to Darkness,” on my website and Facebook page starting on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2012.)
One thing I wanted to mention here, since we’re talking about GLBT books and characters: Born to Darkness features a gay romantic subplot with an honest-to-goodness gay love scene. Right smack in the middle of a mainstream hardcover romantic urban fantasy suspense. (Or however the publisher is marketing the book! <g>)
So stay tuned to find out if and when heads start to explode. <g> (I like to hope it won’t be a big deal. Kind of like when I wrote Gone Too Far, and no one so much as mentioned that the book was an interracial romance. Which is how it should be, right?)
As for what I’m doing right now: I’m working on a series of short stories — most for my Troubleshooters anthology (Headed for Trouble). But one of the stories I’ll be writing is tentatively titled Shane’s Last Stand, and it features the hero from Born to Darkness. The story is about Shane’s last mission as the CO of a SEAL team. The plan is to release it as an e-book short story in early February, about a month before Born to Darkness comes out. It’ll give my readers a chance to meet this new character—and to understand that even though the series is set twenty years in the future, there’s still going to be a lot that’s similar to the TS books.
Find Suzanne Brockmann online:
www.facebook.com/SuzBrockmannFOJ (Suz Brockmann’s Friends of Jules — a special page to talk gay rights and politics)
Photo of Suzanne Brockmann (c) Shirin Tinati
Book covers and film still courtesy of Suzanne Brockmann