Authors Talk Sodom and Gomorrah and Texas Lesbian History

Lesbian authors Justine Saracen and Shelley Thrasher talk about fictionalizing history.

BY David Artavia

June 06 2013 6:00 AM ET

Saracen: I’m sure I was your most opinionated beta-reader. Sorry about those 200-word marginal notes, but we’d worked together so long you knew what you were getting. And by the way, those years of meeting your requirements have been a learning experience, and the points I challenged you on made me rethink my original concept. I wish we could teach a workshop together on the Theory of Fiction Writing. Maybe with a catchier title like "Lesbian Fire. Tell It, Baby!"

Thrasher: What about one called "Coaching Is Easier Than Swimming, Especially With Alligators"? Your challenges test my basic assumptions about writing. As an English prof, I always encourage students to think critically and ask questions, so I welcome your responses. However, reversing our positions isn’t easy on my ego. After I receive your comments, I have to take a deep breath. I’ll muse on them, and after revision, my writing improves. Our interaction makes me a more empathetic and insightful editor, so it’s a win-win-win situation. How important is romance in your novels?

Saracen: I find pure romance limiting, but I wouldn’t dare write a novel without one. I’d lose half of my readers. Of course, people fall in love in the middle of great events, so I don’t violate the historical genre. It seems I’ve developed a pattern of an out lesbian winning a woman away from a man, usually by outclassing him, though sometimes I have to actually kill him. My subconscious way to compensate for all the lesbians who have ever loved a woman who "belonged" to a man.
 How much do you draw on real people and places, and how much is fantasy?

Thrasher: The Storm does focus on real people and places, especially some of my ancestors and their East Texas farm. But I needed an exciting partner for my main character, so I invented Jacqueline Bergeron and others associated with her. In my WIP, however, almost everyone is fictitious, though the setting isn’t. 
What about you?

Saracen: My settings are absolutely real, and I make "research" trips to such hardship locations as Rome, Venice, Cairo, Jerusalem. It is deeply affecting to stand in those places and imagine my life playing out there. I give the people names, characters, histories, and suddenly everything becomes four-dimensional. When I was in Venice, researching in the National Library for Sarah, Son of God, the librarian was an attractive woman with the magnificent name Tiziana. I discreetly studied her, and by the time I left, she had become a major secondary character, with a melodramatic backstory and a hankering for girls. The real Tiziana spoke no English, so will never know what I made of her. Just as well. Fictionalizing historical/mythical figures also gives me a sense of knowing them, like I get to hang out with Michelangelo, Ikhnaton, the Borgias, Saladin, Leni Riefenstahl, even — in my most audacious fiction — with Jesus Christ. In the end, that may be the real reason I write: to be able to "experience" such people. But perhaps you’re doing something similar in French Toast.

Thrasher: Perhaps. One of my main characters actually meets Simone de Beauvoir and fantasizes about famous women such as Marie Antoinette and Colette. But my novel hasn’t been edited yet, so we’ll see how it turns out. When I first traveled abroad, I visited sites I’d taught or studied about, such as Hemingway’s Paris and ancient Greek theaters. Sharing my slides in the classroom, I revisited the spots alongside my students. I even led several student travel/study groups through Europe, including friends and relatives. I never imagined writing novels set in some of the locales I’ve visited, but now my books are just another way to share the thrill of imagination. 

Even our conversation has been a mini-adventure. I’ve really enjoyed it.

Saracen: Clever minds think alike. Well, time to go back to work. I've got RAF pilots to rescue and Nazis to kill. I'm sure you've got some derring-do in your head as well. Take care, and hug the dogs for me.

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