Marianne K. Martin, left, and Joan Opyr.
Lesbian Authors on Alcoholism, Abuse, and Acceptance

By Sunnivie Brydum

Originally published on Advocate.com September 18 2012 4:00 AM ET

Marianne K. Martin and Joan Opyr come from very different backgrounds, and write very different books. But an uncanny ability to temper the tragic with humor unites the two lesbian authors. Martin shares her memories of a chosen family of fellow lesbians in her home-state of Michigan, recalling that such community informs her novels, including her most recent, The Indelible Heart. Martin also coached both high school and collegiate championship basketball and softball teams, and in 1973 won a landmark legal case establishing equal pay for women coaches.

Opyr, on the other hand, comes from a Southern Baptist household, and is all too familiar with the sense of isolation that comes from growing up in an antigay environment. Her latest novel — written between classes and working on her Ph.D. dissertation — takes a page from her own upbringing in a family that struggled with alcoholism and abuse. Shaken and Stirred finds the humor in tragic moments, as the Idaho wife and mother of two shares in the following conversation.

Joan Opyr: Though you and I write very different kinds of books, we're both pretty damned funny. Do you ever find yourself laughing at your own jokes as you're typing? Or is that just my own bad habit?

Marianne K. Martin: I do, indeed, especially if the story has been particularly emotional or heavy. I need to laugh or to find a way to relieve the tension, so I let one of my characters jump that line and do it for me. But your humor has an innate quality to it. Where does that come from?

Opyr: Life. Life is ludicrous. That's the foundation of all humor. Bugs Bunny, happily tunneling across the countryside, pops up through a random hole and meets Elmer Fudd and his shotgun. Of all the holes in all the world, why did Bugs pick that one? It's a mystery with potentially tragic consequences — for Bugs, it's hassenpfeffer! In the face of death and destruction and despair, some of us fall to pieces. That's tragedy. Others of us think, I should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque. That's comedy. We laugh to defuse tragedy but also to understand it. 

Martin: One of the things I find remarkable about your writing, especially in your latest book, Shaken & Stirred, is that ability to use humor so poignantly to handle some of the most difficult and emotional life situations.

Opyr: I'm not being poignant deliberately. I think it arises out of my own and my family's natural reaction to trial and tribulation. There's a story in Shaken, where Hunter is lying on the living room floor, passed out drunk, that's taken straight from life. While there's nothing funny about your grandfather in a drunken stupor, what happens here is funny. It's ridiculous, it's awful, and it's comic.

My father was abusive. All of my uncles were alcoholics. But as often as our home was full of violence and turmoil, it was also filled with laughter. The Southern sense of humor is indomitable. We will forgive much in those who can tell a good story.

One of the things that I enjoy most about your work is that you write roman fleuve? Do you find that it limits you in any way?

Martin: No, I find it affords me room for the characters to change and grow, to have their day in the sun. I find something that intrigues me about a minor character in one book, and explore it in another. Sharon Davis, for instance, was a character who pulled together, somewhat rudely, the two main characters in Legacy of Love and played an important role in Love in the Balance, and she is now the main character in my most recent book, The Indelible Heart. She was an all-or-none kind of person, hard to win over, but once you did she was there through the worst of it. So, I asked myself how she would react if the murderer from Balance had the possibility of an early release from prison. That's what started the new storyline, and then I just kept throwing situations at poor Sharon.

Opyr: Your stories arise from this closely-knit group of lesbians who experience a degree of affiliation that can only be described as family. Do you yourself have a group of friends like this? For me, your books aren't simply stories — they're also a kind of "It Gets Better" message. Even when you deal with incredibly dark subject matter, I always finish your books with a feeling of hope.

Martin: I was a lucky, blessed young lesbian, despite growing up in a world that demanded that I not recognize who I was and that if I did somehow make that recognition, that I reject it, and hide it from the rest of society. There was an alternative world, if you could find it, based on secrets, operated on trust and instinct, and communicated through signs and codes. I found that world when I was very young, through sports. That group of friends became my family. I had a team of lesbian mothers and big sisters. They watched over me, kept me safe, gave me rides everywhere, and made sure that I stayed out of trouble. I found that what I missed most when we went away to different colleges and jobs was that closeness, that security and trust that I had experienced with them. And that has definitely formed much of what I write. So many gays and lesbians feel isolated, so alone in their struggles and fears. I want them to know that we are here, we are everywhere, and that our best hope of making a difference is to do it together.

Opyr: I wished I'd had your network, Marianne. I wasn't ready to come out to my family — they're Southern Baptists, and I feared their reaction — so, I led a double life. I even married briefly. I wasn't confident enough in myself or in my family to come out until I was in graduate school, and then one after another, they all said, "I know. But thanks for telling me." Hell's bells! If they knew, I wish they'd told me! I hated hiding who I was. I hated dating men — I felt so dishonest. I never liked the feeling of using another human being as my cover story. And I loved women.

I remember coming home from kindergarten upset over some playground incident of sexism, and telling my mother, "I'm going to be a boy when I grow up, and no one can stop me!" I was going to marry the great love of my life at the time, an older girl named Beth Wilder, and we were going to be a family, the expectations of others be damned. My mother, to her everlasting credit, didn't argue with me, she just let me be me. That’s where I was lucky.

Martin: And we're lucky now to be able to write our stories, and send them out there to entertain and empower.

Opyr: And help us understand ourselves. Something I don’t see my psychology class doing right now. Art is so much more effective at that than psychology, don’t you think?

Martin: I do, yes. Analyzing what happened and why, verses feeling what happened and caring why. It gets right to the heart of why we write what we write. But, we have no more room to talk about it.

Opyr: You’re telling that to a Southern woman who believes it’s rude not to let everyone in on all the stories we shared.

Martin: Then you’d better get writing, Joan.