Authors Talk Sodom and Gomorrah and Texas Lesbian History

By David Artavia

Originally published on Advocate.com June 06 2013 7:00 AM ET

Justine Saracen and Shelley Thrasher have very similar minds. Both are fascinated by history, and both love to change the mold of gay characters in literature. Not to mention, they both write killer fiction.

Thrasher recently released her first novel, The Storm, set in 1918 East Texas, and she’s writing a second one, set in 1972 Paris. A native Texan, Thrasher is also a poet, essayist, and editor at the LGBT publisher Bold Strokes Books. Her novels blend women’s history and romance, featuring sophisticated, educated lesbians who push society’s boundaries.

Saracen has had multiple careers — as a university professor, opera manager, and editor. She eventually began writing fiction full-time and found it was just more fun, and has since released seven books. Her third, Sistine Heresy, won a 2009 Independent Publisher Award. Just released is Beloved Gomorrah, which reveals the "truth" about Sodom and Gomorrah.

Saracen: I love your new novel, The Storm, and wondered why you chose the historical genre.

Thrasher: Thanks. And I admire your latest, Beloved Gomorrah. The Storm initially centered on the conflict between my grandmother and her mother-in-law, a Civil War survivor. Researching the World War I era showed me how typical their story is and how crucial those years were to women’s increasing independence. I’ve set my work in progress, French Toast, in 1972, to share some of my memories of Paris and because it makes my story seem more romantic. Revisiting the past is like taking the same trip again, equipped with the age’s proverbial wisdom and time’s panoramic lenses. But I’ve worked with you through seven novels, each of them historical. Why is that?

Saracen: I choose historical settings as a way to make up for our being ignored in the retelling of history. Gays and lesbians have been present at every moment in history, with Caesar’s legions, in the Crusades, in the Sistine Chapel with the doge in Venice, in Hitler’s Berlin. I simply retell those events with us back in the scene. If that means I have an agenda, then so be it. Do you feel you have one too? I mean, do you think we’ve influenced each other?

Thrasher: Yes. Your agenda is important and has influenced mine. I want to show how women have supported each other throughout history, like you and I do with our writing. Members of minority groups often undermine each other, but many women-loving women share power and contribute to our advancement. In The Storm the mother-in-law hoards her power while Jaq initially aids the soldiers in WWI. But after seeing the sham of the war, Jaq joins the U.S. suffragists. Then she helps her injured husband and his widowed father and ends up influencing another woman to escape her suffocating lifestyle.

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.