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Author Stella Duffy Talks Lesbians, Whores, and Eunuchs

Author Stella Duffy Talks Lesbians, Whores, and Eunuchs


Stella Duffy began her prolific writing career with a series of crime novels, like 1994's Calendar Girl, which featured lesbian private eye Saz Martin. The 2010 Stonewall Writer of the Year has written eight plays and more than 40 short stories. Among her 12 books, Duffy's written about love in its many incarnations (and orientations), most obviously in a fantasy novel with a wickedly bent shape-shifting princess (Singling Out the Couples), and in her critically-acclaimed 2008 novel, The Room of Lost Things.

The Advocate talked with the New Zealand-bred, U.K.-based lesbian author about her new book, Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore, which documents the influential and sometimes salacious life of a little-known historical figure, Theodora of Constantinople, who left her mark on one of the ancient world's most powerful empires.

The Advocate: Theodora is set in the Byzantine time. What attracted you to this period?
Stella Duffy: I was at a crime book and mystery book convention in Italy. And I saw the mosaics there in Italy and they're from 1,500 years ago. They're amazing, and they're very vibrant and cool. And what's really astonishing to me and the modern western woman is to see this enormous mosaic of a woman, Theodora, exactly the same size as the mosaic of Christ, exactly the same size of the mosaic of the Emperor. I thought, "She must have a good story." I went to the gift shop in the church where the mosaics are, and I just picked up this sort of tiny, 10-page booklet that says how she started up performing in the Hippodrome, she ran away with a man who became the governor of what is now Libya, and she had a religious conversion in Egypt. Then she came back, and they changed the law and she became the Empress. It's just such a good rags to riches story. I just couldn't believe no one else had written it.

Theodora's character develops a lot from start to finish in the book. Did any of her character come from your own personality and experiences?
By the time you write your twelfth novel, you kind of run out of everything you've ever written about yourself. [Laughs] My first novels have much more of my own life, but saying that, I still do work in theater -- sometimes as a performer but mostly as a writer or the director. It's the first time in all this time that I've ever written about theater. So even though Theodora's theatrical experience is very different to mine, it was really exciting to be able to write about working in theater and working in the company, which I've never been able to do. It's never been relevant with my other work.

And how long have you been doing theatre?
All my life. Well, I've been doing both, and I'm 48. I started writing when I was at university. I started writing for a theater company. And I started writing my first novel when I was 27. But I've been working in theater since I left college, so a long time.

How is Theodora different than your other novels?
I've never written a historical novel before. Theodora and its sequel that comes out next year are both historical, so that's new to me. Also, I've never written about a real person. Everything I've ever written about has been entirely fictional. So I had to do a lot of research. And that was new for me.

Because it's women's history, and because it's looking at a woman of power, at the time there really wasn't a lot written about her because it's hard enough to get our stories out in the print these days. So there was a lot of room for me to make things up. For example, I have no idea if she had gay relationships or not, but given that they spoke about her being this lascivious, lusty queen, I figured I might as well put some in there, seeing as I wouldn't want to disappoint my gay readership.

They did have eunuchs who were in the court and who were really important in the court, and so I figured, well, I might as well write about their lesbian relationships and about gay relationships. Just because we tend to think of it as very modern doesn't mean it hasn't always been going on.

What has been your favorite book to write?
Well, this one. It's been a real joy to write such a juicy character. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So she does become a bit dangerous and she does do some Machiavellian things. And that's very likely and quite possibly very true. So she's just been a fantastically joyful, good and bad, wild, fiery character to write.

But looking back, my crime series, my mystery series, has a character called Saz Martin all through them. That character, Saz, who is a private eye, was not dissimilar to Theodora -- quite a headstrong character, more likely to run into trouble than to work everything out beforehand. I tend to think that, if you write characters who know everything, then you leave nothing for the reader to do. And I'd rather write characters who sometimes make mistakes and are flawed so the reader gets to make their own views up about the character as they go along.

Can we look forward to any more lesbian scenes in the next Theodora?
[Laughs] Let me think, I think so. I can't remember. There are some eunuch gay lovers, is that alright? Will that please your male readership? I honestly can't remember if I put girl sex in the sequel.

Do you tend to write things more for your audience's pleasure or your own?
Oh I have to write them for my own. The thing about having gay characters in Theodora is that I don't live in a world where everyone's heterosexual, nor do I live in a world where everyone's gay. I want to live in the real world. And in the real world, 10% of people are probably gay. And there are people who are mixed race, people who are black, and people who are white, etc., all of that. So I want lots of different types of people in my books. And then I want to see what happens to them when they get together. When a person, who is essentially quiet, meets a person who is essentially huge, and what happens there. Or if people fall in love when they're not expected to, those kinds of things, that's what interests me, to see the humanity in characters.

But I couldn't possibly write for an audience, because the audience changes all the time. With Theodora, for example, I have had probably more male readers than my other novels have had, which is great. Generally, women read men and women, but men tend to only read men. So what's interesting to me is to see that more men, maybe it's because it's historical, more men than usual have read my book this time. I couldn't know in advance who would read it, or who would like the cover, who would pick it up in the bookstore.

You have to write for yourself and then just hope that the market likes it. You can't second guess the market. The market's always changing.

What's your most used writing technique - planning out step by step or thinking it up as you go?
Hell no. I'm rubbish at planning. I did, once, plan a novel, and it turned out so differently from the plan that publishers I sold it to on a plan didn't want it. We sold it to someone else and it was better in the end. No, I'm not a planner.

With Theodora, because there was essentially a plan already in place -- the story of her life -- I did use that. But then I kind of surprised myself with things. For example, the character of Macedonia who she has a relationship with. It didn't occur to me when I was thinking about it that they would become lovers. But then as I was writing, of course they're going to become lovers.

For me, it's more about, I know the basic arc of the story, and then I find the characters that are most useful to tell that arc, but I don't plan it in any great detail beforehand.

It seems more mainstream publishers are taking on lesbian authors and lesbian books and stories in the U.K. compared to the U.S. - do you agree?
Yes, but we don't have any lesbian publishers in Britain anymore at all. And I think that because in the States there are so many lesbian presses, perhaps lesbians who might want to write for the mainstream just actually find it easier to get published by a lesbian press.

In Britain, because there are no lesbian presses at all, lesbian writers, have to go "OK, how can I sell? Where can I sell to?" I can't write just about lesbian characters because the straight readers don't want that. So I'll write a more mixed book and see if I can get it into a mainstream press.

Not that I've ever thought about it quite so seriously, but it seems to me that there's such a massive lesbian readership in the States, which is so exciting, and I've only barely been able to touch on to being published twice now, that we just don't have anything like that here anymore. The population here is tiny compared to the States, and the population of lesbian readers is tiny. So, I'm guessing a little bit that it's about that. I don't think it's a bad thing for Americans to have so many lesbian presses. I think it's really exciting. But I do wonder if perhaps it might be useful for lesbian writers to be writing a bit more in the mainstream than the States. They might like it. It's quite nice to sell big and in mainstream [venues, as well as] to small presses.

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