Interview with Laura Lee, Author of Angel
Today I’m hosting an interview from Laura Lee, the author of Angel. You can check out my review of Angel HERE. While here Laura is giving away 3 PDF copies of Angel to my wonderful readers. I will add the information about the giveaway at the end of the interview. So without further adu, please welcome Laura Lee.
[jbox color="green"]PAV: There’s an assumption that you can’t write a M/M romance as a woman. Come clean. Are you a gay man?[/jbox]
[jbox]LL: I’m not a gay man. Sexual orientation and gender are a couple of those distracting categories of identity. At school they always pounded into aspiring writers that they should write what they know. This is true to a point, but it is not as literal as people take it. It does not mean you can write only about things you have experienced personally. Were that the case, a writer could only tell one story– hers. There would be biography but no fiction. Fiction involves writing what you know in a different way. It involves writing what you know through emotional understanding and empathy. So I am not male or homosexual but I know from emotional experience what it feels like to be attracted to someone, what it feels like to question one’s role in society, what it feels like to feel that your view of yourself and the way society is viewing you is a mis-match. I wrote about those things. When I say that gender and sexual orientation are distracting categories, I mean that few people would question it if I wrote about a straight woman whose personality was vastly different than mine, or who was perhaps from a different socio-economic background or had a family that was different than mine. But those are all important differences. There are certain categories of differences that we see as defining of a person. We consider a man and a woman to be a different category of being whereas we don’t see an introvert or an extrovert as being different categories of being even though a male and female extrovert may react more similarly in a particular situation than two men who are an introvert and an extrovert. I’m not saying that the categories that we’re in are irrelevant.
Certainly growing up as, say, an African-American lesbian has an impact on you. There are aspects of living in a particular social group that someone else might be aware of. So it is important to try to put yourself in that place and to be empathetic and to use all of your awareness and imagination. So the process is to be aware as much as possible of the particular challenges that come with being defined socially in a particular way and then to imagine how you would feel confronted with that. Some people will say “you can’t possibly know what it is like,” which is true. I can’t know what it is like to be you. The other side of it is that you cannot speak for anyone else either. I do not think if you put them all gay men in a room and asked them how they felt about this or that that they would agree. How it feels for you to be a gay man is not necessarily the way someone else feels being a gay man confronted with the same kind of situation. When it comes down to it, I can’t tell you how it feels to be a straight woman. I don’t know that my experience of being a woman is the same as any other woman’s, or that my experience of romantic attraction is the same as any other straight person. But if I only wrote about myself it would be self-indulgent and boring. So I don’t need to know how all gay men feel to write from the perspective of a gay man. I just need to know my particular character intimately.
I think there is a problem with characters from categories that have been underrepresented that we tend to expect them to represent everyone in their category. Certainly a character like Rambo doesn’t represent “white males.” Yet in the 1980s we expected The Cosby family to be a representative of what it is to be black in America. I don’t think a Hispanic writer should have to write about “the Latino experience.” Writers create characters who are different from themselves and hope that they ring true. The big secret is that the readers fill them in with their own imaginations anyway. That helps a lot.[/jbox]
[jbox color="green"]PAV: If No – what gives you the credentials to write a M/M romance? If Yes – Really? Cool![/jbox]
[jbox]LL: All that I would add to what I just said is that I don’t think of Angel as a romance novel and I never set out to write a m/m romance. I didn’t know there was such a thing when I wrote the book. I set out to write a story about a minister who has a major life change that challenges his relationship with his congregation. The form that took was a love story. I think it’s important to emphasize this, not because I have any problem with the romance genre, but because I don’t want readers to be attracted to it for the wrong reasons and be disappointed because they are looking for something else. It can be enjoyed for its love story, but I don’t feel qualified to write romances. I am thrilled if romance readers like it as a love story, but I’m guessing my next books will not be like that.[/jbox]
[jbox color="green"]PAV: What inspired you to write Angel?[/jbox]
[jbox]LL: In 2000 I was invited to speak at a conference in Seattle. I had a free day and I took a bus tour of Mount Rainier. The driver was entertaining and he had a way with words. He kept talking about burning out on his old job. Toward the end of the tour someone asked him what his old job had been and he said “a minister.” It piqued my curiosity and became my regular writing exercise. Why did the minister go to the mountain? I thought it had the potential to be a great story if I could just bring out the resonances between the natural beauty and the ministry and get a feel for what attracted the man to both. I was fascinated that Mount Rainier is a volcano and that one day it is going to erupt and yet it looks so peaceful and serene. It struck me that this was the symbol at the center of the story. It was rich with symbolism and it was a touchstone I could go back to whenever I needed to be directed in my story telling. The minister had to have some sort of major change in his life, something had to come along that changed his world view and that would challenge his position with his church. I didn’t want the problem to be something that he had done that was wrong. Rather, I thought it would be a better story if what happened was a kind of growth for him. He had to make a choice in his life that was the right choice for him but which the members of his church might not understand. I tried a lot of different things over the ten years I was using this as my main writing exercise before the idea of him falling in love with a man came to me and it was the lost piece of the puzzle that made the image come into view.[/jbox]
[jbox color="green"]PAV: What is your connection, if any, to the LGTB community?[/jbox]
[jbox]LL: I don’t have any particular connection to the LGBT community besides having some gay and trans friends and acquaintences.[/jbox]
[jbox color="green"]PAV: Angel is listed on Amazon as Erotica. How do you feel about that since there’s no detailed sex in the book what-so-ever?[/jbox]
[jbox]LL: This is tied into the m/m romance label, which I also think is somewhat incorrect. It is a love story between two men. So if you like romances between men there is a good change you will like it. On the other hand, I do think there is a difference between a “romance” and literary fiction about a love affair. So some people who like certain aspects of romance novels might not like some of what I do with Angel.
The m/m romance label is a marketing thing. So I suspect there are a lot of different kinds of stories that have been labeled that way. Publishers want to have a label like that because there is an audience that specifically seeks out love stories about gay men. They are loyal. They read regularly. They talk about their favorites. They have conferences. For me writing on this theme is not a particular passion. It’s not a kind of story I expect I’ll be telling again.
There is an assumption that m/m romances are about titillation and that people read them for an escapist, romantic, sexy kick. I’m all in favor of that. I have no problem with erotica or reading for those reasons. It’s just not what I was doing, and anyone who picks it up for some hot man on man action is going to be disappointed. I think you measure the success of erotica by how much it turns you on. These labels stand in the way of getting serious mainstream reviews and attention. There are probably some erotic books out there, with gay or straight characters, that do deserve to be taken more seriously as literature as well as many that don’t. I just don’t know. It’s not what I read. The thing is that most of them aren’t usually reviewed in mainstream publications, so people who write erotica have created their own venues and review sites and ways of spreading the word about what is good and what is not.
The erotica designation of Angel is unfortunate, really, because I didn’t want the book to be read only by people who like stories about gay men. When you think about it, the m/m audience is not representative. They go into it thinking, “Of course the minister should be with his male lover.” I want people who feel that way to read it and to enjoy the ride. But I also want it to have the chance to be read by people who are drawn, maybe, to the spiritual themes. I would like people who have some ambivalence about this question to pick it up too. I don’t want to preach to the choir. But anyone who has the least ambivalence about the role of LGBT people in religious life is not going to pick up something labeled as gay erotica or even m/m romance. It’s unfortunate, because with the text of the book itself, I was trying to combat that notion to a certain extent that romance between men was all about sex. It is a love with a deep spiritual element.[/jbox]
[jbox color="green"]PAV: Your inclusion of religious quotes and literary musings about the spirituality of the mountain is a beautiful touch. It expands the meaning of each chapter into something greater than the sum of it’s parts. What about the story of Paul and Ian got you thinking about the mountain?[/jbox]
[jbox]LL: As I mentioned, the mountain and the minister came before the love story. Some people do not like the epigrams. Other people love them. I didn’t want to distract from Ian and Paul’s story by pulling in all kinds of mountain metaphors. Their story is not a metaphor, it’s just their story, but the epigrams give the reader a chance to pause and connect the specifics of their story to some larger theme. When I write, I often use an image to bring out ideas and themes and direct the story. Most of it doesn’t end up in the story itself, it just guides me. If I get writer’s block, I might leave the narrative and write about the volcano and how Paul relates to it. I have lots of these essays in my journal. By writing about something else, I usually come back to the story at hand from another angle and renewed energy. So the mountain has all kinds of meanings in the book.[/jbox]
[jbox color="green"]PAV: The church depicted in Angel is a very comfortable one for most Christian Americans I think. You don’t list a denomination but the ritual and personalities fit with my own upbringing in the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches. Is there a reason you chose to go with a less “doctrine” oriented church?[/jbox]
[jbox]LL: One thing I didn’t want to do was to have the minister be from an evangelical denomination that you might associate with campaigning against gay rights. I didn’t want him to be preaching against the abomination of homosexuality on Sunday and having a secret life. I also think the middle of the road is where most churches are these days. Most Christian denominations are not out there with the Westboro Baptist Church or marching against same-sex marriage rights. They’re in this conflicted place. They change slowly. They don’t want to alienate older parishoners who have always believed homosexuality was a sin, and yet they don’t want to turn away younger people, the majority of whom have a different view. The dynamic of trying to please both groups is much more nuanced and interesting. The cable news networks do a good job of creating dramatic stories of clashes between the extremes. That story has been well told. The language of the church regulations I used comes from the Methodist Church, although I didn’t want to identify Paul as Methodist. I didn’t want to paint organized religion as being made up of bigots with pitch forks. I wanted to show what draws people to church, what good it does for people, and what problems there are with it. People have called the book a slam on organized religion and also a deeply religious book. That it can be interpreted both of those ways tells me that I probably got the balance right. Anytime people try to come together in community you will have conflicts. Yet community life is vitally important.[/jbox]
[jbox color="green"]PAV: Can you explain the role of Julie in the book? To me she seems pivotal and I’m wondering if you have any light you can shed on your inclusion and creation of her character.[/jbox]
[jbox]LL: Julie is a co-worker and friend. She is more in touch with the feelings of the congregation in many ways than Paul is because he is an introvert and because, at the beginning of the story, he is still getting over his depression following the loss of his wife, which has cut him off from people. I see her as having kept things going and perhaps covered for him when he was dealing with his grief and not able to devote himself fully to his ministry. She is one of those people who is always there who we tend to take for granted. In some ways, she represents the road not taken because I think she would have stood behind Paul and tried to help him if he had been able to be more open with her. Whether that would have made a difference in the outcome, I don’t know.[/jbox]
[jbox color="green"]PAV: Angel is not like other LGTB books in that Paul never embraces what his sexuality means in terms of his identity. I won’t give away the ending but his description of Ian isn’t exactly honest when asked about his picture. Why did you not make this a coming out story?[/jbox]
[jbox]LL: My instinct when telling a story is always to steer away from the common story. There are certain ways of telling stories that we’re used to. The American story. The big American story has to do with an individual striking out on his own and discovering himself and having a big moment where he declares his truth. That is how we expect stories to go, but life isn’t usually like that. Most people don’t express who they are in one big moment. Even people who come out as gay usually do it over time telling a few close people first and working their way up to being fully out. Coming to terms with our identities, who we think we are and who others think we are, is a process and it takes a lifetime. So in the great American story it would be a victory for Paul to give the big sermon where he teaches the congregation about love, and then goes on to be out and proud. I thought it was more interesting to leave it a bit more open as to what was next for Paul, what he had taken away from his experience and what he would do with it. The action of the main story in Angel, not counting the mountain frame, takes place over the course of a year. That is a very short time for Paul to process so much. My view is that he will continue to evolve and grow.[/jbox]
[jbox color="green"]PAV: Ian’s slow forgiveness of God and the church after the abuses he suffered when he was younger has the feeling of redemption. And yet, the church itself ultimately fails him. What is the role of God in Angel?[/jbox]
[jbox]LL: That is the big question that I ask with the story, but I don’t answer it. There isn’t an easy answer. In this particular story, the form of spirituality is Christian because the character is a Christian minister. Christianity is not one thing. Christians will debate until they are blue in the face what you have to believe or do to be considered a “true Christian,” just as Jews will argue “What is a Jew?” half the night. (Unitarians often run away and hide when someone asks “What is a Unitarian?”) There are as many Christianities as there are Christians. People want to ask “is the church good or bad,” but I think that question is too simple. The church is made up of people. People bring everything that makes them human into the church, which means it is a combination of art and transcendent beauty and compassion and support and also prejudice and status worries and gossip. Does the cross stand for resurrection and rebirth, or is it a symbol used by people who want assurance that they are moral and perhaps more moral and upstanding than others? It can mean inclusiveness– as Jesus upset authorities by associating with the unclean– or it can mean exclusiveness as in “only those who believe in Jesus go to heaven.” It is all of that and many other things. I didn’t want to tell the reader what they should make of all of that. I simply wanted to present the story and to be sure the depiction of religious community life was truthful and then let the reader decide what it means. That’s why some people think Angel is slam on the church and some see it as a heart-felt expression of true faith. “Where is God in all this” is of those things, like your identity, that people generally don’t answer all at once.[/jbox]