Proud is an anthology of LGBTQ short stories by debut authors, three of whom kindly contributed their thoughts to Fern Tolley’s Q&A’s which we share here ...
Kay Staples is a writer from the Midlands. After studying creative writing at the University of Birmingham, Kay now works in marketing as a content writer in London and listens to an awful lot of alternative music. @OkStaples
What was your reaction to being included in this unforgettably bold and thought-provoking anthology? Thrilled! I think it's such an important anthology, and there are some incredible writers whose work I'm really proud to have mine next to.
On the Run tells the moving story of two young teens who run away from their house estate after winning the lottery. What was your favourite part about writing On the Run? And did you face any particular challenges during the writing process? I like writing relationships and how they form, so the whole formation of Nicky and Dean's life together was a lot of fun. The big challenge for me is that I don't really write short stories! I had to re-learn how to do it and then, somehow, actually make it good.
Dean, in particular, was an unexpectedly refreshing voice and seamlessly broke down a lot of stereotypical images associated with his character. Where do you get your inspiration to write your characters? I've actually been quite surprised by a lot of readers' reactions to Dean, which I suppose partly answers the question. I didn't grow up in a block like my characters', but I have encountered a lot of Deans: kids who lashed out and grew tough and aggressive because they didn't know what else to do, or because it seemed like the only way to survive. There's quite real frustration or pain under the surface. I went to primary school with some absolute bastards who I've since looked up on Facebook to find that they're doing great - they've channelled their anger, found happiness, got jobs or degrees that they love, entered happy relationships. I felt those were stories that deserved telling.
Acceptance and love are both strong themes in your story. What do you hope readers take away from reading On the Run? I hope they take away the message that everyone is worthy of that love and acceptance, including themselves.
Your story is set in a Travelodge, but I’m curious to know, where and what do you envision Nicholas and Dean doing next? The whole world is their oyster but they don't really know what to do with it, bless 'em. I think they'll get the lovely little house down south together that they want, before soon realizing that all the excitement is in the cities and they'll move there instead. Nicky will continue studying and go to uni, and guiltily re-connect with Mum along the way. I can see Dean starting his own business, maybe opening a bar.
Do you have any tips for those writing their own short stories? Read lots and write lots. For short stories in particular, what I found worked for me was writing in scattered bits - I had random paragraphs clustered all over the place that I gradually brought together. Really the trick is just to give it a go and see what works.
Why is LGBTQ+ important to you? It's my community. We look out for and accept each other. I find it especially important in books for young people because I didn't have them when I was young; I could have found that community a lot sooner if I had.
And on the subject of pride, what’s your proudest moment? Getting to tell my parents that I was about to be published, that was a biggie.
What’s your favourite LGBTQ+ inspired novel out there? I go back and forth on this but it's either Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, or A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.
What else is on the horizon for 2019 for you? I'm currently focusing on my day job, but also working on a novel in my spare time.
The Phoenix’s Fault tells of a mythical world where a Chinese lantern-maker has to choose between the Emperor and her friend. What inspired you to combine the theme of pride with fantasy and mythology? The phoenix and the dragon form a real symbol of heterosexual marriage in Chinese culture, and they’re both thought of as proud creatures. Back when I was fifteen, I wrote a poem about my anxieties surrounding this symbol and my own queerness, and I have always wanted to return to this idea and expand it. There is a lot of power in taking a myth that is ingrained in your culture and transforming it into something that, rather than alienating you, makes you feel like you belong.
What was your favourite part about writing The Phoenix’s Fault? Taking something that is a very heteronormative symbol in my culture and making it extremely, extremely queer!
What are some of your favourite myths and legends? I studied Classics at uni, and I’ve always been fond of Greek mythology. Lately I’ve been obsessed with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. If you don’t know the myth, it goes like this: Orpheus is the most famed musician in all the world. He falls in love with Eurydice, but on their wedding day, Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies. Orpheus goes to the underworld to bring her back to life, and plays such sublime music that he moves even the god of the dead, who agrees to let Eurydice go on one condition: she must follow behind Orpheus, and he must not look back until they reach the land of the living. Orpheus almost makes it, but just as he glimpses the light at the end of the tunnel, as it were, he turns back. And she dies, all over again. Irretrievable.
It’s a terribly sad myth. I really liked how it was reimagined with a Mexican setting and a happy ending in the beautiful film The Book of Life, but most recently I was stunned by how the Tony Award-winning musical Hadestown brought this myth to life for me in a way I’ve never seen it before, with such clarity. It becomes, more than ever, about making art in the face of darkness, about perseverance in the face of self-doubt and insecurity, about the power of trying your best to tell a story, even if it might end badly.
You write that the phoenix is a sign of good fortune, and represents the ‘ideal wife – honest, faithful and obedient’. Do you think this is the case in The Phoenix’s Fault? I think that in The Phoenix’s Fault, the phoenix is a blessing, something you can draw comfort from. She shows you that you can be whatever you want to be. You don’t have to conform to expectations; you don’t have to contort yourself to try and become what people think of as the ideal. You can just be you.
Family pride is an important theme across The Phoenix’s Fault, and there’s one beautiful moment where you write,
‘“Just… be happy, Jingzhi. That’s all your mother wants.”
“And what about my grandparents? Will they understand?”
“They understand love.”’
What do you hope readers take away from reading your story?
I hope they know that their existence is valid, and they don’t have to limit themselves to what they’ve always been told. The world is full of possibility. In my story, the main character’s blood family is supportive of her, but family is wherever you find your support. It doesn’t have to be people you are related to by blood, but whoever sees you and understands you and is proud of you, that’s your family.
Do you have any tips for those writing their own short stories? I think the most important thing is just to enjoy it. A short story is a really low-pressure way to explore an idea, so have fun! And it’s much easier in a short story to just focus on the feelings that you want to convey. Do that. Follow the emotional thread of the story. Think of one or two images that really strike you and work the story around them.
Why is LGBTQ+ important to you? I realised I was queer when I was eleven and it’s always been important to me that there is a history of other people like me, and a community. It’s a great source of strength and joy and inspiration.
And on the subject of pride, what’s your proudest moment? Being published in this anthology, definitely!
What’s your favourite LGBTQ+ inspired novel out there? The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth. It’s such a compelling and honest lesbian coming-of-age story that captures all the fears and desires of queer adolescence perfectly, drawing every little grief and every little hope in vivid and exhilarating detail.
What else is on the horizon for 2019 for you? I’ve just finished the first draft of a contemporary YA novel so I’m going to start working on the second draft of it soon, and we’ll see where it goes from here! I’m very lucky to have the wonderful Alice Sutherland-Hawes of Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV & Film Agency as my agent, and excited to work with her on this book!
Cynthia So (The Phoenix’s Fault) was born in Hong Kong and lives in London. She graduated from the University of Oxford with a BA in Classics in 2016 and has been working in higher education since then. She writes YA, speculative fiction and poetry. Her work can be found in magazines such as Uncanny, Anathema and Arsenika.
What was your reaction to being included in this unforgettably bold and thought-provoking anthology? The email telling me that my story had been accepted for the anthology came through while I was on the tube and I honestly just wanted to burst into song and dance like I was having a moment in a musical, but what I did was just clap my hands over my face and scream silently. It’s such a dream to be part of this anthology with such a range of LGBTQ+ voices, something I desperately needed while growing up, and honestly I still can’t get over the fact that I’m alongside all these brilliant authors like David Levithan and Moïra Fowley-Doyle. The first time I got to read the whole anthology I was so overwhelmed. All the stories and poems and art in it are so good, and it is incredibly surreal to get to be among them and know that I’m going to be empowering readers to feel proud of themselves.
Karen Lawler (I Hate Darcy Pemberley) is an American living in London with her awesome wife and extremely cute dog Buffy. She loves reading, especially sci-fi, fantasy, YA, and historical non-fiction, and she funds her book habit by working in children’s publishing. She loves a good teen movie (10 Things I Hate About You is the best and she will fight you on that). This is the first time her writing has appeared in print.
What was your reaction to being included in this unforgettably bold and thought-provoking anthology? I think my immediate reaction was mainly WHAT, with a side of nuh uh, come on, WHAT? But I can’t tell you how proud I am to be involved – it’s such an incredibly necessary book, especially right now, and I’m honoured to have been a part of it.
What inspired you to base your short story on Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice? I’ve always loved Jane Austen, and I’ve always loved high school movie adaptations of classics. Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You being two of my favourites. But I wanted a lesbian version. So that’s what was in my mind when I wrote my story.
Was it important for you to set your story in a school? I think there is something very 1800s English High Society about high school!
Proud is utterly uplifting and inspiringly relevant. What do you hope readers take away from reading I Hate Darcy Pemberley? Well, I hope they’re rooting for Lizzie and Darcy to get together in the end! I felt very strongly that I wanted to show a world where my characters’ sexuality wasn’t an issue, but rather the will they/won’t they of traditional romcom was the main focus. But also, I think people can surprise you, and I love that both Darcy and Lizzie learn how to see each other differently.
Your story was accompanied with artwork by Kameron White, is it exactly how you envisioned your story looking like? Kameron’s art is basically the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s perfect. I’m completely obsessed. I actually have a beautiful full-colour print hanging in my living room!
Do you have any tips for those writing their own short stories? Just keep going! I think the thing that everyone underestimates about writing is the importance of persistence and resilience.
Why is LGBTQ+ important to you? Because our rights are still so under threat, both in the UK and around the world.
And on the subject of pride, what’s your proudest moment? I think it’s when I married my wife.
What’s your favourite LGBTQ+ inspired novel out there? Fingersmith! Hands (ha, excuse the pun) down!
What else is on the horizon for 2019 for you? I’m working on a top-secret project – stay tuned.