Monday, April 7, 2014

Swooning over both sexes...

From: Annabel (high school junior)

I've never written an email to an author before, but I just felt really compelled. So, I just finished Hild a little while ago. It was totally incredible, making me gently toss the book on the ground and curl up in a ball and lose sleep over Gwladus, as well as collapse on the bathroom floor for Cian (both of whose names I mispronounced for a good two hundred pages or so, I believe, before finding the pronunciation guide at the back). I really just love the way you create characters. I mean, nobody is stereotypical - even Begu, who I thought at first was just a random chattery girl, ended up admitting that it was mostly a facade and being so much more complex in a way we don't get to see - and they're basically all just people. And as many other people said, you have actual non-straight characters?!?! I can count on my hands the number of books I've read featuring characters who weren't straight, and on two fingers the number of bisexual main characters. And the best part is that nobody cared, nobody made a big deal out of it, her relationship with Gwladus was just so pretty, and initially sweet, and then heartbreaking. You're just totally amazing.

There is a problem that I'm having, though. At the end of the book, you mentioned you were "working on the second part of [Hild's] story now." You're an author. A historical fiction/fantasy author. So you kill people. Please do not kill Cian. I don't think my heart could take it. Can everyone just have a happy ending? (Okay, that was kind of silly, but I actually thought that. I really got terrified when you said that because I just felt like it was quite possible that you would kill Cian.)

I had a question, though. Where did you read about gemæcces? Is that historically accurate? I really like the idea of them!

If you got through this long letter, thank you so much. I can't wait to read all the other stuff you wrote :)
I wrestled with Gwladus and Cian, and Hild's attraction to both. I found it surprisingly difficult at first; I've never written a bisexual main character before. The power differential and possibility of incest, respectively, made this even more complicated of course. (More on that in another post.) Each and every time I get the bisexual stamp of approval, first and most importantly from Kelley, who identifies as bi, from the Lambda Literary Foundation's bisexual fiction award jury (check out current finalists and previous winners for plenty of novels with bisexual main characters), and from readers, I am relieved.

When it comes to killing off characters loved by readers and/or the protagonist, well, frankly, it's not easy. But sometimes that's where the story leads, so I do it anyway. I did it in The Blue Place and felt like a monster. But the shape of the narrative made the ending inevitable. (I advise people to read the ending in private. My acquiring editor at the time was so unhappy about it that she passed me on to another editor.) I had to write two sequels, Stay and Always, to make myself feel better. Now I'm hyper-aware of loss and how it will play out, both in the narrative and with readers.

For example, in Hild I had initially written in a dog, a puppy, for Hild to adopt. She had mixed feelings to begin with--dogs occupied a complicated place in her life--but she (inevitably) came to love it. But then I realised dogs don't live as long as people, even at the best of times--and much of Hild's life was not "the best of times." I pondered, sighed, and excised a chunk of the book: got rid of the dog so I wouldn't have to make readers see it die and feel Hild's grief. (She has a hard enough time without adding to her burdens. I talk about the decision--and many other things--on video here.)

However, Hild is historical fiction. Many characters whom readers love, or love to hate, will die. It's the way of the early medieval world. Men in the upper echelons of society during violent times, and women of child-bearing age, often died young. Those fates were decided long, long ago and there's not much I can do about it. The story will unfurl as it must.

Regarding the concept of gemæcces: there is no textual evidence there was such a thing. I made it up. However, given the way I've imagined the early seventh century in Britain, particularly Anglisc-speaking England, I think it's entirely possible that, for a while (two or three generation perhaps) such formal partnerships did exist among the elite. I imagine female friendships between those of lower status were less formal but no less powerful. Women must have relied on one another in much the same way sisters and lifelong best friends depend on one another today not only for emotional support but for the practical aspects of life. For everyday tasks, such as weaving, spinning, dairying, childcare, brewing, healthcare--often at the same time; kids don't stop running around with sharp objects when you spin, gesiths don't stop breaking bones while your toddler is trying to stick her hand in fire. For seasonal events, such as harvesting and sheep shearing. And during extreme times such as war and famine (which, sadly, probably weren't that rare--extreme but not extraordinary). It makes perfect sense for there to be such a thing as gemæcces--how could there not? But we'll never know.
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