Representation in the media and in literature is important, but it’s also important to have representation on your bookshelf! In this 5×5 we interviewed five authors who identify as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community to talk about writing, representation, and the future of queer literature.
Meet the Authors!
Clare Lydon writes contemporary lesbian romance with all the feels and is a No.1 best-seller on lesbian fiction charts around the globe with books like London Calling. She also hosts two podcasts—The Lesbian Book Club & Lesbians Who Write —and has spoken at queer festivals and prides around the country. When she’s not writing, Clare watches far too many home improvement shows, while drinking nuclear-strength coffee & eating Curly Wurlys.
Diana Souhami is the author of Gluck: Her Biography, Gertrude and Alice, Greta and Cecil, The Trials of Radclyffe Hall (shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize for Biography and winner of the US Lambda Literary Award), Wild Girls, the bestselling Mrs. Keppel and Her Daughter (also winner of the Lambda Literary Award and a New York Times ‘Notable Book of the Year’), Selkirk’s Island (winner of the Whitbread Biography award), Coconut Chaos, Edith Cavell (winner of the EDP Jarrold East Anglian Book of the Year Award), Murder at Wrotham Hill (shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction) and the novel Gwendolen. She is a Rainbow List National Treasure and she lives in London. Her new book, No Modernism without Lesbians publishes May 1st of this year.
Emery Lee (E/em/eir), is a kidlit author, artist, and YouTuber hailing from a mixed-racial background. After graduating with a degree in creative writing, e’s gone on to author novels such as Meet Cute Diary, short stories, and webcomics. When away from reading and writing, you’ll most likely find em engaged in art or snuggling cute dogs. Find em online at www.emeryleebooks.com.
Jason June is a gay, genderqueer, list-making, Virgo Sun, Taurus Moon, Pokémon-playing writer living in Austin, TX. If he had a Gay Agenda, like his book Jay’s Gay Agenda, “marry the love of your life,” “be mom to two extremely pampered Pomeranians,” and “get accidentally kicked in the face by Kylie Minogue as an extra in her music video” would all be crossed off. Visit Jason June on social media @heyjasonjune, and on his website at www.heyjasonjune.com.
Cassandra Rose Clarke has been nominated for both the Pushcart Prize and the Phillip K. Dick Award, and is frequently published in magazines like Fantasy & Science Fiction and Strange Horizons. Her 2012 novel The Assassin’s Curse was a YALSA Best Book for Young Adults and a Kirkus Reviews Best Teen Book of the Year. Forget This Ever Happened is Cassandra’s first book with Holiday House. She is a graduate of Clarion West, the country’s premier writing program for speculative fiction.
1. What Made you Want to Become an Author?
Clare Lydon: I’ve written stories since I could hold a pen, but I stopped and started many novels before finally finishing my debut lesbian romance, London Calling, in 2013. It was the same year I was made redundant from my job as a music journalist, and I knew it was now or never to try to be an author. I published in 2014, and haven’t stopped writing since. I just released my 18th novel, Hot London Nights, in January. I don’t remember a time where I wasn’t writing stories. It’s always been in me. However, writing lesbian romance makes it extra-personal and extra-special. That I make a full-time living from it still blows my mind.
Diana Souhami: Writing was my way of coming out. It wasn’t possible to admit to being lesbian in my family. I was born in 1940 in London at the start of the second world war. Books were my escape from anxiety. The written world was where I lived. I worked as an editor at the BBC, wrote short stories, plays, book and film reviews and with luck became a full-time writer.
Emery Lee: Honestly, it’s something I started doing so young that I don’t really remember. I just remember being a kid and hating that my favorite stories had to end or got endings that I didn’t love, so I would write my own stories inspired by them and “correct” anything I disagreed with LOL.
Jason June: My favorite, favorite, favorite thing in the universe was escaping to other worlds as a kid. It started with my Dad reading me Dinotopia each night before bed, and continued on to becoming totally obsessed with Animorphs books when I could read on my own. But as I entered high school, the amount of time I spent reading really dropped, and I didn’t realize until later it was because I didn’t have many options where I could see myself in anything that was offered in the early 2000s. So when I seriously set out to become an author, I knew I wanted to provide escape like I loved when I was little, but make my stories unabashedly queer so that kids of all ages knew they were seen and celebrated.
Cassandra Rose Clarke: I loved reading as a kid, and as extension of that, loved making up stories—I used to tell myself elaborate stories and make little books with illustrations and such. When I was around 9 or 10, the author Joan Lowery Nixon came to speak at the community college in my hometown. It was the first time I realized that someone could be an author, that it was a job you could have.
2. What are your thoughts on LGBTQIA+ representation in literature and in media?
Clare Lydon: Everyone always says “it’s getting better” – but it’s still pretty woeful in reality. However, you have to take the wins where you find them. This year’s “Happiest Season” festive movie with Kristen Stewart, for instance. It wasn’t perfect, but it gave us a modern queer rom-com we’ve been crying out for. Also, “It’s A Sin” and “Pose” were some of the most joyful and heart-breaking hours of TV I’ve seen in ages. But I’d love to see more representation like the lesbian in “Call My Agent”, who’s just another character with a chaotic love life like everyone else. As for fiction: mainstream literature still seems to think that lesbian fiction means Jeannette Winterson or Sarah Waters. They’re both fantastic writers, but there’s a whole world of lesbian/bi/queer fiction being written by independent authors daily. Romance, sci-fi, thriller, mystery, horror – you name it, we have it. Plus, the characters involved are proudly gay. They’re not secondary characters, either: modern LGBTQ+ authors are putting queer characters front and centre. We’re still waiting for the mainstream to catch up.
Diana Souhami: LGBTQIA+ lives are more complicated, interesting and varied than literature and the media allow. Silence, embarrassment and disdain all still have a hold. Only now, after 34 years of my writing biographies of lesbians, has a mainstream publisher actually wanted the word lesbian in the title of my latest book. Historically they squirmed at the word, fearing limited sales. The more diverse, experimental and challenging representations of sexual identity are, the richer society will be. But initialism and labels are of limited use. The art is to get beyond them, with truth and love.
Emery Lee: Can we get some more? The people are hungry!Honestly, I’ve stopped watching Western media almost altogether because I like my media with a healthy dose of LGBTQIA+ characters, and when they *do* exist in Western TV and movies, they’re usually inconsequential, the villain, or dead. I think literature has come a long way past those stereotypes, but there’s still way less representation than there should be, usually stopping around the letter “B” and forgetting about the rest, and even when that representation exists, it’s usually centered around struggle or bigotry. There’s just a whole lot that isn’t being explored (at least within traditional publishing), and even in what is being explored, I think we just need more, especially when it comes to intersectionality.
Jason June: I am really really really excited for the direction we’re going! I feel like we’re just now entering this golden age of queer lit. Look at last year alone with epic stories like YOU SHOULD SEE ME IN A CROWN by Leah Johnson, FELIX EVER AFTER by Kacen Callender, CEMETERY BOYS by Aiden Thomas, THE SUMMER OF EVERYTHING by Julian Winters, and THE GRAVITY OF US by Phil Stamper. It just feels amazing that I could write multiple LGBTQIA+ titles to begin with, let alone that all these center queer characters and love. I am so so so honored that I get to become a part of this generation of queer writers embracing our experiences and turning them into books, and I hope that media in general sees this isn’t a trend, it’s a way of life and love that’s been here forever and is going to last forever.
Cassandra Rose Clarke: I think it’s so much better than it was when I was growing up. I sometimes feel like people don’t realize how sparse it was, even as recently as the 90s. I was in fifth or sixth grade when Ellen DeGeneres came out on her sitcom, and it was a HUGE DEAL. The mid-90s version of hot takes abounded, and there was much pearl-clutching about the children and whatnot. Now, we have the luxury of actually critiquing the queer representation on TV, as opposed to just celebrating that it exists. I don’t remember reading any books about queer characters when I was a kid (and I was a voracious reader!); now such representation is much easier to come across.
3. What do you hope people take away from your writing?
Clare Lydon: My USP is witty, British lesbian romance, and my books will leave you uplifted and positive, a happy ending guaranteed. They deal with the lives & loves of modern lesbians in the real world, and my characters live life in 3D: they laugh, cry, trip over their words, crash into love, say the wrong thing and drink too much. I hope readers see themselves and smile, or see the life they’d like to have and go after it. Writing lesbian romance is still a political act in the times we live in.
Diana Souhami: I hope people enjoy my books, find the style amusing, the characters rich and varied. Biography deals with individual complexity. I’ve written many biographies about courageous women who love women. I hope people find these individual stories life-enhancing, intriguing, memorable, no matter how problematic each life is.
Emery Lee: My number one goal with every book is just to give people that “I can do that” feeling. I want marginalized readers to realize they can find love, they can slay demons, they can be a princess, and they can write these stories about themselves too. Ultimately, I want to remind marginalized readers that they have the right to take up space, and more than that, they have the right o demand that space, and I really hope they will.
Jason June: I hope that people take away two things. First, I hope queer readers see that their love is as beautiful and layered and complex as anyone else’s, and know that that love is worthy of a whole treasure trove of stories. Second, I hope my readers, regardless of how they identify, understand it’s okay to make mistakes. In this age of social media it’s so easy to assume everyone else’s life is perfect, and I think that can be paralyzing as we worry about the imperfections in our own lives. Through my main characters who all mess up from time to time (sometimes in huge messy ways like Jay in JAY’S GAY AGENDA), I want readers to know that you get to make mistakes, that you get to be imperfect, that messing up is a huge part of learning who we are. What truly matters is owning up to your mistakes after you make them, learning from them, and putting in the effort—not just the words—to clean up the mess you made.
Cassandra Rose Clarke: I want people to connect with the characters, to feel the emotions that they’re feeling. It’s one of the things that I love about writing romance storylines–getting to really explore all those delicious, complicated emotions!
4. What genre do you think could use more representation?
Clare Lydon: Lesbian romance is the genre that’s most read in lesfic, but I’d love to see more lesbian-led thrillers and mysteries. I do love a cool, calm and collected woman leading the hunt for a killer, drinking whisky, flashing her biceps and rounding up the bad guys. What’s not to love? I’d also love to see more trans representation in novels across the board. It’s coming, but slowly.
Diana Souhami: Fair mainstream representation of queer identity won’t arrive any time soon – whatever the genre. Backlash is always more imminent than parity. The main hurdle, in all genres, is to leave behind stereotypes of what’s normal and admit wider truths about identity, desire and formulaic programming, “more of the same” stifles imagination and drives out the art of the new.
Emery Lee: All of them.
Jason June: I really, really, really, really want there to be more queer representation in picture books geared toward our youngest readers. We are getting there, and we have more options than ever before. But we still need more. I think some opponents of queer representation are worried that there’s an age where kids are “too young” and it’s “inappropriate” to talk about LGBTQIA+ folks. But using my own experience (and I know I’m not alone in this), I knew I was different from most of my peers as young as 3 years-old. I’d watch movies and cartoons with the big wedding scene at the end and knew that I never identified as the prince, but always the princess. I’d look on at my mom’s clothes and makeup with fascination and wonder and get confused as to why most people would say it was wrong of me to have an interest in that. Even if I didn’t have the words to describe it, I knew I was queer. But I never saw in books or film people who felt like I did. Or at least, if they did feel the way I did, it was never discussed. But by having open conversations about the variety of relationships and gender expressions out there in picture books, I think today’s youngest generation of readers who know they’re not part of the cis-het world (even without the words to say that) will feel much more seen and much more able to figure themselves out in a supportive society. It’s the thing I’m most proud of in our picture book, PORCUPINE CUPID, illustrated by Lori Richmond, that we have couples of all kinds pairing off together in this Valentine’s Day story. I’m very excited for the day when there are shelves and shelves full of picture books showing queer love, relationships, and expressions.
Cassandra Rose Clarke: It’s not a genre per se, but I’d like to see more books where the queer characters just happen to be queer, and it isn’t relevant to the plot in any way. Also, more books/movies/etc. where there are enough queer characters that some of those characters can be bad guys or have tragic moments without it being a Statement on Queerness.
5. If you could give advice to your younger self, about becoming an author or about life in general, what would you say?
Clare Lydon: That there’s never a right time to try – do it now! The only thing holding you back is your own self-doubt, and that never goes away. In the end, you just have to leap and the net will appear. It’s a motto I live by. Every time I launch a book, it’s a risk, but it’s one worth taking when I hear back from readers that they’ve been touched by my books. Feeling uncomfortable doing something means you’re alive. Writing is hard work, but it’s also rewarding. My dream job is emotional and takes effort, but I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.
Diana Souhami: I grew up without vocabulary for my feelings or any role models. There was Radclyffe Hall’s wretched Well of Loneliness, but not much else. Were I to have my time again I’d not worry so much about pleasing others, or causing embarrassment. I’d forget about the mainstream, follow my heart, have self-belief and dare to speak out, shout out from the get-go.
Emery Lee: I would say “never take advice from someone who isn’t living the life you want to live.” I’d also follow that up with “I’m living your dream right now so you better listen to me.”
Jason June: I would tell younger JJ to just chill out. Like, chiiiiiiiill, lady. I spent *years* trying to mold myself into what it meant to be the perfect gay boy, both for straight people and for other gays, and I sought validation and approval in a lot of unhealthy ways. It wasn’t until I just leaned into myself—into the femme energy I wanted to display and into sharing my experiences as a queer person—that I became much, much happier. When I started writing about life as a gay person and including queer characters in my work, when I started going for a Laura Dern vibe in my style and appearance, I became a much more fully-formed human. My advice to young JJ or any young person would be to just go for that sooner, to embrace the parts of yourself that make you you, and to encourage that in the people around you too.
Cassandra Rose Clarke: Even when it seems like things aren’t going to work out… somehow, they do. Just keep going!