30 questions about the Queer Magical Doorstop

30 questions about the Queer Magical Doorstop

At the beginning of May, Twitter user @KMWhite18 posted a month’s worth of questions about LGBT-themed works in progress, so writers could tell each other more about their books.

Months are important in the WIP I’ve started to call the Queer Magical Doorstop (more about it here, and it will be, very much, each of those three things). Characters have superstitions about midsummer. They project myths on to the calendar like Robert Graves did when he invented a symbolic year around his pseudo-Celtic cycle of folkloric trees. Two women who are each other’s reflections are doomed to confront each other like the oak-king and holly-king of old as the year turns, so that one can reign supreme. Or that’s what stories not written by queer women say has to happen.

Months, and rituals, are important in this book. So of course I didn’t start answering anything until the middle of May.

This is more or less what I told Twitter.

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#1: Introduce yourself!

(yes, I know it’s already the 19th of May): genderqueerish lesbian writer born in London, living in Hull these days, probably became an academic because I never found a blue police box.

(Actually, I do have one, which looks a bit like this; it just doesn’t go vworp vworp any more.)

#2: Pitch your WIP

I always want to say ‘lesbian JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL with a WICKED + THE DIVINE complex’ but then I’m never sure who reads , so I’ll say it here instead.

#3: Your main character in five objects

There are two MCs.

Meet Maria… and there’s a reason most of these are broken.

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And meet Anya, who’d have overthought these even more than me. (I’m still not sure I’ve got her the right trees.)

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#4: A line capturing your WIP’s atmosphere

‘The shadow falls across her eyes and mine, companion to hero, heir to king, double to double, or newcomer to star.’

(Or we could go with someone sounding off about the mythological resonance of Shakespear’s Sister.)

(That quote’s in Anya’s voice, though. Maria… does not sound like that. Though she can sound off about the mythological resonance of Shakespear’s Sister.)

#5: Does your WIP focus on the ‘queer experience’?

They’re lesbian magicians trying to make their mark on 20 years of queer history and fashion, and stop the government mastering magic before they do. So, a little bit.

#6: What inspired this WIP?

The short answer involves seeing this comic panel in 2015 and realising how close it came to a character I already wanted to write about, who’ll turn up in here.

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The long answer involves wanting to hurl a Robert Graves book across an airport departure lounge.

#7: Are the protagonists based on you?

It felt a bit like drawing blood every time I did give either of them a trait I had in common. So I hope not.

That said, protag #1 makes her name in a magical duo called Glenarvon, so hang as big a lampshade on that as you want.

#8: Why do you love this WIP?

Because I needed to read it, and to meet characters whose magic wasn’t just a metaphor for being queer, it intersected with the queer experiences they’d really have had.

#9: Do you consider your WIP to be #ownvoices?

Both protags are roughly in my corner of sexuality and gender expression, so yes.

(Though they belong to queer generations I don’t, I’m writing across a class difference with one of them, and across more differences with the supporting cast, so that’s a reserved yes, now I have more space.)

#10: A line where a character talks about their identity

‘”May King isn’t right, May Queen isn’t right,” said Caro, “where do you put me?”‘

(Magic works by re-enacting myth; here’s a non-binary magician, on verge of stardom, working out which ones they’ll reimagine…)

#11: What could tempt your protagonists to the dark side?

One of them’s already going to spend more time there than she’d ever have imagined at the start – it’s more a case of what could tempt her back

#12: Talk about your antagonists!

One siphons celebrity chaos. One is a paparazzi witch. One is a landed second son, taking back new magic for old power.

And then there’s Anja, the second: think Lexa x Ruby Rose, but Anya’s double, who’ll make Anya more powerful than she ever was alone.

(Or: come to the dark side. We have statement coats.)

#13: Who are your protagonists’ soulmates?

After those last couple of answers, that would probably be telling. Sorry.

(Some of these characters would start a magical war to stay together. Some of them might start one so they didn’t have to.)

#14: What are you most excited to write?

I’m querying agents now, so… whatever the next stage of revision is. If I’m lucky enough for that to happen.

#15: What’s your ideal cover?

I haven’t even dared think about it. I’d love to see a designer do something clever and queer with the main characters’ images and the doubles theme. Or pick out an object that can stand for their magic and use that.

#16: What scares you about this WIP?

That a story following these two women and the whole of London over 20 years wanted me to tell it, and now I’m responsible for getting it out as polished as it can be.

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(Is it time for some worried porgs? It’s always time for some worried porgs.)

#17: Post the protagonists’ theme songs!

Once they discover how to turn magic into performance, magicians literally have those. This’ll be Maria’s. She has a thunderstorm thing going on.

Anya’s training an up-and-coming team of celebrity magicians to harness mythic resonance using queer style. She directs from the background. But here’s her song.

And ‘Stay’ by Shakespear’s Sister might as well run through the whole book. You better hope and pray you make it safe back to your own world, etc.

#18: Weirdest thing you’ve researched

What took longest, for least reward, was almost certainly trying to work out what wine the it-girl heiress of postmodern occult London would probably have ordered in 1996.

(I could have said the exact projected running times for each bit of the London 2012 opening ceremony, if I hadn’t had them from a work thing years ago…)

#19: A line that shocked you

(I spent far too long over this one. ‘What line did you write that surprised you as you wrote it?’ was the prompt. So eventually I chose:)

‘Anja, among all the artisans, is whom you call on to guide a chisel or a pen to say one thing as it says something else.’

Which showed me she was basically a patron of queer-coding in her world’s mythology.

#20: Are you jealous of your MCs?

Yes in terms of the power they’ll have at their fingertips by the end, if I’m being honest. No in terms of what I put them through so they could get it.

#21: Has working on this WIP changed you?

Yes, actually. Somehow I’m much more able to express Queer 401-level stuff about how we want people to see us anyway, after powering through a whole book about how that could work as magic.

#22: How does your WIP’s setting handle queerphobia?

It’s wherever history put it. Next-generation magicians were at school under Section 28; AIDS devastated the 1980s occult fashion scene; one protagonist’s bi father was almost blackmailed out of his job at a defence laboratory, researching artefacts the arch-antagonist military family had acquired but didn’t understand.

#23: Post your characters’ pride flags!!

Difficult one. Neither MC grew up identifying with any in the 70s and 80s (which is partly what drives them to create a magic scene where they belong). One has a major choice about a flag to make near the very end of the book.

In the supporting cast, some magicians would have their Pride badges and pronouns down the sidebar of their Tumblrs by the end, others could be my age and still not be able to tell you if they’re bi or pan.

But this is a book where having a name for yourself is powerful.

#24: Post the scariest/darkest line

That depends if you want the terror one or two of these characters could turn moving-image magic into, or the terror that history would already perceive.

‘She’d be a husk of a replacement for her target; she could be one.’ That’ll do for the first kind.

For the second kind, this action will be unfolding across two decades where people were already learning to use live video for ends more frightening than fiction.

#25: Who should play the MCs in a movie?

Resemblance amplifies magic, so even the claims they stake about that could be acts of power.

(Though I did hold my breath when Phoebe Waller-Bridge was in the frame for the 13th Doctor, as that would have spookily triangulated with the vibe for someone in this book…)

#26: Queerest moment in your WIP?

Well, besides ‘most of it’, probably the one where a woman and her alter-ego lover, in each other’s outfits, are watching each other take each other’s roles to re-enact part of the myth of Joan of Arc…

#27: Advice for your protagonists

‘And then you said, “Bone to bone, blood to blood, joint to joint, so may they be mended.” You fixed it, because gods fixed the wound that way before.’

(One of them learns that from her new-age lesbian video witch lover. Then, the race is on.)

#28: Post some sexy lines 😉

Someone would ask, wouldn’t they?

‘Her touch releases me. Her sight consumes me. Her body ignites me and her reciprocity regenerates me.’ (I’m not going into which couple that’s about.)

#29: Is this WIP breaking ground?

It’s a saga of magical discovery, told over 20 years of London’s recent history, centred on queer women, the myths they rewrite and the families they find.

So, yes, it’s breaking ground.

#30: What’s your FAVOURITE line?

I want this to be one that encapsulates the whole book, like you could just tap it on a table and the entire story would spill out.

But it might be where the MC still living off her chaotic ’90s pop-culture-magic glory gets taken to an otherworld she’s always refused to believe in, spots its pulsing red castle walls, and asks its guardian, ‘You got an emerald one of these as well somewhere?’

#31: Wrap up!

(And that was probably the most I’d ever talked about this book on Twitter at once, so thank you to the month of May for that…)

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Writing at History Today and WWAC: monstrous regiments and monstrous women

Writing at History Today and WWAC: monstrous regiments and monstrous women

Two pieces I’ve published elsewhere recently:

This essay for the History Today website on the ‘cross-dressing soldier problem’, or how to talk about people in the past who dressed as men and went to war, while making space for the possibilities of trans lives:

Whether the stories come via a 17th-century ballad, a 19th-century newspaper or a 21st-century tablet, the public has been fascinated for centuries by tales of women who put on men’s clothes, take a male name and run away to join the army – or to go to sea…

Cis historians and journalists usually start from the assumption all these figures can only have been women, so the first paragraph puts it the same way as the headlines – but the rest goes on to show that:

The same sources that show us women who cross-dressed also offer us glimpses of how people who might have distanced themselves from womanhood over a longer period of time got by, how those who felt equally at home in more than one gender role accommodated that fluidity, and how people with intersex conditions coped with a society where their bodies did not belong.

Well done to the editor who gave this article (after the wonderful Discworld novel) the headline ‘Monstrous Regiment’. Good work.

I’ve also reviewed Allison O’Toole and M. Blankier’s collection Wayward Sisters: an Anthology of Monstrous Women for Women Write About Comics:

Most women already know how it feels to be made monstrous. If we can tell what most frightens a society from what form its monsters take and what they threaten, the very ideas governing what societies and people will be frightened of have stemmed from ideologies of gender in connection with race, age, sexuality, disability and the body. Folklore, myth and horror around the world provide bestiaries of monstrous women. Yet so, according to cultural imagination, does everyday life…

Yes, there’s a bit of a monsters theme here this month.

Story sale: ‘The Eyes Beyond the Hearth’

I’m delighted to announce that I’ve sold a short story, ‘The Eyes Beyond the Hearth’, to Emma Bridges and Djibril al-Ayad’s collection Making Monsters: an Anthology of Classically Themed Speculative Fiction and Essays, due to be published in mid-2018.

Making Monsters is a mixed fiction, poetry and non-fiction volume published as a collaboration between the Institute of Classical Studies in London and the SFF magazine The Future Fire. Its 19 stories and poems are retellings and reimaginings of monsters from any of the world’s ancient mythologies. The full table of contents is due soon, but the call for submissions was particularly interested in traditions of female monsters and how their reimagined myths might intersect with other marginalisations such as race, queerness and disability.

‘The Eyes Beyond the Hearth’ takes on two sets of stories society tells about fearing women’s sight: the myth of Medusa, and the queer female gaze.

When her sight famously turns bodies to stone, who’d want to be looked at by Medusa? Perhaps someone who’s learned that her own sight makes her monstrous already…

A little bit more about a personal project

I’ve mentioned this briefly on here before, so here’s more about the main creative project I’ve been working on recently: a queer mythic fantasy novel which I’ll be starting to query soon after a year of revising, a year and some more of drafting, and much of my life wishing someone would write a book like this, until I realised that I was going to have to. And I could.

The Month of the Tanist follows the rivalry of two genderqueer lesbian magicians in 1990s and 2000s London, struggling to keep control of a magic based on moving images, myth and stardom out of the hands of the British establishment – and each other.

Over two decades, as they discover how to master this rising magic and inspire others to work it, they’ll charge their identifications with archetypal male heroes through the ever-rising power of video and digital technology, the glamour of celebrity culture, and ancient magical laws of re-enactment. They’ll strive to remake traditions they were never supposed to belong to – or just break them apart – until one of them is offered an otherworldly alliance with a counterpart who could be her double, her lover, her adversary, or all three, and the other has every reason to want to bring her down.

As the technopagan Nineties and the shock-and-awe 2000s move into a decade of new identities and solidarities, and Britain’s bastions of wealth and imperial militarism are just as quick to keep up with the times, both women must overcome an age-old legend of duelling, doubling and replacement – the legend of the hero and the perfectly-matched heir or ‘tanist’ destined to confront him – in order to prevent a war across worlds that some of their closest allies would be all too keen to bring about.

Or, put another way: 1990s/2000s Strange/Norrell, with lesbians. Some of whom like wearing the same coats.

*

Two things drove me to write this novel rather than just keep imagining what form it could take: the characters whose stories I wanted to tell, when I’d almost never seen queer women and their lives at the centre of a narrative like this, and the world I wanted to create around them, where the intimacies of how we want to be seen and who we want to recognise us could be a literal as well as metaphorical magic.

When I started writing Tanist, I knew I wanted to turn the socially panoramic lens and epic sweep of historical fiction towards the culture and politics of the very recent past, which even for someone who grew up in the 1990s already feels like history.

Often, that sense of wonder comes from how fast our everyday technology has changed – and queer people, who find out so much about themselves through media that show us what we want to become before we can even name it, know particularly well that we take abilities and devices for granted today which, thirty years ago, would have felt magical.

But these have also been years when the monarchy, the military and the aristocracy – institutions of power that date back centuries and wrap themselves in tradition – have mastered turning popular culture and digital media to their own ideological ends… while they started offering queer white people, including queer white women, more space to identify with their projects of nationalism and militarism than most of us would have imagined either, thirty years ago.

The fusion of mythology, celebrity and nationhood around iconic broadcasts like the death of Diana or equally the beginning of the London Olympics isn’t too far away from some of the strategies these characters discover to amplify their own magic faster than other people’s: creating star personas or inspiring dangerous rituals of resemblance, binding ancient and modern myths to themselves and each other as performers by assembling iconic looks or manipulating light, in a city of paparazzi witches, gentrifying cabals, intergenerational found families and planeswalking magic-mirror engineers.

Of course, if the main thing anyone knows how to do with magic is cast illusions, that leaves magic in a similar position to any other creative art: in a class system like Britain’s, access to the knowledge and opportunities and networks that give people the most chance to master it isn’t going to be distributed equally, but an underground can still break through and change the boundaries of what people believe it’s possible to create… whether or not that challenges the oppressive structures around them at all.

One irresistible image I’ve carried over from my work, meanwhile, is the way academics often talk about the ‘enchantments‘ of ideologies like nationalism and militarism, which work by enticing people into complicity. Speculative fiction makes metaphors material – and, moreover, the landscapes of English mythical tradition are the very landscapes of modern British military power, like Stonehenge standing high among the Cold-War-turned-Afghan training ranges of Salisbury Plain. For most of these characters, the land is the other side’s wealth and inspiration, and a military learning to equip itself with English magic isn’t something to honour but something to oppose.

Any fantasy novel set in London is set in the capital of the empire that broke the world – and this is a book that challenges its London magicians to acknowledge that history.

The myth of rivalry I’ve organised the novel around comes from a name Robert Graves gave (or rather, over-familiarly borrowed from the history of Gaelic kingship) to the mythological trope of the hero whose companion and counterpart, the ‘tanist’, is destined to kill and replace him at the turn of the year. ‘T is the spear-month, the month of the tanist’ in the half-alphabet, half-calendar that Graves made up: the month where the successor has taken his rival’s place. Graves made the hero and his tanist rivals for the love of his own imaginary goddess, in the course of making overly merry with practically every cycle of myths he could get his hands on; anyone who enjoys queering up texts that were already full of sublimated queerness in the first place knows it gets even more interesting once you take out the third wheel.

Can we have a story where women’s desiring gazes can mean power not danger, and where one of the doubled pair doesn’t have to kill the other like they always do?

If we can, maybe we can have one where a glance or a touch can be as fateful as a duel, where the strongest alliances turn out to be forged through solidarity across diversity, where we can break out of the myths that have trapped us and reimagine the ones that showed us what we wanted to become?

I was overdue one. You might be as well.

But it’s up to two very flawed women to find a way for it not to play out the way the myths around them always said it had to do.

Quick note on a personal project

Quick note on a personal project: for the last year and a half I’ve had a novel in progress that I aim to be submitting to agents in the coming months.

The plot follows the rivalry of two genderqueer lesbian magicians in 1990s and 2000s London, both struggling to keep control over a magic based on moving images,  myth and stardom out of the hands of the British establishment – and each other.

Charging their identifications with archetypal male heroes through the ever-rising power of video and digital technology, the glamour of celebrity culture, and ancient magical laws of re-enactment, they’ll strive to remake traditions they were never supposed to belong in – or just break them apart – until one of them is offered an otherworldly alliance with a counterpart who could be her double, her lover, her adversary, or all those at the same time.

More soon on how and why I came to write it, but for now, that’s the plan.