Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A conversation between two new Prizm authors

How did you chose the setting for your novel?

Shira Glassman: I grew up in South Florida; my "normal" is the Broward/Palm Beach/Miami-Dade tricountry area where native foliage is liberally mixed with the most outlandish assortment of trees from Australia, Africa, and Southeast Asia that were brought in either as landscape trees, arboretum specimens, or as part of the tropical agricultural community down in Homestead. My family is Jewish on both sides, and I was raised by a single mom. So feminism/the strength of women, Judaism, and the tropical environment are my "normal". So is the queer ethos. None of those things are reflected in any of the great fairy tales with which I was raised--it was all Northern Europe, in many cases men-centered, only Jewish centered in very special cases, and the queerest they ever got was straight women who had to dress as men to get taken seriously--see below. So I decided to create my own.


Cathy Hird: My “normal” growing up was way too bland for a good setting, and I now live in farm country so when I started to write fiction I chose a place that had a rich mythology—ancient Greece.


Shira: So would you say that your background hasn't influenced your writing, then? Or did it creep in anyway, in other ways besides setting?


Cathy: You are so right—we  never escape our past, although  I did try. I found suburbia empty and shallow, so as soon as I could I headed for the inner city, and then when I needed earth and green, growing things, I moved to a farm. I’ve stopped moving now: I’ve been here for 25 years.


On the other hand, the idea of leaving is rooted in my childhood: my family spent 3 years in Argentina  and travelled throughout South America seeing a wondrously rich culture and landscape.


The other thing childhood gave me was a large extended family and a strong sense of community. So each time the characters in my story end up too alone, friends and helpers crop up. The novel ends up with quite a network of relationships!


It was first of all the complex mythology of classical Greece that attracted me. Also, I made a trip to Greece as a teenager with a high school history class. The blue water and the white marble, the history that peeks out from every corner held my imagination. So it was great to go back and do research once I started writing stories set there.


Shira: That must have been an amazing and inspiring trip (or trips?) Were there any aspects of your story plan that you wound up changing once you'd actually seen it?


Cathy: The Parthenon in Athens is the image pasted on postcards and ads, but there is so much more in Greece. The small towns cradled by mountain slopes, the worn rocks and hollowed-out plane trees fairly shout about the stories they have seen. And this last trip, I was still trying to figure out why the princess had been kidnapped. I heard about a place called the Gates of Hades, and we went there. The place is enchanted: a river comes out of a mountain into a narrow canyon, with weirdly twisted oak trees growing along it. On a hill between the river and the ocean, there is an underground shrine where people still today place coins to seek the blessing of Mary or an ancient goddess.  This shrine and the valley around it became the central place of conflict and restoration in my novel.


Shira: Will you ever write about where you live? that!


Cathy: Actually, I am working on a modern day story set in the farm country where I live, with an enslaved elf and an alchemist and his daughter. Enchantment is never very far away from us.


How did you chose your main character?

Shira: My secondary protagonist follows in the footsteps of Mulan, Eowyn, and even Yentl, a straight woman dressing in men's clothing so she'll be accepted in a "man's job." In many of the stories in which these women appear, their career-based crossdressing is the queerest aspect of the story. As a real live queer woman, I always wondered what it would be like to see one of these women come face to face and interact with a genuine lesbian. That's one thing that inspired me to create the primary protagonist, my little Queen. She also shares my grief; like me, she lost her father much younger than she ever expected.


Cathy: Did you find it helpful to write about her grief?

Shira: Very much so. And new issues came up during the revising, because his things were being sold off, so I was able to work through those feelings, too.

When my father died, I was suddenly unable to write for a full year. I felt cut off from all the genre characters I loved, because even though they had all experienced loss in some way, it wasn't the same. It wasn't cancer. It would have been very hard for me to deform my feelings so that they could fit into an Eowyn shell, for example, mourning the uncle who had basically been her father--too many things were different; she'd lived with loss all her life whereas for the most part I had not; they had a few seconds to say goodbye and we had, well, if you know how cancer works, there's that "last week". I felt alone in there, all by myself with my cancer-grief, with all my favorite characters on the other side of a wall.

"So, write about your pain!" said everyone.

But I didn't want to rehash it all, reliving it with each rewrite and revision. The solution, then, came when I realized that if I created a character who was mourning already, I could describe her grief and how she works through it without having the actual death be part of the action of the story. We only see what happened to the king in her mind, and in her dialogue to her new friend. It's never out-and-out narrated, and that was important to me. We first meet her two months into her reign. What happened to her father wasn't cancer and definitely reeks of fairy-tale outlandishness, but the parallels I so sorely needed are there.


I also really wanted to write about a benevolent dragon, because that was important to me, too.


Cathy: What interests you about dragons?

Shira: If Harry Potter were real, my patronus would be a dragon. Because I truly believe JKR created a genius metaphor for despair and clawing yourself out of it in the dementor-patronus mythos, and the image that comforts me when I'm at my lowest, or that springs into mind to describe my mood when I'm at my most joyful, is that of the dragon. Ever since I was tiny, without any prompting I decided that the "dragons are bad, always" meme made no sense to me. It's almost as much a part of me that I didn't choose as being bisexual is; it just came naturally. I guess I'm inspired by their power, and I love the idea of the benevolent ones having power that they choose to use for good. I also really dig lizards; I think they're adorable. So that's related.


Cathy: Dealing with darkness is so much a part of life’s struggles! At two points in my novel, different characters are trapped in the dark. How they deal with their fear, how they hold on until there is light is important to their development. In our lives, showing others the light that shines in the darkest night is an important gift.


To get back to the question of how I chose the characters in the story, most of them just appeared on stage for me. The main character, a kidnapped princess, came with the “Helen of Troy” story-line. Then I needed a rescuer, and I had a prince I kind of liked, a side character in my first novel (the novel that is buried in a drawer till I have time to completely rework it). When a character needed a companion or when the darkness got too heavy, someone came along to help.  I am a rather “organic” writer: I have a vague sense of direction which comes to life as the pen scratches the paper or my fingers work the keyboard.


Shira asks: what motivated you to write queer YA in the first place?

Cathy: My short stories have adult women dealing with relationship issues, but my novel characters have all been 16-18. I like exploring that “coming of age” challenge, what happens when we are able to deal with the challenges of our situation, our personality. This novel is an adventure rather than a romance, but relationships develop along the way, mostly heterosexual though queer relationships are taken as given.


Cathy: What motivated you to write  fiction?

Shira: I don't think I ever had a choice--stories grow in my head until they become too big for me and must come out. I get pictures in my head, like a female warrior riding a galloping horse toward a woman waiting to be rescued, which was how The Second Mango started. Often, I daydream while listening to music in the car, and that's where the most vivid ideas come from. In many cases, my motivation comes from a burning need to see stories with certain elements that appeal to me or soothe me, but were too difficult to find in the genres I like. One of these is a desire to see the queer experience represented in old-fashioned and elegant genres where we were previously invisible. Another one is that when I do fancy men, they tend to not be young, buff Ken dolls, but it's hard to find stories where the older, larger men are romantic heroes, especially in my preferred genres. Feminism has also been a big force in my writing, and sometimes I write to make a point. But mostly I write because ever since I was five years old I get "into" stories, but there was always something about the fictional universe I felt like I had to change--wouldn't be great if those two were married or if someone hadn't died or if there were more female characters or if two bitter enemies eventually made friends? With my own universe I finally have the power to tweak all the details right out of the gate to do all the things I like.

Cathy: You seem to have more influence on your characters than I do. Mine keep doing what they think they should do, sometimes landing in more trouble, sometimes finding solutions I had not imagined ahead of time.

Shira: My characters do what will make the story satisfy me, if that makes sense. Writing is my only chance to get to have "stories" that do everything I like best.


Cathy:  I share your need to tell stories. Mostly in the past, I’ve been in oral story teller. It is exciting now to publish something which will have people “hearing” the story even though I cannot see them!

You do seem to love story telling, Shira!

Shira: In a sense it's almost like cooking for my spouse or my friends with all their numerous food allergies and intolerances (which are a big part of the book, incidentally)--I've made myself a delicious meal with all the foods we like best, but with no gluten or dairy or poultry or apples or shellfish or whatever other thing. And now I'm stuffing my face and couldn't be happier with it!


Look for Shira Glassman’s novel The Second Mango in August, and Cathy Hird’s Moon of the Goddess later this year. Meanwhile you can follow Shira at and Cathy at

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