Voice To Voice: Ellen Hart And Val McDermid Discuss Lesbian Literature

This month we've invited several LGBT authors to participate in our first ever Voice to Voice conversation series. Throughout January we'll feature intimate interviews between novelists, poets, playwrights, and writers as they discuss everything from the state of LGBT literature to sex and sexuality between the pages to the joys and challenges of writing about LGBT issues, themes, and lives.

Our first featured conversation was between Violet Quill members Edmund White and Felice Picano.

Today we're featuring a discussion about lesbian literature between Ellen Hart and Val McDermid.

Ellen Hart has been writing crime fiction for nearly 20 years and recently published her 27th book, "The Lost Women of Lost Lake," the latest in her Jane Lawless series. She has been presented with the Lambda Literary Award and the Minnesota Book Award.

Val McDermid began her career as a journalist and published her first book, "Report for Murder," in 1985. Since then she has received numerous awards including the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Lambda Pioneer Award. Her series was the basis for the BBC show "Wire in the Blood." She recently published her 25th book, "The Retribution."

Here Hart and McDermid discuss lesbian literature versus mainstream literature in the US and the UK, why some readers will go out of their way to attack a book with lesbian characters and/or themes, and more.

Ellen Hart: I remember one of the first times I met you, it was in Seattle. We were sitting in a bar somewhere, and you told me the plot of your story that you were working on. I thought, My God, she must really trust me! And my next thought was, I could never write that book!

Val McDermid: [Laughs] Even if you did write that same story, it would be completely different because it's coming from you. People say to me, "Aren't you worried if you talk about the plot, someone else could write it?" and I say, "Well, let them write it because there's no way that story is going to be the same." Whatever book you write is going to be idiosyncratic, your book -- your voice. If you're any good as a writer, that is.

EH: What are some of difference you see in gay and lesbian publishing today as opposed to when we started out twenty-something years ago?

VM: When I started out lesbian fiction was being published by small independent feminist publishing houses, and that was that. If you were writing lesbian fiction that was pretty much the only way you were going to be published.

EH: That's right.

VM: I think all of those publishing houses are now gone; they're now defunct in the UK. Lesbian and gay fiction is now primarily being published by large commercial houses or on the Internet. If I was starting out now, I don't know if I would be able to get published. When I first started it was more obvious; there were about five publishing houses where I could've sent my book and I had a reasonable expectation that they would take it seriously. But now if I had written the [first] book that I wrote, which was a feminist lesbian crime novel, I would not know where to go with it.

EH: That was with The Woman's Press, right?

VM: Yeah.

EH: I was published in England with The Woman's Press for a while, too, until that house went belly-up, which was sad. It was the same situation here in America back in the late '80s. I published with fine house called Seal Press, which is still a viable press, but I don't think their approach anymore is to publish solely LGBT fiction -- they've gone off in a different direction. I don't see are very many writers jumping from the small indie presses like Boldstrokes, Bella, and to an extent even Bywater Books (although I think if anybody would they would come from Bywater) to mainstream houses. It may be a lack of interest on the part of New York publishing and that may be the bottom line.

VM: There's been a weird separation between the way American publishing is and the way British publishing is in this particular area. One of the reasons why the feminist houses in the UK, like the Woman's Press, Pandora, Sheba stop working is because writers like me have been taken over by the mainstream. A bunch of us who started off at relatively small feminist publishing houses are mainstream writers now and sell a lot of books. The British scene both genre and literary fiction is awash with lesbians. There's me, Amanda Scott, Stella Duffy, Ali Smith, Charlotte Mendelson, Jeanette Winterson, Joana Briscoe, Emma Donahue -- we're everywhere. We are in the mainstream; we are part of the literary world and landscape. We're not shunted off into a vacuum in any sense. We found a bigger readership and that hasn't really happened in America.

EH: It hasn't, no.

VM: With the possible exception of Patricia Cornwell, it's hard to think of an out lesbian writer in America who has major commercial success.

EH: Cornwell wasn't out for a long period of time --

VM: She was a success before she was out. Her success has survived coming out, you might say.

EH: Right. She was not writing a "traditional" gay or lesbian protagonist. I think those books are a harder sell, certainly in America. I expect that had I written something different, a character that was not a lesbian, that I'd have more money and perhaps more success than I have now.

VM: I think there's no doubt about that.

EH: But that didn't happen and I'm still pleased with where I am. Also, like most writers, I'd like to stretch out and write about different things. I don't like the sense of writing in a vacuum -- I want to write about the whole world. I don't just want to write about gay and lesbian issues or problems.

VM: You don't just write about gays and lesbians. You write about bigger issues, you write about the wider world in your books. And your central character happens to be a lesbian. We don't choose our characters or the books they write -- they choose us. We write the books we have to write. We write the books we're passionate about. There's no point whatsoever in attempting to write books that are not what is clamoring to be heard in your head and your heart.

EH: Do you think it's harder today to get published as a crime writer than it was in the past?

VM: I think crime writing has become such a board church that I think having a novel with gay or lesbian characters at the heart of it, is going to find a home more easily in the crime drama than it is anywhere else. In the UK and Europe, the crime novel has become a novel of social criticism. It's where you go if you want to find contemporary society under a microscope, unflinching view of the world we live in. It's very critical of the societies we live in, especially if you look at the Scandinavian writers, that's very clear. I don't think it's the same in most mainstream American crime fiction, it's not the feeling I get.

EH: When I started writing in the late '80s, early '90s, the "lesbian crime novel" was very popular both here and in the UK. It's less so now in that the majority of popular fiction that's being written within the lesbian community, is romance.

VM: There is a lot of romance fiction that is thinly disguised as crime. When we started out there was a raft of writers writing vibrant lesbian fiction like Barbara Wilson and Katherine Forrest. I felt like I was starting along a new way where people were breaking new ground. But now I don't see much new lesbian crime fiction coming through.

EH: I don't either.

VM: I know homophobia is still alive and kicking and out there.

EH: Hugely.

VM: I have a huge international readership and all my books have gay characters. Not all my books have gay lesbian protagonists but all my books have gay characters in them and that seems to go more or less unnoticed most of the time by my readership. But my last book, "Trick of the Dark," was published in the US is, as my wife says, "chock full of lesbians." What I have found quite interesting is the response I have had, not from my regular readers, but from a very vocal and small number of people who go on Amazon and give books that have gay and lesbian characters in them one star reviews. If you look across the spectrum of my books, all my recent books have got four or four and a half starred reviews; "Trick of the Dark" has two stars.

EH: Welcome to my world.

VM: People, who read mysteries, love this book. Oline Cogdill, who is one of the more influential mystery critics in the US, rated it in her top five books of the year. But clearly there is still a segment of the population out there who, regardless of whether or not they even read the damn books, will go out of their way to slight the books off. That depresses me. Here we are in 2011, and there are people who still think that it matters that much.

EH: Yes. I have gone online and I did read those reviews of your last book and noticed what I considered to be a lot of homophobic responses to your stories, especially this last book. And all I can say is, welcome to my world [laughs].

VM: It's weird to me. These people are clearly not my readers. They have not read my work. They have gone to the trouble of going onto Amazon to slag off a book they probably haven’t actually read. You only have to read one of my books to know that I will write about gay characters who are part of the landscape, who are by and large good, decent people who happen to be gay. This is what my experience of the world is.

EH: I was invited to come to a bookstore in Canada a few years back and the bookstore owners said, "We know you write a lesbian mystery series and we want you to feel comfortable when you come to town, so we'll try and find out where the gay bars are." I said, "I don't go to gay bars very often." They said, "Well how do you meet more of your people?" I said, "I've been in a relationship for 25 years. I don't need to meet other people." They just did not get it. They were very nice people, but they had completely misrepresented who I am, what I am. I doubt they ask Louise Penny [Canadian author of New York Times bestselling mystery "A Trick of the Light" if they could take her to a bar when they get to Vancouver. They're not saying to her, "We'll take you to a bar so you can meet your people." It's still out there. It's still ridiculous.

VM: The other side of that is I still get young women coming up to me, 25 years after my first Lindsey Gordon novel was published, and saying "Yours was the first lesbian novel I ever read." It just made me so happy. One of the things that I am most proud of is when "Report For Murder" was translated into Russian in 2001, and that was the first book ever officially published in Russia with a lesbian protagonist.

EH: Oh my gosh!

VM: There have been underground books with gay characters and lesbian characters but there had never been an officially published book with a lesbian protagonist in Russia at that point. It went straight to the bestseller list at #3!


VM: So at least there are some Russian lesbians looking for some good stuff.

For more information on Ellen Hart, visit her official website and her page on Amazon.com. For more information on Val McDermid, visit her official website and her page on Amazon.com.