Queering Austen: The Perfect Storm
I came to Jane Austen late in life. Actually, I came to reading the classics a bit later than most writers probably do. In high school in the ’80s, my experiences with The Literary Canon were nearly always shadowed by a sense of disconnect I can now trace not only to the gender, class, and time period of the characters about whom these assorted novels and plays had been written, but also their sexuality. The world reflected within the literature we studied at Kalamazoo Central High School matched the outer world in a very specific way—everyone appeared to be straight, with barely a hint of same-sex attraction.
As I noted in a previous blogpost (http://katechristie.wordpress.com/2012/03/28/between-the-lines-or-why-i-wrote-a-gay-variation-on-pride-and-prejudice/), queer characters do, of course, exist in Western literature, just as we have always existed in real, non-literary life. But in most cases, you have to read between the lines quite literally in order to uncover the same-sex attraction alluded to by necessarily closeted writers—Willa Cather and Sarah Orne Jewett, for example. While the act of searching out subcultural cues can be an entertaining pastime, at some point coded invisibility gets old.
My second grade teacher helpfully informed my parents that I was queer, but I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer until the grand age of ten. By the time I started college, I was fed up with studying novels and stories that didn’t reflect my experience. Rather than major in English, as I knew I was supposed to do if I wanted to become A Real Writer, I opted for Women’s Studies. My chosen department gave me two important things: a pin for my backpack that read, “I study women in a major way,” and the chance to take classes in a variety of disciplines, from Psychology and Political Science to Comparative Literature and History. Lots and lots of women’s history classes, as it turned out, for that was where my real interest lay.
In a way, it makes utter sense for a writer to study history, particularly social history that focuses on the everyday lives of ordinary people, rather than on politics, rich and powerful men, or wars. Social historians focus on primary sources: first-hand accounts like letters, diaries, and autobiographical writings. These are often the only resources available for a group of people who have historically lacked power or visibility—such as women and queers.
After college, I went off into the world armed with my liberal arts degree and temped my way into a career as a technical and web content writer. A dozen years out, dissatisfied with my unlooked-for business career, I decided to go back to school. Only this time, I actually went for an English degree. I had written a handful of novels by then, but wasn’t happy with any of them. It was time to study fiction-writing—and reading—in earnest.
Grad school was eye-opening. The classics were still as heterosexist as I remembered, and English theory even more so, but my reading list included Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and Louise Erdrich, in addition to the usual dead white guys. Reading literary classics and studying the craft of writing provided me with the technical skills and, more importantly, the confidence to revise my favorite shelved novel and send it off to Bella Books. Solstice was accepted in 2009. Leaving L.A., written for NaNoWriMo, and Beautiful Game, another formerly shelved novel, followed. Finally, I was A Real Writer with a website and a blog and everything.
So how did I end up indie publishing Gay P&P? Last year, my wife and I were blessed with the birth of our daughter, Alex. She is wonderful and fantastic and all the superlatives I knew I would come up with even before she joined our family. The lack of sleep, however, along with the crazy schedule of new parenting put a dent in my writing schedule. I used to write at night, but these days, with parenting and my day job in academia, I am usually too tired to summon the energy to delve into any fictional worlds.
For a while now, I’ve wanted to try my hand at a queer version of Pride & Prejudice. Last fall, I decided to take the leap, reasoning that tweaking Austen’s seminal romance novel would be less time-consuming than writing something new of my own. I was right—it only took three weeks to produce the first draft, given that I added a mere 10,000 words to the awesome original.
As a semi-reformed techie, I’ve also long been intrigued by the idea of coding ebooks. So while waiting for beta reader response to the first draft of GP&P, I read up on the ePub format and downloaded template files from CreateSpace, Amazon’s POD print service. Once I received beta feedback, I revised Gay P&P several times and, using CreateSpace and a text editor, produced print and ePub versions of the novel. I used Calibre to convert my ePub file to Kindle, tested the electronic formats on a variety of devices—Sony eReader, multiple Kindles, and the B&N Nook—updated my website, and sent Gay P&P live on March 23, the 13-month anniversary of our daughter’s birth.
Looking back, Gay P&P for me was the perfect intellectual and artistic storm: Through this one book, I was able to blend my interests in fiction and history; try my hand at POD publishing; satisfy my techie side with actual coding and multiple new software downloads; gratify the amateur graphic artist in me by designing the book cover; and assume complete creative and editorial control of a writing project I had been kicking around for years.
Would a publishing house have accepted Gay P&P? It’s possible. Did I learn oodles and enjoy the challenge of bringing the book out on my own? Absolutely. Was I terrified in the moments before, during, and after I sent the book live on Amazon? You better believe it. But overall, writing and self-publishing Gay P&P was a journey the rest of my adult life, including my accidental career in the software industry, just happened to perfectly prepare me for.
Before I close off, let me say thank you to Patty for offering me a guest spot on her blog. As a fan and writer of lesbian historical fiction, she was the kind of reader I had in mind when I first conceived of writing Gay P&P. So when I first saw her encouraging reviews of my efforts on Amazon and various lesfic lists, I was not only flattered but happy that someone other than me and a handful of friends might appreciate the queering of an adored classic of English literature.
A few readers have asked what’s next in my long-range goal of Queering the Western Literary Canon. Honestly, I can’t decide between Austen’s Emma and the eminently queer Little Women. I suppose it’s a hard job, but someone’s got to do it…