This is a question I've been asking myself for years. Best case scenario, all straight authors prioritize the voices of members in the LGTBQ+ community, buy their work, and credit them whenever possible. But already being someone who writes and publishes regularly, I felt I could do more. So I did what I thought was best: I asked.
Below is the dialogue I had with several authors who regularly write LGBTQIA+ fiction, including E.L. Reedy & A.M. Wade (Writing partners and siblings! Can you say dynamic duo?), Kate Larkindale, M. Pepper Langlinais, and Melody Wiklund, author of Eleven Dancing Sisters. I think you'll find their conversation to be thought-provoking and fun!
Me: So first question will actually be a statement: Happy Pride! Tell me about yourself and your books, especially those containing LGBTQIA+ characters!
ER: Thank you! Our book, Upon Broken Wings, is about finding hope in even the darkest situations. Our greatest goal in the writing was to hopefully save lives. It follows two young teens who attempt suicide. One, Andrew, manages to take his life, the other, Kiernan, ends up wandering around in a ghost state as his body lies in a coma.
KL: Happy Pride! I'm Kate and I'm a writer living in New Zealand. My books almost all have some LGBTQIA characters, even if they are not the central focus of the story. My debut novel was An Unstill Life which is an F/F love story about a girl whose friends abandon her for boyfriends at the time in her life she needs their support most. She finds what she needs with the school 'freak'.
ALP: I write as M Pepper Langlinais, and my novel "The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller" is a 1960s British spy story featuring a gay main character. The book is actually made up of three novellas, and the first novella is "St. Peter in Chains." That won a Blogger Book Fair award for LGBT back in 2013, and a screenplay adaptation I did won Table Read My Screenplay and was given a professional table read at Sundance Film Festival.
MW: Happy Pride! I have an f/f novella in Kissed which is about a lesbian and her bi best friend competing for the attention of a possibly queer new girl... and also maybe realizing that they're more interested in each other. I also have written a novella that's an f/f retelling of a somewhat obscure Russian fairy tale, and that will be coming out sometime this year...not yet sure when. It involves a princess, a peasant girl, and a mysterious talking fish.
Me: Okay, question two -- Why do you write books/stories with diverse characters?
AW: The world is not made up of identical clones. We all have fears and foibles and all must deal with hardships in our own ways. Having someone "normal", someone lame, someone mentally challenged, and someone very young allows us to see that fact. We all feel abandoned, betrayed, hurt, angry, loved, alive, and so on, and our story shows that despite all those differences, they all forgot the same thing--we are not alone. For each of us, there is at least one person who can and will stand by us and give aid and comfort, IF WE JUST ASK.
MW: To be honest, I didn't start writing f/f entirely on purpose. It began when I was writing a theoretically m/f novel...and then realized that my female main character was really crushing on a girl. [...]It's something I use to express my own sexuality (irl I'm debatably closeted) and it's also just something I enjoy doing--I often find writing relationships between women, whether romantic or platonic, more interesting than writing relationships between women and men.
KL: I want to write stories that reflect the world we live in and the world is made up of a vast array of people who are different to one another. I like writing f/f stories especially because there seem to be far fewer book exploring love between two women than between two men.
Me: Agreed! I'm loving these answers.
ALP: I do it because I think diverse characters are more interesting to write and to read. Also, every LGBT+ book I'd read seemed to be about that character struggling with his or her sexuality. I wanted to write LGBT+ characters who were already comfortable with that but maybe had to deal with others being uncomfortable. I feel like that's true to their experience too, as much as coming out is.
ER: Diversity is the spice of life. Despite what an alarmingly growing number of people who learned nothing from WWII might think. The differences between us are what gives the human race such staggering potential… If we don’t annihilate each other first. Also first rule of writing. Write what you know.
Me: That leads right into my next question -- I am straight and white, and in all my books, I've written queer and racially diverse characters. How do you feel about authors writing what they have not themselves experienced?
KL: If we all only write what we know, books wouldn’t be nearly as interesting to read. I think as long as you research where you need to, it’s fine to write outside your own experience. I mean, Stumped is about a teenage boy amputee and I’m not a boy or an amputee, but I did my research and I’ve been told I captured the experience and emotions really authentically.
AW: I hope, as writers and even readers, that we have been observant and listened to the world that exists around us. I am short, old, female with all my limbs. However, I live with a young male amputee and a young male on the autism spectrum. I do not know EXACTLY how they feel or how they would react in a given situation, but I have watched them grow, learn, and adapt to life's curveballs. I hope that shows when our characters say or do something in the story. A few readers have said they felt "real". That's the best compliment, I think.
ER: Writing what we have not ourselves experienced is the great thing about fiction. We get sail the wild seas, fly skies of distant worlds. As long as we as the authors make it believable--in other words, let the reader experience the worlds we create then writing what we don’t know can be a wonderful thing.
ALP: I certainly worry about getting things "wrong." However, writers rely heavily on their imaginations--whether writing fantasy or stories based on reality. Still, I don't want to offend anyone, and I try to listen to feedback from those quarters. (Luckily, it's been mostly positive.) If we weren't willing, as writers, to write things we hadn't experienced, we would have very little to say. [...] Still, I understand why some might be wary. LGBT+ people, people of color, differently abled people--they don't necessarily want us filtering their stories for them. They want to speak for themselves and be heard. That's something publishing is still trying to address by having more diverse authors, editors, agents. But I don't think that should stop US from writing the characters and situations that speak to our hearts. So long as we treat them with respect.
KL: Exactly. I totally believe people should write their own experiences and own voices are important, but I don’t think people should be afraid to write outside their own experiences either. As long as they do it in a knowledgeable and respectful way.
Me: Last question-- What do you think authors of privilege (any type, white, straight, abled, and otherwise) should be doing to a) prioritize the voices of marginalized folks and b) present "real" diverse stories in respectful ways?
AW: Well, doing in depth research is the beginning of any good writing. Putting oneself in the place of a character and realizing how differently things could be done or said, if the character was not like you, would give that perspective. Reading books and news stories describing how other abled persons were treated and using how that made you feel--angry, sad, frustrated, heart-broken--would also help shape that respectful creation of diverse characters. Just noticing people around you as you live, sadly, often shows how diverse characters are treated or expected to act. Living with my two special boys, I've seen examples of how NOT to treat people and how prejudice makes people expect them to act or be, and they don't see the real, live people behind the handicaps.
ALP : I agree that thorough research is key. I'm planning a YA contemporary update of "Twelfth Night" (just did one of "Hamlet"), and the MC will be transgendered. Luckily, I know a number of transgendered people so that I can run things by them. I think, too, it's important to show these characters as empowered, not to be all "oh, isn't it sad that he's in a wheelchair." Differently abled people don't want pity, just acknowledgement that they ARE part of this world. (That's not to say that there won't be moments where the wheelchair gets in the way or is frustrating for one reason or another. It just shouldn't be the defining factor of the handicap.)
ER: The first thing, is to throw out any preconceived notions about what is going on in someone else’s life, be they marginalized in any way or not. We, writers, get to make up quite a bit in fiction, but when it comes to making characters of any minority group, to be real, so-to-speak, we cannot fake it. We must either walk in their shoes, or at least take the time to get to know them, see how they live, learn their personal trials and tribulations. [...] I’ve met more people than I can count from so many cultures. The language barriers have been a massive challenge, but I’ve gotten to work with so many wonderful people—I’ve learned how just a few minutes a day chatting can open eyes and hearts to the differences between us. That should be our mission as writers when it comes to characters: learn about someone, understand them, and share that wisdom with our readers. If just one person can have an ah-ha moment and change their own preconceived notions—wouldn’t that make the worlds just a little bit better?
KL: Buy books by diverse writers, read articles and stories by diverse writers, talk to people who are not like yourself. Research. But always remember, the similarities between us are larger and more numerous than our differences. If you’re uncertain about how you’re representing someone, reach out to a person in that community and check that you’re not going to offend people. And adding to that, books about diverse people don’t have to be about the thing that makes them diverse. So many books With gay characters are about coming out and the issues surrounding that. I’d love to see more books where gay characters or characters with disabilities have their own stories and lives outside those things.
Me: Love these answers! Thank you so much for this interesting conversation! I feel blessed to work with such sweethearts.
So what's the first step? Buying these books, silly! Follow the Amazon pages linked at the beginning of the blog, and get reading.