Category: Behind the Writing

Sexuality in my Writing

Human-Rights-Quotes-16As a high school teacher, I watch my students declare who they are, often without fear and frequently cheered on by classmates. As National Coming Out Day has come and gone, I think it’s only appropriate to be the role model I wish I had as a kid. I am gay.

To be honest, I haven’t pondered how this impacts or affects my writing. I’ve never gone out of my way to be defined by my sexuality. However, in writing I find I tend to write what I know, and I thought it only appropriate to address this facet of my life present in my writing. I decided easiest to write responses to the questions I’ve been asked over the years.

Do you think there are difficulties in being a gay author?

Honestly? I haven’t come across any at this point. I’m sure for larger authors, there is the typical gossip surrounding their personal lives, but for me, nobody has brought it up. I think because of my audience, if it does come up, they will most likely accept it and move on. I like to think if the Science Fiction community is willing to deal with interspecies relationships, gay characters are no problem.

Have you met any objections from readers?

I grew up in a small town in northern Maine and the idea of being gay was definitely persecuted. However, as I wrote, “I.Am.Maine” and talked about growing up in Maine, my readers surprised me. There were several stories about being gay, being bullied, and falling in love in a town that shunned same-sex relationships and my readers would write me with, “Glad to hear you’re happy.” I feel there was a transition in the decades between when the story started and where the town is now. I think as I grew up, so did the views of my readers. If there were any objections to my casually discussing my sexuality in my childhood, not one of the many readers mentioned it. It was a fear I dealt with when writing the book and I decided to gamble. I won. It was a victory that will stick with me and reminds me that people are inherently good and willing to go along on my journey.

Do you write gay characters into your writing?

In Suburban Zombie High, the only gay character is Victor. He’s modeled after my perception of the military when I was a kid. His being gay is in juxtaposition to the ideal image he has of being in the military. He finds his definition of gay changes over the course of the book. When he comes back for the sequel he understands the irony of being gay and being in the military and has no problem poking fun at himself. His friends accept him with their jokes and it is simply a characteristic of his overall person.

In my Children of Nostradamus series, during one of my edits, as I was giving more back story to a character, I discovered he was gay. I’m not sure why, but for some reason, I was shocked. He defies many stereotypes and out of nowhere, there is a flashback to his boyfriend leaving him which turns into the catalyst of his journey. Now as I’m writing the sequel, I find it being explored even more and it spills over into the dynamic with his comrades at arms.

Because I haven’t had the need to write the sexuality of my characters for the plot I’ve avoided it. However, I finally decided that by avoiding the topic I wasn’t doing them justice, I was trying to dodge a potential bullet. As I try to diversify my character’s ethnicities and cultural upbringings, I feel this will be another think that helps readers connect to the characters. I wish there had been more when I was younger, even in passing.

Do you think there is difficulty in writing gay characters?

Yes. When writing a straight character, I can assume that 90% of my readers have an experience to draw on and weave into the character. However, for a gay character, I think it requires a bit more explanation, and for those fearing the backlash, it has to be slowly introduced. We assume the characters we read are like us, to find out differently can be jarring. I also think we rely on reader expectations, and to have a character who doesn’t fit their preconceived notions, it can be met with disdain. Creating a character who is different from the reader and doesn’t fall into a neatly defined category or stereotype requires the writer to do more work which can be difficult if it’s something we’re trying not to focus on during the story.

Were there any series you read that feature gay characters?

My mom once brought home a book by Lynn Flewelling called Luck in the Shadows. She had it signed by the author and I decided to read it being a devourer of Fantasy at this point. It wasn’t until the second book you discover the main character is very open about his sexuality. Later the two characters begin a romance. I was stunned to believe there were gay characters in literature, especially in the Fantasy genre. While I had read books that alluded to a character’s sexual orientation, she simply presented it without pomp or circumstance. I always appreciated the manner in which she handled their relationship. Later I would read books by Poppy Z. Brite who I fell in love with in the horror genre as she features gay main characters, both good, bad and everywhere in between. Her descriptions while brutal and often times horrific, were a break away from any stereotypes I could imagine. It showed me there was a vast array of rich characters out there that I did have things in common with.

While I’m not sure how it will pan out in my writing down the road, I’m happy to have overcome my own insecurities to the point where I can write them into a book. I’m hoping as I move forward with my current series I can find the balance I need as a writer to feel I’ve done my gay characters justice within the context of the story.


Answers to Questions Behind the Writing

IMG_4670Why did you decide to write about zombies? – Carol
Late one night as a child, the then Scifi network aired, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in black and white. This movie would define a genre for me and to this day I think back to the amazing storyline and the complexity in which Romero weaved his conflict. In every story, there is a conflict the characters must overcome. In his movie, the zombies were a threat, but the conflict wasn’t with the undead, it was with the living’s primal urge to survive. The zombies weren’t the conflict, they were the catalyst. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the vampire is the antagonist. For Romero, zombies are more of a backdrop and the insecurities, fears, and lack of trust in this band of survivors is the real conflict.

I was a monster fan, watching movies far beyond what a child can understand, but I was captivated. However, I always came back to this idea of the villain and their relationship with the protagonist. Dracula is in an intimate battle with Harker, threatening to steal his one true love. As Dracula is defeated Harker wins. There is no winner with zombies. A character is faced with an immediate threat, and while they may win, their victory is only a reminder that they will continue this fight until they die. The story remains, the character’s battle is with their reaction to a world they can not survive within. Because of that, I’ve been fascinated with the psyche of the characters that force me to ask, “If my life’s work was trying to survive, would I survive myself?”

On your new book, what has been the hardest aspect of writing a zombie novel? – Jason
I wish I could say it was finding interesting ways to kill zombies in a suburban mall, but I’ve thought about it so much, I’ve got a mental list. In Suburban Zombie High the most difficult challenge was taking a group of stereotypes; the cheerleader, the jock, the minority, the goth, the crazy, and having them grow while maintaining a connection to an archetype the reader easily identifies with.

In this novel, Cadence takes the helm for a good portion of the story. In the first book, we see her as a goth, angsty, borderline whiny artist. With the joke being played out, I had to develop her a bit further. In the SZH: The Reunion, she’s set aside her paintbrush, channeling her angst and the zombie apocalypse into becoming a zombie writing, best-selling author. Even Olivia, who we are introduced as a vicious, snarky, vapid cheerleader had to grow. Her refusal to grow beyond a cheerleader and join the New England Patriots cheerleader allowed her character to refute growing up.

Unfortunately, I feel if a zombie novel is about the zombie apocalypse, the book is going to be one of the dozen books I’ve already read. I emphasize it being about the character’s reaction to this backdrop. In SZH: The Reunion, we have new characters experiencing zombies for the first time, we have a group of students who have ‘been here and done that’ and then we have veterans who have done this so often they’ve become desensitized. The difficulty is trying to pull out those strands and weaving a story about characters that are relatable without retelling the same story.

How do you come up with your ideas? – Susan
I was discussing an idea that is percolating in my head for a short story, and this question came up. My initial response was, “They’re just there.” For some reason, it has never occurred to me other people may not have this detective agency in their head, on a quest to unravel new stories. There isn’t a day that goes by I don’t have at least a dozen moments of, “Oh, that could make an interesting story?”

I would say nearly all my stories come from my childhood fascinations. There was something about growing up an only child that really emphasized this idea of “playing pretend.” From having to explain how my Transformers were transported into a world with giant Turtles capable of Ninjitsu, to being certain if I worked hard enough, I could develop super powers. These stories were adaptations of things seen on television, novels or comic books. I’m certain the majority bordered on plagiarism, but story-telling had to start somewhere.

Later, I’m looking back at these stories and finding ways to pull out the unique strands into a larger story with an adult perspective. However, Suburban Zombie High is unique in the fact the story itself came to me in my adult life. I held a job requiring me to oversee extremely dysfunctional suburban teens and one day I had the thought, “If the zombie apocalypse happened, you’d all go down.” But I thought about it, I had a student in my class who I was convinced could survive, partially due to the sharp sting of her insults. The story emerged as I realized even in my imagination, the pain in the butt students would emerge victorious.


Suburban High School Character Inspirations – Nurse Harts

Artwork by Cordelia JonesSuburban Zombie High
Nurse Harts
She’d be described as compassionate, incompetent and busty. Nurse Harts is the school nurse and provider of Tylenol and cold compresses. Her lack of medical knowledge makes her barely qualified to apply band-aids to the students. However, underneath the bubbly personality and bodacious shirt splitting body, she has some semblance of common sense. She owns her sexuality and understands that she’s the hottest thing to walk the halls of Boxford High School.

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I love writing Nurse Harts. She has a mix of dripping sexuality that would rock the world of any teenage boy but she is completely unqualified for her job. She always makes me think she got slung into the position simply for the fact she would look amazing in a nurse’s outfit (even when it’s the tattered remains of the uniform.)

The origins of Nurse Harts is not derived from reality. Every school nurse that I have come across both as a student or as a professional has been more of the doting motherly type. I needed to find inspiration for a woman who could potentially be the cure for the zombie outbreak. Originally she would find the cure, but after watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I decided I needed a character who had sex appeal in this novel. With each character manifesting one particular personality trait, I decided to use Nurse Harts to manifest her sex.

Nurse Harts pulls her personality from a style of rag novels in which women were helpless except for the men that protected them. She is helpless other than her sex appeal, but unlike her origins, she has no problem weaponizing her sexuality. She has moments in which sees her own stereotype and runs counter to the expectation. She is the female counterpart to the Teacher but is fully aware that he has no redeemable qualities and uses him like a toy.

Upon the first beta reading of her character I made the simple assumption that everybody would know she was the hot nurse. I later discovered that the common experience was that all school nurses were undeniably “not hot.” This required some rewriting to produce the “sex kitten” appearance. It also made me ponder, how many more scratches, belly aches and migraines would teenage boys suffer? Knowing my friends they’d be willingly breaking bones on a daily basis.

The question about Nurse Harts is, will her air head ways be her pitfall or will she master her sexual prowess to emerge victorious during the zombie apocalypse.


Suburban High School Character Inspirations – Mrs. V

Artwork by Cordelia JonesSuburban Zombie High
Mrs. V
Mrs. V plays the part of the sarcastic, witty, wise sage. She is somewhat of a recluse and hides amongst the stacks of her library and seldom is seen throughout the rest of the school. She is the hybrid of traditional Dewey Decimal wielding and modern digital database searching prowess. Her appearance leads people to believe she is a warm and inviting individual but its the myriad of contradictions that surprise often surprise the students that makes her unique. This librarian’s checkered past is seen throughout the book from researching term papers to wielding pistols, she’s not a woman to be trifled with.

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The character of Mrs. V is based on two primary sources, both of them librarians. My first job took place at a school where my classroom was adjacent to the library. When I would want to get away from work or spend my lunches writing, I would escape to the library. The woman who ran it ruled with a smile and an iron fist. She had an aura of silence that followed her through the library. Where she travelled, the students would quite down in record time. She is also the name of the character, lovingly named, Mrs. V.

Mrs. V. is an interesting woman who had a past filled with adventure that made me think that this woman was capable of anything. When I discovered I needed an adult protagonist, I came up with a theory that if a zombie apocalypse occurred, she would have a gun and days worth of ammo. She was a card carrying member of the NRA and it only made sense that she would save us all. I also have theories that she was a member of the circus, drove race cars and in a past life, led a revolution in a third world country. If I was to find her on Facebook and see her wielding a semi-automatic and raising a flag on demolished government leader’s doorstep, I would not be surprised. I would then quickly like that photo.

The second woman that Mrs. V. is based on is my mother. Perhaps the largest reason the librarian didn’t get eaten for plot convenience was the constant threats from my mother. Growing up, my mother was the woman who would constantly shove source material under my nose and tell me, “Make sure your bibliography is properly spaced.” She would also be seen in a blouse and what I think of as a hippy, flowing skirt. In my head Mrs. V. is always wearing one of those skirts. Her love of databases and ability to wield Google-Fu like a weapon is also a constant thing with my mother. She will double check your story to make sure it doesn’t show up on Snopes.com, and if it does, prepare to be scolded.

The best part of this story is that the character of Mrs. V was truly born when the two librarians met. My mother came to support the students at the school I was working at and the single person I felt she needed to meet was her librarian counterpart. They bonded and talked periodicals and library setups in such rapid manner that to this day I’m convinced that librarians learn a secret language that can only be deciphered by mastering the Dewey Decimal System. The moment they shook hands I realized that I had the perfect librarian. I put a gun in her hand and a database within easy reach and I knew I had a star character to fight off the zombie hordes.


Suburban Zombie High Character Inspirations – Olivia

Artwork by Cordelia JonesSuburban Zombie High
Olivia

Olivia is the head of the cheerocracy and she rules without question. The only thing more annoying than her beauty is her obsession with telling people how beautiful she is. She currently is the cheerleader of one of the worst football teams in the state. She believes that she singlehandedly rules the school based on the assumption that all cheerleaders are born leaders. She lacks all book smarts and believes that her looks will land her a rich sugar daddy. What she lacks in book smarts she makes up for in scathing remarks, witty remarks, and condescension. One time, she made her Italian teacher cry by giving the stout woman such a tongue lashing about her wearing a brown belt with black shoes. The teacher relocated to another school. The only thing Olivia loves more than herself is her punching bags Min & Cadence.

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Olivia is based on several cheerleaders from my high school. The cheerleaders on our “A” team were all the pretty blond girls, but despite the misleading stereotype, they were class leaders, exceptional academics and benevolent to a fault. They didn’t wear their uniforms around school like a pervert’s fantasy nor did they ever practice beyond the confines of their after school practice schedules. They may have been ditzy, but it was a fun loving trait.

Now, onto some of the “B” team. Some of these girls held the bitterness of being second string a bit too close to their hearts. They were were like vipers, venomous and always ready to pounce. They believed they were the best thing to walk the halls of my school, and I never fully understood why. I applauded their confidence, but they looked down to the rest of the unworthy population like they were better than their junior varsity status. Now, I can’t deny their talent, they were good at what they did. But during their games, which were largely unattended, their cheers were so poorly written that I couldn’t help but laugh as they attempted to boost morale.

Overall, these B string cheerleaders became the inspiration for Olivia. Not in their current incarnation, but I had to ponder, what would happen if they were the best the school had to offer. My favorite scene in the entire book takes place at a football game in which cheerleaders are grinding and gyrating against one another. I always thought that this is what it would take to give them the attention they thought they deserved. This oddly erotic, ridiculous idea of a cheerleader is what eventually gave birth to our favorite-to-hate cheerleader, Olivia.


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