Chicagoan Anne Laughlin came to writing later in life, but since the 2008 publication of her first novel, Sometimes Quickly, she’s barely paused to breathe. Today marks the release of her new mystery, Runaway. She spoke with Our Town about the mystery genre and why, even in 2012, lesbian niche publishing remains vibrant and important.
Our Town Was writing always an ambition?
Anne Laughlin I didn’t begin writing until I was fifty years old, so if it had always been an ambition, it lurked well in the background. However, I’ve always been a big reader and I believe most serious readers at some point wonder how good a writer they’d be. At fifty I somehow stopped worrying about how good a writer I’d be and just sat down and wrote. [But] With a little experience comes the depressing knowledge that it takes a lot of work to produce something worthwhile. Over the course of these few years I’ve tried to become more serious about editing, making my work better with each pass. I suppose you could say it’s evolved from what was initially almost a hobby approach to one that’s professional.
OT Who are your influences?
AL As a young lesbian in the seventies and eighties, I spent a fair amount of time hunting down books with lesbian protagonists, many of which were mysteries. Here were protagonists with whom I could identify, battling and defeating foes. Believe it or not, that was a big deal at the time. So I’d have to say that the pioneers of that era were a huge influence – Katherine Forrest, Claire McNab, Barbara Wilson, and a little later, Val McDermid and Ellen Hart.
OT What interests you about the mystery genre?
AL People say that one of the negatives about the commercial genres – mystery, suspense, romance, science fiction – is that they must adhere to constricts of their genre and are therefore predictable and formulaic. I think that’s a crock. There’s very little that can’t be written about within the confines of crime fiction. What makes it appealing to me is the emphasis on complex, compelling stories that can only be successfully told through complex, compelling protagonists. The suspense inherent in the genre is the bonus that makes a delicious read for me, and apparently for millions of other readers, given the popularity of the genre in both the mainstream and LGBTQ publishing worlds.
OT You say mysteries are especially popular among gays and lesbians. Why?
AL The reader gets a tale where one of our own seeks and finds justice, something that still is more elusive than it should be in our society. Fiction can model how we’d like things to be.
OT As being queer becomes (hopefully) a little more mainstream, how important is the lesbian literary genre?
AL People like to read novels where at least some of the characters reflect the world they live in. I’ve read “straight” fiction my whole life, and will continue to, but there is a separate and great feeling I have when I read a story with a lesbian character. It simply resonates in a different way. [Also] books with strong queer characters are important for young people everywhere and for those living in rural and conservative areas. They live a far more isolated existence than I do here in Chicago. I’ve heard from many readers who gobble our books up, as if the books themselves were real community. As much as I’d love, as an author, for my work to be accepted more readily by straight readers, I’d hate for our readership to not be able to easily find our books should everything be merged together. My perfect solution – books such as mine be filed/shelved/tagged as both mainstream crime fiction and lesbian crime fiction. This seems to be beyond our reach at the present.
OT What inspired your newest book?
AL I actually have no idea. Runaway started during a writing residency at Ragdale. I had just finished a book and sat down without anything in particular in mind to write next. Out came a short piece about a sixteen-year-old girl escaping from a survivalist camp run by her father. I couldn’t tell you why I wrote it, but I quickly realized it would work as the prologue to a novel about what happens to that girl as an adult. I turned her into a 40-year old private investigator in Chicago and I was off to the races.
OT What advice would you have for a writer looking to break into mystery writing?
AL There’s one fundamental difference in how a writer gets published in the mainstream publishing world and the LGBTQ world. For the most part, you need an agent to break into the mainstream. Queer publishers generally take direct submissions. But in either case, you must present an agent or publisher your absolute best effort. Just assume that you are the worst judge of whether your effort is good enough. Have someone you trust read it, workshop it in writing classes, work your way through your manuscript over and over again. The crime fiction field is crowded, but publishers are always looking for cleanly written, fresh, exciting stories.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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