by Connie Ward
What made you decide to become a fiction writer?
I have always been a writer. It’s my profession. My first book, a collection of poetry, was published when I was seventeen and in college. At that time I expected to be a poet because a nationally renowned poet was grooming me for that role. But when I was a senior in college, I became the star witness in a major police-brutality case, and that galvanized me in a different direction as a writer and propelled me into investigative journalism. I continued to write and publish books of poetry and short stories, as well as literary criticism and creative nonfiction, but I was/am a journalist first and foremost. That said, the short story has always been a very important writing form to me—probably my favorite form. Ordinary Mayhem is actually an expansion of a short story I wrote a few years ago for a BSB collection by Greg Herren and Jean Redmann, Night Shadows. The story received a lot of acclaim and was awarded Honorable Mention in Best Horror 2012, where I was in the company of Stephen King as well as other horror writers of note. But I wasn’t done with that story. And I think that’s why I am driven to write fiction: I have stories in my head that I am not finished with, so I have to put them on paper.
What type of stories do you write? And why?
I am, at heart, a writer of what some call “serious literary fiction.” But for me, one of the best ways to frame that is within genre fiction. My stories tend to be dark, so I lean toward mystery, noir, and horror. My work as a journalist has frequently put me in touch with a side of human nature that is not very human—certainly not humane. Those stories have to be told. My last collection of short stories, Day of the Dead, was a finalist for a number of awards, including a Goldie and a Lambda Award, and was an ALA pick for their Rainbow Book List. That collection of stories and a novella utilized mystery and horror to address a series of human-rights issues, from the trafficking of young women from the Eastern bloc to the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the poor of New Orleans.
I also write young adult stories and novels. In writing for young girls, I am trying to give them the stories I didn’t have as a child—stories where the female protagonists are actors, not passive observers. As a child, I loved the Nancy Drew books because Nancy was an actor, not an observer—but those books were really the only ones where a girl had the starring role without ending up being saved by some guy at the end. I want to give girls role models of being agents of their own lives, not having others dictate their lives dictated to them.
Finally, I write erotica under a pseudonym, and as my editor said, “You even make erotica political.” Others have co-opted our lesbian and gay sexuality. This is especially true of lesbians whose sexuality has been appropriated by men for their titillation. There’s rarely any male-driven erotica that doesn’t have the quintessential lesbian scene embedded in it. But then the man comes in and creates the “real” sexuality. No. Just…no. I try to reclaim lesbian sexuality in the erotica I write. I write lesbian sex for lesbians—sex that is all about lesbian desire, the love of the lesbian body, and the tension of having such desire in a world where just being lesbian is increasingly risky. No men are involved in my erotic stories, and they won’t be peeking through the keyhole, either! 🙂
What do your family/friends think about your writing?
My fiancée, who is a painter and professor at an art college, is a serious reader and, as part of an artistic community, very tuned in to literature. She’s very supportive of my writing. A number of my friends are themselves writers, so I am fortunate to have a coterie of people who read around me. That’s always a good support for a writer. And of course as a journalist, I get a lot of feedback from fans of my work, which is a huge support network and much appreciated.
Where do you get your ideas?
The world around me—both my own lesbian community and the larger society—
provides me with ideas. My fiction is very much driven by current events and the politics that impact lesbians and women, as well as other marginalized groups. I often will see a news story that piques my interest for a fictional interpretation. And of course I am also driven to write about women and women’s lives. So those subjects intersect in my writing. I’m currently writing about a famous lesbian murder that I thought needed to be a novel.
How do you write; do you plan everything out or just write?
I do both, but for the most part I just write. Sometimes I have an idea that I plot out relatively slowly and carefully. But the majority of the time the stories write themselves in the sense that I have a basic idea and start writing and the story propels itself forward. I contribute to a lot of anthologies, so much of the time I am guided by a theme set by the editor. But for me the best way to write is to just sit down and start. A story will always materialize because I always have an idea that needs to take shape.
What makes Ordinary Mayhem special to you?
This is the most important piece of fiction I have written, I think. While it is framed as a horror novel, it’s very much a piece of serious literary and political fiction. Ordinary Mayhem builds on journalistic work I have been doing for the past decade or more. The novel gave me the opportunity to interpolate some of those stories—
ones I had actually covered as a reporter—into the novel and then expand on them in a much more personal way than was available to me as a reporter.
There is perhaps no more important issue to me than violence against women, and that is the subject at the core of this novel: How violence against women pervades society, all societies, as the novel takes place in several different countries. The impact of violence on individual women, as well as on us collectively as women, is the theme of the novel. So I wanted to show the array of women’s experiences. There are stories from the Congo where a half million women have been raped and 3 million killed, stories from Afghanistan, and stories from here in the U.S. I wanted to include the range of our experience as women and lesbians on the page. And while a lot of what transpires in Ordinary Mayhem is quite brutal and horrifying, this novel of horror has nothing supernatural about it. Everything is real, which is why it is indeed the most terrifying book you will read this year.
How much of yourself and the people you know are in your characters?
Everything in Ordinary Mayhem is taken from real life. I don’t believe any fiction is not, to a greater or lesser degree, autobiographical. We write best when we write what we know. Faye Blakemore, my main character and the narrator of Ordinary Mayhem, is a photojournalist, and her grandfather is a photographer. My grandfather was a photographer and I am a journalist. The young Faye attends a Catholic school and is greatly influenced by the nuns who teach her and inform her love for other women. That was also my experience. And some of the stories Faye covers are stories I covered—several of which got me nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. That said, Faye is not me and all the characters in the book are fictional, even if their circumstances are drawn from real life. And unlike me—spoiler alert!—she is not nominated for a Pulitzer.
I also think places are characters in novels—or should be. The mise-en-scène has to ring true. I hate reading novels where it’s apparent the author has never been to where she/he is writing about. Treat your place like a character, make it believable and realistic for the reader. So yes, you’ll find a lot of myself and a lot of my experience with people and places in the novel. And I think that’s why it rings true to readers. They believe these women exist and they know these places well.
Which gay/lesbian authors inspired you the most? Do you have a favorite
of this author(s)?
I don’t know that lesbian and gay writers inspire me per se, although I read a lot of lesbian and gay writing. Mostly I read books by women writers, though. Women write entirely differently from men, and so I see things in their writing that I do not see in the majority of writing by men. For example, I love the work of Sarah Waters, who is a Welsh lesbian writer who does mostly historical fiction. Her work is simply mesmerizing—smart, acute, readable, engaging. I would recommend her to anyone who wants to read about lesbians in times other than our own. I am also a fan of lesbian mystery writers and read everything Val McDermid, Ellen Hart, and Jean Redmann write.
Two writers who have definitely influenced me, though, are P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, two British mystery writers. James died recently, which was a loss as she was a great writer. What I love about the work of these two women is how they interpolate political issues, class structure, and the impact of misogyny into their stories. James is just a brilliant, brilliant writer. Her work contains layers that I don’t think exist in the work of any other mystery writer—except perhaps Dostoyevsky, whom most people don’t think of as a mystery writer, but Crime and Punishment is perhaps my favorite mystery ever. We sometimes forget that all the best and classic fiction is, at its core, “genre” fiction. And I learned a great deal from reading P.D. James.
I review a lot of books, so I read a wide array of fiction and nonfiction. In January I read and reviewed a fabulous first novel by Katie Gilmartin, Blackmail, My Love, which is set in San Francisco in 1951. It’s a camera obscura view of lesbian and gay life before Stonewall. I really loved it. I also loved African-American lesbian writer Jackie Woodson’s extraordinary memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, for which she won the National Book Award. I have been reading Jackie’s work forever, but this book was just breathtaking. I had written about the racist controversy involving the award but had not yet read the book. When I read it, it just blew me away. And two new books I think every woman should read, lesbian or straight, are Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit, because feminism is still the most important political force in the world today and the only radical political movement that doesn’t kill anyone.
Do you have any suggestions for new writers?
Well, I teach writing at the college level and also have a mentoring program with writing for urban middle-school kids, so making suggestions to new writers is part of what I do on a weekly basis. The most important dictates—because suggestion isn’t a strong enough word—for new writers are: write every day, read your work aloud, write what you know, and don’t be lazy about writing..
Writing has to become part of one’s daily routine, like eating and sleeping and brushing your teeth. It’s often a necessary chore, like the tooth brushing, and if you’re lucky, it will be as enjoyable as a good meal. But writing is, fundamentally, work. You have to treat it like a job or you won’t do it. And in my personal experience, the more you write, the better you get at it.
Learning self-editing is difficult, but a good first step is reading your work out loud. It’s much easier to hear clunky dialogue or awkward sentences when you do this.
And of course, write what you know. That’s probably the biggest truism of writing, but it’s one that will never steer you wrong. I am always deciding not to review books because I start to read and realize the writer has no clue about her subject matter. I recently declined to review a novel set in the farmland of Louisiana. I used to live where the book was set. It’s swampland. If you can’t even bother to check Wikipedia (not that this is the best source, but…) to be sure that your facts are correct, why should I read your book?
So, don’t be a lazy writer. Be dedicated to your craft. Even though it’s fiction, you have to respect your readers.
When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
I have to laugh here, because I am known as a workaholic, and work is fun for me on many levels. But outside of writing, I really enjoy spending time with my partner and my close friends. We don’t do it frequently enough, but when we do we usually focus on a good meal and playing cards. (Yes, we are those lesbians.) I love going to films—films are one of my great loves—and I also really like watching TV, which writers are supposed to sneer at, but TV is better than it has ever been, and the level of storytelling in some series is extraordinary. I also write about TV and film for several major national publications, so while that is fun, it also keys into work.
I love reading—though I never seem to have enough time for that. And I also do handwork—crocheting, quilting, and embroidery, and I make jewelry, too. My guilty pleasure is cooking shows on TV, but I have yet to graduate to Michelin star-chef level in reality. But maybe one of these days. I’d love to do a cookbook for lesbians. Heavy on potluck, beer, and twenty-minute recipes, with a separate section for date nights!
Politics is a great passion of mine, so talking politics with friends is one of the most enjoyable things I can do on any given day. I am looking forward to the 2016 presidential campaign and our first female president. I will be working for that campaign—and it will be fun!