Posts Tagged 'Ann Aptaker'

SURVIVAL BY CRAZY

 

by Ann Aptaker

ann-photo-300dpi

 

Okay, I have a few options here. I could cheer my good fortune in the year that just passed (Tarnished Gold, book two in the Cantor Gold crime series, won the Lambda and the Goldie awards, and I was hired to write scripts for a season of the children’s science TV show Space Racers.) Or I could hang my head in misery about events in that same year, which ended with the most nauseating election result in American history (talkin’ to you, Trump voters; I’m a dyke, and you clearly don’t give a fig for my rights, or even my safety). Or I could ignore the world’s crap and just hum my way into a numb nirvana, but a few days of that would probably kill me with boredom. Or I could embrace my most reliable survival skill, the one that writes the books, the one which identifies me as being a little nuts.

Though the first option feeds my ego with the irresistible candy of praise and recognition, I rely on the last one. It’s my “go to” when I need aid and comfort and strength. When I’m in my crazy-empowered state, hallucinations become scenes which become storylines which become books. Being a little nuts thus releases my most productive self; after all, I don’t have an elf crew which writes my books for me in the dead of night while I sleep.

Being a little nuts is also very freeing. I can chalk up my wildest, riskiest thoughts to, well, being a little nuts, and then everything just flows from there. No guilt, no shame, just literary flow. And come to think of it, I have to be a little nuts to write crime and mystery fiction in a Lesfic market which gobbles up romance. But oh well, what can I do? To quote one of the masters, Raymond Chandler, “Danger is my business,” to which I might add, “And dangerous women are my literary pleasure.”

Tarnished Gold 300 DPIWhich brings me to the recent focus of my crazy writer’s life, the outlaw Cantor Gold. She’s dangerous, all right: art thief, smuggler, and confident dyke in 1950s New York, as at home among the gangsters and molls of the criminal underworld as she is sharing cocktails with the upper reaches of New York’s high society snoots. Cantor is dangerous because lives life on her own terms, and no one—not the Law that wants to jail her or kill her, not the rich and powerful who want to use her—will ever take that away from her. She’s prepared to die for her freedom, and kill for it, too.

When I started thinking about the series, started formulating Cantor Gold—that is to say, when I finally allowed my crazy to escape into the world and onto the page—LGBTQ life was getting better. True, George W. Bush was president, and his conservative and religious fundamentalist supporters were waving their bibles in our faces. But inch by inch, court case by court case, they were losing the argument and we were winning our rights. We were pushing America toward that light of equality at the end of the tunnel, we were gaining acceptance—in the larger cities at any rate—and it felt good!

Something didn’t feel good, though, something irritated like a pebble in my shoe, and that something was the threat of forgetfulness. I couldn’t help feeling that in our rush into our bright future, a future of normalcy, the rough edges of the culture that thrived in our earlier, shadowed life would be smoothed away to the point of invisibility. Our colorfully defiant and dangerous past, no longer fashionable as we absorbed into the American mainstream, would be pushed into the closet we ourselves were coming out of. Thus, Cantor Gold, dapper butch in a time when being Lesbian, Gay, Trans, or any other non-hetero definition was punishable by arrest, imprisonment, or commitment to the psycho ward, was my way of keeping that defiant past alive.

And now it’s 2017. That nauseating election result I mentioned earlier has the potential to stop our progress in its tracks, make our way of life illegal again, make us fearful for our very safety. Who knew past would become present? Not I in those politically optimistic early days of Cantor Gold’s creation. Who knew that the release of Cantor’s third adventure, Genuine Gold, would coincide with the installation of a presidential administration and a congress which threatens our hard won rights? Threatens us?genuine-gold-bsb-final

What better time, then, for the defiant Cantor Gold to sing her stubborn insistence on living her life as she sees fit, on claiming her rights to her body and her sexual, emotional, and personal freedom? And as it happens, the crime and murder mystery plot of Genuine Gold takes Cantor back to the neighborhood of her childhood, the place where she grew up, the place which formed her, gave her her strength, her audacity, even her strut and style: Coney Island. Back on that honky tonk isle of fantasies and thrills, Cantor must confront everything she was, everything she is, and everything she insists on being. It all happens in vintage Coney Island, a wild place, a colorful place, where a little craziness, a little danger—then and now—are valued.

So being a little nuts is proving to be my most potent survival skill, fueling my literary ambition, my creative strength, and my defiance in the face of threats thrown at us from the incoming government regime. Cantor Gold, my offspring birthed from the womb of crazy, may be a fictional character from the 1950s but it turns out she’s a hero for our own time, too. She’s brave, she’s dangerous, she’s smart and sexy, and she survives in a world that wants to silence her, imprison her, even kill her. Her best weapon? Defiance.

But to keep her alive, I rely on my best weapon: the strength of being a little nuts.

OMG! IT’S SO HARD! WRITING THAT SECOND – AND THIRD – BOOK

by Ann Aptaker

Ann Aptaker photo

 

Some years ago, when I began to get serious about writing crime and mystery fiction, and the character of Cantor Gold was forming in my mind, I understood that Cantor’s story had to be told as a series. The complexity of her life and its moral contradictions had to be revealed slowly, her post-World War Two social and criminal worlds excavated depth by layered depth. So by the time I finished writing Book One in the series, Criminal Gold, published by Bold Strokes Books in November 2014, and started the second, Tarnished Gold, released by BSB this month, I understood what to do, and I was undaunted, yes?

No.

Oh, I knew the plot, at least generally. And having spent so much time with Cantor and her circle—cab driver and Cantor’s sometime lover Rosie Bliss, Cantor’s young right-hand guy Judson Zane, doyenne of stolen goods Esther “Mom” Sheinbaum, crime lord Sig Loreale, and tug boat skipper Red Drogan—while writing Criminal Gold, I knew their personalities down to their souls. Their voices were crystal clear to me, their mid-twentieth century New York criminal underworld rich with drama, passion, danger, and humor. And new characters for Tarnished Gold were taking shape nicely, too, their personalities layering, their voices clarifying. So what was in my way? Me.

More precisely, my false expectations were in my way. I’d spent so much time with my characters and their world when I wrote Criminal Gold, I figured that creating their next adventure would be easier than the steep climb of writing the first one.

Wrong.

Tarnished Gold 300 DPIWriting Tarnished Gold was harder. Much, much harder. Why? Because I was a better writer by the time I finished Criminal Gold than when I started, not only as a more practiced wordsmith, but because I had a better understanding of what good writing, good storytelling, demands. “Demand” is the operative word here. In general terms, I already knew that good writing demands digging down into my depths in order to locate and comprehend emotions that would drive the characters and the story. But to grow as a storyteller, writing a second book demanded I dig even deeper, claw my way down into my most protected marrow, where I don’t always want to go, and be willing to use what I find there to drive a more complex plot. (Tarnished Gold is a more complex book than Criminal Gold, and writing it created even more demands: that I develop the ability to construct and maintain the more intricate plot, complicated further by the series’ ongoing subplot, and give voice and action to the more difficult emotions Cantor and other characters must face as a result.) Writing the second book demanded and demanded and demanded and kept on demanding more of me, demanding I have the courage to take even greater creative risks. (Cantor is going to do that? The story is going THERE? Oh. My. God. Do I have the nerve to write this? Do I have the skill to pull this off? Well okay, no choice: here we go! Whaaa-hooo!) If writing Criminal Gold was like scaling the sheer face of a cliff, writing Tarnished Gold was like leaping off that cliff and trusting—terrified—that I could land safely.

And now I’m writing the third book in the series, and the demands have become even greater, as they must, or the series could fall into dull sameness. With each book, the stakes are higher, the risks riskier, the emotional digging deeper, and finding the means to express it all is much harder. So now that I’ve scaled the cliff, and jumped off the cliff, I have to be able to fly. Simply landing safely is no longer an option.

But the thrill!

WHO WERE WE? WHO ARE WE?

By Ann Aptaker

Ann Aptaker photo

 

LGBT people have a glorious history. Colorful. Courageous. We built a creative culture even when the Law had us in its teeth. Yes, we were fearful, but collectively not so fearful that we gave up and disappeared. Yes, we hid from the world, but we hid in plain sight. And at night, when we came out of hiding at our bars, cafes, and other gathering places, we emerged as butterflies of exquisite design. We were damned spiffy.

Those underground years are largely gone. I can almost hear many of us say, “And good riddance!” After all, who wants to be arrested just for dancing with a partner of the same sex? Who wants to be roughed up by the cops in a raid? I know I sure don’t.

But I don’t want to elide that history, either. As we advance in our struggle for our civil and human rights, sometimes that history gets hidden in the attic, like the batty and slightly dangerous maiden aunt whose presence isn’t convenient when the nice neighbors come to call.

The result of these ornery feelings of mine is “Criminal Gold,” BSB-CriminalGoldmy debut novel, recently released by BSB. The story takes place in New York City in 1949, and the projected series will run through the 1950s, when dyke life was hidden, but exciting. Here in New York, dyke culture of that time was rich with style, sensuality, and even romantic intrigue, depending on which nightspots you frequented. Legally, though, those years were not kind to Lesbians. Raids and arrests were rampant. Punishment included not just incarceration but commitment to psycho wards, where attempts to “cure” same-sex attraction included all manner of horrific therapies. So Criminal Gold’s protagonist, Cantor Gold, is risking her life by living as an out and well-tailored butch in 1949. Some people might say she was crazy.

In the real world, Cantor might certainly be crazy to expose herself to such danger. But in the world of fiction, particularly genre fiction, Cantor Gold is able to make her stand, dare the bullies, defy the Law. (I’m sure you’ve noticed that this is the second time I’ve capitalized “Law.” No, it’s not a typo. I think of the Law as a living entity, a body endowed with the authority to do either harm or good. Too often in our LGBT history, it has done harm. The Law with a capital L is not neutral, as a lower case “law” would be. Capitalized, it conveys an oppressive authority.) Cantor, by choosing to make her living as an art smuggler, has made the decision to ignore the Law. She feels no allegiance to an entity which considers her a criminal merely for being alive. She has the courage—the authorities would say she has the unmitigated gall—to recognize the falsehood of “equal protection” and “equal justice.” So despite the risk of arrest, or even death, Cantor lives as she pleases, makes love to whom she pleases. And she triumphs, too, earning fistfuls of cash and living very well, right under the nose of the Law that wants to destroy her.

Writing Cantor’s story in the crime and mystery genre allows great freedom in creating her world. I consider genre fiction—mystery, romance, sci-fi, etc.—as cultural folk tales, mythologies which express our fears, desires and aspirations. And like all mythologies, folk tales serve to celebrate our triumphs, and explain and even justify our defeats. Thus, genre fiction is not always reflective of the real world, but it is often reflective of our dreams, the aspirations of our deepest selves, allowing us to go along for the ride with the heroes we might secretly want to be, or with the lovers we wish we embraced. In its own way, genre fiction is often more “real” than a lot of literary fiction. Genre fiction very quickly gets to the meat of who we are. Or, in the case of the time period of Criminal Gold, who we were, providing modern readers with a way to remember where we came from, how courageous we were, how we triumphed over our challenges.

While writing Criminal Gold and talking with friends and fellow writers about the book and my plans for a Cantor Gold series, I was sometimes asked if a story about a Lesbian in the 1950s would resonate with modern readers, especially now that much of the danger of those underground years has been alleviated and LGBT rights are becoming a reality. But I am convinced that Cantor and her adventures will resonate very deeply indeed. First of all, as a crime and mystery yarn, it’s just a hell of a swell read, a thrilling ride through a dangerous night with very colorful underworld characters: a femme fatale, a couple of sidekicks, gangsters. What fun! And secondly, though the modern LGBT community doesn’t face all the horrors of Cantor’s time, we are still not fully inside the Law’s good graces. Though many states now recognize our marriages and our families, the Federal government does not. So Cantor Gold’s issue remains: if the Law stigmatizes you as “other,” if you are not a full beneficiary of its protection, and if, in fact, the Law continues to deny you the full privileges of citizenship accorded other people, then what allegiance do we owe that Law at all?

In the fiction world, Cantor Gold lives her answer. In our real world, each of us must live our own. Each day, we have to live who we are. And if we look over our shoulders at the courageous dykes who came before us, we can find strength in who we were.

 

 

 

A BSB Author Interview with Ann Aptaker

By Connie Ward

Photo Credit-Janice Hall

Photo Credit-Janice Hall

What made you decide to become a fiction writer?

In all honesty, I really don’t know. I’m pretty sure I didn’t consciously decide. It’s just something that came, something I have to do. I love stories. People’s stories run through my head, everyone speaking in their unique rhythm of the English language and its various accents and corruptions. They find places in what I write.

And in a way, writing is the fruition of everything else I’ve done in my life, particularly my youth in theater, and later through most of my adult life, as a curator and exhibition designer. Those professions are about creating worlds, creating environments based on a narrative. (Even art shows, when they’re good, have a narrative thread). So I’ve always created worlds. Now I create them with words instead of physical contexts.

 

What type of stories do you write?  And why?

I write crime and mystery fiction. The genre suits me, it gets right to the meat of things. I like digging around to find the humanity of the denizens who exist on the bad side of the Law. Despite the evils they must overcome or even perpetrate, they either have to clutch tight to whatever shred of humanity they have left or let go of their humanity altogether. Some of my characters choose the former, some the latter, but at some point in their lives, they’ve faced that decision. I find that fascinating.

Also, there’s a certain lure to the outlaw life. The freedom of it, even though it’s a dangerous freedom, is seductive. After all, doesn’t everyone love the legend of Jesse James? ☺ For my protagonist, Cantor Gold, an art smuggler and very out, very dapper butch, this dangerous freedom is important. In mid-century America (Criminal Gold is set in 1949; the series will continue through the 1950s), LGBTQ people had no civil rights. They were criminals just for being who they were. To counter this, Cantor doesn’t even think in terms of “rights.” She thinks in terms of freedom, which she claims for herself, despite the dangers of arrest for being a smuggler and a lesbian. “Rights” and “Freedom” are not the same thing, though of course, the one can confer the other. And that’s the problem: “Rights” are bestowed, “Freedom” can be taken.

 

What do your family/friends think about your writing?

Very supportive. I have a rather complicated family history, too long and involved to go into here. But suffice to say my sister makes me feel proud to be me. And my friends provide a support network of warmth and concern without which…well, I don’t even want to think about what my life would be like without this incredible group of people.

 

Where do you get your ideas?

Everywhere. And living in New York City provides a lot of material. There used to be an old TV show about New York called Naked City, based on the great movie from 1948, and at the end of the show, the announcer would say, “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.” Well, there are still over eight million stories in New York City. I see those stories played out every day. The subway at rush hour, when it’s crowded and people get on in groups from the office or wherever, and they’re gossiping, is a great place to overhear speech patterns, hear personal dramas. I’m very nosy on the subway.

And since Criminal GoldBSB-CriminalGold is a mid-twentieth-century historical, I get ideas for time, place, character, mood, etc., from reading newspapers from the time (I spend a lot of time at the New York Public Library’s microfilm room). The tabloids like the Daily News and the Daily Mirror splashed crime stories and pictures across their front pages, and the stories didn’t spare any of the lurid details. Plus, New York City had seven papers in those days. Seven! Every possible political and cultural point of view was represented. Add to that, the scores of weeklies that catered to the city’s various ethnic and racial communities—all of them great sources for ideas!

I also talk to people who were around then, who were kids or teens at the time, and also to the now quickly passing World War Two generation who remember the post-war years well. And now there’s YouTube, which has lots of mid-twentieth-century stuff: old TV and radio shows and commercials, news clips, all kinds of great stuff.

Most of all, though, ideas spring from my head.

 

How do you write; do you plan everything out or just write?

A bit of both. I start with what I hear in my head, what I see behind my eyes, and just write, which actually goes on for quite a while. About halfway through the first draft, I need to keep track of things, of who did what, who said what, so I write a bare-bones outline for action or character issues going forward. But in truth, that outline usually gets forgotten, buried somewhere on my desk, and the writing just takes over again.

 

What makes Criminal Gold  special to you?

Since Criminal Gold is my debut novel, I suppose it’s a little bit like watching your child grow up and go out into the world.

But writing about Cantor Gold is special to me, too. She’s an expression of defiance and courage. But she’s more than just an anarchic billboard; she’s deeply human, flawed (she can be a cad), even frightened. But she presses on, as we all must do.

 

How much of yourself and the people you know are in your characters?

Though I certainly don’t live the life of any of my characters, I suppose I’m in all of them. They pass through me, after all, and they take parts of me with them into the story.

Some of the characters are based on people I’ve known, sometimes as physical types, sometimes as personalities.

 

Which gay/lesbian authors inspired you the most?  Do you have a favorite

of this author(s)?

I love groundbreakers, so I’m partial to the work of our forebears: Djuna Barnes, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Radclyffe Hall, Ann Bannon, etc. But since the question is one of “inspiration” I’d have to go with the publication of Violet Trefusis’s letters to Vita Sackville West. Violet’s letters to Vita knock me out. They’re not just outpourings of love and heartbreak, but a plea for a way of life, a life of romantic freedom, sexual freedom, creative freedom. Violet envisioned a thrilling partnership where she and Vita would define life on their own terms, where civil society and even the Law had nothing to do with it. She didn’t get it, but her romantic vision is breathtaking.

 

Do you have any suggestions for new writers?

Trust yourself most of all. Yes, beta readers and all that are helpful, they can point out mistakes or weak spots, but know when to tune them out and trust the voices in your own head. It’s your story, not theirs. Tell it your way. Break rules.

And write. Then write some more. And when you’re not writing, listen. Listen very hard to the world around you. If the world around you is too small, too tight, with the same voices over and over again, break out and listen to the voices of the larger world. Write it all down.

 

When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?

Reading. Movies (thank god for Netflix). Theater, when I can afford it. Stream a TV show or two. Take very long walks through the city. And, of course, my friends.


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