Adventures in Queer-Friendly Editing
In 2007, I was asked by Vera Nazarian of Norilana Books if I’d like to edit an anthology. This was something I’d thought about for a long time. I’d had both wonderful and awful experiences from the writerly standpoint, and I had formed opinions about how I wanted to treat my authors. I also thought it would be a great thing to work with my favorite writers and to meet new ones. After some discussion, we arrived at a topic: romantic, swashbuckling “sword and sorcery” fantasy with wit and intelligence. The title, Lace and Blade, was one Vera came up with to describe this particular flavor of fantasy.
I’d worked with Marion Zimmer Bradley, as an author she edited as well as a personal friend, for long enough to know that the narrower the scope of an anthology and the more rigid the guidelines, the deeper into the slush pile you have to dig. The stories that can hit a tiny target and offer excellent quality are few and far between. Marion was a personal inspiration to me as well, in the fearlessness with which she tackled controversial topics (like sexual orientation) at a time before such things were acceptable in genre publishing. I remember reading her ground-breaking novel, The Heritage of Hastur (1972, in which she deliberately set out to portray a heroic, sympathetic gay character), and bursting into tears at the struggles of this character to accept himself — both as a gay man and as the heir to enormous, soul-crushing responsibility. (In the final year of her life, Marion began work on another story about Regis Hastur and his lover, Danilo Syrtis, and I had the privilege of finishing it and seeing it in print: Hastur Lord, DAW, 2010). She taught me that it was possible — and morally imperative — to tell compelling stories about human problems — power, sex, jealousy, self-sacrifice, and most of all, love — and that gay people must be included in those stories. I knew that this is what I wanted to do as an editor.
Because Vera and I intended to bring the first volume of Lace and Blade out the following Valentine’s Day and time was short, I determined the first volume would be by invitation. Tanith Lee had already agreed to send a story, and I contacted a number of authors that I knew professionally, authors I could count on to understand the concept and deliver fine stories on a tight schedule. I specifically stated in the guidelines:
This is not “Romance” but “romance,” a play of sensibilities, a vision of something wondrous but not sentimentalized, from bittersweet to transcendent, stirring the heart, but not stereotyped “love stories.” I have no objection to happy endings (or heterosexuality, or monogamy), but I do not require them. … Alternate sexuality is welcome, although this is not specifically gay-themed — these are stories of the heart, not the plumbing.
In other words, I wanted to see stories of love and adventure for all of us, queer and straight and neither and in-between. I believe that we all benefit by celebrating love (and courage and compassion) in its wondrous and diverse forms. I wanted excellence and I also wanted stories that pushed me — and my readers — just a little over the edge, that made my world larger and richer and more filled with possibilities.
One of those I contacted was British writer Chaz Brenchley. I’d read a little of his work (Bridge of Dreams) and loved it. He sent me “In the Night Street Baths,” which featured an intimate relationship between two eunuchs, complete with a steamy sex scene (steamy in more than one sense, since it takes place in the Turkish baths and is sexually explicit). I say intimate rather than romantic because of the subtlety and complexity with which Chaz portrayed an unusual relationship. One doesn’t typically think of eunuchs of having love lives, let alone sexuality, but both were handled brilliantly, and in perfect counterpoint to elements that were startling and disquieting as well as deeply moving. After the anthology came out, Steve Berman of Lethe Press contacted me to reprint Chaz’s story in Wilde Stories 2009: The Year’s Best Gay SF. Other stories in the first volume appeared on the LOCUS Recommended Reading List, and Mary Rosenblum’s “Night Wind” was a Nebula Finalist.
The second volume included another heart-rending gay story from Chaz, writing as Daniel Fox (“The Pillow Boy of General Shu”), “Writ of Exception,” by Madeleine E. Robins, in which two young women solve their separate dilemmas by marrying each other, and an edgy gender-bending story from newcomer Traci N. Castleberry (who writes gay erotica as Nica Berry). Tanith Lee sent me a story, and I was beginning to recover from my state of abject awe at editing her. Tanith herself encouraged me. She wrote, “On editing though – like writing, I feel strongly one must do what one feels is right. In me, of course, you run into an old war-horse, 40 years in the field, covered in armour and neighing like a trumpet.” Which was a most gracious way of acknowledging that the relationship between an author and an editor is an organic process, when at its best rooted in clear communication, deep listening, and respect. Not intimidation (in either direction), but a partnership in which both people have the same goal — to make the story the best representation of the author’s vision.
The next anthology I put together was The Feathered Edge: Tales of Magic, Love, and Daring. For this one, Tanith wrote an amazing tale: “Question A Stone” involves two superb and very sexy swordsmen who, through a twist of circumstances, find themselves committed to fighting a duel to the death, despite having fallen in love with one another. Their swords, being magical, have other ideas. Here’s the aftermath of their first meeting:
Even after they had vanished from sight, Talzen lingered by a pillar, pretending to study a small chameleon perched on a pedestal and seemingly made from a ruby, until it winked at him and turned grey as his cloak.
By the stars, thought Talzen, between amusement and alarm, is that black-haired man the one I’m to be careful of? As if I wouldn’t anyway. My God.
With which his heart rapidly agreed, not to mention his loins, which were also determined to inform him that they, too, were now very hungry.
What a beautiful man. Handsome as a panther. Twice as dangerous, from the look of him. That sword–that’s black iron and haematite–and mercurix, unless I’ve forgotten everything I ever knew. You don’t put anything else into a scabbard of that sort, unless you’re a total idiot. And he doesn’t seem to be.
Inadvertently, Talzen found he had put his hand on the pommel of his own sword, which was itself of red iron and mercurix.
At this instinctive and lascivious pun, Talzen almost smiled. But he was taking no chances. Instead he followed the servant to his allotted room, and in fifteen minutes was lying naked up to his chin in water at first scalding, then as heady and relaxing as the flagon of plum qvass he drank.
Presently, irresistibly, Talzen’s thoughts turned themselves again towards the black-haired stranger. They imagined him in other circumstances and rather less formally dressed. Almost sleepily, Talzen found his hand now strayed along the lean length of his own body to the other sword, which like a firm-fleshed, greedy waterlily was raising an inquisitive head above the lake of the bath.
Talzen reminded his thoughts of the warning. He told the ardent flower to lie down again, and removed his hand from its temptation. Nor was he an idiot. He would not have survived this long at his trade of swordsman, if he had always indulged himself. And tonight he had better be sharp.
We’re all different in what delights and inspires us, not just as queer/straight and male/female, but as individuals. At the same time, it is also important that there be a “place for us,” whether it be a specifically gay-themed anthology or one in which love stories between men or between women are portrayed with the same respect and rapture as those of the straight couples.
I have long believed that what is wrong with this world is not too much love, but too little. I hope to play a small part in creating a world in which no one feels invisible or excluded, and all expressions of who we are are are celebrated.
Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy professionally since 1982, and is a member of the online writers’ collective, Book View Café. As Deborah Wheeler, she wrote 2 science fiction novels, Jaydium and Northlight, and had short stories in Asimov’s, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Sisters of the Night, Star Wars: Tales from Jabba’s Palace, Realms of Fantasy, and the Sword & Sorceress and Darkover anthologies. Recent projects include continuing the Darkover series (The Fall of Neskaya, Zandru’s Forge, A Flame in Hali, The Alton Gift, Hastur Lord, and forthcoming The Children of Kings, 2013, DAW), and a gender-bending science fiction novel, Collaborators (2013, Dragon Moon Press). She’s also working on an original fantasy series, The Seven-Petaled Shield. Two of her short stories (“Mother Africa” in Asimov’s 1997 and “The Price of Silence” in F & SF 2009) were awarded Honorable Mention in Year’s Best SF. In between writing, she has sojourned in France, worked as a medical assistant to a cardiologist, singlehandedly revived an elementary school library, studied classical piano and yoga, and has been active in the women’s martial arts community.
Links: Lace and Blade: http://www.amazon.com/Lace-Blade-Deborah-J-Ross/dp/1934169919/ref=sr_1_12?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1344890518&sr=1-12&keywords=deborah+j+ross
The Feathered Edge: http://www.amazon.com/Feathered-Edge-Tales-Magic-Daring/dp/0615599931/ref=sr_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1344890518&sr=1-7&keywords=deborah+j+ross
The Heritage of Hastur: http://www.amazon.com/Heritage-Exile-Marion-Zimmer-Bradley/dp/0756400651/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1344890601&sr=1-1&keywords=heritage+of+hastur
Hastur Lord: http://www.amazon.com/Hastur-Lord-Marion-Zimmer-Bradley/dp/B00403NG7C/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1344890518&sr=1-1&keywords=deborah+j+ross