How did you get started writing lesbian fiction/romance?
Basically, I have lived deep in fiction most of my life, though I suspect that is true of most gays and lesbians. As a child, I fantasized obsessively and of course with lots of kissing, but did it in chapters and dialog. It seems I was waiting for the universe to provide me a way to realize them in a formal way. That way was the Internet. I wrote fan fiction under the name of Elaine Sutherland for a couple of years, and then, when gay and lesbian presses came into existence, voila, I was ready.
We all know that fiction is more fun than real life. To be sure, my real life has been fun-filled enough. I’ve been in love, traveled abroad, learned a couple of foreign languages, gone scuba diving, swum with dolphins, etc. But I’ve spent more time working at a job, doing laundry/ shopping/dishes, parking the car, enduring the flu, cleaning the cat box, walking the dog etc.
In fiction, you cram all the high points together and leave out the drudgery. It’s way better than drugs.
What kind of characters do you most like to write about and why?
I write historical thrillers with a actual historical persons and LGBT characters moving around them. I’ve written about biblical times, ancient Egyptians, the Crusades, the Renaissance (Rome and Venice) and a great deal about World War II. In principle, I want to re-visit those events that we use to define ourselves, but ensure that the gays and lesbians, who were surely there, are visible. In the novel Sistine Heresy, it was easy because Michelangelo was almost certainly gay himself, so all I had to do was add a couple of lesbians (and painting, and ecclesiastical sex and torture) and I had my story. It took a bit more imagination to add us to the Crusades.
It’s also gratifying to try to get into the heads of great historical people, to try to imagine what was going on in the mind of Michelangelo, a Borgia pope, an Egyptian pharaoh, a Venetian Inquisitor, a disciple of Jesus, a secretary of Josef Goebbels, a soldier at Stalingrad, a fighter in the Résistance. You get to live a hundred lives (and fly planes, parachute into enemy territory, commit murder, torture heretics, visit the underworld, witness Hitler’s suicide, and have any kind of sex with anyone you want.) Did I mention the sex?
Tell us a little about your new release…
Waiting for the Violins (March 2014) is the third of my World War Two novels and the most historical. When I moved to Brussels from New York a few years ago, I met so many people who had been touched by it. My best friend’s aunt (after whom she was named) was in the Résistance in the Ardennes and was killed by a sniper the day the Allies arrived. My friend brought me to see her grave and monument. Another elderly friend told of being surrendered at the age of three to a Catholic family by Jewish parents who perished at Auschwitz. We made a trip together to a concentration camp outside of Brussels. Deeply impressed by those accounts, I decided to weave them into a novel for which this is the plot summary.
Antonia Forrester, an English nurse, is nearly killed while trying to save soldiers fleeing at Dunkirk. Embittered, she returns to occupied Brussels as a British spy to foment resistance to the Nazis. She works with urban partisans who sabotage deportation efforts and execute collaborators, before résistante leader Sandrine Toussaint accepts her into the Comet Line, an operation to rescue downed Allied pilots. After capture and then escape from a deportation train headed for Auschwitz, the women join the Maquis fighting in the Ardenne Forest. Passion is the glowing ember that warms them amidst the winter carnage until London radio transmits the news they’ve waited for. Huddled in the darkness, they hear the coded message, “the long sobs of the violins” signaling that the Allied Invasion is about to begin.
Name three things on your desk right now.
I write on my sofa, not at a desk. And surrounding me right now are a chaotic scattering of books for research and reference, a plate of crumbs and drying cheese left over from breakfast, and a sleeping dachshund desperately in need of a bath. (Oh, dear. I must give the impression of being a terrible housekeeper.)
What are some of your favorite lesbian fiction/romance/erotic authors?
– Sarah Waters, because she is so good at surprising the reader.
– Jane Rule Until she died, I checked every month to see if she had published anything new.
– Jane Wagner, better known as Lily Tomlin’s wife. She wrote all the material for Lily’s Broadway show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life, the screenplay for The Incredible Shrinking Woman, and a bunch more of Lily’s material. A real wit, this woman.
None of these women can be considered romance or erotic authors, but there is such a powerful and intelligent lesbian sentiment behind their writing that it makes me want to belong to them.
Duh. Chocolate, of course. I live in Belgium.
Plotter or pantster?
I am always puzzled by this dichotomy since I don’t think anyone can write a whole novel without having some overall plot arc in mind, otherwise they just meander aimlessly. It’s only a question of how much detail you have in the outline in your head. Myself, I like to know where my characters are going in advance and what kind of trouble they’re going to get into. The creative part is filling in the details and dialogs and threading motifs through the story. A historical fiction writer is also bound by the actual historical chronology. Unless you’re writing paranormal or steampunk, you can’t have your heroines make love in a building that was bombed a year ago, or visit a temple that hasn’t been built yet, or be interrupted by someone who was dead for a century.
What are you working on now?
I’m so glad you asked. “The Witch of Stalingrad” is about a female pilot in the Soviet Air Force in World War Two. It’s based on Lilya Litviak, a beautiful young fighter pilot who shot down a lot of German planes and looked like Jennifer Saunders. I’m quite smitten with her, which I suppose is rather inappropriate because a) she was much too young for me, and b) she’s…well….dead. She was shot down herself at the age of 21. The other heroine is an American journalist based on the figure of Margaret Bourke-White, also a very interesting lady who was in Moscow (photographing Stalin) the day the Germans invaded. This manuscript has me in its grip, although research has been a challenge. So much of the biographic material on Litviak is in Russian. But to inspire myself, I bought a gymnasterka, one of those tunics belted at the waist that all the Soviet soldiers and aviators wore, and some fake medals. Now I dream of flying planes. This is due, in no small measure, to Julie Tizard, a pilot friend who suggested the subject in the first place and who has given me an unhealthy desire to get into small planes.
Let me end this interview by thanking Lesfic and Lipstick for inviting me to show off a little. Every lesfic blog and website and Facebook page keeps the ideas (the gay agenda??) circulating and all of you are part of the ‘show.’ Those of us who perch – or wallow on our sofas – for endless hours in front of our screens making stuff up really depend on your presence and interest. If you were here, I’d buy you some fantastic chocolate. Bisous from Brussels.
Link to Bold Strokes Books for purchases:
About the author:
A recovered academic, Justine Saracen started out producing dreary theses, dissertations and articles for esoteric literary journals. Writing fiction, it turned out, was way more fun. With seven historical thrillers now under her literary belt, she has moved from Ancient Egyptian theology (The 100th Generation) to the Crusades (2007 Lammy-nominated Vulture’s Kiss) to the Roman Renaissance.
Sistine Heresy, which conjures up a thoroughly blasphemic backstory to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, won a 2009 Independent Publisher’s Award (IPPY) and was a finalist in the ForeWord Book of the Year Award.
A few centuries farther along, WWII thriller Mephisto Aria, was a finalist in the EPIC award competition, won Rainbow awards for Best Historical Novel and Best Writing Style, and took the 2011 Golden Crown first prize for best historical novel.
The Eddie Izzard inspired novel, Sarah, Son of God followed soon after. In the story within a story, a transgendered beauty takes us through Stonewall-rioting New York, Venice under the Inquisition, and Nero’s Rome. The novel won the Rainbow First Prize for Best Transgendered Novel.
Her second WWII thriller Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright, which follows the lives of four homosexuals during the Third Reich, won the 2012 Rainbow First Prize for Historical Novel. Having lived in Germany and taught courses on 20th Century German history, Justine is deeply engaged in the moral issues of the ‘urge to war’ and the ease with which it infects.
Beloved Gomorrah, (2013) marked a return to her critique of Bible myths – in this case an LGBT version of Sodom and Gomorrah — though it also involves a lot of Red Sea diving and the dangerous allure of a certain Hollywood actress.
Saracen lives on a “charming little winding street in Brussels.” Being an adopted European has brought her close to the memories of WWII and engendered a sort of obsession with the war years. Waiting for the Violins, appearing in March 2014, tells of an English nurse, nearly killed while fleeing Dunkirk, who returns by night parachute as a British spy and joins forces with the Belgian resistance.
When dwelling in reality, Justine’s favorite pursuits are scuba diving and listening to opera. She can be reached by way of www.justinsaracen.com, through FB justinesaracen, and at Twitter as JustSaracen.
Thank you Justine for coming on the blog today. I am looking forward to reading your new book!