Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 36 (previously 18b) - Interview with Kathleen Knowles - Transcript
(Originally aired 2018/01/13 - listen here)
Heather Rose Jones: Welcome to the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast. Today, we’re having an interview with author Kathleen Knowles. I knew her as Kathy, back a long time ago when we worked at the same biotech company together. Welcome, Kathy.
Kathleen Knowles: Hello!
H: So, I have to start out by saying I am tickled to death at bumping into you again in the context of writing lesbian fiction, because, wow, it’s been like… you said 25 years?
K: Yes, I think so. In the early 90s when we worked at Xoma Corporation.
H: Yah, right before the axe fell and we all got laid off, right?
K: I think I left before that, but yes.
H: Ah. Yes. So, and here we are again!
K: Right, and we met at the Golden Crown Literary Society, last year? Is that right? Or was it in New Orleans?
H: Ah, well, that wasn’t last year. That was two years ago, but I went and heard you at a reading in San Francisco. You and a couple of other Bold Strokes Books authors were reading and, here’s the embarrassing thing, I think at that point it hadn’t clicked in my mind that I already knew you. I figured it out later.
H: So, how did you get interested in writing historical fiction? Why don’t you talk about that a little bit?
K: Well, I’ve read historical fiction. I realized the other day when I was thinking about it for this interview that when I was a teenager, I read a lot of things and some of the things I read were actually romance fiction that were historically based. And I can’t remember too many of the authors names, but I remember thinking that I liked the part of it that had to do with history and with history detail. I always loved reading historical stuff when I was a student and when I came out, I started doing a lot of reading in LGBT history and I’m very interested and have a read a great deal about different periods of time and different people. So, when I decided I wanted to write, and I will say I got started in fanfiction, but the idea that I had was almost automatically going to be historical romance and set in San Francisco, because I like San Francisco history a lot.
H: So, you mentioned you did a lot of reading in LGBT history. Any particularly favorite periods?
K: I don’t have any particular favorite periods, I have favorite authors. Lillian Faderman’s writings on lesbian history and Martin Duberman’s books, I really enjoy. I like biographies. I’ve read a lot of different biographies of people like Vita Sackville-West and Radclyffe Hall and other people. A lot of different people. Those are the kinds of things I like to read.
H: And for your own fiction, I noticed that you’ve got a set of three books, now I’m not sure they’re a set, but you’ve got three books set in San Francisco right around the turn of the 20th century. Two of them have the same pair of characters, is the third one actually connected?
K: The third one is connected. They’re more or less a set. For the third one I made the characters from the first two books, Beth and Kerry, I made them secondary characters and focused on a new set of main characters. So, that’s kind of the style that Bold Strokes Books likes to use if you’re writing like a series of some sort. So, you could consider them a set of three.
H: So, we have Awake unto Me, and then A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and that’s the first two with the same main couple.
H: And then Two Souls, which is the third book. Do they come in that order?
K: Yes, that’s in order.
H: Because then Two Souls deals with the San Francisco earthquake.
H: I noticed that that’s a bit of a favorite fictional touchstone for people. You aren’t the only person who set a lesbian story around the time of the quake. What drew you to that particular era, or is that a really silly question?
K: Well, first of all, I started out, and I’m not sure why I picked the turn of the century in particular, it sort of just evolved that I wanted a… I started with a war-time setting, which happened to be the Spanish American War. And when I thought about that and thought if what if I ever wrote anymore books and continued this story, that it would naturally go to the San Francisco earthquake. I don’t know what it is about earthquakes, you know, you live in the Bay Area too, but earthquakes are something people talk a lot about, and it’s very much identified with San Francisco. The 1906 earthquake, lucky for me, has a huge amount of things written about it. Plenty of sources for different kinds of details, whatever basic part of it you want to focus on, you can find something out about it. And I thought it would be an interesting thing to have my characters go through. All of them, basically six characters in the book, and they all have various ways of dealing with the earthquake. It’s a disaster, it makes people react in different ways. So, that’s what I was interested in.
H: It’s always a fun thing to throw at characters to make them react in extreme situations like that.
K: Oh, I think so, yes.
H: So, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what goes on in the books? A little plot synopsis.
K: Ok. In the first book, Awake unto Me, is when the two characters, Beth and Kerry, meet and they meet with a person that they have in common. And they… one’s basically an orphan and had been adopted. She was orphaned when she was a young teenager and she was adopted by someone. And grew up, up to that point that she was adopted, in the Barbary Coast, which is a pretty hard-core bad part of town. That’s Kerry. And Beth grew up in a very middle-class family but had a history of abuse by, I think it was the family minister. So, they sort of meet by chance because the guy that, the doctor who adopted Kerry, Beth ends up in nursing school and he’s one of her professors. That’s how they meet. So, the first book describes their courtship, how they met, and how they fall in love. And there’s a separation in it, where Beth is sent off to war in the Philippines as a nurse and she’s gone for quite a period of time. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but basically they get together and they become lovers. In the second book, which a lot of people don’t like to read what happens after the happily ever after is what they like to have in their heads, and they’re done. They’re basically, I’ve heard people say, “Well, I’m just done.”
H: “I don’t want to know if it doesn’t work out.” Yanno?
K: Yeah, it all worked out, everything’s great. But I tend to think that sometimes things are a little more interesting later on when you’re trying to keep a relationship together and there’s all kinds of pressures on relationships and I presume that wouldn’t be any different even if it was 1900. It wouldn’t make any difference, there would still be issues and problems and people would have to work through in order to keep their relationship going. So that what the second one, The Spark of Heavenly Fire, is about. It’s about how they get through a really rough period in their lives and manage not to break-up. Finally, Two Souls… Beth and Kerry are there, they basically live with Beth’s former professor who, and she’s now become a doctor instead of a nurse and her mentor and his romantic partner, I have unmarried… I make a big deal about the fact there’s an unmarried couple, so another doctor. And they live in a big house, I basically picture up on Fillmore Street, the upper part of Fillmore street. And another doctor who is living with them for a time, moved out from New York. Her name’s Norah, and Norah actually… Kerry’s the one that introduces Norah to the woman who becomes her love interest, because her, Abigail, Abby, is not a doctor. The only main character… well, she’s a doctor, and Kerry is a cook. But Abigail is a Naturalist and she’s based on a real person, that I was quite impressed when I heard a story of. That’s what happens is, basically the earthquake is what happens, and that’s what they all have to deal with in various ways. Of course, all the people who are doctors are working on issues. Basically, they’re helping refugees in Golden Gate Park, they’re taking care of medical issues for refugees. And Abigail is a member of the California Academy of Sciences, has other issues to deal with. Kerry was a cook at the Palace Hotel, which burns down, and she’s injured during the course of the earthquake and so she’s dealing with an injury and having lost her job. So, that’s the plot of the third book in the series. So, most of the focus is on Abigail and Norah, because it’s their love story and it’s about them falling in love and becoming partners. That’s it.
H: And as you say, living there in San Francisco as you do, there are enormous historical resources for the era and for exactly what went on and what peoples’ lives were like. I’m wondering about resources for developing the relationships of these women. What were some of your challenges or your favorites parts about setting up their relationships in a historic context?
K: I think for anybody who writes historical fiction, romance fiction or other kinds of fiction, is understanding that people have the same emotions, I believe, they have experienced the same sort of emotions that we do in the present day. But they’re not always going to be expressed and, particularly, sexuality was really repressed around the turn of the century. It just simply wasn’t something that people talk about, but I just remembered, one of the reasons why I did pick the turn of the century to start with, Heather, is because at that point there actually did exist, at least in technical literature and in the minds and views of psychiatrists and other doctors, there was a concept of gay identity. They had named it, they had given it names, they knew what lesbians were and they knew what gay men were. So, those concepts existed, and I used the fact that a lot of my characters were doctors, particularly the one from New York, to point out the fact that people actually knew they existed, they had a name for it, it wasn’t a mystery of any kind. So, they could, to a certain extent, discuss it. Although, the part that’s difficult for people falling in love is there’s…. they don’t know it, none of the characters, at least at first, they don’t understand what it is that they’re going through, and they don’t have a name for it and they don’t call it anything until they found out later. I’m speaking Kerry and Beth. They find out later, from their friend, the doctor from New York, Esther, what it’s called. You know, she says this is something that happens to certain people and it’s not like it’s a terrible thing. Of course, I had to give them some supportive secondary characters, I didn’t want it to revolve around peoples’ horrible reactions to it. So, I figure San Francisco was a place, is a place, it certainly was a place from the very start that absorbed a lot of different people form a lot of different places, so I think of San Francisco as a place where nothing can surprise anybody.
H: Yeah, and I always like to look at it that, you know, it’s not erasing the fact that many peoples’ lives in the past were awful, but we as authors get to choose which stories we want to tell. And there were happy stories that can be told.
H: So, where do you want to go in the future in your historic writing? What projects do you have in mind to work on?
K: That’s a great question. My co-worker, I guess, other writer, another writer I admire very much, who writes for Bold Strokes books, Justine Saracen is here pen name, has always told me, she said, “WWI! That’s the place you’ve gotta go!” She writes a lot about WWII, some really excellent books, but she says, “WWI is where you want to go! That’s the period of time that nobodies paid very much attention to! You oughtta do that!”
H: I was going to say, I will argue that pre-twentieth Century is what nobodies doing, but yah, within the 20th century, I’ll take that.
K: Ok, that’s funny. I think the WWI period is really interesting, but I think what I might be more interested in, even though it’s the same general time-frame, is the beginning of the US suffragist movement. Insofar as I know, California was one of the states that women got the vote a bit before the entire country, but I’m not sure of the exact year of that. It’s something I ran across. So, I’m thinking I want to write a story about a Suffragist and another woman from some sort of background I haven’t figured out yet, write a romance novel with that background. Women getting the right to vote. And the other one I want to do is actually WWII in San Francisco, or post WWII San Francisco when all the soldiers and the sailors, who were essentially dismissed from the service if they were found out to be gay, they basically stayed in San Francisco and Los Angeles and started gay communities. That’s where it all started is right after WWII. So, I think I’d like to write a story about that period of San Francisco’s history. One more, because I’ve been interested in and slightly obsessed with for a long time – the Paris of the 1920s, pre-1920s, post WWI in the 1920s. So much has been written about it, a lot has been written about that period of time in terms of the actual history of it, the facts surrounding it. You know, Natalie Barney’s salon and Gertrude Stein’s salon and the publishing that women did in Paris during that period. But I think I’d like to fictionalize someone, possibly the reporter Janet Flanner, the New Yorker reporter who wrote the letter from Paris. She arrived in Paris with a lover in toe, but I think I might just get rid of that and have it be somebody, meet someone in Paris.
H: Yeah, you can always just use her as a model.
K: Yup. So, those are my three historical periods so far.
H: Uh huh. Any other topics you’d like to talk about before we start closing this up?
K: Well, I write contemporary fiction as well as historical fiction, but most of the time, ultimately, I think I’m writing historical fiction even when I’m writing contemporary fiction and it’s because I like to have a context for peoples’ lives, I mean, my life has a context. It doesn’t really occur in a vacuum and it occurs with a lot of other stuff happening around it. Partly because I live in San Francisco and I’ve lived her for a very long time, and I’ve been out for a very long time. I like to use a something, the book that I just got published this month deals Indiana’s Religious Freedom Act, in 2015. That’s the background of the story. So, I think I’m always, almost always basically writing historical fiction.
H: Uh huh. So, where can your fans and readers find you online if they want to learn more about your books or follow you on social media?
K: I am on Facebook under Kathy Knowles, you can just look me up. And I’m on Amazon, I have an Author’s Page that I need to do some maintenance on, but I can be reached through Bold Strokes Books Publishers on my page in Bold Strokes books. There’re all kinds of ways to get a hold of me. Especially by email or by Facebook. And I tweet once in a while.
H: Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure having you on the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast.
K: Thanks for asking me, Heather, it was really great.
A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Kathleen Knowles Online