(Originally aired 2018/08/11 - listen here)
Heather Rose: Today, The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast welcomes Vanda to the show. Glad you could join us.
Vanda: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.
H: Vanda is the author of the Juliana series, about a young woman starting in 1940s in New York City, following the progress of her show business career and her struggle to balance success and a forbidden romance. The third book, Paris, Adrift, just came out in May. Perhaps you could tell us a bit about the characters and where you're taking them in the series.
V: Okay, the characters in this series are getting closer. Originally, the plan was in book two that Juliana is married. The plan was for her and her husband to go to Paris and to revitalize Juliana's career, they sort of had a dip. Al, or Alice, was staying back to serve as a manager because she has other things to do in the states. But at the last minute Richard, whose mother always is getting sick and has a heart attack, he can't go. So, Al has to go and of course Richard apologized because he's only bought one state room [Heather laughs] and has only purchased one hotel room, and it's going to be so inconvenient for them. And of course it works much [more] perfectly. At first, Juliana has a lot of trouble-- No, they really both have some problems about being gay. Al is doing better with it even though she was shocked when she first found out in the first book, but Juliana is struggling a lot and she doesn't talk about the struggle, but she kind of acts out things. When they're on the ship, they go home on the [S.S.] United States, that was the typical form of transportation in 1955. So, they're there and Juliana is nervous about being alone with Al in the state room, and she's acting out in certain ways. They're not very close to that point. Al is expecting them to sleep together every night and all of a sudden that's not what happens.
H: But they have a relationship already, right?
V: They had a relationship that has been rocky since the beginning.
H: Oh, okay.
V: Because Juliana is married and the husband doesn't know. It's not likened to marriage, he doesn't know. We don't know exactly what goes on between Richard and Juliana that she's very quiet about that. And so in this thing, she's kind of shocked to be staying in the same room with Al. And at one point she gets upset and she says, "We're not Shirl and Mercy," who are two women they know who do live together. Al thinks she doesn't want to be with her, but she doesn't mean it that way. Which she explains later. She says, "I know how to be with a man on a trip like this, I don't know how to deal with you on a trip. I don't know what to do." There's no lessons for that. She's not sure how to behave or how to be herself in this situation. But by the time they get to Paris, it's working out, and they get very close. They do end up spending a lot of time in bed and working out a lot of the issues they've had in the past. One of the friends in the book that they'd had, who kind of poses as a man sometimes as an act, he has this kind of what we call today drag king... he also used to date Juliana and shows up every once in a while in the book. It upsets Al. He tells--she actually--reveals to Juliana that she's decided to have an operation and make a change. Now this is early, but the first transgender change was with man. It's very secret but it was done with a man. So she's gotten in touch with the first surgeon which was in England. That little part there, for the transgender community, is not comfortable, because they do make fun. They make fun, they get very uncomfortable because this is not something that lesbians handle well. This long history of tension with-- And then the whole world didn't handle it well.
V: There was a lot of jokes and meanness and that kind of stuff. With this history, I want to portray it accurately. It's not now, it's then. It's 1955, people are learning. I would show that progression of change and how attitudes change, how things change. That's in there in it. But Al also wonders--she's often had masculine thoughts, she wonders about herself, quietly, never to Juliana. That's basically where the characters are going. You know, I'm into book four now which I'll be totally bringing out, not too long. The reason that they're in Paris is because Juliana had a major flop in New York. This is complicated, you don't read about it. Her husband is actually the one who I name as her manager, not Al. But Al does all the decision making. But this one time, her husband signs Juliana to be in a play. It's not a musical, it's a regular straight play. She's never done it before and she really bombs miserably. So she decides she's never going to do Broadway ever again. Okay? It was a horrible experience. She's a fabulous singer, so she will never do it again. Well, somebody approaches Al on the ship with a Broadway show and he wants her to do it, but Al can't convince Juliana to do it. She says, “No, I’m not ever going on a Broadway stage. It’s a horrible experience.” It turns out then that the guy who approached her actually threatens to out them if she doesn't do it. There's a whole thing that happens around that kind of thing.
H: It feels like the series is intended to bring the reader along through a tour of queer life in the later 20th century. Are you planning to follow the characters for quite a ways?
V: Yeah, I want to go into the 2000s.
H: Oh, okay!
V: So then it'd be like late 80s and 90s when it'll be finished. I want them to see the changes, let's see what they think about it. And of course there'll be new characters entering because some characters that were in book one have left--they may come back--and other characters will enter. People will have children along the way and those children-- so it will be--
H: So, a real family saga sort of thing?
V: Yeah. Because besides Juliana and Al, there's Max who's been there since the beginning. He's not on the ship with them but he runs the nightclub where Al works. And he's been with—a mentor to Al since the beginning. So I have gay men in the… And it was in the beginning of around the 40s and 50s, the early community was pretty tight with each other. The men and the women were together. In the Mattachine society actually, the women belonged to it. And the men helped the women pull together [unintelligible] alliance, they were part of that. There wasn't this split that tends to be now. This is coming together a little bit more now, I think, but there was a big time that happened in the 70s where everything was...
V: So, I'm showing that 'why?' I like to look at history and it makes sense when you can look at it from a distance. I'm trying to look at what was going on that made these things make sense.
H: Do you have a background as a historian or is it coming out just through the writing? Have you always had an interest in history?
V: My father was big at reading history, he read history all the time. It's funny, both my sister and I have a love of history. She's doing Victorian and that kind of stuff. I teach psychology, but there's a course I teach that interests me a lot. I didn't develop it, I just got it. It shows how societies and people change over time, and that there's a process that goes. It's called minority social influence. It was nice because you can see it happening right now in our country right now. The struggle with racism, for instance, that struggle is part of minority social influence. It's changing people. It's not just a fight, it's changing people. And it's going to change it in the right direction, it's just going to take time. So, I like to watch that. And if you do history, especially modern history that you can actually touch--I can remember my mother and father and that--then you can see it actually happening and how it's different now. But everything's not different. And I don't know, you can watch history happening right in front of you and I love that. I love that.
H: I'm always interested in the challenges that authors face when writing about sexuality in other eras. Was that something that you struggled with or was that something that seemed to come naturally?
V: It was a problem because one of the things is clothes, they wear so many clothes. [Vanda laughs] If you talk about the 50s, they wore girdles and bullet bras and [Heather laughs] just clothes with slips. They didn't wear pants. Just the logistics of it is part of it but also the way they talked about it and the language. I have a book on the history of sexual language. I pick up weird books to refer to this and figure out when they changed the terminologies, you know, and how did that change and stuff. Just the language terminology. Sex is sex in people, but how does it work when you're in a different time period?
H: Yeah. What I find researching history is that sex isn't just sex, there are clear different attitudes towards even what is sex, as opposed to things that are fun to do that aren't sex. That's really fascinating.
V: Well, the whole thing about whether lesbian sex was sex, that's an interesting topic. That's one of the issues that came up in 70s, it was a big fight when the 70's said 'well, lesbian sex didn't count, it wasn't sex. It must involve a penis.'
H: [laughs] Well, that's a very old attitude.
V: Right, right. I don't think they would have that in the ‘50s ‘cause nobody is talking about it. Nobody would be talking. But there is that "Oh, the girls are just doing things because they're getting ready for the real sex real soon. As in marriage." In the ‘50s, they would care about it a little bit more because it was not the way to be. I have some books that were written in the ‘50s. Like one guy, a psychiatrist, who talked about that being a lesbian could lead to criminal behavior, kleptomania. It had a whole list of things, I use that in book three. I started in book two and goes into book three, it's this idea that it's going to do some terrible thing. I use these case examples of a woman who's a lesbian who bashes her husband and then goes and plays bridge. [both laugh] [unintelligible] Yeah, right.
H: Yeah, the whole idea that once you have no morals, then anything is possible, you know?
V: Like that's it. And to be a lesbian was to be immoral, and then everything else was possible. I tried to portray that attitude throughout the books, and that's what makes it for anybody to know that you're one of those.
H: Yeah. Where did the idea for these characters come from? Did the characters drive the story or did you have an idea of wanting to do this large historic arc?
V: I wanted to do a history. I don't ever remember having a plan to do a long- I didn't know what it was going to be. Basically, the two main characters, Juliana and Al, kind of just appeared. And they've just stuck with me. I don't know, they've been writing the story. I've been very lucky with this because I just sort of sit down and they let me know where it's going to go. This doesn't happen with everything I write but this. [Heather laughs]
H: Did you go to Paris to do research? Did you use that as an excuse for a trip?
V: Actually, I did go to Paris. [Heather laughs] The thing is, it's very different than it was in the 50s.
H: Well, of course, yes.
V: Yeah, so some of the places I knew and I went and visited some of the places that they go to, some of the cafes and stuff. But of course I had to still have pictures of stuff, then I had reading things about places that they might have gone to, that was particular. One thing I learned about Paris is during the ‘50s, it was not a haven for gays either. It wasn't any better than here. Well, it's much better. Like, in the books, they go to a lesbian nightclub or a bar—a club where they can dance, [they had them] in the US too, hidden away. And this is hidden away, but the guys were being arrested regularly. They didn't arrest the women because they didn't really take women seriously. They arrested the guys. It wasn't illegal in France to be gay like it was here. But for men, it was illegal for them to dance with another man. So they would sometimes raid the clubs and arrest the men. But they were not okay about lesbians, there was less mean things said and less mean things in newspapers, and telling people watch out for those bad people. It wasn't a nice place. It wasn't the ‘20s, it was the ‘50s. And the ‘20s happened to be with [the] really affluent class, people living in a different artsy environment, it wasn't for everybody.
H: Yeah, there's always been a lot of class difference in how you experienced your sexuality.
V: Right. Right, yeah.
V: When I was trawling through your Amazon listings, I spotted a play that you've written that also has a historical context. For the audience, this is a play about the life of 17th century Italian abbess Benedetta Carlini, which is a name that I have mentioned time and again on the podcast. Why don't you refresh people's memories about why she would be a figure you might write about?
V: She's the first lesbian who got a written record of. She was discovered by Brown, what's her first name?
H: Judith, Judith Brown
V: [She was looking in a library] and found these records of this lesbian nun who was on trial for doing a lot of what they thought was bad things. And it was the first time we had a record of lesbian behavior.
H: Well, there are earlier ones but I'll let you go with this one for now. [laughs]
V: I'd love to hear about other records you have.
H: Yeah. Well, I think also Brown was writing about her at a time when a lot of the other material hadn't been published yet, so... We know a lot more earlier examples now.
V: [She was writing in the] ‘80s so many more have come out, I would love to know your sources.
H: Oh, well. Well, follow my blog. [laughs]
V: Okay, I will. Because I love to write about that, and I really enjoyed writing the story. It got me into a different language, a sound of the language and...
H: What part of the story are you depicting in the play?
V: It starts off when she's going to be examined, so that's the thing that's happening. They're coming in to give her an exam to find out if she's a mystic or not. I use the same kind of characters that were in the book, but I find that they're not necessarily exactly, you know? Like, there was the father, Paolo Ricordati, was in there. He was her father confessor. Then there was kind of a mayor religious something. Anyway, they come in to examine her. Paolo Ricordati has a kind of crush on her. That's not part of it. [Heather laughs] And then as they're doing this trial everything, the story from different perspectives gets unfolded to the nuns that are there and what they saw and what they witnessed and what [unintelligible] happened. You kind of unfold the story that way.
H: Yeah, because initially she was having mystic experiences and visions and stigmata.
H: Yeah, that she thought she was being essentially possessed by an angel and that she would claim that the sexual activity she was having with women were really the angel doing it.
V: Right. Right, that's all in there. It's like when he comes in, she immediately goes into these mystic things and it upsets him, that one provost is totally upset about her reaction. But through it all-- who is the other woman that she has sex with?
H: Oh, I'm not remembering at the moment. But, yeah. Her companion!
V: But anyway, she tells the story and says. "Oh, but he was-- Jesus showed up." [unintelligible] I leave Splenditello to the end. The provost is starting to go--first, he doesn't believe it. Then he started to believe her and then Splenditello shows up and he's like, "Oh my god." The sexual thing is revealed last between the two women, which blows the whole thing. They condemned her. I have to do it in certain-- so that it builds suspense and confuse the audience too as to what to think about her.
H: Yeah, it's very hard to know what to think about her whether she was having a breakdown because of the conflict over her sexuality or whether, you know, the whole thing is very entwined together. Have you ever had the play staged?
V: Oh, yeah. It was a finalist in the Lambda Award.
H: Oh, cool.
V: Yeah, it was cool. It's published by Original Works, it was in the international New York City Festival.
H: Yeah, I wish I had been aware of it ‘cause somebody somewhere on my social media was asking for lesbian-themed plays to use for a school project. I wish I'd known about it to mention it.
V: Yeah, two of them. The other one is also nuns but this is a modern one. Yeah, one is one act and this one is a long, long one. It's been also staged in Minnesota? I don't know the company, but they took some gorgeous pictures. I think it's on my website.
H: I'll mention the title of the play for our listeners. It's Vile Affections, which is a phrase that comes out of the trial transcripts, isn't that correct?
V: Yeah, it's also from the Bible, Romans. And I use that—the priest when he finds out about the sex. He's screaming 'vile affections!' and does something—a Romans citation. [Heather laughs]
H: You mentioned you're working on the fourth Juliana book, do you want to tell us a bit about that or are you one of those authors who doesn't like to talk about current projects?
V: It's hard to talk about now, I don't know that I can. I think it's coming along interesting, a lot of things--
H: Do you have a title yet?
V: Yes. Actually, I do. Which is unusual, but I do. I have a title for both--two books, book four and five. I even sort-of know what the title is. Book four is Heaven Is to Your Left. That's the title of the play that Juliana is going to be doing in book four and it's the title of the book.
H: Is your writing mostly focusing on the Juliana series right now or do you have other projects that you'd like to do?
V: I'm focusing mostly on Juliana, but I want to do a couple spin offs from the Juliana series. Like for instance in the first book, there's a character Danny, who is Al's original boyfriend when she comes to New York City, and he realizes that he's gay during the thing. I am fascinated by how many gay women and men date each other before they know who they are. Before they know they're gay, they end up dating each other. That happens to a lot of people.
H: I wonder if it's because people are picking up on the sense that they are not going to have things expected of them that they don't want to give.
V: Maybe. My first passion of my life was a gay man. [Heather laughs] Yeah, I don't know. I think what I loved about him was he was feminine, so he was as close as I can get to a woman without being a woman. I'm interested in that idea anyway. He discovers that he's gay but he's ashamed of it. He's very tormented about it so he leaves, he joins the army. It's World War II, he joins the army, and we don't see him again. I'm going to write his story in the army, I think that'd be interesting for me. I have some interesting lesbians who are in the WACS and stuff. So I want to do that. And I've become very interested in LGBT life in the ‘30s and late ‘20s. I have some characters that would have been alive at that time. Even Juliana would. She comes into the scene around 16 years old, which means you should see her that young at some point. So, I'm thinking about writing about that era, that time. Those are some stories I want to do. I don't know, I'm really into this history thing with gay history. That's very interesting.
H: Well, I certainly think so. [laughs] If people wanted to follow you online through social media, or do you have a website?
V: Oh, yeah. My website is www.vandawriter.com. I'm also on facebook.com/vandawriter, that's an author page.
H: I'll put links to all of your books and to your social media in the show notes, and thank you so much for joining us.
V: Thank you for having me, this has been fun.
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 Vanda Online