(Originally aired 2018/12/08 - listen here)
Heather Rose Jones: This month the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast welcomes author Carrie Pack. Hi, Carrie.
Carrie Pack: Hi, nice to be here.
H: Carrie's YA novel Grrrls on the Side raises the question: Just how do we define historical fiction? I want to explore that a bit later in the podcast, but for now, why don't you tell us a bit about the book?
C: Sure, Grrrls on the Side is actually kind of, well, it takes place during the ‘90s during the Riot Grrrl movement so if anybody's familiar with that particular wave of feminism, these girls are very into their punk music, and their zines, and their feminist ideals. The main character, Tabitha, of course, kind of falls in love a couple times over the course of the book and discovering her own identity as a bisexual woman and an understanding kind of what that means for her, so it's a coming-of-age story and, apparently, the ‘90s are historical. [Laughter]
H: Yeah, so that's an interesting question of categories. You'd said that when we first talked that because it's set in the 90s for a YA market, that's considered historical. Is that because it’s history in terms of the target readership or history because you had to research it as history?
C: Predominantly, the first part of that. I lived it. I mean I was a – my main character is only a year older than me, so I was very familiar with. I mean I used descriptions of the lockers in the locker room of the gym of my high school, but my publisher was the one that said, “Well, this is historical YA,” and I was like, “Historical? It's the 90s.” I mean when someone calls your own high school experience, “historical,” I mean it just, you kind of go, “Oh, gosh, I didn't realize I'd gotten old.”
H: Yeah, I had that experience with another recent interview where the author was saying, “Well, this is set in the ‘70s, so it's really historical,” and I think it's like, “Oh, my god, that's me. That was my college years,” like, “What do you mean?”
C: Right, absolutely, and I think when we're talking about YA, it's kind of like you need to view it like classic cars, like anything over 20 to 25 years ago is considered a classic because if you're talking specifically about teenagers, they weren't even alive; it is historical to them so, yeah, I mean when you classify it that way – my book also got cross categorized though as women's fiction because there's a whole, you know, a lot of the people that I or my contemporaries definitely were very into it because they remember the time period. But, in general, when you talk about publishing, “historical” tends to be anything from pre-mid-century so like you're talking World War II or earlier, so it kind of just depends.
H: Because my personal definition is it's not historical if I was alive.
C: [Laughter] I think that's all of us which is probably why in YA it goes that way. I mean I did have to do some research, so it's not like I didn't do any, but, again, when you've lived the experience, it's a little easier to draw from your own personal. Since with Grrrls on the Side, I basically was giving myself a do-over. I didn’t know that I was bisexual until I was 35, so I didn't get to live my high school years as an out queer person. I didn't know it was an identity that I could have although I knew I wasn't a lesbian, you know what I mean? Like, I knew enough to know that, but I couldn't figure out why, why am I attracted to my female friends? [Laughter] But, because I was also attracted to boys my age, I thought, “Well, obviously, I'm not gay,” and that was the only two options that I knew of. I obviously wanted to give Tabitha her own experience that I didn't get to have.
H: Well, thinking about that and thinking about it as historical fiction because, okay, this is me as an old person talking, but you know it seems like sexuality and identity culture just changes minute-to-minute these days.
C: Oh, yeah.
H: The 90s are a different country in terms of kids these days, but so was it a challenge to try to represent the experience of sexuality in the 90s in a way that would both be true to the era and make sense to today's readers?
C: Oh, absolutely, absolutely, because any time you're writing historical, I think it's a good idea to remember that even though you're writing about a time period in the past, you're still writing for a contemporary audience so while there are things that might have occurred in that time period that at that time were widely accepted, we know in a modern society they're not. That covers everything from if you're writing historical and using the n-word to… or like what I had to do which was--and this is really minor for most of us--but for a modern audience, I had the word, you know when I was a kid there was a lot of, “Oh, that's lame,” but I had someone point out to me that that was ableist language. Now, for me, that's still something that I say and I feel in knowing that now I try to control it but that it could be construed as offensive among modern audiences, so I went back and took that out, but would a girl in the 90s have said that? Well, yeah –
C: She absolutely would have and so I mean it's not – I don't want to ever tell anyone, “Oh, you can't write that,” but I think it's important to consider as a modern sensibility when you're, or a contemporary sensibility I guess I should say, when you're writing historically because there's language that would have been historically accurate, and then there's language that's just harmful. You can still be historically accurate enough without using modern language that wouldn't necessarily been have used in that period. Like, for example, I had someone ask me very early on if I was going to address trans issues because that was [Cross-talk].
H: Yeah, that's what I was just about to bring up. It’s another minefield where the attitudes and the language and just the understanding has changed so radically in the last couple decades.
C: Oh, absolutely, and someone asked me if I was going to address that and I said I didn't want to because it was such a different time even the terminology was different, but what I did do was put in some subtle contextual things about gender identity. Because I was really wanting to focus on the bisexuality aspect of it, I wanted to give examples of different expressions of that, and I have one girl who is very much equally interested in all genders. She does not really, you know, she falls for the person, she falls for the person, so in modern terms, she might refer to herself – she might even choose pansexual, maybe, even though I think bisexual still covers that, but she might choose that whereas I had another character who was probably more demisexual when it comes to women but also use the term “bisexual.” She definitely had to have a connection with a woman, but she certainly could appreciate and would not rule out a relationship with a woman but predominantly attracted to men. Then my main character Tabitha who’s predominantly attracted to women and only incidentally, occasionally, kind of would find herself interested in a guy, so I wanted to give those representations and also wanted to explore gender identity.
One of the girls is very, very feminine and another character is a little more butch and the kind of – I don’t want to say “struggles.” They don't really struggle with it, but the criticism they would get from their friends about that, the one girl being so hyper feminine, and wearing nail polish, and makeup, and, “Oh, you can't possibly be queer,” and the other one being butch, “You're too masculine,” and so those kinds of conversations were had, but, yeah, it's not – for me, I didn't know that I didn't think that I could do it authentically and in a way that wouldn't also be harmful to the trans community.
H: Yeah, yeah, that is a consideration. The issue of identities and how we talk about those identities, like you were talking about, yeah, well, bisexual versus pansexual. It means different things to different people. I know that in you talking about your own podcast, so you have a podcast called Bi Sci-Fi, and one of the things you first said to me when you talked about it was, “Well, it's not just bi, and it's not just sci-fi.”
H: And, I have that same thing with my podcast because I've got the word lesbian emblazoned over everything because for me it's a good brand, but I always make it very clear that I'm not talking about the narrow definition of lesbian. I am using that to stand in for, you know, women whose primary emotional and romantic relationships are oriented towards other women within the context of the story that I'm talking about, but it’s way too wordy.
H: So, thinking about that kind of – I don't want to say “labeling” because that brings up a different way of thinking about it but “branding,” thinking about branding and what are the difficulties you have in using bi as a brand on your podcast and trying to communicate that you have a broader interest?
C: I mean I think you kind of said it. I think exactly what you said which is you have to kind of give the short description and then a long description. Ultimately, it came down to a branding thing for me. I had a Twitter chat that I'd started with a group of friends that was called Bi Sci-Fi because we all identify, I think almost all the authors identified as bisexual and or had main characters in our novels that were bisexual, and so we had started a Twitter chat. Bi Sci-Fi was a great… you know, it's a rhyme first of all.
H: It rhymes. [Laughter]
C: Yeah, and I had been forever trying to come up with an idea for a podcast. I just felt like I don't know what I would want to talk about. I don't know, and I just realized I had such an interest in speculative fiction in general. I kept the brand that I already had going, and I identify as bisexual, so it worked for me and also Queer Sci-Fi was taken so [Laughter] yeah, yeah, Scott Coatsworth and Angel Martinez have a wonderful…
H: Yes, I’m part of the Facebook group for that.
C: Yeah, absolutely, they have a Facebook group. They have a wonderful blog and online presence, and it's great branding, but I can't steal their name. Then there's nothing, you can’t like, “Queer Spec Fic,” you know, it doesn't roll off the tongue so, yes, there's always the long explanation. What I always say is that it's queer positive speculative fiction. If the author is an ally, if they write and they write spec fic, if the author identifies as queer and write spec fic, if the characters are queer and in the spec fic, I will cover it because I think that, for me, the biggest draw to speculative fiction of all kinds is the possibility for everything and nothing to exist at once. If you identify as agender, or trans, or gay, or just identify as queer, there is a place for you in that realm of fiction. The long and short of it is that I wanted to keep my branding from the chat, and it was a catchier name but that I’d always have to explain this, always. [Laughter]
H: So, what do you envision as the scope of your show? Why don't you talk about it a little bit?
C: Yeah, sure, right now it's mostly just me and other authors chatting about what we write and what we read, but I hope to, eventually, also have fans come on and talk about what they love and things that they're doing. I had someone message me wanting to talk about the new Doctor Who because now that the Doctor is a woman that canonically makes her pansexual or bisexual so that opens up a whole new realm. The Doctor is married to a woman and has been multiple times in canon, so I think that, for me, is – I want to explore how fans look at other spec fic, and I'd like people to come on and talk about movies and television as well, comics and things like that. Right now, it's really geared toward the written word, towards fiction, but that doesn't mean that I won't go there in the future but, for right now, it's a lot of authors talking about what they write and why they write it, and how that reflects our ideal, I think, of what queer fiction should be.
H: So, you’ve written both the, whether you want to call it contemporary historical for Grrrls on the Side, but also you've written a pair of speculative books, I know.
H: I think one of them is just about to come out or just came out or…?
C: Came out in August, yeah.
H: Okay, yeah, and I was interested in what's your experience of the different flavors of the book world between speculative fiction and realistic fiction?
C: In my experience, this is my personal experience, I don't want to say that this is necessarily a universality but that I found it harder to kind of break into adult speculative fiction than it was in any place in YA. The YA community was much more welcoming to my book. Now, I don't know. That could simply be the way that it was pitched, the way that it was marketed. I couldn't even tell you but so, for me, that's kind of where I found the difference to be, and I think because even though it is technically, like we were talking about it being historical, it's contemporary historical. It's more modern, and there's not the elements of speculation on top of it whereas my other, that duology is time travel. Both have won awards, both the historical contemporary and the time travel, but the YA book sold a lot better. I don't know if one market is clamoring more for the FF YA because that's certainly a place where – the YA community is, right now, very, very into their women loving women stories so that could be it, too. I don't know. That's been my experience, but both technically are contemporary. I mean they both, again, one is contemporary historical and the other one is contemporary science fiction, but they take place in very modern contemporary societies.
H: So, what was it like to research this book? I mean I know you said that it represents your life to some extent, but what parts of it did you have to research?
C: I mean the easiest stuff was, of course, looking into music and looking into my cultural references in the time period, but I think my favorite thing that I had to look into was and writing these zines from the point of views of characters who are having these, basically, if you've never read a zine especially ones from the 90s very much like just screed about whatever the writer wanted to rant about. There's one that is actually my favorite segment that I wrote in the whole book, and it's called “Of Mice and Menses” and my character is ranting about how her period has been commodified. In other words, it's the idea that she menstruates every month is both asexual and hyper sexualized, and she has to pay for these things that she doesn't understand and are obviously created by men, and I had to look up when wings were put on maxi pads.
H: [Laughter] Oh, my god, I'm thinking of the entire history of experimental menstrual products that I lived through.
C: Right? This is a generation that, thank God, did not have to deal with the sanitary belt, right? Although I am very familiar because my mom obviously dealt with that, and just a variety of different things and the horror of reading the packaging on tampons and worrying about toxic shock syndrome, but the thing for me that's always been baffling is the wing on a maxi pad. It serves no purpose. It does not keep it from leaking. All it does is get caught in your pubic hair and stick to your thighs, pardon my bluntness, especially if you don't have a thigh gap, that thing is just going to stick to things. So, literally, that's what my character is venting about, but I did have to look it up, and, thankfully, they were added to pads in the 80s so I was not like – I was pretty sure that I remembered them being on pads when I was a teenager, but I couldn't be sure, so I had to look it up and it was sometime in the 80s. Obviously, that was invented by a man, obviously, someone who had never worn a maxi pad in their lives.
H: [Laughter] Anything else you had to research in that way to get the details right, the realism?
C: Well, the most fun, I think, was getting to read old zines. There's a book called, I believe it's called The Riot Grrrl Collection. I'm trying to see if I can see it on my shelves here, but it's literally a collection of zines that has been compiled. It's everything from some of the more famous ones like Bikini Kill and those very early Riot Grrrl zines to some obscure ones. There's some in there from black women and other people of color, and all of the elements of that. For me, that was the most fun was going back through and reliving it through that… first-person historical accounts is essentially what you're reading.
H: It's sort of proto-blogging in a way.
C: Mm-hmm. Oh, yeah, yeah, when I explained what zines are to teenagers and young adults, I teach college right now, and so my students weren't alive. They were born in ’95, ’96. When I talked to them about it, I always say, “Well, it's blogging, but it was before the internet was wide enough spread that people blogged, pretty much.” It was the bridge between journaling and blogging, and so, yes, photocopying your clip together magazine pieces and type or handwritten journal entries and things like that. It's fun to read these young women, and it was mostly driven by young people, young people in the punk scene were the forefront of these zines. I mean zines have a longer history than that, of course.
H: Yeah, fan zines in the science fiction community, yeah.
C: Absolutely, going all the way back to the original Star Trek series, and maybe even prior to that, but to see, again, it's like if you're researching past presidents and you pull out their letters and you can go find letters from Thomas Jefferson and his journal entries, and things like that. It's the same thing but instead of it being about the day to days of a politician, it's about the day to day of a teenage girl. It's amazing. One of the best, as a matter-of-fact the epigraph of my book is a quote from a book about Riot Grrrl. It is, “The 90s were a rough time to be a girl,” I'm paraphrasing here but, “so little has changed,” and it's true.
That's one of the reasons I wanted to write this book is that, yeah, that was 20 years ago, but you would be surprised how little has changed in that intervening time for young women to be… they’re taunted, they’re oversexualized, they’re infantilized, and treated like their opinions are the bottom of the barrel. It's always like, “Oh, yeah, some teenage girls.” I mean we saw it with Taylor Swift. She voices her political opinion and there's other issues with that, but the primary thing that people were pointing out was like, and I think there was – who was the politician that was like, “Oh, well, 13-year-old girls can't vote.” Her fans aren't 13, and that's not an insult. 13-year-old girls are allowed to have opinions.
H: Yeah, any other projects that you're working on currently that you are able and willing to talk about?
C: Well, I'm still trying to finish up a contemporary horror novella, but, in the back of my mind, I do have another historical I wanna conquer. Back in my recent fandom past, I wrote a historical M/M for a fandom that I was in and what sparked it was it takes place during the Gilded Age which is basically the late Victorian period but in America, and what I love about that society was how easy – and this is the time period where Oscar Wilde was at his peak of his running around Europe, looking at the way society was structured was that men socialize with men and women socialize with women, and you only were really with the opposite sex once you were married, and how easy that really was for gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals to have relationships, have companionships with same gendered genders.
H: Oh, yeah, I am constantly trying to impress this upon my listeners and my blog readers that you don't have to go through shenanigans to get your two same-sex people together because that would be the norm of life for them.
C: Absolutely, it would not be – and one of the reasons why Oscar Wilde was ever “caught” was kind of because a noble had kind of a personal vendetta, but, otherwise, it was not rare that, you know, no one thought twice about him hanging out with young men all the time. Also, they didn't have, the way we do in contemporary society that view of homosexuality. It wasn't defined, so it wasn't really – if you had a gay uncle, it was just kind of like, “Oh, well, he's just that way,” and really was just we just don’t talk about it.
H: A confirmed bachelor.
C: A confirmed bachelor, absolutely. [Laughter] My mom tells a great story from when she lived with, I think probably in the 60s, and they had neighbors down the street who she called, “the bachelors,” and she didn’t realize until many years later that they were a gay couple because, again, it was a don't-ask-don't-tell kind of thing, and we just didn't talk about it. There were quite a few young men and young women who engaged in these kinds of relationships. So, I kind of was thinking I wanted to maybe make it a two-parter of a gay couple and a lesbian couple, kind of having that opportunity to explore these relationships because of the structure of society and how that was not noticed as an impropriety because they were forced into these same-sex social groups. So, that's my dream project. [Laughter]
H: If you get around to writing the lesbian couple, drop me a note. Let me know.
C: Definitely, definitely.
H: So, other than your podcast which I will put the links to in the show notes, where can listeners find you online?
C: Sure, the easiest way probably is I'm on Twitter. I'm @carriepack on Twitter, and that's probably the easiest way because it's a good direct communication, but, basically, I'm on all social media so anywhere you can find a person named Carrie Pack, it’s likely me, likely. [Laughter] There are others out there. They're scientists though. They're much cooler than me.
H: Yeah, I think I found a website for you as well, probably linked from your Twitter, so I'll put links to all of that in the show notes. Thank you so much, Carrie, for joining us this month.
C: Thank you.
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 Carrie Pack Online