A Conversation with Catherine Lundoff by Gavin Atlas
Catherine Lundoff is the award-winning author of the lesbian erotica collections Night’s Kiss (Lethe Press, 2009) and Crave (Lethe Press, 2007) as well as the fantasy collection A Day at the Inn, A Night at the Palace and Other Stories (Lethe Press, 2011). Her novel Silver Moon: A Women of Wolf’s Point Novel will be released from Lethe Press in May, 2012. She is the editor of Haunted Hearths and Sapphic Shades: Lesbian Ghost Stories (Lethe Press, 2008) and the co-editor, with JoSelle Vanderhooft, of the anthology Hellebore and Rue: Tales of Queer Women and Magic (Lethe Press, 2011). In her other lives, she's a professional computer geek, the spouse of her fabulous wife and an occasional teacher of writing classes at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Website: www.catherinelundoff.com
Hi, Catherine! Thanks so much for doing this interview. Could you please begin by telling us about your background? When did you discover you wanted to be an author? Who or what influenced you when you were growing up?
I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and spent a number of years migrating around the country, as well as living in Mexico and Nicaragua for short periods of time, before settling down in Minneapolis. Like most writers of my vintage, my day jobs have run the gamut, in my case from professional archeologist to bookstore owner to IT professional. I started writing fiction in the late nineties during the brief stint in law school that followed closing my little feminist/LGBT bookstore. Law school was not for me at the time and my then girlfriend (now wife), suggested I write a book. And so it began.
I came to fiction writing in my thirties, which I think was a good thing. I think my imagination needed to get seasoned for a few decades before I was ready to take to the keyboard. I must admit that I didn’t really consider writing fiction before then.
On the other hand, I have always been a wildly enthusiastic reader. I devoured fiction, particularly fantasy and historical, swashbuckling adventures. I grew up reading Alexander Dumas and Robert Louis Stevenson and Jane Austen and Anthony Hope and Walter Scott. And while I loved the stories, I desperately wanted to read books about girls and women who had exciting adventures, and fought duels and ran off with pirates and piloted spaceships. I discovered fantasy and science fiction in high school and started to find some of what I was looking for, just not so much that I didn’t want to write those stories myself. I’d say that all of this contributed, directly and indirectly, to the writing I do now.
You choose a wide range of themes and voices, from Egyptian mythology to the witchcraft of love spells to Elizabethan England to a Spillane-esque detective story on a different planet. How do you go about choosing a specific setting?
Well, the stories in A Day at the Inn, A Night at the Palace and Other Stories, were written over the course of a decade, so the settings had more to do with my stylistic influences at the time. I love trying out different styles and genres of writing with my stories since it challenges me and helps me learn more about how I like to write. I also have to admit that I draw a lot of inspiration from publication guidelines. The inspiration for “The Egyptian Cat,” for example, came from an anthology call for supernatural/horror mysteries with lesbian protagonists while “Red Scare” popped up in my head after some thoughts I had on the cultural influence of noir, particularly on science fiction. I wrote “Regency Masquerade” as an homage to romance author Georgette Heyer while “Spell, Book and Candle” was originally written for an anthology about magical books. A lot of my stories begin with a first line popping into my head, or a piece of music that I hear. I’m a big “what if?” kind of writer.
Your lead characters are intelligent and introspective, but other than that, are there unifying threads to your fiction, either that you placed there deliberately or that you later noticed had developed subconsciously?
Thanks! I like to play with the notion of transformation and change, whether that’s falling out of love, turning into a werewolf or embracing second chances at happiness. My life has been relatively action-packed so I think I like to apply that to my characters and use my stories to come up with different models for how they handle the things I throw at them. I like a story where the protagonist(s) grow and adapt. I’m also utterly fascinated by passing, whether as a different gender, orientation or other defined category, probably because I’m so very dreadful at things that require subtlety and convincing people that I’m something other than what I am. I want to understand how someone else could do it successfully. I think all of these crop up in my work, mostly deliberately. Though every now and then, I surprise myself.
Many of your stories in A Day at the Inn involve historical figures or re-imaginings of history. If you could travel back, temporarily or permanently, to a previous era, which would you choose? Is there a character of yours whose life you’d like to lead?
Oooh, temporarily, I think. Most parts of the documented past weren’t that much fun for women. I think my first choice would be England in the late 1700s. The clothes were brutal but there were a number of women writers who were pretty successful, many of whom would have been fascinating to meet, such as novelist Eliza Haywood. And if I could skip forward in time a bit and meet Jane Austen, that would be even better. As for living my characters’ lives, I’m not sure I’m that durable. But you never know. At the moment, I think I’d pick one of the werewolves in Silver Moon. Being a werewolf could be fun.
I know your work has been collected by a university, so I’m going to officially declare you a literary author. Let’s say you’re on a cruise ship and an annoying tablemate at dinner asks you, “So, what are you really writing about? What is it you’re trying to say?” Of course, if you wish to throw this tablemate overboard, I will help, but first, is that ever a reasonable question to ask a writer? And if so, do you have an answer at the ready?
Oh no, now I’m headed for an existential crisis? I’m not sure I think of myself as a literary writer (my archive is in the science fiction and gender studies areas), but I’m flattered. I think I’m really writing about my inner world in the way I’d like to see it projected on an external canvas, if that makes any sense. My brain is chockfull of weird connections and odd images and things I want to explore further, and all of that comes out in my fiction. It’s not intended to be autobiographical or metaphorical, but I think some of it is. Writing about what goes on in my head is a way to make it real, to see what it looks like for other people.
After that, I’d be up for the pitching overboard part. J
Now, instead of on a cruise ship, you’re in Hollywood. A team of writers/producers/directors are pulling their collective hair out because top actresses like Emily Blunt are beginning to point out that roles for women in superhero movies are terrible. If you had the opportunity to tell them what you think they could do better, what would you say? Are there any heroines from the world of literature they should be using as models?
Where to begin? Strong, interesting and realistic women with real bodies would be a great start. Strong, realistic queer women would be pretty awesome too (see Pariah and Albert Nobbs for two recent examples). I’d love to see a good movie about Julie d’Aubigny, La Maupin, who was a star of the Paris Opera in the sixteenth century as well as a crossdressing bisexual professional duelist. Or Restoration playwright Aphra Behn, who was also a spy. Those are historical figures, of course, though both have been written about. For purely fictional characters, Melissa Scott’s Trouble, the lesbian hacker protagonist of Trouble and Her Friends would make a terrific film heroine. The noir-ish protagonists of Sarah Schulman’s Girls, Visions and Everything and After Delores would also make terrific movie heroines. Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin would also make an outstanding historical film. Really, most of the time, there’s nowhere to go but up from sidekick, victimized girlfriend/wife and eye candy.
Going back to your own writing, your first novel, Silver Moon, is coming out soon, and it sounds fascinating. Apparently your heroine, Becca Thornton, discovers that one of the side effects of menopause turns out to be lycanthropy. I know a lot of people, including me, fantasize about being the only one with a disintegration ray attached to the front of the car to deal with obnoxious drivers. Turning into a werewolf when I’m feeling sick or moody, and thereby having the power to, say, tear an idiotic political pundit limb from limb sounds good, too. Now perhaps your werewolves are model citizens, but are you exploring what it might be like if a person’s creative power is replaced by a destructive power? What did you like best about writing this novel and what did you find most difficult?
Becca does have to wrestle with what it means to destroy someone in the name of protecting someone else. It is part of her whole experience of becoming a wolf and joining her Pack and coming out. I started the book with the idea that I wanted to write about a middle-aged woman who does heroic, out-of-the-ordinary things. I think the end result turned out to be more complicated, in part because Becca doesn’t think of herself as particularly strong or special, just honest.
What I liked best about writing the book was that I didn’t just build a protagonist, I built a community around her, characters that have taken on a life of their own. And who are now insisting that I write a sequel about them, possibly two. I think the hardest part was making the characters as real on the page as they are in my head. A lot of them got more and more three-dimensional as I worked with them, and expect that will continue through the next book or two (can you tell I’m a pantser, not a planner?).
Then, of course, I’ve got the usual first novel anxieties about whether or not everyone else will love my characters as much as I do. Here’s hoping!
Are there any characters in your head who won’t go away, but haven’t ever worked successfully into any story you’ve written? If so, could you tell us about them and why they’re being so ornery?
You know, I just sort of purged two of those in A Day at the Inn, A Night at the Palace. The story attached to the title and the associated characters, a couple of aging mercenaries, have been kicking around in my head for several years waiting for me to finish working with them. That’s usually my pattern: I start a story, get really excited about it, run into something like a wall of day job overtime or a lack of ideas, and wander off into something else. The good part is that I often find that I can pick up where I left off and finish the story later. Most of the time, anyway. At last count, I have four novels kicking around in various stages of progress and at least five short stories. Keeps it exciting. But it also means that I don’t have a lot of characters lingering in my head since I consider most of them to be in some stage of progress.
Who do you enjoy reading? Are there authors or books (new or old) that you wish a lot more people would discover?
Oh, lots! There were so many writers who I wish were still writing queer fiction. A few examples would be Ellen Galford, Mary Wings and Severna Park. As for writers who I think more people should discover, Sarah Caudwell wrote some marvelous mysteries featuring a protagonist whose gender is never explicitly defined and lots of queer characters. Melissa Scott’s earlier novels are finally coming back into print and should all be tracked down and read forthwith. Samuel Delany wrote a lot of brilliant stories and novels that are well worth tracking down. And I think everyone should read some Joanna Russ. My favorite books and stories, not necessarily LGBTQ and in no particular order include: The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer, The Fires of Bride by Ellen Galford, Temporary Agency by Rachel Pollack, “Aye, and Gomorrah” by Samuel Delany, “At the Banquet of the Lords of the Night” by Liz Williams, Transmission by Hari Kunzru and “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar” by Fritz Leiber. I like me a good short story, too. J
Do you have a favorite city or place to visit? If so, what do you like about that place? If not, is there a place you’ve yet to visit that you hope to see more than anywhere else?
I absolutely love Hay-on-Wye. It’s a town in Wales whose tourist industry is bookstores. We visited there a few years back and I’d love to go there again. Even the ruined castle in the middle of town has a bookstore in it. It’s utterly charming and it’s home to a Shepherd’s, a café/ice cream parlor that serves delicious ice cream made from sheep’s milk. Not only is it tasty, but for the lactose-intolerant like me, it’s an incredible treat. Bookshops, teashops, ice cream I can eat and lovely scenery make it pretty irresistible. Apart from that, we loved Florence, Italy and Paris, France and would love to go back to both places. Barcelona is on the agenda for the place we’d most like to visit next. I really look forward to seeing the architecture, among other things.
What are you looking forward to, both in terms of writing and your life in general?
Now, there’s a sweeping end of interview question! On the writing front, I’m really looking forward to the release of my first novel, Silver Moon, in two months. I’ll be doing a book tour, reading in Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison, then coming back to the Twin Cities for the GCLS Conference and a release reading at Magers & Quinn Bookstore in Minneapolis. Apart from that, I’ve started a sequel to Silver Moon and I’ve got some other projects in the works.
Life in general? Well, I turn 50 next year, so my wife and I are contemplating trips. So far, Scotland and Spain are on the table, so we’ll have to see how that works out from the scheduling and financial aspects. Apart from that, I’m hoping that I get to keep writing and editing to a happy, ripe old age!
Thank you, Catherine!
And thank you, Gavin! This has been terrific.
Learn more about Catherine and her books at catherinelundoff.com