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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 17b - Interview with T. T .Thomas

Saturday, December 9, 2017 - 11:05

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 31 (previously 17b) - Interview with T. T. Thomas - transcript

(Originally aired 2017/12/09 - listen here)

Back around a year ago, there was a discussion on a facebook group about what authors could do to raise the profile of lesbian historical fiction and to encourage more people to try the genre. That discussion was part of what inspired me to add author interviews to the podcast. And T.T. Thomas was one of the brainstormers, so naturally I asked her if she'd be interested in participating. This month she tells us about her historic passions, her interests. and her projects.

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(Transcript commissioned from Jen Zink @Loopdilou who is available for professional podcast transcription work. I am working on adding transcripts of the existing interview shows.)

Heather Rose Jones: Hello, this is Heather Rose Jones with the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. Today, we’re interviewing author T.T. Thomas, who also goes by Tara.

T.T. Thomas: Hi there!

H: And we’re going to talk a little bit about your historic fiction. I’ve been browsing through your catalog and I notice you’ve got a favorite era right around the turn of the… You know, I don’t know if we call it the turn of the 19th century or the turn of the 20th century. I guess it’s the turn of the 20th.

T: The turn of the century anyway.

H: Yes, yes. Right around 1900, plus/minus.

T: Right, late 1900.

H: How did you get interested in that particular period?

T: Well, several things. I got interested in, well, things were changing in a very big way in the world during that period of time with the results of the industrial revolution were being felt in the areas of technology, transportation, education, just about every subject… We were moving from the Victorian era into the Edwardian era, so I actually start usually around 1890, particularly 1895 to the end of that decade.

H: Uh huh.

T: Queen Victoria died, I think, what was it 1902? Everything changed. Warfare changed, beginning with the Boer war, which was an English conflict in South Africa, or one that they got into. Then, with the beginning of WWI, it changed again. Basically, I write anything from 1890-1950, but specializing in the end of the 1900s through WWI and WWII.

H: Yeah. Times when everything is changing like that are really fun to set stories in, I know.

T: They are, I mean, even the time between the two wars, particularly in Germany, is a fascinating time, prior to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis and the whole ‘How WWII came about.’ Anyway, that period of time there’s a lot of activity taking place in the world. In particular, the world of women is changing at this time. That fascinated me. I originally became very interested in the person of Anne Lister. She actually lived a century earlier, late 1700s. I think she died in 1840.

H: Yeah, thereabouts.

T: Right, but there was a woman who lived life her own way. We wouldn’t know a thing about it, because she kept diaries in a code. A distant relative found the diaries, was encouraged to burn them after he broke the code and realized what the books were about. She loved women, she was very explicit in her diaries about her romances with women and there were numerous women. Then he didn’t burn those diaries, what he did was he hid them behind a panel of the family estate. Flash forward to the 1980s and a woman comes along named Helena Whitbread, who decides that her project is going to be to decode these diaries. She wrote a book about it called I Know My Own Heart. A modest review of what she had decoded.

H: There’s a second volume that she did as well, titled No Priest But Love.

T: Exactly.

H: Yeah, those diaries are so inspiring in terms of sources for historic research.

T: They really are, they really are. I would say that that single, well both women, Anne Lister and Helena Whitbread, were incredibly inspiring to me.

H: Although, I have to say Anne Lister was not necessarily a nice person.

T: No, no she wasn’t. She was a crotchety old bitch, but she was very…

H: Very human.

T: Yeah, very intelligent, very familiar with the classics, and would often entice a woman that she had met with some somewhat vague reference to a line in one of the Greek or Roman classics that revealed where she was coming from. I mean, she found a way. That has always intrigued me, but until I heard about Anne Lister, the only other women I had heard of were, I’m going to say this wrong, the Ladies of Llangollen.

H: [demonstrates the Welsh pronunciation of Llangollen]

T: Anyway…

H: It’s tricky.

T: Eleanor Butler and Ponsonby. I love what Jeanette Winterson says, that those two ladies, they lived in a haze of female virtue and deep friendship. As opposed to Anne, who pulled on her trousers each morning and went out into the world, because she had money and she had an independent mind as she lived her life. Those two sets of people were specifically very inspiring. Thirdly, I would say that I’ve done a great deal of research on Queen Victoria. I wanted to know where everything came from.

H: Uh huh. What other sources of historic research have you enjoyed using? I mean, the lives of the women are very inspiring, but for looking up setting and details of the history…

T: Yeah. A lot of it, Heather, I get from journals of professional societies, like the historians or the geographers or the sociologists. A lot of what I do turns around language, so, believe it or not, the OED is a really great source of research to me.

H: I noticed that letters and correspondence are a major theme carrying across several of your books. Have you studied historic correspondences to get inspiration for that?

T: Yes, I have. I’ve studied in the sense of fiction, but also in real life correspondence. When first started thinking about publishing, I got to know another author named Ann Herendeen. She wrote a book called Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander. She made reference to a site online in her forward about the man who has done a great deal of research on the old bailey transcripts, the courts in London.

H: Oh, I love court records.

T: Yeah, yeah, and I just got so involved reading these court cases. Including several cases of women who posed as man and wife, the discovery of it, the outrage, and the… whatever the response was. It often wasn’t the apparent lesbianism that got such people intro trouble, it was because they had some kind of domestic disagreement.

H: Yeah, yeah. I promise that we’re going to come around to the specifics of your novels.

T: Okay.

H: But I was also interested in the settings that you’ve used. You know, you’ve got stories set in America and in England and the one that’s coming out soon in Morocco.

T: Right, England and Morocco.

H: I was wondering what your own background is, I don’t like to make guesses based on people’s accents, but you sound solidly American.

T: I am; however, I was born in England, outside London in a small little village called Tadley in Hampshire. My mother was Irish, and my father was an American officer, flight officer, in WWII. Then I was born, but because of my father’s citizenship, of course, I was American, and I was educated here in the United States, in Illinois in fact.

H: I was looking at, specifically, there’s a pair of stories that you have, the first one, The Blondness of Honey, which, I think, starts out, or its set, in the San Francisco area?

T: Yes, it is, uh huh.

H: And that’s in the 1890s, so before the big quake, but during the big boom of the San Francisco era.

T: Right, that’s right. The women in this story attend Mills college.

H: Oh, that’s so cool.

T: Right, which is in Oakland, my wife is from the Bay Area, so I had lot of… I had a beta, I had a guide. I had a guide for a lot of that. Some of it takes place on Point Reyes peninsula. Some of in the city, meaning San Francisco…

H: Can you give us a sort of a plot synopsis of what happens in that story?

T: We have our main protagonist and she has a childhood friend and they are attracted to one another. This is, as you say, 1895 or whatever. It’s really an Odyssey. It’s a great big book that takes everybody all the way across the country to Boston and back to Chicago and there is another woman involved. It’s about how the women dealt with the phenomenon of same-sex attraction against the backdrop of what was going on historically in this country. This was also a period of time where we had the Columbia Exposition in Chicago, the World’s Fair, and I wanted to make it a saga. You know, first book, I had to write war and peace, right? (laughter)

H: (laughter) It looked to me, based on the description, and I apologize that I haven’t read your entire oeuvre.

T: I apologize that I can’t remember the plot! (laughter) Kidding.

H: (laughter) There’s a story, Vivian and Rose, that it says the framing of that story is that it is being written by one of the characters from The Blondness of Honey.

T: Exactly. This was a novella that I actually wrote before The Blondness of Honey, but I didn’t publish before. It’s in the first-person, which is tricky, a lot of it, again: letters, notes, the kind of thing I like to do, that kind of correspondence.

H: Reading the description of it, it talks about mistaken identities, and abductions to Barbados, and it sounded to me like it was one of those over-the-top gothic novels like Jane Austen juvenilia. That the idea of it being written by your character gave you the freedom to make it really over-the-top.

T: And it was, it was over the top. It’s very dramatic and, I mean, heart-on-sleeve, yah, abduction, Barbados, New York… I packed a lot into a small book. Yes, and it was because it was being written by someone who was a writer at the turn of the century, that century.

H: Yeah, it really had that echo to it.

T: Yeah, and it has that feel when you read it. At least, I hope it does.

H: So, the book that I think I was first aware of your name in connection with is A Delicate Refusal

T: Yeah, uh huh, that’s one of my favorites.

H: That’s the WWI, England, and two women who have a somewhat unusual type of relationship in the context of the book.

T: Yes. I introduce, without calling it this, the concept of a demisexual. Back in the days prior to WWI, after and during WWII, the worst thing that could be said about a woman is that she was frigid. It took us until now, I guess, to understand, or in the last twenty years, that is not the case. That it’s not some kind of an ailment.

H: Let’s define that for our listeners. A demisexual is someone who feels desire only after they’ve fallen in love, to put kind of in a short-hand.

T: That works. What I did is that I created this completely over-sexed [character] and had her falling in love with someone who is basically a demisexual. They are so flummoxed by this attraction. Oh and, by the way, the second woman is married.

H: As one was.

T: Yeah, ha! They’re neighbors. What happens, basically, is that they both almost have a nervous breakdown in response to their own relationship. The one who is completely sexually typical is suddenly going blind, sort of.

H: That sounds an awful like the old wives’ tale about what makes you go blind. Was it meant to be symbolic that way?

H: Yes, yes, yes, yes. Yes, it was. Yes, it was. Thank you, you’re the first person who seems to have noticed that. Anyway, the other one becomes partially and intermittently paralyzed. Has trouble walking, standing, it would be what certain psychologists from certain areas would have called sexual hysteria. Socially it was called frigid, frigidity. The women who had the bear the brunt of these diagnoses suffered quite a bit. It would take someone like the other neighbor to break her out of it. This is their story. Again, against the backdrop of the eve of WWI. Well, I had to get rid of the husband, for one thing.

H: So, you send him off to war, huh?

T: (laughter) I had to get rid of a couple of people.

H: Reading the descriptions of your books, I get that sense that your books are kind of on the sexy side, is that fair to say?

T: Yeah, but it’s like no body parts, I mean, I am the queen of the metaphor when it comes to the actual sexual encounter. I don’t do fade-to-black, but I don’t name body parts either, for the most part. That was a conscious decision because of the era in which I am placing these people.

H: That’s always tricky, you know. What would a 19th century woman have called what she was doing?

T: Right. I mean, the Victorians were far more adventuresome than they were given credit for being, but the language of their liaisons was very metaphoric. To bring this full-circle, I start out with someone like Anne Lister, you know, who writes in code, and I end up with people who speak in metaphors.

H: I would like to move on to your newest book, because by the time this interview goes live, it looks like Mistress of Mogador will be out in print.

T: Yes, it will be.

H: That looks like quite an adventure story.

T: It is an adventure story. It’s basically the story of a woman who trades inheritances with her brother. He gets the estate, she gets the shipping company. He’s driven it into the ground and it’s almost bankrupt and she has to salvage it. It’s fine with her. It’s her adventure. She goes to Morocco.

H: And gets involved with a Berber woman…

T: Yes, a Berber woman, who works for a Jewish man who works for the sultan. She has these three ratty old ships and she meets this Berber woman who seems to know, before she does, that there is a chemistry going on.

H: What’s the challenge of writing a character for a setting that’s so very different from your own? When you were writing about Morocco and Moroccan culture, what are the difficulties…?

T: Huge. Huge! I don’t speak Arabic, I had to… It’s taken me almost three years to do the whole thing. The Berbers have always tried to maintain their own culture against the backdrop of having been the conquered. I had to do a lot, a lot of research. Again, there are quite a few Moroccan researchers who write in English, Arabic, and French, so I was using Google translate quite a bit. I can sort of stumble through French. It was fascinating. I had a fabulous time writing this book.

H: If people want to learn more about you or follow you in social media, where should they go?

T: For my website, it’s

H: And I’ll put all this in the show-notes so people can find it easily.

T: On Facebook, I have TT Thomas-Author. I don’t use that much because I actually interact with a lot of people, so I just have my TT Thomas. I’m very available on that.

H: Twitter? Blogging? Any other platforms?

T: I do twitter, but it’s mainly political and I’m not blogging right now.

H: Okay, well thank you very much for coming on and letting me interview you for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast. I hope you’ve enjoyed the experience.

T: I have, Heather. Thank you so much for inviting me, and it’s been fun. Thank you.

Show Notes

A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.

In this episode we talk about:

  • What T.T. finds so interesting about the decades around 1900
  • Her fascination with the Regency-era figure of Anne Lister, whose diaries discuss her affairs with women in code
  • Using professional journals, dictionaries, and court records for historic research
  • Correspondence as a medium of storytelling
  • How T.T.’s international family history inspired her settings
  • The cross-country romantic odyssey of The Blondness of Honey from San Francisco to Chicago
  • The story-within-a story of Vivien and Rose: when your characters start writing their own gothic romantic adventures
  • Writing less common takes on sexuality
  • Speaking of sex in code and metaphor, both in historic documents and fiction
  • Mistress of Mogador and researching cultures very different from your own
  • Books mentioned

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Links to T.T. Thomas Online

Major category: