Book Appreciation with Darlene Vendegna - The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 67 (previously 25c)
(Originally Aired 2018/08/18 - listen here)
Heather Rose Jones: For today's book appreciation show, The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast is delighted to welcome Darlene Vendegna to talk about some of her favorite historically based fiction featuring queer female characters. Darlene is a voracious reader and energetic booster of lesbian fiction and I'm glad to have this opportunity to have her on the show. This is an unusual recording session because we're actually sitting here in Darlene’s lovely little house in Oakland to record. I first met Darlene at a reading at Laurel Book Store right after my first book came out. And well, let's let her talk about it.
Darlene Vendegna: Yeah, we first met at Laurel Book Store, but we almost met when you did your launch party at the late, great Other Change of Hobbit in… Where was it? In Richmond or…?
H: That's El Cerrito then.
D: Oh, El Cerrito. Oh god, yeah, they moved to El Cerrito, yeah. But I got the time wrong which is not unusual for me, [Heather laughs] and we got there I think too early for it and we couldn't wait around.
H: Yeah. And I showed up for the reading [Darlene laughs] and Tom Whitmore said… Was it Tom? No, I don’t think Tom was there. It was Dave. Dave said, he's like, “There were these people here earlier that came for your reading.” And I'm thinking, "Who? [Darlene laughs] Who is this? Who even knew about it?” [Darlene and Heather laugh]
D: Well, and I knew about it because Karin Kallmaker, who's with Bella, is a good friend of mine and she said, “Hey, this new book came out and I think it's up your alley and my daughter loves this author. She wrote a lot of stuff. She wrote short stories for Marion Zimmer Bradley, Sword and Sorceress." And I was like, "I have all those books, [Heather laughs] that means I've read this woman. [Heather laughs] Who is she?" And so then put it all together, and those great skin changer stories were so great. But we missed you then, but then I think I might even have hounded Luan at Laurel Book Store to have you in, which I do. And she had you and we met and we've lived happily ever after for a few years now. [Heather laughs] Yeah, and I met Karin through--dating myself here--back in AOL days when there was a W to W I think, women to women groups in AOL and we had a group, and I met Karin and I think I met Nicola Griffith through that and a few others. And then it wasn't until Karin and I clued in that…wait a minute, we live closer by. [Heather laughs] And I think a couple other authors came, I don't know, we finally met and that's a good 20 something years ago and we've been friends ever since, so.
H: Yeah. And of course, Karin was the acquisitions editor at Bella when I sold my first book. But she and I had actually first met on a Usenet group called alt.shoe.lesbians, which was this weird little social group. The name came first and then a bunch of lesbians moved in and decided to set up an online coffee shop there, and we had a fabulous time until Usenet fell into the gutter and all the trolls moved in.
D: Yeah, it's so funny we're talking about this stuff and I know for a lot of people who listen to the podcast, this is like history to them. Yeah. I was thinking about the books I would talk about today, and the ones that I'm going to talk about are all historical. I mean old in the ‘40s and I think one is in the 1900s and one is in the 1800s. Anyway, but it occurs to me that crap, I could just talk about the books that I first read when I came out in the ‘70s. [Heather and Darlene laugh] And to all of the kids now, that's history. That's historical fiction to them. [Heather laughs] I mean, Curious Wine for all intents and purposes, it's historical fiction, you know? Anyway, but we're going to have a real history. For all of us, that's history anyway.
H: So, what are some historical books you want to talk about?
D: Oh, boy, I had a hard time making a shortlist. But the top three are Hild by Nicola Griffith. And Nicola Griffith writes all kinds of genres and she's fabulous. And Hild isn't really lesbian. She's certainly a strong female character and in the way that--
H: So, I'm going to interrupt you and say let's give the context of the book.
D: Okay, [Heather laughs] perfect, perfect. Yeah, yeah. So, Hild is St. Hilda of Whitby. She founded a monastery in the 7th century and she was an important figure in the conversion of Anglo Saxons to Christianity. So, you guys are falling asleep, but let [Heather laughs] me just say, not a lot is known about her life other than she was like the second daughter of a minor king in a time in England when there were little kingdoms everywhere and it was always warfare going on. She was a second daughter of one of these minor kings and he was killed when she was very young, he was poisoned. And so, she spent her life in court but as a very secondary figure. Not only because she was the second child, she was a girl, and in that time girls weren't really educated very much, but she was educated and she loved to read. And by virtue of her education, not only her education but her very observant nature, she saw things that a lot of people just ignored or didn't pay attention to. And so, she got this reputation for being almost a seeress or a prophetess because she would know things were going to happen. Not because she really could see, but because she saw. She has a really, really fascinating character. And the way that Nicola writes her and again, not much is known about her, so Nicola had to do really detailed research into that era and how people spent their time and predominantly how women spent their time and lived their lives. And so, she creates this incredible story and it's a journey of a coming-of-age story in a way because it starts with Hild as a very young girl and it follows her until she's like 23 or so. And there's going to be others who are going to go further where you really find out what she is, and it's just a growing up kind of a story. Her primary relationships were with women. So, although we can't say that this is a lesbian story, she definitely had love interests that were girls.
H: Yeah. And Griffith has set up a context saying, "Here's a context in which women having romantic and erotic relationships with each other is an integrated part of this society, but it's not the equivalent of heterosexual relationships. It’s just this other thing that goes on."
D: Sure. And I think a lot of it was a woman could have a woman lover because she'd still be a virgin when she got married, so it was kind of an accepted thing or it seemed to be common that you'd have your significant friend who maybe would be your bed warmer or something. It's really a dense book, and I don't mean that in a dry way because Nicola has a beautiful way of writing that even though there's a lot of detail, it really is just engaging and interesting and she uses language so beautifully. And I'm a fast reader, so a lot of times I might skim parts if I feel like it's not furthering the story [Heather laughs] in any way for me. I'm notorious for skipping sex scenes because it's like, "I know how sex works. [Heather laughs] Thank you, I’ll move forward." There isn't certainly really sex scenes in this, but Nicola writes so beautifully that even though a passage might be a little dense, the way she writes and the words that she uses, I would go back and reread a passage and read it out loud just to taste it, you know what I mean?
H: Yeah, there are stories where I have consumed them as audio stories and now I can't imagine reading them on the page because the verbal language is just so much a big part of it.
D: Yeah, that's an interesting thing, you know, I never really got into audiobooks very much, but then for some reason, I did pick up one. Oh, I know why, it was Patience and Sarah. Janis Ian is a friend of mine and I love her music, and she narrated Patience and Sarah the audiobook.
H: Oh, I may have to get that. [Heather laughs]
D: Oh my god! Oh my god! It's Janis Ian and Jean Smart, who is from Designing Women I think, she's done a bunch of stuff. So each play a person. One plays Patience, one plays Sarah. And not only are they reading it, but they're acting it. And I've read that book countless times. And when I heard them read it to me, it was like a whole new book. So I can't [Heather laughs] recommend it enough. Even a book you know, their voices are great, yep. So anyways, Hild, yeah. It's just a fascinating time period, incredibly fascinating character, and it's just beautifully written. We were talking about this earlier, there's no really narrative arc in terms of there was not like…
H: It's not like a clear three-act plot structure.
D: Exactly, right. Exactly, right. But she's fascinating and she writes beautifully. And so, again, she's not a lesbian per se, but she is a strong self-actualized interesting character.
H: And there are female-female relationships in there that are both emotional and erotic.
D: Yes, yes, yes. So, this isn't a bathtub read, [Heather laughs] you know?
H: Not without getting very wrinkled skin.
D: Very wrinkled skin [Heather and Darlene laugh] yeah, yeah, yeah. So, I mean I could read a typical lesfic book in a couple hours. This took several days, many days to read. So, that's number one book that comes to mind. The second book that comes to mind is one I just read not long ago. And it's actually a novella, so it's not a full-length book. So here we go, the other extreme, and it's called Passing Strange by Ellen Klages. This story, it's got a little minor element of magic to it, so that kind of put it in the sci-fi fantasy realm. But really to me, it's more historical fiction. There's actually two timelines. It takes place, the bulk of the story and the romance part of the story, there is a romance in it is 1940s and it's San Francisco, which living here in Oakland, I love the history of San Francisco and Oakland and they had a really rich history. And so, it's 1940s and it's about a circle of lesbian friends who are living more life in San Francisco. One of them is a painter, another one is a drag performer, another one is a lawyer and it's in the ‘40s and they're all closeted, of course. And a couple of the characters, it's a circle of friends, a couple of the women are married to men. One is a merchant sailor, so he's not around so that's convenient, and the other one is married, I think her husband is gay, so they have this whole cover thing going on. That's not really a bulk of the story, but that's just interesting to see how these lesbians lived in the ‘40s and how they had to adhere to the rules of when they'd go to a bar, had to make sure they were wearing three articles of women's clothing. Otherwise, the cops who routinely harassed the bars anyway would have a reason to arrest these women.
H: Well, and another very historic part of it was that the bars and nightclubs that were gay gathering places also had to exist as tourist attractions.
D: Right, right. Yeah, they'd have the lookie-loos that would come. And so, the main story with the romance in it is bookended by present day. And it's you meet this elderly Asian woman who has this piece of art that she's selling. And you don't know when you read the first part, but the piece of art she's selling is by her friend. Then it flashes back to the ‘40s and we meet this character who present day is just known by one name, and all they know on present day is that she was a prolific artist for comic book covers and serial science fiction covers and then mysteriously disappeared. And her signature was one name, so of course, the assumption was that this mysterious artist who disappeared was a male, and there’s legend of this lost piece of art that, you know? And so, this woman happens to have this lost piece of art and goes to sell it and that's that. She's trying to sell it, she sells it then you go into past and then you find out the whole genesis of that piece of art and their romance and there's a mysterious disappearance and that's the little piece of magic that's in it, and then it jumps back to present day. But the bulk of the story, again, is this 1940s novella. It was just fascinating. This doesn't happen to me with a lot of books, but when I finished reading this book, I had a hangover. I was like, "I love those people, I love their time, I love their [Heather laughs] story. I don't want to tarnish it by anything."
H: I want to go back and hang out with them.
D: I know, exactly. I wanted it to be more. I wanted to hear more about them. They were really fascinating characters.
H: And one of the fascinating things, you say is you want to keep hanging out with them. When I had Ellen on the show and talking about all of her various novels, it turns out that there are little Easter eggs where characters crossover between her stories and that there's this larger network by which they're all part of the same universe as it were.
D: Right. And I realized that afterwards, I went to... She did a reading in San Francisco, she and Lucy Jane Bledsoe, and I’m a big fan of Lucy so I went. And Ellen was reading from her new book which is a YA book about a little girl in the ‘50s who wants to play Little League.
H: Yes, it's Out in Left Field.
D: Yeah, Out in Left Field, yeah. And I go to these readings and I'm like, ‘No, no, not buying anything. I don't know need [Heather laughs] new books right now. Don't, don't, don't, don’t.” And I had already bought Passing Strange, but then she read from this stupid book, [Heather laughs] little baseball book, and I'm a kid of the ‘60s.
H: Yeah, you're sitting here wearing a ball cap right now.
D: Right, right, my Cub’s hat [Heather laughs] and I was a little jock in the ‘60s. Maybe we could play softball if we got the equipment. Anyway, so a story about a little girl who wants to play baseball. And there's a character in that who is related to a character in Passing Strange, very secondary minor character, and that character... I think Out of Left Field or Out in the Field, whatever it's called, that character's mother or aunt is in Ellen's other books, Green Grass Sea?
H: Green Glass Sea, which is about the Manhattan Project.
D: Right, right. In fact I think... Anyway, there’s this person--
H: The sort of subtle, as I say, it's the Easter egg level network of connections that I love.
D: Yeah. Right, right. Reading Passing Strange, I wouldn't have known that this character is related, but she mentioned it when she was reading from the Left Field book that, "Oh, by the way, so and so is related to so and so." And so then I went Googling and good reading, I was like, "Oh, okay. To read, to read, to read. [Heather and Darlene laugh] Oh my god, got them all."
H: And I think sometimes authors do that for their own amusement. There was, I think it was on Facebook or something recently, Jae posted a diagram of connections between lots of her novels. Not all of them, there were a couple little islands in there. Then she's got again these Easter egg connections between the stories.
D: Yeah. Well, and that's funny. And if you follow an author, you appreciate that. And I don't know if it necessarily makes you want to read more of their book, but it certainly--
H: Well, it makes you feel like you've got this inside line. And if it's done in a way that jumps out at you, so it's like, "Oh, I see how that was done," then it's not as much fun. But if it's like, "Wait, I recognize that name. Wait, I recognize that story," and you feel like you're in on a secret, that could be fun.
D: Right, right. Yeah, yeah, for sure. So yeah, so the time period, the characters, it was really great. I really loved it. I look forward to reading all her other stuff too. [Heather laughs] I really do. Yeah, yeah. So, I could jump to the connection with Ellen and Lucy Jane. So, Lucy Jane Bledsoe, she writes in many different genres. And her books I think they're published by mainstream presses, so she's not really in the lesfic world per se although she was the keynote at GCLS this year. But she wrote a book called A Thin Bright Line, and it takes place like ‘50s- ‘60s, Cold War. And it's loosely based on, she had an aunt who passed away when Lucy was nine. And she didn't know much about her aunt other than she's got the same name, Lucy, but she knew she was a scientist and a prolific, good writer and editor and she worked for the government and she never married. So that's what Lucy knew about her. And so, she was intrigued and she did enough research to find out specifically what her aunt did, and that her aunt yes, definitely was a lesbian. [Heather laughs] And so, she constructed this whole story about her aunt's life with the little tidbits that she knew for sure and then she added more. And so, her aunt, the main character in the book, her name is Lucybelle Bledsoe. So she works for the government as an editor for the scientists who are researching the polar icecaps in Antarctica I think. And it's during the Cold War, and the concern was that the Russians were going to get there first. And so there's all these scientists there, and she’s the editor. So she takes their sprawling [Heather laughs] scientific findings, you can appreciate this Heather, and she makes them readable and legible. So, she's very well regarded. Well, she's also a lesbian, and of course, she works for the government in the '50s during the Cold War. And so she has to be really, really closeted at work. And her boss, the guy who hires her, knows this little secret about her, but makes it very clear, "I know." But they have to keep it a secret. It's very different. So, she works with these women and little by little finds out that they are also lesbian. And so they have this little secretive group that gets together. And she constructs this... So it's New York and it's Chicago. And when she's in New York, Lucy has her meeting certain people, lesbians who are famous to us now. But at the time that Lucy of course is meeting them, they’re just lesbians who do whatever they do. So, it's a great look again at the lesbian life. And again, it's the ‘40s. I'm sorry. No, this is the ‘50s and ‘60s. Then there's Martin Luther King and civil rights, so she didn't live very long, but she lived a really interesting life. And it was really interesting Lucy says that when she was asking about trying to reach out to people who had known her aunt, they were all very secretive over the phone to this girl calling and saying, “Hey, I'd like to know what you know about Lucybelle Bledsoe.” And they weren't really very forthcoming with information. But then when Lucy went to New York and met these people and they realized that this woman on the phone asking questions about their friend is like their friend, they were much more forthcoming. So, once they realized that Lucy was also a lesbian, they were like, “Well, let me tell you what we know about her and yes, she definitely was and this and that.” And she missed like by two years meeting the woman who had been her aunt's lover, just missed it. So that's a little piece of it.
But again, Lucy is the same, much like Nicola, writes in all different genres and just writes beautifully, just loved it. It was just another really great taste of history and strong lesbians. I can't talk about lesbian historical fiction without talking about Justine Saracen.
H: Especially if you're talking about 20th century.
D: Especially if you're talking about 20th century, yeah. But she wrote a book, one that I specifically wanted to mention is 16th century, and it's called The Sistine Heresy. So, it takes place since the 16th century in Rome during the time when Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel. The main character is connected to the Borgia family. And in 16th century, the Borgia Pope dies, and so Adrianna loses any cachet that [Heather laughs] she had because the Borgias are no longer in power.
H: Suddenly, the Borgias are--if you were--poison.
D: Right, right, exactly. [Heather and Darlene laugh] Yeah, right. So, it takes place there in Rome, and Adrianna meets a painter who is working with Michelangelo and she's a woman, but she's dressing as a man so she can work as a painter. And they have a romance, and Michelangelo is having a romance with a young castrato. So, there's these two little romances going on during a time when the church was more than a little corrupt. And there's one priest in particular, this is also the time of the Spanish Inquisition, and so there was one priest in particular who has it out for the Borgias and has it out for Adrianna and Michelangelo too because he suspects their proclivities. And so, there’s two romances, and Michelangelo and Adrianna are friends and of course of the whole foursome they're friends. But Justine, her historical research is impeccable and her use of place I mean, Rome becomes a total character in this book. Peggy, my wife, and I both read The Sistine Heresy in preparation of going to Rome two years ago, and it was great because the Castel…
H: Castel Sant'Angelo.
D: Yes, yes. So, it was really fascinating to go there because it's in the book, in Sistine Heresy, it's mentioned. So it's a delicious taste of 16th century Rome, and going there after having read the book really helped cement in me that Justine is really good [Heather laughs] with scenery man, really good at setting a scene and her research is just impeccable. All her books, I mean, from 16th century, she's got a couple that I think are in ancient Egypt and then of course World War Two with her… I think she just won an award for the Berlin one or something.
H: The Berlin one I think is new this year.
D: Yeah. Oh, so the sniper’s… Oh, she did one about the The Witch of Stalingrad, yeah. One of the reasons I like to read historical fiction is when I was a kid, history [snores] [Heather laughs] but when you can get a taste of the actual people's lives, you can give me the information as long as there's a good story wrapped around it. I'm fascinated to learn about World War Two and any time period, but give me a story with it and then I’ll learn it out.
H: Yeah, something to root your memories in.
D: Exactly, right. Exactly, right. And so yeah, so that's one of the things I really like about historical fiction, I like a good story. But I'd like to get a little bit of an education, but boy, it's got to be engaging, you know? You have to be good characters and yeah.
H: And one of the things I love about historical fiction about women is that for me as a woman, it does give me that rooting, that engagement of saying we were there. I mean, even just women, women were there in history. I did this joke where it's like, based on statistical documentary evidence, women were actually very rare in the Middle Ages. [Darlene and Heather laugh] And telling stories of historical settings through women's lives and showing that just because we don't make it into the kings and battles-type history books doesn't mean that we were not vitally important to everything that went on. I love books that demonstrate that.
D: Yeah, these books, the ones that I've now mentioned, they all have an element of there's not a lot of really exciting action that takes place in them, sometimes a little bit, and they're more personal stories. But if you want to talk about historical stories that are also actiony-based, Linda Kay Silva now writing as Alex Westmore, she published a lot of her books under her real name Linda Kay Silva and now she's rebranding them all with this Alex Westmore name. So, she writes a bunch of different genres as well. She did a detective series and I think there's a time travel one, and there's several. But the one in particular for context of this is pirate stories. And it's the late 1500s when first Queen Elizabeth was in power. And the main character in the story, it's a trilogy--not a trilogy now, I think there's five and she's working on a sixth. And the main character is a young Irish woman is key, she's a lesbian, her childhood friend is abducted by pirates and so Quinn is the main character, so Quinn decides that she is going to hop on board a pirate ship and go to rescue her childhood friend. Well, the pirate ship that she gets on dressing as a man is a pirate ship that's captained by Grace O'Malley, who is a legitimate historical figure as is Queen Elizabeth, of course. And Grace O'Malley has a vendetta against Francis Drake. And it's set in, this is a time when Elizabeth was really expanding her reign and trying to get hold of all of Ireland, and the Irish clansmen weren't having it. So there were a lot of battles and Quinn is very Irish and Grace is, of course, very Irish. So, Quinn joins the pirate ship passing as a man and has these adventures.
H: So, what's the title here?
D: Oh, so the title of the first one is The Pirate Booty or The Pirate’s Booty, and the series is called The Plundered Chronicles. And so, you follow Quinn through being on Grace's ship and even Grace doesn't know that she's really a woman. And it follows and Grace goes on to other books and Quinn goes on in other adventures and it is jam packed. They read almost like action films. I mean, Quinn is a great character, almost too great of a character [Heather laughs] in that she's really good-looking and women just fall over themselves. She’s just like everybody wants her. Even the straight women are like, “Oh, I could go for that.” [Heather laughs] But she's also strong, independent and the action and the fighting and it all feels really realistic in the relationships between Grace and Drake and what was really going on in the time with piracy was really interesting. Yeah, so they're fun. They're really actiony. And Linda is a history professor, so I got to say she probably has all her facts straight. I haven't followed up on it, but they're really fun. These are books that are page turners.
H: Yeah, I keep thinking that some year I need to do a special pirate show because it's such a major sub-genre.
D: Yeah. It really is, surprisingly.
H: And for one reason or another, I just haven't read many of the books so I can't do the show yet, but some day, some day.
D: Yeah, she's fun. She writes really well in an exciting way. I would consider anything by Nicola or anything by Lucy Jane to be real literature, you know? Plundered Chronicles is fun. It’s fun and right.
H: Drama adventure.
D: Drama adventure, yeah, with historical element that's really interesting. So, that's my list. I mean I can go on and on, but you have a time limit, I’m sure. [Heather and Darlene laugh]
H: Well, thank you so much Darlene for coming on the show and sharing stories and telling us all about your favorite historical books.
D: Oh, my pleasure, are you kidding? I like to talk about books all the time. I’m obsessed.
H: And that's why I had you on. [Heather and Darlene laugh]
D: It was great. Thanks, Heather.
In the Book Appreciation segments, our featured guest will talk about one or more favorite books with queer female characters in a historic setting.
In this episode Darlene Vendegna, voracious reader and energentic booster of lesbian fiction, recommends some favorite queer historical novels:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online