Writing Nuanced Queer Protagonists: A Q&A with Taylor Jenkins Reid, Writer of “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo”
A huge lover of literary fiction that makes me emotionally distraught, I strive to read every well-written novel that features queer protagonists. The thing is, they’re not easy to come by.
For one, it’s difficult to find a novel with a queer protagonist that isn’t erotica. And if the protagonist is indeed a member of the LGBTQ community, often the character’s identity is reduced to that person’s sexuality. It’s as if the author knows the main readership is going to be queer, so they hammer home, “LOOK, this person isn’t straight! Keep reading! Look!”
Or the opposite will occur. The individual’s sexuality is portrayed as a character trait. Their sexuality, it seems, doesn’t relate to the person’s identity at all. While it’s true that a person’s sexuality doesn’t define them, at the same time, it contributes more to a person’s identity than something like eye color. I’ve found that depictions of sexuality in this manner often leaves you, the reader, wanting more.
Within the past few years, I’ve only fallen in love with two beautifully written works of fiction where the author portrays a complex and nuanced queer sexuality.
The first is The Song of Achilles (2011), written by Madeline Miller, which details the life of Patroclus, an awkward young prince, who has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. The story takes you from birth to death, describing both Patroclus’ and Achilles’ struggles as they grow up together, fall in love, and head to war.
The second novel, which came out earlier this year, is The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, written by Taylor Jenkins Reid. If you’re a reader, by now you’ve surely heard of this novel. It was the one of Amazon’s books of the month, Indie Next Pick, Barnes and Nobles’ best of June, LibraryReads top 10, PopSugar must have box pick, and a selection for the Book of the Month Club. The book has been covered by covered by Entertainment Weekly (Must List), People Magazine, US Weekly, The Wall Street Journal, Cosmopolitan, The Hollywood Reporter, Buzzfeed, Bustle, and now, Bisexual.org.
Talking to Taylor, I didn’t want to focus on what she already discussed in those other interviews. I wanted to focus on how to write a breathtaking story with queer protagonists. I also wanted to explore what she thought her role is as an author. Taylor is white and straight, where her main characters are biracial and bisexual. What’s her role in telling the story of races and sexuality that isn’t hers? That was just one of the questions that I asked in my interview with her.
So here it is. My entire interview with Taylor Jenkins Reid. (Warning: There are a few spoilers ahead!)
Zachary Zane: What inspired you to write this book?
Taylor Jenkins Reid: When I read Ava Gardner’s lost memoir, which was told through her interviews with her ghostwriter, it felt like the perfect premise for a book about a fictional actress spilling secrets. I wanted to give this actress a stunning love story that the public never knew about. And that’s when the story started to take shape.
I’ve always wanted to write a story about two women in love, in no small part in homage to some of the meaningful queer relationships I’ve seen in my own family. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was my opportunity.
I wrote this book once I knew that I had enough of a built-in audience that I could write this book. It was a much bigger risk than my other work, not only because it dealt with a queer love story, but because it also deals with a woman’s interest in her own sexuality, sex positivity, female ambition, unlikeable characters, and a host of other themes that some people may find controversial.
I wrote it thinking that Hillary Clinton would be president and some of the themes might feel quaint in a few years. But the world isn’t changing as fast as I’d hoped, obviously.
Taylor Jenkins Reid
How did you go about preparing to write this book?
I have a film degree and my first jobs out of college were in Hollywood. So setting the scene came somewhat naturally to me. But I read a number of celebrity memoirs and books on Hollywood scandal. The most important was perhaps Tab Hunter’s biography, Tab Hunter Confidential. He speaks candidly about what it meant to be gay in Hollywood in the 50s and 60s. He talks about the lies he had to tell, the fear he lived with, the women he had to publicly date. His biography and its tandem documentary were incredibly helpful in understanding the humanity of a person forced to hide themselves.
What was your process during the actual writing of the book?
I write a book every year and at this point, it has become a fairly set pattern. I spend every fall researching, plotting, and writing a first draft. Then I spend the winter and spring on revisions. With Evelyn Hugo, each draft became more and more streamlined and I worked to make each moment of time more and more honest and true. Evelyn and Celia’s relationship, which is the crux of the novel, was something that I worked tirelessly to execute in a way that felt both tortured but also joyful — like the best epic love stories.
Evelyn’s understanding of her own sexuality was something that I revised time and again. I tried to read the book through the eyes of all different types of people to make sure Evelyn’s words could be understood on their own merit and not misconstrued. I took the honor of that very seriously.
Often we’re told to write about what we know, but you’re neither queer nor biracial. Do you think it’s your place to to tell the story of how these marginalized groups feel when you’re white and straight?
Yes, and no. Most importantly, no. We have a problem, in publishing and entertainment, of not centering minority voices. The solution to that problem is to bolster and support minority writers. There is no replacement or substitution for the incredibly important and, quite frankly, exciting work of reading, celebrating, and promoting minority writers. I naturally read stories of people different than myself but I’ve made a concerted effort to spend the small power behind my name blurbing minority voices and I will continue to spend whatever platform I have to champion the work of minority voices. This is what the majority should be doing and it is, first and foremost, where our energy needs to be spent.
Work written by people who have lived the story is always going to have a beauty and honesty that cannot be matched by someone writing outside of their own life.
The reason why I wrote this book despite not being queer or biracial is because, due to my work writing about straight white women, I have an audience. I continue to be handed a microphone. I have a book deal. And my feeling was that I could use that book deal, that immense privilege, to continue to write about people like myself or I could use it to write about people that often get pushed to the sidelines.
I chose to center my story on women who are underrepresented. I’m able to do that and still be considered mainstream because of my previous work. Which means I’m able to put a queer story in the mainstream and put it in front of people who might not otherwise read one. I am in a unique position to be able to do that and so I chose to do it.
But then I come back to my original point. It’s very hard to parse out, even for me, the line where good intentions can turn into misrepresentation or to a loss of opportunities for people to tell their own stories. I’m very proud of this book but the rest of my energy, for the time being, will be spent in trying to lift up other people to tell their stories themselves.
Did you consider this LGBT fiction or just fiction?
I consider it fiction just as I would consider any story with an LGBTQ+ main character to be fiction. On the one hand, niche labels help us seek out what we want. But it also allows people to exclude themselves. I’ve seen it many times with the term, “Women’s Fiction.” You put that label on it because it’s about a woman and, in doing so, you all but ensure that a man won’t read it.
But the majority needs to read and watch stories about the minority! It’s crazy how often people don’t do that. Men should be interested in the inner lives of women. Straight people should be interested in the inner lives of queer people. White people should be interested in the inner lives of people of color. The cis-gendered about the transgendered, the able-bodied about those with disabilities, etc.
So I think of the book as fiction in the hopes that other people won’t exclude themselves from being interested in it just because it might be different.
You weren’t afraid to use the word bisexual when it seems like nearly all movies, books, and other forms of media are afraid to label. The scene when Evelyn comes out is so strong because she says what she is so unequivocally. Why did you decide to use the B word as opposed to saying, “I like men and women.”
Well, first in terms of character, in the modern-day that Evelyn is telling her story, she’s 79 and she’s spent some time observing how the world is changing. And she’s seeing that there are now words that exist that, had they been more popular when she was younger, might have helped her make sense of herself.
I certainly feel that way about some of the ideas that we’re embracing today. I was always made fun of for not being feminine enough. I was called a boy, told I had penis envy, called sir, etc. I was told many, many times that I was gay and must be in denial about it. So I tried very hard in my teens and twenties to balance being true to myself with not doing anything that someone might tell me was “wrong.”
Now I see teenagers who have no hang up about gender at all. There is such freedom in that. I think, “If people were talking about this stuff in the 90’s and 2000’s, I might have had an easier time finding myself.”
So, Evelyn has that same level of interest. She’s the only bisexual person in her life, really. The love of her life was a lesbian, her best friend is a gay man. But now, in her old age, she sees herself reflected in the conversation. And she feels found. She now has a word she feels comfortable using that describes this part of her. She’s eager to use it.
And the other reason why Evelyn uses that word is because it was important to me that this book be unequivocal in its support and sight of the LGBTQ+ community, specifically people that are bisexual. I was mindful of every word of this story. And I will readily admit that my dedication to positive representation came at the expense of subtlety. There are conversations in this book that are spelled out very clearly — that left very little room for nuance and the beauty of language — because I wanted to make sure that any bisexual person reading it, any person who is questioning their feelings, felt supported with no uncertainty. It was imperative that Evelyn be explicit and proud of her sexuality.
You accomplished a nearly impossible task. Evelyn’s queerness wasn’t simply a character trait, but at the same time she was more than just a bi woman. Her identity wasn’t reduced to her sexuality. I’ve seen very few books able to pull this off so well. How did you do it?
To be frank, I think it’s simply that I see Evelyn as a three-dimensional person. And people’s sexuality is only a fraction of who they are. But often, when people have a trait that is outside of the mainstream, the majority wants to define them by it. It’s just another method we use to “other” people. We reduce them to the thing that makes them different than us. Evelyn is just a person. She’s a person who loved a woman and had to hide it in order to ascend to Hollywood power and keep hiding it to maintain that power. She’s also a loving mother and a loyal best friend and a liar and a master manipulator and a user. She’s a hopeless romantic and she’s also a cutthroat cynic. The fact that she loves both men and women is a big part of who she is but it’s only a part. She’s a very complicated woman.
What advice would you give to other writers attempting to write fiction with queer protagonists?
The only advice I can give is to say that if you are writing #ownvoices fiction and you’re on the publishing track, feel free to find me on Twitter and give me the opportunity to celebrate your work.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is available in book stores around the world, as well as on Amazon. Currently, only the hardback edition is out, but the paperback is set to be released on Feb 20, 2018. For further info go to: www.taylorjenkinsreid.com.