Bouchercon 2011 report, LGBT edition

Bouchercon came to St. Louis this year, and despite having way too many work obligations at the same time, I snuck away and went to panels on three of the four days. I’ve written a couple of posts over at Dear Author, but there’s a lot more to cover, so I’m continuing the conversation over here.

LGBT authors and mysteries have been around for quite a while in the genre, but there aren’t separate panels dedicated to them. Val McDermid was one of Bouchercon2011’s International Guests of Honor, and there was an LGBT author discussion and book-signing at my local independent bookstore, but for the most part authors and books were represented on relevant theme panels.

One panel I attended was titled “It Hurts Me Too: Taking Chances With Your Characters.” The panelists included Neil Plakcy, who writes the Mahu series, and J.M. Redmann, who writes the Micky Knight series about a lesbian PI that is set in pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans.

Plakcy talked about how the main character, Kimo’s, coming out as a gay police detective took place over a series of books. He had originally intended to write a stand-alone, but then as the character kept speaking to him and he found an editor and publisher for subsequent novels, the way Kimo dealt with the intersection of his sexual orientation and his job became part of his development through the novels. Plakcy discussed how he didn’t feel that Kimo’s love interest in the first book could be a long-term relationship because of the stage Kimo was at then. The character returns in a later book in the series, when Kimo is in a different place psychologically.

The challenge to JM Redmann’s character, Micky Knight, was the challenge of living in New Orleans after Katrina. Redmann was partway through writing a book in the series when Katrina hit and she was evacuated for months. When she came back, the city was totally different and she had to decide whether to scrap the book and start over or make the events part of the story. She chose the latter course, and the series sounds as if New Orleans functions as a character in the books, not just a setting (which is the case in books set there). I was especially intrigued by Redmann’s description of Micky as not especially likeable, especially in the first book. I’m definitely hunting down the first couple of books in the series.

The LGBT signing at Left Bank Books featured a number of authors, who were working in sub-genres ranging from comic to noir. Rob Byrnes, who contributed a story to the gay noir anthology Men of the Mean Streets, turns out to write caper novels; he cited Donald Westlake as an inspiration. Ellen Hart, who has been NY published in the past, has written a number of cozy mysteries set in Minneapolis featuring lesbian restauranteur and amateur sleuth Jane Lawless. There were several other authors, including Jessie Chandler, whose debut is titled “Bingo Barge Murder” and is appropriately set on a sleazy bingo boat on the upper Mississippi.

Val McDermid talked about how lesbian and gay authors were more integrated into the mainstream book world in the UK than they seem to be in the US. Alan Hollinghurst, for example, isn’t described as a gay author but as an author. Of course, Hollinghurst writes lit fic, so that may be part of the difference (although Stephen McCauley was inevitably described as a gay writer when his books first came out in the States).

There was some Amazon-bashing (hey, we were in an indie bookstore), but mostly the conversation centered around the marginalization of LGBT writers and topics by New York publishers. There was a little bit of blogger/reviewer bashing as well. When I finally was able to ask a question, I introduced myself as a blogger/reviewer, which let us all have a nice chuckle. I pointed out that with the rise of ebooks and digital ARC services like Netgalley, LGBT books could be found more easily by readers like me who wanted to read them but had trouble sorting the quality from the dreck in the vast sea of e- and print-published books. I didn’t care whether the books came from big or small publishers, and on Netgalley it doesn’t matter. What matters is whether the book looks interesting.

Coming from reading romance and m/m, it was a little surprising to hear authors still talking about New York publishers as the Holy Grail. While I understand the sentiment, I would have expected more discussion of e-publishing, especially since a number of these authors are published by small presses.

Overall, I was glad I went. I found out about some new authors and I got to meet Val McDermid (who is all kinds of awesome). I thought it was interesting that a couple of the writers said frankly that they wrote gay romance, including those who wrote more lighthearted books. They didn’t seem to have any trouble with the idea that romance and mysteries could coexist in the same genre. That said, I’m not sure how much explicit sex there is in these books. I will read and report.

10 thoughts on “Bouchercon 2011 report, LGBT edition

  1. Plakcy discussed how he didn’t feel that Kimo’s love interest in the first book could be a long-term relationship because of the stage Kimo was at then. The character returns in a later book in the series, when Kimo is in a different place psychologically.

    This is really interesting to hear about Plakcy’s development/treatment of Kimo and his love interest. I’d never considered it from that perspective, since the way the relationship ended wasn’t a function of where Kimo was psychologically but where the love interest was. And when he returns, he’s not exactly in a better place, although Kimo definitely is.

    • I hope I represented his words accurately in my notes! I think I did, because all the authors were talking about the challenges their characters faced, and he talked about the relationship in the context of Kimo’s coming-out process. I wonder if he set up the love interest so that it would not be one that could be successful, given where Kimo was at that point.

      It especially interested me because it represented such a contrast to the Gay4U/Out4U setups, in which coming to grips with making one’s sexual orientation public is often seen as part of the romantic journey rather than part of the individual psychological journey.

      • No, no, your report makes sense in terms of construction. As I read, I focused more on the love interest’s discomfort with the fact that Kimo was out at all, regardless of where he was in the process. He’d been forced out initially and was still dealing with it, while the lover was not at all out.

        I’ve always been somewhat curious about the community or environmental response to the Gay4U/Out4U hero, primarily because it seems not to be addressed in most m/m romance. Maybe because unless the heroes share the same community of friends and colleagues, that is a part of the individual journey rather than the romantic/coupled journey?

        • Oh, I see what you mean now! And yes, the community response is really missing in a lot of G4U/O4U books. Even when one of the couple is in the closet, the friends’ reaction is often either not described or there’s some pro forma “oh, that might be a bad idea” conversation that doesn’t go anywhere.

          I just finished a book in which the best friend made a big deal about the problems the narrator would have becoming involved with someone who was still conflicted about coming out. The book had lots of problems, but the author handled this issue really well (until the end, when the HEA/HFN she intended seemed unrealistic in part because she’d depicted the potential difficulties so well).

  2. You’ve just added several things to my TBR pile (good thing my library has some of these authors). I love books with a strong sense of place, something I really miss in a lot of my romance reading, but that you often find in mystery series.

    • I’ll do my best to increase the pile on your nightstand! Bouchercon really inspired me to discover more mystery authors who have romantic subplots in their stories. There are plenty out there, and while I can’t precisely define the different between “gay romance” and “m/m,” mysteries definitely fall closer the gay romance end of the spectrum. I also appreciated that a number the authors were quite happy to describe their books as gay romance even though this was presumably a mystery-reading audience.

  3. Thanks for mentioning me– and IMO, you got what I was saying just right. To clarify my thoughts about the relationship between Kimo and Mike, I felt that they both needed more experience before being able to commit. Because it was the first serious relationship for both of them I didn’t see how they could make things work. Then my editor suggested that I write the book in which they have to work together again after breaking up, and as I wrote that book I found that both of them had gone through enough that they could find their way back to each other.

    And also IMO, I think that in gay romance, the issue of gay identity is important– the lovers are finding each other through their own search for their personal identity. In M/M romance the lovers often face external pressures, but the book is more about the romance than about the identity, if that makes any sense. :)

    I think that when I’m writing romance, because I’m a gay man, I approach the story more through the lens of personal identity. Or maybe because I’m a guy I just approach the story in a different way than a woman would. I have to say that I don’t generally care about the author’s gender, as long as he/she can tell a good story that engages me as a reader.

    Neil Plakcy

    • Thank you so much for commenting! I’m glad I represented your words accurately. They struck me because I’ve read too many G4U/O4U books that felt completely unreal; for me it’s an identity/social process and I have trouble seeing it merely as a genre trope.

      And I’m so sorry to have left out that you organized that great LGBT panel at Left Bank Books! I meant to include that and thank you for it. It must have been quite a bit of work, but it came together so well. As a reader I really appreciated the range of people who talked about their books, as well as hearing about the publishing issues. I only focused on a couple of points in the blog, but it was enlightening for me to reflect on the different issues GLBT authors and their work face in the different genres.

  4. Honestly, it wasn’t much work to organize the B’con panel, and I very much appreciate all those– both from B’con and the community, who trekked out to see us.
    One thing I think is interesting is that we’re definitely moving away from the “coming out” book dominating GLBT literature; we’re seeing gay and lesbian characters in all genres, from mystery to romance to general fiction, and they’re dealing with all kinds of issues. There have always been those other stories, of course, but now we’re seeing a broader spectrum of them.

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