[Editor's Note: Terry Wolverton is author of seven books, including The Labrys Reunion, a novel; Embers, a novel-in-poems;and Insurgent Muse: life and art at the Woman's Building, a memoir. She is the founder of Writers At Work, a creative writing center in Los Angeles.
Below, she interviews writer Cheryl Klein. Be sure to read Klein's interview of Wolverton, which we posted yesterday.]
I first met Cheryl Klein, author of the newly published Lilac Mines, when she joined a workshop on the novel I was teaching. She came into the workshop with a first draft of Lilac Mines and I had the privilege of watching the book and its ideas evolve over a couple of drafts.
In Lilac Mines, the twenty-something protagonist, Felix Ketay, finds her identity collapsing when the structures that held supported it--her relationship to Eva, a po-mo-sexual lawyer; her copywriting job for a fashion magazine; and the assumption that being queer in West Hollywood in 2002 is without danger--begin to collapse. She seeks refuge with her lesbian aunt in the small town of Lilac Mines and tries to mine the history of an earlier generation to better understand herself.
When Lilac Mines was published this spring by Manic D press, I had a novel out too: The Labrys Reunion also explores an intergenerational perspective on the women's movement of the 1970s, so it seemed a natural choice that we should take the opportunity to compare and contrast our novels.
I started by asking Cheryl to talk about her own identity as a writer. "I've been making up stories from the time I was about five years old," she tells me, "but I didn't decide I wanted to "be a writer"--and take it seriously enough to take out a big giant loan to pay for an MFA program--until college. Being a writer shapes my life in a million ways. When sucky things happen to writers, we can always tell ourselves, 'Well, at least it's material.'
"At the same time, I try not to be too precious about my identity as a writer. You need to have one in order to give yourself the time and space and permission to write, but I'm always a little irked by artists who act like they're more special than other people with passionate pursuits (rock climbing, accounting, raising chickens, whatever)."
Then I want to know how her identity as a lesbian writer or if she sees those identities as being separate. "I definitely don't shun the label. As I've told my dad every time he kindly suggests I be careful about pigeonholing myself, I'd love to have anything so big as a niche audience. Although I understand why people might reject the label--or any label--language itself is made of labels. We need them, however imperfect they are.
"And I do think that being gay has a big impact on my worldview. Realizing that your sexuality is not the default sexuality your culture had in mind for you is a great wake-up call--it makes you question the status quo and look beneath the surface of things. Those are great tools for a writer."
Before Lilac Mines, Cheryl published The Commuters, a series of linked short stories about people in the far-flung and disparate neighborhoods of Los Angeles. The Commuters was not primarily about the LGBT community, which made me want to ask how she envisions the audience for her work. "I think most writers tend to write the books they want to read, so I guess my audience would be people like me. But I don't just mean gay, white, 32-year-old English majors from Southern California," she hastened to explain. "I mean people who get curious about old photos, and people who like a particular linguistic texture, and people who like to read books about people who are not like them, at least demographically. Unfortunately, there's no such shelf at any bookstore to describe these intangibles, which is why word of mouth is ultimately the best means of finding an audience."
While some writers are just interested in telling a good story, Cheryl Klein's work always seems constructed within a framework of belief. NOT that it's in any way didactic; there's just a little more there there than I see in some queer writing. I wanted to know how she considered the philosophy in her work.
"I'm kind of ideological by nature, so I always feel obligated to make some sort of important statement about society in my work--and I am really interested in the intersection of the personal and the social--but I also have a messier soul that pushes against that. More than anything, I guess I believe in empathy. I want to be a writer who's generous to my characters. Maybe that's why I'm not all that interested in creating unreliable narrators or writing that's "tricky" in some way."
She continued, "So many problems in the world stem from a basic lack of empathy.
Empathy is the one thing that narrative literary fiction does better than any other medium. As a read and as a writer, you genuinely put yourself in someone else's shoes for an extended period of time."
Since we were on the topic of empathy, I asked Cheryl about the characters in Lilac Mines; with which ones does she identify? She told me, "Unfortunately, I do identify a little bit with Felix's obsessive desire to be cool--and also how that cuts her off from more meaningful experiences. I think it's the plight of nerds who grow up to be sorta-hipsters.
"I also very much identify with how Felix's aunt, Anna Lisa, feels torn between her family and the more radical life she's called to. It's hard to rebel against a society that's been good to you for the most part. That's the downside of having a great childhood--rebellion feels like ingratitude."
In our novels, both Cheryl and I look at social change for women since the late 1960s. I wanted to know how she perceives that change. "I recently read a Time magazine article from the 1960s which ultimately concluded that the gays were sick degenerates. That really drove home the profound difference between then and now. It's the difference between being ostracized almost by definition and being able to choose the kind of life you want.
"I'm conscious of how life for LGBT people has changed even since I started writing Lilac Mines in 2002. The gay marriage debate has at the very least made queerness visible. If a kid comes out to his or her parents now, at least it's an imaginable life, not just a void. I wrote Lilac Mines partly because I was interested in the idea of replacing a void (of history, of identity) with a story (real or imagined)."
Now that we're nearly through the first decade of the 21st century, I wondered what Cheryl thinks about queer community--does it still exist? Her response was emphatic: "I absolutely think a queer community exists. Like a lot of communities, it's pretty fragmented--I've had conversations about West L.A. lesbians vs. Eastside lesbians that would probably make anyone from an older generation (or a smaller town) laugh. Or want to stab me in the eye.
"I didn't always feel like a part of an LGBT community, but I slowly worked hard to find one. That sense of longing is part of what inspired Lilac Mines. Actually, I think all my work is about searching for community."
Finally, I wondered what advice Cheryl Klein might have for LGBT writers who are just starting out. She said, "Don't hold back. Let the experience of being queer inform your writing in the same large and small ways it informs your life."