Write what you know. It's what you'll hear every last fiction-writing instructor tell every last fiction-writing student. For your first project, at least, write about the things that you have experienced. If you're a roofer, pen odes to 3-tab shingles and hot tar. If you're a librarian, wax rhapsodic about Dewey and his decimal system. Using subjects you know a great deal about gives your fiction a ring of truth as well as a warm echo of depth.
But what if what you know won't easily slide into the mainstream? Given that choice, you could always choose instead to focus your energies on becoming a better roofer or librarian, rather than the next Faulkner. Or, if writing still seems to be your calling, you can embrace the genre that your work is probably going to fall into.
That's what local writers Julia Watts and Angie Vicars have done. While their work deals with emotional issues that would be familiar to almost anyone, the characters that these stories revolve around may not be as universal. Most of their fiction is about and directed toward lesbians.
Watts is the more established of the two, with four books (Wildwood Flowers, Phases of the Moon, Piece of My Heart, and Wedding Bell Blues) published by Naiad Press, a lesbian-centric, Tallahassee-based publishing house. Vicars, who has also contributed the occasional column and article to Metro Pulse, recently had her first book Treat published by Haworth Press' Alice Street Editions imprint. Both women have advanced degrees in writing and both made a conscious choice to target these niche publishers.
"I made the decision—not all of my fiction is lesbian-themed—to write a novel with that focus because I could go with an independent press that way, a lesbian feminist press. In today's tight market of publishing, I think the more narrowly you focus something, the better chances you have," Watts says.
And, sometimes, you just have to write the story you feel you need to tell, even though that may put your work in a less-traveled area in the book store.
"I started writing it in 1995—so I'm determined, is what that says," Vicars, a former Bookstar bookseller, explains about the creation of Treat. "I think two things that kept me going: One was that I was making a little bit of money to sell a lot of other people's writing and I used to daydream at times about my book signing. The other is that I've known since I can't even remember when that I'm a writer and this was a story that I wanted to tell, I really wanted to get it into a novel. Finally, I decided that this project was what I wanted to pursue."
While Watts' work may be focused on lesbians as her primary readers, others readers will also enjoy her books, which touch on topics such as living in the rural South, trying to make some sort of connection with other human beings, and discovering the humor in even the bleakest situations.
"The Naiad books probably have a primarily lesbian audience but I think that they're also aimed at people who enjoy comic fiction," Watts explains. "While those came out on a lesbian press, I think just about anybody who didn't go, 'Yikes! Lesbians!' would be able to enjoy them. One thing I really try to do in my writing is emphasize connections between people. While my lesbian fiction has lesbians as the primary characters, there's also a number of straight characters. I also don't think I'm writing in an 'exclusively female universe,'" she says in a sort of booming, god-like voice, "like some lesbian fiction does. There are always close, gay and straight, male friends."
While the work itself may be inclusive, the business of where the book gets shelved in the store is a bit exclusive.
"I guess the things that I have mixed feelings about with the books that are published by the lesbian presses is that if you go into a big bookstore, 99 percent of the time they'll just be shelved over in 'Gay and Lesbian.' So if somebody makes a beeline for that, they're going to find them. But the average fiction reader is probably going to miss them. There's a little bit of ghetto-ization that goes on," Watts explains.
"Of course I have that automatic response of 'well, I don't want to be pigeonholed,'" she says. "But right now I don't have the 'great American novel' floating around in my head. I have characters and story ideas that I think that would make a really good novel and that's what I'm going to write. Chances are that most of them will stay within this lesbian fiction genre. And if they do, so be it."
Vicars had some worries during her long-anticipated book signing, which was at the beginning of this month at Barnes and Noble.
"I keep having these little thoughts enter my head," she remembers. "like there were some people who showed up to the signing and I knew that they didn't know what the book was about. And I would think to myself, OK, I'm signing this book—do they know what they're getting? And then I just decided, you know what, so what? It doesn't matter. They wanted to read the book. It's up to them to decide. I just told the story.
"And as time has gone on, I've really been pleasantly surprised by all the responses."
While most of the responses that both writers have received have been positive, there have been some drawbacks to choosing to tell these stories.
"I can think of more sort of omission-type problems than commission," Watts explains. "If I wrote something else, I think that I'd be invited to speak more places than I am. I know that in some places where I have been invited to do readings, there's been some controversy—never directed toward me. I just sort of find out that there was discussion as to whether it was suitable or appropriate, which is funny because they're not very racy books," she adds with a laugh. "I have a friend who also does books for Naiad who did a signing in Lexington and there was a bomb threat in the store. But, mostly, I would say that there may be some exclusion that goes on but that's really the extent of it."
"I have mixed-feelings, I guess," Watts continues. "I like having a small but faithful following, which I think that I definitely do. I also think that 'literary writing' that comes out of academics—that's a genre, too. When you think about writing, you can really put anything into its own little ghetto. I guess I tend to read fairly promiscuously. I read literary fiction but I also read mysteries or whatever. I think it's a danger when people put writing in too tight a little pigeonhole because I think they're missing a lot of good stuff."
And reading outside of your usual boundaries tends to open your eyes to all sorts of worlds that you never before knew existed, even when it is something you are—perhaps unconsciously—exposed to nearly every day.
"From my point of view as a writer the one thing I really wanted to explore was lesbian and gay culture in this part of the country. A lot of lesbian and gay fiction is centered in San Francisco, New York—the major kind of meccas. You'd think that they'd all emigrated. You know, you can go to the smallest town in some little wide place in the road in East Tennessee and there are going to be gay people there. There may not be a whole lot of them and you may have to look a lot harder, but they're still there—and it's still an interesting and lively culture to explore."
While the culture may be foreign to some, the basics of a good book remain the same—strong plotting, tight writing, and interesting, well-drawn characters. One of Vicars' goals for Treat revolves around her skill with constructing characters.
"I want to keep hearing things that I am already hearing from people, which is, 'oh I really like this. I didn't want to put it down. I identified with the characters.' To me, that's a kind of payback for the hours that went into it. I like getting an idea out there," Vicars explains.
"I've had a lot of people tell me they can identify with the characters and it doesn't seem to matter whether the people are gay or straight. They're telling me they can identify."
Regardless of who publishes their books, both writers agree that it is the actual act of creating that makes the work worthwhile.
"I do love the writing part of it most," says Watts, who writes every first draft out in longhand on yellow notepads. "It's wonderful to have books published, to have that moment when you get to hold them in your hand. But my favorite part is actually the sitting down and writing. I think it's important for any writer to keep that part separate from any business part in your mind. Just the daily filling out the legal pads."