Author Interviews - with your Favorite Authors

Interview by Lynne Jamneck
Monday, 07 November 2005

Lori L. Lake has published five novels (Gun Shy, Under The Gun, Have Gun We'll Travel, Different Dress, and Ricochet In Time) and a book of short stories, Stepping Out. She edited the 2005 Lammy finalist The Milk of Human Kindness: Lesbian Authors Write About Mothers and Daughters. Lori teaches queer fiction writing at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota and is currently at work on her seventh novel. Her sixth novel, Snow Moon Rising, will come out in 2006. You can visit her website at

Tell us a bit about your background—you were a bit of a hooligan in your young days, weren't' you?

Yes, I was a bit of a hooligan as a kid. Lots of firecrackers, tree-climbing, sneaking out at night, and running with the neighborhood pack, most of whom were boys. I think I was 12 years old before I started to realize I was never going to have all the advantages and freedoms that boys automatically had accorded to them. It seemed so unfair. In my teen years I settled down considerably. I played sports and tried to hide my growing attraction to girls.

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest—Seattle and Portland—and went to Lewis & Clark College where I got a double major in political science and English. Also got a grad degree from Hamline University here in Minnesota. I LOVED college. Sometimes I wish I was rich enough to go back for a whole new degree. I love learning, and it's fun to do with a group of other energetic seekers.

When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer?

Age 10. I wrote a story about a skin diver suspiciously similar to Kirk Douglas in "Sea Hunt." It was probably awful, but I don't know for sure because I never thought to keep a copy. I laboriously typed it on a manual Smith-Corona and sent it off to "Reader's Digest. Of course I never heard from them again - obviously the first indication that such a conservative magazine was never going to publish this lesbian!

Seriously, I've always wanted to write, but I can honestly say that I was 26 years old before I decided I might have something to say. And then it took me another 15 years to learn enough craft and manage to get a novel accepted.

Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?

Yes. I chose Lake because my given name is too hard to spell, too hard to say, and not memorable. Everybody can spell Lake, and it has such pleasant connotations of summer vacation.

What are you currently working on?

I am finishing up my sixth novel, Snow Moon Rising, which is about a Roma (gypsy) woman's life journey for 80 years during the 20th Century. It's been quite an interesting process to write it. The main character often comes to me in dreams, and I felt compelled to write this story, which has been more draining than I ever thought and quite a lot of work to research.

I work on more than one project at a time, though, so I am also dipping into a mystery, a post-apocalyptic work, and another anthology. I've got about 35,000 words written on the mystery, 20,000 on the sci-fi piece. The anthology is called Romance For Life! It's a collection of about 25 love stories which a number of lesbian authors have contributed. All the proceeds will go toward breast cancer research. It comes out on Valentine's Day next year.

I'm intrigued by the post-apocalyptic American setting project you're working on…Do tell.

I asked myself the question "What if a catastrophe of catastrophes happened all at once?" If earthquakes nailed the west coast, hurricanes hit the south, and a nuclear detonation hit the east coast, the only "safe" place would be in the middle of the country and up into Canada. Of course, if those catastrophes occurred somewhat simultaneously, the religious right would say it was God visiting his wrath upon the nation, and so I wondered what would happen if there were enclaves of good people surviving in the Midwest, while forces all around have retreated into superstition and patriarchal sexism. How would people survive? How would the government function (or not function)? How would they fight the senselessness of the catastrophes as well as the sweeping fundamentalism? What heroines would emerge? Those are the questions I asked as I began to fashion an adventure/suspense novel with some romance to it. It's going to take some time to finish.

Like the mystery genre, Science Fiction seems to have a definite appeal for lesbian readers. What would you attribute that to?

When you look at the "speculative fiction" published lately, I think lesbians have actually written few science fiction books with lesbian characters and have focused more on fantasy with science fiction elements. Creating a whole new world with different values and customs, a world where lesbians are valued and encouraged, is a very exciting and hope-inducing creative endeavor, both for reader and writer. Lesbian readers probably like the chance to envision a world different from the limited and often disrespectful one we live in. Strangely enough, though, science fiction and fantasy are not read nearly as heavily as mystery, and the number one seller for lesbian works tends to fall into the romance category, which is the same phenomena for mainstream books, too.

Seems like we have mainstream sci-fi books where lesbian authors (like Tanya Huff, Melissa Scott, Elizabeth Lynn, and Lyda Morehouse) write essentially mainstream novels that may or may not contain some lesbian secondary characters and themes. Some women who do not identify themselves as lesbian (Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ursula Le Guin, for instance) have also written lesbian-positive novels, and then there are a small number of authors like Nicola Griffith who have managed to pull lesbian characters over into the mainstream. The big presses (like Tor and Baen) often allow for gay or lesbian secondary characters, but I think small press books by authors such as Jane Fletcher, Jeanne G'Fellers, and Jean Stewart seem to have better luck showcasing lesbian issues and characters, particularly in series.

So, getting back to the mystery. It's not difficult to see why lesbians like to read them. Strong, tough, independent women making their own in a so-called 'man's world.' But do you think there's something more to it?

In many ways, lesbians are no different from straight men and women. We experience the world as a corrupt and dangerous place. To have the opportunity to see a thoughtful, interesting, even powerful woman bring justice and restore order is thoroughly compelling. But the mystery, suspense, and thriller genres are quite attractive overall because they are fun to read. The puzzle, the mystery, the nerviness of the character – these are things that energize the reader. A lot of time they're also a lot of fun to write.

I see that many lesbian authors are including social, gender, and sexual orientation issues in their books. Judith Markowitz talks about this in her new book, THE GAY DETECTIVE NOVEL, which lays out scads of lesbian (and gay) books that take on issues. In reality, the average lesbian – the average woman – has a lot less power to effect change than we like to think. When I read a well-written novel where a woman beats the system, influences small minds, or effects change, I feel better about the fact that in my own world, change and acceptance is rather slow at coming.

You have a predilection for handguns (don't deny it) – is this something that you had an interest in before you started to write mysteries?

Oh, yeah. I've had guns ever since age four when I begged for a spy kit and Army combat ensemble. I was the best armed kid in the neighborhood. I had cowboy revolvers, Wild West rifles, a machine gun, multiple Saturday Night Specials, water pistols, grenades, and a collection of rubber knives. (Thank God for an accepting mother.) I spent most of my grade school years crawling through the neighborhood with a dozen other kids playing elaborate games of War, politically incorrect Cowboys & Indians, and something we called Castaway which resembled "Gilligan's Island" crossed with "The Terminator." The less hardy girls got to be Miss Kitty or Agent 99 or nurses who could kiss it and make it all better. (Don't go there!).

But I grew up to be a non-violent person. I don't actually own a gun now, but I have a lot of friends (mostly cops) who own firearms, and I very much enjoy target shooting. For many of the stories I am working on now, it's important to know about guns and military hardware, so I am always interested in guns and have studied and researched them extensively.

What's a typical day for Lori Lake like? Do you stick to a rigid routine or doesn't that work for you?

I only WISH I had a regular routine. I wish I were more like Jennifer Fulton who is ever so much better at scheduling her time and activities. In actuality, every day is a new adventure with me never knowing how the writing will go or what other obligations will fall in my lap. On a typical day I write in my pajamas for a while in the morning—if e-mail doesn't bewitch me too badly. I also work on articles and reviews and promotions. I do some editing work, serve as an author liaison for my publisher, and teach at The Loft. I could work 12 hours a day and never get everything done that I have on my plate!

Sometimes I think I got more written when I was working full-time at my sucky day job!

What was the coming out experience like for you—do you think gay and lesbian teens live in a more socially acceptable environment today despite the recent homosexual backlash in America?

On the one hand, by 18 I KNEW who and what I was – and that I had no intention of marrying a man. Actually, I knew by age 10 I wasn't going to live the "normal" life my mother envisioned for me. On the other hand, disappointing family and friends is never easy, and for me to go my own way was a difficult path to tread. Even now it can still be hard. So many people lack understanding of what queer lives are like. To make things more complicated, we're all individuals, and the idea of "community" is really a stretch. There is no one Lesbian Monolith – we don't even use the same terms with reliability. What we seem to have in common is that we're misunderstood, often maltreated, and soundly ignored.

I think gay and lesbian teens live in just as tough a situation now as I did in my teens. Yes, there is more discussion of queer issues, but there's also more open animosity. While I could "pass" as straight all through high school in the late 70s, I don't think it's so easy for kids these days. They're living is such a highly sexualized environment. The social pressures are amazingly powerful – and painful. Girls and female sexuality are often discounted, but boys and male sexuality are focused upon a lot. The pressure on boys to be straight is relentless.

It's no cup of tea being a gay youth in our society. I like to think that progress is being made, but we're a long way from this being a place where teenagers can grow into their own natural sexualities with ease and pride. I have a number of youth who write me periodically, and I always try to be as much moral support as I can.

While this might seem like an obvious question I'm still going to ask—what's the story behind naming your guitar Debbie Gibson?

The guitar is a Gibson—the brand, I mean. And she's decidedly female. Don't ask me how I know that . . . I just do. My last van was definitely male, and I named it Edgar. The vehicle we drive now feels very female, and I named her Agatha. I know it's weird naming inanimate objects, but I seem to do it a lot. So my guitar ended up being Debbie Gibson, and it stuck. (I only wish I had the vocal range that the real Debbie Gibson has.)

Tell us something about Lori L. Lake no-one else knows…

Right now I'm feeling like I'm a horrible person because I seem to be going through a stage where I feel impatient and intolerant. Everywhere I go I'm running into Stupid People. Clerks, wait-staff, drivers on the road, politicians, newsmen, etc. are driving me crazy. Lately I am finding myself standing stunned and disbelieving at the dumb things that people are doing – and then they're acting like it was normal or fine or whatever. I woke up the other morning to see a headline about the Viking football team's recent stupid activities aboard a supper cruise, and I can't get over it: How can any famous person be so stupid as to think that they can have sex in public on a boat and not get in the news?

I am hoping the spate of stupidity passes . . . or that I get more tolerant.

Who are some of your all-time favorite authors?

Ray Bradbury, Margaret Atwood, Anne Lamott, Nancy Kress, John Steinbeck, Marcia Muller, Anne Tyler, Alice Walker, Barbara Kingsolver, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Moon, Stephen King, Tanya Huff, Ellen Hart, Linda Barnes, Thomas Perry…and many, many more. I've got over 2,000 books here, all of which are precious to me.

How about recent ones—anyone in particular that you're excitedly keeping your eye on?

Jane Fletcher, Jennifer Fulton, Audrey Niffenegger, Elizabeth Bear—all of them are writing new, interesting, and innovative works.

Through all the books you've written, you must have done some extensive research on many a topic. Any interesting experiences you can share that came about as a direct result of that?

I've very much appreciated police officers who have given me massive amounts of time and information. I've been in big city cop shops (Minneapolis, St Paul), medium-sized ones (Ann Arbor, MI), and smaller stations (my own hometown). I've had the opportunity to talk at length with police experts on fingerprints, fraud, homicide, DNA, tracking, general forensics, CSI techniques, and all forms of procedure - patrol and otherwise. I have been talking with a sergeant with St Paul lately about hostage negotiations as I plan to write a crime fiction novel about a negotiator.

I've also gotten to learn a great deal from various experts about psychological details including PTSD, sociopathic and borderline personality disorders, psychosexual disorders, alcoholism, and the issues facing those who are mentally ill as well as those in the field who are trying to treat people with mental health problems. Seems there is a lot of focus on crimes committed by the mentally ill, but it's amazing the number of crimes committed against people with those problems.

I also had the wonderful pleasure of going backstage at Indigo Girls concerts and touring their traveling bus in order to write DIFFERENT DRESS. Their guitar tech, Sulli Sullivan, was instrumental in helping me get correct details for my characters' lives on the road and stage.

One of my favorite parts of writing is all the research, learning new things, and making connections with people who have knowledge about the worlds in which I want to set my books. I'm working on a short story now with a theater background, so it's been fun to find out about that.

I know quite a few budding writers who are mortified at the thought of writing sex\love scenes because they are afraid of not being able to pull it off. Is this something you ever struggled with? Any sage-like guidance you'd care to divulge?

I think that love and sex scenes are terrifically difficult to write. First you have to get past the fright of "What will I say if my mother reads it?" And then one's own hang-ups and concerns can get in the way. To be honest, it's hard to write a love scene and not be schmaltzy, tacky, or stupid. It's hard to be original. I mean, part A and part B only work together so many ways. It's fairly easy to write a mechanical sex scene - everything anatomically correct and the oohs and ahs in the right places – but it's not so easy to write something fresh and innovative or from the perspective of one or the other or both of the characters. I wrote an entire article about this at the Just About site.

In what important way has the lesbian publishing industry changed in the last thirty years?

Well, it's hardly been in existence that long, but since its inception, it's changed a lot of ways. For one thing, there are a great many more lesbian presses than ever before, and they're doing a variety of different kinds of works to get both educational and entertaining types of books into lesbians' hands. Many of the publishers have been collaborative and have helped one another, which isn't something you see in the big press world. The existence of an organization like the Golden Crown Literary Society, which encourages readers, writers, and publishers to communicate and share with one another is a wonderful new thing. Lesbian writers have a better chance of being published than ever before in the history of writing, and lesbian presses have increased their visibility in big ways. We're here to stay.

What's the biggest challenge about being a full-time writer?

Truly, earning enough income to live on is the biggest challenge for me. At present, my partner is shouldering more than her share of the load. I think most writers—particularly those writing for a niche audience—have trouble making ends meet. I'd like to be able to focus more of my time on reading, writing, and research, but instead, I also have to do other income-producing tasks: teach, edit, take on consulting jobs, do presentations, and generally beat the bushes for paying gigs. But even through hardship, I can see that this is the career I must have, so all I can do is keep working at it and praying for good fortune.

Would you ever consider collaborating with someone, and if so—on anything in particular?

Not for fiction. No one would be able to stand the mosaic way I assemble a manuscript. But even more important: I don't think two people usually share the same vision of a creative piece. Maybe someday I'll be proven wrong, but for now, it's best that I just focus on my own fiction and envision it in the way that works best for me. Non-fiction is another story. Jennifer Fulton and I are working on a series of writing books together, and I think that will prove to be great fun.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers trying to get their break in publishing?

Robert Olen Butler probably said it best. He wrote that before he got his first novel published: "I wrote literally a million words of absolute dreck. Five god-awful novels, forty dreadful short stories, and a dozen truly terrible full-length plays." A million words…I don't think he's that far off. In order to get a break in publishing, any aspiring writer has to put in the time, write the words, work on the craft.

I've been having an affair with the written word since age four, and in all this time, I have met very few people who were naturally terrific writers. Most people can quickly develop a number of skills, but precious few just start writing stellar works right out of the gate. I think any aspiring writer needs to understand that he or she is going to have to write a LOT—maybe not a million words—then again maybe it could be two million. I can honestly say that I have written at least a million words. You have to have the patience to put in the time. Just like an artist has to sketch scads of scenes or a pianist has to practice scales until she could scream, a writer has to practice as well.

The bottom line is that the only way to learn to write is to write . . . and write, write, write. Then you have to listen to your own words and rearrange and edit and work, work, work on your stories, even though you may not know how they will take final shape. It's like wandering blind in a pitch-black room. You won't find the furniture until you trip over it. You _know_ the damn tea table is going to be there somewhere, but the only way to find it is to stumble into it. Then when you do, for the future you know how to avoid getting banged-up shins. But if you don't go in the room and brave the darkness, you can't find the table, and you never can navigate. Writing requires that same courage – thought it's easiest in a room with the light on.

I suppose you should get back to work now, hey?

Absolutely. I've got over 130,000 words written on SNOW MOON RISING, and I've got to do some major revisions and some cutting. Thanks for making me think so hard, Lynne!