An Interview with Josh, Aterovis
Q: A bit of background first, tell us where you live now, where you grew up, and any other background that might help readers know you a little better.
I currently live near the Twin Cities in Minnesota, but I grew up on the West Coast in Seattle and Portland. I graduated from Lewis & Clark College in Portland with a double major in English and Political Science and graduated from Tigard High School, located in a suburb just outside of Portland. I spent my high school years living with my aunt and uncle (my mother's brother and his wife). I was able to visit my mother, who was chronically ill, fairly often. My dad and four younger sisters lived 400 miles north with my two step-brothers, and I saw them as much as possible, but I did miss them terribly at times. We make up for that earlier separation now because my sisters and I are very close. All their kids are special to me, and I am the Fairy Godmother for my one sister's three girls.
Q: How did you meet your partner Diane and how long have you been together?
After my sophomore year in college, I had to take a year off, partly because I didn't know what I wanted to do with my college career, but also because I had no money and was tired of starving on Rice-a-Roni and PB&J sandwiches. I'd had a part-time job working at a bank processing center through a lot of my sophomore year, so for my year "sabbatical," I went full-time and worked as much overtime as I could get. Diane's cousin was my supervisor, and she hired Diane to come to work there as a temp. Diane had come to Oregon to visit her aunt and uncle and only planned on being in town a few weeks. Though she is only a year older than me, she had already graduated from college, so she was taking some time to figure out what she wanted to do with her Education/Health degree.
We met on the job, and within ten days, I knew she was the one for me. She decided to stay in Oregon, and we lived there for the next two years so I could finish college. That was 1981. We're coming up on our 23rd anniversary. We moved to Minnesota in 1983 and have lived here ever since.
Q: When did you first realize you were gay and when did you come out? What was that experience like for you?
My mother was-by the time I was about ten-despairing at my wild ways. She wanted me to be more "feminine" and act like a "lady." I was, in fact, a wild hoodlum who liked nothing better than running through the neighborhood with a pack of boys playing War, Hide'n'Seek, and Kick The Can. She and my grandmother decided by the time I was eleven that I was on the road to being a lesbian, and they tried all sorts of well-intentioned methods to "femme" me up. Unfortunately, I was (and am) outgoing, athletic, and fiercely androgynous. I didn't fit the mold for any of the roles placed before me. All through High School, I played basketball, softball, baseball, and soccer (often with the boys), ran track and field, and played volleyball. I was friends with a strange variety of people: hoods and jocks, nerds and stoners. I was interested in the person, and since I had such an odd assortment of friends, nobody ever really made a big deal about the fact that I didn't exactly fit the heterosexual template. I thought I was careful not to draw attention to myself about the fact that I was interested in girls, but in the years since, a couple of teachers and a variety of others have said they knew I was lesbian-they just didn't care because they liked me.
At some level, by age thirteen I knew I was gay. It was clearer to me by about sixteen. Though I was having a sort of shadow relationship with someone my junior and senior year in high school, we weren't seriously intimate until after we graduated. And then I don't think I really became comfortable with my sexuality until my freshman year in college which is when I started coming out to members of my family. I met up with a lot of other young women, took feminist study classes, read the few books I could find, and did a lot of soul searching. I felt I knew myself well enough by the end of frosh year to say, "Yes, I'm gay." During that time, by the way, I had a VERY hard time finding stuff to read, particularly fiction. 1979 was well before the advent of the Internet-heck, they still had card files at the library! I remember three books as being tremendously powerful to me: THE FRONT RUNNER by Patricia Nell Warren, SIX OF ONE by Rita Mae Brown, and WOMAN + WOMAN by Delores Klaich. There was precious little at the library, no magazines I could find, and very few ways to connect up with other lesbians. It took me a long while to find people on campus, too. It was a lot more isolating then. The Net has certainly changed that.
Q: How did you get started writing?
I have always been a writer. I am legendary in my family for the letters I used to pen. (Now, alas, with the Internet, I am no longer much of a Woman of Letters.) I have kept a journal since the early 80s, and I always wanted to write novels about the sort of people and situations that I was unable to find to read about in the literary world-in other words, about gay and lesbian characters who were whole, interesting, and not doomed to sad, sordid ends. It took me a while to get to the point of writing those stories, though.
When I was 26, I went to Hamline University in St. Paul for a master's degree. I focused on literature. That was when I got brave and started writing short stories. A couple of the stories in STEPPING OUT go all the way back to then. But many of my short stories kept turning into novellas, and finally a writing group I was in convinced me that I was a novelist, not a short fiction writer. I was nervous about writing a novel, but I decided in 1992 to give it a whirl. RICOCHET IN TIME was the type of novel I had never been able to find to read, so I decided to write for others what I had not been able to find for myself. It took me three years and fourteen drafts, but I learned how to write a novel with that first book. And then some other things happened in my quest for publication, which, if you are interested, you can read about here: http://www.lorillake.com/biointro.html Suffice to say that my road to having my book published was fraught with difficulties.
Q: Do you write full-time now?
Yes. At the end of 2002, after 19 years working in an increasingly stressful and under-funded position as a supervisor in a government office, I was finally able to quit in order to focus full-time on writing. My partner and I went on a five year plan in early 2000. We saved money, paid off bills, simplified our life, and cut our standard of living. It was wonderful that our five year plan was achieved in a little less than three years. Diane is a teacher, so we don't have much spare change, but I am happier than I have ever been. I really feel I have found my calling.
Q: How has your life changed since you became published?
Well, we're much poorer! <laughs>
I feel a daily sense of excitement about my work. I can't wait to write each day. Diane practically has to drag me away from the computer some nights when she gets home. I have also discovered how much I enjoy solitude. After spending years and years at a job with constant noise and interruptions from an onslaught of people asking questions and demanding my time and energy, it feels wonderful to work in peace and quiet. Many people told me I'd never make it working alone all day-that I'd miss the water cooler chats and the daily rat race. After eighteen months, I can honestly say I've never missed that one bit. My true nature, which is much more introverted than anyone ever believes, is being nurtured now. It makes me very happy. I am content in ways I never thought possible.
Q: You've had a lot of success with your mystery books, especially the Gun Series, What made you decide to write Stepping Out, a book of short stories?
I had written so many stories over the years and tinkered with them off and on, but I was never able to get any of them published in literary journals. My Regal Crest editors back in 2002, Barb Coles and Linda Daniel, encouraged me to quit tinkering and put the stories together in a book. I took the 14 pieces that I liked best and which seemed the most complete, and we ran them through the editing process. A lot of them had never been read by anyone else, so it was an interesting experience. Also, my publisher and the editors hadn't yet done a collection quite like this. So it was something new for us to try.
Q: How personal are the stories?
All of the stories feel personal, but aren't necessarily about me specifically. Each reflects some basic truth or topic or situation that mattered to me significantly at one point or another. For a story like, say, "My Lifesaving Journal," I wanted to explore a character who feels isolated and unsupported by everyone in her life. She's been abandoned-deserted by death-by parents and relatives, and how would she survive? How could she find meaning in her life-and what would it take to enable her to face the emptiness? "Defending Angels," about a boy who has lived in a world of intermittent physical abuse, was another one where I wanted to explore how a young person can survive pain and anguish.
Two other stories came out of real life concerns that I kept reading about in the papers in the early 90s. "Mouse" is about the death of a woman's long-time lover, and how the dead woman's relatives sweep in and throw out the survivor. Without the benefit of marriage, no protections exist if a couple doesn't execute very clear wills, powers of attorney, and other legal documents. I wanted to follow the life of this woman who, at nearly 62, didn't have those protections and was suddenly homeless, penniless, and living by her wits. The other story, "Propane," is about an only recently talked about secret: that GLBT people can batter their loved ones just as readily as straight people do. I wanted to tell that story in a way that was a little bit empowering to someone who was battered.
Other stories-like "The Bright Side" and "Afraid of the Dark"-are about lesbians dealing with difficult parental situations. Both have elements of humor but are also dead serious about how tough it is for people to deal with lack of support and understanding from family members.
Q: Are any of them based on your real experiences?
I have attended funerals like the one in "Vagabonds." I've lost loved ones in as painful ways as the farmer in "The Big Eddy." Some elements of the last story, "Jumping Over My Head," are a bit autobiographical. But most of the stories are from events or circumstances I have observed or heard about, not so much what has actually happened to me. The feelings evoked are very clearly ones I know well, though.
Q: Do you show up in any of your characters?
Sure. Lots of elements in my personality come out in every character. I always like to say that a little slice of Me can be found in every single character I write-even the villains. They are who I would be in their circumstances. When I write a character, I'm trying to put myself in the shoes of that particular fictional person, to think and feel and live like him or her, to understand how and why each of them would act in particular ways. But I can honestly say "I" am not any of the characters in any of the books. They are amalgams of a lot of people, not just me.
Q: Do you have a favorite story?
If you mean from my own work, I think I have to say I like "Jumping Over My Head" best, followed closely by "The Bright Side." If you mean a favorite story written by another author, I would mention four: Marie Sheppard Williams' "The Sun, The Rain," Leo Tolstoy's "What Men Live By," Joyce Thompson's "The Birch Tree," and Richard Bausch's "What Feels Like the World." Each of them is truly a knock-out story.
Q: You deal with a lot of heavy issues in Stepping Out - alcoholism, physical and mental abuse, self-esteem issues, aging parents, homophobia - did you research these subjects or were they based on situations you've witnessed in real life?
Both. I've always been fascinated by psychology. For my master's thesis, I applied concepts from family systems theory to literature. It was enlightening and gave me new angles for looking at the way people relate-or fail to relate-to one another. I continue to watch for those same themes and explore them in my writing.
Within my family there has been more than our share of the kinds of situations you mention, and over the years, I've had plenty of friends with all sorts of painful crises. I've experienced a lot of loss, abandonment, and pain in my own life as various people have acted out their own issues upon me and upon those I love. Flannery O'Connor once said, "Anyone who has survived to the age of eighteen has enough material to last them the rest of their lives." She is so right! So in some ways, perhaps I was lucky. I have enough stories to last a very long time. Of course O'Connor also said, "You shall know the truth and it shall make you odd," and indeed, my past and my current writing have made me rather odd. Sometimes telling my stories and pieces of my family secrets might be hard on my family. And I can't tell you how many times I've been at a gathering and someone says something that causes me to get a faraway look in my eye. Next thing I know, Diane or one of my sisters says, "Uh oh, she's gonna use that in a book!"
Q: Despite the heaviness of the topics, the stories all had a sense of hope about them, as if the characters were at a turning-point in their lives. Does that reflect your personal philosophy on life? Would you say you are an optimistic person?
I like how Jean Stewart, in her Introduction to Stepping Out, comments: "Stepping out implies the beginning of a journey, and each of these fourteen stories touches on that theme in its own unique and winding way." The characters are all, as you say, at a turning point in their lives, and that's why (at my editor's suggestion) I named the book as I did.
I have always tended to be an optimistic person, always looking for the better side of even the most despicable person. It is surprising how many aspects there are to almost all people's personalities. I've met few people-perhaps no people, actually-who have been evil through and through. It's really quite odd. I do recognize that there is evil in the world and that some people commit terrible acts for which they must repent. Some don't ever repent. Some do. Often-most of the time-what we sow, we reap. Two movies with these themes over which I have puzzled a great deal are "Mystic River" and "Slingblade." They are both about how bad acts-those personally perpetuated and also inflicted upon another person-can come around to haunt everyone in unexpected ways. The sins of the father are often inflicted upon the children, and what we do (or leave undone) can easily come back to haunt us. That's definitely a theme I am fascinated by.
My personal philosophy is 'What Goes Around Comes Around." Unfortunately it often takes a long time for mean people to get their comeuppance, but I continue to go along with hope, even through the hardest of times, as I maintain a belief in a sort of oddball cosmic balance. After 44 years, I have learned that things do have a tendency to balance out-if you wait long enough.
Q: You're one of the busiest authors I know. How many projects do you have going on right now, and how do you juggle that many things at once?
I am over-busy, according to my partner, and I must cut back some sooner or later. I must admit that I have taken on too much lately: too many reviews, for instance. Lucky for me that I am a fast typist! I've got the mother anthology, THE MILK OF HUMAN KINDNESS, nearly ready for typesetting. 23 lesbian authors gave me fiction and memoir for that. It's going to be quite a stunning collection. I love these pieces! It comes out in November. I just finished the second draft of my third GUN book. I've got six other novels in various stages of disrepair, and I continue to add bits and pieces to a How-To book on writing GLBT fiction and another non-fiction book about promoting Queer books. I've got enough work to last ages!
I have a 30" wide x 40" tall white board on my wall, and I've got a list of 26 action items there on a timeline. I just keep organizing and prioritizing the things I want to get done. I believe that I tend to overwork. Hours fly by, and I am shocked to see I've lost track of time, missed a meal, not noticed it's gotten dark outside. I'm about ready to buy an alarm clock so I can signal myself!
Q: What's your next book coming out and when can we expect it? Can you give us any hints about the other upcoming projects you have in the works?
HAVE GUN WE'LL TRAVEL is the next book, and it will be out in February 2005. I think the book I am going to finish after that may be MISSING LINK, which is about a high school basketball player, the girls she falls in love with, her coach, her best buddy, Adam (who is gay), and Lee, a teenage transfer student exploring transgender issues. At first the story was merely about the main character, Link but as all my stories tend to do, the characters grew and morphed, and the storyline changed and rearranged, too, and now I have this great big huge mess of overlapping stories and themes. I never plan to have that happen; it always happens though!
I also have a medieval adventure romance trilogy in mind. And a novel set in the days of WWII. And a post-apocalyptic novel called ISOLATION 2020. And a family drama named THE FOURTH OPTION. And a mystery. After writing HAVE GUN WE'LL TRAVEL, which is a hostage/kidnapping story, I find that I very much enjoy writing action and adventure. I guess I knew that from my GUN SHY and UNDER THE GUN experience, but this time, I really had a blast working on the novel, and I will definitely write more adventure romances and mystery/thrillers.
Q: What books would you recommend to readers who liked your book?
STEPPING OUT was a rather quiet, unassuming little book of emotional bombshells. People don't always like or enjoy short stories. But for those who do, other lesbian writers to read include: Ruthann Robson, Paula Martinac's VOYAGES OUT (Volumes 1 and 2), Tee Corrine, Joan Nestle, Jewelle Gomez, Dorothy Allison's TRASH, Anna Livia, Alison Tyler, Lesléa Newman, and Alana Dykewoman.
I'd also recommend the very odd and fascinating stories of Flannery O'Connor, Joyce Thompson, and Marie Sheppard Williams.
In terms of lesbian anthology collections that were good, here are ones I liked a lot: LAVENDER MANSIONS, ed. Irene Zahava, TELLING MOMENTS, ed. Linda Hall, THE PENGUIN BOOK OF LESBIAN SHORT STORIES, ed. Margaret Reynolds, TIDELINES: Stories of Change by Lesbians, ed. Lee Fleming.
Q: What would you like to say to all your fans out there?
I love to hear from people, especially whether they liked or disliked a story or novel and why. I find it very interesting to hear which stories in STEPPING OUT spoke to a reader and which didn't. As you and I have discussed, Josh, different people have different tastes, and it's fascinating to learn what works for one but not another. People who want to find out more about my writing can go to my site at www.lorillake.com. In particular, for writers, I have a *huge* list of books that are good writer's resources which can be found under WRITE SITES.
By the way, I have a brand new copy of SECRETS: SHORT STORIES by Lesléa Newman and a sweet little hardbound copy of Dorothy Allison's TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW FOR SURE to offer as prizes to someone. If you could figure out a way to award them, Josh, I would be happy to send them off to the lucky people.
Please let me know if you have other questions that emerge from the answers above. I'll be happy to answer any follow-up inquiries.