talking historical sexuality and f/f romance with author heather rose jones

Today I am extremely excited to talk to Heather Rose Jones – author, podcaster, and all-around amazing person! Let’s just jump straight into the interview, because she’s got lots of very interesting stuff to tell me!

Hi Heather! Thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed. Could you quickly introduce yourself and give a brief synopsis of your new book that is coming out in November?

Hi, I’m Heather Rose Jones! As an author, I write at the union of the sets of fantasy and history. I’ve written short fiction in a variety of genres, but my novels (so far) are all part of the Alpennia series, an alt-historical Ruritanian Regency-era fantasy featuring queer women. Floodtide is the fourth book in a planned seven-book series, but it’s also a stand-alone in structure. The series takes place in an invented country in post-Napoleonic Europe, in a world infused with mysticism and many forms of magic. Floodtide is the story of a laundry maid and apprentice seamstress who gets caught up in the aftermath of a magic-caused disaster and does her small part in the recovery by weaving together a team of unlikely comrades. It’s a story of small magics and marginalized people and how everyone can make a difference in the world.

 

Many of your books are historical fiction. Why do you think you’ve been drawn to writing about the past? Are there any periods of history that you would like to write about that you haven’t yet? 

I’ve been fascinated by the past, and especially by European history, since I was ten years old when my family lived in Prague for a year. Having grown up in a Southern California suburb that was so new we’d picked out the lot before our house was built, I was drawn to the depths of history that surrounded me in Europe. In college I became involved in historic re-creation and fell in love all over again with trying to understand the past by working with material culture and the activities of everyday life.

Before I started writing the Alpennia books, I would have predicted that my first published novels would be set in the middle ages or earlier. In fact, the first complete novel draft I produced was set in Roman Britain, though I set that aside for complete re-working. I have outlines and snippets of story ideas set from the 1st through 19th centuries and hope to have time to write them all eventually.

 

How do you feel about queer historical novels containing homophobic content? I personally have mixed feelings, because while I understand it is usually period-appropriate, I also don’t necessarily want to read about it. Do you feel like historical novels have to be 100% historically accurate?

When people tell me that the vast majority of queer people in history had miserable lives by modern standards, I’ll counter that the vast majority of straight people in history also had miserable lives by modern standards. When we write historical fiction, we don’t take a demographic survey and write a statistically “typical” character. And in particular, when we write historical romance, nobody feels bound to accurately represent gender dynamics from the past.

When I started researching and writing queer historical fiction I made a pledge that I would write stories that were true to their times but that I wouldn’t hold them to a higher standard of accurate misery than writers of straight stories were held to.

The thing is, most modern people have some vast misconceptions about historic attitudes toward sexuality. To have homophobia, as we understand it, you need to have a concept of homosexuality. And while I don’t hold to the strong position that homosexuality as such didn’t exist until the sexologists invented the word in the late 19th century, I do think it’s important to understand how queer people in history would have understood themselves, and how the people around them would have understood them.

For example, in the western European cultures that are the main focus of my research and fiction, there were many times and places when women sharing intense romantic and even erotic relationships were considered “normal” as long as they didn’t challenge gender roles. There are examples of female couples being openly celebrated with the symbolism and language of marriage from classical times up through the 19th century. But conversely, there were specific sex acts between women that might be so stigmatized that you could be executed for them, assuming they came to light, whereas other sex acts were considered unimportant and of no concern.

If you know your history and you choose your setting and story, you can write about a same-sex couple in a way that’s both completely historically accurate and devoid of any sort of tragedy. What you can’t necessarily do is transplant modern people and relationships into the past and meet those requirements. You can’t necessarily have a same-sex couple who want their relationship to be openly recognized and accepted as a sexual union equivalent to a heterosexual one using modern identity labels and categories. But love and happy endings? You can absolutely do that in a historically accurate story. We know, because those stories exist if you know where to look for them.

 

You’re also the host of The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast (which is a podcast that I didn’t know that I needed until now)! How did you come up with this podcast? What do you think has been the most interesting episode/guest, and what did you discuss? 

The podcast is a spin-off from my history blog, which is basically an annotated bibliography of research materials for writing queer women in history. The blog started as a way to motivate myself to read and digest the growing collection of books and articles I was assembling for background research. But I also wanted to help readers and other authors understand things about historic sexuality–to expand people’s understanding. I wanted people to know about some of the fascinating people and stories that really existed in history and to be inspired by them, either to write their own fiction, or to better appreciate historically accurate queer fiction.

I started the podcast because I wanted a more user-friendly way to present some of the more dramatic and colorful material. Later, it grew to include interviews and book listings and even original short stories. I’ve always had a secret longing to be a publisher and producing audio fiction is a more manageable path than tackling books.

As for favorites…that’s sort of a “which of your children do you love best” question. I’ve discovered a fondness for doing episodes about poetry–I did one on poetry about love between women written in the 16th and 17th centuries. I talked about the different contexts and genres and recited poems. I especially liked doing that episode because people think that you can’t find evidence for people openly talking about same-sex love that early, and they’re so very wrong. As for people I’ve interviewed–I really can’t pick a favorite. I love interviewing people who are articulate and knowledgeable and used to giving spontaneous talks. Not all authors are equally skilled at that! I love the interviews that turn into conversations–the ones where you don’t really want it to end. On that basis, my favorite might be the discussion I had with Anna Clutterbuck-Cook about the larger f/f historical landscape and the dynamics of different writing and reading communities within it. We had so much to talk about it turned into two hour-long shows!

 

This might be my ignorance of the genre, but I’ve only recently started hearing a lot about f/f historical fiction novels. Do you think this is something that has increased in popularity in the past couple of years? If so, why? Also, is f/f historical fiction something that has only recently been written? Or are there examples written pre-1980s? 

Like a lot of marginal genres, the rise of ebooks and the ease of self-publishing has brought a boom to f/f historicals. So I think the numbers have increased, but only in the way that the numbers of all types of books have increased with the change in technology and distribution.

As it happens, I’ve been compiling a database of f/f historicals, so I can throw some numbers at the question, though my database is far from complete. In terms of books written as historicals, as opposed to books simply written in an earlier age, one of the earliest is Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller, which was originally published in 1969. Naiad Press published a good selection of lesbian historicals in the 1970s and 1980s including several by Sarah Aldridge, and the earliest lesbian Regency Pembroke Park by Michelle Martin. In some ways, those early historicals were more solidly written than what came later. The authors tended to have already established a career in the historical field and decided to take the risk of writing lesbian characters. Then around the turn of the millennium you have some literary authors staking out territory, like Sarah Waters and Emma Donoghue. Starting in the 1990s you also see increasing numbers of historicals from the small lesbian presses. And underneath it all, you have an explosion of interest in f/f historicals from people writing fan fiction, especially based on the Xena TV show.

There are some things that have been changing in the last few years, which might be what you’re noticing. A larger proportion of f/f historicals are being self-published, but we’re also seeing mainstream publishers and authors entering the field. This year we’ve seen f/f historicals from authors like Cat Sebastian, K.J Charles, and Courtney Milan, whose readers aren’t necessarily aware of the long history of the field in the small lesbian presses. But in contrast, in the last few years, those lesbian presses have significantly dropped in output of historicals.

Overall, I’d say that one’s perception of the market is going to be affected by where your information comes from. There isn’t a single f/f historical community; there are a number of distinct communities. They aren’t always aware of what’s going on in the other groups and they aren’t always interested in the same types of books.

 

As I said, I’m a relatively new reader of f/f historical fiction. Where would you recommend that I start? Are there any time-periods that you think are particularly interesting to read about in terms of female queerness? 

A lot depends on what types of stories you like in general. Are you looking for a classic style romance? Or something more embedded in the historic era with romance on the side? Are you looking for adventure or something quiet and domestic? How socially aware do you want your reading to be?

The time periods that I find particularly exciting tend to be ones where society’s attitudes towards gender and sexuality were in flux. The 17th century in England and France was an exciting time to have a non-normative sexuality. And if you want an era when women’s same-sex relationships were openly celebrated and accepted, it’s hard to do better than the 19th century in the USA and England, when shifting social patterns and gender ratios contributed to the Romantic Friendship phenomenon. Women could openly talk about aspiring to marriage-like relationships with each other, and economic dynamics were making it a practical possibility. But authors also love setting stories during the two world wars, which opened up a lot of opportunities for women to shake off gender roles and live independent lives. There’s quite a fashion for f/f historicals set in the American west, especially using gender disguise tropes, I don’t always find those quite as convincing but they’re very popular.

 

Finally, other than preparing for your book’s release, what are you up to at the moment? Do you have any big plans for the future?

I always have lots of plans churning under the surface. The problem is having time for them all! I’m not a full-time writer. I have a fairly intense job in the biotech industry and I fit the writing, the blogging, and the podcasting around that. Other than continuing the Alpennia series, the two projects–no, make that three projects–I most want to tackle are a genuine straightforward Regency romance, a series of linked romances set in Restoration England, and a swashbuckling romantic adventure set in the 10th century involving Vikings and Welsh princesses. But some of them may not see daylight until I retire and have more writing time.

 

You can find Heather on her blog, Twitter, and Facebook. Her novels can be bought from Bella Books or from Amazon.

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