Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Interview with Vanda, author of Juliana

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Vanda to Flashlight Commentary to discuss her novel, Juliana.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Vanda. It’s great to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about Juliana.
Juliana is the first book in what will be a series of books about gay and lesbian history in NYC.  The book that is out now, Volume 1, begins in 1941.  Alice “Al” Huffman comes from the potato fields of Long Island with her beau, her best girlfriend and her girlfriend’s beau to make it on the Broadway stage only to find she has no talent. On the kids’ first day in New York City, they meet Maxwell P. Harlington III, a failed nightclub owner and Broadway producer, who, according to Al, looks a little like Clark Gable. He invites them to a nightclub where Al hears Juliana, the glamorous, perpetually-on-the-brink-of stardom nightclub singer, sing for the first time. Al is instantly drawn to her and seeks her out. Juliana, a sexual risk-taker, easily reels in the mesmerized Al. 
Al is increasingly pulled into a secret gay underworld of men who wear dresses and women who smoke cigars, while her childhood friends continue in their “normal” lives.  Al glides easily between the two worlds until these worlds begin to collide.  

What theme do you hope readers take from your story?
I’m always amazed at what people get from my work; things I never thought of.  I like that.  I like that my work can be approached from many different angles. I really don’t want to tell people what they “should” get from a story of mine.  

However, with JULIANA, there was a specific motivator that got me writing.  One day during a class discussion it became clear that my students did not know anything about gay history or the treacherous journey many gays have had to travel to get where we are today.  For instance, my students did not know a person could be arrested just for going into a gay bar or that wearing clothes deemed appropriate to the opposite gender in public could also lead to arrest. A need to preserve this history and to teach it to others began to grow in me and in time this need became a book.  I had to let my students and others know that gays have a culture and a history that is just as valid as any of the other minority groups’ cultures and historie.  We have had our heroes like other minority groups; our heroes have sacrificed themselves like other minority groups so that our culture could survive. True, there are a great many LGBT writers who have published marvelous nonfiction books, but the average person isn’t going to read a history book.  Many of my students have read my book without it ever being assigned. That is because my book is accessible, while at the same time being historically accurate. My students would be unlikely to pick up a LGBT history text unless I was going to grade them for doing so.  The characters make the experience personal; the reading becomes emotional not just intellectual. So, I suppose, if there is anything I would want my readers to take from the story is that LGBTQ history and culture is fascinating, and that my book is not only for gay people.

As a novelist, what drew you to this particular period?
I think in writing unconscious forces are for more important than any conscious thought the writer might have.  I was drawn to this time period by some unconscious force that really isn’t terribly clear to me; however, I get asked this question all the time and I’ve tried to answer it for myself. The more comprehensive version of my answer is in the Introduction to Juliana, but let me give you the shorter version. I was raised by people who were raised in the 1940s.  I needed to know why these people hated us—me-- so much. Researching the 1940s help me to come up with an kind of answer to that.

What sort of research went into Juliana? What sources did you find most valuable? 
I used every type of resource you could possibly imagine.  I, of course, read the history books written by LGBT authors.  Lillian Faderman’s work is always helpful. I also used internet sources. However, the answers to the type of questions I was asking often couldn’t be found in traditional sources.  I needed to get a feel for NYC in the 1940’s so I read novels and magazine articles written at that time. That’s how I discovered that you only needed one ration stamp to buy two boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.  I found that specific detail in a 1943 Lady’s Home Journal. You can’t get that sort of information by only going to the usual research sources.  I found menus from the time period on Ebay, which let me know what people were eating and how much it cost. I watched films from the time period to hear the language and get a sense of 1940s values. For describing Juliana’s clothes I went to 1940s Vogue Magazine.  For Al’s (Alice) clothes I looked in 1940s Sears & Roebuck Catalogues.

You probably have many, but is there a scene you particularly enjoyed writing?
I think that would have to be the scene in which Al has sex with Juliana for the first time.  This is also the first time Al has ever had sex and she experiences an orgasm for the first time. One reason I like this scene is  that Al is so innocent she doesn’t really know what is happening to her. She only feels. That scene also gave me the opportunity to show in what way sex between women is different, beyond the obvious.  There’s a generosity and tenderness to the scene that I like, plus it’s a little funny.

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author? Why was it troublesome and how did you work through it?  
This was a rare book in that it mostly wrote itself.  Once my characters got started I only had to follow their lead and stay out of the way. Not everything I write comes like this, but I don’t recall any chapter or scene in JULIANA that was especially difficult because my characters were in charge. My answer wouldn’t be the same if you asked me about another work, like my finally finished (I think) but as yet unpublished novel, The Violence of Gentle People.

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time on?
I wish I had done more with the character of Danny, Al’s first boyfriend.  I would’ve liked to have included more of his backstory.

Historical novelists frequently have to adjust facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing Juliana and if so, what did you alter? 
I try to stick very close to historical details and watch my characters struggle within that context just as they would in real life. Also not messing with facts builds trust with readers.  This philosophy worked very well for Volume 1, but I’m having some trouble applying it completely to Volume 2.  For instance, I have a hospital that is very important to the story in the latter part of Volume 2.  I am trying to show the kind of “cures” some gays went through in the 1950s .  The problem I’m having is I have not been able to verify that this “cure” was use in a New York City hospital. I have verification for California, Washington DC and other places in the US.  Showing this so-called cure is vital to the story and important to gay history so I may have to do some bending of the facts.

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why? 
That would be my main character Alice (Al). I think she’s a decent sort of person, who’s struggling to honestly figure out who she is. Often conflicting needs get in her way.  I’m learning more about that now in Volume 2 .  Juliana I would like to date, maybe.  I think she would intimidate me.  Although Al is a little intimidated by her in the beginning she learns to manage her, which I admire a great deal. That’s another reason I’d want to sit down and have a drink with Al.  I’d want her to tell me how she finally got a hold on Juliana.  I think she’d say she didn’t have hold on her, that no one had that.

I thought this question was very interesting so I asked the director of the show we do based on JULIANA. Ray, the director, chose Shirl as the character he would most like to have a drink with.  He said he would like to sit down and have a drink with Shirl because she isn’t ashamed of who she is.  She wears a suit and tie and smokes a cigar and doesn’t care what the consequences might be.  He also would want to have a drink with her because she has so many good stories and knows what is happening with everyone in the community.

Just because I’m curious, if you could pick a fantasy cast to play the leads in a screen adaptation of Juliana, who would you hire? 
Actually, like I said before we already do a show based on JULIANA. Every second Tuesday of the month at 7 pm actors have been performing the novel at the Duplex Nightclub to an enthusiastic repeat audience who come to see what going to happen next. We first started doing this back in in December 2014.  We recently were extended to December 2016. We’ll complete Volume 1 on June 9. All of your readers are welcome (No cover/2 drink minimum).  Then, in July we will begin Volume 2(1945-1955).  

I have a wonderful cast playing the parts and I can’t imagine any other actors doing their roles. 

Finally, what's next for you? Do you have a new project in the works? 
As I said previously, JULIANA is a series of novels. Right now I’m working on Juliana (Volume 2:1945-1955).  I’ve also completed another book called, The Violence of Gentle People that I am looking to publish.  This novel takes place in the 1967 and ‘68 in West Virginia and New York City.

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"...captures the fear, excitement, and eroticism of a young lesbian's awakening in the 1940s."
- Kirkus Reviews

""Juliana is the opening act in a series of stories that will cover, discover and recover LGBT history..." - Alison Fradkin, Curve Magazine

"From the first page I felt I was walking on the streets of 1940s New York. At times funny, enlightening, sensual, Juliana tells a story that is rarely told." Donna Spector, The Candle of God, The Woman Who Married Herself.

"Spell-binding, entrancing.  A gay underworld with the sights and sounds of a lost New York." -Lisa E. Davis, author of Under the Mink

"Juliana is a love story that will appeal to history buffs and romantics of any persuasion." - G.F. Boyer, fiction editor and founder/editor of Clementine Poetry Journal

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Vanda's novel, Juliana (Vol. 1, 1941-1944) to be released in February by Booktrope Editions is about LGBT life in 1940s New York City. This novel is the first of a series of novels about the same characters living through successive decades of LGBT history.

As a playwright Vanda has received numerous honors, among them an Edward Albee Fellowship. Her play, Vile Affections, published by Original Works was a finalist for a National Lambda Award. Her play, Patient HM, which later became The Forgetting Curve, won the Pride Stage and Screen's Women's Playwriting Award and another play, Why'd Ya Make Me Wear This, Joe, won Celebration Theater's (where Naked Boys Singing originated) Best New LGBT Play. Vile Affections played at the New York International Fringe Festival to sell-out audiences and was published by Original Works in 2008. The Forgetting Curve was produced in Boston in September 2014 and the producer has plans to bring it to New York.

Vanda's non-fiction story, "Jack," was published in Prairie Schooner in Summer 2011 and another non-fiction piece, "Roger: Lost Between Philosophies," which appears Pentimento was selected by New Millennium Writings for Honorable Mention from a submission pool of 1,300. Other short prose pieces have been or will be published in Sinister Wisdom, The Outrider Review and The Grub Street On-Line Journal.

Website ❧  Blog ❧  Twitter ❧  Facebook ❧  Pinterest ❧  LinkedIn ❧  Goodreads

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