With Tom Lotito of Geeks OUT, author Robb Pearlman, Maria Aragon, founder of Reading Rainbow at University of Maryland, College Park, and Rob Gates of Lambda Sci-Fi. Our panel explores creating both content and fostering space for queer content. What does queer fandom look like, and how do we make it happen? Moderated by Benjamin Beaury.
Mackenzi Lee uses her BA in history and her MFA in writing in increasingly engaging ways: after writing This Monstrous Thing, her Gothic fantasy retelling of Frankenstein, and her New York Times bestseller The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, she published Bygone Badass Broads: 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World, a gorgeously illustrated collection of short biographies of little-known women from history, based on a series she started on Twitter. Her forthcoming novels include the sequel to The Gentleman Guide to Vice and Virtue, The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, Semper Augustus (coming in 2019 from Flatiron/Macmillan), and an untitled novel about Loki being queer (date TBD from Marvel). So naturally, we wanted to learn more about her!
Before you became a full-time author, you earned a BA in history and worked as an amateur historian. How did you transition from your academic pursuits to writing fiction?
Very easily because my writing was so not suited for academia! I had a professor who told me that my papers read like novels—which was not okay as a history student, but maybe I should consider writing historical fiction. So I was already writing that way. But when I started writing fiction, I also got to make things up! The biggest difficulty with the transition was feeling like I was giving up on my career as a historian. I had been working for so long on that degree and walking away from it felt like a huge gamble. Betting on yourself is hard and scary!
Were there any writers in particular who inspired you to make this transition?
I loved Shannon Hale’s books when I was a kid, and rereading her books as an adult was what really inspired me to pursue writing.
How much does your passion for history—and research—inform your writing?
Most of my books start with a historical phenomenon or weird fact or person that I become obsessed with. With This Monstrous Thing, it was Mary Shelley. With Gent’s Guide, it was the Grand Tour. For me, it always starts with history.
History (at least Western history) is dominated by straight, able-bodied, cisgender, white, male narratives? How do you challenge this or subvert it in your work?
I believe that everywhere in history that we are told white men are doing things, there were also women, minorities, queer people, disabled people, etc. doing the exact same thing… We just don’t talk about those stories. But they’re out there! You have to look for them, but they’re there! I try and subvert this narrative in the best way I can—by putting these characters in my books and giving them plot lines and identities that extend beyond their marginalization.
Can you tell us about your upcoming project with Marvel about Loki, a character whose canon pansexuality and gender fluidity has thus far been conspicuously underrepresented?
I actually can’t. I’m not allowed to say anything about the book right now! Sorry! But soon…
Are there any other works in progress that we can look forward to?
I have a book coming out at some point in the future called Semper Augustus, which is set in Holland in the 1600s. I also have two more books with Marvel about other anti-heroes. Stay tuned!
Recently there has been news from Variety, that Greg Berlanti, a very successful and openly queer film and television producer optioned your book as a potential project. How do you feel about The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue possibly being adapted into a queer historical television narrative?
It’s absolutely wild to me. There are still a lot of hoops to jump through before the show actually arrives on screen, but as someone who has long been frustrated by BBC period dramas with queer characters relegated to tragic subplots, it’s amazing to be part of this incredible movement forward toward more representation.
Mariko Tamaki is an artist and writer of mixed Japanese Canadian and Jewish Canadian descent, known for her graphic novels Skim and This One Summer (co-created with her cousin Jillian Tamaki). Recurring themes in her work include becoming, identity, and queerness. Since 2016, she’s been writing for both DC and Marvel on comics like She-Hulk and Supergirl: Being Super, and her English language translation of the queer coming-of-age story Luisa: Now and Then (by French writer and illustrator Carole Maurel) was released today by Humanoids. This August, she’ll be joining Geeks OUT as a special guest at Flame Con, so we wanted to get to know her a bit better before then!
For several years, you’ve collaborated with your cousin, artist Jillian Tamaki, on books like Skim and This One Summer. What is the creative process like for you working with family? Are there any challenges that are unique to working with a familial relation?
I imagine pretty much all collaborations have unique elements. There is a part of our connection that is familial, in that we have very similar senses of humor, I think, and some very Tamaki sensibilities. Mostly I, certainly, have always trusted Jillian to do her thing (which she does exceptionally well) and mostly our publisher has let us do things the way we need to do them, so that’s awesome.
Throughout much of your career, queerness has been a prominent (or at least recurring) theme of your work. As a queer woman yourself, how much of your own experiences do you incorporate into your fiction writing?
I’m not sure sometimes if I default to a queer experience because I am queer or if it is because I specifically want to see more queer content out there. I think it’s always a little bit of both. I try not to overthink it. I try to write the story I want to write and see how that pans out. Definitely if I am writing something that feels completely straight, I’ll sew some queerness in there, because queerness is always there. It’s like when you’re writing a cityscape, you need to write in the characters that would be there. To me, not doing that is more of a choice.
My first introduction to your work was Skim, the graphic novel about a young girl named Kimberly Keiko Cameron, set against themes of first love, mental illness, and suicide. What was the creative inspiration behind this work?
I just pictured this character one day who had a broken arm because she had tripped over a candleholder that was part of her Wiccan altar. I was sitting on the bus and I just had that image so clearly I was like, “I bet that’s a book.” Once I started writing it everything sort of just fell into place. I’d always wanted to use my experience in a private all girls school for something, so this seemed like that place to do it.
There’s a recurring theme in your stories of characters coming-of-age stories. Why do you gravitated toward this particular narrative?
I don’t necessarily mean to write “coming-of-age” stories. I am interested in the mechanics, the experiences, that go into the things we take for granted, like identity, like being a girl or boy or neither, like being smart or funny. All that stuff. We are all always becoming the things we are. That doesn’t stop when you turn 20, but it’s incredibly potent when you’re a teenager. And potency makes for good stories. So there you are.
What is the most significant way your more personal work differs from your work on comics like She-Hulk?
Generally, until I wrote She-Hulk, very few of my characters were green or grey. Also, writing for superhero comics, you’re writing into a world, you’’re writing against the backdrop of a genre, which is sort of always there no matter what you’re writing. So it affects what you write in a myriad of little ways. It’s a challenge, but it’s a good challenge. I want my mainstream comics work to feel like it’s coming from me, but I also want it to be a part of the larger whole of mainstream comics.
Do you have any favorite queer authors or books you can recommend?
Right now I’m recommending Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters. I know Maurice Vellekoop is working on a graphic memoir to that will be published by Pantheon Books. I have seen bits of it and it is amazing. I loved Molly Ostertag’s Witch Boy and I’m thoroughly enjoying Moonstuck series by Grace Ellis and Shae Beagle. I could go on.
Do you have any new ideas or projects for us to look forward to?
I have a book coming out in 2019 with Rosemary Valero-O’Connell called Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me. I’m working with Juan Cabal on X-23 for Marvel. I have a Harley Quinn graphic novel with DC Ink with Steve Pugh called Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass. My third book with Abrams for our Lumberjanes series with Brooklyn Allen is called The Good Egg and I am so excited for people to read it. And I’m currently writing a YA murder mystery, but I’m not sure what the title will be yet, so look out for that.