Interview with Katie Gilmartin

Hello, dahlings!

So Cleis Press author Katie Gilmartin stopped by to chit-chat with us about her debut novel, a dark lesfic noir set in 1950s San Francisco titled Blackmail, My Love. book_image.php

Katie is a woman of varied background and many talents, including stints as a union organizer, a sex researcher, and college professor. She also is a printmaking artist who has launched the Queer Ancestors Project, which seeks to forge links between our past and present and build community with young LGBTQ people by providing free workshops in printmaking and queer history. You can see some of Katie’s prints not only in this post, but HERE.

So let’s see what else Katie’s up to and how she manages to juggle all the things she’s doing.

ANDI: Hi, Katie! Thanks so much for stopping by this humble little freakfest we call Women and Words. I’ll just jump right in. You spent some time as a professor of cultural studies, with particular emphases on the history of gender and sexuality. So which came first? The cultural studies or the fascination with noir? Inquiring minds!

KATIE: First, thank you so much for interviewing me, and for such an interesting range of questions! Katie Gilmartin Alternate Author Photo

ANDI: Heh. It’s the author pry n’ fry with Women and Words. 😀

KATIE: Cultural studies came first: studying lesbian history led me to the explosion of lesbian-themed pulp fiction in the 1950s. I read many of those pulps, which led to reading other pulps, which took me into noir.

For your readers who may not know, there was a torrent of lesbian-themed pulp fiction novels published between 1950 and 1969, some of which sold very well. Tereska Torres’ 1950 Women’s Barracks sold over two million copies in its first five years and was singled out by the House Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials [Andi note: this was also known as the Gathings Committee and was active 1952-1953] as an example of how paperback books promoted moral degeneracy. Most lesbian-themed pulps were written to titillate heterosexual male readers and offered only tragic endings, but there were also wonderful ones written by lesbians such as Ann Bannon and Marijane Meaker. Even the positive portrayals, though, often ended with insanity, death, or a sudden love affair with a man. Because books travelled through the U.S. mail, publishers wary of censorship required that narratives not “proselytize homosexuality.” Nonetheless, these books made their way to small towns throughout the country, and encountering them on wire racks was how many lesbians first realized that there were others “like them.”

ANDI: I’ve often noted the irony involved in “exposing the homosexual literature as the degenerate material it is” actually helping LGBT people find and build community. So tell us how you came to write Blackmail, My Love. Had you always had a particular fascination with San Francisco in the ’50s? Or did you come across something while teaching? What provided the spark?

KATIE: It really began many years ago with my graduate research: I interviewed forty lesbians about their lives during the middle part of the twentieth century. I was amazed by the range of Queer experiences in the 1950s – from those who believed everything that was said about us then, to those who managed not to believe any of it. To give one example: “Bernie” worked at the Mare Island Navel Base, just across the Bay from San Francisco, during World War II. Returning home from work one night, she was arrested for her mannish appearance and charged with vagrancy despite the employee identification she was wearing on her cap and jacket. The judge sentenced her to six months in prison, suspended “on condition you leave Vallejo with twenty-four hours. We don’t want your kind in California.” Back home in Wyoming, she tried to commit suicide by driving to the next town drunk, at night, on the wrong side of the road. She only survived because it was such a rural area. She didn’t meet a single car on the twenty-four mile drive. Stories like that electrified me – as did stories of those who found remarkable levels of acceptance from their families, or forged it within themselves. Writing Blackmail, My Love gave me a chance to explore those very different experiences, to go to the harshest places as well as those of extraordinary resilience.

ANDI: I came of age in the 1980s, which must’ve been like a foreign land to so many of my elders who had to endure the horrific circumstances of the 1950s and 60s. I’m so glad you managed to gather the stories you did. Blackmail, My Love does deal with the “dark ages of Queerdom,” as you have described that period in LGBTQ history. Dark in the sense that it was a furtive time, and lived underground in some senses (i.e. “on the down-low”) yet LGBTQ communities managed to survive and in some cases, thrive. After writing this book, what’s your take on how and why that was the case?

KATIE: Yes, that’s exactly right. The fifties were an era of severe oppression and remarkable resistance. When I think about this I always go back to Joan Nestle’s essay on the Sea Colony, a mafia-owned lesbian bar in New York. They posted a guard at the bathroom to hand out the allotted amount of toilet paper and to enforce a one-occupant-at-a-time policy – though the bathroom held several stalls. As any woman with a bladder knows, the result was an endless line. A perpetual queue wound around the bar. And as Nestle tells it, a line act developed in that spiral of Queer bodies – a joking, cruising, strutting, preening, boldly creative acting-out of proud butch and femme styles. As Nestle puts it, “We wove our freedoms, our culture, around their obstacles of hatred.”

ANDI: That’s brilliant, and feeds right into the irony of oppressions and how oppressed populations adjust, make-do, and attempt to thrive and resist within the rubrics of their oppression.

KATIE: I think that bathroom line is a perfect metaphor for the way we see, over and over again, especially throughout Queer history, that oppression and resistance are inextricably interwoven.

ANDI: Absolutely. In many ways, Queer identity is forged at the nexus of oppression. I always wonder that if we as a community did not have the historical legacy of oppression whether there would even be queer identity. Regardless, there has generally been oppression toward LGBTQ people, and we’ve found ways to exist, yes?

KATIE: Even in the harshest conditions – perhaps especially in the harshest conditions – individuals and communities find ways to connect, resist, celebrate themselves, and create rich and enduring alternative cultures. In complex and varied ways, the oppression helps to spark the resistance, and resistance can also bring on new modes of repression. For example, during World War II certain bars were off limits to military personnel – so if you were Queer, when you received that list of bars you weren’t permitted to go to, you knew exactly where to head first. This allowed strong support networks to develop among gay men and lesbians serving in the military – which, as the war wound down and witch-hunts began, were then relentlessly exploited to hound out friends and lovers. Unfortunately, for many Queers in the U.S. and throughout the world, those days aren’t over.

ANDI: So true. Readers, I highly recommend you check out Lillian Faderman’s Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers and Allan Berube’s Coming Out Under Fire (also a film) for even more historical context.

So, Katie, you’re an artist in another medium—that of printmaking. Readers, if you pick up a copy of Katie’s book, it’s illustrated with her prints. Supah-awesome! What drew you to printmaking? I understand it was “an urgent quest to relocate pleasure,” but how exactly did you find printmaking? Or did it find you?

KATIE: When I was a kid my mom had us all make linocut Christmas cards one year, and I also had a wonderful art teacher who did some printmaking with us in junior high. The print aesthetic has always drawn me, perhaps because of that – I love the striking graphic quality of linocuts, the drama of black and white. When I was in the last years of graduate school, feeling that all my creativity had been sucked dry, my then-girlfriend found me a printmaking class, and I fell in love with the medium. Part of it is that printmaking is a craft, as well as an art: there is so much wonderful hands-on, tactile work involved, and I love keeping my hands busy…


ANDI: ::ahem:: Gurl, I am NOT gonna go there. LOL But I can completely commiserate with grad school sucking your creativity dry. I personally love linocuts. So cool that your mom did that. You also are drawn to “pulp art” and it finds expression in your printmaking and Blackmail, My Love. Do you also have a lurid collection of pulp novels under your bed? Or somewhere? If not, what attracted you to pulp?

KATIE: Yes, I do indeed have a lurid collection of pulp novels, in the living room.

ANDI: AH-HA! I knew it! So glad it’s in the living room for all the world to see!

KATIE: I love the titles, like Strange Sisters, Twilight Women, and Desperate Asylum. The titles of the non-lesbian pulps can be pretty great too: There Was A Rustle of Black Silk Stockings – who knew a title could be that long? Lady, Don’t Die on my Doorstep – who knew a title could be that crass? Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman, by Hedy Lamarr. And a wonderful Raymond Chandler, which helped to inspire my title: Farewell, My Lovely.

ANDI: It’s so annoying if ladies die on your doorstep. I much prefer the rustle of black silk stockings. 😀 MOVING ALONG…I’m personally really interested in your Queer Ancestors Project. Women and Words folks know I’m a historian (I fled academia after completing my doctorate), so I just luv me some Queer history and I luv sharing it with people. Can you tell us how you started this project and a bit about how it works?

KATIE: The Queer Ancestors Project is devoted to forging sturdy relationships between LGBTQI people and our ancestors. Using history as a linchpin, we build community by providing young Queer artists, ages 18 to 26, free workshops in printmaking and Queer history.

ANDI: That is a bowl of awesome. So do they get to do events?

KATIE: Each year we hold an exhibition of the prints they create, inviting the larger community to reflect on the past as well as on the future. I started the program to pass on my love of Queer history and printmaking – and in the hopes of ensuring that we collectively learn from the past. This is hard to do, since so much of our history has been deliberately erased, or never recorded in the first place. We have a limited visual record, or none at all, of significant Queer events before the 1970s, particularly in the histories of Queers of color and transgender people.

Miss Double Strand
Miss Double Strand

I think that this lack of imagery makes it harder for us to connect with, learn from, and be inspired by our history. Just as photographs from your early life help to anchor personal memories, a visual record – even an imagined one – can bring historical events to life. While I emphasize learning about history, I also encourage the artists in the QAP to think about imagined histories – all those moments, those lives, those events, that we know happened but have no record of. As artists, we can research, then deeply imagine those moments and bring them to life for ourselves and for others. The Queer Ancestors Project has been very fortunate to receive support from a variety of places, including the San Francisco Arts Commission, the Queer Cultural Center, and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

ANDI: I love this. And it’s so, so true. One of the things an oppressed population deals with is a loss of connection to its past, since the acts of oppression seek to erase that past. That’s why knowing history is so important, even if it’s just a scrap of information. An artist or writer can use the scrap to help imagine a moment and create an image that will encourage others to dig deeper to find connections. Okay, I’m getting a little misty here. Heh. So let’s talk a bit about YOU. MUAH HA HA! Do you have any rituals before you do a writing or print-making session? Any fave music?

KATIE: When I’m in writing mode, I like to imagine a scene as I’m drifting off to sleep at night. I try to experience every part of it – what the fabric on that couch feels like, and how the light slants through the window, what the drops of water sound like as they drip from hat pipe. Then, I always write immediately after breakfast, before my brain gets cluttered with other things. I’ve been told that Blackmail, My Love is very cinematic and I think that’s why. I moved through every scene visually before I wrote it. And as for music, one of my favorite artists, who I listened to a lot as I was working on the novel, is Mary Gauthier – I love the mood of “Falling Out of Love,” and the gorgeous sweeping spirit of “Wheel Inside the Wheel.” I’m also a huge Leonard Cohen fan, his lyrics are amazing.

ANDI: I love me some Mary Gauthier, too (that’s go-SHAY, y’all!). Catch her performing live. She’s wonderful. I tend to be a visualizer, too, in terms of writing. It’s always fun for me to find out how other writers work with their processes. Okay, I’m also kind of a foodie. That said, what’s your favorite meal?

KATIE: I have about six favorite meals (and twice as many favorite desserts). Fortunately, my partner Renee relishes cooking – last night she satisfied my desire for fajitas, with lots of onions, red bell peppers, lime and cumin. I’m the baker in the house, and for my recent birthday party I made a classic white cake (no yolks) with chocolate frosting, and a banana bourbon cake that got several friends very drunk.

ANDI: I am so sad that I was not invited to the fajita fest OR the bourbon cake fest. WOE IS ME for missing out! I just might show up on your doorstep…if you were going to take a group of readers on a walking tour of San Francisco, what 3 places are at the top of your list as “must see”?

KATIE: Oh, what a fabulous question! I AM going to be leading a walking tour of historic Queer bar sites this spring – you can check my website in a couple of months for details – and on that tour will be the location of several bars from the fifties and earlier.


KATIE: I love standing on the sidewalk and imagining what went on there. There’s an area in North Beach that was part of the Barbary Coast during the Gold Rush, and later became home to many LGBT bars: Mona’s, Finocchio’s, Tommy’s Place, The Black Cat Café. The façade of the building that housed Finocchio’s still looks pretty much like it looked in the fifties. It opened in 1929 as a small bohemian cafe and speakeasy, then became a world-renowned nightspot – one of those that were off limits to military personnel during World War II. Finocchio’s was known for legendary performances by “female impersonators,” many of whom would likely identify as transgender were they living today.

In those days performers generally sang rather than lip synched, and Hollywood stars like Tallulah Bankhead and Bette Davis used to fly in to see themselves impersonated. Black Pearl, a character in Blackmail, My Love, makes her living at Finocchio’s, and in the accompanying print you can see her leaving work. Unfortunately, Pearl would not have been able to do so dressed as she was; to minimize police harassment of the nightclub and to prove that they were “run[ning] the place straight,” the owners of Finocchio’s required that performers arrive for and leave from work in male attire. The Black Cat Café is now a restaurant, with an intriguing cobblestone alley out back – what do you think happened back there!?

Black Pearl
Black Pearl

ANDI: All manner of love, romance, debauchery, and probably tragedy. A microcosm of the world. Rich with stories, I’m sure.

KATIE: Another place at the top of my list would be Coit Tower. It plays an important role in Blackmail, My Love, but it also has a fabulous history. It was endowed by Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who had a thing for firemen, which may or may account for its remarkably phallic art deco design. [Andi: LAUGHING] It has stunning WPA-era murals with lots of politically radical content lurking in the shadows. And it has fabulous views.

ANDI: Well, I’m now planning a trip out your way! Readers, keep that in mind and keep an eye on Katie’s website for more details about the tours. That’s clearly not enough to keep you busy, amiright? What writing/other projects do you have in the hopper?

KATIE: I’m immersing myself in history again, for my next novel. Just re-read Ann Bannon’s Beebo Brinker, and the fascinating Gay Berlin. [Andi note: That’s by Robert Beachy, just released in 2014] For Blackmail, My Love I began with the writing, for the most part, and then developed the images. This time I’m thinking of starting with some images. I can say for sure that they’ll be set in San Francisco in the fifties – which, I recently learned, was at least 30% foggier than it is today. Imagine…

ANDI: FOGGIER? Wow. That just screams NOIR. All right, Katie. I know you have to go run along and get back to your varied tasks. Thank you so much for stopping by!

Happy Friday, everybody!

NOTE: All images courtesy of Katie Gilmartin.

For more info about Katie Gilmartin and all she does:
Cleis Press



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