I was at Home Depot the other day looking for some plywood and 2×2 to make a placard, when who did I see but Lee Lynch over by the power tools. Never being one to waste an opportunity, I sidled over with my mini recorder and asked her some questions.
Hi Lee. You started writing in a turbulent era, the 1960s. Looking back it looks like the perfect storm, a conflux of societal upheaval and direct radical action. African American civil rights, Feminism, the antiwar movement, and Gay Liberation exploded out of the sixties. Can you tell me how the politics of the time impacted you and maybe galvanized your creativity and desire to write?
Thanks for your thoughtful question, Gill. I was radicalized by coming out in 1960, but had no idea how to “upheave” society, if you will, for gay people. Instead, I got somewhat involved in the relatively respectable anti-nuke, peace and civil rights movements. Later in the 1960s I became active in the feminist movement. Through all this, I had no gay voice. Speaking out was just so forbidden. I did learn that it was okay to stand up for other causes and got a little experience doing so.
However, World War II, as we know, birthed a teeming underground gay culture. I was fortunate to grow up in New York where I could, from age 15 on, stealthily access that evolving culture through the bars, a chance encounter with the lesbian magazine “The Ladder,” and hanging out where other gay kids hung out in Greenwich Village.
I was excessively shy, not someone who could make herself heard out loud. I was also addicted to books. Reading that great novel, The Well of Loneliness, as well as the work of Valerie Taylor, Ann Bannon, Vin Packer/Ann Aldrich, Claire Morgan/Patricia Highsmith, and others, gave me such validation, comforting reassurance, and pleasure, that I wanted to give the same to other lesbians. In that way, I found my own voice.
How did you learn to write? And by that I mean the actual craft. Did you have a day job at a newspaper? Did you starve in a garret? I ask this because today we have a community to cradle our budding creativity. Lesbian writers can find mentors and beta readers, a ready made audience, and even a publisher through our relentless online networking. But I’m always curious about the resources and ingenuity of writers who became successful before our vast, swaddling, icomfort-blanket came into existence.
Well, I did work as a file clerk in the subscription department of the “New Yorker” magazine my seventeenth summer. Would that count?
Actually, that experience was very important to my development as a writer. A stack of “New Yorkers” was left out for the lowly clerks each week. I’ve now subscribed to the magazine for over 50 years. As I never had patience for classroom learning, especially grammar, I believe I learned to write by reading books and good journalism, not that it always took. That, and trial and error. I didn’t hear about beta readers until a few years ago — I was fortunate my partners were always willing to read my attempts to write lesbian stories, just as my wife Elaine is today.
And yes, I have not-quite-starved in a number of virtual garrets all my writing life. I have always worked full-time so I wouldn’t starve, would have a roof over my head and could have many of the privileges of middle class America. Writing has never been a source of meaningful income for me. I once dreamed of earning money by my pen so I could write full-time. Instead, living on Social Security gives me that opportunity.
Lee, when you hear terms such as literary mother, American queer hero, trailblazer, icon, and everyone is pointing at you; what the hell do you think? You are often referenced as the catalyst for newer writers. Your ideas, style, energy were a springboard for writers such as Karin Kallmaker, Rachel Spangler, and myself. You may not be aware but your books were gold dust in the Northern Ireland I grew up in. The Troubles engendered a lot of political momentum, but not always in the direction required. In my lesbian circle Naiad books were expensive and hard to come by. I still have my original copy of Toothpick House (which your going to autograph, btw) and I remember my actual excitement the day acquired it. What is your take on your impact on lesbian culture?
I am very grateful to possess a gift I can give other lesbians and that I live in a time in which lesbians with a love for our literature have made publication possible. I keep telling everyone, I’m just a lesbian storyteller.
Thank you for telling me my work was read in Northern Ireland, any part of Ireland, as much of my ancestry is Irish. Since you’re Irish as well as a skilled writer Gill, I will sign your book. Otherwise…
Sometimes I have to chuckle. I’ve written and lived in literary isolation most of my life, not a part of a writing community and only peripherally part of a gay social community. Tee Corinne told me that I’d be an icon someday. Of course I just laughed — she would be (and is) the icon. After a number of hermiting years, Elaine dragged me kicking and screaming to GCLS where women were using that word — about me. I’ll say it again, I’m just a lesbian storyteller. It’s all I ever wanted to be. I’m so fortunate to be able to do what I love and do it for gay people.
But whatever has inspired our multitudes of writers, may it keep working!
When I look back at the‘good ole days’ when Naiad, Alyson, and Cleis were all we had, it amazes me the amount lesbian fiction that is popping up everywhere now. We are all digital and virtual and probably viral. There are a plethora of lesbian publishers or self publishing opportunities for those who want to go the indie route. Good or bad? When our literature becomes as everyday to us as sliced bread, who is left pushing the envelope? Or have we never stopped pushing?
Gill, I believe things may look good now, but we’re always a political upheaval away from persecution. We could lose all this progress in a heartbeat. Our new writers need to be aware of that and write with a social conscience that makes our ilk strong and ambitious for us, whether they do that with entertainment, passing on our stories of romance, or portraying our pain. Our work takes many forms and it should. We need to continue to dig in our heels. Our strength, our triumphs, are sustaining gays in Uganda and Russia and Oklahoma. We have to write enough books that we’ll never be silenced again.
I shouldn’t ask, but which of your books is your favorite? I know, I know, it’s like children, there shouldn’t be a favorite. But seriously, which one would you leave your wedding ring to?
If I were new to my work and had to choose one of my books to read, I believe I would choose Beggar of Love or The Swashbuckler. Both were emotionally grueling to write so I know they’re as much from my heart as I can get.
And finally, for someone who’s been it, and done it, and won it, what do you envision for yourself next?
Thanks for asking, Gill. I am presently working on the novel Rainbow Gap about two ordinary dykes in Florida, one grappling with difference, the other with spirituality. My plan is to make it the first of a quartet of books. I get to write short stories in between novels as a treat and lately there have been a lot of calls for material so maybe I can get some of them out there. My most recent book, An American Queer: The Amazon Trail is a selection of my columns/blogs going back twenty-five years. Of course I still write “The Amazon Trail” monthly.
Just then an offer of 3 for 2 on three inch chipboard screws was announced and I had to leave Lee and go and snag some. And that’s how I spent my Sunday.