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Interview for The L - Word    with Lynne Jamneck Justine Saracen has been a lifelong fantasy writer. Her first fantasy, "Magic Carpet," written at the age of six, was a runaway favorite with her mother and father. Outside reviews were mixed.  While the urge to write persisted, public success did not come until twenty five years later, with the publication of a scholarly book on Thomas Mann, Salvation in the Secular (Herbert Lang Verlag, Bern) and a wide range of literary critical articles in both American and foreign journals. Writing became fun again with the advent of fan fiction, when she wrote: "Lao Ma's Kiss," "Women in Prison," "The Pappas Journals," and "In the Reich," which won a responsive readership in cyberspace. In all her writings, both fantasy and somberly scholastic, certain philosophical issues remain central: ethics, origins, and the power of the word. You've written non-fiction before redirecting your pen to fiction. How and when did the novel bug bite? Like most writers, I played with little scenes, stories, musings all through life. I always wrote very long letters to friends which, if they were not literary, had the pretensions of being so.  But a novel is of course a long distance run and I had the confidence – and the discipline – for that only after finishing a doctoral dissertation. I also only really had time to sit down and do the work after my first serious girlfriend left me and I had nothing to do but mope or write. What was your reaction when The Hundredth Generation made finalist in the 2005 Queerlit competition? I thought "Only a finalist? What's up with that!?" No, seriously, it was exhilarating. I had entered other contests where I had not even placed, but in the Queerlit competition both of the novels I entered were finalists. It was confirmation that my writing could attract attention. The guys who ran the contest were also very accessible and replied to my personal emails, so I knew I had wandered into a good place. What process followed after that brought you to your current publisher, Bold Strokes Books? That was a more personal thing. A male friend of mine told me about the Saints and Sinners festival last year and I went, on very short notice, in fact. It was the first time I got to talk to and listen to people in the gay publishing business. Everyone was so much friendlier than the people at the large mainstream conferences. I spoke with one of the authors from Bold Strokes Books and …the connection was made. How great is it to have an Egyptologist partner when you're writing a book about an archeologist studying the histories and myths of ancient Egypt? Well, the Egyptologist partner came first, and she was, in a way, a sort of co-author, at least of the first sketch. When we were still courting, she was doing her doctorate in Cairo and Oxford and we exchanged emails every day. One day, as a joke, I wrote a little scene with her as a lesbian Indiana Jones. She countered with another scene and I came back with a third. It went on that way for months, with her throwing ever more bizarre elements at me, and with me having to absorb them into the narrative. When we stopped, we had a massive tome, hundreds of pages of monty-pythonesque silliness. Years later, when I got serious about making a novel out of it, I had no real plot, but lots of great characters. But by then we were living together and I had both a fantastic Egyptological library in my house, and a live-in authority. You've traveled to amongst other places, Morocco, Egypt and Palestine. Did you get to do much research that might serve you well in future books? Yes, of course. In Egypt, especially, we got some wonderful pictures in the tombs and temples, four of which make up the front and back covers of the new book: Morocco has a more flamboyant and photogenic culture, wonderfully 'arabesque' architecture, gorgeous people, the things you want to store up for future use. Palestine impressed me primarily by its deep sorrow, the sort of national exhaustion of an educated people driven from their land and homes and being slowly suffocated in what remains of their country. However, during my trip to Palestine last year, I stayed in the Arab quarter in the old city of Jerusalem, and realized that it was an excellent place to set the second novel of the trilogy. The main characters are the same, but I have added a sexy Arab-Israeli journalist. Any particularly interesting tidbits about Egyptian mythology you'd like to share..? It was democratic! Hundreds of gods, each one in his/her own purview, with no one really in charge. Much more 'user friendly' than monotheism. There is no original sin – actually no sin at all – so no guilt trip about being wicked and needing to be saved. The follow-up to The Hundredth Generation is called Vulture's Kiss. Have you finished the book? It is finished in principle, but it needs a lot of editing. It weaves three plots, two of them medieval, so getting them to flow in and around each other is a real challenge. A work like this will have to be gone through two or three more times. What's next – any interesting projects on the horizon? I have a wonderful novel set in the Italian Renaissance that I hope Rad will be excited about. I will be shattered if she is not because I think it is the best plot I have ever come up with. I also have a novel in the desk drawer. The writing is pretty dreadful, but the plot, about an opera singer who sells her soul to the devil (metaphorically, of course), is worth restructuring, so that project is a bit down the road. You recently attended Saints and Sinners in New Orleans. Tell us a bit about the experience. Oh, I loved it. I met dozens of people and it was like one big family reunion, but with lots of useful information. It is a very unpretentious conference, where you see how hard working everyone is who is in the business. No big egos, no bigshots making the unpublished or the newly published feel small. How does your background as a professor of language, literature and classical music impact your fictional writing?  Profoundly. All my themes (not my plots, but my themes) have been with me since my college days and certainly since I started writing for publication. These are: the resistance to authoritarianism (in the home, the state, or in religion), the creative force of language and the power of music, both demonic and transcendent. The 'lesbians are cool' theme came a bit later. Which authors would you consider to be most influential on your own work? As a professor in the literature of 'dead white men' I have to confess that the first influence on me was the stuffy but brilliant German Thomas Mann, who taught me the use of the leitmotif in writing. In women's literature I was impressed by Ursula Le Guin and James Tiptree for their messages. I liked Virginia Woolf for her play with metaphor, although I liked her journals better than her fiction, which moves along sooooo slowly. My current favorite is Sara Waters who balances a real narrative energy with wonderfully imaginative techniques. I have to add Radclyffe to the list, simply for the way she is able to write engaging novels, run a business, be available for every whiny remark from her authors, and breathe at the same time. What's your work atmosphere like when you write? I seize every bit of time I can, even if it is only half an hour on the bus. At home, I work among the screeching of parakeets and a parrot, so when I can manage a few hours of quiet late at night, I am very grateful. Do you think you are still improving yourself as a writer? Oh, I hope so. It is real work to sustain a narrative arc with a not-too-blatant message, lovely language and a believable engaging of two women. Amateurism seeps in at every unguarded moment and you have to learn to recognize it and get rid of it. I am horrified at every edit when I see what I have let slip by. What do you consider your best and worst attributes? As a writer, I suppose my best attribute is age and experience. I've been a lot of places and interacted with a lot of cultures, often in other languages. That may not help style, but I think it gives insights My worst attribute is a short attention span. I am always tempted to check the blogs, get a snack, play with the birds. Tell us something about Justine Saracen no-one else knows... Now why would I want to do that? What are you reading, listening, and watching right now? I real a lot of leftie political things every day, particularly internet blogs: Alternet, Truthout. The serious non-fiction book I am reading right now is Robert Fisk's Clash of Civilizations, a tome which will take years off my life. Aside from the BSB novels that arrive in quantity every month, I am reading Harry Potter in French. Since I am moving to Brussels in about a year, I need the practice and Harry Potter is the best I can manage. Whenever I have control of the sound system, which is not often, I play opera. Did I mention I like opera? As for watching TV (if you mean TV), we don't do much of that, but when we do, it is nature programs or The Simpsons. The Simpsons is the smartest social critique on network TV. What do you tell people when they ask you what it's like to be a writer? No one asks me that because most of the people close to me also write: scholarly, scientific, or political writing. So they all know. Any sage advice to aspiring writers? Learn the clichés and avoid them. Then have fun. A happy writer is a... …………published writer with no urgent deadlines and whose pet birds are sleeping.
Justine Saracen - L-Word Interview