The Epic Win …. by Nicole Kimberling

Nicole in 1992

When I asked Nicole Kimberling to write a post, as usual I had no idea what she would say. I’m always amazed at what authors write in these blog posts and what she produced was this little gem. 

Recently I had a conversation that reminded me of the primary event that led to the formation of Blind Eye Books as a company, and the principle that guides it, which I think might be of interest to readers.  

Back in 1992, my wife and I were living in Colorado during the Amendment Two battle. For those of you who did not live in Colorado, Amendment Two was a law designed to prohibit all legislative action at any level of government that would designate LGBT people as a protected class. It was three days before the vote. Propaganda flew thick and fast. Massive campaigns had been launched to register LGBT voters (mainly in bars) while equally massive campaigns targeted the state’s young Christian voters (mostly in churches). My wife was in art school at the time, and we were at the apartment of one of her fellow students whose name I honestly can’t remember, but let’s just call her Amy for the sake of narrative ease. Amy was torn about how she would vote. At her church, she was being told to support the amendment. She didn’t know any gay people–or rather she didn’t know she knew any gay people, because she didn’t know she was sitting in the room with two of them, but I digress. Amy’s apartment was absolutely full of crosses and pictures of horses. She was 18 years old. Tentatively, late in the evening, she asked if either one of us had read Mercedes Lackey’s Last Herald Mage series. We said that we had and she lit up. She’d purchased the book because it had a picture of a white horse on the front of it and through reading the series she’d come to realize that the primary character, who she loved, was gay.  

Amy asked if we thought that real gay people could be good people, like Vanyel. 

Sure, we said, why not? 

She asked if we knew any gay people and we said that yeah, we did. 

All at once she decided. She said that if that were true, then she could not possibly vote ‘yes’ on the amendment. She said that for the sake of Vanyel she would vote ‘no’. 

I was absolutely amazed. Never before had I heard of anyone changing their vote because of a fictional character. Moreover, a fictional character that I personally thought was kinda wimpy. Wouldn’t Renault’s The Charioteer have been the more influential book? Or Warren’s The Front Runner? Or any book that did not include talking ponies?   

Apparently not. Not to Amy, anyway. 

I completely reassessed my view of the purpose of speculative fiction that day. Rather than being a collection of sentences detailing how life really is, spec fic became about characters and about stories about how life could be if we could imagine it. When we started Blind Eye Books fourteen years later, I kept Amy present in my mind. I decided that the single most important thing about a manuscript for our company was whether or not the author allowed their LGBT characters to be heroes and whether or not they allowed those heroic characters to win and to be happy. Because even Vanyel never got a real Happily Ever After, but I was betting that there were young gay and lesbian people out there who wanted to see people like them reflected in fantasy fiction the way that straight people get to be–kicking ass, saving the day, and getting the hot guy (or gal) at the end of it.  

My own personal goal in building a line of books is to connect to an audience that is starved not only for positive images, but nearly bereft of genuinely heroic characters. I want to publish books where the LGBT protagonists smite all adversaries, against all odds, superseding mortal limitations. I want to publish stories of characters whose greatest triumph at the end of the book is not simply to be allowed to live, but who get an epic win. 

That was my ideal, my goal and my purpose—to give these kids somebody to want to be. I wanted to present characters who were as cool as Aragorn, as sympathetic as Harry Potter, as badass as Wolverine, as sizzling hot and relentless as Alice from Resident Evil while simultaneously being really, really unambiguously gay. I thought the gay community would be the primary buyers of our books. That, as it turns out, was wrong. The primary purchasers of our work are people just like Amy—M/M readers. 

There has been a lot of talk in the last year or so about total authenticity—especially in the M/M writing community. Authors and publishers have essentially been asked to choose a battle line to take. Academic and political arguments have been advanced and subsequently parsed to death on every site everywhere. Is it all right for straight women to write gay men? Is it all right for gay men to like romance, especially the idealized stories offered by romance publishers? Do these genre stories misrepresent homosexuality? (The answers to these questions BTW are: yes, yes, and “not any more than Rambo misrepresents the capacity of an average Viet Nam veteran to engage an entire regiment of the US National Guard.”) 

I decided to offer this anecdote—the Blind Eye Books origin story, as it were—because it is a real example of one vote being determined by something as seemingly inconsequential as a series of genre novels featuring a gay protagonist written by a straight woman and purchased by another straight woman. 

One vote changed is not what one would generally describe as an epic win. But unlike the epic wins of fiction, that one vote was real. Because of Vanyel, Amy became what those of a political nature, such as myself, call an ally. Allies are important. Because, really, when it comes time to count the ballots, you can never have too many friends. 

So I suppose the question I have for readers is: Has a book or a fictional character ever changed the way you perceive something or someone? It doesn’t have to be a gay book or character—I’m just curious to hear if there are other stories like Amy’s out there.  

  

Author

I live in Canada and I love big dogs, music, movies, reading and sports – especially baseball

40 comments

  • The book which has influenced me throughout my life is Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’.

    I first read this in my teenage years(more than 20 years ago). At that time the religious aspect of the book made a great impact. I was struggling with my own ‘coming out’ as an agnostic/atheist. Which is kinda hard to do when you entire family/community is deeply religious.
    Being a teenager, the whole lesbian aspect was just another theme for my book-report. I didn’t really get it.

    A few years later I was in a bar and a girl came on to me. I didn’t realise it was happening at the time. She kept smiling and looking and I did the same thing back.
    Being totally oblivious I asked my friend who was with me whether we knew the girl from school or somewhere. My friend looked at me, rolled her eyes and said: “No, you idiot. She’s flirting with you!!!”
    I was like: “Oh, Oooooh!!!”.
    I looked again and then it clicked. Oranges are NOT the only fruit.

    My Kinsey Scale rating went from a 0 to a 2/3
    =)

    All I can say is that I love this book and its title.
    Because there are many instances in this life where I am again reminded that Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.

    Reply
    • Saf: Because there are many instances in this life where I am again reminded that Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.

      NK: You know, I really have to break down and read this book someday. I really like your bar story. So cute!

      And yeah, otherness is difficult, no matter what the root cause of it is, you know? It makes you feel like a stranger to those around you and is very isolating. That’s the beauty of a literary piece of fiction, I think–it’s more about one person talking to another than about entertainment. There’s something really private and deep about the connection a person can have to a literary work, I think.

      Reply
  • I agree 100% about Lanyon being a gateway author. 😉

    When you wrote of Amy and her one vote, I was reminded of the story of the man walking along the beach throwing the starfish back into the sea. I’m paraphrasing here, but his friend asks him what he’s doing. The friend says, it won’t really matter that he’s throwing the starfish back into the sea because he can’t save them all. The man’s answer: it matters to those he does save. Amy’s one vote leads to another and another and another with each person she talks to and each story she reads.

    Reply
  • Fantastic post, Nicole. Thank you.

    I’m late to the party, as usual, but your question immediately brought two books to my mind. Hostage by RD Zimmerman introduced me to Todd Mills, my first kick ass action-oriented gay hero who was also in a healthy relationship with another kick ass action-oriented gay man. From there I found Joseph Hansen, Michael Nava, etc. The first read of “Hostage” was such a liberating experience, having been mired in the traditional maudlin gay literature with protags who just didn’t appeal to or excite me. The other book is Imajica by Clive Barker. (Mmm. Back cover picture of Barker? Smokin’ hot!) There’s a character in that book whose sexual appearance varies depending on who’s looking at/wanting him. I will honestly say that reading that book was my first insight into someone falling in love with the who inside and not the whatzit outside. I credit that book for opening my mind to the possibility of understanding bisexuality (hey, it was the early 90s and I was young!). It probably still has something to do with my interest in GFY stories, too.

    Hmm. Now I’m going to have to re-read the Todd Mills Series and Imajica! Good times. Thanks again. 🙂

    Reply
    • Hey Buda,

      I, too dig Joseph Hansen. And yeah, do I EVER remember the picture of Clive Barker on the back of Imajica. (And I’m not even into guys.) I was working at a bookstore at the time Imajica was released and remember thinking, “Putting this guy’s picture on the back of this book is the best marketing tool I can think of.”

      Buda: I will honestly say that reading that book was my first insight into someone falling in love with the who inside and not the whatzit outside.

      NK: You know, that’s definitely the essential discovery one makes going from the 20’s to the 30’s isn’t it? That outside and inside don’t necessarily match up with each other. It’s one of those truths that seems simple after you’ve figured it out, but is actually not that easy to understand right out of the gate. 🙂

      Reply
  • Wow, what a thought-provoking thread! Thank you, Nicole, and all who responded. I can pinpoint exactly a trio of characters that totally led to a change in my perspective. About 18 months ago, a certain series of books led to my renewed interest in vampires, as something other than fodder for nightmares.
    But those books, while sparking my interest, just left me wanting something more mature. And I discovered The Black Dagger Brotherhood. If you’re familiar with the series, you know John(straight), Qhuinn(bi), & Blay(gay). Suddenly I was looking at gay men in a very different light. I don’t think I was ever intolerant of gay people, just kind of my own version of DADT, I didn’t want to know. But these 3 characters and the peeps I met talking about them changed that. I never realized the horrors that the gay community endures or just how many “good” Christian people perpetrate them, either by action or inaction. Yes, I discovered the wonderful world of m/m fiction but I also discovered the Trevor Project, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, HRC, NOH8 and others. And a whole slew of absolutely wonderful people it is now my pleasure to know!

    Reply
    • Hi SusieQ,

      I haven’t read the Black Dagger books yet but the fact that they made such an impact on you makes them intriguing to me now.

      SusieQ: I don’t think I was ever intolerant of gay people, just kind of my own version of DADT, I didn’t want to know…but I also discovered the Trevor Project, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, HRC, NOH8 and others.

      NK: This comment, to me, is both incredibly insightful and terrifically brave. I commend you, truly. Because I think that what we in the LGBT community tend to fear about the M/M community is that readers who buy M/M books don’t actually like us very much as real people or support our real-life causes. I have always argued that the opposite is true and I am so, so glad that you wrote in to prove me right. (Because really, who doesn’t like to be right? :))

      Reply
      • Thank you, Nicole. We are still waiting for Qhuinn to realize he is in love with his best friend, Blay. They are more secondary characters, I just don’t want to mislead you. It was the ongoing discussions a group of us had about them that intrigued me.

        “don’t actually like us very much as real people or support our real-life causes”

        S-I truly hope that isn’t the case. I work in the medical field, and one of the most heart wrenching cases I ever saw was a gay couple who had been together for years. One of them was dying and when he became comatose, his family (who had never accepted his sexuality) who legally were next of kin blocked his partner from visiting. It was probably the most horrible situation I’ve ever witnessed.

        Isn’t there a quote by someone famous along the lines of “None of us is free until all of us are free”? Very appropro when one realizes that there are those who are trying to dictate something as fundamental as who can love who.

        Reply
  • Well, I’ve only been reading what I think of contemporary, electronic media m/m fiction (what a mouthful) for a couple months – since I received my Kindle! However, when I was in graduate school studying English Renaissance literature in the early 90s, my professors were in the process of setting up a gay studies program. Actually, a number of universities were just starting to develop such courses and programs – a rather exciting time. So, in addition to studying Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ben Jonson and a variety of women writers of the period, I also had my introduction to authors such as Andre Gide, Christopher Isherwood, Joe Orton, Jeannette Winterson, etc., etc. I’d read Mary Renault on my own in high school, but I didn’t really didn’t become politically aware until that opportunity arose in grad school.

    Reply
    • Congratulations on your Kindle acquisition, Pea!

      Pea: So, in addition to studying Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ben Jonson and a variety of women writers of the period, I also had my introduction to authors such as Andre Gide, Christopher Isherwood, Joe Orton, Jeannette Winterson, etc., etc.

      NK: I was in college in the late 80’s and I remember being astounded to discover that people had been writing about homosexuality for, like, hundreds of years. I think that kids nowadays, who have had internet access for their entire lives are somewhat immune to such life-changing informational discoveries because information is so much more freely available than it was before we had this nifty tool. (See my previous comment RE: photocopied Kirk/Spock slash. LOL)

      Reply
  • Yeah, it led to some really deep and intense “conversations” on a variety of topics =) Actually, whenever I was going through a moment of doubt and pain she would remind me to live my truth.

    Reply
    • Luci: Actually, whenever I was going through a moment of doubt and pain she would remind me to live my truth.

      NK: You know, as I’ve gotten older (I’m 41) I’ve come to realize that mom’s are really great for remembering what you told them 25 years ago and then bringing it back up right when you need to hear your own words come back to you. (It’s like they know you or something… :))

      Reply
  • Luci: …his message was that we had to live our truth, regardless of what society or religion says. I even had my mum read the book. So, to this day that’s my mantra live my truth.

    NK: That’s a beautiful message. Just out of curiosity, what did your mum think of the book?

    Reply
  • I read a memoir years ago of a Catholic priest who was dying of AIDS. I’m impressed that I read it as I was then attending a Catholic high school and wasn’t yet at the point where I was seriously challenging my religious beliefs. Anyway, his message was that we had to live our truth, regardless of what society or religion says. I even had my mum read the book. So, to this day that’s my mantra live my truth. Needless to say I’m a very very lapsed Catholic =) When my cousin came out he was the first in my family to ever do so (yeah, it’s a point of shame to his folks and extended family -Grr-) I’m soo proud that he’s living his truth regardless of the insane family reactions.

    And yes, this was a fab post

    Reply
  • By the time I read the Last Herald Mage series, I’d already worked my way through all the Gordon Merritt available at my local book store, as well as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books, and a large portion of Heinlein’s books (I know, I know, not really who one thinks of right off the bat, but a very large percentage of his characters were implied and sometimes stated to be bisexual). I’d read and loved Elizabeth A. Lynn’s books (still love them to this day).

    My personal story isn’t like Amy’s. I’ve had openly gay friends for most of my life. It was never a deliberate sort of thing, it just happened that way. I make friends where I will and as it’s turned out, the people I tend to be most comfortable with are people I like and whose company I enjoy. It’s never particularly mattered to me whether they were gay, straight, or somewhere in between.

    I think it’s great that there are characters out there that can give people insight into those they might see as ‘too different’ because ultimately, isn’t it a small thing, whether someone is attracted to their own gender, the opposite gender, or both?

    We’re all people. Good and bad, smart and less so. Serious and foolish. We’re all equally ridiculous in our own ways, but still just people.

    Anything that helps get this across to those who might otherwise miss that fundamental truth is a good thing, which is why I appreciate the BEB origins story so much.

    The point of this rambling reply is, I suppose, to say that every book I read when younger that contained GLBT protagonists had an impact on me. Maybe not all at once, and it was possibly easier for me because I was already a gay-friendly zone, but every little ‘ah-hah!’ moment added to the foundation I was building. The foundation that says it’s all about people as individuals, not about their sexuality.

    Okay, was that off-topic enough? *rolls eyes at self* Must step away from the keyboard! 😛

    ~Tis

    Reply
    • TCBlue: I’d read and loved Elizabeth A. Lynn’s books

      NK: Me too!

      TCBlue: The point of this rambling reply is, I suppose, to say that every book I read when younger that contained GLBT protagonists had an impact on me. Maybe not all at once, and it was possibly easier for me because I was already a gay-friendly zone, but every little ‘ah-hah!’ moment added to the foundation I was building. The foundation that says it’s all about people as individuals, not about their sexuality.

      Okay, was that off-topic enough? *rolls eyes at self*

      NK: I don’t think that was off-topic at all. I think that was lovely.

      Reply

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