Today, I'm honoured to have Laura Lam stopping by my blog to answer some questions about her debut novel, Pantomime, for LGBTQ YA Month.
WARNING! This interview contains spoilers for a major twist in Pantomime. If you have yet to read Pantomime and do not want it spoilt for you, do not read any further. Instead, read my spoiler-free review.
How did you come up with the idea for Pantomime?
Micah Grey came first. I wrote a book with him in his late 20s, but I was 19 and so getting his sarcastic, world-weary voice was difficult for me.
I decided to try to get to know him better by writing about his backstory after running away from his life as a noblewoman’s daughter and joining the circus as a boy. But that story completely overtook me. I tapped into younger Micah instantly and realised I had to tell his story.
Why did you choose to write about an intersex character? Why was it important to you to write about such a subject?
I’ve always been really interested in gender studies. A lot of my favourite books growing up had girls running away and disguising themselves as boys, such as the Alanna books by Tamora Pierce. Even at age 8, I liked the idea that gender didn’t have to preclude girls from being heroes. Micah Grey appeared to me when I was trying to figure out what gender I wanted my MC to be. And I started thinking about a girl who disguised herself as a boy, but it wasn’t necessarily a disguise.
I realised that in YA especially, there were no intersex characters that I had read about, and I thought that was a shame. It’s not that common in adult books either, though there’s been a few more lately with Middlesex and Annabel. There’s also a huge lack of gay YA characters (Micah Grey is bisexual as well as intersex), as either protagonists or supporting characters. When I did more research and learned that people being born with some form of an intersex condition is about as common as having red hair, I knew that I wanted to explore the subject in my fiction. However, I didn’t want Pantomime to be an “issue book.” I just wanted to write a fantasy with a protagonist that just happened to be intersex, where Micah investigates his identity as well as living his life and overcoming obstacles in Ellada.
What research did you have to do for Pantomime?
I did a lot of research on the circus, Victorian society, and future technologies. And I did a lot of research on gender studies. Some of the books I read for Pantomime were: Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex by Alice Domurat Dreger, Intersex by Catherine Harper, Intersex: for Lack of a Better Word by Thea Hilman, and the original memoirs of Herculine Barbin, a French “hermaphrodite” in the 19th century. I also watched a few documentaries, such as “The Boy Who Was Turned Into a Girl,” which is about a boy who had a botched circumcision and so a doctor convinced his parents to raise him as a girl. It was considered a great success and was used as the basis for why intersex babies should have gender reassignment at birth. But it wasn’t a success. As soon as Brenda found out she had been born a boy, she transitioned right back to David, and unfortunately later he ended up committing suicide. I also watched “Me, My Sex, and I”, which is a beautiful but such a sad documentary. I researched organisations such as ISNA and UKIA. I also researched transgender topics as well, watching other documentaries and some videos on youtube of teens describing their feelings as they transitioned. I found those so moving and inspiring and brave.
It seems to me that the title of the book, Pantomime, says a lot about how Micah lives his life. Can you tell us your thoughts behind the title?
It took a long time to settle on the title, but when I decided to add a Pantomime story to thread through the circus acts, everything clicked. Micah is always pretending to a certain degree, as are most other characters in the circus.
Drystan, one of the circus clowns, discusses the religious beliefs on sexuality, and says one theory about why there is no mention of it in the sacred text is that to the Lord and Lady sexuality is a non-issue. Is this how you feel today’s religions should think of sexuality? What are your religious beliefs?
I did let my own beliefs sneak in there. I don’t think sexuality should be an issue. Love is love and love is a beautiful thing. Whether a boy loves a girl, or a boy loves a boy, a girl loves a girl, or a girl or boy loves several other people, as long as everyone is happy, then it’s something to be celebrated.
I personally don’t have any concrete religious beliefs. I was raised in Religious Science, which is a sort of gnostic branch of Christianity (and it’s not Christian Science or Scientology). There’s a lot of emphasis on thinking positively. While I don’t call myself a Religious Scientist anymore, I think a lot of the tenants of Ernest Holmes stayed with me.
I found it interesting that Micah doesn’t completely identify with either gender, and has personality traits of both; how he’s not a boy or a girl, he just is. He’s just Micah. Were you trying to say something about self-identity and gender stereotypes, or is that simply just how Micah was in your head?
That’s just how Micah was. Even in my adult book, Micah dresses as male and presents as male for the most part, but has people only know him as female, as well as people who know him as intersex. He never decides on a gender because he has aspects of both. There are also a lot of people who don’t identify as one gender or another in our world if they are not intersex—see genderqueer.
Did you write Pantomime with the intention of shining some light on the subject of intersexuality?
I did. When I told people my main character was intersex, I got a lot of blank looks. I realised not many people knew what that was. I also wanted to touch on the fact that, even today, intersex children are operated upon to look “normal” when they are too young to give consent, and it can have grave long-term consequences on their sexual, physical, and mental well-being. There’s been a lawsuit in the news recently about parents who are suing the hospital for operating on their adopted intersex son, which has helped shed some light on the subject.
There seem to be a very few YA novels with intersex characters. Although I know of a few, Pantomime is the first I have read (and so far, the only one I have found easy to get hold of). Why do you think there are so few YA novels with intersex characters?
There aren’t many. I’ve heard Leah Bobet’s Above has an intersex character, so I plan to look that up. This blog post here has a great list of books with QUILTBAG characters in YA. I think there aren’t many because so many people don’t know about intersex issues. It’s not uncommon, but it’s unheard of, and I’m not sure why.
Before getting your publishing deal with Strange Chemistry, did you encounter any difficulties finding a publisher due to Micah’s intersexuality?
Strange Chemistry were the first publisher to see it, so I don’t know how others would have felt about it. I submitted to Angry Robot’s Open Door month in March 2011 and received a revise & resubmit eight months later. I was rejected by a few agents, but I don’t know if any of them were because of Micah’s gender. Sometimes I do wonder how other publishers would have felt about it—if they would have found the gender interesting or a hindrance, but I’ll never know! I’m very glad Angry Robot and Strange Chemistry did find that aspect of Pantomime fascinating.
What is your opinion on how YA novels deal with LGBTQ themes?
A loaded question! Mostly, I wish more YA novels had more diversity full stop. YA is predominantly white and straight, though I do think things are changing for the better.
Were there any books you found dealt well with this topic when you were a teen?
I really loved the Tamir Triad as a teen, by Lynn Flewelling. It’s about a princess who is turned into a prince to save him from the crazy king, the princess’s uncle, who is killing all female heirs because of a prophecy. The catch is that in order to do this, they had to kill her twin brother, and they never told her she was actually a girl. It makes it rather dark and gothic and sinister. Tobin is haunted by the ghost of his brother and lives in a deserted keep. The trilogy is one of my favourite series. I think I’m actually due a re-read of it, as it’s been a few years!
Are there any novels – YA or adult – featuring intersex characters that you would recommend?
There aren’t that many books with intersex characters. There’s Middlesex which I enjoyed but also found problematic in some resepects, and I felt the same way with Ilario by Mary Gentle. I also read Annabel, but wasn’t as keen on that as the pacing was very, very slow and I felt quite distanced from the main character. So I haven’t come across a book with an intersex character I really connected with, though I hope to.
Anything else you would like to add?
Thank you for having me, Jo, and thank you to everyone for reading!
Thank you, Laura, for such a facinating interview! Look at all the research this lady did! So many books read. Just awesome. And I will definitely be looking up some of those recommendations! Read my full length review for Pantomime.