Lucy Jane Bledsoe Interview

Women explore new territory in Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s fiction.

In her latest novel, The Big Bang Symphony (University of Wisconsin, 2010), three women—a composer, a cook, and a scientist—work together in Antarctica where the extreme climate exposes people to each other and themselves. In an earlier novel, Working Parts (Seal, 1997), the frontier is closer to home—adult literacy classes at the protagonist’s local library—yet equally challenging. Not only does the protagonist have to learn to read, she has to learn to be honest with people. In Biting the Apple (Carroll & Graf, 2007), the charismatic heroine, a motivational speaker and secret kleptomaniac, doesn’t push boundaries so much as cross them. But when one ex-lover refuses to bail her out and another stalks her, the protagonist is forced to decide which of her reinvented selves is authentic.

The complicated relationships in these novels do not necessarily end happily, but hope is present in the form of emotional growth for the flawed yet sympathetic characters. Lucy Jane’s books are also exceptionally well crafted and full of sly humor. She is, deservedly, a recent recipient of the Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award, as well as a four-time Lambda Literary finalist and one-time winner of the Stonewall Book Award.

Sports are the focus of several of your young adult novels as well as your first book, Sweat: Stories and a Novella (Seal, 1995) What about athletics has inspired you?

I love the intensity of focus in sports. The goal is so specific: you ride a bike fast enough or shoot a ball accurately. Also, concentrating in sports is a form of meditation, a way out of the garbage thoughts. For women, sports are a way to love our bodies and be wildly physical. I love the way sports are erotic, about being strong and sensual, and the way they blend heart and muscle. All of the above is about staying close to the core of self, and that is a good place to be for writing fiction.

You have edited travel anthologies, and your books have been set in both urban centers and the wilderness. How important is place in your work?

Too often fiction ignores setting—it’s sometimes considered too descriptive or extraneous. But humans are animals, and we live in a relationship with our environment. This is key to our emotional selves. I love exploring how the physical placement of characters affects the choices they make. I always consider a story’s ecology, the relationship of the living things with each other and their environment.

In both This Wild Silence (Alyson, 2003) and The Big Bang Symphony (University of Wisconsin, 2010) the characters find their physical and emotional lives at stake. Do you think exploring extreme physical spaces forces people to look at the hidden or absent emotional spaces in their lives?

All good stories put some kind of stress on the characters. Very often this stress is some type of violence. Sometimes it’s illness or heartbreak. In the books of mine to which you refer, I used biological extremity to stress my characters. I wanted to squeeze them to the point of seeing their essences. So yes, I do believe that extreme physical spaces strip people down to their most basic selves, their animal selves. This can destroy them, but it can also transform them.

How did Antarctica fuel your imagination?

I’ve loved and craved wilderness my whole life. And I’ve often struggled with the meaning of that love. Why do we need wilderness? How can people justify putting aside vast tracts of land that are not being used in any calculable way? But now—through science—we are seeing how the “emptiness” is necessary. How our knowledge of ourselves depends on it. How places like Antarctica and the Arctic drive the entire planet’s climate.

They drive my imagination in the same way. The hugeness and the extremity, of both beauty and risk, open me up to my biggest, best stories. The raw, uncontaminated Earth speaks to something pure and vital. The apparent blankness might instead be called openness, vast areas of space where ideas and creativity can foment. Antarctica represents the frontier of imagination, the gorgeous unknown.

You write about a variety of relationships—romantic, sexual, familial, platonic, and work. Which types of relationships do you most enjoy writing about?

I love exploring all different kinds of relationships. I have two sisters whom I love very much, and I really like writing about sisterhood (the biological kind). It’s a complex, intense relationship. It’s impossible (almost) to avoid writing about parent/child relationships, since it’s such a vital one to most people, but it has been so mucked over I try to bypass it. Romantic and sexual relationships are fun, and I’ll always want to write about them, but they’re difficult to do freshly.

Your fiction features lesbian as well as heterosexual relationships. Who would you say your audience is?

I try to ignore the divides between straight and lesbian audiences, between literary and commercial audiences. I am trying to tell a good story, to use language in fresh and pleasing ways, to stimulate people’s hearts and minds. I would like anyone interested in the above to read my books. I’ve always had a core of lesbian readers, from my first book, Sweat. I love these readers. And I’ve always had some straight readers. Bottom line, I’d like people to see us, see lesbians, and I think literature is a good way for that to happen.

Nothing on the packaging of your two latest books suggests there is queer content. Was this a strategy on the part of either of your publishers?

Actually, The Big Bang Symphony has “Gay & Lesbian Interest” printed on the back cover as one of four library categories (also Fiction, Travel, and Environment). The publisher definitely wants my lesbian audience to know this book has lots of lesbian content—the title character is an out lesbian. I love my publisher, Terrace Books (trade imprint of the University of Wisconsin Press), for many reasons, one being that they let me be a whole person—outdoorswoman, fiction writer, lesbian etc. They market to all these interest groups. I think Terrace Books highlights the lesbian content while not seeing the book as solely a lesbian book.

In general, on marketing strategy, I wish publishers would market lesbian work to mainstream audiences. I think mainstream readers would buy our books if they were offered to them. They do in the UK—look at Sarah Waters, Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith, and others. Most good readers read across all kinds of cultural divides. For example, I read the work of Chinese-Americans, African-Americans, straight people, gay men, etc. But somehow it’s assumed that straight people won’t be interested in lesbian stories. I see that belief as a blind spot in publishing.

Mainstream and small presses have published your books. What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of large and small publishers?

It’s all a crapshoot. I loved it when Carroll & Graf picked up my last novel, Biting the Apple. But the week my book came out, they were sold to Perseus, and my editor was fired. Terrace Books, the publisher of The Big Bang Symphony, is an independent publisher, and I’ve never had better marketing and publicity since maybe Seal Press, who did my first two books.

What is your next project?

I’m working on two projects. One is a collection of short fiction that focuses on intimacy in midlife. What is desire now? How does loss impact desire? The cultural assumption is that desire and passion are lessened with age, and I think the opposite is true. My characters explore these questions from different points of view. I’m also working on a new novel.


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