I’m psyched to have E.M. Kokie on the blog today, in honor of her brand-new YA, Radical, about a lesbian pro-gun survivalist named Bex who falls for a girl with a strongly differing ideology from the one that’s defined her life. It’s such a different book for the YA canon, and one of so few with a butch lesbian MC, I knew I had to pick her brain about it.
First, a little more about the book:
Determined to survive the crisis she’s sure is imminent, Bex is at a loss when her world collapses in the one way she hasn’t planned for.
Preppers. Survivalists. Bex prefers to think of herself as a realist who plans to survive, but regardless of labels, they’re all sure of the same thing: a crisis is coming. And when it does, Bex will be ready. She’s planned exactly what to pack, she knows how to handle a gun, and she’ll drag her family to safety by force if necessary. When her older brother discovers Clearview, a group that takes survival just as seriously as she does, Bex is intrigued. While outsiders might think they’re a delusional doomsday group, she knows there’s nothing crazy about being prepared. But Bex isn’t prepared for Lucy, who is soft and beautiful and hates guns. As her brother’s involvement with some of the members of Clearview grows increasingly alarming and all the pieces of Bex’s life become more difficult to juggle, Bex has to figure out where her loyalties really lie.
And here’s info on the special deal if you order a signed copy from indie bookstore A Room of One’s Own today!
And now, the interview:
Right off the bat, let’s discuss the fact that Radical is tackling some tough topics at a tough time. What thoughts have come to mind about releasing a book with a very pro-gun lesbian MC just a few months after the shooting at Pulse?
I knew, even when I was writing the early drafts of Radical, that writing about a pro-gun lesbian was going to be a double whammy. In later drafts, I found myself calling Radical the book with “something for everyone to hate”—some might really struggle with the parts about the guns (or the mere mention of guns might turn them off), some readers might not be comfortable with the lesbianism, and some might be uncomfortable with the sex. But this was the book I needed to write. I needed to better understand our gun culture, the pervasive fear and anger feeding movements like the survivalist and private militia movements, and I wondered about the girls and women within these subcultures. But in early drafts and in the first years working on the manuscript, I couldn’t have foreseen just how hard it would be to talk about a book about guns and queers in the months before publication.
And not just because of Pulse, but also because of the steady and horrific string of shootings we’ve seen in recent years. Every one has hit me hard, and every one is part of why I wrote this book. But in the months after Pulse, it seemed impossible to talk about any of this. I ached for every lost life, every shattered dream, every face and name and their families. And I didn’t want to talk about guns—or Radical.
In the last few months I’ve re-read bits of Radical and reminded myself why I wrote it. I’ve never been a gun owner. I’d never touched a gun before the research for Radical. Writing Radical didn’t change my mind about gun ownership for myself, and probably not for those in my home. And I still have complicated thoughts about gun ownership in general. But it helped me understand a little better what I had thought of as “gun culture” in this country, and gave me some insights into the factors driving movements like the survivalist and private militia movements. And I think I was also working through some issues about why we laud as feminist and empowering stories about a girl saving the world, but don’t often embrace stories about a girl saving herself—especially when we don’t like where she comes from or some of her choices—even when the latter often takes more bravery.
Radical doesn’t offer any quick and easy answers. Not about family. Not about survival. Definitely not about guns. And I get why it makes some readers uncomfortable. My hope is that it stimulates questions, and conversations, and an attempt to get beyond the “them” and “us” so many big issues seem to devolve into.
Probably the thing that’s most startling about Radical is how familiarly Dystopian the feel is, but then it’s in fact a Contemporary. How intentional was that? Or do you think it’s just inevitable with the subject matter?
It was not at all intentional. In fact, when I shared the first bits and pieces of early drafts at conferences and with writer friends, I was surprised by how many people thought it was a dystopian novel, or not even our world at all. I worked hard to anchor the first chapters in our here and now reality.
But it does feel sometimes like we’re living in the early chapters of a dystopian story, doesn’t it? Or maybe not a dystopia, because there was no utopia preceding it, but the things we think of as the hallmarks of a dystopia—oppression, targeting of immigrants and minorities and women, chilling of a vigorous and objective media, wealth inequality, ever-present fears of external threats, scary politics and scapegoating, and an uptick in violence and weapons stockpiling.
Radical has a seriously well-researched feel. What kind of work went into its creation?
I’m an attorney, so research is my first instinct whenever something piques my interest or puzzles me, or when I want to better understand something or someone. The first glimpse of the idea for Radical began with a newspaper story that led to several years of research into survivalist training and organizations, preppers, and the private militia movement. I first needed to understand the differences between these movements and the common threads, politics, and influences. Then, as I knew nothing about guns, I needed to do significant research into firearms handling, gun laws, and related legal issues. I also did some reading and engaged in conversations about gender and sexual identity. I did a lot of the early gun research online, but when it came to the guns, I needed to viscerally experience them. I needed to feel the heft, weight, kick, how it felt to aim and fire, and the smells and almost taste of the tang in the air right after a shot. How it felt to take them apart, clean them, and what it might be like to be responsible for your own firearms. So, I had to shoot a gun for the first time, multiple guns, in fact. I was lucky enough to connect with some experienced gun owners, and so I was able to experience shooting their firearms in an outdoor setting, much as Bex and her brother would shoot in their woods. Then I connected with an expert in firearms training and handling who offered insights and advice while I was writing and revising Radical. Candlewick later hired him to do a content review of the manuscript, which was fantastic.
What’s a particularly conscious choice you made in Bex’s representation?
It took three drafts to work out Bex’s gender identity. Everything about it was deliberate, but also sort of organic at the same time. In the earliest draft I thought Bex might be transgender, or maybe genderqueer. But as I worked through the early drafts, I started to wonder how Bex would identify and if she was a butch lesbian. I tried really hard to separate my understanding of identity and identity politics from Bex’s far less studied understanding. And to ultimately understand Bex, I needed to work out how Bex actually felt about her body and how she experienced the world in that body. It was a deliberate choice to walk those lines between butch lesbian, genderqueer, and transgender in the early drafts, trying to figure out who Bex is. Ultimately, I chose to write her as a butch lesbian because it’s what felt most natural for her character, and for me, but also because it spoke to me to write this butch girl, clear in her love of other girls, clear in her identity as a girl, but also embracing her expression of that feminine as not the girly version her mother attempted to instill. She knows who she is and how she feels most herself. I love that about her. I get why some describe her as masculine, but that, to me, implies she is rejecting her female identity. I don’t see her as rejecting the feminine, so much as expectations of femininity. And, of course, she knows she looks good in cargo shorts.
What’s the first queer representation you saw in any medium that really stuck with you, for better or for worse?
At some point in my early teens I read both The Color Purple by Alice Walker and The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher. I can’t remember which I read first, but it’s my memory of reading The Shell Seekers that has most viscerally stuck with me. I can barely remember the sprawling plot, but I remember how the cover felt and I can remember exactly where I was when I realized the older women who lived down the way in the book were lovers. They were lesbians. And the other characters called them lesbians, on the page. But they were…old. Like, old-old (to my young teen sensibility). And lovers. And other characters knew it. And still talked to them and liked them. And people like my mom and women in her book group read this book. And they liked it. I was giddy and thrilled and shocked and filled with glee to find comfortable lesbians in this book-group-type-book. I was probably fifteen years or more from fully coming out, but it was the first moment I realized there were happy, old lesbians, and maybe I could be one of them someday. (And I have to say, my recollection was that the lesbianism wasn’t a large part of the plot or even really mentioned in the book. But when I went looking for it to confirm my memory, it’s discussed even more than I remembered. One character even references The Well of Loneliness, which went over my head at the time I read the book. Maybe if I had gone looking for that, it would have moved my coming out up by quite a few years).
What’s something you’ve seen in LGBTQIAP+ lit that’s really stuck with you, for better or for worse?
The lack of sexual experiences between queer characters, especially girls. We’ve seen queer romantic storylines for a while, but they seem to fade to black even more often than heterosexual teen romances in young adult lit. Sometimes in queer YA lit it even feels like a cut to black with only the merest reference to something physical happening beyond kissing. And looking at heterosexual sexuality in YA isn’t really a substitute for exploring queer sexual experience, in part because of the gender dynamics such experiences often involve and in part because of what acts are often classified as “sex” and what acts are discounted or ignored. I find it problematic that there isn’t more exploration of the significance and value of a wider an array of sexual experiences.
While working on Radical, I went looking for YA novels with lesbian relationships specifically to see what was already out there. I was surprised to find very few with any kind of specific sexual experiences or any sensory detail. It left me feeling a little like I was treading unexplored territory when I first started working on those scenes in Radical. And prompted some soul searching and blogging of my own. [http://emkokie.com/attractive_nuisance/2013/05/09/in-our-own-words/] I was frustrated that I didn’t even feel like I had go-to language for my characters to use in thinking about and discussing their bodies. It was really important for me that Bex and Lucy’s physical relationship feel organic and natural to them, but that it also explored consent and language and a more female-centric exploration of sexuality. I’m happy to see that since those early drafts of Radical there seem to be more explorations of the physical side of romance in LGBTQIAP+ YA novels, but I think we still have a lot of unexplored territory. To be clear, I’m not saying there aren’t novels and characters in which a fade to black isn’t appropriate or that every queer YA should include sexual exploration or even romance. But I would like to see more parity for LGBTQIAP+ teen characters, and overall a better exploration of positive depictions of female and queer sexuality.
What are your favorite LGBTQIAP+ reads?
These questions haunt me. Tomorrow, or next week, or three days after this interview posts, I will inevitably think of one or more books I can’t believe I didn’t think to include. But some of my favorites are: George by Alex Gino, Ash & Huntress by Malinda Lo, Sister Mischief by Laura Goode, If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan, Freak Show by James St. James, Empress of the World by Sara Ryan, Aristotle and Dante by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger, Ask the Passengers by A. S. King, Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash, 37 Things I Love (In No Particular Order) by Kekla Magoon, and After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson. They’re not all perfect, flawless books, and some of the queer characters or storylines are secondary to the primary plot, but these are some of the ones that really stick with me for a variety of reasons.
What would you still love to see in LGBTQIAP+ lit?
Queer girls of all kinds, shapes, colors, cultures, class, and identities. More happy queer girls. More exploring queer girls. More genderqueer and genderfluid characters. More truly questioning characters, maybe who are even still questioning at the end of the book, or at least obviously and proudly still evolving. I’d like to see more stories where the focus isn’t on the teen confirming their identity for all time, but on exploring who they are and who they are becoming. And more exploration of what it’s like to be queer outside of upper-middle-class suburbia.
What’s up next for you?
Radical took a lot out of me. The research, the writing, and even ramping up to promotion with everything going on in the world. So, I’ve been working on several projects, but not really sure quite yet which will reach manuscript, or book form, next. ;)
About E.M. Kokie
I have always loved the way a good book could sweep me away, but I was a lazy student and never thought I could actually be a writer. So in between the usual tortures of high school, I made up stories, but kept them in my head. Now I share my stories—specifically, novels about teens on the cusp of life-changing moments, exploring issues of identity and self-determination. My debut novel Personal Effects was published on September 11, 2012 by Candlewick Press. I am represented by Chris Richman of Upstart Crow Literary. I live in Madison, Wisconsin with my partner.