Today we welcome two LGBTQReads newbies to the site: R.M. Sayan, author of the upcoming historical slow-burn m/m fantasy novella Silenci with Less Than Three Press, and their interview subject, Lin Darrow, author of LGBTQ+ webcomics Shaderunners and Captain Imani, as well as the novella Pyre at the Eyreholme Trust!
First of all, the clichéd questions: how did you start writing?
Oh, that’s an interesting question, actually, because I don’t really remember when I started writing. I feel like I’ve always really liked to jot down stories and draw, and the different types of storytelling. I think that I read the Hobbit when I was in sixth grade in school, and that was the first time I discovered fantasy literature, and I think that that was my niche, that was the genre that I was really drawn to. So I think that reading The Hobbit was the first time I thought ‘oh I could write a story’, specifically in novel form, so I started out writing little myths and short stories and novel-oriented thing and moved on to comics later. It’s funny, I feel like I always have written, but The Hobbit was the first time I thought ‘I could write a book’, or ‘I could write a story that looks like this’, that isn’t just my scribblings or making up stories for my sister as we played or something like that.
That’s so cool! When I read The Hobbit, I was honestly a little intimidated by it. It didn’t happen with you?
No, I mean, I understand why you would feel that way because it’s really… intense, and Tolkien is dense in general. I remember trying to read Lord of the Rings in sixth grade and I struggled through it, it’s quite the challenge, but I think it was more that this was the first fantasy thing that I had ever read. It was the genre that got me excited, because there’s so much possibility with fantasy, we keep discovering more and more and there’s so many great fantasy writers today.
That’s true, I feel like fantasy is reaching a new peak. So, aside from Tolkien, who do you think are your top influences?
That’s a really great question! When I was younger I read a lot of Clamp manga, so I feel like even if I don’t read them anymore I can still feel their influence, mainly because they were the first creators that I followed that were publishing content that could be called queer content and queer fantasy comics. It was a really big revelation to me, the idea that you could have things like normalized queerness in stories, that queer fiction didn’t just have to be about the coming out narrative, that it could be like a post-apocalyptic drama or a fluffy fantasy story, and that was really influential for me. I read a lot of Frank L. Baum, Wizard of Oz, I read a lot of the Oz books, so a lot of my fantasy growing up was kind of older fantasy. I really love Peter S. Beagle, and then I got into a lot of Victorian fiction, because it’s like fiction from another era.
Like gothic stuff?
Yes! Any gothic stuff I really got into in a big way, like Northanger Abbey, Ann Radcliffe, who I love, I think she’s so fun; Mary Shelley I love, Frankenstein is such a great book. So I kinda fell into all this historical fantasy that I really loved, and I remember —I don’t remember the name of this series— but I remember really loving this one series called something like The Jewel Princess Saga? It was like, every book was a different Jewel Princess, and you got like a little necklace with the book, and I just remember liking that specifically because it was very feminine, very girly fantasy, as opposed to like… Tolkien is very male-oriented, something that I don’t love about him, there’s not too many girls or not-men in general in Tolkien. That was kind of like finding fantasy that was unabashedly girly that was really fun.
So, this is another clichéd question, but, why do you write so many LGBT characters? Not because I’m not LGBT or anything, but because every author has different motivation. What’s yours?
Huh, you know what, it’s funny because it’s not something that I really think about, it’s just something I do naturally. I think my motivation is just that I like it! I think that there’s so many missed opportunities and so many genres that queer people still don’t really exist in in a big way? And if we do, we’re like side characters or we’re… I always really hate in stories where there’s a queer character and they give them a generic partner, who is like perfect and isn’t really involved in the plot in a main way? I feel like we don’t really get those epic romances or those epic stories that really center around us. And I feel like every time I start to write a character, it’s always just more interesting to me, what would it be like if this person was queer? Because I feel like we’re just in these stories a lot, I write a lot of noir fiction and it’s traditionally been a very straight dude genre. I think for me what’s kind of exciting about fantasy mashups and genre mashups is like taking those things back and reclaiming them and saying I’m gonna take what I like from this genre, but I’m gonna leave out these ‘straight dude vibes’ or the aggressively masculine stereotypical-macho vibes, and I’m gonna remake it into something that fits my world a little better. So I don’t know that I have a singular motivation, it’s basically just that I like writing about queer people, it’s what comes naturally to me.
That’s fair, because it’s like they’re trying to portray one world and they don’t realize that world involves our world, so it’s like… hey, what’s up?
Yeah! I think it’s a fair question in a lot of ways, because we’re always in this tradition like, the queer story has to justify itself, or there needs to be a reason. I think I like writing things where there’s no reason, they just are!
I get you! So how do you sit down and write these things? Do you actually sit down, or do you write standing up or running around or… [laughs] What’s your creative process, basically?
Oh, that’s a fun question! I find that I have a really simple trick, which is when I’m writing something and I need to finish it, I just have a file open on my computer and I never close it. So wherever I am, if I’m at work, or if I’m home lying on the couch, or if I’m out at a café, I always have it with me so I’m writing a little bit at a time. Unless I have a really firm deadline for something —which is usually for comic stuff, not for book stuff— I kind of write everywhere. My main trick is just not closing the document so it’s there and I keep pressure on myself to finish it. And that’s been a really little trick but it’s helped me a lot to finish stuff, which I think it’s always the biggest challenge for any writer.
I completely understand— I actually do the same thing!
Yeah! Do you find it useful to do that?
I do, actually! I have several desktops for different projects, so like this desktop is for my comic, this one is for my novel, et cetera
Oh great! It’s a trick that’s helped me a lot, I stole it from a friend who told me to do that.
It carries from writer to writer, I see! So—Pyre! Wow. I really liked the universe, how did you come up with it?
The first time I came up with this universe was for a comic for an anthology called Tabula Idem, which was a queer tarot card anthology that was really fun. I wanted to do something with magic, because Shaderunners doesn’t have magic in it really, there are elements that are fantastical but magic isn’t a thing. So I wanted to kind of take— I really like noir fiction, and I feel like it’s this genre that is not super popular, which sucks because it’s so much fun. I feel like it’s not that popular because nobody has updated it in a while. So I really wanted to do something that had that noir style, because I’m really used to writing in that style now for Shaderunners, it has a very noir style and language. I really like that gritty, weird linguistic style that the 1920s has. I think Pyre is a lot more 1940s, but the language doesn’t change that much, also because I throw a lot of my own idioms in when I write. So I really wanted to do something noir but that was a little more magic than Shaderunners. My comic artist Alex [Assan], I just said ‘can I do a noir and make it just magic gangsters?’ And she was like ‘do whatever you want, man!’ So that was the first time we did it, and we were pitching to a comic anthology that wanted us to pitch for particular cards, so we pitched for the Temperance card (that’s why the city is called Temperance city). I thought it would be funny to have this story about all of these gangsters that cannot chill at all being a part of a city called Temperance! [laughs] So that first one was about characters that actually get named in Pyre: Ursula Heart and Constance Merino, or ‘Conman’. So that was about their kind of romance, about fixing a turf war that had been riled up by this fire gang that was trying to get in on their turf. I wrote Pyre about that fire gang, so the Temperance comic is kind of a little prequel.
Where can I find that anthology?
I’m sure it’s around! Well, I wrote Pyre in response for another call for an anthology that Less Than Three was putting on, about tricksters. I was like, ‘I don’t know how well this fits, but I’m having so much fun with this universe!’ So I wrote a short story—that eventually became Pyre—and they got back to me and said ‘this doesn’t really fit the anthology, but we wanna publish it as a book’. They gave me some time to expand it a little, so technically Pyre is still a novella —if I was gonna write another full-length romance novel, it would be a lot longer— but that was the story of how that happened. They said—rightly, I think— that it did not fit the anthology, but they were very interested in publishing as a book, and that was very fun for me too.
So, I was reading Pyre, and I saw that some magics seemed to be deemed more lethal, or more dangerous, or more heavily regulated. Is there a hierarchy?
It’s funny, I think I have some pages written that are like a follow-up to Pyre that I don’t know if I’ll ever pursue, it depends on how fast I’m able to finish it because I have my day job too. There’s a hierarchy in terms of— one thing that really interests me that doesn’t sound super exciting but is for me, is the infrastructure, how a world that had magic that was normalized would deal with the fact that magic is potentially really destructive. I’m always really interested in stories where the antagonists or the people in power have logical motivations for the way that they exert their power, but the actual reality of them exerting that power is actually not fair, or it ends up being oppressive or prejudiced in some way. So I really thought that it was an interesting conflict where you had a world where you have to do something to regulate magic that can burn down a building, but in doing so, what’s the effect on the humans for whom this is a part of who they are. I really like conflicts where you can see both sides, or they’re irresolvable in some way, I think that the characters in Pyre don’t want there to be any laws, but for me personally, I don’t know if that’s ever gonna be achievable in the world, because that’s also ignoring the fact that no, you need to regulate people with extreme power. So I think the hierarchy tends to be, first magic that can cause death or great bodily harm, then the second is magic that can enable people to commit white-collar crimes— I think the ink magic is strictly regulated because there’s so much opportunity to commit things like fraud or counterfeit, which they do in the story [laughs]. So I think that definitely goes, 1) bodily harm, 2) things that would allow you to enrich yourself illegally, and then— I think about things in terms of series even if I don’t complete them, and the second book in the series if I do pursue it is going to be water and lightning, with a different set of characters falling in love and having adventures.
Those two would have an interesting dynamic!
Yeah! I thought so too, and I also really like playing with the expectations of what people with these elemental powers would have in terms of like… Ink magic isn’t necessarily something that’s super exciting on paper but I just thought there was so much I could do with it. So yeah, the next one is gonna be water and lightning and I think water would also be pretty intense, because you can flood things with it.
A little bit like waterbending? By any chance, was this influenced by Avatar: The Last Airbender or Avatar: The Legend of Korra?
Yes! Very much so, in the sense that I really like magic where it’s not just snapping your fingers and something happens, I really love the idea that in Avatar you’re seeing what they’re doing, and it’s very built into the fabric of that show, the idea that it’s the motion of your body that it’s allowing you to move and manipulate these things. I really wanted the magic to feel grounded, and not just “snap your fingers and it’s done”! I wanted it to be like a relationship that these people have with the elements. I think Eli has a relationship with ink where he can feel it moving and he moves with it. I do feel like that was an influence in the sense that I really like magic that is grounded and connected to the person and not just this things that happens independently that they’re controlling, I wanted it to feel like a relationship between element and person.
It does feel like that, because Eli is very… attached? To ink, and you can feel it! So, anyways, the big project… Shaderunners! How did you come up with it? Was it collaborative, or did you come up with it yourself?
It wasn’t collaborative initially, because the way that Shaderunners got started initially was, I wrote a book, which was the first book that I ever finished, called Fenton’s Red. I wrote it and Alex read it because we were friends, we had met online through various fandoms, and she really liked it and started drawing fan art for it, so eventually we became close enough, and we both loved the same comics, and we wanted to do a comic, and so it felt like a natural progression to do something from the Fenton’s Red universe, because we both knew it really well. She was so generous with her time, in terms of drawing me fan art and talking to me about the characters… It was really our first collaboration in the sense that she was kind of an editor where I would be like “oh I’m working on this scene and trying to figure this out” and she would know the characters so well that she could be like, “well, Ezra would do this, don’t you think? And this feels out of character for him”. It was really great to have someone motivating me who knew the characters well and who I could talk things out with and the characters became so much more full and complex after having to throw ideas at her and having her push me back on them. So I finished the book, and that’s sitting on a shelf still, I really want to go back and rewrite it and send it out to some agents, but it’s all about finding the time. But in the meantime we wanted to do a comic because we really like working together, and I love her art so I really wanted to do something that could make the most out of both of our talents instead of just her always being involved in mine, and so it just made sense to make something in that universe, so we ended up doing what I guess is kind of a prequel to Fenton’s Red, because Fenton’s Red takes place after the fallout at the end of Shaderunners, with a female main character and a different set. Dom and Ezra are in it!
Oh! Older, I guess.
Yes, older, and some of the other characters are as well, but Dom and Ezra were the two first ones that… Alex really likes them, so I ended up giving them a lot more to do in the story because Alex likes them so much, and so it made sense that we would do a story about them and the other characters who were involved in their part of the book. So it kind of came out of that; her being a great friend and reading my book and having thoughts about it and being a naturally good editor, and me loving her art I guess and wanting to do something that would give her… it’s not totally accurate to say that I was giving her something because, she gives me so much, but I really wanted to work together with her and not have it be one way anymore, which was really great.
So, I really like the Shaderunners universe, I saw some of Alex’s tweets that said, basically (I’m gonna paraphrase) that pansexuality is the norm and gender fluidity is widely accepted. I’m a bit of a sociology fan, so, how does that work? Because it’s really different from our world. So how do gender and sex work in Shaderunners?
I think that, when I was thinking about how the world would function, in terms of infrastructure, I think the world generally operates on a “no questions asked” policy, in the sense that nobody really asks, “what are you?” or “what’s your label?” And I don’t think that’s necessarily a perfect system either, I really don’t want to depict Shaderunners as a utopia. I think that there’s labels in our world that have their function, but I think in the Shaderunners world, it’s more like, in this culture nobody has ever asked what you are in terms of gender or interest, you’re assumed pansexual by default and if you have preferences within that then it’s just called having preferences in the same way that you might have a preference for dark hair. In terms of gender, there’s a system that I had that I’ve never really articulated in the universe where, if someone doesn’t use he or she, if they use a different pronoun—which some people do in the universe too—if you’re not sure of someone’s pronouns you just default to your own when talking about them. In that sense, what I was hoping to do with that—and it’s really not something I’ve articulated in the universe, so it’s originally from the book, really— what I was hoping to do with that was to say, as a gesture of sympathy, “whatever your pronouns is or whatever your identity is, I’m connecting to you through mine”. I think that the way that it works is that nobody really cares too much about the particulars, they just assume that you are what you are and you’ll tell them if it matters. Again, I don’t think it’s a perfect system and I’m not trying to represent a utopian society in Shaderunners with respect to gender, but I mainly just wanted to depict a society that didn’t have to relegate its queer characters to the “queer struggle” narrative. Like, I can have a genderfluid or a bigender character in a story and I don’t have to justify how they came to that realization about themselves, I don’t have to justify how they bumped up against the status quo, they just are who they are and people don’t question it and just adapt, once they get to know them better and they take a route, once Ivo says like, this is who I am, it’s kind of not a conversation. I think the way that it works really is that people don’t expect you to identify one way or another and in doing so people muddle along, if that makes sense.
Of course! It kind of reminds me of when I took Art History and they told me that in Ancient Greece there was no term for “art” so if it was like that, art wasn’t art as we know it, it was just another job. It reminds me of what you’re telling me; if there’s no labels, it’s not necessarily a thing that deserves to be labeled.
If you look at the idea of who you are, who you are interested in romantically or sexually, the idea that that’s a part of your identity, it’s kind of a new idea, historically! I’m a Victorianist by day, so you’re getting some of my day job background here. We just have to say that queer people have always existed, but the way that we talk about sexual identity, as something that is a part of who you are and not just something that you feel or do, it’s kind of a new idea still. It’s something that they articulated really strongly for the first time in the Victorian era, which is still eh compared to other time periods, so it is kind of a newer idea. For me, thinking about the Shaderunners universe, it was just, “well okay what if we never really had a society that placed the heterosexual relationship at the core of it?” What if just evolved so that it was kind of equal in that sense, and in doing so, because it has always been a part of their society, they don’t need to ask for labels because it doesn’t matter. In the same way that it doesn’t matter like… why street you were born on, it’s never really gonna matter. I feel like I’ve said this like three times already, but I’m really not necessarily trying to say that that’s better, I’m just trying to imagine a world where nobody has ever had to think about whether or not they need labels, because it’s not something that makes sense to label the world, because everyone has grown up with it being “normal”. So that was the universe that I was trying to create.
I really like how it turned out! So, Shaderunners, do you consider it your main project?
Yeah, right now I think it’s definitely the most public-facing project. I think it’s the one that has been running the longest, and it’s probably the main one that I would point to. I feel like I always have other projects on the go, like I always want to finish the rewrite of Fenton’s Red, and there’s a sci-fi book that I really want to write, about an alien and a jazz pianist. I really want to finish it one day, it’s a sci-fi noir, because I can’t write anything but noir. [laughs] So yeah, there are a lot of things I want to do, but I think Shaderunners is my main for now.
The couples you write—in Shaderunners, in Pyre, in everything, actually—they have really good chemistry, both the developing couples and the established ones. What are your rules or tips for writing great romance?
For me, it comes down to characters that are lacking something and find it in the other person; not in the sense that they’re defined by the other person, but I think that, writing Eli and Duke, I really like moments where it’s characters realizing that they love the same thing, or that there is something about this person that articulates something that they’ve never heard before but they felt. Some kind of recognition that “this person have what I have been longing for”, and I really like tying that into plot and world. Thinking about Eli and Duke, I think the reason they are so in love is because they both have the same kind of passion for what they do, but in Eli it’s so locked away and in Duke it’s so overt and all over the place and it’s not locked away at all, and I really liked having that kind of combination; they are so different on paper but there’s this one thing that they are absolutely on the same page about, which is that they both love being magic. They’re both passionate about being allowed to be who they are. It’s the combination of feeling like they are so different on paper, but realizing that at heart there is this key thing they both have in common. I really like that contrast of outward differences but internal similarity, I think that’s always something that I’m drawn to. Characters that really badly want things—really I think it’s the key to making good characters—and then the romance comes with what characters so badly want, they’re either at odds with the other or are exactly in alignment with the other. So I think the key to writing good romance is writing good characters with complex wants and needs, and then throwing them into interesting conflicts or alignments with the other characters.
When we were talking about Shaderunners you were telling me about how in tune you were with Alex, and I kind of envy that, because I’ve never been one for teamwork myself! How do you do it? How do you work in team so smoothly and so productively?
I think I’m very lucky to have found someone like Alex, who I found I have a really good working chemistry with. I think it’s nice for us because we both have our own lanes, like sometimes I’ll comment on the art if I feel like an emotional scene could be different or something like that, but ultimately she has the final say over the art, and I have the final say over the writing. Sometimes she’ll say “oh I think this line could be stronger”, and I think we know each other well enough now that sometimes she’ll send me back a chapter and she’ll be like “you could write this better”, and I’ll be like, “I know!” [laughs] But I think the way that we have found that works really well is that we both recognize and appreciate the other’s authority on the other side of the fence, where she’s in charge of the art and I know that, and I’m in charge of the writing and she knows that. But we’re both also very invested in the other side. I’m not an artist, but I draw a little, so I have some language about art, and she edits me all the time, she’s such a great editor. She has a lot of thoughts on things like story structure. I think that what works really well for us is that we both work on things kind of independently but we’re always talking about and getting feedback on our stuff, we’re very aware that we have a common goal, so it never feels like criticism, it’s more like “what about this, or this”, and we talk and say “this instead of this”. So I think that having that mutual passion but also respecting each other’s authority over the individual parts is really the key to our partnership, and it has been working really well for over ten years now.
Ten years? That’s a long time! I think this is the last question I’m gonna make, it’s a bit of a whim… What’s the image on your twitter cover? I recognize Alex’s style, but did I miss an important announcement? Is it a secret?
Actually, that’s from Fenton’s Red! Alex used to draw me fan art for it all the time, and so for my birthday —I think last year?— she drew me a mock cover for Fenton’s Red! That’s the main character from Fenton’s Red. The main plot of that story is that —I don’t wanna spoil Shaderunners too much, this is post-Shaderunners— it’s about a girl who lives in the country and she finds the color red for the first time in a bottle, and it accidentally stains her hand red, because she pours it out on her hand like “what is this?” It’s about her trying to hide it but also discover where it came from, and so her story intersects with the history of the Shaderunners and that way she’s trying to figure out “what is this? I’ve never seen color before!” So yeah, that’s the mock cover for Fenton’s red that I just put up because I loved it.
I am so looking forward to whenever you publish it!
I’m gonna publish it in some form somehow! If it doesn’t get published traditionally I’m just gonna build a website and publish it digitally. We’ll see, it’ll make itself known eventually, I’m in the process of rewriting it, but in the meantime it’s really fun to explore, I feel like Fenton’s Red has made me able to explore Dom and Ezra and Easton and Ivo and Satinder in the Shaderunners universe, so I think it’ll be a better book than it was when I finished it because of that. We’ll see!
That’s gonna be great! Well, that’s all my questions for now. Thank you for the interview!
Thank you so much for thinking of me!
R. M. Sayan is a writer, sometimes illustrator, amateur photographer, avid tabletop gamer, studious filmmaker, tattoo aficionado, and a constant work in progress. Often referred to as just ‘Robb’, they can often be found ranting about assorted fandoms on twitter, swooning over their beautiful partner, and being overdramatic. They like to dabble in many genres, from historical fiction to urban fantasy, from dystopian sci-fi to weird west, but always sneaking queerness somewhere in there. Robb’s debut novella, Silenci, is coming soon in May 2019!