Today on the site, please welcome Fox North, author of The Chaos Agents, which published this past October, and Miranda Dubner, author of The Spare, which released in April 2020, who are here to chat about taking queer historical subtext and making them straight-up text (no pun intended). More about the books at the bottom of the post, but let’s get to the conversation!
Miranda: Hello friend.
Fox: Hi, how are you?
Miranda: Doing pretty good. Very excited to be chatting with you. How are you doing?
Fox: Good, I’m flailing, having just finished your book The Spare. You’re going to hate me. Your book is a steamy, bisexual fictional take on the British royal family. I know a common complaint has been that the novel does not end with a romance category-typical sex scene. I wanted another sex scene even though I totally am enjoying the frustration of not being given one. So I think I get what you were doing. It’s quite the book 2 hook!
Miranda: The problem was where to put it! That was just irritating me.
Fox: I won’t make a “That’s what she said” joke.
Miranda: Yeah, gayer words were never spoken. I just couldn’t figure out where it should go in the already quite full last act.
Fox: But it underscores frustrations of your characters – the royal “spare” and his new bodyguard boyfriend, who face incredible public pressure and scrutiny would not have the time right then to do that. So I also appreciate that it’s a nice bit of realism for the reader.
Miranda: I just felt like, “We all know what happens. We know they’re going to have a lot of sex on a yacht.”
The only thing anyone is going to glean from the next sex scene strategically is “Who tops?” And I don’t feel like letting people know that right now. I didn’t feel like that information was necessary.
Fox: That you know is important though. You know the answer, which you could withhold from us for eternity, possibly, which is beautiful because they deserve their privacy.
Miranda: They do, although I definitely want to write it at some point, because we’re rooting for them so hard, and they’re fictional, they wouldn’t really mind. I also didn’t want to do an epilogue sex scene because that felt like kicking it back towards being a genre romance in a way that it wasn’t.
Fox: Yeah, it’s definitely not, yeah.
Miranda: This book is a Barbara Taylor Bradford book from the 1970s. This kind of book doesn’t get published right now because Jackie Collins is dead. (I kid.)
It felt a little prurient at that point, like I’ve spent this whole book talking about how fame is abuse, and then the triumphal conclusion is, “And now you are going to learn things about everybody’s dicks.”
Fox: I’m also enjoying how we’re just diving in like this because I feel like these two books are very different but have similar oddities in them. My book The Chaos Agents is also about a couple in the public eye – the members of an infamous 1960s rock band – and I have a whole paragraph when Baron and Eddie, the couple in question, are finally doing it, where I break the fourth wall and say that it feels weird to show the audience what happened, because these are private moments, and they’ve given so much of themselves to the public already.
And I choose to do it anyway, but the reader still doesn’t really see the bulk of what happens in their relationship in this book (the sequel The Tender Familiar, out December 27, is another story!) And so I think it’s interesting, as an author who is doing things to these characters, to be making these choices that we – as people who are fascinated by celebrities – want all torn open.
We want their whole lives laid out for us. When you read about the royal family, you want to know all the dirt. But do we deserve to know all the dirt? And I think it creates an interesting tension with the audience to actually engage with that on some level, intellectually.
Miranda: I think so too, and I think the genre plays such a painful role in that. Because the worst thing you can do, that we are told over and over and over again, is to subvert reader expectations, particularly in genre fiction.
Fox: Wait, that’s the worst thing?
Miranda: So I’ve heard!
Fox: Oh, they should have told me that a long time ago. That explains a lot about my career.
Miranda: I love a chatty narrator, and it made me really happy when your narrator said, “I feel weird about this, but here we go.”
Fox: The Chaos Agents is a very strange book in in in many ways and I embrace the fact that it’s a strange creature, so to speak, but even that decision, whether or not I was going to break the 4th wall, was difficult. Very early on, I had this ridiculous idea that I was going to put an entire essay in the book. Just a straight-up essay about this encounter I had on AOL with Paul McCartney when I was 10. That I was going to completely abandon the premise of the book for a chapter. I decided that was too much, but the decision, still, to break the fourth wall and have the author be a presence there was a complicated one. But I decided to just go for it because I wanted the reader to be thinking consciously about the fact that choices had been made, and were continuing to be made.
I don’t think that’s something that readers always engage with in the more category-heavy, genre-heavy corners. But I think both of our books feel very 1970s, in very different ways. I could see them both being 1970s novels. They don’t fit the market. They do subvert, but they do that knowingly, and with a purpose.
And I love that they’re “bigger.” I’m not calling category genre novels small. The scope is different in these books, though.
Miranda: Our books are certainly chunkier.
Fox: They’re big old books.
Miranda: The Spare’s original final draft was 160,000 words long. I cut 30,000 words, and that was hard enough. When I started writing it, it was meant to be a genre royal romance. I wanted to do that. I have loved so many of those, and I wanted to make something that a lot of people would love like that. I really tried to stick to those genre expectations. But then I got entranced by the parents’ generation and everything they were going through, and things got wildly out of hand, but it was the most fun I’d ever had.
And defining all of that differentiated it from the actual history. I was very intentional about getting the Windsors out of it. THE SPARE happens in 2015, when my Queen is 50, and the Queen’s divorce was the defining moment for the monarchy rather than Charles and Diana’s. I knew I didn’t want the characters to be recognizable. I wanted to get in there and mess around with the machinery.
Fox: I totally see that and like it. It’s funny because I think mine veers slightly more to the other side of that, where it engages more directly with the source material, but for me too, while I have committed acts of fanfiction even in this specific fandom, writing as a literary novel or a novel generally, I wasn’t interested in being like, “OK, here’s what I think really happened with John Lennon and Paul McCartney.”
I’m interested in that intellectually, but I think when you’re constructing something with themes and with this greater message, it’s much more interesting to be able to change those details and make them really say what you need them to say as the author and not be beholden to the research, or the moral question of, “what am I doing with these real people’s lives?” Baron and Eddie aren’t John and Paul; they’re closer to thought experiments on John and Paul archetypes. John and Paul are untouched by what I’ve done here.
I think it’s important to have those points of divergences and it makes it a lot richer and more interesting. And I just love alt history. I loved your author’s note about where the history diverged. That must have been so much fun to write.
Miranda: That was my favorite part to write, honestly. I wrote this note where I lay my thought process out. In the note I talk about “historical plausibility” being my goal as I sorted through the research. I didn’t want to get things completely right about the royals in our reality. I could have gotten closer to that target, but that wouldn’t have improved things in a material sense. I included enough to hold my imagined reality of, “What would it be like to be here and be these people?”
And that’s what I thought you do so well in The Chaos Agents. Even with the more limited time we get in each point of view, you’re more obvious about how the author is making the choices about what to show us, which both creates trust between the author and reader and complicates the idea of pulling back the curtain. And in THE SPARE I spend a lot of time behind the curtain with them. I know what the queen’s closet is like. I know what it’s like to get into the limo at the end of the night with these people.
I think reading The Chaos Agents, I really felt like I was there, in a profound way with each of these different points of view. You know, The Spare has 40 characters who speak and-
Fox: Wow, I love that you counted.
Miranda: I counted because when I did the audio book, my audiobook narrator gave me a questionnaire to fill out for each character so that he could get how everyone sounded right. And after a while I was just like, “Oh my God, why Miranda, why did you do this?” And I did it because I wanted that bigness. I could have added more. In a just world I would have, but if I really got into the details of how their lives function, the book would have been 200K in no time.
Fox: I just love a family saga. I sense you do too. Which is a very 70s thing, right? To have a big old chunk of a book that’s going to tell you what’s happened for the last three generations, and we’re in the middle of that, and we get little hints forward and backwards. I just love that. I love a world that feels huge and lived in and like it’s not limited to one romance and while that one romance can have much wider implications, it just makes it so much more exciting. It’s like saying that whatever is at the heart of someone’s relationship really does have reverberations, and I love that about THE SPARE. It’s not these two boys kissing. It’s about all the people kissing, all the twists. And I was very happy with those twists. And I just like a big, lived-in universe and I appreciated that you gave us one.
When did you decide that this was not going to be a Windsor story? Was that with you from the beginning?
Miranda: Basically this book started out life as a distraction from something else I was writing and for the first 400 words of its existence, it was One Direction fanfiction. Then it completely changed. It is no longer One Direction fanfiction.
Fox: No, I have to say though, I did get to the bit where Isaac is serving as a bodyguard with a boy band and I was like, “I want that novella.” I’m sure you’ve heard that before.
Miranda: I have never heard that before! Because mostly people are like, “We want a sequel,” and I appreciate it. But Isaac with the boy band? There was more of that in the giant version. Him trapped in a tour bus with four hapless twenty-somethings who somehow all remind him of Eddie at that age, except that he’s eight years older than he was when he joined Eddie’s detail, and it’s just miserable. And two of them are hitting on him constantly.
Fox: I need that version apparently. I want him to get involved with one of them, but have it be doomed. That’s a thing for me, you know.
Miranda: I have gotten that impression, to my great glee. I’m not sure he would, they’re a bit young for him and he would notice the cliche of it all. From the very beginning, once I really started thinking, “Oh, shit, this is going to be a whole book,” I knew immediately I’d have to do a bunch of research about the Windsors to make sure I wasn’t writing their lives. I’ve always loved the royal family, in a very American-fascinated-with-British-royalty way. I loved the pageantry of it all, the fanciness of it all, but I wanted to do my own thing so badly. Just get in there and yank on all the levers.
Also I felt like it was going to be a real reach otherwise. I couldn’t make the Windsors sympathetic. They are not.
Fox: That’s great because one of one of the questions I’d mentally jotted down was that we seem to have some problematic faves. How do we engage with them? Yeah, they’re hard. I’m reading your author’s note about the fascist stuff. To put it bluntly, it’s hard to make that okay, and to sit with the discomfort of it.
Miranda: You can’t make it okay. I’ve had some lovely comments from readers who say, “You know, it’s nice to have royals we can root for.” And I really appreciate that because I worked very hard at making those particular people relatively decent and possible to spend time with, but they are just as structurally not nice as the real ones.
Fox: Yeah, you can’t have a royal family in a colonial world and have them be.
Miranda: One of the reasons I’m reluctant to write a sequel is because I don’t know if people actually want the sequel, because I don’t know how to continue writing about these people without abolishing the monarchy.
Opening the door to alternate history also opens the door to an alternate future, and if I’m going to keep writing into the future of those characters, I need to commit.
Fox: They would need to abolish the monarchy. That’s where that’s going. That’s the natural conclusion. And audiences might have a problem with that.
Miranda: Have audiences had a problem with the “Maybe Paul and John were sleeping together” of it all?
Fox: The weird thing is, and I will say on the record that these are not Paul and John, and I will not say what my feelings are about Paul and John’s sexuality specifically, but the weird thing is, no one has objected to that. They have objected to what they see as incestuous overtones at the beginning of the book, which is fascinating to me because of these two aspects of the factual Beatles – whether they’ve shared stories with incestuous overtones, or whether two of them were engaged in a romantic relationship – one of these two things we know actually factually happened and is on the record, and it’s not two Beatles kissing.
The fact that the Beatles grew up in a sexually repressed society and had toxic and problematic attitudes toward random women and many other people, that they engaged in homosocial masturbation and so on – those are things we actually know for certain. Those are also things that make readers uncomfortable, and they have a right to their discomfort, but the contrast fascinates me.
And I think that’s reflected in the way people have started to talk about John Lennon in the past ten years, as it’s gone from the Saint John image, with “Imagine” and the long hair – this being a very marketed image of John, and then suddenly veering to “Lennon beat his wife and was a terrible person.” He’s canceled. And to me the reality is, I won’t even say, “in between.” It’s a little column A, a little column B, and it’s what makes these people engaging in their complexity. But I think that’s difficult to engage with, because it’s uncomfortable. And it should be uncomfortable.
And, you know, if you’re presenting a more progressive monarchy, chances are at some point that monarchy might dissolve itself, and that’s a complexity that would exist in your premise.
Miranda: Yes! It did from the very beginning, and I went into the project thinking about how it would actually function to dismantle legally, financially, emotionally. I love it. I love thinking about it. I felt like I had to know in order to write on, because they need to think about it. They need to be thinking about it constantly. And they are, under the surface. I read some background on how the actual royal family organized itself historically, and then how they have organized themselves since the 90s when they “modernized,” but because I’m writing alternate history, I could do whatever I wanted. There’s a lot of power in that. I do think where I got to was, “Okay, no one wants to read 50 pages of financial shenanigans, even though I desperately want to write them.” I know only three people want to read them.
Fox: There’s your newsletter bonus. People will think that you’re finally sending the final sex scene out and instead–
Miranda: It’s just meeting minutes.
Fox: I am right here for that.
Miranda: And this is why we’re friends! Reality bangs into fiction in a very specific and similar way in both our books. I never cared about John Lennon until you and I started chatting–he was a fact, like the moon, but I’ve thought way more about the moon. I think he’s been unmoored from his temporal reality in a way that a lot of historical figures have been.
The closest comparison I can make is Eleanor Roosevelt. Like him, she has been unmoored from her time, and been domesticated into our lives as this very familial figure. Her sexuality is not in question at all, but we act like it’s a question because she’s been domesticated into this punishingly normative world. Eleanor Roosevelt was a rich woman, a Gilded Age woman, who was incredibly progressive herself. Her social mores and her expectations were a rich woman’s in the 1910s, and that cuts both ways. In her society, there were plenty of women who lived together in various degrees of openness about what was really going on, and men, too. That same kind of domestication and eliding applies to John Lennon because certain things are there. It’s right in his text, how he felt, what he felt, who he felt it for, as well as in the actual art he made. It’s right there in his own voice, but people are unwilling.
Fox: They’re unwilling to hear it.
Miranda: Especially the parts that make us uncomfortable. Reading The Chaos Agents I was constantly like, “Oh my God, please get these boys some porn so they can stop staring at their moms.”
Fox: I was talking to a lovely reader who was uncomfortable with the incestuous aspects of the point of view – and I will say that the point of view is at times problematic, and meant to be, and there’s a scene where Baron is talking to Eddie, and Eddie is feeling guilt over having masturbated once to the thought of his mother. It’s about a paragraph of discussion, and Baron absolves him of that guilt. It’s a very generous scene of Baron, which shows you his warmth, and it’s not saying, “Oh, hey it’s cool, it’s your mom. That’s fine, woo, incest.” It’s just saying, “People have sexual feelings which are sometimes confusing and you’re not a bad person to have these thoughts which are private and internal.” Which to this other teenage boy in the 1950s is a revelation.
The funny thing is that the scene is loosely based on an interview, where Paul McCartney very flippantly makes a similar comment about his mother, like “I saw her once in her bra and it was the first time I’d seen someone in a bra,” which shows you that they had no idea about women’s bodies whatsoever. And he says, “Oh, I was a little aroused and I thought it was great.” And there’s no guilt there. It’s just like, “Oh, my mom, okay!” Paul McCartney cracks me up. He’s someone’s little grandma that says inappropriate things.
Miranda: He’s like if Cogsworth wasn’t safe for work.
Fox: Yeah, and so it’s funny to me when we’re dealing with historical context, how drastically different social mores were, awareness of sexuality, the functions of how bodies worked. Much less things like queer sexuality, which was a whole other can of beans back in 1957. We can’t even discuss queer sexuality with people 10 years younger than us and all feel comfortable with our words, much less discuss it with someone from 1957.
And it opens up this complexity about human history. I love that you bring up Eleanor Roosevelt because I went on a field trip with my daughter to Eleanor Roosevelt’s house, and I was just looking for the queerness in anything, and it has been so thoroughly, thoroughly repressed, but even like, “Oh, she would have these dinner parties with 110 people in her little house. Who was cooking at these dinner parties?” Not Eleanor Roosevelt! And there’s things that just breeze by people because we assume that celebrities in any era are fundamentally just like us. I think that’s an assumption we carry with us, and they are not. They’re not now. The lives they lead now are not like ours, and their lives in the past were drastically different.
So yeah, those boys need porn.
Miranda: What that book gets so right is the real agony of being a teenage boy and having so little control over what arouses you. Because The Spare is about men in their late twenties and mid thirties, I let myself sidestep that part of his life. Maybe I’ll do some short stories for fun, he was a mess. But I didn’t want the book to be about Eddie wracked with guilt over attraction to men. He thinks he can’t be with a man for a lot of other reasons, but it’s not something that pains him, or Isaac. I was more interested in the external problems.
Fox: Right, because of the societal pressure. But it’s an incomprehensible, enormous societal pressure, which is hard to contemplate. With celebrities, we just want to see them as metaphorical for us, and I think that’s part of what’s fascinating about any celebrity, but of course we tend to tidy them up in doing that.
Miranda: It didn’t used to be like that. There used to be these big spreads in photo play about the glamorous life of the star.
Fox: The opulence.
Miranda: The opulence! Now we get way more coverage of the “Stars! They’re just like us!” variety. And there are reasons for that. I heard on a podcast about celebrity journalism that when the economy is bad, the media skews coverage of celebrities towards relatability to cut down on our resentment of millionaires. You don’t want to read about Madonna’s $25 million house when you’re struggling to buy groceries. You’re not going to throw down another seven dollars for that magazine in the checkout line, so the thinking goes.
The tension with the British royal family is that they are never going to be “like us,” and we somehow all agree on that. But how they aren’t like us, and how they are, is all very troublesome. There was an incident in the early 2000s, a footman took a lot of pictures behind the scenes and sold them to the British tabloids after he quit or was fired or something. I found the articles and the pictures during research, and honestly, the whole thing was boggling.
He took pictures of the contents of her pantry cupboards, and she wasn’t keeping her cereal in the boxes it came in. It was all in perfectly serviceable containers, whatever the British equivalent of Gladware is. Most of the text was breathlessly reporting on that, plumbing it for deeper meaning. It’s utter absurdity, being obsessed with the very basic domestic facts of her life. Oh, she eats dinner on a tray in front of the TV when she doesn’t have a dinner engagement? What else do you want her to be doing? She was a person who watched TV and needed to eat dinner!
This happens over and over again, pictures of how the royals really live being sold, but somehow it’s always the “they’re just like us!” stuff that gets leaked, not pictures of the vaults of jewelry. Where’s the footage of her picking through her jewelry collection to decide what she’s going to wear to a State Dinner and she complains about not being able to wear a particular necklace publicly. (That footage is in a documentary about the Royal Family from 1967 or so, made with their cooperation, that has been embargoed since 1969 because they realized how terrible it made them look.) It turns out if you do a little research, that necklace has a stone in it that the British only have in the first place because of a long campaign of genocide. And we’re not even talking about the Koh-i-noor diamond! This is just something she happens to have lying around.
Fox: It’s a fascinating tension with celebrities and I’m kind of fascinated by both ends of that because absurdly rich people always seem to have those odd moments of disjunction where it’s not even like, “Celebrities, they’re just like us.” But rather we suddenly realize they’re human beings.
In The Chaos Agents, one of my favorite things I put in which is not from any Beatles or real celebrities, is the notion of Eddie’s character being emetophobic and terrified of vomiting, because I just wanted to put in something that was this horrendous type of phobia, an issue an actual person would have that has no connection with celebrity or even necessarily a trauma we can bring in on page, but it’s something that would be a real complication in life. In this case, it’s for someone whose first guitar is worth, you know, not even my house, but the entire block that I live in. As a result of their wealth, his son, Matt, is very unlikable at the start, in part because of growing up in this absurd privilege and it just shifts our read of him.
Miranda: I love him. In the beginning of the book I was so fed up, “Oh my God, this fucking guy.” By the end he was my favorite.
Fox: I know. I love Matt. He becomes a person.
Miranda: He does. And it really changed for me when he talked about how he and the children of the rest of the band interact, and how he doesn’t feel close to them. But when he meets Naomi, Baron’s daughter, where he realizes, “Oh, OK, so it’s not just me-and-the-other-kids and that I’m bad at that, it’s different. It’s different to be the kid of one of these two,” which he could never articulate to himself. It seemed like he would have been upset to have to describe that to Charlie’s kids.
Fox: Oh yeah, absolutely.
Miranda: He can’t possibly say it. That he’s different. This is different. And it speaks well of him that he wouldn’t want to say that to the rest of the kids. He wouldn’t want to hurt them.
Fox: When you’re the child of a celebrity, you don’t want to be like, “Well, actually, I am special.” There’s something different going on here, but that is not necessarily a positive thing. I watch videos of The Beatles early on and their era of fame is fascinating because celebrity culture was very, very different.
Our awareness of their private lives, things like that were different, but that’s trauma. When you see Beatlemania, that’s flat-out horrendous PTSD style trauma going on. And then to also be thought of as the child of a genius, which I think in any family is a complicated thing and to be around the more normal family members, what kind of tension does that create?
And you want to identify with them, but they don’t know and I think you’re right. He wouldn’t want to say it. It would seem too insensitive to explain it, and he doesn’t want to be a jerk most of the time. And it’s like, how do you explain that?
Miranda: Think part of his problem is trying to explain it to himself, like that feeling of “No, we’re set apart and can I be like my father? Do I want to be like my father?” I mean, those are the two questions that haunt my house.
Fox: Many of our houses.
Miranda: It certainly haunts The Spare.
Fox: Oh yeah, your Eddie’s father, Malcolm, is my favorite character, by the way.
Miranda: He’s secretly my favorite character. He was the one I had the most trouble with initially.
Fox: To me, that’s the question – Do we want to like him? Do we want this person to be a villain? I’m glad he becomes a person too.
Miranda: He does. A very complicated person, because when Eddie says, you know, “Are you sorry?” and Malcolm asks, “Would it help?” I think you see the scale of the various disconnects going on in these deeply wounded and wounding people. Because Malcolm is genuinely asking. He doesn’t know, because his own father was so rotten to him. That’s the core of the book. For me, the whole fantasy of The Spare is not getting to be with the love of your life. The whole fantasy of The Spare is that your parents apologize and actually materially help you.
I mean, the idea that your father goes on international television to take responsibility for what he did to you.
Fox: Entirely too relatable or not, you know. I think it’s because we carry these stories of our parents, and I think this is something both of our books engage with. There’s something that happens in the second Baron and Eddie book, The Tender Familiar. It’s my favorite scene, my favorite thing I’ve ever written. The chapter’s called “One Last Night, Alonzo,” and it’s just chef’s kiss. The whole story isn’t from the point of view of a child, but it describes that night when you’re a kid and you maybe wake up late at night or someone stops by for dinner and there’s dad old friend from a former life and you’re suddenly struggling to put together who your parent was with that person, which seems to be, from context clues, an entirely different person than you’ve known in your daily life and those glimpses we get of our parents as full people, both as children and adults, and then how we decide what aspects of those stories were going to apply to our own narrative, those are questions that I’m just fascinated by. Like, even if we get the apology from Dad, what what do we do then? How do we process this? I don’t know the answer, I don’t know either if either of our books really give answers, which I kind of enjoyed.
You know, it’s like, “Let’s sit with this thought experiment.”
Miranda: Malcolm is certainly a thought experiment in “where do we go from the moment of catharsis.” He ends up folded back into the circus because he wanted to be back in. As bad as it was for him the first time. I loved that scene towards the end when he’s talking to his ex-wife and there’s maybe a little yearning from her going on, when he has to draw some lines in the sand and tell her, “I’m not going to survive you again.”
Fox: I love that though, because you want it. You want it and that’s the romance beat. This sort of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where all the couples are put back together the right way.
OK, but you deny us that very wisely and very maturely, because it’s that kind of book, where you don’t always get that. The Chaos Agents also has certain beats which are unfulfilled. You just don’t get certain things, at least in that book.
Miranda: Well, when you’re me and you start writing fanfiction where Baron doesn’t have that thing happen. When I realized that was the thing I was so fucking mad. I was like, “Fuck! Why!”
Fox: So this is the thing, and I think this this goes back to your book not having the final sex scene. We are making the reader feel things, and if something is really unjust, then we should be like, “No, I don’t accept this. It makes me mad,” because that’s what a violent death does, and you’ve learned that he died somehow probably fairly early on. You don’t see the details. But also because of other things that that come to light in the novel, he can’t be alive. He can’t.
If he’s alive another character is not there, and the story is entirely different. And then Matthew and Naomi, Baron and Eddie’s children, never get together. And I like those ripples.
Miranda: I like them too and I loved that. I gasped when I realized that was what you were doing. It’s really audacious. It is the audaciousness of saying, “I am a person writing a book and I get to do whatever I want because I’m writing a book. You know, no, this is not for a report.” You made it all feel so realistic, so plausible.
Fox: It’s funny, because I don’t believe in reincarnation, but it’s sure interesting to think about. What if and how does that change this universe and make it bigger and more interconnected and weirder?
You do not have reincarnation in your universe, it seems.
Miranda: I do not. As far as I know. I do have journals from beyond the grave, though.
Fox: Still, all I ever want is a good twist in a book. There’s a twist in The Spare about parentage, and I was like, “I’m so happy to read this.” I feel like very often, we resist those things as writers, at least initially. We might think, oh, it seems cheap or schlocky. But as a reader, I love it every time.
Give me a big old twist. Give me 16 of them; I’m happy. They could be incredibly corny. I don’t care. I just want the twist, but also these things happen in real life. And this is even with supernatural things.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney believed they had a psychic bond, whether or not they did. There are people who believe these things. There’s the girl in my high school who believed she was John Lennon because they had the same birthday. This was a part of the fabric of her life.
People are wrong about their own parentage. That’s a thing that actually happens. I found out when I was ten that I had a half brother I’d never heard of; my sister casually mentioned it.
Miranda: I completely love that particular plot point. I knew it was going to be very soap opera, as if anything about The Spare isn’t soap through and through. That’s the most traditionally soapy twist I have in there and I love it so so much. I’m going to sound kind of snarky here, but I think we’re all really suffering from the demand that plots and character motivations be “believable,” for some value of the term.
Fox: I’m so glad you used the word “soapy,” because the word soap opera was on my mind in a non-pejorative way as I was reading your book, just in the number of characters. It’s funny. I’m a big, pretentious fan of Robert McKee’s Story. It’s the writing book with all the charts. It’s terrible. But he uses the phrase “soap opera” in a really interesting way. To him, a soap is a story that’s focused on many different interpersonal relationships, and that to me, is what I want from books. I want to set up character tensions and relationships. I want to be like, “Now kiss,” to about half of them and the other half will be bickering about past trauma. What I want from stories are soaps.
I think we talk about things being like soap operas in this way that, like oh, it must be cheap or schlocky, but like no, they’re just stories about interpersonal relationships, and that’s essentially what we’re doing here. It’s not necessarily whether two boys fuck in the end. We all know they fuck. That’s obvious. It’s really more about, “Do they get to talk about their feelings?”
Let’s touch on why you chose to indie publish.
Miranda: Well, I mean, I think the easiest answer is that traditional publishing wouldn’t have it.
Fox: Which is sad.
Miranda: It is very sad. Querying is almost the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The pace of it, the structure of it. The structure of the query process makes a lot of people feel like they can’t trust their critical faculties anymore. And, to be fair, a lot of the time people can’t, and that’s how it goes. But I knew this was good.
Basically, the final version is the version that I was querying. I had already taken out those extra 30,000 words, but it was still “too long” and I knew that. The feedback I was getting from agents was take out Alex and Daniel. Take out Victoria and Avi, take out all of this “extraneous” stuff and just focus on Eddie and Isaac.
I heard from enough agents, “This is great, but I can’t sell it.” And I just kind of thought, “Well, I can.”
I knew that this book was its own thing, with its vintage sensibility and melodrama and the whole bit. I knew that it was an ensemble family drama wrapped around a queer romance, and that wasn’t quite of the moment, and instead of continuing to feel worse and worse about myself and the work, I decided to draw a line under the whole experience, hire a cover artist, buy a copy of Vellum, and go for it.
Fox: I’ve queried many times and been on submission, and yeah, it’s terrible. Fundamentally, it’s putting yourself out there and being told how you’re wrong over and over again. And yes, it’s your work. It’s not you, but if you really love something you’ve made, if a book is not just a vehicle for your career, but you really love the book you’ve created, then it is you, in many ways, and to put it out there and be told, “You know, this is how you actually should have done this,” is brutal, and maybe those other books that those people would have written are fine, too. But I do not want to write anyone else’s book. This book is not Daisy Jones, it’s not a story of a band, just with the serial numbers filed off.
It’s something bigger and more complicated and messy and weird, and that’s what’s interesting about it to me, and I think that’s what’s interesting about yours too. I just think we need more big weird books, personally.
Miranda: I mean, I’ve got a secret baby and you’ve got reincarnation. Maybe in the sequel Isaac will be listening to a Baron Templeton record.
“I’m publicly bisexual now, I’ll make all the musical theatre references I please. I’ll belt Cole Porter songs prancing on top of this bar if I want to.” —His Royal Highness Prince Edward Nicholas William Desmond, second son of Her Majesty Queen Victoria II of England and the Commonwealth
Eddie Kensington had certain responsibilities up until two weeks ago. Dress well, smile in public, uphold the family honor. Be straight. Never talk about being bisexual, or being in love with his bodyguard, Isaac Cole, for nearly ten years. Protecting his mother and siblings from yet more tabloid scandal in the wake of his parents’ high-profile divorce was always more important.
Up until two weeks ago, when he was outed by the press. Now he’s in the midst of an unscheduled identity crisis, and his entire family seems to be joining in. His estranged father shows up. His sister flirts with the reporter hired to write their grandmother’s biography. His older brother is more reluctant than ever to take up public-facing duties, and Her Majesty is considering going out on a date. Keeping calm and carrying on becomes impossible when Eddie learns Isaac might return his decidedly inconvenient feelings.
For any one of them to steal a happily ever after, the Kensingtons will have to decide what they really hold dear–the legacy they were born into, or the dreams they kept for themselves.
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Told in four inter-connecting narratives from the mid 50s through the early aughts, The Chaos Agents explores the impact and implosion of Saffron, a mid-century musical phenom led by Baron Templeton & Edmund Hammond – whose breakup is the stuff of legends.
From a small British town in the 50s, to young brothers struggling with the grit of NYC in the 70s, to two camp counselors falling in love to a backdrop of 90s rock, to a secluded cabin in the early aughts where the offspring of Edmund Hammond finds himself blocked, each decade gets closer to the shocking revelations of how they’re all connected – and whether they can ever be unbound.
In The Chaos Agents, F. Fox North has written a queer, fictional Behind the Music for readers who enjoyed Daisy Jones and the Six, A Visit from the Goon Squad, or even The Ground Beneath Her Feet.
Buy The Chaos Agents