Today on the site, we’re welcoming KD Casey, author of the upcoming Jewish m/m sports romance Unwritten Rules, which releases October 12, 2021 from Carina Press. KD’s here to talk about writing queer Jewish rep, but first, here’s the story behind the book:
Zach Glasser has put up with a lot for the sport he loves. Endless days on the road, playing half-decent baseball in front of half-full stadiums and endless nights alone, pretending this is the life he’s always wanted.
The thing is, it could have been everything he ever wanted—if only he’d had the guts to tell his family, tell the club, that he was in love with his teammate Eugenio Morales. Well, ex-teammate now. When Zach wouldn’t—couldn’t—come out, Eugenio made the devastating choice to move on, demanding a trade away from Oakland. Away from Zach.
Three years and countless regrets later, Zach still can’t get Eugenio out of his head. Or his heart. And when they both get selected to play in the league’s All-Star Classic, those feelings and that chemistry come roaring back.
Zach wants a second chance. Eugenio wants a relationship he doesn’t have to hide. Maybe it’s finally time they both get what they want.
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And here’s the post!
I have a confession to make as an author: I hate naming characters.
My first drafts are littered with placeholders, brackets, a healthy amount of [name here], and an unhealthy amount of whining to critique partners. Because names are decisions. They reflect characters’ birthplaces, ethnicities, the era in which they live, and socioeconomic class.
Unwritten Rules, which comes out in October, started as a Gchat conversation with a friend. It’s a conversation I’ve returned to a number of times throughout the editing process, specifically to reflect on the evolution of the book’s main characters, and by extension, their families and histories.
Both main characters began their lives as placeholder names, as unmade decisions. To get from idle conversation to 100,000 word novel, I needed a (small) push. At my request, my friend provided the following list of names: Zach, Cal, Evan, Mario, Yehuda, Andy, Eugenio, Mike. Each of these signify different things about characters. One can imagine the background and experience of someone named Yehuda differs fairly significantly from someone named Cal.
Two of these names eventually became the main characters of Unwritten Rules. The book follows Zach Glasser, a professional baseball player, who unexpectedly reunites with Eugenio Morales, who’s his ex-teammate—and ex-boyfriend.
Along with the decision about names came a lot of information about Zach and Eugenio as histories and backgrounds beyond former partners. Eugenio’s family is from Venezuela, and immigrated to the United States in the late ‘80s. (A few people have asked me how Eugenio is pronounced. Here’s an interview with Eugenio Suárez, a Venezualen infielder on the Cincinnati Reds, where the interviewer says his name a number of times.)
Zach’s name is specifically Ashkenazi Jewish because the character (like me!) comes from a Ashkenazi Jewish family. I didn’t set out to write a Jewish book, but once I decided on Zach’s name, I “knew” a lot about him.
His grandmother immigrated to the United States in the 1920s. His mother drinks tea in a Russian Jewish way: with sugar between her teeth and from a glass mug, not a ceramic one. The book also has a sprinkling of Yiddish, discussions of a ketubah, and an emotionally significant babka.
In naming Zach, I also realized I was writing a queer Jewish baseball book that would, necessarily, focus on Zach’s relationship with his family. His major conflict was being torn between his family’s wishes for him and professional baseball’s “unwritten rules,” the set of dictates that governs, and limits, players’ lives on and off the field.
There aren’t a huge number of romance novels, particularly queer, non-YA romance novels, written by Jewish authors about Jewish families. They do exist: Shira Glassman and Jennet Alexander write them. Corey Alexander, alehém hashalóm, wrote them. But they are relatively few in number compared with the vastness (the wonderful vastness!) that is genre romance.
In general—and this is not limited to works by Jewish authors—I’ve seen queerness with Judaism portrayed in one of two ways: unconditional acceptance or religiously-based intolerance. Both of these are valid, possible experiences, but they aren’t the only experiences. I wanted to write a book where the main character feels the very real Jewish pressures to get married and have a family, but that those pressures come from love and survival rather than bigotry.
Readers, both Jewish and not, come in with their own notions of what Jewish families are like. These notions derive from both personal experience and media depiction, be it realistic or reductive. To be clear, there are pressures: Academically, professionally, romantically. That we should get married. To a doctor. A Nice Jewish Boy or Girl who can love us and keep us.
These pressures don’t arise from nowhere. If you’ve experienced generational displacement, then it makes sense to pursue professions that are employable regardless of location. Therefore, marrying a doctor isn’t born of some grasping financial instinct but an acknowledgement of trauma and of history.
So how to portray a family whose love, and anxieties are both valid and limiting? Another early decision I made (spoilers!) is that Zach’s relationship with his family not only survived the book but was deepened and strengthened throughout it. As a queer person, I understand why people write about familial homophobia and rejection. It’s unfortunately a real thing that occurs. If novels are about emotional catharsis, there is a certain satisfaction for a reader when a character stands up to their awful, homophobic family.
But I’m always left wondering—what then? Whose house do they go to on Rosh Hashanah? Who do they call on Passover when their pesadich (kosher for Passover) cake turns out closer to fudge? Where will they get gossip about their second cousin’s wife’s sister? It’s hard for me to balance the romance requirement of an optimistic ending (in addition to a central love story) with the notion of estrangement. That when a fictional character—for legitimate and understandable reasons—closes that door, what happens the next day? The next year?
If romance is a genre of hope, then that happy ending had to extend beyond Zach and Eugenio’s eventual reconciliation to Zach’s relationship with his family and his sense of Jewishness. Those were the hardest parts to write. Because Zach’s family is in many ways my own, not in a literal sense, but in a sense of having gone through similar considerations and compromises.
Without tipping (more) into spoilers, I wanted his family not to be overbearing, uncompromising stereotypes, but real people with real dreams and fears for their child. His mother, in particular, could have easily become the villain of the book: The inflexible, haranguing Jewish woman who is often the only representation we get in media. I wanted her to be sometimes those things and sometimes not those things. More pressingly, I wanted Zach, as her child, to come to see and understand her as much as she comes to see and understand him.
Writing about your own people, your own culture, is often a conversation with stereotypes. Those stereotypes can be challenged or reconstructed, but they are lurking, present, in readers’ assumptions—and my own assumptions. Writing this book became about acknowledging and challenging those assumptions, and about treating characters with care.
Zach’s mother isn’t based on my own mother, but on the distance I see between the stereotypes about Jewish parents and the realities of actually having them. (Also, Mom, if you’re reading this, I asked you not to read the book because of [redacted], [redacted], and please don’t tell the rabbi about this one, [redacted].)
In writing a Jewish family, I wanted them to be imperfect, and loving, and whole. I wanted to show the work it takes on Zach’s part and his family’s part to provide that optimistic ending, one that’s messy but ultimately hopeful. It was a journey I didn’t expect to go on, but I’m glad I did. And hope you join me for it.
KD Casey (https://linktr.ee/KDCaseyWrites) is a romance writer and baseball enthusiast living in the Washington, DC area. Her debut novel UNWRITTEN RULES will be published by Carina Press in October 2021 and is available for preorder.