This is the first in a series of interviews with writers in SF/F and related genres. I’m still finding my way as an interviewer, but just as in my Love in the Time of Starships reviews, I bring my full experience as reader, writer, and fan. E. E. Ottoman and I met on Twitter through our mutual interest in diverse romance.
On Tuesday 20 January 2015, I had the privilege of chatting with E. E. Ottoman, author of A Matter of Disagreement (reviewed on two weeks ago on Love in the Time of Starships). E. E. is a rising star in trans romance as well as a debonair geek-about-town. In the interview below, we talk about new twists on the enemies-in-love theme, favorite SF/F writers, and paths to more diverse romance in M/M and F/F romance. E. E.’s fiction, discussed below, is published by Less Than Three Press.
EPB: I have to say, the second and third pass through A Matter of Disagreement got me wondering about your other intellectual interests — your particular flavor of geekiness (geekitude?) I’ve been in the scientific research world and a lot of that dialogue rang very true.
E.E.: I have no scientific background personally but I have lots of experience with academia from the perspective of history and queer theory, which is where I pulled a lot of the stuff for A Matter of Disagreement from.
EPB: I think there’s that issue with interservice/interdisciplinary rivalry comes up any time you have an institution. So what inspired that particular choice for the conflict between Andrea and Gregory? Because it was a brilliant choice!
E.E.: I did part of my graduate work at a university that was really science oriented and it was hard for us humanities/social sciences to get any money. Also I studied queer history, and race history primarily there was just not a lot of interest in that within the department. So yeah personal academic frustration.
Both Gregory and Andrea represent extremes in thinking about research and academic study. I found that dynamic interesting to write
EPB: It’s fascinating. And personally I find intellectual conversation & physical/emotional attraction both fascinating and hot. So many layers of interaction.
E.E.: For me the physical/emotional attraction is very much connected with being able to have some kind of intellectual relationship and I really wanted to explore that. Plus I had never seen it combined with the enemies to lovers trope.
EPB: That trope is usually pretty problematic, the way a lot of folks write it, but you succeeded in making it both charming and sexy.
E.E.: Thank you, I think it’s one of those tropes that is hard to do in a way that is realistic and makes sense. And you’re right; it can often be problematic.
Which was actually its attraction to me.
EPB: “Let’s play with dynamite and see what kind of new explosions we can make!” Oh yes, I know the attraction of that. Writer’s catnip. A technical challenge.
E.E.: I think it can be a good way to interrogate problematic aspects of romance too. Try and spin it into something more complex and affirming.
EPB: One of my best writer buds inveigled me into Team Romance by saying, “Let’s write it OUR way.”
E.E.: Yeah, that’s how I got into writing it as well.
EPB: So tell us the story of your journey as a romance writer, if you would.
E.E.: I didn’t grow up writing romance;, my mother wasn’t a fan so read a fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction and mystery novels. When my sister was a teenager, she got into reading romance and I picked a few up. But because I had a lot of issues around my gender and sexuality, reading a book primarily about gender and sexuality just didn’t work for me.
So I was a real non-romance reader for a while. Then when I was in college, and during the period after I graduated but before I went to graduate school, I got back into reading it.
I had been writing for a while at that point, but didn’t believe I could be published because most of my main characters were queer. Then I found m/m and f/f romance and realized their was a market for queer romance. I wrote a short story and submitted it to Less Than Three Press for one of their open anthology calls, not really expecting to be accepted. But they did accept that story and after that it just took off, although most of what I write comes from what I DON’T see in m/m or queer romance.
EPB: What are the missing things in m/m or queer romance?
E.E.: Well, for instance, for a long time there was little to no trans romance. All the authors I talked to said they would love to see but weren’t willing to write it. So I started writing, and I hope to continue.
Then in f/f romance there are very few books that depict two masculine of center main characters.
EPB: Oh yes! I’d noticed that.
E.E.: Then of course there could always be more racial diversity, more disabled characters, more non normatively attractive characters in romance as a whole.
EPB: Yes, I think the generally-normative characters in romance make a lot of people feel some version of “love is for the pretty people.”
E.E.: Well, I certainly feel like that, and I’m not really interested in writing about normative characters.
EPB: Plenty of other folks are covering that beat, for sure.
As a reader, I’m interested in other experiences–and I definitely want to hear that relationships can work out for those of us who don’t conform.
E.E.: Yes, I have a hard time explaining that a lot of m/m romance where the main characters are both normatively attractive, able, cisgender manly men leaves me with nothing.
I like books about non-normative characters because like you said it gives me hope that love is possible.
EPB: That happy ending can be authentically transformative in real life, speaking from personal experience.
Now this question is like asking the parent about their favorite child, but which of the books you’ve written is your favorite? (And you can have lots of favorites for different reasons.)
E.E.: That’s a really hard question, I like A Matter of Disagreement because I wrote it predominantly for me (that sounds cliched) but I sometimes get tangled up in feeling like writing and publishing is a competition. Writing A Matter of Disagreement was step back from that. Business Makes Strange Bedfellows was very similar. I was going through a very stressful time in my life and writing it was an escape. Song of the Spring Moon Waning was the first book I wrote with a transgender main character so that was special; it was also a really easy book for me to write. Like Fire Through Bone was the first full length novel I ever wrote so that’s special that way.
EPB: You are definitely a good parent to your brainchildren. You love them each in their own way.
E.E.: It is a hard question for me, because I go through periods of liking and disliking them all pretty equally.
EPB: Yeah, I have that too. I’m currently in the middle of revising, and I’m like “ugh, I wrote this?”
and some of the “ugh” drives the editing, and I know that…
… but then some stories were just so much fun to write, that I love them for that alone, even if they’re a pain to edit.
E.E.: That is true; I usually go through a period half way through writing where I’m sure the whole thing isn’t worth finishing. But some stories just come together really beautifully.
EPB: Which of your stories was the most miraculous that way? What did that feel like?
E.E.: Song of the Spring Moon Waning just kind of fell together. I remember one time working on it when I just sat and wrote 10K in one go over the course of an evening without it feeling like work at all
EPB: I just started reading that one. It has this dreamy lyrical feeling to it.
E.E.: Thank you, I wrote to read like a folk tale or a fairy tale.
EPB: How well developed is a story idea by the time you start writing it down?
E.E.: I usually have both of the main character’s voices down, my research mostly done, and a rough plot outline by the time I start writing, although usually I need to revamp my plot outline at least once during the writing process.
EPB: Same here. Stuff happens, and it’s often not stuff I anticipated.
But that’s part of what makes a story feel like life.
What are your favorite non-fictional inspirations for stories?
E.E.: I love using history as inspiration but also mythology.
I also love ghost stories and urban legends though so a lot of that also inspires me
EPB: Tell me a little bit about the nonfictional roots of A Matter of Disagreement.
E.E.: I did history research for 18th and early 19th century, I definitely did a lot of history of science for that one as well, some nonfiction research into steampunk trends and tropes, and some research on the history of non-normative gendered individuals
EPB: I will say I loved the messenger bird. So pretty …
And Gregory was very dashing.
Who are your literary hero(in)es — the novelists or other writers that present you with challenge or example?
E.E.: Diana Wynne Jones is an author I grew up reading I’ve always admired.
I love Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels. She’s probably the romance author who’s influenced me the most.
I am a huge fan of Lois McMaster Bujold as well she’s probably my favorite science fiction author
EPB: fanbeing fist bump Yay Bujold! She’s so amazing and various.
E.E.: Yes I love her. I started reading her Miles Vorkosigan books when I was in my teens and they’ve been incredibly influential for me as a writer.
EPB: I have ADHD and Miles is like my long-lost brother.
E.E.: I was around the same age as Miles when I started reading the series and I empathized with him so much, he has/had a lot of the same insecurities as me and the fact that he was disabled was super important for me as a person with disabilities.
EPB: Yes. That whole super-achiever thing.
I love the way that he talks his way into things and then lives to regret it.
E.E.: They are just amazing space opera adventures too which I loved
EPB: I adore space opera.
Second only to steampunk in its invocation of WTF-physics. “Sure, wormholes — no problem!”
EPB: Are you planning to write any stories of that flavor?
E.E.: Space opera? I hope to yes, I am hoping to definitely write more science fiction in the near future
EPB: Would totally read it, especially given your take on gender and romance. I am really looking forward to reading the rest of your backlist, and it’s been lots of fun talking with you.
Next in this series, I interview Silvia Moreno Garcia. She works the horror end of the fantasy spectrum both as editor and writer, on the unstable boundary where the magical and the mundane mix. Her novel Signal to Noise (magic, mixtapes, and Mexico City) will be released in March 2015 and can be pre-ordered now. Read an excerpt here.