Pride is a joyous occasion, the climactic finale at the end of our personal Hero’s Journey. Pride is about pride, and freedom, and community, and the strength it takes to take to the streets when the world would have you hidden. Yes, Pride is a ceremony of ecstasy and acceptance, of friends and family, but most of all, Pride is none of those things. Pride is about courage.
The courage it takes to accept others when you cannot accept yourself. The courage it takes to be lost when Pride, well, Pride must mean you are found? The courage it takes to live with hate, whether from outside or within or both. Pride isn’t a parade of fear vanquished, it’s a communion of the ugly messiness of fear. Whether it’s celebrated quietly, alone, together, with trumpets, drumrolls, or not at all, Pride is, most importantly, a self-defined point in time and place. That self-definition is, in a way, the pillar of Pride.
The union of our experiences, joy, anger, self-hate, peace, loneliness, fear, doubt, revulsion, love, peace, that’s Pride.
Today we welcome our first guest authors in the Asylum for PRIDE NIGHTS AT QUEEN’S, Marian L Thorpe and Bjørn Larssen, to talk about writing queer people, courage, but most importantly, the multitude represented by this one word.
After two careers as a research scientist and an educator, I decided it was time to do what I’d always really wanted, and be a writer. As well as my novels, I’ve published short stories and poetry. My life-long interest in Roman and post-Roman European history provided the inspiration for my books, while my other interests in landscape archaeology and birding provide background.
Bjørn Larssen is a Norse heathen made in Poland, but mostly located in a Dutch suburb, except for his heart which he lost in Iceland. Born in 1977, he self-published his first graphic novel at the age of seven in a limited edition of one, following this achievement several decades later with his first book containing multiple sentences and winning awards he didn’t design himself. His writing is described as ‘dark’ and ‘literary’, but he remains incapable of taking anything seriously for more than 60 seconds.
Bjørn has a degree in mathematics and has worked as a graphic designer, a model, a bartender, and a blacksmith (not all at the same time). His hobbies include sitting by open fires, dressing like an extra from Vikings, installing operating systems, and dreaming about living in a log cabin in the north of Iceland. He owns one (1) husband and is owned by one (1) neighbourhood cat.
Readers’ Favorite Gold Medal winner, 2020 Stabby Nominee, Eric Hoffer Grand Prize – Honorable Mention.
Marian L Thorpe and Bjørn Larssen
I started to get to know Bjørn in the winter of 2019/2020. We’d chatted a little via DMs on Twitter, after I’d reviewed his first book, Storytellers, and he’d begun to read my series, Empire’s Legacy. The world of Empire’s Legacy is an alternative world to ours, with a medieval setting but not a heteronormative one, at least not in one society. As the protagonist of the first three books was female, I was comfortable writing from her point of view.
I’m somewhere between a plotter and a discovery writer: I have a story arc, but not detailed outlines. So when, from subconscious to fingers-on-keyboard with no thought in between, I typed this line (from my MC Lena’s POV): “I saw Sorley, at the stern, looking at us. Even over the twenty or so paces I could see that it was Cillian he held in his gaze, and I could see, too, the longing on his face.”—I now had a man with an unrequited love for another man. Well, that’s ok, I thought. My sex scenes are fade-to-black, and it was the love – and what Sorley was willing to do for Cillian – that mattered.
But even in his supporting role, I asked four of my friends for input on my portrayal of Sorley. They are men from a variety of backgrounds and experiences: one is in his mid-60s, two are in their fifties, one is in his forties. One repudiated his homosexuality for years, imposing conversion therapy on himself. One has an older brother who is gay too, and a family who didn’t blink an eye. Two are married, two are single. All their experiences were different, but all had helpful things to say.
Then it became clear that the next book in the series had to be written from Sorley’s point of view, and suddenly this was more than a subplot about unrequited love. Along the way, Sorley has gained a lover – a friend-with-benefits, more or less: a fellow musician. Sorley’s pretty clear that he doesn’t love Druisius, but neither is he willing to be celibate while pining for Cillian. So now I needed more guidance. I was still writing a love story, on multiple levels, but I was a little doubtful about how to portray the relationship between Druisius and Sorley, among other things. Did I have the courage to go beyond a simple love story?
This is where Bjørn came in. I was in England the winter I was writing Empire’s Reckoning, so in his time zone, and we had a lot of late-night talks.
Something I really admire about Marian’s books is that she writes people, rather than characters. I found myself relating to Sorley; his self-loathing, the unrequited love, the sexuality that needed an outlet. Nevertheless, sometimes he seemed to fall flat. I felt Marian was too careful. The attempts not to upset the reader – me – resulted in certain undecided blandness, a journey turning into a suggestion of it. I remembered that internalised homophobia, and when I say “I remembered” I don’t necessarily mean that it’s all in the past. I wanted it on the pages in all its ugliness. As I watched Sorley struggling to stop thinking of himself “what I am” and progress to “who I am,” I knew Marian was afraid to write it. But for me this was real.
When early on Sorley was just someone who stole a long look from Cillian, there was no real need for him to have a personality. He was there to suggest something about Cillian. Once he became the narrator, he could no longer hide his thoughts and feelings from the reader, the good, the bad, the ugly. If he had a pretty, well-arranged life where nothing out of the ordinary happens, there would be no book.
So Bjørn pushed me both to go deeper into Sorley’s psyche and history, usually by sharing a lot of his own experiences. I was intertwining stories over two timelines, and Sorley’s love for Cillian and his relationship with Druisius is only part of larger political and personal plots – but they can’t be separated. Love and loyalty among the four adult MCs of the book is what gives them the courage and commitment to move forward with their political actions. The themes of doubt and fear, secrets and trust are present in both stories. And neither journey is easy for Sorley.
One of the things I remember Bjørn saying about Sorley was ‘he’s too nice’. And he was. But I took that thought, made it part of Sorley’s internal growth, and fit the words into the story. Sorley will hurt Cillian (with words) at the point in the story that the relationship between them becomes that of two men with equal agency. Without the understanding of Sorley’s internal conflict that Bjørn guided me to, that scene would likely never have happened.
One reader has said that the terms for sexualities from the 21st century don’t apply to my world, because people just love whom they love, without placing them in restrictive definitions. While this is mostly true, in Sorley’s land his love for men is not accepted, and he, had his father known, would have been disowned. So one thing I needed to know was whether my description of Sorley, finding himself in a land where no one thinks anything amiss of his love for Cillian – or his partnership with Druisius – would feel.
The shameful secret I had hidden for so long in Sorham was just a normal part of life here. My mind felt dislocated, untethered. Every pair of soldiers I saw laughing together, every casual touch I witnessed made me wonder. I was embarrassing myself, acting like a boy newly aware. Which is what I was, I supposed.Sorley, Empire’s Legacy series
Sorley knows he’s repressed and inexperienced, and there’s a lot of self-loathing going on. He refers to himself as ‘what I am’, not ‘who’, or he uses the derogatory world channàdarra’, that in the made-up language of his country means ‘unnatural’.
Seventeen years ago I took my first trip to Amsterdam. As if the culture shock between the homophobia of Poland, where I come from, wasn’t already going to be brutal, by coincidence I picked the Pride weekend. Seeing same-sex couples hold hands, kiss, laugh together in public was something my head wouldn’t wrap around. For Poland, I was incredibly brave and emancipated. I kissed my boyfriend on the cheek on the street sometimes, when there were no young men around who could take offence and express it with their fists. He told me off for doing this, eventually breaking up with me, because those pecks on the cheek put him and his job in danger. Amsterdam was a place where something, or even someone like me, could just be. It didn’t feel realistic. It had to be some sort of…performance arranged to make me think I lost my mind. In Poland I was at best “a homosexual,” here I was a person.
(In 2021 I wouldn’t be even “a homosexual,” but an “LGBT ideology.” This was the platform the current president used to win the election. Bear this in mind before you decide to support Polish businesses that are not openly queer-friendly or queer-owned.)
I’ve been living in the Netherlands for fifteen years now. It never occurs to me not to introduce my husband as, well, “my husband.” But I carry Poland inside me. When my husband and I go to visit the parts of my family that didn’t turn away when I outed myself, I remind him and myself: we’re not people here. We’re disgustoids. When people can see us, don’t kiss me, don’t hold my hand, don’t call me anything affectionate, don’t look at me that way.
Make it worse, I told Marian. Make it harder for Sorley. It’s not pretty and never will be.
So I did. I drew on experiences other friends had told me (with their full permission and approval), not to expropriate them, but to interpret them through the character of Sorley, who lives only in my head and on the page in a world that isn’t (and was never) real. Sorley loves his ancestral lands almost more than anything else – but he can’t go home because of who he is; he can’t tell his family, whom he loves. His country’s leader wants him as an advisor, but if Sorley’s sexuality was known, it would be a reason for unhappy nobles to attempt a coup. He has to work through all of this and a lot more, and it’s not easy, or pretty – and it doesn’t help that there’s political betrayal involved, too. But the encouragement – from Bjørn and the other friends – was exactly that: encouragement means, in its derivation, ‘to put in courage’. That’s what they did: they gave me courage. In a way, I found mine along with Sorley finding his.
Almost the biggest hurdle for me was the relationship between Druisius and Sorley. Druise is a complex character, a soldier who’d been the bedmate of several officers. He’s a survivor, intelligent, eminently pragmatic, with secrets of his own. It’s a friendship and sexual attraction born of their sharing of music—the synergy of a jam session, if you like, spilling over into bed. And if Druisius becomes Sorley’s acknowledged partner, he gets to share his room, not sleep the barracks. Sorley has little sexual experience; Druise, many partners in his past – and present. So, I wrote some draft scenes, and sent them to Bjørn .
I think I had to say it again 🙂 Go harder! (I’ll see myself out.) Certain stereotypes, such as gay men having many partners and not necessarily seeing sex only as part of monogamous love are stereotypes because they often are true. The idea that this should be deleted from our stories, because it might make us look bad, is equal to saying – promiscuity is bad. But I have been Sorley, and then I have been Druisius, at least in this aspect. I’ve had enough politicians, preachers, aunts back in Poland telling me that everything about me was wrong. The relationship between Sorley and Druise is consensual, and it is what it is. It’s real.
To me, the idea of Pride is empowering us to be, well, proud of who we are. Sorley is Sorley, Druise is Druise, I am who I am. They remained characters instead of people until this well-implanted idea that some experiences are shameful and shouldn’t be written about got silenced. And that’s when things became exciting.
Another subject the story needed to include to be truly Sorley’s story – and this was the hardest for me – was polyamory. Sorley doesn’t stop loving Cillian, and eventually will find out that his love is not unrequited. But he’s also gradually come to love Druisius too, and Druise him. (One of the four friends who’d already given input into Sorley had shared some of his experiences of polyamory with me, and he also read the draft of Empire’s Reckoning and made suggestions, but it wasn’t an on-going conversation as it was with Bjørn.) I’ll admit that my biggest fear here was not misrepresenting the relationships, but readers’ reactions to the reveal. The love story between Cillian and Lena, the protagonist of the first three books, was central to Book III, Empire’s Exile, and part of my audience’s appreciation of the story. Again, did I have the guts to do this? Could I add another dimension – the Sorley/Cillian love story – without losing my readers?
I happen to know that Marian’s developmental editor was not a fan of the idea that this polyamorous relationship, one where not everyone has equal feelings for everyone else, can work for everyone concerned. The editor would have been more comfortable keeping them separate and unhappy, where a couple is a couple and everyone knows where their place is. So the book wasn’t even at the proper editing stage and there was already a negative reader reaction! I would have protested if Marian just nodded and “cleaned it up.”
To me, and I know this is a forty-something’s opinion, being gay is easily explained – I love a man, that man loves me, we’re married. Being queer is that wonderful mess where, as long as there is consent and nobody gets hurt, everything and everyone fits. So that love story, with that new dimension added, is almost like saying to the reader – well done. You got through the Gay Pride test. Can you take Queer Pride?
After a lot of indecision, with, as Bjørn has said, my developmental editor arguing strenuously against it and Bjørn and another friend and my husband arguing equally strenuously for the polyamory, I decided that I had to be true to my characters and the world I had created, or I’d hate myself. Could my readers – whose demographic is mostly over-50 women (and men) take Queer Pride? Almost universally yes.
I think there may be two reasons for their acceptance of the world and relationships I’ve created. First is simply that they’ve lived long enough (my oldest current reader is 92) to understand on a very visceral level that life is short and love – whatever it looks like – matters. The other is that many of them, like me (I’m 63), came of age reading the speculative fiction of the 1970s: Bradley, Le Guin, Elizabeth A Lynn – all of whom envisioned and wrote about worlds where sexuality was varied and variable. These writers not only helped shaped my worldview and made me comfortable in my own skin, but they were influential in the world I created in the Empire’s Legacy series.
Do you ever pause to think about whether what you’re writing is “good representation”? (As if I don’t know the answer to this.)
My characters are just people, living their lives, and no single society in the series is a Utopia. There are cruelties in then all, judgments and punishments made for a variety of violations of societal norms.
I (like my MC Lena) hate to be caged, whether by walls or definitions. My books don’t fit into neat little genre boxes, either.
Praised be Gods!
If you’d like to get in contact with Marian L Thorpe, you can find her on social media:
Check out Marian’s book, Empire’s Reckoning:
Follow the Asylum’s 2021 Pride event here!