Seven Questions, Seven Answers: An Interview with Nairne Holtz – Renuka Chaturvedi

Nairne Holtz - This One's Going to Last Forever

Perhaps it is fiction that, more than any other form of writing, works a sort of alchemy in our minds whereby a writer is transformed into a mystery about whose motivations and inspiration we readers can only wonder. So when Nairne Holtz contacted me to request an interview I was delighted. Rarely do we readers get an opportunity to speak directly to the writers whose labours bring so much contemplation, enchantment, frustration, confusion and pure pleasure to our lives. To engage with an author about her work is a singular experience, and I leapt at the opportunity. I had read two of Holtz’s publications, a mystery novel entitled The Skin Beneath, and the collection of short stories This One’s Going to Last Forever. I was familiar with the works but not the person behind them, and here an opportunity to change that had presented itself.

Double-entendre intended, Holtz’s voice is authorial. Her voice is as authorial in conversation as it is in her writing. She doesn’t mince words and she makes no apologies. Holtz knows how she wants to be interviewed and the questions she wants asked, and if she doesn’t respect a question she’ll let you know. She’s here to get the job done, not to make friends. In a world of plastic smiles and pleasantries, this is refreshing.

And so is her approach to publishing. Holtz has rejected taking the routes of which she is well aware to writing popularized fiction. She writes what she knows and what she cares about, commercialism be damned. Here is a writer that knows her audience, is bare about her intentions and who, if you dislike a character or a storyline she’s written, doesn’t seem to care terribly much. Here is a writer who, at least ostensibly, eschews the hand-wringing, the neuroses, the crippling insecurity that plagues the profession. Holtz writes. This is what she does. And it is this frank engagement with her craft that leaves me with the impression that here is a strong woman, a powerful femme, who can command a room and make her readers listen.

Renuka Chaturvedi: In conversation with one of NMP’s editors, you thought “Veneer,” was an appropriately named issue in which to discuss your work. Why is that?

Nairne Holtz: You can’t talk about veneer without talking about what is under it. The theme of my first novel, The Skin Beneath, is cover-ups: conspiracies, what people hide from each other and from themselves, and, paradoxically, what is hidden in plain sight. In This One’s Going to Last Forever, I explore sexual relationships and probe what lies beneath the surface: the junkie who secretly wishes she was a soccer mom; the geek factor at the heart of a wild, kinky party.

RC: You have said that you write butch and femme characters, and about dynamics in butch/femme relationships. What is it about butch and femme that inspire you to write about them?

NH: I’m a middle-aged femme who has spent her life desiring and loving butches, so I have lot to say on the subject. My intention is to write affectionately but also critically. When one of my butch characters refers to the dildo she uses with her femme lover as ‘their dick,’ it’s funny, but at the same time I’m making a statement about the fluidity of gender and sexual roles. I also address the harsher realities of shame and homophobia and sexism from the perspective of an insider.

RC: In an interview you stated that your audience is lesbian. I’m curious as to your thoughts on that. Has it been a conscious decision on your part that you’ll write queer stories for queer readers? If so, why?

NH: I don’t set out to write for an audience; I write for myself and sometimes for the people I love. The easiest way for me to gain a large lesbian audience would be to churn out lesbian romances, but I have no interest in doing so. My work generally features lesbian protagonists and diverse secondary characters, but at the moment I’m working on a novel told from four points of view, only one of which is queer. By the same token, I’m not writing this novel to gain a straight audience; I could care less about that sort of thing.

I have described my audience as lesbian because that’s who I hear from, that’s who shows up at my events. I think the reality is if your work features lesbian characters, the majority of your readers will be lesbian. Sarah Waters is an exception to the rule, but she is an exception. Emma Donoghue went from being a small press indie writer to mainstream success with Slammerkin, her first book to have no queer content. Most readers are women, most women are straight, and they like to read stories where men are the objects of desire. As a result, they sometimes connect with gay male storylines, but usually not with lesbian ones.

When it comes to marketing my work, I’m more comfortable at queer events. A lot of mainstream Canadian literary festivals are boring and stuffy and full of competitive writers who ask you questions about your publisher and agent. I’ve also dealt with homophobia, such as a festival that took out every queer reference in my bio for their program. It is way more fun to read a sex story in a gay venue and have cute bois flirt with you.

RC: The protagonist in The Skin Beneath, Sam, is heavily tattooed. What functions do the tattoos serve in relation to her character’s development? In other words, why was it important that she have many tattoos?

NH: Tattoos struck me as a useful image and metaphor for a book about cover-ups and what lies beneath the surface. My interpretation of the function of Sam’s tattoos is she’s literally covering up her skin to hide her vulnerability, while drawing public attention to a pose of toughness, style, and disaffection with straight middle-class life. Her daily life includes harassment for not conforming to gender norms, and in the course of the story she actively courts danger, so it is not surprising that when she feels compelled to get yet another tattoo, she asks herself if it is a “talisman.”

RC: Sam didn’t strike me as a very likable character. Of course, flawed characters are what can make books interesting. What’s your take on Sam’s appeal, and her personality?

NH: Sam begins the novel as an angst-ridden, somewhat superficial butch dyke who is drifting. In some sense, she fits a popular type in lesbian fiction, especially lesbian romantic fiction: the butch player who can’t commit to a girl because she’s been scarred by some type of trauma. But I also turn that trope on its head. For instance, Sam sees herself as a Don Juan who has the upper hand in her relationships, but that reality is constantly undermined by Romey and Amanda, my sexually confident femme characters. Also, Sam doesn’t get off lightly for her mistakes; unpleasant things happen to her, and by the end of the book she is a more responsible person.

RC: The title of This One’s Going to Last Forever seems tongue-in-cheek, as the majority of relationships in which your characters are involved come off as pretty dead-end. Now, for a culture saturated with the logic of the romantic comedy, your stories are refreshing but definitely a bring-down. What was your motivation for writing a book of short stories about largely dysfunctional relationships? What was your intention, what you hoped to accomplish?

NH: Many of the relationships in This One’s Going to Last Forever are doomed but not necessarily dysfunctional. In my opinion, the only story that embodies exploitation and dysfunction is “The Crows,” which is about addicts, and in that piece the irony is that a relationship that should end could very well last forever.

I set out to explore the mistakes people make in relationships, and at the end of each story, most of my characters gain knowledge and awareness and sometimes friends. I think the collection is hopeful and has a balanced perspective on relationships. My first story, When Gay is the New Straight, which is about a gay man who performs drive-through weddings dressed as Elvis, was inspired by my own drive-through wedding. Here I was getting legally married to my girlfriend, but I wanted to make a statement that it’s just as valid to be gay and not take that path and be critical of it. And I end the collection with two happy (but not sappy) love stories.

RC: What projects do you have in the pipe?

NH: I’m currently working on two books. The first is a novel set in Nova Scotia in the 1970s and 80s and is about a Quaker hippie family, and the second is an autobiographical collection of lesbian sex stories.

Renuka Chaturvedi is a gamer and all-around nerd who enjoys fiction and talking with the people who write it. Here she interviews author Nairne Holtz on her novel The Skin Beneath and her collection of short stories, This One’s Going to Last Forever.

Nairne Holtz is the author of This One’s Going to Last Forever (Insomniac, 2009), a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, and The Skin Beneath (Insomniac, 2007), which won the Alice B. Lesbian Debut Fiction Award and was shortlisted for Quebec’s McAuslan First Book Prize. She lives in Toronto with her lover and rotten but beloved terriers, and works part-time as a librarian.