My seventh novel, Dear Miss Cushman, lands in bookstores everywhere tomorrow, and I couldn’t be more excited. As a preview, here’s a new blog post on Mark West’s “Storied Charlotte” blog about how I came to write a novel set in the 1850s theater world of Manhattan. Take a look!
I’ll be discussing my new novel, Dear Miss Cushman, at an online panel next Wednesday @8pm, sponsored by History Through Fiction. There’s a book giveaway and a pre-publication discount involved. Registration is required. Check it out! https://www.crowdcast.io/…/whats-new-in…/register
Amy Beth Arkawy interviewed me for her spectacular podcast today, and it was a lot of fun. We talked about my novel Testimony, writing in general, and my next project. Check it out!
Where do I get the ideas for my historical novels? The answer isn’t simple. I might get the seed of an idea from one place, then find another seed somewhere else; several ideas come together and germinate into the plot of a novel. Let me tell you about one of the seeds for my recently published novel, Testimony.
I don’t expect many people have heard of Martha Deane. I would never have heard of her myself if I hadn’t stumbled on an article titled “The Case of Martha Deane: Sexuality and Power at Cold War UCLA” by Kathleen Weiler.
In 1952, Deane was a full professor of Physical Education at UCLA, having taught dance for almost 30 years. Well-known in her field and a respected teacher, she was one of only two female full professors on campus.
Then, in the fall of that year, the university received an anonymous letter complaining about Deane. The writer, possibly a disgruntled neighbor, reported seeing Deane kiss another woman through the window of her own home.
The woman with Deane was her partner, Ruth Fulton, an assistant professor. When confronted, Fulton resigned, but Deane stood firm against allegations of “unprofessional conduct” and “moral turpitude.” Even though a faculty committee recommended her exoneration, the dean suspended her without pay.
Female faculty banded together to help support Deane financially during her lengthy hearing process. Finally, probably worn down from the ordeal, Deane settled with the university and left for early retirement. UCLA scrubbed her case from its records, but Weiler, an education historian, unearthed the story 50 years later.
Dean herself never spoke or wrote about what happened; maybe it was a condition of her retirement. When interviewed for a UCLA oral history project in 1966, she made a vague reference to the early 1950s. “It’s a time that I couldn’t even sort out in my mind if I had to,” she said. “It was a time of great turbulence on the campus … and a real reactionary kind of force coming in.”
Deane’s story ends on a positive note. “She survived all this unbroken, how I don’t quite know,” one of her female colleagues reported. Deane and Fulton built their own house in a rural area outside of Los Angeles, and Deane became active in the League of Women Voters.
Testimony took some of its inspiration from Deane’s story—I’ve been married to a female professor for 28 years, and Deane’s story pushed buttons. I transported my novel to Virginia in 1960, but cases similar to Deane’s have been plentiful throughout the country. Another seed: Renowned literature professor and scholar Newton Arvin—a gay man who was once lovers with Truman Capote—lost his position at Smith College in 1960 for “possession of obscene photographs.”
Like so many people fired for simply being queer, Deane and Arvin—and my protagonist, Gen Rider—endured much more than the loss of their livelihoods. As Weiler puts it, Deane lost “a central part of her identity.”
My dad read history books for fun and I learned from his example, but I’m aware that some people might find that a weird passion. I think it has something to do with the way we learn history in school, which can make it seem dry and dull. History textbooks turn people from the past into cardboard figures, instead of living, breathing people just like us.
That’s where historical fiction comes in, and it’s one big reason why I write it. Bringing people from the past to life excites me.
Another reason I write historical fiction is because so much LGBTQ history has been erased or forced underground, and many queer people remain in the dark about our past. My wife teaches LGBTQ literature in college and finds few of her students even know what “Stonewall Rebellion” refers to.
LGBTQ historical fiction helps make our history more vivid, alive, and relevant. My new novel, Testimony, is set in 1960, a time in which queer college teachers and students faced harassment in a Lavender Scare-like spree. From 1955 to 1965, for example, legislators in Florida systematically purged queer faculty, students, and staff from that state’s schools. Testimony was inspired by the true story of an esteemed Phys. Ed. professor at UCLA named Martha Deane who was fired because her neighbor told university administrators that he saw her kiss another woman (more on Professor Deane next time).
I wrote Testimony during a new wave of anti-LGBTQ sentiment. My aim was to show the chilling effects of antigay activism. Freedom depends so much on the political climate, and according to a new report from Lambda Legal Defense, “In just four years, President Trump has ushered in a judicial landscape that is significantly more hostile toward LGBTQ people.” Miraculously, though, one of the Right’s high-profile judicial assaults failed—in June 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County that anti-LGBTQ discrimination in employment violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
I’m looking forward to an LGBTQ-friendly administration and political environment. Here’s hoping we can make up some of the ground we lost since 2017, especially for trans people. Holding onto freedom involves knowing and embracing your history. So, because I care about the LGBTQ future, I’ll continue to write fiction that highlights our past.