Indie Authors – Jay Bell

Something Like … series by Jay Bell

I wasn’t really planning to do reviews on my blog, but a post by Only Fragments about growing up queer at a time when there was little queer representation in media got me to thinking how important it is to continue to share the love and spread the word, even though the world looks much different today than it did when I was a kid.

It’s particularly gratifying to support indie writers, such as Jay Bell. His books have not only won awards, but his book Something Like Summer has even been made into a movie – which is something pretty impressive for an indie writer, especially one who writes about LGBT characters. I also feel a certain kinship with him, since he married a German and lived in Germany as an ex-pat for several years.

I’ve read the first three books of his Something Like … series so far: Something Like Summer, Something Like Winter, and Something Like Autumn, and have been enjoying it very much.  Each book is written from the perspective of a different character, and the first three all follow the same core story. Although each book could probably stand alone, I strongly suggest reading them in order to get the full effect because the story gains depth and layers as you read it from differing viewpoints.

Romantic relationships are central to the books, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them romances, since the story goes beyond the romance part and follows the lives of the characters for several years as they grow up and settle into adult life. They fall in love (with more than one person), have friendships, work on careers, deal with bad relationships, interact with family, and handle grief and loss. The books are not perfect, but I was engaged enough with the characters to look past a couple of plot sins in the first book, and the writing gets better in the next books. I honestly would have ended the main story line a lot differently, but of course every writer is different, otherwise every story would turn out the same, and how boring would that be?

Jay Bell’s characters are real and sympathetic each in his own way, even the ones who were ethically challenged (at least to an old romantic like myself who has been around the block a few too many times). The main characters are gay and bisexual men, but I found many of the themes applicable to relationships in general, since they’re not just about hiding in the closet or coming out. I particularly enjoyed the character of Jace, who was featured as a romantic partner in the first two books and is the main character of the third, Something like Autumn. His character is one of the highlights of the series, even though he gets shortchanged in the broader story, because he’s one of those rare characters in romance fiction (and, unfortunately, in real life) who knows what it takes to make a relationship really work: the central understanding that the relationship isn’t all about him, but also the well-being and happiness of his partner.

Be forewarned – these books tend to the dramatic and are very emotional, so if you’re not into that kind of thing, they probably won’t be your cup of tea. On the other hand, if you enjoy a good cry and emotionally engaging characters, they’re definitely worth a read. Jace’s book in particular reduced me to a puddle of miserable tears, even though I knew how his story ended from the previous books. If you’re the emotional type, and want to avoid having to make excuses about “allergies making your eyes hurt”, it’s better read it in private (not on the subway, like I did. So embarrassing.)

The Unintended Romance

trainstalking by davitydave, on Flickr

trainstalking (CC BY 2.0) by davitydave

While writing Deviants, there was one twist in the story that took me completely by surprise. It not only changed the story I was writing – it changed me, as well.

Deviants started out as a story about Simon, a young man who, after being cast out of the remote, rural commune where he grew up, moved to the slums of a city to seek his fortune. While searching for work, he meets Li, a young woman who grew up as a rich Elite. They work together until Simon has to risk everything to save his (estranged) childhood best friend, Jamie.

As a major subplot, I had planned for Simon and Li to develop a relationship that led to romance … but somehow it didn’t seem to work out that way. Li craved adventure and excitement, and didn’t want or need an exclusive relationship with one person. Most especially, she wouldn’t be interested in tying herself to my timid protagonist Simon, whose idea of a good time was sitting at home with his loved ones and not gallivanting around the solar system looking for the next adventure. They might become good friends, and Li might take him out of his shell a little bit while he might calm her down, but they were never going to be happy together as a couple.

Since I don’t like forcing relationships with characters that don’t really fit together (I’m looking at you, Ron and Hermione!), I removed the romantic element from the relationship. I continued writing, and started developing the backstory of Simon’s childhood and how he met Jamie – a refugee slave taken in by Simon’s rural commune.

As I developed the friendship between Simon and Jamie, there appeared some hints of something deeper between them. I hadn’t really given any thought to making my protagonist gay at that point, so it threw me for a loop at first. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go that route, and if I did, how I should continue. After a lot of soul-searching, I decided that the pull between the two characters was too strong to ignore, and I let them out of the closet.

Up until recently, I hadn’t read very many books with gay or lesbian protagonists in them. Particularly during my childhood and teen years, even though I was a voracious reader, I rarely came across a character who was homosexual or bisexual without being pathological or tragic in some way. There was some bisexuality going on in Heinlein’s books, but he usually portrayed same-sex relationships as “good clean fun but still lesser than heterosexual relationships.” Anne McCaffrey hinted at homosexuality among Dragonriders in her Pern books, but it was only a hint, only for male Dragonriders, and not really something that the characters chose themselves.

I did eventually discover The Last Herald Mage trilogy from Mercedes Lackey, and some of the books from Marion Zimmer Bradley. Here were at last major characters who were definitely, unabashedly gay, lesbian, and bisexual. It was like a revelation, even if many of the homosexual relationships were fraught with suffering and tragedy.

After deciding to let my main character out of the closet, I started doing some market research, and discovered that there is a large variety of LGBT literature out there today. It is easily available on Amazon and encompasses almost every genre from classic literature to police procedurals to erotic romance to science fiction and fantasy (as an aside, if you like fantasy I highly recommend Lynn Flewelling). There are not a few tragedies, but also HEA endings and stable, loving relationships. Today, it is possible to find many role models and examples of people in fiction and in our daily lives who are gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, and everything in between. People who are queer, but who are a part of society instead of being outcasts, and who find love and happiness and success instead of pain and tragedy and ruin.

Through this process, I have not only become a proud supporter of LGBT rights, but have discovered that I, too, reside in queer space. Recent developments in society have reminded me of the potential for the pendulum to swing back, so I hope to add to the growing collection of literature with happy gay and lesbian protagonists to tide us through any dark times that might be coming, so that we can make things get better again.