An Interview with Laura Lee, author of Angel

Hi all! Judith here. Let me set the stage for you. June 2012. Ellen and I were at Book Expo America in NYC for one day only and we had spent the morning stumbling down aisle after aisle of publishers and their wares. All the books were free. That’s right, FREE. My eyes were the size of saucers as I took in all the books and I made grabby hands at everything.

One book I managed to pick up was a little known romance called, Angel. Ellen, who hates all things angel, wanted nothing to do with it but oddly enough, I decided to read it the very next day even though I found the cover a bit cheesy.  I’m extremely glad I did because I can, in all honesty, tell you that this is one of the best written romances I’ve ever read. It’s real and emotional and just…so raw in the emotion it evokes.  If you haven’t read it, I’d highly suggest it. Here, you can even check out our review first.

Luckily for me, I recently had an opportunity to pick the brain of Angel’s author, the very down to earth Laura Lee, and get some answers to all the outstanding questions left after reading her book.

J: Hey Laura! Thanks for giving me the inside scoop. Wanted to tell you that I love love love Angel! So good. But I’ve got questions for you. Burning ones.The first one is, is this really a romance or love story?

LL: I never really thought of it as a romance.  The main reason is that the love story came very late in the creative process.  For ten years I was working on a novel about a minister who had some kind of spiritual crisis that changed his perspective on his faith and who ended up leaving the ministry to become a tour guide.  I did a lot of reflection on what type of life changing event might make him question or alter his beliefs.  So the heart of the story for me was always the question of what happens when someone changes and yet is in a social position with a community that is invested in him remaining as they have always expected him to be.  A lot of what I wrote before I came to the idea that the minister falls in love with another man was quite philosophical.  I don’t think my agent, who was very positive about the novel, ever referred to it as a romance novel or thought of it that way.  I had trouble selling it initially.  The publishers that my agent submitted it to said, “It’s beautiful, but…”  My agent called the rejections “love letters with poison at the end.” They thought it would be difficult to market, too gay for the Christians and too Christian for the gays.  I was told “Christians should read it but they will not touch it.”  So there are people who don’t want to touch it because they assume it is a slam on religion, which I don’t think it is.  And there are other people who don’t want to touch it because they think that it is Christian fiction out to convert people.  It is hard being in the position of being rejected for being too Christian and too anti-Christian at the same time.

Anyway, in the end, it was an off-hand comment by my sister-in-law, who read it before it was published, that led me to Dreamspinner Press.  She said she was surprised by how “romantic” the story was.  I think I’d always described it in more spiritual terms.  I thought, well, it is a love story. Maybe romance readers would like it.  So I looked to see if there was such a thing is a publisher of gay male romances.  So that is how I find the book labeled as a romance and myself as a “romance author.”  It is a love story, but I do think it diverges a bit from what people expect a romance novel to be.

J: I’m sure Angel is considered shocking or provocative to a lot of religious and/or LGBT groups, was this your intent when you wrote it? If not, what was the intent? Would you call this a religious book? A gay romance? I’m curious as to how you identify the story and what your intended audience is.

LL: I didn’t think in those terms when I was writing the book. I thought about Paul, the minister, and what his attraction was to the mountain. I thought about how to bring out the resonances between what happened in his story and his attraction to nature.  I thought about how it would feel for Paul to suddenly have to question so many things about himself and his life.  I wanted to talk about life in a church community, especially for those who work in them.  I worked in a church office for a while, so I had a feel for that environment and the challenges of trying to keep everyone happy.  The story never felt shocking to me.  I think if I had written it for shock value or to make a political point it wouldn’t work well as a novel.  I was just trying to do the best job I could at creating characters, keeping the dialogue real, bringing out the different motifs and questions I wanted to touch on.  My goal with the book was literary not political.

J: all the ladies (and men) are going to want to know this! Who was your inspiration for Ian and Paul?

LL: There are two parts to this.  The first is immediate and literal.  There were two actual individuals who gave me the germs of the ideas that grew into Ian and Paul, but the characters are made up of many parts of my experience.  Paul was inspired by a real bus trip I took to Mount Rainier in Washington.  An entertaining tour guide kept talking about how he burned out on his old job.  Toward the end of the tour someone finally asked him what his old job had been and he said a minister.  So I took two things away from that trip.  One was the idea that this beautiful, seemingly permanent mountain was a volcano that would erupt some day.  The second was the idea of a minister who burns out on his job and ends up as a tour guide.  I thought there were things that tour guide and minister have in common.  They’re both guides of some sort.  I thought that the idea of the mountain as volcano was rich with symbolism that I cold keep going back to for inspiration.

I wrote about the minister and the mountain for years.  I even wrote an entirely different novel, which I may publish some day, that spun out of the same meditations.  It has no minister and no mountain anywhere in it.  You’d never know that’s where it came from.  Coincidentally, that novel also had a character who was physically beautiful but emotionally troubled.

A few years ago now the spark for Ian appeared in the form of a man who I thought was beautiful in a particularly fine art way.  His image reminded me of the characters in devotional art I had seen, like the doe-eyed, ethereal paintings of the martyr St. Sebastian. I decided to sit down and do some writing about why I responded to his image in that way instead of a more celebrity pin up way. (You can find a lot of reflection about how we respond to images in art compared to advertisements and marketing in the novel because that was where I started.)

As I often did in my writing practice, I went back to this idea of the minister and the mountain.  I saw the connection between these two ideas instantly. If my minister encountered a man whose beauty struck him this way what might happen?  From there I just wrote the thing as if I were taking dictation.  The scene of Paul envisioning the young man who walks into the church as an angel was the first thing that I wrote for the new incarnation of the book.  (The working title had been “The Minister and the Mountain.”)  Initially, I thought he would think the young man looked like an angel, but I thought it was stronger if he actually had a mystical experience and confused him for a real angel.  You can interpret it as being a trick of his eye sight or a true mystical vision depending on how you like to read things.

Ian and Paul evolved together from that point.  I consciously thought of Ian and Paul’s relationship as being like the mountain.  Ian was the earth and Paul was the one with his head in the clouds.  So they were complimentary.  Ian is in touch with his physical nature, but disconnected from his spiritual side.  Paul has made a career out of his spiritual seeking and has not given much attention to his physical nature.  I could always go back to the mountain to shape the story.  Whenever I’d lose steam, that is what I would do.  Most of it doesn’t come in as a direct reference, it’s just something that helped me to think about the story.

I needed to get someone who is alienated from the church into a church.  I thought that the logical way for this to happen was for him to be there attending an AA meeting.  This opened up all new doors.  My father was a recovering alcoholic.  (He is deceased so it seems strange to say he is “in recovery” at this point.)  He went through a program like Ian does.  So I had some familiarity with addiction and recovery.  It may seem to some readers that Ian’s struggles with his addiction are not as central to the story as they might be, but this is because we see Ian through Paul’s eyes.  Ian is a little bit idealized.

So I was able to take a lot of my own experience and apply it to the characters.  I had lost my father six years before I wrote the final version of Angel, so I understood Paul’s grief.  I had worked in a church at a time where there was a big push for “growth” and running things more like a business.  So that situation and how it might impact Paul was familiar.  I don’t know where all of the inspiration for the two characters comes from.  There is no one person either of them is based on.  Even now, I will think about someone I knew and something someone said and I will think, huh, that’s a lot like Ian.  I bet I drew on that person’s habit subconsciously when I was writing that.

J: Would you call yourself religious?

LL: I don’t know how to answer that question.  There are so many aspects to it.  I’m not avoiding the question. The problem with questions like “are you religious” or “are you Christian” is that if you say yes or no people make a lot of assumptions about what those words mean.  If a fundamentalist Christian asks a liberal Christian “are you Christian?” and the liberal says, “yes,” they might not actually believe the same thing at all, yet they will go away thinking that they do.  I would not put myself in the “spiritual but not religious” camp because I think there are important things that the communities of religions do.  There are also things that they do clumsily and things they get wrong. It is inevitable when you get groups of people trying to get together and get along. I like that people want to get together and think about things larger than themselves, and in theory, to put their identity as individuals aside and focus on their role as part of a larger community with rituals, tradition and history. Yet the other side of community, of identifying as “we” is that it also creates a “they.”  How you define “us” and “not us” and how you relate to those you consider to be “them” are tricky things. There is a lot of room for causing harm.  So anytime you take pride in a “we” you have to be very careful that you are not demonizing a “they” in the process.

I would say I am certainly philosophical.  I admire many of the community aspects of religion, but I am an incredible introvert.  So I don’t actually attend my (Unitarian) church regularly on Sunday, even though I think of it as my “family” and community.  A lot of writers are introverts.  Like many people, I did not chose my religion, it is the one I was brought to in childhood, and the sense of this being my people and my family is more important than whether there might be a church that is a better theological match out there.  (Beliefnet says I am a “liberal Quaker.”) I think that the negatives of religion would continue to exist if there were no religion.  We’d still have ideologies and people who were passionate and misguided about them.  I also believe there would be just as much morality and beautiful, meaningful art without religion.  I am obsessed with the Bible right now.  I just finished reading through the New Testament in chronological order, the order that scholars think the books were written, and writing down my thoughts and impressions as I read.  I jotted down lots of areas for further reflection.  Again, though, when you say you are studying the Bible, people tend to think they know something about what you believe or what kind of person you are.  I doubt any two people at any time in history have read that book and come away with exactly the same impressions.  That is why I am fascinated with it.

J: Of all your characters, which did you most identify with personally?

LL: Paul was the viewpoint character.  So as I wrote, I had to think like Paul. Like Paul, I was fascinated by Ian and attracted to him.  But I didn’t need to identify with his life or know it from the inside out.

J: If Paul worked and overcame so much to finally be able to be with Ian, why weren’t they together in the end?

LL: I take Ian at his word that he wanted a clean slate.  He was in his first year of sobriety.  The situation with Paul was probably a bit more than he bargained for.  My take is that he just didn’t find what he was looking for, which was a stable environment and a new family.  Paul was fighting to stay at the church and Ian could not escape his past there.  He didn’t want to be the problem child any more. But just because I am the writer doesn’t mean I get the last word on the subject.  The reader is free to come to her own conclusions about why things went as they did and what motivated Ian.

This answer may be frustratingly philosophical rather than psychological, but one of the truest things about beauty is that it does not last.  The oldest part of Angel, the very first thing that I wrote a decade ago when I was first imagining the story of the minister, were the last paragraphs.  The whole story was about our relationship to beauty.  What makes someone or something beautiful?  How do you place a value on those experiences of beauty– beautiful scenery, beautiful moments, beautiful people?

J: What happens to Ian after the end of Angel (I’m totally for fishing for spoilers here!)

LL: What do you think happens to him?

J: So closed mouth about any more Ian inspired books! Well…how about this.  At what point in your life did you know that you wanted to be a writer?

LL: My father was a writer and I grew up with him saying I was a born writer.  I also recall distinctly not wanting to be a writer.  I wanted to be an actress.  It turns out I have no talent for that.

J: What was your experience in becoming a published author?

LL: I mentioned in passing to my father that I had this idea for a book and he did not let up on me until I had crafted a proposal and sent it out.  I did this and went on with my life and next thing you know, a few months later, I had a call from a publisher saying they wanted to buy the thing.  I had just started working as a newspaper reporter at the time.  I came into the job as a temp by sending in a few articles I’d written here and there.  They liked my work enough to have me come in.  I had never taken a journalism course.  In fact, I think I took only one writing class in college.  I tested out of the basic English requirements.  I didn’t take much writing because I wasn’t that interested.  I was a theater student.  Little by little it was just revealed to me that I had a particular skill that seemed to make itself known and that seemed the logical thing to put my energy into.

J: In light of the current self-publishing boom, have you considered self-publishing further novels?

LL: I don’t think I am likely to.  I have been working on an update of my poetry collection and some short stories that I’ve been thinking about putting out as a self-published ebook just to have out there.

J: Any advice for aspiring writers?

LL: It is a long process.  Everyone wants to have written a book, far fewer people want to actually sit down and write one.  Then there is the thing of knowing when it is not working and having the restraint and faith to just set something aside and come back to it later.  Even publishing a book and getting people to know about it is a long process.  Everything is maddeningly slow.

J: Lastly, tell us why we should read your book, Angel.

LL: It is probably not what you expect when you hear its subject.  It is worth giving it a look to see what it is.

There you have it! If you still need reasons to read Angel, hit me up and I’ll give you a laundry list of them. Great book from a force we need to watch out for!

3 thoughts on “An Interview with Laura Lee, author of Angel

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