I first met Joanne Hall at Fantasycon 2012. She totally rescued me from sitting alone like a saddo on the first night, when I didn’t know anyone at all. It was a very good introduction to the UK genre community, meeting someone who not only wrote fantasy but blogged a hella lot about it, and also organised and chaired Bristolcon. It was brilliant to meet someone who was super excited about fantasy, and totally engaged in so many aspects of it.
Joanne is known for writing exciting and diverse fantasy fiction. The Art of Forgetting focuses on Rhodri, a young boy with a perfect memory, except when it comes to who he is and where he came from. As Rhodri navigates growing up, becoming a soldier, and dealing with the fact that he is bisexual in a very masculine world, he must also try to uncover the mystery of his past. I asked Joanne some questions about The Art of Forgetting, why she writes, and the importance of LGBT representation in fantasy.
Laurel talks to Joanne Hall about her books, why she writes, and the importance of LGBT representation in fantasy.
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Could you tell us a little bit about how you began writing? Did you always want to be a writer?
When I was very little, about four or five, I used to make up stories all the time. It wasn’t until I reached the grand old age of six or seven that I realised that making up stories was a proper job and people actually got paid to do it, and I decided that was what I wanted to do (I’d already gone through the whole firefighter/astronaut/Jedi options). Careers advisors tried to steer me towards more sensible and stable paths, like journalism, but I’ve always made up and written stories, from as far back as I can remember.
What is it about fantasy that drew you to write it?
My mum took us to the library every Thursday and I diligently read my way through the children’s section, and the stories I liked the most were the ones with witches and wizards and dragons and magic. I grew up in the era of Star Wars, Indiana Jones and ET, and all those wonderful 80s fantasy films that they don’t seem to make any more. My family were SF and F fans, particularly my mum and my uncle, and they let me enthusiastically raid their bookshelves. It was there I discovered Asimov and Clarke, and David Eddings and Julian May, and heaps of other stuff. I was so surrounded by and immersed in fantasy and SF that it never occurred to me to write anything else. I wanted to write the kind of books I most enjoyed reading.
It is unfortunately unusual to have LGBT characters in fantasy, what made you decide to include them in your work?
I’ve always included LGBT characters in my work, but they were usually minor characters. This was the first time my main protagonist was LGBT, and it wasn’t a conscious decision on my part, but something that evolved with Rhodri’s character. I should probably divert here to explain that I’m an inveterate pantser and a member of the school of making-it-up-as-I-go-along, so there was very little about The Art of Forgetting that was planned. It was a very organic book to write and I wrote it very fast. When the novel starts, Rhodri is a young fourteen with only the vaguest interest in sex, and I didn’t know he was bisexual for quite a few chapters. But honestly, if you’re writing epic fantasy that spans years and continents, the idea of excluding LGBT people is just completely unrealistic, as unrealistic as having everyone in the world the same race. What, you’ve got dragons and wizards, but somehow everyone in the whole world is white and straight? That’s not a world I buy into, and it’s not a world I especially want to read. I want to read, and write about, a whole bunch of diverse people who are more interesting than me!
Do you think it is important for LGBT characters to be better represented in fantasy? Why is it do you think that they are underrepresented?
I think it’s very important for LGBT characters to be better represented in fantasy. I think we’ve seen more representation over the last few years, particularly of gay men, but the representation of lesbians, bisexuals and trans people is still fairly woeful. I think fantasy, perhaps more than any other literature, opens gateways to other worlds, and because of that it has a particular appeal to those who may feel marginalised or awkward or have trouble fitting in. Especially teenagers. I think it’s invaluable to provide representation for those who may otherwise find themselves unrepresented. Some of the most wonderful and touching emails I’ve received from readers have been ones that have thanked me for including people like them in my books.
As for why they are underrepresented, I’m not sure. I think maybe it springs from Tolkien and that idea of fantasy being an idealisation of pseudo-medieval Europe (which, let’s face it, a lot of fantasy was for a bit) where men were heroes and women knew their place and everyone was white and heterosexual. I think we’re moving away from that now into more interesting realms, but the shadow of that cliché still kind of hangs over fantasy writers. I think as well it’s a problem with people’s default settings. “Write what you know” has a lot to answer for – it doesn’t mean if you’re straight you can only write about straight people! We shouldn’t be afraid to try and write more diverse books.
Where do you get the ideas for your books from?
From everywhere! I think most writers are sponges – I know I am. TV, music, eavesdropping on the bus… The world is crammed full of ideas and all you need to do is take the interesting bits from here and there and mash them up a bit. If they’re good, they’ll stick.
Having said that, the idea behind The Art of Forgetting was very specific, at least at first. I had written an earlier series of books and at the end I had left one particular plot thread hanging, and The Art of Forgetting takes that plot thread and spins it to its conclusion. But on the way it takes in abandoned buildings, feminism, sectarian conflict, horseback archery, private schools, equestrianism, avalanche survival… a whole bunch of things that I found interesting and wanted to write about, and more thinks that I didn’t know were interesting until I started researching them! So writing can also lead to more ideas for more stories too.
Rhodri is a really complex character, who is loyal and driven, but also can be selfish and make bad decisions like all of us. From where did you draw inspiration when creating him?
A lot of Rhodri’s character development was very organic; his personality emerged in the writing, but I knew I wanted him to be likeable and for people to be able to relate to him. And there’s nothing worse or more irritating than a hero who is more-perfect-than-perfect – flawed characters are so much more interesting! I wanted to write a character who was flawed but worked to overcome their flaws, someone who would grow and change as the story went on. The story follows Rhodri for almost ten years, so there was plenty of scope for him to make mistakes, and hopefully to learn from them!
The way Rhodri’s sexuality is explored is part of his character, rather than the main focus of the book. Was this intentional?
Once Rhodri’s sexuality emerged in the narrative, I sat back and had a little think about it. There are plenty of stories where the entire focus of the story is about a character being LGBT, but there seem to be less stories where an LGBT character’s sexuality is almost incidental to the narrative – the story tends to be about A Gay Hero, rather than A Hero Who Also Happens To Be Gay. I wanted the focus of the story to be on Rhodri’s journey to find his father, rather than what he got up to in bed and who he was with at the time. To have a character who could be straight but isn’t, and not have that effect the outcome of the narrative. It just seemed more natural to me to do it that way.
Often when there are LGBT characters in fantasy, they come up against very difficult and often violent prejudice. In The Art of Forgetting, the culture is pretty liberal in regards to its acceptance of homosexuality. Does fantasy have more scope to ‘imagine’ this kind of world? What can the genre publishing industry do to support writers creating diverse worlds?
I think the “making life difficult for LGBT people” plot is part of what I was talking about above, the whole idea of the story being about the character being LGBT, rather than being about the rest of the plot. And for many years and in many cultures all over the world being LGBT has been an accepted part of society, far more than it was in, say, the UK in the 20th Century. Attitudes towards LGBT people shift through time and geography. It’s not impossible to imagine a pre-industrial world, especially one without any established religion, where being LGBT is greeted with little more than a raised eyebrow. If we can imagine dragons, or hollow planets, or magic, surely we can imagine such a society?
I think the genre publishing industry is already supportive of writers creating diverse worlds. Especially among the smaller presses, who seem to be more willing to take risks on work that might be more diverse and experimental. Some smaller presses even specialise in printing books with LGBT content, and there are awards like the Lambda and the Bisexual Book Award that are dedicated to promoting LGBT friendly work. I think with the rise of e-books and the global marketplace it’s much easier to get work accepted that may have been rejected for LGBT content ten years ago. As long as the stories are good, someone somewhere will want to publish them.