WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: It’s really great to get to chat with you about Lavender House. I’ve always dreamed—as someone who identifies as queer, as gay, and who lives in a pretty backwards (at times) part of the country that can feel like it’s set back in time—of a book that really shows a noir-to-the-bone character who is also queer/gay and has a lot of the same experiences as me. It feels like this is one of the first books where I’ve gotten that experience, and where it’s done so well. Can you talk to me about how you came up with this—what drew you to this idea, and why you executed this story in this specific way?
Lev AC Rosen: Well first of all, thank you! It’s something I’ve always dreamed of, too – and I think part of it comes from exactly what you’re talking about – how historical queerness (and sometimes contemporary queerness) is inherently a noir state of being. When you have to hide who you are, when people are always out to get you and when killing you isn’t considered that much of a crime, your life is noir – and that’s what it was for queer people in the 50s. So as someone queer, who grew up watching those old noir movies, it felt natural for me explore that. I’d wanted to for a while, but aside from that concept didn’t know what the story would be. It wasn’t until I was watching an Agatha Christie adaptation and thought “this would be more fun if everyone was gay” that I saw my way in, my plot and characters.
MT: What’s so important about setting the novel back in the mid-twentieth century, especially as opposed to setting it today? Was there more of an appeal with the actual setting of a classic noir (I’m thinking of James M. Cain, Dorothy B Hughes, etc), or was this more functional for the main tension and plot of the novel?
LACR: It’s all of it. I think it creates the main tension of the novel, for sure. My editor, when she first made an offer and was trying to sell me on going with her, told me that she always thinks a good PI story needs a reason they can’t go to the police, and the reason here – that they needed to protect their secret queer enclave – was very compelling. And yes, there’s also that this is the classic noir time period, which I loved to get to write and pay homage to - but also there’s so much queer history that we’re not usually taught or exposed to, and as a queer man, learning about it – about my history – is so exciting and revelatory to me. I know that sounds extreme, but so often queer people, even today, can feel like we’re the first – the first in our family, the first with our background, the first dealing with a particular set of circumstances. And that’s because we’re not raised knowing our queer history. But if we saw it all, we’d see we’re never really the first, and because of that, we’re never really alone. So getting to show people this history, as well as write a fun noir in a noir time and place – that’s such a gift. I was thrilled to be able to blend all of that together.
MT: This novel reminded me at times of a queer version of Tana French’s The Likeness. I don’t know if you’ve read that book, but it’s also excellent—a real page turner, functioning with just this group of friends the main character ventures into because of her police work. In this sense, it’s also like your novel in that there’s something innate and undeniable about the character that draws her into the story. What did you think made this story essential for your protagonist, and how does each character/suspect in the novel play into the world of Lavender House?
LACR: I haven’t read it, but now it’s on my list! I think for Andy, the journey of going to Lavender House and meeting this family and coming out of is one of self-acceptance. Not a coming out self-acceptance, but an acceptance of the fact that his life has changed now that he’s been publicly outed and lost his job and home because of it. And with that comes the realization that maybe the life he’s lost wasn’t much of a life to begin with, and he has this opportunity to make something new. But with all that also comes the realization that he could have been living like this before… and he could have been helping people like himself, instead of turning away from them. It’s a real reckoning in many ways. But I’m not sure that was your question – you asked what made this essential for the protagonist, and I think this story is essential to Andy because if he didn’t see a new kind of life, he would die. We open with him considering suicide and that’s not idle. He would have ended it if Pearl hadn’t sat down next to him. As for how each character plays in the story – I think that would be a really long answer, to break down each of them. And filled with spoilers. But they have created this home, this safe haven that’s really a gilded cage, where outside they have to perform a false perfect American Family, and inside they can be themselves. But what does that performance make them sacrifice? What have they given up for this supposed freedom? That’s the way they all interact I think; what do you sacrifice for family when you family shouldn’t exist?
MT: I’ve never been to San Francisco, although after reading Lavender House I feel like I’ve been transported there over the course of the novel. What about San Francisco and the surrounding area was so fitting for your novel, especially given the time period, and how do you think it would change if you transported it to New York City, or my area of the country—the Deep South? Is this an area you know well personally?
LACR: I did originally think I’d set the book outside NYC, since that’s where I’m from and where I live. But doing research on the queer communities in the 50s, what I found was that queer culture in NYC was much more stratified; rich gay men here, poor there, middleclass here, and then within those, divisions of race. They just didn’t mingle as much. But San Francisco, though not immune to the separations of race and class, blended more than NYC, and that gave me more opportunity – especially envisioning it as a series. Plus it’s another classic noir city, and a classic gay city. The perfect meeting of what I wanted to do. I owe so much to Nan Alamilla Boyd’s Wide Open Town, too. It’s a history book chronicling the queer community of San Francisco til 65. I don’t know San Francisco especially well. I’ve only been there a couple of times, but I did a lot of research – and owe a lot to those facebook groups for seniors who are reminiscing about how San Francisco has changed. They post photos and talk about stuff and it really gave me a sense of the city back then that was more human than all the text books I found about how the neighborhoods grew and stuff.
MT: You’ve written books for different age groups, and in different genres. These books have been under different names (or variations of the same name) as well—what’s so appealing about being able to write under pseudonyms? Is there an appeal beyond branding, and does it allow you to invent yourself and work in different ways?
LACR: Oh my answer here is boring, I’m sad to say. My publisher had published a middle grade book of mine under Lev Rosen, and when they acquired my first YA, in order to differentiate it, and make sure no one thought it was middle grade, they asked me to change up my name a little. It was never a pseudonym, just a marketing tool.
MT: What book or books inspired you most when you were writing this? Was there any art outside of traditional literature—maybe movies, television shows, visual art, anything—that inspired you while you wrote Lavender House?
LACR: Well, all those classic noir films I love, absolutely. The Big Sleep, Laura, Touch of Evil. Great films, every one, and those were always in my mind. But I think the more unusual thing I went to for inspiration were vintage soap ads. They depicted the sort of classic and clean American Family in the way the residents of Lavender House have to present themselves, so looking at those ads, the people in them, the way they sell things, that was a huge influence. I have a big stack of vintage magazines from the early 50s now. They’re always a delight to flip though.
MT: What were the challenges of writing a queer man into a noir narrative? I feel like noir could be seen by some as, traditionally, a very masculinist—and therefore possibly limited—mode of storytelling when it comes to the telling of queer narratives. You really dive deep into these characters and bring out a world that’s twisty, dark, and fully realized, and I don’t ever feel like I’m reading a book that’s anything but queer and also noir, as strange as combining those two worlds can seem. At the same time, I also feel like noir could be seen as traditionally queer in many ways—there are these ultra-masculine characters, these deceptive and deadly women, this self-hate and passion that’s so very queer at its core. How do you view queerness and noir literature, especially side by side? Do you think the two are necessarily always opposed/different?
LACR: I feel like I may have answered this one already, but yeah, queer, at least historical queer, to me, is noir. Even if I wrote it sunny, if there was any sort of realism about how dangerous being queer was then, it would take on noir characteristics. So they’re hand in hand for me. And I think that the idea of the straight masculine detective is also kind of queer, too. You read those old books, watch those old movies, the bonds the men have – he claims not to like Archer in The Maltese Falcon, but he spends the whole movie looking for his killer. I’m not saying it’s queer, or even homoerotic, but there is a certain closeness between men in those stories which can be viewed as queer without much effort. And then of course, many of the stories did have queerness in them. That was moved into innuendo for the films because of the Hayes Code, but look at, like, Peter Lorre in the Maltese Falcon with his gardenia scented calling card, or Geiger’s chauffer in The Big Sleep, who in the book is explicitly Geiger’s lover. Noir has always been queer – the difference here is I’m telling it from the queer people’s point of view, instead of making them villains and manipulators as they were depicted then.
MT: What was it like mapping this story out? How do you generally plot novels—I know you write different types of books, for different age groups, and I wonder as to your writing process and what it’s like developing your novels. Do you have a specific process?
LACR: I’m a big believer that every book writes itself differently. So I don’t have a consistent method, exactly – things come in different ways; sometimes the whole general plot unfolds, sometimes I’m figuring it out as I write, but I try to focus on two things: first, the climax. To me a climax is about a decision, and without spoiling anything here, the decision in most mysteries is who to accuse… but here it was also a decision for Andy about what his life was going to be afterwards – was he going to go back to drinking himself to death? So I work towards a key moment that would answer that, usually only outlining a chapter or two ahead in case it goes off the rails somewhere. I tend to think of outlines more as information that needs to be revealed and action that needs to happen. And since this book was so much about exploring each of those characters, it was about revealing things about them, bit by bit. But I didn’t know who did it until I was about halfway through, I think. Of course, then I went back, cleaned it up, made it fit together – most writing is in the edit – but I didn’t map too much out here once the initial concept bloomed in my brain.
MT: What books do you recommend to people who want to read things like Lavender House?
LACR: They have just reissued the David Brandstetter Novels, by Joseph Hansen, the first of which is Fadeout. They’re also about a queer PI, very noir, beautifully written, and they were written in (and take place in) the 70s. I’ve only read the first two but I’m loving them so far. But the vibe is more Elliot Gould in the Long Goodbye than Bogart and Bacall in the Big Sleep.
MT: Thank you so much for letting me pick your brain. I really loved this book. It was so great to see something I’d longed to read fully realized—it was everything I wanted in this sort of book, and I think so many other people longing to see themselves in noir will finally have it realized in this way. Thank you for writing this book, and again thank you for letting me pick your brain about your work.
LACR: Oh, thank you for such kind words about the book! I’m so glad it was the story you needed and wanted. It was the one I needed and wanted, too, and I think a lot of other people, so I hope this book finds them. Thank you for helping with that, and thank you so much for having me.