Lawrence Schimel is an author worth mentioning, both for his inspiring work as an author, but also for the fact that he is putting LGBTQ+ awareness in the forefront fighting for awareness and breaking the stereotypes.
Lawrence was born in New York City in 1971 and is an American science fiction and fantasy writer, translator, and anthologist whose work frequently deals with gay and lesbian themes, and with Jewish themes. He writes in both Spanish and English, and has published more than 100 titles of various genres for all ages, including poetry collections, graphic novels, children’s books, picture books and many more. His books have been selected by the International Youth Library in Munich for the White Ravens and by IBBY for Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities in 2007 and 2013 respectively. Additionally, he has received the Crystal Kite Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the Lambda Literary Award, the Independent Publisher Book Award and the Spectrum Award, while his work has been translated into more than thirty languages, including Basque, Catalan, Croatian, Czech, Dutch, English, Esperanto, Finnish, French, Galician, German, Greek, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish, Turkish, and Ukrainian.
Lawrence has received his B.A. in Literature from Yale University, is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Academy of American Poets and has been a founding member of the Publishing Triangle, an organization of lesbians and gay men in the publishing industry. At the moment Lawrence, after having met international success, lives and works in Madrid as author and as a Spanish-English literary translator.
YASS Magazine met Lawrence in the legendary LGBTQ+ bookshop “BERKANA” in Madrid during the presentation of his books “Una barba para dos”, which is his first book of fiction for adults written in Spanish and “¡Qué suerte tengo” which is his latest success.
What brought you to Madrid in 1999? How different was it from New York, where you come from?
Quality of life. Being in Europe is so much more civilised than life in the US. And also, living in a country with socialised medicine makes it possible for me to survive while working in the cultural field (writing and translating). And, of course, I have a special appreciation of Spanish men…
Who were your literary references when you decided to become a writer?
I have always been a voracious reader since I was very little. The first writer I was aware of, as a writer, was Maurice Sendak. Not his WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE but his Nutshell Library, especially ALLIGATORS ALL AROUND, PIERRE and CHICKEN SOUP WITH RICE. (But not the 4th book.)
I first started published science fiction stories, thanks to Marion Zimmer Bradley, best known for her novel THE MISTS OF AVALON, which retold the King Arthur legend from the point of view of the women characters. But I didn’t write like MZB, even if she gave a home to my first stories in anthologies she edited and the magazine she published. Two gay novelists whose work I admire, even if I don’t write like either of them, are Paul Russell (US) and Patrick Gale (UK). Both write such characters so wonderfully, dealing with complex emotional situations. They also both write about LGBT lives that are inextricably part of stories that often have larger, ensemble casts.
But despite having published over 100 books, I am not a novelist (although I have published 4 collections of short stories). In poetry, the most exciting “new” gay voice for me is British poet Richard Scott, whose first collection SOHO was recently published by Faber & Faber. In terms of established voices I admire, I’d say Carl Phillips, whose language is both challenging and rewarding.
I would say that my work as a literary translator has informed how I think about story, and language. So that is probably the most profound recent reference for me as a writer. And, of course, as I grow older, my interests and tastes continue to develop and change, and my own maturity has I hope been reflected in my writing–how I understand relationships, and thereby how I write about them.
Now LGBT+ literature has become more mainstream in a way, but did you find it difficult at the beginning of your career to find publishers to trust this theme and you?
In many ways, it was easier to publish LGBT literature when I was starting my career than it is now. While some mainstream publishers do publish books about our lives, they often do so only once a year, to take advantage of pride celebrations in bookshops and in the press, and ignore us the rest of the year. Additionally, our books have to make it through all these heterosexual filters. So if, in a mainstream publisher, a gay book is published and it fails, it is harder for any other queer title (even if a different genre) to be published. If a heterosexual romance is published and doesn’t sell, those same gatekeepers don’t say “Oh, we’ll never publish another straight romance!”
When I started publishing in the early 90s, we had a vibrant publishing and bookselling scene, with many LGBT specialty publishers and LGBT bookstores, most of which have since closed down. So there were both mainstream and specialty publishers publishing our stories, which offered both more opportunities for authors and also more variety for readers. LGBT readers have the right to the full range of literature, from the commercial to the literary, that tells stories where our own lives are reflected. Without those specialty publishers, though, there isn’t the same support for authors to develop and grow and continue series characters and so on.
And the lack of LGBT bookstores also is a huge detriment to both readers and authors. Today’s publishing scene is so focused on new releases, which arrive every few weeks, so the time for a new writer to be on the front table or even in the face out section of the shelves, is very short. The LGBT bookstores gave the books that reflected our stories a longer shelf life, you could go and find a book that was published a few years ago, which the mainstream bookstores may have stocked when it was new but then returned.
These were also places for readers to go and discover a new author, whose stories reflected our lives. And regional LGBT newspapers, while often focusing on the local bar scene, gave important space and coverage to reviews of new titles of interest to LGBT readers–something especially important when there is less and less review coverage of literature, in general, in the media.
You have written books in so many genres, from essays to poetry and children books. How do you define more yourself?
As a reader. No, really. We aren’t always in the mood to read the same things. Sometimes we want something that will challenge us and make us think. Other times we want something to make us laugh and to forget about the frustrations and injustices of the world.
Likewise, my interests as a writer are different, depend on what I am wishing to express at that moment and also for which audience. Because I don’t think any one reader will necessarily want to read everything I write or have written. Not even me! Because my own reading tastes have changed over time, and I am a different reader now than the person I was sometimes when I wrote some of my earlier works.
Some of your work is very erotic. Do you think erotic literature will survive in the era of PornHub?
I think sex is a natural part of our lives and it should therefore be a natural part of our artistic and cultural representations. I think the fact that we live in a sex negative society results in this false dichotomy of porn versus erotica. We should be demanding quality depictions of sex in all sorts of media: with good dialogue, good plots, good filming, good settings, and (of course) good acting or characters. Good depictions of sex involving the full range of body types, races, positions, etc.
How we interact with sex is also very different. Reading an erotic story is much more interactive than watching a porn video, for instance–the reader is imagining and personalising the situation much more than the viewer of the porn video. And that is an active, creative act–as well as an erotic one. So, yes, I think there will continue to be erotic literature, even with the prevalence of other forms of erotic media (photos, videos, etc.)
We met in Madrid in Berkana, the LGBT bookshop of reference. This space seems to be disappearing, so how important have bookshops like that been for you?
I spoke about this above, and I think these stores are in danger and that it is a terrible detriment to readers and authors alike if this happens. One of the biggest pleasures of visiting a brick-and-mortar store is to find titles that you didn’t already know about. So the selection available at an LGBT bookshop, which often mixes both new titles and older titles we haven’t yet discovered (as readers) creates a treasure trove. Books can serve two main functions, they can be mirrors (where you see yourself reflected) or they can be windows (into the experiences of other people). While certain LGBT stories are becoming more mainstream, there is still a tremendous lack of visibility for many of us, and finding ourselves in books is so important and reaffirming. And the LGBT bookshops is one of the most important spaces (along with some libraries) for feeding that need.
As I mentioned, these bookshops also keep LGBT titles in stock, long after they’re new, precisely because they know these books will still be of interest to readers who are first discovering them (or discovering the bookshop for the first time).
You travel so much and meet so many people of the LGBT+ world. Do you think we are finally getting visible and empowered or there is still work to do?
It has been wonderful to see so many changes over the years, in so many different countries, but there is still so much work to be done. In many ways, in the most developed countries more than anywhere else.
I was just in Colombia on tour for some new children’s books and at many of the schools, the kids had gone online and researched me. And they had questions about all of my books, not just my children’s books but also my gay titles for adults–including the “adult” books that were about sex, the erotica. But they were all just books by me for these children, with no scandal or problem with my writing both children’s books and erotica.
That is not the case in the United States, for instance, where one publisher insisted I use a pseudonym on a series of children’s books because I had also published gay erotica under my own name. I used the pseudonym Mark White, a little joke, since in Spanish the term generic is “marca blanca”.
Is your book “Una barba para dos” a reflection of your own erotic stories or do you keep a personal distance when it comes to writing?
Tony Kushner once wrote (and I’m paraphrasing) that it was possible to have sex without revealing anything about yourself, but impossible to WRITE about sex without revealing too much about yourself. I think that my understanding of the erotic informs my writing, and has evolved from my very first stories to the new collection UNA BARBA PARA DOS. This book has also been very different for me because it is the first collection of fiction for adults that I wrote directly in Spanish. I had previously published a poetry book, DESAYUNO EN LA CAMA, and a graphic novel, VACACIONES IN IBIZA, that I wrote in Spanish directly, but this was the first time writing fiction.
Also, in UNA BARBA PARA DOS I am exploring the form of microfiction or flash fiction. I think that erotica depends so much on the dynamics between the characters more than the hydraulics of the sexual acts involved, and I wanted to see if it was possible to compress the erotic into the brief space of microfiction. So all the stories are maximum 500 words long, in other words, both sides of a single sheet of paper. And there are 100 different stories! So that was a challenge, to come up with so many erotic settings, that fit into such a short space and worked as stories.
The book is definitely filled with references of places and details from my own life. I’m often asked if I’ve done everything in the erotica I write. Without a doubt, the sex I’ve had informs the way I write about sex, even if I might transpose the feel of flesh against flesh from my own experience to an encounter I never had. It’s also true, I think, that the sex we didn’t have is a better inspiration for erotica than the sex we did have, because the spark of desire, of wanting, is still there, it hasn’t been satisfied. It’s possible to have pleasurable sex that doesn’t serve as the plot for a story.
You are always so busy, what is your next project about?
Lately, I am so busy translating that I have not had enough time for my own writing. But I am halfway through a new collection of poems written in Spanish, titled LOS CUERPOS DEL LENGUAJE (Not “Body Language” which would be “El lenguaje del cuerpo” but “Bodies of Language”). So, hopefully I will find (or make) the time over this summer to finish writing the poems in this collection, and then with luck it will find a publisher and thereby make its way to readers…