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[Galaxy Q] Interview with ‘Nathan Burgoine on Writing the Gay Fantastical

‘Nathan Burgoine grew up a reader and studied literature in university while making a living as a bookseller. His first published short story was “Heart” in the collection Fool for Love: New Gay Fiction. Since then, he has had over two dozen short stories published, and his first novel Light is available in e-book and print from Bold Strokes Books.


Steve Berman: Thank you for baring your soul to SF Signal readers!

‘Nathan Burgoine: Uh oh. Soul baring? Understand I’m a Brit-born Canuck. Everyone is going to be blinded by the glare if I so much as unbutton off my shirt, let alone my skin.

SB: Your new novel, Triad Blood, features three fantastical/supernatural elements: demons, vampires, and wizards. Of these three, the vampire is the one more encountered in queer speculative fiction; from Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” to Anne Rice’s Lestat, the vampire’s role as an erotic predator and occasional anti-hero are well-established for contemporary readers. The others…I would hard pressed to name five famous gay wizards (Albus Dumbledore finally came to mind) or five gay demons (Grazz’t from D&D always seemed bi to me). Did you find this territory also unexplored? As a gay man did you feel. ‘Of course there would be such creatures, such sorcery, that yearned for the same gender?’

NB: For contemporary gay wizards, the only characters I can think of off the top of my head from the mainstream were more of a suggestion than a reality. I think the author based them on real people and as such didn’t want to say anything that would violate their privacy, but Tom and Carl in Diane Duane’s So You Want to be a Wizard (they appeared throughout the series) were probably the only wizards I bumped into that made me think, Huh. These guys might be like me. That was a YA series, too, so bonus points.

As for demons, I’m afraid they’re so much more often in the realm of horror, where I’m not nearly as well read. I wonder about Pie’Oh’Pah, but Pie was a shape-shifting assassin more than a demon, right? Definitely a form of a genderfluid character, and pan- or bisexual, perhaps? Hrm. I need to re-read Imajica.

When I was first reading a lot of mainstream contemporary urban fantasy (introduced to me through Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs, Kelley Armstrong, and Carrie Vaughn), I fell in love with the notion of “our world, only with magic” and devoured them and pretty much anything else I could get my hands on of a similar nature. At the time, I was still working at the book store, and they were huge sellers, so I had a lot to choose from.

And, unfortunately, as awesome as they were—and they were awesome—the queer characters were rare (if present at all) and often bumped off within the first book of their appearance. I’ve read that sort of story often: the gay guy dies to show the reader the stakes are high for the heroine. It’s not exactly unusual, but definitely something you notice when you rarely see characters like yourself to begin with. It made me want to write the stories I didn’t get to read.

I guess it just made no sense to me to take our world, which obviously does have us queerfolk, and add that awesome splash of magic and not include us. So right from the start, with my first published short story, I knew I was going to write about a contemporary magical world, and the characters were going to be gay. My first published short, “Heart,” was a bittersweet romance, where the people involved were gay, and one of them had access to a kind of magic.

SB: So your first book, Light, involved superheroes and villains. We are seeing a growth of comic books and graphic novels with queer characters and themes, albeit one nurtured and published by small presses rather than the larger corporations involved in the four-color trade. Would you mind exploring your relationship with comic books? Were you a fan as a kid? Any thoughts, any recommendations, on some of the newer titles that accurately represent queer people?

NB: Like a lot of queer kids, I was smitten with the X-Men. They were the easiest, most translatable experience of comic books out there for my little gay self. They were born to normal families, but weren’t normal. Check. They were often hated and feared by those who didn’t understand them. Check. They had to hide their identities. Check. They could wield awesome powers and change the world…

Uh.

Well.

To me, those characters (especially Iceman, who of the bunch, often had the worst relationship with his immediate family) were sacrosanct. I rode all the ups and downs of the X-titles, and when I found Heroes Unlimited (a super-hero role-playing game) I gathered groups of fellow geeks in whatever school I happened to be at the time and we played as often as masks as we did as elves and dwarves.

As for a suggestion, I’ve been happily following The Young Protectors (by Alex Woolfson). It’s an web-comic superhero story about a young gay (closeted, at the start) superhero with fire powers. Woolfson also wrote Artifice, which was a fantastic gay sci-fi story that was also originally released as a web-comic that I snapped up in print form as soon as it was available. And I haven’t abandoned my X-Men. And the new plots with Iceman?

Young me and present me are both over the moon about that. I think I always knew.

The Young Avengers was a great initial run, too (go Teddy and Billy!), and I also have a huge soft-spot for Prodigy (I love seeing more bi inclusion that isn’t just titillation or sexy-villainess). Also, the first full arc for the Runaways was fantastic, and involved a young lesbian character and then, later, explored some gender fluidity with a shapeshifter in a really deft way.

For queer comics in general, though, I have to admit to being unaware of a lot of it. Happily, I met Justin Hall at the Lammies, and we had a brief chat about his collection No Straight Lines. That collection led me to Qu33r, and from there I’ve been delving far and wide trying to catch up.

SB: So Light is science-fiction. I’ll mention it was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Best LGBT Spec Fic for the year it released. Your short fiction can be categorized as horror (“Filth” in Night Shadows, contemporary fantasy (“Time and Tide” in The Touch of the Sea), and quirky/weird fiction (“Old Age Surrounded by Loved Ones” in This is How You Die: Stories of the Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable Machine of Death). Are you some jack-of-genres? Which is your preference and what tale are you fearful of writing?

I’m certainly not a jack-of-all-genres. I have written exactly one horror story and one mystery story and both were like pulling teeth, horror especially. As embarrassing as it is to admit, my brain tends to deliver horrible dreams if I linger in the horror genre, so I don’t go there often as a reader, and I find it very difficult to write. “Filth” came from a recurring nightmare I’d been having for years, though oddly enough I’ve not had that dream once since it was published.

Light is a science fiction and I was definitely writing a superhero story first and foremost, but an interesting consequence of writing with gay characters is the assumption of a romantic story. Now, there’s a romantic sub-plot, and I did that partly because half the notion of Light is my main character, Kieran, having way too much on his plate and a very limited timeline to deal with it all, so throwing a new relationship his way was just another way to overwhelm him. Quite a lot of readers, despite the book being marketed very much as a gay science fiction book, gave a lot of feedback on how sparse the romantic content was, and found the “fade to black” frustrating.

It’s interesting, of course, given that when there’s a straight character in a science fiction novel, and they have a romantic sub-plot and connect, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone express their disappointment in the “fade to black” sense, or point out they wanted more romance. When a book is labeled as gay, the “gay” seems to trump every other label the book might have. I say that with a heart full of love for romance. I’ve written quite a lot of romance as well, including a novella. I find romance a joy to write, and I love the romance world.

If I had to pick a preference, though, I think my heart belongs to the contemporary urban fantasy or spec-fic worlds. The here and now (or the very soon to come) with a dash of something magic, psychic, or other will always be my go-to genre. There may well be a dash of a mystery to the story, or a romantic sub-plot or two, but the magic (or the psychic, or the other) is the thing.

As for a fear? I’m terrified of YA. I wrote a single short YA story, which was built on a conversation of lovely memories of youth a group of life-long friends shared with me. I added a gay lens, and got to tell a story about a youth I’d never remotely experienced, and it held a lovely sense of “What-if?” Although I’ve got a couple of YA novel ideas—both of which involve a science-fiction take—I find not at all ready to work on them.

SB: You have worked with a number of small presses. Some gay, some not. Is there a difference?

NB: You know, I’ve been very very blessed in the publishing world. I’ve had very little in the way of drama, and certainly nothing worth worrying about, and I’ve learned a tonne from every editor I’ve worked with. That said, it was a little daunting when working with Grand Central Publishing, even with the three amazing editors between me and the actual press. This is How You Die was by far the biggest publication I’ve ever been involved with, and the process was incredible. When my story from the collection was released as the first teaser, my social media (and e-mail) exploded. It was a very strange day—I’m not used to anything close to that level of attention. Exposure like that does not happen with small presses unless there’s some sort of kismet with a particular title.

The closest to that I’ve ever had with anything gay I’ve written or with a gay press was when Light received the nomination for a Lambda Literary Award. There was noise around that nomination, and quite a bit of interaction on social media and the like, but it wasn’t overwhelming like it had been with This is How You Die.

The joy of working with the smaller presses (and the smaller gay presses in particular) is the sense of ‘family’ that comes forth. Lethe Press authors and Bold Strokes Books authors are a pretty tight knit community. I’m not sure how much of that comes from being LGBTQ presses, and how much from being small presses, but the notion of making our own families is inherently a part of so many of us queer folk I’d be more likely to assume the former.

SB: Do you feel your voice is heard in the speculative fiction community?

NB: If I’m honest, I’m not sure I really have a voice in the speculative fiction community. I think I’m beginning to have a voice in the queer sub-set of speculative fiction, and to some degree I have something of a voice with queer romance readers, but in the mainstream? No, I’m too new, and—again—“gay” trumps the other genres. If you write a gay romance, or a gay mystery, or a gay science fiction, the discussions (as well as the readership and potential reviewing audiences) become far more focused on the gay than whatever actual genre is being written.

That isn’t necessarily a complaint, mind. I write the characters I write for a reason, and I’m aware that will likely limit their range. The vast majority of the time, I’m okay with that.

What I do try to do with whatever voice I’ve got is boost the signal of other wonderful writers. I talk a lot about short fiction (which so often blips under the radar), and diverse authors who might not get a lot of mainstream attention. I run a series of short Q&As on my blog on Sundays talking to short fiction authors, and did a project a couple of years ago to read, review, and discuss a short story every day for a year. It was well received, and turned into that ongoing Q&A series thereafter.

SB: You live in Ottawa. While the Internet brings the people of the world closer, too often American culture tends to drown out the rest of the world. I know you have traveled many times to the United States. Did you find there is a distinct difference between American tastes for speculative fiction and Canadian? Are the gay communities different? It can’t be just Tim Hortons is vastly superior to Dunkin’ Donuts.

Flag of Ottawa

Flag of Ottawa

NB: I certainly had a lot of people e-mailing me to ask me what a loonie was when Light came out (it’s our one dollar coin).

The majority of the time, my stories take place in Canada (usually in my home city of Ottawa, though sometimes smaller towns in British Columbia). Partly that’s the writer in me wanting to get details correct and knowing that I’ve got a much better likelihood of doing so in places I’ve already explored. But it does also mean I get to write about a place that you don’t see often in books. I’ve had readers really respond well to exploring a new place, which makes me glad-hearted. I love Canada (warts and all), and I like to think there’s something to be said for exploring a different part of the world than the usual places that get so much time in fiction. I did have one minor back-and-forth with a publisher once asking me if I’d consider changing the location of a story to somewhere in the U.S., but in the end we agreed to leave it set in Ottawa when I pointed out a minor plot point that wouldn’t have worked in the U.S.

Otherwise, readers from outside of Canada (and within) have seemed to really enjoy the Canadian content as something unusual. In Triad Blood, there’s a healthy dose of Ottawa history among the magic and the demons and the wizards, and it was a lot of fun to take pieces of the city’s past and see how I could weave them into the narrative. Our Parliament, for example, burned down in 1916, except for the library, and putting that real piece of history beside the fictional timeline I was creating was inspiring.

If anything, my real surprise came from Canadians wanting to read stories set in Canada. When I worked at the bookstore, mentioning a book was set in Canada often made readers flinch, but I think that goes back to the books many were forced to read in high school that perhaps didn’t feel particularly relevant to their younger selves. Speculative fiction readers seem pretty open minded as a whole and willing to try a wider range of settings and ideas.

The only time I’ve set stories in the U.S. has been when I’ve needed to as a plot point. A recent tale needed somewhere with a death penalty, and a while back, I wrote a story when ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was still in play. But otherwise, I think I’ll stay up above the 49th for the most part.

Also, Tim Hortons is absolutely better than Dunkin’ Donuts.

Note: Triad Blood is available May 17th from Bold Strokes Books, Chapters, Amazon, and (even better) by request at your local bookseller. Autographed copies can be purchased through After Stonewall, a gay bookstore in Ontario.

About Steve Berman (4 Articles)
Steve Berman has edited more queer speculative fiction anthologies than any other living person. His anthologies have been finalists for the Golden Crown Literary Award, Lambda Literary Award, and Shirley Jackson Award. He resides in southern New Jersey.

1 Comment on [Galaxy Q] Interview with ‘Nathan Burgoine on Writing the Gay Fantastical

  1. Wonderful! I’ve enjoyed Burgoine’s work! And I heartily recommend “The Young Protectors.”

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