Leanna Renee Heiber has earned a BFA in Theatre Performance, become a certified Actor-Combatant in knife and hand-to-hand fighting, created amazing jewelry and other artwork, and written several novels–but the Eterna Files is her first series to incorporate major LGBTQ+ characters. Today she’s here to share how the Eterna Files came to be and why she finally felt comfortable writing a truly inclusive novel.
Please give her a warm welcome.
1. Can you tell us a bit about your novel, Eterna and Omega?
I write Gothic, Gaslamp Fantasy. Gaslamp Fantasy is the industry term for Victorian-set fantasy novels, and I’ve been holding down my place in this niche genre since 2009 when my debut novel, The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker came onto the scene, which has since been reissued by my publisher, Tor Books, as Strangely Beautiful in a two-volume edition of the first two books in the series. I have now ten books in this Gothic, Victorian fantasy vein, all my worlds are parallel worlds, one doesn’t have to have read one series to pick up another, but I do hope crossover characters will appear enjoyably familiar.
My Eterna Files books are a fully Gothic sort of X-Files meets Penny Dreadful (with a better outcome for my female characters) kind of series, a very cross-genre series that will appeal to fans of mystery, historical fiction, paranormal fiction, suspense and thriller, with elements of horror and noir.
From the back cover:
In New York City, fearing the dangers of the Eterna Compound–supposedly the key to immortality–Clara Templeton buries information vital to its creation. The ghost of her clandestine lover is desperate to tell her she is wrong, but though she is a clairvoyant, she cannot hear him.
In London, Harold Spire plans to send his team of assassins, magicians, mediums, and other rogue talents to New York City, in an attempt to obtain Eterna for Her Royal Majesty, Queen Victoria. He stays behind to help Scotland Yard track down a network of body snatchers and occultists, but he’ll miss his second-in-command, Rose Everhart, whose gentle exterior masks a steel spine.
Rose’s skepticism about the supernatural has been shattered since she joined Spire’s Omega Branch. Meeting Clara is like looking into a strange mirror: both women are orphans, each is concealing a paranormal ability, and each has a powerful and attractive guardian who has secrets of his own.
The hidden occult power that menaces both England and America continues to grow. Far from being dangerous, Eterna may hold the key to humanity’s salvation.
2. What part of the story came to you first?
Characters. Always characters first and everything else later. I’ve been drawn to the 1800s ever since I was a child (can’t explain it other than perhaps a past-life connection and kinship), and I followed that interest in my schooling, gaining a BFA in theatre performance with a focus study in the Victorian Era and then in various jobs as a primarily classical and 19th century period actress, tour-guide and genre presenter. Beyond a Victorian setting as my usual wheelhouse, everything else leads with character, likely due to my theatrical training, which is inextricable in how I think about storytelling. It’s always from character point of view. Because the 19th century was such a complex, fascinating, repressive, innovative, brutal, grand, gritty hypocritical and harrowingly difficult time period for women and anyone outside of a very narrow window of people in power and influence, the era as a character study has proven endlessly fascinating to me.
3. How much planning did you do before starting the first novel?
A lot of brainstorming and note-taking, some research and a lot of daydreaming about where I wanted the threads of my other series to come together in this series. Eterna as a series is really a fruition of a lot of what I’ve worked towards my whole career thus far. It’s ambitious, with a huge cast of characters and a broad paranormal scope. I’m a total “pantser”, freeform and spur-of-the-moment, so while I turned an outline into my editor at Tor, when I turned in the full book, it looked very little like it. Once I’ve begun a series, the rest of the series falls in a bit more codified of a line, but starting out is always wild wilderness and wandering through it to find the story is both exciting and terrifying.
4. Did you actively decide to make your characters queer or is that just how the story developed?
It was a mixture of both. In my first books, due to the industry at the time and various in-house demands, I didn’t feel I had the place or freedom to include expressly LGBTQ+ characters, although there are plenty of characters that don’t have specific designations that might fall into those categories, however I wasn’t able to put it directly and expressly on the page until the Eterna Files series. Inclusion is very important to me, and I didn’t want another series to go by without being direct about LGBTQ+ inclusion, so it was important that my Eterna Files books take that specific step.
My world and friendship circles are very diverse and LGBTQ+ rich, and I want my books to reflect my world, especially because so many diverse narratives are actively erased or excluded from historical narratives.
Because so many of my characters are people struggling to find their way in the world from various pathways outside traditional cisgendered heterosexual white male patriarchy, a certain diversity is realistic and organic, and the way everyone interacts with the power structure, whether they are within it or outside of it, comes from a specific, character based reality.
I also make sure to ground a lot of my power structure in historically progressive circles; Quakers, abolitionists, feminists, suffragists and activists. The act of acceptance and inclusion is a banner my characters are passionate about standing behind, and would have been historically, that isn’t my trying to place something modern onto a past as though I know better, the kinds of people I write about existed and paved the way for all our modern rights and inclusions. The maddening part of writing about historical struggles for rights, equality and representation is that we’re still fighting many of the same battles today, violently and exhaustingly. The parallels are staggering.
But I don’t center the Eterna Files series narrative solely around these issues, I’m writing a supernatural suspense series, the rest folds in around the action and adventure.
5. Can you recommend any good research resources for other writers who want to bring LGBTQ+ characters into their historical fiction?
Queer stories exist throughout history, hardly a modern phenomena, but how they would have spoken about their lives and identities are sometimes very different from our modern dialogue, so first, I recommend understanding the vernacular of a particular era of interest when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues and seeing where those kinds of words might lead, with an understanding that there is a long and difficult history of violence, secrecy and repression and erasure in many of those narratives.
More than nearly any other resource, theatrical plays have had a profound effect on me and broadened my understanding of LGBTQ+ narratives and echoes through history. Some of the scripts and performances that stand out to me as particularly striking were M Butterfly, Gross Indencency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and Boston Marriage. These plays affected me profoundly and I sought out research material and further reading via those playwrights and their suggested reading materials. But the first of those, for the most part, are tragic tales.
What’s so difficult about LGBTQ+ research and narratives is that rights and basic humanity have always been under attack. That’s why it’s so important in our modern era to break out of that rut and showcase more victories, surviving stories of love and triumph.
Historical writers tend to gravitate towards an era. Find your era, find an aspect of history that you’re particularly drawn to, then just start hunting down names of actual historical people who were queer or may have been so, hidden in life or no, the narratives are there, and that, much like the plays that affected me, will lead to a lot of further reading by following those trails.
6. How would you like to see representation of LGBTQ+ characters change in the next five years?
Due to the restrictions and indeed laws of the Victorian era, my Eterna Files and Eterna and Omega characters cannot be “out” beyond their close circle of friends. Some are more vocal about it than others, but everyone is ‘careful’. Yet I try not to confuse careful, due to their time period, with ashamed, tortured or lesser as characters. I do not pretend or flaunt the restrictions of the era, they are very much a part of what keeps the tension, conflict and drive going in my stories. Outside of the era, I want to see healthy depictions, people who are not at war with themselves even if society is at war with them. Paths towards purpose, self-assurance, freedom and chosen family are at the core of what I want for my characters and those I read.
So much of what I’ve seen throughout my life in LGBTQ+ representation in historical fiction has been tragic in nature or relative to crime or predation. Baiting and tragedy for tragedy’s sake has grown so tiresome, as if characters are doomed if they identify as LGBTQ+, or are constantly “othered” or fetishized. Tragedy can be earned, if it makes sense for the character and the arc, fine, but not solely because of identity or due to unexamined stereotypes and tropes. Just because other time periods, including our own, have lots of restrictions and fights for rights doesn’t mean that everything has to be solely a struggle. I also don’t want sexual or gender identity to be the only defining factor in my characters’ lives. It’s not always the most important thing said or referenced, it’s a part of their life as any other character trait would be, and I like when I see holistic, well-rounded characters across the board.
7. What are some of your favourite current books about LGBTQ+ characters?
Goodness there is so much good stuff out there now and on the horizon. Heartening, innovative, fresh, real narratives. Look to the Young Adult market, that’s where you’re going to find a rising tide of new content that deals with some of the issues I’ve addressed here. Follow YA authors, the Own Voices movement and the We Need Diverse Books movement. Saundra Mitchell, a great YA author (I really love her Vespertine series) has been very vocal just recently not only about LGBTQ+ inclusion but also about how reviewers should responsibly handle LGBTQ+ content and that’s gotten a vital dialogue going that’s been important to follow.
8. What advice would you give to straight writers trying to write about LGBTQ+ characters?
As a straight, white, cisgendered writer, I speak only from personal experience about my own journey. More than anything else. Listen. Listen. Listen. Listen.
If you don’t have LGBTQ+ people in your life already, expand your horizons and make new friends. It isn’t their job to educate you, so don’t expect that, but you’ll learn so much just by listening to their experiences, by living life alongside them as an active participant and friend. Talk about the difficult issues if they are willing to, and confront your own biases, discomforts, phobias, preconceived notions and ignorance. Apologize if you misgender someone or make a problematic generalization. Try to do better, and if you’re earnest and genuine, you will have a much broader understanding of humanity in general. There’s nothing better for a writer than constant exercises in empathy and understanding.
LGBTQ+ folks make up many of my closest friends and family. I listen to them as best I know how. Some are willing to serve as sensitivity readers. I make sure my agent and editor are always willing to press me on anything, as both have a keen eye for inclusion and positive representation. Of all social media, I am most active on Twitter. That can be a very toxic space if not curated and protected but I find it’s been a very good place to read and listen to the day to day accounts of people (I follow writers, publishing industry resources and artists) living other experiences than mine and being willing to discuss the complexities of life. The ability to listen helps then in turn when you spend time with your characters and they tell you who they are, fully, wholly, in every dimension. The more listening, the broader the experience of life, art and the heart.
9. If you could give an aspiring author any one piece of advice what would it be?
The business is brutal. It’s full of ups and downs and constant worry and stress. There is no silver bullet to success, and everyone’s definition of success is just as unique as everyone’s path to publication. No two people will have the same story or the same trajectory. Focus on your own.
Enjoy the process. Find characters, a setting, and a plot that creates within you an endless desire to tell their story. Find something you can obsess over. Fair-weather interest won’t get anything done. Only a certain amount of obsession and willingness to edit and hone a story into a finer tuned instrument can make a hobbyist into a professional.
Your desire to have that story out in the world has to be so much stronger, so much louder, than your fear of what will happen to it. The fire of creativity and the discipline to put words to paper has to burn hotter than the bonfires of anxiety.
And be nice. Toxicity will get you nowhere. Being nice wins in the long run, because it’s a long, long process and you’re not the only one in the race. Pace yourself, take care of yourself and your loved ones. Artists are all in this together, so value yourself, your art, and the art of others.
10. What are you working on now that readers can look forward to?
Many books all at once! By Christmas I’ll have a reissue of “A Christmas Carroll”, a Strangely Beautiful novella and I’m presently drafting the fourth and final book in my Strangely Beautiful saga. Perilous Prophecy, a Strangely Beautiful prequel (which you can preorder at Barnes & Noble now!) comes out June 20th. The first two books in that series are included in the single omnibus edition titled Strangely Beautiful. The next Eterna Files book, working title The Eterna Solution, will release next fall.
I have free reads, writers’ resources, a mailing list and links to my other work such as my Etsy store of unique jewelry, art and more on my website: http://leannareneehieber.com and I’m active on Twitter at http://twitter.com/leannarenee and FB at http://facebook.com/lrhieber so please join me there!
Thanks so much for your time and attention, and as I always say, being a writer of ghostly tales, take care and happy haunting!
Actress, playwright, artist and award-winning, bestselling author Leanna Renee Hieber has written ten Gaslamp Fantasy novels. These Gothic Victorian Paranormal sagas are set in 1880s New York City and London and appeal to adult and teen audiences alike. Her Strangely Beautiful saga hit Barnes & Noble and Borders Bestseller lists, garnered numerous genre awards, and has reissued in a special edition from Tor. Her new Gaslamp Fantasy trilogy, The Eterna Files, an X-Files meets Penny Dreadful kind of series, is now available from Tor. She has been featured in numerous notable anthologies and her books have been translated into many languages. A proud member of performer unions Actors Equity and SAG-AFTRA, she’s been featured in film and television on shows like Boardwalk Empire and leads ghost tours through Manhattan with Boroughs of the Dead. Active on Twitter @LeannaRenee and FB http://facebook.com/lrhieber, more about her work as well as free reads and writing resources can be found at http://leannareneehieber.com