Scott Tracey's first novel, Witch Eyes (2011), is about a teen named Braden possessed with a powerful (and deadly) gift: his witch eyes, which bring him explosive visions. When he realizes he might have a chance to find out more about his past by going to the town of Belle Dam, Washington, Braden doesn't hesitate — only to be drawn into a feud between two witch dynasties. But Witch Eyes is not your typical urban fantasy, because Braden is gay, and he falls in love a boy also linked to the feuds. Though the number of LGBT YA novels has increased significantly in recent years, the number of YA fantasy or science fiction novels with LGBT characters continues to be very small. I invited Scott Tracey to talk about Witch Eyes and its sequels, and his experience with the publishing industry.
Malinda Lo: You've blogged before that you did encounter some homophobic responses when your first novel, Witch Eyes, was out on submission. Can you tell me about your publication process for that book? How did you deal with those kinds of rejections?
Scott Tracey: Sure!
The first thing to note is that when I wrote Witch Eyes, I did it because I wanted to read something where there was a gay character, and possibly a gay romance, but the book itself wasn't just a "coming out" book, or a "dealing with homophobia" story. There are definitely places for those stories, but I wanted to see and read something where the character's sexuality wasn't the biggest issue in the book. Where it was separate from the plot. I wanted something that I would have liked to read when I was a seventeen-year-old struggling to figure out who he was. Something that didn't make a big deal about what it meant to be gay, or how hard it was going to be, just a book that said "okay, so just because you're gay doesn't mean you can't go fight demons."
When I was searching for an agent, I had a few very minor brushes with this issue. I was told a couple of times there "wasn't a market" or that agents "wouldn't know where to submit this." So I'd become a little aware of what I was getting myself into.
My agent and I went on submission sometime in the summer of 2008. There were a few test rounds, a revision, etc. Then we went wide in the beginning of 2009. For the most part, I got the typical sorts of rejections. "This isn't for me" or "Thanks for thinking of me, but I just didn't fall in love with this." No big deal.
But there were a couple of requests that went a step further. One revision request suggested they would take another look if I changed Braden from a teenage boy to a girl. The reason being that the book would be more saleable or have a wider market, I imagine. That was the only note, the only thing they wanted to see different.
Another that suggested they would reconsider if I removed the gay romance entirely, and added a female co-narrator as Braden's straight best female friend to widen the appeal. Those were the main two that I remember, but there was a lot of general "I don't know that there's a market for this kind of book" comments in there, too.
It's weird, because it's a different kind of homophobia than I'd ever experienced before. This was more of an "I fear this book doesn't make monetary sense because there isn't a market for it and publishing is a business that needs to make money" rather than "gay people...eww."
It was a weird situation to be in, because I'm all for revision, but this was the reason I'd written the book in the first place. There wouldn't have been a book at all if I had written a straight MC. (Well, there probably would have, just not THIS book). So it was one of the few things that I was completely against changing.
ML: The concern that books with gay characters don't make business sense for a publisher is something that I've thought about a lot. In a way, it's less personal than a homophobic "eww gay people" response. But it's also kind of more difficult to fight, because I'm not sure if there's a lot of research to back the idea that books with gay characters don't sell. For one thing, there have been so few of them. There's not exactly a long history to look into. Also, young people today are so much more accepting than older generations; I think they'd be increasingly open to reading books with gay characters — especially books like yours that aren't about "being gay," but in which the characters just happen to be gay. How do you feel about this kind of response? Do you think it's a legitimate response, or another expression of homophobia?
ST: I think if you look at it in terms of how publishing works, it makes sense. Publishing is a business, and businesses are meant to make money. Like a lot of consumer industries, things aren't viable until they suddenly are. That's where trends come in. Something that wasn't a moneymaker yesterday catches on, and now everyone wants something just like it. So I might say today that YA novels featuring were-dragons are not a financially sound investment, and my publishing house isn't looking to take on any of those books, but once that first were-dragon book takes off, I'm going to be reconsidering my stance.
There's also a difference between "there isn't a market for this" and "there isn't a big enough market for this." From my experience (and this may have changed in the last few years), it seemed like there was a belief that the only people who want to read LGBT fiction are LGBT people, and I really don't see that being the case at all. But until we get to a point where someone can point to the trend of LGBT fiction and say, with the data to back it up, that there is a direct and obvious market for these books, we're going to continue to see it skirted around, I think.
One thing that I noticed last year during the #YesGayYA conversation that was that some industry people were almost offended by the idea that publishing could be in any way homophobic. There are more types of homophobia than the "in your face" brand of "Eww, gay people" but it still boils down to a kind of fear-based response, just one that focuses on profits and losses, rather than an emotional response.
I agree that it's definitely harder to fight, though, because it's a passive homophobia that just assumes that there is no market for something different. At times, it almost feels like when editors/agents say "I want something fresh/different" they actually mean "I want something fresh/different, but I want it to be just like everything else." I just try to encourage people to read as much LGBT content out there as they can, and to support the authors who are putting it out there, because that's the only way that we'll really start to see a difference.
ML: Do you consider Witch Eyes (and its forthcoming sequel, Demon Eyes) to be "gay books"?
ST: Personally, I don't. For me, and for this series, the characters' sexuality is the smallest part of what's going on. It's always been about the plot and the story to me — which is why I always call it an urban fantasy, rather than a paranormal romance. But at the end of the day, it's a novel with a gay main character, who has a fairly standard sort of adolescent relationship. So I understand why people do think of the books as "gay novels."
In the books themselves, I wanted the fact that Braden was gay to be one of the most normal parts of the story. It's a book about a boy who has this powerful, yet horrifying ability, who gets caught up in a mystical feud in a town filled with demons and monsters. The fact that he happens to be dating another boy is postively ordinary compared to that.
There's a scene in the sequel where Braden gets into a fight with another kid at school, and he thinks to himself, "Okay, here we go. Someone found out that I'm gay, and now I'm going to get beat up." But it turns out that he's getting beaten up because of who his parents are, rather than his sexuality. It's again that nod of "this is the most normal part of his life." It's very much an escapist fantasy, in a sense, because of that fact. The truth is that a lot of people do care if someone is gay or not. So for Braden to basically walk around town and no one cares, it's part of that fantasy element.
ML: Demon Eyes, the sequel to Witch Eyes, comes out this fall. Is there a third in the series or is it just a duology?
ST: Yes, there is a third! A lot of Witch Eyes deals with establishing the world, the feud that defines Belle Dam, and where everyone falls in terms of what they're after. Demon Eyes pushes things forward, dealing with the fallout from the first book and establishing where the real threats lie. The final book will be Phantom Eyes, which will come out in the fall of 2013, and will bring the feud that defines the town to its conclusion in one form or another.
ML: Do you have any idea of whether your readers are predominantly gay, straight, somewhere in between? And what's the most common response you get from your readers?
ST: I seem to get a pretty good mixture. A lot of women reading, but that's not surprising as women make up a large part of the YA demographic. It's really nice, too, because I get a lot of comments like "I want a friend like Braden" or the occasional "I just want to adopt him."
It's awesome to hear from LGBT readers, especially ones that are out and proud, because in a way this book was written for them. I wanted something I would have wanted to read when I was seventeen. So to have people coming back and saying "this is exactly what I needed" it's a nice feeling.
As far as responses go, I get a mix. The main comment I get is that people love Braden's sarcasm, which is good because he's pretty sarcastic throughout the series. Everyone seems to find something different that they liked, though: ones who liked the Braden and Trey romance, ones who liked the plot, ones who liked the side characters best.
ML: Congratulations on selling your next series, Moonset! You've noted that the book has secondary LGBT characters, but the main character is straight. Did you make a conscious decision to write a straight main character?
ST: Thank you so much!
With Moonset, what I actually set out to do was to tell this revolving story of a rather unusual family unit. The main story is about five foster siblings who've kind of adopted themselves into this unconventional family unit, after their parents were killed for invoking dark powers. They get shuttled from foster family to foster family, but always kept together. So the only people they have to rely on is one another. But they're also siblings, and sometimes siblings fight with astounding regularity, so it was an interesting dynamic to get to play with.
Each book in the Moonset series will take up with a different sibling, one of which happens to be gay. For me, it wasn't so much a choice about writing a straight character as much as "which character is the right one to tell the initial story?"
Since Moonset is the introduction to this world and its rules, as well as the relationships between the five siblings, it made the most sense to start with the middle child. Justin's the one who has to keep them all in line, and the one who gets trapped in between when sides get chosen. He has to play the parental role when no one else will, and when the threats to his family start to get more serious, he's the one who takes on the responsibility of making sure they are all safe.
ML: Do you feel that you're a "gay writer"?
ST: This is one of those questions where I feel like there's no right answer. I'm proud of who I am, and I'm secure in myself, but I don't like to be defined by smaller aspects of who I am. Overall, I don't consider myself a "gay writer" any more than I consider what it's like to be a guy writing YA. I'm just a writer.
But also, when I think of the designation "gay writer" I think of people who are doing much, much more important work than I am. Authors who are writing books that are critically acclaimed, or books that have withstood the test of time, or those who are advancing the equal rights cause in more notable ways. I think of people that are deserving of the title, like E.M. Forster, or Armistead Maupin; or in the YA section, authors like Brent Hartinger or Alex Sanchez.
So personally, I don't think of myself as a "gay writer." I just happen to write books and one of them features a gay romance.
As part of my YA Pride celebration, I'm giving away a copy of Scott Tracey’s Witch Eyes to one lucky winner! Witch Eyes was an Amazon Best Book of 2011, and Kirkus praised it as "A bewitching blend of paranormal romance and intrigue."
The fine print:
- To enter, simply enter your email address in the Rafflecopter widget below so that I can contact you if you win.
- The winner must be able to provide a valid United States mailing address where he/she can receive the prize.
- The deadline for the Witch Eyes giveaway is June 26, 2012!
- Winners will be notified by email, and prizes will be mailed in July 2012.