I'm starting this year with a real feeling of new beginnings. It's time to set up new projects, some of which I already had been lowkey working on. But the best is that I'm not doing things under this deperate pressure to have something ready. Probably because for the first time in I don't know how long I actually rested well on my vacation. And what a shock, it not only rested my brain but also gave me ideas. Not in the chaotic way it generally happens, but in the sort of way closer to when it wasn't my job, that famous ideal path called creative leisure. I'm giving myself time and things are flowing. Will I be able to keep this up? Who knows (probably not), but I'm enjoying while it lasts.
So nothing much to show yet, but hopefully soon I'll have good news and colorful things to share.
Our guest this month is Teddy Asplund. Her webnovel, The Warmonger Duchess and her Female Husband, is among the selected on the first phase of the True Love on Tapas contest.
Now, starting with one of our recurring questions. Was there something or someone queer you felt pulled to before you even understood why?
I was raised very religious and became a world-champion represser, something I didn’t fully break out of until my mid-20s, so I have quite a few examples of this throughout my life.
One notable moment was when I read the book Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley as a preteen. Robin McKinley is one of my favorite authors and a big inspiration to me, but this particular book deeply upset me for reasons that didn’t become obvious until a decade later. In it, the tomgirl main character and her girly-girl best friend kiss, just once, for contrived magical reasons, and then they each end up with a different man and go their separate ways, apparently forever.
When I first finished the book, I sobbed at that ending, and I couldn’t stop crying for quite a while after I put the book down. My poor mother, who recommended the book to me, was so confused because she hadn’t thought the story had a particularly sad ending—and at the time I didn’t understand why it had made me so sad, either. It just really upset me for some strange reason.
Looking back, it’s incredible that I didn’t realize what was going on sooner. But again, I was a world-champion represser.
What was the first sapphic story you came across? And the one you wrote?
The first true sapphic story I remember coming across, setting aside Spindle’s End which may or may not count, was Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett (another of my favorite authors). (Te's note: really love this book too!)
In addition to having canonical lesbian side characters, Monstrous Regiment also features a lot of subtextual tension between the main character (who I always highly identified with) and a sexy butch vampire; a subtextual tension which, once again, gave me a lot of intense feelings as a teenager that I chose not to exam more deeply until much later on in my life.
The first sapphic story I wrote came much later. Throughout my life I’ve always written almost exclusively about female main characters, and a lot of them were pretty ambiguous in their sexuality, but the first explicitly sapphic story I wrote was an unfinished novel called Silver Darlings. I started working on Silver Darlings in 2017 when I was about 24 years old, although it was based partially on a short story I’d written a few years earlier. It’s a historical fantasy romance story about selkies and the herring industry in the late 1890s. It’s a story that means a lot to me, so I’m still hoping I’ll be able to finish it one day.
Absolutely! During the height of the initial Covid isolation, I ended up getting really into otome isekai stories (on my sister’s recommendation) as a form of escapism, and I especially fell in love with all of the “villainess” stories. But I noticed that overall it was a very straight genre, so I started daydreaming about what a sapphic version of a villainess story might look like, and that quickly snowballed into The Saintess and The Villainess.
The idea for The Warmonger Duchess and Her Female Husband came a bit later, when I started thinking about what it would take to make a “contract marriage” plot work with a same-sex couple in a semi-historical setting where same-sex marriage isn’t generally accepted. As soon as I hit on the notion of “legal loophole that allows a woman to take on her brother’s legal identity for the purposes of marriage” it felt like my brain got hit with a burst of electricity, like I’d just solved a difficult riddle. The rest of the basic plot outline followed easily from there. I think that sort of legal weirdness is super fun in a story, so I was really excited about the idea from the start.
Your protagonists are cinnamon rolls that turn out to be quite capable and emotionally intelligent. I’d say there’s something Ghibliesque to them. What attracts you to write such characters?
What a good question! It’s not something I’d thought about before, but I think it has a lot to do with my taste as a reader.
I grew up reading a lot of fantasy, but I was hugely bored by the more action-focused, war-heavy fantasy novels. Intead, I was always more drawn to the more truly fantastical or fairy-tale-esque novels, where conflicts tended to be more interpersonal and the protagonists tended to solve problems by being clever, kind, or skilled rather than by being strong or powerful.
Actually, one of my favorite novels with that kind of protagonist was Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, which was later adapted into a film by Studio Ghibli, so perhaps there’s a throughline there.
Ultimately, my goal as a writer is to create the kind of stories I would love to read if they already existed, and my protagonists are a reflection of that.
Your stories tend to have quite complex worldbuilding. From reflecting about the meta complexities of being pulled into a book, to the legal intricacies of making contracts with gods and humans. How do you plan and keep track of all that?
Ironically, I was never much of a worldbuilder before these two novels. My natural tendency is to be a very “make-it-up-as-I-go-along” kind of writer, which certainly presents unique challenges when it comes to complex worldbuilding. So I’ve had to find a lot of new ways to navigate that.
For The Saintess and The Villainess I’ve mostly just done my best to remember what I’ve said before, and I’ll often refer back to older chapters when I need to double-check on something previously established. I also have a beta-reader who reads all my chapters before they go up, and he’s helped me to keep track of previously established lore a few times. But this haphazard approach has certainly caused a few problems when I’ve had trouble finding certain things I wanted to reference, so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this method.
For Warmonger Duchess I’ve learned from my mistakes a little and I’m keeping much better track of worldbuilding details through a sort of worldbuilding wiki I’ve been constructing alongside the novel as almost a parallel project to it; the world map and historical timeline I created for that wiki have especially come in handy when I needed to reference specific things. I’m still not perfect about actually keeping the wiki fully updated with new information I make up in the process of actually writing the novel, but it’s still been a useful resource, and pretty fun to work on—especially since I’ve been trying to write a lot of it as a sort of in-universe encyclopedia.
You always add gender nonconforming protagonists. Especially in TWDAHFH you use the “living as man” trope in a fresh way, as everyone actually knows Tamsin is a woman. How did you come to that decision?
I’m a butch lesbian myself, and putting gender nonconforming characters at the forefront of my work is one of the ways in which I try to create the kind of stories I would love to read.
When I was younger, the “living as a man” trope was just about the only way I came across gnc characters at all, and I was always obsessed with and fascinated by them. I adored Eowyn’s “I am no man” moment in Lord of the Rings. I always told people my favorite Disney princess was Mulan (although I would follow that up by specifying that she wasn’t actually a princess because that made her even better in my mind.) And a big part of why I loved Monstrous Regiment, which I mentioned earlier, is because it’s all about a bunch of different iterations of that trope. So perhaps it was inevitable that I eventually created my own version.
Of course, as an adult, I now have a better understanding of both the positive and negatives of “living as a man” as a trope, and I can understand why some people would rather just avoid it altogether, but I still think there are interesting and useful avenues of exploration within it.
The whole concept has an incredibly long history as a narrative device that can both challenge and reinforce the way gender is naturalized as a social and legal category in our society—but even though legal issues (like “women can’t join the army”) tend to come up a lot in these stories, they almost exclusively focus on gender as a social category rather than a legal one. That’s why the characters in these stories are so focused on passing as men on a social level, because that’s what’s treated as important, and any legal issues are treated as a natural offshoot of the social.
In Warmonger Duchess, I made a conscious decision to focus more on gender as a legal category, and the ways that can differ from gender as a social category. Hence why Tamsin isn’t trying to convince anyone she’s actually a man; the important thing is that, on paper, she can legally be considered a man on paper in respect to her marriage.
I have plans to explore this further in multiple ways with multiple characters as well, because you can never really get a full picture of something by viewing it from just one angle. I just hope readers will enjoy reading about these ideas as much as I enjoy thinking about them!
Please tell us about your writing process.
In a lot of ways, I approach writing as almost a sort of puzzle, especially in the early stages of planning out a story. I think to myself “If I have these characters, in this setting, with these circumstances, in this situation, then what’s the thing that must inevitably follow from there?” Because of this, I often have a hard time coming up with characters, plot, or worldbuilding ideas in isolation—to me, they all build on and feed into each other in a way that makes them inextricably linked together. Character is plot, plot is setting, setting is character, etc.
After I have a rough idea of the story as a whole (sometimes I write down a bit of a rough outline, sometimes I just hold it in my head), then I sit down to actually write. When I write a new chapter/scene my process is a bit more intuitive than the planning process, but ultimately it’s still a similar kind of approach. I think to myself “given the context of the rest of this story so far, what must inevitably follow?” I generally try to aim towards whatever plot beats I have planned out for later on in the story, but I also leave myself a lot of room for the story to evolve and change in the moment if it feels like it needs to.
Since I’m currently primarily working on ongoing webnovels, I’ll then immediately send any new finished chapters off to my beta reader, and then immediately edit once I’ve received his feedback. Because I don’t have the chance to do any larger structural edits in this format, I also try to take time to stop and reassess and refocus my writing every so often, just to make sure I’m still on track for creating the kind of story I’m aiming for (and to make sure my stories aren’t meandering too much in the process. I have a tendency to meander, when unchecked.)
In the era of burn out, we have been forced to rethink routines and our relationships to working on our previous hobbies. A long trial and error process. How have you been navigating that?
This is certainly a difficult issue to navigate, especially for ongoing long term projects which require regular updates like webnovels. I always do my best to keep in mind what a realistic workload is for me, and I’ve sometimes had to change my update schedule in order for it to continue to fit with changes in my life circumstances.
That said, I’m certainly not an expert at this, and I’m currently on hiatus from The Saintess and The Villainess for burnout-related reasons. What I’ve come to realize is that my levels of energy are somewhat cyclical and seasonal, and in the future I think I need to plan better for how difficult it can be for me to work on much of anything in the winter months especially.
But as you said, it’s a long trial and error process, and I think it’s essential to be compassionate towards yourself in the times when things are hard as well as in the times when things are easy.
What’s the queer story (in any medium) that has your attention right now?
I’ve been reading a lot of gay historical romance this year, and one I really loved recently was Proper English by KJ Charles. It’s a sapphic romance mixed with an Edwardian manor-house murder-mystery, and I think it’s a lot of fun.
What would you like to see more in sapphic/queer stories?
I’d always love to see more gender nonconforming characters in general, but what I really long for more than anything is more sapphic/queer adult fantasy novels that are in that more sort of grounded mythic/fairytale space that I love reading so much. Especially ones with really beautiful prose, because that’s one thing I’ve never felt able to fully achieve myself.
Please, share where people can find more of your work.
Stuff I read
Bachelorette Number Twelve by Jae
My slow start this year included reading, but a new book by Jae is an obligatory read for me. If you're after a light read this rom-com made me laugh a lot. Besides I always feel like I'm traveling to whatever city Jae has chosen.
See you next month!