Special treat for you this week! About two years ago, I attended a literary conference in Beverly Hills and had the good fortune to meet the writer M Pepper Langlinais. This warm, funny woman has become part of my writing circle, so when her book, The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller came out, I asked if she’d write a blog for me and tell you all a little about it. So, to paraphrase Bill Murray in Scrooged, World, meet M Pepper Langlinais; M Pepper Langlinais, meet the world.
“But why is he gay?”
It’s the question I get most asked about my latest novel The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller. Well, right after, “What is it about?” When I say it’s about a gay British spy in the 1960s, the inevitable follow-up question is the one cited at the top of this article.
And it seems strange to me, almost ridiculous. Would you ask a person, “Why are you gay?” But it occurs to me that many people don’t understand how writing works, how characters take on lives of their own. Or they should, at least. They should live and breathe on the page rather than be constructed and forced to fit a plot. And I do believe readers can tell the difference.
When Peter was still just a spark in my mind, I thought he’d be having a Moneypenny-like flirtation with his secretary Miranda. She thought so, too. Peter had other ideas. He saw Charles and it was love at first sight. (If you read the book, you’ll see how Miranda feels about that.)
I could have forced the issue. I could have made Peter do what I wanted him to do. But it wouldn’t have been very good writing.
So then people say, “Well, then the book is about how he’s gay, right?” And I again wonder why they would assume that’s the crux of the story. As if the only reason to have a gay character is to explore his sexuality.
I have a lot of gay friends. Their whole lives do not revolve around the fact that they’re gay. Yet almost every novel that features gay protagonists is all about them being gay. It’s very weird to me.
And this isn’t to discount the books that explore coming out and how difficult that is. Certainly in my book, which is set in 1960s London, being a homosexual was dangerous enough. There are lots of places today where it isn’t safe. But I’d like to think my gay friends would enjoy a book in which the main character is gay but has, well, as normal a life as a spy can have, I suppose.
Peter doesn’t agonize over his sexuality. It’s a fact of his life. His relationship with Charles is complicated, but (as one reader pointed out), if Charles were Charlotte, there would be largely the same conflicts. The goal was to portray something genuine that didn’t hinge on it being a same-sex relationship.
Of course, that does come into play when Peter’s superior, who has protected him despite his homosexuality, goes missing. Though Peter’s relationship is an open secret among his co-workers, it becomes no longer safe for him and Charles to stay together. Because that’s a reality, too, of a different kind. That was a time when it wasn’t safe to be gay, and in some places in the world it’s still that time.
But here’s the thing. There is a lot of talk about diversity in literature, in movies. (#Oscarssowhite) I do believe that we as content creators—the writers, the directors, the casting agents—need to promote that. We need to be a leading force in reflecting our diverse world. That’s what makes it “normal.” It sounds strange, I know, but when people see diversity on their screens and read it in books, that’s how it becomes mainstream. Life imitates art. By which I mean, the books and movies get us used to the idea of diversity, and only then do we begin to allow it into our daily lives. It’s backward, but it’s true.
And these need to be real people, not caricatures. That’s key. My goal in creating Peter was the same as when I create any character: a well-rounded, realistic person with depth of thought and feeling.
“Why is he gay?” they ask.
The answer would be the same if they were to ask, “Why is he straight?”
Because he is.
M Pepper Langlinais (“Manda” to friends) is best known for her Sherlock Holmes stories. She is also a produced playwright and screenwriter. Visit her online at http://pepperwords.com and http://facebook.com/mpepperlanglinais. Find her latest novel, The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller, available in various e-formats, via the Tirgearr Publishing site: http://www.tirgearrpublishing.com/authors/Langlinais_MPepper/the-fall-and-rise-of-peter-stoller.htm .