Queering the Craft: An Interview with K.J. Charles

Queering the Craft: An Interview with K.J. Charles

Hello everyone! I'm very excited for today's first interview of our four-week Queering the Craft series, where some of our favorite writers talk about reading, storytelling, and publishing. 

I discovered K.J. Charles's work when I was looking for series that feature the same romantic couple (sometimes you need more than a standalone!). I devoured The Magpie Lord and promptly recruited Rachael, Queerly Reads's resident expert on Victorian lit, to the KJC fan club. 

Today is the release date for Charles's excellent The Henchmen of Zenda, a queer retelling of Anthony Hope's Victorian classic The Prisoner of Zenda. You can read Rachael's review here. -Hannah

Hello K.J. Charles! Thank you for joining us today. Which books/writers have most nurtured your own storytelling?

In all honesty, the biggest influence on my writing was editing. I worked at Mills & Boon, where the nature of the publishing meant you had to publish X number of books per line per month, without fail. A few years of turning manuscripts around from slush pile to publishable in a fortnight really hones your ability to think about story structure and arcs in a practical sort of way.

Can you share your favorite how-to books on writing?

I’m not a huge fan of many. So many of them are a guide to writing one very specific style of novel (e.g. I know a lot of people swear by Romancing the Beat, but most of my favourite romances really don’t track to that). I do love Telling Lies for Fun and Profit by Lawrence Block, which is brutally realistic about writing for a living and treating it like a job. 

You’re having a dinner party with three of your literary influences, dead or alive. Who’s at the table with you? (What are you eating?)

John Buchan, because he imagined magnificent adventures. Diana Wynne Jones, because of the terrifying or beautiful or haunting ways she wrote magic. Arnold Bennett, because he saw the adventure and magic happening in the tiny details of ordinary love and life. Eating: well, I don’t know what they ordered but I’ll have the steak, rare.

What is your historical research process like? Are there any works that have been extra helpful in getting your settings to feel accurate?

I tend to home in on a particular historical detail, so my research books tend to the super specific. A book on the Cato Street Conspiracy or an entire tome on London fog or Victorian taxidermy. I find Henry Mayhew invaluable for Victorian London moods. In general books written at the time yours is set are very handy, for mood and tiny detail.

One of your upcoming works, The Henchmen of Zenda, is a feminist- and queer-friendly rewrite of a classic adventure novel. What made you choose Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda as your starting point?

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In part, it’s because it’s pulp. I have a shameful love for Victorian and Edwardian pulp. It’s often hugely problematic even if you avoid the absolute worst racists like Sapper: you get writers who were highly progressive in their own day but the treatment of race is pretty painful to modern eyes, and women get exceedingly short shrift. I still love it. There’s a kind of exuberant absurdity to it, storytelling turned up to 11, brightly coloured cheap adventure pizazz, and some incredibly striking and memorable ideas. The Prisoner of Zenda is a much-filmed classic for good reason. You have your masquerader, your ridiculous made-up medievalist Europe, your beautiful princess and sinister villain, your swashbuckling, and most of all one of the best bad guys in pulp: Rupert Hentzau, who quite clearly ran away with the author’s imagination and the narrator’s full attention. The only bits of really good writing in the entire book are about Rupert.

All of which made it ripe for rewriting—because it’s fun, because it could use some changing up, and because I love the source without being overburdened by respect for it. If I decided to reboot A Tale of Two Cities, say, I would feel Dickens’ ghost over my shoulder. I’d be sat there frozen, vividly aware that I could muck about with his plot but I couldn’t begin to match the writing. Whereas if Anthony Hope’s ghost turned up, I would have a few words for him, starting with “Are you aware your drawbridge at the castle raises *from both sides* you twerp?” and going rapidly on to “Can we have a word about the depiction of women, no shut up I’m talking now.”

So yes. Basically I rewrote it because the book deserved it. :P

What are some of your favorite queer coded books from 19th and early 20th century literature?

The Beetle by Richard Marsh. It was published the same year as Dracula and was a hit of the same magnitude, but is now almost completely forgotten. The plot really falls apart in the latter half but the first half is a sweaty fever dream of queerness and shifting gender and Orientalism, terrified and fascinated.

The String of Pearls, the original Sweeney Todd story. It is quite incredibly gay, with homoerotic-at-least relationships all but written in (for men and women), and lots of messing with gender roles. I reread it recently for a f/f horror story I wrote, The Price of Meat, and was amazed.

Crazy Pavements by Beverly Nichols. He was on the fringes of the Bright Young People and this 1920s satirical novel came before Waugh’s Vile Bodies. Super queer, with the emotional heart being our hero’s “flatmate”, a solid reliable young man who drinks beer—a relationship which is shown as far healthier than any of the feverish bohemian love affairs with whatever gender.

We love the idea of “queerifying” the canon. Can you shine a light on the queer pastiche-writing process?

At its heart, I think it’s about taking a narrative dominated by cishet men and moving them the hell out of the way. Replacing men with women or nonbinary people, switching out m/f relationships for queer ones, looking for ways to dislodge the cishet man from the centre of the story and the pinnacle of the human pyramid. How you’d do that depends on a specific book and could be done a dozen ways for any given book.

In Zenda’s case, I upended the original plot of “noble Englishman takes place of kidnapped king to preserve his throne” into “scheming Englishman sees opportunity to take throne for himself”, and put a second plot behind the original one, this one run by the women of the story who are working to unseat the men in several ways. Women have the intellectual agency, and their plots are carried out by two dodgy henchmen who, let us say, aren’t invested in the narrative of Posh White Het (English)Men Rule Everything. It was, actually, surprisingly easy to do: once you stop letting cishet men take up all the space it turns out there’s much more interesting things going on. /cackles/

What have you got coming out next?

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The Henchmen of Zenda is 15th May. Then on 10th July there’s a novella, Unfit to Print, which is Victorian m/m about an upright lawyer looking for a missing boy, who runs into his long-vanished best friend running a pornographic bookshop on Holywell Street. I may say, the research for the Victorian porn trade and in particular how they liked their photos was...eye opening.

Thank you for your time, K.J, Charles! Be sure to check out her newest book here, as well as her magnificent historicals and historical fantasies. 
 

Liked this interview? Join us for the others!

Queering the Craft schedule
May 22: Jude Sierra, in celebration of the release of A Tiny Piece of Something Greater
May 29: Roan Parrish, in celebration of the release of Riven
June 5: Lola Keeley, in celebration of her f/f debut The Music and the Mirror

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