Every year the Lambda Literary Foundation receives nominations from across the country for exceptional writers in a variety of categories. These hopefuls bring their own perspective and experience to their works and do so for the love of the art.
In its 26th season, the foundation recognizes excellence in LGBT literature. Finalists are selected for the short list, with winners announced at an awards ceremony, this year on June 2 at The Great Hall at Cooper Union in New York City.
The Tar Heel state has not gone unnoticed. In fact, three gifted writers made the list. Her publisher, Ig Publishing, nominated Jasmine Beach-Ferrara in the Gay General Fiction category for “Damn Love.” Ann McMan and Salem West got a nod for their Lesbian Romance piece, “Hoosier Daddy,” from their publisher Bedazzled Ink Publising.
The activist and the creative writer
Beach-Ferrara is no stranger to the North Carolina and southern landscape. She was on the forefront in the marriage equality fight in 2012 with her Campaign for Southern Equality (CSE) organization, which she launched in 2011. She was actively involved from her childhood in politics and community organizing. Her mother took her to various arenas where she was able to volunteer. Her quest for LGBT civil rights began in 2004.
She grew up in Chapel Hill and after some traveling about settled in Asheville with her wife, Meghann Burke. Beach-Ferrara received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Brown University and her Master’s of Fine Arts from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She did not stop there. She went on to obtain her Master’s of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School.
Beach-Ferrara, together with a group of people who share her vision, are blazing new trails in the South.
“The WE DO Campaign takes us all across the South, including many smaller towns where a thick veil of silence surrounds LGBT life,” Beach-Ferrara says. “When a gay couple requests a marriage license in Salisbury, N.C., or Bakersville, N.C., they are absolutely trail blazers and they are taking significant risks. I’m honored and humbled to stand with them during these actions as they puncture that silence and talk honestly about their lives — their family, their love and commitment, how Amendment One harms them. Or, I think about a transgender student who is standing up for her rights and calling for trans-inclusive policies on her campus — that is trail blazing and it’s an honor to be part of a movement that is supporting her.”
The actions, she stresses, are “about coming out of the shadows and stepping into the middle of the public square and saying, this is my home and I am equal and our laws must recognize this.”
“Damn Love” is her first foray into major fiction writing. In fact, it took her over 10 years to complete the novel and coincided with her strategy development of CSE. Set in San Francisco and North Carolina, the linked stories in “Damn Love” introduce characters struggling with love in all its complicated forms, including a young doctor getting over a breakup with the help of a patient, a newly married gay man who reconnects with his estranged mother, a trio of physicists caught in a surprising love triangle, and a soldier who takes secrets with her to the Iraqi desert.
“The two projects informed each other tremendously because they originate from the same roots — my preoccupation with questions about how people navigate life, love and identity in contested territory, and also about distinctly southern stories. The stories created a canvas in which to imaginatively and narratively explore these questions through the lives of characters who became very dear to me over the years.”
Beach-Ferrara says her inspiration for “Damn Love” was drawn from her own experiences and observations “from my own life and people I cross paths with our places I lived (San Francisco, Calif., the Triangle area).”
Even though she writes both fiction and non-fiction, her first love was fiction. “It has a special place in my heart,” she commented. “It’s about telling stories and nothing fascinates me more.”
Since she writes fiction, as well as does speech writing in her activist-oriented work, she sees them different in most ways — “the intent, the voice, the use of narrative versus rhetoric, the audience, the space and tools you have to work with.”
“When I write about LGBT rights for a public forum — an op-ed or a speech — I’m keenly aware of two things,” she says. “First, the urgency of the issue. As a minister, I see people suffering because of discriminatory laws and anti-LGBT bias and stigma. There’s nothing abstract about that and yet that suffering is invisible to the general public. So when I write about the issue, I hope to put it in human terms, and also moral terms, to help shine a light on what’s at stake in the lives of real people every day that Amendment One, for example, stays on the books. Secondly, there are a lot of people across the South who are conflicted on this issue; they don’t need to be preached at or told they are wrong or bigoted; they need, instead, to be offered new lenses through which to view the issue.”
And, she contrasts fiction writing saying, “When I write fiction, it’s about taking a deep dive into the lives of imaginary people, exploring their motivations and choices as a way to try to better understand the human experience.”
Even though she spent a decade working on “Damn Love” and enjoyed every minute of it, she finds it challenging now because of her work with CSE. She said that it puts her in a different mindset in terms of how she thinks about the world.
“Writing fiction is a private, contemplative practice. My work with CSE is public and moves very fast because we’re in such an extraordinarily dynamic period when it comes to LGBT rights,” she says. “Most of my writing these days is about LGBT rights. I do keep a notebook to jot down ideas about fiction, but I’m pretty at peace with knowing that it will be a few years before I have the time to turn my attention back to fiction.”
She also adds, “I’m working on some non-fiction about the experiences we’re having with CSE — just being on the road across the South and working on LGBT rights. A lot of interesting things happen — moving, funny, upsetting, surprising. So, I’m taking a lot of notes and hope, down the road, to able to shape them into a larger piece.”
Beach-Ferrara’s favorite writers include James Baldwin, Alan Gurganus, Amy Bloom, Toni Morrison and Alice Munroe. Poets and non-fiction writers equally inspire her as well. “I’m really inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing about race in America these days — an incredible example of how writing can help you make sense of the world around you in real time.”
Even busy people require some down time and time to replenish the spirit. She said that she relishes spending time with her family and friends, reading, running, watching movies and sports, plus time either at the beach or in the woods.
A couple unites and writes
McMan and West, who were legally married in Vermont two years ago, teamed up for the first time on creating “Hoosier Daddy.” In fact, West commented that they “have a tendency to collaborate on just about everything, but short of grocery lists and our annual holiday letter, ‘Hoosier Daddy’ is our first foray into collaborative writing.” McMan adds, “…We share ideas, discuss concepts and debate approaches to most of the creative work we undertake separately. It’s a wonderful partnership that I like to think enriches everything we do, individually and together.”
The couple lives in Winston-Salem now, but McMan was originally from Pennsylvania and West hails from a “small, dusty hamlet in southeastern Illinois.
McMan has a Bachelor’s in history. An award-winning writer, she has penned four novels and two story collections. She was one of 25 emerging authors invited to write an introductory essay for the Lambda Literary Foundation’s “25 for 25: An Anthology of Works by 25 Outstanding LGBT Authors and Those They Inspired.”
West has a Bachelor’s in economics from Eastern Illinois University and a Master’s of Public Policy from Vanderbilt University. For about 20 years, she managed projects and programs dealing with federal nuclear waste management, technology development, environmental remediation and facility security risk management in Washington, D.C. She is now a Certified Information Systems Security Specialist. Over the years, she has written technical pieces professionally.
Their Lammy nomination came from their publisher, Bedazzled Ink Publishing. “Yes. The culprit was our editor at Bedazzled Ink Publishing. Be very afraid,” McMan quips.
The two humorous writers are new to the publishing scene. Both began writing in the last few years.
McMan’s speed in getting her pieces to the public stemmed from “the absence of quality programming during prime time.” She was inspired by a statement that author Doris Betts said about what she did while living in Pittsboro, N.C. — “‘I pay attention.’ I think that was the moment I learned most of what I needed to know about how to start writing.”
West launched “The Rainbow Reader,” a blog that allows her to read and review lesbian literature and offer original analysis in the form of homespun essays and other more or less esoteric didactic forms.
Their writing process was very disciplined. They outlined the entire novel before fully launching into actual writing phase. McMan recounts, “We talked through every detail of the story — what the characters ate, what kinds of trucks they drove, what kinds of beer they drank and what kinds of challenges we intended to toss into their paths. We did agree that the story, since it was all told from the perspective of one person, needed to have a single voice. So, although we shared every aspect of the story development and plot advancement, we were very intentional to make the narrative as seamless as possible. I think we succeeded — I hope there aren’t any glaring places a reader can point to and proclaim, ‘Ann wrote this’ or ‘Salem wrote this.’”
West adds, “From the time Ann and I met, people have told us that we needed to do something together. One day in the spring of 2013, we decided to give it a go. We decided to focus our efforts on a genre romance, but we both wanted to do something that was fresh and different — no doctors or lawyers or publishing empire heiresses, no drop-dead gorgeous women with trust funds, and no sulky, anti-social androgynous butches who wander from woman to woman.
“Ann’s dad was a labor organizer and I spent a lot of time on a non-union manufacturing line during my college years — that sounded like a formula that hadn’t been tried. Also, as a twitchy little dyke who grew up in southern Illinois, I recognized that no one I knew had ever written lesbian fiction about simple, solid, corn-fed women who drive pickups, who look forward to catfish dinners at the VFW and who are smarter and wiser than their accents portend.”
Each brought a piece of them into the complexion of “Hoosier Daddy,” drawing from their own experiences along life’s highway.
West even did a virtual tour with McMan via Google Maps’ street view, exploring southern Illinois and Indiana so the flavor of the piece would be authentic. “It was important that we give the women and lesbians in the southern Indiana and Illinois area a voice in contemporary literature,” West shares. “It was important that we give our readers a sense of this really special place that is more often seen as the punch line of a joke than as the heartbeat of America.”
On their sojourn to create “Hoosier Daddy,” they were adamant about taking a risk writing in first person. And, they each took certain aspects of the writing process development, and then melded them back into a single piece.
In their two-desk office, complete with well-stocked wine refrigerators, the couple fleshed out the book. Because writing involved telling the story, they soon saw that unfolding the story was exciting and challenging. Even more so, they were in sync through the entire experience.
“We both took notes all the time. We’d be out in public at a restaurant or standing in line at the post office … and we’d overhear some part of another conversation — then we’d exchange glances and one of us would start rummaging around for a slip of paper to jot down a scenario or a name that would end up being just perfect for a character. In writing, you steal all the time. Art doesn’t just imitate life — it completely rips it off,” McMan says jokingly.
Their advice for aspiring writers was simple: Read a lot and pay attention to what’s going on in the world. And, don’t give up your day job, either!
When they aren’t working or writing, they find reading to be an elixir. They even spend two weeks a year in Lake Champlain, Vt., recharging their batteries.
McMan is currently working on a new piece, “Backcast,” for Bywater Books. When that is finished, she will begin “Patriarch” for Bedazzled Ink. Her published works are “Three,” “Aftermath,” “Jericho,” “Sidecar,” “Dust;” “A Christmas Tree Grows in Baltimore” and “Bottle Rocket.”
And West continues to write essays through her blog, “Rainbow Reader.” The blog, West says, “is generally focused on lesbian literature. Most reviewers simply retell the plot and assign a ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ label to a book, but I like to take a little time looking under the hood to see what makes a book tick. Sometimes I start a review with a homespun essay, and other times I begin by talking about some particular technical element of writing. Either way, my essays usually relate to a theme or metaphor within the story that I will focus on later in the review, or I use them to explain how the author did or did not meet the standards of the element. My goal is to help readers make better choices with the books they buy and to give authors information about the things that work and don’t work in their writing.” : :