Interviews and Roundtables:

Therese Szymanski Interview

© Lynne Jamneck, reprinted by permission


Therese Szymanski is an award-winning playwright, and has been a finalist for a Lammy twice (so far) in two different categories—Lesbian Mystery and Erotica. She’s written seven books in the Lammy Finalist Brett Higgins Motor City Thrillers and edited Back to Basics: A Butch-Femme Anthology (which made the Publishing Triangle’s list of notable lesbian books for 2004) and Call of the Dark: Erotic Lesbian Stories of the Supernatural. She wrote “A Butch in Fairy Tale Land” for the Lammy finalist Once Upon a Dyke: New Exploits of Fairy Tale Lesbians and “By the Book” for Bell, Book and Dyke: New Exploits of Magical Lesbians. She’s been short-listed for a Spectrum Award, contributed to a few dozen anthologies, and co-edited the upcoming anthology A Perfect Valentine: Erotic Lesbian Valentine’s Day Stories. She enjoys backpacking, all forms of skiing, and anything else she can hurt herself doing. Somehow, through the years and sometimes without her consent, she’s started collecting swords, Zippos, and bears. She keeps herself apartmented by copywriting and designing. You can e-mail Reese by going here—preferably not to try to sell her a new penis-enlarging device.


Tell us a bit about your background. How did you first get into writing, and decide that it’s something that you’d like to pursue?

I’ve always written. When I was very young, for some reason we had these blank daily planning type books around the house, and while I couldn’t read yet, I’d play with the books, and “write” in the blank, lined books (meaning I scribbled in them).

In the third grade, I got a report card that really upset me. It was all good, but said I was better in English than math, and since all my sibs were the opposite, and I was supposed to grow up to be an engineer, like my fave sibs, I had issues with that evaluation of me.

In high school, some friends and I did these weird collections (we called them The Books of Weird and Demented things, wherein we wrote original material mocking school, while also collecting relevant materials from elsewhere and quoting all sorts of teachers and students saying really stupid things), which we passed out at year-end to various friends and faculty members much to their dismay and amusement.

In college, I gave up thoughts of engineering and did a dual major in advertising and English, figuring I’d make my living in advertising, but the English was just for fun. But then I ended up taking a playwriting class, went on to win a couple of playwriting awards, and it was all downhill from there—I ended up playing in theatre for a number of years, saw four of my plays produced, directed a few others myself (actually did just about everything to do with theatre at some point or another, including climbing walls to get lights turned on, and being repeatedly hit upside the head with sofas when we were moving things).

Anyway, I’d signed contracts for a company (Silverhawke LLC) to publish several of my plays, but then the top two folks in their brand-spanking-new U.S. branch came down with fatal illnesses, so they closed up shop before my stuff was ever released.

So pretty much, that pissed me off, so I turned from playwriting and sat down, and picked up the notes for a fiction project I’d started when I ended up doing some rather strange jobs right after college. In a month I had my first book and Brett Higgins was born.


Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?

Yes. Years ago, I reckoned if I ever got a book published, it’d be under a pseudonym since, Lord knows, no one can discuss a writer whose name they can’t pronounce—let alone spell. But Barbara Grier, whom I love and adore, loved the ethnicity of my real name, so I went with that, since no one in her right mind really argues with Barbara Grier, since she really does know her business.


What are you currently working on?

Several different projects:

  1. The next Brett Higgins Motor City Thriller (#8), When it’s All Relative. I’m pretty much just outlining it at this stage. But I’m sure I’ll be into the writing fairly soon.
  2. My novella for the next in the New Exploits series (these are books that contain novellas by four authors – Karin Kallmaker, Julia Watts, Barbara Johnson and myself – one each on a particular topic. Once Upon a Dyke: New Exploits of Fairy Tale Lesbians was the first, and it was a finalist for a Lammy in the Erotica category. The next, Bell, Book and Dyke: New Exploits of Magical Lesbians is due out soon. So I’m writing for the third, which is about vampires.
  3. Finalizing the upcoming Valentine’s Day anthology.
  4. Developing a new character/new mystery series for Bella. (So writing and rewriting on that.)
  5. Telling Karin that I really don’t want to edit the next anthology she pitched to Linda Hill for me to edit. Everyone’s figuring I’ll break down after a few months.
  6. Writing short stories as I need to/want to/have to. (Sometimes something so bizarre happens, I just need to make it into a short story.)
  7. All my at-work writing at my full-time job as a marketing copywriter.


I have to ask you, because every writer, to a degree takes a different view—what do you think is the appeal for lesbians and their fondness for the mystery genre.

Mysteries are popular in the mainstream as well, so I think lesbians are just reflective of the overall fondness for mysteries. (And note, in the smaller presses, romances greatly outsell mysteries, by the way.)

One of my little cultural observations are that most writings contain mysteries to some degree—like, who will get together with whom, or what secrets are characters hiding, in romances? Or who is responsible for whatever is happening in the latest Harry Potter? There is always something compelling us to turn the page—some unanswered question (even if it’s as plebeian as how will they first kiss? or, how will they do it?) that keeps us reading—so, in some ways, mystery is at the bottom of all lit. Mysteries are just a purer form of that phenomenon.

What inspired you to do the recent supernatural anthology Call of the Dark: Erotic Lesbian Tales of the Supernatural (Bella Books, 2005)?

I think I pretty much covered this in the intro to the book. If you want the entire story, here’s how it went:

I got bored in the summer of 2004, so I drove across the country and back again, visiting friends, etc. (A major impetus for the trip was that my latest niece was turning two shortly, and I’d love to be part of her life, even in a small way.)

I told my sister I’d just had knee surgery, so please no mountain-climbing steep inclines. I met her in Colorado, and we backpacked a few days, then went to L.A., where she lives, and on the 4th of July weekend, we were packing in the lower Sierras. I was trying to ignore the pain my knee was giving me, and how hot it was and all the mosquitoes and all the other bad stuff (including upcoming deadlines), when I pretty much realized the same thing that compelled me to do my first anthology, Back to Basics: A Butch/Femme Anthology.

See, with that one, I realized that there were a number of collections of essays and nonfiction stuff relating to butch/femme, but although there were erotic anthologies about lots of different things—including subcategories of butch/femme like butch/butch—there were no purely erotic anthologies about butch/femme. So I decided to do one.

With Call of the Dark, I was climbing up that mountain and I realized that while the supernatural seems rather big with the queer community, there were erotic anthologies about lesbian vampires, but no other types of creatures. Now, there is a GLBT book about all sorts of creepy crawlies—Shadows of the Night—but I think I have the only erotic story in it, and it’s GLBT, not just lesbian. So I thought about opening up the playing field to other types of creatures.

I was reassured in Denver when a lesbian bookstore employee told me she really wanted to read a hot butch werewolf story, so she was really behind my thought.

What’s been the response to the anthology thus far?

About the same as it’s been with Back to Basics—anyone who reads it loves it, and some folks qualify that by saying it’s really not their thing—they’re maybe not into butch/femme, or supernatural stuff, so they’re absolutely stunned when they love it.

Now, recently in Provincetown, Massachusetts, I was hand selling Call of the Dark during the Bella Books signings there, and some people bought it while others said, “Sorry, it’s just not my type of thing.” It’s all fine—because it is a bit off the beaten. But I do try to do some new things, so that’s part of it all—sometimes what you’re doing isn’t something that appeals to everyone, and that’s okay. You can’t reach all the people all the time, after all.

One of the “new” things I try to do is to find quality stories, from talented writers, even if I have to work with them a bit to improve their talent. I do anthologies because I’ve gotten a bit tired with some of the ones in existence—they’re supposed to be all hot and everything, but sometimes they push the line too far. I end up saying “Ouch,” instead of “Ooo, baby,” like I ought to be. So I’m trying to bring in some new writers, new voices, and, also, bring the line back. Folks keep thinking I’m all about pushing all the lines, but I’m about the storytelling and overall effects. In this instance, part of the overall is turning women on, something I really enjoy doing.

You have other anthologies on they way too; a Valentines collection as well as a follow-up to Once upon a Dyke: New Exploits of Fairy Tale Lesbians, both from Bella Books. Tell us a bit more about these two respective anthologies.

Well, in the order you mention them…

A Perfect Valentine: Erotic Lesbian Valentine’s Day Stories—well, Barbara Johnson said, “We should edit an anthology together.”

Now, I’m a good well-trained butch, so I said, “Okay. Tell me what about and I’ll pitch it to Linda (our publisher).”

So Barbara decided the topic, and we went with it. I’m excited about it because it’s the most open-to-all topic I’ve worked on an anthology about. Not many women will say, “Sorry, it’s not my thing,” after all. Plus, it’s wicked hot. Bella’s proofreaders, and the few friends who have seen it, all agree it is wickedly hot and good. (Oh, and once again, the feedback is also that we’ve really arranged the stories well, which is something I really work at with my anthologies—I think the full book should tell a story as well as each story by itself.)

Now, Once Upon a Dyke… It’s a wonderful thing. See, back when I did theatre, well, I could be directing something and work with my cast—Amy Renee could come over and whisper to me how she thought something should go, and I’d make her tell the cast what she thought, ‘cause she was always spot on. I could hear someone say something and realize I needed to rewrite a line. Such a collaborative thing was truly inspiring, and I really miss it.

Now, Once Upon… Well, I IMed Karin Kallmaker one night and said something like, “Okay, so most anthologies are 15+ stories. How about one with just four novellas on one topic? And… {coy smile} if you’re interested, you can pick the topic.”

Karin sometimes works on projects to provide more exposure to other writers, so she jumped on board with fairy tales. And with making it a series.

So then we needed to pick two more writers. We immediately agreed on Julia Watts, because she’s a phenomenal writer. Julie came on board, but said she had only one fairy tale in her.

Barbara Johnson, my best friend, heard me talking about this, and asked to take the last place. When she actually writes, she has solid sales, and Julie, Karin and I agreed she’d be quite complementary to us, so we had our team.

And then, one night in an online chat room, we worked out title details, and that Karin and Julie would edit, and lots of other things. It’s been working incredibly well—for instance, with Once Upon, I submitted five different first chapters to the other three authors, and they picked the tale I should tell. I loved writing “A Butch in Fairy Tale Land,” because I miss being able to be funny. And now I’m looking at the entire New Exploits series (the first was Once Upon, the second is the forthcoming Bell, Book & Dyke: New Exploits of Magical Lesbians, and the 2006 release will be Stake through the Heart: New Exploits of Noir Lesbians (the title might change slightly, but it’ll be four lesbian vampire novellas).)

Of course, me being me, I went dark with Bell, Book & Dyke. We’ll see exactly what I do with the next one…

Do you think that, in terms of lesbian genre fiction (fantasy, sf, horror et. al) there is a gap to be filled?

No. Not really. Of course, I would’ve said that before Call of the Dark as well, so… I’m sometimes not the spiciest taco at the picnic.

What’s a typical day for you like? Do you stick to a rigid routine, with regard to your writing, or doesn’t that work for you?

Typical? Is there such a thing? Really?

Weekdays, I usually wake up, go to work, then get home, eat dinner, work out, then maybe do some boring work (like typesetting, and responding to emails), and write later on. Usually between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m. (exact hours vary). I’m a vampire who likes to write at night. On the weekends, I might be up to 4 a.m. writing. Or sometimes I’m just f*ing off.

I have no set schedule. Sometimes my late-night sessions are me pacing and writing notes on note cards, or working on outlines, or… Sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing, and try to vary everything in order to try to get something out.

Do you think that being gay has influenced your decision to become a writer at all?

No, not at all. When I’ve taught writing workshops, I’ve remarked that in some Heinlein book, he has a character who was a writer, but had his writing surgically removed, so now that character, as a writer who can’t and doesn’t write, sits in a corner and drools on himself.

You either are or aren’t.

Now, being queer has affected my writing in that all of my plays were very gay-activist. And, well, you write what you know.

Tell us something about Therese Szymanski no-one else knows…

Um, I’m pretty open and vocal and all, so… there’s really not much that falls into this category (and I really don’t think folks want to know the truly weird things that nobody knows about, things about toiletries and such, for instance). After all, I’ve even written a bunch of true stories for true story anthologies. And when I write true, I do write true.

I really have worked on the biz end of the adult industries. I really have played with guns, know how to pick handcuffs and locks, escaped from chains and ropes in ten seconds, and, if you consider Webster’s definition, am a professional magician.

The best I can do for answering this is maybe that very few know that I’m studying and perhaps considering attempting to write a TV or screen play.


Who are some of your all-time favorite authors?

Douglas Adams, George Orwell, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Robert Sheckley, Joss Whedon.

Katherine V. Forrest, Karin Kallmaker, Ellen Hart.

How about recent ones—anyone in particular that you’re excitedly keeping your eye on?

Oh, this is so the loaded question! I deal with lots of writers all the time, and this is one question I’ll have to step back from. (Also, due to working about three jobs all told, I really don’t have time to read nearly as much as I’d like. Point in fact, this year, between all my work (including reading stories for anthologies; working full time as a copywriter; doing volunteer work for my favorite non-profit The Mautner Project (the national lesbian health organization); doing freelance design, typesetting and copywriting; reading to write blurbs; and writing and editing), and reading nonfiction, I think I’ve read only a few things just for pleasure.

So No Comment.

The Question About Sex: How does one write it, and write it well?

If you really, really write about sex you have to really feel it, and get turned on by writing it—because, as a writer, your job is to feel everything you’re writing about.

Like, when I’ve written some action sequences, folks have noticed how I might swivel about in my chair as I mimic all that is going on in the scene—as I act the scene. It’s the same with sex. Feel it. Oh, and be careful about adjectives and making sure you use lube, and realize the hot isn’t so much in the extreme as in with the making it matter.

I keep wondering if my readers will get bored with my sex. I wonder if I should do something whacked different to make it more interesting—or different than everything else I’ve written. But really, if the lead ins and emotions are different, it’s a different scene. So just make it real and hot and realize women respond to stories more than visuals.


In what important way has the lesbian publishing industry changed in the last thirty years?

Gosh, wasn’t it like 1972 that Naiad Press was founded? So that was slightly more than 30 years… (I’ve even heard gay guys talk about how Naiad really laid the foundation for all of GLBT publishing.)

So… in answer… the playing field has opened—and targeted. Through these years, lesbian publishing companies have come and gone. There’s always stages of things, and repeats… We’ve gone through “political,” for a while. We’ve done the feel-good we’re just doing literature phase once now.

For publishing to work, there needs to be a capitalist motive—so maybe the biggest change is that it’s more recognized that there needs to be a capitalist motive behind publishing. Folks need to be impelled toward the profit-margin, authors need their royalties (no matter how small), and you need cash to keep printing. Genre fiction brings in the dollars, so it’s needed. So publishers need to remember they need to publish to be publishers, and there’s only the occasional book that’s too good to not publish, even though it won’t sell.

Like, with my anthologies, there’s sometimes stories I just can’t say no to, even though I couldn’t sell an entire book filled with such as they are.

The next step, to me, is to raise the bar—and ensure all of lesbian fiction is high quality.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers trying to get their break in publishing?

  1. Get used to rejections. They are gonna happen. Just hope to learn from them.
  2. If everyone you ask to read your stuff tells you it’s all wonderful, yet you still keep getting rejected, find folks other than your best friends to read your stuff.
  3. Realize you must write in order to be a writer. Writing itself isn’t fun or glamorous. It’s long hours, alone, with only the voices in your head to keep you company.
  4. Don’t quit your day job. Even if you do get published, you likely won’t make enough to quit it.


Lynne Jamneck, and

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