Here are some things I love: Great books. Great writing. Psychological thrillers. Dark contemporary. Brutal honesty. Kissing. More-than-kissing. Romances between guys and girls. Romances between girls and girls. Characters who are real and flawed and struggling and maybe a little atypical. Books that make you think. Books that feel necessary. Books that fill a major hole in what already exists for that category.
So, today, I’m featuring a book that is every single one of those things. Black Iris by Leah Raeder is an intense and sexy (and intensely sexy) psychological thriller about a girl named Laney and her dark journey toward both revenge and self-acceptance. Leah has made no secret of the fact that this is a very personal book for her, and I know (and know reviews will show) that others are bound to feel the same way about it. As such, I pried deeply into the
unicorn brain behind the book for about as personal an interview as you’ll ever see.
And, bonus: there’s a giveaway attached – someone will win a signed ARC of Black Iris, and I think it’s pretty obviously you alllllll want in on that. See details at the bottom of the post for how to enter, and I’ll pick a winner at noon EST on Friday, March 6!
But first, here’s the official info about the book:
It only took one moment of weakness for Laney Keating’s world to fall apart. One stupid gesture for a hopeless crush. Then the rumors began. Slut, they called her. Queer. Psycho. Mentally ill, messed up, so messed up even her own mother decided she wasn’t worth sticking around for.
If Laney could erase that whole year, she would. College is her chance to start with a clean slate.
She’s not looking for new friends, but they find her: charming, handsome Armin, the only guy patient enough to work through her thorny defenses—and fiery, filterless Blythe, the bad girl and partner in crime who has thorns of her own.
But Laney knows nothing good ever lasts. When a ghost from her past resurfaces—the bully who broke her down completely—she decides it’s time to live up to her own legend. And Armin and Blythe are going to help.
Which was the plan all along.
Because the rumors are true. Every single one. And Laney is going to show them just how true.
She’s going to show them all.
Sounds pretty freaking great, right? Spoiler alert: it is. Now, please welcome* to the blog author Leah Raeder.
*jk she already pretty much lives here
Let’s just address the obvious major question right off the bat. You’re pretty outspoken about – well, everything, but let’s go with the sad state of f/f lit. Why do you think it’s so lacking, both quantitatively and qualitatively?
God, I could write a book on this subject. I think the main factors in the dearth of f/f books out there are that romance fiction skews heavily heteronormative, and a majority of its readers are straight women who read mainly m/f and, sometimes, m/m. A lot of romance readers consume novels rapidly and seek out certain tropes/kinks (biker gangs, BDSM, 18th Century Scottish rapists, etc.), and so you have a situation analogous to the way men consume porn: select your kink, select your desired role-play, and get off. The audience consumes it fast, so it is mass-produced.
Obviously this raises interesting questions about the ways that romance novel consumption parallels porn consumption and the sorts of standards and expectations that sets up, but that’s a whole other can of worms.
Why does f/f fiction often suck? I think mainly because there’s so little of it. There isn’t a rich canon to draw inspiration from, learn from, aspire to, etc. And often those writing it, while well-meaning, are more interested in moralizing and ticking boxes than in honing their craft to razor sharpness. Maybe it’s the social pressure. Maybe those well-meaning f/f writers think, “There’s so little lesbian fiction out there, I have to speak for all of girl-loving-kind with this.” And the lower demand and smaller audience means there’s less attention falling on it and less criticism and, inevitably, less improvement across the genre. The bigger a genre, the more diamonds you find in the rough, and the higher the standards rise for all work in that genre. Being so tiny, f/f has a paucity of both books and great books, and its lack of great books keeps new readers away. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.
On the more positive side, what f/f would you recommend, whether to first-timers or seasoned readers? Any you particularly wish you’d had around as a kid? And do you think Black Iris will be a gateway book for a lot of readers?
I have no idea what first-time f/f readers should be reading. I knew I liked girls since I was a child, so I don’t know what it’s like to approach that from the outside. As a kid I watched every single episode of Xena: Warrior Princess in the hopes that Xena and Gabrielle would kiss. That’s how desperate I was to see girl-on-girl action. You’re asking the wrong person here.
But a few standout f/f novels I’ve liked are Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body (f/unknown gender), Paula Boock’s Dare Truth or Promise, Amanda Grace’s No One Needs to Know, and Sylvia Brownrigg’s Pages for You. There’s also this weirdo named Dahlia Adler who wrote a pretty damn decent one called Under the Lights.
When I was a kid, I would’ve loved YA/NA by Boock, Grace, Adler, et al. I needed to see portrayals of girls like me, portrayals that weren’t painfully stereotypical and that captured the fluidity of sexuality and attraction. I didn’t relate to characters who were 100% gay and never hooked up with or had wayward thoughts about the opposite sex. It made me feel like a “bad gay” on top of already feeling like a freak for being queer. There are plenty of kids out there who benefit from those portrayals, but there are also lots and lots of kids who fall somewhere between 0 and 6 on the Kinsey scale, and there are far too few books serving them. Bisexuality is arguably more taboo than gayness now, FFS. How the the hell did THAT happen?
And I needed to read books by people whose voices I could trust. For example, the word “dyke” makes me want to curl up and die. “Dyke” was always an epithet to me and I’m still deeply uncomfortable with it, and its usage by older queer women who are comfortable with their sexuality is jarring and unsettling. I’m in my third decade on Earth, and I’m still not at a point in my life where “dyke” doesn’t make my stomach clench and my pulse race in a queasy way. My first thought is always: “Are they talking about me? Please, please don’t let them be talking about me.” Sometimes adult writers forget that what they’ve fought so hard to understand and accept about themselves is something that younger people are still struggling with. That some of us will always struggle with, no matter how old we are.
As for whether Black Iris will be a gateway f/f book…I doubt it. BI is brutal and dark. It’s about bullying, internalized homophobia, self-loathing, and overcoming the self-destructive thinking/behavior society codes into us. It’s intensely personal and my experience as a queer person obviously doesn’t represent every queer person’s experience. But I do think pain and hardship and fear are fairly universal experiences for anyone who’s not straight, and it’s important that we don’t let that get lost in our desperation to show a light at the end of the tunnel. It annoys me when people say, “I want to see more LGBT+ books that aren’t about coming out or queer angst!” Yeah, well, I’d fucking love to see a world where those weren’t issues anymore. But they are, and it’s a PRIVILEGE for some queer folk to not have to constantly worry about those issues. It’s vital that we keep telling stories about the hardship of being queer until shit actually changes. It’s not a zero-sum game. We can have more sunshine-and-rainbow queer books alongside our gritty realism.
This is tough. There’s a lot of geography porn? Unlikable heroines? Pretentious metaphors about the stars? In all seriousness, it’s the coming-of-age stuff. Laney’s already in college, but like Maise, she’s struggling to carve out a place in the world for herself. And while Maise is torn between two age groups, Laney is torn between two people, and the two different facets of herself that they represent.
Also, Hiyam is in both books.
We’ve had the conversation before about sex in NA (and you’ve had it with Heather of Flyleaf Review in this great interview), and I know we’re both on Team Yes Please. Why do you think people object to it, and why are you in particular pro?
At the risk of pissing off huge swathes of the book community, I think a lot of the moaning about sex in New Adult is sour grapes. It tends to come from authors who don’t write about sex, and from readers who have no interest in ever reading about sex. NA, even the worst of it, sells well because sex sells. YA is far chaster, and so it’s not uncommon for a good YA novel to sell fewer copies than a crappy NA novel. It sucks, but it’s like complaining that people buy porn instead of indie films. They’re not your audience in the first place. They’re not taking sales away from you. IMO, the real issue is that people who don’t want to write about sex want to sell as many books as if they had written about sex. And as for readers who want books about people in their 20s without graphic depictions of sex, there’s an entire section of the bookstore for you called “General Fiction.”
The whole thing recalls the resentment that writers of adult fiction had (and still have) toward YA writers, when YA became ultra-hot and started outselling adult. Ironically, now it’s (largely) YA authors turning their resentment against the new kids in publishing, NA authors. I suppose NA authors will eventually turn on whatever comes next. Dinorotica, probably.
I’m pro-sex-in-NA because sex is part of life, and I live in a society that both fetishizes and represses sexuality. America is absurdly puritanical. We can depict graphic, gruesome murder, but show a nipple on TV (or in public!) and everyone clutches their pearls. Think about that. A nipple is worse than murder. How warped are we?
I’m tired of YA shying away from depicting sex. Especially when it comes to sex that isn’t hetero. That’s not real life. In real life, teenagers have sex. Gasp! If we’d like them to understand what it’s like (and shouldn’t be like, and theoretically can be like), we have to show it. Fading to black doesn’t teach or enrich a reader. It cuts out one of the most normal and vital parts of human experience. Which isn’t to say that every YA novel has to graphically depict sex, but that not enough of them are showing enough, and that’s why there’s a demand for it in NA. (I think NA is also basically the under-40 generation’s take-back of romance, but that’s another tangent…)
“Karma is a bitch, but you can call her Laney.” So sayeth your website about the main character of Black Iris, and…yeah, I’d say Laney qualifies to be an unlikeable heroine IRL. Was she a tough character to write? Or did the fact that you yourself are horrible help a lot?
They say “write what you know” and I know I’m a total bitch, so. (Blogger’s note: truth.)
Laney was a blast to write for about 90% of the book because she’s completely unapologetic. Unapologetic girls enchant me, IRL and in fiction. Women are socialized to be people-pleasers, to efface ourselves, be polite, be nice, smile smile smile. To walk around constantly apologizing and feeling bad that we’re never enough: not thin enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough, not kinky enough, not happy enough. Writing a character who just says “fuck you” to all of that is incredibly liberating.
Until recently, women in fiction were rarely allowed to get revenge and be violent, ruthless assholes. Gone Girl heralded a sea change, and now we’re seeing tons of female characters with qualities that were typically reserved for males: angry, violent, spiteful, vengeful, methodical, relentless. Bad girls who are actually bad. It’s fucking glorious.
In addition to the hotness of having an Australian accent, Blythe in Black Iris also has some badass tattoos. If you got one in honor of the BI release, what would it be?
Man. YOU ASK THE HARD QUESTIONS, ADLER. I want to say a black iris because that symbolizes everything that is dark and sexy and queer about this book but…I’m also really drawn to the wolf imagery, and the way that Laney’s realization of her own power is symbolized by her identification with creatures who hunt. But wolves are so cliche. And so are flowers. So I’d get a tat of Teresa Palmer because hot Aussie girls are forever.
A lot of the discussion around Black Iris revolves around the hot f/f-ness, but it bears mentioning that it contains multiple characters – including Laney – who are not neuronormative. Can you share a little about that?
Confession time. As well as being queer, I’m bipolar. I have type II bipolar disorder, to be exact. My mental health history reads like a made-for-TV movie: meds, suicide attempts, hospitals. It’s pretty messed-up and sad. Like queerness, mental illness is something I hadn’t fully come to grips with until the past few years. I felt ashamed and, mostly, terrified of being looked down on or treated differently because of it. My books are really just me working through my own issues: Unteachable is about feeling young and old at the same time and figuring out what it means to be an adult; Black Iris is me coming to grips with being queer and bipolar, openly, in front of the whole world. I can’t say too much about this because of spoilers, and also self-consciousness, but yeah. There is a lot of stuff about mental illness in this book. Trigger warnings galore.
You have notoriously terrible taste in music. That’s not a question, but I guess if you wanted to talk about the awfulness you listened to while writing Black Iris, that would be okay.
I have “terrible taste” in music THAT SOMEHOW KEEPS ENDING UP ON YOUR PLAYLISTS. How…queer. (Blogger’s note: …shut up. *kicks dirt*) Also, anyone who calls 80s music “terrible” deserves to be locked in a room for all eternity with nothing to listen to but John Mayer.
Aside from the obligatory 80s stuff (Laney and Armin are both huge 80s nerds), I listened to all sorts of shit while writing BI: Chvrches, The Black Keys, The Naked and Famous, AWOLNATION, etc. My books usually form around the seed of one song, and for Black Iris it was Garbage’s “Vow.” Music is hugely important to my writing process, and I’ve got a playlist page on my site now. Also if you follow me on Twitter you WILL be regularly spammed with music vids (as recommended to me by my personal DJs/saviors, Allen and Cam).
Lately I’ve been super into Knob Creek maple bourbon. Also your mom. (Blogger’s note: *extends middle finger*)
Most exciting thing and most terrifying thing about publishing Black Iris: GO.
Exciting: It’s a highly anticipated New Adult novel with lots of f/f in it!
Terrifying: It’s a highly anticipated New Adult novel with lots of f/f in it!
Seriously, I’m pretty much at exactly the same stage of horror/giddiness that I was when I first had this bright idea that went, “Hmmm, there aren’t any f/f New Adult novels…I should write one!”
You’re currently writing your third contemporary NA Romance, Cam Girl, about which, frankly, you’ve been pretty stingy when it comes to sharing information. What can you tell us about it, dammit?
According to Atria, it’s “a sexy romantic suspense novel about two best friends who are torn apart by a life-shattering accident…and the secrets left behind.”
Okay, you’ve seen the summary on Goodreads, right? Basically it’s like that, just add a bisexual physically disabled Latina heroine, gender dysphoria, hot redheads, and Cam Gigandet. Also, it takes place in Maine. Maine is pretty.
BTW, if you think Black Iris is gay, just wait till Cam Girl. Yes, there’s f/f in this one, too. Lots more. Also POC, trans, and gay supporting characters. And there will be more queerness, gender fluidity, people of color, disability representation, and general fuck-yous to the romance status quo in this and all of my future books. I’ve been given an incredible opportunity to tell stories about the types of characters you rarely see in NA romance, and I’m seizing it and running as fast and as far as I can.
You get to share one rainbow-themed picture right now. ONE. What is it?
(Blogger’s note: I could not put it in the post itself for fear of losing every single one of my followers and also potentially killing any epileptic who laid eyes on it.)
What has no one asked you about Black Iris yet that you really wish they would?
“Your cover is totally a vagina, right?”
Just kidding, they ask that all the time. And yes, Virginia, it is.
Want to enter to win a signed ARC?
Haha just kidding, that was obviously the world’s most rhetorical question.
I’m not gonna do Rafflecopter because I hate that it doesn’t appear on this page (fun times with WordPress.com) so I’m just gonna tell you here:
- Follow both Me and Leah on every social media site possible (I highly recommend then muting at least one of us on Twitter)
- Obviously add Black Iris to your TBR
- Most importantly (and mandatory) to enter, leave a comment below to tell us what has you the most excited for Black Iris! (And leave some contact method in your comment.)
- Due to high international postage costs, giveaway is US only, though if you’re international and want to pay the difference in postage, you are more than welcome!
(Bonus points if you tweet us pictures of hot redheads)