Jennifer Pelland is a Boston-based writer whose short stories regularly feature gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters.
Recently, her story “Captive Girl,” about the complicated and painfully human love affair between a severely disabled woman and her (female) caretaker, was nominated for a Nebulae award – deservedly so, and I’m hoping that it wins. Jennifer, like all good writers, never shies away from the painful part of being human, and her stories – which often center around our most basic, animal needs for touch, companionship and comfort – are not easily forgotten.
Jennifer was kind enough to take time out of her writing schedule to talk to me about her work.
JoSelle Vanderhooft: It's always interesting for me to ask this one: How did you begin as a writer? Did you start writing as a child or teen as many of us do, or did you come to it later in life?
Jennifer Pelland: Well, I told stories when I was young, but I didn't start writing anything down until about high school, and then only sporadically. Most of the stories were fan fiction, although didn't know what that was at the time. All I knew was that I wanted to tell my own Star Wars and Doctor Who stories, usually with myself as the star. Once I figured out what this fan fic thing was, I went nuts with it, mostly writing “slash” stories about the hot men on the shows that I loved, and sometimes also about the hot women. Then I hit 30 and decided I was done telling other people's stories, and started working on stuff of my own. One of the smartest things that I did was attend the Viable Paradise SF/F writing workshop on Martha's Vineyard. It's been over six years since the workshop, and I'm still gleaning new insight from the lessons I learned there.
JV: Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters have long been under-or completely unrepresented in speculative fiction until recently. But thankfully, that is being corrected by many writers, including you. Tell me a little about the stories you've written that include queer characters or queer themes.
JP: I'd say the most notable story of mine with queer themes is “Captive Girl.” At its heart, it's a love story between two women. I didn't set out to write a “lesbian story” when I conceived of it, but it quickly became apparent to me that the relationship needed to be between two women. It just wouldn't work any other way. In “Mercytanks,” I deal with issues of potential future gender identity and expression, and also the current realities of living in an intersexed body. And then there's “Brushstrokes,” which is a new piece that I wrote for my short story collection, UNWELCOME BODIES, which is a love story between two men. The impetus for writing it was that I wanted to write a scene where two pretty boys in pretty makeup have sex against a brick wall. Then I realized I needed a plot. And even though it deals with similar issues of helplessness as “Captive Girl,” it's a wildly different story because it's about men, not about women.
I sometimes wonder if this is a perk of being a bisexual author – the ability to step back from every story and ask yourself, “Okay, what should the gender of the lovers be in this piece?”
JV: Do you find it easier to write one kind of relationship than another?
JP: Well, anything written through the eyes of a man takes more thought than something written through the eyes of a woman, so I suppose that makes writing about two men more difficult than writing about two women. But the same can be said for writing about a man and a woman together through the eyes of the man. I have a disturbing tendency to have my male point-of-view characters be stereotypical in some way until someone in my writing group yells at me for it. So it's the male side of the equation that trips me up.
You know what relationship I haven't yet tackled through a point-of-view character? The relationship of a parent to his or her child. Well, except for in a couple of horror stories, which probably says something right there.
JV: I've also noticed that several of your stories deal with the body being crippled somehow – either by disease or by extreme body modification as in “Captive Girl.” Is this a theme that particularly interests you?
JP: Oh, very much so. The idea of a body being limited, either by choice or by some kind of handicap, is something that fascinates me. And I know that sounds ghoulish. Believe me, I spent about ten minutes trying to figure out the best way to write that sentence, and I eventually just gave up and went with honesty. As a child, I was always grappling with the idea of what I'd have to do if I became handicapped in some way. I read Little House on the Prairie and tried to learn Braille in case I went blind like Mary Ingalls. I read Johnny Tremain and tried to learn to write left-handed in case something happened to my right hand. We won't even discuss my fascination with reading about the whole bondage culture … I couldn't really tell you why my brain has this fixation, but it's always been there.
When I write about it, I think it's important to try to do it right. For instance, when writing “The Last Stand of the Elephant Man,” I spent a while chatting with a disabled friend of mine online about the realities of living in a body that gets progressively more disabled with age. I wasn't interested in writing the Victorian ideal of the “noble cripple” when I wrote Merrick's story – I wanted to try to tap into the real frustration of having your body steadily betray you. So hopefully, I turned it into something more than an exercise in my own literary fetishes.
JV: And, of course, tell me a bit about Unwelcome Bodies!
JP: Certainly! For starters, it's the first thing I've published that has only my name on the cover, so that's exciting. It's got eight previously-published pieces and three new ones, and the stories all lean towards the “dark SF” side of the Force, although I did toss in what's probably my most positive published piece ever (“Last Bus”). I was really surprised when Apex approached me to do this, because I didn't think my career was nearly illustrious enough to merit something like this just yet, but they have this crazy belief in me, so who am I to question them? It'll be out on Feb. 29. I've even scheduled my first-ever signing. Now I have to figure out how to bribe people into showing up. I'm thinking cookies.
You can find Jennifer online at jenniferpelland.com. I highly recommend not only "Captive Girl", but "Mercytanks", "The Last Stand of the Elephant Man" and "For the Plague Thereof was Exceeding Great" – which focuses on American life after an untreatable form of AIDS becomes airborne.