Kelly Quindlen has been a leading author for LGBTQIA+ representation in literature for the past six years. She self-published Her Name in the Sky in 2014, a coming out story that authentically speaks to the terror and beauty of falling in love for the first time as a queer woman. Her traditional publishing debut, Late to the Party, is the coming-of-age story that offers reassuring guidance as to what comes next.
Three years ago, I came out to the world on this exact day. I owe a lot of that to the opportunity that National Coming Out Day provides for queer people like me who need a little extra bite of courage. I also owe it to Quindlen’s books. Seeing characters who looked like me, and seeing that it could be okay (even in the worst circumstances), was the last bit of bravery I needed.
In honor of National Coming Out Day, I reached out to Quindlen with the hope of garnering her insights as a literary advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community. Her words offer unwavering solidarity for everyone embracing who they are today, everyone still in the process of figuring things out, and everyone already living freely.
How are you celebrating LGBTQ+ History Month?
I’m reading even more queer books than usual. Right now I’m finishing Mrs. Everything, which is about two sisters, one of whom is gay, as they navigate the second half of the twentieth century. It’s a great look into how our LGBTQ grandparents struggled and triumphed during a time when queerness was not okay.
I came across Her Name in the Sky during the summer of 2017 while searching for queer reading recommendations on Tumblr. I was still in the closet at the time, so the act of even looking was terrifying for me. But, I was at the point in my life where I was ready to take the first step in embracing my sexuality and community. Reading Hannah and Baker’s story was the first time I’d ever felt seen. I’ve since shared HNITS with anyone who’s asked me for LGBTQ+ book recommendations. (And I’ve been thrilled every time you’ve posted a follow-up one-shot on your Tumblr). I know the word of mouth marketing has been a huge part of the book’s success; were you expecting it to take off to the extent that it has? What has that success meant to you?
Thank you. It means so much to me to hear that – specifically the part about how you felt seen. Writing Hannah and Baker’s story helped me feel seen, so I’m immensely grateful when others can say that, too. That’s all I can hope to do as an author.
Yes, word of mouth marketing has been crucial. It’s so pure and organic, and in the queer community, that’s extremely important. I love that a dedicated group of fans have discovered Hannah and Baker’s story and have created fanfic, fan art, Pinterest boards, video edits, you name it. That means so much to me, and it makes me want to go back and hug my 24-year-old self, who was plagued with doubt every time she worked on this book during her lunch break.
Her Name in the Sky cover via Kelly quindlen
How do your experiences with LGBTQ+ non-profit work and advocacy influence your platform as an author?
Working with LGBTQ teens and their parents really ground me. Sometimes the book industry can feel like an echo chamber where everyone is saying variations of “We don’t need more coming out narratives” or “Things have gotten better everywhere,” but encountering people outside of the industry really keeps me connected to the pulse of where everyday readers are. A lot of people, particularly young people, truly do feel alone as they grapple with their identity. I want to speak to those teens and their support network rather than speaking to an echo chamber.
As a queer woman, I’ve struggled to find books that feel like they authentically represent me and my experience. I know a lot of other folks in the community have felt the same, which raises the larger question of the importance of representation in the publishing industry. I’ve always appreciated your books because they follow queer women in different stages of their lives and include diverse characters. When thinking about developing your characters and their storylines, what process do you go through to ensure that you’re doing justice to representing different identities within the LGBTQ+ community?
It really comes down to a simple guideline: I treat my characters like real, fleshed-out humans rather than vehicles for plot. (Your plot can always unfold naturally out of your characters’ motivations and mistakes.) I know my characters’ flaws, anxieties, and family histories. I know their birthdays. I’m always trying to uncover the next layer. There’s a great saying that a mystery is not something you can’t understand, but rather, something you can understand endlessly. That’s how I feel about my characters and their relationships with each other. I want to know them in all their fullness. When I come up against my limited knowledge of a character’s background, such as them having a different ethnicity than my own, I reach out to sensitivity readers who have lived that experience. For my YA rom com that releases in April 2021, which features an Indian-American lesbian cheerleader, I worked with five sensitivity readers to make sure I understood her inner world (not just her ethnicity, but her background as a cheerleader!).
She Drives Me Crazy Cover via Kelly Quindlen
Today is National Coming Out Day. What advice or encouragement would you share with the community?
Remember that coming out starts with having that conversation with yourself. You don’t have to tell a damn soul other than your own. Give yourself the space to sit with your questions; don’t rush to claim an identity just because you feel like you should. And remember there is no deadline for this inner work. You have your whole life to uncover who you are.
Feature Image via Kelly Quindlen