Daniel Devenney talks to Celia Laskey, author of the poignant and inspiring debut novel, Under the Rainbow.
I loved the concept of your debut novel, Under the Rainbow. As soon as I heard it, I simply had to read it. What was your inspiration?
Everyone who knows me considers me to be the biggest lesbian whoever lesbianed(!) and people are really surprised when they find out that I didn’t realize I was gay until I was 23—they assume I shot out of my mom’s vagina and was like, “no thank you, men.” The reality is that realizing my sexuality was a really long, sad journey and for most of my life I was so closeted, even to myself, that it literally didn’t occur to me that I could be gay. Naturally, it had a lot to do with a lack of queer visibility in my young life. I grew up in a small town in Maine, and while I don’t think it would have earned the title of “most homophobic town in America,” it definitely was lacking in that queer visibility. If a task force had come in—even just to show that queer people exist and that it’s *okay* to be queer—I think I could have realized who I was much sooner. So I suppose in a way, I wrote the book for my younger self who needed a version of the task force.
Each chapter is told from a different POV, did you have a favourite to write?
It was really fun to write David’s chapter, just because he’s so bitchy and that kind of tone comes really naturally to me.
It features such a wide range of characters both on and off the queer spectrum, which was the hardest to write or relate to?
As you might guess, it was really hard to write Christine. With every character, I’m trying to understand what makes them tick and why, and with Christine, I wanted to understand why this billboard drives her so nuts. I did a lot of reading about homophobia and its root causes and I found one study that said some people’s homophobia is actually rooted in jealousy—not that they want to be queer themselves but that they’re jealous of the freedom queerness can bring to a life: the feeling that you don’t have to get married, or buy a house, or have kids, etc. That it kind of frees you from expectations and conventions. And that’s how I’m able to understand homophobia: they hate us ‘cause they ain’t us (yes, this is a quote from the 2014 movie that no one saw, The Interview, lol). Then I feel able to give a character like Christine humanity and empathy because it’s not that she hates us, it’s that on some level she hates her own life.
I love the escapism that reading provides, especially in times like these. I got completely lost in your characters. Which books have helped you escape during quarantine?
THE LEAVERS by Lisa Ko was on my backlist, and I’m so glad I finally read it because it was completely absorbing and just stunning in every way. A new book I read is GODSHOT by Chelsea Bieker and it also sucks you into its world and takes you on a wild ride that’ll help you forget everything else.
Your debut is refreshingly diverse. How important is visibility and representation to you?
So important. The industry is still lacking so much visibility for so many people and I find it really unacceptable. We need way more books by trans people, nonbinary people, people of color, disabled people, etc. Readers are hungry for these stories, and I believe they’d sell just as well as all the other books out there, so I don’t understand what’s holding the industry back other than an obsession with the “status quo,” which is inherently prejudiced.
If you could only listen to one record for the rest of quarantine, what would it be?
The record I’ve been listening to every single day (no joke) since it came out is Future Nostalgia by Dua Lipa. Those gay disco bops just make me feel so much better!
Your book is one of my all-time favorites. I know this is a tough one, but what’s your favorite book, and why?
I think Edinburgh by Alexander Chee is the perfect novel on every level: structure, character, language, etc. I definitely evangelize for it.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
Probably when I was in middle school—in English class we had this great teacher who would have us write personal essays. We’d pass them around the class and read & rate them on a scale of 1 to 5, with bubbles you’d fill in for each number. I remember getting my essays back and every single classmate had filled in the 5 bubble. I think I started to understand that I might be talented, then.
Every writer I’ve spoken with has a unique process. Do you have any interesting writing quirks?
I think I have a pretty standard process, but one weird thing is that I usually figure out a lot of my story problems when I’m on the toilet peeing, lol. Something about taking that quick break and stepping away from my laptop helps me figure things out.
If you could share one piece of advice with aspiring writers, what would it be?
I actually have 3 pieces of advice for young writers, I hope that’s okay!
1. Learn the craft first. A lot of people ask how to get published and they’ve never even taken a creative writing class! Like, slow down—you need the building blocks before you can actually build something.
2. Figure out what you want to say about the world and find a way to translate that to an interesting, pithy premise for a book. Something that will hook readers within like two sentences. Think about books like The Underground Railroad, Exit West, etc.
3. Be ambitious and don’t listen to the “rules” of publishing. For example, don’t listen to anyone who tells you you have to be published in literary magazines in order to sell a book. That wasn’t true for me—it was actually easier to sell a book than it was to be published in lit mags! At the end of the day, what’s the harm in *trying* to achieve the success you dream of? If you don’t try, you’ll never know.