Elan Barnehama is the author of Finding Bluefield. Spanning the years 1960-1983, Finding Bluefield chronicles the lives of two women who, by seeking a child and family, find themselves navigating unknown and dangerous territory during a pivotal time in U.S. history.
Barnehama has taught writing and literature at several colleges, led community based writing workshops, been a high school teacher and varsity baseball coach, a radio news announcer, a speech writer for a university president, and a cook. His commentaries and essays have appeared on public radio, online, and in newspapers.
What was your favorite part of writing Finding Bluefield? The greatest challenge?
I enjoyed dropping my characters into the 1960’s, a loud, idealistic, and divisive period with a lot of good music and free love. Outrageous was the norm for a counter-culture that approached activism as theater and turned personal statements into political manifestos. As the nation shook off the sleepy 50’s, it found JFK in the White House inspiring hope and symbolizing a generational shift in power. But then there were all those assassinations, the Vietnam War, our cities on fire, and a turbulent civil rights movement. It didn’t take long for the U.S. to find itself in one serious identity crisis.
And the having my characters within arm’s length of some of those great moments was also the greatest challenge, since I wanted those events to be a supporting cast and not compete with the main characters. I wanted the novel to be Barbara and Nicky’s personal and not political story.
What inspired you to write this novel?
While working on the first draft of Finding Bluefield, I remembered reading a number of articles citing cases where courts used existing laws to justify removing children from gay and lesbian parents. In some cases in the 1950s and ’60s, courts gave custody of children to fathers in divorces where the mother was “rumored” or confirmed to be a lesbian, in stark contrast to the almost universal approach, at the time, of granting custody to mothers.
What was your process for writing Finding Bluefield? Getting it published?
Writing the novel turned out to be easier than getting it published. First there was the wrong agent who wasted my time. Then there was the well-meaning small press who took the novel but ended up shutting down due to the publisher’s medical issues and the economy. There was a lesbian press that was interested in the novel until they found out I was a straight male.
But then I found a wonderful home for Finding Bluefield with Bold Strokes Books, which “offers a diverse collection of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer fiction.” Their focus is on the story and not the author. They were happy to read the novel and they’ve been wonderful to work with.
Why did you decide to make your main character female? Do you recommend writers try writing the opposite gender?
When I set out to write my novel, Finding Bluefield, I didn’t expect my main character to be a female, much less for her to fall in love with another woman. But there I was, a straight man hooked by these two characters, Nicky and Barbara, and their voices, and their story.
The thing is, most novels have male and female characters, they have characters of various races and nationalities. So we’re always writing about folks who are different than us. So I wouldn’t say that I recommend having one’s main character be the opposite gender, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend against it.
In what ways does article writing help with your fiction? And vice versa?
The thing about writing for other people—whatever the assignment—is that you don’t have the luxury of staring at the blank screen. You just start writing. And that’s a good habit. You also have to grab the reader right away and keep them engaged. These are all things you want to do in fiction too, but you have less time to accomplish this in an essay or article.
For me, fiction is about letting the reader make connections and this has improved my articles in that I have gotten better at presenting ideas and letting readers make their own connections.
Additional advice for fiction writers?
Humans are storytellers by nature and by necessity. As soon as we’re born, we are told stories. As soon as we can speak, we start to tell stories to anyone who will listen. We need to tell stories to place ourselves in the world. We listen to stories to understand how others place themselves in the world. There’s no limit to how we can tell a story. And when we spend time with the written word, we are connected to one another. When we read, we are never alone.
And revise, revise, revise. Get some beta readers. And revise some more.
What do you know now that you wish you knew before you started writing?
Actually, I wish I knew more than I know right now. And I also wish I knew everything I know now, then.
But, I guess I have gotten a lot better at trusting the process, at trusting my characters to find the story. Because, the story I set out to write is not the story I end up writing. And I’ve learned to let the real story happen.
FRIDAY, MARCH 15, 2013, ReadingThePast
Guest post from Elan Barnehama, author of Finding Bluefield:
With Elan Barnehama's guest post for today, we move much closer to recent times: the colorful and turbulent 1960s, as experienced by a lesbian couple. If you believe history only encompasses events from the distant and untouchable past, or focuses mainly on well-known names, read this essay and think again. Many of the sentiments he expresses below resonated with me, and I hope you'll enjoy reading his post also.
My debut novel, Finding Bluefield, chronicles the lives of two women who, by seeking love and family, found themselves navigating unknown territory during a time when relationships like theirs were mostly hidden and often dangerous. It is a multi-generational family saga spanning the years 1960-1983 and set against a background of segregation, Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, the JFK election, Woodstock, the South, the Moon Landing, and the Sanctuary Movement.
The 1960s were loud, idealistic, and divisive with a lot of good music and free love. Outrageous was the norm for a counter-culture that approached activism as theater and turned personal statements into political manifestos. As the nation shook off the sleepy '50s, it found JFK in the White House inspiring hope and symbolizing a generational shift in power. But then there were all those assassinations, the Vietnam War, our cities on fire, and a turbulent civil rights movement. It didn’t take long for the US to find itself in one serious identity crisis. And that was where I wanted my characters to begin.
I’m interested in what happens below the surface, away from the spotlight, inside the crowds. Great events are as much about the leaders as they are about the participants. Individual stories contribute to the moment and add up to a movement. We all collaborate to create history. It’s a team sport.
Finding Bluefield is located within arm’s length of some of great moments. As the nation searched to find its footing, Nicky and Barbara were finding theirs. Kennedy’s victory, which included winning Nicky’s home state of Virginia, inspired her to act. She already had courage. The election victory gave her hope. She thought it gave her cover.
Later, Nicky attended the Martin Luther King March on Washington—where Dr. King shared his dreams with the world—because she wanted to see history. The DC Mall and huge crowd provided a venue and an opportunity for Nicky to anonymously sleep with a man in order to have a child in this pre-sperm donor, pre-in vitro fertilization world. But the scene’s main purpose was to highlight that Nicky’s rights as a lesbian were not on the agenda. The march was not for her. It did not have her back.
After Paul was born, Nicky and Barbara planned to raise him in the Bluefield home that bore Nicky’s family name for two hundred years. But, once word spread that Nicky was a lesbian, it turned out that two hundred years was not nearly long enough for Nicky to maintain her local status, her insider membership. Sure, change was going to come, but Nicky’s dream for her child turned out to be premature.
While working on the first draft of Finding Bluefield, I remembered reading a number of articles citing cases where courts used existing laws to justify removing children from gay and lesbian parents. In some cases in the 1950s and '60s, courts gave custody of children to fathers in divorces where the mother was "rumored" or confirmed to be a lesbian, in stark contrast to the almost universal approach, at the time, of granting custody to mothers.
Change, it turns out, is slow and messy. It often stumbles. And there are always casualties. Sometimes the casualties are caused by friendly fire. Many people grew frustrated with the pace of change in the '60s and became disillusioned. Others simply burnt out. I wanted to create characters that avoided the “loud and proud” megaphone, in-your-face lifestyle that was so much a part of the time but were in it for the long term.
author Elan BarnehamaNicky and Barbara never apologized for who they were, and they never pretended to be straight. They didn’t go to elaborate lengths to cover up who they were. Their focus was to create a life together and have a family. They kept their lives to themselves and shared it only with the people they cared about. They were trying to get from one moment to the next safely, with grace, integrity, and love. By doing that, they became the role models they lacked. When their lives became other people’s business—like Carol Ann, Nicky’s sister—they were at risk.
Blending stories into the study and contemplation of the past has the potential to turn history into the active experience that it is. And since fiction must be believable, what the characters did, how they acted, what they thought, the decisions they made, all had to have been possible. The reader has to think it could have happened that way.
Everyone enters the world in the middle of great events—not all of them good. We can choose to embrace our lives or whine loudly about our circumstances. Or we can muster the courage to imagine a different life, a life that has yet to exist.
Posted: 04/10/2013 12:11 pm
Given a choice, I always choose funny. As a rule, I prefer to laugh so as not to cry. If funny isn't a choice, I add it. When nothing is sacred, everything becomes sacred. Seeing the funny, that makes my day better. As long as shaming is not the intent, I'm in.
I credit, others blame, Bob Dylan and Tom Paxton and J.D. Salinger and Toni Morrison. And the Smothers Brothers
, The West Wing
, The Wire
, and China Beach
. They all have some serious funny. Just the stuff I need to get by.
But lately I've been finding it all less funny. It worries me that I could be running low on irony. That absurdity has become absurdly commonplace. That satire is turning tired and tiresome. It's not their fault. It's ours.
When a Southern Carolina couple puts their 16-year-old daughter up for adoption because she is gay, I'm not laughing. When Michelle Shocked goes on a homophobic rant in the middle of her concert, or when North Dakota gives legal protections to human embryos but not the women whose bodies house them, I can't even muster up a smirk. And when North Carolina declares that it has the right to establish Christianity as the official state religion, or when twenty percent of Republicans claim that President Obama is the anti-Christ, confirming that the U.S. is in the midst of a religious war, I can no longer find a laugh.
These behaviors are the newest normal and they are far too commonplace to keep on being funny. While I am a fan of Jon Stewart and of Steven Colbert and of all their writers, I really wish they had less material to work with. I wish their jobs were a lot harder.
There are many issues facing us globally, nationally, for which there is no wrong or right answer. Instead screaming immoral and slinging insults at those who have a different opinion, why is it not possible to muster even a little cultural respect for those who believe differently then us? If we do not find a way for all sides to recognize that each choice is imperfect and each choice can be difficult then we will not have to worry about vanquishing the enemy without as we, the enemy within are becoming a formidable enemy of everything this nation was founded on.
The Founders understood that they couldn't predict the future. Luckily, they were more than capable of drafting a living document that allowed for a vibrant society in which differing views could and should coexist. They did not expect everyone in the union to be the same, live the same way, or think the same way. But they did expect that each member of these United States be united by the common interest of the nation's well-being. And that interest was best served by freedom of information.
So, my funny wants to know: When did we become afraid of information? When did options become obsolete? When did we abandon the freedom to learn?
My funny may not be your funny, but all us deserve to laugh.Follow Elan Barnehama on Twitter: www.twitter.com/elanbarnehama