canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Nairne Holtz

by Anne Borden

The Skin Beneath (Insomniac Press, 2007) is the first novel by Nairne Holtz, an established short story writer and editor of No Margins: Writing Canadian Fiction in Lesbian (Insomniac Press, 2006), which was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award.

In this smart and sexy lesbian mystery set in Toronto and Montreal, a 20-something lesbian (Sam) is struggling to understand her sister Chloe's death, which was ruled a suicide. Sam is faced not only with her own grief but with the mystery of who her sister really was. Nairne sets up the perfect Canadian conspiracy theory (think Hell's Angels, the Raelians, drug kingpins and the US government), and then complicates it with humour, pathos, family dysfunction, and a dose of dyke drama.

Anne Borden spoke with Ms. Holtz recently from her home in Montreal.

(September 2007)


Anne: Where do you think lesbian fiction, and LGBT publishing, is going?

Nairne: Well, in the States, most lesbian fiction tends to be genre fiction, dominated heavily by romances, and then mysteries. There's an indie press scene in San Francisco and New York and there are a few women who are with mainstream presses, but very, very few. It seems like there were more in the late 80s and 90s.

In Canada, we don't really have small lesbian publishing houses; we used to have more feminist publishers, but most of them don't really exist anymore. I think in Canada [writers] have to fight harder in a way, to be with either a literary press or a mainstream house.

We're pretty scattered [Canadian LGBT writers]. We don't belong to any kind of organization, we don't have awards specifically for what we do like in the States. In the States it's been more of an underground thing. In Canada, it's more a part of the mainstream. So, on the other hand, we have a lot more options to be part of the mainstream than a lot of Americans.

I think that Ann-Marie McDonald cleared this space that allowed mainstream publishers to realize that they could take a chance on having lesbian content, with Fall on Your Knees. After that, you saw some of the writers who were with the literary presses being able to have their work in the bigger houses, like Dionne Brand and Helen Humphries.

Anne: Now that LGBT fiction is becoming more mainstream, people are asking, well, will there even be "lesbian fiction" as we know it in 15 or 20 years? How is the scene changing in your view?

Nairne: It's being disseminated more broadly. Now, if people are looking for a book with lesbian content, some people will get it from Barnes and Noble, but some will still go to women's bookstores, underground listservs, stuff like that.

I think we'll probably have an experience that's closer to what you see with African American fiction, with niche markets and also a certain amount of space, for certain kinds of novels. Novels that don't show the whole lesbian community… novels that don't address homophobia as much. I think it's becoming a question of "how much lesbian content do you have" when it comes to whether it's considered niche or mainstream.

Anne: What are you working on right now?

Nairne: My second book, This One's Gonna Last Forever. It's short stories about relationships that are pretty much destined to fail, as well as a novella about personal and political betrayals among young radicals. It has a lot more dark comedy than The Skin Beneath.

Anne: What's your process like? Do you work from home?

Nairne: Yes. I do, as they say, have a room of my own. I work pretty nine-to-fivish. When I'm deep into a rewrite I can be really obsessive and then do some really killer hours, where I'm working ten or twelve hours a day. And then there are the times where I take breaks [to] walk the dog, do grocery shopping… I have a few activism things that I do as well. Increasingly what I find is a lot more administration in terms of arranging meetings and tours, things like that.

Anne: How do you make a living while you're writing?

Nairne: Well, it helps that I'm a kept woman… that is to say, my girlfriend pays the bills! But we've set up our lives quite cheaply. We don't have a car or anything like that.

Anne: Do you have any advice for emerging novelists in terms of the creative process?

Nairne: I think one thing that people have to sort out is whether what they're doing is about self-expression and craving a certain kind of attention, or whether it really is about a love of storytelling and feeling you want to tell certain stories. Writing is hard work, and you have to like it. You have to love reading books and get pleasure from writing. And if you're not, then you have to ask yourself: why am I doing this?

Also, sometimes I've seen people basically choose between home ownership, or more middle-class lives with cars and homes, and writing. And what I have to say is, you really have to choose writing, if that's what you're meant to do.






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