Bett Norris

Perspectives

Loss, Literary Icons, and Me

Everyone I have ever met who knew Barbara Grier has a story to tell about her, most revolving around her blunt, assertive, take charge personality. Not one of those stories ever gave me a sense of dislike, and all of them left me with an idea of the respect Barbara Grier garnered for her hard-headed, sometimes heavy-handed approach to getting things done.

Curious Wine was the first book I read from Naiad Press. It was sometime in the nineteen eighties. I can’t remember how I got that first book, but after that, I ordered my Naiad books from the order sheet found in the back of each one.  Barbara Grier and Donna McBride built a literature on mail order.

That book, with its distinctive green cover, sits on my bookshelf today, along with many other Naiad titles. I have driven hundreds of miles, probably thousands, to get to a bookstore that carried lesbian titles. For a very long time, almost all of those books were Naiad books.

I read all of Katherine V Forrest’s books, not even knowing at the time that she served as senior editor at Naiad for ten years and so, edited most of the other books I read, including Karin Kallmaker, and even Jane Rule.

Today, my own books are published through Bywater Books, one of whose owners is Marianne K. Martin, who knew Barbara Grier, was published by her, and has some of those stories about her I mentioned.

In 1999, Kelly Smith formed Bella Books, which acquired much of Naiad’s backstock. Kelly Smith saw Bella Books grow into the largest lesbian publishing company of the time.  She then left to start Bywater Books with Marianne K. Martin. Kelly Smith is now my editor.

How inextricably intertwined we all are, right?

I owe a lot to Barbara Grier, to Katherine V. Forrest, to Marianne K. Martin and to Kelly Smith. In 2004, I attended the Saints and Sinners literary conference held in New Orleans each year in May. (You should go.)  At that time, I was an unknown, unpublished writer. That was the year of the women. Karin Kallmaker was there. So were Katherine V. Forrest, Jewel Gomez, Ann Bannon, Marianne K. martin, Kelly Smith, Jean Redmann, and me. Unknown. Scared. Determined. I was in awe, soaking in as much as I could from every panel discussion and workshop. There was a workshop on the romance novel during which Kallmaker raved about Curious Wine and its enormous influence on her, and was too shy to quote from it. I was not, and so I did, not realizing that the author of that seminal work, Katherine V. Forrest, was herself in attendance. I met her in the bathroom afterward. Awkward.

I went to a panel discussion on the history of lesbian literature, whose members are seen pictured above: Karin Kallmaker, Jewel Gomez, Katherine V. Forrest, and the iconic Ann Bannon. I sat in the largest audience of any panel at the conference, as Ms. Forrest paid homage to Ann Bannon and said that Bannon’s books literally saved her life. I was not alone in being choked with tears, as I felt an impulse to stand and say to Forrest that her books had done the same for me.

That day, in that panel discussion, two other people did stand. Kelly Smith and Marianne K. Martin stood when it was announced that they, joined by JM Redmann, had formed Bywater Books.

I also attended a panel discussion on editing with JM Redmann, Kelly Smith, and Katherine V. Forrest on the panel. We sat in a courtyard in the hot sun and listened enthralled as they discussed the art and war of editing.

When I learned of the newly created Bywater Books, I found a goal, and eventually, a home.

At the closing reception that year, I got to actually talk to Katherine V. Forrest. From that brief conversation later came the idea for a retrospective look at her Kate Delafield series, whose eighth book was released during the conference. That article, along with an interview of Ms. Forrest, was my first published work.

When my first book Miss McGhee was accepted at Bywater, I learned that Katherine Forrest had been the secret celebrity judge of their fiction contest, which brought my manuscript to their attention.  I am very proud that Ms. Forrest wrote the blurb for the cover.

Just last week, I read Taking My Life, a memoir found in Jane Rule’s papers after her death and just published. Katherine Forrest edited two books for Jane Rule while at Naiad. To say that these two writers have influenced me as much as any writer can impact another, to say that they both served as inspiration for the standard I hoped to reach, does not at all convey the very real personal, compelling force each has had in shaping who I am today, an out lesbian, a writer, one who has joined the ranks of published authors and contributes to the growing body of work that lesbian literature is.

Marianne K. Martin is herself a lesbian icon and trailblazer. She is one of the best-selling romance novelists of all time, and has written many classic and classy romances. That she now helps me in writing my own books is an honor and a rare advantage. That her own work was shaped and published by Barbara Grier and Katherine V. Forrest makes me dizzy. Marianne’s help and influence on my writing is invaluable, and makes me feel very lucky.

Kelly Smith is a genius editor, a sometimes maniacal, torturous editor, (I did not say masochistic!) but one whose real gift is that she sees a writer’s intent, hears a writer’s true voice, and shapes a book to be more of what the author wanted it to be. The real talent in editing is to make a book better. Kelly Smith always does that. A former bookstore owner,  the founder of Bella Books, and now publisher and editor at Bywater, Kelly embodies the term evil genius, which may have been invented for Barbara Grier,

That I have come to know and to work with these women, to know their roots, to know that those roots run deep, and tie me to them, through them to pioneers like Barbara Grier and Katherine v. Forrest and others, makes me feel part of a community of strong, stubborn women.

If you think you’ve read a lot of lesbian romance, go read Emergence of Green or Mirrors or Curious Wine. If you think you have read too many lesbian detective mysteries, go find Murder at the Nightwood Bar or Murder by Tradition. If you have not found enough quality lesbian writing, read any one of Jane Rule’s books. Or The Girls Club. Or Field Guide to Deception. Haven’t laughed enough lately? Read Camptown Ladies or I Came Out for This?

The roots run very deep. We all have something to say to each other, and thanks to people like Barbara Grier, today we can speak to each other, entertain each other, in many venues, genres, formats, and places. This growing body of work that is lesbian literature owes a lot to one stubborn woman who insisted we had a right to have our own.

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4 responses to “Loss, Literary Icons, and Me

  1. solargrrl November 11, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    Wonderful, wonderful blog, Bett.
    The interwoven stories and history that you are now a part of, are stories to be celebrated. History is always being created, with every book written, and every reader’s discovery of this literature. These books meant the world to me when I was coming out. There must be thousands of women for whom this is true. We may never know all their stories, but the miracle that Barbara Grier, Katherine Forest, Kelly Smith, and now you, have helped create, will continue to grow and reach even more thousands of people. What a blessing.
    With gratitude,
    KW

    Like

  2. devlyn67 November 12, 2011 at 5:16 am

    Wonderful piece. Thankyou for sharing your thoughts and gratitude to these pioneer women. Just as they have changed your life, so you mine.

    Like

  3. Pingback: Link Round Up « The Lesbrary

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