Jeannie Levig interviews Lesley Davis:
I’m excited to be interviewing my fellow Bold Strokes Books author, Lesley Davis, writer of nine lesbian romance novels with BSB, including her brand new release Playing with Fire, and quite a few lesbian themed short stories that have appeared in various anthologies. She lives in the West Midlands of England—which makes me wish this was a podcast so we all could enjoy her accent—and is a passionate gamer. Welcome, Lesley, and thank you for giving us the opportunity to get to know you and your writing.
Hi, Jeannie! I promise when I can get a new laptop with all the fancy bells and whistles (and that isn’t as old tech as the one I use now!) I’ll get it loaded with something to enable audio. It would be awesome to talk with you too!
First and foremost, congratulations on your new release. With so many books in your publishing achievements now, have you created any traditions for celebrating when you put the final touches on a manuscript and/or for its release date?
I usually sit for a moment after typing the words The End and mutter something like, “Oh, thank god!” because it’s such a relief to get those voices out of my head and onto the page. Mostly because there’s a whole lot of new voices lined up, wanting their story told next! I do treat myself, though, to something I associate with the story, so I have something tangible that brings a character to mind. For Playing With Fire, I brought a very handsome Mushu cuddly toy as a nod to one of the main characters, Dante.
Clearly writing, along with gaming, is one of your loves, so can you tell us what drew you to it and how your impressive string of publications got started?
I’ve always written, even as a child. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a story rattling around in my head that I’d be telling to myself. I had a long period of illness (I have M.E., which is a chronic fatigue illness) that wiped out the whole of my twenties with me being pretty much bedridden and unable to concentrate, write, talk, or remember much. I still have it, but thankfully in a lesser form, which enables me to write on days when my one working brain cell can spark a little creativity.
But while ill, I was telling myself a story that I built on bit by bit, and eventually, it became my first book, Keeper of the Piece. I had read the brilliant Shadows of Aggar by Chris Anne Wolfe and was overwhelmed by the fantasy and the imagery she portrayed. I am very—no, that’s an understatement—VERY science fiction and fantasy minded, and having this kind of story populated by lesbians was a godsend to me. I wrote her a fan letter (way before email existed!) and ended up having five books published by the same publisher she was at. None of them are available at the moment, but the rights are now with Bold Strokes, so they will be reworked and rereleased when I can get around to them.
Then some years later I joined Bold Strokes Books, which was just all shades of awesome. Again, I was in touch with an author I admired, and that turned out to be the big boss!
What do you find different, if anything, between the publication of your first book with BSB, Truth Behind the Mask, and this one, and how have you changed as an author between them?
I’ve been taught the craft of writing a story since that first book with BSB. I am always going to credit everything that looks and sounds right to my editor, Cindy Cresap, because not only does she have to work with the fact I am unashamedly British and will automatically use Britishisms that not everyone will understand, but she also has to deal with my useless memory about something she has addressed in every previous manuscript that I am still getting wrong! And no matter how many notes I take to make sure I don’t do it again…I still do it!
Personally, though, I think I have tackled stories I never would have imagined I’d write, and it’s very exciting to have that freedom.
One thing that stands out for me with your backlist is that you write in a variety of genres, including paranormal, speculative, science fiction, fantasy, action and adventure, and romance. I love that your readers can find such a variety, while still being able to count on what they can expect from your books. Are there challenges that arise for you as an author in writing in such a array of genres?
Not really because that’s just how my brain works! When I started with the idea for Dark Wings Descending, it was supposed to be a detective story, just a detective story. But while I was setting up the characters, there was a little voice in my head that kept saying, “How cool would this be if there were demons involved?” And then it got paranormal in a big way and became a trilogy.
I also write what I’d like to read myself, so I go to that filing cabinet in my head and ask, “What do I want to read today?” and pick out anything from Hollywood stalkers to UFOs! The only challenge is to write something I’d like to read but that also will draw others into wanting to read it too.
Okay, now for some questions about your great new contemporary romance, Playing with Fire. There was so much about it I enjoyed. In addition to genuinely caring about your two main characters, Takira and Dante, I loved the fact that so much of the story took place either in Takira’s restaurant or in the apartment upstairs. I also liked the closeness of the restaurant staff, interacting more as a family than simply coworkers. Both of those elements I thought really strengthened the emotional intimacy that you so seamlessly created as the foundation of the book. And I was touched by Dante’s endearing interaction with Takira’s two-year-old nephew, Finn. The latter made me wonder if that relationship is based on one in your own life. Do you have children or someone else’s child your life that is special to you? If not, how did you capture that sweet interaction between them so beautifully?
This made me smile! I don’t have children myself, but I am a bit of a child magnet whenever there is one in the room. I’ve been very lucky to know some tiny people, and I drew on my interactions with them and how they acted at certain stages when they were the ages that I needed for Harley and Finn. I once spent hours with two little boys, as we played on two separate X-Boxes, on the same game they both wanted my help on. I got totally schooled by the youngest, who was about three years old, who worked out the Lara Croft puzzle before his five year old brother and I did.
I’ve never talked down to children, and if they want to talk nonstop Disney films, then they have a captive audience in me! To be honest, they are way more entertaining than adults who would rather boast about their new car or holiday or job. I’d rather be discussing superheroes or Princesses with ones who love the fantasy of it all just like I do. And the best thing about being with other people’s kids is I get to hand them back!
I wanted Dante to be the one that helped bring Finn out of his shell and to have him realize that not all adults would push him aside. Dante has been through her own version of what Finn suffered, and I saw them as kindred souls. And they were so much fun to write together.
Some writers are plot driven and others are character driven in their approach to storytelling. Which are you, and how did these specific characters, primarily Dante and Takira, come to you?
I’d like to hope I get a nice balance of character and plot for my stories, but I do love my characters more. For Dante I wanted someone who would out-butch Trent whose story is in Playing Passion’s Game—and you see her in the other Playing books too. I love Trent, and my readers' response to her has been very positive. I had an idea for an older woman (because I’m older…grayer…not so much wiser!) and one who was like the old-fashioned butches we don’t get to see so much of now. Someone who would make you look twice because her gender is not that obvious. So I immediately pictured Dante in her suit and tie, with her seriously severe haircut, looking like someone you just wouldn’t mess with. I always saw her in an interracial romance. Here in the UK, it’s not that much of a deal to see interracial couples as it is in some countries.
What was harder for me was to decide which of the many gorgeous ladies out there would I model Takira on, because there’s Alfre Woodard (I’ve crushed out on her for years!), Viola Davis (sadly, no relation!), Tessa Thompson…the list is endless. But I had a specific look in mind, and once I had that, Takira then became a character in her own right. I wanted her to be the most hardworking restaurant owner, who was loved by her staff and her customers. I want desperately to find her restaurant and eat there!
Playing with Fire is a traditional lesbian romance novel, and as most romance readers know, the pacing and tension necessary to sustain the romantic plot can be developed by either a lot of dramatic conflict or by a deep emotional connection between the protagonists—and, of course, sometimes by both. You do a remarkable job in this book establishing a strong enough emotional draw and connection between Takira and Dante to fully support the story to the end, making it a very sweet romance. Since you write across some very different genres that require you to have the skills to develop both creative drama and action as well as that emotional connection, which do you find easier to work with?
I honestly love both. I’m a romantic at heart. I like to see my characters go through the angst and yearnings that finally bring them together at the end. I love happy endings—it’s what I expect to see when I read a romance. I want my gamer girl to end up with the prettiest blonde and live happily ever after!
But…with Raging at the Stars, for example, I really wanted the big spectacle of the flying saucers and the destruction of the cities, and that was fantastic to write. As someone who has eaten, slept, and breathed Star Wars for years and years, to get to write my own spaceships fighting was so very exciting! I love that my writing can be up-close and intimate with two people discussing dating over a kitchen table to people running out of a house and seeing angels and demons fighting in the skies above them or an alien invasion. It’s the coolest thing!
One element of this story that I found very moving was your portrayal of Dante and the emotional struggles she’d faced in her life around being butch and being truly accepted as who she was. There are a lot of lesfic novels featuring butch characters, but I don’t think I’ve ever read one that portrays this as sensitively as you did. Can you tell us a little about Dante’s character in this regard and how you felt when you were writing those scenes?
Thank you for those kind words. I’m not as butch as Dante, but I grew up not fitting in because I just didn’t look or act like all the other girls I went to school with. They were all makeup, high heels, and boys, and I was a Star Wars fanatic (some things never change!) who desperately wanted to be Han Solo because he got to romance Princess Leia. I know how I felt when I was growing up, realizing I wasn’t like the others and having family and strangers treat me unkindly for it. I have some marvelous friends from all walks of life who are beautifully butch, so I’ve heard their sides of what they went through too and how much it hurt them and shaped them.
In some scenes Dante broke my heart, especially how her ex-girlfriend treated her and how her cruel words never faded. I’ve had some fantastic emails from readers saying that they cried for Dante, which honestly, I am thrilled about, because it means she touched them exactly as I hoped she would. And putting her with Finn to show her maternal side was great fun.
I particularly love a scene in the restaurant at the parties, toward the end of the book. When I wrote it, then read it out loud to make sure it sounded just right in the tones I wanted, I threw my hands in the air and shouted “YES!” because it gave me the moment she is completely accepted exactly for who she is. And I love that readers are writing to me about that scene and that they cheered too! It makes me proud for Dante, because to me, she’s real, like all my characters are, and she deserves to be loved. Because isn’t that what a romance should have, characters that deserve to find their happy ending with someone who loves them for exactly who they are?
After speaking with you today, I know you must have something new in the works. What is it, and when can we expect it?
I do. I am tentatively starting to map out the sequel/follow-on of Starstruck, so I’ll be heading back to the world of actresses and the perils of fame. As to when to expect it…hopefully 2020 if I can put my games controller aside for a while, but I’m currently playing The Division 2all the hours I am awake! I could say that’s research for Trent and her gamer pals in the Playing series but no one believes me anymore!
But I have the first few chapters of this new story scribbled down to start me off. I write it all by hand initially which isn’t too great as my writing suffered when my M.E. took hold, and so, as anyone who has had a signed book off me will attest to, my writing looks like spider scrawl! If I can decipher what I have written then hopefully everyone can read what is happening in the world of Aiden, Cassidy, and the irrepressible Mischa next.
Where can readers find you online?
I’m on Twitter at @author_lesley and have a website.
And if you don’t mind the endless posts about games, I’m on Facebook too.
And one last random question about you, just for fun. What are two ways you want to be like your family of origin and two ways you want to be different?
Goodness, that’s an intriguing question. I’ve been told that my Grandad Leslie (spelled the boys’ way and not the girls’ way like mine!) was a poet, so there was a writer on my mom’s side of the family that I’m happy to follow on from. The second is I’d like to be just like my dad because he was the most accepting man I have ever known. I already look like him and have his gray hair so I think I’m close to that wish!
To be different, that’s easy! I grew up with relatives who are bigots and people who use faith to be cruel instead of preaching love. I hope to never, ever, follow in their pathways. Also, I’m the only lesbian, so far, on both sides of my parents’ families, and I’m proud to be the lone rainbow sheep of the flock!
Lesley, thank you so much for taking the time to share yourself and your new release, Playing with Fire, with our wonderful Bold Strokes family of readers, writers, editors, and all the amazing BSB folks who make our books possible. I wish you tons of success and lots of fun on your continued journey as an author, and I look forward to your next book. And while I’m waiting for that, I’ll also be catching up on more of your backlist. I’m particularly looking forward to Dark Wings Descending. You have me hooked with that one.
Thank you, Jeannie! Best wishes from the UK to you!