Earlier this month, we were excited to learn that Sisters in Crime has launched a new program to support emerging LGBTQIA+ authors! Submissions are now open for the inaugural Pride Award for Emerging LGBTQIA+ Crime Writers, which will provide a $2,000 grant to an emerging crime fiction writer at the beginning of their career who identifies as LGBTQIA+. There is no cost to submit. This is the first year for the Pride Award, which has been created as the legacy project from past Sisters in Crime president Sherry Harris.
We caught up with this year’s judges, John Copenhaver, Cheryl Head, and Kristen Lepionka, to find out more about the new program, and to discuss the state of crime writing for the LGBTQIA+ community. As the following conversation shows, the world’s a lot better now for queer crime writers than it used to be, but there’s still a whole lot of work to be done.
John Copenhaver’s historical crime novel, Dodging and Burning, won the 2019 Macavity Award for Best First Mystery Novel and garnered Anthony, Strand Critics, Barry, and Lambda Award nominations. His second novel, The Savage Kind, will be published in October 2021. He writes a crime fiction review column for Lambda called “Blacklight,” and cohosts on the House of Mystery Radio Show. He lives in Richmond, VA. www.jcopenhaver.com
Cheryl Head’s debut book, Long Way Home: A World War II Novel, was shortlisted for the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Awards in the African-American Fiction, and Historical Fiction categories. Head writes the award-winning, Charlie Mack Motown Mysteries whose female PI protagonist is queer and black. The series is included in the Detroit Public Library’s African-American Books List. Head is a member of the national board of Bouchercon. In 2019, she was named to the Hall of Fame of the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival. Visit Cheryl online at cherylhead.com
Kristen Lepionka is the Shamus and Goldie Award-winning author of the Roxane Weary mystery series. Her books have also been nominated for Anthony and Macavity Awards, and she is a co-founder of the feminist podcast Unlikeable Female Characters. Find her on social media @kmlwrites or at www.kristenlepionka.com.
CR: Why is the SinC Pride Award important to the LGBTQIA+ community and how can it help writers?
Cheryl Head: For a writer starting out in their career, every affirmation that you are on the right track can keep your spirits and ego high and push you to the next level of accomplishment. I believe this award will have that kind of value.
Kristen Lepionka: There are a lot of different grants and awards in the writing world, and the SinC Pride Award is the first I’m aware of that is specifically for queer crime writers, and it’s so important to have that spotlight on our corner of the genre. And more than that, it’s an opportunity to support an emerging writer at a critical stage in the development of their career, which can make all the difference in the world to someone who is just starting out.
John Copenhaver: The award will help up and coming queer authors find mentorship and some financial support. Most importantly, though, is that it’s a powerful way for Sisters in Crime to declare itself an ally organization and take action to demonstrate that allyship.
CR: Why are you excited to judge this event?
Kristen Lepionka: I want to read all the best new queer manuscripts! But also, I’m thrilled to be a part of something that has the potential to positively impact someone else like me. Knowing what we know about the publishing industry and the limited number of #ownvoices books that get traditionally published, I know I’m fortunate and I want to pay that forward however I can. Plus, John and Cheryl are awesome, and I’m really looking forward to discussing the entries with them.
Cheryl Head: I’m always ready to help another writer. Also it’s inspiring for me to learn of other queer writers working in my field. This award, in particular, has so many valuable elements: A cash award for career development activities, membership in the incredibly supportive Sisters in Crime community, and a manuscript critique. That’s a win-win-win.
John Copenhaver: It’s exciting to be able to read and support LGBTQ+ writers in the mystery/thriller genre. I’ve been reviewing crime fiction for years. I know that there’s so much superb writing out there that gets overlooked because many publishers think that queer fiction—particularly if it’s genre—is too niche for a broader audience. They believe only LGBTQ+ people want to read about LGBTQ+ people. I don’t think that’s true. Younger readers are reading across difference. The readers of the future don’t just want to read characters that mirror themselves; they want to read great stories about people who are different than they are. If I can play some role in building the bridge to a broader audience for an up-and-coming writer, I’m all for it.
CR: What has your writing experience taught you about how this award could be helpful?
John Copenhaver: Representation is key. Awards that highlight traditionally underrepresented writers, like the Pride Award or the Eleanor Taylor Bland Award, in organizations that aren’t specific to those writers, are sending a compelling message: We want you. A broader audience wants you. Welcome!
Cheryl Head: This business of writing is certainly about talent, but it’s also about getting the attention of readers and reviewers and agents and peers. The Pride Award will put an emerging writer’s name on the radar of so many influencers in our writing community.
Kristen Lepionka: When you are just starting out, you don’t know what you don’t know, let alone who to ask to find out. The community aspect of SinC is such an important element of this.
CR: What do you think is the biggest obstacle when it comes to diversifying mystery and crime fiction?
Cheryl Head: Getting readers to take a chance on a new author. Mystery crime read fans-and I count myself among them-know what they like. They can be very loyal to a few authors and very habitual about what they buy. What I’d love to see is more readers stepping out of their comfort zones to try works in new styles and from new voices. I love noir. But I read broadly, and I know that noir is not just a white, male, P.I. in a fedora. It’s a state of mind; a defining mood; stories both bleak and self-reliant.“[N]oir is not just a white, male, P.I. in a fedora. It’s a state of mind; a defining mood; stories both bleak and self-reliant.”–Cheryl Head
John Copenhaver: Non-growth-minded individuals in positions of power in publishing houses and other organizations. If you have that power, you also have a responsibility to understand systemic racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, etc. Also, marketing. For instance, it’s terrific that there’s been great energy around reading books by so many incredible Black authors over this past year. The BLM movement has created an occasion to market these writers. Still, you have to ask: Why did it take a social crisis and mass protests for the reading community to realize that there are so many splendid writers of color and that they write books for everyone, not just readers of color. The joy of reading across difference should just be embraced and employed as a marketing strategy. I hope that happens, so this won’t just be a fad, but a lasting trend.
Kristen Lepionka: I think we still have an issue of books with LGBTQIA+ protagonists being specifically labeled as “LGBTQIA+ interest” as if the broader community of crime fiction readers might not be interested—which is nonsense! A good story is a good story. Until publishers put monetary support behind diverse books, readers may not even have the opportunity to discover them, and it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. Therefore, #ownvoices authors can benefit hugely from the extra exposure that comes with an award like the SinC Pride Award.
CR: What challenges did you face early in your career that you felt were/are specific to LGBTQIA+ authors?
John Copenhaver: When I was shopping Dodging and Burning, I often got rejections that went something like this: “We loved your book, but we don’t know how to market it.” The subtext: We liked your novel, but it’s too gay to convince our editorial board that it would sell broadly. My agent and I kept at it, and we were lucky enough to find an independent publisher (Pegasus) that didn’t see it that way. The big five publishers are changing, but it’s slow. Independent publishers are flexible, creative, and often producing the most exciting work. They’re just more agile.
Kristen Lepionka: I wouldn’t say I experienced any challenges specifically related to LGBTQIA+ authors, other than the occasional reader comment like “I liked this book but I thought it was unnecessary that the main character had to be queer?” Like…whatever.
I will also point out that, in the Before Times when we had things like big conferences (those were the days!), there is a trend of putting all of the queer writers on a few discussion panels that are specifically about queer books. While of course there is value in these conversations, it’s also a missed opportunity to include authors of LGBTQIA+ books in panels that are about other things—trust me, we have opinions about everything.
Cheryl Head: I write a mystery/crime series with a black, queer, female protagonist. That gets my books lumped into a lot of categories, but rarely just mystery. At its heart the Charlie Mack Motown Mysteries are crime novels written with my eye and voice fixed firmly on noir, but with a world view that expands the notions of law and order, justice and problem solving. Charlie Mack is a complex, smart, quirky P.I. who happens to be queer. But in the bookstores, my books might be in the LGBTQ section or the African American fiction section, not mystery. I need that to change.
CR: How has the publishing landscape changed since your debut?
Cheryl Head: There’s much more focus on diversity and inclusion in publishing now because there are so many fine books coming from writers of color. Amazing, rules-busting, genre-bending reads. But, the industry trusts what it trusts. Shawn (S. A )Cosby recently said in a conversation about black crime writing today that the industry has to let writers of color try things and fail. I agree. White mystery writers get that chance all the time. They may have one book that hits; another that misses. If writers of color or LGBTQ writers have a book that fizzles, it’s hard to get back in the batting roster. I made a baseball analogy there. LOL.
CR: Were there missteps you made early in your career that could have been avoided if you’d had access to resources such as Sisters in Crime community resources and/or the Sisters in Crime Pride Award?
Cheryl Head: I’m an introvert. I mean one of the textbook ones. When someone says the word ‘Conference’ I’m like, do you mean I have to talk to some people? As I’ve gotten older my Meyers Briggs status is more in the middle of the introvert-extrovert spectrum. However, if I’d known of the Sisters in Crime community earlier, I’d have been part of a network of writers who understand some people build community differently. The organization has so many resources to help you along your way in your career. They should be applauded for that.
CR: Why are grants and mentorship so important to getting an author’s career started? Who is someone that you’d like to thank for giving you a leg up in your own career?
Cheryl Head: I came to this vocation late in life after a full career in broadcast news and program production. But all along the way I was writing fiction. One of my media bosses, Peggy O’Brien, drove to my house and put Stephen King’s On Writing book in my mailbox. That’s when I knew someone else believed in me as a fiction writer. More recently, I want to thank author Kellye Garrett for plucking me from the hallways at Malice Domestic to introduce me to the Crime Writers of Color community.
John Copenhaver: Lambda Literary as an organization supported me as I figured out what it meant to a gay writer writing about gay life. In 2011, I went to my first Writers Retreat. It was life-changing. I’m always directing young LGBTQ+ writers to Lambda. They’re a great resource and community.
Kristen Lepionka: There are so many folks that have helped in one way or another, but I’d especially like to shout out former SinC President Lori Rader-Day, who I got to know in the Midwest crime writing community, and Kellye Garrett, who was my mentor in 2015 during the Pitch Wars program. If not for Kellye’s support and belief in my work, I’m not sure that I ever would have been published in the first place. Kellye is an incredible champion for #ownvoices authors and just one of the most awesome people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.
CR: Are there early LGBTQIA+ authors in the annals of crime fiction that you find particularly inspiring for writers getting started now?
Cheryl Head: Nikki Baker, Penny Mickelbury, Joseph Hansen. I’ve noticed more queer stories appearing in gothic fiction and thrillers lately—it’s great to see suspense veer away from straight couples and to see gothic novels leaning into the implications of characters’ mutual obsessions.
John Copenhaver: Joseph Hansen, Katherine V. Forrest, and Michael Nava come immediately to mind. They’re all crime writers writing universally about queer lives. Also, I deeply admire Val McDermid and Sarah Waters.
Kristen Lepionka: I love the Dave Brandstetter series by Joseph Hansen as an early example from the genre. I also have to mention a book that I always talk about when asked this question, but I so far have yet to encounter anyone who’s read it, and that’s really a shame: Dry Fire by Catherine Lewis. It’s a mid-90s novel about a lesbian rookie cop through her days in the academy and as she is starting out on patrol. One of my all time faves.
CR: What do you see as, well, the most LGBTQIA+-friendly subgenres?
Cheryl Head: Speculative fiction, and there’s some great long-form poetry being written by LGBTQ writers. There’s a lot of blending of genre. I’m seeing horror/mystery and a lot of fantasy/mystery.
Kristen Lepionka: The YA category, across all genres, is absolutely awesome for this. And that’s so exciting, because young adult readers are going to turn into adult readers who expect to see diversity in everything they read (yay!) But in terms of right now, I think fantasy is a great place to find LGBTQIA+ stories (Sarah Gailey’s Magic for Liars is an incredible fantasy-mystery hybrid).
John Copenhaver: Crime fiction is a great place to explore and comment on social injustices. Any of the subgenres can do this. I’m particularly interested in noir, because traditionally it’s been a misogynistic and homophobic subgenre—which means that it’s a great place to address those issues and turn them on their heads.
CR: What kinds of queer stories are still underrepresented in the genre?
Kristen Lepionka: I would like to see way more trans stories.
Cheryl Head: Stories of older gay men and lesbians; queer people who aren’t in their twenties and fab forties.
I’d also like to see more stories of intergenerational queer relationships. There are a lot of them, in my experience. There are very few stories with bisexual characters. I write one, and so does Kristen Lepionka. Some of the writing that focuses on minorities in the LGBTQ community can get very political, but I’d love to see more fiction about those tensions.
John Copenhaver: Trans stories. Trans people of color. Queer people of color. There are so many necessary and compelling stories to be told. We need them, but the genre doesn’t have nearly enough. And in some cases—particularly trans people of color—none at all.
CR: Crime fiction is becoming a better space for queer writers and stories, but still has nothing on, say, YA fiction. What changes are you still hoping to see?
Kristen Lepionka: Yes, YA is where it’s at! For adult crime fiction right now, I want to see more Big 5 publishers putting out crime fiction with queer protagonists. And I also want to see books by cishet authors not perpetuating stereotypes. This has obviously come a very long way already, but there is still a ways to go. Well-written queer supporting characters are important to be able to write realistically about the world we live in, even in books that do not center their stories.
Cheryl Head: I’m hoping to see our readers and publishers become just as curious about queer life as the readers and publishers of YA are. Publishers are pivotal in inviting these readers to be excited about these themes and these books. Not only YA, but TV and film producers are way ahead in understanding that a couple of generations of new readers and consumers of other media don’t see queer characters and life as anomalies. Because, to borrow a slogan from the gay rights movement of old: we’re queer, and we’re here!
CR: Can you recommend an #OwnVoices book by an LGBTQIA+ writer out this year?
John Copenhaver: Every month I review a writer in Lambda’s Literary Review. Check it out! This month I featured Edwin Hill. His Hester Thursby series is superb!
Cheryl Head: I have to name two. Both from Lambda Literary Award winners:
Lies With Man by Michael Nava
Murder and Gold by Ann Aptaker
Kristen Lepionka: I’m really looking forward to the release of By Way of Sorrow by Robin Gigl.