Interview: Brandon Monokian!

Underneath This had the pleasure of interviewing Brandon Monokian, an actor, writer and director. Please read more about Brandon in a bio sent by him before proceeding to the interview.

Brandon’s original plays have been presented throughout New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey. They have starred the likes of Christian Coulson (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) and Style Network star Briella Calafiore (Jerseylicious, Glam Fairy). Brandon co-created the Page to Stage arts programming for Princeton Public Library (for which they produced a mini documentary highlighting the work) and spoke at their Tedx series about his theatre protest project Revolutionary Readings. Brandon received national attention through Revolutionary Readings, which was used to fight the banning of the book Revolutionary Voices from two New Jersey libraries. Bitch Magazine called Revolutionary Readings “an awesome way to protest the banning of this book.” As an actor he has performed at the Vineyard Playhouse and Luna Stage in readings of The Ride by Carol Lynn Maillard (founding member of the Grammy award-winning Sweet Honey in the Rock). The Ride is a companion piece to In Development, a work he co-created with acclaimed actress Suzzanne Douglas and poet Yorri J. Berry. Brandon also appeared in Obie Award Winning PearlDamour’s eight hour piece How to Build a Forest (The Kitchen), PastTENSE (dir. Robert Woodruff), Love is in The Air (dir. Jeremy Bloom, The Cell), Shlemiel the First (dir. David Gordon, Skirball Center) and Überboy: The Story of a Hero (dir. John Bow, GOCTC). He is a three-time director of The Vagina Monologues for the V Day campaign, helping to raise thousands for various women’s charities. Productions of The Vagina Monologues he has directed have starred Amy Warren (Broadway’sAugust: Osage County), Briella Calafiore (Jerseylicious), Jessica Romano (Glam Fairy), Elaine Bromka (Uncle Buck), Suzzanne Douglas (How Stella Got Her Groove Back, The Parent ‘Hood), Julie Fain Lawrence (Concussion) and Stephaine Roth Haberle (Phaedra Backwards). For more information, please visit http://www.brandonmakestheatre.com and twitter @brandonmonokian

‘Peter Pan is Dead’ the graphic novel of the play by Brandon with art by Sara Sciabbarrasi is on sale now. CLICK HERE to order! For tickets to the Philadelphia Fringe production of the play running September 6 – 21 CLICK HERE.

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How did you become inspired to pursue a career in the arts?

I saw Les Misérables on Broadway when I was six (I begged my parents to take me after being obsessed with the cast album). I saw a young Lacey Chabert (of Mean Girls and Party of Five fame) on stage and thought “if this kid my age can do this, so can I.” Thanks, Lacey Chabert!

Who and which forces have been most influential along your path?

My parents, coffee and wine. Also, I’ve been lucky to have a few incredible artists mentor me for some time after I graduated college. Suzzanne Douglas from How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Elaine Bromka from Uncle Buck and Julie Fain Lawrence from Concussion have all taught me more post graduation than was possible to learn in a classroom setting. I’m forever grateful they took time to both challenge and nurture me.

How do your social and personal identities affect your work?

My work is so personal to me, and since my social identities and personal experiences shape who I am, they are of course reflected in my work. When I was younger I got picked on a lot… “loser, worthless, faggot”, I’ve been called it all. Had things thrown at me, even. Growing up was rough in that respect, but as an adult I rarely have had to deal with any of that; but the reality is if I wasn’t living in this year, in a fairly liberal location, my adult experience would be very different. So I remember my experiences, pay attention to those of others and I take action in my words, my work, my vote, and where I spend my money.

Peter Pan is Dead

With both “Grimm Women” and “Peter Pan is Dead” you have used fairy tales as a motif. Why this theme?

I’m interested in the fact that the source material for these plays (Brother’s Grimm fairy tales and Peter Pan) are substantially darker than the versions we are fed as children. I think part of me felt cheated when I found this out. We’ve been programmed for a happy ending and relatively smooth journey, when that isn’t life, and it also isn’t these stories.

Peter Pan is Dead graphic novel preview 1

What was it like modernizing Ovid’s work for your play “echo, narcissus, narcissus, echo”?

I think Ovid’s original poem about Echo and Narcissus may be the most beautiful thing ever written. echo, narcissus, narcissus, echo is my darkest, most personal work because I saw myself in both of those characters simultaneously. Maybe because I’m a Gemini.

To date, what has been the most surprising reaction to your writing?

Someone was audibly sobbing in the audience during one of the performances of echo, narcissus, narcissus, echo. I’m talking a good ol’ ugly cry. It was flattering but it also made me nervous.

How has it been alternating among writing, directing, and acting? What are the similarities and differences among the three?

Best case scenario, the similarity is that you are creating something in a collaborative environment. Sometimes when you are acting, what you are doing on stage is more dictated to you than collaboration, but for the most part I’ve felt like my ideas about the characters I’ve played have been valued. With directing it’s 100% knowing how to communicate with people in whatever way they will listen best, which is completely different for everyone. You have to be good at reading people so you know how to bring out what you want from them. The most difficult thing about directing is dealing with people’s egos. I come from the Kelly Cutrone mindset of “if you have to cry, go outside” but most actors aren’t familiar with that concept. They are fragile beings, so you have to treat them like Precious Moments half the time, which frankly can be tiring, but that’s what end of the day red wine is for. Writing for me is pure emotion and instinct. I write drunk and edit sober. I’ve learned to write with specific people in mind, because it makes the characters more textured. When I first wrote Grimm Women, the Little Red Riding Hood character was a really dark, dreary part. When we got Briella from Jerseylicious to sign on, I re-wrote it and she became a really cool, edgy, pot smoking train wreck.

Which has been your favorite character to write, direct, and portray so far? Why?

Credit: Kevin Monko

Credit: Kevin Monko

Write: Adrestia, the goddess of revenge in Peter Pan is Dead, because she takes action where others won’t.

Direct: Eurydice in Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Ovid’s myth because she was so complex and poetic.

Portray: I was in an eight our performance art piece called How to Build a Forest (you can see the whole thing sped up to six minutes here: http://vimeo.com/32998219 ), so not necessarily the character, but the whole experience was my favorite because it was a group of people working together to create something truly epic. The ego free spirit everyone approached the work with was inspiring and since it was early in my career, set a great tone for me on how to behave in future experiences.

How was it directing a reading of Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology?

We did that to protest the fact that the book had been banned in two libraries. We called the performance Revolutionary Readings. At the time I had no idea what I was doing. I was just young and pissed off that this book was banned in both my school and public library. In the beginning of the process it was me, my partner in crime Victoria Fear, and a group of young, passionate, equally pissed off theatre artists just raising our voices in the town square, so to speak. At first we were just begging people to let us come and perform this work as a form of protest to this censorship, which we knew was a great injustice. We went from pleading to perform in small cafes, to getting invited to places like Rutgers University, Princeton Public Library and different Library conferences. News vans showed up to my parent’s house unannounced, I was getting called for interviews with different papers, and at one point for a brief moment was given a publicist. What we were doing was very controversial, and certainly a lot of people just wished we would shut up and go away, but we had a lot of people leave the performances in tears over the work because they were touched so deeply by it, which really spoke to why the material should not have been banned. I had just graduated college and couldn’t have foreseen the magnitude to which the project would grow. It was a trial by fire for me and so many involved. I gave a Tedx talk about it at the Princeton Public Library some time after the initial explosion of controversy. You can watch it here: http://youtu.be/w1X7TX4i1ew

Page to Stage series

What inspired you to co-found “Page to Stage” with Janie Hermann and how is it going so far?

Janie Hermann and the Princeton Public Library had us doing a performance of Revolutionary Readings as a part of their banned book week. It was around that time I got to see the power of literature being adapted for the stage. We developed the series to promote literacy by presenting theatrical adaptations of written works in an animated, physical way. It lasted for three years and it was one of the best experiences of my professional career. Princeton Public Library produced a really beautiful mini documentary about Page to Stage which you can see here: http://vimeo.com/57147953

What was it like being part of The Laramie Project and The Vagina Monologues? Relatedly, how do you perceive theatre as being part of social justice?

Those pieces have such history, meaning and weight to them, and it was an honor and a humbling experience to be involved in them. I used to think theatre was a way of making things up, but now see it as a vehicle in which to tell the truth. We can see ourselves in the characters and the stories on stage, and by seeing ourselves we are able to reflect and change as people, which is how all social change begins.

I enjoy your commercials for Hallmark. One seems to represent themes regarding adolescence, which is a time period you seem to focus on in that work. What is it about this era of life that is compelling?

Thank you! It’s so interesting you bring that up because I never thought of those commercials that way, but that is a theme prevalent in my other work. We were just trying to sell a product, but also create something fun that people would laugh at.

Brandon Monokian

In what ways is your work feminist?

I’m a three time director of The Vagina Monologues, which is the most globally recognizable feminist theatre piece. By doing that show we were able to raise a lot of money for various women’s charities, as well create awareness and a dialogue about the horrific sexual and physical violence women have suffered globally and in our own back yards. I’m absolutely a feminist, but I’m not sure I would describe my body of work as a whole as feminist or not feminist, it’s more just a reflection of my life experiences.

Which type of music have inspired you to make other types of art?

Music inspires me to write. I know you aren’t supposed to list modern, “trendy” acts as inspiration, but fuck it, Lana Del Rey very much inspired echo, narcissus, narcissus, echo and Peter Pan is Dead. I wrote them at the same time, drunk on red wine, while listening to Young and Beautiful on repeat.

What insights would you like to share with aspiring writers?

I was in a Gen Ed level writing course in college, and we had to write essays each week. Every time we handed one in, the teacher (a writer by the name of Jess Row) would pick one essay, black out the name, and make copies of it for the whole class to correct. He picked my essay every week except one. At first I was mortified. Then someone told me that he wouldn’t have picked mine (and picked mine so often!) if there wasn’t anything there to bring out of it. The truth is I could have been doing a lot better, but I was 18 years old, and didn’t give a fuck about anything. So by the end of that experience, I was motivated to give a fuck and represent myself in the way I wanted to be perceived.

What is next for you creatively?

I’ve worked with artist Sara Sciabbarrasi on creating a graphic novel of the Peter Pan is Dead script which you can order online now. I’d like to start concentrating on multi-disciplinary work. I like the idea of bringing things together that people don’t think necessarily belong together… like theatre and comic books. So creatively, much more of that. The graphic novel is on sale here: http://peterpanisdead.storenvy.com/products/9117253-peter-pan-is-dead-graphic-novel

Peter Pan is Dead graphic novel preview 2

I also have a product line of “wine-cessories” called Cork & Wood which I’m going to be expanding on substantially this coming year. They’re on sale here: http://corkandwood.storenvy.com/

-Sem

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Interview: Laura Erickson-Schroth about “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves!”

Underneath This had the informative and enjoyable experience of interviewing Laura Erickson-Schroth, psychiatrist and editor of the groundbreaking, “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves,” a compendium featuring an introduction by Jennifer Finney Boylan contributors from trans* and cisgender activists, theorists, authors, educators, artists, and health professionals.

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What were some experiences that inspired the idea for “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves?”

I grew up with the book Our Bodies, Ourselves on our shelf at home. It was something that answered a lot of the questions I had about bodies and sexuality. It was put together by women in Boston in the late 60’s, at a time when most physicians were male, and the women were turning to one another for information they needed. As I got older and met more and more trans people, I realized that in some ways they were in a similar position to those women – they were coming into contact with providers who weren’t as educated as they should be about trans health. I thought it would be great to create something like Our Bodies, Ourselves, written by trans people, for trans people.

What was the editing process like?

It was multi-layered. For each chapter, there were on average 10-15 advisers who read through and provided comments to help the authors shape the chapter. We also held an “editing weekend” where about 20 of us worked in small groups to make sure that the book was heading in the right direction. It was a lot of fun to get so many people together around a common goal.

How were the contributors and reviewers selected?

Chapter authors and reviewers were chosen based on their experience and expertise in the area. We’re really proud to have found great trans health providers, academics, lawyers, activists, and so many others to make the book what it is.

What was the process of choosing the 6 sections to focus on in the text?

The 6 sections really came together organically. We started deciding what topics were broad enough to warrant full chapters, and saw that they seemed to fall into sections.

How has your own professional work informed the content of “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves?”

Part of the reason I decided to start this project was that I was doing rotations in medical school on trans health and there seemed to be this incredible divide between trans people and providers. There was a lot of history of gatekeeping, and a lot of ignorance about trans people and trans health. I thought that a byproduct of trans people teaching each other about these issues could be that providers would read what they wrote, and learn more about trans communities.

If you wanted a reader to take one overall message away from reading this unique text, what would that be?

I think the most important take-away is that trans communities are extremely diverse. They’re made up of people from every background you can think of.

So far, have there been any surprising reactions to “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves” from the press, family, and/or friends?

TBTS Cover

People are most surprised by how big it is! It’s 650 pages long, and 3.5 pounds. Which means it represents that voices of many, many people.

What has been the response from trans* communities?

We’ve had great responses from both trans communities and friends, family, and providers. There were something like 500 people somehow involved in the project, and everyone is really excited to see their stories and ideas in print.

Which projects are you working on next?

I just started a fellowship at Columbia University Medical Center. Part of the fellowship is learning about public psychiatry, which includes the recovery model of mental illness, and systems like Medicaid, housing, and supported employment. The other part of the fellowship is through the LGBT Initiative at Columbia, which has goals of improving research, clinical work, education, and policy around LGBT issues.

What insights do you have for aspiring writers/editors?

If you have the luxury, do things that are meaningful to you. It makes late nights, copyediting, and deadlines worthwhile.

-Sem

Interview: Chris Stedman!

We had the meaningful experience of interviewing Chris Stedman, activist and author. Please read some more about Chris (from http://faitheistbook.com/theauthor) before proceeding to the interview.

Chris Stedman is the author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, “an intimate and deeply affecting portrait… [that] proves [he is] an activist in the truest sense and one to watch” (Booklist, Starred Review). The Executive Director and Coordinator of Humanist Life for the Yale Humanist Community, Chris previously served as a Humanist chaplain at Harvard University and as the Values 
in Action Coordinator for the Humanist Community at Harvard (where he was previously
 the inaugural Interfaith and Community Service Fellow). He is the atheist columnist for Religion News Service, Emeritus
 Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal
 of Inter-Religious Dialogue, and founder of the first blog
 dedicated to exploring atheist-interfaith engagement,
 NonProphet Status.

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Please describe your path to becoming an activist and author.

I grew up nonreligious but became an evangelical Christian around the age of 11, when I had a dramatic conversion experience. There were two primary causal factors. A year prior, at the age of 10, I read books like Roots, Hiroshima, Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl; these were books that not only increased my awareness of the fact that I lived in a world where people treated others in abusive ways, but they also told stories about what it was like to experience those things in a way that filled me with profoundly difficult questions about justice, purpose, and meaning. As much as any 10-year-old can be consumed by those questions, I was very deeply shaken and did not have a framework to unpack those questions.

The second factor occurred was when I was 11. My parents separated and it was a very disruptive experience—not only because they divorced but also because it set off a chain of events that created a really difficult situation financially and in terms of resources. My mother worked three jobs, worked nights, and was also our primary caretaker. She took courses for insurance licensing, juggled a lot; it was a very uprooting experience, so I was looking for stability and a safe place to land during a tumultuous time. That place happened to be this fundamentalist Christian church that I got invited to by friends from school.

At first, it was a perfect fit and incredibly welcoming. I was excited to be there; the church gave me a sense of community and provided a framework to think about human suffering and injustices. So, it all felt like a great fit. However, it became clear to me before too long that the community was not as welcoming as it seemed; it was vocally and vehemently anti-gay to the point of almost obsession. People would mention homosexuality in sermons for no apparent reason besides wanting to demonize gay people; talked about it in Bible study all the time; and there was a whole section in the church library with resources about homosexuality.

Their basic gist was that homosexuality was at best a bad decision or means of rebellion and, at worst, a sign of demonic possession—which is a terrifying message, particularly for a vulnerable and confused 11-year-old.

That propelled me into a difficult time, where I was fixated on trying to change my sexual orientation through prayer and fasting. I spent every night engaging in Bible study trying to change my sexual orientation. A big irony of the conversion was that I became Christian to address suffering and community, and ultimately ended up isolating myself and my personal suffering increased tenfold.

My mother eventually found a prayer journal that I kept and she took me to speak to someone at another Christian church who told me there was more than one view on homosexuality among Christians, which was the first time I had heard this. He gave me books that explored the intersections of the two, and he helped me find a safe space and acceptance—what I had been really looking for all along.

This was a very important thing for me not, just in terms of personal reconciliation but also became this was my safe space at a time when I started to come out as queer. I was the only openly queer person in my community and in my high school.

In fact, I had profoundly positive experiences in church during high school; so much so that I decided to go to college and thought I might study Christianity and religion with the goal of eventually working in ministry, because the people who helped me most during high school were Christian ministers. I wanted to pay it forward, so I thought I would go into the ministry.

Once there, I started studying religion academically and I was challenged by Christian professors to explore the foundations of my beliefs. It was through this process that I discovered I converted not because I thought the metaphysical premises were true but because I was looking for a community that pursued justice and everyone else said God was the source of these things: of community, of justice. Because this was what I cared about, it made sense. However, as I began to think about these experiences critically for myself, I realized that those passions and interests preceded my becoming Christian. Then, I allowed myself to really ask if I actually believed in God. I read Christian apologetics and felt increasingly unconvinced. Finally, I realized I was an atheist. After that, I was happy to debate religion in the classroom—but when it came to talking to people about my beliefs, I had only two strategies: avoidance or conflict.

This was because I had the assumption that religious disagreement lead to conflict, so either I was going to go into the conflict or just avoid it. In Faitheist, I write about my work at the Brian Coyle Community Center, which I still think about a lot. I once had a conversation with a Muslim woman there about our experiences of being on the margins, on the periphery; though our beliefs and backgrounds were very different, she was inviting me into a humanizing conversation that both recognized the fact that our beliefs were different but also acknowledged that we shared in the experience of being human. That was a kind of conversation that I did not know how to have at that time.

I realized that my “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” approach or all-out-conflict approach to religious differences were both fundamentally limited, and I wanted to find another way forward. I wanted to go into interfaith work, so I went back to school and studied alongside religious communities. In the process, I was reminded of how powerful of a role my Christian community played when I was younger, so I decided I wanted to see what was out there for atheists and nonreligious people. Through this, I discovered a couple of things: atheists are just as susceptible as anyone else to extreme tribalism, to an us-versus-them mentality with exclusionary community politics; but I also discovered humanism. This was the first time I was able to articulate my nonreligious, nontheistic worldview in a positive sense. I was able to express what I do believe, rather than define myself by what I am not. By making strong connections with religious believers, I learned to ground my sense of self in the values that I have.

In American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, there’s a fascinating finding: that religious Americans tend to be more civically engaged, give more money to charity, are more likely to vote, and are “better neighbors.” But the complicating aspect of that finding is that a nonbelieving spouse of a religious person who participated in the community was just as likely as the believing spouse to donate money. Based on this finding, the correlation between religiosity and civic engagement seems to have less to do with belief and more to do with belonging. Being part of a community that opens up a space for you to ask what it means to be a good person, gives a place to ground that work, and encourages you to be a moral agent for change in the world. Putnam and Campbell even speculated that morally bound communities for nonreligious people can serve a similar function of helping the nonreligious be more civically engaged. I wanted to see nonreligious people become more involved in civic initiatives that orient around religion, such as interfaith dialogues, and so I rediscovered the importance of community.

If my goal was to bring religious people and atheists together for the common good of humanity, I realized that I needed to invest in the idea of community for the nonreligious. So, I made the focus of my master’s degree pastoral care and counseling and studied community organizing and building. I became interested in the ideas that colleges and universities are great places for these conversations to happen, as colleges and universities can be a microcosm of the greater diversity we see in society. College is the first opportunity that many people have to be in really close community; for many people, it’s the first time they have experiences with people who have different beliefs and backgrounds. It is a great context for establishing identity and community, and learning more about different people’s experiences. Though I struggled to have those conversations while in college, it still was transformative in that way—and because my mother didn’t go to college, it was really something that I cherished. Now, the work that I do in both the university and broader contexts is very grounded in a recognition that, in the same way that colleges and universities take other aspects of identity seriously (i.e., race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status), they must also take religious identities just as seriously—including people who identify as atheists, agnostics, and humanists.

How have your social and personal identities informed your work?

I think that being a nontheist is a big element of this, because if I take seriously the conviction that it is unlikely that divine forces will intervene in human affairs and solve our problems for us, then I have to be the change I want to see in the world, if you will. As a single individual, I cannot do that alone. I have to pursue common ground and find shared values with people whose identities are located on the margins in our broader cultural context.

As a queer person and an atheist, I stand on the margins in a number of different conversations, which deeply informs my desire to understand others’ perspective. Being a white male, I benefit from privilege, and I have a strong desire to understand how my own privilege affects the experiences of others and my own limited view of the world. All of this has moved me to try to understand better others’ experiences.
After having a prolonged and profound struggle with reconciling myself with my sexual orientation, I had to learn at a young age that who I was, was not necessarily going to map onto the assumptions of who I was supposed to be. That really cracked me open in an important way to question and challenge other assumptions I inherited, and inspired me to seek intersections with others. I think that everyone’s experiences are important and that everyone has a contribution to make to our understanding of identity, values, and ethics.

In Faitheist, I end the book by thanking the reader for letting me share my story and inviting them to share theirs. The best discussions are grounded in experience. Too often, they are grounded in the theoretical and abstract. By having a window into someone else’s experience, it is much harder to argue against their freedom. Sharing stories invites people to stop and listen so that they can empathize and learn.

You quote Carl Sagan and Rumi at the start of “Faitheist” and Eboo Patel, developer of Interfaith Youth Corps wrote the forward. How have they been inspirational to your activism? Who and what other forces have been influential?

Carl Sagan is someone who has really influenced the way I think about this work, because he recognized that simply trying to argue, with data or statistics, is not going to compel people to action. He was an incredible scientist but more than anything else, he was an effective science communicator; he would tell personal stories, or the stories of others, and did so in a way that was so elegant and that invited others into learning.

Regarding Rumi, Eboo and many others – I am a humanist and nontheist, and so a lot of my worldview has been informed by humanist and nontheistic writers. It is important to also acknowledge that many of the thinkers and writers who have informed who I am and how I see the world are religious thinkers; it is important for us to not just sequester ourselves in our community and only read writers and thinkers whom we think share our views. Some of the things I have been most influenced by, that have challenged me most, are the works of religious writers. It would be silly to try to claim that I have not been influenced by religious studies considering that I have spent much of my life studying religion—and continue to do so.

So I would say there would be so many writers, thinkers, activists, people in general who have influenced my thinking. I do not know where to begin, as my influences continue to change. I like to think that I am a work in progress, and constantly changing and evolving depending on whom I am around and to whom I am exposed. I try to keep my thinking fluid in that way, which was a challenge when thinking about writing a book, because it locks you in place, at least for a moment in time.

What has been the greatest challenge to engaging in and coordinating interfaith dialogues? What has been the most rewarding aspect so far?

The most challenging aspect has been just getting people to the table—because honestly it has been my experience that, once people are at the table, it does not take a ton of work to get the conversation going. I would love to say that facilitating these dialogues requires this really specialized skill set, but it doesn’t. Once you get people to the table and introduce what we’re gathered to do, people begin finding intersections, uncovering shared concerns and shared humanity, and start to share personal experiences. The dialogue goes from there, and the people who participate are the ones who make it happen.

Contentious momentous will arise, but I think one of the hardest aspects has simply been communicating to people—particularly nontheists—that interfaith work is not only something that would include them but also that their voice is really vital.

One of the most rewarding aspects is just watching those conversations unfold; it feels like a huge privilege to be a part of that, to watch people connect, and to see false barriers began to fall way. It is so great to hear that people who have never met a Muslim or an atheist before have an incredibly transformative experience. It is really amazing seeing that “aha” moment that registers for a person, when they realize that the person they saw as really different from them is actually not as different as they thought.

Among reactions to your work, what has been the most surprising?

In the last few years, I have been pleasantly surprised by just how many atheists have embraced this idea that constructive conversation across lines of religious difference is valuable. I’ve also been really surprised to hear from a lot of people in very conservative, Orthodox, and even fundamentalist religious communities who have reached out to say that various aspects of my story connected with them. Every day there is a new surprise, and that is part of what has made this work so exciting and rewarding. I love those moments of surprising connection, and I want to be constantly surprised by how we can find connections with people who seem really different.

I have done events at very, very conservative Christian colleges where students have to sign a waiver that they believe in God, abstain from sex before marriage, and won’t “practice homosexuality,” and I have been amazingly surprised by some of the realizations that have arisen in those moments. There is always a surprise, which is one of the one greatest parts of this work.

Sem: I commend you for taking on this work.

It can be very intimidating; I am intimidated by speaking in front others, I actually do not love public speaking at all – I kind of hate it, actually, but every time I push myself to do it, it’s always worth it. I have learned to really appreciate and even chase after the things that make me afraid. I want to pushing myself to grow as much as I can, and to go into those spaces where these conversations may not be happening already.

How have your family and friends responded to your work and writing?

I am really lucky to have such a supportive family. It was definitely a little challenging when the book came out. They got some threats but they took it in stride and even made jokes about it; I was angry on their behalf and probably got more upset more than they did.

As I have walked down different paths in life, I am so grateful for my family, and the same goes for my friends. I have a loving group of family and friends. I could not do what I do without supportive family and friends, so I am very grateful.

My family does not share 100 percent of my views but it is not about whether we are 100 percent on same page all of the time. We recognize that the love we have for each other is the most important thing.

How has your work been received in particular by queer communities?

That has been one of my favorite aspects of this work. I think that many queer people recognize the power of personal storytelling, and I have learned a lot from the queer movement. The queer community really understands that in order to make change we need to build relationships and share stories. Harvey Milk called us to come out to loved ones, and the queer community really understands that. My approach to this work has been informed by that perspective.

Many queer people have complicated relationships with religious and religious identity. So queer interfaith conversations can be so important. I am really happy with how I’ve seen these discussions unfold in queer spaces.

Some of the earliest and most prominent support for my work was from queer publications and book stores; I feel really grateful to be embraced by the queer community.

When I was in school, I interned in a queer drop-in shelter, and went to one before that. So much of my early experience of the church was in queer spaces. They have a lot to teach about identifying areas of shared humanity through bridge building and storytelling.

Do you maintain communication with people you knew from Teens Encounter Christ and the Brian Coyle Community Center and if so, what has their response been to interfaith dialogues?

I have a very good friend whom I met through Teens Encounter Christ and when I told her that I was an atheist, it was a struggle because she sincerely believes that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. She was legitimately concerned about my well-being and what would happen when I died.

Admittedly it would have been easy for us to go our separate ways but we stuck at it, maintained a friendship, and kept talking. We still have different beliefs but last year, I gave a reading at her wedding. She and her husband gave me the one reading in the service that was not from the Bible; they picked it on purpose so that I could read something that reflected my different worldview, which I thought was really thoughtful.

Most everyone that I still keep in touch with has been so supportive of this work. It says so much about why that was such a supportive community for me in high school. We love one another.

Because I kept a distance and had this wall up during my time at the Brian Coyle Community Center, where I was unwilling to have certain kinds of conversations, the people whom I worked with there didn’t know me very well. I didn’t ask them very much about themselves, so we didn’t keep in touch. But my work there influenced my desire to reach out, listen to, and learn from Muslim communities later on in my activism, so the Brian Coyle Community Center will always have an important place in my heart.

You describe yourself and your friend experiencing a hate crime while in Chicago. I am glad you are okay. How did you get through that experience and what can towns and cities do to make safer spaces for LGBTQ+ identified people?

Thank you. It was not the first time nor the last that I’ve experienced expressions of anti-LGBTQ hatred in my life. There have been many. Some have left me feeling defeated, like things won’t change. When I get into that headspace, I remind myself of the times in my life, where I have had positive encounters and have seen people’s perspectives change, and that reminder gives me hope.

I think it’s important for LGBTQ+ identified people to be careful. I was recently harassed by a stranger on the bus; they followed me for a while, and it was very scary. This is just a part of my reality. Regardless of what others do to make spaces safer, we have to be careful on our own. We have to prioritize our personal safety. And this is of course not just limited to LGB folks; in fact, 1 in 12 transgender people are murdered in the U.S., which is inconceivably horrifying, infuriating, and tragic. Trans people are incredibly targeted, and it’s a huge problem that needs to be addressed now.

Regarding what people can do to make cities, towns, and the broader cultural climate safer: This starts by creating spaces where people can share stories and speak honestly about who they are. I believe that when people are given an opportunity to identify with someone very different from themselves, they can more easily challenge their preconceived notions and biases. These conversations have a butterfly effect; they ripple out into society and make it safer for all people.

I’ve had surprising conversations with anti-gay activists, such as with a group of people who were proselytizing outside of a gay bar. I can’t say I think that people should always have those conversations, because they have to prioritize their own safety. I don’t think you have to build bridges at all times, because of your own safety, but also because I know I can’t always be my best self all the time. I can’t always meet people more than half way, and sometimes I’m just not up to the challenge of these risky conversations. But the more that we as a queer community can step out and have those conversations, the more society will be a safer place for people at large.

The experience you describe of being at the assassination site of Monsignor Oscar Romero was quite powerful. What was it like writing about the experience?

It was very strange; the process of writing personal narrative is strange in general because our experiences are not these rigid, unchanging things. Our connection to our experiences change as we change. It is an interesting experience to place yourself in your own shoes at a time in life that feels very separate from where you are now.

That experience in El Salvador embodies a larger phenomenon. When I stepped out of Christianity, I wanted to compartmentalize myself and say that I am not that person anymore; but we are deeply informed by all of our experiences. I am not a Christian anymore, but I will always be a person who was a Christian.

It was very difficult at times to put myself back in those shoes and try to remember what it felt like to have that experience in El Salvador, or to have an adolescent conversion experience. We are often so busy looking ahead in life to what’s next, that we just move quickly past experiences and put them out of our minds, so writing Faitheist was a very helpful experience for me. Revisiting and remembering enabled me to make peace with those things; I did not realize how much I was carrying around a lot of that weight with me. In El Salvador, I felt this powerful connection to the Christian beliefs I had moved beyond, but because I was uncomfortable with those feelings, I ignored them and pushed the experience aside. So it was very powerful to go back and write about it – to reclaim and revisit it. I am not just going to push those or any other feelings aside from now on; I am going to sit with and explore them.

I’d recommend that everyone go back to challenging or confusing moments in life and reflect on them, through writing or talking with someone about them. It’s a very helpful exercise f. I do not think that everyone needs to write a book to do this; I was lucky to get to publish a book, but there are many other ways to reflect.

From your perspective, what forces led to the rise of the New Atheism?

Some “New Atheists” identify 9-11 as the emergence of New Atheism as a movement. What I think led to the rise of New Atheism is the fact that many atheists for many years had been excluded from participating in broader public life. Atheists have been marginalized and demonized. I think that, combined with very legitimate frustrations that a number of atheists feel about abuses done in the name of religion, led to his pushback.

I believe that much of the “no” of atheism has been said, and that it’s time to speak more publicly and positively about what atheism and humanism are, not just what they aren’t.

How has Interfaith Youth Corps and other interfaith activists responded to New Atheists critiques of interfaith dialogue particularly that these movements do not sufficiently address religious privilege?

I think interfaith work is a prime forum to address religious privilege; that by participating in interfaith conversation, atheists can demonstrate that religion does not have a monopoly on morality—and that in and of itself is incredibly powerful. I think interfaith dialogues are really excellent spaces to have those difficult conversations about religious privilege—if those conversations are grounded in personal relationships. I think it’s much easier for people to hear and understand religious privilege when the explanation is coming from people whom you know and understand and like. Similarly, I’m a realist, and I know that some people will not hear me because I’m queer, or because I’m an atheist—and I can speak until I am out of air and it won’t matter, because they won’t hear me. But they will hear someone from their in-group, someone who shares their identity. So it’s important for me to have friends and allies in religious communities who can go back to their communities and relay what they have learned in an interfaith space. I hear the critique that interfaith dialogue does not address religious privilege, and I think sometimes interfaith groups have done a bad job, but I think that the factors are there for interfaith dialogues to address incredibly powerful forms of religious privilege—and I see it happening already, and it’s going well. When it’s done well, interfaith dialogue is an ideal forum to have these conversations.

What are some insights you have for aspiring activists?

I would say that I have really benefited from taking time to listen to and learn from other activists. I have ideas and opinions, but it’s not wise to barge into conversations without taking time to learn from others, particularly those who have been doing this work for a long time.

I try to think about it this way: for every minute you talk, spend at least 5 minutes listening; for every piece you publish, read 10 other pieces. You really just can’t do enough listening, learning and reading other people’s work. I feel like I have really benefited from that, and I try to continue doing that as much as I can.
Part of why I was nervous about writing this book and doing this work was because I am young, and I know that there is a lot that I do not know. But knowing that shouldn’t stop you from being a part of the conversation. I helped create a website for emerging young thinkers and activists because I think it’s so important for people to know that it is okay to be a work in progress while doing activism. That you can use your voice while still finding and refining it. I fully expect that I will keep growing and improving—but if I let that stop me, I wouldn’t have learned all that I have over the last few years. So I would say, start doing the work and allow yourself to make mistakes and keep learning. You may write something or participate in something, and later look back and say, ‘Wow, I was really wrong on that’ or ‘Yikes, that was not nuanced’—but that is okay. It’s a part of the process.

On what projects are you working currently?

I was the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and now I’m transitioning into the role of Executive Director and Coordinator of Humanist Life for the Yale Humanist Community. I have been working on getting this program going for the last year and I am incredibly excited about it!

Also, I am continuing to work with organizations within the movements I participate in. I have been part of Interfaith Youth Core for years and I am so thrilled that they have had a huge impact on this conversation. Years ago, when I was first getting involved, I did not encounter many other nontheists—now, based on their alumni survey, about 20 percent of [the Interfaith Youth Core] alums identify as secular humanists, atheists, agnostics or non-religious, which is much higher than the national average of people who identify with these labels.

I am also involved with Foundation Beyond Belief, a humanist charity organization. The Challenge the Gap program, part of Foundation Beyond Belief, empowers atheists and humanists to give to religious organizations that engage in work that does not proselytize but improves the conditions of life for others; this also enables us to build relationships with religious groups and people.

I am also continuing to write—I write a regular column for Religion News Service. And I am trying to find the work-life balance. It’s an amazing challenge. I am so passionate about this work, I can always find a million reasons to be up working into the late hours of the night. I feel so privileged and grateful that now this work has gotten to the point to where there are too many different things that I can be contributing to, helping with, or learning from – I feel so fortunate to be in that place, it is truly amazing.

-Sem

Interview: Nancylee Myatt!

Underneath This had the enjoyable and informative experience of interviewing Nancylee Myatt. Please read more about Nancylee before proceeding to the interview that follows.

Nancylee Myatt became a television writer on the advice of a casting-director friend, which prompted an odyssey that would take her from her early days on the television program, Night Court, where she had the honor of writing the series finale, to an NAACP award for her work on Living Single, to co-executive producer, writer and director on the network teen drama South of Nowhere.

Indeed, Nancylee has spent more than a decade writing and producing for prime-time television. She is quite knowledgeable of an experienced in what it takes to get a television show from the page to the screen, but developing a series for the web was a novel frontier for her – one that has been a sure success. For more information about the groundbreaking series, Nikki & Nora, that Nancylee has created, please visit http://www.onemorelesbian.com/tello/webseries/nikki-nora/ .

Recently, Nancylee co-wrote with Ralph Macchio a pilot for ABC Family called “Cupidity.” Her other internet credits include break-out and award-winning web-series 3Way, and the all girl western comedy, Cowgirl Up.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me and about Nikki & Nora. Before I start rambling about myself I’d like to say that this labor of love, this little engine that could, this series about a couple of young women who love each other and solve crimes in New Orleans, which started as leaked network pilot and became an internet obsession and lighting rod for the lesbian community, took a village to reboot and produce this new series.

And it would not exist without the faithful fans and amazing producing team, who I’d like to give a shout-out to at the top: Executive Producer Christin Mell and her partners at tellofilms.com. These women know their way around the World Wide Web and how to promote and use social media like no other. I bow to their wizardry and producing skills.

Executive Producer Paige Bernhardt. Paige is my partner in our production company, MyHardt productions. Paige and I have a similar network television writing and producing background. And we’ve collaborated for the last couple of decades on scripts, plays, series and webseries. It always helps to have someone who knows you very well and can call you on your stuff.

Co-Executive Producers Liz Vassey and Christina Cox. Liz and Christina were Nikki & Nora in the original network pilot 10 years ago. They have both had successful acting carriers and have been branching out produce and write for network television and film, as well. Having them back, recreating the roles that meant so much to all of us has been beyond spectacular.

We are only as good as the people we surround ourselves with…

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What inspired you to become a screenwriter?

Bad Acting… mine. Like so many other theater geeks, I was drawn to being on stage. Plus I was a class clown. You know the drill of High School; gotta be sporty or funny if you’re not going be a cheerleader or voted onto the Homecoming Court. So I went to college as a theater major. And pre-law, as my parents were big fans for having a Plan B. After graduation, my freshly minted actor friends and I moved to Hollywood and started making some noise. My writing career path was set by one of my best friends, Cecily Adams. She was an actress, comedienne and casting director. And after a bunch of years of watching me trying to get a break and working with me as an actress (I had good timing, but zero memorization skills) she said to me, “Nancylee you suck as an actress. But the shit you write for us is great.” Career Path 101. Happily I was in a good place to hear this, and trusted her and my other friends. I focused on writing and never looked back.

Initially, you wrote for Night Court, one of my favorite series from that era. What was that experience like? I really enjoyed the season finale that you were involved in writing.

Thank you. The premise of the series finale – Dan dreams all the women he wronged put him on trial – had been a card on the board in the Night Court writer’s room for years. It was great timing and luck of the draw that allowed writer Elaine Aronson and I to share the two-part finale.

Night Court was my first job on a network comedy. I had been a writer’s assistant for several years – a great path to writing TV, by the way. And when one of my former writer/producer bosses, Chris Cluess & Stu Kreisman, got hired to run Night Court they asked me if I’d like to come on board as a staff writer. Life changing. I’m forever grateful, and still in contact with most of the staff I worked with for the last two seasons of the series.

What was it like working on “Living Single”? I liked that program as well and perceive that era in television history as uniquely representative of the great diversity, especially of people of color, in the United States. How do you see the present landscape in this regard?

I came to Living Single in its final season. It was a well-oiled machine, and they had done some amazing groundbreaking television. Lucky me, I did get to share in an NAACP Award for their final season. But that path was paved long before I got there. Living Single also launched a lot of careers in front of the camera, and at the writer’s table. I’m lucky to have been a tiny bit of their history and success.

Diversity has always been at the front of most of the shows that I’ve created or been able to influence. When I started, a person could qualify as being “a diversity hire” for just being a woman. And I’m also a Native American, which I had to prove, by the way. You think any other race would put up with that? Having to show a card that says you have a “qualifying” bloodline and percentage. It’s a little Westminster Dog Show if you ask me. Anyway, the production companies got to use my name on two diversity reports. Thank goodness I didn’t have to prove I was a woman, cuz that would have been an awkward meeting.

I think the TV landscape looks better now, much better. And I’d like to give most of the credit to my mentor, Norman Lear. He was way out ahead of everyone with diversity. Race, religion, economic. He made people pay attention to faces and life experiences that weren’t their own. And he did it because his shows were some of the best on television at the time. Write and produce a great show, with the stories that people relate to and root for, and you’ll find, that even if they don’t look like you, or sound like you, or even might love someone of the same sex, you’ll get an audience. And at the end, maybe your show will influence that person’s perception of diversity and the world.

Just a side note: It’s an interesting path we television writers take. Or truthfully, get handed to us. In most scenarios, before you’re a creator or producer and creating your own opportunities, you are a yeoman writer trying to fill a spot at the table. Most creator/writers bring some of the staff with them, people they had worked with and trust and knew what skills they brought. And after that, they fill in the other spots with writers (they hope) who will bring a unique voice or something that’s missing from the mix. And some producer/writers inherit a staff or the network or studio will influence the hiring.

So your career can be this – If your first job is Friends you are set for life, open doors, everyone wants you because they believe you had something to do with the huge success. Or instead of a hit that runs 10 years, you get on a new show that does 6 episodes or one season and out. Then you’re back on the street looking for the next job. I actually worked on the series Jennifer Aniston did before Friends. It was called Muddling Through. Great show, amazing writers who went onto other notable series. But for the most part – very few people remember Jennifer in that one…

Any career in show business is not for the faint of heart. I teach writing and TV production occasionally, and I always tell my students, if there is anything else, that you like or want to do – do it. Because there is no solid path to success in the entertainment business. But if it’s the only thing you see yourself doing, go for it. And again, from my personal experience, be open, as it may not end up looking like you thought it would.

What was the impetus to create the web series, “Nikki & Nora?”

There is no one thing that motivated us to reboot Nikki & Nora for the web. I think it was this perfect storm of a great show that never was, the fans who saw themselves in this couple and refused to let it go away, the changes in programming and diversity in mainstream television, combined with the power of the internet that opened the door for us to revisit it.

The rights of the original project had returned to me and I was thinking about a book series. I was also producing another webseries called 3Way, with Paige Bernhardt and Maeve Quinlan, who I was working with on South of Nowhere. 3Way was a comedy that made a lot of noise on the Internet. It was ahead of its time in that in addition to creating smaller 10-minute webisodes and content, we were also producing half hour episodes just like network television. Within 3Way we had also created some silly spin-off series, shows within the show. One was a soap opera called “Young Doctors Who Cry.” And the other was called “Lady Cops.”

I asked Liz and Christina if they would come and spoof their characters in Lady Cops. They played Mikki & Laura, cops who were partners, who may or may not be involved with each other. That was our way of letting the faithful Nikki & Nora fan base know we were thinking about them. When they responded to the spoof, we knew that they were still there. Waiting. Ready to make it happen. Yet it took 5 more years for us to find that crazy timing of everyone being available to come together to make it happen.

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This series has made history by being the first to have been re-conceptualized for exclusive distribution online. From your point of view, how has technology affected television production and viewing?

First of all, I’d like to repeat what you just said – “This series has made history by being the first to have been re-conceptualized for exclusive distribution online.”

Can we get a round of applause!? The Veronica Mars movie was crowd-funding at the same time we were last year. Their fans wanted more of a TV series they identified with, that they felt went off the air too soon. The VM team raised millions when their fan base rallied. Meanwhile, we were reaching out to an “underground” fanbase that refused to let the idea of Nikki & Nora die. They were emotionally involved with Nikki & Nora and hoping for the resurrection of a show that never aired on network television.

When Nikki & Nora first appeared on the Internet it was at the time when YouTube was just finding its way. People realized they could create entertainment or take existing video and edit it into something that spoke to them. That represented them. When I say Underground Fanbase, I mean that they took a bootlegged DVD of the network pilot of Nikki & Nora and shared it across the web universe. Which launched tons of love letter type music videos to Nikki & Nora, all cut from the original 37-minute pilot. Which then spawned tens of thousands of pages of fanfiction about their favorite New Orleans couple, Nikki & Nora. And let’s just give credit where it belongs — It sure didn’t hurt to have the beautiful and talented Liz Vassey and Christina Cox representing a crime fighting couple that just happens to be gay.

It’s an amazing story. And I can say that because I had nothing to do with it. While we remained very close, Liz, Christina and I had moved on, off to other projects and shows, as it the nature of our business. Nikki & Nora is alive and back again, because of the fans who longed for more of their story.

The Internet and “created for web” content, has changed the way creators get to tell their stories. We don’t have to go through the studio system and the lottery that is the development and pilot process. Or the advertiser driven decision-making that occurs with network television. The end result of doing a web series is that the vision we have is not changed to fit a network demographic. It lets the audience that show was made for find it in its purest form. Now that being said, an Internet-based show is, many times, expected to rise to the levels of network television show. Which is an unfair scale. Because most of the time, as with Nikki & Nora, we had one tenth of a network budget.

When “Nikki and Nora” was first created, it would have been the first lesbian-themed drama series on television. What were barriers to the show being aired then?

The political climate in 2004 was very conservative at the time. The Christian Right was very vocal with regard to TV, Films, Music, etc., which they felt was adding to the corruption of America’s moral fiber. The network and studio behind Nikki & Nora had taken a lot of hits that year from the FCC, so they weren’t ready to ask their advertisers to back a project that had a potential target on it’s back in a George W. Bush America.

After Nikki & Nora I went on to write and produce South of Nowhere for creator Tom Lynch, and had done an article for Afterellen.com about the show focusing on two teenage girls falling love. And then got promptly called on the carpet by the “N” now teen Nick, which was an MTV network where the show was going to air. Apparently, the Christian Right had me on their hit list or watch list or burn the witch list, who knows… But the network was concerned about negative “gay agenda” publicity on a kid’s network. So Lynch and I agreed that he should do all interviews going forward. He created the show. And Tommy is an Irish Catholic father of four boys. Which made it hard for the haters to find an agenda. It made him the perfect person to talk about this story of “love is love.”

With the explosion of cable networks and now web-based entertainment, I no longer believe that the executives are afraid of “controversial” programming. In fact, niche programming and aiming for a smaller demographic is what is building these networks. But, as long as the Broadcast Networks have to answer to advertisers to pay for programming they will always try to program to the middle and a more conservative audience.

Approximately nine years elapsed between the initial development of the series and the online airing. In the interim, what changed for the media representation of LGBTQ+ people and communities?

I’m not the most informed person to answer this question. GLAAD may be your better source for the actual facts and figures, because the majority of my television work does not focus on the GLBTQ community. But again, I always try to make sure that there is a lot of diversity in the shows I create or can influence. I do think that the wider range of entertainment outlets have helped to promote and find homes for more GLBTQ programming. Yet, with the exception of The Fosters on ABC Family, who has a lesbian couple at the head of a family, there is still no adult mainstream show with a lesbian couple as the primary leads. So you would think that Nikki & Nora should have been able to find a home on the networks that program more comfort food procedurals like Castle or Rizzoli and Isles – who contrary to popular belief and audience pandering, those girls are not a couple.

From your perspective, what needs to be different regarding the media portrayal of other minority groups?

As I mentioned before, I think telling a compelling, relatable story cast with the multi-ethnic faces of this nation and world will do the best for visibility and acceptance.

The main characters on “Nikki and Nora” seem realistic. How do you maintain that characterization over time?

Write what you know. Or at the very least, draw or jump off from your own experience. I try to remain authentic to the characters I’ve created, their voices, and how they react in various situations. And I’m a gay woman, who has been in a long relationship, and recently legally married. So I can at speak to the same-sex issues, but I can also speak to the stuff that all couples go through, like nesting and relationship issues. And in my case, this insane drive to remodel and reinvent every house I’ve owned. Instead of @ishakeitup my Twitter name should be @MrsWinchester. (Kudos for those of you who know her twisted story) But I give Liz and Christina the credit for taking my script and these characters and making them their own. With their own rhythms, and humor and pathos. And like any good actor, they are also drawing from their own true-life experiences and finding the touchstones from their life that they can draw from to make it grounded, real and relatable.

How did you decide to set the series in New Orleans?

I set the show in New Orleans because it was a city that I had spent a lot of time in with my family. It was also my favorite place to run to: to play, write and be inspired. It’s a city with a rich history and culture. A city of darkness and light. A city with it’s own voice and look. My mother called it “The Paris of America.” It’s also America’s original party town and has always been a place were the gay community gathered. New Orleans was perfect home for Nikki & Nora.

I’ve said before, that most writer/producers who are shooting cities and locations that have big personalities like to say that their city is also a “character” in the show. I think a successful example of that was what show runner Michael Patrick King did with Sex and the City. He was telling stories and hitting themes for his characters that had were unique to Manhattan. And that’s the way I’ve approached Nikki & Nora in both incarnations.

Were there any other shows or films that influenced “Nikki & Nora?”

The shows I grew up on, those light mystery shows that spent as much time with the main characters or couples at home, as they did with them solving the crime of the week. Like Hart to Hart, McMillian & Wife, The Scarecrow & Mrs. King, Charlie’s Angels, and Moonlighting.

And for me personally, my parents were the original inspiration of what a great couple looked like. They were sexy, funny, hard-working and passionate. They were generous whether they were flat or flush. They were each other’s best friends and partners in crime. They loved New Orleans and never missed a chance to live life large and out loud.

Were there any unexpected moments regarding the fundraising campaign for the series?

I think for me, and probably the actors who play Nikki & Nora, Liz Vassey and Christina Cox, it was the fanfiction writers who surprised us. There were about half a dozen N&N fic writers who were rather well-known in those circles, and they ignited the conversation and campaign with pod casts, a Nikki & Nora panel at fanfic convention, posting the information on fanfic pages and boards, and talked about it in the chat rooms. They invited us to do interviews and told us how much N&N meant to them. And when we launched the Indiegogo page with a video from Liz and Christina speaking directly to the fans, things moved very quickly and the money started to come. While we didn’t ask for the kind of cash that Veronica Mars did, we did raise 30% more than our goal.

Several of the fanfiction writers who helped us with the campaign, and are running one of the Nikki & Nora tumblr pages, came to set and worked on the shoot. In addition to the efforts of the fanfic community, we also had some amazing supporters, who are also now friends, who gave substantial donations to project. We got to spend some time with them during the process, as well. All of this was just another confirmation that we were doing something meaningful. And serving an audience that still wasn’t seeing themselves enough in mainstream television.

It seems like perfect symmetry to have a series that was kept alive on the Internet, rise from the network television ashes to become a show just for the web.

Overall, what have been the most surprising commercial and critical responses to the series?

The funniest critical response we received was that the fans wanted more kissing between Nikki & Nora in the show. All I can say is that we are writing a couple that’s been together for 10 years, and we tried to create a very realistic view of a couple still in love and very comfortable with the rhythms of their life together. However, we will take it under advisement for the next season.

The most frustrating critical response was that several people complained about the $4.99. monthly subscription to tellofilms.com. I usually respond with, “For the price of buying a beer you are getting original programming created just for you. As well as, all the other great series on tellofilms. And if we don’t pay the bills we can’t make and broadcast new content.”

On what other writing and television projects are you working?

Most of us who worked on the webseries of Nikki & Nora, cast, producers, crew, etc., are also working in network and cable television, doing the same jobs we did on Nikki & Nora. So we’ve returned to others shows and/or out pitching and writing new projects.

I’ve got three new scripts going out to various networks. And I’m working with very prolific producers and directors on each. I don’t want to jinx anything by giving too many details, but I’ll tell you that each project is very different. And yet they are right in my wheelhouse, speaking to the audiences that have followed me before. For the young adult audience there is a comedy and a genre drama. And for the grown ups there’s a female driven family drama with a procedural element and a dark twist. Stay Tuned…

What insights do you have for aspiring writers?

I think I covered some of this when I was talking about my path to writing television. But one thing that is really simple and a call to action is that “Writers write.” Whether it’s a TV script or screenplay, articles for magazines or news outlets, novels or short stories, poetry, song lyrics, or fanfiction. It’s not enough to talk about writing, you have to sit down and make it happen. Visualize your future, work for anyone who will let you get the experience in the field that you want to work in. Treat it as your job and give yourself a daily schedule, a page count or a goal.

I heard somewhere that Stephen King writes at least ten pages a day. I don’t know if it’s true, but that’s a lot, whether it’s a novel or a teleplay. When I’m on a deadline I use that as a goal to keep me in the chair. And sometimes I like to change-up my writing location – change my POV and hear some different voices. When I’m home in New Orleans there are a couple of local watering holes in my neighborhood that are cool with me taking over a booth and working for a few hours. We actually shot a scene in one of them, Tracey’s Bar, with Nikki & Nora sitting in the booth, which they called their Satellite Office, where I wrote most of the script. Kind of Meta, don’t you think? (Yes!)

Keep writing. And then one day, things will shift. For me, I know I’m on the right road when the characters I’ve created are so well-formed that they start leading me in the direction they want to go and talking for themselves. And sometimes that happens even when I’m not enjoying a cocktail…

You can find the trailer of Nikki & Nora and all seven webisodes of the first season at:
http://www.onemorelesbian.com/tello/webseries/nikki-nora/

And if you want to see where it all began, here’s a link to the original pilot of Nikki & Nora from 10 years ago. I do not take any responsibility for the putting the bootleg video up on the World Wide Web. But… Enjoy! It was ahead of it’s time, and sadly, still is.

-Sem

Wild and Searching Forms

Underneath This is pleased to again feature an essay of talented writer, D.Allen. Check out this wonderful piece, “Wild and Searching Forms.”

The Body Connected

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If you enjoy reading this piece, I hope you will visit the Indiegogo page I’ve created to support my first book of poems. By visiting, sharing, or contributing before July 2, 2014, you can help make my book a reality!

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I grew up in an Eastern forest, among stands of hardwoods and clusters of evergreens, where a walk in the woods was an act of wonder. As an adult I still walk for inspiration, but I also turn to the woods when I’m trying to learn how to be in my body, which is often a painful place to be. When I make my way through a forest of young, mature, damaged, dying, fallen, and growing trees, I do not judge their wild, searching forms the way I sometimes judge my own. The oak on the forest floor with its root ball in the air? Generous food for new life. The mature…

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Interview: Elliott DeLine (part 2 of 2) !

Underneath This is pleased to present the second part of the interview with talented writer, Elliott DeLine. Please read below!

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Your novels, “Refuse” and “I Know Very Well How I Got My Name” eloquently describes coming-of-age experiences of queer and trans young adults and youth. What inspired you to write these works?

Thank you. My own experiences inspired these works. I wanted to create something different from was out there already. I wrote the books I wanted to read when I was younger and struggling to find reflections of my own experiences.

What have been the most rewarding and challenging aspects of becoming an influential voice within trans and queer literature?

That’s a hard question to answer. I don’t really see myself as influential. Honestly, I have found it very challenging to “break out” so to speak, in the literary world. I’m not sure I’ve influenced other artists, but I have found it very rewarding to hear individually from readers, especially other trans people. I know that I have influenced some people’s lives with my work, and that is an awesome feeling.

I really appreciate your vulnerability in the essay, “Stages of Visibility.” How does composing nonfiction essays compare to writing fiction?

For me, the line between fiction and nonfiction is very blurry. I write both in much the same way. My fiction writing is very personal and almost always based off real life events, and my nonfiction is always using some poetic license.

“I Know Very Well How I Got My Name” includes experiences of bullying. If Dean were coming of age these days, how may his experiences be different?

I’m not sure. I work with queer youth and I get the sense they are still facing a lot of the same issues. Though it does seem like people are learning they are trans earlier and earlier. The media started talking more about bullying the past few years, but I’m skeptical that much has changed in schools. Maybe some schools.

How has the self-publishing process been?

It’s the only way I could do it. I’m a control freak when it comes to my art. But it’s also frustrating, because people don’t always take me as seriously as they do traditionally published authors. And I don’t make much money.

You were recently part of a Huffington Post live panel regarding trans and cisgender gay men dating each other. What do you think have been the barriers between cisgender queer and transgender communities collaborating more for social justice? In what ways has there been progress?

I’m not sure how or if there has been much progress. I’m probably the wrong person to ask. As far as barriers, the trans community is isolated from and misunderstood by cisgender people. Gay cis men are no different. It’s issues of language, class, priorities, privilege, etc., etc., etc. But if you’re asking specifically about cisgender queer people on the whole, I guess there has been some progress. If people identity as “cisgender queer people,” then I figure they at least get that I exist. But most people don’t call themselves that. I don’t think there has been that much progress in the LGB community towards accepting T and Q people. LGB people can be just as invested in upholding gender norms. In fact, if their idea of social justice is acceptance into the larger culture, then T people are really just getting in their way.

What feedback do you have for aspiring writers?

Oh god, I don’t know. Don’t take people’s feedback too seriously. If you realize no one is an authority, then you are more open to feedback. Just do your own thing and say what you mean and don’t freak out about being Literary. I agree with something Kurt Vonnegut said: “If you can talk, you can write.” Just tell a story. Write to be understood. Or don’t. I don’t know. Don’t listen to me.

-Sem

Interview: Bennett Madison!

Underneath This had the pleasure of interviewing Bennett Madison. Per his brief bio statement, Bennett Madison is the author of several books for young people, including September Girls, The Blonde of the Joke and the Lulu Dark Mysteries. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Please describe your path to becoming a writer.

The short version is that I was living with my parents and working in a bookstore after I didn’t quite graduate college. All my friends had graduated at the appropriate time and were mostly in New York and I was miserable. Writing fiction was the only thing I knew I was good at, so I decided that selling a book would be the answer to my problems. It turned out not to be the solution to all of my problems, but at least it did get me out of my parents’ house. (For awhile.)

How do your personal and social identities affect your writing?

I would have a hard time thinking of ways in which my personal and social identities don’t affect my writing. I don’t know… my books are actually mostly about straight people, but, even so, I think they have a pretty obvious queer sensibility. I guess some people would probably disagree that a “queer sensibility” is a thing that even exists, and I’m willing to entertain that argument. But if it does exist, I think my books have it.

How did you decide which genres to write?

My first couple of books were mysteries because I heard publishers wanted mysteries at that moment, and it seemed fun.

For the most part, though, I’m not that wrapped up in the genre thing. I just sort of write what I feel like writing and let people call it whatever genre they want to. Most of what I write usually involves some type of weird mystical bullshit so sometimes it gets categorized as fantasy, which is more than fine with me. But a lot of what I write also takes place in shopping malls, and there are a lot of people who don’t think of that as a fantasy setting.

Basically if you don’t think of the shopping mall as a good place to set a fantasy novel, you probably won’t like my books. (I just thought of that but I think it actually is a pretty good rule of thumb.)

In what ways has growing up near DC affected your creative process?

No one has ever asked me this before! I don’t know– maybe just in the sense that I have an affinity for a certain type of suburban setting?

Actually, I guess the other thing that was nice about where I grew up is that I had a city accessible to me as a teenager. I went to a lot of shows; I sometimes snuck into bars. I spent a certain amount of time standing on street-corners batting my eyelashes and hoping someone would ask me out on a date and every now and then it worked. Particularly because I write mostly about teenagers, those experiences probably inform my work and my sensibility, but I bet not any more than if I had grown up near any other major mid-sized city. DC doesn’t offer a ton of artistic inspiration. Unless you write political thrillers, I guess.

Who and what have been your primary creative influences?

Liquid eyeliner, sparklers, boys, malls, baby-sitters, skipping school, cigarettes (though I quit), sad songs, comic books, trees, weather, certain types of nightclubs. Blond hair, obviously.

In terms of writers, people like Kelly Link, Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore, Mark Doty, Francesca Lia Block, Ben Neihart, Cookie Mueller, Lynda Barry. I mean, I don’t know if they’re influences exactly, but I like them and sometimes I try to copy them. More recently I really adored Danielle Evans’s Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self and Ariel Schrag’s Adam, which comes out in a month or two. But I guess I can’t really claim those as “influences” because I haven’t really written much since I read them.

Also: TV shows. Lots of music. Etc!

What has the process been like of writing from female protagonists’ (such as Lulu Dark) perspectives? What has the response been to this?

I’ve written from girls’ perspectives in several novels. It didn’t seem that hard. I wasn’t trying to say some big thing about how women think or what a woman’s perspective is; I was just trying to write from the point of view of these particular teenage girls. And while I’m not a woman, the characters were both similar and different from me in lots of ways.

Actually, writing from the point of view of a straight guy, which I did in September Girls, was kind of the hardest in some ways. (And that’s also the one people gave me the hardest time about, so.

In what ways is your writing feminist?

There are a couple of reasons that I don’t usually describe my writing as feminist.

First, I try not to have a political axe to grind with my fiction– I mean, I think that fiction is fundamentally political but I’m not usually a fan of stories that grow out of any political agenda.

Second, while I’m happy when my work is described as feminist, I don’t really think it’s my role to claim that title for myself.

Those caveats aside: I’m always interested in gender stuff, particularly when it comes to, like, gender performance, and so those things tend to show up in my books. This is probably especially true in September Girls, which has a lot to do with the narratives that are imposed on us because of our gender and the ways those narratives make us perform gender in certain ways and blah blah blah.

But it’s also a book about mythical sea creatures and sad dads and annoying moms and walking around on the beach and making out, because those are also things I’m interested in. I always have to point that.

What inspired you to write, “I Hate Valentine’s Day” and what has the response been to this book?

I Hate Valentine’s Day was a work-for-hire project, which means that someone at the publisher came up with the idea for it and then paid me to write it. In other words, I was twenty-three and I did it for the money. I don’t actually hate Valentine’s Day– in fact, I don’t really have any opinion on Valentine’s Day at all– which made it very hard to write an entire (short) book about it.

It’s not totally my favorite book I’ve ever written and I sort of wish I’d used a pen name on it, but I do think it has some funny parts. Actually I haven’t looked at it in forever, so who knows. I’m not even sure I have a copy anymore. My mom probably does, I guess.

Characters in your book, “The Blonde of the Joke” were ironically described as homophobic. What do you make of this reaction now?

The Blonde of the Joke is about two girls who do a bunch of fucked-up things. Mostly shoplifting, but they also smoke, skip school, drink alcohol. I could go on. Amidst all that bad behavior, they use the word “faggot” a couple of times, in various contexts. A few people had a real problem with that.

I guess I’m one of those annoying people who thinks that language changes meanings depending on the context. I don’t have a lot of patience for the Pee Wee Herman school of social justice, by which I mean, the thing where you make a list of hate-words and then sound the alarm any time anyone says one. The word “faggot” isn’t always homophobic, depending on who uses it and why, and there are plenty of people who manage to be complete homophobic assholes without ever uttering the word “faggot” at all. Also, I sort of hate to play this card, but I’ve been called a fag enough times in my life that it really infuriates me that anyone– especially a straight person, but really anyone– would try to tell me how I can and can’t use it myself.

I’m also annoying in the sense that I don’t think the views of a fictional character are necessarily the same as the perspective of the book they appear in. This issue came up again in a slightly different form when September Girls came out last year. The fact that several characters in the book exhibit fairly unenlightened and disrespectful attitudes about women, and use language to match those attitudes, is not only realistic in my estimation, it’s also a big part of what the book is about.

Every reader is entitled to their own interpretation when it comes to fiction. If you want to think Huckleberry Finn is a racist book because of certain words that appear in it, you can go right ahead. But just because you are allowed your own interpretation doesn’t mean that your own interpretation is not completely missing the point.

While I’m not seriously comparing my own books to Mark Twain’s, I do think that readers are well-served when they consider the way language functions in a novel as a whole rather than focusing on a few objectionable words. At least, I know I am.

That took me about two hours to sort out. I’ll answer the rest of these questions after I smoke a fag.

Have you written about transgender characters?

Not really. There was a recurring character in the Lulu Dark books who was a drag queen, but that’s perhaps different. At any rate, she was kind of a very unusual type of drag queen in that she seemed to be in drag, like, all the time. Which probably is really unrealistic to anything that would happen in real life, and also probably blurs some lines in ways that aren’t that helpful. If I was going to write those books again, I’d probably try to rethink that character. But anyway, the short answer is no.

From your perspective, what is the climate like for LGBTQ+ writers of young adult books these days? Are there differences in climate compared to heterosexual writers?

That’s a hard question. In a lot of ways it’s not an issue. There are obviously tons of queer people who work in the field of kids’ books, and there’s also a pretty strong tradition of gay people being very successful as authors of stuff for kids and teenagers. (Louise Fitzhugh, Maurice Sendak, M.E. Kerr, Ian Falconer, David Levithan, etc. etc.) So, for the most part, I think that the climate is basically great.

At the same time, I think that when it comes to writing gay content, one has to sort of adjust one’s standards of what commercial success is going to look like. By which I mean: swap in a gay character as the protagonist of any of John Green’s books and I don’t think that book would be nearly as successful. (Come to think of it, the one John Green book with a major gay supporting character is I think the only one that’s not on the New York Times bestseller list this week.)

A mass audience is often really reluctant to try anything that isn’t totally familiar to it, and most people aren’t gay. I think a gay love story, or a gay anything, really, is just going to have a much harder time crossing the threshold into real sales. Which is not to say it’s impossible, just that I think expectations are usually going to be lower. Which, you know, has a certain affect on what gets published and also on what people even bother writing.

You know, this week there was this big thing on Twitter this week about how there should be more diversity in YA books. Which, aside from how much I hate “diversity” as a euphemism, I obviously think there should be. Of course!

However! There are already “diverse” books out there. Not as many as there should be, but enough that there are plenty to choose from. It’s not like there’s this complete shortage of books by people who are not straight white men.

And yet… look at the New York Times bestseller list for teen fiction. Last week it was four white men and two white women, all of whom I think are straight (not to mention cisgender). I love a lot of these authors and a lot of these books– Gayle Forman is the total god of me. But as an author who is by some token “diverse,” it’s all a little frustrating. People of color, queer people, trans people, etc. should all be better represented in terms of what’s published, duh.

But what about the books that are already out there?

On what projects are you working on next? Is there another book in the works?

I’m working on another YA book that I think is going to be called THE LAST RULE OF MAGIC. It’s your typical platonic gay love story bildungsroman about magicians in New Jersey. It probably won’t be out for awhile because it’s kicking my ass right now. I’m also working on a grown-up book that will probably never be done. As usual I have more ideas than I can really execute.

What feedback do you have for aspiring writers?

Do your laundry. It’s easier than it seems and you’ll get ahead faster if you don’t stink. I have a hard time following this rule myself– Justine Larbalestier has scolded more than once for stinking– but I do try.