It’s 1952 in San Francisco, and homosexuality is illegal and largely frowned upon by society—except at Lavender House. The home of soap manufacturing magnate Irene Lamontaine has become a refuge for her extended queer family. But when Irene falls over a staircase railing to her death, her widow (in all but name) hires recently fired gay police detective Evander “Andy” Mills to discern if there is a killer in their midst.
The tone of this book is similar to the pulpy, hard-boiled style of your sci-fi mystery, Depth. Was there anything different about your approach this time around? Was there a particular author or series you drew upon to re-create that style of writing?
It’s funny. With Depth I was trying to bring the flavor of old-school noir to a futuristic world. With Lavender House, the old-school noir is easier because of the setting. But because we’re talking queer history, which is so often erased, there was a lot more research involved and, weirdly, an emphasis on making sure everything felt believable. With sci-fi, people are either going to buy it or they’re not, depending on what they like and read. When talking about a history that keeps being erased, it’s about proving it—proving we existed.
As for the tone itself, the hard-boiled vibe, I always go back to Chandler. I have his complete works, and I’ve read them several times. There’s just something about the way he cuts a sentence. And, of course, the movies: I was raised on noir of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, so I saw most of the movies before I read the books. The vibe of those movies is what lives in my head when I’m writing, even more so than the books, because the movies sometimes had a bit of hope to them (Laura, The Big Sleep). They’re not happy endings exactly, but there’s a chance for a bright future at the end of them, and I knew I wanted that for this book. I wanted to show that not only did us queer folk exist before Stonewall, but that even though our lives were noir—in the sense that we were sort of trapped and stalked all the time—we still thrived in community. We found each other. We found love. And in that, we found a bit of hope.
How much research did you have to do to re-create the feel and culture of 1950s San Francisco? Are Lavender House and its inhabitants based on any real locations or people?
I owe a huge debt of thanks to Nan Alamilla Boyd and her book, Wide-Open Town, for this one. It’s a book entirely about the queer history of San Francisco. Originally, when I was coming up with this story, my instinct was to put it in NYC (or just outside) because that’s where I’m from. But as I did research on the queer histories of various cities, what I found was that in the ’50s, New York’s queer culture was much more stratified. There wasn’t nearly as much mingling of gay communities of different classes or races as there was in San Francisco. And knowing it was going to be a series, I wanted a community that was more fluid. Luckily, for this first book, so much of it takes place outside the city that I could make stuff up—Lavender House itself is pure fiction, as are the characters in it—but I owe a lot not just to Boyd but to several San Francisco historians, photographers and Facebook groups where older people share stories and pictures of their neighborhoods. I’m sure I still got things wrong, but I hope they’re not too distracting.
What was the biggest challenge this book presented? What was the biggest opportunity?
The research. So much research. And because queer history is always hidden and rewritten, the research often took me down many paths and led to several answers. There’s one sentence in Lavender House about a woman in a suit that’s changed so many times based on what I’ve learned about cross-dressing laws and ordinances at the time at the national, state and city levels—and I’m still not sure it’s accurate! Information is contradictory. California is so interesting in the early ’50s because of this state Supreme Court ruling in ’51 where a judge said it wasn’t illegal for gay people to congregate at a bar. It was a huge victory for the community, but it was also so small, because while being gay was suddenly legal (only in California), acting gay was not—and that could mean a lot of things. Same-sex dancing was still illegal, and so was touching the wrong way, if a cop decided it was the wrong way. So many cases and laws and the constant harassment of queer bars and people were about what the cop on duty was feeling and if he’d been bribed. So the small legal details were killer to figure out.
The biggest opportunity I’m less sure of! There’s so much I got to do; making a big queer family was such a blessing once I let myself do it. Even those laws being so hard to look up, since they were pretty subjective depending on the police, meant I could have them be as strict or lenient as I wanted (within certain bounds, of course). Sometimes the research being blurry just gives you more room to play. But I think overall the biggest opportunity was to get to the heart of what it means to learn to love yourself in ’52 as a queer man. Because if Andy can do it, I think people today can, too.
Who is your first reader? What is most valuable or useful about that initial feedback for you?
It varies, depending on people’s time and schedules. I have a writing group, I have writer friends who will read for me, I have a librarian husband. And I think what feedback is most valuable varies book to book as well. What am I worried about? Should I be, or did I pull it off? With Lavender House, my worry was always that it wouldn’t coast that line between noir and camp noir: the noir that’s a bit bigger and, frankly, a bit more fun. Lauren Bacall asking if you know how to whistle in To Have and Have Not? That’s a little camp at this point, but it’s my favorite thing. Some people see that scene and roll their eyes, but I light up. So did I pull off that tone in a way that feels authentic to a modern reader? Did they get it?
You’ve explored the idea of a sanctuary for members of the LGBTQ+ community before, in your young adult rom-com, Camp (written under the name L.C. Rosen). Why do you think you keep returning to this theme? How did Lavender House allow you to explore this idea further?
It’s funny, I hadn’t thought of it that way; the word I’ve always used is community. But sanctuary, yeah, I guess I do write about that a lot. And I write about the push and pull between queer community or sanctuary and the outside world, where we may not always be allowed to be ourselves safely. Part of that is just that I like writing about a bunch of queer people: I think just one or two feels unrealistic, because we tend to find one another. I think it’s interesting the way we can sort of form our own community and deal with our own problems when we don’t have to worry about the outside world. Camp was about figuring out what sort of internal prejudices we bring into that sanctuary, because we all come from a world that tells us to hate ourselves or to only be one kind of gay. But Lavender House is about dealing with the fear of the outside knowing about us at all. That’s partially because of the historical element, of course, but I think it’s something we still see today: How much do we let other people in? How dangerous is it?
Do you see any parts of yourself in Andy?
Sure. I see parts of myself in every character I write. I think you have to. Even when you’re writing someone bad, you need to understand where they’re coming from—and I don’t mean they need to be sympathetic or understandable. I think we as a society have actually gone too far, as a whole, in that sense. Sometimes bad people are just bad, and they don’t need a tragic backstory to make you feel sorry for them. We shouldn’t lose sight of that. But as writers, you have to understand their outlook, even if you don’t need to justify it to yourself. So why would someone do this? What are their values? How do they see the world?
With Andy specifically, I think certainly there’s a coming-out element to his story. He’s out, but he doesn’t love his queerness much, and over the course of the novel, he learns to do that. He learns to reconcile with what it means to be queer in 1952, and while that might be very, very hard, there’s a lot of benefit to it, too. I think that’s something every queer person should figure out. You can be out and proud but still not quite know how to love your queerness and the queerness of others. I don’t mean you need to want to clack a fan and wear heels, but you have to love that other guys do in order to really love what queerness is. Once you’ve done that, the world just becomes so much brighter.
What do you hope readers take away from this novel?
The main thing I always hope a reader takes away is the feeling of having had a good time. I believe first and foremost my job is to entertain. If I can make people think or see things in a new light, that’s even better. And for Lavender House, I hope they take away a stronger understanding of queer history—not just the idea that we’ve always been here but also the idea that we’re still dealing with a lot of the same problems. Across the country, people are trying to ban books about queer teens—and often succeeding. They’re trying to prevent kids from coming out, and they’re firing queer teachers or making it illegal for them to talk about their queerness, even casually. They’re trying to make it now like it was in the ’50s, and I hope people see those parallels and understand that there’s still so much work to do if we want to say we’ve moved on.
What’s next for you? Will Andy Mills return at some point?
It was a two-book deal, so he’s coming back at least one more time, though I’m hoping he’ll be around for a while. The sequel is titled The Bell in the Fog, and it should be out sometime in the fall of 2023. Before that, though, I also have Tennessee Russo coming out in the spring, which is the start to a YA series about a queer teen archeologist digging up ancient queer history to make sure it’s not erased while avoiding traps and pitfalls. More queer history! Just older.
Photo of Lev AC Rosen by Rachael Shane.