Queer Coded: Interview with Keith Maillard

Happy Pride Month! For all of June we will be interviewing queer authors about their work and inspiration. Today we interview Keith Mailard, author of In Defense of Liberty (Freehand Books), and he explains that although his writing is not overtly “queer” his work has always questioned the gender binary. Follow along each week for a new feature. 


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How is your queer identity reflective in your writing process? Would you say your writing is overtly or covertly queer?Keith Maillard: “Queer” is not a label I would have applied to myself up until recently. Viewed from the outside, my life looks fairly traditional, and I do not present as queer, but if you use the word in the way that it is coming to be understood, as a broad umbrella term, of course I’m queer—I’m a nonbinary person and always have been. I’ve been writing about what we would now call “gender issues” since my first novel, Two Strand River, was published in 1976. Many of my books would now be regarded as overtly queer, and all of them call the gender binary into question, though sometimes not in obvious ways. ALU: What’s a piece of LGBTQ2S+ literature that you heartily recommend?Keith Maillard: Like Lorianne in Liberty, I would heartily recommend Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. Not only is it a great lesbian novel, it’s one of the great novels of the twentieth century, far from an easy read but well worth the effort. I first read it when I was about the age of Mason in Liberty, then read it again about ten years later, and then, as I was writing Liberty, read it a third and fouth time. Each time I got something more out of it. The heart of the matter is Nora’s obsessive love for the boy-girl Robin Vote, but the star of the novel is the endlessly talking Dr. Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O’Connor. Some moments with him are unforgettable, as when he takes his penis out at the back of the church and asks God, “Why did you do this to me?”—and, of course, the famous scene in which Nora climbs up to the doctor’s squalid garret, finds him in bed in drag, and asks him to tell her everything that he knows about the night. Sometimes Dr. O’Connor drops little bombs that sizzle in your brain for years: And the pretty lad who is a girl, what but the prince-princess in point lace, neither one and half the other.ALU: Which, if any, queer writers influenced your writing of this book?Keith Maillard: As I have just said, Nightwood had a huge impact on me as I was writing Liberty—and then looking back, particularly all the way back to my high school years, it is the absence of queer writers that deeply influenced me. Representation is vitally important. As I was growing up, I never saw anyone portrayed in fiction who looked like me, and never means never—not rarely or poorly drawn, but never—and that made me feel that I might not be fully or functionally human. The closest I could come to a character I could identify with was Alexias, the beautiful boy runner in Marie Renault’s The Last of the Wine, a gay love story that absolutely destroyed me when I was sixteen. When I wrote Two Stand River, I was deliberately trying to write a book to fill up that absence I had felt as I had been growing up, a book that would have meant the world to me as an adolescent. Fortunately things have changed since then, and we now have a pletheora of superb first-rate queer writers ranging from Casey Plett to Zoe Whittall. I could fill up a page or two with their names. But there can never be too many of us; publishers must never be allowed to say, “Oh, but we have our queer writer, and that takes care of it.” There can never be too many novels starring trans and nonbinary people.ALU: Is there anything you would like readers to take away from In the Defense of Liberty?Keith Maillard: In the Defense of Liberty is being published at a time when LGBTQ2S+ people are being attacked in a concerted and vicious way. Republican state governments in the US seem to be in competition with each other to see who can pass the most cruel and repressive legistlation aimed particularly at trans people, and the two most likely GOP candidates for the presidency have stated their positions in no uncertain terms—if elected, they will legislate trans people out of existence. An anti-queer position now appears to be essential to a conservative position, and that applies in Canada as well as in the States. I want In the Defense of Liberty to be saying to those fascists, no, you won’t. Among the many things I am doing in that book, I am celebrating trans and nonbinary characters. We were here back in the day when language hadn’t yet been invented to speak of us. We have always been here, and we will continue to be here, and to flourish, no matter what you do.

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Keith Maillard is the author of fourteen novels. He has won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Literary Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Awards. He grew up in Wheeling, West Virginia, and has lived for many years in Vancouver, where he teaches creative writing at UBC.