Jeff & Will celebrate the podcast’s 8th birthday, and Will’s 50th birthday! They also wish everyone a very Happy Halloween.
Author Lev AC Rosen talks about his new book, Lavender House, a queer murder mystery set in 1950s San Francisco. Lev discusses the research he did for the time and location of the book, creating the characters inhabiting Lavender House, and the mystery that unfolds. He also talks about an article he wrote earlier this year about how book bans are designed to scare queer kids. Plus, Lev shares book recommendations, and tells us about the three books he has coming out in 2023.
Big Gay Fiction Podcast is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. Find many more outstanding podcasts at frolic.media/podcasts!
Here are the things we talk about in this episode. Please note, these links include affiliate links for which we may make a small commission at no extra cost to you should you make a purchase. These links are current at the time the episode premieres, however links are subject to change.
- Lev AC Rosen Interview:
- Lev AC Rosen website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | TikTok
- Lavender House by Lev AC Rosen
- Hank Phillippi Ryan on Amazon
- Raymond Chandler on Amazon
- Agatha Christie on Amazon
- La Cage aux Folles on Amazon Prime Video
- Mildred Pierce on Amazon Prime Video
- Imitation of Life on Amazon Prime Video
- Wide-Open Town by Nan Alamilla Boyd
- Fadeout by (Dave Brandstetter Mysteries #1) Joseph Hansen
- Ordeal by Innocence on Amazon Prime Video
- Camp by L.C. Rosen
- Crooked House on Amazon Prime Video
- Depth by Lev AC Rosen on Amazon
- Jack of Hearts by L.C. Rosen
- The Purpose of Book Bans Is to Make Queer Kids Scared by Lev AC Rosen on Lit Hub
- The Lavender House Playlist By Lev AC Rosen on Tor/Forge Blog
- Lavender House Playlist on Spotify
- Katie Klimowicz website
- Colin Verdi website
- Emma by Jane Austen
- Deviant’s War by Eric Cervini
- When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan
- The Women’s House of Detention by Hugh Ryan
- The Lavender Scare by David K. Johnson
- Indecent Advances by James Polchin
- Find Selected Books from this episode at Bookshop.org and support a local bookstore
- Big Gay Fiction Podcast Links
This transcript was made possible by our community on Patreon. You can get information on how to join them at patreon.com/biggayfictionpodcast.
Will: There’s nothing spooky about this week’s episode because we’ve got author Lev Rosen who’s here to talk about his queer historical mystery, “Lavender House.”
Jeff: Welcome to episode 402 of the Big Gay Fiction Podcast, the show for avid readers and passionate fans of queer romance fiction. I’m Jeff, and with me as always, is the birthday boy and my husband. It’s Will.
Will: Hello Rainbow Romance Reader. We are so glad that you could join us for another episode of the show. Happy Halloween.
Jeff: There’s so much this week, isn’t there? Happy Halloween. Happy birthday to you cause it’s your birthday’s coming up on the fourth. And happy birthday to the show which turns eight on November 2nd. And I should say it’s a big birthday for you. Happy 50th.
Will: Yeah, that’s a pretty big milestone. And I’m very happy and very grateful that I get to sit here and share it with my husband and you, our wonderful listeners. Thanks for making my birthday so special and for showing up today to celebrate eight amazing years of celebrating queer fiction. Let’s raise a glass. Here’s to eight more.
Jeff: At least yes, cause then we could be 16 and this podcast can drive.
Will: Sweet 16.
Jeff: Now, before I get to my talk with Lev, let me tell you what I thought of “Lavender House.”
Will: I know, I know that you love this, like, a lot and you cannot wait to talk about it.
Jeff: I think I talked about it to you as I read the book.
Will: You did! I know!
Jeff: I’m like, oh my God, this thing right here
Review: Lavender House by Lev AC Rosen
Jeff: I became a fan of Lev AC Rosen’s work in 2020 when I read his YA novel “Camp,” which he wrote as LC Rosen. “Lavender House” is simply extraordinary. Set in 1952, this mystery about the death of a matriarch who leaves behind a soap empire was absolutely incredible with its large cast of suspects, noir vibe and a look back at a point in San Francisco’s queer history that isn’t often talked about.
San Francisco Police Detective Evander Mills, or Andy, as he prefers to be called, has just been fired. He ended up in the wrong bar, and ended up caught in a compromising position by his colleagues. He kept out of the way of the raids for some time, but his luck ran out. Not sure what he’ll do next, he’s suddenly hired by Pearl Velez, the widow of Irene Lamontaine, the head of the Lamontaine soap empire who was found dead in her lab at Lavender House.
Andy is intrigued by the case, and that Pearl refers to Irene as her wife. That’s just not done in 1952. Beyond the stronghold of the Lamontaine family, Lavender House is a queer safe haven where the family can live as themselves, at least within the gates. Pearl and Irene had a life together there. Irene’s biological son Henry was raised by the two women, and he now has a public life with his wife Margo while living at Lavender House with his boyfriend of several years Cliff, who to the outside is Henry’s social secretary. Margo has a relationship with Elise, who runs a club in San Francisco called the Ruby, and she also stays at Lavender House. The household staff, made up of the butler, a cook and gardener are also queer. The only non-queer is Margo’s mother, who essentially manages the house, and was taken in because she really had nowhere else to go.
While they’ve build up and maintained their tight family for years, it doesn’t come without a cost. Andy soon discovers that the entire family has motives big and small for killing Irene. While Pearl hopes the death can be proven to be just an accident, it’s clear from the start that Irene didn’t simply fall over the banister that led down to her lab. Andy soon finds the stress cracks in what initially looks like an ideal place to live a open, queer friendly life.
Lev does such an incredible job with this story from the very beginning. There’s a world to build here to get us into the 1950s setting and what it means to be queer in that time. That starts on the opening page where we meet Andy drowning his sorrows in a bar on a Tuesday afternoon. At the same time, we start to understand who Andy is and the frame of mind he’s in after being fired. The details and atmosphere keep coming to and these infuse the story with a rich sense of place and time. Overall “Lavender House” reminded me of some of my favorite noir films, such as “The Letter” and “Mildred Pierce,” as well as the films from director Douglas Sirk, including “Imitation of Life” and “All That Heaven Allows.”
Another thing that makes this story so great is the characters that Lev introduces us to. Each one of them, no matter how big or small their part in the story, is very complex. Each has a story to tell on how they came to be at Lavender House, why they value being there but also how it is a certain kind of prison as well because they can only be their true selves within the gates. It’s interesting reading about a time 70 years ago where people had to hide themselves, and see where we are today with people all too often having to hide parts of themselves to feel safe. I love how Lev brought everyone to life through the conversations with Andy–and how meeting each one of the people also taught Andy a little something about himself too.
Of course, there are the circumstances around the death to unravel as well. It’s a finely crafted mystery. As I mentioned, really everyone is a suspect and Lev lays all of the information out, examines it from different angles, tosses out some huge curveballs and delivers a page turning story as tension ratchets up to the final reveal. It’s a widely satisfying read in every way.
I have to call out a couple of profoundly moving and thoughtful lines that Lev has in “Lavender House.”
At one point, after a particularly bad situation, Andy is in the care of Gene, a bartender / doctor. Gene gives Andy a hug. Andy thinks this: “I try to remember the last time I was hugged. I can’t but I wish this one didn’t hurt so much.” Then Gene says to Andy: “I promise, you can have a great new life. Even when your dream is taken from you, you can have a great new life.”
How often is that something any of us might need to hear from time to time.
Then there’s this, which Andy thinks to himself after the case is wrapped up: “Some of us don’t get any peace, not really. But that’s not the same as happiness. Peace comes to you, if you’re lucky. Happy you grab and make with your own two hands.”
Talk about truth. That is, I think how queer people found happy throughout history with whatever oppression was happening. They reached out, and grabbed it, and made it their own. And I think that’s still true today with the times that we live in.
I’m happy to say, as I wrap up this review, Lev tees up a future as an investigator for Andy, and rest assured Andy’s future is something we’ll be talking about in the interview coming up. In the meantime, if you want a thrilling mystery, I highly recommend “Lavender House” by Lev AC Rosen.
And now my conversation with Lev. You’ve got the idea. I love the book. So, of course, I loved talking about it with him so much. Everything from the research he did and the noir vibe of the book. Why he created a soap empire to set the book around. What his favorite scene is and how Bette Davis helped him figure out everything he needed to know about one of the characters.
Lev AC Rosen Interview
Jeff: Jeff: Lev, welcome back to the podcast. It’s wonderful to have you here to talk about “Lavender House.”
Lev: Thank you so much. I am thrilled to be back, and I am so excited to talk about this book with you.
Jeff: This book is so incredibly amazing. I gave my review to it just before the interview segment here. I’d love for you to tell folks how you describe this book.
Lev: Well, first of all, thank you. Thank you. You know, the book isn’t even out yet while we’re recording this, so hearing people like it is very…it builds you up for that big day. So, what is it about? You know, actually, Hank Phillippi Ryan, who is a brilliant author herself and a friend, she offhandedly described this in like a mystery chat as Chandler meets Christie meets “La Cage aux Folles,” and I was like, “Oh, that’s it. That’s the perfect description.”
So, I can’t top that, and that was Hank. But if you want a longer description, I would say that, you know, it’s a 1950s mystery. It’s 1952. Evander Mills is sitting in a bar thinking about drinking himself to death because he was an inspector for the San Francisco Police Department who just got caught in a raid on a gay club and immediately fired.
So, he is thinking about suicide, he is thinking about ending it all when a woman sits down next to him at the bar and says, “I know who you are, I know why you were fired, and I want you to solve the murder of my wife.” And with nothing left to lose, he goes with her to the titular Lavender House, which is a manner outside the city that is home to the Lamontaine family, which is the family that owns the Lamontaine soap.
And even though Irene, now deceased, and her wife, Pearl, who just hired Andy, in public were mistress and secretary, and their son is also queer, they know that with soap in the 50s, appearances are important. And so, they found their gay son a lesbian wife, a lavender marriage. And so it was, until she died, Irene, and then still remaining is Pearl, the widow, their son, Henry, his boyfriend, Cliff, Henry’s wife, Margo, Margo’s girlfriend who comes in and out, Elise, and Margo’s mother, Alice, as well as the staff, all of whom are queer.
Alice is the only straight one in the whole house. And, you know, they have this gilded cage, where inside they can be as free as they want, and outside, they have to perform their roles of heteronormativity. But now someone is dead, maybe murdered by someone else in the cage, and they’re all trapped inside. That’s how I’ve been describing it.
Jeff: In some ways, it’s like one big game of Clue a little bit because, you know,…
Lev: I love that comparison.
Jeff: So many people jammed in the house. Although, we do get outside the house during the run of the book, so we’re not all like jammed in there. And then it also has, from page one, this feel, you’ve just imbibed it with like this noir feel. I felt like I was watching “Mildred Pierce” or “Imitation of Life” or something like that because you set the scenes so well. How much research went into creating San Francisco of the 50s, queer life in the 50s, and just the feel of that kind of film, too? I mean, to be honest, it’s very cinematic, too.
Lev: Well, thank you. Thank you. I so appreciate you calling it noir because that’s exactly what I was going for. You know, I was raised on a lot of those old Bogart and Bacall movies, and like that was so much of the inspiration there. And, you know, I’ve read all of Chandler’s works. He’s sort of a, you know, writing sort of stylistic hero to me. And, so being able to step into all that came sort of naturally, in terms of, I’ve been studying the genre my whole life in some way.
As for the actual historical research, that was a lot more complicated. And I would not be shocked at all if I get a bunch of angry emails from people who were in San Francisco in the 50s being like, “No, no, no, not correct, not like that.” I’m fully expecting those. You know, you should feel free to tell me I got some detail wrong here or there. But a lot of the research was from “Wide-Open Town,” which is a history of queer San Francisco to 1965 by Nan Alamilla Boyd, and I really hope I’m pronouncing that correctly.
And, you know, it’s a book that came out a while ago, I think almost 20 years ago at this point, and it is just so comprehensive. It gave me everything I needed to know about the queer community in the 60s. I’ve read it all through twice and forgotten it. Like, you know, there’s so much in here, you forget it all immediately afterwards. So, every time I go through it, I find new things, and I’m like, “Oh God, did I do that right? Do I need to fix this? Is this the best way it could be? Maybe I should put this in.” It’s like inspiring every single time, and it’s really exciting.
This was like a big part of the research. Also, you know, since it was during Covid, so I couldn’t really travel when I was writing this. I went through the online archives at the San Francisco Public Library, looked at old photos. There are a bunch of photo books of old San Francisco. I went to a lot of Facebook groups for San Francisco old timers, who basically are like, “I remember when this…” and like picked up details that way. But yeah, so that was a lot of reading and just poking around essentially.
Jeff: I love how much you got to do there, and I can only imagine if you’d been able to come to San Francisco as you wrote it. How much more you could have even dug into it, and maybe even traveled up 101 to figure out, “This is where we’re gonna go off, right here, to the house. This is where the house is.”
Lev: Yeah. I mean, I think where the house is, is technically a national park, so there would never have been a house there. But I mean, maybe, I don’t know. But, you know, I looked at old photos of the one town they go to that’s just outside San Francisco, too. And oh, my God, like, I found one photo of it that was just so pretty with these signs, down to the church at the end of the street, and I was like, this scene I can describe. I can describe the city, this small city as this photo, and I will feel like it is honest, and I will feel like it is what I want it to be. I’ve been reading… Have you read the David Brandstetter mysteries that were just rereleased?
Jeff: No, not yet.
Lev: Oh, that’s…
Jeff: Yeah, they’re on my list as part of the rerelease. Yeah.
Lev: No, they’re so good. And the first one is “Fadeout.” And they are a queer detective, not San Francisco, I think it’s more LA-based. The first one’s 1969, so it’s the 70s, and it’s a noir, and it’s a gay detective. So, it’s very similar in that sense. I didn’t start reading them obviously till after I had written “Lavender House,” because they only were just recently released. But, like, reading them feels, “Oh, like, maybe I’m sort of occupying a similar space just 20 years earlier.”
Jeff: Where did the idea for this come from? I mean, both like the plot itself and everything that you’ve got going on with the mystery and everything, but then also this ginormous cast of characters. Because I don’t know if people were counting, but there’s a lot of people in play living in the house.
Lev: I mean, I think a good mystery needs a cast, a large cast, but yeah. So it came from a lot of places, the idea. I mean, the story I like to tell is, I was watching one recent adaptation of an Agatha Christie book, I think “Ordeal by Innocence” the Amazon one, where it’s like kind of over the top, and the house is 80% staircase, and like everyone’s just constantly whispering, and I loved it.
And it was like, you know, I love a campy, sort of, over-the-top Agatha Christie adaptation that still, you know, goes all in on the visuals. It’s a beautiful mini-series too. And I remember watching it and being like, “These people, like, it always feels like at least one of them has to be boring. I bet if they were all gay, none of them would be boring.” And so, that was definitely a large part of it was…
And that’s why I think, even though I’m coming to it as sort of a noir writer, it ended up in this very Christie space for this first book. And I think that that was one of the big sort of moments where I’m like, “Yeah, I’m gonna try this. I’m gonna do this.” But before that, I had also, you know, just been interested in queer history. And, you know, in “Camp,” they have those queer history lessons, and they talk about the Mattachine Society.
And knowing about all this pre-Stonewall queer history and the Mattachine, especially, with their sort of layers of, you know, covert meetings and all that, there’s something exciting about it that I wanted to explore. And it was mostly happening in California, LA, and San Francisco. San Francisco to me is a little more of a noir town, so that’s why I went with that. And then I found this book, and it was just sort of meant to be, and I was like, “Okay, this is happening. I’m writing this book.”
Jeff: That is so awesome. Why soap?
Lev: Oh, oh, okay. Yeah, this is a fun story, and it’s a weird sort of insight into my bizarre process. So, I was coming up with this story, and I was like, “All right, all right, what is, you know, happening here? What is going to go on?” And the first thing that came to me was, like, I was thinking back to the Christie, and I was thinking of “Crooked House.” Because I watched “Crooked House” too, the Gillian Anderson, now that sort of appropriately over the top. Love it, love it.
And I was like, “Well, you know, that’s sort of an Agatha Christie title. What house, if I’m gonna do something like this, is a queer version of that?” And I was like, “Lavender House, you know, for a lavender marriage. Somehow there’s a lavender marriage in there that unites this house.” So, the title sort of, what, came first a little, and then, in that moment, I was like, “All right, but if they’re gonna call it ‘Lavender House,’ they can’t actually call it ‘Lavender House’ because of the lavender marriage. They need to have another reason for it. So, there must be lavender growing there. Why would lavender be growing there? What if they ran on a soap empire?”
So, it all sort of went that way. I briefly did consider having them do perfume, but there was something about perfume that feels a little more illicit. When I was conceiving this family and thinking about this, I was like, “They have to appear straight in public.” Soap is much more clean, excuse the pun, than perfume. Soap is a wholesome, squeaky-clean family image. They would definitely have to make sure that people thought they were straight.
Jeff: That’s a great story. You’re so right about that.
Lev: Very backwards. It’s not normally how I do these things, but like it’s sort of just sort of spiraled backwards in an interesting way.
Jeff: And it had to be something you could grow in that part of California, too. And yet also, you know, I think everybody thinks, “Ooh, wine. Do wine. They’re right there.” And, you know, you went and did something different, which was cool.
Lev: Oh, yeah, no. My mother is a gardener, and in the original draft or something, she, like…you know, and I’m describing the garden, she circled every plant where she was, like, “Nope, not in San Francisco, not in May.”
Jeff: Way to go, Mom, for getting the accuracy down.
Lev: Yeah, I’m lucky lavender grew there. Like, that’s acceptable at least.
Jeff: Now, this isn’t your first mystery, but it is your first of seven years. The previous one was “Depth.” What was it like coming back to that genre and digging in all over again to build the mystery aspect?
Lev: Well, I think that, you know, I wanted… I love “Depth.” “Depth,” you know, was a book that I think came from the same place in my own sort of interests, in that it is a classic noir that just happens to take place at the end of the world. And it’s worth noting back then when I was writing, I did not feel like I could write queer protagonists. There’s certainly a lot of homoerotic tension in “Depth” with Simone and her best friend, but I didn’t feel like I could say…
I felt like queer characters, and I wanted to put them in, had to be, you know, a supporting cast. And part of that was the market at the time, and, you know, you wanna write something that’s gonna sell. You wanna write something that people look at, and they don’t go, “This is too niche.” And this was before queer fiction started booming outside of literary fiction, and at least my experience with it. And so part of my desire to explore noir and still feel as though I was exploring it in a way that felt authentic to me would be to have a female PI.
And so, because of that, I couldn’t go backwards, and I went instead forward. I tried to get back to a grittier New York by pushing it ahead to when the ice caps have melted and it’s just sort of the tops of buildings, and bridges, and decommissioned boats. And that let me capture that old noir feeling because it was a version of New York that felt like the New York of an old mystery novel, even if it is way in the future.
Jeff: I wanna talk about your process a little bit because since there is this big cast, I’m really fascinated by it. And point of view all belongs to Andy. This is all Andy, it’s all in his voice. But there’s that, you know, a lot of people living there. And as you kind of plot this out and make sure everybody gets their individual points because everybody felt fully fleshed out, even how Andy was seeing them in the house, what was that like to juggle all those people and how they would click in with the plot, and, you know, things like that? So, it wasn’t like, “Well, why did I meet this person? We never really saw them again.” But everybody kept showing up.
Lev: I don’t know. Isn’t that a great answer? It just sort of flowed kind of naturally to me. I mean, once I knew what the family was, which was this woman who had been married to a man and he died and she had his child, and then she strikes up an affair with a woman, and, you know, takes on as her secretary. If their kid is queer, then all of a sudden, I have a whole queer house.
So, like from there, it felt like a natural family tree to me, especially, if you think of Margo, not as their daughter-in-law, but as their daughter, which maybe to them she is. All of a sudden it’s like two moms, brother, sister, each of the brother and sister’s significant others. And so, that felt like a pretty normal family flow chart to me. Alice is sort of an extra, you know, fun ‘and’ character, let’s say, in that, you know, she is the actual mother of Margo.
But once all of them were in place and the way they interacted just came very naturally to me. There was something about understanding, you know, what that relationship would look like, this marriage, these friendships, this house, how they would all interact that felt just like writing a family. And I think writing a family can feel very natural once you understand the characters. And I think I understood them pretty early on. They all appeared pretty fully formed in my mind.
Jeff: I love it when that happens.
Lev: Henry was the one I had the most trouble with, I will say. I didn’t get him until he did his Bette Davis impersonation. And that…
Jeff: That’s hilarious that that was what gave it to you.
Lev: I was like, “Now I get this guy, I get him now.” And he has that moment where he’s like, “And I can’t do it at parties, even as a trick.” Oh, like all of a sudden he like was fully formed to me, and I can go back and fill him in more.
Jeff: And for those of you who haven’t read the book yet, when you get to that point, you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about.
I love how many things there are in the book that seem to resonate so much now. Like, I was marking stuff in my Kindle, like, “Oh, that’s really good. That’s really good.” And a couple of them I put in the review, but there’s one I wanna talk about here a little bit because it’s one of those that just hits really hard and seems to hit home now, and that’s, late in the book, the case is wrapped up and Andy thinks this particular thing to himself.
“Some of us don’t get any peace, not really, but that’s not the same as happiness. Peace comes to you if you’re lucky. Happy you grab and make with your own two hands.” And I feel that that resonates for queer people, even today, you know, with the environment that we live in. There’s probably no good answer for this, but how did you end up putting so many of those interesting nuggets into this book? Is it because of where we are right now? Would you have written the same like, you know, three, four years ago?
Lev: Ooh, that’s a good question. I genuinely don’t know. I mean, obviously, with “Camp” and with “Jack of Hearts,” I have been experiencing a lot of things, perhaps more so than other queer people or less. I’m not like, you know, obviously way less than the teenagers that these things are happening to, but I’m informed of, that’s what I mean. I’m informed of things that are happening more than I would like to be. “My book is being banned here.” “Your book is being banned there.”
I get emails from people all the time asking me to somehow fix it, like I have that power. And so, I’m watching this happen, you know, and I’d written the book sort of before all this started, I think, before the banning got really intense. And so, it resonated for me more afterwards. And I’m trying to think of the timeline. I might have been editing at that point and it might have given me some insight into lines like that.
But certainly, it’s something that has been happening, and which I don’t know if it inspired me consciously. Certainly, it didn’t inspire me consciously, but I don’t know if it created some of those lines. I don’t know if I would’ve been able to write it if, you know, it weren’t happening the way it is now. But it wasn’t conscious if that’s what you’re asking. It wasn’t a sort of, “Oh, yeah, I’m gonna drop comparison between what’s going on with these book bans today and, you know, how it was for queer people in the 50s.”
Because I think, it’s funny, I see reviews online, you know, people posting on Instagram, Goodreads from straight people, reviews that say about “Lavender House.” “Things were so much more difficult for queer people then than they are now. Now it’s so much more liberal.” And I’m like, “It isn’t.” And, like I understand why straight people who are probably out of the loop and not paying much attention to queer politics don’t know that.
You know, they see a queer character on a lot of TV shows, and they’re like, “Oh, isn’t it nice? Representation. Love is love.” But the fights that are happening are not usually happening in the light, in the way that the queer community, I think, thinks they are. For us, it’s like every five minutes constantly, Twitter, Instagram, the news, etc, but you gotta remember straight people aren’t seeing that. They’re not paying attention, so they don’t see it.
And so, when they read the book and they see that, “Ah,” and they think it’s so different and you and me think it’s so much the same. To me, it comes down to sort of, “I wish I knew how to bridge that gap. I wish I knew how to make people see what is happening, you know, here, that is still happening today.” And I don’t know how to do that. And that’s not even the answer to your question anymore… musing.
But yeah, what’s happening today didn’t directly inspire this book in any way because it was mostly written, but it might have inspired the way the language works in the edits, those lines that you’re talking about. Yes.
Jeff: I say it resonates today and obviously we’re not living in the way that the 50s is, but you could see a trajectory where that might be where we’re headed which, you know…
Lev: I mean, I think, I would say that teenagers today are living like this. I would say queer teens are having this. You know, they can’t talk about it, and teachers, to an extent, you know, Florida in the, what was it, 60s, 70s, they have that whole like institution specifically for finding queer teachers and firing them. And that feels very much like what’s happening again in Florida right now. So, it does feel like, in many ways, things are happening much more so to teenagers, much more so to trans people than they are to us, and so, it’s difficult to reconcile.
Like, on some level, things have not changed, and on another level, things have changed massively. And I think that it’s that one level where things haven’t changed, where, you know, there’s this idea of we’re still in these little cages where we make our families and where we can truly be ourselves, and then we have the outside world where we can say we’re gay, but we still have to behave a particular way, we have to be a particular type of gay. And that is what this is, even if it’s the difference being particular type of gay versus straight. Pretend you’re straight, pretend you’re masc, pretend you’re straight acting, whatever. It’s the same, even if it’s changed.
Jeff: It’s interesting you mentioned the queer kids because it wasn’t that long ago. It was back in May that you wrote an article for Lit Hub called “The Purpose of Book Bans Is to Make Queer Kids Scared.” And it was also a very personal article for you because of some of the things that had been said about you with these book bans. How did you come to write this article? And just to let folks know, too, we’ll link it in the show notes so you can go read this if you haven’t happened to catch it already. So, you can get the full article there, too.
Lev: I mean, obviously there are many challenges and bans happening with “Jack of Hearts,” my sex Ed thriller, my young adult sex Ed thriller. And so, it was there, and people were aware of it, and people were asking me to write about it. And I didn’t really want to… I don’t think I should be the face of book banning. I don’t think that it’s my role because I’m white, and so many of these books are being banned because they’re about people who aren’t white.
But also because, you know, I’m a chubby bearded guy. I’m a picture they would throw up of like, “Do you want this pervert near your children?” And so, I didn’t wanna do that. And, like, you know, people asked me to talk on CNN and stuff, and I declined all that. I didn’t have any interest in being that guy.
But I visited my in-laws in Florida and they just moved there and they’re in an area where one of these groups started up, the exact county, one of the groups that was trying to ban my book. And the whole time I’m down there, what I’m thinking is, “Oh God, did these people know? Did these people know what I look like? You know, is my mask protecting me? What if they knew I was here?” And then it occurred to me like, you know, that must be what it’s like to be a queer kid in that county all the time. All the time. And, you know, I only had to do it for a week, and I could easily hide in my in-law’s place.
And, you know, it was Covid, we weren’t going out much, it was fine. But imagine living that all the time. Imagine just like getting rolled over with that anxiety and that fear, which is, again, that’s what links back to this, and how the teenagers and teachers now must feel having to hide themselves like that all the time, afraid of if people know, afraid what they’ll do if they know because I was afraid of violence, you know.
There are people going to drag time story hour with guns. You know, I don’t know the difference between someone who genuinely is like, “Oh, gosh, isn’t this a little too much sexual information for a 15-year-old?” versus someone who’s like, “You’re writing about gay teenagers? I’m gonna kill you, you pedo.” Like, it takes so much effort for us to find out what that difference is, that it is safer for us to just be like, “Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. These people, you know, are all dangerous.”
And so, that mentality as a teenager, all the time, that was what I started thinking about and that’s why I wrote the article, I think. The thing when people wanted to interview me about book banning in particular, and I did a few, you know, written interviews, and the thing I always said to them was, “I will talk to you if you talk to a queer teenager or at least promise me you will after. You’ve gotta promise me you’ll talk to a queer teenager because that’s who these books are affecting and that’s who these arguments are affecting, too.”
Imagine being in a town where… You know, I watched the video of a priest get up and say that I’m a pedophile, whatever. But imagine being a teenager in a town, being a closeted teenager, and watching a priest get up and say these books about queer people are pedophiles. Imagine a bunch of people agreeing with him. Imagine other people disagreeing. Imagine all this fighting over you that you can’t even…and you don’t get a voice in it.
And, yeah, that’s why I think it’s most important to talk to the teens, and I was just so thrilled when those teens did a walkout. I think it happened like right after I got back from Florida. That was amazing. And their walkouts in Texas, too. And, you know, I think what I like to say is the teenagers are gonna save us and it’s a shame that they have to. But yeah, that’s what I was thinking of. I was thinking of the teenagers.
Jeff: I appreciate you talking to us about that because it’s certainly not the topic we were here to talk about, but I think it’s also an important topic as well.
Lev: I hope I made sense, I dunno.
Jeff: Spinning it back to “Lavender House,” what’s a favorite scene in “Lavender House” for you? And preferably one that maybe you can give without giving too many spoilers to the awesome plot.
Lev: Cliff drunkenly lip-syncing in his underwear. There was some difficulty with that. I had picked a song and then I couldn’t use the lyrics, and so I had to find a song I could use the lyrics for. And so that became complicated. The song changed several times, but this sort of like Cliff in his underwear in a loose robe, sort of drunk and seducing the detective. It’s this femme fatale moment, but it’s also like just, it was so much fun to write. And I think I knew that that was a scene that I was gonna write for Cliff when I invented Cliff, and so that’s sort of where his character came from, this drunken chorus boy in his underwear, still lip-syncing and seducing a detective.
Jeff: I don’t think people realize how hard it is to put any kinda lyrics in a book.
Lev: Oh, yeah.
Jeff: Share with us, because, you know, we won’t do lyrics here, but what were some of the early songs that you had him lip-syncing to?
Lev: I originally wanted him to lip sync to… I just wrote a whole article about the songs. So, there were two before that that I like… There was one that I think was too on the nose and then I got to “Cold Cold Heart.” And that was what I really wanted to use but I couldn’t use that at all because that was actually from the 40s, and I think I can only use songs from like ’36 or earlier. So, I had to like do a big search. I recruited some friends. My friend Molly, I think, found the song in the end, and she was like, “This is the vibe you want.”
Jeff: There could be a whole Spotify playlist of, like, the songs you could not use.
Lev: Yeah. Well, I mean, there is a Spotify playlist of all the music mentioned in the book and it does include the songs I could not use that I wanted to. So, it is up there. Yeah.
Jeff: Perfect. Deleted scenes.
Lev: Deleted music at least.
Jeff: We will link to the Spotify playlist for sure so that people can check that out.
We gotta talk about the cover, too. You’ve held it up a couple times. The cover is absolutely gorgeous. It both reminds me of like wallpaper, a little bit vintage wallpaper, but also with that central kind of image and the sort of face like of old-timey broaches, you know, like some of…
Lev: That cameo, yeah.
Jeff: …the women would just wear right at the center and neck. How did this gorgeous cover come to be?
Lev: I am giving all credit works to the cover designer, Katie Klimowicz, and the cover artist, Colin Verdi. It’s interesting, this is the first time I was like really involved in cover design, and it’s because I sort of like sent an essay. I usually write a little memo up of like my thoughts on like cover stuff. And I sent one in, Katie read it and was like, “I wanna talk to this guy.” Guess it came off as the right kind of out there.
So, she and I sat down, and she had this whole presentation set up. She wanted to use this artist, and she had lots of clips from him. And like she was gung ho, and there was some concern that maybe his stuff was a little too horrory, but, you know, the wallpaper stuff he had done, which was sort of horrory. It’s like beautiful wallpaper of peacocks, and then you look at their tails and it’s actual eyeballs. He’s very talented. He’s really good at this subtle stuff.
And so, I was like, “All right, yeah, let’s do that.” She wanted to just send him the book and let him come up with ideas. So, that’s what we did. And, he read the whole book. And even though they had only asked him for like three pitches, he came back with six or something, and they were all stunning. They were all genuinely, like… I still have them. I still look at them, they’re so beautiful. And these were just rough sketches.
And like, you know, we eliminated some. This is too graphic novel. This is too young. This is too similar to that other cover. And, we came down to this one. And my editor will enjoy this, or maybe not enjoy this story. So, when we were talking about things that could be on the wallpaper because there are these bunnies, except for this one dead one, we were talking about, you know, “Well what would be on the wallpaper to give it a little more umph?” And I was like, “What about rabbits and one’s dead?” She was like, “I don’t think a dead rabbit is gonna sell a book, Lev. All I think about is my dog digging up like bolls from the lawn.” And so, that was the one thing we sort of like outvoted her on, the dead animal on the cover thing. It came out so gorgeous. It’s Katie and Colin. And I don’t know if you’ve seen the full thing, but, let’s see, they gave me endpapers.
Jeff: Oh, that’s gorgeous. This is my first look at that because I haven’t actually gotten to hold a book yet. Yeah, nice.
Lev: Yeah. And this is Katie. There are secret rabbits on the book, and this’ll be a podcast. So, I’m gonna show people the secret rabbits, but I’m not going to… So if you’re watching you’ll see them. So, you know, close your eyes now, but I’m not gonna say where they are.
Jeff: It’s kinda like Mickey’s ears at Disneyland.
Lev: Yeah. So, there are these hidden rabbits which is like, speaks to the theme of the book so perfectly. Yeah, no, it’s just gorgeous. I loved his work so much. I hired him to do those postcards that I’ve been giving away as preorder bonuses. I think he’s just so talented, and I’m excited to see what they come up with for the second one. And Katie, she’s brilliant. She’s such an excellent cover designer, and choosing him was so smart, and what she’s done with his work is so smart.
Jeff: Yeah. It’s just…
Lev: Cannot praise them high enough. Like I could go on for hours about how great they are.
Jeff: What’s the future hold for Andy? You leave a door open at the end of the book.
Lev: That door’s walked through.
Lev: I mean, there is a sequel coming next fall. It’s called “The Bell in the Fog,” and it’ll be fall ’23. I’m in edits on it now, and, you know, it does give away a little to sort of talk about the setup. But what is proposed at the end of the book is what he does. But it is a little more difficult for him to set up. I’ll just say he sets up as a PI. I think that’s a general, not too spoilery statement. It’s more difficult for him to be a PI than he expected because people don’t trust him because of his background. And, then a stranger from his past walks into his office and has a case for him. And that’s all I’m gonna say for now.
Jeff: This isn’t a romance in “Lavender House.”
Jeff: You could give me a straight-up yes or no on this one.
Jeff: Does Andy get to find some love? Because I know who I want him to be with, but can he find some love maybe in book two?
Lev: Andy kisses someone in book one, and that someone reappears in book two and is a more central role.
Jeff: Excellent. That was even more than I expected to get.
We’ve got a question from one of our patrons, and Rebecca asks… You’re a new author for her. Is there a book you’d recommend that Rebecca starts with? Which I think is an interesting question because you write across so many kind of different subgenres. You’ve got YA books, you’ve got adult-themed books, you’ve got mysteries, and love stories, and…
Lev: Yeah, and middle-grade science fiction.
Jeff: What’s the quintessential Lev book?
Lev: Well, I will say this, “Lavender House” is the book in my writing group who’s been with me for like 10 years let’s say. And, this is the book that they said I was meant to write. So, if you want like a sort of book of the heart, book of Lev’s soul, whatever, it’s probably gonna be this one.
But yes, I write everything because I read everything. So, I have teen romcoms, teen sex ed thrillers. Next year I’ve got a teen adventure novel coming out in the style of Indiana Jones, yeah, and a teen contemporary retelling of Jane Austin’s “Emma,” and three books out next year. It’s gonna be busy.
And, you know, then I also have a steampunk romance, and a dystopian noir, and then I have middle grades that are, you know, one is very literary about Alzheimer’s and video games, and the other is more of a storybook fable. And I love all these genres, so I just add to them. You know, I’ve never understood this sort of, you know, stay-in-one-lane sort of thing. I’m bad at that, but I would say you should just read the descriptions of the book and, you know, read the one that sounds like the thing you would like the most.
Because that’s the joy of writing everything is, you know, hopefully, that means there is a book for you. Maybe not every book. I don’t need to write books that appeal to literally everyone. And if you, you know, pick up “Depth” and you’re like, “Oh, gosh I don’t wanna read a dystopian noir, that’s not for me,” don’t read it. I mean, buy it if you can, I would appreciate that, but don’t read it. It’s fine.
Jeff: You should pick up “Lavender House,” Rebecca, which I think you said in your post that you had already pre-ordered it based on what I said about it, but it is a great place to start.
Lev: I will say “Lavender House” is great. And if you like the sort of queer family environment, the natural progression would probably be “Camp” from there. Very different tone, but very similar emotional setting, let’s say.
Jeff: And what have you been reading lately that our listeners should, in fact, check out?
Lev: Well, I’m such a slow reader. My husband can get through like a book a week, and I’m just like, it takes me, you know, months to get through a single book. And part of that is when I’m like deep in writing, I try not to read other fiction because it like gets in my head too much sometimes and it ruins the voice. So, it’s more of I read fiction while I’m editing thing. And with three books out next year…
But as I mentioned earlier, the Dave Brandstetter mystery starting with “Fadeout” by Joseph Hansen, excellent. Just excellent. I’m only a few books in, but there’s like 14 of them, and the writing is so good. It’s not just like, “Oh, these are books from the 70s or the queer protagonist, how exciting.” Like the writing is beautiful, lines that linger with you that aren’t even like poignant. They’re just beautiful.
So, I highly recommend those. That’s what I’ve been reading mostly. I reread “Emma” for my YA retelling and I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction as I do research for sequel to this and for other stuff. So, it’s been a lot of non-fiction. But if you’re interested in queer history, “Wide-Open Town,” as I said earlier, very good. Eric Cervinis’ “Deviant’s War,” very good.
Hugh Ryan has two books, both excellent, “When Brooklyn Was Queer,” and “The Women’s House of Detention.” Oh, I’m reading right now a book called “The Lavender Scare,” which is very comprehensive. It’s more Washington D.C. focused than I thought it would be going in, but it’s extremely…it’s well done. And I don’t have it in front of me, so I don’t remember the author’s name. But it’s been out for decades as well I think, or maybe five years. I have no idea what time is anymore.
Jeff: Time is like, who knows anymore?
Lev: Yeah. But yeah those are some great non-fiction. Oh, oh, and yes this “Indecent Advances,” James Polchin. This I read a while ago. But if you’re looking for non-fiction about the way queerness is criminalized in the public eye, this is fascinating. He like goes through all these court cases and like the way sort of like, people, you know, would say, “I’m not queer, it was the other guy who was queer,” and like how that worked almost. It’s fascinating.
Jeff: What a great list of books. Some good mysteries to read, some good queer history to read. You’ve done damage to my TBR.
So, we’ve talked a little bit about your future. There’s the sequel to “Lavender House,” there’s some YA teen adventure, there’s the retelling of “Emma.” Anything else lurking out there that we should be keeping an eye out for, or, you know, looking even more into the future into 2024?
Lev: Twenty-twenty-four, there’ll be a sequel to this sort of queer archeologist adventure books that’s YA, and it’s called “Lion’s Legacy.” And, so “Lion’s Legacy,” it follows a teen archeologist whose father is a famous reality star archeologist who wears a fedora and finds, you know, ancient artifacts which often have paranormal qualities to them, although he hides that from the public on his reality show.
And, they had a huge fight a few years ago when Tennessee realized at age like 13, 14, that these treasures they were finding were not actually going back to the people who they originally belong to, and so he and his father haven’t really spoken since then. And his father’s continued the show without him. But, one day, his father shows up, Tennessee has just had a terrible breakup, and his father’s like, “I want you to come back. We’re gonna be looking for the wedding rings of the sacred band of Thebes,” which was an army in ancient Greece of 150 gay couples. And, Tennessee is like, “Okay, but what are you gonna do with them?” And his dad’s like, “You know what, I want you back so you get to decide.” And so, Tennessee, even though he’s still furious with his father, goes with him and they, you know, have to explore ancient temples, by pass traps, and find rings, which might be magic, and maybe meet a cute boy on the way. You know, it’s a classic sort of archeology adventure.
It’s young adult, and it’s a lot of sort of the question of, you know, why is queer history always erased? What queer history do we have that we don’t know about? How do we preserve it, and who does it belong to? And those are sort of the questions I was playing with while also getting to, you know, describe exciting temples and adventures and stuff like that. And that’ll be out spring next year, I think May.
And then next fall, we have “The Bell in the Fog,” the “Lavender House” sequel. And then a little after that, sort of holiday season, fall, whatever, we have “Emmett,” a contemporary queer YA retelling of Jane Austen’s “Emma” in which Emmett Woodhouse, who definitely does not want a relationship because your brain’s not done developing until your 25, is determined to find a boyfriend for his friend with benefits who is suddenly catching feelings if only to get him away from him.
Jeff: It’s gonna be so much fun. I can’t wait for next year. Three books from you.
Lev: Three books. I’m gonna be busy.
Jeff: Yes, you’re gonna be editing for like the rest of this year probably and into next year.
Lev: Oh, yeah, no, they’re all almost done. So, like into next year, I’m gonna be sort of like, “What’s happening now?” But the “Lion’s Legacy” will have a sequel in 2024.
Jeff: Nice. What’s the best way for folks to keep up with you online just to keep up with all these books you’re starting to roll out and anything new that comes up?
Lev: I’m on social media as LevACRosen L-E-V-A-C-R-O-S-E-N, that’s Instagram and Twitter. I barely use Facebook because like it got wonky at one point. But on Facebook, I’m just LevRosen. And I’m on TikTok as LevACRosen, too, but I am afraid of that place. I’ve done like three TikToks. Instagram is the best. I am happiest on Instagram. I will announce things on Twitter, but I try not to engage as much there just because once you’re on Twitter, I get depressed.
Jeff: Totally understandable.
Lev: Instagram has more photos of cute animals and so it keeps me less depressed. So, Instagram is my favorite place to be, and you can reach out to me there and on my website, levacrosen.com. I respond to any emails I get, just they often go into spam because of the email system. So, if you write me, do check your spam.
Jeff: Lev, thank you so much for coming to talk about “Lavender House,” wish you so much success with this book and eager to see what’s coming in 2023.
Lev: Thank you, so, so much. There’s always a joy to come on your podcast. What you do is not just fun and you do it in a fun way, but it’s genuinely like important to the community. So, thank you.
Will: This episode’s transcript has been brought to you by our community on Patreon. If you’d like to read the conversation for yourself, simply head on over to the show notes page for this episode at BigGayFictionPodcast.com. Don’t forget the show notes page also has links to everything that we’ve talked about in this episode.
Jeff: Thanks so much to Lev for talking to us about “Lavender House.” That sequel he teased about will not get here fast enough for me. I also appreciate that he discussed the Lit Hub article he wrote about the book bannings and the effects on queer teens, and even how some of those modern day happenings echo back to “Lavender House’s” 1950s setting.
Will: All right, I think that’ll do it for now. Coming up next in episode 403, Jeff and I are going to tell you a little bit about what we’ve been reading and watching recently.
Jeff: So much good stuff out there, and we’re into the holiday season, so you know we’re gonna be talking about some Christmas reading that we’ve already done.
Will: On behalf of Jeff and myself, we wanna thank you so much for listening and we hope that you’ll join us again soon for more discussions about the kinds of stories we all love, the big gay fiction kind. Until then, keep turning those pages and keep reading.
Big Gay Fiction Podcast is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. Find more shows you’ll love at frolic.media/podcasts. Original theme music by Daryl Banner.