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Bisexual, intersex and in the circus: Laura Lam discusses Pantomime

Photos of author Laura Lam and her novel Pantomime
Photos of author Laura Lam and her novel Pantomime
Courtesy of Laura Lam

Seventeen year old Iphigenia or “Gene” appears to be a tomboy struggling against her female role: she’d rather be running around outside, climbing trees and getting dirty than being ladylike, wearing dresses, staying indoors and looking forward to formal balls and marriage into the right family, the only role for society women. But she has a secret that will make marriage impossible, so that’s something her parents are planning to “fix.”

Laura Lam, author of bisexual, intersex, circus novel Pantomime
Courtesy of Laura Lam

Micah has run away from home and joined the circus but he is having trouble fitting in. These two characters will meet, but in a different way than you’d expect.

Laura Lam is the author who dreamed up Pantomime and the world in which it takes place. Pantomime is a finalist for the Bisexual Book Awards in two categories: Speculative Fiction and Teen/Young Adult Fiction.

SL: Pantomime is set in a circus. What made you choose that setting?

LL: I’ve always loved the circus, but the setting came in a roundabout way. I first started a book with Micah Grey ten years older in a different profession. I kept getting stuck, so I decided to write a “short story” about him joining a circus. I thought it’d be a colorful addition to his past and give him talents needed for later in life—flexibility, performance skills, and a flair for the dramatic. Needless to say, I got a little carried away with the short story. I love how the circus is its own little microcosm, seeing themselves as very different from the rubes, and how it has its own politics and culture. There’s a lot of characters we recognize: the bull man, the bearded lady, the contortionists, ringmasters, animal trainers, but I was able to give them their own personalities.

SL: Of all the circus jobs, why did you decide to make your main character a trapeze artist?

LL: If I could join the circus as anything, it’d be as a trapeze artist! Though the fear of heights might be a bit of a hindrance. I love the strength, grace, and beauty of aerialists, and it’s always my favorite act when I go to the circus. I also thought the role fit Micah’s personality best. He’s always dreaming and wanting to fly.

SL: Micah meets two people at the circus, one female and one male, that he develops a crush on.

LL: Falling for a girl is quite surprising to him after being raised female for sixteen years. He’s instantly attracted to Aenea, the aerialist who teaches him the ropes of the trapeze. He admires her for her strength and quick-wittedness, and finds her fascinating. Liking Aenea I think is, for him, casting off his old role as Gene and fully embracing Micah; however, at the same time, he’s fiercely attracted to a boy, Drystan, and in many ways Micah has more in common with him. Drystan’s also a little more dangerous, with a darker past and many secrets. They each symbolize a different direction Micah could take in his life.

SL: Pantomime seems to have two conflicting settings, circus versus society. Your main character is living as a different gender in each. But that causes problems in both settings doesn’t it?

LL: Neither setting is fully able to accept what Micah is, unfortunately. Gene does not fit into the high society of corsets and crinoline. For a woman from a noble family, there are not many opportunities to be eccentric, especially with such an overbearing mother. In the circus, Micah is still getting used to presenting as the opposite gender, and doesn’t want people to find out what he is because he fears. rather rightly, that the ringmaster would put him in the freakshow to be on display.

SL: The conflict between circus life and society life seems to symbolize the inner conflict that the main character feels.

LL: Because Micah is still figuring out who he is, both settings prove challenging. He’s been raised one way, as female, for sixteen years, and it never felt right, and then he casts off that gender presentation to try and pass as male. But that’s difficult as well, because he’s not super masculine. He’s genderfluid, so neither will fit perfectly, at least not at first.

SL: What made you want to write about an intersex character?

LL: Growing up, I was always really fascinated by books where girls dress as boys to prove they can do anything boys can do. For instance, I really loved the Song of the Lioness Quartet by Tamora Peirce, which had a girl exchange places with her twin brother so she could train to become a knight. But I wanted to write a book where the girl dresses as a boy and that’s not a disguise.

[In Pantomime] I write about Micah being both intersex and genderfluid, as the physical sex and the gender identity are different. There’s not a lot of genderfluid characters in young adult especially, and so it was important to me to show that not everyone identifies as one gender or the other, but can fall in between.

But gender identity is not physical sex, and though intersex conditions are also relatively common (some sources say it can be about as common as those with red hair), but we never hear about them and it’s rare to find someone openly intersex. A lot of intersex people will be coming to terms with that when they’re teens, and so hopefully if they can find Micah, they’ll identify with him and enjoy following his story. People from all ages and walks of life have identified with Micah, and that’s been really wonderful.

SL: When you started writing, did you already have ideas about how to write about the experience of being intersex? And how to structure a novel to accentuate that? Or did you have to struggle to figure it out?

LL: I came up with the idea and didn’t write about it for a long time because I was afraid to. There was about six months where I just researched, but though I tried writing other things, I really wanted to tell Micah’s story. So I started with the adult novel and then, about another year later, I focused on him as a teenager. I knew that I had to write it in first person so then I could get around pronouns, which are tricky. The novel was initially written chronologically, but then in revisions I switched it to having alternating chapters in “spring,” which is Gene’s story before she runs away, and “summer,” which is Micah’s story in the circus, with a few “autumn” chapters near the end. It worked much better that way.

SL: Can you describe the world that the characters are living in? Some aspects appear similar to English society in the late 18th early 19th centuries. Like a Jane Austen novel. But it’s not, is it?

LL: The world is a pseudo-Victorian era, but it has some differences. Like a Jane Austen novel, there’s a lot of emphasis on propriety and manners, at least in the upper echelons of society.

But the world is a collection of smaller islands, as if global warming flooded away most of the continents. There are also remnants of a long-vanished advanced civilization called the Alder. So they've left behind artifacts, called Vestige, which are far beyond the current inhabitants’ knowledge. Things like weapons with lasers, flying machines like gyrocopters, a teapot that keeps the liquid within hot indefinitely, or little automatons that move as seamlessly as humans.

Some are kept as curiosities, and others are used for their intended purposes. But they’re a finite resource because no one knows how to fix them once they break or run out of power. The main island, Ellada, became head of an empire because they had a large cache of these Vestige weapons, but now because a lot of them have run down, their power has become a lot more precarious. So it’s like an alternate Victorian era if England didn’t have near as much power.

SL: Micah finally reveals his secret to his girlfriend Aenea and his friend (and male crush) Drystan, but none of them have time to process the information. There’s sort of a tornado of action at the end that prevents anyone from coming to terms. Can I assume there’s a sequel in the offing?

LL: The ending is quite a whirlwind! The sequel, Shadowplay, was released January 2014. This one is set largely on the magician’s stage rather than the circus ring, with a dusty old theatre, a decades-old duel between magicians, mysterious dreams of the past, a man with a clockwork hand, and an unfurling romance.

I’ll also be releasing some electronic versions of short stories or novellas set within Micah’s world. Two will star Drystan Hornbeam, the white clown of the circus, and one will star Cyan Zhu, a character readers meet in Shadowplay. Another is a fable starring a Chimaera mermaid and a fisherman. The third book will likely be released next year. And, who knows, maybe one day I’ll go back to that book with Micah set ten years later, and pick up his story again.

Pantomime and Shadowplay can be found, or ordered by, your favorite book purveyor.

Pantomime by Laura Lam, Strange Chemistry 2013

Shadowplay by Laura Lam, Strange Chemistry 2014