Sex and process in Nairne Holtz’s ‘Femme Confidential’

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As a lesbian writer in Canada, I have known of Nairne Holtz since the early 2000s. She is that rare thing: a practical person who knows how to classify and organize (as a law librarian) and a creative person who writes wry, unsettling novels about queer characters who defy narrow labels. She and co-editor Catherine Lake introduced a sampling of Canadian lesbian writing to the reading world in No Margins: Writing Canadian Fiction in Lesbian (Insomniac Press, 2006). Since then, Nairne has written her own fiction, including erotic stories which are probably the best-known type of lesbian literature since the annual Best Lesbian Erotica series was launched in 1996. In her new novel, Femme Confidential, sex is seamlessly blended with the development of characters, relationships, and a neighbourhood in Toronto over a generation. Nairne agreed to talk to me about the process of writing this book.

Q: At the beginning of Femme Confidential (Insomniac Press, 2017), you acknowledge that a few previously published sex stories appear in a rather different form in the novel. When you published “Miss August” in Back to the Basics: a butch-femme anthology (2004), did you have a novel in mind?

A: Hell, no! I do remember an instinct to hold back “Miss August” from my second book, This One’s Going to Last Forever (Insomniac Press, 2009) but had no concrete sense of why I felt this way.

Q: Did you start with an outline, or did you start with characters or incidents? Would you say you are a pantser or a plotter?

A: When I first started writing fiction, I asked my at-the-time neighbour, Emma Donoghue, whether it was better to write a novel with an outline or to plunge into the writing and take a more intuitive approach. I can’t remember her precise response but it was something withering about how plunging in without an outline was a great way to never finish a book. Since she’s the most successful and productive writer I know, I suspect she’s on to something!

A book usually begins in my head with characters and imagery; I bike through neighbourhoods and I imagine scenes that could occur in them. However, when I sit down to write, I create a fairly detailed outline of the plot. But this can be derailed and rewritten.

In 2009, I began writing a novel about my childhood and the back-to-the-land hippie movement, but I kept slacking off to write lesbian sex stories until I had a book of stories and essays about sex. I showed this collection to author Lucy Jane Bledsoe, who sent a gentle and diplomatic email suggesting I shelve the essays and turn the stories into a novel; she sensed there was a novel struggling to get out. Reading that email was an electric moment and within an hour, Femme Confidential fell into place—I immediately knew the story was going to be told from three points of view; I knew the parts of my half-written novel that would be woven in; and I knew who the central characters would be. At that point, I had a proper outline.

Q: How did you come up with the title, “Femme Confidential?” Did you (like other novelists) try out several titles on your work-in-progress before settling on one?

A: Nope, the title popped into my head and I knew it was right. It does have a noir, pulp feel that does not fit with the dry, realist tone but thematically it works. The title Stone Butch Blues showcases certain butch experience and similarly, I wanted to be clear to readers that the focus of this novel is on the experiences of femmes. Of course, Femme Confidential is less dark than either Stone Butch Blues or my previous works of fiction.

I haven’t determined every title with such ease; my wife came up with the title for my second book, This One’s Going to Last Forever.

Q: Now that you are finished this novel, are you planning to write more erotic stories?

A: To be honest, after completing Femme Confidential I felt like I never wanted to write another sex scene again! That could change but I don’t think I will be publishing erotica anytime soon.

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