It was my absolute pleasure to interview Alexis Hall, the queer romance author of Boyfriend Material, A Lady for a Duke, and many other books, including the upcoming fantasy romance Mortal Follies. A Lady for a Duke was one of my favorite reads of 2022, a historical romance featuring a transfem protagonist, and I had so many questions, which he was gracious enough to answer, and he gives some fantastic recommendations for trans and genderqueer romances by other writers as well.
First of all, congratulations on your continued success and thank you for writing A Lady for a Duke. This book means the world to me. I feel like queer books are finally having more mainstream success and I wonder if you ever thought ten years ago that a book like yours could be sold in the romance sections of bookstores across the world?
Ten years ago I could barely imagine anybody reading anything I wrote but in general, yes, the market has shifted incredibly. When I got started, LGBTQ+ genre fiction (literary fiction was a whole different thing) was very much seen as a digital-only product unless you were really massive. That’s changed a lot, I’ve had readers send me pictures of my books in Wal-Mart stores in deep red counties in Alabama. I think the thing I like to bear in mind about markets—and this might just be me desperately trying to manage my own expectations—is that like your stock portfolio they can go down as well as up. While I’m obviously overjoyed at how much more mainstream acceptance of queer fiction there is these days, I’m still perhaps a little bit jumpy because I’m aware of how easily these things can go backwards.
I think the thing I find most reassuring is less that I’m getting to see my books in bookstores (although that’s fab) as that I’m increasingly seeing the publishing industry treating diversity as—and my apologies for the glib alliteration—a fact rather than a fad. I think a few years ago it was quite common to treat “diverse” as just another publishing trend, like vampires or rockstars but I think that’s settled down a bit and we’re seeing a real generational change in what audiences are looking for. At least I hope we are.
Did the runaway success of Boyfriend Material give you more freedom to write and publish what you want, or have you always felt you had that freedom?
Short answer. Yes. Long answer. Sort of.
This is going to use needlessly mathsy language but I think the freedom-to-success graph is kind of sinusoidal. When you’re first starting out you can write whatever you want because nobody knows who you are and nobody cares. Then as you start to build an audience people start to develop expectations, or you start to realise that some stuff is working better than other stuff, and that pushes you in particular directions. Then eventually you get successful enough that people will start taking a chance on a wider range of your stuff again, and you have more freedom (which is where I am now) but I suspect it’s possible to blow through that back into well-this-is-the-stuff-people-want victim-of-your-own-success territory.
So I suppose basically yes, in that being medium-sized gives you more freedom than being small, but about the same amount of freedom as being completely unknown.
I’ve heard it said that historical fiction requires an exorbitant amount of research, and I’m curious to know about the most surprising thing you learned while doing research for A Lady for a Duke.
I have slightly complex feelings about research, although I’ll admit that’s partly because I have complex feelings about most things. The reason PhDs exist in the first place is that pretty much any topic you can imagine can be studied and explored in almost limitless depth and there will always be more to learn and understand. I’m very conscious of the fact that however much research I do for a book it’s always going to be incredibly limited relative to the research I’d be doing if I was actually trying to understand a topic for its own sake, rather than trying to understand it well enough that I can write, say, a single paragraph in which the characters go somewhere and the travel times broadly make sense.
A phrase I circle back a lot to whenever I talk about any aspect of my work that touches on real life is specificity not authenticity. When I do research I’m not looking to develop a full and clear understanding of what the thing I’m writing about is like from every angle – that would be impossible to achieve anyway. What I’m usually aiming for is to learn just enough that I can convincingly portray the thing I’m portraying as a unique thing in its own right.
And by that standard the most bizarre and specific thing I found while doing research for A Lady for a Duke is probably the Vauxhall Gardens Cascade. It was an artificial waterfall that was part of the gardens from the late 18th century to some time in the 1830s (ish) but as far as I can tell we don’t actually know how it worked. There are a reasonable amount of theories and there’s a lot of speculation about how it could have worked but like Fermat’s Last Theorem we can’t actually reconstruct it because there’s no surviving record of the exact mechanism.
The shaving scene in A Lady for a Duke is iconic, delicately intimate, and incredibly sexy. Was this scene planned, or did it just pop into your head as you were writing? And did you research by shaving someone else’s face with a straight razor?
I can shave other people with a straight razor but, funnily enough, I don’t get many volunteers. I think there’s a few iconic scenes of sensuality that recur, especially in histrom. The shaving scene is one, a gentleman un/dressing his beloved with the care and skill of a lady’s maid is another, removing a woman’s glove also has a great legacy. In general, whether it’s historical or not, I’m drawn to depictions of intimacy that aren’t necessarily sexual but, within the context of historical romance, I think these particular tropes can become especially charged. Rightly or wrongly, histrom can be quite a gendered subgenre (y’know because of the whole historical element) and I think the shaving scene and the dressing or undressing scene can be used to disrupt otherwise quite rigid gender boundaries. Essentially the characters are finding ways to reconcile their worlds that society would insist are quite distinct. And because of this, it felt important to include that in ALFAD: both to hit the trope because I like the trope and also to make the trope work for Viola and Gracewood as individuals in their own context.
Let’s talk about 19th century women’s fashion, which you describe in luscious detail in A Lady for a Duke. Is this something you knew about from reading historical romances, is it a personal passion, and/or did you do a lot of research?
It’s a personal passion. Or at least a personal interest. I just really love me a good frock. One of the things I find intriguing about historical fashion is that we can find pictures of what people wore in all kinds of historical eras (although obviously if you go back far enough the art gets very stylised) but we have no idea how representative this is (or rather, we have a pretty good idea that it isn’t representative). We can look at all manner of fashion plates from the 1810s and 1820s, for example, and that can give us a general sense of what the style probably was, but trying to use those sources to work out what people would have worn is a bit like trying to work out what the average upper-middle-class American would wear in a given year based exclusively on spreads in Vogue. So what I personally try to do is take inspiration from general styles and sort of extrapolate something that seems plausible and characterful, rather than necessarily translating particular looks directly. Again it’s a matter of specificity not authenticity, about trying to make sure my characters have a style that feels of its time without necessarily being a specific thing that we can be sure a particular person “would” have worn.
You describe yourself as a genrequeer writer and you write books in multiple genres with a wide variety of romantic pairings. Have you always been comfortable spreading your artistic wings in these ways or has your confidence in representing different couples in various genres grown over time?
I’ve already sort of touched on this above but a lot of it has been about where I was in my career, and where the market was relative to that. I actually started out writing very cross-genre—my early books included paranormal, steampunk, sort of weird cyberpunky quasi-fantasy, and later on straight-up fantasy rather than pure contemporary romance. But for a reasonable chunk of the mid 2010s I did feel a very strong commercial pressure to be writing contemporary-set romance novels about cis gay men which narrowed my output somewhat, and it’s been good to be able to write more broadly since. Having said that, I’ve also really enjoyed writing contemporary romance and I’m particularly glad to finally be able to come back to the Spires series after all these years.
I was going to ask if you have anything planned in the fantasy romance genre, then I came across your June 2023 book Mortal Follies, which seems to be a sapphic fantasy romance about witches and fairies and magic, oh my! Can you hype us up a little for that book?
I can certainly try! Although I’m quite bad at hype because I get self-conscious.
The three-word pitch is “queer magic Bridgerton”. The longer, more waffly pitch is “what if Midsummer Night’s Dream was canon”. The basic premise is that it’s set in a version of the world where the implied cosmology of some of the weirder bits of Shakespeare—so fairies, witches, ghosts and Classical gods, all those things that just sometimes randomly stroll into the middle of a play and mess shit up for no reason—are fully accepted parts of how the world works. And then over the top of that it’s a sapphic regency romance, so it’s about a young regency lady falling for a brooding aristocratic regency lady, in a world where vengeful gods, capricious fairies, and curses are just everyday facts of life. Also it’s narrated by a technically anonymous Hobgoblin who is clearly definitely Puck. Amongst other things, that means that its narration style is technically “first person omniscient”, which I rather enjoy.
For a reader dying for more trans romances, what 3 books by other authors would you recommend we check out? In a perfect world, they would be in 3 different subgenres, but we don’t always live in such a world, so we’ll take what we can get.
I shall take this three subgenre challenge! Although of course I’m not an authority or an expert, so please do see my recommendations as anything other than purely personal.
For all your histrom needs, I recommend Elijah (EE) Ottoman (although he does write in many genres). His latest is The Companion, which is set in mid-20th century New York. This is a very sexy, very tender (occasionally faintly melancholy) book, about finding safe spaces for creativity and community.
For those looking for contemporary romance, please do check out Kris Ripper (although, again, ze does write in many genres). Ze writes a whole range of tones and pairings, often with an emphasis on found family. For romcom aficionados, Book Boyfriend and The Love Study both have genderqueer love interests. If you want a recommendation with a specifically binary trans protagonist, then I really like The Queer and the Restless from zir soapy murderery series, Queers of La Vista.
And for your fantasy, or at least fantasy adjacent, how about Peter Darling by Austin Chant (currently writing as SA Chant). This is a queer and beautifully written Peter Pan re-telling which Peter (having previously been living in London as Wendy Darling) returns to Neverland in search of the freedom he has lost. But both he and Neverland have changed more than he expects. Plus there’s the whole Peter/Captain Hook romance arc that we all need and want.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, and for filling your pages with such gorgeous words and tender love stories.
Not at all, thank you so much for having me.
Alexis’ recently released a special edition of his 2014 book Glitterland, revised and expanded, with extensive bonus content and a stunning new cover by Elizabeth Turner Stokes.