Out novelist Anne Laughlin brings her mysterious ways to Milwaukee

Gregg Shapiro, Contributing writer

Chicago lesbian novelist Anne Laughlin has added another honor to her distinguished career. Her novel “Runaway” (Bold Strokes Books) was selected recently as a 2012 Lambda Literary Award finalist.

“Runaway” is a mystery with romantic elements. It follows Chicago-based private investigator Jan as she searches for Maddy, a suburban teenage runaway. What begins as a seemingly ordinary case soon develops into something more. Maddy’s possible connection to a radical group echoes something from Jan’s past that she had hoped to leave behind her. To make matters worse, a passionate workplace romance with Jan’s new boss Catherine threatens to derail not only her investigation, but also the life she has worked so hard to keep concealed.

I spoke recently with Laughlin.

You’ve racked up a number of awards for your books, and “Runaway” is also a Lammy Award nominee. What’s your opinion of awards?

I’m morose when I lose and convinced someone made a mistake when I win (laughs).

“Runaway” and its predecessor “Veritas” are both mysteries. Do you have a favorite lesbian mystery writer?

Katherine Forrest, JM Redmann, and an Irish writer no one here’s heard of – Ingrid Black. Val McDermid mainly writes for a mainstream readership, but she usually has a strong secondary lesbian character or two in her books. I’m sure I’m forgetting plenty of others.

How much of Anne, if any, is in Jan?

I’m not consciously aware of any part of me being in Jan Roberts. Her background is unique and makes her a singular personality. Plus, if I say that Jan represents a part of me, it feeds the assumption that there’s a part of me in every main character I write. While this may sometimes be true, it’s a problematic presumption when I write erotica (laughs)!

“Runaway” deals with a variety of topics, including militia groups, survivalists and disaffected suburban youth. What inspired you to write about those subjects?

I wrote the prologue to it as an exercise, liked it quite a bit, and then appended a plot that plausibly stems from it. Why that prologue dealt with a teenager escaping an isolated Idaho survivalist camp is a complete mystery to me, but it left me with those three topics – teenagers, militia and survivalists. I wasn’t aware these were topics I wanted to write about, but I had a lot of fun doing so. The research was fascinating.

I hadn’t previously given much thought to LGBT folks involved in militia activity, but those characters exist in “Runaway.”

My guess would be that gay people in the survivalist/militia world are as rare as a woman wearing trousers in Afghanistan (laughs). But we should also assume they do exist, as we do everywhere. My character Kristi, a member of a survivalist group and aware of her sexuality, is somewhat of a desperate follower from a desperate area of rural Michigan. Her sexuality is the not the first need of hers that has to be met.

You also cover the subjects of workplace romances and infidelity.

In the world of genre lesbian fiction – and I generalize here – the first subject is common and the second is considered taboo by many. I think we all know that workplace romances and infidelity are not uncommon in the real world, often in tandem. In lesbian fiction, infidelity strikes a deep chord, and not in a good way. Readers simply don’t like it, especially in romance. There are two things that I think soften the blow in “Runaway.” The book is meant to be primarily a suspense story with a love story secondary to that, and I make it clear that Catherine’s relationship back home is all done but for the shouting. 

Do you have plans to write about Jan in other books?

It’s possible, but there are no plans for it now. I need to ponder the fact that there were a lot of negative responses to Catherine. Should I keep her the same or dump her? Rehabilitate her? Have her make Jan’s life miserable, or set Jan free?

If there was a movie version of “Runaway,” who would you want to play Jan?

My partner Linda and I took this one on together, including doing a search on the Internet for actors between the ages of 35 and 45. Truly, not one actor came leaping to mind. I usually don’t have the clearest idea of what my characters look like. We came up with Hilary Swank, Charlize Theron and a younger Jody Foster and Sharon Stone, all butched up a bit.

Who would you want to play Catherine?

Catherine needs to have a feminine presence and also be able to take down an armed man single handedly. Claire Danes? A younger Sigourney Weaver or Annette Bening? Honestly, this is the hardest question you’ve asked me (laughs).

Reading

Anne Laughlin takes part in a group reading by Lammy Award finalists, including C.P. Rowlands and Chris Paynter, beginning at 2 p.m. on May 4 at Outwords Books, Gifts & Coffee, 2710 N. Murray Ave., Milwaukee. Go to www.outwordsbooks.com.