April 30, 2019

Interview with Julia Ortega (Niamh Byrne)

Under the pseudonym of Niamh Byrne we find an old friend of this blog: Julia Ortega (Barcelona, 1971) strikes again! LGBT rights, social media, class difference, or sexism in education are some of the current topics discussed. Please do not miss out.

SPANISH GAY FICTION: Why did you decide to publish Contigo hasta el infinito under a pen name?

JULIA ORTEGA: This is my first novel set outside of Spain entirely. I use this pen name, which is of Irish origin, from this very year on for all those novels that do NOT have Spain as the main scenario.

SGF: On the dedication page you acknowledge all the people who work continuously to make visible and legitimize LGBT relationships.

JO: LGBT community rights must continue to be claimed today as much as when I started the novel. Back then I was assigned this project—another challenge of mine—, and it finally has come into existence. If I can make Frankie and Gigi win not only LGBT readers’ hearts but everybody’s, I will have achieved my goal.

SGF: Your book portrays a long-distance relationship built through social media. What is your opinion about this new, increasingly more common way of maintaining a love relationship?

JO: So-so. New technologies have made the world smaller, and now people are closer—and more distant at the same time! Let’s say that social networks help those facing actual problems to mix with in their most immediate context. That is the case of Gigi, who was pathologically shy during adolescence and would not in her wildest dreams have dared to approach someone like Frankie. Personally, I think that social networks remove these barriers and make communication easier between apparently incompatible people.

SGF: Frankie believes that opposites attract. . .Do you think the same way?

JO: No doubt. May that relationship last or end over time, that is another story.

SGF: It is very curious that neither Frankie nor Gigi had lesbian experiences before meeting again. Do you have knowledge of other similar stories in real life?

JO: To me, Love has no gender. This is not a question of being lesbian or heterosexual. In this case, we are dealing with bisexuality instead of homosexuality. I do not mention it in the novel, but I would say that Gigi had no kind of sexual experience until her mid-twenties, when her relationship with Frankie begins. This is also quite believable since she is more romantic and, as I said before, she finds harder to mix with others.

SGF: When these class differences happen in a real-life couple, is it harder for the low-class to adapt themselves to the environment of the high-class, or vice versa?

JO: Everything depends on each one’s intentions, their good will to solve certain conflicts. Although today’s class difference is not as noticeable as in past centuries, it remains. The problems are different, but the relationship still means a challenge for both extremes.

SGF: Which one do you identify yourself with most: Frankie or Gigi?

JO: Both. I am much more cynical than Gigi, and that makes me more similar to Frankie. Anyway, Gigi is a dear, one of the few people who still believe in human kindness.

SGF: I remember that in the previous interview we talked about social tolerance towards LGBT community, and you mentioned that there was so much hypocrisy about it. Do you still feel the same?

JO: There is everything under the sun. It may do not have to do with the topic but the beholder. It seems as if only a few people are able to talk about the subject discerningly (i.e., high-profile authors.) And what about us? We cannot have knowledge, an opinion, and if we can, they do not read/listen to us. That is the way it was years ago. Fortunately, things are changing and, yes, I have to thank the social media phenomenon, you see?

SGF: Why did you choose Glasgow and Amsterdam as the settings of Contigo hasta el infinito?

JO: Back then I happened to see both cities as opposing settings reflecting the mood of each of the protagonists somehow. I am not sure but I guess that, as it took a long time to write the novel, my feelings now the book is finished are therefore not the same than the ones I had when I started it. This may be a clichéd view, but what story is not at some point? By the way: unlike the plot of Caprichos del destino, there is nothing autobiographical in this story.

SGF: When I stop to think of the easy-going relationship between Frankie and her ex Dutch boyfriends, my conclusion is: “This would not have been possible years ago.” Do you think that in our society, and especially among younger generations, there is a much laxer view of sexuality?

JO: Much the same: it takes all sorts to make a world. My book is not setting a precedent, seriously. If I describe a very, very, very laid-back relationship among Frankie, Jan and Björn, that is because I have seen similar things in some films, other novels, or even people that I know or have known sometime in my life.

SGF: It seems that you are eluding the most melodramatic ways of romance novels throughout the book. Was it a voluntary decision?

JO: That is because this is not a romance novel. This is a love story, but it deliberately departs from all the (rigid) straits of the genre. I like love stories, but I dislike some—if not all—of the (obligatory) patterns so frequently found in bodice rippers. It also has to do with extension; Contigo hasta el infinito is a novella/novelette. I could not expand on certain aspects which, furthermore, are not relevant and can distance the reader from the main theme: the relationship between the two women.

SGF: Was anyone an inspiration for the arrogant Brianna MacFarland? 

JO: There are so many Briannas around the world, controlling people who want everybody to dance their tune only; people who do not accept other alternative ways of living/loving/feeling. It is not necessarily a question of money or power, though in Contigo hasta el infinito those elements are more recurrent. The outstanding point is that Gigi eventually stands up to her mother and takes the reins of her life. After all, we are not talking about teen love, but a relationship between adults who know what they want.
I have not been inspired by anybody in particular. If you want to put a face to Brianna, I myself visualize Cate Blanchett.

SGF: When Karen learns that her daughter Frankie is a lesbian, her only regret is that she would have liked to become a grandmother herself. The MacFarlands also had other expectations for their daughter. Do you view parents as generally thoughtless of their children’s own aspirations?

JO: Well, here we are back to the topic of the hypocritical society to which you must please, no matter what; always dictating the rules, imposing the standards; it states whom you have to marry, how many children you need to have, their future occupations, and a long et cetera. If someone defies the rules, he is pointed out and not for the good precisely. In the long run, this causes unhappiness, and no parent wants it for their children. “Behave well, and you will be happy and live quietly.” That is the mantra. “Do not rebel, otherwise we all will suffer the consequences.” This seems very much like the 19th century, but it unfortunately still applies in some families, especially those (like Gigi’s) which, because of affluence or social position, are in the public eye.

SGF: When will Frankie be totally honest with her mother and confess that she is not a lawyer?

JO: We may never see that [Laughs.] Everyone can imagine a continuation in their own way. The story is self-conclusive, so there is no sequel. By the end, the two of them are living their relationship freely, and that really is a happy ending in every sense.

SGF: You describe Ethan as someone who has not enjoyed too much family love just because he is a man. Do you feel that those gender differences in education still occur?

JO: Well, Ethan is a very peculiar character that has not too much relevance because, as I said before, I did not to want to mislead the readers from the pairing Frankie/Gigi. Does he deserve his own novel? Maybe, but I have not considered this so far. I do not rule it out, but it cannot be possible in the short run. And, yes: less and less, but there are still certain differences between boys and girls in respect to education. It has to do with society and parents—the main educators—as well.

SGF: Both the boisterous Hannah, Jan’s last fling, and the young customers of the store where Frankie works are portrayed in a very sarcastic way. At your age, is there something that you would like to preach them?

JO: Not at all. Youth has its peculiarities, and maturity has its own. My descriptions are not intended to be critical, only anecdotal and fun; just a reflection of the current society, but with no condemning tone by a long shot. Hannah’s episode is one of the multiple ways of introducing Jan. Sometimes anecdotes and experiences tell a lot about their protagonists.

SGF: In Frankie’s mouth you put a wish that in the Obama era the film industry will show more homosexual relationships and different types of families. In hindsight, do you think that it happened like that?

JO: I cannot say for sure, but if I were an American film producer and an African-American becomes the President of the United States, I would know that I have to reflect it in some way, as this is not just an ordinary change. It represents an unprecedented historical and social milestone. That must be explained, especially to the younger generations, in order to show them that another freer world is possible. I saw The Princess and the Frog[1] and I loved to see an African-American protagonist in a Disney movie. And, like Frankie, I bet that we will see a homosexual relationship in upcoming animated films.[2] But now we are in the time of Trump. . .

SGF: Can you tell something about your upcoming projects?

JO: OK, it will be a psychological thriller set in USA and published under the pen name of Niamh Byrne again. That is all I can tell.

[1] This Walt Disney picture was released the very same year of the first inauguration of President Obama: 2009.
[2] For instance, in 2012 we had the opportunity to see an animated film with a gay (supporting) character on the big screen: Mitch—voiced by Casey Affleck—in ParaNorman (Focus Features-Laika Entertainment)

April 23, 2019

Rich Dyke, Poor Dyke

On Niamh Byrne’s Contigo hasta el infinito (“To Infinity with You”)

This time spanishgayfiction.blogspot.com presents a 2019 new released novel concerned with the love story between two 30-year-old girls at the crossroads of their lives. The narrator is Frances Donahue, a.k.a. Frankie, one of the girls in question. This big, tough, silver grey-eyed Scottish blonde wants us to know her story, and we learn from her that she is currently (we are in 2015) living in Amsterdam after graduating from Law School. No, she is not a lawyer—she claims that she is not precisely fond of books—; Frankie’s forbidding façade (a body covered up with spooky tattoos, crowned by a surly expression) makes her the perfect intimidating clerk for annoying, foolish customers in a clothing store. She also smokes like a chimney, follows the unhealthiest diet ever, and keeps her small apartment as messy as it gets. Can you picture this butchy Bridget Jones in Law School? Neither can we. But, you know, everyone has a weakness for someone, and now it is time to introduce Frankie’s mother, Karen. This woman has been working as a cleaner for 18 hours a day aiming to finance a college degree to her daughter. Frankie did not dare let her mommy down. Now Karen believes that her daughter is a successful lawyer. . .and Frankie is not refuting at all.

Karen is also pitiable since she is married to Jack, Frankie’s father; a rowdy boozer, a gambling addict, a male chauvinist pig, and therefore the most deserving target of his daughter’s poisonous remarks. As a matter of fact, witnessing her parents’ marriage has made Frankie skeptical about couple relationships since her early years. No matter how hard-bitten Frankie strikes as, Karen can read her daughter’s mind: Frankie is just seeking for true love.

Has she already found it? All we can say is: HELL YES!! It was June 2010, and Frankie was just chatting through Facebook. There she discovered an old high school classmate, Georgia MacFarland. By those days they were not friends: Georgia was the shy poor little rich girl, and Frankie was the wild elusive low-class lass. That is what we call irreconcilable differences! However, Frankie believes that opposites attract; this contact became gradually closer, and now, five years later, they are a solid duet. Funnily enough, both Frankie and Gigi (Georgia’s pet name) had been heterosexual so far. In her college days, Frankie used to hang out with two boys by turns. . .without their knowledge!

This doublet is planning to live together once that Gigi has finished her two-year PhD in Medieval Studies in the University of Glasgow. Frankie would like to settle down in Amsterdam: this place means FREEDOM for her. Au contraire, she finds Glasgow as no city for bold dykes. Any trouble ahead? Neither of them has talked to their families about their true sexual orientation and each other’s sweetheart yet. Anyway, Frankie just wants to relax; that is why she is taking a few weeks off from work. She would love a purse-to-purse meeting with Gigi, but her girl is about to do her thesis defense. No time for love. . .Sometimes Fortune smiles on you in the weirdest ways, and Frankie becomes a lucky girl thanks to a call from her brother Ethan. Have not we talked about him yet? Ethan is 8 years elder than Frankie, and left the family home when he turned 18. He was a third rate professional boxer, but now he is running a club in Edinburgh. Frankie sees her brother as a younger version of Jack: the quarrelsome kind, a loose cannon neglecting his kins, this relative you only meet again for Christmas. Ethan informs his sister of Jack’s getting his way again after leaving Karen penniless; and now Frankie must support mom (financially, of course): if Karen does not pay the rent, she will get evicted.

Every cloud has a silver lining; this trip to Glasgow will be a happy time to pay Gigi a surprise visit! Also, these two lovebirds can set their families straight about their romance once and for all. It is springtime in the gay city of Amsterdam, and Frankie feels enthusiastic about her upcoming projects. This evening she decides to meet her ex Jan. No, she is not missing his Amsterdammertje. She just wants someone to enjoy the moment with (and have some drinks with too!). When Jan learns about Frankie’s scheme, he cannot help some joking. Gigi is the only daughter of Nathaniel and Brianna MacFarland, who met in a fox hunting season. Thanks to the family fortune, Gigi can afford a long-lasting college background as well as the twosome’s expenses when meeting in diverse European capital cities. . .Contrary to the popular belief, webcam sex is not enough for Millennials too. . .This quasi-regal family, who can trace their lineage back to Adam, own a country seat in Balmoral close to the Windsors’ summer castle. The MacFarlands cannot hardly wait for their little girl to wrap up her doctoral degree (which they find needless), and then pick a husband of similar status. May an over-tattooed, foul-mouthed punk from the slums of Glasgow be the front runner? Jan warns that Frankie’s surprise might get the other way round—

Back to the misty Glasgow, mother and daughter reunite after a 6-year separation. Karen senses that Frankie is infatuated; then it is about time to have an open and honest conversation. Karen’s reaction is not negative, though she suggests her daughter not to let be seen with Gigi too much in order to avoid becoming the talk of the town. She also finds weird to keep a relationship through social media. To Frankie’s surprise, Karen shares that Ethan has started to give her money occasionally. Wow! That means Ethan is maturing. Now Frankie is not the only member of the family backing the mother. That is a relief! After good news, Frankie lets passion lead her footsteps to the college residence.

When knocking on Gigi’s door, an unfamiliar voice answers back. Frankie steps in, and she is received by the very Brianna MacFarland with her most disapproving glance. Gigi introduces Frankie to her mother as an old high school classmate. Brianna takes advantage of the moment to criticize her daughter’s judgment: her unscrupulousness in choosing friends, her inclination towards public education. . .Mother and daughter have an argument before an astonished version of Frankie. Gigi eventually manages to get rid of Mrs. Almanach de Gotha. At last! All by themselves after a long, long time. Frankie has been missing her freckly, red-haired, violet-eyed Chanel devotee so much!

After a deep-lady pond diving, Gigi tries to downplay her mother’s words. She also claims that Glasgow has changed a lot since Frankie flew to the Netherlands, and LGBT people can live easier in the most populous city in Scotland. It seems that Gigi has also changed; she is not that timid girl constantly worrying about what others think of her anymore. Just when they are about to take another dip, Karen is calling to reveal that Jack has been hit by a car. Frankie becomes speechless, but she does not shed a single tear. Gigi knows well that Frankie’s hooligan style is just acting; she does not want to be seen crying, just that. This is Gigi’s moment to demonstrate that she is up and ready to fight for their love, and the first step is getting to know a part of Glasgow that she has never dare set foot before.

A week after, this is the way things are: Jack is buried, and Gigi is living with Frankie and Karen in their humble abode. Gigi and Karen have hit it off from the start. Gigi is comforting both Frankie and her mother, and Karen finds it incredibly sweet. Karen compares her daughter’s woman to a beautiful maiden from ancient times. In parallel, the Donahue Girls provide with a quiet atmosphere for Gigi’s finishing touch to her thesis.

And the big day has finally arrived! While Gigi is having a rough time before the examining board, Frankie receives a concise message from Brianna: they need to talk. The appointment will take place in the fanciest hotel in Glasgow, upon Brianna’s request. Frankie is afraid that Brianna is determined to bribe her to leave her adored offspring. Thus, she decides to turn on the Poker-Face mode for the occasion, dress discreetly (i.e., all tattoos out of sight), and take a taxi to prevent herself from adsorbing the usual smelly fragrances of the bus. When she finally faces Brianna, she blurts out that nobody buys her off. Brianna replies that she is not that clunky; she does not mean to be an obstacle for their affair. Yes, Brianna guessed that Frankie and Gigi were more than mere acquaintances: she is a snob, not a dumb. However, has Frankie realized that her beloved one is a refined dame used to a life in a golden cage? OK, Gigi has been living in her neighborhood for a week but, how long will it take before she starts getting bored? Brianna does not believe that their relationship is going to last forever, and she suspects that Frankie feels the same. Discouraging Frankie was not the only aim for this rendezvous; Brianna also invites her to the party that they are throwing tonight to celebrate Gigi’s success. Before they say goodbye for now, Brianna announces that Scotland’s most handsome, prosperous, high-class single men will be among guests, all of them eagerly interested in marrying Gigi. The fight has just begun!

As it could not be otherwise, Frankie is welcomed by the MacFarlands’ butler, who leads her to the tea room. There she will meet a polite-but-distant Brianna as well as a new character: Brianna’s mother-in-law, apparently quite amused with Frankie. Not too long after Frankie’s arrival, cat-eyed, good-looking Niall makes his appearance. Who is this guy? Gigi has never told about him! He is introduced as an old friend of the family (not too old according to Frankie).

Suddenly, Gigi pops up, grabs Frankie by her arm and pushes her upstairs. Now locked in Gigi’s five-star room, she cannot help kiss and squeeze her suspicious girl; Frankie tries to figure out why Gigi has been so mysterious about this Niall that Brianna looks up to as if he were the son-in-law of the year. But Frankie does not need to panic, as Gigi explains that she has always put Niall in the friend zone. Does Niall share the same view? Frankie slips into an evening dress from Gigi’s magnificent collection, and then the two of them go downstairs to meet the guests crowding in the banquet hall.

During the dinner, Frankie feels extremely out of place. Niall is sitting close to Gigi, and they both are chatting and laughing and loving it all. To make things worse, the MacFarland patriarch slams current romances via social media, praising the old-fashion style, such as his courtship of Brianna; this (merry?) couple have never been separated since the very moment they met. On the other side of the table, Brianna is glaring at Frankie.

Cinderella never stays after midnight, so Frankie excuses herself and exits the room. Gigi catches up with her to assure that there is nothing to be jealous of Niall or anyone else. Gigi also admits that her mother has tried to persuade Niall into seducing her, but Brianna is nothing but a spoiled girl. Just to get Frankie smaller, Brianna has made too much of her daughter’s social status: in fact, Gigi is seen as a tedious spinster, so there is no horde of suitors anywhere.

Nonetheless, Frankie has confirmed tonight that this life is not for her; she will always feel like a fish out of water. She firmly believes that sooner rather than later social differences will weigh heavily, and she is determined to call things off.

Oh, no! This is the end for these lovely valentines! They are in need of a Fairy Godmother to solve the problem, therefore it is Niall’s turn. He confesses to Frankie that he has never felt attracted to Gigi, as she is not his type. Surprisingly, it is Frankie!! When Frankie realizes that she is on the brink of losing Gigi, she rushes back in the hall. There, before everybody’s eyes, Gigi kisses Frankie. Gigi l’Amorosa: this is all that Frankie needs!

We find a puzzling change in the last chapter; now it is Gigi who tells the rest of the story. She notes that neither Nat nor Bri is happy to see their preppy daughter with that ultra-inked trashy woman. Still, this is not going to mean a schism between Gigi and her parents at this stage of the game. Actually, every time Gigi shows up at home, her only purpose is visiting all the abandoned animals that she has been rescuing and fostering there through the years. Unlike her son and daughter-in-law, Gigi’s Granny approves of their relationship. When she was young, this funny lady was the subject of high society’s gossip given that she married an arty filmmaker, a true scandal at the time. Now she finds very entertaining to have a lesbian granddaughter. When the party is over, the MacFarland heiress says goodbye to Niall and invites him to visit them in Amsterdam in the future. But these passionate quinies’ next stop is Edinburgh, where they have been enjoying la dolce vita for the last ten days. After all, Gigi declares that what she likes most is her girl’s making her laugh. . .and scream in bed.

We must accept that the lady-and-the-tramp love story cliché is not the most unconventional in fiction so far (and particularly in romance novels), but in this case the result is really pleasant because of its Austen-evoking, unceasingly ironic tone. If we had to make a choice on one single feature of Niamh Byrne’s skills, we definitely would take her dialogues. Funny, witty, casual, arrogant, conflicting. . .Not only the protagonists but all the rest of characters are perfectly shaped thanks to the way the author make them speak their minds. This book can also be seen as a reminder of the never-ending problem in this post-2008 economic crisis society: Money. The (seemingly) simplest stories tell the painful truth about the state of affairs plainly, and more often than we use to concede.