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)

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