Diverse Characters in Historical Fiction: A Discussion with Carly Heath

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Good morning, book friends! Today I have the immense pleasure of inviting debut author, Carly Heath, onto Bookish Brews! Carly’s debut novel will be coming out on November 9th so make sure to get your preorders in. This book is full of heart and found family all packed in a delightful historical fiction. I had so much fun talking with Carly about history in literature and I learned so much. I am so grateful that she decided to join us today. Please help me welcome Carly Heath!!!

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Title: The Reckless Kind
Author: Carly Heath
Publisher: Soho Press
Publication date: November 9, 2021
Genre: Historical Fiction / LGBTQ

A sweeping debut about finding your own family when the world has turned their back on you

At a glance: Asta wants nothing more than to spend her life performing with her friends and fellow outcasts, Gunnar and Erlend, rather than marry her betrothed, Nils. When Nils injures Gunnar, the three best friends move to a secluded cabin where they only have one chance at securing their way of life: winning the village’s horse race.

  • 🌳 Found Family
  • 💜 Asexual Rep
  • 💔 Grief and Love
  • 📜 Historical Fiction

Read this if… you love animals, if you value nonromantic relationships as much as romantic ones (you should!), if you want a realistic view of humanity portrayed within the characters, if you love historical fiction with representation!!!

The more I heard about this book the more I knew immediately that I had to read it. An ace main character and queerplatonic triad?! Feels like a dream come true. I’m so glad this book exists. I’m so fascinated by spotlighting these characters in a historical fiction setting because I’ve honestly never seen it before. It is evident that Carly did so much research for this book, so we thought it would be incredibly fun to focus our interview on history in literature. Please enjoy this brilliant conversation I had with Carly! I learned so much and I hope you will too!

History in Literature

Can you please introduce yourself to our friends at Bookish Brews? Feel free to brag a little, we love to hear what you are proud of!

Hi! I’m Carly Heath, an author with over a hundred rejections and more failures than wins. After 7 years of revising my manuscript, my debut will be coming out on November 9th from Soho Teen and I couldn’t be happier! I’m also a horse girl, animal rescuer, and if anyone wants to drop pet pictures on my timeline, I will gladly accept!

Your debut book, The Reckless Kind, shines a bright light on characters and experiences we don’t often get to learn about in history or historical fiction. Can you tell me some of the joys and victories that you felt while writing these characters into a historical fiction setting?

The thing that makes me happiest is when I hear readers say things like “I needed this book” and “these characters keep staying with me”. What fueled me through all the rejections and self-doubt was how much Asta, Erlend, and Gunnar meant to me and how I knew there would be others out there who would connect with them.

I know you are really passionate about portraying a realistic set of characters in your writing, which is why there is such wonderful disability and queer representation in The Reckless Kind. Unfortunately, society often works to try to erase these experiences. Can you tell me a little bit about your time doing historical research for this novel?

As you can imagine, it’s difficult to find queer and disabled voices in historical research. Books.google.com is the main place I go as it’s easy to search for terms by time period. For instance, I did a lot of searching between 1885 and 1904 and had to use words appropriate to the times like “uranism,” “romantic friendship,” “contrary sexual instinct,” and “sexual inversion” to find relevant research. I also read a lot of historical medical journals from this time period which mostly had an ableist perspective, but by adding contemporary research and dissertations on disability representation in the Edwardian era, I was able to think through the direction I wanted to go with representation.       

Can you tell me a little bit about some historical figures that inspired your work? I know you have done a lot of research on LGBTQ+ history, disability in history, and even vegetarians in the 19th century! We’d love to hear about some incredible people! 

My Google Books searches lead me to find a number of interesting authors including texts by Edward Carpenter who was born in 1844 and was an early gay rights activist, vegetarian, animal welfare advocate, socialist, and pretty much awesome in every way. He was one of the few voices I found that was loudly pro-queer (though he would use terms like “homogenic love” and “transitional types of people” instead of queer). His pamphlets would profess that these identities didn’t just exist, but benefited society in a number of ways. What’s amazing when you read these voices from the late 1800s/early 1900s is that they are so similar to today. The myth that there were fewer queer people back in the day or that they were all persecuted and miserable is just that—a myth. Queer people found each other and in many cases lived happy lives, just like Edward Carpenter who lived with his partner, George Merrill, for the last 40 years of his life.

We also tend to think that vegetarianism and the animal rights movement is something that was started by the Millennial and Gen-Z generations. However, my research revealed this misconception is not actually true. Prior to the 19th century, vegetarians in the west were called Pythagoreans based on an ideology that developed in the 6th century BCE. They believed that any being who experienced pain should not have pain inflicted on it unnecessarily. Thousands of years later, the vegetarian movement in Europe started in 1847. Really, until the rise of 20th century factory farming and globalization, a vast majority of the world’s population rarely ate animals. The many millions of Buddhists and Hindus did not eat animals and, in the West, since so many people grew up on rural farms, they often felt a connection with their animals and became vegetarian because they didn’t want to kill and eat those they came to regard as family members.

Tell me a bit about what you learned about disability in history. How did that help inform you and your characters while The Reckless Kind?

I think the most interesting thing I found in my disability research was related to the different ways disabled men were treated versus the way disabled people of other genders were treated. In many cases, a disabled man was still valued by society, marriageable, and would be taken care of by the women in his community. For people of other genders, it was different. A disabled woman, for instance, was often regarded as a burden. She would still be expected to take care of the rest of the family, or work (of course being paid much less than her male counterparts). And because most doctors were men, any ailments she experienced would often be viewed as an emotional problem or an imperfection in her character rather than a medical issue.

So, while I was exploring the ways Asta would be deprogramming herself from the expectations of the patriarchy, I also worked to layer in the guilt Asta’s society places on her. Nils, a reasonable young man, wants to marry Asta—shouldn’t she feel grateful that he “overlooks her flaws”? Surely there must be something wrong with her if she only feels repulsion toward her betrothed? Readers will likely immediately identify Nils as the classic “nice guy” who feels entitled to a girl’s affections because he’s “nice” to her, while Asta has to contend with the danger of fleeing from him, knowing how very vulnerable she is as an “unmarriageable” disabled woman, scorned by her society for being ungrateful.

Can you also tell us what you learned about LGBTQ+ history and how it informed and inspired The Reckless Kind? 

Working hard to find the right research material showed me how very similar queer historical people are to queer people today. Additionally, it wasn’t all persecution and trauma back then, either. For example, there were rural communities in 19th century Switzerland where same-sex relationships were considered completely normal and there were no laws outlawing them. Additionally, in the centuries prior to Western Imperialism, there were many, many cultures that recognized and revered diversity in gender and sexual expression. So, really, the idea of the gender binary and the pervasiveness of the heteropatriarchy isn’t a normal part of human history at all. Humanity has been queer for hundreds of thousands of years and hopefully, we’re working towards dismantling this recent development in compulsory heteronormalcy while continuing to make it safer for more people to live authentically.

I think we’ve all seen a lot of poor representation for characters from historically marginalized backgrounds, especially in a historical setting. How is writing diverse characters in historical fiction (or any fiction) a form of rebellion and progress? How does it help us reframe society and culture?

English language history as told by the West has been limited to a specific perspective: that perspective has mostly been a Christian, heteronormative, cis male, white, and abled perspective—a perspective that’s primary function is to empower those who benefit from white privilege and capitalism. By rewriting historical settings from perspectives that reveal the true diversity of human experience, questions—hopefully—will arise in the reader. Questions such as: how can we make a society that is more just, fair, and equitable? How can we build a society that doesn’t just benefit a privileged few, but one that benefits everyone?

Before we go, tell us one more fun history fact that you learned on the journey to writing The Reckless Kind!

In Norway during the winter when there was a shortage of hay, people would boil fish heads and feed the fishy sludge to their ponies. Allegedly, the ponies liked to eat this!

About Carly Heath

Carly Heath (she/they) earned her BA from San Francisco State University and her MFA from Chapman University. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Carly teaches design, art, theater, and writing for various colleges and universities. She spends all her time and most of her money tending to a menagerie of rescued farm animals. The Reckless Kind is her first novel.

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Let’s Chat!

📜 Have you ever seen a queerplatonic triad in a book before? Are you eager for more!?
📜 What is the best thing that you learned from Carly’s wisdom here?
📜 Share with me your favorite historical fiction book!

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I learned so much about writing and appreciating historical fiction novels from Carly Heath!

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