The Pleasure and Politics of Writing Queer Romance Novels
When it comes to romance, “perfect characters aren’t interesting to me,” says Roan Parrish, the pen name of a Philadelphia-based queer Jewish novelist. In a genre whose heroes and heroines have traditionally been in robust physical and mental health (with the men being older, richer, and taller), Parrish’s own protagonists are unusual: They have disabilities, depression, are in recovery. This is both a personal and a political choice, Parrish says.
In the popular romantic fiction of the 80s and 90s, “People who deserved love were the people that were aspirational for us in terms of societal standards,” Parrish explains. “Power, money, and physical perfection were indicators that a person was lovable. I understand that, but I think that it sets up such unrealistic and damaging standards. I’m interested in the way non-perfect characters are just as loveable. It’s about characters being perfect for each other.”
Parrish’s romantic leads are also queer, in her words, and mostly men. (This is the most common pairing in gay romance.) She points out, “It was never true that the only people who ever fell in love were skinny, white, cis, hetero people. It’s a political act to honor that” by centering the experiences of, and writing happily ever afters for, characters who don’t fall into those categories. Parrish does this while incorporating some of the genre’s favorite tropes: In her male/male holiday romance The Remaking of Corbin Wale, Jewish Adam Barrow returns to his small hometown to open a bakery, where he woos his neurodivergent crush with sufganiyot.
Parrish discovered gay romance while studying for her PhD in Literature. “I wanted to read something for pleasure that was nothing like what I read for my degree,” she explains. So, she ordered a mystery with a gay narrator and a romantic subplot, and “When I realized that gay—specifically male/male romance featuring cis men—was a genre, I dove into that category.”
After finishing her PhD, Parrish moved to Philadelphia, where she worked as an adjunct professor and a standardized patient for medical students and professionals. After leaving academia, she taught and edited textbooks. “I had no idea what I wanted to do,” she says.
During a visit to a grad school friend and fellow romance reader, her friend said, “‘I just really wish there was a book about a professor in a new place, someone in my position.’”
“So, I said, ‘I’ll write you one,'” Parrish recalls. “On the plane home I ended up writing a chapter, and when I got home I emailed it to her. She wrote back and said, ‘I love this, I have to know what happens next.’ Of course, I didn’t know what happens next, I hadn’t thought about it! I ended up writing most of it as a gesture to my friend. When I finished it, she said I had to submit it, and I did.”
The book was In the Middle of Somewhere. In it Daniel, a newly-minted academic, moves to Michigan and falls for a sexy local with dyslexia. The book was published in 2015, and suddenly, Parrish was a novelist. It felt like a precarious existence: “Every single quarter I would wait for my royalty statement from my publishers and every single quarter I would expect that this would be the time I had to get a real job,” she says. This financial uncertainty may have contributed to her impressive creative output: since 2015, Parrish has published 14 novels, including two she co-authored; one novella, and several short stories.
In the Middle of Somewhere is the first in a series that features several recurring characters, including Daniel’s best friend, queer Jewish tattoo artist Ginger Holtzman. “Every scene I wrote with her I had so much fun,” Parrish explains. Eventually, she decided to write Small Change, in which the hard-edged Ginger finds love with a goyishe neighbor.
A high school drop-out who is neither adorably neurotic nor intertwined with a wacky, close-knit family, Ginger defies the stereotypes common in depictions of fictional Jewish women. While she is funny, kind, and smart, Ginger doesn’t get along with her unloving family, and her job is neither prestigious nor care-oriented. She’s prickly. Still, Ginger is loveable, and she finds love.
Notably, Ginger’s Jewishness “is not a function of the plot, it’s a reflection of the world,” Parrish says. Ginger’s not particularly observant, though she does celebrate Hanukkah with elaborate homemade decorations and Chinese food. But she’s comfortable with her religious identity. “I didn’t want any of her angst to be about her Judaism,” Parrish adds.
Up next for Parrish are the third and fourth books in her m/m series set in fictional Garnet Run, Wyoming. The Lights on Knockbridge Lane will be available September 28, while the follow-up, tentatively titled The Unhaunting of Casper Road (featuring a Jewish lead) is due in 2022. A romantic comedy about two gay couples is also in the works; one of the main characters is a Jewish woman.
Parrish’s productivity isn’t limited to romance. She’s working on a queer horror story collection, to be accompanied by an original score, for Audible Plus. Parrish is also joining a venerable tradition long associated with, but not limited to, Jewish women: dispensing advice. As a co-host of Dear Romance Writer, Parrish and fellow authors Xio Axelrod and Avery Flynn read and answer listener questions about all kinds of relationships. No wishy-washy advice will be dispensed, Parrish joked: “We all have extremely strong opinions about people and what we think they should do.”