First published in February 2016, Juliana: Vol 1, 1941-1944is a rich and detailed view of gay life in 1940s New York City. The author, Vanda, a playwright and professor at Metropolitan College, created this debut novel as the first volume in a series that will follow Alice “Al” Huffman, her lovers, and America’s attitudes toward the LGBTQ community over the span of the 20th century. The first volume sees Al move to the big city seeking Broadway fame and getting detoured by seductive singer Juliana Styles. With future volumes promising to show the same characters confronting new decades and cultural shifts, Vanda’s self-published beginning has already earned high praise for its sharp dialogue and historical accuracy.
What inspired you to follow Juliana’s characters through multiple decades?
I want to show the LGBT struggle for human rights as occurring over time as it actually did. LGBT history didn’t begin at the end of the ’60s with the Stonewall riots, and yet many people know nothing of LGBT history except Stonewall. Many stressors led to Stonewall, and I want to dramatize those stressors and show them occurring in the lives of fictional characters that readers come to know and care about over time.
How many decades or volumes do you envision?
LGBT history also did not end with Stonewall. There were decades to go before we arrived at the acceptance level we enjoy today. I haven’t decided on an exact end point yet, but it will be sometime in the 2000s. I want my characters to see the changes and to have a point of view about them.
What kind of research did you undertake into gay life in 1940s New York?
I read My Queer War, a memoir of World War II written by gay soldier James Lord. I bought magazines from eBay and not only read the articles, but also paid careful attention to the advertisements. I have a collection of 1940s menus from places like Child’s, Schrafft’s, the Latin Quarter, and the Copa Cabana. You’ll note that much of my research might be considered “general.” My characters are not only LGBT, they also live in the world. It’s important for me to show that these people were not some other kind of being.
Was there a special reason you wanted to start with the ’40s?
The answer is more complicated than the one I can give here and it keeps changing, but probably the closest to accurate I can come is the 1940s was my parents’ generation. I wanted to find out why that generation hated gays and lesbians so much. I did come up with an answer (sort of), but looking for that answer led me back in time to the ’30s and ’20s and before.
How has your experience as a playwright informed your work on Juliana?
Dialogue. Dialogue is what makes a character come alive. It’s what makes one character different from another. My eighth-grade English teacher, Mr. Evers, told me when commenting on the novella I wrote for his class, “You have a flare for dialogue.” That’s probably what eventually led me to playwriting. When I came back to prose I brought my “flare” with me.
What made you want to pursue this story as a novel?
I’m writing a big story. It takes up lots of space that is more appropriate to a novel. But I have successfully staged Juliana at the Duplex Nightclub in New York City. From December 2014 until April 2017 actors performed chapters from Juliana.
Did you find advantages to self-publishing?
I just love self-publishing. I’m finishing up the second book in the series, and at first I had considered seeking an agent and a traditional publisher. Isn’t that what everyone is supposed to want? The learning curve for self-publishing is steep but worth it. This isn’t my hobby; it’s my life. Self-publishing puts my life in my hands.
Rhett Morgan is a writer and translator living in Paris.