Three Trans Crime Writers Talk Thrills and Challenges of Writing in the Genre
Author: John Copenhaver
July 8, 2021
Transgender writers are underrepresented in the crime writing world. Historically, crime fiction has taken up transgender characters as subject matter, often in problematic ways, relying on negative stereotypes and painful tropes rather than highlighting the rich and complex lives of trans people. Crime fiction needs trans voices, not just because harmful stereotypes need to be challenged, or that because trans writers ought to have the platform to tell their own stories, but because—simply put—trans voices make the genre better.
Robyn Gigl, Renee James, and Dharma Kelleher are a talented trio of compelling crime writers, working in different subgenres, from legal thriller to amateur detective to noir. They’ve written fiction that entertains, educates, and urges the genre in fresh and exciting territory. It was my pleasure to listen to them share about their writing lives, their work, and their journey through the publishing industry.
Robyn Gigl is an attorney, speaker, and activist who has been honored by the ACLU-NJ and the NJ Pride Network for her work on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community. Robyn is a partner at Gluck Walrath, LLP in Freehold, NJ and has been selected as a NJ Super Lawyer since 2010 and as one of the Top 50 Women Lawyers in NJ in 2020 & 2021. She is a member of the Board of Directors of Garden State Equality, NJ’s largest LGBTQ+ civil rights organization. Her debut novel By Way Of Sorrow (Kensington) was published in March this year.
Renee James took up fiction writing after a long, award-winning career in magazines. Her novels include the Bobbi Logan trilogy (Coming Out Can Be Murder, A Kind of Justice, and Seven Suspects) which trace the life and times of a Chicago transwoman who transitions in the early 2000s. Her current novel, BeatNikki’s Café, is a the story of a middle-aged transwoman who becomes the custodial parent of her estranged teenage daughter and the target of a neo-fascist hate group just as Trumpism begins to overtake America.
Dharma Kelleher writes gritty crime thrillers including the Jinx Ballou Bounty Hunter series and the Shea Stevens Outlaw Biker series. Her action-driven thrillers explore the complexities of social and criminal justice in a world where the legal system favors the privileged. She lives in Arizona with her wife and a black cat named Mouse. Her fourth Jinx Ballou book, TERF Wars, was published this June.
What’s your writing origin story? What led you to write fiction and crime fiction in particular?
Renee: I’ve had the desire to write novels since childhood, but I didn’t have the driving passion I needed to write long fiction until later in life when I finally came to grips with being trans. One of the decisions I made then was not to transition. Right after that, I began writing a fictional diary that was intended to portray the realities I would have faced if I had transitioned. My purpose was to overcome the fantasies many of us have about how transitioning will solve all our problems. It worked, but it also got me deeply involved in developing a fictional character and the process was addictive. I traveled on business a lot in those days and the diary became a beloved companion. One night, I read everything I had—it was upwards of 40,000 words—and I thought that I had invented a great character who just needed a plot. I read a lot of crime fiction in those days, so I tried to write a mystery/thriller.
Dharma: As a teen, I fell in love with Lawrence Block’s burglar series and his Matt Scudder series. Later, I discovered Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. After I came out as trans and lesbian, I discovered Katherine V. Forrest, Ellen Hart, and other queer crime fiction authors. It inspired me to begin writing my own crime fiction series, particularly because there were so few crime fiction stories about queer characters that weren’t about sexual orientation or gender identity. After winning NaNoWriMo twice, I became serious about learning the craft, eventually landing a two-book deal with a Random House imprint.
Robyn: I’ve wanted to write fiction since I graduated law school. Part of what had inspired me to become a lawyer was reading courtroom dramas—both fictional and non-fictional—so, forty years ago, I started my first manuscript. I wanted to write the Catch-22 of the legal profession. But my legal career, three children, and writer’s block got in the way, and I never finished it. That was decades before I came out as a trans woman.
After I transitioned, I decided to start writing again. In 2013, I finished a manuscript. It was not a legal thriller per se, although there were some elements of a thriller present. As my agent was trying to sell that book, I re-read To Kill A Mockingbird. Obviously, that book is not a legal thriller, but so much of it is about the trial of Tom Robinson. I was frustrated that I never knew what Tom was thinking because the book is told from Scout’s POV. My frustration led me to write what became By Way Of Sorrow. In the book, I explore the legal system, with all its flaws, from multiple points of view and get into the heads of both the woman accused of the crime and the woman defending her.
Genre beats and stereotypes
What is the most challenging aspect of writing crime fiction? Also, equally, what is the most enjoyable part?
Robyn: The hardest part is making sure I get the details right, both the legal elements, as well as the technical details. For example, one of the issues at the heart of By Way Of Sorrow is DNA analysis. So, I had to make sure that I had the technical aspects of DNA analysis correct, but just as importantly, it had to be technically correct for 2006-2007, when the book is set.
The most enjoyable part for me was knowing what the puzzle was going to look like when it was finished, and then slowly putting the pieces together for the reader.
Dharma: The biggest challenge is creating plot lines that I haven’t already done in previous stories, especially with my bounty hunter series. How fugitives are hiding. Ramping up the danger in a new way.
One of the most enjoyable parts is fleshing out characters, looking for ways to push beyond stereotypes—such as a tough-as-nails bounty hunter who is also into cosplay and comic books.
Renee: I struggle with plots. I have trouble getting focused on the standard beats that make for a good plot because I love writing about character and tend to focus on moral dilemmas, personal challenges, and how people change. I even tried writing a transgender romance novel, thinking I could follow the romance beats. Alas, I ended up writing a smutty novel enjoyed by fans of graphic sex, few of whom probably care about the genre beats I so carefully incorporated.
“While I enjoy writing fight scenes, I’m also a hopeless romantic”
What was your favorite scene, passage, or element to write in your most recently published work? Why?
Robyn: The scenes I had the most fun writing were those that take place between the main character, Erin McCabe, and her mom, Peg McCabe. It’s no secret that I loosely based Peg on my own mother. My mom had struggled when I came out to her as transgender, but before I transitioned, she told me that despite not understanding it, I was her child and she’d always love me—and she did. After I transitioned, my mom and I were closer than we ever were before. Unfortunately, she passed away after the book was finished, but before it was published. My second Erin McCabe book, Survivor’s Guilt, comes out on January 25, 2022, and so I’ve enjoyed having a little part of my mom live on through Peg.
Renee: For my last Bobbi Logan novel, Seven Suspects, my publisher wanted me to re-write the opening scene because it was too dark for the audience. I agreed with that critique and did the rewrite, but at the same time, the scrapped scene is one of the best I’ve ever written. Why? I love how it gets into the consciousness of a woman of strong moral character and sparkling wit who engages in promiscuity following a failed love affair.
Dharma: In my latest novel, TERF Wars, my main character gets married. While I enjoy writing fight scenes, I’m also a hopeless romantic, so I really enjoyed writing the wedding scene. Rest assured, not all goes as planned.
“Sorry, this isn’t right for us”
Talk a bit about your publishing journey. Where did you find support? What were the points of frustration? Why?
Dharma: When I was younger, traditional publishing was the only legitimate route. So, when my debut novel, Iron Goddess, was ready, I started with submitting to literary agents. I submitted to 90 different agents before I signed with one.
When my agent was pitching to publishers, we kept getting responses along the lines of “We love this book, but don’t know how to market it.” It was a crime thriller about an outlaw biker gang, right when Sons of Anarchy was in its heyday. Problem was that the protagonist was a lesbian rather than a straight man. Eventually, I signed a two-book deal with Random House, but with very little effort put into marketing it.
After the publisher opted not to continue the series, I wanted to write a series about a bounty hunter who is transgender like me. I didn’t even bother going the traditional publishing route. I was sick of the gatekeeping. So, I became my own publisher. I hired an editing team and a cover designer. Eventually, I got the rights back to my first two books. I’ve self-published seven thrillers and am pleased with how well they are doing.
I still run into gatekeeping as an independent author. Amazon allows traditional authors to be in Kindle Unlimited while also having their eBooks on other platforms. Indie authors aren’t allowed. Lots of industry reviewers either refuse to review books by indie authors or only do so if we pay hundreds of dollars for the review and then it’s separated into one of their Indie-Only services. Some publications refuse to interview indie authors. Like we are some type of leper for daring to challenge the status quo.
“My fear is that, if my books don’t sell well, it will just be one more piece of ammunition for those in the industry to argue there’s not a big enough market for trans authors in the crime genre.”
Renee: I began querying editors and agents about books with a transgender heroine around 2010. The rejection was silent and complete. The few responses I got were automated form letters, except for one agent whose personal note conveyed the sense that the thought of a transgender author and a book with a trans heroine made him sick to his stomach.
Eventually, I hooked up with a boutique publisher who helped me publish my first book. The editors and staff at Windy City Publishers were accepting of me and my book, and taught me volumes about writing, editing, and publishing.
A couple years later, I met an agent who lectured at a writers’ group I belong to. I submitted a writing sample for critique (without any preamble about who I was). She loved the sample so much, she ended up taking me as a client. She’s been a tower of support ever since.
My biggest frustration is that acceptance of transgender people has increased by leaps and bounds, but my sales haven’t. There’s no one but me to blame for that. I just haven’t put together the right story yet.
Robyn: I didn’t get serious about trying to write a novel until around 2011. At that point, my son Colin was also working on a novel, which was published in 2016—The Ferryman Institute. So, he and I were a mutual aid society—from acting as beta readers, to critiquing query letters and sharing the ups-and-downs of finding an agent—he was incredibly helpful to me.
As for frustrations, it’s no secret that getting a book through the labyrinth of the publishing industry can be daunting, especially for a debut author. The biggest source of frustration for me was simply getting no response after querying an agent, or the generic “Sorry, this isn’t right for us” response from a publisher that has a whole catalogue of mystery/thrillers and being left to wonder why it wasn’t “right” for them.
“We deserve to be judged on the merit of our work”
Likewise, where do you see the future headed for trans writers in the crime genre? What changes are happening and/or what changes would you like to happen?
Dharma: I am encouraged to see the success of Robyn Gigl’s debut By Way Of Sorrow. I hope more traditional publishers will embrace crime fiction with transgender characters. I am also encouraged to see more trade publications and awards open to independent authors like myself, though some remain closed. We deserve to be judged on the merit of our work, not who’s paying for our editing team or covers.
Robyn: I wish I knew the answer to that one. I suspect that until there’s a breakout bestseller by a trans author, with a trans protagonist, it’s going to remain hard for trans writers to get published in the crime genre. All the big publishing houses publish novels in the crime genre. To the best of my knowledge, none of the major publishing houses have a trans author in any crime genre. We know there are good trans authors out there, for example, Dharma and Renee. My guess is that it has to do with the fear on the part of publishers that a trans author won’t have enough crossover appeal to a cisgender audience and therefore will have a limited market. Maybe that Kensington Publishing signed me to a two-book deal is an indication that things are changing. My fear is that, if my books don’t sell well, it will just be one more piece of ammunition for those in the industry to argue there’s not a big enough market for trans authors in the crime genre.
Renee: Trans non-fiction has been a lot more popular than trans fiction for the past decade. What’s interesting about that is, the autobiographies have essentially the same plot lines—the person lives a repressed life, the person bravely comes out, the person transitions and finds both friends and enemies along the way, and the person achieves great personal success. I suspect that trans fiction, to be equally successful, will have to have different beats than the non-fiction narrative.
As for changes I’d like to see happen, I hope we’ll see more depictions of trans people as worthy human beings. I hope this will include straight authors employing trans people as supporting characters in their books. The more we normalize trans people, the greater our acceptance will be in general society.
“The best way to shatter a stupid stereotype is to offer a powerful alternative“
Historically crime fiction has perpetuated deeply problematic stereotypes of trans people. Considering the controversy over Robert Galbraith’s (J.K. Rowling’s) novel last year, those destructive stereotypes continue to haunt crime fiction today. Since you’ve chosen this genre to write in, why do you think it’s a rich, if complex, place for trans stories?
Robyn: It’s no secret that historically the treatment of trans characters, not only in books, but in films as well, has been very problematic. Why? Mainly because for years trans people have been marginalized as nothing more than the punch line for bad jokes, or the target of ridicule and disdain. So, it was easier for cisgender writers to play to those one-dimensional, inaccurate stereotypes rather than learn anything about the lives of real transgender people. Like everyone else, trans people live rich, complex, and compelling lives. That’s why it’s critically important that there are trans authors who can write “own voices” stories.
Being trans is just one aspect of a person’s life, and while it’s good to have trans characters that have to deal with issues that being trans can present—rejection, discrimination, and sometimes violence—it’s equally important to have trans characters that are happy in their lives, with the same joys and issues that cisgender people have.
Dharma: Rowling’s horrid novel last year perpetuates a dangerous trope that transgender women are men who dress as women to prey on them. When we can tell our own stories, we can confront these harmful tropes, such as the trans sex worker or murder victim, or worse, the comic relief. We can create characters that aren’t defined by our trans-ness. We can show that trans people are first and foremost human beings with fears and needs and wants that all people share.
Renee: I’m not familiar with Galbraith’s novel, though I did read that Rowling didn’t accept transwomen as women. Frankly, I don’t have a problem with that, though I don’t agree with her. What I do resent are the many characterizations in popular media of transwomen as hookers or buffoons. The best way to shatter a stupid stereotype is to offer a powerful alternative.
“We can create characters that aren’t defined by our trans-ness. We can show that trans people are first and foremost human beings with fears and needs and wants that all people share.”
Do you have any crime books or writers you’d like to recommend?
Robyn: Well, if we exclude present company (but read them, they’re great, including John), Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins mysteries; Edwin Hill’s Hester Thursby novels; Tracy Clark’s Cass Raines series; Brenda Buchanan’s Joe Gale books; and, although he needs no recommendation from me, I do enjoy Harlan Coben.
Renee: Connelly’s The Law of Innocence and Grisham’s A Time for Mercy are among their best ever. The Tony Hillerman mysteries are masterful in combining mystery beats with moving character studies of a misunderstood minority (indigenous Navajo and Hopi people). And I always recommend Dharma’s books. (My apologies to Robyn—I’m not familiar with her new book.)
Dharma: Too many to name. I really loved Robyn Gigl’s By Way Of Sorrow, of course. Fantastic legal thriller. Also, Isabella Maldonado’s The Cipher, David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s Winter Counts, and S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland.
By Way Of Sorrow (An Erin McCabe Legal Thriller) By Robyn Gigl Kensington Hardback: ISBN: 9781496728258 March 30, 2021 Seven Suspects (The Bobbi Logan Series Book 3) By Renee James Oceanview Publishing Hardback: ISBN: 978-1608092550 October 3, 2017 TERF Wars (Jinx Ballou Bounty Hunter Book 4) By Dharma Kelleher Dark Pariah Press Hardback: ISBN: 978-1952128097 June 18, 2021