Interview with Red as Blue Writer Ji Strangeway from @kleffnotes

Earlier this month I had an opportunity to speak through email with Ji Strangeway, writer of Red as Blue, about her work on this genre blending LGBTQ comic. I would like to thank her for her time and if you want to know more about Red as Blue you can find my review of the book on our site.

How would you describe Red as Blue to new readers?

It’s a post-punk coming of age story about a lesbian girl’s rite of passage during the “dark ages” of the 1980s. I aspired to be a “Lord of the Flies meets an LGBTQ Romeo & Juliet.”

What inspired you to create this work?

Many things. From a personal level, I felt it was important for me to write a story that re-writes history; to treat storytelling as a healing process. Many people try to create something new today for a better tomorrow, but I enjoy re-creating the past. By creating a better past, we can also have a better today.

The period I grew up in as gay as teen was rough. There were literally zero role models for me hold on to. In terms of mass media that shaped much my life, all the pretty girls were never portrayed as gay.

So as a young girl who likes girls—this lack of gay role models sent me the signal that I was alone. I wanted to re-capture that loneliness than millions of kids probably also felt.

I journeyed back into the “dark ages” to create two characters who find an impossible love; a kind of love in a world where nobody felt was either right or possible. This journey backward is a way to reinvent what I consider to be the true “American Experience” and the true American love story (or lack of)…because this was the quiet truth.

One of my goals of doing this is to create ideals with which the youths can live by: to know that the “girl of your dreams” is possible: because I have made it possible in my story. By doing this, I have created that role model. I have set the intention in Red as Blue to help the youth believe.

I also wrote this to help the GenXers can heal. Those long dark years of rebelling and fighting leaves behind painful reminders of how bad things were for kids who were just born brilliant and different. And I want Red as Blue to offer the youth today perspective, a frame of reference to have gratitude of how far we have come today.

Red as Blue contains some historical fiction. I have a burning need to address the societal crisis we have today with high school violence. In some way, Red as Blue attempts to explain how bullying could lead to the Columbine High School shooting; but that it’s not that cut and dried. In some strange way, it could only be explained through a story about deep love.

Do you feel more connected to specific characters over others?

Parents often tell their children to stop talking to their imaginary friend. The truth is, writers never stop being connected to the so-called imaginary world and by nature need to deepen that connection to tell story’s from the character’s unique perspective.

I am very much in love with my characters and these feelings evolve as I learn more about them. In the beginning, I loved June (the main character) very much…then I fell in love with Beverly (her girlfriend). This love of course is not a romantic kind. It is one based on learning about your character’s soul. By the time I finished writing the first real polish, I fell in love with their nemesis, Kimberly, who sought to destroy both June and Beverly. Kimberly is a severely broken person. I fell in love with her because she needed my love the most. I didn’t try to make her a better person. I accepted her. It is very hard to write about characters who are mean and still love them. But I love Kimberly very much—and I hope the readers will see what I mean…

You cover some deep topics throughout the book, how did you handle balancing these elements with the romance? 

Hahahahah. Excellent question. I have to steal some words from Beverly here. She says at one point in the novel:

“Did you know that you can only see this many stars ‘cause it’s so dark? Only ‘cause it’s so dark?”

The darker my story is, the greater the love—the greater the fight, the more desperate and stronger it is—to hold onto the light.

Was there a specific reason for choosing 1985 as the setting for this book?

Yes, 1985 was a period of my own coming of age. As an immigrant, Asian, gay, and pretty hated-on all my life for all those reasons—I consider the 1980s the Dark Ages according to my frame of reference. I was a witness to the youths left out of the picture of society that held onto in a sterile, picture-perfect, Father Knows Best kind of America…a mindset of the 1950s. Meanwhile, so many kids were gay, their dads were gay, their lesbian mothers had to pretend they were sisters (nuns)…

I had no hope or future because the opportunities simply were not shown or given to me. Anything Pre-internet is the dark ages. Because if we had the internet then, I would not have suffered—I might have invented a cool app, created my own online business, I probably wouldn’t have been as depressed or suicidal. Yet the X-generation is largely responsible for paving the way toward our digital future—because we’re wired for it—however, society hadn’t caught up yet.

Although Red as Blue isn’t autobiographical, it takes place during a period that I know very well, and in a society and culture people rarely know about—which is the Chicano culture. I also gravitated to the post-punk culture.

The post-punk culture was critical for me to write about because it wasn’t just a fashion statement. It was a reaction to our existential oppression. It was a fierce reaction to the political landscape and in many ways an unconscious spiritual awakening for millions of youths who knew a hell of a lot more than their “authority figures” did; and that is why we defied them all. We were not respected for our potential nor were they recognized. It was a “shut up and eat” forced fed culture. The suppressed potential aspect comes up in Red as Blue: as the anti-hero, “Loser Lusparian” carries this painful on her shoulders.

The stuff that GenXers went through during that period created the path of freedom for so many youths today. I think it is important for them to have a frame of reference—so they can truly appreciate the beauty of life and freedom they have today. So many LGBT youths still don’t have this freedom, and for those who don’t, I want Red as Blue to offer succor—because even today, there are many small towns that are still stuck in the dark ages of 1985. It was not dark for Christie Brinkley, Billy Joel, Tom Cruise, Bon Jovi and all those American icons and the masses who fit right in. But there was a great deal of exclusion; and that’s why we tore up our jeans. We didn’t buy our torn-kneed jeans from designers for $200 dollars. Our clothes were unacceptable: we took shit for saying fuck you. We were reacting to the fact that we didn’t fit in so we had better accept it in own cool way. There were many June Lusparians. And perhaps all they needed was one Beverly to help them integrate with society. This is where I differ from many GenXers. I don’t necessarily believe in a world of us against them. For if you fall in love with a girl like that, it brings calm to your world. At the heart of it, all any of us want is to belong. It’s important, that sense of true belonging.

What led you to use the hybrid format you chose for Red as Blue?

I took everything that worked for me in novels and used only elements that worked for me. I removed identifiers that I felt was a waste of my creative energy and served no purpose whatsoever “he said, she said, he replied, etc.

I took everything that worked for me in comics and screenplays and used only elements I considered efficient or economical. There’s a term in the marketing world called “ad blindness” and that is what pages and pages of comics do to me: I can’t read a volume of word bubbles. So I used comic pages sparingly—usually to bring the reader into a magical-real space—like a dream that encapsulates and pull you deeper into the unspoken aspects of story.

I got rid of all the elements that were showstoppers for me and created my own style guide. The rules for my book a very strict: some of them adhere to screenplay rules stringently and some adhere to the Chicago Manual Style while other parts violated all gospels. My editor, Michael Mann is fricken brilliant. He stipulated one thing to me, “You can break any rule as long as it works.” If it doesn’t work, then don’t mess with standards that are set up for a good reason. Without him, I’d be shipwrecked. I learned to appreciate rules because of Michael; enough to know how to break them gently.

I know that most screenplays are formatted for budget, therefore has unnecessary elements that are not helpful to the reader. But the parts that DO work are awesome. For instance, I love moving STRAIGHT into a location and getting rid of that awkward novel-writing moment where you’re trying to excuse yourself as the omnipotent narrator from the dinner table.

How did you and Juan Fleites, the illustrator, begin working together?

I was hounding the online forums looking for an inker who had a style similar to The Hernandez Brothers (Love and Rockets series) and was lucky to find Juan. He is also a fan of that comic series. I knew he was the right artist to take written words to a new level. This is when “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Our collaboration involved using an artful technique of not blinding the reader with too many images—but to let them relish each picture sparingly, as though it is a portal. I didn’t realize the novel meant to Juan until he seemed heartbroken when it was done. He’d say, “I miss those girls.” He never called them characters. June and Beverly were real to him. This touched me because he had fallen for them—just like I did.

Do you have any projects coming up that you can discuss?

No, I work very slowly and like a true alchemist hermit, I only like to exhibit the gold when it’s done.

Where can our readers find more information about you and your work?

For starters, please follow Red as Blue’s Facebook page and Instagram.

Thank you again to Ji Strangeway and you can find out more on the official Red as Blue site.

Share your thoughts with us in the comments or on Twitter, @thenerdygirlexp. You can find me on Twitter, @kleffnotes, on my blog, kleffnotes.wordpress.com, on my kleffnotes YouTube channel, and I run The Nerdy Girl Express Snapchat, thenerdygirlexp.

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