Woman in Control

Lesbian author writes straight girl into gay male love

“What makes this book unique is that there has never been a novel written about a woman who is erotically attracted to the idea of gay male love,” says Juliet Sarkessian, author of Trio Sonata. “But the fantasy of straight men [being turned on by] lesbians is fodder for every sitcom.” Sarkessian hopes her beautifully written book will help reduce this homophobic double standard. The book, published this month by the Southern Tier editions imprint of Haworth Press, tells the story of the erotic awakening of Janna, a young, straight woman, whose life transforms when she meets Alex and Phillip, a gay couple. For Sarkessian, a lesbian, these characters—particularly the men—proved easy to write about because “I can distance myself from them. They are not me.” “The idea just came to me,” Sarkessian remembers; she began work on Trio Sonata while in college. “I started to hear the characters and get scenes in my head.” However, it was not until 1997 that she started writing it in earnest. A bankruptcy lawyer, Sarkessian quit her job in New York and moved to North Carolina, where she wrote for a year and a half. “The biggest problem for me as a novelist was (my) 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. job six days a week. You cannot write something working piecemeal. My goal was to finish the novel.” Of course, once she did complete the book, her goal became publishing it. “I knew that the odds of getting it published were slim,” Sarkessian recalls. “I researched agents who accepted gay material, wrote cover letters, etc. It was a huge process.” Although she approached sixty agents, she only sent Trio Sonata to three or four publishers, before it was accepted at Southern Tier, a recently formed imprint for gay authors. Sarkessian’s strategy as a writer was to use childhood and teenage events to tell the story of its characters. “Childhood is a very intense time in our lives,” she says. “Every little thing—memories, the first heartbreak, betrayal—are all so critical. What happens to [my characters] as children and teens is a critical part of understanding who they are and what motivates them.” Another important facet of the novel is the character Janna’s Ukrainian heritage. Sarkessian is Armenian and feels strongly about her—and her characters’—background. “It is as important to me as being gay. Perhaps more so,” she says, adamantly. She then describes how she modeled Janna after her Ukrainian best friend from grammar school as she imagined her grown up. Likewise, the novel’s classical music setting was a key to the character of Alex. “The world of classical music is so insular, it really set a tone and feel for the novel. I knew a boy [as a teenager] who was a child prodigy. He was socially awkward because he spent all his time studying music. That always struck me.” She claims that the passage featuring Alex as a teenager was the most difficult to write “because it is so different from my experience.” Sarkessian dedicated Trio Sonata to the memory of her two grandmothers as well as two friends from college who died of AIDS. In mentioning the disease, she explains how AIDS played an important role in the book. “I think if you write a serious [gay] novel, it is hard to not at least mention AIDS. It doesn’t have to be a central part of the story, but it is something that gay men have to deal with in their lives.” The author is also quite frank when it comes to discussing the novel’s sex scenes. “It’s not hard to write them, though you have to revise and revise and revise. I think there are some tricks to writing good sex scenes. You have to put in the ugly and the awkward. Vulnerability makes it interesting.” She cites the sex scene in Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman, which was entirely dialogue, as an influence. “I also had gay friends tell me in graphic detail about their sex lives,” she says with a hearty laugh. Yet ultimately, the story most concerns Janna and her issues of control. As Sarkessian describes it, “Janna can’t really relax unless she feels safe and in control. Control is a really big issue between straight men and women. Women think about protecting themselves constantly from men, but ironically, they are also attracted to them. With gay men, there is no danger.” While this is what drives Janna to Alex and Phillip, the conflict is that they are not interested in her sexually. Readers will have to pick up Trio Sonata to see how Sarkessian reconciles the lives of these three compelling characters.